Saturday, May 20, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Upperworld (1934) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

UPPERWORLD (1934) is a snappy pre-Code murder melodrama with a terrific cast headed by Warren William, Mary Astor, and Ginger Rogers. It's available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

In this Ben Hecht story, scripted by Ben Markson, William plays railroad tycoon Alexander Stream. He and his wife wife Hettie (Astor) move in the rarefied "upperworld" circles of the very wealthy.

Hettie has come to treat her husband rather dismissively, focusing on her social "career," nor does she have much time for their little boy (Dickie Moore).

The lonely Stream takes up with a burlesque performer, Lilly (Rogers), who provides the companionship he's missing. She's genuinely fond of him, but jealous Lou Colima (J. Carrol Naish) wants both Lilly and some of Stream's money. Colima steals Stream's letters to Lilly, planning to blackmail him right as a huge merger deal is at stake.

During a confrontation over the letters Lilly takes a bullet Colima had aimed at Stream, who then shoots Colima in self-defense. (It's clear from the poster on the DVD case where the plot is going, so no spoilers here!)

Stream tries to cover his tracks, knowing that even though the killing was justified, exposure will risk his marriage and his merger. But there's a cop (Sidney Toler) who doesn't like him on the case...

I found this film quite enjoyable thanks to a brisk 73-minute plot and an excellent cast. William is best-known as a pre-Code villain in films such as EMPLOYEES' ENTRANCE (1933), but I really enjoy him in warmer roles. He manages to maintain audience sympathy despite making a series of bad decisions, and the audience roots for everything to turn out well for him and his family.

Astor starts out playing one of her familiar "types," as a woman who belittles her husband's concerns as though he were a child, but she successfully navigates a journey where she wakes up and smells the proverbial coffee, suddenly realizing that her selfishness has jeopardized her marriage. Of course, her husband's choices aren't any help either!

Ginger Rogers is appealing as the girl from the wrong side of the tracks who cozies up to Stream, winning his affection with cooking, music, and her time. (Disney fans will be interested in Ginger's collection of three little pigs and her singing "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?") This being a pre-Code, their relationship is pretty clear as she moves into a much nicer apartment; Stream also intends to give her expensive jewelry, a plan which is foiled when his wife understandably thinks it's a surprise for her! She has a nice dramatic scene before her character's untimely demise.

The fine cast also includes Andy Devine, Ferdinand Gottschalk, Robert Greig, Robert Barrat, John Qualen, and Henry O'Neill.

Watch for future stars Bill Elliott and Dennis O'Keefe, two of the busiest bit players of the '30s, as crime scene photographers. I started wondering how many '30s films they were extras and bit players in together; it must be a significant number. If I find Elliott in a movie I start looking for O'Keefe as well, and vice versa, and very frequently it does turn out that they're both in it!

UPPERWORLD was directed by Roy Del Ruth and filmed by Tony Gaudio.

A couple bits of trivia, just for clarification: Although IMDb and some advertising give the title as UPPER WORLD, the actual screen credit is a solid word, which I've used here. There's also conflict within the film about the spelling of Rogers' character name; it's spelled both Lilly and Lily multiple places in the film. I utilized the opening credits spelling.

The Warner Archive picture quality is quite good and the soundtrack is crisp and clear. There are no extras.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.


Blogger Jerry E said...

That's interesting about Wild Bill and Dennis O'Keefe's appearances, Laura. Of course, Elliott was billed as Gordon then, his given name. If O'Keefe was listed at all would it have been under his real name, Bud Flanagan, I wonder? We had a hugely popular Music Hall star in England called Bud Flanagan so I guess a name change would have been necessary for O'Keefe somewhere down the line.

12:17 AM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

Upperworld is indeed a dandy!

I think I'll join in the "if it's O'Keefe, there must be Elliot" game. Sounds like fun.

6:26 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Jerry! Yes, it's kind of fun tracking O'Keefe and Elliott's bit roles -- DEVIL DOGS OF THE AIR is a film which comes immediately to mind which they're both in, and there are more.

As you note, both men have in common having changed their names as their long careers progressed!

Glad to have your endorsement of this enjoyable film, Caftan Woman! Let me know if you find more O'Keefe/Elliott joint films. :)

Best wishes,

9:55 AM  

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