Sunday, January 25, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Dynamite (1929) at UCLA

The second film on tonight's double bill in UCLA's Cecil B. DeMille series was DYNAMITE (1929), a pre-Code melodrama.

Like the first film of the evening, MADAM SATAN (1930), DYNAMITE was directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Both of these MGM films starred Kay Johnson, were partly written by Jeanie Macpherson and Gladys Unger, had costumes by Adrian, and sets designed by Cedric Gibbons and Mitchell Leisen, with Leisen also serving as assistant director.

DYNAMITE is a sprawling tale which begins by telling two completely separate stories. We're first introduced to Hagon Derk (Charles Bickford), who has been unjustly convicted of murder and sentenced to die. His little sister Katie (Muriel McCormac) sobs as they are parted, and the viewer rightly guesses that a man with such feelings for a child is unlikely to be a murderer.

The story then completely changes gears and we meet Cynthia Crothers (Johnson), a seemingly shallow society belle who must marry by her 23rd birthday in order to inherit her grandfather's millions. Cynthia is engaged to Roger (Conrad Nagel) -- the only problem being that Roger is already married! Roger's wife Marcia (Julia Faye) has a boy toy (Joel McCrea) on the side, but she's holding out for big bucks before she's willing to give Roger a divorce.

After Cynthia's story went on for quite a while I suddenly realized I'd momentarily forgotten how the movie started -- what would the man in jail have to do with Cynthia?

The stories intersect when Cynthia reads that Hagon is looking for a way to raise funds to support his sister after his death. Cynthia arranges a jailhouse wedding to Hagon; he gets $10,000 to keep his sister out of an orphanage, and she receives access to her inheritance so she can buy off Marcia and marry Roger after her new husband's death on the gallows.

Fate deals Hagon and Cynthia a surprise when his name is cleared at the last minute. Cynthia, learning she must actually be living with her husband in order to collect her millions, leaves her fabulous digs to move in temporarily with Hagon and Katie. Hagon and Cynthia are as different as can be, with Hagon earning a rough living as a coal miner, but Cynthia gradually grows to respect her "in name only" husband.

Cynthia and Hagon's feelings for one another continue to grow, thwarted at times by misunderstandings. And then comes the fateful day when Roger arrives to take Cynthia away. Roger insists that they first find Hagon at work in the coal mine to tell him face to face that Cynthia is leaving with Roger. And then the mine begins to collapse...

This film was completely enjoyable, if improbable at times, with memorable visuals -- would could forget the women racing while spinning in circles at the country club field day or Hagon's reaction to Cynthia's dazzling bathroom and big bowl of bath salts?!

DYNAMITE packs a lot of story into its 126 minutes, yet it left me wanting even more; I would have enjoyed seeing more of the gradual development of Cynthia and Hagon's feelings, especially as their communication was hampered by his brusque nature. Like many good films, it leaves you mulling over the characters; could two people from such disparate backgrounds really make a go of a marriage, and which lifestyle would they choose?

I really enjoyed both actors, even if I desperately wished that Bickford -- in one of his very first films -- had been given a haircut! It was a nice chance to see an actor who had so many great character roles as a leading man.

Nagel has the chance to play a complex character who is a bit deeper than your average playboy. His final line, "That's that," packed a wallop (pun intended, for those who have seen the film).

DeMille's former paperboy, Joel McCrea, is gorgeous in a small role as Marcia's boyfriend. He'd played small roles beginning in 1927 and wasn't yet much of an actor; his first line sounds quite awkward, but young McCrea would learn very quickly!

Look for Russ Columbo as the prisoner singing during the jailhouse wedding.

DYNAMITE was filmed in black and white by J. Peverell Marley.

It's worth nothing that both of this evening's films were on the lengthy side, with MADAM SATAN running 116 minutes, but neither film lagged or wore out its welcome. It was a long evening, especially as it started off with a 12-minute promotional short for THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, but the late night in Westwood was well worth it. I had a terrific time.

Previous DeMille films seen on a big screen: MADAM SATAN (1930), CLEOPATRA (1934), THE CRUSADES (1935), THE BUCCANEER (1938), and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956).


Blogger Rick said...

I saw this a couple of times when I was a kid. I remember I enjoyed it, but don't recall much more than that.

It's hard to believe, but there actually was a time when a movie from 1929 would run on a late night movie. Not a special event, not an "oldies" night, just a regularly scheduled, if antique, movie.

8:22 AM  
Blogger SimpleGifts said...

Hi, Laura - I'm so glad you enjoyed both movies on Sunday night, just wish I could have seen them with you! Reading your great reviews is the next best thing to being there side by side. Having seen DYNAMITE, I agree it was a treat to see Charles Bickford in a leading role and Kay Johnson was quite wonderful, too. And wasn't it fun to see young Joel and the big hoops race? I'll have to catch MADAM SATAN another time - your comments were hilarious - sounds like a hoot! Best, Jane

11:41 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I enjoyed your memories, Rick. Fun to think of discovering this on the "late show"!

Jane, wish you could have been there (and hope you are feeling better this week!). That country club sequence with the hoops and Joel was memorable indeed. :) I'm glad you enjoyed my attempt to describe the wild MADAM SATAN, it's really one to catch!

Best wishes,

11:54 PM  

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