Saturday, March 11, 2017

Tonight's Movies: The Mad Game (1933) and 365 Nights in Hollywood (1934) at the UCLA Festival of Preservation

It was another great day at the 2017 UCLA Festival of Preservation, with some very diverse titles on the menu.

I began with an afternoon double bill of Spencer Tracy and Claire Trevor in the pre-Code crime drama THE MAD GAME (1933), followed by Alice Faye and James Dunn in the musical comedy 365 NIGHTS IN HOLLYWOOD (1934). Both films were released by Fox.

I have to laugh, as ever since admitting I'm not much of a Spencer Tracy fan in January, I think I've seen more of his films than any other actor this year! I've averaged a Tracy film every other week in the first ten weeks of the year; links for my other Tracy reviews may be found in my write-up of CASS TIMBERLANE (1947).

It was Claire Trevor who pulled me in, as well as the prospect of an unseen Alice Faye film on the other half of the double bill. And as it happened, THE MAD GAME was a terrifically entertaining film which was the highlight of my viewing day.

Tracy plays Ed Carson, who's made a fortune as a bootlegger. But times are changing for Ed. Prohibition is ending, and he's surrounded by a crowd of disloyal people including righthand man Chopper (J. Carrol Naish), girlfriend Marilyn (Kathleen Burke), and attorney William Bennett (John Miljan).

Ed's attorney Bennett suggests he plead guilty to a tax case, assuring Ed he'll buy the judge off, but he plans to pocket the payoff money himself so he can run off with Marilyn -- and besides, Judge Penfield (Ralph Morgan) can't be corrupted.

Jail does Ed good; he takes up gardening on the prison grounds and eventually volunteers to undergo plastic surgery to change his appearance so he can infiltrate Chopper's gang and bring him to justice. Chopper has gone into the "snatch" (kidnapping for ransom) business, and his latest targets are Judge Penfield's son (Howard Lally) and new daughter-in-law (Mary Mason).

The only people Ed can rely on are Jane (Trevor), a savvy crime reporter who has a soft spot for him, and his loyal pal Butts McGee (Matt McHugh).

Sure, the whole thing got a little crazy around the time Tracy's character went the plastic surgery route, but it was a fast-paced and entertaining 73 minutes. There were some nice set pieces, such as the attempt to spring Ed from the train taking him to prison, which turns out to be a plan by Chopper to rub him out.

The movie was efficiently filmed, which added to the good pacing; for instance, we see a car following the Penfield newlyweds but we don't actually have to see them kidnapped. The story just moves right along and lets the viewer fill in the blanks.

Trevor was 23 here, but as lively and self-assured as in her later work. I believe this was the youngest I've ever seen her on film; before that the earliest Trevor film I've seen was CAREER WOMAN (1936).

I was also particularly impressed with Kathleen Burke, seen at left, who was quite striking as Tracy's disloyal girlfriend. Her last movie was in 1938. I'm surprised she didn't make more films, as she was memorable in a slinky Gail Patrick sort of way.

Matt McHugh, the actor playing Tracy's pal, looked and sounded very much like Frank McHugh, yet clearly was not him, so I guessed it must be his brother. Correct! Matt McHugh was four years older than Frank, and he actually had more screen credits than his better-known brother, appearing in over 220 films.

This seems to have been the movie for older brothers of better-known actors named Frank, as Ralph Morgan, who played the judge, was the sibling of the Wizard of Oz himself, Frank Morgan. And like Matt McHugh, Ralph Morgan had more screen credits than his brother Frank!

THE MAD GAME was directed by Irving Cummings and filmed by Arthur C. Miller.

The second film of the day, 365 NIGHTS IN HOLLYWOOD, was less successful, though still worthwhile in order to see the young Alice Faye in her fourth film -- when she was more of a platinum "Jean Harlow" type and not the blonde, self-assured Alice we better remember.

The plot of this 77-minute film is a bunch of silliness about a movie director, Jimmy Dale (James Dunn), who quickly hit the big time and then fell far fast; he's now relegated to teaching drama in a school owned by J. Walter Delmar (Grant Mitchell), which exists chiefly to take money from gullible Hollywood wannabes.

When Alice Perkins (Faye) of Peoria shows up at the school, she's got more talent than most, and an admirer (Frank Melton) at the drive-in where she's a carhop wants to spend an inheritance to produce a movie with Alice as the star. Soon Jimmy is directing Alice and the drama school's only well-known graduate, Adrian Almont (John Bradford), in a new film.

The movie was inspired by stories by a columnist named Jimmy Starr, but while the title's great, the plot left a lot to be desired. It's best when Faye is on screen, but it's admittedly hard to know at times what was real and what was acting when it came to her occasionally awkward screen appearance.

Faye's performance does seem to grow more confident as the film goes on, so I suspect some of the awkwardness was simply her portrayal of the naive girl from Peoria, but this is definitely not the seasoned Alice Faye of favorite Fox musicals like WEEK-END IN HAVANA (1941) and THAT NIGHT IN RIO (1941) -- or even ON THE AVENUE (1937). It was interesting to see her in it, though, to better understand the trajectory of her career.

The supporting cast includes John Qualen, Frank Mitchell, and Jack Durant. I wish I'd known in advance to be watching for Dennis O'Keefe and Lynn Bari in the chorus!

365 NIGHTS IN HOLLYWOOD was directed by George Marshall and filmed by Harry Jackson.

After a dinner break I returned to the Billy Wilder Theater for a program of Classic Animated Shorts From Paramount.

Over the course of an hour or so we watched half a dozen fascinating cartoons, mostly from Max Fleischer, beginning with DINAH (1933), a "Screen Song" short starring the Mills Bros., with some laugh-out-loud funny animation; HONEST LOVE AND TRUE (1938), a long-lost Betty Boop short which was fun despite missing its soundtrack; EDUCATED FISH (1937), a fun story about a wayward young fish, in Technicolor; the remarkable George Pal Puppetoon RHYTHM IN THE RANKS (1941), in dazzling color; A CARTOON TRAVESTY OF THE RAVEN (1942), a takeoff on the Poe story with the raven as a vacuum cleaner salesman; and RAGGEDY ANN AND ANDY (1940).

Seeing the Mills Brothers on screen was a particular thrill, as I really enjoy them, and I was also especially happy to see RAGGEDY ANN AND ANDY; a Raggedy Ann doll has always been one of my treasured possessions, and some older Raggedy Ann books were childhood favorites.

Kudos to UCLA for pulling together such varied and interesting programming for the festival!

I'll be returning to the festival next weekend for an evening of the two-color MAMBA (1930) teamed with the black and white musical CHEER UP AND SMILE (1930), in which a small role is played by one Marion Morrison, soon known as John Wayne.


Blogger Caftan Woman said...

Sounds like a wonderful evening. The Mad Game definitely goes on the old list now. I'm glad Fox eventually got over trying to have Alice be anybody other than Alice!

Ah, "Raggedy Ann I love you, my little Raggedy Ann". My kids loved that when they were little. They would watch it and get carried away as if it were a toddler's Casablanca. Worked overtime to get them dolls one Christmas. They are still prominently displayed in the house.

10:06 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Caftan Woman, really hope you can track down THE MAD GAME, as I enjoyed it immensely, and that seemed to be the reaction of other folks in the audience I chatted with in between movies.

It's interesting I'd never before come across the RAGGEDY ANN short! In addition to my mother's childhood collection of lavishly illustrated RAGGEDY ANN hardcovers, one of my favorite books as a child was the little Wonder Book RAGGEDY ANN AND MARCELLA'S FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL. Still have all of them! I love that your children grew up knowing the cartoon as well. Last night's print was so colorful! And there was a fascinating tidbit shared in the post-screening discussion, that on the frames of the RAGGEDY film which are matted out of view when projected, you can see handwritten notes and measurements by the animators.

Best wishes,

11:17 AM  
Blogger Ashley said...

I have seen quite a lot of early Claire Trevor. She and Tracy were paired around 3 times. She was the mother in Baby, Take a Bow, one of the last Shirley Temple films I first saw immediately upon it's first VHS release. It's clearly a Pre-Code, released in 1934. She was also in one with Edmund Lowe early on. I'm not a Tracy fan. Some other element has to draw me in. I once had a VHS tape with Raggedy Ann and Andy as part of the cartoon lineup. I don't know what became of that tape.

12:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a time you are having! Thanks for sharing with us and the introduction to films rarely seen.

6:30 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Ashley, I really need to catch up with the early Shirley Temple films -- there are numerous actors I like in her films! I didn't realize Trevor was in one of them too. It's funny how often I end up watching Tracy films -- he certainly worked with a lot of good actors!

Thanks, Vienna, it's my privilege to be able to attend festivals such as this one ans share the information here. I hope that some of the movies I'm seeing and writing about will be more widely available eventually. The next films I plan to see at the festival include an early two-color film and a "train movie" with Preston Foster!

Best wishes,

12:44 AM  

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