Saturday, March 18, 2017

Tonight's Movies: Mamba (1930) and Cheer Up and Smile (1930) at the UCLA Festival of Preservation

It was another terrific night at the 2017 UCLA Festival of Preservation!

I made my fifth visit to the festival to see a double bill of films from 1930, MAMBA (1930) and CHEER UP AND SMILE (1930).

The two-color MAMBA was one of the earliest all-color feature films; while the very first color films were musicals, MAMBA was notable as an early color drama.

Thought lost for many years, a nitrate print had been saved from destruction decades ago by a couple in Australia. (It seems that many "lost" films turn up in unexpected places such as Eastern Europe or Australia, because they were the "end of the line" for exhibition.) Some of the Vitaphone sound discs were missing, but they happened to be in UCLA's collection and were ultimately synced up.

The sound survived for a four-minute sequence which had been excised by Australian censors, so we were able to listen to the missing scene while looking at a handful of stills.

There's more on the film's restoration history in a 2012 post by UCLA's Jan-Christopher Horak, and Leonard Maltin wrote about the movie that same year.

Incidentally, I was curious about the film's locations, which looked unfamiliar; Maltin had also been unsure where MAMBA was filmed until his wife spotted a familiar Universal backlot landmark!

MAMBA is a jungle melodrama which I found to be a very entertaining 78 minutes. Jean Hersholt plays August Bolt, a wealthy but thoroughly nasty plantation owner in East Africa.

Bolt travels to Germany where he weds an impoverished German countess, Helen (Eleanor Boardman); all too soon, Helen realizes her new husband's behavior is not just awkward and embarrassing, but threatening in the extreme.

Karl von Reiden (Ralph Forbes), a German officer Helen meets on the boat to Africa, falls in love with Helen and manages to protect her from the worst of her husband's brutality; Karl even provides Helen with a gun for self-defense after he stops August from whipping her.

Matters come to a head when war breaks out between the Germans and the British; while Karl's regiment is moved to the front and August tries to evade military service and flee the country, restless natives attack the settlement where Helen has been left behind.

The movie is admittedly rather hokey at times, not to mention politically incorrect, but I found it completely entertaining.

Hersholt, usually associated with the kindly Dr. Christian character he played in numerous films, is absolutely repellent as August Bolt, and there is thus considerable satisfaction in his ultimate fate.

Boardman and Forbes manage to rise above some cliched situations and dialogue and find romantic moments which are genuinely moving. I tend to think of Forbes as a British Ralph Bellamy type, always losing the leading lady, so I found it especially interesting to see him as the romantic lead.

Director Albert S. Rogell and cinematographer Charles Boyle opened the movie up far beyond what one might expect from an early talkie, with a great opening tracking shot and some exciting action sequences.

MAMBA provided a memorable evening at the movies, more than worth making the trek up to L.A.

(And an "only in L.A." aside: When I pulled into my parking spot at the Hammer Museum, director John Landis was standing next to my car chatting with someone.)

The second half of the double bill, CHEER UP AND SMILE, wasn't as successful. A silly Fox comedy about a fraternity pledge named Eddie (Arthur Lake) who is suspended from college but ends up a hit as a radio singer, it had its moments but grew tiresome before its 76 minutes were done. I didn't find either Lake or leading lady Dixie Lee (aka Mrs. Bing Crosby) particularly appealing.

The film was chiefly notable for a young actor named Marion Morrison who makes a solid impression as one of Lake's fraternity brothers. That same year Morrison changed his name to John Wayne! As a big Wayne fan I enjoyed seeing him in this; he definitely stands out from the crowd and makes an impression as a fun-loving leader with a conscience.

J. Carroll Naish has a small role as gangster who robs a nighclub. One of the other robbers was very familiar; I thought at first it was a young William Bendix, but he apparently didn't begin his film career for another decade-plus so I'm still in the dark on that one.

I appreciated the beautiful 35mm print, but all in all, this film was strictly a two-star affair.

CHEER UP AND SMILE was directed by Sidney Lanfield. It was filmed by Joseph A. Valentine. The supporting cast included Ogla Baclanova, "Whispering" Jack Smith, Franklin Pangborn, Johnny Arthur, and Charles Judels.

I plan to see one more double bill at the Festival of Preservation, INFERNAL MACHINE (1933) and SLEEPERS EAST (1934). Then it will be time to turn my attention to the annual Noir City Film Festival!


Blogger Jonas Nordin said...

Hi Laura,
Lovely to meet you at the Mamba screening in LA Saturday.
If you need more info on Mamba, how it was found or the company that made it, you find all that on my blog. Just follow these links for the complete story:

2:03 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Jonas!

I was so delighted to meet you last Saturday! It was wonderful you could travel to the U.S. for the screening. :)

Thank you very, very much for the links, I'll be checking them out to learn more and am sure my readers will enjoy them as well. I had a thoroughly good time watching MAMBA and appreciate all the hard work you and others did to make being able to watch it a reality!

Best wishes,

11:37 AM  

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