Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Spence and Bogie…or is that Bogie and Spence?

Finally got the opportunity today to see a pair of films that have been on my “must-see” list for sometime now, starting with Up the River (1930)—a John Ford prison “comedy” that is noteworthy as the only screen “teaming” of Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart. Both actors were the best of friends in real life but outside of this movie they never got another chance to co-star together, primarily because of Bogart’s lengthy association with Warner Brothers and Tracy’s slog at 20th Century-Fox (and more famously, at MGM). If the opportunity ever did present itself, it’s likely there would have been a squabble over billing: Spence many have been the more respected screen veteran but Bogie was the bigger of the two stars…but after all those MGM films where he played second fiddle to Clark Gable it’s likely that Tracy would have insisted on top billing or nothing.

As for the film itself…well, I’ve seen quite a few Ford movies and while Ford prided himself on the comedic elements in many of his classics, his straight comedies—with the exception of the Will Rogers vehicles and The Whole Town’s Talking (1935)—aren’t all that funny…though it is possible that I just haven’t yet stumbled onto the one to prove me wrong. Tracy and Warren Hymer (in a role that has Victor McLaglen’s name all over it) are a pair of convicts who bust out of Sing Sing to come to the aid of recently released prisoner Bogart (who strikes a middle ground between his tough guy and “Tennis, anyone?” juvenile personas), who’s being blackmailed by a hood who also sent Bogie’s girlfriend (Claire Luce) to the Big House as well. It’s no great shakes but worth a look if you’re a Bogart fan; the film was released on the Ford at Fox DVD box set and while I haven’t seen the DVD print if it’s anything like the one shown on Fox Movie Channel it’ll be a tough slog because it’s heavily damaged.

I taped Atlantic Adventure (1935) off of TCM this morning (and then stared at it while eating dinner) because several movie reference books (including Leonard Maltin’s The Great Movie Comedians) have singled out Harry Langdon’s performance as Snapper McGillicuddy, the chowhound photographer sidekick to Lloyd Nolan’s hard-boiled reporter Dan Miller. As it turns out, Langdon is very good—he may be the best thing in the movie—but the film as a whole was a little disappointing; Nolan is too obnoxious to be likeable and Nancy Carroll (who plays Nolan’s socialite girlfriend), while utterly engaging and charming, has precious little to do. The plot finds the previously mentioned trio on board a steamship chasing down jewel thieves in the hopes of getting Nolan his job back from his irascible editor (Thurston Hall), and there are sprightly supporting performances from the likes of Arthur Hohl, Robert Middlemass, E.E. Clive, Dwight “Renfield” Frye and Nana Bryant. TCM followed the movie with a breezily entertaining Thelma Todd-ZaSu Pitts two-reeler, Sneak Easily (1932), in which juror Pitts accidentally swallows a “time bomb pill” in a murder trial where Todd is defending the murderer (Bobby Burns). (Hey, Turner Classic Movies: more like this, please!)

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