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The Films of Charles Brabin 1/2/13


kingrat
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Who but TCM would show 9 films back to back directed by the very obscure Charles Brabin? All were made at the beginning of the sound era, between 1929 and 1933.

 

The only one I've even heard of is *The Secret of Madame Blanche*, with Irene Dunne starring in another variation of the Madame X story. Susan Doll has an excellent article about it in the current Movie Morlocks blog.

 

A friend has recommended *Washington Masquerade*, starring Lionel Barrymore.

 

Pre-code fans and lovers of rarities should be in clover.

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Does anyone on this thread know why Charles Brabin retired from directing? He was in his 50's when he directed his last film in the 30's and I know that age was old in those days but was he in bad health or was he blackballed from the industry for some transgression? I'm curious.

 

:o)

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Trying to catch up with the unusual number of Charles Brabin-directed films shown on TCM yesterday, I was entertained and appalled by several of the movies--and kept wondering how Brabin could go from the most static, fuddy-duddy stagings of feeble 19th century dramatics to wonderfully electric, lively pre-code stories filled with well-done action sequences. Here's a rundown of some impressions (spoilers abound below).

 

Having seen it before, I was particularly taken with the lyrically rough-hewn racing film *Sporting Blood* (1931), with a very young *Clark Gable* and sensual *Madge Evans*. The leads and the horse racing all looked like winners to me (though it is a shame for movie audiences that Evans would soon retire).

 

*Day of Reckoning* (1933) with *Richard Dix*, *Madge Evans* (again) and *Una Merkel* (as well as scene-stealer *Spanky McFarland*) seems to be fairly typical of Brabin's sound films, veering from excessive talkiness to a few gloriously vivid action sequences on location (esp. Dix's fight with the hissable *Conway Tearle* on a rooftop). Then again, I am a sap for Dix's less well known films in the '30s. The class differences among the characters' shifting positions from success to ignominy to deceit and decency were particularly well drawn in this movie. It still bothers me that Merkel's longing for Dix was never resolved, though that had a realistic feel to it (even though I was chagrined to see her yoked to Stu Erwin's nebbishy but nice milkman).

 

*The Washington Masquerade* (1932) was worth seeing for *Lionel Barrymore*'s relatively understated work playing a weak version of a Capraesque hero, as "Jefferson Keane," a newly arrived Senator in the nation's capitol. After initially advocating public ownership of utilities (still a radical notion *sigh*), he was soon toyed with by the manipulative (and luminously gorgeous) *Karen Morley*, *Nils Asther*, (who was also gorgeously decorative, though with little to do but be Euro-trash) and the ubiquitous character actor villain in the '30s, *C. Henry Gordon*. Barrymore's expression when he realizes his own foolishness gives his eventual attempted redemption a sharper poignancy than expected.

 

One of the Brabin films that I had never seen before, *New Morals for Old* (1932) featured *Laura Hope Crews*, warming up her fast ball as a memorable mother from hell, who is particularly adept at making her son (*Robert Young*) feel guilty. (Crews recreated her noted theatrical appearance in Sidney Howard's *The Silver Cord* the following year on film at RKO under the good direction of John Cromwell).

 

Despite the mesmerizing ickiness of Crews' character, the liveliest scenes in *New Morals for Old* were the two with a lustrously beautiful *Myrna Loy* in her early Bohemian mode. She encounters a coltish Robert Young in their Parisian tenement when he disturbs her in her atelier and we next see them canoodling in their pajamas the next day. No one suffers because of this encounter and neither pledges undying love; demonstrating a shred of realism that would evaporate after 1934. It was also interesting to see *Robert Young*'s earnest if untalented painter being told that he did not have the goods as a fine artist, though his sense of composition, color and design might make him a first-class wallpaper designer (the family business)! A major pre-Code element of this story was the subplot concerning Young's sister (*Margaret Perry*), who lived in sin with a married man (*David Newell*) until he could obtain a divorce. Of course, this event may have led to a fatal stroke suffered by her father (*Lewis Stone*, with a gentle pre-Hardy stuffiness intact), but Perry's character did not have any immediate consequences to suffer as she would after the Production Code. By the end, Perry is told that she is becoming "just like her mother" (that is meant as a compliment in the context of the film) and Young is moving back into the family mansion and in harness down at the wallpaper factory, just like Dad was for forty years. Since this is an example of an adaptation of one of John Van Druten's early plays, it might be that the author intended all this as high comedy, though whatever irony might have been intended is not exactly apparent in the script by Zelda Sears & Wanda Tuchock.

 

Reportedly, *L. B. Mayer* loved this MGM movie, since its moral was that it is a grand thing to transmogrify into our parents after our youthful delusions are cast aside.

 

*The Ship from Shanghai* (1929) was worthwhile for sheer hootworthiness:

Kay Johnson, a lovely and intelligent actress, was saddled with Conrad Nagel, action hero, as they were asked to play two vapid '20s types on a cruise from Hong Kong to San Francisco, during which they deal with a mutiny among the Asian crew and tried to keep evil *Louis Wolheim* from foaming at the mouth more than necessary to keep things afloat. Despite the class tensions in the script (injected deliberately, according to some, by the screenwriter John Howard Lawson aka "The Kommisar"), the action is quite limp.

 

This must have been the period when *Nagel* was Mr. Mayer's pet actor under contract, since he seemed to appear in every other MGM picture of the period (and allegedly gave L.B. lessons in manners and speech on the side). My favorite lines, which I am paraphrasing a bit, are these, from the end of the film. Nagel to Johnson, upon sighting a rescue ship that draws near: "Is that a jazz band I hear? Or is it a choir of angels?" Reply: "Both!" Johnson to Nagel: "Is that ship from heaven?" Reply: "No, America, but it might be the same place!"

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