The Docks of New York (1928) Review

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 76 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The era of silent cinema was nearing its end in 1928, but there were still several good movies left to be released without sound. One of them was The Docks of New York, directed by Josef von Sternberg. In this silent melodrama, Bill Roberts (George Bancroft), a coal-stoker for a barge docked in New York City, rescues a suicidal woman, Mae (Betty Compson), who jumped off a pier into the harbor. The blurb on Rotten Tomatoes from critic Matthew Lucas says that this picture is about “the forgotten men and women of the working class looking for their own slice of happiness in grungy places.” I think that that sums up the feature pretty well.

The most striking aspect of The Docks of New York is its visual style. The proto-noirish cinematography is the highlight of the movie, being some of the very best of the silent era. The film dives into the grimy world of coal-shoveling onboard a seafaring barge on two occasions, and these sequences are pretty memorable. It should also noted that this flick is only 76 minutes long, so that’s a plus.

The romantic story at the core of The Docks of New York isn’t really that special, but it’s engaging enough to work. After watching, it may seem like a fairly thin premise for a motion picture, but, as I stated earlier, the whole thing’s under an hour-and-a-half, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Most of the characters are well-defined, but, considering how small the cast list is, that’s something they shouldn’t mess up.

The camerawork and seedy, gritty atmosphere of this flick are its big assets. The plot is simple and straightforward, but that’s not an issue. Fans of silent romance movies will love the Hell out of it, but I’d recommend it to anybody who wants to see what silent films were doing when they were about to be phased out by talkies. It really shows how far the art form had come since, say, The Great Train Robbery (1903).

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) Review

Director: Michael Curtiz

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Romance, War

Runtime: 115 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

It seems to me that 1936’s The Charge of the Light Brigade set out to be the biggest, most exciting, most epic-scale war/action-adventure picture made up to that point in time. It’s about a romantic triangle set amidst the chaos of unrest in British-occupied India and, later, the Crimean War. This was one of nine movies where Errol Flynn (playing Geoffrey Vickers here) and Olivia de Havilland (as Elsa Campbell) played love interests.

First and foremost, it should be pointed out that the dazzling action scenes found here might be the best in movie history up to the point of its initial release (“Here’s your action!” Errol Flynn says as one battle breaks out, almost as if he’s addressing the audience). Well, the hyper-realistic combat scenes in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), released six years earlier, might top it, but The Charge of the Light Brigade puts up one Hell of a fight to outdo it. However, it definitely needs to be said that about twenty-five horses were killed or had to be put down due to the trip-wires used to make them fall over when “shot” (in addition, at least one human stuntman died during filming). It also appears that an actual leopard or two were shot and killed during a hunt sequence set in India. This senseless slaughter led to the Congress of the United States passing laws to protect animals on film sets.

The music in this feature, composed by Mex Steiner, is one of its highlights. The same cannot be said of the romantic triangle that takes up a significant portion of the runtime. It’s pretty mind-numbing stuff, and there are a couple of other dialogue-heavy scenes not related to the love story that slow down the pace a tad. When it comes to historical accuracy, it’s best to just shut your brain off while watching The Charge of the Light Brigade, because this movie strays from the facts innumerable times. This doesn’t bother me as much as the animal killings, though.

It’s hard not to feel a little guilty watching this flick for that reason. The battles are stupendous, but the wanton cruelty to creatures here is impossible to ignore (supposedly, star Errol Flynn almost killed director Michael Curtiz over the treatment of the horses). I would normally call the romance in a war film like this to a subplot, but, here, it almost feels like the A-story. These flaws mean that The Charge of Light Brigade is an overall slightly above average picture. If you can stomach the carnage during the action sequences, it might be worth a watch.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Underworld (1927) Review

Directors: Josef von Sternberg and Arthur Rosson

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 80 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Underworld was one of the first feature-length gangster films, and possibly the first of its kind to be told from the criminals’ point-of-view. This silent movie is about mob boss “Bull” Weed’s (George Bancroft) troubles when his alcoholic lawyer, “Rolls Royce” Wensel (Clive Brook) starts to fall for his moll, “Feathers” McCoy (Evelyn Brent). Yeah, I know that the plot description makes this one sound like an uninteresting romance picture, but, trust me, this crime-drama is worth watching.

Aided by a swift 80-minute runtime, Underworld features pulpy dialogue that helped it win an Oscar for Best Writing (Original Story) at the first ever Academy Awards. Also of note is its proto-noirish cinematography that emphasizes shadows. The number of characters in the flick is kept relatively small, so it’s not exactly hard to keep track of everybody.

Physical action in this feature, while dynamic, is fairly limited until the finale. The climatic shootout is a real surprise, being more exciting than the final gunfights of many sound-era mobster movies of the following decade – the 1930s. I’m not exaggerating. It brings both the drama and action elements of the film together on a strong note.

While Underworld doesn’t quite rank up there with my all-time favorite gangster pictures, thanks to romance occasionally running away with the plot, it’s still a startlingly good entry into the organized crime subgenre, especially when its age is taken into account. It begins and ends with a bang, and has some of the best directing that I’ve seen from the silent era. Fans of early mob cinema need to watch it.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Man Who Laughs (1928) Review

Director: Paul Leni

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the primary inspirations for Batman’s main foe, the Joker, was the titular character of the 1928 silent epic The Man Who Laughs. Set in England in the late 1600s and early 1700s, a man whose face was mutilated as a child to make it appear like he’s always showing a toothy grin named Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) becomes a carnival freak and gets tangled up in royal intrigue at the highest level. Considered one of the best movies of the silent era, this film largely lives up to its acclaim.

One of the first things you should know about this picture is that it’s not really a horror flick, as its reputation would suggest. There’s some horror-style imagery towards the beginning, but, for the most part, this is a gothic-style melodrama with heavy romance elements. Believe it or not, there is also some action-adventure-type stuff near the end of the runtime. Even if it’s not truly a horror film, the movie features a sea of grotesque faces to gander at, more than just the one on Gwynplaine.

It’s interesting to note that the title role was initially going to go to Lon Chaney, before it was decided that Conrad Veidt should get it. Here, Veidt gives one of the very best performances of the silent era. He has a permanent smile etched on his face, but he is a tormented man, as can be seen in his pathos-ridden eyes. He’s clearly the hero of the story, even if he inspired the villainous Joker. The rest of the characters in the feature are generally pretty well-defined.

Yes, there are a couple of scenes in The Man Who Laughs that border on slow, but this is relatively late silent movie, so things mostly move along satisfactorily. It has appealing visuals and the plot, which some may find soapy, keeps things together. It’s an American production, but wouldn’t feel out of place among the German Expressionist pictures of the time period. Silent film lovers will almost certainly find enough here for me to recommend it.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Petrified Forest (1936) Review

Director: Archie Mayo

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 82 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Petrified Forest was the film that caused the world to take notice of Humphrey Bogart. It’s not his best movie, but it’s still a good one. One day, a small group of gangsters led by Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart) hold hostage a remote diner/gas station in the middle of the Western United States, crashing a love triangle between wandering poet-at-heart Alan Squier (Leslie Howard), the diner’s waitress, Gabrielle Maple (Bette Davis), and the gas station attendant, Boze Hertzlinger (Dick Foran). It’s a compact, atmospheric drama with clearly-drawn characters

For a crime picture, this one takes place entirely outside of gangland. In fact, being based on a 1935 play of the same title, almost all of the action takes place at a roadside diner “on the edge of nowhere” or its immediate exterior. You can tell it was based on a play, but this doesn’t hurt the flick. I wouldn’t recommend The Petrified Forest if you’re just looking for physical action, though, as the body count is minuscule, although there is a shootout at the end.

For the most part, it’s the characters that keep this feature afloat. This is Humphrey Bogart’s show, as he plays his role – sort of a more murderous version of John Dillinger – with a tightly-wound intensity. Leslie Howard’s character is an insufferable asshole, but he certainly stands out. Also worthy of note is Gramp Maple (Charley Grapewin), Bette Davis’ character’s grandfather, an old-timer who just can’t wait to see somebody get killed. The few interactions between the two black characters, a gangster named Slim (Slim Thompson) and a chauffeur for a rich couple named Joseph (John Alexander) are priceless.

The Petrified Forest is very much above-average, even if it sometimes threatens to sink under Howard’s character’s philosophical ramblings. Fortunately for the audience, Bogart and his crew show up, adding some extra tension. Fans of Bogie or of relatively early organized crime movies will want to seek this one out.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Ten Tall Men (1951) Review

Director: Willis Goldbeck

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Comedy, Romance, War

Runtime: 97 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Burt-Lancaster-joins-the-French-Foreign-Legion is the “hook” of this 1951 war/action-adventure film. During the Rif War in Morocco, a trouble-making sergeant in the French Foreign Legion, Mike Kincaid (Burt Lancaster), assembles a group of fellow Legionnaires (all of whom are rotting in prison) to launch a preemptive raid on desert rebels before the aforementioned insurgents can launch an assault on an undermanned French-occupied town. This flick has an interesting proto-The Dirty Dozen (1967) story, but it’s much more light-hearted than that hard-boiled World War II film.

Ten Tall Men starts off awfully comedic and retains a jokey tone for much of its runtime. The humor here doesn’t really land most of the time. The romance isn’t really effective, either, and many of the supporting characters aren’t as well-defined as they should’ve been for a men-on-a-mission film. The action-adventure elements are what saves this movie from the trash bin. Sure, it’s apparent that they didn’t have a large budget to work with, but the combat scenes are fair.

The story that eventually became Ten Tall Men was actually originally a western. However, the sort of western/war film that the filmmakers were aiming for was considered old hat by the time of this picture’s production, so the action shifted across the Atlantic Ocean. It’s easy to see how the U.S. cavalry were substituted by the French Foreign Legion and the Native Americans by the Moroccan guerrillas.

When it’s all said and done, Ten Tall Men is an adequate war movie that goes somewhat heavy on the comic relief. You should also be warned that a romantic subplot breaks out. The final action scene is hardly the strongest one in the feature, but this film clips along at a decent pace, so it doesn’t dwell on any of its faults for too long. It’s okay, but there are better French Foreign Legion flicks out there, like Legionnaire (1998), Beau Geste (1939), and March or Die (1977).

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Days of Glory (1944) Review

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 86 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

What was it like for democracies, like the United States, to be allied with a totalitarian state, the Soviet Union, during World War II? Days of Glory, made during that war, shows what the Free World’s propagandists had to work with. On the Eastern Front of World War II, a band of Soviet partisans wage guerrilla warfare against the invading Nazis. This melodrama is satisfactory entertainment, but works best as a window into the nature of the Western Allies’ relationship with the Soviet Union during those desperate days.

To put it bluntly, Days of Glory is pro-Soviet propaganda, albeit a piece of propaganda from a time when that communist country was perhaps the world’s best hope for taking down Nazi Germany. The opening narration even goes as far as to describe the millions suffering under Stalinist rule as a “free people.” Okay, this isn’t exactly a realistic movie, with its singing Soviets and whatnot, but I can forgive this, considering its wartime origins.

Although it’s a war film, this picture goes pretty light on the action. If you’re thinking of watching this flick just to see some Eastern Front partisan-related carnage, I’d recommend you look elsewhere. However, on the basic level of investing the audience in its characters, Days of Glory works fine enough. It’s romance-heavy, but the story is interesting enough to keep viewers engaged. Much time is spent in the guerrillas’ underground bunker, occasionally giving the movie a stagey feel.

Days of Glory is notable to two things. The first is that it’s the film debut of Gregory Peck, who plays the leader of the Soviet partisan cell. He would, of course, go on to become of one the silver screen’s greatest actors. The second is that it’s one of the few American productions to cast an explicitly positive light on the vile Soviet Union. To be fair, the common foot soldier of that communist empire deserves a lot of the credit for rolling back and defeating fascism during World War II. All in all, this is a watchable drama picture with some very badly dated politics that make it intriguing.

My rating is 7 outta 10.