Monday, September 8, 2008

Ain't Got Nothin' but Time


Chester Morris gets ready to go to the dungeon, the name for solitary confinement in this fantastic still from The Big House, 1930.* Chester Morris never impressed me as a great actor but I always found him likable in movies like the Boston Blackie series and early sound soap operas like The Divorcee. Alas, The Big House is another early thirties film I've yet to see and not carried by Netflix. Curses! One day I will see every film made in the early thirties that isn't lost. But for now I must wait.

The movie also stars Wallace Beery, nominated for Best Actor for his role as the convict chum of Morris, and Robert Montgomery as the un-hardened criminal, killing someone while drunk driving. It seems like just last week I was looking for Hell Below with Montgomery and couldn't find it, now this. Oh wait, it was last week.

*Scanned from The MGM Story, c 1975.

17 comments:

ARBOGAST said...

Chester Morris is growing on me.

Fox said...

Dang... as I was reading down your post I was already thinking "I gotta rent this..." and then you bitch slapped me. Urgh. Perhaps the video stores here have a crappy VHS copy in the meantime.

It's amazing that that still is from 1930. Not that there wasn't great photography is the 30's, but as I mentioned on Arbo's blog when he posted about Day of Wrath, that still seems to be more emotionally expressive than lots of today's film imagery.

Fox said...

p.s. And OMG... a Blithe freakin' Spirit reference on your banner!?!?

You are the man, Lapper! Thanks for keeping the work of the old masters on people's mind... and I really, really mean that.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Arbo, the first time I saw Morris was in The Divorcee and I thought he was okay but nothing special. Then I saw Public Hero #1 on TCM and really liked both the movie and Morris then, finally, I started watching the Boston Blackie movies and think he's perfectly suited for them. I don't think he'll ever be considered a great actor but he has a tough demeanor and a bulldog mug that makes him very likable.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Fox - I've wanted to see this for years but can never find it. I checked out the usual places including TCM where I've ordered several DVDs and VHS's from but no luck. And it's a big early thirties film with a sizable reputation for that era. It's in most of my old movie books (the book I got this scan from has a whole write up on it as the biggest movie of the year along with All Quiet on the Western Front. But the book came out 33 years ago and since then it seems to have fallen through the cracks.

And thanks for the banner praise, it's nice to know they're appreciated. And I really, really mean that too.

bill r. said...

Yeah, I'm with Fox. As I continue to watch old movies with greater frequency than recent ones, being set up like this is a real kick in the pants. From now on, Jonathan, only talk about movies that I can easily get my hands on. That's an order.

Marilyn said...

I love that banner, too, Jonathan. A really winner!

I have always enjoyed the Boston Blackie movies and had a good time when TCM ran a bunch of them in a row on a Saturday. I can see Chester Morris in a lot of other parts; he has a James Cagney feel about him, though he's a more emotionally cool actor.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Bill - Have I told you about this movie called The Patriot from 1928 directed by Ernst Lubitsch? Oh boy, let me tell you, it...

oh... um, sorry. Never mind.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Thanks Marilyn! Once I started seeing Morris in things like Public Hero #1 and the Boston Blackie movies I started liking him a lot more. They're suited to his style and demeanor unlike The Divorcee, which I like and have seen many times. I can't defend that statement artistically, but I like the movie anyway.

Morris could've played the Cagney roles, he just didn't have the electric charisma that Cagney had. At the same time, Cagney would've been too "big" for the Boston Blackie roles. Sometimes it's just a matter of finding the right role to fit the actor's persona. The studio system was pretty good at that, unfortunately they never took the roles that Morris was right for and gave them the "A" movie treatment. A slightly bigger budget and better promotion for his movies and he might be better known today. I have the same beef with Glenda Farrell as you know. Her Torchy Blaine character was perfectly suited for her but they all got the "B" movie treatment from the studios.

Marilyn said...

Yes, that's what I was getting at with the Cagney/Morris comparison. I don't know about Glenda Farrell, though. She seemed born to play second-banana women's roles in the Hollywood system. She's so much like Joan Blondell and Eve Arden (who I saw in a short, uncredited cameo in Dancing Lady this weekend, a truly second-rate MGM ripoff of Warner Bros' Busy Berkeley musicals.)

Jonathan Lapper said...

I still think Farrell could have gotten "A" list comedies, even as the sidekick. Thelma Ritter was never the star but her fame is lasting because of all the top flight films she appeared in. That's mainly what I'm saying with Farrell, is that she rarely ever got an "A" movie, in any capacity.

Marilyn said...

Arbo - I think a good fungicide will take care of your problem.

Fox said...

A 10 hour and 10 minute delay on that joke from Marilyn, but still, well done lady!

Can I call you lady?

ARBOGAST said...

I suppose I first saw Chester Morris in The Bat Whispers and I got no particular feel from him at all. Then I checked him out in Three Godfathers (I like the bit where he chastises the baby for making him kill the rattlesnake), Flight From Glory and the mighty, mighty Five Came Back and developed a serious man-crush... and no fungicide can help that.

Marilyn said...

"Lay...dee. When you're with me I'm smiiiiiling." Yes, if that's what you mean, foxy.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Maybe it's just something about Morris' style that it takes two or three movies before he catches on with a viewer because, as I already described, that's how it worked with me too.

Now someone get The Big House on DVD now!

And did someone quote Styx on my blog? Some things you think you'll never see and then they happen. It's alright cause I'll try, oh lord, I'll try... to caaaarrrrrry on!!!

Moira Finnie said...

Please do yourself a favor and check out Alibi (1929), a film that creaks badly, but has a few minutes of raw bravado acting by Chester Morris that is remarkable. Another film that anyone interested in Morris should see is his surprisingly gritty performance in director Richard Boleslawski's unsentimental version of Three Godfathers (1936), (which is said to have dialogue courtesy of associate producer Joe Mankiewicz...I believe it, too after hearing it crackle). This film also features a nicely rueful un-Judge Hardyish performance by Lewis Stone as well. The Gay Bride (1934) is a fitfully amusing, would-be screwball comedy with some snappy dialogue between Carole Lombard, as a gold digger and a cynical Morris as a mobster's flunkie. Five Came Back will give you a different look at Morris as an action figure faced with an impossible choice in a jungle teaming with C. Aubrey Smith, Elisabeth Risdon, Lucille Ball as a tarnished angel, and cannibals, among others. It's quite a trip.

I love the formulaic Boston Blackie movies primarily for Morris' flippant attitude toward everything that happens, good or bad. He's sort of zen that way.

He seems to have been quite undiplomatic from what little I've found out about him. Every time he got a contract at a studio, he'd more or less tell the studio heads that they were fools not to use his talents in everything from Little Lord Fauntleroy movies to Rhett Butler to Jungle Jim. As a child I knew several people who were familiar with his liberal politics, since he was a supporter of the ACLU, and spoke out about police brutality and other issues of the day in interviews. I hope you have a chance to see The Big House. His character is not at the center of the film's storyline, but it is quite impressive for the use of realistic settings and Frances Marion's well researched story.

Thanks for posting that dramatically lit photo from The Big House.