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Although the company founded by William Fox in 1915 was left reeling after the stock market crash, in the early 1930s it managed to turn out a remarkable batch of fast and bawdy, sly and suggestive comedies, dramas, and musicals before the repressive Production Code cracked down in 1934. Film Forum’s series comprises 45 features, including a number of rarities, both from Fox and 20th Century Pictures, which merged with the studio in 1935.
One of the revelations of the show is a largely forgotten figure, Rowland Brown, who made the move from screenwriting to directing years before Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges. A pugnacious leftist who didn’t easily fit in the Hollywood system, he drifted into obscurity after directing three movies and taking a poke at a studio executive. Brown made his directorial debut with Quick Millions (December 15), a first-rate gangster film starring Spencer Tracy as an engaging working-class hero corrupted during the Depression by money and the thirst for power. Tracy became the studio’s most interesting actor of the period. This was only his second film, but he dominates it throughout. And in Blood Money (December 9), Brown creates a picturesque milieu of petty crime filled with a memorable slate of quirky characters.
Pride of place in the show goes to veteran helmer Raoul Walsh with four diverse features. His handsomely produced Yellow Ticket (December 14) takes place in czarist Russia and tells of a young Jewish girl victimized by the lecherous secret-police chief (Lionel Barrymore) but saved in the nick by a British newsman (Laurence Olivier). Barrymore steals the show, chewing the period scenery with relish. But it’s Me and My Gal (December 1 and 2), the best of Walsh’s comedies, that is the perfect example of the director’s style—brash, lean, and energetically vulgar. Spencer Tracy is crackerjack as the easygoing Irish cop who woos and wins breezy Joan Bennett, a lunch counter cashier. This is arguably the quintessential gum- chewing, fast-talking, Depression-Prohibition melodrama romance comedy of the period.
A bastard movie,
Hello, Sister (December 10 and 11) was released by Fox in 1933 with no director credit. The lowdown is that this is the great Eric von Stroheim’s last film as a director and his only sound picture—or what’s left of it. In 1932 he completed a film known as Walking Down Broadway. It was taken away from him, but most of the final reel and a few intermittent episodes were rewritten and reshot, directed by Al Werker. The film was released to indifferent reviews and disappeared for half a century. Viewed today, despite the hatchet job, this story of two lonely young out-of-towners who fall in love in a big city still holds together fairly well. And there are entire scenes that echo moments in Stroheim’s Greed and the harsh erotic ceremonials and mitigating sentimentalities that often lay at the heart of his work.
Rowland V. Lee is remembered, if at all, as a derivative journeyman. Yet his marvelously poetic
Zoo in Budapest (December 16), set mostly in a deserted zoo that serves as refuge for a pair of lovers and a runaway child, is the most indelibly beautiful movie in the retrospective. Leading man Gene Raymond is a model of gentle virility, Loretta Young an ideal fairy-tale heroine. Lee Garmes’s cinematography is on par with his most brilliant work, and Lee’s delicate fantasy is unlike any other film of the period, though you’d be hard put to find consideration of it in histories of the cinema.