Great Movies No One's Seen: Little Man, What Now?

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Great Movies No One's Seen: Little Man, What Now?

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Sun Dec 16, 2007 10:25 am

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The stereotype of studio era Hollywood is glorious fakery-- a tuxedo- clad world in which love blossoms in an instant-- and if it has an alternative, it's probably the hardbitten, hardboiled crime-film tradition, which is just as fake (and just as glorious) in its own way. But there is also a small countertradition of superb realist masterpieces, usually made by prominent directors between more commercial assignments, whose simplicity and truthfulness about human hopes and frailties stand up against any product of any "art film"- producing country. Some are about aging and loss, like Ford's Pilgrimage or McCarey's Make Way For Tomorrow; others are about young love, but in a darker, more mature and bittersweet way than the usual boy-meets-girl romance, like Rowland V. Lee's Zoo in Budapest or King Vidor's The Stranger's Return. They are usually far less well known than the likes of Top Hat or It Happened One Night, though those who know these films cherish them.

Frank Borzage's Little Man, What Now is another such masterpiece, I firmly believe, despite my having seen it in a scratchy print which was, for much of its running time, out of sync. If you know anything about it, it is that it gets credit for portraying the circumstances that led to the rise of the Nazis at a surprisingly early point (1934), long before even Borzage became the first filmmaker in Hollywood to take on that subject directly in Three Comrades and The Mortal Storm toward the end of the 30s. Well, there's a little bit of myth in that description which needs correcting: even Three Comrades, in 1938, never says the word "Nazi" (you are supposed to figure out which side is which by clothing, basically, as 1930s audiences no doubt could-- spotting the shaven-templed brownshirts on one side and the tradesmen's caps on the other); and it's clear from the clues we're given that the menace always at the edge of the story in Little Man, What Now is a violent socialist uprising, not a fascist one. (The talk is always of "equality," not of making Germany great again.) But that in no way invalidates the powerful and even subversive thing Borzage does here, which makes Little Man, What Now a powerful, almost too-perfect bridge between his famous silent work, which is gloriously, poetically unreal, and his great late-30s work, in which the threats of the day become all too real-- and ultimately make it impossible for Borzage to continue making the type of film he is best remembered for.

The movie was based on a worldwide bestseller by Hans Fallada, which had even been filmed the year before in Germany (in a version which seems to have vanished even more completely than this one), but it's so close to Borzage's standard themes that one has to wonder if Fallada wasn't influenced by Borzage's equally world-famous films in concocting it. Like all his most famous late silent and early sound films, it follows a young couple in the early, dazed days of love and sexual infatuation; Lammchen (Margaret Sullavan) and Hans (Douglass Montgomery) are first seen at a doctor's office (the clear implication is that they hurriedly got married because of pregnancy), and though money is tight, and Hans already shows signs of worry which Lammchen refuses to share, they enjoy an idyllic afternoon doing nothing by a forest stream, one of those soft-focused, vaseline-lensed black and white 1930s scenes of nature to which the real thing must forever seem a pale and vulgarly-colored imitation.

However, reality soon begins closing in and pressing them down as it will do relentlessly in this film; the German setting allows Borzage to show society grinding away at love with a heartlessness he surely would not have depicted in an American setting. Hans' boss is a laughing sadist who has hired three single men in hopes that one will marry his daughter; Hans tries to keep his marriage secret to protect his job, but every little betrayal cuts like a knife and the truth is soon out. He and Lammchen go to live with his stepmother in Berlin, but Hans' moral disapproval of her loose lifestyle is obvious, as is the lust her lover Jachman (Alan Hale) displays for Lammchen, and we figure out long before they do that Jachman is a pimp using the stepmother's spacious apartments (with her connivance) as a brothel. They move to much cheaper lodgings (with a rooftop view that inevitably recalls Seventh Heaven), and Hans finds work at a department store; but his job hangs by a thread each week and his self- confidence erodes as he seems himself a failure at providing for his wife and the little man on the way.

The lesson of Borzage's great late silents was that love could conquer death (Seventh Heaven), betrayal (Street Angel), disability (Lucky Star), even wind, sleet and snow (The River), a message that only works with booming organ and the dream state of silence. Wisely in the sound era, he moved toward a more realistic worldview and showed sorrow winning out and love living on poignantly only in memory, as in A Farewell to Arms and (one assumes) the 1930 version of Liliom. Man's Castle (1933), which steals the terrestrial half of Liliom (roustabout with pregnant wife plans crime to cover the bills) while jettisoning the celestial aspect, was a step forward in realism in setting a tender romance in a gritty Hooverville; but Spencer Tracy's lovable tough guy persona makes him a very different sort than the innocent-hearted juveniles Charles Farrell had been playing, and when Tracy runs into trouble with the law, it's not a fall from grace.

Douglass Montgomery, on the other hand, is very much in the Farrell mode (for good and ill) of slightly stuffy youthful pride and naivete. Which is what makes it shocking when Hans gets swept up in the anger and resentment of the soapbox agitator who pops up at different moments in the movie, and he finds himself holding a rock-- or a knife. He doesn't know what we know-- the unspeakable depths to which an ambitious young man's resentment could take him in the years ahead in Hitler's Germany-- but he knows enough to know that of all the ways he could betray Lammchen, the worst would be becoming the sort of man who picks up a knife at a political rally, ready to take out his anger on any convenient target like a policeman... or a religious minority. And in that moment, Borzage acknowledges that the greatest threat to grandiose, silent movie-sized love isn't some outside adversity, but the danger in your own heart that you will let something else take the priority from love. To drive home this point, several times in the movie Hans runs into an indigent socialist agitator and his wife (Fred Kohler and Mae Marsh), whose devotion to their cause has taken the place of a man's primary responsibility to care for his family-- leaving them destitute, embittered, and malign. (By the end, Marsh has died of their poverty, and Kohler blames everyone but himself.)

Now, if you've seen the film, the problem you'll have with my argument about the power and effectiveness of the film, and these sequences in particular, is the fact that Douglass Montgomery was, well, no Spencer Tracy. He's one of those handsome, callow young juveniles with excessively clean diction of the early 30s, who don't play at all well with today's audiences; he's more real-seeming than Philips Holmes or David Manners, but less so than Franchot Tone or Frederic March. (There are other aspects which draw a chuckle or two, too, such as the fellow worker who proudly announces "Maybe it's because I'm a nudist that I'm not afraid of them!") It's true that he's a bit of a stiff, and yet to my mind that works in the context of the film; a real movie star would have reserves of charm which would serve to assure us that everything would be all right, but Montgomery really does seem ordinary and thus the risk-- that he could starve, that he could turn vicious, that he could abandon Lammchen one way or another-- seems real. And despite his limitations, it really is a heartfelt performance, and clearly the high point of Montgomery's promising, but not especially successful, career.

The imbalance in the film is that opposite him, in her second film and first of four Borzage roles, is Margaret Sullavan, a 1000-watt bulb whenever she comes on screen. But if the dramatic weight of the picture is carried on Montgomery's thinner shoulders, the romantic weight-- which is considerable-- rests with her, and several sequences involving her take Borzage back to the visual heights of the silent cinema, pushing the dramatic credibility of a realistic talkie but paying huge dividends in establishing a metaphorical mood of dreamlike romance. One is almost screwball comedy-- Jachman throws a party at the stepmother's flat, and drunkenly invades the poor, chaste married couple's bed-- but rather than play it for comedy, Borzage keeps up an undercurrent of tension which makes it clear that in such a morally lax atmosphere, the sanctity of true love has its days numbered, one way or another.

Another is one of the loveliest sequences in all 1930s film: Hans comes home to find Lammchen has run away, he tracks her to a carousel (shades of Liliom), and as she continues to spin out of his reach, distraught and guilty, she pieces together the tale, a sentence at a time-- she'd gone to buy salmon with their last few marks-- but (being pregnant) she was so hungry that she ate her half right there-- and then she ate some of his-- and more of his-- and all of it! Humor and tender forgiveness blend beautifully with a dynamic visual setup to produce one of the most charming and affecting romantic scenes in movie history, a high point in Borzage's late 20s through 1930s streak as the premier poet of young love, in all its gaucheries and foibles, of golden age Hollywood.
“Méliès is the OG.” —Liam Gebert

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Unread post by Mike Gebert » Sun Aug 16, 2009 10:59 pm

Two movies I saw recently harkened back to this post which is, I believe, the first-ever Nitrateville post other than official business type stuff.

The first was seeing another early 30s movie about the European post-WWI mindset-- Lubitsch's Broken Lullaby/The Man I Killed. This is one of those movies that starts superbly and promisingly and then fails to be what it could be. The beginning has some terrifically biting Lubitsch-touch visual stuff about the martial mentality in Germany around the time he left the country-- a shot of church pews where all we see of the worshipers is their sabers at their sides, row after row, for instance. I've always kind of thought of Billy Wilder as a Lubitsch protege who applied the touch to things that interested him more than sex, and this opening is the closest Lubitsch comes to his protege's more blatantly and topically satirical work.

Philips Holmes plays a French soldier who killed a German soldier in the trenches who he subsequently discovered was, like him, a musician who had studied in Paris. He goes to Germany to try to make some kind of peace with the soldier's family-- mainly father Lionel Barrymore, who still desires Germany's revenge, and fiancee Nancy Carroll. There are some effective scenes but the disappointment is the gradual sense of the movie coming to a halt in a kind of molasses of well-intentioned, highminded, but not terribly dramatic dialogue scenes involving two not very interesting young people, when a clearly better movie would be dramatically centered on the conflict between Holmes and Barrymore. It's unfortunate that Lubitsch, whose comic films are so full of sparkling and witty performances, should have relied on the dullish Holmes and Carroll playing dullish characters in this serious endeavor. It's no Shop Around the Corner, that's for sure.

It made me think of Little Man, What Now? because that film, too, is a bit hampered by an Arrow-shirt type with impeccable diction in the male lead; Douglass Montgomery does better than Holmes, and Borzage does better with him, but you still wouldn't rank it among the 30s performances that electrified the screen. Even so, I made a sweeping pronouncement in that review which seemed safe at the time:
despite his limitations, it really is a heartfelt performance, and clearly the high point of Montgomery's promising, but not especially successful, career
And then I watched Anthony Asquith's The Way to the Stars.

I hardly expected Montgomery to turn up in it; it's another one of those British changes-over-the-years sagas, a la Cavalcade, This Happy Breed, etc., except that this time it's set at an airbase, where Trevor Howard (in his debut) is the c.o., Michael Redgrave the top gun, and John Mills the guy fresh out of flight school. Flash forward a few years and deaths later (the first a shock, the remainder, alas, telegraphed with the heaviest of foreshadowing heavy hands), and a group of American pilots is coming to take over the base. The movie was made postwar, but just barely, so the picture of joshing rivalry is way too jolly to ring true, and the GIs are Noo Yawk types straight out of the Bowery Boys, with one exception: Douglass Montgomery.

Who has gone from being an Arrow shirt stiff a decade earlier, to being a Method harbinger of Brando and Clift (especially the latter, since he kind of looks like him, once you add a foot of height). It'd be an astonishingly naturalistic performance for anyone in the 40s, but all the moreso for being from someone who'd been even further behind the curve ten years earlier. He has a sort of Brief Encounter non-romance with a war widow, all the while gushing about his kids back home, and it ought to be too sticky to be real, but he's totally charming-- even if, I think, not entirely a natural for the screen (he has squinty eyes, stuff like that).

So who knows what else there is in his career? The Way to the Stars was his return to the screen after four years in the Canadian infantry, but it didn't lead to much and he worked only in TV during the 50s. It's a shame, but at least raises the interesting prospect that the performance of his career may yet be out there. Anyone seen the '35 Edwin Drood?
“Méliès is the OG.” —Liam Gebert

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Unread post by boblipton » Mon Aug 17, 2009 6:37 am

He's also quite affecting as Laurie in the 1933 LITTLE WOMEN, by far the best version put on screen -- but then, everyone is. I think Mr. Montgomery was one of those people who fell into the cracks in Hollywood: another good actor whom they couldn't cast in just the right vehicle to make people notice him orhit just the right note or something --- neither fish nor fowl nor good red meat, nothing that could be packaged easily. I suppose he had a good career on the stage, because he worked on and off for the next twenty five years in anthology series; and that and his death int he 1960s in Connecticutt leads me to suppose he did pretty well for himself on the stage.

Really, it's often hard to believe how many good actors there are out there, and how few of them actually make it in a way we actually notice. But I suppose that's true also of the behind-the-screen talent too.

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Unread post by Mike Gebert » Mon May 23, 2011 6:48 am

By the way, a rare screening of Little Man, What Now? will take place in Chicago at the Portage this Wednesday, 7:30 pm.
“Méliès is the OG.” —Liam Gebert

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Unread post by bobfells » Mon May 23, 2011 7:34 am

Mike Gebert asked: Anyone seen the '35 Edwin Drood?

I've seen THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD a couple of times over the years and it was given a VHS release. Claude Rains is terrific, everyone else is OK. David Manners plays the title role but perhaps as a sign of where his film career was heading, he doesn't play the leading man but is the murder victim. Montgomery is the nominal hero who is framed and he gets to disguise himself as an old man in order to return to the village to vindicate himself. I found it ambiguous whether we're supposed to know that the old man is Montgomery or whether we're supposed to be surprised. Director Stuart Walker might have clarified that but Montgomery must have welcomed the opportunity to play a totally different character.

DROOD is richly atmospheric and benefited from Universal's Gothic know-how of that time. Since the film was based on Dickens' unfinished last novel, his one and only attempt at a murder mystery, we really don't know what Dickens had in mind as the solution of the Mystery. In the film, the culprit seems quite obvious so in that sense it's not much of a mystery, but very entertaining. My one complaint is the soundtrack, it was rather tinny.

Speaking of Universals from 1935, has anyone seen THE MAN WHO RECLAIMED HIS HEAD?
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Unread post by mndean » Mon May 23, 2011 8:13 am

Was it someone here who made the comment about Kent Douglas(s) changing his name to Douglass Montgomery? If so, that's backwards, as he went by Douglass Montgomery on Broadway long before his initial Hollywood appearance. Maybe Universal thought his name was too long.

I have a copy of Mystery of Edwin Drood, but owing to my tape player having broken down I haven't been able to see it. This makes me want to get a working one. The only other unusual '35 Universal I have seen is Remember Last Night?, which is quite droll for a murder mystery.

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Unread post by Derek B. » Mon May 23, 2011 9:49 am

Mike Gebert wrote:So who knows what else there is in his career? The Way to the Stars was his return to the screen after four years in the Canadian infantry, but it didn't lead to much and he worked only in TV during the 50s. It's a shame, but at least raises the interesting prospect that the performance of his career may yet be out there.
I see The Way to the Stars was released on R1 DVD (by VCI) earlier this month to go with the earlier R2 version(s).
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Unread post by Christopher Jacobs » Wed May 25, 2011 3:01 pm

bobfells wrote:
Mike Gebert asked: Anyone seen the '35 Edwin Drood?

I've seen THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD a couple of times over the years and it was given a VHS release. Claude Rains is terrific, everyone else is OK. David Manners plays the title role but perhaps as a sign of where his film career was heading, he doesn't play the leading man but is the murder victim. Montgomery is the nominal hero who is framed and he gets to disguise himself as an old man in order to return to the village to vindicate himself. I found it ambiguous whether we're supposed to know that the old man is Montgomery or whether we're supposed to be surprised. Director Stuart Walker might have clarified that but Montgomery must have welcomed the opportunity to play a totally different character.

DROOD is richly atmospheric and benefited from Universal's Gothic know-how of that time. Since the film was based on Dickens' unfinished last novel, his one and only attempt at a murder mystery, we really don't know what Dickens had in mind as the solution of the Mystery. In the film, the culprit seems quite obvious so in that sense it's not much of a mystery, but very entertaining. My one complaint is the soundtrack, it was rather tinny.
It's been well over a decade since I watched it, but by strange coincidence (inspired by a recent local community theatre production of the musical), I'll be running my 16mm print of THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD (1935) for my basement theatre screening Sunday night, immediately following a couple of other relative obscurities, A GYPSY ROMANCE (1926) and NELL GWYN (1926). I just hope my projector lamp holds out, as spares are hard come by these days! I'll try to report back audience reaction next week. Does anyone know whether Universal filmed one or more alternate endings? As I recall, the one in the film is rather predictable, whereas the play, of course, has all sorts of combinations to be decided by the audience.

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Unread post by sepiatone » Wed May 25, 2011 4:01 pm

anybody come across 1933's WHITE WOMAN with Carole Lombard?

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Unread post by mndean » Wed May 25, 2011 9:06 pm

sepiatone wrote:anybody come across 1933's WHITE WOMAN with Carole Lombard?
"come across" in what sense?

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