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Cinema: The New Pictures: Aug. 10, 1936

8 minute read
TIME

Bengal Tiger (Warner) injects into circus formula No. 1—about the lion tamer (Barton MacLane), the lion tamer’s wife (June Travis) and the handsome young man on the flying trapeze (Warren Hull)—one new and valuable factor. Satan, meanest tiger in captivity, chews off the lion tamer’s right leg at the picture’s start, obligingly devours what remains of him at the finish. Between times he prowls down a village street, goes on a rampage in a butcher shop, makes kindling out of innumerable kitchen chairs, kills a substitute keeper, growling the while in a complacent undertone.

The role of Satan in Bengal Tiger was largely performed by a tiger actually named Satan and actually reputed to be the meanest in captivity. For some dangerous sequences Barton MacLane had a double; for others Satan did. Satan’s double, like himself an inmate of Selig’s Los Angeles Zoo, was an aged and amiable tiger named Bobby. Sequences showing Satan chewing a man were made by clipping together shots of Satan chewing a dummy with shots of Bobby playfully pawing a live person. MacLane, onetime Wesleyan footballer, actually worked a cage full of lions while their real trainer stood outside. In some sequences Animal Trainer Frank Phillipps, who has doubled for more cinemactors than any other man in his business, took MacLane’s place. Most nerve-wracking moment in the manufacture of Bengal Tiger occurred when MacLane, who had made friends with Bobby, stepped into his cage, pulled its occupant’s tail. The tiger turned out to be not Bobby but Satan. He was held off with poles while Actor MacLane wiggled out.

To Mary—With Love (Twentieth Century-Fox). “People are always saying the movies should be more like life. I think life should be more like the movies,” says Mary Wallace (Myrna Loy) soon after she has had a quarrel with her husband. This movie is too much like life to be spectacular entertainment. Nevertheless it is a biting case history of what has happened to some bright young people in the last ten years.

Jock Wallace (Warner Baxter) married Mary with a high heart and the assistance, as best man, of his friend Bill Hallam (Ian Hunter) who had also loved her with dogged devotion. Bill stuck to his role as friend of the family, while Jock and Mary went careening up & down the economic and emotional roller-coaster on which the rest of the world was riding. Bill saw them have their first epochal quarrel, on the way homefrom the Tunney-Dempsey fight in Philadelphia, and knew that they were fighting fundamentally because Mary wanted to get more fun out of life while Jock wanted to make more money. Bill saw true love withstand marital unfaithfulness; he even tried to help it withstand the end of Jock’s prosperity in 1929. When the rehabilitating spirit of 1935 reached the alcohol-sodden and philandering Jock, Mary felt she had a right to leave him, since he did not need her any more. Once more Hallam, loving Mary still, proved that he loved more his now habitual role of family friend.

To Mary—With Love loses pace by being told through the eyes of a bystander instead of a participant. For the same reason it gains sensibility. Author Richard Sherman, adapting in collaboration with Howard Ellis Smith, retained the same care with topical allusion that set his story above the average standard in the Saturday Evening Post. Excellent are the carefully dated gowns, furniture, and cliches (“You’re the Berries,” “Think Fast, Captain Flagg,” “They Just Dropped In and Took The Place Over”) ; the stock-shotsof outstanding news events, including Manhattan’s welcome to Lindbergh; the songs and even the mental attitudes of the periods dealt with. Carpers will find a few inaccuracies: “This is the Voice of Experience” in 1929 (“The Voice of Experience” did not become a nationwide radio feature till 1933); Warner Baxter’s 1936-style shoulder pleats in 1932.

Rhythm on the Range (Paramount) is a good-humoured, well-paced musicomedy in which Bing Crosby’s nonchalant but thoroughly mellifluous barytone is pleasantly used to punctuate a mildly satiric investigation of the rodeo business. By enteringevery event at Madison Square Garden, Jeff Larabee manages to squeeze out enough prize money to cover the price of Cuddles, a gigantic curly-haired Hereford bull. In Cuddles’ box car, on the way back to the ranch where he is a cowhand, he discovers a pretty stowaway (Frances Farmer) who turns out to be his employer’s niece. By the time this relationship has had its anticipated effect on their romance—amusement at his effrontery on the niece’s part, outraged pride on Lara-bee’s when he learns she is an heiress—the romance has served its anticipated function in excusing half a dozen songs tossed off in characteristic Crosby fashion.

The picture introduces three new screen personalities. One is Frances Farmer. Two is a radio comedian billed as Bob (“Bazooka”) Burns who, from a face vaguely reminiscent of onetime Heavyweight Champion Jess Willard’s, launches wisecracks in a drawl vaguely reminiscent of Will Rogers’. Three is a female edition of Joe E. Brown named Martha Raye whose enthusiastic display of her most distressing facial characteristic will doubtless endear her to that large portion of the cinema public which finds physical abnormalities funny. Good songs: Empty Saddles, I’m an Old Cow Hand from the Rio Grande, If You Can’t Sing It You’ll Have to Swing It. Good shot: Crosby singing a lullaby to Cuddles, while the stowaway goes to sleep in a corner.

Frances Farmer is a blonde young woman who graduated from the University of Washington in June 1935, went to Hollywood by way of Moscow. An essay on political science in a newspaper contest won her a trip around the world during which someone gave her a letter to a New York theatrical producer who sent her to Paramount for a screen test which got her a contract. In Hollywood, Frances Farmer’s rise has been as abrupt as her route there was circuitous. She played in Too Many Parents so pleasantly that she was assigned the lead in Border Flight. BeforeBorder Flight was finished she had been assigned the lead in Rhythm on the Range. Before Rhythm on the Range was completed Producer Sam Goldwyn borrowed her for Come and Get It. Married to a Paramount stock player named Leif Erikson, she leads the sunny ascetic life of young actresses who have good reason to be serious about their careers. In her spare time, Cinemactress Farmer swims, plays the piano, writes publishable poetry.

Mary of Scotland (RKO) presents Mary Stuart (Katharine Hepburn) as a somewhat jittery young woman who suffers the extraordinary penalty of having her head chopped off for nothing much more than a blunder by her social secretary. Mary arrives in Scotland, after escaping a preliminary attempt on her life by England’s Elizabeth (Florence Eldridge), tofind her throne imperiled by the jealous bickerings of a court cabal. Her one stanch defender is the Earl of Bothwell* (Fredric March). Her Italian counselor Rizzio (John Carradine) advises her to let him go and marry the Earl of Darnley (Douglas Walton), a Catholic like herself. Mary takes his advice and the trouble starts.

Drunken Darnley, pawn for Mary’s disloyal lords, is easily persuaded that his wife and Rizzio are misbehaving. When Rizzio has been stabbed to death, the lords blow up Darnley in his castle. Bothwell returns to marry Mary, but now it is too late. By this time he is blamed for Darnley’s death. To keep Mary on the throne, he has to leave her after their 20-day honeymoon. Caught at last in the trap her lords have set for her, Mary goes to England, hoping Elizabeth will be her friend. Elizabeth is aware that while Mary lives her own throne is insecure. She gives Mary a last chance to renounce her claim to Scotland and the English succession, coldly sends her to the block.

Playwrights of historical drama are indisputably licensed to rewrite history. Equally indisputably, the license must be earned by writing drama. The fault in Mary of Scotland—a prose adaptation by Dudley Nichols of Maxwell Anderson’s blank verse stage piece—is not that its most dramatic moments (e. g., Elizabeth’s visit to Mary in the Tower of London) are apocryphal; it is that its most historically conscientious moments are not dramatic. To show the basic cause of Mary’s downfall as a blunder by well-meaning Rizzio may be good history but it is bad fiction. It transforms her career from high tragedy to a series of unhappy accidents.

That, outside the narrow range in which she is superb, Katharine Hepburn often acts like a Bryn Mawr senior in a May Day pageant; that Fredric March’s Scottish burr has Wisconsin overtones; and that Director John Ford tried to symbolize the sombre quality of his story by the oversimple expedient of shooting it in the dark, are circumstances which do not heighten the film’s dramatic impact. If Mary of Scotland is still worth seeing, it is because the picture is based on one of those tremendous legends, which, projected to heroic proportions by their reflections in history, have a validity which not even the blunders of faulty narration can totally destroy. Best shot: Mary’s infant son, who grows up to be James I, roaring at his foppish father.

*To avoid confusion, the film nowhere uses the Earl of Bothwell’s family name: Hepburn.

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