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Paramount films release rare gems

By Dave Kehr
New York Times

Universal Rarities: Films of the 1930s

TCM Vault Collection, shop.tcm.com, $39.99

The first thing you may notice about “Universal Rarities: Films of the 1930s,” a fine new box set from TCM’s limited edition Vault Collection, is that all four features it contains were actually produced and released by Paramount Pictures.

“Million Dollar Legs” (1932), “Belle of the Nineties” (1934), “Artists and Models” (1937) and “Souls at Sea” (1937) are indeed Universal rarities in the sense that (a) they are rare and (b) they figure among the 700 or so pre-1950 Paramount sound films that through acquisitions and mergers, ended up under the control of Universal’s television division.

“Million Dollar Legs” does offer some topical value: It’s a freewheeling, borderline surrealist comedy more or less about the Olympic Games, which in 1932 were being held in Los Angeles. Paramount had a predilection for this kind of discontinuous, gag-oriented comedy, perhaps because of the studio’s association with the Marx Brothers (“Duck Soup” would draw on some of the political satire tucked into the screenplay credited to Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Henry Myers).

The star of “Million Dollars Legs” is the unjustly forgotten Jack Oakie, a plump, brash, living cartoon of a man who was equally adept at wisecracking comedy and tear-jerking pathos.

Here, he’s a brush salesman touring the back-lot country of Klopstokia (“Chief Exports … Goats and Nuts; Chief Inhabitants … Goats and Nuts”), where all of the women are named Angela, the men are named George, and everyone is a natural athlete. Oakie gathers a delegation to the games, headed by the country’s president, W.C. Fields, who earned his office by beating all comers in arm-wrestling.

The print is from a mid-’30s rerelease, after the Production Code was put into force; at 62 minutes, it’s two minutes short of its original running time, which suggests some racy material may have been cut.

Mae West was Paramount’s biggest star in the early ’30s, and the objections of church and civic groups to her risque humor was a major reason the Production Code was fortified in 1934. Her screenplay for “Belle of the Nineties” suffered interference at the hands of industry censors. Even with her character watered-down (she’s a nightclub entertainer who heads for New Orleans when St. Louis gets too hot for her), her delivery turns even the most innocuous line into an invitation to unspeakable delights.

It’s West’s film all the way, although director Leo McCarey (“The Awful Truth”) allows his hand to show in a few scenes that allow West to drop her mask and utter world-weary asides, humanizing her in a way her other films do not.

Raoul Walsh’s films at Paramount are regarded as the low point in his distinguished career (at Warner Brothers he would find renewed creativity), but he adds moments of surprisingly high energy to the studiously trivial “Artists and Models.” It’s a loosely structured revue comedy with Jack Benny as an agent trying to place his girlfriend (Ida Lupino) in a big advertising campaign.

The highlight is a Harlem-themed production number titled “Public Melody No. 1” and featuring Martha Raye, in blackface, jitterbugging with a chorus of African-American dancers accompanied by Louis Armstrong. This “mixing of the races” earned denunciations from Variety and the editor of the Shreveport Journal in Louisiana. The number was the first Hollywood assignment of the young Vincente Minnelli, and points straight to his first feature as a director, “Cabin in the Sky,” as well as the decades of invention to come.

In this lighthearted context, Henry Hathaway’s “Souls at Sea” sticks out like a sore thumb – four of them, which belong to Gary Cooper and George Raft as crew members of a slave ship who are punished by being hanged from the aforementioned digits after being captured by a British patrol off the coast of Africa. Cooper turns out to be a secret abolitionist as well as a Byronesque romantic hero. Raft, as usual, is clueless but decent.

Please, Universal, more rarities – maybe even some Universal films next time.

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