Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Billion Dollar Scandal (1933)

I finally got my first look at the Balboa's Sin in Soft Focus series featuring Paramount pre-codes last Monday night. The rainy and foggy weather seemed fitting for the evening's mystery and crime thriller theme.

First up was a very rare 16mm print of 1933's Billion Dollar Scandal. The plot meandered a bit, but it revolved around a lovable ex-con named Fingers Partos (King Kong's Robert Armstrong), who tries to make good by working for an oil baron (Frank Morgan in a sinister role). Said oil baron is up to no good, working with his bigwig government pals in a scheme to take control of America's oil reserves. Partos decides to take on the corruption by testifying his against his boss in Senate hearings. One can't help comparing the drama on screen to the today's reality as Partos says, "What this country needs right now is a few good squealers!" The plot takes quite a few twists and turns, but everything is tied together in the final minutes, though, refreshingly, the ending is not necessarily storybook. Great acting leavens the story, with Sydney Toler (later famous as Charlie Chan), a young Frank Albertson ("Chico and the Man"), and Russian actress Olga Baclanova ("Freaks"). Baclanova authority and local film collector Paul Meienberg did the introductory honors for all three films on Monday. The female lead, lovely Constance Cummings, is one of the few remaining living female stars of the era.

The next film on the marquis was "Guilty as Hell," a macabre 1932 murder mystery with a sense of humor. The audience sees who commits the dastardly deed in the opening moments, but we don't know if he will get away with it. There is some very entertaining banter between the police detective (Victor McLaglen) and the newspaper reporter (Edmund Lowe) at the crime scene. The wonderful Elizabeth Patterson (known to many as Mrs. Trumbull from "I Love Lucy") plays a dotty employee of the murderous Doctor Tindal. There is some inventive camera work from Oscar-winning cinematographer Karl Struss in this surprisingly engrossing crime drama. Problem is, the 16mm print the Balboa obtained was riddled with problems, and after several stops and starts, the theater decided that the remaining 20 minutes of the film could not be shown (just as the mystery was being solved!). Balboa management handled it nicely, though, and offered to schedule a special screening of the film for Monday ticketholders if a better print could be found in the future.

Most of the remaining films in the series are 35mm prints and in better shape than "Guilty as Hell." This series is getting some great press (listen to Mick LaSalle's podcast) and it's worth a trip (or two) to the Balboa. If the attendance is good, maybe they will be persuaded to make it an annual event (like the extremely popular Noir City fest).

More tomorrow on the "special mystery bonus feature" screened Monday night.


Brian said...

Couldn't make it Monday, but I'm dying to know the surprise feature's identity (though I think I have a good guess).

So far I've been to three evenings, and the prints I've seen have all been excellent. Story of Temple Drake was 16mm but quite watchable.

Jeff said...

I really wanted to see "Temple Drake" but I had some other stuff going on that weekend. Love Miriam Hopkins and I missed her again last night - maybe will try to catch the Sunday evening shows...

The bonus featured one of Meienberg's favorites - she was also in "Search for Beauty" and "Murder at the Vanities."