Well Gang, Cinevent is coming up in a few weeks, so here's the first of some of the notes I'm writing for this years program book, starting with this:
I’ve always liked movies set on luxurious ocean liners that don’t manage to sink at the end of the film. LUXURY LINER is one of those voyages where the story is based on the conflicts of the passengers involved, not the chance for the special-effects department to show off and actors to get wet. Based on Gina Kaus’s 1932 novel DIE UBERFAHRT, the story of a crossing by the German (still our friends in early 1933) steamship Germania, headed from Bremen to New York City, and the intertwining of various lives first class to steerage, and the havoc caused therein.
The success of Vicki Baum’s GRAND HOTEL as a novel and film spawned a number of “all-star” (or if not always “all-star”, should we say “ensemble”) and multi-story films, including IF I HAD A MILLION (1932), DINNER AT EIGHT (1933), NIGHT FLIGHT (1933), and THE CAPTAIN HATES THE SEA (1933), as well as this little film which has apparently fallen below the radar of many film buffs and numerous historians. A Paramount “B” perhaps, with perhaps not the stellar casts of the above films previously mentioned, but nevertheless a film with an interesting and very capable cast indeed, guided by a fine and also somewhat neglected Director.
Lothar Mendes helms LUXURY LINER, another German émigré and former actor in Max Reinhardt’s Theatrical Company who found himself hauled over in Hollywood’s European talent roundup in 1926. He found a berth at Paramount, where he directed a number of solid programmers like A NIGHT OF MYSTERY (1928) with Adolph Menjou, but his best silent is probably the 1929 version of THE FOUR FEATHERS. In talkies, Mendes continued to handle good star vehicles like DANGEROUS CURVES (1929) with Clara Bow, THE MARRIAGE PLAYGROUND (1929) with Frederic March and Mary Brian, and LADIES MAN (1931) with William Powell and Kay Francis, even being loaned out to MGM to direct the 1932 version of Charles Laughton’s stage success PAYMENT DEFERRED, with Laughton in the role.
LUXURY LINER is Mendes last Paramount film, and he and cinematographer Victor Milner get a lot of sleek and shimmer out of Paramount’s various ocean liner sets, which had seen duty on everything from MONKEY BUSINESS (1931) with The Marx Brothers to TERROR ABOARD (1933). Again, though not given a cast of Barrymores and Garbos, Mendes handles a crack group of terrific character thespians, and a few surprise names you wouldn’t expect in a Paramount picture, including George Brent not having to worry about upstaging Kay Francis or Bette Davis for once and able to inject some intensity in the part of the Ship’s Doctor. We also have Frank Morgan in his semi-younger days, giving us one of his last serious and romantic performances before becoming everyone’s loveable reprobate. Here he’s the cold millionaire and Wolf of Wall Street Alex Stevenson, breaker of hearts and fortunes (yes, this is still Frank Morgan we’re talking about). C. Aubrey Smith is always fun to watch as the former millionaire fresh out of prison and now travelling down in the hull, yet the truly interesting characters are the female members of this ensemble.
Most only know Zita Johann from THE MUMMY (1932) these days, and that’s understandable as Zita has a rather limited filmography. Roumanian-born, and with a major career as a Broadway actress in the 1920’s, Zita came to films in 1931 when she debuted in D. W. Griffith’s last film THE STRUGGLE. Coming to Hollywood the following year, she bounced around from Warners (TIGER SHARK (1932) with Edward G. Robinson), to Universal (THE MUMMY (1932) with Boris Karloff) to Paramount (LUXURY LINER) to Fox (THE MAN WHO DARED (1933) with Preston Foster) to Monogram (THE SIN OF NORA MORAN (1933)), showing her general contempt for the Movie Industry as she went along (she asked RKO to release her from her contract because she thought the film THIRTEEN WOMEN in which she was cast was a silly melodrama and she apparently once asked Irving Thalberg “why do you make these awful pictures?”, thus explaining how she missed both RKO and MGM). BY 1934, Zita was out of the movie business, and freshly divorced from future Orson Welles collaborator John Houseman. She then married Producer/Businessman John McCormick after he divorced Colleen Moore.
However, the McCormick marriage went south in 1938, and Zita returned to the East and the stage, she lived a long, reasonably happy life, later on occasionally submitting somewhat testily to interviews from horror-film geeks regarding THE MUMMY, and passed away in 1993. It is a pity that she and the movies didn’t see eye to eye, for her performance in LUXURY LINER as Nina Morgan gives her far more to do than wear an Egyptian headdress and scream. Zita shows herself to be a strong and capable actress here, in a quietly effective part.
Vivienne Osborne was another fine actress who, though she may never have become a major star, made a few indelible impressions in some off-beat pre-code supporting roles. Though she had been on the stage since a child, and even worked in a handful of silent films from 1920-22, Osborne was another Broadway actress who found talkies beckoning and headed west in 1932 where she shared time at Paramount and Warners, notably in TWO SECONDS (1932) with Edward G. Robinson, and THE DARK HORSE (1932) with Warren William, but she never found a studio to call home, and was soon working in the independents, and that’s where she was put to good use. Vivienne is quite good in THE PHANTOM BROADCAST (Monogram 1933) with Ralph Forbes, and, considering she is actually dead for a good deal of her part, is very effective in the Halperin Brother’s spooker SUPERNATURAL (1933), as well as the fun murder mystery TOMORROW AT SEVEN (Jefferson Pictures-RKO 1933) with Chester Morris. Osborne continued to work in supporting roles into the 1940’s, but was out of the industry by 1946, and apparently working in a department store as a salesperson after that. She died in 1961 in Malibu, California. A sad waste of a good actress, who gives an interesting performance here as George Brent’s not-so-faithful spouse .
If there was ever a truer example or proof that in Hollywood one could indeed rise from lowly studio secretary to big-time studio star (well, “rise” perhaps in the same manner Barbara Stanwyck moved upwardly floorward in BABYFACE), that honor would have to fall upon Alice White. This Hollywood High graduate started her climb as secretary to Charlie Chaplin and Josef Von Sternberg (and you know that couldn’t have been much fun), but she wanted to be an actress and an actress she would be, so during the late Silent Era, she parlayed (so-to-speak) her bubbly sexiness first into supporting roles in 1927, then leading roles in 1928. She became a Warner Brothers starlet that year playing J.P. McEvoy’s popular comic-strip character Dixie Dugan in SHOW GIRL, and being a private paramour of Mervyn Leroy seem to guarantee her proper priority placement in Warner vehicles, which continued into talkies as Alice starred in early musicals like BROADWAY BABIES (1929) and the Dixie Dugan sequel SHOW GIRL IN HOLLYWOOD (1930).
Unfortunately, talkies revealed more about White than silents had, though perfectly able to look pert and sexy pre-Vitaphone, the additions of sound revealed certain imperfections, like a general inability to sing and dance, much less get a line out with any vocal realism, and it quickly became rather obvious to audiences that the real reason for her stardom must lay (again, so-to-speak) elsewhere. That coupled with new degrees of exhibited star temperament made Mervyn Leroy cool on her, and after a couple a couple of quickies (we’re talkin’ movies here!) and loanouts to wrap up her contract, Warners bid adieu to Miss White in 1931.
But you can’t keep a good girl down, and after a year or so out of the limelight, Alice was back getting supporting roles at various studios, including her old stomping grounds at Warners. Amazingly, she seemed to have found her niche’, or at least learned how to read a line, because she actually amuses in her new career, with nice roles in films like EMPLOYEES ENTRANCE (1933), PICTURE SNATCHER (1933), KING FOR A NIGHT (1933) and JIMMY THE GENT (1934), perhaps cashing in on a reputation for being a brassy strumpet no better than she should be, one well-earned after a well-publicized sex-triangle in 1933 between herself, British Actor John Walburton, and Producer Sy Bartlett, whom White then married. In LUXURY LINER, Alice may be taking yet another page from the BABYFACE script as she determines to move up on the voyage from steerage to first class, but she is actually charming and enjoyable in the role.
Sadly, a nervous breakdown in 1936 and divorce from Bartlett in 1938 put the skids to some degree on White’s acting career, and her roles diminished and finally disappeared in the early 40’s. Ironically, she returned to being a secretary, marrying and divorcing again in the forties, occasionally returning for a bit part, staying out of the limelight save for a still apparently newsworthy scandal or two in the fifties, but lived a long life, passing away in 1983.
Watch for other nice character parts from the likes of Verree Teasdale, former Sennett comic Billy Bevan, Theodore Von Eltz, Henry Victor and Christian Rub. LUXURY LINER will never make anyones ten-best list, but it is one of those great-looking, well-made forgotten programmers that Cinevent specializes in giving new airings to, and don’t seem to be anyone’s standard of moviemaking today. LOVE BOAT doesn’t even belong in the same room as this.
RICHARD M ROBERTS
SOUND MOVIE MAIN is the spot to discuss non-comedy SOUND films. Go figure.
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