December 19, 2008

The World Gone Mad (1933)

One of the most prolific directors in the history of American film, filmmaker Christy Cabanne was in the movie industry for almost 40 years, from his days as an actor in the early 1910s to his final movie, "Silver Trails", in 1948. Assistant to D.W. Griffith, discoverer of Douglas Fairbanks, seasoned director for hire and responsible of many of classic Hollywood's B-movies, Cabanne's career had certainly its fair share of up and downs, and through his life he found himself making films for the major studios as well as for those little companies from the poverty row. Historian Kevin Brownlow named Cabanne as "one of the dullest directors of the silent era", but while that statement is not without its reasons (and it even could be applied to some of his talkies as well), sometimes Cabanne's films were more than cheap canon fodder. One could think that Cabanne's best movies are the ones for the big companies, but actually some of his best are low budget films done for small studios, like 1933's "The World Gone Mad".

In "The World Gone Mad", Pat O'Brien is Andy Terrell, a tough wisecracking reporter whom is close friends with District Attorney Avery Henderson (Wallis Clark) and his office. One night, Henderson is murdered and his reputation ruined as his body is found in his supposed "love nest", however, neither Andy nor Henderson's protégé, the recently appointed Dist. Atty. Lionel Houston (Neil Hamilton), believe such thing of their deceased friend, so both decide to find the killers in order to clean Henderson's name. However, it won't be an easy task, because as Houston begins to dig deeper, he becomes the assassins' next target, so Andy will have to use all his wits and resources (some of which may or may not be entirely legal) to protect his friends and solve the case. Things get even more complicated as Andy discovers that the whole thing seems to be linked to corruption and frauds inside a big company, which happens to be owned by the family of Lionel's fianceé, Diane (Mary Brian).

Written by Edward T. Lowe Jr., "The World Gone Mad" has something few films from the poverty row could enjoy: a really great screenplay. Not only Lowe constructs a truly interesting story of conspiracies and mystery filled with many twists and turns, he also creates a very good array of characters that, while probably stereotypes, are very well defined. Like many of the best crime films of the 30s, Lowe's story has more in common with pulp novels than with classic crime fiction, making it essentially a prototype for the stories that would make films noir of the 40s as it showcases a world rotten by corruption even at the high spheres of society. Its main character, Andy, is not your typical 30s fast talking reporter; sure, at first glance is the archetypal wisecracking hero of 30s mysteries, but he is also a hard drinking tough guy with more in common with the detective role in films noir than with other characters of his ilk. Granted, the plot is a bit too convoluted for its own sake, but it's actually a well constructed one.

As a director for hire, Christy Cabanne was someone able to properly handle low budgets and deliver a movie in time without many problem. And that probably had a lot to do with the fact that Cabanne seems to rarely messed with the screenplay. While this may often result in simple, mediocre movies, in cases like this, where the screenplay is the main star, this style of having no style may be a blessing. Efficiently, Cabanne translates Lowe's screenplay to the big screen without problem, in a simple, yet appropriately straightforward fashion. Having a slightly bigger budget than usual, greater care is taken in terms of art direction and costume design, with cinematographer Ira H. Morgan (a Monogram Pictures regular) capturing Lowe's 30s world gone mad in all its Art Deco glory. Unfortunately, this also has the downside that since Cabanne's style is well, kind of dull, action sequences are not exactly his forte and are a bit sketchy, and besides that, when the plot goes slower the movie drags quite a bit.

Another of the film's highlights are the performances by the cast, which are truly of great quality considering this was just a low budget crime film. As Andy Terrell, Pat O'Brien is simply perfect, making the most of Lowe's intelligent dialog and completely owning his character, resulting in a very natural and believable performance. Like the classic 30s reporters, Andy is funny and witty, but this wisecracking newsman is also willing to get down and do the dirty work when necessary. Neil Hamilton is also good as the young District Attorney Lionel Houston, although in all fairness, he gets easily overshadowed by his cast mates, although that feeling of impotence and naiveté was perhaps intended. As Carlotta Lamont, the film's prototype of femme fatal, Evelyn Brent is great and has very good chemistry with O'Brien (both have a remarkable and very suggestive scene in the dark). The rest of the cast is good enough for the film although Huntley Gordon and Richard tucker are probably the weakest of them.

As written above, the film's main problem is definitely the dull way Cabanne has to bring the story to screen, as while the script is filled with many interesting situation and thrilling plot twists, Cabanne's unimaginative direction almost transforms it into nothing more than just another crime film. "The World Gone Mad" has an enormous potential in both its script and its performances (I can't tell how great O'Brien is in this one), not to mention the bigger budget, but Cabanne merely moves the camera and shoots in a quite boring and uninteresting way. In films like this one, there are always times when the plot moves slowly, often to offer an explanation or something similar, but as I was saying above, Cabanne's film-making make this scenes an enormous drag to the film, making it lose that spark that the characters have. It's not that Cabanne is a bad director (his "The Mummy's Hand" is quite a very good film, and mainly because of Cabanne), but personally, I think that this time he was completely uninterested in the film he was making.

Despite its problems, "The World Gone Mad" is, in my opinion, one of Christy' Cabanne's best films, and one of the most interesting B-movies from classic Hollywood. By some reason, it's often counted amongst horror films, probably because being in the public domain, it tends to be included in movie collections of the genre, however, if there's anything horrific about "The World Gone Mad", is its theme of the destruction of a person employing the power that grants money and social position. Quite an interesting theme, for a poverty row film. Unfortunately, it never reached its true potential, but it could had been a classic.


Buy "The World Gone Mad" (1933)

Watch "The World Gone Mad" (1933)


Anonymous said...

In light of the recent financial meltdown and the utter contempt that the public now holds for the investment banking community, this film should resonate with the present-day audience. It shows how little we have progressed in controlling the investment banking community. Amazingly, in the film, the investment banker refers to the prevalence of Ponzi schemes like Madoff's.

J Luis Rivera said...

Indeed, it's frightening how almost 80 years later, it's still remains valid.