Monday, 15 December 2014

Pre-Code mania, The World Moves On, and radicals reunited - Reviews #199

I'm a huge fan of Pre-Code cinema, those films made between the advent of sound cinema and the censorship restrictions imposed from mid-1934 onwards, and of the Forbidden Hollywood DVD series, which has done a fine job of documenting it. I've written about this a few times before, and reviewed the third Forbidden Hollywood set earlier this year. I'd never seen the second, though, so I did. And then I watched Vol. 7 as well.

Forbidden Hollywood, Vol. 2:

The Divorcee (Robert Z. Leonard, 1930) - Married woman Norma Shearer responds to husband Chester Morris’s infidelity by engaging in one of her own, which doesn’t go very well.

Shearer won the 1930 Best Actress Oscar for this museum piece, which does a remarkably good job of examining the double standards inherent in sexual politics, but just isn’t very enjoyable to watch.

She had given great performances already (The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg) and would go on to provide many more (A Free Soul - see below - Romeo & Juliet, The Women), but here she’s hamstrung by mundane dialogue, slow, uninvolving plotting and erratic sound recording – the scene in which she properly loses it with Morris just a lot of high-pitched whining.

She does, however, rock an extremely cool bandana. (2)

A Free Soul (Clarence Brown, 1931) - A provocative Pre-Code drama about a free-spirited young woman (Norma Shearer), the slave-trading, opium-dealing gambler she loves (Clark Gable), and her alcoholic lawyer father (Lionel Barrymore), who just got the utter, utter bastard off a murder charge.

The film was celebrated at the time for Barrymore’s performance – which climaxes with a 12-minute, one-take courtroom speech best filed under ‘narratively preposterous’ – but by far the most interesting thing about it today is Shearer’s modern, naturalistic characterisation, which hurdles some sentimental obstacles to provide a vivid portrait of a passionate, straight-shooting and sexually open young woman, an impression never entirely banished by the moral lessons doled out at the finish. There’s a little of her standing around in gowns like she’s in a George Hurrell photo, or acting in profile as was the early ‘30s fashion, but there’s also fire in her belly and in her loins, an arresting proposition even now.

It’s also an extremely good-looking film, with MGM staffer William Daniels drenching Shearer in light and causing her to positively glow, then striking up interesting but not ostentatious angles wherever he finds himself – the courtroom, the forest or an apartment above a speak-easy.

For those things, James Gleason’s affecting supporting characterisation and the chance to see Gable in his ‘moral flotsam’ era (as the magnificently-named Ace Wilfong), it’s well worth it. Just don’t expect the story to hold up to the finish or Barrymore’s performance to blow you away. He did great things in movies, but not great like his brother Jack, and not often. He’s too crusty, too mawkish, and ultimately too much. (3)

"I thought engineering was a profession, not an affliction."
Female (Michael Curtiz, 1933) - Ruth Chatterton has everything she could want: a dock-off car factory, a ready wit and a succession of young men to boff as her resident organist plays Shanghai Lil. Everything, in fact, except a real man. It's when she meets one of those (George Brent), that her saucy, ordered existence starts to go haywire.

This frank, funny comedy-drama about love, business and embryonic feminism doesn't perhaps retain the courage of its convictions (or else has different convictions to the ones you might like), but it also has a unique premise and vantage point, some stylish direction by Michael Curtiz, and a knockout performance from Chatterton as a blistering business mind (comment reserved on how admirable I find this trait) with a beating heart and a habit of draping herself over cushions on the library floor. (3)

Three on a Match (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)
- What a cast: not only Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis and Joan Blondell as the titular three, but also Bogart, Edward Arnold, Warren William, Lyle Talbot, the young Anne Shirley (as Dawn O'Day) and - unbilled - Frankie Darro and Glenda Farrell.

Can the film live up to such an assembly and to its reputation as a landmark of Pre-Code cinema? Well, yes and no. Mostly no.

There's certainly adult material to spare, as Dvorak's heroine turns from a teen girl who reads porn in bed to her classmates, to a well-respected member of society dogged by sexual repression and emotional malaise, to a sallow drug addict tied by romantic obsession to a pathetic coward.

But while her role is interesting and she makes what she can of it, it's nothing like the showcase she got in Scarface. At 64 minutes, this should be a short, sharp shock of a film, utilising her power, naturalism and lack of vanity, while contrasting her character's lot with that of her two old school acquaintances (Joan Blondell and Bette Davis). Instead, there's a cherubic, tousle-haired kid, a host of montages filling us in on various boxing results from 1919 to the early '30s, and so much plot that you start to wonder if it's just a trailer for a mini-series.

As a result, Blondell and William get just one great scene each (she in a reform school, he slapping down a blackmailer) and Davis doesn't get any, perhaps kept on retainer to look after the kid, as that's all her character seems to do, and not very well at that.

It's often bracingly adult, and there are excellent moments, including Dvorak's sad heart-to-heart with William, and that shocking ending, but its thrills are often more of the 'I can't believe they got away with that' variety, than the 'Jeeves, clear a space in my all-time top 10' kind. Like having a whacked-out Dvorak not even bothering to fight for the kid she's left in the next room, and opting instead to taunt Blondell. Or Edward Arnold pulling out his nose hairs.

Interestingly (well, I thought so), Dvorak's trouble - an uncontainable restlessness despite an outwardly perfect life - is one that also informed a lot of film noir, including the 1948 movie Pitfall, in which Dick Powell jacks in the American Dream for who knows what.

I wish Three on a Match was in the same league, but despite Dvorak, the subject matter and a few choice moments, it's ultimately too choppy and unfocused to really come off.

Incidentally, this was early in Bogart's career, when he was only able to intimidate women and five-year-olds. (2.5)

Night Nurse (William Wellman, 1931) - This notorious Pre-Code melodrama from William Wellman mixes mystery, horror, sentiment, social drama, romance, thriller elements and gratuitous scenes of women in their underwear to memorable effect.

Barbara Stanwyck is in dynamic form as a kind-hearted nurse who starts kicking arse when she realises that two kids in her care are in danger, setting her at loggerheads with their drug-addled, dipsomaniac mother, a creepy doctor with a twitch, and Clark Gable - notably cast as a psychotic, woman-beating chauffeur.

It doesn't exactly gel and it's often too unpleasant to truly enjoy, but it is a fast-moving, fascinating snapshot of where Hollywood was heading prior to the censorship clampdown, with good supporting parts for Joan Blondell and a curiously cast Ben Lyon, as well as a notable showcase for Stanwyck, who was at that time the most real, explosive actress in Hollywood. There are moments of uncertainty and awkwardness in what was one of her first performances, but she plays the big moments with rare and unquestionable élan. In simplest terms: was there ever an actress who was better at shouting?

Her star power and street smarts keep this one powering on, even when its disparate elements somewhat jar, and Wellman resorts to no fewer than three scenes of Stanwyck and Blondell in their bras and pants. Not that they don't look nice. (3)

Summary: There are no cast-iron classics in this second volume, but it's a fascinating snapshot of where gender politics were at in the early 1930s, and how Hollywood held a shaky, sometimes nervous mirror up to the modern, sexually-voracious young woman.

Forbidden Hollywood, Vol. 7:

The Hatchet Man (William Wellman, 1932) - One of the most bizarre and - in its way - brilliant films of the early '30s, with Edward G. Robinson as a Chinese hitman with an ancient code of ethics.

The prologue is absolute dynamite, with Eddie walking the mean streets of Chinatown in 1910s San Francisco - director Wellman evoking it with tracking shots and cacophonous gongs - on his way to murder his best friend over an unforgivable transgression. Yes, these are white dudes made up to look 'yellow', in the words of the opening text, but their encounter - stately, unsentimental and yet desperately moving - bleeds with a love and respect for the peculiarities of the Chinese character and culture, and ends with a sickening thud.

After that, we skip forward to the present day (1932), where Robinson has had a haircut, put on a suit and buried his hatchet. He has a solid job not murdering people, a similarly Chinese fiancée (a disastrously miscast Loretta Young) and an extremely untrustworthy new bodyguard (Leslie Fenton from Wellman's The Public Enemy, which is referenced with another trussed-up corpse). But with trouble brewing, we know it won't be long before he has to put an axe up his sleeve again.

The contemporary material is weirdly paced, lacks the effortless grace and beauty of the opening, and suffers as a result of Young's female lead, who's poorly written and played. But for every moment that seems clichéd, racially dubious or extravagantly silly, there's another that's culturally sensitive or utterly new, while Robinson is truly sensational as the eponymous hero, what seems at first mention to be a laughable piece of casting rendered a masterstroke simply through the force of his monumental talent. It may be my favourite of his many great performances: stoical, powerful and redolent with a righteous menace backed up by one of those strict moral codes essential to any self-respecting hitman.

The ending is bloody brilliant too. (3)

"Business is business."
Skyscraper Souls (Edgar Selwyn, 1932) - An exceptional melodrama telling interlocking stories within a 100-storey art deco skyscraper, as owner (and incorrigible lothario) Warren William strives to own the building outright, virginal secretary Maureen O'Sullivan turns heads and falls in love, a lonely jeweller (Jean Hersholt) pines after a model with a past, and a half-dozen other stories come to fruition.

It's unpredictable, novelistic and groundbreaking - paving the way for everything from Grand Hotel to Four Hours to Kill! to Pulp Fiction - with a barnstorming performance from William, and a beautifully tender one from the miraculously talented Hersholt. The only drawback for me is a final five minutes that wanders into the realm of the ridiculous, though that may be a matter of taste. (4)

Employees' Entrance (Roy Del Ruth, 1933) - Hollywood was never shy about trying to repeat its successes. Take Blessed Event, for example, the 1932 Lee Tracy vehicle. That was a massive success, so the next year they took an existing property – the play, Miss Lonelyhearts – changed just about everything about it, and – hey presto – another Tracy film about a scurrilous hack romancing a girl, ruining another’s life and tangling with a gangster, called Advice to the Lovelorn (the film after which I named this blog).

Another of 1932’s big successes was Skyscraper Souls. The next year? Well, swap a 100-storey building for a department store and away we go: once more, Warren William is a workaholic heel manipulating the lives of those in his building, his amorous desires almost spelling the end for a young couple who work there, and his heartlessness leading to at least one conspicuous tragedy. The difference between this and Advice to the Lovelorn? This one’s just as good as the original.

The first thing to say is that William is magnificent. Just magnificent. His career soon slipped into bit parts and B-movies, precisely because the thing he was good at – peddling smut and general malevolence with a raised voice or a raised eyebrow – was outlawed by the imposition of the 1934 Production Code. Here, he’s in his absolute element. There’s barely a nice thing that one can say about his arrogant, selfish, self-made megalomaniac, but only barely: shreds of justification and humanity occasionally flash before your eyes, before he’s back to gloating over his misdeeds, cursing the weak, disrespecting the dead – holding forth with the style of John Barrymore. The film judges his anti-hero as much as it needs to, but no more, an approach that works wonders. (Note to Scorsese: you didn’t do this in The Wolf of Wall Street. Keep up.)

I’m not a big fan of Loretta Young, but she’s fairly good in a role lacking the sanctimony of her later work, and the rest of the cast is spot on, from the never-knowingly-not-one-note Alice White as a frankly disgraceful flapper (she actually starred in a film the previous year called The Naughty Flirt!), Wallace Ford as William’s new right-hand man, and Frank Reicher in a deliciously cynical recurring role as a supplier put out of business by the central sociopath.

The material is also unfailingly great: pithy, exciting, often blackly amusing, with a rich evocation of Depression-era New York, and Pre-Code supremo Roy Del Ruth – who helmed most of Cagney’s fastest, funniest films at Warner, as well as Blessed Event – gives it both barrels throughout, leading to an incredibly satisfying pay-off. Chalk one up for Hollywood unoriginality. Why did they stop there? (4)

Ex-Lady (Robert Florey, 1933) - A chic remake of Illicit - made just two years earlier - with Bette Davis taking over the Stanwyck role of an independent woman who acquiesces to marriage, then watches as it impinges on her happiness through jealousy and conformity.

Whereas Illicit was drab, talky and stiflingly serious, this one is plush, slim and occasionally amusing, with the heroine now a fashion artist for the likes of Cosmopolitan, and the completely rewritten script finding space for Frank McHugh as a culture vulture secretly obsessed with his own wife.

Ironically, this lighter, shorter treatment makes the film's themes of compromise and emotional maturity slightly more coherent, but the film does still suffer from the same problems: the material remains muddled, reaches few conclusions that aren't staggeringly obvious, and just isn't that fun to watch, especially when it turns nasty and moralistic towards the end.

Davis, looking unusually glamorous, is quite good in the lead but still learning her craft, and unable to transcend the script. Her characterisation ultimately lacks the depth of Stanwyck's, though also the early-talkie stiltedness.

One of the oddest things about the movie is the appearance of a big bluebottle during two of the love scenes. At 47:26, a fly crawls around on Davis's arm while she's necking with Raymond; then at 59:34, there's another one. Very odd; who was on no-flies-during-the-romantic-bits duty on this one? (2)

Summary: Though the packaging is merely functional - whereas once it was exquisite - and the discs are of the oft-maligned DVD-R variety, this is perhaps the best Forbidden Hollywood set yet, featuring two titanic achievements of the Pre-Code era, one extraordinarily odd minor gem, and just the single piece of dispensable pap.

I'm going to get the sixth set next. I've put Vol. 2 on Amazon Marketplace already.


Joan Blondell double-bill:

I've Got Your Number (Ray Enright, 1934)
- A ludicrously entertaining Pre-Code comedy-thriller, with Pat O'Brien as an alarmingly cocksure, slightly sexist telephone repairman who spends both his work time and his free time getting his end away, until he falls in love with a switchboard operator (Joan Blondell) and finds himself neck-deep in intrigue.

It's lightning-paced fun: extremely well put-together, with fine performances from the leads, a delightful bit from Glenda Farrell as a phony, horny mystic, and a deft balance between tension, humour and pathos − the latter largely provided by Eugene Pallette as a gravel-throated foreman whose bark is worse than this bite.

If you like it, you'll be pleased (if surprised) to learn that it isn't the only film of its kind: William Wellman made a romantic crime-comedy about trouble-shooting phone engineers the next month, called Looking for Trouble. This one's sexier, but that one climaxes with a recreation of the 1933 Long Beach earthquake so realistic that it still turns up in documentaries, so take your pick. (3.5)

Havana Widows (Ray Enright, 1933) - A very funny Pre-Coder, with Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell as struggling showgirls who head for Havana, hoping to fit a frisky millionaire (like Guy Kibbee) with a breach of promise suit. Instead, Blondell falls for the Guy's dishy son (Lyle Talbot), while her rightly suspicious boyfriend (Allen Jenkins) turns up in town.

Some of these Blondell and Farrell pictures are dull and contrived, others are an absolute treat, and it's impossible to guess which will fall where. This one's firmly in the latter camp, with a steady stream of top-quality jokes - including some great sight gags - and a hilarious supporting performance from peerless character comic Frank McHugh, whose incompetent lawyer is drunk for the entire film. (3.5)


... another Stanwyck. Only the second in this update. I'm slipping.

She doesn't look like this at any point during the film. Nice, though, isn't it?

Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937)
- This lush soaper features perhaps Barbara Stanwyck's most widely-praised performance, but the whole film is done in such broad strokes that there's no room for those little details that always lit up her greatest performances.

Stanwyck is the brash, peroxided working-class mother who marries into wealth, then tries to do right by her daughter (Anne Shirley) after the marriage heads south. It's one of those films where characters act with such a cartoonish lack of self-awareness that it's difficult to suspend your disbelief − Stanwyck has spent years in high society but would still apparently turn up to a country club looking like a drag queen on the game − though its (often calculated) big moments are likely to do a job on you, even as you realise you're being manipulated. The best of the bunch is that scene between mother and daughter on the sleeper train, a heart-melting evocation of enduring love that's difficult to wrench from your mind afterwards.

The concept of the 'star vehicle' is largely a redundant one now, but that's what Stella Dallas is. Ironic, then, that it's more a portrait of what Hollywood execs in 1937 thought Stanwyck was best at − sentimental, one-note matriarchal fare − than what she actually was: namely beguiling sincerity and deft, self-mocking humour, spiked with a desperate vulnerability.

She's still good, though − of course she is − as is Shirley, whose approach to line-readings is to try to make each more frenziedly impassioned than the last, a tactic that works surprisingly well in these surroundings. Her speech about the bonds we form in adversity being the ones that tend to really matter also seems to contain some essential truth, in a film that's often more artifice than reality. (2.5)


... and another John Ford movie. One of his most interesting, in some respects, though certainly not one of his best.

The World Moves On (John Ford, 1934) - John Ford’s Downton Abbey is wildly erratic but, amidst much contrivance and the clunk of bad dialogue, contains some of the most heightened, potent romantic sequences in the history of American film. For that, some visual flourishes and perhaps the odd historical quirk, it’s simply a must for anyone who loves this period of cinema.

Kicking off with a prologue set in 1825, decamping to World War One for most of its duration, then closing with a coda that takes in the Roaring ‘20s and beyond, it’s a family saga of the type popular in the early ‘30s, that follows a family of cotton magnates, its disparate, wealthy sons and daughters spanning the globe from New Orleans to Britain to France and Germany, and, in the case of Franchot Tone and Madeleine Carroll, falling madly and hopelessly in love.

Their romantic sequences are utterly astonishing: almost parodical in their perfection, as extraordinarily potent, moving and yet realistic as any I’ve ever seen. The first is a garden sequence, during that prologue, in which the pair obliquely, tentatively and then explicitly discuss how their love can never be. The second, in 1914, has their descendants haunted by that lost love: feeling they’ve seen each other before, the viewer’s spine-tingling as an 89-year-old melody comes to them from somewhere deep within. And the next one, with Tone dropping in on Carroll unexpectedly, convalescing after a bomb blast, is only a mite less wondrous.

There are other moments that work too, including a dizzying wedding flashback that briefly reinvents the grammar of cinema, shifting from a line of dialogue on an ocean liner to a still photo, which turns out to be on a submarine door, to footage of the nuptials themselves, to a watery action sequence that’s at first invigoratingly voyeuristic, and then – when you realise exactly what’s happening – a battle between vivid direction and extremely daft plotting.

And that’s where Downton Abbey comes into this, for where else will you find such coincidences: the family conveniently representing competing sides in the war, then facing off on the field of battle and, you think for a moment, about to meet in an interrogation room, in a major subplot that is set up and then must surely have been chopped prior to release! Nobody has any self-awareness, things are worth exactly $100m, someone can become “the richest woman in the world” – it’s like it was written by me, aged seven. And there’s bad dialogue to spare. Often Ford and his talented leads can triumph over it, but then there are passages of stilted discomfort or excessive exposition – like Tone’s 1925 speech, in which he tells each member of the family what they have been doing for the past few years.

And then you have Stepin Fetchit, providing his inimitably racist, unfunny comic relief, as an African-American who accidentally joins the French Foreign Legion. Debate still rages over whether Fetchit was an important standard-bearer for black entertainers – giving minority audiences someone to cheer and blazing a trail for other, less embarrassing, performers to follow – or if his persona of a black man so stupid that he could barely speak was not only hideously offensive, but also enduringly damaging in that it confirmed society’s prejudices in the minds of audiences. Whichever of those is true – and I actually think that both are the case, I have never laughed at anything he has ever done. What Ford does do is ultimately place him on a narrative – if not a societal – level with his white counterparts, and puts him in a context where his inarticulacy is shown as a character trait, rather than a racial one – a crucial distinction in keeping with the director’s progressive politics (two years later he would confound contemporary expectations by devoting the final shot of The Prisoner of Shark Island to the reunion of a black family, which is basically unheard of in ‘30s Hollywood films). If only he cared as much about giving Manchester its due. Audiences in northern England will doubtless be deeply troubled by Irish actor Lumsden Hare doing the worst Mancunian accent in the history of the world. For any foreigners/Londoners reading, “tha knows” is a pointless appendage to sentences added by Yorkshiremen, not people from Manchester.

In terms of Ford’s visual style here, there are some very showy and clever decisions, like the artfully directed sequence in which Reginald Denny's German soldier returns home, Ford’s camera focusing on the doorway, Tone then exiting through it, as the family unit is complete once more. The sequence is set up with a shot of their anxious anticipation that is quite exquisitely, recognisably Fordian in composition.

It’s also an interesting movie in Ford’s movie for his visceral war footage – including some very tasty shakycam – which is very convincing, even if there is far too much of it, and an abundance of tracking shots. Ford used these sparingly once his style was cemented, but in the years after training under legendary German filmmaker (and fellow Fox contractee) F. W. Murnau in 1927-8, he employed them a lot: in silent films like Four Sons and the recently rediscovered Upstream and, once sound equipment became more mobile, throughout The World Moves On.

Even though it is far more impressive in the way it’s directed than written, its viewpoint, haunted by the Great War and the Wall Street Crash, opposed to arming and nationalism, advocating faith and family, is a fascinating snapshot of morality as it existed in 1934 – and of its director’s preoccupations at that time, especially for those familiar with his exuberant flagwaving (and career as a propagandist) throughout the coming conflict. Ford was one of the few filmmakers of the period whose complex, constantly evolving politics can be seen through his work. Though he lied a lot in interviews, there seems to be some truth in what he told Peter Bogdanovich in the 1960s: that his main reason for making movies was to articulate the way he saw the world. He described himself the next year as “a socialist democrat – always left”, and this is not only a heartfelt advocation of pacifist politics, but also one of the first Hollywood films to depict the Nazis as warmongers, a practice soon clamped down upon by the fascist sympathiser in charge of the censorship office, Joseph Breen.

There’s plenty to get your teeth into, then, and a few scenes to truly and unreservedly treasure, in this big, silly, sometimes magnificent Fordian film. (2.5)


Return of the Secaucus Seven (John Sayles, 1979) - This early indie from writer-director John Sayles is an exploration of early-30s malaise, as a group of friends talk about their frustrations – and minor victories – in life and love.

The direction is primitive and the acting can be wooden, with only Mark Arnott and regular Sayles collaborator David Strathairn staying free of splinters, but Sayles is perhaps the best, most naturalistic writer of dialogue in movies, and his script is full of insights into the sacrifices and difficulties of adulthood, as we chase fulfilment through romance, artistic expression and worthy work.

The director himself appears briefly as Howie, a hotel delivery man with three young kids, who’s perhaps the most interesting character in this thoughtful, intelligent and ultimately unresolved film. (3.5)


Thanks for reading.

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