Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Dangerous Men: Pre-code Hollywood and the Birth of Modern Man

Mick LaSalle's excellent follow-up to Complicated Women is as much about evangelizing on behalf of his favorite actors as it is about proving his theme. Just as Complicated Women sung the praises of Norma Shearer, Ann Harding, Miriam Hopkins and other lesser known actresses of the pre-code era, so Dangerous Men delves into the work of Richard Barthelemess, William Warren and Lee Tracy. Of course, LaSalle must deal with Frederick March, Clark Gable, Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney just as he had to talk about Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich in his first book. One gets the sense that his real joy is bringing people to these lesser-known actors and their films. His opinions and analysis of Frederick March's films have made me want to go back and look again at several of his movies, such as Merrily We Go to Hell and The Eagle and the Hawk. I'd watched both of these films once years ago because Cary Grant has small parts in them. I seem to remember that I though both movies were good, but since Cary's parts were so small, I really didn't ever bother to think of them again.

As in his first book, Dangerous Men does an excellent job of setting the historical and cinematic backdrop for the pre-code era. This is where his book is probably most valuable for someone of our era, trying to understand these movies. Yet, the author is certainly at his most entertaining when he is letting his critic's wit loose on some of the lesser movies of this era. His writing on The Devil and the Deep had me laughing out loud and wishing I'd thought of half the pity comments he made on the film. Though I wish he liked Gary Cooper more or had anything to say about Cary Grant or William Powell in this period, I can't help but love a writer who is so completely unafraid of holding an unpopular opinion about such an American Institution as Gary Cooper. (In a recent podcast, he drew the wrath of his core audience and co-host when he said that watching Judy Garland was "torture" and that Top Hat was superior to Singin' in the Rain.)

I'm looking forward to working my way through the films he discusses in his book, even though they will certainly add to my already over-burdened Tivo.

Ever in My Heart (1933)

Ever in My Heart is the story of Anne Archer (Barbara Stanwyck) a wealthy young woman who falls in love with Hugo, a young German professor (Otto Krueger) who arrives in tow with her fiancee Jeff (Ralph Bellamy) when he returns from a long trip abroad. Poor Ralph. Always the fiancee, never the groom. Anne and Hugo take one long look at each other and next thing we know she's sitting on the floor while he sings love songs to her in German. Ever the good sport, Jeff, steps aside and the couple are married. Things go well and the couple are truly happy as they proudly refuse any money from Anne's family. Then in one of those Mad Max turnabouts everything goes very wrong very quickly: their child dies of a fever, their dog gets killed by a gang of ruffians, Hugo is driven out of his job by anti-German sentiment as the U.S. enters WWI and the couple are literally starving. Rather than changing his name and accepting a job from his in-laws, Hugo abandons Anne and goes back to Germany. At this point, it seems like this is a typical anti-war movie of the period, sending the message that as Hitler stirred Germany, America should stay out of European wars. But Ever in My Heart, though sometimes trite and manipulative, is at least layered enough to make things not that straightforward. Anne and Jeff join the war effort and Anne becomes, quite gung ho, though she nevers buys into to Anti-German propaganda the way those around her do. This part of the movie reminded me a lot of the typical World War II movie where a woman joins the WACS, except for the ending. When she inevitably meets up with Hugo again it is under surprising circumstances. Stanwyck and Krueger are really excellent throughout and especially in the end. They really sell the films conclusion, and I was pleasantly surprised that I could not guess the ending at all.

Ten Cents a Dance (1931)

The story of a "taxi dancer" named Barbara (Stanwyck) who meets rich Mr. Carlton (Ricardo Cortez) at her job and has to choose between his "friendship" and marriage to a well-educated looser, Eddie (Monroe Owesley). She goes the good girl route and lives to regret it as her husband turns out to be a cheat, a liar and a thief and just all around jerk face. Eddie's an interesting villain in that he presents himself as being a well-mannered gentle sort of fellow but behind the scenes he's as manipulative as they come. And yet he's also sincere. He actually believes all the hard luck stories he gives people. The idea that Barbara Stanwyck could fall in love with such a guy, even if he presents the appearance of the opposite of the sort of guy she meets at work, is just really hard to swallow. Even harder to believe is that she sticks with him as long as she does. She soldiers through and he gets worse and worse and the audience waits impatiently for inevitable melt-down. When it comes, it's a doozy, though somehow not quite enough. By that point I was really hoping she'd actually belt him as she threatens to do earlier in the film. It doesn't help much that Owesley is probably the least attractive of all the fairly unattractive leading men in this run of pre-code Stanwyck films. Had Eddie an ounce of charm than I could see her falling for him and the story about her struggle to help support their income with part-time work might be more compelling. At the very least the movie makes a strong case for women being able to work in more respectable jobs. Though Barbara escapes the degradation of her job by marrying Carlton at the end, it's very clear that women didn't have a lot of legitimate options when once or twice in the story prostitution is hinted at and one of Barbara's co-workers reminds her that working for a dime a dance is at least legal. Ten Cents a Dance also points out how unfair it is for society to dictate that men be the sole breadwinners by showing just how helpless women who don't work outside the home are when dealing with a spendthrift, good for nothing like Eddie.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Locked Door (1929)

Barabara Stanwyck's first talkie is mostly of interest because it was Barbara Stanwyck's first talkie. Rod La Roque, who played opposite to Norma Shearer in Let Us Be Gay, is also present this time as the villain. La Roque is far better in this capacity and although his speech is still somewhat affected, his timing is better as the smarmy wolf, Devereaux. The Locked Door is particularly dated because it takes a mini history lesson to understand a big chunk of the plot. Filmed before the end of prohibition when ships moored off the coastlines of major cities were convenient ways to skirt the drinking laws and where nice girls didn't go with strange men. For once Barbara plays a naive young lady who trustingly accompanies her boss's son on one such a notorious cruise. Her virtue is only just saved by a raid as Devereaux traps her in a private dining room and presents her with the first of several locked doors. Later after she is happily married to her new boss Lawrence Regan, (William Boyd) Devereaux turns up on the arm of her new sister in law. ZaSu Pitts makes a fairly unfunny attempt at comic relief about midway through the action which becomes increasingly melodramatic till its conclusion. I think the Locked Door is mainly of interest to Stanwyck fans and though she was not proud of her work in it, she stands out of the crowd anyway.

The Bitter Tea of General Yen

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) is a bizarre, exotic adventure set in Shanghai, which gave Frank Capra chance to dress his star, Barbara Stanwyck, up in amazing Mandarin Fashions and look seductive. It is often compared to Marlene Dietrich's The Lady from Shanghai. Though Babs plays a missionary in this one and Dietrich's Shanghai Lily couldn't be further from that profession. Megan Davis gets kidnapped on her wedding night by a Chinese warlord, General Yen (Nils Asther, a Dane in unconvincing make-up) after she and her husband try to rescue a trainload of orphans. At first Megan resists General Yen, but after a dream in which she imagines him by turns in Western clothes and sensitively sophisiticated and by others as as a monstrous charicature, she begins to soften to his charm. She interferes when he plans to have one of his concubines executed for disloyalty and he challenges her faith by telling her he will let the woman live, but take Megan's life instead if there is another betrayal. In true pre-code fashion the worst of humanity is confirmed and romantic love triumphs in spirit at the conclusion of the film. Stanwyck is a bit out of place in the settings and if feels wrong to have her sitting around looking glamorous all the time. Even further from home, is Frank Capra. With no humor and no uplifiting statement about humanity in crisis, I can't imagine what he was thinking.

The Night Nurse (1931)

The Night Nurse might be the quintessential pre-code film. It was made at Warner Brothers a studio that in the early thirties had the reputation of being the poor cynical younger brother of MGM, and not quite so down and out as Columbia. It's got sex, violence, a worldly wise view of morality and Barbara Stanwyck and Clark Gable before they became screen legends. It was also directed by the great William Wellman (Wings, The Public Enemy) who keeps thing everything hopping at a lively pace and gives us some camera acrobatics, in the form of an Ambulance eye view of the city streets. Barbara Stanwyck plays Laura Hart, a young idealistic nurse who tries to play by the rules. Her best friend, the more worldy Maloney, (Joan Blondell), rolls her eyes through her Florence Nightengale pledge and does her best to keep Laura out of grasp of the interns who regard the stable of nurses at a teaching hospital as their private property. One night in the emergency room, Laura patches up a bootlegger (Ben Lyon) with a gunshot wound and "forgets" to the proper paperwork. Taking this risk she earns his undying gratitude and love, a connection which will continually save her bacon as she gets mixed up in a murder scheme to rob two little heiresses and their mother. Clark Gable plays Nick, the Chauffer, and chief villain. Gable is threatening force, looking a tad like a Nazi in his shiny boots and chauffer's jodpurs. He's wastes no time in roughing up Laura when she threatens to expose his scheme. I'm glad didn't wind up playing villains in films, but it's interesting to see that he could do that job just as well as the lovable rogue who floutes the rules and saves day.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Forbidden (1932)

Forbidden is probably the best quality movie that Stanwyck made in the pre-code era. Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Monjou and Ralph Bellamy are all excellent in it, the production values stellar and the direction is by Frank Capra. The script is over-worked and tends toward melo-drama, but the first half is quite light and fun. Stanwyck is famous for her melt-down scenes where she lets loose and lets someone have it with a barrage of emotional yelling. Almost every pre-code Stanwyck has a melt-down, some have several. In Forbidden the melt-down comes early on. Stanwyck plays an over-worked librarian who gets driven over the dge by a bout of spring fever. The mild mannered "four eyes" decides to cash out her life savings and go on a swanky cruise to Havanna, but first she lets her co-workers have it screaming, "I wish I owned this library! If I did, I'd take and ax and chop it to pieces. Then I'd set the pieces on fire and dance around with a ukelele!!" Capra has lots of wonderful boss-telling-off scenes in his movies. Another favorite is Clark Gables "tub of mush" telegram in It Happened One Night. Deep in the Great Depression, Lulu's behavior is almost unimaginably irresponsible. Those lucky enough to have jobs were unlikely to behave that way in them and those lucky enough to have life-savings were unlikely to blow them on cruises. But what are the movies for if not for fantasy?

Stanwyck glams it up for the boat, but she still boards the ship alone and eats dinner alone every evening. One night, she returns to her cabin alone and sad and finds a man passed out drunk in her bed! In real life security would be called and possibly lawsuits filed. But in the movies, this twist of fate means that she would meet the love of her life, Bob Grover (Adolphe Menjou). Lulu and Bob fall madly in love on their trip to Havanna. Their is a very beautifully photographed scene of them riding horses in the surf (a scene which led to a real-life riding accident and years of back problems for Stanwyck). After their vacation, Lulu moves to the city and finds a job at a newspaper. There she meets a tough guy reporter (Ralph Bellamy), who spends most of his time trying to get a date with her. Bellamy is actually quite likeable and charming in this role and as the film goes on its difficult to see why Bob Grover has such a hold over Lulu.

One evening Bob comes to visit wearing a carnival mask. He has brought one for Lulu and the pair act out a little domestic play until Bob breaks down and delivers the bad news: he's married and there's no chance for divorce. Lulu breaks things off, but she's pregnant and she makes a go of raising her child alone. In a completely improbable turn of events, Lulu and Bob reunite, the reporter finds out Bob, a prominent politician has a love child and to avoid a scandal, Lulu lets Bob and his wife adopt the little girl. To see Stanwyck's who's worked so hard to assert Lulu's independence, it's difficult to watch her subvert her own needs so thoroughly to a fairly unworthy subject. Love triumphs, I suppose, but there is something about the whole last half of the film that feels forced. The first half of the movie fore-shadows Capra's later and greater comedies, while the second half reminds us just far Hollywood had to go before it created a part that was ready for everything Barbara Stanwyck had to offer.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008



If you want wicked pre-code content, look no further than Babyface. Barbara Stanwyck plays Lily, a young woman trapped in a sexual slavery in her father's speakeasy. One of the customers a German professor, tries to get her to read Nietsche. (For a little while I thought this was going to turn into the Blue Angel, but no...) Eventually his lectures sinks in and after her father is killed in an accident she and the maid, Chico (Theresa Harris) flee to the big city. On the way Lily offers herself to a railroad worker in order to prevent being thrown out of a boxcar and arrested. From then on a pattern emerges: Babyface sees a man with something to give, she gives him a come hither look, drags him to an empty office or in one case, the ladies room, gets whatever favor she needs in return for hers and then moves on, ruthlessly. She "works" her way through a banking empire, including a very young John Wayne, this way until she marries the president, Courtland Trenholm (George Brent). This is where the movie goes south a bit, because I didn't really buy the love story between Lilly and Courtland which is given very little screen time. She doesn't really seem to care any more for him than she does any of the others. Also I was annoyed that after so many years of faithful service and companionship Chico gets abandoned on a boat so that she can rush home to her husband. The turn about was too sudden and I kept asking myself, "what about Chico?" at the end.

Shopworn (1932)


Stanwyck plays a Kitty Lane, a girl who after her father is killed is forced to go live and work with her sister, whose husband owns a cheap diner on a college campus. She goes to work as a waitress sassing all the college boys and her oppressive, annoying brother in law. Eventually she meets a nice rich college boy (Regis Toomy) who wants to marry her, but the guy's hypochondriac mother refuses. The mother has her arrested on a prostitution charge and she is sent to a reformitory where she is worked to exhaustion. After she gets out, she works her way up from show girl to Broadway star (in an amusing 20 second montage of showbills). This is Barbara Stanwyck at her toughest telling off everyone every few minutes. My favorite scene is when she gets arrested and goads the police who mistakenly imagine she will come quietly "Come in here copper, and earn your pay!" I love the opening of the film, when moments after defending her choice to wear high heeled shoes to work, she runs across a mountain stream in them to get the site of her father's accident. The romantic plot is a bit plodding and I don't care much for Toomy or his character in this film. But Shopworn is certainly worth watching to see Stanwyck at her spunky best.

Illicit (1931)


You know this is the age old story of a couple who are in love, having sex and the girl doesn't want to get married. Wait, you say, that's not the age old story! This twist on an age-old story is what makes this classic pre-code and give it such a racy title. This "illicit" relationship we are to understand when the film opens has been going on for a while and he's starting to get anxious to settle down. The opening act, a typical evening with Dick (James Rennie) and Anne (Barbara Stanwyck) is very amusing and engaging and sustains our interest in these characters for the next 90 minutes, well almost (truth be told, I found the last half hour pretty dull). The romance between is mostly sweet and there is nothing really dangerous implied. Though the movie is dated, it does deal with the topic in an honest way. I think even today couples manage to live together more or less while maintaining a careful balance with their parents and other traditional forces. Another interesting twist is that Dick's father is quite sympathetic to them and it is their friends who are getting married off themselves that put the most pressure on the couple. I also could sympathize with the fact that one of the reason Anne doesn't want to get married is that she doesn't want to have children right away and this is something families inevitably begin campaigning for the minute a couple are wed. There are ocf course romantic rivals, but there is little suspense that the main characters won't find their way back in the end. If Illicit were just a bit funnier it would be a classic comedy and if it were a bit more intense as a drama it would be a classic in that realm as well.

Stanwyck gives a more restrained performance than usual and indeed her character is a change from her usual wise girl from the streets. Now she is a wise girl from society, but she still plays smart and sexy better than anyone I can think of. Rennie was a surprise to me, he is a lot more likable and interesting than her usual leading men from this period. I looked him up and after starring in this and a few other pictures he must have gone back to Broadway. He returned to the movies at the start of the Second World War, and he had supporting roles in a few big movies like Now Voyager.

The Cowboy and the Lady


Gary Cooper made a career out of Westerns. He was a real-life cowboy from Montana who went to Hollywood to do stunt riding and then became a star. He also made almost a second career out of deflating his own myth. This is the first entry in a series of films that includes The Westerner, Along Came Jones and High Noon. Cooper and Oberon are both pretending to be something they're not. Oberon is a society dame pretending to be just another Rodeo groupie and Cooper is sensitive soul trapped in the life of a womanizing roughneck. This may not be a true Western as it has a contemporary setting and is really more about the jaded life a show business, but it is funny and sexy and has an above average script. My main exposure to Oberon was in Wuthering Heights and I was pleasantly surprised that she could handle light comedy. This fun little movie is in my top ten favorite Gary Cooper films.

Welcome to the library

I've created this media room as a supplement to Cinema OCD as a repository of reviews of books about filmstars, film and of course films. I will be importing online reviews from my Netflix account and my old web page, the Crackpot Critic as well as creating new content on a regular basis.