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.


kda0121 said...

Gable became the prototype for the 1930s hero. He was a man's man in a man's world. Even as the "good guy", he wasn't completely honest. His looks, which initially kept him from stardom, later became trademarks. A cockeyed grin;(with dimples!), pursed lips when expressing displeasure, tussled hair and eyebrows that could move independently of one another and yes, those big floppy ears of his.

His biggest precode success was Red Dust costarring Jean Harlow. The screen sizzled when they were together and it's obvious when you see the pure carnal lust they exuded for each other on camera. (Some reports say off-camera as well).

AbbyNormal said...

Both of these sound like interesting books. I have to admit, I am obviously not that "up-to-speed" with pre-code movies and I am not 100% I totally understand the environment that led to such a moral pendulum swing.

I do wish I had a tivo for TCM alone. I resisted buying one because I was afraid I would fill it up with worthless purile shows instead of TCM movies. I miss a lot of movies, but for now, Netflix has a ton of classics that I haven't seen so I will probably stay with that route for now to protect myself from myself :-)

Jennythenipper said...

I was thinking about this yesterday as I was driving home through RNC/State Fair traffic. I think my fascination with this period, and the rest of 1930s movie has to do with my fascination with this period of American history in general. It was such an interesting time, with so many changes in the world (good and bad). It was a real revelation to me that there is this whole group of movies that look at the world, if not realistically, at least in more grown-up way then the films that came later. It used to be that my favorite period in film was the late thirties, early forties, but it's been gradually shifting further and further backward as I read Mick's books and have actually watched more of the movies.

KDA, I love Red Dust. I really like Harlow in everything I've seen her in. I know Mogambo was a re-make of it, and I remember reading that he and Grace Kelly also had an off-screen um relationship. I had to watch it when I did my Grace Kelly book, but I thought it was pretty lousy. As such I avoided Red Dust for a long time. Boy was I surprised when I did. There was a freshness to it, in big part because of the chemistry between Gable and Harlow.

kda0121 said...

I sometimes think I should have been a young man in the 1930's. I know it was during the depression and times were tough, but I think the country was actually closer then. And I relate so well to those times, that era, those styles.

AbbyNormal said...

Jenny - I like the way you put your feelings about pre-code. I have largely ignored these films because I haven't been exposed to enough to really "get it" yet. Many pre-codes are hard to get on DVD and those that are, I haven't checked out because I am still catching up on other films too.

That is why your blog is perfect for me. I am a classic movie lover who hasn't gotten around enough to know what is exactly what yet :-) I seen quite a few Cary Grant movies and I have seen the super-popular ones. Other than that, I have a loooooong way to go.

I embrace this though. It is exciting to have not seen them all yet. I love discovery.