Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Pre-Code Capsules 2: CITY STREETS, BOMBSHELL, THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH, THEY CALL IT SIN, SAFE IN HELL, HOLD YOUR MAN

CITY STREETS
1931 - ****
It seems dimwitted to call this film CITY STREETS--it's the kind of title that wouldn't pass muster in a college lit class, too vague and generalized. One imagines treacly Chaplin Americana with the Dead End Kids and its plot device of an alcohol kingpin risking his whole operation in a play for Gary Cooper's girl seems kind of ridiculous, like no one would ever rise to power in the underworld if he was always playing prima noctae. But for all that this film is actually very beautiful, sleazy, unrepentant, and expressionistic as all art deco hell. Murders are talked over via close-ups of cat statues, and a very dirty fella named Blackie gets offed by Guy Kibee (as you've never seen him before!).

Shades of SCARFACE in Dashiell Hammett's gritty storyline fills the sails with snappy patter and keeps the coffers rich in minute detail that feels observed rather than imagined and, that hopelessly generic title aside, free of any remote chance of gangster cliche. It's like a molten crucible of gangster film-ism, without shape or form yet to calcify and re-do over and over in generations and remakes to come

That said, Sylvia Sidney's pleas to Gary Cooper not to go fight or whatever drag on and on: "Kid, don't go! Oh no Kid! No, Kid, please don't go if you love me, if you love me kid please don't go." Sylvia you were ten times cooler when you were in prison. Now you've gone soft, and the rackets got no place for soft. Pick a side, pick a gun, lay your money down otherwise go to bed.... and lock your door! Still, there's a super sexy scene of passion with Cooper across a wire screen in the ladies' prison visiting room, and once out of jail Sylvia has the coolest vanity mirror ever (a giant vulture/eagle over it, with wings outspread). Visceral expressionist photography (TCM restored with a loving hand), great dialogue (including hilariously curt rapport between thug Kibee and daughter Sydney) and Cooper is at his most ravishing.


BOMBSHELL
(1933) - ****
Playing a loose conglomerate of Clara Bow, Thelma Todd, and herself, Jean Harlow comes through in metatextual spades here as an overworked MGM starlet, earning her place at the top of the spitfire heap with  rapid fire slang-filled dialogue pouring in satin torrents from her tongue as she goes zipping, 8 1/2-style, through a carnival of  blustery studio heads, make-up artists, insurance fraud grifters, drunken joneser fathers (Frank Morgan, partying like it's 1899!), an accented gigolo lover, an infatuated director (Pat O'Brien), and Lee Tracy, as usual, an unscrupulous publicity agent.


There's something inherently unlikable (to me) about Tracy, but he sure can talk fast and believably think on his feet.  Even when he apologetically comes to tell Harlow he's been fired on account of her complaints you don't notice his emotions, you just stare at the ferocious meta-amphetamine insect anger in his sharply slicked-back hair. It forms--in the excellent TCM transfer--a weird bi-level triple side wave-part. Too much information!

In order to appease Harlow and get his job back, Tracy must pledge to cease sleazing her up in the tabloids and instead put her onto the 'Home and Garden' page, dressing her up in frilly aprons, with forked potato in hand, longing wistfully for the patter of little feet. In a hilarious interview with a matronly journalist, Harlow holds her hands clasped together and gazes into the heavens, imagining the baby to come, then sets off to adopt one, ala Angelina Jolie, picking them out by the bushel like puppies. Mythical Monkey writes:
 "The movie skewers every Hollywood type—the hangers-on, the rapacious press, the stalkers, the slicky boys, the fraudsters, the petty tyrants—and does so with a manic quality that would characterize the screwball comedies allegedly invented by Howard Hawks and Frank Capra in 1934, but which, as I mentioned in my review of Design For Living, seems to have developed full-blown sometime earlier. Fleming spared no one, including himself—he's caricatured as director Jim Brogan (Pat O'Brien), alternately described in the movie as a "piano mover" and "a smooth-tongued bluebeard." (here)


Irregardless of any future screwballing, the damage has been done and the post-1934 serious code enforcement look for women has already been dreamt up, right here in front of the matron and Ladies Home photographer, in an act of parody. As Harlow assumes this pose of born again maternal sanctity, we briefly--or did I hallucinate--see her smile to herself--a subliminal wink to the audience--as she gets all pious and starry-eyed at the thought of a woman's 'ultimate duty to the continuance of the species.'

Phony or not, she never lets up in it - she either decides this sugary drivel is the only way to beat the system at its own game of hypocritical posturing or she genuinely believes such a dull code of ethics barefoot/pregnant line. That we'll never know if she was just bullshitting or not is what the code is all about: for every 'you know I'm just kidding' there shalt be an accompanying teardrop of sincerity, sayeth the Breen.

THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH
(1932) - **1/2

Secretary: "Imagine anyone daring to question your veracity."
Tracy: "Such language!"

More Lee Tracy doing what he does best, motormouth speed-talking as an unscrupulous press agent: first as a carny barker hawking Lupe Velez's uninhibited fan dancer from the tropics; second hawking a blonde hotel maid who partners with Eugene Palette as wild, untamed nudists. Frank Morgan is the Broadway impresario who eventually winds up with Velez, who by then has let fame go to her harridan head. And it all caves back down to where it started, in the gutter. Tracy is successful in PR, sure, but meanwhile his girl and his pal (Eugene Palette) are back in the carnival racket, where they all started out.

Tracy's got the rapid fire patter, but he lacks Jimmy Cagney's agility, and humility -- a scene where he smacks up Morgan with blackmail photos is just irritating. Some rare moments of real connection exist, though, like at the end, like the cool bro-to-bro reunion of Pallette, Tracy, and a handful of sawdust which Tracy pours through his fingers asking "can you imagine this stuff running though your veins?" We can, thanks to the 21st century advent of torture porn, and suddenly we realize Tracy's own painful awareness of the cliches by which he's bound. Methinks he was amphetamine-headed. Gentle Ben tells us after he was fired and sued by the studio for always being late and often drunk to set. That's why, perhaps, Cagney is immortal and Tracy just a curious footnote. Both played incorrigible scammers, but Cagney was just playing.

THEY CALL IT SIN
1932 - **1/2
Hot as she was, by 1932 Loretta Young's persona was that of a nobly young woman who looks around at the newfangled crazes --divorce, premarital sex, drugs, prohibition liquor-- and quickly calls her matron at the convent for emotional support. The devoutly Catholic Young often used her acetylene hotness like an Olympic torch of morality in any dark, dank pre-code films she finds herself in, such as this one. Always first in line to confess to a crime or sacrifice her happiness to save someone else, anyone else, her characters are martyrs like only a self-righteous hottie can play them. Here her sleazy ex-boss is accidentally killed and she races like a Chariots of Fire sprinter to be the first person to confess and save her true lovezzzz... Before that she's dicked around by David Manners, rescued by George Brent, and ripped-off by Louis Calhern (the guy who would go on to hire Chicolini and Harpo in DUCK SOUP the following year). His excellency's car!

SAFE IN HELL
1931 - ***
One of many pre-code films made about women of ill repute lamming out to the tropics or the Orient after skipping bail or being wanted for murder: Joan Crawford did it in RAIN the following year (32); Marlene Dietrich in SHANGHAI EXPRESS the following year, and Kay Francis did in MANDALAY the year after that 1934, then came the code. They stopped doing it. But back in 1931 it was anybody's game and SAFE IN HELL happens to be one of the  more lurid exhibits of the pre-code era: Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill) is a dissolute prostitute who winds up accidentally burning down a building with a drunk john in it. Her innocent sailor fella (Donald Cook, unbearable) returns home and-- hey! He's earned a first mate stripe so now they can finally get married. Oh, Donald! He gives her a ship in a bottle and a fan from Japan as presents from abroad - but she lets him know the score and before you can say "Jake" he's smuggling her off to a remote island with no extradition laws and a cadre of debauched expats waiting to slaver, dark-eyed, over their gin-fizzes, at her hotel room door.

Clarence Muse (THE INVISIBLE GHOST) as the bellhop brings as much dignity as ten ordinary men into the role; at the front desk and tending bar is Nina Mae McKinny (THE GREEN PASTURES) who sings "When It's Sleepy time Down South" right in time for Gilda to drop the airs and come down and make nice with the seven dwarfy sleazes. Director William Wellman (as usual) packs the film with earthy detail and weird characterizations: Charles B. Middleton,  Gustav Von Seffeyrtitz, and Morgan Wallace are three of the leering fellow outlaw guests. Noble Johnson (the zombie in GHOST BREAKERS) is a guard.

With her droopy skin and lumpy posture, McKail is not your ordinary heroine but she's perfect as a depression-era fallen woman who's genuinely no good, not just a good girl fallen low through circumstance and cheating gigolos. No, she's an authentic lowlife, a cranky snob for whom the woman's picture conceit of romantic self-sacrifice is less a noble deed than a kind of Antigone-style fuck you to the world of sin (unlike so many heroines who fall just to rise, she starts out fallen, and rises and falls again erratically throughout the film). When she finally gives up her sainthood and starts drinking with the riff-raf you get a real sense that she's smoked and drank before, and often. You don't ever get that with Loretta Young.

HOLD YOUR MAN
1933 - ***1/2
Jean Harlow gets pregnant via hood Clark Gable, but she's in jail and a martyr so doesn't tell him. Stu Erwin wants to marry her and move her to some bo-hunk town when she gets out of stir but no way. See, there's only one guy for her - and he can't visit her in the clink as he's wanted himself, see, for a crime he did commit! See? George Reed (THE GREEN PASTURES) is the black preacher father of fellow inmate Theresa Harris (Alma in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) who sings "Saint Louis Blues" while the girls relax after a hard day steam-pressing shirts.

HOLD YOUR MAN gets me deep in the gut because everyone is redeemed at the end--even the romantic rivals and prison warden--and not in a humorlessness Loretta Young kind of way, but in a genuine caring, cliche-defying way.  When Gable cries to Clarence Muse in the chapel, I feel redeemed, too, every time - and mister, I'm a hell of a sinner. That HOLD YOUR MAN was written by a girl (Anita Loos) doesn't fully explain the incredible compassion this film offers. How often do you come away from a tough pre-code women's prison picture feeling optimistic about humanity? Just this once, baby.

4 comments:

  1. parrot eater07 April, 2011

    I just watched Safe in Hell. You were certainly right about the hypnotizing luridness of some of the pre-codes. I cant stop watching them now! Thanks for the recommendations!

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  2. Thanks PE, let me know if you find any I should know about

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  3. Awesome post! Interesting info to know.

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  4. Interesting note on "Safe in Hell" -- Boris Karloff was originally slated for the role Noble Johnson played. It's strange when you realize that the role is a bit part, without even any dialog!

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