Monday, March 21, 2011

Pre-Code Capsules: ROAR OF THE DRAGON, THREE WISE GIRLS, BED OF ROSES, LONELY WIVES, SMARTY


Everyone says 1939 was the best year for movies, but I'd say its 1932-33. Before the code started being enforced in mid-1934, s--t was tight! TCM's been dropping 'em like hotcakes, s--t I never even heard about prior to. Pre-code cuckoo land next stop!


ROAR OF THE DRAGON 
(1932) - ****
Did you know they had a fake Marlene Dietrich? And she played the abductee/obsession of a no-good Russo-Chinese bandit (C. Henry Gordon) in ROAR OF THE DRAGON (1932?), a kind of comic strip brawler ala CHINA SEAS or what SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932) was probably supposed to be before Dietrich and von Sternberg crafted it into an expressionist dream poem. Richard Dix slurs (for real?) as a very drunk but able riverboat captain, the kind that Stefan on SNL would describe as "pony-keg chested." And the bandit wants to kill him because he chewed off his ear before the opening credit. You got to love any film that starts immediately after some huge fight that's left the bad guy with an ear chewed off, vowing torturous reprisal. This pre-credits battle has left the good guy's riverboat critically damaged and under hurried repairs while the bandits lay siege.


The Dietrich wants to help, she's white after all but Dix doesn't trust her; she comes onto him originally, offers him sex in exchange for passage downriver on his under-repair steamer, but then he suspects she's a Mata Hari even after she shows him the cyanide tabs in her necklace and offers him one (he almost eats it, even knowing its poison! Now that's an existential gentleman!) When they finally hook up, the 'cutaway' scene between before and after 'that which cannot be shown' is Zazu Pitts twisting a handkerchief while listening to a romantic lullaby on the radio, her eyes drippy with by proxy orgasm!

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Gwili Andre even uses Dietrich's inflections and her big scenes are all lit like Sternberg's (though not as sublimely, and her face is kind of too sharp and baroquely angled). Her evil bandit paramour is bound to capture and torture Dix, so it's a pretty sick and riveting, a variation on the whole business with Warner Oland in EXPRESS. Meanwhile Edward Everett Horton fusses over his hottie girlfriend, Bridgeport (Arline Judge), who in turn fusses over a cadre of war orphans (not as bad as it could be, thanks to a decidedly unsappy worldview, though a scene of their nonstop crying begs for fast-forwarding); there's an old Jewish butcher (Arthur Stone) who winds up burned at the stake for trying to sneak out of the beseiged hotel for some smoked meats to feed all the hungry people!


I wont spoil the events, but suffice to say Edward Everett Horton goes ballistic with a tripod machine gun. You heard me: E.E. Horton, the effete cuckold from so many golden screwballs! He rocks it! The square-jawed Dix also rocks it; the fake Dietrich rocks it as well. I haven't said this in awhile about anything, but this film is the shit! Like if Paramount's SHANGHAI EXPRESS joined up with MGM's MASK OF FU MANCHU and it kicked BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN's ass all the way back to Columbia, dragging his canoe behind him!

 
THREE WISE GIRLS 
(1932) - ***
Shortly before Jean Harlow was signed to MGM she was under Howard Hughes who loaned her off to Columbia where she first struck with Capra (in PLATINUM BLONDE where she was miscast as a rich socialite) then made this, directed by the far less flashy William "One-Shot" Beaudine.

There's one great early scene, where Harlow changes into her negligee go to sleep after walking home from a date (we never see the guy, but he presumably got fresh): it's a tight, lengthy close-up semi-profile of Harlow's face and chest line; her face conveys weary sadness, bone-tired ennui, and you can see the layer of sweat on her body. She looks like she really has just been walking home on heels for three miles and her weary half-absent dialogue with mom is so real and honest and goes on so long you get the feeling the Beaudine--as he usually did at least once or twice in a film--struck gold. The moment is out of sync with the rest of the film, though, which follows the pre-code woman's "three working class single girl friends climbing the class system" arc in static medium shots via the old Beaudine cookie cutter. In her lovely OCD blog, Jenny the Nipper sums the sitch thusly:
Of course, the entire premise of this film--that a girl could hook an unhappily married rich man, secure his divorce and walk happily off into the sunset-- would have been impossible a few years later. Though Harlow's character is more virtuous than Clark's (she actually breaks off the relationship when she finds out he's married rather than using the money to keep her poor mother in furs), she would still be a home wrecker in the Code era. Three Wise Girls fits into the working single girl as hero mold that so many pre-code pictures did and though it offers no solution to their problems but an honest and happy marriage, at least its willing to admit in a realistic way, that a single girl did have problems.
I'd also break it down like this, the film offers the CAST OF THE TYPICAL (not in a good way) PRE-CODES:

1. Hard-working 'good girl' - usually gets fired from a low-paying job for resisting the boss's advances.

2. Her 'gone-wrong' best friend, who's dating a married man and later commits suicide (generally Mae Clarke or Ann Dvorak).

3. Her practical gal Friday - less attractive, more vulgar, marries the chauffeur or whomever is being played by Andy Devine or Hugh Herbert.

4. The rich married sleazeball who will never leave his wife and/or booze syndicate for #2.

5. His wife (either a heaven-bound brunette cripple, or evil harridan).

6. The bad guy (possibly as in TEN CENTS A DANCE, a false fronted 'good guy') found in m'ladie's boudoir giving #7 the erroneous impression girl #1's innocence is actually a stall and he's been played for a dupe.

7. The nice rich guy who waits around until the smoke clears, then rides in on his horse to rescue girl #1.

8. A discreet butler for #7 and/or #4 -- bemused and/or shocked, possibly goes for gal #3.

BED OF ROSES
(1933) - ***
Who'd of thunk there was a fake Mae West? At least that's how Pert Kelton (Molly the maid in MY MAN GODFREY) plays Minnie, the unrepentant gold digger pal of Constance Bennett (the fake Bette Davis/Tallulah Bankhead) in this film by Gregory La Cava. Constance is an even sharper digger but gives up her kept woman status (earned in a hilarious office seduction scene) in the boudoir of rich publisher John Halliday so she can "scrub floors" for pony keg-chested barge captain Joel McRae. Love is seen here as a chump's ticket to the poorhouse! But love is worth it, so the songs all sing. Those songs are scams, as Pert Kelton (below) would say.


The dialogue is great throughout, though, with Halliday and Kelton trying to wise up Constance to her self-inflicted class-ceilinged moral code. There's a big Mardi Gras scene that's all dressed up to go nowhere, but it's altogether a gem and a hoot. Hooter regulars Franklin Pangborn as a prissy (what else?) department store manager and the fake Hugh Herbert (perish the thought, tut tut, perish it) Matt McHugh as Minnie's dopey rich husband round out the deal with ersatz class.

LONELY WIVES
(1931) - **1/2
Laura La Plante is pretty funny and sexy as the 'fake Thelma Todd' in this "giddy" romp, but Edward Everett Horton, in a dual role that's supposed to be Jekyll and Hyde-ish that instead comes off like Michael Cera in YOUTH IN REVOLT-ish, stretches the patience. And I say this as one who loves a small dose of Horton as much as the next man (and think he's pretty badass in ROAR OF THE DRAGON). The problem is that it's hard to take him seriously as straight with his cachet of mannerisms and fey voice. The strictly enforced closet of the era made straight behavior spectrum very, very wide but now Horton's effeminate fussiness seem like he's got two separate lives all right, but only one would even pretend to lust after Laura La Plante. And the TCM print is washed.

SMARTY
(1934) - ***
This one stars Joan Blondell as a bossy sassy frisky type who divorces Warren William after he slaps her, on the advice of skittish divorce attorney Edward Everett Horton ("sigh"), who promptly marries her himself. Warren William thrives--as do all men when Edward Everett's their competition-- in the race to win her back, but if I were William I would stick with the liberated, married lover who follows him home (Joan Wheeler). Still, he can't resist old Joan, whom I guess is the 'smarty' one. An AWFUL TRUTH-style battle is on, and 'tis lively but there's a lot of yelling, so don't be hungover while viewing. And if Horton's fey tantrums start to lose their welcome early, just remember SMARTY is one of the many pre-code gems that has a sense of morality far more complex than might seem at first glance.

From Russell at the excellent Screen Snapshots comes this look at the weird use of domestic violence as a comedic topic:
Smarty is almost a great little movie but sadly also a very, very wrong one. Ultimately it probably says more about male film industry attitudes in the thirties than that of the average man or woman on the street. Despite this, I think several books deserve to be written about whatever issues Joan Blondell’s character has in the movie. Did she get on with her father? Was she hit as a child? Does she feel undervalued as a person? We need to know these things and give her all the help she deserves. Maybe she just needed a cuddle. Actually, I’m not sure I want to know, to be honest.
The idea that Blondell's character needs help or was molested is interesting, and I agree and can understand Russell's concern but I think it can become too close to a kind of universal victim mentality to just deride her interests and needs as tragic and the film's treatment of the issue as 'wrong.' After all, Joan gets divorced for cruelty, based--at a time when it was still a shocking thing to get divorced--on a single slap. The film is a little too blithe perhaps in its handling of its issue, but I'd counter that the sensitive feminist outrage over a comedy about a masochistic woman is itself a subjugation, inferring women are too weak to decide for themselves if they're being abused or just getting their rocks off. A slap, as Camille Paglia pointed out, can be erotic - it's like an hour of meditation, a sudden surge of shame, and a spike of adrenaline all rolled into one!


This all dovetails even more in TRISTANA (1970, above), which I saw yesterday at BAM before watching SMARTY, and will write about tomorrow, yo! It was a meta moment of women trying to be liberated and dominated at the same time. That infernal belle rings on!

7 comments:

  1. parrot eater22 March, 2011

    Your posts on pre-code films has really piqued my interest in this time period. I think the only pre-code film I've seen is Freaks and its one of my all-time favorites. I was wondering what the name of this dvd is (roar of the dragon sounds amazing) and what you would consider to be the best pre-code films?

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  2. Actually now that I think of it I've seen Frankenstein, King Kong and some Marx Brothers stuff, but I'm thinking more of things along the lines of Roar of the Dragon, The Emperor Jones, or that Temple Drake one I remember you writing about.

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  3. Parrot eater, I regret to say some of the best pre-codes aren't on DVD, like Roar of the Dragon, Island of Lost Souls, Red Dust, Temple Drake, Kongo - aren't on DVD - you can find them on graymarket or wait for TCM to show them, which they do. You should however instantly get FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD, volume 2, if for no other reason than Night Nurse and Three on a Match! Volume 1 for Baby Face. And for horror, get the Bela Lugosi set that has Black Cat, The Raven, Invisible Ray, etc. Emperor Jones is around in many forms... Criterion's is the best, but you have to get the whole Robeson box to buy it.

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  4. I agree whole heartly that 1933 was one the best years for film, how can it not with movies like Baby Face, The Story of Temple Drake, and the bulk of those wonderful Warner Bros. musicals, just to name a few??

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  5. I have to agree with everything you wrote about Roar of the Dragon...this movie IS the shit! I loved everything about it: the snappy rapport, the fabulous sets, the faux-Dietrich, the action scenes. The only other pre-Coder I know that features this much gun-blazing action is "The World and the Flesh," which TCM unfortunately hasn't shown. But "Roar of the Dragon" was something else...like the 1932 version of "Assault on Precinct 13." Ironically, I have that "RKO Story" book from the '70s, which dismisses the film as talky and melodramatic...what the hell movie were they watching??

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  6. Anonymous09 May, 2012

    Pert Kelton in "Bed of Roses" was NOT "Molly the Maid" in "My Man Godfrey". Molly was played in that screwball classic by Jean Dixon, a famous Broadway leading lady (i.e. Kaufman and Hart's "George Washington Slept Here"). Dixon played quite a few "best friends" in '30s films, and the best and last of these was as Susan Potter in Cukor's 1938 "Holiday," after which she returned to the stage. Other than that, love your posts!

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  7. I'm late in the game, but I've got to say that I've always been impressed by how quickly movie studios could reuse an idea. If the IMDB page is accurate, Roar of the Dragon was released just months after Shanghai Express. Last year, I looked at the influence of Marlene's Shanghai Lily character on other '30s films, and I wish I had seen this information about Gwili.

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