Monday, March 21, 2011


Everyone says 1939 was the best year for movies, but I'd say its 1933. Before the code started being enforced in mid-1934, s--t was tight! TCM's been dropping 'em like hotcakes. All of the below I just watched after DVR-ing them last week. I'm in pre-code cuckoo land.

(1932) - ****
Did you know they had a fake Marlene Dietrich? This film is like the action movie / lurid torture kinkfest that Von Sternberg's SHANGHAI EXPRESS was supposed to be, probably, before Von Sternberg crafted it into an expressionist dream poem. This one has Richard Dix, very drunk, as the kind of brawl-ready sea captain that Stefan on SNL would describe as "pony-keg chested." Gwili Andre is the Dietrich, the longtime abductee/obsession of a no-good Russo-Chinese bandit (C. Henry Gordon). You got to love any film that starts immediately after some huge fight that's left the bad guy with an ear chewed off by the escaped hero, vowing torturous reprisal. This pre-credits battle has left the good guy's riverboat critically damaged and in town under hurried repairs while the bandits regroup and prepare to lay siege.

The Dietrich wants to help, she's white after all and Gordon is not supposed to be, but Dix doesn't trust her; she comes onto him originally--before the bandits lay sige to their hotel--and 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 a 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!

Gwili Andre even uses Dietrich's inflections and her big scenes are all lit like Sternberg's (though not as ornately). 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); an old Jewish butcher (Arthur Stone) is 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!

(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 Jean changes into her negligee go to sleep after walking home from a date (we never see the guy, but he presumably got fresh) in a close-up semi-profile of Harlow's face and chest line. This was clearly the 'money shot' in the pre-code definition (they nearly always had a changing scene so girls could be seen in their underwear, the full frontal nudity equivalent of today) -- but Harlow's 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 with his one-shot approach. The moment is out of sync with the rest of the film, which follows the arc of the pre-code woman's "three-friends" picture from static medium shots like 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 a rich bitch bottle blonde).

6. The sleazy guy (possibly as in TEN CENTS A DANCE, a false fronted 'good guy'), often 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 bulk of the shennangins are done, then rides in on his horse to rescue girl 1.

8. A discreet butler for #7 and/or #4, bemused and/or shocked.
(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.

(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 Hide-ish, comes off like Michael Cera in YOUTH IN REVOLT (2010), which is to say, anemic and anemic-er. A little Everett goes a long way and this is double the amount humanly possible.

In a time when being openly gay was career suicide, a lot of gayness got snuck into manhood's vast persona catalogue. That's the price you pay when you enforce the closet - you widen the breadth of what constitutes hetero behavior and confuse the hell out of the issue. You can't be effeminate and old-fashioned and get away with having a young hot flapper wife in today's modern clime; you can be giddy and old-fashioned (as in obsessed with antiques) and openly gay, but if you then try and convince us you're straight, well, it looks like you're in denial, bro. Then again, look at that picture from ROAR OF THE DRAGON, up top! Horton almost looks like Boris Karloff!

(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!


  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?

  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.

  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.

  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??

  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 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??

  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!

  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.