Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Pre-Code Capsules IV: PRESTIGE, CHANDU THE MAGICIAN, BLONDE VENUS, OUR BETTERS, BEAST OF THE CITY

PRESTIGE
1931-***
Melvyn Douglas dissolves before our eyes as a French officer put in charge of colonial Vietnam's most sweltering prison camp. Adolphe Zukor is the scheming major with designs on Douglas' new wife, Ann Harding; he probably sent Douglas off to the camp in the first place. Harding's dad says she shouldn't follow Douglas into this jungle hell, but if she does she already has the only thing that can save her there, the 'prestige' of being white. She must never slacken her grip or lose her superior breeding! Never! The natives are a mix of African-American extras, genuine Asians, and ugly white dudes in a lot of make-up, all depicted as little more than untamed animals in comparison with the staunch white man and his wife. The spectre of miscegenation hangs throughout!

A product of the relatively rough-edged RKO-Pathe studio, PRESTIGE has strong expressionist touches and excellent tracking shots: with fire dances, cockfights, guillotines, whips, chains, and general white-on-black brutality, it's like John Ford on bad acid and malaria. Simultaneously racist and anti-colonialist, PRESTIGE should be shown in every college class about Vietnam, as a horrific reminder of the wrongness of colonial rule. As the screwed-over 'hero,' Douglas sweats, collapses, shakes and turns sadistic, chaining up prisoners, guillotining rebel leaders while devolving into a hate-filled drunk. Harding is her usual lovely, wistful self. Her soft voice ever crackling with dignity and emotion, as befits her 'white prestige,' she does what she can, but they won't even let her hang curtains. And the ending is intense, lurid, and nihilistic. Hurrah!


CHANDU THE MAGICIAN
1932- ***
Edmund Lowe takes things a little lighter than PRESTIGE's Melvyn Douglas for this more kid-friendly but still decidedly racist and colonially smug pre-code film.  Chandu (Lowe) is a stage magician who's learned the mystic secrets of the Yogis so now can do wilder rope tricks while saving the world from non-white power mongers like Bela Lugosi, who's kidnapped Chandu's scientist brother-in-law (Henry B. Walthall) to work on a death ray that can destroy zee vorld!


Though one must put up with a shitload of tired comic relief from a drunken limey who bugs his eyes out over Chandu's magic tricks CHANDU's worth watching for the constant bizarre touches and Lugosi's scenery-chewing. Speaking of fiery death rays, check out June Lang (below) in her sheer white gown being auctioned at a slave mart filled with lusty sheiks! Like PRESTIGE, CHANDU considers it a betrayal of white breeding to be so much as pawed by non-white hands, which of course made such pawing a popular threat in pre-code exotica.


BLONDE VENUS
1932 - ***
The first and (wisely) last time Paramount ever gave Marlene Dietrich a kid and husband, Von Sternberg here seems to be lampooning typcal pre-code women's pictures, showing Marlene as a good mom who must go back to her old habits of vamping to pay for husband Herbert Marshall's radium treatments. He taciturnly snaps about his cuckolding benefactor: "I don't know whether to thank him or shoot him... dead!" When you're Herbert Marshall and the guy is Cary Grant, you're better off just thanking him, but Marshall instead labels Marlene an unfit mother. Much taking it on the lam ensues. 

 

As a swinger in retirement, nothing gets me down like watching a layabout like Herbert Marshall use a kid to keep his hotter younger wife imprisoned in his stifling patriarchal caress du condescension. First, we're 'treated' to the early days of how Marshall and Dietrich met--he and his student pals stumble on her and some friends skinny-dipping in a sparkly stream, and they proceed to leer to their heart's content, which right there seems shitty and frat boyish. Next we see the divine M with her sleeves rolled up, bathing little Johnny while Marshall looks on, and, yeesh, you can't wait for her to bail on them both and get back into a smooth nightclub with some folks her own age. So much as I admire it, BLONDE VENUS is my least favorite of Dietrich's films with Von Sternberg. Even the esteemed "Hot Voodoo" sequence loses its edge once she puts on that hideous disco 'fro wig (above). Still, there are more great moments scattered around it than a dozen ordinary films, like the innuendo-driven shot of a fat diner owner puffing his cigar in anticipation of how the now broke Dietrich is going to pay for the meal she just fed to her little Johnny. Du hast mich betrogen, Johnny, in der ersten Stundt, indeed!

OUR BETTERS
1933 - ****
One of my favorite recent TCM discoveries, this has great saucy dialogue and sophisticated ideas on lover-swapping, especially as concerns two ladies of title, the American-born heiress Lady Grayston (Constance Bennett) and her voracious Duchess pal Minnie (Violet Kemble-Cooper) and her constant gigolo, Pepi (Gilbert Roland). A weekend in the country is called for, REGLE DU JEU-style, wherein Grayston hopes to get it on in the poolside bath house with Pepi and placate Minnie with the guest of honor, a fey dance instructor named Earnest, the hardest to get houseguest in the whole of upper crust London. Meanwhile Anita Louise, Alan Mowbray, and others look on, askance.

George Cukor--as few have before or since--really shows how the right gay male at the right time makes any party ten times better and Earnest's last act entry really kicks home the idea of a weekend party's hungover Sunday. Maybe you know the feeling: you've had a great drunken time but now its Sunday and you can barely remember how and when you may have made a fool of yourself the night before. You're anxious to leave before brunch so you can get home to your private bar and video collection, but are stopped on the way out by the late arrival of the very person you'd been hoping would come the night before. This late arrival's lack of connection with last night's damage makes him like an embodiment of fresh starts and forgiveness as he just starts rearranging everyone's mood even as the butler's taking your bag out to the car. So who laughs last? Call Earnest a stereotype, but he's delightful and even gets the priceless closing line: "There's no finer sight in the world than.. two women of title, kissing each other!"

BEAST OF THE CITY 
1932 - ***
"Instead of the glorification of the gangster, we need the glorification of the policeman" explains the scroll from Herbert Hoover that opens BEAST OF THE CITY. Indirectly justifying the existence of police brutality, Hoover's letter finds its poster child in Captain 'Fightin'" Fitzgerald (Walter Huston), the Irish-Catholic representative of pre-Dirty Harry vigilante-mindedness, struggling to keep the streets of his nameless city clean while gangster-glorifying reporters gum up the works. Yes, it's MGM doing what Warners did best, a nose-to-the-pavement gangster picture, and trying to do what no other studio was dumb enough to try (except maybe Columbia), take Hoover seriously and apply bourgeois downward flowing morals to a lowbrow genre. Nothing is more anathema to genuine art than the lionization of working class 'values.' The only person who could ever make working class sentimentality seem genuine--since he damn well drunkenly believed in it--was John Ford. And BEAST director Charles Brabin is no John Ford.


All early gangster pictures were forced by citizen's groups to insert scenes of 'ordinary citizens' protesting newspapers' glorification of the gangster--these scenes were hep people's cues to go the rest room or refill their popcorn-- but in BEAST the citizen's groups have a point about who the real enemy is--the press! The cops endure a regular drubbing from the reporters who in turn influence the politicians, who need the favor of those reporters for campaign PR. Thus, the public's morbid interest in hoodlums itself indirectly breeds corruption in local government! Ladies and gentlemen, writs of habeas corpus are the tool of the mobster even more than Tommy guns! Huston could slap the truth out of 'em in five minutes, but the politicians have taken away his most important tool, his fists!  

Of course one thing that made the gangster film so alluring was its wrongness, and since MGM's idea of glorifying cops is to make them into brutish, cabbage-fed simpletons (scenes include Huston reading the funnies to son Mickey Rooney over pancakes before church and other pious drivel), you no longer get that giddy feeling of wrongness that comes from the best WB pictures, especially since the police brutality isn't directly shown. 


There are perks though: Wallace Ford is good as Figthing Fitz's brother, a cop who doesn't mind taking a drink once in awhile, especially if it's with Jean Harlow (as an unreformed moll in reformed moll clothing who sends Ford down a slippery path), and there's complex pre-code politics involving citizen's groups dictating the concessions corrupt politicians must make towards law and order, something that results in Huston being elected police chief. After his men applaud his first speech, Huston barks: "Never mind those open hands, ball em into fists and use 'em!"

But this approach also illuminates how prohibition creates contempt for the law: when you prosecute victimless crimes (no one is really glad when Fightin' Fitz closes all the bars) the more violent (and foreign) elements of gangland eagerly step in to fill the need. So while Ford gets corrupted by Harlow's smooching and bootleg booze maybe Fighting Fitz is indirectly the one to blame. Meanwhile, there's lots of heroin references, as when Fitz barks: "Take away your guns and your hops and you're yellow crawling maggots."  The liberal media may have enlightened us all to the dehumanizing racism in films like BLONDE VENUS, PRESTIGE, and CHANDU, but when it comes dehumanizing opiate addicts. well, some things just never go out of style.

3 comments:

  1. Chandu, the slave market. Is it really Irene Ware? I think this is June Lang...

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  2. Thanks, Tatum! you're right. I amend..ed.

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  3. I love Blonde Venus, for the very same reasons you mention -- it's like a funhouse reflection of the "women's movies" of the day. A few years ago I read in some book (maybe it was "The Films of Josef von Sternberg") a critique in which the writer was saying that Marlene in this film was a witch and her son was her demonic "familiar." At any rate, a cool spin on an already-cool film.

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