Friday, April 15, 2011

Pre-Code Capsules 3: THE SECRET 6; SMART WOMAN, TARZAN, BLONDE CRAZY, THE MATCH KING


It was kind of disconcerting to hear Alec Baldwin and David Letterman this week discussing their love of old films, with Dave adding they start getting good only from after 1934. Say whaaa? Dude, Acidemic readers know the best cinematic times are the eras Letterman doesn't like, the post-silent/pre-code era of 1929-1934, before the code crushed womankind and made her wear ridiculous aprons and act in a fakely wholesome way the bourgeois woman's groups felt would be better for the 'masses.' Here's some 90 proof:


THE SECRET 6
1931 - ***
 Wallace Beery get top billing in this protean (for MGM) gangster drama set in gritty downtown Chicago (there's some chilling tracking shots of stockyards). Hard to believe Beery was once a huge box office draw, playing burly ruffians opposite Jackie Cooper or Marie Dressler. Times sure were different! Here he plays a ruffian stockyard worker nicknamed "Slaughterhouse" who leaves that job to become a gangster during prohibition, and eventually runs for mayor on the "pig-sticker" ticket, with the stockyards howling and mooing away behind his podium.

Andre Bazin would approve of this film since it operates on a loose semi-documentary style: lots of interiors packed with extras and activity and a sense of real time via long uninterrupted takes in medium frame. Everyone speaks slowly and carefully for the early sound equipment.  If nothing else it makes for an invaluable record of Chicago in the actual prohibition era. We see: press rooms, stockyards, nightclubs, bottling plants, breweries, money changing hands, receipt tallying, shakedowns, political rallies, checks being written, highjacking, and blackmail. The cast includes Lewis Stone as the bitter Irish rival, Jean Harlow as a 'hired to hook ya' nightclub hatchecker, and Clark Gable a two-timing no good rat finkwhyIoughtta....

SMART WOMAN
1931 - ** 1/2
Thanks to the light touch of director Gregory (MY MAN GODFREY) La Cava this soggy farce is pretty light on its feet, even with all that dead air, early sound hiss and TCM's print all but faded to light grey. Mary Astor stars as the martyrishly modern wife who comes home from a trip abroad to find her husband, Don (Robert Ames) wanting a divorce and planning to marry a blonde gold digger (Noel Francis) with a claw-hooked mother (Gladys Gale). Once again the gender neutral fuddy-duddy-isms of Edward Everett Horton (the pre-code Michael Cera?) attempt to liven the stiltedness. When Horton comes to pick Mary Astor up from the docks in a huge crowd scene there's a brief, horrifying minute when I thought he was the husband Astor's been boasting of to Sir Guy Harrington (John Halliday) during the voyage. Things get better when Don's gold digger hits it off with Sir Guy during a strangely sexy bicycle ride. Dewy, wild-eyed and seductive, she really wakes up the film in this scene, the exercise perhaps kicking in the bootleg backstage hooch   in her system, but the zzz's are never far behind, struggling to catch up like Edward Everett Horton on a girl's bike.

TARZAN, THE APE MAN 
1932 - ***1/2
There's been so many kid-friendly TARZAN films, from the silent era up through Disney's animated version, that it's easy to forget the first two films with Weissmuller were adult, intense, and uber-lurid. TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934) gets most of the press, thanks to a nude swimming scene (restored!), wild-ass battles and sexy chemistry between Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan in the hottest loincloth of any Jane ever. But if you can get past the dull-ish first half, which is a lot of mismatched rear screen projection of Maureen wandering past ceremonial dances, the original 1932 TARZAN is just as awesome. The big climax--a tribe of pygmies throws Jane and her father into a pit with a flesh-rending ape monster--is still unparalleled in sheer lurid extremity. A more terrifying version of the lollipop guild, the studio used real African American and African dwarfs in the scene, and to see them all decked-out in exotic furs and fangs swarming around the pit, yelling and screaming for blood, man oh man.... it's so splendidly disturbing, and racist and wrong, you may never want to watch it again, after just twenty more times...

BLONDE CRAZY
1931 - ***
A Warner Brothers Cagney film with lots of good-natured slapping, BLONDE CRAZY's got a little something for everyone... to be offended by, sooner or later, but nothing more shocking than seeing James Cagney--wearing lots of white make-up and eye shadow--getting taken for a sucker by Louis Calhern during a trip to the big city.  Wait... what? Louis Calhern!!!??

Noel Francis
Cagney starts out a bus boy and hooks up with Joan Blondell to implement his scrapbook full of scams. She's the cheese, he's the mousetrap, get me? Guy Kibbee's the first sucker they trim, his roll gets them to 'a big city' and all is well... at first. Cagney in these scenes is already super-modern and hip and making fun of the crisp early sound way other actors talk (Alec Baldwin did an impression of it on the aforementioned Letterman appearance) but I can't stand seeing him get took by the dude who'd later lose a war to Groucho Marx in DUCK SOUP (1933). Am I right, bud? Would you want to see John Wayne get his ass kicked by Franklin Pangborn? And speak of the devil, Noel Francis (above) is as dewy and weird-eyed in her few scenes as Calhern's chippy as she was for that hot bike scene in SMART WOMAN. More please! There's also an impossibly young Ray Milland as a wall street swine who sends Blondell tomes of love poetry (Cagney reads some Browning in amusing style) and look fast for a 'good luck' swastika key chain.

THE MATCH KING
1932 - ***
Thanks to TCM we've had the chance to discover a lot of pre-code stars that fell by the wayside over the years. Perhaps it's because being in the shadows helped stave off the draining of endless imitation. Warren William is one such fella, here as droll and pleasingly devilish as a no-good embezzler can be in a loosely biographical portrait of Ivar Kreuger, the guy who cornered the market on matches in the 20s via counterfeit bonds and inventing the idea of 'three on a match' to help sell more boxes. There's plenty of vicarious thrills in watching the swift rise and sudden crashing fall of William's smooth talker and his literal house of matchsticks. Incidentally, David Letterman mentioned this movie in that discussion with Alec Baldwin this week, though Baldwin hadn't heard of it. Baldwin, you'd do well to absorb a little Warren in your already scintillating rogue repertoire! He's just your type.

4 comments:

  1. Erich, after seeing too many of the kiddie Tarzans I can't help cheering whenever I see that ape-monster use Cheeta like a mallet on a cockroach and throw the poor wretch away like so much litter. It always disappoints that Cheeta survives.

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  2. I can't believe Letterman said that about pre-34 flicks. That boy has it backwards.

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  3. How do we get our mitts on these other than catching them on TCM? Any good sources?

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  4. Peres, there's always ioffer.com, where graymarket titles abound. But then again, TCM keeps these comin' fast and furious, just tivo everything made between 1929 and 1934 and you can't go wrong.

    KC, thanks for agreeing and Samuel, you're damned right. Chimpanzees are notoriously unstable and uncouth creatures. As the series developed, more and more footage was wasted on his spastic antics. Then when 'boy' came around, and the Home and Gardens jungle duplex, well, include me out.

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