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 wholesome, in ways bourgeois woman's groups felt would be better for the 'masses.' Here's some 90 proof good stuff, before they gummed the works:
THE SECRET 6
1931 - ***
Wallace Beery gets top billing in this protean MGM gangster drama set in gritty downtown Chicago (there's some chilling stockyard tracking shots). Hard to believe Beery was once a huge box office draw, playing burly ruffians opposite Jackie Cooper or Marie Dressler; he had a certain gruff charm sure, but when he left, he took the hopes of big ugly lugs to make A-list money with him. Here he plays a ruffian stockyard worker nicknamed "Slaughterhouse" who leaves off hog killing to become a gangster (prohibition made it a sound career move), eventually running 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: press rooms, stockyards, nightclubs, bottling plants, breweries, various ways to stash and distribute (putting bottles inside other things for delivery, etc.) money changing hands, receipt tallying, shakedowns, political rallies, checks being written, highjacking, and blackmail. Lewis Stone is his bitter Irish rival, Jean Harlow a sexy nightclub hatcheck girl whose real job is to hook reporters so they glorify the gangsters in the press, and Clark Gable a two-timing no good rat finkwhyIoughtta.... who tips off her latest patsy.
1931 - ** 1/2
Thanks to the light touch of director Gregory La Cava this soggy farce is pretty light on its feet, even with excessive early sound hiss and TCM's print all but faded to light uniform grey. Mary Astor plays a martyrishly modern upscale wife who comes home from a trip abroad--faithful to her husband Don (Robert Ames) all the while--only to find he's taken up with a blonde gold digger (Noel Francis), and her claw-hooked mother (Gladys Gale). Once again the gender neutral fuddy-duddy-isms of Edward Everett Horton attempt to liven the stiltedness. He 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 her would-be lover Sir Guy Harrington (John Halliday) during the voyage. Things get better when the blonde 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
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... like 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? Senior Trentino of Sylvania? Mrs. Teasdale, I'm afraid this has forced our countries into war!
There's also an impossibly young Ray Milland as a Wall Street swine who sends Blondell tomes of love poetry (Cagney reads some of the 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, but seeing these guys in action at last over so many films it's like finding a holy grail that might lift current cinematic masculinity of its wussy gutter. 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. It's not after 1934, Dave, it's until.