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, the time before the code crushed womankind and made her wear ridiculous aprons and act in a fakely wholesome way the bougeois woman's groups felt would be better for the 'masses.' Here's some 90 proof:
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....
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.
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, 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!!!??
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.