Thursday, May 05, 2011

pre-code capsules 5: WHITE WOMAN, RED DUST, GIRLS ABOUT TOWN, THE PURCHASE PRICE, MANDALAY

WHITE WOMAN
1933 - ****
Fans of KONGO, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS and Charles Laughton in general, phone your dealer and demand they remaster and restore this film and stop worrying about its controversial title; there's really not much in the way of miscegenation but! Charles Laughton as a psychopathic but otherwise borderline loveable rogue who operates a rubber plantation far deep in the tropics more than makes up for it. Employing escaped convicts and wanted men so they don't dare ever leave him, he bribes the natives to kill anyone who tries to escape, presuming the crocs don't get them first, which they usually do.

A truly marvelous scene occurs early on, when Laughton seduces Lombard out in Saigon or wherever by coming off all down to earth and humbled by the loss of his wife- it's truly touching and then for the rest of the film he's a bully in high MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY / LOST SOULS style. However, I think he's better and more sympathetic here than in either of those films, especially in his rivalry relationship with fellow jungle rat Charles Bickford, who shows up out of the soggy brush looking for a job bossing people around. Spotting Lombard, Bickford makes no bones about his intentions to steal her out from under his portly employer, but Charles would much rather have an honest rogue as his rival than the mealy-mouthed pretty boy who does steal Lombard's heart  (Kent Taylor).

Laughton is always hilarious and even touching with his little bits of actorly business, and you feel the pain at his new wife's revulsion towards him and his futile jealousy over the young Kent underneath his bravado and smirking. You hate him for shooting the porter's monkey but you'll cheer his poker-faced Englishness during the big native attack finale. Can you believe Laughton made ISLAND OF THE LOST SOULS the same year? Talk about a roll!

RED DUST
1932 - ****
Mo' rubber plantation action not on DVD, this time with Clark Gable in the Laughton role, so he does much better with the ladies, particularly Mary Astor (wed to a naive fever victim) and traveling 'salesgirl' Jean Harlow (she takes her famous rain barrel bath ). The plot is the usual W. Somerset Maughm-style steamy love triangle, in the jungle where white Christian decency melts in the heat and hellish monsoons. MGM keeps the lurid indecency on a tight chain but that one rainstorm kiss between a soaking wet Astor and Gable is hotter than hell.

I like what Rupert has to say about it on Classic Movies Digest:
As Barbara, Mary Astor is even more unwillingly libertine in her adulterous lust for Gable's Denny when one knows the background of the actress' torrid and infamous real life amours. The fireworks are in their scenes together as well. Early on when Astor slaps Gable hard for a verbal offense, he enjoys it, grinning that Gable grin from ear to ear. Then she can barely conceal her growing desire for him as she watches the strong, dark and commanding Denny hold her fair and weak husband, nursing him back to health from the fever. The comparison of the two is indeed notable to the tingly Astor. Then in the scene immediately following, Vantine happily and boldly watches Denny undress for bed, only to be told to go to her own, which she does in disappointment. These two ladies have it bad. 

GIRLS ABOUT TOWN
1931 - ***1/2
I saw this at the Film Forum about ten years ago during their first pre-code festival, with a packed, delighted audience, and it was a hoot and a holler and a half. Seeing it at home is still good, though it helps to have seen a lot of other pre-codes first so you understand the haphazard amorality brought on by the Great Depression, when so many women were broke and on the streets and hustling in a kind of gold-digger limbo between outright streetwalking and showgirl social climbing. Like Liz Taylor in BUTTERFIELD 8, the GIRLS also have a phone service to get their dates, and while one or two of them get happily reformed by the end the final shot is of our fearlessly amoral survivor calling that number for yet another victim. Kay Francis and Lillian Tashman are the girls. Joel McRae is the reformer; Eugene Pallette is the A-list sucker; Lucille Gleason is his hard-luck wife; George Cukor directed with his champagne touch already in evidence. Similar in a lot of ways to BED OF ROSES, and dozens of other features of the early sound era, the story is predictable, but pre-code to the core. Sure Francis reformed at the end but Tashman gets to keep her diamonds and booze, thus pleasing everyone all the time. 


THE PURCHASE PRICE
1932 - ***
Barbara Stanwyck has probably never looked sexier than trying to seduce dumbass sodbuster George Brent in this weird pre-code crowd-pleaser. Tired of life as a New York City singing slickster, Babs runs away from her gangster lover Lyle Talbot (he's obsessive and clingy, but still cooler than Brent), switching places with a Montreal hotel maid who was supposed to marry Brent via long distance matchmaking newspaper ads. It's not quite fair to the narrative the way Brent gradually changes from sullen hick to merely a college grad who's designed his own new kind of wheat germ but needs a bunch of money to pay the mortgage. Paramount's resident pre-code sleazebag David Landau (he was the villain in the Marx Brothers' HORSEFEATHERS - "Here's to dear old Darwin!" the same year) wants to buy the mortgage and get Babs as his, um, 'cook,' in the process (things aren't going great in the Babs-Brent marriage - she fends off his one lamely busted move and he sulks ever after).


The story's strictly from hicksville but Wellman gives us, as is his wont, lots of great nitty city and farm town grit: an abrupt ending; one pretty good barroom fight; a vividly etched and very drunken shivaree; terrible wallpaper; and lots of leering through open doorways. No grit in the world is so nitty it can best Stanwyck in a negligee and thigh high stockings, though. Seldom before has adult sexuality seemed so tangible, vulnerable and rock-hard tough, with this crazy sex woman so young, rail thin and undressed, and still wearing all the pants in sight.

MANDALAY
1934 - ***1/2
If you flee the country for killing a guy, and then the guy shows up alive, are you allowed to re-kill him? That is the question asked of many a pre-code heroine but few have handled it as coolly as Kay Francis in MANDALAY.  Ricardo Cortez is her no good gunrunner fiancee who leaves her behind in a Burma nightclub to pay his debt to shady club promoter Warner Oland. At first she refuses to stay, but then gets a hang of the game, changes her name to 'Spot White' and is soon so deep in the bedrooms and pockets of the rich and famous that the wives complain and demand the local law ship her farther up river. But on the riverboat to Mandalay who should show back up to mooch off her? Old Cortez, right when she's trying to make it with one of the ubiquitous archetypes of these jungle expeditions, the drug-addicted (or here, drunk) but good-hearted doctor (Lyle Talbot) heading up river to work on yellow fever victims, which--as we learned from W. Somerset Maugham--is a great way to pay off your malpractice or adulterous guilt.


The code came in around halfway through 1934, so the whole RAIN / PAINTED VEIL-ripped subgenre of jungle sin and redemption would soon be extinct in place of frilly frocks, domestic breakfasts with maids and children, dimwitted secretaries who knew their place, and other patriarchal balderdash, but here in MANDALAY things are still allowed to be rife with all the lurid trimmings: drugs, booze, depravity, prostitution, gun-running, miscegenation, and murder. Michael Curtiz directed so you know there's nary a dull moment, even when nothing happens, and Kay's seldom looked lovelier. Dig that slinky Orry-Kelly gown above! Oh you kid! Awooga! TCM, thank you thank you thank you.

3 comments:

  1. Red Dust is the only one of those I've seen, and I love it. Hollywood didn't always know what to do with Harlow, but that was perfect for her.

    Definitely want to check out White Woman and The Purchase Price - Lombard and Stanwyck FTW. And is Laughton actually a romantic lead in White Woman, to some degree? That would be...interesting.

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  2. Thanks for you comment, Jandy. I agree, Harlow can be a little shrill in the wrong role, but one of her strong points is durability - she stays above the bullshit however high it's piled, with ease. Hold your Man is another good Harlow. W

    Laughton is romantic for about 3 minutes in the opening scenes of White Woman, kind of fooling Lombard into thinking he's just a sad, gentle bachelor - the kind of loveable eccentric he played in THE OLD DARK HOUSE. but by the time they get to his jungle offices, you can read between the lines that whatever sex they've had has been, well, not good.

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  3. REG: White Woman
    I saw a restored 35MM print of this that made the rounds maybe 2 years ago and it looked great. I'd figure it would be coming out on another pre-code set, or at least one of those burn on demand DVDs. I don't like it as much as you did (I think Laughton chews the scenery to its detriment, and Carole looks lost), but I really dig the truly boffo climax.

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