Monday, July 25, 2011

Pre-Code Capsules VII: LOVE IS A RACKET, HEAT LIGHTNING, THE BIG SHAKEDOWN, THE KEYHOLE, TARZAN THE FEARLESS

LOVE IS A RACKET
1932 - ***
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. fares well in Clark Gable hair and soul as Jimmy the gossip hound in this ultra-typical (in the best of ways) WB film of the era. As a columnist who tangles over Francis Dee with generic gangster Lyle Talbot, Fairbanks races around and seeks counsel from fellow reporters Lee Tracy and Ann Dvorak who are hep enough to know their boy's getting taken to the cleaners by slumming Dee, but keep their yaps shut like a true pal.


There's nothing quite like this film's ambitiously cynical ending, the sort of loose-ended defiance of the crime-must-pay adage only possible in pre-code conditions.  Dialogue is pitched at such a darkly cynical height that censors ears weren't young enough to hear it: "Looks like you been up at Sing Sing looking at a burning!" Sex is everywhere, as when Tracy and Dvorak are out at a nightclub eating dinner and she says "if you loved me half as much as you love that steak I'd break down out of self-pity" (meaning throw him a sympathy fuck, yo!) Fairbanks describes Dee--to her face!--as having "a beautiful can." and that she's "as pretty as a little red wagon." Lots of phone calls are made and received. The TCM print looks real nice. Can't go wrong with a rooftop in the rain spying on murders that you thought about committing yourself, and now don't have to... that's pre-gode cold!

HEAT LIGHTNING
1934 - ***1/2
Saucy pre-code Warner Brothers at its best. All that's missing is Barbara Stanwyck but here's punchy Aline McMahon maybe even better, as a semi-butch mechanic at a lonesome desert gas station / auto camp, haunted by the usual Petrified gangsters: one is Lyle Talbot as a shaky safecracker and Preston Foster is the other, and happens to be McMahon's ex boyfriend from when she was an adventuress out in Tulsa. Ann Dvorak meanwhile is her usual vivacious self as Aline's naive sister, and gets the most pre-code juice when she returns from a dance at dawn, dumped on the curb by the town's most notorious womanizer; her face puffy, her lipstick long ago kissed and licked off; limping in her tattered dress... and when Aline asks, Dvorak cries "you're too late, anyway!!" Whatever that means, after 1934 and the advent of the code it sure wouldn't happen again.  And if that's not enough: Bang! Bang! And the heat lightning is no mere metaphor. Frank McHugh adds beery acumen as an easygoing chauffeur for two bespangled divorcees (Glenda Farrell, Ruth Donnelly) who become stranded on their way back from Reno since he's tired of driving and good at faking car troubles. At one point they're drinking Cokes and complaining the rumors must be false, 'cuz they don't feel the effects of the 'aspirin' in it) so they switch to beer. A Mexican family meanwhile sings 'round the fire out back, the heat lightning crackles in the distance, Talbot whispers nervously to Foster, and the police radio crackles with news of the escaped bandits. Don't worry, McMahon has it all under control. One of the guys dies and his last words are "ah, who cares?" We do, maybe for the first time ever.

THE BIG SHAKEDOWN
1934 - **
An informal little Vitaphone crackler that seems more dated and hokey than the year would seem to allow, but hey, there's Bette Davis, still stealing scenes as a perky counter girl rather than a dramatic roof-burner. While she pines for straight edge pharmacist Charlie Farrell, he gets roped into counterfeit drug manufacture by a mobster (Ricardo Cortez) who needs a new line of work since the repeal of prohibition ended his liquor running business. He's looking for a new product to make with all that leftover equipment, so why not bootleg pills he can shake down unwilling druggist throats? Seems a stretch and Farrell's a bore. Glenda Farrell (no relation) is great as a cat-fightin' moll, but neither she or Davis get enough screen time to liven things up. The only glimmers of termite originality occur via Cortez's breezy leadership and fondness for his mug underlings, all played by WB stalwarts like Allen Jenkins, who's scared of the drug business, 'cuz his brother's in jail for 20 years "and he only had two decks of coke on 'im."

See, before they took the cocaine out of Coke (tm) they didn't have that problem: Coke should have coke in it, anything less and it can't be 'the real thing.' It's false advertising! What a fucked up system! In point of fact, the worst culprit for stepping on medication is the big corporations themselves! And if they hadn't made beer illegal in the first place, mugs like Cortez would never have gotten their first taste of big business. That's not part of the implied moral here, but it should be, as there's little else to go on if you're immune to Farrell's pipsqueak integrity. Niven Busch was a screenwriter, which probably explains the moments of gang camaraderie and business insight.

THE KEYHOLE
1931 - **1/2
Monroe Owsley specialized in sleazy gigolo bad guy roles (see: CinemArchetype 13). Here he even wears an odious greasepaint mustache and his ex-wife Kay Francis is a constant victim of his two-bit blackmail schemes. She's "happily" remarried to an older man who's terribly rich and jealous, to the point he hires gigolo detective George Brent to catch her in the act and/or seduce her himself to validate his geriatric paranoia. The supporting roles couple are played by Allen Jenkins, who you may remember from THE BIG SHAKEDOWN) and Ruth Donnelly (HEAT LIGHTNING) as a schemer who thinks Jenkins is the rich one. The problem is, Brent is so annoyingly full of himself that halfway through the film you start to appreciate Owsley who at least displays some self-loathing. In fact you can't really scrape a single human character worth saving out of this mess, but Francis does look amazing in those feathered hats and capes (courtesy Orry-Kelly) and pre-Castro 'free country' (when that meant no prohibition) Havana Cuba is 'intoxicating,' even if it's all rear-projected and drenched in overlapping nightclub montage.

TARZAN THE FEARLESS 
1933 - **1/2
A twelve chapter serial was shot, according to star Buster Crabbe, in a week, on the back lot, several years before FLASH GORDON. Crabbe's pretty buff but he has a yell that sounds more like a man getting a prostate exam than Weissmuller's archetypal yodel. Julie Bishop, aka Jacqueline Wells (THE BLACK CAT), is the sweet young thing at the heart of it all; her dad discovered a lost tribe of ancient Egyptians led by Mischa Auer (who holds a candle eternally at his chin so his eyes always have that spooky bughouse aura) and she's got to find him. One of her evil white guides steals a gem, and it's on. 

The film version condenses all twelve chapters down to a short film and the action goes fast and repetitive until it's all just a meaningless stream of pith-helmeted actors running back and forth; rifles being aimed; Tarzan swinging to the rescue; some more running, animal fight stock footage; and the chimp. The two bad hunters are continually allowed to tag along even though everyone knows they're the bad guys (one presumes 'cuz white folk need to stick together in Africa, even if they're mortal enemies, and that's racist). Eventually TARAZAN THE FEARLESS runs over so much ground with such a diverse surplus of stock footage and mismatched stunt doubles that the best way to take it is as some post-modern found art collage. TCM showed it as part of their Arabs in Cinema series, because some Arabs show up with a sexy sultana as their leader. Halfway through the film these Arabs just disappear, but whatever. Tarzan... dives... again!

2 comments:

  1. Totally agree about Love Is a Racket - it's enormous fun.

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  2. Anonymous26 July, 2011

    I saw Tarzan the Fearless in my early teens, when I was into all things Tarzan. What sticks in my mind are the incredible aerial stunts, not just swinging from tree to tree, but from vine to another vine hundreds of feet off the ground. Only possible because the Depression made available many desperate circus aerialists.

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