Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pre-Code Capsules 9: BEHIND THE MASK, DR. X, TROUBLE IN PARADISE, BLESSED EVENT, THE BLUE ANGEL

BEHIND THE MASK
1932 - ***
The great forgotten Jack Holt plays the worst federal agent in the world  in this pulpy thriller, endangering his witnesses and letting himself be snowed over by any old disguise or pretense. His saving trait is a masochistic yen for weird undercover work; he's not afraid to go to jail and pose as a convict so he can win the trust of nervous flunky Boris Karloff, so he can hit him up later for a job in a racket that hides dope in caskets and is masterminded by a shadowy doctor. Edward Everett-Sloan is around and there's a vast spy network full of dark-eyed bit players.  Meanwhile Holt's girl, Constance Cummings, tries to save her dad, a doctor in 'a lot of trouble' and a little romance bloometh 'twixt her and Holt. And she's even remarkably capable with a .45, which is a switch for these things.

It all climaxes in a scene where the masked evil doctor makes a great show of refusing to give the tied-down Holt anesthetic for a planned vivisection, because he wants him to experience the magic moment when excruciating pain becomes ecstasy. Batailles-esque philosophy and dimestore pulp come together with the Universal horror stock company! But it's not until the last five minutes that it approaches the cock-eyed madness of any five minutes of DR. X (1933).

BLESSED EVENT
1932 - ***1/2
If you've been always a bit cold on Lee Tracy this is the film that will make you warm up. He's like Jimmy Cagney crossed with the adenoidal scarecrow as the quintessential fast-talking gossip columnist, ushering in a new low in journalism via the ratting out of 'blessed events' - i.e. children born less than nine months after the couple's been married, or outside of wedlock, or etc. Remember when that was a scandal? Me neither. Highlight: Tracy bluffs Allen Jenkins' mob hitman via a monologue about an electric chair execution he witnessed that brings Barrymore in TWENTIETH CENTURY-worthy manic pantomime to some balls-out ghastly places, such as his imitation of the wobbly walk to the chamber, his voice cracking with hysteria, body spazzing sharp and jerky like a Zulawski hero as he describes the anguish of waiting in hopes of  a reprieve, the shaky steps of the last mile, puking up the last meal, the rigor mortis and hair burning. It's the sort of thing that only the pre-codes could delve into, and this delves so deep you're quaking along with Jenkins by the end, and all traces of your dislike of Tracy have been obliterated.

Roy Del Ruth directed and the rapid patter pace is awesome except when Dick Powell's lame songs slow things down. Edwin Maxwell, Ned Sparks, Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins, Ruth Donnelly, Jack La Rue, and Rita Cunningham all come over to the table, adding plenty of moxy. Add references to Jews, ("Do you know many Jews there are in New York?" - "Oh, dozens!"), Amos and Andy, and a wild-eyed girl 'in trouble' begging for a reprieve herself, played with deranged ferocity and desperation by a ragged-looking creature named Isabell Jewell (left), and you have a whipsmack pre-code that makes your scalp stand on end. PS - You will also come out of this film learning what 'nadir' means.

TROUBLE IN PARADISE
1932 - ****
It took awhile for this pre-code Paramount to resonate with me, but now I dig that it doesn't 'Americanize' the dialogue like so many lazier Hollywood films, instead playing up the linguistic difficulties where everyone in Europe is constantly searching for the one language each of them knows just a little bit of, as in the excited way the Italian hotelier translates EE Horton's story of how he got robbed in his room.

Many viewings later I love the elaborate conveyance of gossip, so that Miriam Hopkins is getting verification requests from duchesses mere minutes after being spotted in the lobby of her lover by a nosy count. (and it's all rot, of course). While Herbert Marshall isn't Cary Grant, or Melvyn Douglas, or even Ronald Coleman, he swoons well and convinces you through two layers of subterfuge that he's genuinely confident in his sexuality, in love with the moon (he wants to see it reflected in champagne) and the women around him, each more beautiful than that moon.

And who wouldn't be in love with both Hopkins and rich perfumier Kay Francis? Hopkins displays her wide, loose midsection proudly in some tight-clinging dresses, giving you the vibe she moves from the center of her c-nt. I love the way their first kiss on the couch seems to make them slowly dissolve until the couch is empty--and Francis is at her most glamorous and poised, even while maintaining some of her flat-chested androgyne aura earlier films like THE COCOANUTS (1929). As always, Edward Everett Horton and Charlie Ruggles are effete, bitchy suitors; Gustav Von Seffeyritz  humbugs with gusto as the chairman of the board who suspects Marshall is a crook, just as he is. But who would be able to resist robbing Kay Francis?

"I'm a saaad panda..."
THE BLUE ANGEL
1930 - ***
BLUE ANGEL might best be understood as the chrysalis between the caterpillar of the silent era's 'deformed circus freak loves pretty trapeze artist' plot boilerplate which Acidemic contributor Budd Wilkins has termed the "masochistic melodrama" genre (See his fine Chaney reviews here)  and the sound era pre-code butterfly of the Hollywood Sternberg-Dietrich collaborations. As such it's neither here nor there, like watching Wallace Beery get stuck in the doghouse door trying to sneak out of the cast of MGM's FREAKS so he can defect to Paramount (though in truth, he went the reverse direction).

Either way, Emil Jannings is a damn unsightly kind of creepy crawler, way uglier and uncharismatic than Beery, and it's clear Sternberg can't stand him so rather than stir our sympathy, Jannings' out-maneuvered Herr Professor inspires nothing but disdain. His smug judgment of Lola and her postcards (which he finds in his student's schoolbooks) makes his downward spiral far less interesting, his slow motion expressionist pantomime reaching for grand tragedy in a way that makes you think Chaney is down to his last few faces. With his bug-eyed outraged head facing the camera from the same angle, round glasses and Satanic facial hair swirling, Jannings works very hard at keeping his head always in the center of the frame while his body twists and turns like a big old bug caught in a spider web. But to what effect? Nevah vanted doo.

 

Shot in Weimar Germany just before her Paramount-ordered nose job, molar removal, and strict diet, the Dietrich we see here could be her own sister, one who stayed in Berlin mit die schwarzwaldkuchen und bier. But Von Sternberg is in fine form; he lights the Blue Angel club like a crazy expressionist side show and if you focus in on the lighting and shadows as opposed to Jannings, it definitely does become the masterpiece so many claim.

Still, more than in any subsequent films, Sternberg's masochism in DER BLAU ENGEL is a downer. Always portraying the suitors of his lovely star Dietrich as buffoons, bug-eyed blowhards, shameless masochists, or authoritarian bullies (or else they rarely speak at all and operate as sex objects themselves, like Gary Cooper in MOROCCO), Von Sternberg's obsessions can sometimes seem the cinematic equivalent of a jealous, angry lover defacing pictures of his rivals even as his studio bosses insist he cast them. One would normally say of a Paramount pre-code that it's fun and sleazy but is it art? But in DER BLAU ENGEL we know it's art, and it's sleazy, but is it any fun?  Nein!

DR. X
1933 - ***1/2
Time and digital re-colorization has been kind to the early technicolor hues of DR. X. What used to look blurry and muddy and depressing now glitters with glowing emeralds, murky pinks and streaks of deep, bloody reds that make it like a candy fountain of shadowy death. Fay Wray is the daughter of Lionel Atwill, who gets lots of ham time as the titular Dr. Xavier, out to trap the "full moon killer" amongst his atmospherically-lighted collection of scientific colleagues, each of whom grows more indignant and suspicious the longer we hang out in their labs: Dr. Welles has made a 'study' of cannibalism and keeps a heart alive in an 'electrolysis solution' but his missing arm preempts further suspicion; Dr. Haines on the other hand was shipwrecked for years on a desert island and his tasty, plump colleague was never found; Dr. Rowen studies lunar rays' effects on criminal minds but notes that "the lunar rays will never effect you and me, sir, because we are 'normal' people." Mmm...hm.


And dig the post-modern self-reflexivity of the the climax, with the doctors all chained to their chairs, their pulses linked to vials of blood that overflow like a buzzer at the top of a Coney Island strength tester when they're aroused by the murder tableaux staged before them, just like you in the audience! Scream ladies and gentlemen! The Tingler is in this theater! In the subtext, the duality inherent in language gets a lot of subliminal attention too: Xavier's outrage over each of the new accusations of his colleague belies its antithesis: "Dr. Rowen could never never be the guilty one," means the opposite, while Lee Tracy regularly promises not to do something while then turning around and doing it, as expected by the morgue attendants and security guards he bribes to look the other way. Meanwhile, Xavier's grave pronouncements of things like "There can be no doubt about it, gentlemen - this is cannibalism!" are allowed no argument since they carry his medical weight. And now that you're not annoyed by Lee Tracy anymore (see BLESSED EVENT) maybe you wont want to tear his picture apart with your bare hands when you learn he gets Fay Wray in the end. Chained for your own amusement, indeed.

2 comments:

  1. I've tried to get through Behind the Mask but just couldn't make it. I think my favorite part was that looong scene of Constance Cummings racing in her car to catch Jack Holt before his plane took off, while a rear screen projector runs behind her.

    The Blue Angel I would argue is the least of the Sternberg/Dietrich films. One of these days I intend to watch the English-language version.

    Trouble in Paradise is awesome. I thought Herbert Marshall a boring sap before I'd seen it, but then I'd only seen him in DeMille's "Four Frightened People," where he was grossly out of his element. He's also very good in the screwball film "If Only You Could Cook."

    Interesting to note that the black and white version of Dr. X is a wholly different film, with different shots and takes throughout the movie. This can partly be seen in the trailer which is included with the DVD -- the trailer is for the black and white version. Ironically this version hasn't officially been released on DVD, but of course exists on the gray market. However nothing -- NOTHING! -- could make me not want to rip up a photo of Lee Tracy.

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  2. Thanks Joe, I had no idea there was a b&w X. You should see Blessed Event --it sounds like some unbearable women's picture but it's the complete opposite. Still, Herbert Marshall is a drag outside of Lubitsch land. I'd glay tear up his picture if it was a still from BLONDE VENUS.

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