Thursday, December 08, 2011

Pre-Code Capsules 10: DAMES, BEAUTY AND THE BOSS, THE DARK HORSE, SVENGALI, THE MIND READER

DAMES
1934 - ***
Unlike breezier and more trenchant selections from the Gold Diggers series, the Busby Berkeley choreographed DAMES suffers from a hefty share of hick humor. As the allegedly fuddy and assuredly duddy Uncle Ezra, Hugh Herbert's giddy titter has not gone quite gold with age. One of those sexophobic millionaires who likes to form abstinence societies, Ezra promises to award his rube cousin-in-law Guy Kibbee ten million, provided he refrains from tobacco and alcohol and behaves according to fuddy custom during Herbert's stay in New York. Kibbee's wife, Ezra's cousin, Zasu Pitts seems uptight enough with her spindly walk and wavery voice, but Herbert is way too hiccup-ridden to convince as a reformer. Much shrill bowing and scraping ensues, especially since the daughter is Ruby Keeler, which means her beau is Dick Powell, and neither is about to bow and scrape to some old world reformer when there's pettin' in the park to be done.

WC Fields might call this "a double bargain..."
Ezra's also a hypocrite who cries for Dr. Silver's Golden Elixir whenever he gets the hiccups, apparently oblivious to the fact that it's 77% alcohol. And thus vice, as it so often must, takes the long way around, through the pharmacy, to penetrate the guarded heart of the morally uptight.


Small wonder - DAMES came out in 1934, the year real-life versions of Uncle Ezra killed the spirit of louche cinematic insouciance in its cradle, i.e. ending the pre-code era. While Busby undoubtedly detests Ezra, it's no fun watching him suffer; we came for breezy laffs and psychedelic dance numbers not Tea Party-style hysterics. It's too close to home, man. Too relevant.

Meanwhile the fact that Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell take a ferry to Staten Island to sing while they're supposed to be bringing some of Dr. Silver's Golden Elixir to Uncle Ezra, who is hiccuping nonstop,  and driving Zazu and Kibee into a frenzy of anxiety, leaves an odd aftertaste in the minds of we sensitive viewers, as does seeing Powell get ripped off by a sleazy producer. Joan Blondell is the much wiser chorus girl who gets her hooks into Kibbee for the show's budget while on a train to the city from upstate.



It all comes down to Herbert hiring some goons to trash the show, forgetting he did so and getting smashed on the Elixir, which at last is found, and though it all ends happily enough, Herbert's sour attitude lingers in the mind. Thank god he gets arrested, takes a shine to Blondell, and announces he has officially given his old fashioned moral code the raspberry. If only...


The songs include "Dames" and "I Only Have Eyes for You," which gets real post-modern meta with the opening of the number taking place in the crowd outside the theater and winding up on the subway -- it takes on the feel of an SNL opening sketch with the host running backstage or out onto the Rockefeller Plaza as the cameras follow him out of the studio. It can be very confusing until you remember Busby bows to no man when it comes to blurring the fourth wall. As typical with him, the show within the film is a hundred times more like a movie than the stagy off-stage action. Soon Ruby Keeler is shooting up through a hole in a giant eye, and there's psychedelic flower leg shows, the fogeys are having a blast guzzling 79% alcohol-by-volume elixir (that's 158 proof!), and profits, publicity, and credits mercifully ensue.


BEAUTY AND THE BOSS
1932 - ***1/2

 Warren William is in his lascivious wolf prime as an Austrian business tycoon who avoids the temptation of his secretaries by firing them if they catch his eye... then inviting them to stay for drinks and arranging to keep them as mistresses. In his own way he's a Prince Charming forced by expediency to be his future bride's fairy godmother, doling out pink slip glass slippers and six month salary stipends instead of ball tickets.

Enter a Cinderella to make George Bernard Shaw light up, the button-cute Marian Marsh (Trilby to Barrymore's SVENGALI the same year). A worker of the starving class, she's super efficient and methed-out on hunger. Showing the same ease and playfulness here that she had with all those long bearded old painters in SVENGALI, Marsh gets taken to Paris on business and transforms into a wide-eyed jubilant sprite in a sexy evening dress. David Manners as Williams' brother tries the earnest pretty boy approach to win her; Frederick Kerr ("Here's to the house of Frankenstein!") tries the lovable duffer approach; but only Warren has the louche captain of industry approach this Ayn Randy popinjay craves. She even gleans tips on being sexy from one of Warren's other mistresses.

You can tell by the breathless dialogue pace, continuity and its relatively few sets that BEAUTY AND THE BOSS was once a play - so think Lubitsch in froth and Hecht in pace as well as Shaw in satirically pro-capitalist philosophy and Brecht in unflinching depiction of how a starving waif will gladly becomes an office machine automaton if it means eating regularly. As in SVENGALI, the great Anton Grot did the sets.

Marion Marsh and wolves (Top: Beauty and the Boss / b: Svengali)
SVENGALI
1931 - ***1/2
There's three reasons to see this weird, lilted pre-code: John Barrymore's florid hamming as Svengali; Marian Marsh's sweet face and alabaster beauty as Trilby (cute in an oversize Parisian officer's topcoat;) and those crazy Anton Grot sets. The latter includes super wide doors, a nicely dilapidated Moroccan night club and Parisian rooftop miniatures seen in an extended crane shot from Barrymore's eyes to Trilby's apartment. For all its stodgy slowness, SVEN has a special magic, if for no other reason than these three ingredients mesh so wondrously off-kilter as Svengali clowns around with his Leperillo-ish companion one minute then sends a foolish housewife to her death in the next. Killing makes him hungry apparently so he heads over to do some mooching off Paddy and the Laird, more humor, then stealing Trilby and proclaiming her mouth has a roof like the Parthenon! Billee (Bramwell Fletcher) is her earnest, naive young lover, smitten and thinking of marriage until he sees her posing in the nude for Paddy and his painter brethren and runs away in horror. Good riddance! As Barrymore's own Oscar Jaffee might exclaim, "That eliminates the lover!"


Barrymore's great of course, but even for fans he relies an awful lot on his old schtick of clutches his heart with one hand and extending the other out before him like he's trying to find the light switch in the dark, crying "Ack! Ack!" One wonders what Warren William would have done with such a part! Actually one knows exactly. Directed by the one and only Archie Mayo.

THE DARK HORSE
1932 - **
Allegedly a comedy about a random rube (Guy Kibbee) picked by shady power elites to run for New York State governor, DARK HORSE is really more a polemic against impulse marriage than a political satire. Warren William is the ingenious PR man who sways the hick vote but he's dogged by a vicious ex-wife who hounds him for astronomical alimony. She later tries to seduce Kibbee into a frame-up of the "love nest... with singer" variety. At Warren's right hand all the while is Frank McHugh, wryly observing that Kibbee's "ready for the KKK" when he sees him in fleeing the nest in his long johns.


Funny for sure, and disturbing, but a lengthy scene at campaign headquarters with the ex-wife having a tantrum and threatening to call the cops if he doesn't cough up four hundred smackers for alimony is kind of not what pre-codes are all about.  And Kibbee's not as endearing here as one would expect. He's playing the stupid hick a bit too broadly, flashing his terrible teeth and awesome belly like we didn't notice them the first 12 times. Meanwhile Bette Davis has a pretty thankless role as Williams' girlfriend and right-hand woman. She's still good and spritely... but really --WW scrounging for money to pay a gold digger? It's not right we should have to see that.

 THE MIND READER
1933 - ***
Williams starts out a sideshow dentist but he and his pal Allen Jenkins get a load of a fortune teller on easy street...and Chandra the Magnificent is born! Jenkins is right to be aggrieved when "Chandra" falls for a gorgeous local girl (Constance Cummings) whose mother 'loses' her handbag to Jenkins' nimble fingers. Williams marries the daughter, even though she's clearly not too bright since she falls under the spell of a cheap carny hack so easily.

With the spooky subject matter and Williams as a star, THE MIND READER should be better than it is; silly bits of plot waste time when the real story is in the dialogue (rather than the action) which runs counter to the grain of the approaching code. Jenkins makes a good case for why it's better to rule in hell than slowly starve to death selling fuller brushes in a desperate bid for moral character, but Williams is still trying to reform! Why? It's still 1933, after all, no one is making him! Jenkins meanwhile gets a posh chauffeur job and pays the other drivers for addresses of where the husbands are cheating on their wives and passes the dope to Williams, who tells the ladies of the husband's infidelities from his ball, and everyone cleans up but the husbands, who are soon coming in to see Chandra themselves, with murder on their minds.

In the end, Williams turns to drink and reveals his tricks onstage, disillusioning and slur-sobbing uncontrollably to the assembled rubes, "I've broken my home!" Williams playing drunk is like James Dean playing drunk in GIANT--in other words, doubly slurred to the point of true incoherence. And the crowd roars!


While it may sound like a second thought tackiness, tasty insights into the lurid lengths men went to get laid in the 1930s are coded in chocolate and sprinkled all over the salty dialogue in THE MIND READER, saving it from being too contrite. When Williams originally says he's going to marry Cummings, Jenkins asks, "Legally?" If you wonder what that means in pre-code parlance, it's where--as seen in WAY DOWN EAST (1921)--you dress a friend up as a preacher so your girl thinks you're legally wed, then you fuck and run before she gets wise. Just more grisly evidence of the fall-out from archaic double standards. There's also prohibition repeal references: Jenkins gets the best last word as his pal heads off to Sing Sing: "Sure is tough to be going away just when beer's coming back." Amen bruddah.

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