Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Friday, January 04, 2013


(1930)- William A. Seiter
There once was a hoary old saw, told time and again, about a gold-digging vamp luring a naive small town boy (or family man in mid-life crisis mode) away from his Tess Trueheart (or long-suffering saint of a wife or girlfriend), fleecing him with her pimp beau and then crashing him on the big city rocks and returning him to said Tess/wife a wiser, broker man. This saw was trite and done to death even by the end of the silent age. Griffith learned this when he got jeers for his 1928 re-telling THE BATTLE OF THE  SEXES. The jazz age exposed the small town values this saw was forged from as cheapest tin, but a smart director could use its hoary rep to his advantage, playing off the pre-existing tropes for wry modern incisions, as Seiter does in THE TRUTH ABOUT YOUTH. The vamp here is called "the Firefly" and played by Myrna Loy as a swinging siren in the midst of luring the weak-willed "Imp" (David Manners) away from the arms of his loving older mentor-guardian, Richard (Conway Tearle) and the Trueheart the guardian hopes he'll marry (Loretta Young). Flanked his two cronies from the war, Richard has been scheming to get the two together because he never dared hope... he never  thought... he never dreamed that all this while...why, he's old enough to be her father!

The code would make dating girls half your age fairly difficult, unless you were Gary Cooper, say, or Cary Grant and safely inside a Billy Wilder movie, which is why here it's so vital, cool, and necessary to break the saw at last. As the Imp, the usually square David Manners gets to cut loose in a few scenes, like the one above where he staggers in from the speakeasy, drunk as a lord. And there's an almost Capra-esque level of humanity at work: the Firefly turns jake and gives Richard back his deposit once her own forgiving sugar daddy shows up to whisk her away to Paris. Griffith never would have approved, but Humbert Humbert would! Did I give away the plot? No, because if you didn't know it's subversive roundhouse back end kick, you'd probably shy away once the saw got going because though Myrna Loy is, as always a delight, there's not a whole lot else going on as actors swim through the thick hissing air of early studio sound recording. So it helps maybe to know that where it's going ends up being surprisingly sophisticated.

(1932) Dir Elliot Nugent, James Flood
 *** 1/2
Something soothing and unusual like a return to some primordial 'last gasp in the womb' memory, can be found in this sassy and heartfelt yet not mawkish ensemble film that spends a few days and nights in the maternity ward of a NYC hospital. Lanky comic Aline McMahon is the savvy head nurse and Glenda Farrell is a showgirl giving twins up for adoption (she hides booze in her hot water bottle and sings "Frankie and Johnny" with ward-tailored lyrics). Loretta Young is a convicted murderer allowed to reside in the ward, unchained, until her baby is born; the baby daddy is a twitchy little rat of a kid bouncing around the marbled foyer; Frank McHugh is another nervous papa. If you know Young's love of playing the martyr you don't need to ask what happens to her and her baby, but that's mostly offscreen. This was the age, after all, long before Lamaze or rules like no cigar smoke in the waiting room. Things are so primitive there are even mentions of rules that later proved detrimental to infant and mom's well-being, like keeping them separate as much as possible after birth, avoiding breastfeeding at all costs (so unsanitary!) and denying your infant any maternal affection.

I also love how the film never strays from that one floor of the hospital, except for one or two small scenes on other floors or drug stores. The closeness creates a real sense of atmosphere and camaraderie and since the women are all nice, pretty, younger moms it even engenders a glow of being back as an infant, and safe and warm and looked after, sleeping in a big building with awake people all around you all night, and since it's not HALLOWEEN 2 or VISITING HOURS there are no slashers, just an escapee woman from the psychopathic ward. In short, even if like me you hate the remotest glimmer of mawkish pro-life sentiment, you'll like this. Rather than remind you of the road not taken, it will remind you of your own infancy... and the comfort of the giant maternal image.

(1930) - Dir William Beaudine
Loretta Young playing two different characters, separated by birth: one's a vagabond raised by two Runyanesque burglars; the other a socialite they're planning to rob. Though the sisters have never met, they have an ESP connection! The majority of the film occurs in and around the rich one's townhouse with the pauper posing as the princess so she can let her cronies in from the roof, but everything is locked and only the butler has the key and a cop comes to investigate and keeps telling racist jokes instead of leaving. Meanwhile, the old matron forgot her headache powders so the princess is on her way back. As Capt. Flynn would say, prepare the decks for pleasant action!

Originally a stage play, the fluid direction gives us a real 'you are there' sense, with the burglars in that split level mansion (probably used a two story stage, which the balcony no doubt loved) adding a real sense of who's where at any given time which is a great help to the comical cat and mouse antics, but what else is there? Margaret--the rich girl-- has a lot of money, but her romantic suitor looks like a combination Chico Marx and young Edward Everett Horton. Yeech! The best part is the ESP angle--"you read it from her mind? that's funny, Barbara can, too!" The pre-Code era is still amongst our most enlightened as far as exploring the shades of psychic ability and unpunished crime, two things the Breen office did not approve of, especially from women. Beaudine directed with more attention to camera angles than he would later pay to films like RETURN OF THE APE MAN. But only just.

(1931) - Dr. William McGann
A pre-Frankenstein Boris Karloff is a butler! Douglas Fairbanks stares and grins like a jackanapes as he woos--rather irritatingly at first-- gorgeous Loretta Young, who's been promised by her oily treasurer of an unnamed South American country father to an old lech who promises to restore dad's 'borrowed' funds in exchange for her alabaster hand in wedlock. Helping Douglas overcome these sordid odds: Claude Allister, specialist in the urbane best friend roles, and in hindsight a great, gay character actor. Funny that Douglas almost seems gayer than Allister thanks to that 'leftover-from-the-silents' code of male conduct that says a gentleman's face should always be locked into a mirthless smile death mask, with all teeth bared... in every scene. It took awhile before that icky silent film trend died out, but it did, thanks to Richard Barthelmess.

As a shade of things to come, Young calls her priest every five minutes (as she would in real life) but I don't begrudge her that in this case since it fits the time and uber-Catholic South American place. And as a radiant 17 year-old she can still make a movie worth watching just by wearing long sparkly black gloves and a sparkly black evening gown. Her eyes are so big and wet they seem sketched softly by some specialist in limpid pools.

1930 - ****

Even more so than in other films from 1930, LOOSE ANKLES finds Young looking so super sexy she's almost a completely different person than in later films where she was mostly eyes and poise. Here she's so pretty and has such long gorgeous legs, displayed so pleasingly in silken lingerie, that grown Erich was heard to weep. She plays an uninhibited young heiress who just wants to flap it up but a flock of fusty relatives' inheritance is contingent on her getting married and avoiding all scandal. Enter Douglas Fairbanks, a gigolo Young hires to sink her name into the mire to defeat the 'morality' of her greedy chaperones. Once Fairbanks sinks his peeps into her bottomless eyes however, he wants to hang up his gigolo shoes and marry her for real. We all do. Best line: Young's pal advises her on how to create a scandal: "first get a man, then a reporter, and leave the rest to the typesetter."

 Makes a grown man cry
There's a great long scene at a circus-themed speakeasy that seems to mirror a similar one in GOLD-DIGGERS OF 1933, only gender-reversed, as two gigolo friends of Doug's throw themselves on the moralistic greedy chaperone grenades, who it turns out are only too happy to catch a buzz as long as there's plausible deniability (the drink they're served is billed as only 'punch'). By the end they're all clowning around together and its infectious. Meanwhile it's fun to watch Doug Fairbanks act all shy considering his jackanapes grinning in other films. We learn some things: 'loose ankles' is a term for gigolos hired to be dance partners, because they know all the speakeasy passwords. A side of suspense is served by a louche opportunist roommate of the pair who tries to horn in as if to supply some late inning suspense, but why worry? Young's beauty conquers all.

The circus club scene includes a sexy leopard woman dancer but the actual circus element is flatly filmed. Who cares? Like many good pre-codes the separate parts are generally splendid and invaluable as a peak back into a time wherein 'old folks at home'-style bumpkins waged war against the emerging freedom of youth, until the youth finally figured out a back entrance way to get them drunk (either at a speak or via Dr. Silver's Golden Elixir). Let that be a lesson to dope smokers: get the naysayers high, one toke at a time, and legalization will come

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