Friday, January 04, 2013

Loretta's Eyes (Pre-Code Capsules 11) - LIFE BEGINS, LOOSE ANKLES, I LIKE YOUR NERVE, ROAD TO PARADISE, THE TRUTH ABOUT YOUTH


THE TRUTH ABOUT YOUTH
1930 - ***
There once was a hoary old saw about a gold-digging vamp luring a naive rich boy away from his Tess Trueheart, crashing him on the big city rocks and returning him to said Tess a wiser man. This saw was played out even by the end of the silent age, as Griffith learned when he got jeers for his 1928 opus THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES. The jazz age made the small town values this saw was forged from forever a laughing stock, but a smart director could use that to his advantage and play off the pre-existing tropes for wry modern effect. As "the Firefly" a pre-top tier Myrna Loy sews her wild oats as swinging gold digger siren who winds up luring weak-willed "the Imp" (David Manners) away from the arms of his loving guardian, Richard (Conway Tearle) and the Trueheart type he wants the Imp to marry (Loretta Young) the housekeeper's daughter. Flanked his two cronies from the war, Richard has been scheming to marry off the girl and the Imp 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, aside from, say, Billy Wilder movies in the 1950s, which is why here it's so vital, and cool, and necessary. As the Imp, the usually square David Manners gets to cut loose in a few scenes, like the one above where he comes home from the speak drunk as a lord. And there's an almost Capra-esque level of humanity at work: Loy's vamp turns jake, giving Richard back his deposit once her forgiving sugardaddy shows up to whisk her away to Paris. Griffith never would have approved, but Humbert Humbert would!

LIFE BEGINS
1932 - ***
Something soothing and unusual, like a return to some primordial 'last gasp in the womb' memory, can be found in this 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 of the ward and Glenda Farrell--as a showgirl giving twins up for adoption--hides booze in her hot water bottle and sings "Frankie and Johnny" with ward-tailored lyrics. Loretta Young is a convicted murderer allowed in the ward until her baby is born; the daddy is a twitchy little rat of a kid bouncing around the marbled foyer. Frank McHugh is another of the nervous papas. 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, 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 well-being, like keeping the child and mother separate as much as possible after birth, avoiding breastfeeding at all costs (so unsanitary!) and denying your infant any maternal affection as an essential ingredient for future well-being. 

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 for the most part 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.

ROAD TO PARADISE
1930 - ***
Loretta Young playing two different characters, a kind of Princess and the Pauper with an ESP angle thrown in: the pauper is raised by two Runyanesque burglars; the princess is a weary debutante. Naturally the thieves get their poor charge to pose as the rich one and let them 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. 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 feel that adds dimension to the comical cat and mouse antics, but what else is there? Margaret--the princess-- has a lot of money but her suitor looks like a combination Chico Marx and young Edward Everett Horton. The best part is the ESP angle (both girls have it) -- "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 crime, two things the Breen office did not approve of, especially from women. William Beaudine directed, with more attention to camera angles than he would later pay to films like RETURN OF THE APE MAN, but not much.

I LIKE YOUR NERVE
1931 - **1/2
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 promised by her oily treasurer of an unnamed South American country father to an old lech who promises to restore dad's 'borrowed' funds. On hand is Claude Allister as the urbane best friend who bails Doug out of jail. Allister's a great, gay character actor, how could he be considered less desirable than the closeted misogynist Jack Buchanan in Lubitsch's MONTE CARLO?? (my analysis here) Still, Douglas almost seems gayer than Allister thanks to that leftover-from-the-silents code of male conduct that says one should plaster on one's kisser a mirthless smile with all teeth bared... in every scene, just as Buchanan did. It took awhile before that icky silent film trend died out, but it did, so god bless Richard Barthelmess.

As a shade of things to come, Young calls her priest every five minutes for advice, but I don't begrudge her that in this case. And as a radiant 17 year-old she can still make a movie worth watching just by wearing sparkly black long gloves and a sparkly black evening gown. Her eyes are so big and wet they seem sketched softly by some specialist in limpid pools.


LOOSE ANKLES
1930 - ****
Even more so than in other films from 1930, LOOSE ANGLES finds Young looking so super sexy she's almost a completely different person than in later films. She's so pretty and has such long legs, displayed most pleasingly in silken lingerie, you too would die to caress her. Wry notes about prohibition and scandal and a flock of fusty relatives whose inheritance is contingent on Young getting married and avoiding getting the family name in the papers all provides the distracting comedy. Enter Douglas Fairbanks, hired as a male escort by Young to sink her name into the mire to defeat the 'morality' of all her greedy chaperones. Once Fairbanks sinks his peeps into her bottomless baby blues however he wants to marry her for real. Of course he does! 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."


Hilariously, a long scene at a circus-themed speakeasy seems to mirror a similar one in GOLD-DIGGERS OF 1933 only gender reversed--two gigolo friends of Doug's throw themselves on the moralistic greedy chaperone grenades, who it turns out are 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. Meanwhile it's fun to watch Doug Fairbanks act all shy considering his jackanapes grinning in other films. Since the loose ankles belong to gigolos, unabashedly for rent, there's a louche opportunist roommate who tries to horn in as if to supply some late inning suspense, but why worry since Young is so vivacious and sexy no one can defeat her.


The circus club scene includes a sexy leopard woman dancer but the actual circus element is flatly filmed. But like many good pre-codes the separate parts are generally unique and splendid and invaluable as peaks into a time of transition, where 'old folks at home' style bumpkins waged war against the emerging freedom of youth, until someone finally got them drunk, too. Let that be a lesson to dope smokers: get ab anti-legalization representative high and turn them over to our side, one toke at a time!


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