Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Ten Dollars a Fifth.

You know that TCM Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 2 set? If you get it and expect a good time, well, watch out for Norma Shearer, that's all I can say. She's trouble. She's in the first two films: MGM's THE DIVORCEE and A FREE SOUL. If sex, drugs and hot jazz were cake, the Warner girls--Stanwyck, Clarke, Harlow--could be said to have it and eat it too, then keep quiet about it until they need another fix; the MGM girls like Shearer would have their cake and then feel guilty, complain to all their friends that they "shouldn't have eaten it" and then go to the Ladies room to "heroically" renounce it back up.

That's not heroism, Norma, that's bulimia!

Where MGM makes its error is in presuming that their audience genuinely believes that premarital sex is an evil on par with murder, rape or (gasp!) gambling. Where Warners throws scenes of their starlets changing in and out of their sexy underthings, MGM has Shearer do it all behind partitions; when Shearer is raking in jewelry we see only her hands and his, never any mention of the implied quid pro quo. Shearer scenes of implied sin feel like she's counting money from a stolen wallet in a bathroom stall, sober, terrified, with three paranoid look-outs. Such nervous guilt isn't up to pre-code so to speak, since, as Dave Kehr puts it: the "heavy hand of MGM respectability presses down," forcing her to realize "that such dalliances are meaningless without love, marriage and the promise of a family."

One of the parallel points of interest in pre-code films is the handling of alcohol, the modern equivalent of pot in films like HOW HIGH or FRIDAY (at Warners) or heroin in films like REQUIEM FOR A DREAM and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (MGM). Prohibition was still in effect for most of the pre-code era, and the films in this set are rife with briefcase-carrying bootleggers, secret knocks at hidden doors, and whispers from drug store clerks to shaky customers about some "secret stock in the back room." In A FREE SOUL, we even learn the typical price when a drug store clerk sells a St. Vitus-dancing Barrymore a fifth of whiskey for "ten bucks." Ten bucks! In 1931 that was like $80, or the price you'd pay now for a delivery of... "ahem." What were we talking about? The evilsh of drink, oh right. There's something legit about it being destructive but, ah, who caresh? MGM will get all the Barrymores sober one day, but for now, let's get Norma Shearer safely wedlocked.

Kehr's article points out that NIGHT NURSE (1931)--easily the pick of the set--was directed by William Wellman right after PUBLIC ENEMY. It makes sense, seems of a piece, and makes me want to immediately research Wellman as a hidden auteur. Andrew Sarris rates him a mere "Less than meets the eye" in his American Cinema book, asking why PUBLIC ENEMY isn't as good as SCARFACE. I'd say there are streaks of laziness in Wellman, but also fearless genius in trusting his actors to do fierce bits of business, trusting their personas and letting them go the extra mile where most directors would probably balk and cut their extraneous antics short. Cagney and Stanwyck both get chances to go apeshit on people in such a way as to make cinematic myth on the spot; Gable punches her; Cagney shoves grapefruit at Mae Clarke; nurse Stanwyck screams in unbridled rage at the drunken mom of her two starving charges. These sorts of outbursts are electric, they more than make up for any dull stretches. They are what is best in cinema, when it stops preaching and starts hacking at the chains of the truly unfree soul.

There's a great bit in ROXIE HART, a (post-code) Wellman film I just happen to have recently seen, where Ginger Rogers does an impromptu softshoe up and down the prison steps after striking some sparks with smitten reporter George Montgomery. The camera doesn't move much, it's just Rogers banging out a dance on the tinny jail steps because she's kind of turned on. To Sarris this scene is probably uninspired and lazy, like Wellman just left the camera running and went out to have a smoke, letting Rogers and Montgomery do what they wanted. That's it exactly, Mr. Sarris! That's it, exactly. The cinema is full of hacks that strangle the breath out of their material the way Lenny kills puppies and blondes in OF MICE AND MEN. We know they don't mean it, but there it is, lifeless and big as all indoors. Wellman keeps his grip light and if it don't come out SCARFACE, so what? It could be worse, at least it's breathing, and at least it got in a few good punches before the cops came. That's what being A FREE SOUL means, Norma, so swig a little!

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