Wednesday, March 23, 2011


1931 - Dir Robert Mamoulian

It seems dimwitted to call this film CITY STREETS--it's the kind of title that wouldn't pass muster in a college lit class, too vague and generalized. One imagines treacly Chaplin Americana with the Dead End Kids. Also, its central plot device: an alcohol kingpin (Paul Lukas) risks his whole operation in a play for underling Gary Cooper's girlfriend, seems kind of ridiculous, like no one would ever rise to power in the underworld if he went in for prima nocta. (the Mafia--as we learn from Joe Pesci's fate in CASINO--understood how bad it was for business). But such things aside, STREETS is actually very beautiful, sleazy, unrepentant, and expressionistic as all art deco hell. Full of all the weird termite tricks that made Mamoulian a kind of early sound forerunner of the New Wave, here murders are talked over via close-ups of cat statues, and a very dirty fella named Blackie gets offed by Guy Kibbee (as you've never seen him before, needless to say).

Dashiell Hammett's grit-filled eye of detail fills the sails with snappy patter (including hilariously curt rapport between Kibee and daughter Sydney) and keeps the Mamoulian coffers rich in minute detail that feels observed rather than imagined, thanks especially TCM'-restored Lee Garmes' visceral expressionist photography. That title and the inevitable (for the time) romantic triangle plot are rote, but the rest is stunningly free of any remote chance of gangster cliche. It's like a molten crucible of gangster film-ism, without a shape or form, yet mythic enough to re-do over and over in generations and remakes to come.

That said, convict Sylvia Sidney's jailhouse pleas to her pinball wizard romeo Kid (Cooper) not to go fight or whatever drag on and on: "Kid, don't go! Oh no Kid! No, Kid, please don'tgoifyouloveme, kid oh kid oh kid, if you love me kid please don't go." Sylvia, you were ten times cooler before you went to prison. Now you've gone soft and the rackets got no place for soft. Still there's a super sexy scene of passion with Cooper across a wire screen in the ladies' prison visiting room, and she has the coolest vanity mirror ever (a giant vulture/eagle over it, with wings outspread) and Cooper is at his most youthfully ravishing. Look fast for Paulette Goddard at a nightclub!

(1933) Dir Victor Fleming
Playing a loose conglomerate of Clara Bow, Thelma Todd, and herself, Jean Harlow comes through in metatextual spades here as an overworked MGM starlet, earning her place at the top of the spitfire heap with  rapid fire slang-filled dialogue pouring in satin torrents from her tongue as she goes zipping, 8 1/2-style, through a carnival of  blustery studio heads, make-up artists, insurance fraud grifters, drunken joneser fathers (Frank Morgan, partying like it's 1899!), an accented gigolo lover, an infatuated director (Pat O'Brien), and Lee Tracy, as usual, an unscrupulous publicity agent.

There's something inherently unlikable (to me) about Tracy, but he sure can talk fast and believably think on his feet.  Even when he apologetically comes to tell Harlow he's been fired on account of her complaints you don't notice his emotions, you just stare at the ferocious meta-amphetamine insect anger in his sharply slicked-back hair. It forms--in the excellent TCM transfer--a weird bi-level triple side wave-part. Too much information!

In order to appease Harlow and get his job back, Tracy must pledge to cease sleazing her up in the tabloids and instead put her onto the 'Home and Garden' page, dressing her up in frilly aprons, with forked potato in hand, longing wistfully for the patter of little feet. In a hilarious interview with a matronly journalist, Harlow holds her hands clasped together and gazes into the heavens, imagining the baby to come, then sets off to adopt one, ala Angelina Jolie, picking them out by the bushel like puppies. Mythical Monkey writes:
 "The movie skewers every Hollywood type—the hangers-on, the rapacious press, the stalkers, the slicky boys, the fraudsters, the petty tyrants—and does so with a manic quality that would characterize the screwball comedies allegedly invented by Howard Hawks and Frank Capra in 1934, but which, as I mentioned in my review of Design For Living, seems to have developed full-blown sometime earlier. Fleming spared no one, including himself—he's caricatured as director Jim Brogan (Pat O'Brien), alternately described in the movie as a "piano mover" and "a smooth-tongued bluebeard." (here)

Irregardless of any future screwballing, the damage has been done and the post-1934 serious code enforcement look for women has already been dreamt up, right here in front of the matron and Ladies Home photographer, in an act of parody. As Harlow assumes this pose of born again maternal sanctity, we briefly--or did I hallucinate--see her smile to herself--a subliminal wink to the audience--as she gets all pious and starry-eyed at the thought of a woman's 'ultimate duty to the continuance of the species.'

Phony or not, she never lets up in it - she either decides this sugary drivel is the only way to beat the system at its own game of hypocritical posturing or she genuinely believes such a dull code of ethics barefoot/pregnant line. That we'll never know if she was just bullshitting or not is what the code is all about: for every 'you know I'm just kidding' there shalt be an accompanying teardrop of sincerity, sayeth the Breen.

(1932) - **1/2

Secretary: "Imagine anyone daring to question your veracity."
Tracy: "Such language!"

More Lee Tracy doing what he does best, motormouth speed-talking as an unscrupulous press agent: first as a carny barker hawking Lupe Velez's uninhibited fan dancer from the tropics to the Ziegfield-ish Frank Morgan as an exotic princess rescued from a Turkish harm (this would make a hilarious second feature to The Great Ziegfeld in which Morgan plays the friend/rival/backer). After that scheme winds down, he starts a new bent hawking a blonde hotel maid who partners with Tracy's right hand man Eugene Palette as the leaders of a cult of wild, untamed nudists. Naturally he splashes a few front pages ("what the public wants is good, clean entertainment," he counsels Morgan after Velez leaves him, "they're all washed up on these hooch dancers"). Naturally, it all caves back down to where they started, in the carnival midway gutter, where they all started out (the scene where the noises of the city and the office start resembling the sound of the carnival calliope luring him back is a highlight).

Tracy's got Cagney's gift for speedy patter, but he lacks Jimmy Cagney's agility, and humility -- a scene where he smacks up Morgan with enlarged blackmail photos is just irritating. Some rare moments of real connection exist, though, like at the end, like the cool bro-to-bro reunion of Pallette, Tracy, and a handful of sawdust which Tracy pours through his fingers asking "can you imagine this stuff running though your veins?" He finally seems to have run out of hot air, and as the sand falls to the ground, we kind of love the poor sap at last, his own painful awareness of the cliches by which he's bound  make him human; then the sound of Lupe Velez singing her bawdy hot jazz "Carpenter" song comes down the midway and suddenly what was once kind of shrill warms the heart like a shot of good whiskey. Gentle Ben tells us in real life he was fired and sued by the studio for always being late and often drunk to set. That's why, perhaps, Cagney is immortal and Tracy just a curious footnote. Both played incorrigible scammers, but Cagney was just playing. Tracy was playing for keeps. Now that we're being honest, I think I like Tracy better, even with that adenoidal crackle in his voice and those long arms always moving like a dozen spider legs in all directions.

1932 - **1/2

Hot as she was, by 1932 Loretta Young's persona was that of a nobly young woman who looks around at the newfangled crazes --divorce, premarital sex, drugs, prohibition liquor-- and bristles up her moral feathers, does three hail Marys and calls her priest. The devoutly Catholic Young often used her acetylene hotness like an Olympic torch of morality in any dark, dank pre-code films she found herself in, such as this one. Always first in line to confess to a crime or sacrifice her happiness to save someone else, anyone else, her characters are martyrs like only a self-righteous hottie can play them. Here her sleazy ex-boss is accidentally killed and she races like a Chariots of Fire sprinter to be the first person to confess and save her true lovezzzz... Before that she's dicked around by David Manners, rescued by George Brent, and ripped-off by Louis Calhern (the guy who would go on to hire Chicolini and Harpo in DUCK SOUP the following year). His excellency's car! At any rate, she gets some good digs in at a speakeasy when she runs into Brent, and Manners' double standard (he's getting married but still expects her to keep a holding pattern) is depicted as rather vile, although at least he admits it. Both agree working for Calhern is not the thing for her, but "she does what she pleases when she pleases." Finally! At any rate, Una Merkel is a champ as Loretta's hoofer pal who puts her wise, and there's the usual top notch trimmings all First National-Vitaphone pics had in the glorious year of 1932, so don't waste your time not seeing it next time it cartwheels its way onto TCM!

1931 - Dir William Wellman

One of many pre-code films made about women of ill repute lamming out to the tropics or the Orient after skipping bail or being wanted for murder: Joan Crawford did it in RAIN the following year (32); Marlene Dietrich in SHANGHAI EXPRESS the following year, and Kay Francis did in MANDALAY the year after that 1934, then came the code. They stopped doing it. But back in 1931 it was anybody's game and SAFE IN HELL happens to be one of the  more lurid exhibits of the pre-code era: Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill) is a dissolute prostitute who winds up accidentally burning down a building with a drunk john in it. Her innocent sailor fella (Donald Cook, unbearable) returns home and-- hey! He's earned a first mate stripe so now they can finally get married. Oh, Donald! He gives her a ship in a bottle and a fan from Japan as presents from abroad - but she lets him know the score and before you can say "Jake" he's smuggling her off to a remote island with no extradition laws and a cadre of debauched expats waiting to slaver, dark-eyed, over their gin-fizzes, at her hotel room door.

Clarence Muse (THE INVISIBLE GHOST) as the bellhop brings as much dignity as ten ordinary men into the role; at the front desk and tending bar is Nina Mae McKinny (THE GREEN PASTURES) who sings "When It's Sleepy time Down South" right in time for Gilda to drop the airs and come down and make nice with the seven dwarfy sleazes. Director William Wellman (as usual) packs the film with earthy detail and weird characterizations: Charles B. Middleton,  Gustav Von Seffeyrtitz, and Morgan Wallace are three of the leering fellow outlaw guests. Noble Johnson (the zombie in GHOST BREAKERS) is a guard.

With her droopy skin and lumpy posture, Mackail is not your ordinary heroine but she's perfect as a Depression-era fallen woman who's genuinely no good, not just a Loretta Young-style good girl fallen low through circumstance and cheating gigolos. No, she's an authentic lowlife, a cranky snob for whom the woman's picture conceit of romantic self-sacrifice is less a noble deed than a kind of Antigone-style fuck you to the world of sin (unlike so many heroines who fall just to rise, she starts out fallen, and rises and falls again erratically throughout the film). When she finally gives up her sainthood and starts drinking with the riffraff you get a real sense that she's smoked and drank before, and often. You don't ever get that with Loretta Young.

1933 - Dir Sam Wood

Jean Harlow gets pregnant via hood Clark Gable, but she's in jail and a martyr so doesn't tell him. Stu Erwin wants to marry her and move her to some bo-hunk town when she gets out of stir but no way. See, there's only one guy for her - and he can't visit her in the clink as he's wanted himself, see, for a crime he did commit! See? George Reed (THE GREEN PASTURES) is the black preacher father of fellow inmate Theresa Harris (Alma in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) who sings "Saint Louis Blues" while the girls relax after a hard day steam-pressing shirts.

HOLD YOUR MAN gets me deep in the gut because everyone is redeemed at the end--even the romantic rivals and prison warden--and not in a humorlessness Loretta Young kind of way, but in a genuine caring, cliche-defying way.  When Gable cries to Reed in the chapel, I feel redeemed --every time - and mister, I'm a hell of a sinner. That HOLD YOUR MAN was written by a girl (Anita Loos) doesn't fully explain the incredible compassion this film offers, but it's a part of it. How often do you come away from a tough pre-code women's prison picture feeling optimistic about humanity? Just this once, baby.


  1. parrot eater07 April, 2011

    I just watched Safe in Hell. You were certainly right about the hypnotizing luridness of some of the pre-codes. I cant stop watching them now! Thanks for the recommendations!

  2. Thanks PE, let me know if you find any I should know about

  3. Awesome post! Interesting info to know.

  4. Interesting note on "Safe in Hell" -- Boris Karloff was originally slated for the role Noble Johnson played. It's strange when you realize that the role is a bit part, without even any dialog!


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