Monday, July 25, 2011


1932 - ***

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. fares well in Clark Gable hair and soul as Jimmy the gossip hound in this ultra-typical (in the best of ways) WB film of the era. As a columnist who tangles over Francis Dee with generic gangster Lyle Talbot, Fairbanks races around and seeks counsel from fellow reporters Lee Tracy and Ann Dvorak who are hep enough to know their boy's getting taken to the cleaners by slumming Dee, but keep their yaps shut like a true pal.

There's nothing quite like this film's ambitiously cynical ending, the sort of loose-ended defiance of the crime-must-pay adage only possible in pre-code conditions.  Dialogue is pitched at such a darkly cynical height that censors ears weren't young enough to hear it: "Looks like you been up at Sing Sing looking at a burning!" Sex is everywhere, as when Tracy and Dvorak are out at a nightclub eating dinner and she says "if you loved me half as much as you love that steak I'd break down out of self-pity" (meaning throw him a sympathy fuck, yo!) Fairbanks describes Dee--to her face!--as having "a beautiful can." and that she's "as pretty as a little red wagon." Lots of phone calls are made and received. The TCM print looks real nice. Can't go wrong with a rooftop in the rain spying on murders that you thought about committing yourself, and now don't have to... that's pre-gode cold!

1934 - ***1/2

One of my favorite pre-code discoveries of late, this is saucy pre-code progressively feminist Warner Brothers at its best, covering the gamut of comedy, melodrama, gangster action and social commntary. Ann Dvorak and Aline McMahon are peerless as a pair of sisters running a remote desert gas station "sort of an auto camp" all by themselves, with Aline sporting no make-up and doing the grease monkey stuff "better than any man" and enjoying being an autonomous semi-butch small business owner rather than a gangster's moll (as she was in Tulsa); Dvorak is her sweet young sister who works the restaurant portion of the place and longs to be one of the people passing through, like a big family of Mexicans who they've let camp out back, a McMahon-smitten local sheriff, and--to better riff on its Petrified Forest-ish cleft note--Lyle Talbot as a shaky safecracker and Preston Foster as his smug, cooler-headed gangster partner who just happens to be McMahon's ex -boyfriend from when she was an adventuress out in Tulsa; they're on the run, the smitten sheriff is sniffing around, and they're laying low back of the auto camp. McMahon stays rock solid but Dvorak gets the most pre-code juice when she returns from a dance at dawn, dumped on the curb by the town's most notorious womanizer; her face puffy, her lipstick long ago kissed and licked off; limping in her tattered dress... and when Aline comes in to berate her, Dvorak cries "you're too late, anyway!!" There's no code needed to decipher what that means...

And if that's not enough: Bang! Bang! And the heat lightning is no mere metaphor. Frank McHugh adds beery acumen as an easygoing chauffeur for two bespangled divorcees (Glenda Farrell, Ruth Donnelly) who become stranded on their way back from Reno since he's tired of driving and good at faking car troubles. At one point they're drinking Cokes and complaining the rumors must be false, 'cuz they don't feel the effects of the 'aspirin' in it (1), so they switch to beer; the Mexican family sings 'round the fire to provide a cozy background ambience; the heat lightning crackles in the distance; Talbot whispers nervously to Foster, playing on her womanly sympathy, and the police radio crackles with news of the escaped bandits. Don't worry, McMahon has it all under control. One of the guys dies and his last words are "ah, who cares?" I do! I've seen it six times!! If you've ever driven across country, maybe you too have been so glad to see an open gas station, after almost run out of gas driving hours through the middle of nowhere with no stops or gas for hundreds of miles, then you too might find the film very soothing. It's also quite refreshing in its jaundiced view of love, seeing sex and desire as some kind of vile disease that infects even strong-willed women trying to shake it, like alcoholism (I love all the beer drinking going on, too, mmm I love a proxy cold beer on a hot hot night, even if it can only be just via the movies). I also think the lesbian community should be fully aware of this movie if they're not all ready. McMahon is a great early example of a fully gender-integrated female --her male characteristics as on the surface and extroverted as the female. With that legendary long hair hanging like a gossamer black curtain when she finally lets it down, she's a powerhouse, she's Lady Death of the Desert..

1934 - **
An informal little Vitaphone crackler that seems more dated and hokey than the year would seem to allow, but hey, there's Bette Davis, still stealing scenes as a perky counter girl pining (god knows why) for straight edge pharmacist Charlie Farrell, who's too busy getting roped into counterfeit drug manufacture to notice her. The roper is a mobster (Ricardo Cortez) who needs a new line of work since the repeal of prohibition. He's looking for a new product to make with all that leftover equipment, so why not bootleg pills he can shake down unwilling druggist throats? Seems a stretch and Farrell's a bore as always but Glenda Farrell (no relation) is great as a cat-fightin' moll. Neither she nor Davis get enough screen time to liven things up, though, so the only glimmers of termite originality occur via Cortez's breezy fondness for his mug underlings, all played by WB stalwarts like Allen Jenkins, who's scared of the drug business, 'cuz his brother's in jail for 20 years "and he only had two decks of coke on 'im."

See, before they took the cocaine out of Coke (tm) they didn't have that problem: Coke should have coke in it, anything less and it can't be 'the real thing.' It's false advertising! What a fucked up system! And if they hadn't made beer illegal in the first place, mugs like Cortez would never have gotten their first taste of big business. That's not part of the implied moral here, but it should be, as there's little else to go on if you're immune to Farrell's pipsqueak integrity. Niven Busch was a screenwriter, which probably explains the moments of gang camaraderie and business insight.

1931 - **1/2
Monroe Owsley specialized in sleazy gigolo bad guy roles (see: CinemArchetype 13). Here he even wears an odious greasepaint mustache and his ex-wife Kay Francis is a constant victim of his two-bit blackmail schemes. She's "happily" remarried to an older man who's terribly rich and jealous, to the point he hires gigolo detective George Brent to follow her on her trip to Cuba to catch her in the act and/or seduce her himself to validate his geriatric paranoia. The supporting roles couple are played by Brent's pal Allen Jenkins, who you may remember from THE BIG SHAKEDOWN) and Ruth Donnelly (HEAT LIGHTNING) as a schemer who thinks Jenkins is the rich one. The problem is, Brent is so annoyingly full of himself that halfway through the film you start to appreciate Owsley who at least displays some self-loathing. In fact you can't really scrape a single human character worth saving out of this mess, but Francis does look amazing in those Orry-Kelly feathered hats and capes, and and it's nice to see a pre-Castro 'free country' (when that meant no prohibition) Havana. It's 'intoxicating,' even if it's all rear-projected and drenched in overlapping nightclub montage.

1933 - **1/2

Edited together from a 12-chapter serial, this blessedly incoherent jungle ramble finds Buster Crabbe a pretty buff Tarzan, but he has a yell that sounds more like a man getting a prostate exam than Weissmuller's archetypal yodel. Julie Bishop, aka Jacqueline Wells (THE BLACK CAT), is the sweet young thing at the heart of it all; her dad discovered a lost tribe of ancient Egyptians led by Mischa Auer (who holds a candle eternally at his chin so his eyes look spooky), and now she's got to find him. One of her evil white guides steals a gem from the Auer's tribal idol (he mispronounces sacrifice as in "prepare him for sacrifiss" --did that used to be pronunciation?), and the chase is on. The action goes by so fast with so many cuts to stock footage fauna that it's soon all just a meaningless stream of pith-helmeted actors running back and forth; stunt doubles who look nothing like the actors they're covering; rifles being aimed; animals, idols, Tarzan swinging to the rescue; some more running; storm cloud shots; animal fight stock footage; and the chimp. The two evil hunters are continually allowed to tag along even though everyone knows they're their true intent (one presumes 'cuz white folk need to stick together in Africa). It's a thing I dislike in all these movies, where even the life of even the worst white man is more valuable than those of a dozen natives. But in true serial fashion, the good guys keep letting the bad guys go so they can regroup and betray the good guys all over again. 

 Giddy with action and scenes of Egyptian ceremonies, eventually TARZAN THE FEARLESS runs over so much ground so fast, with such a diverse surplus of stock footage and mismatched stunt doubles that it devolves into incoherence. The best way to take it is as some post-modern found art collage, free of all narrative limitations and imposed meaning. TCM showed it as part of their Arabs in Cinema series, because some Arabs show up with a sexy sultana (Carlotta Monti, long-time mistress of W.C. Fields) as their leader. Halfway through the film these Arabs just disappear, but whatever. It's so fun and fast and strange by then you could probably watch it twice in a row and not even see the same film. 

1. Cocoa-Cola used to have cocaine in it, and was during this brief wondrous period (1886-1929), truly the 'real thing.'


  1. Totally agree about Love Is a Racket - it's enormous fun.

  2. Anonymous26 July, 2011

    I saw Tarzan the Fearless in my early teens, when I was into all things Tarzan. What sticks in my mind are the incredible aerial stunts, not just swinging from tree to tree, but from vine to another vine hundreds of feet off the ground. Only possible because the Depression made available many desperate circus aerialists.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...