BEHIND THE MASK
(1932) Dir. Francis DillonThe great forgotten Jack Holt (Tim's dad) plays a terrible federal agent in this pulpy thriller. Endangering his witnesses and letting himself be snowed over by any old disguise or pretense, Jack's saving trait is a masochistic yen for deep undercover work, enduring a stint in jail and posing as a convict just so he can win the trust of nervous flunky Boris Karloff and thus can score a job in a racket that hides dope in caskets and is masterminded by a shadowy doctor. Edward Everett-Sloan factors in somewhere and there's a vast spy network full of dark-eyed bit players. Constance Cummings tries to save her dad, a doctor in 'a lot of trouble' and she's capable with a .45, which is a switch for these things.
It all climaxes in a scene where the masked evil doctor makes a great show of refusing to give the tied-down Holt anesthetic for a planned vivisection, because he wants him to experience the magic moment when excruciating pain becomes ecstasy. Batailles-esque philosophy and dimestore pulp come together within the casting confines of the Universal horror stock company! But it's not until the last five minutes that it approaches the cock-eyed madness of any five minutes of DR. X (1933). Before then, well, coincidence and imbecility, the foundations of any hack job adventure tale, reign supreme. Lots of cool atmosphere though, via NOTORIOUS cinematographer Ted Tezlaff.
1932 - Dir Roy Del Ruth
If you've been always a bit cold on Lee Tracy (as I have been for many years) this is the film that will make you warm up. As the quintessential fast-talking brutally candid gossip columnist, he's like Jimmy Cagney crossed with an adenoidal scarecrow, singlehandedly ushering in a new low in journalism via the ratting out of 'blessed events' - i.e. children born less than nine months after the couple's been married, or outside of wedlock, or etc. Remember when that was a scandal? Me neither. But Tracy sure does wreck a number of lives. In a staggeringly well-played monologue he scares off Allen Jenkins' mob hitman by telling him about an electric chair execution he witnessed; he's so good he brings Barrymore in TWENTIETH CENTURY to mind, his imitation of the wobbly walk to the chamber, voice cracking with hysteria, body spazzing sharp and speed freak-jerky as he describes the anguish of waiting in hopes of a reprieve, the shaky steps of the last mile, puking up the last meal, the rigor mortis and hair burning. It's the sort of thing that only the pre-codes could delve into, and this delves so deep you're quaking along with Jenkins by the end, and all traces of your dislike of Tracy have been obliterated.
Roy Del Ruth directed and the rapid patter pace is awesome except when Dick Powell's lame songs slow things down. Edwin Maxwell, Ned Sparks, Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins, Ruth Donnelly, Jack La Rue, and Rita Cunningham all bring plenty of moxy too as either Tracy's cronies or victims. There are references to Jews, ("Do you know many Jews there are in New York?" - "Oh, dozens!"), Amos and Andy, and a wild-eyed girl 'in trouble' begging for a reprieve from Tracy's damning pen. Played with deranged ferocity and desperation by a ragged-looking creature named Isabell Jewell (left), she's pretty unforgettable. It all coheres into a whipsmack pre-code that makes your scalp stand on end. PS - You will also come out of this film learning what 'nadir' means, and may have a hard time readjusting to the dumb hack substitute for 'wit' passing as dialogue elsewhere in the world.
TROUBLE IN PARADISE
1932 - Dir Ernst Lubitsch
It took awhile for this pre-code Paramount to resonate with me, but now I dig that it doesn't 'Americanize' the dialogue like so many lazier Hollywood films, instead playing up the linguistic difficulties where everyone in Europe is constantly searching for the one language each of them knows just a little bit of, as in the excited way the Italian hotelier translates E.E. Horton's story of how he got robbed in his room and how this Babel effect makes a suave all surface crook get away with tons of goods.
Many viewings later I love the elaborate conveyance of gossip, so that Miriam Hopkins is getting verification requests from duchesses mere minutes after being spotted in the lobby of her lover by a nosy count. (and it's all rot, of course). While Herbert Marshall isn't Cary Grant, or Melvyn Douglas, or even Ronald Coleman, he swoons well and convinces you through two layers of subterfuge that he's genuinely confident in his sexuality, and genuinely in love with the moon (he wants to see it reflected in champagne) and the women around him are each more beautiful than that moon.
And who wouldn't be in love with both Hopkins and rich perfumier Kay Francis? Hopkins displays her wide, loose midsection proudly in some tight-clinging dresses--she "moves from the center of her cunt," as old Jill Parsons used to say--and I love the way their first kiss on the couch seems to make them slowly dissolve until the couch is empty; and Francis is at her most glamorous and poised, even while maintaining some of the concave androgyne aura she had in earlier films like THE COCOANUTS (1929). As always, Edward Everett Horton and Charlie Ruggles are effete, bitchy suitors; Gustav Von Seffeyritz humbugs as the chairman of the board who suspects Marshall is a crook. But who would be able to resist robbing Kay Francis?
THE BLUE ANGEL
1930 - Dir Josef von Sternberg
Either way, Emil Jannings is a damn unsightly kind of creepy crawler, way uglier and uncharismatic than Beery ever was, and it's clear Sternberg can't stand him, so rather than stir our sympathy, Jannings' out-maneuvered Herr Professor inspires nothing but disdain. His smug judgment of Lola and her postcards (which he finds in his student's schoolbooks) makes his downward spiral far less interesting; his slow motion expressionist pantomime reaches for grand tragedy in a way that makes you think Chaney is down to his last few faces. With his bug-eyed outraged head facing the camera from the same angle over and over, his round glasses and Satanic facial hair swirling, Jannings works very hard at keeping his head always in the center of the frame while his body twists and turns like a big old bug caught in a spider web. But to what effect? Nevah vanted doo.
Shot in Weimar Germany just before her Paramount-ordered nose job, molar removal, and strict diet, the Dietrich we see here could be her own sister, the one who stayed in Berlin mit die schwarzwaldkuchen und bier. And partied with (eventually) real-life Nazi Jannings. But Von Sternberg is in fine form; he lights the Blue Angel club like a crazy expressionist side show and if you focus in on the lighting and shadows as opposed to Jannings mug, it definitely does become the masterpiece so many claim.
Still, more than in any subsequent films, Sternberg's masochism in DER BLAU ENGEL is a downer. Always portraying the suitors of his lovely star Dietrich as buffoons, bug-eyed blowhards, shameless masochists, or authoritarian bullies (or else they rarely speak at all and operate as sex objects themselves, like Gary Cooper in MOROCCO), Von Sternberg's obsessions can sometimes make his films feel like a jealous, angry lover is behind the camera, defacing effigies of his rivals even as his studio bosses insist he cast them (Cooper was one of Dietrich's many lovers). One would normally say of a Paramount pre-code that it's fun and a little sleazy but is it art? But in DER BLAU ENGEL we know it's art, and it's sleazy, but is it fun? Nein!
1933 -Dir Michael Curtiz
Time and digital re-colorization has been kind to the early Technicolor hues of DR. X. What used to look blurry and muddy and depressing now glitters with glowing emeralds, murky pinks and streaks of deep, bloody red that make it like a candy fountain of shadowy death. Fay Wray plays the daughter of Lionel Atwill, hamming fit to storm a barn as the titular Dr. Xavier, out to trap the "full moon killer" amongst his atmospherically-lighted collection of scientific colleagues, each of whom grows more indignant and suspicious the longer we hang out in their labs: Dr. Welles has made a 'study' of cannibalism and keeps a heart alive in an 'electrolysis solution' but his missing arm preempts further suspicion; Dr. Haines was shipwrecked for years on a desert island and his tasty, plump colleague was "never found"; Dr. Rowen studies lunar rays' effects on criminal minds but notes that "the lunar rays will never effect you and me, sir, because we are 'normal' people." Mmm...hm.
And dig the post-modern self-reflexivity of the the climax, with the doctors all chained to their chairs, their pulses linked to vials of blood that overflow like a buzzer at the top of a Coney Island strength tester when they're aroused by the murder tableaux staged before them, just like you in the audience! Scream ladies and gentlemen! The Tingler is in this theater! The duality inherent in language gets a lot of subliminal attention too: Xavier's outrage over each of the new accusations of his colleagues belies its antithesis: "Dr. Rowen could never never be the guilty one," means the opposite, while Lee Tracy regularly promises not to do something as he bribes morgue attendants and security guards to look the other way. On the other hand, Xavier's grave pronouncements of things like "There can be no doubt about it, gentlemen - this is cannibalism!" are allowed no argument since they carry his medical weight. And now that you're not annoyed by Lee Tracy anymore (see BLESSED EVENT) maybe you wont want to tear his picture apart with your bare hands when you learn he gets Fay Wray in the end. Chained for your own amusement, indeed.