Cleansing the doors of perception until your screens glows infinite

Friday, January 04, 2013

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


THE TRUTH ABOUT YOUTH
(1930)- William A. Seiter
 ***
In the 20s, sin had to have a moral. So the tale of the 'bad girl from the city luring a naive small town boy (or older fellow in mid-life crisis mode) away from his long-suffering saint of a wife or moon-faced hometown girlfriend (or secretary), fleecing him of his savings (or getting him to embezzle from the bank) before returning him to his small town a wiser man' was done so many different ways it was considered rusted and ready for the dutbin even in 1928, when audiences laughed D.W. Griffith's THE BATTLE OF THE  SEXES off the screen. On the other hand, it was ripe for riffing and goofing. A smart, modern director could use its hokey cliches to his advantage, playing off its groan-inducing rep for wry modern insight, faking audiences out by having a whole different plot underneath its veneer, much as Tarantino does in films like DJANGO or INGLORIOUS BASTERDS or as William A. Seiter does in THE TRUTH ABOUT YOUTH.

The vamp here is called "the Firefly" and played by Myrna Loy as a swinging siren who we first meet in the middle of luring the weak-willed "Imp" (David Manners) away from the arms of his loving older mentor-guardian, Richard (Conway Tearle), who hopes he'll settle down with his housekeeper's comely daughter, which --considering the daughter is Loretta Young--seems a fair trade. Flanked his two fellow bachelor cronies from the war, Richard has been scheming to get the two together because he never dared hope... he never thought that she might prefer.... he?? ... Why, he's old enough to be her father. Does he dare to dream?


The code would soon make living happily ever after with girls half your age fairly difficult, unless you were Gary Cooper, say, or Cary Grant and safely inside a Billy Wilder movie, which is why here it's so vital, cool, and necessary. Time and again, Seiter lines up the cliches, then bowls them over with a wry compassion that doesn't need to rely on bourgeois sermonizing to seem humane and decent while at the same time championing the May-December arrangement at its core. As the "Imp," the usually square David Manners gets to cut loose in a few scenes, like the one above where he staggers in from the speakeasy, drunk as a lord. And, keeping with the cliche-upending, Loy's Firefly is actually pretty nice about the whole thing. She even gives Richard back his deposit (he pays her to go away) once her own forgiving sugar daddy shows up to whisk her back to Paris.

Did I give away the plot? No, because if you didn't know its subversive roundhouse back-end kick, you'd probably shy away from this once you gleaned the initial set-up, because though Myrna Loy is, as always a delight, there's not a whole lot else going on. It's 1930, so actors swim through the thick hissing air of early studio sound recording like its thick windy water. I personally love that weird hissy muffled sound and slow...enunciation... of the actors... lest they seem muffled and incoherent. And it helps the enjoyment to know that where it's going ends up being surprisingly sophisticated. And with two gorgeous angels like Loy and Young as the girls, and no real villain at all, it's a kind of a breezy joy to sit through.

LIFE BEGINS
(1932) Dir Elliot Nugent, James Flood
 *** 1/2
Something soothing and unusual, like a return to some primordial 'last gasp in the womb' memory, can be found in this sassy and heartfelt (yet not strident or mawkish) WB ensemble film, set in the maternity ward of a NYC hospital over an eventful 24-hour-ish period. With the rows of beds putting all the women in the same big room, there's time for lots of visiting and strange tales of getting knocked up. Lanky comic Aline McMahon brings her usual compassionate savvy as the head nurse and Glenda Farrell is a showgirl giving up twins up for adoption (she hides booze in her hot water bottle and sings "Frankie and Johnny" with ward-tailored lyrics). Loretta Young shows up--against type--as a convicted murderer who's allowed to reside in the ward, unchained, until her baby is born (and if you know Young's love of playing the martyr you don't need to ask what impossible choice she must make, or whether she looks great even disheveled by labor pains). The baby daddy is a twitchy little rat of a kid bouncing around the marbled foyer outside the ward; Frank McHugh is another nervous impending papa, whom McMahon sends on all sorts of errands to get him out of the way. This was long before Lamaze or rules like no cigar smoke in the waiting room, so modern viewers may be aghast to find things so primitive there are even mentions of pediatrician rules that later proved detrimental to infant and mom's well-being, like keeping them separate as much as possible after birth, avoiding breastfeeding at all costs (so unsanitary!) and denying your infant any maternal affection (lest it turn them... you know). One pities the poor kids whose parents were mean-spirited enough to obey these edicts (much the way some parents follow quack writers urging them not to let their children get inoculated today, leading to outbreaks of long stamped-out things like measles).

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 it even engenders a glow of remembering being an infant: safe and warm and looked after, sleeping in a big building with awake people all around you all night (something I love about hospitals), and since it's not HALLOWEEN 2 or VISITING HOURS there are no slashers to provide any uneasy tension, just an escapee woman from the psychopathic ward with a thing for children, and she's easily led back upstairs. In short, even if, like me, you hate the remotest glimmer of mawkish pro-life sentiment in movies (so avoid things like CHILDREN OF MEN on principle), you'll like this. It may just remind you of your own infancy, as it did me, and the comfort of the giant maternal image.

ROAD TO PARADISE
(1930) - Dir William Beaudine
***
Loretta Young plays princess/pauper twins, separated by birth: one's a vagabond raised by two Runyanesque burglars; the other a socialite they're planning to rob. Though the sisters have never met, they have an ESP connection! Based on a stage play, the majority of the film occurs in and around the rich one's townhouse with the pauper posing as the princess come back early from the theater (while the real one is out at the play with her spinster aunt), so she can let her cronies in from the roof while the butler is on his night off, but it turns out everything is locked and only the butler has the key and a cop comes to investigate when the alarm is triggered, and he dawdles, hoping for a drink to keep him warm on the beat, telling racist jokes. Meanwhile, the old matron (every 'good' single rich girl in NYC used to need one) forgot her headache powders so the princess is on her way back to get them. As Capt. Flynn would say, prepare the decks for pleasant action!

Tge fluid direction gives us a real 'you are there' sense, with the burglars in that split level mansion regularly visible in the same shot as the 'good' people (one downstairs; the other up) adding a real sense of who's where at any given time which is a great help to the comical cat and mouse antics, but what else is there besides antics? Margaret--the rich girl-- has a lot of money, and double the Edwards is double the gorgeous, but her romantic suitor looks like a combination Chico Marx and young Edward Everett Horton. Yeech! No offense to either one. I adore them both, but as comic foils not genuine love interests. What is she thinking? Better George Brent, even!

The best part is the ESP angle--"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 unpunished crime, two things the Breen office did not approve of, especially from women.

William "One-Shot" Beaudine directed with more attention to camera angles than he would later pay to films like RETURN OF THE APE MAN. But only just.

I LIKE YOUR NERVE
(1931) - Dr. William McGann
**1/2
A pre-Frankenstein Boris Karloff is a butler! Douglas Fairbanks stares and grins like a jackanapes as he woos--rather irritatingly at first-- gorgeous Loretta Young while gallivanting down in South America. But her alabaster hand's been promised, by her oily treasurer of an unnamed South American country father, to an old lech who promises to restore dad's 'borrowed' funds in exchange for her lovely self in his boudoir. Ever the good father-obeying girl, Edwards is doomed. (Frankly, Fairbanks doesn't come off as much better here, at least as first). Helping him overcome these sordid odds is Claude Allister, specialist in the "urbane" best friend roles (i.e. a great gay character actor). Funny that Douglas almost seems gayer than Allister in swaths, thanks to that 'leftover-from-the-silents' code of conduct that says a gentleman's face should always be locked into a mirthless smile, with all teeth bared... in every scene.

It took awhile before that icky silent film trend died out, but it did, thanks to lipless Richard Barthelmess.

As a shade of things to come, Loretta Young calls her priest every five minutes (as she would in real life) but--unlike in her later films--I don't find her piety a detriment to my enjoyment since it fits the set and setting (uber-Catholic rural South America). And as a radiant 17 year-old she can still make a movie worth watching just by wearing long sparkly black gloves with a sparkly black evening gown and gazing down at a sparkly fountain. Her eyes are so big and wet here they seem sketched by some specialist in limpid pools.

LOOSE ANKLES
1930 - ****

The sensation of 1930, LOOSE ANKLES finds Loretta Young looking so super sexy, displaying such flawless gams, she's almost a completely different person than in later films where she was mostly eyes and poise. Here she's so pretty and has such long gorgeous legs, displayed so pleasingly in silken lingerie, that grown Erich was heard to weep. In a twist on films like Seven Beauties, she plays an uninhibited young heiress who just wants to flap it up with a different guy every night, but a fusty flock of relatives find their massive inheritance contingent on their collectively manipulating her into getting properly married and avoiding all scandal. Loretta wants them all to lose that money, fast, so they'll stop pestering her.

Enter Douglas Fairbanks, a "loose ankled" gigolo who Young hires to sink her name into the mire thus to defeat the 'morality' of her greedy chaperones so she can go do what she wants. Once Fairbanks sinks his peeps into her bottomless eyes however, he wants to hang up his gigolo shoes and marry her for real. I can't blame him. Loretta Young usually doesn't make me dizzy and breathless like she does here. 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."

 Makes a grown man cry
There's a great long scene at a circus-themed speakeasy that seems to mirror a similar one in GOLD-DIGGERS OF 1933, only gender-reversed, as two gigolo friends of Doug's throw themselves on the moralistic greedy chaperone grenades, who it turns out are only too 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 and it's infectious. Meanwhile, it's fun to watch Doug Fairbanks act all shy and abashed, especially considering his jackanapes grinning in other films (such as the above I LIKE YOUR NERVE). And, in addition to all the laughs in this film, we learn some things about the slang of the speak in those days: 'Loose ankles' it turns out, is a term for gigolos older women hire as dance partners, because they know all the speakeasy passwords (as well as the latest dances). Apparently this was the original function of the 'gigolo' - to be a kind of combination dance instructor and male escort (as in no woman could enter the bar without a male escort), and anything beyond that was between them. Fairbanks lives with a whole flock of gigolos who spend their days sleeping off their hangover and sore feet while vying for the youngest, richest contracts. Narturally, Young is the pick of the litter, but she's already chosen Fairbanks, making their attempts to steal the client seem shady. Nonetheless, they come through in the clinch, helping turn out two of the stuffy old lady bitties trying to get her to settle down. Meanwhile, the most unrepentantly louche and opportunist of the gigolo roommates tries to horn in--as if to supply some late inning suspense--but why worry? By the last act everything comes out into the open, along with the ice packs for aching heads and feet, and what feet! Young's beauty conquers all!


The circus club scene includes a sexy leopard woman dancer whom I swooned for, but the actual circus element is flatly filmed. Like many good pre-codes the separate parts are generally splendid and invaluable as a peak back into a time wherein 'old folks at home'-style bumpkins waged war against the emerging freedom of youth, until the youth finally figured oxut a back entrance way around them: get them drunk (either at a speak or via Dr. Silver's Golden Elixir) and give 'em a twirl. Let that be a lesson to dope smokers: get the naysayers high, one toke at a time --legalization will come

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