1930 - dir. Howard Hughes (w/ James Whale, Edmund Goulding - uncredited)
The question is, who was the girl, Howard, who left you with such a high opinion of women? She must have been quite a gal...
While unconvincing as a ladykiller, at least Lyon does a decent job with his scenes of his being seduced against his very weak will by Harlow, who with her jet-black eyebrows and platinum wave almost steals the movie from the spectacular aerial combat. It's for her and the fighting we're here, not the dimwit brothers, so every scene of these two sibling muttonheads engaged in their worldly nonsense seems worthless unless Harlow is there, coming between them.
The thing about Hughes is, he at least walks it likes he talks it: there's a cool sense of uninhibited sexual congress with Harlow, as expressed keenly in one of the best all-time 'fade-outs' in the pre-code code. A scene of her and Monte making out on a couch, is crosscut over to naive brother Roy sulking back at the bunks having been blown off by her on his imagined date, and then back to the couch at Harlow's pad where the vibe has shifted from simmering to sullen. Suddenly Monte's ashen mood and Harlow's nonplussed attitude ("It seems colder in here now, doesn't it?) indicates that during the last crosscut, they had sex on the couch. When we cut back it's clear how much Monte now hates himself and worse, thinks she's a slut because, douchebag that he is, he lacks the self-awareness to realize his post-orgasm depression will pass, and at any rate is not her fault. Yo Monte! Every tru playa knows not to get all pissy and moralistic with the girl you were busting moves on 'before' shit got real. Even if now all you can think about is getting home before your wife (or brother) finds out, honey, that'll pass and if anyone's it's Ma Nature's fault not Harlow's.
I admit I've never been a huge fan of Harlow's work in later movies, where she often seems a bit shrill and broad, especially playing alleged society dames. But the Harlow on display here is like a whole different person than the one shortly to rule over at MGM. She's less a baby-talking brawler lounging around eating bonbons and babbling to her maid and more an upscale nymphomaniac whose love of sex is like a fierce elemental magick. She's thinner too, and younger than she'd look in just another year or so, and those fierce black eyebrows make her seem accessible. You can feel the hair on her arms tingling with a every carnal inhale. She's like a living electric sheet of fire. She's not perfect, just dazzling. (Compare to how kind of busted she looks just a year later in Public Enemy, below).
And as the German who first duels with Monte (before the war) and then later questions the boys after they're shot down behind enemy lines, Lucien Prival is a delight. A leaner feral version of Erich Von Stroheim, he steals the final chapter of the film. Don't forget the Germans weren't yet Nazis, there was still a lot of chivalrous, sporting blood between Huns and Brits-- they'd all been drinking and dueling together scant years before. Of all the characters in this filthy war, it's actually Prival who glows the hardest, seems the staunchest of fellows. Harlow also earns her bombshell wings and can make fans of even on-the-fence-about-her types like myself, but man, those chumps from Oxford...
1933 - dir. Michael Curtiz
That's about it --not much to write home about though the actors sure strive for a farcical peak. It doesn't come, that peak, but William is on camera every minute, almost, so it's tough to care about anything else, even though we realize that he needs more menace to be really riveting. Here he's coasting on his wolfish charm like he knows we'll love him no matter what. We will. Gotta love a confident man.
HE WAS HER MAN
1934 - dir. Lloyd Bacon
Believe it or not, the big surprise here is Victor Jory as the chump, the kind of guy usually played by Edward G. Robinson or Ralph Bellamy. Jory might not be as good an actor as those guys, but he does have a deep voice, looming height, the stoic poise of a stock company Sitting Bull, and gravitas that belies his then-lean years. He might have a bizarre accent and mangled fisherman syntax but he's no rube. Cagney and Joan might talk faster and hustle more but Jory's tortoise wins the race, legitimately. While such a result certainly pleased the censors (then looming ever closer), the film's subtext never sides with the forces of small town decency: the sanctity of marriage may prevail, but as Cagney walks off into the sunset, arm-in-arm with his killers, it's him we want to follow, even if that means going straight off a cliff.
1933 dir. Michael Curtiz
Robust Raoul Walsh direction makes this turn-of-the-century New York City Darryl F. Zanuck opus The Gangs of New York-style farce to beat, with all the downtown warring fire brigades (they brawl in the street while burning Chinese laundrymen plead in vain out their second story window in a bit of sly callous racism), Tammany Hall corruption, nickel beer, sawdust floozies singing from laughing laps, tear-stained blubbering pathos, and freewheeling stunts the era can offer all rendered in a mise-en-scène so vivid you can smell the cigars and coal fires.
Wallace Beery plays Chuck, the big shot of the Bowery (the Bill the Butcher); Jackie Cooper is a racist version of his orphan self who likes throwing rocks through "Chink's winders"; Fay Wray is the good girl who ends up keeping house for the pair of them; George Raft is Chuck's rival, an up-and-coming sharpie with a saloon and fire brigade of his own. Chuck don't like that much, and he's so tough he saps a broad who drunkenly crashes his table, as illustration to Cooper that women are "only after yer spondoolicks" since Cooper's gone in for trading cigarette cards "from guinea kids." Yeesh! Cooper's presence is somewhat superfluous, but he does his best with a third wheel role that seems affixed to Beery like some kind of blubbering lamprey (he's still leagues cooler than Leo).
1931 - *** - dir. Jack Conway
Even if, by the end, it's really not too much at stake and it all kind of resembles the later THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (i.e. no deaths), right down the daylight hour museum theft, so what --it was here first. And despite its rough treatment in the theft, the Mona Lisa is none the worse for wear. In fact, the only real crime is Karen Morley not being in more films or better known. Appearing only sporadically after she left MGM (due to disputes over her private life, and later the blacklist) we have but a handful of films with which to treasure her mature sexual openness and the way she more than made up for actorly limitations through charm, wit, assertion and icy laugh. So there's this film, PHANTOM OF CRESTWOOD, SCARFACE, MASK OF FU MANCHU, DINNER AT EIGHT and, well, they'd all be worthwhile anyway, but with her... sublime. She's got such mature allure in LUPIN kind of melted the keys in my pocket. We wouldn't see sexual confidence like hers again until... well, Renee Russo in the THOMAS CROWN remake. MGM's devotion to classic literature and plays was such that it overrode their provincial morality, to all our benefit, sometimes, and Morley's liberation here is primo example. Cherish her always.