Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception, for a better yesterday

Wednesday, April 30, 2014


1930 - dir. Howard Hughes (w/ James Whale, Edmund Goulding - uncredited)

Hughes' infamously expensive Hemingway-wannabe saga of WWI pilots and the woman they love is actually pretty amazing; it holds up today as fresher and more cutting edge than say, Scorsese's The Aviator. It's only drawback is the ill-conceived casting and character of the Yank brothers who go to Oxford and stay for the war: Monte (Ben Lyon) is a cowardly womanizing douchebag; Roy (James Hall--a bloated mix of Richard Barthelmess and Bob Newhart) is a naive simp who expects nymphomaniac Jean Harlow (in the role that made her an instant iconic sex symbol) to live up to his goofy moralistic ideals cuz she kissed him once. If you're a pretty girl who gets around, you've probably had more than one dude like this moping through your alleys, calling you constantly to report on his latest six guesses why you haven't called him back since the last time he called. "Never love a woman," Monte tries to tell his simpering moralistic prude of a brother, "just make love to her."

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).

Second big bang for the buck here -- superb aerial action. This being the film that was begun silently and finished with sound there's a certain freedom to be found not worrying about sound in the lengthy aerial combat: all the sounds of all the guns and the humming of the biplane engines as they go buzzing about is of course post-synced and all strangely soothing, and most of the dialogue is in German so the inter-titles make a weird kind of sense, especially in a very long and riveting scene involving a German zeppelin attempting to drop bombs on Piccadilly Circus by lowering the bombardier down through the clouds on a cable (the zeppelin's only chance to escape getting blown out of the sky is to stay up where the air is too thin for the old school bi-planes). An aviator himself, Hughes delivers not just action thrills but a very clear and graspable sense of what was really involved in dogfighting and bombing - the mix of luck, patience, not freaking out or choking on the trigger, and just how damn slow those planes were compared to today. Riding to the rescue can take hours. Hughes went all out for this stuff especially with hand-painted color tints. And nary a word is granted the brave young airman lowered down on a cable below the cloud line from a gigantic German dirigible...

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

Warren William is at his most frivolous in this Warner Brothers comedy, maybe even too much so, and I say this as a die-hard William fan. I even like Satan Met a Lady, that original Maltese Falcon adaptation where he hams it up so much he seems merrily cockeyed, a bit blitzed, not quite blotto or stinko, but buzzing. Here, as a bestselling romantic novel writer, he's even buzzier, but he has a weird cool chemistry with Joan Blondell as his (what else?) fitfully bemused secretary so we know we're safely ensconced in primo WB pre-code territory, in short, the wolf is in his tailored forest. Adding to the value: Helen Chandler is the unwelcome sister-in-law of his latest on-tour groupie/conquest (Genevieve Tobin), showing up to make sure she comes home, for the sanctity of marriage and reputationzzzz. In reality, Chandler was a notorious alcoholic who burnt herself up in a fire shortly hereafter, a fitting if tragic fate for a girl half in half out of this world (as in 1931's The Last Flight and Dracula). Wallace Ford--bespectacled!-- is cast against type as Chandler's litigious husband and fellow moral task force self-appointer. Dragging Tobin's estranged but relatively cool husband (Hugh Herbert) in tow, they set about following William from Cleveland to Albany on the sleeper train, hoping to nab him in the act. And there's a great scene where their presence in the next car all but forces William to sleep with Tobin, waiting in his sleeper in a sexy negligee. Pre-code gold! It all ends in William's Albany boudoir where he jumps around on the bed and generally carries on while Blondell is gradually revealed to be far more than a secretary but hitherto 'open-minded' to his dalliances with ladies such as Tobin - usually, but because Tobin's married and he's lying to her about it, she gets pissed. Is he gonna do the right thing? Are we kids or what?

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.

1934 - dir. Lloyd Bacon

Uh oh, morality creeps in, that old wholesome small town malarkey, though still done with tough guy WB grit. Jimmy Cagney and Joan Blondell play two small time grifters who hustle and flow from the Turkish baths of NYC to Chicago to Marina Del Rey or thereabouts before seeking refuge in a small Portuguese fishing community, the kind of Podunk town that showgirls and good-hearted Steinbeckian whores go for their second chances. You know, to be respectable, and marry some terminally decent, slow-witted townie (see also: Tiger Shark, Anna Christie, The Wedding Night, The Purchase Price, The Wind, to name merely a few) whose lunkheadedness is almost like one last dig at the sanctity of, as Blondell's heart-of-gold whore puts it, "good honest decent hardworking people, which you wouldn't know anything about, Dick Jordan!"

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).

The problem with the whole motivation of Leo DiCaprio in GANGS OF NEW YORK was swearing revenge on a man who his father lost a fight to fairly and is commemorated by. There's no treachery involved, no injustice. It shows the extreme cluelessness that can result when a genius like Scorsese's every dumb decision is never doubted. We wouldn't expect the grandson of a fallen German soldier for example, to hunt down the American who killed his grandfather on the battlefield during WW2. Does Scorsese even understand how vengeance works? Well, alas, even The Bowery feels the need to fall back on a hackneyed arc: the usual auld triangle coheres from the crowded streets betwixt Wray, the jealous brute Beery and George Raft as his slick rival--yawn. A better plot thread has Raft jumping off the Brooklyn bridge on a wager for Chuck's saloon; he makes it but almost used a dummy in his place, so reversals of fortune are always happening on the Bowery, including an appearance of vile liquor-bashing Carrie Nation and her armada of shrewish wives, living examples of the evils of sobriety. For a country finally free of the evils of prohibition (it was repealed in 1933 - the same year of THE BOWERY's release), the drunkenness on display here is almost patriotic.

1931 - *** - dir. Jack Conway

Karen Morley is at her warmest and most mature in this pre-code MGM caper: The romance between her and John Barrymore starts with his discovering her naked in his bed during a party (he insists on being in the room while she dresses - with the lights off and it's pretty sexy... for he is no gentleman!). And since this is Paris, he doesn't have to go to the gallows to spare her having to confess she spent the night with him. He doesn't believe her story about being an exiled Russian countess, but he still likes her. So do we. There's is a relationship of mature equals and that's a rarity even in pre-code, or screwball for that matter. I'm not a huge fan of John's brother Lionel (he plays the head of the French Secret Service, sworn to bag Lupin before he retires - and as always is fussy and mannered) but the pair have a more interesting rapport here than in all their other films together. Enticing dabs of old dark house mystery atmosphere helps, with great Cedric Gibbons art direction.

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.


  1. About He Was Her Man: I understand your interpretation but the Breen types still hated this film, partly because Blondell goes unpunished, I suppose, but also because Cagney was too cool going to his death. When I read contemporary complaints that HWHM -- actually almost proto-noir in its fatalism -- glorified gangsters because Cagney seemed to die bravely I couldn't help thinking that Angels With Dirty Faces was some belated apology from Warner Bros.

  2. thanks for your input Sam - do you know if this film was before or after Breen stepped in? I assumed it was one of those made right on the line - as if Cagney in walking away with the gunsels was like John Wayne being shut out of the new west in Liberty Valence or the Searchers - but also meant as a coded protest of what was to come, like better to go die in peace than submit to this new draconian rubric.

  3. Erich, it was a June '34 release and presumably pre-Breen -- but do you assume that the correct Pre-Code ending is Cagney gets the girl? If you want to see what really looks like coded protest to me, check out Madame Du Barry if you haven't already.

  4. I haven't seen Du Barry - it's on my radar. I don't think Cagney was ever going to get the girl - he deserved his fate not for being a gangster but for being a squealer!


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