Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception, for a better yesterday

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Pre-Code Capsules: STAMBOUL QUEST, ROAD TO SINGAPORE, MAN IN POSSESSION, JEWEL ROBBERY, ONE WAY PASSAGE, THE WORLD CHANGES

THE WORLD CHANGES
1933 - dir. William Wellman
***1/2
One of the punchier gutsier entries in the 'tycoons through the ages' sagas that unfurled tight and fast on the pre-code Warner's lot, this tale of a bug-eyed entrepreneur/Chicago stockyard founder reeks of greatness. It begins in the 1850s when Aline MacMahon and Donald Cook settle in the Dakotas, to form the backbone of a small farming community so isolated that they don't even learn about the Civil War until its over. Paul Muni plays their ambitious son, who lights out for Texas, there to round up wild steer and drive them north to the railroad, setting up the first stockyards with Guy Kibbee in Chicago. They make a fortune, running the herds both west to California and east to New York, but Muni's insane with profit margin expansion, so he keeps re-investing until he invents the refrigerator car, so all the slaughtering can be done right there (as opposed to shipping live cattle) and the stench and profits rise and rise. McMahon looks on dolefully eastward from her Dakota porch, for truly no man was ever meant to have that much money, anymore than cattle aren't meant to grow up knee deep in their own shit.

She's right, and so is Mary Astor, his snobby wife who reacts to his profession with constant horror and disgust. The Chicago stockyards loom large as one of human civilization's great ongoing horrors. As if in karmic retribution, Muni's kids grow up snotty and spoiled and Astor goes Lady Macbeth over the realization her privileges are paid for in oceans of abattoir run-off, shit and blood commingling and Muni wading in with a bucket to collect the pools of fat off the surface to feed back to the stock and the stench of her husband's clothes chokes her high society airs, and every morning he's still stomping through the manure and mud and measuring ways cattle can be crammed in closer and closer to make more and more money and more and more and cattle tighter and tighter, more more! All the expensive French perfume in the world can't disguise that smell. But all the time more money, and Chicago gets bigger and bigger and one is very grateful this isn't in color or smell-o-vision.


Only at Warners and only in the pre-code era would a film about the Industrial Revolution be so anti-capitalist and pro-small farming. Yet it's not preachy or sentimental, even as the century turns and the frilly pre-Depression ostentation needle hits the top. I wouldn't be surprised if the film was labeled Socialist propaganda in the 50s and barred from re-release except maybe in the Soviet Union. Muni (later blacklisted) gets hammy in spots but his energy is infectious; his every line of dialogue is a slow strangled clockwork crawl towards spittle-flecked hysteria We watch him age through the Great Depression, devolving into a bitter caricature and in the end Aline McMahon swoops in to rescue the only two grandchildren worth saving, spiriting them back to her Edenic old school agrarian co-op for a happy-ever-after alternative. It works because McMahon's frontierswoman spirit is so large that not only can you believe a whole community would spring up around her, you might have a hankering to leave the city yourself, and find your own patch of land and some goats near a MacMahon type matriarch of your own. If only Monsanto would loosen our chains, but that won't happen 'til the last gasp of the Earth is copyrighted and God sued for infringement. Seven generational thinking, man. Our great great great great great great grandchildren will one day appreciate our careful recycling of paper and plastic, giving us silent prayers and thanks through all eighteen of their mutant orifices. And Paul Muni and Paul Robeson will rise from their graves, sharper than a thousand automated plowshares.
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ROAD TO SINGAPORE
1931 - dir. Alfred E. Green
***1/2

Deep in the sweltering tropics, a British colony of overdressed ruling class prudes gossip about homewrecker Hugh Daltrey (William Powell), a bounder who left Rangoon the previous year with one of the colonist's wives, and who has just returned... alone. Phillipa (Doris Kenyon) meanwhile is the newly imported, and instantly bored and frustrated, wife of the colony's frigid physician (Louis Calhern). Seems he's not much of a lover but rather, as she puts it, "a machine of cold steel, as cold as the instruments you use to probe the bodies of unconscious patients on operating tables... " And now that he has her more or less marooned down in the tropics, he doesn't need to wast time pitching woo, not when fever victims need blah blah. Needless to say, Hugh has her in his sights ere long. And needless to say, too, this ain't no Hope-Crosby picture but a variation on the then-hugely popular W. Somerset Maugham style commonwealth scandal dramas (ala RAIN, THE PAINTED VEIL, THE LETTER), wherein a cold British husband and the jungle heat combine to leave a wife ripe for infidelity and the racist audience and censors are so relieved the other man is white they let it slide. After all, it's the jungle! And what else are the ceaseless throb of native drums for if not to loosen colonial inhibitions, especially amongst the wives, down there with nothing to do but play bridge and gossip while their men treat cholera patients and tap rubber plants? As Calhern notes, it's a fever that overtakes women down there, the heat activates their sexual hormones. He sure doesn't have that problem! Though likable enough, at times, we have to smile indulgently when he gets all excited about some new tumor he finds (his excuse for missing the dance). When the patient dies, his hot kid sister (Marian Marsh) notes, "perhaps you'll find another disease, with a much longer name, right here at home." Nope. Ever the English gentleman, he'd rather shoot Daltrey than try to get his own freak on; he considers honeymooning childish, and presumes that--since she was his nurse during a stint at a London hospital where they met--that Phillipa will be as keen about tumors and deformities as he is, and way less hot under the hem line about sex, dancing and romance. But she gives not a whit for the hospital She's horny, and as for nursing, "she's never going back to it," she exclaims to him, "not for a moment." But he's snoring away before she even finishes her sentence.

If you know the genre, you can guess the rest of story, but there's some novel issues being discussed that make the film worthwhile anyway: Phillipa's sullen horniness clears like a fever during a scene dissolve (we know what that means) after her dinner with Daltrey at his seductive cabana. As for Daltrey, he doesn't know if he's seducing her because he can or because he really is in love with her - and if you've ever been a louche well-laid bachelor then you know the feeling (it's not as gratifying as you'd think it is). Sure, when we first meet Daltrey, he's a bit of a skeeve, arranging all sorts of shady tricks to get Phillipa back to his pad, but now that she's there, it's suddenly not so simple. After the hunt, after the loving, then what? That they have the eloquence to bring this point up amongst themselves in an adult, civilized way, let's you know this is more mature than the average soapy triangle, and it's oh-so-very pre-code.


Powell really shines in this complex role wherein--a real rarity for him--he's not entirely sympathetic, Though we're meant to find his Daltrey charming, we're also made aware of the damage charm like his can wreak in an environment like this, where the husbands are out working during the day and the wives are home bored and restless. We're also made aware that he's a bit of a drunk, an issue guaranteed to impair judgment. Calhern, on the other hand, is a real surprise as the cold fish husband. Rather than a stuffy posh stereotype he's played as a man too intelligent to really buy into his own inflexible moral prudishness, he knows he's trying to mask his own sexual terror by bashing on Daltrey, but he can't help it. And as his younger sister, the lovely Marian Marsh does wonders even with very unflattering riding breeches (but holy shit she looks great in a very inviting pre-code negligee), she's so fuckin' luminous I get weak in the knees and wonder why on Earth Daltery would pass her over for Phillipa. "When men like you say no, they really mean yes," she tells him, a kind of reversal of what he was pulling on Phillippa when they arrived. In this case his no means no, and frankly, age or no, it's a bit of a shock.  Played by Doris Kenyon, Phillipa on the other hand, looks a bit haggard; her nose and chin are weak, clearly there's weight fluctuation under those hot lights, but man she can act.

And man, is the lighting rich, blaring in that exotic pre-code way where palms and ferns cast long shadows (with great sets by Anton Grot) and the panama hats glow. The way everyone speaks, slow and measured for the crude microphones (and because of its stage play roots), couples to the lush glowing sets to creates the uncanny familiarity of a kind of abstract dream. Some people don't go for that kind of thing, but I love it --it's 1931, baby, and the air is thick with enough black and white magic, smoke, you could swim through it, and the constant throb of of native drums aligns the pulse for pleasant action. As for mating, with squares like Calhern for competition, for a swinger like Daltrey it's like shooting fish in a barrel. And for comic ballast there's even Allison Skipworth in a tiara and fan, showing Powell all the laters tango steps. What the speaking and movements lack in dramatic fluidity they make up for in daring, reflecting a time when leaving a bad marriage and running off with William Powell showed courage (for both character and studio) rather than loose morals.

MAN IN POSSESSION
1931 - dir. Sam Wood
***1/2
The title is a quaint term for a deputy sheriff's assistant in London, since part of the job is remaining at a house that is in foreclosure, making sure the debtor doesn't try to sell their stuff and skip town. Since it's based on a PG Wodehouse play you can guess the rest, mirth, mistaken identity, sharp wit and saucy indiscretion. Though Hilarious on the page, Wodehouse can be tough to get just right in American hands: it's a tricky mixture of 90% Noel Coward and 10% Monty Python. The mix doesn't work unless it's at that exact ratio, and it seldom is. Luckily that's the exact ratio here, Robert Young may be an acquired taste but he's perfectly cast as a well-groomed but criminally under-funded Cambridge alum whose first assignment under the local debt collector's tutelage is to remain at the posh house of sexy Irene Purcell whose whole house and grounds has been seized for lack of payment. Her plan is to fool a rich man coming over for dinner that night into thinking she's rich too, so he'll propose (and then take on her debts as well as her hand). She convinces Young to pose as her butler since he's there for the night anyway. Naturally the pair fall in love in the process. "I'd lie for you, I'd steal for you, I'd even work for you," was the line that got the biggest laugh out of me, but my jaw was on the floor after the surprisingly frank sexual hook-up. Purcell has lovely little bare arms, reminiscent of Norma Shearer's (and therefore the style of the time) and is pretty damned sexy once she gets rolling. There's a really risque fade-out and loads of clues the next morning making light of the fact that 'the butler indeed did it. It's so frank it's genuinely shocking, and as such proves one of the best of all PG Wodehouse adaptations.


 And as he proved the same year with Shearer in Coward's PRIVATE LIVES, Young takes to such terrain absurdly well, like he never quite, but almost, gets the jokes, which is the perfect tone for Wodehouse. The tight little cast includes C. Aubrey Smith as his harumphing mercantile class father and Reginald Owen as one of those stuffy stooges with an umbrella that would eventually be played by Ralph Bellamy. Beryl Mercer is the long-suffering mother; Charlotte Greenwood a surly maid; Alan Mowbray the rich womanizing Sir Charles, who deserves better than to be dicked around just because he dicks around. After all, he tips Purcell's servants handsomely and later bankrolls 'The Dump,' Godfrey Parks' nightclub, and if the whole concept of a high-living 'heiress' winding up married to her butler doesn't remind you of MY MAN GODFREY (1936) then go see both films again at once.

At once, do you hear me!?

Alan Mowbray--the best friend a bum ever had.

JEWEL ROBBERY
1932 - dir. William Deterle
***1/2
Directed by William Dieterle, with maximum class and reefer humor, JEWEL ROBBERY (1932) is a gem (get it?) about a dashing jewel thief who catches the eye of bored thrill-seeking diplomat’s wife (Kay Francis) in scenic pre-Nazi Vienna. It’s the high-class people doing naughty things sort of European froth that Hitler’s war machine would soon blow off the beery surface of the earth's frail mug. Here it still sparkles and bubbles and everyone is high, literally, since Powell passes out joints to his robbery victims in order to cloud their memory and make them docile. You’ll think you’re high too when you see longtime sourpuss character actor Clarence Wilson smoke one of these thinking it’s an ordinary cigarette, and Francis will blow your mind with her weird V-shaped smile and eyes that glaze over with turned-on glee with the thought of being kidnapped by the dashing Powell. As with the next film under discussion, their chemistry is so electrically charged you feel like they’re kissing each other even when they’re on opposite ends of the room. See it at once! At once, do you hear me??

ONE WAY PASSAGE
1932 - dir. Tay Garnett
****
The chemistry between Francis and Powell was so good in JEWEL ROBBERY it's small wonder Warners re-teamed them the same year in ONE WAY PASSAGE. Almost a sequel to the first film, with Powell a caught criminal sailing home to face execution and meeting, and falling in love with the similarly urbane Fances at a bar. He's unaware she only has a few weeks to live and any undue excitement or stress could kill her. She's unaware he's a convicted murderer on his way back to be executed). Their impending fates make their time together electrifying and beautifully tragic, like a very expensive cognac warmed by the fire, almost Hawksian in the sense of impermanence making life so sweet.

Romantic comedies nowadays are full of children in grown up bodies, trying to make each other into their parents before love wears off and they once again grow lost in unconscious consumerism and self-righteous denial. This film by contrast, is laden with grown-ups, and not a drop of stuffy morality or mush taints their beautiful inherent decency as they walk to their deaths like it’s just another ocean voyage. One of the best recovered jewels in the TCM canon, it’s a testament to humanity’s lack of progress in the past 70 or so years that characters this warm, dashing, cool, romantic, witty, sweet and clever– “whole” people full of confidence, bravery and emotional gravitas--are so rare even in movies.

Aline McMahon (posing as a countess) and perennially tipsy sharpster Frank McHugh are the comedic second leads and great as usual; Warren Hymer is swell the cop who turns out to have a heart (and who bonds special with Aline - seeing right through her disguise, et al) all so good it could even make George Raft cry.


STAMBOUL QUEST
1934 - dir. Sam Wood
**1/2
If you're a fan of TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934) imagine if that annoying college boy in Lily Garland's train car--the one Barrymore convinces to stomp off, "without a word, like the Reverend Henry Davidson... in RAIN."-- only pretended to leave, and proceeded to keep ardently wooing until finally, against her better sense and our wishes, Lily Garland actually fell in love with him? Yeesh, right? That's STAMBOUL QUEST -- a WWI romantic spy film that dances ably along the censor's razor but still dives into their arms once the length is run.

As the real-life WWI spy code named Fraulein Doktor, Myrna Loy is slinky, intelligent and exotic (before Nora Charles, she played a lot of these vamp types - though more and more her heart of gold was showing through). She wears a fabulous shimmering dress in the climax, a big finale which leaves us with the pleasing idea that ardent Loy-wooer George Brent has been shot by a firing squad. She's already been warned of the 'steep price one must pay' as a hot female spy in Austrian counter-intelligence (she must never fall in love) that she lets pestering Brent undo her composure wrankles big time as his slippery nose-first charm has not aged well. Since she starts the movie ratting out Mata Hari for falling in love with a Russian officer (ala the Garbo film), we presume she thinks herself above such trivial matters. Naturally her strident position on the subject (since Ben Hecht isn't writing the script) means she has jinxed herself. But that she lets herself be taken in by the naive whimsicality of George Brent--who fancies himself so irresistible he has carte blanche to tread all over her sublime machinations with his muddy American bungler feet (as he tries to steer her spy narrative into an old-fashioned tourist-meets-local love story)--well, it doesn't sit well. Not at all. Nor does it fit her otherwise sublime charater

In case you can't tell, I loathe George Brent. Why? Maybe it's the condescending trill in his voice, the way he talks to every woman like they're a three year-old girl who just skinned their knee, or his stupid face that kind of leans out with his nose-first as if the world is a flower waiting to be sniffed; or his wholesale lack of cynicism, buying into terrible romantic lines like a first class punter, Maybe it's because he's one of those guys that thinks just because you kissed him he has the right to stalk you and sabotage all your shady business. He plays the sort of earnest wooer for whom restraining orders were invented. And every time a girl relents, responds to that treatment, gives into his relentless self-satisfied pestering, my feminist heart sinks, for it's another signal to creeps everywhere to just keep trying! Keep barging in on her at work, and calling and hanging around, and eventually.... she'll surrender. Wake up the neighborhood playing "In Your Eyes" outside her window. That girls tell guys they find that scene romantic is like guys telling girls they think it's romantic for a girl to get pregnant after saying she's on the pill and trick him into marriage.


On the plus side, at least before all that Brent shit happens we get to see Fraulein Doktor in operation, and Loy is up to the challenge of this complex, nefarious role. She's way better--in my mind--than Garbo in Mata Hari, and several levels of intellect above everyone else in the picture (even giving X-27 a run for her money), that is, until old Georgie Boy crashes in. Oh well, maybe next war. When the world is much darker, or some alternate future past, in which Joseph Breen was blocked from birth by a time-traveling IUD.

1 comment:

  1. Gary Houston22 August, 2018

    Regarding the last: Brent is obnoxious. Joel McCrea would have been leagues better.

    ReplyDelete

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