Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


1933 - dir. William Wellman
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. Both the women are right, the Chicago stockyards represent one of human civilization's great horrors, and 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 at the root, 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!. 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, and so 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 and in the end Aline McMahon swoops in to rescue the only two grandchildren who seem worth saving, and carting them back to her Edenic old school agrarian co-op. McMahon's frontierswoman spirit is such 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, through all eighteen of their mutant orifices. And Paul Muni and Paul Robeson will rise from their graves, like a thousand automated plowshares, like the commie rats they are!
1931 - dir. Alfred E. Green

Deep in the sweltering tropics, a British colony of overdressed prudes gossip about homewrecker Hugh Daltrey (William Powell), a bounder who left Rangoon the previous year, with one of the colonist's wives and has just returned... alone. Phillipa (Doris Kenyon) meanwhile is the newly imported wife of a different colonist (Louis Calhern) a doctor who isn't a man and a lover but "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 with woo. Needless to say, this ain't no Hope-Crosby picture. That Road is a decade or so off. Instead this is pre-code scandalizing in the veigng of 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 is so relieved the other man in the picture is white they let it slide. 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; 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 sister notes, "perhaps you'll find another disease, with a much longer name, right here at home." He'd rather shoot Daltrey than get his 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 about sex, dancing and romance. But she gives not a whit --she's horny, and as for nursing, "she's never going back to it, not for a moment." But he's snoring away before she even finishes her sentence.

If you know the genre, you can guess the 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), as for Daltrey, he doesn't know if he's seducing her because he can or because he really is in love with her. When we first meet him he's a bit of a skeeve, arranging all sorts of shady tricks to get Phillipa back to his pad. That they have the eloquence to bring this point up amongst themselves let's you know this is more mature than the average soapy triangle.

Powell is great in a complex role where he's not entirely sympathetic. We find his charming but we're made aware of the damage charm like his can wreak, and--for the first time maybe--so is he, and man he's a drunk. Calhern is a real surprise as the cold fish husband, rather than a stereotype he's played as a man too intelligent to really buy into his own inflexible moral prudishness, trying to mask his sexual terror by bashing on Daltrey. 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 he'd throw her over for her older sister-in-law. "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.

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. The lighting is rich in that exotic pre-code way where palms and ferns cast long shadows, and the panama hats glow, and couple to everyone speaking slow and measured for the crude microphones (and because of its stage play roots) 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 black and white magic, smoke, and the constant throb of of native drums. As for mating, with guys like Calhern for competition, for Daltrey it's like shooting fish in a barrel. And for ballast, 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.

1931 - dir. Sam Wood
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 run off and keep the money. Since it's based on a PG Wodehouse play you can guess the rest. Wodehouse can be tough to get just right in American hands: it's 90% Noel Coward and 10% Monty Python. The mix doesn't work unless it's at that exact ratio, luckily that's the exact ratio here. Being pre-code helps, as does Robert Young, perfectly cast as a well-groomed but criminally under-funded Cambridge alum whose first assignment under the debt collector's tutelage is to remain at the posh house of sexy Irene Purcell, who wants to fool a man coming over for dinner that night into thinking she's rich. She convinces Young to pose as her butler since he's there for the night anyway. Naturally they fall in love. "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 I kind of swooned. They loved little naked alabaster arms back then and Purcell's got them. She's 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 film again at once.

At once, do you hear me!?

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

1932 - dir. William Deterle
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, but 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??

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 withh the similarly urbane Fances at a bar. He's unaware her character is dying and only has a few weeks to live, 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 over 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 in movies.

Aline McMahon and Frank McHugh are the comedic second leads and great as usual, with Warren Hymer the cop who turns out to have a heart, et al.'

1934 - dir. Sam Wood
If you're a fan of TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934) imagine if that annoying college boy in Lilly 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) and 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). 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.

Too bad for us, and the film, she runs up against the naive whimsicality of George Brent, who fancies himself irresistible, so commences treading 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)

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 everyone 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 as if the world is a flower expecting 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 after much resistance, 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. "In Your Eyes."

On the plus side, at least before all that happens we get to see her in operation, and Loy is up to the challenge of a 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. And Joseph Breen has been gassed in the cradle by a certain pre-code film-loving terminator.

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