Red Dust (1932): Rubber Souls

poster“Clark Gable and Jean Harlow have come to typify… free love and plenty of it. Anybody having the slightest knowledge of youth psychology knows what a disastrous effect such films have on the immature minds of adolescents who see them.” So preached Max Knepper in his humorless 1935 tirade Sodom and Gomorrah: The Story of Hollywood.

Okay, full disclosure time. I started watching Harlow movies in my teens and have since embarked on a life of wantonness, criminal activity, and blogging, so you might want to take this review with a grain of smelling salts.

Ironically enough, Red Dust is a story about morality, bordering on allegory at times. Much to the dismay of America’s bluenoses, however, the most moral individual in the movie turns out to be a wisecracking, unapologetic prostitute. I suspect that what really scared censors about this movie wasn’t the steamy chemistry between Gable and Harlow. No, what must’ve shocked them is that an apparently moral wife willingly succumbs to Gable’s adulterous advances.

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The story tastes like someone put The Letter and Rain into a cocktail shaker with some pineapple juice and thrashed vigorously. Rough-hewn Denny Carson (a moustacheless Gable) runs a rubber plantation in Indochina, occasionally longing to escape the grimy work for a more civilized life. One day he comes back to his bamboo hovel to find Vantine (Harlow), a feisty prostitute hiding out from the law.

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After a few weeks of playtime, Carson stuffs a roll of cash down her blouse and tries to ship her back to Saigon. Falling for the big lug, Vantine decides to stick around instead. The plot thickens when Carson’s new employee Gary arrives with his elegant, tennis-racket-carrying wife, Babs (Mary Astor). Before you can say “The natives are restless,” Carson seduces Babs—in a doozy of a rain-drenched, clingy-white-clothing-swaddled love scene—and cuckolds his deferential underling. Will he break up the marriage or do the right thing by returning to Vantine’s loving arms?

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Despite its underlying racism and occasional creakiness, Red Dust challenges audiences to see through outward signs of virtue and shatters the assumption that a good reputation equals a good heart. This movie makes you think a little—something that self-appointed champions of morality seldom want the public to do for themselves.

A kimono-wearing, platinum-haired hooker might loathe deceitfulness and strive to maintain a standard of decency, whereas a demure country club brunette might cheat on her husband and remorselessly lie to cover it up. Indeed, the lack of an easily recognizable moral horizon makes pre-Code cinema so tantalizing in general. No one has a monopoly on sin. Like the rubber that Carson harvests in the jungle, pre-Code morals are elastic, stretching to fit the situation.

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Red Dust also uncorks a vinegary commentary on the American way of life. At the very end, we learn that Babs and her startlingly bland husband Gary (Gene ‘the yawn’ Raymond) have arrived in San Francisco and no doubt intend to resume their society lifestyle—with hubby never the wiser of what she was getting up to on that rubber plantation.

This schmoe had earlier confided in Carson that he dreamed of traveling to South America, before his marriage put a stop to such a fantasy. In the same scene, Gary launches into a starry-eyed speech about his new, wife-approved vision of children and a house in the country, within commutable distance to New York, of course. It’s the sort of propaganda that would sound maudlin and gooey in any other movie, but, as Carson sits there in the driving rain trying not to betray his guilty secret, the context flavors the monologue with an unmistakable bitterness. The film thus implies, and none too subtly, that your standard, respectable American couple consists of a repressed wife and an emasculated husband.

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Meanwhile, far from the apparently idyllic dens of people like Babs and Gary, Carson and his crew of outcasts toil and labor to support the consumerism of the culture that marginalizes them. As he growls in an early scene, “You think I’m going to sink my whole life in this dry rot just so the rest of the world can ride around on balloon tires?”

Intensifying the satire on American values, Vantine mocks Babs by appropriating the vocabulary of a well-to-do housewife. “I thought we might run up a few curtains and make a batch of fudge while we were planning what to wear to the country club dance this Saturday night,” She drawls for Carson’s benefit. Listening to Harlow’s tinny, faux-refined voice spouting out lines that could come from the Ladies’ Home Journal exposes the cherished virtue of domesticity as a pretense. Her burlesque of society chatter also highlights the film’s central inversion of roles: the prostitute stays faithful to her man, while the prudish wife cheats on her husband. Who’s the real “lady,” after all?

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In the end, however, I don’t watch Red Dust for the drama, the slick satire, or even for sweaty Clark Gable. I watch it for Harlow’s brazen, yet vulnerable comic performance. Consider her introduction in the movie, dozing in a random bed, when Carson and his crony unknowingly drop one of their drunk comrades on top of her in the dark. That unflappable voice cries from offscreen, “Hey! What’s the idea?” And then we get this piquant close-up of the silvery blonde illuminated by a flashlight, her eyes squinting as she reflexively berates the drunk whom she assumes is trying to sleep with her.

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Rather than present her as an object of fetishistic admiration first, as Lewis Milestone did with Crawford’s famous entrance in Rain, Fleming lets Vantine impress the audience as a brassy straight-shooter. Caught by surprise, she leads with a torrent of her personality and sass. Her profession and her looks are secondary. A few seconds later, as she forcefully swings her bare legs and kicks the drunk out of her bed, she does so with a remarkable lack of daintiness or self-conscious grace. You’d think she’d been doing it all her life.

The notorious rain barrel sequence, in which a nude Harlow lathers herself up and bathes in the plantation’s water supply, doesn’t disappoint. The men in the audience might not have noticed, but this very pre-Code scene serves an important narrative purpose, too, as Vantine tries to annoy Carson by scandalizing Babs. “Afraid I’ll shock the duchess?” She teases, beckoning to Carson with a soapy sponge. When Carson hurries up to reign in Vantine’s antics, Babs appears on a balcony. Fleming repeatedly cuts to her holier-than-thou reactions as Vantine playfully splashes around in the barrel. Again, appearances are deceptive, since Babs’s hypocritical “shock,” we understand, really betrays her own jealousy and her desire for Carson.

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Harlow proves her talent for both verbal and physical comedy. The dry twang with which she rattles off sarcastic dialogue vindicates MGM’s decision to cast her as Vantine, a role previously intended for Garbo or Crawford. Without Harlow dropping sassy lines like, “This rain seems to have uncovered a pile of garbage around here,” (when she bawls Gable out for his two-timing behavior) save the film from dull melodrama purgatory. In another instance, provoked Carson’s budding liaison with Babs as the monsoon pours down, Vantine disdains to comment. Instead, she scornfully kicks her shapely legs up on a table and starts to file her nails—not an extraordinary gesture, but one that Harlow fills with an amusingly contained anger, a hissy fit manicure.

1Her accomplishments in Red Dust are all the more inspiring given the tragedy that struck during production. Her husband Paul Bern, an MGM executive more than 20 years her senior, committed suicide. In addition to Harlow’s emotional loss, the scandal seriously threatened her career. A true professional, she returned to work after a 10-day break and soldiered on with a performance that runs the gamut from funny to heartrending.

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Victor Fleming directs the cast on the set of Red Dust

1932 was a good year for onscreen hookers with hearts of gold. Marlene Dietrich, as an impossibly glamorous courtesan, tempted a warlord to save her true love in Shanghai Express. Ruth Chatterton, playing a businesslike madame, sacrificed all for her son in Frisco Jenny. And Carole Lombard, in the role of a wry streetwalker, discovered the joys of home and hearth in Virtue.

But none of them struck the same gold as Harlow. Her chatty, stubborn, sublimely unladylike Vantine doesn’t want to be redeemed and doesn’t need to, either. Perhaps because of that, she remains one of the most iconic and lovable dames of the pre-Code era.

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Pre-Code A to Z: 26 Favorites

joanThere are three stages to a love affair with pre-Code movies:

Stage One: “What’s a pre-Code movie?”

Stage Two: “Hot damn! She’s really taking those off!”

Stage Three: “Why the hell haven’t more people heard of these?”

In case you’re still in stage one, you should know that pre-Code cinema refers to the body of movies produced in Hollywood between roughly 1929 and 1934, a period when the film industry was supposed to be censoring all risqué content. To say the least, it wasn’t.

So, if you associate old movies with plodding black-and-white boredom or family-safe entertainment, chances are you just haven’t seen the right pre-Code flick. You haven’t seen Barbara Stanwyck seducing a skyscraper full of businessmen. Or Jean Harlow flirtatiously baring her garters. Or Ann Dvorak screaming in a cocaine-fueled panic. When you start watching pre-Codes, the sheer amounts of sex, drugs, alcohol, and violence will shock and surprise you. (Stage two!) You’ll chuckle, you’ll do a few double takes, and you’ll understand that people in the 1930s were really no different from people today. Only better dressed.

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However, as your addiction to pre-Code movies grows (Cue stage three!), you’ll realize that these films deserve profound respect. More titillating relics of Hollywood gone wild, many of them rank among the boldest and best movies ever made.

I decided to do a pre-Code A to Z, with a different title for each letter in the alphabet, cbbecause I wanted to feature a weird, slightly arbitrary collection of pre-Codes instead of a traditional top ten. Make no mistake: I am not presenting this post as a definitive catalogue of the most important movies made during those years of innovation and excess.

Instead, consider this post a (hopefully) fun way to discover or rediscover one of the richest periods in American cinema. To that end, I’ve tried to mix old standbys with a few obscure gems. Please excuse me if your favorite doesn’t get a mention. By all means, though, feel free to mention it in a comment!

IMPORTANT NOTE: On each Friday of this month, September 2014, Turner Classic Movies is showing pre-Code movies. They’re showing most of the films on this list, the ones with asterisks by the titles. So there’s never been a better time to tune in and learn your ABCs…

Now, pick a letter and go to town.

i

A is for I’m No Angel* (Wesley Ruggles, 1933)

The Story: A canny circus dancer gains notoriety for taming lions—and rich society men.

Why You Should Watch It: Too many people remember Mae West solely as a curvaceous sex symbol, beckoning men into her boudoir. Too few realize that she wrote her own dialogue, outfoxed censors, and singlehandedly saved Paramount from financial collapse. In I’m No Angel, West rattles off enough quotable lines to put on every throw pillow in your house.

Pre-Code Content: Unrepentant gold-digging and premarital sex

b

B is for Baby Face* (Alfred E. Green, 1933)

The Story: Versed in Nietzsche as well as hard knocks, Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) literally sleeps her way to the top of an affluent bank, leaving wrecked lives in her wake.

Why You Should Watch It: Stanwyck delivered what might be the greatest performance of her career as the shrewd, sizzling Lily, fueled by rage and ambition. Her barely-concealed contempt for the lecherous men who see her body as their de facto property makes Baby Face something of a revenge fantasy. As she exploits the leering executives who think they’re exploiting her, every man’s dream turns into every man’s nightmare: a sex object with a brain.

Pre-Code Content: Lingerie (a given), implications of prostitution, interracial friendship, and enough implied sex to make a censor faint.

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C is for Call Her Savage* (John Francis Dillon, 1932)

The Story: The willful daughter of a Texas rancher, Nasa Springer (Clara Bow) races from one catastrophe to another, plunging into catfights, barroom brawls, an abusive marriage, and prostitution.

Why You Should Watch It: The enormously popular ‘It Girl’ of the silent screen, Bow proved her acting chops for the sound era by transcending this melodrama’s overwhelming tawdriness. Interestingly enough, the film suggests that Nasa’s misfortunes stem from the corruption of the big city and of civilization in general. Only by returning to the serenity of nature can she be redeemed. Call her savage? Well, she’s not half as savage as the culture that makes her suffer.

Pre-Code Content: Erotic wrestling with a Great Dane, Clara Bow sans brassiere, a speakeasy, illicit sex, miscegenation—almost every pre-Code no-no, really.

d

D is for Design for Living* (Ernst Lubitsch, 1933)

The Story: Torn between the two gorgeous men in her life, Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) chooses both. And the threesome’s “gentleman’s agreement” to shun sex doesn’t stand a chance.

Why You Should Watch It: If I had to explain to someone what wit is—not to mention double entendre—I’d show them this movie. The Lubitsch touch will tickle you from beginning to end.

Pre-Code Content: Uh, it’s about a ménage à trois!

Loretta Young (left) and Warren William (right) in Roy Del Ruth

E is for Employees’ Entrance* (Roy Del Ruth, 1933)

The Story: Ruthless executive Kurt Anderson (Warren Wiliam) squeezes profit out of a vast department store during the Great Depression and treats the lady employees as his personal harem.

Why You Should Watch It: No pre-Code movie represented the harsh conditions facing working men and especially women with more conviction and honesty than Employees’ Entrance. Ironically, though, the hard-hitting drama showcases Warren William’s despicable charms at their zenith. William had an improbable knack for making audience members savor the misdeeds of the egotistical shysters they hated in real life. Because both the employees and their harsh bosses strike us as intriguing individuals with flaws and virtues, this portrait of a business coping with a bad economy crackles with realistic conflict.

Pre-Code Content: Levels of sexual harassment that even today’s creepiest senators would wince at; dialogue like, “Oh, it’s you. I didn’t know you with your clothes on.”; suicide

f

F is for Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)

The Story: Aw, come on. You gotta know this. It’s alive! It’s escaped! It’s running amok!

Why You Should Watch It: Sure, there’s no nudity, but Whale’s Frankenstein capitalized on pre-Code permissiveness by condensing Shelley’s novel down to a morbid meditation on unholy ambition. Dr. Frankenstein’s obsession with creating new life culminates with a line of dialogue so controversial that was cut from the film for years: “In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!”

Pre-Code Content: Heaping helpings of blasphemy, explicit drowning of a little girl, and graphic violence

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G is for Gold Diggers of 1933* (Mervyn LeRoy and Busby Berkeley)

The Story: During the production of a big musical show, naive chorine Polly (Ruby Keeler) falls in love with a young songwriter (Dick Powell), but his millionaire brother (Warren William) objects to the match. Polly’s wisecracking roommates (Joan Blondell and Aline MacMahon) set out to hustle the millionaire.

Why You Should Watch It: Pure cinema. Like pornography, it’s something difficult to describe, but you know it when you see it. And if you don’t see it in Busby Berkeley’s dazzling sequences of audiovisual ecstasy, maybe you need to have your eyes examined. Harnessing the power of the film medium, Berkeley imagined musical numbers that never could’ve existed on a stage and arranged mind-boggling geometric pattens with human bodies. From the upbeat “We’re in the Money” opening to the heartbreaking “Remember My Forgotten Man” finale, Gold Diggers choreographs both the fantasies and the realities of the Depression.

Pre-Code Content: Characters who run around in their lingerie most of the time, a steady stream of innuendo, and an entire musical number devoted to the delight of getting frisky in public spaces.

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H is for Hot Saturday* (William A. Seiter, 1933)

The Story: A well-behaved bank clerk (Nancy Carroll), forced by circumstances to spend an innocent night in the local Casanova’s house, faces ostracism from the local pack of busybodies.

Why You Should Watch It: Because it totally nails small-town hypocrisy and, in so doing, thumbs its nose at the narrow morals imposed by the Production Code. Rather than stoning the “sinner” and rewarding the self-righteous, Hot Saturday gives a happy ending to its wronged protagonist and mercilessly mocks the so-called guardians of decency. Plus, super-young Cary Grant as the town bad boy gives us all a reason to lose our reputations with a smile.

Pre-Code Content: A nearly nude Carroll, two sisters fighting over their underwear, attempted rape, non-stop gossip about sex

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I is for I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

The Story: Wrongly arrested for petty theft, a Depression-era bum (Paul Muni) endures years of hard labor on a chain gang.

Why You Should Watch It: During the pre-Code years, the energizing anarchy of popular gangster movies was balanced out by bleak, often claustrophobic prison movies. In this biting example, the justice system so comprehensively fails our innocent protagonist that he has no choice but to resort to crime. How’s that for irony?

Pre-Code Content: Extensive depictions of prison beatings, some illicit sex, sympathetic portrayal of theft and escaped convicts

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J is for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde* (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931)

The Story: There’s good and evil in every man, and when Dr. Jekyll (Fredric March) concocts a potion to separate the two he unleashes his brutish alter ego upon the world.

Why You Should Watch It: The most unsettling adaptation of Stevenson’s horror classic, this version emphasizes Hyde’s animalistic brutality while clearly suggesting that such ugliness lurks within all humanity. The transformation scene—done in a single take using special colored makeup and camera filters—remains just as amazing 80 years later. And the scenes of Hyde’s gleeful abuse inflicted on the prostitute Ivy remain just as chilling.

Pre-Code Content: Prostitution, Hopkins naked in bed, gruesome scenes of violence

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K is for Kongo (William J. Cowen, 1932)

The Story: In a hellish region of jungle, paraplegic tyrant ‘Deadlegs’ Flint (Walter Huston) wreaks revenge on the rival who stole his wife by subjecting the man’s daughter to every imaginable form of degradation.

Why You Should Watch It: Grimy, sweaty, and generally repellent, Kongo gets my nod for the most disturbing film of the pre-Code era. However, under its layers of shock value, Kongo reveals a streak of heartbreaking tragedy, supported by a ferocious performance from Huston.

Pre-Code Content: Incest, prostitution, drug abuse, torture… you name it.

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L is for Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932)

The Story: Going to collect a debt at a chateau, a Parisian tailor (Maurice Chevalier) decides to pawn himself off as an aristocrat and woo an ethereal princess (Jeannette MacDonald).

Why You Should Watch It: Busby Berkeley wasn’t the only innovator working in the musical genre during the early 1930s. Rouben Mamoulian pulled out the whole toolkit of movie magic, including fast and slow motion, superimposition, and oodles of camera movements, to add sparkle to this naughty romance. Flowing seamlessly into the plot, the musical numbers, including a wonderful stroll down a Paris street, brim with humor and ease. Fair warning though: you might not be able to get “Isn’t It Romantic?” out of your head.

Pre-Code Content: Myrna Loy as a nymphomaniac, extensive leering, lingerie, and almost constant risqué banter

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M is for Man’s Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933)

The Story: A roguish drifter (Spencer Tracy) falls for an idealistic waif (Loretta Young), moves her into his shantytown, and struggles with the prospect of settling down.

Why You Should Watch It: Like a daisy growing out of asphalt, Man’s Castle reminds the viewer of the miraculous persistence of beauty, hope, and love during the darkest times. This shimmering, sadly little-known masterpiece reframes the tribulations of the Depression as surreal fairy tale obstacles and teases disarmingly vulnerable performances from Young and Tracy.

Pre-Code Content: Skinny dipping, racy banter, premarital sex, discussions of pregnancy and possible abortion, unpunished crime

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N is for Night Nurse* (William Wellman, 1931)

The Story: Assigned to care for two rich, neglected children, a tough nurse (Barbara Stanwyck) vows to protect them from a scheming chauffeur (a moustache-less Clark Gable).

Why You Should Watch It: Having a bad day? Watch Stanwyck punch out an offensive drunk. I promise, you’ll feel better. You might also want to watch this for the chance to see Stanwyck and Joan Blondell taking off their clothes. And by clothes, I mean nurse uniforms. Really. This movie is so fetishistic at times that I worry I’ve been added to some sort of cautionary watch list for buying it.

Pre-Code Content: Lingerie, girl-on-girl cuddling in said lingerie, drunkenness, sympathetic gangsters, unpunished murder

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O is for One-Way Passage (Tay Garnett, 1932)

The Story: On a ship bound for America, a convicted murderer (William Powell) and a dying woman (Kay Francis) fall in love and decide to seize their brief window of happiness.

Why You Should Watch It: Pre-Code Warner Brothers specialized in gritty, rough-and-tumble plots torn straight from the front page, but this tender love story shows that the studio could also excel at more sentimental fare. Melancholy but never mawkish, the romance between Francis and Powell urges us all to make the most of life’s fleeting joys.

Pre-Code Content: Likable criminals, a cop who lets a certain pretty crook go, and the sexiest ellipsis you ever saw

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P is for The Public Enemy* (William Wellman, 1931)

The Story: An Irish hoodlum takes over a piece of the bootlegging racket, incurring the wrath of his war hero brother.

Why You Should Watch It: James Cagney’s performance as Tom Powers forever defined the 1930s gangster—carnivorously attractive, irrepressibly cocky, and, when provoked, utterly remorseless. Little Caesar came first and Scarface boasted more splashy violence, but The Public Enemy best captured the take-no-prisoners stakes of bootlegging. William Wellman cleverly amplified the impact of violent outbursts by hiding them off-screen, so that when the final blow comes at the movie’s conclusion, we’re left reeling and horrified.

Pre-Code Content: Exciting and glamorous depictions of the gangster lifestyle,

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Q is for Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933)

The Story: Wise Queen Christina attempts to steer Sweden’s macho government towards peace and progress, but her love affair with a Spanish emissary jeopardizes the future of her reign.

Why You Should Watch It: Never has diplomacy seemed so sexy. Garbo’s Queen Christina would be imposing and controversial even today. Not unlike the high-rolling woman executive in the corporate drama Female (made the same year), Christina rules her love life and her country with the same unabashed pride and control.

Pre-Code Content: Cross-dressing, not-so-subtle intimations to bisexuality, and intoxicatingly sensual love scenes.

2nd July 1932: Hollywood star Jean Harlow (1911 - 1937) as Lil Legendre in 'The Red-Headed Woman', directed by Jack Conway. (Photo by Clarence Sinclair Bull)

R is for Red-Headed Woman* (Jack Conway, 1932)

The Story: A low-class secretary (Jean Harlow) schemes her way into her employer’s bed—and his wallet.

Why You Should Watch It: Harlow turns in a flagrant and fetching performance, cooing like a baby, flashing her underwear, and feistily haranguing any stuffy hypocrites who criticize her. In contrast to the bitterness of Baby Face, this brisk comedy encourages us to laugh with the brazen gold-digging protagonist as she twists men around her little finger.

Pre-Code Content: Harlow taking off her clothes, forcefully seducing gullible idiots, killing her ex-lover, and getting away with it all scot-free.

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S is for The Story of Temple Drake* (Stephen Roberts, 1933)

The Story: Assaulted and kidnapped by a sadistic gangster (Jack LaRue), privileged Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) copes with her shame and longs to escape. Will she have the courage to return home and come forward with the truth about what happened?

Why You Should Watch It: Who would have thought that such a sordid story could look so beautiful? Based on Faulkner’s scandalous Sanctuary, this landmark of pre-Code cinema combines the eloquent visual storytelling of the silent era with the advantages of sound.

Pre-Code Content: Rape, murder, bootlegging, a practically nude Hopkins—this one is not for the faint of heart!

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T is for Three on a Match* (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

The Story: Reckless Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak) marries well but bores easily. When she gets mixed up with a petty racketeer, she puts her young child in danger.

Why You Should Watch It: One word—Dvorak. I wonder how the film strip itself didn’t melt under the heat of her blisteringly intense performance as a pampered wife who devolves into grungy cokehead.

Pre-Code Content: Oh, boy… drugs, sex, child abuse, violence, lingerie. This one seems to make it onto everybody’s pre-Code list, and deservedly so.

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U is for Under Eighteen (Archie Mayo, 1932)

The Story: Saddled with the responsibility for her family during the Depression, a plucky teen (Marian Marsh) approaches a wolfish tycoon (Warren William, who else?) to help her sister escape a bad marriage.

Why You Should Watch It: Warren William utters one of the most famous lines of the pre-Code era, “Why don’t you take off your clothes and stay a while?” Despite an egregious cop-out ending, Under Eighteen actually offers an interesting commentary on male hypocrisy. Whether men actively victimize women or passively stand by, the film makes it clear that they’re part of the problem.

Pre-Code Content: Gaggles of models undressing, illicit affairs, and an appropriately loathsome depiction of an abusive husband and domestic violence

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V is for Virtue* (Edward Buzzell, 1932)

The Story: New York streetwalker (Carole Lombard) falls for a cab driver (Pat O’Brien) and jumps at the chance to marry him, but his lack of trust strains their relationship.

Why You Should Watch It: A lot of pre-Code movies deal with the difficulties of a disgraced woman trying to go straight. What sets this one apart is the slangy, authentic rhythm of the dialogue, written by the great Robert Riskin, and the warm chemistry between Lombard and O’Brien.

Pre-Code Content: Prostitution as a major plot element (empathetically depicted, too) and an onscreen murder

w

W is for What Price Hollywood? (George Cukor, 1932)

The Story: A waitress at the Brown Derby (Constance Bennett) dreams of becoming a movie star. When she gets her wish, however, she learns how cruel fame can be.

Why You Should Watch It: Cukor’s obscure but astonishingly great melodrama satirizes Tinseltown as a purveyor of toxic illusions. With its tantalizing glimpses behind the scenes of early 1930s moviemaking, What Price Hollywood? deconstructs the glamorous myths of the studio system and bares the mercilessness of both the film industry and the public it feeds.

Pre-Code Content: Lingerie, alcoholism, divorce, and a vivid suicide scene

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X is for Doctor X (Michael Curtiz, 1932)

The Story: A streetwise reporter (Lee Tracy) races to find a serial killer among a group of sinister doctors before the maniac strikes again.

Why You Should Watch It: One of only a few feature films shot in early two-strip Technicolor, this thriller not only serves up some serious pink- and green-tinged eye candy, but also treats us to one of the decade’s craziest plots.

Pre-Code Content: Nightmarish makeup; allusions to sexual assault, cannibalism, and serial killings; Fay Wray in a skimpy negligée

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Y is for The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra, 1933)

The Story: Held prisoner by a Chinese warlord (Nils Asther), an American missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) struggles to reform her captor even as she confronts her own ingrained prejudice.

Why You Should Watch It: The name Frank Capra tends to conjure nostalgic visions of America as it was, but this lush, exotic tale of forbidden love stands out as one of his most complex works.

Pre-Code Content: Interracial eroticism, discussions of Christian hypocrisy

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Z is for Murders at the Zoo (A. Edward Sutherland, 1933)

The Story: A pathologically jealous millionaire (Lionel Atwill) conspires to bump off any man he suspects of touching his wife. And, given his passion for wild animals, he’s not at a loss of ways to dispose of the perceived interlopers.

Why You Should Watch It: When a movie starts with a guy having his mouth stitched shut, you know you’re in for a real bloodbath. This proto-slasher contains some of the most luridly violent scenes you’ll catch in a classic Hollywood movie.

Pre-Code Content: Hints of bestiality, scatological humor, kinky innuendos, casual adultery, and lurid violence.

A Reel Treat: Day Three of Capitolfest

reelsonasphaltSifting through folders of vintage movie stills. Sounds like paradise, doesn’t it? Errol Flynn winks up at me. Valentino smolders from a shiny pocket-sized portrait. And Tyrone Power, well, he just looks like Tyrone Power. That’s enough.

Apparently my idea of heaven turns a little hellish when I have to do it under a time constraint. Because there I was, standing in the lobby of the Capitol Theater frantically searching through soon-to-be-dismantled displays of old movie memorabilia on the final day of Capitolfest. I always leave important work to the last minute.

Operating under duress, I managed to score an obscene amount of glossy stills and star portraits at 25 cents apiece—a price that seems to belong to another era as much as the pictures do.

Cherished favorites like Carole Lombard and George Sanders joined my collection, but I’m also pleased to have adopted pictures of Mary Miles Minter and Fatty Arbuckle. Those two need a good home. Best of all, as I write this post my pocket Rudy, in matador attire, pocketrudysmolders down at me from the base of a reading lamp, making its light seem dull by comparison.

I could hardly imagine a more appropriate souvenir of a weekend spent immersed in classic cinema than a packet of old Hollywood glam shots… but I tried to go one better. You see, as I was leaving the theater with my armful of photos, I happened upon film reels from the festival casually lined up on the sidewalk, waiting to be returned to their respective archives. Although I asked quite reasonably if I could take Forgotten Faces home with me, Art Pierce, executive director of the Capitol, politely declined and I respect that.

Now let’s get to the real goodies: the films I saw on the last day of the festival. (If you’re interested, here are my write-ups of day one and day two of Capitolfest.)

Cradle Song (Mitchell Leisen, 1933)

I confess: the thought of a weepy melodrama about nuns raising an orphan girl didn’t really enthuse me when I took my seat that Sunday morning. Consider me a convert now. Since actresses as different as Dorothea Wieck, Louise Dresser, and Gertrude Michael all play nuns, we get to see religious devotion refracted through diverse personalities; there’s wieckno one “right” path to goodness. Not the least bit preachy or dogmatic, this film exhibits profound respect for the wisdom, insight, and compassion of the women at its core.

A meditation on the challenges of raising a child, Cradle Song also reminded me of Ozu’s Late Spring, which is always a good thing. Both films eschew the conflict-driven narratives we’ve come to expect from melodramas in favor of the wistful inevitability of letting a loved one go. The cinematography, lyrical and mobile, yet still reminiscent of an old master painting, adds to the sweetness of this movie’s sorrow.

Bottom Line: A delight. If this is nunsense, it really is habit-forming.

My Weakness (David Butler, 1933)

A peppy piece of musical fluff, My Weakness showcases Lilian Harvey, the British-born star of the German-made international hit Congress Dances, in her first American film. This glamorous confection gives the Pygmalion trope a decidedly pre-Code twist. One of those drop-dead gorgeous jerks that women in 1930s comedies keep falling for, Ronnie Gregory myweakness(Lew Ayres) bets his stingy uncle that he can turn a mousy chambermaid into a successful gold-digger. Low-class Looloo (Harvey) cleans up so nicely that she sets out to win over Ronnie… by seducing every eligible man in his family.

Harvey’s pixie-ish charisma floats the film, but the supporting actors have even more fun (as usual). Henry Travers—whom you know as Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life—is no angel here. That white-haired screen institution eagerly smooches the effervescent Harvey and, aping Mae West, even invites her to “come up and see me sometime”! Charles Butterworth pulls out all the stops on his wimpy Romeo routine as a carrot-nibbling, stamp-collecting dork who, won over by Harvey’s allure, cries out, “Take me!” in one of the film’s most hilarious scenes. Silent clown Harry Langdon presides over the story as a decidedly fey Cupid, rattling off rhymed couplets and bounding hither and yon with his bow.

A collection of uproarious gags also compensates for the lack of originality where the story’s concerned. For instance, the song “You Can Be Had” is sung not by any of the actors, but by a collection of grotesque statuettes, chintzy figurines, and even the pages of a fan magazine!

Bottom Line: I’m still whistling “Gather Lip-Rouge While You May” to myself. What do you know? This movie is my weakness, too.

Pointed Heels (A. Edward Sutherland, 1929)

With its cliché-ridden plot and love-conquers-all denouement, Pointed Heels soothed and satisfied audiences recently smote by the shock of the Great Depression and pulled in a hefty profit for Paramount. From a modern perspective, this backstage musical creaks here and there, to say the least. Phillips Holmes and Fay Wray look so beautiful that we can almost forgive their characters—a composer disowned by his heelswealthy family and the chorus girl who loves him—for their drippy blandness. William Powell fares slightly better as a suave, noble impresario who lusts after Wray, but does the right thing by her in the end. Eugene Pallette adds some much-needed crankiness to the love-fest. Thank goodness for Skeets Gallagher and Helen Kane, who carry off the show with generous helpings of boop-boop-a-doo and whoopee.

I’d seen an incomplete version of Pointed Heels before at the Internet Archive, but a newly-rediscovered two-strip Technicolor sequence excited me. I love this early color process for its unnaturalness, the way it allows you to see the world as through the vivid, askew filter of a fever dream. The minty greens and coral reds left me spellbound.

Nevertheless, when I ponder the color musical number in retrospect, the unimaginative laziness of the camera, plunked down in the audience like a back-row spectator, irks me. We enjoy a few close shots of Fay Wray as Marie Antoinette (a look she’d reprise in Mystery of the Wax Museum), but the point-of-view remains lethargic and uninteresting. In contrast to an imaginative backstage montage earlier in the movie, the color sequence seems perfectly content with its imperfect imitation of a night at the theater, circa 1929. Then as well as now, it takes a while for art to catch up with technology.

Bottom Line: A waste of talent. A. Edward Sutherland directed some fine comedies in his time, but I want to leave these heels on the shelf.

The Shadow of the Law (Louis Gasner, 1930)

Did I miss something? Some other reviews of the festival praised this drama about a fugitive from blind justice, but I found it rather tepid and uninspiring. The best thing about the movie, William Powell delivers a noteworthy, if unusual, performance as a shadowofthelawman-about-town falsely imprisoned for murder. Shorn even of his dapper mustache in the hoosegow, Powell conveys the dehumanization of the prison system with his blank looks of desperation. When he busts of out jail, Powell builds a new life for himself but spares no expense searching for the one witness who can exonerate him. Unfortunately, she’s not the kind of dame who’ll do a good turn for anybody…

Intrigued? Well, the movie didn’t turn out to be nearly as taut and moving as it could have been. After the opening scenes and a hard-hitting courtroom montage, the plot moved forward in fits and starts. Dragged down by an insipid romance, the tough drama collapsed into an abrupt change-of-heart happy ending. Powell still took full advantage of his big coup-de-théâtre in the third act: he plunges his hands into a mangling machine to destroy his fingerprints and elude recapture. He only screamed with his eyes, but that was enough to make my blood run cold.

Bottom line: Bill Powell’s bald lip (not to mention his dramatic gifts) could incite any woman to lobby for justice reform. But not to watch this movie again.

Sharp Shooters (John Blystone, 1928)

This beguiling comedy ended the festival on just the right note. Hunky navy man George O’Brien woos a girl in every port, until he makes an insincere promise to French dancer Lois Moran… a promise that his two sailor friends force him to keep. WWI’s heavyweight champ of the Pacific Fleet, O’Brien easily turns on his snarky, sharpshooters_postermegawatt charm in comfortable territory. With the aid of some luminous close-ups, Lois Moran transforms a character that might have been irritating and clingy into a surprisingly grounded dreamer who could make even most hardened cynic believe in destiny. The stars’ chemistry strikes a perfect balance between glamorous sensuality as only the movies can do it and a more relatable sheepishness.

Well-played running gags stitch the simple rom-com together and shape amusing characters, like the three navy buddies who, whenever threatened with a fight, coordinate to “Hoist pants for action.” Seasoned with doses of humor, romance, and tension, the gossamer love story really floated my boat (pun intended). And, hey, who wouldn’t want to watch a small army of navy mugs do battle with a speakeasy full of scumbags to defend a maiden’s honor?

Bottom Line: Will destiny please reunite me with this movie? I think I’m in love.

Save the Phantom Stage! Hollywood Landmark Reportedly Slated for Oblivion

phantomUniversal Studios’ Stage 28 holds a lot of memories. Some of the most iconic American films, including The Bride of FrankensteinPsycho, and The Sting were shot there, to name only a few.

Built in 1924 for the silent Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney, the vast soundstage still houses the 90-year-old opera set. Designed by Ben Carré, this recreation of the Paris original practically deserves its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, having appeared in movies ranging from Dracula to The Muppets.

Throughout the years, the so-called “Phantom Stage,” nicknamed for the first film made there, has earned its title in another sense. Legend has it that the soundstage is haunted. However, those ghosts might be homeless soon.

The website Inside Universal recently broke the news that the studio would close Stage 28 and probably demolish it. According to their article, “Phantom’s set pieces are rumored to be removed and preserved… While unconfirmed, the site is likely to be used for future theme park development.”

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Okay, so up to this point, I’ve been pretty cool, calm, and collected, but now I’m going to express myself quite frankly. WHAT THE &*#$@!?!?! Are you kidding me, Universal? You want to demolish a peerless piece of Hollywood history to make more room for your theme park? Even as you prepare to cash in on your horror icons with a new shared-universe franchise reboot, you’ve decided to dismantle your strongest physical link to the genesis of those celluloid myths?

Dear reader, this is where you come in. Two petitions have sprung up to halt the closing and destruction of Stage 28. The first, a petition on whitehouse.gov, requests that the government accord a National Historic Landmark designation to Stage 28 and aims for 100,000 signatures by September 25. The second, a Care2 petition, establishes a less specific goal, “save the historic Phantom Stage from demolition”, and hopes to collect 10,000 signatures.

I urge you to sign both of these petitions. And I’ll make this really easy…

1. CLICK HERE AND SIGN THIS!

2. AND THEN SIGN THIS!

Please sign now. Don’t tell yourself you’ll do it tomorrow. Don’t go get a cup of coffee. Don’t check your Twitter feed. It will take you all of 60 seconds to put your name down for both. You will feel much better once you have. And Lon Chaney might come and get you if you don’t.

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Plus, if you really care about Stage 28 and/or film history and/or horror movies and/or me not crying, please tweet about this, blog about it, tell everyone you know. Encourage your friends and family to sign the petitions. If you have pull, use it. Harass Universal Studios in any (legal and respectful) way you can think of.

Sadly, the film industry tends to realize the value of its history only when it’s too late. This is the business, after all, that destroyed God only knows how many silent movie prints to reclaim the silver from the emulsion.

Come on, people, let’s save Stage 28. Let’s preserve film history. Let’s show the studio once and for all not to mess with movie geeks and our hallowed ground. And let’s do it now.

Because, if we don’t, the Phantom Stage might disappear forever.

mary

A Reel Pleasure: Day Two of Capitolfest 12

reelsI’m not the kind of person who’d get up before 10:00 on a weekend if you were giving out free money. For Capitolfest, however, I arose at 7:00 sharp with a smile on my face, breakfasted with a coven of fellow film geeks, and headed to the Capitol Theater for another round of ultra-rare films. Movies are more important than sleep.

My favorite day of the festival, Saturday also afforded my friends and I the chance to tour the Capitol Theater. Ornamented in neo-Moorish style with some later deco embellishments, the movie palace harbors all sorts of redolent treasures. Vintage seats with built-in hat racks line the upper balcony. A patriotic display on the second-floor lobby urges spectators to buy war bonds. A shift schedule from the 1940s hangs from a cabinet in the projection booth. It’s time warp in the best sense.

Although the theater plans to accommodate digital in the future, screening 35mm prints for audiences is a top priority for the Capitol team. Up in the projection booth, Jack Theakston, assistant manager of the theater and general fountain of cinema knowledge, demonstrated the inner workings of the Capitol’s carbon-arc projector. Arc lamps, emitting light from extremely hot carbon electrodes, illuminated motion pictures during projection for the first half of the 20th century. As Theakston explained, “I like the fact that we’re running movies in the format they were originally seen in. We’re a movie theater and an entertainment showcase, but we’re also a museum since we present these films in a historically accurate fashion.”

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A visit to the Capitol Theater reveals that the value of film as a tangible thing extends far beyond nostalgia. On the contrary, whenever the screen darkens slightly with a projector mishap or a reel countdown interrupts the story, we’re reminded of the tenuous mixture of art and technology bound up in filmmaking. Not only does 35mm look better, but the materiality behind the images—strips and reels and “cigarette burns” in the upper right-hand corner of the screen—also brings us back to André Bazin’s concept of film as the fingerprint of reality. When I pop a DVD or Blu-Ray into a player or tune into a stream of images online, it’s easy for me to mystify classic Hollywood and avoid thinking of the sheer man hours and effort that went into producing, distributing, and exhibiting old movies. Something about seeing the flicker on a big screen teaches you respect for all that toil and trouble, whether you’re aware of it or not.

Without further ado, here are the features I saw at Capitolfest, part II. Click here to read part I.

The Czar of Broadway (William James Craft, 1930)

On the surface, this Universal gangster drama reheats one of the stalest dishes on the pre-Code menu: a ruthless gangster’s young protégé falls for the boss’s moll (Betty czarCompson) and ends up betraying his mentor in crime. However, the devil’s in the details—and speaking of devils, Czar‘s titular gangster (John Wray) added a pulpy, deliciously over-the-top idiosyncrasy to his character with bouts of diabolical giggling. This mobster’s so organized that he sells life insurance policies to his victims before he has them whacked. Pretty neat, huh?

A fashion-obsessed gay hit man and the close bond between the gangster and his friend endow the film with unusually upfront homoerotic overtones. Plus, this splendid rarity busts the myth that early talkie cameras couldn’t roam if they wanted to. Numerous restless camera movements and a fantastic shot of a poker game—through the bottom of the card table—distract you from the fact that this movie was probably made for a song on recycled sets.

Bottom Line: A killer-diller entry into the canon of 1930s gangster movies. I wish you all could see it.

High Treason (Maurice Elvey, 1929) 

What if an eccentric, monocle-wearing British inventor/politician wrote a futuristic epic as a vehicle for his own singular views on militant pacifism? We don’t have to wonder, actually, because Noël Pemberton-Billing penned the story of this whacky sci-fi drama, set in 1940, about the necessity of stopping future world wars. You can see clips of the original silent High Treason in the excellent documentary Silent Britain, but Capitolfest projected the talkie version, the first all-talking movie shot in Britain.

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Now, I’m a sucker for cult movies, so I lapped this up—clunky dialogue, metallic cloche hats, swagged-out jet-cars, and all. Britain’s answer to Lang’s Metropolis, sadly High Treason doesn’t come close in terms of quality. It does, however, feature an extended scene of Benita Hume’s scantily clad ablutions in a Flash Gordon-ish deco bathroom, which ought to keep anyone happy. The anti-war message and an apocalyptic bombing montage struck me as startlingly modern. And, hey, Billing predicted Skype, TV as we know it, and the Chunnel. In fact, during the film’s finest sequence, a nail-biting, Hitchcockian piece of suspense, a hidden bomb planted by terrorists ticks away and finally explodes the underwater train to Kingdom come. Unfortunately, the stilted performances brought the movie right back to the dawn of the talkies. Is this the future? Um, it’s the future of the past.

Bottom Line: Part ludicrous, part prophetic. Imagine the bastard child of Fritz Lang and Ed Wood and you won’t be far off.

Morals (1921)

Directed by William Desmond Taylor, better known today as a murder victim than as a highly respected filmmaker, Morals won me over with the vivacity of its heroine and the comic stuffiness of its hero. A British orphan raised in a Turkish harem, Carlotta (May McAvoy) flees from an arranged marriage and, through a chance encounter, becomes the ward of Sir Marcus (William Carleton), a curmudgeonly British noble. Vexed by Carlotta’s excitable disposition and her foreign customs, he sniffs, “I don’t believe that her father was a British Vice-Consul. I think he was Satan!”

coupleBefore you can say “meet-cute”, Sir Marcus has grown accustomed to Carlotta’s face, but will he have the courage to profess his love before one of his backstabbing friends wrecks their relationship? Puckish McAvoy walks a fine line between adorable and annoying, but carries it off swimmingly, especially with the counterbalance of Carleton’s cynical Sir Marcus. Given William Desmond Taylor’s notorious liaisons with younger women, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that he could lend credibility, not to mention humor and tenderness, to a May-December romance onscreen.

Bottom Line: An unanticipated highlight. So many silents—even the ones we haven’t necessarily heard of—are golden.

Steady Company (Edward Ludwig, 1932)

My least favorite movie of the whole weekend, this noncommittal programmer romance set against the world of boxing would take a dive in the first round if not for the miraculous likability of two character actors. As the heroine’s best friend and fellow switchboard operator, Zazu Pitts demonstrates her talent for bone-dry comebacks. Hit on by one of those ubiquitous Depression-era creeps, she drolly replies, “I’m sorry, but your line is out of order,” and turns back to her switchboard. Henry Armetta, the most Italian Italian in the history of Hollywood, steals his share of scenes as a cuddly old cobbler. The unflinching ferocity of the boxing ring scenes stood out, but a saccharine conclusion majorly undercut the movie.

Bottom Line: Didn’t pack enough of a punch for me.

Forgotten Faces (Victor Schertzinger, 1928)

I appreciate and praise all kinds of movies for all kinds of reasons, but movies that blow my mind on pretty much every level come along only once in a blue moon. They are rare. They are precious. This, folks, is one of them. In my opinion, it belongs in the pantheon of great silent movies.

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Gentleman thief Harry ‘Heliotrope’ Harlow (Clive Brook) comes home from a heist one night to find his wife Lily (Olga Baclanova) in bed with her lover. Harry shoots the other man and, not wanting his infant daughter to be raised by her wicked mother, secretly entrusts the baby to a rich couple who’d recently lost their child. Leaving his sidekick Froggy (William Powell) to watch over the girl, Harry turns himself in. Fast forward 20 years: Lily discovers her daughter’s new identity and threatens blackmail. After winning release from prison, Harry vows to stop his spouse’s plans at all costs… while keeping his promise to the prison warden not to lay a hand on her.

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Though the plot might sound needlessly contrived, Forgotten Faces exemplifies the unrivaled art of silent movies in their final flush. It uses the film medium to the fullest, evoking both the seen and the unseen to draw out the audience’s emotions. Even the lack of sound, theoretically a disadvantage, bends to serve the film’s aesthetic—for instance, a key gunshot, unheard by the audience, lends an eerie stillness to the murder scene. Expressive, fluid camera movements gracefully tell half the story with jaw-dropping long takes that echo the exacting elegance of its protagonist.

I can barely scratch the surface of this movie’s brilliance in a paragraph or three and hope to devote an entire post to it soon. Stay tuned.

Bottom Line: Hey, Criterion Collection—get on this, will ya? Forgotten Faces has been forgotten for too long. Far and away the best of the program.

Laughter in Hell (Edward L. Cahn, 1933)

If I were a little 1930s shop girl or factory worker who toiled ridiculous hours all week, I wouldn’t want to see Pat O’Brien being beaten and whipped on my day off. As much as I’d like to assume the condescending tone of a contemporary highbrow and start whining about how this movie didn’t get the respect it deserved in 1933, I can understand why. My inner mogul shrugs and thinks, well, ambitious as it is, commercial it ain’t. 

hellLaughter in Hell stands as a testament to harsh social criticism that pre-Code movies could pull off. I consider it even more daring and ambiguous than I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, not least of all because our protagonist really is guilty of a double homicide. And, as the film shows, even he doesn’t deserve the inhuman punishment of a southern chain gang. Too strong for its era—and maybe too strong for many people today—a horrific lynching sequence hits you with all the impact of a martyrdom shot in real time, the visual equivalent of “Strange Fruit.”

Bottom Line: It hurts and it should. Concession stand candy will be needed to sooth your nerves.

A Reel Joy: Day One of Capitolfest 12

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William Powell, featured star of Capitolfest 12, in a still for “Ladies’ Man”

The good news: there are more quality classic films out there than even I suspected. The bad news? Well, let’s just say they can be mighty elusive.

But, hold on, there’s still more good news, because each year a cozy festival in Rome, New York screens some of the rarest films on the planet. A small, but passionate crowd of spectators settles into the seats of a vast 1928 movie palace, the lights go down, and films unseen for decades flicker up on a huge screen.

Out of the 17 features on the festival’s roster, I was familiar with only two of them. Nearly all of the obscure films surpassed my expectations. From zany curios to one bona fide masterpiece, the program showcased a range of stimulating movies that renewed my faith in early Hollywood’s ability to surprise and delight me (not that I ever really doubted it). Capitolfest confirmed that I’ve only been chipping away at a single vein of classic cinema: commercially available movies. Meanwhile, there’s a whole cache of obscure, but exceptional films waiting to be to rediscovered.

This year marked my first pilgrimage to Captolfest. Needless to say, I’m hoping it won’t be my last.

I had the good fortune to share the experience with two wonderful bloggers, Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and Annmarie of Classic Movie Hub, as well as my extraordinarily understanding mother (@MiddParent on Twitter). I also got to meet Beth of Spellbound by Movies, who flew in from San Francisco for the festival, and Shirley and Mark of the Toronto Silent Film Festival. You really ought to check out their respective blogs and sites, if you haven’t already.

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Me, Aurora, Annmarie, and Jack Theakston, assistant manager of the Capitol, in the theater’s projection booth.

As I struggled to condense my opinions about Capitolfest, it occurred to me that all of the movies deserved at least a few lines. I couldn’t stop myself from writing a mini-review of each. One of my favorite aspects of the program, the abundance of short subjects almost made me believe that I really was sitting in a movie theater circa 1930, gearing up for the big feature or double bill. However, if I wrote about every newsreel or Vitaphone morsel that I saw, you’d be reading a three-volume treatise instead of a blog post (although I realize that, with me, it can be hard to tell the difference).

So, with a heavy heart, I’m confining myself to the feature films and decided to split my festival recap into three parts. Here’s what I saw on the first day of Capitolfest…

Partners of the Sunset (Robert H. Townley, 1922)

Oh, 2014, you think you’re so cutting-edge. When a woman proposes to a man in the movies nowadays, critics and fans alike lavish praise on the clever gender inversion. Well, then, how are we to respond to a movie that did the same thing almost 100 years ago? In this obscure Western, two impoverished sisters—one in love with nature, the other alleneenamored of high society—inherit a ranch in Texas and decide to claim it. When a greedy local landowner tries to force them out, the rugged Patricia joins forces with a windmill engineer to face down the baddies and defend her new home.

The little-remembered Allene Ray, catapulted into the limelight after winning the 1920 Fame and Fortune Contest, grew up on a Texas ranch in real life and earned a reputation for doing her own daring stunts in Westerns. In Partners of the Sunset, she imbues the strong female protagonist with an earthy, almost elfin spunk. Whether frolicking barefoot by a river or pulling a pistol on her would-be captors, Ray acquits herself as one hell of a boss lady. Inspiring outdoor long shots and refreshing action sequences helped this film launch Capitolfest in style.

Bottom Line: Go west, young woman and kick some serious butt! My favorite from the first day.

Derelict (Rowland V. Lee, 1930)

Two ships’ officers (George Brent and Jed Graves) wage a war of petty one-upmanship—until one steals the other’s girl and the rivalry turns potentially lethal. This tough, grimy little pre-Code drama impressed me with the realism of its scenes at sea. The artful simulation of its hurricane sequence proved thrilling, violent, and remarkably convincing. Amazing what you could do with industrial fans, water tanks, and camera angles as opposed to CGI, huh?

derelictThe script also crackled with some enjoyable tough-guy banter. Reduced to working on a banana boat, Brent calls out the captain’s cowardice by snarling, “You’ve been carrying bananas so long you’ve turned their color!” At the end, once the old enemies have buried the hatchet and Brent’s walking off to the altar, the pair can’t resist a final jab:

Brent: You can be the best man.

Graves: I always was.

Plus, I relished the chance to watch Jessie Royce Landis, Cary Grant’s mother in North by Northwest, play a tempting nightclub singer.

Bottom Line: Testosterone in celluloid form. Snappy, economical, and well worth its short runtime.

Horse Play (Edward Sedgwick, 1933)

I can’t remember the last time I cackled so loudly in a movie theater. I kept expecting a surly usherette to escort my rowdy companions and me from the premises. When a lovelorn hick from Montana strikes it rich, he and his pal Andy gatecrash the British aristocracy in search of Slim’s sweetheart. Slim Summerville, whom I like to think of as Gary Cooper redesigned by a five-year-old, delivers the goods in terms of belly laughs.

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The mixture of crude yokels and snooty nobles brewed up a broadly comic variation on the traditional comedy of manners. For instance, in perhaps the film’s funniest scene, Slim and Andy invite two curious grande dames to their hotel room at the Ritz for a little drink. CUT TO: the aforementioned scions of the aristocracy swigging whisky, firing rodeo pistols, and suggestively saddling up furniture. As one of the ladies who lets her hair down with the cowboys, Una O’Connor looks more primly sexy than you might imagine she could—and demonstrates that her comic chops extended far beyond that famous paint-peeling shriek of hers.

This film milked its gags for maximum screen time. Nows, sometimes that works brilliantly. If you push a gag past the funny mark, it gets unfunny, but it turns out there’s a sweet spot just past unfunny where a gag becomes absurdly funny again. For instance, Slim and Andy have a slap-happy fight with collapsible top hats that lasts about five minutes, and I never wanted it to end. Other times one had the distinct impression that a dead horse was being beaten.

Bottom Line: Uneven as a whole, but the side-splitting antics of Slim and company made you forget its failings.

The Bright Shawl (John S. Robinson, 1923)

One could argue that this fine historical thriller runs too long, but if the movie needed that much time to cram Richard Barthelmess, Dorothy Gish, William Powell, Mary Astor, Jetta Goudal, and, yes, even Edward G. Robinson into one movie, you won’t hear brightshawlme complaining! An ambiance of tropical sultriness and wide-open spaces confer a special vibe of authenticity on the film, since the cast and crew travelled to Cuba to shoot exterior scenes on location.

In this adaptation Joseph Hergesheimer’s novel, a naïve American visits Cuba with his resistance leader friend and joins the movement himself after witnessing the cruelty of the Spanish oppressors. However, in the end, our hero escapes with the girl he loves only by the grace of a foe’s merciful whim. And who else to play that gallant, sympathetic villain but William Powell in his fourth movie appearance! Even without the advantage of his voice, Powell displays the insouciant, dandyish charm that would serve him throughout his career. Everybody else does their darndest, too: Barthelmess is earnest and indignant, Gish is naughty but nice, Astor is pure but feisty, Goudal is slinky and sinister, and Robinson is full of mighty rage and grief as a bereft father.

Bottom Line: A dream cast in a handsome production, albeit one that feels too much like a filmed novel at times.

Ladies’ Man (Lothar Mendes, 1931)

Get in the queue, girls, ’cause William Powell makes one dapper gigolo! Interestingly enough, Ladies’ Man presents a gender-flipped version of the fallen woman sagas that 1930s audiences ate up with such gusto. As Powell’s character explains, “I look at women the way women look at men”—that is, as meal tickets. The difference is, the hookers and courtesans played by the likes of Garbo, Crawford, and Stanwyck often got their chances at redemption. When a man prostitutes himself, though, the penalty is death. How’s that for a double standard?

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Kay Francis having her gown mended on the set of “Ladies’ Man”

Elegant escort for a rich society lady, Jamie Darricott also indulges in a liaison with her wild daughter (Carole Lombard). As if that weren’t awkward enough, a mysterious woman from out of town (Kay Francis) wins his heart and convinces him to leave his sordid occupation. Unfortunately, Jamie’s powerful paramour and her jealous husband won’t let him escape their world unpunished.

In a distinctly amoral role, Powell oozes savoir-faire and never falls into the trap of sanctimoniously renouncing his, ahem, profession. The actor supposedly disliked this part, believing himself too unattractive to pull it off. (Yeah, right, Bill.) You’d never know it, though, from the confidence and breeding he projects in even the most embarrassing situations. Herman Mankiewicz’s sophisticated dialogue, spoken by Powell’s velvety baritone, likewise boosts the value of what could have been a tawdry melodrama.

Do I wish that Powell, Lombard, and Francis had been drafted into, say, a Lubitsch comedy instead of this? Well, yes. But I can still appreciate the film for its luscious Travis Banton gowns and its stars’ vivid performances.

Bottom Line: An unapologetic yet occasionally heart-rending portrait of a man who lived and died beyond his means.

Roman Scandals (Frank Tuttle, 1933)

Call it politically incorrect, trashy, or flat-out goofy, but first try to stop laughing. One of the more famous films on the Capitolfest program, this trippy pre-Code musical centers on a sweet-natured loser from the corrupt modern town of West Rome. Magically transported back to ancient Rome, he finagles to save an imprisoned princess—and his own skin.

lucyEasily sustaining the pace of a big-budget musical extravaganza, Eddie ‘Banjo Eyes’ Cantor jumps around like a bunny on speed, singing, dancing, cracking wise, and offending pretty much every possible demographic. Busby Berkeley arranged some of his weirdest musical numbers for this film, including a hymn of hope sung by evicted families in the streets and the infamous slave market sequence.

I’d seen clips of the cult classic before, but the dazzling quality of the 35mm print left me breathless. Say what you will about Sam Goldwyn, but the man sure could harness star power. If I’d been around in ’33, this piece of box-office bait would have reeled me into the theater for repeat viewings.

Oh, and whenever a certain young platinum blonde popped into the frame, knowing individuals in the Capitol audience burst into spontaneous ovations. The blonde in question would be a very young Lucille Ball. If you ever get to savor this nutty confection, keep an eye out for her.

Bottom Line: This movie has all the good taste of a gladiator fight. Fortunately, my tastes aren’t much better. By all means, bring on the bread and circuses!

They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That Anymore: The Noirish Brilliance of Lauren Bacall

stillIt was hard to believe she had to ask for a match. With those molten eyes, she gave the impression of a woman who didn’t need anybody’s help to ignite.

Although she made her first movie, To Have and Have Not, at age 19, Bacall didn’t seem to have an ingénue bone in her body. In fact, petrified of the camera, she had to clamp her chin against her shoulder to avoid visibly trembling—and she still exuded maturity and nonchalance.

That famous voice of hers sounded indifferent, bored even, as if she’d burst fully formed from a pulp writer’s head, already fluent in the laconic rhythms of noir dialogue. At Howard Hawks’s urging, she had actually trained herself to talk like that by reading the colossal epic The Robe to herself in a low, husky voice.

The more you listen to her, the more you hear the nuances of desire, humor, fear, and anger, like snippets of a conversation overhead from across a smoke-filled room.

Acting styles can become dated quickly, but Bacall’s best performances remain as subtle and exciting as I imagine they were back in Hollywood’s Golden Age. She’s a puzzle that audiences, as well as her love interests, have a good time trying to figure out. True, she had Hawks’s coaching in the beginning, but the talent and the brains were there. She was a natural-born film actor, the kind that doesn’t let the viewer realize she’s acting.

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In the noirish roles for which she is best remembered, Bacall projected her own brand of toughness, distinct from the established paradigms of Crawford’s masochistic bitterness and Stanwyck’s lethal hardness. Instead, she incarnated the perfect feminine counterpart to the hardboiled integrity of protagonists like Philip Marlowe.

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Slim in To Have and Have Not can take a slap without flinching. Vivian in The Big Sleep can outwit a vicious gunman at a moment’s notice. Irene in Dark Passage can flirt her way through a police checkpoint with a convict in the backseat of her car. They each pitched an unspoken dare to the world: “You think I’m bluffing? Watch how far I can go.” But whatever made these women so tough left their souls intact. With a spark of unsentimental optimism, they muffled their feelings to survive, but never lost their capacity to feel.

Bacall offered us the joy of a less fatale femme, a dangerous dame who could still believably deliver a happy ending.

vlcsnap-2014-08-12-22h11m42s177Consider her celebrated “whistle” scene. It’s easy to forget that the scene is really the third scene in a row of just Bogie and Bacall talking in hotel rooms, their characters hesitantly sussing each other out. About eight minutes of such back-and-forth between two other actors might drag in pace. With Bogie and Bacall, it’s so satisfying I want to reach for a cigarette when it’s over. And I don’t even smoke.

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No wonder a cartoon short of the era, “Bacall to Arms”, lovingly parodied the onscreen sizzle of her debut. As she saunters across a room, an animated trail of flames spurts up from her footprints.

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Now, To Have and Have Not doesn’t count as a film noir in my book, but its key relationship scenes undeniably channel a noirish vibe with the low-key lighting, the shuttered windows, and the characters’ ambiguous morals. And Bogie fans then as well as now would have recognized his line to Slim, “You’re good. You’re awful good”, as a clear echo of Sam Spade’s mocking admiration of Brigid’s shtick in The Maltese Falcon.

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However, the chemistry in To Have and Have Not promises a more auspicious ending for Slim and Steve than for your typical noir couple. In By Myself, Bacall remembered that, when her family went to see To Have and Have Not, they expressed their relief at the humor in her performance, which lightened some of the sexier elements in the script. Audiences could read the melancholy in her eyes when Steve leans in to examine her face—but they also could hear the note of knowing amusement in her voice as she switches to vampy innuendo. Because Bacall neither plays the role entirely straight, nor burlesques it, she maintains a reassuring aura of decency. Bacall interprets Slim as a good bad girl, daring Steve to take a chance on her. Unsurprisingly, he does.

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The frisson of true love blesses To Have and Have Not with an eternal ability to cheer up its spectators (me, for one). Seriously, who doesn’t get a kick out of watching two of the most badass people ever make googly eyes at each other? In the final scene, Bacall wiggles off into the sunset, while even the extra sitting at the table closest to her can’t repress a facial expression that says, “Aw, isn’t that sweet?” As Bogie grabs her by the arm, Bacall smiles her only broad grin of the movie, the toughness slips away, and she looks, for the first time, like a teenager in love.

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The Big Sleep challenged Bacall with a more complex role. In contrast to Slim, Vivian Rutledge really is reclining on the razor’s edge, navigating a depraved world to protect her sister. Despite the crackle of her chemistry with Bogie, Bacall dials back the likability she displayed in her debut in favor of a high-hat condescension that masks longstanding worries. For example, keep an eye out for a split-second look of uppity pleasure when Marlowe asks, “They? Who’s they?” in their first scene together. It’s the face of a woman frantically trying to convince herself that she has the situation under control, that she can outwit or seduce any obstacle that crosses her path.

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Bacall emphasizes Vivian’s spoiled haughtiness, while hinting at the undercurrent of fear that drives her. This is a woman who refuses to admit that she’s in over her head almost until it’s too late. A woman who’ll chide a man with a loaded gun to prove how tough she is to Marlowe. In Chandler’s novel, none of the Sternwoods deserves redemption, but in the film, the whole clan pulls through. Both censorship and Howard Hawks’s worldview motivated these changes to the original, but it’s Bacall who makes us buy a conclusion that could’ve seemed too neat for a messy plot.

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The audience can detect two sides to Bacall’s Vivian: the conniving society brat and the wisecracking dame in distress. Something about the honest mirth of those long takes in Marlowe’s office suggest that the latter is probably the truest side. As she tempts him with a brace of horsey innuendos a few scenes later, Bacall doesn’t hide the fact that Vivian is manipulating Marlowe, but the gusto and wit with which she speaks her lines points to the real Vivian buried under so many lies.

vlcsnap-2014-08-13-18h38m00s208Ultimately, she proves her mettle by saving Marlowe’s life, leading the killer Canino astray. Her grace under pressure prompts even the jaded P.I. to admit, “I didn’t know they made ‘em like that anymore.” We get the idea that Vivian would always keep Marlowe guessing. Still, he might want to spend the rest of his days guessing about her.

vlcsnap-2014-08-13-19h17m32s124Directed by Delmer Daves, Dark Passage showcased Bacall’s talent for passing off improbable circumstances as natural and credible. Interacting with the first-person camera as though it were Bogie, her character helps a convicted killer, whom she’d never met before, elude the law when he escapes from prison. Who is she? Why is she helping this alleged murderer? Bacall adds to the suspense with her impassive determination, punctuated by discreet glints of anxiety.

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The romance that blossoms between Bacall and Bogie in Dark Passage would’ve struck the audience as inevitable by this point, and the pair wisely underplay the growing attachment between their characters. Caught in the gaze of the camera-as-Bogie, she occasionally thaws with an unguarded smile. Given her face, that’s enough. Once the camera is freed from its first-person mode, Bacall sustains the almost unbearable tension as she removes the bandages from Bogie’s mug, remodeled by plastic surgery.

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In another splendid scene, she rechristens Bogie’s character with an alias, obstinately attempting to focus on the new name instead of the reality that she might be saying goodbye forever. Of her four movies with Bogie, Dark Passage gets short shrift, so, if you haven’t done so already, watch it and be amazed.

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Bacall possessed a wide range. In Key Largo, though co-starred again with Bogie, she essayed an unusually demure, vulnerable character. Over the course of her career, she played everything from murderesses to abused wives to spunky gold-diggers. But she was at her most iconic as the good bad girl, the woman fit to accompany Bogie down the mean streets of noir as his equal.

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She convincingly portrayed women who lived by their own terms, fought their own battles, and only bared their emotions at the right time to the right man. For a generation of American women who’d done men’s jobs during WWII, Bacall’s performances suggested that toughness and willpower weren’t flaws or signs of ruthlessness, but virtues. In the noirish parts that made her a legend, she was a woman of substance: smart, mysterious, brave, and, above all, fun to watch. And she always will be.

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