Reel Romance: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2015

portraitofjennieMaybe I did too much living in 2015, because I sure didn’t do much writing!

I attended 5 film festivals, got quoted in the L.A. Times as a “classic film blogger,” watched over 200 new-to-me movies, and marked my 25th birthday with an epic weekend of 5 horror films on the big screen. And I got to meet my hero Kevin Brownlow. I think I might need to make a new “life goals” list now.

Before I can let go of that glorious year, I need to process some of the film discoveries that delighted and haunted me most. If you’ve never seen them, I hope they’ll delight you for the first time in 2016.

A theme that connects most (though not all) of these movies is unlikely or unexpected romance. In Second Floor Mystery, two strangers flirt through coded messages and elaborate fictions, modeled on potboiler clichés. In Heaven Can Wait, a playboy reflects on the value of lifelong commitment. In Portrait of Jennie, a ghost finds the soulmate she never knew while alive. Even a few canonical characters surprisingly gave in to the lovefest. Sherlock Holmes renounced his bachelorhood, and Doctor Van Helsing showed some more-than-professional interest in the lady he’s trying to save!

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“I just watched Portrait of Jennie. Please give me a few moments to collect myself.”

Another “theme” was me weeping uncontrollably, whether sobbing my eyeliner off in the presence of 500 other cinephiles or sniffling in my pajamas while streaming something on my laptop. I was unprepared for the catharsis. So, fair warning to you, dear reader: some of these films may mess with you mercilessly, causing trauma, vulnerability, revaluation of your life’s purpose, and the inability to get them out of your head.

Since some people have been asking, I’ve noted which films are currently available on DVD or Blu-Ray (in the United States) with asterisks. As for the ones that aren’t marked… well, let’s just say that you can find many of them around this cavernous thing called the Internet.

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Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Berthelet, 1916)*

Since the news broke in 2014 that the Cinémathèque française had found a print of the presumed-lost Sherlock, I’d desperately wanted to see it on the big screen. That chance finally came in September when New York’s Film Forum screened the mystery thriller with live accompaniment. It did not disappoint.

William Gillette’s formidable, archly romantic portrayal of the great detective won my heart. From the luxurious dressing gown to the intense, Zen-like focus, many of the mannerisms and traits established by Gillette as Holmes have influenced (whether directly or indirectly) every actor who essayed the role after him. I also did a longer write-up on Sherlock Holmes and how it portrays the sleuth as a romantic hero.

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A Page of Madness (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926)

Words are feeble to describe the heart-wrenching impact of this Japanese silent. A grief-stricken man works as a janitor at a mental asylum in order to stay close to his disturbed wife… and, he hopes, to set her free. The protagonist’s anguish and alienation anchor the film as his obsession verges dangerously on the madness of the inmates.

A Page of Madness is a lyrical and terrifying invitation to empathize with extreme states of mind. Blurring dreams, reality, and hallucinations, it encourages us to see the inmates not merely as unfortunates to be pitied but also as awe-inspiring (and sometimes frightening) volcanos of emotion and creativity.

Rather than beginning with an outsider’s gaze, director Teinosuke Kinugasa immediately pulls us into the interior universe of a patient. The film opens with a bizarre, opulent dance: a woman draped in a glittering white costume moves slowly in front of a giant spinning ball. As the camera tracks backwards, we see the cell bars that confine her physical space, but fail to confine her vast imaginings.

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Lonesome (Pál Féjös, 1928)*

An average boy and an average girl fall in love over the course of one chaotic day at Coney Island. Within the framework of this breezy, you’ve-heard-it-a-thousand-times rom-com plot, Pál Féjös delivers both a documentary about the mating rituals of the Jazz Age working classes and a paean to the rush of young love. Out of a horde of merrymakers, a jostling crowd of tired, lonely people looking for stimulation, two people find each other. After some initial bluffing, they agree to be honest about themselves and their feelings. It’s a tiny, everyday miracle, but a miracle nonetheless.

The cheap thrills of the amusement park—confetti, hot dogs, ice cream, sand between our hero’s toes, rollercoaster rides—mingle with numinous devotion. Lonesome offers up one of the most beautiful, almost divine images of romance in cinema: a couple dancing against a periwinkle sky besides a golden castle and a flickering crescent moon. The couple are really twirling in shabby beachfront dancehall, but their giddy affection elevates this ordinary moment to the stuff of fairy tales.

Even the few stilted dialogue scenes (a novelty thrown into an otherwise silent film) exude an awkward likeability. As the hero and heroine sheepishly open up to each other the film medium finds its voice.

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Why Be Good? (William A. Seiter, 1929)*

Colleen Moore was one smart flapper, onscreen and off. In real life she banked a fortune and grew it. And in this movie she showed her legions of fans that there’s nothing more fashionable than a woman who stands up for her rights. Indeed, Why Be Good? quickly reveals itself as a sequined feminist manifesto.

Pert Kelly, all-American girl, department store worker, and dance champion, doesn’t hesitate to run her own life and crush double standards under her bejewelled pointy-toed shoes. For instance, when her traditional Irish papa starts to dictate her curfew, she reminds him that her salary is a hefty part of his household income.

Better yet, she gives her entitled beau an earful when he assumes that any stylish, fun-loving girl is sexual fair game. Moore defends a woman’s right to control her body and boldly defines her clothing choices as a means of playful self-expression—not a way of separating “good” girls from “bad.”

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Our Blushing Brides (Harry Beaumont, 1930)*

Come for the pre-Code lingerie, stay for the emasculating comebacks tossed off by Joan Crawford (often while wearing pre-Code lingerie). I watched this movie twice in a row when I discovered it last January. Both times I could be heard to exclaim variations of, “You tell him, girl!” at the screen.

Crawford plays a department store model who fends off the advances of skeevy rich guys. Her blistering retorts and gritty sense of self-worth—along with zingers written by Bess Meredyth, one of classic Hollywood’s greatest lady screenwriters—make this shopworn shopgirl drama shine.

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The Border Legion (Otto Brower and Edwin H. Knopf, 1930)

Festivals of rare films are inevitably bittersweet, since there’s always at least one film that makes me want to storm the projection booth and abscond with the reels (preferably fleeing on a white horse, discharging two six-shooters into the sky). The Border Legion, screened at Capitolfest, provoked such an impulse in me.

This Western from Paramount moves along at a hell-for-leather pace. A young man wrongly accused of murder (Richard Arlen) joins a band of outlaws governed by an enigmatic former cavalryman (Jack Holt). But a beautiful hostage (Fay Wray) ignites tensions that lure the gang to its doom. The plot culminates in a catastrophic raid on a frontier village. An uneasy stillness bursts into deafening explosions, showcasing the dramatic, shattering power of sound for the directors and crews who knew how to use it in the early talkie days.

Jack Holt gives his rendition of “the good bad man” as a paradoxical combination of rugged and immaculate. He embodies a drive to conquer and command so fierce that it marks him for death like a bullseye on his back. Holt’s ability to project an archetype and a nuanced human being simultaneously in The Border Legion puts him up in the Western pantheon with Hart, Wayne, and Scott.

I really wish you could all see this film. Maybe you will someday if Universal ever releases its hundreds of neglected pre-Code Paramount classics… Or, you know, I could saddle up, put a bandana over my face, and “liberate” the vault. Just a thought.

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Follow Thru (Lloyd Corrigan and Laurence Schwab, 1930)

I can’t describe two-color Technicolor without resorting to dessert metaphors: peppermint candy, peach and mint sherbet. It looks yummy, as though your eye could taste it. This silly Paramount musical, shot entirely in the two-color process, circulates in terrible prints online, but I had the good fortune to see a UCLA restoration on 35mm at Capitolfest. (I also did a write-up on the experience.)

As fluffy and entertaining of a musical as you could wish for, Follow Thru uses early Technicolor to invigorating effect. Oh, and did I mention the musical number where chorus girls dressed as lipstick-red devils hoof it to the tune of “I Want to Be Bad”—amidst actual rising flames? Talk about a dance inferno…

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Second Floor Mystery (Roy Del Ruth, 1931)

This delirious parody of crime capers and pulp writing—all wrapped up in an appealing love story—is so meta it could’ve been made yesterday. (Only then it wouldn’t look so sleek and it would’ve been, like, 2 hours longer.)

Geoffrey, a young man of means (Grant Withers), woos American tourist Marion (Loretta Young) from afar through “the agony column,” the cryptic newspaper personal section. As the lovers exchange messages, what begins as an idle flirtation unfolds into an exotic tale of murder, espionage, and secret societies … or does it? Once Geoffrey admits that he’s been fabricating his intrigues to impress Marion, another conspiracy arises!

I adore movies that mess with my head, and The Second Floor Mystery doesn’t hesitate to send its viewers right down the rabbit hole. Just when you think the story couldn’t get crazier, couldn’t ascend to further heights of hyperbole, it does.

One wild fabrication is debunked and set aside… only to make way for another. This castle of cards comes fluttering to earth at the end when Marion reveals that she set up a plot within a plot for Geoffrey, “to give you a few of the thrills you gave me.” Is this love as a metaphor for pulp fiction? Or is pulp fiction as a metaphor for love?

The Second Floor Mystery shows, as The Thin Man did 3 years later, that romance and spine-tingling excitement reinforce each other—especially when abetted by harmless fibs and ruses. Courtship, the process representing yourself to the object of your affections, often echoes the Byzantine twists of detective novels.

I’d absolutely love to see this currently unavailable Warner Brothers film (which I saw in already-digitized form at Cinefest) get the Warner Archive treatment. Powers that be, please make this happen!

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Don’t Bet on Women (William K. Howard, 1931)

I caught this zippy pre-Code Fox romp at the TCM Classic Film Festival and, boy, was it ever a treat. A stuffy husband (Roland Young) makes a bet on his wife’s ability to resist the charms of a cheerful playboy (Edmund Lowe). Unfortunately for hubby, his wife (a cheeky, non-singing Jeannette MacDonald) discovers the wager and decides to make her husband sweat it out. Una Merkel steals virtually every scene as Jeannette’s flirtatious cousin who dispenses all manner of risqué advice in a Southern twang.

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Painted Woman (John G. Blystone, 1932)

Imagine Safe in Hell (1931) with a happy ending—and an utterly ridiculous sequence of a giant octopus attack—and you’ve got the essence of this Fox potboiler. One sultry night in Singapore, a singer and prostitute known only as Kiddo (Peggy Shannon) bashes in some creep’s skull and goes on the lam with her abusive ship captain boyfriend. When Kiddo’s main squeeze parks her in a remote South Sea island, she fends off the local sleazeballs, but falls hard for an affable ex-Marine (Spencer Tracy). Alas, the nasty boyfriend rolls back into town, threatening to crush Kiddo’s future.

As Kiddo, Peggy Shannon looks out at the world from bedroom eyes set in an incongruously childlike face. She exists in a state of jagged bemusement, halfway between weariness and wariness, as if asking life, “What next, pal? Where ya landing the next punch?” Painted Woman sometimes borders on dumb and sometimes crosses right over, but Shannon holds it together with bruised dignity. Even skinny dipping in a lagoon, she can hurl tough-dame one-liners with a bite that made me think of Stanwyck… crossed with Harlow… with a pinch of Bow. I’d never heard of Shannon before Cinefest, but I couldn’t help thinking: Here’s an actress ripe for a rediscovery.

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Goodbye Again (Michael Curtiz, 1933)

This bawdy Warner Brothers comedy confection gave pre-Code bad boy Warren William the chance to show a more relaxed and hilarious side of his lascivious screen persona. A writer of risqué novels, William rekindles his romance with a now-married former sweetheart—much to the chagrin of his long-suffering secretary Joan Blondell.

With a marvelous supporting cast (Genevieve Tobin! Helen Chandler! Wallace Ford!), Goodbye Again has a wacky soundstage party ambiance. And who doesn’t love endless meta-cracks at the expense of prudery and censorship?

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Quatorze Juillet (René Clair, 1933)*

When a movie audience leaves the theater literally dancing to the exit music, you know you’ve witnessed something special. I saw René Clair’s Quatorze Juillet (14th of July, France’s Fête nationale) on the 14th of July. In Paris. However, I suspect that any day would feel like a holiday watching this triumph of creative storytelling.

Quatorze Juillet dwells in a silvery, stylized cosmos of exquisite coincidences and contrivances. Visual matches and quirky motifs catch the rhythms of city life. Gently-arcing high-angle shots look benevolently down on the destinies of outwardly ordinary people. A sweet flower girl falls in love with a gallant cab driver on the night before the 14th of July… then loses him to his old girlfriend. Misfortunes and mistakes tear them apart, but will fate bring them back together? The answer is predictable, but that doesn’t detract from the journey.

Tempting though it is to label this a “feel-good movie,” Quatorze Juillet elegantly drifts through so many emotional tones. Wistful. Joyful. Silly. Tragic. Serendipitous. All of it clad in the stardust of Paris.

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Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch, 1943)*

To quote one of my favorite film professors, “Relationships are hard.” He was quite correct, as usual. Relationships are hard to make a go of in real life and hard to make convincing and fresh on the screen. Heaven Can Wait, airy and buoyant as a waltz, understands the difficulty of relationships better than many hand-wringing, tear-stained dramas. I can’t conceive of a more tender valentine to marriage and its sublime challenge to human nature.

Frivolous playboy Henry Van Cleave (Don Ameche) wins and weds the woman of his dreams (Gene Tierney). That’s where most movies would stop, but Ernst Lubitsch probes the triumphs and frustrations of “happily ever after.” As Henry errs from his pledge to monogamy, his wife wonders whether the price of loving him might be too high, after all.

Shot in velvety, sensual Technicolor, Heaven Can Wait reminds us that lifelong commitment is the most quixotic of promises. Every gentle chuckle, every vibrant shade of purple (and there are many), every quarrel, and every kiss in the Van Cleaves’ marriage lead us to the conclusion that regrets, flaws, and death all make life worth living—and love worth loving.

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La Main du Diable (Maurice Tourneur, 1943)

As France was making a series of devil’s bargains with the Nazis, Maurice Tourneur directed this Faustian horror drama under the occupation. Morbidly comical and criss-crossed with foreboding shadows, La Main du Diable evokes the very modern risk of losing one’s soul.

Longing to be a great painter, bohemian loser Roland (Pierre Fresnay) exchanges his soul for artistic talent by way of a cursed hand passed down through a line of doomed men. When Roland regrets his decision, the devil arrives—in the person of a venal, bald-pated bureaucrat—and offers our hero the chance to buy back his soul… with interest, bien sûr. But can Roland afford it?

La Main du Diable made me wonder where the hell it had been all my life. Fresnay’s performance—one part bad boy, one part lost puppy—invested me deeply in Roland’s sad fate as he shambles into the devil’s path. And the film’s visual highlight, a fabulous carnival sequence, resurrects the former owners of the hand (and conjures visions of their misspent lives) by resurrecting the aesthetics of silent cinema.

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The Exile (Max Ophüls, 1947)

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. paid conscious tribute to his charismatic swashbuckler father in this beguiling film—while displaying a streak of heroism and derring-do that was uniquely his. Returning to filmland after his service in WWII, the star produced and helped to write this elegant historical adventure about Charles II’s exile in Holland.

Charles’s wily grace and adaptability, honed through years of wandering, make him the only opponent who can defeat the sinister Roundheads, spookily reminiscent of the Third Reich. Max Ophüls’s traveling camera elevates fight scenes to ideological dance-offs: the sluggard brutality of totalitarianism versus the flexibility of constitutional monarchy.

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Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (Norman Foster, 1948)

From the lurid, Mickey Spillane-ish title, you’d never guess that Kiss the Blood Off My Hands offers up one of the most sensitively-rendered relationships in the noir canon.

Bill Saunders, a traumatized American WWII vet in London (Burt Lancaster), accidentally kills a man in a barroom brawl. Running from the law, he hides out in the apartment of a kind but outspoken young hospital worker, Jane Wharton (Joan Fontaine). Jane helps Bill to rebuild his life and, bonded by vulnerability and loneliness, they fall in love. But can Bill control his rage? And will a greedy racketeer pull him away from his fragile chance at happiness?

Watch this movie for the chemistry between Lancaster and Fontaine. Watch it for the subtle commentary on a world struggling to heal itself after a devastating conflict. Watch it for the intoxicating cinematography by Russell Metty. Really. Do. Watch it.

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Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948)*

Only two things can conquer death: art and love. As Portrait of Jennie suggests, perhaps those things can’t be separated from each other—or from death. This supernatural romance dares to dance with the great mysteries of life. Some critics have mistaken the film’s sincerity for sentimentality. Well, that’s their loss. One wonders, do they also snigger at sonnets and mock arias?

When an uninspired artist falls in love with a phantom, the movie lends us his eyes, slowly opening to the glories of his beloved, of winter in New York City, of the roiling sea, of the world in all of its palpitating aliveness. Only the ecstasy of loving and the agony of loss—for to love is to lose, since we are not built to withstand the forever we crave—can draw back the veil that hides the wonders all around us.

In the mystical contrasts of Jennie’s cinematography, you can feel the yearnings of the great poets to bridge the divide between the darkness and light of human existence. The delicate, petal-soft lace of Jennie’s dress showcases the onyx cameo profile of her face in shadow. The blinding white glare of the sun and the ice in Central Park illuminate Jennie’s silhouette as she glides towards the camera. Jennie comes running out of the mist to meet her mortal lover, and again she glows like a black angel of eternity. (I also saw this on nitrate at the Nitrate Picture Show, which really made the film’s ethereal imagery sing.)

With its garden of marvels blooming out of the ordinary, Portrait of Jennie reminds me of another film that I consider truly enchanted: The Blue Bird (1918). Like the ghostly Jennie, the cinematographer of The Blue Bird, John van den Broek, drowned without realizing his radiant potential. Yet, he lives on. He speaks to me through the supernal beauty that his lense captured. Art, like love, is a legacy, a gift that awakens others. I think about The Blue Bird and Jennie often, and I am deeply grateful for the paradise-colored lens that those films hold before my eyes.

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Alias Nick Beal (John Farrow, 1949)

This allegorical noir transforms foggy, abstracted city sets on the Paramount backlot into a battleground for the forces of good and evil. Honest lawyer Joseph Foster (Grant Mitchell) struggles to convict a big-time gangster, until a tenebrous stranger Nick Beal (Ray Milland) shows up with the solution. Soon Foster succumbs to the insidious temptation of idealism, as Beal promises him the chance to clean up corruption—while corrupting Foster’s own soul.

His eyes glittering with the malice that Hitchcock would use so well in Dial M for Murder, Ray Milland oozes wicked suavity as Lucifer in a slick suit. His oily charm lulls us into almost trusting him and amplifies the shock of his occasional lapses into brutality. This prince of darkness is no gentleman. Audrey Totter captures the fear and pathos of her role as the devil’s unwilling accomplice: a wharf hooker given a satanic make-over by Beal and deployed to compromise Foster.

Rather than downplay the supernatural eeriness of the scenario, director John Farrow channels full-on cosmic dread. In this transplanted Medieval morality play of creeping camera movements, Satan himself literally dictates the dialogue at times. And a cigarette case, a bottle of rum, a pile of ashes all become signs not of mere mundane evil, but of Evil-with-a-capital-E.

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Beyond the Forest (King Vidor, 1949)

Bette Davis’s last contract film for Warner Brothers, a steamy, rural, noirish melodrama, is pretty darn difficult to get a hold of. That unavailability has sadly contributed to the film’s reputation as a so-bad-it’s-good camp-fest. I braced myself for the worst—and found a passionate lamentation on the sorrows of being an ambitious, trapped woman. Director King Vidor endows the backwoods setting with an operatic grandeur suited to its heroine’s fiery longing and spectacular downfall. Think Hardy’s Return of the Native with an injection of Virginia Woolf. Plus a Maria Montez wig.

Though Bette Davis loathed the movie, she gives faded small-town temptress Rosa all her fury and cunning. She potently incarnates the feelings that good little post-war wives were supposed to sweep under the rug: boredom with domestic life, disgusted rejection of motherhood, grasping pursuit of money, and a desire for younger, exciting men. Even the oft-parodied “What a dump!” line expresses Rosa’s frustration with her petty existence.

Much of film noir is about thwarted women who turn to crime because they lack a socially-sanctioned way of getting what they want. Beyond the Forest refuses to sugar-coat that pill. Its prickly protagonist doesn’t soften her aspirations or pander to male fantasy with the silken, nubile glamor of the archetypal femme fatale. Her excess is intentional, in-your-face defiance. A refusal of all things passive, demure, acquiesced to silence. If that’s camp, please, spare me your earnestness.

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Brides of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1960)*

Scary movies got me interested in film to begin with. Horror remains my favorite genre. So, when I tell you that Brides of Dracula has won a place in my top 10 favorite horror movies, that means a great deal to me.

This Gothic cautionary tale unfolds against a lush palette of Technicolor purples, reds, and golds and possesses a refinement matched by no other Hammer horror flick. The well-bred seductiveness of Brides mirrors the dandyish aura of its vampire: sorry, no, not Christopher Lee, but can I interest you in the subversively alluring David Peel?

To counter this bloodthirsty aesthete, Peter Cushing gives a dashing portrayal of Doctor Van Helsing—whose unspoken but palpable romantic rapport with the movie’s heroine subtly raises the stakes (pun intended). I wrote a nice long post about the wicked brilliance of this film. You know, if you’re into gratuitous Baudelaire quotes and gorgeous screenshots.

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Boom (Joseph Losey, 1968)

The TCM Classic Film Festival screened an eye-popping 35mm print of this notorious flop at the midnight hour. I laughed so hard I was genuinely afraid that I might cease breathing. (Proposed epitaph in the event that this does happen someday: Here lies one Nitrate Diva,/ She succumbed to movie fever.)

Starring a tipsy, resplendent Liz Taylor and a roaring, pretentious Richard Burton, Boom satisfies the gawking paparazzo lurking within each of us. Heiress Sissy Goforth rules her private Mediterranean island with a tyrant’s hand. When a poet with a reputation for visiting dying dowagers washes up on her shore, they engage in a tumultuous battle of wills and passions.

Despite, or perhaps because of, my initial paroxysms of hilarity, I’ve come to appreciate the genius of Joseph Losey’s “failed art film,” to quote John Waters, who loves it even more than I do. Boom’s ostentatious incoherence calls to mind the authorial self-indulgence of many a successful art film. It forces its viewers to question their definitions of good and bad as applied to such an amorphous segment of cinema.

Boom examines what happens when celebrity self-absorption crashes into the grim inevitability of death. We get sunsets that look positively radioactive, cerulean waves, Beardsley-esque black and white costumes, all stirring and oddly pitiable in their magnificence. Tragedy seasoned with trashiness: consider it the love child of Jackie Collins and Euripides.

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Follow Thru (1930): Fore Play

_follow_thruRed and green, stop and go, naughty and nice: two-color Technicolor is literally made of opposites, of complementary colors that cancel each other out when combined in equal measure.

In pre-Code musical rom-com Follow Thru, the two-color palette, a riot of coral and mint, wages a kind of merry war, to borrow a phrase from one of Shakespeare’s best rom-coms.

This past weekend Capitolfest screened UCLA Film and Television’s 35mm restoration of Follow Thru, transferred from the original camera negative. Sitting in the fourth row, I felt as though I were devouring some rare confection, a peachy parfait of cinematic pleasure. Its two-color cinematography, not to mention infinitely hummable tunes by Henderson, Brown, and DeSylva, banished my blues (pun intended).

Based on a hit Broadway show of 1929, this now-obscure musical frolics through a flimsy plot about a lady golf champ (Nancy Carroll) fighting her fairway rival (Thelma Todd) for the affections of a handsome instructor (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers). Directors Lloyd Corrigan and Laurence Schwab embrace the toe-tapping whimsy of their source material and never lean too hard on the tension. It’s as though they opened a window in the Great Depression and let an insouciant breeze from the ’20s waft in.

Follow Thru shatters two unfortunately common assumptions about old movies, especially early talkies: first, they were all black-and-white and, second, they were dreadfully stuffy. Well, not only was this 85-year-old musical shot in dazzling color, but it also abounds with more innuendo and risqué humor than you’d find in most modern rom-coms.

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I’ve seen a lot of pre-Code movies, but there were a few lines in Follow Thru that made my jaw drop. For example, curvaceous Thelma Todd hurls herself at petrified millionaire Jack Haley, invites him to come and spend “a week of love” with her, and asks, “Then you will come?” Clearly, um, excited by her advances, Haley sputters, “It won’t be long soon.”

Or consider the sequence where Haley and scene-stealing Eugene Pallette sneak into a locker room full of lingerie-clad ladies with the intention of retrieving a ring. After many shocking revelations for girl-shy Haley, the pair sneak out wearing ladies’ clothes. And, believe me, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Eugene Pallette in a striped day dress.

Like those inscrutable marshmallow circus peanuts you can buy at dollar stores, the thrills in Follow Thru are cheap and possibly damaging to your health, but irresistible… and sort of orangey.

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Why, even the movie’s title turns out to be a double entendre (rather like Much Ado About Nothing, actually). At the end, Rogers and Carroll reunite with the promise of canoodling under some orange blossoms. The hero’s best friend drives away and mischevously calls out, “Follow through!” You get the feeling he’s not talking about a golf swing.

Some movies set out to make a point, some smuggle their messages in, and some have no particular agenda other than your enjoyment. Happily in the last category, Follow Thru pampers its spectators with visual indulgences that transcend its source material.

The film introduces its star, Nancy Carroll, 5 minutes into the runtime with a close-up so delicious that I’d swear it had calories. After taking a careful swing with her golf club, Carroll peers intently into the distance. Just as we’ve adjusted to the rapturous splendor of what we’re seeing, Carroll’s face blossoms into a smile and stuns us anew. The Capitolfest audience greeted Carroll’s face with a ecstatic round of applause.

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If Technicolor founder Herbert Kalmus had dreamed up a movie star to showcase the beauty of the two-color process, he couldn’t have done better than Carroll, with her effervescent green eyes, auburn hair, and apple cheeks. That initial close-up revels in the startling sensuality made possible by technology. As a 1930 advertisement gushed, “The fascinating Paramount star… becomes a new personality under the magic wand of Technicolor—real, vibrant, convincingly alive!”

But that ad copy only partially gets the spell of two-color Technicolor right. Vibrant and alive? Yes. Real? Not by a long shot. That’s why I love it.

Unlike the full spectrum of three-color Technicolor, the two-color process denies us the soothing true blues, cheerful yellows, and sumptuous purples that we see in reality. Instead, early Technicolor plunges the viewer into a festive, askew universe reminiscent of peppermint candy and just as invigorating. Its charm lies in its unreal-ness.

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Due to the vagaries of film preservation and availability, if you’ve seen early Technicolor, it was probably in a short insert sequence, like the masked ball in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), the “Singin’ in the Rain” number from The Hollywood Revue of 1929, or the charity gala scene in Hell’s Angels (1930). These splashy, arresting interludes often display excellent cinematography and color sense, but tend to strike spectators as novelties or flamboyant set pieces, understood primarily in contrast to the rest of the film.

When used for the duration of a feature film, however, two-strip Technicolor gains nuance through its many variations, from shot to shot, from scene to scene. And it’s a sadly little-known chapter of Hollywood history that more than a dozen early sound musicals (as well as some silents and talkies of other genres) were shot entirely in two-color Technicolor.

Follow Thru turns the limitations of the early color process into an advantage by using its restricted range of two opposite colors as a stimulant. The pairing of red and green parallels the madcap rivalries and commedia dell’arte-ish couplings of the film.

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Over the course of Follow Thru’s hour-and-a-half runtime, the piquant balance of reds and greens in each scene heightens the musical’s topsy-turvy charms. A stripe of emerald on a sweater here keeps a scarlet beret there in check. The sparkle of seafoam-colored beads and a spray of ruby feathers (and not much else) on Thelma Todd make an alluring counterpoise to the crimson velvet jacket and forest-green tartan kilt on Nancy Carroll.

The pinks, browns, and subtle celadon shades of outdoor outfits on over 200 extras keep the spring green grass of the Palm Springs fairway from overwhelming the viewer. And a luminous cyan studio backdrop complements the complexions of Rogers and Carroll in a cozy two-shot as they croon—what else?—“A Peach of a Pair” to each other. Covered in blush to register for the Technicolor cameras, the young lovers glow with a rosy flush, as though they share a risqué secret.

Indeed, Technicolor aids and abets Follow Thru’s healthy celebration of desire, courtship, and a new age of permissiveness. The film reserves its flashiest and most humorous use of color for the biggest production number, a playful ode to modern misbehaving. Zelma O’Neil’s performs “I Want to Be Bad,” backed up by chorines who transform from pallid, almost colorless angels to bright red devils… then back into angels.

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Though the number takes place on a stage of a country club (albeit one so opulent and vast as to strain my suspension of disbelief), the film medium stretches that space into something fantastic and thrilling.

A lightning bolt hides a cut and transmogrifies the heavenly choir into kicklines of alluring devils in red body suits. The camera pans across the dancers. Cuts between angles—sometimes abstracting the dancers into patterns of red on green—emphasize the hot rhythm of the music. There’s even a very Busby Berkeley-esque touch when a cherub pulls an alarm, prompting a celestial fire brigade to descend from the clouds and put out the blazing sinners, as flames spurt out of the stage!

Even though the racy dancers end up where they started, as subdued, smiling angels, the musical number exalts the joys of cutting loose. (A scene later Nancy Carroll will go a step further and confirm being bad as an effective relationship strategy when she wins Buddy Rogers back from devious Thelma Todd by gulping down cocktails!) As O’Neil belts out, “If it’s naughty to rouge your lips, and shake your shoulders, and twist your hips, let a lady confess: I want to be bad!”

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The hyperbolic heaven-versus-hell aspect of the song not only ridicules the notion of badness, but also suggests that being a devil is a hell of a lot more fun. The irony, of course, is that none of what the perky comedienne sings about—makeup, dancing, staying out late, maybe some light vamping—is that terrible. It’s hardly brimstone material to “ask for more” out of life, as the lyrics say, right?

Yet, the sanctimonious moral guardians of the 1920s convinced plenty of people that hell is overcrowded with bad little girls who bobbed their hair, laughed at dirty jokes, and took a swig of gin every now and again. “I Want to Be Bad” even includes an allusion to such self-righteous party-poopers: “Some reformers say a warmer climate awaits you,” O’Neil teases, pointing downwards. When she sticks her tongue out at the camera, in many ways she’s really thumbing her nose at the people who were (and are still) threatened by young women making their own choices and enjoying them.

As it happens, the same gaggle of fanatics and censors that the song mocks would make a movie like Follow Thru impossible just a few years later… Fortunately, the film survives in all its irreverent glory. And if it’s naughty to love Follow Thru, then, darlings, I want to be bad!

Alas, Follow Thru is not available on a legit DVD. The screenshots I’ve used in this post are pale and inadequate representations of the film, but I figured they were better than nothing. You can find it online without too much trouble, but all the prints I’ve seen out there are pretty bad.

Just Imagine (1930): Past Forward

justimagineposterCome for the Jetsonian Deco interiors. Stay for the jazzy songs. Leave when El Brendel opens his mouth and spouts some faux-Swedish malapropisms.

Oh, wait, that’s only 15 minutes into the movie. So, steel yourself against creaky ethnic humor and buckle up for liturgical dance orgies on Mars.

A bizarre pre-Code genre hybrid of sci-fi and musical comedy, David Butler’s Just Imagine presents a vision of the future that’s both optimistic and pessimistic—and neither fully utopian nor dystopian.

This disjointed curio is no masterpiece, to put it mildly, but you need to see it at least once in your life, if only to convince yourself that it exists.

Unlike earlier talkie sci-fi extravaganza High Treason (1929), Just Imagine spares us a sanctimonious message. This movie knows it’s ridiculous, but I wonder if it knows how ridiculous. Warning: your camp-o-meter might break.

City on the Edge of (Yesterday’s) Tomorrow

The film opens with a comical comparison between a sleepy New York street scene in 1880, where “you can even hear the rustle of a bustle,” and the claxon-screeching, hectic city in 1930.

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From there, we jump ahead another 50 years—to 1980. (Somehow the writers failed to foresee the big hair, shoulder pads, and synth music. Like I said, it’s not a dystopian future. Although U2 does get a mention at the end. That’s pretty prophetic.)

As a narrator informs us, now “everyone has a number instead of a name and the Government tells you whom you should marry.”

The screen abruptly cuts from a title card to a Metropolis-esque New York of the future, towering with sleek, glistening skyscrapers and teeming with chrome-plated planes
purposefully buzzing along. Minutely detailed and elegant in its uber-urbanity, the skyline of the city no doubt elicited gasps from audiences in 1930. The models and justimagine_skyscraperssets, designed by Stephen Goosson and Ralph Hammeras, remain stunning accomplishments even today.

Out of the air traffic, two angular planes come to our attention. As they move towards each other, high-angle shots let us see other aircraft crisscrossing below and cars edging along bridges further below still, adding breathtaking verisimilitude to the dreamlike city. The pair of planes meet and hover mid-air.

These dizzying heights serve as a trysting place for the conflicted couple—literally and figuratively up in the air—who will dominate our story. As the boy and girl discuss their problems, planes continue to dart in and out of the frame around them.

At its best, Just Imagine engages the viewer on two levels: the technical marvels make us wonder how special effects wizards achieved the illusion while the winning personalities of the leads encourage us to identify with them. Although largely expositional, the opening scene deftly demonstrates this balance, cleverly juxtaposing a striking modern backdrop with the age-old theme of thwarted love. If only the rest of the movie lived up to that promise.

Our Plot Such as It Is

LN-18 (Maureen O’Sullivan) and dashing airman J-21 (golden-voiced tenor John Garrick) want to get married. Unfortunately, the government marriage tribunal has ruled in favor of LN’s other suitor, MT-3, a haughty, vaguely sinister newspaper editor, granting him preference because of his elevated professional position. Unless J can raise his status enough to outrank his rival within 4 months, in time for a tribunal appeal, he’ll lose the girl of his dreams.

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Meanwhile, famous inventor Z-4 is planning to launch the first rocket to Mars and gives J the chance to become the new Lindberg by piloting the spaceship. Our intrepid protagonist accepts the mission… and the risk that he may never return from the daring expedition.

J blasts off with his best friend RT-42 (Frank Albertson) and their bumbling sidekick Single-O (El Brendel). Together, the trio encounters friendly martians—and their evil twins—and swings home just in time to reverse the tribunal’s decision.

Not-So-Brave New World

In the universe of Just Imagine, nobody seems particularly concerned with fomenting revolution or changing the system. Instead, the characters fight for their own personal happiness within the system and largely play by that system’s rules. The message here isn’t so much “Down with Big Brother!” as “Big Brother, pretty please let me marry who I want?”

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The focus on individual outcomes as opposed to social change betrays the movie as a traditional romantic comedy with sci-fi trimmings. The movie’s lack of interest in revolution also reflects the fearful hesitancy of an America still reeling from the stock market crash. As a result, Just Imagine is too much of a light-hearted romp to deliver the cataclysmic, let’s-burn-this-************-down finale that I crave from retro sci-fi. If nothing goes up in flames—or the reaper doesn’t show up—I’m disappointed.

Spectators in 1930 were disappointed, too. Despite earning positive reviews, this sci-fi flick, which cost over a million dollars to produce, flopped at the box office. Ironically, by playing it safe, Just Imagine may have lost out on an audience ready for a more radical future.

Lack of conspicuous upheaval notwithstanding, the script throws in a few sly jabs that seize on fictional, futuristic premises to criticize the realities of Depression-era life. For instance, a grotesque, matronly census-taker compares the oppressive marriage law to the law that enforced Prohibition (predicted to still be in place in 1980!): “Don’t criticize this Marriage Act,” the crone insists. “It, like the Volstead Act, is a noble experiment!”

Only meddling, sexually-frustrated bureaucrats try to regulate love and booze, Just Imagine implies.

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Perhaps the most startling and forward-thinking line of commentary-laced humor targets the rampant anti-semitism of the 1920s and 1930s. As Single-O looks up in the sky, J-21 and RT-42 explain that everyone flies Rosenblatt and Goldfarb planes; hardly anybody drives a car. “It looks like someone got even with Henry Ford,” Single-O laughs, alluding to the inventor’s well-publicized and vicious hatred of Jews.

The future doesn’t belong to Ford and his kind, the film suggests, but to the very people he wanted to persecute. Pondering a movie where the world of tomorrow feels uncomfortably conservative, I can’t help but appreciate that, in this case, the joke “punches up,” taking on ugly prejudices. Now that’s what I call progress.

Nostalgia for Now

On the whole, Just Imagine envisions a future that’s suspiciously nostalgic for the past, specifically for the halcyon days of 1930. Why, the movie even embeds a denizen of yesteryear into the plot as a surrogate for the contemporary audience.

Doctors miraculously revive Ole Petersen, later rechristened Single-O, who was struck by lightning 50 years before and preserved in a state of suspended animation. (The real miracle, however, is that the doctors don’t put him out of his misery the moment he starts talking.) Through his quirky, exaggerated reactions, Single-O, a time traveler in spite of himself, provides cues telling the viewer how he ought to feel about all that future shock.

For instance, when Single-O learns that food and alcohol come in pill form, eliminating the sensual enjoyment of eating and drinking, he waxes poetical about the pleasures of roast beef and beer. Technology has even taken the fun out of making babies, now neatly dispensed by vending machines. “Give me the good ol’ days!” Single-O wistfully repeats again and again.

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The fact that Single-O winds up as the film’s hero, carrying his companions back to the spaceship on Mars and taking a husky martian captive, affirms Just Imagine’s true purpose: bolstering the egos of 1930s audiences. “See?” You can practically hear the fedora-wearing fellows of 1930 muttering to themselves, “We may not have video telephones or rockets or personal planes, but, dammit, we’ve got gumption.”

In its clumsy way, Just Imagine synthesizes a strain of sci-fi designed primarily to edify the era in which the film was made. Most of the great sci-fi movies criticize (allegorically or directly) the direction of modern civilization. By contrast, Just Imagine launches a fantastic thrill ride to Mars in order to assuage the anxieties of an America troubled by the prospect of no frontier left to conquer—even while it hints that the modest joys of 1930 trump the wonders of 1980. This nifty but silly Fox musical sought to feed the confidence of its original audience. These are the good old days, it insists.

Come to think of it, one could argue that the basic concept of a humorous, feel-good sci-fi flick established by Just Imagine, once liberated from its overwhelming nostalgia, finally found success almost 50 years later… in Star Wars.

Old-Fashioned Girls

J-21 longs for a simpler time and an uncomplicated romance. As he confides to his wingman RT-42, “I like a girl like my grandmother used to be. That’s why I like LN. She’s an old-fashioned girl. I should have lived back in 1930.”

From there, J picks up a sort of ultra-modern lute and begins to croon “Give Me an Old-Fashioned Girl.” Meanwhile RT-42 fantasizes about those hot tomatoes of times gone by in a series of humorous vignettes. A dame in a slinky evening gown ecstatically mixes a cocktail shaker in her kitchen. A peroxide blonde succumbs to a forceful kiss from her beau, first beating on his back then slowly giving in. A young mother rocks the cradle with her foot while puffing on a cigarette and reading a risqué novel.

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Each wordless flashback emphasizes a combination of pliancy and naughtiness as the essence of femininity. The message: past, present, and future, women should serve and do so perkily at that. Apparently the caveman mentality wasn’t expected to die out in the space age (and, alas, it hasn’t yet in 2015).

The alarming future foreseen by Just Imagine grants women even less agency than they had in 1930. The government decides their mates for them based on their suitors’ statuses. And, (un)funnily enough, even though the characters complain about the mannish “modern woman,” this vision of tomorrow didn’t open up many new careers for women. For example, RT-42’s girlfriend D-6 (Marjorie White) works as a nurse, flitting around in a costume that I think you can buy at fetish shops nowadays (not that I’d know, of course), for a crew of entirely male doctors.

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Only the odious female census-taker, who looks like a bluestocking caricature from 1912, complains about gender injustice in the year 1980—and, in so doing, turns into a punchline. “Why, you men have all the best of it. For instance, you can file an application to marry me which I can accept or reject, but I can’t put in an application to marry you,” she explains to RT-42.

His reply: “Not such a bad law at that!”

Wait, Did you hear that? Oh, it was the audible thud from that joke. Ugh.

Though woefully underused, the major female characters of Just Imagine, LN and especially D-6, endow the film with its rare glimmers of pathos and rebellion.

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For example, in one memorable shot, echoing the work of sci-fi pioneers like Méliès and Zecca, Maureen O’Sullivan’s face appears superimposed over planet earth. Abstracted into a symbol for suffering sweethearts everywhere, she forlornly recites the lyrics of the song “You Are the Melody,” beseeching her lover to return home. Despite the goofy sentimentality of having to speak the words to a song monologue-style, O’Sullivan conveys a world of melancholy (pun intended) and her tender rendition lifts the banal speech to the level of genuine poignancy.

marjorie_white_justimagineOld-fashioned or not, D-6, played by the effervescent and tragically short-lived scene-stealer Marjorie White, refuses to stand idly by while a cruel system marries her best friend off to some entitled jerk. If I enjoyed Just Imagine, and I’d say I did, White deserves much of the credit. She walks away with the picture. For a sample of her peppy charms, check out the best musical number in the film: White’s duet with Frank Albertson, “Never Swat a Fly.”

The bounciest, cutest little minx ever to challenge the patriarchy, D-6 ultimately saves the day by holding up the court proceeding until J-21 can return victorious from Mars.

Rushing to the front of the courtroom, she flips into full-on melodrama mode and accuses MT-3 of being the father of her (nonexistent) children! Were I ever in a jam, I’d want this futuristic flapper feminist on my side.

Life on Mars

Some of the advances Just Imagine predicted have only come true (or at least become widespread) since 1980, like video calling and electric hand dryers, a.k.a. the scourge of the new millennium. We’ve yet to land on Mars, of course, but that’s okay. The red planet would probably be a huge let-down after this movie.

I’d be positively remiss if I ended this post without briefly touching on the gratuitous pre-Code mayhem that is the Mars segment of this film. Apparently, martian civilization consists of leatherboys and dominatrixes in silver-foil headdresses. This peaceful race of people greets visitors by forcing them out of their clothes and into a walk-in bath.

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The beefy martian warrior king, tricked out in a loincloth and studded leather shoulder armor, even puts the moves on Single-O—in the presence of the Queen, no less. The sidekick giggles, “She’s not the queen of Mars. He is!”

And that’s just the good martians. Their evil twins spend their free time in frenzied trance dances around a giant idol, climbing all over its arms and writhing against it in skimpy proto-punk get-ups. Well, what do you know. I guess they did get something right about 1980, after all…

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This post is part of the For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by Ferdy on Films, This Island Rod, and Wonders in the Dark. Please consider donating towards the restoration of a one-reel silent comedy, Cupid in Quarantine (1918). If you love old movies, support them. Click the image below to make your contribution to the National Film Preservation Foundation now!

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Kongo (1932): Apocalypse Then

flintTo paraphrase a line from Heart of Darkness, you can’t judge Kongo as you would an ordinary film.

In this monument to morbidity, nearly all the taboos festering at the edges of pre-Code cinema come out and play: blasphemy, drug addiction, prostitution, torture, slavery, bestiality, and (spoiler alert!) incest. The movie positively wallows in depravity. Degradation is its subject, its project, its study.

Even in the annals of pre-Code excess, it is unmatched, I believe—and yes, I’ve seen and written about The Story of Temple Drake, The Black Cat, and Murders in the Zoo.

Kongo is so squalid, so sticky, so saturated in filth that it rises to the level of tragic art, an art of darkness. And, as ‘Dead-Legs’ Flint, the movie’s irredeemable villain/hero, Walter Huston deserves much of the credit for whatever brutal poetry the film attains.

Huston’s performance, possibly the most intense in a screen career that defined intense, runs the gamut from raw, animalistic rage to wry sadism to blank, abject despair. How far can hatred take a man? How much can vengeance distort his soul? Prepare to find out.

And, yes, this is a ludicrously long post. Make it to the end and I’ve got some cute behind-the-scenes anecdotes from fan magazines to cleanse your palate, okay?

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No Bedtime Story

In remote central Africa, a merciless paraplegic ivory trader (Huston) rules his territory with impunity, lording it over his mistress Tula (Lupe Velez) and his terrified cronies. Using magic tricks to convince the natives that he controls evil spirits, he sets himself up as a minor god. (Cue the offensive 1930s stereotypes and broken English!)

But Flint’s not in this for money. Oh, no. He carefully selected this private inferno as the staging ground for an elaborate revenge scheme. After 18 long years of waiting, he’s about to spring the trap.

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Left partially paralyzed after a fight with the man who stole his wife, Flint targets the rival’s daughter, Ann (Virginia Bruce), born to Flint’s wife. Plucking Ann from a convent as soon as she’s “old enough to realize what’s happening to her,” Flint sends her to work in a Zanzibar brothel.

Once Ann “graduates” from the whorehouse, he summons the girl to his plantation and subjects her to starvation, beatings, numerous assaults, and daily humiliations. Unbroken in spirit, Ann falls in love with a drug-addicted derelict doctor (Conrad Nagel, never edgier), and they help nurse each other back to health.

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Meanwhile, Flint counts down the days until he can lure Ann’s father to his compound and show him what his daughter has become. Then the fun can really begin.

However, when Flint finally confronts his foe, needless to say, things don’t go quite as planned. One mistake will bring the full weight of the tyrant’s actions down on his own head… and somehow make the film even sicker. This plot doesn’t thicken so much as it curdles.

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Beast in the Jungle

Walter Huston had an advantage in tackling Kongo: he’d created the role of ‘Dead-Legs’ on Broadway in 1926, starring in a sordid play that would spawn two film adaptations.

With all that practice under his belt, it should come as no surprise that he captured the disabled character’s physicality with uncanny ease. He makes us accept Flint’s paralysis with the apparent rote familiarity of his movements, positioning his limbs by sharply yanking his pant legs or smoothly dragging himself across the floor, for instance. He sets a rock-solid basis for our credibility in the face of all the Grand Guignol to follow.

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Better yet, Huston wisely doesn’t back down from the perversity of the part. He refuses to underplay Flint or use his plight for sympathy. Instead, he gives a full-throttle representation of evil, radiating malevolence, power, and fearlessness.

I’m sorry, but we’d never buy Flint’s barbarism if he weren’t larger than life. Some characters can only be sustained on a diet of scenery-chewing. This man is a roaring, hyperbolic tyrant, an arrogant, cigar-chomping monster. It’s as though every major dictator of the 20th century borrowed a few tricks from Huston’s repertoire. Even when he’s resting in his wheelchair, his presence signifies imminent violence.

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For example, in what I consider the movie’s most chilling moment, Flint punishes Ann for trying to escape the plantation by ordering his myrmidon Hogan to beat and (the scene strongly implies) rape her. Hogan drags the poor girl into another room, the door closes, and we hear Ann shriek again and again.

Wheeling right up to the door, Flint takes a mighty puff of his cigar and howls with laughter. His rabid, guttural cackle mingles with her high-pitched screams as the screen lingeringly fades out. In addition to the downright disturbing use of offscreen space, the juxtaposition of sounds—laughter and cries of pain—emphasizes just how far Flint has strayed from that little thing we call humanity.

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Twisted in Mind and Body

Ironically, Flint obsesses most over his rival’s sneer, over the expression of glee and contempt on the man’s face as he left Flint helpless. In seeking to retaliate against that sneer, Flint has assimilated it, absorbed it, transmuted it into the essence of his being until he himself is little more than a sneer.

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Although his interpretation of Flint originated on the stage, Huston wrings the intimacy of the film medium for all it’s worth. The actor gets more close-ups and medium close-ups than either of the movie’s leading ladies and, despite being handicapped by grotesque makeup that partially obscures his features, he makes the most of those shots.

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Whenever he describes the torture and degradation of his enemy’s daughter, an unholy gleam flashes in his eye. Huston makes the pleasure that Flint takes in Ann’s suffering just as frightening and sick as it ought to be. Plus, cinematographer Harold Rosson enhances the horror of Huston’s performance with stark lighting, often from below, so that darkness laps at the corners of the frame.

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Another interesting aspect of Flint’s performance is the unnerving mixture of raw and refined cruelty. The film recurrently places him in the animal realm: he slithers on the floor like a snake and, when we first see him, his head pops out of a bunk… after the head of his pet monkey. He’s also not afraid to get hands-on in his villainy, grinning eagerly as he pries Tula’s mouth open with the intention of twisting her tongue out with wire.

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Yet, far from an unthinking brute, he can’t resist making a few barbed comments to assert his intelligence. He wounds Ann with words as well as with blows, forcing her to smash a glass she’s sipped from, snarling, “Who’d want it after you?”

Earlier, ordering Tula to deck him out in his Voodoo headdress, he decides to take the opportunity to remind her of the fact that’s in she’s servitude to such an unattractive master. “Crown me Queen of the May,” he leers. “Of all the men you’ve known, have you ever seen such an Adonis? Smile, you little bush rat, smile.”

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When he comes face-to-face with the object of his hatred, another ivory trader called Gregg, the man asks if Flint wants revenge. The reply? “No, not revenge. Call it the aftereffect of dark, somber brooding,” he comically minimizes.

The glimmers of wit and civilization in Flint disturb us all the more, because they remind us that he is a self-created monster. As his victim of choice yells at him, “Your mind’s more twisted and warped than your body!”

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West of Zanzibar, South of Decency

Remakes rarely surpass the originals, but to my mind, Kongo trumps Tod Browning’s West of Zanzibar (1928), starring Lon Chaney, on pretty much every level—certainly in terms of horror.

West of Zanzibar begins by showing how Dead-Legs’ wife leaves him, how he ends up paralyzed, and how he vows revenge. Seeing these tribulations builds empathy for the antihero too early in the film, thus, in my opinion, weakening the character.

Moreover, Flint’s torment of his enemy’s daughter in the silent strikes me as positively childish in comparison to the persecution we witness in the talkie version. He steals her clothes and gives her brandy? Heaven forfend!

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The undercurrents of perversity still run strong in Zanzibar—you’ve got people being burned alive, for instance—but dialogue and sound in general cranks up Flint’s formidable power as an adversary, especially given his physical limitations. With a voice, he gets to threaten, bark, grunt, chortle, crow, taunt, cajole, and quip, all in the service of his single-minded goal.

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On a more poignant level, the talkie develops Ann into a three-dimensional character. She not only describes the trauma of her experiences, but also rises above them, telling Flint, “You just called me a degraded woman. In name I am, but in my heart never!”

In terms of background noise, thunderclaps, tribal chants, and the sweeping sounds that Flint makes scuttling across the floor all fill the vivid soundtrack of this early talkie. Most eerily of all, the entire third act throbs with drums, hammering away, announcing doom for a certain character selected for human sacrifice.

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Senses of Wickedness

No other product of the studio era, talkie or silent, ever brought the word “hellhole” to life so completely as Kongo did. Director William J. Cowen, a decorated WWI officer, ex-spy, noted writer, and husband of the great screenwriter Lenore Coffee, only worked on a handful of movies, which may be a blessing for those with delicate constitutions.

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With cinematographer Rosson (of The Wizard of Oz), Cowen transformed an M-G-M set, used around the same time for the steamy romance Red Dust, into another world, one that none of us would want to visit. If Red Dust is an exotic wet dream, Kongo is a tropical nightmare.

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Most impressive to me is how Cowen preys upon nearly all of the audience’s senses, especially how haptic the movie is. Kongo almost seems to touch you, and I don’t mean emotionally. The eye cannot help but translate the squirmy tactile sensations conjured by such unpleasant images. Itchiness. Dirtiness. Griminess. Bodies glisten constantly with sweat, burnished and glowing, as though the beast in each character had literally bubbled to the surface.

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The chancrous, sin-sodden ambiance of Kongo prompts a visceral response. About 10 minutes in, you’ll want to wash the heat-haze off yourself. Even the light looks dirty.

Plus, if a movie can have a stench, this one does—sweet like jungle rot and revenge and sour like dried perspiration and regret.

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Trick of Fate

When discussing the nature of tragedy in Poetics, Aristotle identified anagnorisis—a tragic revelation or recognition—as a potent plot device.

Like we see in Oedipus, this sudden realization or discovery often leads to peripeteia, a reversal of fortune, an upheaval from which the drama draws emotional energy: “This recognition, combined with reversal, will produce either pity or fear; and actions producing these effects are those which, by our definition, tragedy represents.”

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I suspect that Aristotle would have as high an opinion of Kongo as I have, because it pulls off an anagnorisis that might’ve prompted Oedipus to put out his eyes and his ears to boot.

Flint summons Gregg to his plantation, parades the debased Ann before him, then announces that she is his daughter. Gregg wobbles and collapses in a huddle. The camera tracks in on Gregg’s heaving back as he presumably sobs, but when he looks up, we see a hysterical smile on his face. “She’s your daughter!” Gregg laughs.

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And we watch Flint slowly, agonizingly reap the punishment he’d devised for another. Our fear of what he might do next dissolves into pity. Humanity pours back into him as he reprocesses all the terrible things he’s done to Ann with the double sorrow of a father’s love and a persecutor’s guilt.

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Seized with the desire to make amends, he reaches out for Ann, only to realize that his previous actions have conditioned his daughter to shudder at his touch. Later, she faints and Flint takes the chance to cradle her in his arms.

To call the scene uncomfortable would be an understatement. Flint has to resort to a form of exploitation even to express tenderness, holding her as she lies there unconscious. Think of it as, say, David Lynch’s Pietà.

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Any affection he can ever feel for his child is tainted by the abuse he inflicted on her. He knows it, too. We discern that in a series of harrowing close-ups: Flint looking down, Ann’s face, her eyes closed, on the floor. The opposing “axes” of their faces, his roughly vertical, hers roughly horizontal, when edited together, spur the viewer’s eyes to readjust. The contrast visually expresses the Aristotelian reversal, the staggering switch that annihilated one of cinema’s fiercest villains and transformed him into a bereft parent.

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That my heart can break for such a villain, a man I never cease to despise, testifies to Huston’s virtuosic talent—and to the perverse force of the movie as a whole.

Gratuitous though Kongo’s litany of sins may seem, the heavy impact of all that ugliness culminates in a gut-punch of recognition and reversal. The movie does not exist merely to shock, but to tell us something about outer limits of evil: you cannot debase another without debasing yourself more.

That reversal elevates Kongo from the mire and accords it a place among the forgotten gems of its era.

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Tough Times and Dark Places

Investigating this potboiler for the first time, you’d be forgiven for thinking you stumbled upon an alternate universe. In this parallel realm, the most repellent exploitation films of the 1930s—instead of being churned out by Dwain Esper and his sleazy ilk—were made at M-G-M with top-flight actors, screenwriters, and production values.

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So, how did Kongo get made? Let’s all take a few moments to appreciate Irving Thalberg’s dark side.

1932 was perhaps Thalberg’s banner year as M-G-M’s boy wonder. He basically invented the “all-star” cast with Grand Hotel. He launched Jean Harlow to the next level in the wake of the Bern scandal with Red-Headed Woman and Red Dust. He gave us Tarzan and Letty Lynton and Smilin’ Through.

Nevertheless, it was also the year he greenlit Freaks, the most notorious flop of his career, and Kongo, which supposedly turned a profit but didn’t make him any friends. In his zeal to capitalize on the box office mojo of talkie horror, established by Universal’s hits the previous year, Thalberg got out of the boat just a tad.

As Norma Shearer remembered, Thalberg “was fascinated by the unusual, the colorful—even the decadent and the evil. He loved the impact of horror, but not merely for the sake of horror. These elements had to possess a reality, a logic, a meaning.”

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Alas, as psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan would say (not), Kongo got way too real for Depression-era audiences.

In the opinions section of a 1933 issue of Motion Picture Herald, Ned Pedigo, a theater owner from Garber, Oklahoma, wrote in to complain about Kongo’s undesirable effect on his audience: “When [a moviegoer] pays two bits to see this one, he doesn’t forget when he comes out. Hand him 30 cents back. Beg his pardon and I doubt if that will square it.”

Sorry, Mr. Average Spectator, you can’t forget Kongo, no matter how much you’d like to.

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This movie devours a little bit of your soul. Don’t say I didn’t warn you and, unlike Mr. Pedigo of Oklahoma, I refuse to beg your pardon. I’ve seen it 5 times and have been freshly appalled by each viewing.

That is quite a legacy, Mr. Thalberg. Bravo. After all, what greater measure of a movie’s power is there than its ability to make us feel something like revulsion decades later?

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Look, I want you all to watch the many uncontroversially great films of classic Hollywood. Enjoy them. Quote them. Embrace them as a lifestyle choice. But you know what I want more? For everyone who reads this to take a journey into the darkest corners of the studio era and to check out the messy, category-defying flicks that make you question everything you thought you knew about a prestige outfit like M-G-M.

Bottom line? You can keep The Wizard of Oz. I’ll take Kongo.

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Epilogue: Notes on the Making of Kongo

I promised anecdotes and I am a woman of my word.

Photoplay, the most prestigious and arguably the most trustworthy fan magazine of Hollywood’s golden age, reported on an unlikely friendship that blossomed between Walter Huston and Lupe Velez of onthesetall people on the set of Kongo. Velez had been intimidated by Huston since her former beau Gary Cooper expressed his awe in the presence of the consummate actor’s actor. Noticing Velez furtively peering at him from the sidelines, Huston affably introduced himself and things went swimmingly.

In the article, “The Strangest Friendship in Hollywood,” Ruth Biery reported, “They talk continuously while they are working together and as soon as the week is done, Lupe, Walter, and his wife Nan dash away for little trips to the mountains.”

Lupe also befriended the chimp star, Queenie, who took it upon herself to protect the actress. When Flint starts to twist Tula’s tongue with the wire, Queenie sensed the distress of the scene and started attacking the actors who were pretending to abuse Velez.

During shooting, Virginia Bruce married John Gilbert, a match somewhat jinxed from the start as this item, also from Photoplay, suggests:

Poor Virginia Bruce had a tough honeymoon.

She was working in “Kongo.” And if you ever saw a dirty picture, it was that. Taken in mud. Even the interior shots were largely in huts with dirt floors.

Virginia’s hair was stringy. Her nails were uncut.

She went to director Bill Cowan [sic] with tears in her eyes.

“Can’t I have a shampoo and a facial and manicure just for the week-end?”

“Absolutely not. You might not get the dirt back in the same proportions.”

“But I want to go out with Jack—”

As new-hubby Jack Gilbert is noted for wanting his women fastidiously groomed, no wonder the bride decided to… spend all her time being a little home body.

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This post is a (tardy) entry into The Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows and Satin, and Silver Screenings! Click the banner to check out all the other posts!

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Some Pre-Code Candy Hearts for All You Sinners

Heartened (pun intended) by the response to yesterday’s film noir valentines, I decided to spend a few hours creating some pre-Code options for you lovebirds—this time in the form of candy “conversation hearts.”

I had too much fun making these. So much fun, in fact, that I’m worried it was illegal in some way. And, if Joseph Breen had anything to say about it, it probably would be…

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Mary Carlisle at 101: The Last of the WAMPAS Stars

If you examine the picture below, taken on the Paramount backlot in the 1930s, you can pick out quite a few Hollywood legends. Cary Grant. Charles Laughton. Josef von Sternberg. Maurice Chevalier.

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Only one person in that photograph is still alive as of this writing: Mary Carlisle, pictured in the second row, next to W.C. Fields.

And, as of today, she’s 101 years old!

It’s somewhat mind-boggling to consider that, in California, there still lives a stylish screen veteran who was photographed in two-strip Technicolor and starred in pre-Code films with the likes of Bing Crosby, Lionel Barrymore, and Jimmy Durante.

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Carlisle is the last surviving member of the WAMPAS baby stars, a yearly crop of young women chosen as the industry’s most promising hopefuls. A 1932 WAMPAS alum, Carlisle appears in this (rather sexist) short “Stars of Tomorrow” along with Ginger Rogers, Gloria Stuart, and several others.

marycarlisleAlthough major stardom eluded Carlisle, her gracious, effervescent personality improved quite a few films between her debut in 1930 and her retirement in 1943. For instance, amidst the cacophony of a whacky, big-budget Paramount musical like Double or Nothing (1936), Carlisle exerts a positively tonic influence.

During the 1930s—an era of dangerous, street-hardened women and slinky, suffering sinners on film—Carlisle’s maidenly charms struck a note of nostalgia. MGM’s comedy-melodrama Should Ladies Behave took an amusing pre-Code slant on Carlisle’s disarming sweetness. Her sheltered character, Leone, despairs when her boyfriend complains that she’s too “inexperienced” for him to marry!

Pert and plucky, Carlisle was Hollywood’s ideal of the vivacious, all-American co-ed. Despite her angelic appearance, she gave the impression of being a down-to-earth idol, an approachable dream girl that a fellow might get up the courage to talk to at a dance.

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The writers of “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi” could’ve been describing Carlisle: “The blue of her eyes and the gold of her hair/ Are a blend of the western skies.” And, indeed, Carlisle would star in a 1933 film inspired by the popular college song.

She made a delightful onscreen counterpart for the mellow suavity of Bing Crosby, with whom she co-starred in three films—College Humor, Double or Nothing, and Dr. Rhythm—and whom she “still remembers fondly,” according to her Facebook page.

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My favorite Carlisle performance adorns a film that I consider the best of the Poverty Row old dark house movies, Christy Cabanne’s One Frightened Night (1935). 21-year-old Carlisle makes the most of an unusual turn as a sassy vaudevillian poised to inherit a fortune… if she’s not killed off first!

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If there were such a thing as 1930s character actor bingo, One Frightened Night would surely win with Hedda Hopper, Wallace Ford, Regis Toomey, Charles Grapewin, and Rafaela Ottiano among its ranks! In contrast to the dismal, almost pathetic feel that some low-budget films of this type exude, this mystery reminds me of a themed house party, with every actor clearly having a ball.


Since it’s in the Public Domain, I encourage you all to curl up with this cozy, lightweight thriller.

More film clips and complete movies of Mary Carlisle on YouTube:

For more information about Carlisle, I strongly recommend this typically thorough post at Immortal Ephemera.

And be sure to “like” Mary on Facebook! And wish her a happy birthday!

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The Story of Temple Drake (1933): Shadow of Justice

temple_drakeTrigger warning, in every possible sense!

From its first post-establishing shot image—the figure of Justice on a courtroom wall, not a statue but a shadowThe Story of Temple Drake announces the gravity of its project.

This is no mere potboiler, no crowd-pleasing fantasy of submission. It is nothing less than a tragedy.

But we know that even during the opening credits, which overlay a derelict plantation, illuminated by flashes of lightning. After the character introduction shots appear, they dissolve back to the once-majestic columns of the ruin, as though the people were emerging from this symbol of entropy. The broken and battered classical structure evokes the themes of decline and degradation that will haunt the film and its protagonist to the last reel.

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Directed by Stephen Roberts, Temple Drake sanitized and revised William Faulkner’s scandalous Southern Gothic novel Sanctuary. To give you a sense of just how scandalous it was, even the lenient Hays Office initially deemed the material unfilmable. Well, Paramount didn’t listen about blackballing Mae West and they certainly weren’t going to let such juicy material go unused.

The film’s narrative arc, one of temptation and redemption, radically departs from Faulkner’s gloomy original. Still, the cleaned-up form remains an uncomfortably complex meditation on sexuality and justice.

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In this prescient melodrama, the corrosive influence of privilege vyes with the power of ingrained, perverse desires and the implacable blows of Fate in brutalizing our heroine, Temple Drake. Her story serves as a warning not simply against flirtatiousness or nonconformity, but rather against the unhealthy preservation of a social system poisoned by hypocrisy and inequality.

Temple reaps the sins of her forefathers—her family’s unspoken legacy of oppression—and expiates that heritage by revealing her courage and devotion to justice in the end.

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In 1940, Miriam Hopkins told Modern Screen magazine that Temple Drake was “the best picture I ever made.” I’m not sure I agree with that, but I would argue that Hopkins delivered her greatest performance as Temple.

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This is an exceedingly long and circuitous post. If you get to the end, you will be rewarded by an amusing anecdote about 69-year-old Miriam Hopkins at a screening of this film. Thank you.

The Story Such as It Is

Because this pre-Code shocker is not widely available, I need to take the plunge here and offer an extended plot synopsis (as much as I loathe doing so).

The granddaughter of good ol’ boy Judge Drake (albeit a good ol’ boy with an incongruously British accent), local belle Temple earns a reputation as a flirt at best and a tease at worst. She engages in passionate make-out sessions with every eligible bachelor in town, all the while refusing marriage proposals from saintly lawyer Steven Benbow, the only man she genuinely respects.

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Why does she turn down such a good fellow? As Temple explains it, “It’s like there were two ‘me’s. One of ‘em says, ‘Yes, yes, quick! Don’t let me get away.’”

“And the other?” Benbow asks.

“I won’t tell you… what it wants, or does, or what’ll happen to it,” Temple replies. “I don’t know myself. All I know is I hate it.”

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Under the influence of her wicked side, Temple goes joyriding with a drunken beau. Their car crashes and they seek shelter in the wrecked plantation that we saw during the credits. Moonshiner Lee Godwin, his wife Ruby, and some other small-time white trash criminals squat there. That night, slick, animalistic Memphis gangster Trigger has joined the crew to haul liquor back to town—and he immediately sets out after Temple.

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Ruby and a mentally impaired boy called Tommy (yes, yes, the inevitable Faulknerian manchild) try to protect our imperiled debutante by hiding her in the barn. At the break of dawn Trigger shoots Tommy and rapes Temple. Afterwards Trigger transports the traumatized Temple to Miss Reba’s brothel and keeps her as his sex slave.

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Meanwhile Lee Goodwin stands trial for the murder of Tommy. Benbow takes the case and crashes into the bordello looking for Trigger as a potential suspect. Shocked to find Temple, Benbow tries to take her home. Realizing that Trigger is about to shoot Benbow, Temple tells her ex-fiancé to get out and lies, giving Trigger an alibi and saying that she chose to live with the gangster.

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No sooner does Benbow leave than Temple decides to escape the brothel. When Trigger tries to prevent her, she shoots him and returns to her hometown as if nothing had happened. However, Benbow requires her to testify to save Lee Goodwin’s life. She refuses at first but ultimately sacrifices her standing in the town by recounting Tommy’s murder, the subsequent events, and her own killing of Trigger.

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Having exonerated the defendant, Temple faints at the witness stand. Benbow carries her out of the courtroom and tells her grandfather, “Be proud of her, Judge. I am.” That’s an enlightened statement for 1933, don’t you think?

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Points of Contention

If you’re interested in pre-Code cinema, you’ll probably read about The Story of Temple Drake before you actually see the elusive film itself.

That’s why you need to be very careful and critical about what you read (my post included!).

An unfortunate proportion of writing about this film has focused on a question that I feel queasy typing: did Temple enjoy the assault? Admittedly, the movie does raise the issue and allows it to open some dark places in our minds. Remember, though, that the act is only suggested, and very elliptically at that, so anyone who speculates on Temple’s pleasure or pain is doing exactly that—speculating.

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Unfunnily enough, a number of critics have concluded that she does enjoy it, echoing Trigger’s assertion: “You’re crazy about me.” Do these writers, I wonder, recognize the irony that their interpretation supports Trigger’s account of what happened?

I mean, Gregory D. Black in Hollywood Censored actually writes, “After the rape, Temple happily follows Trigger, and together they set up a love nest in the Memphis brothel.”

Pre-Code historian Thomas Doherty has gone so far as to elaborate that, “rapist-murderer Trigger is the agent of an unholy but just retribution, an avenging angel who shows this girl that she can’t have her cake and eat it too. If Temple doesn’t enjoy her degradation, the audience should.”

The critical consensus seems to run thus: Temple is attracted to Trigger, experiences a sexual awakening during the assault, and willingly remains as his moll in a brothel afterwards.

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Okay, where to start… some of the summaries you might read are just plain wrong. I object especially to the word choice of “happily” in Black’s synopsis. (Really? You’re going with that adverb? It’s an insult to adverbs, which I cherish and defend.) You could read a variety of emotions in Temple’s expression after the assault (the shot above). Oddly enough, “happy” is not one of them. And Temple says point-blank, “I don’t want to stay here” when she arrives, half-stunned, at the brothel.

Clearly, a critic can describe and analyze a misogynist or sexist film without being a misogynist or a sexist. I get that and I’m not conflating the views of the writers with their readings of the material. I am, however, contesting their interpretations and the weight that they place on this aspect of Temple Drake’s moral and ethical maze.

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The Story of Temple Drake shrouds itself in gauzy ambiguity by eliding a central plot point. Given the haziness of what the film portrays, I find it odd that almost every blog post, article, or book extract I’ve read about the movie has taken a similar position on Temple’s assault.

In other words, why does the dominant interpretation of the events (and their inferred impact on the audience) align so uncomfortably in favor of the rapist and not the survivor? I’ll let you ponder that as I get on with my own interpretation.

Power Plays (and Often Wins)

To understand The Story of Temple Drake, we need to look beyond its sleaziest, most attention-grabbing scenes of perversion to discern a broad yet pertinent social critique.

As the movie opens, idealistic young lawyer Steven Benbow is losing a case in the Dixon County Courthouse. The presiding judge, not Judge Drake, but an actor with a visage like that of a tardily-interred corpse, apologizes to the jury on behalf of Benbow, explaining that he had no choice but to take the case.

It seems like a strange spiel. Then a cut to the lawyer reveals the judge’s meaning. Behind Benbow, on the right of the screen, sits his client, an African American man in rough work clothes.

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Benbow leaps to his feet and protests that the judge’s comments are “prejudicial to the interests of his client.” Although he explains that he wanted to take the case, the judge strikes his remarks from the court record.

The lawyer’s associate concedes defeat: “You fixed it. We haven’t got a chance now.” Benbow grabs his hat and prepares to storm out, replying, “We never had a chance after that charge.”

The decision to begin with an oblique but unavoidable indictment of racial injustice in the South provides the key to understanding the film.

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After all, when Temple Drake went in production, Alabama was prosecuting one of the most notorious rape cases in American history. The trial of 9 falsely-accused African American teenagers known as the Scottsboro boys attracted nationwide attention. By late 1933, those fearful for the boys’ lives even begged President Roosevelt to intervene, The New York Times reported.

As anyone who’s studied To Kill a Mockingbird will know, specious accusations of rape committed against white women by black men in the South perpetuated entrenched structures of power. For the victims of such accusations, there was little or no recourse. (By contrast, rapes of black women by white men were committed with virtual impunity in the Jim Crow South.)

Given this social climate, I think it’s reasonable to assume that Benbow is defending his doomed client on a similar charge as the one faced by the Scottsboro boys—and that a 1933 audience would’ve picked up on that.

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After the trial, Benbow walks into the office of Judge Drake and complains about the legal discrimination and general backwardness he sees in Dixon. Drake shrugs it off. That’s the way things have been, that’s the way things are, and, if Drake has his way, that’s how they’ll stay.

The Story of Temple Drake is so tricky to analyze because it involves several overlapping layers of privilege: white privilege, upper-class privilege, male privilege. But only one character, Judge Drake, has the trifecta of privilege on his side. And he is the guiltiest of all because he endorses systematic exploitation.

Day of Reckoning

So, what does the opening courtroom scene have to do with the rape of a white woman (Temple) by a white man (Trigger)?

Well, Temple’s ordeal gives her sympathy for the exploited; she endures what her patrician family perpetrated, directly or indirectly, for generations. More important, Temple’s experience compels her to break the cycle of injustice and abuse of privilege portrayed at the beginning of the film.

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Courtroom scenes bookend the movie. In the first, discrimination prevails and justice is merely a shadow upon the wall. In the last, justice wins a small but powerful victory. Temple abandons her class privilege—her grandfather was perfectly content to let an innocent man die to protect Temple’s reputation—and speaks out on behalf of an outcast and his family.

Obviously, saving Lee Goodwin from hanging fails to bring back the unfairly-tried black man of the beginning. Nevertheless, Temple’s testimony does mark a break with tradition.

Ironically, Benbow tries to convince Temple to tell the truth by harkening back to her family’s heritage of honor; she sits apparently unmoved. It’s not until Benbow actually backs down, prepared to let his client die rather than question Temple, that something stirs inside her and she recounts the traumatic events.

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Karl Struss’s brilliant cinematography and some darn fine cutting by an uncredited editor imbue the scene with an almost spiritual quality. In protracted, probing medium close-ups, Hopkins doesn’t simper or cover her face like a standard “fallen woman.” There’s no glamour, no tear-jerking, no Oscar-baiting theatrics, no shred of self-pity. Hopkins conveys pain and fear and shame without Hollywood-izing them.

Through her halting, trembling delivery, she communicates that tracing the narrative of her trauma actually helps Temple restitch her life back together. By saving Goodwin, Temple starts to heal herself.

In between her shocking revelations, lightning-quick reaction shots of Benbow, Ruby Godwin, Judge Drake, and others in the courtroom convey that Temple is bearing witness in a manner that will forever redefine her status and relationships.

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We’re watching a new person emerge. The Temple Drake who sits on the witness stand, her eyes shining with tears and resolution, is a very different woman from the frivolous socialite we first see as an arm curled around the edge of a door, an incomplete person cooing at a heavy-breathing beau. It’s not the ordeal that made her complete; it’s her ability to rise above it on the day of reckoning.

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Fantasy and Reality

Temple Drake is erotic in much the same way Dracula is. That is, both films cater to the deepest, most sadomasochistic fantasies of viewers while ultimately chastising those fantasies and eroding their romanticism.

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As played by dead-eyed Jack LaRue, Trigger comes across as a ghoul, a menacing beast conjured up from the unconscious. The extremes of sex and violence converge in one repellent yet fascinating individual.

Leading up to the assault, Trigger frequently appears as a silhouette or a shadow: lurking on the plantation porch, smoking in a doorway, looming over Temple from a barn loft. Up until the attack, he represents a dark emblem of forbidden experience rather than a fully-fledged character.

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Does Temple harbor violent sexual fantasies about a man like that? Possibly. Her conversation about the streak of wickedness that prevents her from settling down would suggest so.

Regardless of what thoughts Temple nurtures, though, she recoils from the bleak scene of domestic violence as she watches Lee smack his wife Ruby around. The thought of violence linked to a sexual relationship might tempt her, but the daily reality disgusts her.

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In other words, upper-class ladies might dream of tough thugs, but lower-class women have to live with them. And it’s not much of a life.

Sin and Cinematography

The last time I watched The Story of Temple Drake it occurred to me how much it foreshadows Kurosawa’s Rashomon. On the most basic level, the two movies draw audiences in with their lurid subject matter; Kurosawa, asked to explain the popularity of Rashomon, famously answered, “Well, you see… it’s about this rape.”

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Both films also force us to grapple with moral and ethical tangles while they bamboozle us with extravagantly beautiful cinematography. The mind and the flesh, the philosophical and the carnal compete for our attention.

At the wrecked plantation, especially, the grime of the walls, the abrupt barrages of lightning, and the silky glow of lamps and flashlights combine to elicit a weird intoxication.

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Karl Struss’s proto-noir cinematography reaches its hallucinatory pinnacle as Trigger discovers Temple in the barn. The criss-crossing stripes of shadow and light and the mesmerizing, drawn-out close-ups create a horrifyingly seductive ambiance.


Again, the question palpitates in the air: how does Temple feel about what’s happening to her? Hopkins gives us at least one cue that she feels excited despite herself: she bites her lip suggestively.

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For me, the deep-seated perversity of the scene, beautiful in its ugliness, doesn’t reflect on the heroine so much as it does on the milieu that produced her. Her wild streak, the gravitational pull that draws her to pain and degradation, signifies a return of the repressed—the repressed cruelty of her family both in the past and the present.

Interestingly enough, at the beginning of the film, when Benbow and Judge Drake discuss Temple, the Judge insists that Benbow not accept Temple’s refusal of his proposal. In a way, his lack of respect for Temple’s “no,” mild though it is, can be situated on the same continuum of misogyny as Trigger’s. Judge Drake sees Temple as his property… as does Trigger. Judge Drake has little respect for human life… like Trigger.

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What is Trigger, then, but Judge Drake without the refinement and restraint facilitated by money and respectability? Racial injustice, violence against women, discrimination against the poor—they’re all various forms of a cracked social structure and an outmoded way of thinking that condones a multitude of evils.

Is it any wonder that the corruption and hypocrisy of the Drakes and their world should have seeped into Temple and shaped her fantasies and desires? Trigger is practically one of her clan. Sins of the fathers indeed.

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Then, just as the screen fades to black, Temple screams. A vehement, bloodcurdling shriek. It lingers in the air like a reproach for anyone enjoying what they’re seeing—or what they’re not about to see.

However you interpret the scene, the movie never looks as luminous and alluring after Temple’s assault as it did beforehand. She emerges from the experience disillusioned, gaping into a sullied world.

Examining the Aftermath

In classic Hollywood movies, rape is threatened but hardly ever consummated. These near-misses imply, of course, that a virtuous lady, especially a heroine, will never be raped in the end. Some savior will prevent the Fate Worse Than Death from befalling her.

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Many critics have inferred that, because Temple Drake is raped, the movie inflicts the experience as a punishment for her teasing behavior. Virtuous leading ladies cannot be raped, ergo Temple Drake is not virtuous, their reasoning follows.

I have a different take on this. Does The Story of Temple Drake hedge its bets, capitalizing on the frisson of violent fantasies while warning against too much libido? To a certain extent, yes.

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Nevertheless, by showing the aftermath of a rape, acknowledging the sense of confusion and shame felt by Temple, and by dwelling on her abusive subsequent relationship with her attacker, the movie throws our sympathy towards the survivor—whatever she felt, thought, or did before the assault. One look at Temple’s stupefied face, framed by a dirty car windshield, and the viewer has to recognize her suffering.

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Temple lingers in a sort of trance state after the assault, cowering before her attacker. In the first brothel scene, the camera takes Trigger’s place, advancing predatorily towards her.

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Only seeing Benbow jolts her out of her near-catatonia. And it’s here that she pretends to embody all of what we’d expect from a lady of sin, kissing her abuser in a tight shot, pulling the cigarette from his mouth, and taking a deep drag on it. She lowers herself to save the man she loves from certain death. I can’t help but cringe.

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The scene only works (or makes sense) if we believe that Temple is lying, if we know that she doesn’t want to live with Trigger and that she doesn’t prefer him to Benbow. The piercing dramatic irony here derives from the worst assumptions commonly held about women in abusive relationships: “Oh, they really like it that way, right? They wouldn’t leave even if they could.”

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Well, in the very next scene, she does try to make a run for it. You can’t stop me!” She yells in a tight close-up, finally strong enough to escape. It’s a surprise that the justified fury and hatred in that shot couldn’t melt celluloid! At that moment, she becomes her own avenging angel.

“I’ve got your number…” Trigger says. As he stubs out his cigarette on a racy ashtray, two shots ring out and the hand goes limp.

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Whether or not the movie punishes Temple for flirtation, it never punishes her for killing Trigger. And, you know what? I’m damn fine with that.

I hope that you will watch The Story of Temple Drake and contemplate its moral bramble for yourself. This notorious pre-Code drama challenges you to navigate a swampy, shifting universe in which nobody is innocent, least of all the spectator.

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Postscript

After a 1972 screening of The Story of Temple Drake at MoMa, elegant 69-year-old Miriam Hopkins made a detour to the ladies’ room. Finding, to her dismay, a long queue, she breezed to the front of the line. “Y’all suffered through this, but I think I suffered most; I think I should be allowed to go in first.”

Oh, Miriam, I only wish I’d been there.

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For more posts about the fabulous Ms. Hopkins, I invite you to explore the other entries in The Miriam Hopkins Blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and Font and Frock. Enjoy!

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