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.

7 1

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.

osullivan_justimagine

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?”

3

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.

2

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.

el

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.

8

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.

5

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.

moon

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.

kingofmars

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…

mars

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!

GortButton01A-e1429046309729

Advertisements

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?

vlcsnap-2015-04-18-00h17m16s251

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-17-23h14m43s98

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-17-23h15m43s184

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-18-00h25m11s141

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-18-00h01m34s48

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-17-21h27m04s19

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-17-21h31m24s60

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-17-21h11m40s250

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-18-00h05m56s109

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-17-21h24m18s147

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-17-22h30m27s162

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.”

vlcsnap-2015-04-17-21h05m43s13

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!”

vlcsnap-2015-04-17-22h24m35s222

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!

vlcsnap-2015-04-18-00h26m41s15

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-17-21h35m59s251

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-17-22h29m00s55

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-17-23h48m13s233

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-17-22h12m32s164

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-17-22h12m35s193

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-18-00h05m30s107

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.”

vlcsnap-2015-04-18-00h13m39s125

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-18-00h08m22s33

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-18-00h16m00s3

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-18-00h16m13s128

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-18-00h15m06s233 vlcsnap-2015-04-18-00h15m05s217

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-18-00h12m51s161

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-17-21h52m42s36

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.”

vlcsnap-2015-04-18-00h29m00s122

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-18-00h09m28s181

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?

vlcsnap-2015-04-18-00h03m32s201

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-18-00h07m14s114

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.

vlcsnap-2015-04-17-21h30m00s246

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!

Banner

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…

precode_hearts

 

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.

paramount_marycarlisle

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.

vlcsnap-2015-02-02-20h17m29s152

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.

marycarlisle

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.

vlcsnap-2015-02-02-20h21m24s204

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!

carlisle

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!

mary_doubleornothing

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 10.21.38 PM

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 12.46.35 AM 1

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 12.47.37 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.25.21 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 12.31.07 AM

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.

6

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.”

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 12.44.52 AM 1

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 12.54.06 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.15.02 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.15.17 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.41.36 AM

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?

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.44.28 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.00.50 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.04.52 AM

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.

5

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 10.21.57 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 10.21.47 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 10.23.03 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 12.33.18 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.36.52 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.43.53 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 12.30.41 AM 1

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 12.59.43 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 12.54.32 AM 1

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 12.54.40 AM

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.”

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.03.48 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 12.55.56 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.04.16 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.24.01 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.04.13 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.03.50 AM 1

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.04.22 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.06.03 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.08.26 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.17.02 AM

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.17.10 AM

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.”

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.24.38 AM 1

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.24.54 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 1.25.04 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 12.31.41 AM

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!

miriam-hopkins-blog-4

Red Dust (1932): Rubber Souls

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

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

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

vlcsnap-2014-09-12-12h22m22s112

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

vlcsnap-2014-09-12-12h21m47s12

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

vlcsnap-2014-09-12-12h31m01s173

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

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

3

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

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

still

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

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

vlcsnap-2014-09-12-12h24m38s192

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

6

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

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

vlcsnap-2014-09-12-12h22m08s224 vlcsnap-2014-09-12-12h22m01s156

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

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

7

Victor Fleming directs the cast on the set of Red Dust

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

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

5

Pre-Code A to Z: 26 Favorites

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

Stage One: “What’s a pre-Code movie?”

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

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

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

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

vlcsnap-2014-09-05-18h22m50s70

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

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

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

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

Now, pick a letter and go to town.

i

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

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

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

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

b

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

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

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

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

c

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

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

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

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

d

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

f

F is for Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)

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

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

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

g1

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

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

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

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

h

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

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

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

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

fugitive

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

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

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

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

j

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

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

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

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

k

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

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

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

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

l

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

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

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

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

m

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

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

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

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

n

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

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

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

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

o

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

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

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

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

p

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

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

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

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

q2

Q is for Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

s

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

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

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

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

t

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

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

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

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

u

U is for Under Eighteen (Archie Mayo, 1932)

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

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

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

v

V is for Virtue* (Edward Buzzell, 1932)

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

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

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

w

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

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

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

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

x

X is for Doctor X (Michael Curtiz, 1932)

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

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

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

y

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

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

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

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

z

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

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

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

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