The Awful Truth, 1937: 31 Days of Cary Grant, Day 10

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in a still for Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth, 1937.

Grant and Dunne had a sparkling chemistry both onscreen and off. As Dunne recalled, “I loved working with Cary—every minute of it! Between takes he was so amusing with his cockney stories. I was his best audience. I laughed and laughed and laughed. The more I laughed, the more he went on!”

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth, 1937

Scanned from Great Hollywood Movies by Ted Sennett (Abradale Press, 1983).

10 Favorite Femmes Fatales—in GIFs!

I never met a femme fatale I didn’t like. Whether they’re powdering their noses or filling their ex-lovers full of lead, the bad girls of noir still manage to draw my sympathy and admiration. Twisted, I know, but what’s the point of noir if it doesn’t tap into the darkest parts of our natures?

Let’s face it, film noir is a dame’s genre. Men of noirland might stumble around thinking they’re in control. However, more often than not, those hapless schmoes who pass for protagonists don’t realize they’re just playing a supporting role in somebody else’s plot—and that somebody is probably wearing lipstick and high heels.

Tumblr cannot hold them! Climbing up from the underbelly of Photoshop CS6! Here are 10 GIFs I made to celebrate my favorite dynamite dolls from classic noir…

Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie) in Jack Bernhardt’s Decoy (1946)

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“Reality? What do you know about reality?”

(You can stream Decoy right now on Warner Archive Instant. I can hardly think of a better way to pass 70 minutes in Noirvember!)

Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946)

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“I’m poison, Swede, to myself and everybody around me! I’d be afraid to go with anyone I love for the harm I do to them!”

Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1948)

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“I told you, you know nothing about wickedness.”

Louise Howell (Joan Crawford) in Curtis Bernhardt’s Possessed (1947)

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“Go ahead and kiss me. You don’t have to mean it.”

Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) in John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

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“I’ll never let you go. Never, never, never…”

Vera (Ann Savage) in Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945)

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“Shut up. You’re a cheap crook and you killed him. For two cents I’d change my mind and turn ya in. I don’t like you!” 

(You can watch Detour on YouTube for free!)

Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) in Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950)

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“I’ve been kicked around all my life, and, from now on, I’m gonna start kicking back.”

(You can also stream Gun Crazy on Warner Archive Instant.)

Nancy (Laraine Day) in John Brahm’s The Locket (1946)

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“I want you to want me, very much.”

Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1945)

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“We’re both rotten.”

Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1946)

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“Don’t you see you’ve only me to make deals with now?”

Happy Noirvember, you molls and mugs. Now, who’s your favorite femme fatale?

Night Shift: 6 Reasons to Watch Universal’s Spanish-language Dracula (1931)

villariasThey worked like children of the night, shooting from sundown to sunrise. Directed by a man who didn’t know a word of their language, the Spanish-speaking actors filmed an obscure alternative version of what would become one of the most famous movies of all time.

“Above all,” explains Lupita Tovar, the film’s heroine, “we wanted our version to be the best.” And, in many ways, it is.

For those of us who’ve watched and rewatched the Lugosi version, the simultaneously shot Drácula opens up a mind-boggling parallel universe—one with much improved camerawork and often more convincing acting.

This is a lavish, artful film in its own right, so much more than the “bonus feature” it’s listed as on home releases. If I haven’t hooked you already, here’s why any movie buff or horror fan needs to see Drácula.

 1. You’ll discover a little-known chapter of Hollywood history.

Why did a relatively small American studio make a foreign-language film in the 1930s? The answer, as usual with Hollywood, can be expressed by a single character: $.

With the coming of talkies, the problem of producing films for profitable foreign markets turned into a major headache for Hollywood. Unlike silent films, for which translated intertitles could simply be edited into prints, synchronized sound pictures posed a new obstacle. Dubbing was difficult and felt phony to audiences (like it still does, actually). Eager to keep up business during the early days of the Depression, studios recycled sets, costumes, and sometimes even actors to churn out complete foreign-language versions of some movies.

melfordGeorge Melford directing an early scene in Drácula

Spanish proved the language of choice for these alternate productions, although studios occasionally green-lit German and French versions. At Universal Studios, a Spanish-language version of the now-lost thriller The Cat Creeps offered Lupita Tovar, a beautiful Mexican actress, her first starring film role. Tovar proved so enchanting that Universal executive Paul Kohner not only championed a Spanish-language Dracula, but also fell in love with its star. Fair warning: once you’ve watched Drácula, you will, too.

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2. The flamboyant cinematography makes Browning’s version look positively anemic by comparison.

Most alternate foreign-language versions can’t hold a flickering Gothic candelabra to the English originals. Drácula, helmed by veteran silent director George Melford, is the exception, largely thanks to the fluid camera movements, tracing creepy arabesques around the set.

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You don’t have to wait long for an example of this superb camerawork. Our first glimpse of Dracula in his element practically bursts off the screen. As the sinister count appears on the stairs of his castle, the camera surges up the steps towards him. Universal’s famous crane—constructed for Broadway (1929) and repurposed in any number of films—endows the moment with a startling, supernatural ambiance, delivering a real visual jolt. Similarly, when the Count stands beneath Renfield’s asylum window, the camera tracks in from a long shot to a medium close-up, as though the vampire’s evil will were drawing us to him.

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In 1931, Universal had recently acquired a print of Nosferatu; Murnau’s grim, nightmarish vision, as well as the German expressionist aesthetic in general, clearly influenced Drácula more than its English-language counterpart. For instance, Melford devotes more screen time to the storm scene on the Vesta, piling shock value on a part of the narrative that Browning uses mostly for expositional purposes. Medium close-ups of the dead captain, Renfield’s shrieks in the gale, and Dracula’s rise from the ship’s hold all hit home for maximum scare power. And isn’t that what this is all about?

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3. The luminous Lupita Tovar runs the gamut from adorable to terrifying (even though she’s not called Mina in this version).

Rechristened Eva in Spanish, the Count’s main target undergoes a startling transformation when she comes under his malign influence. Tovar’s Eva shifts from a cheerful, normal girl to a morose, haunted victim. Now, I respect Helen Chandler’s stylized, anhedonic performance as Mina, but she hardly changes throughout the film and thus engages my sympathy far less.

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Tovar says that she put a lot of her own personality into Eva, making her “lively” in the beginning. We see that mischievous side as she insistently teases Lucia about her attraction to Dracula, ducking out from the door she just exited to deliver another friendly jab. Eva’s fearful, depressive state after Dracula’s first attack on her affects viewers all the more since we recognize the frightening trauma that’s overtaken her.

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With the Count’s blood coursing through her veins, however, Eva turns positively maniacal. Though she’s even livelier that she was before, Tovar evokes a vivacity at once seductive and unnatural. Her fiendishly aggressive, erotically charged interpretation of female vampirism was decades ahead of its time. I mean, Ingrid Pitt wasn’t even born yet!

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That said, Tovar did have some help from the costume department… In an interview, she noted, “I remember when I saw the English version later, the wardrobe was different. The dresses that Helen Chandler wore were all covered up. What they gave me were big décolletées, you know, what you’d call sexy. I wasn’t even aware of it!”

Update 11/13/2016: Lupita Tovar has passed away at age 106. May she rest in peace and be always remembered.

4. Pablo Alvárez Rubio delivers one of the most intense performances you’ll ever see on film.

Who would’ve thought anyone could act more strung-out than Dwight Frye, the English version’s giggling Renfield? Well, Spanish-born Pablo Alvárez Rubio reminds me of what Al Pacino would do with the part of Renfield. At one point, he literally chomps the scenery, gnawing on a chair in Dr. Seward’s office!

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Alvárez Rubio slips into hamminess, but it’s an epic kind of hamminess, the kind that assists us in believing the unbelievable. His frenzied, melodramatic acting in mad scenes impacts us because he starts out the story as such a friendly, likable fellow. (I adore Frye, but his subtly chilly quality as an actor puts us off a bit, in contrast with Alvárez Rubio’s easy affability.) Even once Renfield becomes Dracula’s servant, Alvárez Rubio rivals Frye for his ability to convey the tortured character’s fluctuating moods. One moment he seizes a fly with the fury of a wild beast; the next he filters back to his civilized self, apologizing to the doctors for his behavior.

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-10h37m18s50Lupita Tovar remembered that his talent for simulating insanity astounded—and worried—the cast and crew: “We thought he was going to go crazy.” A real pro, though, Alvárez Rubio needed only a single take to harness his morbid pyrotechnics. Treat yourself to his ferociously tormented interpretation of Renfield.

5. It’s significantly longer than the English version.

Yup. That’s right. The Spanish version runs almost a full 30 minutes longer, bringing Drácula to a length that seems more appropriate for a modern feature than an early talkie. The additional length does take a toll on the plot, which seems to wander a bit more than the efficient English Dracula. However, on the positive side, the runtime gave director Melford and his cast breathing room to create more poignant relationships between the characters.

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If I have one issue with the Dracula we all know, it’s that the cast appears only mildly annoyed by the prospect of Mina and Lucy suffering a fate genuinely worse than death. By contrast, the Spanish version explores the pain of watching someone you care about fall apart. After Van Helsing discovers the bite marks on Eva’s throat, her father gives her a hug. His drawn-out, scared, paternal embrace stresses the relatable fear of losing a child. Similarly, Juan and Eva’s romance displays a mixture of tenderness, passion, and even a sparkle of fun that’s missing from the chemistry between Helen Chandler and David Manners.

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Within that extra half-hour, Melford also took the time to show spooky stuff you won’t see in the other version, such as shots of Dracula prowling through moonlit woods. The brief medical examination scene also presents us with one of the most grisly, yet matter-of-fact shots of the 1930s: an extended close-up of the two puncture marks made by a vampire’s fangs!

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-10h31m11s221 6. No, he can’t touch Lugosi, but Carlos Villarías’s interpretation of the Count is certainly interesting to watch.

Sadly, the one aspect of Drácula that indisputably falls short of the English version turned out to be the most essential: the title performance. Film historians tend to blame Spanish-born Villarías for the film’s relative obscurity. And I won’t deny it: Lugosi’s Dracula has more magnetism in his (unseen) fangs than Villarías’s Conde Drácula does in his whole walking cadaver.

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How dare you say that, Nitrate Diva! You’re in for it now!

But holding an actor accountable for playing Dracula and not measuring up to Lugosi just doesn’t strike me as a sporting criticism. Few actors have ever lent their mortal coil to any role so fully as Lugosi did to our favorite bloodsucking fiend. Nobody stacks up to the king of the undead. You set yourself up for disappointment by expecting otherwise.

So, the question to ask—instead of what he lacked—becomes what particular strengths did Villarías bring to the role? In my opinion, the lugubrious heavy served as a kind of missing celluloid link between the pestilential ugliness of Nosferatu and the suaveness of Lugosi. Villarías can believably kiss hands and stride into drawing rooms, but his animalistic nature reveals itself more readily than Lugosi’s.

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Consider his first big scene, on the steps of Castle Dracula: as Renfield struggles with the huge cobweb, Villarías stares down at him, menacing in a low-angle shot, his upper teeth bared and poised on his lip. Throughout the film, the Conde flashes a similar rat-like smile in moments of diabolic delight and visibly gnashes his teeth when cornered. Unlike the did-I-really-just-see-that hint of a smirk that Lugosi uses to suggest malevolence, Villarías’s toothy expressions make Dracula a more traditionally grotesque monster, a fairy tale horror rather than a bedroom villain.

Similarly, in contrast to Lugosi’s balletic predator approach, Villarías attacks the sleeping Lucia by leaning over and eagerly covering her with his cape. As he drapes the cloak over the sleeping victim, he really does resemble a bat, folding his leathery wings.

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Frequent extreme close-ups of Villarías’s glassy, bulbous eyes also heighten the repellent qualities of his interpretation. Given how jarring they are, it’s surprising to note how many of these extreme close-ups the film contains; you begin to feel that they’re almost as frequent as Lugosi’s many matinee idol close-ups in the English version.

vlcsnap-2014-10-10-17h43m37s95These striking shots invade our personal space, as though Villarías as Dracula were bearing down on us, dominating us. And this from a small screen! I can only imagine what they’re like in a movie theater! Reduced to his two glowing peepers, he reminds the viewer of an insect, surveying the world with inhuman, compound eyes. Lugosi deservedly gets the swoons and the shudders, but Villarías deserves some credit for wholeheartedly angling for an “Ewww…” every now and then.

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-12h02m32s244I wrote this post as part of the Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon, hosted by two fantastic bloggers, Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and Kay of Movie Star Makeover. You’re strongly encouraged to check out the other posts!

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A Reel Joy: Day One of Capitolfest 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derelict (Rowland V. Lee, 1930)

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

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

Brent: You can be the best man.

Graves: I always was.

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

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

Horse Play (Edward Sedgwick, 1933)

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

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

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

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

The Bright Shawl (John S. Robinson, 1923)

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

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

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

Ladies’ Man (Lothar Mendes, 1931)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roman Scandals (Frank Tuttle, 1933)

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

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

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

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

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

Day-Time Wife (1939): A Little Too Perfect

dtwposterIf you asked just about any American girl in 1939 to describe her fantasy of “happily every after,” the odds are good that Tyrone Power played a starring role in those daydreams.

He was, as Hollywood reporter Ruth Waterbury gushed, “more than any other man on the screen, the true Prince Charming.”

Which is why Gregory Ratoff’s Day-Time Wife, in its own humble way, strikes me as subversive—scandalous even. It dared to suggest that life with such an outwardly perfect man might not turn out to be so happy after all.

In retrospect, when we think of Tyrone Power rebelling against his studio-endorsed pretty boy image, a number of courageous performances come to mind: the sensitive, disillusioned seeker of The Razor’s Edge, the pathologically selfish carny of Nightmare Alley, and the duplicitous husband of Witness for the Prosecution, to name only a few.

While Day-Time Wife certainly doesn’t offer up a performance of that magnitude, the gossamer comedy nevertheless intimated how convincingly Power could override his godlike charms to portray a 24-karat jerk.

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Judging by the polarized reviews I’ve read, Day-Time Wife represents something of a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. Although it’s far from a masterpiece, I personally find a lot to love about the movie, even apart from Ty. I can only assume that the caustic nature of its humor alienates a certain segment of viewers. Interestingly enough, Raymond Griffith—the greatest silent-era comedian you’ve probably never heard of and a damn fine script doctor to boot—got a producer credit on this underrated marital farce, and I definitely detect some of Griffith’s irreverent, topsy-turvy wit here.

20th Century Fox originally envisioned the project as another showcase for Power and frequent co-star Loretta Young. However, when Young refused a second-billing assignment, without missing a beat the studio replaced her with fifteen-year-old Linda Darnell. Anecdotes about the filming of Day-Time Wife tend to focus on Darnell’s immaturity. Love scenes would be interrupted so that a studio tutor could drag Linda off to a history less. A manicurist had to follow her around and constantly repair the damage of her nail biting habit. Stepping in like an older brother, Power would cover for her when she messed up her lines and ask for another take. Still, you’d never guess it from watching the film. Amazingly, Darnell holds her own against Power in terms of screen presence and brings a refreshing combination of cunning and naïveté to a demanding leading role that I don’t think Young could’ve embodied as effectively.

On her second wedding anniversary, Darnell’s character, Jane Norton, discovers that her lying hubby Ken has not only forgotten the occasion, but is also apparently cheating with his secretary. Rather than confront him, Jane undertakes a little research mission in order to understand why men stray from their wives… and secretly starts working as a secretary herself.

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And who hires her as a secretary? Why, none other than Barney Dexter—played by the lascivious Warren William! Fairly bursting with pent-up lechery after five years’ worth of Joseph Breen-enforced good behavior, William gets to lick his chops repeatedly over underage Darnell. Almost like old times, huh?

In fact, it’s not an enormous stretch to call Day-Time Wife a pre-Code film miraculously realized in post-Code Hollywood, complete with a gratuitous lingerie scene and a modern moral takeaway. Because, it so happens that Ken and Barney are about to collaborate on a deal, and, when they decide to double-date with their secretaries, Ken squirms as his wife reflects his own sins back to him.

I especially treasure Power’s performance in Day-Time Wife, because, with little more screen time than the supporting players, the matinee idol embraces the opportunity for smarminess afforded by a smaller role. He slips right into the skin of Ken Norton, your above-average, suit-wearing young man on the rise, a proto-Mad Men office-dweller that smokes cigars in his twenties and wears a silk sleep mask to bed. Our boy Ty also totally mastered the physical lexicon of boardroom machismo, from the over-confident chin jutting to the sales-pitch hand gestures.

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Power between takes with director Gregory Ratoff

Decades before audiences started getting lectured on the dysfunction of mid-century masculinity, Power hinted at that hollowness through his comic superficiality. He swapped his naturally joyful megawatt smile for a grin so knowingly fake and businesslike that he might’ve pasted one of his worst publicity stills onto his face. Most actors have to strive to make audiences like them; for Power, the difficulty lay rather in making himself unlikable. And in Day-Time Wife, he rose to the challenge.

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The problem is, Ken’s not an unusually bad guy. He’s something much more insidious: a casual sexist, the sort of man who brags that he’s got his wife “well-trained” then goes out with other women for adventure. We all know people like Ken: so good-looking and talented that we’re inclined to overlook their faults. Well, gee, wouldn’t it be worth putting up with [fill in the blank] to be married to a man like that and live like that?

Um, no. No, it wouldn’t, as Day-Time Wife reveals by faithfully siding with Jane and communicating her emotions as she vows to teach Ken a lesson. For instance, towards the beginning of the film, after she catches him in a lie and doesn’t let on, Ken leans in for a kiss. We’d typically brace ourselves for a swoony Ty Power soft-lighting liplock, but the mood isn’t right. Instead, as he smooches the side of her face, the camera looks hesitantly over his shoulder, sharing the moment with Jane as she wrinkles her nose in distaste. Instead of building up romantic impetus, the film cultivates sympathy for its deceptively strong female protagonist. Even the trademark lulling sheen of the elegant Fox production design doesn’t assuage the quiet, but very real resentment that the film continuously expresses on behalf of neglected wives.

linda&tySimilarly, when Ken comes home late after an evening with his secretary, Jane spritzes the dog with his mistress’s perfume to make him think that he smells of the other woman. Playing innocent, the demure wife sits down to dinner and enjoys watching her husband squirm, sniff himself, and light a cigar as he eats to cover the odor. Thanks to leisurely paced shot-reverse shot exchanges from opposite sides of the dinner table, the audience enjoys Darnell enjoying Power’s hopelessly obvious charade. The funniness of the scene derives from the fact that Ken clearly believes that he’s fooled his wife. He possesses the utmost confidence in his own sneakiness. Such genial obnoxiousness coming from Mr. Happily Ever After doesn’t fail to shock me… or make me snicker.

Moreover, the movie derives much of its comedy—and its social commentary—from the ironic symmetry of the characters’ relationships. At the end, Ken wants to vent his anger at his wife for going behind his back… but isn’t that what he was doing all along? He reacts with outrage as married-man Barney slobbers over Jane… but in condemning Barney, Ken condemns his own dalliance with his secretary. Tyrone Power and Warren William make unlikely mirror images, but the film does discreetly equate them. In one significant shot, the two working swells stand together, surrounded by the masculine trappings of a stylized office, and clap each other on the shoulder with identical jocular pats. Only a few years of unrepentant sleaze, we recognize, separate Prince Charming from becoming the Big Bad Wolf.

The final act of the film pays off with a delicious humiliation of the wayward hubby. The simultaneous presence of his wife and his mistress forces Ken to evaluate his actions and admit what an ass he’s been.

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We all have moments when we feel as though we’re watching our own lives unfold, as though we were spectators, and suddenly recognize how absurdly we’re behaving. Power hilariously conveys this level of mortification, as Ken’s remorse rankles his pride. In a series of wonderful medium close-ups, he cringes, winces, and rolls his eyes at the cooing advances of his crass girlfriend. At one point, when the amorous secretary embraces him, he struggles in the same manner that girls usually do in films when some bold fellow makes advances—flailing his leg around and pulling his lapels together, as if to cover his bosom! Observing his embarrassment, we perceive a self-deprecating, decent man start to emerge from the chrysalis of a one-dimensional dude.

If Day-Time Wife deals a bit leniently with Ken, letting him regress to a contrite little boy who reiterates his love and need for his wife, the film distinctly admonishes the straying husbands in the audience. Not too bad for a trifling comedy.

tylindabedroomThis post is part of the Power-Mad blogathon, in honor of Tyrone Power’s 100th birthday, hosted by Lady Eve’s Reel Life and They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To. You’re strongly encouraged to click on the banner below and explore the other entries!

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Girl Power: Remembering Shirley Temple

bubblesshirleyIf you can hold the responsibility for your whole family on your shoulders at a young age, you must be very brave.

However, if you can hold the responsibility for your whole country on your shoulders at a young age, you must be Shirley Temple.

While such a statement might sound melodramatic in our era of viral hyperbole, I think Present Franklin Roosevelt would back me up. After all, didn’t that master of motivational psychology recognize the curly-topped child as the savior of the nation’s morale? His words were reportedly,  “As long as we have Shirley Temple, this country is going to be alright.”

Now that she’s gone, we have to wonder.

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From the first, Temple’s stardom was explicitly presented as the antidote to the weariness of Depression-era America. She rose to prominence in Hamilton McFadden’s Stand Up and Cheer (1934), a film that dealt with the need for escapism in the 1930s. “President Roosevelt” (a sound-alike actor seen only in silhouette) appoints a Broadway producer as Secretary of Amusement to uplift downtrodden Americans. However, in the movie, Temple’s onscreen father, played by James Dunn, has to petition to let her perform and take her dead mother’s place in their stage act, since child labor laws forbade it.

At one point, Dunn gestures to the agonizingly adorable child, waiting in the corner, and pleads, “Look at her… she thrives on it!” Playing with building blocks, she looks up and grins in acquiescence. And, of course, Temple tap-dances to center stage as the country’s new mascot. In the first major musical number of her career, “Baby, Take a Bow,” she all but broke the fourth wall, leaning right into the camera as if bestowing a kiss on the audience.

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Breaking the fourth wall would become something of a Temple trademark, perhaps because audiences are likely to accept and actually expect such mischievous violation of “the rules” by a little girl. She caps off Irving Cummings’s Curly Top (1935) by adorably scratching her head and repeating the running gag line, “Oh, my word!” Similarly, at the end of Allan Dwan’s Heidi (1937), she prays, in close-up, “please make every little boy and girl in the world as happy as I am,” then looks up to smile into the camera.

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She’s allowed to look at the audience just as silent comedians could—to bypass the invisible boundaries of realist entertainment and establish a rapport with the viewer. She could look at us, as if to say, “Thanks for coming. I hope you had fun.” Shirley Temple the lovable phenomenon always underpinned her nuanced performances, so it seemed only right that she should reach out directly to the people on the other side of the screen. And they responded in kind; as one fan wrote in to Photoplay magazine in 1934, “She is the sweetest bunch of happiness I have ever seen.”

As we mourn an unthinkable thing—the death of someone forever frozen in our memories as a perfect child—there’s not much that one can say about Temple that won’t come out exaggerated or maudlin. The facts of her life are too vast and strange, her childhood too clear a parallel to the magical ragamuffin roles she incarnated onscreen. She was the most famous person in the world, Queen Elizabeth’s childhood role model, one half of the first interracial dance duo in film, and a multi-millionaire. And all this before she was in her teens. vlcsnap-2014-02-11-17h21m57s56

In spite of these accomplishments, Temple famously understated her charm over audiences, equating herself with canine star Rin-Tin-Tin as a heartwarming but uncomplicated symbol of cuteness for a hopeless era. Nothing more.

In my opinion, though, she actually revealed more than she knew with this observation. Animals and children move us on a universal level because they abide; their pure perseverance and will to live contrast with the often-sanctimonious cares of adults, who wear depression and strife like badges of honor. A child, even one that’s been through a lot, knows that joy is the couture emotion, the only one that makes you shine when you wear it.

Thus, Temple’s spunk and sassiness beg the question: if this child can hang on, if she can bear up, smile, and dance with the pros, what excuse do the rest of us have not to face our problems with grace?

vlcsnap-2014-02-11-19h57m58s226Speaking of grace, Shirley Temple Black—the amazing grown-up who never disappointed fans of “little Shirley,” as she referred to her star image—refused to carp loudly about how her childhood was sacrificed for our continuing pleasure. But it was. She quietly acknowledged this by sharing a number of anecdotes about her early life. A department store Santa asked for her autograph and destroyed her faith in such fairy tales. Directors and studio executives wielded physical and psychological torment—from blocks of ice to lies about her mother—to knead her into a better performance. 20th Century Fox staged elaborate birthday ceremonies where she had more lines to memorize for newsreel cameras and where all of the presents were shipped to orphanages, unopened by Temple.

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Real life and reel life birthdays for Temple—both 20th Century Fox productions

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Perhaps Temple’s most incisive comment on fame, about being “devoured by human adoration, sparkle by sparkle” poignantly echoes her mother’s commandment from off camera, “Sparkle, Shirley! Sparkle!”

So, as with all great entertainers, suffering entered into the equation of what made Temple so special. And we need to remember this, in spite of the loss of innocence it implies for those of us on the other side of the screen. I promise that you will find her films no less inspiring once you come to realize what she lost so that we, the viewers, might gain.

When I watch Temple, it is with the rapt astonishment that one might feel before a great magician. Not because I consider her talents a “trick,” but rather because I find something infinitely more sacred in the strength of the woman-child sustaining the act than I see in the idealized child-woman presented for my admiration. I gasp at the flawless execution of a performance, amazed at the adaptability and determination that this little girl harnessed.

You have to know a lot before you can pretend not to know much. This was one of Temple’s greatest gifts: hiding her experience behind a feint of cluelessness. In perhaps the greatest acting achievement of her career, she gladly sings “Auld Lang Syne” to mortally wounded Victor McLaglen in John Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie (1937), enhancing the pathos of the moment with her total non-comprehension of his imminent death.

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As the hulking, recumbent McLaglen slips away, Temple warbles with mock solemnity, still untouched by the knowledge of mortality. Instead of a dirge, “Auld Lang Syne” in her voice becomes a regimental lullaby, bringing the dying man back to the innocence of childhood in his last moments on earth. Neither overplaying her cheeriness nor succumbing to bathetic melancholy, Temple made audiences weep with longing for the time when death was meaningless to us.

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Temple’s films frequently capitalized on her status as an almost uncanny adult-child paradox. In Curly Top, for instance, she acts out a series of vignettes over the trajectory of a human life, singing, “When I grow up…” She even appears in a wedding gown and, rather disturbingly, as a sedentary miniature of Whistler’s mother in a rocking chair. Slightly creepy as such an act may seem today, I like to think that audiences craved subliminal reassurance that a Shirley Temple resides in all of us, that we’re all really children in fancy dress.

Movies starring Temple clearly made this point—that children have an adult-like wisdom, whereas adults too often succumb to petty, childish reasoning. In Wee Willie Winkie, peace comes about only when Khoda Khan sees the world through Priscilla’s eyes. Ford drums this point home with virtually identical shots of Khan and Priscilla descending monumental stone steps that reduce both the man and the little girl, visually, to tiny figures on a huge scale.

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Consider her famous one-liner upon receiving a special Oscar in 1934. After thanking the presenter, she turned to her mother and asked, “Can we go home now?” The crowd roared. Though this “unintentional” wisecrack was clearly staged and rehearsed, like virtually everything about Temple’s life, it speaks to the way a child’s ingenuousness renders all of the adult pomp around her absurd and pretentious.

vlcsnap-2014-02-11-16h52m49s238 Again, reel dialogue would later echo real dialogue. Who can forget her cries of, “I want to go home!” in Heidi? Cries so naturalistic that they’re almost unintelligible, like the real wails of a child in distress. Comparing that scene to the modeled perfection of her storybook sequence clog dance and minuet, one recognizes the multiple registers of acting that this child understood and encompassed in her performances.

Yesterday, as I navigated the social media extravaganza prompted by Temple’s death, I discovered a worldwide digital wake of surprising sincerity and vulnerability. Temple brought out the goodness in her viewers, emulsifying their calloused and cynical hearts. And, of course, she will continue to do so.

However, one comment that recurred on every trend, on every thread was, “My childhood is over…” While I sympathize with the sentiment, I encourage these individuals to take comfort in remembering that Temple’s gift to her fans was not the promise of eternal childhood, but a passport back to that Neverland for the space of a few hours. Watch one of her films and feel all resistance to corniness wash away. Just as Temple beguiled us as a child but performed like a grown-up, so too can her legacy be cherished and appreciated by the grown-up and the child in us all.

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From Satanists to Shirley Temple: The Storm of ’34 and the End of the Pre-Code Era

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“The vulgar, the cheap, and the tawdry is OUT!” —Joseph Breen in a 1934 newsreel

If you’ve ever watched a classic movie, the chances are good that you’ve noticed one of these, unobtrusively tucked at the beginning of the first reel, a flash of just a second or so.

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It’s funny to think that this numbered certificate, a few feet of film, represents the culmination of hours of arguments, revisions, and hard-won concessions in the battle of art versus censorship. Or sin versus morality. It all depends on your point of view, doesn’t it?

This stamp of approval first flashed before moviegoers’ eyes in July 1934, affixed to The World Moves On, a lesser John Ford work. The title might seem fitting, because, indeed, the film industry was apparently moving on, abandoning an era of freedom, innovation, and blistering social commentary. All film scripts now sought the strict approval of the Production Code Administration before moving into shooting. Afterwards, a preview of the film itself would decide the PCA whether to sanction its release or send it back to production purgatory. Should a finished movie attempt to skirt censorship and obviously violate the rules of the Code, there would be no court of appeals, no jury of industry peers to rationalize it. A $25,000 fine faced any studio brash enough to defy the PCA’s ruling. No Motion Picture Association theater would release a film without that seal.

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

However, before the curtain fell on the heady days of forbidden Hollywood, the first half of 1934 had blossomed with the rich final flush of the pre-Code era. As studios sensed the coming tempest of public protest, producers crammed as much illicit content as they dared into their product. The lenient “movie czar” Will Hays, brought in during the 1920s to monitor the industry’s morals, was still in charge—or as in charge as he had ever been. With little real power to stop a scandalous film, Hays gave his impotent blessing to movies that his ambitious underling Joseph Breen condemned in no uncertain terms.

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After all, 1934 was the year that witnessed four bare male bottoms crammed into one frame in The Search for Beauty. It was the year when Kay Francis, sold into prostitution by her lover, poisoned him and escaped scot-free in Mandalay. It was the year when Tarzan and his Mate swam naked, the exquisite curves of their bodies enhanced by light-dappled underwater photography.

It was the year that saw Bette Davis ignite the screen as a foul-mouthed, sluttish cockney in RKO’s Of Human Bondage, sexually manipulating a passive Leslie Howard and screaming her castrating insults right into the camera. To cite just one characteristic Joseph Breen rebuttal, the budding censor had protested the adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s masterpiece as “the wrong kind of film—the kind of film which constantly gets us into hot water.”

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But his objections fell on deaf ears. Filthy mammon was king in Hollywood and the demand for “women’s pictures,” in particular—read: sex melodramas—remained high. The Production Code didn’t get its bite until mid-year.

Hollywood executives nevertheless had plenty to ulcerate over. With Roosevelt elected and the New Deal swinging into effect, the possibility of federal censorship—bruised, but not killed back in the 1920s—returned to prominence. Hundreds of state bills advocated hard protection against any kind of moral turpitude in movies. Meanwhile, the pop sociology of the Payne Studies, a bunch of pseudo-scientific research that “proved” the malign influence of movies on young people, intensified the likelihood of government interference.

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Joseph Breen saw an opportunity and seized it, supporting the Catholic establishment in a long-fermented charge against immoral movies. Its Legion of Decency officially formed in 1934 with the goal of stamping out “vile and unwholesome moving pictures.” At each Sunday mass, many were handed a checklist of condemned films in theaters and ordered to mark the ones they had attended; for each box ticked, they had to contend with a new mortal sin on their souls.

Priests would loom outside local theaters to shepherd their flock away from sinful celluloid. Christian groups of various denominations took up the rallying cry and authorities in the Jewish community denounced Hollywood for giving their people a bad name. All these leaders urged their faithful to stay away from the box offices. During the Depression, such a boycott would hit Hollywood where it hurt—in their bottom lines.

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No scholar can hold Joseph Breen solely responsible for the movement. Still, he effectively stage-managed a drama in which only he, with ties to both the Catholic establishment and the film industry, could play the appropriate hero. But for now, he let the Storm of ’34 rage until it got the studio’s attention.

The role of director during this peril-fraught transition into classical Hollywood became that of a smuggler (to borrow a phrase from Martin Scorsese), secreting thematic and visual contraband to the public under the watchful eye of America’s self-appointed watchdogs and equally wary studio heads.

Letting the Cat out of the Bag

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The troubled production Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat at Universal, shot in just 19 days, typifies the sort of unspoken depravity that quick-thinking artists could sneak into their films in the twilight of the pre-Code era. Reviewing this bizarre blend of occult horror and revenge melodrama, even the adventurous Universal front office quailed in the face of rising censorship forces.  Director and set designer Ulmer was ordered to cut lengthy passages, convert one of the story’s two main antiheroes into a slightly more heroic lead (he couldn’t assault the leading lady, for example), and balance out some of the more grisly stuff with less graphic scenes. And he did. Sort of.

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“There was two day’s extra shooting that was put in,” Arianne Ulmer, the director’s daughter, recalls, “and my father was always very proud of the fact that he pulled a fast one.” Instead of sterilizing his edgy classic with filler scenes, Ulmer staged the famous pickled brides sequence, in which Karloff strides introspectively through his corridor of preserved, dead beauties as he tenderly strokes a black cat. The disturbingly poetic necrophiliac implications went right over the producer’s heads. “They never understood how wicked and marvelous that scene was.”

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Black Cat was a huge hit and moneymaker for Universal. Clearly mid-1930s audiences had a stomach for this kind of perversion. But the public would soon be put on a sweeter, more limited diet.

The Belle’s Toll

westIn one scene of Mae West’s 1934 vehicle Belle of the Nineties, curtains rise on the hourglass-figured star in several symbolic costumes: a butterfly, a vampy bat, a rose, a spider. Last of all, Miss West stands, wielding a flickering torch, as a voluptuous improvement on Lady Liberty. It was an image that doubtlessly provoked chuckles from many Americans and shudders from a few, since the clergy had singled out West as their Enemy Number One. A Mae West-made America was exactly what the reformers were afraid of. Her Belle of the Nineties would fall the first high-profile victim of censorship in 1934.

Watching Mae West’s movies today—especially Belle—one might emerge puzzled by the vehemently outraged responses of America’s moral authorities. West dishes out a lot of sassy one-liners and doesn’t disappoint with her signature amorous growl, but her burlesque antics pale in comparison to the deadly serious predations of her contemporary leading ladies—on the sex scale, that is. The heroine of any run-of-the-mill women’s picture of the early 1930s is likely to engage in more objectionable behavior than West’s indolent idols. She might invite some lucky fellow to come up and see her, but we seldom actually see her locked in the grip of any truly improper behavior. For instance, in Belle of the Nineties, she pulls herself out of one admirers arms after he lists her many attractions, baulking, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. Is this a proposal or are ya takin’ inventory?”

belleI can only infer that censors objected less to West’s suggestiveness than to the real-life image that backed it up. Her star text as a proto-feminist writer-actress-auteur in control of her personal relationships added persuasive power to her subversive arguments about the generous wages of sin. West’s characters languorously sized up and chose their playmates with the same kind of desire usually reserved for male characters, even in the pre-Code world. She taught female audiences that women who lost their reputations might never miss them.

Perhaps most offensive to the Catholic brass, she thumbed her nose at the domestic virtues that religion most valued in women. In the contended Belle of the Nineties her backstage dresser wonders, “You certainly know the way to a man’s heart!” West wryly replies, “Funny too, because I don’t know how to cook.”

Like her shrewd onscreen characters, West knew how to handle men, including the blue-pencil boys. As she explained, “ When I knew that the censors were after my films and they had to come and okay everything, I wrote scenes for them to cut! These scenes were so rough that I’d never have used them. But they worked as a decoy.”

silhouetteUnfortunately, Mae’s strategy had met its match in Joseph Breen. Reading the still-shady edited script, with a fragrant ambiance of prostitution and crime, he demanded cuts and rejected the release of the film until those cuts be made. Breen was smart enough to avoid demanding too many cuts; Paramount could’ve leveraged support from a jury of peers and gotten away with sending the picture out as it was. But even Breen couldn’t believe his luck when the slightly sanitized Belle was taken out of circulation by the New York censors. Paramount slashed the film further and tacked on an ending that ran counter to everything West stood for: a wedding. Belle of the Nineties can still enchant audiences with its breezy humor and the joy of West’s performance, but it’s weak tea compared to her earlier vehicles. The Belle had taken its toll on Mae. Her career would never be the same.

Breen had made his point, even if it wasn’t totally his doing. And, as of June, Hays made him the Production Code administrator, head of the newly-christened Production Code Administration. Backed by the authority of the Motion Picture Association of America, the studio bosses’ bosses, what Breen said was essentially law in Hollywood. He promised to vindicate moral reforms of the boycotters and the Legion of Decency. The crisis was over.

The Hitler of Hollywood

beDespite my personal distaste for the man Variety proclaimed “the Hitler of Hollywood,” I’ll admit that Joseph Breen was a canny choice to survey movieland as its self-appointed watchdog. A natural storyteller, the stout, fierce-eyed Irish-American could dance back and forth between his many roles, somehow placating a frighteningly different multitude of interests.

He understood studio production and the dynamics of a good screenplay; if he was going to ruin a movie’s message, he would try do so as unobtrusively as possible. As he admitted to a young Val Lewton, Breen liked to go to brothels, he just didn’t find it acceptable to depict them.

Having partially engineered the Catholic revolt against celluloid Babylon, he also cooled it down, making him a savior for both sides. His staunch leadership meant that Hollywood had escaped the interference of government-appointed censors. Like all purgatives, he wasn’t pleasant, but there were worse treatments out there. Still, his ascendancy largely closed the industry to the subversive content that had made the pre-Code era so thrilling.

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What changed in 1934 wasn’t merely what could or couldn’t assault the general public’s impressionable eyes and ears. Indeed, the year afterward, the PCA-approved China Seas treated the observant viewer to a brief exposure of Jean Harlow’s breast in an uncut wardrobe malfunction. Innuendo—perhaps a little less bawdy than most West-isms, but still steamy—remained par for the course throughout the classical Hollywood era. And the not-so-subtle sex ellipsis would reach its apotheosis in 1939 as Rhett carried a wriggling Scarlett up that red-carpeted staircase. Obvious prostitutes and whore houses would be restricted to the outskirts of post-Code Hollywood more stridently than they had been, but they didn’t disappear, by any means.

The stakes of 1934 ran much deeper than risqué bon mots and cleavage. It wasn’t about “the vulgar, the cheap, and the tawdry,” in Breen’s words, but about social power. The Production Code Administration broadcast a vision of firm gender roles, family values, and severe punishments for individualistic transgressions. Innuendo became a ritual of clear courtship not pleasure-seeking. Salient sex ellipses—once provoked by the seductive moves of cunning women as often as by the maneuvers of charming men—now tended to affirm the dominance of men over comparatively submissive women.

Decoding the Code

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Studios worked overtime to recast their stars in a more Code-friendly light. A prime example, Jean Harlow morphed from a lippy bad girl who flaunted her ill-gotten gains to a basically decent chorine (or similar) who longed for a better life. In her first post-Code vehicle, The Girl from Missouri (originally titled Born to Be Kissed), she spends most of the movie fighting for her virtue. She remained a fortune-hunter, yes, but one fervently and improbably insistent on marriage first.

A few films in 1934, however, plotted out a prime blueprint for circumventing the Production Code in style. Both The Thin Man and It Happened One Night were released before July 1934, but they already showed signs of retooling the wit of the pre-Code era into the topsy-turvy screwball world. The sexual tension between Nick and Nora Charles was sanctioned by marriage just as the sparks between Pete Warne and Ellie Andrews were protected by the characters’ chastity. (The Walls of Jericho anyone? What better way to concede to moralists than with a biblical allusion.)

laughtonMore important, the screwball comedy’s battle of the sexes conventions—as aptly modeled by another 1930s release, Twentieth Century—provided a brilliant format for portraying relationships of uneasy equality between men and women. Teasing one-upmanship provided an apt metaphor for mutual desire and respect, as long as the script kept the lovers vertical.

Exceptional actors and directors could also skirt the censorship. The Barretts of Wimpole Street, the third top grossing film of 1934, was released with PCA approval only after significant cuts eliminated more explicit references of Edward Moulton-Barrett’s incestuous desire for his daughter, Elizabeth. Nevertheless, Charles Laughton’s subtly wicked performance as the lustful father stands as a savage indictment of backwards, hypocritical patriarchs. As he quipped, “They can’t censor the gleam in my eye.”

Temple of Virtue?

It’s no coincidence that 1934 also welcomed Hollywood’s new superstar to the epicenter of its media constellation. Stand Up and Cheer gave curly-headed ragamuffin Shirley Temple her first important role and catapulted her to prominence. Four starring vehicles followed in the same year. As the cliché goes, she immediately endeared herself as a symbol of hope to Depression. But like all clichés it only tells half the story.

shirleAmusingly enough, Temple—lauded by many as Hollywood’s clean slate, an innocent star to usher in a new era of pure entertainment—had to clean up her image in 1934 almost as much as Jean Harlow had. In previous years, she’d won over audiences in a borderline-indecent series of shorts, “Baby Burlesks,” in which she frequently aped Mae West and other erotically-charged stars of the day. So much for that clean slate.

A number of film historians treat the pre-Code era as Hollywood’s adolescence, a rebellious phase of rage and despair destined to exhaust itself and boil over. By contrast, the enshrined post-1934 Hollywood, tempered by a superego of censorship, had attained maturity. Although I respect the validity of that argument—and have encountered some pre-Code films that probably could’ve benefitted from censorship—I generally disagree. On the contrary, it was in 1934 when the movies regressed, governed by censors who selected a child as their unofficial mascot and promulgated fantasies of a world that always sorted itself out.

Fortunately, not everyone bought it. And, more fortunately, not everyone sold it. The clever smugglers of the film industry found ways to curtail the curtailment of their artistic liberties. But you’d have a hard time convincing me that movies were ever quite as fun again after 1934.

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I drew on a number of sources in writing this post which I will not cite formally here, but which I gratefully acknowledge. I primarily relied upon The Dame in the Kimono by Leonard Leff and Jerold Simmons. I also consulted, among others, Pre-Code Hollywood by Thomas Doherty and Universal Horror (Kevin Brownlow’s documentary film). Full bibliography available upon request.