More Pre-Code Valentines for All You Swell Sinners

Back by popular demand! Last year I followed up my tragically hip noir valentines with a pack of naughty, bawdy pre-Code valentines.

For Valentine’s Day 2017, I cooked up a totally new batch of pre-Code love letters to keep the spark of censor-defying romance alive. 100% guaranteed to add oodles of whoopee, sizzle, “it,” hot-cha-cha to your day.

Why Be Good? (1929) – Colleen Moore gets her man—and teaches him a lesson or two—in this delightful feminist flapper romance.why_be_good_valentine

The Divorcee (1930) – Norma Shearer is looking for a revenge fling. And Robert Montgomery is very willing to be flung.

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Morocco (1930) – Sure, Dietrich ends up with Gary Cooper. But the real heat in the movie comes from that tuxedo kiss.

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Frankenstein (1931) – You had me at “experiments in the reanimation of dead tissue.” Colin Clive doesn’t need a lightning bolt to give me life.

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The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) – Miriam Hopkins goes from drab to fab to impress Maurice Chevalier.

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Horse Feathers (1932) – If you need me, I’ll be writing some Groucho-Thelma Todd fan fiction. The line comes from Monkey Business (1931).

Movie Crazy (1932) – Harold Lloyd gets himself into an adorable mess—all for his lady love.

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No Man of Her Own (1932) – Years before Lombard and Gable became a real-life item, they played an unlikely couple in this steamy romantic drama.

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One Way Passage (1932) – We all know what those dreamy dissolves mean… William Powell and Kay Francis make the most of their time together (especially the bits we don’t see) in this intoxicatingly beautiful film.

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Rain (1932) – “Who’s gonna destruct me?” Joan Crawford is a force of nature as Sadie Thompson.

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Scarface (1932) – Tony Camonte likes Poppy’s class and sass. What does Poppy like about Tony? The fact that he’s not making it out of this movie alive.

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Footlight Parade (1933) – It’s a silly caption, I admit. But I honestly just can’t with these two.

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I’m No Angel (1933) – The perks of being an auteur of box office gold comedy? You get to write your own happy endings, like Mae West did.

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The Thin Man (1934) – Nick and Nora Charles remind us that excitement is the key to a long-lasting marriage. (Booze and money don’t hurt either.)

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Romancing the Talkies: 10 Favorites from 1930

joancrawford_microphoneA few weeks ago the marvelous Katie of Cinema Enthusiast invited me to participate in a poll and name my 10 favorite films of 1930.

I enjoyed the exercise of putting together my “ballot” and, as I combed over the other submissions, I realized that I wanted to write a bit about each of my picks.

3,000 or so words later, here we are. (Make it to the end of this post and you’ll get a Lubitsch GIF. That’s a promise.)

To call 1930 a year of transition in Hollywood would be a tremendous understatement. Sound was here to stay, but the industry was still scrambling to reshape production protocols, star images, and film properties for the talkies. Directors working during this fraught period faced a steep learning curve as they negotiated unwieldy technology and unpredictable audience reactions. All the panic and overhaul led to some very bad, dull movies, for sure, but 1930 gave us far more good American movies than popular opinion suggests.

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Delight Evans, critic and editor of Screenland magazine.

Delight Evans, the perceptive editor of Screenland magazine, noted in March of 1930 that the advent of sound pushed narratives towards realism—and often reduced romance to absurdity: “Talkies leave little to the imagination, you see. We [each] wrote our own dialogue for the Gilbert-Garbo kisses. Now we have to look and listen to a deliberate and diagrammed dissertation on the love scenes. Gone is the mystery, the mood, the enchantment.”

Evans was a sharp cookie. She wasn’t sounding the death knell of celluloid romance as much as she was making a simple observation—and reporting industry news. With the calamitous reception of John Gilbert’s ludicrous dialogue in His Glorious Night (not, as some have mistakenly claimed, his voice) and similar hoots of hilarity from audiences watching early sound love scenes, many producers baulked at flowery declarations of passion and green-lit gritty, hardboiled dramas instead.

Sound films do indeed occupy another of our senses, shaking up the gauzy, dreamlike pace of silent movie lovemaking. Talkies clipped cupid’s wings by grounding romance in our terrestrial scheme, our space-time continuum. We lost a part of the movies, a pleasing parenthesis that the viewer could fill with his or her own fantasies. After all, love in reel life as well as real life is often not a matter of what’s said, but what’s unsaid.

It occurs to me that most of the films on my list explore the talkies’ potential for romance, whether cheerful or star-crossed. Whereas many early sound films have a tendency to blurt feelings and messages (“I love you! I love you! I love you!”), I tried to choose movies that fiercely guard their subtext and keep it… sub. Hidden. Unspoken. Tantalizing.

Several great directors seized the opportunities afforded by sound: Capra, whose empathy and belief in human goodness could redeem the oldest clichés in the book; Lubitsch, whose winking ellipses and whimsical reversals celebrated the unseen and the unpredictable in our nature; and Von Sternberg, whose lush mise-en-scene permeated his films mystery and desire.

That said, this list also embraces the boldly anti-romantic side of 1930: gangsters, soldiers, spirits in limbo, and badass shopgirl Joan Crawford interrupting love scenes with feminist zingers.

I wonder how I would’ve reacted to the coming of sound if I’d been a moviegoer way back then. Would I have mourned the silents and written angry letters to magazines, as did many fans? Perhaps. Change hurts. And we lost a great art at the zenith of its powers when the silents died. But I like to think that any of the movies on this list would’ve changed my mind and made me fall in love with cinema all over again.

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The Devil to Pay – George FitzMaurice

I defy you not to adore any movie that features Myrna Loy simmering in a steam bath and Ronald Colman conversing with a dog. An elegant trifle, The Devil to Pay hints at the madcap joys of the high screwball comedy, which wouldn’t blossom (depending on whom you talk to) for a few years at least.

Lovable n’er-do-well aristocrat Willie Leyland (lovable because he’s Ronald Colman) returns to London to sponge some more money off his crotchety father. Willie succeeds in getting his cash, but then falls in love with a spirited—and engaged—linoleum heiress, Dorothy Hope (Loretta Young). Nobody seems to approve of the match, except the girl herself. And that’s all that matters for Willie. Now, will he have the guts to break off his long-term affair with a stage star (Myrna Loy) before Dorothy gets the wrong end of the stick?

Early talkies about the upper classes—especially the British aristocracy—often ring false, with stilted dialogue, awkward accents, and unconvincing relationships. In The Devil to Pay, the familial bonds feel, well, familiar: sweetly critical and teasingly affectionate. The cast carries a lightweight plot off with breezy chemistry. 17-year-old Loretta Young, already a screen veteran, makes Dorothy, a character that could’ve been a living prop, into a delightfully strong-willed woman who’s not afraid to stand up to her father, her fiancé, or the man she loves.

The film begins as Willie auctions off all of the furniture from his hut in Africa. His bed comes up on the block. One woman asks: Does the bed come with the owner? I suspect that cheeky line elicited yearning sighs from every lady in the audience 86 years ago (and it still does for me, 86 years later). As Willie, Ronald Colman glows at the peak of his handsomeness and exhibits a dashing fluency in sound comedy that most other film actors could only envy in 1930.

Where can you see it? It’s, alas, not available on DVD. But let’s just say it’s around online.

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The Doorway to Hell – Archie Mayo

Before Scarface, before The Public Enemy, before Little Caesar, there was The Doorway to Hell, a bitter, gory talkie gangster film frequently punctuated by the rat-a-tat-tat of a “Chicago typewriter.”

Louie Ricarno, a precocious mob boss with aspirations towards respectability, organizes vying factions in the mob like a business, then tries to go legit. (Sound familiar? The Doorway to Hell might be the nearest classic Hollywood relative to The Godfather films in terms of narrative DNA.) When former associates threaten Louie’s beloved family, our anti-hero rides back into town for the bloody vengeance that triggers his inevitable downfall.

Some might argue that devilishly pretty 22-year-old Lew Ayres lacked the grit to take on a tough-guy role. James Cagney, cast as Ayres’s right-hand man here, would obviously go on to define the pugnacious bad-boy allure of the gangster better than anybody else. Today’s viewers might find it difficult not to focus on Jimmy throughout the movie.

From where I’m sitting, though, Ayres infuses Louie with enough dead-eyed, tight-lipped weirdness to make one’s skin crawl. No, he’s not a swaggering punk like Cagney, nor a bravura stereotype like Muni, nor a ferocious pocket thug like Robinson. Ayres plays Louie as nothing less than a stone-cold killer.

His stiff posture and smugly placid resting expression (bastardface?) convey stuntedness; we’re looking at a little boy who absorbed too much reality too early. This man carries something still and unnatural in him, we feel, something spookier than pride or greed. It’s as though the American Dream were a corrosive substance that ate him away from the inside, leaving only a slick shell and the barest remnants of humanity. Louie is the return of the repressed, the monstrous product of a drive to survive that we all share—and of a society that refuses to take responsibility for him.

The Doorway to Hell packs its share of gut-punch moments. A kidnapping attempt on Louie’s untainted little brother goes awry, pushing the child into the way of an oncoming truck. A few scenes later, Louie shows up at a plastic surgeon’s operating room, asking if the doctor can make his brother look the way he did. “Where is he?” Asks the doctor. “At the undertaker,” Louie replies. Thus the film informs us that Louie’s one hope of transcending his inner meanness has died. Tough, laconic, devastating. (And, gee, doesn’t that foreshadow Don Corleone’s plea to the undertaker Bonasera?)

The dialogue offers a treasury of punchy and creative underworld euphemisms, such as “a handful of clouds” for a fatal spray of bullets. When Louie finally resigns himself to his handful, he struts out of his hideout with a wild paroxysm of laughter, boldly meeting death and renouncing this ugly, pitiless existence as just so much ill-smelling ether. It’s one hell of an ending to one hell of a movie.

Where can you see it? It’s on DVD from Warner Archive. So that’s nice.

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Follow Thru – Lloyd Corrigan and Lawrence Schwab

I’ve already gushed at length about this bawdy two-strip Technicolor romp, which I saw at last year’s Capitolfest. The film offers, among other joys, gobsmackingly vibrant close-ups of Nancy Carroll, Thelma Todd wearing little more than beads and feathers, a splashy musical number about misbehaving (backed up by a chorus line of dancing devils), and Eugene Pallette in drag. It’s so much fun that it borders on gluttony.

Where can you see it? Ahem, you might find it around online. But the available prints don’t do the film justice. How I wish the glorious UCLA restoration that I saw would get a DVD/Blu-ray release!

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Journey’s End – James Whale

Overshadowed by the more technically adventurous All Quiet on the Western Front, James Whale’s drama of the Great War opened in theaters several months earlier. Adapted from R.C. Sherriff’s acclaimed stage play, Journey’s End evokes the claustrophobia of trench warfare with grim authenticity. (Whale had served in WWI, and the horrors he witnessed over there carved a crooked smile into all of his films. His macabre revision of Frankenstein owes as much to the daily crushing terror of total war as to the solemn grandeur of Gothic literature.)

Its auteur aside—and Whale surely deserves the distinction of auteur—Journey’s End makes my list of 1930 favorites because of its star, Colin Clive. Though best remembered today as Doctor Frankenstein, blueblooded Clive rose to fame in the 1920s for his stage portrayal of Captain Stanhope, the doomed commanding officer who numbs his shellshock with alcohol and hopes he’ll die in a blaze of glory before his loved ones learn what he’s become. (Side note: Laurence Olivier was first cast in the role, but didn’t quite click and left the play. Clive took over and scored a hit.)

Brought to Hollywood to reprise the role, Clive made a haunting film debut and demonstrated an intuitive understanding of film acting—at a time when even experienced movie actors were struggling to adapt to the talkies.

Nobody could come apart at the seams before a camera like Clive. He specialized in blow-ups and breakdowns, the emotional trapeze parts that seem overacted unless grounded by utter sincerity. Clive brings Stanhope to life in all of his tortured contradictions: snappish yet gentle, petulant yet wise, terrified yet brave, exasperating yet endearing.

(A few years ago I did a post on this film and Clive, whose brief life paralleled his tragic roles.)

Where can you see it? I believe that the film is in the public domain. You can watch it on YouTube. Sadly, I’ve only ever seen murky prints around.

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Ladies of Leisure – Frank Capra

Capra and Stanwyck’s first collaboration is just as good as you’d hope and needs no introduction from me. I caught it on TCM years ago and can still picture the way Stanwyck’s eyes shine when her hardened “party girl” character realizes that love is not only real, but has come calling in her life.

Where can you see it? It’s out on DVD from Sony.

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Laughter – Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast

Films that tackle the heavy side of life with a light touch hold a special place in my heart. Some movies wield their direness like a blunt instrument, but who wants to be clubbed half to death? One of the worst ideas about art in the history of art is that great art must somehow be painful—and that, the more painful art is to consume, the better it must automatically be. Art’s greatness is inversely proportional to the pleasure it gives to ordinary folk. Or so asserts a certain school of thought. Personally, I refuse to penalize art for entertaining me.

Laughter is about heartbreak, starving artists, suicide, and the wrench of choosing loveless wealth over romance and poverty. Yet, without diminishing any of those serious themes, this film nourishes the viewer’s joie de vivre. Director Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, a pal of Chaplin’s, understood that you don’t have to make the audience suffer to say something about human suffering.

One-time chorus girl Peggy (Nancy Carroll), now married to a decent but dull millionaire (Frank Morgan), longs for the bohemian good times of her past. When her ex-lover Paul (Fredric March), a vagabond composer, shows up, Peggy has to make a bitter choice: risk everything for love and freedom or entomb herself forever in a world of passionless material comforts.

Blending melodrama and zany proto-screwball antics, Laughter deserves all the critical praise it’s garnered over the years. When Pauline Kael describes a film as a “lovely, sophisticated comedy, an ode to impracticality” with “perhaps the best clothes ever seen on the screen,” you’d be a fool not to seek it out.

Best of all, the film defines healthy romance as continual playfulness. We recognize Peggy’s and Paul’s mutual love because they go for joyrides and get hopelessly, merrily lost. They roam around a stranger’s home wrapped in bear-skin rugs. They playact a gender-flipped husband and wife relationship. They discuss Paul’s work-in-progress symphony through an exchange of boisterous vocalizations. The irrepressible human need to love, create, and gather rosebuds while ye may bubbles forth from every scene.

Where can you see it? It’s not on DVD (Damn you, Universal/Comcast!), but you may find it somewhere around this jumble we call the Internet…

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Monte Carlo – Ernst Lubitsch

A minor Lubitsch film is one you can only imagine yourself watching, say, a half-dozen more times in your life instead of a hundred. Monte Carlo is a minor Lubitsch film.

In this musical confection, headstrong Countess Helene (Jeanette MacDonald) leaves her effete would-be groom at the altar and flees to Monte Carlo, hoping to win enough at the casino to balance her hefty debts and avoid marriage. While losing the remainder of her money, she catches the eye of rakish Count Rudy (Jack Buchanan) who poses as her hairdresser—the better to woo her and save her from financial disaster. The countess soon finds herself falling for the faux coiffeur. But will she let snobbery get in the way of true love?

Reviews of this film typically heap scorn on leading man Buchanan. I’d been listening to his song recordings for years before I saw this film, so I must confess my disappointment that his considerable charms did not, to put it mildly, translate well to Monte Carlo. (Hell, in the image above he looks more like he’s contemplating cutting Jeanette MacDonald’s throat than her hair.) But, hey, Cary Grant cited him as an influence, so I’ll just squint and work a little harder to appreciate Buchanan here.

The script at least makes Buchanan himself work a little harder to impress us and MacDonald. His early attempts to pick her up meet with spectacular (if unsurprising) failure; he has to enter her employ and win her trust with a really, really sensual scalp massage. I like the idea that the hero has to serve a kind of romantic apprenticeship, proving himself a loyal and useful companion before his lady love gives him a second look. When Buchanan starts trying to assert himself as master and order MacDonald about, though, the film takes a nosedive.

In any case, MacDonald more than compensates for Buchanan’s shortcomings. This goddess of frivolity indulges in aggressively bad decisions and imperious diva tantrums, yet I still worship at her altar. Why? Because she has amazing hair. I don’t say that in jest. Perhaps only Ginger Rogers could match MacDonald’s use of her hair as a weapon in the arsenal of physical comedy. Monte Carlo’s funniest moment arrives when MacDonald flips out and pulls her lustrous locks into a half-marcelled frizzbomb of feminine whimsy—in hopes of ruining Rudy’s reputation as a coiffeur.

Monte Carlo doesn’t ascend to the giddy, constantly-pleasurable heights of The Love Parade or The Smiling Lieutenant, but Lubitsch dazzles us with MacDonald’s rendition of “Beyond the Blue Horizon” as the music mingles with the rhythms of a locomotive chugging through the countryside. Plus, one of my favorite songs of the 1930s, “Always in All Ways,” provides a sweet moment of harmony between MacDonald and Buchanan. (Note to self: Why do I have this weakness for foxtrots about codependency?)

Where can you see it? Rejoice, ye cinephiles, it’s part of Criterion’s Lubitsch Musicals Eclipse box set!

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Morocco – Josef von Sternberg

Movies melt out of our minds, leaving the occasional morsels of dialogue, gestures, and images. The greatest movies give us something to hang onto. Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo will remain burned on my brain for as long as I can summon memories.

Marlene, with a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth, tugging her bowtie in place as she looks into a grimy mirror.

Marlene tipping her hat back with crisp and cavalier gesture.

Marlene bending down to kiss a slightly shocked but excited female nightclub patron.

In her iconic tux, Marlene embodies a seductive, self-contained ideal, or rather two ideals, two binary fantasies, fused into one person. Behold, spectators: a woman as a complete and unassailable being, a woman who’s imbibed the best qualities of the gentleman and made them her own. When asked if she’s married, Dietrich’s character, Amy Jolly, replies, “Marriage? No, I never found a man good enough for that.” Of course not. She is her own woman and her own man.

Oh, yeah, there’s some plot going on here, too, involving wealthy Adolphe Menjou and Foreign Legion soldier Gary Cooper as rivals for Marlene’s heart. But the point lies elsewhere, in the hypnotic visions of alienation and exploration that Sternberg orchestrates for us. Even the denouement, as Dietrich kicks off her golden sandals and trudges into the the blistering desert sands to follow her lover, strikes me as not a surrender of Amy’s self-contained power, but an enlargement of it. With a slight alteration of costume, this shape-shifting, convention-defying woman will reinvent herself as her heart commands.

Where can you see it? It’s available from the Universal Vault Series.

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Our Blushing Brides – Harry Beaumont

I’ve been working on a post about Our Blushing Brides for over a year. Why has it taken me so long? Because I love this movie and just when I think I’ve run out of things to say about it, I think of something else I want to analyze.

Joan Crawford radiates raw and righteous anger as a department store model fending off the advances of a dapper playboy who happens to be her boss (Robert Montgomery, of course, it’s Robert Montgomery; like, really, were you expecting anybody else?). The screenplay, co-written by Bess Meredyth, flips the shopgirl-Cinderella formula on its head and provides Queen Joan with numerous opportunities to shred male privilege until Prince Not-So-Charming-As-He-Thinks learns his lesson.

Did I mention the mid-movie fashion show? Seriously, go watch this now.

Where can you see it? It’s available on a DVD from Warner Archive and is also currently streaming HD on Warner Archive Instant.

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Outward Bound – Robert Milton

As I was making my late-breaking 1930 list, I “eavesdropped” (or whatever the Twitter equivalent is) on a conversation between two esteemed cinephile friends of mine, Miriam Bale and Kimberly Lindbergs, as they discussed their own lists. Both had selected Outward Bound, a film I’d never heard of. “Gee, if they like it, it must be swell,” I thought to myself. (And, yes, my internal monologue sounds like a 1930s chorus girl.)

Seized by curiosity, I dug up this unavailable film late at night, telling myself I’d check out the first few minutes and watch the whole thing tomorrow. An hour and a half later, it was 2 a.m., I’d watched the entire film, and I was sobbing.

Before there was A Matter of Life and Death there was Outward Bound, a numinous meditation on the afterlife and the wages of our earthly actions.

A group of unconnected people from all classes of society find themselves on an eerily deserted ocean liner with no recollection of buying a ticket. They soon realize that they’ve recently died and now drift towards a unmapped port where they will all be judged for their sins and virtues.

The allegorical shipboard setting, with its winding hallways, simple gathering spaces and mist-shrouded decks, conjures a wondrous yet familiar atmosphere. Within this magically simple backdrop, the performances—from unfeeling grande dame Alison Skipworth to bullying businessman Montagu Love to meek charwoman Beryl Mercer—define a vivid microcosm.

As the first passenger to awaken to the horror of his situation, Leslie Howard balances faraway hopelessness with tightly-coiled angst. In his first sound role, Howard displays the otherworldly grace of a lost soul, a man dead long before he died. He need only run those fragile, tapered fingers of his across his forehead to convey all the broken dreams of the post-WWI generation. And that voice! Just listen to how he says “We are all dead, aren’t we?” in this clip. Listen to the beats between words, the rising pitch on “dead,” the resignation and relief of the last words. He transmutes a question into a phrase of music.

However, it’s Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Helen Chandler who anchor the film as a devoted young couple drifting on the edges of the doomed group. Boyishly gorgeous Fairbanks and angelic, spellbound Chandler cling to each other with quiet but frantic anxiety: will the great judgement cast them apart for all eternity? Chandler’s singsong voice and delicate gestures finally made me break into tears as she totters down the foggy ship deck in search of her beloved… whom she may never see again.

Perhaps a movie can give us viewers no greater gift than the desire to invest ourselves more earnestly in life—to embrace every fleeting sensation, to bear fate’s blows more patiently, to correct our faults more humbly, and to love more generously. Outward Bound does all of this with the feverish beauty of a sad, half-remembered dream.

Where can you see it? Sadly unavailable, Outward Bound is due for a release. How about it, Warner Archive friends? (I think you own it, n’est-ce pas?)

And about that GIF I promised you…

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17 Pre-Code Valentines for All You Dizzy Dames and Sugar Daddies

blondellheartemojiI love pre-Code movies with the passion of a thousand heart emojis. There’s a good reason why the banner of this blog comes from a poster for Baby Face and why I chose the the famous “Thou Shalt Not” censorship picture for my Twitter avatar.

When I discovered pre-Code cinema through a college course in 2010 (and they say you don’t learn anything useful in schools these days), I fell hard. Movies made roughly between 1929 and 1934 regularly make me swoon with their witty irreverence, their flamboyant style, their exquisitely hardboiled female protagonists, and their slick, snappily-dressed bad boys. (Plus, the lingerie. Can’t forget the lingerie.) These movies were intended to deliver large doses of risqué pleasure during some pretty dark days in American history—and they still bring the joy, more than 80 years after they were made.

Last year I created film noir valentines and pre-Code candy hearts, so I decided to follow that up with a batch of naughty, bawdy, gaudy pre-Code valentines. Enjoy.

Disclaimer: These valentines (for the most part) reflect the spirit of the films and characters they’re alluding to, not necessarily my views or opinions. If any of these valentines offend your delicate sensibilities, feel free to call the Legion of Decency on me. What can I say? I’m a bad influence.

Clara Bow plays rough in Call Her Savage (1932).

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Herbert Marshall may be a crook, but he’s the crook that Miriam Hopkins adores in Trouble in Paradise (1932).

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Clark Gable would bankrupt the undershirt industry to impress Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1934).

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Mae West knows that Cary Grant is only playing hard to get in She Done Him Wrong (1933).

Just gals being pals in Queen Christina (1933).

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Pre-Code poster children Joan Blondell and Warren William feel the (cheap and vulgar) love in Gold-Diggers of 1933.

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Count Dracula’s love for Mina will never die. Because it’s already dead.

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Cagney and Harlow get cozy in The Public Enemy (1931).

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Garbo wants some “me time,” but she’ll settle for some “me and you time” in Grand Hotel (1932).

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Miriam Hopkins can’t choose between Fredric March and Gary Cooper in Design for Living (1933). Who can blame her?

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Barbara Stanwyck is feelin’ frisky in Night Nurse (1931).

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Warren William is the Big Bad Wolf in Employees’ Entrance (1933).

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Looks like Little Caesar just can’t quit his friend Joe Massara. (I can relate. I think about Douglas Fairbanks Jr. a lot too.)

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Barbara Stanwyck knows what men are good for in Baby Face (1933).

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Carole Lombard gives John Barrymore some tough love in 20th Century (1934).

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Watch classic movies and get busy, like Bob Montgomery and Anita Page in Free and Easy (1931).

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Yes, I even got a tad sentimental over Whitey Schafer’s famous “Thou Shalt Not” photograph, showing all the things you couldn’t do in post-Code films.

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Do Not Pass Go: Each Dawn I Die (1939)

poster“When I first came here, I believed in justice. I believed that someday I’d be released! Then I began to figure on weeks and months and now I hate the whole world and everyone in it for letting me in for this. Buried in a black filthy hole because I was a good citizen. Because I worked my head off to expose crime—and now I’m a convict. I act like a convict, smell like a convict. I think and hate like a convict!”

—Frank Ross (James Cagney)

If you’re looking for a feel-good flick, I wouldn’t recommend William Keighley’s Each Dawn I Die—as the title might suggest. If, on the other hand, you’re seeking one of James Cagney’s most poignant, edgy performances, you came to the right movie. 

In this indelibly brutal look at America’s prison system, Cagney plays neither a fearsome gangster nor even a petty hustler, but rather a good guy locked up due to a miscarriage of justice. Crack reporter Frank Ross got a little too close to the corruption he was trying to expose—so the crooked politicians he threatened decided to keep him quiet with a nasty frame-up. Sent to Rocky Point with a twenty-year sentence, Ross forges an unlikely friendship with big shot racketeer Stacey (a sly, swaggering George Raft) who offers to help Ross dig up evidence of his innocence… if Ross helps him escape.

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Now, whenever two stars at the top of their game appear in the same movie—receiving equal billing—it’s mighty tempting to see them as competition in a zero-sum contest of “who came off better?” In this case, I applaud how well Each Dawn I Die both stretches and showcases Cagney’s and Raft’s respective talents. Right off the bat, I’ll confess my bias: to my mind Cagney possessed the far greater range as an actor—and I think even George Raft would agree with me.

However, Cagney’s earnestness, his relentless intensity, and his ability to structure his performances, usually building up to a climactic freak-out—all these qualities are nicely balanced out by Raft’s laconic, under-emotive coolness. Frank Ross’ sensitivity to the world and his awareness of the moral stakes of any given situation provide the catalyst for glib tough-guy Stacey to grow as a person. Ross’s energy and his righteous indignation force Stacey to actually weigh the ethical consequences of his actions for once. In this way, Cagney’s and Raft’s acting styles (and abilities) translate beautifully into their onscreen characters.

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If Raft plays a more automatically charismatic character—a slang-slinging outlaw—Cagney certainly rips into the more difficult of the two lead roles. We understand his Frank Ross as a wronged man; yet, Cagney brings a strength and complexity to this risky victim role, a part that could have easily seemed like a wimp or a weakling in the hands of a less capable performer.

Frank Ross initially recalls Paul Muni’s similar role as a man incarcerated through a quirk of fate in I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. However, Cagney’s Ross ironically “earned” his punishment, by fighting long and hard against unscrupulous politicians who unjustly imprison him. Indeed, in the opening scenes of Each Dawn I Die, Cagney channels all of the virile aggression he displayed in his gangster roles, only turned to serve a social purpose.

20Stalking through the rain in a trench coat, scaling walls into a fortress of profiteers, and smiling to himself as he watches the bad guys incriminate themselves, Cagney exudes a malevolence twisted for good, an anger born of hard-knocks and displaced onto corruption. His risk-taking star reporter doesn’t just want a story—he genuinely despises the grifters and crooked politicians he strives to unmask.

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He wants to bring them down—and he pursues their downfall with the same sort of single-minded ferocity that we tend to associate with Cagney’s less benevolent characters, like Tom Powers and Cody Jarrett. Cagney’s variation on the muckraking reporter adds a deep subtext to that stock character of the 1930s. He doesn’t just breeze through the world of racketeers looking for newspaper fodder, like many a wisecracking movie journalist. Frank Ross, who, as we later find out, rose from the slums to make something out of himself, hates criminals and exploiters of the public confidence.

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About to spill his big scoop on the district attorney and the governor, Ross leaves his office one night, only to be seized by two ugly henchmen who hustle him into his car. Even in a moment of danger, Ross exhibits the typical Cagney moxie—he bares his teeth like a frustrated shark. We can practically hear his thoughts, saying, “Why, I oughta…!”

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Unfortunately, Ross doesn’t have a chance to fight back. The baddies knock him out, force him into the driver’s seat of the car, smash a bottle of liquor, and send him out into the city traffic—to make the killing look like a drunk driving accident. Even more unfortunately, Ross wakes to discover that, although he survived the collision, three people in the other car were killed on impact. Pleading innocence, Ross nevertheless receives a harsh sentence from a judge most likely in league with the hypocritical politicos that engineered the frame-up.

GO TO JAIL. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

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When Ross first meets ‘Hood’ Stacey, on the way to Rocky point, he’s chained to him. Unsurprisingly, given his disdain for all manner of crooks, Ross hates the kingpin on sight. Their immediate baiting dialogue offers one of the rare moments of levity in this grim movie.

Stacey: Write a piece about me when you get out, will ya? The name’s Stacey. Life sentence. I like to read my name in the papers.

Ross: If you don’t shut up, you may find it in the obituary column.

Stacey (sarcastically): Oh my goodness! Hey, deputy, willya change my seat? I don’t like to play so rough. He run over a coupla guys so he thinks he’s tough. You know how it is with the first coupla guys.

29Cagney doesn’t take that talk from anybody, so, with one well-placed swing, these very different men enter into their first brawl—and win a modicum of respect for each other.

Although the unusual bromance between Raft and Cagney sustains the film, the emotional core of the movie witnesses Ross slowly transforming into a hardened, bitter man. He quickly learns to curry favor with big gangsters like Stacey. On his first day, he saves Stacey’s life by tripping a man who was about to stab him with a shiv. Soon, Ross has made the choice to look the other way when Stacey decides to murder a fellow inmate, a dirty rat called Limpy Julian.

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The scene where Ross catches Stacey practicing his knife technique—but agrees to remain silent—stands out as a key moral reversal for our protagonist. “I don’t see any shiv,” He tells Stacey, with a grin, pretending not to see what’s right in front of his face. Denying physical reality, even in a metaphorical way, Ross signifies that he’s splitting from the ethics that he cherished “on the outside.”

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I don’t see nothing… Cagney, Raft, and shiv.

Ross’s behavior shifts to reflect a logic more germane to outlaws and gangsters, because, those social menaces at least embrace their own code of honor. We perceive less justice operating in society at large than in the tightly knit circle of cons and shysters who follow their own unwritten laws of loyalty.

Ross’s eventual descent into madness proves that prisons don’t turn bad men into good ones—on the contrary, they beat an exemplary citizen into a feverish con. Seeing his basically decent comrades being abused by guards, Ross learns that Rocky Point, like the outside world, is a playground for underhanded tyrants.

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In one particularly chilling scene, Pete Kassock, the sadistic head guard, accuses Ross of helping Stacey escape and proceeds to slap and punch our hero around a cell. As the camera follows Ross, being propelled around the room by the force of Pete’s blows, we the viewers can hardly believe that we’re watching Cagney passively taking this. But, then again, any protest would only equate out to more beatings.

Finally, Pete gives the nod to his men to take over the interrogation and the camera turns away, although we can still hear the dull thuds of hard punches. Whenever off-screen violence occurs in a Cagney movie, it’s usually Jimmy dishing out the beating! In this case, we the viewers feel totally helpless and shocked by the brutalizing of our protagonist, so awful that we’re not even allowed to see it. When the camera turns back, Cagney hangs limply, a broken man.

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During his days in solitary confinement, in a cell quaintly nicknamed “The Hole,” the fighting spirit returns to Ross. He yells at his guards and alternately begs to be released and threatens to be worst con any of them have ever seen. Unjust punishment has turned the crime-fighter into a criminal. When Ross’ girlfriend intercedes on his behalf and the kindly warden arranges a brief respite from The Hole, we can hardly recognize the man that the guards drag into the warden’s office.

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Ross sports a ratty beard and speaks with an almost mechanical rhythm, as if he’s spewing invective that he rehearsed many, many times in his head while chained in his cell. An exemplary citizen has devolved into an animal. It’s a horrific spectacle. The burden of this film’s social critique lies squarely on Cagney’s shoulders. And, boy, does he make it work.

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Cagney’s performance astounded me not only with the facet of rage that he brought roaring out of the character, but also with the moments of vulnerability and tenderness. When his mother comes for a visit, bringing a basket of sweets and goodies, the ashen-faced prisoner can barely manage to eat a bite. You can tell by his halting delivery and the little catch in his throat that he’s choking back tears at every moment. When his mother eventually breaks into sobs, his whole face crumples. Those luminous eyes fold under their lids. With a nod, he lets the guard know that he can’t take his mother’s pain any more and she’s escorted away.

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As Cagney walks back to the workroom, the camera tracks back in front of him and we watch him cope with his own anguish during the rare few seconds when he’s not surrounded by guards and prisoners. He wipes two tears away and steels himself back into his impassive tough-guy act.

Similarly, when Frank Ross comes up for parole only to discover that the man who’s going to make the final decision actually participated in the frame-up. Overcome with injustice and disgusted by the “sanctimonious” speeches of the parole board, Ross yells at the whole pack of them. He leaps from his seat and we’re not quite sure what he’s going to do. He shouts and screams… and then realizes that he’s killed what little chance he had of winning parole. Back-pedaling, he begins to weep, to implore the stony men before him for a second chance, for something he knows he’s not ever going to get from them.

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Just as Cagney’s strength and cockiness taught America how to be strong and cocky, his grief and despair taught America how to grieve without self-pity: “You ain’t so tough,” as he sneers to himself in The Public Enemy.

In Each Dawn I Die, his wild cries of defeat howl from the heart of America’s dark side. He gives us the shadow of the American Dream: the man who rightfully clawed up from the gutter, and got wrongfully kicked back to oblivion. His passionate dismay holds all the power of a wake—a one-man wake for the freedom that was supposed to be his, but never really was.

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Cagney can wring the spectator’s hearts because, through the emotional arcs he creates in his performances, his characters earn their breakdowns. His characters weep only when the situation becomes truly, utterly hopeless. Long before today’s “sensitive manhood” and overactive male tear ducts (I mean, James Bond cries these days; God help us all!), Cagney merged toughness with the occasional glimpse of raw emotional wounds and boyish tenderness.

I especially love the way he puts one caring hand to protect George Raft’s head as guns shatter a glass window above him. Orson Welles once praised Cagney for the way he could take the truth of his roles, then expand the scope of the performance to be larger than life, but no larger than truth. Never more so than in Each Dawn I Die.

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Because this film was made after Joseph Breen and his reinforced Production Code, Cagney is denied the opportunity to give his performance the haunting ambiguity that we get from I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, for instance. The movie insists that innocence and virtue will eventually be rewarded. Each Dawn I Die lacks the hard-hitting conclusion that could have made it a masterpiece.

If you’re a “square guy,” eventually the system will come through for you. That seems to be the affirmative message of Each Dawn I Die. But I don’t buy that redemptive claptrap, the stuff that the screenwriters clearly slapped onto the end to show us that the world is just. The ending of this movie should comfort us. It doesn’t. The echoes of the beatings and the miscarriages of justice and the dirty political deals still chill us to the bone.

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In the world of Each Dawn I Die, a man is guilty because the right people say he is. A shiv dematerializes because one man decides to be loyal to another. Rage against criminals galvanizes into an uncontrollable criminal rage. Reality warps under the dehumanizing rhythms of days, weeks, months in jail.

And, through the magic of Cagney’s searing interpretation of Frank Ross, a happy ending doesn’t seem so happy anymore.

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I didn’t end this post on such a happy note, so here’s a fun fact. According to Cagney’s autobiography, when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild, he tried to rid Hollywood of mob influences. So the mafia decided to put a hit out on him. However, lucky for Cagney, a friend of his had some pull with the gangster crowd and decided to convince his buddies to spare ol’ Jimmy. That friend was George Raft. Life imitates art, doesn’t it? 

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This blog post is part of the Cagney Blogathon, hosted by The Movie Projector. Cagney was a fascinating and versatile guy, so be sure to check out the other entries and learn as much as you can about this screen legend.

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