A Free Soul (1931): Ashes to Ashes

afreesoul_posterThe first day of Lent compels me to make Joseph Breen, the fanatical Production Code Administration honcho, roll over in his grave. Before Easter I’d like to watch as many new-to-me pre-Code movies as possible.

Consider it anti-Lent—a celebration of excess. Or grateful recognition that so many movies buried for years by censorship have arisen and joyously outlived their censors.

Somehow I’d never watched Clarence Brown’s A Free Soul until last night (I know, I know), so I’m atoning now with a lengthy rumination on its equivocal MGM decadence.

Warning: This movie may make you want to wear slinky bias-cut gowns and/or dishonor your family. Talk to your doctor about whether pre-Code movies are right for you. Unless your doctor doesn’t know what pre-Code movies are, in which case you have my permission to give him a lecture on film history, tie him up, and force him to watch TCM.

The plot:

Raised by her father Stephen Ashe (Lionel Barrymore), a brilliant trial lawyer plagued by alcoholism, Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer) lives a free-spirited life (hence the title). Rejecting her snobbish family and her respectable fiancé Dwight Winthrop (Leslie Howard), Jan starts a steamy romance with her father’s gangster client, Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable).

That’s a step too far for dear daddy, who’s horrified by the affair. So, Jan makes a bargain: she agrees never to see her lover again if her father quits drinking. He gives it up at first… but when he weakens, so does Jan.

She returns to Ace, who insists that she belongs to him, body and soul, and must marry him—or else. Disgusted, Jan flees for her life. To protect Jan, Dwight shoots Ace and stands trial for murder. Guess who turns up to defend him in a spectacular Oscar-bait courtroom finale? (Hint: It’s Lionel Barrymore, who won his Best Actor gold for the performance.)

My two cents:

A Free Soul adds to the grand pre-Code tradition of adventurous society girls undone by hommes fatals. For that reason, the movie recalls Letty Lynton (1932) and The Story of Temple Drake (1933). In all three films, reckless high-class dames fall (or are forced) into abusive relationships with charismatic but depraved men from the wrong side of the tracks.

Are these movies conservative cautionary tales that punish women for seeking sexual fulfillment? Or are they subtly feminist films that reveal how rebellious women suffer in a world where they’re almost universally viewed as possessions?

Probably both, to varying degrees.

Of the three movies I’ve mentioned, A Free Soul particularly glorifies forbidden pleasures. We’re invited to enjoy—and almost to take part in—Jan’s liaison with bad boy Ace. When she outstretches her arms and whispers, Put ’em around me, she beckons to the viewer as well as to her lover. It’s a ménage à trois between Shearer, Gable, and the camera. All the last-minute regrets and preachments can’t erase the silken, candlelit delights of those scenes in Ace’s penthouse.

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Shearer is at her most sublime when radiating desire. Her ladylike coyness melts into unabashed yearning, transcending the good-girl-bad-girl duality that society loves to impose upon women. The image that will haunt me most from A Free Soul is this shot of Shearer, her head tilted back, welcoming the moment to come. From this angle, her haughty beauty is serenely sculptural. A marble goddess breathes for the first time.

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Sure, she’s savoring the closeness of Gable and his moustacheless early 1930s smolder. But her elation is both spiritual and physical. What really intoxicates Jan is the freedom she seized for herself when she ran out on her closed-minded, blueblooded family. Anticipation is five syllables long, but it’s still too small a word for what Jan’s experiencing.

A few reels later, Ace’s proposal of marriage—or ultimatum of marriage, rather—sours the relationship and kills Jan’s dreams. Oddly enough, I can’t think of many other movies where it’s the guy who insists on getting hitched, while the woman prefers a no-strings-attached arrangement. We’re meant to notice this oddness, I think. That’s because, in A Free Soul, sex is a metaphor for independence, and marriage a metaphor for captivity.

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Even a man who lives outside the law cannot accept a woman’s threatening freedom. Ace wants to own Jan, even though she craves no such control over him. In fact, Jan loved Ace because he represented a break from the stuffy constraints and contracts of upper-class romance. She discovers that, once the swagger and the aphrodisiac power of machine-gun fire wear off, there’s nothing to separate Ace from her repressive relatives. Except bad manners. And a propensity for violence.

Watching her exotic playmate turn into a brutish would-be jailer, Jan mutters, “And then the moonlight turned to worms.” Her disillusionment breaks my heart. As does the rest of the movie, which rushes to blame Jan’s “new woman” philosophy for her suffering and ruin.

The script also points the finger at Stephen Ashe, as though only a drunken failure of a father would dare to teach his daughter to follow her heart. Yuck, right? This moralizing twist undermines the teasing, equal-terms relationship between father and daughter that helps to draw us into the film. In the opening scene, we see Jan in silhouette getting dressed as Stephen reads the paper at the breakfast table. When Jan asks him to pass her some lingerie, he hands it to her through the bathroom door—without looking, of course.

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Is this an illicit affair between an older man and a younger woman? Nope. Just a normal day for the Ashes. Creepy though that sounds, the frankness between father and daughter shows how much they trust and love each other. Their affection actually reminds me of intimate mother-daughter relationships in the movies, which makes sense since Stephen has been both father and mother to Jan.

They’re so close that dad’s not mortally embarrassed by the knowledge that—gasp—his daughter wears a lacy bra! That overshare rapport strikes me as much more convincing and much less creepy than the surgically distant exchanges you see between fathers and daughters in many movies of the 1930s and 1940s. I’ll take a confidant dad over a symbolic patriarch any day, thankyouverymuch. But no, argues A Free Soul, that’s wrong. I’d better forget everything my father taught me about being a person in my own right.

Worst of all, the third act of A Free Soul denies Jan the agency to defend herself. In the similar pre-Code movies I alluded to earlier, Letty Lynton and Temple Drake powerfully reclaim control over their lives and bodies by executing the men who’ve tormented them. However, Jan Ashe leaves poor Dwight Winthrop to do the deed and shoot Ace.

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When Jan visits gallant Dwight in jail, she wishes that she had executed her beastly lover instead. I couldn’t help but agree. Without the visceral revenge granted to Temple and Letty, A Free Soul devolves into a great big perfidious “told ya so.” A sermon trying to pull off silk stockings.

Although it leaves you with a craven, bitter aftertaste, A Free Soul is redeemed by its sensuality. Even the stark prison scene crackles with sexual tension, heightened by close shots of hands and eyes. Jan gives Dwight one hell of a passionate kiss to thank him for slaying Ace. (Tangentially, in what universe does Leslie Howard have to kill somebody before he’s attractive to you, girl? Way to undersell your leading man, movie.)

This film betrays most of what I like about it, but I still can’t help but like it. I guess you’d better keep me away from your rakishly charming gangsters.

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Kongo (1932): Apocalypse Then

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No Bedtime Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beast in the Jungle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Twisted in Mind and Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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West of Zanzibar, South of Decency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Senses of Wickedness

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

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

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

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

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

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Trick of Fate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tough Times and Dark Places

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Epilogue: Notes on the Making of Kongo

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

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

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

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

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

Poor Virginia Bruce had a tough honeymoon.

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

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

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

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

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

“But I want to go out with Jack—”

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

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

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The Viennese Teardrop: Luise Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld

Rainer_ZiegfeldWe lost a legend yesterday when Luise Rainer passed away at age 104.

The first actor to win 2 Academy Awards in consecutive years—for The Great Ziegfeld (1936), then for The Good Earth (1937)—she deprecated her talent, calling herself “the world’s worst actress.” I think she was being more than a tad harsh.

Apart from her double Oscar triumph, Rainer is best remembered for rejecting Hollywood at the height of her career. Frustrated with the identity dictated to her by MGM and annoyed by the shallowness of Tinseltown, she dropped her contract. She explained her decision in an interview years later, “I felt very uncomfortable on that pedestal. I was not groomed for that outer life… It all didn’t fit quite with what I wanted to do in life. And I needed to leave, to save myself. And that is what happened.”

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Rainer and Louis B. Mayer, who reportedly told her that he could make a great actress out of any good-looker. She said, “I was horrified!”

When I heard the sad news about Rainer’s death, I felt that a rewatch of The Great Ziegfeld was in order. At 3 hours long, it’s a rather tedious, cameo-crammed musical biopic. In other words, it represents just the sort of sprawling, escapist extravaganza that Depression-era audiences craved from MGM, Hollywood’s most prosperous and prestigious studio.

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Even the usually dependable William Powell betrays signs of fatigue throughout this overblown biopic (although, in all fairness, he portrays Ziegfeld with a helluva lot more charm than my love Cary Grant showed as Cole Porter). Myrna Loy is a delight, as she always was, but she doesn’t show up until after the intermission, which is an awful long time to wade through sequins in hopes of a reunion of everyone’s favorite screen team.

As the French-born singer and actress Anna Held, Rainer really does steal the show. She’s like a lilac-scented breeze wafting through an open window on a stifling day.

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She adds a much-needed touch of naughtiness and gaiety to a post-Code musical, as though she’d magically wandered off the set of a Lubitsch musical. Frolicking across a London musical hall stage, she warbles, “Won’t you come and play with me?” Swaddled though Rainer was in yards of lace, the mischievous twinkle in her eye sufficiently conveyed that Miss Held wasn’t inviting her listeners to join her in game of checkers.

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Rainer’s role in Ziefeld paralleled her real-life struggles with the demands of stardom. In one comic scene, Held throws a full-on temper tantrum to rebel against her manager’s outlandish publicity stunts, such as sending her 20 gallons of milk each day to bathe in.

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Held complains that Ziegfeld doesn’t exploit her talents as much as her fabricated personality: “In Paris I was a big success because they liked my voice. In London I was a big success because they liked my singing. But in America to be a big success I need 20 gallons of milk and then sit in it!” One can imagine Rainer launching into a similar tirade against the superficiality of MGM’s publicity machine.

As Rainer said, “I must’ve been the envy of millions of young girls all over America, and they didn’t know my real life… I had great sorrow.”

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I couldn’t find Rainer’s famous “telephone scene” in a better quality than 240p on YouTube, so I decided to upload a higher quality version. Watch “the Viennese Teardrop” at her most iconic, professing her happiness while she tearfully bids adieu to the love of her life.


Rainer’s acting style is considerably more stylized that what you’ll see in most modern films. However, we must recall that she is actually playing an actress—and a rather flamboyant, fluttery one at that—in a moment of intense self-dramatization. It would be utterly out of character for ze great Anna ’eld to approach such a tragic moment with deadpan sorrow or mumbling naturalism.

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According to Rainer, she contributed to the dialogue for this famous scene and drew on her knowledge of contemporary theater to give it depth. Jean Cocteau’s “La Voix Humaine”—a one-woman play in which the protagonist says goodbye to the man she loves over the telephone—served as her inspiration.

“I was able to abbreviate a small scene and I wrote it. And it was obviously a success,” Rainer explained. I’ve seen Cocteau’s heart-wrenching play performed in a small theater, and Rainer encapsulated its primary emotions astonishingly well in her 3 minute scene.

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In the 20th century and beyond, communications technology, from Held’s old-fashioned telephone call to texts and tweets sent from iPhones, have allowed us all to become performers when we “talk” to each other. Instead of looking someone in the eye when I tell them how I feel, I can retool my reactions and dissemble to suit the situation.

This lack of spontaneity does not necessarily mean a loss of intimacy or emotional connection. In fact, as Rainer clearly understood, the ironic contrast between what we say through our devices and what we really feel offers prime dramatic material.

As cute or affected as Rainer’s telephone scene may appear today, she grasped that the surreal disjuncture between her words and her facial expression would resonate with audiences—and she played it up to sentimental perfection.

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Rainer baulked at Hollywood’s commercialism because she believed that true acting was about giving, about sharing art and passion with an audience. When Ziegfeld was released, American women were watching the men they loved (and depended on) shrivelling into husks of their former selves and, in many cases, drifting away from them. For these burdened mothers, wives, and daughters, the Viennese teardrop’s courageous mourning provided an elegant, idealized catharsis.

“Whatever impression I gave was that of a woman in love and that was my success,” Rainer said, analyzing her appeal in her adopted country. “People could identify themselves with my emotions.”

In a movie suffocating under mounds of spangles and feathers, Rainer incarnated a most unlikely 1930s heroine: a flighty but brave diva who refined the art of sobbing with a smile on her face.

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Red Dust (1932): Rubber Souls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Victor Fleming directs the cast on the set of Red Dust

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

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

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Odyssey of Nostalgia: The Human Comedy (1943)

PosterIf you can watch The Human Comedy and not cry at least once, I don’t think I want to know you.

Of course, I realize that the hip thing for a modern reviewer to do is denigrate the film as mawkish propaganda… which is only a small part of why you’ll never catch me doing so.

As for the greater part, the timelessly moving scenes in Clarence Brown’s WWII-era coming-of-age drama, written by William Saroyan, more than outweigh any syrupy sentiments. Seen from a vantage point of seventy years later, many of its intimate vignettes powerfully memorialize the personal sacrifices of all those who served—and all those who loved them. Although it may idealize, preach, and meander, the film delivers a handful of unforgettable moments, so heartfelt and honest even in their MGM glossiness that they reawaken the emotional impact of an anxious period which is, sadly, slipping away from living memory.

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Most important, The Human Comedy deserves our respect as a tender, thoughtful elegy for America’s fallen soldiers of WWII. Because the majority of the action takes place in the little California town of Ithaca, the story conveys the loss of an individual with greater poignancy than a standard war movie could.

The main plotline centers on high school student Homer Macaulay (a captivating and unusually soft-spoken Mickey Rooney) who, to help support his siblings and his widowed mother, takes a job delivering telegraphs. (By the way, are you picking up on the Odyssey allusions yet?) Homer thus becomes the frequent bearer of the worst possible news: condolence messages from the War Department. Working in a telegraph office with old-timer Mr. Grogan (Frank Morgan), Homer sees the tidings coming in on the wire for the first time. Far away from the violence of the battlefield, the clatter of typing and the neutral, freshly inky letters of “We regret to inform you…” translate the sorrow of the news by reminding the viewer of an absence, a hole in the lives of the recipients. We don’t see the death. We don’t know the details. And the matter-of-fact precision of the telegraph machine only accentuates the sadness of the news and the helplessness of those about to learn of it.

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Homer grabs the message and heads out on his bicycle to change someone’s life forever, riding to the outskirts of town. Greeted by grey-haired, heavily-accented Mrs. Sandoval, the messenger obviously wants to escape the situation… but Mrs. Sandoval can’t read English, so he’ll have to break the news himself. Hesitating and looking down at his telegraph, Homer rips it open and the message drops to the floor.

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Here, Clarence Brown seizes the opportunity to slow down the pace and draw the audience into the suspense. A cut takes us to the hem of Mrs. Sandoval’s skirt as she picks up the letter, and the camera fearfully tilts up to reveal her expectant face. In the reverse shot, Homer fumbles for a way to break the news slowly. “It’s from the War Department.” Cut to Mrs. Sandoval; she doesn’t understand, but seems to intuit what she’s about to hear. Cut back to Homer. He looks down. He looks up. Finally he forces himself to meet the mother’s eyes. “It says that your son is dead, Mrs. Sandoval…” We anticipate that the bereaved mother will fall apart, as Brown again cuts to the mother’s face, but instead it’s Homer whose voice trembles as he stammers that maybe there was some kind of a mistake.

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The almost clumsy naturalism of the performances, Homer’s futile attempts at denying the news, and, above all, the straight-forward elegance of the staging imbue the exchange with the delayed-reaction horror of unimaginable loss. The scene (which you can watch here) is a masterclass in self-effacing, yet potent continuity system filmmaking.

As the news finally sinks in, Mrs. Sandoval collapses into a rocking chair and starts to sing a Spanish folk song. Unexpectedly, after such a realistic segment, part of the screen dissolves to show a younger version of the bereaved mother, rocking her son as a baby, and then back to the present.

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Is this the mother’s vision? Or Homer’s? Homer lingers in the half of the frame untouched by the flashback, but he’s still visible, included in her vision. Well, I appreciate the ambiguity, but I personally read the effect as a fusion of their mourning in a moment of intense empathy. After all, the WWII-era in America, despite a number of underlying social problems, did encourage people to pull together and feel the pain of others.

And I consider it significant that the first mother Homer must inform is clearly coded as a new American, someone on the margins of Ithaca’s establishment. Since this is an MGM film, even the outskirts of town are quaint and cozy, but you needn’t be a historian to recognize the tiny houses as a glamorized immigrant shantytown. The Human Comedy, for all its schmaltziness, acknowledged that the costs of American ideal were often inflicted most severely on those who’d barely been able to enjoy the benefits of being American. I also applaud that the first war-related death that comes to our attention is an American who differed from the Andy Hardy-esque Anglo-Saxon denizens of Ithaca. The film reminds its audience that anyone who chooses to lay down his or her life for America is a true American, regardless of his or her background.

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Moreover, Homer’s bond with Mrs. Sandoval transcends class and cultural differences to honor a sacrifice and to grieve a loss. Although Homer’s reaction surely stems in part from his worries about his own brother, I believe that the connection he feels goes deeper than that. And therefore never send to know for whom the telegraph comes; it comes for thee.

In this scene and elsewhere, the film wistfully examines the dynamic between absence and presence. Indeed, a narration from beyond the grave opens the film, as Mr. Macaulay explains how, although he has passed on, the essence of his character thrives in the places and people he cared about.

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With Mr. Macaulay’s face superimposed over the images, swooping aerial and crane shots float over the town, eventually zeroing in on the youngest Macaulay son, Ulysses. I strongly suspect that this metaphysical opening influenced It’s a Wonderful Life, made three years later. These sun-dappled, gently descending shots approximate the dead man’s benevolent point of view, almost like a guardian angel’s.

Mr. Macaulay is there, but he is not there—like those who left to fight.

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Despite their physical absence, their continued presence can be felt in numerous ways. For instance, the audience’s first glimpse of Marcus Macaulay arrives when Homer proudly takes off his delivery boy cap to show a group of G.I.s the picture of his brother he keeps there, forever on his mind. To stress the spiritual link between this talisman and the real young man, a dissolve from the photograph introduces the first actual shot of Marcus. In addition to obvious symbols of remembrance, like service flags in windows, the incidents of daily pleasures and frustrations in the town allow us to observe what many of the soldiers are missing… and how they are being missed.

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In perhaps The Human Comedy‘s most tear-jerking sequence, Homer reads his brother’s latest letter aloud to Mr. Grogan. It sounds almost anti-cinematic, doesn’t it? A teenager reading a letter to an old man in a telegraph shop. Yet, in the simplicity of this scene—basically long take medium shots, interrupted by the occasional close-up of Grogan—Marcus’s absence aches.

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Only Marcus’s words, spoken by his brother, remain of him in the moment. Marcus isn’t there, but ironically his presence is felt so acutely, precisely because he’s not there. And Rooney’s halting, sensitive reading of the letter conjures that void where a brother should be. He is utterly spellbinding. Van Johnson, who played Marcus, got tears in his eyes just thinking about Rooney’s performance in a 1992 interview, recalling, “I just think it tore everybody to pieces.” Get your hankies, folks, is all I can say.

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As you watch The Human Comedy, and I hope you will, notice the preponderance of long shots, especially those in deep focus, with a clear foreground and background. Director of photography Harry Stradling Sr. (who worked on Suspicion and A Streetcar Named Desire, to name just two of his best) endows the film with an open, multifaceted look. Instead of showcasing just the stars in the cast, he tends to compose shots with a number of faces and details. Even the most dramatic scenes mostly avoid the glut of close-ups we’ve come to expect from serious acting. It’s as though the film were urging us to remember that, although it tells the stories of certain individuals, everyone’s got a story and they all matter.

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In “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, the French film critic André Bazin argued that deep focus photography, which often involves more than one center of attention, facilitates a more democratic style in film. Unlike manipulative montage-driven tactics, this technique enables the eye to wander the frame so that a viewer can interpret the visual information for himself.

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Now, if you’ll pardon my egregious oversimplification of film theory, The Human Comedy visualizes the American ideals of diversity and democracy through its cinematography. Although the film certainly never yields in its endorsement of patriotism, the liberty allowed to the eye reflects an ethos of freedom and independent decision-making.

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Propaganda doesn’t leave much room for choice, but Brown and Stradling’s abundance of long takes and multiple planes of action and focuses of interest offer the audience a wider world than one might expect.

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In a narrative sense, to evoke part of that wider world, The Human Comedy cultivates one major character who ostensibly doesn’t initially fit with the apple-pie ideal of contentment and family in Ithaca. As Marcus Macaulay’s best friend in the army, Tobey George listens with rapt attention to Marcus’s stories of home.

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Tobey confesses that, as an orphan who doesn’t even know his real name, he lacks everything that motivates Marcus. To nourish Tobey’s hope of coming through the war alive, Marcus invites his comrade to share his memories, to adopt Ithaca as his fantasy hometown.

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In one telling scene, Marcus and Tobey ride on a mortar being transported to the front as Tobey says his prayers aloud—and it sounds as though he’s reading from Marcus’s thoughts, as he recites the litany of home-town sights he longs to visit and to protect through his service. As Brown switches from close-ups of each man looking wistfully into the distance, we can sense the transfer of thoughts and dreams between men from very different backgrounds.

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Through Tobey, The Human Comedy quietly admits that Perfectville, U.S.A. is largely a chimera. After all, like many, if not most, soldiers, he could just as easily have lived and died without experiencing the joys of a tight-knit family and community for himself. Yet, by granting this outsider the ultimate homecoming, the movie gives viewers from all walks of life permission to yearn for that ideal.

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At the end of the film, as Tobey hovers by the Macaulay household, he gazes in at Mrs. Macaulay, Bess, and Mary singing and playing an old-fashioned love song. Framed, contained, and shining, the domestic scene seems like a window into heaven, in contrast with the shadows of the evening and the silhouette of Tobey’s head and shoulders from behind. Here Tobey stands in for the audience members who are also beholding this vision of harmony and probably wanting to be a part of it. He watches the family the way we’re meant to watch the movie. This shot actually echoes an earlier shot during a brief sequence in a movie theater. In both cases, the darkness is punctuated by a square of light and a potent image of hope.

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The Human Comedy isn’t as naive as it might appear. Guess what? People didn’t get any more complex in the last seventy years or so. You can love an abstraction and try to make it seem real… while never losing sight of the fact that it’s an abstraction. In this way, Clarence Brown subtly reveals and celebrates cinema’s power to build dreams—like the myth of Ithaca and the Macaulays—that can sustain a population through tough times.

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No wonder Louis B. Mayer—a ferociously patriotic adopted American—considered this film his favorite of more than 800 movies made under his reign at MGM.

Still, if The Human Comedy rejoices in its own ability to refine and market collective fantasies, it acknowledges that the true credit for those dreams belongs to those who defend them. This drama honors the lives lost in WWII with glowing sincerity by glorifying the values and ideals they fought for, even if those ideals never fully existed in their lives.

In other words, most of us don’t make it to Ithaca—even the men and women who gave their lives for what it represented. But, thanks to them, Americans can keep on dreaming of it. And as long as we do, perhaps, like Mr. Macaulay’s narration suggests, those brave individuals are still living in us.

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Night Must Fall (1937): Behind the Mask

posterNowadays, playing a psychopathic murderer is practically a rite of passage for movie stars eager to show off their versatility. But, in the 1930s, Robert Montgomery had to campaign for the privilege.

As Photoplay magazine reported, “He pestered M-G-M officials until they gave in” and agreed to adapt Emlyn Williams’s suspenseful play for the screen. Determined to take on the lethally charming lead role, the actor even agreed to pay for a part of the production.

Montgomery (and the studio) took a big risk with his star image as a coy sophisticate. To put this into perspective, only 10 years before Night Must Fall hit theaters, the ending of another famous thriller, The Lodger, had to be radically altered so that Britain’s favorite matinee idol, Ivor Novello, wouldn’t turn out to be a serial killer.

A decade later, audiences were apparently desensitized enough that the gamble paid off. Montgomery even reported a net increase in fan mail after revealing his dark side.

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Still, the actor certainly alienated a segment of his admirers, one of whom carped, “At a period in the world’s history when horror of one sort or another is our daily dish, it seemed unnecessary for Mr. Montgomery to inflict this spine-chilling opus upon his public.”

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Montgomery was determined to prove a villain. And we should all be grateful that he was, because he gave us one of the most frightening murderers ever to menace the silver screen—possibly the scariest before Psycho—a devilish blend of charisma and repulsiveness.

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Night Must Fall is a delicate exercise in encroaching dread—and one largely controlled by Montgomery, who supposedly took the reigns from uninspired director Richard Thorpe. As the case of a missing woman disturbs the peace of a little English village, beguiling servant boy Danny ingratiates his way into the home of hypochondriac Mrs. Bramson. This crotchety, verbally abusive dowager, played to whinnying perfection by Dame May Whitty, is a just the sort of lady who’d tempt even the most morally-upstanding individuals among us to sweeten her tea with cyanide. She’s well known in the area for her bad temper and supposed cache of hidden money.

Starved for excitement and adventure, Mrs. Bramson’s niece Olivia, little more than a servant herself, sets out to expose Danny’s true nature at the risk of losing her heart and her life.

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At almost two hours long, the film slowly builds in fear and suspense, eschewing major plot developments in favor of layered characterizations. At the end of most scenes, you’d be hard-pressed to say what’s shifted in the characters’ dynamics, but you sense a looming shock for all those touched by Danny’s deceit.

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With brooding shadows from cinematographer Ray June and, most likely, directorial influence from Montgomery, Night Must Fall paints an idyllic Hollywood version of England, albeit one perpetually teetering on the cusp of darkness (as the title suggests).

Unlike the play, which opens with a judge intoning a sentence at a trial, the adaptation begins outside, in the shadows, as a man shown in silhouette whistles to himself while burying something at the base of a tree. The fact that he’s doing so by the light of the moon—and quickly hides when he hears human noise—tells us that he’s not planting daisies.

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The audience thus enters the film’s setting of tea cozies and servants’ quarters already disillusioned, already conditioned to pierce through the veneer of comfort and civilized behavior… already aware of what’s rotting in the garden.

In other words, we see the world a little more like Danny the sociopath does: stripped of warmth, compromised by secrets. A ruthless zero-sum game ironically embellished by roses and doilies. The late-afternoon sunlight and quaint tweedy textures mock the viewer with their insincerity.

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From this tenebrous set-up, the movie as a whole hinges on Montgomery’s performance. He doesn’t disappoint. From the moment his Danny swaggers into Mrs. Bramson’s house—about to be called on the carpet for impregnating a maid—the audience recognizes his uncanny ease and casualness. Nobody’s ever that calm. Unless he hasn’t got a conscience.

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Now, I have no intention of trying to diagnose a fictional character, but I do admire how Montgomery’s acting anticipated clinical descriptions of the psychopath: not so much a full person, but a performance constantly being staged for the benefit of others and even for himself.

In 1941, Dr. Hervey Cleckley published a landmark study of psychopaths, The Mask of Sanity, explaining their fundamental emptiness: “We are dealing here not with a complete man at all but with something that suggests a subtly constructed reflex machine which can mimic the human personality perfectly… So perfect is this reproduction of a whole and normal man that no one who examines him can point out in scientific or objective terms why he is not real.”

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Indeed, Danny does demonstrate such “machine”-like behavior, as though he’d been studying the way normal people behave, memorizing their habits rote, then playing them back.

Smiles don’t crinkle his eyes enough. His sleepy-eyed reserve erupts too easily into manic merriment. His gleeful recitation of nursery rhymes, his cigarette, forever perched at the same obtuse angle on his lip, that tune he whistles as a default noise—all these idiosyncrasies endow him with a rakishly automatic quality.

Montgomery’s roguish Irish accent, though quite convincing, also contributes to the mechanicalness of the character: too smooth, too mannered upon closer observation.

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Throughout the film, Montgomery often makes his usually animated face go unnervingly blank or impassive, especially when Danny doesn’t think anyone’s watching. At his comic best, the actor could screw up that beautiful mug of his into any number of funny grimaces or provoke laughter with a twitch of his eyebrow.

By contrast, in many medium close-ups from Night Must Fall, his cigarette practically betrays more emotion than he does. Devious melodrama villains snicker and rub their hands whenever they think they’re unobserved; this is at least recognizably human.

Danny apparently possesses the ability to flip his emotions on and off like an electric current—which suggests that he never really felt those emotions anyway.

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The camera heightens the uncanniness of Montgomery’s performance by presenting Danny as a cipher. For instance, as the killer delivers a protracted, morbid speech, imagining the congregation in the local church shuddering while night closes in, the audience sees only the back of Danny’s head. Of course, throughout the entire film, we might as well have been looking at the back of his head the entire time, for how well he conceals his identity.

The menacing, hypnotic stream of words that pours forth from Danny, in contrast to the unreadable back of his head and shoulders, creates an eerie counterpoint that couldn’t have existed on a stage in quite the same way. Danny’s terrifying inscrutability washes over the spectators, jolting us into the realization that even the most outwardly affable individual could harbor a horrible, unknowable hole in place of a personality.

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Nevertheless, the film offers the viewer one unadulterated peek into Danny’s head, one glimpse of the blinding, childish panic that may represent his only genuine feeling. On the night the body in the garden is discovered, Danny peers out through the lace curtains of his window.

We see him from the outside, the glass pane a sliver of light in the midst of darkness, reminding us of the metaphorical barriers the murderer uses to protect himself. Yet, that illuminated square also seemingly holds Danny a prisoner, evoking a sense of claustrophobia as his sins threaten to find him out.

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Suddenly, as he reaches to draw down the curtains, a match-on-action transports us inside his small room. In his pajamas, he appears more vulnerable than usual and almost collapses into a chair. The camera tracks in close, until we’re practically on top of his head, looking over his shoulder, aligned with his mind.

Then the focus racks to give us a sharp line of vision to the hatbox under his bed. The box which, the viewer knows by now, probably contains the head of his victim.

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We get a cut to a close-up of Danny, his shadow an abstract blur on the wall, as he covers his face with his hands.

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This brief, surreal scene, with its especially fancy racked-focus long take, provides the viewer with a benchmark of realness in a film full of dissimulation. (I’d also note that the subjective, psychological camerawork foreshadows the first-person point-of-view in Lady in the Lake, indicating that Montgomery had a hand in directing this scene.)

Danny’s apprehension, his disgust at the object he’s brought into his own living space, and even a hint of necrophilia—I mean, why steal the head?—all bring the nightmare realm of his mind into relief. For the most part, as Cleckley would say, Danny “is not real.”

But for about 30 seconds here, to resort to clinical terminology, shit gets real. Very real.

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While fully embracing the ugliness of his character, Montgomery also harnessed his star image to amplify Danny’s power as a fantasy vehicle. Awful though his deeds are, still more awful is his ability to leverage his evil as a kind of aphrodisiac. As the Scotland Yard inspector jokes about the unknown murderer, he’s a “regular film star” who revels in the publicity and the aura of romanticism that his crimes generate.

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The stakes of Night Must Fall don’t depend on whether Danny is caught or not, but on whether he succeeds in seducing Olivia and, to a certain extent, the audience. His capacity to horrify relates directly to how much we, like Olivia, are excited by his ruthlessness. Danny draws us into pity with stories of his wretched childhood, elicits awe with the virtuosity of his lies, and even gets us rooting for him by targeting the nasty old bag Mrs. Bransom.

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Only at its conclusion does the film allow spectators to perceive Danny in his truest form: a predator who thrives on control and domination. In Williams’s play, Danny, manacled and about to be hauled off to the police station, grabs Olivia and kisses her “violently on the mouth.” Since the movie adaptation of Night Must Fall was released after the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, nothing doing there.

However, just you try not to infer a sort of sexual gratification in his wordless triumph as Olivia skulks back to the house to join him, even though she suspects that he’s killed her aunt. Montgomery, a master of irresistible smugness under any circumstances, conveys Danny’s triumphant arrogance, leaning back in his chair with satisfaction and biting his thumb suggestively.

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All in all, Montgomery’s Danny alludes to a hidden temptation, affably fooling most characters, but coaxing the film’s viewers and Olivia irresistibly with the promise of a glimpse of what’s behind his mask. The fact that we do want to see—and that we do watch the howling animal he becomes—chastens us, but leaves us wiser. Well, at least, I hope so.

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In 1937, Photoplay magazine concluded its review of Night Must Fall by warning, “This will have you looking under your beds at night.” Worse, it’ll erode your trust and force you to question what’s real. It’ll make you think twice about the next person who compliments you, who makes you feel special, who makes you feel alive.

And it might even encourage you to look under that person’s bed—for a hatbox…

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This post is part of The Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by the fabulous Shadows and SatinSilver Screenings, and Speakeasy. Be sure to check out the other wonderful posts!

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