Favorite Film Discoveries of 2019: Adventures with Angels, Dates with Devils

The Greeks had a word for it: pharmakon. A poison which may also be a cure. A cure which may also be a poison. Plato associated the term with writing, and Derrida concluded, by extension, that “the god of writing must also be the god of death.” Most writers I know would agree. At least some of the time.

Film, another medium of substitution, deception, and instability, is a pharmakon in my life too. It shatters me, piques me, messes with me, hypnotizes me, pulls me outside of myself, distracts me from my day job, and generally gives me reasons to keep on living.

My yearly roundup of favorite new-to-me films often betrays some loose theme or pattern. The 2019 harvest yielded a high proportion of poisoned apples: movies reveling in temptation or moral extremes. Wickedness took many forms, from voluptuous demoness Elena Sangro to hedonistic lord of the manor David Farrar to noir’s ne plus ultra bad boy Lawrence Tierney. Fortunately such unlikely angels as Bebe Daniels, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joel McCrea, and Ann Sheridan were on hand to balance the cosmic scales. So here’s to the things that poison us and the things that keep us alive. May they forever intertwine in cinema.

1. Maciste all’inferno (Guido Brignone, 1926)

What’s it about?

Powerful demons mingle with mortals to ensnare souls. When big hunky superhero blacksmith Maciste intervenes to save his cousin from dishonor, the baddies transport him down to Hell. But those devils get more than they bargained for.

Why do I love it?

If some maniac decided to adapt Dante’s Inferno as part of the Marvel Extended Universe, the result still couldn’t touch this wild adventure from the silent Maciste series. Once we get to Hell, the sheer surreal saturnalia on display stands as a testament to just how trippy silent popular cinema could be—and frequently was. A hellish vamp’s kiss transforms Maciste into a demon with shaggy legs and horns. Bevies of brimstone beauties vie for his attention. Our musclebound hero leads a demon army to victory in an intra-Inferno civil war. A demon’s face, punched concave by Maciste, rebuilds itself in a spellbinding close-up.

At the beginning of the year I watched a whole bunch of silent movies about Hell to research a piece for SF Silent Film Festival. As you might expect, that involved many hours of wallowing in guilt and despair. Rather refreshingly—even blasphemously—Maciste all’inferno was the most fun I had in Hell all year. It shows sympathy for the damned, yet treats Hell like some weird adult theme park designed by Doré for demons. Given the playfulness and overt sensuality of its spectacle and inventive special effects, the film’s creators were clearly more interested in delivering pleasure than preachments.

Federico Fellini mentioned Maciste all’inferno as his earliest film memory and a lifelong influence on his work. That explains a lot. The silent film’s panoply of grotesque eroticism and nimble leaps between fantasy and reality—or merely different registers of reality?—feel distinctly Fellini-esque.

Where can you see it?

It’s on YouTube.

2. Midnight Mystery (George B. Seitz, 1930)

What’s it about?

Pulp novelist Sally Wayne and her gaggle of murder-obsessed friends are enjoying a quiet weekend in a creepy island castle. Sally’s rich stick-in-the-mud fiancé decides to stage a phony murder to teach Sally a lesson, but when a real body turns up, he’s the prime suspect.

Why do I love it?

The Gothic elegance of this early talkie, with its cavernous Max Rée art direction and creeping camera movements, nourishes me as pure cinematic comfort food. There are silhouettes and self-playing pianos and clanging buoys and opulent candelabras and howling winds and a villain eavesdropping from an overstuffed armchair. But plenty of movies have “atmosphere in chunks,” to borrow a phrase from the script. This old dark house movie earned a place in my heart because its girl sleuth heroine enjoys an unusually triumphant fadeout. When we celebrate the maturity of pre-Code films, we’re often talking about sex, drugs, and hard-hitting social commentary. But this modest comedy thriller arrives at something quietly progressive even for its anything-goes era: a worldly woman who single-handedly cracks the case and makes her man eat his words.

To love studio-era cinema, you have to inoculate yourself against groan-worthy, tacked-on endings in which sharp dames renounce their identities and accept their role as some schmoe’s passive helpmate. Midnight Mystery, however, concludes with a different balance of power. Sally’s morbid, melodramatic mind enables her to unravel the mystery and catch the killer. In a sly turn of psychological Judo, Sally leverages the villain’s lustfulness and exhibitionism against him and extracts a public confession. “I learned the trick writing thrillers, dime novels, trash,” she explains. This is where we expect her to add, “And no more! I’ve had enough of murder” etc. etc. But, lo and behold, her fiancé capitulates instead: “I give in. I don’t deserve you in a thousand years…. Detect all you want. And I hope all our ten children are detectives.” Corny? Sure. But his humble embrace of Sally’s trashy passion—he wanted her to bust up her typewriter a few reels ago—goes against the grain of so many glib Hollywood endings.

Betty Compson digs into the screwball feistiness of her character with gusto. Though her cutesy voice can grate on one’s nerves, her expertly staged histrionics at the end more than compensate. As the suave murderer, Lowell Sherman infuses his part with devious glee—campy enough to be humorous but lecherous enough to be a threat. At one point he picks up a silk stocking of Sally’s from the back of a chair and rubs it appreciatively between his fingertips. Why, he even glances towards the camera, as though he’d like to be considered for inclusion in your Best of Pre-Code sizzle reel.

Where can you see it?

It’s on ok.ru. Since it’s an RKO Radio film, I have no idea why it’s not on Warner Archive DVD. Maybe some rights issue? In any case, I’d buy it.

3. Men in Her Life (William Beaudine, 1931)

What’s it about?

Betrayed by a gold-digging lothario and stranded in the French countryside, broke socialite Julia Cavanaugh befriends Flash, a vacationing bootlegger with social aspirations. Julia jumps at the chance to earn money working as a one-woman finishing school for the clearly smitten Flash. Though they fall for each other, class differences and Julia’s past indiscretions threaten their happiness.

Why do I love it?

In essence, it’s “My Fair Gangster”—an irreverent, gender-flipped riff on the Pygmalion formula. But instead of watching an overbearing professor sculpt a spirited guttersnipe into a lady, we savor the gentle chemistry as a ruined debutante gives her big lug client a crash course in etiquette. By helping Flash navigate the glitterati in Paris, Julia builds a sense of self-efficacy and gains perspective on the superficial life she used to know.

Who would’ve suspected that Charles Bickford could carry a rom-com as a leading man? Not me, surely. Yet his guileless toughness and aw-shucks delivery made this obscure Columbia film a major highlight at the most recent Capitolfest. As his lady love, the luminous Lois Moran conveys her character’s inherent grace and bruised uncertainty.

With its sharp dialogue and wacky situations, this breezy send-up of class relations, scripted by Robert Riskin and Dorothy Howell, deserves a mention in the history of screwball comedy. Although it veers into drama towards the middle and courtroom drama at the end, the humor of Flash and Julia’s courtship and their adventures among the vapid socialites in Paris remain the most rewarding and memorable aspects of the film. The fact that a coarse crook turns out to be the truest gentleman of all strikes me as quite a Riskin-esque reversal of conventions. When Julia finally proposes to Flash with the same routine he had practiced on her earlier in the film, you could feel the audience at Capitolfest sigh out a collective “Awwww” before such cuteness.

Speaking of overturned conventions, the film doesn’t hide that Julia spent the night with a faux-noble seducer. The whole plot hinges on it. But that doesn’t matter to Flash. The fallen woman nabs a rich, lovable man who worships her and would literally kill for her. And they live happily ever after. Now that’s pre-Code.

Where can you see it?

Maybe at some rare film festival or archive screening. I would love to see this get a DVD or Blu release.

4. Union Depot (Alfred E. Greene, 1932)

What’s it about?

Rakish vagrant Chick comes into possession of some stolen money and decides to spend the night with Ruth Collins, an out-of-work chorine. Once they’ve gotten over the misunderstanding that she’s a sex worker, Chick resolves to set things right for Ruth and get her on the train to Salt Lake City for a job. But the cops, crooks, and Ruth’s stalker have other plans.

Why do I love it?

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. orders “a flock of hot biscuits” from a train station lunch counter. That’s all I need in a movie.

Seriously, though, if you could harness the charm that Dougie Jr. and Joan Blondell exude and somehow convert that into fuel, we’d never have an energy crisis again. These are two world champions of sparkling for the camera. It’s awfully sweet to watch them sparkling at each other. And I’m simply mad about train stations, even recreated on sound stages. This film evokes the romance of the criss-crossing destinies they contain. I’d need to watch the film again to get the whole story straight. It’s a speedy tangle of assumed identities, stolen goods, bums, hookers, investigators, and a pervert in dark glasses, all handled with the pacy vigor we crave from a pre-Code Warner Brothers film. Despite the morass of plot, the emotional through-line—Fairbanks behaving like a cad then spending the rest of the movie trying to prove his nobility to Blondell—stays strong and poignant. You catch yourself rooting hard for these two crazy kids. Which makes the ending quite a blow.

Pre-Code movies did so much of what New Hollywood movies get credit for inventing. And they often did it in half the runtime. Union Depot leaves viewers with the jarring sense of “wait, that can’t be the end” as the credits flash up. Its wrenching, unsentimental conclusion reminded me of those oft-cited gut-punch denouements from films of the 60s and 70s. Admittedly, there’s far less cynicism here, since Fairbanks Jr. does enjoy his shining moment as Blondell’s champion. But as Ruth speeds away towards a precarious future on that midnight train to Salt Lake, Chick ends up right where he started, maybe worse off. He’s a vagrant with zero prospects. His dream girl left, never to see him again. Being a hero might feel swell for a second, but in practical terms? It doesn’t mean a thing. So he flips up his collar, shrugs off despair, and walks into the night with nobody but fellow bum Guy Kibbee to split a cigarette with. Forget her, Chick. It’s Union Depot.

Where can you see it?

It’s available from Warner Archive.

5. Counsellor at Law (William Wyler, 1933)

What’s it about?

Jewish lawyer George Simon rose from humble origins to become one of New York’s most sought-after attorneys. Now that he’s on top, however, his professional rivals are out to get him with a vengeance. He’s got a Society Register wife who doesn’t much like him. And a good deed he committed in days gone by—fraud to save a weak man in a jam—is coming back to haunt him…

Why do I love it?

Because it kept me on the edge of my seat and held my emotions hostage until the very last moment. Though categorized as a drama, its level of tension and relentless drive seem more in tune with what we’d call a legal thriller today. I went in expecting something preachy and/or badly stereotyped, but the joke’s on me, and I’ve rarely been happier to be wrong. William Wyler was a great director. We all know that. But only lately I’ve realized how early he was a great director. When I saw The Storm in 2018 at Capitolfest, the film suggested that his talent for shaping cinematic space and building suspense through subtly shifting relationships was already crystallizing in 1930. Well, Counsellor at Law is a leap ahead of The Storm. A work of staggering assurance and efficiency, this film would be the crowning achievement of many directors’ careers. Wyler, as we know, was warming up.

Barrymore, an actor whom I love but do not usually associate with restraint, rose to the occasion in portraying George Simon. He’s exasperating and irresistible, hilarious and tragic, icy and passionate, naïve and cynical. A seductive monument of contradictions. But never a caricature. The images of the film that I remember most are a swooping crane shot towards Barrymore, then a close-up of his eyes shining like star sapphires (on nitrate), as the idea of suicide comes to him. Barrymore may have never been better, or realer, onscreen than at the moment when, manning the switchboard in his empty office, Simon gets a call that devastates him. And he finds that, in the eyes of the frivolous woman he married, he’s no more worthy than the little boy who got his start manning that switchboard decades ago. Everybody, from chirpy office lady Isabel Jewell to blasé wastrel Melvyn Douglas, is on point in Counsellor at Law. They’re like gears in some giant, rhythmic, artful machine. But Bebe Daniels, playing Simon’s sharp but soulful secretary, nearly steals the show as the heart of the film. We cannot help but love Simon because she loves him, and we can tell that so fine a person as her could only love someone whom she truly respected.

The script by Elmer Rice, adapted from his own stage play, is a race car engine that Wyler drives with aplomb. Without leaving a posh Manhattan office, gleaming in its sleek Deco majesty, the screenwriter and the director create a fluid, exciting space where worlds collide. In George Simon’s waiting room, a communist agitator clenches his fists at the the bourgeois prattle of Simon’s two revoltingly pampered step-children. Indeed, Counsellor at Law boldly interrogates some big social and ethical issues. What is success, really, in a society where success often means disowning parts of your identity? Should you die fighting an oppressive system tooth and nail, or can you do good by working within that system? Is it worth it? But the film lets those questions hang in the air, raising them but refusing to settle them. Thank heavens. Answers are usually far less interesting than questions anyway.

Because it dares to stand on the window ledge of despair, preparing to splatter our hero all over the pavement, this movie truly earns it last-minute His Girl Friday-esque ending. The flawed, tormented lawyer finds his match in the vivacious, brainy beauty who was 10 feet away the whole time. The joyful rush of that long-overdue recognition sends you back into reality still keeping time to the beat of this exquisitely rhythmic minor masterpiece.

Shoutout to my Nitrate Picture Show pals Emily West, Harry Eskin, and Jay Patrick who loved this as much as I did!

Where can you see it?

It’s on DVD from the Universal Vault Collection.

Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

6. Mary Burns, Fugitive (William K. Howard, 1935)

What’s it about?

Mary runs a coffee joint in the country while romancing out-of-town mystery man Babe Wilson. After a shootout at Mary’s shop, her gangster boyfriend leaves her to take the heat. Branded a “gun moll” and sent up to the big house, Mary escapes… by the grace of the cops who hope she’ll lead them to Wilson. Mary never wants to see him again—but he’s not through with her by a long shot. As the poor gal’s cellmate summarizes, “Aw, Mary. Men’ve been kickin’ dames around since the days of Eve.”

Why do I love it?

William K. Howard, whom James Wong Howe called the best director he ever worked with, was a poet of celluloid celerity. What I’ve seen of his early 1930s output practically lunges at you with its synergy of camera movements, brisk cutting, and tensely stylized compositions. All of those elements—along with a top-notch performance from Sylvia Sidney and a roller-coaster plot—make Mary Burns, Fugitive a gripping programmer both in style and substance.

From the bucolic opening scenes, Leon Shamroy’s cinematography imparts a sense of vague ethereality to what might’ve been a purely gritty yarn of crime and suffering. Sometimes that dreamlike, spiritual quality gives Mary’s torments a halo of martyrdom, but sometimes it’s just intoxicating to the eye. Particularly during the expressionistic prison break scene. Mary and her roommate sneak through corridors of stark shadows, dart through fog occasionally pierced by searchlights, then dive into the water and swim through shimmering waves towards their rendezvous. It’s like a crime melodrama evanescing into a dream.

Sylvia Sidney may have given more great performances in now-obscure 1930s movies than some bigger stars (and more acclaimed actors) gave in their whole careers. Her fey, childlike face and air of gentle sincerity made her a natural to play decent dames who fall, and fall hard, for rotten men. She hits her courtroom breakdown just right with ripped-from-the-headlines naturalism. Her voice rises to a pitchy wail and her face contorts into an unglamorous sob of confusion and shame. But Sidney usually communicates Mary’s sorrow quietly, with hushed agony. As life kicks her around, her suffering turns inward. But you can hear the stifled tears choking her. You can feel the jagged shards of broken dreams cutting ever deeper into her soul.

Alan Baxter, aided and abetted by clever lighting, strikes an appropriately loathsome note as Wilson. He doesn’t come off as particularly tough or charismatic, especially not next to hardboiled henchman Brian Donlevy, but he sure is mean. He resembles more of a snarky, entitled college kid than what I’d expect a bank robber to be like. As a casting and performance choice, it’s actually kind of brilliant, even if I don’t 100% buy it. Portrait of the gangster as a spoiled brat. (See? I don’t always root for the bad guys.) The moment when Mary realizes what Wilson is—punctuated by a noirish close-up of his suddenly defiant pretty-boy killer face—is chilling, because he does look like a different person than the carefree lover he was 5 minutes ago.

Mary’s final face-off with her bad-to-the-bone ex brings the film to a satisfying, Temple Drake-ish close. Wilson forces Mary to humiliate herself by fawning on him in front of her new love, but the gangster’s sadism proves his undoing. After shrinking from confrontation for so long, Mary seizes the moment and becomes the agent of her own justice, retribution, and freedom.

And I can’t finish this capsule without a nod to Melvyn Douglas’s Adirondack-style mountain lodge, which is truly the stuff of fantasies.

Where can you see it?

I caught it on TCM last summer. Maybe it’ll air again. It’s also floating around the internet…

7. Internes Can’t Take Money (Alfred Santell, 1937)

What’s it about?

In his first film appearance, Dr. Kildare helps a paroled mother find her missing daughter and escape the clutches of a lecherous racketeer. Does the doctor dare to call in his own underworld connections and save the day?

Why do I love it?

Perhaps the biggest hit of this year’s Capitolfest, Internes is exactly the kind of movie I’m thinking about when I lament “they don’t make ‘em like that any more.” That is, a gratifying 80-minute crime melodrama with hardly a dull moment. From its opening credits, overlaid on shots through the windshield of an ambulance speeding through city streets, this movie hooks you. And through a magical marriage of great acting and superior filmmaking craft, it never lets you go until the end credits roll. Clearly I need to dip more into the oeuvre of director Alfred Santell. He invests this bizarre tale of barroom surgery, sexual blackmail, grateful gangsters, and a missing daughter with muscular B-movie momentum while giving the tear-jerker scenes room to breathe.

I will never look at kitchen utensils the same way again after watching Joel McCrea improvise an operating room in a bar. “Get me a lime squeezer!” barks Dr. Kildare, preparing to save a hemorrhaging mobster with a MacGyver-esque assortment of found objects. One wonders, did the young doctor spend all his precious drinking time pondering, “How could I use that for surgery… you know, if it should ever come up?” Some contrivances are so much fun that you welcome them with open arms as contrivances. This is one of them.

McCrea in Boy Scout mode can wear thin on me, but his chemistry with Stanwyck lights up the screen. For instance, the physical contact of dressing an infected wound on her wrist becomes an unlikely but undeniably smoldering conduit of sexual tension. It’s also a wry inversion of that old ministering angel trope. How many times have we seen a battered tough guy melt as some radiant young beauty tends his wounds? But here it’s fresh-faced doctor McCrea tenderly succoring the downtrodden but unbroken Stanwyck.

Even with Kildare riding through the film like a knight errant in scrubs, Internes delves into dark territory. Degradation looms over Stanwyck as she deliberates whether to sell herself to a slimy, popcorn-munching racketeer in order to see her daughter again. German-born cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl, who’d shoot Among the Living and The Glass Key a few years later, cloaks the desperate ex-con mother in an aura of noirish desperation. Curtains of rain stream down the windows and cast shadowy waterfalls around Stanwyck as she pleads with the villain. No dice. He wants his payment in dollars or flesh. “You’d like to kill me, wouldn’t ya?” he gloats. “You’re a mind-reader,” she snaps back. As she contemplates her meager options, she watches the lights of a roaring elevated train go by outside the window of her dim, cramped apartment. The shot I recall most vividly from the film is a bleak slice of urban alienation. We see an abstracted misty street at night with glowing lamps and storefronts. A snack vendor, in silhouette, cooks popcorn over a whistling open flame. Stanwyck, in a shiny black raincoat, walks slowly past, then doubles back, and buys a bag of popcorn—the racketeer’s favorite—in a gesture of symbolic defeat. What an oddly wonderful movie.

Where can you see it?

I’m pleased to report that it’s available from the Universal Vault Series. Physical media for the win!

8. Quiet, Please: Murder (John Francis Larkin, 1942)

What’s it about?

Forger, thief, and murderer Fleg steals a rare Shakespeare folio and proceeds to sell several fake copies to collectors. Then Fleg’s lover and partner in crime, crooked manuscripts expert Myra, sells one of the phonies to a Nazi collaborator—who wants a payback in blood. Myra, a shady investigator, and Nazi henchmen all converge in the Los Angeles Public Library. Fleg impersonates a detective and holds everyone under blackout conditions while looting rare manuscripts and making mischief.

Why do I love it?

Slinky, sardonic criminals Gail Patrick and George Sanders come across as a pulpy, psychopathic variation on Nick and Nora Charles. (Or Joel and Garda Sloane, given their focus on manuscripts. But who the hell knows them?) Fleg and Myra swap urbane threats instead of cute quips and get their kicks from committing crimes instead of solving them. Double-crosses are perhaps the sincerest form of foreplay in their amoral universe. The more grandiloquent of the pair, Sanders purrs out some of the kinkiest dialogue this side of the Production Code: “You’re dangerous to my interests. And it excites me to play with my own life. The way we live is a constant threat to our security. But we love it—giving and taking pain.”

There’s a special place in my heart for movies with book-related skullduggery, and Sanders and Patrick’s sinister standoffs in the Public Library will delight anybody with a similar book fetish. The film doesn’t totally jell or live up to its potential, but I cannot hold trivial concerns like those against a movie that manages to mix such an exotic cocktail of bookish and lurid. Or one that leans so enthusiastically into nastiness. Even our nominal “hero,” a smarmy, unlikable investigator, delivers Myra to her death in a ruthless move that leaves us with nothing to cling to at the end but the Dewey Decimal System.

Director Larkin and DoP Joseph MacDonald endow this oddball B thriller, largely set in a fixed location, with plenty of angular shadows and darkly dramatic early noir atmosphere. Gail Patrick, resplendent in a sparkly tiara and evening gown, stalks among the stacks and lurks behind bookshelves. Lit from below by candlelight, a ghoulish George Sanders holds court by menacing his lover and two inconvenient witnesses with torture by harp string. The urban walk-of-doom ending even anticipates The Seventh Victim. Gail Patrick leaves the library and strides down eerily empty streets while trailed by a Nazi assassin. Spoiler: he gets her. Which is a shame really, because Myra and Fleg deserved another 2 or 3 movies in which to fleece rich book collectors, betray each other, and rack up their body count as a form of couples therapy.

Where can you see it?

It’s-nay on-ay Outube-yay. (At least as of this writing.)

9. The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Felix Feist, 1947)

What’s it about?

After some light robbery and murder, Steve Morgan gets a ride from a tipsy traveling salesman and invites two hitchhiking dames they meet along the way. As the cops close in, the killer pressures his unwitting companions to take shelter at an isolated beach house. Sure, this is going to end well…

Why do I love it?

Strange as it sounds, I owe a lot to that scary bastard Lawrence Tierney. After I watched this sick little movie, he invaded my nightmares and jolted me out of a wretched 8-month run of writer’s block. Call it an exorcism: I wrote almost 4,000 words about this Devil and haven’t stopped writing—mostly about noir—ever since.

The Devil Thumbs a Ride provides the key link in Tierney’s transition from old-school gangster in Dillinger to noir’s most depraved fantasy figure in Born to Kill. As it happens, Devil is so harrowingly good that it prompted me to revisit Born, which had failed to impress me around a decade ago. Turns out I adore it now. Few couples in noirdom can compete with Trevor and Tierney thirstily baiting and berating each other between illicit lip-locks. But if Robert Wise’s class-conscious A noir complicates Tierney as a kind of beast in captivity, Feist’s gleefully trashy 62-minute B noir unleashes him in a more natural habitat.

He gets to hit-and-run his way through a seedy, unhinged playground/obstacle course in a vehicle that seems bespoke to his ferocious dirtbag appeal. The confined spaces accentuate his hulking presence. There’s a tough dame to admire him—as one bullshit artist to another—and a starry-eyed nice girl for him to charm, then pulverize. The masculine cast of domesticated dorks, card-playing cops, trigger-happy patrolmen, and cartoonish yokels all serve to emphasize his steely, entertaining badness. In the midst of this chaos and opportunity, he’s more relaxed, funnier, and thus scarier when he goes in for the kiss or the kill. Which are similarly brutal in this movie.

Where can you see it?

An old TCM print is floating around ok.ru. Or you can get a Region 2 DVD. The Film Noir Foundation has restored it, but to see that version (I haven’t, alas) you’ll need to attend to a non-U.S. screening.

10. Woman on the Run (Norman Foster, 1950)

What’s it about?

Eleanor Johnson’s husband witnesses a murder and hides out somewhere in San Francisco. The police want to bring him in, make him testify, and put his neck on the line. And gangsters want to kill him. Eleanor isn’t exactly crazy about the guy herself, but the more she learns about the tight spot her husband’s in, the more she wants to save him. A wisecracking reporter offers to help Eleanor find her hubby and stay ahead of the cops, but can she trust him?

Why do I love it?

Norman Foster evidently learned a thing or two from collaborating with Orson Welles, because this is a damn near perfect thriller. Think of it as a women’s drama reborn as a chase film in the key of Welles minor. Complete with canted angles, a darkly carnivalesque set piece, and oodles of slow-burning suspense.

My favorite subtype of noir centers on stand-up gals who pursue intensely personal investigations—quests, really—through dark labyrinths of danger and deceit. Or, to generalize, girl sleuth movies. Woman on the Run presents us with a most unusual “girl sleuth” variant, in that there is nothing girlish about her at all. On the contrary, she’s a prickly, childless wife in a burnt-out marriage. Shorn of her bombshell locks and sporting an unsexy assortment of bulky coats and dresses, Ann Sheridan nails the bone-tired air of a woman who’s had the romance worn right out of her.

Compared to girl sleuths like winsome secretary Ella Raines, earthy nighthawk Susan Hayward, and streetwise knockout Lucille Ball, Sheridan cuts a dramatically less hopeful and glamorous figure. Even June Vincent in Black Angel passionately throws herself into the glitzy nightclub demimonde to save her husband’s neck; her determination and energy are unwavering. By contrast, Sheridan is sick to death of almost everybody except her dog. The story works because you sort of believe that she might give up on her husband. You know, if she got too tired or ran out of cigarettes.

I like to think of noir’s girl sleuth movies as twisted fairy tales that confront the heroines with riddles and seemingly insurmountable challenges. In Woman on the Run, we even get a devastatingly charming wolf in disguise and a life-giving potion: the ampoules of heart medicine that Eleanor needs to smuggle to her husband. Eleanor’s quest takes the form of a life-or-death scavenger hunt bound up with the enigma of her bitter, failing marriage. That unrealistic conceit results in one of the more nuanced and narratively creative depictions of a troubled marriage in film noir.

Instead of watching a marriage fall apart from beginning to end or through flashbacks, we acquire more haunting insight into Eleanor’s troubled relationship with her husband through his absence. We never see the couple interact in person until the very end. Instead, their story comes to us through fragmented clues. A cryptic letter. A dirty apartment with a cramped kitchen and cupboards full of nothing but dog food. The scornful head of a mannequin. Paintings and sketches that chart the trajectory of a promising but unfocused career circling the drain. The short story-like anecdotes that Eleanor recounts and tries to decode in an attempt to figure out where her husband first “lost” her. This is couples therapy as a puzzle box, an apt fusion of noir’s penchant for jigsaw narratives and the snarled messes of resentment that long-term relationships can become.

A movie about second chances on the edge of an abyss, Woman on the Run stands as a reminder that toughness and tenderness often intertwine in noir. David Bordwell recently pointed a finger at the “cult of noir” for making us underrate gentler genres—especially cozy family sagas—in favor of forceful, action-oriented movies. (Touché, I guess? Look at this list…) Now, I’m not going to make the case that film noir is actually warm and fuzzy. God forbid. But what of the world-weary, wised-up, bittersweet brand of tenderness that belongs to noir? Out of the Past leaves us on a note of melancholy affection beyond the grave. Shadow of a Doubt is the dark double of Meet Me in St. Louis. Inscrutable and laconic though they often were, Lake and Ladd clicked as a screen couple largely because of their moments of surprising tenderness and vulnerability.

Like Raymond Chandler wrote, in a letter reflecting on his wife’s death, “All us tough guys are hopeless sentimentalists at heart.” Some tough dames are too. And so it is with Woman on the Run. As this rueful wife scours the city of San Francisco, she summons up her memories of marriage and discovers, almost too late, how much tenderness she still harbors for her imperiled dreamer of a husband.

Where can you see it?

The FNF/UCLA restoration is available on DVD/Blu from Flicker Alley. It also shows up on TCM occasionally; it was my favorite Noir Alley discovery of last year. For the love of all that’s good and holy, do NOT watch one of the murky prints circulating on YouTube, etc. I tried to watch it that way years ago and couldn’t make it more than 5 minutes in.

11. Gone to Earth (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1950)

What’s it about?

A witchy fox-loving peasant girl in turn-of-the-century Shopshire vacillates between repulsion and attraction to the fox-hunting local squire. Which complicates things after she weds the chaste new vicar. Sure, it sounds banal, but it is really a poem woven around the titillating tropes of a tawdry romance novel.

Why do I love it?

Because it may be Technicolor’s finest hour. I had procrastinated seeing this one for a while, and that paid off because I had the privilege of seeing it at the Nitrate Picture Show. There were colors I have never seen before. Colors stolen from some fairy realm or—same difference—from the mind of the film’s whimsical heroine, a woman clearly tuned to a higher frequency. The limpid blues, torrid yellows, and rosy but forbidding pinks of Shropshire skies. The dusky cobalt of Jennifer Jones’s skirt as she casts a midnight spell. The amber glow of a sunset on fox fur. The look of white lace in the bare afternoon sunlight.

And is there any cinematic image of lost innocence more heartbreaking yet erotic than Jones standing tiptoe on grass, only to be scooped up by squire Farrar—who crushes her dropped bouquet of scarlet flowers with his shiny brown boots?

Where can you see it?

It’s on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.

12. The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 1953)

What’s it about?

A bounty hunter reluctantly joins forces with a prospector and a caddish cavalry officer to bring a killer and his girl accomplice back to civilization. But can the captors hold it together as the desperado attempts to divide and conquer?

Why do I love it?

Bumpy road trips with charismatic killers make for great cinema, as far as I’m concerned. Here it’s wily outlaw Robert Ryan toying with the nerves, egos, and lives of his traveling companions. Not unlike Tierney in Devil, Ryan infuses this bad hombre with such virile, animalistic arrogance that it’s almost impossible to look at anything else when he’s onscreen. But Ryan’s Ben Vandergroat is a more complex beast, with an emotional range from cringing self-pity to lustful jubilation; even three tough men on high alert can’t keep this scruffy, protean trickster down for long.

I’m fascinated by intimidating performances that involve some kind of physical limitation, like noir’s wounded gangsters who can conjure even more menace when hiding out or hospitalized. Similarly, Ryan projects such power and mastery over the situation even when tied up and thrown around like a sack of potatoes that you know you’re in the presence of one dangerous dude. Dig the way that, never so smarmy but in defeat, he pulls his own wanted poster out of his pocket with his teeth, then grins with the knowledge that he has shot his pursuer’s plans to hell. Or the cocky glances he flashes towards his fellow travelers as Janet Leigh gives him a shave or a back rub, as if to say “Don’t you wish you were in my filthy hide right now?” Or how he smirkingly tells his rambling hard-knocks life story while feverish Jimmy Stewart slips further, further, further on his sabotaged saddle and topples off his horse.

Leathery, damaged, and volatile, the Jimmy Stewart of Anthony Mann’s gritty Westerns has become my favorite Jimmy Stewart. And yet, listen to the yearning tenderness in his voice when he talks to Janet Leigh about nursing cattle through the winter. More than any man who ever graced the screen, Stewart made the prospect of settling down seem like another warm, romantic adventure rather than an end to it. (Me, I probably rather go ride-or-die with Ryan, but I can appreciate a good pitch when I hear one.) I have to hand it to Janet Leigh too. She could very easily have been merely another item thrown on the scale of the film’s high stakes: death, money, and the woman. With her delicate features accentuated by cropped hair and men’s clothes, she’s a wildcat-fierce slip of a thing who can hold her own against Stewart and his posse. And yet she captures that lost-girl devotion to father figure Ryan, devotion so intense that she refuses to see how he sees her.

Oscar-winning cinematographer William C. Mellor envelops almost every shot in breathtaking Technicolor vistas of rugged natural splendor. This pure, epic scenery provides an ironic backdrop for Ryan’s machinations. We get the mythic West of storybook illustrations wrapped around Mann’s sordid West of cheap life and dirty death.

Where can you see it?

It’s on DVD and available to purchase on YouTube.

Best of FilmStruck, Volume 1: 11 of My Favorite Old Hollywood Movies to Stream Right Now

So many movies to recommend, so little time! FilmStruck—the arthouse streaming platform brought to you by TCM and the Criterion Collection—recently added a whole bunch of old Hollywood movies.

Subscribers can now satisfy the urge to watch Casablanca (or The Thin Man) virtually any time, anywhere. But you can do more than just round up the usual suspects. As the exclusive streaming home of Warner Brothers’ classic library, FilmStruck offers a tantalizing and eclectic variety of studio-era movies beyond that hit parade.

However, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, FilmStruck might leave you feeling a little film… stuck (sorry not sorry). Especially since not all of the classic Hollywood movies in the FilmStuck streaming library show up under the Classic Hollywood category.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to create a series of guides or primers to the movies I love within FilmStruck’s ever-growing catalog. I’m starting with classic Hollywood, but I see a list about classic British movies on FilmStruck in my future…

For today, I’ve tried to skew this list of recommendations towards weird, lesser-known, and/or not-on-DVD classics. And, remember, you can watch them right now.

Why Worry? (Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, 1923)

What’s it about? An insufferable hypochondriac millionaire and his lovelorn nurse travel to a banana republic where they get mixed up in a coup d’état.

Why should you watch it? Harold Lloyd was hilarious and versatile. His spectacles stayed the same, but his character changed. He could be a bashful country boy, a campus dork, or an urban go-getter. But I’d say he’s at his funniest and most interesting playing a cocky spoiled brat who wins us over with his staggering moxie, like he does in Why Worry? Over the course of this rip-roaring comedy, the poor little rich boy sheds his selfishness, and that character arc lends emotional weight to an expertly paced succession of gags.

Frequent Lloyd leading lady Jobyna Ralston gets to do even more than usual. You’ll chuckle at her running around in tight pants and a sombrero, then root for her as she unleashes the fiery rebuke that prompts our hero’s transformation. The exotic location, loathsome villain, and unique comedy sequences (Pulling a tooth from a giant! Fighting off an army with smoke and mirrors!) combine to produce one of Lloyd’s very best.

The Most Dangerous Game (Irving Pichel, 1932)

What’s it about? Shipwreck survivors wash up on a secluded tropical island where the wicked General Zaroff hunts humans.

Why should you watch it? Shot simultaneously with King Kong on the same RKO jungle sets, The Most Dangerous Game is a scarier, leaner horror-adventure hybrid. Director Irving Pichel manages to revel in the pulpy, morbid side of the material and keep the plot zooming forward with the velocity and inevitability of a bullet from General Zaroff’s rifle.

Leslie Banks rips into his bad guy role with diabolical relish. His over-the-top Grand Guignol performance, slavering with thirst for blood and Fay Wray, sets a standard for every comic book villain to come.

(Fun fact: The pack of Great Danes you see in The Most Dangerous Game were owned by Why Worry? star Harold Lloyd!)

Three on a Match (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

What’s it about? The tempestuous lives of three schoolmates intertwine during the Great Depression. Restless Vivian marries well but plunges into poverty and addiction. Fun-loving, warm-hearted Mary rebuilds her life after prison. Studious Ruth tries to help and support them both.

Why should you watch it? If you want to know what “pre-Code” means, this is a good movie to explain it. The plot revolves around sex, drugs, gangsters (including a young Bogie!), gambling, prison, child neglect, and suicide. Three on a Match wades unflinchingly into content that would’ve been excised just a few years later. Ann Dvorak’s gutsy descent from bored socialite into grimy, coke-addled mob captive is the stuff of legend, a show-stopping, career-defining performance. Her shriek of abject terror in the lipstick scene will ring in your ears long after the movie ends.

On top of the fast and furious personal melodrama, Three on a Match chronicles the whole Prohibition era with newsreel-like interludes of headlines, hit tunes, and stock footage. As we watch Vivian, Mary, and Ruth choose their paths in life, we watch the 20th century come of age and wise up along with them. And all that happens in just over an hour of runtime! They really don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

Man’s Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933)

What’s it about? Bill and Trina, two people living meal to meal on the margins of society, build a life together in a shantytown hovel. When Trina gets pregnant, Bill considers turning to crime so that he can provide for their child.

Why should you watch it? Trust me when I say that this pre-Code romance is uplifting, even magical, despite the grim plot synopsis. Before the advent of FilmStruck, I had’t seen Man’s Castle in a long time (because it’s not on DVD), but certain images and sequences stayed with me for years. The opening scene in which a starving Loretta Young weeps as Spencer Tracy feeds popcorn to pigeons. The lovers skinny dipping in the moonlight. Glittering music hall queen Glenda Farrell having an unspoken conversation with Tracy in the audience. Tracy innocently fidgeting with a little wind-up toy as his accomplice breaks a safe.

Frank Borzage, cinema’s lyric poet of the love that blossoms from adversity, turns the mean city into an intimate dreamlike landscape against which our couple finds strength in their shared vulnerability.

Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934)

What’s it about? An egotistical Broadway impresario turns a lingerie model into a star actress, but she grows tired of his possessive ways. Can he win her back in time to save himself from ruin?

Why should you watch it? There’s something especially hilarious about movies that call for actors to play actors, giving the stars permission to chew the scenery and work themselves up into high dudgeon. Carole Lombard and John Barrymore both deliver go-big-or-go-home comic performances, while hinting at the scared real people holding the strings of those big bombastic balloons.

Starting with the rehearsal from hell and building to a madcap climax aboard a train, the ever-brilliant Howard Hawks whips up enough frenzied energy to fuel a major railroad. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s script marries droll, flowery dialogue with kicking-and-screaming physical comedy. I’ve watched Twentieth Century several dozen times in my life, and it never fails to crack me up.

History Is Made at Night (Frank Borzage, 1937)

What’s it about? A suave maître d’ intervenes to protect the wife of an abusive shipping magnate and falls in love with the damsel in distress.

Why should you watch it? This heady cocktail of genres has something to please everyone. Whether you like disaster movies, screwball comedies, feel-good romances, weepy melodramas, or psychological thrillers, you’ll get your money’s worth out of History Is Made at Night. What’s most staggering to me is how well all of the different tones balance each other out without diluting the power of any mood or element.

Patron saint of celluloid star-crossed lovers Frank Borzage is at it again, making us swoon at the intoxicating power of romance. Watch this as a double feature with Man’s Castle if you need to restore your faith in humanity. Jean Arthur dancing a late-night tango (barefoot, no less!) with Charles Boyer ranks among the most charming getting-to-know-you scenes produced by classic Hollywood. “I’ve needed tonight more than anything in my life,” Arthur says as dawn breaks. “Because I’ve never been happy before.”

Finally, I have to put in a word for my man Colin Clive, who died of tuberculosis shortly after making History Is Made at Night. The movie pivots on his elegantly febrile turn as an evil husband willing to kill thousands of people merely to slake his quest for personal revenge.

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (James P. Hogan, 1937)

What’s it about? Celebrated amateur sleuth Captain Drummond sets out to free an heiress from the gloomy manor where crooks have her imprisoned.

Why should you watch it? Sometimes you need great art that moves you to tears. Sometimes you need a fun, atmospheric little mystery to amuse you on a dark and stormy night. Bulldog Drummond Escapes does the latter admirably. Ray Milland in a trench coat traipsing through fog is a gift to us all. His beguiling goofy-yet-dashing vibe as Drummond makes me deeply sad that he only essayed the role once.

Lydia (Julien Duvivier, 1941)

What’s it about? In her twilight years, Lydia, a great beauty who never married, reminisces with the men who loved and lost her long ago. But memories can be deceptive. Do any of Lydia’s suitors know who she really is?

Why should you watch it? Because it’s a sweeping, sympathetic, tender waltz through the saddest chambers of the human heart. Lydia gives her love to a scoundrel, suffers, and throws away any chance at happiness with another man. And yet Duvivier helps us embrace all that loss and regret and see its bittersweet beauty. No love is given in vain, since, as Lydia muses, “The past always improves. It’s about the only thing that does.”

Merle Oberon pours her heart into all of Lydia’s emotions and irreconcilable contradictions. So much of what makes this movie great is her face, whether coyly peeking up from under a lacy hat, beaming with joy as an Atlantic wind whips her hair, or frozen with humiliation as her eyes reflect a flickering fire.

Released weeks after Citizen Kane, Lydia explores similar themes—the perspective of old age, the complex truth of memory, the fragmentation of identity—through a similar flashback structure. But the final piece of Lydia’s puzzle is no sentimental rosebud. It’s a quietly staggering blow, a silken gut punch that will haunt me for quite some time.

To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)

What’s it about? In occupied Poland, a theater troupe must pull off a daring, elaborate charade in order to neutralize a high-ranking Nazi spy.

Why should you watch it? Ernst Lubitsch works a miracle of high-stakes comedy, proving that sometimes the most potent way to respond to evil is to laugh and laugh hard. The Nazis ravaging Lubitsch’s native Poland in To Be or Not to Be are both scary and ridiculous. The director denies his enemies the stoic, steely dignity that Hollywood too often accorded them and instead takes aim at the Nazis’ pomposity, venality, and humorless vision of a homogenous world.

On the side of the good guys, To Be or Not to Be suggests that you can always count on arty weirdos to strike a blow for freedom and democracy. (Indeed, many heroes of the real-life resistance in Europe were poets, musicians, or creatives of some kind.) Jack Benny delivers his best film performance and arguably the greatest double-take in cinema. Given surprisingly little comedy business in her final film role, Carole Lombard holds the film together with her cunning, determination, and moral judgement.

I don’t want to give too much away, but anyone who likes movies deserves to see this virtuoso high-wire act that breathtakingly melds art and life, drama and reality.

Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942)

What’s it about? An insecure spinster escapes the clutches of her tyrannical mother, reinvents herself with guidance from a kind psychiatrist, and falls in love with a married man.

Why should you watch it? Now, Voyager is a soothing and nourishing movie. I’m so grateful it exists.

Without sensationalism or condescension, director Irving Rapper illuminates one woman’s inner life. There’s no need to create unnecessary drama, no tendency to move on from Charlotte’s struggles to the real plot. She is the plot. Now, Voyager treats a woman’s psychological journey with the same respect and attention that cinema usually reserves for grievous sins, battles, and murders.

In one of her finest, most restrained performances, Bette Davis invites us to share Charlotte’s emotional ups and downs and rewards the viewer with a transcendent feeling of catharsis. And although she dials down the diva factor, I feel reborn when Bette Davis makes a magnificent entrance in that little black dress.

Perhaps the most well-known film in this post, Now, Voyager nevertheless seems like a movie that can easily sit on your “to watch” list for years. It’s a difficult movie for me to “sell” because there aren’t many movies like it. Poignant but not overwrought. Romantic but not defined by romantic tribulations. Psychological but not gimmicky. I procrastinated watching it for a long time, because the plot synopsis sounded sappy and depressing. Now it’s one of my favorite films.

I could kick myself for waiting so long to discover it. Don’t make the same mistake I did! (And once you do, be sure to read Angelica Jade Bastién’s essay on hope, mental illness, and Now, Voyager.)

The Curse of the Cat People (Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise, 1944)

What’s it about? A melancholy little girl conjures an imaginary friend—or is it the ghost of her father’s first wife?—and struggles to mediate between her daydreams and the dangers of the real world.

Why should you watch it? Few movies have captured the intensity of childhood as sublimely as The Curse of the Cat People. Master noir and horror cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca casts a spell over us, so we can revisit the heightened experience of youth. Ice sparkles lovingly. Snow falls with malice. Shadows carry the sadness of broken hearts and lost souls. Inscribed in every frame is the wonder, the fear, the despair, and the sense of inhabiting a hidden universe that grown-ups don’t understand.

The Curse of the Cat People is the perfect autumn-to-winter movie. As the seasons slip by, the changing landscape makes the viewer ache with nostalgia. The meandering, almost anecdotal narrative gives Ann Carter a chance to shine with one of cinema’s greatest child performances.

Whereas many coming of age tales conclude with a child pulling away from their dreams. this movie validates the child’s fantasy world. As The Curse of the Cat People implies, the only way to heal our wounds is to return to that pure seeing, that acceptance of the marvelous among us, which the film recreates.

If you do watch any of these selections on FilmStruck, let me know what you think! And feel free to suggest themes for future lists and guides!

Reel Change: 11 Favorite Classic Film Discoveries of 2017

The French, inexorably judgmental in so many things, are merciful when it comes to the transition from one year to the next. You have until the end of January to send holiday greetings, well wishes, and fond regards.

Today I’m going to use that extension to reminisce about 2017.

I sure did a lot of talking about classic movies last year. I yapped about my favorite classics on Periscope. I rambled about obscure classics like Letty Lynton and Spectre of the Rose and got quoted in Newsweek. I went on a tangent about the cultural cachet of classic films and their lack of availability and made it into the L.A. Times. And to my enduring dream-come-true amazement, I recorded a commentary track for Olive Films’ Blu-ray of Orson Welles’s The Stranger.

But was I writing about classic movies? Nope. Not as much as I would’ve liked. I guess I was too busy watching a lot of new (old) movies that delighted me, scared me, and generally “gave me all the feels.” (As a millennial, I’m contractually obligated to say that.) Interestingly enough, a major theme that unites many of these very different discoveries is radical life changes—journeys from frustration to fulfillment, from cowardice to courage, from conformity to freedom.

So, before I turn the page on 2017, I wanted to compose my thoughts on a few favorite new-to-me films.

The Four Feathers (Merian C. Cooper, Lothar Mendes, and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1929)

What’s it about? The son of a British general decides to quit the army rather than risk his life to quell an uprising in Sudan. Branded a coward by his comrades and rejected by his fiancée, our hero sets off to rescue his friends and prove his courage.

Why do I love it? It’s always exciting to watch a performance so good that it makes you change your mind about an actor. In this case, who knew that Richard Arlen could be so charismatic? Certainly not me, despite having seen a significant slice of his prime Paramount filmography. His odd combination of boyish swagger and aggrieved aloofness finds its ideal vehicle in this oft-adapted adventure yarn.

Sweat and grime suited Arlen. The image that will stay with me most from this film isn’t shifting sands or fierce tribes or Victorian ballrooms, but a close-up of Arlen at the moment when he puts his body on the line to block mutinous troops from escape. His nostrils flared, his ridiculous cheekbones bulging under rakish stubble, his eyes glittering with defiance, his face leaves an unshakeable impression. I can think of few close-ups that pack the same transformative weight in a character’s arc. At that moment, Arlen’s huge face on the screen of the Capitol Theater became less a face than an emblem for a less disillusioned world. Or the dream of one, because 1929 was pretty damn disillusioning.

Make no mistake, this is heady imperialist propaganda, so rousingly made by masters of the exotic epic Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack that you’ve got to handle it with care. If The Four Feathers extols a bygone way of thinking that we should not mourn, it also exemplifies the sophistication and lost grandeur of the late silent era. And that we should mourn. We can learn a lot from the past, if only how to make a sprawling, monumental, novelistic movie that clocks in at 81 minutes.

Where can you see it? It’s not on DVD, but you can watch a not terrible quality version on the Internet Archive.

The Countess of Monte Cristo (Karl Freund, 1934)

What’s it about? When her fiancé breaks off their engagement, a bit part actress snaps, drives off the set, and arrives at a swanky hotel in in her studio-owned car and glad rags. In a kind of fugue state, she decides to live it up and pass herself off as a Countess. But how long can she keep up the charade? Will new men in her life, a suave aristocrat and a crotchety crook, reveal her secret?

Why do I love it? If The Countess of Monte Cristo is poor man’s Lubitsch, it’s still very rich indeed. Great cameraman-turned-director Karl Freund gives this Great Depression wish fulfillment romp a buoyant frothiness. When I remember this movie, I see contrast between the dire gloom of the early scenes and the cheerful, gilded, 5-star-hotel sparkle of Wray’s sort-of-accidental foray into grand larceny. And don’t get me started on the snowy brightness and snuggly fireside crackle of the romantic subplot. We get a montage of Fay Wray and Paul Lukas frolicking through an alpine paradise of sports and snow in fur coats and designed woolens, for crying out loud.

Though remembered most for her signature scream, Wray was a smart, tough cookie in real life, and The Countess of Monte Cristo gave her the chance to carry a movie (which she did more often than she’s given credit for). She could wrap the audience around her little finger, even when she’s not pursued by a giant ape. Never forget it.

Paul Lukas is dreamier than I ever remember him being. He looks damn fine when smoking in hotel hallways, and Freund lets Lukas smolder frequently. As Wray’s accomplice and gal pal (who apparently shares a bath with her sometimes), Patsy Kelly delivers the lion’s share of funniness. And, as the curmudgeonly master thief who uses Mitzi as bait, Reginald Owen steals plenty of scenes, memorably sneering, “I’m not diabolical. I’m debonair.” What’s not to love?

Where can you see it? Nowhere at the moment. Of all my 2017 discoveries, this is the one I’d most like to rewatch. Unfortunately, it’s buried deep in the archives at Universal. At Capitolfest, I was part of the first audience to see The Countess of Monte Cristo since the initial release. Maybe it’ll show up at a rare film festival near you!

Alexander Nevsky (Sergei Eisenstein, 1938)

What’s it about? A medieval Russian prince leads an army of lusty singing peasants and lovelorn landowners to battle evil baby-burning German invaders.

Why do I love it? Prince Alexander has great hair. Love me some progressive medieval chieftains who fight alongside women, violently dislike religious fanatics, accessorize with blingy medallions, and flip their fabulous, shiny locks victoriously in front of the camera.

Seriously, though, like everybody else who took a college film course (or 9), I had to watch and read a heaping helping of Sergei Eisenstein. It kind of wore thin on me. YES, MONTAGE IS LIKE A HAIKU IN THAT A MEANING IS PRODUCED WHICH IS NOT PRESENT IN A SINGLE IMAGE ALONE. THANK YOU, SERGEI. YOU ARE VERY CLEVER. I left school without any inclination to further explore his work recreationally.

As much as I respect Eisenstein as a film pioneer, I had given up on enjoying any of his films until I saw this rip-roaring action epic. It’s ultimately about beating the living bejeezus out of proto-Nazis. (And in case you have any doubts that the villains are in fact supposed to stand for Nazis, take a good look at what the zealot bishop has on his little hat.)

Eisenstein’s use of black and white and every shade of gray in between packs a punch into each frame. The frigid, dead whiteness of the German knights’ tunics. The masses of dark troops organizing like some macabre ballet on the ice. Prince Alexander and his lieutenants in chainmail, surveying the land from jagged gunmetal cliffs and harmonizing against the silvery sky. (Sure, it didn’t hurt that I saw this on nitrate at the Nitrate Picture Show.)

Despite some deeply disturbing scenes, Alexander Nevsky is exuberantly entertaining. I call it the Eisenstein Capades, maybe the most fun you can have with the father of montage.

Where can you see it? It’s in the Criterion Collection. You can stream it on FilmStruck. Praise be.

Lady in the Dark (Mitchell Leisen, 1944)

What’s it about? Magazine editor Liza Elliott is a Woman Who Has It All. So why can’t she make up her mind—about her upcoming magazine issue, about the men in her life, about what she really wants? Why does she feel listless and depressed? And why have her dreams turned into bizarre Technicolor allegories? Hm, I wonder if it has to do with some kind of Freudian childhood trauma…

Why do I love it? The colors. My lord, the electrifying, terrifying, soul-nourishing, phantasmagoric colors. Blue dresses and red sequins and orange lipstick and neon pink columns surrounded by lavender mists. Busby Berkeley himself would have to call this movie seriously trippy. I’ve seen a lot of movies, and Lady in the Dark must be one of the most visually stimulating films I’ve ever seen. Director Mitchell Leisen explained his philosophy of color as an embrace of dissonance, like the conflicting colors of dresses at a real-life dinner party.

With Lady in the Dark, Leisen creates a film that seems to be rebelling against itself and subjects its surface dogma to a brutal bombardment of destabilizing beauty. The regressive 1940s-ness the script clashes with the liberating fantasia of the images, celebrating the heroine’s spectacularly troubled unconscious, Freudian complexes and all.

I hope to write more about this one in the future, because it’s been haunting me since I left the the screening at TCMFF! Oh, did I mention I saw it on nitrate? I could hardly stay in my seat.

Where can you see it? Not on a legit U.S. DVD. But you can find it on a major online video platform that begins with Y. And some non-legit purveyors of DVDs have it, too.

Cluny Brown (Ernst Lubitsch, 1946)

What’s it about? A maid struggles to fit into her place in society, despite a fascination with plumbing (yes, really!) and her attraction to a refugee writer who cherishes her weirdness.

Why do I love it? As Lubitsch’s penultimate film, Cluny Brown shows a gentler, mellower side of the director’s cheeky comedy, far from the pyrotechnics of his 1930s output. His quiet mastery of the film medium imparts a cozy glow to this wondrous journey of self-acceptance—but you can’t miss the sharp side-eye cast at the nonsensical constraints of convention. (The villains of the piece are grim and instantly recognizable as every self-loathing petty buzzkill sadist you’ve known in your life.)

The chemistry between Jennifer Jones (never spunkier) and Charles Boyer (never more lovable) sings the truth at the heart of Lubitsch’s best work: we’re at our most ridiculously sexy when we’re at our most ridiculous. Get you a man who beams with admiration when you pull out a wrench to bang on drainage pipes or when you drop the dinner tray shrieking about nuts to the squirrels.

Where can you see it? Cluny Brown occasionally airs on TCM. Heaven knows why it’s not available on a legit U.S. DVD, but that’s my excuse for taking so long to see it. You can probably find it on the vast tangle of internets.

The Man I Love (Raoul Walsh, 1947)

What’s it about? Blues singer Petey goes home to help out her family in Los Angeles and lands a job in a nightclub. Can she protect her siblings from tough breaks while fending off the slimy advances of her gangster boss?

Why do I love it? Ida Lupino smokes, croons, gets her heartbroken, wears Milo Anderson gowns, and slaps awful men in a musical noir romance ensemble melodrama. What more could I say?

Where can you see it? Bless Warner Archive. Long may they reign over the MOD kingdom.

Kind Lady (John Sturges, 1951)

What’s it about? A charitable dowager takes an interest in a charming, penniless artist… allowing him to invade her home and hold her prisoner. Will he succeed in robbing her of everything she treasures, including her sanity?

Why do I love it? By this point in her career, Ethel Barrymore’s mesmerizing talents were usually confined to supporting roles (see Portrait of Jennie, The Spiral Staircase, Moss Rose). Kind Lady gave her a leading role, and, boy, does she ever rip into it. Even today, there’s a decided dearth of worthy vehicles for women over 60 to share the craft they’ve honed over their distinguished careers. It’s downright revelatory to watch a mid-century gaslighting thriller centered on a mature, romantically unattached woman.

Beneath the impeccable control of an Edwardian lady, Barrymore exudes a potent combination of dread and determination. In one unforgettable scene, she responds to the mockingly grotesque portrait that her captor has painted of her. Though literally tied down and physically powerless, she slices through his attempt to diminish her and affirms her identity and dignity with her voice alone. I get chills just thinking about it!

Although we’re rooting for Queen Ethel, Kind Lady spins a gripping tale from uncomfortable questions of luxury and inequality. The fascination with art and collection adds an aura of decadence and semi-Gothic obsession to this tale. One senses that the villain doesn’t merely want money. He derives a perverse pleasure from seeking to destroy a woman whose taste, fortitude, and compassion confronts him with his own inadequacies as an artist and a human being.

Where can you see it? Huzzah! It’s out on DVD from Warner Archive, along with an earlier film adaptation (which I’ve heard is excellent as well).

Beat the Devil (John Huston, 1953)

What’s it about? Oh, gosh. Let’s just say that a bunch of devious people try to do devious things and fail miserably. Imagine The Maltese Falcon if everybody was stoned and couldn’t get their sh*t together.

Why do I love it? Weirdly enough, I started watching Beat the Devil maybe 10 years ago and turned it off after 15 minutes. It just didn’t click. The transfer was bad. I wanted to take it seriously (Heck, it’s John Huston and Humphrey Bogart!) and the movie would not cooperate.

Seeing it at TCMFF (with a similarly appreciative audience) made me fall in love with this oddball caper and welcome its canny meta humor. Exhibit A: Robert Morley, trying to release his posse from the clutches of an unamused authority figure, says something like, “Well, surely looking at us should show that we’re honest!” Whereupon the camera pans across the grisliest rogue’s gallery you can imagine, culminating in Peter I’ve-Played-a-Lot-of-Serial-Killers Lorre. Dear reader, I howled with laughter.

This one is a roaring good time if you’re in on the joke—the joke being Hollywood’s penchant for twisty heist films and thrillers set in spicy locales. And daffy savant Jennifer Jones is my new spirit animal.

Where can you see it? It’s fallen into the public domain, so you can watch it just about anywhere they’ve got movies. The DVD I have is not great, but I haven’t bought the Blu yet but I plan on doing so.

Blood and Roses (Roger Vadim, 1960)

What’s it about? Glamorous European aristos who go to costume parties and fall hopelessly in love with their cousins and ride horses around their sprawling countryside estates and cry into their pillows over their love for their cousins. Also vampires?

Why do I love it? Despite my love of vampire movies and Technicolor eye candy, I procrastinated this one for many years, expecting something ponderously trashy (bloodsucking Barbarella, basically). I was surprised by the film’s combination of delicate, youthful sensuality and bitter regret. In one dazzling scene, our heroine stares transfixed by a vision of love she can never share, and psychedelic flashes of fireworks play over her fresh face as it hardens into despondency. Vadim reinvents the aesthetics of the Gothic, giving us ancient dances played off records, sleek mid-century décors chilled by unrequited passion, and ruins demolished by the remnants of WWII shells.

One of my favorite art historians, Kenneth Clark, said that the painter Watteau understood the sadness of pleasure better than anybody else. Blood and Roses is rather like a horror film made by Watteau. If it is a horror film at all. Because, in this movie, the supernatural is not an intrusion into the characters’ lives, not an invading other. The divisions between past and present, self and other, living and dead, dreams and reality, are not the reassuring partitions we like to imagine.

I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice to say, this movie is everything I thought it wouldn’t be: subtle, pensive, lingering… and, dare I say, immortal.

Where can you see it? Jeez, I like a lot of not-on-U.S.-DVD movies, huh? This one is not hard to find if you do a Google video search.

The King of Hearts (Philippe de Broca, 1966)

What’s it about? During the bloody final days of World War I, a timid British soldier is ordered to defuse a massive bomb hidden somewhere in a quaint French town. He discovers that all the “normal” residents of town have fled, leaving only the whimsical inmates of the local asylum. Will he save the day? Even if he does, what happens when he has to march away, back to the sausage-grinder of trench warfare?

Why do I love it? Around once a year, I happen upon a film that utterly wrecks me in public. In 2017, The King of Hearts was that movie. When the theater lights came up at TCMFF, black rivulets of teary eyeliner streamed down my cheeks, and my heart swelled with the sublime recognition that cinema hasn’t lost its power to destroy me.

Those labeled as crazy are truly the sanest among us. War is true madness. These aren’t novel ideas. But The King of Hearts’ air of frenetic, carnavalesque melancholy perfectly captures the sadness and muffled horror of living in a world that doesn’t give a damn about your flickering happiness as much as it cares about you killing people you’ve never met.

It’s one of the few movies that’s effectively captured the absurdity and impaled innocence of World War I. And yet I left the theater on a swell of butterfly-fragile hope. Throughout it all, the tender bonds between Alan Bates and Genevieve Bujold and between the cohort of inmates as a whole exalt the life-saving power of love and imagination—the craziest and most beautiful qualities of humanity.

Where can you see it? The price is a bit steep, but it is available on DVD.

Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (Seth Holt, 1971)

What’s it about? An archaeologist’s daughter feels the pull of an ancient spirit, a powerful sorceress queen who wants to return to the land of the living. And take her vengeance.

Why do I love it? Hammer horror isn’t exactly known for an abundance of complex female characters. Beyond the “blood and boobs” reputation, however, you’ll find quite a few juicy femme fatale roles in the Hammer canon. Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb offered up arguably Hammer’s best role for an actress. Valerie Leon seems poised to be just another likable daughter figure when we begin to see another personality leech into her, a commanding woman with fearsome occult knowledge.

The ambiguity of this Hammer installment intrigues me. The script wrestles with the good-evil duality that many horror movies accept at face value. Is the Queen Tera really a force of darkness, hellbent on destroying the world as we know it? Or is she a brilliant seer, persecuted all those millennia ago by the ruthless patriarchy? Perhaps she’s both, an eternal embodiment of the knife-edge balance between good and evil that sustain the universe as we know it.

I enjoyed the chutzpah with which Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb toys with its audience, trampling all over the reassuring “rules” of who lives and dies in the Hammer universe. And that last shot, a fitting tribute to the horror genre fixation on women’s eyes, has not left my mind since I saw this underrated Hammer gem months ago.

Where can you see it? Yay, this one is on DVD! Glad to end on a positive note. Otherwise you’d have to endure a tirade about film (un)availability.

Other 2017 recaps and best-of lists that I’ve enjoyed:

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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Musical Revolution: King of Jazz (1930) Gets a New Restoration (and a Book!)

king of jazz posterWe classic movie geeks know a thing or two about suffering for what we love.

We grieve over the films locked away in studio vaults.

We watch dreary, fuzzy transfers of hard-to-find movies and fantasize about what the film would look like with some tender loving care.

We fork over whole paychecks to go to festivals where we try hard not to blink during screenings of sublime rare films, knowing we may never see them again.

So, good news—a lost film found, a DVD or Blu-Ray release of a buried classic, generous funding for archives—means a lot to this community. And some recent developments have made me jump for joy.

Universal is restoring The King of Jazz. Shot entirely in two-color Technicolor, this 1930 musical revue features toe-tapping tunes performed by Paul Whiteman’s orchestra and spectacular production numbers interspersed with brief comedy sketches.

Film historians James Layton and David Pierce, co-authors of the sumptuous and fascinating Dawn of Technicolor, 1915–1935, are advising on the restoration. I got the king of jazz layton and pierce bookchance to ask Layton, manager of MoMA’s Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center, a few questions about the restoration, the film, and his and Pierce’s forthcoming book, King of Jazz: Paul Whitman’s Technicolor Revue.

If you’ve seen this elusive early sound milestone, you’ve probably seen a mutilated version. According to Layton, “No version of King of Jazz seen since the 1960s has been close to the original release version (which was first screened in New York City on May 2, 1930 at 105 minutes). The VHS releases and various 16mm prints floating around have had at least ten minutes missing and scenes in the wrong order.”

And, as if that’s not bad enough, the way those versions look could give anybody the shrieking fantods.

Early Technicolor’s restricted palette lent a refreshing, eye-popping vigor to trippy early musical sequences. But you’d never know that from the old transfers of King of Jazz circulating these days. With washed-out actors, ghastly dried-Playdough pinks, and heinous shades of blue, the VHS version I saw seems more like a horror movie. When I’m watching Bing Crosby’s first film appearance, I shouldn’t be thinking that he bears an alarming resemblance to Chucky.

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Honestly, squint a little, and you’d think the colorization folks had gotten out their big box of crayons and gone to town. Shudder, shudder.

(Note: most screencaps in this post come from a much prettier original trailer for King of Jazz, which you can watch at the Internet Archive, NOT from the awful feature-length version I saw.)

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If ever a film needed the royal treatment, King of Jazz is it. Heralded since 2012, when this blog was just a gleam in my eye, Universal’s restoration is finally on the verge of bringing all that jazz back to theaters.

The restoration primarily draws on a pristine but condensed camera negative, sliced down to a 65-minute version for a reissue in 1933. Compare that with an original running time of 105 minutes. (Pause for facepalm.) Fortunately, scanned nitrate prints from the Library of Congress and the Danish Film Institute can fill in the gaps.

As Layton told me, “I haven’t seen the finished restoration yet, but I can confirm it will feature footage that has not been seen by audiences since 1930.”

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He and Pierce had initially planned to write an article about King of Jazz to mark the restoration. “But as we were researching we kept finding more and more amazing resources that were too irresistible not to draw upon. We soon decided we had enough for a book!”

King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue will include many images never before published. For instance, reproductions of Academy Award-winning production designs by Herman Rosse “will form the backbone of the book.”

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Scanning one of Rosse’s production designs for the upcoming book…

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…and the design as it appeared in the film.

Layton and Pierce’s research is shedding light on how early talkie Hollywood continued to produce for foreign markets. Remember the Spanish-language Dracula? Well, Universal simultaneously produced 9—NINE—foreign versions of King of Jazz! Alas, all of these except the French version (preserved at the Gosfilmofond in Russia) are lost.

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A still for “Il re del jazz,” the lost Italian version of “King of Jazz.”

The studio chose a veritable “It’s a Small World After All”-worthy crew of international actors working in Hollywood to serve as hosts for audiences in foreign countries.

“We found extremely rare photographs of nearly all of the foreign hosts, including Nils Asther, Bela Lugosi, Tetsu Komai, Andre Cheron and Antonin Vaverka,” Layton says.

And, if you’re interested in how audiences from Portugal to Japan responded to this surreal riot of Art Deco pop culture—translated into their native tongues—the book will cover that, too. “We worked closely with Gosfilmofond, the Czech national film archive, Museo del cinema in Turin, the Swedish Film Institute, and a host of international film researchers to translate original articles from international newspapers and magazines.”

I asked Layton if he’d uncovered anything else surprising about King of Jazz. He explained, “One of the most eye-opening moments early on in our research was the realization that a lot of the musical numbers were not new to the film; they had been honed on the Broadway and vaudeville stage throughout the 1920s, and were then re-imagined for motion pictures by visionary director John Murray Anderson.”

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Indeed, King of Jazz strikes me as a thrillingly transitional film, sometimes bound to stage conventions, but more often innovative and cinematic, breaking out into an impossibly fluid space. For instance, the musical number “It Happened in Monterey” uses the potential of cinematic space to conjure up a nostalgic past.

The sequence’s “protagonist” (golden-voiced John Boles) starts out singing about his lost love while looking at her portrait in a small, confined room. The camera tracks in towards the painting—which dissolves into the subject of the portrait (Jeanette Loff)—then camera moves out to reveal a vast, romantic stylized vision of old Monterey.

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Sure, you’ll get wide shots of kicklines, as though you were plunked in the audience of a big Broadway theater. Yet, you’ll also get ethereal double exposures, oodles of tracking and crane shots, passages of fast, rhythmic editing, and animated musical interludes, all drenched in the psychedelic glory of early Technicolor.

My favorite shot of the film comes during the“Rhapsody in Blue” sequence, probably the best-known portion of the film, thanks to its giant piano and top-hatted Russell Markert dancers (a troupe we now know as the Rockettes). Yet, amidst all that extravagance, the image that lingers in my mind is this shot of a clarinetist.

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This low angle brings us into the intimacy of the performance and gives us a perspective that we’d be unlikely to encounter in real life. Towering against the glittering blue background, the clarinet player takes on the power of a shaman, channelling the magic of jazz into a new era of audiovisual stimulation.

In a similar vein, look at this overhead shot of the violins section in Whiteman’s orchestra.

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I know what you’re thinking: it looks sort of Busby Berkeley, right? Well, King of Jazz hit theaters in the spring of 1930. And Whoopee!, the first film on which Berkeley worked as a dance director, premiered in New York City on September 30 of the same year.

King of Jazz is both a rip-roaring good time and a key film in the development of the musical as a genre. And for many years it’s been something of a “missing link.” I look forward to learning more about it.

For more information about Layton and Pierce’s new book, check out their Kickstarter and consider backing it. Support film scholarship!

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Now, you might be wondering, how can cinephiles see the restoration? Well, I’ve got more good news.

The restored King of Jazz will premiere at MoMA as part of upcoming series focusing on Universal’s years under the reign of Junior Laemmle.

Often ridiculed as a brash baby mogul, Junior received studio control in 1929 as a 21st birthday gift from his father, Universal founder Carl Laemmle. (And you thought My Super Sweet 16 was wild!) However, Junior’s term as general manager bequeathed to us some of the greatest and most enduring films of the 1930s, including Universal’s cycle of horror films, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the 1934 adaptation of Imitation of Life.

Junior’s contributions to film history, especially during the no-holds-barred pre-Code era, deserve wider recognition. (Even if he did allegedly think that Bette Davis had the sex appeal of Slim Summerville. We all make mistakes.)

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According to Layton, the Junior Laemmle series, programmed by Dave Kehr, “will include premieres of many new restorations and preservations from Universal’s restoration department.” MoMA will announce dates soon.

(And here’s hoping that these dazzling restorations will make it onto DVD and/or Blu-ray. Seriously, Universal, don’t make me publicly rail against your home release record. Again.)

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If you can’t make the MoMA series, may I interest you in Capitolfest?

This festival screens rare silents and pre-Codes in a 1928 Moorish style movie palace. Believe me, it’s even better than it sounds. King of Jazz poses a special challenge.

As Capitolfest’s Facebook page reports, “unfortunately, there will be no FILM prints [of King of Jazz]. There will be a DCP (digital) print available, however, though we are not equipped to show this at the Capitol. And so, we have decided to show this as our regular weekly attraction at one of the small cinemas next door to the Capitol, from August 11-15.”

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So, two guesses where I’ll be on August 15, 2016.

When it comes to restorations, I usually only see the “after” in the “before and after” process. Having witnessed the wan, chopped-up King of Jazz, I’m especially excited to discover the restoration. I’ll get to observe not only the changes in the film, but also the changes in my reactions to it.

Stay tuned! And don’t let creepy, faded Technicolor Bing Crosby haunt your nightmares.

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My pal Will McKinley of Cinematically Insane has also written about the restoration and done a great interview with James Layton. Highly recommended reading!

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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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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