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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The Purchase Price (1932): The Time of the Season for Love?

poster“I’ve been up and down Broadway since I was fifteen years old. I’m fed up with hoofing in shows. I’m sick of nightclubs, hustlers, bootleggers, chiselers, and smart guys. I’ve heard all the questions and I know all the answers. And I’ve kept myself… fairly respectable through it all. The whole atmosphere of this street gives me a high-powered headache. I’ve got a chance to breathe something else, and boy, I’m grabbing it.”

—Joan Gordon, The Purchase Price 

For the quantity of one (1) soul mate, send $10.00 and a self-addressed envelope to… Yeah right. Ah, if only it were that easy. If only fate (or a non-creepy catalogue, perhaps?) brought a wonderful gal or worthy suitor right to your door. If only you could order your very own Barbara Stanwyck via mail, as William Wellman’s The Purchase Price suggests.

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In spite of its hilarious contrivance—the idea that an ill-advised mail-order marriage could melt into true love—I fell for this offbeat romance. You cannot resist its charms. You find yourself rooting for the wily city girl to end up with the aw-shucks boy-next-door. And I marvel at how much plot and character development these pre-Code yarns could cram into a runtime of barely over one hour.

vlcsnap-2013-07-06-17h59m05s160Trying to pry loose from a dead-end relationship with a gangster, Joan Gordon changes her name, goes to Canada, and switches places with a woman who had agreed to be a mail-order bride on a frontier farm. Although Joan initially rebuffs her yokel husband on their wedding night, she grows to admire and respect him. Transforming into a warm, caring wife, Joan battles financial pressures threatening the farm and tries to fend off shadows of her past.

vlcsnap-2013-07-06-17h42m01s160 Stanwyck shines (does she ever not shine?) in a role closely related to her breakout performance in Ladies of Leisure: a tough child of asphalt who pines for a more meaningful existence. When we first meet Joan, she’s crooning at a speakeasy. In fact, the trailer for The Purchase Price advertised Missy’s singing voice as a significant attraction—announcing “Listen! It’s the voice of Barbara Stanwyck!”— although she only sings in one scene.

Although Stanwyck’s smoky, homely contralto doesn’t exactly soar in a torch song melody, her soulful delivery tells us much more about the character than your usual pre-Code nightclub sequence does. In this opening scene, a surprising amount of drama creeps into the character introduction. For instance, I just love the ironic contrast between the pure yearning in Stanwyck’s voice and the ugly mugs we see from above, looking up at her with wistful lust. The peculiar combination of corny, but heartfelt sentiment and urban grime elegantly sums up Stanwyck’s early image.

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Like an angel in greasepaint, she leans over tables of drooling drunks and sings a sad ballad, “Take me away…” which becomes the movie’s musical and emotional theme.

As Joan hovers over a silken gangster type, his platinum blonde moll, a sort of bargain basement Jean Harlow, eyes her with envy and melancholy. We, the viewers, immediately recognize the difference between your run-of-the-mill working girl and Joan—a complex, earthy woman. Even faced with a gallery of grotesques, Joan Gordon sings like she means it. And, as we soon learn, she’s not just putting on an act: she really does long for an escape.

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The men in Joan’s life seem to specialize in letting her down. There’s Eddie, her slimy, yet affable racketeer boyfriend, who insists, “You daffy little tomato, I’m bugs about ya. I’d marry ya myself—if I wasn’t already married.” Now, there’s a winner! Unfortunately, he doesn’t excite her as much as she excites him, we notice, as she clinically changes behind a screen her dressing room, while he jumps up to get a look.

Screen Shot 2013-07-06 at 5.13.50 PMClearly, she doesn’t like the familiar cheapness of the world they inhabit; he does. He’s not a bad guy as far as racketeers go, but a man like that can’t offer a woman a better future. As she wipes off her makeup after her act, she matter-of-factly returns Eddie’s apartment key and gives him her trademark I’ve-had-enough-of-it speech.

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Unfortunately, Joan’s “chance to breathe,” her rich milksop fiancé, breaks off their engagement because of Joan’s ties to the aforementioned slimy gangster. Prevailed upon by his wealthy father, this anemic fool dumps Stanwyck (“It’s STANWYCK, you goof!” I yelled at my screen) in a humorous hotel scene during which the maid stops scrubbing floors and the groom shuts off his vacuum cleaner to eavesdrop.

And, that night, Joan’s in her dressing room again, getting taken back by her low-life boyfriend—and hating every minute of it.

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I appreciate how William Wellman and canny screenwriter Robert Lord (of The Little Giant and Heroes for Sale) handle what could’ve been clichés with a light touch. Instead of the evil bootlegger, victimized torch singer, and spotless high-class fiancé love triangle, we get something a bit more interesting and true.

Joan comes across as neither victimized nor blameless, neither virtuous nor promiscuous.  I particularly love how she sits there after being dumped by her escape-plan-man, watching men in the street take the garbage out. You can sense every fiber of Staywyck vibrating with contrasting emotions: not only mentally cursing out her limp-wristed fiancé, but also feeling trashy, blaming herself, lamenting what could have been. There are no tears, no hysterics. Just a sigh and a shrug. It’s worse than tragic. It’s disappointing.

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Cheer up, Stany! It’s just the first act…

She’s made of better stuff than the men in her life, but they’re not good-versus-bad caricatures either. Eddie racketeer doesn’t menace her, like we expect him to. And Joan’s fiancé doesn’t defy his family to marry her, like we expect him to.

Having dispatched three stereotypes at once, Wellman returns to Joan and her dilemma. Sick and tired of her life, Joan changes her name and moves to Montréal. Eddie, the clingiest bootlegger of them all, is still trying to find Joan, so she trades places with her maid and goes to the middle of nowhere to marry a stranger.

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Luckily for her, the stranger looks like George Brent. Although Brent just doesn’t do it for me when he’s playing an alluring man of the world, he proves a total delight in the role of Jim Gilson, a loping country bumpkin who conceals surprising reserves of intelligence and dedication.

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Don’t judge a book by its cover. And don’t judge a man just ’cause he looks like he escaped from the cast of Hee-Haw.

Greeting Joan with an iron handshake and a summer cold sniffle, Jim Gilson trots her off to a ludicrous marriage ceremony where the village idiot and a batter-stirring housewife serve as witnesses. All this exaggerated “one-horse town” humor may seem mildly offensive these days, but at least it provides Stany with an abundance of priceless reaction shots.

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“Uh… really?”

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“Really?”

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“Come on—REALLY, now?”

As Jim takes Joan into town, as he haggles over the price of the ring, as he marries her, as he carts her back to his farm, droll suspense lingers in the air—will he attempt to, ahem, assert his marital rights? Um, got awkward? Finally, they get back to his farmhouse and he proceeds to set up a sleeping bag on the living room floor while Stany goes into the bedroom. Phew. No wedding night antics…

Oh, wait. Cut to Jim looking through the legs of the table. He sees shadows under the bedroom door. Cut to Joan getting changed. Cut to Jim, creeping up to the door. Cut to Joan in her nightie inspecting the room. BOOM! There he is, bursting through.

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And since pretty much every Stanwyck movie of the 1930s has to have at least one slap, we know this probably isn’t going to end well for lover boy… I have to take pause and applaud not only the mixture of repulsion and regret that Stanwyck projects, but also Brent’s desire and shame.

Rather than aiming at sheer titillation, this scene sets up the dramatic stakes of the rest of the film. She browbeats herself for hurting him, and he browbeats himself for coming on too strong. Their insecurities bubble up and it will take a lot of adversity—and a year of sexual tension—to bring them together again.

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Will Jim loose his farm? Will he reject Joan when Eddie shows up and reveals her past? What kind of bargain will Joan have to make to save her husband’s dream of happiness?

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Well, I won’t totally give away the ending, but let me say this. I cherish The Purchase Price for its ability to craft a mature fairy tale, a rare blend of pre-Code sex comedy and earnest domestic drama. Let’s face it, a lot of films of the early 1930s betray precious little emotional insight and give us couplings that we don’t exactly buy.

That era of cinematic sophistication often buckled under the pressure of censorship—and the perceived audience desire for an upbeat conclusion—and served up happy endings that the characters didn’t deserve. I mean, who really thinks that Baby Face, Midnight Mary, or Skyscraper Souls (to name only a few) would shake out the way they did in the real world?

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So, it’s a distinctly refreshing feeling to watch The Purchase Price and bask in the agrarian glow of two parallel harvests: a hard-earned crop of wheat and the fruits of an equally challenging courtship. The sensual, yet fully legitimate kiss between Brent and Stanwyck, husband and wife, imbues the film with a cozy, alluring idealism, tempered by the bumpy road it took to get there.

Love, marriage, sex, fertility—these aren’t things that we should snicker about when they occur naturally, as part of a cycle, a ripening. If the premise taxes our credulity a bit, we witness a believable relationship blossom through deliberate pacing and characterization.

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The modern world forces us into all sorts of awkward jumblings of this natural order. (Now, bear in mind, I’m a 22-year-old unattached working girl, so don’t think I’m endorsing the concept of settling down or the white picket fence lifestyle.) I don’t think the movie’s message is “get married randomly and everything will work out.” On the contrary, this movie hints that marrying a stranger is as unnatural as the sort of fast-and-not-so-easy hook-ups that we consider so very modern. The Purchase Price makes the case for courtship, for letting a bond form  patiently between two people.

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The rotation of the seasons as a motif—enhanced through cinematography by Sidney Hickox (of Female and The Big Sleep)—helps to drive this point home poetically.

An astonishing amount of time, effort, and resources went into the set designs that create this “circle of life” seasonal effect. For the bleak winter frontier scenes, masses of snow were made from fine gypsum and thirty-five tons of untoasted corn flakes! The “frozen river” was simulated by heating water then pouring paraffin over top of that which, apparently, reproduces the look of ice—even breaking and cracking like ice when stepped on.

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A behind-the-scenes shot for The Purchase Price, published in the August 1932 issue of Photoplay magazine. William Wellman is teaching Stanwyck to scream.

Winter advisory warning: I’d like to alert you to one seriously hot sequence that takes place in the snow. It’s the one being filmed in the picture above. Even wearing long underwear and a winter coat, Stanwyck manages to turn on the heat and sizzle. “Have you ever heard a woman scream? Well, you’re going to…” In other words, all that set design travail and toil was well worth it!

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I can’t think of many actresses who could sell The Purchase Price, but Missy was the Queen of Credibility. Her extraordinary gift as a screen actress resides in her ability to wed theatricality to realism. Whether with a roll of the eye, a tilt of the head, or a full-on lunge or sock to the jaw, and she is constantly communicating what she is feeling. She tethers her audience to the moment with the sheer present-ness of her performance. For 68 minutes of pure Stanwyck charm, don’t miss out on The Purchase Price. And, to think, I didn’t even mention all those pre-Code lingerie scenes…

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This post is part of the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, hosted by The Girl with the White Parasol. Be sure to check out the other terrific entries!

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Tough Love: The Devil Is a Woman (1935)

devil_is_a_woman“[Dietrich] and I have progressed as far as possible together, and my being with her will help neither her nor me.” —Joseph von Sternberg after making The Devil Is a Woman

In the annals of creator-muse relationships, Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich stand out as one of the oddest couples. 

He was a tyrannical aesthete. A diminutive, immaculately dressed monster who refused his actors bathroom breaks and grew a mustache to look intentionally “more horrible,” in his own words. She was a bighearted goddess. Her screen glamour belied the earthiness and generosity that led Billy Wilder to call her “Mother Teresa with better legs.”

The volatile Sternberg-Dietrich pairing produced seven of the most ecstatically, enduringly beautiful movies of all time. Beginning with The Blue Angel, these Baroque, decadent films usually revolved around an unpredictable femme fatale with a knack for enthralling and degrading the men in her life.

dsAlthough it’s often the woman who holds the whip in Sternberg works, ironically, the dictatorial auteur liked to refer publicly to Dietrich (and to all actors) as insipid puppets. Tempting as it is to describe their cinematic love affair as a Svengali-Trilby-style domination, the truth remains more complex.

In 1968, Sternberg wrote, “I am a teacher who took a beautiful woman, instructed her, presented her carefully, edited her charms, disguised her imperfections and led her to crystallize a pictorial aphrodisiac. She was a perfect medium, who with intelligence absorbed my direction, and despite her own misgivings responded to my conception of a female archetype.”

However, she was more than a passive creation. When they met, she was no ingénue; she could already draw on years of stage and film experience. After all, Sternberg respected Dietrich enough to concoct her own iconic cabaret costumes for The Blue Angel, effectively assigning her responsibility for a key aspect of the film’s look. He said, “She has an uncanny knack for what looks right,” and by the end of their collaborations, Maria Riva noted, Sternberg admitted that Dietrich knew as much about cameras and shot set-ups as a director.

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Thus, one must conclude that Dietrich and Sternberg co-authored her persona. Plus, Sternberg certainly can’t take credit for all of her allure! Without her mocking sensuality and her inner strength masquerading as matter-of-factness, their seven films together would’ve been icy exercises in gorgeous cinematography.

And today, I’d like to examine the last and probably the least well-known of their collaborations, The Devil Is a Woman. On the cusp of separating with Dietrich forever, Sternberg created a visual love song, half malice, half worship, originally given the musical name Caprice Espagnole, before Ernst Lubitsch changed it to the more self-explanatory final title.

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Set in 19th century Spain, the story begins with a hallucinatory sequence of the impressionable Don Antonio chasing an elusive, masked woman in the midst of Carnival. When Antonio goes to visit a bitter, lonely friend, Don Pasqual, at their officers’ club, he learns that the woman he saw, Concha Perez, drove Pasqual to ruin his reputation and retire in despair.

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Told in flashback, the sadomasochistic romance between the wheedling Concha and the stoic, embarrassed Pasqual emerges through a downward path of episodic encounters. Pasqual finds Concha, loses his heart and his money, and then she deserts him. This pattern repeats itself several times. When we jump back to the present, Pasqual and Antonio enter into yet another iteration of the jealous cycle—ending in a duel that will force Concha to show where her affections truly lie.

Oh, did I mention the fact that Don Pasquale or “Pasqualito” is a dead-ringer for Sternberg? Seriously. It gets creepy after a while.

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When film critic Alexander Walker asked Sternberg why he made Atwill look so much like him, the director replied, “Everyone in my films is like me… spiritually.” Well, that’s nice, Jo, but don’t avoid the question, please. Quite frankly, I think Sternberg knew that The Devil Is a Woman would be his last film with Dietrich, and he wanted to immortalize his doppelgänger in her arms.

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That’s not to say that I—or anyone else—should view Sternberg as a jilted man. According to Maria Riva, Sternberg called off his collaboration with Dietrich. He may have done so because he wanted her to make a commercial success with another director, whereas his efforts were decreasingly profitable. She objected—protesting that she resembled “a potato” when photographed by anyone else—but it was the end of a legendary partnership.

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Although their final movie together lacks the unity of Shanghai Express, which I consider the greatest of the Dietrich-Sternberg films, this tale of sexual obsession resonates with a poignant sense of personal desperation and pain. Some reviewers have observed that Sternberg uses his lavish mise-en-scene as a distancing technique; for me, it’s always the opposite. I feel that I’m meeting an exquisitely tragic (or tragically exquisite) person; I want to understand the anguish underneath the sublime bric-a-brac.

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Every gauze curtain, every hanging flacon, every glittering hair comb in The Devil Is a Woman possesses the idealized desirability of a mirage. But to call this movie a feast for the eyes would soften the element of defiance inherent in such a positive glut of beauty; its overstimulation borders on cruelty—rather like putting such a feast before starving eyes.

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Swathed in some of the most ornate costumes designed by Paramount’s Travis Banton, Dietrich never looked better. In fact, Maria Riva remembered that it was Dietrich who insisted on the preponderance of lace that becomes a major motif for her coquette-on-steroids. I’m not the first person to remark that the swirl of veils, nets, and curtains provide a visual equivalent for the layers upon layers of Concha’s identity. Is she a capricious girl pretending to be a femme fatale? Or a femme fatale pretending to be a femme fatale?

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Dietrich’s assurance and maturity as an actress surge forth from the screen. Capable of exaggerated, girlish shenanigans and dignified (if a little coy) reflection, her Concha harbors unexpected reserves of brains and guts. One cannot help but be amused by her tendency to interrupt others, her masterfully illogical arguments, and her ability to displace blame onto her lovers.

Despite the humor Dietrich infused into the film, a suppressed violence simmers in each frame. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sternberg deliberately channeled the style of Francisco de Goya, an artist who could slip from revolting horrors to refined beauty. The contorted carnival masks that fill the streets all leer at the protagonists like a swarm of demons. Concha’s one-eyed, old hag manager incessantly cackles at Don Pasqual, as though she can perceive his imminent humiliation.

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Most alarmingly, the viewer has to question how much Concha diverges from the version of her that Pasqual portrays. After all, some of his flashbacks visit places and times when he wasn’t even present. In one instance, we “see” the illiterate Concha dictate a letter to a curate, fabricating a dejection and heartache that she doesn’t feel. To get really brambly, he’s representing her as she falsely represents herself.

By contrast, perhaps the most important moment in Concha and Pasqual’s relationship takes place off-screen. Surprising Concha with another lover, Pasqual confronts her. Refusing to back down, she questions his right to tell her what to do—he’s not her father, her husband, or her lover. It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. He hauls off and hits her.

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Cut to the shutters outside Concha’s apartment. Over the sound of raindrops, we hear short, sharp cries of pain and slaps. It’s a terrible moment of betrayal for the viewer, shut out of Don Pasqual’s point-of-view at a crucial moment in the plot. Not seeing the violence inflicted upon Concha actually makes it much, much worse. What we imagine will always be more brutal.

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The next day Concha shows no marks of abuse, but the scene leaves a bitter taste in our mouths. We, the spectators, have no cozy, righteous character to identify with. Our loyalties hover between Concha, an intentionally provocative manipulator, and Pasqual, who just beat up his lover, which is irrefutably wrong, no matter how appalling she seems. Although we tend to remember Sternberg-Dietrich movies for their pictorial beauty, The Devil Is a Woman plays with our ethical judgments, giving us a messy, uncomfortable coupling with no moral center.

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I’m also fascinated by how Sternberg edited the flashbacks. Within sequences, he made frequent use of lingering, romantic dissolves—but when travelling from the past to the present, he uses straight cuts. The jarring, split-second change of time and place feels like a slap on the face. It jolts and shocks us, while suggesting the rawness of past experience. As Faulkner would say, the past isn’t even past. Certainly not when you’re staging it for celluloid eternity.

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We tend to treasure movies that capture the beginning of an off-screen romance (To Have and Have Not comes to mind.) Well, there’s a special place in my heart for films that memorialize the dissolution of a real life relationship. Dietrich and Sternberg’s dying affair imbues the film with a peculiar mixture of rage and melancholy that keeps me riveted to the screen.

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Released under the iron rule of Joseph Breen once the pre-Code honeymoon was over, the film met heavy censorship. (A perverse musical number, “If It Isn’t Pain, It Isn’t Love” was recorded, but cut. Click here to listen to it.) Even once it was released, critics panned it, audiences shunned it, and Paramount withdrew it from circulation after the Spanish government threatened to boycott their films. The studio destroyed their print. The Devil Is a Woman—a hymn of rejection—was appropriately rejected.

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Yet, The Devil Is a Woman survives. How is that possible? Dietrich saved this masterpiece. She kept a personal copy. It was her favorite among her movies.

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This post is part of the Dynamic Duos in Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by Once Upon a Screen and the Classic Movie Blog Hub. Be sure to check out this outstanding blog event and read the other entries!

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Beau Brummel (1924): Deeply Superficial

Poster“But the true beau is a beau-ideal, an abstraction substantialized only by the scissors, a concentrated essence of frivolity, infinitely sensitive to his own indulgence, chill as the poles to the indulgences of others; prodigal to his own appetites, never suffering a shilling to escape for the behoof of others; magnanimously mean, ridiculously wise, and contemptibly clever.

Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1844.

Superficiality gets a bad rap. After all, what does that much-maligned word denote, in its essence? It means an emphasis on the surface, on that which is readily apparent. Now, I will never condone an obsession with exterior beauty that dismisses any interior value; however, I cannot help but detect something heroic about the desire to project a surface of agonizing perfection. Appearance-consciousness rises to the level of greatness—and dare I say art?—when it demands extreme discipline and taste on the part the person who takes up the heavy burden of being an exalted human spectacle.

I am referring to that hallowed creature, the dandy. And if we want to enjoy Beau Brummel as anything other than a quaintly moving romance based on Clyde Fitch’s 1890 play, we need to introduce ourselves to this most charming phenomenon.

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The dandy as a cultural and literary concept resists a simple definition. It depends on whom you’re talking to, but I like Nigel Rodgers’s recent definition of “the perennial dandy principles: independence, elegance, courtesy, wit.” On a more philosophical level, the love of my life Charles Baudelaire likened the dandy to the Stoic of antiquity because the dandy wears a mask of whimsy and nonchalance even when in the throes of pain or misfortune or when sullied by the teeming mediocrity of the commercial world around him. His beauty is not vulgar because it cannot be bought merely with money (although it helps, all dandies agree); that beauty reflects his originality, his ability to style and reimagine himself.

And no man incarnated the ideals of dandyism more famously than Beau Brummel, the subject of today’s offering, a 1924 silent period drama based on his spectacular life. (N.B. I am spelling the character’s name Brummel because that’s how it’s written on the titles. However, the favored spelling, according to the junta at dandyism.net. is with two L’s.)

jackprofileBeau Brummel follows the trajectory of a rise and fall. As a young officer, Brummel falls in love with Lady Margery, an heiress betrothed to an aristocrat and fails to rescue her from the clutches of her family.

Deciding to climb the social ladder, Brummel ingratiates himself with the Prince of Wales by getting him out of an amorous jam. Through his careful cultivation of mannerisms and trends and his blistering wit, “Beau” sets himself up as the reigning king bee of the upper crust—but earns as many enemies as friends. Eventually, Beau grows too big for his breeches and winds up banished by the Prince to some frigid outpost in Calais, northern France, where he dies in utter penury.

Harry Beaumont, best known for another film about style and appearances, Our Dancing Daughters, directed this poignant tale with panache and an acute eye for stunning compositions and haunting details. In depicting the rise and fall of a fashion arbiter, Beaumont uses mirrors as a motif to explore the character’s self-consciousness. The first shot we see of Brummel is a shot of him between intertitles, reflected in an oval mirror. In that classical round frame, he resembles the immaculate, still images on 18th century cameos. This is the image—but the real man is onscreen, too, although you notice him as an afterthought. We understand that appearance means everything to Brummel. Paradoxically, the most profound desires of his soul express themselves in his drive to be flamboyantly attractive and debonair.

Once Brummel has fallen from grace, the mirror, once his friend, becomes his enemy. Barrymore brought me to tears in one scene where the ravaged, wasted Brummel tries to look at his face then turns away, pushing at the glass with his fingers, streaking it in dismay.

However, I hope that our director, the talented Mr. Beaumont, won’t roll over in his grave if I observe Beau Brummel wears the unmistakable charm and savoir faire of John Barrymore front and center—like a gracefully tied cravat—and deserves most of the credit for this film’s emotional impact. A rake, a genius, a matinee idol, and as self-destructive a man that ever existed, Barrymore incarnated the sardonic wisdom and reckless hedonism at the core of dandyism.

Our star is also responsible for perhaps this film’s most significant contribution to posterity: Mary Astor’s breakout role.

maryAstor—a woman who never gave herself enough credit for her depth and strength—initially attracted attention from Hollywoodland by winning a beauty contest. Superficiality, at least, brought her to the screen and to all of us. Her possessive parents, so cruel and pushy that they might have easily fit into the ruthlessly upwardly-mobile world of Beau Brummel, recognized her beauty as their cash cow. Mary played several minor parts until John Barrymore asked for her as his leading lady in Beau Brummel.

And that’s when life and art started to intertwine to the point that it would be hard to say which was imitating which. In her autobiography, My Story, Astor recalled her screen test for the role of Lady Margery and her first meeting with the Great Profile:

“We were both in costume of sorts, just enough to indicate the period, and as we were standing in for lighting my awe for this great man made me confused and awkward. Mr. Barrymore broke through my shyness by talking about everything under the sun but the picture; he made me laugh about something, and he gradually and skillfully made me feel that I was his contemporary as an actor and as a person. He told me he had seen a picture of me in a magazine while he was on a train coming out from New York, and the caption had appealed to him: ‘On the brink of womanhood.’ I told him I was seventeen, and he said, just a little sadly, ‘It seems so long ago that I was seventeen. I’m forty now.’

“ ‘That’s not so old,’ I said, and we were great friends.

“I know that on that afternoon we fell in love, and I am sure he was even more startled than I.”

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Barrymore gave Mary her first acting lessons and unlocked a new realm of ideas and intellect to this affection-starved girl. During some of these lessons, there was no studying, however. These forbidden trysts between the ingénue and the mentor over twice her age echo the roles that they poetically brought to life onscreen. Astor remembered,

“In the filming of the many romantic, delicate love scenes of Beau Brummel we could stand in each other’s arms, Jack in his romantic red and blue hussar uniform and white wig, I in the beautiful Empire style dresses, while the camera and lights were being set. We whispered softly, or just stood there, quietly loving the closeness; and no one was the wiser. Between scenes, Jack had the prop man place two camp chairs together just off the set, and we sat side by side.”

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And so, finally, after much perambulation around the film’s contexts, I arrive at Beau Brummel itself. Unlike me, this movie wastes no time; we don’t see the romance between Beau (or George) and Lady Margery blossom—we see it cut off in medias res.

Dressed in a bridal gown, Margery meets her beloved George, a dashing soldier, in the garden to say goodbye. She’s about to depart for a life bound to another man in a marriage of convenience. Watching Barrymore’s duly celebrated face going nose-to-nose with Mary Astor’s equally photogenic profile presents a sight so stunning and precise it borders on graphic design! I felt like I was looking at one of those dual-profile-chalice illusion sketches.

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Their dazzling united loveliness might sound like a superficial thing to remark on—but, again, it’s an instance where superficiality weds something more spiritual. The surreal perfection of these two people leads us to wordlessly understand that they are meant to be together. Our eyes know it and our eyes speak directly to our hearts.

Beau Brummel is one of those rare films that captures the spark of an off-screen love affair. You can read it in Astor’s overly wide eyes and in the tender care with which Barrymore’s hands never seem to stop moving, but always seem to nervously long to caress a different part of this splendid creature.

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Unfortunately, Lady Margery’s nasty, social-climbing mother (not so different from Astor’s real-life maternal unit) bursts in. This harpy forces the girl to choose between her duty and the man she loves—really, no choice, because she can’t exactly run away with an enlisted man. George leaves her in despair, vows to climb the social ladder with his charm and wit. He takes his miniature portrait of her and writes on the back, “This beautiful creature is dead.” We know that he will meet her again.

Mary Astor, even in her teenage years, possessed a striking aura of grief and maturity. For instance, after Beau leaves for France, she clings to the door he just exited through, almost squashed against it like a broken butterfly. Seen from behind and in a long shot, she communicates a universe of pain merely by wiggling her arms despondently.

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Except for when she was playing comedy (and even then), Astor interacted with the world as one who has been hurt by it. And with her pale complexion and those perpetual dark circles that even panstick makeup couldn’t conceal, she never looked like she got quite enough sleep. That is a strong part of her allure. You wonder what she was doing all night.

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Both her fragility and her fortitude shine through her portrayal of Lady Margery. Although the script gives her little more to do than watch and react, her soulful eyes, so dark that the appearance of the whites is startling, convey a sense of heartbreaking loss. As she turns her eyes to signify the screen direction of her departing lover, we feel her happiness slip away.

trioThe scenes between her and Brummel stand out as the best of the film. Now, that’s not to say that Barrymore doesn’t beguile us pretty much constantly. Whether he’s flirting with another man, treating the Prince of Wales like an inferior acquaintance, or coyly nodding at his jealous fellow officers, he swaggers exquisitely. However, when he encounters the love of his life, then and only then do we perceive the man worthy of all that external beauty.

When Lady Margery visits him in Calais, her youth still shines while Beau, ground down by poverty, has aged horribly. He’s crouched by the fire, gnawing on a piece of bread when she comes in. As she stands in the doorway, the awkward stillness of the shot-reverse-shot exchanges tear at our heartstrings. Finally, she enters, informs him that her husband is dead, and, in an unusual inversion of the movie proposal scene, asks him to marry her. Do I smell a happy ending after all?

No, alas.

As Beau tells her, “I am grown old, and changed, and tired of life.” After she departs, he starts to sob by the door, biting on his own hand to keep her from hearing and coming back to his aid.

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Call it vanity, call it stupidity, but he loves her so much that he couldn’t live with the thought of giving her a second-rate version of himself. Thus we witness the pride and integrity that sustains dandyism. We also observe a very genuine facet of Barrymore’s love for his teenage costar.

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As Astor noted, “I know Jack loved me. I know it as surely as I know the fact of my own existence. Fifteen years afterwards he was talking to me about it, telling me how surprised he had been to find himself beginning to love me that first day on the Beau Brummel set. Even then, fifteen years later, he didn’t dismiss it lightly. ‘It s a good thing I wasn’t free to marry,” he said then. ‘And it’s a good thing I couldn’t get you away from your family. I would have married you, and you would have had a miserable life.’”

bgIf that Calais scene doesn’t wet your cheeks, wait until the denoument, which finds Beau in a debtor’s hospital as a decrepit, crazy old man. His former servant visits him with the news that Margery is dying.

This news penetrates Beau’s senility and he begins to relive his best days with her. Cut to Margery in her bed. She breathes her last… and her splendid spirit rises from the bed. Her double-exposure soul descends into Beau’s squalid room just as he expires. And he too emerges from his mortal coil as the idealized officer he once was.

Why is it that our celluloid souls are supposed to look like ourselves—but in the prime of life, at our youthful pinnacle? Are we being superficial? Or perhaps we associate that beauty with hope and with the time in our existence when we still aspired to something. It probably goes back to the Middle Ages, when funerary statues were made to resemble the departed individual at the age of 33, since that was considered the “perfect age,” the age at which Christ had died. So, once again, we see that it’s not so easy to separate the superficial from the spiritual, the corporal from the ethereal.

As the ghostly Lady Margery and Beau embrace, the shimmering schmaltziness of this telepathic love-beyond-life scenario actually works and triggers a surge of weepy fulfillment. The visual pleasure of gazing at such picturesque people, combined with the verisimilitude of the actors’ star-crossed love affair, succeeds at provoking a catharsis. After all, cinema is sort of a dandy; like Brummel, this art of surfaces runs surprisingly deep. It can see the veracity and purity of a love that no one else could perceive. And preserve that love for almost 90 years.

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Free Friday Film: Dark Journey (1937)

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In order to explain the plot of Dark Journey fully, I would need to make a diagram. Which is why I’ll spare us all and just tell you to watch it.

If the plot of this 1937 British espionage thriller leaves us in the dark, its resplendent romance rises to the occasion and lights the way through. Best of all, Victor Saville’s stylish movie manages to convey the individual stakes of spying in wartime far more effectively than most pre-WWII secret agent yarns I’ve seen.

Under the gloss of their anachronistic settings and costumes, Vivien Leigh and Conrad Veidt communicate the exhaustion and anxiety of two people constantly on guard, constantly assessing the risks and rewards of their actions and affections.

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Despite the fact that the story takes place during World War I, the producers made absolutely no attempt to recreate the fashions and ambiance of that period. Right there, the eye is confused: it’s hard to keep telling yourself that the events of Dark Journey are unfolding in 1918 when the cast appears to have sought refuge from one of Wallis Simpson’s house parties. I would usually object, but I find this cavalier attitude towards verisimilitude rather charming. I guess, you can never predict what I’ll find charming, but usually it involves Art Deco in some way.

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“My monocle is very displeased!”

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“And now my monocle is intrigued…”

And speaking of charming, Veidt looks better than ever in a monocle and a tuxedo that shows of his impeccable waist—only slightly larger in circumference than that of his exquisite co-star. Vivien Leigh, in her sixth movie and one of her first true leading roles, musters an extraordinary performance so subtle that, in comparison to her Scarlett O’Hara, it could be mistaken for somnambulism. She carries her much-remarked-on porcelain beauty like a mask that only occasionally allows a crease of genuine reaction to be perceived.

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Be forewarned: from here on in, this post does contain major spoilers. However, I would also note that about 25 minutes into this film, I was searching for spoilers on the Internet, the film had confused me so. IMDb gives the following tagline: During World War I, a German spy and a British spy meet and fall in love. Okay, fair enough, except that I kept wondering which character was spying for whom. On the surface, it seemed obvious, after all, Viv is English and Connie is German.

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But wait! Our Viv plays Madeleine Goddard, a Swiss dress shop proprietor living in Sweden who practically commutes back and forth from Paris, importing the newest French fashions with her. With each trip, she brings more with her than the latest modes: military information sewn into the fabric. We discover this when she attends a clandestine meeting of vaguely sinister middle-aged blokes and proceeds to decipher a dress by holding it up to a lampshade with a map pattern.

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From there, one of her confederates signals the defense information to a boat which then conveys it to… BERLIN?

What!?! Vivien? The so-British-she-was-born-in-India Viv of That Hamilton Woman as a German spy? The mind reels at the thought, even if she is playing a Swiss girl. Or is she?

Meanwhile, the first time we see Conrad Veidt, probably best known as the wicked Major Strasser, he’s not engaged in espionage for the Fatherland. His Baron Von Marwitz is running away from the Fatherland! As he wryly informs a customs agent, “I came to Sweden because I want to refrain from any political activity.”

So, I ask myself, is this deserter going to start spying for the British while she’s spying for the Germans? Well, no. Just wait and see.

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The graceful aristocrat indulges himself in Stockholm, establishing his reputation as a bon vivant with a special trick: he can tell what any girl will say after he’s kissed her. Madeleine sees him playing this parlor game at a nightclub and blows his secret: there are only a few likely things a girl would say, and he keeps all them in some part of his clothing, only to reach for the correct one when the time comes and act like he thought of it beforehand. Don’t ask.

Enchanted by Madeleine’s brains (and the fact that she has Vivien Leigh’s face), Von Marwitz pursues the girl, seemingly unaware of her extracurricular activities. Their love affair unfolds with a mixture of passion and fear, fascination and hostility, as we detect in their earliest exchanges:

Marwitz: Why did you give away my little trick last night?

Madeleine: Because you claim to know so much about women.

Marwitz: I know nothing about them.

Madeleine: That means that you’ve had a lot of experience.

Marwitz: Oh, a lot. But what does it amount to?

Madeleine (giving him the bill for the dresses he just bought for some tarty girl): One thousand two hundred and seventy-five krona.

But back to the intrigue: When Madeleine’s superior agents order her to Paris, then and only then, more than halfway into the film, did I learn that she’s actually a double agent. She passes on select information to the Germans for the strategic benefit of the French and the British.

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However, no sooner do we find this out than does Marwitz… who’s actually the hidden mastermind behind the German Secret Service cell in Stockholm. Head spinning yet?

The final third of Dark Journey shines most brightly, once the characters have put their cards on the table and the situation is handled for suspense rather than surprise. In the astonishing scene when Madeleine figures out Marwitz’s identity, they lock in one of the slowest, most poetic movie kisses I’ve ever seen. Madeleine clings to him as he lifts her slightly—like a ballet in smooch-form.

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Veidt and Leigh possess a strange chemistry that churns mightily, like the waves of the North Atlantic, an image that dominates Dark Journey. The two enigmas collide. Under his hedonistic façade, there’s a core of austere courage and beneath her schoolgirl manners, she harbors the fierce strength of a career woman and a spy. Their relationship buzzes with the electrical charge that comes from two equals, two foes joined in a dangerous embrace. Shades of Garbo and Gilbert!

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Throughout the frenetic following scenes, I found myself wringing my hands in dread over what’s to become of Madeleine, as she now rushes to flee the country and escape from her beloved who must do his duty and try to have her killed.

In one particularly lovely scene at the end, once she’s been smuggled onto a ship leaving Sweden, Leigh’s performance suggests the natural emotions that one would feel: the simultaneous relief (I’m safe now…) and apprehension (…safe for the moment). However, she also adds a layer of more perverse sentiments—we understand that she wants Marwitz to abduct her because that would mean that he is indeed a daring patriot and also a passionate lover. In her mind, he’s part Siegfried, part enemy agent. Ironically, only by trying to drag her to her execution can Marwitz prove an ideal romantic partner. We perceive the barest glint of excitement in her eyes when she hears the ship being boarded.

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In the “Dolce” section of Irene Nemirovsky’s haunting WWII novel, Suite Française, a German officer, engaged in a forbidden romance with a French woman, compares the anticipation inherent in war and in love, observing that “Waiting is erotic.” Dark Journey captivated me with this atmosphere of waiting, of imminence. Fans of a good star-crossed love story won’t be steered wrong with this one.

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The script provides many piquant morsels of dialogue from Arthur Wimperis, whose dry wit enlivened Mrs. Miniver and A Knight Without Armor, and Lajos Biró, the brilliant scenarist behind Alexander Korda’s historical “private lives” films. I enjoyed the banter between Madeleine’s squabbling saleswomen, one German, one French, whose daily backbiting reveals the ultimate pettiness of war and nationalism. As Madeleine finally tells them, “I do not want French women here… nor German women. I want saleswomen!”

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“Stop playing League of Nations and take care of the customers, you hussies!”

Madeleine’s crotchety, lazy storekeeper, Anatole also gets some amusing, but very un-Continental lines. While trying to make his excuses for not sweeping the floor, he kvetches, “What can one do with a broom that’s as bare as the behind of the burgermaster’s baby?”

My absolute favorite line, however, comes from the mouth of a bit player—why do bit players get the best lines in British films? One of Von Marwitz’s servants is bemoaning the Baron’s infatuation with Madeleine which prompts him to buy up all of her dresses as an excuse to see her: “It used to be all girls with no clothes. Now it’s all clothes with no girls.” What’s the 1930s equivalent of LMAO?

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Shot by world-class cinematographers George Périnal (of Colonel Blimp and The Fallen Idol) and Harry Stradling Sr. (of Suspicion and My Fair Lady), Dark Journey paints a glamorous world with undercurrents of surreal dread. From the claustrophobic halls of steamer ships—threatened by torpedoes—to the chic expanses of posh nightclubs, this film offers us an entertaining portal into Europe on the brink of World War II.

Watch Dark Journey. You may be utterly befuddled by the plot. But, if you’re like me, you’ll be too entranced to care.

To watch the movie on YouTube, click here.

And because they’re both so beautiful, here are some gratuitous screencaps of Vivien and Connie. 14 40 46 57

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The Adventuress (1946): Irish I Were a Spy

posterI think being a woman is like being Irish. Everyone says you’re important and nice, but you take second place all the same.

—Iris Murdoch  

Today, I’d like to share one the most pleasurable movies I’ve ever encountered.

There’s honestly not a day in my life when I couldn’t watch The Adventuress (alternate title: I See a Dark Stranger), a masterfully scripted concoction of comedy, suspense, and romance, all permeated with the whimsy and mulishness of the Irish spirit.

The movie was a hit in its day—both in the UK and in the US—and it’s still a hit with me.

As small-town lass Bridie Quilty, Deborah Kerr barrels through this delightful spy thriller in a flurry of high-tempered outbursts, unleashing a torrent of illogical pronouncements. Growing up listening to her father’s theatrical tales of the quelled 1916 Irish Rebellion, Bridie only wants one thing in life: to get revenge on the British by joining the IRA.

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Bridie Quilty: portrait of a would-be revolutionary

She confesses her grand nationalistic ambition to a disillusioned IRA rebel-turned-gallery curator in a scene that never fails to make me chuckle at its understated humor. Looking like a schoolgirl who wandered away from her museum tour, she demurely announces, “I’d like to join the IRA. Please.” You can tell it’s something she’s fantasized about so frequently that all the risks and ramifications of the wild decision have melted away until it’s as commonplace a remark as, “Please pass the milk.”

Bridie’s single-mindedness reflects an inculcated hatred so intense it could be mistaken for a kind of mechanical vacantness—if it weren’t for the warmth glowing through her wide, offended eyes.

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If this sounds like the condescending stereotype of an Irish woman you’d expect from 1940s British film, it’s certainly not. I’ll address that in a bit.

In the meantime, since I’m doing my best to pick away at some queasy points of nationalism and centuries of troubles, perhaps this is a good juncture to issue a disclaimer. Here goes, my loves, my doves, my darlings!

Believe me, whatever I write in this blog post is imbued with fondness and admiration for the Irish, for the sacred soil of Eire, for the fierce blood of my Gaelic chieftain ancestors, and for John Ford’s sainted eye-patch.

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I’m half Irish. But that’s a kind of a problem for me. Because, ever since I, at 6 years old, first started mimicking a generic BBC accent, I’ve always identified most with—gasp—the British! That may sound inconsequential, but my late grandfather ran guns to the IRA in the heady days of Bobby Sands. My mother occasionally gets misty about the trees that she claims were stolen from the Irish by their beastly (apparently furniture-loving) oppressors. My family is (supposedly) remotely descended from the first king of Ireland.

Nobody in my clan has EVER worn Reebok sneakers—because of the British flag emblazoned on them.

So, as a Kipling-quoting, Royal-watching, keeping-calm-and-carrying-on British sympathizer, I’m a real black sheep in the family. I guess I just like to be on the winning side and, as Iris Murdoch observed in the quote above, being Irish often translates into a life of lamentation and underlying resentment of “tak[ing] second place all the same.”

I’m very culturally conflicted—cue the violins, please… I mean, the harp. See? Conflicted!

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Which brings me back to The Adventuress and why I love it so much. This movie works a small miracle: it’s both veddy English and sublimely Irish.

That famous British cynicism echoes through every line of dialogue spoken by those laconic limeys in the cast. For instance:

Miller (dying): There’s a bullet inside me.

Bridie: How d’you know?

Miller: Because it didn’t come out.

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Or…

Bridie (denouncing Oliver Cromwell, scourge of Ireland): My grandfather’s great-great-grandfather knew him well!

Major David Bain: That’s getting a bit remote, isn’t?

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Long before Monty Python lampooned Britishness, the crack screenwriting team of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder lovingly parodied their own culture with wacky comedies and mordant, taut thrillers. You might recognize their askew humor from The Lady Vanishes and The Night Train to Munich.

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The pair formed a production company and collaborated on the writing and directing of over 40 films; Launder directed this one. In The Adventuress, as in many other Gilliat and Launder films, the quirkiness of ordinary English life—manifested by quaint train cars, dusty book shops, little old ladies, pettifogging military types, bland gentlemen in sedate suits—takes on a topsy-turvy danger.

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As for the Irish elements of the script, well, Bridie Quilty is the main attraction. Her misplaced determination, her incisive way with words, and her quicksilver changes in judgment all typify traits that I recognize as key characteristics of Irishness.

In terms of representation, her Irishness is compounded with her femininity to produce an obstinate creature all the more funny because she takes herself deadly serious. At once mercurial and immovable, she is always right. Always. Even when she’s wrong. As she insists, “It’s no use telling me. I’ve made up me mind and all the powers on earth won’t change it.”

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And that obstinacy is amusing, for sure, but Kerr also hints at the ironic sadness of it. Something about having to accept the reality of “second place,” as Iris Murdoch put it, triggers the unshakeable belief that you must indeed be the cheated winner.

Although it might be tempting to condemn Bridie as a caricature, Gilliat and Launder endow her with a depth of personality that makes her much more than a stereotype. The audience comes to care about her—not in spite of her headstrong quest for vengeance and her irrationality, but because of those attributes. Her Irishness comes across as both beguiling and threatening.

We see often see the world as Bridie sees it. He subconscious even materializes for the audience during a creepy, expressionistic dream sequence. After dumping the dead body of one of her spy confederates, she spends the rainy night listening to the creaking sign of the inn where she’s staying—a sound that turns into the merciless rhythm of a metronome as she’s forced to play scales at a piano… and dump the body again and again in her mind.

The viewer shares Bridie’s anxiety and sympathizes with this nice girl who’s gotten in way over her head. Attracted by freedom and adventure, she chose to become a spy—only to find herself weighed down by a corpse and at the mercy of mysterious orders.

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We also gain privileged access to Bridie’s thoughts through lots of intimate voice-overs. Consider, for instance, this long passage of narration wherein she forms her opinion of the man seated in the same train compartment with her:

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“His hair is going grey, but it looks very nice the way he has it brushed. He’s a faraway look in his eyes… a poet maybe. No, he’s much too clean. And he puts his trousers under the mattress like Terence Delaney. Hasn’t he lovely nails? He’s a gentleman, I think. I don’t like being alone with a strange man at this time of night. He doesn’t look that sort of man, of course, but how can you tell? Mr. McGee didn’t look that sort of man, and Mr. Clogherty… was a terrible shock to me. Hmm, he’s a traveller from abroad. Miller, Miller, that can’t be an Irish name… he’s English! Of all of the compartments of this train, I have to get into one with an Englishman. Why, I might have known it! Will you look at him, will you look at the cruel set of his jaw! You could mistake him for Cromwell!”

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Accompanied by the many shadings of facial expressions that Deborah Kerr lends to the part, this internal monologue charms us into loving Bridie. That affection for the protagonist may not come as a surprise now that Ireland and England are  on the best terms they’ve ever been, but in 1946, she would’ve been much more alarming to British audiences.

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“He’s English!”

Throughout the first half of the film, we recognize the realness and dangerousness of Bridie’s anger. She hates England to the point of becoming a spy for Germany during World War II. As an avenging angel for Eire, she sets the stakes of her fury quite high.

Yet Gilliat and Launder allude to some damn good reasons why Bridie might want to become the avenger of her culture. Visiting Ireland’s National Gallery, she exchanges glances with a portrait of Sir Roger Casement, an Irishman knighted by the British for his fight against brutal Belgian imperialism in the Congo (think Heart of Darkness)… then executed by the British because he supported the 1916 Irish uprising.

Bridie’s righteous, understated rage fills the air as she stands before the painting, her shadow connecting her to Casement, as the score strikes a mournful note. The moment seems like as a subtle mea culpa for British Imperialism—in a British film by British screenwriters.

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Despite the introspective tone of the scene, however, it doesn’t reduce the perils of Bridie’s vengeful anger—it intensifies them by strengthening her convictions. A few strains of the Irish folk song “Kelly the Boy from Killane” break into the musical score, as though jolting Bridie out of a reverie and reminding her of her dark purpose. She wants to take down the British Empire if she can, for her father, for Casement, for her whole persecuted race. This is no hyperbole. It’s Bride’s reality.

That’s a pretty terrifying thought—or would’ve been to British viewers, I’ll wager. Technically, Bridie is a traitor to the realm. Think about it: a beautiful Irish agent working for the Axis could easily make for a memorable femme fatale villain, not a heroine.

After all, Bridie teams up with Mr. Miller who (despite his resemblance to Cromwell) handles surveillance and sabotage missions for Nazi Germany on British soil. Once Miller gets shot during a risky job, he sends Bridie to retrieve a black book containing vital information about the D-Day landing so she can hand it over to the Axis.

Along her journey, she’s trailed by a dogged, cocky British major (a young, swoon-worthy Trevor Howard) who’s fallen for Bridie and wants to help her out.

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By making Bridie a romantic partner and an ultimately ineffectual spy, Gilliat and Launder defuse her rage with adorableness. I don’t use that word idly; there’s something slightly diminishing in all cuteness.

One who notices cuteness tends to be looking down from above. Cuteness is a “second place” prize, to take up Iris Murdoch’s insight once again. We often call things cute to approve of them condescendingly.

I’d argue that we project cuteness onto things to make them less scary. Certain personalities brand themselves as cute to attract a wider audience that might otherwise be intimidated by their talents, abilities, and passions. Bridie’s Irishness appeals to us because we learn that, in spite of her professed desire to destroy England, underneath it all, her gestures of rebellion are cute and symbolic.

The movie starts with just such a symbolic gesture. In a dinky Irish pub, Bridie’s father musters up battalions of alliterations and metaphors to tell a persuasive yarn about fighting off thousands of Englishmen sent to quell the 1916 rebellion. As Danny Quilty holds his audience rapt, the camera slides in through a window and peers around the room like an uninvited observer (an eavesdropping English spectator, perhaps?).

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Meanwhile, Bridie sits aside, a young girl absorbing what she hears like a sponge, although she knows the words of her father’s speech so well that she mouths them along with him.

One cannot deny the power of this scene, of Danny Quilty’s words as a collective memory that binds together a whole band of men, of the communal singing of “Kelly the Boy from Killane.” This group therapy session channels the Irish passion for their land and their mourning for their lack of control over their own turf. And we watch this surge of manly grief being passed on to a young girl.

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Only afterwards do we, the viewers, realize that most of these fine sons of Eire have never spilt a drop of blood for their motherland. They come to the pub to listen to Danny as a way of vicariously experiencing the doomed struggle for Home Rule—and even Danny probably never participated in the revolt.

His cleverly conjured memories consist mostly of blarney. He set out on his bike for Dublin to join the fight, but, as one doubtful old woman remarks, “there are a lot of pubs between here and Dublin.”

We Irish possess an almost hypnotic eloquence (“we” in general, not me so much) sustained by a gift for harmless hyperbole. Our bark is worse that our bite, you might say.

In much the same way, Bridie gets herself embroiled in international espionage, but baulks at any misdeed greater than vandalism. I mean, sure, she’ll throw paint on a village statue of Cromwell, but, when push comes to shove, she’s not all that into self-sacrifice, and she nearly has a conniption when Mr. Miller tells her to pull a Mata Hari and seduce someone.

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Another mythical facet of the Irishness has set its mark on Bridie: she’s a chosen daughter of fate. This assertion sounds strange, I know, but fate smiles on the Irish in strange ways: denied autonomy in their own land, the Irish turn into adventurers, sages, seers, the darlings of fickle fortune, for a moment at least. Swift, Yeats, Wilde, Joyce!

Bridie might not be on a par with those star-chosen sons of Eire, but through a series of crazy adventures, she ends up with the key to the whole world’s crazy adventure—the black book of information that could sink the Allied attack at Normandy.

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Through her bumbling she obtains it, through her courage she destroys it, and through her sheer stubbornness she faces down the consequences. She’s no longer taking “second place.”

In the end, her destiny deviates from what she wanted—but it still means that Bridie the Adorable, Bridie the Comical Irish Slip of a Thing, holds thousands of lives and the power to make history, in her hands for a short while.

And she hates it.

Perhaps second place isn’t so bad after all, we understand.

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Bridie’s eyes widen as the consequences of her actions dawn on her. “What desperate thing are you about, girl?” She asks herself in voice-over. “You’re holdin’ the Book of Fate in yer hands!”

The Adventuress concludes its whirling dance between condescension, sympathy, and, yes, admiration with regards to Bridie by marrying England and Ireland, two polarized cultures. Because—no surprises here—the fetching lass of the Emerald Isles gets hitched to the brave English officer.

And not just any English officer: Trevor Bloody Howard, a man as white as the Cliffs of Dover with a jaw like the Stone of Scone.

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This marriage of opposites transforms a battle between fierce political foes into a screwball courtship. Thus, The Adventuress turns a very serious matter into a rom-com, which takes some serious guts and storytelling sleight of hand.

Perhaps that boldness explains why I adore this film. It lets me embrace both my genuine Irishness and my wannabe Englishness while rejoicing in the nuptials of Bridie and the most British man on the planet. The message of reconciliation strikes us as silly, wistful, improbable, and irresistible—in other words, so very Irish.

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Anyway, whether you’re Irish or not, please dig up The Adventuress. I guarantee that you’ll enjoy it. You’ll enjoy Deborah Kerr matter-of-factly telling Howard, “I’m a retired spy.” You’ll enjoy a knockabout brawl in a bathtub. You’ll enjoy the shadowy lighting, the trench coats, the sinister agents and the winking send-up of spy thrillers.

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And if you don’t, may the only weepers at your funeral be the onion-pullers—an old Irish curse.

She Calls the Shots: Blondie Johnson (1933)

“I know all the answers and I know what it’s all about. I found out that the only thing worthwhile is dough—and I’m gonna get it, see?”

—Blondie Johnson

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Dames hardly ever call the shots in gangster films. Sure, they wield sexual power over their mobster boyfriends or husbands and occasionally get to plug some poor dumb sap, but they’re rarely in charge as the legitimate boss of a racket. And, unfortunately, when they are giving orders, the situation usually gets played for kink or camp. Noir offered plenty of domineering roles for nasty women running the show, although usually from behind the scenes, but classical gangster pictures, especially the first talkie cycle of the 1930s, remain mostly an old boys’ club.

Blondie Johnson, however, is a whole different animal. In this 1933 crime film (impossible to find until Warner Archive released it), a woman does take the reigns of an operation. She does so not because she’s hot to trot—she keeps men at an arm’s length—but because she’s got brains, guts, and commands loyalty from men and women alike. If this flawed film fails to live up to what I want it to be, it still makes for an intriguing 67 minutes of viewing if, like me, you love gangster films or pre-Codies.

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We all know and love Joan Blondell as Miss pre-Code Cheekiness, a sassy, curvaceous babe out to get what she can and have a little fun in the bargain. So, in a way, Blondie Johnson, a small-time chiseler turned racketeer queen, might not seem to tug too hard at the underpinnings of her star image. She really just takes her tough, but voluptuous chick routine and teases it out to an extreme. This female kingpin (queenpin?) comes across not as a campy bitch goddess, but rather as the logical extension of every pre-Code working girl. She rolls with the big boys, gets them out of jams, and, before you know it, she makes a few decisive moves and ends up on top of the world.

The movie opens in a very un-gangster-like manner with Blondie waiting for unemployment aid. Glamorous, twinkly eyed Blondell hardly looks like herself, as though a pall had been cast over her usually winsome face.

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Her mother is sick, dying, and she needs the money desperately. We all feel like we’ve been punched in the stomach when she gets turned down since she quit her previous job as a laundress—because the boss couldn’t keep his hands off her.

Well, if that’s not a bad enough day, Blondie comes home to find the doctor waiting with bad news. Her mother’s dead. She howls in desolation and crumples by the body.

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In the next scene, a priest and a city magistrate are essentially trying to explain to her why she should accept the hard knocks that life deals her—including getting evicted, losing her mom, and dealing with predatory employers. There are two ways to make money, the priest tells her. “Yeah, I know.” She sneers, rejecting his irrelevant invocation of right and wrong. “The hard way and the easy way.” We understand that the opening trauma steeled this average girl into something determined and dangerous. Just as Baby Face quotes Nietszche,  ol’ Friedrich’s “will to power” carries on in Blondie, too. We discern it in the feverish glow in her eyes.

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Interestingly, whereas movies like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface never set out to explain why their protagonists become gangsters, apart from the obvious greed and ambition, Blondie Johnson introduces its heroine as a wronged woman. Director Ray Enright and writer Earl Balwin take pains to establish Blondie as a poor girl who really did try to live honestly in a society that makes a dignified existence impossible for down-on-their-luck women, especially.

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“Well, the social services network let me down. I think I’ll turn to a life of crime.”

When a woman turns to crime, the producers no doubt assumed, we need to give her a reason, otherwise she’s a gutter snipe. Society does owe Blondie. She didn’t set out on the path to crime because of a desire for swag or authority: she did it because the sheer indifference of the world taught her that, if nobody will take care of you, you have to take care of yourself. I find that rationale a little sexist—a woman might aspire to be a Napoleon of crime for reasons other than economic necessity. But, hey, if it’s what they needed back in 1933 to get Joan Blondell to play a peroxide gangster, so be it.

Cut to Blondie shortly after her ordeal. She’s a totally different woman.

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Tricked out in a stylish velvet dress and a sporty cap, she obviously chiseled some money out of someone… although it’s left to our imagination just how she did. In 1933, Photoplay magazine even went so far as to run promotions for Blondie Johnson based on the fashionable outfits worn by its eponymous girl gangster.

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But the clothes don’t make the gal—the attitude does. From the slinky, yet proud posture of this dame as she calls for a cab with a come hither nod, we recognize how the abandonment of a little thing called morals has liberated her.

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Enlisting the help of a dorky, squeaky-voiced cab driver (Sterling Holloway, who else?), Blondie pulls a small-time sympathy swindle. Waiting outside speakeasies, she cries and pretends to be a little lady deserted by her boyfriend because she wouldn’t sleep with him, now stranded and in need of taxi fare to get back to her job before she gets fired. Ironically, the woman who was wronged in real life ends up making money off of suckers by playing the victim, by staging and feigning a woman’s plight.

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“Oh, sob, sob! I seem to find myself in distress!”

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“I hate to see a dame in distress. Especially with pins like those.”

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Problem is, the first mug she fools happens to be notorious gangster Danny Jones, played by an affably smug Chester Morris and his knife-blade profile.

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Danny bumps into her later that night at a posh hotel where she’s dining on the money she collected from a gallery of suckers and, realizing he’s been taken in, he steps on her foot and prepares to repossess her winnings.

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Using her quick wit and a few well-placed self-defense moves, Blondie manages to defuse his temper and convince him that she’s a “smart dame” who could prove a valuable asset.

So, he takes her to a hotel room for a drink. And here’s where the movie gets really interesting—we all prepare for the old pre-Code fade-out as Danny and Blondie become lovers. But no!

Blondie holds true to the code of the Corleone family: “It’s not personal. It’s business.” She carefully excludes the possibility of any fringe benefits to her and Danny’s mutual interests. Chester Morris and Blondell have a great chemistry together in this scene of back-and-forth attempts to soften the other up: she wants work in his syndicate and he wants, well, what men usually want in a hotel room after a couple of drinks.

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Their snappy negotiations present a sort of gangster version of the famous pickpocketing scene between Marshall and Hopkins in Trouble in Paradise. He pays her for a job—corrupting a jury to swing a member of the gang out of prison—but asks for some sugar in return. She throws the money in his face and storms out.

He calls her back and she tells the story of her life, including the doleful tale of a sister who died from an illicit abortion. Always the optimist, Blondie ends her speech with a vow to get even with life: “This city’s gonna pay me a living!”

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Just when we think things are getting grim, Danny agrees to let Blondie have a proper chance on equal terms, but then counts his money. Even in her fit of high temper, Blondie pocketed some of the money she seemed to refuse. Stunned by her brazenness and slight of hand, Danny stares, as Blondie coyly raises a glass to their platonic partnership.

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As usual, there’s some division in the gang. Danny wants to bail his friend Louis out of jail while the big boss isn’t keen on the idea, since he doesn’t want Danny (really a lieutenant gangster) to make a play for power. That’s where Blondie comes in as a peroxide Lady Macbeth, lending Danny some of her own brass cajones to move ahead with a cunning courtroom drama.

In perhaps the best scene in the film, Blondie saves this big-time gangster Louis from a sure conviction by pretending to be his demure, pregnant fiancée—leaping up from the defendant bench to embrace him!

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She wins sympathy by delivering a bravura performance, smacking of screwball comedy as much as gangster humor. Collapsing in Louis’ lap and heaving sobs of crocodile tears, she looks up at him surreptitiously and grunts, “Kiss me, you mug!” He does. And wins an acquittal.

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After that, Blondie has won a place as part of the gang—but an uncomfortable one. She defies categorization. She’s not a moll, since she didn’t sleep with anyone to get there, nor can she ever fully be one of the boys.

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In fact, no sooner does she attend the inevitable gangland banquet to celebrate Louis’ release (and lets Danny take all the credit) than the big boss gives the word that he doesn’t want Blondie around. Blondie doesn’t take to that news too well.

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She pushes Danny to take over the operation. He almost gets killed for trying, but a few of his men, under Blondie’s direction, get rid of the big boss. And Danny’s suddenly in charge. He has a swanky deco office, a chorus girl as his playmate, and is getting fitted for new suits in the office. (Apparently having two egregious “nance” tailors fuss over you, the same ones from The Public Enemy, was the quintessential sign that you had arrived in the 1930s.)

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But this is just the beginning of Blondie’s problems. You see, as much as Blondie likes and even comes to love Danny and abets his rise to power, Danny doesn’t appreciate the fact the he owes it all to a woman who really does all the driving.  So he decides to ship her off to another racket. Now, the script doesn’t delve into what his plan actually was, but I think we’re to infer that he either tried to have her killed or at the very least sold to another racket, perhaps as a prostitute. Blondie pushed him away a little too much, so he double-crossed her.

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Don’t ever mix business and horizontal kissing.

Still the wronged woman, in spite of all her leadership, Blondie doesn’t like that. Nor does the crack team of molls and mugs. They  recognize that it’s her brains and nerve that made their insurance racket what it is. For instance, in one particularly amusing interlude, Blondie works with two other molls to impersonate a rich heiress and intimidate a bunch of cash out of a bogus personal injury case.

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So, instead of cutting Blondie out, the gang backs her up and give Danny—who’s worn them out with his poor judgement, extravagance, and arrogance—the kiss-off. Now, Blondie’s at the top. Perched amidst modernistic, urban finery, she orchestrates her shady protection/insurance mob with competence and aplomb, appearing more as a sophisticated businesswoman than a scion of gangland.

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But Danny still rankles like a thorn in her side. He knows too much and could sink the whole organization. When one of Blondie’s confederates reports that a disgruntled Danny is going to spill all to the cops, she reluctantly orders his execution and two henchmen go off to dispatch the death sentence.

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Brrring! Brrring! Phone call for Blondie Johnson! It turns out Danny didn’t divulge any information to the police. Remorse sets in. Holding a picture of Danny (yeah, I tend to keep around large, framed portraits of guys who screwed me over, too), Blondie decides that she can’t just kill him off like that.

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At the last moment, she caves in to her humanity and goes rushing to save the man she loves.

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She arrives too late. Bang. Bang. We hear the off-screen shots and think the deed’s been done.

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Danny’s on the floor, still alive, but full of her henchman’s lead. Sirens sound.  Blondie could get away, and Danny urges her to save herself, but she stays, cradling the man who did her wrong. They confess their love as the police draw near.

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Defeated by love and nabbed by the cops, Blondie stands trial and gets six years hard labor. (Yes, it’s lame. I didn’t write it. If I had, Blondie would’ve joined forces with Stanwyck and Teresa Harris from Baby Face and—what the Hell—King Kong. Together they would’ve ruled the world. Anyone wanna greenlight that?)

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As Blondie gets hauled out of court, she passes Danny, also about to be tried and taken to jail, meets her and they share a tender moment, promising to wait for each other.

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The final shot of Blondie Johnson, this uncertain, wistful medium close-up reminds me of a lot of unresolved, ambiguous final shots like this from 1930s movies (I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang comes to mind) that hint at the unresolved fates of people we’ve come to care about deeply.

’Twas beauty killed the beast, but in this case,’twas a beast (Chester Morris) that brought Blondie down. As much as that bothers me, the true emotional sacrifices of running a racket that we witness in Blondie Johnson definitely foreshadow the many heart-wrenching betrayals of The Godfather: Part II. Ruthlessness exacts a price on the one who’s ruthless, too.

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In his brief analysis of this film, Thomas Doherty claims that, because she’s a woman, Blondie gets a chance at rehabilitation and a little bit of hope, whereas a male gangster would’ve been shot down and finished with. I concede the point, but disagree with the interpretation. I think that the punishment dished out to Blondie is a lot worse. Better to go down in a machine-gun burst of brilliance than have to live through a long prison sentence which, frankly, might kill her anyway. There’s no romance to this conclusion. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a tear in Blondell’s big pop eyes.

Blondie is a fascinating film for its attempt to reformat the template of the gangster picture with the added sexual stakes of a woman trying to climb the gang ladder.

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The occupational hazards of working in a male-dominated industry.

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The film starts to hints at the female hierarchy behind the mob though the political dynamics between the gun molls that we see: Claire Dodd as Gladys, the priority blonde mistress, passed from one gang head to another, Mae Butsch as Mae, the matronly has-been moll who acts as a front from time to time, and Japanese-American Toshia Mori as Lulu, another beautiful lady coasting through the racket, mostly in a servile role, perhaps due to her ethnicity.

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It’s subtle but the women get more of a voice under Blondie and her supporters go with her to the top—as suggested by this skyscraper low angle. Molls of the world, unite!

The film criminally underuses these women, but they do come across as more real than the silken ladies of many a 1930s gangster flick in that they’re not in the racket for thrills or luxury, but for survival. It’s a kind of job in a time when jobs weren’t forthcoming. It’s also interesting to watch Lulu and Mae grow into slightly more important, commanding babes in Blondie’s company, as though her strength set an example for them.

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I wonder if real ’30s working girls felt the same about this unconventional female role model. Even if she ends up in the hoosegow, I hope that Blondell’s effulgent badassery inspired more than a few chicks to go a little Blondie on an unfair world.

Nevertheless, I wish that Blondie Johnson had ascended to a higher plane of cinema instead of remaining a somewhat formulaic jumble of missed opportunities. It’s a film that generates a lot of regret for me. I wish it had been less of a plodding women’s picture and more of gangster flick—or even an revolutionary women’s picture. Like Baby Face with guns. I wish that it had a more lucid script, a few more gunshots, and someone like William Wellman or Howard Hawks at the helm. With its good cast and such an innovative concept, in better hands, it could have smashed into our consciousness as a founding gangster film, like Little Caesar or Scarface. And set a precedent for gangster movies that let a dame run the show.

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She’s the show. He just watches and learns.

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As is, Blondie Johnson is well worth watching just to savor how Blondell, a wisecracking sidekick no more, rises from nothing to hold supreme control over the situation. In 1933, Motion Picture magazine was prompted to ask if Blondell was being groomed as a kind of female Cagney. She exudes a warmer version of his alpha male magnetism and moxie. Alas, she doesn’t call the shots for long, but it’s damn fun while it lasts.

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This post is part of the #scenesofthecrime blogathon. Check it out, see?

Scenes of the Crime Blogathon