Katy and I settled in for a month of pre-code Stanwycks on Criterion and… we only made it through this one. The new doc featuring Catherine Russell and Imogen Sara Smith was certainly more engaging than the film. It’s short though, full of nurses undressing and Stanwyck solving the mystery of why her employer’s chauffeur (Clark Gable, a couple years before It Happened One Night) is slowly killing the children of the house, punching lots of people, and somehow staying employed. Stanwyck gets romanced by a bootlegger (Hell’s Angels star Ben Lyon), saves the children, and I think Gable gets murdered offscreen. Costarring Joan Blondell, who appeared in the other 1931 William Wellman movie I’ve seen.
Baby Face (1933, Alfred E. Green)
Barbara Stanwyck is great as ever, and maybe the movie itself isn’t great, but it’s something we didn’t think ever existed. You hear that the 1930’s pre-codes were edgy, and you see Mae West‘s bawdy humor, but you never expect to see Barbara – pushed by a Nietzsche-quoting crank – to screw her way up the ladder of a bank, finally getting the president to marry her and inspiring two suicides along the way.
Barbara has mixed feelings watching her dad burn up:
Predicting another of her movies, eight years early:
Barbara’s dad Robert Barrat is a crabby bartender, pimping out his daughter until his stillhouse explodes with him inside, so Lily (heh) moves to the city with her buddy Theresa Harris (of Thunderbolt and I Walked With a Zombie) in tow. She doesn’t actually advance her career, because women in banks were secretaries, but she starts as secretary to lowly John Wayne in the filing department and quickly becomes secretary to men higher up the organization. There’s leering Mr. Brody, then the upright guy who tries to get her fired Mr. Stevens (Donald Cook), then his crazy-haired boss Carter aka Fuzzy Wuzzy (Henry Kolker, Katharine Hepburn’s dad in Holiday), and finally the fancy young president (George Brent), who she sideways-seduces by pretending to be reformed and uncorruptable. In the end she either finds her president-husband dead in his office, or she’s so happy he’s still alive that she renounces her riches – your choice.
Barbara ignoring John Wayne:
Cozying up to Brody (Douglass Dumbrille of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town):
With wild scarf, sleeves, and Donald Cook:
Ex-Lady (1933, Robert Florey)
A clunky-ass early sound feature full of outrageous pre-code affairs. Feels earlier than it is, both sound-wise and code-wise, though it’s already a remake of another early-sound pre-code, Illicit starring Barbara Stanwyck.
Bette Davis (only the second of her movies that I’ve seen, after All About Eve) is the only one here with personality, surrounded by a buncha galoots. Let’s see if I can get the galoots straight: she marries Gene Raymond (Flying Down to Rio, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) but he cheats with business partner Kay Strozzi (Captain Applejack) so Bette cheats with Monroe Righter Owsley (his real name! of the similar-sounding Indiscreet with Gloria Swanson). Oh and their drunk friend Frank McHugh (The Dawn Patrol, I Love You Again) shows up at everyone’s house to drink for free, pines for Claire Dodd.
“Dull, dull, dull,” Bette proclaims, and we said the same. She’s cute at least, with a great voice. Florey, who’d helped make the remarkable Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra, was now churning out Hollywood crapola, 3-5 features per year. Shot by six-time oscar nominee Tony Gaudio. The editor worked on Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, a movie which I must find.
William Wellman double-feature
Wild Boys of the Road (1933)
TCM presented some pre-code treats from Wellman, who made a bunch of them. This was one of six films Wellman directed that year – those were the days.
A fully action-packed youth depression drama that wastes no time. Well-made and, incredibly (since I hate child performances in early movies), well-acted too. I kinda loved it.
Eddie (played Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet!) is a cool kid who proudly drives a junker car with impenetrable 30’s slang phrases scrawled all over it. He and his best friend Tommy (22-year-old Edwin Phillips) drive around, sneak into school dances and make out with their girlfriends a whole lot. Unfortunately, Tommy’s got The Great Depression, and he passes it on to Eddie, whose dad gets laid off, leading the kids to sell the car and flee the city to look for work elsewhere. While rail-riding, they meet a girl named Sally (Dorothy Coonan, 18, who married 37-yr-old Wellman the following year) who later gets raped by a train brakeman (Ward Bond, John Wayne’s murdered friend in Rio Bravo) – that and all the hot high-school kissing earlier in the picture justify the movie’s inclusion in whatever “forbidden” pre-code DVD set is coming out this week. One scene on the trains is memorably wonderful: rail cops ducking behind a barrier on the ground while being pelted with eggs by a hundred kids on the moving train – the one time the movie goes into giddy Zero For Conduct territory. But during all the fun, Sally is getting raped on a train car, and the kids take bloody offscreen revenge when the perpetrator is discovered, immediately and severely darkening the mood set by the egg-tossing scene.
Sally and the boys make it to Sally’s aunt’s house in Chicago. The aunt (Minna Gombell of a couple Borzage films) is extremely friendly and welcoming and feeds them all cake, but she’s also running a speakeasy, a brothel, or something else (it wasn’t very clear) and is immediately busted by the cops, leaving our kids on the run again.
Hard-luck kids from around the nation build a sort of youth shantytown in Ohio. Tommy loses a leg to a train. The kids flee to New York where Eddie finally finds a job, but in order to earn a quick buck to afford respectable clothes he accidentally gets mixed up with a holdup gang and is arrested. The judge, with a hard-luck kid of his own, buys their story and sends them home… maybe not the most believable ending in the world, but a deserved bit of relief.
Other Men’s Women (1931)
Back a couple years for this next one, the sound quality is noticeably worse. The movie is noticeably worse too… I’m not sorry I watched it, but I wouldn’t have missed much if I’d just gone to sleep dreaming of troubled youth.
Everything seems to revolve around trains in these movies. This time all our heroes work on the trains, starting with our cheesy lead, alcoholic Bill (Grant Withers, would play Judge Priest’s political rival 30 years later in The Sun Shines Bright), who is always handing out gum with his puzzling catchphrase “have a little chew on me.” He’s dating Marie, a big-eyed blond-wigged waitress played by Joan Blondell (popular in ’31 with Blonde Crazy and The Public Enemy, much later in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter), but he’s fond of Lily (Mary Astor, the princess in The Palm Beach Story, far less outrageous here), the wife of his best friend Jack (Regis Toomey of The Big Sleep, played older salvation army man in Guys & Dolls). Bill, staying with the couple while he sobers up, presents it to Jack one day at work like this: “Lily and I found out all of a sudden we loved each other.” A fistfight ensues and somehow Jack is blinded… blinded! Things couldn’t get sillier – but wait – a rainstorm is flooding the river and threatening to knock down the dam. Bill figures if he drives a loaded train out onto the dam the extra weight will stabilize it. While more sensible supporting characters (have I mentioned James Cagney, a few months before The Public Enemy?) try talking him out of it, blind Jack sneaks onto the train and drives it onto the dam himself, resulting in a spectacular suicide. A few months later when things settle down, Lily and Bill are happily together, a weird sort of happy ending.
Written by Maude Fulton, who adapted a film of The Maltese Falcon the same year (not the one starring Mary Astor). I’m not sure if this is sordid enough to count as a naughty pre-code movie. I guess married Lily kisses another man. Bill acts gay for a laugh in an early scene, but that’d probably still be allowed. There’s another guy with one leg. Clever bit where Bill jumps off the head of a train slowly rolling past a coffee joint, gets himself a cup while counting the cars that pass, then jumping back on at the end. Nothing wrong with the film or the acting (though Bill and Marie suck at playing drunk – the illusion falls apart in close-up) but nothing especially exciting either.
The Smiling Lieutenant (1931, Ernst Lubitsch)
Starring a broooadly overacting, hammy but kinda charismatic Maurice Chevalier as an Austrian lieutenant. Movie opens with a tailor knocking on Maurice’s door vainly attempting to collect on his bill (a year later, Maurice would star in Love Me Tonight as a tailor vainly attempting to collect on an aristocrat’s bill). Nobody answers, and immediately after he walks off, a young girl approaches the door, gives the secret knock and is let in. Yes, there’s actual sex in this movie – offscreen, but it’s acknowledged. It’s that Pre-Code Hollywood that TCM always salivates over before showing tame, dull movies like The Divorcee.
Maurice, a naughty lieutenant:
The movie is, as promised, a musical comedy (two genres which encourage broad acting) as well as a romantic drama, and the late 20’s/early 30’s had their share of hugely broad comedy performances in film, so in context Maurice is pretty alright. And he’s got kind of a charming, roguish smile on nearly all the time… sucked me in after about ten minutes. Katy disagrees, but liked the movie despite Maurice.
Maurice joins his friend Max to act as wingman so nervous, married Max can pick up a hot young violinist at the concert, but Maurice falls for the girl (Franzi) and takes her home himself, with some sexy banter about which meals they’ll enjoy together (ahem, breakfast).
Max, left, is Charles Ruggles, the viscount in Love Me Tonight, also in Trouble In Paradise. Chevalier was a big star from 1929-36 – then IMDB says he was falsely accused of being a nazi collaborator and his acting career was derailed for a buncha years, with a big comeback in Gigi in ’58.
Claudette Colbert (Franzi) was later Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra, also starred in It Happened One Night, Midnight, and The Palm Beach Story.
The young lovers have a good thing going, but flirting in public brings disaster, when Austrian soldier Maurice winks at Franzi across a street just as the coach carrying the king and princess of Flausenthurm drives between them. The wink and the princess’s appalled reaction are photographed and published in the paper, causing an international scandal, but everyone settles down when Maurice explains that he was overcome by the princess’s beauty and is bullied into agreeing to marry her. So M. is off to Flausenthurm, but won’t sleep with his royal bride, preferring to step out on the town. The moody king gets over the inferiority complex he had in Austria, is now smitten with Maurice and tells his daughter not to worry, playing checkers with her every night as a sad substitute for marital sex.
Princess Miriam Hopkins = Savannah-born star of Trouble in Paradise, who won an Oscar a few years later then didn’t do a whole lot of movies I’ve heard of. King George Barbier was in a ton of stuff through the 40’s, including The Milky Way and The Merry Widow.
The movie is a musical, but I don’t remember most of the songs or even where they occur, except climactic number “Jazz Up Your Lingerie.” You see, Maurice still loves the loose, free, totally modern Franzi, and he still has not-too-secret affairs with her since her violin group is on tour in Flausenthurm. So one day Princess Anna sorta kidnaps Franzi to ask her advice… Franzi helps Anna out, giving up on her man with the great line: “You mustn’t worry about me. I knew it all the time. Girls who start with breakfast don’t usually stay for supper.”
During the music number, Anna’s frumpy clothes all turn magically into hot things, she learns to smoke and play jazz on the piano, and when Maurice comes home he can not believe his eyes. She takes him to the bedroom and wordlessly suggests a game of checkers, but he keeps tossing the board away… finally tosses it onto the bed, and just look at the expressions on their faces:
Everyone who sees it today comments on the sexual freeness, but the original New York Times review in 1931 didn’t mention any of that, called it a “highly successful production” with “charming” music and “splendid” performances, and spoiled the entire plot.
J. Weinman: “The Smiling Lieutenant is based on Oscar Straus’s Viennese operetta A Waltz Dream, though Lubitsch relegated all the operetta’s songs to background music and had Straus write a few new songs in a more modern style. As he usually did when adapting a play or an operetta, Lubitsch kept the basic outline of the story but changed everything else.”