Movie Reviews - 1930s posts
Wednesday December 23, 2020
The Big 3: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy
From the “Motion Picture Herald,” a trade pub, heralding the release of “Frankenstein.” Great spread. Not sure why they call Dwight Frye's character “the Dwarf,” though. And while Mae Clarke's “the bride of Frankenstein” is technically correct, it will have a whole new meaning in a few years.
The week before Halloween, trying to distract myself from the potential horror of the upcoming election (which we appear to have escaped in the final reel), I watched that trifecta of great Universal Pictures horror films from the early 1930s: “Dracula,” “The Mummy” and “Frankenstein.”
I'd seen “Dracula” before but not the others—not even “Frankenstein”!—and it's interesting the similarities between them.
“Dracula” was a hit first (release date: Feb. 1931) and they wanted Bela Legosi for “Frankenstein,” too (release date: Nov. 1931), but apparently he thought himself a romantic figure now and didn't want to play the Monster. So they got Boris Karloff. Lucky for them. At that point in his career, Karloff was relegated to bit parts in gangster films but he's amazing and heart-rending in “Frankensein.” As a result, he became their go-to monster, taking a turn at “The Mummy” (release date: Dec. 1932) and many others. Lesson, kids? Check your ego.
Other similarities/continuities between the films:
- Edward Van Sloan plays the wise man in each: Van Helsing, Dr. Walding and Dr. Muller.
- Dwight Frye is lacky in both “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” doing the bidding of the Master. In the latter, he's Fritz rather than Igor. In between the two, he played Wilmer in the original “Maltese Falcon.”
- David Manners is romantic lead in both “Dracula” and “The Mummy.” The romantic lead in “Frankenstein” is basically Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive).
The story structures are similar, too. In the first reel we see the danger, as demonstrated by Frye's Renfield in “Dracula” (who is bitten) or Bramwell Fletcher in “The Mummy” (who goes mad). Second reel the danger moves closer to us, or we to it, and the authority figure (Van Sloan) arrives to help. Third reel, how we overcome it. “The Mummy” is the least interesting of the movies to me. “Frankenstein” is the best, because in “Frankenstein” we're the monster. My wife, who loves horror movies, can't even watch the windmill scene. It's like killing a helpless animal.
Some day it would be cool to check out the subsequent horror films these guys were in (“The Monkey's Paw,” “The Black Cat”), which didn't catch on with the public, and try to figure out why. And why these did.
Tuesday December 22, 2020
Movie Review: Baby Face (1933)
“Baby Face” is one of the most famous/infamous of the pre-code films, but one wonders if its scandals might be more problematic for our time than theirs.
Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck), the daughter of a man who runs a speakeasy, takes the advice of a Nietzsche-loving cobbler (Alphonse Ethier) and moves to New York, where she sleeps her way to the top, leaving broken hearts, ruined careers, and death in her wake.
So you see the problem: Nietzsche.
Kidding. It’s this: Is the movie playing into the stereotype/smear that women sleep their way to the top? Or is it upending it, and thus, somehow, patriarchy itself?
But sure, the Nietzsche, too.
Six floors of the Blue Angel
For a time, we see Lily’s rise literally. After each seduction, from outside the high-rise bank where she works, the camera pans up, floor by floor, and department by department. This is how it looks, top to bottom, with each seduced man referenced:
- ACCOUNTING DEPT.: Ned Stevens (Donald Cook)
- ESCROW DEPT.
- MORTGAGE DEPT.: Brody (Douglass Dumbrille)
- BUILDING & LOAN
- FILING DEPT.: Jimmy McCoy, Jr. (John Wayne)
- FOREIGN EXCHANGES
- PERSONNEL: Mr. Pratt (Maynard Holmes)
Meaning the Filing Dept. is more prestigious than Foreign Exchanges? And the Accounting Dept. is the top of the food chain? Who knew? Certainly not accountants.
Above Accounting is the bank’s vice-president, J.R. Carter (Henry Kolker), and above him is the Board of Directors and its new president, Courtland Trenholm (George Brent), brought in to rehabilitate the bank’s rep in the wake of Lily’s scandals. He’s the romantic lead but doesn’t appear until we’re halfway through. So less lead than follower.
Even if all the seductions aren’t the same, there’s a sameness to the rise. Lily flirts with the beat cop to find out where the personnel dept. is, then heads behind closed doors with its pudgy secretary, Mr. Pratt of Tallapoosa, Ga., who seems as gay as the ’90s to me. We never see the best-looking (and ultimately best-known) of her seductions, a young Duke Wayne, even though he’s the one who gives her the titular nickname. Instead, his role is to encourage Brody to hire her. Brody then begins the true pattern of bosses/lovers:
- sexual interest
- can’t live without her
I get the first two. But can’t live without her? Where did that come from? I mean, I love Stanwyck, but she’s hardly Marlene Dietrich. Yet the movie is like “Six Floors of the Blue Angel”: Every dept. head becomes a Prof. Rath willing to crow for her.
The higher she climbs, the greater the fall for the men. Duke is just disappointed when she moves on, while Brody, caught in flagrante delicto, is canned. A week later, he bangs on her apartment door, overcoat wet, desperate, but she tells him to go back to his wife and three kids and leaves him stunned and bereft in the hallway. He’d be more stunned if he knew who was inside with her: Ned Stevens, the man who fired him, and whose secretaries think is a great guy (beware crappy exposition):
Secretary 1: Well, she certainly works fast.
Secretary 2: Won’t do her any good. He’s very much in love with the girl he’s engaged to.
Secretary 1: Say, I was surprised to read that in the paper. It’s a good match for him, too—marrying old Carter’s daughter.
Secretary 2: Mr. Stevens is an extraordinarily fine person. He has high ideals. He’s not like other men.
Turns out he’s worse. He not only has the affair, but, given a second chance with the boss’ daughter (Margaret Lindsay), he chooses Lily again. He even gives up his job so Lily can keep hers. And when he finds Lily and Carter together, he kills Carter in cold blood. Beware of men with high ideals, I guess.
Up to this point, she gets away with it by playing innocent. To Stevens about Brody: “What could I do—he’s my boss. Oh, I’m so ashamed!” To Carter about Stevens: “He told me I was the only one!” After the shooting she can’t play innocent, but with the Board she doesn’t need to. She’s been offered $10k by a local tabloid for her steamy story, and she uses it as leverage to extract $15k from the bank and a job with their Paris branch. The Paris gig is really just to get her out of town, and Trenholm assumes a woman like her won’t last long in the role. But that’s the new path to seduction: not innocence but gumption. Six months later, he shows up, she’s still working hard, he’s impressed, etc.
The second half of the film is a bit dull. Removed from the rise, it’s just the romance, and not a particularly interesting one. Our main question is: Is Lily faking it like with the others? They get married anyway, but on their honeymoon Trenholm discovers he’s become scapegoat for bank mismanagement, so he asks Lily to hock her jewels to help fund his defense. She bolts. She books passage on a luxury liner, and when he finds she’s gone he shoots himself. Back on the boat, she sees a rich older man and smiles. The End.
Kidding. That’d be my dream ending. Instead, between Hollywood and Hays and local censor boards, we wind up with this: Yes, she does bolt, and yes he does shoot himself. But then she’s overcome with grief and guilt. She really does love him! So she returns. And in the ambulance to the hospital, while she cries in his arms, he wakes and smiles at her. The End.
Eww. If you’re going to go there, and make her suddenly care, he should die. That’d be true comeuppance: as soon as she loves, she loses her love. That might even be powerful. But Hollywood endings.
Thus spake Zanuck
Here’s a bit of the backstory on the resurrection of “Baby Face.” In 2004, an uncensored version was recovered in a film vault in Dayton, Ohio, and a year later that version was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry. That same year, Time magazine (or Richard Schickel and Richard Corliss) named it to their top 100 movies of the last 80 years—or since Time began in March 1923.
I wouldn’t go that far. One argument against the movie upending patriarchal stereotypes is that it’s mostly dudes behind the scenes. “Baby Face” was based on a story idea by Darryl Zanuck, written by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola (the lone woman), and directed by Alfred E. Green. Markey is mostly known for being a sparkling wit around Hollywood, and for his impressive string of marriages: Joan Bennett, Hedy Lamarr, Myrna Loy. Scola is mostly known for working with Markey. Green began in the silent era, directed the most racist of the early Cagneys (“Smart Money” with Edward G. Robinson), and ended his career with a series of “Story” movies: “The Jolson Story,” “The Jackie Robinson Story,” “The Eddie Cantor Story.” According to IMDb’s rating system, the best each of them did is this.
Others have lauded the film for being ahead of its time in racial matters. Throughout, Lily’s best friend is Chico, a Black woman, played by Theresa Harris. I’ve written about Harris before. In the ’30s and ’40s, she was mostly stuck in maid roles, and most of those went uncredited. This was her first screen credit and it’s a meatier part. Even so, as Lily rises, what does Chico become? Her maid.
A lot of the Nietzsche, meanwhile, sounds like ur-Ayn Rand:
Watching, I kept thinking of another Nietzsche acolyte on the rise in 1933. That cobbler must’ve gotten around.
Tuesday October 06, 2020
Movie Review: San Francisco (1936)
“San Francisco,” which garnered six Oscar nominations, including picture, director, story and actor, and was the No. 2 box-office hit of 1936, is really two stories. One is aimed at men and was seen a lot in the 1930s. The other is aimed at women and is the most successful movie framework of all time.
The story aimed at men is this: two childhood pals wind up on opposite sides of the law. That’s “Manhattan Melodrama,” “Dead End,” and “Angels with Dirty Faces.” Here, Blackie Norton (Clark Gable), who runs the disreputable Paradise saloon along the Barbary Coast in 1906 San Francisco, is still good friends with Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy), the original fightin’ priest, who knows Blackie’s got a good heart even if he doesn’t believe in all that God hooey. They spar at the local gym and eat chop suey together. Blackie donates an organ—the musical kind—to Father Tim’s church. They’re just on opposite sides of the Big Question.
The most successful movie framework of all time is this: a woman has to choose between two men against a backdrop of historical tragedy. That’s “Gone with the Wind,” “The Sound of Music,” and “Titanic.” (Also, in more cartoonish form, the “Twilight” movies, “Hunger Games” and “Frozen.”) Here, Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) must choose between Blackie and Jack Burley (Jack Holt) against the backdrop of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. If she goes with the man she loves (Gable, of course), she’ll get the career she doesn’t want (singing in his saloon). If she goes with the other guy, she gets her dream job (the Tivoli Opera House), plus respectability (Nob Hill money), plus a straight-talking mother-in-law (Jessie Ralph, who’s fantastic). So every instinct is against choosing Gable. But then there’s Gable. As a result, we wind up with a lot of tortured looks and flip-flopping from MacDonald.
You know what decides for her? The earthquake. It kills Jack Burley, destroys the Paradise Saloon and helps Blackie find God. Think about that: It gets rid of the man she doesn’t want and the place she doesn’t want to work. And the big problem with the man she loves? His Godlessness? Solved. Modern smart weaponry should be so precise.
Question: Is the earthquake also God’s judgment on the wickedness of turn-of-the-century San Francisco? Early on, Father Tim warns Mary, a parson’s daughter from Benson, Colorado, about her new home:
You’re in probably the wickedest, most corrupt, most Godless city in America. Sometimes it frightens me. I wonder what the end’s going to be.
And the end was the earthquake. Because of the city’s licentiousness? Or maybe God just couldn’t stand one more rendition of “San Francisco …open your golden gate/ You’ll let nobody wait outside your door…”
Kidding. I like that song.
You know what I liked about the earthquake? It comes out of nowhere. For most of the movie, the drama is elsewhere. Not just in the decisions Mary doesn’t make but in the battles Blackie fights.
The movie opens with a fire on the Barbary Coast and a demand from local leaders for fire-safety reform. So they ask Blackie to run for supervisor and he seems a natural candidate. Jack Burley, who owns those fire-trap tenements on the coast, objects, and the two men battle for both Mary and power. At one point, to fill his political coffers, Blackie is hoping to win the “Chicken’s Ball” talent show, as his saloon usually does, with its $10k prize, but that very night he’s raided by cops at the behest of Burley. At the last instant, though, Mary—who at this point is Burley’s betrothed—agrees to sing for the Paradise. She goes with “San Francisco,” of course, and wins. Except Blackie’s not having it. He throws the trophy on the ground and stomps off. Mary is upset. Jack Burley is leading her outside when the earthquake hits. And all that drama about Blackie running for supervisor gets lost in the cracks and fissures. We don’t hear one thing about it again. It’s like Marion Crane’s machinations before she shows up at the Bates Motel. Which feels like life to me. What we think is the story isn’t necessarily the story.
I expected to be disappointed by the quake. I mean, it’s nearly 100 years old. How good could the special effects be? Answer: pretty damned good. Audiences at the time must’ve been wowed. Example: There’s a brilliant scene where Blackie, dazed, stumbles through the streets amid the aftershocks; and then the earth cracks open, one person falls to his death, another nearly does the same, but, even as the slab of earth he’s standing on heaves upward, and a water main below bursts, Blackie pulls the man out. It’s just this constantly moving chaos. I guess if there’s one thing people in LA know, it’s what an earthquake feels like.
I like the first meeting, or non-meeting, between Blackie and Mary, too. They’re on a busy street, New Year’s Eve, and she’s walking several paces ahead of him, oblivious to him as he is to her. He’s faster but keeps getting stopped to greet friends and acquaintances. Eventually he catches up … and passes her without a glance, kind of annoyed that she’s in his way. Good bit.
Her destination turns out to be his, the Paradise, where she wants to audition for his stage show. In his office we get the following exchange:
Blackie: Well, sister, what’s your racket?
Mary: I’m a singer.
Blackie: Let's see your legs
Mary [confused]: I said, I'm a singer.
Blackie: I know. Let’s see your legs.
So out of sight of the camera, she hoists her dress demurely. It would be interesting to compare this scene with Margot Robbie’s dress-hoisting audition in “Bombshell,” about sexual harassment at Fox News. Why is the Fox scene icky and this not? Because Fox president Roger Ailes tells her to keep going, gets a sad, sexual thrill out of it, and looks like Roger Ailes/Jabba the Hutt? Yes. Meanwhile, for Blackie is all about business: Will her legs draw crowds? Plus he looks like Clark Gable.
Perishing with a cry
Is this my first Jeannette MacDonald movie? She’s beautiful but not a great actress. I couldn’t even tell if she liked Gable—the actors apparently didn’t like each other at all—so Gable has to underline it for us: “How does it feel,” he says, as she remains stone-faced after his umpteenth advance, “to feel like a woman and be afraid of of it?” Ah, so that’s what’s going on. I thought he was just a creep.
Overall, there’s too much melodrama for me in “San Francisco,” but it has its moments—like the non-meet cute. I also like the opera scene. Blackie goes to the Tivoli Opera House with his right-hand man “Babe” (Harold Huber, another great character actor of the period) to stop her debut because she’s under contract to him; but he winds up so amazed by her singing, and by the opera itself, that he lets it ride. It’s the lowbrow guy getting culture. That was the MGM way, wasn’t it? They were the Tiffany of movie studios and Gable was their Warner Bros. guy. But he had to learn.
The movie, as mentioned, is the two childhood pals story, and the woman choosing between two men against a backdrop of historical tragedy story. But is it something else? This is the opening title card:
San Francisco—guardian of the Golden Gate—stands today a queen among sea-ports: industrious, mature, respectable. But perhaps she dreams of the queen and city she was—splendid and sensuous, vulgar and magnificent—that perished suddenly with a cry still heard in the hearts of those who knew her, at exactly:
April 18, 1906
“San Francisco” was released two years after the Production Code Administration under Joseph Breen ended the glorious “Forbidden Hollywood” era of skin and sin. So is 1906 San Francisco a kind of stand-in for Forbidden Hollywood itself? Maybe even MGM, with its highbrow pretensions, misses the studio she was—splendid and sensuous, vulgar and magnificent.
Friday October 02, 2020
Movie Review: Here Comes the Navy (1934)
A lot of firsts with this one.
It’s the first Cagney movie to be nominated best picture (there would be others), his first with Irish Mafia pal Pat O’Brien (there would be eight), and his first set in the military. The closest he’d come to the military before was singing and dancing the “Shanghai Lil” number in Navy blues at the end of “Footlight Parade,” but such films would soon become a Cagney staple: the malcontent learning to be a team player.
“Navy” was also the first Cagney movie released after the Production Code Administration was created. I actually think that first informs all the others.
In the 1920s and early ’30s, Hollywood movies were regulated by the Hays Code, under former Postmaster General Will Hayes, but the moguls kinda ran amok over Hayes and the result was the glorious pre-code “Forbidden Hollywood” era of sin and skin. But by 1934, there was mounting pressure to clean up from both the Catholic clergy, which instituted successful boycotts of scandalous pictures, and the U.S. government, which, under FDR, was creating new regulatory agencies, and there were rumors Hollywood might be next. To prevent this, and to win back Catholic moviegoers, the moguls appointed their own watchdog: the PCA under the leadership of Joseph Breen, an Irish Catholic and no pushover. And there went that glorious era.
The dividing line for Cagney is stark. After he became a star in “The Public Enemy,” Warners would occasionally toss him into a “sports” picture (“Winner Take All”), but mostly he played grifters (“Blonde Crazy,” “Hard to Handle,” “Jimmy the Gent”), and low-level gangsters (“The Mayor of Hell,” “Lady Killer,” “He Was Her Man”). With the creation of the PCA, that went away. Now he was a G-man, a family man, or the aforementioned rebel in the military. And now he was teamed with Pat O’Brien to show him the way, rather than Joan Blondell, who showed him another way. From 1930 to 1934 he made seven films with Blondell but “He Was Her Man,” released earlier in ’34, was their last. At that point, almost as if they tagged off, O’Brien became his partner. From 1934 to 1940, they made eight pictures together.
I actually like Cagney’s pre-code grifters better. Pre-code, he had a code. With the Production Code, he just became an asshole. Way to go, Catholics.
Live and don’t learn, that's our motto
I guess I don’t mind Chesty O’Conner too much. He starts out as a smart-ass riveter in a Navy yard in Bremerton, Wash., who tries to take some of the starch out of officer Biff Martin (O’Brien), and does, but then gets quick comeuppance. At the big dance, at which he’s bringing and presenting the dance trophy, which he expects to win, he: 1) loses an alley fight with Biff, who then 2) wins the dance contest, with 3) Chesty’s girl. Gets a kiss, too. Chesty is so angry, he decides to enlist to get back at Biff. No one told him about the 90-day training period, nor the fact that it’s highly unlikely he’ll be assigned to Biff’s ship: The U.S.S. Arizona.
But he makes it through training and even makes a friend along the way, Droopy, played by third Irish Mafia pal Frank McHugh. There’s a running gag about Droopy needing money so his mother in Walla Walla can get a new set of teeth. It’s not a great bit, but at least they say Walla Walla.
Oh, and of course both men are assigned to the Arizona.
Another thing Chesty didn’t think through: Biff is now his commanding officer. “From now on,” O’Brien says with a rare sneer, “call me Mister!” There’s another girl, too, Dorothy (Gloria Stuart), of whom Droopy says, “Holy smoke, look at the trim lines on that Destroyer.” Does Chesty go after her because he thinks she’s Biff’s girl? She isn’t. She’s his sister, and initially the complication is Biff forbidding her to see Chesty—but, no, that’s never really the complication. She stands her ground. The real problem is that Chesty jumps ship to see her, then, after she admonishes him for going AWOL, tries to jump back. For that he’s court-martialed, gets two months confined to ship, etc. But that’s not the real problem, either. It’s that he badmouths the Navy and everyone in it, calling them whipped dogs, “bootlicking to a flock of mugs in uniforms who push you around like a lot of rag dolls.” After that, he’s persona non grata on ship—“a wrong guy,” as one Navy extra says.
When does he realize the error of his ways? He doesn’t. Instead, he shows bravery by smothering a fire and is awarded the Navy Cross, which he dismisses as a “tin lavalier.” The higher-ups don’t like this so he gets transferred to the Navy’s dirigible outfit; and when the dirigible U.S.S. Macon visits his old unit in high winds, Biff, trying to secure the airship with a mooring line, is swept up with it and clings for life. It’s up to Chesty to shimmy down and parachute them both to safety. After this act of bravery, he finds out—in the midst of his wedding ceremony to Dorothy—that he’s been promoted to boatswain, making him Biff’s superior. Biff is aghast, Chesty is amused. “And whenever you speak to me,” he says with a laugh, “call me Mister.” Then the ceremony continues with Droopy’s mom, dentures slipping, singing an off-key version of “Oh, Promise Me,” whose lyrics are tattooed on Droopy’s body. The end.
So: Lesson unlearned, Chesty never really changes at all. He just shows he’s worthwhile by showing courage. Basically he’s a courageous asshole. Cf., “Fighting 69th” when he plays a cowardly asshole.
Anyway, these plot points aren’t what makes “Here Comes the Navy” (working title: “Hey Sailor”) interesting.
”Make it shine, sailor. I want to see my face in it." Precursor to men riding rockets.
Military tragedies and the other kinds
First, there’s the doom of it. The film is a favorite of Navy vets and military historians because it was filmed in Navy locations with Navy hardware that was tinged with tragedy. The U.S.S. Macon, apparently our biggest helium-filled airship, crashed off the coast of Santa Barbara less than a year after the movie was filmed, more or less ending the Navy’s experiment with “fabric-clad rigid airships.” (Headlines at the time praised the crew but included warnings such as: “Navy Has Spent $40,000,000 on Four Dirigibles: All Have Crashed.”) But the Macon has nothing on the Arizona, which was sunk by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. More than 1,000 crewmen died. There’s a memorial marker to this day on the spot where it sank. It’s sacred.
Even the mooring line incident is based on Navy tragedy. In May 1932, the airship U.S.S. Akron suddenly jerked upwards with three men clinging to mooring lines; two died. A year later, the Akron was destroyed in a thunderstorm off the Atlantic coast, killing 73.
I like the scene of Chesty’s first act of courage. I don’t even have the language to describe it properly. In an enclosed space, Chesty, Biff and the other men, stripped to the waist, are loading shells (wrapped in cloth?) into the back end of naval guns. As the guns angle high in the air, the floor drops away, so the men crowd along a ledge opposite the guns, which stays put. After the guns fire, the floor elevates again and they repeat. It’s like a dangerous dance routine. One time, a piece of paper, or cloth, aflame, is pushed back into the room, gun powder is spilled on it, and that’s when Chesty cries out “fire!” and smothers the flames with his own body.
I also like Stuart. She was a one-and-done Cagney leading lady but she’s got a bemused quality about her. She seems smarter than the boys but not above them. She was versatile, too, starring in horror films (“The Invisible Man” with Claude Rains), comedies (“Roman Scandals” with Eddie Cantor) and musicals (“Gold Diggers of “1935” with Dick Powell), but stopped acting in movies in the 1940s and went on to stage work and oil painting. Thirty years later, she returned to screen acting. She danced with Peter O’Toole in “My Favorite Year,” and was first-time Oscar-nominated at the age of 78 for playing the aged Rose in James Cameron’s “Titanic.” In this way, she’s connected to two of the most famous ships to sink in the 20th century.
For all the military history, it’s the racial history that will shock 21st-century viewers the most. Not only do we get Cagney in blackface, we also get one of the most demeaning Black stereotypes in a Cagney film: Fred “Snowflake” Toones, playing Cookie, who wears a stupid, droop-lipped expression with his hair out of place. This is the AWOL scene. Chesty doesn’t have liberty but wants to go ashore to see Dorothy, and he and Cookie have the following conversation—with Cagney using his usual rat-a-tat delivery, and Toones horribly slow in comparison:
Chesty: Hey Cookie, you got liberty tonight, ain’tcha?
Cookie: Sho is! Yessuh.
Chesty: Wanna make some dough?
Cookie: How much!
Chesty: Three bucks for your liberty card.
Cookie: I’d like to obligate you, Mr. Chesty, but I got a date.
Chesty: Well, I’ll make it five. That’s a lot of dough for one night’s liberty.
Cookie: Doggone! I almost come. But I just cain’t disappoint my hone.
Chesty: She won’t be disappointed.
Cookie: Yessuh, she will.
Chesty: Well, look, I’ll make it ten bucks…
[Gives him a new $10 bill]
Cookie [smiles]: You know, this thing does things to me. I guess you got me!
So is it an act? Cookie seems like an idiot but he talks our hero up from $3 to $10. So is he playing the fool in order to fool? Or is the fool he’s playing so repugnant, so embarrassing (in the words of film historian Donald Bogle), that it doesn’t matter what he wins? Because he loses too much in the process.
Anyway, it’s why Cagney winds up in blackface. He’s got Cookie’s liberty so I suppose he has to look like Cookie. He doesn’t look at all like him, of course, but he gets away with it. White people don’t see him—including Biff, who straightens his tie. That’s interesting. The only ones who pay attention are the other Black servicemen—kitchen help, one assumes, since the military wasn’t integrated until after World War II. On ship, they do double-takes while Cagney smiles and cackles; on land, they crowd around, puzzled, as Cagney talks up and then leaves with Dorothy. It’s played for comedy but there’s a lot buried there. Imagine if others noticed a black-faced Cagney leaving with a white girl. Imagine they tried to stop him. Damn, you could’ve had a whole other kind of movie. But it would’ve required a whole other kind of Hollywood. And a whole other kind of America.
Playing the fool in order to fool?
Sunday September 27, 2020
Movie Review: Mothers Cry (1930)
I watched “Mothers Cry” because of this Louella Parsons column, syndicated in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dec. 8, 1930, and touting a “young film comer” chosen for the lead in the new Warner Bros. gangster picture “The Public Enemy.” Not James Cagney, of course: Edward Woods. Most film fans, or at least Cagney fans, know that Woods was tapped for the lead but the roles were switched early in production. What I didn’t know was that the publicity machine had already begun working on Woods. The column also made me wonder why Woods was cast as Tom Powers in the first place. This part:
Young Woods, who played the role of the first boy to die in the stage production of “The Last Mile,” and Danny, the bad boy in “Mother’s Cry,” is just getting his foothold in Hollywood.
Woods never really impresses in “Public Enemy.” Maybe because he’s the nicer one? He’s the guy who’s horrified when Tom kills Putty Nose in cold blood. That’s his role. So maybe, as the bad boy in “Mothers Cry,” I’d be able to see why Warners cast him as Tom Powers in the first place. That’s why I watched this.
And … nope. In “Mothers Cry,” Woods has a thin, reedy voice, is as pale and powdered as any silent film star, and overacts. There’s nothing in the performance that makes you think: lead role in tough-guy gangster movie.
But “Cry” does have interesting similarities with “Public Enemy.” As well as strong differences.
“Public Enemy” is an early attempt at what became the Warner Bros. “social problem” film. In the nature/nurture argument, it takes both sides. Sure, Tom is a rotten kid, and his brother is upstanding; but look what happens to the brother: shell-shocked during the Great War, the sap. And maybe if it wasn’t for the Putty Noses of the world, Tom might’ve become a ding-ding on a streetcar. You never know. The social problem argument isn’t as strong as it would become in “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” and “Angels with Dirty Faces,” but it’s there.
In “Mothers Cry,” it’s non-existent. Danny’s a shitty kid who becomes a shitty adult who is executed for his shitty crimes. The end.
As you might gather from the title, it’s the story from the mother’s perspective and the whole thing is steeped in melodrama. Mary (Dorothy Peterson) marries Frank Williams, has four children with him, and is then widowed. She has to raise them on her own while working as a seamstress in a sweatshop. But she does it. And her kids grow up to be OK—mostly:
- Jenny (Evalyn Knapp), interested in homemaking, marries a boisterous, hard-working German, Karl Muller (Reinhold Pasch)
- Beattie (Helen Chandler), an idealistic, artistic spirit, can’t decide on a discipline
- Arthur (David Manners), good-natured, is interested in architecture
- Danny (Woods) becomes a two-bit hood
The worst part of Danny isn’t his two-bit hoodiness; it’s that he’s bad at it. As an adult, we first see him downing a shot with a dame and bragging how about he’s going to collect from both ends of a shady deal. Except she’s working with the gang he’s trying to cheat, and they show up behind him. “Give him the works,” she tells the boys, then addresses Danny. “So, Mister Wise Guy, you’re gonna collect from both ends? Yes, you are.” This is both a common idiom back then—sarcastic agreement with previous statement—and chilling promise.
It’s delivered. Danny is dumped, beaten and bloody, on his family’s front porch—a scene prefiguring the ending of “Public Enemy.” The family scurries to help but Danny knows the mob will be back and flees.
“Three years pass,” as the intertitles say. Arthur has just been awarded a prize for architectural design, the family is celebrating, and Danny shows up full of false bravado and with a floozy for a wife. The two spend an evening making everyone uncomfortable before the cops show up and haul Danny to prison for a crime he committed elsewhere. I guess he thought he was safe at home? Another mistake. As is the floozy. “You gotta keep him for a son,” she tells Mrs. Williams, as she skips town, “but I don’t gotta keep him for a husband.” So Danny can’t even get girls right.
Beattie, the idealistic one, flees, too (Danny makes her feel bad), and winds up in Palm Beach, Florida, where she gets a job as the public stenographer for a fancy hotel. One guest, Mr. Hart, keeps calling for her … and we see where that’s going. After she returns home, heartbroken, there’s a good scene where she tells Arthur all. She’s crying, he sits her on his lap and says with a solicitous smile, “Now, tell me everything.” As she begins, the screen dissolves from top to bottom. Then for several seconds, it remains black—and silent. Maybe five seconds? Seems forever in film time. When it dissolves back—from bottom to top—Beattie has reached the end of her sordid tale, and Arthur, shocked, is now holding onto her as much for support as to be supportive. Great scene. Plus the top-to-bottom dissolve is something I’ve never seen before.
The day she returns, of course, is the same day Danny gets out of prison. Arthur is now a huge success and Danny looks to scam him, but instead finds Beattie crying with her old love letters from the married Mr. Hart. Danny sees his chance—blackmail!—and tries to steal the letters, but he can’t even do this. Beattie simply takes them back and runs upstairs. So he shoots her. Dead. Now he’s on death row, where his mother goes to see him the day he’s to be executed. By this point, he’s got one thing left to lose. It’s the thing Cagney pretended to lose in “Angels with Dirty Faces,” and Danny raises the issue immediately:
All them newspaper guys that thinks I’m gonna flap can go jump in the lake. Cause I ain’t gonna flap, see. Cause I ain’t afraid.
She nods. He nods. She says goodbye. He says goodbye. She’s slowly led out. Then he twists the bars, emotes, and grunts out a desperate “Mama!” This is Woods’ best bit of acting. There’s a real undercurrent of desperation here. She tries to go back to him but the guard won’t have it. He grunts it out again: “Mama!” Then he breaks down. And that’s the last we see of him.
The perils of Helen Chandler
“Mothers Cry” is based on a best-selling novel by Helen Grace Carlisle, was adapted by Lenore J. Coffee, a prolific Hollywood screenwriter whose work includes the original non-musical version of “Chicago,” and was directed by Hobart Henley, a silent film actor and director whose last credit is from 1934.
The point of it all, the mother’s cry, is that the mother does everything for her kids and loses them all. Danny kills Beattie and the state kills him. Jenny and Karl leave because of the floozy—I think. Arthur stays but Mom pushes him away. There’s a media frenzy about Danny and she doesn’t want him caught up in it. But we get a coda. She visits him in New York, where it’s implied he’s designed the Chrysler Building, which, at the time of the movie’s release, December 1930, was the tallest building in the world.
Something similar actually happened with the actors. The mother, Dorothy Peterson, kept going like the mother in the movie. This is her first screen credit and IMDb lists 103 more until her final role in a 1964 episode of “The Patty Duke Show.” But the movie careers of the kids barely make it out of the 1930s. David Manners went from playing Arthur to playing the romantic lead in a string of horror films (“Dracula,” “The Mummy,” “The Black Cat”), but he quickly tired of Hollywood, left for a ranch, and never returned; his last credit is from 1936. Evalyn Knapp played Cagney’s sister in his first movie, “Sinners’ Holiday,” caused his death in “Smart Money,” and recreated the role of Pauline in a remake of the hugely successful silent serial “The Perils of Pauline” in 1933. But that was her high point. Her career was over by 1943.
Then there’s Helen Chandler. She’s great as Beattie, so lovely and fragile, you wonder why she didn’t become bigger. She was also in “Dracula,” and co-starred with Douglas Fairbanks in “The Lost Generation,” but her last movie credit is from 1938. What happened? This is her IMDb bio. It’s about the saddest I’ve read:
In 1937 Chandler left Hollywood to return to the stage, but a dependency on alcohol and sleeping pills haunted her subsequent career, and in 1940 she was committed to a sanitarium. Ten years later she was disfigured in a fire, apparently caused by smoking in bed. Helen Chandler died (following surgery for a bleeding ulcer) on April 30, 1965. Her body was cremated, and as no relative ever came forward to claim the remains, her ashes now repose in the vaultage section (off limits to visitors) of the Chapel of the Pines Crematory in Los Angeles.
As for Woods? He did this, “Public Enemy,” and only 10 more movies, generally fourth- or fifth-billed, and was done by 1938. He went on to produce and direct in the theater (for Les Schubert), and did promotional work (for 20th Century Fox), before retiring to Salt Lake City in 1975. His death in 1989 didn’t even rate a mention in the newspaper. Any newspaper. The only obits I could find were the kind family and friends pay for. One was in The Salt Lake Tribune, the other in the Los Angeles Times. The Times obit contains several errors. It says Woods acted in a movie called “Saturday’s Child,” when they probably meant “Hot Saturday”; and it gets his big movie wrong. They call it “Public Enemy Number 1.”
As to my original question: Why was he cast as the lead in “Public Enemy” when, even playing a tough guy in “Mothers Cry,” he’s not exactly tough? It could be his look. Lew Ayres was cast as the gangster lead in “The Doorway to Hell” earlier in 1930, with Cagney as his right-hand man, and “Enemy” seemed to follow that pattern. But while researching the question, I came across this fun fact: At the time of the Louella Parsons column touting Woods as a “young film comer,” guess who Woods was engaged to? Louella Parsons’ daughter. And now I’m wondering if maybe this connection had something to do with the original casting. According to Cagney biographer John McCabe, Warners producer Darryl Zanuck appreciated Woods’ connection to the powerful Parsons, and that’s why he was initially reluctant to switch the roles. Indeed, when he did it, Parsons wasn’t happy. According to Samantha Barbas’ biography “The First Lady of Hollywood,” she wrote this in her column:
“I happen to know the Cagney role was originally written for Eddie, but through the friendship of someone in the studio the big part was handed the other boy.”
Two things. While the writers—John Bright and Kubec Glasmon—had a preference for Cagney, the role of Tom Powers wasn’t written for anyone. But worse is the second part of her sentence. The nepotism she claims others engaged in is exactly what she’s guilty of. Hell, the “friends” she claims Cagney had at the studio were the writers. The second part of her sentence negates the first.
I will say this about Woods’ performance in “Mothers Cry”: If the studios were truly interested in deglamorizing criminals—as they always claimed—this was the way to do it. Woods’ Danny isn’t anyone you’d want to be. He’s not cool, he’s not respected, and he’s only feared by his fragile sister. Going with Cagney, Warners chose a more realistic, energetic, and lucrative path. Yes, they did.
Woods before his big scene; and before the fall.
Friday September 11, 2020
Movie Review: Trapped By Television (1936)
In the 1920s and ‘30s, as inventors were trying to create a visual version of radio called “television,” the film industry was already exploiting the concept in low-budget movies. Has someone done a study on this? It’s a major plot point in “International House” (1933) starring W.C. Fields, in which various people bid on the invention in a Chinese hotel; “The Big Broadcast of 1936” (1935), where TV is called “the Radio Eye”; a 1935 Bela Lugosi horror film called “Murder by Television”; and this, whose working title was “Caught by Television.”
I was caught anyway. I watched because I was intrigued by the title. And? It’s not much, a low-budget quickie, but it has moments.
Sweeping the country
Rocky (Nat Pendleton, the future Goliath in “At the Circus”) is good-natured muscle for the Acme Collection Agency (“If they’ve got it, we’ll get it”), but in his spare time he likes reading “Popular Science,” which his boss, Greggs (Wade Boteler), calls “machinery magazines.” Berated for not pulling his weight, Rocky is given a new assignment: a guy named Fred Dennis (Lyle Talbot, the future Lex Luthor in “Atom Man vs. Superman”), who is working on a beta version of television.
Rather than strong-arm him, though, Rocky becomes intrigued. He thinks Dennis is onto something and wants to help make it happen. So not only does he not take his equipment, he gets Dennis a job as a debt collector for the agency so he can pay back his debt.
Dennis’ first assignment? Blake Enterprises, Inc., a down-on-its-luck sales/promotion firm run by Bobby Blake (Mary Astor, the future femme fatale in “Maltese Falcon”). That debt isn’t collected, either, of course. Instead, he tells her about his television and she promises to help sell it. Per “Maltese,” she doesn’t really believe in his invention; she believes in the money she might bilk for it.
Mae: [Joyce Compton, Bobby’s wise-crackin’ secretary] Say, you don’t think that machine is any good, do you?
Bobby: I don’t think it can squeeze orange juice. What difference does it make? It looks complicated enough to fool anybody. … Television is sweeping the country. Everybody is interested in it and practically nobody knows the first thing about it. That’s where the chumps come in. Curtis would fall for it like a ton of bricks.
Curtis is the president of the Paragon Broadcasting Company (Thurston Hall), and he doesn’t believe in it, either, but he basically gives her a $200 check to get rid of her. Two-hundred bucks! Bobby and Mae celebrate. Except after visiting Dennis, and seeing the commitment he has to the project, and maybe being a little stuck on him, Bobby, against her better, cynical instincts, gives him the dough.
And he makes it work. Then they demo it for Paragon at a football game with Rocky filming and broadcasting, and … it doesn’t work. Paragon was working on its own version of television until its chief engineer Paul Turner (Wyrley Birch), and his assistant Frank Griffin (Marc Lawrence), went missing. Turns out Turner was kidnapped, and later murdered, by Griffin, who’s working with Paragon executive Standish (Robert Strange). I guess they think they can sell Curtis his own product? Main point is they sabotage Dennis’ demonstration by mucking with the cathode-ray tube. But Dennis figures it out, Bobby sells her prize fur coat to get him a new cathode-ray tube, and, even as the bad guys converge, the new Paragon demo works.
The first thing broadcast? A dull fight scene, blows continually exchanged, between mobster Griffin and scientist Dennis. Prescient.
Whatever happened to…?
“Television” is directed by Del Lord, who seems worthy of a movie himself. He started as a stuntman and a member of the Keystone Kops. Apparently he was adept at crazy, perilous driving. Eventually he became the director of stunt scenes and then Mack Sennett shorts. But when the Depression ruined Sennett, he was let go. A Columbia Pictures executive found him selling used cars. At this point, Columbia had just signed the Three Stooges and they figured the former Keystone Kop/director would be perfect for them. Apparently he was. Over the next 10+ years, he directed more than three dozen Stooges shorts, their best stuff, apparently, and was so revered a New York band named themselves the Del-Lords in his honor.
What he didn’t do much? Feature-length films. IMDb lists 220 directing credits for him, and all but 15 are shorts. He did three features in the ’20s: “Lost at the Front,” a WWI comedy; “Topsy and Eva,” a farce based on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (you can see a clip here, if you dare); and “Barnum was Right,” about a down-on-his-luck hotel owner who drums up business with rumors of hidden treasure. This is his first talkie feature. Don't know why they didn't give him a comedy, but that’s Hollywood.
So is there anything of value in it—other than an early look at the medium that usurped the movies as the preeminent storyteller of American lives? Yes, a few things.
Pendleton’s got good comic timing. He played a similar role in “Manhattan Melodrama”—the not-bright muscle with a heart of gold—and of course he made a great comic foil for the Marx Brothers. Born in 1895, the son of a lawyer, he took to wrestling, and was good enough to win a silver medal in the 1920 Olympics. He kept acting into the ’40s; he died of a heart attack in 1967, age 72.
There’s also a great scene after the Paragon engineer has been kidnapped. They’re in a cabin, the engineer is locked in a closet and banging on the door, while Griffin, the mobster, lays on the bed shooting darts at a dartboard with a blowgun. Splat! Splat! There’s something both indolent and menacing in Lawrence’s movements. He’s another story: Group Theater, good friend of John Garfield, gangster roles, blacklisted, European films, returning to the U.S. for TV and movie roles. He kept acting into the 21st century (take that, HUAC!) before dying in 2005 at the age of 95.
Finally, in “Television,” there’s this early line from Bobby Blake about the titular subject: “Well, if it does what you say it will, the entire industry will be affected.” They had no idea.
* The above photo is taken from the Bradford Evening Star and Daily Record, Bradford, Penn., July 11, 1936, Saturday evening edition. “Trapped” is a B-picture from a minor-major studio, Columbia, so hardly any posters were created for it. Even in the newspaper ads back then it was usually listed as an “Also” or “Plus”; it was the other feature you could see when you saw the one everyone was talking about.
Monday August 24, 2020
Movie Review: Boy Meets Girl (1938)
“You may think this is heresy, Jim, but I’ve always thought of you as essentially a comedian.”
The line comes from Margaret Hamilton—yes, the Wicked Witch of the West—during the filming of “Johnny Come Lately” with James Cagney in 1943. Cagney’s response? “I told Margaret that it was not only not heresy, it was gospel. My gospel.” He thought all of his roles contained comedic elements. “I have too much of Frank Fay and Lowell Sherman in me,” he told biographer John McCabe, “not to have a comedic attitude at the base of my acting.”
Sure. And you can see elements of that attitude in “Blonde Crazy,” “Hard to Handle,” and “Lady Killer,” among others. But here? In this comedy/farce? Nope. Everything’s big and theatrical. Nothing lands.
Not just for him, either. Apparently during the making of “Boy Meets Girl”—a send-up of the movie industry based on the 1935 hit Broadway play by the husband-wife team of Bella and Sam Spewack—producer Hal Wallis kept demanding a quicker pace and ordered director Lloyd Bacon to reshoot some scenes. From McCabe:
Both Cagney and [Pat] O’Brien knew that the unremittingly swift pace Wallis had imposed on their director was too much, and that, in farce, as in everything else, one had to grant moments of rest. Jim was in special need of caution because of his natural tendency to talk fast. He never watched dailies as a rule but did one day in Ralph Bellamy’s company. As they came out of the projection room, Jim turned to his friend and said, “Would you tell me what I just said? I couldn’t understand a word.”
Too true. But there’s a bigger problem with “Boy Meets Girl.” Its leads are privileged assholes.
Braves and sagamores
Benson and Law (O’Brien and Cagney) are the most successful screenwriting team on the Royal Studios lot, and their huge, cluttered office includes giant Barrel-o-Monkeys hanging from the ceiling, a phonograph of a typewriter tapping away (to throw others off the scent while they play), and movie posters based on their scripts hanging on the walls. Spot the theme:
- There’s Love Ahead
- The Love Express
- Love Handicap
- Love Is Where You Find It
- Love, Honor and Behave
That theme is the reason they’re wealthy ($1500 a week each during the Depression) and it’s the bane of their existence. They’re smart men who write pablum: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. “It’s the great American fairy tale,” Law says. And it’s killing them inside.
So how do they deal with it? Pranks, antics, madcap behavior. They join a dance line on another set, run circles around producer C. Elliott Friday (Ralph Bellamy), instigate a revolt on Indian extras, and mock cowboy movie star Larry Toms (B-western star Dick Foran). They have an anarchic spirit like the Marx Brothers but aren’t nearly as anarchic and definitely not as funny. The white collars don’t help. I actually got whiffs of the 1970s Harvard Lampoon boys: white men with the power to change things who are content to mock the system while swinging a golf club. I never much liked those guys.
The Indian revolt is particularly problematic. Friday is forever receiving calls about what he never ordered for his movies—or what he ordered and forgot—and for a time it’s a busload of Native Americans. Outside Friday’s office, Law riles them up:
Law [theatrically]: Men, I say to you: protest. Mr. Friday asked you to come to work. And now he won’t give you any work. Think of your forefathers. What did they ever get from the paleface—a handful of beads. They took your rivers, your mountains, your plains; and they taught you instead of putting corn in the ground, you could put it in a jug. And today, what do they give you for your great Indian trails? Signboards and trailer camps.
Indians: How, how!
Benson: And how!
Law [more theatrically]: Arise, braves and sagamores! Beat your drums of war in protest! Wait! [Picks up rock] I’m going to make your protest heard ’round the world! Forward, men! To victory!
Then he tosses the rock through Friday’s window, and the Indians are never heard from again. The whole thing is a joke to Benson and Law but it’s never funny—to the Indian extras least of all, one imagines.
(It is, nonetheless, an improvement. Four years earlier, in “Lady Killer,” another send-up of the Hollywood system, it’s Cagney and other white extras who are spraypainted and fitted with headdresses in assembly-line fashion. At least here Native Americans get to play themselves.*)
As the movie opens, Benson and Law are stuck writing a comeback movie for Larry Toms, who hovers nearby with his agent, Rosetti (Frank McHugh), demanding action. It’s not until a half-hour in, when a waitress, Susie (Marie Wilson), brings a mostly ignored platter of food for Friday, then faints because she’s pregnant, that they glom onto something. A baby! Her baby! Who’ll be named Happy. They’ll put Happy in Larry’s movies and make him a star!
And they do just that. The montage of Happy being put through the star-making machine (movie magazines, etc.) may be my favorite part of this thing.
On the other side of the montage, all seems well. Susie is going back to high school to get her diploma, and Benson and Law, who have power of attorney over Happy, are in the catbird seat. Until they’re not. It’s a little odd how it happens. For the first half of the movie, they ignore work in favor of escapades; in the second half of the movie, they ignore Susie (whom they like) in favor of work. They’re too busy writing screenplays for Happy, her son, to talk to her. As a result, when they let the POA lapse, Rosetti swoops in, sweet-talks Susie, and takes over.
Their scheme to get back what they lost involves the boy-meets-girl subplot. Before giving birth, Susie hit it off with a British extra, Rodney Bowman (Bruce Lester), who was in Friday’s office to get approval for the Buckingham Palace guard uniform he was wearing for a film called “Young England.” Friday, who puts on airs, dismissing Kipling in favor of Proust, for example, objects to the hat but is fine with everything else. Rodney politely informs him that the hat is the only authentic part of the uniform. For that, he’s fired. But B&L’s scheme is a little desperate. At the premiere of a new Errol Flynn picture (“The White Rajah”), as Susie is being interviewed for radio by a young Ronald Reagan (only his sixth credited picture), Law pushes Rodney towards her so he can claim to be the father of Happy. A scandal ensues.
Back at the studio, B&L lock up Rodney, he escapes, tells Friday that B&L orchestrated the whole thing, and they’re canned. As is Happy: washed up at eight months old. Benson and Law have long disparaged what they do, with Law in particular talking about leaving Hollywood to write the Great American Novel in Vermont, but maybe inside they both know this is what they’re best at. So they scheme to get back the soul-killing but high-paying job: They get a British friend to send a telegram to Friday offering to buy the studio as long as Happy is still under contract.
This scheme, too, is eventually uncovered, but by then B&L have their old jobs back. It’s also uncovered that Rodney is really the son of a British lord, he asks Susie to marry him, and the two decide to raise Happy in Europe, away from the Hollywood hubbub. The end.
Me: Right, except it’s 1938. Europe isn’t such a happy place—or a place for Happy. And it’s about to get much, much worse.
In like Flynn
It’s a little ironic that the best part of a movie that mocks “boy meets girl” storylines is the boy and the girl. Lester as Rodney is quiet, understated and intelligent. He knows he’s in a clown shop but seems too polite to mention it. I’d never seen Marie Wilson before but she’s got a Judy Holliday thing about her. In his memoir, Cagney calls her savvy and “very adept at giving an impression of naivete.” Reagan is also good in a small role. He’s young, thin, oh-so handsome, and flummoxed when his radio interview goes complete awry.
Cagney? I think I’ve said it before, but it’s so odd that his gangsters are often more likeable than his civilians. That’s the case here, too. He does have his moments, though. During one of the many farcical meetings in Friday’s office, he does a little dance number by himself that’s admired by Pat O’Brien. Earlier, goofing about love love love, he lays on a chaise while doing a dancer’s stretch that’s pretty incredible. He gets his leg way back there. At nearly 40.
I like some of the insidery stuff. Apparently Benson and Law are based on Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, while Friday is Darryl Zanuck, but I haven’t seen corroboration on this. Dick Powell gets lauded and the Barrymore larynx is mentioned. It’s a Warners movie—Cagney’s first back with the studio after two pictures with Grand National—so of course the studio pimps some of its product, particularly Errol Flynn, who is mentioned three times as the star the ladies are all now crazy about. According to TCM, they also took him down a notch. The Flynn movie being premiered, “The White Rajah,” is fictional, but apparently that was the title of a script Flynn wrote and pushed on Warners that was summarily rejected. I do love the title. So of the era. They should make it today. As a farce.
Wednesday August 12, 2020
Movie Review: He Was Her Man (1934)
You dirty rat.
The line Cagney never spoke is the character he becomes in “He Was Her Man” (working titles: “Without Honor”; “He Was a Man”), a 1934 Lloyd Bacon-directed Warner Bros. quickie. It’s kind of shocking to see. In both the Cagney and Warner Bros. ethos, no one was lower than a rat; yet here was Cagney, Warners’ biggest star, playing one.
Flicker Hayes is a safecracker who just spent three years in the stir, and who, as the movie opens, is in a Turkish bath being offered another gig. First words from the other guys: “It’s a cinch.” I like the bargaining—maybe a sly nod to the back-and-forth between Cagney and Warner Bros. Flicker wants half his cut up front, $15k, but they’re not having it. Eventually they offer $5k. OK, how about 10? At which point he raises his ask to 20. Eventually they settle on the 15 he originally wanted.
Then he rats them out to the cops.
There's a safe full of junk and nose candy at the Empire Wholesale Drug Warehouse. They've hired me to use a can opener. Yeah. Tonight.
Even the cops find this distasteful but they get it. These guys, Dan Curly’s gang, are the reason Flicker spends three years in prison and now it’s payback time. At the scene of the crime, Flicker escapes by window with a laugh, but soon it’s no laughing matter. There’s a shootout, a cop dies, and one of the gang, Red Deering (Ralf Harolde, no childe), will go the chair. So Curly sends J.C. and Monk (Harold Huber and Russell Hopton) to pay back Flicker in kind.
By now he's in San Francisco, goes by the name of Jerry Allen, and seems trapped. A hotel clerk, innocent of all the aforementioned, recognizes him from New York, so Flicker realizes he’s still not safe. Plus he’s run out of continent. He contemplates a slow boat to China but doesn’t have a passport and apparently can’t figure out a crooked way to get one. Seattle? Alaska? Canada? Not a thought. How about at least shaving that pencil-thin moustache? No soap.
For whom the bell tolls
Fate intervenes in the form of Rose Lawrence (Joan Blondell), who enters his hotel room to retrieve, of all things, a wedding dress she left under the mattress when the cops busted her the other night. She’s a prostitute, barely ex, and Nick Gardella (Victory Jory), an Italian fisherman from the small village of Santa Avila 100 miles or so south, has proposed. The wedding is in a few days. A quiet little place, she says. Dead to the world. Doesn’t take Einstein to figure out Flicker’s next move.
Except it gets a little creepy here. He takes the wedding dress from her, hangs it up in the closet, says he’ll get her stuff out of hock and go with her. Then, while she looks resigned, he removes her coat. Fadeout. Eww. Or is the eww on me? I assumed the worst, the last sad sex of the pre-code era, but the rest of the movie indicates otherwise. Either way, Warners should've been more careful with its fadeouts.
Blondell, by the way, is great. I kept coming back to the word ripe. There’s a scene in her room at the Gardella house where Nick is saying good night, or she’s saying we’d better say good night, and it’s just the two of them in profile, staring at each other, the attraction palpable, maybe leaning in a little, until … he says buon night and leaves. But steamy.
Both Rose and Flicker/Jerry are welcomed into the Gardella house by the merry mother (Sarah Padden), with whom Jerry flirts. Jerry also spends a happy day on the boat with Nick. But a Curly associate (Frank Craven), who’d seen them leave SF, finds them in Santa Avila, alerts the gang, and steals Flicker’s gun. The two assassins arrive the day of the wedding.
By this point, Rose has confessed her love for Jerry, and the two of them are thinking of lamming it. They stick around because she feels she owes it to Nick to explain. Except she can’t—Blondell is sadly passive for most of the movie, missing her usual firecracker wit—and so now she’s just waiting for Jerry. Except Jerry has already left. He saw his gat was gone, as well as the Curly associate, and knows what’s coming. He and the assassins even pass each other on the road to/from Santa Avila—unknowingly.
About that: Early on, we’re told it’s 12 miles from the bus depot/café to Santa Avila, but near the end of the movie people seem to make this trip in minutes. One guy, for example, the young driver for the assassins, panics when he hears them talking about roughing up Rose, and he makes it to the café/depot on foot—and in time, with his babble, to clue Flicker in to what’s going on.
So what’s he going to do? He has one foot on the step of a bus heading south, toward anonymity and safety, but then, nah, he takes a cab back to the Gardellas, where no violence or even epiphanies have occurred. There, he says goodbye to Rose and leaves with the assassins. I assumed he had a plan and would escape improbably in the Hollywood manner, but it turns out: no. His plan is to get Rose and the Gardellas away from the danger he put them in. He makes the great sacrifice, smiling, and is killed offscreen, while Rose, with an 11th-hour realization of how much she loves Nick, gets married in the town chapel. The bell tolls in celebration. And sorrow.
That's not bad. The supporting cast, meanwhile, is fun. Jory, who will play Oberon to Cagney’s Bottom in “A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream” from 1935, and who will make an excellent Lamont Cranston/Shadow in the 1940 Columbia serial, makes this happy, nonjudgmental fisherman believable. I like how he’s proud of his work, dismissive of the men who can’t do it, but thinks it’s no life for anyone. John Qualen, Berger in “Casablanca,” is comic relief as the bucktoothed Avila cabbie, while George Chandler (who looks so familiar but can’t place him) is the kid behind the counter at the café. I was particularly impressed with the two assassins. They’re like precursors to Jules and Vincent—forever in disagreement over what to do next. While Monk wants to rough up Rose, J.C. is smarter. He knows she knows nothing and counsels patience and not tipping your hand. There's a stillness to him, which makes him more menacing.
“He Was Her Man” is clunky, not well thought-out, and the title is horrible. But it’s like Flicker: It redeems itself in the end.
Wednesday July 15, 2020
Movie Review: Three on a Match (1932)
Blonell and Dvorak switch places. Bette Davis the blonde, boring one.
Our title three are Mary, Vivian and Ruth (Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak and Bette Davis), who know each other in grade school and meet up again 10 years later. Of the three, Bette Davis is the boring one, believe it or not, the “…and Peggy” of the group. She’s got no bit. She’s the smart one who becomes a typist and then a nanny. I guess such were the options for smart girls in the 1920s and ’30s. Or for Warners bit players, which Davis was at the time.
The other two switch places. That’s the movie's real story.
Dempsey, Vallee, Lindsey
We first see them as kids at Public School No. 62, where Mary smokes with the boys (including Frankie Darro, uncredited) and doesn’t care about showing her bloomers on the monkey bars. Vivian is the popular one—although one wonders why since she seems kind of snooty. Either way, their futures appear pre-written. And indeed: Mary (now Blondell) winds up in reform school and becomes a show girl; Ruth (now Bette) winds up at business/typing school and becomes a secretary; and Vivian (Dvorak) goes to prep school—where she reads racy books to the other girls—then marries a rich, prominent lawyer, Robert Kirkwood (Warren William), and has an too-cutesy three-year old, Junior, played by Buster Phelps, who’s a bit like a boy version of Shirley Temple.
Anyway, they meet up again in 1930 and have lunch together. At one point, they light their cigarettes from the same match. “Three on a match,” one of them says.
Know the saying? I didn’t. Apparently if three smokers share the same match, one of them dies. That was the superstition. It may have started during wartime—Boer, WWI—since if the light from the match burned long enough it made the men a target. Another version has it that the slogan was popularized in the 1920s by Ivar Kreuger, the Swedish “match king”—yes, they had those back then—who wanted people to use more matches. War or greed: either could be correct.
Interestingly, Warren William’s next movie was “The Match King,” a fictionalized version of Kreuger—I guess matches were a bigger thing then—while both “three on a match” theories are mentioned here via newspaper headlines. Normally they‘re used to set the scene/era. So in 1919, along with “Public Enemy” footage of people hoarding booze, we get these headlines:
- DRY LAW IN EFFECT TOMORROW
- WOMAN SUFFRAGE PASSES CONGRESS!
- DEMPSEY KNOCKED OUT WILLARD
There’s also an article about fashion trends, and how the “proper dress length next fall will be six inches from the ground.” It was tongue-in-cheek scandalous. “Not since the days of the Bourbons,” etc. It was 1932 making fun of 1919.
As for 1921? Babe Ruth maybe? Douglas Fairbanks? Nope. Instead we get:
- The music sheet for Eddie Cantor’s “The Sheik of Araby” (which the Beatles did 40 years later)
- PRESIDENT HARDING LAUNCHES NEW “ERA OF GOOD FEELING” (sure)
- AMAZING FEAT OF NEW “WIRELESS TELEPHONE” (i.e., radio)
- The music sheet for “The Prisoner’s Song”
- SHENANDOAH WRECKED! MANY LIVES LOST
- “RED” GRANGE FOR CONGRESS
- YOUNGER GENERATION RUNS WILD, SAYS JUDGE BEN LINDSEY
I love the stuff that meant something then but less so now. I guess the U.S.S. Shenandoah dirigible crash was eventually usurped by the Hindenburg? Meanwhile, Ben Lindsey was indeed a judge—and a social reformer—but lost to us through the years.
Then we’re up to 1930—only two years removed from when the movie was made and released—so less aware of what might be historically significant. What do they give us?
- The music sheet for “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” by Rudy Vallee
- WALL STREET LEADERS SEE BUSINESS UPTURN: Stock Slump Only Temporary…
Never heard of the Vallee song. The other is 1932 thumbing its nose at 1930—or at least its pundits. We still haven’t learned that lesson.
Again, this is when our girls meet up. Both Mary and Peggy/Ruth are scraping to get by, Viv has it made but she’s not happy. She’s bored. With husband and maybe child? But the husband is understanding. He suggests a trip to Europe, which she thinks won’t work. Then he suggests a trip to Europe without him. She’s more interested in that. Yikes. She even takes along her annoying son. But she never gets out of port.
Before the ship sets sail, she meets a friend of Mary’s, Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot), and the two drink each other in; they can’t get enough of each other. And so she and son slip off and spend time with him in a high-priced hotel. She spends most of it drinking, but it soon becomes apparent she’s snorting cocaine, too. Yes, cocaine. Pre-code. By and by, she loses her son (Mary brings him back to the father), her husband divorces her (and quickly marries Mary), and she becomes destitute. Like that. She and Mary change places.
Wait, it gets worse.
Good-for-nothing Michael owes $2k to gangsters. The big man is Ace, played by Edward Arnold, whose henchmen include Allen Jenkins (forever a secondary gangster), an uncredited Jake La Rue (whose got a Bobby Cannavale thing about him), and, in his first gangster role, and only ninth feature, a young Humphrey Bogart. He’s one of the best things in the movie. There’s a stillness to him that feels threatening. There’s a leanness to him that’s like a razor blade.
Since Michael can’t pay them off, he decides to kidnap Junior for ransom. Then the mob wants in on the action: Not the $2k he’s demanding but $25k. Soon it becomes like a Lindbergh baby thing, with headlines around the country and everyone in the city after them and closing in. Things get so hot the others decide to just kill Junior and scram. Vivian overhears, hides her son, writes a message on her nightgown in lipstick, and when the bad guys enter the room she screams and jumps out the fourth-story window. It’s the great sacrifice after the great indulgence.
The boy survives, unlike Lindbergh’s baby, and everyone lives happily ever after except for Viv. She’s the third on the match. Let this be a lesson, moviegoers. Stay away from booze, coke and Lyle Talbot.
‘World War Foreseen’
Yeah, it’s not a great movie. The history of it is more interesting.
- As mentioned, it’s the first gangster role for Humphrey Bogart.
- Sidney Miller has a small role as the humorous Jewish kid at P.S. 62. He’s good. It’s basically the same role he played in “The Mayor of Hell” from ’33. I wrote more about him there.
- Talbot, who’s quite handsome here, became the first screen version of Lex Luthor in 1950s’s “Atom Man vs. Superman.” He’s one of those guys that never stopped working. According to IMDb, this is his 11th credit and he would wind up with 330 of them—the last being a bit part in the satiric, funny “Amazon Women on the Moon” in 1987. He died in 1996, age 94.
- Of the titular three, it’s the “…and Peggy” of the group, Bette Davis, who became the star. Maybe because she wanted it most? In her biography, Joan Blondell wonders aloud whether she should’ve fought for better roles like Bette did rather than acquiescing to the Warners; she decides it just wasn’t in her nature.
- The story came from John Bright and Kubec Glasmon, the guys behind “The Public Enemy,” and it shares a bit of a “Public Enemy” vibe: from seeing our leads as kids to giving us the year yardmarkers throughout. Unlike “PE,” though, the past is not prologue.
Then there’s all those historical and cultural indicators mentioned above. This is the last group we get—from 1931:
- Music sheet for Fanny Brice’s “I Found a Million Dollar Baby (In a Five-and-Ten-Cent Store)” (they loved their music sheets)
- WALL STREET LEADERS SEE BUSINESS UPTURN
- “SUN SUITS” RULES BEACHES (as juxtaposition with 1919 fashions)
But this is the headline that intrigued me:
“Row” is a bit undercutting it; but very, very prescient.
Sunday July 05, 2020
Movie Review: Manhattan Melodrama (1934)
Is there a more unlikely kid actor growing up to be his adult counterpart than Mickey Rooney becoming Clark Gable in this movie? That’s some adolescence he went through.
“Manhattan Melodrama” won an Oscar for best original story for Arthur Caesar (over “Hide-Out” and “The Richest Girl in the World”), and it has an OK rating on IMDb (7.2), but it’s not a good film. It’s one of those “two best friends grow up on opposite sides of the law” movies like “San Francisco,” “Dead End,” and “Angels with Dirty Faces.” “Angels” is the epitome. This? It’s MGM so it loses Warner Bros.’s brashness for a nobility nobody buys. Both men act noble beyond reason. Even the crook. Especially the crook. He’s got a joie de vivre even as he’s doing the dead man’s walk to the electric chair. No worries about me, you just make sure you win that governorship. Put ’er there, pal.
Saved by central casting
Both boys are orphaned after the General Slocum catches fire and sinks in the East River in 1904—a real-life incident in which more than 1,000 people lost their lives, the single-worst tragedy for New York City until 9/11. But central casting to the rescue. The boys are saved by a sturdy priest, Father Joe (Leo Carrillo), and adopted by the emotional Poppa Rosen (George Sidney), who is subsequently killed at a communist rally after standing up for America. Despite all the tragedy, Blackie Gallagher (Rooney/Gable) continues his happy-go-lucky, gambling ways while Jim Wade (Jimmy Butler/William Powell) hits the books and becomes a lawyer, then assistant D.A. Then he runs for D.A. and wins. He’s always modest, never ruthless. He always does right.
As does Blackie, running an illegal casino. Whenever the two meet, they’re happier to see each other than you’ve ever been to see anyone in your adult life. For one meeting, Blackie’s busy, so he sends his girl, Eleanor (Myrna Loy), who’s been trying in vain to get him to go straight and settle down. She’s quickly enamored of Jim, and he of her, and she soon leaves Blackie to be with Jim. How does Blackie react? Fine. She couldn’t have chosen a better guy. Put ’er there, pal.
Two deaths—murders—get in the way of all this brotherly love. Manny Arnold (Noel Madison) keeps chiseling on his gambling debts so Blackie kills him. (I think Manny’s going for his gun or something.) Jim investigates and finds a clue: his own tan overcoat, which he left behind after walking Eleanor home, and which Blackie or his dopey right-hand man, Spud (Nat Pendleton), leaves behind at the scene of the crime. Helluva story: D.A.’S COAT AT MURDER SCENE. Except we don’t go there. Blackie has another coat ordered, exactly to specifications, and puts a gavel tchotchke that Jim had bought in the pocket. Jim’s convinced. He’s schnookered. The crime remains unsolved.
Until Jim begins an “aw, shucks, me?” run for governor. Then a corrupt assistant D.A., Richard Snow (Thomas E. Jackson), who’s been dropped from the ticket, tries to blackmail him about the Manny Arnold murder. Does he have evidence? We never really find out. At the racetrack, Eleanor tells Blackie, who then murders Snow in a bathroom at Madison Square Garden. This time, though, Blackie is caught—the blind beggar outside the bathroom isn’t blind—and is put on trial. Jim, as D.A. running for governor, recuses himself from prosecuting his best friend, of course. Hah. Kidding. This is MGM so they have to milk all the sentimentality they can out of it. But Jim gets the conviction and wins the governorship and man Blackie is proud of him. It’s all so dopey.
Loy’s character is the dopiest and the movie doesn’t seem to realize it. She tells Blackie about the blackmail? What did she think he would do? Then she visits Blackie at the jail—even as her husband is about to prosecute him? “And I thought you were smart,” Blackie tells her, with something close to contempt. “That’s what I always liked about you. You were even smart enough to walk out on me.”
It gets worse. She demands Jim, as governor, commute Blackie’s sentence. He refuses. So she leaves him. So he rushes to Sing-Sing to stop the execution. Blackie won’t have it. He prefers death anyway than a lifetime in jail. And you need to run for president someday. Put ’er there, pal.
Top of the world, ma
After the execution, Jim, ever noble, tells all before the legislature and resigns the governorship despite cries from the gallery pleading that he stay. Outside, he finds Eleanor. They reconcile. And off they go to … who gives a shit? “Manhattan Melodrama” is mostly interesting for two reasons: the reenactment of the General Slocomb tragedy, and the fact that this is the movie John Dillinger was leaving when he was gunned down by federal agents. Poor bastard. Should’ve been a Cagney.
Thursday July 02, 2020
Movie Review: Footlight Parade (1933)
Has anyone in the movies ever talked as fast as James Cagney talks in “Footlight Parade”? Cagney’s patter is always rat-a-tat-tat, but here it’s so zippy it makes Cary Grant’s dialogue in “His Girl Friday” seem positively pensive. His mouth moves faster than our minds.
Cagney’s character, Chester Kent, talks fast in part because he’s scrambling. And he’s scrambling because new technology (talking pictures) has made his talents outmoded (kinda sorta), so he’s struggling to keep up. Also because he trusts the wrong people. Also because he might not be that smart.
He says the following halfway through:
Between Gladstone stealing all our stuff and you saying there are no profits, I’m getting pretty well fed up.
Turns out Gladstone is stealing all their stuff because Kent’s trusted assistant, Thompson (Gordon Wescott), is a spy. And there are profits, but Kent’s partners, the production team of Si Gould and Al Frazier (Guy Kibbee and Arthur Hohl), are cheating him.
Who figures all this out? Kent’s secretary, Nan Prescott (Joan Blondell), who’s not so secretly in love with him. How does he reward her? By dating her friend, Vivian Rich (thin-eyebrowed Claire Dodd, forever playing the other woman). And this after separating from a woman so rotten she deserves the grapefruit in the face Cagney delivered to Mae Clark in “Public Enemy.”
So is our hero, this great musical idea man, not the brightest bulb? You know those scenes in movies where they make the protagonist seem sharp by making them right on an historical moment—like Michael Corleone anticipating the Cuban Revolution in “The Godfather Part II”? They do the opposite with Kent.
A fad like mah-jongg
“Footlight” begins with a news ticker informing Kent and Thompson (and us) what I assume everyone in 1933 knew—SILENT PICTURES ARE FINISHED—but Kent’s not convinced. He says talking pictures are a fad—like mah-jongg. Thompson doesn’t think so: “Looks like I’m assistant to a guy out of a job,” he says. But is this too smart? Kent directs stage musicals. Why would talking pictures end stage musicals?
That’s the movie’s conceit, though. Kent and Thompson drop by the producers’ office and discover it’s all over.
Si: Talking pictures—that’s what they want. … Flesh is a dead issue.* We’re in the picture business. Exhibitors.
Al: Yeah, we just bought four houses.
Si: [gesturing to a film cannister] They deliver the show in tin cans and we got nothing to worry about.
(*Ironic given all the flesh in this movie.)
Then they take him to a B-movie starring John Wayne so he can see for himself. Except after the picture is over a mini-musical stage number begins, set in a harem (with, BTW, a superhot uncredited dance lead). I never knew about “prologues” before this movie but here’s a primer. Basically it was a bit of vaudeville between movies in the early days of talkies. The Rockettes got their start with prologues, while one of the impresarios was a guy named Chester Hale, upon whom Cagney’s character is based.
Kent sees the harem number and says, “Hey, why don’t I do that for you?” but Frazier and Gould tell him they’re already phasing out prologues. Too expensive. Then the idea. After Kent’s wife serves him divorce papers—“I’m used to good clothes and everything that goes with it!” is one of the more endearing things she says—Kent goes to a drug store to buy some aspirin and wonders off-handedly why it costs only 18 cents when next door it’s 25. “We got 100 stores,” he’s told. “We buy in big lots.” Kent snaps his fingers. “The chain-store idea solves everything!”* Returning to Frazier & Gould, he sells them on producing prologues that play around the country, not just in one theater, thus diminishing their cost.
(*For the curious: “Chain stores” were, if not a new phenomenon, somewhat new nomenclature in 1933. The first reference in the New York Times came in Nov. 1917 regarding the purchase of a lot by the W.T. Grant Co., which owned a chain of Twenty-Five Cent Stores around the country. At one point, there were 1,200 W.T. Grant Co. stores. It went bankrupt in 1976.)
All of this sets up the rest of the movie. And guess how long all of the above took? Seven minutes. With opening credits. Boom boom. Told you about fast talking.
Cats! The prologue
Now we’re into the scrambling portion of the film. Kent works day and night trying to think up themes for his prologues before Gladstone steals them. At one point we see this list in his office:
I would’ve killed to see the Russian Revolution one.
The first idea we actually hear from him is a doozy. Nan finds him asleep in his office chair, with a cat nuzzled by his side, and when she wakes him up, he looks around, remembers, and shouts, “Cats!” The night before, he’d seen an alley cat, liked its grace, decided it would make a great idea for a prologue. So Cagney, or writers Manuel Seff or James Seymour, or directors Lloyd Bacon or Busby Berkeley, came up with the idea for a “Cats!” musical about half a century before Andrew Lloyd Weber. The bit also allows comic-relief choreographer Francis (Frank McHugh), forever whining through a stogie, to parade around for a time with a long black tail affixed to his hindside.
Other ideas Kent imagines are alternatively racy or racist—sometimes both. Some black kids are cooling themselves off at a fire hydrant “That’s what that wood nymph prologue needs!” Kent cries. “A mountain waterfall splashing on beautiful white bodies!” OK then. In Nan’s apartment, he spies a book, Slaves of Old Africa, and cries: “I can see it now! Pretty girls in blackface, slaves of old Africa, white men capture them!” Ouch. Thankfully they didn’t film that one.
For the first hour, the movie is mostly drama and comedy, with only a smattering of musical numbers. There’s good back-and-forth between Nan and the gold-digging Vivian. “Miss B—,“ Nan begins before correcting herself: ”Miss Rich.“ Then the farewell: “As long as there are sidewalks, you’ve got a job,” she says, before literally kicking Viv out of her apartment. The main subplot is a romance between Scotty Blair and Bea Thorn (America’s then-sweethearts Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler). He’s the college-boy singer who gets a job through Gould’s relative; she’s the sharp, glasses-wearing secretary who rebuffs his charms. Until she doesn’t. Why does she change her mind? Who knows? But there’s a kind of “Gift of the Maji” bit where, as he leaves the stage for an office job, she leaves the office job for the stage. She also loses the glasses. It’s that Hollywood trope—“Oh, she’s pretty after all”—when she was way cuter with the glasses and the gruff putdowns. Losing both, she gushes.
It’s in the last 30-40 minutes where we get the musical—three Busby Berkeley numbers in a row, back to back to back. They’re the proverbial prologues that can save the studio, and they’re each gloriously absurd and surreal. The first is comic, “Honeymoon Hotel,” led by Scott and Bea, a couple trying to enjoy their legit honeymoon in a hotel overrun by the less legit kind (“We’re the house detectives but we’re puzzled with/ The fact that no one stops here unless their name is Smith”). It’s also overrun by “blonde gazelles” in negligees, and a kid, played by Billy Barty, who eyebrow-wags his way through several rooms. Then there's “By a Waterfall,” also with Scotty and Bea. They sing by a waterfall, he falls asleep, and we get that “mountain waterfall splashing on beautiful white bodies” that Kent envisioned. We also get Berkeley’s overhead shots and insane Spirographic concoctions of half-naked women. Part of the absurdity, or the humor, is that all of this is supposedly taking place on a stage. And on a budget.
The final number, “Shanghai Lil,” is the first big musical number that Jimmy Cagney got to perform on screen. He’d done a few quick dance steps in “Other Men’s Women,” and he’d always moved with grace, but here, on a bartop, with Ruby Keeler in Yellowface, he goes all out. He doesn’t disappoint. He’s so good one wishes there’d been more of it.
FDR and NRA
Why is he in the musical number at all? Another classic trope. The lead gets drunk and says he can’t go on. He and Kent tussle, and one of them—we don’t see which—falls down the steps and onto the stage, where the number begins. Of course it’s Kent. He plays a sailor in a Shanghai bar in love with and searching for the title character, a Chinese prostitute, who is called, at various points, a “fascinating heathen” and a “Chinee devil,” and who, when she first makes her appearance, tells Kent, “I miss you very much a long time.” Yeah, it’s a little racist. At the same time, there’s a moment where the camera pans down a long bar and an international central-casting group—Brit, Frenchie, Israeli—sing different lines. One of those is a handsome African with a white woman hanging on his arm. Plus some of the Chinese are actually played by Chinese. Progress.
Then there’s a call to arms, the soldiers and sailors march in Busby-esque formations, and it looks like Lil is going to be left behind. She isn’t. Her gets her a uniform and off she goes with him. To war. We get overhead shots with placards that form the American flag and then the recently elected president: FDR; then the boys, with “Yankee Doodle” piped in, form the National Recovery Administration eagle. Not bad for a bunch of Republican like Jack Warner.
That’s pretty much it. The show is saved, Nan gets her man, and a hundred scantily glad girls move onto the next scene. “Footlight” is one of three big Berkeley musicals that Warners released in 1933. A year later, the Production Code grew teeth and the girls covered up. The racism stayed.
A snapshot of the ”Shanghai Lil" number.
Monday June 22, 2020
Movie Review: Dead End (1937)
According to AFI's film site, Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration, demanded the following changes to Lillian Hellman’s script of “Dead End,” which was already a neutered version of the hit 1935 play by Sidney Kingsley:
- Delete the line “All cats look alike in the dark”
- Delete the implied curses of “son of a—“ and “go to –”
- Delete the word “bum” from British versions, since it’s Brit slang for posterior
- No Bronx cheers
- No cockroaches
- Garbage might cause offense
- “Spit” shouldn’t spit
Apparently Mr. Breen was fine with the scene in which a Lower East Side gang, the Dead End kids, lure the local richie rich, Philip (Charles Peck), into a nearby basement and beat the shit out of him. Off camera we hear him cry out in pain and horror, and afterwards we see him run back to his high-rise in tattered rags while the Dead Enders parade around in whatever of his (jacket, necktie, pocket watch) they hadn’t destroyed.
I saw “Dead End” when I was a kid—it turned up on our local Friday night movie show, “Comedy and Classics,” hosted by John Gallos—and that scene freaked me out so much I turned off the TV. I was hardly a richie rich, but I was the furthest thing from a tough kid; so of the two, I identified with the former. What happened to him horrified me: that kids could be so cruel; that the world could be so lawless; that adults would care so little.
It’s more than that, though. It’s that the movie cares so little. It doesn’t give a shit about the rich kid with the French lessons and swim lessons. It only cares about his tormentors.
“Dead End,” the play, is what brought the Dead End kids (Billy Halop, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, et al.) to Hollywood, and “Dead End,” the movie, is what sent them from the Goldwyn Studios over to Warner Bros. Apparently they raised such hell at Goldwyn that Sam didn’t want to deal with them anymore. Their “sez you” vibe was more in tune with Warners anyway. The surprise is they didn’t start there.
You can see in “Dead End” the outlines of a better movie Warners would make a year later: “Angels with Dirty Faces.” Gangster (Bogart/Cagney) returns to his old neighborhood, meets up with old pal (Joel McRea/Pat O’Brien), reconnects with old girl (Claire Trevor/Ann Sheridan), interacts with neighborhood punks (Dead End kids), dies. The ending of this movie even anticipates that one, since the kids exit stage right singing a song about angels, while William Wyler/Gregg Toland’s camera rises above the squalor with their voices:
If I had the wings of an angel
Over these prison walls I would fly
I would fly to the arms of my mother
And there I'd be willing to die
So why is “Angels,” the copy, so much better than “Dead End,” the original?
For one, “Dead End” feels like the play that it was. Apparently Wyler wanted to film on location in New York, which would’ve been amazing, but Goldwyn nixed it. Instead, Richard Day created an elobrate set that was much praised, and Oscar nominated, but to me still seems like a set. It also seems vaguely European? Particularly at the beginning? That slight hill and curve? Anyway, we barely move from this set. I suppose such stasis adds to the sense of how trapped everyone is, but it still makes it seem like a filmed play. That’s one.
Two, Rocky Sullivan has a reason to return to the neighborhood. He’s just out of prison and wants his dough, see? There’s something the guy wants. That’s rule No. 1 of drama. Father Connolly wants something, too: to make sure his old friend Rocky Sullivan doesn’t corrupt the Dead End kids. And the kids? They want to be Rocky Sullivan. It’s what you might call a Mexican standoff of raison d’etres. In comparison, “Baby Face” Martin is just kinda hanging out. He’s a Public Enemy No. 1 with a surgery-altered face, but he’d like to see his mom and maybe his old girl again. Neither reunion goes well. His mom curses him out and the girl, Francey, turns out to be a prostitute—vaguely, per the Production Code—and this hard-bitten gangster is shocked, shocked by it. (That said, Bogart, a late addition to the cast, is the best thing in the movie. He looks gut-punched in both scenes.)
Three, it’s the relationsips, stupid. All of Rocky’s relationships interact with and inform each other. They’re deeply felt. Rocky and Connolly were boyhood pals who went separate ways but still care about one another. Connolly is basically if Matt Doyle from “Public Enemy” found religion. In “Dead End,” “Baby Face” and Dave (McCrea) …. kinda sorta knew each other? Back in the day? There’s no there there. There’s very little there with McCrea, to be honest. In the play, the character was a crippled artist named Gimpty and Hollywood turned him into a handsome, broadshouldered architect who can’t find work and who mopes around after a rich dame, Kay (Wendy Barrie), even with Drina (Sylvia Sidney), right under his nose. His trajectory is to stand up to “Baby Face” and realize Drina is worth his time. Which is what happens. He winds up killing “Baby Face” on the rooftops and using the reward money to maybe start a life with Drina—whose kid brother, Tommy (Billy Halop), the leader of the Dead Enders, has just been sent to reform school.
By the way: Are we supposed to feel sad Tommy that was sent to reform school? It feels like the movie wants us to feel sad. But the kid’s a jerk. And it's not just Charles Peck. Milty (Bernard Punsly) wants to join the gang but only has three cents of the quarter it supposedly costs. Tommy takes it, won’t let him join, won’t give it back, and then they all beat him up. Drina has to arrive to admonish her brother for, whatever, the thousandth time. Later, the cops show up. “But please, officer, he’s a good kid!” Right.
Maybe most important? There’s a self-important vibe to “Dead End.” It’s from a hit play, with prestige filmmakers, a prestige actress, and it garnered four Oscar nominations: picture, supporting actress (Trevor), cinematography (Toland), art direction (Day). I guess “Angels” garnered three (actor, director, story), but the self-important vibe isn't there. Film historian David Thomson: "Warner Bros. had its share of trash, but few of its films were boring or pretentious.”
I’m curious if we owe Robert Moses for the conceit of “Dead End.” Here’s the opening title card:
Every street in New York ends in a river. For many years the dirty banks of the East River were lined with the tenements of the poor. Then the rich, discovering that the river traffic was picturesque, moved their houses eastward. And now the terraces of these great apartment houses look down into the windows of the tenement poor.
That’s why out-of-work architect + rich broad. That’s why Dead Enders + Richie Rich. This spot is where the classes clash. But is the conceit just a conceit or created from real-life East Side development pushed through by Moses? The original New York Times review of the play doesn't mention specifics; it simply passes it off as “one of those dramatic corners on which Manhattan advertises the distance that divides poverty from riches…”
This is the first of six “Dead End Kids” movies that often paired them with Bogart, Cagney or—would you believe—Ronald Reagan. They kept going into the 1940s as, alternatively, Little Tough Guys, East Side Kids and Bowery Boys—the last two without Hallop. Then it was bit parts, B movies, and TV walk-ons. (Halop, for example, played cabbie Bert Munson in 10 episodes of “All in the Family.”) Most of the kids aged fast and died young: Bobby Jordan at 42, Gorcey at 51, Halop at 56. Gabriel Dell held on until 68, Huntz Hall to 78. Bernard Punsley, the tubby Dead Ender with the three cents, got out first and lasted longest. He stopped making movies in 1942 to become an MD, and he's the only kid who saw the 21st century. He died in 2004 at the age of 80.