PLEASURES OF THE PRE-CODE: FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD VOLUMES 4 AND 5

July 24, 2012

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This astounding publicity shot of a screwfaced James Cagney reluctantly probing the shoulder of a coolly admiring Claire Dodd should sell anyone on the value of Hard To Handle (1933), or of the two new volumes of WB’s Forbidden Hollywood DVD series that is releasing it. The way Cagney separates his left ring and pinky fingers – as if he couldn’t bear to put the effort into using all five digits – exemplifies his casual mastery (even in PR shoots!) in fleshing out the con-artist cads he played throughout this period. And this is only one of the pleasures found within volumes 4 and 5 of the series, which includes a trio of treats from director William Dieterle, and snappy banter from the likes of Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell. The last edition appeared in 2009, containing a bevy of depression-scarred William Wellman films, but as DVD sales have continued to crater, so has the prominence of this series, with the new editions being released on WB’s movies-on-demand line, the Warner Archive.

Volume 4 includes Jewel Robbery (1932), Lawyer Man (1932), Man Wanted (1932) and They Call It Sin (1932). The first three were directed by William Dieterle in his first flurry of creativity after arriving from Germany in 1931. I have enthused about Jewel Robbery in this space before, but it is truly a marvel, an effervescent sex (and drugs) comedy that is also one of Hollywood’s rare explorations of female desire. Kay Francis wishes for adventure, and in swoops the slick-haired and slicker-tongued thief William Powell, waiting to sweep her away. Lawyer Man (shot in 21 days) finds Powell back as a smooth talker, this time as an idealistic New York City lawyer brought low by the corruption in the system and in his loins. His sole connection to his former straight life is his ever-loyal and plucky secretary Lola, played with usual verve by Joan Blondell.

Blondell is the star of Miss Pinkerton (1932), part of Volume 5, which also includes Hard To Handle (’33), Ladies They Talk About (’33) and The Mind Reader (’33). As with Kay Francis in Jewel Robbery, Blondell plays a gal eager for adventure, although instead of a society dame, she’s a gum-smacking nurse. While dressing down to her negligee in the employee lounge, she dreams of an escape from routine and the smell of chloroform. Then she is plucked to minister to a sick old crone in an old dark house. It turns out the crone’s nephew may have been murdered there, and the detective in charge (George Brent) has tapped Blondell to glean any info she can from its nervous inhabitants. The story is a third-rate whodunit, but it’s directed by the prolific pro Lloyd Bacon with speed and plenty of comically looming shadows, and Blondell is as charming as ever, blazing through the dusty plot mechanics with a brassy bravado.

Then there’s Hard To Handle, a breezy comedy about an endearing shyster. Cagney is loose and playful as Lefty Merrill, a two-bit scam artist who goes from promoting a phony “treasure hunt” (which causes a riot) to becoming the CEO of his own giant PR firm. The art of the con is essential knowledge for the advertising biz, as Cagney lies his way up the ladder. His rise is paralleled with his gal pal Ruth (Mary Brian), an aspiring model whose scheming mother Lil (Ruth Donnelly) plans to marry her to the richest husband possible. As Lefty’s fortune’s rise and fall and rise again, so does Lil’s interest. Everyone has an angle, but this is no cynical satire, but rather a bubbly romantic comedy. Director Mervyn LeRoy simply lets Cagney spin like a top, his machine-gunning speech patterns timed to nimble half-pirouettes, a man in constant motion, forever searching for a score. Scrounging for money was simply a fact of life, with no moral qualms attached.

Ladies They Talk About is saddled with moralizing speeches, by radio pedagogue David Slade (Preston Foster). A non-denominational preacher, he gains fame (and one assumes) fortune from railing against the vices pre-code Warner Brothers capitalized so heartily on. But while Slade wins in the end, there is plenty of titillation in between his hollow victory. The focus of his efforts is Nan Taylor (a particularly slinky Barbara Stanwyck), who got arrested for acting as a decoy for a gang of bank robbers. Initially posing as innocent, Slade sets up a PR assault to set her free, until she offhandedly admits her guilt, and Slade lets her go to jail. One of the earliest women-in-prison movies, Ladies They Talk About excels in scenes of female camaraderie, as Stanywck strikes up an instant friendship with another tough broad played by Lillian Roth. She takes her on a tour of the cell block, a hard-bitten crew of murderers and thieves given a roll-call in close-up, no innocents here. Directors Howard Bretherton and William Keighley give a sense of their daily routine in an impressive tracking shot across multiple cells. A particularly grim vision of femininity as imprisonment, Nan’s union with Slade retrospectively looks like she’s trading one cell for another.

Warren William’s characters, however, thoroughly enjoy the patriarchy and wring every advantage possible out of it. In The Mind Reader (shot in 22 days), William plays another con-artist of the carny kind, pulling teeth “painlessly” at a county fair, selling hair tonic on the road, and finally hitting the jackpot in the fortune telling business. He slaps a towel on his head, calls himself “Chandra”, and William has women pledging their bank accounts to him. Busy milking the rubes, he also finds time to fall in love with boring good-girl Sylvia (Constance Cummings), who only marries him if he promises to quit the con game. He agrees, and pathetically goes door-to-door selling wire brushes.  William tells a friend, “I’m on the straight and narrow…you know…the wife.” Bored and broken, William realizes he’s a cheat at heart, and returns to soothsaying even though he knows it could destroy his life. In the shattering penultimate sequence, William is shown drunk in Tijuana, the perfectly oiled William coiffure mussed into a mess. Overcome by self-loathing, he re-directs it toward the crowd, berating them for believing his lies of their future, believing that his own had all but run out.

A cornucopia of deviant money-grubbing borne out of the Great Depression, volumes 4 and 5 of Forbidden Hollywood are ideal viewing for our never-ending Great Recession, with the added value of sublime performances from Kay Francis, James Cagney, Joan Blondell and Barbara Stanwyck. There is no finer way to spend an economic apocalypse than in their company.

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