James Cagney was a destabilizing force, able to enliven stock scenarios with his grab bag of gestural curlicues, which could snap from playful to menacing in the curl of his lip. A professional boxer on the set of Winner Take All (1932) was impressed with Cagney’s fighting footwork, and asked if he’d ever been trained. Cagney responded, “Tommy, I’m a dancer. Moving around is no problem.” Whether it was the sneering violence of his grapefruit-to-the-face in Public Enemy or the grace in which he spins into a dance hall in Other Men’s Women, the pre-code Warner Brothers films of James Cagney are repositories of the infinite variety of his “moving around.” The enforcement of the production code of 1934 limited the range of Cagney’s expressive possibilities, as evidenced in his first post-code film, the subdued armed forces comedy, Here Comes the Navy (1934), which was duly nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. The Warner Archive has released both Winner Take All and Here Comes the Navy on DVD, lending an opportunity to see how Cagney handled the transition into post-code Hollywood.


Winner Take All was the last of three James Cagney films in 1932, following Taxi! (in which the New York boy famously speaks Yiddish) and Howard Hawks’ race car drama The Crowd Roars. The script was adapted from a 1921 story originally published in Redbook magazine by Gerald Beaumont, “133 at 3″. One of the screenwriters was Wilson “Bill” Mizner, a true American character who was a playwright, opium addict and entrepreneur who was a co-owner of the Brown Derby restaurant. In his autobiography Cagney fondly remembers how story conferences turned into bull sessions. One time Cagney was complaining how the boxing scenes were ruining his hands. Bill responded by showing his, which “looked as if someone had battered them with a sledgehammer.” Cagney said, “In the name of God, Bill, how did you get those?” Mizner responded, “Oh, hitting whores up in Alaska.” Mizner would die soon after in 1933. Winner Take All has the feel of one of Mizner’s tall tales, though with a smidgen less misogyny.


Cagney plays Jim Kane, a punch-drunk boxer in need of a break. His manager Pop (Guy Kibbee) sends him to a Western “health ranch” where he can breathe clean air and stay away from booze and women. A city boy spooked by the great outdoors, especially the howling coyotes, Kane falls into the arms of Peggy (Marian Nixon), a widow whose son is recovering at the same spa. They make promises of starting a life together, which get lost in the fog of parties and money that greet Kane upon his return. Hitting an unbeaten streak inside the ring, he is recruited by socialite Joan Gibson (Virginia Bruce) to act as a kind of lumpen proletariat mascot for her circle of nouveau riche friends. He lends an air of the streets to their penthouses, but Kane doesn’t realized he’s being used. He’s just trying to get into Joan’s pants, enough to get plastic surgery on his broken nose and cauliflower ears. No longer looking the brute, Joan ditches him, and Kane has to justify his self-centered actions to win Peggy back.


It’s a lot to pack into 67 minutes, but director Roy Del Ruth (Blonde Crazy, Taxi!) had become adept at such story compression, and had no qualms about spinning Cagney like a top and letting him go. He’s at his most boyish in this one, his selfish acts borne out of ignorance rather than ill-will, Joan the latest shiny object to distract his attention. Upon arriving at the health ranch, Cagney picks up a bellows and stares at it with wonder, as if it were an alien artifact. When the butler informs of its name he pretends knowledge, but still walks around with it at his groin, perhaps hoping it was some elaborate sex toy. It is in this state that he wanders outside, gets spooked by the howling coyotes, and first glimpses Peggy. She is the first familiar thing he sees, having met her briefly at a NYC nightclub the previous year. In a flashback we see how Cagney was distracted by Peggy, ignoring his huffy date, an exchange of jealous glances that ends with a soda stream to the face.


In the fight scenes Cagney is a windmilling bulldog, attacking with speed if not much precision. After his plastic surgery, he is afraid to sustain damage to his new mug, so he adapts his style into a constant rope-a-dope, avoiding contact but eliciting boos from the crowd. He’s vain and insecure, only returning to Peggy when he discovers that Joan is shacked up on a travel liner with an upper class twit. But he turns on the aw shucks charm and Peggy welcomes him back. There is no indication that he’s learned any lessons, other than he can manipulate his boyishness to seem innocent instead of self-centered.


After completing Winner Take All, Cagney went on strike with Warner Brothers over his wages, his second in over a year. The first time he went on strike, after the huge success of The Public Enemy, he received a raise from $400 to around $1,400. Now he wanted $3,000 a month. It was not just a matter of fairness, but Cagney’s recognition that fame was fleeting. He thought that there were “only so many successful pictures in a personality…when you are washed up in pictures you are really through. You can’t get a bit, let alone a decent part.” It was a matter of securing an uncertain future. He received a bump in pay to $1,750 a week. Part of this uncertainty was the enforcement of the production code. It existed as a widely ignored suggestion in 1930, but in 1934 the Production Code Administration was formed, requiring that each film receive a certificate of approval before release. The head of the PCA, Joseph Breen, would be doing the approving, clamping down on the frank depictions of sex and violence in the pre-code era. All films released after July 1st, 1934 required a certificate. Here Comes the Navy, directed by Lloyd Bacon, was released on July 21st.


A knockabout armed forces comedy in the vein of Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory (1926) it pairs Cagney and Pat O’Brien for the first time as a feuding iron worker and Navy officer. In Walsh’s film the two U.S. Marines battle women as they are stationed around the world. In the post-code era, this sexual licentiousness wouldn’t fly, so instead O’Brien fumes at Cagney for dating his sister. Their rivalry starts on land, as Chesty O’ Conner (Cagney), a union welder on a Navy project, harasses Biff Martin (O’Brien) as he walks by with the other officer brass. They keep running afoul of each other in town, with Biff flirting with Chesty’s girl at the Iron Workers’ dance. Chesty plots revenge by joining the Navy, hoping to find Biff and light him up. The love triangle plot strand is dropped, and Biff’s virginal sister Dorothy (Gloria Stuart), emerges as the main love interest instead. She rejects Chesty’s advances on their first date, one that would have ended with a wink and a tumble if made only a few months earlier.


The film is split in two, between the love triangle opening, filled with brawling and Cagney’s anti-authoritarian swagger, as he thumbs his nose at the entire Navy establishment, only joining for a cockeyed chance at revenge. But once the joins the Navy, the film swiftly turns into a recruitment film (made with the cooperation of the U.S. Navy), with long sequences of military maneuvers and Chesty’s slow conversion into a disciplined soldier. Any hint of sex or subversion is leached out of the film, although the code deemed a Cagney-in-blackface scene to be more than acceptable. The end of the film finds Cagney in an unlikely action hero mode, rescuing Biff from a dangling dirigible and parachuting to safety. Cagney seems stifled in this first entry, which the New York Times lauded. They considered it “beyond censorial reproach”, and praised how the “restraining hand of the producer, writer, director (or all three), never is relinquished.”  Cagney would later find a way to smuggle in his art through the lens of Raoul Walsh, ripping off furious performances in The Roaring Twenties (1939) and White Heat (1949), while reclaiming some his graceful, dancers movement in The Strawberry Blonde (1941). In the pre-codes it didn’t matter who the director was or what the story entailed, the films bent to his will. He was a genre unto himself.


December 10, 2013


Staring disconsolately at a blank wall as the Buffalo Bills are eliminated from playoff contention is one of my longest held traditions. It’s been fourteen years since that benighted franchise has played in the second season, and any damp flickerings of hope this go ’round were quashed after consecutive demolitions by league doormats (Falcons and Buccaneers). To avoid reflecting on these latest humiliations, I escape into pigskin fantasies of the silver screen. Luckily, TCM is airing a whole day of football flicks tomorrow, from 6:45 AM to 8PM. For heartsick fans of other downtrodden teams, may I suggest William Wellman’s College Coach (1933) and Jacques Tourneur’s Easy Living (1949)? The first is a speedy campus comedy with Pat O’Neil in short pants and a crooning Dick Powell, while the latter is a downbeat relationship drama with declining QB Victor Mature and his glory-hogging wife Lizbeth Scott. Neither will rescue your franchise from irrelevance, but they will pass the time until the indignities of next football Sunday.


College Coach was the sixth and final movie that William Wellman directed in 1933, right after his Great Depression youth-in-revolt classic Wild Boys of the Road . College Coach looks like a slice of reassuring Americana in comparison, but his portrait of an opportunistic college football coach makes corruption look as American as apple pie. Pat O’Brien plays Coach Gore, a fast talking operator who wins at all costs (and it often costs him a pretty penny). He stacks his rosters through bribes that would make the 1990s University of Miami blush. The money-starved Calvert College is seeking ways to boost revenue after investing heavily in their chemistry department, so they lure Gore away to lead their moribund team. Swiftly importing a trio of jacked up goons to add to their one bonafide star (Dick Powell), Calvert suddenly has a powerhouse franchise, a marketable gimmick, “The Four Aces”, and bursting box office coffers (also keep an eye out for cameos by Ward Bond and John Wayne).

Pat O’Neil has a ball as the con-man coach, massaging his players past academic requirements and ordering game-time hits on the competition’s star player. Reminiscent of Gregg Williams’ bounty scandal when with the New Orleans Saints (players would win prizes for knocking out opponents), in College Coach such an order leads to a player’s death. When confronted, Gore icily responds, “40-50 die every year…that’s football.”  Perfectly encapsulating the attitude that led to concussion research getting swept under the table, as detailed in the Frontline documentary “League of Denial”, Gore sees football as a warzone in which the ends justify the means. What’s remarkable is that Gore somehow remains the hero of the tale, his illegal activities the actions of an engaging roue rather than a hardened criminal. Like so much of Warner Brothers’ pre-code output, criminality is no sin when the whole economic system had collapsed. It was simply common sense.


Made for a reported $245,000, Wellman gooses things along with some snappy montage. Gore’s hiring at the start of the football season is heralded with close-ups from students to janitors that exclaim, “They hired Gore!”. It’s like he had just watched Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932) and wanted to experiment with musical dialogue of his own. His other visual flourish is to express characters’ state of mind through the feet . Gore’s much ignored wife (played with verve by Ann Dvorak) is introduced from the shins down, cutting holes in the rug with her nervous walking. Later, Wellman will stage a fight between Powell and a loud-mouthed Lyle Talbot and focus entirely on the ground, their dancing feet telling the tale of the bout. Talbot is keen on wooing Dvorak, so this bit of visual rhyming displays that they might have a future.


As Marlene Dietrich said of Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, Victor Mature’s future is all used up in Easy Living (1949), Jacques Tourneur’s melancholy football melodrama. Mature plays the star QB of the New York Chiefs, Pete Wilson, whose image adorns the banner outside the stadium (although he still takes the subway to work). Nicknamed “King Football”, he may have to hang up his spikes after being diagnosed with a serious heart condition. Having bankrolled his wife’s interior decorating company, and aware of her eagerness to climb the social ladder, Wilson is reluctant to give up the mantle of fame. The story is very punishing towards female ambition, and includes a tacked on ending of casual misogyny. For Tourneur it was a job he was not enthusiastic to take. He had just completed Berlin Express for RKO, and turned down the opportunity to make A Woman’s Secret, which would end up as the second film by Nicholas Ray. Not wanting to push the limits of his power, he accepted the next script offered to him, which was originally titled Inteference. He accepted what would become Easy Living even though he had never seen a football game before. As he is quoted in Chris Fujiwara’s The Cinema of Nigthfall, Tourneur admitted, “I’m not interested in any sports.” This is evident in Mature’s awkward throwing motion in practice, a short arm heave with no follow-through (although Philip Rivers has made a similar motion work in the pros).

With little interest in the game on the field, Tourneur focuses on the business of the game, as outlined in Charles Schnee’s script. Early on a long-time Chiefs player is cut loose, with no pension or health care to see him through the rest of his days. The team secretary, played with world-weary resignation by Lucille Ball, says the ex-player only has himself to blame. Ball is spectacular in one of her final pre-I Love Lucy roles. Having once been an RKO contract lead player, she was now relegated to supporting status. She could probably relate to the also-ran status of her character, she is widowed by by a deadbeat and now carries an unrequited torch for Wilson. Ball displays her whip-smart timing in acid exchanges with Wilson, as she nurses his hangovers and hurt feelings. She is a mitigating force against the screenplay’s sexism, which focuses its ire on Wilson’s wife Liza (Lizbeth Scott). She is the gold-digging harpy of misogynist fantasy, holding back her husband’s masculine birthright to be the sole breadwinner. Scott does what she can in a thankless role, but it is Ball who walks away with the picture.


Tourneur creates a cramped atmosphere in the locker room, pushing his camera into packed frames of jock straps and high socks. In the city scenes he positions his actors in positions of non-communication, backs turned and looking at cross-purposes. Some of the compositions look like they’re straight out of Antonioni, including one striking image of a magnate’s mistress sitting disconsolately in the foreground, separated from her lover by Liza’s figure in the middle. Later Victor Mature will be separated from Lucille Ball in a similar fashion, this time by an analog boxing arcade game. As hackneyed as the script can get, these are striking images of alienation, and Mature gives a withdrawn, grieving performance as Wilson, as if death would be a release. The egregious Hollywood ending prevents such a peek into the void, but it’s something that Tourneur leads us there. He said of Easy Living that, “This is a very bad film for a reason that I must keep secret.” I would say it is these unspoken secrets that make it worth watching.


August 13, 2013


Going Hollywood (1933) was a gambit by William Randolph Heart to rejuvenate his lover Marion Davies’ career, but instead it accelerated the rise of Bing Crosby. By the end of 1933 Crosby was a top-ten box office attraction, while Marion Davies would be out of movies altogether a few years later. Like their careers, the whole movie is pulled in different directions, as its patchwork backstage musical romantic comedy plot lunges from lavish Busby Berkeley style spectacles to a filmed radio show.   Even the box office receipts are schizophrenic, with a cost of $914,000 and total revenues of $962,000 it was a money-maker that barely broke even. Though immensely talented, the actors perform at cross-purposes, with Crosby at his most louche and Davies in a perpetual panic. That Going Hollywood holds together at all can be credited to ace songwriting duo Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, as well as director Raoul Walsh, who had just managed the controlled chaos of his turn of the century NYC comedy The Bowery (1933). Going Hollywoodis out now in a handsome DVD from the Warner Archive.

Through his Cosmopolitan Production company, Hearst optioned “Paid to Laugh” by Frances Marion, who had provided many stories for other Davies films in the recent silent days. He handed the adaptation to Donald Ogden Stewart, a playwright and budding screenwriter who would go on to pen such knee-buckling classics as Holiday (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940). In his magisterial Bing Crosby biography, Gary Giddins relates that it was MGM lyricist Arthur Freed who requested that Bing Crosby be hired as the lead. Crosby was the only singer, Freed felt, who could “put over” his doomed lust song “Temptation”, written with his partner Nacio Herb Brown. Before he became ingrained in American consciousness as the singing priest from Going My Way (1944), Crosby had a reputation as a hard partier. Hearst was wary of casting him because of his womanizing, but relented when Davies also pushed to hire the crooner.

It was only after the film was ready to shoot that Walsh was hired. Walsh recalled how the Cosmopolitan rep made the offer: “The Chief wants you to direct a picture”, spoken like a royal decree. He had seen Crosby perform at the Coconut Grove, and was pleased to work with him. He also didn’t buy the prevailing narrative regarding Marion Davies, saying, “The catty whispers that Hearst alone was responsible for keeping her in the public eye were forgotten as soon as one watched her in action.” He had clearly seen Davies in King Vidor’s Show People, which is the superior model for their scattershot production.

Hearst gathered the whole cast and crew at his San Simeon estate for a week, where they rehearsed and rubbed shoulders, reportedly with a nonplussed Winston Churchill. During this period Marion Davies asked Walsh if he had ever been to Rockaway Beach as a child, and when he said yes, she dubbed him “Rockaway Raoul”, a nickname which stuck for the duration of the production. Bing Crosby even wrote a song called “Rollicking Rockaway Raoul”, a biting little ditty about the Going Hollywood production. The last lines: “And now that we’re through/MGM can go screw/Says Rollicking Rockaway Raoul”, enraged MGM to the point where Walsh says he and Bing were banned from the studio lot. A party recording of the song was released on the bootleg “Both Sides of Bing Crosby” (if anyone knows where I can find a copy please let me know).

The movie itself seems tame in comparison, but it has its compensatory pleasures. Marion Davies plays Sylvia, a free-spirited boarding house French teacher who “seems to go about in a dream.” When she hears Bill Williams (Crosby) croon sweet nothings on the radio, she packs up and moves to Hollywood. She works her way up from extra to featured player, and even catches the eye of Bill, who is otherwise in the clutches of French bon-bon Lili (Fifi D’orsay). He has to choose between booze and Lili or clean living and Sylvia.

The Freed/Brown score is superb, and there is an inventive staging of “Beautiful Girl”, a tune which would later re-appear in Singin’ in the Rain. In this equally mocking version Crosby is cutting a single as he circles through his morning routine, putting on his pants and pouring his alka seltzer, the poor sound man struggling to keep up with his circlings. The slapstick on-screen is in direct inverse with the saccharine beauty pouring out of the speaker – though the two meet up when he sings the last lines, “I forgot the words…so that will have to do.” Crosby plays Bill as a consummate actor, this scene suggesting there might not be an authentic personality underneath his pipes.

Sylvia is desperate to find out, and follows him on his train ride west, impersonating a French maid along the way. Davies was famous for her impressions, and Walsh lets her loose with one of her friend Fifi D’orsay, an exuberant foot-stomping routine mocking D’orsay’s thick accent and narcissistic persona. Davies’ love of mimics may explain the presence of an inexplicably long sequence of the three “Radio Rogues” plying their wares on the air, with imitations of Kate Smith and Rudy Vallee among others. There is also a hair-raising scene of Davies masquerading in blackface, speaking in Hollywood’s made-up “mammy” dialect. These disconnected vignettes give the film a sketch comedy feel – although some of these never should have made it past dress rehearsal.

It is clear that Freed and Brown tailored their songs for Crosby, with “Temptation” the infernal highlight, bringing out a dissolute side to his perfect pitch. Set in a dingy night club, Crosby sits with a bright cocktail, his hair ever slightly mussed. Fifi D’orsay is seated to his left. Walsh frames him in profile from the knees up, staring at her. He sings, “You came/I was alone”. Then he cuts in closer, from his head to his cocktail. “I should have known/you were temptation.” Then there is a jarring cut, to D’orsay in an extreme close-up, staring straight into the camera, bringing a glass to her lips. The spatial relations are all off from the classical style. She should be gazing screen right, to match Crosby. But then Walsh inserts chiaroscuro shots of the dance floor, the revelers shuffling like zombies. With the camera too close for faces to be distinguishable, it’s clear the film has entered some kind of nightmare. Crosby begins gazing upwards, his eyes brimming with tears. He stops acknowledging Fifi’s presence, as she’s as much inside his head and his body as she is sitting on the seat next to him. The sequence ends with him finally taking a sip of his drink, furthering his intoxication, and cementing his status as a star.



May 28, 2013

Illicit00006gene_raymond-bette_davis-ex_lady1Today’s Hollywood has a reputation for unoriginality, but the classical era was also rife with recycling. Before Robert Riskin became Frank Capra’s favorite screenwriter, he was a struggling playwright with co-writer Edith Fitzgerald. When their 1930 sex comedy Many a Slip became a modest hit and was adapted at Universal, Warner Brothers optioned one of their un-produced plays and cranked out two movie versions in three years. Illicit (1931) and Ex-Lady (1933), both available on DVD from the Warner Archive, reveal a studio in flux, scrambling to grab the audience’s waning attention during the Great Depression. Both cast energetic young ingenues in the role of a liberated woman who thinks marriage is a prison, but gets hitched anyway for the sake of the man she loves.   Illicit stars Barbara Stanwyck and opts for escapism, taking place among the leisure class of NYC, from Manhattan townhouse hangars to Long Island mega mansions. The story gets downsized in Ex-Lady, with Bette Davis given a middle-class  job as an illustrator for an ad agency. The shift is an early and unsuccessful attempt (Ex-Lady was a flop) at Warners’ downmarket move to court blue-collar dollars, which would pay dividends soon after with saucy Busby Berkeley backstage musicals and gritty James Cagney gangster flicks.

Illicit00007Barbara Stanwyck had become a hot commodity following her breakthrough role in Frank Capra’s Ladies of Leisure (1930), and Warner Brothers ponied up $7,000 a week to Columbia Pictures to secure her services for Illicit and director Archie Mayo. Stanwyck was a self-described “party girl” in Ladies of Leisure, and in Illicit she has no life outside of night clubs and boudoirs – Annie (Stanwyck) opens the film in her lover’s airy loft and ends it begging to go back. Despite her quick wit and initial refusal to get married, any sense of freedom is illusory. What’s real are the monotonous interior two-shots that Mayo frames, in which Annie is either aside her lover Dick (James Rennie) or crying for his return. So regardless of the ebbs and flows of the plot, which presages the slapstick comedies of re-marriage in decades to come (epitomized by The Awful Truth), there is no doubt it will end in marriage.


What pleasures there are derive from Stanwyck and her supporting cast, including Joan Blondell (as “Duckie) and Charles Butterworth as alcoholic comic relief. Stanwyck, still only 23 years old, is lends a mischievous unpredictability to her underwritten character. As she teasingly runs down a list of her ex-lovers to Dick, she lowers her voice into that of a sober news anchor and conducts her words with a jabbing index finger, hoping to bore jealousy straight into his heart. There is too little of Blondell, but she lends her usual wide-eyed effervescence, while Butterworth works in slow motion. His drunk looks as pallid as a corpse but with slightly faster reaction time, a character that would be dreadfully sad if he wasn’t so funny.

Louella Parsons called Illicit, ““as smart as next year’s frock, as modern as television, and as sophisticated as a Parisian hotel clerk”, so it did well enough for Warners to revive the material in 1933, re-titled Ex-Lady and directed by talented journeyman Robert Florey. Florey worked as an assistant director to Louis Feuillade, Chaplin and von Sternberg, and made a name for himself with the experimental short The Life and Death of 9413 – A Hollywood Extra (1928,), made with Slavko Vorkapich and Gregg Toland. A mournful satire of an artist getting chewed up by the movie business, Florey would go on to have a long career in the Bs and then on television. Whether it was Florey’s influence or screenwriter David Boehm (Gold Diggers of 1933)Ex-Lady provides a far more nuanced portrait of a woman’s position in society. It was Bette Davis’ first starring role, after receiving raves in a supporting part in Michael Curtiz’s Cabin in the Cotton (1932). She plays Helen, a more aggressive version of Stanwyck in Illicit. She carries on an affair with Don (Gene Raymond), but is also a highly sought after advertisement illustrator. She has a life and career outside of romantic entanglements. So when Don proposes awkwardly, “Let’s get married so I’ll have the right to be with you”, Helen retorts, “What do you mean…right? I don’t like the word ‘right’. No one has any rights about me, except me.”

Annie framed her objection to marriage as a way to keep a relationship fresh, whereas for Helen is expressly a matter of personal freedom, which is why Jeanine Basinger writes in A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930 – 1960 that Ex-Lady, “is a liberated statement to its audience.” This liberation also extends to her sexual desires. During a trip to Cuba, Helen is visibly aroused by a nightclub act and raises an eyebrow to Don – they slink out to a nearby bench while the camera tastefully descends behind it. Davis is clad in revealing deshabille throughout, but she gives the initiative in the most explicit scene in the film. Her desires and her abiding love for Don lead to a temporary union, built on ever-shifting compromise, overturning one of Helen’s earlier zingers that “compromise is defeat.”

There is no stability in Ex-Lady, even in its conclusion. Where in Illicit Annie says, “What have theories to do with love”, destroying her previously stated princples, the climax of Ex-Lady provides a more complicated, bittersweet view. After Helen and Don have both drifted towards other lovers, Helen opines that open relationships and marriage both hurt, but that she guesses marriage hurts less.


March 5, 2013


For the past month, Film Forum in New York City has been screening a dazzling variety of Hollywood movies from eighty years ago. 1933 was the final flowering of the anything goes pre-code period, before the Production Code Administration was established a year later. While I was grateful to see masterful standbys like The Bitter Tea of General Yen on 35mm, the beauty in series like these is the forgotten films, ones that through chance or neglect haven’t survived into the home video era. I was particularly looking forward to one hard-to-see title: Edward L. Cahn’s Laughter in Hell. Although reported lost in a few publications, it was patiently sitting in the Universal Vaults and had screened in Los Angeles and San Francisco before making it to NYC. It is a nightmarishly violent fable inconceivable after the code that managed to exceed my unrealistic expectations.

Laughter in Hell was another entry in the thriving chain gang genre following the success of Laughter-in-HellWas A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (WB, 1932). Forced convict labor had become a national political issue when a New Jersey teenager named Arthur Maillefert was found hanging from his own chain  in June of 1932 at the Sunbeam Prison Camp in Florida. The camp’s captain and one of its prison guards were charged with first degree murder. The story became a sensation, and calls for reform spread throughout the country. The movies were quick to pick up on it, and Universal Pictures attempted to cash-in on the trend by securing the rights to hobo-novelist Jim Tully’s book Laughter in Hell. Tully was a vagrant-turned-writer whose Depression scarred narratives became bestsellers. His writing was first adapted to the screen in 1928 by William Wellman, who directed Tully’s loosely autobiographical Beggars of LifeLaughter in Hell was released on January 12, 1933 to poor reviews. Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times wrote that, “Where ‘I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang’ was real and dramatic, this current contribution is clumsy and doleful. It is scarcely the type of picture to appeal to audiences during the holiday season.”

Laughter in Hell’s downtrodden inmate is Barney Slaney (Pat O’Brien),  a Tennessee train engineer whose well-ordered life collapses when he catches his wife playing footsie with long-time enemy Grover Perkins (Arthur Vinton). He reacts indelicately, and is sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor. He is imprisoned in what looks like zoo animal cages, and the work camp’s director turns out to be Grover’s’ sociopathic brother Ed, so Barney wisely plans an escape.

It starts as pastoral and segues into nightmare. The rural Southern town of his youth is initially presented as a nurturing Laughter in Hellcommunity, cycling kids up the economic ladder from the mines to the trains. Barney is introduced as a soot-covered scamp working in a quarry when he receives word of his mother’s passing. Work is closely intertwined with death from the start.  His loss is mourned by the whole town, easing him back into civilization. Director Edward L. Cahn emphasizes this early unity by utilizing long shot pans of the quarry, taking in the groups of workers as they shout at each other to look for Barney. His childhood is a series of bumptious comedy following his initial loss, with old coot Civil War vets decrying technological advances (recorded discs of music) and his awkward shy guy routine winning over his sexually liberated wife Marybelle (Merna Kennedy).

Barney becomes increasingly paranoid about his wife’s erotic adventures, to the point of mental breakdown. Director Edward L. Cahn visualizes this breakdown in a series of complicated, almost experimental shots. He employs a hallucinatory montage of superimpositions during one of Barney’s train runs to convey his fracturing psyche. When he discovers his wife in flagrante delicto, Cahn uses repeated disorienting zooms to eliminate Barney from his surroundings. His violent actions have separated him from the community, and the film enters a somnambulistic state from here on out.

The actors begin speaking in foggy monotones, and the death drive takes over in some of the most despairing scenes in Depression-era cinema. His father promises to kill Barney in the courtroom if he is given the death penalty, but a life of hard labor is not a merciful fate. Barney’s pain is revealed to be just a drop in the oceanic horrors of the chain gang. It is the Black prisoners whose terror runs the deepest. Upon arriving, Barney witnesses a state-sanctioned lynching of four Black men. As the guards beat the other Black prisoners who are kneeling in prayer, Cahn begins a sLaughterInHell268eries of extreme close-ups of pug-faced White convicts who get one word each of these phrases in quick succession: “Ah, let ‘em pray,” “Yeah, it’s their religion.” Their faces blend together in a rictus of revulsion at the inhumanity of their captors. The final composition is of kneeling penitents in front of dangling legs, lead weights pulling them closer to the earth.

This pull of flesh towards the earth continues when the chain-gang is moved to a town stricken by the yellow fever. Their job is to dig a mass grave. Cahn picks out detail like the raised pickaxes and shuffling feet of the inmates, ritualized movements of the damned. Ed Perkins glowers at Barney and pal Abraham (a somber Clarence Muse), spitting at them that he’ll make them dig graves until they’re dead. In this literal pit of despair, the prisoners revolt, and Barney escapes into a kind of afterlife. On the road with a girl, he says he feels like a newly hatched eagle. That girl, Lorraine (Gloria Stuart), is also marked by death, her whole family having been killed by the fever. So they light out for the state line, with the assistance of a gimpy farmer who has no use for  Lincoln or Jefferson Davis. He is another unmoored soul, though one who has found a kind of groundedness in this borderland. It ends in mud and rain and a hope for a new beginning.

It is a fearfully intense and angry film, its revulsion with abuse of power and racism manifesting in Cahn’s unsettling use of zooms, extreme close-ups, and unorthodox framing. Its dreamlike atmosphere and violent, fable-like story continually reminded me of Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955). Both are journeys from darkness into light that seem far more attracted to the former, the lure of obliteration only assuaged by the presence of saintly women who prove that the light is worth pursuing. Edward L. Cahn is mainly known as a prolific purveyor of no-budget 1950′s genre fare (It: The Terror From Beyond Space, 1959), but with Laughter in Hell and the equally astonishing corruption noir Afraid to Talk (aka Merry-Go-Round, 1932), he is clearly an urgent subject for further research.


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.


November 22, 2011

safe in hell

William A. Wellman was an attractive guy who happened to make a lot of movies, one of those directors who led an entire life before entering the cinema (as salesman, hockey player, soldier). For Wellman and so many other early Hollywood craftsmen, directing was, as John Ford described it, just another “job of work”. Wellman was one industrious worker, credited with 83 shorts and features from 1920 – 1958. He excelled at compact stories of blue-collar types getting sore at each other (or what Manny Farber called “hard-visaged ball bearings standing around – for no damned reason and with no indication of how long or for what reason they have been standing.”), able to create a humming rhythm out of wisecracks and violence. The studios, however, tasked him with tackling much more, leading him to clumsily apply his blunt style to melodramas and comedies (his ’37 Star is Born is especially sluggish). His career is wildly uneven but well worth looking into, especially the period in the 30s where he was cranking out saucy and speedy pre-coders like Night Nurse and Other Men’s Women (both 1931). The Warner Archive has just released a third film from his stellar ’31: Safe in Hell  (along with later Wellman efforts My Man and I (1952) and his final film Lafayette Escadrille (1958)).

Safe in Hell was shot from mid-September to October 18th of 1931, and was released December 12th. A quickie produced by First National Pictures (which had merged with Warners), it’s a seamy pre-code drama about a prostitute who believes she has committed murder, and then flees to a Caribbean island that does not have an extradition treaty with the United States. The lead role of the whore without a heart of gold was originally slated for Broadway legend Marilyn Miller, and was then assigned to rising star Barbara Stanwyck, who gave a deliciously sardonic performance in Wellman’s Night Nurse earlier that year (she ended up in Frank Capra’s Forbidden instead). The role fell to Dorothy Mackaill, who Ralph Flint of the NY Times said was, “on return from her summering at Hawaiian resorts, [and] was pressed into service.”

Mackaill was a British born actress, who cut her teeth as a dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies before forging a productive career on-screen in the silent era, notching the leading role in the 1924 The Man Who Came Back, and in Alfred Santell’s 1926 The Dancer of Paris. Work dwindled with the arrival of sound, and First National declined to extend her contract at the end of 1931. That marked the beginning of the end of her career in pictures. It’s unclear why the studio felt she wasn’t fit for sound, as her performance in Safe in Hell is impressively wild and unhinged, wrenching the underwritten part into something tangible and affecting.

She plays Gilda Karlson, an in-demand prostitute in New Orleans, who is paid an unwelcome visit by a john, the one who led her into vice. She conks him over the head with a vase, and, thinking she killed him, is frittered away to the Caribbean by her merchant marine boyfriend Carl (Donald Cook). She is ensconced in a shady hotel populated by a murderer’s row of lowlifes, each ogling her with lip-smacking impunity. Wellman catches the crew (including my favorite name and face: Gustav von Seyffertitz) in a series of leering reaction shots, before they slowly turn their chairs around and await her return trip downstairs. With Carl away on a job, the seedy patrons urge Gilda to sink back into her old ways, and the rest of the drama details this dilemma.

Wellman gets the story rolling with alacrity, establishing Gilda’s character by opening on a close-up of her gams sitting next to a phone – the two necessary implements of her job. Within a few scenes a man is presumed dead and Gilda is stowed away on a ship, heading South, her eyes visible through a slit in a box, as she quips, “I always traveled 1st class!”. The hotel in the Caribbean is run by Nina Mae McKinney, a wildly talented black actress who was shunted into supporting or “musical” roles because of the institutional racism of the period (she was later known in Europe as the “Black Garbo”). Here she sings the theme song with a smile while serving her customers. The bellboy is played by another grievously under-used black actor, Clarence Muse, who injects a patrician weariness and humor into his stock character. He tells Gilda that they serve liquor, since they are in “a civilized country”, unlike the Prohibition era U.S.

The film loses its spark in the closing third, in which sexual deviancy is replaced by an unconvincing shift to the value of constancy, robbing the starkly downbeat ending of much of its power. An uneasy mix of entertaining smarm and queasy sentimentality, Safe in Hell  is probably the least of Wellman’s great 1931 run (The Public Enemy, Other Men’s Women, Night Nurse), but it still exerts a strange fascination. I should note that the Warner Archive transfer looks soft and scratched up, most likely taken from an old TV master. It is not up to the usual standards of the company’s releases, but the fact that this rarity is available at all is reason enough to celebrate.


My Man and I (1952) is a showcase for Ricardo Montalban, who plays Chu Chu Ramirez, an itinerant Mexican farmer who gains his citizenship, but is unable to escape racist attitudes. This earnestly melodramatic film was co-written by novelist John Fante, who (according to Doug Bonner) modeled the love story between Montalban and Shelley Winters on the romance from his most famous novel, Ask the Dust. Chu Chu, an almost idiotically optimistic character, immediately believes he can save Nancy (Winters) from her alcoholism through sheer force of will. Wellman militates against the ridiculous goody-two-shoes nature of Chu Chu’s character by placing him in cramped, dense frames, with looming faces present in the foreground (one of them belonging to Jack Elam, playing the cynical Celestino), used especially in Chu Chu’s flophouse. This sense of visual claustrophobia runs counter to Chu Chu’s continually stated belief in the American melting pot, which he proves by constantly wielding his citizenship letter from the President. In his scenes with Nancy, Wellman uses low-light, throwing dramatic shadows against the wall, visualizing the dark pit of despair that Nancy cannot escape from. Despite his best efforts, Wellman cannot entirely free the film from the hackneyed script, which transitions into a traditional courtroom drama, with all of its moralizing banalities. The ultimate saving grace, though, is the presence of Claire Trevor as an unsatisfied housewife whose husband hires the buff (and often shirtless) Montalban to clear a field, and whose withering putdowns and shivering carnality electrify every scene she appears in.


Wellman often said that Lafayette Escadrille was the worst movie he ever made, and I won’t argue the point. The story of American soldiers who sign up to fight in the French Air Force in WW1 was a personal one, as Wellman had served in the unit. He even cast his son, William Wellman, Jr., in one of the supporting roles. But Warner Bros. forced him to add a happy ending, and cast the handsome teen idol mannequin Tab Hunter in the lead role. The idea was to bring in a younger audience, but all it did was dilute Wellman’s vision more. What was intended as a melancholic homage to the American dead of WWI was turned into a raucous boys-on-the-town movie, and it’s a mainly joyless affair. There are some nicely shot flying scenes, and a very young Clint Eastwood picking lice out of his hair, but otherwise it is a lost cause. This is a shame, because one of his previous passion projects, the monochromatic Track of the Cat (1954), is one of his greatest visual accomplishments. Escadrille was his last film, but no matter, he got the job done more often than not.