The End of the Affair: Cynara (1932)

October 24, 2017

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Ronald Colman signed as a contract player with the Samuel Goldwyn Company in 1924, cranking out heart-tugging romances all the way through the transition to sound, as  in the 1932 production Cynara. A particularly “adult” pre-code drama, it frankly discusses extramarital affairs and suicide in a tone of disarming directness. Adapted from a hit play, Goldwyn wanted faithfulness to the material, though director King Vidor and writer Frances Marion sought ways to make this stagebound scenario more cinematic. The resulting film leads one to think that Goldwyn won most of the battles, as it is ends up as a very well-acted filmed play, though Vidor does find ways to be inventive at the edges. Ronald Colman, in his penultimate performance for Goldwyn, plays against type as a boring barrister who falls into an affair with a young shopgirl. He is no great lover, as he portrayed in a series of hit silents with Vilma Banky, but a nervous, guilt-ridden, self-flagellating one. Colman wasn’t happy with the film because it clashed with his established persona, but that is what makes the film so fascinating today.

Cynara originated in Robert Gore-Brown’s 1928 novel An Imperfect Lover, which was adapted into the play Cynara, a stage success in 1930. Goldwyn was in a perpetual search for quality material to funnel Colman into, wanting to build off of John Ford’s Arrowsmith (1931), which was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. The search lasted for months, and was so consuming that one evening, according to Harpo Marx, he visited the Goldwyn home to find their son Sammy reading the funny pages. Harpo asked what he was doing, and Sammy responded, “I’m looking for a Ronald Colman story, Mr. Marx.” With its suggestive subject matter and stage pedigree, Goldwyn eventually settled on Cynara as Colman’s next film, and lined up Vidor and Marion as his directing and writing time, fresh off of their triumph The Champ (1931). Marion agreed to do the job on one condition – that Goldwyn hire Lois Weber to assist in the adaptation. Weber, one of the pioneering female directors of the silent era, had fallen on hard times, and hadn’t worked on a film in five years, taking on a job as an apartment manager to make a living. Goldwyn agreed to the arrangement, both respecting Weber’s accomplishments and wanting Marion on the job.

Told in flashback as a confession from the misleadingly named barrister Jim Warlock (Ronald Colman) to his wife Clemency (Kay Francis), Cynara is an apologia for male infidelity. Jim is a homebody whose horny old bachelor pal John Tring (Henry Stephenson) is always encouraging to join him on extra-curricular outings. So when Clemency goes on an impromptu trip to Venice with her sister, Tring encourages Jim to explore the London nightlife, specifically its females. One night at an Italian restaurant, they run into two shopgirls named Doris (Phyllis Barry) and Milly (Viva Tattersall). Milly uses the flirtation as an excuse to enjoy Tring’s money, but Doris falls for Jim’s awkward sincerity, and concocts a plan to meet up with him again at a swimming exhibition that Jim would be judging. Jim tears up a note with Dori’s address, and in a beautiful transition, Vidor dissolves from the bits of torn-up note to pigeons flying in Venice, connecting Jim’s two loves in a poetic bit of montage. Despite his seemingly abiding love for Clemency, Jim begins a whirlwind affair with Doris, which ends just as abruptly when Clemency arrives home early. The whole affair ends in tragedy, threatening Jim’s marriage and the entire life he had built up until that point.

Though the film is centrally focused on Jim and Clemency’s marriage, it finds time to give the shopgirl’s perspective – showing how Doris doesn’t have the same societal protections as Jim’s upper class bubble. Milly repeatedly warns her about how working class girls are tossed away by men like Jim, but Doris refuses to hear it. She is in love, and pays the price. It is unclear how much influence Weber had on the script, but she dealt with the double-standard between married men and single women in the fallout of an affair in films like What Do Men Want? (1921) and Shoes (1916). That double standard definitely applies in Cynara, as while Jim’s reputation is tarnished, he is still free to make a new life wherever he’d like, while Doris is jobless and spiraling in depression.

The most thrilling scenes in the film occurs when Jim and Tring deign to visit the blue collar district – there is a remarkable sequence set inside a movie theater showing Chaplin’s A Dog’s Life (1918). Vidor has a camera boom swoop from the back of the theater down to the front, capturing the full-body laughter of a theater audience losing its mind to Chaplin. In a clumsy if effective visual metaphor, Chaplin shoves a dog down his pants to sneak into a dancehall, and the animal pokes through Chaplin’s pants, causing some awkward encounters. It is after this that Doris takes Jim’s hand in hers, and for the first time Jim exhibits what looks like lust. The sequence presents a Chaplin short as an erotic experience, both for the other revelers laughing their heads off in full body convulsions, and Jim and Doris, who find the film’s loosening of social codes a way to free themselves from their guilt, and towards their disastrous affair.

OTHER GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933: GIRL MISSING (1933)

September 20, 2016

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In the first scene of Girl Missing (1933), Guy Kibbee tries to seduce Mary Brian with the line: “I don’t feel fatherly, I feel…hotcha!” And so begins this randy, money-grubbing, mystery-solving pre-code starring Brian and motormouth Glenda Farrell. They are two out-of-work chorus girls indulging in some gold-digging to leach cash from old lechers. But in the wildly convoluted plot that races through 68 minutes, they get roped into the murder of a mafia bookie and the disappearance of a society dame (or so she seems). It’s a trial run for Farrell’s tamer post-code Torchy Blane (nine films between 1937 – 1939) movies, in which she played a sassy investigative newsgal sans sexual innuendo. In Girl Missing Farrell machine-guns her dialogue to mow down con-men, con-women, and anyone else who has the misfortune to walk past her in the frame. It airs tomorrow on TCM at 6:15AM, and is also available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

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Girl Missing was the first film that Robert Florey directed for Warner Brothers after a tendentious run at Universal (he was removed from Frankenstein after extensive pre-production work) and a short one at independent studio K.B.S. Florey’s career continues to fascinate – he was a French born artist who worked as an assistant director to Louis Feuillade, Chaplin and von Sternberg who made a name for himself with the experimental short The Life and Death of 9413 – A Hollywood Extra (1928, watch here), directed 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. He acclimated to WB’s quick and snappy style, finishing shooting on Girl Missing in thirteen days at a cost of $107,000, per the AFI Catalog. It is no surprise then, that his work pleased studio boss Darryl Zanuck, who sent Florey a memo after viewing an early cut: “a very fine job…in record time. I am certain that the picture will cut up into a fast moving melodrama with a lot of swell comedy and a lot of unusual angles.”

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Zanuck is not far off the mark, although there are no unusual angles – the expressionism that Florey was identified with from his work on Murders in the Rue Morgue is not on display, as there couldn’t have been time for any elaborate set-ups – plus the scenario didn’t lend itself to elaborate stylization. This is a film about speed in front of and behind the camera, and Florey does his job obligingly. He received his next assignment, Ex Lady, within days of finishing Girl Missing. Zanuck called him at 3AM to be at the set in a few hours. Florey responded that he “wanted to know if it was a comedy or drama; who was the star of the film; and perhaps I could get the script…or was it too much to ask?” He finished shooting that in 18 days – and I wrote about that one here.

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Girl Missing concerns the disappearance of Daisy Bradford (Peggy Shannon), who was due to marry the super-rich Henry Gibson (Ben Lyon). Kay Curtis (Glenda Farrell) and June Dale (Mary Brian), are out-of-work chorines not above digging for gold who stumble into a plot to bilk Gibson out his cash.  They recognize Daisy from their hoofer days – she is not the society dame she presented herself as, and a whole conspiracy begins to unravel at their feet. Girl Missing loses its tempo when Farrell is off-screen, which occurs far too much in a film barely over an hour. There is a lot of futzing about with the rich Henry Gibson (a deadly dull Ben Lyon), which had me checking my watch until Farrell stalked back on-screen with her sassy Sherlock Holmes routine.

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Farrell had yet to be paired with her acid-tongued blonde counterpart Joan Blondell, but Mary Brian is game as her gamine accomplice. Their early setup works with Brian as the bait and Farrell as the staller, the one who keeps the old horndogs from getting too handsy. Farrell is the bane of Guy Kibbee’s existence (my main complaint with the film – not enough Kibbee), putting everyone off with pungent dialogue (credited to Ben Markson). There are such gems like, “Working for a living’s old fashioned, but on the other hand so is starving to death.” Or her reaction to Daisy’s nuptials: “When I think of it I could bite a battleship in two.” Joan Blondell described Farrell’s working methods for Hollywood magazine in 1936:

“When she goes into a scene she never follows the script to the sacrifice of her naturalness. She acts just as she would if the same situation arose in her every-day life. In other words, she suits the part to her personality instead of trying to suit her personality to the script. She handles dialogue the same way and never tries to twist her tongue around expressions foreign to her own way of speaking. Before we go into a scene, we go over our lines together and revise them, without changing their meaning, until they fit our mouths.”

Everything is a little snappier when it comes out in Farrell’s nasally purr. We should be thankful she was around for the pre-code era, which gave her the freedom to make these B movies faster, funnier, and more like herself.

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LAST CALL: HER MAN (1930)

March 29. 2016

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Tay Garnett’s Her Man (1930) has had a small but enduring auteurist cult, for those lucky enough to have seen the Cinematheque Francaise print that circulated in the ’50s and ’60s. In his American Cinema, Andrew Sarris wrote of its “extraordinarily fluid camera movements that dispel the myth of static talkies”, while British critic Raymond Durgnat compared it favorably to Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port (1928). Poet John Ashbery saw it in Paris in the late ’50s, and it was an inspiration for his “Pavane pour Helen Twelvetrees”, which you can read here.  The film has seemingly disappeared from view since then, with David Thomson erroneously stating that it was a “lost film” in his Biographical Dictionary of Film. It wasn’t lost, but just hiding. The camera negative was discovered in the Columbia Pictures collection at the Library of Congress, and a 4K restoration was performed by Sony Pictures, with funding provided by the Film Foundation. This week the Museum of Modern Art, courtesy of Adjunct Curator Dave Kehr, is screening the restoration of Her Man, alongside some of director Tay Garnett’s other silent and early sound features (including Celebrity, The Spieler, and One Way Passage). Her Man is a redemptive romance that takes place in one of the scummiest bars in Havana: the Thalia. There Garnett wends his camera through a knockabout group of con artists, drunks and killers to get to his dewy-eyed lovers, who strong-arm their way out the door.

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Her Man is an extremely loose adaptation of the folk murder ballad “Frankie and Johnnie” (aka “Frankie and Albert”), a turn-of-the-century tune about a young woman (Frankie) who kills her adulterous lover (Johnnie). The song emerged from the black community in St. Louis after the 1899 killing of 17-year-old part time pimp Allen Britt by his lover, and reported prostitute, Frankie Baker (she was acquitted of the crime due to a plea of self defense). The song went through many variations, all of them too risque for Hollywood. But they wanted to capitalize on the song’s continued popularity, the latest iteration of which was a controversial stage play, Frankie and Johnnie, which John M. Kirkland brought to the Republic Theater in September of 1930. It was raided by police during dress rehearsals for “its lines defending prostitution as ‘the only profession for which women are exclusively equipped.” (Body and Soul: Jazz and Blues in American Film, by Peter Stanfield).

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The 1930 Pathé Exchange production of Her Man polished off the rough edges, going through several rounds of revisions due to suggestions from Studio Relations Committee readers (or SRC, a Production Code created unit created by Will Hays to enforce the code – before they had any real power to do so). Tay Garnett and Howard Higgin received story credit on the film, with Thomas Buckingham writing the screenplay. It begins with the life of Frankie (Helen Twelvetrees), a lifelong con artist raised in bars who seduces and then steals from local drunks. She feels fated to live her whole life in dives, like the local souse Annie (Marjorie Rambeau), a former beauty gone to seed. Frankie is dating Johnnie (Ricardo Cortez), a violent character with a hand in all variety of vice. Frankie seems resigned to her fate until she sees sailor Dan (Phillips Holmes) hit the Thalia. He is a bright-eyed blonde kid with a sweet voice, an optimistic attitude, and a helluva roundhouse punch. Dan and Frankie dream of life outside the Thalia, but have to devise a way out of Johnnie’s grasp. He is not willing to give up Frankie without a (knife) fight. The film ends in a big barroom brawl whose outcome will seal the young lovers’ fate.

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SRC readers were insistent that the film had to erase any insinuation of prostitution from the script, although it is still implicit in the finished film. One note read (as quoted in Body and Soul: Jazz and Blues in American Film):

Johnnie is one of the most despicable types of men. He is nothing less than a worm…. There is as much moral value in this picture as there is in a five week old kippered herring…. There is so much drinking, carousing and scenes of bawdy houses that I do not see how this picture can get by as it is now. You are simply dragged through six or eight reels of filth. You wallow in it neck-high, and scream for the whole business to end. All this babble about reformed prostitutes and the creating of sympathy for harlots in general is a lot of tripe, made worse by the inclusion of songs about a vine-covered cottage.

You can’t sell a film any better than that. Eventually the film passed SRC inspection, but the relationship between Frankie and Johnnie is made intentionally ambiguous, their relationship less romantic than that of a boss and employee. He shakes her down for the night’s take – not from turning tricks, but from robbing drunk customers.

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Director Tay Garnett got his start writing gags for Hal Roach and Mack Sennett – he brags in his autobiography that he was fired by Sennett “more often than anyone else who ever worked for him.” One of the great pleasures of Her Man is all of the incidental gags that Garnett packs into the film’s 83 minute runtime. James Gleason and Harry Sweet provide the comic relief as Dan’s soused sailor buddies Steve and Eddie. Steve plays a slot machine over and over again throughout the film, losing every time, only to see Harry pick up beer money with the next pull of the lever. This little gag plays out to perfection at the end of the brawl, with a bash to the skull finally giving Steve that last cash payment. The strangest routine involves familiar pre-code face Franklin Pangborn, who plays a stiff middle class tourist that makes an easy mark for Steve and Eddie. Every time Pangborn appears on-screen, he is getting knocked out – mainly for the expensive fedora that Steve and Eddie nearly fight-to-the-death over.

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Her Man has earned whatever notoriety it has because of its elaborate, extended camera movement. Garnett and his DP Edward Snyder have a remarkable freedom of movement in this early sound film, as if they had no restrictions at all using the new technology. Using cranes to dip in and out of packed, clogged barroom dance floors, the film throws you headlong into its world, immersing you in its particular filth and argot. The location is never named, although there is a reference to an island. The whereabouts are kept intentionally vague. In the script the film takes place in Havana, and the Morro castle was included in some of the publicity material. So when the Cuban embassy objected to the film’s depiction of their city, and fearing Latin American markets would refuse to show the film, Pathé made an unconvincing case that the film actually took place in Paris (the Variety review says it takes place in a “Paris dive”).

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But regardless of the location, it’s a formidable accomplishment. Phillips Holmes is a perennial discovery for me, as in recent years I have admired his trembling grace in Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby and Von Sternberg’s An American Tragedy. Here he is a more virile type – in the concluding brawl his shirt is torn to shreds to show off his action movie torso – but he is equally moving as an inadvertent roughneck with a lilting voice. Helen Twelvetrees is appropriately off-kilter throughout, a woman who saw her future at the bottom of a beer glass starting to open up to the world. The film is almost entirely set inside the bar, so any vision of the outside, even just a shot of a carriage rocking back and forth in front of a rear projected city, is blissful artifice. Near the end of their date, when Dan says, his face beaming with sincerity, that ““St. Patrick’s Day, don’t it make you feel great?”, I can’t help but smile along with him.

PRE-CODE COMEDIES: FIFTY MILLION FRENCHMEN, GOLD DUST GERTIE, AND HER MAJESTY, LOVE

February 2, 2016

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In 1931 the vaudeville circuit was dying out, and Hollywood was poaching its performers and routines. Needing content for the new sound technology, studios would string together comedies around a collection of old stage bits. Anarchic, chaotic, and scattershot, these films will do anything for a laugh, and they occasionally get them. The Warner Archive has just released three of these pre-code sketch films on DVD, all from 1931:  Gold Dust GertieHer Majesty Love, and Fifty Million Frenchmen. They feature actors who cut their teeth in vaudeville, including the comedy duo Olsen & Johnson, one-liner artist Winnie Lightner, and W.C. Fields, who made his sound film debut in Her Majesty Love.

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Fifty Million Frenchmen (1931)is a showcase for the antics of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, who had been working as a duo since the late teens. Their act didn’t really have a straight man, with wiry neurotic Olsen facing off against the rotund giggling softie of Jonhson.They were known for their boundary dissolving stage shows which strung clotheslines from balcony to balcony to dry their wash, had cows falling from the ceiling, and dubbed Hitler into Yiddish. This kind of madcap deconstruction wouldn’t show up on film until Hellzapoppin’ in 1941, but there some evidence of their insanity in Fifty Million Frenchmen. Originally intended to feature Cole Porter’s songs from the Broadway show, these were cut after the audience rebelled against the glut of musicals released after the coming of sound. Director Lloyd Bacon strings the gags along a slender thread of plot –  in a Paris bar Michael Cummings (John Halliday) bets Jack Forbes (William Gaxton) that he can’t win the love of blonde bombshell LuLu (Claudia Dell) without using any of his family’s money. Jack wins if he successfully woos LuLu only on what he can earn doing odd jobs. Cummings hires Olsen & Johnson to watch Forbes – to make sure he follows the rules of the bet.

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This is the excuse for a series of sketches: like when Johnson mixes a cocktail inside a passed out fat drunk’s mouth, or when both Olsen and Johnson model women’s underwear in the hopes of selling them to an American tourist. Forbes gets a job as a tour guide for English speakers, and one of the best recurring gags involves a woman (Helen Broderick) who hires his services, looking to be “shocked, you know, insulted.” She is nonplussed when he passes her a photo of a nearly-nude strongman, and when Forbes asks her where she’d like to start the tour she responds, “From the bottom, you’re only young twice.” There is also a Bela Lugosi sighting as a short-lived magic act whose routine is usurped and botched by the incompetent trio of Forbes, Olsen & Johnson, who cause a near riot. The latter duo ends up in a Keystone Cops chase through the Paris streets, over the tops of cars and through newly laid tar, in which the chase bogs  down into slow motion.

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Olsen & Johnson also appear in Gold Dust Gertie (1931), but the name above the title is Winnie Lightner, a wiseass who specialized in sassy gold digger roles, most famously in Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929). The opening of the film shows her marrying both Olsen and Johnson, and the film kicks off by her pursuit of their alimony payments. And the only way to get those bums to pay is to get them raises at their bathing suit company (whose conservative “Carrie Nations Fit” is not selling). So Lightner insinuates herself into the company, woos the ancient president Arnold (Claude Gillingwater), and convinces him to produce a more contemporary, risque style of suit. Along the way she runs into a few more ex-husbands from whom she’s still chiseling cash. A money-grubbing dynamo, she is getting what she can while the getting’s good. Lightner has a wonderfully expressive face, one that can flip you off with a sneer. In 1931 Picture Play magazine called her “the only feminine star of rough house comedy”.

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My favorite gag in Gold Dust Gertie, also directed by the industrious Lloyd Bacon, is a moment of bedroom farce. At one point the president invites Lightner, Olsen, and Johnson onto his ship. He has already declared his love for Lightner, unaware that she has already married and divorced every guest on his yacht. Eventually Olsen & Johnson bully their way into her stateroom, hoping to blackmail her with the news of yet another of her ex-husbands, but she neatly twirls them around her little finger with some flirtation and a bottle of booze. But then the president knocks on the door, and Olsen & Johnson are thrust outside the porthole window (after some requisite pottery smashing), getting thrashed by the waves while Lightner continues her seduction of the president. It is a perfectly tuned and timed bit of humiliation, and one of her multiple triumphs of male manipulation.

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Her Majesty, Love, is the most polished film of the three, directed with a roving energy by William Dieterle. This was the second feature Dieterle directed in Hollywood after being imported from Germany (the first: The Last Flight (1931)). It is an adaptation of the German film Ihre Majestät die Liebe, directed by Joe May earlier in ’31. It takes place in Berlin and follows Fred von Wellingen (Ben Lyon), heir to his family’s ball bearing factory fortune. Instead of cultivating the board of directors’ favor, he spends his time in a nightclub, becoming smitten with bartender Lia (Marilyn Miller). His family forbids their marriage, and will only give him the reigns to the company if he agrees to break off their union.

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The central drama is stilted, but there are pleasures at the margins. Dieterle and his DP Robert Kurrle use a circling camera in the nightclub sequences, creating an air of drunken revelry, where everything is spinning in a joyful blur. This is Broadway star Marilyn Miller’s third and final film appearance (she would die in 1937 from a botched nasal surgery), and you get an inkling of what made her so beloved on the stage. She has a relaxed, insouciant charm that makes it believable that her father in the film is played by W.C. Fields. Fields plays a barber and indulgent father who is a born entertainer. At Fred and Lia’s engagement dinner, he can’t sit still for a few seconds before he’s catapulting with his spoon or juggling dishes to the gasps of his table mates. It is his first sound feature, and his movie voice is not fully formed, that plummy nasal whine not fully ripened. And yet he is the clear star of the movie, despite his truncated screen time. One wishes for Fred to disappear and for Lia and her father to put on a show of their own.

I AM ALSO A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG: HELL’S HIGHWAY (1932)

November 3, 2015

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In 1932 the treatment of prisoners on chain gangs became an issue of national import. In January Robert Elliott Burns published I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang!, which recounts two escapes, eight years apart, from brutal prison camps. Warner Brothers would rush to adapt it into I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang for a November release. In June Arthur Maillefert died inside a “sweat box” at the Sunbeam Prison Camp in Florida, a chain wrapped around his neck and wooden stocks nailed around his feet. The camp’s captain was charged with first degree murder and found guilty of manslaughter, sentenced to twenty years imprisonment. Calls for reform reverberated across the country, and the film studios were eager to capitalize on the nation’s interest. Universal was developing Laughter in Hell (which I wrote about here), adapted from a Jim Tully novel, while RKO was fast-tracking Hell’s Highway, which combines Burns and Maillefert’s stories into a narrative they hoped not to get sued overPrizing speed above all else, RKO got Hell’s Highway into theaters first on September 23rd, beating Fugitive to screens by almost two months (Laughter in Hell didn’t arrive until January of 1933). Brought to the screen by the famously combative director Rowland Brown, Hell’s Highway is cynical and punchy, but compromised by studio meddling.  The Warner Archive has made Hell’s Highway available on DVD as part of “Forbidden Hollywood Volume 9″, the latest in their series of pre-code DVD sets (it also includes Big City Blues, The Cabin in the Cotton, When Ladies Meet, and Sell Anything).

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The sole reason for Hell Highway’s being was to beat Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang into theaters, regardless how it accomplished that goal. Producer David O. Selznick and writers Samuel Ornitz, Robert Tasker, and Rowland Brown cobbled together a script culled from the Burns novel, the Maillefert story, and Agnes Christine Johnson’s Freedom, another book about chain gangs. Then Selznick cut out anything he thought might get them sued. This “original” tale focused on Duke Ellis (Richard Dix), a prisoner on a chain gang continually looking for an escape. He nearly breaks loose thanks to a distraction from the fortune-telling bigamist Matthew (Charles Middleton), but had to call it off when he discovers his young brother Johnny (Tom Brown) has been detained in the same camp. After a Maillefert-like prisoner dies in a sweatbox, the inmates start advocating for revolt. Johnny receives word that Duke is about to be extradited to Michigan to serve a life sentence, so Johnny decides to bust Duke loose. The attempted escape triggers an all out riot that burns the prison camp to the ground, and Duke and Johnny try to stumble their way to survival.

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Brown gets a lot of mileage out of symmetrical shots out of chained feet, men lined up at the cafeteria table and trudging to work to build a road. They are effectively dehumanized, herded like cattle and whipped like dogs. Duke is the one who can’t be broken, a hard-bitten cynic who seems to have been raised in jails and resents every authority figure he’s ever met. The warden and all the guards are depicted as ignorant goofs or sadistic fascists, not exceptions but representatives of a violent system. It is missing I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang’s  meticulous attention to detail and Laughter in Hell’s death-drive delirium, but it does have dirt and grime and an atmosphere of desperation, ably lensed by DP Edward Cronjager (Heaven Can Wait).

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Martin Scorsese was a fan, and wrote for TCM, “There are moments that you will never forget. There’s a remarkable scene that we included in my documentary on American cinema: the prisoner played by Richard Dix is about to be whipped by a guard, who suddenly flinches when he sees the tattoo on Dix’s back and recognizes that he’s a fellow WWI vet. And there’s another passage that is quite unlike anything else in American cinema of the period, in which the story of a cuckolded guard and his cheating wife is told in an impromptu Frankie and Johnny ballad.” The latter is a bizarre interlude unrelated to the rest of the action. There is a group of black prisoners, segregated from the whites, who sing spirituals in their off hours. But one of them is a talented caricaturist, and sketches out a few cartoon panels of one of the guard’s cheating wife. The story is told through song. It is graphic, funny, and a completely different tone from the quiet desperation of the rest of the feature. It’s hard to say why Selznick did not cut that sequence, when he did so many more, as well as re-shooting the ending. He had John Cromwell come in to shoot an absurdly upbeat ending that inserts a benevolent bureaucrat who punishes the staff and implicitly exonerates the prison-industrial system.

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Director Rowland Brown is one of those great Hollywood enigmas. He only directed three well-regarded films (Quick Millions, Blood Money and Hell’s Highway) before reportedly punching out a producer and never directing again, though he maintained a career as a writer up through the ’50s (he received a story credit on Kansas City Confidential (’52)). He was born in Ohio, and got his start in the arts as an illustrator and sports cartoonist. He eventually moved to Los Angeles and became a day laborer at the studios. According to James Curtis’ Spencer Tracy biography Brown, “turned to screenwriting under the auspices of the late Kenneth Hawks [Howard’s brother], went to Universal for a short while, then sold a grim mob story, “A Handful of Clouds”, to Warner Brothers, shot as The Doorway to Hell (1930, directed by Archie Mayo). Brown was reportedly involved with the mob, and was rumored to have made a living as a bootlegger during prohibition, and was said to have been an acquaintance of Bugsy Siegel. This all lent an air of legitimacy to his gangster films, and perhaps got him the opportunity to direct his script for Quick Millions (1931), a movie about a small time protections racket starring Spencer Tracy. What is remarkable about Brown is how much remains unclear. It doesn’t seem like anyone knows for sure his true relationship to the mob, or who he actually punched at RKO. It was rumored to be David O. Selznick or Frank Davis, the producer on The Devil is a Sissy, from which Brown was fired and replaced by W.S. Van Dyke. Let’s just say I will buy the Rowland Brown biography if it is ever published.

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Despite it’s beating I Am a Fugitive On a Chain Gang into theaters, the comparatively slim and cheap Hell’s Highway was soon overwhelmed at the box office, and it has disappeared from view aside from the chatter of a few Rowland Brown cultists. It is a strange, tough little film with a grim view of American incarceration, one that was kneecapped by Selznick’s re-shoots, but one that still retains its ability to shock.

CAGNEY AND THE CODE: WINNER TAKE ALL (1932) AND HERE COMES THE NAVY (1934)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

PIGSKIN ADDICTS: COLLEGE COACH (1933) AND EASY LIVING (1949)

December 10, 2013

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

OPPOSITE DIRECTIONS: GOING HOLLYWOOD (1933)

August 13, 2013

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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.

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TO WED OR NOT TO WED: ILLICIT (1931) AND EX-LADY (1933)

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.

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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.

FLOP OF 1933: LAUGHTER IN HELL

March 5, 2013

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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.