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.


July 12, 2011

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Kay Francis dreamily asks for your complicit silence. She is about to commit an illicit act, and it would be gentlemanly not to speak of it.   So I shan’t, although I will spill fawning words about the film that encloses her, William Dieterle’s Jewel Robbery (1932). It is screening as part of Film Forum’s Essential Pre-Code series (and airs on TCM on occasion), a near annual festivity of tough-talking immorality that begins this Friday, July 15th. Released the same year as Ernst Lubitsch’s similarly themed Trouble in Paradise (and double-billed with it on August 7/8),  Dieterle’s debonair crime fantasy was necessarily overshadowed, but should be reckoned with as a major work in its own right.

A play by the Hungarian Ladislaus Fodor (“Ekzerrabalas a Vaci-uccaban”, 1931), was purchased by Warner Brothers on February 8th, 1932, with production beginning less than a month later, on March 2nd (credit to Roger Bryant’s biography, William Powell). To lens this sophisticated charmer set in Vienna, the studio tapped their European emigre, the German-born William Dieterle. Dieterle, a prolific actor and director in the Weimar cinema, came to Hollywood to shoot German language versions of WB productions. His first original film for the studio, the Lost Generation drama The Last Flight (1931, which I wrote about here), was a success, and he went on an incredibly creative run throughout the 1930s (I would also recommend 6 Hours To Live (1932) and The Devil in Love (1933)).

For the leads, he was gifted William Powell and Kay Francis. $100,000 of the $291,039 budget went to Powell, more than a third of the entire cost. Francis received a comparatively paltry $27,000 (reported by Bryant). Powell plays the unnamed “Robber”, a fastidiously well mannered thief. Francis would get a supporting role in Trouble in Paradise later in the year, but here she is the slinky, shallow and slightly bored housewife Baroness Terri. Stuck with the wealthy but gout-ridden Baron Franz (Henry Kolker), she dreams of escape. Her fantasies incarnate when Powell swoops in to the jewelry store to relieve her of the “Excelsior Diamond” which she was about to squeeze out of the Baron. Entranced by his swaggering, well-coiffed masculinity, the robbery turns into a battling flirtation. Powell, equally intrigued, starts a game of break-ins into the Baroness’ quarters, forcing her to make a choice between comfort and passion.

Dieterle instills a martial rhythm, matching the military precision in which Powell’s Robber executes his heists. He cuts when a screen is filled or an action performed – no lingering on atmosphere. During production, reports Bryant, Warner executive Darryl Zanuck showed concerned about this speedy style. On March 26th he wrote producer Lucien Hubbard to, “keep your eye very close on the rushes of Dieterle…as he has a habit of shooting his most important scenes with the camera moving or sweeping around or going back and forth and you miss the most important point of all.” Ever the diplomat, he sang a different tune to Dieterle, on April 5th: “The rushes continue to be very excellent, and I like the manner in which you are continuing to put movement and action in all the scenes … Keep this up. This is very fine.”

In a rapid opening montage, Dieterle shows a series of safe doors shutting and locking. With equal precision, a group of jewelry shop employees scuttle to line up diagonally across the frame. Dieterle repeats this line-up image in the next two sequences.  As soon as the last man enters the frame, he cuts to the pretentious owner bragging about the new security system. Of course, a few seconds later, he is robbed.

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The next lineup occurs in the Baroness’ home, as a who army of maids tromps down a grand staircase to minister to her needs. In the first scene, the line of men was protecting a diamond, in the second, the line is pampering Kay Francis. This jewel/Baroness metaphor continues when one of her helpers carries her into a massage chair to be buffed into beauty – a delicate object cleaned up to be presented to the world.

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Powell’s men form the third line-up, a dapper parade of black-suited shysters. And they are here not to protect, but to steal. As the Baron, Baroness and friends try to escape the store, a group of top-hatted criminals enter from the back, doff their caps in unison, and aim guns at chests. It is this shift in the line-up pattern that that then shifts the narrative. No longer coddled, Baroness Teri is shocked out of her comfort zone, and into one of romantic fantasy.

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Powell’s perfection has an air of unreality about it, a charming, un-threatening adventurer conjured out of Teri’s imagination. After he frisks a revolver out of a lovely pearl-inlaid box, he tells the stunned patrons, “Would you kindly put up your hands”. And then, to calm their troubled nerves, he gives them all some pot to smoke (a joint is later passed to the police department, who fully investigate its possibilities). The idea that this is just a beautiful dream of Teri’s continues when she is whisked away, or willingly kidnapped, to his ornate apartment getaway, which is filled with his ill-gotten gains. As they sit down for dinner, she asks him for his name, and he gently refuses. To admit to a name would pin down his identity, and snuff out the mystery which fuels her desire. He is anything she wants him to be. I don’t think I’ve seen a film that portrays female fantasy with such sensitivity.


The other must-sees, or at least, the titles I’ve been most obsessed with recently, are three early stunners from Raoul Walsh:  Me and My Gal (1932), The Bowery (1933) and Sailor’s Luck (1933). 1932 was a good year. I wrote my first post here at Movie Morlocks on Me and My Gal, and lets see if it embarrasses:

Walsh shot the film in a scant nineteen days, and he doesn’t even mention it in his rakish autobiography, Each Man In His Time.

Perhaps it’s the speed of the schedule that led to its inventive, magpie spirit. Plenty of material needed to be created on the spot (there was obviously little pre-production time), and the film is flooded with ideas (some borrowed, some new) – ideas for pratfalls, camera movements, parodies. The movie contains direct addresses to the camera (by a tight J. Farrell MacDonald), self-reflexive voice-overs, and endless bits of comic business, from Will Stanton’s drunk act to the stinging bon mots flung from Bennett to Tracy.

A little sloppy, but not bad. The movie, as always, astounds. The Bowery is a more personal project for Walsh, revisiting the street that he used to rubberneck at as a curious upper-middle class kid in New York. In his autobiography he writes about how he cast real winos and bums to fill the backgrounds of his shots, in which he experiments with deep focus, a technique he would investigate the rest of his career. Then there’s Sailor’s Luck, which sets a giddy land-speed record for sexual innuendo and bumptious ethnic humor.