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.

BLONDE AMBITION: JOAN BLONDELL IN THE CROWD ROARS (1932)

August 23, 2011

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Joan Blondell made herself at home in the cinema. Regardless of the plot or set decoration, Blondell would adjust her sheer stockings and plop into a seat as if she was at a cuckolded boyfriend’s pad. This Warner Brothers working class goddess buckled knees with this studied insouciance,  a glamour of gum-smacking nonchalance. Our blog-a-thon has been counting down the days until the Blondell-bonanza on August 24th, her day on TCM’s Summer Under the Stars. Earlier this week Jeff discussed the James Cagney-Blondell pairing Blonde Crazy (1931), and today I’ll take a look at their subsequent film together, Howard Hawks’ The Crowd Roars (1932).

Hawks had just completed work on Scarface (1931), his large-scale gangster film for producer Howard Hughes, and as the film was encountering censorship battles across the country, the director was busy with his next project. He took the conflict of the 1917 play, “The Barker: A Play of Carnival Life”, by Kenyon Nicholson, and adapted it to one of his hobbies, auto-racing. Nicholson’s story concerns a carnival barker who lives with a young mistress. His brother is coming to visit, and he wants to hide the affair. So he has his girlfriend sic one of her cohorts on his sibling to seduce and distract him. With a few tweaks, Hawks and his horde of screenwriters John Bright, Niven Busch, Kubec Glasmon and Seton I. Miller transplanted the tale to the race track. Production lasted from December 1931 – February 1932, and was released on April 16th 1932.

The Crowd Roars stars James Cagney as championship driver Joe Greer, a four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 and sometime lover of Lee Merrick (Ann Dvorak, also fresh off of Scarface), who grows impatient with his immaturity. When Joe starts mentoring his racing-hopeful brother Eddie (Eric Linden), Joe cuts Lee out of his life, not wanting to be distracted from the training. In a fit of pique, Lee encourages her friend Anne (Joan Blondell) to flash her wares to Eddie, so Joe can experience how it feels to be separated from a loved one.

When shooting was slated to begin Ann Dvorak was cast as the vampy Anne and Blondell was to portray the long-suffering Lee. However, as Todd McCarthy wrote in his fabulous biography, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood:

Once they got down to work, however, Blondell announced, “I can’t play a neurotic,” and Dvorak decided, “I can’t play an ingenue,” so, with Hawks’s agreement, they swapped roles without even telling the studios.

In retrospect this seems like an obvious switch to make, although it meant Blondell was willingly taking on a lesser role, as Anne has roughly half the screen-time as Lee. This indicates a striking self-awareness on Blondell’s behalf, knowing that she can make a bigger impact in the smaller part better suited to her talents. She was managing a persona that was already well established, having cranked out 10 films in 1931, her wide-eyed and acid tongued striver a familiar and welcome sight for Depression-scarred audiences. Blondell was given second-billing behind Cagney despite her diminished presence in the film (in the trailer below, she’s “The Peppiest Blonde Who Ever Broke a Heart”), since Dvorak was still breaking in as a lead (Scarface was her first) and Blondell had already garnered box office success with Cagney on Blonde Crazy.

The Crowd Roars is a classic Hawksian scenario of male camaraderie and competition, with self-worth won on the job. The setting here is the race track, instead of the airport of Ceiling Zero (1936) or fishing boats of Tiger Shark (1932). While the film has stunning racing photography by Sid Hickox (shot at real Indianapolis, Ventura and Ascot tracks), Eric Linden’s limp turn as Eddie leeches the central conflict of tension, and the female characters are not as fully developed as Dvorak was in Scarface, or Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century (1934) a few years later. Lee is present to be hysterically in love with Joe, and Anne ultimately ends up married and neutered to Eddie. There are hints of the past and present Hawksian women to come though, in Anne and Lee’s banter about Joe, privileging a female perspective on the male lead in a few scenes. Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, in her essay on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, does note it for giving Dvorak and Blondell “enough screen time and dialogue together to establish a real friendship which only later, as the story spirals out of control, becomes overtaken be plot points.”

Watching Crowd Roars now, it’s hard to conceive Blondell as the rather shrill wilting lily Lee. Anne, as thinly sketched as she is, dominates every scene she’s in, a sexual dynamo until the third act unconvincingly turns her into a housewife. Although they share only a few scenes together, Cagney and Blondell maintain the sparks they lit on Blonde Crazy. Cagney is a marvel, as usual, swatting Joe Greer’s problems away with jittery flits of his hand, while Blondell is constantly fidgeting with her stockings and urging Dvorak to dump him. Hawks told Joseph McBride about working with Cagney:

“Cagney was so much fun to work with because you never know what Cagney was going to do. When I work with Cary Grant, I can go home and write a scene for Cary and know how he’s gonna to handle it the next day, but Cagney had these funny little attitudes, you know, the way he held his hands, and things like that.”

You first see Cagney playing with Dvorak’s hands, mocking her for wanting a wedding ring, and then throughout the film he uses a flat-palmed Queen’s wave as kiss-off, a curious, electrifying gesture of contempt. Hawks doesn’t discuss Blondell, but she’s equally resourceful in her few scenes.

She is introduced after a close-up of a telegram from Joe, informing Lee that he’ll be delaying his return in order to train Eddie. Lee crumples the note and throws it in the trash. Blondell is splayed out on a divan in the background, and sashays slowly to the foreground, implanting a hand on her hip. She grabs the note dismissively and strides right, bobbing her head to snap off her complaints like, “playing nursemaid to a kid, huh?”. She sits down on the bed, and crosses her legs, her feet resting on an ottoman, to continue her harangue. Angrily throwing back the note, she walks to the middle of the frame, bends over, and adjusts her stockings before snapping, “You can take those hard-drinking, hard-riding men and put them in a truck and shove them over a cliff, as far as I’m concerned.” It’s a play of anger and self-regard that rivals Cagney’s regal kiss-off to Lee. Blondell continues these moves later in the film, propping her gams up on a table, and pulling up her hose, in order to entrance Eddie. This time her primping is an act, although one Blondell has established that Anne is happy to perform.

Blondell’s performance is one of constant small surprises, matching Cagney’s bantam rooster routine gyration for gyration. While The Crowd Roars is a second-tier Hawks film, the director’s openness to improvisation makes it a particularly riveting one, and reveals Blondell to be a wonderfully inventive actress as well as an indelible personality.

“HAVE A LITTLE CHEW ON ME”: OTHER MEN’S WOMEN (1931)

March 31, 2009

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Last Monday night, TCM aired all six films from Warner Bros. new box set of early William Wellman talkies, Forbidden Hollywood, vol. 3. I’m still picking my way through, but 1931′s Other Men’s Women is an obvious highlight. Possessing speed and clarity in equal measure, and blessed by energetic supporting turns by James Cagney and Joan Blondell, it’s overflowing with minor pleasures. With the railroad as its working class milieu (the original title, “The Steel Highway”, was changed shortly before it’s premiere), the film builds its rhythm from the steady hum of the locomotive, it’s whistle cooing over the lead credits. In the opening sequence, Bill White (Grant Withers) slinks into a hash shop, his wise-ass cracks clearly impressing the brassy counter girl. In between his razzes he counts out a rhythm on the table top, keeping track of some internal beat in his head. After shoveling in his eggs and coffee and telling the gal to “have a little chew on me”,  he sprints off to catch the last train that had been rumbling by in the background the whole sequence – he had been counting off its cars. Tempo is emphasized straight off, and neither Wellman nor his collaborators apply the brakes for the duration of its 70 minutes.

Maude Fulton adapted her own story for the screen, and William K. Wells is credited with  the dialogue. Fulton, unknown today, had established herself as a vaudevillian and playwright before she started contributing to film. In a fascinating 1917 profile in the NY Times, written after the success of her play, “The Brat” (which John Ford brought to the screen in 1931), her circuitous path to Broadway is outlined. Raised in the Kansas newspaper biz by her Dad, the editor of the local daily, she wrote a novel by the age of 15, “whose theme was ‘The Curse of Rum’”.  She bounced from job to job, including singing pop songs at a department store, until she learned stenography and was hired by a railway office, where she likely soaked in the bravado of the train engineers that suffuses Other Men’s Women. Bored with office work, she soon lit out for the stage in NYC. She was performing in Mam’zelle Champagne on the roof of Madison Square Garden in 1906, when the millionaire Henry K. Thaw shot and killed architect Stanford White for fooling around with his young wife, Evelyn Nesbit (who was also romanced by John Barrymore). Thaw’s trial was the first to be dubbed “The Trial of the Century.”

Before this brush with infamy, she had teamed up with dancer William Rock. “Rock and Fulton” became a minor vaudeville success from 1900-1912, their 20-minute routine playing some of the better houses in town, according to the reference book Vaudeville, Old & New. By the time she was 30, Fulton began to suffer from rheumatism and had to shift into writing full time. In the Times piece, just beginning her playwriting career, Fulton displays a disarming humility:

“I know that I have no great intellectual gifts and that I have no great talents, but I will say this for myself: I am an indefagitable worker and I aim high. If this [The Brat] is not a great play – and it isn’t – remember that it is my first, and I am not through yet.”

She never equalled The Brat’s success on stage, with her follow-up, The Humming Bird (1923) failing to make much of an impression. But both were made into silent films, and her career behind the camera began. But I digress…

Fulton’s scenario for Other Men’s Women is a basic love triangle. Jack Kulper (Regis Toomey) and Bill White are best friends and railroad engineers, but both also happen to be in love with Kulper’s wife, Lily (Mary Astor). Tensions rise  and tragedies mount until a spectacular bridge collapse caps the doom-laden tale. With the train whistle’s metronome setting the pace, Wellman wastes no time in setting up the central conflict. Jack invites Bill to stay for a few days and dry out, after his stuttering landlady kicked him to the curb. The childlike idyll of the first few days, mock-fighting and chases ’round the yard, are quickly unmasked for their flirtatiousness. Wellman utilizes an audio motif to mark the shift in atmosphere. When Jack first arrives home, he whistles to announce his arrival. The second time we hear the whistle, Bill has professed his love and Jack’s world is about to collapse. This simple inversion carries a great emotional wallop, his lilting tune turned tragic in the space of ten minutes.

Wellman is adept at this kind of repetition – eliciting slightly different tones from each one. Take Grant Withers’ catch phrase, “have a little chew on me”. Used in the opening scene with a sneer and a hint of sexuality, the next time he says it, to old pal Cagney on top of a train, it’s with complete sincerity. Later, after dismissing Blondell’s marriage proposal, she cuts him off with, “if you offer me a chew of gum I’ll knock your block off.”  For each context, the phrase works differently, and the cumulative effect makes Blondell’s retort all that funnier.  It’s even flexible enough to play a pivotal role in the final, storm swept finale.

Other Men’s Women is remembered, if at all, for being the film Cagney appeared in before The Public Enemy (also directed by Wellman) which launched him to stardom. As Bill’s close friend Ed Bailey, he’s already irrepressibly physical. In one magical scene in a club’s lobby, he’s shown stripping out of work clothes, revealing a tux underneath, and soft-shoeing laterally to the dance-floor. It’s a privileged moment for a character only present in three sequences – and he nearly taps away with the picture.It was his second film with Blondell, after they both reprised their roles from the play “Penny Arcade” in Sinner’s Holiday (1930). Ms. Blondell gets a few zingers in, including her tart: “I’m A.P.O…Ain’t puttin’ out.”

Wellman pairs the train whistle from the opening to the climactic struggle, as Jack and Bill throw hay-makers in the engine room. There is a cut to a close-up as Jack’s right cross pulls down the whistle rope, their battle now syncopated to the music of their transport. Violence and disfigurement follow, as death haunts the two friends the rest of the film,with Wellman and cinematographer Barney McGill darkening the palette until the train’s final run takes place in manic silhouettes and dense fog. As emotions and steel are wrenched apart, the crux of Wellman’s directorial personality become clear. As Dave Kehr noted in the comments section of his blog (where the best auteurist criticism is appearing these days): “His was a style based on speed, fragmentation, and violent collision — he’s on the path that leads to Sam Fuller, not Howard Hawks.”