September 20, 2016

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.


October 29, 2013


Society prefers death to be hidden.  Bodies are covered in sheets, buried in caskets. There are no morgues in malls, but they are cast into hospital basements, where even lost visitors are unlikely to stumble upon it. Our mortality is a fact of life we are abstractly aware of, but a mutual pact has been made to keep it out of public view. Horror films have exploited this reluctance by making corpses ultra-visible, re-animating limp flesh and exposing the viscera that once gave us life. Frankenstein is the model for this, its monster cobbled together from the remnants of other bodies. In a macabre subgenre, body parts are severed and gain life of their own, including one that involves, creeping, scampering, choking hands. The mangled classic in this strange sector is The Beast With Five Fingers (1947), in which Peter Lorre is convinced a severed hand is murdering the inhabitants of an Italian mansion. Other entries include The Hands of Dr. Orlac (1924), The Crawling Hand (’63), Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (’65) and, succinctly, The Hand (1981, an early Oliver Stone effort), but the Lorre film is the one that endures, and it has received a longer life in a DVD from Warner Archive,  released just in time for Halloween.


No one WB assigned to the project had interest in making it. Director Robert Florey took a three-month suspension for rejecting the job, before finally acceding for a paycheck. Lorre was exhausted of playing shifty eyed weirdos, but did his contractually obligated duty. After reading the script Lorre told Florey, “Don’t worry. Since you are in trouble I’ll keep two Pernod bottles in my dressing room.” WB purchased the rights to the short story by W.F. Harvey in 1942, though a satisfactory script wasn’t completed until Curt Siodmak submitted his draft in ’46. Siodmak shifted the scenario from straight creature feature to a psychological thriller. In Harvey’s story the hand is a menace seen by all, but in the movie it’s a terror that may or may not be a figment of Lorre’s imagination. Lorre plays Hilary, the long-time secretary to ailing concert pianist Francis Ingram (Victor Francen), who lives in a crumbling mansion in the Italian village of San Stefano. Half of Ingram’s body is paralyzed, so he plays Bach’s Chaconne with only his left hand. The arrangement for this Bach one-hander is put together by Conrad (Robert Alda), an out of work composer who makes his money swindling tourists. After Ingram’s death, his family gathers at the mansion for the reading of the will – in which his entire inheritance is bequeathed to his lovely nurse Julie (Andrea King). Family members turn up strangled to death, and Hilary is convinced it is Ingram’s good hand, seeking vengeance on his money grubbing relatives.

Siodmak wanted Paul Henreid for the role of Hilary, but Henreid told the screenwriter he, “wouldn’t play opposite a bloody hand.” It was not a desirable project for cast or crew, although when Florey resigned himself to making it, he thought he struck on an exciting stylistic choice – to shoot the film entirely from Hilary’s point of view. Florey, who was the original choice to direct Frankenstein before James Whale took over, had a keen visual sense, and wanted to use the film as a late experiment in German Expressionism, using warped sets and POV shots to express Hilary’s deteriorating mind. It was likely during this period that Florey asked Luis Bunuel for some ideas on the project. Bunuel was in the U.S. for the third time, looking for work. Warner Brothers hired him to do some dubbing work. In his autobiography My Last Sigh, he recalls that he, “thought up a scene that shows the beast, a living hand, moving through a library. Lorre and Florey liked it, but the producer absolutely refused to use it.” Producer William Jacobs swiftly shot their  ideas down as “commercially unthinkable.” A version of the library scene does exist in the film, and Bunuel thought of suing WB because of it. Instead he stored the image of “the beast” away, which appears in The Exterminating Angel.


Florey and Lorre had worked together before in 1941, in the disturbing gangster melodrama The Face Behind the Mask. In that more personal film, Lorre plays an impoverished immigrant who resorts to a life of crime to stay alive – a violent allegory of both men’s experiences hustling and debasing themselves in Hollywood. Florey was born in France, and came to Hollywood’s attention with his scathing experimental short with Slavko Vorkapich and Gregg Toland, The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra. Reportedly made for $97, it mixes cut-out silhouettes and live action to depict two small town dreamers get crushed in the Hollywood machine. Now Florey was part of that same machinery. Saddled with an unsympathetic producer and a script he didn’t approve, he still manages to carve out scenes of disorienting menace.

Forget the love subplot between Conrad and Julie, or the bumbling Inspector (J. Caroll Naish) who camps his way through the movie – it is the scenes with Lorre where Florey’s original conception pokes through. Lorre is dressed all in black, his hair clipped short, and is always lit from below, with his head so isolated by the composition it looks decapitated. Florey presents him as an incomplete man who lives inside his own head. Hilary’s cause is astrology, he believes he has found the key that will unlock all its secrets, “the law that can predict unknown fate into predictable fact.” He skulks in the library with his occult books, clutching them like sacred runes. Then the murders begin, and the hand gropes its way closer into his consciousness. While an inveterate prankster on the set (he would hide the bloody prop hand all over Andrea King’s person), he was locked in once the camera started rolling. He gives one of his most moving performances as the beatific Hilary, lending him an air of saint-like calm despite his increasingly paranoiac actions. He plays things quiet and tentative, almost sleepy, as if he is the somnambulist from Caligari. 


Florey is allowed a few experiments in POV shots when Hilary encounters the hand in the library, as it pokes its way out of a cigar box and onto the table. Through super-imposition, motorized models and old-school illusionism (it’s Florey’s hand poking out of the box), the hand becomes legitmately menacing, a physical remnant of Ingram clinging to his home and possessions. Hilary chases it into the stacks, tossing down leather-bound editions until he finds it creeping behind a row, seemingly wanted to page through one of its (his?) favorites. Then, in a gruesome example of Hilary’s deteroriating psyche, he nails the hand to a board. The sequence is punctuated by jarring inserts, to a mandolin strink breaking and distorted angles of Lorre’s face, that approximate what Florey had intended for the entire feature. It’s a totalizing vision of horror, that plucked string one of Hilary’s last nerves snapping, the world a clattering whorl of his inner and outer lives collapsing in on each other. The hand then performs a haunting solo version of the Bach Chaconne, its rotting stump more in tune with human frailty than the supposed heroes of the tale.Later, when he throws the hand in the fire – only for the ember-hot appendage to crawl up and curl its digits around his neck – it’s become clear that this severed limb murder is much self-inflicted as an act of supernatural outrage.

All of the tantalizing enigmas in the plot are cheerily resolved in the studio-shot ending, which replaces Florey and Lorre’s self-annihilating horror with glib irony. It ends with J. Carroll Naish laughing into the camera about the gullibility of the audience, attempting to brush all those thoughts about mortality away. But the images that Florey constructs aren’t so easily dispatched. The bloody stump that plays Bach in an abandoned mansion is both rotting flesh and emotive spirit, expressing in one uncanny scene our damned impermanence and dream of immortality through art.


May 28, 2013

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

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


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

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

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

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