Red-Headed Woman(MGM, 1932) – Director: Jack Conway. Writers: Anita Loos (s/p), Katharine Brush (book). Stars: Jean Harlow, Chester Morris, Lewis Stone, Leila Hyams, Una Merkel, Henry Stephenson, May Robson, Charles Boyer, Harvey Clark, William Pawley & Albert Conti. B&W, 79 minutes.
If I had to choose one film that embodies the spirit of the Pre-Code era, this would be the one, especially as it pertains to women. In other Pre-Code movies, women are allowed to go out and sow some wild oats, but must always realize the error of their ways and return to the fold (The Divorcee, Let Us Be Gay, A Free Soul, Female). Even in Barbara Stanwyck’s notorious Baby Face(1933) she realizes the “error” of her ways at the end.
Not so with Red-Headed Woman. Jean Harlow’s Lil “Red” Andrews not only gets away with it, she has no attacks of conscience along the way. Lil is single-minded and determined throughout the movie, which makes for a refreshing change thanks to writer Anita Loos, who saved the movie from becoming a dull mediocrity as originally adapted by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In March 1931 publishers Farrar and Rinehart released Red-Headed Woman, a novel written by Katherine Brush, famed for her depictions of “wicked ladies,” playing on the popular conception that red hair on a woman was the sign of a wild spirit and a freewheeling, often aggressive sexuality. It was the same in the movies, as redheads were often portrayed as femme fatales with loose morals and dangerous intentions. (Clara Bow rode to popularity on such a character.) Though the book was not a great piece of literature (I read it), it was very popular with women and MGM bought the rights to it.
Now that they had the novel, the next problem was a script. Thalberg assigned the script to F. Scott Fitzgerald, but what he turned in was not what Thalberg wanted (“Scott tried to turn the silly book into a tone poem!’) At this point Thalberg brought in one of his favorite script doctors, Anita Loos, for a total rewrite. Loos, famous for the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, saw the dark comedic aspects of the book and tailored her script accordingly.
The next task was to find an actress for the lead role of Lil Andrews. It was originally bought as a vehicle for Greta Garbo, but after reading Loos’ revised script, Thalberg saw that it wouldn’t be suitable for her. It was then offered around, but because of the novel’s trashy nature, many turned it down, including Clara Bow, Colleen Moore and Joan Crawford. Other less-established actresses such as Wynne Gibson, Dixie Lee and Alice White, seeing the potential star-making quality of the role, auditioned.
But the part was won by an up and coming actress named Jean Harlow. Harlow, despite her image as a blonde bombshell and reputation as a horrible actress, had two important things going for her. One was that the quality of her acting improved greatly since coming to MGM, including in excellent performance in MGM’s Beast of the City (released in February 1932). The other, and even more important, was the backing of producer Paul Bern, who later married his protege shortly after filming was completed, with tragic results. Harlow was willing to take on the role and Bern, with help from Loos (who structured her script around Harlow), convinced Thalberg she was right for the film. He also acted as producer to keep an eye on his protege.
For a director, Jack Conway, known as a house director (he shot what the producer wanted) was chosen. He had 20 years experience as a director and was excellent working with actors, which was important with Harlow starring.
Thalberg knew going in that the biggest problem he would face would be the censors. Motion Picture Producers and Directors of America (MPPDA) President Will Hays, saw its lead character, Lil Andrews, as no more than “a common little tart” and an “out-and-out harlot.” For Hays, the film presented “a very grave problem.” And Hays’ concern would be mild compared to the various state boards, who would surely disembowel the picture. Thalberg decided to go ahead with filming and deal with the censors later. The movie had the promise of a blockbuster.
After filming was completed, the picture was run at a sneak preview. It was decided that the original opening, with Lil in full attack mode, was too jarring. Loos penned three short scenes as an introduction that lessened the shock and emphasized the comedic aspects. First we have the opening in the beauty parlor, then Harlow picking out her outfit. For a capper came the short scene with Lil placing a picture of Bill Legrande in her garter as she says, “The boss’s picture. Well, it will get me more there then it will hanging on the wall.”
With the film’s shock value somewhat softened, Thalberg next dealt with the Hays Office. All in all, 17 cuts were agreed to, including several scenes in which Harlow was partially undressed or making obvious sexual advances.
Jason Joy, who headed the Studio Relations Committee for Hays, test-screened Red-Headed Woman for an audience. Noting that the audience loved it, he reported to Hays that, “When we saw the picture with an audience we got a definite impression that the audience was laughing at the girl.” He also noted that when seen with an audience the film came off so farcical that, despite his initial reservations, it was not contrary to the Code. Because of the audience reaction, Joy persuaded Hays to pass Red-Headed Woman.
The film opens with Lil “Red” Andrews (Harlow) at the beauty parlor, having just had her locks dyed red (in reality she wore a red wig). “So gentlemen prefer blondes, do they?” she says to the camera. “Yes they do.”
After buying a reveling outfit, Lil has one more task. She places a photo of her boss, Bill Legrande (Morris) in her garter. Bill is happily married to a woman he describes as his “best friend,” with whom he grew up Bill and the leading citizen in the small town of Renwood, Ohio. But Lil has her set and nothing will deter her, including the admonishments of roommate, Sally (Merkel), to whom Lil explains her plan.
Knowing Bill’s wife Irene (Hyams) is out of town, Lil bluffs her way into the Legrande household on the pretext of helping the boss work late. When she starts coming on strong, Bill asks her to leave, but weakens when he sees his picture on her garter. Just as they start to become more familiar, Irene comes home and Lil quickly leaves. An embarrassed Bill tells his wife that nothing has happened,and promises never to see Lil again.
But Lil isn’t so easily deterred, and continues to pursue Bill. Now at his wits’ end, he goes to Lil’s apartment to confront her. In one of the movie’s strongest scenes he loses control and slaps Lil, whose only response is, “Do it again, I like it! Do it again!” Bill’s resistance is at an end.
Now Mrs. Bill Legrande, Lil finds it’s not all roses and garlands. Her entree to Renwood society has been blocked by the leading citizens, who side with Irene. Though she continues to scheme, nothing is working. She sees an opportunity, however, when Charles Gaerste (Stephenson) one of the Legendres' biggest business connections, comes to town. After he turns down her dinner invitation, she visits him in his hotel room, seduces him, and uses his indiscretion to blackmail him into hosting a party at her home, knowing that Renwood society will be sure to turn out.
It seems everything is going splendidly at the party until Sally points out that the guests, who had left early “to rest up for a big charity function the next morning,” are going across the street to Irene’s house. Lil hits the roof, and in one of the film’s funniest scenes, storms across the street to berate her former guests. “I’m through with the whole cheap hypocritical gang of you,” she declares, as Bill carries her away like a misbehaving brat to the delight of there partygoers, who are firmly on the side of the aggrieved Irene.
Finally, it’s Bill’s father, Legrande Sr. (Stone) who rids Bill and the town of Lil. Discovering that Lil is having an affair with Gaerste, he decides to dump Lil into Gaerste’s arms by financing her trip to New York. In New York, Lil uses the same tricks to rope in the older Gaerste that she used on Bill, and Gaerste, being a bachelor, falls easily. Lil has Gaerste and is now involved in an affair with his chauffeur Albert (Boyer) on the side.
As time passes, Bill gets in a little revenge of his own when he shows Gaerste incriminating photos of Lil and Albert cheating behind Gaerste’s back; photos that Bill said he hired a private detective to take for his upcoming divorce from Lil. Gaerste, humiliated, discharges Albert and tells him to take Lil with him. Albert returns to France, but Lil, desperate, wires Bill that she is coming home. Once back in Renwood she finds to her displeasure that Bill has moved to his father's house and has started seeing Irene again.
Legendre Sr. offers Lil a check for $500 to leave town, but she runs after Bill, who is driving away with Irene, and shoots him, causing his car to crash. Bill recovers from his wounds and refuses to prosecute Lil, who flees town.
It’s now two years later. Bill and Irene have remarried and are vacationing in Paris, where they go to the races. When Bill peers through his binoculars at the winning horse, who does he see in the winner’s circle accepting the trophy but Lil? We learn that Lil has landed in Paris and has become the mistress of a wealthy older man. As the couple leave in a limousine Lil tells the chauffeur to drive home. As the scene expands we recognize the chauffeur as Albert.
From start to finish Harlow dominates the film and she is simply wonderful in the role. In her hands, Lil Andrews goes from being a mere tawdry tart to an anti-heroine of sorts. Harlow has made her human, and as the picture unfolds, one can’t help but root for her. Her childlike “Beeeeww” when she wants Bill’s attention is precious and adds loads to her manipulative image. Much of the credit for Harlow’s performance belongs to Loos, who molded the character to the Harlow’s personality, allowing her to act as an exaggerated version of herself. And even though the picture was n to yet re3leased, MGM, noting the strength of her performance, signed her on April 20, 1932 to the standard seven-year deal with a salary beginning at $1,250 per week.
Chester Morris, as the object of her “affections,” provides adequate support, as does Henry Stephenson as her next victim. Una Markel is good in her usual role as the sidekick. (She and Harlow made four pictures together and Una was always the sidekick.) And Lewis Stone makes the most of his small role as Legrande’s father and the moral arbiter of the film. (Is it any wonder he fit so well into the Hardy Family series as just such a moral arbiter?)
It may surprise some who are watching it for the first time to see a young Charles Boyer in the cast. At the time he was on a six-month option to the studio, but MGM didn't know how to use him. Their complaint was that his accent was too thick to be understood. With only a couple of weeks left on his option, they put him in the picture and dropped him after filming was completed. However, in previews, the studio saw so many raves in the comments from female viewers that Boyer was called back from Paris and offered a contract at ten times the rate he had been paid on option.
Despite the approval from the Hays Office, several state and local censorship boards throughout the United States and Canada demanded additional cuts before the film was accepted for distribution. Massachusetts and Pennsylvania cut most of the scenes of Lil's romance with Albert while Ohio cut the entire unapologetic ending. England banned the film altogether until 1965, but it was reported that the royal family had their own personal copy for entertaining dinner guests.
However, while the censors were cool about the movie, critics and the public certainly were not. Critics praised both the film and Harlow’s performance, though some added the rider that they couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing. Typical of their praise was this review from the September 1932 edition of Screenland: “The film follows Katherine Brush's novel with satirical improvements by Anita Loos, who, fed up with blondes, gives red-headed women their due … See this for sheer amusement. Jean plays a mean part so cleverly that you can't help liking this wild red-headed woman.” As for the public, the film was a smash, returning a profit of nearly $400,000. MGM was so impressed that they quickly moved Harlow in the co-starring role opposite Clark Gable in Red Dust (1932) and she continued to be a box-office attraction until her untimely death at the age of only 26 in 1937.
Great Day By Ed Garea
Great Day (RKO, 1945) – Director: Lance Comfort. Writers: John Davenport, Lesley Storm & Wolfgang Wilhelm (s/p). Lesley Storm (play). Stars: Eric Portman, Flora Robson, Sheila Sim, Isobel Jeans, Walter Fitzgerald, Philip Friend, Marjorie Rhodes, Maire O’Neill, John Laurie, Kathleen Harrison, Leslie Dwyer, Margaret Withers, Beatrice Varley, Irene Handl & Patricia Hayes. B&W, 62 minutes.
This is a curious little slice-of-life movie that lacks the necessary drama but is redeemed at the end by the extraordinary performances of Flora Robson and Eric Portman as a married couple on the verge of ruin.
The ostensible plot centers around the Women’s Institute, a community-based organization for women originally founded to revitalize rural communities and to encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War. Its aims and activities centered around providing women with educational opportunities and the chance to build new skills. This in turn, it was hoped, would enable them to take part in a wide variety of activities, taking on issues that mattered to them and their communities. During the Second World War their contribution was limited to such activities as looking after evacuees, and running the government-sponsored Preservation Centers where volunteers canned or made jam of excess produce, with the produce being sent to depots to be added to the rations. After the war, the organization returned to its original mission. It’s still alive and well today, with over 250,000 members in Britain.
The film begins at the height of World War II, as the Women's Institute club of Denley, England, learns that American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt will be visiting their village the next day to inspect its various homefront activities. The women are thrilled to have been selected to represent England and it is agreed that the news of Mrs. Roosevelt's visit be kept secret as a security precaution.
Leading the work at the hall is Mrs. Liz Ellis (Robson), who is not without a few personal issues of her own, as her husband Capt. John (Portman) drinks too much, spending money they don’t have on whiskey and living on his past in World War I.
As the women are preparing the village hall for their visitor, Margaret Ellis (Sim), Liz’s daughter, is finishing a long day of wartime farm work. She has been helping Bob Tyndale (Fitzgerald) on his farm, Marsh Manor. Despite a twenty-five year gap in their ages, Meg has agreed to marry him. However, she has not publicly announced her engagement as she fears the reaction of Bob's sister Jane (Withers), an embittered spinster who resents Meg's presence at the manor. Another issue for Meg is that her former boyfriend Geoffrey Winthrop (Friend) is still in love with her.
When Meg confides in her mother, Liz’s advice is to follow her heart, though she endorses Bob as good husband material. Although Liz loves her husband, she is anxious for her daughter to obtain the financial and emotional security Liz lacks. John for his part, yearns to be free from responsibility; he is shamed by the fact that Meg and Liz work hard without complaint.
To add to Meg’s quandary, Geoffrey, an officer in the British army, arrives in town on a three-day pass, though Liz is of the feeling that Geoffrey is too "wild" for Meg. Geoffrey is unaware of Meg's relationship with Bob and, having been stood up by her the night before, demands an explanation.
Meg refuses to reveal the truth about her and Bob, but later, Nora Mumford, the local pub owner, tells Jane about the engagement during an argument and Geoffrey, after receiving notice to report for immediate duty, overhears the news. Jane, resentful of Meg, also hears tune news of the engagement and accuses Meg of being a gold digger.
While the women are seeing to the last-minute details at the hall, John is at Nora's pub, The Swan, drinking and regaling a group of American and Scottish officers with stories of the last war. Later, a drunken John tries to steal money from a woman's purse after he is refused credit by barmaid Bridget Walsh (O’Neill), acting on the orders of owner Nora Mumford (Rhodes). He’s caught in the act by another customer and arrested.
Meanwhile, Meg has called to the road to serve tea to Geoffrey's departing regiment. There she finally tells Geoffrey of her fears about repeating her mother's marital mistake. He advises her not to base her future on her parents' past and presses her to admit her love. Int doesn’t take long for Meg to recommit herself to Geoffrey.
John returns home to find an exhausted Elizabeth sewing a new dress for Joan Riley, the little girl who has been chosen to welcome Mrs. Roosevelt. At first John denies his guilt in the theft, but his shame over the matter forces hm to leave the house.
When Meg returns home a distraught Liz tells her that she is worried about John's state of mind. Meg rushes to find her father in the surrounding woods and finds him about to jump into a pond. Her arrival surprises him and, pledging that she and Elizabeth will stand by him, she convinces him to face his shame.
The next day, while the village descends on the hall to greet Mrs. Roosevelt, Elizabeth persuades John to accompany her to the ceremony. With her husband and daughter by her side, Elizabeth beams with teary pride as Joan welcomes Mrs. Roosevelt on behalf of the women of Denley.
As stated before, this is a a strangely curious movie. The ostensible plot about Mrs. Roosevelt’s visit is pushed to the back in favor of the Ellis family drama. However, the lack of a strong narrative style combined with the meandering pace until the Ellis family comes from and center makes Great Day more of a slice-of-life film, something that would have been perfect as a two-hour television movie on the BBC or ITV.
What prevents the film from backsliding completely into mediocrity is the strength of direction from Lance Comfort, who allows the scenes to move along seamlessly by allowing the actors to carry the film with uniformly good performances, especially those of leads Robson and Portman. Robson is amazing as Liz, as she calmly keeps things smoothly running at the center and within the family despite the chaos going on about her. Her underplaying of Elizabeth Ellis adds weight to the film and boosts the performances of both Portman as her wayward husband and Sim as her concerned daughter. Every performance in the film, from those of Patricia Hayes and Isobel Jeans to Walter Fitzgerald and Margaret Withers. The movie is also helped by its relatively short running time, which keeps it from becoming too bogged down in one storyline as opposed to the others,
In the final analysis, Great Day entertains despite its lack of a strong central storyline and providers us with a glimpse into English village life during World War II.
In the Navy By Ed Garea
In the Navy(Universal, 1941) – Director: Arthur Lubin. Writers: John Grant (s/p), Arthur T. Horman (s/p and original story). Stars: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Dick Powell, Claire Dodd, The Andrews Sisters, Dick Foran, Shemp Howard, William B. Davidson, Billy Lenhart, Kenneth Brown & The Condos Brothers. B&W, 86 minutes.
After Buck Privates surprised the studio by becoming a mega-hit, Universal was eager to capitalize on its success. The next film in the can to be released was Hold That Ghost, but at the last minute the studio withheld it to add in musical acts and In the Navy was released instead.
In the Navy doesn’t differ all that much from Buck Privates. The plot, as with all Abbott and Costello films, was simply a hook on which to hang a few musical numbers and their patented routines. The studio upped the budget for this one, allowing cinematographer Joseph Valentine and set decorator R.A. Gausman the leeway to create a lush studio-set depiction of the tropics, which is used in the film to represent Hawaii and would be used thereafter in numerous studio productions, including Abbott and Costello’s Pardon My Sarong. It was also leased to various Poverty Row productions for their jungle movies. Still unsure whether Abbott and Costello could carry a picture by themselves, Universal signed Dick Powell as the romantic lead for 6 weeks at $5,000 per week. Granted he was on the downswing in his career, but he was still a more recognizable name than Lee Bowman in Buck Privates, who was better known as a supporting villain. The film’s title was then changed to Abbott and Costello and Dick Powell In the Navy, before being shorted to merely In the Navy upon release.
Powell plays heartthrob crooner Russ Raymond, the idol of devoted female fans across the country. After his latest coast-to-coast show on radio station WGAB he pulls a disappearing act. This generates national headlines and sets reporter Dorothy Roberts (Dodd) on his path. In reality, Russ has enlisted in the Navy under his birth name of Tommy Halstead and traveled incognito to California to report for duty.
At the same time sailors Smokey Adams (Abbott) and Pomeroy Watson (Costello) have been dispatched to deliver a letter containing his enlistment papers. Disguised as a maid, Dorothy sneaks into Russ's hotel room and photographs him while he shaves off his mustache, but Russ catches her, exposes the film, and takes a photo of himself giving her a spanking.
Eight weeks later, pretending to be a Navy publicist, Dorothy sneaks onto the United States Naval Training Station with the Andrews Sisters. As the sisters perform for the recent naval graduates, Dorothy looks for Russ. Meanwhile, The Andrew Sisters are looking for Pomeroy, who described himself in his letters to Patty Andrews as "tall, dark and handsome." They immediately recognize Russ, and Dorothy snaps the quartet. Russ manages to destroy Dorothy's negatives once again, then points out the real Pomeroy to the sisters.
As described by chief petty officer Dynamite Dugan (Foran), Pomeroy is "pretending to be a sailor,” while in reality he’s a pastry cook who has never been to sea. The only reason he wasn’t washed out is that the admiral likes his cream puffs. Later, Pomeroy, Smokey and Russ go to a San Diego dance hall to see the Andrews Sisters perform and Pomeroy finally gets a chance to dance with Patty Andrews. However he accidentally starts a brawl which lands him, Smokey and Russ in the brig and later transferred to active duty on the battleship U.S.S. Alabama, shipping out to Hawaii.
Dorothy stows away in a storage locker on the Alabama. Pomeroy discovers her there, but she coerces him and Smokey into keeping quiet. (“We’re going to Hawaii! … With a tomato in the potato locker.) In the middle of the ship’s voyage Russ discovers Dorothy, and warns her of the trouble Pomeroy will get into if she is caught.
When the ship arrives in Hawaii, the sailors go to a nightclub to see the Andrews Sisters. While Russ is watching the show, Dynamite, in cahoots with Dorothy, hits Russ in the face with a pie as Dorothy snaps his picture. The photo makes its way across the country and a huge mob of women storm the ship on visitors' day in hopes of seeing their idol.
Afraid that the Andrews Sisters will discover that he is only a pastry cook, Pomeroy and Smokey hatch a scheme where Pomeroy will give the captain a sleeping potion and impersonate him for the benefit of the ladies. Smokey, working to fix the intercom system, pretends to take orders from Pomeroy while talking through a vent. But Dugan grabs Smokey for other duties and the captain’s nephews (Lenhart and Brown) fix the intercom, with the result that Pomeroy is unknowingly speaking to the bridge. The Alabama is ordered to give a demonstration of its maneuverability, and at first, Pomeroy's commands enable the ship to put on a brilliant display. But Pomeroy’s scheme unravels when he looks out the porthole and discovers he really is in command. In his panic, issuing and rescinding orders he manages to ram the Alabama into the admiral’s flagship.
It is then that Smokey brings Pomeroy around and we learn that he has accidentally doped himself and it’s all a dream. That night, Dorothy apologizes to Russ, then proposes marriage, telling him his fans will not chase after a married man. Russ agrees, then joins with the others to put on a show to celebrate the end of the ship's voyage.
Ironically, the film ran into major censorship trouble – and it wasn’t from the Breen office. According to author Thomas Schatz is his informative book on the history of the studios, The Genius of the System (pp. 342-48), a copy of the script was submitted to the Breen office and the Department of the Navy in early March 1941. The studio planned to begin filming on April 8 with a budget of roughly $335,000 and a shooting schedule of 23 days. But on March 14 the studio heads received a letter from Commander Bolton of the Naval Department informing them that naval cooperation and approval “would not be forthcoming on material of this sort” as the picture “would not reflect credit on the service and do the Navy some tangible good.” He also sent along a number of script changes that would allow the film to win Naval cooperation. The scenes he specifically objected to were Costello doping the captain and running the ship, and the brutality of the shore leave brat in San Diego.
Universal, which desperately needed Naval cooperation, took immediate action on Bolton’s suggestions, ordering a rewrite of the script. They also enlisted the cooperation of the Breen office to smooth things over with the Navy. The brawl was toned down and the scene with Costello running the ship was revealed to be all a dream. The revised script was finished on May 17, the revised scenes shot the next day, and the picture recut on May 19. On May 20 the revised film was flown to Washington for screening. On the following day the Navy Department sent Lubin a wire informing him that “Your picture passed 100 percent. Have accomplished three weeks work in one day, Congratulations.” Commander Bolton was so pleased that he wrote Cliff Work, the studio’s vice president of production, that the film was “delightful,” adding: “The ingenious twist of having Costello drink the sleeping potion eliminated the only possible objectionable material.”
As with Buck Privates the musical numbers were carefully interspersed with Abbott and Costello routines, though the numbers took up 35 minutes of the 85-minute release version. (The numbers in Buck Privates only took up 20 to 30 minutes.) The original music, from Don Raye and Gene de Paul, included “Starlight, Starbright,” sung by Powell, and a snappy number from the Andrews Sisters, “Gimme Some Skin, My Friend.” The title tune, “We're in the Navy,” was sung aboard the ship and during the end credits.
John Grant supplied the special material for Abbott and Costello, which includes the "Lemon Bit," a crooked shell game routine; the math routine, "13x7=28"; and "Buzzing the Bee" (aka "Sons of Neptune"), an initiation routine where one tries to trick the other into asking to be sprayed in the face. While filming this sequence, Costello began laughing and spit his water on the deck, but director Lubin loved it so much he kept it in the finished film.
The biggest challenge for the film was the climatic scene with Costello running the ship. It required a complicated blending of stock footage with live action and miniatures. Special effects wizard John P. Fulton, the man who made Claude Rains and his successors invisible put the scene together magnificently and it works quite well. We can easily buy into it as it unfurls.
The acting is good, thanks to professionals like Powell and Claire Dodd as the romantic leads. For Dodd playing comedy – and playing it well – was quite unlike her former roles in the ‘30s where she whether played a moll, a home wrecker, or some other type of nefarious character. (I had to chuckle, though, during the scene where she tells him he could have avoided all the crazed female fans if he got married. I can almost picture him saying, “What? Instead of enlisting in the Navy I could have avoided all this by marrying you?”) Dick Foran and Shemp Howard provide their usual fine support.
But it’s Powell who intrigues us. Who could have predicted at the time that Powell, an actor on a downward spiral, would stage a huge comeback, and not in a musical, but a film noir of all things?
All things considered, In the Navy, while not as good as Buck Privates, is nevertheless a decent mix of music, comedy, and romance, with classic Abbott and Costello routines, including the unforgettable 13x7=28. However, let’s face facts. With Abbott and Costello there is no middle ground. One either loves them or hates them. Those who hate them will avoid this film while those who love them will consider it hilarious. That’s just the way it is.
Bandleader and clarinet virtuoso Artie Shaw must have seen this film, for later in 1941 he quit his band and enlisted in the Navy.
Rififi By Jean-Paul Garrieux
Du rififi chez les hommes(Gaumont, 1955) – Director: Jules Dassin. Writers: Jules Dassin (adaptation). René Wheeler (collaboration). Auguste Le Breton (novel). Stars: Jean Servais, Carl Moehner, Robert Manuel, Janine Darcey, Pierre Grasset, Robert Hossein, Marcel Lupovici, Dominique Maurin, Magali Noël, Marie Sabouret, Claude Sylvain, Jules Dassin, Armandel, Alain Bovetet & Alice Garan. Black and White, 122 minutes.
“Out of the worst crime novel I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best film noir I have ever seen.” – Francois Truffaut.
In 1950 John Huston directed a film about an elaborate jewel heist titled The Asphalt Jungle. Written by Huston and Ben Maddow, it was adapted from W.R. Burnett’s novel. It was made by MGM and reflects the resources such a large studio was able to bring to such a project, such as a well-known cast, extravagant sets and a budget of over a million dollars. For Rififi, Dassin had to do with a budget one-tenth the size.
On the other hand, Jules Dassin, exiled from the United States because of previous communist affiliations, was forced by economic circumstances to take on a project for which he had little enthusiasm. Filmed on what could generously be called a shoestring budget, Dassin not only managed to make a better jewel heist film than Huston with all his studio backing, but a movie that has gone down in history as the greatest heist film ever made. By the end of the decade, thanks in large part to Rififi, he had fame, wealth and Melina Mercouri.
Though he was flat broke with no money coming in, Dassin was not really anxious to take the job. When producer Henri Berard gave him a copy of Henri Le Breton’s novel, Du rififi chez les hommes, to read, Dassin replied that he hated it. For one thing, he had a hard time making sense of it, as it was written in the French slang of the criminal world. He was also repelled by the content, which he saw as racist: light-skinned European gangsters pitted against their dark Arab and African counterparts, who were the book’s villains. In addition, there was a strong sub-plot concerning necrophilia, a subject of which Dassin wanted no part.
However, he didn’t really have much of a choice if he wanted to eat, and Dassin set to work cobbling a workable screenplay from the novel.
With the help of screenwriter Rene Wheeler, who translated the novel for him, Dassin wrote a screenplay in English over the course of six days. Wheeler then translated it into French and added extra material. Dassin solved the racism problem by making everyone French with their ethnicity vague. He ditched the subplot and instead focused on ten pages in the novel concerning a heist. He would expand these ten pages into the film’s 33-minute centerpiece.
His fame was now such that he was identified with his European oeuvre. Even the pronunciation of his name changed – from DASSin to DaSAHN as he transformed himself from capable studio director to European auteur.
Rififi was not the first French film noir, nor was Dassin the first choice as director. Jean-Pierre Melville was the first choice, but producer Henri Berard, looking for publicity and noting that Dassin’s 1948 film, The Naked City, was a big hit with the French public, hired Dassin instead. That honor goes to Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi (Do Not Touch the Loot) from 1954, released around the time Rififi began filming. Also around the same time Jean-Pierre Melville began filming his neorealist noir masterpiece, Bob le flambeur (see our essay here), from a script by Auguste Le Breton (whose slang-filled novel was the basis for Rififi), and was released in the same year as Dassin’s film.
Though Rififi is structured like a classical tragedy in three acts: Act I, Preparation; Act II, Consummation; and Act III, Aftermath, its underlying theme is that of loyalty. This is what separates the protagonists from their mortal enemies.
As Rififi opens, Jo (Mohner) has just come to the aid of good friend Tony (Servais) after Tony is refused credit at a poker game. After berating the others for not extending credit, the two adjourn to a nearby cafe.
Jo hands Tony a roll of bills as we learn about the bond between them. Tony has recently served a prison stretch, taking the rap for the younger Jo, who with a family, could not afford to serve. Tony’s time in prison has left him in poor physical shape, but there is a genuine and deep affection between them. Tony is the godfather to Jo's and Louise’s (Darcey) young son (Maurin), who is named Tonio in honor of Tony.
At the cafe they await the arrival of Mario Ferrati (Manuel), a friend who has hatched a scheme. His plan, concocted with Jo, is to do a smash and grab of jewelry from the storefront window of the fashionable and expensive Mappin and Webb Ltd. jewelry store, a British-owned Parisian equivalent of Tiffany's. Tony immediately dismisses the idea. The risk far outweighs the reward.
Jo and Mario also inform Tony that his old girl friend Mado (Sabouret) has shacked up with Pierre Grutter (Lupovici), the owner of L’Age d’Or nightclub. Tony has some unfinished business with Mado for running out on him after he was incarcerated and taking up with Grutter. He pays a surprise visit to Mado and takes her back to his apartment. There he orders her to undress and beats her savagely while the camera turns away to a photo of Tony and Mado in happier times, looking quite carefree and affected. Tony has derived no joy from the beating. For him it was a matter of honor and duty, for she had broken the code of loyalty and had to suffer the consequences. It will also prove to be a fateful mistake.
Afterward, Tony realizes that to live, he needs a score. He agrees to the jewelry heist, but with a condition. Tony’s idea is to rob the store’s safe, filled with millions of francs in diamonds and other jewelry. Since the job will require an experienced safecracker, Mario suggests calling his friend Cesar (Dassin), telling Jo and Tony that there’s not a safe that can resist Cesar.
Tony decides to pay a visit to his enemy Grutter. The others tag along to watch his back. In the nightclub we see the club’s chanteuse, Vivianne (Noël) performing the title song. The combination of the song and her effect on Cesar foretells the movie’s later complications. Tony, meanwhile, learns that Mado left town the previous night.
The film’s second act begins with Jo, Tony and Mario scoping out the store and its surroundings, committing it to memory. Cesar goes inside on the pretext of being a customer. He spots the store’s alarm system, memorizing the type and model. He also notices an expensive diamond ring and makes a mental note of where it is kept.
Some time later, Tony and the boys obtain the same alarm system used by the store. Experimenting on how to neutralize it, they discover it can be immobilized with foam from a fire extinguisher. They are now ready for the heist.
The much heralded heist, which takes place over the course of 33 minutes, a quarter of the film, is done in an almost complete silence, with no dialogue and no background music, which only serves to heighten the already present tension. It begins when they chloroform a guard before chiseling through an upper apartment floor to the store below.
Dassin draws the audience in on the heist itself, taking us though each step and delighting us with little touches, such as placing a thick sock over a hammer’s head to reduce the sound of it striking the chisel used to open the floor, the use of an unfurled umbrella to catch the plaster chips falling for the ceiling, and Cesar wearing ballet slippers while the others are wearing sneakers. By the time they finish the heist we are as exhausted as they.
Act III begins as the gang makes off with millions of francs in jewelry, which is hidden in Mario’s apartment awaiting word from their fence in London. Before they leave the store, however, Cesar takes the ring he was admiring earlier without the others’ knowledge. Later he gives this to Viviane as a token of his love, an act that will bring the group down.
Meanwhile, Grutter has seen Mado, examined her injuries, and is infuriated by Tony’s actions. He provides Remi with heroin and tells him to kill Tony. He also spots the huge rock on Vivienne’s finger and after a few questions, not only learns that Cesar is her paramour, but that Tony and his gang are the ones who pulled the heist, news of which is all over Paris. He begins to scheme as to how he can relieve the gang of the jewels. Suspecting Cesar as the weak link, Grutter kidnaps him and forces him to confess.
Grutter and his boys go to Mario’s to retrieve the jewels, but neither Mario nor his girlfriend Ida (Sylvain) will talk. Grutter kills them, but not before Ida alerts Tony that Grutter was looking for the jewels. After Remi and his companions leave, Tony goes to the apartment and retrieves the jewels, stashing them with Jo. He also pays for the couple’s lavish funeral anonymously, after which he begins looking for Grutter.
In the film’s most moving and unforgettable scene, Tony heads to Grutter’s nightclub, but finds it deserted except for Cesar, who is tied to a pillar in the basement. When Tony reports that Mario is dead, the pained look on Cesar’s face tells Tony that Cesar gave up Mario to Grutter. Cesar tries to apologize, but Tony rebuffs him. “I liked you. I really liked you, Macaroni,” Tony says. “But you know the rules.” Cesar nods sadly as Tony backs up. “Forgive me. I was afraid,” Cesar says just before Tony puts a couple of slugs into him. The scene, not in the original novel, was added by Dassin and is a clear allusion to his experience before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In the process Dassin becomes both the betrayed and the betrayer.
Dassin now goes headlong into the finale. Grutter, unable to secure the jewels, plays his last card. He and Remi kidnap Tonio. The ransom for the child is the jewels. Jo and Louise are willing to go along to save Tonio but Tony reasons that Tonio is a witness and Grutter will kill him as soon as he gets the loot. The only course of action is to go after Grutter and his gang and snatch Tonio back before they know what hit them. Tony searches for the boy, calling on the streetwise knowledge of people he knows to get a lead on where Grutter is hiding the boy. Even Mado comes back to help, for despite what Tony did she is still loyal and places the safety of Tonio before her own concerns.
The bonds of loyalty are also seen in the actions of Jo. He is in possession of the jewels and can make a deal with Grutter anytime he wants, but he places his complete trust in Tony and his ability to get Tonio back safely. For Dassin, solidarity is a key component of loyalty, and the most important bond between the characters. When it is broken, as in the case of Cesar, anarchy follows and innocence as well as weakness is open for exploitation by the amoral as represented in the persona of Grutter.
Rififi reaches its climax amidst an eruption of violence in a race against time to snatch Tonio back before Grutter kills him. Through the use of inspired framing by cinematographer Philippe Agostini and skillful editing, Dassin is able to emphasize the urgency of Tony’s mission.
With Mado’s help, Tony tracks Tonio to Grutter’s country home and kills Grutter’s brothers Remi and Louis during the rescue. But on the way back to Paris Tony learns Jo has cracked under the pressure, fenced the jewels and gone to Grutter’s house to make the exchange. Tony speeds there, but is too late, as Grutter has killed Jo. Tony then kills Grutter, but not before being mortally wounded in the process.
The film’s final scene sees the badly wounded Tony speeding through the streets of Paris as Tonio, dressed in a cowboy outfit, is giggling hysterically, enjoying what he thinks is a game. Tony, on the verge of death, delivers Tonio back to his mother as both police and bystanders close in, viewing the suitcase carrying 120 million francs.
Rififi is a sterling example of bold, imaginative and stylish filmmaking; a combination of meticulousness that, mixed with a crude and violent edginess, makes the film seem real. Assembled in an audaciously fresh and intelligent manner, it set the bar for the crime films that followed. Even its use of violence is unique in that much of the violence takes place off-screen, thus becoming more effective because we see only the face of the person committing the violence. This small touch personalizes the act and gives the audience even more of an emotional stake in the film. Another decision by Dassin was to forgo any fist fights, for these are not really stylized violence.
While The Asphalt Jungle benefited from a budget of over a million dollars, Dassin had to do with a budget one-tenth the size. Because of the low-budget, sets were a luxury and Dassin had to use everyday locations in Paris. Nightclubs, cafes, back alleys, train stations, and even a construction site are put to use as Dassin uses their realism to heighten the story, giving us a real feel for the Montmartre of the 1950s. Given the budget, Dassin scouted the streets of Paris for suitable filming locations, making use of everyday locales. Despite the budget, both Dassin and producer Henri Berard agreed the film, set in the Paris winter, would be shot only when the weather was cloudy in order to preserve the tones of grey.
Art director Alexandre Trauner spent much of his time improvising as well, making simple impromptu sets look carefully planned. What little money he had was put to good use, as with the interior of the nightclub, L’Age d’Or.
Cinematographer Philippe Agostini frames streets, bridges, and staircases in such a way that, seen from the camera’s perspective, an elongated effect is produced, giving each shot beautiful and stylized depth. The nighttime shots in particular, stand out, with the silhouette of Tony’s hat against the neon background of Montemarte’s streets.
George Auric’s music serves as an excellent compliment and background to the activity at the club, and “Le Rififi,” the song sung by Magali Noel explaining the meaning of the term, was written by lyricist Jacques Larue and composer Philippe-Gerard in only two days.
Rififi left a notable influence on French cinema. Dassin brought the element of Hollywood style to the genre. French moviegoers were beguiled by the Hollywood influence while American audiences reveled in the continental sophistication; a sort of tourist’s passion for the awe and wonder of Parisian nightlife. It’s easy to become caught up in the plot and with the characters. We find ourselves rooting for them, even though we know from the start how it turns out – how it must turn out.
Rififi also benefits from a solid ensemble cast. Jean Servais who was one of France’s most renowned character actors in the ‘30s before alcoholism took its toll, was cast as Tony. Coming across the screen like a desiccated Jean Gabin and radiating doomed elegance like a diamond stick pin, his worn and sorrowful interpretation works to his advantage as he is also able to shift gears to a cold-bloodedness when necessary. While Dassin lets us see Tony as a loving godfather to Tonio, he also shows the criminal instincts that rule Tony as repulsive, unromantic, and murderous.
Austrian actor Carl Moehner, suggested to Dassin by the producer’s wife, was cast as Jo and was the highest paid cast member. (Dassin would cast him again in his next film, He Who Must Die.) For the role of the jaunty Italian pimp Mario Ferrati, Dassin cast Robert Manuel after seeing him in a comic role as a member of Comedie-Francaise. The only major role left open was that of safecracker Cesar. Dassin had hired an Italian actor for the role, but the deal fell through at the last minute and Dassin himself took up the role, using the pseudonym Perlo Vita and nearly walking away with his own film, as witness the final scene between Cesar and Tony. And it is no coincidence that, especially with the arrival of Cesar as one of the gang, that informing becomes Rififi’s deadly sin.
Rififi was released in France on April 13, 1955, receiving positive reactions from audiences and critics in France (where it was one of the top grossing films of the year), the United States, and the United Kingdom. It earned Dassin the award for Best Director at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. Rififi was also nominated by the National Board of Review for Best Foreign Film.
With the film’s release, Dassin, who owned 10 percent of the profits, was more than solvent. He settled in Europe and married the beautiful and talented Greek actress Melina Mercouri in 1966. Their marriage lasted until her death in 1994. Over the course of their relationship they participated in many joint projects, including the 1964 film Topkapi, a heist film that parodied Rififi.
Rififi's famous heist scene was based on an actual burglary that took place in 1899 along Marseille's cours St-Louis. A gang broke into the first floor offices of a travel agency, cutting a hole in the floor and using an umbrella to catch the debris in order to make off with the contents of the jeweler's shop below. It has since been mimicked by criminals in actual crimes around the world. Dassin answered critics who saw the film as an educational film on how to commit burglary by claiming the film showed how difficult it was to actually carry out a crime.
Kept Husbands By Ed Garea
Kept Husbands(RKO, 1931) – Director: Lloyd Bacon. Writers: Louis Sarecky (story). Forrest Halsey & Alfred Jackson (adaptation). Stars: Dorothy Mackaill, Joel McCrea, Ned Sparks, Mary Carr, Clara Kimball Young, Robert McWade, Bryant Washburn, Florence Roberts & Freeman Wood. B&W, 76 minutes.
The title is intriguing, and the cast promises much in the way of merriment, but this 1931 romantic comedy is a far cry from other Pre-Code movies of its time.
The film plays more like a lesson in mores than a cheeky comedy, and in many ways it takes a highly conventional of gender roles in the household, asserting that men and women should fulfill their proper duties. In the Depression years, because rich heiresses did not make for appealing heroines for the impoverished audiences, conventions of the time demanded that haughty heiresses be firmly put in their place by the movie’s end.
Arthur Parker (McWade), New Jersey steel mill owner, informs his wife and daughter that he has invited mill worker Richard “Dick” Brunton (McCrea) to dinner. Brunton has saved the lives of three other mill workers and Parker wishes to reward his heroism. His snobbish wife, Henrietta (Roberts), is aghast. Not only are the hoi polloi not invited for dinner, but she has opera tickets for the night. On the other hand, Parker’s daughter, Dorothy (Mackaill), thinks it could be a hoot. She envisions Brunton as someone who drags his knuckles as he walks and eats peas with his knife. She even invites her boyfriend, Charlie Bates (Washburn), to witness the festivities.
When Brunton arrives he nothing as expected. Not only isn’t he a knuckle dragger, he even looks like Joel McCrea. Parker offers Dick a $1,000 check as a reward for his act of heroism, but Dick turns it down. However, he will stay for dinner.
As dinner progresses Dot begins staring at Dick in a sort of wonder. A gold football charm on his watch chain catches her eye and she realizes where she’s seen him before. He’s the Dick Brunton, the all-American halfback from Yale. Dot tries to draw out Dick about his football playing days, but he doesn’t want to discuss the topic because he doesn’t want to trade on his athletic fame to get ahead. On the contrary, he believes in hard work to get ahead.
After Dick departs, Dot, besotted, bets Dad that Dick will propose to her in four weeks. Dad is skeptical, but indulges her. Dick, for his part, tells his mother (Carr) that Dot was lovely, but “just plain spoiled.” He cannot see her as his wife.
An intertitle tells us that the four weeks have passed and we see Dot taking Dick to lunch at a swanky club, even though his intention was to work through lunch in order to complete an important project. His discomfort is obvious when she goes to pay the bill, but she tells him that he’s not a member and so can’t pay, and also lets him know that she is loaded while he is not.
Having reached the deadline on her bet Dot comes right out and proposes to Dick, who refuses on the grounds he has nothing to offer a girl like her. He tells her that she wouldn’t be happy living on his salary. But Dot won’t take “no” for an answer; she wears him down to the point where when she proposes again, he accepts. After all, she’s a dead ringer for Dorothy Mackaill.
With that done, Dot tells her parents about her engagement. Her mother is horrified; she can’t believe her daughter is marrying a common steel worker. Dad, however, is happy. He knows that Dick is a good man and hopes that he will make Dot a better woman in the bargain. Dot immediately goes on the attack, asking Dad to promote Dick, along with a nice increase in salary. Though he initially balks at her demand, he acquiesces, promoting Dick to third vice-president. But his $50,000 salary (something along the lines of about $1 million today) will have to be paid through Dad’s private funds lest he wreck the company’s wage structure.
When it comes time for the honeymoon, which has been booked for Europe, Dad offers Dick a check for spending money before they sail, but Dick refuses it. After Dad plays the guilt card (Doesn’t he want his wife to be happy?), Dick gives in and accepts the check, though he admits he’s still uneasy about taking money he didn’t earn.
The honeymoon is one long period of discomfort for Dick, with Dot on a spending spree and Dick missing work and wanting to return home. Dot becomes upset when Dick refuses to once again wire Dad for more money and puts the kibosh on their further itinerary, telling her they’re going home. However, a river of fake tears from Dot convinces Dick otherwise.
When they finally return home, Dick is shocked to discover that Dot has bought a lavish house. Although Dick resists the move, wanting a small apartment he can afford on his salary, Dot insists they stay and celebrates with a loud housewarming party.
The movie now settles into a repeating pattern: Dot overspends. Dick gets mad and chastises her. Dot turns on the water works, Dick begs for forgiveness. Even after he catches her canoodling with old flame Charlie, Dick is powerless. She insists it was nothing and actually makes him feel guilty for suspecting she was disloyal.
The movie moves along six months and we find that Dick is no longer designing and working on bridges. The only bridge he’s working on is his bridge hand and the only calls he gets are from Dot demanding his presence at a host of receptions and parties.
Just just as all looks lost, Dad assigns Dick to a new bridge project in St. Louis. Thrilled, Dick gets to work immediately, informing Dot that evening of his assignment and assuming that not only will she also be just as thrilled as he, but will also accompany him to St. Louis.
But Dick is barking up the wrong Dot. Not only is she not going, she tells him he’s not going, either. For Dick, this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. He packs up and leaves. She paces in the bedroom, thinking it over. Then she decides to get dressed and head out on the town.
Dick stops at his mother’s to say goodbye. Ma tells him to call Dot and straighten things out. She’s sure that Dot didn’t mean anything she said, and now that she knows how much it means to Dick, she will accompany him to St. Louis. To say Ma is naive is an understatement. Dick calls his wife but there’s no answer because she’s out with old flame Charlie.
At Charlie’s apartment, Dot has a few drinks with him and watches as he locks the front door. The film then cuts to Dick as he frantically calls around town looking for his wife.
It’s now 2 a.m. Charlie has been chasing Dot around the apartment, but no dice, Dot isn’t in the mood for fun and games. She returns home, drunk and disheveled, and runs straight into Dick, who gives her the once over and demands a divorce. He’s tired, he says, of being a kept husband and of having to put up with her friends, who he describes as a “rotten bunch of pasty-faced loose-lipped wasters.”
The next morning, Dad stops by Dot’s house to show her Dick’s letter of resignation from the firm. Dad’s fit to be tied. And finally, Dot realizes she’s made a big mistake. Not in marrying Dick, but in acting the way she has.
Dot goes to see Dick’s mother, who tells her that all husbands are “kept,” if not by the wife’s money, then by the wife’s love, sacrifice, loyalty, etc. Every wife has something she uses to keep her husband home, but Dot has been using the wrong something.
Meanwhile, Dad convinces Dick to postpone his resignation until after the St. Louis bridge project is finished. Off Dick goes, on his way to St. Louis. But when he boards the train he finds Dot waiting for him in his compartment. She apologizes, begging him to start over fresh. And from now on, she tells him, they will live on his salary. Overwhelmed, Dick tells Dot how much the loves her and the movie ends with a clinch.
Kept Husbands isn’t so much of a battle between the sexes as it is a class war. The film is centered around the stereotypes between the working class and the wealthy, which was particularly strong during the Depression. The rich are depicted as selfish, debauched, and cruel. We see it right off when Parker tells his wife and daughter he has invited Dick to dinner. Mrs. Parker is horrified at the thought of actually having to sit down with a member of the lower classes, especially when she has opera tickets for later that night. Daughter Dot, on the other hand, is amused at the thought. For her it will like going to the zoo. The only reason they agree at all is because Parker put his foot down.
Once we get a look at Dick, we see that the working class he represents is hardworking, virtuous, honorable, and kind. He turns down Parker’s reward check for saving his co-workers, even though we know he could use the money. He refuses to acknowledge his football fame for fear it would give people the wrong impression; that he was a lazy athlete living off his fame. When they begin dating we see that Dot is spoiled, indulged by her father, and incredibly selfish. For her, dropping $10,000 on a fur coat in Paris during their honeymoon is par for the course. And Dot sees Dick as not so much husband material than as a boy toy. Dick, on the other hand, is serious. He believes in the value of hard work to get ahead.
We see the differences in the two outlooks in three key scenes. The first occurs when Dot invites Dick to lunch at her club and pays the bill. The second occurs when they agree to marry. She produces an expensive ring, gives it to Dick and tells him that she will wear it until he can afford to buy her one. This is a clear indication to the audience that she is not willing to alter her lifestyle one bit and, further, emasculates him by proposing and providing a ring. And in the third, when Dot goes to Dick’s house to meet his mother, makes the dichotomy between the rich and the poor even clearer. Unlike Dot’s mother, Dick’s mother has no prejudices about Dot. She loves her immediately and unconditionally because her son does.
But lest we get the impression the film was made by Marxists, the rich may be frivolous and have nothing in common with the working class, but the moral codes by which they live are in line with their less wealthy peers. While Dot spoiled and manipulative, she remains thoroughly likable throughout. Even her ex, Charlie, who makes his move when Dot’s marriage is in trouble, quickly steps down when she makes it clear she’s not ready to cast married life aside.
The other underlying theme is the movie is misogyny, as exemplified by the title. A bit of obvious foreshadowing takes place early in the film, when right after the dinner party, Llewllyn (Wood) and Henrietta (Young) Post arrive. Henrietta’s a rich socialite, while Llewllyn was once a promising architect. But once they married, she wouldn’t allow him to work and made him quit his job. He now lives on an allowance from his wife, reduced to taking care of her dog, and responding with a “Yes, dear,” on the rare occasions when he is includes in a conversation.
That Llewllyn is a shell of his former self is obvious once the Posts leave, as the other men at the party refer sadly to him as a “kept husband.” The movie reflects the social mores of the time: it is a fairy tale-come-true when a rich man marries a poor woman (of course she must be pure of heart and not a gold digger), but reverse the situation and it’s a crime against nature. It’s anathema for a rich woman to marry a poor man because it overturns the natural scheme of things, with the result being that roles are reversed and the man is now emasculated.
As a film, despite the promise of its saucy title (The tag line for the film was "Every Inch a Man – Bought Body and Soul by His Wife.”), Kept Husbands is a mediocre flick with flat characters, wilted dialogue and a predictable plot, directed by Lloyd Bacon in his usual efficient and uninspired manner. It’s a film that could easily be re-released after the imposition of the Code: gender and social conventions are not only upheld, but applauded, and any raciness in the film is kept to a bare (no pun intended) minimum, with sex barely on the radar screen. Despite the promise of saucy doings and Pre-Code emasculating mischief from the headstrong Dot, the film’s message is traditional and spelled out loud and clear to the audience by Dick’s mother when she advises her daughter-in-law on married life: the only way wives can keep husbands is through love, devotion and sacrifice.
On the plus side, it benefits from the performances of leads Mackaill and McCrea, who work well together, and the performances of supporting players McWade, Carr Washburn, and former silent star Clara Kimball Young as the emasculating Henrietta Post. It was her first sound film and her first film since 1925. One sour note is provided by Ned Sparks as Hughie, who is a boarder at Ma Brunton’s. Most of his time is spent as an ersatz Greek chorus, as he spouts cliches such as “What can’t be cured must be endured,” and “Beggars can’t be choosers” in his cynical delivery. Though we can easily surmise that he is supposed to function as the Comic Relief, Sparks instead comes off as quite annoying, reading his lines woodenly with dull bon mots only notable as neither funny not relevant to the plot. The film is all the lesser for his performance.
In the final analysis, Kept Husbands is for Pre-Code fanatics only.
The film fell into the public domain in 1959.
Bed of Roses By Ed Garea
Bed of Roses(RKO, 1933) – Director: Gregory La Cava. Writers: Wanda Turlock (s/p & story), Gregory La Cava, Eugene Thackrey (dialogue). Stars: Constance Bennett, Joel McCrea, Pert Kelton, John Halliday, Samuel S. Hinds, Franklin Pangborn & Tom Herbert. B&W, 67 minutes.
For a film that starts so well and with such a great cast armed with snappy lines, Bed of Roses turns out to be a rather routine programmer.
Lorry Evans (Bennett) and Minnie Brown (Kelton) are two hookers being released from prison. After having their possessions returned and given their prison earnings, the matron (an uncredited Jane Darwell) gives each a short farewell sermon, but Lorry cuts her short, telling her “Save your wind, save your wind, you might want to go sailing sometime.”
Once outside the gates Lorry is met by Father Doran (Hinds), who has an idea to reform her that she quickly rejects, telling him that she’s been doing a lot of thinking while in stir and decided it would be easier to be a kept woman rather than working for a living.
Minnie, on the other hand, has arranged for a ride with a trucker to the docks, where they plan to catch a river boat to New Orleans. She asks Lorry if she can play chauffeur while she helps the driver “check up on his groceries.” Given the highly suggestive manner with which she says it, it’s obvious how she’s paying for the ride.
Once the girls are aboard the ship they find they have only enough money to take them about halfway. Minnie ventures out into the fog to whisper a salacious suggestion to the porter, who shocked, rejects it. “Nothing personal,” he says as she walks away.
While Lorry is sulking in their room, Minnie returns with couple of boll-weevil exterminators and a bottle of gin. They proceed to get the men drunk and Lorry relives one of his cash. When they sober up the next day and discover one’s been robbed they go to the Captain (an uncredited Robert Emmett O’Connor) and report the theft. When Lorry is cornered she decides to jump into the river rather than face arrest.
A few minutes later she finds herself rescued by Dan (McCrea), who captains a cotton barge. Losing her money in the rescue she repays Dan’s kindness by robbing him and skipping out when the barge docks at New Orleans. She then tracks down Stephen Paige, a wealthy publisher she had noticed on the river boat. Disguising herself as a feature reporter she goes to his office to interview him, in the course of which she gets him roaring drunk. When she practically carries him back to her apartment, she dumps him on the couch and rigs the scene to imply that they slept together.
When Paige awakens the next day, Lorry gives him her cock-and-bull story and blackmails him into supporting her in a luxury apartment, lest word of this get out and ruin his social and business standing in town, even though he’s a bachelor.
Now ensconced in the lap of luxury, Lorry soon grows bored and visits Dan on the docks. She repays him the money she stole and the two fall in love. He ends up proposing to her, and though she at first accepts, Lorry, who has kept her past a secret, changes her mind when a lovesick Stephen convinces her that her past life will one day lead to Dan's ruin. She leaves Dan, but rather than go back with Stephen, decides to strike out on her own and lands a job as a sales clerk in a department store.
Stephen, meanwhile, wants Lorry back. He convinces Minnie (who is now married to one of the men they cheated on the river boat) for a little expense money, if she can arrange a reunion by inviting Lorry to a Mardi Gras party, telling her he’ll take care of the rest.
Stephen locates Lorry at the Mardi Gras party and makes a bid for her return, giving her an expensive bracelet as a sweetener. But Lorry turns him and the bracelet down. Meanwhile, Minnie locates Dan, gives him Lorry’s address, and after revealing her best friend’s past, reunites the two lovers.
Bed of Roses was the last of four pictures made by RKO teaming McCrea and Bennett. It was also the last film at the studio for director La Cava, who left an acrimonious relationship with the studio to pursue a freelance career.
Although La Cava co-wrote some rather risqué dialogue, his direction was uninspiring and flat. The film plays like a programmer, with the plot dictating matters and little room left for character development. Bed of Roses follows the usual Pre-Code path by taking liberties with sexual mores, but at the end stressing that honesty is the best policy and one’s inner virtue tells more about that person than any sexual liberties on his or her part.
Lorry’s reform is quite sudden and rather unexplained. There is a noticeable lack of chemistry between Bennett and McCrea because the film’s running time will simply not allow it. When on her own, she shines, but whenever she’s with McCrea it’s as if the air was let out of her performance. For this I blame the director. It’s as if La Cava knew this was the last picture he’d do for RKO and he was hurrying his way through it, come what may, to the detriment of the film.
As for the rest of the cast, Kelton is fine despite being saddled with a poor Mae West imitation in the way she speaks. Halliday comes off bland, for all he has to do is basically react to Bennett’s character. As for the rest of the credited cast, no one is on screen long enough to make an impression.
Kelton is an interesting case. in the Pre-Code days she was pushed as a supporting actress due to her wise-cracking persona. But as the Code became enforced she was forced lower and lower down the ladder, eventually working for Poverty Row studios. She quit Hollywood and returned to Broadway. With the coming of television in the early 1950s she played the first Alice Kramden on The Honeymooners, opposite Jackie Gleason. Shortly thereafter, however, Kelton found herself on the blacklist. She was replaced on The Honeymooners by Audrey Meadows, and returned to Broadway, where she make her mark in the stage musical of The Music Man as Mrs. Paroo, Marian the Librarian's mother. She reprised the role in the 1962 film. And she received a vindication of sorts on television when she was cast in the ‘60s as Alice Kramden’s mother on The Honeymooners. Jackie Gleason had never forgotten her.
Bed of Roses will be of interest to Pre-Code enthusiasts and those who chase obscure films. One thing I’ve noticed is the change in the character of the prostitute from Pre-Code to Code enforcement. In the Pre-Code days, the hooker was a wisecracking, vivacious woman who lived large and thought equally large. After the Code was enforced she went to being a victim of her circumstances, downtrodden, careworn and thoroughly disreputable.
Morning Glory By Ed Garea
Morning Glory (RKO, 1933) – Director: Lowell Sherman. Writers: Howard J. Green (s/p). Zoe Akins (play). Stars: Katharine Hepburn, Adolphe Menjou, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Mary Duncan, C. Aubrey Smith, Don Alvarado, Fred Santley, Richard Carle, Tyler Brooke, Geneva Mitchell, Helen Ware. B&W, 74 minutes.
In 1932 a new trend took hold in Hollywood: the “backstage” film, usually about an “aspiring small-town actress” who starts small but eventually makes it big. Aimed at the female audience, the plots of these films were as thick as a gummy milkshake. Of the many that were made, the most notable was RKO’s 1932 What Price Hollywood? directed by George Cukor and starring Lowell Sherman and Constance Bennett; and 42nd Street, a 1933 musical from Warner Bros. that moved the story to Broadway, where the unknown Ruby Keeler must take over for leading lady Bebe Daniels after Daniels breaks her ankle.
A few months later, Morning Glory, adapted by Howard J. Green from an unproduced play by Zoe Akins, and – interestingly enough – directed by Lowell Sherman, made its debut. Today it is chiefly known as the film for which Katharine Hepburn won the first of her four Oscars. It would not be the last of the genre, followed and greatly overshadowed in 1937 by A Star is Born and in 1950 by the ultimate backstage story, All About Eve.
Hepburn is Eva Lovelace, nee Ada Love, a young actress who was the star of the local theater in her small Vermont town. Now she has come to New York, where she intends to meet powerful producer Louis Easton (Menjou) and convince him to take a chance on her talent.
While in his office she meets one of Easton’s regulars, Robert H. Hedges (Smith), an elderly English actor who takes kindly to her, and agrees to become her mentor (and good luck charm).
But despite his attempts to help her career, Eva is going nowhere fast until one night when broke and starving, she accompanies Hedges to a party at Easton's home. There she gets totally drunk and makes a spectacle of herself, though she does excellent job of performing some Shakespearean monologues. Later, she spends the night with Easton in his bed. Still, that does nothing for her, until Easton’s playwright, Joseph Sheridan (Fairbanks), develops a crush on her and gets her a job as the understudy to the play’s troublesome leading lady, Rita Vernon (Duncan). When Rita does the expected and gets into a pissing match with Easton on opening night, Sheridan suggests jettisoning Rita and opening with Eva in the part.
Of course, Eva is a big hit, saving the play and making a huge splash with public and critics. Afterward, in the dressing room, Eva learns a life lesson. Easton, with whom she is in love, turns her down flat, though he will continue to serve as her producer, describing her as “the most valuable piece of theatrical property I ever had.” Sheridan who had declared his love for her, is firmly, but gently, let down. Meanwhile, mentor Hedges warns Eva against letting this success go to her head. In other words, do not go down the road as Rita:
“Every year, in every theater, some young person makes a hit,” he tells her. “Sometimes it's a big hit, sometimes a little one … but how many of them keep their heads? How many of them work? … Youth has its hour of glory. But too often it's only a morning glory - a flower that fades before the sun is very high.”
After everyone leaves Eva is alone with her dresser, Nellie (Ware), one of those Hedges was referring to in his speech – a former toast of Broadway now reduced to a personal dresser.
In a little speech that closes out the movie Eva embraces Nellie, declaring that she will not share her fate:
"Nellie, they've all been trying to frighten me. They've been trying to frighten me into being sensible, but they can't do it. Not now. Not yet. They've got to let me be as foolish as I want to be. I-I want to ride through the park. I want to, I want to have a white ermine coat. And I'll buy you a beautiful present. And Mr. Hedges! I'll buy Mr. Hedges a little house. And I'll have rooms full of white orchids. And they've got to tell me that I'm much more wonderful than anyone else, because Nellie, Nellie, I'm not afraid. I'm not afraid of being just a morning glory. I'm not afraid. I'm not afraid. I'm not afraid. Why should I be afraid? I'm not afraid."
After all this, the life lesson Eva has learned is that she cannot have both fame and love. Hooray for us.
Morning Glory in reality is really nothing more than The Hepburn Show. The plot is serviceable but hackneyed, and a good deal of the dialogue was overripe. However, pick up a biography of the actress or her 2011 memoir, Me: Stories of My Life, and the parallels between Hepburn’s life and Morning Glory are startling; in many ways the concerns and desires Eva Lovelace character directly parallel those of the actress herself.
Like Eva, Hepburn had the same unflagging desire in pursuing a part that interested her. The film came to her attention when she noticed the script on producer Pandro Berman’s desk. Browsing through it, she became so enthralled that she stole it and read it. Afterward she had good friend and confidante Laura Harding read it as well. Afterward they agreed that it was a part that suited Hepburn to a tee.
In pre-production, Constance Bennett was chosen for the role and the script was especially tailored for her. Hepburn met with Berman in his office, and in a meeting she recalls in her memoir, put forward quite strongly the case for her as the lead, telling Berman that she was born to play the part, She was so forceful that Berman ultimately decided to give her the role. As its turned out, Bennett was more interested in playing the co-lead in the romantic comedy Bed of Roses (1933) with Joel McCrea. Thus no harm, no foul.
The role of Eva Lovelace was indeed a perfect one for Hepburn. Not only did it set her up to be seen as a young Bernhardt in that its narrative was about a rising young actress, but it also gave her the chance to do a little Shakespeare. During the party scene at Louis Easton’s place, while quite in her cups, Eva gives an impromptu audition performing two diametrically opposed strikingly different Shakespearian characters: the brooding Hamlet and the romantic Juliet. (A scene where Hepburn and Fairbanks played the entire balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet in costume was cut during the final edit.)
Lowell Sherman’s direction was almost nonexistent, shooting it as if it were a play. His contribution to the film seems to have been in making sure the medium shots were firmly intermixed with close-ups of the new star looking absolutely fascinated.
Given the short running time, there is no room for a complicated narrative. We really don’t learn anything about Eva aside from the fact she is annoying to the hilt. Menjou and Fairbanks function almost as stage props, there to further highlight the star. The last scene, where Eva muses over her success, seems as if it were shot as a coda to give the star an extra boost for the Oscars, in case the drunk scene failed to move voters.
In the final analysis, Morning Glory is an undistinguished drama with a boilerplate plot, almost something Poverty Row studios might attempt in the ‘40s. Hepburn was better than the material, but that’s not saying much, given that the material is awful. As for Hepburn, except for the drunk scene, her performance was forgettable and monotonous. Neither it nor the film wore well with time and both stand out as a curiosity of sorts. However, by the reaction of audiences, who came out in droves, and critics, who were falling all over each other in their praise for the actress, it succeeded in its purpose, which was to showcase its star, which paid off when Hepburn won the Oscar for her performance. The TCM essay on the film notes that, 40 years later, evaluating her performance, Hepburn said, “I should have stopped then. I haven't grown since.” Truer words were never spoken.
The film was remade in 1958 as Stage Struck with Susan Strasberg in the lead.
Morning Glory earned RKO a profit of $115,000.
From Headquarters By Ed Garea
From Headquarters(WB, 1933) – Director: William Dieterle. Writer: Peter Milne (s/p), Robert N. Lee (s/p & story). Stars: George Brent, Margaret Lindsay, Eugene Palette, Robert Barrat, Henry O’Neill, Hugh Herbert, Dorothy Burgess, Theodore Newton, Hobart Cavanaugh, Ken Murray, Edward Ellis & Kenneth Thomson. B&W, 64 minutes.
From Headquarters is a nifty little police procedural, much in the footsteps of its predecessor, Bureau of Missing Persons, released earlier that year. (Read our review of it here.) Also like its predecessor, it combines a solid procedural story with a personal one between its stars. The plot itself is quite complicated, unusual for a film only 64 minutes in length. Also enhancing the film are some ahead-of-their-time POV shots from the director, very unusual for what is basically a programmer.
Wealthy, eccentric playboy and gun collector Gordon Bates (Thomson) is thought to have committed suicide, but investigating officer Lt. Jim Stevens (Brent) comes to the conclusion it was murder after examining the body. His aide, Sgt. Boggs (Palette) immediately suspects the victim’s fiancee, Lou Ann Winton (Lindsay) because her fingerprints were found on the gun. Under questioning she admits to struggling with Bates when he wanted her to become his mistress instead of his wife, but she denies killing him.
As the forensics laboratory uncovers each new piece of evidence, Boggs transfers his suspicions to a different suspect, causing Stevens, who was once Lou’s lover, to clear each one. First, the lab reveals that the hair found under Bates’s fingernails belonged to Lou’s brother, Jack (Newton). Then the lab finds that the gun with Lou’s fingerprints was not the murder weapon.
Stevens begs Lou to come forth with the truth and she finally admits that she still loves him but agreed to marry Bates only because he was blackmailing her mother. She tells Stevens that with the help of Bates’ butler, Horton (Kinnell), she and Jack were trying to retrieve the incriminating letters.
Stevens, however, strongly believes there is much more to the story. A new suspect emerges when rug dealer Anderzian (Barrat) comes to headquarters demanding the return of some letters from Bates’ safe. Suspicious, Stevens reads them, looking to see if they contain a motive for Bates’ murder.
The lab informs him that, using ultraviolet light, a second letter is found written on each of the letters in invisible ink, revealing Anderzian’s part in the blackmail scheme. To cover his part in the crime, Anderzian kills safecracker Muggs Mantori (Cavanaugh), who had come to headquarters to give evidence in the case, but was ignored by Boggs. After Anderzian is arrested, Stevens and Boggs narrow down the suspects until they find the murderer. The butler did it. Horton confesses that he shot Bates in self-defense when Bates caught him trying to steal the blackmail letters from the safe. Stevens advises him that if he pleads self-defense he will be acquitted, especially after then evidence about Bates’ blackmailing scheme comes to light. The film ends with Stevens proposing to Lou, who happily accepts.
From Headquarters is a surprisingly good film, considering its length. Besides the excellent performances from the cast, it gives us a good mystery with a quite a few red herrings, solid police work with an emphasis on forensic detection, and intelligent police work. But what sets it apart from other programmers is the cinematography (by William Rees) and the inventive direction from Dieterle, who uses cuts, swipes and POV shots as an integral part of the film to advance the plot.
As the film begins we think we’re seeing the apartment where the murder took place, but then Dieterle pulls back the camera to reveal a still photograph of the crime scene and body that was taken by the police. Various suspects give their accounts of what they witnessed on the night in question in well-placed flashbacks, with point of view shots representing what each saw that night. The camera movements are obvious, calling our attention to what each witness saw. Only once is the POV abandoned, and that is in the case of showing the actual body. Dieterle instead shows the action by cleverly using shadows on the wall to convey the action.
When in the police station itself, Dieterle films a suspect from a low angle. An unusual technique in the Hollywood of the ’30s, it will become a standard cinematography device in the noirs of the ‘40s and ‘50s.
The other strong point of the film is the emphasis given to the science of crime investigation. It attempts to show the audience exactly what takes place behind the scenes of a murder investigation in a big city police department. Using such techniques as fingerprinting, mugshots, line-ups, ballistics testing, ultraviolet rays and Hollerith punched card tabulating machines to search police databases of criminals, we see police dispatch and phone rooms and the police lab, where we are given a look into ballistic analysis.
In this sense the film anticipates the semi-documentary crime films that became popular in the late ‘40s, such as The Street With No Name (Keighley, 1948) and He Walked By Night (Mann, 1948), where the FBI and LAPD use punch card Hollerith tabulators to identify suspects by their fingerprints (The Street With No Name) and known bank robbers (He Walked By Night). For its part, From Headquarters is following the vogue that became popular in American crime fiction in the ‘30s of showing the analysis and science behind the characters.
But we must remember that no amount of technical or cinematic razzle-dazzle can overcome a weak plot and poor performances. In presenting the audience with what could almost be seen as a sociological investigation of a large police station and the many different types to work and interact there, the film places strong emphasis on the integrity of the characters.
As Lt. Stevens, George Brent gives a balanced performance, torn between his need to find the killer and his love for Lou Winton. It’s to Dieterle’s credit that he doesn’t allow the required romance between the leads to get too much in the way of the story’s progress. Eugene Pallette gives Sgt. Boggs a much harder edge that he did when playing the similar Sgt. Heath in the Philo Vance films, often jumping to conclusions and “betting his badge” on each hunch that his lieutenant has to shoot down. Though he’s playing what is essentially a one-note character, Pallette presents Boggs as a basically intelligent man giving to jumping the gun. As Inspector Donnelly, Henry O’Neill mediates between the conflicting officers and scientists, giving us a portrait of a man who rises to leadership in crisis.
As Lou, Margaret Lindsay is her typically efficient self, and Kinnell and Barrat shine in their roles as the butler Horton and antiques dealer Anderzian. With his accent, Barrat comes off like Lugosi. Ken Murray, best known to those of us who watch TCM for his home movies of Hollywood celebrities (a hobby he began in the ‘30s that turned into a lucrative moneymaker), is memorable as a wise-cracking reporter. The only sour note is Hugh Herbert as the annoying bail bondsman Manny Wales, at attempt at comedy relief that misfires.
From Headquarters unfurls over a single day, reaching its climax when a murder takes place in police headquarters itself, with each suspect having a moment along the way. A nice touch is presenting the murder victim himself as a nasty piece of work with a drug habit, explaining the number of suspects who were in and out of his apartment. Meanwhile the focus rapidly turns as each false lead and new piece of evidence emerges. And if the ending turns out to the the oldest cliche ion the world of whodunits, it’s all so smoothly directed and acted that we’re prepared to overlook this fault.
William Dieterle began as an actor in Germany at the age of 16. An actor in films since 1913, some of his best known rules were in such films as Waxworks (Leni, 1924) and Faust (Murnau, 1926)
Tiring of acting, he turned to directing as a sideline in 1923. With wife Charlotte Hagenbruch he started his own film production company, and in 1930 they emigrated to America, where he found work with Warner Bros. directing German-language versions of the studio's popular hits for the German market.
The studio promoted him as a director of all kinds of films, and in 1931 he debuted with The Last Flight. as time went by he directed bigger and better films such as The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (1937) and Juarez (1939). In 1939 he moved over to RKO to direct Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In the 1940s he became associated with David O. Selznick, directing Love Letters (1945), Duel in the Sun (1946) and Portrait of Jennie (1948). He and Charlotte returned to Germany in 1958 and he directed a few films there and in Italy until his retirement in 1965. He died on December 8, 1972, in Ottobrunn, a town in Bavaria.
TCM reports that news items in Film Daily at the time indicated that Michael Curtiz was set to direct with Bette Davis, Glenda Farrell and George E. Stone being considered for parts. Murray Kinnell's character is called "Horton" in the film, although contemporary sources and the copyright synopsis call the character "Waters."
The film was remade in a fashion in 1938 as When Were You Born? Anna May Wong starred in this unjustly forgotten whodunit as an investigator who astrology instead of forensic science to solve the mystery of the murder of a business tycoon.
Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) By Ed Garea
Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) (MGM, 1931) – Director: Robert Z. Leonard (uncredited). Writers: Wanda Tuchock (adaptation & continuity). Leon Gordon & Zelda Sears (dialogue). David Graham Phillips (novel). Paul Bern, Lenore Coffee, Mildred Cram, Edith Fitzgerald, Becky Gardiner, George Kelly, Joseph Moncure March, Bayard Veiller & King Vidor (all uncredited). Cast: Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Jean Hersholt, John Miljan, Alan Hale, Hale Hamilton, Hilda Vaughn, Russell Simpson, Cecil Cunningham & Ian Keith. B&W, 76 minutes.
Susan Lenox is a curiosity from MGM, a turgid little melodrama with a preposterous plot that marks the only pairing of Clark Gable and Greta Garbo.
It’s the usual Garbo plot: a suffering, victimized, misunderstood woman for whom nothing matters except love. When she first saw the script, she was dissatisfied and pulled her timeworn stunt when dissatisfied – she threatened to go back to Sweden. To make sure she was happy, Louis B. Mayer brought in a number of writers to alter the script to her liking (see the writing credits above). However, when one is given a can of pork and beans to make for dinner, no amount of disguise or other sleight-of-hand can alter the fact that it’s still a can of pork and beans. And this is exactly what we have here. Add to this the fact that Garbo is playing a role essentially made for Joan Crawford and our disappointment is heightened after we finish watching.
Garbo is Helga, a farm girl who was born illegitimately in Lenoxville, Michigan. Her mother died during childbirth and she is left in the care of her stern, cruel uncle, Karl Ohlin (Hersholt), who treats her as an object of scorn. The brief scenes we see of her childhood remind us of a ‘20s German expressionist drama, as she is a shadow on the wall, practically mute, and considered not as one of the family proper, but as someone on the fringe. Uncle Karl gets it in his head that the only way to prevent her from turning out like her mother is to marry her off. He tells her, “You're not going the way of your mother. You're starting out just like her, reading novels, getting crazy notions in your head! Well, it ain't a-gonna happen in my family twice.”
For the bridegroom he chooses a knuckle-dragging lout named Jeb Mondstrom (Hale). Fueled by a couple of belts of cheap whiskey, Jeb figures he’ll get the bridal night started early and slobbers his way into Helga’s bedroom to finish the job. She fights him off and escapes into the night, fleeing into a heavy rainstorm.
She makes her way to a nearby house and hides in the garage, where she is found by Rodney Spencer (Gable) and his dog Major. In his previous films Gable played various kinds of thugs and lowlifes, but here he’s a Boy Scout. Though she won’t tell him what she’s running away from, he recognizes her fear and goes out of his way to placate her. Since she wouldn’t talk, he’ll do the talking for both of them: “Never mind. We won’t talk about you at all. No sir. You know what we’ll do? We’ll talk about me. You know who I am? No? Well, I’ll tell you. I’m Rodney, Mr. Spencer’s little boy. I’m thirty, white and unmarried. I’m really a very fine fellow–never unkind to animals, never kick babies in the teeth, always courteous when drunk.” And a Boy Scout.
There is one scene where he gives her the use of his bedroom while he sleeps in the living room. After seeing her into the room, he leaves. He turns back, and for a brief instant, we think he’s going to back in and help himself to some Swedish cuisine. But he thinks better of it, smiles, and heads towards the living room as the scene fades out.
Over the next couple of days, it’s bliss for Helga. Rodney treats her ever so gently, and like any other Boy Scout, even takes her fishing. He tells her that he is an engineer and must go to Detroit on a job. Meanwhile she can stay in his home until he gets back, and when he does, he’ll be bringing something back with him: “But, you're going to have a ring Helga. I'm bringing one back with me.”
However, no sooner has he left than Uncle Karl and loutish Jeb show up to bring her back. A deal is a deal and she is only a piece of chattel promised to Jeb. Once again she manages to get away and hops a circus train leaving town, where she is befriended by Madame Panorama (Cunningham), the outfit’s tattooed lady. When the boss, Burlingham (Miljan) comes into the compartment, Madame asks him to take her on as one of the dancers, introducing her as “Susie Lenox.” Burlingham agrees, and when the circus is performing in a nearby town, hides her from Jeb and Uncle, telling her to duck out in his private car. We soon find out that her choice is either to give herself up and be raped by Jeb or hide out and be raped by Burlingham. She chooses the latter, becoming the boss’ unwilling mistress.
Writing Rodney to meet her in Marquette, he is shocked when he sees her and quickly figures out what she’s been up to. But rather than hear her explanation he storms off. As he leaves she gives him the old line about her bedroom being open to every man but him from now on, yada, yada, yada.
Helga, heartbroken, goes from one man to another until she becomes the mistress of wealthy New York politician Mike Kelly (Hamilton). Rodney fares no better. His drinking has cost him a succession of jobs.
Despite now living in a penthouse, the mistress of a rich politician and known as Susan Lenox, she just can’t get Ol’ Rodney out of her mind. Thinking he’d crap green if he could see her now and how well she’s doing, she arranges to have him invited to one of her soirees without giving him as clue as to who he’s really there to see. He assumes it’s Kelly. He needs a contract and buttering up a politician is one of the surest ways to get it. But when he gets a gander at her he puts two and two together and comes to the realization he’s being played for a sap. And he doesn’t like it one bit.
The dinner party quickly becomes a verbal joust that grows uglier with each passing line. Susan raises the ante when she proclaims, “I think the most amusing thing about men is that they mistake cruelty for character. They can’t forgive.” This little bit of twaddle is regarded as wisdom by some of the ladies at the table, but for Rodney it’s a verbal kick in the groin. He gets into a brief verbal altercation with Susan, then hightails it out of there, with Susan in hot pursuit. She still loves the big galoot.
Susan travels from city to city looking for her man. Eventually she finds him working on a project in a town in South America where she’s working as a singer-dancer in a waterfront dive. She is romanced there by Robert Lane (Keith), an American who arrives by yacht and wants to marry her and take her away from all this.
When Rodney wanders by chance into the joint and sees Helga there, he comes onto her like he would any other waterfront girl. Disillusioned, she throws him out, and plans to meet Robert on his yacht. However, the next day she goes to see Rodney one last time. Finally sober, Rodney admits he’s has been wrong, and they both decide to stop hurting each other and start to love again.
This is one of the more unusual films in Garbo’s resume, a turgid melodrama that as mentioned above, is more suited to the likes of Joan Crawford than Greta Garbo. The source material is a 1912 novel by journalist David Graham Phillips that was still considered racy in 1931 America. The reason Thalberg green lighted the film was because three of his secretaries had read and recommended it.
The working titles of this film were Suzanne Lenox and Susan Lenox. King Vidor was initially set to direct the picture, and actresses Lynn Bernager and Marjorie King were to have roles in the film. Robert Z. Leonard replaced Vidor in the director’s chair. Even though Thalberg purchased the rights to the book as a vehicle for Garbo, why she agreed to star in this film is a mystery. An even bigger mystery is why she requested Clark Gable as her co-star. Supposedly she requested him as her costar because as an up and coming star he wouldn’t overshadow her.
For his part Gable wanted nothing to do with the picture. Learning he was cast by reading an item in the trade papers, he only agreed to take the role when he was convinced it would help him in his quest for bigger and better roles.
Gable was an actor who liked a good, healthy affair on the set with his co-star. But if he thought Garbo was willing he was barking up the wrong Swede. They came to despise each other during the course of filming. Gable thought she was extremely unprofessional and hated her aloofness. Garbo thought he was crude and later described him as a “wooden” actor, which was ironic coming from Garbo, herself much more of a movie star than an actress.
The state of their relationship was reflected in the lack of chemistry between the stars, though to be honest, Garbo only had chemistry with two people: John Gilbert and herself. The only scene where I glimpsed any hint of chemistry is the one of them in together in the cabin, where Garbo, who has been told and traded from birth as if she was worthless, has a really poignant and sad reaction when Clark tells her that when he comes back from Detroit, he’ll be coming back with a ring. Other than that, nada.
The first 20 minutes or so of the film is unremittingly bleak, a rumination on the situation of being a woman in a world of unconstrained patriarchy that can have its cake and eat it too. A brief opening in this desolate fog is when Helga meets Rodney. He functions as the proof that not all males of the species are brutes. But once he leaves it’s back to business as usual as Karl and Jeb track her down.
The most interesting part of the movie takes place when Susan flees to the circus. Much like the later Freaks (1932), the circus is depicted as a place for those who can find no place in normal society, whether because of their appearance or social status. Susan’s scenes with Madame Panorama (Cunningham) are precious as the two outcasts start to bond.
Rodney lets Susan down when, after finding her at the circus, he refuses to listen to any explanations on her part. Susan takes Rodney at the extreme and decides that if he’s going to think she’s a whore, then she might as well be the best one in the country. Which is exactly what she does, changing her name to Susan Lenox and becoming a wealthy courtesan. She invites Rodney to one of her soirees. He, of course, has no idea who it was that invited him, but when he gets a good look at her, the venom comes out all over again, as he tells her that he returned to the circus to apologize, only to find her gone. After an argument that’s the posh equivalent of “That’s what you are, but what am I?” Rodney calls her a parasite and storms off.
This is where the movie becomes ridiculous. Susan comes to believe he acted this way because he really loves her, so she decides to track him down. After finding him in Puerto Sacate, they argue and finally decide to try and start again. This despite the generous offer she has from Robert. The film ends on an ambiguous note. Will they work it out? Will she change her mind and go away with Robert? The only thing we know for sure is that, as with The Divorcee, a woman may have her fun, but she is nothing without a man, for it’s all meaningless and she is not quite a person. What begins as a brutally honest study of the relationship between men and women degenerates into a tawdry romantic potboiler that loses its steam after Gable walks out on Garbo in New York.
Much of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of director Robert Z. Leonard. There is some splendid camera work along with nicely staged atmospheric effects, but the dialogue is too often choppy, with periods of silence that slow the film down, which is strange, because at other times Leonard seems as if he’s in a hurry to move the film along, come what may.
The hurried tone of the film robs it of any suspense and it often comes across like a by-the-numbers melodrama. We can see everything coming; there are no surprises. What saves the film from going under entirely is the strength of Garbo’s performance. She never fails to hold our attention and becomes the reason we stick around to see what happens next, even though we know what’s coming.
It could be said in Leonard’s defense that he was not quite used to using sound, but I’m surprised that no one in the executive suite caught on to this, almost as if they were depending on Garbo alone to carry the load; that her fans would accept anything she was in, especially with the novelty of sound. What we come away with in the final analysis is a combination of poorly written dialogue and an exaggerated physical movement that only serves to illustrate, rather than deflect from, a poorly developed and preposterous narrative.
As I said before, Garbo is essentially miscast in a role that was better suited to Joan Crawford or Marlene Dietrich, though she gave a heartfelt performance that essentially saved the film. Indeed, Dietrich took the plot one step farther in 1932’s Blonde Venus in a performance that made Garbo’s look weak by comparison. Garbo is at her best when among the aristocrats, not among the hoi polloi. Though she acquitted herself well in Anna Christie, she was helped by strong supporting performances. After Susan Lenox, MGM had the good sense to limit her options and, because of her box office power in Europe. In the films where she did not play an aristocrat, such as As You Desire Me and Ninotchka, she still played a European, with a European mind-set, and the very setting in Europe gave her a patrician standing with American audiences.
It was thought to team Garbo can with Gable in Red Dust, but MGM came to their senses. Where would she fit in? The only role for her would be the Mary Astor role and we can easily surmise that Garbo would not like being upstaged by Jean Harlow. Besides, not only was there a lack of chemistry between her and Gable, she detested him.
The film suffered many cuts upon release by local censor boards and was actually banned in England. However, with a few cuts the British censors, who knew of the source novel and heartedly disapproved it as well approved it under the title The Rise of Helga. As if the public wouldn’t find out.
The role of Clark Gable’s dog, Major, was played by Gable’s own dog. There are two stories of how the actor acquired his animal companion: (1) The dog already belonged to Gable, and when he learned he was to have a dog in the film he volunteered Major, selling the studio on the fact that they didn’t need to shell out for a dog trainer since the dog did what Gable instructed him to do. (2) The dog was a trained movie dog that Gable came to love so much that he bought him from the trainer for twice what he was worth. Take your pick.
According to MGM’s records the film cost $1,142,000. It made $806,000 in the US and Canada and $700,000 elsewhere, resulting in a $364,000 profit.
Rodney (to Susan): “You know, you’re the only woman I ever wanted to build a fence around and have all to myself. Yeah, you built the fence–an army of men!”
The White Sister By Ed Garea
The White Sister (MGM, 1933) – Director: Victor Fleming. Writers: Donald Ogden Stewart (s/p). Francis Marion Crawford (novel, play), Walter Hackett (dramatization). Adele Comandini, Charles MacArthur, Frances Marion, Leonard Praskins (uncredited). Stars: Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Lewis Stone, Louise Closser Hale, May Robson, Edward Arnold, & Alan Edwards. B&W, 105 minutes.
“Only the producers of the immortal 'Smilin' Through' are capable of bringing to the talking screen such a love story with such tenderness, tears and beauty…”
Now that sound was the rule in Hollywood, studios scrambled to find not only film-able, but cheaply film-able properties. There existed a literal treasure trove of these in the films from the silent era, and the studios mined as many of these as it could in addition to buying plays and commissioning adaptations and original works.
This film about a young woman during World War I who becomes a nun after believing her sweetheart has been killed in action had been filmed twice previously: in 1915 for Essanay, with a script by Frances Marion, direction by Fred C. Wright and starring Viola Allen, Richard Travers and Florence Oberle. It was remade in 1923 by Inspiration Pictures (released through Metro), with writing by George V. Hobart and Charles E. Whittaker, direction by Henry King, and starring Lillian Gish, Ronald Colman and Charles Lane. The remake differed from the original in that heroine Angela Chiaromonte in that the father (Lane) had a screen role and the character of the aunt, Princess Chiaromonte (Oberle) was eliminated. MGM kept that arrangement for the 1933 remake and cast Lewis Stone to play the father. To play Angela they signed Helen Hayes and for her sweetheart, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was originally considered, but in the end the role was given to the up-and-coming Clark Gable. Edward Arnold was given the supporting role of Monsignor Saracinesca, played in the 1915 version by Thomas Commerford and in the 1923 version by J. Barney Sherry. Victor Fleming was brought in to direct and Donald Ogden Stewart penned the script.
With all these heavyweights, the film looked in pre-production like a big hit. Unfortunately, it was a misfire, though a profitable one, proving to be a step back for Gable, whose career was gaining real momentum after his appearances in A Free Soul, Strange Interlude and Red Dust. The problem was that the role was not a good fit; he was cast against type as a romantic Italian soldier. But the real problem lay with the producer, Hunt Stromberg, whose problem was that he wasn’t Irving Thalberg. Thalberg, who guided Gable’s career, finding the right vehicles to fit the image the studio had fashioned for him, was on extended leave due to health problems. Had Thalberg been around he never would have considered Gable for the role. Gable, without Thalberg to guide him, grew more mindful of his career and began to refuse roles he thought cast him out of type. After a string of such refusals, Louis Mayer took advantage of the lull in Gable’s schedule to teach him a lesson by loaning him out to Columbia for a B-picture called Night Bus. This eventually became It Happened One Night, a prophetic title for both Gable and Mayer.
The White Sister is the story of Angela Chiaromonte (Hayes). Her father (Stone) has arranged a marriage between her and eligible banker Ernesto Traverse (Edwards). But a short time before the wedding is to take place she meets Giovanni Severi, a soldier who has crashed his auto into her father’s chauffeur-driven vehicle. Smitten by the chance encounter Angela drags her maid Mina (Hale) to the town carnival, where she once again runs into Giovanni. Determined to win over the shy Angela, he takes her to a cafe and confesses that he has fallen in love with her. Although she feels the same way, Angela informs Giovanni about her engagement and later writes him a letter ending their involvement.
However, six days before the wedding, Giovanni appears at a dance at Prince Chiaromonte’s. After maneuvering Angela alone, he makes her admit that she loves only him. They embrace, but the prince walks in on them, condemns Giovanni for his actions and throws him out of the house. Despite Angela's protests that she wants to marry Giovanni, the prince, whose own wife deserted him for another man and later committed suicide, insists that she and Ernesto go through with the wedding. Angela, however, refuses her father’s order and runs off to find Giovanni.
While on her way to Giovanni’s home her car collides with that of her father, killing him instantly. Devastated, Angela moves to a small apartment, where Giovanni find her. She tells him she is too grief-stricken to continue their romance and sends him away.
Soon afterward, Angela learns of Italy’s entrance into the war and that Giovanni is going off to the front. Now she meets him and pledges her love. Months later, Giovanni becomes a pilot, is shot down by a German airplane, and is presumed dead. Overcome with grief, Angela meets with longtime family friend Monsignor Saracinesca (Arnold). With his help and backing she enters the convent to take her vows and begins studying to serve as a nursing nun.
Meanwhile, we learn that Giovanni hasn’t been killed after all. He has been recuperating on a German farm from the injuries sustained during his crash. When he learns that the German army is in the area, he bids Auf Wiedersehen to his benefactors and makes a dash for the Swiss border. But he is captured by the Germans and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. After two years there, Giovanni, who has been sent to solitary confinement because of his repeated escape attempts, sneaks out during a cholera epidemic in a fellow prisoner's body bag. He steals a German plane and flies to Italy, where he begins to search for Angela.
He tracks her down to a hospital, where he is shocked to find that she has become a nun. Angela, too, is shocked to see Giovanni, but in spite of her love, she tells him her vows cannot be broken. He tries to change her mind, but during an air raid he sees her praying and realizes he has no chance. But he does get to see her again, for after he leaves the hospital and returns to the front, he is hit by enemy fire and returns to the hospital, where he dies in Angela’s arms.
This film marks the first appearance of Gable’s trademark mustache.
Gable gives one of the worst performances of his career as Giovanni. At times he seems overwhelmed by Hayes, unable to assert himself in their scenes together. Despite the fact that the two got along well off-screen she later noted that he kept trying to hide his hands from her, hands that were scarred from his working-class background. Further embarrassment came when his first wife and acting coach, Josephine Dillion, published a series of open letters to him about his acting in the pages of film magazine Motion Picture. She noted that in The White Sister he did funny things with his mouth to make his dimples show, probably in an attempt to soften his character in the movie. It was something that didn’t help his he-man image.
Problems arose when Hayes decided she didn’t like the film’s final scenes and demanded her husband, Charles MacArthur, be brought in for a re-write. Because of her success in The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931, written by MacArthur) and A Farewell to Arms (1932), the studio acceded to her demands. Donald Ogden Stewart, who wrote the screenplay, wasn’t at odds with her demands, but when he saw how the final product diverged from his original, he made a vow of his own never to take a film assignment seriously, realizing it wasn’t art he was penning, but product.
The problem with The White Sister is that the plot is leaden, substituting saccharine moments for real emotions. Part of this had to do with the obvious lack of chemistry between Gable and Hayes. We just don’t understand what they see in each other because the script gives us no reason to see anything other than them looking at each other and painfully flirting, trying to build a relationship where clearly none exists.
There is also a problem with the motivation of Hayes’ character. We can intellectually understand why she decides to go into the convent, but we cannot emotionally understand it. It becomes sort of a Cook’s tour – we see her taking part in Catholic rituals and taking her vows, but it’s all at a superficial level, performed as if she were going shopping. Her life is sinking into stupefaction; the Church saves her and gives her life meaning, but we never see how it affects her. It simply seems as if the director can’t wait to get these scenes out of the way so he can pick up the romance where it left off.
As Gable was the wrong choice for Giovanni, so Victor Fleming is the wrong choice as director. Fleming is an action director when a more sensitive hand is called for, like Edgar Welwyn or Frank Borzage. The supporting cast is fine, but none are given a chance to stand out. Edward Arnold has little to do, as does Lewis Stone. And Louise Closser Hale is given practically nothing to do except drink up the family’s hooch in the role of comic relief.
The aerial sequences used in the movie combined stock footage from Hell’s Angels (1930) combined with newly shot footage by second unit director Cullen Tate over the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Though the film received mixed reviews, it still earned $750,000 in the U.S. and Canada, which combined with the $922,000 elsewhere, made for a profit of $456,000.
The final verdict on The White Sister is that it’s watchable, though more for hardcore film fans, Pre-Code enthusiasts and Gable completists.
Marnie By Jonathon Saia
Marnie(Universal, 1964) – Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Writers: Jay Presson Allen (s/p), Winston Graham (novel) Stars: Tippi Hedren, Sean Connery, Martin Gabel, Louise Latham, Diane Baker, Alan Napier, Bob Sweeney, Kimberly Beck, Milton Selzer, Henry Beckman, Edith Evanson, Mariette Hartley, Bruce Dern, S. John Launer & Meg Wyllie. Color, 130 minutes.
“You Freud, Me Jane?”
Perhaps it’s the heavy-handed psychological jargon that now seems quaint. Perhaps it is the melodramatic ending ripe for camp. Perhaps, like The Wrong Man (1957), it gets lost in the shuffle of Hitchcock's established masterpieces it follows. Perhaps it's its uncharacteristic sentimentality. Perhaps it is the infamous rape scene that turns some viewers away. Whatever the reason, Marnie has sadly been forgotten as one of the great films – and as Hitchcock's last great work.
Marnie (Hedren) is a compulsive thief and a pathological liar. She goes from town to town, identity to identity, blonde to brunette, gaining confidence with her employers before emptying their safes and getting out of Dodge. The film begins with a shot of her purse and her latest victim grunting, "Robbed!" As Mr. Strut describes "Marion" to the police, he makes sure not to leave a physical attribute unnoticed; it is obvious he hired her for her sex appeal. The police have a chuckle at his expense, as does Mark Rutland (Connery at the peak of his Bond beauty), one of the bank's most prominent clients who just so happened to be passing by. "The girl with the great legs," Mark remembers.
Meanwhile, "Marion" is back at the hotel turning herself back into "Marnie." Hitchcock explains to us, in the "pure cinema" technique he was famous for, Marnie's checkered past. We see a pocketbook full of Social Security cards and the methodical way she packs; this girl has done this before. We are reminded of Marion Crane's preparation for escape in Psycho not only by the name she has chosen to use, but by the way she tosses a white bra into her suitcase (packing her innocence away for another day the way Marion Crane wore her black undergarments for her escape) – with that slow, romantic, Bernard Hermann score seducing us in the background. Marnie dyes her hair in the bathroom, draining the darkness, returning to innocence, and flips her newly blonde hair back like Gilda (1946), eroticizing yet infantilizing her at the same time. This is the first time we see Tippi Hedren's gorgeous face; Hitchcock has reclaimed his icy, cool blonde.
Marnie heads home to visit Mrs. Edgar (Latham), her invalid mother who never seems to treat her as a mother should, saving her maternal love for a neighbor child. Marnie, always trying to win her affections, brings her a mink stole and a beautiful bouquet of white flowers. But she sees red, literally. The red flowers on the table make her dizzy, leaving her visibly distraught and vocal of her disapproval and jealousy and screams at her mother for preferring Jessie (Beck). Mrs. Edgar evades the question, slaps her for her insubordination, and sends her away for a nap, like a toddler who has gotten out of hand.
Marnie leaves the next day to gain employment at a new firm. She uses the name "Mary" and tells her much rehearsed sob story of a dead husband as her way of gaining favor. The irony in Marnie's job interview tactics is that she uses her beauty by downplaying it.
Covering her knees with her dress ever so deliberately to make sure men noticed her knee first, then notice that she is too much of a lady to let them see it; she is using propriety as seduction – the hard working librarian look that drive men wild. No feigned laughs for the boss, no low cut blouses. Just an eye on her duties and the dedication to work overtime. She knows she can't use real references because she has robbed them all. So she claims to be a housewife, returning to the fold in need of hard, demanding work to keep her occupied. If taken in a different tone with different music, this would be the set up for a thousand pornos. But Marnie is no slut. In fact, she is a virgin, reviled by the touch of any man who dares to show her affection.
Mr. Rutland, the president of the company, immediately recognizes her as Marion, the girl who robbed Strut's. He encourages her hiring despite the lack of references and the potential danger she poses. She intrigues him and wants to see how far she will go. Will she try to rob him too?
One stormy Saturday, Mark calls her to his office to ostensibly do some transcription work. But the conversation turns to the ideas of predators and prey. Mark, a one time zoologist, tells her that the female is most often the predator, harboring a criminal element. But before she can challenge his theories, lightning strikes, making her as vulnerable as a deer in a lion's den. Mark watches in titillation as she practically climbs the walls in terror over the storm. The walls flash red and a giant phallus-like tree stump crashes through the window. Mark takes her in his arms and kisses her comatose face. The passion is far from reciprocal, Marnie catatonic with fear.
From then on, they begin to date, going to the horse races. Marnie adores horses, riding bareback whenever possible (yet secretly reviles men; a clever sexual transference, playing on the way that women eroticize horses). One day at the track, a man spots "Penny," one of Marnie's past aliases. She denies it, Mark corroborates; he has caught Mary and no one else will have her. Mark learns that Mary/Marnie has an aversion to the color red. But why?
Despite Mark's genuine, yet ulterior affections, Marnie is not swayed by what she knows she must do. She robs his safe and absconds with the money.
But Mark has been expecting this and finds her. Round and round they go, sifting through Marnie's lies. His research has found out the truth; he is merely testing her. This scene is the most exciting in the film (and one of the best in the Hitchcock canon): seeing Marnie squirm as she knows Mark is too smart for her usual excuses, watching Mark visibly aroused at Marnie's discomfort and weakness. Mark blackmails Marnie into marriage.
Aboard their honeymoon cruise, Mark learns the truth depths of his wife's pathologies. That first night when he tries to sleep with her, she regresses to a howling banshee, terrified of his touch. Mark is sympathetic, especially for a glorified kidnapper. He leaves her in peace – for the time being.
The following days, they grow closer; she seems to take to his kindness, he seems the perfect gentleman. But a man can only be patient for so long when he has such a succulent prey on the barb. Mark rapes Marnie.
If Marnie is discussed at all, the rape scene is usually one of the things mentioned. Evan Hunter, the original writer who also wrote The Birds, was so disturbed by the prospect of writing a rape scene that he included an alternate scene as an addendum in the hopes that Hitch would use it; instead, he was fired. Jay Presson Allen (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1969) took over the reins. Hunter was afraid that an audience would not be able to accept Mark as a likable character after raping his clearly disturbed wife. But on the contrary. Mark raping Marnie makes him three-dimensional and fleshes out his own pathologies. Mark is a man sexually aroused by a woman who doesn't want him, a woman who is frigid, a woman who is a thief. Mark feels he has met his match in Marnie the Predator. He will tame her. And make her his prey.
Hedren has gone on record multiple times describing Hitchcock's untoward advances, essentially blacklisting her for two years when she refused to sleep with him (he also famously gave Melanie Griffith, Hedren's daughter, a miniature coffin with a doll of her mother in it as a gift for her 10th birthday).
It is not conventional love he feels for her, but – like all of Hitchcock's surrogates, particularly Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo (1957) – obsession that drives him. He will conquer her against all odds. After Grace Kelly is almost stabbed with a pair of scissors in Dial M for Murder (1954), Kim Novak falls from a tower in Vertigo, Janet Leigh is stabbed to death, naked, with a long knife in Psycho (1960), and Tippi Hedren is "raped" by bird beaks, it is fitting that one of his characters, particularly one played by Hedren, would incur an actual rape.
It is to Sean Connery's credit that Mark continues the picture, not unscathed, not forgiven, but understood as someone who needs Marnie to heal whatever wounds he has as much as Marnie needs him to heal her own. He continuously covers for her criminal activity; she is recalcitrant to his power, yet can't seem to keep returning to his arms. Marnie attempts suicide, which makes Mark want her even more. He nurses her back to health. They are now bound by a common trauma. They deserve and fear one another, making for one of the most unique and captivating on-screen romances this side of 9 1/2 Weeks (1986).
Mark and Marnie return home to play Husband and Wife. Mark's sister in law, Lil (Baker) is suspicious – and has her own jealous motives to see Marnie brought down. She professes her allegiance to Mark. She will lie to the police. Anything that is necessary to protect him from whatever trouble Marnie has gotten him into. He curbs her advances and returns to his felonious Pygmalion.
Later on a fox hunt, Marnie's horse becomes injured, forcing her to kill it. She is devastated, destroying the only male she has ever truly loved. Subconsciously, Mark, the amateur psychiatrist, knows he must psychologically transfer her love of horses to him (insert Freudian sex joke here). But Marnie has finally reached her breaking point, possibly never to return. Can he save her?
He drags her to her mother's house to find out why Marnie is afraid of thunderstorms, the color red, and the touch of a man. Secretly, he already knows, but needs Mrs. Edgar to tell her daughter the truth about herself: When Marnie was a child, she killed a man; one of her mother's Johns who tried to sexually assault her. Mrs. Edgar tried to protect Marnie from the assault, but fell and broke her leg. So Marnie then took a fire poker and beat the sailor to death. The blood covered his body. Outside, the lightning flashed through the window.
Like the end of Psycho, audiences must have found this clinical explanation of Marnie's neuroses as didactic and somewhat esoteric. Perhaps this is why Marnie has ripened with age. Once ahead of its time, now Marnie's afflictions (and Mark's) almost feel like common knowledge, with Freudian theories very much a part of the layman's lexicon. Marnie's psychology has even been lampooned in Charles Busch's Psycho Beach Party (2000) with the character of Chicklet terrified by the color red at the hand of her prostitute mother.
What strikes you most about watching Marnie in a Hitchcockian context is the amount of dialogue. Hitch, the King of Pure Cinema, always believed in the visual over the word. And Marnie is not void of visual clues or storytelling; Marnie's theft at Rutland's is beautifully plotted and meticulously executed all without words. But notice the long dialogue scenes in the car or the analysis scene. In a world hell bent on adapting established material, Marnie seems ripe for a stage version.
But the greatest element that sadly is forgotten by sending Marnie to the wayside is Tippi Hedren's glorious performance. After a career as a model and commercial actress, Hedren made her stunning film debut in The Birds (1963), a masterpiece that I would argue is possibly the Greatest Film Ever Made. In both films, Hedren plays a woman-child with serious mommy issues. In The Birds, she deals with them by carousing and breaking hearts; in Marnie, she steals to buy her mother's love. Here Hedren commits wholeheartedly to an almost impossible character, dichotomous and frustrating, certainly Hitch’s most complicated femme fatale. It is one of the tragedies of the silver screen that she did not go on to be a major star.
It's a Gift By Jonathon Saia
It’s a Gift(Paramount, 1934) – Director: Norman Z. McLeod. Writers: Jack Cunningham (s/p), J.P. McEvoy (from "The Comic Supplement"), W.C. Fields (story, as Charles Bogle). Stars: W.C. Fields, Kathleen Howard, Jean Rouverol, Julian Madison, Tommy Bupp, Baby LeRoy, Tammany Young, Morgan Wallace, Charles Sellon, Josephine Whittell, T. Roy Barnes, Diana Lewis, Spencer Charters, Guy Usher & Dell Henderson. B&W, 68 minutes.
“If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull.” – W.C. Fields
W.C. Fields is a celebrated, yet underrated, singular icon in the history of entertainment – the lovable misanthrope who hated kids and loved booze, heavily armed with a cynical zinger. Yet I fear this is too simple. This deprives Bill, as he was informally known, of his humanity. The archetype of Fields as a mean ol' drunk was one built toward the end of his career, thanks mostly to his cantankerous radio tête-à-têtes with Charlie McCarthy, his escalated levels of drinking (which only rose with age and the impending doom of his declining career), and also the ways in which his latter films like You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939) had anything resembling sentiment removed from them by the studio for the sake of slowing down the jokes. But if you look at his earlier films, behind the snark, behind the swindle, was a lonely man, hiding behind the bombast, trying to do right by the family who seemed to hate him.
To know his family history taints, or more accurately, paints his work with an autobiographical brush. Born in Philadelphia in 1880, Fields left school to work with his father selling fruit at age 12. It was here where he first learned to juggle, using the merchandise from his father's fruit cart, and practicing his craft by watching a traveling circus act. His family completely discouraged any dreams of stardom (his grandmother even destroyed all of his props he had been collecting) and Fields eventually ran away from home to get away from his father's abusive ways, promising not to return until he was a star.
Fields met and married his wife Hattie when they were both cast in a review called The Monte Carlo Girls. Hattie became his juggling partner, touring the world until she became pregnant. Now with child, she returned to the States, wanting Fields to abandon his career for a life of provincial Americana. But Fields refused. Hattie held this decision against him for the rest of his life, using their son as collateral to guilt money out of him, and turning the young Fields against his father. Fields, having emotionally moved on with other women, begged Hattie for a divorce, but her Catholicism wouldn't allow it. They remained married – and bitter rivals – until he died; and even then she strong-armed his estate into giving her the lion's share of his earnings. The nagging, manipulative Hattie and their helpless son Claude (who relied on his father's checks for survival well into adulthood) were the models for his "wife" and "son" characters in his work.
Fields' genius afforded him a rare level of autonomy in his work during the Studio System of Hollywood. He had starred in vaudeville and burlesque as the most respected and versatile juggler in the business; Broadway musicals; and the Ziegfeld Follies with Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, and Eddie Cantor, where he honed his comedic zest and skills as a writer; worked in both silent and sound films, directed by luminaries like George Cukor, D.W. Griffith, and Mack Sennett and acted alongside such formidable talents as Elsa Lanchester and Mae West. Later, he performed in radio with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, with whom he had an ongoing "feud." The only medium he didn't tackle was television and that was only because he died in 1946.
He rehearsed his physical bits tirelessly until every movement was choreographed to perfection (an obvious harken to his juggling days), yet struggled to remember his lines. Or possibly he was just contemptuous of the idea of playing by anyone else's rules. Whichever the reason, Fields was an ingenious improvisor, never doing a second take the same. No one ever really directed W.C. Fields – or wrote for him for that matter; if they knew what was good for them, they merely stayed out of the way and allowed him to be brilliant.
He was a shrewd businessman, grossing $50,000 a week in 1930s cash, in addition to his fees for the writing, which could earn him an additional $15,000 to $25,000. Even though Fields was quite wealthy, he never wanted to appear so on film. He believed that comedy came from struggle and always made his characters circus performers (based on his own experiences as a traveling performer) or working class men trying to find his slice of the American Dream among the crash of the stock market and the Great Depression, a character not so subtly modeled after his father and the family life he left behind in Philadelphia. Occasionally, his characters would hit a windfall, but in the end, it was all a way for him to enjoy the simple things in life. Like a drink in the middle of the day with his best pals.
Like the greatest comedians, he recycled material relentlessly, trying to create the "authoritative" version of a bit. Many of his films were based on sketches he had written for the Ziegfeld Follies or Earl White's Scandals (another review show in which he starred on Broadway): For example, You're Telling Me!, a sound remake of the silent So's Your Old Man, featured his famous golf routine, which had been its own short film based on his sketch from the Follies.
W.C. Fields – like Mae West, Lucille Ball, Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers, and really any other legendary comedian of the first half of the 20th century – is not solely defined by a single performance, a single film; they exist as personalities with very little deviation; well honed "types," variations on a theme, that find themselves in a series of situations with similar results: Mae's sexuality (and sharp witted tongue) could always get her out of trouble; Lucy's schemes (whether as Mrs. Ricardo/Carmichael/ Carter/Barker) always got her in trouble with the male authority in her life; Abbott was the con-man to Costello's naif (yet ended up getting conned himself in the end); and Groucho and his Brothers existed in a world with no consequences, where zaniness and chicanery were met with reward.
Fields essentially played two characters in rotation:
The Swindler, a carney who uses his gregarious charm to coax chumps out of a dollar. For examples, see: Pool Sharks (1915), Sally of the Sawdust (1925), Two Flaming Youths (1928), The Old Fashioned Way (1934), Poppy (1935), You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939).
The Everyman who tries against all odds to provide for his family while they – led by the nagging wife – are embarrassed by his failures and refuse to believe in him. For examples, see: It's the Old Army Game (1926), So's Your Old Man (1926), The Potters (1927), Running Wild (1927), The Dentist (1932), The Barbershop (1933), The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933), You're Telling Me! (1934), It's a Gift (1934).
In It's a Gift (1934), possibly his greatest and tightest film, Fields plays Harold Bissonette (which his wife insists on pronouncing "bis-o-nay" to sound fancy), a small town New Jersey grocer who uses his inheritance from his uncle's death to buy an orange grove in California, much to his wife's chagrin (played by the indomitable Kathleen Howard). The film is comprised of five distinctive bits that could stand alone, but collectively create a beautiful patch work of family dysfunction. They can stand alone because in true Fieldsian fashion, they had their roots in earlier material:
The opening scene in the bathroom where Harold struggles to shave, as well as the idea of being "duped" into an investment, came from The Potters.
The swing scene on the porch was reworked from a bit in The Comic Supplement, a play he did for Ziegfeld; in fact, the film's original title was Back Porch.
Their car trouble departing for California was the combination of two Ziegfeld sketches, "The Family Ford" and "The Sport Model."
The picnic scene and some basic elements of the plot were reworked from It's the Old Army Game.
Only the scene in the grocery store with the blind Mr. Muckle (played to the hilt by Charles Sellon) was originally conceived (and mostly improvised) for this film – with the hilarious additions of Baby LeRoy (Fields favorite foil and somewhat improbable star; rumor has it that he once spiked the baby's bottle with gin) and Tammany Young (his favorite doofus; check out his deadpan as the caddy in You're Telling Me!) as his neighbor's child and his inept clerk, respectively.
What anchors It's a Gift amongst the hilarity is Harold's humanity. As our Everyman, he braves on for the promise of a better life, deflecting insults from strangers and loved ones alike for what they all see as embarrassing folly, a flimflam, or both. Harold believes in his heart that the end will justify the means. So when they arrive to the lot in which he has sunk his life's savings, his integrity, and dignity, of course it is a barren wasteland. Disgusted with Harold's failure, his wife grabs the children and starts to abandon him. Notice Fields' delivery of the line, "Come on back, Amelia. I'll drive you" – imbued with such sincerity that it was obviously a choice by the studio that he not be given more chances to shine in dramatic work for fear of losing one of their preeminent comedians. Harold sits on the running board of their car and it, like his life, collapses. He meanders to the front porch of his rickety shack and in probably the most tender moment in Fields' whole oeuvre, the family dog nuzzles up beside him, kissing him on the cheek.
But suddenly, a car rounds the bend, passing Amelia and the children on the dirt covered bridge. And their future takes another unsuspected turn.
It wasn't until Fields' final three starring roles that he seemed to really break the mold from his aforementioned archetypes – or at least he combined them in new ways: My Little Chickadee (1940) casts him as a con-man, but this time as a bachelor and for the first time shows him as a somewhat pathetic Lothario to Mae West's chronic troublemaking bachelorette (in real life, Fields definitely enjoyed having much younger women on hand as his secretaries and assistants, but history is unclear whether or not bedding him was part of the job description); The Bank Dick (1940) saddles him with the shrewish wife, but his desire to "get ahead" seems to be for his own hedonistic purposes (laziness and drink) instead of providing for his family; perhaps this is why it is his most popular film, embracing a modern cynicism. And Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), the most surreal of his films, literally has him playing himself, pitching a script to a Universal executive and being hit with all the reasons why it should not be made (ironically, this film, possibly his most scrutinized and rewritten – and autobiographical – work ended up being shot as close to his original intentions as possible).
The constant in all of his films was the daughter who believed in him despite life spitting in his face. It's telling that Fields never had a daughter nor any daughter surrogates in his life; it seems that he was, to paraphrase one of Alvy Singer's famous quips, trying to get things to come out right in art because they so rarely do in life. It should come as no surprise that Fields was hired for the most quintessential of W.C. Fields roles, The Wizard of Oz – the charlatan with a heart of gold, ready to help the lost, little girl find her way home – but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts with You Can't Cheat an Honest Man.
But it is another famous Alvy quote (taken from Fields' friend, Groucho Marx) that could have summed up Fields' life: "I don't want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member." Fields, while not the misanthropic recluse people presumed, was a private man with few friends and traveled with cases of booze in his early years on the road as bait to ingratiate himself to his fellow cast members. Ironically, the booze, the very thing that once made him popular in private, became his way of alienating others in his old age – all the while being embraced by the public as our favorite, lovable louse.
The Sin Ship By Ed Garea
The Sin Ship (RKO, 1931) – Director: Louis Wolheim. Writers: F. Hugh Herbert (s/p). Keene Thompson & Agnes Brand Leahy (story). Stars: Louis Wolheim, Mary Astor, Ian Keith, Hugh Herbert, Russ Powell & Alan Roscoe. B&W, 65 minutes.
A cursory glance at the title might lead one to think the film is about a floating bordello/casino/opium den loose on the waters. But it’s nothing of the sort. It’s really about the redemption of two people who have gone astray.
The film opens in the captain’s cabin of the ship, where Captain Sam McVey (Wolheim) is deep in conversation with First Mate Charlie (Herbert). Charlie wants to settle down. McVey laughs him off, “I don’t say no prayers, I don’t help no cripples and I don’t fall in love.”
Once on the dock they spot a comely women (Astor) walking alongside her minister husband. McVey is immediately taken: “A woman’s woman, ain’t she? And that’s the kind I like.” Charlie tries to splash a little water on the fire, “A little pretty for the likes of us.”
Later, at a seaside bar, the minister approaches McVey about giving them passage to Mexico. Getting another look at his wife standing outside, the captain quickly agrees.
The party soon shoves off, and while the minister and his wife enjoy the sun on the boat’s deck, McVey is figuring how to lure her down to his cabin. He sends Charlie to invite her to tea. As she enters the cabin McVey locks the door behind her. When she asks why he did that he replies, “Just a little idea of mine.” When she demands he open the door, he answers, “Do you think I was letting you and that husband of yours ride free because I was getting holy?”
His ideas of seduction, however, are quickly extinguished by his prisoner, who goes on the attack. “I know what’s wrong with you,” she says. “You’re soaked in liquor. Your mind is warped. You could be fine if you wanted to be. You’re the captain, You’re supposed to be better than your crew.”
As she sees she has him on the ropes, she continues. “You’re being the worst. The captain is the police, the judge and jury of his boat. He should protect his passengers. He’s supposed to have honor. But not you. You’re an animal. You have no fine feelings. Clean up your mind, your body, your soul. Then you’ll think better, live better.”
If she’s going down, it won’t be without a fight. However, she’s made her point. McVey throws the key on the table and tells her to leave. “Women are not all alike, Captain,” she says as she grabs the key to leave.
When she returns to her cabin she bursts out laughing. “McVey,” she tells her husband, “our noble captain, just pulled the 'Hairy Ape' gag on me. His man asked me if I’d like to have tea with him in his cabin. New idea, no? So I pulled the outraged good woman gag on him. Did I put on an act! Gosh, I almost believed it myself. And he fell for it! I left him groggy.”
Her husband reverts to his real self as he tells her to go easy, lest anyone discover they are really bank robbers Smiley Marsden and his wife, Frisco Kitty. “Wouldn’t be so good if he found out that you’re Frisco Kitty and these clothes are phony,” he says while pulling on his holy garb. “You seem to forget that they’re looking for Mr. Smiley Marsden, the man that cracked the Liberty National Bank in Seattle, accompanied by his dear wife.”
The next morning his crew sees a new Captain McVey one that has given up the bottle and is wearing a clean white shirt. They are stunned, to say the least. This isn’t the captain they know. One remarks, “Maybe he thinks he’s going to croak.”
Once in Mexico and ridden with guilt, McVey composes a note of apology to Kitty and gives it to Charlie to deliver. Later, in their cabin, Smiley reads the note. At the end McVey says he’s returning to San Diego. This unnerves Smiley. He tells Kitty that McVey leaving port so soon might lead the police to investigate and discover who his passengers were.
He tells Kitty that she must play up to McVey to stall him. For his part, Smiley will sabotage the engine so they can’t leave. She leave a drunken Marsden in his cabin that night to make her date with McVey. The complacent captain tells her how she’s changed his life. His apology is so effusive and sincere that she is clearly taken aback. Later, when she returns to Smiley, she declares that she just couldn’t go through with it.
Smiley sabotages the engined and McVey and crew are stuck. Things are beginning to fall apart. McVey invites Smiley and Kitty to the boat for dinner. She shows, he doesn’t. Kitty makes apologies. When she returns, Smiley is jealous that she went to see the captain.
The crew is beginning to blame their captain for the misfortune. At a showdown the crew tells their captain they believe it was he who sabotaged the engine so they would have to stay in Mexico. They also hint to him that Kitty may come to a bad end.
The plot climaxes when McVey saunters over to the hotel to warn Kitty and Marsden. Smiley angrily reveals his and Kitty's true identities. McVey, taken totally aback, denounces Kitty and knocks out Marsden just as an undercover police detective conveniently bursts into the room to arrest him for the bank robbery. While Kitty is being held in the hotel, McVey sneaks back to her room. He accepts both her apology and her declaration of love. Kitty and McVey vow to wait for each other, but it’s unnecessary as the detective all too conveniently shoots and kills an escaping Marsden and grants Kitty her release to be with her captain.
This was the only film directed by Wolheim before his untimely death from stomach cancer at the age of 50 on February 18, 1931. The Sin Ship marked his final appearance on screen and was released after his death. Shortly after he finished the film he was quoted as saying that this was his first and last film as a director and in the future he would concentrate on acting. Had he lived, I think it would be easy to say that he would have developed into one of the dominant character actors of the ‘30s.
The Sin Ship overall is an enjoyable movie, with much more emphasis on character than plot. The cast is small, with the romantic triangle between Wolheim, Astor and Keith dominating the movie. Herbert provided a nice attempt at being comedy relief and it’s nice to see him in his early days before he typecast himself with the “Woo hoo hoo” nonsense. The best performance comes from Astor, who made the film while still mourning the death of her husband, director Kenneth Hawks (brother of Howard) in an airplane crash filming action scenes for the film Such Men Are Dangerous on January 2, 1930. Her evolution during the course of the film from the hard-edged Frisco Kitty is believable, though she could have benefited from a few extra scenes to further develop her character.
Ian Keith, as Smiley, has the juiciest role and he makes the most of it. He began his career on the Broadway stage before making the jump to moves in the Gloria Swanson vehicle Manhandled (Paramount, 1924). By the time he died in 1960 of a heart attack he had amassed 119 credits in film and television. His best-known role was that of Joan Blender’s alcoholic husband in Nightmare Alley (20th Century Fox, 1947). He also played John Wilkes Booth in D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (U.A., 1930), Octavian in DeMille’s version of Cleopatra (Paramount, 1934), and was one of the actor originally considered for Universal’s Dracula after the death of Lon Chaney.
The weakest portrayal in the film comes from Wolheim himself. As the film progresses he frequently looks distracted, possibly the result of wearing two hats – that of an actor and that of a director. His direction is workmanlike and he was helped by the absence of action scenes. The appearance of the undercover detective at the end was a little too pat and the evolution of his captain from hard-drinking lout into reformed delinquent also strains credulity. When Astor is laughing as she tells Smiley about her encounter with McVey, she mentions him pulling “the hairy ape gag” on her. This is an inside nod to the fact that Wolheim became a star on Broadway playing the character of Yank in the original stage production of O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape in 1922. There is more than a little irony in the line muttered by one of the crew after McVey cleans himself up: “Maybe he thinks he’s going to croak.”
Wolheim’s death seems to have sunk The Sin Ship, as its studio, RKO, didn’t seem to have gotten behind it. Cliff Alperti, writing on the movie for his site, Immortal Ephemera, notes the film got mostly middling reviews, “which usually didn’t even bother to mention the death of its star and director, while playing across the country throughout half of 1931.”
In her autobiography, A Life on Film (Delacorte, 1971), Astor doesn’t have much good to say about the The Sin Ship, writing that due to money problems after the death of her husband she had to sign a contract “for which I had little enthusiasm” with RKO. The Sin Ship was one of eight films she made that year. I had the feeling reading the book that this was a time Astor preferred to forget for personal and professional reasons. She did manage to rebound in both areas: In June 1931 she married second husband Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, just a couple of months after the film’s release and she regained her career momentum with a meaty role in Red Dust (1932) for MGM with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.
Alperti quotes Film Daily as saying that RKO hired out speedboats at $500 per day to keep other ships from interrupting their work in the area of Catalina Island where they filmed.
Although some blogs say otherwise, screenwriter F. Hugh Herbert and actor Hugh Herbert are not one and the same. The screenwriter's full name is Frederick Hugh Herbert. He was born on May 29, 1897 in Vienna, Austria-Hungary. Actor Hugh Herbert was born on August 10, 1884 in Binghamton, New York.
Hell Divers By Ed Garea
Hell Divers(MGM, 1931) – Director: George Hill. Writers: Harvey Gates & Malcolm Stuart Boylan (s/p). Frank Wead (story). James Keven McGuinness & ralph Graves (add’l dialogue). James Warner Bellah, Charles MacArthur & Edward Dean Sullivan (cont. writers - uncredited). Stars: Wallace Beery, Clark Gable, Conrad Nagel, Dorothy Jordan, Marjorie Rambeau, Marie Prevost, Cliff Edwards, John Miljan, Landers Stevens, Reed Howes, Alan Roscoe & Frank Conroy. B&W, 109 minutes.
A cursory look at the title might end one to think this is a film about deep sea divers or submariners. But it’s actually about those who fly and maintain dive bombers.
The dive bombers are Curtiss F8C-4 Helldivers, of which the film features plenty of in footage of flight operations aboard the Navy’s second aircraft carrier, the USS Saratoga, which accounts for the dedication at the divining of the movie: the United States Navy.
As to the plot, Chief Petty Officer “Windy” Riker (Beery), a veteran aerial gunner aboard a Navy Helldiver dive bomber and the leading chief of Fighting Squadron One, has just lost his five-year claim to the title of “champion dog fighter” to a young upstart C.P.O. named Steve Nelson (Gable), who has just joined the squadron. Later, the local police come to arrest Windy for his role in wrecking a Turkish bathhouses but Jack Griffin (Miljan), the unit’s commander, tells the police that Windy is needed for important maneuvers on base.
Griffin and his second-in-command, Lieutenant "Duke" Johnson (Nagel), agree that Nelson is the best candidate to replace Windy as he ponders retirement.
The friendly rivalry between Windy and Steve turns sour after the squadron practices a new dive-bombing technique. When the release on Steve’s plane fails to fully work he climbs out onto the wing and holds the bomb in place until the plane can land on the carrier. Windy gives Johnson a cock and bull story about the bombs not being good enough, but Steve notices that the release is not in alignment and points it out to Johnson. The fact that Nelson overrode Windy’s explanation does not go down well with the older man and he decks Nelson as they walk away. Johnson sees the entire incident and dresses down Windy.
Looking to get even, Windy pulls a practical joke on Nelson. When Steve's sweetheart, Ann Mitchell (Jordan), visits him, he proposes marriage to her. But Windy, unaware that Ann is Steve's fiancee and not simply a girl he is trying to impress, has bribed an old acquaintance, Lulu (Prevost), to pretend to be Steve's outraged lover. She starts an argument with Ann, who leaves the base upset, refusing to listen to Steve’s explanation.
Windy, now Johnson's gunner, makes a crucial mistake during a bombing exercise off Panama. Thinking he has misplaced his code book, Windy delays the takeoff of the squadron while he searches for it, only to find it was in his back pocket all the while. As punishment, Johnson assigns him to supervise a work party when the ship docks, causing him to miss liberty and keeping him from seeing his girl, Mame Kelsey (Rambeau), the woman in Panama he wants to settle down with after retirement.
Steve, who knows Mame, runs into her on the dock and shares her carriage back into town. When Windy hears about it he sneaks into town to have it out with Steve. Mame tries to convince Steve to patch up his differences with Windy and promotes a peace between them when Windy shows up at her hotel. But after having a drink together in the bar Windy starts a brawl. Though Steve tries to help him avoid the Panamanian police, they catch up to him and throw him in in jail.
As the Saratoga passes through the Panama Canal, Mame bails Windy out of jail and he catches up to the carrier by stealing a boat. For his transgressions, the captain of the Saratoga (Roscoe) reduces Windy in rank one rate from chief, reduced to Aviation Machinist's Mate 1st Class for leaving his post without authorization, absent without leave, and missing ship. A reluctant Steve now becomes leading chief.
During a war games manuever, Steve's aircraft crashes near a rocky island. The pilot is killed and Steve suffers a broken leg. When Duke and Windy land to rescue Steve, Duke suffers a head injury and Windy has to save both, setting Steve's broken leg. Steve and Windy now become friends while waiting in the fog to be found.
By the fourth day, Duke's condition worsens and Steve develops blood poisoning. With no sign of a rescue mission, Steve comes up with a plan to leave the island by having Windy fly the plane according to his navigation. Windy flies them out in Duke's dive bomber, with Duke in the rear cockpit and, in order to lessen the danger of flying too heavy, Steve insists on riding the wing. Despite the fog, they find the aircraft carrier, but the plane aircraft crashes during the landing, fatally trapping Windy in the burning wreckage. At his last request, Windy is buried at sea as a missing man formation flies overhead. Following Windy's burial at sea, Steve reads a letter that Windy wrote to him before his death. In the letter, Windy confesses to Ann that he used Lulu as a joke to frame Steve.
Hell Divers is far more interesting today for its excellent naval-aviation action footage than for its creaky plot and corny lines. Wallace Beery, getting top billing, portrays his usual slow-talking, “aw shucks” character, while Gable, who disliked the film, handles his role quite well, researching his role by hanging out with Navy men. According to Jeremy Arnold’s essay on the TCM Movie Database, when Gable learned that the Navy fliers never took a lemon twist with their gin but rather had a slice of lemon on the side, biting the lemon between gulps, he picked up the habit himself for years after this film. It wasn’t easy for Gable to buddy-buddy it up with his co-star on the set. Off-screen he despised the older Beery, who gladly returned the favor.
The film offers rare glimpses of naval aviation in its infancy, as Curtiss F8C Helldiver biplanes take off and land on the historic Saratoga in breakneck fashion. We’re also treated to a shot of a deck-landing by the rigid airship Los Angeles (ZR-3). Meanwhile, the screenplay lurches between military-movie clichés to brawling antics and finally ending in a hokey and manipulative melodramatic finale.
It’s a loose remake of the old chestnut What Price Glory? with retired Naval Lt. Comdr. Frank Wead credited for the film's story. (Wead himself was himself later portrayed by John Wayne in John Ford’s biopic The Wings of Eagles. In the course of the film, footage of Hell Divers appears. Ford regular Jack Pennick has a small role in both, appearing uncredited in Hell Divers as a recruit sailor.)
Cinematographer Charles A. Marshall shot the principal aerial photography in 1931 at North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego, marking the first of a series of naval epics filmed there.The aircraft used in the film, the Curtiss F8C-4, was the first production variant to bear the nickname “Helldiver.”While a small number of miniatures stood in for the real aircraft, as well in a mock battle by planes attacking the Saratoga, the majority of the aerial scenes directed by Marshall featured the actual Helldivers. Real events were woven into the film, such as the footage of the historic 1928 landing of the USS Los Angeles landing aboard the carrier.
Director George Hill was married to screenwriter Frances Marion for three years. After Hell Divers,he completed only one more picture, Clear All Wires (1933), before committing suicide at his beach house. Before his death he had begun pre-production on The Good Earth. The project was handed to director Sidney Franklin, and the film, starring Paul Muni and Luise Reiner, became a classic.
Supporting actress Marie Prevost also came to a sad and gruesome end six years after this film. A silent screen star who had appeared in three popular Ernst Lubitsch comedies (including The Marriage Circle in 1924), she had trouble transitioning to talkies due to her strong Canadian accent. She subsequently developed weight problems, and fell into bit parts in the 1930s while turning to the bottle. Broke, she died of alcoholism and malnutrition in her run-down Hollywood apartment, Her body wasn't discovered for two days, during which time her starving dog had nibbled on her corpse. (This according to Kenneth Anger is his Hollywood Babylon.)
Dorothy Jordan, who plays Ann, Gable’s love interest, retired in 1933 to marry producer Merian C. Cooper. She made a brief comeback in the 1950s to play small roles in three John Ford films – including the wife still in love with John Wayne in The Searchers (1956). Cliff Edwards, who plays Windy’s buddy "Baldy," would go on to supply the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio (1940) and sing "When You Wish Upon a Star,” which won an Oscar. Also look for Robert Young in a bit role as a sailor.
Budgeted at $821,000, Hell Divers grossed $1,244,000 in the U.S. and Canada, and $917,000 elsewhere.
Men in White By Ed Garea
Men in White(MGM, 1934) – Director: Richard Boleslawski. Writers: Waldemar Young (s/p). Sidney Kingsley (play). Stars: Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Jean Hersholt, Elizabeth Allen, Otto Kruger, C. Henry Gordon, Russell Hardie, Wallace Ford, Henry B. Walthall, Russell Hopton, Samuel S. Hinds, Frank Puglia, Leo Chalzei, Berton Churchill, & Donald Douglas. B&W, 74 minutes.
Can you see Clark Gable as a brilliant, dedicated doctor so involved in his work that he doesn’t have time to chase fiancee Myrna Loy around? We admit it was a stretch, but he turned in a great performance that served as a springboard to bigger and better films in this adaptation of Sidney Kingsley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
Men in White opens with the fall of a worker at a building site. He is immediately rushed by ambulance to St. George’s Hospital, where we meet the staff, including Dr. Hochberg (Hersholt), the resident genius, Dr. Gordon (Hinds), Dr. Levine (Kruger), and intern Dr. George Ferguson (Gable). Ferguson is the hospital’s boy wonder, the protege of Dr. Hochberg, who Hochberg is prepping to take over for him when he retires.
We learn that Dr. Ferguson is soon going to Vienna on a year-long apprenticeship to further his studies. He is also engaged to the rich and pampered Laura Hudson (Loy). Laura has dropped by the hospital to see her father John (Churchill), who is a heart patient. This gives her time with her intended to discuss the future and sets up the crux of the movie, which is that Ferguson is caught between two headstrong people, each of whom has radically different plans. Laura wants a husband with his own private practice, while Hochberg wants a doctor dedicated to the saving of lives above all else.
During their brief get-together, Laura complains that she never sees George. George tells her how lucky he is to be working with a man like Hochberg. They talk about their marriage and honeymoon in Vienna. Hochberg has told Laura that Vienna will be a lot of work for George, who he is grooming as his successor. Laura wants a honeymoon to be a time of sightseeing, dining out and making whoopee.
As they prepare to part, Laura mentions to George that she is looking forward to their engagement tonight, but George informs her that he has to stay and handle a difficult transfusion case. This cheeses off Laura, who asks what is more important: studying with Hochberg or their future life together? She reiterates her desire that he leave the hospital and go into private practice.
After she leaves, George is making his rounds when he discovers that Dr. Cunningham (Gordon) has overdosed a young girl on insulin, causing her to go into shock. He manages to save the girl, but the nurse helping him, Barbara Denning (Allan) suddenly faints while tidying up. George revives her and asks what’s wrong. She answers this is her first case with a sick child. He tells her to get some rest, forget about things and kick back. She tells him that she can’t as she’s studying for exams.
George learns that his transfusion patient has died, so he is free and phones Laura. However, still peeved, she blows him off, telling him she can’t just wait around, and has made other plans. George returns to his hospital dormitory room. Soon after, Barbara comes to George's room and asks to borrow notes for an upcoming examination that he promised. As both are feeling down and exhausted, George and Barbara begin to share their fears and doubts about the medical profession. They then give in to their sexual attractions and share a kiss. As a nurse must never be seen exiting an intern’s private room, George peers out from his door to see if the coast is clear. He tells her it’s OK and leaves to make his rounds. But instead of leaving, she remains in his room and removes her headwear, leaving us to think something will be going on when he returns.
Later, at a hospital board meeting, the directors are informed that the hospital is running at a huge loss. The board president announces that he has found someone to help them out of the hole – none other than Laura’s father, John. In return, the board suggests that Ferguson be made an associate, complete with office. Dr. Hochberg replies that Ferguson will never accept the offer. But later at dinner, Hochberg is told Ferguson is on board with the recommendation. Hochberg, taken aback, still refuses to approve the appointment.
George later confesses to Hochberg that, because of pressure from Laura, he is having doubts about pursuing his hospital career. Hochberg is taken aback, but before he can persuade him otherwise, they learn that Barbara is seriously ill from a bungled abortion and requires emergency surgery. Hochberg tells George to dress for the operation. After George leaves for the dressing room Hochberg takes the time to dress down Laura, telling her she has no idea what she’s doing in taking George away from a brilliant career in medicine.
Hochberg tells George the operation is a hysterectomy. When George asks another nurse why Barbara didn’t come to him first, the nurse tells him she knows all about their affair and cautioned Barbara from ever seeing him again.
Hochberg invites Laura to dress and watch the operation so that she might get an idea of how important medicine is to George. Just before Barbara goes under to the ether, she tells George that she loves him. Laura, hearing this confession, faints and has to be carried out.
Now the proverbial cat is finally out of the bag. Laura, thoroughly steamed, refuses to see George. George, for his part, tells Hochberg that, although he still loves Laura, he feels a obligation to marry Barbara and start his own practice to support her. Hochberg advises Laura to forget about George and sends her to see Barbara. George is also in the room, clutching Barbara’s hand. She is near death. Barbara asks Laura to forgive both her and George, and then, while still clutching George’s hand, she dies.
Now, thoroughly disillusioned and finally understanding George’s true calling, she tells him she’s sailing for Europe without him, but leaves the door open by telling him she may visit him in Vienna if he’s willing. They leave it at that as the film ends, as George has to run off to assist Hochberg with another emergency.
Men in White is a melodrama and comes off somewhat corny at times with George split between his love for Laura and his devotion to his craft. Gable, sans mustache, gives a good performance, but this isn’t his metier. He’s far more relaxed as the lovable rogue in action/adventure films. In the film, his best scenes are with the sick children, coming across as genuinely concerned and caring.
Myrna Loy, in a role that doesn’t really give her much room to maneuver, gives her usual understated performance, refusing to ham it up in the “villainess” role and generating sympathy for her point of view. We especially have to sympathize with her on her refusal to have anything more to do with George after he cheated on her. Her attitude differs from other heroines of the time who gladly take their man back. But she still gives it a real spin by saying that he may drop in on her in Vienna; that perhaps with time the wounds can heal. Loy sells it well.
The best performance comes from Hersholt. As Dr. Hochberg, he dominates his scenes with his co-stars and comes across in the film as wanting the best for his protege, seeing Laura as an unnecessary diversion from George’s true goal. In the finale, he helps both George and Laura realize that, although they love each other, their relationship would never work – at least until George is through with his studies.
Art director Cedric Gibbons constructed impressive art deco sets for the hospital and George Folsey’s photography helps move the film along. Moreover, it took only 18 days to film, which is impressive, considering it was ticketed as a major attraction.
The film itself is the great-grandaddy of TV medical shows like Dr. Kildare, St. Elsewhere, ER, and especially, with its melodramatic spin, Grey’s Anatomy. The mildly surprising thing about it, especially in relation to other Pre-Code medical dramas, is its insistence on the ideals of medicine above all else. For instance, there’s a scene where a trio of interns are heard complaining about the difficulty of their studies. They are quickly set straight by an older doctor who reminds them that medicine has come a long way since he was born, and the fact that they are here studying modern medicine, which has taken centuries to refine and probably will take centuries more as additional knowledge comes to the fore.
We also see this struggle at the personal level with the talks between Ferguson and his mentor, Hochberg. They discuss such topics as what it means to be a doctor and the importance of furthering the knowledge of medicine as opposed to merely making money in private practice. Most of all, Hochberg never lets Ferguson forget how far he’s come and the great things he was destined for and could do if he could only stifle his ardor for the opposite sex.
And it’s this attraction to women that nearly does him in as a doctor. After his young patient dies before he can administer the transfusion, he calls Laura to regretfully tell her he is now free, but she cruelly tells him she has made other plans, that she’s not going to sit around waiting for him. Now at a very low point, George returns to his room, where he is visited by Barbara on the pretext of getting the notes he had earlier promised. As she thanks him he stares out the window, obviously thinking of the young patient he lost and Laura’s rather rude kiss off for the night. As he passes Barbara, he kisses her and she returns the kiss. As opposed to the play, where it’s an outright seduction, screenwriter Young handles it rather brilliantly, treating it as more inevitable, considering what both have recently been through, than intentional. It’s simply a case of her admiration meeting his neediness head-on. It’s after he leaves to check on his patients and we see her staying behind, taking off her head gear and waiting for him to return as the scene fades out and we are left to draw the obvious conclusions.
Where the movie becomes decidedly ambiguous is when it deals with Barbara’s illness and its cause. We have to really think hard to determine that she is suffering the aftereffects of a back alley abortion, a nasty infection, and we get our clue from a conversation between Hochberg and Ferguson. Some might be perplexed by this, thinking that Pre-Code movies let it all hang out. Remember, though, that back then abortion was an illegal act, and as lax as the Hays Office was back then, it would never approve this plot line. Even if it had slipped by them there was the inevitability of a state board of censors putting the kibosh on it. Kingsley’s play makes no bones about the fact that she underwent an abortion, but Hollywood wasn’t the same as Broadway.
There was a flurry of memos exchanged between the Hays Office, Joseph Breen and his Legion for Decency and the studio concerning the script for Men in White. The studio realized early on that aspects of the play would have to be radically changed to get by the censors.
In the play, Barbara survives the operation. She also refuses George’s offer of marriage, advising him to return to Laura. Also, head nurse Mary (portrayed in the film – uncredited – by Dorothy Peterson) tells Barbara that interns don’t marry nurses, they only sleep with them. Mary is also the one from whom George learns of Barbara’s medical emergency. He asks her, “Why didn’t she come to me?” In the film, George learns of the abortion by talking with Hochberg.
The movie also cuts down Barbara’s murmuring while slipping under the ether. In the film, she simply tells George she loves him, but in the play, she also mentions what a beautiful night it was and also murmurs “Hold me tight! Tight!”
When the operation is over and with Barbara well on the road to recovery, the play tells us that Barbara plans to marry the father of the little girl she cared for, the one who received the accidental dose of insulin and whom George had to save. In the play, the girl’s parents are divorced; in fact, the mother obtained a divorce without the knowledge of the husband.
For the Hays Office and Breen, however, nothing less than the death of Barbara will do. She violated the moral code and must pay for her sins. MGM acquiesced to this; after all, it adds to the melodrama and makes Ferguson’s vow to marry her and support her all the more poignant in light of her death.
Having Barbara die after her operation also gives MGM room for a final talk between Laura and Hochberg. Reeling from George’s infidelity, Laura confides in Hochberg, who tells her “I’ve never met a man or woman whom impulse couldn’t make a fool of.” The point is that Laura needs a relationship that is more solid, dedicated and, most importantly, sexually exclusive. Laura tells Hochberg: “He was too busy to see me. He didn’t have time for me. But he had time (for her). That’s what hurts. Hurts like the devil.” The meaning of this is also quite clear: Laura would have forgone her sense of decorum if she had known that it meant that much to George. She, too, is being punished for being stubborn and spoiled.
When she and George have a heart to heart in the finale, she tells him that she would have slept with him before their wedding: “You know I don’t care a hoop about ceremony.” But George’s reply is straight to the point: “I wanted you more than anything else in the world that night, Laura. But we’d quarreled. You wouldn’t even go out with me.” When she asks him if it was that night, we see she’s finally beginning to understand, though a little too late. She then goes on to talk about the “casual incidence,” suggesting that it needn't have influenced George to marry the girl.
It was this line that infuriated Breen. He asked that the term be deleted, but the studio ignored him. Breen also suggested Barbara’s medical emergency should be the result of a clear suicide attempt rather than an abortion. But that request also went by the wayside.
Will Hays, on the other hand, was satisfied with how the studio handled the abortion subplot. In his opinion it was no longer clear as to whether her problem was the result of an abortion or suicide attempt. What did bother Hays was a speech given by Hochberg in which he says that: “Some of our laws are hard to understand. At times they work cruel hardships.” To Hays, this was an inference to abortion.
Hays also had other worries. Universal wanted to remake its 1916 pro-abortion film Where Are My Children? and was looking at how the Hays Office handled the abortion issue in Men in White. Though Hays liked that MGM made cuts in Hochberg’s speech, there were other instances that rankled him, such as George’s line, “Why didn’t she come to us?” and George’s rationale to Hochberg for marrying Barbara by telling him that “The girl’s life is smashed.”
In particular, the line “Why didn’t she come to us?” seemed to open the door to all sorts of possibilities, including that one of the doctors might have performed the abortion instead of her going to a back alley abortionist.
I think what Hays overlooked in his panic was that Barbara chose not to inform her co-workers of her condition. Instead she went to someone she would not have to see again. Abortion was not only illegal, it was a source of shame that would have possibly cut short George’s career and her own for violating the rules of non-fraternization. In the play, we might have inferred that her co-workers would gladly have come to her aid, but abortion was still illegal and if word got out, administration heads would have rolled. There was no way her co-workers would have even contemplated such an action. But George’s question is just as ambiguous as Barbara’s condition. It’s what he doesn’t say that compels the audience to infer that her condition was due to an abortion.
Unfortunately for Hays, his request came too late. MGM had already cut prints of the movie and was shipping them to its theaters. But before prints were struck, the studio made further requested cuts to the negative, including the removal of the word “peritonitis,” which George mentions after deducing that Barbara’s blood count did not result from a ruptured appendix and from there deduced that she had an abortion. His next line was to question that her condition was not peritonitis.
On April 4, 1934, with the omission of the offering word, the Production Code Administration approved the picture and it was officially released two days later.
But while Will Hays could be mollified, Joseph Breen was another matter. After the film had been in re-release for over two weeks he wrote to the studio demanding cuts in Loy’s dialogue that, he thought, would demoralize the youth of America. He noted that his own daughter had reached the age where she could begin to go on dates and did not want her believing that such behavior was proper.
And there were the local censors who dictated further cuts. It was this nuisance, along with the fear that the federal government might intervene, that drove the studios to cave to Breen and his ilk.
Men in White, although it tilts towards the melodramatics, is well-scripted, well-acted and well-directed by Richard Boleslawski. Its success at the box office led to a plethora of imitations, including MGM’s own Dr. Kildare series. Hospital dramas were money in the bank for the studios.
The success of Men in White spawned more than imitations from other studios. It also spawned a parody from The Three Stooges in the form of their 1934 short Men in Black. The Stooges become doctors only because they were in medical school for more years than anyone can remember. But all through the short the Stooges shout “for duty and humanity,” a direct reference to the ending of Men In White.
One of the ironies of the abortion subplot in the film is that related by Myrna Loy in her autobiography, Being and Becoming. She had gotten pregnant by future husband Arthur Hornblow, but as he was married at the time she underwent an abortion. It left her sterile, unable to have children.
In Being and Becoming Loy also revealed that Gable, who was married at the time, had tried to plant a passionate kiss on her after bringing her home from a social event – with his wife in the car. She said her reaction was to knock him off the porch and into the bushes. The next thing she knew they were cast together in Men in White. “When we started the film, Clark developed a pretty serious thing with Elizabeth Allan, a lovely English girl in the cast, and greeted her with coffee and cakes every morning. The crew always put out sweet breads, so Clark would load up and, just to get my goat, walk right past me to Elizabeth. He was punishing me. We managed to be convincing lovers on camera, which wasn't easy while he virtually ignored me. That Dutchman just wasn't taking no for an answer.” Loy and Gable never did become lovers but they did end up as good friends and made several other films together at MGM.
As Loy noted, Gable and Allan had a “pretty serious thing” going. It began platonically, with long conversations between takes, but as in the movie, it grew into a full-blown affair that lasted for two years. The fact that both were married (Allan was a newlywed with a husband back in London when she began cavorting with Gable) was not a deterrent. After production on the film was over, Gable prodded MGM to sign her to a long-term contract.
Though they were careful not to be photographed together, they were still known as one of Hollywood’s worst kept secrets. And she wasn’t the only woman Gable was seeing. He dated many others in those two years. The affair ended when Gable began seeing Carole Lombard in 1936 and Lombard told him she didn’t like competition.
After an attempted lawsuit against MGM for reneging on a promise to co-star her in the 1938 film The Citadel (Rosalind Russell was given the role) Allan returned to England. She didn’t see Gable for many years, but in 1943, while he was serving in the Army Air Force and stationed in London, they ran into each other and picked up where they left off, even though Allan was still married with two children. Such was the allure of Gable.
Allan enjoyed a successful career in England, starring in movies and on television until 1968. She died in 1990 at age 82.
The Animal Kingdom By Ed Garea
The Animal Kingdom (RKO, 1932) – Director: Edward H. Griffith, George Cukor (uncredited). Writers: Horace Jackson (s/p), Adela Rogers St. John (uncredited), Philip Barry (play). Stars: Ann Harding, Leslie Howard, Myrna Loy, William Gargan, Neil Hamilton, Ilka Chase, Henry Stephenson, Leni Stengel & Don Dillaway. B&W, 85 minutes.
In the early days of sound, when Hollywood was looking for suitable material to place before its cameras, the plays of Philip Barry proved a good source. Barry, known for his comedies of manners, had a scored a number of hits on Broadway and some of his plays were converted into movies, such as Holiday (filmed in 1930 and 1938), You and I (filmed in 1931 as The Bargain), Tomorrow and Tomorrow (1931), Who Killed Cock Robin? (1938), Spring Dance (filmed in 1938 as Spring Madness), The Philadelphia Story (1940), and Without Love (1945).
Another of Barry’s plays that was ripe for the camera was The Animal Kingdom. A hit on Broadway (it ran for 183 performances from January 12, 1932 to June 1932, exact closing date unknown), it was co-produced by its star, Leslie Howard, who was brought over to star in the film adaptation by David O. Selznick for RKO. Ann Harding, who was one of the studio’s most popular leading ladies, was given the role of Daisy Sage. The only major role left to be filled was that of Cecelia Henry. Director Edward Griffith, who had worked with Myrna Loy on the 1931 RKO drama, Rebound, pitched Selznick to borrow her from MGM to play Cecelia, but Selznick wasn’t so sure. He knew she had the requisite beauty to play the part, but he had doubts about her acting chops. Griffith, however, persisted, and Selznick gave in and borrowed her for the role. It turned out to be a good decision as Loy gave a terrific performance as the materialistic Cecelia.
Tom Collier (Howard) owns Bantam Press, a small publishing house in Connecticut. He prides himself on publishing only books of superior quality, regardless of how they sell.
Tom has been living with Daisy Sage (Harding) for the last few years. When Daisy, a commercial artist, goes off to Paris for a few weeks for an assignment, Tom suddenly falls head over heels for Cecelia Henry (Loy) and becomes engaged to her, much to the disappointment of her other beau, Owen (Hamilton), who also serves as Tom’s lawyer. Owen would love to marry Cecelia, but lacks the necessary financial resources to sustain her interest. On the night of his engagement he receives a telegram from Daisy announcing her immanent return.
Tom reassures Cecilia that he and Daisy are only friends and leaves to break the news to Daisy. Before he can tell her the news, Daisy confesses that, since learning how to paint in Paris, that she wants to be a serious artist. She wants him to come to Mexico with her, get married and start a family. When he tells Daisy he’s become engaged she is shattered and tells him she doesn’t even want to know the other woman’s name. Tom wants Daisy to continue their friendship, but she’s too devastated to take him up on it, preferring that they simply part. Tom returns to Connecticut to marry Cecilia.
Months later Tom happens to see a poster announcing Daisy’s first gallery show. He persuades Cecelia into going with him, but on the night they are to leave she feigns a headache and announces she’s going to bed. Shortly after, she appears to Tom in a sexy nightgown and subtly seduces him into staying home that night.
Cecelia is also bothered by Tom’s butler, “Red” Regan (Gargan). Red is a washed-up fighter who Tom hired to work for him. Cecelia thinks he’s too uncouth for the job and wants Tom to fire him. To Tom’s relief, Red, who knows of Cecilia’s disapproval, tells him he is quitting to go into the gym business with an old friend.
Days later, feeling lonely and bored, Tom visits Daisy at her place and broaches the subject of rekindling their friendship. But after he leaves, Daisy, who is still in love with him, panics at the thought of getting back together and leaves for Nova Scotia on that night’s train.
When Tom’s wealthy father, Rufus (Stephenson), comes to visit, he notes to both his and Cecilia’s disapproval that Red has returned as butler. It’s explained that his prospective business went bust and Tom, being soft-hearted, hired him back. Rufus wants Tom to give up the Connecticut life and come back to live with him in New York. Cecelia is in agreement with this. Cecelia, for her part, has also convinced Tom to accept books that are sure to be best sellers, regardless of quality.
Soon after Daisy’s return, she receives a phone call from Cecelia inviting her and two of Tom’s former New York friends, cellist Franc Schmidt (Stengel) and novelist Joe Fiske (Dillaway), one of Tom’s authors, up to Connecticut for Tom’s surprise birthday party, At first Daisy turns her down, but after thinking it over, her curiosity is such that she phones back and accepts, much to Cecelia’s dismay.
At the party, Tom shows Daisy his latest book and asks for her criticism. She tells him the novel is trash and chides him for turning his distinguished publishing house into a factory for pulp fiction. Later in the evening, Daisy enters a room just as Cecelia and Owen are about to go into a embrace. Cecelia was in the midst of convincing Owen to handle a merger of Tom’s publishing house with the powerhouse publishing firm of Williams and Warren.
Daisy is appalled by what she sees and convinces Franc and Joe to immediately return with her to New York. Before she goes, she stops to tell Tom she pities him. He is really changed from the Tom she knew and this time it’s farewell for good.
After the guests retire for the night, Cecelia and Tom argue over his not wanting to go to New York City for the winter and his reluctance to sell his business. As punishment for not acceding to her wishes Cecelia locks Tom out of their bedroom.
The next evening, Tom has changed his tune. He’ll sell the business and move to New York to live with his father and become a “proper” gentlemen, which is what Cecelia wants. Tom says it’s for the best in that he can settle down and start a family, but when Cecelia hears that, she demurs, saying the time isn’t yet right for a family.
Over dinner, Tom tells Cecelia that her bedroom reminds him of his days in England and a brothel he used to frequent in London. Payment for services was simple – one just left the money on the mantelpiece. Cecelia cuts him short. Tom then shows her the birthday check he received from his father. She takes one look and gasps that there can’t be that much money in the world. (A close look at the check reveals it’s for $100,000, worth over $1.8 million today. When the film was released, the average salary was $20 a week.) They have more champagne and she tells him she’ll be waiting in the bedroom.
After she leaves, Red comes in to tell Tom that he’s leaving – this time for good. Tom tells Red to fetch his hat and coat. He then takes the check and endorses it over to Cecelia. When Red returns with Tom’s hat and coat, Tom places the check on the mantelpiece and tells Red he’s going back home to his “wife.”
Leslie Howard was not the only one in the cast to reprise his Broadway role in the film. William Gargan, who played butler Red Regan, and Ilka Chase, who played Cecelia’s friend Grace, were also in the film.
RKO originally bought the film rights as a vehicle for Ann Harding, but when scheduling conflicts arose, the studio substituted Irene Dunne. However, in a twist of fate, the filming of Smilin’ Through at MGM was delayed and the studio refused to release Leslie Howard to RKO to begin filming on the scheduled date. Readjusting the starting date, RKO realized that Harding would now be available and reassigned her the role.
But there was another actress on the RKO lot who coveted a role in the film – Katharine Hepburn. She was originally fired from the Broadway cast during rehearsals by Howard in the role as co-producer. He cited as his reasons the fact that she towered over him, her mannerisms and what he called her “insufferable bossiness.” Learning that Harding was a lock for the role of Daisy she set her sights on the role of Cecelia. When Loy got the role, Hepburn was miffed. Loy noted in her autobiography that Hepburn said the reason Loy got the Cecelia role was because “she was beautiful” – as if, Loy noted, that was all she had going for her.
Still, Loy had to fight for the role of Cecelia. Selznick was on the fence, preferring MGM star Karen Morely as Cecelia. Director Griffith talked Howard into acting opposite Myrna in a screen test. Again, in her autobiography Loy mentioned that before she left for the studio, her “wonderful Mexican maid, Carolla, who always pampered me,” fixed her scrambled eggs with garlic sausage. The test went well, although Loy noticed that Howard seemed a bit distant. When she asked Griffith what Howard thought of her, the director replied that Howard thought she was very good, but wondered if she always ate so much garlic. Selznick was so impressed by the test that he immediately cast Myrna in the role.
Howard’s standoffishness towards Myrna melted away as soon as they began work on the film. A compulsive womanizer, Howard was taken by Myrna’s beauty and her sensitive, responsive manner. She, in turn, was mesmerized by his combination of passion with fine British manners. He pursued her hard, at one point even going to her rented house when boyfriend Arthur Hornblow was away in New York and pressing her to run away with him. Notwithstanding the fact he had a compliant wife and two children back in London, she declined the offer, wanting to stay loyal to Hornblow. She later remembered that “it could have been a real scrambola – if I had allowed it to be.”
Her work in the film impressed the critics and her bosses at MGM alike and enabled her to stop being typecast the Exotic. The Mask of Fu Manchu would be her last venture into that territory. Her Cecelia is multifaceted and very natural; overlaying the stark materialistic outlook of the character with a veneer of seductive charm. She would move on to other roles in comedies of social manners such as Topaze and When Ladies Meet. Later she performed admirably in Penthouse, The Lady and the Prizefighter and Manhattan Melodrama, which in turn led to her breakout role as Nora Charles in The Thin Man. From then on, she never had to look back.
Howard is also excellent in the film, using his passion of manners to good use with both the characters of Cecelia and Daisy. To watch him with both one would suppose they performed in the play over a long period of time. He also worked well with old friend Gargan, allowing him to steal a few scenes in the film.
Harding, on the other hand, while good as Daisy, seems too placid at times, considering all Tom has put her through. It also seems at times as if she is channeling Linda Seton from her critically acclaimed performance in Holiday. (Note: for all those who like the 1938 version of that film, I beg you to see the 1930 version, which can be accessed via the internet. Harding’s interpretation of Linda Seton leaves Hepburn’s stilted performance in the dust.) William Gargan is also excellent as the rough-hewn butler, and Ilka Chase manages to impress in her all-too-short role as Grace. I would have liked to have seen more of her. And I know there was more because William B. Davidson, another excellent supporting actor, played her husband and was listed in the credits supplied by Mordunt Hall of TheNew York Times in his review. Apparently, at some time while the film was in storage, his scenes disappeared.
Griffith, aided by fine work from cinematographer George L. Fosley, keeps the action flowing and the film from becoming much too stagy. To speed up filming he built six small sets adjoining one another on a large set. However, all went for naught when star Harding became ill and delayed production by about a week. After Griffith left the film, Selznick decided some additional scenes were necessary and brought in George Cukor to film them.
An example of the type of adult entertainment Selznick wanted RKO to pursue, it was treated as a prestige production and opened RKO’s theater in New York, the Roxy. However, the film proved more popular in the big cities than the rest of the country and wound up $100,000 in the red.
The film’s clear Pre-Code themes – cohabitation and Tom’s discussion of his brothel days with Cecelia – prevented RKO from reissuing the film in 1935 and 1937. On both occasions, the Production Code Administration told them they would not approve the film. Finally, RKO ended up selling the film and its rights to Warner Bros. sometime in the mid-1940s. In 1946, Warners’ came out with its remake, One More Tomorrow, a completely bowdlerized version, with Ann Sheridan in the Harding role as Christie Sage, Dennis Morgan as Tom Collier, Jack Carson as Regan, and Alexis Smith as Cecelia.
In the meantime, the original film was considered lost for many years. In 1960, it officially entered the public domain in this country as its copyright registration failed to be renewed. It wasn’t until the early ‘80s, when film historian Ronald Haver was searching the Warner vaults for missing material to complete a restoration of that studio’s version of A Star is Born (1954), that he came across a forgotten print and original negative that the studio had misplaced due to faulty bookkeeping.
Daisy: “Behold, the bridegroom cometh. And no oil for my lamp, as usual. A foolish virgin me. Oh, foolish anyway.”
Sit Tight By Ed Garea
Sit Tight(WB, 1931) – Director: Lloyd Bacon. Writers: William K. Wells (s/p & dialogue), Rex Taylor (story). Stars: Winnie Lightner, Joe E. Brown, Paul Gregory, Claudia Dell, Lotti Loder, Hobart Bosworth, Frank Hagney, Snitz Edwards, Heinie Conklin, Tom Kennedy, Kalla Pasha, Maurice Black, & Constantine Romanoff. B&W, 74 minutes.
The only thing Sit Tight has going for it to the film buff (and the hardcore wrestling fan) is that it is the first film I came across using professional wrestling as a theme. This is not to say it’s the first film about pro wrestling. There may have been films made prior to 1931 that revolved around the pro game. I write “may have” because, according to the Library of Congress, 75 percent of films made before 1929 are lost forever, while Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation pegs it at 90 percent.
Otherwise, it’s a weak musical that had all but one of its musical numbers removed before its American release. It was done for the same reason that Side Show had its musical numbers removed (see our review here): the American public was sick and tired of musicals at the time as an alarming number of them had flooded the market now that sound was the norm.
Dr. Winnie O'Neal (Lightner) owns and operates a gymnasium with the help of Jojo Mullins (Brown), who is learning wrestling via correspondence school. Much of Jojo’s duties in the gym consists of peeping at women in various states of undress and flirting shamelessly.
In the same building, Tom Weston (Gregory) works for Walter Dunlap (Bosworth), the father of his girlfriend, Sally (Dell). Sally is badgering Tom to accept a better position in the firm, citing his lack of ambition, but Tom will not accept one until he’s earned it. Miffed, Sally goes to her father, telling him to fire Tom, if for only a short time, until he comes to his senses. However, they both discover that Tom has quit the firm altogether, which prompts Dunlap to lecture his daughter about minding her own business.
On his way out, Tom helps Jojo overcome an attack by Winnie’s ex-husband Olaf (Hagney), a former wrestling champion. Winnie arrives to see the tussle. Impressed, she offers to train Tom as a professional wrestler. When Sally hears of this turn of events, she is beside herself. She hires Mr. Mack (Kennedy) with the aim of having him discourage Tom from his wrestling ambitions. But Mack mistakes Jojo for Tom and begins working him over in the gym’s ring. Mack places a head scissors on Jojo, the pressure of which causes Jojo to hallucinate that he is in a harem, and leads to a somewhat lengthy musical scene set in said harem. Meanwhile, Tom sees Mack throwing Jojo around and enters the ring to throw him around.
Dunlap visits the gym to try and talk Tom into quitting wrestling and return to the firm, but Tom refuses. He tells Dunlap he can’t quit until after the championship match in which he has been booked, knowing that Winnie has staked everything on the outcome.
As Tom is in the dressing room preparing for his championship match with Alexei Romanoff (Romanoff), a man (Cramer) hired by Dunlap enters the dressing room with two cronies to kidnap Tom and take to him to Dunlap’s yacht, which will be headed for Florida.
Winnie, discovering she now has no wrestler, arranges with Mr. White (Black), the promoter, to stage an extra bout until Tom arrives. She talks Jojo into climbing into the ring, promising to marry him if he can last in the ring until Tom arrives. But what Jojo doesn’t know is that his opponent, the Masked Marvel, is actually Olaf under a mask.
Meanwhile, Sally discovers Tom on the yacht and frees him, telling him that he must choose between her and the wrestling profession. Tom tells her that he has given his word to Winnie to wrestle in the championship match and must fulfill that promise before they can discuss anything else.
Just before Tom arrives at the arena, Jojo has managed to win his match. Tom enters the ring to fight Romanoff, whom he defeats. Sally, who has been watching from the sidelines, is so excited that she forgives him, and they embrace. Winnie and Jojo copy Tom and Sally when they kiss as the movie fades out.
Sit Tight is a film that is more interesting for what it is not rather than what it is. As mentioned earlier, the musical sequences (except for a brief song from Winnie) have all been removed prior to the film’s American release. This makes it more reliant upon the physical comedy of Brown, who was Warner’s house comedian. All his following films would feature Brown’s repertoire: excellent physical comedy and a brash personality with a big ego and big mouth with an ear-splitting screech.
With the loss of the music comes the diminution of Lightner’s presence. A genuinely funny actress known for being loud, brash and always quick with the comeback, the loss of music reduces her presence with the audience having to sit through scene after scene of Brown bragging about some supposed gift he has only to see him get creamed before the inevitable victory. However, though she doesn’t get to do too much besides be loud and angry, she does get to do a wonderful dance during Brown’s hallucination as a dancer. The set used for this scene was taken from the earlier 1931 Warner Bros. production of Kismet, starring Dita Parlo.
The lack of music also enlarges the importance of the secondary romance, of which the less said, the better. It’s like the secondary romance in many comedies, a device to give our comedians a rest. However, enlarge it with the removal of the music and it becomes gratingly annoying.
On the plus side, Lloyd Bacon’s direction makes good use of Brown’s physical abilities, and if the songs were left in, it would have been applauded for moving the film along at a nice clip. Constantine Romanoff choreographed the wrestling scenes and did a nice job carrying Tom’s character in the championship bout. Wrestling fans will want to watch those scenes to see how wrestling was conducted back then, somewhat of a culture shock compared to the antics of today.
Sit Tight should stand as a prime example of what happens when a studio monkeys with a completed film prior to release. In removing the majority of the musical numbers, the studio changed the entire tone of the film and left it wholly dependent on the antics of Joe E. Brown, which was obviously not the intent during filming. The secondary romance, now moved to the forefront, is technical and dull, and most of the gags tend to drag. But as the first film built around professional wrestling, it does evoke a vague curiosity.
Mr. Hulot's Holiday By Christine
Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday) (Discina, 1953) – Director: Jacques Tati. Writers: Henri Marquet (s/p, dialogue), Jacques Tati (s/p, dialogue, story), Jacques Lagrange (s/p, uncredited), Pierre Aubert (s/p, uncredited). Cast: Jacques Tati, Nathalie Pascaud, Louis Perrault, Andre Dubois, Lucien Fregis, Raymond Carl, Micheline Rolla, Valentine Camax, Marguerite Gérard, René Lacourt & Suzy Willy. B&W, 83 minutes.
Every film buff I have known has a special film.
I’m not taking about a favorite film, for there are usually more than one of them. But a special film, one that they look back upon with a loving remembrance, for it came along at a special time in their lives, or is remembered from an especially nostalgic time, say childhood, when they first watched it at a young age with their parents in the comfortable cocoon of the family, and it has had a magical effect on them since then.
For me, that special film is Les vacancies de Monsieur Hulot. It was the film my husband took me to see on our first date, and where I not only fell in love with him, but also knew that I would marry him.
On each anniversary, we would look to find a theater running the movie, after which we had dinner. Then videotapes came along. We would go out to an early dinner, then come home and watch the movie.
When our children were growing up, we exposed them to the joys of the film. They weren’t as enthusiastic as we were, of course. When they got older we began spending large parts of our annual summer vacations at Saint Marc-sur-mer (St. Marc by the Sea), where the movie was filmed. While they could never be said to be big fans of the movie, they were big fans of St. Marc, as the beach was wonderful. For them, it was paradise and their saddest day was when we packed to leave. Were it up to them, we would never have left.
It’s easy to be drawn to a film such as this, as much of the French moviegoing public was when the film was released. The reason for its popularity, besides the harmless antics of Mr. Hulot, is that Jacques Tati had his finger firmly on the pulse of French culture and its obsession with the summer vacation, which occurs every August.
As France returned to normality after the years of occupation during the war, the summer vacation regained its central position with a vengeance. The postwar economic recovery had bestowed more largesse on more people, and while class and political distinctions were not entirely erased, more people were able to partake of and enjoy a vacation.
Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is the film in which Tati introduced his most famous and enduring character, Mr. Hulot, to the public. It has no plot as such, which allows Tati to draw the humor from everyday circumstances, as the film perfectly captures the seemingly endless drifting of a childhood vacation because there is nothing outside to tie it all together. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is a series of vignettes set over the course of a week at a beach resort with the only “beginning” and “end” being in the sense that the film starts with the guests arriving and finishes with them leaving. Tati’s film is a satire, a gentle poke at the newly emerging middle class who are so immersed in getting there that they find themselves trapped in their conventions and rigid social roles to the point that they forget how to relax and have a good time. By unfolding the film in a series of vignettes and using as little spoken dialogue as possible, Tati comes across more as an observer than as an active participant.
Though it has the look of improvisation, each scene has been meticulously planned. When Tati made this film in 1953, the summer vacation had not yet become the institution it is now in France. Workers had only two weeks holiday. Because not many owned cars at the time, they were reliant on mass transportation. Thus, the vacation spot had to be a place they could reach fast and return from just as quickly. For most Parisians, the most popular places were Normandy and the Brittany shore, which was where Mr. Hulot’s Holiday was filmed. Saint Marc-sur-mer had the reputation at the time of being an affordable place to spend a holiday, and as such, was crowded every summer season.
And for those who were city bound because they could not afford to take a vacation, the film did just that for them and at the same time showed them what they were not missing.
One reason for the film’s magical effect on viewers is that it was actually shot in the resort town of Saint Marc-sur-mer. The hotel is a real one, though its entrance was constructed by the film’s crew so as not to disturb things too much. The restaurant scenes were filmed in a studio in Paris.
Les vacancies opens with a shot of an empty seashore as the opening credits roll. We hear the sound of the waves crashing onto the beach to the accompanying sounds of Alain Romans’ 1952 cool jazz theme, “Quel temps fait-il à Paris” (“What’s the weather in Paris?”). The music will be the film’s motif, providing a comforting feeling. Tati swiftly cuts to a crowded train station where passengers are being misdirected from one platform to another by the barely legible instructions emanating from a loudspeaker. As the train arrives, it’s packed with other vacationers and the crowd has to scramble to find seating or standing room. A lovely young lady is able to board; we will later get to know her as Martine (Pascaud), and she will become one of the guests the camera follows throughout the film.
As the train speeds along the countryside, we are treated to the sight of a strange car navigating its way along the country road. Inside the car is Mr. Hulot. Though many French citizens drove such a vehicle in the postwar years, by the time Tati was filming this movie, these cars had become fewer and fewer. The choice of Hulot’s car distinguishes him immediately; he is a square peg among the round holes.
As Hulot putts along, bigger cars speed by, at one point raising such a cloud of dust as to force Hulot off the road. As he drives through a small town, the cobblestone street causes his car to shake and rattle so much we fear it will fall apart. A quick sight gag in the town involves a dog that likes to lie in the street. The bigger cars stop and blow their horns impatiently until the dog leaves. But when Hulot comes by he stops and squeezes the taxi horn on the side of his car, causing the dog to rise and come over to greet the driver. Hulot pats the dog and appears to give him a treat before going on his way, giving us the feeling that he’s genuinely sorry for having disturbed the dog. He’s in no hurry; he knows he’ll eventually get there.
Hulot’s arrival at the hotel is marked by his car backfiring with gears grinding. Children run to see what’s making all that noise and upsetting the tranquility of the beach. When Hulot gets out of the car, we get to soak in Tati’s mise-en-scene by observing the picture postcard setting of the hotel and surrounding beach. Hulot enters the hotel to check in, inadvertently leaving the front door open, through which a gust of wind comes through, disrupting everything in the parlor – a sure signal to us that not only has Hulot arrived, but also a hint of what his presence portends.
Hulot is an exaggerated character. Tall and thin, clad in a poplin coat and crumpled hat, striped socks, trousers which are clearly too short, carrying a rolled umbrella, and a pipe firmly clenched between his teeth, Hulot makes an awkward, yet hilarious figure, topped off with his odd stiff-legged gait. His actions are exaggerated, from his walk to his stance, to the way he serves a tennis or ping pong ball, and even to the people he meets. He is polite to everyone and always offers assistance, even if it is not requested. Hulot is so overly polite that when the announcer on the radio in the hotel’s lounge says “Good night, everybody!” he bows and doffs his hat.
If Hulot seems like a mime, there is good reason. Tati began his career in show business as a mime and toured Paris music halls displaying his talents in acrobatics, impersonations and comic drunken waiter and tennis player sketches. His tennis antics later in the film are directly lifted from his music hall days. He also worked as a bit player in movies, which whetted his appetite for feature films after the war.
There are few close-ups in the film, which is intentional, for close-ups tend to divide a film into stars and supporting players, and Tati wanted to show the totality of the holiday experience; he wants us to see it conceived as a whole, not in parts. His use of medium and long shots instead was specifically to focus our attention on the human comedy that results when people interact and to emphasize that he, along with us in the audience, are observers. The many visual gags Tati employs in the course of the film are designed with just that in mind.
At first the camera sticks by the hotel, slowly venturing out onto the beach. Later, it will move further about, capturing the life of the vacationers, mimicking what vacationers do on their holidays: at first sticking close to base, then as the vacation wears on and they become more familiar with their surroundings, venturing forth into other areas. Our guide for these excursions will be Hulot himself. Though he is always around, he is the man nobody quite sees. His fellow vacationers live compartmentalized lives, wrapped up in their own worlds, with their companions and plans. They notice Hulot only when something happens to upset their worlds, as it usually does when he’s around. His spontaneity, which can be seen in his gestures (such as his tennis serves both on the court and later while playing ping pong at the hotel), gives him an almost foreign quality unsettling to those hidebound by routine. We see by his gentlemanly manner and politeness that he wants to conform, to accept their unspoken etiquette, but time and again he involuntarily disrupts their rigid protocol. The film eschews dialogue, effectively transforming it into part of the background noise and limiting it only to a few spoken lines, mainly to satirize the silly, pointless things people say to one another. Hulot himself remains a silent character; his dialogue limited to few words (except to state and spell his name when he checks in). What little dialogue there is between the other characters is simple and infrequent enough that even those who do not speak French can understand the gist without recourse to subtitles. To use dialogue would make for a different film, causing Hulot’s character to adapt accordingly and lose the magic he achieves by making him an active participant instead of a bemused observer. Tati uses these few spoken lines to underline moods and situations, things that by themselves can’t be put into words. In this way, along with the wide-angle shots, Tati is able to say much more than dialogue would allow, and enables us to see the entire situation instead of having it interpreted through the prism of words.
In addition to words, sounds also have a place in Hulot’s world. He arrives at the hotel restaurant to the constant “thunk” the door makes each time it is opened. Hulot is seated near the door, along with what we can surmise are other single men. Does he complain about the door? No, it is part of his world. There is also the bell just outside the hotel’s entrance, which is rung to signify lunch and dinner. The vacationers, upon hearing the bell, drop whatever they are doing and line up to enter the restaurant, unable to break from their routine, even on vacation. The same is true of “Mr. Schmutz” (German for “dirt”), a businessman who is being constantly called to the hotel lobby to answer the telephone. Each time we hear it ring we know it’s for him and we wonder why he even took his family on vacation. When his family poses for a group picture in front of the hotel, he has to pause to answer the phone. Even the sound of a radio is used to good effect for the hotel guests: the end of the broadcast day signals their bedtime.
The humor in the film follows from Hulot’s interactions with his fellow vacationers, who represent the kind that we have come across ourselves during the course of many vacations. Tati doesn’t make a big point of establishing characters, but we gradually come to recognize them. There’s the older couple who seemingly camp out in the hotel’s restaurant, looking at life going on outside the window. The bored, mischievous young boy, busy trying to set fire to the beach dressing tents with his magnifying glass. The army officer who constantly regales his companions with tales of his military career. A young intellectual spouting meaningless Marxist analysis to anyone unfortunate enough to sit next to him. An older wandering couple on the beach with the wife finding interesting sea shells and handing them to her husband, who throws them away when she isn’t looking. We also have a stuffy waiter (Carl) constantly mouthing complaints to himself and obsessed with trying to catch Hulot at something. Tati takes these outwardly clichéd familiar “types,” and presents them to comic effect, transforming the bland and rude into the genial, which makes his disruption of their ordered worlds all the more enjoyable.
Perhaps no other scene more emphasizes the gulf between Hulot and the other vacationers than when the daily newspapers arrive. People surround the vendor, hungry for news of civilization. Hulot also buys a newspaper, but ignores its contents, instead folding its pages into a silly cap he later wears during his tennis match.
Of the other characters we see throughout the film, one does stand out, the lovely blonde Martine. At first she seems to be vacationing by herself, but later her aunt (Rolla) arrives, complaining about the delays she experienced getting there. Hulot, ever the eligible bachelor, seems taken with her, but her reaction is one of bewilderment as she sizes him up. Though she keeps him at arms length throughout the film, she is still attracted to him, not because he is particularly good looking, but because she senses he is different from the rest. She strikes us as someone who herself wants to break away, perhaps feeling too penned in during a time when she should be able to let loose a little. Maybe that is why she plays tennis with him and agrees to go horseback riding, though the event ends in a disaster of slapstick for Hulot as his horse proves an unwilling partner.
Throughout it all, Tati wants to make sure that it’s Mr. Hulot we laugh at, designing his gags to emphasize the disruption Hulot causes. In one scene, a man stands on the beach next to his boat, painting its name onto the hull. Suddenly the locked winch is released, and the trailer slips into the ocean. The painter’s brush, though, remains stationary, with the result that a long, brushstroke is painted across the ship’s front. The owner asks those nearby if they are responsible. They answer in the negative. As a crowd gathers and leaves, we see Hulot nervously standing in front of a post using his towel to dry his back, unaware that the towel is itself wrapped around the post, not touching him. He pulls it back and forth to dry himself, down his back, to his bottom and then feet, but the towel never touches his body. Nevertheless, Hulot continues, his eyes shifting from the man and looking out into space. A jogger doing stretching exercises while running by. Hulot follows him, copying the man’s motions. Once out of sight, he runs away and ducks behind a tent, clearly the cause of the mishap.
Tati’s gags are made funnier because they are rooted in the reality of the situation, but there are times when he rejects the easy gag. He wants us to laugh, but he also wants something more. For instance, we see a little boy buying two ice cream cones from the vendor. Carrying both cones he ascends the stairs to the hotel where he comes to a door. He has to reach up and turn the handle 180 degrees to enter, which would turn one cone upside down. We cringe as we anticipate the young boy’s trauma when the cone spills out the ice cream. But Tati surprises us, the ice cream cone defies gravity and stays in place. Our tension is broken as he walks to the ballroom, hands the cone to a friend, and we observe them happily munching on their treats as they watch the room being prepared for a masked ball that will take place.
One of the best scenes in the film comes as an anti-climax of sorts. We saw earlier that the hotel has posted notices for an upcoming masked ball. As we read the poster we begin to wonder what Hulot is going to do to upset this event. But then we are surprised when we discover that the only people to dress for the occasion are Hulot, Martine, and a few children. Everyone else is in the lounge listening to a politician blather on over the radio. From the snatches of sound we hear that the politician is speaking in cliches. Hulot plays “Quel temps fait-il à Paris” on the record player and invites Martine to dance. They dance alone, shut off in the room while through the glass we see the other guests intently listening to the radio. Hulot turns up the volume on the record player to drown out the politician.
The last night of vacation finds Hulot being chased by a small dog. He runs into a shed to escape. Lighting a match to get his bearings, he inadvertently ignites the fireworks stored there, which blaze forth and awaken everyone in the hotel.
The holiday comes to a bittersweet end, with people shaking each other’s hand, collecting addresses and promising to stay in touch. The man (Lacourt) of the old strolling couple seeks out Hulot, who is playing with a couple of children in the sand, and makes it a point to shake his hand, telling him how much he enjoyed himself and asking if Hulot will return the next year. When Hulot answers that he will, the man is thrilled; he has been enjoying himself vicariously through Hulot during the entire stay. As everyone leaves, Hulot’s car is the last to drive off and the film ends with it’s only color insert – a red stamp marked with the location from where the postcard was sent. We know however, that the vacationers will meet again the next summer. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is a film that subtly, yet completely, captures our nostalgia for happy days gone by. It’s about nothing more complicated than our desire to get away for a few days of play, breathing in the refreshing sea air and not having to worry about what tomorrow will bring. That’s the hope that animates all vacations and makes their ending so much the sadder. And yet, when we watch it again, it’s like going on vacation once more. The same place is there along with the same people. Therein lies the real beauty of the film: it’s as though we could come back again. That’s what gives the movie its special appeal.
As for myself, after my retirement, our family took up roots and moved from Paris to the town where Hulot worked his magic. We still find it magical every day, no matter what the weather is in Paris.
NOTES: Next to Tati, the character most noticed by viewers is the beautiful Nathalie Pascaud. She has an interesting backstory. Born Jacqueline Schillio, she and her businessman husband were friends of Tati. Tati cast her as Martine, and to overcome any resistance her husband might have to her participation, he cast him as Mr. Schmutz, the telephone-bound businessman. Not being a professional actress, her only other credit is Le temps des copains (Time Buddies), a 1963 film adaptation of a television series about three young men in Paris that ran from 1961 to 1962.
Shooting on the film began in July 1951 and was supposed to end in September, but that August was cold, rainy and gray on the Brittany shore and the production finally wrapped in October. Sand was a particular problem, getting into the camera, ruining the film and necessitating retakes.
Although the car Mr. Hulot drives looks as if it was cobbled together especially for the film, it is an actual car. To be specific, it’s a 1924 Amilcar, made by a company that existed from 1921 to 1940. They made passenger cars but later specialized in racing cars.
The Truth About Youth By Ed Garea
The Truth About Youth(WB, 1930) – Director: William A. Seiter. Writers: B. Harrison Orkow (s/p). H.V. Esmond (play, When We Were Twenty-One) Stars: Loretta Young, Conway Tearle, David Manners, Myrna Loy, J. Farrell MacDonald, Myrtle Stedman, William Bailey & Harry Stubbs. B&W, 69 minutes.
Myrna Loy is the show in this rather confusing rite-of-passage movie based on H.V. Esmond’s 1900 play, When We Were Twenty-One. Take Myrna away and the film is a snoozefest.
Richard Carewe (Tearle) is the guardian of Richard Dane (Manners), who is called “The Imp,” as they both share a first name. Carewe has raised young Richard since boyhood, a promise to his dying father. Also living in the Carewe household are housekeeper Mrs. Ericson (Stedman) and her beautiful young daughter, Phyllis (Young). Phyllis and The Imp are engaged, something Carewe has wanted since they were children. But things aren’t quite what they seem.
It is the evening of The Imp’s 21st birthday and the family is throwing a surprise party for him. But it’s The Imp who has the surprise. He calls Carewe to tell him he’ll be late on account of a lecture he has promised his old professor he’d attend. Carewe is disappointed, but keeps mum, telling the rest of the family Dick will be a little delayed.
Actually, he’ll be more than a little delayed. He’s at a nightclub, watching its main attraction, a chantreuse named Kara (Loy), who performs under the moniker “the Firefly.” The Imp is absolutely besotted with Kara and wants to marry her. The only problem is money – she is a no-pretense gold digger and he is a man without any gold. So he does what any man in his position does – he lies to her, telling her he’s filthy rich. Kara buys the story. He’s everything she’s looking for: cute and loaded. Her previous paramour, gambler Jim Green (Bailey), has hit a sour streak and run out of green, so Kara’s on the market to the highest bidder.
The Imp finally does make it home, all the worse for wear. At breakfast, Carewe questions him as to his whereabouts and the subject of the lecture. The Imp comes up with a lame story of a lecture on psychology and of going out afterward with his old professor and a few old classmates to continue their discussion. There is light moment when Carewe reads aloud a write up in the paper about Kara’s performance the night before. The Imp, nervous that his name will be mentioned, almost gives himself away in a fit of nerves. Fortunately his was not one of the included names. Carewe smells a rat, but goes no further in the discussion, other than to tell his ward that he missed a lovely party, even if he was saved a piece of birthday cake.
When The Imp gets up from the table to leave for class, Phyllis has a talk with Carewe. She goes on about how throughout the years Carewe has always given her and The Imp money for anything they want while he has never spent it on himself. In fact, he’s wearing the same clothes he has had for years. Carewe’s rejoinder is that he has never minded providing for them because he enjoys having them around.
Later in the day, Mrs. Ericson discovers a note that The Imp dropped when he came home. It’s from Kara, talking about being married and spending the rest of her life with him. She gives it to Phyllis, who reads it and is distraught. When she shows the note to Carewe, he covers up by saying he’s the “Richard” to whom the note was addressed. (They do share a first name). However, Phyllis is no less distraught, wondering how someone as morally upright and decent as Carewe could get mixed up with someone like Kara.
Carewe invites Colonel Graham (MacDonald) and Horace Palmer (Stubbs), The Imp’s other guardians, over his his house for a confab about the situation. They all agree that something has to be done. But while they are palavering, The Imp walks in on the party. He becomes quite upset and reiterates his plan to marry Kara, telling them there’s nothing they can do to stop him.
True to his word, The Imp marries Kara. On their wedding night, he makes the fatal mistake of telling her about his real financial situation. She blows at least 10 fuses, as all this time she thought he was rich. He tries to explain that he lied because he had to have her. Wrong move. For his pains, The Imp is forced to leave Kara’s room under a hail of knick-knacks thrown at him. Once out of her room, his hat and coat are tossed out after him.
Carewe visits Kara that night at the club. He offers her $5,000 for a month to pretend it’s him and not The Imp to whom she’s married. Kara thinks the idea is screwy, but $5,000 is nothing to sneeze at, so she goes along with the scheme.
The next night, Carewe takes Phyllis, the Colonel and Horace to the club to see Kara perform. Phyllis becomes incredibly jealous of Kara, as she thinks that Kara is really with Carewe. Finally, Phyllis gets up from the table. She can no longer stand seeing the object of her true affection with another woman, tipping us off as what is really going on. Kara tells Carewe she thinks he’s using her to make Phyllis jealous. And to make the evening complete, who should show up later that night but The Imp? Three sheets to the wind, he happens to overhear people at the next table talking about how Kara has a new man, and it’s not him.
Kara retreats to her dressing room, where her maid tells her a man is waiting to see her. Kara tells the maid to usher him in. It’s none other than old flame Jim Green, who apparently has hit a lucky streak and returned to collect Kara. She hugs and kisses him just as Carewe walks in. Kara hugs Jim again and tells Carewe that the hug is grounds for a divorce. She hands back the $5,000 that Carewe gave her, telling him it’s been nice, but the love of her life is now here, so scram and take The Imp with him.
The next day, The Imp finally comes home. He tells Carewe he plans on moving out and heading west after everything that’s happened. But Carewe tells The Imp that everything is forgiven – he made a mistake, a big mistake, but he has learned from it. Feeling better, The Imp goes to Phyllis in the dining room where she is busy writing wedding invitations. He confesses everything to her, telling her that the letter really belonged to him. Phyllis is excited and very happy to hear that the letter did not belong to Carewe. She goes to the library and tells Carewe that he is the real object of her love. What about The Imp? Phyllis gently explains that The Imp is a simp, that it’s him she has always been in love with over the years. They kiss as the other two guardians arrive, with Palmer noting that the threesome is now going to be a foursome. Fade out.
This was the third film treatment of Esmond's play. It had two prior film treatments, both silent, made in 1915 and 1920, with the 1915 version directed by none other than film pioneer Edwin S. Porter co-directing with Hugh Ford. This was also the third time Loy had appeared in a film with Young where she played the vamp and Young the ingenue, the others being The Squall (1929) and The Devil to Pay (1930). Why the studio chose this material to film is puzzling. The play was written in 1900 and popular values had changed radically since then, what with World War 1 and Prohibition in between.
As mentioned previously, Myrna Loy is the reason to watch this limp drama. Her flashy and amoral Kara, whose taste in men runs to those "who crush the life out of me and make me like it,” is a flawless performance. She infuses Kara with just the right touch of cold-bloodedness, and her righteous anger when she realizes that someone as streetwise as she was flimflammed by The Imp is priceless, as she goes to the brink of overacting and pulls back nicely. Originally trained as a dancer, Loy handles Kara’s nightclub performances with ease, and it does appear that she’s actually singing the songs “Playing Around” and “I Have to Have You,” doing so with a light and enchanting voice. It’s a shame she didn’t have more scenes, as the film certainly could have used them. According to the article on the TCM database, Young would recall Loy as “one of the substantial, one of the very important, people in the motion-picture industry. Even when she started out, she had a quality about her, but by the time she got to MGM she was so well-seasoned. I loved that part of her career. That had real elegance, I thought. That's when she realized her full potential, because Myrna's one of those rare people with humor in our business ... She was always a little bit wiser, more compassionate and sophisticated.” A more apt description I couldn’t find.
Loretta Young is given little to do with her role other than react. David Manners also needed more time to develop his character. Tearle, on the other hand, is an actor with one expression and he wears it all through the picture, looking rather dissipated for his years and suffering from an ongoing case of indigestion. The most inexplicable leading man since Neil Hamilton, his film roles diminished over the years, most of them for Poverty Row studios, until his death from a heart attack on October 1, 1938, at the relatively young age of 60.
For those who are Pre-Code or Myrna Loy completists, this film is worth the time investment. Others might well find it interesting for Loy’s performance, which showed a promise that had to wait until she arrived at MGM to fulfill.
Movie Crazy By Ed Garea
Movie Crazy(Paramount, 1932) – Directors: Clyde Bruckman, Harold Lloyd (uncredited). Writers: Vincent Lawrence (s/p). Agnes Christine Johnson, John Gray, & Felix Adler (story). Ernie Bushmiller & Harold Lloyd (uncredited). Stars: Harold Lloyd, Constance Cummings, Kenneth Thomson, Louise Closser Hale, Spencer Charters, Robert McWade, Eddie Fetherston, Sydney Jarvis, Harold Goodwin, Mary Doran, DeWitt Jennings, Lucy Beaumont, & Arthur Housman. B&W, 80 minutes.
Once sound became firmly entrenched, critics and movie buffs alike wondered who of the top three silent comedians would successfully make the jump to the new medium. Charlie Chaplin waited until 1940 to accept the new reality. He knew his Little Tramp character was totally unsuited for sound, and the Tramp made his last appearance in the silent Modern Times (1936). Keaton knew he played much better without sound and many wondered if he could make the jump. As things turned out, he couldn’t. Saddled with bad scripts and a dominating partner in Jimmy Durante, Keaton quickly disappeared from the screen. Harold Lloyd was tabbed as the one who would make it successfully. The characters he played and his style of acting seemed flexible enough to slide over into the new world of sound pictures.
His first venture into sound films, Welcome Danger (1929) was not an easy one. First made in the silent mode, it took a lot of work and money to convert it to sound. But Lloyd looked comfortable and the film did well at the box office. He followed it the next year with Feet First (1930), yet if anyone thought Lloyd would improve from his mistakes in Welcome Danger, they were sadly mistaken. It was obvious that he still played better in the silent world, where everything was much more fluid, than in the world of sound with its continual stops and starts.
Lloyd then took a two-year sabbatical before venturing forth with this, his third film. When we watch closely, we see he is still not comfortable with the new medium; he even considered the feasibility of releasing the film as a silent in Europe. Movie Crazy was a great improvement over his first two sound attempts and is seen by many of his fans and critics as possibly his best sound feature, but the film did not do well at the box office (perhaps because it was released during the nadir of the Depression) and many of its gags misfired or showed they were better suited to the world of silent features.
Harold Lloyd is Harold Hill, an amateur actor who is obsessed with the movies. He goes so far as to write letter to Planet Studios in Hollywood into which he’ll enclose a picture. While he’s away his father reads the latter and shakes his head. But on hearing Harold coming back, he puts everything back, but misplaces the photo Harold wants to send. Harold mistakenly sends a photo of someone else, quite good looking, with his letter. Studio executive J.L. O’Brien (Charters) sends him an invitation to come out for a screen test. Harold’s father, fearing the worst, offers to buy his son a round-trip ticket, but Harold will have none of that, telling his father that when he comes back he will do so in a Rolls Royce.
As he detrains at Los Angeles’ Union Station, Harold finds himself watching the studio shooting a scene in progress. The director calls for extras and Harold is asked if he wants to be in a movie. Harold believes they want him for a leading role and proceeds to totally disrupt the proceedings, after which the director gives him the gate. But before Harold leaves, he falls in love with the leading lady, a “Spanish lady” being played by Mary Sears (Cummings).
Later, Harold reports to O’Brien, who recognizes him as the person who disrupted his film. O’Brien thinks “Harold Hill” is the man in the photo sent to him, and doesn’t realize Harold is the real Hill. O’Brien screams to his staff to have Harold Hill tested and the staff complies. Harold fails miserably, and as he leaves the studio he’s caught in a rainstorm with Mary, who he does not know is the Spanish lady. After a series of mishaps helping her get into her car, she nicknames him “Trouble,” and by the time they reach her apartment she remarks that she’s pleased to meet a man who has not made a pass at her on their first meeting.
Harold runs into Mary later in costume as the Spanish lady. He still does not know that Mary and the Spanish lady are one and the same. After flirting with him as the Spanish lady, Mary coaxes Harold into giving her his fraternity pin. Later, in her own clothes, Mary accuses Harold of being a cad, but they make up and he promises to get the pin back. Harold brings out Mary’s maternal instincts and provides a nice buffer against the advances of her drunken leading man (Thomson).
Mary continues the facade until Harold kisses the Spanish lady. He tries to call on her, but she writes a note on the back of an invitation that she doesn’t want to see him again. Harold reads the wrong side of the card and is under the impression that Mary wants him to attend the party that night as her guest. Once at the party, Harold proceeds to turn everything upside down when he mistakenly dons a magician’s coat while in the washroom. Out on the dance floor, he ends up releasing, among other things, a litter of mice and a rabbit. When the magician finally discovers who has his coat, Harold is thrown out of the party.
Later, Mary ends the charade by revealing to Harold on a movie set that she is indeed the Spanish lady. Vance, seeing Harold on the set, knocks him out into a basket. Waking up a few minutes later, Harold proceeds to fight for real with Vance while the set is being flooded for the film’s climax. Mr. Kitterman, the studio head, walks on the set to observe the goings-on and finding Harold locked up with Vance, thinks it’s all part of the script. He finds Harold unbelievably funny. Harold tries to tell him that it was for real, but Mary stops him in time to watch him sign a contract as Harold and Mary are reconciled.
The basic problem with Movie Crazy is that is comes off like a silent comedy to which a soundtrack is appended. Most of the gags remind one of Lloyd’s silent days and there’s very little word play, which is what most moviegoers have come to expect by now. For instance, the scene with Lloyd and the magician’s coat at the party goes on too long and seems calculated and mechanically contrived. The same with the fight scene in the boat. It just happens. There is no real build-up and it also goes on too long.
Though the movie revolves around Lloyd and he dominates it, it is Constance Cummings who comes off best. She is quicker and more confident in her character than Lloyd is in his. In fact, it seems as if she has developed her character independently of his foibles. Her portrayal of the dual role of Mary Sears and the Spanish lady comes off brilliantly and would have worked a lot better if she was paired with Joe E. Brown or Bert Wheeler, someone more familiar with the world of sound than Lloyd, who strikes us throughout as distinctly uncomfortable in his new role.
Kenneth Thomson as Vance, the bad guy of the movie, performs his scenes well, but isn’t given enough time to expand his character and make us see just why he’s the villain of the piece. We would have liked to have seen more of Thomson, as well as Lucy Beaumont and DeWitt Jennings as Harold’s parents. This, again, is the influence of silent comedy, where the villain is simply introduced as such and goes from there. It’s the failure to properly integrate the physical comedy scenes into the body of the film as a whole that ultimately sinks it.
Given the box office returns, it would be another two years before Lloyd returned to the screen in 1934’s The Cat’s Paw, in which he finally begins to master the complexities of sound and turns out a genuinely funny movie. If I were to grade Movie Crazy I’d give it an “A” for effort, and be grateful that Lloyd and his crew had the good sense to cast Constance Cummings.
Plucking the Daisy By Ed Garea and David Skolnick
Plucking the Daisy(En effeuillant la marguerite, Les Films Corona, 1956) – Director: Marc Allegret. Writers: Roger Vadim, Marc Allegret (s/p), William Benjamin (story). Stars: Daniel Gélin, Brigitte Bardot, Robert Hirsch, Jacques Dumesnil, Jacques Bouillaud, Jacques Fervil, Jacques Jouanneau, Mauricet, Yves-Marie Maurin, Madeleine Barbulée, Anne Collette, Gabrielle Fontan, Luciana Paluzzi, Nadine Tallier, & Darry Cowl. B&W, 101 minutes.
Take the basic formula for Irene Dunne’s Theodora Goes Wild from 1936, modernize it for the French audience, add Bardot and a little implied naughtiness, and we have the piece of fluff that is Plucking the Daisy.
The plot begins simply enough. The provincial town of Vichy is in an uproar by the publication of a shocking roman a clef about life in a town exactly like Vichy entitled Plucking the Daisy. But no one knows who wrote it, as the author is only known as “A.D.” Nevertheless, the book is a must have, if only to try to figure out who the characters are based on in real life. Even the stuffy, pretentious General Dumont (Dumesnil) marches into a local bookstore to purchase a copy. He’s told he’s too late; the book has completely sold out. Upon hearing the bad news, the general can only ask the bookstore’s owner if he’s in it. The owner tells him “no.” But when the general storms out, the owner confides to a customer that he’s in it.
Arriving home for lunch, General Dumont notices that someone has made him a present of the book, which causes him to continue his rant, denouncing the book as an example of modern postwar morality. When he asks who could have written such a thing, his daughter, Agnes (Bardot), confesses that she’s the author. “A.D.,” she tells him. “Agnes Dumont.” The general explodes, telling his daughter that it’s shameful to write such slander. She replies that her publisher has set up a news conference where she’ll come forward and identify herself as the novel’s author.
The general is gobsmacked. Such a revelation would seriously affect his social standing in town. But he knows how to deal with such insolence. He’ll send his daughter for a stretch at a convent school at Montlucon. Agnes, however, has other ideas, and at the train station where her parents come to see her off, she jumps aboard the train to Paris before they can react.
Unfortunately, she lacks a ticket for Paris and must try to avoid the conductor. He catches up with her, and just as all looks lost, a man named Roger Vital (Hirsch) comes to her rescue, giving her an extra ticket he has. Of course he has an ulterior motive – to get Agnes into bed. But the ticket he’s given her doesn’t belong to him. It belongs to his partner, journalist Daniel Roy (Gelin), who’s forced by the conductor to buy a ticket, plus penalty, on board. Once he gets a load of Bardot, he, too, is predictably smitten. They discover she’s going to Paris to stay with her rich artist brother. She tells Daniel that when she gets to Paris she’ll get the money from her brother to reimburse him for the cost of his ticket.
Once in Paris, Agnes takes a taxi to her brother’s place, but what she doesn’t know is that her brother Hubert (Cowl) is neither rich nor and artist. He is a rather surly tour guide at the former home of the great French writer Honore de Balzac, which has been converted into a museum. Finding he’s not there, she breaks in and makes herself at home. Feeling guilty about owing Daniel for her train ticket, Agnes takes what she believes to be a book belonging to her brother to a pawn shop, where she sells it for 180,000 francs. In reality, she has sold a signed first edition of Balzac’s novel Lily of the Valley. When she finally meets up with her brother, she learns the truth about him and he learns about her pawning the valuable book. He tries to get it back from the pawnbroker, but to no avail. While waiting outside the shop for her brother, Agnes spots a poster advertising a striptease contest, with 200,000 francs going to the winner. She decides to enter and win, thereby getting the money to repay the debt.
To hide her identity in case she wins, she hides her face behind a mask, using the pseudonym “Sophia.” Daniel, who along with Roger, is covering the event for their magazine, also falls for “Sophia,” totally unaware she and Agnes one and the same. At the end Agnes wins, Daniel discovers her identity, and as she’s already in love with him from their earlier encounters, brings him to meet her father. Daniel asks the general for his daughter’s hand in marriage, to which the general happily agrees. At the end of the film, we are told they lived happily ever after, and as many little daisies appear next to the two larger daisies, we are told they had lots of children.
The plot of Plucking the Daisy is clearly secondary to Bardot's sex-kitten persona with her pouty lips, wild hair and repeated teases that she will show some skin. While other women – with surprisingly unfit bodies – parade around with bare asses and breasts during a lengthy striptease scene, we hardly get more than a few seconds of a nude upper back from Bardot's character. Even during her striptease, which is played strictly for laughs, we don't get to see as much as a side boob. Instead, it's the crowd watching the show who see her briefly topless. The sight must be so magnificent because her character wins the contest even though she's clumsy and keeps exiting the stage.
Bardot was 22 when the film was made, but her character of Agnes is 18 years old, as if shaving off four years is supposed to make the older male audience watching this overly fluffy film feel guilty and lecherous for admiring a far-too-young beauty or happy and horny that this beautiful creature is on parade for our enjoyment. Her character is filled with contradiction. Agnes is somewhat of a prude yet she enters a striptease contest to win money to correct a mistake she made and writes a tell-all sex-scandal book.
But again the story, which is at times is as ridiculous as an episode of Three's Company, is secondary to Bardot's character. Her inexperience in front of the camera is obvious as she struggles at times to deliver the few lines she has in this film. It's not terribly important that her acting be that good as she is a young beautiful woman playing a younger beautiful woman who is immediately recognized by everyone in the film as being young and beautiful.
At its core, the film is a somewhat awkward love story in which Agnes falls for Daniel, a womanizing newspaper reporter who doesn't stop chasing women even when he says he's in love with her. Daniel gets most of his plum assignments for the newspaper by repeatedly making out with the assignment editor's secretary. The secretary knows she is being used, but she falls for Daniel's lines every time.
Daniel eventually comes around to loving Agnes, but not before again making out with the secretary. There's also an implication that he's having sex with a model, and he falls for Sophia, Agnes' striptease alter ego who wears a wig and a mask during the contest. That Daniel can't tell the difference between Agnes and Sophia, when he intimately touches both of them, tells the viewer that any relationship he has is superficial.
You don't watch this film for any deep reasons as there aren't any to be found. Bardot's character is innocent but sexy, and knows how to get the most out of men. At times, Agnes comes across completely naive – such as hocking a rare book that she believes belongs to her brother without even asking him – and at other times, she's quite intelligent, though the storyline that she's only 18 and has already written a well-read tell-all sex novel that generates a lot of buzz and is quickly becoming a best seller is approaching the realm of science-fiction.
Plucking the Daisy was advertised in France as “Une comedie Francaise de style Americain!” (A French comedy in the American style!) However, it’s a typical French comedy of the period with Bardot playing a role that was familiar to her fans. It was her 16th film in four years, her second one directed by Allegret, and the second one written for her by Vadim. On its release in the United States, it was also marketed under the titles Please, Mr. Balzac and Mademoiselle Striptease.
Bardot’s history with both Allegret and Vadim dates back to 1949 when the director was preparing a film based on a script by his young assistant Vadim. Both men had seen Bardot’s photo in Elle magazine and agreed she would be ideal for the starring role. Allegret offered her a screen test, which was successful. Vadim and the 15-year-old would-be actress fell in love, though the film was never made. Vadim asked Bardot’s parents for their permission, but they insisted the young couple should wait until their daughter reached the age of 18 to marry. On December 20, 1952, the couple finally wed with Allegret serving as best man at their wedding. Bardot made her film debut that same year in a supporting role in director Jean Boyer’s Crazy For Love.
Co-star Daniel Gelin was enjoying the height of his career when he made Plucking the Daisy. A popular and prolific leading man with almost 200 film and television credits, he also had an important supporting role in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, also released in 1956. During the course of his career he also worked with such directors as Jean Cocteau, Louis Malle, Costa-Gavras, and Claude Chabrol.
Although Plucking the Daisy was advertised as a French comedy in the American style, its delightfully jazzy bongo score by Paul Misraki anticipates some of the American sex comedies of the ‘60s. Were the movie about 20 minutes shorter with a solid striptease it would be far more enjoyable. Instead it comes off as somewhat tedious, held together only by the insouciance of its star, who with … And God Created Woman later in 1956 reached international stardom and came to symbolize the liberation brought on by the pursuit of sensualism in the newly emerging society that was postwar France.
Politics By Ed Garea
Politics(MGM, 1931) – Director: Charles Reisner. Writers: Zelda Sears & Malcolm Stuart Boylan (story), Wells Root (adaptation), Robert E. Hopkins (dialogue). Stars: Marie Dressler, Polly Moran, Roscoe Ates, Karen Morley, William Bakewell, John Miljan, Tom McGuire, Kane Richmond, Mary Alden, & DeWitt Jennings. B&W, 73 minutes.
"This story is dedicated to women – who have been fighting for their rights ever since Adam and Eve started the loose-leaf system.” – Introduction.
Though largely forgotten today, the team of Marie Dressler and Polly Moran was one of the most popular during the early ‘30s. They made seven films together and the team was only broken up by MGM when the studio determined that Dressler was deserving of bigger and better movies, especially after she came off so well in Dinner at Eight.
Politics was one of the programmers MGM made to take advantage of their popularity, especially that of Dressler's. The film takes place in the small town of Lake City where music teacher Ivy Higgins (Moran), and her husband Peter (Ates), the town’s barber, share a house with widow Hattie Burns (Dressler) and her daughter Myrtle (Morley). Though a rather scenic town, Lake City is far from idyllic, due to the presence of racketeer Jim Curango (Miljan), who has Mayor Tom Collins (McGuire) in his pocket and is able to operate at will.
One night, Myrtle’s friend Daisy Evans (Marsh) is accidentally shot and killed at Curango’s speakeasy, The Little Club, by Nifty (Richmond) with a bullet intended for Benny Emerson (Bakewell). We later discover that Benny is Myrtle’s secret sweetheart. It seems that Curango is worried about Benny (who wants out) turning rat and spilling the beans about Curango’s illegal operations. Benny, however, is also wounded in the ambush, and as he is afraid to go to the hospital (because Curango is hanging the killing on him), he hides out in Myrtle’s attic while she nurses him.
At a rally of women voters, where Ivy holds the office of Sergeant-at-Arms, Mayor Tom Collins (what a great name for a politician during Prohibition) is holding a Q&A session. Hattie steps up and wants to know what the mayor is going to do about Daisy’s death and the town’s growing crime problem. Collins attempts to slough her off, but Hattie is persistent; she wants an answer. When she forcibly accuses the mayor of being in cahoots with the racketeers, the resulting cheers from the audience drown out any attempt by the mayor to answer and he is hooted off the stage (to the consternation of Curango and his cronies who are listening to the rally over the radio).
The rally’s leader, Mrs. Evans (an uncredited Claire Du Brey), calls for new leadership, noting that there is a perfect woman candidate for the job right here in the room. Ivy, thinking Mrs. Evans is referring to her, begins congratulating herself. Hattie joins in as well, patting Ivy on the back, until Mrs. Evans finishes her thought by saying that Hattie is that candidate. Ivy’s reaction is priceless, but she quickly recovers and joins the call for Hattie, who reluctantly accepts their nomination.
A concerned Curango visits Hattie and attempts to bribe her. When she refuses, he then tries to blackmail her into entering into partnership with him. But Hattie holds firm and throws the gangster out of her house.
The men in Lake City, after hearing the news, are up in arms over the possibility that a woman could become their next mayor and are determined to assert themselves and put the women in their place. After a protest torchlight parade commences through the streets of Lake City, in which the local women demand the ouster of Collins and the election of Hattie to office, the men begin to take action.
Following the march, a women's rally is held in the local park. But the men intervene and collectively threaten to get drunk and spend all their money if the women persist in promoting Hattie for mayor. Ivy’s husband Peter is selected to be the first to get his wife off the stage because of her prior belligerence in stating her opinions. After fortifying himself with some “liquid courage” at the speakeasy, he leads the parade of angry husbands who pull their wives away from the rally. Hattie starts to protest, but the clouds open up a heavy rain and chases everyone away except for Hattie.
The next meeting is held in Hattie’s home where she urges the women to go on strike, denying the men everything in the "parlor, bedroom, and bath” Through this strike they can sway the election and unseat the incumbent mayor.
The strategy is working fine until Peter discovers Benny in the attic and calls the police. When they arrive to arrest Benny, Myrtle becomes hysterical and admits that she was Benny's mysterious girlfriend. Hattie, afraid that the resulting scandal will effectively end her election bid, pulls out of the race. However, when Nifty is arrested for Daisy's murder, he confesses that Benny went straight in order to marry Myrtle and that Curango ordered him to kill Benny.
That the truth is finally out, another march is held to show support for Hattie, who now has the endorsement of the chief of police (an uncredited DeWitt Jennings). She wins the mayoral election easily. Hattie's first duty as mayor is to marry Myrtle and Benny at a ceremony in which Ivy, the newly appointed commissioner of garbage, acts as matron of honor.
Politics is a very loose adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, a comic account of one woman, Lysistrata, and her extraordinary mission to end the Peloponnesian War by persuading the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands and lovers in order to force the men to negotiate peace. The strategy, however, only serves to inflame the ongoing battle between the sexes. Writers Zelda Sears, Malcolm Boylan, Wells Root, and Robert Hopkins simply moved the action to the present day Prohibition America and fashioned the story to fit the stars.
We need to keep in mind that when this movie was made, the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote, was only slightly over a decade old. Having the film deal with the growing power of women as voters and shapers of public policy was still a novel idea at the time, as women were supposed to stay in the background and let the men handle things. And in 1931, one of the main issues for women was the continuation of Prohibition and the accompanying closing of speakeasies.
Polly Moran was the perfect foil for Marie Dressler. Acid-tongued and brash, she was also kept busy by the studio, appearing in a number of movies without her partner. In their films together, Polly was the explosive one, quick to react, while Marie was the passive one, slow to react, but usually right by the movie’s end.
Roscoe Ates, whose gimmick was his stuttering (he became the model for Porky Pig, which testifies to his popularity at the time), plays Polly’s husband, caught between her forcefulness and the opinions of his male buddies, on whom he is dependent for business as the town’s barber. He is the weakest character in the movie, partially because his shtick is already running thin.
Beautiful Karen Morely is Marie’s duplicitous daughter and William Bakewell is her somewhat shady boyfriend. Although they give competent performances, they’re relegated to the background in order to let the leading ladies manage the stage, but programmers such as this were good testing grounds for young actors at the time. Later the testing ground would shift to the B-movies. John Miljan is excellent in a small role as the racketeer, and Kane Richmond, who is practically invisible as hitman Nifty Morgan, later became a solid supporting player, mainly in the B’s. He is probably best known for the 1942 Republic serial Spy Smasher, which became something of a cult item in the ‘70s.
Unfortunately, although the public lined up to see Marie and Polly’s latest film, the critics weren’t too kind, many fearing that the ongoing formula of their films was already getting too thin for further adventures. Variety noted the following, according to the TCM essay on the film: “the very evidence of lack of real action by the two principal characters in the cast, Dressler and Moran, is a weakness Metro may not be able to afford if another movie is planned for the pair. It's taking a long chance with the earned drawing power of these two.”
And that’s the trouble with Politics: it sounds much better than it is. The humor is weak and the mixture of slapstick and deadly shootings is put together rather clumsily. Charles F. Riesner directed the film in a straightforward manner, relying on frequent cuts to move the story along. Cinematographer Clyde DeVinna handled everything in a workmanlike manner, as did art director Cedric Gibbons, who does a good job of recreating small-town America. Politics is an entertaining diversion, as it’s always fun to see Dressler and Moran together, but don’t look for too much; take it for what it is, a simple programmer.
Dressler and Moran would be teamed for the last time in 1932’s Prosperity. In the meantime, Dressler earned her second Best Actress nomination for her performance in the uber-soaper Emma, also in 1932.
As usual, MGM was able to call on its vast roster of actors to fill the uncredited parts. Besides DeWitt Jennings as the police chief, look for Henry Hall as a police sergeant, Kenneth McDonald as a policeman/driver, Ethan Laidlaw as a policeman in the park, Dorothy Granger as a newlywed, and Robert Dudley as a husband receiving a haircut from Roscoe Ates.
And don’t blink during the rally in the park or you’ll miss Ann Dvorak, an extra in the crowd.
In the scene where Daisy (March) enters the speakeasy she looks at a poster for the 1931 MGM comedy short The Stolen Jools, a two-reeler done for charity featuring over 50 Hollywood stars, including Polly Moran.
Hell Below By Ed Garea
Hell Below(MGM, 1933) – Director: Jack Conway. Writers: Laird Doyle, Raymond L. Schrock (adaptation). John Lee Mahin, John Meehan (dialogue). Edward Ellsberg (book Pigboats). Stars: Robert Montgomery, Walter Huston, Madge Evans, Jimmy Durante, Eugene Pallette, Robert Young, Edwin Styles, John Lee Mahin, David Newell, Sterling Holloway, & Charles Irwin. B&W, 101 minutes.
“That’s Deadpan Toler. If he smiles it’s only a gas pain.”
Hell Below is a war film about submariners that starts off well but, by the time it gets to the finish, descends into the murky waters of cheap melodrama. It's a real shame because it boasts an excellent cast.
It’s 1918 and the United States submarine AL-14 has just docked in Taranto, Italy, for a furlough after some heavy combat in the Adriatic Sea that saw its commander badly wounded. As he is taken off the ship to a waiting ambulance, the crew commiserates and congratulates the ship’s second-in-command, Lt. Thomas Knowlton (Montgomery) on what is bound to be a sure promotion to commander of the ship. However, just as the ambulance takes off, a figure comes aboard. He is Lt. Commander T.J. Toler (Huston) and he has orders from command headquarters to assume command of the submarine.
Knowlton hides his disappointment well as he gives Toler a tour of the ship. One thing Knowlton learns immediately about his new commander is that he is a no-nonsense stickler to the book and the attention to detail it entails.
As Knowlton and his fellow officer, Lt. Ed “Brick” Walters (Young), are about to disembark for their shore leave, Toler tells them that they are to attend an officer’s ball being held that night as dance partners for the wives of high ranking officers. Naturally they resent this and after arriving at the party, are looking to duck out early until they spot pretty, young Joan Standish (Evans). They compete for her attentions, and it’s Knowlton who wins out. When he finds that she’s just as anxious to leave as he is, he escorts her to a local carnival. While they are riding the Ferris wheel, the celebration is suddenly halted by an air raid. Knowlton takes Joan back to his place, where they get to know each other a bit better. When she discovers it’s his place, she insists on leaving, especially after he confesses that he’s in love with her. But it’s no good as she is married. A moment later, a knock is heard at the door. It’s Brick, and they have orders to report back to the sub as it’s under attack from enemy planes.
While Knowlton is trying to make time with Joan, a sub-plot is developing involving “Mac” MacDougal (Pallette), the ship’s chief torpedo man, and “Ptomaine” (Durante), the ship’s cook, who is studying to be a dentist through the mail. At first, they are overjoyed to discover that British marines will work as the shore patrol while they are on leave, but Ptomaine gets into a fight with one of them (Irwin) for referring to him as a “pelican” due to his big nose. Ptomaine, for his part, calls the Brit “an elk” and notes that his tormentor has a big set of choppers, perfect for an aspiring dentist.
As the crew reports to the submarine, the AL-14 is put out to sea, where they come upon a German minelayer and score a direct hit with torpedoes. As the German crew abandons their sinking ship, Toler sends Brick out in a dinghy with some crewmen to see if they can grab the German ship’s codebook before it sinks. However, as Brick and his party are about halfway to the ship, a group of German planes attack the surfaced submarine. When a bomber is spotted making its way towards the ship, Toler has no choice but to submerge and abandon the boarding party. Everyone heeds the order except Knowlton, who stays at his machine gun firing on the attacking planes. He has to be cold-conked in order to get him aboard.
Although damaged, the sub makes it back to port for repairs and the crew resumes its shore leave. Ptomaine and Mac supply one of the film’s better moments when Mac talks the cook into a taking on a boxer for $5. Ptomaine signs up, and to his distress, discovers he’s going to fight a boxing kangaroo. As the fight progresses, Ptomaine is getting the worst of it. Hearing hecklers, he notices that one of them is his nemesis, the big-toothed Brit he calls “the elk.” Ptomaine jumps into the crowd to take on his tormentor. Mac wades through the rioting crowd to rescue his buddy before the MPs arrive, and as they leave, Ptomaine displays his trophy – one of his tormentor’s large teeth.
Meanwhile, Knowlton spends his leave looking for Joan, who he knows is a nurse and is working at a nearby military hospital. There, Joan introduces him to her husband Herbert (Styles), a British flight commander who was paralyzed in an airplane crash. She also lets him know that she’s Toler’s daughter. Knowlton, totally stunned, rushes off, but Joan follows him back to his apartment, were she confesses her love. They pledge to remain together in spite of Herbert.
While on their next patrol, Toler has it out with Knowlton over his affair with Joan. Toler’s orders for the mission are to map where new minelayers, now escorted by destroyers, are depositing their mines. Knowlton, on periscope duty, spots Brick’s dinghy floating in the water and thinks he sees signs of life on the boat. He requests that Toler dispatch a rescue party. Toler refuses, as the presence of three German destroyers makes it a risk not worth taking. But when Toler leaves the bridge, Knowlton orders the ship to fire torpedoes at the destroyers. Two of the destroyers are sunk and the sole survivor attacks, dropping depth charges and forcing the submarine to descend below its maximum safe depth. Air is running out.
After waiting for a time, Toler, who has Knowlton confined to the brig, decides to surface and take his chances in a fight rather than stay where he is and suffocate. As they attempt to surface, a crucial pump that will allow them to resurface fails. Knowlton, who has left the brig on his own, spots a chlorine gas leak, apparently caused when a torpedo got loose while being loaded. Seaman Jenks (Holloway), had his leg crushed while attempting to stop the warhead from hitting the submarine’s side. The room is evacuated, but Jenks is left behind, forgotten in the confusion. The door to the gas-flooded compartment cannot be opened or the whole ship will fill with gas. The crew must stand by helplessly and watch Jenks die as he bangs on the window for help. While attempting to repair the pump, another crewman, fearful that they are doomed, commits suicide. Finally, the pump is fixed and the ship is able to resurface and maneuver to safety. The final toll is eight crewmen dead.
Back on shore, Knowlton is court-martialed and dishonorably discharged. Joan, undeterred by the turn of events, plans to run off with him. This precipitates a battle with Toler, who is not only disgusted with his daughter for not doing her duty, but also with Knowlton, for encouraging her when he knows he faces a bleak future due to his dishonorable discharge.
Joan tells Knowlton to go to the hospital and inform her husband of his wife’s change in plans. When Knowlton visits, however, he learns that Standish is scheduled for an operation that will enable him to recover fully and walk again. Knowlton leaves without informing Standish of the change in plans, and during a later meeting with Joan and her father, pretends to be drunk and acts so callously toward Joan, who does not know of her husband’s upcoming operation, that she comes to despise him and breaks off the relationship, though Toler can see through the act.
In the finale, Toler is assigned a dangerous mission. He must take the AL-14, loaded with explosives, to block the only port in the Adriatic from which German submarines can operate. He is to ram a fortification beside the narrowest point in the channel that leads out of port and set off the explosives to block the port. The mission is timed to that Toler and the crew have enough time to abandon ship before it hits and be picked up by speed boats.
Knowlton has snuck aboard the sub unbeknownst to Toler, but when Toler discovers his wayward crewman, he lets him stay. The mission goes according to plan, but when the ship surfaces and the man jump overboard to be rescued, Toler is trapped by the incoming fire from the harbor’s defenders. Toler orders Knowlton to join the crew, but Knowlton throws Toler overboard and takes the craft in himself to his death.
Hell Below runs the entire gamut: it’s a war film, a romance, an action picture, a comedy, and finally, a melodrama. Based on Pigboats, a novel by Commander Edward Ellsberg, it was made with the full cooperation of the Navy and even has a dedication to the Navy in a forward.
The problem with Hell Below is that it keeps bouncing from sub-plot to sub-plot, as if the main plot of submarines in war and the men who serve in them isn’t enough to sustain the film. Part of this could be rooted to America’s negative attitude about the First World War as a waste of this country’s time and men, who were seen as being sent needlessly to their deaths in an unnecessary war. Other films about the war made during this period took the same line, notably All Quiet on the Western Front, Heroes For Sale, and A Farewell to Arms. Later, when our entry into the next war seemed inevitable, the studios refashioned World War 1 into an honorable and necessary war, especially as it looked like we were once again going to be fighting the Germans.
The strength of the film is in its cast. Those out there who aren’t sure about Robert Montgomery’s acting creds should check him out here. It’s amazing to watch him change the tone of his character as the film progresses, going from light-hearted to serious and back again. He plays the role of Thomas Knowlton quite well, as both a hero and a heel; a man ruled by his passions, which in hindsight is the reason why he wasn’t promoted to be the commander of the submarine at the beginning of the film.
Even in a scene as predictably sappy as when he pretends to longer care about Joan Standish, he comes through admirably. His tension with Huston’s Toler comes off as authentic, and his chemistry with Robert Young is nothing short of fantastic. We can understand why he is devastated at the loss of his friend and wants to rescue him, even to the point of recklessly taking on three enemy destroyers. Montgomery makes it all seem real. That he was one of MGM’s most popular leading men is no accident, as he combines matinee idol looks with solid acting. A couple of film bloggers have wondered how Montgomery could be billed above Huston, but the answer is easy. Huston was a freelancer and did a lot of character roles while Montgomery was an MGM contract player, playing the male lead while a solid draw at the box office.
Speaking of Huston, he gives what we’ve come to expect as the typical Walter Huston performance: impeccable. Huston had quite a good run in the early ‘30s, with leading or featured roles in Abraham Lincoln, The Criminal Code, The Beast of the City, American Madness, The Wet Parade, Kongo, and Gabriel Over The White House. Huston had the unique ability to play both leading men and supporting characters. Check out Huston in Kongo, a remake of Lon Chaney’s West of Zanzibar. I can think of nothing harder that trying to follow Lon Chaney (even Jimmy Cagney couldn’t do it in Man of a Thousand Faces), yet Huston pulls it off with gusto. One of the strengths of Hell Below is the relationship between Huston’s Toler and Montgomery’s Knowlton. It plays out in shades of gray rather than strictly black and white. Both have their strengths and both have their foibles.
Robert Young and Madge Evans do the best with their limited characters, though both benefit from having Montgomery to play off. Sterling Holloway, who rarely gets to show his ability in a film, makes the absolute most of his time as Seaman Jenks. His death scene, with his face in the portal begging for help as the rest of the crew watches helplessly in the next compartment, is the best and most unforgettable in the film.
If anyone comes close to stealing the limelight from leads Montgomery and Huston, it’s the team of Eugene Pallette and Jimmy Durante. They make for quite a formidable comedy relief duo and do much to lessen the tension, particularly in the scene where Durante ends up boxing a kangaroo. Pallette is often underused in many of his films, but when he gets a good part, as in The Kennel Murder Case, he makes the most of it without having to resort to the old ham bone.
The strength of the acting is complimented by the cinematography of Harold Rosson and the art direction of Cedric Gibbons. Rosson’s use of shooting through the viewpoint of the periscope lends a sense of realism and Gibbon’s design of the submarine perfectly capture the claustrophobia experienced by the crew. Lt. Comdr. Morris D. Gilmore, who served as technical adviser on the film, has to be given credit for the film’s incredible and totally believable attention to the details of life aboard a submarine in war. Hell Below would serve as the template for all later submarine epics, the most obvious being Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), with its relationship between Commander Clark Gable and his second-in-command Burt Lancaster.
MGM did its usual first-rate job with the film’s production values. They were loaned the use of USS S-31 to play the fictional submarine AL-14. The German destroyer that was torpedoed was the decommissioned WW1 destroyer USS Moody, which the studio bought for $35,000 and hired a demolition firm to stimulate the torpedo hit. There were some notable goofs in the film, however. For one thing, Evans and the other female players sport the hairdos and clothing of the early ‘30s rather than the styles of 1918, which were profoundly different. Also, during the air raid scene, check out the automobiles; all are of an early ‘30s vintage.
Although the film is definitely Pre-Code, the print run by Turner Classic is the version edited by the studio for a 1937 re-release. As a result, some of the characters are moving their lips, but no sounds are coming out. The editing to get the film passed by the censors gives us a good insight into the bluenoses who presume to dictate the entertainment for American adults. The bloodier aspects of the film are kept while any hints of “bad language” or sex is simply erased. Hell Below underperformed at the box office with a worldwide gross of $1,389,000 ($634,000 in the U.S.), which reportedly resulted in a loss of $52,000.
Overall, Hell Below is well worth watching, especially for the acting, even if the other parts of the film don’t exactly come together well.
Let Us Be Gay
By Ed Garea
Let Us Be Gay(MGM, 1930) – Director: Robert Z. Leonard. Writers: Rachel Crothers (play), Frances Marion (s/p), Lucille Newmark (additional dialogue). Stars: Norma Shearer, Rod La Rocque, Marie Dressler, Gilbert Emery, Hedda Hopper, Raymond Hackett, Sally Eilers, Tyrell Davis, Wilfred Noy, William H. O’Brien, Sybil Grove, Mary Gordon, Dickie Moore, & Helene Millard. B&W, 79 minutes.
Now that sound was a fait accompli, MGM intensified its search for new material that would fit their stars. Irving Thalberg picked up Let Us Be Gay, a play by Rachel Crothers that had a good run on Broadway starring Frances Larrimore and Warren William, as a good vehicle for wife Norma Shearer, who was coming off the success of The Divorcee. Noting that for all its snappy dialogue and pacing, it was yet another story about a drab housewife whose husband deserts her for greener pastures. Frances Marion was brought in to revamp the prologue and add even more snappy new dialogue. In the end, the studio came away with a pleasing Shearer attraction. Of course, the fact that Marie Dressler is also on hand adds to the fun. Unfortunately, the ending completely undoes everything and nearly pulls the picture down with it.
As the film opens, we are in the house of Bob and Kitty Brown (La Rocque and Shearer). Kitty is a hausfrau who dotes on her husband, this day serving him breakfast in bed. She’s the definition of meek and subservient. Bob would like to stay and chat but he has an important date to play golf and he has to get ready. At one point, he can’t find his favorite tie and asks Kitty where it could be. Kitty, ever so dowdily dressed, is making yet another dress, but finds the time to locate the missing article of clothing. She asks Bob if she can come along on his golf date; after all, she has in the past. Bob, however, is evasive, telling her that he’s already rushed and for her to dress properly would take too much time.
Years of experience watching these sort of movies tells us instinctively that golf is the last thing on Bob’s mind, and a phone call shortly after he exits the bedroom confirms our suspicions, especially when he tells the caller never to phone him at his house. But it’s too late, she is on her way over to “clear the air,” and shortly afterward she’s standing in the living room. Just as she has her arms wrapped around his neck, who should saunter in but Kitty? Bob is too visibly embarrassed to speak, but his squeeze introduces herself to the shocked Kitty as Helen, adding that she thought it was time that they met.
Kitty, quickly pulling herself together, tells her adversary that she has heard a lot about her from Bob. Helen, damage done, tells Bob she’ll be waiting out in the car. After she departs, Bob and Kitty get into it, with Kitty asking him to leave. Bob coldly tells her that if he walks out that door he’s not coming back, which is fine by Kitty. After he leaves, Kitty breaks down in tears.
The interesting thing about this scene is Kitty. At first, we don’t recognize her. Then it hits us: it’s Norma Shearer! Yes, Norma Shearer sans makeup, looking as dowdy as she can get. And it works, for she is almost unrecognizable. The Shearer we are used to is the vivacious glammed-up model. With her hair in rollers, wearing unflattering glasses, and dressed like a frump, (those with HD can even see her freckles), Norma comes across as distinctly unglamorous.
Yet, despite her unmade look, on closer inspection we can still see that she is a beautiful woman; a lot more approachable, more down-to-earth without all the glam. It also reaffirms our faith in Shearer as an actress. How many other MGM divas would be so bold as to risk playing a scene without make-up? Remember, women in the movies even awoke in the morning wearing lipstick. Greta Garbo played a rundown prostitute in Anna Christie, but she still looked like Garbo. Joan Crawford may have despised Shearer and thought of herself as the better actress, but not even Joan would appear before the cameras facially naked. Shearer proved so good at it she repeated the feat in 1938’s Marie Antoinette.
A title card informs us that it is three years later and that we are at the estate of Mrs. Bouccicault (Dressler), a wealthy and scheming socialite, on Long Island. We gather from the servants that a new guest is coming to visit and they wonder if it will be anything like her usual run of guests. Mrs. Bouccicault is a collector. In this case, she collects upper class twits for her parties. It’s difficult to tell them apart as the film progresses, but with a little concentration we are able and equally repulsed as well. Included among the guests are lousy, boring amateur poet Wallace (Davis), and Townley (Emery), a dull figure who tries to get by on charm he doesn’t have and merely comes off as silly.
As we quickly surmised, Kitty is the expected guest. When we see her now, she has changed from a dowdy caterpillar into a most beautiful butterfly. The glam is back – and with a vengeance. This is the Shearer we know and love. Mick La Salle, in his wonderful book about Pre-Code cinema, Complicated Women, wrote the following about Shearer’s transformation: “Once again, Shearer was suggesting that women weren’t limited in their options. The picture promised the possibility of beauty and adventure for all women. As if to prove it, Shearer was willing to hint that her own beauty was manufactured.”
We learn that Mrs. Bouccicault met her while in Paris and has brought her to Long Island with a specific purpose in mind. Kitty is a hired gun. It seems that Mrs. Bouccicault’s granddaughter Diane (Eilers), though engaged to Bruce (Hackett), has become infatuated with a four-flusher. The dowager tells Kitty that she has been invited specifically to take the rat away from Diane and let the engagement follow its course.
Mrs. Bouccicault asks Kitty if she’s up to the task, and the banter between the two is risqué: “Well, my one little talent, clothes, is beginning to make money. When I can pay my own bills, men may come and men may go.”
Dressler, not quite sold by Kitty, continues the line of questioning: “Are you trying to imply that, until this point, there haven’t been any coming (she rolls her eyes slyly to make sure the audience knows what she means) or going?
In case we haven’t caught on to her meaning, Shearer emphasizes it: “Now Bouccy, that’s not like you. That’s clumsy. I’m surprised at you.”
Of course, we all know who the cad is that Bouccy wants to give the gate. Even those who haven’t yet seen the movie and are reading this for the first time can easily guess who it is. That’s right, it’s none other than good old Bob, on the make for money. Kitty is stunned when she discovers his identity and the rest of the movie becomes a sort of parlor game, with Kitty and Bob trying to top each other in witty remarks while not letting on to the others about their real relationship.
They pretend not to know each other, but as they make small talk, her feelings come out: “What were you saying, Mrs. Brown? Did something unlucky happen to you years ago?”
“Well, I thought so then, but I’ve grown wiser since.”
Bob asks Kitty about using the name, Kitty Courtland Brown. She explains: “Courtland was my maiden name. I took it back after my divorce.”
When Bob says that Brown is a name to be proud of, Kitty’s response is tinged with bitterness: “That’s the way I felt about it too. Evidently you don’t mind being a Brown, but I did – horribly.”
Taken aback, the only riposte Bob can come up with is, “You seem to have got rid of it very successfully.”
Kitty fires one final shot: “I hope so. Three years in Paris ought to improve any woman. Like you, I’ve been amusing myself with anything and everything that came my way. I know how a man feels about those things now.” Shearer plays the scene so well that we’re unsure if she is really serious or just putting the screws to him.
Bob, though he doesn’t believe her, is nevertheless taken with her. She didn’t look that way in all the years they were married and now she appears like a completely different woman – just the sort of thing a serial philanderer likes. If he was unsure about her veracity during their conversation, finding two men in her bedroom easily convinces him that she hasn't been home making new dresses. Kitty flirts so fast and easily it seems as if she’s practicing an early form of speed dating, and she’s expert at making the men feel as if they’re on the verge of conquest when in reality they are still at the starting gate. Bob is becoming convinced that what his ex-wife told him is the truth. The scene with would-be suitors coming and going into Norma’s bedroom is almost like the bedroom scene in the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers.
The climax of the film comes when Bob, clearly dismayed by the antics in Kitty’s bedroom, announces that he and Diane are to be wed. Once again, Kitty is devastated. Bouccy, who’s been smelling a rat when it comes to Bob and Kitty, quickly figures out the truth and plays the trump card by arranging for their young children to join them at the estate.
While Bob is overcome emotionally by the children’s appearance (he has not seen them for three years), they prove to be Kitty’s undoing. Dressed for the film’s final scene in a man’s coat and tie, she gloats over her new-found liberation, telling all that she’s not ready to sit by compliantly at the domestic hearth. Suddenly, seeing the children causes Kitty to break down and throw herself at Bob’s feet to take her back. “I’m so lonely,” she cries, leading us to realize that she wasn’t out sowing her wild oats so much as sewing new coats. And yet, the main reason Bob takes her back is because Diane, upon getting a load of the kids, realizes what a scumbag he is and gives him the heave-ho, going back to Bruce.
It’s definitely a cop-out ending and I can’t say it any better than the critic for The New York Times: “The ending of 'Let Us Be Gay' is unfortunate. It comes abruptly, and with tears and a manner of "I won't do it again." It does not fit in well with what has gone before; it is not in keeping with the characterization. Kitty is one minute laughing at her former husband and the next is agreeing to start all over with him. She, the Long Island Lorelei, the young lady who had been asked by Mrs. Bouccicault to rescue her granddaughter from the toils of Bob.”
This is the real message of the film: Kitty’s verbal fireworks are just that – talk, born of anger over Bob’s tomcatting. Though a woman may test the bounds of traditional marriage roles, given the chance, she will go running back to the safety of traditional matrimony. Her tears only serve to emphasize her realization over the price she has paid for divorcing her husband.
At the end, Kitty is back to the beginning of the film. She was the one wronged, the one whose loyalty was repaid with treachery. And now she wants to go back to a guy who hasn’t bothered to see his own children in three years. The real message of the film is that if husband strays, it’s the wife’s fault for not keeping herself sexually alluring by employing glamorous make-up and chic fashions. A woman wronged by her husband in such a way can respond by asserting herself and turning away from the accepted view of marriage, but in the end she must return. There’s only so far she can go. Notice that Kitty “reinvents” herself as Kitty Courtland Brown. If she were serious, she would have dropped the “Brown” and simply taken back her maiden name. The way she does it here served more to irritate Bob than to declare her independence from him. As author Roger Dooley noted in his book From Scarface to Scarlett, “It is remarkable how many plays which seemed to deal lightly with divorce still had the original couple getting back together; nearly 10 years later, Shearer was still following the same pattern in The Women.”
As directed by Robert Z. Leonard, Let Us Be Gay is definitely an early talkie. Except for the prologue at the Brown home the camera hardly moves, and several scenes start a few seconds before the actors appear. One scene in Bouccy’s living room featured only a pillow for seven seconds (I timed it) before Shearer appeared to joust with Dressler. It comes across as exactly what it is, a filmed play.
The film was shot on a rushed schedule of 23 days due to the pregnancy of its star. It was brought in at a cost of $257,000 and produced a nice profit of $527,000. Though the critics praised Shearer, it was Marie Dressler who was singled for her performance. Dressler had established herself as a performer who could both draw gasps of delighted recognition and loud applause from audiences. Of course, with Marion wielding the pen, the role was custom-made for Dressler and she played it in her normal fashion: large, in charge, and able to chew scenery at will.
Compared to Dressler, Shearer’s performance comes off as a little uneven. Her scenes with Dressler are the best in the movie as their characters engage in a verbal dance with witty banter, smiles, and winks. Offstage, they built up a warm affection for each other, with Norma giving Marie shrewd financial advice that enabled her to save more than she normally would, for according to mutual friend Frances Marion, Marie was a scatterbrain with a lot of money and a known soft touch.
Unfortunately, though, Shearer had to act with Rod La Rocque, an actor so wooden he had to be sprayed with bird repellent to keep the woodpeckers away. La Rocque made his fame and fortune in the silent era, beginning in 1914. By the ‘20s he was well-established as a romantic lead in such films as Resurrection (1927), Stand and Deliver (1928), and Our Modern Maidens (1929), with Joan Crawford. Offstage, his marriage to silent siren Vilma Banky in 1927 had been one of the Hollywood events of the year. The marriage was a happy one, ending only with LaRocque’s death in 1969. But there were problems for Rod, as his voice, diction and acting skills combined to keep him from becoming a star in the new era of sound.
The Thalbergs liked Rod and wanted him to repeat his success in the silents, but despite the best efforts of MGM’s speech coaches, La Rocque could not overcome his deficiencies. As regards his acting, the less said the better. He has zero chemistry with either Shearer or Eilers. He also lacks any sort of charm or sexual charisma, something that would attract the audience to him. It’s hard to see why either woman was so attracted to him. There’s nothing there. But perhaps the best summary of La Rocque in the film came from critic Richard Dana Skinner in The Commonwealth: “Mr. Rod La Rocque talks in the fashion of a traveling salesman who has about half-finished a course in elocution. His diction is deliberately monotonous and he gives one the impression of being a hastily rehearsed amateur.”
After the film was released, Thalberg wisely stopped his push of La Rocque and the rest of the actor’s career consisted of increasingly minor parts with the occasional starring role for studios like Republic and Grand National. After portraying the character of Ted Sheldon in Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941), Rod left Hollywood for a career as a real estate broker, where he did quite well. Ironically, wife Vilma Banky also struck out in the talkies, the possessor of a Hungarian accent so thick one critic said that, compared to her, Zsa Zsa Gabor sounds as if she’s from Brooklyn.
Another problem plaguing Shearer during filming was the fact that she was pregnant with her second child. Norma, known as one of the most ambitious women in Hollywood, jumped at the chance to play the role, as her inactivity during pregnancy bored her. (She also feared that if she were away from the screen too long, her public would forget her.) Because her condition had become quite noticeable during the last week of filming, designer Adrian draped her with even more care than usual. Shearer also strategically hid her figure behind tables and chairs and drapes and restricted her movements to a minimum. As an actress known for her costuming, when the scene called for her to wear anything of a revealing nature, she stuffed herself into stiff corsets and along with Adrian, spent hours looking for the right design.
To say that Shearer finished filming in the nick of time is an understatement. The movie premiered on August 9, 1930. On August 25, Irving Thalberg, Jr. was born.
In 1931, a French-language version of Let Us Be Gay was released under the title Soyons gais. Directed by Arthur Robison, it starred Lily Damita and Adolphe Menjou.
Millionaire(WB, 1931) – Director: John G.
Adolphi. Writers: Maude T. Howell & Julian Josephson (s/p). Booth
Tarkington (dialogue). Earl Derr Biggers (short story “Idle
Hands”). Stars: George Arliss, Florence Arliss, David Manners,
Evelyn Knapp, James Cagney, Bramwell Fletcher, Noah Beery, Ivan F.
Simpson, J.C. Nugent, Sam Hardy, J. Farrell MacDonald, Charley
Grapewin, Charles E. Evans, Tully Marshall, & Ben Hall. B&W,
George Arliss wasn’t busy impersonating famous men such as
Disraeli, Alexander Hamilton, and Voltaire on the screen, he occupied
himself by starring in cute, fluffy domestic comedies. The
Millionaire is one such example.
had a unique position at Warner Brothers as their most prestigious
actor. While other actors were at the complete beck and call of Jack
Warner and production head Darryl Zanuck, Arliss worked independently
of the studio brass. He had earned his independence after his 1929
film, Disraeli, which Warners made as a prestige project,
not expecting much in the way of box office returns, became a huge
hit with the public.
this upcoming film, Arliss chose to remake his silent hit The
Ruling Passion (1922). Taking full advantage of his
independence, he not only chose the writers and director, but also
the cast and much of the crew. Most of his later films would employ a
familiar technical cast, including writers Maude T. Howell and Julien
Josephson, who had helped shape such films as Disraeli, The
Green Goddess, and Old English. (Howell would even go
with him when he moved to 20th Century Pictures in 1934, providing
screenplays for films such as The House of Rothschild and
Arliss regulars included cinematographer James Van Trees and editor
Owen Marks, who also enjoyed long careers at Warner Bros. John Adolfi
was chosen to direct, beginning an association that saw him at the
helm of all Arliss's remaining pictures at the studio while also
serving as producer.
for the cast, Arliss chose his wife Florence as his on-screen wife
and his friend and protege David Manners in the major role of his
young partner. Reading the script, Arliss realized that one minor
role had a substantial impact on the film, and he decided to cast it
himself, personally interviewing prospective young actors. One young
actor’s audition floored Arliss, for of all those who tried out, he
was the only one who didn’t come across as merely acting.
young actor was James Cagney, whose natural inclinations and
cockiness were exactly what Arliss wanted in the part. When they
rehearsed the scene on the set, according to the TCM essay on the
film, Cagney asked if it would be all right to adjust Arliss’ shawl
if it were to fall during shooting. Arliss replied, “Young man, you
do anything you like. I trust your judgment implicitly.” The result
was not only a charming scene, but one that set the tone for later as
Cagney’s youthful enthusiasm and advice provided the tonic for
Arliss to break out of his slump and go back to work.
also noted in TCM’s essay, Arliss controlled his working hours,
only working from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. To make sure those hours were
strictly enforced, Arliss’ valet, Jenner, would show up promptly at
4 p.m. If Arliss was still at work on a scene, even if it was being
filmed, Jenner would walk up to Arliss, remove his hat or coat, and
carry it to the dressing room with the actor following.
Millionaire, Arliss is James Alden, founder and head of
Alden Motors. He works a very hectic day as he’s called upon for
almost every decision the firm makes, and the pace is beginning to
play havoc with his health. After a meeting with his assistants McCoy
(Hardy) and Powers (Grapewin) where they show him a new and cheaper
engine they had developed (over his objections that the engine has
quality, which is what Alden Motors is all about), Alden feels so
faint that he calls his physician, Dr. Harvey (Nugent), to examine
lays it straight on the line: unless Alden retires immediately he
risks serious problems down the line. The doctor suggests Alden move
to California to get the rest he so desperately needs. It’s
difficult for Alden to accept retirement, but out of consideration
for his wife Laura and his daughter Babs (Knapp), he reluctantly
agrees. As he says goodbye to his employees, the scene where he looks
over his office for the last time is milked by Adolfi and Arliss for
all it’s worth.
out west, it’s clear to see that Arliss is slowly dying of boredom,
sitting in a garden under a shawl. Davis (Simpson), his butler,
announces that a Mr. Schofield (Cagney) has requested an appointment.
Alden reluctantly agrees. Talking with the young man, Alden quickly
realizes he’s an insurance salesman. But once Schofield discovers
that Alden is retired, he tells him that retired men are bad risks
because they look forward to death. Alden asks Schofield what he
would do were he in Alden’s place. Schofield quickly picks up the
newspaper and points out the business opportunity section, telling
Alden he needs to get involved with something like a small business
venture as a hobby to keep him busy. Judging by the look on Alden’s
face after Schofield leaves, the moral of the story becomes clear:
even though he doesn’t get the big sale he came for, even a
stranger can change a life for the better in a few minutes time.
Alden peruses the paper after Schofield leaves and discovers an
opportunity: a gas station in the area is for sale. Given his
background, this would be the perfect opportunity to keep busy, and
Alden visits the place to negotiate with the seller, Mr. Peterson
(Beery). Using the alias “Charles Miller,” Alden negotiates the
price from Peterson’s original down to $2,500. The bill of sale is
signed and notarized by Mr. Briggs (Marshall). Peterson then tells
Alden he has a partner, a young man who bought a half share in the
enterprise. His name is Bill Merrick (Manners), and Alden is happy to
be sharing the load with him.
they open their station, Merrick wonder why there’s so little
traffic coming in. Al (Hall), the helper they inherited with the
station, tells them that a new highway has opened a mile away and is
taking all the traffic. In fact, he adds, that’s where Peterson has
built his new station. Alden and Merrick realize they’ve been
swindled, but there’s nothing they can do about it. Alden then gets
the idea that the best course is to fight fire with fire and open a
competing station near Peterson. They pick the site, an abandoned
building across the highway from their swindler, but the problem is
raising the money to fix it up. Merrick mentions that Peterson told
him that his new partner knows Alden, but “Miller” tells him that
Alden will not help financially. He urges Merrick to borrow $1,000
from his favorite aunt.
raises the capital and the two refurbish the old building. Merrick
designs the place as he turns out to have a degree in architecture,
but wants to experience life on his own before seating himself behind
a drifting board. The new, glitzy station opens, and soon even
Peterson’s customers are buying their gasoline there, much to
Peterson’s annoyance. When he tries to retaliate by lowering his
prices, Alden counters by touting the quality of his product,
insinuating that Peterson is selling cut-rate petrol.
cat almost gets out of the bag when Babs drops by one day to fuel up.
Alden had been telling Babs and Laura that he was spending his day
with an old business associate. Merrick and Babs remember each other
from college. When Alden unexpectedly comes out to help with the gas,
Babs spots him. “Dad!” she cries out. Alden quickly tells her of
his ruse, that he is Charles Miller, and she agrees to play along.
When Merrick inquires as to why Babs should refer to Mr. Miller as
“Dad,” it’s explained by Babs and Alden that Mr. Miller is a
longtime friend of the family and Babs used to refer to him as “Dad.”
Babs is dropping by regularly to gas up. Alden chides her for seeing
someone not of their lofty social rank, but secretly, having gotten
to know Merrick and sizing up his character, he’s pleased to see
Barbara moving on from former beau Carter Andrews (Fletcher), whom he
sees as a rich idler.
we realize that Alden cannot keep up his ruse indefinitely, he
finally reveals himself to Laura when her chauffeur takes her to the
station for a refill. Laura is nonplussed, but Alden tells her he’ll
explain everything at home. Meanwhile, Peterson, feeling the heat of
competition, makes an offer to buy the station that neither partner
can refuse, enough money for Merrick to go out on his own as an
at home, James smoothes everything out with Laura, even the issue of
Babs seeing Merrick, whom James tells Laura is of good character and
a working man. Unexpectedly, Dr. Harvey drops in for a visit to see
how James is faring. After examining him in the study, he tells James
how surprised he is at his patient’s return to good health. While
the doctor goes to tell Laura the good news, Babs comes in to tell
her father that Merrick is on his way to get permission to marry her.
As Merrick does not know that Charles Miller and James Alden are one
and the same, he sits at his desk with the newspaper open in front of
him and Babs kneeling behind his chair. As Merrick makes his case,
James pretends to be gruff, but finally lowers the paper and gives
his consent to an astonished Merrick.
James is visited by McCoy and Powers who tell him that their new
motor, the one he opposed, has proven to be a flop and he is badly
needed back at the plant. With his doctor’s enthusiastic backing,
Alden announces to the family his intention to return to the
Millionaire is the ultimate feel-good Depression comedy. At
no time is anyone ever in serious danger. There is also a notable
lack of any real anger, grief, or even a violent thought. Everyone
comes out okay, there’s a big happy ending. and a big smile to
close things. The moral of the story is that everyone needs a driving
force in their lives, and if it’s strong enough, the Depression
doesn’t stand a chance. In fact, we hardly see the Depression:
everyone seems to have money, in stark contrast to Warners’ usual
style, where the Depression is like the wolf at the door.
movie also continued a plot trend for Arliss, playing a sort of
puppeteer who manipulates those around him and events to the ultimate
seems to be the difference between Arliss’ vision and that of his
studio. Had the studio made it with, say. Edward G. Robinson as James
Alden, and someone like William Wellman or Roy Del Ruth directing,
his cost-conscious subordinates would have conjured up a false doctor
to dupe Alden into retiring.
for the cast, Manners and Knapp make for a charming, albeit somewhat
goofy, couple. Noah Berry comes off as a good-natured clone of his
more famous younger brother. And Cagney almost walks away with the
film in his brief scene. Had the writers made good on his character’s
promise to Alden that he’ll be around again to see him, given the
extra screen time and Cagney’s dynamic performance, he would have
stolen the movie. Cagney’s performance was so good that after
William Wellman saw the rushes, he moved Cagney into the lead role as
Tom Powers in The Public Enemy and demoted Edward
Woods to the secondary role of Matt Doyle.
can say what we want about the movie, but there’s no denying its
power to entertain. The film, opening to a sea of good reviews, was
yet another Arliss winner at the box-office. Arliss also continued to
demonstrate his sharp eye for talent as a year later he cast the
young Bette Davis to play his fiancee, Grace Blair, in the sound
remake of his 1922 silent hit, The Man Who Played God.
Booth Tarkington, who wrote such popular American novels as Alice
Adams and The Magnificent Ambersons, was brought
in by Arliss to help with the dialogue.
The Sea Bat By Ed Garea
The Sea Bat(MGM, 1930) – Directors: Wesley Ruggles, Lionel Barrymore. Writers: Dorothy Yost (story), Bess Meredyth, John Howard Lawson (s/p). Stars: Raquel Torres, Charles Bickford, Nils Asther, George F. Marion, John Miljan, Boris Karloff, Gibson Gowland, Edmund Breese, Mathilde Comont, & Mack Swain. B&W, 73 minutes.
The Sea Bat is a film that should have been better than it was, being as it was written by Bess Meredith and John Howard Lawson. But somewhere along the way it ran afoul of MGM management as director Wesley Ruggles was suddenly replaced by Lionel Barrymore. Why, we don’t know. But it may have had something to do with cost overruns, as Wesley filmed on location along Mexico’s Mazatlán coast and Barrymore’s scenes are indoors, particularly the diving scenes, which were shot in the studio tank.
Set on an island in the West Indies, the opening lines let us know what we’re in for: "Portuga island … through the night, the weird chants of voodoo worship … through the day, the weird industry of sponge fishing ..." However the film is not nearly as exotic as the opening lines would indicate, as it follows the the lives of the men who make their living as sponge divers. One of the perils of their trade is the “sea bat,” a huge manta ray that terrorizes the divers and gives audiences something to thrill over.
In the opening scenes, Nina (Torres) offers a pagan talisman to her beloved brother Carl (Asther) as he is going out on his morning sponge dive. Carl turns it away, showing Nina his cross and telling her he doesn’t need any voodoo for protection. The cast doesn’t know it yet, but this is to be Carl’s last dive, as he falls victim to the sea bat.
Nina is devastated. In despair, she turns to the voodoo rites of the natives, throwing herself in wholeheartedly. She also offers herself as the wife to whoever manages to kill the sea bat. While this is going on, the Reverend Sims (Bickford) arrives on the island to replace the outgoing reverend. But Sims is no reverend, he is actually John Dennis, an escapee from Devil’s Island in disguise. Nina’s father, Antone (Marion), the island’s mayor, is especially pleased to see the new reverend, as the island has been in need of spiritual guidance since the old reverend departed. But Sims is very reluctant to take up his pastoral duties; he’d rather be left alone. Antone, however, wants him to reform Nina and Sims agrees to give it a try. As he tries to save Nina’s soul, the two become strangely attracted to each other and fall in love. He tells her his real identity and they plan to escape the island by way of a motorboat.
However, Juan (Miljan), the villain of the piece, has figured out the reverend’s identity, and along with cohort Limey (Gowland) subdue Sims and tie him up. While they are taking him by boat back to Devil’s Island for the reward they are attacked by the sea bat. Both Juan and Limey are killed, while Sims makes it back to shore and a reunion with Nina. The episode has shocked the goodness back into Sims. He tells Nina he’s going back to give himself up and serve out his term. She tells him she will go with him and wait as the picture ends.
It’s a pretty straightforward plot; unfortunately much of the characterization necessary to fill in the blanks leaves us wanting. As Nina, Torres acquits herself well. She is a familiar character to those who are fans of these types of adventures: the Exotic. The Exotic is always a woman, a femme fatale – beautiful, mysterious, with a hidden agenda which the hero must discover before it engulfs him. In the early days of sound, the Exotic played a large role as movies took their audiences away from the humdrum of everyday life to new ports of imagination. Quite a few actresses got their start playing this type, including Lupe Velez and Myrna Loy. (Velez even did a parody of the character in the 1934 spoof Hollywood Party, playing The Jaguar Woman to Jimmy Durante’s “Schnarzan the Conquerer.”)
The fad died down in the ‘30s, only to be reinvigorated in the ‘40s, with jungle adventures aplenty. Who can forget Hedy Lamarr in 1942’s White Cargo with her famous line, “I am Tondelayo?” Even stripper Ann Corio got in on the act in PRC’s Jungle Siren (1942) and Monogram’s Call of the Jungle (1944). However, being as this is a Pre-Code film, Torres gets to flash a lot more flesh, at one point giving us quite a peek during a wet t-shirt type of scene (get a load of what’s not under the blouse) where she fights off would-be rapists Juan and Limey with a knife. And only in a Pre-Code film could she so blatantly offer herself as the reward to whoever destroys the sea bat. One thing that has always befuddled me is: why she didn’t have a bigger career? Latinas were in demand for movies during this time (Velez and Dolores Del Rio had good careers at this point), and yet the only thing she is somewhat famous for was playing Vera Marcal in Duck Soup with the Marx Brothers.
The movie’s other lead, Charles Bickford, doesn’t come off as well as Torres. After glowing reviews for his roles in Cecil DeMille’s first talkie, Dynamite (1929) and Anna Christie, opposite Garbo, Bickford seems to have squandered his capital with this performance, as he comes off rather lifeless and disinterested. I recall reading that he was a last-minute replacement for the ailing Lon Chaney, so perhaps the lack of preparation accounts for it. But considering that his talkie career began as a leading man, he quickly moved his way down the ladder to character actor and B-movie headliner in only a few years.
The problem with Bickford’s character as the “reverend” was his extreme reluctance to perform his ministerial duties; very odd since he came to the island as the pastor. But we are never let in on why he is so reluctant and the only thing I can surmise is that the studio didn’t want any trouble with censors over a phony playing a man of the cloth. This may be the case, for as the movie wears on, his character seems to be transformed from carrying around his pocket Bible. On the other hand, were Bickford’s character a real man of the cloth, we might have wound up with a pale imitation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Sadie Thompson, which Raoul Walsh and Gloria Swanson brought to the screen in 1928. (It was remade by Lewis Milestone and Joseph M. Schenck as Rain in 1932 starring Joan Crawford and Walter Huston.) His scenes with Torres are half-and-half – she’s convincing, he isn’t.
George F. Marion steals the film as Antone, the father of Carl and Nina. He is the island’s governor/mayor who also seems to double as the town drunk. Marion displays just the right mixture of officialdom and corruption as he tries to convince the islanders of his position and tries convince barman Dutchy (Swain) of his right to a free drink. John Miljan is his usual villainous self as Juan, and Gibson Gowland, who starred in Von Stroheim’s ill-fated Greed, is fine as Limey. As for Karloff, look quickly or you’ll miss him. Silent star Nils Asther, in his first talkie, also has a role that is all too brief. We aren’t given a chance to see how well he can do in the realm of talkies. And Mack Swain, known mainly as the adversary of Charlie Chaplin, makes for a good, blustery and tough Dutchy.
The unsung star of the film is the sea bat itself. Given the times, it’s a fine example of f/x work on the part of the studio. In reality, a manta ray is a gentle creature, but appearances are everything, so it made for quite a frightening monster, though from the way it’s photographed, it looks more like a shark than a ray. The only glitch is the scene where the manta ray bears down on Carl – we can see that Carl has been replaced by a doll. But the scene is mercifully brief and does not detract from the fun.
Give cinematographer Ira Morgan props for some fine photography, especially in the scenes with the sea bat. Barrymore handles the indoor scenes and the love scenes between Bickford and Torres with his usual professionalism, though the way he photographed her rather unconvincing voodoo dance leaves much to be desired.
For those Pre-Code fans out there, The Sea Bat is definitely worth the time. Other will enjoy it also, especially as it has not aged well and now comes off as a camp folly. Everything else aside, the chance to see Raquel Torres prancing around half-naked singing the song “Lo-Lo” a cappella is worth the price of admission alone.
Special Agent By Ed Garea
Special Agent (WB, 1935) – Director: William Keighley. Writers: Laird Doyle and Abem Finkel (s/p). Martin Mooney (story). Stars: Bette Davis, George Brent, Ricardo Cortez, Jack La Rue, Henry O’Neill, Robert Strange, Joseph Crehan, J. Carrol Naish, Joe Sawyer, William B. Davidson, Robert Barrat, Paul Guilfoyle, Joe King, & Irving Pichel. B&W, 76 minutes.
Neither Bette Davis nor George Brent held any special regard for Special Agent. Davis felt frustrated by what she saw as subpar efforts by director William Keighley and cameraman Sid Hickox, while Brent was a little more vocal in his criticism, telling writer Ruth Waterbury of Photoplay that the film was “a poor paltry thing, unbelievable and unconvincing.” Brent’s statements shocked Waterbury, for his reputation around the lot was as an actor who did what was required and rarely complained. He considered himself fortunate to be in show business as he regarded his own acting abilities as poor and was often afraid that people would find out just how lousy he was and fire him.
True, Brent was a wooden actor, but his affable personality endeared him to moviegoers. Moreover, Davis liked him. Special Agent was the fifth film they made together, and they would go on to make six more, including the classics Jezebel and Dark Victory. But though she liked working with him, she still noted that his onscreen energy never came close to matching his off-screen vigor. Luckily for Brent, Waterbury never published his criticism because she showed it to the Warner Bros. publicity department and they talked her out of it.
However, Special Agent was popular with the public and critics. The New York Times lauded it as a “crisp, fast moving and thoroughly entertaining melodrama,” noting that Warner Bros. “have set about the job of glorifying the special agents of the Internal Revenue Bureau with commendable thoroughness and a neat sense of gun play.”
The script, from a story by real-life newspaperman (and the film’s co-producer) Martin Mooney, is a reworking of the Al Capone tax evasion trail. Ricardo Cortez, Warners’ stock villain of the time, is gangster Alexander Carston. Carston’s pretty much a Teflon Don, having just been acquitted by a jury on charges of bribery. As we saw at the beginning of the movie, the IRS Chief (Barrat) has charged his agents with going after those gangsters whom the local authorities have been unable to put away.
Carston is living pretty high on the hog. He’s a favorite of society people and a continuing story for reporters, one of whom is Bill Bradford (Brent). Carston has his bookkeeper Julie Gardner (Davis) audit the accounts of Alec “Waxy” Armitage (Strange), the hood who runs Carston’s gambling business. Julie reports that Waxy has come up $30,000 short. Waxy tries to talk his way out of trouble with his boss, offering to make good on the losses, but Carston’s not impressed. Waxy, knowing he’s good as dead, goes to fellow hood Jake Andrews (La Rue) for advice. Jake’s advice is that Waxy should go to the DA and turn state’s evidence. Waxy goes to see the DA. Meanwhile, Jake (being ambitious and wanting to step into Waxy’s shoes) tips Carston as to Waxy’s move. Carston assigns hit man Joe Durell (Naish) to take Waxy out. Unfortunately, Joe not only kills Waxy, but also the four policemen guarding him. Carston calls Joe into his office and tells him he’s botched the job and to lay low, but Durrell answers with a lot of lip. After he leaves, Carston tells his second-in-command Ned Rich (Sawyer) to take Durrell fishing and use him for bait.
Bill Bradford reports the story. Carston believes Bill is merely doing his job, which is why he doesn’t object to Bill’s romance with Julie. But what Carston doesn’t know is that the IRS has deputized Bill as a special agent.
Next to go is Andrews. The District Attorney (O’Neill) tells Andrews they have the goods on him and he can save his skin by trading information on Carston. Andrews spills what he knows, but a document he has given the D.A. is stolen by the D.A.’s file clerk Williams (Guilfoyle) who sells it to Carston for $10,000. Although Carston is tried for his role in the shootings, the main witness against him, Andrews, is killed and the vital document is “lost.”
In the meantime, things are getting sticky. Carston warns Julie about seeing Bill. Bill tells Julie he wants to marry her, but she’s afraid to leave Carston as only she knows his bookkeeping code.
After the jury acquits Carston, Bill reveals his true identity to the D.A. and Julie. Bill and the D.A. come up with a plan to photocopy Carston’s books, with the help of Julie, who offers to hide them in her room after Bill, in his role as the friendly reporter, tips Carston about the upcoming raid. Julie is arrested as a material witness. She helps the D.A. and Bill decode the books as Carston is arrested for tax evasion. Julie also exposes Williams to the D.A. as one of Carston’s informants. Before Julie can testify, however, Carston has her kidnapped while on her way to court.
Bill comes up with a plan to find Julie. He and the D.A. pressure Williams into tipping Carston that Bill is actually an IRS agent in disguise. When Bill visits Carston, the gangster has Rich take Bill to the hideout where Julie is also stashed. Bill is tied up next to Julie, but the police arrive and rescue them. Back in court, Julie is testifying about the code when Bill sees Carston pull a pistol from his valise. Bill shoots it out of his hand in the nick of time. Carston is convicted and sent to Alcatraz, and the film ends with Bill announcing he’s taking some time off to marry Julie.
Despite the fact that it a breezy, fast-moving 76 minutes, in the end it’s just another programmer ground out by the studio, no less and certainly no more. About the only thing worth remembering about Special Agent is that for Bette Davis, it was the film that she did immediately prior to Dangerous, which brought her the Oscar. Other than that, it was the sort of potboiler that the studio kept casting her in despite the acclaim she won for quality films such as Of Human Bondage. At least she got George Brent, one of her favorite leading men, as her co-star.
With the enforcement of the Code, Warner Bros. got an attack of establishment fever, making films glorifying the government lawmen sent to battle criminals that have eluded local law enforcement efforts. Cagney’s ‘G’ Men was released earlier that year (May), and Special Agent could have been as exciting if the studio had decided to put a little effort into it. But Warner Bros. didn’t value Davis in the same way they valued Cagney and the film suffers as a result.
Special Agent is obviously based on Al Capone, who was taken down by the IRS for income tax evasion. But the similarity stops there, as the studio opted for a generic gangster picture where only the titles of the characters change. The idea of Brent’s character being an undercover agent posing as a newspaper reporter has great possibilities, but the writers ruined it by having Brent established as a reporter who was deputized by the IRS as a special agent.
In reality, it doesn’t work that way, as there is no way a layman could just be deputized like that, with no training. Special agents did work in undercover roles; the Capone case was a prime example of IRS men going undercover to gather the necessary evidence to nail Big Al. If Brent’s character had been established as a special agent who worked undercover as a newspaper reporter, it still would be a bit far-fetched but would have at least made sense. Here, Brent is simply a reporter deputized as a cop, the result of lazy scriptwriting. And would a gangster on the level of an Al Capone employ a single young woman as the keeper of his books? That goes against every historical example and seems intended only as a way to give Bette Davis’ character something to do.
Davis and Brent give their usual professional performances and work off each other nicely. They should, considering their working history together. The only flaw in their performance is when Brent convinces Bette to turn on Cortez; it just doesn’t come off as convincing, considering that Davis’ character is scared to death of her employer. Speaking of, the best performance in the film belongs to Ricardo Cortez, who breathes life into what should be just another supporting role. I liked Cortez’s bit of constantly wearing gloves. It gives a little quirkiness to his character and sets us up for the trial scene, when he takes the gloves off just before reaching into his valise to a gun. William B. Davidson, one of the great unsung supporting players, is excellent as Cortez’s sleazy mouthpiece. Jack LaRue, as Andrews, the kind of role Humphrey Bogart would soon fill, uses his sleepy-eyed menace to good effect, though his screen time is all too brief.
In the final analysis, Special Agent is a film that should please Bette Davis fans, with the best thing being said about it was that it did neither Davis nor Brent any great harm. For Davis, although it did not seem like it at the time, great things were still in store for her in the future.
Made just after the Hays Office began to strictly enforce the Production Code, the film suffered from uneven continuity resulting from the deletion of lines and parts of scenes deemed inappropriate. According to the TCM essay on the film by Jeremy Arnold, the toughest scene to fix was one involving a line of dialogue that was seen as especially offensive. As the scene couldn’t be cut because it contained important plot information and couldn’t be redone because of budgetary limitations, the decision was made simply to erase the line altogether, with the result that Cortez’s lips are moving, but nothing’s coming out.
In 1940, the studio remade the film in its B-unit as Gambling on the High Seas, with Wayne Morris in Brent’s role, Jane Wyman in Davis’ role, and Gilbert Roland as the crime boss. The gimmick to the film is that crime boss Roland is running a floating casino beyond the territorial limit. Morris remains a reporter; there is no connection to the IRS. After Roland is indicted, look for George Reeves in a quick scene as a reporter phoning in the story to his paper.
Reporter Bill Bradford (Brent) to Julie Gardner (Davis) over lunch: “I like you. You don’t ask asinine questions at a ball game, you don’t get lipstick on a guy’s collar, and you carry your own cigarettes.”
Side Show By Ed Garea
Side Show (WB, 1931) – Director: Roy Del Ruth. Writers: William K. Wells (story), Kenyon Nicholson (play The Barker). Arthur Caesar and Ray Enright (s/p). Stars: Winnie Lightner, Charles Butterworth, Evalyn Knapp, Donald Cook, Guy Kibbee, Matthew Betz, Fred Kelsey, Vince Barnett, Tom Ricketts, Lucille Ward, & Edward Morgan. B&W, 66 minutes.
When sound was ushered in, it brought a new form of film entertainment – musicals. Hitherto, the only music in film was provided by an organ or piano played in the theater. Now, due to the magic of sound, pictures could not only talk, but could sing.
The rush was on. Musicals came forth like Model-Ts off an assembly line, well-received by folks tickled by the novelty. But after a couple of years the novelty had worn off. Customers, overfed on the musical form, reacted like a child who had eaten way too many candy bars. Musicals were no longer bringing in the crowds, which caused Hollywood to cut down. Films already completed had their musical numbers greatly reduced or omitted altogether, while those in production found musical numbers treated in the same manner.
One of the victims of this aesthetic paring was Side Show, a 1931 Warner Bros. musical starring Winnie Lightner and Charles Butterworth. The cuts, made in post-production, were disappointing to the gangly Lightner, since the film was made to showcase her musical and comedic talents, honed during years in vaudeville and on Broadway. The film was directed in a high-handed manner by Roy Del Ruth, who made his reputation churning out two-reel comedies for Mack Sennett. A film set in a circus was perfect for him. Side Show was loosely based on Kenyon Nicholson’s 1927 Broadway play, The Barker, by William K. Wells, with a screenplay from Arthur Caesar and Ray Enright. It had first been made as a movie in 1928 by Warner’s (under their First National Pictures banner) starring Dorothy MacKaill, Milton Sills, Betty Compson, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. It would be remade by Fox in 1933 as Hoop-La with Clara Bow, and Diamond Horseshoe by Fox in 1945 with Betty Grable and Phil Silvers. Interestingly, it was also remade in a fashion by Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu as A Story of Floating Weeds in 1934 and Floating Weeds in 1959.
Lightner plays Pat, a jack-of-all-trades who keeps things running smoothly at the circus of the alcoholic and perpetually broke Colonel Gowdy (Kibbee). Frequently pressed into emergency service when disgruntled and unpaid workers quit, she sings, dances, and clowns, at one point doing a high dive through a ring of fire into a shallow pool of water when “The Great Santini” (Barnett) walks out right before a performance.
There’s one thing that keeps Pat going and that is her love for carnival barker Joe Palmer (Cook), a ne’er-do-well. However, Joe, who is always promising to marry her, is not as taken with her; in fact, the only thing he takes is money to support his gambling habit.
Added to all this is philosophical clown Sidney (Butterworth) who is as crazy about Pat as she is about Joe. However, Pat gives him the same treatment that Joe gives her. Personal trouble for Pat arrives when younger sister Irene (Knapp), who Pat has been putting through school, shows up during summer vacation, leaving both boyfriend Jimmy (Morgan) and Aunt Sarah (Ward) behind. She wants to stay with her sister and work in the circus, an idea Pat flatly rejects. With Irene around, Pat tells Joe they have to hide their relationship while she finds a way to send Irene back to school after summer is over. But while Pat is called away on an emergency errand, Irene asks Colonel Gowdy if she can stay. Gowdy agrees, and when Pat returns, his endorsement is enough to make her relent.
Irene works as a hootchie-kootchie dancer with Joe as the barker. What begins between the two as a joking relationship soon turns to love after Pat, planning a surprise birthday party for Joe, sends Irene out to keep him busy while she readies the party. Irene declares her love to Joe, who feels the same way. Pat, meanwhile, knows nothing of this.
Things come to a head when an obnoxious customer gets fresh with Irene as she’s doing her dance while Joe shills for the show. When Irene complains, Joe starts a fight with the local, with things escalating into a near riot. Pat, who is performing in blackface as a cannibal from Borneo, spies the tumult and runs around the carnival sounding the alarm, “Hey Rube!” as the carny workers come to the rescue of Joe and Irene.
After things quiet down, Joe and Irene tell Pat about their love. Pat’s reaction is to fire Joe and send Irene home. Meanwhile, Irene learns about Pat and Joe, and Irene accuses her sister of wanting to send her home to get her out of the way. At the end of her rope, Pat informs the Colonel that she’s quitting the circus, despite Sidney’s entreaties to stay. But before long, Joe, with Irene, Jimmy and Aunt Sarah in tow, finds her. Joe tells Pat it’s really her who he loves and proposes. Irene tells Pat that she loves her hometown beau, Jimmy. Pat eagerly accepts Joe’s proposal, and, as the film ends, we see Pat rushing off to prevent the bearded lady from cutting off her beard..
Perhaps because of the number of cuts, Side Show is less than the sum of its parts, becoming a series of sketches. It’s Lightner’s show and she makes the best of it, displaying her ability for physical comedy, though all her songs are cut except for “What Do You Think of Me Now?” (which she sings beautifully). Lightner was a deft physical comic, talented enough to steal the 1931 Joe E. Brown vehicle Sit Tight as well as star in some of the less strenuous show-biz comedies churned out by Warner Bros. But the studio didn’t appreciate or value actresses as much as their male counterparts, no matter how talented. With Lightner’s obvious talents, she would have done quite well working with someone like Patsy Kelly or Thelma Todd over at Hal Roach’s studio. Shortly after starring with Jack Holt and Mona Barrie in the 1934 romantic comedy I’ll Fix It, she left the movies to marry director Del Ruth, a marriage that lasted until his death in 1961.
Charles Butterworth, though left without much to do, somehow manages to sparkle as the lovesick Sidney. His droll quips and asides, taken from years on the Broadway stage, lighten up things and almost make us forget the absence of solid plot. Butterworth always struck me as a combination of a less prissy Edward Everett Horton with a more alert Stan Laurel. A graduate of Notre Dame Law School, he turned down the bar for a career as a journalist, from which he jumped to the stage. Butterworth died in a one-car accident in 1946. There were rumors that he crashed his car deliberately because of his sorrow over the death of close friend Robert Benchley. At the time, he was engaged to actress Natalie Schaefer, who gained fame in the ‘60s as Mrs. Thurston “Lovey” Howell III on Gilligan’s Island. A few years later, animator Jay Ward enshrined Butterworth in the annals of pop culture when he used the actor as the model of Cap’n Crunch in commercials for the cereal.
Donald Cook is fine as Joe, careful not to overdo it. Knapp, who broke into the movies in 1929 as Helen Knapp, also gives a fine performance. However, after this, she was shelled into programmers and B’s for Columbia and Poverty Row studios. Married to a doctor, she retired from films in 1943 after an uncredited role in the Lum & Abner B-comedy, Two Weeks to Live, for RKO. And Guy Kibbee is perfect in the role no one else could play: that of Guy Kibbee.
Roy Del Ruth provides nice atmosphere, capturing the sights and behind the scenes antics of the carnival. His handling of the high dive and his scenes filming from a Ferris wheel as it swings down to show the actors on the sideshow stage add to our enjoyment.
As mentioned earlier, the film was originally intended for release in the United States in early 1931, but the change in moviegoer tastes caused it to be held up for editing, and it was finally released in September of that year after the removal of all the music except for Lightner’s "What Do You Think of Me Now?” It was released outside the U.S. as a full musical comedy, as audiences abroad weren’t tired of that format. Unfortunately, the only copies that survive are the ones edited in the U.S. It would be most entertaining to see the original version. Certainly it was longer.
One Way Passage By Ed Garea
One Way Passage (WB, 1932) – Director: Tay Garnett. Writers: Wilson Mizner & Joseph Jackson (s/p). Robert Lord (story). Stars: Kay Francis, William Powell, Aline MacMahon, Frank McHugh, Warren Hymer, & Frederick Burton. B&W, 67 minutes.
Today, Kay Francis is seen as the Queen of the Weepies. That, along with her Elmer Fudd-like speech impediment, tends to downgrade her in the eyes of many casual fans. But Kay Francis was one of the most important figures in the development of motion pictures in the era of sound. Her four-hankie films drew many women customers and enabled Warner Bros. to escape financial ruin during the Depression. Francis also coined a type: the mink-clad martyr who suffered nobly through each film, bravely overcoming whatever difficulties were cooked up by the writers. She set the canvas for later queens of suffering such as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.
One of her best weepies is One Way Passage, from 1932, a film she almost didn’t get to make. Although director Tay Garnett wanted her as the star, studio executive Darryl Zanuck thought she was too lightweight an actress for such a heavy role. But Garnett won out and Francis was cast.
The film opens in a Hong Kong bar, as Joan Ames (Francis) and Dan Hardest (Powell) literally bump into one another, causing Dan to spill his freshly made Paradise Cocktail. But it’s love at first sight, and leads to a toast, as Joan remarks, "Always the most precious. The last few drops.” (Not only Dan’s spilled drink, we quickly surmise, but about what remains.) They break their glasses and cross the stems before Dan departs, a motif that would be employed throughout the film.
Trusting in chance as their only hope for seeing each other again, Joan returns to her friends. Dan, without taking his eyes off her, leaves the bar, where he is arrested by Steve Burke (Hymer), a policeman who pokes a gun in Dan’s back and swiftly overcomes Dan’s resistance to slap the bracelets on him, cuffing him to his own wrist. Steve, it seems, has been pursuing Dan since he escaped from San Quentin, where he was sent after being convicted of murder. Burke’s job is to bring him back to hang.
While on deck of the ship headed to San Francisco, Dan, still cuffed to Burke, talks his captor into showing him the key to the cuffs. Burke also remarks to Dan that he can’t swim. Unbolting the railing without Steve’s knowledge, Dan pulls Burke overboard with him to the ocean and manages to unlock the handcuffs. Then, instead of swimming to shore, Dan dunks Burke underwater and holds him there. But director Garnett, knowing this act of cold-blooded murder would lose Dan sympathy in the eyes of the audience, has Dan come to his senses after hearing the cry of ”man overboard” coming from the ship. He lifts Burke’s head out of the water and swims him back to the boat. Dan may be a murderer, but to soften his character with the audience, McHugh’s character, Skippy, says at one point that Dan was “croaking the dirtiest heel who ever lived.”
Grateful to his rescuer, and realizing there is no way for Dan to escape from the ship, Steve agrees to remove his handcuffs. Joan is also aboard the ship, and while she seems healthy, we learn she is actually very ill and has only a short time to live, although we are never told what it is that’s killing her. (Terminal prickly-heat? Mogo on the gogogo?)
Just before the ship leaves its dock, Skippy, a petty thief on the run, barely eludes the Hong Kong police by running up the gangplank and jumping onto the ship as it pulls away. During the voyage, Dan and Joan spend every minute together, breaking their glasses after a toast to symbolize living for the moment.
Steve also has his moments, as when he is immediately smitten by the exotic figure and accent of Countess Barilhaus (MacMahon). But as they pass by Dan and Joan, the Countess and Dan share a recognizing glance, tipping us off that there’s more here than meets the eye. And so there is, for in the next scene the Countess and Skippy are sharing a bottle. As she reminisces over old times in her natural voice we learn that the "Countess Barilhaus," is better known as Barrel House Betty (MacMahon), a dame who makes her living on the grift. We also learn that Betty is tired of this life and wishes to settle down with a financially-secure man.
Neither Dan nor Joan can bear to tell the other the truth, but while Joan plans a trip ashore in Honolulu, Dan plans an escape. But Steve, expecting Dan to escape, has him locked in the brig during the stopover. Betty also decides to help Dan. Flirting with Steve, she gets the key to the brig and passes it to Skippy (McHugh). Skippy unlocks the cell, releasing Dan, who goes ashore with Joan while Steve and Betty do the same.
There is a wonderful scene that just could not be filmed if the picture were made a couple of years later. Skippy meets up with Betty in her cabin where she hands him the bullets from Burke’s gun. This should give Dan free range once the boat docks in Honolulu. Skippy, puzzled, asks Betty how she got close enough to get a hold of Burke’s pistol. Betty simply replies with a jerk of her head, which the camera follows to reveal Burke's tie laid across a chair. She then shushes Skippy, leaving the audience no doubt that not only did she seduce Burke, but that he's still asleep in her bed.
After spending a lovely day together, Dan is about to tell Joan about his planned escape when she suddenly collapses. To save her life, Dan carries her back to the ship, giving up his chance at freedom. The doctor warns him that another shock could kill Joan, so he keeps his secret. Meanwhile, Steve and Betty have also fallen in love. Steve asks Betty to marry him. She tells him who she really is, but it doesn’t matter. Joan learns the truth about Dan when she overhears a porter’s conversation, but says goodbye to him, pretending that everything is fine. They agree to meet in Caliente on New Year's Eve even though they know that is impossible. At midnight on New Year's Eve, a bartender in Caliente hears a sound and turns to find the shattered stems of two glasses, broken in the same way that Dan and Joan always broke them, but no one is there.
One thing Warner Bros. had going for it was its strong supporting cast of actors, which is on full display in One Way Passage. Warren Hymer brings a little depth to what otherwise would be a cardboard role as Steve Burke. His humanity in releasing Dan from the cuffs after Dan rescued him from the water is tempered with common sense, as when he has Dan committed to the brig while the ship stops in Honolulu. It’s a typical Hymer one-note performance, but in this film he has a little more to do than simply growl and act tough, and he comes through nicely.
Frank McHugh is the real underpinning of the film. Without his antics the movie would sink of its own weight. When he jumps aboard the S.S. Maloa just as it’s pulling out of Hong Kong he looks back and gives his patented “ha…ha…ha” laugh. No one can do that like McHugh, who did it in almost every film he made. He's given several scenes to pick pockets and steal liquor. Watch for his scene where he has a run-in with himself in a mirror. It’s an old gag that could have easily fallen flat, but McHugh pulls off the character of Skippy so deftly that we believe that is indeed who he really is. He functions in the film as the link between Joan and Dan on the one hand, and Steve and Betty on the other.
MacMahon also shines as Betty the grifter, putting on her act with such grace that we actually buy it. At first, she speaks in broken English, and later rattling off her lines in wonderfully slangy English with Skippy. Her scenes with McHugh are precious as they let their hair down with each other, almost like an old married couple. From these scenes it’s obvious that they know each other very well. When they run into one another, Skippy asks, “Betty, don’t they ever get on to ya? You’ve been gettin’ away with this stuff for years.”
Behind the scenery, Garnett’s direction was superb, getting exceptional performances out of his cast. Powell is his usual suave, sophisticated self, but in One Way Passage, Garnett makes him more vulnerable than we see him in other films, where he is always so reassured. With Francis’ character, Garnett tones down the suds and gives her a softer glow.
We see what he did with Hymer, and as for McHugh and MacMahon, he seems just to have simply let them do their thing, as it were. The duo never needed any special coaching, as their professionalism never allowed them to stoop to overacting to steal a scene. MacMahon could steal a scene just with her eyes alone, and McHugh knew, instinctively it seems, when to ratchet things up and when to tone them down.
Robert Lord won an Oscar for Original Story for his part in writing the film, and screenwriters Wilson and Jackson mix in plenty of period lingo without drawing the dialogue. Robert Kurrle’s cinematography is consistent throughout, using lighting to great effect, especially in the opening scene where our lovers meet.
The film was re-released in 1937 in a edited form and remade in 1939 as Till We Meet Again, starring Merle Oberon and George Brent as the doomed couple. Bette Davis was originally approached for the role, but as she starred in Dark Victory the same year, she decided against going to the proverbial well once too often, at least in the same year. The remake tanked at the box office, as Oberon and Brent failed their chemistry class. Later that same year, Francis and Powell recreated their roles for a radio adaptation on Lux Radio Theatre. It would be the last time the two actors worked together.
One Way Passage stands as one of the finest romances ever to come out of Hollywood. It also marks the sixth pairing of Powell and Francis, and was their biggest hit, both critically and commercially, grossing slightly over $1.1 million. The pair was first teamed at Paramount, where their on-screen chemistry was noticed by the studio, and turned into a string of financially successful melodramas. When Warner Bros. lured them away (Paramount could no longer afford them), they teamed for two films, Jewel Robbery and this film. Yet, despite their success they were never teamed again by the studio.
A little over a year later, Powell, thoroughly disillusioned by the way the studio was using him, jumped over to MGM. As for Francis, her career slowly began to fade, a victim of poor scripts and a lack of interest on the part of the studio. By the mid-40s she was working at Monogram Studios, where she was given the “luxury” of being billed as the producer in addition to her star billing. But while her career was at its height run the early ‘30s, there was no actress more popular than Kay Francis. Besides playing the mink-clad martyr, Francis also excelled at playing the free-thinking, independent woman, seen in such Pre-Code favorites as Mary Stevens, MD (1933), Mandalay, and Dr. Monica (both 1934). Of all the forgotten stars of Hollywood, her star burned brightest during its height.
The Famous Ferguson Case By Ed Garea
The Famous Ferguson Case(WB, 1932) – Director: Lloyd Bacon. Writers: Harvey F. Thew, Courtney Terrett, & Granville Moore (adaptation & dialogue). Courtney Terrett (story). Stars: Joan Blondell, Grant Mitchell, Vivienne Osborne, Adrienne Dore, Tom Brown, Kenneth Thomson, Leslie Fenton, Oscar Apfel, Clarence Wilson, Walter Miller, Purnell Pratt, Willard Robertson, George Meeker, Russell Hopton, J. Carrol Naish, Russell Simpson, George “Spanky” McFarland, Miriam Seegar, & Leon Ames. B&W, 74 minutes.
In keeping with its policy of basing its films on the headlines of the day, Warner Bros takes on the problem of “yellow journalism” in The Famous Ferguson Case, a film that starts strong, but despite some nice flourishes along the way, loses its focus. That, combined with some less than inspired direction from Lloyd Bacon, turns it into another dull programmer. Worse, it wastes a fine performance by its star, Joan Blondell, by attempting to turn from a star vehicle to an ensemble piece.
As with other films about social issues, such as their gangster pictures, Warner Bros. decided the subject matter to be important enough to rate an official foreword. Also, the studio didn’t want to risk offending the press at large, considering how important a friendly press was for business. The film leads off with this disclaimer:
This story deals with a certain phase of newspaper work. The STANDARD DICTIONARY defines news as: "Fresh information concerning something that has recently taken place."
But quite frequently events occur which by their nature are so sensational – from the angle of sex, violence, the standing of the parties involved, or what not – that they are reported in some newspapers long after there is any "fresh information" and when nothing at all "has recently taken place.”
Legitimate newspapers recognize this fact. They report real developments, and stop there. But others, pandering to the lowest tastes of the public, prolong such cases to the last degree. When news fails, they try to make news. As long as a shred of carcass remains, they feast upon it. Naturally, such journalistic scavenger work attracts only the lowest type of newspaper man – tipsters, stool pigeons, the base and the irresponsible. "THE FAMOUS FERGUSON CASE" is built upon the contrast between legitimate journalism and unprincipled scandal-mongering.
Now that the studio has taken itself off the hook, so to speak, the film begins. We open in Cornwall, New York, a small town somewhere upstate. Driving about in an old car is Bruce Foster (Brown), the editor and star reporter of the Cornwall Courier, the town’s newspaper.
He arrives at the train station to check on an incoming train when two onlookers turn his attention to a fancy car containing one Marcia Ferguson (Osborne), the wife of Wall Street financier George M. Ferguson (Pratt). Foster sees the town’s banker, Judd Brooks (Ames), exit the car, and the verbal byplay between the two hints of an affair. When the incoming train arrives, who should disembark but George himself, home at midday and mildly surprised to find his wife waiting for him.
Later that night, there’s an altercation at the Ferguson home. The police find George has been murdered and Marcia tied up. Marcia’s story is that two men broke into their home and robbed them, but the police are skeptical as there’s a lack of evidence to that fact, and arrest Marsha for murder.
Foster writes a story about the murder that finds its way to the New York City papers, triggering a virtual invasion of reporters from the big city’s dailies. The film portrays them as an invading army, as they commandeer the local hotel and make it their headquarters. We soon learn the reporters are divided into two groups: the serious papers, led by Martin Collins (Mitchell), and the tabloid reporters, led by Bob Parks (Thomson) and Perrin (Fenton). Maizie Dickson (Blondell) is with the latter group and functions as a sob sister and Parks’ girlfriend.
While the serious reporters are chasing the facts in the chase, the tabloid reporters are manufacturing their own story, which revolves around banker Brooks murdering Ferguson at the behest of his lover, Marsha. The film now divides itself, showing the war between the two groups. While the serious reporters are busy writing, the tabloid group is partying and womanizing, especially Parks, who has set his roving eye on Toni Martin (Dore), Foster’s co-worker and fiancée.
Toni falls for Parks’ lines about his wife being an invalid and his promise of an entrée into a reporter’s job in New York. Maizie tries to set her straight, but Toni is hooked, accusing Maizie of jealousy, and dumps young Bruce straightaway.
In search of anything to back their theory of conspiracy, Parks and Perrin visit the home of Judd Brooks and talk to his wife (Seegar), who is in the late stages of pregnancy. They hurl insinuations and charges at the distraught woman, who knows nothing of what is going on. After they leave she faints and is taken to the hospital.
Not satisfied, Parks and Perrin, along with some of the other tabloid reporters, descend on the county attorney (Wilson), flattering his ego while convincing him to play along with them. One of the reporters, Rusty Callahan (Hopton) even writes his closing statement while Parks coaches him on how to deliver it.
While this is going on, Foster has quietly looked into the case. Believing Marsha’s account of the break-in, he writes to other police departments in the area to see if they have any reports of similar crimes using the same m.o. Just before the county attorney is about to put the case to the jury and put Judd Brooks on trial as a co-conspirator if the jury convicts Mrs. Ferguson, Foster and the Cornwall Courier break the story about how the real perpetrators were arrested in another city. Found in their possession was a ring from the Ferguson home that linked them with Ferguson’s murder.
Foster offers his story free of charge to the New York papers. Just after the story breaks, the reporters learn that Mrs. Brooks has died in childbirth. The distraught Brooks shows up at the hotel, and holding his hand in his coat pocket to make everyone believe he has a gun, forces Parks out into the alley, where he beats him up. We also learn that Marcia Ferguson is suing for false imprisonment and impeachment charges have been filed against the county attorney.
Foster, the hero of the hour, is besieged with job offers in New York, but turns them down to remain in Cornwall. As the train departs for the city, it’s missing a passenger – Maizie. Thoroughly disenchanted with the ethics of her co-workers, she decides to remain in town. But Toni takes her place, just catching the train, and leaving Cornwall and Bruce Foster behind. As the train departs, and as the film fades out, Maizie reminds Bruce that Toni’s departure has left a vacancy on the Courier’s staff and we are left with the distinct impression that she will fill the vacancy in both the paper and Bruce’s life.
Beyond the headlines mentioned in the film, the subtext of The Famous Ferguson Case is the contrast between the honest, hard-working people upstate and the jaded, cynical people from the Big City. While Foster is at first in awe of the reporters from the Big Apple, he catches on rapidly as they use him to do most of their legwork. Brown portrays Foster as the kid reporter who also owns the paper, driving around in a battered old car on whose spare-tire cover is written: “Cornwall Courier. ‘Covers Cornwall County Like the Dew.’ 2117 paid circulation.” His fiancée, Toni, is played by Dore as a hick itching to get out of this burg and experience the bright lights of the big city.
When Foster disagrees with the conclusion to the case reached by the tabloid reporters, they simply write him off and discard him by the wayside. But while they play, Foster keeps digging; the theory of a lovers’ conspiracy holds no attraction for him. He knows the county inside and out, including the Fergusons, and finds Marsha’s story credible and worth checking out. His honest work eventually pays off in the capture of the real culprits while the tabloid reporters’ efforts leave them with egg on their face, but not for long, as they beat a hasty retreat on the train to search for their next story – and victim.
The most puzzling thing about the movie is the treatment of its star, Joan Blondell. Although she’s billed right below the title, we don’t see her until after about 15 to 20 minutes have elapsed. And despite the star treatment, her character seems to be just another supporting player in what is really an ensemble film. She does manage to acquit herself well in the little time given her, getting off a few snappy lines.
If not for her billing, one might get the impression that Kenneth Thomson (Bob Parks) is the star based on screen time allotted. The other outstanding performance is that of Leon Ames as Judd Brooks. Billed in the film as “Leon Waycoff” (he changed his last name to “Ames” in 1936), he treads a fine line in the scene where, distraught, he crashes the reporters’ party at the hotel, playing the scene with just the right tone of emotion rather than reverting to the familiar tack of chewing the scenery.
Despite its intentions, The Famous Ferguson Case falls prey to pedestrian direction from Lloyd Bacon, which keeps it from being a first-rate melodrama along the lines of Five-Star Final. We just aren’t expecting a film with this subject and coming from this studio to be so dull, despite the presence of Blondell.
A Free Soul
By Ed Garea
A Free Soul(MGM, 1931) – Director: Clarence Brown. Writers: Becky Gardiner, John Meehan, Philip Dunning, Dorothy Farnum, & John Lynch. Adela Rogers St. John (book). Willard Mack (play, unbilled). Stars: Norma Shearer, Lionel Barrymore, Leslie Howard, Clark Gable, James Gleason, & Lucy Beaumont. B&W, 93 minutes.
MGM, looking for a good, edgy follow-up for Norma Shearer after her big splash in The Divorcee, bought the rights to Willard Mack’s play, which was based on the novel, A Free Soul, by Adela Rogers St. Johns. St. Johns wrote the novel as a sort of memoir of her father, San Francisco attorney Earl Rogers, a pioneer of theatrical legal defense tactics and also a hardcore alcoholic.
To back Shearer’s character, Jan Ashe, Lionel Barrymore was given the role of her father, Stephen Ashe. Clark Gable, resigned by the studio to a new contract, would play the role of gangster Ace Wilfong. James Gleason was given the role of Eddie, Stephen’s Man Friday. Leslie Howard was cast as Jan’s stuffy fiancé, and Lucy Beaumont was given the smaller role of Jan’s grandmother.
Stephen Ashe (Barrymore), noted criminal attorney, adores his free-spirited daughter, Jan (Shearer). And the feeling is mutual. They represent the black sheep in a family of socially notable bluebloods. Jan has recently escaped from the family compound to spend a few days with her father and relax without having to conform to the rules laid down by Grandma Ashe (Beaumont), the head of the family. The first we see of her is a nude silhouette in the shower room as she calls out for something to wear. Shortly later, as they eat breakfast, she tells her father that they’re expected at Grandma’s 80th birthday. It’s an event both are not looking forward to attending.
Stephen is also an alcoholic, relying on his friend and employee Eddie (Gleason) to carry his flask while in court. Stephen is also in the midst of a tough case. His client, a gangster named Ace Wilfong (Gable), is accused of murder. The prosecution’s main piece of evidence against Wilfong is a hat with his initials left behind at the murder scene. It’s the final day in the trial and Ashe needs to discredit the evidence.
While court is in recess, Jan decides to pay her father a visit. While Dad is getting well oiled from a bottle supplied by Eddie, Jan makes the acquaintance of Ace. They exchange small talk as she begins commenting on how he should look going back into the courtroom, picking out a tie for him. Her glances during this scene, combined with some of the most obvious dialogue written, tell us that she’s pretty taken with Ol’ Ace, and that something’s going to happen.
Back in the courtroom, Stephen addresses the jury about that troublesome hat left behind, and with some over-the-top theatrics, he succeeds in discrediting the prosecution’s evidence and winning Ace’s acquittal.
That night, as Grandma, Jan, and the rest of the family, including Jan’s stuffy polo-playing fiancé, Dwight Winthrop (Howard), await the arrival of Stephen, Grandma asks Jan if she heeded the advice not to let her father drink that evening. However, as Stephen drives up to the family manse, it’s obvious that Grandma’s advice went unheeded, for Stephen stumbles out three sheets to the wind. Worse, he’s brought along a guest – none other than the newly-acquitted Ace. The family’s reaction to Stephen and his friend is as expected. Stephen, disgusted, leaves with Ace, and Jan follows. While driving home, Jan tells Ace he’s the most exciting man she’s ever met. Right after she makes this confession, the rival Hardy mob, as if on cue, ambushes Ace in a drive-by, but he escapes. Jan, who’s never been involved in anything remotely like this before, is totally captivated. The drive ends at Ace’s place above his casino, where the couple has champagne for dinner, and also for breakfast the next morning.
As time passes, Jan’s growing fondness for Ace is matched only by her father’s growing fondness for draining whiskey bottles. Jan, for her part, sees Ace as just another fling, but Ace doesn’t see it that way. He, unlike his new girlfriend, plays for keeps. One night, while Stephen is at his casino, drinking and losing money at roulette, Ace approaches him about marrying his daughter. This is Barrymore’s most effective scene in the movie. Until now, he has been seen as somewhat of a loveable drunk, but once Ace makes his intentions known, Stephen turns, shooting daggers into the gangster with his eyes as he tells him, “The only time I hate democracy is when one of you mongrels forget where you belong.” So, it’s no. Stephen, unlike his daughter, knows what Ace really is – a cheap hoodlum involved in activities that can only spell doom for his daughter if she were to hitch her wagon to his sleazy star.
Not that it matters, for Jan and Ace continue to be an item. But reality is beginning to impinge on this idyllic relationship. After getting the short shrift from Stephen, Ace returns to his place to find Jan there in a bathrobe. They begin to argue, during which Ace makes his demand for a long-term commitment clear while Jan’s only response is to tell Ace to cut the gab and make with the sex – the famous scene on the divan.
Soon after Ace left the casino, the cops pull a raid. Stephen, by this time six sheets to the wind, is adding a goodly dose of disorderly to his drunk. The gang, to shut him up, tosses him in Ace’s apartment, where he discovers Jan lounging in a robe. Both father and daughter are shamed by the discovery of each other in this condition. They silently leave and return to their apartment.
Back at their apartment, Jan confronts Stephen with the truth – that each of them has been indulging their worst vices. She offers to give up Ace if Stephen will give up the bottle, and suggests the two of them go on a retreat to cleanse it out of their systems. Stephen, seeing this as his last chance, readily agrees.
At first, all is idyllic, as they romp among the wilds of Yosemite, but not for long. When they return to town, Stephen makes a beeline for the drug store and purchases a bottle. This makes for one of the weirdest scenes in the movie. Jan and Eddie see him approach, bottle in hand. As they rush toward him a train goes by between them. But as the train leaves, there’s no Stephen. Did he simply grab onto one of the car handles a la Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin and cadge a free ride?
At any rate, Jan figures that if Dad is going to return to his vices, then so will she, and returns to Ace. But it’s not the same Ace she left. No, Ace is furious that Jan left him without so much as a “goodbye” months ago, only to return and make him look like a fool. Ace now has ideas, and one of those ideas is that she will marry him – the next day. He does so in manner that leaves her shocked and almost speechless. He intends to take full control of this “free soul.”
Jan tries to ignore Ace and his plans; she’s disappointed in herself for having gotten so involved. But there’s no escape, as the next day Ace returns and repeats his plans, this time with a rejoinder: he threatens to kidnap her if it comes to that. As they argue, old fiancé Dwight come in and confronts Ace. Ace brushes him off, telling Dwight, “She lost her Ritz months ago. She came to my place and stayed there.” In other words, Jan is used goods. Wilfong leaves on the note that if Jan doesn’t go along with the wedding, he’ll start spreading rumors about Jan’s sexual proclivity, which will ruin her reputation.
Dwight is gobsmacked. What’s a boy in love to do? Simple, he goes to Ace’s casino and guns the gangster down in cold blood. Then, in true melodramatic fashion, he calls the police and tells them exactly what he just did: he shot Ace over a gambling debt.
On trial for first-degree murder, Dwight has as much chance as a snowball in hell. Only a first-rate lawyer could spring him. So guess who now shows up? That’s right, Stephen returns from the society of the alcoholic hobos, or wherever he was, to make what for him will be his last hurrah.
Stephen declares the murder is a case of temporary insanity. He states that it is not Dwight who should be on trial, but he himself, as Jan’s father, for if he had not allowed Jan to see Ace to begin with, the whole tragic affair could have been prevented. After calling Jan to the witness stand, Stephen, impassioned in his defense, and what he must ask, suffers a heart attack and dies in Jan’s arms. The jury finds Dwight innocent, and he and Jan leave for New York, where they plan to pick up their lives.
Truth be told, A Free Soul isn’t a very good movie, which for some cinephiles, is akin to blasphemy. The problem lies with the writing and the plain fact that the movie only becomes interesting when Gable is in the frame.
The fame of A Free Soul comes from its shock value, especially when cited in documentaries about the Pre-Code era. When a clip from the movie is shown, it’s always the same clip, that of Norma Shearer reclining on a divan and exhorting Clark Gable to “C'mon, put ‘em around me.” Shocking? Yes, especially when taken out of the context of the movie. Watch the rest of the movie and it becomes obvious it’s another Shearer melodrama wherein Norma gets mixed up with some pretty bad eggs and has to figure a way out, if she can. From some of the almost see-through gowns Adrian designed for her, she could almost be called “Norma Sheerer.”
Although she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, this is not one of Shearer’s better performances. She seems to be working hard at being sexy and wanton, something that came rather naturally to actresses such as Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow. She also lets a few of her silent movie mannerisms, especially the art of over-gesticulating, stand out quite noticeably. Mordaunt Hall, in his review for TheNew York Times, perhaps said it best: “Miss Shearer, who looks as captivating as ever, is called upon to act a part which is quite unsuited to her intelligent type of beauty.”
It also doesn’t help that her co-star is Lionel Barrymore, one of the greatest scene-stealers to ever live. Lionel pulls out all the stops, especially in the last courtroom scene and won the Best Actor Oscar for what was essentially one of the hammiest performances ever captured on film, especially given the awful dialogue he has to recite.
Clark Gable also manages to outshine Norma, though he’s still reduced to playing his usual (for the times) one-note heavy. Still, he does make quite an impression, as noted before, the film becomes interesting only when he’s on screen, and this is the film that catapulted him into stardom. Leslie Howard is all but invisible as the effete fiancé, and the best performance is that of James Gleason as Barrymore’s confidant-assistant-enabler.
The problem with the film is its reliance on shock value and theatrics rather than solid plotlines. The scene in the courthouse at Ace’s trial is a good example. Stephen is holding the hat police found at the scene of the crime. He muses over the initials in the hat, going over a couple of possible names before stopping and conceding that it could well belong to Ace Wilfong.
There is only one way to be sure, he says, and calls Ace up to try on the hat. As Ace places the topper on his head, it’s evident that the hat is two sizes too small and the courtroom breaks out in laughter as Stephen drives his point home to the jury.
This scene came to me immediately when I was watching the O.J. Simpson trial. Johnnie Cochran practically had Simpson acquitted then and there when he asked the defendant to try on the gloves supposedly used by the murderer. As Simpson tried to wiggle his hands into the gloves, it was apparent that they were too small, and Johnny uttered that famous phrase, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” I have always wondered if Cochran got that line of defense from A Free Soul.
The descent into melodrama is all too frequent, as witnessed later by the scene where Jan and Stephen go on a retreat to get their vices out of their systems. Stephen’s sudden lapse back to the bottle brings about his total disappearance, leaving his daughter to her own devices, and we know where this is going. Interestingly, Jan taps into the modern psyche when, in excusing Stephen’s alcoholism, says, "Drinking is just a disease with him." And anyone who at this juncture thinks we’ve seen the last of Stephen is suffering from self-delusion, for the final descent into pure melodrama is yet to come.
After Dwight shoots Ace in cold blood and goes on trial, it looks like curtains for him. Jan scours the city for a lawyer to defend him. As the trial proceeds and Dwight is looking more and more guilty, Stephen suddenly shows up to take over Dwight’s defense, without any preparation at all, mind you. He puts Jan on the witness stand, where she confesses all about her relationship with Ace and of his threats just before the shooting. Stephen them sums up by telling the jury that Dwight is not the murderer, but himself. Yes, he is the real murderer for having neglected his daughter. And just as he finishes, right on cue, he drops dead. The jury is so moved they acquit Dwight, who goes on, presumably, to live happily ever after with Jan. It’s one of the most preposterous endings in the history of movies, but, strangely enough, one that fits with the morality of the day. Jan strayed from the moral path by getting involved with Ace to the extent she did and now must pay for it until she is sufficiently punished. To save Dwight, Stephen must sacrifice his daughter, for the moral code of the day dictated the ruin of any woman who not only slept with a man before marriage, but also practically lived with him. This is why Ace’s threats to out this behavior on her part were so daunting.
Barrymore’s final speech lasted for 14 minutes. Shearer, according to director Clarence Brown, played “bedroom politics” by complaining about the final scene to her husband, Irving Thalberg, and the fact that both she and Gable fade into the deep background during the scene. (Of course, Gable’s character is no longer with us, so I don’t know how that could have been managed, except by using a flashback.) Thalberg turned her suggestion down and kept the scene as it was shot, ensuring Barrymore the Oscar.
The film did have its strengths, which lie entirely in the hands of director Brown. His use of the camera and fast editing move the film along nicely, especially since this is a film that could easily become trapped in its own melodrama. Brown brings out the naiveté in Jan, who mistakes it for freedom and sophistication. One of the best scenes is when Gable’s henchman, Slouch (Brophy) explains the drive-by attempt on Ace’s life to Jan:
“Well, the mug that was rubbed out, Miss, was a snooper of the chief’s running with the Hardy mob, slipping us the lowdown. Hardy gets hep to it and he puts the rat on the spot. They nab the boss’s 'kelly' and plants it. Your old man jaws him out and the Hardy mob grabs the typewriters and the ukeleles.”
Jan’s confused reaction is priceless, and Brown lingers on it just long enough to drive the point home.
And in the scene at Ace’s where Stephen confronts Jan, Brown uses a lingering shot of Jan noticing that the flowers on the table have decayed to the point where they crumble in her hand. She catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror, as if seeing herself for the first time. She then spots Stephen in the mirror as he downs another drink, and the look on her face tells us that the game is up for her. It’s a beautiful look into her thought process without any dialogue whatsoever, a perfect illumination of the phrase that a picture is worth a thousand words.
The only problem is there weren’t enough of them.
The film was a smash at the box office, turning a final profit of $244,000. It was also voted “One of the Ten Best Pictures of 1931” in a poll by Film Daily.
A Free Soul was remade by MGM in 1953 as The Girl Who Had Everything with Elizabeth Taylor in Shearer’s role, Fernando Lamas in Gable’s role, and William Powell in Barrymore’s role.
Bob le Flambeur By Ed Garea
Bob le Flambeur (Mondial, 1956) – Director: Jean-Pierre Melville. Writers: Auguste Le Breton & Jean-Pierre Melville. Cast: Roger Duchesne, Isabelle Corey, Daniel Cauchy, Simone Paris, Andre Garet, Gerard Buhr, Guy Decomble, Claude Cerval, Howard Vernon, & Colette Fleury. B&W, 98 minutes.
“As told in Montmartre, here is the curious tale of Bob the Gambler.”
When we think back on influential crime capers of the ‘50s, the films that usually come to mind are John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, Jules Dassin’s Rififi, Jacques Becker’s Touches pas au grisbi, and even Charles Crichton’s The Lavender Hill Mob. This neat little heist film by Melville doesn’t come readily to mind. But its influence is substantial: Neil Jordan’s The Good Thief, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, and both versions of Ocean’s 11 are essentially remakes of it (in fact, the movie is referenced in the original Ocean’s 11). Godard’s Breathless not only mentions the character of Bob Montagne, but also features the director, Melville, playing a famous author.
And, as is also usual with regard to European films, the look of the film does not betray its poverty row financing. In fact, it’s something of a minor miracle that Bob the Gambler was filmed at all. Melville shot the film on a veritable shoestring, frequently telling his actors that there was no money to pay them now, but if they were patient, some would arrive in the coming days. Daniel Cauchy, who played the pivotal role of Bob’s young disciple, Paolo, said in interviews that Melville was always promising to pay them, but they had to be ready to shoot as soon as the funding arrived, which was often on a moment’s notice. It wasn’t only the lack of funding hampering the project, but also the fact that Melville didn’t have the money to secure a permit for filming, so they filmed without it, frequently having to disperse when the police were spotted.
One of the initial things to grab the first-time viewer is the gritty black and white camerawork. The immediacy is wholly due to the lack of financing. Cauchy remembers Melville’s cameraman, Henri Decae, shooting with a handheld camera while riding a delivery bike. Combined with the use of natural lighting, the result is that the film is more fluid, more like a page from real life rather than the usual studio product. Shot on location in the Montmartre Place Pigalle district of Paris, Melville captures not just the physical location, but rather the essence – the mood – of Pigalle, famous for decades as being the red-light district of Paris. American soldiers during World War II nicknamed it “Pig’s Alley,” and flocked there to enjoy the erotic pleasures offered in dozens of shops, cheap hotels, and alleyways. Melville does more than just showing us Pigalle. Shooting at night, he makes us feel Pigalle. We are not just looking in; no, we are there along with the other denizens, walking the street, hanging in the various cafes, and lurking in the shadows. This is the ultimate genius of Melville; without this invitation, we are but mere spectators at a film that demands not just our presence, but our involvement. It should be noted that the reason why Melville can do this is due to Decae and his artistry with a hand-held camera.
The film opens in Montmartre at dawn. Melville is our narrator:
“The story begins just between night and day, at the break of dawn.”
Day is breaking at The Basilica of the Sacred Heart. We follow the tram down the steep hill.
“Montmartre is both heaven . . .
It ends at Pigalle.
“. . . and hell. The signs are about to go out. People pass each other, forever strangers. People on their way to work, like this charwoman, who’s very late, and wanderers, like this young girl, who is very ‘advanced’ for her age.”
Here we first see Anne (Corey) as she makes her way to a snack stand where she buys an order of fries. But we’ll meet her later. Melville continues:
“But let’s get to Bob, Bob the Gambler. An old young man who was already a legend of the recent past.”
Cut to the back room of a seedy nightclub. A game of craps is in progress. A white-haired man has just made his last throw of the dice, a “seven.” He prepares to leave. “Going to the Carpeaux?” someone asks. The man simply places his hands next to his face as if going to sleep. He leaves.
This is Bob Montagne (Duchesne). Bob the Gambler. As he leaves, a taxi driver asks “Taxi, sir?” He then looks closer. ”Sorry, Mr. Bob. I didn’t recognize you.” Bob walks down the street, stopping to notice himself in a store window. “A real thug’s face,” he says to himself. As he walks, a water truck passes spraying the gutters. He sees Anne, a hooker, walking and eating fries. She is hailed by an American sailor on a motorcycle, who says, “C'mon, come on baby. Un promenade sur ma moto?” in his fractured French. She accepts and they drive off. Bob stops at a newsstand, buys a paper and tips the owner generously. “Thank you, Mr. Bob.” He’s offered a ride by someone he knows well. It’s Commissaire Ledru (Decomble). Ledru asks, “Where to?” Bob jokes about being seen with the police. Ledru asks about the Carpeaux and Bob agrees, but tells him to let him out a block before. Once there he gets into a card game, and as we learn later, loses 200,000 francs.
As the car pulls away, the driver turns to Ledru and asks if Bob is one of his informers. “If he heard you say that…” answers Ledru. Ledru then goes on to tell how Bob saved his life when he pushed the gunman’s arm away just as he was going to shoot; from that day on they’ve been close friends.
We now cut to a small bar where we see a young man playing dice with an older man. The older man refers to the younger man as “Bob.” When the young man asks why he’s called “Bob,” the young man’s date says it because he tries too hard to be Bob. The barmaid agrees. She is Yvonne (Paris), the owner of the bar. She bought the establishment, we learn later, with a loan from Bob. The young man is Paolo (Cauchy), the son of one of Bob’s partners in crime and now his protégé. Bob himself enters – the bar will be a centerpiece around which the film’s character revolve – and while talking about his tough losing day, he begins tossing dice with Roger (Garet) while asking Yvonne for a drink. The dice have reinvigorated him, telling us that his gambling is a compulsion he cannot – and does not want to – quit. Paulo accompanies Bob home while Bob tells him all about the card game. As they part at Bob’s door, Paulo tells Bob he’ll see him that night.
Melville has just given us, in these short opening sequences, a portrait not only of the neighborhood, but also of Bob himself. He has become as much a part of Montmartre as the basilica. One thing we know right off about Bob is that he is cool. With his white hair slicked back, dressed in a gray suit and tie, topped off with a trench coat and fedora, his fully loaded Plymouth Belvidere convertible, and his penthouse studio apartment with a slot machine in the closet overlooking the Pigalle district, he is not just cool - he is the epitome of cool. In fact, he is so cool that his hair matches his trenchcoat, as both are the same shade of white.
However, for Bob, gambling is more than a compulsion; it is the essence of his being; to give up gambling is to give up living. This is what Melville is trying to convey to us in these opening scenes. To understand this is to understand Bob and what makes him tick.
Cool, though, is not just in the looks, but also woven through his behavior. When Anne shows up in the bar, he asks her what she’s doing on the streets of Montmartre so late at night, warning her that “sidewalk Romeos,” as he calls them, are dangerous. He criticizes her for plying her trade on the streets, becoming a “pavement princess.” But before he leaves, he pays Anne’s bar bill and gives her enough money to get a hotel room.
The next morning Bob is woken from his slumber by a knock at the door. It’s Marc (Buhr), who “needs some dough to hide out.” Bob only asks “How much?” “About 100,000,” Marc replies. “I beat up on Lydia a little too hard.” Bob tells Marc that he thought Marc had give up pimping. But, as it’s obviously not the case, Bob withdraws his offer of help and throws Marc out for the code of honor, to which he strictly adheres, refuses to let him associate with pimps.
Later that day, he picks up his car and is cruising the streets when he spots Anne toting a suitcase. He pulls over and asks her about her situation. She replies that it’s hard to stay when one doesn’t have the rent. His reply to that is to offer her the option of staying with him until things get better. She readily accepts, thinking she’ll be sleeping with Bob. But that just wouldn’t be cool. Instead, we find that she is really a favor for Paolo, who, Bob noticed, was completely taken with her at the bar. Later, he will get her a job as a cigarette girl at a nightclub, from which she is quickly promoted to hostess. This brings her into contact with Marc, which will have repercussions later on Bob himself.
Melville keeps Bob in a cloak of ambiguity. Most of what we think about Bob is inspired by what people say about him and how they treat him, and what little we know of him is that before the war, his involvement in a failed bank job led to his imprisonment. For the last 20 years, he’s been as straight as an arrow, at least as far as the police are concerned. Though Bob was a gangster in prewar Paris, he wants no part of the current scene; "it's not the same anymore," he observes. Instead, he makes his living as a gambler, hence his name “Bob the Gambler.” In fact, no one in the film uses his last name when referring to him. It’s always something along the lines of “Bob? Oh, you mean Bob the Gambler.” Actually, the English rendering of the title Bob le Flambeur as “Bob the Gambler” dilutes the sense of the word “flambeur,” which better translates as “high roller,” or “big shot.” It comes from the verb “flamber,” which means to wager not only the money you have, but also the money you don’t have.
Bob is no mere gambler; on the first day in the movie he wins big at the racetrack, then loses it all that night playing roulette. Gambling is not just a hobby, something to do for diversion, nor is it his job; it is his lifestyle.
His relationship with Paolo is almost one of father and son. Bob’s code of honor makes him responsible for the young man, as his father was killed, we presume, in the bank heist. Bob tries to steer young Paolo clear of the influences of the street that could land him in jail. Thus, when he noticed that Paolo was taken with Anne, he made her available to him. Bob is also warning Paolo not to get involved in a scheme with Marc, telling the young man that Marc is a lowlife who will only bring misery.
Because Melville weaves such a tight story, we must keep close attention to developments. And one of those developments is the arrest of Marc by Inspector Ledru, who has caught wind of Marc’s beating of Lydia. Marc pleads his case, promising that he’ll bring Ledru a much bigger fish. Ledru lets him go on the assumption that he’ll be holding Marc to that promise; if enough time elapses and there is no tip, Ledru will have Marc thrown into the slammer.
Meanwhile, we begin to notice that Bob is on a massive losing streak. He loses at cards, at the races, even with the small slot machine he keeps in his closet. After losing heavy at the track, he and Roger head to the casino at Deauville, where Bob loses again at baccarat. While waiting for Bob, Roger runs into their old friend from days past, Jean (Cerval). He, too, has gone straight and now works as a croupier at the casino. During their small talk, Roger learns two things: Jean’s wife Suzanne (Fluery) is something of a shrew, and the casino’s safe holds as much as 800 million francs at a time, especially during the Grand Prix, which is coming up soon. These two nuggets of information will figure heavily in the days to come.
As Bob returns to the car, he tells Roger that he lost heavily at the casino and is down to his last 200,000 francs. They ponder the situation back at the bar. Roger tells Bob about his meeting Jean and what Jean said about the safe holding that much cash. Bob begins to think; he can’t get the money out of his mind. He knows he’s in a funk. Suddenly he comes round to the idea of robbing the safe. Roger isn’t so sure, but Bob has it figured out. He can round up a gang and they can get the plans to the casino from Jean.
First things first, they’ll case the casino and contact Jean as to the plans. Bob, Roger and Paolo drive to the casino and walk around, studying the layout. They meet up with Jean at a nearby café and blackmail him into giving them the casino’s plans by threatening to tell the casino’s manager about Jean’s convict past, which he neglected to tell his current employer.
Bob recruits former comrade-in-crime McKimmie (Vernon) and uses his spread to plan the robbery. In addition to having a plan drawn on a board, Bob draws a layout of the casino in chalk on the ground outside and drills everyone in his movements during the heist. This man takes no chances.
But it’s the things one can’t control that can lead to one’s downfall. Bob didn’t count on Paolo’s total infatuation with Anne. One night, in bed, Paolo spills the plan to Anne. All well and good, except for a few nights later when Anne is with Marc. He’s trying to get her to be one of his whores. She demurs, telling him about Paolo and his desire to “cover me in gold.” When Marc asks her exactly how Paolo would accomplish this, she inadvertently spills the plan to him and unknowingly giving Marc the bargaining chip he needs with Ledru.
Meanwhile, Yvonne, at the Heads or Tails bar, finds out about Bob’s scheme and tries to talk him out of it, telling him that if he needs help, then come to her. She reminds him of his generosity in lending her the starter money for the bar. Anne, who tells Bob she must speak with him, joins them, informing Bob that she accidentally spilled the beans to Marc about the plan. In a move completely out of character, Bob slaps her hard across hard across the face and asks her how long ago she left Marc’s place. “Five minutes ago,” she answers, further telling him that Marc was going to the police. Bob knows he has to stop the pimp, but before leaving, asks Yvonne to give the keys to his place to Anne.
Bob scolds Paolo for telling Anne about the plan. Paolo goes out looking for Marc and catches him in a bar making a phone call, presumably to Ledru, who earlier had asked Marc for more information. Paolo shoots Marc to death before he can complete the call.
In another development, Suzanne (Paris), the wife of croupier Jean, pressures him to ask for a bigger cut. He promises to take her to Paris for a meeting with Bob and Roger, but when they get there, they find they have missed the duo by only a few minutes.
Bob, for his part, is having dinner with Ledru, who tells Bob about certain rumors he’s been hearing about Bob being “back in the saddle.” While Bob is noncommittal, Ledru warns him about keeping to the straight and narrow.
When Ledru returns to the station he gets a phone call from Suzanne informing him of Bob’s plan. After hanging up he calls for three cars and extra men to go to Deauville. He goes to Montmartre, both to Bob’s apartment and to the Heads or Tails seeking to talk Bob out of his plan, but Bob is nowhere to be found. He then calls the casino manager, who confirms the information about the amount held in the safe.
Bob goes to the casino to connect with Jean, but Jean is nowhere to be found. Alone, and with time on his hands, Bob begins to gamble, starting with roulette, where he wins 80,000 francs. Collecting his winnings, his next stop is a private room where he plays baccarat. He goes on a fantastic hours-long winning streak, the biggest in his life, and loses all track of time. Looking at his watch, he realizes the appointed time has come, hurriedly cashes out with a fortune in winnings, and exits the casino floor. Just as his gang arrives, so do the police, and the two groups end up in a shootout. The gang is no match for the police, who are armed with submachine guns. The robbery is foiled and Paolo is killed in the shootout. Bob exits the casino in time to have Paolo die in his arms.
While Bob is cuffed, the staff brings out his winnings and places them in the trunk of Ledru’s car, as Bob tells the Inspector, “No sticky-fingered cops.” Ledru tells him that with a good lawyer, his charge of criminal intent could be reduced to three years. Another detective pipes up and tells Bob that with a better lawyer he could get off scot-free. As Ledru agrees and laughs, Bob opines that he could even sue for damages.
Bob le Flambeur is a caper movie in which the caper is treated almost as an afterthought. It’s really a romantic comedy of sorts – a love letter to a Paris that no longer exists. The film has a beautiful twilight feel about it, taking place at night and the crack of dawn mostly in Montmartre and Pigalle. Montmartre is the old bohemian district, the home to many a famous artist and writer, that we glimpse at the beginning as the tram slowly wends its way down to Pigalle, which is a hub of striptease joints, brothels, and dive bars, with the accompanying back rooms and alleys. We get some picturesque views of Montmartre from Bob’s apartment window and see Pigalle through Melville’s lens as a gallant sea of swashbucklers, as perhaps it may have been at one time. As mentioned earlier, Pigalle was a favorite haunt of American soldiers in World War Two as one of the best places to visit in order to let off some steam.
Bob is a relic of a bygone era in which the criminal was very much the swashbuckler; an independent entity with as integrity all its own, which came to an end with the German occupation. A true survivor, he now lives to be admired, or more to the point, to be venerated. He often checks himself out in the mirror or storefront window to make sure it‘s as it should be. As mentioned before, he’s the epitome of cool; even his car, a two-toned Plymouth Belvidere, sets him apart from criminals driving mere Citroens or Renaults. His word is his bond, his trust is never betrayed, and he is loyal and generous almost to a fault. The only criminals beneath contempt for him are pimps, who live off women and violate every element of gallantry, hence his attitude towards Marc.
He makes his living now as a gambler, haunting late night card or dice games most every night, winning and losing, but taking home more than he came with to the game.
But lately things have not been going so well for Bob. He’s losing more than he’s winning. Even when he wins, like at the track, he loses his bankroll quickly at the baccarat tables. In the words of Austin Powers, Bob has lost his “mojo,” his elan, the thing that keeps him going and which separates him from the rest. He realizes he’s dying inside, which is why he jumps when Roger mentions his conversation with Jean the croupier and the contents on the casino’s safe; it’s his chance for redemption, to become meaningful again.
We see the change in Bob almost instantly. He’s become much more forceful than previously. Note his reaction when Anne tells him she accidentally told Marc about the plan. He slaps her, an act the old Bob never would have committed, but then the old Bob was sleepwalking. Melville as much as says so in his prologue when he calls Bob, “an old young man who was already a legend of the recent past.” In giving up his criminal past, Bob has cut himself off from his life source and has grown old and soft as a result, not unlike some who retire and find themselves at large with nothing to do.
When he’s meticulously planning the casino heist we can feel the life returning to his veins. He’s getting his mojo back, though it’s not without its peril. (The source of most of the trouble in his world is women, as witness Anne and Suzanne – even their names are somewhat similar.)
When the appointed day comes, Bob arrives at the casino well ahead of the others, looking to make his contact with Jean the croupier. But Jean is nowhere to be found, which Bob doesn’t realize at the time is a stroke of good luck. For had Jean showed to work things out with Bob, the chances were good that Bob wouldn’t be returning to his old haunts, which is why I think he told Yvonne to give his apartment keys to Anne. He wasn’t expecting to ever be returning. But he’s gotten his mojo back, hence the streak where he wins more than ever before. And a final irony, the loyalty he displayed to others comes back to benefit him with Leduc’s kid-glove treatment. It’s all part of his mojo.
Jean-Pierre Melville himself was a product of Bob’s bygone era. He was an admitted lover of America who changed his last name from Grunberg to Melville, went endlessly to American movies, and even shot a film in New York, Two Men in Manhattan, a crime thriller (naturally) which he wrote, directed, and even co-starred. According to Daniel Clauchy, Melville drove an American car, wore an American hat and Ray-Bans, and always had the Armed Forces Network on his car radio. Though Melville practically lived American crime movies, when it came to making his own, they were not mere copies, but rather infused with a sense of irony, cool, in which his characters said few words because so much went on without saying. They were also permeated by a sense of fate in the characters knowing not only what must be done, but also how it must be done and why it must be done that way, no matter the consequences.
Melville had a difficult time casting the movie. It was not easy for him to find established actors who would agree to work for practically nothing and drop everything to return when he raised more money. Other producers considered Roger Duchesne, who played Bob, a huge risk because of his alcoholism. For Duchesne, a career supporting actor, it was his first lead role. Melville discovered Isabel Corey, a revelation who almost steals the movie as Anne, in the same way as Bob meets her in the movie. Melville picked her up off the street in his American car and later discovered she was almost 16. Rene Salque, who played the safecracker in Bob’s gang, was a safecracker in real life. And Howard Vernon, who played McKimmie, was between assignments.
Simone Paris (Yvonne) and Andre Garet (Roger) provide solid support. They played what I like to call “the quiet roles,” the characters that seem as if they’re part of the background, but without whom the movie noticeably loses traction. Clauchy is excellent as Bob’s protégé, worshipping his idol without being too obvious in his adoration. Alain Delon had wanted to play Paolo, but Melville turned him down, correctly fearing that he would dominate the film. In fact, a part of Melville’s overall genius in the film lies in his casting, as each actor seems perfect for his or her role, almost as if they were real denizens of the area.
Auguste le Breton, who also wrote the breathtaking Rififi, penned the screenplay. The film’s subtitles fail to catch most of the crackling (and untranslatable) slang dialogue, but still retain the sense of rhythm, which keeps us in the mix. The sublime photography was by Maurice Blettery and acclaimed cinematographer Henri Decae, whose genius for night composition is on full display.
But it’s Melville who takes all these disparate parts and makes them into a heady brew that sends up the ordinary conventions of the crime thriller, making it instead into a comedy of manners. Film critic Brian L. Frye notes that Melville bridges Renoir’s cynical humanism and the equally cynical existentialism of the New Wave: “His crooks and fences live in a fantasy world of their own making, a world they take care not to examine too closely, lest it dissolve. And yet, this illusion provides them the meaning and purpose for which the cynics despair.”
Finally, I can offer no better observation that that provided by New York Times critic Vincent Canby in his review of the film:
Bob le Flambeur is a very funny, jaunty movie, and one can understand why Jean-Luc Godard, who was to make Breathless just three years later, admired it so much. Its realism is not the reality of life, but of the kind of movies that give shape to the disordered lives of the people who watch movies. Miss Corey is charming and Mr. Duchesne is nearly perfect, moving through his underworld with the sort of tacky elan that defines his morality.
Bob: "I was born with an ace in my palm."
The Silk Express By Ed Garea
The Silk Express(WB, 1933) – Director: Ray Enright. Writers: Houston Branch (story and s/p) & Ben Markson (s/p). Stars: Neil Hamilton, Sheila Terry, Arthur Byron, Guy Kibbee, Dudley Digges, Arthur Hohl, Allen Jenkins, Harold Huber, G. Pat Collins, Robert Barrat, Vernon Steele, Ivan F. Simpson, & Guy Usher. B&W, 61 minutes.
The Silk Express is a fast paced programmer that seems to move faster than its 61 minutes allow. It’s a good diversion; a murder mystery set aboard a moving train with no end to the list of suspects and a limited amount of time in which to solve the crime. Like many low-budget mysteries of the day, the plot is somewhat implausible, but as Mordaunt Hall wrote in his review for The New YorkTimes (June 28, 1933): “It is a good robust thriller, with two murders, well-sustained suspense, a vein of amusement and a dash of romance.” And isn’t that what any mystery needs to hold its audience?
The film begins with a clever montage of phone calls and conversations. It seems that silk is the next big thing in the fashion industry. Speculator Wallace Myton (Hohl), having gotten wind of the news, has gotten his cronies together and bought up the supplies of raw silk on the market. His aim is to make the silk manufacturers pay through the nose if they want to survive. But Donald Kilgore (Hamilton), the head of the association of mill owners, isn’t going to fold, not just yet. He and his board invite Myton to a sit-down to discuss price. When Myton refuses to budge off his original quote, Kilgore informs him that he and his fellow manufacturers have no choice but to buy raw silk directly from Japan, $3 million of it, in fact. But there’s a hitch in the plan: Kilgore must assure delivery by a set time or the manufacturers will have to accede to Myton’s terms.
Kilgore’s plan is that, once the silk arrives in Seattle, it will be loaded on a specially chartered express train for New York City. However, knowing Myton will try to stop or delay the train, Kilgore and his attorney, Calhoun (Barrat) have hired two train guards, Craft (Huber) and Burns (Collins) to accompany the shipment. However, what he doesn’t know is that Craft and Burns are operatives in the employ of Myton.
The first sign of trouble occurs when the silk is unloaded in Seattle. A customs agent (Usher), having been tipped off that something is wrong, examines the silk and finds evidence of “Mongolian Rust.” He wants to seize it, but Kilgore notices that the “rust” has only affected a small portion of the shipment and has the rest loaded aboard the train.
To complicate things further, Kilgore is approached by Dr. Harold Rolph (Steele), who is armed with a letter of introduction from the mayor of Seattle. Two people are accompanying Rolph: his patient, Professor Axel Nyberg (Digges), and Nyberg’s daughter and nurse, Paula (Terry). It seems a fly carrying a variation of sleeping sickness has bitten the professor while on expedition in Asia. The only hope for a cure is at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, and if they don’t get him there in 72 hours, the paralysis will reach his heart and the professor will be history.
Kilgore, being the good guy he is, tells the train’s conductor, Clark (Byron) that the trio is accompanying him to New York and has room made for them aboard the train. Shortly after another suspect is added as we see a tramp (Allen Jenkins) slipping aboard right before departure.
As the train departs, we come to a stretch in the film where the characters are getting to know each other and explaining their various missions. Meanwhile, Hohl is receiving telegrams at his headquarters in New York from yet another operative on the train, a special operative he placed there in case Craft and Burns fail.
The train is moving along at a goodly pace when Kilgore and Paula, who have stopped out onto the rear platform to get some fresh air, notice that one of the cars is on fire. The train is stopped and Kilgore and Calhoun, along with Clark, enter the car to extinguish the fire. They find none of the silk is damaged, but discover a body in the car. It’s the body of Johnson (Simpson), Kilgore’s secretary, who was last seen on the train platform in Seattle. Yes, there’s a murder, and yes, it’s a tragedy, but the train needs to be in New York, so they push on. But not for long; someone drops a note outside one of the main stations the train passes through and it’s brought to the attention of railway detective McDuff, who races down the line and stops the train to investigate. He tells Kilgore and the others the train is going nowhere until a full investigation is performed. Neither Kilgore nor Nyberg can wait that long, so a plan is devised to conk McDuff over the head, tie him up and deposit him in one the sleeping berths until the train gets to New York.
As the train continues another crisis rears its head. Calhoun discovers the letter of introduction Dr. Rolph handed Kilgore has the mayor’s signature forged. Calhoun deduces the mayor was in Montana when the letter was typed. Rolph admits the signature is a forgery, but maintains it had to be done in order to get Nyberg to New York. Paula pleads for her father, who Kilgore determines is not faking, and lets the trio stay on, as Paula, in his estimation, “wouldn’t know how to lie.” How’s that for deduction?
Yet more problems mount. A snowstorm threatens to delay the train. Nyberg begins fading fast. Dr. Rolph advises Kilgore to open the windows and let the cold air in to keep his patient awake. Clark, the conductor, disappears, and when he’s found, it’s too late. As there has been another murder committed aboard the train, Kilgore has no choice but to free McDuff and allow him to investigate. What he can’t figure out, however, is the manner in which Clark was killed. Enter the tramp, who identifies himself as Lloyds of London insurance investigator Raymond Griffith. He explains that Clark was another of Myton’s men. Clark killed Johnson and in turn was killed by driving a sharp icicle through his eye and into his brain. The only question now is, “Who done it?”
Kilgore has noticed that Nyberg has been in an extremely agitated state since Clark’s death was announced. Nyberg has reached the state where the paralysis has set in so deep that he has lost the power of speech and can only move his eyes. They know someone in the present company is the murderer. Kilgore believes Nyberg knows who did it and gets him to communicate by making a list of everyone on the train and asking the professor to blink once for “no” and “twice” for yes” each time a name is read out. It turns out Craft is the guilty man; Nyberg saw him remove one of the icicles hanging from the window.
Now that they have their man, all is well as the train pulls into New York. Nyberg is transferred onto an ambulance, but not before Paula and Kilgore promise to hook up. McDuff gets credit for solving the murders. The police want to close the train down until the investigation is finished, but Kilgore talks them into unloading the silk in time to defeat Myton, save the silk manufacturers, and prevent the consumer from paying high prices for silk garments.
Plot inconsistencies aside, The Silk Express has some things going for it. Ray Enright’s excellent direction keeps things balanced and moving, with no dead spots. In fact, the movie is so intent on covering its intrigues that there is no time for the usual sappy romance; the love story between Paula and Kilgore is more insinuated than expressed. Another point I noticed is that the film moves so quickly that we fail to realize there are several detectives working at odds with each other to solve the killing of Johnson in the storage car.
A nice touch is the realization by Craft and Burns that, although they are supposed to be working with the mystery man, they are in reality mere pawns whose real purpose is to have the murder pinned on their shoulders, especially since they believe they committed it. Another point about the film is that, in case the audience missed anything in the whirligig of a plot, the director cuts to Hohl explaining what is happening to his cohorts in New York. It’s as if Enright realized the film was, like its train, speeding out of control.
On the whole, the acting is decent; it’s a nice ensemble performance. The only person that sticks out is Guy Kibbee, who turns in a marvelous performance. I liked how Kibbee’s character was introduced, as a man with little to do but watch the stationmaster play a game of checkers with a counterpart via the station’s telegraph. As it turns out, Kibbee became involved in a little checkers game of his own.
Allen Jenkins was also fine, as his usual bombastic antics were toned way down. Arthur Hohl is fine as the heel and Sheila Terry makes the most of her role as Paula. And the casting of Barrat was Calhoun was a nice touch, as Barrat was familiar to most moviegoers as the bad guy in many films. It gave the audiences another red herring to consider, which adds to the fun.
The most interesting performer in the film is top-billed Neil Hamilton, who was rapidly reaching the end of his leading man status. Unlike other stars who began at the bottom and moved upward, Hamilton began at the top and moved his way downward: from star to supporting player to minor player to guest star on television series. He’s most famous to us today as Commissioner Gordon, from the camp-classic television series Batman (1966). Perhaps Hamilton’s strangest film appearance came in David O. Selznick’s war romance, Since You Went Away (1944). Cast as star Claudette Colbert’s husband, his scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, and his only appearance in the film is in a photograph on the table.
By Ed Garea
The Cocoanuts (Paramount, 1929) – Directors: Robert Florey & Joseph Santley. Writers: George S. Kaufman (book), and Morrie Ryskind (adaptation). Stars: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Kay Francis, Oscar Shaw, Mary Eaton, Cyril Ring, Basil Ruysdael, Gamby-Hale Ballet Girls, & Allan K. Foster Girls. B&W, 96 minutes.
Until such time, if ever, that their legendary lost film, Humor Risk (1921) is discovered, The Cocoanuts will stand at the Marx Brothers’ first film.
The Brothers had been established on Broadway since 1924 and their first stage hit was I’ll Say She Is. It was a hodgepodge of old Marx Brothers vaudeville routines and musical numbers held together by the story of a rich girl looking for excitement as presented by a succession of new suitors. The climax of the show was a long sketch with Groucho as Napoleon, which the Brothers regarded as the funniest thing they ever did and parts of which would appear in later films.
The show ran from May 19, 1924, at the Casino Theatre in New York City and closed on February 7, 1925, after 313 performances. The Marxs next went on later that year to star in The Cocoanuts, which opened on Broadway at the Lyric Theatre on December 8, 1925, and closed on August 7, 1926, after 276 performances, and then it went on tour. It came back to Broadway for a limited revival at the Century Theatre from May 16 to May 28, 1927, after which the Brothers moved on to Animal Crackers.
Once Hollywood determined that sound was here to stay, the studios descended upon Broadway like a swarm of locusts, looking for talent, as many stars of the silent screen could not make the transition to sound. Given their Broadway success, the Marxs were snapped up by Paramount, which had also bought the film rights to both The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. (I’ll Say She Is was considered unfilmable.)
As part of their Paramount deal, The Cocoanuts was filmed at the Paramount studio in Astoria Studios in Queens, while the Brothers performed Animal Crackers in the evening. Wednesdays were taken off from filming for matinees. The film was one of the first sound movies to be shot at Paramount’s Astoria Studios. (The studio had recently been refurbished to accommodate sound.) Monta Bell was chosen as producer.
Bell decided to split the role of director between Robert Florey, who would handle the main duties, and Joseph Santley, who would handle the musical numbers. Apparently, Florey was hired because of his success in keeping budgets within limits and the studio was afraid that, with the Marxs’ reputation, that the film was a sure bet to go over budget. To handle the camera work, cinematographer George Folsey was assigned to the project.
Of the original Broadway cast, only Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Potter) and Basil Ruysdael (Detective Hennessey) were cast in the film version in addition to the Marxs. Stage veteran Mary Eaton was brought in to play Polly Potter, Oscar Shaw was given the role of lead Robert Adams, Cyril Ring was brought on as villain Harvey Yates, and neophyte Kay Francis appeared in her first movie as Penelope. Finally, Morrie Ryskind was brought in to adapt the play to the screen. He made several changes:
Groucho’s character, named Henry Schlemmer in the play, is renamed as Mr. Hammer. Chico goes from “Willie the Wop” in the play to “Signor Pastrami,” referred to by that name by Groucho and Dumont, and Harpo goes from “Silent Sam” to “Silent Red.” The only reference to Harpo’s character’s name comes from a wanted poster. Only Zeppo’s character keeps his name: Jamison.
The play originally opened with musical numbers, followed by a sequence of dialogues between Eddie the Bellhop (Georgie Hale in the play), Jamison, Mrs. Potter, Harvey Yates, and Polly to establish their characters. Instead, the film opens with a brief musical interlude followed by the entrance of Mr. Hammer.
Eddie’s role was cut completely, and Sylvan Lee appears, uncredited, as “Bell Captain.” Penelope’s role is more sharply refined to bring out her shadier aspects, and the tune “When My Dreams Come True” replaced the frequently reprised “A Little Bungalow.”
Most importantly, Ryskind added the “Why-a-duck” routine, which would go on to become one of the Marxs’ most famous and quoted routines.
The play, as originally constructed by George S. Kaufman, was a satire of the Florida land boom of the 1920s. It’s set in the Hotel de Cocoanut, a resort hotel, run by Mr. Hammer (Groucho), assisted by Jamison (Zeppo), who is more hindrance than help. Harpo and Chico are two con men without funds looking to make their fortunes. The only paying guest at the hotel is Mrs. Potter (Dumont), a wealthy widow who is staying along with daughter Polly (Eaton). Polly is in love with struggling young architect Bob Adams (Shaw), who works as a clerk at the hotel, but in his spare time has drawn up plans for the development of the entire area as Cocoanut Manor. Polly and Bob wish to marry, but Mrs. Potter is convinced that Harvey Yates (Ring) is of higher social standing and therefore would make for a better husband. What Mrs. Potter does not know is that Yates is a con man planning to steal her diamond necklace with the help of partner-in-crime Penelope. The criminals pull off the heist and frame Bob, who is tossed in jail. Mrs. Potter announces Polly’s engagement to Yates. Meanwhile, Bob is freed by Chico and Harpo while Polly tricks Yates during the engagement party into revealing the truth behind the theft. Yates and Penelope are arrested and the engagement party goes on – only with the substitution of Bob as the prospective groom.
So much for the plot – it was always intended just as the framework in which the Marxs perform their patented routines. Marx Brothers legend has George Kaufman standing in the back of the theater while the play was going on. He was talking with a guest when he suddenly held up his hand. “Excuse me,” he told the bewildered guest, “but I think I just heard one of the original lines.”
Florey came to America in the early ‘20s as a correspondent for a French film magazine and began his career in film as a gag writer and soon after worked as director of foreign publicity for Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Rudolph Valentino. Working with the Marx Brothers came as a shock to his system. Shooting a stage play was not his idea of a good time to begin with, and working with four stars who kept changing the dialogue to suit themselves left him dazed and confused. Sound was new to Florey; The Cocoanuts was his second sound film. His request to shoot some of the film in Florida was nixed. Rehearsals were also useless. “What was there to rehearse with the Marx Brothers?” asked Florey. “They had performed the show a thousand times … They did what they did and that was that. Aside from directing traffic, which turned out to be my main function, I photographed it to the best of my ability.” Because he ceded control to his four stars, Florey didn’t bother prepping the supporting cast either, which shows in their confused performances, outside of Dumont and Ruysdael, who worked in the Broadway productions. Florey was more interested in experimenting with the music and dance scenes, even though Santley was brought in as choreographer. To his credit, Florey created some overhead shots that seem to be progenitors of Busby Berkeley’s famous numbers later for Warner Brothers and MGM. Cameraman Folsey said, “Florey had an eye. He knew it was interesting to shoot down on a bunch of chorus girls unfolding like flowers – we hadn’t done that before.”
A problem Florey could do nothing about was sound recording. The transition to sound had just begun and the microphones of the time were acutely sensitive. So much so, in fact, that the camera had to be enclosed in large soundproof booths with a glass panel in front so the microphones wouldn’t pick up the noise. As a result, the camera no longer moved, but remained static. Marks on the floor for the actors to hit were of prime importance to keep them in frame. As a result, the camera locks down on each scene as the Marxs run on and off, as if from the wings of a theater.
One of the things that infuriated cinematographer Folsey was the constant failure of the Brothers Marx to hit their spots, as they had a habit of wandering around, being used to the freedom of the stage. Another thing that bothered Folsey was the stifling heat in the booth that required him to limit filming to short periods.
The microphone was so sensitive that even the rustling and crinkling of paper was enough to cause a major distraction. During the famous “Why-a-duck” routine 27 takes were ruined by the crinkling of the blueprints Groucho uses to explain the layout to Chico until Florey finally got the idea of soaking them in water. The 28th take, using the soaked blueprints, came off smoothly. In fact, the blueprints are so limp and shiny that we can see they are dripping with water.
Even the musical numbers had to be recorded live on the soundstage as they were shot (rather than pre-recorded) as Irving Berlin conducted an off-camera orchestra. As a result, the frequent interludes for the numbers became intrusive, breaking up the flow of the film. In the auction scene, Groucho is reduced to something of an emcee as he introduces Polly Potter singing “Monkey-Doodle-Doo.” The song pushed most in the film is one Berlin wrote especially for it, the dreadful “When My Dreams Come True,” (replacing “A Little Bungalow” from the play) which is sung at various times by Bob and Polly and even played by Harpo both on the clarinet and harp. None of the tunes in the film could be considered memorable nor was any of the music in the Broadway production. It was said that Kaufman didn’t care for music, as he didn’t write it. Marxian legend has it that, when the show was being prepared for Broadway, Kaufman kept throwing out Berlin‘s tunes, one of which was – supposedly – “Always.”
Face it, though, who pays attention to the music in a Marx Brothers film, except if played by Harpo or Chico? The perfect composers for the Brothers turned out to be Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby in their later Paramount films, which were nonsense ditties.
The performances in The Cocoanuts were a decidedly mixed bag. The Marxs were fine, though they do seem a might uncomfortable at first (except Harpo, who was not limited by having to recite dialogue) frequently stumbling and hesitating in delivering their lines. For performers used to live audiences for over 20 years, standing still on a soundstage with only an audience of studio hands was a bit unnerving. They were used to the instantaneous response of a crowd to let them know if the material was working. But take away Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo, and The Cocoanuts is unwatchable.
Aside from Dumont and Ruysdael, who were in the original play, none of the supporting cast, save for Francis, turns in a decent performance. As the romantic leads, Shaw and Eaton are totally forgettable. Shaw has no screen presence, and Eaton, aside from a few song and dance numbers, is practically invisible. Shaw returned to Broadway where he worked until his retirement in 1941. Aside from a silent comedy opposite Marion Davies after The Cocoanuts, Shaw didn’t appear in another film until 1940 when he appeared in a supporting role for Bing Crosby in Rhythm on the River.
Mary Eaton fared no better. Known as one of ‘The Seven Little Eatons’ of Broadway and Ziegfield fame, Paramount starred Mary in a follow-up production with Eddie Cantor and Helen Morgan called Glorifying the American Girl. It’s dreadful performance at the box office ended Mary’s film career and she returned to the stage. Her career ended in the ‘30s due to her alcoholism and she died in 1948 from severe cirrhosis of the liver.
As the main villain, Cyril Ring is as flat as last night’s beer. The reviews he received for his performance were so dreadful as to doom his career as an actor. Ring had 398 screen credits after appearing in The Cocoanuts, with about 99% of them being unbilled. He had become a professional extra. The only one of those especially hired for the film to survive was Kay Francis. It was her first film and she displayed enough presence to be brought back by Paramount. She would later go on to be Warner Brothers’ highest-paid actress in the ‘30s, not bad for someone who sounded as though she took speech lessons from Elmer Fudd.
Part of this could be attributed to the spontaneous ad-libbing of the Marxs, which makes it difficult to adjust, but blame must also be laid at the feet of director Florey, who did a horrible job of preparing his troops. When the film is not coming to a halt in order for someone to sing “When My Dreams Come True,” it’s stopping to explain the plot over and over. The audience is constantly reminded about the stolen necklace, the mysterious map, and Detective Hennessy snooping around for no apparent reason. Is it any wonder we can’t wait for the next bit from Groucho, Chico and Harpo?
And what of the Brothers themselves? The Cocoanuts is interesting in that it’s their first film and we get to see their film characters developing. We open with Groucho giving Zeppo instructions and Zeppo ignoring them. Groucho bemoans the lack of paying guests, but whenever one phones to make a reservation he puts them off with a wisecrack. The bellhops inform Groucho they want to be paid. Groucho responds by confusing them with a speech culminating in his asking them if all they want to do is to be wage slaves. When they reply “no,” he asks what is it that makes one a wage slave. When they can’t answer, Groucho tells them that it’s wages and not to worry, for they won’t get any from him. Not only does this answer satisfy them, they react by cheering. This is an easy crowd.
Groucho is rather stiff and hesitant so far, without the quick patter and comebacks we’re used to, but as soon as Chico and Harpo arrive things pick up. Groucho and Zeppo go to welcome them with hands outstretched and all four end up chasing each other in a circle, stepping over chairs and the lobby sofa as they go. A bellhop tries to take Harpo’s suitcase to his room. Harpo resists and the suitcase pops open. “Hey,” says Groucho, “You know that suitcase is empty.” “That’s all right,” replies Chico. “We fill it up before we leave.” Harpo amuses himself by pulling the buttons off the bellboy’s uniform and eating them. Later he will eat a telephone and drink from an inkwell. Florey, in one of his few contributions to the film, devised the gags with Harpo: the phone (as well as the buttons) is chocolate and the “ink” is flat cola. Groucho and Chico engage in their first on-screen banter: “Now, would you like a suite on the third floor?” “I’ll take a Polack in the basement.”
Groucho later pursues Mrs. Potter after learning she’s not only a widow, but also filthy rich. He tries to seduce her in his inimitable way, proposing marriage, but she rejects his every advance. No wonder, with lines like “Your eyes, they shine like the pants of a blue serge suit.” “What?” “I’m sorry,” Groucho replies. “That isn’t a reflection on you, it’s a reflection on the pants.” When she tells him later that, “You wouldn’t love me if I was poor,” his response is, “I might, but I’d keep my mouth shut.”
Meanwhile, Penelope and Yates are working out plans to steal Mrs. Potter’s necklace, with Penelope planning to fix the blame on Chico and Harpo. She invites Chico to her room and later does the same with Harpo. The scene of her trying to vamp Harpo is precious. She drops her handkerchief. Harpo picks it up and pockets it. When she asks him if he’s seen it he broadly and slowly shakes his head “no.” She tells him if he finds to bring it to her room and asks if he knows where her room is. His reaction is to slowly, and with a lascivious look on his face, nods his head “yes.”
Yates comes to Penelope’s room and slips her Mrs. Potter’s keys. Now comes a scene reminiscent of the bedroom scene in I’ll Say She Is. As Penelope opens the door to Mrs. Potter’s adjoining room, Groucho opens the front door, looking for Mrs. Potter. The doors close. Chico enters and leaves, followed by Harpo, Hennessey, Mrs. Potter, and Groucho numerous times. Finally Penelope gets the chance to grab the necklace. She returns to her room and breathes a sigh of relief. “Alone at last,” she says, as Harpo comes up through her bed as the scene ends.
Having failed to interest Mrs. Potter in purchasing Cocoanut Manor, Groucho decides to hold an auction for the empty lots. To insure that the bidding is brisk, he brings in Chico and instructs him to how to bid. “If someone says ‘100’, you say ‘200’.” “Sure,” replies Chico. Groucho continues, “And if some says ‘300’, you say . . .” “400,” Chico replies, “I gotcha.” Groucho shows Chico the blueprints of the area, pointing out the highlights. When Groucho mentions the levees, Chico asks if that’s the Jewish neighborhood. “Well,” answers Groucho, “we’ll pass over that.” Soon, however, all goes for naught when Groucho points out a viaduct on the property. “Why-a duck?” Chico wants to know. “Why-a no chicken?” “I don’t know ‘why-a no chicken,” Groucho responds. “I’m a stranger here myself.” However no matter how many explanations Groucho tries to provide to the question, all fall upon deaf ears, for Chico can’t understand why-a no duck? It’s a classic routine and the timing is excellent, as if they’ve been doing it on the stage all along.
Come the actual auction, however, and all of Groucho’s plans have been for naught. Chico takes his instructions literally, topping every bid, even his own. Somehow, Bob Adams sneaks in to purchase Lot 26. Mrs. Potter then announces her necklace is missing. “I’ll offer a $1,000 reward to whoever finds it.” Chico, still on a roll, says “2,000.” Harpo hands her the necklace. When Hennessey questions Bob as to why he bought the lot on which Harpo found the necklace, Penelope breaks down and tells Bob she was only joking about him taking the necklace.
Chico and Harpo arrive at the jail to spring Bob. Harpo places a chisel on the lock, but keeps hitting his hand with the mallet until he smiles and suddenly remembers he had the key in his pocket all along. Once back at the hotel, Groucho and Bob try to figure out the crime while Harpo picks both their pockets, including Groucho’s bridgework.
At the party Mrs. Potter laughs at Groucho’s costume while Harpo steals Hennessey’s shirt. This leads to Hennessey breaking into song about getting his shirt back, a ditty called “I Want My Shirt,” sung to the tune of Bizet’s Carmen. Groucho proceeds to deliver a speech that parodies every speech made at various functions, thanking everyone for the retirement watch for his 20 years on the railroad, “which reminds me of the story of the Irishman,” as everyone laughs, “It’s so funny,” he continues, “I wish I could remember it.”
Mrs. Potter is asked to speak. Harpo gets up from his seat with an annoyed look on his face and shortly returns looking mellower. Yates is asked to speak. Once again Harpo rises and leaves. We then see his destination is the punch bowl, from which he drinks liberally. Yates replies that he doesn’t know what to say. “Then shut up,” Chico advises. Groucho shakes his hand. Chico walks to the piano. “Senor Pastrami, what is the first number?” asks Mrs. Potter. “Number one,” replies Chico, and proceeds to launch into Victor Herbert’s “Gypsy Love Song,” displaying the tricks with his right hand that would become commonplace in later Marx films.
When it becomes Polly’s turn to speak, she produces the map in Yates’ handwriting that led Penelope to the hiding place to stash the necklace. Yates and Hammer are arrested and Mrs. Potter announces that Polly will marry Bob Adams, who has won the job to design Cocoanut Manor, instead. The film ends with Yates and Penelope handcuffed to each other, the Marx Brothers waving to the audience, and Bob and Polly singing the dreadful “When My Dreams Come True” as the film fades to black.
It’s interesting to see each Marx brother as he develops his character. Groucho starts off hesitatingly, but picks up steam as the move progresses. Groucho’s genius is in subverting any semblance of a rational conversation by beginning normally, but soon breaking it down into a maze of puns, invented words, asides, thoughts spoken aloud, and statements contradicting each other. Because of this, he needs a foil. Fortunately, he has one of the very best in Margaret Dumont, who in their pictures always personified the epitome of class, good manners and social graces. It was Groucho’s job to tear her down and leave her confused, which he did with panache. In The Cocoanuts, their scenes together are somewhat on the stiff side; seemingly they are getting used to each other in the new medium of film. In later films, she is charmed by his raffishness, but here she is merely insulted and flustered. She also has a brief, but funny scene with Harpo during the bedroom scene. He lies on the bed and pats it for her to join him. “What?” she asks. “Certainly not!”
Of course, the one person Groucho cannot get the best of with his patter is Chico, who always gets the better of him. Chico’s use of language is not for communication, except in the case of Harpo. For everyone else, it is an instrument of obfuscation, especially Groucho. Take the “Why-a-duck” routine. Chico’s almost gleeful response to Groucho’s attempt at a rational explanation is to pose a question that Groucho cannot answer because there simply is no answer. In later films he will hone this to a fine point, causing Groucho to respond with lines such as, “There’s my argument, restrict immigration,” (Monkey Business) and “Chicolini here may look like an idiot, and talk like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.” (Duck Soup) The only time he ever came close to being bested was in Animal Crackers, when he noticed that philanthropist Roscoe W. Chandler (Louis Sorin) is really Abie Kabbible, a fish peddler. When Chico asks, “How did you get to be Roscoe W. Chandler?” Chandler fires back, “How did you get to be an Italian?” It didn’t matter because Chico gets the better of him anyway.
Harpo’s character is the most primal, completely nonverbal, and the most subversive. Seeing him in The Cocoanuts for the first time must have been revolutionary. He is on the screen for no more than a few minutes before he is eating a bellhop’s uniform buttons, tearing up the guests’ mail, eating a telephone and drinking ink. His taxi horn is not only used for communication, but also as a weapon. He is almost a pure primal force; only Harpo would come out of the middle of a bed. Chico acts as his interpreter and buffer, but once unleashed Harpo is capable of anything. He comes close to the trickster of folklore, making mischief for its own sake. He improvised his antics, as compared to his brothers, who had their material written for them. “How can you write for Harpo?” George S. Kaufman once mused. “All you can write is ‘Harpo enters.’ From that point, he’s on his own.”
Harpo’s red wig photographed darker in The Cocoanuts, which caused him to lighten it for subsequent films. It has been said that he donned a blonde wig, but the truth is that he lightened his usual red wig. This is noted in Horse Feathers and Duck Soup by his character’s name – Pinky. And in Go West from 1940, one of the saloon girls tells her co-workers to “watch out for the redhead. He’s a terror.”
For his part Groucho was fascinated with the jargon of filmmaking. As recounted by Joe Adamson in his authoritative Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo (the book of the films of the Marx Brothers), Groucho was taking a break on the set while the director and the cameraman tried to solve a problem of lighting a scene. It seems that the floodlight (called a “broad” in the technical lingo) wasn’t strong enough and it was suggested that perhaps a spotlight (known as a “baby”) could facilitate matters. Cameraman Joseph Folsey turned to director Robert Florey and assured him he would take care of the problem: “I’ll stick a baby in that broad before the afternoon’s over.” This caused Groucho no shortage of amusement as filming continued.
And what of Zeppo? He has little to do here, a trend that continued until he quit the act after Duck Soup in 1933. Zeppo’s problem was that by the time he joined his brothers there was no room for any character he could develop. Groucho was the fast-talker, Harpo the frantic mime, and Chico the dialect comedian. The common assumption today is that Zeppo had no talent. That wasn’t true. He was an excellent actor and was said to be the funniest of the brothers offstage. Zeppo’s true value to the act was in his ability to take over for his brothers if they were too ill to perform: He could sub for his brothers and frequently no one was the wiser. (It beat another, lesser understudy in the role or refunding the patrons’ money.) When Groucho underwent an appendectomy during the road trip for Animal Crackers, Zeppo took over his role. Groucho attended a performance in Chicago, and when he saw just how good his little brother was, he got well quickly. When the Marxs stopped performing in plays and limited themselves to the screen, there was no place for Zeppo to go, so he remained in his role as the Marx Brother with nothing to do.
The problem with The Cocoanuts lay in the direction. Florey saw himself as a traffic cop while Santley restricted himself to the musical numbers, wanting no part of the Marxs. Groucho was later quoted as saying, "One of them didn't understand English and the other didn't understand comedy." Florey also had a problem with sound film as well. There are too many shots in the movie that seem placed there simply to have a shot, such as in the banquet scene where Florey cuts to two close-ups of Kay Francis without any apparent connection. The main problem is that the movie just doesn’t move, remaining what it originally was, a filmed version of the play.
In Marx Brothers lore it’s said that when the film was screened for its stars they were appalled and wanted to buy the negative back to prevent its release. I could accept this were it not for the fact that the Brothers supposedly said the same thing about Humor Risk. Perhaps they got their way with that one, as it’s lost. At any rate, The Cocoanuts was a big hit at the box office with a gross of $1,800,000, which made it one of the most successful of the early taking films, and promising Paramount of future riches in subsequent films.
Trivia: Look for Barton MacLane in a cameo as a lifeguard at the end of the film’s opening number.
Legend has it that Paramount head Adolph Zukor balked at paying the Marxs $75,000 for starring in the film. He later met with Chico, who told Zukor it was a true honor to meet with one of the giants of the industry and it was such an honor that he and his brothers agreed to do The Cocoanuts for only $100,000. Zukor, completely flattered, agreed that was, indeed, a low price and signed the contracts.
You Can't Cheat an Honest Man
By Ed Garea
You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man (Universal, 1938) – Directors: George Marshall, Edward F. Cline (uncredited). Writers: W.C. Fields (story) as (Charles Bogle). George Marion, Jr., Richard Mack, & Everett Freeman (s/p). Henry Johnson, Lew Lipton, Manuel Seff, & James Seymour (contributors). Cast: W.C. Fields, Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Mortimer Snerd, Constance Moore, John Arledge, James Bush, Thurston Hall, Mary Forbes, Edward Brophy, Arthur Hohl, Princess Baba, & Blacaman. B&W, 79 minutes.
There’s an old saying that too many cooks spoil the broth, which is certainly the case in this film, even though it contains one of W.C. Fields’s best and funniest performances.
The plot is vintage Fields. He plays Larson E. Whipsnade, a low rent P.T. Barnum whose business philosophy is to wheedle every last nickel from his customers and share as little of it as possible, especially with his employees and attractions. His “Circus Giganticus” is constantly in danger of foreclosure, and the sheriff is not too far behind him.
He only cares about his daughter Victoria (Moore) and son Phineas (Arledge). Both are away at college, where Victoria is pursued by Roger Bel-Goodie (Bush), a shallow, upper-class twit whose family’s money has gotten him out of scrapes with the law. Roger has proposed to Victoria, but neither she nor Phineas are excited about marrying into the Bel-Goodie family
As the film opens, we see Fields in a frantic attempt to escape the pursuing law. He makes it to the state line, but we know it will be just a matter of time before a new set of lawmen chase after him.
Victoria pays a visit to her father and falls in love with Bergen (playing himself). But after she sees the financial mess her father is in and considering how he sacrificed to send her and Phineas to college, she decides to accept Roger’s proposal. Whipsnade initially approves of her match, and to make sure the penniless Bergen doesn’t change her mind, he sends Bergen, Charlie McCarthy, and Mortimer Snerd aloft in a hot-air balloon, though Bergen and Charlie later manage to parachute to the ground, landing in Victoria’s car, with all being arrested by the police. Of course, this being a Fields film, nothing comes out as planned.
When Whipsnade attends the engagement party (arriving in a horse-drawn chariot), he raises such a ruckus that the snobbish Bel-Goodies have him banished. After being released on bail, Victoria arrives at the party and sees how the Bel-Goodies have treated her father. That’s enough for her and she calls off the engagement. When the sheriff crashes the party to serve papers on Whipsnade, she escapes with her father and brother in a chariot with Bergen and McCarthy in pursuit on a bicycle, while Snerd comments on the chase from the balloon.
Fields is at his sardonic, misanthropic best in this movie. Unfortunately, he has the baggage of Bergen and his wooden friends, McCarthy and Snerd. The pairing of Fields with Bergen and McCarthy was a success on radio, but in a movie, where they could all be seen, the illusion is shattered. When we see Bergen and Fields interacting with a wooden dummy we find we can’t suspend our disbelief that much and the film loses some of its charm.
Another point about the film is that while Fields has some wonderful scenes (scamming the customers who are trying to scam him) and lines (“Who stole the cork from my lunch?”), the Fields presented here is a different Fields from the lovable misanthrope we’re used to from such films as The Old Fashioned Way and Poppy. This Fields has a pronounced unsympathetic streak in him. He bullies for the sake of bullying and not to conceal his soft-heartedness. He canes his troupers when they dare to ask for their wages; he flies to vehement rages on little or no provocation; he throws Charlie McCarthy to the alligators; and in the scene where he cuts the tethering rope for Bergen’s balloon, he does so after Bergen and his pals have pledged their loyalty to him. He’s more the Fields of radio, the product of nagging and being nagged in return by a smart-alecky ventriloquist’s dummy.
But we can’t blame Fields for this turn of events. Look at the credits and all the writers credited. Universal took the picture away from Fields and seemingly had it rewritten by committee. Fields himself would later complain that that the additional writers had taken his character of Larson E. Whipsnade and made him too unsympathetic.
It was bad enough that producer Lester Cowan took the script away from Fields and assigned it to others, what really rankled the comic was Cowan deleting one of the key characters: Madame Gorgeous, a tightrope walker married to Whipsnade and the star attraction of his Circus Giganticus.
At the beginning of the film, Madame Gorgeous plunges off the high wire to her death, which drives Whipsnade into bitter grief expressing itself in his low estimation of his fellow man. His children are the only things worth having to him and he acts accordingly. Cowan and the other stuffed suits at Universal, being wary of their new star due to the circumstances by which Paramount let him go (alcoholism), decided that opening a comedy with a death defeated the entire idea of the picture and simply forced Fields to take the scene out. Look closely; there are two quick shots of one of the wagons in Whipsnade’s circus painted with an ad for “Madame Gorgeous” on the sides.
The one scene where Fields comes through entirely as himself is at the engagement party. Passed off by his son as a big game hunter, Fields proceeds to regale the party with an account of his adventures. Unfortunately. Madame Bel-Goodie (Forbes) is afraid of snakes – even to the point where she’ll faint if the word in mentioned. Fields, of course, is cheerfully oblivious to this, and every time he mentions the word “snake,” Madame Bel-Goodie goes into a swoon. Fields attributes it to her drinking and picks up the story where he left off. The juxtaposition of Fields’s stories and Madame Bel-Goodie swooning is hilarious, as are his explanations for her spells.
One of the downsides of the movie is the racial humor (for which I blame the studio), from Charlie McCarthy appearing in blackface (the reason was never made clear) to Eddie Anderson’s clowning as “Cheerful,” Whipsnade’s dumb and obedient lackey.
And as if all this wasn’t enough, Fields had trouble with director George Marshall on the set, a situation that grew so bad that Eddie Cline, who previously directed Fields in Million Dollar Legs (1932) had to be brought in to direct Fields while Marshall handled the rest of the cast. Cline went on to direct Fields in his last three great films: My Little Chickadee (1940), The Bank Dick (1940), and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), where at last he was able to sneak Madame Gorgeous into the film.
When the previews of the film proved unsatisfying with audiences, Fields was brought back in for retakes, which killed his chances of playing the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz, a role written specifically with him in mind, and one that he really wanted to play.
While You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man has its moments, it doesn’t have enough of them and it lacks the heart of his earlier efforts.
Whipsnade (to a group of children standing around at his circus): “You kids are disgusting… staggering around here all day reeking of popcorn and lollipops.”
The Roadhouse Murder
By Ed Garea
The Roadhouse Murder(RKO, 1932) – Director: J. Walter Ruben. Writers: J. Walter Ruben (s/p) & Gene Fowler (add’l dialogue). Maurice Level (novel, L’Epouvante), & Leslie Bush-Fekete (play The Lame Dog Inn) (uncredited). Cast: Dorothy Jordan, Eric Linden, Purnell Pratt, Roscoe Ates, David Landau, Bruce Cabot, Phyllis Clare, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Roscoe Karns, William Morris, Frank Sheridan, & Carl Gerard. B&W, 73 minutes.
The Roadhouse Murderis a run-of-the-mill programmer with an unusual pedigree. It’s based on L'épouvante(The Terror Stricken), a 1908 novel by Maurice Level. He was a popular writer who specialized in short stores of the macabre regularly printed in Paris newspapers and realized on the stage of le Theatre du Grand-Guignol, the theatrical company on Paris’s rue Pigalle that specialized in productions emphasizing blood and gore. Many of Level’s stories were translated into English and featured in the pulp magazine Weird Tales. He was seen as continuing in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and was often compared with contemporary H.P. Lovecraft.
Unfortunately for the audience, little of Level translated into the film, which seems to have taken most of its inspiration from Leslie Bush-Fekete’s play, The Lame Dog Inn,an example of the “Old Dark House” mystery. The credits for the film do not list the play, but the American Film Institute Catalog states the play was also a source for the film. Although there are a few elements of the genre in our film, it’s not an Old Dark House mystery. It does contain a novel plot twist, and if the film was longer and had a better leading man, the plot would have come off nicely.
We open in the office of the New York Star where city editor Jeff Dale (Karns) is once again having trouble with his staff. (Copied from The Front Page complete with overlapping dialogue.) Discovering young cub reporter Charles “Chick” Brian (Linden) sleeping on the desk, he decides to give him an assignment. Calling Brian into his office, Dale puts him on the trail of a jewelry smuggler working in the city. Chick acts on a tip and trails the smugger to her apartment, where he manages to snap a photo of her naked in the bath admiring jewelry. When he brings the photo back to be developed, he is shocked to learn that the “smuggler” he thought he caught red-handed turns out to be the mistress of the paper’s publisher. Dale is beside himself and is going to fire Brian, but Brian begs for one more chance. Dale tells him that he’d better come up with something good or he is history at the paper.
Brian also has problems on the personal front. His girlfriend, Mary Agnew (Jordan), has a police inspector father who does not care for Brian, so Mary is forced to see him on the sly. One night while parked on a date, they talk about why Mary’s father can’t stand him and his wish to earn enough money so they could marry. It begins to pour. Chick cannot get the car’s top up, and as they are driving home, the car gets stuck in the mud. Fortunately, they come across The Lame Dog Inn and decide to seek refuge there. They find there are only two occupants: the caretaker, Charles Spengler (von Seyffertitz) and a guest, Emil Brugger. Spengler shows the couple to a room, and while they prepare to bed down for the night they hear a couple of gunshots.
Investigating, they burst into Brugger’s room and surprise another couple in the room, Fred Dykes (Cabot) and Louise Rand (Clare), who are about to make their escape. Chick and Mary learn the couple has robbed Spengler and Brugger of $5,000, killing them in the process. Fred flashes a revolver at the couple, noting that he’ll get rid of any witnesses, but Louise talks him out of it. She notices an open window and informs Fred that they can escape through it. But as she follows Fred through the window she leaves a set of ink-stained fingerprints on the shade.
As Chick examines Brugger's corpse, Mary finds Louise's pocketbook and further discovers it has her name and address in it. Chick now has a sudden inspiration: He tells Mary that he is going to leave behind evidence to frame himself for the murder. It’s a sure way to launch his career as a star reporter. Since Mary has Louise’s purse, she can then produce it at the appropriate moment to vindicate him. Mary reluctantly agrees to the plan and helps Chick plant the evidence pointing to him.
As Chick hoped, Agnew and his men connect Chick with the physical evidence and issue an all points bulletin for his capture. Chick goes on the run, mailing a series of articles about life on the run to his editor, Dale, that he calls “The Diary of a Hunted Man.” He literally becomes an overnight celebrity.
But Chick tires of life on the run and calls Mary to tell her he’s going to turn himself in. He visits Mary at her home, but her father has traced him and arrests him there. After a lengthy interrogation, Agnew is convinced that Chick is innocent but is unable to extract the facts from him.
At his trial, Chick declares his innocence and confidently announces that he will be presenting evidence to the court that will clear him of all charges. Unfortunately for Chick, Fred, on the lam with Louise, reads Chick’s announcement. Identifying Mary from a newspaper photograph he deduces that she has Louise’s purse. He follows Mary to the courthouse and snatches the purse from her.
Without the purse, Chick is at the mercy of the court. Mary comes forward to testify that she was with Chick that night, but the D.A. (Sheridan) maintains that Mary is making that story up, and Chick is later found guilty. Just when it looks that Chick has no more cards to play, a remorseful Louise calls Inspector Agnew and confesses all. He sends a squad over to her apartment to await Fred, and when he shows up, a gun battle erupts that ends with Fred’s death. Finally free, a wiser Chick embraces Mary as the film ends.
The Roadhouse Murderis an odd film. Written and directed by J. Walter Ruben, a figure almost forgotten these days, but a couple of notches above the average studio hack back in the day, it changes its tone dramatically from a comedy to a dark house mystery to a courtroom drama at the end. Ruben provides some novel touches, such as the plot twist to implicate Brian, and his manipulation of Brian’s scene on the run by framing it within the front page of the New York Star. But it’s the acting that does the film in, especially its lead, Eric Linden, who obviously is not up to the task. More fitted to playing the supporting juvenile, he falls flat whenever called upon to take the lead. Leading lady Dorothy Jordan gives an adequate performance, but her days at the studio were numbered as she married RKO executive Merian C. Cooper and retired. As for the others, Karns is excellent as the harried editor. I only wish we had seen more of him. The same goes for the wonderful Seyffertitz, who was never exploited to his fullest in the sound era. Bruce Cabot, in his film debut, hits the right notes as the baddie, and it seems as if RKO had plans of making him their house gangster a la Robinson, Cagney at Warner’s and Gable at MGM. But Cooper saw enough of him in this film to offer him the role of adventurer Jack Driscoll in the upcoming King Kong.
But what is truly noteworthy about The Roadhouse Murder isthe plot twist that anticipates Fritz Lang’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt by almost 25 years. However, while reporter Dana Andrews in Lang’s film frames himself as a means of exposing the capital punishment system, Linden’s Chick Brian is only doing as a means to fame and money.
As the film was shot quickly on a small budget, plot holes that might have been corrected in a lengthier, more expensive production were left open, such as the criminals letting Mary and Chick go, and the whole idea of Louise leaving her purse behind. (Who carries their purse to a robbery?) But there is enough here to hold our interest, especially for fans of mystery thrillers, which makes this film one worth catching on a rainy day.
Registered Nurse By Ed Garea
Registered Nurse(WB, 1934) – Director: Robert Florey. Writers: Lillie Hayward & Peter Milne (s/p). Based on Night Duty, a play by Florence Johns & Wilson Lackeye, Jr. Cast: Bebe Daniels, Lyle Talbot, John Halliday, Irene Franklin, Sidney Toler, Gordon Westcott, Minna Gombell, Beulah Bondi, Vince Barnett, Phillip Reed, Mayo Methot, Renee Whitney, Virginia Sale, Ronnie Cosby, Edward Gargan, Louise Beavers, Harry Ekezian, & Tor Johnson. B&W, 63 minutes.
Registered Nurse is an entertaining programmer from Warner Bros. and director Robert Florey. Florey crams a lot of plot into only 63 minutes while making us feel the film is longer. It boasts solid performances from its stars, and despite some rather poorly written plot contrivances, manages to entertain and see us through until the end.
The film opens with a shot of Sylvia Benton (Daniels) descending a staircase at a country club while the whispers of other members play about her. They are whispering how she can stay married to such a dolt as Jim Benton (Westcott). Although socially prominent, he seems to prefer a drink or two, or three, to the company of his wife, as we witness when she walks over to the club bar to remind him that he promised the next dance to her. Jim doesn’t want to be bothered and tells her so in rather rude terms, so rude that Bill (Reed), the fellow standing next to him at the bar, offers to dance with her instead. This enrages Jim, who cuts in and attempts to take it outside with Bill. Cooler heads prevail and rush Jim outside. Jim’s had enough; he’s leaving and demands Sylvia accompany him. Sylvia tells him it would be better if she drove, given his condition, but Jim declines her offer, hitting the pedal hard as they speed along.
While in the car, an interesting conversation is going on. Sylvia is fed up with Jim’s antics. She’s had enough and wants a divorce. That’s fine with Jim, who tells her not to expect any alimony. Sylvia replies that she doesn’t need any alimony from him; she still has a valid R.N. license and can work in a hospital. Florey then cuts to the speedometer on Jim’s Lincoln and we know it’s only a matter of seconds before the inevitable crash. And, sure enough, he fails to negotiate a corner and crashes the auto in a ditch. Sylvia gets out unhurt and goes to the driver’s side to check Jim’s pulse. As the scene fades, we’re pretty sure he didn’t make it, but it ends on that ambiguous note.
In the next scene we cut to a New York City hospital where Sylvia is applying as a nurse. She tells Supervisor of Nurses, Miss McKenna (Bondi), that she is unmarried. Next comes a montage of the years passing until the present day. Not only is Sylvia established in the hospital, she has two doctors madly in love with her: the flirtatious Dr. Greg Connolly (Talbot) and the older, serious, Dr. Hedwig (Halliday). It is here where the film takes a turn into an ensemble drama, somewhat along the lines of Grand Hotel, but closer to previous Warner ensemble offerings such as Life Begins (1932) and Employees’ Entrance (1933). It’s a “life behind the scenes” type of film as Sylvia and her fellow nurses – Beulah Schloss (Gombell), Gloria Hammond (Methot), and Ethel Smith (Whitney) – as they treat all manner of patients.
Sylvia’s bedside manner is impeccable, as she calms wrestling manager Frankie Sylvestrie (Toler), who demands to be released by the hospital, even though he suffered a broken leg in a fight. She also calms patient Sadie Harris (Franklin), who is hospitalized with a swollen eye and a broken jaw suffered in a fight with boyfriend Frankie. We also learn that she’s the madam of a local bordello (this is Pre-Code, after all), and that she wants no part of Nurse Hammond treating her. Sylvia calms her and takes charge. In addition, she ends up calming a nervous husband worried about his wife, and has quite the tear-jerking scene after Dickie (Cosby), a young boy she and Dr. Hedwig have been treating in the children’s ward, suddenly dies.
As if that wasn’t enough, Sylvia also acts as a moral support to her fellow nurses, bucking up Nurse Schloss in her romance with Officer Pat O’Brien (gotta love that name) while fielding passes from Doctors Connolly and Hedwig. Both doctors are pursuing “Ben,” as they call her, fervently, with Hedwig actually proposing to her. Connolly is also wishing to propose. We learn that Connolly is involved with Nurse Hammond, but is keen to dump her for Sylvia, a point Hammond makes to Sylvia.
Later, as Sylvia and Greg are alone in the cafeteria, Greg broaches the subject of marriage and Sylvia tells him the reason she cannot accept. It seems she’s been married for the last five years, although separated for the last three. Greg asks why can’t she get a divorce. Sylvia replies that it would be impossible. When Greg presses her on the subject, she leaves. Hedwig now enters and Greg spills the beans to him.
Sylvia, who has been a rock of calm in this storm of nerves, suddenly goes to pieces one day when Hedwig operates on a psychopathic woman in an attempt to restore her sanity. We know that the situation is coming to a head, and it spills over at a party Sylvia and Greg are attending. He vows his love to Sylvia, telling her that he has stopped seeing all other women. It’s then that Sylva tells him the reason she cannot get a divorce. It seems that Jim survived the crash, but has become violently insane and is confined to a mental institution. Because of his condition, the law will not allow her to divorce him.
As if this isn’t enough, the soap now gets thicker. Schloss’s fiancée, Officer O’Brien, is shot during a holdup and dies in front of her at the hospital. Sylvia abandons her problems to help Schloss deal with her loss. As this is going on, guess who walks into the hospital? Why, Jim, of course. Seems he escaped from the looney bin, and during one of his few sane moments has decided to come to the hospital. While he is speaking to Dr. Hedwig in his office about an operation to cure his insanity, who should come sauntering in but Sylvia? To say she’s surprised to see him is an understatement. He needs her consent for the operation as he’s legally certified, and she’s not sure as the operation is dangerous, but Hedwig talks her into consenting.
Meanwhile, Greg tells Sylvia they should continue their affair even if Jim recovers. After Officer O’Brien was killed Greg told Sylvia they should grab happiness while they can because they never know when life will end. Both remarks are not taken well by Sylvia.
While Jim is in his room preparing for the operation, Sylvestrie comes to visit. Pretending not to know that Jim is Sylvia’s husband (he overheard Sylvia and Hedwig talking), he relates Sylvia’s story and tells Jim the right thing for the husband to do would be to commit suicide. And that is exactly what Jim does a short while later, jumping from a hall window. While this frees Sylvia, she decides to quit. When she visits Hedwig in his office to say good-bye, he asks if she’s marrying Greg, to which she answers “no.” Hedwig then asks her what she’ll do. She’s not sure. How about traveling, he proposes. He’d like to take her to Europe with him. Then he proposes and she accepts. But first, he has an emergency operation, and before she resigns, Sylvia tells him she’ll stand in as his nurse.
Amidst all this drama there’s one weak attempt at comedy. As Sylvestrie is convalescing, he is visited by two of his wrestlers: El Humid (Ekezian) and Sonnevich (Johnson). They bring him flowers and he tells them they should be in Miami for the show there. Sonnevich replies that they’re about to leave, but asks a favor of his boss. He knows that El Humid is scheduled to win, but couldn’t he win instead? He has a girl down there he’s interested in romancing. El Humid is against it. “You won last time,” he tells his opponent. “Yeah, well, you can’t wrestle, anyway,” Sonnevich fires back. One word leads to another, and before long the two are embroiled in a set-to right in Sylvestrie’s room, with Sonnevich sent sprawling over the promoter’s bed, as the doctors and nurses try to break them up. Cut quickly to the next scene and we see both grapplers bandaged and in bed. When they’re finally released they get into it again and we see the nurses simply remaking their beds. Johnson, who does most of the speaking during their scenes, is almost unrecognizable with a full head of hair and a voice that can be understood, unlike the accented guttural tones he used in Plan 9 From Outer Space. (How director Florey ever got a name such as “Sonnevich” past the censors, I’ll never know.) Ekezian would change his ring name to “Ali Baba” in 1935, and on April 25, 1936, he became world’s champ by defeating Dick Shikat.
As I said at the beginning, this is an entertaining programmer, though not really a good film. It’s more for those who love Pre-Code films or medical melodramas. Director Florey keeps things going at a good pace and brought the picture in ahead of time and under budget, a habit he’s was known for, especially later in his career, and one that probably helped him get work, as he was not a particularly outstanding director.
Stars Daniels, Talbot, and Halliday are all fine, given the limitations of the script. Daniels lays it on a little thick during the scenes where she zones out upon hearing of a patient’s mental illness, but otherwise pulls off a decent performance. I’ve always been of the opinion that Daniels was the most underrated and ill-used actor on the Warner Bros. roster. She was great as Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street, and her Ruth Wonderly in the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon is far superior to Mary Astor’s portrayal of the role in 1941. I could never see Bogart’s Sam Spade being nuts about Astor’s Wonderly, but I can easily see why Ricardo Cortez’s Sam Spade would be crazy about Daniels as Wonderly. Also check out her performance sometime as Lily Owens with Edward G. Robinson and Aline MacMahon in the 1932’s drama, Silver Dollar.
Talbot is excellent as the smarmy cad and Halliday makes the most of his role as more of a father figure than a romantic lead. Talbot shines in a scene where the madam, Sadie, is admitted. When he stops by to visit her she greets him as “Dr. Gregory.” Talbot looks shocked and tells her he’s “Dr. Connolly.” None of this escapes the attention of supposed girlfriend Nurse Hammond, who was also in the room.
But it’s the supporting cast that makes the film interesting. As wrestling promoter Sylvestrie, Toler almost steals the movie, and Irene Franklin, as his madam girlfriend, works well with him. The nurses are all fine, with Methot getting some good screen time. It’s the most I’ve ever seen of the Portland Rosebud in a film, save for Marked Woman. Edward Gargan as O’Brien, the boyfriend of Schloss, only seems to be in the film as a sort of filler between scenes of what’s going on with Sylvia. Veteran actor Vince Barnett shines as Jerry, the orderly. He has a great scene at the staff party, serving drinks to McKenna (Bondi) and Miss Dixon, a probationary nurse (Sale). He’s serving them “Pink Suspenders,” but offers to make them a “Bosom Caresser,” so-called he says, “because it warms you all the way down.”
One thing that tickles a lot of people who have seen the film is the amount of smoking going on, especially with the doctors and nurses. In one scene, the nurses make a point of striking their matches against a “No Smoking” sign posted in their break room. But those were different times back then; patients could even smoke in their rooms.
The advertisements for the film claimed, “Every scene is a shock,” and that “It will run your temperature up to 105.” Well, not quite, but that’s what ads are for.
This was Bebe Daniels’s last film for Warner Bros., and I’m surprised they used her in an obvious Kay Francis vehicle. She did one film after this, Music is Magic for Fox, and moved with husband Ben Lyon (whom she married in 1930) to England, where both became successful on the West End stage. The Lyons also had their own radio show in London called “Life With the Lyons” and stayed in England during the war, even broadcasting during the height of the Blitz. They were the most popular couple on English radio and their program vied with Tommy Handley’s “It’s That Man Again” for the number one position in the radio ratings. They parlayed their radio success into a couple of films, the last one being The Lyons Abroad (1955).
Daniels was making a personal appearance in Chicago when she discovered that $6,000 worth of jewelry was stolen from her hotel room. Al Capone, a big Daniels fan, put out word that whoever stole the jewelry had better return it “or else.” The jewelry was all returned the very next day.
She was a cousin of actors DeForest (Star Trek) Kelley and Calvert DeForest (Larry “Bud” Melman on David Letterman's show).
By Ed Garea
Employees’ Entrance(WB, 1933) – Director: Roy Del Ruth. Writer: Robert Presnell, Sr. Cast: Warren William, Loretta Young, Wallace Ford, Alice Whiter, Hale Hamilton, Albert Gran, Allen Jenkins, Ruth Donnelly, Frank Reicher, Charles Sellon, & Marjorie Gateson. B&W, 75 minutes.
Department Store Girls – This is your picture, about your lives and your problems! See what happens in department store aisles and offices after closing hours! Girls who couldn't have been touched with a 100-ft yacht – ready to do anything to get a job! Beautiful models who whisper their dread of the "Boss" who can "make" or break more women than a sultan! – Ad copy for the film.
About seven months after MGM released Skyscraper Souls with Warren William, Warner Bros. released this similarly themed flick also starring William. The MGM film was concerned with the behind-the-scenes doings in a huge skyscraper; Employees’ Entrance is concerned with the behind-the scenes doings is a huge department store. William was the ruthless boss behind the shenanigans in Skyscraper Souls, as he is here. In Souls, Maureen O’Sullivan plays the young naïve worker deemed by Williams as just ripe for the plucking. In Employees’ Entrance, Loretta Young is the young, naïve object of William’s lust. Of the two films, Employees’ Entrance is the far better of the two, as Warner’s was much more comfortable dealing with the problems of the working class.
William is his usual villainous self as Kurt Anderson, the hard-driving general manager of the Franklin Monroe Department Store. The film opens as we see sales rise through the 1920’s and we quickly led to infer it’s because of the dynamic leadership of Anderson. A corporate hot shot brought in as general manager, his strict adherence to his philosophy of profit over people makes him the hated target of all. He’s also introduced among a montage of complaints from both employees and suppliers, while superimposed over those complaints is the story of the store’s rise, from $10 million in annual sales to $25 million in 1925, and $100 million in 1929. We see the store’s namesake and top executive, Franklin Monroe (Hamilton) issue lame apologies with the explanation that Mr. Anderson makes all the decisions.
However, the Depression has come and it’s hit not only the store, but also the entire industry quite hard. We meet the directors at a board meeting where Monroe is more concerned about chairing the Mayor’s Welcoming Committee. His cousin and toady, Denton Ross (Gran), dutifully seconds his every word. Anderson sits there sneering before demanding his salary be doubled along with total control. But the directors are in a panic, telling Anderson that he can stay, but only under supervision. He scoffs at the offer, replying that he and he alone is responsible for the store’s growth, and if his terms are not met, he’ll leave and sign a contract with their biggest competitor. With that Monroe walks out to welcome some Trans-Atlantic flyers, and the directors, now alone, buckle and agree to his terms.
And if we think he’s tough with the board of directors, wait until we see him with the suppliers. The new clothing supplier, Garfinkle (Reicher) informs him that part of the large first order of swagger coats the store was counting on for a big sale will be delayed three days because of labor strife, and he can supply only a fraction of the order for now. He pleads that he has $30,000 invested in the deal and is already taking a loss to insure future business. Anderson is angered and cancels the entire order, telling his secretary to sue for damages. Garfinkle continues to plead, telling Anderson, “It’s my life.” “Merchandise is the life of this store,” Anderson retorts. “When you promise to deliver on a certain day and don’t do it, you threaten our life!” But, Garfinkle continues, “It only happened once. It can’t happen again.” No soap. “It can’t happen once!” Anderson screams. “Now get out of here!”
Interestingly, when Anderson is later walking the floor, he notices a new employee – none other than Garfinkle himself, who has taken an entry-level position at the store. Garfinkle tells him, “It’s men like you who crush that succeed.” But if he was expecting Anderson to fire him for the remark, he was dead wrong. Instead, Anderson is so flattered that he pulls out his checkbook and begins to write Garfinkle a check for $5,000 in return for a half interest in any business he goes into. The broken man refuses the help, though, tearing up the check. Anderson is still impressed and orders Garfinkle’s salary to be doubled. “You’ve got the right idea now,” he tells him.
However, all work and no play males Kurt a very dull boy indeed. One evening as he is leaving, he meets Madeline Walters (Young), beautiful young woman who he discovers hiding in the store’s model house. She tells him that she’s broke and unemployed, and that hiding in the store can ensure she’s first in line the next morning for a job. He offers to take her to dinner and she agrees, later spending the night at his place. The next morning, she’s the store’s new model.
At the next day’s meeting with the department heads, Anderson notes that because the Depression is cutting into business, he is cutting executives' salaries (including his own) by 10% and is looking for new ideas from his staff. His second-in-command is an older man named Higgins (Sellon). Higgins has been with the company since 1906, but makes the error of voicing his preference of retrenchment. Anderson, disgusted with what he’s heard, turns to Martin West (Ford), an employee in the men’s clothing department and the youngest man in the room, for suggestions. West suggests selling men’s drawers to women. Anderson is intrigued and asks Higgins what he thinks. Higgins replies, “Fantastic. Not at all in line with the policy of the store, and I’ve been 30 years in this business.” It’s a fatal error. Anderson turns to him. “Higgins, get out,” he explodes. Higgins begs him not to do it like this; that is, publicly. “Publicly or privately, you’re through. You’re too old,” Anderson retorts, calling Higgins dead wood and throwing him out the door. Anderson now promotes West as his assistant, but with the caveat that he stay single – this is no job for a married man and he must devote himself solely to business if he’s to get ahead.
But – wouldn’t you know it – Martin and Madeline fall in love and secretly marry, which later places a strain on their relationship because Martin is always at Anderson’s beck and call. They can’t let Anderson find out about their situation, lest they both lose their jobs. When it comes to women, Anderson is a complete cynic, believing that the only thing women are after is financial security. Not that they don’t have their uses. Being as Monroe Franklin is away once again, Anderson doubles the salary of employee Polly Dale (White) to keep Franklin’s interim executive, Ross, occupied and out of Anderson’s hair.
Meanwhile, Higgins has been desperately trying to get in to see Anderson in hopes of getting his job back. But Anderson has written him off and won’t see him. Despondent, Higgins goes up to the ninth floor and jumps out the window to his death. Informed of Higgins’ death, Anderson can only say, “When a man outlives his usefulness, he ought to jump out a window!”
The strain on the Wests grows to the point where they quarrel at the company party, with Martin drinking himself into oblivion with the boys and passing out. This leaves Madeline vulnerable to Anderson’s entreaties. But this time he gets her drunk and invites her to rest awhile and clear her head at his hotel suite. She passes out on the bed and we seen him enter later. The next day, Madeline again rebuffs him in his office, telling him that she feels “like someone you’d pick up on the street.” She asks why he chose her. Anderson answers that he finds her attractive, adding that she also has an exemplary sales record. What a charmer. During their argument, she lets slip that she’s married to West, which surprises and angers Anderson. They both betrayed him. She then begs him not to tell Martin. All Anderson can do is spit out, “I’ll take care of it.”
And does he take care of it. First, he tries to get Polly to seduce Martin, but Polly won’t hear of it. Angered, he wants to fire Polly, but is stopped by Ross, who is totally infatuated with her. So it’s on to Plan B: He has Martin sitting at an intercom in an adjoining office while he calls Madeline back in. During their conversation he manages to coax the information about their two nights together from Madeline, telling her that, “You women think an affair with you is the most important thing in the world.” Then – clearly for Martin’s benefit – he adds, “A man’s work and his success is.” He dismisses her, “You women make me sick.”
Both Martin and Madeline are emotionally crushed. She leaves her husband a farewell note, saying that she has failed him as a wife. Later, Martin learns that she took poison in an unsuccessful attempt as suicide. Martin is fit to be tied and is itching for a confrontation with Anderson.
However, Kurt Anderson has bigger problems. Despite his efforts to get things moving again, sales at the store are still plummeting and Commodore Monroe is way from the store on a yacht. This leaves the voting interest of the company in the hands of the bankers, who have turned on Anderson. They want to replace him with someone who will cut back and retrench in these hard times. This forces Anderson into an alliance with the dimwitted Ross – he needs Ross to get Monroe to grant him proxy if he’s to defeat the bankers.
Martin finally confronts Anderson, threatening to kill him. Anderson, already under pressure facing dismissal if the proxy voters don’t come through, dares Martin to do it, even tossing him a gun. Martin fires, but only manages to inflict a minor wound on Anderson. Other employees, hearing the shooting, burst into the office, but Anderson assures them that nothing really happened. Martin quits and leaves.
Meanwhile, Ross has managed to contact Commodore Monroe, and get his proxy just in time for the vote of the board of directors. Anderson keeps his job. Martin and Madeline reconcile and decide to look for new jobs away from the Monroe Franklin Department Store. As for Anderson, having survived the vote, he resumes his job with his new assistant. It’s none other than Garfinkle, embittered and now just as ruthless as his new boss.
Employees Entrance is a pretty shocking Pre-Code movie with a surprising relevance to today. Although based on a play, it has the feel of the typical Warner Bros. “ripped from the headlines” movie. According to Brian Cady, writing for TCM, Variety speculated that the story referred to Klein's department store in New York, which had enjoyed an unaccountable success during the Depression. Monroe Franklin, Hale Hamilton's character, with his many political connections, was thought to be based a politico who was dubbed “Mr. New York” and served as its "official greeter," Grover Whalen.
It’s also a film that can’t be made today. Not because of the subject matter, but because of the locale. At the time Employees’ Entrance was made, department stores occupied a much more exalted position in the American outlook. They were early versions of fantasylands that appealed to those who believed in the American Dream. The common perception was that anyone could get a job and rise up the economic ladder on hard work and dedication. It was also a place where aisles of luxury goods stood next to those of necessities; shopping wasn’t simply an activity, but an experience that could take hours – even the entire day – as people dressed up and strolled the aisles languishing over the latest necessities and moving over an aisle of two to gaze at luxury items they could only dream of affording.
There were roughly 40 movies made in the ‘20s and ‘30s where the plot revolved around a department store. The best known include It with Clara Bow as the girl who steals; Safety Last, starring Harold Lloyd; and Our Blushing Brides, where working girl Joan Crawford wins the heart of the store owner’s son, played by Robert Montgomery. Employees’ Entrance changed things a bit by making William’s Kurt Anderson, the general manager, and not the owner, of the store, his power resting not in his wealth, but his ability to control his employees’ wealth.
Anderson fit the ideal for the Depression times – a strong man who could take change and get things moving. Make no mistake the man is a monster, perhaps the embodiment of capitalism in his ruthlessness. Everything he does is based on exploitation; even his relationships are exploitative. And if he has to destroy someone he does so willfully, for the goal is to make money. But even though the film showed the damage a dictator like an Anderson might do, his persona takes on the quality of an anti-hero when compared to the owner and the board of directors. The owner, when he’s not absent, is a cold fish whose idea of leadership is to send telegrams to the store’s employees quoting such platitudes as Thomas Paine’s “these are the times that try men’s souls.” His cousin, who is second-in-command, is a fat toady, unable to think for himself. And the board is composed of bankers who are only satisfied when there are plenty of profits.
Anderson, on the other hand, despises them. In his words, they are not producers. He, on the other hand, is a self-made man who rose through the ranks on ability and merit alone, as he alludes to Martin West in what passes for a tender scene between them. There was a girl he loved back in Minnesota, but there was no way he was going to settle down with a wife and bring a child into the sort of poverty he experienced. Now that he has money, he is determined not to lose it. And one of the ways to lose it is through romance and marriage, hence his misogyny. Women are for play only; they are there to be exploited.
Exploitation is the right word for the relationship between Anderson and Madeline, and it exists on both sides. When he discovers her hiding in the store’s home display, she is at first hesitant to speak with him until she discovers who he is. Then and only then will she allow him to buy her dinner and then go back to his apartment for the night. Once she falls for Martin, she tries to avoid Anderson any way she can until the night of the office party. After Martin deserts her for a night of inebriation with the boys, Anderson spots her and they have drinks. While she is getting more and more soused with each sip, he, as always, keeps his head about him. Finally, drunk and confused, she accepts his invitation to take the key to the room he’s reserved and lie down for spell while he waits back at the party. But before we see Madeline collapsing on the bed, Anderson is already sauntering down the hall and letting himself into the room. As she’s lying on the bed, clearly passed out, he closes the door and spends the night. We can only second the view of Mick LaSalle in his book, Dangerous Men: “It’s tantamount to rape. She’s practically in a coma.”
However, there is another side to Anderson that, despite all his villainy, endears him to the audience, especially an audience during the Depression. Anderson saves jobs. The bankers on the board want to cut jobs and retrench. Anderson, on the other hand, realizes the lifeblood of the store rests with its workforce. When the board tries to force him out for not cutting back on the workforce his answer is to find the wandering owner rather than back one millimeter on his stand. He tells the board to their faces that they “make him sick.” “You’re a banker, not a producer, “ he tells one. “All you have is dignity and today you can’t get one thin dime for it.”
While he will brook no nonsense from the executives or suppliers, he takes a slightly softer line with his employees. When his secretary, Miss Hall (Donnelly), is caught spending her salary on a dress from one of the store’s competitors, Anderson is fit to be tied. “Whose money?” he asks. “Who pays that to you?” He’ll make an example and embarrass her, but he will not take her livelihood away. It’s the same with store detective Sweeney (Jenkins). He catches one of the customers, Mrs. Hickox (Gateson), supposedly in the act of stealing a purse, but it's her own purse. Taken to his office, Anderson tries to charm her, but to no avail, especially when she informs him that her husband is the editor of one of the city’s larger newspapers. At a loss, Anderson asks her if there might be some item in the store she would like to have as a token of apology and to keep the story out of the papers. There is, she says: a grand piano, which he lets her have. After she leaves, he turns his wrath on Sweeney, telling him that the piano is coming out of his salary at the rate of $10 a week. When Sweeney protests that it will take him the rest of his life to pay the debt, Anderson answers, “I doubt if you’ll live that long. Get out.” But he doesn’t fire Sweeney. Anderson is the example of the perfect Depression manager: a ruthless businessman who will fight for each and every dollar, without recourse to any sort of emotion, be it sentimentality, tenderness, or pity. It’s exploit or be exploited, the perfect person for these Social Darwinian times.
As with Skyscraper Souls, the film revolves around, and is dominated by, the persona of Warren William. Ironically, William was not the studio’s first choice for the part. That was Edward G. Robinson, who turned the part down, causing a small rift between him and the studio. But William turned out to be the right choice. No one played the hard-hearted cad as well as he did, or as charmingly, which made him even more dangerous. Simply put, he’s so good at being so bad. No actor could play this part today; it’s just too cold-blooded. There would have to be some mitigating factor in place to explain why he is the way he is and give him a chance to redeem himself at the end.
It’s always interesting to compare the Pre-Code Loretta Young with the Loretta Young of the ’40s and ‘50s, when she became the poster girl for devout Catholicism. Before she became St. Loretta she was quite the Wild Child. Born Gretchen Young in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1913, she, along with her sisters, had been appearing on screen as extras since she was four. Eventually, the extra work led to small parts, which in turn led to supporting roles, such as in Laugh, Clown, Laugh (MGM, 1928) with Lon Chaney. Warner Brothers-First National signed her in 1928, and in 1929 she had her first lead role in the early talkie, The Girl in the Glass Cage. From 1928 to 1934, she made almost 50 films, most of them for Warner Bros. with titles like The Truth About Youth, Big Business Girl, Play-Girl, Week-End Marriage, They Call It Sin, Midnight Mary, and Born to Be Bad, among others. In 1930, at the age of 17 she fell in love and eloped to Yuma, Arizona, with her co-star in The Second Floor Mystery, Grant Withers, who was 26. The marriage was a stormy one and lasted only nine months before they divorced. The next film they starred in, Broken Dishes, was due to be released after their divorce, so the studio renamed it Too Young to Marry. In 1934, she jumped ship and signed with Fox, where she went on to become one of Hollywood’s leading ladies. During the filming of The Call of the Wild (1935) with Clark Gable, the two had an on-set affair, which resulted in Loretta becoming pregnant. Because of the morality clauses in their contracts, and the fact that Gable was married, the studio fixers saw to it that the only person outside Gable and Young who knew was Loretta’s mother. Loretta and her mother left for Europe where Loretta delivered a healthy baby girl on November 6, 1935, whom she named Judith. Studio publicity said that Judith was adopted while Loretta was in Europe on vacation. If Barbara Stanwyck could be said to be the Queen of the Pre-Codes, then Loretta Young was its Princess.
work in Employees’ Entrance was in fitting with
her other film work at the time – outstanding. I have never seen
any actress of that time play a drunk as well or as convincingly as
Young, and the chemistry between her and William was superb, making
the fact that she hated him quite believable. Alice White, making a
return to the screen after a nearly two-year absence, is pleasantly
surprising as Polly Dale, Anderson’s “sex torpedo,” using her
to destroy business rivals. Her scenes with William are priceless;
the two trade barbs and circle each other like two hyneas as they are
but two different examples of the same species. White was being
groomed for major stardom by Warner’s in the late silent/early
sound era, but her limited acting skills, combined with a full-blown
case of “divadom,” led her to walking away from the studio.
Sadly, just as he career was finally getting back on track, a scandal
later that same year ruined any chances she had to a comeback.
Wallace Ford is given more to do here than he was in Skyscraper
Souls, and although his scenes with Young are nothing to write
home about, his scenes with William are excellent, reflecting the
intensity between the two characters. Ford was in interesting actor:
during the ‘30s he was a featured player in A-pictures and a
leading man in the B’s before settling down as a character actor in
the ‘40s and ‘50s.
Entrance is an engrossing, yet hard movie to watch, mainly
because of the character of Kurt Anderson. Yet, it’s Warren
William’s performance as Anderson that makes the film so lively and
fascinating. He’s a monster, and revels in being such. Nor does the
movie seek to make excuses for him. No, he is a self-made monster,
and Williams does a masterly job in playing the monster with a
mixture of hostility and sublimated sadness. It was directed in usual
assembly belt fashion by Roy Del Ruth, whose Pre-Code films always
manage to find a raw nerve and focus on it, which is why his films
are so interesting.
Dale: Hello, Mr. Anderson.
Anderson: Oh, it’s you. I didn’t know you with all your
The Sports Parade
By Ed Garea
The Sport Parade (RKO, 1932) – Director: Dudley Murphy. Writers: Corey Ford, Francis M. Cockrell (s/p), Jerry Horwin (story), Robert Benchley, T.H. Wenning (additional dialogue, uncredited). Cast: Joel McCrea, Marian Marsh, William Gargan, Robert Benchley, Walter Catlett, Richard “Skeets” Gallagher, Clarence Wilson, & Ivan Linow. B&W, 64 minutes.
The Sport Parade is a child of its times. Although it may seem especially odd to us today to see pro football treated with the same disdain as professional wrestling, we should keep in mind that, with the exception of baseball, pro sports were seen as disreputable as compared to the “pure” sport that was found in amateur competition. Of course, in reality amateur football was just as crooked, if not more so, than what was claimed for the pro side. Back in those days, the NFL was no more than a blip on the sports map, still struggling for existence. Although it got a boost when the great Red Grange signed on in 1925, not many other college greats followed suit; the prevailing ethos at the time being that taking pay for one’s play was sign of questionable character.
Pro wrestling, on the other hand, was always seen as questionable. A child of the carnival, it thrived in the underbelly of American popular culture. By the time this picture opened, wrestling was seen as little more than a comedy act, a good night’s cheap entertainment.
By any standards, though, this film is a queer duck. It has a solid cast and boasts several good performances. The subject is interesting, though the plot, even then, was rather hackneyed. But this is a film that should be directed by Howard Hawks, William Wellman, Irving Pichel, or even Norman Taurog. Instead, the director is Dudley Murphy, best known for avant-garde films like Danse Macabre (1922), Ballet Mecanique (1924, considered his masterpiece), St. Louis Blues, 1929, with Bessie Smith), Black and Tan Fantasy (1929, with Duke Ellington and His Orchestra). A year after directing The Sport Parade, Murphy would direct Paul Robeson in The Emperor Jones.
Pretty heady stuff, so for Murphy to do a sports action film is a departure, to say the least. In 1931, he helmed a drama with music, Confessions of a Co-ed, starring Sylvia Sidney as a free-living jazz baby. The film was noted more for the appearance of Bing Crosby with Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra than the quality of the drama itself. Murphy apparently had the full blessing of studio head David O. Selznick; perhaps Selznick was trying to see if Murphy could stretch his horizons, for Confessions of a Co-ed was a departure from Murphy’s usual work. Being as RKO was the smallest of the majors, outside of Universal, Selznick may have been looking to develop his directing talents to where they could work in different genres. Whatever the reason, this was clearly Hawksian territory, and Murphy failed to scale the bar, instead delivering a run-of-the-mill programmer noted only for some arty camera work.
The film opens at the ivy halls of Dartmouth University, where the combination of Sandy Brown (McCrea) and Johnny Baker (Gargan) is dominating opponents with their talent. Besides being a formidable combination on the field, they are enjoying a full-blown bromance off the field. Something I found interesting in this film was the amount of beefcake, as opposed to the usual cheesecake. In an early shower scene after the game, the boys are snapping each other in the buttocks with towels. And speaking of bare buttocks, there are plenty to be seen in the locker room. The homoerotic theme is quite strong, rather surprising in an era that looked down on and made fun of homosexuality.
But all good things must pass. Sandy and Johnny are to graduate, and this is where we see the basic difference between the two. Johnny is an ant, already having a newspaper job lined up. Sandy, on the other hand, is a grasshopper. He’d rather party.
To that end, Sandy signs with a manager, “Shifty” Morrison (Catlett). He arranges for both Sandy and Johnny to undertake a personal tour for cash. But Johnny turns him down; he already has a good job at the paper. Sandy can’t understand this. Why work when you can have people pay to see you? And Johnny can’t understand why, with all the lucrative offers Sandy has, that he would choose to sign with someone as obviously shady as Shifty.
Needless to say, the personal tour is a bust, for Sandy lacks the personality needed to get himself over. His next stop is pro football, as Morrison happens to own a football team. But once again, Sandy is a failure. Morrison advises him to put a little “showmanship” into his play, spice things up a bit, stand out, even if the team is losing. Soon this turns into an invitation to throw games for the bettors. This is too much for Sandy, who quits in disgust. Returning home, he discovers that all the business offers have dried up.
Unable to find an opportunity, Sandy spends his last dollars on a ticket to the Yale-Dartmouth game, where he runs into Johnny – of course. Johnny has risen over the years and is now the editor of his paper’s sports department. When Johnny asks how Sandy’s doing, Sandy gives him a soft-shoe routine, but Johnny sees through it and tactfully offers Sandy a job as a columnist, suggesting they write a column together called “Baker to Brown.” Sandy accepts, and while writing his half of their first column, meets a winsome young blonde named Irene Stewart (Marsh). They hit it off and soon she’s accompanying him to the various sporting events he’s covering for the column, as we see in a traveling montage. What Sandy doesn’t know, and what Irene isn’t telling him, is that Johnny is head over heels in love with Irene. Irene doesn’t feel the same way about Johnny. Sandy, however, is another story entirely.
One night, Sandy takes Irene to the wrestling matches, which he thinks are great fun, though she doesn’t. Again, who should he happen to run into? Why, Shifty Morrison, of course. Shifty has moved on from fixing football games to promoting professional wrestling, a natural progression of sorts. After the usual how-do-you-dos, Shifty asks Sandy how he enjoyed the matches. Sandy replies that he could easily defeat the wrestlers, given his collegiate wrestling background. A light bulb goes off in Shifty’s head. He hands Sandy a card, telling him he could use him, and a guy with his background could clean up. Sandy politely declines. He’s got a job and a girl.
But all this happiness can’t last for long. While attending the six-day bicycle races with Irene, Johnny spots them in a clinch and slugs Sandy, accusing him of betrayal. Sandy, for his part, swears he knows nothing of any relationship between Johnny and Irene. Miffed at both Johnny and Irene and feeling guilty, Sandy accepts Shifty’s offer to become a wrestler. Morrison concocts a gimmick playing on Sandy’s Dartmouth background, billing him as “the pride of Dartmouth.” With a series of quick victories, Sandy has been built up for a match with the reigning champion, Sailor Muller (Linow). Talk about life imitating art: the idea of Morrison the wrestling promoter also owning a pro football team prefigures Vince McMahon and the XFL by about 60 years
Now it’s Johnny’s turn to be miffed, because Morrison is using Sandy’s Dartmouth background as part of the act. He writes a scathing column about Sandy, questioning the legitimacy of his victories and calling wrestling “a racket.” This, in turn, miffs Irene, who confronts Johnny about the column. She tells him that, contrary to speculation, Sandy will win the championship, and if he doesn’t, she’ll go with Johnny to get that marriage license.
The night of the championship match, Sandy’s fellow alumni visit and warn him not to wear the sacred “D” on the back of his robe. But when Irene enters to see Sandy he tells her that he is to lose this night. Irene declares her love for him telling him she doesn’t love Johnny. She loves him and believes in him. This little corny declaration changes everything for Sandy and he decides he’s now going to wrestle to win, informing Morrison of his change in plans. Morrison, in turn, warns Muller, who decides that he is going to teach the young punk a lesson.
During the introduction, with Sandy in a pair of white tighties that leave little to the imagination, he is billed at 15-pounds less than Muller, though it clearly looks like more. Muller wins the first fall, and Sandy wins the second. Before the third fall, Shifty tells Muller that Sandy has a bad shoulder and to work on it. Things look bad for the boy in white during the third fall as Muller works him over. Johnny, sitting next to Irene, sees the genuine look of pain on Sandy’s face, then sees the look on Irene’s face and has a sudden epiphany – Sandy’s on the level. Johnny stands up and yells to Sandy the buzzword they used during their football days: “Contact!” Sandy hears it and comes to life. He begins to pummel the champ, hitting him with a variety of moves and finally knocking the champ out of the ring with a flying tackle. Muller, knocked silly, can’t get back into the ring. He’s counted out and Sandy is the new champion. Johnny and Irene came into the ring to congratulate Sandy. Sandy kisses Irene as the film fades to the end.
The film moves at a quick pace, much quicker than other movies from RKO; its running time of 64 minutes is more than enough. McCrea dominates most of the film, though Gargan has his share of scenes. But he only seems to come to life when in scenes with McCrea; otherwise he barely noticeable. Young, doll-faced Marian Marsh, loaned out to RKO for the film, played a role far beyond her 19 years of age. It’s a shame she wasn’t given more to do besides function as the girl who comes between the stars. However, it’s Walter Catlett as the agent Morrison, and Robert Benchley as the befuddled radio announcer, who steal the movie. Catlett is delightfully crooked; as long as he can make a profit, no grudges are held, except at the end when he learns of Sandy’s plans to double-cross the champ. Benchley’s turns as the radio announcer following the career of Baker and Brown, but who can’t keep the teams straight and his foot away from his mouth, is hilarious. It also sounds as if he wrote his own material. Also look for ex-vaudevillian Richard “Skeets” Gallagher as a drunken photographer who seems always to miss the photo because he didn’t remove the lens cap, or shoots it out of focus due to his constant inebriation. Somehow he manages to get an award-winning photo when he snaps a photo of a racecar going off the track and crashing.
Although a stuntman was employed for the more elaborate work, McCrea himself learned the art of wrestling before he went before the camera. (He does take a few of the bumps himself.) Below is a terrific tidbit of trivia courtesy of the Spokane Spokesman-Review:
There is a great wrestling match as a climax to the picture, in which Joel gets a lot of rough treatment. Advance notices say he took a lot of wrestling instruction under Creighton Chaney, son of the late Lon Chaney, to fit himself for the part.
Chaney was under contract to RKO at this time, appearing with McCrea in Bird of Paradise earlier that year. He also worked as a stuntman and trainer, though I would like to know when and where he learned the art of wrestling. And here it appears that he also moonlighted as an “uncredited technical adviser."
1932 was a good year for films concerning wrestling. The Sport Parade was released on November 11, 1932, and Flesh, from MGM and directed by none other than John Ford, was released almost a month later, on December 8, 1932. As far as I can determine, The Sport Parade is the second film with wrestling as the subject matter. The first was Sit Tight (1931), a Warner Bros. comedy directed by Lloyd Bacon and starring Joe. E. Brown and Winnie Lightner. But The Sport Parade was the first drama to feature pro wrestling. And it does not shine a favorable light on the game, seeing it as a “fixed” sport, which was not outside the prevailing opinion of the day. The movie also looks down on professional football, which was barely out of its infancy when the movie was released. Basically, all professional sports, excepting baseball, were disparaged during this time as in the control of the bettors. Ivan Linow, a real pro wrestler, played the role of wrestling champion Sailor Muller. Born Janus Linaus in Latvia in 1888, he came to America sometime after the turn of the century. When he took up wrestling is unknown, but given his build (about 6’4”, 240 lbs.) he carved out a decent career, beating the scrubs and losing to the stars. He participated in the big wrestling tournament in New York City in 1915, billed as “the Finnish Lion.” He later toured the country using the monikers “The Cossack” and “the Russian Man-Eater.” When his wrestling career declined in the early ‘20s, Linow went into films, playing supporting and bit parts. He retired in 1935 and died of a heart attack in London, England, in 1940 at the age of 52.
The character of Sandy Brown, who plays football at Dartmouth, and later the pros before going into pro wrestling as “the pride of Dartmouth” seems to be based on pro wrestler “Dynamite” Gus Sonnenberg. Sonnenberg was a football hero at Dartmouth who later played with the early NFL on such teams as the Columbus Tigers, Detroit Panthers, and the Providence Steam Rollers. In Providence, he became a close friend of amateur great John Spellman, who won Olympic gold in 1924 in freestyle wrestling. Spellman thought Sonnenberg could be a hit on the pro mat and Sonnenberg in turn saw wrestling as a way to earn off-season money. When Spellman throught his protégé was ready, he introduced him to Boston wrestling promoter Paul Bowser. Bowser liked what he saw, being aware of Sonnenberg’s fame in New England. Bowser had big plans for the ex-Dartmouth athlete and eventually put him over as world champion by defeating Strangler Lewis.
Sonnenberg proved to be a popular champion, not so much for his wrestling as for his finishing maneuver – the flying tackle. He was the first to use it and the move was a hit everywhere he wrestled. He would stand in the ring across from his opponent, then run forward and launch himself in the air like a spear, tackling the rival with all his speed and strength, usually around the chest or waist. It was a devastating finisher, and helped transform the sport by getting it off the mat through the use of aerial tactics.
Although the ardor for Sonnenberg cooled down in areas of the country, there was one area besides his native promotion in Boston where he was especially popular. That was Los Angeles. The matches, held at Hollywood Legion Stadium and the Olympic Auditorium, were a favorite for the denizens of the studios, with movie stars usually seen at ringside. Co-writer Corey Ford claimed to know absolutely nothing about professional wrestling, though the views of the other co-writer, Francis Cockrell, have never been recorded. At any rate, even though wrestling is seen as a crooked sport, McCrea’s character nevertheless wrestles the championship match with Muller straight, for Sandy is a true athlete and no true athlete would take a dive.
Director Murphy does a decent job of keeping the action at a brisk pace and making sure that McCrea is featured in many masculine settings and having the camera look in on his shirtless torso on a few occasions. He also seems to like gimmickry transitions, like a scene where the camera closes in on a picture of Walter Catlett on a wall, and comes to life in the next scene. In the finale, which seems to have been shot inside the Olympic Auditorium, Murphy comes to life, shooting from many angles with fluid camerawork throughout. The film also features a cutaway to a Cotton-Club type of nightspot with a couple of numbers from African-American dancers, making it seem as though Murphy was returning to his musical roots. The Sport Parade is typical of the Pre-Code era, only emphasizing beefcake over the usual cheesecake. There is also the typical racist scenes of rubbing a black man’s head for luck, and a homophobic scene where, during the wrestling matches that Sandy takes Irene to watch, two rather flaming fellows stand up with one crying out “Such brutality! Let’s leave.” That’s a rather odd jab in a film where the two leads are friskily cavorting with each other nude in the post-game shower room, snapping each other with towels and wrestling. Several times in the film, Johnny refers to Sandy as “handsome” and praises Sandy’s ways with the ladies.
In the end, The Sport Parade holds interest as an example of the Pre-Code era and for its subject matter far more than any interest as a film.
Call Her Savage
By Ed Garea
Call Her Savage(Fox, 1932) – Director: John Francis Dillon. Writers: Edwin J. Burke (s/p), Tiffany Thayer (novel). Cast: Clara Bow, Gilbert Roland, Thelma Todd, Monroe Owsley, Estelle Taylor, Weldon Heyburn, Willard Robertson, Anthony Jowitt, Fred Kohler, Russell Simpson, Margaret Livingston, Carl Stockdale, Hale Hamilton, & Dorothy Peterson. B&W, 88 minutes.
From 1927 through 1931, Clara Bow was one of the top box office draws in America. While many thought her momentum would slow down when talkies arrived, they were proven wrong when her talking films also racked up big box office grosses.
However, Clara was done in by her wild lifestyle and the negative publicity it generated. The party-hardying, scandals, and assorted rumors based on such scandals wore on the star’s fragile ego to such a point where she asked her studio, Paramount, to commit her to a sanitarium. Her career was essentially over. The next year she attempted a comeback by signing a two-picture deal with Fox.
She made Call Her Savage (1932) and Hoop-La (1933), which proved to be her last film, as she retired from the screen to take up ranching with husband, former cowboy star Rex Bell. When she retired she was 27 years old. She had done a lot of living since 1927. It wasn’t the failure of her two last films that brought about her retirement, for both made good money. It was the glare of the camera and the public spotlight that drove her to the shadows.
The gist of the film is that Bow’s character, Nasa “Dynamite” Springer, has an uncontrollable temper and doesn’t understand why.
To find out, the film goes back to before Nasa was born. Cut to a wagon train making its way across the prairie. Silas Jennings (Kohler), the leader of the train, and who turns out to be Nasa’s maternal grandfather, is busy fooling around with another woman in a back wagon while his wife rides on the lead wagon pretending nothing is wrong. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Indians attack, laying waste to many of the wagons while killing quite a few of the occupants. After the attack is beaten off, an old-timer (Simpson) who is on the ground dying blames Silas for bringing the attack down on them because of his adultery. Silas’s sensitive response it to place his foot on the man’s throat and push him into the ground until he is dead. Mort (Stockdale), another old-timer, scolds Silas with a Biblical curse stating that the sins of the father are visited unto their children, even three or four generations down the line. The scene closes with Silas’s daughter, Ruth, playing cowboys and Indians with her friend Pete, the young son of another couple. People nearby say the two will eventually marry.
18 years later we find Pete (Robertson) and Ruth (Taylor) are now married have settled in Rollins, Texas. Pete is an extremely busy guy, an up-and-coming businessman intent on forging a financial empire. He’s often away from home, leaving Ruth alone and to her own devices. One of those devices is Ronasa (Heyburn), a local Indian who often comes to visit Ruth, especially when Pete is away. They steal away to their favorite place, a clearing in the forest, where Ronasa breaks some bad news to Ruth. It seems his father and the tribe has arranged a marriage for him, and as the scene fades out, we know they’re going to make love one last time.
Another cut and it’s years later. We discover that Ruth had a daughter, named Nasa (Gee, I wonder where Ruth got that name from?), and we see her riding rather recklessly on her horse across the countryside. Suddenly, the horse bolts and throws her after coming across a rattlesnake. Nasa takes her bullwhip and beats the snake to death. (Let’s not even attempt to delve into the Freudian aspects of that act.) Her friend, Moonglow (Roland), a half-caste Indian, appears and laughs, causing Nasa to turn the whip on him. Moonglow takes it rather stoically, which causes Nasa to apologize and tend his wounds, bathing the wounds on his head and neck with a bandage she’s made by tearing her blouse.
Her father, passing by in a carriage, stops to see what’s going on. He asks his daughter why she was beating Moonglow. Her response? “I was practicing in case I ever get married,” she says with a smile. Dad tells Nasa he’d like to see her at home to talk about this.
Pete, now one of the richest men in Texas, has decided enough is enough and tells Nasa that he is sending her to a finishing school in Chicago. She’s overjoyed at the chance and soon becomes a regular on the social pages of the city’s newspapers, who refer to her as Nasa “Dynamite” Springer because of her raucous temper. But Dad sent his daughter to Chicago to settle down, not become the toast of the town. He shows up and throws a party for her to announce her engagement to Charles Moffett (Davis), a boring twit from an oil-rich family. It seems Dad has arranged the marriage in hopes that the Moffets will ship their oil over his railroad.
But Nasa has other ideas. She invites sometime boyfriend, playboy Lawrence Crosby (Owsley) to the party. It isn’t long, however, before Crosby’s current squeeze, Sunny DeLane (Todd) crashes the party and gets into a catfight with Nasa, who makes quick work of her. Having disposed of Sunny, Nasa now decides to elope with Larry, who proposed to her right after the fight.
On her end, the marriage isn’t quite working out as she thought. She spends her wedding night waiting for Crosby to return from wherever he went. Her only visitor has been her father, who tells her that he has had enough and never wants to have anything more to do with her. Larry eventually shows up, half in the bag, but a few hours later he receives a phone call and gets dressed once again to rejoin a “poker game” he used as his excuse for coming home late. When asked why he even bothered to get married by his bride, he tells Nasa that he only married her to get back at Sunny for stepping out on him. He also tells her that his family is filthy rich and that she can have access to a healthy allowance and full use of his charge accounts, as long as they don’t have to live together. Nasa gladly agrees, and in the following scenes we see her using Crosby’s money to adorn herself with furs, jewels, gowns, and just about every kind of extravagance she can think of, including cosmetic treatments.
But in the midst of all this high living, Nasa gets word from Crosby’s lawyer that Larry is very sick. He’s in a New Orleans hospital and is not expected to live. Running down to New Orleans to see him, she is informed by his doctor that Larry is suffering from a STD and that his mind is gone. When she enters his room, he attacks her, wanting to have sex. She fights him off, bonking him on the head with a stool. When he comes to, Larry is furious and demands she give him back his jewels. When she hands them over he throws them out the window and cuts her off financially. Apparently, this impoverishes her. Worse, she’s expecting a child and is extremely worried whether Larry passed on his illness to the child. She lives in a rundown New Orleans boardinghouse and has a son, who is healthy despite being born prematurely. Desperate for money to buy medicine for her child, she leaves her son in the care of a neighboring young girl while she turns a trick on the streets for the prescription money. Meanwhile, her babysitter has left the child unattended to take care of another errand. A lecherous drunk has followed the young girl and, in the hall, accidentally drops a match and sets the building on fire. Nasa returns home only to be told by the firemen that her baby has died of smoke inhalation.
Moonglow, who has come to New Orleans to find Nasa, tells her that her grandfather has died and left her $100,000. He tries to console her, but Nasa vows to get even with life. She divorces Larry and moves to New York to make a fresh start. Lonely, she advertises for an escort in the newspaper. Attracted to her, Jay Randall (Jowitt), the son of a millionaire mine owner, applies for the job under an assumed name and is hired. His job will be to escort Nasa to various functions. When she asks to see the less-known side of New York, Jay takes her to a Greenwich Village restaurant “so dangerous only poets and anarchists eat there.” Just before Nasa and Jay walk in we see two waiters in drag doing a little song and dance about being sailors going out on a battleship to “service” the crew. In case we don’t get it, the camera cuts to a front table where we see two very manly-looking woman sitting together. When Nasa and Jay walk in, an anarchist (the unbilled Mischa Auer) immediately recognizes Jay as the anti-labor tycoon Jay Randall. This causes the restaurant to erupt into a full-scale brawl.
Jay apologizes for the deception but Nasa tells him she knew who he was since the second day they were together. Jay then confesses his love for Nasa and proposes. However, his dad, Cyrus Randall (Hamilton), has had his prospective daughter-in-law checked out. He warns Jay about Nasa’s uncontrollable temper, but Jay persists, and brings Nasa to meet Cyrus, who, in turn, invites the couple to a dinner party where they can all get to know each other. When Jay and Nasa arrive, they discover to their surprise that Cyrus has also invited Crosby and Sunny, who is now his on-again girlfriend. It seems that Larry has made a miraculous recovery and is once again healthy. The tension grows all through the evening, erupting into the predictable brawl after Larry makes a disrespectful crack about Nasa’s dead son, and Sunny follows with a crack about Nasa herself. The brawl ends with Larry covered in food and Sunny sporting a black eye. Jay ends the engagement, calling Nasa “savage.” (Hey, we have a title!)
Alone and on what seems like a perpetual bender, Nasa receives word that her mother is dying back home in Rollins, Texas. She returns, and sits at Ruth’s bedside. Ruth dies after calling Ronasa’s name. Later, Moonglow tells Nasa that Ronasa was the son of an Indian chief. He killed himself because he realized he was in love with a beautiful white woman. Nasa suddenly realizes that the white woman Ronasa was in love with was her mother, and that she is Ronasa’s daughter. Now that she knows who she really is, Nasa vows to give up her “savage” ways; she is glad to be a half-breed, she says as she takes Moonglow’s hand. Fade out.
Those viewing Call Her Savage will agree that it is one wild film, even for the Pre-Code era. Her good friend, producer Sam Rork, developed the film especially for her. Both needed a hit – Bork was in a slump caused by the failure of his recent films and Bow was just getting out of the nuthouse.
Despite her off-screen problems, Bow was still a big box office draw. The problems, based on unsubstantiated rumors of her wild antics over the years, came to a head in 1931, when Bow sued her private secretary, Daisy DeVoe, alleging financial misappropriation. DeVoe fought back with a slew of charges, mostly concerning Bow’s sex life, such as the famous story about Bow taking on the entire USC football team during a party. The fact that DeVoe invented most of her charges against Bow mattered not to the press, who sensationalized DeVoe’s claims and half-truths as the trial continued. The result for Clara was a nervous breakdown that had her sent to a sanitarium.
When she was deemed able to return to work, she didn’t lack for offers. Reportedly, Louis B. Mayer wanted her for Red-Headed Woman before settling for Jean Harlow, and RKO offered her the lead in What Price Hollywood? (The role eventually went to Constance Bennett.) Bow decided on a two-picture deal with Fox, as she reportedly didn’t want to be tied down to a long-term contract. Fox offered her $250,000 for the two films, plus creative control, though she did have to lose 25 pounds, as the contract called for her to maintain a weight of 118 pounds.
Bow’s choice of director was John Francis Dillon, who had been around since 1914 and wasn’t known for giving his actors a hard time. As leading man she chose Gilbert Roland, a friend who had worked with her in 1925’s The Plastic Age. (Although Roland is seen in only about 15 percent of the film, he was sill given second-billing.)
The screenplay by Edwin Burke was based on a lurid novel of the same title by Tiffany Thayer, which left little to the imagination, with a storyline that featured incest, masturbation, lesbianism, and sadism. Thayer was a writer of salacious genre romances so awful they made Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Suzann look like Henry James. Dorothy Parker, reviewing Thayer’s An American Girl in the New Yorker, said, "He is beyond question a writer of power; and his power lies in his ability to make sex so thoroughly, graphically, and aggressively unattractive that one is fairly shaken to ponder how little one has been missing." Thayer was on quite a roll in 1932. Besides Call Her Savage, he had two other novels made into films: Thirteen Women, by RKO in 1932, and The Illustrious Corpse, which Tiffany filmed as Strangers of the Evening.
Though Call Her Savage was released in 1932 before the Code became mandatory, producer Rork and Fox still submitted the script and rough cut to the Production Code Administration (PCA) for an opinion, although they were not bound to follow it. The PCA was not in favor of turning Thayer’s novel into a film because of its storyline. However, the studio, anticipating trouble with local censor boards, bypassed much of the novel’s controversies, toning down the narrative considerably.
But the PCA did suggest that the love scene between Nasa’s mother and Ronasa be more on the romantic, rather than the sexual, side. They also wanted the studio to tone down Crosby’s venereal disease and make his attempted rape of Nasa into more of a violent outburst. And the PCA also wanted the studio to shorten the scene where Nasa walks the streets as a prostitute to suggest her fallen circumstances were subtly implied, rather than explicitly.
What screenwriter Burke decided to leave in still made Call Her Savage one hell of a lot of fun to watch. When we first see Clara Bow, she’s traipsing around in a blouse without support of undergarments that leaves nothing to the imagination. A shopping montage follows this later where she tries on several low-cut gowns. She also whips Gilbert Roland, frolics with a huge Great Dane (An answer to the popular, and false, rumor that she did so with her own Great Dane, which caused the perpetrator of the rumor a healthy stay in jail.), parties with lots and lots of men, gets married, leaves her husband, has a child, turns to prostitution, and watches her baby die in a fire, not to mention the fact that she punches out Thelma Todd – twice. There’s enough melodrama in Call Her Savage to sustain a couple of films as she goes from one crisis to another, seemingly never topping to catch her breath. Of course, at the end she discovers what we in the audience knew early on: the reason why she’s so volatile is because of her American Indian blood. Being the child of a savage she had no choice but to be one herself. It was the same in the novel. I would have thought she got her volatility from Grandpa Jennings, who was quite a wild one himself, but the racism of the times made it more “sensible” for the “savage” blood to come from a supposed savage. This was, after all, the heyday of Social Darwinism.
Another weird touch in the movie occurs when Nasa and Randall visit the Greenwich Village bistro. The evening’s “entertainment” consists of two waiters in frilly aprons singing a bawdy song about sailors. They are seen to be clearly gay as they skip and prance to the music. Vito Russo, in his book, The Celluloid Closet, notes this is the first time a gay bar is depicted in a film, and by mid-1934, such scenes wouldn’t be shown again until the late ‘60s.
That this film rises from the muck to be not only watchable, but also entertaining is solely due to the performance of its star. I must admit that I didn’t think too much of Bow in the opening scenes cracking the whip first on the snake, and then turning it on poor Roland. She seemed more comical than serious, as if she was trying too hard to be fierce. The peek-a-boo blouse she was wearing in that scene didn’t help matters, either. However, as both she and the film settle down to a coherent narrative, her natural charisma begins to dominate the proceedings and she still radiates a star presence that makes it seem as though she had never left the screen in the first place, picking up right from where she left off.
In her scenes when confronting husband Crosby in the hospital, and later, when she returns to her flat to discover her baby had died in the fire, Bow literally becomes heart-rendering in the emotional depth of her performance. It’s something we wouldn’t normally have thought Bow capable of doing, and especially doing such in a film such as this. Part of the credit has to go to director John Francis Dillon, whose hands-off style helped Bow recover her balance as she returned to the grind of making a film. While some critics credit Dillon for his use of oblique camera angles and noirish lighting, I believe he was simply smart to take the advice of his cinematographer, Lee Garmes, who infuses the picture with the shadowy look that was the staple of the German “street films” of the 1920s, used to great effect by G.W. Pabst, for example. Finally, the script by Edwin Burke is smart enough to dispense with the parts of Thayer’s novel he knew would never pass the censor’s muster, and emphasize the sections he could get away with. Reviewer Mark Gabrish Conlan, in his blog, Movie Magg (Sept. 30, 2014), notes that anyone “who reads the American Film Institute Catalog entry on Call Her Savage will be quickly disabused of the notion that the 1930-34 era in American movies was truly ‘Pre-Code’” for “Fox went through several drafts and several writers before Will Hays’ enforcer, Col. Jason S. Joy, finally reluctantly gave his O.K.”
Though Call Me Savage was a huge hit, Bow would make only one more film, Hoop-La (1933), before retiring to her ranch with Bell to start a family. Had she continued on in films, her persona, like that of another Pre-Code dervish, Jean Harlow, would have been restyled to meet the new standards, and it is thought by many historians that she could have retained her popularity into the late ‘30s, at least. But it’s a moot point, for it was a growing fear of being in front of a sound camera that sealed Bow’s departure from Hollywood. She could not exorcise her demons, which would continue to plague her throughout the rest of her life, leading to a suicide attempt in 1944 and another stay in a sanitarium in the late ‘40s, where she underwent electroshock treatments. Though she didn’t stay long, Clara Bow still made in indelible impression as she grew from a mere flibbertigibbet to a serious actress.