PRE-CODE HEAVEN: BLONDE VENUS (1932) AND THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934)

Among the most influential and potent of all director/actor collaborations is that of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. They made seven films together, beginning with 1930’s infamous The Blue Angel. (For this film, each scene was shot twice, once with the actors speaking in German, then in English. If you haven’t seen it, go for the German version. It’s grimier.)

Blonde Venus (1932) is the least discussed and revisited of their work together. Apart from an embarrassing, but expressionistic, musical number, it’s something of a train wreck. Von Sternberg can’t be blamed. Paramount forced the dreadful script on him, and the director rightfully disowned it. There’s little originality in the story, and what enthusiasm von Sternberg  finds is, predictably, in the lensing.

Of course, he gives considerable attention to his discovery (and off-screen mistress) Dietrich. She’s a German cabaret singer here (imagine that), and Venus is occasionally a fatigued rehash of elements from Blue Angel. Its worst error is in in deviating from Dietrich’s femme fatale persona, miscasting her here in an empathetic role as a sacrificial wife/mother who becomes a cabaret singer and beds a New York club owner (Cary Grant) to finance treatment for her ill husband (Herbert Marshall). Hubby finds out. Hubby blows his top. She runs. He chases. She falls into ruin, literally becomes a prostitute, and gives up custody of their child. It limps along melodramatically, with the fallen penitential woman reaping what she has sown. Dietrich is better suited to getting away with her sins.

Frank about sexual mores (there’s also a brief skinny-dipping scene) it’s definitely pre-code, but that can’t save this from static dullness. Dietrich is statuesque and has a picture-perfect son in Dickie Moore (he was briefly one of the Little Rascals). Dietrich was a limited actress, but one who shrewdly utilized her limitations (and smokey voice) to perfection. However, cast as a pre-June Cleaver housewife, she is out of her range and falls flat. She’s best when she is exotic. Among the musical numbers,  she steals everything but the camera in “Hot Voodoo.” In spite of the blatant racism (black-faced chorus girls), which which will have contemporary viewers squinting[1], it’s a startling sequence, with Dietrich glamming it up in a gorilla suit and blonde afro wig (hence the title Blonde Venus). There’s also the hackneyed Freudian symbology of the duality in the Venus figure (sinner/saint, mother/whore). As with all of von Sternberg, it’s worth watching for his blatant photographic obsession with Dietrich, and for what he can milk out of the sin/virtue script.

Despite its flaws, Blonde Venus was a box office hit that paved the way for their penultimate collaboration, The Scarlet Empress (1934), which proved to be both their masterpiece, and an epic box office flop. Yes, 1934 American audiences reacted to something original and unexpected the same way audiences do today: they stayed the hell away, unaccustomed to any spice in their diet.

To say that Josef von Sternberg  was one of the great visionaries of 1930s cinemas should be blatantly obvious to first year film school students everywhere. With the poor box office of Scarlet Empress  and the final collaboration with Dietrich, The Devil Is a Woman (1935), von Sternberg’s independence and his reign as a director to contend with were history. He did go on to make Crime and Punishment (1935 ; one of the few films that knew how to use Peter Lorre) and Shanghi Gesture (1941) but the failure of unfinished projects like I, Claudius (1937) and Jet Pilot (1957) overshadowed his post-Dietrich oeuvre. For an artist with such an ego—he never gave an inch of credit to anyone other than himself, and arrived on set as extravagantly costumed as the actors—such a fall from grace was inevitable.

Allegedly based (loosely) on the diaries of Catherine the Great, The Scarlet Empress is one of the most bizarre big budget studio productions of early cinema. By the director’s own assessment, it was a “relentless excursion into style.” Dietrich is more of a decorative nymph than a human being; but in that, von Sternberg was true to the spirit of the gossip about Catherine’s sexual appetites (legend has it that she died while engaging with a stallion. Actually, she died of a stroke in bed, but why bother with history when myth has so much more color?) How von Sternberg got all this past the Breen office (the recently-enacted production code was already accelerating) may be one of life’s eternal mysteries.

The Scarlet Empress is off and running into its own decadence when young Catherine, then known as Frederica (played by Dietrich’s daughter Maria Seber) is put to bed by Edward van Sloan (!) with heterodox bedtime stories to lull her to comfy sleep that—naturally, this being von Sternberg—are presented in a montage of naked nymphs being tortured.

That’s a segue into a film characterized entirely by exaggeration. The art direction includes doors so massive that it takes a small crowd to open them. Wooden sculptures of saints populate the court, but they’re made and photographed to look like gargoyle pedophiles in the guise of holy men, peering ominously around every corner (cue closeups of gnarled, wooden hands, twisted mouths, and hollow eyes leading to blackened souls). The set design is weirdly cluttered  with expressionistic decor: thrones of mammoth birds of prey, chairs in the form of threatening demons, an army of candle-holding gargoyles ascending a staircase, icons galore, a grotesque dinner table that any sane person would run from, crucifixes, and homoerotic martyred saints (impaled, of course).

As the adult Catherine, Dietrich is filmed through veils, adorned in sparkly jewels, rendered as a gossamer orgasm. When she inspects her troops, the Empress assesses them based solely on the size of their packages; even by contemporary  standards, it’s outlandishly blatant. Everything revolves around Dietrich (she’s frequently  filmed alone, and the rest of the cast are clearly there just to serve her). It’s doubtful that any other actress ever had an entire production— down to every minute detail, set design, camera angle, and lighting—created solely to support and revere her. It’s an exercise in obsession; so apparent that one can see why the inevitable breakup sent von Sternberg spiraling into a form of madness.[2].

One can empathize with that poor dumb stud John Lodge, delivering his lines through clenched teeth from under a mountain of fur. Even Dietrich seems in awe of the all-consuming outlandishness, which includes my candidate for weirdest cinematic wedding, to Sam Jaffe, looking a bit like with his frozen smile, wearing a Harpo Marx-like wig. (My only childhood memory of Scarlet Empress on TV was the wedding, which sacred the hell out of me). It’s an entire film of mise-en-scène. You won’t mind that it’s dramatically thin—which is not to say it’s lacking in either entertainment, or in peppery commentary that is certainly unfavorable to Russian history.

Occasionally, it delves into slapstick humor (e.g. what Catherine does to a straw), which makes it even weirder. Among all the court intrigue, the Empress finds power in amorous escapades (she even gets in drag and gives new meaning to roll in the hay). One of the climaxes has her knocked up by a palace guard (we think—he’s one of countless candidates) which, by gosh, by golly, regardless of the baby daddy, produces a potential heir to the throne. Of course, who are we kidding? In an ambiguously happy (?) ending, Dietrich sums it up in a smoky exhale: “There is no Emperor. There’s only an Empress.”

Scarlett Empress is a fantastically poetic pre-code for the books.

  1. Sans Trumptards of course—but then I’m referring to human audiences. []
  2. After the star and director’s relationship ended badly, he damned her in his autobiography as passionately as he had revered her on screen []

PRE-CODE JAMES WHALE HORROR: THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) AND THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)

The Old Dark House (1932 James Whale)

Jmaes Whale‘s The Old Dark House (1932) might be seen as a companion piece to his Bride Of Frankenstein (1935). Both represent Whale at his most personal within the grand-guignol genre. While Bride Of Frankenstein is post-Production Code, so that it’s thinly disguised gay spirituality had to be delivered indirectly via myth, the pre-Code Old Dark House is awash with eccentric characters mocking dogmatic, false religious morality. Tackling hypocrisy within religion was a frequent theme with this director. Like Luis Bunuel, Whale applied the critique through cutting humor. However, as a Surrealist, Buñuel naturally didn’t give a damn about the intended audience; Whale deliberately sought accessibility. As his character states in the biopic Gods And Monsters: “The trick is not to spoil it for those who aren’t in on the joke.”

The Old Dark House (1932 James Whale) news promo

Both films are replete with Whale’s idiosyncratic humor. However, Whale’s British sensibilities are more pronounced in The Old Dark House, which makes it a stand apart from the other Carl Laemmle-produced Whale films. Although it opened to good box office in the States, The Old Dark House failed to repeat the success of Frankenstein. It did phenomenally well in England and throughout Europe, but it was simply too sophisticated for hayseed domestic audiences, and business quickly tailed off (it also undoubtedly suffered from the Freaks anti-horror backlash). The Old Dark House was only revived once in the States, its rights lapsed, and the film languished in obscurity. It was considered lost for over a decade before a print was discovered (Whale died believing it to be forever lost). It was partly restored by preservationist and Whale confidant Curtis Harrington. Near the end of his life, star Boris Karloff was grateful when informed of the discovery. The Old Dark House has been released on DVD via Kino, but still shows some deterioration. Hopefully, a more thorough restoration will be forthcoming.

The Old Dark House (1932 James Whale) US posterThe Old Dark House (1932 James Whale) advertisementThe Old Dark House (1932 James Whale) US theatrical poster

R.C. Sheriff and Benn Levy adapted J.B. Priestly’s “Benighted” and, under Whale’s orchestration, superseded the original literary source. The film’s cast responds to Whale’s deviant humor with contagious enthusiasm. The film had to be as much fun to make as it is to watch.

The Old Dark House (1932 James Whale) theatrical poster. Gloria Stuart, Boris karloff

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PRE-CODE HORROR: MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932) AND MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933)

THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932) POSTER. Boris Karloff, Myrna Loy

The Mask Of Fu Manchu (1932) is a pre-Code pulp serial dressed up as a feature. It is grounded in its period, which includes a considerable amount of racist baggage. If you can get past that aspect, The Mask Of Fu Manchu is a pleasantly dumb, super-sized bag of heavily salted, heavily buttered theater popcorn.

MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932) THEATRICAL POSTER. Boris Karloff, Myrna Loy

At the movie’s center is Boris Karloff‘s crisply malicious performance as Manchu, which should go down as one of the most memorable examples of ham acting, on a level with Ricardo Montalbaln inThe Wrath Of Kahn. The Caucasian-as-Oriental was a 30s and 40s casting fad (Peter Lorre, Bela Lugosi, Myrna Loy, and Karloff were frequent favorites in this department). Christopher Lee revived the trend in the 60s when cast as Fu Manchu in a series of films. In contrast to Lee’s laconic portrayal of the Asian super villain, Karloff plays it to the hilt; his body language—from a condescending, sadistic grin to the prickly use of his hands—is electric.

MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932) lobby card. Boris Karloff

Manchu is clearly bisexual, and Karloff invests the character with a debauchery that rivals his Hjalmar Poelzig. He introduces Fah Lo See (Loy) to his subjects with these lines: “I am the most unfortunate of men. I have no son to follow me. Therefore, in shame I ask you to receive a message from my ugly and insignificant daughter.” Fu Manchu backs up his disdain for his offspring with an offer to pimp her out, which fails to earn much compassion from us for the poor girl, since Loy goes the distance in portraying Asian women unsympathetically. Loy’s performance is wildly uneven: bouts of lethargy are followed by orgasmic fiendishness (at its most fully-baked when she plays voyeur to a white man being horse whipped by two Africans). Half of her performance admirably competes with Karloff.

MASK OF FU MANCH (1932) MYRNA LOY

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A BELA LUGOSI RETROSPECTIVE

13TH CHAIR (Tod Browning 1930) lobby card. Bela Lugosi

According to Bela Lugosi‘s official bio, before coming to America he had been a star on the Hungarian stage, appearing in major Shakespeare productions.  However, several biographers  have disputed Lugosi’s “star” ranking during that period.  It seems most of his roles had actually been small ones.  Regardless, Lugosi enlisted in the Hungarian army during the First World War, was wounded several times, and later had to flee Hungary during a tumultuous political climate which was unfriendly to his leftist leanings.  After a stay in Germany, Lugosi arrived penniless in the States.  Eventually, he made his way to the New York stage and began appearing in plays and silent films.  In 1927, Lugosi was cast in the role of Dracula in Hamilton Dean’s famous stage play. With that, Lugosi became a major star of the stage, and stardom brought him numerous female fans, including Clara Bow, with whom he had a brief affair.

13TH CHAIR (Tod Browning 1930) lobby card. Bela Lugosi
In 1929, director Tod Browning, shopping around for the lead of the film version of Dracula, cast Lugosi as a vampire-like inspector in The Thirteenth Chair (1929).  Although Lugosi was not a great actor in the conventional sense, he did have an undeniably magnetic screen presence and brought an air of European mystery to the most rudimentary melodramas. Browning capitalized on this as few directors could and it worked, leading to Lugosi landing the career-making role of Bram Stoker’s Count in Browning’s 1931 film, Dracula.  The 49 year old Lugosi was perfect for the part.  His idiosyncratic mannerisms, unique mangling of the English language (which, despite rumor, he did not deliver phonetically), and otherworldly persona made for a compelling figure, a point made all the more obvious when compared to Carlos Villarias’ laughable performance in the Spanish language version of Dracula (shot at the same time on the same sets as Browning’s classic). Years later, Lugosi bitterly complained about the typecasting which resulted from the film, but realistically, Dracula was the best thing that happened to the actor. With his limited acting skills and heavy accent, Lugosi never could have been successful  in the romantic matinee roles he desired.

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PRE-CODE MICHAEL CURTIZ HORROR: THE MAD GENIUS (1931), DOCTOR X (1932) AND MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) PLUS THE WALKING DEAD (1936)

THE MAD GENIUS (1931 DIR. CURTIZ) John Barrymore lobby card

The Mad Genius (1931), Doctor X (1932) and Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933) are three atypical pre-code films from Hungarian-American director Michael Curtiz. Better known for such classics asAdventures of Robin Hood (1938), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942),Casablanca (1942), and Mildred Pierce (1945), Curtiz was adept at practically every genre, including horror; although he only ventured there with this trio of pre-Coders and 1936’s Walking Dead (1936), starring Boris Karloff.

THE MAD GENIUS (1931 DIR. CURTIZ) John Barrymore. posterTHE MAD GENIUS (1931 DIR. CURTIZ) Lobby card

The Mad Genius stars “the Great Profile,” John Barrymore, and features a pre-Frankenstein (1931) Karloff in an uncredited bit part as an abusive Cossack father. It is a reworking of George du Marurier’s “Trilby” and the second 1931 Warner Brothers’ film featuring Barrymore as the mesmerist Svengali (the first was the more famous and successful Svengali, directed by Archie Mayo).

Svengali (1931) poster. John Barrymore.

Here, Barrymore goes by the name Tsarakov, but he plays the same control freak, and gives a narcissistic performance.  He is a blatantly promiscuous puppeteer, awash in Freudian issues (transferring hatred of the ballerina mother who abandoned him to women dispatched by his weapon of choice: the casting couch).

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PRE-CODE: RED-HEADED WOMAN (1932) AND THREE ON A MATCH (1932)

Jean Harlow (white dress)       Red Headed Woman (1932) Jean Harlow Chester Morris. lobby card

While tame by 21st century standards, the best of the pre-code productions (1929-1934) flauntingly mocked the increasing threats of industry censorship and yet, for all those displays of sex and sin, still managed to stylishly outclass thirty years of (mostly) bland “moral majority approved” films that followed. It is, perhaps, not surprising that these films, caught in the tail pipe of Victorianism and under the Poe-like eye of the Catholic Legion of Decency, were also more authentically provocative and aesthetically conscientious than the bulk of the “opened floodgate” post-Code productions that began in the 1960s. Somehow, that stressful studio climate inspired filmmakers to produce movies that were very much enshrined in the amber of their specific time and place,  yet also transcend many of the films immediately following.

red headed woman poster

Red-Headed Woman (1932) is one of the sauciest examples from that all-too brief period. It helps considerably that it stars Jean Harlow, the quintessential pre-Code sex symbol. Harlow has often been referred to as the Marilyn Monroe of the 1930s. (Monroe idolized Harlow and even considered playing her predecessor in a biopic, but changed her mind after reading the script. Monroe reportedly quipped: “I hope they don’t do that to me after I’m gone.”) Actually, Harlow was more talented and interesting than that later icon. After numerous roles in features and short films (including a memorable bit in Laurel and Hardy‘s Double Whoopee), Harlow became an “overnight sensation” with 1930’s pre-Code Hell’s Angels (dir. Howard Hughes) and 1931’sThe Public Enemy (dir. William Wellman). Having been dubbed “the Platinum Blonde” and “the Blonde Bombshell,” Harlow dyes her trademark tresses here to play a carrot-topped succubus.

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PASSING THE TORCH FROM MAYNARD TO AUTRY: TOMBSTONE CANYON (1932), IN OLD SANTA FE (1934) & RIDERS OF THE WHISTLING PINES (1949)

TOMBSTONE CANYON (1932) posterKen Maynard Western Comics

Before Hollywood beckoned, Indiana native Ken Maynard had been a champion rodeo rider in the Ringling Brothers Circus and the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show.  Maynard was, possibly, the most popular of the “B” Western stars from the late twenties through the mid thirties.  Audiences loved him, but virtually everyone who worked or dealt with Maynard thoroughly hated him.  Excessive drinking, foul-mouthed, ego-driven tirades, supreme arrogance, and prima donna ways eventually burned every single bridge Maynard ever crossed, despite being given numerous chances to straighten out his act.  Eventually his excesses, reckless spending, womanizing, and difficult personality all caught up with him.  His last few films, from the mid-forties, show a dissipated, grotesquely overweight star well past his prime.

Ken Maynard Western Comics

Since Maynard’s popularity had severely waned, his antics were no longer tolerated, and he was forced into retirement.  After his film career ended, Maynard did a few rodeo circuit shows, a radio show, started a circus, lost it, went through several more marriages, and filed bankruptcy.  His last few years were spent living in drunken solitude at a run-down trailer park, being cared for by his brother and fellow “B” Westerner Kermit Maynard, hawking off memorabilia (fake and real) and (secretly) receiving financial assistance from Gene Autry (Maynard gave Autry his start In Old Santa Fe, below).  Ken Maynard died destitute and suffering from severe malnutrition in the early 1970s.

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MYSTERY RANCH (1932) & MYSTERY RANCH (1934)

E5NHJ0 MYSTERY RANCH, George O'Brien, 1932

E5NHJ0 MYSTERY RANCH, George O’Brien, 1932

Two B westerns, two years apart with the same title.  Both are off the beaten path and good in their own way.

First is the 1932 Mystery Ranch, atmospherically directed by David Howard and starring George O’ Brien.  This Ranch might be aptly described as a Gothic western, often looking more like an early thirties horror film than a western.  Charles Middleton is a tyrannical land baron and a piano playing, manipulative sadist who is holding his dead partner’s daughter, Cecilia Parker, hostage in order to force her into marriage and seize control of the Arizona valley.  Middleton is so chilling, so slimy that he leaves a trail and, in the process, steals every scene he is in.  Joseph August’s expressionistic camerawork certainly helps when the villain is so moodily lit.  You know from that outset that any villain who would stoop to bullwhipping a deaf-mute native American henchman is going to mean trouble for O’Brien, and our hero has his hands full trying to save the fair maiden from her evil guardian.

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MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932) AND THE MUMMY (1932)

Murders in the Rue Morge (1932, Dir. Florey) Lobby card

After the successes of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) Universal Studios and Carl Laemmle, Jr. became anxious to produce vehicles for Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. After seeing unsatisfactory test footage for an early run at Frankenstein, Laemmle had sacked both director Robert Florey and actor Lugosi from that project. To make amends, Laemmle assigned Florey and Lugosi Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and teamed them with cinematographer Karl Freund, who had done extensive work in German Expressionist cinema, including The Golem(1920, d. Paul Wegener), The Last Laugh (1924, d. F.W. Murnau) and Metropolis (1927, d. Fritz Lang).

Murders in the Rue Morge (dir. Robert Florey) Bela Lugosi


Murders in the Rue Morgue
 was the first of a Poe-inspired trilogy starring Lugosi, followed by The Black Cat (1934, d. Edgar G. Ulmer) and The Raven (1935, d. Lew Landers). The star and Freund’s camera (barely) save the film from Florey’s banal touch. Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle is a far cry from the Count in his evening tux. Adorned in curly top, unibrow, and carnivalesque mad scientist duds, Mirakle is a Darwinist pervert who seeks to mate a  young woman with his Adam-like Ape, Erik, through some kind of mumbo-jumbo blood transfusion. Of course, Mirakle really gets his jollies by tying attractive, barely legal-aged girls to a king’s cross before penetrating them with a needle. Naturally, there are failed experiments before Mirakle thinks he has found Eve in Sidney Fox. Fox, a delicate, saccharine actress, is pure decor. No doubt she got the role via her engagement to a Universal Executive, whom she wedded later that year (it proved to be a stormy marriage, ending in the actress’ suicide in 1934). Continue reading