William A. Wellman’s 1931 Safe in Hell is lesser-known pre-code film, and one of the best. It is viscerally directed and has a powerhouse performance from lead actress Dorothy Mackaill, who deserves to be better known on the basis of this performance alone. Within minutes. we are in pre-code terrain with Gail (Mackaill) squeezed into a negligée and garter, smoking a fag, and receiving a call from her madame to go meet her trick, who turns out to be her sleazy ex-employer Piet (Ralf Harolde). Gail is a hooker with standards, and after she refuses to sleep with Piet, she conks him out with … Continue reading PRE-CODE HEAVEN: SAFE IN HELL (1931) AND MURDER AT THE VANITIES (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 … Continue reading PRE-CODE HEAVEN: BLONDE VENUS (1932) AND THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Busby Berkeley co-directed Dames (1934) with ho-hum stock director Ray Enright, and that may be one reason why it is among the most uneven of Berkeley’s films. The plot is threadbare. Oddball moral majority-type millionaire Hugh Herbert is planning on bequeathing ten million dollars to his cousin Zazu Pitts (of 1924’s infamous Greed) and her husband Guy Kibbee. That is, on one condition–that he finds them to be “morally acceptable” (i.e., no smoking, drinking, or mixing up with show-biz types, especially those that do shows with those immoral dames!)
Of course, there has to be a fly in the ointment, and here it is Dick Powell. Powell’s tenor persona wears thin quickly. He is such an all-smiles poster boy that one wonders what in the world that constipated Herbert might have found objectionable in him. A little background info here on Powell: the actor realized the limits of the screen persona that he had been thrust into. He waited out his youth and when he was too old to be prancing on-screen he shrewdly reinvented himself as a hard-boiled forty something private eye in film noir. Here, he is the fellar of Ruby Keeler, daughter of Zazu and Guy. Dick wants to put on a show and gets help from the eternally underrated Joan Blondell (who became Mrs. Powell two years later).