Tag Archives: PRE-CODE

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: SAFE IN HELL (1931) AND MURDER AT THE VANITIES (1934)

William A. Wellman’s 1931 Safe in Hell is lesser-known 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 some prohibition gin and takes off, accidentally setting the hotel on fire.

Wanted for Piet’s murder, Gail goes on the lam. Her sailor boyfriend Carl (Donald Cook) smuggles her onto a ship and drops her off on a Caribbean island with no extradition laws.

Dorothy Mackaill in Safe in Hell (1931)Before Carl takes off on his maritime tour, he marries Gail and promises to send her monthly expenses, but mean island executioner Bruno (Morgan Wallace) intercepts the letter and takes the money.

Having faked his death, Piet shows up at the island and tries to rape Gail, who shoots him dead. Bruno offers to defend her in exchange for some nookie, but she’ll hang before breaking her wedding vows.

OK, it’s a tad melodramatic in the scripting and in some of the performances, but Mackaill’s feistiness and Wellman’s brisk direction override the films flaws, delivering a superior pre-code effort. Although it’s typical of early 1930s output in having little music and static vignettes, it moves quickly and preposterously, akin to late . Mackaill bounces off the walls and often gets physical, not hesitating to give one brute after another a slap to the face. Safe in Hellplays fast and furious with the Curse of Eve mindset. Gail refuses to be a receptacle for thugs; she’s the most ethical person in the film, and takes a hooker martyr’s sweaty halo. Lurid and emotionally charged, it’s not only pre-code, but ahead of its time and still relevant.

At the opposite end of the timeline—one of Hollywood’s last full-throttle orgies before the Production Code began rigorously enforcing moral censorship— Mitchell Liesen’s 1934 Murder at the Vanitieshas something for everyone. There’s Duke Ellington (who belongs on jazz’s Mount Rushmore) and his big band playing “Sweet Marijuana,” (so sweet, it almost inspired me to light up, and I hate pot); a nymph dick (private eye, that is); and interracial can-can dancing with scantily clad gamins and -like choreography. It’s a celebration of the end of prohibition, along with the eroticism of (unpunished) murder, with winks and fast-talking, wisecracking semi-pornographic dialogue.

Still from Murder at the Vanities (1934)It’s not as plot-oriented as Safe in Hell, and hell, I’m not even sure the plot is relevant whatsoever. It’s more of a musical comedy than a whodunit: you’ll guess whodunit within seconds, but you won’t give a hoot. It’s all about the wackiness of a lost time period. If you’re attached to anything approaching “realism” or “believability,” stay the hell away.  It’s my personal favorite pre-code film, although it’s by no means the best, one that I’ve revisited countless times. It makes me warm all over.

 

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 []

BETTY BOOP, THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION: VOL 1& 2 (2013)

Pre-code Betty Boop.

Hands down, the most indispensable DVD/Blu -ray collections released in 2013 are the two volumes of the Fleischer original Betty Boop cartoons from Olive films. Betty Boop, The Essential Collections, Vols 1 & 2 (2013) are long overdue. Although Volume 1 is not perfect (more on that later), it is the best Boop collection we have seen since the eight volume Definitive Collection distributed by Republic on VHS in 1996. (Earlier this year, Legend Films released The Uncensored Betty Boop, which is exactly what it says it is: pre-Hays Code Betty, but of fairly low-grade quality).

Betty Boop The Definitive Edition. Pre-CodeBETTY BOOP The Essential Collection

The Definitive Collection conceptually broke the Fleischer shorts into “the Birth of Betty”  (she debuted in 1930), “pre-Code,” “Surrealism,” and “Musical Madness.” However, the collection also featured the later, watered down, post-Code Betty, complete with her Promise Keeper-styled housedress and a boyfriend (to keep her monogamously domesticated). Since Republic strove to release a complete collection, this inclusion was necessary, but it’s certainly not Betty at her best. Indeed, it is the post-Code Betty which is indirectly responsible for the bland fridge magnets and license plates we have been saturated with by companies and persons who have probably never seen Betty in in her original incarnation.

pre-code Betty Boop

The basic rule with Betty Boop is that the shorts are best up through 1934. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) Betty (making her first on-screen appearance in 49 years) tells Bob Hoskins that she was ruined by color. Actually, Betty Boop was spayed and destroyed by the Legion of Decency and by Will Hays. The proof of pudding is in shorts like The Foxy Hunter (1937) from Volume One, in which Betty is anything but foxy. Stuck in a servile, matronly role, she plays second banana to man’s best friend. Her trademark garter is long gone; remnants of a past sex life. In its place is Betty, stuck in a Dan Cathy-approved dress and relegated to June Cleaver’s kitchen. (Most, if not all, the Betty shorts featuring Pudgy the dog are painful to watch, especially after seeing Betty in her prime. Fortunately, her prime makes up most of Volumes 1 & 2).

Betty Boop

Continue reading BETTY BOOP, THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION: VOL 1& 2 (2013)

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

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

BARBARA STANWYCK PRE-CODE DOUBLE FEATURE: NIGHT NURSE (1931) & BABY FACE (1933)

NIGHT NURSE (1931) Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell

Barbara Stanwyck was one of the naughty queens of Hollywood’s pre-Code era—if not the queen. Two of her best features that gave an “up yours” to the Hays office censors were Night Nurse (1931) and Baby Face (1933).

Night Nurse (1931 Dir. Wellman) Joan Blondell, Barbara Stanwyck

For those not in the know: the original author of the so-called Hays Production Code was the Presbyterian elder, Will H. Hays. The code was Hollywood’s self-created promise to be good following the Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, and William Desmond Taylor scandals. For the most part, before 1934 the Code was window dressing and was pretty much ignored. Moguls like Jack Warner, Darryl Zanuck, Carl Laemmle, Louis B.Mayer and Irving Thalberg took delight in shoving celluloid sin right in the censors’ faces. During the early thirties, the moguls won the battle, producing the early sound films that have now come to be known as “pre-Code films.”

Continue reading BARBARA STANWYCK PRE-CODE DOUBLE FEATURE: NIGHT NURSE (1931) & BABY FACE (1933)

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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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.

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

GARBO TALKS

Garbo Anna Christie Garbo talks Anna Christie

As successful as Greta Garbo’s pre-talkie films were in the states, they were even more popular in Europe where sound was not a barrier. Louis B. Mayer, nervous about Garbo’s American market in the coming sound era, spared no expense and devised a simple campaign slogan for her first speaking role: “Garbo Talks.” In Anna Christie (1930) she takes half of forever to appear and when she does, she delivers a classic line in her inimitable, husky, accented voice: “Gif me a visky, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.” Unfortunately, it is the only classic thing about the film. Based on one of Eugene O’ Neil’s most mediocre seafaring plays, Anna Christie is hopelessly stagebound and static. Worse, Garbo is cast as an earthy, as opposed to exotic, prostitute, which was a misstep. By this time, Clarence Brown’s directing had shifted to autopilot. The film is, naturally, beautifully photographed. Marie Dressler, through hammy acting, does the impossible and steals the film from Garbo. Still, 193o audiences, unsurprisingly, bought into the publicity and made it a huge hit. Garbo received an Oscar nomination for this film. It was the first of four nominations, none of which she won.

GARBO %22ROMANCE.%22GARBO ROMANCE 1930 POSTER

Garbo’s second talkie, Romance (1930) is an even more stilted affair, directed again by Brown. She is an opera star in love with a priest (a miscast Gavin Gordon). Things go south when he discovers she is not a virgin (the Hays production code was not yet being enforced). There is a lot of chatter, and Garbo looks ravishing, but her performance was hardly one of her best, despite a second Oscar nomination. As Cornelius, Lewis Stone steals everything but the camera.

GARBO ROMANCE (DANIELS)GARBO ROMANCE

Inspiration (1931) finds Brown again asleep in the director’s chair in a film that, amazingly, seems a pale imitation of her previous film, which wasn’t good to begin with. Garbo and Lewis Stone are refreshing, despite clunky dialogue. Robert Montgomery looks bored.

GARBO INSPIRATION (AD)GARBO INSPIRATION 1931 Continue reading GARBO TALKS