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)
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).
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.
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).
‘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 , Whale applied the critique through cutting humor. However, as a Surrealist, 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.”
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. 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.
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.
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).
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.”
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.
At the movie’s center is‘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, , Myrna Loy, and Karloff were frequent favorites in this department). 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.
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.
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 (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.
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’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.
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.