You’ll be looking as wistful as Ida Lupino if you miss these films!
You want film noir? You want pre-Code? Then TCM in April is the place to be. The network is so chock-full of goodies from these eras, in fact, that I decided to forego my single picks of the month, and give you big ol’ overview of the surfeit of noir and pre-Code films that you’ll want to put on your viewing calendar. Catch ‘em if you can!
High Sierra (film noir)
This feature stars Humphrey Bogart as ex-convict Roy Earle, recently released from prison and ready for one last big score. But he doesn’t just have eyes for the greenbacks he’s trying to pocket – he also falls for a young crippled girl, played by Joan Leslie, and in turn, attracts the ardor of a wayward dime-a-dance girl, beautifully portrayed by Ida Lupino. (This film holds a very special place in my heart – at my one and only appearance at a film noir festival – several years ago in Peoria – High Sierra was the movie I introduced. So I kinda love it.)
Red Dust (pre-Code)
The second of six films featuring Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, this one is as steamy as the Indochinese rubber plantation that serves as the setting of the picture. Gable is Dennis Carson, owner of the plantation, who finds himself squarely in the middle of a love triangle featuring the wife of one of his workers, and a saucy, sassy prostitute. Guess which one Harlow plays? (For more on this film – which is one of my favorite pre-Codes – click here.)
The Naked City (film noir)
I confess that The Naked City is not necessarily one of my favorite noirs, but I’ll be the first to recommend it (well, maybe not the first, but you know what I mean). It’s done in the style of a police procedural, which isn’t my favorite tango (to borrow a term offered by Jean Harlow’s character in Red Dust). Still, it features a spate of good performances from the likes of Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Ted deCorsia, and Dorothy Hart – AND it’s directed by the great Jules Dassin. So there.
This ain’t no Perry Mason.
The Blue Gardenia (film noir)
This film serves up a great song by Nat King Cole, a drunken, self-pitying, and possibly murderous Anne Baxter, an especially creepy Raymond Burr, and Richard Conte (who merely needs to appear in a film’s credits in order for me to climb aboard). Oh – and did I mention that it’s helmed by Fritz Lang? Pour yourself a big blue drink with an umbrella and tune in.
She may look coy, but trust me. She ain’t.
Blondie Johnson (pre-Code)
This is yet another can’t miss – it stars two of my favorite pre-Code performers – Joan Blondell and Chester Morris – with Blondell in the title role of a dame who escapes a life of poverty and pain by becoming a feared gangland boss. I love, love, love this movie – there’s nothing like watching a bad-ass babe who’s large and in charge.
Jean Harlow again – this time she’s in a comedy that seems to offer a peek inside the actress’s real life. In fact, though, the script bore more than a passing resemblance to the world of actress Clara Bow, complete with freeloading relatives and a duplicitous assistant that called to mind Bow’s personal secretary Daisy DeVoe. More on this fun, freewheeling film can be found here.
Mildred Pierce (film noir)
I love this movie so much, I could marry it. (Or at least have a lengthy back street affair with it.) My girl Joan Crawford stars in the titular role of a divorced housewife who will do anything – and I do mean anything – to ensure the happiness of her bratty, self-absorbed daughter (played by Ann Blyth – who I stood about four feet behind at last year’s TCM film fest! Sorry. I digress). Others in the film’s great cast include Eve Arden, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Bruce Bennett, and Butterfly McQueen. And, in case you’re interested, here are some of the reasons why I love this movie so much.
The Maltese Falcon: Just one great scene after another.
The Maltese Falcon (film noir)
An early entry in the noir canon, this film introduces us to private dick Sam Spade who’s hired to find a jewel-encrusted black bird and encounters a motley crew of quirky characters who are all in search of the bird. Humphrey Bogart plays Spade with the utmost of cool, and others along for the ride are Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and one of my all-time favorites, Elisha Cook, Jr.
She’s got Joan Crawford eyes.
Joan Crawford stars here as a wrongfully convicted shopgirl who vows revenge on her former employer. Besides Joanie, the next best thing in this movie is Marie Prevost, who is always worth a look-see. Incidentally, the starring role was initially given to Norma Shearer, but when she learned she was pregnant, hubby Irving Thalberg insisted that she give up the part. Of her performance, Crawford was later quoted as saying that Paid offered up her first “really heavy dramatic role” and “I did a good job with it, a damned good job.” I concur.
Helen Hayes gives a tutorial in sacrificial motherhood in Madelon Claudet.
The Sin of Madelon Claudet (pre-Code)
In the tradition of Madame X, Stella Dallas, and Mildred Pierce, The Sin of Madelon Claudet gives us another screen mother who will sacrifice everything she is and everything she has for her beloved child. This time, it’s Helen Hayes who delivers the goods in a feature that, in the words of Birdie Coonan, has everything but the bloodhounds snapping at our heroine’s rear end.
Dinner at Eight (pre-Code)
Yet another of my favorite pre-Codes, this one is a star-studded affair that examines the lives and loves of the hosts and guests of a high-falutin’ dinner party. The stellar cast includes Jean Harlow, John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Billie Burke, Marie Dressler, and Lee Tracy. It’s a wild and witty ride that grabs you from the opening reel and never lets up for a second.
This scene is nowhere in Grand Hotel, but I couldn’t pass it up.
Grand Hotel (pre-Code)
The big brother to Dinner at Eight is Grand Hotel, another feature that’s chock-full of stars from the MGM roster. This one also features the Barrymore brothers and Wallace Beery, along with Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Lewis Stone, and Jean Hersholt, in a plot that serves up everything from depression to murder. Want more? Click here.
Don’t pass up your chance to catch these two in action.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (film noir)
Another favorite. Lana Turner in a nearly all-white wardrobe. John Garfield as the most appealing and attractive tramp you’ll ever want to encounter. Hume Cronyn and Leon Ames as a pair of scarily unscrupulous attorneys. And Audrey Totter, who knows what to do in a brief appearance that features a thin skirt on a hot leather seat. Incidentally, here’s why Turner’s character is one of my favorite in all of film noir.
Laura (film noir)
One of noir’s best-known entries, Laura stars Gene Tierney in the title role of a woman whose murder attracts more than a passing interest from the detective investigating the case. Laura features a totally awesome set of noir characters, including the venomous columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), professional loafer Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), Laura’s man-hungry auntie (Judith Anderson), and obsessive detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews).
It’s not Laura, but it’s good.
Where the Sidewalk Ends (film noir)
This film reteams Laura stars Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney – here, Andrews plays another cop, but this time, he’s Mark Dixon, a hot-headed, over-aggressive detective, and Tierney is the estranged wife of a man Dixon accidentally kills. The cast also includes Gary Merrill as a mob boss who pushes Dixon’s buttons like nobody’s business.
Baby Face (pre-Code)
An essential pre-Code, Baby Face stars Barbara Stanwyck as a woman who uses her feminine wiles (and that’s putting it mildly) to climb her way from an impoverished life to one where she keeps her jewels in a suitcase. And as she makes her ascent, she uses a series of hapless men as her stepstools – including, briefly, a very young John Wayne.
Gun Crazy (film noir)
Do I even have to say that Gun Crazy is yet another favorite? Peggy Cummins and John Dahl star as two nutty kids whose fondness for each other is superseded only by their affinity for firearms. Seriously, if you have not seen this movie yet, what are you waiting for?
Just about any movie with Kay Francis is a movie worth seeing.
Guilty Hands (pre-Code)
This slightly offbeat pre-Code has two main things going for it – Kay Francis (who could be on screen doing her nails and I’d watch) and the unexpected ending. It’s all about a former district attorney who is certain that he has the skills and the know-how to commit the perfect murder – and gets the chance to test his theory when his daughter turns up with a notorious no-goodnik on her arm. The film also stars Lionel Barrymore, by the way – always a good sign, in my book. Read more about Guilty Hands here.
Angel Face (film noir)
Speaking of endings, you simply have to see the denouement of this feature, which centers on a deceptively dangerous femme with a face like an angel, played by Jean Simmons. The film also stars Robert Mitchum, playing a character who, like those he portrayed in Out of the Past and Where Danger Lives, encounters more than he bargained for when he falls under the spell of a dark-haired dame.
So wrap up the month with even more Kay Francis! You deserve it!
And we close out the month with yet another outstanding pre-Code that’s at the top of my list of faves – with a cast that includes Kay Francis, Lyle Talbot, and Ricardo Cortez, how could it possibly miss? Mandalay tells the story of a woman who, after being abandoned by her lover (and “abandoned” is being kind) in Rangoon, Burma, transforms herself into the island’s most notorious and sought-after prostitute, with the ironic name of “Spot White.” Here’s more stuff about this totally awesome must-see.
And that’s it! (Whew.) See what I mean about this month? Time to start making plans – so grab your blank tapes, dust off the DVR, or start emitting some telltale coughs at the job, ‘cause you’ve got some great noir and pre-Code viewing ahead!! You only owe it yourself.