Pre-Code Crazy: Ann Harding Day on Summer Under the Stars

•August 6, 2017 • 4 Comments

If you’re a fan of TCM – and really, what classic movie fan isn’t? – then the month of August may just be your favorite month of the year. It’s the month that gives us Summer Under the Stars, where TCM devotes each day’s programming to a single star, airing 24 hours of films featuring the selected actor or actress. This year’s Summer Under the Stars event celebrates such luminaries as Robert Mitchum, Barbara Stanwyck, Glenn Ford – and one of my favorites, Ann Harding.

There’s just something about Ann Harding – she’s not typically pretty, but there’s something absolutely beautiful about her. She’s luminous, shining with a kind of ethereal grace. Intelligent and refined, reserved but not aloof, capable, resourceful, and independent. She was, in short, all that.

On August 21st, TCM is airing several first-rate pre-Codes starring the lovely Ann Harding. So this month, instead of highlighting a single Pre-Code Crazy film, I’m steering you toward three of my favorite Harding pre-Codes that you won’t want to miss. They’re three very different roles, but each one is infused with that special something that Harding possessed.

The Life of Vergie Winters (1934)

Harding stars here in the titular role of a small-town boutique owner who falls in love – and has a 20-year relationship – with married politician John Shadwell, played by John Boles. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Back Street, which was released two years before and, interestingly, also starred John Boles as a prominent citizen in an unhappy marriage and a lengthy illicit affair with his life’s true love.

Getting her groove on in The Life of Vergie Winters.

As Vergie Winters, Harding is noble, self-sacrificing, and totally devoted to her man, to the extent of accepting the blame – and the punishment – for a crime she didn’t commit. Although you may sometimes want to give Vergie a good shaking (and you might frequently wonder what on earth she sees in the rather wooden John Boles), the film is never overly saccharine – the script holds your interest from start to finish and, of course, Harding grabs and retains your focus in every scene she’s in.

Aside from Harding, the film is also ably supported by Helen Vinson, as John Boles’s wife, who is always excellent at playing nice-nasty women.

Trivia tidbit: The screenplay for Vergie Winters was penned by Jane Murfin, who also wrote the scripts for Alice Adams (1935), The Women (1939), and Pride and Prejudice (1940), as well as another of my Pre-Code Crazy recommendations for the day, Double Harness (1933). Incidentally, Murfin was married at the time of Vergie Winters to actor Donald Crisp, who had a small part in the film.

When Ladies Meet (1933)

This film stars Myrna Loy as writer Mary Howard (Myrna Loy), who is in love with her very-married publisher, Rogers Woodruff (Frank Morgan), and whose latest novel centers on a woman who confronts the wife of the man with whom she’s having an affair. Complicating Mary’s would-be bliss is her friend, Jimmie (the always excellent Robert Montgomery), who is unabashedly in love with Mary and decidedly not a fan of her budding relationship with Rogers.


Harding is top-billed as Claire, Rogers’s wife who, through some crafty subterfuge by Jimmie, is introduced to Mary and ends up spending the weekend with her at the country home of Mary’s scatterbrained but well-meaning BFF, Bridget (Alice Brady). Neither knowing the true connection of the other to Rogers, Claire and Mary become fast friends, and reveal much about themselves during a deep discussion about the subject of Mary’s book. And when Rogers arrives on the scene . . . well, I’ll let you see for yourself. (For more on this film, click here.)

Trivia tidbit: When Ladies Meet was remade less than 10 years later, with Joan Crawford as Mary and Greer Garson as Claire. As much as I love Joanie and Greer, for me, this version doesn’t hold a candle to the original.

Double Harness (1933)

Last up is my favorite film of the three, which I covered previously on this blog, after having the opportunity to see it on the big screen at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. In this feature, Harding is Joan Colby, who I like to think of as a pragmatic romantic – she wants ladies’ man John Fletcher (William Powell), but thinks of marriage as a business and winds up employing trickery to get John down the aisle.

Couldja turn around so I don’t have to keep talking to the back of your head?

As always, Harding is superb and – just as predictably – Powell is wonderful in his role. The film’s status is elevated even more, though, by the supporting cast, which includes Lucile Browne as Joan’s spoiled, self-centered sister; Henry Stephenson as her long-suffering father; and Lilian Bond, who stands out as one of John’s former lovers. They truly help transform this film into a must-see.

Trivia tidbit: Double Harness was helmed by John Cromwell, who died in 1979 at the age of 92, and directed close to 50 films during his career. His son is actor James Cromwell, known for his performances in a wide variety of TV shows and feature films. I think I first saw him as Stretch Cunningham in All in the Family during the early 1970s (am I dating myself??), but he can also be seen in Babe (1995), L.A. Confidential (1997), Angels in America (2003), Six Feet Under (2003-2005), and Boardwalk Empire (2012-2013). And let’s not forget that he also played the Rev. Buryfield in 10 episodes of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.

August 21st during TCM’s Summer Under the Stars also features several other top-notch Harding films, but if you don’t do anything else with your day, be sure that you check out The Life of Vergie Winters, When Ladies Meet, and Double Harness.

You only owe it to yourself.


Now don’t forget to pop over to Speakeasy to find out what pre-Code gem Kristina is covering for this month!

Dorothy Mackaill in Safe in Hell (1931)

•July 24, 2017 • 2 Comments

The opening of Safe in Hell is a bit deceptive.

The film’s title appears on screen, with its block-style, capital letters filled in with a silent roar of angry flames. Meanwhile, the music we hear conjures a scene from the late 1800s, perhaps a pair of ladies strolling through the park with ankle-length dresses and lace-trimmed parasols. But once the credits fade, the tune changes to “St. Louis Blues,” and if you don’t know what that means, you find out as soon as you see a shapely pair of gams belonging to a scantily clad blonde.

That blonde is Dorothy Mackaill.

Mackaill with Ricardo Cortez in The Next Corner.

Born in Yorkshire, England, in 1903, Mackaill was bitten by the acting bug at an early age; while still in her teens, she ran away to London, persuading her father to finance her housing and lessons. By 1920, she’d landed a role in her screen debut, The Face at the Window, starring C. Aubrey Smith. She later made her way to New York, working as a Ziegfeld girl and appearing in comedy shorts on the big screen. Before long, Hollywood came calling and she was hired by Associated First National Films; her first film for the studio was Bits of Life (1921) with Lon Chaney, which depicted four unrelated stories, shot with different casts. Mackaill later said that she never met Chaney on the set, as they appeared in different segments, but she performed with him a few years later in The Next Corner (1924), and by 1926, she was starring in such features as Subway Sadie, in which she portrayed the title role.

Mackaill and Joel McCrea dated briefly, before he met and fell for the love of his life, Frances Dee.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Mackaill’s star continued to rise, and she shared the screen with such luminaries as Richard Barthelmess, Myrna Loy, Warner Baxter, Basil Rathbone, Lewis Stone, and Joel McCrea (whom she dated a few years before he met and married Francis Dee). By the time she made Safe in Hell in 1931, Mackaill was appearing in an average of five films a year.

Filming began on Safe in Hell began in September 1931 and finished just a month later. It was originally to be directed by Roy Del Ruth, and then Michael Curtiz, but wound up being helmed by William Wellman; among those initially considered for the cast were Boris Karloff, David Manners, Lillian Bond, and Barbara Stanwyck. In fact, Stanwyck was given the starring role and had actually started to attend rehearsals but, ultimately, due to a contractual agreement with Columbia Studios, she was forced to bow out and the part went to Mackaill.

Our introduction to Gilda.

Co-starring Donald Cook, Ralf Harolde, Nina Mae McKinney, and Clarence Muse, Safe in Hell focuses on Mackaill’s character, Gilda Carlson, a fascinating female who is tough but vulnerable, sweet but practical, courageous, loyal, and smart. When we first meet her, she’s getting a call from her “madam” to meet a client. “I’ll go right into my dance,” Gilda responds matter-of-factly. We don’t get the impression that she’s wholly enamored with her line of work – it’s simply a necessary evil that she’s accepted. It’s her tough side that’s on full display when she learns that she’s been personally requested by none other than Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde), a former employer whose unwanted attentions eventually led to her career as a prostitute.

Gilda with some of her fellow hotel dwellers.

When she encounters Piet, Gilda doesn’t break down in tears, or recoil in fear or disgust. No, Gilda’s mad, plain mad – which is manifested both verbally and physically; she not only smacks Piet’s hand away when he touches her face, she also knocks a drink out of his hand (“Hey! That costs ten a quart,” he complains), slaps his face, and heaves a champagne bottle at him. Unfortunately for Gilda, after he’s conked in the head with the bottle, Piet falls unconscious to the floor, and she flees the apartment, unaware that she has left a fire in her wake – and that a bellboy has witnessed her visit. Serendipity steps in at this point, in the form of Gilda’s fiancé, Carl (Donald Cook), who helps Gilda to escape to the island of Tortuga, where extradition laws are non-existent. Once she’s firmly ensconced in the island’s only hotel, Gilda encounters a motley crew of criminals, from pickpockets to cold-hearted murderers, each of whom is fascinated with the island’s only white woman. After vehemently rebuffing each man in his turn, Gilda ultimately earns their respect – with the exception of the island’s jailer-executioner (Morgan Wallace), who is determined to possess her, no matter what.

What does Gilda see in this guy? Your guess is as good as mine.

Although one can certainly envision Barbara Stanwyck in the part of Gilda – she was a master at portraying the tough gal with a heart of gold – Mackaill does a fine job in the role, believable in the scenes where she resorts to physical violence, as well as those in which she’s overcome by helpless tears. Slightly less effective is Donald Cook as the love of Gilda’s life – to call him somewhat wooden is putting it mildly; it’s not entirely clear how a woman like Gilda would give him a second look, let alone go to the lengths she ultimately goes for him. (Still, he’s only in a few scenes, so he doesn’t do much harm.) Overall, the cast is spot-on – Ralf Harolde, as usual, is suitably creepy; Nina Mae McKinney and Clarence Muse bring a marked dignity to their roles of the hotel’s manager and porter; and each of the hotel residents manages to be at once unsettling and endearing.

Definitely not for children.

Carrying the warning that it was “Not for Children,” Safe in Hell garnered mixed reviews upon its release. The critic for Time magazine called it “crude, trite [and] sporadically exciting,” while the review in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette claimed that Mackaill was “too good for the likes of her role.” The New York Times critic, however, judged that the “fugitive murderers and swindlers are a rather amusing lot,” and noted that a moviegoer seated near him “wept piteously” at the film’s end.

Mackaill’s last film.

Safe in Hell would prove to be the high point of Mackaill’s career – she was only seen in a handful of films during the next few years; the actress claimed that she left the screen to be with her second husband, singer Neil Miller, whom she’d married shortly after shooting wrapped on Safe in Hell. Three years later, when the couple divorced, Mackaill admitted that her husband objected to her screen work. Her final feature film was Bulldog Drummond at Bay (1937), with John Lodge and Victor Jory. In the 1950s, she moved to Hawaii, taking up permanent residence at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki – she later made two appearances on the long-running television series Hawaii Five-O, which starred her friend Jack Lord. Her 1980 role on the show would be her last performance. Mackaill died a decade later, at the age of 87, in Hawaii, which she once described as a place where the “Aloha spirit . . . is very much alive.”

List o’ the Week: Movies I’ve Never Seen — Part 2

•June 30, 2017 • 24 Comments

City Lights? Never seen it.

Almost five years ago, I posted my first “List o’ the Week” – an idea that came to my while literally sitting for hours waiting for my 17-year-old car to have new brakes installed. My inaugural list covered 20 well-known feature films that I’d never seen.

Since then, I’ve gotten a new car, watched three of the films on my original list (Boys Town, Oklahoma, and Gunga Din), and come up with even more movies that I haven’t seen!

So today’s List o’ the Week identifies a batch of 20 additional blockbusters that cause film buffs to roll their eyes and exclaim, “You’ve never seen THAT?!?!?” Here goes . . .

I’m from Chicago and I’ve never seen this movie.

1.  Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

2.  The Matrix

3.  A Clockwork Orange

4.  Spellbound

5.  Blade Runner

6.  Cabaret

7.  City Lights

8.  Fantasia

9.  High Noon

10. A Room With a View

11. Bambi

12. My Darling Clementine

13. Bull Durham

14. A Man For All Seasons

15. Patton

16. All the President’s Men

17. Atlantic City

18. Top Gun

19. The Swimmer

20. Rocky


There are a number of films on my list that I’m sure I’ll never see (I’ve tried The Swimmer, for instance, but I just don’t get it, and I have no interest whatsoever in Patton or Top Gun), but there are some that maybe I should switch from the “Never Seen” list to “Must See” (I’ve always wanted to see Bull Durham, and as a Chicagoan, I feel completely duty-bound to see Ferris Bueller!)

Let me know what you think – and what are some of the well-known films that your still haven’t seen?


Happy Blogiversary to Me — 6.0!!!

•June 23, 2017 • 11 Comments

Whoever said that time flies when you’re having fun wasn’t just whistling Dixie.

And I oughta know. It’s been six whole years since I started this blog – and it seems like it was yesterday! (Or maybe last week.)

Shadows and Satin continues to be one of the joys of my life, providing me with an ideal outlet for exercising my two greatest passions – writing and classic film. And I extend a heartfelt thank to each of you for coming along for the ride – you are the collective cat’s pajamas. Or meow, as the case may be.

Special thanks, as always, to my pal Senior Writer of The Dark Pages, and Pre-Code Crazy partner in crime, Kristina, of the fabulous Speakeasy blog, for encouraging me to embark on this adventure. I’ll be forever grateful.

And as has become my blogiversary tradition, I leave you with a quote from one of my favorite actresses – this year, my girl Norma Shearer gets the nod. Here she is in that first-rate pre-Code feature, A Free Soul (1931):

“I don’t quite know what’s happened. Whether its just the end of a perfect day . . . or whether I’m just a little mad.”

(And you’ve never seen this gem, do yourself a favor and check it out! You won’t be sorry.)



Unsavory Duos: J.J. Hunsecker and Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

•June 22, 2017 • 3 Comments

Brimming with repellent characters, Sweet Smell of Success, released in 1957 by United Artists, centers primarily on two: powerful Broadway columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and self-serving press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis). The film’s rather straightforward plot, in a nutshell, concerns Hunsecker’s determination to put an end to his kid sister’s engagement, and Sidney’s efforts to catapult himself into the stratosphere of success by doing Hunsecker’s dirty work.

We first meet Sidney on the dark streets of a New York night as he’s desperately searching Hunsecker’s column in the early edition of the New York newspaper. When he tosses the paper into a nearby trashcan, we’re not yet certain what this means, but we do know that Sidney isn’t happy with what he saw – or didn’t see. Turns out that Hunsecker has been punishing Sidney by refusing to print – for five consecutive days now — any of the items Sidney has submitted on behalf of his clients. But more about that later.

Sidney isn’t very nice to his Girl Friday. And that’s putting it mildly.

A great deal is revealed about Sidney’s persona early on. First off, his home and his office are located in the same two-room walk-up; a rectangle piece of paper containing his name and title is neatly taped to the door. Holding down the fort is Sidney’s gal Friday, Sally (Jeff Donnell), and while it’s clear that she’s devoted to her boss (in more ways than one), Sidney treats her with indifference at best and cruelty at worst, using her as a servant-cum-sounding board-cum-whipping girl.

More of Sidney’s persona is revealed through his interaction with Sally. We watch as he chew his nails and says, sotto voce, “Watch me run the 100-yard dash with my legs cut off,” fairly reeking with desperation as he tries in vain to charm yet a dissatisfied client. And when Sally expresses sympathy, sharing her desire to do something to help him, Sidney responds, “You could help with two minutes of silence,” and nastily refers to her “meaty, sympathetic arms.” Not surprisingly, his words cause Sally to dissolve into tears, but Sidney only concession is to tell Sally, “You ought to know me by now.” He is a world unto himself – nothing else matters as much to him as he does.

Sidney is desperate to rise above his station.

Interestingly, as unpleasant as Sidney is within mere minutes of our introduction, he does manage to exhibit a soupcon of humanity when he tells Sally why he continues to suffer the indignities dished out by J.J. Hunsecker. “Hunsecker’s the golden ladder to the places I wanna get . . . Way up high where it’s always balmy,” Sidney says dreamily. “And no one snaps his fingers and says, ‘Hey, shrimp – rack the balls.’ Or, ‘Hey, mouse – go out and buy me a pack of butts.’” In this brief exchange, we learn that Sidney is seeking respect, regard, and esteem. He wants to live on an equal footing in the realm populated by the J.J. Hunseckers of the world. His problem is that he lacks the intestinal fortitude it takes to earn that respect. He’s just too sleazy.

“Match me, Sidney.”

And now to the reason why Sidney is being penalized by the great J.J. Hunsecker. It’s because J.J. had previously instructed Sidney to bust up the relationship between his sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), and her jazz guitar-playing boyfriend, Steve (Martin Milner) – and he’s learned that the couple is still going strong. And when Sidney tries to plead his case to Hunsecker (by going to his standing table at New York’s famed 21 Club), we quickly learn – just as we did with Sidney – just what sort of man J.J. Hunsecker is.

The expressions on the faces of J.J.’s dining companions say it all.

When we first meet Hunsecker, he’s dining with Sen. Harvey Walker (William Forrest), budding starlet Linda James (Autumn Russell), and Linda’s agent (Jay Adler). Actually, before we even see Hunsecker, we hear his voice when Sidney calls him from the restaurant lobby and asks Hunsecker to join him for a brief conversation. Hunsecker refuses, telling Sidney, “You’re dead, son – get yourself buried,” before hanging up on him. Sidney joins Hunsecker’s table, where the columnist proceeds to demonstrate the extent of his power, his self-image, and his arrogance. From hanging up on callers to the ever-present telephone on his table and rudely dismissing passersby, to constantly insulting Sidney, to blatantly revealing his understanding that the agent is only present as a cover for the affair between the senator and the starlet, Hunsecker is a non-stop wrecking machine. In fact, one character describes him as possessing “the scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster.”

J.J. pulls out all the stops to break up his kid sister’s romance.

Later, upon Hunsecker’s direction, Sidney continues his efforts to break up Susan and Steve, using a variety of sordid methods, including pimping out a sometime girl friend to a columnist in exchange for a smear campaign that hints at Steve’s ties with the Communist Party. The duo of Hunsecker and Sidney continue their nefarious actions, but like the best laid plans of mice and men, things don’t quite turn out as they’d intended.

Upon its release, Sweet Smell of Success earned mostly rave reviews from critics; the New York Times’s A.H. Weiler praised the film’s “pulsating dialogue, brisk direction, [and] good performances,” and Philip K. Scheuer wrote in the Los Angeles Times:  “Sweet Smell may be unfair to columnists, but it will be relished by all those who seek confirmation of, and take vicarious delight in, the depravity of others.  And that includes an awful lot of us.”  And as for the two primary villains of the feature, Lancaster earned acclaim for his portrayal of the venal columnist, with Weiler judging that he gave the part “its proper modicum of callousness,” and the critic for Variety describing his role as “cunningly played.”  Likewise, Weiler’s New York Times review hailed Tony Curtis’s “polished performance” and in the Los Angeles Examiner, Hamilton wrote, “Tony Curtis proves himself as an actor of increasing stature.”

Sidney and J.J.: Unsavory duo.

Both Lancaster and Curtis, as the unsavory duo at the heart of this hard-hitting, unflinching picture, turn in what is arguably among the best work of their careers. You’ll hardly believe what they do to create these venal individuals – but I’ll wager that you won’t soon forget it.

The 2017 TCM Film Festival: Revisiting Adventures in Paradise — Part II

•June 17, 2017 • 6 Comments

What time is it?

Time for my next installment of Revisiting Adventures in Paradise: The 2017 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival!

Today’s post focuses on what has become a tradition for me – participating in the “So You Think You Know Movies” trivia contest. Hosted by Bruce Goldstein, Repertory Director of New York’s Film Forum, the contest consists of teams from two to eight members – some arrive at the Club TCM venue already formed, and others, like my team (The Errol Flynns!!), are cobbled together on the spot by helpful TCM film fest staffers.

As has become the norm in the last few years, I wasn’t exactly overflowing with knowledge when it came to the questions in the contest. In fact, truth be told, I didn’t know a single answer. Maybe y’all could do better – so I’m sharing with you the trivia questions we faced. (Incidentally, in addition to being crazy-hard, the multiple choice questions could have one, more than one, or even five correct answers.) Give it a try – and no Googling!

Everybody knows these guys. But do you know their real first names?

  1. What are the real first names of the Marx Brothers?
  2. What is Albert Brooks’s real name?
  3. Besides Giant, in what movie did Rock Hudson and James Dean appear together?
  4. Marilyn Monroe’s character in the first version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was played by the mother of who?
  5. Al Jolson’s father in The Jazz Singer also played what part?
  6. Which actor did not play Dracula: Max Schreck, Christopher Lee, John Carradine, Carlos Villarios, or Frank Langella?
  7. Universal’s first werewolf was played by who?
  8. Who was the voice of Wall-E?
  9. The singer in the “Think Pink” number in Funny Face was the creator of what popular character?

    What famous villain did he play?

  10. Who is the connection between The Third Man and Goldfinger?
  11. “Charlie” in The Detective Story later played what famous movie villain?
  12. Which film did not feature Drew Barrymore’s relatives: Grand Hotel, The Show of Shows, The Magnificent Ambersons, Rasputin and the Empress, or War of the Zombies?
  13. Who dubbed the singing voice of Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain?
  14. Who plays the “Joan” attacking Joan Crawford in Strait Jacket?

Scroll down for the answers . . .

Keep scrolling . . .

Scroll some more . . .

Almost there . . .

Here they are!

  1. Julius, Leonard, and Arthur

    Kay Thompson and the character she made famous!

  2. Albert Einstein
  3. Has Anybody Seen My Gal?
  4. Ruth Taylor – actor Buck Henry’s mother
  5. Charlie Chan
  6. Max Schreck
  7. Henry Hull
  8. Ben Burtt
  9. Kay Thompson wrote the popular children’s series Eloise (she was also Liza Minnelli’s godmother).
  10. Bernard Lee was in both films and Guy Hamilton was the assistant director of The Third Man and the director on Goldfinger.
  11. Joseph Wiseman was Dr. No.
  12. All five films featured a Barrymore.
  13. Betty Noyes (who also voiced Dumbo’s mother)
  14. Diane Baker

As always in the “So You Think You Know Movies” contest, this year’s event had several surprise guests in the audience, including silent film music composer Carl Davis, character actor James Karen, and Ben Burtt, a four-time Oscar winner who was the sound designer for the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movie series. The biggest surprise was actress Diane Baker, who has held a special place in my fangirl heart ever since I met her at TCMFF a few years ago while standing in line for the ladies restroom at the Egyptian Theater!

The Errol Flynns huddling up during the tiebreaker phase! That’s me in the hat! Standing next to DIANE BAKER.

Speaking of Diane Baker, that leads me to the highlight of the trivia contest. When all of the ballots were counted, I was shocked to hear that my team, the Errol Flynns, had tied for first place!! My fellow team members and I, along with the members of the other first-place team, were called up to the stage in Club TCM for a five-question tiebreaker. And as if it weren’t enough for me to be on stage, before a room full of classic film fans, in the very place where the first Academy Awards ceremony was held – I found myself standing RIGHT NEXT to Diane Baker! Sweet!!!

As it turned out, our team lost the tiebreaker by a single question, but I am proud to say that I gave the correct answer to one of the five questions! (The question, by the way, was in what movie did Diane Baker and Joan Crawford appear together other than Strait Jacket? Answer? The Best of Everything!)

All in all, it was another fabulous, memorable, and totally fun trivia event, and the perfect kickoff to this year’s TCM Film Festival. Stay tuned for the next installment of Revisiting Adventures in Paradise!

Pre-Code Crazy: Gentleman’s Fate (1932)

•June 7, 2017 • 4 Comments

If you’re like me, you’ve heard the following about John Gilbert: (1) he was romantically involved with and came close to marrying Greta Garbo, and (2) his film career fizzled and died a few years after the introduction of talking pictures. Generally speaking, Gilbert’s failure to thrive in talkies is attributed either to a high-pitched speaking voice or a feud with MGM head Louis Mayer that resulted in a dearth of quality film roles.  But whatever the reason that Gilbert was only seen in 10 mostly forgettable post-silent era films before his untimely death in 1936, I’m here to say that his Gentleman’s Fate (1932) is a first-rate pre-Code feature that’s well worth your time.

The salad days.

In this film, Gilbert stars as Jack Thomas, a wealthy, orphaned playboy who decides to give up his womanizing ways in order to settle down and marry his lady love, Marjorie (Leila Hyams). But Jack is thrown for a loop soon after making this decision when he not only learns that his name is actually Giacomo Tomasulo, but also that he has a brother and a dying father who make their living through organized crime. Although this news turns his world upside down, and he’s initially ashamed and repulsed by his heritage, Jack eventually comes to embrace life on the dark side.

Favorite character:

Hands-down, it’s Jack’s brother, Frank, played to perfection by Louis Wolheim, who has a face that only a mother could love. When Frank first meets his refined, upper-class sibling, he’s contemptuous; after Jack tells him that he spends his days playing tennis and polo, and sometimes dabbling in painting, Frank retorts: “Oh, you paint, do yah? Well, we’ve got a truck outside that needs painting. Could you do that?”

Gilbert and Wolheim as the Tomasulo brothers.

Frank patently resents his brother’s sudden appearance in his life, and he obviously doesn’t share their father’s wish to bring Jack into the family business, but he grows to grudgingly respect his brother after Jack challenges him to a fistfight. That respect eventually grows into genuine brotherly love. It’s really touching and heartfelt.

Trivia tidbits:

Louis Wolheim’s broad, flattened nose gave him a brutish look that belied his real-life background – he attended Cornell University and spoke fluent French, German, Spanish, and Yiddish.

In the pre-Code world, Leila Hyams is perhaps best known for her role in Freaks (1932), but she was also a standout in two of my favorite features from the era: Men Call It Love (1931) and Red-Headed Woman (1932). Hyams started her career as a model, retired in 1936, and was married for 50 years to agent Paul Berg, until her 1977 death.

Three of John Gilbert’s four wives were actresses: Leatrice Joy, Ina Claire, and Virginia Bruce.

The film’s cast includes Ralph Ince, an actor-turned director-turned actor again, whose brother, Thomas, was at the center of an unsolved mystery scandal in 1924, when he died shortly after attending a party aboard a yacht owned by William Randolph Hearst. Check out this excellent post to read all about the incident.

Everything’s better with Anita Page.

Two of my favorite pre-Code actresses, Anita Page and Marie Prevost, have small but memorable parts in the film. Page’s gangster’s moll is touching and naively sweet, and Prevost steals her every scene as a wise-cracking, banana-chomping good-time gal.

The film’s director was Mervyn LeRoy, who also helmed such pre-Code classics as Little Caesar (1931), Three on a Match (1932), I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), Golddiggers of 1933 (1933). He’s credited with changing Lana Turner’s name from Judy to Lana; introducing Ronald Reagan to future wife Nancy; and discovering Clark Gable, Loretta Young, and Robert Mitchum.

Favorite quote:

“Okay – I don’t have to tell you what to do. Only you do what I tell ya.” – Frank Tomasulo

Don’t miss Gentleman’s Fate, airing June 20th on TCM. You only owe it to yourself.


And be sure to pop over to Speakeasy to read about the pre-Code gem Kristina is recommending for the month!