My Favorite Pre-Codes (or something like that) — Part 2

•February 21, 2020 • 5 Comments

Several years ago, I started on a post about my favorite pre-Codes, which turned into a post about the pre-Codes I watch most often – and I discovered that these are frequently one and the same. I only included five films in the post, with a promise to write about more in the future. So today – more than six years later (better late than never, I always say), I’m serving up another list of my favorite pre-Codes that I watch over and over (and over). As it happens, I’ve previously written about all five of these, so if you want to read more about them, just click the title!

Stanwyck, Blondell, and their unmentionables.

Night Nurse (1931)

I can’t believe that Night Nurse didn’t make my first list – it’s one of the pre-Codiest pre-Codes out there. It’s got everything but the proverbial kitchen sink: extramarital sex, alcoholism, violence against women, child abuse, medical malpractice, murder, bootlegging – and let’s not forget the ever-popular gratuitous scenes of girls in their undies.

Barbara Stanwyck stars as Lora Hart, the medical professional of the film’s title – and if Stanwyck alone isn’t enough to recommend this gem, her co-star is Joan Blondell: a winning team if ever there was one. Idealistic and dedicated, Lora finds herself caring for a pair of youngsters whose mother is more interested in identifying the source of her next cocktail than she is in the welfare of her ailing offspring. Turns out that they’re being slowly starved to death by their mother’s nefarious lover – Nick, the chauffeur (played by the scene-stealing Clark Gable) – and Lora is their only hope.

Night Nurse clocks in at an economical 72 minutes – and there’s not a single one of them that doesn’t hold your attention.

Best fight scene ever.

Private Lives (1931)

I fell love with this film, ironically, when I was addressing the invitations for my wedding, more than 25 years ago. As I sat at a card table in my living room apartment, surrounded by stacks of invites, I played Private Lives – which I’d recently taped off of Showtime – over and over again. By my third viewing, I was completely and irrevocably hooked.

Based on a Noel Coward play, the film stars Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery (how could it miss with these two?) as a divorced couple who are thrown together by happenstance while each of them are on their honeymoons with other people. It sets up an hilarious plot that’s punctuated by some of the wittiest dialogue I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear.

A stellar cast.

Dinner at Eight (1933)

To accompany my preparations for dinner tonight, I selected Dinner at Eight. It’s one of those films where I recite the dialogue along with the characters. (“Ask that common little woman to my house and that noisy, vulgar man? He smells Oklahoma!”) Plot-wise, there really isn’t one – it takes a look at the lives of a group of disparate individuals invited to dine at the home of a shipping company owner and his socialite wife. But who needs a plot?

The all-star cast is absolute perfection – for my money, it’s got Jean Harlow’s best performance, John Barrymore manages to evoke both disgust and sympathy, Billie Burke is delightfully shallow, and Marie Dressler is a revelation. And while it’s not exactly oozing with saucy pre-Code situations, it does contain quite the scandalous relationship between Burke’s 19-year-old daughter and Barrymore’s alcoholic, 47-year-old washed-up actor.

From rags to this.

Possessed (1931)

You know me and Joanie Crawford – I’m mad about the girl, and she can do no wrong. Especially in this rags-to-riches tale of a small-town factory girl who tires of her humdrum life and her humdrum boyfriend and flees to the big city where she promptly snags a rich man. One minute, she making boxes for a living, and the next, she’s fairly drowning in diamonds, and singing songs in French to the delight of her fancy dinner party guests.

The rich man is played by none other than Clark Gable (who reportedly played the role of Crawford’s lover off-screen), a budding politician who loves Crawford so much that he won’t put a ring on it.

“You’re just a new kind of man in a new kind of world.”

A Free Soul (1931)

Norma Shearer again and, for the third time on this list, Clark Gable! Here, Shearer’s the free soul of the title, the daughter of an alocohlic attorney (Lionel Barrymore) who falls in lust with Gable’s character after her father successfully defends him in a murder trial. Leslie Howard’s on hand as Shearer’s longtime beau, but his steadfast devotion can’t hold a candle to Gable’s sex appeal.

There’s plenty of scandalous pre-Code goodness in the relationship between Shearer and Gable, and loads of melodramatics to go around, especially whenever Barrymore is in the courtroom. Just the way I like it!

What are some of your favorite pre-Codes?

Rest in Peace, Kirk Douglas

•February 5, 2020 • 4 Comments

When I arrived at my mother’s house tonight, I was greeted by the sobering news that film legend Kirk Douglas had died at the age of 103. It was always such a pleasure in recent years to know that this cinematic giant was still with us. But now, knowing that he’s passed on, I can smile with the knowledge that whenever I’m in the mood for some first-rate emoting, I can pop in a DVD of The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), or Spartacus (1960), or any one of a couple dozen other Kirk Douglas films and get my fix.

You can always count on Kirk.

One of seven children of Russian-Jewish immigrants Hershel and Bryna Danielovich, Kirk Douglas born Issur Danielovich on December 9, 1916, a native of Amsterdam, New York. Along with his six sisters, young Izzy – as he was known to his family and friends – endured a childhood of poverty.

“Unless you’ve been hungry-poor, you don’t know what poor means,” the actor once said.

To supplement his father’s meager income as a peddler of food, wood, and rags, Izzy worked a variety of jobs while growing up, including delivering newspapers and selling pop and candy to the workers at the local carpet mill. He was bitten by the acting but at an early age, however, with his recitation of a poem during a first grade production, and frequently involved his siblings in his theatrical exploits.

“We’d play theater all the time – that’s the way we played,” the actor’s sister, Fritzi Becker, recalled in a 1988 interview on the ABC-TV news magazine 20/20. “Kirk made us dance and we really had to practice the routine and do it well. Sometimes, we could’ve killed him. He would really take it seriously – he was like the director.”

Kirk and his son Michael.

The youngster’s budding acting talent was nurtured during his high school years and later at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, where he made ends meet by working as a gardener, janitor and waiter. After graduating with honors in 1939, he changed his name to Kirk Douglas. He studied for the next two years at New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where one of his fellow students was Betty Jo Perske – soon to be known as Lauren Bacall. In 1941, he made his Broadway debut, portraying a young singing Western Union messenger in Spring Again.

Douglas’s stage career was interrupted by World War II; he served in the Navy for two years before an injury during a training activity earned him an honorable discharge. By this time, Douglas had married model-turned-actress Diana Dill. In 1944, the couple had their first child, Michael – who would grow up to earn fame as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars – and three years later, they would have a second son, Joel, but the union would end in divorce in 1951.

Professionally, Douglas resumed his stage career after the war, but fate stepped in to alter his future in the form of Lauren Bacall, who recommended her former classmate to producer Hal Wallis for a role in his upcoming film. That film – The Strange Love of Martha Ivers – no only marked Douglas’s big screen debut, but also his entry into the world of noir.

With Marilyn Maxwell in Champion.

Douglas would go on to appear in five more noirs in as many years, each superb examples from the era: Out of the Past (1947), considered by many to be the quintessential noir; I Walk Alone (1948), which marked the first of his seven pictures with lifelong friend Burt Lancaster; Champion (1949), for which he earned his first Oscar nomination; Ace in the Hole (1951), a chilling, unremittingly grim story directed by Billy Wilder; and Detective Story (1951), where he was a standout in a first-rate ensemble cast that included William Bendix, Eleanor Parker, Cathy O’Donnell, and George Macready.

Outside of the shadowy realm of noir, Douglas also appeared in a variety of memorable features, including A Letter to Three Wives (1948), a first-rate drama helmed by Joseph Mankiewicz – and in which Douglas’s character taught me the correct use of the word “badly”; The Bad and the Beautiful (1953), which landed him his second Oscar nomination; The Story of Three Loves (1953), for which he mastered and performed his own stunts as a trapeze artist; Lust for Life (1957), which earned the actor his third Oscar nomination for his portrayal of tortured artist Vincent Van Gogh. Although the 1957 Oscar was won by Yul Brynner for The King and I, Douglas received a Golden Globe Award and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for his performance, and racked up widespread acclaim, including praise from co-star Anthony Quinn.

“I thought I was going to be lost in that picture because I didn’t think anybody could compete with [Douglas’s] performance,” Quinn said in a 1997 documentary. “It was absolutely magnetic to see him working.”

Kirk and Anne were married for more than 65 years.

Off-screen, after a brief engagement to Pier Angeli, his co-star in The Story of Three Loves, Douglas began dating German-born Anne Buydens, who had served as the actor’s publicist in Paris on his 1953 feature Act of Love. The two were married on May 29, 1954, went on to add two more sons to Douglas’s clan, Peter in 1955 and Eric in 1958, and remained wed for more than 60 years, until Douglas’s death.

In 1988, Douglas wrote his best-selling autobiography, The Ragman’s Son. It was the first in a series of well-received non-fiction and fiction books authored by the actor, including two children’s books. He also found time for pursuits that were completely outside of the creative realm – in the early 1960s, he served as a self-financed goodwill ambassador on behalf of the United States Information Agency service and the State Department. More recently, Douglas and his wife, through their Douglas Foundation, rebuilt and re-equipped nearly 200 of the 450 playgrounds in the Los Angeles Unified School District, personally attending the dedication of the new facilities. The Douglas Foundation has also funded an Alzheimer’s wing at the Motion Picture House and Hospital; created the Anne Douglas Shelter for homeless women in downtown Los Angeles; opened the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City; and donated $15 million to a new care center in Woodland Hills. Douglas amassed a wide varieity of awards and honors for his humanitarian efforts, including the Presidential Medal Of Freedom, awarded by President Jimmy Carter in 1981; the George Washington Carver Award for outstanding contributions to the arts, humanities, and betterment of racial relations; and the Jefferson Award from the American Institute for Public Service.

During his book tour.

Despite his phenomenal triumphs, both professional and personal, Douglas was no stranger to struggles and near-tragedies. In 1991, he was involved in a life-threatening accident that resulted after the helicopter he was in collided in mid-air with a light plane shortly after takeoff. Two other passengers were killed in the crash and Douglas sustained severe back injuries. Five years later, that actor suffered a stroke that initially rendered him unable to speak, but after extensive rehabilitation, in 1999, he was back on screen in Diamonds, starring Dan Akyroyd and Lauren Bacall.

After his stroke, Douglas spoke frankly during a January 2002 promotional tour for his latest autobiography, My Stroke of Luck, sharing the realities of his health-related challenges and their frightening aftermath: “When I first had my stroke, I went through suicidal impulses,” he admitted. “It seemed hopeless with me at that age. At that time I was tinking I would never be able to talk and act.” In dealing with his stroke, Douglas developed an “Operator’s Manual” for living life – his six recommendations include, “When things go bad, always remember it could be worse” and “Stem depression by thinking of, reaching out to, and helping others.”

RIP Kirk Douglas.

“It seems as if only now I really know who I am,” Douglas said. “My strengths, my weaknesses, my jealousies. It’s as if all of it has been boiling in a pot for all these years, and as it boils, it evaporates into steam, and all that’s left in the pot in the end is your essence – the stuff you started out with in the very beginning.”

Rest in peace, Kirk Douglas.

A Many Splendored Thing: The 2019 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival — Part 6

•January 18, 2020 • Leave a Comment

Happy New Year, y’all!

Now that we’re in a new year, the countdown to the 2020 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival is on! And you know what that means – time for another installment in my ongoing, year-round coverage of the 2019 event! Today, I’m shining the spotlight on two of my favorite film-viewing experiences at the fest, which were the screening of two pre-Code features: Merrily, We Go to Hell (1932) and Blood Money (1933).

Cary Grant had a featured role, a year before his breakout part in “She Done Him Wrong.”

Merrily, We Go to Hell (1932)

Merrily, We Go to Hell stars Fredric March and Sylvia Sidney as first a happily and then an unhappily married couple whose union struggles through his alcoholism and infidelity. (For more on this character, click here.) The film was introduced at the festival by Cari Beauchamp, author and film historian, who told the early morning crowd: “I’m so impressed by your dedication.”

Merrily was directed by Dorothy Arzner, “one of those rare creatures who was comfortable in her own skin and aware of who she was from an early age,” Beauchamp said. Originally, Arzner wanted to be a doctor and attended the University of Southern California. When World War I broke out, Arzner lied about her age in order to drive for the officers; the wife of one of these officers introduced her to movie director William DeMille, brother of Cecil and a co-founder of Famous Players-Lasky.

Also in the supporting cast was a young and glamorous Esther Howard, looking like a completely different person from the characters she played in Murder, My Sweet and Born to Kill.

Initially, Arzner landed a job for DeMille typing up scripts, eventually working her way up to editor – she edited 32 films in one year – but what she really wanted was to be a director. (“If you’re going to be in this business, the thing to be is a director,” Beauchamp offered.) Finally, according to Beauchamp, Arzner had to threaten to leave Paramount in order to be given a chance behind the camera.

As director, Arzner was “an innovator and practical to the core,” Beauchamp said. For example, she invented the boom mike – when she saw that Paramount star Clara Bow was uncomfortable with microphones planted in various locations on the set, Arzner asked for a fishing pole and put the microphone on it.

Based on a book by Cleo Lucas called I, Jerry, Take thee, Joan (“Gee, I wonder why they changed the title,” Beauchamp joked), the picture also featured Cary Grant in a role filmed a year before his breakout appearance in She Done Him Wrong. Also in the cast was Rev. Neal Dodd, a “real-life” Episcopalian priest

“You have to love it – a priest with a SAG card,” Beauchamp said. “Only in Hollywood.”

Frances Dee was a far cry from wholesome in this feature.

Blood Money (1933)

Blood Money is one of the pre-Codiest pre-Codes I’ve ever seen. (And that’s saying something!) It was advertised in the festival literature as quite possibly the “ultimate pre-Code film” – and it didn’t disappoint. For a first-rate write-up on this wild ride of a film, check out Danny’s take on it over at Pre-Code.com.

The third film produced by Darryl F. Zanuck’s new 20th Century Pictures, Blood Money was introduced at the fest by Bruce Goldstein, repertory program director of New York’s Film Forum, who told the packed crowd that the picture bears a striking resemblance to the type of programmers that Zanuck produced at Warner Bros. The feature stars George Bancroft, one of the screen’s “first modern gangsters,” Judith Anderson in her feature film debut, and Frances Dee, who’d already appeared in more than 20 films when she did Blood Money. (Incidentally, Dee’s Little Women premiered the same month as Blood Money.)

Judith Anderson made her feature film debut in Blood Money. She didn’t appear on screen again until seven years later, in Rebecca.

“[Dee] is often described as ‘wholesome,’” Goldstein said. “In Blood Money, she is anything but.”

The film was written and directed by Rowland Brown, and based on an unpublished story by Brown entitled “Bail Bond.” According to Goldstein, very little is known about Brown, but he is rumored to have been involved with the underworld, and many of his films were about gangsters and crime (Brown, incidentally, also wrote the screenplay for The Doorway to Hell [1930] and the story for Angels With Dirty Faces [1938], and the noirs Nocturne [1946] and Kansas City Confidential [1952]). He reportedly socked a producer (some say it was David O. Selznick) and was blacklisted. After that incident, he never directed again.

After its release, with its portrayal of a crook as a sympathetic leading character, and a girl who is a “sexually pathological case,” Blood Money had various scenes cut in different cities, and was banned altogether in British Columbia and Saskatchewan for being “salacious,” Goldstein said. Eventually withdrawn from theatrical release, the film was thought to have been lost until the 1970s.

I’m sure glad they found it!

Stay tuned for next month’s installment of A Many Splendored Thing: The 2019 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival!

Day 30 of Noirvember: Parting Gifs

•November 30, 2019 • 6 Comments

Well, noir lovers, we’ve come now to the end of another Noirvember – it seems like this one passed more rapidly than any other. But you know what they say – the older you get, the faster time flies. (They don’t say that? Well, they should.)

I want to take this opportunity to extend my most sincere gratitude for everyone who read my posts or left comments this month. You made every day worth while. And for you, on this last day of Noirvember 2019, I have some parting gifs, inspired by a quote from Al Fisher (Steve Brodie) of Out of the Past, who once opined, “A dame with a rod is like a guy with a knitting needle.” I don’t know from guys with knitting needles, but I do know about noir dames and rods, and today’s final Noirvember post is a celebration of these dames. Enjoy!

Peggy Cummins

Ann Blyth

Joan Crawford

Barbara Stanwyck

Diana Dors

Bette Davis

Jane Greer

See you next Noirvember!

 

Day 29 of Noirvember: Favorite Things About My Favorites

•November 29, 2019 • 2 Comments

Can’t get enough of Kathie.

For tonight’s Noirvember post, I thought I’d look at five of my favorite noirs, and share what I love best about them. Here goes…

Out of the Past (1947)

The character of Kathie Moffett, played to perfection by Jane Greer. I feel like I’ve mentioned this earlier this month (but I’m just too lazy to go back and look), but as femmes fatales go, Kathie is one of my favorites. Beautiful, fearless, sexy, fun, ruthless. The total fatal package.

Double Indemnity (1944)

The scene where Edward G. Robinson’s character, Barton Keyes, explains to his boss why he’s completely off the boil in his theory that the death of Phyllis Dietrichson’s husband was due to suicide. It’s a veritable tour de force – Keyes only displays his vast knowledge, but he does it with wit and panache, leaving his employer looking like the complete buffoon that he is.

Mildred Pierce (1945)

The scene where Mildred (Joan Crawford) kicks her daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth) out of her house. The scene starts out when Mildred learns that Veda has extorted money from her ex-fiancee’s wealthy family by inventing a pregnancy. When Mildred realizes that her soon-to-be grandchild is not to be, Veda gives off with a hateful diatribe that includes calling her mother a “common frump whose father lived over a store and whose mother took in laundry.” Mildred tears up the check Veda received, calling her “cheap and horrible.” And that’s when the proverbial poop hits the fan, as Veda actually slaps her mother. (Her mother, y’all!) Although Veda’s slap literally knocks Mildred offer her feet, scant seconds pass before Mildred rises up, affixes her daughter with a death stare, and tells her to “get out before I kill you.”

Sherry stole every scene.

The Killing (1956)

The character of Sherry Peatty, played by the always fabulous Marie Windsor. Obviously, the only reason that Sherry married her mousy, racetrack cashier husband George (Elisha Cook, Jr.) was for the promise he made about “hitting it rich, having an apartment on Park Avenue and a different car for every day of the week.” And since that didn’t happen, Sherry doesn’t hesitate to make her displeasure known. Every exchange between Sherry and George is an absolute treat, with Sherry either serving up a heaping helping of sarcasm and disdain, or using her considerable wits (not to mention her ability to read George like a book) to get her way. Until the end, that is.

Life is like a ball game.

Detour (1945)

The lines are the BEST. Here are just three of my favorites:

“Life’s like a ball game. You gotta take a swing at whatever comes along before you wake up and it’s the ninth inning.”

“Money. You know what that is, the stuff you never have enough of. Little green things with George Washington’s picture that men slave for, commit crimes for, die for. It’s the stuff that has caused more trouble in the world than anything else we ever invented, simply because there’s too little of it.”

“Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”

What are some of your favorite noirs – and what do you love about them? Let me know…

And then join me tomorrow on Day 30 – the last day – of Noirvember!

Day 28 of Noirvember: Happy Thanksgiving!

•November 28, 2019 • 2 Comments

It’s Thanksgiving Day 2019, and while searching for turkey-themed photos, I came across this picture of Marilyn Monroe, who appeared in four films noirs during her career: The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Clash by Night (1950), Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), and Niagara (1953). In honor of the holiday, I give you Marilyn, and something that she was thankful for…

“One of the best things that ever happened to me is that I’m a woman. That is the way all females should feel.”

Join me tomorrow for Day 29 of Noirvember!

Day 27 of Noirvember: Wednesday Words

•November 27, 2019 • 2 Comments

Thumbing rides is dangerous.

As the calendar winds down to the end of Noirvember, it’s a perfect time to revisit some more of noir’s great lines. Enjoy!

“Thumbing rides may save you bus fare. But it’s dangerous. You never know what’s in store for you when you hear the squeal of brakes.” – Tom Neal in Detour (1945)

“My old man always said, ‘Liquor doesn’t drown your troubles – just teaches ‘em how to swim.’” – Gene Lockhart in Red Light (1950)

“You know what I do to squealers? I let ‘em have it in the belly so they can roll around a long time, thinkin’ it over.” – Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death (1947)

More nerve than most people.

“Half-drunk, I got better wits than most people. And more nerve.” – Brad Dexter in The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

“Anybody who puts the finger on me is living on borrowed time.” – Lawrence Tierney in Shakedown (1950)

“You’ll discover as you grow older that sometimes a man does things he’d prefer not to do.” – Thomas Gomez in Force of Evil (1948)

“You haven’t got a chance. You guys are gonna die, that’s all. It’s just a matter of when.” – William Talman in The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

You don’t always get the chance to do what you should.

“Don’t ask me no favors – I can’t be bribed, see. Besides, you ain’t got enough money to bribe me.” – Jay C. Flippen in Brute Force (1947)

“You don’t always get the chance in this life to do what you should.” – Cornel Wilde in Storm Fear (1956)

“Doing the right thing never works out. In this world, you turn the other cheek and you get hit with a lug wrench.” – Brian Donlevy in Impact (1949)

Join me tomorrow on Day 28 of Noirvember!