Pre-Code Crazy: Madam Satan (1930)

•October 9, 2017 • 5 Comments

You may not know this about me, but I am no horror fan.

Oh, I’ve seen the occasional horror movie – Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, and I even recently caught most of Dracula – but for the most part, no thank you.

So when I looked over TCM’s pre-Code offerings for the month of October and saw a plethora of “Creature Features,” I was kind of at a loss as to what movie I could possibly choose for my October recommendation. The few non-horror movies that I’d seen, I’ve already written about, and I just wasn’t willing to sit down, turn on all the lights, and watch a scary movie!

Then I spied Madam Satan, a film directed by Cecil B. DeMille that I bought on DVD several years ago but never got around to watching. It looked appealing, so I decided to check it out, with an eye of making it my pre-Code Crazy pick. Surely, I thought, it would be recommendable.

But then I saw the opening credits, with such characters as “Electricity,” “Fish Girl,” and “Miss Cunning Tower,” and I began to wonder what the heck I’d gotten myself into. But more on that later.

Bob and Jimmy run in to Angela after a night on the town (and a shower together.) (Don’t ask.)

The story of Madam Satan centers around Angela (Kay Johnson), a sterling character whose husband, Bob (Reginald Denny), is a deceitful womanizer who’d rather stay out drinking all night with his bosom buddy, Jimmy (Roland Young), than share a cozy evening before the fire with his spouse. In fact, Bob makes no secret that he’s not happy with Angela, callously telling her that when they got married, she “ceased being my pal and became just my wife.” (Well, damn.) And that’s not all. We soon learn that Bob’s got a chick on the side – Trixie (Lillian Roth), who apparently is some kind of vaudeville performer (She does a thoroughly enjoyable, delightfully sexy song-and-dance number that’s one of the highlights of the movie.).

Lillian Roth’s song and dance is one of the reasons why this movie is a must-see.

But just when I’m starting to get into the drama of the situation, the movie morphs into a musical! While consoling her sad and blue boss, Angela’s maid bursts into song, warbling that “she who hesitates will fall by the way, she who stops and waits will watch with dismay . . . so live and love today!” Angela heeds her maid’s musical advice and heads over to Trixie’s to confront her rival, but at this point, the film veers into yet another direction, becoming a comedy of errors! Jimmy tells Angela that he’s married to Trixie, Angela insists on spending the night at Trixie’s apartment (for some unfathomable reason), and later, when Bob arrives on the scene and sees Jimmy tiptoeing out of Trixie’s bedroom, Jimmy bundles Angela in a bedspread, claiming that the undercover dame is HIS girlfriend! (It sounds kinda nuts, but it’s actually pretty funny.)

Cat fight!

And things really get going when Angela and Trixie are left alone together – the subterfuge vanishes and the claws come out. In a scene that could have inspired the dressing room confrontation between Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford in The Women (1939), Angela calls Trixie “common and cheap” and tells her she wouldn’t want to hold on to her husband using Trixie’s methods. “You would if you could,” Trixie retorts, “but you don’t know how!” By the end of the exchange, Angela is vowing to be so hot that “they’ll have to call out the whole fire department to put me out!”

Trixie and her appendix scar-revealing outfit.

And THEN the next thing you know – Lord have mercy – the movie transforms into I-don’t-know-WHAT-the-hell!! Turns out that Jimmy is throwing a huge masquerade party aboard a zeppelin. That’s right. A ZEPPELIN. It’s hovering in the sky, anchored to this huge tower, and we see the elaborately costumed partygoers dancing and singing their way onto the airship. As they enter the party, the guests are introduced by their costume-related monikers – watch for the moment that Miss Golden Pheasant skids on a piece of her elaborate costume and almost ends up on her golden rear. Speaking of Miss Golden Pheasant (who’s Trixie, by the way), one of the film’s most pre-Codian moments comes when she tells Bob that no one will recognize her in her outfit. Seconds later, a man walks up and greets her by name. When she asks how he knew her, he replies, “I knew you by your appendix scar.” (Whoa!)

Angela as Madam Satan nearly charms the pants off of Bob. (Not that he’s wearing any in the first place.)

All kinds of craziness takes place aboard the party, including an auction where the men bid on the women to earn the privilege of a dance, and a wild salute to electricity dance number featuring a guy who materializes like Capt. Kirk aboard the Starship Enterprise. All of the major players are on hand – Bob, Trixie, and Jimmy (of course), and in a slinky, uber-risque, barely there black outflit, calling herself “Madam Satan” and speaking in a French accent, is Angela – who proceeds to drive Bob to distraction with her sexy charms.

I’ll let you discover the rest of the film for yourself – but let me just say that it makes one final transformation before it ends, this time into a disaster flick in the tradition of The Towering inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. Like the tagline on the film’s poster tells us, “You’ve Never Seen Anything Like It!”

Madam Satan — see it to believe it. And even then, you might not believe it.

Madam Satan will never make it onto my list of favorite pre-Codes, but it’s one of those movies where you notice something new every time you see it, and which grows on you more with each viewing. Check it out October 16th on TCM and see what I mean!

One more thing . . .

Y’all know how I love trivia. Here’s one for you. Angela/Madam Satan was played by Kay Johnson, whom I’d never heard of before this movie. She was married to director John Cromwell and she’s the mother of actor James Cromwell (who has been in numerous television series and films, including Six Feet Under, L.A. Confidential, and Babe). You might remember seeing Johnson in Of Human Bondage, which was directed, incidentally, by her husband. (You’re welcome.)


Now don’t forget to pop over to Speakeasy to see what pre-Code gem Kristina is recommending for the month!


Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge: Here We Go Again!

•September 16, 2017 • 2 Comments

“The world belongs to those who read.” – Rick Holland

If this is true, the world was mine this summer, as I dove into my fifth consecutive year of participating in the Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge, hosted by Raquel of Out of the Past. As part of this annual event, lovers of literature are invited to read about six books related to classic movies – unlike last year, though, when I actually exceeded the targeted number, this time around, I turned the last page of my sixth book just hours before the deadline.

In addition to reading the books, the challenge requires participants to write a review of each, so here goes!

Laura (1943) by Vera Caspary

I paid less than a dollar for this pristine copy at a yard sale in Durand, Illinois, this past June. I couldn’t have been more delighted – not just because of the bargain, but because Laura (1944) is one of my favorite noirs and I’ve long wanted to read the source novel. And I wasn’t disappointed.

My book! Sixty-seven cents! Isn’t it the most?

If you’ve ever seen the film, you’ll know that it tells the tale of the title femme, who was apparently the target of a tragic murder, but turns out to be not only alive, but a prime suspect of the actual victim. In addition to the beautiful Laura, other characters include her closest friend, sharp-tongued writer Waldo Lydecker; her on-again, off-again fiancé Shelby Carpenter; her aunt, Susan Treadwell (whose name was Ann in the film); and detective Mark McPherson, who investigated her “murder.”

Overall, the book was very much like the movie, with some interesting departures. The primary difference is that Waldo in the book, was overweight – far different from the screen’s slender character, played by Clifton Webb. Speaking of Waldo, the book contained an interesting incident that was not in the film but that provided excellent insight into Waldo’s character. While visiting his favorite antique stop, Waldo spied a rare glass vase, but was told by the owner that it had already been sold. After he was met with defeat following his tenacious efforts to get the owner to change his mind, Waldo “accidentally” broke the vase into a thousand pieces. If he couldn’t have the beautiful object, no one would. It was a telling moment that was echoed at the book’s end when we learned that Waldo was actually the would-be killer of Laura.

Interestingly, the book’s point of view varied several times, between Waldo, then Mark, and finally, Laura. It was a unique and engaging way to present the material. The book grabbed my attention from the beginning – it was beautifully written and contained some really striking imagery, such as the description of the new day on the first page: “The city that Sunday morning was quiet. . .  Over the island hung a fog that smelled and felt like water in which too many soda-water glasses have been washed.”

The Big Sleep (1939) by Raymond Chandler

I’ve seen the film The Big Sleep (1944) numerous times, and it lives up to its reputation as having one of the most confusing stories in the noir canon. In an effort to get a few questions answered, I’ve long wanted to read the book on which it was based.

The book’s protagonist is detective Phillip Marlowe, who’s hired by wealthy patriarch General Sternwood, who’s being blackmailed over some gambling debts racked up by his daughter, Carmen. Marlowe gets far more than he bargained for, though, encountering a series of deaths, including a peddler of pornographic books and the Sternwood’s chauffeur, who had eyes for Carmen. He also has to contend with Carmen’s feisty older sister, Vivian.

The book differed in numerous ways from the film, but the primary difference is that, in the screen version, Marlowe, played in the movie by Humphrey Bogart, and Vivian, portrayed by Bogart’s real-life wife, Lauren Bacall, wound up as a couple at the end. This definitely did not happen in the book. Another change in the film took place in a memorable scene where Marlowe stops inside a bookstore during a downpour and winds up sharing a bottle of rye with the store’s attractive employee, played by Dorothy Malone. In the book, Marlow bought some whiskey and drank it alone in his car!

The Big Sleep was practically overflowing with imaginative similes and metaphors – one of my favorites described the orchids in the greenhouse inside the Sternwood mansion: “The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. Another favorite focused on General Sternwood during his first meeting with Marlowe: “The General spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work showgirl uses her last good pair of stockings.”  I’ve read some analyses of the book that complain that there are too many similes in the book, but I just loved them.

Speaking of quotes, one of the film’s best-known lines came straight from the pages of The Big Sleep: “You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.”

(Incidentally, even after reading the book, I still don’t know who killed the chauffeur!!)

Dinner at Eight (1932) by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufmann

Dinner at Eight is one of my favorite pre-Code movies, so you can imagine my delight when I came across a copy of the play last year on eBay. I’ve only read plays as part of school assignments, though, so I never really imagined reading it – I just wanted it in my collection. But when this year’s challenge rolled around, I decided to give it a try – and I loved it!

Witty and fascinating, Dinner at Eight centers on a dinner party being thrown by Millicent Jordan and the intertwined lives of the men and women who are invited to the gathering, including Millicent’s husband, Oliver, who is suffering from a heart ailment while dealing with the demise of his family’s shipping business; her daughter, Paula, who is having an affair with an alcoholic, has-been actor; Oliver’s doctor, Wayne Talbot, an habitual womanizer who is having an fling with one of his patients, Kitty Packard; and Kitty’s husband, Dan, who is trying to steal Oliver’s business from underneath him.

Because it was taken from a play, the film very closely matched its source material. One significant difference was in the characters of Dora, the maid, Gustave, the family butler, and Ricci, the chauffeur. In the film, neither Gustave nor Ricci are ever seen, and they are only referred to in one significant scene. In the play, however, the love triangle between Gustave, Ricci, and the object of their desire, Dora, gets a great deal of attention. Apparently, before we joined the action, Dora and Ricci had a bit of a fling, but she dumped him in favor of the smooth and sophisticated Gustave. Ultimately, Dora and Gustave secretly marry, Ricci attacks his rival with a knife when he learns of the nuptials, and the truth eventually emerges that Gustave already has a wife – and three children!

The Little Foxes (1939) by Lillian Hellman

I enjoyed Dinner at Eight so much that I decided to give another play a try – and because the 1941 screen version of The Little Foxes, starring Bette Davis, is yet another favorite of mine, I approached the play with great anticipation. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The Little Foxes tells the story of the Hubbards – the savvy eldest brother, Ben; middle brother Oscar, whose family consists of his wife Birdie, a closet alcoholic and a weak-willed son, Leo; and strong-willed, ruthless Regina, wife of Horace and mother to Alexandra. The play plops us in the middle of preparations for the Hubbards to entertain William Marshall, a manufacturer from Chicago with whom the Hubbards hope to go into business.

The primary action in both play and book centers on the fact that Regina needs her husband’s money to participate in the planned deal with Marshall – and Horace wants no part of the scheme. The play offers a fascinating and well-drawn study of each character – Regina’s hard-hearted, mercenary nature bordering on cruelty; Birdie, so sweet and kind and pitiful, unable to forget her family’s storied past or escape her unhappy present; Alexandra, young and impressionable, who gradually matures into adulthood as she learns to see each of her family members for what they are.

There were two major differences between the film and the play – the play was confined solely to the Hubbard house, while the film expanded to include the town, the bank and even a train trip to Baltimore. The other difference is that the film included a major character, David Hewitt, who helps Alexandra with her gradual awakening and serves as her love interest. This character was completely absent from the play. Interestingly, David’s presence was neither necessary nor missed in the play. In fact, his absence made Alexandra’s transformation even more impressive.

The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter (2016) by Jeremy Arnold

In an effort to introduce some variety into my reading choices this summer, I chose for my next selection a book I picked up at last year’s TCM Film Festival. It was also a rather sentimental choice; the foreword was written by TCM’s Robert Osborne, who passed away earlier this year. The book focuses on films deemed as “essential” viewing by the author – for each, the author provides historical information and behind-the-scenes details, along with an overview of the plot and a special section, “What to look for,” which highlights a scene from the film. Quotes about the films from Osborne are sprinkled throughout the book, along with quotes from classic film-loving celebrities including Alec Baldwin, Drew Barrymore, Carrie Fisher, and Rob Reiner. The films span six decades, from 1927 to 1984.

A number of my personal favorites were covered in the book, such as Grand Hotel (1932), Out of the Past (1947), and All About Eve (1950), and it was interesting to learn facts about these films that I didn’t know before – like Marie Dressler lobbied for the part of Greta Garbo’s maid In Grand Hotel, and that Bette Davis named her daughter after the character she played in All About Eve – Margot.

Even more fascinating, though, was learning about movies I’ve never seen. Take All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) for instance. The book’s description of this wartime film’s “finely drawn characters and powerhouse combat scenes,” along with the awards it won for Best picture and Best Director, made me want to see it. Other never-seen films that I’ve now put on my must-see list include Swing Time (1936) and The Bicycle Thief (1948), described by Robert Osborne as “a devastatingly good movie.”

What more recommendation do you need?

Whatever Became Of . . .? Eleventh Series (1989) by Richard Lamparski

The final book in my challenge was one that I’ve had in my library for many, many years. I used it as a resource when I wrote my first book, but I never read about most of the performers it covered. The Whatever Became Of books were a series that covered a wide variety of personalities, beginning with the first book in the last 1960s, up to what I believe was the final book in the series, the 11th.

There were numerous personalities that I’d never heard of, like Henry Babbitt, Walter Woolf King, and Mary Murphy. Because I didn’t know who they were, though, I wasn’t terribly interested in finding out what happened to them. It was much more fascinating learning bits of trivia about the lives of actors and actresses with which I was more familiar – for instance, Alan Napier (best known as Alfred the butler in the Batman series) was six feet, five inches tall, and believed that his height prevented him from being more successful on screen. There was also a chapter on K.T. Stevens, who I first saw on The Young and the Restless in the 1970s and then years later with Joan Crawford in Harriet Craig (1950). Stevens was married for more than 20 years to Hugh Marlowe, perhaps best known as playwright Lloyd Richards in All About Eve (1950). Each chapter also features a “then” and “now” photo of the performer. (Unfortunately, of course, since the book was written almost 30 years ago, most of the subjects have passed on.)

Yvette Vickers in better times.

It was sobering to read about Yvette Vickers, who made her film debut in Sunset Boulevard (1950), as one of two girls giggling on the telephone at a party thrown by Jack Webb. Her best known film was probably The Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958), where she played a “roadhouse tramp” having an affair with the husband of the giant dame of the movie’s title. She was negatively impacted, though, by a series of bad personal and professional decisions (and she also, I learned later, suffered from mental illness and alcohol abuse). The “now” picture of Vickers in the book was taken in 1987 – she’s standing in front of a graffiti-scarred men’s bathroom in a West Hollywood nightclub. The photo’s caption tells us that she’d just performed a song called “Those Leeches Are Crawling All Over Me.” (The saddest part of reading the chapter was knowing that 24 years after that picture was taken, Vickers would be found dead in her Benedict Canyon home in 2011 – her body was mummified and it was thought that she’d been dead for more than a year before she was found.)

On a lighter note, another interesting chapter was on Madge Bellamy, who was popular during the silent era and was once called “The Most Beautiful Girl in America.” When the talkies came, she was unable to sustain her career and only made a few more films, but her life off-screen was quite a bit more attention-grabbing. After a five-year relationship with a lumberman, Bellamy’s lover married another woman. A few days after the wedding, Bellamy shot him. Labeled “Pistol Packin’ Madge” in the newspapers, Bellamy was eventually given a suspended sentence and later said, “I only winged him, which is all I meant to do. Believe me, I’m a crack shot.”

Overall, this was my least favorite of my six books, but it’s still definitely worth a read to find out what happened to many of yesteryear’s stars.

And that’s it! Another summer, another six film-related books. Time to start compiling my entries for next year’s challenge!


Pre-Code Crazy: Upperworld (1934)

•September 10, 2017 • 4 Comments

It takes only a glance at the credits for Upperworld (1934) to know that this is a film worth seeing. It stars the great Mary Astor, a non-dancing and oh-so-adorable Ginger Rogers, and pre-Code icon Warren William. It’s based on a story by Ben Hecht, who also wrote the screenplays for such first-rate films as The Front Page, Design for Living, and Wuthering Heights. And it’s directed Roy Del Ruth who, among numerous other features, helmed The Maltese Falcon.

The film opens with an introduction to railroad magnate Alexander Stream (William), whose household does not begin to function each day – literally – until he is awake. And when I say literally, I mean it: once the announcement spreads that Alexander has awakened, the gardener begins to cut the lawn, the housekeeper starts the vacuuming, and Alexander’s adorable little moppet of a son (Dickie Moore), can begin to play with his trains.

In their first encounter, Lily winds up wearing Alexander’s clothes. Hmm.

Stream is married to Hettie (Astor), who is so obsessed with her social schedule that her husband sometimes has to communicate with her through letters dictated to his butler. “Social success is just as important to a woman as financial power, or any other achievement, is to a man,” Hettie tells Alexander when he complains about the lack of time they spend together. “You’re a success in your world – I want to be somebody in mine.” His unsatisfying marriage makes Alexander a perfect candidate for some extra-marital hanky-panky when he meets a burlesque performer named Lily Linda (Rogers).

During their first encounter, Alexander joins Lily in a rousing rendition of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” and their second meeting falls on Alexander’s 14th wedding anniversary (which Hettie is too busy to attend). By their third date, which involves a crash landing of his private plane while on a trip to upstate New York, Alexander admits to Lily that she makes him feel “happier. More contented. I think I’m just a little bit crazy about you.”

Astor and William.

Unfortunately for our young lovers, Lily’s being pressured by her manager to cash in on Alexander’s wealth by blackmailing him. Does Lily agree to the scheme? Does Alexander fork over his millions to keep his love letters out of the papers? And what about Naomi? (Sorry – just had an Electric Company flashback.)

Find out the answers to these and other questions  by tuning in to Upperworld on TCM, September 12th. You only owe it to yourself.

Meanwhile, here’re a few trivia tidbits to tide you over:

  • Ben Hecht won an Oscar in 1927 for the screenplay he wrote for a film called Underworld.

    Not Charlie Chan.

  • The film’s cast included Sidney Toler as a policeman who first meetings Alexander when he gives his chauffeur a traffic ticket, and later takes a more significant role in the tycoon’s life. Toler is perhaps best known for playing inscrutable detective Charlie Chan; he played the role in 22 feature films, following the death of the original Chan, Warner Oland, in 1938.
  • The airplane that Alexander and Lily fly to upstate New York was owned in real life by actor Wallace Berry.
  • Mickey Rooney was reportedly originally cast in Upperworld, but his entire role was left on the proverbial cutting room floor.


Now be sure to pop over to Speakeasy to see what pre-Code gem Kristina recommending for this month!

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

•September 4, 2017 • 2 Comments

Now that the dates for the 2018 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival have been announced (April 26-29, 2018), I thought this was a perfect time for another installment of the 2017 TCM Film Festival: Revisiting Adventures in Paradise!

My first two films of the festival – fittingly – were a film noir from France, called Panique (1946), and one of my favorite pre-Codes, Red-Headed Woman. Panique, directed by Julien Duviver, centers on a deadly triangle featuring Alice (Viviane Romance), who was recently released from prison; her lover, Alfred (Paul Bernard), who committed the offense for which Alice was sent to the pokey; and Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon), an offbeat amateur photographer who has an unhealthy obsession for Alice. The film’s plot concerns the murder of a local girl, and the devious machinations by Alice and Alfred that lead to Monsieur Hire being accused of the crime.

Panique was based on a novel by Georges Simenon, who was the most prolific French language writer of the 20th century; he wrote more than 200 novels and reportedly took an average of seven days to write each book. Simenon was also the 17th most translated author of all time – 750 million copies of his novels have been available in 55 languages. Before the screening of Panique at the film festival, Simenon’s youngest son, Pierre, was interviewed by Bruce Goldstein of the New York Film Forum, who jokingly informed told the audience that Pierre was visiting the festival “all the way from Vermont.”

Pierre Simenon and Bruce Goldstein.

According to Pierre, more than 70 movies and 350 television adaptations were made from Simenon’s works, but after the first film, which received mixed reviews, Pierre stated, “My father then decided to direct and produce his own movie. The producers turned out to be crooks, the check bounced, and Julien Duvivier picked up the project and directed it.” (Although Pierre did not name the film, it was likely LA TÊTE D’UN HOMME, released in 1933.)

After this experience, Simenon refused to sell his works, but six years later he changed his mind: “He realized there was a lot of money he was missing,” Pierre said. Panique is considered one of the best adaptations of a Simenon novel, but Pierre didn’t know if his father liked or even saw the film. Although his closest friends included actor Charlie Chaplin and directors Federico Fellini and Jean Renoir, Pierre said his father “was not a movie buff.” In fact, Pierre recalled, his father only took him to see two movies: Casanova and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. “He was not that interested in the movies,” Pierre said.

My next film, Red-Headed Woman, stars Jean Harlow in the title role of a social-climbing woman who does whatever it takes (from home-wrecking to gunplay) to reach the heights to which she’s striving. You can read more about the movie here.

Red-Headed Woman was introduced by award-winning author Cari Beauchamp (whose book Without Lying Down served to acquaint me with screenwriter Frances Marion). When Beauchamp took the stage, she told the audience, “Jean Harlow lives. I’m a proselytizer for this film. I don’t even let those feminist filters in. I just love this film.”

Based on a story by Katherine Brush about a “conniving Midwestern sexpot,” Red-Headed Woman’s screenplay was originally assigned to author F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ultimately, though, it was penned by Anita Loos, who Beauchamp labeled “the first American writer ever to poke fun at sex.”

Jean Harlow with screenwriter Anita Loos.

Several major actresses were mentioned in the press as possible stars of the film, including Clara Bow, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, and even Greta Garbo, before Harlow was tapped for the lead, Beauchamp revealed. (Greta Garbo?!?!) Others in the film include the always great Una Merkel, Chester Morris, Lewis Stone, Leila Hyams and, in a small role, Charles Boyer.

“The silver lining [about the movie] is that when it was released, Charles Boyer was packing to return to Europe,” Beauchamp said. “But the fan mail that poured in was enough to make him stay in Hollywood!”

Stay tuned for the next installment of Revisiting Adventures in Paradise!

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

•August 6, 2017 • 8 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 • 9 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?