Discovering Tallulah: The Cheat (1931)

•March 14, 2017 • 1 Comment

When I think of my favorite pre-Code actresses, I must admit that Tallulah Bankhead is not one of the first names that springs to mind. In fact, I usually don’t think of her at all – and that’s a real shame. She only appeared in 24 films during her career, and her acting had a tendency to be a bit stagy, but she possessed a unique beauty and was absolutely fascinating to watch, as she demonstrated in one of her best pre-Codes, The Cheat (1931).

In this rather seedy feature, Bankhead stars as Elsa Carlyle, a young socialite who, by her own description, is wicked, selfish, and spoiled.”

Her favorite pastime seems to be gambling away money that she can ill afford – even when we first meet her at a Long Island yacht club party, she’s playing some sort of game for pennies with a man seated next to her at dinner. Elsa is married to Jeffrey (Harvey Stephens), an ambitious – if slightly boring – businessman who worships the ground on which Elsa treads: “I didn’t begin to live until I met that girl,” he tells a friend. “And there’s nothing in the world I wouldn’t do for her.” In fact, Jeffrey’s not Elsa’s only admirer – another partygoer admits that he doesn’t “care much for [females] as a race, but she’s pretty nice.”

Elsa discovers Livingstone’s doll collection.

In the area of gambling, however, Elsa is not only a borderline addict, but she frequently operates impulsively – a disastrous combination. On the night of the yacht club shindig, while playing a game of blackjack, she overhears a conversation between two guests, during which one of the men says that a tiger brought him “luck.” The mere mention of the word seems to be a sign to Elsa, and she promptly bets – and just as quickly loses – a cool $5,000. Then, just minutes later, in a reckless double-or-nothing bet, she increases her debt to $10,000. Meanwhile, as a “climax to the evening’s indiscretions,” and in an effort to briefly escape her mounting financial woes, Elsa accepts an invitation from one Hardy Livingstone (actor-turned-director Irving Pichel) to visit to his nearby estate. It turns out that Livingstone is a local resident who’s recently returned from three years in the Orient. His trip apparently made quite an impression on him – he has Asian houseboys, Oriental furnishings and décor, serves Japanese wine, and has a room he calls his “Holy of Holies,” which features a life-size statue of the Japanese God of Destruction. He also has a cabinet he refers to as his “Gallery of Ghosts,” filled with elaborately clad dolls who represent the women of his past. Each doll stands atop a wooden block, onto which Livingstone has burned a mysterious image. “That’s my crest. It’s a Japanese character,” he explains. “I brand all my belongings with it. It means ‘I possess.’” (Bom, bom, BOM!!!!)

Elsa should’ve said ‘no’ to this loan.

It doesn’t take long to pick up on the creep factor that surrounds Livingstone like a cloud. We become even more wary of his motives (even if Elsa seems blind to them) when he offers Elsa a jewel-encrusted gown that was owned by a Siamese princess – “You must wear it for me,” he says. “Let me see you in it.” Although Elsa initially refuses the gift, she later agrees to borrow it to wear to a lavish, Orient-themed ball to be held in Livingstone’s mansion. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

In a desperate effort to raise the $10,000 to pay her gambling debt, and at the same time keep her idealistic spouse from finding out, Elsa uses money raised through a local charity to buy stock she’s been assured is a sure thing. Unfortunately, her luck continues to sink faster than a paper boat in a storm drain – the stock turns out to be a bust and she’s now $20,000 in the hole.

What’s Elsa doing with a gun in her hand? See The Cheat and find out!

Fast forward to the ball; when Livingstone learns of Elsa’s monetary misfortune, he generously offers to give her $10,000 – but for a price. “Nobody will know,” Livingstone assures her. “I don’t ask much in return. Only that you be a little nicer to me. And maybe, maybe some evening soon, you’ll come to see me.” And if you don’t know what THAT means, baby, you just haven’t seen enough pre-Codes!

Speaking of seeing pre-Codes, make sure that this is one you don’t miss. Tallulah Bankhead is riveting, the direction by legendary Broadway producer George Abbott sails along at a proper clip, and the story will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Trust me – it’ll make you remember Tallulah next time.

Pre-Code Crazy: Rain (1932)

•March 7, 2017 • 6 Comments

Our first glimpse of Miss Sadie Thompson.

TCM is not exactly overflowing with pre-Code options during the month of March, which initially made for a bit of a challenge for me to make my Pre-Code Crazy selection. But when I saw Rain (1932) listed in my TCM Now Playing Guide, I knew my decision-making struggles were over.

What’s the story?

Based on a short story by W. Somerset Maugham, Rain tells the story of Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford), a prostitute who is stranded on the South Pacific island of Pago Pago due to a possible cholera outbreak on the boat on which she was travelling. Also on the boat is a zealous missionary, Alfred Davidson (Walter Huston) and his perpetual stick-up-her-rear wife (the always outstanding Beulah Bondi).

Our introduction to Sadie is rather breathtaking. We first see a solider forcefully exit a room, followed by a flying object that was obviously tossed at said soldier. We then see the separate expressions on the faces of four men outside the room, each infused with a mixture of astonishment, appreciation, and something approaching unbridled lust. Seconds later, we see what they see –beginning with a pair of bejeweled hands, white heels with bows, and shapely legs clad in fishnet stockings, and ending with the heavily made-up face of Sadie Thompson, with a cigarette dangling insolently from one corner of her red lips. (At least, I imagine that they’re red.)

All the fellas love Sadie.

At first glance, Sadie is fun-loving and jovial, inviting a few marines, a naval officer, and the owner of the hotel into her room for a couple of belts of booze and a spin around the dance floor. She even takes a shine to one of the marines, whom she dubs “Handsome” (William Gargan). But Sadie soon shows that she’s no pushover – when the missionary, Davidson, tries to put an end to the festivities, he’s physically removed from the room, and Sadie doesn’t shrink from showing her disdain: “When you bust into a lady’s room, you oughta get someone to introduce you, fella!”

Unfortunately for Sadie, the incident seems to whip Davidson into an obsessive frenzy, determined to reform Sadie and make her “atone for her life.” And chief on his list of atonement strategies is having Sadie deported from the island and forced to return to her San Francisco home, where she’s in trouble with the law. And for a while, it appears that Davidson’s unceasing efforts are successful.

For a while.

Crawford was touching in her scenes with William Gargan.

Rain isn’t generally included in discussions of Joan Crawford’s Greatest Hits, but it deserves a lot more attention than it receives. It’s certainly not your typical pre-Code, that’s for sure, but it’s never boring, and it’s definitely worth a look. And even though Joan Crawford reportedly labeled the film as her least favorite (“Every actress is entitled to a few mistakes,” she once said, “and that was one of mine.”), for my money, she’s the primary reason for checking it out. She manages to effectively bring to life a woman who’s at once fearless and hard as granite, yet sensitive and vulnerable, with a good heart. It’s a fascinating performance.

Anything else?

With Jeanne Eagles in the role of Sadie Thompson, Rain opened on Broadway in November 1922 and closed the following year after more than 250 performances. A successful revival, also starring Eagles, played in 1924, and Tallulah Bankhead played the Thompson role in a 1935 revival. (Boy, would I love to have seen that!) On screen, Rain was first filmed in 1928, titled Miss Sadie Thompson, and starring Gloria Swanson in the title role and Lionel Barrymore as Davidson. Miss Sadie Thompson was filmed again in 1953, starring Rita Hayworth.

Be sure to read about these three! Whatta story!

The role of “Handsome” was originally to be played by Paul Kelly, who’d recently been released from San Quentin after a 25-month stint for manslaughter. He was convicted following the beating death of fellow actor Ray Raymond, who had accused Kelly of playing footsie with his wife, actress Dorothy Mackaye. (Read more about this fascinating story here.) When United Artists chief Joseph Schenck got wind of the director’s casting choice, he put the kibosh on the plan and called for Kelly’s dismissal.

Joan Crawford wore the same checked dress throughout the entire movie. (This ain’t no Letty Lynton.)

To prepare for her performance, Crawford reportedly hung out with real-life prostitutes in San Diego so that she could study their behavior, attitudes, and lifestyle.

When can I see it?

Get out your umbrellas and catch Rain on March 31st on TCM. It’s worth your time.

And don’t forget to pop over to Speakeasy to read about the pre-Code gem my pal Kristina is recommending for this month!

Announcing The Great Villain Blogathon 2017!

•February 24, 2017 • 1 Comment

Here we go again, y’all!! Join us!


Villains 2017Time once again to face the evil with the annual Big Bad Blogathon celebrating cinema’s worst villains.

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Flawed Gents of Pre-Code: The Fellas of Night Nurse (1931)

•February 15, 2017 • Leave a Comment
Two of our flawed gents in a fight to the finish! (And I do mean finish!)

Two of our flawed gents in a fight to the finish! (And I do mean finish!)

In my ongoing look at the less-than-stellar fellas who populate the world of pre-Code, I’m shining the spotlight today on Warner’s 1931 film Night Nurse. This film stars the always-fabulous Barbara Stanwyck as the title caregiver, Laura Hart, who finds herself battling a variety of contemptible characters in her quest to save the lives of the two young girls in her charge.  There are a number of do-gooders in this feature, including Laura’s pal and fellow nurse Maloney (Joan Blondell) and Dr. Bell (Charles Winninger), chief of staff of the hospital where Laura receives her training. But there’s also a quartet of not-so-upstanding citizens – two doctors, a chauffeur, and a bootlegger – and it’s these flawed gents who are the focus of today’s post.

Eagan (Edward Nugent)

In one scene, this hospital intern is referred to as a “baby frightener.” It’s a rib-tickling visual that’s not far from the truth – Eagan’s sole purpose in life appears to be centered on serving as a constant annoyance to those around him. He’s rarely seen extending gentle treatment to patients or perfecting his bedside manner; instead, he spends his time engaged in such acts as grumbling when he’s required to give a hand to a passed-out gunshot victim (he’d rather read a magazine), offering inappropriate remarks to the females on the staff, and spooking the nurses by hiding full-size skeletons in their beds. It’s no wonder that, shortly after Laura’s first encounter with Eagan, Maloney warns her, “Take my advice and keep away from interns. They’re like cancer. The disease is known, but not the cure.”

Look at Stanwyck's face. It tells you all you need to know about Nick the chauffeur.

Look at Stanwyck’s face. It tells you all you need to know about Nick the chauffeur.

Nick (Clark Gable)

Shortly after receiving her assignment to serve as night nurse to young sisters Desney and Nanny Ritchey, Laura makes three key discoveries. First, their mother (Charlotte Merriam) spends more time getting drunk than she does caring for her daughters. Second, the little girls are being systematically starved to death. And third, the family chauffeur, Nick, is not a nice guy. When Laura first meets Nick, he appears to be a knight in shining armor; as she’s struggling to fight off the drunken advances of a partygoer at the Ritchey house, Nick steps in and knocks the guy cold with a one-two punch. But Laura can barely finish expressing her gratitude before Nick is manhandling her as well, curtly ordering her around and preventing her from making a phone call by socking her on the jaw. Before long, it becomes clear that Nick is not only “driving Mrs. Ritchey” (if you know what I mean), but he also plans to marry the constantly inebriated matriarch – for reasons that are far more sinister than they first appear.

Dr. Milton Ranger (Ralf Harolde)

As it turns out, the family physician, Dr. Milton Ranger, is the dastardly puppeteer pulling the strings in an effort to hasten the demise of the Ritchey girls and, with Nick, gain control of their trust fund. Ranger, whose facial tics and nose twitches indicate that he’s on some kind of drugs, verbally attacks Laura when she appeals to him for help with the girls. “Mind your own business,” he tells her, insisting that there is no cause for alarm regarding the children’s health. “You talk too much. You’ve picked up a lot of half-baked medical knowledge around the hospital. All nurses do. But I wouldn’t air it quite so freely, or you’ll talk yourself right out of your profession in short order.”

Mortie looks harmless (and his name is certainly harmless), but trust me. He's not harmless.

Mortie looks harmless (and his name is certainly harmless), but trust me. He’s not harmless.

Mortie (Ben Lyon)

Mortie is a sort of “honorable mention” in this parade of imperfect lads. Laura is introduced to him when he staggers into the hospital, the victim of a gunshot wound. When she bends the rules by recording the injury as a routine cut, Mortie proves that he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t forget a favor – no matter what he needs to do to repay it. A bootlegger by trade, Mortie first comes to Laura’s aid when he shows up at the Ritchey house to deliver an order of booze. When he learns that Laura wants to try to revive one of the girls by bathing her in a tub of milk, he volunteers his services and burglarizes a local delicatessen to snag the much-needed dairy product. And later, after Nick physically assaults not only Laura, but the family housekeeper and Dr. Bell, too, Mortie pops up in the nick of time (no pun intended) to save the day. He makes it clear that he’s carrying a gun, forcing Nick to exit the premises, never to be seen again. Mortie’s specific role in Nick’s permanent departure is never quite spelled out, but it’s clear that he was a chief contributor, if you get my drift. (But it was for a good cause!)

And that’s the flawed foursome of fellas who make their home in the world of Night Nurse. Directed by William Wellman, it’s one of my favorites from the pre-Code era, and these no-good gents certainly add to its appeal. If you’ve never seen it, check it out – you’re in for a real treat.

And you only owe it to yourself.

Pre-Code Crazy: 42nd Street (1933)

•February 7, 2017 • 7 Comments

Okay, y’all.

By now, you probably know that I’m not the world’s biggest fan of musicals. But there are some musicals that I simply adore, and I have to admit that 42nd Street is one of them.

In fact, until I popped in my DVD to watch the film for this post, I’d actually forgotten just how much I love this film, and how deeply its music is ingrained in my heart. From the first strains of the title song, I could feel my heart start to quicken, just a little, and before the opening credits had finished running, I was singing aloud to “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me.” (I then remembered that the first time I saw the film, many years ago, I fell in such instant love with this song that I played my tape over and over again, writing down the words so I could learn them all. I used to do things like that, back in the day. I also did it with the song “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” from the 1951 noir, The Strip. But I REALLY digress.)

The primary cast members, played by Warner Baxter, Ruby Keeler, Bebe Daniels, and Dick Powell,

The primary cast members, played by Warner Baxter, Ruby Keeler, Bebe Daniels, and Dick Powell,

What’s it all about, Alfie?

42nd Street, in a nutshell, serves up a very simple showbiz story, with a fairly standard cast of characters. There’s the intense and hot-tempered Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) “the greatest musical comedy director in the world today,” who’s not only in financial straits, but is also suffering from health problems. (“It’s my last show, and it’s got to be my best,” he tells the producer. “It’s got to support me for a long time to come.”) There’s the leading lady, Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), a diva who’s stringing along the play’s love-struck financial backer, Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), while she plays footsie with her old vaudeville partner (George Brent). And Peggy Sawyer, the plucky chorus girl (Ruby Keeler) who’s thrilled to be in her first show, and is poised to ride the serendipity train to stardom. And don’t forget Dick Powell as the aw-shucks crooner who only has eyes for Peggy.

Improbable? Aw, nuts.

Improbable? Aw, nuts.

Interwoven throughout this basic story, you’ll find a love pentagon (if you will), along with a passel of emotional sacrifices and misunderstandings. There’s never a dull moment. The dialogue is chock-full of memorable zingers, the songs are catchy, and the first-rate dance numbers by Busby Berkeley are just what you’d expect. (Incidentally, I’ve read several reviews that remark on the improbability of the dance routines, and how they would be impossible to actually carry out on a stage, but who cares? They’re great!)

Anything else?

This film was the screen debut of Ruby Keeler. Known for her “hoofing,” the actress was married at the time of the film to singer-dancer Al Jolson.

Warner Baxter is not exactly my favorite actor of all time. He’s not as wooden as, say, John Boles, but he’s definitely got some lumber tendencies, if you know what I mean. Still, I have to concede that 42nd Street contains my favorite Warner Baxter performance. He’s perfect for the high-strung director who seems like he’s going to have a stroke any second.

Ginger Rogers was a hoot as Anytime Annie.

Ginger Rogers was a hoot as Anytime Annie.

Ginger Rogers is a scene-stealing hoot. We first meet her at a casting call, where she shows up in a tweed suit, accessorized with a monocle, a Pekinese pooch, and a faux British accent. Her close pal (and fellow scene thief) is played by Una Merkel, who uses her relationship with an assistant director to snag spots in the chorus for her and her friends.

This film was my introduction to Bebe Daniels. I was an instant fan. It was also my first exposure to Ned Sparks, who delivers one of my favorite lines when he says that the play’s financial backer looks like “a Bulgarian boll weevil mourning its first born.”

As always, I marvel at how Ruby Keeler got to be so popular. She’s so unrefined, even ungainly, in the dancing department – Cyd Charisse, she ain’t – and her singing certainly leaves a lot to be desired. Still, she’s the type of performer that you can’t take your eyes off of (pardon my dangling preposition), and you can’t deny that she’s charming, likable, and cute as the proverbial bug’s ear.

The film contains one of those lines that’s been modified by history and frequently incorrectly entered in the annals of film (in the tradition of Cagney’s “Top of the world, Ma!” in White Heat, and Bogart’s “Play it again, Sam” in Casablanca). Warren Baxter’s Julian Marsh tells Peggy: “You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!”

Julian Marsh wasn't known for his calm and easygoing nature.

Julian Marsh wasn’t known for his calm and easygoing nature.

Speaking of quotes, here are a few more of my favorites!

“You’re supposed to be a dancer. All you need is a couple of license plates, and you’ll look like a Model T Ford.”

“It must have been tough on your mother, not having any children.”

“Not anytime Annie? Say, who could forget her? She only said ‘no’ once, and THEN she didn’t hear the question!”

42nd Street airs February 8th on TCM – whether you’ve never seen it before, or it’s an old favorite, give yourself a treat and tune in.

You only owe it to yourself.


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

The 2016 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival — Even More Adventures in Paradise – Part 7

•January 28, 2017 • 5 Comments

Now that we’re into a new year and the countdown to the upcoming TCM Film Festival is in full force, it’s time time for another installment of my year-long look at the 2016 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival! And this month, you get two for the price of one!

Hollywood Home Movies

For the second year in a row, I took in a special presentation at the festival by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), which screened home movies featuring a wide variety of Hollywood stars.

“It’s so nice to get an intimate look at people that you’ve only seen as characters,” said Lynne Kirste, AMPAS Curator for Special Collections. The presentation also featured Randy Haberkamp, Director of Educational Programs for AMPAS, and the silent home movies were accompanied on piano by Michael Mortilla.

Here are some of the many highlights of this fascinating presentation:

  • Footage of the Wampas Baby Stars of 1931 – WAMPAS stands for the Western Association ofMmotion Picture Advertisers, and each year from 1922 through 1934, WAMPAS held a promotional campaign that honored young actresses that they believed to be future screen stars. The stars of 1931 included Frances Dee, Joan Blondell, Anita Louise, Karen Morley, Marian Marsh, and Constance Cummings; the footage of the 1931 group was shot at Paramount Studios.
  • On-location filming in Arizona for the 1931 version of The Squaw Man, showing Warner Baxter, Lupe Velez, Dickie Moore, and director Cecil B. DeMille, clad in jodhpurs and boots. The footage also showed the microphone for the shoot, which looked like a giant disco ball.
  • Footage from the set of The More the Merrier, featuring director George Stevens and stars Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn (who was caught, shall we say, REALLY enjoying the rehearsal of a group of dancing girls). The movie also showed actor Grady Sutton, who worked in a total of 17 George Stevens films.
  • At the Beverly Hills Tennis Club in 1935, showing a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood notables, including Gene Raymond, Janet Gaynor, Frank Capra, Frank Morgan, David O. Selznick and his wife, Irene, Basil Rathbone and Constance Bennett. There were also shots at the club’s pool, showing John Garfield, Billy Wilder, and Errol Flynn.The footage was shot by actor Gilbert Roland, who was considered to be the best tennis player in Hollywood and who, in 1941, would become Constance Bennett’s fourth husband. (The clip below contains several of the movies shown at the film fest.)

  • Color footage of Ginger Rogers at her home in Coldwater Canyon, which she designed and built after her divorce from Lew Ayres. The home movies showed Rogers with her natural auburn-colored hair – it was rare to see her in color, Kirste said, because she made few color feature films. The movie showed Rogers swimming (she swam every day, Kirste revealed), as well as playing with her dog and playing tennis. The tennis footage drew a loud laugh from the audience – Rogers’s opponent was a man smoking a pipe while playing!
  • On location at the Hoboken, New Jersey, set of On the Waterfront, shot by an extra in the film. The footage showed stars Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb, as well as director Elia Kazan; Kirste told the audience that there were also several bodyguards on set because “they weren’t sure how the longshoremen would perceive their portrayal” in the film.
  • A 1957 visit to Disneyland showed a rare shot of Walt Disney smoking a cigarette – he usually did not allow himself to be photographed smoking.
  • On location at Scrim Lake, New York, on the set of Marjorie Morningstar, on which a number of townspeople served as extras. The footage included a shirtless Gene Kelly and Martin Milner playing ping pong. (Yowza!) At the time of the shoot, we were told, the film’s star, Natalie Wood was being wooed by her soon-to-be-husband Robert Wagner. We could see several lacy, white spots on the movie – we learned that this was mold on the film, which served as a warning not to store film when damp.

Tony Nicholas with his father, Fayard.The grand finale of the presentation featured an appearance by Tony Nicholas, son of Fayard Nicholas who, along with his brother Harold, formed the famed dancing group The Nicholas Brothers. Tony provided interesting details about numerous home movies featuring his father and uncle. “They never had a dance lesson in their lives. They taught themselves how to dance,” Tony said. “It was a joy for them to perform because they loved each other and loved to perform.” The footage included the following:

  • Performance at the Cotton Club with Ethel Waters and Duke Ellington.
  • Footage with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Tony’s godfather.
  • In Rio DeJaneiro with their mother. The brothers made their first film with Carmen Miranda, who became a good friend, and was present at Harold’s wedding in 1942 to Dorothy Dandridge.
  • Shots of the boys’ sister, Dorothy who, at age 95, lives in Hollywood.
  • Footage of Tony as a child, dancing with Harold. (“I’m so glad they had that footage of me doing the splits on film,” Tony joked, “because I can’t do that anymore.”)

Double Harness

The second part of this month’s post focuses on the screening of Double Harness, a 1933 pre-Code gem that I discuss in detail here, as it was one of my monthly Pre-Code Crazy pics last year. The story surrounding this film was a bit interesting (at least, it’s interesting to me!) – I missed the film’s first showing on Friday, as I opted instead to grab a spot in line to see Francis Ford Coppola and The Conversation. I heard through the TCM grapevine, though, that it was a wildly popular screening, so much so that many disappointed attendees were turned away. This popularity led to the film being screened a second time, on the last day of the festival, and this time, I was determined to see it.

Shortly before the movie was to begin, I was delighted to learn that actor James Cromwell, son of the film’s director John Cromwell, would once again be addressing the audience. In my previous TCM film fest experiences, special guests who’d appeared in an initial screening were not always – if ever – at the encore showings, so Cromwell’s presence was the cherry on top of my Double Harness sundae!

“My father would be so pleased that you all showed up to a second screening for his film,” Cromwell said.

James Cromwell on the red carpet, opening night of the film festival.

James Cromwell on the red carpet, opening night of the film festival.

The actor – who has appeared in such films as Babe and L.A. Confidential, and television shows including Six Feet Under, 24, and Boardwalk Empire – shared with the packed theater his admiration for his father’s directorial prowess, citing a scene early in Double Harness.

“When I saw [the movie] the second time, I noticed that he blocked the first scene in the kitchen really well,” Cromwell said. “It’s really hard to know how to move a lot of people in a scene and make it flow.”

Cromwell revealed that, in a move that Alfred Hitchcock would later make famous, his father made a cameo appearance in the film – you can spot him for a few seconds standing outside a movie theater. He also commented also focused on the fascinating pre-Code aspects of the film.

“The casting of the man who designs the wedding dresses as gay, the risqueness of the dialogue, the subtlety of [Ann Harding’s] mechanism to trap [William Powell], what she has on when her father arrives – and of course, the main theme of the picture, that she sees marriage as a business opportunity,” Cromwell said. “Of course, this could not have happened later.”

Double Harness was one of four films directed by John Cromwell in 1933 – the others were Ann Vickers and The Silver Cord, both starring Irene Dunne, and Sweepings, a little-seen Lionel Barrymore feature.

Stay tuned for more from the 2016 TCM Film Festival . . .

Flawed Gents of Pre-Code: Fredric March in Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

•January 15, 2017 • 6 Comments

From their expressions, I suspect that Jerry and Joan know what’s ahead.

The films released during Hollywood’s pre-Code era undeniably have their fair share of admirable, upstanding fellas. There’s Warren William’s long-suffering hubby in Three on a Match (1932). Leslie Howard as the sensitive and understanding fiancé of Norma Shearer in A Free Soul (1931). The good-hearted soldier, brought to life by Douglass Montgomery, who falls in love with a prostitute in Waterloo Bridge (1932).

More often than not, though (and, thank goodness), pre-Code features are also chock-full of menfolk who are not exactly the type of guy who married dear old mom. Instead, they’re dishonorable, unethical, immoral, and just plain flawed. And I love ‘em!

This post is kicking off a series that will take a look at the flawed gents of pre-Code, starting with one of my favorites, Jerry Corbett in Merrily, We Go to Hell (1932).

Played by Fredric March, Jerry is a Chicago newspaper columnist and aspiring playwright who falls for Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sidney), heiress to a canned goods fortune. After a whirlwind courtship, Joan agrees to become Jerry’s wife, despite Jerry’s fondness for the bottle, and even though he himself warns her that “any girl would be a fool to marry a man like me.”

Jerry neglected to mention that he prefers a drink over anything else.

After taking his vows, Jerry manages to walk the straight and narrow while he works toward his dream of becoming a playwright, but all heck breaks loose when his play is finally produced and becomes a hit. And it’s at this point, in case you hadn’t already guessed, that it becomes clear beyond all doubt that we’re dealing with one flawed fella. Let’s take a look at the evidence:

  • Our first glimpse of Jerry is at a swanky cocktail party, inhabited by a swarm of swells. But Jerry’s not chatting with his elegant hostess or nibbling on some tasty crudités. Instead, he’s on the patio, crouched behind a table filled with liquor bottles, surreptitiously flicking bottle tops in the direction of the party goers inside. “Silly people,” he slurs, chuckling to himself. “I don’t like that fellow with the little mustache.”
  • Not long after a “meet cute” at the party, Jerry and Joan start dating, but he doesn’t waste much time in frankly informing her that he prefers the company of men to that of women. It’s not that he hates women, Jerry assures Joan: “I just don’t think about them very much.”
  • Jerry tells Joan about his ex-girlfriend, Claire Hempstead (Adrianne Allen), admitting that he still looks at her photograph “every once in a blue moon.” In actuality, as we learn when Jerry returns to his apartment, Claire’s photo is hanging on the wall above his desk.
  • At the couple’s party to announce their engagement, Jerry shows up hours late, and when he finally makes an appearance, he’s three sheets to the wind, passed out in the back seat of a taxicab. Undeterred, Joan ignores her best friend’s advice and goes through with the elaborate wedding ceremony where, instead of a gold band, Jerry places a corkscrew on Joan’s finger. (You read that right – a CORKSCREW.)

    Jerry and Claire. And his ever-present cocktail.

  • Once married, Jerry manages to stay sober while struggling to fulfill his dream to become a playwright, but  he dives headfirst back into the bottle when his play is finally produced, starring, by the way, his old flame, Claire. By the time the curtain rings down on the play’s opening night, Jerry is completely cockeyed. And later that night, as Joan dutifully helps him to get undressed, Jerry drunkenly expresses his gratitude: “Thanks, Claire.”
  • In an effort to show Jerry how he looks when he’s drunk, Joan forces down several glasses of booze. But when she faces her husband with bleary, unfocused eyes and slurred speech, she finds that her plan has backfired. Instead of viewing her as a mirror held up to reflect his own shortcomings, Jerry finds her charming. “Really, Joan, you ought to get tight oftener. Merrily, we go to hell!”
  • Jerry starts an affair with Claire and, determined to be a “modern” wife, Joan decides that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander – she stays with Jerry but insists on having the same “privileges” that he enjoys. But when the couple’s open marriage extends to Jerry bringing Claire home and kissing her passionately in front of his wife and a room full of guests, it’s too much even for Joan. To his credit, when Joan walks out on him, Jerry finally wises up, realizing that he’s been devoting his energies to a fantasy, “when all the time I had a wonderful reality in my arms.” Unfortunately for Jerry, his revelations may have come a bit too late.

Redemption at the end? Perhaps.

Of all the flawed gents in the world of pre-Code – and goodness knows, there’s no shortage – Jerry Corbett ranks up there with there with the worst of them. He’s a character who seems to function under a cloud of inescapable doom, leaving you to wonder just how far he will go, and how low he will sink. As Jerry, Fredric March serves up a fascinating portrait of a man battling to overcome his demons – not only against alcohol, but against the lingering lure of his first love. His inner weakness is nearly his undoing, which is demonstrated most compellingly when, on the opening night of his play, he announces his intentions to go to Claire unless his wife prevents him. “If you love me, you’ll lock that door so I can’t get out,” he says, pitifully unable to stop himself. March infuses this scene with pathos and heartbreaking frailty, invoking our sympathy even as he leaps headlong into an affair.

If you’ve never seen Merrily, We Go to Hell, you only owe it to yourself to check it out. Directed by Dorothy Arzner, it’s a pre-Code gem, featuring a standout performance by Fredric March as a truly flawed gent.

Don’t miss it.