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.

Pre-Code Crazy: Female (1933)

•January 6, 2017 • 6 Comments

Ruth Chatterton doesn’t get nearly as much attention as she should.

And that’s a real shame.

Perhaps best known for co-starring opposite Walter Huston in Dodsworth (1936), Chatterton was a pre-Code icon, appearing in no fewer than 20 features from the era, including some of my favorites – Frisco Jenny (1932), Lilly Turner (1933), and Journal of a Crime (1934). While she was a big star in her heyday, she’s probably lesser-known now because she retired from the big screen in the late 1930s, but she certainly didn’t take spend her retirement knitting in a rocking chair on the front porch. She not only continued her career on the stage, but she became a prominent aviator and wrote several best-selling novels in the 1950s. And according to her biographer, Scott O’Brien, the actress in real life was “ambitious, independent and had ideas of her own.  She was what they call ‘ahead of her time.’  She didn’t give a fig what people thought.  She would tell them what to think.”

Which brings us to my TCM Pre-Code Crazy pick of the month: Female (1933), in which, much like the actress herself, Chatterton’s character (for most the film, at least) is one badass, give ‘em hell, take no prisoners sister.

What’s it about?

Alison has a different kind of business in mind.

Alison has a different kind of business in mind.

Chatterton plays Alison Drake, president of the Drake Motor Car Company. It doesn’t take long for us to see the kind of female she is: a confident and intelligent multi-tasker – one minute she’s sternly chiding her all-male group of underlings, and the next she’s catching up with a visiting school chum between answering telephone calls, signing important papers, and barking orders over the intercom.

We learn, too, that her business is uppermost in her list of priorities – she’s disdainful of love and lovers. But don’t misunderstand; Alison isn’t completely immune to the peculiar charms of the male species. She may not be interested in romance or marriage, but when she’s got an itch that needs to be scratched, she’s not above inviting young, attractive employees to her home for a “business meeting,” which invariably morphs into, shall we say, less business and more pleasure.

Over time, though, Alison grows frustrated with the sycophants and hypocrites with whom she’s surrounded. “Doesn’t anybody like me for myself?” she complains piteously. Determined to enjoy at least one evening free from the yes men in her life, she sheds her finery and heads for a part of the city where she can rub elbows with the locals. Once there, she meets a man (George Brent) at a shooting gallery, and winds up spending the next few hours with him, sharing a couple of burgers and a few dances at the dime-a-dance joint before he heads off – alone (“You’re a nice kid,” he says, “but I don’t take pickups home with me. Understand?”). As it turns out, the man is Jim Thorne, the new engineering genius who’s been hired by the Drake Company – and in the blink of an eye, Alison’s neatly ordered world is turned upside down.

I love the scene where Thorne discovers that Alison is his boss. It’s his first day on the job and he’d just bumped into her – literally – in another part of the plant and, still knowing her as his “pickup” from the previous evening, accuses her of stalking him. A few minutes later, when he arrives at Alison’s office and sees her seated behind the desk, he tells her to vacate the chair “before the boss comes in.” And then he actually SNAPS HIS FINGERS AT HER, like she’s a dog: “Come on, come on, come on, come on,” he says. It’s really quite something. But Alison is as cool as the other side of the pillow – she doesn’t even react, just tells him to sit down. To this, Thorne offers a smirk and this arrogant commentary: “Baby, you certainly are fresh.” But then Alison serves up a one-two punch, first efficiently answering the intercom and then responding to the secretary who enters the room. The look on Thorne’s face is priceless as the realization of Alison’s position begins to sink in. And this time, when she tells him to sit down, he does.

 Who sez my favorite quote?

Alison (of course), when she informs her college pal that she hasn’t got time for romance:

“It takes too much time and energy,” she proclaims. “To me, a woman in love is a pathetic spectacle. She’s either so miserable that she wants to die, or she’s so happy, you want to die. . . . A long time ago, I decided to travel the same open road that men travel. So I treat men exactly the way they’ve always treated women. Oh, of course, I know for some women, men are a household necessity. Myself? I’d rather have a canary.”

Anything else?

In the background of this scene, you can see part of Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House.

In the background of this scene, you can see part of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House.

The famed Ennis House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, was used as the exterior of Alison Drake’s home. You can see parts of it in several scenes.

In one scene, Alison gets a report from a private detective she’s hired to track the goings-on in the life of Jim Thorne outside of the office. The detective includes in his report that Thorne attended a performance of James Cagney in Picture Snatcher – which, like Female, was released by Warner Bros. (Talk about shameless plugs!)

Ruth Chatterton and co-star George Brent co-starred the previous year in Lilly Turner, and were married in August 1932. They divorced in October 1934, but reportedly remained close friends.

The screenplay for Female was written by Kathryn Scola and Gene Markey, who was married at the time to actress Joan Bennett. He later married Hedy Lamarr, and then Myrna Loy. Scola and Markey also wrote the screenplay for Lilly Turner.

Female airs January 9th on TCM. Do yourself a favor and check it out. You won’t be sorry.


Don’t forget to visit Speakeasy to check out this month’s Pre-Code Crazy pick from Kristina, my partner in pre-Code crime!

The ‘What a Character!’ Blogathon: Hope Emerson

•December 16, 2016 • 10 Comments

She stood six-foot-two and weighed in at 230 pounds. She was a performer for more than 30 years, gaining prominence in film, on stage, in radio and television, and entertaining audiences with her “hot” piano playing in supper clubs nationwide. And she possessed a uniquely versatile talent that allowed her to portray, with equal believability, the sadistic, terror-invoking matron in Caged (1950) and the vaudeville performer who hoisted Spencer Tracy six feet into the air in Adam’s Rib (1940).

She was Hope Emerson. What a character!

Perhaps best remembered for her Academy Award-nominated performance in Caged, Emerson played in everything from Greek classics to musical comedy and, in addition to Caged and Cry of the City, she lent her presence to three additional noirs: Cry of the City (1948), Thieves’ Highway (1949) and House of Strangers (1949).

Emerson was born in Hawarden, Iowa, a small town near Sioux City, on October 29, 1897. Although an MGM studio biography would later claim that Emerson began her professional career singing and dancing at the early age of three, the actress said that she started working when she was 12 years old, selling music in a ten-cent store. “I was so big everybody thought I was 18,” she recalled. “I sat behind the counter and played the piano.” Later, Emerson honed her talents at the keyboard by playing for “every road show that hit town” at the local opera house owned by her uncle. After her graduation from Des Moines West High School, Emerson played stock in Omaha, Sioux City and Denver, then toured in a coast-to-coast vaudeville act called “June and Buckeye” with her partner, Ray Shannen.

The early days.

The early days.

By the time Emerson was 18, she decided that she was ready for the big time and headed for New York. To make ends meet, she relied on her piano-playing ability, appearing in local nightclubs and later signing on as an entertainer at Pennsylvania’s Buckward Inn, a popular resort in theatrical circles. It was during her run at the Buckward that a friend suggested Emerson try out for the Broadway play Lysistrata. “Norman Bel Geddes was directing the play, and I heard he was looking for a big woman for a part,” Emerson said. “I wrangled an interview with Bel Geddes [and] he took one look at me and yelled, ‘Finally, I’ve found a big woman.’ The play lasted two years.”

After a few more years in a variety of stage productions – including one in which she actually shoed a horse every night on stage – Emerson returned to the nightclub scene and was initially hired for a two-night engagement at the Ruban Bleu, an elegant club on New York’s East side. “The management thought I was too raucous, but evidently the customers didn’t. I played there for the next 46 weeks, and for the next 10 years did nothing but work in nightclubs.” Around this time, Emerson joined the Jimmy Durante-Garry Moore radio show, portraying a character known as “Toodles Bong-Snook” by day, and playing her piano and singing in clubs at night. Later, she found time to launch her own show, That’s a Good One, and was also heard on Ed Wynn’s radio show, on which she originated the voice of Elsie the Cow for the program’s sponsor, Borden.

In the mid-1940s, Emerson returned to Broadway to play a drunken yodeler in Chicken Every Sunday, then tried out for the musical version of Street Scene, but she found that her size was an obstacle. “They wanted someone who looked like Beulah Bondi who could sing and dance. I was constantly told, ‘We want a little girl – you’re too big,’” she remembered. “Finally, I got mad and said, ‘Just listen to me read. That’s all I ask.’ So I read for 19 people and met the man who wrote it. ‘Size doesn’t mean a thing to me,’ said he.” Emerson won the role of a malicious gossip in the play, in which she sang six operatic arias and, as she remembered, “never missed a show.”

The murderous masseuse in Cry of the City.

The murderous masseuse in Cry of the City.

Emerson’s performance in Street Scene caught the attention of a 20th Century-Fox talent scout, who promptly cast her in Cry of the City (1948), a taut film noir focusing on a small-time hood, Martin Rome (Richard Conte). Although Emerson’s role in Cry of the City was limited to only a few scenes, she caught the notice of the critics with her performance as a murderous masseuse, including the reviewers for Variety, who noted her “standout job,” and the New York Times, who included her in his praise of the film’s “fine supporting roles.” Of the memorable scene in which she was required to strangle Conte, Emerson later said that she was fearful of hurting the actor and was jokingly berated by the film’s director, Robert Siodmak, for her “lifted pinky” choking technique. Determined to infuse the scene with realism, Emerson “went all the way,” causing Conte to seek medical treatment!

The following year, Emerson was seen in her second film noir, Thieves’ Highway (1949), in a small role as a savvy, no-nonsense produce buyer. Directed by Jules Dassin, this gritty film focuses on 24 hours in the life of war veteran Nick Garcos (Richard Conte), who is bent on retribution against Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb), a corrupt merchant responsible for an accident that crippled Nick’s father.  Again playing a relatively minor role, Emerson nonetheless gave a memorable portrayal of the crafty fruit buyer whose formidable presence intimidates her fellow merchants, and the film itself was almost unanimously hailed by critics, including Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who noted its “top-form cast” and termed it “one of the best melodramas – one of the sharpest and most taut – we’ve had this year.”

By now, Emerson was becoming well-known in the Hollywood community, but she found that she was frequently confused with two other actresses, Faye Emerson and Hope Hampton. “If I had their looks and Hope’s money,” Emerson once jested, “I’d be leading a Technicolor life for love, instead of working in a Technicolor picture for dough.” Meanwhile, after Thieves’ Highway, Emerson remained in California, appearing next as the gun-toting Levisa Hatfield in RKO’s Roseanna McCoy (1949), a fictionalized retelling of the infamous feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. This picture was followed by a role as an overbearing mother in the actress’s third film noir, House of Strangers (1949), for which she learned to speak Italian.

Giving a lift to Spencer Tracy in Adam's Rib.

Giving a lift to Spencer Tracy in Adam’s Rib.

A fascinating character study, House of Strangers focuses on the lives of the Monetti family, whose close-knit relationship is severed because of a banking scandal. For her performance as a stern, uncompromising Italian mother, Emerson was singled out for acclaim in Citizen News and Motion Picture Herald, and the film itself was praised by the latter publication as “dramatic, punchy, understanding, tender at times, and earthily humorous.” Emerson followed this box office hit with a role as an irate landlady who evicts William Powell from his apartment in Fox’s musical comedy Dancing in the Dark (1949), then played a circus performer in Adam’s Rib (1949), starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Featuring Judy Holliday and Jean Hagen in their first significant roles, this sophisticated comedy was highlighted by a courtroom scene in which Emerson was required to lift Tracy several feet off the ground. “We waited a week for him to get up the courage to do that scene,” Emerson told columnist Hedda Hopper, “He didn’t trust me. I don’t blame him – I don’t trust myself. We’d never have gotten the scene if there’d been more than one take, but we did it in one take and I damned near broke my arm and my back. Spencer wouldn’t have done it again for anything.”

After well-received Adam’s Rib, the actress was seen in Universal’s Double Crossbones (1950), a musical comedy starring Donald O’Connor, and Paramount’s Copper Canyon (1950), a run-of-the-mill Western starring Hedy Lamarr. Emerson’s appearance with the glamourous brunette in this film prompted the good-humored actress to quip, “I’m always the contrast gal – the ugly duckling who makes everyone else look like a graceful swan. But with Hedy and me in the same picture, they ought to call it Beauty and the Beast!”

Scariest prison matron in town.

Scariest prison matron in town.

Next, as Evelyn Harper in Caged, Emerson’s final film noir appearance, the actress played the role with which she is best identified, a sadistic matron described by one critic as “evil incarnate.” Labeled by critics as “vicious and inexorable,” Emerson offered an unforgettable performance, creating a character with a steely exterior and a heart to match. Her temperament is evidenced early on, after one inmate severs an artery during an escape attempt. As the women lies bleeding on the cold prison floor, Harper callously suggests: “The cold hose will quiet her down.” And later, she brazenly upbraids the warden for her kind-hearted techniques: “Do you know how [the prison] ought to be run? Break ‘em in two if they talk out of turn. Anyone who doesn’t toe the mark sits in solitary for one month. Bread and water. One funny move from a girl and I’d clip every hair off her head. That’s the way it used to be run and that’s the way it ought to be run. Just like they’re a bunch of animals in a cage.” Although the critic for the New York Times panned the film as a whole for its “cliché-ridden account” of prison life, most reviewers applauded the film and its principal players, especially Emerson, who received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her efforts (she lost, however, to Josephine Hill for Harvey).

Soon after the release of Caged, Emerson noted the series of “bad girls” that she had played since her film debut. “For 20 years before I came to Hollywood I did comedy,” she said. “Then I got into the worst rut on the screen, killing, choking people and playing jail matrons. Since I got in pictures, people write to ask why I do such terrible things. They all think I’m a sadist and figure my family must be highly abused.” But the actress’s life off-screen was a far cry from her film persona. Since the death of Emerson’s father in 1935, she had taken care of her wheelchair-bound mother, with whom she lived until her mother died. Despite her devotion to her only living parent, however, and her size and weight notwithstanding, Emerson was seldom “beau-less,” according to the press. Although she would never marry, Emerson was seen most often during the 1950s in the company of Los Angeles jeweler Bob Overjorde who, at six-foot-three, was an ideal physical match for the immense actress. “When we enter a restaurant, everyone looks as though they’re afraid we’ll literally raise the roof,” Emerson cracked, “but they soon get used to us.”

As a pioneer in Westward the Women.

As a pioneer in Westward the Women.

On screen, Emerson was seen in MGM’s Westward the Women (1951), a Robert Taylor starrer about a wagon train full of women who trek across country from Chicago to California, followed by several features for Republic Pictures, including Belle LeGrand (1951), a mediocre musical Western; The Lady Wants Mink (1953), a mildly amusing comedy about a woman who tries to grow her own mink when her husband can’t afford to buy her a fur coat; and Champ for a Day (1953), a hard-hitting crime drama. During the rest of the decade, Emerson appeared in only four pictures, including two big-budget box office successes, Casanova’s Big Night (1954), a costume comedy starring Bob Hope and Joan Fontaine, and Untamed (1955), an adventure-romance with Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward that was advertised as being “Africolosssal” and dubbed by many as the African Gone with the Wind. Her last screen appearance would be in All Mine to Give (1957), a four-hanky tearjerker about the efforts of an orphan to find homes for his baby siblings on Christmas Day.

During this time, Emerson also reached a new level of fame with roles on two popular television series, Peter Gunn, on which she played a nightclub owner known as “Mother,” and The Dennis O’Keefe Show, which featured her as “Sarge.” Having conquered every performing medium, Emerson’s prolific career subsided in the late 1950s when she was diagnosed with a liver ailment. Then, in spring 1960, after driving from Phoenix to California, she entered Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, where she died a few days later, on April 24, 1960. She was 62 years old.

Hope Emerson: What a Character!

Hope Emerson: What a Character!

With a career that spanned four decades, Hope Emerson possessed a unique talent that was equally adaptable to comedy or drama, and an inner fortitude that sustained her even in the bleakest of times. But although the actress would eventually never want for work, and would maintain houses in Iowa, New York and Hollywood, she seemed to never forget the early years of her career when she “starved successfully,” and she once claimed that “making money” was her only hobby. “My life was never easy. I have never had time to play,” Emerson said. “But I love the work. I have the best time playing the worst part in the world. I work on my voice all the time – I always figure that someday I’ll have to go back to nightclubs or some beat-up saloons. But that’s my life and I love it. I’ll work until I’m so old they’ll have to wheel me in.”


This post is part of the “What a Character!” Blogathon, hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Kellee at Outspoken and Freckled, and Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club. Visit these blogs to read a variety of posts on Hollywood’s greatest character actors!

You only owe it to yourself.


It’s the Kirk Douglas 100th Birthday Blogathon!

•December 9, 2016 • 19 Comments

December 9, 2016:  the day that we all say HAPPY 100th BIRTHDAY to that master of fiery intensity, that possessor of mega-talent, the one who wears that cleft chin so well: Kirk Douglas!

Join us in celebrating the centennial of this legendary, first-rate actor by diving into some great posts all about Kirk!

The Hook (1963) Speakeasy
The Kirk Douglas Recipe Silver Screenings
The Vikings (1958) Back to Golden Days
Ace in the Hole/The Big Carnival (1951) Once Upon a Screen
Detective Story (1951) Film Noir Archive
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) Micro-Brewed Reviews
Posse (1975) Mike’s Take on the Movies
Profile of Kirk Douglas In the Good Old Days of Hollywood
I Walk Alone (1948) Cinemaven’s Essays From the Couch
Paths of Glory (1957) Defiant Success
Champion (1949) The Stop Button
Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) Twenty Four Frames
Young Man With a Horn (1950) Outspoken and Freckled
Seven Days in May (1964) goodolthisanthat.blogspot.com/
Lust for Life (1956) Old Hollywood Films
A Letter to Three Wives (1949) Caftan Woman
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) Critica Retro
The Simpsons: The Day the Violence Died The Filmatelist
Out of the Past (1947) Paula’s Cinema Club
The Final Countdown (1980) The Midnite Drive-In
Seven Days in May (1964) The Wonderful World of Cinema
The Fury (1978) Classic Film and TV Cafe
Lust for Life (1956) Wide Screen World
Seven Days in May (1964) Vienna’s Classic Hollywood