Pre-Code Crazy: West of Broadway (1931)

In the four years that Kristina and I have been recommending films for our Pre-Code Crazy series, I’ve never quite experienced a month like this one!

October is a notoriously difficult month for me to identify a film, what with all the horror pictures crowding the TCM schedule, and I’m usually left to choose from a number of great pre-Codes that I’ve already written about. And this year was no different – Three on A Match, Queen Christina, Red-Headed Woman, Dinner at Eight, Two Seconds – all are among my previously featured Pre-Code Crazy faves.

After reviewing the list of October films a couple of times, though, one film jumped out at me – The Front Page (1931). I’ve owned this movie since the 1980s – it was the very first film that I purchased on VHS. And in all the years since, I’ve never seen it. Perfect choice, right? Not so fast. When I started watching it, I encountered the same obstacle that has prevented me from viewing it all this time – I just don’t like it! I’m sure I’ve been forever ruined by His Girl Friday, the 1940 remake of The Front Page starring Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, which is one of my all-time favorite films. I’m also sure that, on its own merit, The Front Page is a perfectly fine film, but I just cannot get into it. So after 20 minutes or so, I gave up.

Undaunted, I turned to YouTube, deciding to check out The Lady Refuses (1931). It received a favorable review from my pal Danny, over at Pre-Code.com, so I figured I’d give it a whirl. But after watching the entire movie, I just couldn’t bring myself to recommend it. It was interesting (sort of), and I appreciated seeing Betty Compson in a film for the first time (at least, that I knew of – according to IMDB, she was in Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and goodness knows I’ve seen that multiple times), but it was a bit too creaky for my taste and I was mostly just glad when it was over.

So I decided to try YouTube again, this time settling on Tugboat Annie (1933), with Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery, but after just a few minutes, the film abruptly ended and the message on my screen informed me that I’d have to pay to see the rest of the film. NEXT!

Back to the YouTube drawing board. I searched for a few films that sounded as if they might be promising (Fast Life, with Madge Evans and Today We Live, a Joan Crawford starrer), but neither one was available. And then I lucked up on West of Broadway (1931), starring John Gilbert, Lois Moran, and someone called El Brendel. And here, dear reader, I found this month’s Pre-Code Crazy pick for the month!

This feature has a very simple and straightforward plot. Millionaire Jerry Seevers (Gilbert), after being seriously injured in WWI, returns home to learn that his fiancée Anne (Madge Evans) is planning to marry someone else. Jerry drowns his sorrows in the bottle, and gets some added help from Dot (Moran), a call girl Jerry hires to accompany him to a club one night. When Jerry encounters Anne and her soon-to-be-husband Tony (Theodore von Eltz), he impulsively introduces Dot as his soon-to-be-wife – and later that night, he turns this impulse into reality when he and Dot get married.

The main reasons to watch this movie.

The next morning, in the sober light of day, Jerry offers Dot a generous settlement to end the marriage, but she has fallen in love with Jerry and has no intention of letting him go. This infuriates Jerry, who accuses her of being a gold-digger and determines to cut her loose – while Dot, at the same time, resolves to help Jerry kick his drinking habit and holds out hope that he will one day return her feelings. I’ll let you find out for yourself how it all turns out.

After two viewings, I haven’t quite decided how I feel about this film – there are some things I love, some things (including gaping plot holes) that I definitely don’t love, and some things I simply don’t understand. But it’s definitely worth a look, primarily for the performances of Gilbert and Moran. Here are some miscellaneous thoughts and trivial tidbits about the film and its cast.

This was John Gilbert’s sixth talking film – in another five years, he would die of a heart attack at the age of 38. Legend has long held that Gilbert’s successful screen career was doomed when the talkies began because his voice didn’t match his virile screen persona. This is obviously a bunch of crap. Sadly, Gilbert was only in a handful of talking pictures before his untimely death, but I always enjoy seeing them.

I’d previously heard of Lois Moran, but I’d never before seen her in a film. Moran, who was once romantically involved with F. Scott Fitzgerald, was reportedly the writer’s inspiration for the character of Rosemary in his novel Tender is the Night. She rose to fame at the age of 15, when she played in the silent version of Stella Dallas, portraying the title character’s daughter, Laurel. Moran retired from films in 1935, after marrying Clarence Young, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce.

Gwen Lee’s off-screen life started a downhill slide around the time this picture was made.

Dot’s best friend is played by Gwen Lee, whose career started in 1925. She can can be seen in dozens of pre-Codes, but in 1932, she was sued by her mother, who charged that Lee was incompetent to handle her affairs. Later that year, Lee was sued by two local stores for non-payment. By 1938, her career was over, and she died in Reno, Nevada, in 1961, at the age of 56.

Ralph Bellamy has a small role as Mac, the foreman on the Arizona ranch where Jerry goes in an effort to restore his health. He doesn’t have much to do, except make cow eyes at Dot and come to her defense when Jerry verbally abuses her. He gets fired for his efforts and that’s the end of Ralph in the movie.

Another small part is played by Chinese actor Willie Fung; he played Wing, the ranch’s cook. Fung was in a great number of films in the 1930s – I know him best from his role in Red Dust (1932). He died at the age of 49 in 1945.

Jerry’s sidekick is played by El Brendel, a former vaudevillian whose real name was Elmer Goodfellow Brendel. An American of German and Irish descent, Brendel rose to popularity by adopting the dialect of a Swedish immigrant. His role in West of Broadway was really weird to me. He was obviously the movie’s comic relief, but I’m sorry – for me, he was neither comical, nor a relief. Here’s one example: on the ranch, Brendel’s character, Axel Axelson (hardy har har) encounters a couple of cowboys. After a brief exchange about Indians, one of the cowboys asks Axel if he knows Sitting Bull. “Do I know Sitting Bull?” he rejoins. “I was there the day he stood up!” (Groan.) An even better (or worse, as the case may be) example is a scene between Brendel and Willie Fung. Axel is stealing some milk from the ranch kitchen to soothe his indigestion caused by Wing’s cooking. Wing starts rubbing Axel’s stomach, and then Axel starts running Wing’s stomach, and . . . oh, never mind. You just have to see this whole routine to believe it. Bottom line is that I could have done with a whole lot less El.

West of Broadway airs on TCM on October 15th. Check it out.

And be sure to visit Speakeasy to see what pre-Code gem Kristina is recommending this month!

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~ by shadowsandsatin on October 7, 2018.

4 Responses to “Pre-Code Crazy: West of Broadway (1931)”

  1. I had to laugh at your journey to this one— on the upside you saw more PC’s and now know a few NOT to recommend! Questionable comic relief aside, I like the twist of the party girl actually being good, I can’t recall seeing Moran in a big role either, sounds like she did a good job in this. The streak does continue!!

  2. El Brendel must have been an acquired taste even at the height of his career. You may have seen him in Wings. I think he works best in silent movies where he can’t do too much schtick. Usually, I cringe when I see his name is in the opening credits.

    The Joan Crawford thing, Today We Live leaves me cold but you can’t go by me, I like The Front Page.

    • I’d never before heard of El Brendel, but going forward, I’ll be cringing too! And you’re actually not the first person I’ve heard give the thumbs down to Today We Live so, even though it’s Joanie, I’m not all that anxious to check it out!

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