Dark Crimes: The Strange Woman (1946)

•February 4, 2015 • 6 Comments
What in the actual hell?!?

What in the actual hell?!?

One of my many resolutions for 2015 was to get off my “rusty dusty” and start converting some of my many blog post ideas from concept to actuality. Here, then, is my first post in my new series, which is to watch and write about every film in the “Dark Crimes” DVD compilation. A few of the movies in this 50-film set are noir standards, like D.O.A. (1949) with Edmond O’Brien, and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin, but most of them are new to me, and I’m looking forward to diving in!!

For my Dark Crimes inaugural entry, I’m taking a look at The Strange Woman, directed by Edgar Ulmer – of Detour (1945) fame – based on a novel by Ben Ames Williams (who also wrote Leave Her to Heaven), and starring Hedy Lamarr and George Sanders. And let me just say from the outset – the title of this picture is more than apt; it’s one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen. And that’s putting it mildly. (Watch your step – this entire post is one big spoiler!)

The film opens in 1824, in Bangor, Maine – a place with which I’m familiar primarily because horror author Stephen King lives there. We’re introduced to dry goods store owner Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart), town drunkard Tim Hager (Dennis Hoey), and Hager’s cruel and conscienceless young daughter, Jenny (played as a child in the opening scenes by Jo Ann Marlowe as such a nasty little cretin that I can hardly bring myself to believe this is the same actress who played that sweet little Kay in Mildred Pierce). And when I say cruel and conscienceless, I mean it. Playing with a group of children on a wooden bridge over a river, Jenny pushes a boy in the water after he fearfully insists that he cannot swim, repeatedly shoves his head under water with her foot (“Who cares?” she rejoins when one of the children expresses fears that she will drown the boy), and then, when the local judge rides by, heroically jumps into the water to “save” him.

The film is brimming with atmospheric touches. That's something, anyway.

The film is brimming with atmospheric touches. That’s something, anyway.

Jenny as an adult is played by Hedy Lamarr – and she’s just as vain as she was when she was a child (except now, for some inexplicable reason, she has a slight Austrian accent). She’s also as shallow as a kiddie pool – when her pal, Lena (June Storey) assures her that her looks are certain to attract the youngest and the best looking sailors at the dock, Jenny responds, “I don’t want the youngest – I want the richest.” She expresses a similar sentiment during an argument with her father: “This isn’t the life I was born for. Men like me. And it’s the men who have the money in this world. . . . I know you don’t want any man ever to look at me. But they do!” Incidentally, not long after this argument (during which Dad Hager beats Jenny with a strap while she stares into his eyes with a weird smirky smile), Jenny winds up married to Isaiah Poster – who ostensibly weds her to protect her from her abusive father, but who’s actually had his eye on her for years. (Let me say here that I never really knew for sure what happened to Jenny’s father. I thought he died from a slip and fall on his front porch, but the film never made any reference to his death. He just kinda disappeared.) Anyway, unfortunately for the practically senior citizen Mr. Poster, he’s got a son, Ephraim (Louis Hayward), who also has an eye for Jenny. By the way, it was Ephraim Poster that Jenny pushed into the river years before – even though she still insists that it was the other children who were responsible. “I pulled you out – didn’t we always stick together? Ephraim and Jenny: side by side against the world,” she reminisces. “Oh, we had good times here, didn’t we?” Aaaand it’s at this point that I start to question Jenny’s mental stability.

Just one big, happy family. Not.

Just one big, happy family. Not.

It’s also right about this time that the film completely goes off the rails, as far as I’m concerned. Mr. Poster develops some mysterious ailment, Jenny and Ephraim are practically exploding with sexual tension, lumberjacks come into town and start a seemingly endless drunken riot, Jenny saves her friend Lena from being attacked in the streets and then, for purposes that I never could figure out, allows her to move into her old house – and then George Sanders comes into the picture! He’s John Evered, the boyfriend of Meg Saladine (Hillary Brooke), who’s the daughter of the town’s judge (who was killed in the riot – did I mention that?) and a friend (as much as any woman can be) of Jenny’s. With John suddenly on the scene, Ephraim Poster doesn’t look quite so attractive to Jenny and she refocuses her energies in John’s direction.

That's Ephraim there, in the middle. And the less said about this dunderhead, the better.

That’s Ephraim there, in the middle. And the less said about this dunderhead, the better.

But first – Jenny decides she’s tired of having a husband and that Ephraim would be the perfect person to get him out of the way. “How long must he live, Ephraim?” she asks. “I want you to do something for us. You’re afraid. I could promise you so many things, and yet, you’re afraid. . . . Why does everything frighten you? You’re going to make me very angry. And if I get angry and go on wanting you the way I do, I might tell him what happened between us.” And, of course, like the weak-willed sap that he is, Ephraim KILLS. HIS. OWN. FATHER. And when his DUMB ASS goes back to Jenny, you know what she says? She tells him: “You can’t come into this house, you wretched coward. You killed your father.” OMG!!!!!

This ain't no Addison DeWitt.

This ain’t no Addison DeWitt.

Okay, I’m not going to drag this thing out any longer. This is what happens in the rest of the film. Ephraim turns into a hopeless drunk and winds up hanging himself. Jenny seduces John and he promptly dumps Meg and marries Jenny. Jenny learns that she can’t have children (again, a plot point that seems to go nowhere). A traveling spiritual evangelist, Lincoln Pittridge (Ian Keith) comes to town, holds a revival and, by great coincidence, preaches a sermon entitled “The Strange Woman” that seems to be speaking directly to Jenny (“What woman has put away a husband? Which of you has taken a man from her sister? You cannot hide behind your beauty. Your beauty has made you evil, and evil destroys itself! There will be no sons to mourn for you. No daughters to weep.”). (Wow, he’s like, a mind reader or something!) Jenny goes completely bananas, admits to John that she coerced Ephraim into killing his father, and then abruptly recants – but it’s too late. John leaves her. Jenny tracks him down to a cabin in the woods – but his ex-girlfriend Meg Saladine has gotten there first. What Jenny doesn’t know is that John has told Meg that he still loves Jenny and is returning to her – when she sees them standing outside the cabin together, she tries to run them over with her horse and carriage and winds up tumbling over a cliff to her death. Before she takes her final breath, though, she tells John, “I wanted so many things. I wanted the whole world. But it was really only you.”

Yet another creepy poster.

Yet another creepy poster.

I don’t know – maybe it’s just me. Maybe I was predisposed not to like this movie because I’m not exactly the world’s biggest Hedy Lamarr fan. (And, again, that’s putting it mildly.) Or maybe my expectations were too high – I’d skimmed a few reviews before I popped this film in the DVD player, and they all seemed to be far more impressed with this film than I turned out to be. Or maybe I just didn’t appreciate the film’s so-called “noirish” touches – to me, they were just so much hokum. Let me give you an example. Just one. It’s late in the film (which, incidentally, at 100 minutes seems twice as long), and Jenny has set her sights firmly on John – even though he seems too dense to have any idea. Anyway, in the middle of a huge rainstorm, Jenny goes with John to a shack 10 miles from town to see Ephraim. They both get more than they bargained for when they find Ephraim hanging around – literally. So Jenny goes into a brief freak-out where she’s blaming herself for his death and blah blah blah, but just minutes later, she accidentally on purpose lets the horses run off with the carriage so she and John can be stranded there together.  Later, while her clothes are drying by the fire, Jenny shoots a series of longing, lustful, come hither looks in John’s general direction, and before he self-combusts, he goes outside in the rain to remove himself from temptation. But Jenny’s no quitter, and she gets a big boost from Mother Nature when a tree in the distance is struck by lightning and actually bursts into flames (symbolism, much?) – providing the perfect backdrop for Jenny to sidle up to John wearing little more than a blanket, and plant a big wet one on him. And that’s the end of John and his fiancée.

Don't miss it, y'all.

Don’t miss it, y’all.

Oh! And let me tell you about just one other scene. You know when I mentioned earlier about the traveling evangelist and his sermon? Well, he was preaching to a full house, mostly comprised of Bangor’s women folk. And as he offered up his fiery rhetoric, the women in the pews started literally falling to their knees, they were so convicted by his speechifyin’. And as they packed the aisles, their guilty, sin-racked sobs filled the air like a chorus. It was nuts!

You seriously have to see this movie to believe it. It’s on YouTube – check it out if you get the chance. I know I’ve told you practically the whole story, but I just couldn’t help myself. But I promise you – it won’t ruin the movie for you.

(The movie will do that by itself.)

Pre-Code Crazy: The Public Enemy (1931)

•February 1, 2015 • 8 Comments

I love gangster movies from the 1930s, but for reasons that are not quite clear to me, I usually don’t watch them over and over like I do with so many of my other favorites. (Hmm.) As a result, when I recently watched The Public Enemy (1931), my Pre-Code Crazy pick for this month, I felt almost as if I were seeing it for the first time.

The film starts out in 1909 with a focus on two young hoodlums-in-the-making – Tom Powers (Frank Coghlan, Jr.) and Matt Doyle (Frankie Darro), who spend the bulk of their time playing pranks and engaging in petty crimes and misdemeanors. We’re also introduced to Tom’s older brother, Mike, who’s Tom’s polar opposite; Matt’s sister, Molly, who calls Tom “the meanest boy in town” and predicts that he’ll wind up in prison some day; and “Putty Nose,” a character of decidedly questionable morals, who buys stolen goods from the boys.

This is the movie with the famous grapefruit scene.

This is the movie with the famous grapefruit scene.

Six years later, the boys are on the verge of becoming full-fledged hoods, now played by James Cagney and Edward Woods. Tom and Matt’s first foray into real crime – armed robbery – ends badly, with the duo running for their lives from the cops after one of their pals is gunned down in the street. Skip ahead a few more years and the two young men, still inseparable, have finally gotten their collective lawless acts together – with the onset of Prohibition, they team up with local racketeers Paddy Ryan (Robert O’Connor) and “Nails” Nathan (Leslie Fenton), and before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” they’re buying tailored suits, driving fancy, block-long cars, and attracting the notice of swell dames like Mamie (Joan Blondell) and Kitty (Mae Clarke). (Although Kitty isn’t around for long – Tom dumps her after shoving half a grapefruit in her face, and replaces her with the high-class Gwen Allen [Jean Harlow]).

Matt and Tom have come up in the (under)world.

Matt and Tom have come up in the (under)world.

Tom’s ascent in the underworld doesn’t sit well with his self-righteous brother, Mike (Donald Cook), recently home from serving in WWI. The brothers had always nurtured a mutual aversion to each other; earlier in the film, Tom referred to Mike as “that sucker. He’s too busy going to school. He’s learning how to be poor.” And Mike is disdainful of the manner in which Tom earns a living – when Tom tries to give money to his mother, Mike steps in and orders him from their home, telling him he has “no heart and no brains.”

But Mike doesn’t have to look down on Tom’s lifestyle for long – the accidental death of “Nails” Nathan (he’s kicked in the head by his horse) proves to be the catalyst for the reversal of Tom and Matt’s fortunes. Like a house of cards tumbling after a strong wind, they experience one blow after another (am I mixing my metaphors?), and we are told after the film’s shocking end that the public enemy “is a problem that sooner or later WE, the public, must solve.”

Tom and Matt. Inseparable.

Tom and Matt. Inseparable.

So, what makes this film so great? First off, there’s the relationship between Tom and Matt. It’s not one of those childhood buddy depictions where one friend grows up to be “good” and the other one “bad,” a la Angels With Dirty Faces (1938). Or where the friends turn out to be rivals, like in Boom Town (1940). Tom and Matt were inseparable to the end, both equally entrenched in all their exploits, whether they were playing a practical joke on Matt’s sister, picking up women, putting the squeeze on local merchants, or committing murder. Their mutual regard and loyalty was at the core of this otherwise grim and violent film.

Tom's future in crime was practically predestined.

Tom’s future in crime was practically predestined.

Secondly, the film offers a fascinating look at the life of a criminal in Tom Powers, who was on a kind of trajectory toward a life of crime from an early age. Just as Matt’s sister projected, Tom’s future seemed to be inevitable, despite the fact that he had a responsible older brother, a loving mother and a – literally – hands-on father. (In a scene early in the film, his father takes a strap to Tom after learning that he has stolen a pair of skates. Before the beating begins, Tom defiantly queries in reference to his trousers, “How d’ya want ‘em – up or down?”) Even when, as a young man, Tom had a legitimate job as a truck driver, it didn’t take much persuasion for him to abandon it in favor of his criminal pursuits.

Other stuff:

Cagney's tooth was broken by Donald Cook's punch in this scene.

Cagney’s tooth was broken by Donald Cook’s punch in this scene.

The film was directed by William Wellman, who also helmed Night Nurse and Safe in Hell that year. In an early scene, where Mike Powers punches Tom, the director instructed actor Donald Cook to really punch Cagney. Cook did, and ended up breaking one of Cagney’s teeth. Cagney stayed in character, though, and played the scene to the end. Incidentally, Edward Woods was originally cast as Tom and Cagney as Matt, but Wellman later switched the two actors.

The screenplay, by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon, was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost to The Dawn Patrol.

Leslie Fenton played the ill-fated "Nails" Nathan.

Leslie Fenton played the ill-fated “Nails” Nathan.

The character of Tom Powers was reportedly based on Chicago gangster Earl “Hymie” Weiss and bootlegger Charles Dion “Deanie” O’Banion. It’s said that Weiss once smashed an omelette into the face of his girlfriend. Another real-life inspiration was Samuel “Nails” Morton, a member of O’Banion’s mob. Like “Nails” Nathan, “Nails” Morton was killed by a horse and, as depicted in the film, Morton’s friends later shot the horse to death. (“Nails” in The Public Enemy was played by Leslie Fenton, who married actress Ann Dvorak the year after the film was released. The two stayed together until 1945.)

Keep an eye on that hat.

Keep an eye on that hat.

Keep your eyes peeled for a couple of goofs during the movie. In the first, a car full of rival gangsters drive by Paddy Ryan’s bar, and the two passengers in the back seat toss bombs at the building. You can see that both bombs completely miss the target and roll on the ground, but seconds later, the bar blows up. The second goof is in a scene where Tom is outside in a rainstorm, hiding next to a set of stairs. At first, his hat is sitting straight on his head, but in another scene, it’s cocked to the left. Seconds later, it’s back on straight again.

The Public Enemy airs on TCM on Monday, February 2nd – do yourself a favor and check it out. And don’t forget to pop over to Speakeasy to read about Kristina’s Pre-Code Crazy pick of the month!

You only owe it to yourself.

The Miriam Hopkins Blogathon: 24 Hours (1931)

•January 22, 2015 • 15 Comments

To be sure, Miriam Hopkins is not the star of 24 Hours. Not on paper, anyway. She’s third billed, and she’s not even in the whole movie.

But for me, she IS the movie.

Before I go any further down that path, though, let’s dispense with a little housekeeping:  the plot. (Spoiler alert!)

The entire movie takes place over the course of – in case you hadn’t guessed it – 24 hours. And all kinds of stuff is going on – murders, mobsters, two-timing, backstabbing – and in less than 70 minutes! The film focuses on Jim and Fanny Towner, an unhappy couple who, although they’re “nutty” about each other, are both engaged in extramarital affairs. Jim is seeing nightclub singer Rosie Dugan, who, in turn, is continuously bedeviled by her estranged husband, a two-bit crook named Tony. In a fit of jealousy, Tony kills Rosie, and Jim – who was dead drunk in the next room at the time – is accused of the crime. Ultimately, Tony is killed by a rival gang member, Jim is cleared of the charges, and Jim and Fanny reunite with vows to rekindle their love.

But in other news – Miriam Hopkins.

Fanny and Jim and Tony and Rosie.

Fanny and Jim and Tony and Rosie.

Hopkins is Rosie Dugan, the woman with whom Jim (Clive Brook) is having an affair (and exhibiting very good taste, I might add). Jim’s wife, Fanny, is played by Kay Francis who, under normal (Hopkins-free) circumstances, would be the highlight of the film for me. But in this one, she – like everyone else – is just so much background.

We first meet Rosie when Jim – already half-drunk after tippling at a dinner party and downing a series of shots at a local dive – makes his way to a nightclub that bears her name. When Jim pulls back the curtain leading to the nightclub’s main room, we see, seated atop the piano, in a low-cut, glittering gown, none other than Rosie, who proceeds to sing a song like nothing you’ve ever seen or heard. It provides two of my favorite minutes in all of cinema – seriously. And I am making it my personal goal to figure out how to post a clip of it on YouTube. But until I’m able to master that feat, let me try to describe it to you.

First off, “singing” is far too mild a label for what Hopkins does with this song. She belts it out in a slightly off key. She moans. She shouts. She laughs. She soundlessly mouths the words. She sidles through the crowd, singing only to the men in the audience – completely ignoring the presence of their pissed off dates. She clutches her hair. She sighs. She warbles in a baby voice. She sings just inches from the face of one man, rolling her eyes in resignation when her attentions fail to raise the ardor of another.

Everything's Rosie.

Everything’s Rosie.

The song is called “You’re the One I Crave.” Here’s one of the verses:

“I’m yours for the taking. That’s just what is making me rave. Baby, come and get me. You’re the one I crave.”

But that’s just the beginning. Hopkins truly brings Rosie to life – she’s at once sweet, loving and sad (“I’m good leather – but I just ain’t polished.”), and fearless, tough, and bitter (“I got a whole wad of money in the other room, but you ain’t even gonna have a postage stamp.”). She makes you fall in love with Rosie, the same way Jim Towner did.

Hopkins is really in only five scenes: the opener where she’s performing, talking to Jim in a small room off the nightclub’s main floor, an encounter when her ex shows up at the nightclub, caring for the soused Jim in her apartment, and her final confrontation with Tony. But in her brief time on screen, Hopkins serves up a fully realized character.

Rosie is a rather heartbreaking persona – she’s still in love with her ex-husband (Regis Toomey, in an intriguing, sometimes over-the-top performance), but she refuses to take him back.  We’re given a limited amount of time to suss out their back story, but we learn a lot in a few minutes. We know that Rosie “tried [her] best to make something” out of Tony during their marriage. Instead, he’s a drug addict (one of the mobsters refers to him as a “shivering hophead”), an ex-con (“Even when I was up the river, I used to lay awake nights thinking about you.”) and a small-time crook (“Pretty little thing,” Rosie says about Tony’s gun. “You just wouldn’t be a man without it, wouldja?”) We also know that Tony is a chronic liar and that he was unfaithful to Rosie – he himself says he’s “had other women.” And despite Rosie’s biting insults and her callous exterior – she even goes so far as to have Tony bodily tossed from the club – we realize that Rosie is struggling to maintain her resolve. Her tear-wet eyes, her tremulous voice, and her delivery of her next song tell us how she really feels:  “There’s No Use Tryin’ To Leave That Man.”

In contrast to her fiery façade with Tony, Rosie is the polar opposite with Jim. No longer the effervescent songstress, she lets Jim see her anger and discontent. With him, her vulnerability rises to the surface, as she concedes that he’s still in love with his wife, and bonds with him over their shared despair: “It’s a funny world all right. You got everything people want. I got everything I wanted to have. Both of us ain’t got nothing.”

Taking Jim home with her, Rosie shows us another aspect of her personality – she treats him with tenderness, helping him remove his clothes and putting him to sleep on the sofa, covering him first with his coat, and then taking the spread from her own bed to place over him. But the true manifestation of Rosie’s “heart of gold” was yet to come. When she hears someone trying to enter her apartment, she locks the door to the room where Jim is sleeping and craftily hides the key in a jar of cold cream. Seconds later, Tony belligerently enters, looking for Jim, growing increasingly furious when Rosie insists that she’s alone and that she doesn’t know the whereabouts of the key to the next room. (“The maid lost it,” she offers.).

The end is near.

The end is near.

And when Tony grows violent, we witness the final expression of Rosie’s true feelings for him: “Look here, Tony,” Rosie says, pulling him into an embrace. “Didn’t our life together mean anything to you?” Sadly, Tony is beyond reason, and as the camera offers a close-up shot of a record playing Rosie’s version of “There No Use Trying To Leave That Man,” we hear the sounds of Rosie breathing her last.

It’s really impossible for me to convey how much I love the performance of Miriam Hopkins in this film – seeing it was a revelation. I never wanted it to end. (And when it did, the movie was pretty much over for me.) Before this film, I’d seen – and loved – Hopkins in many films: The Old Maid, Old Acquaintance, Design for Living, These Three, Trouble in Paradise, The Heiress – oh, I could go on and on. But I’d NEVER seen her like this. There’s just something about her melancholy, passionate, wearily vivacious figure of tragedy that struck me like a thunderbolt the first time I saw her, and has stayed with me ever since.

24 Hours isn’t exactly spilling off the shelves at Best Buy, but it can be found – you can get a copy for about a sawbuck at iOffer.com. I highly recommend it – it’s worth the price of admission just to see Miriam Hopkins belt out “You’re the One I Crave.” Trust me.

You only owe it to yourself.

—————–

This post is part of the Miriam Hopkins Blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and A Small Press Life

Click the picture at the right to check out the many great posts being presented as part of this event! 

Announcing the Pre-Code Blogathon! (Or: Silk, and Satin, and Lace – oh, my!)

•January 7, 2015 • 71 Comments

Precodegif2Jean Harlow. Joan Blondell. Warren William. Dorothy Mackaill. Kay Francis. Ricardo Cortez. Madge Evans. Leila Hyams. Lyle Talbot. Anita Page. Norma Shearer.

Pick a star, any star.

Or any movie released between 1930 and 1934 – that absolutely awesome, totally titillating, sinfully scandalous era of filmmaking known as pre-Code.

The 2015 Pre-Code Blogathon is a celebration of this brief but oh-so memorable period in the annals of cinema – one that featured more lingerie than you can shake a stick at!  Around these parts, we think that the films produced in the early 1930s are some of the best from Hollywood’s Golden Age – and if you share our fondness for these features and the performers who made them so unforgettable, you are cordially invited to join in the fun!

Precodegif3Your co-hosts for this event are:

Danny of Pre-Code.com (precodedotcom@gmail.com) and

Karen of Shadows and Satin (thedarkpages@yahoo.com)

If you’d like to take part, please leave a comment below or send an email to either of your hosts, including the name of your blog, the topic you plan to write about, and your email address. And help yourself to one of the banners below to advertise the event on your blog!

The blogathon will take place March 31 – April 3, 2015, in celebration of the 85th anniversary of the adoption of the Production Code.  If you’d like to post on a designated day, just let us know. (Otherwise, we’ll  assign a date to you.) Our participants so far are as follows:

Silver Screenings The Intruder (1933)
Speakeasy The Old Dark House
Flapper Flickers and Silent Stanzas Aline MacMahon
Now Voyaging Safe in Hell
Now Voyaging The Strange Love of Molly Louvain
Outspoken and Freckled I’m No Angel
Outspoken and Freckled Employees’ Entrance
Noirish Red-Haired Alibi (1932)
Noirish Passport to Hell(1932)
Mildred’s Fatburgers Red-Headed Woman
Mildred’s Fatburgers Golddiggers of 1933
Chiseler Phillip Holmes
Shroud of Thoughts Island of Lost Souls (32)
Acidemic Film Journal Waterloo Bridge
Hitless Wonder Five Star Final
Movies Silently The Monster Walks
WarrenWilliam Warren William
Immortal Ephemera Blood Money
I See a Dark Theater Baby Face
Island of Lost Films Island of Lost Souls (1932)
A Person In the Dark Call Her Savage
Queerly Different The Sign of the Cross
Once Upon a Screen The Divorcee
Once Upon a Screen Cuban Love Song
Classic Reel Girl Consolation Marriage
Classic Movie Hub Scarface
Silent Locations Lady Killer
Silent Locations Public Enemy
Silent Locations Night Nurse
Moon in Gemini Imitation of Life
Girls Do Film The Divorcee
Prowler Needs a Jump Freaks
Caftan Woman The Mask of Fu Manchu
The Movie Rat Blonde Venus
Second Sight Cinema The Bitter Tea of General Yen
Second Sight Cinema The Scarlet Empress
Second Sight Cinema Shanghai Express
Public Transportation Snob The Scarlet Empress
Public Transportation Snob Morocco
The Cinematic Packrat I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang
Critica Retro Story of Temple Drake
Mike’s Take on the Movies Tarzan and Tarzan the Ape Man
Sister Celluloid Christopher Strong
Margaret Perry Jean Harlow
Thrilling Days of Yesteryear The Sin of Nora Moran (1932)
Wolfian’s Classic Movie Digest Barbara Stanwyck
Joanie1977 No Man of Her Own (1932)
Vintage Cameo pre-Code/post-Code Busby Berkeley
Man on the Flying Trapeze Love Me Tonight (1933)
Smitten Kitten It Happened One Night (1934)
Movie Classics Song of Songs (1933)
Watch Over Me Movies Queen Christina
This Girl Friday Taxi
Spellbound by Movies Trouble in Paradise
Shameless Pile of Stuff Little Caesar
Forgotten Filmz Downstairs
Random Pictures Woman in the Moon
Random Pictures Murder at the Vanities
CineMaven’s: Essays from the Couch Shanghai Express
The Stop Button All Quiet on the Western Front
Cinematic Frontier Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Wide Screen World Joan Blondell
Blog of the Darned The Little Giant
Phyllis Loves Classic Movies Platinum Blonde
Karavansara Madam Satan
ilgiornodeglizombi The Unholy Three
Pure Golden Classics The Gay Divorcee

Come on — hop aboard the pre-Code train, and remember, in the words of Mae West,  “It ain’t no sin.”


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Pre-Code Crazy: Platinum Blonde (1931)

•January 1, 2015 • 14 Comments

Loretta Young’s birth date is January 6th, and TCM is celebrating the occasion by showing a string of films starring this talented and lovely actress, including such pre-Code gems as Big Business Girl (1931), They Call It Sin (1932), Weekend Marriage (1932), and Employees’ Entrance (1933). In fact, TCM is airing so many first-rate pre-Code features that I wasn’t sure, at first, how I would be able to choose one for my Pre-Code Crazy pick for January.

Then I spied Platinum Blonde (1931) in the lineup, and my decision-making experience abruptly changed from a dilemma to a no-brainer. Platinum Blonde has Loretta Young at her pre-Code peak, Jean Harlow at a stage in her brief career when she hadn’t quite come into her own but was showing signs of the promise to come, and a top-notch performance from a talented newcomer, Robert Williams, in what was, sadly, his final film role. But more on that later.

The story focuses on these three.

The story focuses on these three.

What’s the story?

Platinum Blonde focuses on a love triangle between newspaper reporter Stew Smith (Robert Williams), who falls for “platinum blonde” heiress Anne Schuyler (Jean Harlow), not realizing that his co-worker and closest pal (Loretta Young), is in love with him. It’s really just that simple. But, oh, what goodies lie beneath this uncomplicated plot!

Like what?

First off, the movie is directed by Frank Capra. Capra is perhaps best known for such “Capra-corn” as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take it With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Meet John Doe (1941). But during the pre-Code era, Capra helmed a string of pictures that were of an entirely different type – films like Ladies of Leisure (1930), Forbidden (1932), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), and this month’s pick – which were pretty much completely devoid of Capra’s soon-to-be-trademark sweetness, morality, and lesson-delivering. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Louise Closser Hale (left) was one of the film's many highlights.

Louise Closser Hale (left) was one of the film’s many highlights.

Small roles are played by Walter Catlett as a rival newspaper reporter, Louise Closser Hale as Anne Schyler’s mother, Reginald Owen as the Schyler family attorney, and Halliwell Hobbes as – what else? – the Schyler family butler. Each performer is only in a few scenes, but they make a memorable impact on the film.

Five writers were credited with working on the film; these included Robert Riskin, who was responsible for the dialogue, and also penned the screenplays for such Capra films as It Happened One Night (1934); and Jo Swerling, renowned for his work on classics that included Blood and Sand (1941), Pride of the Yankees (1942), Lifeboat (1944), and Leave Her to Heaven (1945). It’s no wonder that Platinum Blonde crackles with lines that are practically poetry.

The best part of the film is Robert Williams. I simply cannot say enough about this actor. He delivers his lines as if they’re all his own idea. He was such a natural performer, not a hint of artifice. Watching him portray Stew Smith is like eavesdropping on the character’s life, if you know what I mean. I’m not exaggerating when I say that he is one of the most talented actors I’ve ever had the pleasure to see. (Tragically, in October 1931, Williams suffered a ruptured appendix on the set of his next film, Lady With a Past, co-starring constance Bennett. Williams underwent emergency surgery, but he was diagnosed with peritonitis. Following a second surgery, he developed pneumonia, and died on November 3, 1931, just three days after the release of Platinum Blonde.)

Favorite scenes:

There are so many great scenes (like, basically, every scene that Robert Williams is in) but I think my absolute favorite is the one in which Anne Schyler tries to convince Stew Smith to wear garters. Down-to-earth and unpretentious, Stew is firmly opposed to the notion. Anne employs baby talk and kisses to sugar-coat her insistence on the wardrobe modification. For his part, Stew is just as resolute that he will never add garters to his personal attire, but he does so with a playful, loving speech: “I love you, dear, I’ll eat spinach for you, I’ll go to the dentist once a year for you, I’ll wash behind my ears for you, but I’ll never wear garters.”

This is from yet another scene that featured Anne's unique powers of persuasion.

This is from yet another scene that featured Anne’s unique powers of persuasion.

Anne promptly offers a sing-songy response to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell,” informing Stew that he’ll wear garters and like it – and Stew responds in kind, warbling his unwavering refusal. The scene continues in this vein until the fadeout (after which, incidentally, Stew is seen sporting the hated garters), but the scene is so delightful that you want it to go on and on. It’s especially enjoyable because it’s obvious that Jean Harlow and Robert Williams are making up their lines, and they seem to be having a great time together. I dare you to watch it without smiling.

Favorite quotes:

Platinum Blonde is fairly brimming with witty lines. Here are few favorites:

“Stewart Smith. My friends all call me Stew. An injustice, too, ‘cause I hold my liquor all right.” Robert Williams

“That’s the 14th crack you’ve made to me. I’m keeping count. When they get to 20, I’m going to sock you right in that nose. As a matter of fact, I ought to sock you right now.” Robert Williams

"Don't turn female on me."

“Don’t turn female on me.”

“There you go, talking like a woman. You’re my pal, aren’t you? Then don’t turn female on me.” Robert Williams

“It’s a good thing your father passed away before he saw insanity ravage the family. I can’t imagine what made you do such a thing. A reporter! Of all things, a reporter! A barbarian who lets his socks come down.” Louise Closser Hale

Other stuff:

The film was originally titled Gallagher – the name of Loretta Young’s character. When the film was shown to preview audiences in September 1931, the title was changed to The Gilded Cage, a reference to a ribbing Stew Smith received from a colleague. But when the picture was officially released later that month, the title was changed again, this time to Platinum Blonde, to make the most of Jean Harlow’s burgeoning popularity.

Don't miss Platinum Blonde on January 6th.

Don’t miss Platinum Blonde on January 6th.

In 2008, in an interview with TCM, actor Christopher Plummer was asked about the impact of “The Method” style, a type of acting that was popularized by such performers as Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. Plummer stated that Robert Williams was one of the “most realistic comedians the screen had. He made Cary Grant look like he was overacting…. To watch Robert Williams act was like seeing a comic using the Method, long before the Method became famous.”

As you may know, I love seeing goofs in movies. Keep your eyes peeled for this one. It’s in the scene right after Anne is trying to coax Stew into wearing the new garters she bought him. Stew is at work in the newsroom and, spotting the garters, his co-workers start razzing him about them. Stew receives a phone call from Anne, and when he picks up the telephone, he has a pipe in his mouth. A second later, though, when he says “Hello,” the pipe has disappeared!

Platinum Blonde is airing on the morning of January 6th on TCM. Do yourself a big, fat favor and make sure that you don’t miss it. And while you’re making plans for that day, pop over to Speakeasy and find out Kristina’s Pre-Code Crazy pick of the month.

You only owe it to yourself.

Happy Holidays!

•December 25, 2014 • 9 Comments

Norma Shearer and Shadows and Satin wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Happy Kwanzaa, and a safe and prosperous New Year!!

Remembering Norman Foster, on the Occasion of the Date of His Birth

•December 13, 2014 • 2 Comments
SSNormanFoster

Norman Foster, man of many talents.

Saluting one of my favorite pre-code actors today – Norman Foster, born on December 13, 1903. He’s not necessarily the best actor of the pre-Code era, and he’s certainly not the most remembered, but to me, he’s always a delight to watch.

Foster was born Norman Foster Hoeffer in Richmond, Indiana. He began his acting career in 1926, when he appeared on Broadway in Just Life. He made his screen debut three years later, appearing with Walter Huston and Kay Francis in Gentlemen of the Press. During the early 1930s, he went on to appear in some 25 pre-Codes – my favorites include Men Call It Love, with Adolphe Menjou and Leila Hyams (1931), Under 18 (1931), where he was the billiard-playing, ne’er-do-well spouse of Anita Page; Play-Girl (1932) and Weekend Marriage (1931), both opposite Loretta Young; and Skyscraper Souls (1932), starring Warren William and Maureen O’Sullivan.

In 1936, Foster stepped behind the camera, kicking off a whole new career as a director. He went on to helm several films in the Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan series; films noirs such as Journey Into Fear (1943) and Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948); and such popular fare as Rachel and the Stranger (1948), Father Is a Bachelor (1950), and Sombrero (1953), a musical starring Ricardo Montalban and Pier Angeli. He also wrote the screenplays for five Mr. Moto films, along with a number of other features, and directed numerous television series, including Zorro, The New Loretta Young Show, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, Batman, The Green Hornet, and It Takes a Thief (one of my mother’s favorite TV shows when I was little – she always used to call it To Catch a Thief. But I digress.) Along the way, Foster was married to actress Claudette Colbert for seven years, from 1928 to 1935, and to actress Sally Blane – also the sister of his co-star Loretta Young – from 1935 to his death in 1976. Foster and Blane had two children.

If you get the chance to see Norman Foster in action, check him out and see why he’s a pre-Code gem!

 
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