Friday, 22 July 2016

When Harlow was just an extra

It's hard to imagine that an actress with such obvious radiance and allure as Jean Harlow, had to battle it out with thousands of other starlets and chorus girls for extra and bit roles. It seems her star quality was not as clear to film moguls of the late 1920s as it is to contemporary viewers. 
Surprisingly, Harlow had an interesting and varied time before her appearance as the sultry Helen in Hells Angels (1930) and even up until the beginning of her MGM years in 1932. Whether it was studio indecision or Harlow's colourful personal life, her career didn't really get on track until Red Dust (1932). Her films roles before 1932 consisted of a strange array of vamps, gangster’s molls and blonde bimbos. Most Harlow-lovers will know of her early performances in The Secret Six (1931), Iron Man (1931) and Public Enemy (1931), but several of her more fleeting film appearances are not so well-known. Below are my top 5:

5) Why Be Good? (1929)
A great example of a Jazz era flapper film, Why Be Good? (1929) was not only a triumph for silent star Colleen Moore but a chance for film audiences to have a 'blink-and-you'll-miss-it' glimpse at a young Jean Harlow. Aged 18 and already with her signature platinum blonde hair, Harlow, was an obvious chose as an extra in the popular film. Harlow plays the dubious role of 'Blonde on Rooftop Bench at Junior's Second Party' and can barely be seen at the top right of this scene:

4) City Lights (1931)
Despite her breakthrough role in Hells Angels (1930), Harlow still appeared as an extra in subsequent films. One included in a nightclub scene in Charlie Chaplin's City Lights (1931). 
She is barely visible but seemed to make an impression on the maverick director according to a piece from a 1933 Liberty magazine found on the Discovering Chaplin website:  
"While City Lights was in the making, Charlie became interested in a young woman, an extra. The peculiar colour of her hair attracted him. She was provocatively alluring. 
"At the same table at which this extra girl was seated was an older woman. I learned they were mother and daughter. He instructed me to have the older woman promoted! She should play the bit of the indignant matron who sits upon the burning cigar in that sequence. It was only when he discovered that the woman her hair cut in a boyish bob that he changed his mind. 
"At the time I made a note that the name of the mother and daughter was Pope--a Mrs. Pope and Jean Pope. Later I discovered that the girl had blossomed forth--in Hell's Angels - as Jean Harlow! The mother was now Mrs. Marino Bello."
("The Private Life Of Charlie Chaplin" by Carlyle Robinson, Liberty, 1933)

3) Scarface (1932)
During her years playing mainly 'gold diggers' or 'gangster molls', Harlow made a surprise cameo appearance in iconic gangster film, Scarface (1932). Playing 'Blonde at Paradise Club', she appears more like the Harlow that would later become a box office favourite in Bombshell (1933) and Red Dust (1932). I should say there is still uncertainty whether or not it is in fact Harlow or a Harlow-look-a-like. Biographer David Stenn claims it is her while Mark Vieira said she was out of Hollywood at the time of the shoot. Take a look:

Saturday, 9 July 2016

A to Z of Precode Gays & Lesbians

Despite any inference or inclusion of LGBT people or 'sex perversion' - as it was called - being a fundamental no-no in the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code, Precode films are full of references to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual people both to increase dramatic tension and for comedic effect. Whether as a 'sissy' or the stereotypical 'butch woman', several actors made a living out of playing these roles. Below is my A to Z of the best and worst of Precode LGBT:

A - Arthur, Johnny

A pretty and over-the-top actor, Johnny Arthur, took a break from his long term stage career to feature in films. With the coming of sound, Arthur was developed into a supportive, comedic relief character playing mostly overt homosexuals, 'pansies' or ultra-posh salesmen. He appeared in 26 Precode era films including the infamous lost movie, Convention City (1933). His best Precode appearances include in The Desert Song (1929), She Couldn't Say No (1930) and Penrod and Sam (1931). Arthur's quality and quantity or films decreased at the beginning of the war and never fully recovered. His 'pansy' typecast also technically became banned post-1934 but Arthur succeeded into more 'wimpy', 'weak' characters. He passed away, aged 68 on December 31, 1958. Despite acting in film for almost 30-years, there was no money in Arthur's estate for a proper burial and he grave was left unmarked until November 2012. 

B - Boys will be boys

Wonder Bar (1934) is filled with bags of controversy. Between the black-face musical scenes, adultery, innuendo and countless double entendres, murder without getting caught and even the main character seeming cajoling a man to commit suicide so he could dump a dead body in his car, it is pretty shocking. Therefore, it is not surprising, the film caught the eye of production code administrators. Despite these elements, the film is mostly talked about today because of its illusion to homosexuals (a banned subject at the time) through an interesting dance scene. A handsome man asks a dancing couple if he could cut in. The female partner, expecting his attention, agrees, only to see him dance with her male partner. The main character, played by Al Jolson, then flaps his wrist and says, "Boys will be boys! Woo!"

C - Call her Savage

Clara Bow's 1932 film Call Her Savage is one of those shocking Precode movies which even modern audiences might find cringe worthy. Featuring countless 'forbidden' topics including rape, mixed race relationships, swearing, alcoholism, prostitution, adultery and not to mention the tragic death of a new born baby living in poverty, this film has everything. Slotted in between scenes of craziness is one including two clearly gay waiters dressed as French maids dancing and singing in what appears to be a gay bar. The two men appear to be having a great time singing about the pleasures of sailors in pajamas and so is the audience.

D - Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich's performance as Amy Jolly in Morocco (1930) proved that the fierce, blonde diva could get away with pretty much anything in the eyes of Precode audiences. I am referring to the scene where Dietrich performs "Quand l'amour Meurt" or "When Love Dies" at a nightclub. Dressed in a top hat and tails (see Vests, pants and ties below), she proceeds to sing the song before taking a flower from the hair of a woman in the audience then playfully kissing her on the mouth. No one appears to question her actions and she is even applauded. This scene is the only hint at Dietrich's bisexually in the film with the plot essentially a love story between Dietrich and Gary Cooper.

E - Effeminate

Effeminate is just one term used to describe the not-spoken-but-obvious homosexual character. Other terms included - pansy, sissy, fairy, nannie, fruit, queer and queen. They were clearly portrayed with everything from their costume to manner to the actors that played them pointing to their homosexuality. Richard Barrios book 'Screened Out' described the stereotype as:
"The fedora hat, the gestures that alternatively swept and minced, the little mustachio, the flower in the lapel - the pansy was as immediately recognisable on screen as he was in the urban sidestreets."

F - Frederici, Blanche

At age 42, Blanche Frederici, was older than most actresses who appeared on film for the first time. Frederici was known for playing mostly stern, masculine and uptight women in her Precode era films. She was often typecast as an older governess, nurse or unhappy wife. Frederici is mostly known for her role of a housekeeper in Night Nurse (1931), a chaperone in Flying Down to Rio (1933) and as a motel' owner's wife in her last film, It Happened One Night (1934). She died suddenly and unexpectedly, aged just 55, of a heart attack on December 23, 1933.

G - Girl Crazy (1932) ect.

I am using the letter 'G' to refer to the crazy collection of Precode Wheeler and Woosley films. You can't refer to just one when talking about references to the LGBT community because all of their films seem to question the true on-screen sexuality of the pair whilst intermingling them with a seemingly endless supply of barely clothed (sometimes actually naked) women. The duo made 21 pictures together with Peach O'Reno (1931), Diplomaniacs (1934), and Hips Hips Hooray (1934) and Girl Crazy (1932) their best films. Unfortunately I don't have enough room to mention all the suspect scenes in W & W's films, but believe me they included everything from the 'sissy' roles to sleeping in the same bed (Diplomaniacs) to double entendres and male to female cross-dressing (Peach-O-Reno). W & W were a strange combination, sometimes appearing as the homosexual for laughs but always getting a girl before the closing credits. Still, despite the happy 'straight' ending the pair never parted company to start separate lives. W & W also can't seem to go through a film without kissing each other. For example in Hip Hips Hooray the duo have a smooch with Wheeler commenting that Woolsey taste like "“lavender and old lace!". But don't take my word for it, some of W & W films are unbelievable, check them out.   

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Behind the camera - Fascinating on set photos part 1

Nothing gives a 21st Century girl more of an insight into the real ins-and-outs of Precode Hollywood than behind the scene images. Sometimes just promotional shots put out by studio publicity departments or perhaps something more telling, backstage photos are always amongst my favourite images of Precode actors and actresses. They often provide viewers a special insight into the process behind the making of a film from technology to costume and makeup design to the job of a director. Below are some of the most interesting in my collection. I plan to do a few more posts featuring these images, so keep watching!

1) Barbara Stanwyck deep in thought on the set of 'Ever in My Heart' (1933)

2) Director, Frank Borzage, watches on as Gary Cooper initiates a love scene with Helen Hayes in ‘A Farwell to Arms’ (1932)

3) Henry Wilcoxon and Claudette Colbert chat to director, Cecil B. DeMille, on the set of ‘Cleopatra’ (1934) 

4) Fredric March (aka Mr Hyde) with director Rouben Mamoulian and a cheeky Miriam Hopkins on the set of ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ (1931)

5) Maureen O’Sullivan on the set of ‘Tarzan the Ape Man’ (1932)

6) Jean Harlow posting on the set of ‘Red Dust’ (1932)

7) Greta Garbo and Clark Gable catch a secret moment on the set of ‘Susan Lenox (Her Rise and Fall)’ (1931)

8) Gary Cooper and Shirley Temple between scenes on ‘Now & Forever’ (1934)

9) Clara Bow preparing for a scene on (I think) ‘Hoopla’ (1933)

10) Director Howard Hawks with Carole Lombard and John Barrymore during filming of ‘Twentieth Century’ (1934) 

11) Carole Lombard and Clark Gable take a lunch break on ‘No Man of Her Own’ (1932) 

(This film was released seven years before Lombard and Gable married. Rumour has it they didn’t get on during the making of the film, funny how things change.)

12) Boris Karloff having his makeup and costume ‘removed’ following a scene for ‘The Mummy’ (1932)

13) Norma Shearer applying makeup on the set of ‘The Last of Mrs. Cheyney’ (1929)

14) A makeup artist applies bruises to Jean Harlow for the film ‘Hold Your Man’ (1933)

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

She's got legs - Fabulous photos of Joan Blondell's greatest asset

Probably the hardest working actor of the Pre-code era, Joan Blondell, appeared in about 40 films and took thousands of other press photos during that five years. To me she will always be the queen of the 'Cheescake’ photo. In almost every photo I see of Joan she is either in a swimsuit or showing off a fair amount of leg. I think her large and amazing photographic portfolio is one of her legacies and not one to be forgotten. Take a look of a collection of images I compiled on her best 'leggy' shots from the Pre-code era:

Saturday, 7 May 2016

The Never Films: Honor of the Family (1931)

                The second in what I hope will be several posts on lost and, now, forgotten films of the Pre-code era. For more information on lost films and film preservation go to the National Film Preservation Foundation
Although he was initially brought to Hollywood in early 1931 to appear in Expensive Women (1931) with Dolores Costello and H.B. Warner, Honor of the Family (1931) will always be recognised as Warren William's first speaking role. In the romantic melodrama based on a play by Balzac, William was cast as the romantic lead Captain Boris Barony, who apparently wowed audiences with his charm, striking good looks and skill when fencing without wearing a shirt. I say 'apparently' because this film is now lost and not available for viewing by modern film audiences. Nevertheless, Honor of the Family provided William's breakout Hollywood performance with many more hits to come, including Under 18 (1931) later that year.

Despite William being undeniably perfect for the role, newspaper articles from the period show that Walter Huston was initially contracted to star in the film. Newspapers, such as, Film Daily reported Huston as appearing in the film from around June 1930 until approximately January, 1931. An example of a press article includes:
"James Ashmore Creelman is writing the adaption and dialogue for 'The Honor of the Family' from the Otis Skinner stage play which First National will use as a vehicle for Walter Huston."
An article in the Evening Independent on December, 15 1930 said Huston would be returning from Europe in January to complete the film. In the resources available, the film's lead is not mentioned from late January until April 24 when William is announced to be leading man:
"Warren William who made his debut on the talking screen by playing opposite Dolores Costello in "Expensive Women" for Warner Bros will play opposite Bebe Daniels in "The Honor of the Family"."
To make things easier, here is a timeline of the making of the film:

Film Timeline:
          - June 17 1930: Walter Huston announced as lead in new film

          - July 18 1930: Lenore Coffee assigned to adaption

          - January 18 1931: James Ashmore Creelman named as writer

          - March 30 1931: Bebe Daniels named as female lead

          - April 3 1931: Lloyd Bacon named as director. Film now discussed as a 'Bebe Daniels vehicle' instead of a 'Walter Huston film'

          - April 24 1931: Warren William announced as lead

          - April 30 1931: "Bebe Daniels leave on the Century today for Hollywood to begin work in "The Honor of the Family" for First National

          - May 7 1931 - Pending the beginning of rehearsals of "The Honor of the Family" the next Bebe Daniels vehicle, Warren William, well-known Broadway actor, is lending a hand at the First National dramatic training school, assisting Ivan Simpson."

          - May 7 1931 - Margaret Fielding announced as appearing in a "prominent role". She however was not in the final cast.
          - May 10 1931 - Dita Parlo has been assigned to First National "The Honor of the Family". It will be her first English speaking role.

          - May 14 1931 - "Production has begun at First National studios on "The Honor of the Family", the next Bebe Daniels starring vehicle.

          - May 25 1931 - "Blanche Friderici and C. Henry Gordon are late additions to the case of "The Honor of the Family" now in production at the First National studios.

          - June 7 1931 - "Honor of the Family" completed.

          - July 4 1931 - "The First National production of "Honor of the Family" recently completed at the West Coast studios with Bebe Daniels in the leading role, will be previewed at a theatre near Los Angeles next week. The cutters have finished with the film and it will soon be nationally released. Miss Daniels and her husband, Ben Lyon, are still vacationing in Hawaii. In "Honor of the Family", Warren William, a recent importation from the Broadway stage, will be seen opposite the stage in a role adapted from that which Otis Skinner played for several seasons in the stage version of this play."
          - October 17 1931 - Film released.

According to film critics, the film bore little resemblance to the original play. The final cut was seen as a romantic melodrama with a hint of comedy. As Laura, Daniels plays the typical Pre-code role of a 'bad girl' treated sympathetically. She is the mistress/ nurse of a wealthy Hungarian man, Paul Barony (Fredrick Kerr), who is intent on marrying her. His nephew Captain Boris Barony (Williams) sweeps in before plans can be made and pressures Laura into running away. Obeying his uncle’s request, Boris Barony follows her and finds Laura with her lover Tony Revere (Alan Mowbray). Boris Barony tricks her into returning to the castle and gives her an ultimatum. To do as he says or he will destroy his uncle's will in which she is sole beneficiary. Despite their hatred, Laura and Boris Barony start falling for each other. In order to remove Tony, Boris Barony goads him into a duel and kills him. When Boris Barony sends Laura away, Barony begs him to bring her back which he agrees to if Barony gives him money. Paul signs a blank check. Boris Barony stops Laura, who has been driving outside the house in her car. He joins her in the car and they ride away together. 
At a little over an hour, the film was jammed packed with action. Although it was not considered a 'serious' film, many critics praised it's entertainment value as well as performances from the two leads. One said, ""don't overlook this naughtiest picture of the month".

Others said:

"There is a touch of the swashbuckling days of Doug Fairbanks and a bit of the romantic glamour of the handsome Chevalier in Warren William, who plays with gusto the hero role…He is an ardent lover - one of the 'treat 'em rough' variety. And he is mannish enough to satisfy the male customers. He does his fighting with swords and pistols…Bebe Daniels is the incentive in the love scenes to which may be credited some of William's success in that direction, for Miss Daniels is at her best."

"It presents some startlingly interesting characters and succeeds in being melodrama, comedy and romance at the same time."

"Masterpiece of the stage becomes the masterpiece of the screen…Full of action and vim, guaranteed entertainment, too charming to be naughty and too naughty to be missed."