Thursday, 17 November 2016

Precode Hollywood Quiz

This is my first attempt to create a quiz specifically for Precode hollywood lovers. I have tried to make it ‘medium’ difficulty with a few easy ones sprinkled throughout. I’d love any feedback on question difficulty and quiz layout as well as hearing everyone’s results. 

Saturday, 22 October 2016

My Essential Precode - part 2

Part 2 of my essential Precode films:

            1) All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
A groundbreaking film showing a realistic and harrowing depiction of World War 1 from the viewpoint of new soldiers, led by Lew Ayres, and their first experiences of warfare. The men are showed as naive with romantic ideals of glory and nationalism. They are confronted by dying men, heavy fire and shrapnel and the horrors of early 19th Century war hospitals and amputations. For a film made so close to the conflict, it doesn't pull any punches or gloss over the reality of warfare. As you can imagine it received both critical acclaim - including the Outstanding Production and Best Director Academy Awards - and condemnation. The film was banned in many European countries, most fervently by Germany, for decades. It’s an important and entertaining film you will not forget easily.  

            2) Stranger’s May Kiss (1931)
Playing another one of her modern woman roles with disdain for married life, Norma Shearer, stars as Lisbeth a socialite faced with a choice between a stable marriage and the jet setting highlife. Robert Montgomery and Neil Hamilton play the two men vying for Shearers heart. In her usual manner, Shearer, takes off to Europe enjoying the nightlife, endless alcohol and a variety of men. Like always, she quickly gains a reputation as a ‘loose’ women. Not as groundbreaking as The Divorcee (1930) or A Free Soul (1931), Strangers May Kiss (1931) still has great Shearer lines, slinky, glistening gowns and exotic locations. Great for a lazy Sunday at only 80 minutes. 

            3) Night Nurse (1931)
Blink and you miss it, Night Nurse is filled with more action and drama than a modern 2 hour picture. The ever-commanding Barbara Stanwyck stars as a nurse who is tasked to care for two wealthy young girls who are slowly being starved to death by the family’s ruthless chauffeur played, in an odd role by Clark Gable. Gable’s chauffeur plans to kill the children and then marry their drunken mother (Charlotte Merriam) but finds the feisty, justice-oriented nurse refuses to let him finish his plans. A shocking film, even for modern audiences, Gable’s eagerness to slap around Stanwyck is cringe worthy. Both Stanwyck’s friend and nurse, Joan Blondell, and boyfriend/ bootlegger, Ben Lyon, are also great in this heart-stopping film. 

            4) Waterloo Bridge (1931)
More people have probably heard of the 1940 remake starring Vivian Leigh and Robert Taylor than the grittier and more realistic 1931 version. This highly controversial and censored film, stars Mae Clarke as a bitter and cynical prostitute during World War 1 London. The audience is in no doubt of her profession as early in the film she is literally trolling the streets looking for men to service. One night she meets Roy Cronin (Kent Douglass aka Douglass Montgomery) who starts falling in love with her despite her profession. As she begins to return the affection of the unaffected young and rich man, Clarke has to wrestle with her emotions, guilt and Cronin’s wealthy family. Clarke is another bright spot in Precode who can play gritty and hard characters as surprisingly sympathetic.

            5) Possessed (1931)
Joan Crawford and Clark Gable became a popular film team for MGM in the Precode era. My favourite of their pairings is Possessed (1931) which shows Crawford as a poor factory worker who rises to become the mistress of a wealthy attorney (Gable). Showing the film’s age, the central conflict of the movie revolves around whether Gable should legitimize the relationship with marriage or continue their life of ‘sin’. The pressure is mounted when Gable decides to embark on a political career. Despite the film being a tad out-of-date with reference to marriage, Crawford is a surprisingly independent and strong-willed character in spite of her poverty. She also has never looked better with spectacular fashion by Adrian and the hot chemistry between the two leads is undeniable.   
     
6) Frankenstein (1931)
No need to introduce this film, Frankenstein (1931) starring the incomparable Boris Karloff, is a cult classic. Karloff is assisted by Colin Clive in the title role; Dwight Frye as Frankenstein’s hunchback assistant; and Mae Clarke as Frankenstein’s worried fiancée. Adapted from Mary Shelley’s famous novel by the same name, if you haven’t already seen Frankenstein, what are you waiting for?!?
           
            7) Red Dust (1932)
Red Dust (1932) is a surprisingly upbeat romantic drama about the complications of a love triangle in a dangerous rubber plantation in the jungles of French Indochina. Clark Gable stars as Dennis Carson who is tasked with assisting engineer, Gary Willis (Gene Raymond) during Willis’s work in the plantation. Disturbing Carson’s plans is that Willis has brought his wife along, played by ladylike and sophisticated, Mary Astor. He is immediately attracted to her and sets about seducing her while her husband is on a surveying trip. Then, along comes wisecracking, coarse yet loveable prostitute, Vantine (Jean Harlow) who had previously had a casual fling with Carson. She proceeds to jealously stalk around the primitive cabin and block the adulterous couples every triste. For me Harlow is the shining light in this picture and, I think, the easygoing yet fiery Vantine is her ultimate role. Plus her scene bathing naked in a water barrel despite the fury of Gable is simply spectacular.  
    
            8) Rain (1932)
Based on the often remade W. Somerset Maugham short story ‘Miss Sadie Thompson’, the plot and themes were perfect for a Precode adaption. Joan Crawford stars as Miss Thompson, a prostitute who is stranded on an island in American Samoa and fills her time by partying and drinking with marines stationed on the island. Righteous missionary, Alfred Davidson (Walter Huston), vows to save her from her sins. When she refuses, he acts to have her deported to America where she is wanted for a crime. As he struggles to reform Miss Thompson and she fights against him, Davidson starts to fall for his student despite his high morals. Religious hypocrisy is a popular topic for Precode films and director, Lewis Milestone, doesn’t pull any punches. Crawford is amazingly gaudy with bright red, wide lips, exaggerated clothes and a dull, cynical expression. She definitely looks like she is having fun and it reflects on the quality of the film.           
   
            9) Blonde Venus (1932)
A very mature and adult film, I will always remember Blonde Venus (1932) for the thrilling moment when a glowing Marlene Dietrich emerges from a gorilla costume and begins singing ‘Hot Voodoo’ to an overcome nightclub audience. Dietrich stars as a nightclub singer who falls in love with a dying chemist (Herbert Marshall). They marry and have a son together. With her husband’s health not improving, Dietrich offers to return to the stage and finance his trip to Germany and treatment. While Marshall is away, Dietrich is pursued by millionaire and unbelievably handsome, Cary Grant, who offers her wealth and security. But Dietrich can’t forget her husband. Another great Precode Dietrich film, notable more for her incredible radiance and beauty than the plot.

            10) One Way Passage (1932)
A subtle and somber romance film starring Kay Francis and William Powell, One Way Passage (1932), is one of those films which stays in your mind hours and days after watching it. A heartbreaking story about star-crossed lovers - the terminally ill Francis and murderer sentenced to hang, Powell - who fall in love on an ocean liner bound for San Francisco. Both know (but don’t tell the other) they don’t have long to live but decide to enjoy the time they have together. This is a delicate movie which isn’t at all melodramatic or overdone. Francis looks great as always in her highly fashionable Orry Kelly costumes with Powell suitably suave and cool despite being a criminal. 


Saturday, 20 August 2016

My Essential Precode - part 1

I can’t believe I waited so long to create a list of essential Precodes. Looking at the most grounding breaking and entertaining of the era’s movies are something I think all people interested in Precode should do. I have done my best to try and condense all the films I have watched and enjoyed over the years into one list. I found, in creating the list, that several early 1930’s films I loved and could watch over and over, were probably not worthy of the name ‘essential’ despite my level of personal enjoyment. I first decided a list of 25 would be sufficient but could not decide on the films that should make up the limited number. As a compromise, I will make a list of 50 Essential Precodes. This is my first batch with the next one coming next week. The next half of the list is not finalised so any suggestions would be very welcome. Check out part 1 of my Essential Precodes:

    1) Anna Christie (1930)
The much anticipated first speaking role for Greta Garbo, Anna Christie (1930) is an interesting drama about a young women haunted by her dishonourable past. It shows Anna (Garbo) trying to repent her sins and find a stable life for herself. This film is all about Garbo, her famous first lines and continued allure despite her perfect facial expressions being corrupted by speech.

    2) Divorcee (1930)
A breakout film for Norma Shearer, who despite being a famous actor since the silent days, was typecasted in pure, ingénue roles before starring as the sexually liberated Jerry Martin. The film highlighted a double standard in society (which still exists today) which makes it acceptable for the husband to philander but not for his wife. Shearer appears as wife who discovers her husband (Chester Morris) is having an affair. After confronting her husband who proclaims that the relationship didn't "mean a thing", Jerry responds in-kind by sleeping with mutual friend Don (Robert Montgomery). Instead of behaving flippantly about Jerry's indiscretion, her husband demands a divorce. Outraged by the hypocrisy, Jerry responds by bedding as many men as she can get her hands on. A shocking film for its time and surprisingly relevant today, Divorcee (1930) is one of Precode's best. 

    3) Public Enemy (1931)
My favourite of the Precode gangster films, Public Enemy (1931), is a 360 degree view of Depression Era gangs who peddled liquor during prohibition. The movie shows the main character Tom (James Cagney) as sympathetic and human, featuring scenes of his hopeless childhood and close relationship to his mother. I couldn't help but like him, except of course for the famous grapefruit scene. It's easy to see why the censors hated this film. Tom is a criminal but likeable, dependable, relatable, skilled, the typical anti-hero.

    4) Dracula (1931)
The first speaking version of Bram Stoker's novel, Dracula, depicting the bloodsucking vampire has become understandably a cult classic. The well-known story of Count Dracula and his attempts to turn Mina (Helen Chandler) into a vampire while avoiding the suspicion of Prof. Van Helsing. While the movie has little special effects, Bela Lugosi, doesn't need assistance with his creepy facial expressions and close-ups enough to scare most audience members. This film, like others, has been put on a pedestal and people generally watch it pretty high expectations. Just remember, filmmakers didn't have the technology they do now, I think they did a great job despite it.

    5) A Free Soul (1931)
Another strikingly modern film starring the radiant Norma Shearer who seemed to rule the Pre-code era. Instead of portraying an extramarital affair, A Free Soul (1931) shows Shearer in a pre-marital sexual relationship with bad boy, gangster Clark Gable. The pair have no intension of tying the knot and Shearer has no qualms showing up unannounced and seducing Gable's character in - I must say - a dress that hides barely anything. The film is a testament to the changing societal attitudes and the power of Shearer. As well as being a great multidimensional plot and wonderful casting - including the performances of Lionel Barrymore and a young Leslie Howard, A Free Soul (1931) is surprisingly relevant and relatable today. 

    6) Trouble in Paradise (1932)
A sophisticated film, Trouble in Paradise (1932), is mostly known today due to the enduring reputation of director, Ernest Lubitsch. It is an entertaining, adult romantic comedy about a love triangle situation between Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis and Herbert Marshall. Hopkins and Marshall are thieves who fall in love and decide to join forces to rob a beautiful perfume company owner (Francis). The con falters when Marshall and Francis start to get too cosy. This film is a great example of the Precode era's propensity for creating truly adult and sophisticated content. Its subtle humour is also amazing. 

    7) Red Headed Woman (1932)
The Precode platinum blonde, Jean Harlow, made a style change to star as the title character in the shocking and emotional, Red Headed Woman (1932). Like the main character in Baby Face, Harlow stars as Lil, a woman who will do anything to be rich and become a part of high society. Of course, being Precode, 'anything' means using her body and unquestionable sexuality. This includes desperately seducing a variety of rich men, breaking up marriages and even murder. Plus, in open defiance to Will Hays, Harlow's character is never punished for her actions. Note: a warning to some viewers, there is a kind of disturbing domestic violence scene which at the same time is pretty 'Fifty Shades of Grey'.   

     8) I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
A crime/ drama film starring Paul Muni as a wrongfully convicted prisoner who becomes part of a brutal Southern chain gang. He quickly escapes to Chicago and attempts to make a success of himself but finds his past never leaves him. Based on the true story of convict Robert Elliott Burn who was himself a chain gang member before escaping and becoming a fugitive. The film is a must watch simply for its impact on Depression Era America. Shocked by the use of chain gangs and the abuses and ill treatment of criminals which, despite being largely fictional in the movie, were a staple of many state’s judicial systems, society rallied against the behaviour.

    9) Scarface (1932)
A shocking early gangster film starring prolific and somewhat forgotten actor, Paul Muni, as crime boss, Tony, a thinly veiled characterisation of Al Capone. Scarface (1932) moves through Tony's journey from Italian immigrant to a leading member of a mafia gang to the head of a crime gang. The film is surprisingly violent especially as Tony sparks an all-in gang war filled with gun fights and massacres. Muni is commanding and brilliant.

    10) Freaks (1932)
Despite the film’s title, Freaks (1932) is surprisingly sympathetic and positive to the 'freaks' it forefronts. The movie follows a range of characters who work as carnival sideshow performers. Most had never performed in feature films before and do a great job. Interestingly it is the 'normal' characters who are portrayed as villains; with the main plot of the film describing trapeze artists Cleopatra's (Olga Baclanova) scheme to seduce and marry little person, Hans (Harry Earles) just for his money. All the characters support Hans and fight against Cleopatra. As well as this story, other subplots show the 'freaks' as living ordinary lives by falling in love and having children. Due to the film’s title I waited years to watch it, but found it heart-warming and unbelievably modern despite the themes.

    11) Call Her Savage (1932)
Clara Bow feature, Call Her Savage (1932), is full of elements which would have be staunchly banned just two years later. The film revolves around Nasa (Bow), a wild society woman who owes her rebellious and feisty nature to the fact that she is half white, half Native American Indian. Of course, her heritage is a dark secret with her mother cheating on Nasa's father with an Indian man resulting in her birth. Nasa rebels against her family, partying hard and marrying an abusive playboy. Despite learning the error of her ways, filmmakers ensure audiences get a long and shocking view of Nasa's debauched life from her party lifestyle and alcoholism to rape, pregnancy without marriage and prostitution. I don't care what anyone says, Precode Clara Bow is simply radiant. 

    12) Safe in Hell (1932)
Safe in Hell (1932) is an often overlooked Precode due to its lack of an enduring 'star'. The forgotten and very talented, Dorothy Mackaill, leads as the easy-going, nonchalant prostitute, Gilda, who fleas to a Caribbean island after she is accused of murdering her former pimp. While the audience is in no doubt of Gilda's profession, her boyfriend Carl (Donald Cook) doesn't seem to care and, not only helps her escape, but marries her on the island. Carl leaves the vulnerable Gilda on the island filled with criminals and all around dodgy dealers. Another look at the realistic consequences of the Great Depression, the film doesn't judge Gilda but is more sympathetic to her. Mackaill portrays her as basically a 'good woman' who faces impossible situations. A staple character in Precode. 

Saturday, 13 August 2016

How did they get away with it? Advertisements for Footlights Parade (1933)

Hollywood studios during the Precode era were some of the best at promoting films. On some occasions the films publicity posters, advertisements and promotional events were more interesting than the films themselves. Footlights Parade (1933), a movie filled dozens of chorus girls in skimpy outfits put in even skimpier situations, was a dream for the Warner Bros publicity machine. They took advantage of the opportunity creating a collection of pretty risqué posters, advertisements and stills focusing on the movies chorus girls. See the best below:   

Monday, 8 August 2016

Amazing on set stills from the all-black 'Hallelujah' (1929)

One of the first all-black films by a major studio, it is an understatement to say Hallelujah! (1929) is a controversial film. Seen by contemporary audiences and critics as a triumph for race relations by director King Vidor; today it can be viewed as dated and somewhat racist depicting some characters as simple or simply promiscuous. No matter how you rate the film, no one can argue that Hallelujah!  is visually brilliant and full of Vidor's touches. Plus, if you consider that most of the film's actors were newcomers to the camera, Vidor's instruction and vision becomes even more noteworthy. And as a longterm Nina Mae McKinney fan, I couldn't help but stare at her beauty and charisma and ignore every other actor in shot. 

Thankfully, despite the passing of over 85-years, several interesting and revealing backstage stills remain of the actors and production crew making Hallelujah! in rural Tennessee and Arkansas. Check them out (and for more backstage stills from other Precode films go here):
King Vidor having a break with Daniel L. Haynes
Nina Mae McKinney and Daniel L. Haynes with King Vidor
King Vidor and Daniel L. Haynes clap for Victoria Spivey 
An emotive still from Hallelujah! 
Publicity stills of Nina Mae McKinney in a costume from Hallelujah!

Friday, 29 July 2016

Jeanette MacDonald: MGM Love Triangle - Part 3 (final)

Finally (as in three years late!) here is the final installment of my trilogy on the tragic love story between Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy and the lengths MGM boss, Louis B. Mayer went to cover up the adulterous affair. I know, I know, this is massively late but better late than never, hopefully. Okay, to catch up read Part 1 then Part 2.
Now, Part 3:
The passing from the 1930's into the 1940's brought even more heartbreak for the on-again/ off-again couple of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Following the success of their first Technicolor film Sweethearts (1938), the pair took a break from their film pairings and both moved on to appear in separate vehicles.
Nelson Eddy feeds Jeanette MacDonald her birthday cake, June (1938). 
While they were apart and MacDonald was recuperating from a miscarriage, Eddy, did something that would ruin their relationship for several years - he married! According to MacEddy.com, Nelson's wedding to Ann Franklin was undertaken under a haze of drunkenness and blackmail. Apparently, following a night binging with then friend Franklin, Eddy awoke naked and hungover. Despite having no recollection of the night's events, Franklin claimed Eddy had made violent love to her. Confused and wanting to make amends to the distraught Franklin, Eddy married her in January 1939.
Eddy and Ann Franklin
As you can imagine, this came as a massive shock to the weakened MacDonald who was simultaneously plotting a way to divorce her husband, Gene Raymond. Depressed, she swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills only to be saved by director, Woody Van Dyke. The press reported a "severe cold' was the cause of MacDonald's illness.
MacDonald following her 'illness'
It would be the close friendship between MacDonald and Van Dyke that coerced the actress into her next film with Eddy. New Moon (released mid-1940) brought the pair together after almost a year apart. Although filming began tense and cold, the couple rekindled their love towards the end of the shoot. Despite once again becoming a 'couple' of sorts, they knew there was no chance they could marry. The trio completed the successful MacDonald/ Eddy/ Van Dyke combination shortly after with
I Married an Angel (July 1942). To the public it was another MacDonald/ Eddy musical, but the film signaled the end of Eddy's contract with MGM. Having had enough of Louis B. Mayer's control, Eddy bought out his contract and moved to Universal. MacDonald completed one more film with the company and swiftly followed Eddy to Universal. Sadly, the move did nothing to resurrect their popular on-screen pairing with the duo not completing another film together.
Publicity still from I Married an Angel
As the decades rolled on, Eddy and MacDonald performed in the odd radio show together. Despite their continuous bad health, the pair worked steadily; MacDonald in opera, television and live performances and Eddy with films, television and a nightclub act. The pair continued being 'together' but at the same time married to different people. There was talk of each divorcing their respective spouses and marrying at some point in the late '40s but neither Eddy nor MacDonald could organise deals with their partners without major financial loss.
Rehearsing together in 1959
Only one event would permanently separate the couple - the death of Jeanette MacDonald. She passed away aged only 61 on January 14, 1965. MacDonald had been suffering heart problems for decades (including at least two heart attacks in the 1940s) which were being managed until she required an arterial transplant in 1963. After hearing news of her surgery, Eddy left his nightclub commitments in Australia and flew to be at her bedside. She was hospitalised for two months following the surgery. In late 1964 she back ill again and was rushed to hospital with abdominal adhesions. Strangely it was Eddy and not Raymond who was with her. She passed away a little over two months later.

It was Eddy not Raymond who required the most consolation at McDonald's funeral. He was the last to leave. A radio interview from Eddy done shortly after her death just broke my heart.

Eddy survived McDonald by only two years. Not happy years, they were filled with too much drinking and too much work. He died of a stroke on March 5, 1967 aged just 65.

Something interesting for McDonald/ Eddy lovers is a video of a 'This is Your Life' episode dedicated to the career of Jeanette McDonald. Her moments with Eddy are simply precious.

And as always check out maceddy.com for all the information on the off-screen and on-screen couple. 

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: