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:

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)