Sunday 30 September 2012

Bette at Her Best: Interview with Dick Cavett

I was bored one day searching YouTube for a couple of interesting classic interviews and I came across the most hilarious and entertaining Bette Davis interview I had ever seen. It is not entirely Precode - although she does go into early 1930's screen tests - but it is a must-watch for any Davis fan and made me love her more.

Here's a few animated gifs I found from a great tumblr site called: 'The Bears Are Coming' which shows the funniest part of the interview.


It was mainly her candid nature that struck me. She seemed at ease, confident and in control. The true Bette persona and in this clip openly discusses her beliefs on marriage and sex.

To find more of this interview, they are available in short segments in Youtube.

Thursday 27 September 2012

Precode Double Take (or not): Katharine Hepburn

I've been doing a little series on actresses both Precode and Post-code, mostly when I could think of nothing else to blog. I've looked at the ones whose careers have endured from early talkies until the Classic era and most, I have found, have either needed to or wanted to completely alter their appearance and image to suit the changing times. Bette Davis had to dye her hair and Norma Shearer had to adopt a more calm acting style. But, when I was looking through the wonderful Katey's films and fashion style, other than a few tweaks, a little updating and a few wrinkles creeping in, her look has stayed almost identical. From the early nineteen thirties to well into the eighties, she had remained true to herself and to her style. Here's Katharine both Pre and Post-Code:

Katharine the Modern Woman

As famous aviatrix in Precode 'Chistopher Strong' (1933)
Forward thinking journalist in 'Woman of the Year' (1942)

Katharine in the Past

As Jo in the classic book and Precode film 'Little Women' (1933)

A powerful woman both off an on the screen, her is Katey playing Queen Mary in 'Mary Queen of Scotland' (1936)

Katharine the Crazy
Although she was not crazy, she was alittle wild in the Precode film 'Spitfire' (1934)

Not your usual Sunday Afternoon, Katharine with the leopard, Baby, in Postcode, 'Bringing Up Baby' (1938)

Katharine the Marriage Hopper
(not really the correct term, but I needed something for a woman often between marriages)

Her film debut opposite John Barrymore in the odd drama, 'Bill of Divorcement' (1932)

Between two famous leading men, in the hilarious 'Philidephia Story' (1940)

Katharine the Performer

As the adorable aspiring actress Eva Lovelace, in Precode film 'Morning Glory' (1934)


With a young Ginger Rogers in 'Stage Door' (1937)

See if you can spot the difference.... 

Wednesday 19 September 2012

1931: The Best Year of the WAMPAS

Although, 1926 is often considered the best year of the WAMPAS Baby Stars in the silent era, with future stars, Mary Astor, Joan Crawford, Dolores Del Rio and Janet Gaynor chosen, it is clear that as the Precode era is concerned, 1931 is the WAMPAS standout.  But before I go into the year and the hopeful starlets selected, I will give a little overview of the awards and its history.

What is a WAMPAS?

The WAMPAS girls of 1928
WAMPAS is an acronym that stands for Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers and was actually an advertising campaign aimed at promoting films and the film industry. Each year thirteen – and in 1932 fourteen – hopeful starlets are chosen who are predicted to be the next big star. The awards were given from 1922 to 1934, but not in 1930 or 1933 due to the economic depression and the collapse of Wall Street. The lucky actresses where honoured at a special award ceremony called ‘The Frolic’ that introduced them to Hollywood and movie lovers across America. Due to arguments between studios and advertisers over money and the actresses chosen, the awards ended in 1934. However, in 1956, Ginger Rogers, together with other past WAMPAS winners, attempted to bring the concept back choosing another group of young actress, including the future Barbara Eden, however the idea was never continued.  

Why 1931?

The WAMPAS stars of 1931, see if you can pick them all out

The WAMPAS year 1931 is a clear favourite of mine as most of the actresses honoured became major, independent stars of the Precode era. The thirteen picked were: Joan Blondell, Constance Cummings, Frances Dade, Frances Dee, Sidney Fox, Rochelle Hudson, Anita Louise, Joan Marsh, Marian Marsh, Karen Morley, Marion Shilling, Barbara Weeks, Judith Wood (alias Helen Johnson). Most of you will recognise Joan Blondell and perhaps Marian Marsh from my feature on her a few months ago, but several of the other actresses aren’t widely known today. For a great introduction to these actresses watch the film I found on YouTube officially celebrating the 1931 WAMPAS stars:

For more information I have done a short piece on each of the 13 ladies.

Joan Blondell (August 30, 1906 – December 25, 1979)
Known For: Her hard-hitting Precode depression films, her long string of supporting roles in 1940s/50s movies and her cameo in ‘Grease’
Precode Recommendations: ‘Gold Diggers of 1933’ (1933), ‘Blondie Johnson’ (1932), ‘Three on a Match’ (1932)

Constance Cummings (May 15, 1910 – November 23, 2005)
Known for: Several roles in B-grade Precodes as well as her deep dislike for Hollywood and her move to England where she is more well-known and respected.
Precode Recommendations: ‘Movie Crazy’ (1932) with Harold Lloyd, ‘American Madness’ (1932)

Frances Dade (February 14, 1910 —January 21, 1968)
Known for: Her role as Lucy Weston in ‘Dracula’ (1931)
Precode Recommendations:  ‘Dracula’ (1931), ‘Grumpy’ (1930)

Frances Dee (November 26, 1909 – March 6, 2004)
Known for: Her varying dramatic Precode films, some supporting post-code films and fairytale marriage to actor Joel McCrea
Precode Recommendations: ‘Blood Money’ (1933), ‘Little Women’ (1933)

Sydney Fox (December 10, 1907 – November 14, 1942)
Known for: Her role as the main female character in ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue and premature death in 1942 of a drug overdose at age 34
Precode Recommendations: ‘Mouthpiece’ (1932), ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1932)

Rochelle Hudson (March 6, 1916 — January 17, 1972)
Known for: Her small role in Mae West’s film ‘She Done Him Wrong’ (1933) and playing Natalie Wood’s mother in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ (1955)
Precode Recommendations: ‘She Done Him Wrong’ (1933), ‘Wild Boys of the Road’ (1933)

Anita Louise (January 9, 1915 - April 25, 1970)
Known for: Being a popular and successful Hollywood hostess and a fashion icon as well as her roles in ‘Madame Du Barry’ (1934) and ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (1935)
Precode Recommendations: ‘Millie’ (1931), ‘Madame Du Barry’ (1934)

Joan Marsh (July 10, 1913 – August 10, 2000)
Known for: A number of popular child roles in ‘Daddy Long Legs’ and ‘Pollyanna’ and her lovely singing voice
Precode Recommendations: ‘King of Jazz’ (1930), ‘You’re Telling Me!’ (1934)

Marian Marsh (October 17, 1913 – November 9, 2006
Known for: Her role as Trilby in the film ‘Svengali’ (1931) and her many environmental activities
Precode Recommendations: ‘Svengali’ (1931), ‘Under 18’ (1931)

Karen Morley (December 12, 1909 – March 8, 2003)
Known for: Several performances in classic Precodes, being blacklisted in Hollywood in 1947 after refusing to give an answer over her alleged connection with the Communist Party. Also, was unsuccessful in running for the Lieutenant Governor of New York in 1954.   
Precode Recommendations: ‘Scarface’ (1932), ‘Arsene Lupin’ (1932)

Marion Shilling (December 3, 1910 — November 6, 2004
Known for: Her roles in many B-grade westerns and appearance in serial ‘The Red Rider’ beginning in 1934
Precode Recommendations:  ‘The Common Law’ (1931), ‘The Red Rider’ (1934)

Barbara Weeks  (July 4, 1913 – June 24, 2003)
Known for: an early Ziegfeld Folly, several performances in B-Grade serials and westerns
Precode Recommendations: ‘Forbidden Trail’ (1932), ‘Palmy Days’ (1931)

Judith Wood (August 1, 1906 — April 6, 2002)
Known for: many good Precode performances under the name Helen Johnson and her last performance in an early Marilyn Monroe film ‘Asphalt Jungle’ (1950)
Precode Recommendations: ‘It Pays to Advertise’ (1931), ‘Road to Reno’ (1931)

Another shot of the 1931 actresses, with names and pictures

Marion and Clark in 'Polly of the Circus' (1932)

Instead of finishing my Warren William series - which I should have done in August - I've decided to do a couple of random movie reviews rather then sticking to one actor or genre. Most of these will be ones that I have had in my movie collection for a while but haven't had the opportunity or inclination to actually watch. The first one is one of the Marion Davies and Clark Gable pairings, 'Polly of the Circus' (1932).


Pauline ‘Polly’ Fisher (Marion Davies) and the company of a circus arrive in a small conservative and religion-oriented town. As soon as she arrives, Polly is furious at the suspected influence the church has on the circus advertisements by covering her bare legs with skirt and pant shaped fabric. She instantly storms down to the church to confront the minister.
Polly at the circus
She finds the reverend to be the young, handsome, quick-witted and very charming Rev. John Hartley (Clark Gable).  He tells her that it is not his fault, but censorship regulations that require her body parts to be covered. They appear to like each other – the beginnings of a typical Hollywood love/hate relationship.
Later that day, on Polly’s first performance as a trapeze artist, she is distracted by a heckler and falls to the ground. She only just survives and is taken to Rev. Hartley’s house. On doctor’s orders not to remove her, Polly is forced to recover in his house for a couple of months. Bonding over their equally strong sense of humour and Polly’s new found interest in the Bible, they slowly fall in love. On the night before Polly is set to leave, she cooks John a late night sandwich, and they profess their feelings through passages in the Bible.

Later that night, John’s servant Downey (Raymond Hatton) attacks Polly, yelling that the ‘jezebel’ has brought sin to the house by seducing the reverend. He is not the only one upset about the relationship, John’s uncle and the bishop of the parish Reverend James Northcott (C. Aubrey Smith) refuses to acknowledge the marriage and threatens to fire John from his position at the church.

Nevertheless, the couple marries and John plans to accept a position in a different church. Rumors of the past of Mrs. John Hartley, helped along by Rev. James, follow the couple and John is unable to find steady employment. They are forced to move into a small, dingy apartment and are unable to pay their household bills but both still seem deeply in love.   One night they have an argument, Polly tells John that he should look for work in areas other than the church; however, it is clear that it is John’s great passion and he will not give it up. Polly is sad and guilty that she is keeping her husband from what he loves. To Polly, there is only one solution, leave John. She talks with his uncle and finds that he would not get his job back even if they divorced or separated, and realises, to society, John would only be accepted back in the church as a widower. First, she persuades John into thinking she doesn’t love him anymore and returns to the circus. A few days later, Rev. James goes to see John, under the impression Polly is about to commit suicide to save Johns reputation. Meanwhile, jaded and depressed, Polly begins her trapeze routine without the help of a net.
Polly ready to begin her act
Thankfully, John and Rev. James hot on her heels.

Far from being a quintessential Precode, ‘Polly of the Circus’ appears to be a typical all-star movie. Basically, it is a movie to watch not for the script or plot, but for Marion Davies and Clark Gable. Made four years before Davies and Gable’s more popular collaboration ‘Cain and Mabel’ (1936), ‘Polly’ is a good film with lots of great dialogue and a fast-moving pace but where it does lack is in the plot department. It does have a clear sequence of events and the characters are clearly defined; however, as many hour long Precodes suffer, needs to expand some plot elements and show the audience more. For example, the nature of Polly is never fully developed. The viewer is given snippets of her past, such as, growing up in circus life and her obvious openness about sex but is left to assume she is not a pure character and accept that the parish dislike her without knowing much of her.
Having not seen a Marion Davies picture before, I was surprised to note how talented and charming she appeared. As, the girlfriend of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, she is often painted as a women who used his influence and wealth to extend her acting career. To me, at times Marion seems reminiscent of Joan Crawford in Rain in both their free-spirited, flirty natures and their similar almond eyes and you cannot deny that both women were beautiful. During the film it is easy to see that Marion was an accomplished silent actress; there are several wonderful slapstick comedy scenes – mainly with Rev. John’s servant Downey – and Marion’s funny lifelike impressions of some of the smaller characters.

Marion having fun
Like with other Precodes, I find Clark Gable’s appearance odd; perhaps he is incomplete without his moustache or, similar to Humphrey Bogart, is suffering from being too young. Although, at times I don’t believe him in the role of a reverend, I did like him in this role and would recommend it to all Clark Gable fans.   

Clark without his moustache
When viewing this film in the context of its era, there are not a lot of Precode moments. As, it is set mostly in a circus environment, the directors tried to slip in the occasional ‘freak’, such as, bearded ladies, strange clowns and strong men.  However, in saying this, the film is filled with sexual innuendo and frank sexual discussions. Polly is always questioning John’s feelings on sex – the ‘hotness’ of the Bible and that his wife would have to ‘sleep in the woolshed over lent’. As well as these lines all from Polly to Rev. John:

“Having viewpoints is alright, but putting paper bloomers on them is an insult.”  And.
“Don’t paw me, are you one of those fellas that has to put his arms all over a girl.”
Overall, ‘Polly of the Circus’ is a good film and worthwhile if you only have time to watch a short movie. It is not a great film or even a classic Precode, but I think most Marion Davies or Clark Gable fans will appreciate it.

'Polly of the Circus' publicity shot


Monday 17 September 2012

Precode Documentary Awards

As I found Precode movies from a documentary, they have been one of my first sources of information and, as you can imagine, I have watched heaps of them. There are not many that deal specifically with the era, but several touch on the topic of censorship when discussing film history as a whole. So, this is my version of the Academy Awards or BAFTA’s – the Precode Documentary Awards. They are eligible if they are a film or episode and touch on 1930’s censorship or Hollywood history.    

Honourable Mentions

The first of my awards are honourable mentions to two documentary series that devote one episode to the subject of Precode. The first is the wonderful TCM series ‘Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood’ (2011). I would recommend this documentary to anyone wanting a complete overview of Hollywood from the pioneering days until the end of the studio era in the late 1960’s. The episode ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime’ is especially good because it conveys both the movies and movie stars of the era and the historical events that shaped them. Also, another great feature is the discussions that come as part of the handy box-set where a number of notable film historians talk about the period.

The second is a more racier look at Hollywood and is called, ‘Sex, Censorship and the Silver Screen (1996)’. It is a six part series covered just as the title denotes: sex in cinema. Firstly, I must warn everyone that it is an MA 15+ (I’m not sure what this is in American ratings) and does show a lot of explicit sexual content. However, it shows a complete and informed view of sex and sexuality in Precode Hollywood – in I think episode 2 – and, as it was a big part of the era, the documentary is very useful. Also, it is narrated by Raquel Welch who does a great job and is perfect for the job.  

Third Place  

This goes to a very well made and visually appealing documentary, ‘Why Be Good? Sexuality and Censorship in Early Cinema’. Initially, I have to say how difficult it was to find this film. I had seen a clip of it on Youtube and was looking for over three months before I was able to locate a copy in Australia. This documentary deals with censorship, not only in the 1930s, but spends a lot of time discussing silent movies, peepshows and Victorian society. As, I said before, it is very beautifully constructed with pleasing graphics, text and backgrounds. Also, it has a catchy introduction song and clip that launches the film brilliantly. Like many of the Precode documentaries, it discusses mainly female characters and actresses and is very thorough with this. I also appreciated the many interviews included – most notably the ones with Leatrice Joy Gilbert talking about her father, John Gilbert, and Greta Garbo – as it broke up the segments well. I would recommend this documentary to lovers of silent film censorship and feminist history – as well as Precode history – and it is this trait that made this movie third and not first.          
Second Place
This documentary is another great TCM creation. It differs from the others by discussing censorship as a whole – men and women, sex, drugs and violence – instead of centring on one main aspect of it. I loved, loved the introduction sequence, with Micky Rooney watching the post-code films and then getting red and flustered when the scene showed some racy Precodes. The documentary as a whole was very entertaining, informative and thorough. It introduced me to several films I had not seen before, such as, ‘Madam Satan’ and ‘Midnight Mary as well as giving me a deeper understanding of the others I had seen. The interviews, which made up most of the hour film, were the standout feature. Most notably Mark Vieira, John Landis, Hugh Hefner, Jack Valenti and Rudy Behlmer gave the best information and appeared really passionate about the topic. The archive clips are weaved well throughout this well structured piece which I would recommend to any Precode newbie.             
First Place
My top prize goes to the brilliant, unfaultable documentary ‘Complicated Women’ (2003). This is the film that drew me into the world of Precodes and before seeing it, I just put those odd movies in a separate category, similar to indie films. The story of me finding the film is quite straightforward, I was looking on YouTube for clips in classic femme fatales (as I was in my Lauren Bacall/ Rita Hayworth phase at the time) and accidently began watching the documentary thinking it was about film noir. Instead, I became infatuated - either through Jane Fonda’s beautiful voice or the seductive graphics – with the women discussed and Precode Hollywood.
In my opinion there is nothing wrong with this documentary.  It is brilliantly structured, thorough and completely entertaining. I had no understanding of Precode Hollywood before watching it and felt totally comfortable and well informed by the end of it. Just a couple points in its favour; firstly, Jane Fonda does a fantastic job and encompasses the themes of the film and the tone wonderfully.  Also, the interviews are simply amazing, at first I had little idea who some of the women were, but after a little research and expanding my Precode library, I was astonished to find that many of the interviewees were big stars in the Precode era. These include:  Frances Dee (Blood Money, Little Women), Karen Morley (Scarface, Mata Hari), Kitty Carlisle (Murder at the Vanities) and Mae Madison (So Big, Footlight Parade). I know I have been drowning on about this documentary but I cannot recommend it enough. Every classic film lover should watch it; it is available at YouTube, like most of these documentaries, to access it click here.
The book, by Mick Lasalle, that the documentary was based on
  Happy viewing!!!

Saturday 15 September 2012

Universal Blacklot Blogathon: 'The Invisible Man' (1933)

Here's my entry into the:

Instead of discussing more mainstream Universal Horror classics - Dracula, Frankenstein - I could not wait to delve into the world of the lessor known Precode villain/ scientist, Dr Jack Griffin aka 'The Invisible Man'.  I wasn't disappointed, the picture was as emotionally moving as it was visually appealing. To read more entries from the Blogathon click here. Other than that, read on!!!


On a windy and snowy night in a bar in a small English village, a man (Claude Rains) arrives cloaked in a heavy coat, large hat, dark glasses and mysteriously wrapped in layers of bandages. While he is in his room, locals speculate as to who the elusive stranger is – is he a convicted felon escaping the law or a loner with a troubled past.  The oddness continues when the housekeeper walks in on the man eating his supper without, what it appears, a mouth or a chin.

The stranger arrives

He is the ‘Invisible Man’ or Dr. Jack Griffin, a scientist experimenting with the affects of the drug monocane. His trials, having turned tragic and rendering him invisible, provokes him to  leave the house of his employer Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers) and his daughter, Griffin’s love interest, Flora Cranley (Gloria Stuart) to deal with his new condition. But both, Dr Cranley and his other assistant Dr. Kemp (William Harrigan), don’t know of the doctor’s experiments nor the disastrous consequences. Meanwhile, Griffin is searching desperately for a cure to his ‘invisible’ illness. But he is unsuccessful and, because of his uncleanness, bad temper and not paying rent, is evicted from the inn. In a rage, he attacks the landlord and throws him down the stairs. The police and concerned townspeople arrive, intent on arresting the ‘stranger with the dark goggles’. Frustrated, Griffin removes his bandages, one by one, revealing his dark secret. Completely invisible, he evades capture and terrorises the village.
Griffin disrobing
With still no news from Dr Griffin, his colleagues go searching for answers. They find that he has been working with the mysterious drug and know that it can cause madness and other shocking side effects. That night, Griffin visits Dr Kemp and he tells him his story. He divulges his plans for the future – acts of terror, murder and mayhem. It is clear he is becoming more and more insane.

After killing a policeman, the country begins a mad witch-hunt in search of the ‘Invisible Man’.  In a panic, Flora arranges to meet Griffin alone. She swears her love and allegiance to him as the police surround the house. Griffin, under the impression that Kemp has betrayed him, vows that he will kill him at 10 o’clock and follows this by murdering hundreds of villagers. As the time slowly approaches 10, the police concoct a plan to capture Griffin. True to his word he kills Kemp by crashing his car down a cliff. Cold and vulnerable, Griffin is tracked to an isolated barn. The police set fire to it and, seeing the doctor’s footsteps in the snow, shoot him. On his deathbed in hospital, like all failed Universal scientists, admits to Flora the folly of his actions and dies.   
“My darling, I failed, I meddled in things that man must leave alone.”

In death, Griffin returns to his visible state: 


‘The Invisible Man’ has always been put in the same category as the other Universal Monsters – ‘Dracula’, ‘Frankenstein’. Granted, all the monsters have both complicated and tormented elements as well as roots that are based in medicine and science-fiction. However, where this film differs is the special effects. When viewing ‘The Invisible Man’ in today’s terms the directions and appearance of the film seem quaint and old-fashioned. However, creators John Fulton, John Mescall and Frank Williams worked tireless on visual effects that, in its time, were pioneering and groundbreaking. They had to manufacture ways to render Claude or parts of him invisible to the camera. They did this in several ways, firstly by making a mask for his face and body which would appear invisible in front of some backgrounds. When Griffin was unclothed the directors used wires to given the effect that the items were floating and when he was partly clothed they had to shoot Claude, covered in a black suit, against a black background and combine this shot with another to show the proper background. 

Examples of the great camera work:
Claude laughing

Claude eating
Claude undressing
 If you look both at the history of universal’s horror films and the direction that Precode films were taking in general, it is unclear why the director choose Claude Rains for the part of ‘The Invisible Man’. Personally I think he did a great job but as a well presented, well spoken gentleman actor he hardly instils fear or disgust in the eyes of the viewer like a Boris Karloff. On a side note, interestingly, it was Karloff who was originally cast in the role but turned it down because of the relatively little ‘screen time’ the role allowed. Several others were also reported as candidates for the role, including Chester Morris, Paul Lukas and Colin Clive. It was not until the original director, Cyril Gardner was replaced by James Whale that Claude was given the part.  

Universal Backlot

Little Europe today

Like other Universal horror films, ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’, the ‘Invisible Man’ production was centred around the Little Europe sets. Although, there was a small fire in the Little Europe area which disrupted the production in August 1933, it was the fire in May 1967 that completely destroyed the historical set. Today, replicas of the buildings have been erected that are used both as tourist attractions and for modern film productions. Some shots of the external sets that can be seen in ‘The Invisible Man’ show stark similarities with the replicas on the Universal Backlot.
Little Europe in 'The Invisible Man':     

And Little Europe today:

 That's it from me. A special thanks for Kristen at 'Journies in Classic Film' for organising this blogathon, it was a fantastic idea and I learnt alot from researching 'The Invisible Man'.