While I was going through my Precode collection, I realised I have watched all (well probably most) of the more famous Precode films by the top actresses; for example, Kay Francis, Ruth Chatterton, Carole Lombard, Norma Shearer ect. But there are many, because of their obscurity and sometimes relative unavailability, that I have not seen. So – even though it is the beginning of exam block – I have decided to aim to watch every film in a particular actress’s Precode career. To start off, an actress who was iconic and prolific both during and after the early 1930’s: Barbara Stanwyck. So far I have located all but two of her Precode gems – ‘The Secret Wife’ (1934) and ‘Mexicali Rose’ (1929), but in the meantime I will endeavour to write reviews of all her early films over the coming weeks and months. Barbara, unlike most actresses, started her career at the top - with her second film being her first starring role - and stayed at the pinnacle until her retirement from films in the mid to late 1980’s. My first review is her first talky ‘The Locked Door’ which at the time was critically and financially unsuccessful but was an important milestone in the career of one of the most enduring stars in Hollywood’s history.
‘The Locked Door’(1929), strangely enough, like most Precode films begins at a party. Frank Devereaux (Rod La Rocque) is escorting his father’s secretary Ann Carter (Barbara Stanwyck) to a wild party on a ‘drinking boat’ which is anchored outside the 12-mile limit to allow party-goers to drink alcohol legally. The other guests are loud and drunken, fighting over drinks and room at the long bar. Frank a rich and notorious ladies man takes the naïve Ann to a secluded and romantic room for dinner. After offering her copious amounts of alcohol he begins making advances towards her which she initially laughs off.
Ann finally tells him to stop, but he laughs and comically locks the door, preventing her exit, and pockets the key. He struggles with her but she is saved by police sirens. The police have tracked down the illegal vessel and begin raiding it. They round up the guests and take them back to shore. Ann is humiliated but unharmed and luckily escapes arrest.
It is eighteen months later and Ann is celebrating her first wedding anniversary to kind-hearted and conventional Lawrence Reagan (William ‘Stage’ Boyd).
During the celebration, Larry’s sister, Helen Reagan (WAMPAS star Betty Bronson) confines that she is in love with an older man. But before she can reveal who, Frank walks in unaware that Ann and Helen are now sisters-in-law. A few awkward moments pass and when both brother and sister are out of the room, Ann tells Franks to keep away from Helen. But Frank doesn’t listen, and he persuades Helen into eloping with him to Honolulu. However, luckily – like all early Precode coincidences – Ann overhears the couple making plans and vows to break up the relationship at any cost.
At the night of the planned marriage, Ann goes to Frank’s apartment to try and stop the engagement. She wants to call her husband for help, but Frank blackmails her with the knowledge of their illegal ‘adventure’ and that he has picture taken of Ann, dishevelled, on the boat.
|The Photographic Evidence|
Unfortunately, when Ann is about to leave, Larry arrives. He confronts Frank about his illicit affair with the wife of his good friend, Colonel Dixon. But unknown to him, Ann is listening, hidden, in the other room. They begin arguing and Frank, annoyed, draws a gun and attempts to force Larry out of the house. Frank mockingly hints that he and Ann have a sordid past together and Larry grabs the gun and they struggle. The gun goes off. Frank has been shot and Ann is the only witness to Larry’s crime of passion.
This film is usual of many early Precodes: it has wild parties, lots of alcohol, characters with questionable ethics and a minimal plot. Although, this one also has some witty dialogue and innuendo, this film is different for one reason, the Stanwyck factor. She is not the glamed-up actress of her later films ‘Baby Face’ (1933) or ‘The Bitter Tea of General Yen’ (1932), but it is evident to see the potential and energy of the young star. Barbara has the fully formed personality and quit-wittedness that she was known for in her later movies and acts quite well considering it was her first talky and was obviously hampered by the need to accommodate the sound recording equipment.
This is a very “Precode” film, Frank’s character is clearly labelled as a ‘playboy’ having affairs with many women whether they are married or not. However, (SPOILER ALERT) like most villains redeems himself in the end with an act of great selflessness.
I loved the cute, but not overly blatant, sexual innuendo running through the script and the reference to great screen/ real life lovers Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, when Helen says to Ann and Larry,
“Hey brother when you get through with that Gilbert and Garbo act, there’s a telegram I forgot to give you.”Also, watch out for a strange and relatively brief performance by Precode veteran Zasu Pitts as the telephone operator in Frank’s building and according to IMBD Paulette Goddard had an extra role in the wild party scene but I wasn’t able to recognise her. ‘The Locked Door’ (1929) is a usual early Precode film with great dialogue, wild parties and limited plot twists. The current prints circulating aren’t of the best quality, but I recommend this little film to any fan of Barbara as it is important in her transformation from starlet to star.