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 fiancĂ©e. 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.