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. 

            11) The Sign of the Cross (1932)
One of Cecil B. DeMille’s historic and religious epics, The Sign of the Cross (1932), is filled with sin, sin and more sin. Set in ancient Rome during the reign of Nero (played amazingly by Charles Laughton), it follows the doomed love affair between persecuted Christian Mercia (Elissa Landi) and Roman military official Marcus (Fredric March). I don’t think any viewer of this film would pay much attention to the principle characters with supporting actor, Claudette Colbert, as a Roman empress stealing most of her scenes with her revealing clothing and scandalous milk bath scene. Throw in an erotic, lesbian dance and a naked Christian about to be mauled by a crocodile and a gorilla for the pleasure of the audience and you have a usual DeMille feature. As a great example of the Precode disregard for censorship and subject matter, the film isn’t too bad and Colbert is great as always.

            12) Three on a Match (1932)
A fast-paced drama in the traditional Warner Brothers style, Three on a Match (1932) features an endless array of Precode staple actors including Joan Blondell, Bette Davis, Warren William and Ann Dvorak with even a small role for up-and-coming actor, Humphrey Bogart. The film works around the old superstition that three people who light a cigarette from one match is unlucky. It follows the lives of Blondell, Davis and Dvorak from similar childhoods to their diverting adulthoods. The unquestionable star of this film is Dvorak who outplays the other actors as the bored housewife turned party girl turned gangsters moll. This film is a must for anyone who doesn't yet appreciate the talents of the powerful and emotion-filled Dvorak.

            13) Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)
One of the few Precode films to deal with the banned topic of interracial sexual attraction, Bitter Tea of General Yen, is a great film mostly for the punchy and powerful performance of lead actor Barbara Stanwyck, the dark yet artistic portrayal of China during civil war and as an early Frank Capra film. Stanwyck plays an American girl who has arrived at Shanghai to marry her childhood sweetheart, a missionary (Gavin Gordan). Instead of a wedding, during a desperate attempt to save a group of orphans, the pair are separated with Stanwyck sent to the summer palace of powerful Chinese warlord General Yen (played by Swedish actor Nils Asther made-up as a Chinese person). Stanwyck is strangely attracted to Yen whose race stands in the way of any possible romance. Despite Yen being played by a very Swedish actor, the film is surprisingly very sympathetic to Chinese people. It is interesting as both a historical film and as a chance to see Stanwyck at her best.

            14) Wild Boys of the Road (1933)
Another William Wellman attempt to show the realities of Depression-era America, Wild Boys of the Road, tells the story of the several young teens who turn to a life on the streets, looking to work to support their poverty stricken families. The gang of boys meet teenager, Sally (Dorothy Coonan who will become Wellman’s fourth wife), who tries to help the boys with food and accommodation. The boys are constantly followed by police, bad luck and starvation which stops them from achieving employment and stable lives. The film is extremely moving today with the ‘wild boys of the road’ sympathetic to audiences despite their rough behaviour and run-ins with the law. I can’t imagine how contemporary audiences would have reacted to the film, but it’s certainly a much watch.

            15) Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1933)
Following on from the popular silent dramatisation of the Robert Louis Stevenson’s iconic novella, director Rouben Mamoulian uses some special film magic in the Precode version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Starring the grecian-looking Fredric March as the two title roles he does a great job negotiating between his clean living, moral ‘Dr Jekyll’ life and the dank, dirty, sinful ‘Mr Hyde’ existence. Not to discount March’s terrific performance, he can be somewhat overlooked when the saucy prostitute Ivy, played by Miriam Hopkins, comes on the screen. The film is perhaps best known for her ‘seduction’ of Dr Jekyll then Mr Hyde, which involved quite a long scene of Ivy undressing. The length of the scene will vary depending on the version of the film you see because that section was heavily censored in rerelease due to its sexual content. 

            16) Duck Soup (1933)
Probably the most popular of all the Marx Brothers’ features I would expect most classic film fans to have already seen Duck Soup especially if they love comedies. The iconic Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo Marx star alongside the beautiful Raquel Torres and Margaret Dumont. The plot of sorts follows Groucho as he becomes the unlikely head of a small state following its financial collapse. This craziness is compounded when a rival state decides to challenge his leadership and first sends two spies (Harpo and Chico) to check out the situation. The story leaves it open for some great Marx Brothers wit, fast paced jokes and tons of the old school slapstick fun.
            17) Heroes for Sale (1933)
Continuing on from earlier depictions of World War 1 (see All Quiet on the Western Front), Heroes for Sale shows the horrendous plight of WW1 veterans who returned from the battlefront to a depressed America. Popular silent actor, Richard Barthelmess, stars as a war veteran who becomes addicted to morphine which he was first given to ease the pain of a wound. His life goes from bad to worse - his addiction causes him to lose his job, be confined for a term in an asylum then more unemployment. Barthelmess’ live goes in waves with riches fading to poverty and then back to riches. He is joined by the hardy Aline MacMahon and pure Loretta Young. It is a confronting film and historically significant mainly due to all the societal issues it confronts. Hellman doesn't just focus on the life of WW1 veterans but also on the vast horde of the unemployed during the Depression, to starvation and bread lines to radicalism and Communism to workers’ rights and health and safety standards. 
            18) Queen Christina (1933)
Queen Christina is a tour-de-force for Greta Garbo who clearly has an affinity with the film’s lead character and title role, Queen Christina of Sweden. Garbo is energetic as Christina who loves to blur the boundaries between gender and sexuality. First Christina announces she won’t marry then appears to have a ‘close’ (wink wink) relationship with her lady in waiting then falls for a male Spanish envoy while she is masquerading as a man! Queen Christina is neither a lesbian nor heterosexual and not a stereotypical woman yet not a man, she is somewhere in between. The film is so modern, if it was not black and white you would be forgiven for thinking it was a new release. Like always Garbo is radiant and effervescent and her chemistry with former real life partner John Gilbert who plays her primary love interest is undeniable.

            19) Ladies They Talk About (1933)
Barbara Stanwyck again shows her incredible versatility and talent, starring as Nan Taylor, the leader of gang of bank robbers who finds herself incarcerated after a job goes wrong. Her love interest and radio star, Preston Foster, believes he can reform Nan and tries to help her while she in in prison. Meanwhile, Nan has to negotiate her way through a range of predatory and violent female inmates. Stanwyck proves she has the force and power beyond her small statue and the audience really believes she can conquer anything. Ladies They Talk About is another Precode crime drama which complicates the line between good and evil and shows the humanity behind the criminal. As you can imagine, the censors hated it, but audiences disagreed.

            20) Footlights Parade (1933)
Another Busby Berkeley led Precode musical, Footlights Parade, has a snappy plot, great Warner Bros stars and lots of chorus girls not to mention fabulous, scandalous musical numbers. Energetic James Cagney stars as a director of musical numbers - named ‘prologues - that feature before a film in the cinemas. He is the creative mind behind the business and generates all the gimmicky ideas for the short productions. Alongside Cagney is his trusty secretary (who is also secretly in love with him), Joan Blondell; his neurotic dance director, Frank McHugh; secretary-turned dancer, Ruby Keeler; shady producer Guy Kibbee; and lead singer, Dick Powell. Little side plots and love scenes feature in between rehearsals of musical numbers and, eventually, the official performances. The productions and costumes are my favourite part of the film especially the last minute performance by a very talented Cagney. 
            21) Of Human Bondage (1934)
The film that setup Bette Davis as a star and was her first chance to show she was more than just a pretty face, Of Human Bondage (1934), is an emotion filled drama in the general vain of other Somerset Maugham works. Despite being basically repulsive as the waitress and love interest, Mildred Rogers, with her bleached blonde hair and vulgar cockney accent, the viewer can’t help but watch as Davis dominates each corner of the film. As the main protagonist, the sensitive, Leslie Howard plays a trainee doctor who falls for Mildred. She returns his affection by manipulating, demeaning and debasing him. Howard tries to let go but Mildred seems to follow him whether he goes. As a lover of Bette Davis, I can’t praise her performance more. It is as if she released years of pent up emotion and talent into the 80 minute film. Of Human Bondage (1934) is also one of the last to be released before the adoption of the Hays Code.

            22) Tarzan and His Mate (1934)
A sequel to the 1932 film Tarzan The Ape Man, Tarzan and His Mate (1934) is a look at what happened after the credits rolled to the hero and heroine, Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller) and Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan). I prefer this film to the first one because, in the usual Pre-code fashion, it shows a somewhat realistic, somewhat fantastic portrayal of a loving couple in the “honeymoon” phase of their relationship. There is a lot of loving looks, kisses and even a risqué nude swimming scene! Of course it doesn’t last but no one is in any doubt as to the couple’s status at the end of the movie. Due to its age, Tarzan and His Mate (1934) has suffered because of the lack of special affects technology. However, both leading actors as so perfect for their roles and after a while I didn’t even notice the strange cinematography. 

            23) Wonder Bar (1934)
A film with an endless array of shocking and censorable subjects from a black-face minstrel act to murder without conscience, unabashed gay characters, extra marital affairs, suicide, references to gigolos and countless double entrendres, Wonder Bar (1934) has to be seen to be believed.  Depicting the debauched goings-on at an upmarket night club, the film stars Al Jolson as club owner ‘Al Wonder’, Dolores de Rio and Richardo Cortez as dancers, Kay Francis as a wealthy housewife and Dick Powell as a bandleader and singer. It follows several subplots which are intermingled with luxurious and expansive Busby Berkeley musical numbers including the usual chorus girls in dazzling costumes performing mind bending choreography. If you skip over or can get past the very outdated black-face act, this film is entertaining if a little excruciating.  

            24) Murder at the Vanities (1934)
A strange musical/ mystery film, Murder at the Vanities (1934), is notable more for its controversial musical numbers than the plot, acting or direction. All these features seem to blend into the background as the crazy Broadway revue takes hold. One is ‘Where Do They Come From (and Where Do They Go)’ sung beautifully by the equally beautiful Gertrude Michael who standing in front of displays of seminude chorus girls in cigarette boxes, artists’ studios or perfume containers. Next is ‘Live and Love Tonight’ lead by Carl Brisson and more chorus girls in barely-there leaf costumes then comes the topper ‘Marahuana’ by Michael with images of Mexico and even more shockingly topless women coming out of cactus blooms. Plus, as you can imagine, this number is like an advertisement for the pleasures of marijuana. There are more musical numbers in the film but I don’t want to ruin the shock factor. Admittedly, I don’t even remember the plot of the film, watch just for the songs.

            25) It Happened On Night (1934)
Probably the cutest little romantic comedy film ever made, It Happened One Night (1934) is one of those rare commercial and critic successes that is both witty and intelligent yet charming and accessible. It stars Claudette Colbert as a bored socialite wanting to escape the control of her surprisingly sweet and loveable father to marry an unsuitable cad (Jameson Thomas) and Clark Gable as a no nonsense newspaper reporter who - for selfish reasons - vows to help her. The pair’s journey from Florida to New York City is both hilarious and heartwarming. The Academy must have agreed giving both Gable and Colbert Academy Awards as well as the director, Frank Capra, writer Robert Riskin and the top gong - Best Picture. A must watch for every film lover. My favourite scene is probably the most famous of the film where the pair, needing to get a lift, have a competition as to who could best attract a driver to pick them up. Colbert wins using just her feminine charm.  

1 comment: