Nothing says Happy Holidays better for me than the availability of a new set of pre-Code Hollywood shockers. Except for maybe TWO sets – which is exactly what the Warner Archive Collection has delivered as salacious rolled-down stocking-stuffers via their FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD, VOLUMES 6 & 7.
Within this pair of 4-platter DVD-R made-to-order confections are housed eight double-take worthy samplings of debauchery, insanity, drug and sex addiction, beatings, whippings, gunplay, and torture – to say nothing of an inspired approach to both the eyeliner and the one-liner. In short, prime time entertainment.
Much of the latter is due to the extremely welcome presence of Say Girls. For those not familiar with the term, these are the slinky, fetching, wise-cracking very complicated females who populate the pre-Code universe. Their looks, smarts and survival instincts all take a back seat to their remarkable abilities to suggestively ad-lib their way out of any situation. This is almost always achieved by beginning every barb with the red flag zinger-coming warning of “Say…” For example, “Say, that's a cinch! I can make that much money layin’ on my back!” Indeed, even such mundane forays as shopping take on a rollicking meaning all their own – in fact, often a separate language. The simple act of buying a pair of shoes isn't communicated by the predictable “I have to have those shoes,” but rather “Say, my dogs were meant for those boats!”
Many big stars (Crawford, Harlow, Stanwyck, Bennett, Dietrich) all embraced Say Girlism at some point, but, for the most part, the classic SG snappers were delivered by their enticing up-and-comers (Loretta Young, Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers, Joan Blondell, Glenda Farrell) and supporting players (Una Merkel, Polly Walters, Pert Kelton, Wynne Gibson, Thelma Todd). This frequently resulted in upstaging of the highest magnitude. When Joan Crawford invites Marjorie White to a posh party of foreign dignitaries in Possessed (1931), one is champing at the bit for the rapid, succinct pre-Tweet verbal bitch-slap – and one isn't disappointed (“Say, what is this – Ellis Island?!”).
But there are certainly many other reasons to worship pre-Code cinema, ranging from seeing soon-to-be-squeaky-clean superstars engaged in frank, candid displays of adultery, gangsterism, backstabbing and murder (AND getting away with it) to the deco art direction and set design, the spectacular black and white photography and the cool clotheshorse fashion statements made while otherwise engaged in said distasteful antics.
Choice pre-Code entries reigned supreme from around 1931-1933 – with notable exceptions dotting the 1929-1930 season (and the first half of the death-knell year of 1934, when censorship unfortunately took hold). Armed with this information, it's encouraging to report that seven of the eight pics in these sets are from the 1932-33 period – with one released in the beginning of 1934. So... “Say, take a load off and give ya pants a thrill!”
FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD, VOLUME 6 contains one of the best pre-Code movies ever filmed – and certainly the greatest talkie John Gilbert appeared in; it also features a bizarre curio epic on hooch; a jaw-dropping celebration of whoredom and a scathing indictment on racism.
Hey, I know it's pre-Code, but get your mind out of the gutter: 1932's THE WET PARADE isn't about what you're thinking. It was MGM's attempt to respectably address the problems of alcoholism and bootlegging by blatantly kicking the problem square in the ass. In a period where most movies ran around 75 minutes, the nearly two-hour depiction of Upton Sinclair's devastating novel (scripted by John Lee Mahin) shows the degradation of America, both north and south – and how they horrifically eventually intermingle (albeit beautifully so, as captured by d.p. George Barnes). Victor Fleming's no-nonsense direction initially takes a while to pop its cork, slowly unfolding in Dixie – where the julep-dripping mothball aristocracy party like it’s 1860. With ah-do-declare dialogue such as “...drunk evah since mah foist cotillion” and references to those adorable “pickaninnies dancin',” it looks like rough going. Once the action switches to the city and the inauguration of the Volstead Act, things pick up with fierce rapidity. The all-star Grand Hotel cast ploy is certainly impressive. Swaying and staggering amongst Robert Young, Dorothy Jordan, Lewis Stone, Neil Hamilton, Joan Marsh and Wallace Ford are some truly outrageous sights, including Myrna Loy as a mean girl and Jimmy Durante as a machine-gun wielding G-man (who nevertheless still gets an op to mouth “I got a million of 'em!”). The best performance, not surprisingly, is that of Walter Huston, whose addiction to drink turns to full-blown insanity. Sort of a cinematic homage to the anthem “My Country Fizz O' Thee,” the whole thing became rather meaningless, as the release of THE WET PARADE hit theaters as the nation was rife with anxious rumors of Prohibition's repeal (which did occur early that next December).
1932's DOWNSTAIRS is the set's jewel in the crown for several reasons. 1) it's a friggin' great nasty movie and 2) it's the best proof ever of the multiple talents of star John Gilbert, who not only seethes with evil charm but also reveals his outstanding ability as a writer (he wrote the original story, and likely contributed some of the biting dialogue, officially credited to Lenore Coffee and Melville Baker). A vicious tale of Machiavellian sexual politics played out amongst the decaying noblesse of Vienna, DOWNSTAIRS chronicles the rise and fall and rise of a ruthless chauffeur who uses his looks and palaver to seduce and blackmail the women (both upstairs and downstairs) of the chateau in which he is currently employed. Little is left to the imagination via the risque dialogue, including an amazing double entendre boast of “I'll tap the Baroness.” The key plot-point is Gilbert's intruding upon the marriage of the head butler and maid, Paul Lukas and Virginia Bruce – culminating in his creatively schtupping Bruce whilst Lukas is attending the Baron on a fishing excursion. Newlywed Lukas already suspects Gilbert of some coital shenanigans – rudely confirmed by his now sexually-unbridled bride. In a magnificent moment of graphic revelation, Bruce screams to her cuckolded spouse that she has experienced two kinds of love – Lukas' “frozen way” and “...something that makes you so dizzy, you don't know or care!” Don't know what else to say about the breathtaking realism with which Bruce pants her rants – oh, yeah, except that she became Gilbert's fourth wife. Why Gilbert chose to set his immorality play in Vienna is unclear – save perhaps a nod to Von Stroheim (his Merry Widow auteur). The direction is slick (Monta Bell) and camerawork superb (Harold Rosson) and the narrative...well, aces in so many ways. Sort of a Going Down-ton Abbey, DOWNSTAIRS, featuring an excellent supporting cast (comprising Olga Baclanova, Reginald Owen, Hedda Hopper, Bodil Rosing and Lucien Littlefield), once more dismisses the idiotic stories of Gilbert's inadequate voice; as his supporters know all too well, he spoke just fine. It's the star's finest post-silent moment – one that MGM didn't push too hard, giving it a shoddy release. For a more thorough discussion of this underrated gem, I heartily recommend (come on, it's the holidays) this collection wrapped alongside of author Eve Golden's great recent Gilbert biography, John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars.
1933's MANDALAY could really be a misspelling, being Kay Francis' sexual odyssey: MAN-TO-LAY. This Warner Bros. Michael Curtiz-directed corker doesn't stop for one nanosecond...So be forewarned: once the picture fades in, blink and you'll miss about 9000 steamy, seamy and ream-me encounters that make up the relentless narrative.
First off, remember Shanghai Express – and Dietrich's immoral sex-planation of her fall to sin: “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily!” Well in MANDALAY it only takes Ricardo Cortez (who transforms Francis into Spot White; no kidding, that's her skank moniker). It all starts innocently enough: Francis is Cortez's devoted lover – enjoying a vacation of exceptional coupling in the exotic port. So what does one's lover do when likewise immersed in eternal romantic tom-swoonery? The answer is obvious – he sells her into white slavery, and absconds with a hefty swag.
Now ensconced in Warner Oland's high-class bordello, Francis takes stock of herself and essentially climbs the ladder of success a la Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face. In no time at all, she's the aforementioned Spot White – whore-rior princess. Expert at “private parties” frequented by corrupt law officials (whose medals are pinned on Francis' garter), the madam is soon politely asked to spread her joy elsewhere. This forces the wealthy courtesan to engage in a See-Spot-Run exit aboard a freighter loaded with opium. Said freighter is also loaded with Lyle Talbot, who's also...well, loaded – a drunken, disgraced doctor off to attend a local plague. Ignorant of the classy Francis' past, Talbot explains that “In this country, it's always best to avoid infection...” a rule Spot has no doubt long-embraced. Enter Cortez, fresh out of dough and determined to weasel his way back into Francis’ good graces (unfortunately, his “if it wasn't for me, you wouldn't be what you are today” spiel isn't the ideal way to go). The rewarding finale is one that could only happen in pre-Code town – so kudos to scriptwriters Austin Parker and Charles Kenyon, who manage to squeeze all of Paul Hervey Fox's story into an amazing 65-minute running time, less than the end credits of most current fare. WB house d.p. Tony Gaudio embellishes the pic with the required look of foreign mystery, accentuated by Anton Grot's set and art direction and Orry-Kelly's gowns that are tastefully fit for a ho’.
Just getting in under the pre-Code wire 1934's MASSACRE is classic Warner Bros. social commentary – this time underlining the plight of the Native American. Starring Richard Barthlemess who, ever since playing Asian in 1919's Broken Blossoms, was often cast (and half-caste) in numerous ethnic roles, as Joe Thunderhorse, star of a successful Wild West Show. Thunderhorse, for all his on-stage traditional presence, is actually more akin to the canyons of Manhattan than Utah or Arizona. “I wouldn't know a medicine man from a bootlegger,” he sneers, jumping into his souped-up convertible for a night on the town. Nevertheless his reservation upbringing has made him a perfect athlete, and his hyped savage prowess is best put to use in the boudoirs of many a pampered and heavy-breathing white woman. “Say,” utters a female, ogling him in the stands, as he rides into the arena bareback, “I'll be that chief's squaw anytime!” And that's just fine with Thunderhorse. Partying with a gorgeous heiress, he's maneuvered into her bedroom: “Feast your eyes, redskin!” she commands while the other guests wonder what all that subsequent moaning is about.
In a move to up his drawing power price, Thunderhorse takes off with his African-American best pal (Clarence Muse), and bides his time back home. Here he learns first-hand of the political right-wing corruption and racism that has nearly obliterated his people (hmmm, nice to know some things haven't changed), so much so that it even unnerves the similarly victimized Muse (“White folks sure didn't give Indians much of a break”).
Falling for a beautiful university-educated tribe member (a stunning skin-darkened Ann Dvorak, donned in striking Native American rags by Orry-Kelly), Thunderhorse uses his celebrity to bring their pitiful conditions to light (the press dubbing him an “American Dreyfus”). Substandard medical treatment administered by a coked-up physician (who obviously got his diploma at the same institute as Ralf Harolde in Night Nurse) plus the rape of Thunderhorse's under-aged niece (by Sidney Toler no less!) explodes in fiery violence and one hell of an exciting climax that makes this incredibly modern take on inequality a must-see. Dudley Digges (basically in the same part he had in Warner's Mayor of Hell), Arthur Hohl, Robert Barrat, Tully Marshall, Henry O'Neill, Charles Middleton, Samuel S. Hinds and Douglass Dumbrille encompass the sinister rogue's gallery of scowling faces (the uncompromising script by Ralph Block and Sheridan Gibney leaves no stone unturned, from a story by Robert Gessner, for the above to hide under). Alan Crossland directs what is likely his best talkie and George Barnes contributes yet another monochrome triumph to his impressive CV. The theatrical trailer, which hysterically negates everything the movie stands for, is worth noting for its virulent racism, likely second only to Island of Lost Souls: “Do you think a white girl can really love a redskin?” it asks viewers. YIKES!
Say, VOLUME 7 ain't no slouch in OMG Department either. Straight off the boat we got 1932's THE HATCHET MAN – perhaps my favorite William Wellman pic. Now when it comes to Jewish Asians, I gotta state that down 'n' dirty Eddie Robinson is miles above the lofty moo goo gai pans of Paul Muni and Luise Rainer.
Here's the skinny. In 1917, paid assassin Wong Low Get (Eddie G.) is ordered to kill his best friend Sun Sat Ming...J. Carrol Naish. He “adopts” Naish's 6-year-old daughter Sun Toya San, who fortunately for us woo bait fans grows up to be in-de-scruitably delicious Loretta Young (looking amazing in Earl Luick gowns amidst exotic Anton Grot deco environs). Robinson, now a respected modernized businessman, thinks so too – lusting after his ward who he intends to marry on her upcoming 21st birthday. Young meanwhile yearns for the hot cha cha – and spends all her sneak-a-way time in jazz clubs dancing with Anglocized slick Chinese mobsters from New York. When old-school gangland violence breaks out (as it only can in a Warner Bros. movie), Robinson is given protection in the form of guess who? Yup, the slimeball dude who's getting Loretta's panties in an uproar (none other than Leslie Fenton under that slanty-eye/buck tooth makeup; obviously Ricardo Cortez was busy getting killed on some other soundstage). Robinson catches them in a secret room playing hide-the-pork-wonton (insult to injury, under a statue of Buddha! Oy!). Young takes a powder with Fenton, heads back east – and in no time becomes a drug-addicted prostitute. A totally devastated Robinson loses both his business and his mind – the latter only rocked back to reality when he learns that Young is now a whore in a China port (the Street of Red Lanterns, where one can “smoke the pipe of golden dreams”), as Fenton's drug-dealing has gotten him deported. Robinson's revenge is such that at two separate screenings my sofa full of aghast pals gasped at the final shot, unable to speak for a full half minute after the lights went up.
Aside from pre-Code nastiness galore, THE HATCHET MAN is chock full 'o nuts matched only by its freewheeling racism. “Forty thousand yellow residents” populate San Francisco's Chinatown, the Prologue announces. It's all like some demented Fitzpatrick Traveltalk; you can almost hear: As the ancient Tong members warn Robinson that 1932 “women are being spoiled by indulgence and freedom,” we bid anxious farewell to Young's virginity (“Chinese girls have legs just like their white sisters” purrs the hormonal coquette about to give it up). All of this is further topped by such pearls as “Cut out the chink lingo and talk United States!” Even the trailer enlightens us with “Mighty in its clash of oriental passion and American conventions.” Thumbs up to J. Grubb Alexander for his scandalous adaptation of the play by my boys Achmed Abdullah and David Belasco. Sid Hickox did the nifty camera work while Wellman's direction resembles a hybrid precursor of David Lynch and Sam Peckinpah. Oh, yeah – and how can one resist a movie with more badass faces than a Beery family reunion (Tully Marshall, Charles Middleton and Dudley Digges!)?
An expose of lowlifes in high finance, 1932's SKYSCRAPER SOULS is yet another MGM all-star filthy version of their more upper echelon Grand Hotel. Lacking a dirtbag lead to head the impressive supporting cast (Maureen O'Sullivan, Anita Page, Jean Hersholt, Wallace Ford, Norman Foster and George Barbier), Metro was forced to import someone possessed of all the prerequisite qualities indicative of human fungus...so they naturally turned to Warner Bros., and admirably selected that personification of come-slither appeal: Warren William. William superbly rules with an iron fist (and likely fuzzy handcuffs) as David Dwight a scheming entrepreneur and developer of the monumental 100-story (what else?) Dwight Building – a haphazardly constructed monolith that will tower over that work-in-progress known as The Empire State Building (when questioned about the many men who “...dropped off these girders” to their deaths, Dwight shrugs “...it was worth it!”).
Based on Faith Baldwin's best-selling novel, SKYSCRAPER SOULS is a testament to greed and lust, as everyone in this narrative is relentlessly involved in screwing or being screwed – literally, figuratively...or both.
When not embezzling his investors' capital, William is committing adultery with his sophisticated “personal assistant” Verree Teasdale...all the while being sponged upon by his cheating wife, Hedda Hopper. This doesn't stop him from hiring O'Sullivan for some last minute “night work” – rather ironic, as she's in the process of being date-raped by her volatile boyfriend Foster. William is expert at avoiding confrontations with either stockholders or lovers (“sorry, but I've suddenly developed spinal meningitis”); he's also cucumber-cool at arranging blackmailing sexual trysts for affluent, elderly husbands. His personal affairs inevitably explode in his duplicitous face via gunplay and a magnificent suicide – the latter being one of the most hauntingly disturbing but stunning images in 1930s cinema: the sleek beauteous form of a spurned lover, posed like a Rolls-Royce figurehead ornament, majestically diving off the deco penthouse terrace. C. Gardner Sullivan adapted the screenplay with the trenchant dialogue added by Elmer Harris. Director Edgar Selwyn (possibly his finest effort) keeps the action going at a quicksilver pace while the great William Daniels delivers the visual goods with his shimmering B&W cinematography.
Warren William again is king of the hill – this time back on his own Warners turf in 1933's EMPLOYEES' ENTRANCE. As the ruthless smash-or-be-smashed head of a department store (his rise reflects the emporium's increasing assets graph), William resorts to any unsavory method possible to make a profit while cementing his ascending position (if PBS ever made a series about William and his store it would be called Mr. Selfish). This includes blackmail (if that fails, “kill her”), pimping his female staff (“I didn't recognize you with your clothes on,” he tells floozie Alice White before sending her out on the prowl), suicide (“When a man outlives his usefulness, he ought to jump out a window!”) and even animal abuse (he tosses a pup in the trash). Much of his power is utilized for access to binders full of Depression-era cuties, prominently desperate Loretta Young, whom he deflowers in Bed and Mattresses and later rapes at an office party. In fact, his specialty is driving girls “to disgrace” or “to shame” (an amazing exchange wherein he reminisces about taking a conquest “...behind the back door.”). As far as women are concerned, they're “...okay in their place...[as long as you] love 'em and leave 'em!”
An extraordinary moment in the import Toy Department results in William pondering be-tween Germany and Japan – a rather prophetic clue to his rat bastard personae; as another character notes, “...he's not bad once you know him – until you know him!” (yeah, as if the Napoleon bust in his office wasn’t a tip-off).
The supporting cast is terrific, and features Wallace Ford, Allen Jenkins (as a “dumb store dick”), Ruth Donnelly, Berton Churchill (at his most Newt Gingrich-iest) Frank Reicher and Charles Sellon; it's the aforementioned White who shines in her relatively brief appearance. White was a Warners hopeful during their transition to talkies. Incredibly kewpie-pie cute, she pretty much tanked in most of her starring vehicles. Longing to White-out her remaining contract, Warners plopped the former lead in supporting parts. It's here that a metamorphosis occurred. All of a sudden, she was great – hysterically funny, sexy and naturally intuitive. Her performances in EMPLOYEES' ENTRANCE and Picture Snatcher (also 1933) are Say Girl gems.
Young, White and other hotties look swell in Orry-Kelly garb (nattily photographed by house d.p. Barney McGill). Robert Presnell's script (from David Boehm's play) is filled with verbal bomb-bons – the kind pre-Code fans lick their chops for. And the always-dependable Roy Del Ruth's swift direction keeps the double-entendres coming at a non-stop pace.
While SKYSCRAPER SOULS is the closest MGM ever came to a Warners movie, its success no doubt prompted the Burbank studio to reward William with this lavish follow-up – their attempt to ape a Metro outing. Say! They win on BOTH counts.
“No one has any right to me – but ME!” announces Bette Davis to all who'll listen in 1933's EX-LADY, an eyebrow-raiser from director Robert Florey. Davis is a svelte artist for Cosmopolitan who frankly likes to get it on (“a free spirit,” as they said back then). When discovered in mid-couch gallop with lover Gene Raymond, her taken-aback parents play the family values card. “I don't want to get married!” is her defiant response.
Slimy alternate suitor Monroe Owsley gets wind of this and moves in for the kill, promising “Let's do it. Don't worry – I won't marry you!” She kicks his scrawny butt out of her crib pronto, and sneaks in panting Raymond.
When the pressure ratchets up, Davis and Raymond reluctantly agree to tie the knot, and embark on a “noble experiment...the protection of a wedding ring with none of the restrictions.” Essentially an open marriage, they each take on enough excess baggage to stock a Samsonite warehouse. Friends like the outstanding Kay Strozzi (who engages in extramarital sex to keep Jurassic-era hubby Ferdinand Gottschalk interested) prove to be a downer, as soon the newlyweds experience extreme pangs of jealousy. When this begins to affect their work, it's time to reconsider in bravura pre-Code style (i.e., divorcing, then living together).
EX-LADY tackles the age-old question of whether marriage “...is a menace to romance.” One of the most obscure pre-Code entries, this compact pic (67 minutes) crams a lot into its seven-reel package. While it's genuinely startling to see fossil Gottschalk gettin' it on, the champion WTF moment comes earlier (no pun) when Davis and Raymond have outdoor party sex in the foreground while a gyrating Cuban hoochie-coochie dancer shakes it up in the background.
Florey's streamlined direction is nicely complimented by Tony Gaudio's silky photography. Speaking of silky, Davis and trampy costar Claire Dodd are Tex Avery eyeball-out-of-the-socket gorgeous (no doubt, in part, due to Orry-Kelly); and silkily speaking, it's truly a joy to hear them toss off one-liners from David Boehm's script (based on a story by Edith Fitzgerald and Robert Riskin). Long story short, EX-LADY gives splicing some spicing.
Okay, enough with the monkey gab. I'm off to the local speak...ya big bozo!
FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD COLLECTION, VOLUME 6. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1]. Mono audio. CAT # 883316753064. SRP: $39.95.
FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD COLLECTION, VOLUME 7. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1]. Mono audio. CAT # 883316753040. SRP: $39.95.