Oh No, They Didn’t!…: ‘Say Girls’ and Other Perks of Pre-Code Cinema

Between the dawn of the talkie era and June of 1934, Hollywood enjoyed a delirious moral laxity on-screen that almost equaled what was happening off-screen. Natch, the party-poopers (religious groups and politicos) couldn’t allow grown-ups to act like grown-ups, so they pulled the plug via the Production Code, enforcing phony family values upon an industry that lasted (with diminishing power) well into the 1960s. This brief but glorious preceding unbridled period has become affectionately tagged Pre-Code Hollywood – and has, in recent history, become probably the most revived and lovingly embraced half decade in American cinema. I worship these movies celebrating ranting disreputable citizenry: cheating slimeballs, loudmouth chorines, sexually depraved socialites, drug-addicted officials and the rest, and thereby salute Warner Archives for their continuing collection of pre-Code classics in their FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD series, of which Volumes Four and Five are must-have standouts. These eight movies are indispensable to collectors who revel at the sight of rolled-up stockings, raunchy dialogue and early appearances by superstars, who began their long careers as the reigning pre-Code kings and queens (James CagneyBarbara StanwyckKay FrancisWilliam PowellLoretta YoungJoan Blondell). FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD likewise gives viewers a terrific op to enjoy the thespian treats (and tricks) of many leading players who have since faded from the limelight, but who nonetheless deserve a peek (Warren WilliamGeorge BrentUna MerkelLyle Talbot, Helen Vinson).

Pre-Code movies are almost always populated by a species I catalogue as “Say Girls.” Say Girls are carnal-experienced broads, sorceresses of the saucy, who tend to precede every barb with the word, “Say.” In 2012, my good pal, writer Eve Golden, penned a fascinating read (part of her terrific Queen of the Dead series for The Daily Mirror) that delves into Say Girl extraordinaire Marjorie White (http://ladailymirror.com/2012/11/06/eve-golden-queen-of-the-dead-marjorie-white/). Say Girls have seen it all…and done it all. While Stanwyck may be the Say Girl Goddess, largely based on the cult status of 1932’s Baby Face, she has mucho competition. “Say, what are ya doin’ with my underwear?!” is a typical line, but there are far more colorful examples, some of which I can’t even print here. For example, novices to pre-Code pics are astounded at Ginger Rogers in 42nd Street (1933) being dubbed Anytime Annie (“Say,…she only said ‘no’ once and THEN she didn’t hear the question!”), or Joan Blondell verbally bitch-slapping Claire Dodd in ’33’s Footlight Parade  (Say, “…as long as they’ve got sidewalks YOU’VE got a job!”) They double-take at my personal fave, Ann Dvorak, wondering if she really did mouth that line to Lee Tracy (one of the unsung masters) about swallowing in 1932’s The Strange Love of Molly Louvain). Or how ‘bout Marlene Dietrich chiding a fellow showgirl, nicknamed Taxi, in 1932’s Blonde Venus (“Do you charge by the mile?”)?  The guys are no slouches either. Cagney jokes in Jimmy the Gent (1934) when he is told that a rival called him a prince (“Are you sure he said ‘prince’?”) And give Jack La Rue points in Virtue (1932) for revealing his joy of “dunking the doughnut.” Then there are the plotlines and situations themselves: pedophiles checking out L.A.’s Union Depot (1932) in the flick of the same name (likewise, Ward Bond raping an underage runaway in 1933’s Wild Boys of the Road); high-class heiress Frances Dee liking it rough in 1933’s Blood Money; ditto the appropriately-named Constance Cummings in ‘32’s Night After Night – practically having an orgasm at the thought of George Raft belting her around. 1934’s Fog Over Frisco opens with nightclub mobster Irving Pichel giving a sexy patron cunnilingus in his office; the same flick has middle-aged Douglass Dumbrille ravishing barely-legal Bette Davis (Dumbrille’s also the lucky dude getting a Men’s Room BJ from Stanwyck in Baby Face). And so it goes.

While Warner Bros. generally gets the kudos for pre-Code antics, all of the studios mounted the partying bandwagon. Legend has it that the last straw was jerked off with the 1933 release of Warner’s Convention City, a movie considered so nasty that (supposedly) all prints and negatives had to be destroyed (naturally, it’s become the pre-Code Holy Grail). But it wasn’t one title that did it – nor this one studio. Convention City’s notoriety aside, it was the lofty MGM’s atypical output that helped – often with the participation of Jean Harlow in Red Dust, Red-Headed Woman, red ANYTHING.  She also blow-torched the males in The Secret Six and Beast of the City. Metro also depicted vigorous jungle humping and bona-fide nudity in their first two Tarzan pictures, a castration in the now-lost cut of Freaks and a defiantly different look at generally squeaky-clean Anita Page in the way underrated Night Court (1932). Even Laurel & Hardy (whose Hal Roach shorts were distributed by MGM) offered some jaw-dropping exchanges in 1932’s Their First Mistake. When Oliver’s wife, Mae Busch, sues Stan for “…the alienation of Mr. Hardy’s affections,” Ollie explains, “…she thinks I think more of you than I do of her.” Laurel’s adamant response of  “Well, you DO, don’t you?” is followed by a sober “Well, we won’t get into that!” Concurrent was Fox’s triumphant return of Clara Bow to temporary box office eminence in Call Her Savage (1932), wherein the former It Girl cruises gay bars in the Village for laughs. More than Convention City or MGM, it was the sophisticated Paramount that helped seal pre-Code’s fate with two releases, I’m No Angel (or, more precisely, the emergence of Mae West) and The Story of Temple Drake, the first adaptation of William Faulkner‘s Sanctuary. In the former, an unscrupulous lion wrangler assures carny boss Edward Arnold that West is safer in his lion’s mouth than in her own bed, to which Arnold retorts, “I don’t doubt it!” In the latter, a kidnapped Southern belle is repeatedly violated by moonshining gangsters; imprisoned in a ramshackle hovel, she asks the only other woman why she locks her crying baby in a box. “Keeps the rats out.” she logically answers.  My addiction to these movies and the folks in them transcends pushing the edge; remember, I’m the guy who would love nothing more than invading post-1934 MGM and machine-gunning the entire Hardy family.

The eight titles in the two new pre-Code offerings may not be of the caliber of Baby Face or Blessed Event (another 1932 honey), but they do pack a wallop, are loaded with great stars and absolutely deserve a place in any serious classic library.

Volume Four is essentially a William Dieterle homage, as he directs three out of the quartet of naughty escapades, all of which were made in 1932. JEWEL ROBBERY reteams the stars of an earlier ’32 smash, One Way Passage, William Powell and Kay Francis. Francis and pal Helen Vinson are two adulterous members of Vienna aristocracy. “I’d deceive my husband with pleasure” is the movie’s mantra. Francis, who relishes her spouse’s lavish gifts, sparks “He’s giving it to me tonight” at the thought of treasured family jewels. Enter superior thief/lover Powell, who makes his unique escapes by having his victims smoke marijuana, thus disabling any pursuit. With a script by Erwin S. Gelsey and Bertram Bloch (based on a story by the great Ladislas Fodor), sparkling camerawork by Robert Kurrle and smooth direction (William Keighley was A.D.), JEWEL ROBBERY makes for some Lubitstch-inspired fun indeed. There’s also the added guilty pleasure of watching Francis wrestle with the dialogue purposely planted by the rude WB writing department (they nicknamed her “Wavishing Kay Fwancis” due to a speech impediment causing the actress to replace ‘r’s with ‘w’s). Some plums are “I can hear the gwavel cwunching,” whispered at the arrival of Powell, followed by “Are you weely going to steal my wing?” Finally, after a consensual seduction (under the wide-opened legs of female statuette), Francis huffs at her suspicious cuckolded husband, “You also think I wet the wobber go fwee?!” In short, it’s a wiot.

Dieterle, Kurrele and Powell return in LAWYER MAN, a tough, sleazy tale of a brilliant tenement shyster, whose rise to the top is hampered by his sex addiction, ultimately forcing him to become a mob mouthpiece (“If they want rats, I’ll be a rat – the daddy of all rats!”). Representing “dirty political fat-heads,” and defending corrupt health insurance companies ends up disgusting long-dedicated secretary Joan Blondell, but can true love win over a woman-obsessed p-hound? Justice literally is blinded in one sequence where a reformed and determined Powell is immediately deterred by a tight close-up pan of a passing woman’s ass. Waspy Powell’s speaking Yiddish almost trumps Cagney doing the same in Taxi (also 1932), except, unbelievably, it is implied that his character is supposed to be Jewish, underlined by his decision to go “back to my people.” Why Warners didn’t toss this to either Edward G. Robinson or Paul Muni (both under contract) remains a goyim conundrum.  “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” plays constantly on the soundtrack, providing a perfect audio allegory to the narrative. Cool to see the ever-suave Powell blackmailing violent gunsels Izzy and Spike (Allen Jenkins and Jack La Rue) into becoming his bodyguards!

Dieterle diwects Kay Francis once more in MAN WANTED, where she plays a mega-successful but sexually frustrated head of a fashion magazine. Although her approval of an open marriage with her cheating, sponging husband has its perks (the occasional nooner in the conference room), Francis realizes what she has been missing when she hires hunk David Manners as her personal assistant. Their meeting occurs when he demonstrates an exercise “woe-ing machine” in her office. A telling sequence begins with Manners’ boasting “I’ll show you what I can do,” causing hubby’s framed photo to be accidentally smashed which is followed by a montage of his rapidly rising paychecks. With a Robert Lord script and Gregg Toland photography, MAN WANTED is loaded with sneering and leering in substantial doses. An included trailer informs us that this is a picture about High-Jinks in High Society…that She Loved Her Husband…but a MAN was WANTED. Besides, how can one resist a movie where Manners’ best friend (and sloppy seconds recipient) Andy Devine is the voice of reason?

Manners negates his name in the final entry, THEY CALL IT SIN, based on a novel by Alberta Stedman Eagan (screenplay by Lillie Hayward and Howard J. Greene); as a womanizing exec, engaged to the daughter of his firm’s president, he’s pushin’ the cushion with small-town hottie Loretta Young (Manners’ shameful behavior is a probable WTF culture-shock reality check for classic movie fans who tend to know him only from his heroic turns in Universal horror vehicles, Dracula and The Mummy). Admittedly, Loretta Young is an acquired taste; the fact that she started as a 14-year-old starlet in the silents (emoting opposite the likes of middle-aged Lon Chaney) and was still playing romantic roles into the 1950s is a testament to her longevity. No doubt, she was a knockout, but never so much as in her Warners pre-Code movies; her ludicrous off-camera morality hypocritically clashed with the fact that she swung enough to have an out-of-wedlock baby with Clark Gable.  Insult to injury, Young would annoyingly walk around sets with a Cursing Jar, stalking and forcing cast and crew to cough up penalty money every time they uttered four-letter epithets.  The star’s precious replacement phrases irritated coworkers for decades; while Young’s cringing “Go fudge yourself,” happily takes on a meaning all its own, it was character actress Doris Singleton (Carolyn Appleby on the I Love Lucy series) who delivered the ultimate precision-sharpened skewer.  Citing Young as one of the few negative aspects of her career, a fed up Singleton finally confronted the Oscar-winner toward the end of a shoot and, in front of the whole company, announced, “Here’s a twenty, Loretta, go fuck yourself!”

Ah, but leave us blissfully return to SIN. Ravishing in Orry-Kelly garb, Young is a frantic Sunday church-going patron, furiously pumping the house organ. Revealed to be “illegitimate trash,” she flees to New York for a reunion with her married lover, eventually becoming the mistress of scumbag Broadway producer Louis Calhern and the roommate of breezy leg-spreading showgirl Una Merkel (with the enticing moniker of Dixie Dare!). “I’ll keep the wires hot, honey,” she promises…all the while being eyed by physician George Brent. Directed by Thornton Freeland and with camerawork by James Van Trees, SIN, as if one needs any further explanation, is a wink/wink, nudge/nudge hoot!

Volume Five rules on star power alone. “Don’t get your pants in an uproar!” is the credo of HARD TO HANDLE, a 1933 pip starring James Cagney as a dubious “promoter” in Depression America. First seen shilling a West Coast Marathon Dance contest (“There must be someone honest somewhere?!” is countered with “Not in Southern California!”), he invents a bogus reducing-cream diet plan after he heads toward New York (where else?) to crash the PR agency racket (“The public’s like a cow bellowing to be milked!” he exclaims). The point that Cagney doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb is due to part that everyone in this movie is corrupt. “What does it take for someone to drop dead?” is a question raised early-on and very nearly answered via a barrage of shady business deals, sexual shenanigans and a general fleece fest of playing the players. It’s swiftly directed by Mervyn LeRoy before he went to MGM and promptly forgot everything Warners taught him. A peppy trailer in included, utilizing alternate takes.

A Say Girl extravaganza, 1933’s LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT, directed by William Keighley, features slick con artist Barbara Stanwyck having the grotesque misfortune of being smitten with grating righteous do-gooder Preston Foster, who ends up tossing her into San Quentin. This is where the movie really takes off, as Stany becomes the stir’s toughest cookie alongside cellmate Lillian Roth (who croons “If I Could Be With You” to a photo of Joe E. Brown!). Her assimilation into prison life is a heave-“ho” delight, as fish Roth introduces her to the former Madame of a “beauty and manicure parlor,” (hand jobs a specialty!), a psycho skank obsessed with Foster (Dorothy Burgess) and the local lesbian contingent (“Hmmmm, HMMMMM!” offers Stanwyck, shaking her head at the sight of a butch cigar-chomping con). And only at Warners could a prisoner address a letter simply to “Lefty,” and have it astonishingly find its way to his mitts. “St. Louis Blues” dominates the soundtrack, as the desperate women bemoan Roth’s lament: the “two things you want most: freedom and MEN!” Stanwyck’s disgust with reformer Foster (infected with a case of “too much deaconing!”) is supplanted by her stupendous snap at a relentless detective, her own American Javert: “For a dumb dick, you got the memory of an elephant!”

A sleazier run-through for Nightmare Alley (if one can even imagine such a thing!), 1933’s THE MIND READER, directed by Roy Del Ruth and starring Warren William as the most slippery of con men, is a startling peeper-protractor, to say the least.

With his dedicated crew (the ubiquitous Allen Jenkins and a decidedly modern slick Clarence Muse), William abandons his penny-ante existence to enter the big-time world of swami mystic fortune telling. Bilking rubes left and right sans remorse (with murder and suicide the results) makes William super-rich, eventually enabling him invade the Park Avenue crowd, where he specializes in blackmailing adulterous members of the 400 (“…relieving the Depression for divorce lawyers”). His seduction of an underaged girl can’t be helped, as she has “…curves like the Third Avenue El!” That this ultimately becomes the most positive aspect of his character is a nod to William’s “I don’t know – why don’t I HATE this guy!” likeability. His rise and fall…and rise…and fall makes for some engrossing yo-yo cinema, nicely appended by oodles of atmospheric Sol Polito photography.

Cashing in on the early 1930s horror craze, 1932’s MISS PINKERTON, based on a Mary Roberts Rinehart novel, delivers da goods in spades – effortlessly mixing old-dark-house thrills with snappy Warners banter. This is due to star Joan Blondell as a nurse who agrees to go undercover for detective George Brent in a manse filled with wealthy victims, suspects, phantoms and more twists than a corkscrew (an early script-writing gig for Niven Busch who shares the duties with veteran Lillie Hayward). A rogue’s gallery of creepy faces (including C. Henry Gordon and Elizabeth Patterson) beautifully compliment the liberal helpings of raised goose flesh, salty wisecracks, tied-up loose ends, looser babes (Mary DoranRuth Hall), sliding doors and slamming shutters. Furthermore, Barney McGill’s Expressionistic cinematography visually matches Blondell’s Frankenstein references, which are doubly played up in the supplemental trailer.

All eight titles in these two sets (each selection in on its own separate disc) hail from the original 35mm black and white elements; they are the best surviving materials on these pictures and, thankfully, are in pretty good to excellent condition. “Say, stop gabbin’ and start grabbin’!”

FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD: VOLUMES 4 AND 5: Black and White; Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio; DVD-R; dual layer.

Available on http://www.warnerarchive.com
Warner Home Video. SRP each 4-disc set:  $47.99


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