Immoral Support

I can’t suppress the unbridled joy that exudes with a vengeance from my wild side (yeah, I have one) every time the Warner Archive Collection announces a new FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD set of DVD-Rs. Well, oh boy, here comes VOLUME 8, containing a quartet of naughty valentines sure to keep y’all panting (and likely de-panting).

While these four items contain some of the more obscure titles cranked out by the studios between 1929 and mid-1934, they are all corkers. Natch, the primo items are from the premiere pre-Code alma mater Warner Bros., but one comes from the “I can be as dirty as you, but on a larger scale” shallowed halls of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Hen’s teeth recognition aside, all entries feature prominent usual suspect players in the pushin’-cushion olympics, including Jimmy Cagney, Joan Blondell, Edward G. Robinson, Glenda Farrell, Paul Muni, Norma Shearer, Bob Montgomery and others. Major character backup is admirably handled by such pre-Code faves as Noel Francis, Robert Barrat, Hobart Cavanagh, Ned Sparks, Neil Hamilton, Douglass Dumbrille, Berton Churchill, Gregory Westcott and newcomer Raymond Milland (superb as a slimeball). Direction is by pre-Code notables Alfred E. Green, Mervyn LeRoy, Roy Del Ruth and lofty George Fitzmaurice.

If the mere thought of some silky, slinky gum-chewing babe in a skin-tight dress with hand eternally on swinging hip who begins every sentence with the word “Say,” gets your juices a-flowing, you’ve come to the right place. Let the shames begin!

The set kicks off with 1931’s fast and furious BLONDE CRAZY. And what a kick-off!  Kubec Glasmon and John Bright concoct a machine-gun paced modern naughty fable of a fresh, unscrupulous bellhop who finds that sniveling for tips ain’t as profitable as blackmailing high-profile guests. This rather disgraceful behavior propels him into the upper echelon “sting” territory, where the predatory player finally gets played…and then risks life and limb to extract a sweet revenge. Indeed, this is the kind of movie pre-Code fans will be shedding tears of joy for practically all of this pip’s 79-minute duration. Oh, yes, the bellhop is none other than Jimmy Cagney; his towel-girl/main squeeze/confederate is Joan Blondell and the remaining cast of shills, johns, plungers, creeps and skanks comprise a veritable Who’s Who of the genre: Noel Francis, Louis Calhern, Guy Kibbee (as the randy Mr. Johnson), the magnificent Polly Walters, Maude Eburne, Nat Pendleton, Ward Bond, Russell Hopton, Charles Lane, Richard Cramer and, as a wide-eyed Wall Street investment banker, Ray (billed as Raymond) Milland, a wolf in sheep’s clothing – who turns out to be the biggest crook of ’em all! The lightning-in-a-bottle direction is by the underrated Roy Del Ruth and the slick, crisp black-and-white photography is shared by two of the great Warners cameramen, Ernest Haller and Sid Hickox.

As with most pre-Code triumphs, BLONDE CRAZY contains some double-take worthy visuals, specifically a risque-plus bathtub sequence with the buxom Blondell. Combustible verbal pun aside, her chemistry with Cagney is highly combustible. This is often brought out via the inspired snarky dialogue that underlines their love/hate relationship. Her induction into Con Gaming 101 is dubbed The Age of Chiselry (the detailed depictions of the stings are nothing short of brilliant). And her revulsion at some of her paramours’ techniques explodes in an argument where Cagney honestly and icily announces “If I can’t have you, I’ll get someone else.” Blondell’s bitch-slap talk with Francis is top-drawer – the highlight being her trouncing the trollop with the moniker of “bleached-out bag.” This is the kind of movie where coitus is jubilantly brought home by lingerie-clad cuties whistling “Happy Days are Here Again.” Bon mot du jour for me is Cagney’s grinning, snarling put-down of the slimy Milland – a beautifully delivered and apropos rendition of “ya smack-off.” And, yes, smack-off was guttural 1930s slang for…ummm, yeah.

1931’s STRANGERS MAY KISS was a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer potboiler (the only MGM title in the batch), and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. ‘Cause that pot be a simmering with enough sexual heat to rival climate change. Like earlier MGM illicit dramas, STRANGERS is about rich folks who cheat, or, simply rich folks. They don’t really work, or do anything other than wear great clothes, take vacations and complain about the 99%. These swanky wankers dare to call south of the border the land of “lazy people.” Hmmm…nice to know nothing’s changed in over eighty years! But fun’s fun – and let’s get to the meat of the scenario. Norma Shearer, a modern in every sense of the word (translation: lots of sex, but no marriage), has two prime chumps on her tail (literally): strait-laced (or borderline boring) Robert Montgomery who worships the ground she stalks on, and rake Neil Hamilton, who has more ways to pleasure a woman than Erich von Stroheim could even dream of. Natch, she’s kneelin’ for Neil, and off they go to South America, where he finally reveals a little secret: namely, a wife in Paris. And here Hamilton and Shearer both learn a significant point about physically and figuratively screwing each other: there’s quite a chasm between keeping a secret from a friend, and a keeping a secret from a friend with benefits. It’s immaterial, as Hamilton was going to dump Shearer anyway and move on to greener (and likely purer) pastures. This leaves Norma in the lurch, so, being the “new woman” she is, Shearer goes with the flow: taking on the male populace of South America and Europe with a vengeance. STDs aside, this rather extreme reaction provides a boost in her popularity, as she administers her carnal knowledge to novices and veterans with enough expertise to guarantee her the Nobel Piece Prize. Of course, party pooper Montgomery turns up still pining for his lady, causing some of the pic’s most quotable dialog. When a smirking Shearer asks the boob if he’s shocked by what he’s heard, he honestly replies, “Well, the first six or seven hundred times…”

STRANGERS MAY KISS was quite a problem child at Metro, what today is called an Alan Smithee production (not unlike their 1934 all-star Hollywood Party). No director is credited (although most of it was shot by George Fitzmaurice). It is a bit of a mish-mash, and there are some massive continuity gaps. But it’s still a jaw-dropping, worthy experience. Shearer, like Jeanette MacDonald, was always a great practitioner of the raunchy before the Code effectively bound their respective legs together. When it comes to delivering double entendres with bedroom eyes and lip-biting lust, Shearer rules. The script (based on Ursula Parrott’s steamy novel) by pre-Code master John Lee Mahin crackles in true passion fashion. And the luminous black-and-white photography by the brilliant William Daniels is gorgeous whether capturing its lead character either vertically or horizontally. The supporting cast features such familiar pans as Irene Rich, Karen Morley, Henry Armetta, Marjorie Rambeau and the ubiquious Ray(mond) Milland.  After all, where else in pre-Code-ville could a wanton character such as Shearer’s Lisbeth defiantly get away with happily shouting “I’m in an orgy, wallowing – and I LOVE IT!”

1934’s HI, NELLIE, a just-under-the-wire pre-Coder, doesn’t scrimp with excess ballast, cramming an entire Sunday deluxe edition of risky business into its 75-minute running time. Mervyn LeRoy, still able to move at quicksilver speed (before MGM siphoned off his moxie), packs enough jack into this tabloid saga to keep the rumors going that in Hollywood, Warner Bros. was indeed the “front page” studio.

Reteaming Paul Muni and Glenda Farrell as competing reporters/and repeating lovers works well, as by this time their chemistry (honed during I am a Fugitive) was as smooth as velvet.

Post-Code viewers, used to Muni’s lugubrious Warners bio-pics (Louis Pasteur, Juarez, Emile Zola) might be a bit stunned to see him masterfully wise-cracking in high Cagney/O’Brien/Lee Tracy style. Only goes to show that as the WB ballyhoo machine frequently cranked out, the former Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund of the Yiddish theater can do anything. And, apparently, any woman (as NELLIE lasciviously suggests).

Muni is one of them ace news jockeys who screws up big time, relegating him to the worst-of-the-worst in journalism purgatory: being assigned to the lonely hearts column, under the nom de plume of Nellie Nelson. The joke of the paper, Muni – nose-fer-news maestro that he is – nevertheless smells a rodent in his stack of daily sob-sister weepies and uncovers a plot deep in political corruption, sexual shenanigans, and even grave-robbing. He not only solves a murder, but turns the Nellie gig into a national success. Muni has terrific support with the likes of Edward Ellis, Donald Meek, George Meeker and Harold Huber to back him up. And Sol Politio’s gritty B&W photography practically reeks of ink – the kind that never fully rubs off; ditto, the rat-tat-tat script by Abem Finkel and Sid Sutherland (from Roy Chanslor’s story) that barely leaves one a moment to catch a breath. Deco nightclub sequences picturesquely display some nifty background ditties, dutifully arranged by Ray Heindorf and Louis F. Forbstein and some bodacious babes decked out in togs by Orry-Kelly.  An almost inconceivable hybrid of Hecht and MacArthur with Nathaniel West, HI, NELLIE is funny, raucous, rude and lewd – the likes of which would be an impossibility to duplicate only a few scant months after this picture’s release.

Another last gasp pre-Code, DARK HAZARD, released in early 1934, is kinda fascinating insofar that the background stories outweigh the main crux of the narrative. For this, we can thank the cynical pen of W.R. Burnett (Little Caesar, Scarface, High Sierra, The Asphalt Jungle) who wrote the novel, and writers Ralph Block and Brown Holmes, who pounded out the screenplay. The title refers to a super-duper greyhound (an actual canine, not a bus), but also perfectly describes star Edward G. Robinson’s miserable home life. The swift direction is by the always reliable Alfred E. Green and the cinematography by the even more reliable Sol Polito.

First seen as happy-go-lucky gambler with his own crew winning and losing fortunes on the horses, Robinson’s Jim “Buck” Turner ably takes his medicine on “the” race that bankrupts him. He moves into a small-town boarding house run by a socially mobile battle-axe and her equally snooty but gorgeous daughter (Emma Dunn and Genevieve Tobin). Buck goes ga-ga for Tobin and she sees potential in the aggressive sharpie. Refusing to allow him to pursue his penchant for quick-money dreams, Tobin dictates that the now-married and harried couple end up living rent-free in a second-class hotel, where Robinson’s character toils as a desk clerk. His volatile behavior (wanting to bash unruly guests in the puss like the Warners trouper he is) gets him in hot water, but endears him to a rather abusive tough guy resident and his smooth shill (Sidney Toler and Gordon Westcott). This leads to a gig out in L.A. working at a new type of track – dogs, not ponies. And Eddie takes to it like a duck to water, reuniting with old buddies, seeing his personality come alive again, and making some real dough.

Key here is his collision with former lover Valerie, a hottie-as-hell performance by Glenda Farrell, who wants to pick up where they left off.

No gold-digger, Farrell is a cool, good-natured lass who sees her old pal suffering from a lousy marriage…and she’s got just the pep he needs. In one of the best scenes in the movie, she brings him up to her hotel room for a quickie, but, much to their chagrin, he can’t perform. “Sorry to disappoint you,” he says shamefully. Farrell bemoans the fact that he’s gone “decent on me,” and in a glorious post-script moment demands someone send up a porter to fill her needs. Once aroused, she’s got to have it!

Tobin, meanwhile, is treating Robinson like dirt (though taking the cash) and, baby in tow, leaves the poor schlub, heading back home to start an affair with local rich stuffed shirt Pres (George Meeker). It’s a mutual union of convenience, as money-bags is a closeted gay dude, a fact brought out in a subsequent exchange between Tobin and Robinson. When relating her new devotee’s finer points, she indicates that he has skin like a daisy. “Ya got the wrong flower!” retorts Robinson, as only he can.

But Buck’s return to his old lifestyle isn’t just embracing Val, it’s his affection for the title character (portrayed by War Cry, who actually gets big billing in the credits and trailer). Acquiring the pooch and Farrell, Robinson peaks-and-valleys with great aplomb, leaving us pre-Code addicts with the moral of the story: you don’t need a wife ‘n’ kid if it ain’t fun – and especially if you got Glenda Farrell and a party-on existence in the wings. Of course, once again, this would be totally unacceptable by the end of the year, as it (mostly) would in real life. Or maybe the hell not!

FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD, VOLUME 8.  Black and White [full frame; 1.37:1].  Mono audio.  CAT # 12946318; UPC # 888574122799.  SRP: $47.99.


Available exclusively through The Warner Archive Collection:


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