Cheaters may never prosper, but audiences watching them do, and, as evidence, I offer the nifty ninth edition of the DVD-R made-to-order Warner Archive series FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD.
This recent 4-disc set features not only iconic pre-Code stars (Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Joan Blondell, Myrna Loy, Robert Montgomery, Ann Dvorak) and directors (Michael Curtiz, Mervyn LeRoy, Rowland Brown), but also samplings from three of the era’s most prolific studios (MGM, RKO and, natch, Warner Bros.). There are some classic selections lovingly mixed in with some unfairly neglected pips, an unfairly-trounced sex drama tarnished by its lethargic 1940s remake and even a bonus post-Code (in almost name only).
So, guys, untie that dressing gown; goils, roll down your stockings, and let’s revel with the folks who specialize in verbal foreplay a la “Say, shove in yer clutch, big boy!”
1932’s BIG CITY BLUES is a textbook for quick ‘n’ sassy risqué entertainment. Perennial pre-Code victim Eric Linden is a wide-eyed and innocent Indiana boy who dreams of living large in that metropolitan sin town known as Manhattan. Although warned by the elderly locals (the joint was bought for “…$22 more than…[I would have] paid the Indians for the whole stinking island”), he throws caution to the wind and, armed with a meager inheritance, vows to take New York by storm. First red flag is seeking out a nefarious relation (Walter Catlett), a sponging conman and pimp who immediately attempts to relieve the boob of his fortune. Checking into a midtown hotel, Catlett arranges a soiree to meet the 400, in reality Depression-era showgirls, increasing their income as “party girls.” One (Joan Blondell) takes pity on the mook, and he becomes instantly infatuated (“You don’t know Constance Bennett, do you?” he logically asks). The fact that the rest of the in-crowd comprises bootleggers, womanizing playboys and assorted sociopaths is immaterial; Bud (Linden) is in love. Unfortunately (or fortunately), BIG CITY BLUES violates Pre-Code Rule 101: never invite Lyle Talbot and Humphrey Bogart (in his Warners debut) to the same party. Spying a stoned babe ready for the “plucking,” Talbot and Bogie tear it up – with the result being murder, that’s pronounced “moider.” This sort of puts a damper on the proceedings; even the drunken house dick (Guy Kibbee) is pissed off. Blondell spirits Linden away to various speaks until the heat cools off. Or he does (but, as indicated, Bud is in love).
In barely over an hour (63 minutes), BIG CITY BLUES packs a whole lot of narrative into its modest trappings. The cast is loaded with pre-Code (and post-Code) faves, including Jobyna Howland, Ned Sparks, Thomas Jackson, Tom Dugan, Inez Courtney, Evalyn Knapp, Grant Mitchell, Sheila Terry, Josephine Dunn and J. Carrol Naish. The tight and snappy direction is by then-house wunderkind Mervyn LeRoy, who, remarkably would soon ditch Warners for MGM, and seemingly overnight, unlearn every trick for making a lively, shipshape and inventive vehicle. Oh, well. The script by Lillie Hayward and Ward Morehouse (based the latter’s play, which apparently never had any performances) is crammed with naughty double entendres and cringe-worthy racism (Grant Mitchell calmly discusses “working in a chink laundry”). The hottie (Dunn) who disrupts the bash is earlier seen, half-crocked and panting, nestled on a sofa reading Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall’s notorious 1928 lesbian novel. The photography by James Van Trees is as crisp as the action, with music, courtesy of Ray Heindorf and Bernard Kaun, and art direction by the amazing Anton Grot.
The bittersweet ending would never have flown a few years later, indicative of the gazillions of reasons we snarky bastards worship movies like this.
1932’s HELL’S HIGHWAY is likely the most Warner Bros. pre-Code pic ever turned out by RKO (or Radio Pictures, as it was then known). It’s a rough, tough often downright unpleasant expose of the Southern chain-gang situation that Warners shamed so well the same year with their more celebrated I am a Fugitive. But don’t sell this entry short (even though it is, clocking in at 62 minutes); it’s a first-rate shocker that compares well with Fugitive. Credit the always-interesting and very underrated director Rowland Brown (who also cowrote the script with Samuel Ornitz and Robert Tasker). HIGHWAY wastes no time with a set-up; we’re right there in swampy purgatory from the get-go. Savvy Alpha con Richard Dix aces his time by playing the system, and indeed thinks he knows it all – until his kid brother (Tom Brown) ends up in the same camp. As is the hiring prerequisite, the gruesome place has more psychos running the joint than confined in it, most notably C. Henry Gordon as a sadistic violin-loving warden (sort of a precursor to Hume Cronyn in Brute Force). But there are some memorable prisoners too, such as Charles Middleton as a soothsayer bigamist who “Iagos” a jealous screw into killing his adulterous wife. There’s a plethora of racism (the African-Americans’ pecking order not only follows the whites, but the mules), masochism, torture (a “visit to the hospital” being coded language for sweat-box death) and even a gay cook (Eddie Hart) who likes the uniformed Gordon to whack his bottom. The movie originally previewed with a thoroughly depressing ending (with Dix expiring). After all the suffering and turmoil, it was decided by producer David Selznick to conclude the scenario on a semi-upbeat plain. The striking visuals are the commendable work of master cinematographer Edward Cronjager. FYI, another plus are the specially-written sardonic spirituals, warbled by the black inmates and composed by costar Clarence Muse.
“Ah’d kiss ya, but ah just washed mah hair.” It’s the line from 1932’s CABIN IN THE COTTON that helped put costar Bette Davis on the map. While it’s great for Bette fans (whenever I screen it, the whole room bursts into hoots and howls; yup, it’s a humdinger). It’s a shame that her bon mot overshadows the memories of this gritty pre-Code gem. The movie itself, based on the novel by Harry Harrison Knoll (and with a hard-nosed script by Paul Green, whose penchant for verbal barbs also encompasses dopers, pedophiles, inbred mongrels with rapey eyes and, gotta say it, Southern Republicans), is set in the “modern” south, where greedy landowners figure that if their sharecroppers work with dirt, they should be treated like dirt (keep ’em thinking it’s still 1850). That is until sensitive, book-larned Marvin Blake (Richard Barthelmess) comes out of the fold and the upper crusters see an op to use his smarts to keep the peace at bargain prices. Barthelmess’s promotion to bookkeeper (and book-cooker) arouses hate from his own faction who consider him a traitor, and smarmy superiority from his silver spoon-fed peers (save the trampy Davis, who quickly assesses his other “qualities”). Since 1919’s Broken Blossoms, conflicted Barthelmess made a cottage industry subgenre out of playing the everyman for the struggling masses/minorities go-to dude (Heroes for Sale, Massacre). It’s an honest, straightforward acting job, but, let’s face it, he doesn’t have Davis’s lines or the accompanying Orry-Kelly wardrobe. Yet, Michael Curtiz, as usual, directs beautifuly – with admirable support from the always reliable d.p. Barney McGill (a chase through a swamp at dawn is incredibly stunning). More notable credits include second-unit director William Keighley, music contributions by Ray Heindorf and a cast crammed full of po’ folk, victimized by rich white trash (Dorothy Jordan, Hardie Albright, David Landau, Russell Simpson, Edmund Breese, Harry Cording and Clarence Muse).
1933’s WHEN LADIES MEET is nothing short of a crisp pre-Code breath of fresh air – a much-needed tonic to rid the room of the musty ambience from the tepid 1941 god-awful remake (with the big budget all-star cast, including Joan Crawford, Greer Garson and Robert Taylor, nevertheless one of the most boring movies I have never been able to get through).
In the ’33 version (based on Rachel Crothers’ scandalous play and scripted by John Meehan and Leon Gordon), young, sensual (and generally savvy) author Myrna Loy is having it off with her publisher, womanizing Frank Morgan. This is much to the chagrin of the journalist who truly loves her, silky-tongued Robert Montgomery. It is at a Long Island weekend getaway that the worms turn when Montgomery conveniently shows up with Morgan’s wife, the sophisticated (and underrated) Ann Harding. During this brief sojourn Loy and Harding, two ravishing and intelligent people, face off…and actually end up liking each other (without realizing at first that they share the same lover). What transpires is pre-Code at its most effervescent – an honest, frank, sensual discussion of female sexuality (warts and all: “Women can’t fool women about women,” as Harding informs Loy). There are also more traditional “naughty” sexual shenanigans on display too, courtesy of Montgomery and ancillary costar Alice Brady (“You know better than I do how sticky you are,” he tells the perennially horny hostess). Directors Harry Beaumont and an uncredited Robert Z. Leonard (who bludgeoned the ’41 remake) did their material proud, appended by Ray June’s stunning photography, William Axt’s sparse score and amazing frocks by Adrian.
In a departure from the norm, Warner Archive has tossed a fifth supplemental feature into VOLUME 9, 1934’s post-Code pre-Code wannabe I SELL ANYTHING. Let alone the title, the plot (chiseling auctioneers), and the cast (Pat O’Brien, Ann Dvorak, Roscoe Karns, Claire Dodd, Russell Hopton) smacks of authentic FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD entries, and it’s probable that the project was greenlit before the Code fully went into effect. Nevertheless the scenario’s neatly pink-ribbon wrap-up and release date (October) are telltale signs of “Cleanup in Aisle ’34!” That said, it’s a fast-moving fun picture that still has some wink-wink punch, thanks to the swift pace of director Robert Florey and the script by Brown Holmes and Sidney Sutherland (from a story by Albert J. Cohen and Robert T. Shannon). O’Brien (as Spot Cash Cutler) and his gang are truly big fish in a small pond, fleecing poor neighborhood sheep out of their last dimes – selling them junk. Depression waif Ann Dvorak shows up, and, in a run-through for The Shop Around the Corner, begs the (crooked) establishment to let her sell the joint’s worn wares. When O’Brien smoothly gyps slumming socialite Dodd out of some shekels for a beat-up buckle, the sharpie doesn’t realize that he’s a player who’s just been played (the svelte cutie knows quality stuff, and that hunk of metal is nothing less than a $5,000 Cellini masterpiece). Still, she sees potential in the loudmouth diamond-in-the-rough and recruits him to work his tenement hyperbole on the Park Avenue swells, where the cheating reaps a bigger profit (and, if caught, the blame can be placed on O’Brien). As much as I like the stunning Ms. Dodd (“Didja lamp those curves?” being a valid on-screen quote), I could never choose her over the great Dvorak.
The Sid Hickox photography, M.K. Jerome music (with orchestrations by the ever-reliable Leo Forbstein) and Orry-Kelly rags only further serve to make us pre-Coders sigh at what might have been had the sanctimonious bastards let well enough alone.
FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD, VOLUME 9. Black and White. Full frame [1.37:1]. Mono audio. Warner Home Video. CAT # 1000570218. SRP: $40.99.
Available exclusively through the Warner Archive Collection (www.warnerarchive.com).