It is with great sadness that I report yet ANOTHER tumultuous disappointment for 2016, the announcement that the newest in the terrific Warner Archive FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD box sets – VOLUME 10 – will be the final collection in the series.
Have to say, that the yearly press releases of upcoming FH collections was always a joyous cinematic occasion in my admittedly otherwise uninteresting life. That said, there’s a bright side to everything – I’m just having trouble finding it. Oh, no, here it is. Warners, which controls the rights to not only their product, but that of MGM and RKO, still has hundreds of pre-Code offerings crouching around in musty vaults just waiting to spread their snarky, illicit sexuality, encompassing their plethora of wise-cracking “say girls” (and boys), plus coke sniffers, rum-runners and fun hummers. And Warners does intend to keep on giving us pre-Code delights (but, like penicillin, in single doses). So that’s something. But we can’t carp; it’s been a good, long haul. And we do have a NUMERO DIEZ to end 2016 with a Depression era bang. So let the shames begin.
VOLUME 10, to be honest, ain’t the strongest batch in the series. But it is pre-Code, which automatically elevates it among the throngs of many other more highly-regarded post-1934 titles. And there are many pre-C favorites on view, including Barbara Stanwyck, Warren William, Kay Francis, Glenda Farrell, Aline MacMahon and others. There are also some of our pet supporting players too, like Polly Walters, Ruth Donnelly, Frank Morgan, Polly Moran, William Bakewell, Guy Kibbee, Noel Francis, Jack LaRue, J. Carrol Naish, Stanley Fields, Claire Dodd…
Happy to report that V.10 is likewise a democratic brannigan, featuring selections from all three of the aforementioned studios. So grab some protection (or not), and get ready to party like it’s 1933.
1931’s GUILTY HANDS is the jewel in VOLUME 10‘s crown, an MGM pre-Code lollapalooza! Codirected by W.S. Van Dyke and male lead Lionel Barrymore, this sordid tale of sex and murder tells of the unscrupulous habits of rich bastard Alan Mowbray, a seducer extraordinaire of underaged and overaged babes – a monstrous testosterone locomotive that frequents the S&M and B&D line. Barrymore, a high-priced attorney, is the mouthpiece who spends much his career (for want of a better term) getting him off. Imagine Lionel’s shock when Mowbray announces that he’s marrying the barrister’s beauteous daughter (Madge Evans), a winsome lass he’s already had his way with. Imagine the predatory female community’s response, personified by experienced lover Kay Francis (on loan from Warner Bros.). No need to worry, says Mowbray to Francis, indicating that they’ll still get in on via secret assignations (accent on the ass). Francis, whose sexual expertise is hinted at being the prize in a big box of Smackherjack, isn’t pleased. Nor is Barrymore. Evans, however, is tingling with excitement, as she rebuffs her former squeeze William Bakewell. “I’m carried out of myself,” she pants to Billy, describing the amazing sex she has with Mowbray. No surprise that Mowbray’s corpse is found shortly thereafter. How it was done and who done it (won’t do spoilers here, folks) is ingenious, albeit nowhere near as nifty as the outrageous double-take ending.
Shot by Merritt B. Gerstad, scripted by Bayard Veiller (but wouldn’t be surprised if Erich von Stroheim had a hand in it somewhere along the trail), with Wm. Axt music and ladies togs by Hubert, GUILTY HANDS is a fairly unknown pre-C that definitely should be…well, known. Key supporting players (not of the Mowbray kind) include C. Aubrey Smith, Forrester Harvey and Polly Moran.
1932’s THE MOUTHPIECE, codirected by James Flood and Elliott Nugent, spills the beans on a not-so-shy shyster (big surprise, Warren William), who, after doing the straight-and-narrow bit (and causing an innocent man to go to the chair for a heinous sex crime), quits being legit and becomes lawyer to the stars (well, the stars of the underworld). Thus, before you can say “secret bank accounts,” William is rolling in the dough – and the hay, with a stable of society hotties, A-list models and svelte skanks. Gal Friday Aline MacMahon masters her boss’s coded language, knowing that “consulting” with a client means, “afternooner delight.” The arrival of waifish innocent Sydney Fox, inept for secretarial duties, but quite the looker, further arouses the legal eagle’s beagle, and, although warned by true-blue Aline (“…jail-bait and dumb!”), proceeds to the horndog fixation level, thereby initiating his downfall.
William’s dastardly attitude toward the justice system via brazen courtroom histrionics is almost as much fun as his inappropriate behavior mit da vimmen; indeed, he seems to have a handle on it all – intimating that there are no heights that he can ascend by shamelessly adhering to a brand of “sensationalism, ballyhoo, Barnum and Bailey…!” Talk about “so old, it’s new”! And he ain’t just whistling “Dixie.” William’s character was based on the real-life William Fallon, the notorious criminal defense attorney who got Arnold Rothstein off the hook for the infamous 1919 Black Sox “fix.”
Sadly, in pre-Code, it’s only when a scoundrel sees the light and does the right thing, that he/she cashes in his/her chips (sigh) – which is why we snarkies so adore this era.
Warners, never one to throw anything away, took the salvageable post-Code portions, and recycled them for their 1955 noir Illegal (making their mouthpiece, Edward G. Robinson, older, but not particularly wiser).
But it’s the 1932 original, with its nasty script by Joseph Jackson (with an adaptation and additional dialog by Earl Baldwin from Frank Collins’ play), that is the one to watch. Literally, too; it’s as easy on peepers as the numerous babes on view, thanks to Barney McGill’s silky photography and the wonderful supporting cast, including Mae Madison, John Wray, Guy Kibbee, Ralph Ince, J. Carrol Naish, Stanley Fields, Noel Francis, Murray Kinnell, Berton Churchill, Willie Fung, Charles Lane, and, in a bit, Paulette Goddard.
Radio Pictures’ 1932 58-minute opus SECRETS OF THE FRENCH POLICE (arguably, one of the best titles of all time!) packs a mini-series worth of narrative into its short duration. Based on The American Weekly series by Ashton Wolfe (screenplay by Samuel Ornitz and Robert Tasker), the movie, smoothly directed by A. Edward Sutherland, was to be a showcase for Radio’s answer to Marlene Dietrich (all the studios wanted one, with a Garbo chaser), the sensually exotic Gwili Andre. Andre does indeed have a Dietrich air about her, but that’s about it. Which is the problem with carbon copies. As much as she slinks, pants (with an accent) and drives men to agonized ecstasy, she’s still just Shanghai Gwili. But that’s neither here nor there.
FRENCH POLICE, a David O. Selznick production, was additionally to be Radio’s foothold in the burgeoning horror genre (King Kong was still a year away). To this, the movie relates a penny dreadful version of the Anastasia case, with Andre an innocent, lured, duped and hypnotized into impersonating the Russian heiress to millions. The villain, Han Moloff, a rare evil turn for comic character actor (and later director) Gregory Ratoff, is genuinely one of the most loathsome screen devils you’ll ever encounter. With “insanity a family trait,” this Rooskie/Chinese half-breed delights in stripping beautiful women naked and then draining their blood. And this is 70 years before Craigslist! He also likes to stuff cats as a sideline. Residing in a French countryside castle (the interiors being leftovers from The Most Dangerous Game), Moloff murders, tortures and God only knows what to untold throngs before French police forensic genius Frank Morgan (utilizing some nifty pre-C era CSI techniques), bursts the maniac’s lead-pipe dream. Helping him is Andre’s beau, a notorious thief (John Warburton; think of a C. Henry Gordon type, who gets the girl without having to resort to drugs). Warburton’s character is a real sharpie, perfectly pegged as ne’er do well by Gwili’s papa (Christian Rub), who correctly assumes that his daughter will likely end up being pimped by the sleazy Raffles.
There’s some incredible futuristic Moloff-designed booby traps, key being a roadside big-screen 3D TV responsible for numerous auto fatalities. Sutherland, mostly known for comedy, nevertheless directed one of my personal favorite early thirties horror, 1933’s Murders in the Zoo.
FRENCH POLICE was atmospherically shot by Alfred Gilks and contains music by Max Steiner. Supporting victims, suspects and gendarmes include Rochelle Hudson, Murray Kinnell, Lucien Prival, Harry Cording, Vivien Oakland and Cyril Ring.
In yet another pre-Code true-life adventure, cinema’s beloved human definition of pond scum, Warren William returns for more chicanery in 1932’s THE MATCH KING.
Based on the story of one of the 20th century’s greatest charlatans, Ivar Kreuger, THE MATCH KING opens with American street cleaner William aspiring to greater things. He uses his coworkers to rise (literally) up from the gutter, lies his way into European corporate politics, and soon becomes one of the most powerful men in the world. And, yeah, it was with a matchstick company; William’s brilliant theory being that something so cheap that everyone can afford means more people can be manipulated. To this end, he pimps gorgeous women to global leaders and blackmails them into various ancillary deals involving land, machinery, loans and media. He is supposedly the one responsible for the WWI urban legend, “three on a match” (ironically, a movie of the same name that William appeared in earlier that year), the rationale being that if three people believed that superstition, they’d use more matches. It worked; hordes of folks still believe that cliché to this day. Kreuger is essentially also the originator of the pyramid scheme, a tactic he utilized on a vast level (“Never worry about anything ‘til it happens…” is his credo).
It was the multi-millionaire’s fascination with actress Greta Garbo that gained a lion’s share of his omnipresent publicity. Warners, in fact, tried to borrow the Swedish star from Metro, but no way. Instead, they did the next best thing: taking contract player Lili Damita, lighting and coiffing the actress like GG (or Marta Molnar, as she’s known in the movie) and instructed her to “vant to be a clone.”
THE MATCH KING was based on a sensational novel by Einar Thorvaldson (the picture hitting the screen a mere nine months after Kreuger’s suicide), and crackles via a rapid-fire script by Houston Branch and Sidney Sutherland. The crisp black and white photography is by Robert Kurrle with music by Bernhard Kaun and stunning set design and wardrobe by Anton Grot and Orry-Kelly, respectively.
The supercharged supporting cast comprises Glenda Farrell, Claire Dodd, Juliette Compton (as, the included trailer heralds, “his pliant playthings), plus Hardie Albright, Harold Huber, Alan Hale, Harry Beresford, John Wray, Spencer Charters and Edmund Breese as a variety pack of international suckers.
1933’s EVER IN MY HEART is one of the most unusual and rarest pre-Code pics ever in the heart of the Warners vaults. In the last part of the first decade of the 20th century, third wheel Jeff (who else, but Ralph Bellamy) returns home to the U.S. after graduating from his a top European university. With him is best friend, dashing, handsome, charming and brilliant Teutonic, Hugo Wilbrandt (Otto Kruger). Bellamy was anticipating marrying his childhood sweetie (and distant relative, ewww), Mary (Barbara Stanwyck), but, once she lays eyes on the cultured, cosmopolitan Kruger, it’s bratwurst instead of hot dogs. Stanwyck and Kruger wed, have a child; he becomes a proud American citizen, and a big-time prof at the local college. All is good. Until that annoying Archduke Ferdinand gets shot. Before he can gasp, “Ach du lieber!,” the xenophobes come out of this woodwork faster than you can say “hypocritical racist.” In rapid succession, baby dies, prof is dismissed for no apparent reason, scumbag children torture the family dachshund, and anything remaining of the Wilbrandts’ matrimonial bliss goes kaput. Stany leaves the town in shame to live with rich relations, ex-hubby returns to Germany, where his genius is channeled into the Kaiser’s espionage program and fade-out. Well, not exactly. Babs joins the nursing expeditionary forces and travels to the front, administering aid to the troops and spies spy Kruger gathering information for the big push.
Since it’s pre-Code, she doesn’t report former spouse Hugo, who still gets her juices flowing; she corners him in a secret alcove for a reunion night of mind-blowing sex. This naturally leads to a climax, perhaps not just the one you’re thinking, but an ending that only one year later would have been unheard of. EVER IN MY HEART‘s tackling of obsession and bigotry is the prime reason it remained unavailable for such a long time (well, that and WWII). The hormone-fueled script by Bertram Millhauser (from a story by Beulah Marie Dix) is quite literate; of course, the acting by all is aces, including excellent support from Ruth Donnelly, Laura Hope Crews, Clara Blandick, Willard Robertson, Harry Beresford, Nella Walker, Donald Meek, Elizabeth Patterson, Frank Reicher and Frank Albertson (particularly effective as Mary’s creepy brother). Archie Mayo directed with enough of a grasp on emotion to suggest a Borzage movie. And it’s all photographed beautifully by Arthur L. Todd, with music by Bernhard Kaun.
These varying offerings from the last FORBBIDEN HOLLYWOOD gathering, while all from 35MM elements, do have some quality issues. The MGM and Warners titles are very good to excellent, but the RKO pic could use some restoration work (which it probably will never receive). Please don’t let that stop you from completing your FH library. All five titles are definitely worthwhile additions for the pre-C aficionado, and, I guarantee, unlike many protagonists in the flicks themselves, you won’t be sorry.
FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD, VOLUME 10. Black and White. Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. CAT # 1000596075. SRP: $39.99.
Made-to-order DVD-R set, available exclusively from the Warner Archive Collection: www.warnerarchive.com