Pre-Code Sinema Four Play

Yes, I am still mourning the demise of the Warner Archive Forbidden Hollywood series, but, as the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining.  This is doubly true when it comes to gold-diggers, and, like the folks at Warners said, there still will be a number of pre-Code releases as single-only titles.  To try and combine the best of both worlds, I’ve selected a quartet of WB titles from the 1930-31 seasons that might have been a FH set.  These are quite obscure, unusual considering some of the talent involved (John Barrymore, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett) with fun turns and curves from favorite twists (Billie Dove, Alice White, Ona Munson, Marjorie White) and nice snarky work from the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Neil Hamilton, Frank McHugh and, most delightfully, Bela Lugosi.  In keeping with the Archive tradition, print material on each title has been transferred from existing 35MM elements.  So break out the hooch, lock the doors, roll down dem stockings and take a load off.

In 1930’s THE WIDOW FROM CHICAGO, Edward G. Robinson does a vicious precursor of Little Caesar (released later that year), except a bit more polished and less psychopathic.  While Robinson (aka Dominic) runs a major portion of the Chicago mob and dominates his generous screen time, the true star of this embryonic gangster epic is pert and cute Alice White, whom Warners was heavily pushing as a main star attraction (she headlined the Show Girl series and many another silent and Vitaphone pips).  White’s Kewpie-doll voice and take-no-prisoners demeanor serve her well in this guns ‘n’ roses opus.  White portrays Polly Henderson, whose detective brother Jimmy (Harold Goodwin) is murdered by Robinson’s gang whilst undercover (gossips getting the wrong idea about the sibs living together, whisper “Draw your own delusions.”).  The thug he impersonated was thought dead, so White is as shocked as Robinson when, after posing as the gunman’s widow, she comes face-to-face with the still breathing hood (a dashing Neil Hamilton).  Because it’s pre-Code, White and Hamilton get hot and heavy, causing a jealous Robinson to slip dangerously into not thinking with his brain.  When Dominic gives White a gig at one of his clubs (as Palpitating Polly), she reveals her penchant for brilliantly fending off pervs.  “What d’ya take for a little dance?,” asks a creep.  “With you, I’d take arsenic!” is her masterful reply.

The picture moves fairly quickly in its 62-minute time slot, due to able direction by comedy expert Eddie Cline.  The snarky script is by Earl Baldwin, with luminescent photography by the always-reliable Sol Polito.  Other members of the sterling cast include a ridiculously young Frank McHugh, Brooks Benedict, E.H. Calvert, Betty Francisco and Al Hill.

FYI, the swastikas decorating Hamilton’s valise aren’t a shape of things to come; it was the Roman symbol for “good luck,” infamously adapted by Adolf & Co.  And speaking of baddies, Warners was so high on this project that they reportedly asked Al Capone to make an unbilled guest appearance.  He declined, having other pressing business to rectify in the title’s town.

Warners’ 1930 adaptation of MOBY DICK is one of cinema’s infamous classic train wrecks (or should we say “shipwrecks”?).  Any connection to the iconic novel is purely coincidental.  It’s more closely based upon the studio’s 1926 silent version, entitled The Sea Beast, that also starred its talkie lead, John Barrymore.

The movie deceptively begins with the title page of the novel, but “Call me Ishmael” is nowhere to be seen (nor is Ishmael).  More like call me schemiel – and we’re referring to the scriptwriter J. Grubb Alexander, who adapted this future Carol Burnett sketch candidate from a failed literacy test by Oliver H.P. Garrett.

Barrymore as Captain Ahab belongs in the same camp as Desi Arnaz, Jr.’s, Marco Polo.  He’s not a driven, maniacal obsessive character out for revenge, but actually New England’s ultimate babe magnet.  No fooling.  We first see him swinging around the crow’s nest like Gene Kelly in The Pirate.  He then slides down the pole, striding down the gangplank, gawking at New Bedford’s willing lasses, giving one a greeting of “Hey, babe!” with a simultaneous slap on the ass (the only prop missing is a badge, emblazoned with “Chicken Inspector”).  And things go downhill from there.

When Ahab does become compulsively obsessed it’s not with the great white whale, but with Joan Bennett, as Faith – unfortunately going steady with Ahab’s smooth operator brother Derek (Lloyd Hughes).

Rather than cause a family rift, he valiantly gives up the golden-haired beauty and sets sail on a whaler, the notorious voyage that causes the title character to chomp off one of his pole-swinging legs.  Ahab becomes a bitter mammal-hating seaman (that’s whales and women).  Imagine his shock when destitute bro Hughes turns up as one of his crew (he’s fallen hard ’cause Faith, rife with hope and charity, decided she’d prefer Ahab over him, even minus a gam).  Hughes decides to kill off Barrymore, but fate takes him first.  And Ahab, seeing the evil of his former ways, reforms, journeys back to Massachusetts and hooks up with Faith, living hobbily ever after.

Barrymore understandably looks drunk during most of the picture’s 78-minute duration – and who can blame him?  Indeed, the whirring audio you hear is not the camera nor a Vitaphone malfunction, but likely the sound of Herman Melville’s corpse spinning around in its grave.  That said, the picture is shamefully entertaining for both the right and wrong reasons.  The direction by Lloyd Bacon is (dare we say?) crisp, the camerawork by Robert Kurrle praiseworthy, with a caveat.  One will undoubtedly notice that many exteriors are grainy and (seemingly) over-exposed.  That’s because, in the original release, these sequences stretched out into MagnaScope, a primitive widescreen process.  We should mention that the special effects (including rear screen match-ups) are quite good.

Unavailable for many years (along with other Warners/Barrymore titles like the much better Mad Genius), due to an ownership clause in Barrymore’s contract with the studio, MOBY DICK is less of the saga of the great white whale than a great blight wail.  Or howl.  I kinda love it.

1930’s ONE NIGHT AT SUSIE’S is an unabashed WTF classic!  Susie (Helen Ware) is an aging, hard-boiled dame who runs a halfway house for thugs.  That is, they lam it there halfway and she houses (i.e., stashes) them until it’s cool to blow.  In Susie’s defense, she also attempts to make them stop bootlegging, extorting, kidnapping and killing.  Or else.  Susie’s, the joint and not the lady, is also a combi-speak/roadhouse.  Best of all, the cops all seem to know about it (and her), but don’t care, because, after all, she means well.

But Susie has a secret (which ain’t that secret).  She’s been raising the kid of a rubbed-out mug to be respectable (only half-succeeding, as he becomes a writer).  It’s Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., (as Dickie Rollins), and he has a secret, too.  He’s about to be married to a honey of a honey.  Susie is delighted, as she imagines it’s some hifalutin’ DAR broad.  Nuh-uh, it’s gorgeous Billie Dove, a (wait for it) showgirl.  This pisses off Susie to no end.  As far as she’s concerned, there are only two kinds of showgirls, the ones smart enough to use their beauty to get whatever they can out of men, and the ones too dumb to shake down the johns.  Billie (as, no kidding, Mary Martin) is plenty smart, but plenty in love as well.

The conflicts between the two strong women, amidst the rat-tat-tat-tat of machine gun gangster mishegos is what raises this early (and, admittedly, occasionally creaky) talkie above the rest.  What is really nifty (and SO pre-Code) is that the true crooks aren’t the mobsters, but the dubious members of law enforcement. The most heinous creep in the pic is a former detective turned dirty dick (James Crane), not above blackmail, slapping babes around and moider!

It’s great to see any movie with Billie Dove, who, once again proves how effortlessly she successfully made the transition from silent to sound.  It’s additionally kinda fascinatin’ to ponder the fact that within the space of four short years, she made rapturous on-screen love to both father and son (Doug, Sr., in The Black Pirate, and Jr., in SUSIE’S).

The movie, listed at 92 minutes on the jacket (but actually clocking in at 62), is competently directed by John Francis Dillon (who also produced).  The story, with its unusual trappings, was conceived by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan and scripted by Forrest Halsey and Kathryn Scola.  Non-gat shooting was achieved by the great Ernest Haller in silky black-and-white.

FYI, in an unpleasant sidebar, Susie makes the repentant thugs go through a baptism of fire by wearing Tully Marshall’s underwear, easily the male equivalent of a fate worse than death.

I really like the Warners Joe E. Brown comedies, especially the pre-Code ones; thus, I’m a bit prejudiced toward 1931’s BROAD MINDED, a wacky slapsticky sojourn, tailor-made for the satchel-mouthed funnyman.

Swiftly paced by Mervyn LeRoy BROAD MINDED lifts the crux of its Bert Kalmar-Harry Ruby-penned narrative from the slim plot of Girl Crazy.  Millionaire playboy Jack Hackett (William Collier, Jr.) is dizzy for the dames, and papa (Holmes Herbert) can’t stand it.  So he hires Jack’s best pal, staid, quiet wallflower Ossie Simpson (Brown) to be the lad’s guardian and keep him out of the clutches of flappers, vamps and other garden-variety gold-diggers.  Unfortunately for pops (but not for sonny), Ossie is an even worse womanizer than his BFF, keeping a graphic little black book that spans several volumes.  Together the pair motor out west, intent on sowing more oats than the Quaker breakfast food company.

Of course, they meet two hotties (Marjorie White and Ona Munson) who are essentially good girls, chaperoned by a harpie aunt (Grayce Hampton), but not before running afoul of the likes of Margaret Livingston and ravenous, rapturous Thelma Todd (“She’s lost every friend she ever had,” quips an associate, when “the fleet shipped out.”).

Best of all for viewers, Ossie and Jack also ruffle the feathers of international bon vivant Pancho Arrango (Bela Lugosi, in a wonderful comic performance).  Brown, in quick succession, manages to destroy Lugosi’s meal (in a diner), clothes, and finally the back of his jazzy sports car (“Now you ruined my rear end!,” screams Bela with angry vengeance, a far cry from his iconic Dracula pic, which had been released six months earlier).

With nice Pasadena location work by Sid Hickox and lively music by Herbert Taylor, BROAD MINDED is a delightful way to spend 72 pre-C minutes.

So, off with the shrink wrap (and I mean that in a clean way), and on with the show(s)!

THE WIDOW FROM CHICAGO.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio. CAT # 1000619326.  SRP:  $21.99

MOBY DICK.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio.  CAT # 1000619321.  SRP:  $21.99.

ONE NIGHT AT SUSIE’S.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio.  CAT # 1000516711.  SRP:  $19.99.

BROAD MINDED.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio.  CAT#  1000384397.  SRP:  $19.99.

All Warner Archive titles are high quality made-to-order DVD-Rs, and are available from The Warner Archive Collection at http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

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