I’ve watched a few little-known pre-Codes lately which aren’t masterpieces by any means, but are still interesting. I thought I’d post a few thoughts on them before they fade in my mind completely, starting with this early Bette Davis comedy-drama from Warner Brothers. Davis is one of my favourite actresses and I’ve been trying to watch as many of her movies as possible, so that’s why I tracked this down, though it isn’t on DVD as yet. There may be a hope that it will turn up in Warner Archive in the future.
I was especially intrigued by this film because of the title, since I am a fan of 1930s aviation dramas and recently reviewed Wellman’s Central Airport, also made in 1933, which features a woman parachutist. Sadly, however, Bette isn’t the parachute jumper in this one, staying firmly on the ground throughout! In fact it is top-billed star Douglas Fairbanks Jr who does the jumping, though he doesn’t do very much of it.
As my movie-watching is increasingly outstripping my limited blogging time, I’m going to do a few shorter reviews of films I’ve seen recently, before they completely fade in my memory! This is also an excuse to post the pictures I’ve gathered together. This melodramatic pre-Code directed by the little-known Hobart Henley is no masterpiece, putting it mildly. Based on Booth Tarkington’s novel The Flirt, it is very static and soapy, with awkward, stilted dialogue, and has dated far more than many other films from the same era - but it’s interesting mainly because of its cast.
It was Bette Davis’ first film and also stars Humphrey Bogart – both are cast completely against what later became their types, with Davis as the “good” and dowdy sister, Laura, and Bogart as a smooth and charming young conman, Valentine. Looking at him in this you can glimpse why one early review of a stage performance said he was “as handsome as Valentino”. Zasu Pitts, star of silent classic Greed, also features as the family maid, Minnie, an added bonus – while Bert Roach, who plays a kindly, bumbling character in another silent classic, King Vidor’s The Crowd, is similarly kind and bumbling here.
After thoroughly enjoying William Wellman’s pre-Code comedy-drama The Purchase Price, I was delighted to get the chance to watch So Big!, another film he made the same year, just a couple of months earlier, also starring Barbara Stanwyck as a farmer’s wife. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Edna Ferber, this is an even bleaker portrayal of rural life than the one given in The Purchase Price, portraying a back-breaking existence which makes the people living on farms old and exhausted before their time – although there is still a lot of humour mixed up with the melodramatic elements. This book was filmed three times, first as a silent with Colleen Moore and then again in the 1950s starring Jane Wyman, but this middle version is the only one I’ve seen.
I enjoyed this film, but, at just 81 minutes, it is very short for the large span of time it tries to cover, and there are some abrupt jumps. It looks from the list of characters at the imdb, which includes several who are not in the finished film, as if some of the story must have been deleted – I’d love to see the sections which were cut out before release and find out if they would have made the film flow any better.
Stanwyck has a luminous, indomitable quality in this film, just as she does in The Purchase Price and the other films she made with Wellman – he seemed to like casting her as someone who can’t be defeated, however dire her situation might seem, but carries on working tirelessly and hoping against hope. She also has another self-sacrificing role in this film, as in The Great Man’s Lady, a later film she made with Wellman, which I hope to write about here soon (I have a terrible backlog of films I’ve watched but haven’t written about!)
Just to wish everyone who visits my blog a happy and restful break over the holidays. Here are a couple of Christmas stills from films I like but haven’t written about here yet – The Sisters (1938), directed by Anatole Litvak and starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn, and Pride of the Marines (1945), directed by Delmer Daves and starring John Garfield and Eleanor Parker (a lovely still from the Life collection). Both these films feature rather sad Christmas holidays – however, I hope yours will be anything but!
I wanted to see Mr Skeffington because it stars Bette Davis, who is one of my favourite actresses. However, I ended up feeling that Claude Rains gives by far the stronger performance in this movie, which saw them both receiving Oscar nominations.
I was also interested to see it because I’d read that it is one of Hollywood’s first films to tackle anti-Semitism, and I’ve recently seen a couple of other films which look at this – but there isn’t as much about this theme as I’d expected. There are some brief, painful scenes where the Jewish hero, Job Skeffington (Rains) is shown being cruelly snubbed by members of society – and towards the end of the film there is some limited suggestion of what the Nazis were doing in Europe, leading to a shocking climax. However, most of the movie in fact focuses on Mrs rather than Mr Skeffington and on her struggle to come to terms with growing old and losing her looks – something which is unfortunately portrayed by Bette Davis wearing unconvincing wigs and inch-thick make-up.
After thoroughly enjoying Old Acquaintance, which teamed Bette Davis with Miriam Hopkins, I was keen to see their earlier film together, The Old Maid. I’d seen this movie described somewhere as a “soap opera”, but I think that’s very misleading. In fact, it is an adaptation of a stage play based on a novella by Edith Wharton, in her collection Old New York. While it does have elements of melodrama, it also has complicated characters, painted in shades of grey, neither impossibly good nor impossibly bad.
Once I’d seen the movie for the first time, I got hold of Wharton’s novella and read it and then watched the film again. If anything, I was even more impressed the second time round. There are some changes to Wharton’s plot, notably moving the story to the period of the American Civil War and stepping up the character of Clem Spender, played by George Brent – but to me the portrayal of the two central women seems essentially true to the original story.
Hopkins stars as the beautiful, spoilt Delia Lovell, with Davis as her cousin, Charlotte, who is somewhat under her shadow and later becomes the embittered “old maid” of the film’s title. Davis originally wanted to play both main female roles but in a way she is already playing two parts, since Charlotte later in the film is so different from the lively young girl in the opening scenes. I’m glad the dual role was decided against, since there is so much chemistry between her and Hopkins. Watching the two portray lifelong friends, it’s hard to believe that they disliked one another so much in real life.
I saw this pre-code offering as one of a trio of films crammed on to a budget DVD misleadingly entitled Three Leading Ladies of the Silver Screen – with cover artwork making it appear that Bette Davis is the star of the movie. In fact, she only has a very small part, as Peggy, the kind-hearted girlfriend of bootlegger Matt Kelly (Pat O’Brien). I gather the movie was rereleased after Davis and O’Brien had become stars, and repackaged to make the most of their names.
However, this is the tale of a reform school for boys, and the lead role in fact belongs to young actor Junior Durkin, who was 18 at the time the film was made. This contemporary review from the New York Times does give him top billing, though his name disappears from later posters. Watching this gawky lad with an expressive face, who dominates the screen whenever he’s present, I wondered why he didn’t go on to become an adult star. Sadly, the answer is that he died in a car crash at the age of 20. By contrast, the other teenager with a major part, Frank Coghlan Jr, aka Junior Coghlan, is still alive, according to the small amount of material I found about him on the net. (He also played the young Tom Powers in the opening scenes of The Public Enemy.)
By a pure fluke, I watched The Golden Arrow (1936), starring Bette Davis and Platinum Blonde (1931), starring Jean Harlow, on successive days (a couple of weeks ago now, so my memories are already starting to fade). I was startled by how similar the plots of these two 1930s movies are – although, unsurprisingly, the pre-code is by far the more daring of the two.
In both, the leading man is a journalist who is thrown together with a beautiful heiress in the line of work and marries her very quickly – and, in both, the relationship then turns sour when the man finds his new wife and her family trying to groom him and using him for publicity purposes.
I’m noticing that the leading man in 1930s movies often seems to be a journalist – I suppose because it seemed like quite a glamorous, hard-boiled profession and also gave him opportunities to mingle in all kinds of different social worlds. (Both these movies also suggest how during hard times like the Great Depression one form of uneasy escapism was to watch the lives of glamorous people – I’ve read of how some of the Warner stars felt awkward when they were sent on publicity tours on a ‘golden train’ through impoverished areas.
Spoilers behind cut
Seeing this was a pre-code movie about the notoriously tough prison in New York, directed by the great Michael Curtiz, I expected a disturbing, no-holds barred film, maybe something even tougher than the prison scenes in Each Dawn I Die.
So I was a bit surprised at how tame this film often feels by comparison with that movie, made just seven years later. By contrast with the snarling, brutal warders in Each Dawn I Die, the guards in 20,000 Years seem quite well-meaning, while the warden himself – played by Arthur Byron – is positively saintly, and only interested in reforming and helping his “boys”, rather than in sadistically exercising his power over them. As I watched the film, I kept on wondering why the warden was painted in such glowing colours, and only realised the answer when I discovered that the movie is based on a book written by his real-life original, Lewis Lawes – who also had final script approval. To be fair, he does appear to have been a genuine reformer. The title is based on adding up all the terms being served by the men in the prison, as the opening and closing titles make clear.
Spoilers behind the cut – plus picture of Bette Davis
I watched this soon after The Petrified Forest, also starring Bette Davis and Leslie Howard – but the two movies couldn’t very well have been more different. About the only similarity is that Davis plays a waitress in both, but the fiery “bad girl”, Mildred, who she portrays in this movie, filmed in London, is very different from the idealistic young girl in the later film.
I think this is a great film and has some amazingly powerful scenes, especially the confrontations between Howard and Davis. It’s a shame Bette didn’t get an Oscar for this one. Her Cockney accent is a bit dodgy, but I just don’t care!
Spoilers in the part behind cut