No time tonight to write a long posting, but I just wanted to say that I’ve seen yet another Wellman pre-Code. This one, Chinatown Nights, a romantic gangster melodrama starring Wallace Beery, Florence Vidor and Warner Oland, isn’t a great film - though I saw it on an extremely grainy unofficial DVD, and I’m sure it would look much better in a restored print on the big screen. I know it has been shown at one or two festivals so presumably there must be a better print available. The cinematography, by Henry Gerrard, who also worked on Wellman’s classic Beggars of Life, was clearly stunning, with haunting scenes full of dramatic shadows – even though a lot of this has been lost in the print I saw.
I’m finally getting on to writing about William A Wellman films made after the Hays code was enforced – although there are still just a few more of his pre-Codes which I hope to track down in the future! His 1935 drama The Call of the Wild, very loosely adapted from Jack London’s classic novel, has been released on DVD, but only as part of a region 1 box set, the Clark Gable Collection Vol 1. Sadly, it seems that the only surviving print is 14 minutes shorter than the original release, 81 minutes long rather than the original 95 - according to the imdb, the film was reissued during the Second World War, and some scenes were chopped out as they were felt to be too daring.
I did read Jack London’s book while at school, but must admit my memory of it is pretty hazy after all these years. However, I know it is mainly focused on the animal story, told from the viewpoint of an unusual dog, Buck, who is taken to the Klondike gold fields but eventually leaves his owners to become the leader of a wolf pack. Wellman’s film adaptation does feature a dog – a beautiful and talented St Bernard – but the animal story is very much in second place to that of the human characters, with a romance between Clark Gable and Loretta Young dominating the drama. This means some Jack London fans are rather dismayed by this version, but, if you don’t worry about the book, I think the film stands up well on its own.
Looking for Trouble must be one of William Wellman’s most obscure pre-Codes – not officially available on DVD and never shown on TV. I’m going to try to keep this piece fairly short, as it’s a good bet that almost nobody reading this will get a chance to see it. Yet it’s a highly entertaining, fast-moving comedy-drama, with a great cast, headed by Spencer Tracy, and some spectacular earthquake footage. The reason it has been forgotten seems to be that it isn’t a Warner release, even though it has all the grittiness of the company’s films from the period, but was made by Twentieth Century Pictures. Presumably that’s why it never turns up on TCM.
Anyway, I was lucky enough to get hold of a high-quality copy and would definitely recommend this one to any fans of Tracy or Wellman. It would also be of interest to anyone who likes 1930s films focusing on people’s working lives. Tracy plays a telephone company troubleshooter (hence the title), Joe Graham, with Jack Oakie as his best buddy and workmate, Casey. Constance Cummings also stars as telephone operator Ethel, who is Joe’s on-off sweetheart. The film features the cutting edge of phone technology throughout, even showing how telephone records are used to solve a crime – something which I believe only became common practice decades later.