It was a film made in just four weeks, and on a shoestring. Clark Gable was forced to star in it as a punishment, according to some accounts, and turned up drunk and angry to meet director Frank Capra. At the end of filming, Claudette Colbert said “I just finished the worst picture in the world.” Yet, somehow, It Happened One Night, the tale of a runaway heiress who joins forces with an unemployed journalist on a long-distance bus trip, ended up as a smash hit and multi-Oscar winner. It touched a nerve in the Great Depression – and still does so now, in our own hard times nearly 80 years on. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen during a rerelease in the UK, and the audience’s reaction showed just how well this early screwball tale of a couple travelling on a late-night bus has worn.
MGM was at one time said to have “more stars than there are in heaven”. The studio certainly poured quite a few of them into its 1933 drama Night Flight, produced by David O Selznick and directed by Clarence Brown, which features both John and Lionel Barrymore along with Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy. It’s an all-star cast list to rival Grand Hotel or Dinner at Eight, but this lesser-known film is on a smaller scale and doesn’t have the same compelling quality as the other two – perhaps because it was severely cut after its premiere, so what we have are the butchered remains of an epic. Most of the time the various stars are kept separate, with several of them never sharing a scene. The two Barrymores are both superb and bring the film alive whenever they are on screen, especially when they are together. But some of the other actors are wasted, especially Gable, who hardly speaks a line and is only seen wearing a helmet in the cockpit of his plane, having to act silently by means of his eyes alone.
I’ll admit I originally wanted to see What Price Hollywood? because I knew it was an important influence on William A Wellman’s masterpiece A Star Is Born, released just five years later. (David O Selznick produced both films and they have the same basic story.) But, having watched George Cukor’s pre-Code twice, I now see it as a fine film in its own right, with compelling performances by both Lowell Sherman and Constance Bennett and wonderfully sharp, witty dialogue. I know I’m always moaning on this blog about 1930s movies not being available on DVD, but it is particularly frustrating that this one hasn’t been released as yet. I can only think that it is because none of the lead actors are household names, and, although Cukor is a celebrated director, he isn’t one of the very few who get box sets devoted to their work.
This is one of the first films where Hollywood eats itself, and it is often said to be harder-edged and more disillusioned with the world of showbiz than either Wellman’s A Star Is Born or Cukor’s own remake. However, before the disillusion sets in, it does fully show the glamour and seduction of Hollywood, with an extraordinary opening scene where Mary Evans (Constance Bennett), alone in her bedroom, is eagerly reading a fan magazine and imagining she is Greta Garbo in a clinch with Clark Gable. She is clearly in love with the whole idea of Hollywood, not just the handsome actor, as she devours ads for make-up and stockings which have been given the seal of approval by beautiful starlets.
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.
It’s often said that William Wellman’s pre-code melodrama Night Nurse takes a long time to get going – and that there is too much about heroine Barbara Stanwyck’s training as a nurse before she gets involved in the film’s main plot. I’d have to say I think just the opposite. For me, much of the film’s fascination lies in the opening half hour or so, with its gritty, wisecracking portrayal of life for staff working in a large hospital. I enjoyed the whole movie, which, at just 72 minutes, crams in an awful lot of material – but I felt this opening part was far more interesting and compelling than the later sections where Stanwyck has to battle against a fiendish chauffeur, played by Clark Gable.
It seems as if quite a few movies from the 1930s and 40s follow a pattern of establishing a realistic working background in the opening section, then lurching into melodrama later – Raoul Walsh’s They Drive By Night (1940), starring George Raft and Humphrey Bogart, fits this description, looking at the lives of long distance lorry drivers, as does Wellman’s own Other Men’s Women (1931), about rail workers, which I’ve just reviewed on this blog. Although I love melodrama from this period, I tend to be even more fascinated by the sections focusing more on the characters’ working lives.