Lulu Belle (Leslie Fenton, 1948)

This is my contribution to the Dorothy Lamour blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and Font and Frock. Please visit and take a look at the other postings.

lulu belle 4Dorothy Lamour is magnetic to watch in this  sometimes noirish period melodrama laced with music, but sadly the film just doesn’t hold together overall. Lamour’s title character is clearly intended to be a woman who ruthlessly climbs her way from one man to another, like numerous pre-Code anti-heroines But this movie was made when the Production Code was in full force, so the portrayal of Lulu Belle is somewhat confused.

The film is based on a smash hit 1920s Broadway play by Charles MacArthur and Edward Sheldon, which had a mainly African-American cast, although the lead roles were played by white actors in blackface. The character of blues singer Lulu Belle was played by white actress Lenore Ulric. (I found out about the original play by reading an extract from Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race, and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance, by James F. Wilson, via Google books.) However, when the drama was belatedly adapted as a film, more than 20 years on, the character of Lulu Belle was turned into a white singer, and there was also a lot of censorship brought into force. For instance, although Lulu clearly makes money from men, any suggestion of prostitution is fudged, as it had to be under the Code.

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Lady for a Day (1933) and Pocketful of Miracles (1961) (Frank Capra)

This is my contribution to the They Remade What ?! blogathon being organised by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Please do visit and read the other postings.

Lady for a Day 2Pocketful of Miracles 7Frank Capra first made his fairy tale of New York in black and white in the early 1930s. Then he returned to it 28 years later for a more light-hearted, star-studded Technicolor remake – which turned out to be his last full-scale film. As a fan of movies from the pre-Code era, I fully expected to prefer the 1933 version of this story, starring May Robson in the lead role. And I did, yet I also really enjoyed much of the 1961 version, where Bette Davis steps into Robson’s shoes. I watched the two more or less straight after each other – but did see the 1933 version first. I was surprised to learn that there has actually been a second remake, Miracles (1989), directed by and starring  Jackie Chan, which moved the story to 1930s Hong Kong – but I haven’t had a chance to see that one.

So what’s the story? Street seller “Apple Annie” ekes out a living selling fruit to passers-by on the streets of New York. But she’s embarrassed about her poverty and  doesn’t want her daughter, who has been educated abroad since early childhood, to know the truth about her life. So Annie “borrows” notepaper from a swanky hotel and writes letters describing a lovely society lifestyle for herself, to delight young Louise.

It all seems to be going well, until Louise writes to say that she is engaged to the son of a Spanish Count – and the couple are about to pay a visit. Annie is in despair, until gangster Dave “the Dude”, who regards her apples as his personal lucky charm, comes to the rescue. He arranges for her to borrow a flat in the hotel and pose as a society lady for the period of Louise’s stay. But can Annie carry off such a daring deception?

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Gold Diggers of 1937 (Lloyd Bacon, 1936)

gold diggers 37 1 As usual with films which have dates in the title, Gold Diggers of 1937 was actually made the previous year. It stars Joan Blondell, one of my favourite actresses, opposite her real-life husband of the time, Dick Powell. There is a lot of chemistry between them, not surprisingly, and I  found that I warmed to Powell in this more than usual. Maybe I’m starting to get his appeal, which had previously been a mystery to me, or maybe it’s because his character in this one is easy to like – a bored, hard-up insurance salesman who dreams of making it as a singer.

Up to now, the only Busby Berkeley musicals I’d seen were his famous three from 1933. Coming to this later offering, I wondered if it would feel insipid compared to his pre-Code work. However, despite bearing that certificate at the start, the film still packs quite a punch – as well as being fun much of the time. It’s just a shame that it only has one massive musical number worked up in Berkeley’s trademark lavish style, with the film’s other songs being  staged in a more modest way. (The subject matter of that one number, All’s Fair in Love and War, is pretty jaw-dropping, even by Berkeley’s own standards.) The songs themselves are great – written by the top teams Harry Warren and Al Dubin and Harold Arlen and E Y Harburg.

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Man’s Castle (1933)

I’ve now watched the Frank Borzage pre-Code Man’s Castle, starring Spencer Tracy and  Loretta Young, three times, after being intrigued by several postings about it on the Obscure Classics site. Sadly it is yet another classic from the early 1930s which hasn’t as yet been released on DVD. I find it a powerful and yet puzzling movie, because it is such a contrast with the grittiness of Warner Brothers dramas from the same period dealing with the same realities of the Great Depression, such as the early William Wellman films I’ve been watching and writing about recently. I haven’t seen very much Borzage and really need to see more of his work, but his romanticism definitely comes across in this film.

Borzage’s film is centred on a makeshift shanty town built by homeless and jobless people in New York, but it is worlds away from the scenes of the cardboard cities around the dumps and sewers in Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road. Here the temporary community is cast in a romantic light (literally, it is made to look beautiful in a maze of soft shadows) – even seen as the “castle” of the film’s title. However, that word “castle” has an ironic ring to it – this castle  is still a shanty town. At times it is as if this movie is presenting two stories at once, the reality of the Depression and a romanticised dream version of it.

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