I’ve been meaning to write about one or two more obscure pre-Codes that I’ve seen in the last few weeks, but haven’t got round to it and my memory of some of them is already starting to fade. So here is a short posting on one of these, Big City Blues, starring Joan Blondell and with an all-too brief, though memorably violent, appearance by an uncredited Humphrey Bogart. Sadly, this movie isn’t on DVD as yet, though it is yet another one that we can hope Warner Archive may release. This posting is mainly an excuse to post the pictures and posters I’ve gathered together of this film.
This film, a predictable tale of a young man from the country who finds New York life too much for him, is really a very slight offering, at only 65 minutes. However, having said that, anything featuring Bogart or Blondell surely has an interest, while director LeRoy also has a following, and went on to do a great job on the better-known Three on a Match and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Big City Blues is also worth looking out for its typically gritty Warner Brothers’ portrayal of New York City life in the Great Depression. I saw this around the same time as Alfred E Green’s Parachute Jumper, an early Bette Davis film made the following year, and the two have slightly blurred together in my mind. Between them, the two give a picture of rootless young people wandering round the big city in search of a living, a good time, or just a meal.
Frankie Darro and Dorothy Coonan in 'Wild Boys of the Road'
All six of the William A Wellman pre-Codes included in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection volume three are great to watch, and am sure I’ll go back to them all in the future. But the last one in the package, Wild Boys of the Road, may just be the best of all – and it’s also the one which addresses the Great Depression most full-on.
One of Warner Brothers’ stories “ripped from the headlines”, this is a powerful, fast-moving melodrama, with a script by Earl Baldwin from a story by Daniel Ahern, turning the spotlight on the vast army of teenagers who really were living on the streets of America at that time. The second time I watched the film I was struck by how many shots there are suggesting that these children are being regarded as society’s rubbish – from a car scrapyard scene early on to the section with a large group living in a “sewer pipe city” and another scene where they are living on New York’s municipal garbage dump. There is also a brief sequence where Frankie Darro, playing young runaway Eddie, eludes a policeman by jumping into a rubbish bin, and peeps up over the edge after he has run past. I’ve seen plenty of chase scenes where people hide in bins in comedies and cartoons – but in this one the image of Darro peeping out of the bin is heartbreaking as well as funny.
Just when I was starting to think that every William Wellman pre-Code was a masterpiece, I came across one that I don’t like quite so much. For me the uneasy blend of comedy and melodrama in The Star Witness, starring Walter Huston, doesn’t quite work, although I still found it interesting to watch. I think it’s a pity it wasn’t included as an extra feature on the DVD of The Public Enemy, since they are so closely linked and even both feature shootings amid Wellman’s favourite cinematic weather, torrential rain! It looks from the article on this film at the TCM website as if this is being shown on TCM in the US at 9am on April 6 – it gives this date and time at the top of the article, anyway.
For me the big problem with The Star Witness is that the actor playing the loveable, curmudgeonly grandfather, Charles “Chic” Sale, seems rather hammy and over the top. This isn’t surprising, since he started out as a vaudeville/comedy star and was much-loved – I’m sure he was giving his fans what they wanted, and also that Wellman included him deliberately to give some light relief to an often grim story – but I must say I find him hard to watch. Sale was only in his 40s when the film was made, but plays an American Civil War veteran, presumably in his late 80s.