I’ve finally managed to see pre-Code romantic comedy Laughter, starring Nancy Carroll, Fredric March and Frank Morgan. It wasin a very poor print online (at good old YT), but I’m just happy to have seen it at last. It has never been released on DVD – probably because neither of the two main stars is a top name now, and nor is director Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, who only made a handful of movies before leaving Hollywood. There is no chance of it turning up on TV in the UK, where I live, though there is a chance it may appear on TCM in the US, which serves up such an amazing array of early 1930s films. Although this film isn’t very well-known I’ve found a few nice pictures of it, so you might be interested if you scroll down to the end!
The title Laughter might sound as if this film is an uproarious farce , but far from it. In fact it is a blend of sophisticated comedy and melodrama, with some sharp, witty dialogue from screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart. This is a film which has attracted a lot of interest and discussion over the years as a precursor to the screwball comedies of a few years later, and there is a long piece on it in the wonderful book I’m slowly reading my way through at the moment, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood from Lubitsch to Sturges by James Harvey.
Actress Barbara Stanwyck is probably best-known for her roles in films noir like Double Indemnity, where she plays a cold-hearted femme fatale. But, great as she undoubtedly is in this kind of part, I tend to prefer her earlier films when she plays characters with more warmth – as she does in The Miracle Woman, one of Capra’s great pre-Codes. Her character, young bogus evangelist Sister Florence Fallon, must be the sweetest conwoman ever. Indeed, she casts her spell over the audience just as she does over her swooning congregations within the movie.
This early Capra movie is one of many of his works centring on a charismatic figure who is taken up by cynical business interests and used to manipulate the public. Capra and his regular writer Robert Riskin, who adapted this film from his own play Bless You Sister, were not the only film-makers in the 1930s to be interested in this kind of story. (A similar scam is also the theme of William A Wellman’s Nothing Sacred, a film I wrote about here recently and which John Greco has just written a great review of at his blog.) But it does seem to be a Depression-era theme that had a particular appeal for Capra, an idea that he returned to time and again.
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.
I’ve been getting increasingly interested in the Barrymores recently and watching a lot of their films, so I want to write about some more of them here. Glossy drama Grand Hotel is one of three films made in 1932 which starred brothers John and Lionel together – the others were Arsene Lupin, which I have seen but only in almost unwatchable bootleg form, and spectacular historical epic Rasputin and the Empress, also starring sister Ethel.
By far the greatest of these three is Grand Hotel, a breathtaking MGM drama – and one of the first films to boast an all-star cast. Greta Garbo got top billing, with her name given in the cast list simply as “Garbo”, while the two Barrymores, Wallace Beery and Joan Crawford were the other big star names. The film had a huge budget for the time, estimated at 700,000 dollars, and was a smash hit – one of the special features on the Warner DVD, which is included in a Joan Crawford box set, shows excited crowds turning up for the premiere and breaking through a police cordon to swarm towards their favourite stars.
I’m still hot on the trail of William A Wellman’s pre-Code movies, and have been lucky enough to get hold of another couple – starting off with this Western epic. This wasn’t on DVD when I wrote this posting but I’m just editing to say that it is now out on Warner Archive. I don’t think this is one of Wellman’s very best, but I do like it and wish it was more widely-known – and it is definitely a Depression movie, despite largely being set in earlier eras. The film covers everything from the coming of the railways to the early days of silent cinema, and even has a prediction of what is to come for the future near the end, where a character says: “We will have television – and we’ll be able to fly across the whole continent in a couple of hours!” It also includes quite a lot of autobiographical material, with a character who joins the Lafayette Escadrille and becomes a celebrated First World War pilot, just as Wellman himself did.
Ann Harding and Richard Dix star as a young couple who travel out to Nebraska and build a banking dynasty. Both stars have demanding roles, taking them from youth to old age, and Dix even plays his character’s own grandson for good measure! I like Dix in this (for me he is more convincing as a young banker than as a swashbuckling Australian outlaw in Wellman’s Stingaree) but find Harding a bit insipid compared to other heroines in Wellman pre-Codes, such as Barbara Stanwyck or Ruth Chatterton.
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.
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.
Continuing my efforts to watch as many William Wellman pre-Codes as possible, I’ve now seen Lilly Turner a couple of times. This movie sadly isn’t available on DVD as yet – I believe it sometimes turns up on TCM in the US, though, and is well worth looking out for. It strikes me there are easily enough early Wellman movies for a second Forbidden Hollywood collection focusing on him, though it’s more likely the lesser-known titles will turn up as Warner Archive releases.
This was the second time Ruth Chatterton had starred in a Wellman film (the first was Frisco Jenny the previous year. Once again she plays a woman who is forced to be tough by circumstances, but who still clings to a few battered ideals. This time, her character, Lilly, is a woman working in a succession of travelling carnivals. Wellman clearly enjoys creating the sleazy, down-at-heel circus atmosphere. The whole film feels varied and lively and, packing a lot of plot, dialogue, melodrama and black humour into just 65 minutes, moves at a breathless speed. (As with Wellman’s So Big!, it was originally longer and some footage was cut before release – Walter Brennan was among the actors whose scenes were deleted.) George Brent gets top billing opposite Chatterton, but he only comes into the film fairly late on – and to my mind Frank McHugh really has the main male role, as the heroine’s second husband. Robert Barrat is also superb as a tormented strongman, with a heavy German accent he was breaking in for Heroes For Sale.
If you like either William Wellman or Loretta Young, I’m prepared to bet you would love this dazzling pre-Code film. Made at MGM, it blends that studio’s sexy glamour with Warner-style grit, and moves at a cracking pace to cram so much into just 74 minutes, with fast, witty dialogue and not a scene or a moment wasted.
I find myself grouping this one together with the slightly earlier film I’ve just reviewed, Frisco Jenny, since both are tales of women driven to murder, showing what took them to that point and culminating in the courtroom. (I also think of them together because they share a DVD in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume 3 box set.) However, for me Midnight Mary is the more powerful movie of the two – and it is also more fun.
I was originally attracted by this film because it stars Spencer Tracy – and I’m fascinated by his early work after seeing movies like 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, which I’ve reviewed here in the past, and Man’s Castle and Riff Raff, both of which I hope to review in the future.
Spencer Tracy and Henry B Walthall
In this movie, directed by Harry Lachman, Tracy once again plays a tough, arrogant character who is nonetheless more vulnerable than he at first appears. This time he is cast as a ruthless fairground worker who won’t let anyone or anything get in his way, as he rises to wealth by taking over and massively expanding a hi-tech attraction based on, you guessed it, Dante’s Inferno.
However, Tracy has nothing to do with the most striking scene in this movie – an amazing eight-minute vision of hell based on Gustav Doré’s famous illustrations to the great poem, showing the torments of the damned as they writhe in lakes of fire. I have read the poem (in translation!), and this section of the film does recall it, though the rest of the movie has little or nothing to do with Dante. It’s a stunning sequence and I find hard to imagine quite how it could have been made. Unfortunately, it seems to be difficult to find out exactly who did make it and when.