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.
I’ve seen quite a lot of pre-Codes directed by William A Wellman, though there are many more I’d still like to track down. But this semi-musical starring Irene Dunne and Richard Dix has to be the oddest of his 1930s movies I’ve managed to see yet. It’s a strange cross between an operetta in the Nelson Eddy/Jeanette MacDonald vein and a 19th-century outlaw drama set in the Australian bush, though, with not so much as a kangaroo in sight, it’s pretty obvious that the “bush” is in fact a Hollywood backlot.
Surprisingly, this obscure title is one of the six films included in the RKO Lost and Found Collection via the TCM website – though this is an expensive set and the DVDs are DVD-Rs rather than pressings. All the films in the set were thought to be lost for many years until copies were rediscovered. The Movies Unlimited website also offers Stingaree as a single DVD. Anyway, I was lucky enough to see it at a very popular video streaming website, though I’m sure the quality on the DVD would be better.
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.
Richard Barthelmess might be best known as a star of silent films, but I think he was equally good in early talkies, when his boyish looks were starting to fade. He was great as a tormented wartime aviator in Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (1930) – and he gives another powerful performance as a drug-addicted veteran of the First World War in William Wellman’s Heroes For Sale (1933). For me this is one of the strongest offerings in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three, though it possibly goes off the boil for a bit in the middle.
This film, one of a number which Wellman made focusing on the Great Depression, follows Barthelmess’ character, Tom Holmes, from the trenches of France through to a peacetime battle in America, a march by the “forgotten men”, war veterans desperately seeking work. Both the opening in the trenches and the march of the unemployed men near the end are set amid torrential rain, which features in so many early Wellman films and seems to express the overwhelming forces bearing down on his heroes. The original working title of the film was Breadline, but it was changed to the more dramatic and bitter Heroes For Sale, underlining the theme of war veterans who can’t make a living in peacetime. However, the film isn’t just sympathetic to old soldiers, who are not particularly romanticised, but to everyone struggling in the Depression, and the hard years leading up to it.