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.
Dorothy 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-heroinesBut 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.
Most of the early William A Wellman movies I’ve written about here are little-known – and the same goes for a lot of the James Cagney movies I’ve written about up to now. I often find it’s easier to find things to say about films which haven’t already been discussed endlessly. By contrast, The Public Enemy is one of the most celebrated of 1930s films – Wellman’s gangster masterpiece, and the film which made Cagney a star. It’s also the film which got me interested in both its star and director. Since I first saw this movie, I’ve watched it repeatedly and also gone on to see almost all of Cagney’s other movies, plus as many of Wellman’s silent and pre-Code films as I can get my hands on.
I hoped that after doing all this I would have something new to say about this film, yet I am still daunted, and can really only come up with some rambling comments rather than a full review. Anyway, I agree with everybody else that it is a masterpiece, and a film where you can find something new every time you watch it. In case anybody reading this hasn’t seen the movie, I will be talking about the whole film, including the famous ending.
As a gangster film made only the year after The Public Enemy, directed by William A Wellman and starring Edward G Robinson and Loretta Young, this could have been a masterpiece. Sadly, it isn’t. The big problem is that it is supposedly set in the San Francisco’s Chinatown, but almost all the characters are played by Caucasian actors – something which was done in many films in the 1930s, but was criticised even then. I found a contemporary review from The New York Times which pointed out the wild mis-casting of Robinson.
I’m only going to write a brief review of this film, but wanted to say that it does have its moments, as you’d expect from any film directed by Wellman – and Robinson in particular has some powerful scenes despite everything. I also liked the dark, shadowy cinematography by Sidney Hickox, who worked with Wellman on other pre-Codes like Safe In Hell, The Purchase Price and Frisco Jenny – whichalso has scenes in Chinatown. It’s just a shame that the print I saw isn’t very good and so there are some scenes where, amid the darkness, it is hard to work out exactly what is going on.