This is my contribution to the Film Preservation Blogathon, being hosted for its final day (May 17) by Sam and Allan at Wonders in the Dark. The blogathon aims to raise funds for the restoration of the intriguingly titled 1918 silent film Cupid in Quarantine, a Strand comedy which is centred on a couple trying to start a smallpox outbreak! To support this cause, please scroll down to the bottom for the donation button, and do visit Wonders and the other host blogs, Ferdy on Films and This Island Rod.
Science fiction is the loose theme of the Film Preservation Blogathon. In all honesty, the comedy-drama Trapped by Television, starring Mary Astor, Lyle Talbot and Nat Pendleton (all pre-Code veterans),doesn’t entirely fit the bill. However, this film does take off from the science fact of the time, as it focuses on efforts to develop the first TV sets. It also seemed an appropriate choice because it’s one of the many movies which have landed up in the public domain. This means they are freely available on the internet and on many cheap DVDs – but also usually means nobody is prepared to fund a restoration. Trapped by Television is actually in a better state than many of the films existing in this sad copyright limbo, but still suffers from a rather grey picture and some surface noise. Watching it is a reminder of why it’s so essential to preserve and restore our film heritage. I watched the movie at Archive.org, but I think the picture quality is slightly better at http://free-classic-movies.com/.
Countless movies from the 1930s feature fast-talking, fast-living journalists, armed with battered old typewriters, phones and bottles of whiskey. Some of these reporters are fearlessly determined to expose corruption at any cost. Others, however, are quite the opposite, and the (anti)hero of Wellman’s quirky romantic comedy-melodrama Love Is a Racket is a case in point. Gossip columnist Jimmy Russell, played by a very young and handsome Douglas Fairbanks Jr, isn’t interested in putting his neck on the line. When he hears about a juicy story involving New York mobsters fixing the price of milk, he can’t get to the phone fast enough… to keep it out of the paper!
This is one of six movies made by Wellman in 1932, during his amazingly prolific pre-Code days. Made under contract at Warner, it has the studio’s gritty style, but is also stamped with the director’s personality, as it lurches from witty dialogue to black humour, practical jokes and slapstick. Also, about half the film seems to take place in torrential rain, Wellman’s favourite type of weather. There’s a great cast, with Lee Tracy, the original stage star of The Front Page, as Fairbanks’ best buddy and newspaper colleague, Frances Dee as our hero’s on-off girlfriend, and Ann Dvorak, one of my favourite 1930s actresses, in a sadly small role as his pal who wants to be something more. Even with all this going for it, this film isn’t on DVD as yet and is one of the director’s more obscure early works. But it has recently been shown on TCM in the US, so there must be a chance it will soon get released on Warner Archive.
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.
As a Brit who isn’t a great sport fan, I’ll admit I’m in difficulties when watching any movie about American football – since, as soon as the players head for the pitch, I can’t really work out what on earth is going on. Nevertheless, I was pleased to track down a copy of this William A Wellman pre-Code starring Pat O’Brien as a college football coach – and featuring a 23-second appearance by a very young and uncredited John Wayne! I’m just editing this posting (on October 6) to say that this title is now out on Warner Archive. (This was actually his second football-themed film – the first,Eleven Men and a Girl (1930), a comedy starring Joe E Brown, was also issued on Warner Archive recently.)
Anyway, back to the rules of American football, and my failure to understand them. I know that a touchdown is similar to a try in rugby, but that’s about as far as I’ve managed to get. I did try looking up the Wikipedia page about the rules but found it impenetrable. Therefore, I’m afraid my review of this satirical comedy-drama will be lacking – but, even though I found the action on the pitch bewildering, there was plenty to enjoy regarding the politics and corruption behind the scenes, much of which seems all too relevant to modern-day sport too. There is also some enjoyably sharp hard-boiled dialogue – as well as some startlingly amoral pre-Code plot twists.
In interviews with William Wellman included in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 3 box set, he suggests that he sometimes had problems working with actresses, recalling arguments with some of his leading ladies when he refused to let them look glamorous. (To be fair, he also mentions falling out with male actors for similar reasons – he always wanted people to look as real as possible, rather than being smothered in make-up, and he didn’t go in for his stars wearing designer gowns and smart suits in unlikely contexts, as happens in some other directors’ movies!)
However, from the early movies of his I’ve watched so far, one of the main things that strikes me is what strong lead roles he had for women – from Clara Bow as an ambulance driver in Wings and Louise Brooks as a teenage runaway in Beggars of Life through to Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell as nurses in Night Nurse. The Purchase Price, made the year after Night Nurse, has another strong role for Stanwyck, this time as a torch singer who decides to get away from it all by taking a friend’s place as a mail order bride.
Adapted from the story The Mud Lark by Arthur Stringer, with a screenplay by Robert Lord, this is is a lighter film than the others by Wellman I’ve written about here so far. There are many comic scenes, though there is some melodrama too. Also the whole film has an early Warner grittiness to it, though set in the country rather than the city. I’m amused by how misleading the sexy advertising poster with Stanwyck and George Brent is – the words are just about true, I suppose, but give a completely false idea of the film, especially when combined with the glamorous picture. You’d never think from this poster that most of the movie is set on a freezing cold farm in the wilds of North Dakota, with Brent in an overall and Stanwyck in an apron!