Castle on the Hudson (1940)

Ever since watching the Michael Curtiz pre-Code prison movie 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, starring Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis, I’ve been interested in seeing the Anatole Litvak remake with John Garfield and Ann Sheridan taking over their roles. Now at last I’ve had the chance, after the release of the title in the Warner Archive series. I don’t think the print has been remastered, but it looks and sounds fairly good all the same. As with the original, there is some footage which was shot on location, in Sing Sing prison, and the shots of the long rows of small cells make a powerful impression.

Unfortunately it is now a couple of years since I saw the earlier version on TV and I apparently failed to keep a copy of the movie, so I can’t make detailed comparisons – but a look back at my review confirms my impression that the two are very close, with almost identical scripts. Like the original, this is the tale of a cocky young gangster, Tommy Gordon (though his name is spelt ‘Gordan’ in the newspaper headlines running all through this version)  who swaggers into prison under the impression he is entitled to special treatment, but changes his ways of thinking under the guidance of the prison governor, Warden Long.  Both films are based on the memoirs of the original of Long, real-life warden Lewis E Lawes, so it is no surprise that the character is glowingly presented – although, to be fair, he does seem to have been a reforming figure in real life.

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20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932)

Spencer Tracy

Spencer Tracy

Seeing this was a pre-code movie about the notoriously tough prison in New York, directed by the great Michael Curtiz, I expected a disturbing, no-holds barred film, maybe something even tougher than the prison scenes in Each Dawn I Die.
So I was a bit surprised at how tame this film often feels by comparison with that movie, made just seven years later. By contrast with the snarling, brutal warders in Each Dawn I Die, the guards in 20,000 Years seem quite well-meaning, while the warden himself – played by Arthur Byron – is positively saintly, and only interested in reforming and helping his “boys”, rather than in sadistically exercising his power over them. As I watched the film, I kept on wondering why the warden was painted in such glowing colours, and only realised the answer when I discovered that the movie is based on a book written by his real-life original, Lewis Lawes – who also had final script approval. To be fair, he does appear to have been a genuine reformer. The title is based on adding up all the terms being served by the men in the prison, as the opening and closing titles make clear.
 

Spoilers behind the cut – plus picture of Bette Davis

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The Cabin in the Cotton (1932)

Bette Davis and Richard Barthelmess
Bette Davis and Richard Barthelmess

I’d been wanting to see a movie starring Richard Barthelmess since reading about his work in Mick LaSalle’s book Dangerous Men. Since this film also stars a young Bette Davis and is directed by Michael Curtiz, it sounded like an unbeatable combination.
I wasn’t disappointed. This Warners/First National movie is gritty and powerful, turning the focus firmly on exploitation of poor cotton workers in the South during the Great Depression. Pre-code elements include the daring social commentary and a scene where Davis apparently strips off just off-camera to tease Barthelmess.
Despite a disclaimer at the start claiming that the producers have no interest in taking sides between the planters and the workers, the rest of the film refutes this, with haunting scenes of exhausted workers driven to desperation. There’s a moment near the start of the movie where planter Norwood (Berton Churchill) smugly lectures the weary parents of the hero, Marvin Blake (Barthelmess) about how they should take their boy out of school and set him to pick cotton. “Your crop must come first. Those are my orders.”
Nevertheless, all the characters are painted in shades of grey. The planters are not monsters – Norwood changes his tune to sponsor Blake’s education, if for his own ends – while  the workers are far from being saints.
Reviews I’ve seen claim that Davis steals the movie from Barthelmess. She certainly gives a seductive performance as spoilt rich girl Madge, with the famous line “I’d like to kiss you, but I just washed my hair” – .and completely outshines her love rival, Dorothy Jordan. However, I think it’s still very much Barthelmess’ film. Despite being too old for the role, he gives a powerful performance as Blake, the poor boy torn between two worlds and two sets of loyalties – and he has a great speech near the end of the movie.