This is my contribution to the Pre-Code Blogathon, organised by Danny of Pre-Code.com and Karen of Shadows and Satin. Please take a look at the other postings – there’s a wide range of films being covered.
Marlene Dietrich’s series of films made with Josef von Sternberg are her most famous pre-Codes. As a result, The Song of Songs, made by another great director, Rouben Mamoulian, tends to be overlooked. However, here too she gives a powerful and varied performance, in a film which is packed with pre-Code content and really pushes the boundaries. I was lucky enough to see this film during the recent pre-Code season at the BFI in London, and Victor Milner’s cinematography makes a powerful impression on the big screen. It’s also available to watch on DVD – I have the standard DVD from Universal in the UK/region 2, which doesn’t feature any extras. In region 1 it’s been issued on a more expensive DVD-R from Universal and TCM.
The excellent cast includes Brian Aherne and Lionel Atwill as the two men in Dietrich’s life, but this is her film all the way, giving her a chance to put several different spins on her screen persona. She also sings two great songs, which encapsulate those different versions of her personality.
For my money, Carrie is one of William Wyler’s greatest films – and one of Laurence Olivier’s finest performances. Yet it often seems to get overlooked. Maybe it would have more recognition as a classic adaptation if the title of Theodore Dreiser’s original novel, Sister Carrie, had been kept, which would also have avoided confusion with the horror film of the same name. In any case, I’d definitely urge any admirer of Olivier to see this period melodrama – and, if you are one of the doubters who think he was always too stagy on screen, this movingly understated role should help to change your mind.
Not everyone was sure about the choice of the very English Olivier for the great American role of George Hurstwood, a restaurant manager driven into a downward spiral by his passion for Carrie (Jennifer Jones). But Wyler was convinced the actor’s elegance would work well, and he was right. From the first glimpse of him, about half an hour into the film (wow, Olivier is playing a waiter?) there is a poignant feeling of this character slipping downwards, falling through the net. This adaptation of Sister Carrie focuses on the central love story, contrasting his decline with Carrie’s rise to fame, which gives it the same kind of dynamic as A Star Is Born. Just as in the various versions of that story, it’s hard to tear your eyes away from the character heading for the bottom.
This bitter-sweet romantic comedy flopped at the box office on release, and is still largely overlooked. It led to Marlene Dietrich being labelled ‘box-office poison’ and dropped by Paramount, before going on to reinvent herself in Destry Rides Again. It also contributed to director Ernst Lubitsch getting his own marching orders from the studio. Nevertheless, I love it, and think it is definitely a film with the ‘Lubitsch touch’, full of his sophistication and sharp observation of relationships – and also with his flavour of nostalgia for a European way of life which was slipping into the past, something even more poignantly evident in later works like The Shop Around the Corner. There are several mentions of war approaching in Europe, and Dietrich’s weary diplomat husband, Herbert Marshall, plainly has good reason for staying long hours at the office, as he tries to keep the conflict a little further off. The film is available on budget-price DVD in region 2/UK, from Universal Classics, but has not been issued in region 1 as yet. I do discuss the whole plot in this review, but I don’t think the ending will come as a shock to anyone anyway. Continue reading →
Once again I’m taking part in a blogathon – this time it is the Universal Backlot Blogathon, organised by Kristen of the Journeys on Classic Film website. A number of bloggers are taking part and covering a wide range of films made on the Universal backlot , to celebrate its 100th anniversary – please do visit Kristen’s site and take a look at the other postings.
First of all, a confession… I’ve belatedly realised that the film I’ve chosen to write about, William Wyler’s thriller The Desperate Hours starring Humphrey Bogart, was in fact mainly filmed on Paramount’s sound stages, with specially-built sets including a seven-room family house. Only some exteriors were shot on the Universal backlot. However, the way this film cranks up the tension to unbearable heights does have something in common with Universal’s famous horror films, even if in this film the horror unfolding is all too realistic, and the monster is just a man with a gun.
I’m going to take a break from posting about Wellman after this one and turn to other directors for a while… but first just wanted to say something about his movie focusing on aviation pioneers, Men with Wings, which stars Fred MacMurray, Ray Milland and Louise Campbell. Sadly this is another one of his that hardly anybody gets the chance to see, though it is hard to know quite why it has fallen into such obscurity. Made the year after A Star Is Born and Nothing Sacred, it was another lavish early Technicolor production – but, where both of those famous films are available on a host of public domain DVDs and now also in properly restored prints on Blu-ray and DVD, Men with Wings has almost disappeared. I know it was recently shown during the Wellman festival at the Film Forum in New York, but I believe it is rarely if ever shown on TV, and it is only available to buy on bootleg DVDs, possibly of varying quality – the one I bought is fairly ropey, with badly washed out colour and a lot of noise on the soundtrack, but someone has posted the first 20 minutes or so on Youtube in a much more watchable print, where you can get a sense of what the colour should be like. Maybe the problem with its availability is that it was made by Paramount rather than Selznick’s company.
Made the same year as Wellman’s great Beau Geste, this lesser-known drama, sadly not on DVD as yet, is another wildly noble and compelling period melodrama adapted from a novel by an imperialist author, Kipling. There was clearly a demand for such films in 1939, in the early days of the Second World War. Once again, the story ranges between England and wars in deserts, in this case the Sudan. However, in this film much of the drama takes place within the four walls of an 1880s London flat, framed by battle sequences at the start and end.
Anybody watching in search of war scenes might be surprised by just how much of the film is made up of Ronald Colman fighting his own private battle behind closed doors. Colman stars as Dick Heldar, an artist tormented by unrequited love for a fellow-painter, and struggling to hold on to his failing sight long enough to complete his masterpiece, a portrait of poor Cockney girl Bessie Broke (Ida Lupino). I don’t think the film stands up as well as Beau Geste, but it does have powerful performances by both Colman and Ida Lupino, as well as atmospheric, shadowy black-and-white cinematography by Theodor Sparkuhl, with the pictures flickering in and out of focus as Heldar’s sight fades.
In the interests of obsessive completism, I thought I’d mention that I’ve just watched another rare 1930s William Wellman film. Sadly, however, if I’m honest, on this occasion the thrill of anticipation was greater than the pleasure of seeing the movie, The President Vanishes, which I think is by far the weakest offering I’ve seen from this director. I can’t really review it properly as I’ve only seen it once in a dire print, but will just make a few brief comments and post a few pictures.
I’d hoped for a lot from this film, which was made in late 1934, a few months after the enforcement of the Hays code, and released at the start of 1935. It has a good cast, headed by Edward Arnold, with a small part for a very young Rosalind Russell. It also has a plot which sounds intriguing on the face of it, adapted from a novel by Rex Stout. It’s about industrialists and businessmen trying to get America involved in a European war in order to boost the economy and the arms trade. The businessmen bankroll a shady Fascist organisation, known as the Grey Shirts, in order to stoke up public opinion, but, when the peace-loving President (Arthur Byron) is apparently abducted, the pro-war bandwagon is abruptly derailed. You don’t exactly have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out very early on in the 80-minute movie that the President engineered his own abduction.
Wow! I’ve just written a posting about all the Wellman goodies coming out on DVD – and now comes the news from the wonderful Classicflix blog that his silent masterpiece Wings (1927) (winner of the first Oscar for best film) is coming out on DVD and Blu-ray from Paramount in January. They have now updated their site to say that it will have one bonus feature on the standard release and three on the Blu-ray, one of which is about the restoration of the film.
The artwork looks great although sadly it doesn’t include Wellman’s name. Anyway, I’m very excited about this. I don’t know whether or not the release will be for all regions, but it sounds great. Let’s hope there is even more to follow!
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.
I’ve been watching a lot of Lubitsch’s famous pre-Code musical comedies recently, so thought it would be interesting also to see this little-known serious anti-war drama which he made at the same period, starring Lionel Barrymore. Broken Lullaby – also known as The Man I Killed, after the title of the original stage play by French writer Maurice Rostand – was a flop at the box office, persuading Lubitsch that he had better not try anything else in the same vein. However, watching this, I found myself feeling that it is a forgotten masterpiece, just as richly multi-layered as his early comedies. It is sad to think that, while many of them are being reissued in lavish box sets, this film has only ever been released on region 2 DVD in Spain and France.
The one part of the film which is remembered (and, I understand, occasionally shown at festivals apart from the rest of the drama, as something complete in itself) is its opening. This is an example of the breathtaking cinematography by Victor Milner, which uses many techniques from silent film. Fortunately this two-minute sequence is currently available at Youtube, so I can post a link to it – it’s much better to see it than to read my description! However, I will describe it too, since it really is the heart of the film. The film begins with a title card announcing the first anniversary of the Armistice, in 1919, and there are a series of short clips cutting between the church bells ringing, memories of the fighting, the victorious French troops marching through Paris, and screaming soldiers in hospital haunted by their memories. The most striking image here is the angle chosen to show the parade, where the camera is directed through the gap where the leg of a wounded soldier used to be, with his maimed silhouette standing between the viewer and the triumphant marchers.