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.
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.