I’ve watched a few little-known pre-Codes lately which aren’t masterpieces by any means, but are still interesting. I thought I’d post a few thoughts on them before they fade in my mind completely, starting with this early Bette Davis comedy-drama from Warner Brothers. Davis is one of my favourite actresses and I’ve been trying to watch as many of her movies as possible, so that’s why I tracked this down, though it isn’t on DVD as yet. There may be a hope that it will turn up in Warner Archive in the future.
I was especially intrigued by this film because of the title, since I am a fan of 1930s aviation dramas and recently reviewed Wellman’s Central Airport, also made in 1933, which features a woman parachutist. Sadly, however, Bette isn’t the parachute jumper in this one, staying firmly on the ground throughout! In fact it is top-billed star Douglas Fairbanks Jr who does the jumping, though he doesn’t do very much of it.
Since reading Moby Dick a few years ago, I’ve been interested in seeing different film and stage versions of it. I was especially intrigued to see John Barrymore playing Ahab, as sadly only one of his full Shakespearean roles survives on film (Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet). It is often said that Ahab is very near to Shakespeare’s tragic heroes in his monomania. Barrymore actually played the role in both the first two adaptations, this silent epic and a talkie made in 1930, directed by Lloyd Bacon, which I haven’t seen as yet. (I’m hoping this may turn up on Warner Archive before too long – I believe it is occasionally shown on TCM in the US, so there should be a reasonable print around).
I saw The Sea Beast online, at YT, in a very poor quality print, so I can’t really review it properly but just wanted to say something about it while it is fresh in my mind. There was a DVD release in region 1 by Televista, now deleted, but I gather from comments at the imdb that the quality of the DVD is also dire, very pale and washed-out. The film could really do with being restored and released in a double set with the talkie version.
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.
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.
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.
Frankie Darro and Dorothy Coonan in 'Wild Boys of the Road'
All six of the William A Wellman pre-Codes included in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection volume three are great to watch, and am sure I’ll go back to them all in the future. But the last one in the package, Wild Boys of the Road, may just be the best of all – and it’s also the one which addresses the Great Depression most full-on.
One of Warner Brothers’ stories “ripped from the headlines”, this is a powerful, fast-moving melodrama, with a script by Earl Baldwin from a story by Daniel Ahern, turning the spotlight on the vast army of teenagers who really were living on the streets of America at that time. The second time I watched the film I was struck by how many shots there are suggesting that these children are being regarded as society’s rubbish – from a car scrapyard scene early on to the section with a large group living in a “sewer pipe city” and another scene where they are living on New York’s municipal garbage dump. There is also a brief sequence where Frankie Darro, playing young runaway Eddie, eludes a policeman by jumping into a rubbish bin, and peeps up over the edge after he has run past. I’ve seen plenty of chase scenes where people hide in bins in comedies and cartoons – but in this one the image of Darro peeping out of the bin is heartbreaking as well as funny.
Continuing my efforts to watch as many William Wellman pre-Codes as possible, I’ve now seen Lilly Turner a couple of times. This movie sadly isn’t available on DVD as yet – I believe it sometimes turns up on TCM in the US, though, and is well worth looking out for. It strikes me there are easily enough early Wellman movies for a second Forbidden Hollywood collection focusing on him, though it’s more likely the lesser-known titles will turn up as Warner Archive releases.
This was the second time Ruth Chatterton had starred in a Wellman film (the first was Frisco Jenny the previous year. Once again she plays a woman who is forced to be tough by circumstances, but who still clings to a few battered ideals. This time, her character, Lilly, is a woman working in a succession of travelling carnivals. Wellman clearly enjoys creating the sleazy, down-at-heel circus atmosphere. The whole film feels varied and lively and, packing a lot of plot, dialogue, melodrama and black humour into just 65 minutes, moves at a breathless speed. (As with Wellman’s So Big!, it was originally longer and some footage was cut before release – Walter Brennan was among the actors whose scenes were deleted.) George Brent gets top billing opposite Chatterton, but he only comes into the film fairly late on – and to my mind Frank McHugh really has the main male role, as the heroine’s second husband. Robert Barrat is also superb as a tormented strongman, with a heavy German accent he was breaking in for Heroes For Sale.
Richard Barthelmess might be best known as a star of silent films, but I think he was equally good in early talkies, when his boyish looks were starting to fade. He was great as a tormented wartime aviator in Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (1930) – and he gives another powerful performance as a drug-addicted veteran of the First World War in William Wellman’s Heroes For Sale (1933). For me this is one of the strongest offerings in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three, though it possibly goes off the boil for a bit in the middle.
This film, one of a number which Wellman made focusing on the Great Depression, follows Barthelmess’ character, Tom Holmes, from the trenches of France through to a peacetime battle in America, a march by the “forgotten men”, war veterans desperately seeking work. Both the opening in the trenches and the march of the unemployed men near the end are set amid torrential rain, which features in so many early Wellman films and seems to express the overwhelming forces bearing down on his heroes. The original working title of the film was Breadline, but it was changed to the more dramatic and bitter Heroes For Sale, underlining the theme of war veterans who can’t make a living in peacetime. However, the film isn’t just sympathetic to old soldiers, who are not particularly romanticised, but to everyone struggling in the Depression, and the hard years leading up to it.
Just when I was starting to think that every William Wellman pre-Code was a masterpiece, I came across one that I don’t like quite so much. For me the uneasy blend of comedy and melodrama in The Star Witness, starring Walter Huston, doesn’t quite work, although I still found it interesting to watch. I think it’s a pity it wasn’t included as an extra feature on the DVD of The Public Enemy, since they are so closely linked and even both feature shootings amid Wellman’s favourite cinematic weather, torrential rain! It looks from the article on this film at the TCM website as if this is being shown on TCM in the US at 9am on April 6 – it gives this date and time at the top of the article, anyway.
For me the big problem with The Star Witness is that the actor playing the loveable, curmudgeonly grandfather, Charles “Chic” Sale, seems rather hammy and over the top. This isn’t surprising, since he started out as a vaudeville/comedy star and was much-loved – I’m sure he was giving his fans what they wanted, and also that Wellman included him deliberately to give some light relief to an often grim story – but I must say I find him hard to watch. Sale was only in his 40s when the film was made, but plays an American Civil War veteran, presumably in his late 80s.