Essential Pre-Code at Film Forum: Week One

by on July 18, 2011Posted in: Also Recommended

Yesterday at Alt Screen, I posted a feature on Hollywood’s “Pre Code” era, currently in revival at Film Forum through August 11th. (You should start there if you haven’t already.)


As reiterated in the piece, the era abounds with bona fide classics: the comedies of Mae West and Ernst Lubitsch, game-changing gangster pics like The Public Enemy and Scarface, triumphs of style by Josef von Sternberg and Busby Berkley. But I particularly enjoy exploring the era’s dark corners and back alleyways, its underworld rogue’s gallery of “lecherous cads and compromised virgins, bullet barons and slick racketeers, liberated ladies and enterprising immigrants, adolescent vagrants and unscrupulous reporters, all followed by an endless parade of hard-boiled yeggs.”


But with fifty films, how ever does one choose their vice? Here with a few (un)healthy suggestions.


HOT SATURDAY (William A. Seiter, 1932) [Sun Jul 17 & Mon Jul 18]


“Does it interest you to know that I’ve wanted you ever since I first saw you in the bank?
“Well when you’re in a bank, you’re supposed to say the things you want.”
“But the second you start taking what you want, burglar alarms go off all over town.”


Bankteller Ruth (the delightful Nancy Carroll,  an unfortunate post-Code disappearing act) and man about town Romer Sheffield (pre-”Cary Grant” Cary Grant) discuss monetary and sexual wish-fulfillment in in William Seiter’s frank expose of smalltown close-mindedness and rumor-mogering. This Anytown, USA is Marysville, where they boast “one bank, two fire engines, four street cars, and a busy telephone exchange,” and “everyone knew on Sunday what everyone else did on Saturday… and the rest of the week.” That rest of the week, at least for the town’s restless twentysomethings, is spent securing a date, the parent’s nice car (“my feet get cold when I park in those roadsters”) and the cheapest hooch option for the eponymous weekend night out.


As per usual, such boredom exponentially breeds jealousy, entitlement, pot-stirring, and ultra libido – even Ruth’s kid sister is stealing her “shorts” and modeling them in the mirror. Cute, flirtatious, sure-footed, and a good sport, poor Ruth is doomed to maliciousness from the boys who can’t have her not-for-sale virtue, the girls who can’t have her effortless charm, and the busybody adults who can’t have her vigorous freedom. Her cantakerous mother pockets her weekly paycheck and tries to sequester her from all those “good-for-nothing puppies” by putting her on moth-protection duty in the attic, to no avail. With her daughter paying the bills she should be allowed a little fun – and good faith.


“Your mother is wise, she knows what the moths do while the flame is away,” chortles notorious playboy Romer (“The town would burn down to the ground if we took the girls within a mile of that guy”; its no accident his surname is one vowel step away from “rumor”). He has lured Ruth and her comrades to his lake house, a playground of real liquor and necking set to the naughty background tune of “One Hour With You”.  Romer’s got Japanese man-servants, framed photographs of lovelies lining his desk, and messages through his secretary from scrapped ladies of the week “to go to He- go the Devil.” He feeds Ruth lines about her hair in the moonlight but respects her enough to later admit they’re “haymakers,” and to keep his passes strictly verbal.


Unlike most good gal heroines, Ruth spends less time priggishly recoiling and nobly suffering, and more time curiously exploring her attractions to the cad and the childhood playmate grown up into a handsome geologist more adept with rocks than girls (Grant’s bromance buddy Randolph Scott, and a stiff precursor to his befuddled paleontologist in Bringing Up Baby). She is neither tease nor prude, a far more fleshed out everygirl than Hollywood generally offers; even her rebuff of a fresh suitor – “What did you expect on a boat ride? Marlene Dietrich?” – implicates the dream factory in the creation of fantasy ideals real girls can’t – and shouldn’t – be expected to live up to. It is difficult to discuss the film further without spoiling its rug-stealing Graduate-esque ending, but Hot Saturday is a real eye-opener amidst the era’s more strained women’s films – Ruth doesn’t take the preprogrammed narrative path.  She makes a decision neither wise nor foolhardy, right nor wrong, liberating nor entrapping because this film doesn’t draw rigid lines. Her fate is merely living, and there are very human lessons and stories waiting far past the closing credits.


THE MIND READER (Roy Del Ruth, 1933) [Thu Jul 21]


Film Forum turns the spotlight every Thursday on “magnificient scoundrel” (as tagged by his recent bio) Warren William, a Warners leading man that came and went as quickly as you can utter “unscrupulous.”  “Poor man’s John Barrymore” is meant as no insult to William, who had the looks and the poise of The Great Profile, but a more titillating five o’clock shadow of dastardliness. He emanated a strange, lupine energy that reflected the dark-side of the Depression zeitgeist: dangerous ambitions, misused power, and untapped potential.  His deep-bellied guttural laugh reflects an innate understanding of what it takes to get ahead; he knows that its corrupt and that its fleeting, but he also sure well knows that he’s got It. The world is indeed William’s oyster – what with all these suckers running around – and The Mind Reader is perhaps the greatest showcase of his huckster bravado. William was at his best playing master manipulators and conniving corporate heads, and even better operating small-time, when the contrast between his debonair swagger and patrician pronunciations, and the leathernecked racketeering he ekes a survival from, reveals how terrifically America has fallen.


The Mind Reader is shot at cantilevered angles, a playful assertion from director Roy Del Ruth that this is a literally crooked world. Del Ruth plays with the dual nature of William’s affectations, a man that sings songs of Experience and songs of Bologna. William travels the country from Pine Bluff, Arkansas to Kokomo, Indiana to Danville, Kentucky posing as a bogus dentist, hair relaxer salesman, and carnival barker. Dependent sidekick Allen Jenkins laments their penny-pinching, “No customers? Must be a Depression or something,” but notices folks flocking to a fortuneteller attraction.


The boys learn that 125 million American smackers a year go towards the crystal ball gazers; all William has to do is throw a bath towel around his head and “tell those chumps what they want to hear! The whole world’s full of hopeless suckers and they’ll believe you, and pay too. Pay Big!” Preying on people’s need for hope and direction proves lucrative for the newly crowned Chandra (named after a box of cookies) until William meets “young, fine, and on the level” Constance Cummings; Jenkins makes the film’s sole accurate prediction, “those village belles are dynamite… Hello, Jail!” Appalled that she’s been answering lonelyhearts letters for a decidedly non-clairvoyant William, and after the elevator shaft suicide of one of his trusting followers (glimpse the volatility of Humphrey Bogart’s ex-wife Mayo Methot, whom he nicknamed “Sluggy”), Cummings forces William to go on the level in the epicenter of dishonest living: New York City.


Jenkins, now comfortably chauffeuring Wall Streeters to their afternoon liaisons (afterall, the stock exchange closes at 3:00), is appalled to find William wandering door-to-door pawning brushes. “A guy with your con?! Your larceny?”  He echoes the philosophy advocated by many Warners films: “The world owes us a living.” If the con is is the only knack they’ve got, use it. When they hire a newspaperman to help them get William back in the racket he reminds them “I’m taking a big risk.” “You’re getting paid for it, aren’t ya?” Jenkins disgustedly barks. Do your gig, take the dough. Integrity lies in those that go all or nothing, regardless of ethics. Even when decidedly in the money the boys never live extravagantly, all they want is some spare cash to bet on the horses and pay for the next train ticket. Amidst the ballyhoo of The Mind Reader lies some poignant commentary on the politics of survival, friendship, and instinct. A man of many aliases (Dr. Munro, The Great Gaboni), William’s ultimately nameless character is even referred to as “Chan” by his wife. He confesses, in a rare moment of honesty that he doesn’t even recognize, he would never know how to stay in the same place for over a week. But just as the film inches towards conscientiousness, with William off to join their convicted pal Lotus the Fire Eater up the river, it ends on a lackadaisical lulu, care of Jenkins: “Sure is tough to go away just when beer’s coming back!”


ROMAN SCANDALS (Frank Tuttle, 1933) [Fri July 22]


At high tide of Pre-Code salaciousness,  it was inevitable that Hollywood turn to Ancient Rome as a convenient excuse for more debauched hi-jinks. With a well curated posse of Goldwyn Girl eye candy and cyclopean choreographer Busby Berkeley under contract, Sam Goldwyn upped the ante on his successful franchise of Eddie Cantor vehicles. Confidence was high as Berkeley was no one’s little secret anymore, snapped up by Warners he had single-handedly revived the musical genre with his contributions to 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 (double-billed at Film Forum with Scandals).  With his golden goose still owing him one more, and the prestige of a Sherwood/Kauffman source story and songs by Dubin and Warren – the Lullabyers of Broadway- Goldwyn shelled out for the most expensive entry in the genre to date.


Despite the dollars involved, it was still a movie with a message. In real life an orphan adopted by vaudeville, Cantor here is his usual hapless little soul, this time in East Rome, Oklahoma where the local moneybags churns all the dough into a state of the art cemetery and an art museum pawning off antiquity as the town’s cultural heritage. Next on the agenda is an unnecessary new jail for which a whole residential block is ruthlessly clean-sweeped. Cantor incites the homeless locals to just “Build a a Little Home” in the streets, a Communism-tinged dismissal of personal property and prime opportunity for public showers and negligee-sporting. Its the last straw for the East Rome tyrant and Cantor is swiftly banished.


In his displaced befuddlement, history buff Cantor dreams himself into Ancient Rome, and when he finds himself in tunic (sans pants!) he realizes he ain’t in Oklahoma anymore. He is saved at the slave auction by  brawny progressive Josephus, who takes a shine to our hapless hero (“I shall call you Joe.” “And I shall call you Oedpius.”). The twosome is swayed towards revolution when Cantor ends up foodtaster for the dastardly Emperor Valerius (Edward Arnold), who has taken a beautiful Britton princess as his latest prized concubine (Titanic’s Gloria Stuart, who had a steady saucer-eyed career in the 30s looking fetching in white).  The emperor’s dismissed former favorite – Ruth Etting, chart-topping torch siren of the down and out  (“Ten Cents a Dance”) – leads the rest of the harem in a hedonistic lament of “No More Love,” with a sacrificial centerpiece of four chained nudes beneath carefully placed blonde wigs (Berkeley convinced the gals, including Lucille Balle, to go buff on the promise of a closed nighttime set).


It is matched only by the sequence in which black-faced Cantor, disguised as an Ethiopian beauty expert, instructs the Roman chorines to “Keep Young and Beautiful,” in a montage of teeth-brushing, back-scratching, eyebrow tweezing, and chain mail-garbing so steamy Cantor is shriveled into dwarf Billy Bart. With all the distraction, small wonder the unwieldy assassination attempt goes awry. While Cantor learns that that unscrupulous tyrants come with every era, contemporary viewers may be surprised to learn that so do mildly sexy nebbishes with nervous tics, sideways quips, and an ongoing external monologue that clashes and careens with everyone around him (“Don’t mind Eddy – every town’s got one”). Woody Allen has clearly learned a thing or two or three from Cantor.


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