Essential Pre-Code: Week Three

by on July 29, 2011Posted in: Festivals


Follow Alt Screen’s complete coverage of Essential Pre-Code at Film Forum (Jul 15-Aug 11).


Fri, July 29: POSSESSED (Clarence Brown, 1931; above)


Factory toiler Joan Crawford gets a surreal peek at the right side of the tracks in the above clip from Possessed (1931). The champagne train of vividly cinematic vignettes seems as good a metaphor as any for our third weekly tour of Film Forum’s epic Essential Pre-Code series.


Sat, July 30: BLONDE CRAZY (Roy Del Ruth, 1931)



In my overview of the Pre-Code era, I referred to Blonde Crazy stars James Cagney and Joan Blondell as “the greatest Warners love story”:

…two New York stage actors imported on the recommendation of the cinema’s first talker, Al Jolson. The duo starred in 6 pictures together…Cagney claimed he loved Blondell second only to his wife, though Kenneth Tynan characterizes their chemistry in less idealistic terms: “[Blondell] proved the ideal punch-bag for [Cagney’s] clenched, explosive talent.”


They reach the apex of their collaboration under the affectionate guidance of director Roy Del Ruth. Del Ruth is the true unsung maestro of the Warners lot, the ultimate imbiber of hotcha, fastcracks, and acceleratoritis. His four-film run with Cagney was a sublime showcase of manic frenzy, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants unflappable spirit, and gutter poetry. The flashy speed of Blonde Crazy is an underlyingly comic treatment of these two bottom of the barrel con artists in way over their heads, moving their small-scale operation from “the leading hotel of a small Midwestern town” to “the leading hotel of a big city” to “the leading hotel of the largest city.”


In the beginning, Jimmy’s a bellhop with Big Ideas (“the worst monkey of them all,” a discarded chambermaid warns) who gets Joan the linen job (“What a treat for the bed!”). When hotel guest Guy Kibbee gets grabby Blondell drops ice down his back and kicks him in the caboose. Later she and Cagney frame him for “indecent loitering” in Central Park (a pal poses as the cop he pays off). Unable to resist such a promising – and cute! –  partner in crime, and deeming himself “unfit for work” in the conventional sense, Cagney recruits Blondell to get out of town for some enterprising – on the shaky promise things remain strictly platonic.


“The age of chivalry is past – this, honey, is the age of chiselry!” he declares as the two ride larceny lane, making money quickly and losing it even quicker in this film of zero conscience but a lot of heart. Del Ruth treats the duo like the salt of the earth, as Cagney peruses his scapbook of con man newspaper clippings like a teenager oggling a fan magazine (“I’m Santa Clause! Robin Hood! The goose that laid the golden egg!” he boasts), and Blondell is swayed by a dignified suitor who “likes Music and Art. It seems like a better life.” Brimming with Pre-Code delectables, including a gag with a swastika charm and a most titillating onscreen bath (while Cagney plays goggles with Blondell’s discarded brassiere), Blonde Crazy is a most charming yarn of two wannabe sharks who only ultimately exceed at making chumps out of each other.


Sun, July 31 & Mon, Aug 1: CALL HER SAVAGE (John Francis Dillon, 1932)



“It Girl” Clara Bow returns to claim her Pre-Code throne – and how! Passed over by MGM for the lead of Red-Headed Woman, a role that should have been her birthright (though that casting still worked out pretty well, see my review), the undisputed people’s princess was coaxed out of threatened retirement to become one of the Fox-iest ladies there ever was.


Bow’s staged comeback was an adaptation of Tiffany Thayer’s best-selling novel, a veritable happy-hour buffet of depravity. Virtually every trope of the early 30s “women’s film” is thrown into this boiling stew of still-shocking sensationalism. Bow’s wild child Nasa travels from Texas to Chicago, New Orleans to New York then back again, careening through constant benders in between increasingly ludicrous life trials, delivering and receiving innumrable slaps to the face (at one point the film stops bothering with her tantrums, and just cuts comically to the aftermath). As censorship enforcer Jason Joy wrote to Will Hays of the source text, “the book is about as far wrong as it is possible to be.”



Film history erroneously writes off Bow as a sound transition casualty, exaggerating her Brooklynese as incomprehensible and her hyperbolic acting style as archaic. After weathering the initial insecurities and procedural adaptations of acting for the microphone, however, Bow was still a formidable star and audiences had certainly never abandoned their flame-haired jazz baby. Instead her old demons – poor-quality scripts and scandal – followed her to the talkies, and she was left with little choice but to cancel her contract with Paramount in 1931 due to neglect, particularly during the slanderous Daisy DeVoe hullabaloo. Bow retreated to a sanatorium, then her husband Rex’s ranch, and packed on 30 pounds while Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich proceeded to redefine the Hollywood bombshell. She was lured back to the screen with script approval and a two-picture deal with Fox. Their first project, Call Her Savage, gave Clara a chance to show off those whipcracking skills she learned from her cowboy extra hubby, and to make up for lost time by cramming five films’ worth of material into 80 minutes.


The film is bizarrely, cosmically, framed as a Biblical parable on the sins of the father. A young pioneer girl inquires about the patriarch’s whereabouts, only to learn he’s a few wagons back getting sleazy with the local harlot (it seems every wagon train’s got one). When a vicious band of Indians attacks the settlers they blame the brazen sinner, prophesizing shame and punishment for his third and fourth generations. Sure enough, 17 years later, his inquiring child grows into an unsatisfied Texan wife weeping in the bath tub, who is summoned from her grief by the impressive birdcall of a brawny “well-educated” Indian outside her window.


Cut to Bow as her teenage daughter Nasa Springer, displaying all the feisty qualities prescribed by Hollywood to the half-breed femme: uncontrollable temper, a penchant for bareback riding, compulsive manic laughter, brazen bralessness, father contempt, unbridled lasciviousness, and the innate sense of Not Being Like Other People. Just to further clarify that our heroine is volatile, she greets her fellow miscegenation byproduct, the gentle and doting Moonglow (Bow’s former flame Gilbert Roland), with more than a few rabid whiplashes to the face. She makes up for it by improvising a bandage out of her already dangerously low collar.


Nasa’s stymied father casts her off to Misses Cholomeondeley’s Private Academy for Girls in Chicago. She is thrilled to “turn over a new leaf,” going from smalltown Texan misfit to tabloid headline sweetheart “Dynamite” Springer. Upon her graduation, her family arranges a respectable marriage and soiree fit for a chaste debutante, but Nasa’s out the door with the first smooth-talking cad who pisses off dad. And not before she has a raging cat fight with his jealous mistress (the glorious Thelma Todd, fire-eyed a mere three years before her murder).


It would be a disservice to potential viewers to chart Nasa’s plight too closely (and difficult, seeing as it hinges on a hangnail of narrative logic). But it bears mentioning that Call Her Savage dallies with rape, prostitution, child molestation, baby-bereaving tenement fires,  gigolo escorts, and venereal disease-induced dementia; not to mention a lecherous wrestling bout with a Great Dane and a trip to the cinema’s first gay bar, a West Village dive for “anarchists and poets” who draw inspiration, it seems, from the serenades of feather duster-beating fairies.


Some lament the “turgid” pacing of Call Her Savage, but it is a marvel the film manages to slow down at all. And it is a privilege to see Bow transcend the exploitative aspects of the plot to quietly suffer and bounce back with the frequency of Nasa’s bank account flunctuations. Framed in the delicate shadows and soft focus of Lee Garmes’ cinematography, Clara is svelte and stunning as ever. Almost through sheer volume of ordeal, the role achieves a substantial character depth, and Bow a a maturity and restraint never previously displayed.

Call Her Savage was tragically her penultimate film, but Bow’s sheer life force contrasts with the film’s dirgeful descent into tawdriness and calamity. Redemptively the character of Nasa is allowed a clarity and happiness denied Hollywood’s typically tragic mulattoes (Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun being the operatic climax); Nasa’s discovery of her inauspicious origins is greeted less as a convenient excuse for her tempestuousness, and more as a pacifying, liberating gift of self-knowledge.


Tue, Aug 2:  CABIN IN THE COTTON (Michael Curtiz, 1932)



Before Margot Channing or Baby Jane, or even Jezebel, there was Pre-Code Bette Davis. After abandoning Universal (chief Carl Laemmle was wasn’t exactly slaving for the starlet he thought had “as much sex-appeal as Slim Summerville”) she inked a 7-year deal with Warner Bros in 1932. Unconventional looking surely, but there is an ethereal beauty to the young Davis, those famous saucer eyes even more affecting when framed by an unfully formed bone structure and gossamer skin. It is hard to take your eyes off her, tadpole slender, not yet a butterfly but with an effervescent lightness missing from her later heavyhitter work.


Studio migration showed diminished results, at least in her eyes. While not a superlative showcase of acting prowess, films like Fog Over Frisco and Jimmy the Gent were some of the most jaunty late Pre-Code output. However, Bette could hardly keep entertained with thankless supporting roles of sister and secretary. She was a member of the eponymous trio in Three On a Match (screening Thurs Aug 4), but it was Ann Dvorak who got the juicy lead as a spoiled rich girl turned cocaine addict, while Joan Blondell shimmied in to console her aggrieved husband Warren William. And Bette… well, Bette got to be their nanny.


Severe discontent over the underestimation of her talents eventually led to a notorious lawsuit against the studio  in 1937, but Davis’s simmering frustration played perfectly into Depression narratives. No matter how dewey and sprightly in a jumper (and boy, could the young Davis pull one off), all good girls primed for success were caught in the nation’s standstill. The jitters of untapped potential and limited options plagued everyone, particularly in Warner Bros topicalities, so Davis’s palpable agitation only heightened the flavor of her presence, even when cast to the periphery.


Three on a Match director Michael Curtiz predicted Big Things for Dvorak, a successful dramatic career for Blondell, and a swift disappearance for Davis. He was of course wrong on all accounts, and Davis never let him forget it. Perhaps sheer spite for her director’s lack of faith, with third billing surely adding salt to the wound, motivated her delicious turn as a frisky Southern belle in Cabin in the Cotton. “God-damned-nothing-no-good-sexless-son-of-a-bitch!” Curtiz allegedly muttered during shoots, eventually opting for Davis to seduce the camera instead of wet blanket co-star Richard Barthlemess. Curtiz’s baffling immunity to Davis’s charms ended up to our benefit, as we become the direct target of her offbeat but considerable allure.


Behold this scene, climaxing with one of Davis’s most famous lines. It perfectly illustrates poor, underequipped Barthelmess’s battle with a scalding charisma no one could touch. Still smarting years later, he remarked: “There was a lot of passion in her, and it was impossible not to sense….one got the sense of a lot of feeling dammed up in her, a lot of electricity that had not yet found its outlet. In a way it was rather disconcerting – yes, I admit it, frightening.”



Wed, Aug 3: BLESSED EVENT (Roy Del Ruth, 1932)



Roy Del Ruth at the helm again (his stamp pretty much guarantees a a revelatory Pre-Code experience), and there was no director better suited to unleash the force of nature that was Lee Tracy (in a role that Cagney incidentally turned down). The film is a thinly disguised depiction of gossip columnist Walter Winchell, as described by documenter of the times Stanley Walker: “Winchell came to journalism pop-eyed with wonderment. He was, and still is, possessed of an almost maniacal curosity. This astonishingly alert, electrically nervous little man has become, in the space of a few years, the most discussed, and in some respects the most important, newspaper man in New York.” Winchell’s coverage of Broadway antics posited the small, few block New York stretch of speakeasies and dancehalls, populated by “gilded mugs, lawless altruists, massacre specialists, and she-meteors of the night” as the epicenter of the world. He created his own rhythmic language to describe his beloved microcosm that celebrated the slang of the streets (the film’s title is a sardonic creation of his, used to spill the beans on unexpected pregnancies). Gangsters and hoods adored him because they thought he was just making the best of yet another racket.


But it is rumored Winchell copied his radio demeanor from Lee Tracy. A cocksure verbal decathlete, Tracy had a homely face and a scrawny build, but derived power from the rabid impression of a kid who just weathered puberty and was barreling out of the gate to show ma what he was capable of in this hard knock world. In Blessed Event he even fittingly lives with his mother (“What do you do?” she asks evening visitor Allen Jenkins – token Warners tough guy – “You could say I’m a promoter.” “Oh, like a school teacher?”). An almost childlike spirit was critical to survive in the Warners world, the successes had gumption to burn and ethics to completely ignore. (Read more about Lee Tracy in Imogen Smith’s astute profile for Bright Lights Film Journal).


Blessed Event showcases a brashly expedient filmmaker at its apex, in fact the best Warner products of the era are an endless tommy gun assault of high points with no pause for breath. No wonder Tracy’s character takes such offense to the label “Nadir,” even if he had assistant Ruth Donnelly look it up in the dictionary in order to determine it was an insult. Tracy doesn’t break a sweat, his suspenders never moist, best demonstrated in the scene pictured above where he dissuades Allen Jenkins from bumping him off (following orders from a sensitive gangster that don’t take too well to his column) by providing a detailed description of his ensuing visit to the electric chair. There is no Sweet Smell of Success ennui here, despite Mary Brian’s attempts to domesticize her scandalmonger. Even an assassination attempt barely phases him, he’s just disappointed when someone else takes revenge for him: “Wouldn’t a guy like Gobel get himself shot before I could get a crack at him?”


If you haven’t had the pleasure to make Lee Tracy’s acquaintance – run, don’t walk.

  • Anonymous

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  • Beth White

    Wow, feel like I have been on a carnival ride just reading your material.
    Give us more, the clips entralling the descriptions enchanting.

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