Essential Pre-Code at Film Forum: Week Four

by on August 5, 2011Posted in: Also Recommended

Dorothy Mackaill finally lets loose while Nina Mae McKinney sings the blues in William Wellman’s eccentric little Pre-Code Safe in Hell (1931).


Film Forum’s epic series concludes this week, and they’ve definitely saved some of the best for last. (You can catch up with Alt Screen’s complete coverage of Essential Pre-Code here.)

Fri, Aug 5: SAFE IN HELL (William Wellman, 1932)

“He’s lonesome, see? He wants someone to go places with him.” “I’ll go right into my dance.”


Safe in Hell opens in the depraved den of New Orleans with Gilda, a lethargic hooker in a kimono accepting her assignment for the evening. (“He’s lonesome, see? He wants someone to go places with him.” “I’ll go right into my dance.”) Mr. Lonesome turns out to be an illicit liaison from Gilda’s past who feels entitled to his former property while his current wife’s out of town. Through a series of rough breaks, Gilda knocks him out cold and accidentally sets the boarding house ablaze. Suffice it to say, it’s time to get out town.


But packing is interrupted by another blast from the past: the return of the noble sailor beau from Gilda’s bygone days of living on the up and up. Though she has an awful hard time informing this doting innocent just how low she’s sunk, he seems inclined to forgive and forget, intent on stewarding her to a notorious gulf island with non-extradition laws until this whole manslaughter thing blows over.


But nothing’s that easy. As the sole white woman on the island, Gilda is constantly, lecherously ogled by the island’s other criminal refugees, who are depicted as simultaneously comic and horrifying. The only government minister died the month previous, so there’s no legally binding union for Gilda before her white knight sets back out to sea. She keeps a low but bored profile, veiled behind the mosquito net in her room, seemingly less concerned with her imperiled security than proving her worthiness of a love too pure to be true. Though the island is hardly a tropical getaway; the water’s got “wigglers” (don’t ask) and the the deliciously sinister sherrif boasts that his jail is even worse than his gallows. He warns Gilda that this self-governed oasis is nothing but an illusion of security, that Gilda is little more than “safe in hell.”


Working from a stageplay source and chiefly relegated to one setpiece of rickety staircases and multiple planes of action, director William Wellman shoots the moon with mobile camerawork and cantilevered angles. The technique is a piquant contrast to the claustrophobic tale of entrapment and limited options. With the help of Mackaill’s no-nonsense performance (perhaps too natural, she never carried a movie again), Wellman sculpts a tragedy with a gentle, curious sense of salvation.


William K. Everson perfectly articulates the beauty of this offbeat and evocative film, a real misfit even amidst an era of misfits: “Too grim to be a ‘fun’ movie, too insignificant to be ‘art,’ it really offers no valid reason for having been made – yet it’s startling, holding, and moving in turn.”


Sun, Aug 7 & Mon, Aug 8: JEWEL ROBBERY (William Dieterle, 1932)


Released the same year as its double-billed partner in crime (and incontestable masterpiece) Trouble In Paradise, Jewel Robbery has been lamentably overlooked.


Imogen Smith encapsulates this buoyant charmer, for The Chiseler:

“In the morning a cocktail, in the afternoon a man, in the evening Veronal.” Such is the routine of bored Viennese frau Kay Francis, who finds that neither the trinkets her rich husband buys her nor the affairs she has with young diplomats satisfy her craving for excitement. Then she meets gentleman jewel thief William Powell, who robs jewelry stores with impeccable finesse. Instead of bopping inconvenient witnesses over the head, he gives them marijuana cigarettes and they float off into giggly oblivion. He pockets the heroine’s ring, breaks into her house and kidnaps her—a courtship in crime.


Jewel Robbery bears obvious comparison to Trouble in Paradise, which also stars Kay Francis and equates seduction with sophisticated burglary. Both films delicately blend the more risqué innuendo inherent in this equation with an intoxicating depiction of romance as a duel of wits and skill, a match in both senses of the word. With her long, willowy body, sleek cap of black hair and droopy, twilight eyes, Kay Francis was art deco in the flesh. As the “wobber” who steals her heart, Powell is so perfectly, so ardently debonair that he makes charm into something not superficial but oddly vital. Gallantry is the film’s moral imperative—as when Francis realizes Powell has seen her undressing, and he assures her with a graceful bow, “You were everything I anticipated.”


This weightless enchantment extends even to sartorial matters. The latter part of the film might be re-titled, The Mystery of the Gravity-Defying Negligee, or, What’s Holding Up Kay Francis’s Dress?


Tue, Aug 9: GIRLS ABOUT TOWN (George Cukor, 1931)


Girls About Town opens with a lively primping-in-the-powder-room montage, indicating this is an average evening in the life of any average lady supporting herself on above-average allure. But this film’s sparkling dream team is Wanda (Kay Francis) and Marie (Lilyan Tashman). A lithe brunette and brassy blonde, they need not be in competition so instead join forces to make sure every man’s taste is met. A savvy businessman calls in these afterhours vixens when he needs to give out-of-towners a little extra incentive to sign a deal. Tips come in the form of glimmering jewelry gifts, professional hazards in the form of unwanted pinches and pokes (“He told me he was a wrestling champion in college and if you don’t believe it, look.”)


Wanda and Marie have their maid play Whistler’s Mother in the window, pleading curfew as they wiggle their way out of a nightcap. Pity the poor fool who must jet back to Des Moines and his wife on that hangover. Meanwhile, the gals retreat to the safety of their Deco penthouse, trade wisecracks about their tedious company, and sleep off the cocktails until their next assignment roles in around 5:30. They moonily climb in bed together and are served grapefruit juice and aspirin in bed by their black maid, eager to attend to her “Honey Sugar” and “Peach Lamb” before if it is time to hold out another bias-cut gown for them to slip into.


Sounds like the life, but Wanda is bored, bored, Bored. She is inspired to escape by the first handsome man she’s charged to entertain (Joel McCrea). Despite his initial dismissal of this paid escort, he’s quickly duped by Wanda’s role-playing games and damsel in distress act (via fake drowning). Wanda wakes up early enough for a date at the zoo, and responds to his marriage proposal with an utterly sincere “What for?”


Marie happily pawned off McCrea in exchange for his boss Benjamin, the richest man in Lansing, Michigan (the incomparable portly goon, Eugene Pallette). She quickly saw Wanda’s lust object for what he truly is: a well-whittled but dull piece of wood. A trickster in his own right (although of the practical joke, snake-up-the-sleeve variety), Benji at least seems to share her joie de vivre. Even if he’s a stingy little bastard, he’s a fun one to con.


Francis’ reputation as more-than-a-clothes hanger has improved over the years amongst movie buffs, her swoony lisp counterbalancing her impossible glamour, but director George Cukor rightly knows this is Tashman’s show. In silent films she was often a peripheral showgirl or arch-eyebrowed villianess, but sound introduced audiences to her effortless wit and coffee-and-cigarettes voice (she tragically died of cancer in 1934 and Hollywood lost one its quickest studies in repartee). Even as she pronounces it a positively “eeeeevil night,” Marie is enjoying every second of a living she considers herself lucky to have. Experiencing not a pang of regret or conscience, she contents herself with male manipulation and female camaraderie – even joining forces with Benji’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, owed years of compensation for her millionaire husband’s miserly ways. Benjamin looks at the misses preening in her new jewelry and warns “If you carry around like this you’re just going end up another one of those girls about town!” To which she unblinkingly deadpans, “Well, I don’t see any reason why I should not.”


It’s moments like this that nominate Girls About Town as the definitive golddiggers movie, (since the eponymous ones of 1933 were actually struggling performers in humble search of a gig). Tashman’s well-known lesbianism (she had a blissful beard arrangement with husband Edmund Lowe) tints this proto-feminist film with sapphic chic, and there is little doubt homosexual “women’s director” Cukor knew exactly what he was doing. When Wanda has a debt to pay, Marie rallies the ladies and hosts a wardrobe auction in the film’s best scene. She entices the bidders with the chide “Why if I had your money, I’d go straight,” and the wink is all in the vocal delivery. Come the reunion of Francis and McCrea’s lovers she calls her “manager” to announce she’ll be dining alone at her table tonight. While perhaps happy for Wanda’s overdue sexual fulfillment, that smile of hers implies she expects to be seeing her again one day.


The champagne bowls glisten in the UCLA restoration screening at Film Forum, extra incentive to see this otherwise unavailable film.


Tue, Aug 9: HEAT LIGHTNING (Mervyn LeRoy, 1934)


This mesmeric, odd duck proto-noir fittingly fills one of the final slots of the Film Forum series. Produced only a few months before the Production Code, Heat Lightning is a priceless showcase for the characteriest of Pre-Code character actors, with Aline MacMahon capably rising to the lead role. Here the Warner Bros ethos is quarantined into the middle of nowhere, a barren desertscape where the shadows of the past loom large. It is a bittersweet coda to this ephemeral era, the last gasp of a style and attitude that Hollywood could no longer sustain.


A few excerpts from an essay I wrote on this remarkable little picture for The Chiseler:


“Well, you go your way and we’ll go the way of all Flesh…”


Mervyn LeRoy’s Heat Lightning (1934) charts people going in different directions but in the end, they’re all just snakes eating their own tails. It is an extraordinary relocation of a motley crew of Warner Bros character actors from their natural urban habitat to the California desert, and the first lead role for the most sardonic  Golddigger of 1933, Aline MacMahon, who was subsequently relegated to noble matrons and doormats. Here she’s a little bit of both and a whole lot more, a surprisingly nuanced representation of a world-weary woman’s desperation and repression, defenses and weaknesses. A former Tulsa cabaret moll who woke up in cold sweats, so repulsed was she by the rotten egg she loved, Olga has relocated her kid sister Myra (Ann Dvorak) to a nearly uninhabitable place of last resort. Even in the local movie theater, the shrine to escapism, it’s 115 degrees. “They don’t ask questions in desert towns,” she asserts at her roadside stop twenty six miles outside town, and seems content to make an honest living helping poor saps along their way before never seeing them again. She wears a handkerchief across her head like a nun’s wimple and no makeup, a dislike of “mixed company” stamped across her countenance – bitterness masquerading as a healthy reset of priorities – and an invitation to many an insinuation that she’s “barely a dame.”


“You’re your own worst witness” Olga lectures her sister. “You’re your own best protection,” Tinkle mocks Feathers’s appeal to men (or lack thereof). The movie could be titled “Your Own Worst Enemy,” as the liberation from the dense clusters of the metropolis clarifies the fact that it ain’t other people that’s the problem; it may be the most spacious Warners picture from the era, but Glenda Farell and Ruth Donnelly still trade wisecracks from their respective porches twenty feet apart. Heat Lightning the title aptly is; out in the sand with nothing but horizon as far as the eye can see (established by a whiplash introductory 360-degree pan), you can’t hear the thunder of the outside world but you can see the storm. Even in this barren, treeless wasteland the shadows of the Depression and the past loom large.


An immigrant Mexican family has meanwhile been reclining out back under the stars, strumming a soft vaquero melody to counterbalance the movements of these suffering fools.  It’s a strange, surreal background to this strange, surreal purgatory where character actors swing in and out and do what they do best – they’re shlumps we love dearly, in whom we see so much of ourselves, but don’t want to be. It is fitting to see them dumped at the far corners of the earth, mere months before the Production Code sterilized them, took away their dipsomania, checkered pasts, and risqué wisecracks. They’re out there somewhere, just as down and out, desperate, and loud as ever.


Wed, Aug 10: THE BOWERY (Raoul Walsh, 1932)

George Raft, Jackie Coogan, and director Raoul Walsh on the set of  The Bowery


When critic David Darcy asked film historian William K. Everson, the first key revivalist of Pre-Code films, what the quintessential film of the era was, he selected The Bowery “for its take-no-prisoners commitment to humor above all else, no matter whose feelings got hurt.”


Sensitivity should be checked at the door for what Bright Lights Film Journal refers to as “a fiesta of equal opportunity offensiveness.” Located in the immigrant melting pot, New York’s Lower East Side, The Bowery comes by its stereotypes so honestly and comprehensively it is best interpreted as a direct invitation to laugh at our collective pigeonholing. The prevailing crassness (it opens at a watering hole called “Nigger Joe’s”) and Fox library negligence explains The Bowery’s continuing unavailability on DVD, but the thick-skinned are advised to check out Raoul Walsh’s final great Pre-Code (I saluted his previous work, Me And My Gal, here).


The Bowery – for better or worse- was the prevailing inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Expect none of Scorsese’s perfectionist fussiness or epic posturing; Walsh’s myth-making is casual, slapstick, and brazenly incorrect in politics and fact, and all the better for it. The film more importantly set Luc Sante on his historian’s missive when he saw it at Film Forum in the 80s. He sets the scene in his book Low Life “the Police Gazette, a journal found in every barber shop in the country, devoted itself to discussion of prize fights, bathing beauties, audacious crimes, cocktail recipes, horse races, and saloon gossip. The Bowery was its Hollywood, and it made famous many of its denizens, making them byroads even in water-stops in dry counties in the land of the tall corn.”


Set in the Gay 90s, The Bowery’s roustabouts are liberated from Depression desperation, existing in a secure whiskey-soaked vacuum that enables them to concentrate on the self-aggrandizement racket. It centers on two men about town: Chuck Connors (Wallace Beery, lecturing “it ain’t refiiiiiined” as he clears out his nose) and Steve Brody (George Raft, accessorizing his jive-talking with an acrobat’s finesse), real-life folk heroes of what David Cairns terms an “urban Wild West.” As Sante drolly notes, they are “two men whose actual achievements are not immediately obvious.” They run solely off charisma, puerile one-upmanship, and a gift for self-promotion, climaxing in Brody’s vow to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, a publicity stunt for two German beer barons who promise him a club of his own (perpetually unsatisfied, he bets Connors for his bar as well).


Connors can’t stop falling for Brody’s exploding cigars , but regularly leads his volunteer fire department to victory (it is of course more about who gets there first, than actual rescue of endangered citizens). Walsh loves to stage a riot as much as Roy Del Ruth likes to destroy a room, and the film never misses an opportunity to take it to the streets. Carrie Nation even streamrolls in to make mincemeat of a saloon with her gaggle of umbrella and hatchet-toting temperance tomatoes. In this raucous decade even the leading Christian crusader characterizes herself as “a bulldog running at the feet of Jesus.”


As per usual, Walsh is less concerned with plot than hearty character dynamics. Brody and Connors battle over infamy and the affections of guttersnipe Jackie Coogan (resurrecting his tough-love with Beery from The Champ) and fallen angel Fay Wray (despite their credo to never trust a skirt… who needs “goils”?). Forced into some kind of resolution, he sends them off to nobly fight the Spanish-American War side-by-side, proving these knuckleheads might actually be useful for something other than a sales pitch. But ultimately Walsh is more concerned with basking in the crude, lewd, testosterone-fueled shenanigans of these egomaniacs.


Anyone who took offense didn’t deserve this party. But in the Spring of 1934 America decided to ban ‘indecency’ from the screens, it declined to see and celebrate itself as it really was, as films like The Bowery dared to depict and even enjoy. Steve Brody’s favored motto, oft-repeated in the film, echoes the insolent high spirits of the short-lived but enduring Pre-Code era: “Don’t ever say I never gave ya nothing!”


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