Employee’s Entrance (1933)

employee's entrance 1.png

Not only is Employees Entrance a film made for the Great Depression, but it’s also a project that would have no life if it were not for the lax enforcement of the Production Codes at the time. The same could be said of its protagonist — if he can dare call him that.

Warren William embodies the mercilessly driven businessman named Kurt Anderson like few men before, or even after him, could. He’s a brutal taskmaster who has no sense of integrity. A John D. Rockefeller except less religious. So he has even less of a moral framework. His main purpose is to crush other people because he’s running a business, not a charity ward.

He throws out the weak and surrounds himself with like-minded people. It’s how he’s managed to keep Monroe Company Department Stores a flourishing enterprise even after “The Crash.” Not everyone can say that.

An ambitious, young man named Martin West (Wallace Ford) impresses the autocrat with his idea of upping sales of men’s drawers by selling them to women. Meanwhile, Anderson finds time to sink a clothing supplier who can’t deliver on a shipment and fires a senile department head who nevertheless has stayed with the company well-nigh thirty years.

Thus, we get this sense that he wields a two-edged sword. Anderson is surprisingly generous and accommodating to those who fit into his scheme of things. For instance, increasing a certain models salary if she distracts his colleague next door. Yet he will just as quickly dump someone who is not pulling their weight. That’s how survival of the fittest works. We know this already.

What suggests this more than anything, however, is his treatment of women. Loretta Young sporting those luminous doe eyes of her is gorgeous as Madeleine, a woman who is nevertheless down on her luck and looking for work at Monroe’s. She meets Mr. Anderson quite by chance, after hours, as she has made the stores home decor section her temporary domicile. He’s immediately taken with her. Is there a tenderness unveiled perhaps?

employee's entrance 3.png

Ultimately, he rewards her with a job and she’s quite the success on the floor. Even catching the eye of Martin. He professes his undying affection wordlessly through adverts. And they do the one thing that if he knew about it, Mr. Anderson wouldn’t approve of. They fall in love. In his estimation love is for saps, marriage gets in the way, and he wants his people to be enamored with their work as much as he is.

Young proves adorable even when she’s tipsy, bopping and popping balloons. But as often happens, people make decisions that they will come to regret while inebriated at parties. This film is little different.

The tone and trajectory break with the entire order that the Production Code soon set in place such that we never would see the likes of this again in Hollywood, at least not for a very long time.

It’s this seemingly admissibly trenchant material that makes navigating Employees Entrance onerous, similar to problems I have with more modern works. It comes down to not only issues of tone; because this is a humorous film undercut by some severely dark realities, even suicide and rape, but it also has to do with the integrity of our lead.

For all intent and purposes, our anti-hero hardly has an ounce of likability. The best that can be said for him is he’s enormously successful and good at his job in a tyrannical, ruthless sort of way. Otherwise, he has no heart, no soul, and he’s a misogynistic lout to boot. The fact that any of those characteristics got put into a man who is not cast as a villain truly is a marvel. It’s definitely worth taking note of.

But this is also a somewhat saucy Pre-Code number and the certain playful impertinence is personified best by Alice White who burst onto the stage during the flapper craze of the 1920s. In one particularly rewarding moment, she tells a stuffy old crone that the basement is on the 12th floor as nice as you please. It’s classic lip.

However, there’s this instant realization that Warren William was made for films such as this. The implications hit like a ton of bricks. He all but disappeared from movies since Joseph Breen literally excised his entire character type out of Hollywood’s new imposed master narrative.

Others might be able to do a far more convincing job of making the case but like his contemporary Kay Francis, it’s time for the likes of Williams to be resurrected from near obscurity. Certainly, not everyone will like him, particularly in this film, but there’s no question that he has something. It allows him to play those scathing characters with an unparalleled precision.

But I’ll be honest, I’m genuinely beginning to think that Loretta Young deserves a spot as a Pre-Code icon as well. In 1933 alone she was featured in nine films! The only problem is her efforts from the 1940s are more well-known. The Stranger (1946) and The Bishop’s Wife (1947) seem to overshadow most anything else. Yet another reason to uncover Employee’s Entrance.

3.5/5 Stars

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

bitter tea of general yen.png

The Bitter Tea of General Yen is no doubt a perplexing film to come at today but, in some respects, that makes the experience all the more gratifying. There’s still something within it 80 years on that will simultaneously rub up against our contemporary perspective while also surprising us with a certain adroitness. So many issues are stacked up one on top of another, it’s a weighty task to begin trying to unpack them all.

Certainly, we have the strains of colonialism driven by western missionaries looking to share the Christian faith with the outer reaches of the world. In fact, we can probably derive some similar themes from films such as Keys to the Kingdom (1944) and Silence (2016) which provide a myriad of questions in their own right. Are these missionaries really making a difference? Is their Gospel even being comprehended? Should they be so bold as to force their beliefs on other people groups? All of these are up for valid consideration.

Racism must also be tackled whether it is shown to prove a point or is simply a casualty of a previous generation’s approach to Asian portrayals. We hear the words of one elderly lady who in one moment is going on about how lovely a wedding is going to be and then the next she shares her true sentiments about the Chinese.

“They’re all tricky and immoral. I can’t tell any of them apart. They’re all Chinamen to me.”
It’s this kind of narrow thinking, this blatantly obvious cultural insensitivity, laid right out in front of us. Thus, it seems likely the film’s main thesis might be to prove the exact opposite. That in itself seems monumental.

We have the casting of a Scandinavian in Nils Asther for the role of the Chinese general to contend with as well. And while it’s easy to get stuck on this or go the complete opposite end of the spectrum and take it for granted given the cultural moment it came out of, I hope to arrive at another conclusion. “Yellowface” always perturbs me and yet I also realize we have to understand the intentions and so I’m apt to read this picture much as I would Broken Blossoms (1919).

Whereas Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan work in stereotypes and the Fu Manchu archetype is the demonizing of a race, you do not quite get the same sense here. Even with the problems inherent in the characterization, what comes through emotionally is resonant. Then, further still is the landmark consideration of interracial romance, no doubt a turn off for many contemporary viewers — or at the very least taboo.

The whole narrative is really about the steadily evolving relationship between an American woman (Stanwyck) and this Chinese General (Asther) who keeps her in his domain on the pretense that it is for her own safety with the civil war still raging at large.

Megan is one of those naive yet well-meaning individuals who comes to a foreign land to do good. This is the imperative of “The Great Commission” and bless her soul, she takes her faith seriously, coming to join her soon-to-be husband wherever he may go.

But soon she is struck with a reality check. Her fiancee and she try and rescue some orphans caught in the middle of the hellish war zone, but the pass they’ve been provided is no good. In the ongoing turmoil, Megan finds herself brought to the palace of General Yen for safekeeping, her husband lost in the chaos.

What follows is an exercise not so much in polarizing romance, which would be the easier road to traverse, but instead cultural understanding through candid dialogue. He criticizes what he sees as a flaw in her man, that he will betray her every time for his God. Meanwhile, the idea all humanity is one flesh and blood is almost laughable to him.

And yet, again and again, he is drawn not only to her exquisite appearance but the undeniable sincerity that guides her every action. She, in turn, recognizes something of a hidden sensitivity welled up inside his soul. As he notes, “There has never been a people more purely artist, and therefore, more purely lover, than the Chinese.”

The most straining circumstance involves the General’s lowly concubine Mah-Li (Toshia Mia) who has all but disobeyed him. Megan chides him to forgive her even in her insolence (“I want you to see the beauty of giving love where it isn’t merited”) and for the greater offense of passing secrets which gives him the grounds to have her killed. You can either say he softens or finally lets down his guard. It’s semantics really.

This might very well be the Capra picture people don’t expect because it flies in the face of all the criticisms usually leveled against him. Specifically, that he always made overly sentimentalized films without a shred of hard reality. I’ve tried to push back against this presupposition countless times and I think The Bitter Tea General Yen is another fine counterargument. Look no further than the excruciatingly frank depictions of military executions, soldiers decimated by Gatling guns,  betrayal, suicide, and near surrealistic dreams that invade a woman’s consciousness.

However, it’s difficult not to begin comparing it most obviously to Shanghai Express (1932), a picture that reveled in its atmosphere and featured Josef von Sternberg’s visual infatuation with Marlene Dietrich. Frank Capra does Stanwyck justice in his own right because there’s no doubt she’s vibrant and alluring throughout. It’s brought into sharp relief through numerous stunning close-ups that capture the softness of her features. Not to mention the tears. Something that makes her different and more vulnerable than her German contemporary.

But we must ask the question. Is it a type of Stockholm Syndrome? Is it a true romance or simply an affection for a man who had more beauty, more artistry, than she would have initially given him credit for? I’m not sure we know and the ingeniousness, I realized retrospectively, of the film’s ending, is that we never hear Barbara Stanwyck’s thoughts on the matter.

Walter Connolly just won’t shut up and he’s supposing all these different things. Recalling what a great guy the General was, considering what Megan will do next, and summing up the General’s spiritual proclivities. Maybe he’ll come back in some new incarnation. But the lady says next to nothing and there is a cryptic power in this. Because The Bitter Tea of General Yen allows us to ruminate over the material and draw out conclusions of our own.

3.5/5 Stars

Lady For a Day (1933)

lady for a day

Apple Annie (May Robson) is one of the many impoverished individuals on the streets of New York City trying to eke by in the pits of the Depression. She makes a meager living as a fruit vendor. But appearances can be deceiving and Annie has long corresponded with and paid for her daughter Louise to grow up in Spain.

There her girl can receive breeding and make a better life for herself. However, she has never been made aware of her mother’s lot. Annie has never found the need to tell her. Instead, she’s painted a vivid picture of grandeur for herself as a society matron who resides at the Hotel Marberry. Of course, this could not be farther from the truth. But she wants Louise not to worry.

The kicker is that said daughter is making an impromptu visit, and Annie knows she will be caught in her ignominy. She’s so small and unimportant; it seems like a horrible situation. She must make a transformation if this whole masquerade is going to continue. Her last resort is Dave the Dude (Warren William), a local gambler and influential man who has always taken a liking to Apple Annie. She’s kind of his good luck charm.

So though he doesn’t have to do it, he decides to pay it forward and help her out as much as he possibly can. It starts with his girlfriend Missouri Martin (Glenda Farrell) giving the old gal a stunning makeover, then finding her a place to live more suitable for her image, and finally, a husband.

Where to find a man with enough class and eloquence to pull off such an endeavor? Look no further than the local pool hall. Guy Kibbee gives a veritably kingly performance as the theatrical pool shark who becomes Annie’s husband in a pinch. He’s a fantastic showman.

However, this is all only preliminary. The Dude must try and orchestrate this whole thing so it goes smoothly without a hitch. That means keeping nosy journalists away from the scene and never breaking the perfect illusion they have constructed. He’s got a capable staff of heavies to do his bidding. Happy (Ned Sparks) is an acerbic sidekick with garbled jargon and a sarcastic wit ready to duel with everyone. Comically, Shakespeare (Nat Pendleton) is the dumb lug who takes care of all the dirty work and messenger boy duties.

Best of all, young Louise is deliriously happy to see her mother and Annie has been allowed to maintain her dignity thus far. Almost everything has gone exquisitely. Guy Kibbee and Walter Connolly have a lovely scene together as they look to genially settle the issues of a dowry over the billiards table. The police are out for blood after a couple reporters mysteriously disappear and they believe The Dude is implicated.

He, on the other hand, is trying to get his gang of cronies and Missouri Martin’s floozies in shape for the going away gala that The Duke so kindly offered to host to send the Count  (Connolly) and his son off with. The rehearsal is a shambles that nearly makes The Dude tear his hair out. And the cops have caught wind of something fishy going down, so they’re about to close in the dragnet, threatening to end the charade for good.

However improbable, there’s a touch of sentimental fairy dust floating over the film. Serendipity or Providence. Whichever you prefer. With this band of actors, you really do get a sense that they are pulling a little magic out of their hats, because they aren’t necessarily well-known. For all intent and purposes, this could very easily be their world.

It’s true it does feel like a rather ragtag assortment of talent. By today’s standards, there’s no prominent star though Warren William was later labeled the “King of Pre-Code.” Most everyone else was a character actor, a stage performer, or an extra pulled off the streets of L.A. to provide some authentic color. And actually, it works very much to the picture’s benefit. Sure, it would have been lovely to have a William Powell, James Cagney, Marie Dressler or any number of other performers. No doubt what’s created in their absence is an unassuming charm.

Where everyone from the governor to the mayor, to the police department, and the journalists find it in their hearts to observe a little chivalry and goodwill. True, since the normal eight balls are leading the charge in the decency department the sentiment is laid on rather thick. But even if it’s a pipe dream, it’s a delight nevertheless.

I only recently discovered the picture One Way Passage (1931) and here I get the same sense of a dream being prolonged and realized beyond any human belief. Rather than the implausibility being a fault, it takes the film into a realm that only movies can take us. Where we can believe in wonderful things and therefore carry them back into our lives to hopefully brighten up reality in a similar manner. While not Capra at his finest, you can no doubt see the uplifting allure found within its frames.

3.5/5 Stars

Taxi! (1932)

taxi! 1.png
Taxi! is indubitably parked in the pantheon of misquotes and few people probably realize it. Yes, this is the film where Warner Bros. tough guy James Cagney purportedly sneered, “You dirty rat, you killed my brother!” I remember hearing the line in everything from The Monkees to M*A*S*H and it no doubt showed up in just about every show from here to eternity. Right up there with Cary Grant’s apocryphal line “Judy, Judy, Judy.”

But none of that speaks to this film or what it’s actually about. Well, the title says it: Taxicab drivers. So let’s talk about the talent instead and when I say talent that mostly means two people, James Cagney and Loretta Young. They’re the main draw.

In the opening gag, we see James Cagney using his Yiddish to placate a customer who can’t seem to get any help from a policeman. But he’s also back to running off his mouth and throwing his fists because after all, this is the same man that electrified the world with his portrayal of a gangster in William Wellman’s Public Enemy (1931) of the previous year.

The crucial event in this film is a rash of strong-armed maneuvers pulled by a taxi conglomerate in New York City looking to shoulder their way into the industry through scare tactics and willful sabotage of their competitors.

One of their victims is a veteran cabbie (Guy Kibbee) who isn’t about to take this lying down and he guns down one of the perpetrators of injustice. Justice is swift and he is given a prison sentence in lieu of death. But it might as well have been. His life is all but over.

In the wake of this outrage, Cagney begins a call-to-arms for his fellow colleagues to fight back and fight fire with fire as it were. The incarcerated man’s daughter (Young) stands tall as well and calls for action by peaceful means. She receives the disdain of Nolan for behavior that he sees as selling out her own father. Of course, he doesn’t know the whole story.

For some inexplicable reason, maybe it’s his animal magnetism, Sue falls for the cad of a cabbie. What follows are dates at the picture show which provides some free publicity including a weepy starring Donald Cook and a poster for The Mad Genius (1931) starring John Barrymore.

Sue’s fellow waitress at the local grub hub, the oddball chatterbox Ruby (Leila Bennett) even makes a passing comment to her beau about Frederic Marc though Joe E. Brown is still here personal favorite. It makes sense.

Next, comes a Peabody contest at the nightclub, featuring an appearance by George Raft, where the fiery Cagney tries to wail on his real-life friend. If it’s not that then it’s a fat man in an elevator or most obvious of all Buck Gerrard the big oaf who had a part in the shady tactics that landed Sue’s father in jail.

Matt’s not a happy camper for most of the film and yet he still manages to keep his gal. After a lover’s quarrel, a silky smooth Cagney takes his love in his arms and they dance while he slips a ring on her finger. He’s also a self-confident son-of-a-gun.

But as electric as Cagney is, one of the best to ever light up the screen — there’s no doubt about that — I’m not sure if I can forgive him slapping around someone as loving and as innocent as Loretta Young. Especially today, it just doesn’t come off very well. She deserves someone better.

3/5 Stars

Baby Face (1933)

baby face 1.png

Even in its opening moments, Baby Face made my heart heavy. I look at Lily, this young woman played by Barbara Stanwyck and sadness wells up within me. Because her environment is so oppressive. Getting constantly pawed at and manhandled with a father who has no conception of love. Then, she opens the window to get away from the asphyxiating haze of cigarette smoke only to be met with more smoke from the steam engines outside. This isn’t a life that anyone should be subjected to and it’s brought into sharp relief because she is surrounded by so many filthy men: Mangy scuzzballs, if you want to get scientific.

But the picture, even in this opening moment, before it gets to the nitty-gritty at hand, grieves me because it still has increasing pertinence in the present world we find ourselves in. Isn’t that strange? But I am met with this fact time and time again. You would think I would be less surprised there is still nothing new under the sun. In such an environment, Lily is essentially perceived to be worthless and the men around her keep her down.

However, there’s one man in particular who rallies her to get off the trash heap. In fact, Bragg is a man who broadens her perspective and helps her to realize her own worth.  The only unfortunate part is that he bequeaths her the philosophy of Nietzsche. And I say unfortunate very purposefully because the language he provides her is like so.

“You must be a master, not a slave. It’s about exploitation using men and being strong to get the things you want.” It’s laid out as overtly as you could possibly expect. This remains only the root of a wider problem that is exasperated because, of course, this is exactly what Lily ends up doing.

baby face 4.png

She goes to New York with her constant companion Chico (Theresa Harris) and subsequently charms her way into a job, slowly moving up the ranks due to her ambitions and calculated manipulation. There’s no other way to put it. She’s systematically sleeping her way to the top.

The funniest anachronism of them all is seeing John Wayne, young and handsome, behind a desk in a corporation. He is one of Baby Face’s early conquests. But believe me, there will be more. No sooner has one top employee lost his job due to Baby Face then another man has become seduced by her inviting eyes and soft touch. There’s one particular mirror shot from the ladies’ room that says it all. The man is saying one thing and when he sees her his whole demeanor changes. Like putty in her hands.

But there’s another running gag easily understood with a little inference. A close up on the exterior of the mortgage department with a soft pan to the accounting department or wherever else ambition takes her, the score playing “St. Louis Blues” saucily to say all that needs to be said. And you get the sense that it’s for these very interludes that the film was marketed.

It pushed the boundaries of the censor’s board at the time and many have supposed, rightfully so, that Baby Face was one of the pictures which actually led to greater enforcement of the production codes in 1934. Certainly, all this is true.

But more than anything, the most troubling thing for me is her Nietzschean code of conduct continually dictating her worldview. He is the man who most famously said “God is Dead,” not as a derisive proclamation but more so a disillusioned fact. There is no hope or grace found in such a point of view. But of course, Lily never received any of those things in her formative years so how is she to know? She just keeps plodding on using her attributes the best she knows how to make a comfortable life for herself.

To quote Proverbs, “her lips drip honey and yet her feet go down to the grave.” She’s nothing but trouble and yet I would never hold it against her. She makes us so conflicted because there is so much manipulation there — even vindictiveness — while she still nurses wounds from youth that we cannot even begin to understand.

Stanwyck never ceases to amaze me with her incredible range of performances and the deep truth she seems to mine in each and everyone to make them charming, funny, or heartbreaking — whatever the tone calls for. She always seems to have it in ready supply. It’s little different in Baby Face.

As far as the film itself, what we have here is the epitome of efficient Hollywood filmmaking that somehow is still laced with a potency of emotion, at times heartbreaking and at others verging on the salacious. Still, it’s a picture that leaves you with something. There’s no way that any of the Barbara Stanwyck faithful would forget her, but this picture gives another reason to stand up and take notice.

It’s a striking image as the phonograph turns and all the men in her life flash by. In such a short time there’s been so many and yet some passed by like a blip we almost forget they were there. George Brent is the most substantial and even he comes into the storyline far later. That’s purely a testament to the picture’s ability to really fill out the entire scenario with surprising depth.

However, it’s crucial for the film to end on a realistic and deadly note because anything else would be untrue to the life that Lily has lived thus far. It was never pretty. The denouement cheats a little bit by leaving events open-ended but all that’s left to say is Stanwyck is devastating. She just might bowl you over.

4/5 Stars

 

Miracle Woman (1931)

miracle woman 1.png

“Beware of False Prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing” – Mat. 8:15

The Miracle Woman is offered as a rebuke to anyone who, under the cloak of Religion, seeks to sell for gold, God’s choicest gift to Humanity —- FAITH. 

There are title cards that open up Miracle Woman to make it crystal clear what its intentions are. Though pointed, they hardly seem necessary given the motion picture we are about to witness. The images speak for themselves.

Inside an old-fashioned church building, we hear the opening throes of “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Most every contemporary audience knew that standard hymn well — cherishing its heavenly imagery. But when Barbara Stanwyck steps into the pulpit to pass along her father’s final words as pastor she breaks into the reverie and brings the house down. If there’s ever been a stirring depiction of righteous indignance she is most certainly it.

Like Jesus clearing out the temple of all those peddling their goods, Stanwyck empties out the entire building condemning the pews of hypocrites and lukewarm believers who sit before her. They willfully tossed her father aside for a younger man once they had no use to him. He died of a broken heart and Florence feels affronted.

A few voices chime in on her behalf but she’s all but left to wallow in her sorrows alone. One man stays behind and he’s important for this story. Bob Hornsby (Sam Hardy) was just passing through town and stopped by the church but was impressed by Fallon’s knowledge of scripture and charisma up in the pulpit. With his streetwise business acumen and her stage presence, he thinks they can really make something for themselves.

They soon resurrect a “Temple of Happiness” from a converted barn and it has the words Florence Fallon, Evangelist, and FAITH boldly emblazoned on its front for all to see. The main thing that has changed in 85 years is that the Christian faith has become less widely practiced compared to back then. But this narrative puts a voice to issues that have long plagued the organization of the church in the United States.

Namely, people make a near sideshow attraction out of the whole thing with brass bands and showmanship while simultaneously promoting selfish gain over any kind of advancement of the pronounced commandment to “love God and love thy neighbor.” I am grieved to say those root issues look very much the same all these years later.

We watch as Florence is slowly persuaded into getting back at the fickle people who sold her father out and she’s very good at it, even sincere, while Hornsby runs everything else from hauling in donations to dreaming up the next gimmick.

miracle woman 2.png

However, whether she meant to or not, Florence’s voice on the radio convinces a blind man (David Manners) to not give up on his life though he is struggling mightily. For that he is grateful but it becomes even more personal when he gets up on stage with her and then after that meets her face to face. There’s something inside of him that’s so genuine and attractive to a woman who is used to working with shifty characters.

The boy shows her a good time with some parlor tricks including a music box, cards, and his roommate a very forthright dummy named Al. In many ways, it’s this wooden doll who speaks for him from the depths of his heart. The things he doesn’t know how to say outright start spewing out of the little man.

While Florence finds herself falling for John, her partner who was so warm and genial that first day they met has started to get more demonstrative — even aggressive. Because Florence means a lot him, not only as a companion but also his current livelihood. She’s fighting against him but it looks like he’s got her where he wants. She will have one final swan song and then has no choice but to go off with Bob, never to return.

However, John looks to manufacture his own miracle for her but unlike her other man, it’s not to sell tickets or pull the wool over the eyes of the public. It’s purely an act of love. He takes it a step further my fearlessly saving her life in the face of a hellish conflagration.

Capra never struck me as a terribly religious person but there’s no doubt he believed in humanity and he had faith in their capacity for good and their ability to love others. I think that perhaps this is the core of the whole “Capracorn” slogan. Because Capra as a director ultimately dwells on what he perceives to be the inherent good in people. That is not to say the conniving, corrupted, licentious side isn’t given any screen time. No place is that more clear than in Miracle Woman.

And yet the final image is of Barbara Stanwyck parading with a Salvation Army band singing “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.” True, she gave up a lucrative career worth more money than she could imagine but she gained something worth exponentially more — her soul. She has learned how to love again and how to trust a man who in turn loves her deeply. That’s enough of a miracle.

One does have to question where her belief in God stands or if she deems the romantic love of her life to be enough. Regardless Stanwyck gives a stirring ever-impassioned performance that put her on track for continued success. She was a wellspring of talent even at this early juncture in her career.

4/5 Stars

“What God? Who’s God? Yours? This isn’t a House of God. This is a meeting place for hypocrites!”

Night Nurse (1931)

night nurse 1.png

We’re introduced to the day-to-day in a hospital ward with mothers giving birth, delinquents under police custody, and bootleggers coming in on the lamb with mysterious ailments. Barbara Stanwyck arrives in the office inquiring about a position as a nurse and she is flatly rejected for her references and lack of a full high school education.

Reluctantly she exits only to make a connection in the revolving door with a white-haired genial doctor (Charles Winninger) who pulls some strings and lands her a spot as a trainee. Her roommate and guide to this new existence is the lively Maloney (Joan Blondell). The male interns send her a warm welcome too. Namely a skeleton in her bed which gets her in particular trouble during a late night bed check from the head nurse who rules the nurses quarters with an iron fist.

This is all only a setup of the films main concerns which have roots in sordid drama and soap opera-like thrills. The melodrama comes into full view as we are introduced to none other than a mustache-less macho Clark Gable who upon being asked who he is, replies “Nick the Chauffeur” only to be captured in closeup while eliciting a gasp from a night nurse.

It’s textbook stuff and then he proceeds to wallop her as she tries to use the telephone. But a smidgen of context is in order. Lora starts her first shift as a night nurse looking after two darling little girls. But from what she can tell they are systematically being starved and their perpetually tipsy mother, Mrs. Ritchie, seems to have very little input. Meanwhile, the doctor who took over the case when Dr. Bell was deposed is shady at best. All the while, Nick leers and strong arms his way around, making sure that Lora doesn’t do anything against the doctor’s orders. Conveniently that means no nourishment.

But “Little Miss Iodine” doesn’t go down without a fight. With the girls slowly wasting away upstairs and needless extravagant parties being held continually downstairs with booze freely flowing, Lora lays down the law. She smacks the girls’ mother around a little for her parental negligence. Also, it turns out that Lora’s new boyfriend comes in handy when he’s not bootlegging. They make a swell couple.

On the whole, this picture of emaciation is slightly disjointed and hyperbolic in its own right. There’s also probably too liberal an amount of undressing on camera. Because it’s only purpose is to be provocative.

I’m not quite sure if I ever figured out the mechanics of it all but there is an undeniable fury to it and William Wellman directs it as such through every beat from comedy to romance to mystery thriller. So with stalwart performances by Stanwyck and a no-good Clark Gable on the rise, matched by a certain enigmatic potency, there is enough meat here to make it a mildly diverting Pre-Code effort.

3/5 Stars

Test Pilot (1938)

test pilot 1.png

Test Pilot is a fine piece of time capsule filmmaking and there’s little doubt that the film showcases a dizzying array of airplanes that we very rarely see today. In that sense, it’s an aerial picture with some truly dazzling footage.

By 1930s standards, this is also an action picture, a sprawling exhibition that simultaneously has a pretty thin story in some patches. In fact, it’s too long for its own good. But it’s a character drama as much as an aerial show, which takes precedence over anything else, narrative included.

The screenplay was forged by Howard Hawks (who worked on several other flight films) and a whole host of others. Its overall success is not necessarily in any amount of tension that is created or a certain brand of visceral storytelling though there are undoubtedly some emotional moments, the brunt of the heavy lifting comes from the cast as they articulate the beats of the script.

It’s true that under veteran director Victor Fleming and a cast including Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Myrna Loy, it’s difficult to find a more prestigious partnership out of MGM in the 1930s. This was pretty close to tops. Still, even in this dynamic, there were foreseeable problems. Spencer Tracy has a bit of a thankless job playing the faithful mechanic Gunner Morris, the character who is there to support his friend and he conveniently never gets the girl.

You can understand why Tracy could get a little tired of such roles because there’s no doubt that Gable is in one sense the main attraction as the eponymous “Test Pilot” Jim Lane. He was the great movie star of the age.

test pilot 3.png

However, Tracy was the acting powerhouse of the two and that’s the chafing at work once again in this picture. The stellar personality and the quality talent seesawing back and forth. Except Tracy’s stock had been rising year after year and by now he was a solid draw in his own right. It’s evident that he’s a formidable third wheel in the picture though he had his sights set on something slightly more gratifying.

In fact, he’s nearly invincible. Gable famously implored “Spence” to go ahead and die already because the actor milked his last words for all they were worth. However, even if this jousting match between the two male stars is most visible, out of the three I think Myrna Loy comes away having the most fun and getting the most out of the picture. It’s completely understandable why she cherished her work here.

She is the Kansas girl who has her head in the clouds like a ditzy farmer’s daughter watching as a man brings his plane down on her family’s land. He’s simultaneously an ungrateful lug and her shining knight. There’s something whimsical and wholly uninhibited about her that lets her meet a grouchy pilot out in the pasture with a wit of her own and yell her head off at ballgames like a seasoned fanatic.

Her performance runs the entire gamut from near screwball antics to deep heartfelt emotion. The dimensions there are at times difficult to read — even enigmatic. I think that’s why Jim falls for her. She’s in some ways just as tantalizing and fascinating to him as the air above.

Test Pilot also examines tragedy of such a pioneering and devil may care lifestyle — themes that Douglas Sirk would streamline in a picture such as Tarnished Angels (1956). Here we get the alluring frolicking fun of going where no man has gone before it is tapered by the stark reality at hand. Icarus had the thrill of his life but it’s possible to fly too high or for your engines to blow out or for your instruments to fail. It’s a part of the lifestyle that pilots come to accept. They take the risk because the skies call out to them so earnestly. It’s their obsession.

Jim is one of those who has always followed that call. His story is really about his romance with two women. His wife waiting for him on the ground and the blue heavens which call out to him from above. It takes a reality check ripping something so dear away for him to realize he doesn’t mind being grounded. It was the one thing he swore he would never do and yet, in the end, he gladly does it.

3.5/5 Stars

San Francisco (1936)

san francisco 1.png

There was a time when San Francisco was synonymous with the earthquake. Before Rice-A-Roni, The Golden Gate, Bullitt, or heaven forbid, The Giants. For me, it’s hardly a major spoiler to say this film revolves around this tragic date back in 1906 (a strikingly recent 30 years before the film came out).

What the film does for most of its runtime is stack the bricks of the foundation while developing some kind of connection to the material through the world of that age. Because for destruction to mean anything there must first be context.

Clark Gable is Blackie (a name he also carried in Manhattan Melodrama), a man who runs a club in the dubious Barbary Coast sector of the city. It’s not a ritzy joint by any means but due to his outspoken nature, he’s a beloved pillar of society — especially when the society is a difficult place to live in.

Similar to the earlier film, it’s about people on the opposite side of the railroad tracks at least when their vocational calling is concerned. You see, Blackie can at best be called a saloon keeper moonlighting as a gambler and his best bud from childhood just happens to be a priest — Father Mullins (Spencer Tracy) — who runs the local parish.

An up-and-coming Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) is hired on to sing San Francisco honky-tonk by Blackie because she needs work bad. Despite the prominence of the male actors, this was actually meant to be a vehicle for MacDonald and though she is no doubt vocally powerful, she’s not my favorite, blasphemous as it might be. Clark Gable didn’t like her much in real life for some reason.

Their relationship within the film proves to be a complicated one because she is a preacher’s daughter and her style of singing cannot find its true audience in Blackie’s place. She has the training of an opera singer who is far above the trash that’s she’s expected to peddle. But she is loyal to him and the favor he has shown her. She becomes a fan favorite.

That doesn’t make the tantalizing glow of the opera any less seductive nor her relationship with the man who made her any less difficult. Father Mullin tries to reform his good friend and he sees Mary as the perfect figure to help him in his crusade and yet in the same instance, he wants her to get away from Blackie’s influence. There are some happy times dancing in the park (“Would You”) but ultimately it seems she can find nothing but heartbreak in his presence.

san francisco 2.png

Meanwhile, Blackie is coaxed into making a run at the position of local supervisor to finally get some reforms including fire regulations. Father Mullins has long been trying to scrimp and save for an organ to have at the church. Without batting an eye Blackie donates one to his old pal. And that’s what makes this character fascinating given his paradoxical qualities.

He’s a tremendous force. He lives by a code and always has. But to him, religion is just a bunch of hocus-pocus making monkeys out of everyone. He’s a relativist. If that’s what you believe it’s alright by him. He won’t hold it against you for being a sap. But in his world, Blackie is number one.

Now that the context is set, the forthcoming impact is inevitable and it’s one of the great setpieces of its day. In fact, it’s a sequence so overwhelming even today and that import is placed on it because we have been so conditioned; it leaves us feeling truly shaken to the core. Yes, it’s a visual feat, to be sure, but there’s an equally crucial understanding to be had. There are consequences to this horrendously devastating disaster. It matters deeply. Not just the damage from the earthquake but the ensuing rash of fires that broke out all over town too.

I must admit I balk slightly at the film’s finale, however, as we see Blackie fall to his knees and pray to God after all the destruction he has experienced first hand. I want this transformation to be true as much as the next person but I couldn’t help thinking that this is often not how the world works or at least based on the little I know of humanity. Would a man who has no belief in a God all of a sudden drop to his heels and be made prostrate?

If anything he would seem more likely to lash out in anger. How could a loving God let this happen? How could He be silent with so much suffering? Those are the questions that ring out within me. Those are the burning thoughts that need an answer. And usually, I get them but in my own way. Still, what do I know?

Each person processes through grief and tragedy in different ways. I’ll begrudgingly give the film San Francisco its happy Hollywood ending. That might speak truth to somebody. There’s no doubt powerful emotions course through the scene based on all we have already witnessed thus far. I’ll willingly concede that. The emotional resonance in the wake of the visual horrors is unparalleled. It actually does make me feel something. That alone is something to marvel at. Not whether or not those emotions are logical or so-called correct. They very rarely are. I’m realizing now that that is okay.

Although I must admit it’s rather strange that MacDonald belts out a few rallying lines triumphantly as Clark Gable holds onto her and he just walks forward silently. Somehow it lacks camaraderie. It was as if he was implicitly saying, “You can sing but you won’t get me to do it in a million years.” However, don’t let this completely detract from the moment.

3.5/5 Stars

Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

manhattan melodrama 1.png

The stars are out for Manhattan Melodrama, at least three of the biggest from the 1930s, in Clark Gable, William Powell, and Myrna Loy. Except the latter two had yet to start their star-making run with director W.S. Van Dyke in The Thin Man until later in the year. This picture would prove to be a boost and a portent of good things to come.

The opening scene captures the bedlam during a fire aboard a riverboat with an alarmingly raw energy. One might even stoop to call it pure melodrama but to the film’s credit, it’s not faulty advertising since right from the beginning it goes for the jugular.

In fact, it continues to stack the tragic setpieces one on top of another. The next is a politically charged riot between capitalist and Soviet sympathizers. That brings with it yet another bitter tragedy already upon us in only a matter of minutes.

Because the aftermath of such events means many kids are left without parents (including Mickey Rooney’s character Blackie) and many parents are left without kids. One man resolves to fill in the hole in his heart. Of course, it doesn’t last for long when he is run over by a horsecart. Two boys are made orphans yet again.

So no time is wasted whatsoever suggesting that this is their story. The stage has been set. Our two divergent heroes head their separate ways while nevertheless remaining lifelong friends.

Blackie’s (Gable) adult life is really an outcropping of his childhood pursuits. Namely, gambling and getting other people’s money. He’s a smart character who has the police paid off and his slightly suspect establishment is running on all cylinders. But he’s hardly a bad fellow, mind you.

That’s what allows Jim (Powell) who has pursued a law degree to still be fast friends with his old chum. What they do for a living never impedes on the affection they have for one another. And for a long time that works fine. Blackie’s girl Eleanor (Loy) tries to coax him away from the life he leads — to something close to a marriage — but that was never quite him.

manhattan melodrama 2.png

One evening when she is supposed to hold onto Jim before Blackie gets there so they can all celebrate Jim’s ambitious rise, she finds herself taken with a man who is what Blackie can never be for her. She goes for Jim since he is the man who can make her a happy wife. Again, there’s no ill-will. Blackie only wants the best for his friends.

The ominous sounding tune “The Bad in Every Man” plays quite prominently in this film and many audience members will undoubtedly recognize it under a different name it would have later in life,   “Blue Moon.” For now, it’s a nightclub number that adds a palpable atmosphere to the world and especially our impression of the male protagonists.

Blackie proves to be so deeply invested that he does everything in his power to keep his friend on the path of the straight and narrow without any hindrance from a no-good degenerate like himself. He would never jeopardize Jim in his rise from district attorney to governor and so on. In fact, he would even take a hit for him. Because the film ends with Jim tossing Blackie on the funeral pyre. He’s gotten tough on crime and that means not backing down on murder raps — even involving a friend. Little does he know what Blackie has done for him. But his wife knows.

This is, of course, the picture that has the notoriety of being the last one John Dillinger viewed before being shot by Federal Agents outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago. He purportedly came out of hiding just to see Myrna Loy.

The picture itself begs the question if there was more to Dillinger. Did he have a troubled past or someone else on the other side of the train tracks who made good? More likely than anything else he was a little insignificant man and his violence was met with violence in an equal and opposite direction. His death helped sell tickets no doubt. It was probably even made into a couple of movies. But it couldn’t be a movie. Life never is.

In that sense, this film hardly seems authentic or real even when we juxtapose it with reality. It’s a nice thought, Clark Gable going off to the electric chair grinning — no good but at least a man of principle. If you want arguably a similar look with a slightly different outcome Angel With Dirty Faces (1938) provides it. John Dillinger never got around to seeing that picture though. For him, real life happened with real consequences. There was nothing idealized about it.

3.5/5 Stars