Three on a Match (1932): The Epitome of Hollywood Pre-Code

ThreeOnAMatch.jpgThe Pre-Code era of Hollywood is a legitimate marvel because in a span of only a few solitary years was a period of filmmaking bursting at the seams with vice, corruption, and licentiousness that we would never see again until the late 1960s.

One could say that each of these elements was merely an exploitive measure to get folks in the sits. No question about it. However, that’s not to say the era is devoid of meaning nor is Three on a Match any less evocative. In retrospect, we look at something like this and it’s not simply a cultural artifact for us to engage with, one could assert just as vehemently that it was more indicative of the human condition than many later films coming out of the Hollywood mills. Scan the contemporary news columns and you might have to agree. In fact, that’s much of what director Mervyn LeRoy does.

He rapidly spans time with a proliferation of news clippings. They are not simply a montage effect but a continual storytelling device that are almost sinews to this story which must function with hyperawareness of its timescale. Ricocheting with time jumps that you almost get used to by the end and each one is out of pure necessity. Remember with 63 minutes you have to scrimp with every minute. From a historical perspective alone, it’s an absolute goldmine with cinematic images to fit right alongside the current events.

The title Three on a Match seems a foreign concept now but it comes from the old wive’s tale that if three people light a cigarette from the same match the odds are one of them will die. It is often incorrectly cited as originating in the trenches during WWI. Instead, it was the advertising gimmick of a Swedish matchbox salesman to drum up more business.

The story itself ambitiously begins in adolescence with three girls. Mary Keaton (Joan Blondell) is the wayward one who looks to be headed toward a reformatory and sure enough, she grows up and winds up in such a life. Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak) is the purported “good girl” who ends up with a fine education and marrying a wealthy lawyer (Warren Williams) but she finds her life and her marriage dull and unfulfilling. Meanwhile, little Ruth Westcott (Bette Davis) has grown up into a pretty stenographer who nevertheless is relegated to playing the third fiddle. No matter, Davis would get her revenge in an illustrious career to come.

The root of the drama crops up from Vivian’s dissatisfaction with life because being the understanding husband that he is, Mr. Kirkwood proposes she take a trip away with their little son so she can clear her mind and come back refreshed. She jumps at the opportunity.

Adultery is such an insidious thing since you never consciously think you are going to be unfaithful; I imagine it just ambushes you as it does for Vivian. She meets a man (Lyle Talbot) who is charming and the bubbly is flowing. She has few cares in the world and conveniently has neglected her son. Whom does she have to thank for this good time? Why, it’s Mary. Except Mary has changed; she’s a different person, chiding her old classmate to think before she throws her life away. The tides have changed with the reprobate teaching the classy one something about life.

To divulge any more would ruin the surprise but there’s little doubt, it’s sordid stuff with some mild sense of morality. We have drugs, adultery, scandal, and suicide all rolled up into one tightly woven package. Dvorak is devastating in her self-destructive spiral as Blondell commands the film’s stalwart center.

The most unexpected star is little Junior who is a precocious performer, lovable in every scene he shares with his bevy of costars but also a striking reminder of how innocent children are. To neglect them is to disregard the imperative of parenthood to provide for your progeny with an unselfish, unswerving, sacrificial love.

The rest of the gang are all assigned their assorted parts that became their mainstays. Humphrey Bogart becomes the quintessential heavy in a matter of moments. Ed Arnold is the exacting kingpin overseeing everything. Allen Jenkins is another tough customer with little heart or soul.

It might do well as a companion piece to Night Nurse, which also involves little children being exploited. Joan Blondell gives a spunky turn in both even as the plots verge on the utterly ludicrous and are remembered now as much for their louche content than the actual details of their plots. Part of that has to do with how unusual it seems, especially with the laissez-faire attitude of the production codes at the time.

But also in this specific case, the Lindberg kidnapping indubitably was still fresh in the minds of the viewing public, lending some credence to the believability of such a tale. That’s the key. However absurdly a plotline might slingshot this way or that, as long as something grounds it, even momentarily, in reality, it can captivate us. Three on a Match is not a phenomenal film outright but within its means, it manages to be economically diverting.

3/5 Stars

 

 

Little Caesar (1931)

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When I was a kid we had an old VHS of Bugs Bunny shorts and one of the caricatures in a gangster-themed storyline — although I didn’t know it at the time — was undoubtedly Edward G. Robinson. That voice. That mug. That smug self-assuredness. They’re inimitable. Even then I knew the image without knowing who this garbled-mouthed gangster actually was. Watch Little Caesar and it’s all right there. In fact, without Little Caesar, one could step out on a limb and say that Bugs Bunny cartoon would never have been made. Though, Robinson was an indomitable personality. One way or another he would have broken through.

As it was, Robinson made a lasting impression in his big break, the picture that would make him a star just as its contemporary The Public Enemy (1931) did the same for James Cagney also at Warner Bros. True, it served as both a blessing and a curse typecasting the stars with their audiences. Still, both men led impressive careers which, at least on occasion, allowed them to break out of the mold and really show who they were as actors. And the beauty of their successes had nothing to do with an imposing physical frame but rather a sturdiness and commanding tenacity that made them into electric performers full of captivating stage presence.

With an opening quotation from Matthew, “All who take the sword will perish by the sword,” we are immediately tipped off this will be a moral tale right from the outset, an act of condemnation not glorification. However, that cannot completely neutralize the unadulterated gangsterism of Litte Caesar. Far from it.

With all these early Warner Bros. crime films we can define the arc of the story by an ambitious lug who’s willing to do whatever it takes to rise to the top, showcasing both guts and gats when necessary. It takes both to get ahead. Rico (Robinson) is a little guy who’s not content with his lot in life so he resolves to change things. He heads to Chicago with his buddy Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) to see what they can make of themselves.

Already they are on diverging paths as Joe looks to return to his first love of dancing, even finding a capable ally and love interest at a local club. Olga (Glenda Farrel) makes a new lease on life possible for him. But such a life would never do for Rico. He’s already set his sights on big-time crime, moving up the ranks with local mobster Sam Vettori.

Joe is roped in for a job as the inside man and reluctantly he goes along with it. But on the same night, New Year’s Eve, Rico guns down the crime commissioner during an otherwise straightforward hold up of the Bronze Peacock. It has heady implications as the local authorities look to clamp down.

As best as I can describe it, there is a stripped-down unsentimental bent to the action line going through the movie. The talking pictures still feel like a new phenomenon recorded on Vitaphone — a bit rigid and visually unimaginative — but in some respects, it aids in the characterization of the gangster underworld. It’s hard-edged, lacking any sense of freedom of movement or ideals. They play by a “you’re either with us or against us” mentality and they are not about to let you forget who your friends are. Rico and Joe provide the diverging alternative lifestyles available as one tries to go straight and the other becomes more crooked by the hour.

The character of Tony is another convenient case study for the movie as the local mob’s getaway driver who begins to lose his nerve and have remorse for his part in it all. It is his saintly mother who not offers him spaghetti but tries to remind him of his former life when he was a good boy. Convicted to the very core of his being, he goes to the priest for confession. But Rico will have none of this blubbering. His retribution is sure and swift as it’s always been, culminating in an OG drive-by shooting.

A gang war erupts when a failed hit is instigated on Rico. Instead, he and The Big Boy are able to consolidate power and he continues to rise up the ranks. All throughout his ascension, Rico lives by streetwise slogans like, “I ain’t afraid of nobody.” “The resident bosses are getting so they can dish it out but can’t take it anymore.” And of course, “the bigger a man becomes, the harder he falls.” It’s all but inevitable.

His words are prophetic because at some time Rico’s got to face the music and he does. Like The Public Enemy and Scarface, what sets these pictures apart is not necessarily that they glorified crime because you can make the case each tries to hammer home the moral crime doesn’t pay. And yet with the exhibitions in violence and the uninhibited pursuit of power by antiheroes like Cagney, Muni, and Robinson, the public latched onto them and propelled them into being big stars. Without the pre-code era, we would lack some of the legendary mystique of Rico.

In the end, riddled with Tommy gun fire, he looks up into the heavens, exclaiming those now immortal lines, “Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?” With that, he breathes his last. But the miracle of celluloid means that now 85 years onward Edward G. Robinson’s performance lives on.

3.5/5 Stars

Footlight Parade (1933)

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Though it still came out in the middle of The Depression, there is a sense that Footlight Parade does not confront the contemporary issues head on and maybe that causes it to lose some potential power. Because, in a sense, it’s a period piece even if that period is only a few years prior when talking pictures were taking the world by storm. Of course, many audiences will be far more acquainted with Singin’ in the Rain (1952), which arguably did much the same and even a better job in its homage than this effort.

Likewise, a bigger bankroll for the pictures at Warner Bros. meant they got longer which is some ways isn’t all that advantageous. As far as stories go, this one is pretty much on par with its predecessors (42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933) though, rather surprisingly, the cast doesn’t run as deep.

Now we have James Cagney, of course, and what makes Footlight Parade deserving of a special side note is the fact that it would serve as the Warner Bros. gangsters first chance to hoof on screen. Because he wanted to prove that he was more than a thug and boy was he ever, even if the picture never really stretches him. Above all, he’s Jimmy Cagney, through and through.

John Wayne makes a picture-within-a-picture cameo in The Telegraph Trail which is shown to Chester as a demonstration of the imminent reality. Silent pictures are totally on the way out and this new attraction will grab audiences away from the stage. With the changing industry goes Chester’s livelihood. His galling wife isn’t too understanding calling for a divorce rather than wait around for him to be completely destitute.

However, Cagney’s able to capitalize on his newest doozie of an idea that comes to him after a mundane visit to his local drugstore. He translates it to talking pictures. He pitches it to his two boob bosses and they bite on his vision to develop live “prologues” that can then be showcased in movie theaters all around, making them lots of money. It’s a good idea but their closest rival Gladstone has already jumped on the wagon. It’s no small coincidence that Chester’s longtime assistant jumps ship and conveniently leaves behind another parasite to swipe ideas.

The one person who stands by him through everything is his loyal and lovestruck secretary Nan Prescott (Joan Blondell), who nevertheless uses her acumen and street smarts to keep the utter insanity of his current work life tolerable. With the wolves primed to devour him, she’s just as feisty, out to protect his interests (and hers as well).

In the end, Chester smells a rat and puts the studio on lockdown as they race against the clock to churn out the three numbers they need to showcase to their potential backer, Mr. Apolinaris, who, despite ongoing indigestion, is a generally agreeable audience.

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Ruby Keeler is hidden behind a pair of specks to play up unwarranted stereotypes in a generally uninteresting role. Meanwhile, Dick Powell and his huffy patron have little to do. You understand why Powell wanted a different career trajectory because there’s nothing to stretch him.

His patron’s bubble-headed brother, played by Hugh Herbert calls to mind later types paraded in front of the screen by Billy Gilbert. He relies on her sway, otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to hold onto his position as the resident content watchdog who constantly badgers Chester only to get the brush. Frank McHugh cultivates his gray hairs exasperated as the dance choreographer continually bombarded by incoming stressors on the eve of the big performances. He’s teetering dangerously on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

When the first line of an audition is, “show me your legs” and obviously it’s only for the gals, it just rubs the wrong way. There’s also an inherent sense that there needed to be more dancing and less plot, as much as I would follow James Cagney to the moon and back, figuratively speaking. Even “Honeymoon Hotel’s” repetitive cadence gets tedious and it feels more cutesy than a prime showing of Berkeley’s usual visual inventiveness. It’s the same issue I had with earlier numbers like “Pettin’ in the Park.”

However, the subsequent waterfall number gets us back to his element, by some unimaginable feat, we end up at a lavish pool gilded with finery. In an instant synchronized swimming was born (or at least promoted) and for some inexplicable reason, those overhead shots capturing the unified motion and shapes of the swimmers still blow my mind even today like a huge crowd creating shapes at a football game. What we receive is sensory overload of gestalt principles executed beyond what could possibly be imagined in terms of meticulous intricacy.

With “Shanghai Lil” Cagney gets in an excuse for a choreographed brawl which he handles ably and we do see him dance. It’s difficult to put into words completely but it seems a very sturdy approach with his feet working hard while his torso remains all but inert. It’s like there’s business on top and a party going on down below which gives him a fairly unique mechanic on the floor, resurrected from his earlier days in vaudeville.

What comes last is an ending meant to rival Gold Diggers fo 1933, still impressive but not nearly as meaningful. The “Shanghai Lil” trades out the stirring nationalism and triumph of the human spirit to cater to a number about a Chinese streetwalker played by Ruby Keeler in yellow face. Even with a turn toward the patriotic, it just can’t quite compete. But as always, it’s hard not to simply fall back on Cagney and praise him for guiding the picture with that surehanded tenacity of his that sees us through to the end.

4/5 Stars

42nd Street (1933)

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“Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!” – Warner Baxter to Ruby Keeler

42nd Street essentially feels like hallowed ground even today because it single-handedly gave an entire generation of films plentiful ammunition for tropes while jumpstarting Warner Bros.’s cottage industry of musicals. These included Footlight Parade, Dames, and a whole slew of Gold Digger movies among many others. Not to mention many heirs apparent from Stage Door (1937) to Cabaret (1972).

There are several angles from which to approach this film. One of them has to do with Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), an acclaimed theater director who is nevertheless broke thanks to The Crash and warned by his doctor that the undue stress of such a rigorous career is taking a toll on his health. He knows the clock is ticking for him and he deems that this will be his last Broadway show and it will his best even if it kills him. It probably will.

Meanwhile, the shining star of the forthcoming production Pretty Lady is one Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) who keeps the picture’s lascivious financial backer (Guy Kibbee) onboard while never letting him get too familiar with her. Because you see, she has a secret romance going on the side with a young man (George Brent) who used to work with her in vaudeville. Now he’s jobless.

With all his reputation and finances dependent on the show’s success, Mr. Marsh quickly turns into a berating taskmaster, first, in casting calls and then through the grueling rehearsal regimen.

Three girls who manage to finagle their way into the show through some insider influence are Lorraine (Una Merkel), Anytime Annie (Ginger Rogers) and the wholesome newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler). She knows next to nothing about the tooth and nail competition and so the two old pros gladly take her under their wing.

It just happens that she finds a romantic interest in the baby-faced crooner Billy Lawler (Dick Powell) as they both have parts to play. Meanwhile, the higher-ups catch wind of Dorothy’s male friend Pat (Brent) and he soon is paid a meeting with an influencer — someone to rough him up a bit and keep him from gumming up the show. To a degree, it works as he heads off to Philadelphia and Marsh continues to drive his stock company mercilessly. He doesn’t just want it good, he wants absolute perfection, and despite his greatest efforts, he’ll never be completely satisfied.

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The first number we’re acquainted with is “Getting to Be a Habit with Me” and with it soon comes the opening strains of Busby Berkeley’s kaleidoscope choreography — a mere taster of all the fine abstractions to come. But there must be a quarrel to further ignite the already bumpy proceedings. It starts when Dorothy gives it to the biggest sucker Abner Dillon (Kibbee) who is about as insufferable as they come, a buffoon as only Kibbee can play.

But the same night, in the process of blowing off steam, Dorothy is stricken with a fracture the day before her big debut. Things couldn’t be any worse with the pompous buffoon threatening to pull out his funding and Marsh is sunk without his leading lady. However, if you’ve seen any of the movies that this musical inspired, you already are well acquainted with the fact that “The show must go on!”

That same timorous yet sprightly chorus girl, Peggy has her chance at the big stage. Marsh drives her mercilessly through song, dance, and dialogue. Never praises her and essentially tells her that the entire weight of the hopes and dreams of all the cast is on her shoulders. Her quivering shoulders must carry the brunt of the production. That’s a terrible amount of pressure to place on one human being but the true miracle is that, of course, the new starlet manages brilliantly. The crowds want to love her and when she’s through with them they do.

In the latter half of 42nd Street, the dramatic elements give way to the actual musical numbers. “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” is a fine introduction full of romance and cheeky innuendo, spearheaded by Merkel and Rogers consorting in a compartment, chomping away on fruit. The camera is on the move as well, scanning across the train facade between faces hidden behind curtains and the shoes that ultimately get left out for the porter.

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Then, Dick Powell takes the lead in “Young and Healthy” opposite a nameless platinum blonde (Toby Wing in a memorable bit role) which is elevated by more novel shot selections. Namely, the fact that the bench our two performers are romancing on promptly sinks into the floor with them now sprawled out together. We get a signature Berkeley pirouette right after that which still never ceases to amaze me, followed by a tracking shot through a tunnel of legs. It succeeds in being far more cinematic than stagebound and that’s the key.

“42nd Street” is the tip-toppest number of them all by breaking away from any confinement with the sheer scale and mass of humanity that it puts forth. Only a few camera setups in and one realizes we are no longer a theater audience, unless we transition from sitting in the balcony to the ground level, and finally end up in the rafters looking down on the entertainment with the most impeccable of overhead views.

The final extravaganza is great fun to behold with a plethora of dancers performing in what feels like all but perfect cadence, constructing a cutout city of their own by turning around in unison. Then, they pull away and the camera gives us this wonderfully curious illusion that we are looking up the full length of the Empire State building, our two beaming starlets popping up at the top of the towering heights. The asbestos curtain drops and they have all but sealed the success of their show and the film.

While the musical ends on a rather inconclusive note, it in no way neutralizes the effervescent numbers and performances that bloom out of an otherwise theatrical backstage drama. 42nd Street is still important to us because it is the origin of so many musical traditions but it subsequently still manages to enrapture with even a few feats of artistic ingenuity. It deserves its place among the seminal musicals even if its staying power is moot.

4/5 Stars

Zoo in Budapest (1933)

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Once more we have the Hollywood rendition of Budapest that would turn up again in other pictures like Ernst Lubitsch’s Shop Around the Corner (1940). English is spoken perfectly and individuals generally act as we would expect them to in our neck of the woods. It’s simply their story and setting which have any bearings on the real Hungary. But after all, that’s what we’re generally most interested in anyway.

Because Zoo in Budapest is everything its title promises though I admittedly know woefully little about the director Rowland V. Lee. Despite the lean narrative, a refreshing amount of time is actually spent in developing the vast menagerie of animals within the zoo. And there are many of all colors, shapes, and sizes. Elephants, monkeys, lions, tigers, ostriches, giraffes, everything that one might expect. The people are a diverse bunch as well.

For one man, in particular, the zookeeper Zani (Gene Raymond), he couldn’t be happier with his daily regiment. The film is his whimsical tale of paradise. In fact, we could just about call it Eden.  He’s a friend of every four-legged creature and he plays with them all like they’re his family. Furthermore, he slyly steals furs from snooty ladies who see animals only for their pelts.

He even coaxes a timid young orphan (Loretta Young) to make a break for it as she’s already planned an escape with the help of her girlfriends. The reason being, she is about to be hired off as an indentured servant on her 18th birthday.

But it looks like she’s lost her nerve. In one crucial instant, one girl jumps from the bridge to draw attention. Thus, the diversion has been created and Eve instinctively makes a dash for it. She’s on her way to spend an eventful evening in the zoo.

She’s not the only one. A little boy sneaks away from his governess because he wants to ride the elephants and Zani himself becomes a fugitive after purloining one fur too many. They are a trio fleeing from the powers that be, the zoo authorities, the den mother, and a governess.

After she’s gotten over her initial apprehension, Loretta Young’s eyes glow dazzlingly in the moonlight and she’s the perfect helpmate for Zani as they carve out a bit of an oasis for themselves, away from the prying eyes searching for them. In one sense, the parallels to the Garden of Eden are well-founded.

There’s also a startling amount of imagery spent on simply documenting the life around them. Swans gliding on a pond. The play-wrestling of a friendly monkey. But of course, the tranquility cannot be sustained forever. The world at large breaks in disrupting the perfect cadence and the order of beings inside the Zoo’s walls.

I can’t help but think that if the picture were remade today with our technological advancements and subsequent narrative laziness, all that provides a real threat and a true sense of danger in the film’s finale would be lost. Because as humans we know the difference inherently between CGI creations and living breathing handiworks of flesh and blood. It’s the real lions, tigers, and bears that can tear you to shreds. The computer-generated ones just provide the illusion. So Zoo in Budapest might have a bit of a scrappy, melodramatic ending but there’s something to it.

It’s almost like a reality check. We get a taste of what the Garden of Eden might have been like but of course, paradise was lost. We can still have love and romance but there must be violence and turmoil thrown in our midst as well. The lion laying down with the lamb isn’t quite actuality. The question is whether or not you believe that one day it will be so.

3.5/5 Stars

Heroes For Sale (1933)

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We are inserted, presumably, into a war picture courtesy of William A. Wellman, situated in WWI trenches. The downpour is compounded by the constant hail of bullets as a group of men conduct a near suicide mission. One of the soldiers, Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) proves his heroics on the battlefield while his friend Roger dissolves in fear. But the battle leaves Tom, now a prisoner, with debilitating pain from some splinters of shrapnel lodged near his spine. He’s given morphine to keep it manageable.

He comes back from the war addicted. He gets the shakes at his bank job where he works under his war buddy Roger and the other man’s father. Tom is constantly in need of his fix and it just keeps on getting worse and worse.

Early on, the picture begs the question, how are heroes made? We turn them into near mythological beings and even if it’s well-vested that doesn’t mean that they consider what they did to be anything extraordinary. Imagine if it’s not deserved. Tom and Roger understand exactly what this is like. In the wake of a scandal and his ousting from the bank, Tom gets interned at a drug clinic only to come out a year later a new man ready for a fresh start.

It struck me that in a matter of minutes the film drastically shifts in tone, suggesting at first the dark shadows overtaking a picture like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) only to come out unscathed and don the coat and tails of an industrial comedy-drama. I must say that while the former feels more akin to Wellman’s usual strengths, I do rather prefer the latter, though the picture doesn’t dare end there.

Wellman introduces us to our latest locale with a dash of humor delivered through an array of pithy signs adorning the walls of an old diner. But it’s the people under its roof that make it what it is. Pa Dennis (Charley Grapewin) is the most genial man you ever did meet and he would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. His daughter Mary (Aline MacMahon) is little different though she chides her father for his loose finances.

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Still, her jovial hospitality charms Tom into striking up a conversation and considering renting a room from them. Meeting the disarmingly attractive Ms. Ruth Loring (Loretta Young) from across the hall all but seals the deal. Cue the music as Young enters stage right and let’s disregard it and just say she more than deserves the fanfare.

You would think the inventor with overt “Red” tendencies, adamant criticisms of capitalism, and a chattering habit like a squirrel would be a turnoff for prospective boarders. Not so.  Soon Tom joins the ranks of the local laundry where Ruth also works forging a happy life for themselves.

The mobility of Heroes for Sale is another thing that struck me. It results from a different era but this is also very much a Depression picture in the sense that we are seeing what a man can still do even if times are tough as long as he has a strong head on his shoulders. Machinery is implemented not to steal work away from eager employees but to cut down on long working hours and increase output. All in all, it sounds like a thoughtful and humane objective.

But a heart attack leaves the company in different hands that are looking to work only in dollars and cents, not in humanity. Thus, it looks like Tom’s idealistic enterprising has been turned on its head, now completely sabotaged. All the folks who put their trust in him are bitter with the prospect of losing their jobs. Put out of business with their own funds.  This same unrest runs through the pages of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1940) too as modernity begins to put out all outmoded methods standing in the way of so-called efficiency.

What we have here is a populist picture daring to show the plight of the people. Richard Barthelmess is an affecting lead because he seems almost unextraordinary. His voice is steady and calm. He’s not unkind. But there’s an honesty to him that asserts itself. The fact that he gets a bum steer and takes it without so much as a complaint speaks volumes so he doesn’t have to.

Heroes for Sale feels like a micro-epic if we can coin the term. It’s ambitions somehow manage to be grandiose as it sweeps over cultural moments like WWI and The Depression which underline further social issues including heroism, drug abuse, communism, and worker’s rights. All done up in a measly 71 minutes. Look no further than the standoff between an angry mob and the riot squad for squalid drama. This is no minor spectacle. Nothing can quite express the anguish watching Young frantically run through the violent frenzy in search of her husband.

There is no excuse if this is the standard we put longer films up against. Not a moment seems wasted. Yes, it goes in different directions. Yes, it feels like a couple different films and yet what connects it all is this abiding sense of Americana. Themes that resonate with folks who know this country and its rich history made up of victories and dark blots as well. Most brazenly it still manages to come out of the muck and the mire with a sliver of optimism left over. Heroes For Sale is no small feat.

4/5 Stars

Employee’s Entrance (1933)

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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?

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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