Category Archives: Reviews

Full-length reviews of all of the films I watch.

Pre-Code Hollywood #15 – Of Human Bondage (1934)

Of_Human_Bondage_PosterOf Human Bondage (1934)
Directed by: John Cromwell
Written by: Lester Cohen, Ann Coleman (based on Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham)
Starring: Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Frances Dee, Kay Johnson, Reginald Owen

From the outset of the film, we follow club-footed wanna-be artist Philip Carey (Leslie Howard), who is harshly told by his teacher to give up on his artistic endeavors. Philip drops out of art school to move to London and pursue a career as a medical doctor. While in London, Philip meets and almost instantly falls in love with a foul-mouthed waitress named Mildred Rogers (Bette Davis). Mildred mocks Philip for his club foot and clearly does not hold the same interest in him, but Philip does not relent. Daydreaming about Mildred causes Philip to fail his med school exams, which does not seem to phase the young man at all. After she runs away and marries a salesman, Philip moves on with his life and falls in love with a woman named Norah (Kay Johnson). When Mildred returns single and pregnant, the nearly masochistic Philip gladly gives up his new life in order to cater to the woman who treats him so poorly.

While it may not feature the same risque elements that have made so many of the films during our Pre-Code marathon an absolute joy to watch, Of Human Bondage features some of its own racy and provocative elements. It plays heavy on the melodramatic elements of its story, which makes it stand out somewhat from the crowd. Of Human Bondage feels far more grounded and realistic than other films of the period, and much of this is largely due to the lead performances, and the screenplay adapted by Lester Cohen and Ann Coleman.

The character of Philip Carey is a tragic one, and even though his decisions are deeply frustrating, I couldn’t help but feel for the man. He gives up on his hopes and dreams within the first minutes of the film, admitting defeat and settling on a career that will ultimately be much less satisfying for him. Anytime Philip comes in contact with Mildred, he gladly gives up everything that is good in his life to bow down to her. Philip is ultimately a slave to the sexual and emotional power than Mildred holds over him. Leslie Howard’s performance is at all times desperate, pathetic, and disgraced – his moments of happiness seem to come only when Mildred is out of the picture and he has had time to forget about her. Howard’s physical acting is equally as impressive, with the actor perfectly selling Philip’s club foot even though director John Cromwell opts to never directly show it.
3While her costar shines as the pathetic and sympathetic character he is given, there’s nothing sympathetic about the actions of Bette Davis’ Mildred Rogers. Mildred is constantly looking out for herself, gladly walking all over Philip and taking advantage of his hospitality and his need to be wanted. Davis employs a somewhat believable cockney accent as Mildred Rogers, never overstating it or going too over-the-top – although there are moments where the accent is just brutal. The role of Mildred was a very brave one for Davis to take on, especially as an actress on the brink of stardom. There isn’t a whole lot to like about Mildred Rogers, and Bette Davis brings out a genuine sense of cruelty and conniving in nearly every scene in which she is the centerpiece of. Both of our lead characters are highly flawed and less than moral at any given time. For her efforts, Bette Davis was given a write-in nomination for Best Actress at the 1935 Academy Awards, making it the only nomination for Of Human Bondage.

The screenplay is another highlight of the highlights found in Of Human Bondage, even though it’s far from perfect as a character study. The relationship between Philip and Mildred is portrayed as an emotionally abusive and obsessive one, and is generally believable throughout. When Philip finally gets the nerve to dissolve the relationship once and for all, it’s done in a typically pathetic and cowardly way. Both characters are left disgraced, and it’s even made pretty clearly that Philip still feels a sense of longing for Mildred. The relationship is perfectly structured and balanced for melodrama, though halfway through the film I was asking myself why the two were even bothering with each other – there’s never any sense of shared romantic feelings between the two.
tumblr_n3g9ka18mM1suzjcco6_1280
Of Human Bondage is a very fitting end to our Pre-Code Hollywood marathon. It’s a tale of love and obsession at its most pathetic, and features two highly flawed characters who never seem to know exactly what they want out of life, or their relationship with each other. It’s Pre-Code elements are merely hinted at instead of said outright, which was done in order to appease the inevitable enforcement of the Hays Code. For this reason it feels slightly neutered, and perhaps a little less affecting than it would have been a few years prior. Still, the performances of Bette Davis and Leslie Howard are more than worth the price of admission here, as is the compelling character study of Philip and Mildred. Of Human Bondage is recommended.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Pre-Code Hollywood, Reviews

Pre-Code Hollywood #14 – Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

gold-diggers-1933-03Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy, Busby Berkeley
Written by: Edwin S. Gelsey, James Seymour, Ben Markson (dialogue), David Boehm (dialogue) (based on The Gold Diggers by Avery Hopwood)
Starring: Warren William, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Ginger Rogers, Ned Sparks, Guy Kibbee

Anybody who has read Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Film Club for any amount of time probably already knows that I have a weakness towards musical films. Gold Diggers of 1933 combines my favorite genre with elements of Pre-Code Hollywood into one impossible to hate package. Director Mervyn LeRoy’s (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) visionary talent behind the camera, Busby Berkeley’s energetic musical sequences, and a hilarious story set during America’s depression makes for one of the most memorable Pre-Code films of the era.

Gold Diggers of 1933 sees four aspiring stage actresses Polly (Ruby Keeler), Carol (Joan Blondell), Trixie (Aline MacMahon), and Fay (Ginger Rogers) struggling to find work during the depression. Producer Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks) is desperate to put on a show with the girls, but is struggling to find any source of funding. After hearing their neighbor Brad Roberts (Dick Powell) playing the piano and finding out his talents as a singer-songwriter, he is recruited for the hypothetical show. Brad eventually comes up with the money for the play, leading the Gold Diggers and Barney to suspecting him of criminal activity. In truth, Brad is the son in a millionaire family that despises the theater. Things become severely complicated when Brad’s brother Lawrence (Warren William) shows up to stop Brad from falling in love with a “gold digger”.
beginning1
From the very opening moments of Gold Diggers of 1933, I knew that the film was going to be an absolute treat. We open with a rendition of the now famous song “We’re in the Money”, which sets an ironic tone for the depression-era set movie to come, especially when the show is immediately shut down due to lack of funding. Not only does Gold Diggers have all the charm and wit of classic musical films of the era, but it also becomes something of a madcap screwball comedy in its second half – we are treated to mistaken identities, overly complicated plots to seduce and distract certain parties, and more banter than you can shake a stick at.

With four credited writers (two for dialogue, two for the screenplay) it could have been disastrous for the film – one of the major problems with modern films is having too many cooks in the kitchen. Luckily for Gold Diggers of 1933, this simply isn’t the case. The screenplay is hilarious and often risque, tackling the American depression head-on. We get musical numbers like “Pettin’ in the Park” that features a heavy dose of eroticism thanks to some near-nudity, naughty lyrics, and a very, very curious and nearly voyeuristic “baby” causing mayhem in the titular park. The writing for both musical and spoken portions of the film are equally strong, with both complimenting each other quite nicely. Much of the screwball elements introduced during the film’s second half are genuinely hilarious, even more than 80 years later – Trixie’s faux seduction of “Fanny” Peabody (Guy Kibbee) is my personal favorite part, but there’s just so much to love about it as a whole. The film ends with “Remember My Forgotten Man”, a rather dark commentary about the depression, war veterans, and the ultimately false promise of change – what a powerful statement for such a silly, energetic musical.
golddiggers-of-1933
The real star of the show in Gold Diggers of 1933 is the direction of musical sequences by the famous choreographer Busby Berkeley. His direction elevates the film from being another depression-set comedy film to being a memorable, erotic, energetic, and visually unique masterpiece of the musical genre. As with many other musical films, the song and dance sequences are the strongest element of Gold Diggers, which is saying a great deal because of its zany underlying story. Each musical sequence feels completely separate from the last, with all of them bringing striking visuals and seamless choreography that never overstays its welcome. “We’re in the Money” is garish and showy, “Pettin’ in the Park” is playful, silly, and titillating, “The Shadow Waltz” stands out from the crowd by being rather beautiful and understated, not quite matching the rest of the film’s tone, and “Remember My Forgotten Man” features a hint of German expressionism and says a great deal about living in poverty during the depression. Few other musical films boast such a diverse set of musical numbers, and even fewer can live up to the brilliance of the mad “Pettin’ the the Park”.

It’s in the second half of Gold Diggers of 1933 where the performances finally begin to stand out as something special – chemistry between actors is obvious, characters are developed, and our four main “gold diggers” are finally allowed to show us what they’ve got to offer. Joan Blondell’s Carol is passionate and seductive, making quick work of Warren Williams’ Lawrence. Aline MacMahon’s Trixie is purposely naughty in her “seduction” of Fanny, providing some of the film’s more laugh out loud moments. Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell are believable as the film’s central romance, as the two have immediate chemistry in both their musical and non-musical scenes. Also worth noting is Ginger Rogers’ early performance as Fay, who tries to seduce one of the three wealthy men, but ultimately fails.
5919717935_241652b6f4_b
Gold Diggers of 1933 is one of the most triumphant films of the Pre-Code Hollywood era, genuinely pushing the envelope of accepted movie morality, and providing a funny and insightful commentary on depression-era America. Its musical numbers are brilliant choreographed and staged by the master Busby Berkeley, turning Gold Diggers into one of the most visually striking musicals ever produced in Hollywood. With solid performances across the board, inventive direction from two of the most consistent filmmakers of the era, and a screenplay that will put a permanent smile on your face, there’s a lot here to love. Gold Diggers of 1933 easily gets my highest recommendation.

Leave a comment

Filed under Classic Musicals, Pre-Code Hollywood, Reviews

Pre-Code Hollywood #13 – The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

The_Bitter_Tea_of_General_YenThe Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)
Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Edward Paramore (based on The Bitter Tea of General Yen by Grace Zaring Stone)
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther, Walter Connolly, Gavin Gordon

The Bitter Tea of General Yen is an early sound film from one of America’s all-time greatest movie directors, Frank Capra. There’s absolutely no indication here that this is an early film of his, as Capra’s film just about matches the incredibly high quality later seen in pictures like It Happened One Night, It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Arsenic and Old Lace, and You Can’t Take It With You. While it may not be the most boundary-pushing film of our Pre-Code Hollywood marathon, the film has a lot to say about miscegenation and sexual relationships between people of different races, and features a grand and chaotic civil war backdrop.

The film takes place during the Chinese civil war of the 1920’s, where we follow a number of American missionaries. The most notable missionaries featured include Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) and Dr. Robert Strike (Gavin Gordon), who are due to be married while in China. Robert postpones the ceremony at the very last minute to save a group of Chinese orphans, with Megan insisting that she accompany him on the dangerous mission. The two stop at the headquarters of General Yen (Nils Asther) in order to gain safe passage to the orphanage, but are laughed off by the General and his men. After saving the orphans, Megan and Bob are knocked unconscious and separated. Megan awakens in the care of General Yen, for whom she reluctantly begins to hold romantic and sexual feelings towards.
Bitter_Tea_02-1Frank Capra’s film took me entirely by surprise, especially since it has seemingly fallen into relative obscurity among moviegoers and film historians. The Bitter Tea of General Yen tells a compelling large-scale story in just under 90 minutes, a feat which many modern films fail to accomplish with such class and determination. The script, adapted by Edward Paramore and based on Grace Zaring Stone’s novel of the same name, quickly establishes our two lead characters and sets them up as being polar opposites. Megan is shown as being a considerate humanitarian who is never afraid to lend a helping hand, and General Yen is immediately established as a cynical and snarky human being who has little faith in his fellow man. Paramore’s screenplay tackles the then-controversial matter of miscegenation, which was then illegal in the majority of the United States. This tough subject is handled very seriously by the writer and director, with a number of scenes implying Megan Davis’ sexual attraction to General Yen – this had never before been seen in a Hollywood film, leading to many audiences ignoring The Bitter Tea of General Yen upon its release.

The amount of character development seen in Megan Davis and General Yen throughout the film is admirable, especially for a film that runs for just 87 minutes. Barbara Stanwyck’s Megan starts off as a strong willed and ambitious young woman, but we come to find out that she’s kind-hearted and empathetic as things go on – she never submits to Yen, but is constantly sparring with him. The first scene involving General Yen sees Megan’s rickshaw driver being killed by a passing car, to which Yen states “life comes cheap in China”, which infuriates Megan. Yen’s line of thinking comes off as very cynical and overly rational upon his introduction. Another example of this comes during a scene where we see Yen’s men methodically executing prisoners via firing squads, with Yen justifying the deaths as being better than starving to death in the inevitable food shortages. It’s clear that Megan and Yen are polar opposites, and yet something about their chemistry makes their constantly evolving relationship feel genuine.
MBDBITE EC009The performances are another strong aspect of The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Barbara Stanwyck is typically quite good as Megan Davis, but it’s Nils Asther as General Yen who really shines. Asther, a Danish-born actor, plays Yen in a “yellowface” performance, but not a minute of it feels exploitative. The actor brings the wildly unpredictable Yen to live in a respectful and patient performance, stealing the show in almost every scene he’s in. Another of the film’s strong performances belongs to Walter Connolly, who plays General Yen’s financial advisor Jones. Connolly’s Jones is much less suave than General Yen, instead coming off as a greedy, ruthless money man.

Frank Capra’s direction of The Bitter Tea of General Yen feels just as assured as his later masterpieces, and yet it comes a number of years before his most famous works. Capra, famous for bringing great performances out his actors, shows an early example of his power over his crew. Bitter Tea feels much more grandiose than many pictures of its era, with Capra making full use of studio sets in order to capture the look and feel of 1920’s China. The atmosphere is thick with rebellion and chaos, with multiple scenes of raging gun battles, executions, and surprise attacks. His condemnation of American missionaries is another revelation viewers can take away from the film – many of the missionaries seen in the film have a sense of superiority when dealing with the Chinese they are supposedly “helping”. In this crazy world of violent rebellion, it’s General Yen who ends up being the most humble and pragmatic of our cast of characters.
bittertea3
The Bitter Tea of General Yen was a major surprise for me as a Frank Capra fan – the subtle brilliance of its themes of interracial love and racism cannot be overstated. The film’s screenplay and direction give it a unique tone and atmosphere of chaotic civil rebellion mixed with cautious lust between two polar opposite characters. The development of Megan and General Yen’s relationship is entirely believable and at all times compelling, with terrific performances from Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther, and Walter Connolly to back it up. The Bitter Tea of General Yen gets my highest recommendation. For more information, check out this incredible review on Pre-Code.Com!

Leave a comment

Filed under Pre-Code Hollywood, Reviews

Pre-Code Hollywood #12 – Baby Face (1933)

Baby_Face_1933_film_posterBaby Face (1933)
Directed by: Alfred E. Green
Written by: Gene Markey, Kathryn Scola, Mark Canfield (story by)
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent

Alfred E. Green’s Baby Face is undoubtedly one of the most “Pre-Code” movies we’ve covered during this marathon, portraying Barbara Stanwyck’s main character Lily Powers as a woman who happily sleeps her way to the top. Baby Face makes bluntly comments on the power of human sexuality, and the influence that it holds over men and women, making it truly one of the first films of its kind. Green’s film takes themes that were previously explored in Pre-Code projects like Red-Headed Woman and Blonde Venus, and ramps them up – Baby Face is an empowering, if somewhat unfortunate, tale of a woman doing what she must to break the mold.

Baby Face follows Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck), a young woman who has been prostituted throughout her life by her father. After her father is killed, Lily is free to do as she pleases for the first time in her life. She and her friend Chico (Theresa Harris) hop on a train to New York, where Lily eventually finds work in a skyscraper that houses a large bank called Gotham Trust. Once there, Lily coldly and methodically sleeps her way to the top, having affairs with numerous coworkers. The most notable of which are the company’s Vice President J.P. Carter (Henry Kolker), and Courtland Trenholm (George Brent), the elected President of the bank. Eventually Lily and Courtland marry, which can only end one way unless the young woman undergoes a drastic lifestyle change.
Baby Face
Few actors had a screen presence that could rival that of Barbara Stanwyck, who absolutely carries Baby Face and raises it to be more than just a somewhat memorable Pre-Code film. Stanwyck’s turn as Lily Powers starts as being incredibly sympathetic – a young girl whose father has exploited sexually for years – and ends as a nearly unlikable, but empowered, female in a corporate position of power. Only a versatile actress like Stanwyck could pull off such an incredible transformation and make it entirely believable. While only 26 years old at the time, Barbara Stanwyck shows off the skills that would turn her into one of the most legendary actresses in Hollywood history. Without her as Lily Powers, it’s likely that Baby Face may have been a tremendous failure in regards to resonating with its audience.

Another highlight of Baby Face comes in its brisk pacing and a plot-driven screenplay. Writers Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola adapted the story by Mark Canfield, turning it into a powerful, subtle, and effective drama about sex and the early days of feminism. The screenwriters make it clearly almost immediately that Lily is an intelligent and highly capable person, but is being held down by her gender. Instead of shaming Powers for the actions that follow, the script treats them as necessary evils on the way to becoming powerful. Baby Face is oftentimes quite funny in its use of clever innuendo, and when paired with Alfred E. Green’s subtle direction makes the film stand out from many of its contemporaries. An recurring example of this happens everytime Lily successfully seduces somebody within the Gotham Trust bank – we are shown an exterior shot of the bank as Green’s camera pans upward, closer and closer to the top. Subtle touches like these make Baby Face a constant joy to watch, and establishes Baby Face as an intelligent and progressive project.

Baby Face is credited as being one of the films that helped to solidify the need for the Hays Code in Hollywood – no film before it had ever been so straightforward about the power of sexuality and the barriers met by women of the time. I can absolutely imagine how the content found within Baby Face may have been shocking to audiences in 1933. Even without showing any actual explicit sexual content, the suggestive comments and subtle direction make the film seem just as shocking as it would with actual scenes of sexuality. Some of the examples of Pre-Code content found in the film include Lily being told by her mentor to take advantage of men in order to attain a position of power, and the subsequent use of sex to move up the corporate ladder. Barbara Stanwyck appears scantily clad in more than a few scenes, using innuendo and her obvious sexual appeal to her advantage. It’s difficult to sum up the reasons why Baby Face was so controversial without spoiling the film’s best moments – you’ll just have to see them for yourself.
Annex - Wayne, John (Baby Face)_01
Few of the films I’ve reviewed during the marathon have taken more than one watch to connect with me, at least not until Baby Face – the power of its message did not fully resonate with me until a second and third watch. Alfred E. Green’s film is much more than a shocking drama about sex, it’s a progressive, clever film that makes the absolute most of its short runtime and controversial subject matter. Come for Barbara Stanwyck’s excellent early performance, stay for the smart screenplay and clever direction. Baby Face is highly recommended.

Leave a comment

Filed under Pre-Code Hollywood, Reviews

Pre-Code Hollywood #11 – The Sign of the Cross (1932)

The_sign_of_crossThe Sign of the Cross (1932)
Directed by: Cecil B. DeMille
Written by: Waldemar Young, Sidney Buchman (based on The Sign of the Cross by Wilson Barrett)
Starring: Fredric March, Elissa Landi, Claudette Colbert, Charles Laughton

Famous producer Cecil B. DeMille made a career out of forging some of Hollywood’s grandest epics, including The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cleopatra, and Union Pacific. DeMille’s religious epic The Sign of the Cross is another in a series of films at least partially responsible for the creation of the Hays Code, and it’s easy to see why when looking at it in a historical context. DeMille’s 1932 epic is filled with sexuality and violence, and tells a story that is chock full of intense bigotry and hatred. The Sign of the Cross is perhaps one of the ultimate examples of the sheer potential held by filmmakers in pre-code Hollywood – it’s full of ambitious filmmaking, passion, and depravity.

The Sign of the Cross takes place in the year 64 A.D., where the Roman Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) has just burned down the city. The action has been blamed on those of the Christian faith, creating an extremely anti-Christian sentiment without Rome. A young and lustful Marcus Superbus (Fredric March), prefect of Rome, is taken by Mercia (Elissa Landi) who he sees defending her fellow Christians. Marcus tries everything he can to seduce Mercia, but her devotion to her faith will not allow her to fall for Marcus’ games. When she hears of Marcus’ new infatuation, a jealous Empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) demands that Mercia be killed. This puts Marcus into a complicated and dangerous situation, torn between his beliefs and the beliefs of his nation – no matter what decisions are made by Marcus and Mercia, it surely won’t be pretty.
Sign Of The Cross, The
Religious epics have always been one of my favorite genres, with both Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments being lifelong favorites of mine. Unfortunately, The Sign of the Cross doesn’t hold a candle to either of those terrific pictures. While I can admire the grandiose nature of DeMille’s pre-code classic, very little of it actually stuck with me in any meaningful way. It stands as more of a fun, deranged curiosity than most of the true greats of the genre. That isn’t to say it’s all bad – the production design alone makes The Sign of the Cross more than worthy of a watch, especially in the context of pre-code Hollywood. Costumes and sets feel lavish and genuine, transporting viewers to the Roman Empire – the entire film feels as large in scale as many epics from the time period. It’s immediately clear that DeMille had an eye for detail, and a knack for capturing detailed period pieces on film. The film’s dark cinematography helps set the mood, featuring some terrific use of light and shadows during its many nighttime scenes. Cinematographer Karl Struss was nominated for an Academy Award for his efforts, making it the only nomination that The Sign of the Cross would receive.

The memorable performances by great actors like Charles Laughton, Claudette Colbert, and Fredric March all help to further The Sign of the Cross’ terrific mood and atmosphere. Laughton steals the show (as he always did) as Emperor Nero, whose sinister nature and indescribable prejudices make him very easy to hate. Nero is portrayed as a lazy, spiteful, worm of a man, and Laughton plays it up perfectly. Colbert’s sexually-charged performance as Empress Poppaea is every bit as memorable as Laughton’s, only for completely different reasons. Poppaea uses her beauty and sex appeal to her advantage in every scene, creating some of the film’s most titillating moments – the most iconic of which being an early scene that sees Colbert bathing in asses milk. Unfortunately for The Sign of the Cross, many of the supporting performances can’t exactly live up to those of the legendary main cast.

The Sign of the Cross’ weakest aspect is its story, which feels inconsequential in comparison to the sheer size and scope of the film. While there are many iconic and memorable moments throughout, there is little to nothing substantial connecting these moments to one another. The movie is ultimately a love story at its core, and not a terribly compelling one either. This is a shame, because the brutality and visceral nature of DeMille’s film could have made it truly unique had it featured stronger writing and pacing. Clocking in at over two hours long, I found myself begging for more of the aforementioned iconic moments. Luckily, the pre-code content of the film is consistent throughout, with scenes of brutal violence and outright sexuality being enough to hold viewers’ attention. This is certainly a film that would not have been possible following the enforcement of the Hays Code – in fact, DeMille’s film was heavily edited and censored until its restoration in the 1990’s.
rrznelnyw0ennlwz
While Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross is a far cry from some of the incredible films we’ve taken a look at throughout our Pre-Code Hollywood marathon, there are hints of greatness throughout. The lavish set decoration and costuming rival some of the greatest epics of its time, the lead performances are wonderfully exaggerated and theatrical, and the film’s pre-code nature still does enough to shock and titillate today. It’s unfortunate that the film couldn’t overcome a weak central story, bloated run-time, and some underwhelming supporting performances – there’s a masterpiece in here somewhere. With all that said, The Sign of the Cross is sadly not recommended – it’d be best to see this one as a curiosity, much in the same way people view Caligula today.

Leave a comment

Filed under Pre-Code Hollywood, Reviews

Pre-Code Hollywood #10 – Scarface (1932)

MV5BODM2MzNjNzUtMzdkNy00Y2VhLTg5NzctOWY5ZmUxM2U0YmRmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUxODE0MDY@._V1_Scarface (1932)
Directed by: Howard Hawks, Richard Rosson
Written by: W.R. Burnett, John Lee Mahin, Seton I. Miller, Ben Hecht (story by) (based on Scarface by Armitage Trail)
Starring: Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, Osgood Perkins, Karen Morley, Boris Karloff

Director Howard Hawks is one of the most influential filmmakers in movie history, and 1932’s Scarface stands as his first masterpiece. The surprisingly violent and action-packed picture helped to lay the foundation of what defines gangster films to this very day, being aided by Brian De Palma’s 1983 remake of the same name. Scarface is everything great about Hollywood before the Hays Code was enforced, featuring countless sequences of excessive violence, and portraying organized crime in a way that had never been seen before.

The first shot we see is a series of still title cards condemning the actions that took place during the Prohibition, and the subsequent gang rule of America in general. It demands that viewers take a stand and help create a change, rather than demanding that their government be the difference maker. From there, we meet Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), an Italian immigrant settled in Chicago, acting as a crony for mafioso Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins). After the assassination of a rival mob boss, Tony quickly rises in the ranks as Lovo gains a stranglehold on the city’s bootlegging business. Not one to back down to a challenge, Tony decides to take a little slice of the pie for himself, ordering the killing of an Irish gang leader. His actions lead to Johnny Lovo becoming paranoid about his protege, questioning his motives and the relationship between the two. Scarface culminates in an explosive and thrilling confrontation with the police that sees Tony all alone after burning every bridge he built on his rise to the top.
036-scarface-theredlist
From the get-go, it’s easy to see that Howard Hawks and company are incredibly passionate about the story being told in Scarface. The film serves as a brutal indictment of what had become of modern American life, and a bold shot at the infamous gangster Al Capone. Hawks pulls no punches with his telling of Scarface, going as far as accusing Capone of having incestuous feelings for his own sister. While it’s easy to say that Scarface is nothing but a glorification of the gangster lifestyle because of the excessive violence featured within, Hawks’ film serves as far more. It’s a tale of boundless greed and corruption that affects everybody within, and the misguided ambitions of its protagonist. The expert direction by Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson help to distinguish many of Scarface’s shootout scenes, taking advantage of expert blocking and fluid camera movement. A car chase scene in the last act nicely shows off some of Hawks’ terrific action direction, following both cars involved with ease. The visuals featured within Scarface also help to elevate the film as a masterpiece, with Hawks using subtle imagery of “x”s in each major death scene. It’s obvious to me that Hawks wanted his film to stand as a call to arms, but to also stand out from all other films being made in Hollywood during this era.

Scarface’s central performance is another reason why Hawks’ picture works so well as a gangster picture. Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte serves as a fictional stand-in for mobster Al Capone, the young gangster is as ambitious and passionate as they come. Just below the surface of Tony is an unbridled rage that can only be satisfied through bloodshed and a quick rise to the top of a corrupt empire. Muni’s Tony Camonte is easily one of the most compelling main characters of our Pre-Code marathon yet, making James Cagney’s character in The Public Enemy look somewhat sane and functional. Paul Muni was one of Hollywood’s first “chameleon” actors, taking on a wide range of challenging roles that saw him eventually rewarded with an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1936. Muni’s portrayal of Tony is deeply troubled, angry, and impulsive – every one of his outbursts feels genuine and horrifying. Without a star like Muni at its helm, Scarface might be nothing more than just another brutal gangster picture.

The pre-code nature of Scarface is obvious from the very first moments of the film. The audience is constantly thrown into chaotic shootouts that almost always have a high body count. We see execution-style assassinations, drive-by shootings, murders in public places including restaurants, cafes, and even a bowling alley. Things are only made worse with the introduction of the machine gun, which allows Tony and his goon squad to effortlessly mow down the competition. Aside from the violence featured, Scarface has subtle hints towards Tony holding incestuous feelings towards his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), features a ton of gun running and bootlegging, and fast women who are taken advantage of by our cast of classy gangsters. Almost every scene in Scarface features something that the Hays Code would never have allowed, making this a much watch in the context of pre-code Hollywood.
scarface1932-2
Howard Hawks’ Scarface is a classic thrill-ride that stands out as being truly exciting and groundbreaking. It features some of my favorite shootouts ever captured on film, a truly terrific (and despicable) performance by Paul Muni, incredible direction, and a passionate moral message at its core. This film is essential viewing material when discussing pre-code Hollywood, and when looking at the history of action and crime movies in general. Scarface gets my highest recommendation.

Leave a comment

Filed under Pre-Code Hollywood, Reviews

Pre-Code Hollywood #9 – Red-Headed Woman (1932)

220px-Redheadedwoman1932Red-Headed Woman (1932)
Directed by: Jack Conway
Written by: Anita Loos (based on Red-Headed Woman by Katherine Brush)
Starring: Jean Harlow, Chester Morris, Lewis Stone, Charles Boyer, Una Merkel, Henry Stephenson, Leila Hyams

“So gentlemen prefer blondes, do they?” – The first words uttered in Jack Conway’s Red-Headed Woman perfectly set the tone for what’s to follow. It’s unclear whether the Jean Harlow vehicle was intended to be a drama, a comedy, a romance, or a confused moral tale, but the 1932 film ends up being a strangely compelling blend of all four. Red-Headed Woman is full of unlikable characters with less than noble intentions, all of whom take part in some form of premarital debauchery at one point or another. This may just be the most “pre-code” film of the marathon yet, delightfully teasing the audience with its naughty nature.

Red-Headed Woman starts by introducing Lillian ‘Lil’ Andrews (Jean Harlow), a young lower-class woman who will seemingly stop at nothing in order to live a life free of worry. She quickly seduces her boss Bill Legendre Jr. (Chester Morris), eventually forcing him to leave his lovely wife Irene (Leila Hyams). Unfortunately for Lil, she is soon seen by those around her as a fast, cheap, manipulative homewrecker, which in turn wreaks havoc on her social life and self-esteem. After marrying Bill, Lil quickly sets her sights on a rich tycoon named Charles Gaerste (Henry Stephenson). Thinking Gaerste will propel her into the life of a classy socialite, Lil can’t help but carry out yet another affair – one that will likely end in disaster for all those involved.
22-jean-harlow
My absolute favorite thing about Red-Headed Woman is that it’s a picture that is outwardly very proud of its less than moral story, revelling in its tantalizing nature. There is no major character who isn’t acting purely out of selfishness – everybody in Red-Headed Woman is out to gain something from somebody. Whether it’s Lil’s want to be included in the everyday activities of the rich and famous, Bill Jr.’s need for sexual satisfaction, Bill Sr.’s want for his son to be seen as a respectable young man, or Charles Gaerste’s want of a much younger woman whom he is free to exploit sexually – it’s every man for himself in Red-Headed Woman. On top of selfish character motivations, our protagonist Lil is quite possibly one of the most frustrating lead characters in cinematic history. Harlow’s Lil continually digs herself deeper and deeper into situations that can only ends badly for her, yet it’s obvious that they excite her too much to ever put an end to her impulsiveness. Lillian is a heavily flawed, ugly character who I loved spending 80 minutes with, even if many of those minutes were indeed rather frustrating.

Jean Harlow’s campy lead performance is delightfully mad in all of its heavy exaggeration. Harlow is somebody whose performances I’ve always enjoyed, and Red-Headed Woman is absolutely no different. It’s obvious that the legendary actress had a lot of fun playing the amoral Lil; a part that only some incredibly brave actresses could have gotten away with playing in 1932. Jean Harlow’s Lil is trashy, overly emotional, and almost entirely vapid, and yet she somehow manages to fool multiple people into falling for her charms. The 21-year old Harlow is the absolute highlight of Red-Headed Woman – it’s hard to believe that five years from the film’s release she would be dead at just 26 years old. Chester Morris’ turn as Bill Legendre Jr. is another of the film’s highlights, improving on his earlier performance in previously-reviewed The Divorcee. Though Bill’s life seems to be falling apart because of Lil’s involvement, he’s clearly so infatuated (and sexually excited) with her that he just doesn’t care.

The film’s shameless script is the final major part of what makes Red-Headed Woman such a delight. Written by Anita Loos (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), who took screenwriting duties over for novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald after his dismissal from the film, Red-Headed Woman knows exactly what it is from the word go. Loos’ script is full of frank discussions about sex and infidelity, which is very refreshing for a film of the era. The screenplay sees Lil taking multiple lovers, forming unlikely relationships with men far more successful herself, and is loaded to the brim with hilarious innuendo. Every beat of Loos’ screenplay is delightful, and at just 80-minutes long, Red-Headed Woman is effortlessly entertaining. I was delighted to see that Loos didn’t try to force a schmaltzy, moralistic ending into the film, instead ending on a hilarious and rather unexpected beat. Some of the pre-code elements featured in Red-Headed Woman include the repeated sexualization of Jean Harlow’s Lil, many counts of premarital and extramarital sex, domestic abuse, divorce, and trading sex in order to move up the social ladder.
threewisegirls
Jack Conway’s Red-Headed Woman is a delight from start to finish, mainly due to its willingness to embrace many of its naughty pre-code elements, a fun script by Anita Loos, and a highly memorable lead performance from the indelible Jean Harlow. It’s a brilliant send up to the desperate, unsatisfied, horny people throughout history who have settled for people completely wrong for them, and to the impulsive, ugly, hysterical nature of love. While it’s not exactly groundbreaking, it was just too much fun to pass up. Red-Headed Woman is highly recommended.

Leave a comment

Filed under Pre-Code Hollywood, Reviews