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.
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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.
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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.

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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.
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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.
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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.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #8 – The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

Most_Dangerous_Game_posterThe Most Dangerous Game (1932)
Directed by: Irving Pichel, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Written by: James Ashmore Creelman (based on The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell)
Starring: Joel McCrea, Fay Wray, Leslie Banks, Robert Armstrong

The production of The Most Dangerous Game is almost as interesting as the film itself, based on Richard Connell’s famous 1924 short story of the same name. The film was shot at night on RKO Studio sets built for the following year’s King Kong. The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong would share various cast and crew, most notably stars Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong, composer Max Steiner, and director Ernest B. Schoedsack. Merian C. Cooper, producer of The Most Dangerous Game, would also go on to co-direct King Kong. Anybody who has seen the incredible Kong film might be familiar with many of the sets featured in the last half of The Most Dangerous Game, giving the whole project an odd, but comfortable, sense of familiarity. While this film was not nearly as financially successful as King Kong, it is regarded by many as the strongest adaptation of Connell’s story, and one of the very best pre-code examples of a tight, effective thriller.

The Most Dangerous Game sees famous hunter Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) become shipwrecked on an island owned by a Russian Count named Zaroff (Leslie Banks). There he is joined by siblings Eve (Fay Wray) and Martin (Robert Armstrong) Trowbridge, who were also shipwrecked on the island in a completely unrelated accident. Things start off innocently enough, but soon it is clear to Rainsford that something about Zaroff is amiss. The Count’s leading hobby is that of hunting, but not in the same way that Bob is accustomed to. Zaroff speaks of the hunt satisfying the primal, savage urges of man, and it’s clear that he has continuously tried to raise the stakes of his big game expeditions. In other words, hunting makes Zaroff horny…really, really disturbingly horny. No longer satisfied with buffalo or tigers, Zaroff has decided on a new prey…man.
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At just slightly over an hour long, The Most Dangerous Game runs at one hell of a fast clip. Its short run time doesn’t afford it the detailed world-building that longer films feature, but it isn’t really a movie that needs it to be memorable. We are immediately thrown into the film by briefly meeting Bob Rainsford, establishing that he is a famed hunter and our protagonist. From there, The Most Dangerous Game hardly ever lets up – we experience the yacht’s crash, which leaves Bob alone and in a desperate situation, and then quickly move on to Zaroff’s chateau. Once there, the sinister atmosphere begins to build, thanks in part to some excellent set designs, and an efficient screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman. The dialogue is quick, unsubtle, and concise, which makes the film feel pulpy, but the result is something thrilling, fun, and efficient. Zaroff’s introduction can be likened to the introduction of some of the famous Universal horror movie monsters from the same time period – the character is immediately established as being intimidating, mysterious, and deeply compelling in his worldview. Once he begins conversing with Bob about hunting, he can’t help but say a little too much – he’s far more interested in the thrill of the hunt than anybody else in the chateau, even the world renowned hunter. His festishizing of hunting makes Zaroff even more disturbing to viewers, especially when he begins to give Fay Wray’s Eve some mean side eye. The concise nature of the screenplay is one of the best things about The Most Dangerous Game – it’s clear from just ten minutes into the film that the gang are in for one hell of a night.

The performances in The Most Dangerous Game are all around solid, with the standout being Leslie Banks’ Zaroff. While he doesn’t exactly pass for a Russian Count, his presence is nonetheless sinister. He puts on a gentlemanly facade on the outside, but it’s clear by the film’s ending that he’s anything but. Zaroff sets strict rules for his (literal) manhunts, and yet takes every measure to ensure that the odds are always in his favour – not exactly sportsmanlike in my opinion. Banks’ over-the-top performance makes Zaroff an unlikable, but compelling and very fun villain. The film’s direction is another highlight, especially in its action set-pieces late in the film. Bob and Eve are forced to play to Zaroff’s disturbing fantasies, running through detailed jungle sets in almost complete darkness. These scenes are thrilling and incredibly well-paced, never allowing Bob and Eve to rest for more than a moment before they catch a glimpse of their hunter. The two climactic action scenes feel modern in their blocking and choreography, and are helped by some foggy, shadow-heavy cinematography by Henry W. Gerrard. These scenes also feature much of the film’s pre-code elements, with Bob being forced to kill several of Zaroff’s hunting dogs, and later killing more than one of his assailants. The most egregious example of The Most Dangerous Game’s pre-code content lays in Zaroff’s sexualization of the thrill of the hunt – while he never outright says that hunting gets his rocks off, it’s made pretty obvious that something about it is satisfying him on a deeper level.
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The Most Dangerous Game is one hell of a thrill ride – it’s fast-paced thanks to a tight screenplay, features a great hammy villainous performance from Leslie Banks, and has some tremendous early action set-pieces. It’s not exactly a piece of highbrow drama, but it’s earned its place in cinematic history by being a balls to the wall adaptation of a memorable story. If you’re interested in seeing this terrific film, you’re in luck. The Most Dangerous Game has fallen into public domain, meaning that there are no longer any legitimate rights holders. It can be viewed legally and for free here on YouTubeThe Most Dangerous Game is highly recommended

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Pre-Code Hollywood #7 – I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

Poster - I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang_01I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy
Written by: Howard J. Green, Brown Holmes (based on I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! by Robert E. Burns)
Starring: Paul Muni, Glenda Farrell, Helen Vinson, Noel Francis

Mervyn LeRoy’s adaptation of Robert E. Burns’ similarly titled autobiography I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! is as progressive as any film we’ve taken a look at in our Pre-Code marathon. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang takes a critical look at the injustice taking place in America’s justice system during the early 20th century, and tells the tale of one man who wouldn’t let the system break him down. While it may not be wholly notable for its pre-code elements, LeRoy’s film is memorable for completely different reasons – its impact on the United States legal system and popular culture as a whole is far too important to overlook.

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang follows Sergeant James Allen (Paul Muni) upon his return to America in a new post-World War I world. James decides against returning to his dull pre-war life, and opts to become an engineer and put his skills to use. Unfortunately for James Allen, his lack of experience and a general lack of opportunities forces him to fall into a period of poverty. After befriending a seemingly helpful man, James is unwittingly pulled into a restaurant robbery and is forced into serving ten long years on a chain gang. James toils away on the chain gang until he sees his opportunity to escape, but not without every police officer in the South looking for him. After being blackmailed into marrying a spiteful and petty woman named Marie (Glenda Farrell), James is eventually caught and sent back to the chain gang. It is here that he pleads with the authorities for him freedom – a pardon in exchange for his turning himself in. Unfortunately for James Allen, nothing is ever quite as it seems in this strange new world.
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I was surprised by just how modern I Am a Fugitive’s message and general world outlook was – it’s one of the absolute best things about the film. The script in general was terrific – adapted by Howard J. Green and Brown Holmes, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang never slows down for a minute during its 90 minute runtime. Just when you think James Allen is out in the clear, something awful inevitably happens and leaves us in a panic. The development of James Allen as a character is a joy to watch, despite everything he’s up against. He starts off as an idealistic young man just returning back from the war, and ends as a cynical, betrayed, and beaten down shell of a man – once a hero of his generation, now forced into a life of crime. No matter how beaten down our hero was, I always had some hope tucked away – but this isn’t a film with a typical Hollywood ending. I Am a Fugitive’s ending is in the same vein as the one found in The Public Enemy, both of which tell us that sometimes life just isn’t fair, and sometimes something as simple as rehabilitation or institutional change just isn’t possible in the specific time and place. That isn’t to say that it’s a completely hopeless and dour ending, just a hauntingly dark and ambiguous one. Throughout the entire film, James Allen is punished for his positive and idealistic outlook towards the world. He left for the war as a fresh-faced and hopeful kid, proud to serve his country, and returned to find his country full of hopelessness. It’s a crime that Green and Holmes were not recognized by the Academy for their screenplay, because I Am A Fugitive would be nothing without it.

Paul Muni’s central performance as James Allen is another highlight of the film – he perfectly portrays the aforementioned trajectory of James Allen from young, idealistic hero to betrayed, beaten down criminal. Muni was rightfully nominated for Best Actor for his performance as James Allen, ultimately losing to the legendary Charles Laughton for The Private Life of Henry VIII. Muni would have his moment in the sun in 1936, when he won the Academy Award for The Story of Louis Pasteur. After the release of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, audiences throughout the United States started to change their opinions about the United States justice system, enraging many officials within the system and prompting a series of lawsuits against the studio. This is just one of the many early examples of mainstream Hollywood films having a positive impact on the modern world at large – it certainly wouldn’t be the last one. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang would go on to be nominated for Best Picture at that year’s Oscars, losing to the inferior Cavalcade in a regrettable decision by the Academy. As mentioned previously, I Am a Fugitive does not feature many of the pre-code elements that made other films famous – instead its groundbreaking nature came in its revealing look at a corrupt system, its attitude and critical outlook, and its haunting ending.
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I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is without a doubt the strongest film I’ve seen during our Pre-Code marathon thus far, and one that I’m glad I finally had an excuse to catch up with. Its screenplay takes a highly critical look at a corrupt and archaic branch of government, and caused an entire nation to change its opinion of said system. It perfectly follows a compelling character during a short, but highly important time of his life, and sees him realistically broken down and built back up again over a period of just 90 minutes. Paul Muni’s lead performance is incredible, and more than makes up for the lack of memorable supporting performances around him. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a thrilling, haunting, and ultimately rather tragic tale of corruption in early 20th century America – its importance cannot be understated. It gets my highest recommendation.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #6 – Blonde Venus (1932)

MV5BNDMwYmZmZDYtMjA1NS00YzJkLWI2ODUtZTA2NTgwMGI3Mzc0L2ltYWdlL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUxODE0MDY@._V1_Blonde Venus (1932)
Directed by: Josef von Sternberg
Written by: Jules Furthman, S.K. Lauren
Starring: Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, Cary Grant, Dickie Moore

Being something of a self-professed film buff, I like to think that I’m fairly well-versed in movie history, especially when it comes to Hollywood. I have to admit that the films of Josef von Sternberg are a massive blind spot of mine, and the director’s relatively small filmography is one of the more daunting things I’ve yet to tackle. Sternberg’s 1932 film Blonde Venus seemed like a perfect place to start off because of its pre-code nature, so naturally I took advantage of the pairing. While Blonde Venus is generally considered to be one of Sternberg’s least memorable directorial efforts, I had quite a strong initial reaction to it – it features a very good performance from Marlene Dietrich, another Hollywood legend I have little experience with, a compelling narrative with real stakes, and is at its core a rather complex morality tale. An impressive and emotional supporting turn from Herbert Marshall certainly helps keep the film together, and an early appearance from Cary Grant was a joy to see.

Blonde Venus follows Helen (Marlene Dietrich) and Ned (Herbert Marshall) Faraday, a young married couple living together with their son Johnny (Dickie Moore). Ned had recently come down with a serious illness as a result of one of his experiments, and the Faraday’s do not have the money for treatment. Helen vows to return to the theatre in order to earn the funding needed to send Ned away to Germany for treatment. Helen’s work in the theatre quickly attracts the attention of Nick Townsend (Cary Grant), a cocksure young politician. With Ned leaving for Germany, Helen and Nick begin to have a love affair . Helen and Johnny move into an apartment owned by Nick, and Helen gradually falls in love with the young politician. When Ned returns home to find Helen and Johnny missing, things begin to fall apart. Ned eventually files for a divorce from Helen, causing her to flee with Johnny in order to keep her young son. What follows is an exciting, morally complex tale of a mother stopping at nothing to protect her young son, and the self-destruction she experiences when she loses him.
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The first act of Blonde Venus serves strictly to set up the private lives of Helen and Ned Faraday, delivering a great deal of character development and exposition in a short twenty minutes. While it certainly isn’t the most exciting or innovative part of the film, it’s important in setting context for the events to come. When Marlene Dietrich takes to the stage for her famous “Hot Voodoo” musical number, Blonde Venus truly picks up and becomes something truly memorable. The number reveals Helen’s nature as a living, breathing woman with sexual needs and desires – a truly modern woman in a world that isn’t yet ready for these things. In this scene, Helen is simultaneously a strong matriarchal figure and a free, modern woman with real power over an audience made up almost entirely of older men. From here, Blonde Venus reveals its true nature as something more than a typical “woman’s picture” – a complex morality tale tackling themes of sex, marriage, freedom, and one’s meaning in life.

The film’s middle act sees Helen running away with her young son Johnny, followed in hot pursuit by her ex-husband Ned and a seemingly endless amount of law enforcement and private investigators. This section of the film is easily the most exciting, though it is rather brief. We see Ned’s desperation to get his son back from the woman who betrayed him, and Helen’s willingness to do anything to survive. When Helen hits rock bottom, she opts to return her son to her ex-husband, later making a pledge to kill herself. Instead of traditional suicide, Helen chooses an unfulfilling life of solitude, taking to the stage and using the men around her to become more successful than ever before. It is here where both Marlene Dietrich and Herbert Marshall shine – both of their characters have very real motivations for their actions, making it difficult to root for just one. The more radical pre-code elements of the film rear their heads during this act, where Helen is eventually forced to prostitute herself in order to feed Johnny. We also see a man threaten to punch his wife, and many subtle references to Helen’s sexuality in general. Hell, the entire first act of the film is about a married woman having an affair – if that doesn’t break the Code’s views of marriage, I don’t know what does.
blonde-venus-01-gJosef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus is a very strong entry into our pre-code marathon. While it may not be his best regarded film, I struggle to find many problems with it outside of some minor pacing issues. The first act is rather slow and filled with exposition, but it’s all vital in the context of what comes later. The film’s ending is disappointing in its suddenness, but it’s too sweet and good-natured to flat out hate. Marlene Dietrich’s performance as Helen Faraday is strong and groundbreaking in its portrayal of a modern, dignified woman who isn’t afraid to put her sexuality on display. Herbert Marshall’s turn as her spiteful, but well-meaning ex husband Ned is equally impressive. Blonde Venus tells a compelling rise and fall (and rise again) story of a truly compelling character, and is more than worth your time. Blonde Venus comes highly recommended.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #5 – The Public Enemy (1931)

51fcd0976b353e7078f582fafe787b39The Public Enemy (1931)
Directed by: William A. Wellman
Written by: Harvey F. Thew (based on Beer and Blood by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright)
Starring: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke

The anti-hero and the gangster movie go hand in hand, dating all the way back to the dawn of film as an artistic medium. William A. Wellman’s 1931 film The Public Enemy lays the early groundwork for iconic movie characters like Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone and Tony Montana, and Robert DeNiro’s James Conway, and to an extent, Travis Bickle. For that, we have the immortal James Cagney to thank – his lack of empathy towards anybody but himself, violent outbursts, and sinister smile create a three-dimensional, vivid, and highly memorable character. Cagney would continue playing anti-heroes and crooks in films about the criminal underworld, leading him to the very top of the Hollywood food chain in the 1930’s and 40’s. The enforcement of the Hays Code would see the re-release of The Public Enemy with several missing scenes, most of which weren’t restored until the film’s release on home video years later.

The Public Enemy follows young Tom Powers (James Cagney) and his best friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) as they slow rise through the ranks of Chicago’s underground bootlegging business. Tom’s family begs him on multiple occasions to go straight and give up what is looking to be a dangerous life of crime, but their Tom is too far gone – the young man has long since romanticized the exciting lifestyle. We watch Tom and Matt go from petty, clumsy thieves to legitimately dangerous made men. Together, Tom and Matt burn bridges, let down their families, break hearts, and even kill. By the time the film’s shocking ending arrives, bootlegging and larceny are the least of their worries.
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When talking about the pre-code era of Hollywood, it’s important to note just how shocking and groundbreaking a film like The Public Enemy probably was. It’s chock full of unlikable characters, prohibition-era shenanigans, and violence (domestic and organized) among other things that the Hays Code would soon outlaw. There’s just no way something like it would have been made even five years later, which is truly a shame. The Public Enemy doesn’t just set out to shock its viewers with exciting subject matter, but instead gets deep inside the head of a sociopathic anti-hero. James Cagney’s portrayal of Tom Powers is sly and sadistic from the get-go, it’s clear that his attitudes towards the world he’s living in are less than optimistic. Tom sees a life of luxury at his fingertips, and doesn’t seem to mind having to kill and break the law in order to get there, making him very different than most big screen characters of the time. Almost every pre-code element of The Public Enemy is perpetrated by Tom Powers or involves him – he murders thugs and police officers alike, explores pre-marital relations with a number of women, smashes a grapefruit into a woman’s face during breakfast, straight up murders a horse, and is raped by a woman while being nearly blackout drunk. Cagney’s Tom Powers is the most unlikable character I’ve seen from this era of Hollywood, and yet every minute spent with him is fun and exhilarating. The highlight of Cagney’s performance is the aforementioned grapefruit scene, which comes off as a genuinely spur of the moment action, perfectly capturing Tom’s compulsive nature. While Cagney’s performance is far and away the best part of The Public Enemy, its screenplay is also worth noting. Adapted from an unpublished novel called Beer and Blood, Harvey Thew teamed with authors Kubec Glasmon and John Bright to create a criminal underworld that feels genuine in its intricacies, and a cast of characters that live and breathe thanks to some healthy character development. Their crowning achievement comes in the film’s final moments, where our main character finally learns the dangers of the lifestyle the hard way, and his family is forced to suffer for his actions. For their efforts, the screenwriters were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing. This would be the only nomination for The Public Enemy, although the film would later be recognized by the Library of Congress and submitted to the National Film Registry.

William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy is a landmark of crime films, specifically the gangster subgenre that has spawned countless classics. James Cagney’s Tom Powers will go down in movie history as one of Hollywood’s great anti-heroes, thanks to Cagney’s prowess as an actor, the strong screenplay, and the film’s shocking pre-code material. It may not seem like it today, but The Public Enemy is an absolute trailblazer, and a thrilling one to boot. By the time you reach the film’s conclusion, you’ll be begging for more. William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy is highly recommended.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #4 – Night Nurse (1931)

Night_Nurse_1931_PosterNight Nurse (1931)
Directed by: William A. Wellman
Written by: Oliver H.P. Garrett, Charles Kenyon (based on Night Nurse by Dora Macy)
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Ben Lyon, Joan Blondell, Clark Gable

Academy Award-winning director William A. Wellman’s film Night Nurse served as one of the first platforms where legendary actress Barbara Stanwyck could show her talents as a leading lady. Stanwyck had the sensibilities of a modern woman and a physical acting method that put her leagues above the competition – her acting prowess would lead her to being nominated for Best Actress four times between 1938-1949 for classic films like Stella Dallas, Double Indemnity, and Ball of Fire. Night Nurse gave talented director William A. Wellman and star Stanwyck the boundary-pushing material needed to create something truly unique and ultimately memorable.

Night Nurse follows nurse trainee Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) as she begins her career in a new hospital. Her roommate Miss Maloney (Joan Blondell) quickly becomes her best friend, and Lora begins to make the best out of her new place of employment. She is assigned to the night shift in the emergency room, where she meets a bootlegger named Mortie (Ben Lyon) after he is shot. After passing her training, Lora moves on to private nursing, where she looks after two young sick children called Desney and Nanny Ritchie. Their mother (Charlotte Merriam) is a drunk socialite who is infatuated with her chauffeur Nick (Clark Gable). Lora soon comes to find out that young Desney and Nanny are being starved to death by Nick, in a plot to marry their mother and subsequently inherit their trust fund. It is Lora’s sworn duty to interfere in the plot, but everything seems to be working against her. Night Nurse was notable at the time of its release for its risque nature, and later became known as an important launching pad in the careers of Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable, Joan Blondell, and Ben Lyon.
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From the very beginning of Night Nurse, I knew I was in for something completely different both stylistically and tonally. The first shot of the film follows an ambulance in first person as it speeds through the streets and into the hospital loading zone – it is a simple but thrilling moment that sets the tone for the film to follow. The hospital setting is full of oddball characters who make the setting feel vibrant and alive. Barbara Stanwyck’s Lora Hart is kind-natured, independent, and witty – watching her acclimate to her new hospital atmosphere is the highlight of the film’s first half. Her chemistry with Joan Blondell’s Maloney is undeniable in their comic timing, and I found myself wanting more interactions between the two. Lora and Maloney are two of the most fiercely independent characters in Night Nurse, a feat that is all too rare for the early 1930’s. Both women know what they want out of life and will stop at nothing to get it, with neither letting much of anything shake them. They verbally spar with their coworkers and the people surrounding them, showing that they’re not going to be toyed with. Night Nurse is a perfectly paced film with a runtime of just 71 minutes, making the best out of every single minute. The film’s tone takes a dramatic turn once Lora Hart has passed her training program and begins to look after the sick Ritchie children. Here we immediately hear a grizzly tale of how Nanny and Desney’s sister met her demise, meet the drunken Mrs. Ritchie, and watch as Lora is assaulted and very nearly raped by a drunk house guest. Movie legend Clark Gable plays the film’s antagonist Nick, who immediately makes his brutish presence felt by knocking out Lora’s would-be rapist, and forcing Lora to pump Mrs. Ritchie’s stomach. Gable is intimidating and quite frankly horrifying as Nick, a man with no moral code to speak of.

Some of the most memorable aspects of Night Nurse come in the form of its pre-Hays Code content, which there’s an awful lot of. We see Barbara Stanwyck’s Lora Hart and Joan Blondell’s Maloney undressing several times, the film deals with the attempted murder of young children, and multiple characters make reference to swear words – Lora at one point looks to a passed out Mrs. Ritchie and utters “you mother-”. The film’s ending is another example of pushing boundaries in the pre-code era, where two main characters laugh at the strongly hinted death of a third major character. The true brilliance of Night Nurse’s screenplay (written by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Charles Kenyon) is the way it turns several character archetypes on their heads. Ben Lyon’s criminal bootlegger character Mortie becomes one of the crucial heroes of the film, while Clark Gable’s handsome and charming chauffeur Nick is a sadistic child murderer. Night Nurse takes already familiar movie tropes and turns them into something wholly unique – it’s a film that constantly challenges you while also being highly entertaining and groundbreaking in many ways.
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While it may be something of a B-movie at its heart, William A. Wellman’s Night Nurse is the most fun I’ve had with a new film in quite some time. It’s boundary-pushing content is a joy to watch unfold, and it features an incredibly talented young cast. Barbara Stanwyck’s strong and independent Lora Hart is an incredibly memorable pre-code character, as is Clark Gable’s vicious antagonist Nick. The film features a strong supporting cast and lively environments that feel exaggerated in the best way. When Night Nurse reaches its conclusion after just 70 minutes, I was very much blown away by what I had just seen. It may not be the type of film that will change your life, but it’s one I feel should be given more attention today. William A. Wellman’s Night Nurse is funny, charming, thrilling, and highly recommended.

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Filed under Pre-Code Hollywood, Reviews