Tag Archives: 1931

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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Pre-Code Hollywood #3 – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

JekyllHyde1931Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Directed by: Rouben Mamoulian
Written by: Samuel Hoffenstein, Percy Heath (based on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson)
Starring: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart, Edgar Norton

The first film of our latest marathon to feature elements of horror and suspense, Rouben Mamoulian’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story holds its own against its contemporary Universal monster movies that were scaring audiences globally. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a tremendous critical and financial success at the time of its release, earning an Academy Award for star Fredric March, along with several other nominations. Its pre-code roots are clear from the very outset of the film, where we see more early examples of open human sexuality, malicious stalking, and later on the eventual killing of human beings for pleasure.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde follows the titular Dr. Henry Jekyll (Fredric March), a kind and brilliant young doctor who is in the very upper echelon of his field. He intends to marry Muriel (Rose Hobart), the daughter of Brigadier General Sir Danvers Carrew (Halliwell Hobbes), who does not care much for Jekyll. While Muriel and her father are away, Jekyll develops a drug that supposedly releases the more “sinister” side of human beings. The groundbreaking new drug brings out the worst in Dr. Jekyll, transforming him into the evil Mr. Edward Hyde. The violent Mr. Hyde begins stalking Ivy Pierson (Miriam Hopkins), a young patient of Hyde’s. After the eventual murder of Ivy, Dr. Jekyll knows that he can no longer control the transformations, and tries desperately to push Muriel out of his life before she too is hurt by Hyde. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a suspenseful, atmospheric, and intelligent horror film that rivals most of its contemporaries. Actor Fredric March took home a much deserved Academy Award for Best Actor for his dual-personality performance, with the film also nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Adapted Writing.
6 - Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Horror films of the 1930’s are most famous for their thick Gothic atmosphere, with many of the most successful examples being based on novels written in the 1800’s. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is no different than many of its contemporaries in this respect, but seems to pull less punches than those other films. We see the sinister Mr. Hyde essentially sexually assaulting a young woman, as well as stalking and eventually murdering her to satisfy his own blood lust. These elements of brutality don’t seem to be found in other horror films of the era. Classics like Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein are more famous for the sheer power of their suggestive content, whereas Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is far more upfront when it comes to showing its horrific content. The transformation from Dr. Henry Jekyll to Mr. Edward Hyde is effective and frightening, thanks in part to Fredric March’s incredible performance and the terrific make-up effects by Wally Westmore. The camera focuses on March’s face for nearly thirty seconds during the initial transformation scene, which employs some truly impressive special effects and gives the audience a frightening sneak peek of the primitive-looking Mr. Hyde. Director Rouben Mamoulian expertly uses first person camera techniques to further the film’s suspense, which may be one of the first instances of the technique I’ve seen in a horror film. Mamoulian’s camera follows Hyde through all of his hideous acts, which increases the film’s sense of immersion and implicates the audience as helpless accessories to his crimes. Besides the horrific content found within Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, my favorite example of its pre-code nature is an early scene where Dr. Jekyll first meets Ivy Pierson – she has been hurt in what appears to be a mugging, and Dr. Jekyll carries her up to her room in order to treat her wounds. In a shocking turn of events, Pierson admits she was exaggerating in order to get Dr. Jekyll alone with her, and seduces the young doctor. Miriam Hopkins’ mostly naked figure and dangling leg have become iconic images, and for good reason. The scene perfectly captures a palpable sexual tension and the sexual desires of a young woman, both of which would be prohibited by the proposed Hays Code. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde gets away with a great deal in terms of violent and sexual content, largely thanks to the skills of its director and cast, and its famous source material. It’s a landmark moment for the horror genre, and a highlight of the pre-code era as a whole. Unfortunately for the film, it suffers from some of the same pacing issues that affect many of its contemporaries. The buildup to Mr. Hyde’s violent outbursts is longer than I expected, and the film’s ending comes all too suddenly.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde boasts several terrific performances in Fredric March’s award-winning take on Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde, who is simultaneously brilliant and charming, and depraved and hideous, Miriam Hopkins’ independent and provocative Ivy Pierson, and Rose Hobart’s sweet Muriel Carrew. Director Rouben Mamoulian employs groundbreaking first-person camera techniques to terrify and titillate his audience, and make-up artist Wally Westmore creates a believably hideous Mr. Hyde. While it suffers from some of the same pacing issues that plague early horror films, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a tremendous example of the power that early horror films hold even today. Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is highly recommended.

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Pre-Code Hollywood – An Introduction

GirlMissing00011On July 1st, 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code (commonly referred to as the Hays Code) was officially implemented after four years of development. The Code set a list of precedents that all mainstream Hollywood sound films had to adhere to, focusing largely on censoring profanity, sexuality, organized crime and violence, and religious criticism. The Hays Code was made up of two sections – “Don’ts”, which outlined things that were strictly prohibited by the code, and “Be Carefuls”, which were subject to scrutiny by the Production Code Administration (PCA). The two lists featured the following rules and restrictions:

Don’ts:

  • Pointed Profanity
  • Suggestive Nudity
  • Illegal Drug Trafficking
  • Sex Perversion
  • White Slavery
  • Interracial Relationships
  • Sex Hygiene
  • Scenes of Childbirth
  • Children’s Sex Organs
  • Ridicule of the Clergy
  • Offense to Any Nation, Race, or Creed

Be Careful’s:

  • Use of the Flag
  • International Relations
  • Arson
  • Firearms
  • Theft
  • Brutality/Gruesomeness
  • Murder
  • Smuggling
  • Torture
  • Executions
  • Sympathy for Criminals
  • Attitudes Towards Public Figures/Institutions
  • Sedition
  • Cruelty to Children/Animals
  • Branding of People/Animals
  • Sale of Women
  • Rape
  • Wedding Night Scenes
  • Men and Women Sharing a Bed
  • Deliberate Seduction of Women
  • Institution of Marriage
  • Surgery
  • Drug Use
  • Law Enforcement
  • Excessive/Lustful Kissing

As you can see, the Motion Picture Production Code set the groundwork for a great deal of censorship in American cinema. By limiting the content that writers and filmmakers were able to show on screen (or even allude to), the PCA was in turn stifling artistic freedom and creativity in general. Limiting the content allowed in Hollywood films would lead to Hollywood writers, directors, and actors coming up with more subtle, creative ways of getting past the Hays Code. In turn, it sparked a great deal of outrage in Hollywood upon its announcement in 1929, setting in motion a five-year period now known as Pre-Code Hollywood. This Pre-Code era saw the development of many boundary pushing films, featuring strong female protagonists, violent content focusing on gangsters and criminals, and sexual innuendo. The Hays Code was abandoned in the 1960’s when it became clear that studios were no longer willing to enforce the strict rules, and when American culture was in the midst of an undeniable revolution. The collapse of the Motion Picture Production Code would eventually lead to the creation of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), whose film rating system is still in use today.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Film Club will be taking a look at fifteen of the most famous Pre-Code Hollywood films, examining their boundary pushing nature and shedding light on an era of filmmaking that has been sadly forgotten to history. The Pre-Code Hollywood films that will be covered include:

  1. In Old Arizona (1929) (dir. Irving Cummings, Raoul Walsh)
  2. The Divorcee (1930) (dir. Robert Z. Leonard)
  3. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) (dir. Rouben Mamoulian)
  4. Night Nurse (1931) (dir. William A. Wellman)
  5. The Public Enemy (1931) (dir. William A. Wellman)
  6. Blonde Venus (1932) (dir. Josef von Sternberg)
  7. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) (dir. Mervyn LeRoy)
  8. The Most Dangerous Game (1932) (dir. Irving Pichel, Ernest B. Schoedsack)
  9. Red-Headed Woman (1932) (dir. Jack Conway)
  10. Scarface (1932) (dir. Howard Hawks, Richard Rosson)
  11. The Sign of the Cross (1932) (dir. Cecil B. DeMille)
  12. Baby Face (1933) (dir. Alfred E. Green)
  13. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) (dir. Frank Capra)
  14. Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) (dir. Mervyn LeRoy, Busby Berkeley)
  15. Of Human Bondage (1934) (dir. John Cromwell)

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Top 100 Films #2 – City Lights (1931)

 

0000228130#2. City Lights (1931)
Directed by: Charlie Chaplin
Written by: Charlie Chaplin
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers

The films of Charlie Chaplin have always had a profound emotional effect on me – they’re truly funny, often innovative, and always full of heart. His 1931 film City Lights is without a doubt one of the most emotionally satisfying experiences in movie history. The romantic comedy has been praised as being one of the greatest movies of all-time, and features one of the most iconic romantic moments ever in its final shot. City Lights sees The Little Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) meeting and quickly falling in love with the blind Flower Girl (Virginia Cherill). That same night, the Tramp thwarts the drunken suicide attempt of an Eccentric Millionaire (Harry Myers), and the two return to the Millionaire’s mansion and form something of a unique bond. The next day, the Tramp borrows money from the Millionaire to buy all the flowers from the Flower Girl. After learning that the Girl and her Grandmother (Florence Lee) will be evicted from their home because they cannot afford to pay rent, the Tramp takes it upon himself to earn money for the pair. He takes a job as a street sweeper, takes part in a fixed boxing match, and once again becomes involved with the Millionaire. City Lights is as romantic a film as has ever been made – featuring Chaplin’s Tramp performing the most selfless actions imaginable for people who don’t even know of his existence. It’s a deeply moving story, and Chaplin uses the Tramp’s selfless nature as a launching point for some truly hilarious slapstick gags, including the aforementioned boxing match – which goes horribly wrong – and the scene where he saves the life of the Millionaire. Chaplin takes full advantage of the silent film medium, even though most of the world had since moved on to talking pictures – the silent film was Chaplin’s wheelhouse and he makes it seems as relevant as ever. Chaplin’s performance as the Tramp is as always intensely physical and goofy, with the character never seeming to be able to get ahead – he is constantly the butt of the joke, despite being the pinnacle of all that is good. Not only is City Lights still incredibly funny after all these years, but it’s also deeply moving and sad in many moments. The situation that the blind Flower Girl and her Grandmother find themselves in often seems hopeless. Even when the Tramp is making headway in making money for the two, they have no idea of his actions – it isn’t until the very end of City Lights that the two parties make formal contact. Chaplin’s film is as always humanitarian and full of themes of romance, justice, and happiness – nobody had heart quite like Charlie Chaplin. The fact that City Lights makes me weep like a baby in its closing moments is testament to how much power the film holds – the entire journey feels so worth it in the end. Only a master like Chaplin could have you crying tears of laughter one moment, and tears of sadness the next. City Lights is another example on my list of a perfect romantic comedy – it might even be the ultimate date movie. If City Lights doesn’t make you feel something deep down inside, then I’m not totally convinced you’re human at all.

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Top 100 Films #55 – M (1931)

 

maxresdefault#55. M (1931)
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou, Paul Falkenberg, Adolf Jensen, Karl Vash (based on newspaper article by Egon Jacobson)
Starring: Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Grundgens

Fritz Lang’s first sound film, simply titled M, is quite possibly one of the most atmospheric films in the history of the medium.  Lang had already made a name for himself with his science fiction masterpiece Metropolis, and fantasy epic Die Nibelungen.  The story of M is simple – concerned parents and citizens of Berlin hunt for a child killer (Peter Lorre) – identified only by his whistling of “In the Hall of the Mountain King”.  After the murder of a young girl named Elsie, the panic and anxiety-stricken people of Berlin enlist the help of the city’s crime lords in order to track down the killer for themselves.  What follows is a tense, atmospheric, and morally challenging thriller from one of early film’s greatest directors.  Peter Lorre’s performance as Hans Beckert, the child murderer, is without a doubt one of the creepiest, most menacing performances in early film history.  His whistling of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” sets the tone for what’s to come, which it’s safe to say is never anything good, and his famous bulging eyes are perfect for the role.  Lang’s direction feels frantic once things ramp up, but he never let’s the film’s slow, psychological pace be forgotten by viewers.  His use of imagery is incredible, especially when it comes to the reveal of the “M” referred to in the film’s title.  The ending of M is one of the most morally ambiguous you’ll find in movies of its time, ending on the perfect note to stick with viewers for days after the credits roll.  Lang dares viewers to sympathize with Lorre’s monstrous Hans Beckert, going to several emotional lengths to make you question your own morals and values.  M is a very special film in many ways – it’s something of an anomaly for film of the 1930’s for how bleak and thrilling it is.  Lang always had a way of challenging his viewers, pushing them to reconsider their once rock solid moral code.  If you struggle with older films, I can absolutely say that M is a great place to start.

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