Tag Archives: Barbara Stanwyck

Pre-Code Hollywood – Wrap-Up

033-scarface-theredlistOur Pre-Code Hollywood marathon has been one of the most rewarding endeavors I’ve taken part in to date! I’ve discovered numerous incredible films that I never would have seen otherwise, and learned a great deal about the history of Hollywood. The years leading up to the establishment of the Hays Code were some of the greatest years of early Hollywood, as writers, directors, and actors knew they could get away with not being censored. The creative spirit seen in the five years leading up to the enforcement of the Code has rarely been duplicated in North America, save for New Hollywood era of the late 1960’s through to the late 1970’s.

Below are some of my favorite films, performances, and more that I feel deserve some recognition from the general public. If you only have the time and patience to seek out one or two of these films, make it one of these:

Best FilmI Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (runner-up: Scarface)

Best Actor – Paul Muni, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (runner-up: James Cagney, The Public Enemy)

Best Actress – Barbara Stanwyck, Baby Face (runners-up: Bette Davis, Of Human Bondage and Jean Harlow, Red-Headed Woman)

Best Director – Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson, Scarface (runner-up: Mervyn LeRoy, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Gold Diggers of 1933)

Best Supporting Performance – Aline MacMahon, Gold Diggers of 1933 (runner-up: Claudette Colbert, The Sign of the Cross)

Best Moment – “Pettin’ in the Park”, Gold Diggers of 1933 (runner-up: “The hunt”, The Most Dangerous Game)

And there you have it! A big thanks to all those who stood by patiently over the three months that it took to complete the marathon. If you have any suggestions for future marathons, comments or criticism, feel free to comment below or email us at sgtpeppersfilmclub@gmail.com!

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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.
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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!

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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.
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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.

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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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