Tag Archives: Joan Blondell

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”.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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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Noirvember Feature #4 – Nightmare Alley (1947)

220px-NightmarealleyposterNightmare Alley (1947)
Directed by: Edmund Goulding
Written by: Jules Furthman (based on Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham)
Starring: Tyrone Power, Coleen Gray, Joan Blondell, Helen Walker

This monthly theme idea just keeps producing better and better results, I couldn’t be happier with the way Noirvember has unfolded so far.  The latest in a series of surprisingly terrific films is Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley, a noir much different from what we’ve taken a look at this month.  Goulding is probably best known for directing Bette Davis in 1939’s excellent Dark Victory and the so-so Best Picture winner Grand Hotel in 1932.  Nightmare Alley came towards the end of Goulding’s directing career, and has proven to be one of his most acclaimed and memorable films in the years since his death.  The film stars swashbuckling Hollywood heartthrob Tyrone Power as Stan Carlisle, the charming noir regular Coleen Gray as Molly Carlisle, and the terrific and prolific Joan Blondell as Zeena.  Reviews of the time were initially mixed, but Nightmare Alley has slowly but surely earned the reputation as one of the best film noirs of its time, and an incredibly dark and morally ambiguous one at that.  Due to this moral ambiguity Nightmare Alley wasn’t exactly a success after its release, and probably ended up costing 20th Century Fox more money than it worth to the studio.  The film has a notable cast, an Academy Award winning director, and a big budget, so why was it considered a failure for so many years?

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Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power) and Zeena (Joan Blondell) in Edmund Goulding’s noir masterpiece Nightmare Alley.

Nightmare Alley follows Stan Carlisle (the aforementioned Tyrone Power) as a seedy carnival con man trying to claw his way to the top of his travelling circus.  Our main character soon finds himself wrapped up in a love affair with his new boss Zeena (Joan Blondell), but his intentions are far from innocent.  Zeena reveals to Stan that she and her husband were once a major act in the travelling carnival world.  She tells him the two developed a code that would allow the couple to communicate, yet remain undetected by the audience.  Zeena would feign mental powers, and her husband Pete (Ian Keith) would ask her questions written by the audience.  Upon hearing of this famous “code” Stan begs Zeena to go into business with him, and after an accident involving her husband she decides to go ahead with the plan.  Unfortunately for Zeena, Stan likes ‘em young.  He soon sets his sights on the talented Molly (Coleen Gray).  Molly is a beautiful young act who falls head over heels for our main character before she even knows it.  Stan soon begins yet another affair with young Molly, and are both forced to leave when the two are found out by the other members of the carnival.  With knowledge of the famed code Carlisle and his new lady now have the world in the palm of their hands.  Will the two prosper with their newfound fame and talents, or will Stan’s seediness and criminal history catch up to him?  Find out by watching Edmund Goulding’s excellent Nightmare Alley; I promise you it’s absolutely worth your time.

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I wasn’t initially sure what to think when Nightmare Alley began unravelling, but the film slowly ramps up tension and builds the world and characters involved in it.  The film starts to truly shine once these elements of the film are established, and I can absolutely say that I adored it because of them.  All of our main characters are incredibly fun to watch because of how morally confused many of them are, and because of how real they feel for the time.  Tyrone Power’s turn as Stan Carlisle is absolutely one of my favorite film noir performances to date, and the supporting cast of incredibly talented actresses like Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, and Helen Walker only helps to solidify the film’s greatness.  The carnival setting is truly unique in the film noir world, and is a place where Hollywood rarely dared to venture at the time.  The carnival acts and personalities are all believable, and much of the goings on inside make the film feel seedy and dark as it should.  Nightmare Alley doesn’t adhere to typical film noir conventions and easy storytelling elements, but instead opts to blaze its own thrilling and dramatic trail.  I found myself wishing that more films in the genre were this unique and easy to follow, and hope that I come across more on my month-long journey through noir.  

The acting, setting, storytelling, and direction make Nightmare Alley an absolute treat from start to finish, and has me guessing character motivations as well as constantly changing favorites.  It’s a noir the likes of which I’ve rarely seen before, and I highly recommend everybody check it out.  I don’t want to reveal too much about the twists and turns taken throughout, and I really hope you all decide to seek it out because of that.  It’s dark, challenging, and still feels relevant nearly seventy years later.  Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley gets my highest recommendation.

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