Pre-Code Hollywood Collection / Cleopatra: 75th Anniversary Edition
Universal Home Video plunges into the sex, sin and bathtub gin of pre-code Hollywood films with their answer to the “Forbidden Hollywood” series from Warner. The Pre-Code Hollywood Collection is branded as part of the “Universal Backlot Series” but it actually collects six films Paramount Pictures (Universal owns the rights to the early Paramount catalogue), a studio with a sensibility as different as can be from the snappy, punchy, street-smart Warner attitude. Paramount boasted a more elegant style and opulent touch, more glamour and soft-focus gloss than the working class Warner films and a roster of directors that included Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, Cecil B. DeMille and Mitchell Leisen, a director who began as a costume designer and art director on Douglas Fairbanks adventures and Cecil B. DeMille spectacles.
I bring up Leisen in particular because his 1934 Murder at the Vanities is a highlight of the set, a combination backstage musical, showbiz comedy and murder mystery, all with the sex and smart-alecky attitude and snappy pace of the best pre-code studio pictures. Leisen mentored under DeMille as the director transformed himself from silky sex comedy director to self-promoting epic filmmaker and king of the spectacle. Leisen’s earlier film, the classy drama Death Takes a Holiday, is a somewhat lugubrious production but by Murder at the Vanities, Leisen starts to come into his own as a deft director of light romantic comedy and cool, clever Hollywood entertainment. It’s based on a play by Earl Carroll, creator of the “Vanities” stage spectacles, and while he doesn’t appear in the film as such, Carroll’s presence hovers over the entire film through cagey name dropping. Carl Brisson and Kitty Carlisle (as the singing stars and romantic sweethearts) headline the show onstage but the offstage antics by fast-talking manager Jack Oakie (playing a former newspaperman and all-around wise guy trying to prove himself to boss Carroll) steal the film. He outmaneuvers thickheaded Irish cop Victor McLaglen (in his usual hammy lug of a performance) in a race to solve a murder before the curtain drops and handily wins the battle of wits with snappy repartee and smartly delivered quips.
The differences between this fast-moving, fast-talking, sexy little entertainment and the Warner backstage musicals like 42nd Street and the Golddigger films points up the differences between the studios. In the Warner productions, the story belongs to the hungry young kids who live three to a room and are always a bad review or a failed financier away from the breadlines, and the shows balance spectacle with social commentary about the depression just outside the stage door. There’s little recognition of the economy in Murder at the Vanities, where the sophisticated headliners are the stars, cultured folk who sings classy songs to the toast of society that has swarmed in for opening night. The working class mugs here are dull-witted cops (McLaglen) and dizzy chorines (Toby Wing, giggling her way through a running gag) and devoted assistants and seamstresses and servants, ready to sacrifice themselves for the beautiful people they serve. Don’t look for some plucky young extra to emerge from the chorus. They’re just there for spectacle, and what a spectacle it is. Where Busby Berkeley transformed stage numbers into surreal fantasies, Leisen keeps his production firmly grounded within the proscenium arch, real production numbers created from imaginative mise-en-scene and erotic teases of costumes that are barely visible on the comely chorines. And Leisen always keeps a dynamic between the onstage numbers and the offstage story, favoring shots that bring both worlds into the frame and zipping between the offstage drama and the onstage show. He deftly juggles the tangled storylines and keeps the film charging all the way to the climactic bow.
Dorothy Arzner’s 1932 Merrily We Go to Hell stars Fredric March as “one of the few drinking newspapermen who can still keep his job,” which doesn’t dissuade sweet society girl Sylvia Sidney from romancing this charming lush. And March is charming, whether drunk or sober. He’s simply not a particularly reliable husband. The title is a refrain repeated by March as he embarks on his drinking binges. “I’d rather go merrily to hell with you than alone,” Sidney confesses as she attempts to keep up with him, and not just with his alcoholic intake. As March embarks on a very public affair, Sidney matches him by flitting through New York nightlife with a dapper young Cary Grant on her arm. He has only one scene but he’s quite debonair and charming. Dorothy Arzner was the rare career woman director in the Hollywoodâ€™s early sound era and the film is smart and sharp and clever, and daring in its open acknowledgment of extramarital affairs and New York society decadence.
Search For Beauty (1934) is headlined by Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe and Ida Lupino as Olympic champions but they’re goodie-goodie stiffs next to scheming Robert Armstrong and his smart-cookie partner in scam Gertrude Michael, who recruit these athletes to front Armstrong’s latest scheme: a skim magazine posing as a respectable health and fitness digest. Erle C. Kenton brings a notable visual wit to a few scenes but the show-stopper is a body-beautiful pageant at a fitness farm, a second-rate Busby Berkeley production number by way of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia. While Armstrong and his backer James Gleason try to turn this into a dating service for rich old men and society dames who come to ogle and flirt, our young and healthy heroes turn the tables by turning the party into a fitness boot camp and making these decadent society dandies into buck privates in the new fitness army. Platinum blonde Toby Wing (a Busby Berkeley regular and a personal favorite of mine) is also back as Lupino’s dim cousin and shimmies in her lingerie for a private party.
The three-disc set is filled out with The Cheat (1931) with Tallulah Bankhead, Hot Saturday (1932) with Randolph Scott and Cary Grant and Torch Singer (1933) with Claudette Colbert and also includes the 10-minute featurette “Forbidden Film: The Production Code Era.”
Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra – 75th Anniversary Edition isn’t part of the set but a sister release in the “Universal Backlot Series.” Once upon a time, Cecil B. DeMille was a silky director of sophisticated romantic dramas and social satires, until he discovered the success of spectacle and showmanship. The contrast between the films of the Pre-Code Hollywood Collection and DeMille’s lavish but stilted film is instructive: this is all production value and no style. Cleopatra is his follow-up to Sign of the Cross, where his display of sex and decadence and barely-clothed flesh proved to be a winning formula: sin followed by divine retribution. Claudette Colbert wears more clothes here but she is quite to flirt when Julius Caesar (Warren William) comes to Egypt and she keeps her power hitched to the winning side when Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon) takes his place. Cleopatra’s royal entertainments for Marc Antony are her version of the Goldwyn Follies, with showgirls in revealing costumes prancing through absurd set pieces. The war scenes, however, are magnificent (at least those without the sloppy back projection), with lavish miniatures, recycled battle scenes from the silents and a few shots of grotesque death in the war machine. It makes a mockery of history, but it doesn’t necessarily make it entertaining.
Max Fleischer’s Superman
“Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. The infant of Krypton is now the Man of Steel: Superman!” The 17 animated shorts produced by Max Fleischer between 1941 and 1943 were the first big screen incarnation of the great comic book superhero and Superman never looked more beautiful in flight or heroic in action than in these cartoon classics. Max Fleischer’s Superman gives creative credit to producer Max Fleischer but it was his brother, Dave Fleischer, who directed the first eight shorts and created the handsome, graceful texture and theatrical sensibility of the series. The colors are soft and subtle in some scenes, rich and vivid in others, and are filled with dramatic washes of shadows throughout. The stories evoke the wild tales of the adventure serials and the genre films of the time (“The Mummy Strikes” is very much a superhero take on the Universal mummy movies). But visually they are more like superhero noir pieces, more suggestive of the dark mood of Batman more than the squeaky clean man of steel image we’ve come to expect, and the anthem-ic theme and dynamic scores by Sammy Timberg are fabulous, moody and suggestive when called for and rousing when the action kicks into gear. They are brilliant adventure cinema soundtracks, which gets to the heart of the genius of the series: these cartoons are more like the live action films of the era than the cartoons of the time, a stylized vision of the real world painted directly onto the screen in smooth strokes and evocative visuals, into which marvelous monsters and a mythic hero appear to do battle. The human figures are somewhere between Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the “Superman” comic books and move with a grace unseen in the comic cartoon shorts of the time. They also feature insensitive and sometimes offensive racial caricatures of the era, especially in the nationalistic war cartoons. These are comic books for big kids, combining giddy stunts and last minute rescues with creepy horrors and deadly killers. With a real live villain bent on world domination out there during WWII, these fantasies hit closer to home than we might realize.
These animated shorts have been available on DVD in other collections but the versions in this “authorized edition” have comes from the original masters. Some of the shorts show surface scuffs and scratches but the colors are strong and the image quality sharp and clear. All 17 theatrical cartoons are collected in a two-disc set along with two original featurettes. “The Man, The Myth, Superman” features scholars reflecting on the cultural need for heroes and the origins of the superman myths (like Hercules) and is completely unnecessary. More interesting is “First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series,” a retrospective appreciation of the origins, history and aesthetics of the Fleischer shorts by comic book historians and contemporary animators. They remind us that all of the animated short series up to this time were comedies and caricatures. The Fleischer Bros. had to create a style that reflected the real world and human figures. They also were the men who first made Superman fly, according to animation historian Jerry Beck. Even in the comics he was still leaping tall buildings in a single bound, but on the big screen they needed something more impressive, more heroic, more magnificent. They asked DC comics to let them give Superman flight and DC agreed. The rest is history. What’s missing is a program guide of some sort; there is no listing of the titles anywhere in the package except on the DVD menus.
For more views and reviews:
Dave Kehr on the Pre-Code Hollywood Collection at the New York Times.