Turner Classic Movies is turning all the Fridays in September over to films from that brief period in the early thirties when the studios thumbed their collective noses at the toothless Production Code and pushed the boundaries of sex, violence, and bad behavior without judgment or consequences in film after film. The iron boot of censorship came down in 1934 and stomped out all that deliciously salacious content, but for a few years Hollywood acknowledged and even flaunted sex between consenting adults (married or not). The films from this era were branded “Forbidden Hollywood” when they were rediscovered and revived for audiences in the 1990s, but today they are better known as Pre-Code. Turner Classic Movies has four full Fridays full of forbidden Pre-Code delights.
While there are gems aplenty throughout the month, I’ll spotlight a few of the most interesting and audacious rarities and lesser-known glories, including two from the coming Friday line-up.
Set those DVRs now!
Friday, September 5:
Safe in Hell (1931) – Think of this as a kind of B-movie riff on Sadie Thompson (the original bad girl in the tropics melodrama) directed with a merciless brutality by William Wellman. It stars the largely forgotten Dorothy Mackaill as a scuffed-up, street-smart answer to Miriam Hopkins and she is amazing as the hooker who is whisked off to a Caribbean island to flee a murder charge. The film’s title is no exaggeration; imagine Casablanca as a lice-infested backwater run by mercenary opportunists and filled with the sleaziest criminals to escape a manhunt. They all take their shot at seducing Mackaill, the sole white woman in this island prison, and she shoots them all down with the brash directness of an experienced urban doll who has spent her life fending off passes. Yet somehow the film manages to give them all a shot at redemption when she is tried for murder (it’s a different murder, and yet the same one, in the crazy logic of the melodrama contrivances) and they line up in her defense. Wellman it snappy and sassy as he winds the story from the cynical to the sentimental to the spiritual with equal commitment.
The Big House: Triple Feature (Warner Archive) is a special edition for the MOD (manufacture-on-demand) line.
The 1930 The Big House, directed by George Hill, is the original men-in-prison drama in terms of the way it established the conventions. There’s the pecking order of tough guys behind bars, the culture of loyalty, the sniveling snitches, the prison reform speech from the tough but committed warden (Lewis Stone, who is indeed tough), an inmate protest, a prison break and a riot. And through it all, Hill shows us the overcrowding, the regimentation of routine, and the numbing, soul-crushing oppression of the experience, from the processing of a newly-convicted prisoner (Robert Montgomery as a privileged kid completely unprepared to take care of himself here) to the predatory society within. Chester Morris is the leading man here as Morgan, a kind of underworld aristocracy thanks to his reputation as a criminal mastermind, and he comes off as a slightly darker, tougher, and more wooden Richard Barthelmess, the square guy rolling with tough breaks. Wallace Beery is the prison-yard bully Butch, who isn’t too bright but defers to Morgan, and Montgomery is nervous and sweaty as the wide-eyed fresh meat who ignores good advice and turns snitch, illustrating the warning given by the warden in the first scene: “Prison doesn’t make you yellow, but if you are already yellow, prison brings it out.” I guess we know his predilections.
The story is basically a roll call of what will become prison movie clichés but the presentation is striking. The mess hall scene presents mealtime in purgatory, with the inmates lined up in rows and columns with regimented precision, and the image is echoed at chapel, where the prisoners file in out of duty rather than faith. Meanwhile Hill contrasts the surface of resignation to the routine with the covert dealings below the table tops as inmates pass weapons and messages out of sight of the guards. The soundtrack keeps returning to the lock-step trudge of marching feet instead of music. And the warden responds to the occupation of a cell block by prisoners with overwhelming force: he calls in the tanks! It was nominated for Best Picture and Best Actor (Wallace Beery) and won Oscars for the sound and France Marion’s screenplay.
The Big House was previously released as a stand-alone movie on the Warner Archive line. The “special edition” of this release comes in the other two films of the triple feature: the French language version, directed by Paul Fejos and starring Charles Boyer as Morgan, and the Spanish language version. Both are shot on the same sets and utilize the same crowd shots, special effects, and even shot-lists and set-ups. The compositions are almost exactly the same, like an assembly line cranking out the alternate versions on a timetable, and the biggest difference is in the variations of characters brought by the actors and dramatic direction. Fejos seems constrained by the structure here—see his striking Hollywood work in the Lonesome disc set Criterion released last year (a triple feature in its own right) to see his eye for setting scenes and moving the camera—but he and Boyer turn Morgan into a much more charismatic figure, less hard-boiled, smoother and cooler, with a sense of authority that comes from confidence and ease. The Spanish version, from journeyman director Ward Wing (a sometime actor with a couple of shorts and documentaries to his credit as a filmmaker), hasn’t the same strength of character (Jose Crespo is a bland, unimpressive Morgan but Juan de Landa makes a strange mix of childlike clown and psychopathic bully as Butch) but the production value and the momentum keep it rolling along.
Three films on two discs. The print has seen wear and the contrast fluctuates a bit but it looks quite good considering the age and the era. The French and Spanish versions are not quite as well preserved but perfectly watchable and acceptable. The English subtitles are actually close captions and include notations on sound effects.
5 Fingers (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives), a smart 1952 espionage thriller directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, features James Mason in a superb performance as the contemptuous valet to the British Ambassador to Turkey during World War II. A career servant, he decides to make his fortune selling British military secrets to the Germans and enlists a penniless French countess (Danielle Darrieux), a woman he once served and still desires, to help him hide his money and provide a safe house. Based on real events from World War II, the 1952 film reworks the story and the players to make the valet, who is given the code name Cicero, a bitter, resentful British man determined to break through the class barriers. Mason plays him with smooth arrogance and cynicism, beholden to nothing but money and power. While he’s nakedly obsessed with class and status, everyone else is simply more subtle about it—this almost invisible valet is never once suspected by either side of being the leak in the embassy—and the Germans are so afraid that he’s actually a double agent that they never act upon the intelligence. Even the agent sent from London to find the leak (Michael Rennie) discounts him from his investigations.
The direction is low key, with a focus on the culture of the city of Ankara during the war (Turkey did not choose sides and Allied and Axis powers both had a presence in the city), the script full of sharp wit and clever dialogue, and the story is filled with delicious ironies. Mankiewicz did not receive screenplay credit but some of the dialogue surely came from his pen, such as the Countess saying to a civil servant: “Please don’t look at me as if you had a source of income other than your salary.”
The Fox Archive release has not been mastered in HD and it looks only slightly better than laserdisc quality, but it’s a good source print and is perfectly watchable.
Roadblock (Warner Archive) opens with a set-up that promises a femme fatale siren thriller and a heist picture, and in its own way it defies both genres, or at least it takes a different twist. Charles McGraw is the hardcase of an insurance investigator, an incorruptible agent who earned the name “Honest Joe” but falls hard for a chiseling dame (Joan Dixon) looking to score a rich husband: “You’re a nice guy, honest Joe, but you’re not in the right league. I’m aiming for the World Series.” So he trades his integrity in for a crooked payday and ends up investigating the very robbery he masterminded while his partner (Louis Jean Heydt in soft-spoken conscience mode) starts to suspect him.
The 1951 picture is a film noir by definition, with its corrupted characters and mercenary femme fatale and atmosphere of a noose tightening around our anti-hero. Director Harold Daniels is no visual stylist and there’s a slackness to many of the scenes, but he comes to life in a nighttime murder scene that he transforms into a model of noir violence, an urban street fight in the dark of the empty city picked out in shards of light (credit likely goes to cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, RKO’s crime movie vet), and the screenplay co-written by Steve Fisher has a bite of irony in its twists. And give the film credit for making a heist film work where we never see the heist; we’re checking in from McGraw’s honeymoon, which is also his alibi. The gravel-voiced McGraw carries the rest of the film with his working class integrity and moral judgments twisted into self-destructive panic when he becomes everything he despises just to impress a girl. Print quality is good.
It’s been a few months since I’ve surveyed the MOD market – that’s the manufacture-on-demand line that Warner, Fox, and Sony currently present as a way to release films that the sales market no longer supports – and there have been a lot of releases in that time. Not all are ‘classic” in the essential sense, mind you, but why should that be? The deluge of New Releases in any given month is filled with titles you’d never heard of before and will never hear of again. What’s so much fun in the stream of MOD releases is the ongoing conversation with old Hollywood movies and vintage TV shows, and the continued connection with favorite stars through their less familiar films. There are always films and filmmakers and stars waiting to be discovered.
Cry of the City (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives) is one that should be known better. It’s one of Robert Siodmak’s darkest film noirs, a gangster drama seeped in shadows, corruption, and psychosis, with Victor Mature as an Italian-American police detective who takes the pursuit of small-time gangster Richard Conte personally. Siodmak shoots much of it on location in New York but still manages to get those studio shadows and rain-slicked streets into shot after shot, creating a nocturnal underworld within the urban jungle of the city.
Conte gets the showboating role of the glib, smart-talking hood whose grinning charm and sardonic wit never flag, not even in custody, until that smarmy confidence gives way to panic and predatory self-interest under pressure. Mature’s stoic stillness gives a sense of gravity to a dour and humorless role: the martyr fighting the good fight in a neighborhood that has turned its back on him. Shelley Winters has as small but splashy role as another of her brassy dames, loyal and not too bright, and Hope Emerson is even more memorable as a hatchet-faced masseuse ready to choke the life out of Conte. This is the classic noir world of corruption and betrayal and desperation. It’s a good-looking disc, too, mastered from a good print with minor scuffing, with strong contrasts (and this is a film of dark, dark shadows) and a sharp image.
Moss Rose (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives) is in the British Gothic mystery tradition of Rebecca, Jane Eyre and Gaslight, set in turn-of-the-century Britain and starring Victor Mature as a prodigal son returned from Canada to his now-widowed mother (Ethel Barrymore) and their country manor. He’s the prime suspect in the murder of a London showgirl and Peggy Cummins blackmails him into passing her off as a fellow moneyed aristocrat. British-born ingénue Cummins, curiously enough, gets top billing over Mature (who was by far the bigger star in 1947) and Vincent Price is the wily detective who knows how to play upon the arrogance of the upper class as he builds his case against Mature. Gregory Ratoff directs with an understated sense of shadowy threat—he does love those hard shadows and partially obscured faces and stormy nights—and makes great use of the Victorian-era backlot street scenes and set. It’s a solid B&W transfer.
The 1948 The Beast with Five Fingers (Warner Archive) sounds like a twist on The Hands of Orlac—it does, after all, have a famed musician and a killer hand—but is actually more of an old dark house thriller set in a turn-of-the-century Italian castle where friends and relatives have been gathered for the reading of a will. They, of course, start turning up dead. Strangled, in fact, ostensibly by the disembodied hand of a crippled piano virtuoso. Robert Alda enters as an American con man and leaves a hero and J. Carroll Naish puts on his meatball Italian accent to play the village Commissario, but Peter Lorre makes the biggest impression as the personal secretary of the dead man, a scholar obsessed with the secrets of ancient magic. Robert Florey does just fine with the atmosphere and even better with the superb optical effects. While you can sometimes see the seams in this well-mastered edition, transferred from a preserved print, Florey makes the imagery of the disembodied hand skittering around like a spider so wonderfully weird that you hardly care. There’s a marvelous madness to it at its best and, true to the time, a little twist of humor in the epilogue, complete with ethnic flourish.
Spencer Tracy gets top billing in Frank Borzage’s 1932 Young America (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives) but the film is really about an orphan named Art (Tommy Conlon) who is called “the worst kid in town” but is really a good boy with bad judgment, loyal to his friends and uncompromising with bullies. Art is a hard-luck saint among kids, ready to sacrifice all to steal medicine for a dying friend or take on gangsters in the middle of a high-speed car chase. Tracy is a drug store owner with a streetwise attitude and a high society lifestyle. It’s amazing how many of the most widely parodied clichés of Hollywood melodrama are crammed into this one film (adapted from a stage play), and how enjoyable it is nonetheless thanks to Tracy’s lively personality and up-from-the-streets manner and to Borzage’s verging-on-sentimental-overkill affection for his working class characters. Seriously, at the risk of a spoiler, a dying child moans about flying through the air before croaking out “It’s getting dark…” Ralph Bellamy co-stars as a compassionate judge.
Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 6 (Warner Archive) and Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 7 (Warner Archive) continue to showcase the best, sauciest, and most surprising films made before the Production Code forced Hollywood to clean up the screen. At their best, or at least their most memorable, they flaunted the sexual play of unmarried couples (and worse, the affairs of married characters with other partners), the flagrant boozing at the height of prohibition, and the thrill of bad behavior, which it presented without the requisite lessons learned. And in this case, they saved the best for last. Or at least for seventh.
Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 7 (Warner Archive) is the collection I’ve been waiting for. It features two of my favorite pre-code discoveries, Skyscraper Souls (1932) and Employees’ Entrance (1933), both starring Warren William in his silver fox phase: the big business tycoon who’s a shark at work and a wolf with the women, putting the moves on the youngest and prettiest girls around. This is the era of kept women and philandering men and these films revel in his alpha male aggressiveness in the boardroom and on the prowl.
Skyscraper Souls, directed by Edgar Selwyn, stars William as a New York banker and corporate gambler whose financial empire is centered in his beloved 100-story skyscraper (a phallic tower of his power just two stories shy of the Empire State Building), where he not only works but lives in a penthouse apartment. Maureen O’Sullivan is the fresh young beauty he picks out of the secretarial pool to replace his longtime mistress (Verree Teasdale), who is also his personal assistant. He juggles finances the same way he does women, and isn’t above lying in either arena, which is why the bank examiners are looking into a dubious loan he made to himself to finance the building.
The pre-code era was famed for its films that pushed the envelope of sex with racy suggestiveness and Skyscraper Souls just oozes with lust and overflows with affairs, but the mercenary business dealings are just as forbidden here. William is a depression-era Gordon Gekko obsessed with building his own empire at any cost. O’Sullivan came to the film fresh from “Tarzan the Ape Man” and her wardrobe is almost as skimpy in a couple of scenes here. But she’s no simple innocent sullied, despite William’s predatory pressure. Everyone is compromised here.
Employees’ Entrance (1933) is a perfect companion piece. This one, directed by Roy Del Roy, is set in a metropolitan department store with William playing the manager in the same corporate captain manner — “My code is smash… or be smashed!” he tells the board of directors, and he follows through with a ruthless business code that allows no sentiment — and Loretta Young as the comely model that he dallies with but refuses to commit to. The store is his true mistress and his life. Wallace Ford is the ambitious young clerk with bright ideas who is also wooing Young while William grooms him in his own image. The film packs a lot of conflict and bad behavior (not to mention a stock market crash and a suicide) in 75 minutes. William is both hero and villain, ruining businesses and lives as he cancels contracts and fires employees when they fail to live up to his standards, and he is suave yet ferocious in the part.
Red Dust (Warner Archive), the 1932 jungle melodrama starring Clark Gable as a rubber plantation foreman in East Asia and Jean Harlow as the street smart showgirl who takes a powder from “Say-gone” (as they call the future Vietnamese city of Saigon) and lands upriver in his primitive plantation manor, is as sexy, frank, and grown-up as pre-code cinema gets.
Gable’s Dennis Carson is pure testosterone, a macho hunk of survivalist instinct, racial bigotry, and unapologetic chauvinism, as arrogant and judgmental as he is hypocritical, which strangely enough is part of his rough-edged charm. And make no mistake, the man is mesmerizing, even when he’s insufferable. Gable was quite a prolific player in the MGM stable but until then he was always playing in support to the star. Director Victor Fleming plucked Gable to take the lead here with newly-minted star Harlow and helped shape Gable as the rugged man’s man star, a cocktail of machismo and impertinence and sassy confidence that defined his image. Fleming soon became Gable’s friend and hunting buddy and the actor’s favorite director.
As with Gable, Fleming helped shape Harlow’s screen persona with this and the subsequent “Bombshell” (also available from the Warner Archive; reviewed on Parallax View here). Harlow is Vantine, a woman of indeterminate employment (she’s hitched a ride on the first boat out to get out of a spot of trouble, a hazard, as she explains, “in my line of work”) and no apologies. That’s her charm and Harlow magnificently embodies this creature. Whatever her career, she makes no apologies of how lives her life. She’s open, unashamed, likes to sleep with men, and doesn’t care what anyone thinks about it.
Which is more than you can say about Carson, a man who makes a show of independence and morality, then proceeds to put the moves on a married woman (Mary Astor), the wife of his new engineer, who is conveniently sent to survey the farthest reaches of his jungle plot. The heat between the proper society woman in the wild and the great white hunter dazzled by culture is palpable and it makes a fool — and a hypocrite — of Carson, who immediately kicks Vantine out of his bed to make room for his hot and heavy affair. But Vantine is still there, lounging around in lingerie and merrily bathing in the rain barrel without bothering to pull the shades, not as a temptation but as a conscience.
It’s all shot on the leftover “Tarzan” sets on the MGM backlot, a perfectly artificial jungle set of fake trees and painted backdrops, and filled with demeaning Asian stereotypes of native “coolie” workers. Most of the conversation between Carson and his engineer consists of swapping complaints about how lazy and sneaky the coolies are, a work force indistinguishable from press gangs or slave labor. No irony here, merely the usual extension of manifest destiny and colonialist arrogance that Hollywood happily embodied in its golden years.
You can (and should) enjoy the film even while recognizing the insensitivity and western arrogance. In fact, the film so frankly acknowledges and confronts Caron’s hypocrisy that you can mentally extend the theme in ways the filmmakers surely never intended. But even if you can’t, the glow of Harlow, the heat of her chemistry with Gable, the strength and grace of Astor, and the exotic fantasy of uninhibited jungle love among the American expatriates is irresistible.
The star power made this a classic of late-night TV and early VHS release, but the lack of high-quality archival elements made it MIA when other star-powered Hollywood classics rolled out on DVD. And while this Warner Archive release isn’t necessarily stellar, it looks very good and marks one of the biggest releases of the format. It’s about time this film was available on disc.
The Most Dangerous Game (1932) is the first screen adaptation of the classic story of the decadent hunter who stalks human prey. Directed by Ernest Schoedsack with actor-turned-director Irving Pichel (his first directing credit) and produced by Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper, previously known for exotic adventure documentaries like Grass (1925) and Chang (1927), it is still the best. They bring gothic style to the strain of primitive exoticism they helped make popular in the late silent / early sound era and frame the dramatic survival thriller with lurid and perverse details extreme even for the pre-code era.
Joel McCrea stars as Bob Rainsford, a celebrated big game hunter on a voyage through the south seas who is shipwrecked on an isolated jungle island by the reclusive Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), the very model of the decadent aristocrat turned mad megalomaniac. Living in a castle built in the middle of the wilds (a lovely but clearly painted money-saving matte), he entertains himself by luring passing ships to their doom on the rocky straights and then playing the smirking host to the survivors.
Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong, stars of King Kong (which was being shot concurrently), play Eve and Martin Trowbridge, siblings and fellow “guests” of Zaroff. He is all generosity as he drops hints to their fate and Bob is a little slow on the uptake, what with Zaroff’s leading comments about his boredom with hunting mere animals and his quest for a true hunting challenge, and Eve’s desperate warnings of “danger.” Her instincts are right on. It’s not just bloodlust that drives Zaroff; he’s saving Eve for the post hunt festivities. “Kill!… Then love,” he explains to Bob (letting the imagination of the audience fill in the rest), and then invites him to be his partner in the hunt. Bob’s disgust ends the discussion and the American is sent out as his next challenge.
Those releases found an appreciative audience, apparently, if the Warner Archive Facebook page and Tumblr blog and Warner has continued mining their library of pre-1933 movies, the year the production code went into effect and started censoring Hollywood films in earnest. Here are the most interesting films I’ve been watching from this batch, plus a 2010 Warner Archive that I just caught up with, and which adds another dimension to the pre-code sensibility.
That release is The Last Flight (1931), Hollywood’s “lost generation” film, the story of four World War I fliers discharged after being shot down and injured. They are “spent bullets,” as one officer calls them with some sympathy, unfit for service but unprepared to reenter society. Richard Barthelmess and David Manners headline this one as buddies who survive being shot down but they are too damaged (emotionally and physically) to go back home, where they can’t face the pity sure to be lavished on them. So they live it up in Europe as if there was no tomorrow, drifting from one party and nightclub to another and, in turn, hitting on Nikki (Helen Chandler), a guileless rich girl who takes an interest in looking after these broken, directionless men. Hollywood never managed to get Hemingway or Fitzgerald right in this era (or any era, for that matter), but this film takes a respectable run at the same themes in the Hollywood vernacular: high society meets classic Warner street smarts as four Americans in Paris resort to witty repartee and hard-drinking antics to hide haunted souls. Behind the façade of easy living and knockabout camaraderie is a bleak portrait of the mental and emotional scars left on a generation of men broken the meat grinder of the first modern industrial war.
Written by aviator-turned-author John Monk Saunders (of Wings and The Dawn Patrol fame) and directed by German émigré William Dieterle, the film lacks a strong central personality and mostly meanders through the middle but that easy rhythm and directionless story defines their whole situation and sets up the devastating third act, where the group travels to Lisbon for the bullfights. After trying to drown their nightmares in drink, they try to create some kind of emotional sensation beyond crippling depression and give in to their most self-destructive impulses. Whether it’s to kick-start a deadened existence or simply continue to confront death until it finally gets the better of them is unclear, the effect is the same. Where most of the memorable artifacts of pre-code cinema liked to flaunt its defiance of social decorum, The Last Flight makes an effort to shake up and unsettle the viewer, and it succeesds.
11 sassy, sexy and sometimes stiff early sound pictures with attitude from the Warner Archive.
When Hollywood was trying to find its way in the early sound era, learning to work around the sudden production constrictions imposed by sound recording and editing while struggling to find its own distinctive voice and delivery, it was also getting downright racy. It flaunted the sexual play of unmarried couples (and worse, the affairs of married characters with other partners), the flagrant boozing at the height of prohibition, and the thrill of bad behavior, which it presented without the requisite lessons learned soon to be imposed on Hollywood productions by the Production Code, reluctantly accepted by the studios (the alternative was separate censorship boards in each state, a much more demanding and expensive proposition for the film industry to deal with).
Not all the pre-code movies took that attitude, of course, but a couple of decades ago a handful of sauciest of these otherwise forgotten films were branded with the promise of “Forbidden Hollywood” for a retrospective that led to a line of VHS releases, followed by laserdisc and, finally, DVD. And while most of the best of these films have already been resurrected and released – I’m talking about Night Nurse, Baby Face, Heroes For Sale, Wild Boys of the Road, Murder at the Vanities, Three on a Match, not to mention Scarface and Bride of Frankenstein (this attitude is not limited to any one genre) to name just a few – there are still films to discovered and savored, in some cases for just a scene, in other for a full length appreciation.
All of which is introduction to a wealth of pre-code titles recently made available via manufacture-on-demand DVD-R from the Warner Archive. It’s a mixed collection, by which I mean there are some real discoveries here along with some misfires, and Safe in Hell (1931), a kind of B-movie riff on Sadie Thompson (the original bad girl in the tropics melodrama) directed with a brutally by William Wellman, and its star Dorothy Mackaill are the most exciting of said discoveries.
The forgotten Mackaill is a kind scuffed-up, street-smart answer to Miriam Hopkins and in this film she is perfect as the all-but-in-name prostitute who is whisked off to a Caribbean island to flee a murder charge and lands in a jungle slum that the dregs of the western world have taken refuge in. The film’s title is no exaggeration; imagine Casablanca as a lice-infested backwater run by mercenary opportunists and filled with the sleaziest criminals to escape a manhunt. They all take their shot at seducing Mackaill, the sole white woman in this island prison, and she shoots them all down with the brash directness of an experienced urban doll who has spent her life fending off passes. Yet somehow the film manages to give them all a shot at redemption when she is tried for murder (it’s a different murder, and yet the same one, in the crazy logic of the melodrama contrivances) and they line up in her defense. Wellman makes it snappy and sassy as he winds the story from the cynical to the sentimental to the almost spiritual with equal commitment.
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.
I’ve never been of the camp that embraced Wellman as a “master filmmaker,” though I have always appreciated him as a talented pro with good instincts and clean, no-nonsense direction. He was part of that early breed of two-fisted directors who drifted into the movies from more adventurous jobs. In Wellman’s case, he had been a member of the French Foreign Legion and the Lafayette Escadrille in World War I and was a flying instructor for the American Air Corps in San Diego when Douglas Fairbanks asked him to appear in one of his films, The Knickerbocker Buckaroo. Acting left a bad taste in his mouth but directing intrigued him and he worked his way up through the ranks, becoming a director in 1923 and jumping to the front ranks of the industry with Wings (1927), an assignment he reportedly received largely on the strength of his combat experience. They needed a war flier to helm the film and Wellman gave them the most impressive aerial spectacle the movies had seen. He made more than 80 films in every genre over the course of four decades, but he showed his most interesting directorial muscle in war films (Story of G.I. Joe) and westerns (Yellow Sky, Track of the Cat) and adventures (Beau Geste), while his distinctive snappy, hard-knuckle sensibility came out in urban crime (The Public Enemy) and showbiz pictures (A Star is Born, Roxie Hart).
But for my money, he was never more interesting than in the early sound era, where his energy and audacity powered over a dozen short, sharp, street-smart films filled with saucy sexiness and startling violence and mixed with varying measures of social commentary. Six of those films are collected on this four-disc set (Wellman’s pre-code classics The Public Enemy and Night Nurse have previously been released, the former separately and in the Warner Gangsters Collection, the latter in Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Two) and they are something else, films strewn with wild melodrama, romantic triangles, brawny action and some of the sexiest scenes of heavy petting and passionate smooching you’ve seen out of old Hollywood, with more frank sexuality more suggested than shown but there is no mistaking the suggestions. Keep Reading