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Joan Blondell

MOD Movies: ‘The Crowd Roars’ for James Cagney

The Crowd Roars (1932) (Warner Archive), a car racing drama directed by Howard Hawks (who had raced cars himself) and starring James Cagney as racing champion Joe Greer, is as rip-roaring a speed drama as you get in 1932. Hawks, who also wrote the original story, tells you exactly what the film is about in the opening shots: a spectacular wreck on a dirt track, the animated response of the spectators leaping up to get a better view, and then the title. We know exactly why The Crowd Roars. The rest turns on sibling bonds broken in rivalry (Eric Linden is his talented kid brother) and romance and a spiral into defeat after the fiery death of a teammate on the track. (The Tom Cruise race picture Days of Thunder borrows a lot form this film.)

Cagney is the most extreme version of the Hawks hero, whose callous dismissal of his long-suffering girl (poor, hopelessly obsessed Ann Dvorak) borders on abusive, but he’s also more hotheaded and less disciplined than the usual self-contained Hawks man: a hypocrite, a drinker, a risk-taker whose impatience and anger kills his best friend. Joan Blondell gets second billing as Dvorak’s best friend, who seduces Linden in revenge and ends up falling in love with the kid, and Hawks puts real-life driving champs in the pits and sidelines. You may not recognize them by face or even name today, but they’re easy to spot – they’re the ones who can’t act. But don’t worry, they don’t slow down the film.

Hawks fills the film with real racing footage, including some dramatic crashes, interspersed with his staged scenes, and he drives it with an energy to match the onscreen speed. The film was originally released at 85 minutes, then cut for rerelease. The original cut is apparently lost so this is the 70-minute version, which also may contribute to the film’s headlong momentum.

More manufacture-on-demand reviews at Videodrone

MOD Movies: ‘Safe in Hell’ and other Pre-Code Pleasures

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).

Dorothy Mackaill in 'Safe in Hell'

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.

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