A month ago I covered a collection of pre-code movies released through the Warner Archive Collection, 11 early sound films of varying quality and pleasure that all, in their own way, had a little audacity to them.
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.
Barthelmess was one of the best of the era’s heroes, earnest and intent but guarded, and he had a coiled-up presence that suggested a man fighting to keep himself together while the rest of the world let go, while David Manners plays drunk through much of his role (it’s the only thing that stops the facial tic from going into spasms, so he stays happily inebriated throughout). Helen Chandler, however, is a revelation, completely enchanting as the dizzy yet genuine rich girl who finds some purpose in a rudderless existence when she adopts these men. She comes off as a jazz age Carole Lombard, a screwball beauty as reimagined by F. Scott Fitzgerald, uninhibited with such offhand candor that these men will flirt but never take advantage of her. Chandler was a stage star who went to Hollywood but never quite made it (she’s best known as Mina in “Dracula”) and her real life story is even bleaker than those of the men in display here.
Taxi (1931), starring a wound-up James Cagney as a wise-guy cabbie, is two-fisted Warner street drama that burns rubber through the first twenty minutes as a cab company uses mob-style tactics to take over the streets from the independents. The taxi war of those opening scenes, where tactics range from old-fashioned intimidation to demolition derby stunts, promises a scrappy little film of underdogs versus the syndicate in urban combat via 1930s cabs. And yeah, Taxi is scrappy, thanks to a pugnacious Cagney (the term has never been more apt; he picks a fight with almost everyone who catches his attention) and the urgency that Roy Del Ruth brings to the stage adaptation, on the streets and in the big meeting where Cagney tries to organize the independent operators into a streetwise army. With Cagney standing in the center of a warehouse full of working class mugs, telling them they need to organize to stop getting pushed around by the syndicate, it has the somewhat subversive echoes of a union rally.
But the film takes an unexpected turn early on when the “war” (as the headlines keep screaming) is settled in arbitration, thanks to the efforts of Sue (Loretta Young), a waitress at a cabbie diner who sees the fight land her father (Guy Kibbee) in prison for a murder rap. At that point, the film shifts gears into a romance on the verge of blowing up, a courtship that keeps derailing into Cagney’s street brawls and arguments with Young, and then gets pushed into a matter of vengeance. Cagney, of course, refuses to tell the cops who killed his brother; he’s going to take care of this one himself. How can you refuse a film that embraces non-violent arbitration and still gives a pass to Cagney taking revenge? But the best part of the film is Leila Bennett as Young’s best friend, a career waitress with a non-stop stream of conscious commentary and a world-weary delivery that just gets funnier every time she opens her mouth and talks about past romances that, invariably, ended in disaster, leaving her sadder but apparently no wiser.
Thirteen Women (1932) is a “Ten Little Indians” thriller set in a circle of sorority sisters whose planned reunion is marred with premonitions of death, murder, and suicide sent by a swami whose astrological readings are all the rage in their society. The film, a David O. Selznick production for RKO, is a mix of Selznick elegance and pre-code audacity. You won’t find the saucy sexuality that defines many the pre-code films here, but you do get death by trapeze and train and a bomb in a birthday present. Irene Dunne is the good girl center of the sorority society and Myrna Loy is the exotic villain (her skin darkened to a dusky “other”) masterminding the revenge plot and murdering her way through the circle by suggestion and hypnosis. With her high cheekbones and sultry eyes, Loy was cast as oriental dragon ladies more than once, and here they make no bones about her identity as a “half-caste” whose foreignness is somehow an explanation for her villainy. Even the police call her a “half-breed type” and “that Hindu dame,” all but dismissing her as a racial stereotype, and somehow that Asian blood gives her the power of hypnosis to add to her arsenal of psychological manipulation, suggestion, and intimidation. Race and racism, in fact, is at the root of her revenge, but the film only gives lip service to the torment these women put her through. It’s not like we can even suggest this exotic creature was justified in taking revenge on American women of social standing. Which, in its own way, makes her reign terror just a little more satisfying.
Loy plays her as a cruel, cool one, so mad with vengeance that she targets the young son of her nemesis in one scene (“He’ll bounce,” she tells a nervous flunky, “Children always bounce like rubber balls don’t they?”), and stands outside the stateroom of another victim to wait for the suicide gunshot to confirm her plan has succeeded. The smile of satisfaction that spreads across her face is cold. Dunne, meanwhile, is the mother hen of the sorority circle, trying to look after her besieged sisters with an earnestness that has blocked out her own complicity. What’s a little prejudice between girls?
It’s all accomplished in under 60 minutes, a pace that is in fact a little too fleet. The film originally ran about 75 minutes but was cut down after a preview, apparently, and a few characters were excised with it (there’s something like only ten women left; details at the Warner Archive Tumblr blog). It’s hysterical and bigoted and just plain ruthless, almost unbelievable, and perversely fun for all that. They don’t make ’em like that anymore. This is a “Remastered Edition” and it looks quite good and, apart from the hiss common to the early sound era, it sounds fine.