Jack London’s 1903 novel The Call of the Wild is about the odyssey of Buck, a domesticated St. Bernard-Scotch Collie, from his San Francisco home to the rigors of the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. The 1935 screen adaptation Call of the Wild, the first sound version of the adventure, makes Buck a supporting character in the human story of Jack Thornton, a brash, cheerful miner who begins the film by gambling his entire fortune away in a saloon and sets out with an old buddy to start again, this time with a map to an unclaimed mine that may or may not be reliable.
That’s the way Hollywood tends to tackle these kinds of stories, of course, and when you’ve got Clark Gable and Loretta Young in all their mid-1930s glamor tramping through the wilds of the great white north (Washington State interior standing in for Northern Canada), that’s a forgivable compromise. Gable’s Jack Thornton and Young’s Claire Blake, who Jack finds fending off a ravenous pack of wolves in the middle of the wilderness, spar and spat almost immediately after Jack saves her. She’s a married woman who is surely widowed by the time she’s rescued (her husband slogged out into the drifts days before to get help) but that doesn’t stop the spirited instant antagonism that practically defines screen romance in 1930s Hollywood movies. Jack Oakie is the buddy-turned-third wheel ‘Shorty’ Hoolihan, providing comic relief as the soon-to-be-lovers tangle on the trail, and Sidney Toler is the film’s villain Joe Groggins, an arrogant miner with a crooked streak who wants to shoot Buck dead for daring to growl at him.
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.
The standard wisdom about Orson Welles’s 1946 thriller The Stranger—broadly, that it’s Welles’s weakest film, the runt in his otherwise superlative litter—needs challenging, even if Welles himself seemed mostly disinclined to do so. Only in 1982, three years before his death, did he appear to suggest, to BBC interviewers, that it wasn’t so terrible after all. (It had been cut, by about 20 minutes, by producer Sam Spiegel, who had also imposed Edward G. Robinson on the proceedings in the role of an implacable war crimes investigator—Welles had wanted Agnes Moorehead!) By 1982, Welles seemed altogether less pleased with Mr. Arkadin (aka Confidential Report), perhaps because it was a more personal project. To the present writer, Arkadin is clearly the better film, but The Stranger is nonetheless, at the very least, a fascinating curio, and if it’s a minor film (if…), then it’s the sort of minor film that only a really major talent could make, and an excellent example of what the Cahiers du Cinéma critics meant about the failures of the great being better films than the best work of lesser talents.
The credited editor of The Stranger is Ernest Nims, a veteran whose main function in Hollywood seems to have been recutting films to maximise their perceived box-office highlights. It was he who later recut Touch of Evil against Welles’s desires and took a butcher’s cleaver to Franklin Schaffner’s The War Lord, greatly to the well-publicised anguish of both films’ star, Charlton Heston. That someone has been nibbling away at Welles’s footage is immediately clear as The Stranger‘s credits conclude. The escape from custody of war criminal Konrad Meineke (a fine, but now rather brief, performance by Konstantin Shayne) is managed with ridiculous-seeming ease and speed, and he manages to get from Europe to New England (via South America) in no time. Once arrived in a rural college town, Meineke reveals his presence to Franz Kindler, formerly the master brain of the Thousand Year Reich but now, thanks to his life-long avoidance of personal publicity and his mastery of an American accent, a respected local lecturer under the pseudonym of Charles Rankin. Meineke also reveals that he’s got religion in jail, and so has to be murdered by his onetime bludbruder.