Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Reviews, Pre-code Cinema, Television

Channeling Movies: Sex and Sin on Pre-Code Fridays on Turner Classic Movies

‘Red Dust’

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.

Dorothy Mackaill is hardly ‘Safe in Hell’

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews, Pre-code Cinema

MOD Movies: More ‘Forbiddden Hollywood’

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.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

MOD Movies: Warren William is the first ‘Perry Mason’ on the screen

Perry Mason: The Original Warner Bros. Movies Collection (Warner Archive)

Raymond Burr may be the definitive screen incarnation of Perry Mason but decades before his small screen debut in the iconic TV series, Warren William played the legendary lawyer in a series of big screen movies in the thirties.

William was the silver-haired wolf of some of the great Warner Bros. pre-code movies, adept at playing corporate sharks with ruthless business instincts, suave manners, and an eye for younger women. In The Case of the Howling Dog (1934), his Mason is a lawyer right out of the pre-code sensibility: cavalier with professional ethics, obstructing justice to protect a client, flamboyant in the courtroom, where his style is filled with dramatic, showboating tactics. You’d never recognize the character if all you know is Burr’s measured, low-key, serious incarnation. This Mason is quite the dapper bigwig, the star attraction of a big legal firm in an art-deco skyscraper office, and it takes a challenge to get him to personally take a case. Or maybe the appearance of Mary Astor as the mysterious woman in black.

Alan Crosland directs his debut but things get livelier in his second appearance in The Case of the Curious Bride (1935), directed by the great Michael Curtiz, who kicks things off with a breakneck montage and introduces Mason as flamboyant character with high class style and epicurean tastes (he cooks his own meal in a high-end restaurant, with the blessing of the chef), and friendships throughout the city that pay off in his investigations (the “Welcome” mat at the morgue is a sardonic touch, but it’s true in Mason’s case; the coroner is a drinking buddy). Warner company player Allen Jenkins, who played a police detective in the first film, gets promoted (sort of) to play Mason’s investigator Spudsy (kind of a comic Warner wise-guy version of Paul Drake). If Mason played fast and loose with the law the first time out, he even more shamelessly skirts it this time around.

The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935), directed by Archie Mayo, the most screwball of the Mason movies, opening with Mason passed out drunk in his office and Della (played by Genevieve Tobin, the third actress to take the role in three films) lobbing wisecracks at him. The flirtations between Perry and Della are priceless here. The film rushes along with a snappy Warners pace and a non-stop barrage of banter and comic insults and William has even more fun that usual with his cheeky attitude and investigative antics. He’s unfazed by anything that crops up, rolling with the twists and turns and offering a wisecrack for every occasion, and this time he doesn’t even enter a courtroom. He explains it all while getting a physical in his office from his personal physician (fittingly enough, the coroner from “Curious Bride”).

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

DVD: Jerry Lewis, Frank Tashlin, and Edward Small

Rock-a-Bye Lewis

Three With (But Not Directed By) Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis cited director Frank Tashlin as his mentor when he finally stepped behind the camera. You can see what he brought to the Lewis persona in Rock-a-Bye Baby (Olive), Tashlin’s third film with Lewis, but his first with Lewis as a solo act.

Ostensibly a reworking of Preston Sturges’ great 1944 comedy The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, writer/director Tashlin spins an entirely new story from the premise. Lewis is likable small town goof Clayton Poole, whose unrequited love for local girl turned Hollywood superstar Carla Naples (Marilyn Maxwell) makes him the perfect secret babysitter when she discovers that she’s pregnant just before taking her role in a Hollywood costume epic. Like its inspiration, the film insists that she’s married (she just can’t prove it), but then it exiles her to focus on Lewis as a doting guardian of three orphaned girls, with a little help from the babies’ grandfather (Salvatore Baccaloni, playing the hot-tempered yet sentimental Italian immigrant father of two independent daughters) and young aunt Sandra (Connie Stevens in her first major role), a lively all-American girl with a hopeless crush on Lewis’ goofy child-man.

Tashlin, an animator before he turned to live action filmmaking, was all about the gag and helped define Lewis as a walking cartoon, the rubberface spastic adolescent in a grown-up body. And yes, he is a walking disaster, but here he’s also oddly sweet as he watches over triplets. Sure, they’re mostly props, but they also become a kind of audience for performances he plays directly to them, child-man to infant, and in these sequences Lewis starts to take over. Where Tashlin tends to unleash a succession of one-off gags, Lewis riffs and builds on them, such as a scene of Clayton in a cloud of baby powder. The jokes themselves aren’t always as funny as Tashlin’s sight gags, but they follow one from another more organically and Lewis plays them like a sustained series of variations that build to an actual narrative conclusion. Tashlin’s hand is more evident in his pop-culture lampoons: Lewis as an wild-eyed rock and roll singer with no actual talent beyond energetic shouting and gesticulating, Marilyn Maxwell’s Egyptian costume epic transformed into a silly musical with a cheesy nightclub number. (For a film not considered a musical, there are plenty of musical numbers sprinkled through the film, some serious, some straight-out spoofs.)

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