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Monday, December 01, 2014

Be Sure To Wash Up After Watching ...

Nasty Precode White Woman (1933) Arrives On DVD

NYC First Run at the Fabled Rialto
"Cruel melodrama" was what Motion Picture Herald called White Woman. We classify it as pre-code, one of that group's tawdriest. Universal Vault has a DVD just out, looking good as any so far excavated from the early 30's. MPH labeled White Woman a tough sell for "sadist motif" all too common among let-loose sex mellers. Folks like to blame Code clampdown on likes of Mae West, but her ribaldry was gentle stroke beside whips a Charles Laughton wielded. Was he the straw that broke camel's back of censor forbearance? Look at Laughtons that just preceded White Woman, as perverse a lot as any actor engaged: Devil and The Deep, Island Of Lost Souls, Sign Of The Cross. In each he was at the least unpleasant, which by itself would be unobjectionable but for monotony. These, however, along with White Woman, thumbed nose so determinably as to make Laughton seem lead man for abolition of what standards were left. Disqualified as sex symbol, he'd pervert the impulse and portray urges that were sick beyond polite discussion. Worse was Laughton not needing words to convey unwholesome thought. He could evade decency by mere gesture and licentious look. In his own accomplished way then, CL was greater threat to screen decorum than all of Golddiggers or dirty-dealers plying trade alongside him.

White Woman has Laughton back in jungle milieu, not mating humanity with beasts this time, but seeming the latter himself for intimacy with Carole Lombard, such notion alone like red ants crawled over viewer consciousness. He's very much about exercising marital prerogative, Lombard's best acting a shudder she emits when he draws near. Laughton knew he wasn't attractive and that was torture for him, but how the great actor used that awareness to flesh out roles. White Woman would be impossibly ugly if not for humor CL invests. Whatever seriousness he lent Island Of Lost Souls is abandoned here. Mustachioed with what looks like a chimney brush, Chas goes nearly as broad as he later would with Abbott and Costello. Paramount was evidently willing to let this player have his head. Was he recognized as just too unconventional a sort to harness? I can imagine Laughton finishing a part and not even recalling who the director was, in White Woman's case, Stuart Walker, a journeyman who I'd guess was handed this script but hours before shooting commenced. Beauty of a trifle like White Woman was so little being at stake, it being a programmer not likely to smell up theatres beyond a couple or so days.

And yet Paramount built its jungle lush enough to compete with a real thing. Or maybe they just augmented what was left standing from prior tropic forays. Hadn't Lionel Atwill sewed a man's mouth shut amidst similar brush a year back? (Murders In The Zoo, another sickie that still queases) Everyone wears rags and rolled-up sleeves but Lombard, who's pristinely in white against slime that backdrops her. 1933 was last of formative years before Lombard found her image with 20th Century and left such as White Woman behind. She does the job here of a contract player seeking after persona that will stick. William K. Everson wrote that Lombard was channeling Garbo in White Woman, her gestures "shamelessly borrowed" from GG. Well, there were worse models to adopt. What Lombard lacks here is humor. You'd think she at least would be tempted to send the whole thing up what with Laughton doing so, but maybe direction leaned the harder on her as compensation for CL ignoring same.

Back For 1939 Dates
Burning question common to all pre-codes: Are there Code-cuts? White Woman was reissued in spring 1939, mere months before Paramount got out a remake of the property, Island Of Lost Men, a decided B where action subbed for sex. White Woman ads for 1939 were lurid in the extreme, all about "Woman Hunger" and "Forbidden Love." There was a Code that applied to ads as well as films, this a seeming occasion to dance on edge of it. Enough playdates were had to necessitate resubmission to the PCA. Surely they didn't pass White Woman without trims, and yet I see nothing in the DVD to suggest missing footage, but wait --- the disc running time is 68 minutes, while trade reviews from 1933 indicate 73 minutes. Was five minutes lost from 1939 onward? Maybe that matters less for all of chance such missing footage would ever turn up. Like sections shorn from numerous other pre-codes, what's out of White Woman is likelier to remain out. I'm hanged to imagine how the thing could be sleazier than what now stands, and am frankly amazed the PCA permitted White Woman to be shown at all once enforcement tightened up.


Blogger Randy said...

My wife kept complaining that Laughton's mustache distracted her. She thought it looked like something Laughton picked up at Mack Sennett's garage sale.

12:23 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers Charles Laughton's impure thoughts:

Laughton, "not needing words to convey an unwholesome thought"?


As Edward Moulton-Barrett in "The Barretts of Wimpole Street," the attraction he felt for his daughter Elizabeth stopped just short of the censor's shears. No matter, he said. "They can't censor the glint on the eye."

12:42 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

And Donald Benson comes to Laughton's defense:

On the flip side, he did make a thoroughly unsympathetic old SOB funny in "Hobson's Choice."

2:08 PM  
Blogger VP81955 said...

It should also be noted that while Lombard "sings" at the start of "White Woman," she is dubbed. The only film where Carole actually warbles (and does a decent job) is "Swing High, Swing Low," and that came at the behest of director Mitchell Leisen.

10:47 PM  

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