Classic movie site with rare images, original ads, and behind-the-scenes photos, with informative and insightful commentary. We like to have fun with movies!
Archive and Links
Search Index Here

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Musicals and Comedies Go Pre-Code

Busby Berkeley musicals for Warners were always noted for skin they displayed. Girls bumped off in mystery and private eye novels written after the thirties were often said to have danced in a couple of Berkeley musicals (and how many LA prostitute résumés included stints as a Golddigger?). It seemed every chorine and star hopeful began on a Warner/Busby stage. We’re impressed with the near naked lineup of one hundred sitting By A Waterfall. Imagine how that looked in silvery 35mm before a 1933 audience of thousands. Berkeley and his Golddiggers became brand names forever associated with pre-code cheesecake and mathematical displays of bodies beautiful. Lobbies adorned with these became magnets for male patrons otherwise indifferent to musicals. Warners’ formula wed street-smart comedy in book sections directed by interchanging studio personnel with spectacular production numbers only Berkeley could mount. Pictures like 42nd Street, Golddiggers Of 1933 and Footlight Parade truly gave the best of several worlds. Audiences for one or the other gladly crossed over when they merged. James Cagney in a pre-code vehicle would reliably bring domestic rentals averaging $350-400,000, but Cagney in pre-code fettle plus song and dance in Footlight Parade took the biggest rentals of all his early pics --- $1.6 million domestic. The best plan for selling Golddiggers was via art stills turned out in bushels by Warner publicity. The ad shown here let exhibitors choose favorite pin-ups from the many generated to promote entries in the series. Most of these girls never had speaking parts in the films, but they were every bit as crucial for merchandising the Golddiggers brand. Fans could gauge Code enforcement’s curtain lowering with each installment that followed Footlight Parade. From Dames on, there was more fabric on the dancers and less fun to be had checking out lobby displays. Golddigging at Warners became less profitable as a watchful PCA bled the cycle white. Profits for Dames were down from the high of Footlight Parade ($959,000) to $206,000. Less would be spent on ones to come. Golddiggers Of 1935 had a negative cost of $567,000, down from Footlight Parade ($703,000) and Dames ($779,000). By Golddiggers In Paris, profit became loss as that 1938 release ended $473,000 in the red. Unlike Metro and its musicals tailored to elegance, Warners needed pre-code freedoms to put over song and dance as shorthand for sex.

It seemed every actress short of Edna May Oliver sat for art stills eventually. Certainly at Warners they all did. Serious dedication to their craft didn’t excuse Barbara Stanwyck or Loretta Young from baring assets for the stills department. Ginger Rogers and Jeanette MacDonald must have looked back with no small embarrassment at poses they’d struck before major stardom demanded they be taken seriously for thespic and/or singing skills. Some used pre-code freedom to consolidate positions made uncertain by transitions to sound. Norma Shearer might have faded had she maintained ingenue status her silent vehicles conferred. Again it was stills and their heavy circulation that assured success. The image shown here, blemished and worn survivor of a fan’s long-ago scrapbook, yet manages to convey the sizzle Shearer conjured to become and remain a pre-code icon. Stars then had to make the best with what they had. There were not the surgical options and digital tweaks to confer eternal youth such that we have today. Norma was said to possess short, chubby legs and the pose here finds them peeking uncertainly from behind a provocative gown (contrary to rumor, they look fine --- could there have been retouching?). Shearer got it said with clinging silks and dialogued suggestion. An inventory of her pre-codes finds this actress for the most part discreetly covered. She’d never have drawn a week’s pay at Warners. The most revealing scene Shearer played would be at the tail end of the pre-code era when she dressed as an insect for a bizarre costume party sequence in Riptide. MGM maintained a rigid caste system among contract actresses. With a major enough name, you’d be spared indignities of beach posing and on camera lingerie fittings. Those who’d stalled on the ladder were soon redirected off soundstages and into art stills. An actress knew she was on the way out once appearances in magazines began outnumbering those on marquees. In lieu of film work, she’d be lighting giant firecrackers in her underwear for Fourth Of July or wearing a fur lined diaper as one of Santa’s elves. Dropped options and back pages in Film Fun beckoned from there. Our Dancing Daughters became Modern Maidens and Blushing Brides, but only one of them made the trip back from cheesecake oblivion. There’d be moving pictures of Joan Crawford for the next forty years, while Anita Page and Dorothy Sebastian remain for the most part frozen in stills, minimal clothing preferred. Commercial tie-ins and loan-outs eventually took the place of performing at MGM before they’d be let go and eventually forgotten (that's Dorothy below as an under-dressed Indian squaw).

Pre-code ribaldry served comedy best. Wheeler and Woolsey played like the opening act at a men’s smoker. Their stuff was sufficiently blue as to propel them to top spot among feature comedy teams for as long as Code police were napping. With patter traveling at speeds censors were hard pressed to keep up with, Wheeler and Woolsey, like Mae West, were weakened by eventual Code enforcement, their comedies subsequent to 1934 being shots diluted. Pretty soon people forgot how funny they'd once been, especially since pre-code W&W features were either halted at the reissue gate or trimmed to the point of incoherence. So This Is Africa (shown here) was one we saw at a Cinecon some years back. Program notes forecast no-holds-barred gaiety, but the 35mm print furnished by Columbia was unexpectedly Code-cut and drained of what we knew were the spiciest bits. This colorful trade ad from RKO sums up Wheeler and Woolsey’s essential appeal. They were the bawdiest act in town and profits reflected it. Other comedians would mimic their burlesques. Nearly as uninhibited were The Marx Brothers, who seized a pre-code advantage as each of their Paramount comedies emerged racier than the last. By Monkey Business, they’d stake claims in Thelma Todd’s stateroom and were boudoir bound with her in Horse Feathers. Both were popular enough to be revived through the thirties and forties with all the scissoring those later playdates implied. I’m betting all five of their Paramount comedies are currently missing something, as each played heavily in art and revival houses and must certainly have fallen under shears at some point during those thirty years the Code was enforced. To this date, the Marxes’ best sequence with Todd in Horse Feathers is so jumbled as to make little sense at all. Modern audiences wonder why characters fairly leap about the room. Well, that’s not acrobatics --- it’s splices --- and these look to be permanent fixtures in every print of that film to come. Other comics indulged abandon pre-code allowed. His circumstances compromised for having signed with MGM, even Buster Keaton became the object of vampish wiles in many of that comedian's talking features. Would Buster at the creative helm have sanctioned stills like this one from What, No Beer, wherein his (yet-another) Elmer falls prey to seductress Phyllis Barry? She was among actresses primarily utilized to model undergarments for studio photographers and, if not for happenstance of appearing with Keaton, we might not remember her at all.

Flesh-peddling as handmaiden to pre-code was addressed head-on by Paramount in a 1934 comedy few remember called Search For Beauty. Though not about Hollywood, Search For Beauty reveals more about that town’s inner workings, and unholy alliance with sleazy press, than most any pre-code I can think of. The title refers to a contest launched by unscrupulous publishers. In fact, Paramount held its own nationwide search for beauties to fatten contract rosters and call attention to the film. The story revolves around male and female athletes ensnared by con artists Robert Armstrong and James Gleason, whose plan is to expose their pulchritude in a trashy magazine (clearly inspired by Film Fun, Saucy Movie Tales, and the like) before prostituting them outright at a hotel and resort to be frequented by drunks and libertines. A sleaze factor less apparent then fairly shouts to us now that we’re better informed as to shenanigans going on behind studio walls in the thirties. Photographers seduce innocents into compromising poses to accompany confession stories, and though it’s played (mostly) for comedy, I’m guessing a lot of what we’re seeing was the goods, however much Paramount yoks it up. Straight arrow swim champ Larry "Buster" Crabbe breaks up the racket with minimal effort, but we know the real exploitation machine would have spat him out well chewed. So-called winners of Paramount's Search For Beauty tour appear throughout the film in glimpses and montage. Recognizable among them is Ann Sheridan. She talked about the contest and her start at Paramount in late interviews. Virtually all the young people coming west on the train washed out and headed home within the year. Ones who persisted chanced the likes of real-life Armstrongs and Gleasons. The hotel/resort in Search For Beauty hints as to what might happen to those less cautious. I wonder how many exhibitor conventions played out just like these tawdry (and not a little disturbing) scenes in Search For Beauty, minus a Buster Crabbe to come to the rescue. Writer-director David Stenn tells a harrowing story of such an occasion in his recent documentary Girl 27. I’d recommend it as a sobering companion feature with Search For Beauty.

Speaking of hotel bacchanals, what of Convention City? Will we ever get to see it? Did Jack Warner really order it destroyed? My guess (and mind you, all any of us can do is guess) would be a hopeful maybe to the first and an informed yes to the second. I’m told Convention City was indeed junked, as that was the word entered on studio records. Junked 12/27/48 is how it reads. The question, of course, is why? Again I’m guessing, but I’d say it was nitrate decomposition. Warners had destroyed a number of negatives during the late forties and fifties for that reason. They were useless as pre-print and increasingly dangerous to maintain. Nitrate in good condition can be a hazard. Jelly and/or powdered remnants are that much more incendiary --- and why bear expense of storing a thing gone bad? A lot of hotly sought titles went this way. Harry Langdon’s Heart Trouble was similarly junked, probably for the same reason. As to stories of Jack Warner destroying Convention City for reasons of content, I don’t think so. This was an "A" feature that cost $239K to produce. It realized $384K in domestic revenue and $138K foreign. There was an eventual profit of $53K. Certainly this was a corporate asset no one, including Jack Warner, would dispose of so casually. Any heat surrounding Convention City would certainly have cooled by 1948, except for that generated by a nitrate fire should it combust and take out hundreds of other negatives sharing space in a warehouse. A little sad to think a pre-code totem like Convention City should be disposed of for such prosaic reason, but what of surviving foreign negatives? There was one sent to Warner facilities in Spain on 4/18/34. Was it eventually junked as well? Our best hope may lie in 35 or 16mm prints shelved and forgotten here or abroad. If Convention City exists on safety stock, it would almost have to be 16mm, as that 1948 destruction date of the US negative predated the common usage of 35mm safety stock. Would Convention City have been printed in 16mm, and if so, why? I’m convinced it was never available for non-theatrical rental. Possibly one of the cast or crew members got a print out of Warners sometime after the film was released, but obtaining those wasn’t easy, even for the biggest names on contract rosters. Still, a print might have been generated for in-house use and eventually smuggled out, but who’d have it now? Assuming some individual, or estate, were in possession, would they realize the value of a Convention City in their garage, or care if they did? Historians assume the film disappeared after its general 1933-34 release, but Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project discovered at least one booking in 1937, three years after Code crackdowns would presumably have taken Convention City out of circulation. Mark Vieira confirmed Warner’s application for a reissue and the PCA’s rejection of same, so that 1937 engagement was likely enabled by a local WB exchange with a print still on hand and willingness to make same available for minimal cost. Chances are exhibitor/exchange was unaware of the film's banishment from release charts. We could wonder how many years such stragglers lasted before the last Convention City was bandsawed, though we're safer in assuming none of these exchange prints are left, particularly in light of fact that Warner depots are themselves pretty much gone. My hopeful maybe for Convention City's eventual sighting is inspired by unexpected discoveries still being made of seemingly impossible quarry. Who’d have dreamed Beyond The Rocks and Bardelys The Magnificent would turn up? An uncut Baby Face sat quietly on Library Of Congress shelves before someone happened to examine it. What else remains to be exhumed there? Imagine if someone extended money and manpower for a truly exhaustive inventory of such facilities. Is Convention City yet hiding in some archive’s plain sight?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Showmen --- Sell It Hot!

When my mother was 11 or so, her favorite actress was Clara Bow. One day they were all sitting in the yard and she asked my grandmother's permission to go see Clara’s newest for 1928 at the within walking distance Joy Theatre. Just then my aunt and some other kids showed up and reported seeing a poster in front of the Joy with Clara Bow taking a bubble bath. That slammed the door on anyone’s trip to the Joy for that day. My grandmother could scarcely have shielded her daughters from the avalanche of pre-code once talkies unleashed those sights and sounds of moral abandon. It might have been as well for staunch Victorian folk to forbid children to attend movies altogether during the early thirties (and indeed, the only film Grandmother had let my mother see as a small child was Mary Pickford's Pollyanna). Never would youth be exposed to such sustained attack upon convention and morality as with pre-code. What they learned on screens represented polar opposites of lessons taught at home. With sound’s arrival, Clara Bow made way for Helen Twelvetrees in my mother’s scrapbook. Something about her must have appealed to a by now 14-year-old girl fascinated by the infusion of adult themes in movies learning to talk. I’d have to assume an ad like this for the Twelvetrees vehicle Millie (Treat ‘em like tramps…they’re all alike!) wasn’t published in their local Kings Mountain Herald, as such lurid graphics and tag lines would certainly have inspired parental edicts against youngsters wanting to attend. Times were sufficiently hard as to disallow lavish promotions for theaters serving smaller markets. It was all most of them could do to buy space just for announcing titles and start times. American movies lost a third of their audience during 1930. The Depression and eroding novelty of sound put theatre going among lower leisure-time priorities. You could listen to radio a lot cheaper and outdoor activity during summer months appealed more than sitting in theaters without air conditioning. The only way out for Hollywood was product with sex and confession themes. How else could someone like Helen Twelvetrees have sustained a career? Indeed, her success would last no longer than the pre-code era itself. Naughtiness too could be staged with greater economy. Negative costs on sex dramas were minimal. RKO spent $338,000 and $339,000 respectively on Constance Bennett vehicles Born To Love and The Common Law, with eventual profits of $90,000 and $150,000. An epic like Cimarron took $1.4 million to finish and lost $565,000 despite its Academy Award for Best Picture. You might gamble a reputation making sex dramas, but they were otherwise a near sure thing. Producers hastened to lay in a supply for the 1931 season once lines began forming. It was plain enough they’d be testing boundaries in order to survive. Trade ads borrowed leaves from lurid magazine covers and pulp illustrators to stimulate patronage. The Bird of Paradise announcement shown here promised island beauty Delores Del Rio au naturel and indeed delivered through much of the feature as released in 1932. That inspired ever-escalating lures and announcement of a follow-up teaming for stars Del Rio and Joel McCrea in Green Mansions, this startling trade ad of which is all that survives of a film RKO never produced.

Exhibitors not boarding up (and many did) called for spicier fare. Adapt or perish, whatever the punitive measures of local censors and bluenoses. If Mae West filled houses, damn the complaints. Small exhibitors doubling as community centers and presumed safe haven for local youth took some knocks. Urban centers were more concerned with dollars pouring forth from largely anonymous patrons. Mae West and She Done Him Wrong shot down Mr. Low Gross on behalf of downtown palaces needing to fill thousands of seats daily just to keep such barns open. Everyone played a wink and nod game. Showman shorthand told customers what to expect. Give Me A Job --- At Any Price, says Loretta Young to Warren William in this teaser ad for Employee’s Entrance, and by February 1933, customers knew Warners wouldn’t let them down. Hold Your Man bade audiences to Learn How To Do It In One Easy Lesson, with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow more than capable instructors. These were the sorts of come-ons that got crusaders hottest under collars. After all, kids were checking out newspapers and heralds given away, even if Mom and Dad prevented them from seeing such films. States Rights hustlers went beyond even relaxed protocol observed by the majors. Things like Blonde Captive hurled kerosene upon community standards already aflame. A White Woman "Gone Native" Among Descendents Of The Oldest Human Race. Venues hawking such product fairly begged for padlocks, but as long as doors stayed open, thrill seekers rewarded them where it counted most (and note this Blonde Captive ad promises Red Headed Woman to open Friday). Things got bad enough aselling clever if insincere. With Shame Our Screen U to make showmen  acknowledge over-the-line outrage and make even that pay, leading to backhanded selling clever if insincere. With shame our screen unfolds The Worst Picture Ever Made, was how Robert S. Guiterman of Manitowoc, Wisconsin’s Capital Theatre peddled Freaks. The scheme filled Guiterman’s house. Well, he warned them. Free and easy screen content attracted lots of kids, especially the horror shows. Will Burns managed the Princess Theatre in Joliet, Illinois. He mounted a four-day run of Freaks with full circus trappings. Barkers out front promised never-before-witnessed monstrosities inside, as a local midget rendered cornet solos for passers-by. Barker and midget then drove a pony cart to visit schools and playgrounds during recess time, urging youngsters to catch Freaks on Saturday. Cunning then was this ad for the engagement, which expressly forbade kiddie attendance. Warning! Children Positively Not Admitted --- Adults Not In Normal Health Advised Not To See This Picture. Of course, Burns had no intention of enforcing that. We haven’t heard of anyone dying from heart failure, he laughed … but were parents and city fathers amused? Studios and their racy output weren’t alone in arousing the inevitable crackdown. Showmen turned cynical by the wild and wooly stuff they played invited civic scrutiny even as Freaks, Blonde Captive, and the rest kept wolves of bankruptcy and closure at bay. Wiser heads had to know chickens were not long to come home.

There were two kinds of fan magazines in the thirties. Photoplay, Screen Romances and dozens of like formula served readers with movie news, star profiles, and reviews of upcoming films. Their disreputable cousins went by names like Stage and Screen Stories, Saucy Movie Tales, and Film Fun. With these you got the same bang for your dime or quarter that pre-code movies gave in the theaters, only more so. Trashy movie mags went for outright cover nudity and hotter-than-hot stories within. Hollywood As It Really Is pervaded text, which emphasized perils awaiting young girls should they venture west in search of film fame. Femmes braving Hollywood jungles laid bare shames of the casting couch and off-set seductions. Studios furnished legit fan publications with dope on stars and films in release but there were also supply lines open to the scavengers. This is where naughtier pre-code images got their first exposure. Portraits and even swimsuit art of Carole Lombard appeared routinely in Photoplay, but this tawdry pose of she and Virtue co-star Mayo Methot was more to the rarified tastes of Film Fun readers and was seasoned further with a spicy limerick as accompanies it here. Teen girls and single women mostly bought Photoplay. Dad and little brother snuck Film Fun. They’re hard to find today, as most were left behind in corn cribs, outhouses, and whatever hiding place beckoned to periodicals you’d rather not bring indoors. No telling what neat stuff a complete run of these would reveal. Sometimes in old scrapbooks I find snaps of contract players way edgier than what mainstream publications were using. Stars were the stuff of fantasy after all, and who could blame pre-code viewers wanting to take fantasies to the next level? Venture toward that included stops under newsstand counters where notorious Tijuana Bibles took pre-code license to its (sometimes un) natural conclusion. These comic speculations fed darker patron appetites titillated to distraction. Monitors stumbling across such magazines and drawings would naturally figure movies to be an industry badly in need of fumigation.

National Screen Service called it LOVE in the trade ad shown here, but this was purest sex their trailers were selling, and talk about wiring into fantasies! When Lupe Valez throws those lips against the hot ones of her lover, every guy in the house is imagining he’s right there (that’s Lupe in her slip adorning this Hal Phyfe portrait). Trailers had been staid affairs prior to talking pictures. A lot of theatres didn’t use them and preferred glass slides to announce coming attractions. Independents supplied graphics-only previews with still glimpses of stars and tentative appeals on behalf of coming attractions. NSS baited their hook with actual scenes and naturally used ones likeliest to excite anticipation for pre-codes to come. Trailers as we now know them would blossom here. Some turn up as extras on DVD’s, including Tarzan, The Ape-Man, Footlight Parade, and others almost productions in themselves. With its newly streamlined preview service, NSS had red meat it could toss to sensation hungry lions. That’s the real thing --- the pulsing, vitalized action that will get every femme in your audience --- flappers, matron, and grandma. Most trailers produced during the pre-code era are lost now. No telling how many of these would have been censorable once Code enforcement took effect in July 1934. Racy previews walked hand-in-hand with posters out front. There were days you’d think those were burlesque houses on small town Main Streets. Parents did complain and often forbade movies altogether for offspring. Exhibitors took heat for little ones venturing too near a Mae West (but look at this half-sheet beckoning them in). Comments in the trades acknowledged scenes and dialogue a little warm, but seldom did showmen attack product they played. Maybe those running and watching films on a regular basis got used to being treated as thinking adults. Theatres advertising in 1931 credited readers for knowing the facts of life. No Limit and Inspiration played competing venues here, yet both address interests their patrons shared, knowing specific curiosities to hone in on. She gets "her man" --- but is he worth the price? (No Limit). She Will Fascinate You Again As the Woman With a Past Who Meets Real Love at Last (Inspiration). Our ancestors didn’t come away from these without a few worldly tips. It was the ones who seldom (if ever) attended movies that stirred up trouble. Urban markets had organized censor bodies ready to pounce when offending product hung in their net. Rural houses played shows through for a night, maybe two, spat them out and threaded up the next. Even dedicated community crusaders had not the time to flag exchange trucks delivering half a dozen or more shows a week to the local Bijou, thus pre-codes played mostly uncut in underpopulated territories. When church ladies and town counsels took action, it was mostly confined to Blue Laws closing theatres on Sunday.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

What's Your Pre-Code Threshold? --- Part One

We come away from watching pre-codes convinced we can conquer the world with words, or at the least best anyone’s argument on any subject with deftly applied bon mots borrowed from these early thirties’ repositories of fast wit and delivery. Were people just smarter then? Maybe not, but writers obviously were. Looking at pre-codes I’m constantly telling myself, I gotta remember that line!, but how to retain so much (at least a dozen averaged per reel) you’d love to spring on friends (or better … opponents) at just the right moment? Pre-codes throw away priceless dialogue as though it was drawn from a bottomless well of their creator’s imagination. Warren William will turn his back to the camera and deliver lines funnier than anything I’ve heard movies come up with in the last twenty years. If nothing else, the pre-code era represents an embarrassment of riches for anyone looking to sharpen conversational (or debating) skills. I frankly think the funnier pre-codes are far more so than the funniest screwball comedies. To start with, you didn’t have to fall down so much prior to Code enforcement. Dogs needn’t run off with Cary Grant’s hat to generate laughter, nor would he be so consistently locked out of bedrooms. Compare endings of Grant’s 1932 Hot Saturday with 1937’s The Awful Truth. If nothing else, those titles should have been reversed, for it’s the former’s finish that deals in truth, while the latter’s ending is just --- awful. Pre-code characters spoke their minds to delicate topics soon to be untouchable. Misunderstandings cleared up a lot quicker because they didn’t have to dance around taboo subjects or pad out lengths beyond the seventy or so minutes pre-codes typically ran. You could argue that these films are too clever and sophisticated for their own good, as I’m still waiting for pre-code as a brand name to break out and find acceptance beyond that niche loyalists have long extended. It was at least the eighties before we even heard the term. Back when Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer wrote The Movies in 1957, terms like Teacup Drama and Confession Film covered much of what we now classify as pre-code. By then, the movies themselves were scattered over late night television but considered too ancient for wider consumption. By the sixties and well into the eighties, most pre-codes had disappeared and archeological digs were required to see them. It was tentative runs on TNT and finally TCM (beginning in 1994) that made pre-codes available again. Unlike film noir with its larger following, pre-codes reflect an otherness translating to hard sell for modern viewers, and it’s not just (really) old clothes, cars, and slanguage. Attitudes were different then and radically so in many instances. For all the free and easy abandon we think mirrors progressives like us, sometimes a pre-code will turn the screws with a resolution not so accommodating to social and political correctness as observed (and rigidly enforced) today. You have to be careful which ones you pick and for whom. Baby Face will score the laughs everyone associates with these things, but spring Week-End Marriage on your next gathering and watch the fur fly.

The fun of pre-code can come of their being so nasty, except when nasty overtakes the fun. Aforementioned Baby Face has its oft-excerpted randy highlights, but do they prepare us for sympathetic George Brent’s suicide attempt in the last reel? Night Nurse mixes welcome on-screen costume changes featuring Joan Blondell with systematic starvation of children. Sometimes pre-codes that start like comedies throw you a curve ball midway through. James Cagney (and us) have harmless fun for the first half of Blonde Crazy, then he lands in prison for what plays like the rest of someone else’s all-too serious movie. Smart Money similarly switches gears and issues crying towels where before there were laughs. You can never figure a pre-code by its opening reel. For every murder a hero gets away with, there are fates random and unexpected laying in wait. Part of that came of undercooked scripts. Dialogue among pre-codes tends to be more reliable than story construction. Kay Francis bestrides a saga spanning a quarter century (The House On 56th Street), yet hurried events will somehow get it told within less than seventy minutes. Based on those running times, I have to assume pre-codes were made in a hurry for audiences similarly disposed. You’d think they had attention spans like our modern teenagers. We’ve still not caught up to speeds with which pre-coders disgorged their lines. Again, were viewers in those days quicker on the uptake? Must have been all those urban folk talking faster then. Theirs was certainly the market studios targeted. Even provincials after a season’s diet of Warner pre-codes could draw a relief map of Brooklyn for never having stepped a foot in the place. Invitations went out to everyone in the melting pot. William Powell delivers what amounts to a Warner Bros. manifesto in High Pressure. He’s exhorting salesmen to go out and peddle phony stock with a fevered pitch directed toward every ethnic sensibility he can spot. Well-placed cultural references get cheers from Italian, Greek, and Jewish contingents much as humor utilizing stereotypes became a commonplace in Warner pre-codes. Were such groups offended when objects of ethnic joshing? Modern sensibilities quake at such notions --- another basis for shocked reactions among the uninitiated viewing pre-codes today --- but how likely were protests in the thirties when every identifiable minority came in for a drubbing?

TCM has a new documentary that came with their latest Forbidden Hollywood DVD collection. Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin, and Censorship In Pre-Code Hollywood was written and produced by Steven Smith and is the best summary of that era we’ve gotten so far. It has all the pace and energy of the pre-code films it covers and runs to about the same length as a typical Warner’s programmer. Made up primarily of highlights and footage from features owned by Warners, the only outside stuff I noted was a brief glimpse of Mae West in I’m No Angel, surely a necessity as she remains the standard bearer for excesses that led to code enforcement in 1934. There are, of course, lost pre-codes. Not many, as most are at least extant, even if they seldom surface on video or satellite TV. The best of these have not been seen for many years. A few made fleeting appearance, only to retreat back into oblivion. Universal’s Night World turned up on AMC fifteen or so years ago and vigilant collectors are perhaps still able to watch their VHS copy of same, but when will that fascinating 1932 pre-code be shown again? This Is The Night was sighted momentarily, then withdrew. So many Universal and Paramount pre-codes are like filmic Yetis --- their existence suspected, but difficult to confirm. TCM briefly licensed a handful of the latter’s pre-codes during a festival the network hosted a decade ago. At that time, The Wild Party, Torch Singer, Murder at the Vanities, and a few others made one shot appearances on the network and have not been seen since. Columbia’s Virtue showed up once on TCM, several months ago, and provided a glimpse of Carole Lombard in an early performance unseen for many years. The number of Paramount, Universal, Columbia, and Fox pre-codes remaining buried would number in the hundreds. They might all as well be the legendary Convention City, Warner’s officially declared lost 1933 release, generally regarded the most notorious of all pre-codes. Legend has it this title was destroyed so as to remove a scandalous taint upon the reputation of its makers. I’d venture to say Convention City is no better or worse than any number of Warner pre-codes, as you’re dealing with pretty much the same boundaries in all of these. In the event we rediscover Convention City, it will likely as not rank behind several that are available to us now, including Employee’s Entrance and the very underrated She Had to Say Yes, both of which represent the summit of raciness for pre-codes. The search for Convention City reminds me of an earlier quest for another Warner Bros. rarity, Mystery of the Wax Museum, which, when it was finally recovered in the mid sixties, proved to be a let-down for those who’d waited years and burnished its reputation beyond anything the film could hope to measure up to.

The real unplundered tombs in pre-code may well be foreign versions that were shot contemporaneously with their American cousins. MGM prepared French editions of Let Us Be Gay and The Bachelor Father, both of which are illustrated here. Le Père célibataire was the French title for The Bachelor Father released in 1931. Lili Damita stood in for Marion Davies. Based on a comparison of the two actresses, you can imagine which one scored heaviest as a pre-code siren. Soyons Gais was the French Let Us Be Gay, produced in 1930. Again, Lili Damita assumed the lead played by Norma Shearer in the American version, with Adolphe Menjou standing in for Rod La Rocque. It might be highly instructive to compare these two actresses as well as license filmmakers would have taken per content between American and French versions. I don’t know what, if any, restrictions were applied to foreign language renditions of pre-code films, but there’s every reason to believe they would have been at least as freewheeling as anything distributed on our shores. Do these and other foreign language features still exist? We’ve seen the German talking Anna Christie and clips from various Buster Keaton Euro derivations. I don’t recall foreign versions of any pre-code title turning up other than Anna Christie. Minus restrictions we lived with, even before Code enforcement, I wonder if French audiences did not indeed enjoy the hottest American-made pre-codes of all.

There are two I’d nominate as lost icons of pre-code. Clara Bow and Louise Brooks are faces eternal in the consciousness of film lovers, and history were it fair and discriminating would have secured many starring roles for both in an ideal pre-code universe. The fact neither flourished in that cinematic Garden Of Eden is a frustration yet for fans left only with mesmerizing still images and regrets as to what might have been had they peaked but a few years later. As it is, Bow and Brooks were headed down respective career slopes just when relaxed enforcement of Code dictates might have served them best. Paramount had misused Clara Bow in talkies. There were eight of these, most looking backward toward flapper days gone, and clumsily written/paced in the bargain. They'd be done with her by 1931. Another year might have turned the tide, for Paramount's output did improve as they gained expertise with sound. Worse for Bow was the fact she’d been exploited badly there. Few outstanding directors on the lot took interest in her once popularity began to slip. She was damaged goods at twenty-six, but would prove she had the stuff of pre-code greatness with a pair of starring vehicles at Fox Film Corporation designed to restore her stardom. Call Her Savage and Hoopla demonstrate what a natural Bow would have been for roles tapping into hard-won credibility and seen-it-all worldliness she brought over from Paramount’s slave hold (she’d voluntarily, and regrettably, leave Fox and retire after these two). Pre-code itself was all about the hard road. Characters and women who played them shared bruises and didn’t shrink from showing them. Warts and all weren’t limited to a Clara Bow in her twenties looking forty. Supporting actresses bore tire tracks as well that assured audiences they weren’t alone in their Depression. Discarded Broadway baby Mayo Methot makes you believe in the down-and-out prostitute she essays (from experience?) in Virtue, that Columbia pre-code briefly sighted on TCM. Methot was a confirmed alcoholic one year younger than Clara Bow and four years older than co-star Carole Lombard. By her looks, she could have played either one’s mother. Out of such personal misery come great performances, and actresses like Methot, having missed the brass ring of stardom, were routinely giving them in pictures like Virtue. Others seemed in an even greater hurry to self-destruct. Louise Brooks had told off Paramount brass just when sound came calling. By 1931 and the blossoming of pre-code, she too was among those cast off. Glimpses of Brooks in God’s Gift To Women and It Pays To Advertise from that year are baleful reminders of what might have been. William Wellman offered the eventual Jean Harlow part in Public Enemy, but Louise was busy that week and said no. You’d think such a misjudgment would haunt her the rest of her life, but Brooks never cared less. Is there anything so frustrating as talent carelessly thrown away? Maybe Brooks knew all along she’d never deliver on our hopes and expectations. Had all those hypnotic photo sittings been just a tease then? If Louise Brooks bothered checking out complicated women in Hollywood’s pre-code universe, she’d have at least known she was the most complicated of them all, and might well have been high priestess of the lot had she just chosen to show up for work.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Greenbriar Weekend Marquee

My last gray market DVD shopping basket included a Tom Mix talking western he’d done near the end for Universal. Hidden Gold was the one where Tom got hurt bad enough to force him into retirement. He came back three years later to star as The Miracle Rider, but for all intents and purposes, the party was over when mount Tony stepped into that gopher hole and Mix sustained life threatening internal injuries. He was past fifty --- a real life rebuilt (several times over) bionic cowboy. The deal called for six more westerns after the 1932-33 season of an initial half dozen, but Tom was done in and wrung out. Only nine in all got finished. Experts call Hidden Gold a weaker one of these. If that’s true, I’m in for treats galore tracking down the remaining eight. Universal spent money once they signed Tom. This was no cut-rate cowpoke, but an authentic superstar of the silent era with millions of fans anxious to hear him talk. The latter was Tom’s rub, for his voice was raw as parched sandpaper, but every bit what imagination would project upon a real wild westerner. You believed everything he struggled to say. Mix budgets were set at $84,000 each, but costs averaged nearer $107,000. These were depression dollars, so more of them ended up on the screen. Hidden Gold never looks cheap. Cliché and convention you expect in "B" westerns aren’t in evidence here. It’s among those I like where horses and cars run parallel. Thirties rural settings in much of the country allowed for occasional gunfights and bulldogging on Main Streets. Double breasted suits and full dress cowboy regalia (plus holster) are not in the least incompatible. Hidden Gold opens with crooks robbing a bank, then getting away in a roadster. Tom segues from ranch foreman to pro boxer, then goes undercover in a state pen not unlike The Big House at MGM. He and bank robber convicts bust out, after killing a guard (for which Mix would presumably bear some responsibility --- but this being precode, he never answers for complicity in that crime). Hidden Gold’s fifty-five minutes go like lightning. There’s a whopper of a forest fire for the wind-up. They evidently set the woods ablaze and sent in Tom to manage as best he could. I’ve seen few stars of his calibre near such licking flames (John Wayne came closest when he braved cataclysms in Circus World). All this took sixteen days to shoot (on a scheduled twelve). Those nine Mix Universals disappeared soon after initial playdates. Revivals were rare following his death in 1940. There weren’t enough of them to make up a dedicated TV package, so Tom wound up lumped into a syndicated group of 97 budget westerns Universal sublet to Flamingo Telefilm in the early fifties. Home video and satellite TV hasn’t heard a peep out of them since. Universal got burned when they tried out a group of four Buck Jones westerns for VHS release, so what’s the chance they’d take a flyer on Mix? The bootleg DVD I watched of Hidden Gold had spliced up replaced titles, a too dark picture, and muddy resolution. It was no doubt chained off an old Flamingo print. You could easily lay all nine Mixes across three DVD’s and have a thumping set, but it would take a small, sub-leasing label to roll those dice. Wonder what fee Universal would put on these fine westerns they’re otherwise ignoring …

Assuming paradise in the afterlife is everything it’s cracked up to be, one of my first stops will be that screening room where all of Orson Welles’ films play as intended by him (preferably with OW in attendance for afterward Q&A). It’ll be quite the marathon, as virtually everything he did after Citizen Kane got mutilated or was left unfinished. The Stranger gets the go-by from Welles scholars (and was dismissed by him) because it’s as close to the mainstream as he’d ever direct, but evidence suggests the original, at 115 minutes and later cut by twenty of these, went in far more adventurous directions. Two whole reels were lobbed off the beginning to start with. OW did all sorts of tour-de-forcing that flew in the face of conventional storytelling. The Stranger as Welles envisioned it sounds like Touch Of Evil ten years ahead of schedule (and even what's left has a four minute take to rival his later opening for T.O.E.). John Huston helped write it, but couldn’t take credit as he was still in uniform. The concept is a humdinger and battered as it is, The Stranger may be the most accessible of Welles’ features. Producers William Goetz and Sam Spiegel did an ax job after OW finished, but left studio prescribed three acts simple enough to follow and bravura performances always fun to revisit. It’s a good primer to run ahead of more challenging Welles puzzles. I’d venture the uninitiated would find him more compelling as flamboyant ogre here than as problematic leading man Kane, as audiences have never been able to warm up to OW in that capacity. Might The Lady From Shanghai have grossed, as Carl Denham once said, twice as much had director Welles cast Glenn Ford opposite Rita Hayworth instead of himself? Welles is barely believable as Loretta Young’s love interest in The Stranger. He’d shed twenty pounds before going into clinches, but otherwise plays his Nazi war criminal so broadly as to make any reasonable person suspicious, let alone plenty-old-enough-to-know-better wife Loretta. Welles was hung up on lingering threats of fascist resurgence after the war. His was among first (mid-1945) features to tackle the subject; and how many star/directors, then or now, were moonlighting as nationally syndicated political opinion columnists? The (original) Stranger was a meditation on what might happen should Nazis get loose in America. Once shorn of opening reels and nuance elsewhere, audiences ended up with the safer known quantity of Gaslight revisited. Democracy in jeopardy may have been Welles’ concern, but Goetz/Spiegel knew it was Loretta Young in jeopardy folks were coming to see (note emphasis on her in this newspaper ad, and a barely visible Welles). 1946 boxoffice realities proved them right. The Stranger took $2.9 million in worldwide rentals, surely the best earnings a Welles directed film ever had, but way short of what Alfred Hitchcock realized with a similar property released within months, Notorious, with its worldwide $7.1 million. The Stranger has always been the easiest Welles to see, if not own, having fallen into the public domain decades ago and dredged up but recently in a DVD from negative possessor MGM/UA. Those surviving elements still need work, but how likely are they to spend dollars on something already piled high in super market dollar bins? People talk about the desecration of The Magnificent Ambersons, but The Stranger took nearly as many knocks and is as far afield as any movie Welles proposed to sign. An ugly replaced end title is a spit in the eye retained even in MGM/UA’s authorized version. Being an independent production released through RKO, but not retained by them after general release, could there be a chance, however slight, of The Stranger outtakes surviving in some obscure warehouse, attic, or garage?

MGM musicals in their heyday were like corporate earnings. They had to keep moving onward and upward. Fred Astaire danced on the ceiling in a rightly celebrated number from Royal Wedding, so how to top it in his next show? It seemed Fred’s art was being measured alongside longest sword duels and biggest pie fights. Invitations to his dance came now with a promise to deliver the impossible. For The Belle Of New York, he’d levitate and waltz upon air itself. Special effects and dance were at best an uncertain alliance. With The Belle Of New York, it had become a gimmick. Ad art stressed Fred in apparent flight to disguise a package otherwise grounded. Out of eight songs written for the film, only one stirs recollection now. Astaire’s I Wanna Be A Dancin’ Man still ranks among his best. For sheer dancing volume, The Belle Of New York exceeds most of the star’s vehicles. Running time may be the shortest of any Metro musical --- 82 minutes. Structured by season like Meet Me In St. Louis, Belle surrounds snow scenes with picture frames like Currier and Ives prints brought to life. That sequence is ambitious enough, but without a Vincente Minnelli to oversee it (Charles Walters directed Belle), everything becomes sterile tableau. Astaire and Vera-Ellen’s engaging dance provide the only spark of inspiration. There was a soundtrack released in 1952. MGM had been putting out albums for selected musicals since 1946 and Till The Clouds Roll By, initially on 78 RPM. I’m wondering, though, how many of Belle’s tunes played outside the film and accompanying platter. Were any of them covered by other recording artists? I Google searched The Bachelor Dinner Song. It seems not to have had much life beyond The Belle Of New York. Songwriting team Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer provided that and other melodies heard in the film. These don’t appear to have survived much better than the uninspired "book" section of the movie. Weak stories can be forgiven in a musical with song and dance good enough to compensate. Belle stops coldest when Keenan Wynn and Marjorie Main insistently foreground the story, an albatross on paper exacerbated by two of the least appealing players on MGM’s supporting payroll. Fred Astaire remained defensive on the subject of The Belle Of New York. He liked it despite what others said. Both Belle and Singin’ In The Rain began shooting the same day --- June 18, 1952. Their negative costs were nearly identical --- $2.5 million give or take a few thousand. Singin’ used old songs, emerged a major hit ($1.6 million profit), and took its place as perhaps the greatest of all studio musicals. The Belle Of New York offered all new songs, tanked, then was forgotten. Domestic rentals ($1.3 million) fell way short of negative cost and final losses were $1.5 million. The film was not reissued with other MGM musicals as part of that company’s Perpetual Product Plan in the sixties. Of ones Arthur Freed produced, it would fade quickest from collective memories. Pecking order among them can be measured by place and prominence in various That’s Entertainment(s) since 1974. I found The Belle Of New York excerpted briefly in Part Two and again in the last one they did (1994’s TEIII). Those many MGM soundtracks restored by Rhino for CD release did not include The Belle Of New York. The only disc I came across was an import from Spain, where it shared space with music from The Bandwagon.
  • December 2005
  • January 2006
  • February 2006
  • March 2006
  • April 2006
  • May 2006
  • June 2006
  • July 2006
  • August 2006
  • September 2006
  • October 2006
  • November 2006
  • December 2006
  • January 2007
  • February 2007
  • March 2007
  • April 2007
  • May 2007
  • June 2007
  • July 2007
  • August 2007
  • September 2007
  • October 2007
  • November 2007
  • December 2007
  • January 2008
  • February 2008
  • March 2008
  • April 2008
  • May 2008
  • June 2008
  • July 2008
  • August 2008
  • September 2008
  • October 2008
  • November 2008
  • December 2008
  • January 2009
  • February 2009
  • March 2009
  • April 2009
  • May 2009
  • June 2009
  • July 2009
  • August 2009
  • September 2009
  • October 2009
  • November 2009
  • December 2009
  • January 2010
  • February 2010
  • March 2010
  • April 2010
  • May 2010
  • June 2010
  • July 2010
  • August 2010
  • September 2010
  • October 2010
  • November 2010
  • December 2010
  • January 2011
  • February 2011
  • March 2011
  • April 2011
  • May 2011
  • June 2011
  • July 2011
  • August 2011
  • September 2011
  • October 2011
  • November 2011
  • December 2011
  • January 2012
  • February 2012
  • March 2012
  • April 2012
  • May 2012
  • June 2012
  • July 2012
  • August 2012
  • September 2012
  • October 2012
  • November 2012
  • December 2012
  • January 2013
  • February 2013
  • March 2013
  • April 2013
  • May 2013
  • June 2013
  • July 2013
  • August 2013
  • September 2013
  • October 2013
  • November 2013
  • December 2013
  • January 2014
  • February 2014
  • March 2014
  • April 2014
  • May 2014
  • June 2014
  • July 2014
  • August 2014
  • September 2014
  • October 2014
  • November 2014
  • December 2014
  • January 2015
  • February 2015
  • March 2015
  • April 2015
  • May 2015
  • June 2015
  • July 2015
  • August 2015
  • September 2015
  • October 2015
  • November 2015
  • December 2015
  • January 2016
  • February 2016
  • March 2016
  • April 2016
  • May 2016
  • June 2016
  • July 2016
  • August 2016
  • September 2016
  • October 2016
  • November 2016
  • December 2016
  • January 2017
  • February 2017
  • March 2017
  • April 2017
  • May 2017
  • June 2017
  • July 2017
  • August 2017
  • September 2017
  • October 2017
  • November 2017
  • December 2017
  • January 2018
  • February 2018
  • March 2018
  • April 2018
  • May 2018
  • June 2018
  • July 2018
  • August 2018
  • September 2018
  • October 2018
  • November 2018
  • December 2018
  • January 2019
  • February 2019
  • March 2019
  • April 2019
  • May 2019
  • June 2019
  • July 2019
  • August 2019
  • September 2019
  • October 2019
  • November 2019
  • December 2019
  • January 2020
  • February 2020
  • March 2020
  • April 2020
  • May 2020
  • June 2020
  • July 2020
  • August 2020
  • September 2020
  • October 2020
  • November 2020
  • December 2020
  • January 2021
  • February 2021
  • March 2021
  • April 2021
  • May 2021
  • June 2021
  • July 2021
  • August 2021
  • September 2021
  • October 2021
  • November 2021
  • December 2021
  • January 2022
  • February 2022
  • March 2022
  • April 2022
  • May 2022
  • June 2022
  • July 2022
  • August 2022
  • September 2022
  • October 2022
  • November 2022
  • December 2022
  • January 2023
  • February 2023
  • March 2023
  • April 2023
  • May 2023
  • June 2023
  • July 2023
  • August 2023
  • September 2023
  • October 2023
  • November 2023
  • December 2023
  • January 2024
  • February 2024
  • March 2024
  • April 2024
  • May 2024
  • June 2024