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Monday, February 22, 2010

The Precode Hardship Of Life

I remain too timid to watch Wild Boys Of The Road despite Warner’s DVD said to derive from camera elements. My cowardice goes back to an electrifying excerpt that highlighted a William Wellman documentary from the early seventies. A bunch of kid hoboes are shown jumping off a freight to avoid yard bulls. One of them falls and is knocked unconscious, his leg splayed across the track. Friends react with horror as a locomotive from the opposite direction bears down and cleaves off the limb. It’s one of Depression movies’ defining moments and the go-to clip when compilers address Hollywood of that era. There was also a photo I’d stare at in Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer’s The Movies, my (and a lot of other's) first book about the history of same. It showed Richard Barthelmess standing under a billboard that reads Jobless Men Keep Going --- We Take Care Of Our Own. His hunched posture and resigned expression conveyed seeming hopelessness of the Crash and aftermath. The film was Heroes For Sale, another of those that awed me for dynamic still images and likelihood I’d never get to see them. Now both Heroes and Wild Boys are available in Forbidden Hollywood --- Volume Three, which might better be labeled Six Lives Of The Luckless. Everyone in these roll snake eyes. Or in the case of that kid on the rail, boxcars. To say I enjoyed them wouldn’t quite be accurate. Glad to have finally seen them, yes. Well, five of the half-dozen anyway. Wild Boys Of The Road will just have to wait until my hide’s as tough as 1932 audiences for whom its calamities were everyday reality of life.

People’s expectations of Precode have more to do with Volume Three’s box art than content within. Joan Blondell winks us bid enter … there’s fun and naughty frolic here. Only there really isn’t. Was it Bill Wellman or beaten-down dispositions of Warner scribes? I picture all of them walking around with targets painted on their backs, writing downer movies by day and sneaking after twelve hour (or more) shifts to clandestine union gatherings . There’s revolution simmering in these seventy-minute kettles. If people had taken films more seriously then, they might have wondered what anarchy Warners was fermenting. I have to admit being too unsophisticated to appreciate reforms these shows advocated, so won’t prattle about such issues being still relevant and how WB boldly anticipated many of our own social ills. I’ll cling instead to Warren William being ruthless and Joan Blondell compliant. They’re my kind of precode and the sort to which first-time viewers are best introduced.

Should have mentioned it before, but Forbidden Hollywood Three’s lineup is Wild Boys Of The Road, Frisco Jenny, Other Men’s Women, Midnight Mary, The Purchase Price, and Heroes For Sale. Marching feet montages appear to unite the six. Also calendar leaves to show time dismally passing. Poor Loretta Young gets pinched or bludgeoned every time she walks out of the house. The actress was barely twenty when she did Midnight Mary and Heroes For Sale in succession. Her whole life ahead of her, as they say. Did Young imagine it might turn out as jaundiced WB writers foresaw? Survival skills among Depression players were surely cut to a fine edge by hard-hitters assigned and pitiless dialogue exchanged. For whatever lucrative wages they collected, precoders knew well how lives enacted might become their own should autograph and bread lines suddenly merge. I don’t wonder that Loretta Young’s career lasted the seventy plus years it did, for likes of Midnight Mary and Heroes For Sale did nothing if not toughen her up for whatever ordeals to come dished out.

Ruth Chatterton was the been there/suffered that alternative to Loretta Young’s innocence despoiled. For her Frisco Jenny, earthquakes are just another bump on a hard road. You could laugh at so much despair but for her playing it with such conviction. Jenny and remaining five pack more incident into just over hour’s length as to make you wonder why movies since poke along so. Heroes For Sale disposes of almost two decades in Dick Barthelmess’ life within a brisk 71 minutes. It’s loaded with content movies wouldn’t address once Code restrictions began enforcing. Character actions and motivations admittedly baffled me at times. Maybe I lack compassion thinking Barthelmess a total chump for shunning the fortune he’s made promoting a dry cleaning invention, but have to remind myself that life for writers then (and near everyone else) entailed many times the struggles we bear up under today. Did creators of such Depression parables develop a keener understanding of the human spirit for struggles they endured? It’s for that possibility that I hesitate to criticize these more. That plus the fact each hit hard when they connect. You have to admire Warners for so often stepping outside safe genres.

Richard Barthelmess described himself jokingly as the screen’s leading underdog. For directions his talkie career was headed, I’d call him Number One Raw Deal Recipient. Like it or not, moviegoers prefer their idols assertive. Dick seemed passive in both stance and attitude. The uninitiated keep waiting for him to straighten shoulders and take charge. Here was an actor unique for being put upon. He’d begun that way as Tol’able David. Frustrating was the fact that bullies too often got the best of Dick. Why is it then he’s so compelling? For one thing, it’s the face. Whatever expression there is must be supplied by viewer interpretation. Especially after Barthelmess submitted to cosmetic work that froze it even more. Lilian Gish thought his the most beautiful face in movies. There is something compelling about emotions you can customize to suit yourself. Dick’s underplaying seems boldly modern in leaving us room to observe a variety of possibilities for what make his characters tick. Stardom could indeed have served him longer had Barthelmess gone easier routes like contemporaries who found a safe niche and stayed within it. Instead, he seems to have sought out vehicles to challenge movie conventions if not societal norms. Had he been along after the next war, might RB have found himself in hot water with the HUAC and other social/political monitors?


Anonymous East Side said...

Barthelmess is my favorite "forgotten" actor of that time. Not great, perhaps, but sincere and -- if this is possible -- simultaneously subtle intense. "Heroes for Sale," "Central Airport," "A Modern Hero" and, my favorite, "The Last Flight" -- he never fails to connect.

2:45 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson via e-mail on depression movies. Fascinating thoughts here --- Thanks Donald!

I know I saw that documentary with the clip of the boy on the tracks. I also remember a Mighty Mouse cartoon where MM, breaking up up a gang of juvenile delinquents, rescues one of them from an oncoming train after a drawn-out shot of the delinquents registering fear and horror -- evidently a parody of the same film. A quick internet search turned up "Spare the Rod," a 1953 Mighty Mouse that seems to match my recollections. So by that time somebody at TerryToons -- presumably old enough to remember the 30s as well as that film -- thought it was a laughable cliche.

I may well be wrong, but I have the feeling that hard times in escapist movies became increasingly whimsical or sentimental as the years passed. Whether in response to executive decree or audience response, grim shuffling men and hungry streetwalkers were eventually outnumbered by funny tramps with spats and spunky working girls who never quite lose the apartment.

Early on, "My Man Godfrey" could at least start with a believable hobo jungle and Mickey Mouse could be explicitly homeless (in a toon where he provides Christmas to a family of impoverished cats -- fatherless because Daddy is in prison). Soon enough harsher realities were played mainly for melodrama: Old ladies and orphans, seemingly the only poor people in town, sobbing in appropriate gratitude for the hero's charity. Or for broad, reassuringly unrealistic comedy: the Three Stooges outfitting a junkyard shanty with clever gadgets out of Tarzan's treehouse.

One of the Nancy Drew films (where the only poor seemed to be comic halfwits), had her boyfriend's mother chide him for pigging out on a lavish breakfast spread. His reply, "I thought the depression was over," would have pegged him as a villain or the unlikable rich kid just a few years before.

3:22 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I watched every entry in the PRE-CODE box set, and they are all very good.

WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD is excellent. Come on John, you can handle it.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Jennythenipper said...

You make several excellent points in this post:

1) Pre-codes are marketed as sexy, campy fun even when a great many of them don't fit that mold at all.

2) Young actors like Loretta Young were often in the position of playing very hard-boiled, tough people. Sometimes even in comedies, they were playing more worldly than they really were: I think also of young Betty Davis in the Dark Horse. From her own admission Davis was naive, inexperienced with men and trying to play a player like Warren William. She managed it, but there are times where you can see her working at it.

3)I love the image of WB writers doing these depressing, hard-biting tales for 12 hours and then sneaking off to Union meetings. I'm sure that was the subtext of a lot of the films at the time.

4) As the Depression wore on censorship and demands of the public for more upbeat fare replaced the hookers and wiseguys with flighty heiresses and honest but street smart reporters. Still, I think many of screwball comedies take a wicked, satirical swipe at the rich and powerful.

4:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with you, John; I still haven't watched WILD BOYS because of that clip, viewed at about age 12 as part of Richard Schickel's Wellman doc.

9:05 PM  
Blogger Erik Weems said...

Watching films older than the viewers own time seems to sneakily turn the longtime watcher into amateur anthropologist.

I've not been able to watch WILD BOYS either. Yet!

12:34 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Packaging this box set as FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD III instead of EARLY WILLIAM WELLMAN is, yes, just smart marketing and only a shade mis-leading. Pre-code does not necessarily mean glib and sexy, and in the case of these six the tone is more is more gritty than racy. But I found all of these preposterously entertaining, way more than I expected. Before hand, I'm not sure I would have walked across the street to see either THE PURCHASE PRICE or FRISCO JENNY, but they like all the other titles held up marvelously. And, I'm afraid, not one of them struck me as depressing (that may say more about me than the films!)

9:43 PM  

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