- Posted: 12:54 PM, July 24, 2012
Has anyone researched whether movie attendance dropped after Hollywood's Production Code began to be rigorously enforced, largely at the behest of the Catholic Church, in mid-1934? Certainly things were a lot more lively in the pre-code era, as we're reminded once again in eight new titles just out from the Warner Archive Collection. WAC, which has been assiduously mining its Warner, MGM and RKO libraries for naughty pre-talkies throughout its three-year history -- including such rediscoveries as the 1929 version of "The Letter'' and the notorious "Safe in Hell'' (1931) with the forgotten Dorothy Mackaill -- has now revived the "Forbidden Hollywood'' label, which goes back to the old MGM/UA VHS days, for a pair of new DVD sets showcasing eight Warner Bros. titles from 1932 and 1933.
Volume 4 -- the first three volumes were issued on DVD at retail between 2006 and 2009 -- is worth buying just for its marquee title, William Dieterle's delightful "Jewel Robbery,'' which as far as I can has never been legitimately available on any video format in this country. If you skip the credits, you'd swear this naughty, sophisticated comedy was directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch -- it's actually superior to at least a couple of the master's talkies, like "Bluebeard's Eighth Honeymoon.''
William Powell and Kay Francis, who had appeared together in four films at Paramount before that bankrupt studio sold their contracts to Warners, are perfectly cast as a suave jewel thief and a baroness who is charmed by a criminal who plays mood music on a phonograph when he and his gunman burst into a Vienna jewelry store where her wealthy husband is hondling the owner over the price of a spectacular new necklace for her. Smitten Kay mischeviously refuses to be locked in a vault unless Bill joins her inside, something he looks like he's actually tempted to do.
Lubitsch touches abound (Kay is first seen in a bubble bath) in "Jewel Robbery,'' which screenwriter Erwin Gelsey adapted from a Ladislas Fodor play that had a brief Broadway run earlier in 1932. The action moves from the jewelry store to Kay's boudoir -- where Bill returns the pilfered necklace after she gives the cops a highly inaccurate description of him -- to Bill's apartment, where Kay is thrilled when Bill shows her into his own vault of stolen loots, which is conveniently equipped with a couch for canoodling.
"Oh, they're too heavenly! This necklace -- where did you get it?'' Kay asks Bill. "At a charity ball,'' he replies. "What courage!'' Kay exclaims. "No, merely nimble fingers,'' Bill corrects. "The lady stood beside me. The Prince of Wales was announced. I could have removed her dress."
That's a typically sparkling pre-code exchange in "Jewel Robbery,'' like this one between Kay and her pal Helen Vinson, who gush like schoolgirls over Kay's encounter with Powell and are both big believers in open marriages to hold boredom at bay:
Helen: What a shame to meet a man like that in a shop.
Kay: Why a shame?
Helen: He's the sort of robber one should meet in a Pullman!
Kay: What do you mean?
Helen: Didn't you see in the paper? : Kay: No!
Helen: Last week an American woman was robbed in the Simplon Express. Stripped right down to her teddies!
Helen: What would you do if you found yourself in your teddies?
Kay: What would you do??
Helen: Let the train go on!
Kay: [laughing] Lost soul!
Helen: When I'm travelling at the rate of 80 miles per hour, I'm not responsible for my actions!
Warners immediately re-teamed Powell and Francis for Tay Garnett's better-known "One-Way Passage'' (previously released by WAC). And then Lubitsch -- I'm guessing on the strength of "Jewel Robbery" -- asked cash-strapped Paramount to borrow back Francis from Warners for a similar role in his masterpiece "Trouble in Paradise''
Powell, meanwhile, went into "Lawyer Man,'' the second film in the "Forbidden Hollywood'' set and very much part of the early '30s wave of lawyer movies, inspired by varying degrees by the exploits of the legendary attorney William Fallon. They included "A Free Soul'' and "Guilty Hands'' with Lionel Barrymore at MGM, as well as "The Mouthpiece'' starring Warren William at WB. Powell's self-described "shyster'' in "Lawyer Man'' plays roughly like a cross between the characters played by John Barrymore in "Attorney at Law'' (Universal) and "State's Attorney'' (RKO).
Speaking a few words of Yiddish (though not as many as James Cagney in the same year's "Taxi''), Powell is a Lower East Side lawyer who's invited to become partner to a Park Avenue attorney (Alan Dinehart) he's beaten in court. But when the upwardly mobile Powell crosses a political boss (David Landau), he ends up with a blackmail rap that reduces him to ambulance chasing (or, in one very funny scene, chasing a potential client out of a steam bath while wearing only a towel).
Second billing goes to Joan Blondell as Powell's loyal secretary, who pines for the boss but mostly serves as his conscience and is constantly warning him to lay off the "dames'' -- in this case WB mainstays Helen Vinson and Claire Dodd. Sterling Hollywood shows up briefly as a guy unsuccessfully trying to make time with Blondell.
"Lawyer Man'' is briskly directed by Dieterle, who also helmed the third 1932 title in Volume 4, "Man Wanted.'' which was advertised as Francis' first film for Warner Bros. Gregg Toland, no less, was brought in to photograph the fashion icon star as she played a busy magazine editrix who has grown bored with her husband (Kenneth Thomson), whose own interest in the ubiquitous Claire Dodd is growing by leaps and bounds.. Enter Kay's handsome new male secretary David Manners, who squeezed in several features at Warners between "Dracula'' and "The Mummy.'' He's engaged to the very funny Una Merkel, but Andy Devine is fortunately on hand so things can come out even in 69 minutes. And that familiar-looking older gent who owns the sporting goods store where Manners and Devine work in an early scene? Yes, Edward Van Sloan, Van Helsing in "Dracula.''
Manners partners a breathtakingly beautiful, top-billed Loretta Young in "They Call It Sin'' (the only one of the Vol. 4 titles previously on VHS) which does not fully live up to its lurid title (much less this amazing poster). He's a traveling salesman who becomes smitten when he wanders into a Kansas church where she's playing the organ. A mildly scandalous afternoon on the lake leads to Loretta following David to New York, where she rudely discovers that David is enaged to a socialite played by the busy Helen Vinson. Poor Loretta pursues her musical ambitions with lecherous producer Louis Calhern, and things get progressively sillier from there, climaxing with one of the most unintentionally hilarious operation sequences in Hollywood history. The surgeon involved is George Brent's, whose second billing as David's doctor pal is something of a spoiler, and Ms. Merkel is thankfully on hand again to provide more deliberate comic relief among the suds. The director is Thornton Freeland ("Whoopee''), who this same year directed Humphrey Bogart in "Love Affair'' at Columbia.
Volume 5 of "Forbidden Hollywood'' kicks off with Mervyn LeRoy's highly entertaining "Hard to Handle'' (1933) starring a quintessential James Cagney as Myron "Lefty'' Merrill, an ethically-challenged promoter first seen running a dance marathon that he arranges to be won by his girlfriend (a bottle-blonde Mary Brian in a role reportedly spurned by Carole Lombard, who would not make it to Warners until 1937's "Fools for Scandal''). Less claustrophobic than many of the cheaply made Warners pre-codes, this one includes an elaborate sequence where one of Cagney's stunts causes an impressively-staged riot on pier in Venice, Calif. This obliges Cagney to move his operations to New York, where he becomes a high-powered PR man promoting a shady Florida development called "Grapefruit Acres'' (a wink at his famous breakfast scene with Mae Clarke in "The Public Enemy''). Real-life playwright/swindler Wilson Mizner collaborated with Robert Lord on the snappy if patchy script, which allows hilarious Ruth Donnelly as Brian's avaricious mom to pretty much walk off with the picture as well as providing juicy moments for Allen Jenkins, Claire Dodd and even Sterling Holloway.
The only one in this set previously available on VHS is the archetypical pre-coder "Ladies They Talk About'' (1933), credited to the directing team of Howard Bretherton and William Keighley. Barbara Stanwyck, moll of gangster Lyle Talbot, gets sent up to San Quentin for her participation in a bank heist. In this prototypical women-in-prison movie, she tangles with fellow inmate Dorothy Burgess, who frames her for an escape plot that results in the death of a couple of guards. But in a neat reversal of her famous role as a faux Aimee Semple McPherson in Frank Capra's "Miracle Woman'' (1931) at Columbia, Stanwyck becomes a personal reclamation project of a revival preacher (Preston Foster, with whom she would make two more films at RKO) from her hometown in Ohio. That's less interesting than the film's pre-code depiction of the prison's population, which includes at least one openly lesbian inmate in a relationship with another woman. The cast includes Lillian Roth (who sings "If I Could Be With You'' to a photo of Warners star Joe E. Brown) and Ms. Donnelly, a tough but sympathetic prison matron who for some reason is usually seen working with a cockatoo on her shoulder.
The actor most identified with the pre-code era, Warren William, has one of his best roles in "The Mind Reader'' (1933), also written by the Mizner-Lord team, as a slimy traveling con-man turned spiritualist who falls for one of his marks (the forgotten Constance Cummings, whose lengthy resume on both sides of the Atlantic includes Howard Hawks' "The Criminal Code'' and David Lean's "Blithe Spirit''). William is particularly funny when he's dispensing info on straying husbands (gleaned by accomplice Allen Jenkins, who has many funny lines -- especially the last one) to society dames.
Lloyd Bacon's "Miss Pinkerton'' (1932), the final film in the set, is the least pre-code of these pre-codes -- though it does feature star Joan Blondell in one of her totally gratuitous underwear scenes (complete with a closeup of her chest) at the outset. She's a bored private duty nurse assigned to care for a rich old lady (Elizabeth Patterson, who actually got to play someone her own age in "Man Wanted'') after she discovers the body of her nephew. The cops, led by detective George Brent, think it's suicide but Miss Pinkerton knows better in this pleasant, fast-moving time-killer of an old dark house thriller adapted from a magazine serial by Mary Roberts Rinehart (whose name, incidentally, is misspelled in the credits on the DVD box).
Some remastering work appears to have been done on these titles -- which have far superior constrast levels than they ever did on TCM -- but they've not received the kind of expensive restoration given to earlier films in the series (which reportedly cost $1 million for the six titles in "Forbidden Hollywood 3''). Though none of these films in these sets runs much over an hour, each gets its very own disc. As I've noted before, the initial run will be available on the kind of pressed discs used for retail releases rather than the burned DVD-R discs that have been used for feature films so far as the Warner Archive Collection (and the other manufacture-on-demand programs). Once the initial supply is exhausted, the sets will only be available on burned discs.
Turner Classic Movies, which co-branded the first three "Forbidden Hollywood'' DVD sets at retail with Warner Home Video, has since released several pre-code titles through its TCM Vault Collection, mostly through its partnerships with Univesal and Sony (all, incidentally, initially on pressed discs). The latest is "The Columbia Pre-Code Collection,'' which I'm reviewing together with the Warner set because so many actors (starring and supporting) turn up in both studios' films from this era.
With the notable exception of Frank Capra, Columbia's directors tended to turn out less punchy films than their counterparts at Warners, though Columbia's economically-filmed programmers are ofter better lit (especially when shot but Joseph August) with more elaborately furnished interiors. This is especially noticeable in the excellent transfers in this set, which utilize materials that are apparently in much better shape than Warner titles from the early '30s, which passed through many hands in the half-century before they were returned to the Warner vaults in the late '90s.
Barbara Stanwyck, who divided her time between Columbia and Warners between 1931-1933, is the most prominently featured star in this set, which includes one film apiece starring the era's most prominent blondes, Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard, as well as an oddity with John Wayne.
The credits for "Ten Cents a Dance'' (1931), Stanwyck's eighth film, claim it's "based on the popular song by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rogers'' (sung over the opening and closing credits by Ruth Etting) but it's actually an original by frequent Capra collaborator Jo Swerling. She toils away at a Times Square dance palace where she tells admirer Ricardo Cortez (another Warner mainstay) that the customers all melt into one faceless man. Stanwyck spurns the twice-divorced Cortez's offer of an around-the-world cruise for an unhappy marriage to a weakling husband (Monroe Owsley, late of "Safe in Hell'') she gets a job working for Cortez. But what desperate measures can she take when hubby starts embezzling from the boss? "Ten Cents'' is the liveliest of the handful of films directed by actor Lionel Barrymore. Cortez claimed that Barrymore often fell asleep during filming, so perhaps I should thank assistant director Richard Rosson, later noted for his second-unit work on films like "Come and Get It.''
There are writing credits on the other four films for Robert Riskin, an even better-known Capra collaborator. Stanwyck's boyfriend in Nick Grinde's aptly-named "Shopworn'' (1932) is veteran Warner character player Regis Toomey, a medical student who's smitten with this hash-slinging orphan. But Toomey's wealthy mom (Clara Blandick, the future unbilled Auntie Em of "The Wizard of Oz'') is having none of it. This fearsome widow begs her judge boyfriend (Oscar Apfel, who co-directed 1914's "The Squaw Man,'' the first feature shot in Hollywood, with Cecil B. DeMille) to commit Stanwyck to mental institution, but he decides that a six-month stretch in juvenile hall for a violation of the "public morals act'' will suffice to cool Toomey's ardor. Upon her release, she embarks upon a show business career and, in about 30 seconds of screen time, she's a Broadway star. Not much of what follows makes much sense -- especially when Auntie Em pulls a gun on Stanwyck to keep her away from a newly-interested Toomey -- but like "Ten Cents'' it's a fascinating look at young Stanwyck working on her craft as an actress. An added fillip is Zazu Pitts, on hand to provide comic relief as Stanwyck's ditsy aunt.
William Beaudine's "Three Wise Girls'' (1931) was the first time that Jean Harlow got top billing in a movie, just before employer Howard Hughes sold her contract to MGM (where she spent the balance of her all-too-brief career). Harlow, who had her stolen previous Columbia loan-out, Capra's "Platinum Blonde'' from top-billed Loretta Young, is somewhat miscast as a small-town innocent who follows a more sophisticated pal (Mae Clarke, who like Harlow had appeared in Warners' "The Public Enemy'' that same year) to New York where they both work as models. There both of them become unhappily embroiled with married men (Walter Bryron and Jameson Thomas). The third wise girl, comedienne Marie Prevost, ends up with Andy Devine.
Carole Lombard was loaned by Paramount to Columbia for a handful of features, mostly notably her star-making turn as an actress in Howard Hawks' "Twentieth Century'' (1934). Two years earlier, she played a streetwalker in Edward Buzzell's "Virtue'' opposite Pat O'Brien (who, like Harlow, was also under contract to Hughes and stopped off at MGM to play opposite Harlow in "Bombshell'' before decamping to post-code Warners). He's a hot tempered, wisecracking NYC cabbie who marries her under the misapprehension that Lombard is a stenographer. Their union is tested when he learns the truth and she gets framed for the death of a gangster named Toots (the inimitable Jack LaRue). The cliche-ridden proceedings are brightened by Riskin's bright dialogue and the easy chemistry between Lombard and O'Brien, who never worked with her again.
Neither Riskin nor the prolific, ever-reliable George B. Seitz (1936's "Last of the Mohicans'' and the Andy Hardy series) could work any such magic with "Arizona'' (1930), a wheezy adaptation of a 1900 stage hit that's not a western despite its title and the presence of second-billed John Wayne in his first film during an unhappy six-month stint at Columbia. Wayne, who had been sent on his way by Fox after the failure of his expensive debut as as a star, Raoul Walsh's "The Big Trail,'' here plays a West Point football star whose first military assignment is in Arizona. He's surprised to discover his ex-girlfriend (top-billed silent star Laura LaPlante) has married the commanding officer who's mentoring him. LaPlante, who wed on the rebound after Wayne refused to marry her, tries to sabotage his romance with her sister (June Clyde) by suggesting Wayne behaved as less than a gentleman with a comely hitchhiker. Unfortunately, nobody here actually does anything naughty on screen, they just talk about it. (Like the rest of the films in this set, it's never been available on video -- one of a handful of Wayne films with that distinction).
Wayne appeared in just two more films for Columbia after a blowup with studio boss Harry Cohn over an actress they both had designs on, and refused to work on the Gower Street lot ever again -- even after Cohn's death. "Arizona'' was retitled "Men Are Like That'' by the time it arrived in New York City in August 1931 -- on the same day that Capra's "Miracle Woman'' with Stanwyck opened. A year later, Wayne, between B-westerns during a year-long WB contract, would be playing one of her romantic conquests in "Baby Face.''
Today's Warner Archive Collection releases include John Farrow's "John Paul Jones'' (1959) with Robert Stack in the title role, Bette Davis as Catherine the Great, and Charles Coburn as Benjamin Franklin; Barry Pollack's blaxploitationer "Cool Breeze'' (1972) with Thalmus Rasulala and Judy Pace; and John Hough's "Brass Target'' (1978), a World War II heist thriller with Sophia Loren and John Cassavettes.
Sony's long-awaited digital restoration of David Lean's Oscar-winning epic "Lawrence of Arabia'' (1962) starring Peter O'Toole will be released in a three-disc Blu-ray edition on November 13, preceded by a limited theatrical run beginning October 4.
Max Ophul's never-on-DVD "Letter From an Unknown Woman'' (1948) starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan will finally be released on DVD (and Blu-ray) on Oct. 15 by Olive Films, along with: Robert Wise's "Three Secrets'' (1950) with Eleanor Parker, Patricia Neal and Ruth Roman; Sydney Pollack's "A Slender Thread'' (1965) with Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft; Jules Dassin's "Up Tight'' (1968), an updated version of "The Informer'' starring Raymond St. Jacques and Ruby Dee; and Liza Minnelli's Oscar-nominated film debut, Alan Pakula's "The Sterile Cukoo'' (1969) with Wendell Burton.
Classic Flix is reporting that Warners' rollout of its newly-licensed Samuel Goldwyn library titles on Blu-ray will begin with a pair of musicals in November: Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "Guys and Dolls'' (1955) with Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra and Jean Simmons on the 6th, followed by Charles Vidor's "Hans Christian Anderson'' (1952) starring Danny Kaye and Farley Granger two weeks later. No official announcement from Warner Home Video yet.
And Kino will release Nicholas Webster's "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians'' (1964), with John Call and a young Pia Zadora, on Blu-ray on October 30.