Wicked Women

It’s easy to be a little down on Capra: the sentimental overdosing (he always pushes it further than you think he can, and then he pushes it too far), the pretence of saying Big Things about Society without ever actually doing so, the political prevarications. But I may turn up at some of Edinburgh Filmhouse’s forthcoming season of Capras to reconnect to his virtues and see if I find them substantial enough.

A movie like PLATINUM BLONDE, which is enjoyable enough in its own right, kind of invites resentment because it’s easy to get a copy of it, while many superior pre-code movies are obscure and unavailable. Blame Capra’s fame for getting that movie out there at the expense of, say VIRTUE (1932).

Lombard with the magnificent Shirley Gray Maya Methot.

Written by Robert Riskin (future Capra support) from a story by Ethel Hill, deals with a woman (Carole Lombard) being run out of New York for prostitution, who meets a hardboiled but not-so-smart-as-he-thinks cabbie (Pat O’Brien) and falls for him. After they’re married, as they save to buy a garage, the truth comes out and sours things. Dramatic developments ensue.

Then I watched PICK-UP (1933) in which a woman (Sylvia Sidney), fresh out of prison after a “badger game” (yeah, I had to look it up too) went sour, meets a hard-boiled but not-so-smart-as-he-thinks cabbie (George Raft) and falls for him. They don’t get married, but save to buy a garage, the truth comes out and sours things. Dramatic developments ensue.

What’s fascinating is how two such similar stories play so differently. Edward Buzzell’s film is the mini-masterpiece, benefitting from Lombard’s sophistication and an unusually winning turn from PO’B, even when he’s being a jerk. As the title suggests, the issue is Virtue, and the movie makes the point, possible only in the pre-and-post-code era, that true virtue has nothing to do with sexual purity. The moral heroes of the film are a pair of prostitutes who do the right thing at cost to themselves.

This is inspiring stuff in a mainstream film from any era, and it’s helped by Lombard not asking for our sympathy — she plays it sassy and earns our sympathy. Riskin’s dialogue keeps it brisk and witty — after Lombard makes a crack about O’Brien’s homely kisser, his complacent whine, “Say, my face is okay!” is followed by her “Yeah, okay for you: you’re behind it.”

It all snarls up in a not-wholly-plausible thriller plot involving (yes!) Jack La Rue as a (yes!) murdering swine, and, as in PICK-UP, there’s a courtroom climax with our gal falsely accused. Check how speedily the coda wraps things up.

(Watched this with our friends The Browns. Ali is a professional costume designer, and while both were wowed by the snappy patter of depression America, she was particularly taken with the skilled use of headgear. Modern movies are quick to throw out the hats, for fear of concealing the actors’ eyes, a supposed problem which VIRTUE takes in its stride, with chic results.)

Sylvia Sidney in PICK-UP is more the whipped dog, playing put-upon rather than pert, a more on-the-nose interp which is effective but doesn’t have the Lombard magic. But she scores with her beautiful Bronx accent and that face! That smile! In a modest departure from the VIRTUE mold, SS has a ratfink hubbie (William Harrigan) in the stir, so she can’t marry Raft (an acceptable perf), and so he gets tempted by a dizzy society dame (Lillian Bond) who finds him simply too “he-ish”.

You may be wondering how anybody could be tempted away from Sylvia, but this is Lillian Bond (also seen in THE OLD DARK HOUSE) ~

Impressive, although, as Fiona observed, she’s “sucking in that gut” in the manner of the late Robert Mitchum.

Things soon get back on track — Raft gets wise to himself, Sylvia is on trial for a crime she didn’t commit, things get sorted out through a piece of wildly incredible courtroom shenanigans and love finds a way, although the lawyer gets the garage as part of his fee.

The title card shows an actual Fanny Magnet in operation.

PICK-UP was smoothly directed by Marion Gering, of DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA and 24 HOURS fame. In place of Capra, I might actually suggest everybody spends the next ten years watching Marion Gering, Rowland Brown, Edward Buzzell and of course Del Ruth, LeRoy and Dieterle in their pre-code phases. More radical, more peppy, more beautiful.

18 Responses to “Wicked Women”

  1. I only recently learnt that Capra was a lifelong conservative Republican.

  2. Marion Gering’s Madame Butterfly is on Youtube:

  3. Take one look at ghastly films like MR DEEDS and YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, and Capra’s political bias comes through loud and clear.

    If Capra were alive today, he could have been a speech writer for George Dubya. Allegedly, he was also a huge fan of Mussolini!

  4. The woman with Carole Lombard in the VIRTUE screenshot is Mayo Methot, not Shirley Grey — and yes, MM is magnificent!

    Shirley Grey is JLR’s dumb-blonde partner in crime (“Okee!”).

  5. david wingrove Says:

    Maya Methot was the third Mrs Humphrey Bogart – aka ‘Sluggy’ because she and Bogie liked to get drunk and beat each other up.

  6. La Faustin, thanks, I had a niggling doubt about the credit, and MM’s name isn’t as prominently placed in the credits roll as it should be…

    There’s a half-amusing, half-horrible story about Peter Lorre demonstrating the volatility of the Bogarts’ relationship by simply uttering the words “General McArthur.” Within seconds, she’s trying to claw his eyes out while he’s trying to brain her with his whisky glass.

    Harry Coen was the bug Mussolini admirer, who redesigned his offic to make it a replica of Il Duce’s, but Capra had a photo of BM on his desk until WWII kicked off. I took that to mean he wasn’t very politically aware and just liked the apparent new-found confidence in Italy’s stance. But Meet John Doe does have a strange attraction-repulsion to the ideas and imagery of fascism.

    The writers usually supplied more leftist ideas, which then got watered down or subverted or just blended in.

  7. Capra’s big political statements are no more or less grandiose and pretentious than most studio pictures of that time but because they are well directed and acted, they are better than most. What’s most interesting in Capra is the emotional intensity like the phone scene in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE(a movie I have never seen on Christmas and which I consider Capra’s best film) and also the filibuster scene at the end of MR. SMITH which borders on delirium. He’s like Dickens in that way, the pain is rendered more forcefully while the joy is fleeting. That’s probably what John Cassavetes referred to when he named Capra one of his favourite film-makers even if his movies are on an entirely different keel.

    I understand that Capra is really a square film-maker for most Anglo-Americans to appreciate but at his best he was a genuine master of a certain kind of comedy that’s gone well out of style. Today it isn’t possible of course. The weird thing about Capra is how he completely collapsed after the war, after It’s A Wonderful Life, his career kept digging down and down and never looked up again.

  8. All the films being discussed today were made in the early 30’s. That means they were faster, sharper and more to the political point than almost anything ever made — even today. Consequently Capra didn’t drag his ass as he was wont to later on.

  9. Until the invasion of Ethiopia, Mussolini was very much liked by quite a few people around the world for regenerating Italy after the war. Italy fought WW1 on the side of the Allies, that is the US-UK-French-Russian side, so Italy wasn’t seen as an enemy, yet. So Capra having a Mussolini photo on his desk can be seen as a sign of the times since, unlike Ezra Pound, he didn’t act on it and went to Italy giving propaganda for the Fascists during WW2.

    I think Capra was a populist, in the 30s when people were pro-New Deal, his films seemed liberal but it’s telling that in the 50s which was a conservative period politically, he was a total washout. So whether he would do well as a speechwriter for President George II is doubtful!

  10. I don’t know if you got to see “American Madness,” but that’s a terrific little film, which I saw once in Paris when I walked into the wrong theatre.

    I was looking at the other things playing at the Edinburgh Filmhouse, and I seem to recall that you wondered once what might be especially worth seeing from African filmmakers: if you’ve a chance, I’d highly recommend Sembène’s “Guelwaar” on the 30th. For me, it’s his best film.

  11. I like American Madness a lot, because I like Walter Huston and I like Sterling Holloway, and the hysterical dramatic compression that has a bank robbery and a rush on the bank and every kind of dramatic calamity all happening at once gives it a real hysteria and sense of, well, madness.

    One screenwriter defined Capra’s politics as “Happy to be here.”

    Gareth, thanks!

    There’s a memo from Jack Warner when he’d just seen It Happened One Night and noted its unusual running time and wondered if Warners weren’t maybe cutting their films too tight. Thankfully, nothing seems to have been done about it, or not immediately. Capra had a fondness for extending things, which was kept in check by the speed of 30s cinema, and really got out of hand later. But he does achieve a good balance sometimes. And The Bitter Tea of General Yen is amazing.

  12. Hats! I’ve noticed some women of the ’30s wear them a lot, like Glenda Farrell, who managed to look quite sharp in them.

    Capra for me is a slide downhill through the ’30s. Except for misfires like Dirigible, I generally like his early ’30s films, but by the time of You Can’t Take It With You, I can’t stand them. I think it turns into Capracorn syrup.

  13. Yeah, I always had trouble with YCTIWY, which seems more set on espousing a singularly inane philosophy rather than getting laughs. I’m fairly sure the play was funnier.

  14. YCTIWY seems stale because its formula – family of eccentrics confronting the “normal” world – has been imitated so often. The Addams Family and The Munsters were gothic versions of YCTIWY. That said, I really like some of YCTIWY’s performances, James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and – especially – Edward Arnold.

  15. I like all those people… I don’t mind the familiarity of the concept and I’d happily watch another family of eccentrics movie right now. What I found grating was all Lionel Barrymore’s long speeches justifying their way of life, which turned the eccentricity into some kind of boring non-conformist stance.

  16. Agreed. I’m always annoyed by Lionel Barrymoore’s self-righteousness – it seems to be an innate quality – whether he’s the father busting up Garbo and Robert Taylor’s relationship in CAMILLE, or the patriarch trying to control Jennifer Jones in DUEL IN THE SUN, or a supposed good guy as in YCTIWY.

  17. Some intriguing perspectives on “Virtue,” a film I like a great deal and arguably Lombard’s best performance before Howard Hawks, John Barrymore and “Twentieth Century” unleashed her comedic brilliance.

    It’s interesting that “Virtue” — like “Twentieth Century” — was made at Columbia, not Carole’s home studio of Paramount, which until about 1935 really didn’t know what to do with her (Lombard left the studio after making “True Confession” in late 1937). She was one of the few actresses who had a good relationship with Harry Cohn — she stood up to him, and he admired her for that — and thus he seemingly took better care of Carole than did the people at Paramount, where she was just another entry in their star stable and not deemed at the level of Claudette Colbert or Miriam Hopkins.

    I run a blog at LiveJournal called “Carole & Co.” dedicated to Lombard in particular and classic Hollywood in general (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/). Here are some entries regarding “Virtue” (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/tag/virtue); this past March, I wrote an entry about Mayo Methot (http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/289094.html).

    Continued success with your blog.

  18. Thanks! And the best with yours. Will add to my blogroll.

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