Pre-code Love

My scavenging through the archives to find films for my Forgotten Pre-Code season at The Daily Notebook naturally threw up some interesting entries that didn’t make the final cut — here are some thoughts.

THE GIRL IN 419 (1933)

This medical/crime thriller was one of the best things I saw, but arrived too late to be prominently featured. Thanks to La Faustin for the disc. Dr James Dunn refuses to let patient Gloria Stuart die — “She’s too beautiful!” and falls in love with her while she’s still comatose. You’ve seen her act, there’s really no point waiting. If the central love interest is a trifle anemic, the comedy relief from Vince Barnett and the villainy from William Harrigan and Jack LaRue more than compensate. La Rue gets a spectacular death scene, after shooting everyone in sight. One survivor is David Manners, whose slightly bland demeanor is brilliantly exploited by the script’s final moments. Although this is a Paramount Picture, the social microcosm and throwaway black humour is reminiscent of the best Warners capers. Jules Furthman wrote the story, no doubt laying down the creepy, sick tone — he was Sternberg’s go-to-guy for scriptwork at this point, and the medical gallows humour here parallels the death row skittishness in Sternberg’s THUNDERBOLT.

DOWN TO THEIR LAST YACHT (1934)

~ is even weirder than it sounds. It starts out with a family of millionaires, busted by the Crash, reluctantly agreeing to sail a bunch of horrid nouveau riche types around on the titular last yacht. Shipwrecked on an uncharted island, they fall under the thrall, if “thrall” is the word I want, of Mary Boland, an insane dowager who’s declared herself Queen of the native population. The plot disintegrates before our eyes, nobody seems to know who or what the film is about, but every so often there’ll be a sideways snarl from Ned Sparks or a bit of fey haplessness from Sterling Holloway. A fever dream.

THE WITCHING HOUR (1934)

This is the earliest Henry Hathaway job I’ve seen. It’s a slightly stagey mystery/drama/thingy with telepathy, hypnosis and a ghost thrown in. Best thing in it is Sir Guy Standing, who previously I’ve mocked because I find his name funny, but he’s wonderfully natural for a theatrical knight. (ERROR — I am confusing Standing with John Halliday, who looks a touch similar and gives the best perf in this) I guess he never made a canonically recognized great film, although LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER was rumoured to be Hitler’s fave.

Sir Guy John Halliday plays the owner of a gambling house who can always anticipate raids due to his mysterious sixth sense. One evening he hypnotizes his prospective son-in-law, as you do, to cure him of a phobia pertaining to cat’s-eye rings. Unfortunately, he unconsciously implants a post-hypnotic suggestion to kill Halliday’s enemy, which the obliging youngster does. Much of the plot turns on the quest to find a lawyer eccentric enough to take on this case — while one can appreciate the difficulty of such a chore, it’s just about the least interesting tack the drama could have taken. Hathaway directs with somewhat bloodless efficiency, but with some nice low angles.

THEY LEARNED ABOUT WOMEN (1930)

Vaudevillians Gus Van and Joe Schenk lack screen chemistry, but Bessie Love plays her ukulele nicely, and you know how I love a good uke. Interesting to trace Love’s progress from Hollywood starlet to character actress in Britain (THE RITZ, REDS, THE HUNGER). And no, that wasn’t her real name (it was Juanita Horton).

THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET (1933)

Oddly structured but affecting, with Kay Francis suffering and Ricardo Cortez dependably oleaginous. Robert Florey merits more love: he made a slew of great pre-codes, some decent 40s films, and some excellent TV episodes (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits). Pair him up with John Brahm as a pro with expressionist chops. It all dates back to THE LOVE OF ZERO in 1927, with cardboard designs by William Cameron Menzies. Nothing as baroque here, but Florey was in synch with the pre-code era, for sure.

UP THE RIVER (1930)

Early John Ford, but really it’s primo Maurine Dallas Watkins, the snappy women-in-prison stuff being the highlight. This is also Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart’s only movie together (it’s a co-ed prison), but Bogart isn’t really Bogart yet — the rather preppie young fellow can act a bit, but doesn’t compel attention. Tracy is in his loutish, disorderly, proletarian Irishman mode, much better value than his stolid paterfamilias trudging later on. The surviving print is incomplete, with some missing scenes and some scenes spliced into blipverts by absent frames. This adds a not-unpleasant, but quite unintended William Burroughs feel to the jaunty hi-jinks.

BIG CITY BLUES (1932)

Mervyn LeRoy, in his most insanely prolific phase, presides over this little beauty. Eric Linden is the naive goof trying to make his way in New York, Walter Catlett is his rip-off artist distant relative taking him for a ride. The mood darkens when an uncredited Lyle Talbot and Bogie crash the party. Bogie gives us a news bulletin –

I enjoyed this so much I forgot to even notice the solution to the whodunnit part. Most of the film is Linden and la Blondell, typically soulful. Grant Mitchell bookends it with a nice turn as station agent, commenting on our hero’s prospects, or lack thereof, in the big smoke.

MIDNIGHT CLUB (1933)

When Billy Wilder pitched DOUBLE INDEMNITY to George Raft, what the actor wanted to know was “When do I flip my lapel and show her the badge?” He assumed his character, outwardly a stinker, must turn out to be an undercover cop. Well, MIDNIGHT CLUB is the origin of that misconception, with Raft flipping his lapel for fire-and-ice Helen Vinson. This diverts the film from its weird starting point, in which heist team Vinson, Clive Brook and Alan Mowbray operate under the noses of the law by hiring lookalikes to impersonate them at the titular club, providing a foolproof alibi. These unruly doppelgangers threaten to develop into some kind of storyline, but never do. Hall & Somnes, who helmed this, also made the more successful GIRL IN 419 (see top). Alexander Hall went on to a long-ish career, Somnes packed it in.

CHILD OF MANHATTAN (1933)

Lugubrious rewrite of a Preston Sturges Broadway hit, with only a few moments of real wit –

“While my carriage was detained, I looked around.”

“Naturally, Miss Sophie.”

“Naturally or not, I looked around.”

Nancy Carroll seems like she could have handed out the required pep if they’d given her the authentic Sturges script, but John Boles would have dragged it down no matter what. Watchable, in a thin way. Luis Alberni would get some proper Sturges dialogue in EASY LIVING — I can’t work out why Sturges didn’t pick him up for his rep company of gnarled bit-players. Still, we’ll always have Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis.

This scene strikingly anticipates the big shopping trip in THE PALM BEACH STORY. You can certainly see how such sequences would have resonated with depression-era dreams.

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28 Responses to “Pre-code Love”

  1. La Faustin Says:

    Hooray! Another writer on THE GIRL IN 419 was Manuel Seff, of BLESSED EVENT and its electric chair showpiece — they don’t come more gleefully hardboiled than that.

  2. david wingrove Says:

    My God, how wonderful do these look! I’d only ever heard of one before – THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET – which I’ve long been curious to see. Director Robert Florey was the one-time Mr. Rudolph Valentino…or so rumour has it.

  3. Whether he was or not, he was cute enough, I’d say.

    I get the impression that Blessed Event is very faithful to Wilson & Seff’s play, with maybe the Dick Powell stuff shoehorned in. The blocking of the electric chair routine looks like it’s been taken straight from a play, and then intelligently filmed (Del Ruth has to cover it like crazy because Tracy moves so much).

  4. I wish I had the physical time to watch all of this stuff. Thanks calling it to my attention, David.

  5. Alberni does get a look-in as a mad pastry chef in The Lady Eve, so he wasn’t entirely forgotten. He certainly appeared a lot in the war years in other films.

    In They Learned About Women, it’s really strange to see Schenk do blackface sans burnt cork, along with the other bits of ethnic humor. I like Bessie, but those roles with her as a good-sport doormat for a guy who’s after another woman (Chasing Rainbows is another) seem less than she’s capable of.

    I need to see Down To Their Last Yacht, if only because it will follow the shipboard theme I’ve gotten stuck in.

  6. Yeah, what’s a GOOD Bessie Love film? I like her in Hollywood Revue, and in They Learned About Women, I just want something where she gets a decent amount to do.

    You can catch a glimpse of her on YouTube in The Ritz, doing the accounts while Rita Moreno sings…

  7. Pre-code was all about MONEY and SEX

    In blazing neon letters.

    This selection looks teriffic. Anything with Gloria Stuart in it is required viewing, and The Girl in 419 features her Roman Scandals co-star David Manners (who she told me was far too beautiful for the movies.)

    “Mary Boland, an insane dowager who’s declared herself Queen of the native population.” That’s pretty much Mary Boland in anything — even Pride and Prejudice (which she easily steals from Greer and Larry.)

    Early Henry Hathaway is always interesting — especially Peter Ibbetson — a canonical surrealist delight.

    Sturges didn’t pick him up because he had Franklin Pangborn. And wheh you’ve got Franklin Pangborn you’ve got EVERYTHING.

  8. La Faustin Says:

    Shipboard theme! I’m awaiting delivery of TERROR ABOARD, 1933, directed by Paul Sloane (THE WOMAN ACCUSED), written by Manuel Seff, featuring John Halliday, Shirley Grey, Verree Teasdale, Jack La Rue … this promises to be one of those “Paramount? Is that you?” weirdies.

  9. La Faustin Says:

    I don’t think I’m going to get any work done today.

    Bessie Love: THE BROADWAY MELODY!!!

  10. Thanks, I’m going to check out Broadway Melody. A feature on late-twenties musicals seems a worthwhile project sometime…

  11. I can’t say I dislike Chasing Rainbows, I do like what’s left of it. It was just frustrating to see Bessie in the same role as the just-seen-by-me They Learned About Women (they came up around the same time on TCM). Maybe she comes across as too cute/nice/perky to be thought of as sexy, and they cast her accordingly. I’ve seen that happen to other lead actresses of the era.

  12. David Boxwell Says:

    Florey’s florid film posits the gloriously insane theory that gambling addiction can be passed from mother to daughter–genetically!

  13. That’s probably not so implausible, according to the new field of epigenetics. It provides a scientific basis for the crazy Victorian belief in “maternal impressions” — dormant genes can be “switched on” by parents’ experiences, and then passed on to the offspring.

  14. Bessie’s not in this trailer

    but she plays a key role in this film.

  15. What an interesting career she had! Just saw her in The Magic Box. Now I just want to see her in her youth in a good role in a good film.

  16. Christopher Says:

    I always liked that title..”Down to Their Last Yacht “Has that early comedy ring of the ups and downs of millionaire life…”They Had To See Paris” etc..

  17. DTTLY really loses its bearings after they land on the island. Mary Boland comes across nuttier than usual, though her milk-obsessed matriarch in Three Cornered Moon wasn’t all there, either. I was rather distracted by scantily-dressed Sidney Fox, and hoping for some defoliant.

    I found Bessie charming in most everything I’ve seen her in, but there are only a few Hollywood sound films in which she starred. I wish I could find a copy of the 1930 Good News, that’s one of hers I’d really like to see.

  18. Oh yes, Sidney Fox IS another reason to keep watching. One of the more enticing jungle costumes of the era.

  19. My stars. You’ve seen all these amazing films but never Broadway Melody? You must love the challenge of finding these films, and I can’t honestly blame you.

    I watched Chasing Rainbows entirely because of my mad passion for Jack Benny, who is an absolute doll in that film. Bessie is quite good. Both Rainbows and Broadway Melody are creaky, of course; it’s obligatory for all very early musicals.

    For good Bessie Love films, there’s quite a choice. I thought Rubber Tires (1927) was cute, and of course Lost World (1925) is a must-see anyway. I’ve heard The Matinee Idol is worthwhile but cannot confirm as I have not seen it. Then there are her later small roles in Reds, Children of the Damned, Barefoot Contessa and Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone — she was very like Monte Blue in this way, in everything but rarely noticed by anyone.

  20. david wingrove Says:

    Is there a case for Bessie Love as the longest continuously working actress in film history – rivalled only, perhaps, by Danielle Darrieux?

    I mean, yes, Liliian Gish and Luise Rainer went on forever but they did take long breaks!

  21. Lost World is great fun, but the people take second billing to the monsters. Interesting to see Beery in a professorial role he was physically ideal for but couldn’t have played in a talkie.

    Bessie does seem to have sizeable gaps in her filmography too. “Continuously working” is an ill-defined concept, I guess. Does a year off disqualify one?

    I have Rubber Tires but haven’t looked at it yet. I expect prototypical Zanuck ruckus.

  22. A lot of silent actresses “retired” in the ’30s only to come back to the screen (big or small) later. I’d say anything less than a one-time 5 year break with maybe some breaks for a year here and there would constitute continuous, but I’m a generous sort.

  23. A one-year break makes it look like they were at least out there hustling for work and just couldn’t find it. Whereas Gloria Stuart was definitely out of the biz for a good bit.

  24. Well she got married to screenwriter Arthur Sheekman and had a family. “Then after Arthur died I got my SAG card renewed and did a Murder She Wrote.” After than a number of featured appearances (including a lovely one in My Favorite Year dancing with Peter O’Toole at the Copa) before Titanic sailed her into Blockbuster Immortality.

  25. If ONLY she hadn’t plumped for a tacky Titanic-shaped handbag at the Golden Globes, I feel sure she’d have bagged an Academy Award.

  26. Hey, I own a copy of The Matinee Idol! Got in a closeout bin. Later I found both the Clara Bow film It, and Bunuel’s Simon Of The Desert in that same bin. Bessie’s in TMI with Johnnie Walker, who I recognize from the flapper comedy Bare Knees.

  27. I’m taking steps to obtain a copy of The Matinee Idol right away… Only seen a little silent Capra, so I have this and The Power of the Press to look forward to.

  28. […] More Big City Blues: Imogen Smith hits a lot of the same high spots in this excellent post at The Chiseler (wish I'd found that before I painstakingly transcribed Grant Mitchell's speech!); Neither Sarah at And…scene! nor Judy at Movie Classics loved this one, but each appreciated some of the finer moments; Shadowplay did love it, and you'll find Big City Blues mentioned towards the middle of several short pre-Code obscurities discussed in this post. […]

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