Time for another pre-code round-up. During Fiona’s nasty flu a few weeks back, we watched a bunch of early thirties Hollywood flicks — usually just over an hour long, snappy and fun, they’re easy to follow but hard to predict.
Not a hit with Fiona, this 1929 William A. Wellman gangland epic seems to have been a silent movie hastily sonorized: wide shots toddle along at 20 fps, with all the signs of having been post-synched: lip-flap and unconvincing background atmos galore. Meanwhile the close shots have been cheaply re-shot to incorporate dialogue.
While it’s impressive how quickly American film developed a fluid and expressive approach to filmed speech, it’s always interesting to catch them unprepared during the first couple of years: Florence Vidor, as a socialite slumming it in the Chinese ghetto, is terribly stilted, and even Wallace Beery and Warner Oland are painfully slow and careful in their enunciation. Seeing a gangster minding to sound his ‘T’s clearly is oddly dispiriting. Seeing Wallace Beery as a tong boss is plain surreal, but at least he’s not in yellowface. Somehow a big Irishman has gained control of one of the two principle gangs: no explanation for this is ever offered.
Just a few years later, and SAFE IN HELL shows Wellman at his hard-boiled peak. Dorothy McKail is supremely naturalistic, but there are as many kinds of naturalism as there are people. She seems quite unconcerned about looking pretty (Wellman hated actresses who fussed about their looks) and does odd things like continuing her dialogue while kissing Donald Cook on the lips. “Mmmff-mmf-mm!” she’ll say. Crisp enunciation is a thing of the past.
The plot sees her as a prostitute fleeing a manslaughter rap with sailor boyfriend Cook, and holing up in the one place without any extradition treaties, a repulsive tropical hell aswarm with caterpillars and fugitives from justice. These include Gustav Von Seyffertitz, Charles “Ming” Middleton and Victor Varconi, who see to it that the atmosphere of grubbiness is soon almost unbearable. Like FRISCO JENNY, this is one of Wellman’s tales of female sacrifice, and it packs quite a wallop.
Here’s the hangman’s POV of McKail.
Iris-in on neck! I’m fascinated by these survivals of silent film technique in the talking era. I don’t wonder why they’re there (at odd occasions), I wonder why they died out, since they seem to broaden the expressive possibilities of the medium. And they’re easier to achieve than tracking shots in the era of the microphone and heavily blimped camera.
Equally offbeat is Wellman’s THE PURCHASE PRICE, in which showgirl Barbara Stanwyck becomes a mail-order bride to George Brent to escape the attentions of racketeer Lyle Talbot (what a choice!). Wellman’s vision of rustic America is as rambunctious as his Warner pictures about bootleggers, hoboes and women of easy virtue. Wellman insisted on cramming his early talkies with camera movement, although it’s less flamboyant than his late silents like WINGS. He also claimed to have invented the microphone boom to facilitate this, a discovery that probably took place all over town (Dorothy Arzner is another parent to the boom) as filmmakers struggled with the medium.
SMART MONEY is courtesy of Alfred E Green, and is the only movie to pair Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney, who turn out to have great chemistry, though Cagney has the decidedly smaller role. Robinson plays a gambling barber who builds a casino empire just by being lucky, and “dumb enough to think he’s smart.” Their interaction includes this terrific bit of pantomime —
An uncredited Boris Karloff shambles by, Evalyn Knapp and Noel Francis supply glamour of a kind (all the women are funny-looking thin blondes) and towards the end there’s the nicest image I saw all week —
Racism is very much in evidence, some of which falls under the heading of “accurate representation of 1931 American society” and some of which is just offensive. The fact that the black servants are all utterly servile and accept being called “stupid” as a matter of course is sadly credible (we never see what they’re like when the white folks aren’t looking) but the fact that the movie portrays them as stupid is just obnoxious. One character is called Suntan.
The movie is also offensive to women and dwarfs, but it takes a sympathetic line on Greeks, so I guess that’s something. Also, Edward G Robinson has a surprisingly pert bottom.
Oh come on — YOU’VE ALL THOUGHT IT!