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).
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.
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.