Woo hoo! The pre-Code marvels return for one last go-round — tales of sin and moral turpitude but also serious pictures about social issues that the Production Code effectively swept from Hollywood screens — financial crimes and ethnic bigotry.
Forbidden Hollywood Volume 10
Guilty Hands, The Mouthpiece, Secrets of the French Police, The Match King, Ever in My Heart
The Warner Archive Collection
1932-1934 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 63, 62, 78, 85, 70 min. / Street Date October 27, 2015 / available through the WBshop / 40.99
Starring Lionel Barrymore, Kay Francis, Madge Evans; Warren William, Sidney Fox, Aline McMahon; Frank Morgan, Gwili Andre, Gregory Ratoff Rochelle Hudson; Warren William, Lili Damita, Glenda Farrell, Claire Dodd; Barbara Stanwyck, Otto Kruger, Ralph Bellamy, Ruth Donnelly.
Cinematography Merritt B. Gerstad, Barney McGill; Alfred Gilks; Robert Kurrie;
Written by Bayard Veiller; Joseph Jackson, Earl Baldwin, Frank J. Collins; Samuel Ornitz, Robert Tasker; Houston Branch, Sidney Sutherland, Einar Thorvaldson; Bertram Millhauser, Beulah Marie Dix.
Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; James Flood & Elliott Nugent; A. Edward Sutherland; Howard Bretherton & William Keighley; Archie Mayo.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Way back around 1990, MGM Home Video invented a “Forbidden Hollywood” branded line for VHS tapes, to promote the mildly salacious, always provocative movies from the pre-Code era. It took a long time for the idea to sink in, as even most film fans had ever heard of pre-Production Code movies. But in the heyday of DVD (2006) WHV and the TCM Archives initiated a Forbidden Hollywood series, starting with a newly rediscovered alternate ‘hot’ version of Barbara Stanwyck’s Baby Face. As with many Warners innovations, the idea caught on quick. Even stingy Universal came forth with its own similar package, a Pre-Code Hollywood Collection. Starting with Volume 3, the series migrated over to the Warner Archive, and maintained a pace of one multi-title edition per year. Now we finally have Forbidden Hollywood Volume 10, which we’re told will be the end of the line. The good news is that this barrel seems to have no bottom. All of these pictures are up to snuff, and two are good enough to lead off anybody’s list of pre-Code greats.
Guilty Hands is an odd, moralistic variation on the ‘locked room murder mystery,’ the kind usually adapted from a stage play, where a house party at a remote mansion becomes the center of a murder investigation. Star Lionel Barrymore reportedly shared direction duty with the billed director W.S. Van Dyke; Kay Francis also has star billing but her character lies outside the central love triangle. Spoiled Gordon Rich (an almost unrecognizably young Alan Mowbray) has married several times and one of his wives died under mysterious circumstances. Distinguished lawyer Richard Grant (Lionel Barrymore) visits Gordon’s isolated island to help him write a new will, and is shocked to find out that Gordon plans to marry his daughter, Barbara (Madge Evans). Richard can’t talk either Gordon or Barbara out of the marriage, and instead threatens to kill his host. The engagement is announced at a dinner party, where Gordon’s former beau Marjorie West (Kay Francis) takes the news hard. Will Richard make good on his promise to murder Gordon? Only Marjorie suspects him.
What distinguishes Guilty Hands from the average ‘Colonel Mustard in the Conservatory’ saga is the fact that the killer is the most conventionally moral character. Richard is asked right off the bat if murder is sometimes justified. By the end of the night Marjorie has discovered his misdeed. Instead of fessing up, the high-minded lawyer threatens to frame Marjorie for the crime if she doesn’t stay mum. Richard is both the hero and the villain. Only an act of fate / God / rotten luck can rebalance the moral equation.
Stuffy C. Aubrey Smith and comedy relief Polly Moran are among the sleepover guests. The MGM production has fancy sets yet plays like something that speedy director Woody Van Dyke could toss off in a few days. But it certainly gives unusual characters to Lionel Barrymore and Kay Francis. Beneath Richard Grant’s impeccable reputation lurks a man who feels himself totally above the law. And Marjorie West is just as much an outsider, rejected by the man she loves and feeling unhappy because she must behave as if everything is all right.
With 1932’s The Mouthpiece we get to some hardcore pre-Code content — of the social comment kind. Joseph Jackson’s script from Frank Collins’ play showcases our distrust of sneaky attorneys with a dramatization of a real wealthy New York lawyer who earned exorbitant fees speaking for the mob and defending criminals in court. The show is also one of the key films of actor Warren William, a ‘king of pre-Code’ known for expert portrayals of slick villainy. No matter how many Commandments a William character breaks, we must admire his sheer nerve.
This may be the dramatic original about a trial attorney who uses clever courtroom tricks to sway juries and set free guilty mob thieves and murderers. Originally a bulldog of a prosecutor, Vince Day (Warren William) changes his tune after sending an innocent man to the electric chair; soon thereafter he’s working for the mob. He wins a case by slugging a witness in open court, and demolishes a prosecutor’s case by drinking a vial of poison used as a murder weapon. Living like a prince, Day amuses himself by picking up and bedding women at all hours of the day and night. Vince has a loyal Girl Friday in Miss Hickey (Aline McMahon). Watching from the sidelines while Vince corrals one woman after another, she dishes out great pre-Code banter, including a sarcastic, hearty, “You can go to Hell!” Two years later, dialogue like that would be a prime Production Code no-no.
Even more eye opening to Depression-era audiences is a scene where Vince ‘earns’ thousands of dollars by a slick trick negotiating a deal for an embezzler. The idea, of course, is that any rich lawyer is a scoundrel taking advantage of his legal privileges to carve big profits out of others’ misfortunes. The corrupt Vince is eventually led back to the side of righteousness for love of the one girl that said No. Country girl Celia (Sidney Fox) refuses Vince’s overtures and stays loyal to her fiancé. When Vince puts her happiness before the interests of his gangland clients, the story races to a violent ending.
J. Carrol Naish is a slimy criminal defendant, and the un-billed Jack La Rue (The Story of Temple Drake) is an even slimier thug client. Co-director James Flood is an unfamiliar name but Elliott Nugent had a long career, mostly in comedies. The Mouthpiece was remade at least twice under the Code, each time shedding more controversial content. In 1955’s Illegal Edward G. Robinson takes the shady attorney role, but even though the courtroom gags are the same the tone is painfully self-righteous. Warren William is a lot more fun.
The1932 mystery thriller Secrets of the French Police throws together so many oddball elements that one can easily imagine it being pitched to the RKO front office as a joke, to see if then-studio head David O. Selznick would buy it. The movie hasn’t much of a star cast to recommend it, but Ashton Wolfe’s crazy story is memorable.
Top inspector Fran¸ois St. Cyr (Frank Morgan) runs his special police unit like a spy organization, using undercover agents with names like “K-31” (Rochelle Hudson) to learn what the rich, influential and corrupt are up to in Paris. Rather than detail the plot, I’ll just list the elements thrown into this pulpy thriller: several murders, a suicide, a White Russian nobleman (Gregory Ratoff) who kidnaps a flower girl (Gwili Andre) to pass off as the lost Princess Anastasia, Svengali-like hypnosis, a castle guarded by Asian henchmen and killer dogs, a hero burglar-thief (John Warburton) enlisted by the cops to help find the kidnap victim, a secret dungeon, murder by the slow draining of blood (!), and a mad artist who makes statues by exsanguinating living women and covering them in plaster. And talk about narrative economy… all this plays out in just 58 minutes!
As usual, RKO’s high production values put a gloss on the proceedings. Edward Sutherland’s no-nonsense direction somehow prevents the story from becoming comic. The young hero’s burglar kit can open doors in a vintage castle, while Gregory Ratoff, aided by some wild makeup for his eyebrows, is plays a role suitable for Bela Lugosi. At one point he causes a car crash with a highly unlikely setup very much like a gag in Goldfinger, made thirty years later: a movie projector makes drivers think they’re about to collide with an oncoming car. Gwili Andre is in a trance for most of the movie, as if the flower girl in City Lights had been turned into a zombie. Sutherland uses a shadow on a wall to show the villain inserting a transfusion needle into her arm. The story feels like a delirious hybrid of Anastasia, Murders in the Rue Morgue and Mystery of the Wax Museum. By the finish, Secrets of the French Police has raced through three genres, ending up as a quasi-horror movie.
There’s not enough time for much romance or comedy, unless you count a police identification process that for no reason uses giant facial features on a large wall to put together a composite suspect. Only Ratoff puts a consistent accent ib his lines — Frank Morgan sounds like a younger, humor-challenged Wizard of Oz.
The Match King is so good, one wonders why it isn’t better known. Bernie Madoff is alive and well eighty years ago in the person of Paul Kroll, personified par excellence by Warren William. Starting with a fraudulent deal with his family’s match factory in Sweden, Kroll consolidates the entire matchstick industry and then moves on to purchase companies in other fields, He eventually constructs a huge but equally unstable financial conglomerate from his headquarters in Paris. He’s eventually using blackmail and other forms of chicanery to sew up markets in individual European countries. The problem is that Paul’s empire is based on fraud — he’s forever misrepresenting his holdings, taking out enormous loans that he can only repay by finding new investors. It’s a Ponzi scheme, a one-man bubble big enough to bring down a government should it fail. The show communicates the evil of such financial chicanery to the average viewer. In as much as such things are now part of our daily life, The Match King’s simple lessons are quite profound.
Paul Kroll is based on the magnate Swede Ivar Kreuger, who popularized the superstition of ‘three on a match‘ to increase the volume of his matchbook business — smokers indeed responded to his marketing ploy. Warners’ version augments Kroll’s financial chicanery by showing him starting as a lowly custodian at a ballpark, cheating his friends as well as his employers. He double-crosses everyone who helps him, especially the women. Glenda Farrell has a brief scene as the wife of a friend; he betrays her and takes her money. Kroll maintains female agents in foreign capitals by convincing each (Claire Dodd, Juliette Compton) that he plans to marry her. He’s finally undone by a French movie star (Lili Damita), who proves to be his equal in romantic deception.
This is surely one of Warren William’s best roles. Paul Kroll seduces woman and corrupts his colleagues. When he encounters resistance to his unethical behavior, he always says, “Never worry about anything till it happens. I’ll take care of it then.” But Kroll eventually gets in too deep when the stock market crash exposes his financial house of cards. Only counterfeit bonds and murder can keep him afloat.
The highly entertaining The Match King is about an extreme case and ought to be part of citizenship classes — it’s a worthy exposé of a system that rewards conmen. It’s easy for ordinary audiences to undersand Paul Kroll — he begins by cheating in the workplace, stealing the jobs of other workers. As a Depression-era political statement, it’s as subversive as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.
Ever in My Heart is the odd picture out that disproves the notion that the Production Code made Hollywood movies better. The Code protected church-going Americans from sinful sexual innuendo and fleeting nudity, but it also put a political clamp on movie content, especially political subjects. Director Archie Mayo presents us with a soap opera story of a doomed marriage, that illuminates a serious issue, the scapegoating of immigrants.
Small-town boy Jeff (Ralph Bellamy) returns to marry his sweetheart Mary (Barbara Stanwyck), but she instead falls in love with Jeff’s best friend, German Hugo Willbrandt (Otto Kruger). Even though Mary’s family and the town resist her marrying a foreigner, she becomes Mrs. Willbrandt and Hugo begins teaching at the local college. A tragedy with a child hurts the marriage, and when WW1 comes along the young couple with the German-sounding name are persecuted as villainous Huns. Mean kids kill their dog. Hugo is dismissed from his job as an undesirable. They eventually separate, only to find each other much later on the war front in France.
Ever in My Heart would be a bit soggy in the dramatics department if it weren’t for the always-riveting Barbara Stanwyck. It’s also interesting to see actor Otto Kruger, who would soon specialize in villains and mad scientist types, as a dashing romantic hero. But the film’s strongest element is its depiction of the ethnic violence against Germans in WW1, just as American Japanese and Muslims have been persecuted in later wars. The public is inundated with false shock headlines about Hun atrocities, which puts the whole town against the unoffending couple. Not much earlier Hugo had been feted when he became a citizen; now he and his department chair are dismissed without cause. It’s a basic criticism of American ideals; we’re supposed to be above such behavior.
The movie is split in uneven halves– the intolerant ‘Our Town’ story goes on for about an hour, and then we move to the warfront. Mary is now a nurse and Jeff is in charge of security. That’s when Hugo shows up, as a spy for the Germans. In an unexpected spin, the movie turns conservative and suggests that Mary and Hugo ‘were too different’ to get married, and thus caused the tragedy themselves. The movie abhors the bigotry of the American yokels, yet accepts the hypocrisy behind it as a necessary evil.
Ever in My Heart uses much stock footage to represent the wartime action. Archie Mayo’s direction is assured. Pre-Code maven Ruth Donnelly is a housekeeper, Laura Hope Crews a bigoted grandmother, and Frank Albertson is Mary’s opinionated brother. Albertson should be known to everyone as George Bailey’s businessman friend Sam Wainwright in It’s a Wonderful Life.. The wonderful Elizabeth Patterson played a wide selection of Old Maids across a long career. She’s on hand, looking no younger or older than she did 18 years later in her best movie, Intruder in the Dust.
The films in the Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Forbidden Hollywood Volume 10 all look remastered and in fine shape. Viewers that saw old TV broadcasts and thought most early talkies had fuzzy pictures and scratchy sound, will be pleased to see these shows in prime condition. All but one come with a trailer. WB trailers from 1932 or so usually amount to a stack of sales hype text titles and a couple of scene samples. Warners trailers all come with the film’s production number printed large on the first scene, perhaps as an aid to the projectionists that had to hot-splice them together in theater booths.
The WHV says that this is the last set of the Forbidden Hollywood series, but that pre-Code titles will continue to come out as they are remastered. A considerable slice of lost film history has been recaptured here.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Forbidden Hollywood Volume 10 DVD-R rates:
Movie: The Mouthpiece, Match King, Excellent; Guilty Hands, French Police, Heart Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 25, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson