Depraved convicts ! Crazy Manhattan gin parties! Society dames poaching other women’s husbands! A flimflam artist scamming the uptown sophisticates! All these forbidden attractions are here and more — including Bette Davis’s epochal seduction line about impulsive kissing versus good hair care. It’s a 9th collection of racy pre-Code wonders.
Forbidden Hollywood Volume 9
Big City Blues, Hell’s Highway, The Cabin in the Cotton, When Ladies Meet, I Sell Anything
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 Joan Blondell, Eric Linden, Humphrey Bogart; Richard Dix, Tom Brown; Richard Barthelmess, Bette Davis, Dorothy Jordan, Berton Churchill; Ann Harding, Robert Montgomery, Myrna Loy, Alice Brady, Frank Morgan; Pat O’ Brien, Ann Dvorak, Claire Dodd, Roscoe Karns.
Cinematography James Van Trees; Edward Cronjager; Barney McGill; Ray June
Written by Lillie Hayward, Ward Morehouse, from his play; Samuel Ornitz, Robert Tasker, Rowland Brown; Paul Green from a book by Harry Harrison Kroll; John Meehan, Leon Gordon from a play by Rachel Crothers; Brown Holmes, Sidney Sutherland, Albert J. Cohen, Robert T. Shannon.
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy; Rowland Brown; Michael Curtiz; Harry Beaumont; Robert Florey.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Warners Forbidden Hollywood Collection series soldiers on — it began as a VHS branded line and moved on to laserdisc, DVD and now the Warner Archive Collection — about 25 years of fun. The new Forbidden Hollywood Volume 9 set stretches things by including one feature in five that is technically post-Code, that is, produced and released after the adoption of the Production Code Administration’s rules. From the middle of 1934 on, the PCA limited what could be portrayed on screen to material suitable for ten year-olds. Make that ten year-olds in a Judeo-Christian Sunday School. And none of this progressive stuff, mind you.
Not that pre-Code pictures had a corner on honesty and virtue, as some of them upped the sex quotient, even flirted with nudity, in a half-panic to stave off Depression-era bankruptcy. The five pictures here aren’t extreme examples, yet some refreshingly non-PC attitudes are on display.
Taken from an unproduced play by Ward Morehouse, Big City Blues begins as a corny tale about Bud (Eric Linden), an Indiana hick who goes to the big city. Bud can barely part with his dog but tells the stationmaster that he’s never coming back. He’s so gullible that letting him go to the library alone would be child endangerment. Bud is immediately swept up by his cousin Gibby, a con artist (Walter Catlett) that no rational human would trust for a minute. Gibby sets his mind on Bud’s $1100 dollars of inheritance money, and immediately sets up a drinking party on Bud’s dime. The movie takes off at this point, with director Mervyn LeRoy throwing Bud into the midst of a pack of freeloading swells and party animals. Among them are Lyle Talbot and Humphrey Bogart — both uncredited! — as inebriated jerks who fight over one of the female guests, who’s fairly plastered herself. A bozo of a house detective (Guy Kibbee) knows the score but is easily gotten rid of: “I’d like to walk into a New York hotel room just once, and not find a gin session going on.”
LeRoy’s handling of the party scene is appropriately loose and chaotic. Gibby takes Bud for a patsy, pretending everything will be paid back. Bud is such a dummy that it’s difficult to care about him. The dialogue is very good, and even with his brief screen time, Bogart gets a chance to toss off a couple of smart-aleck lines. One woman is shown reading the controversial book The Well of Loneliness.
The only person Bud really engages with is Vida Fleet (Joan Blondell), a sharpie showgirl who nevertheless appreciates Bud’s lack of cynicism. She’s more than a little jaded: “Chorus girls used to get pearls and diamonds. Now all they expect is a corned beef sandwich.” Vida has a girlfriend (Inez Courtney) more seriously on the make. This show-biz fringe crowd, going nowhere, reminds us of the tragic ‘Broadway Babies’ as found in The Gold Diggers of 1935 and the much later The Seventh Victim.
A drunken fight breaks out and a woman is killed. Everybody splits, leaving Bud holding the bag. A detective (Thomas E. Jackson, who plays the cop who nails Little Caesar) has no difficulty scooping up Bud and confronting him with the damning evidence. The chump has progressed from happy new arrival to Public Enemy #1 in record time: he’s broke, friendless and charged with Murder One.
Favorite J. Carroll Naish has one of his typical one-scene-wonder bits as a bootlegger who sells Gabby the liquor. Clarence Muse is given a good showcase singing in a nightclub. The Warners picture doesn’t spend a lot of time on the street, but an early sidewalk encounter says everything about the big city. A cop argues with a laborer about why he’s digging a hole in the street, making a big mess. The understated punch line is priceless.
Slipping over to RKO, we next find a pre-Code in a social commentary vein, Hell’s Highway. It’s by Rowland Brown, who directed four good, tough movies but had a much longer career as a screenwriter. This one’s a chain gang exposé that was eclipsed by I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang even though it came out first. Richard Dix is Duke Ellis, a bank robber serving time in an undisclosed state, who watches a corrupt warden (C. Henry Gordon) connive with local businessmen to provide free labor to build a road. The work is akin to torture, and there is no real medical attention or concern for the prisoners. Men that won’t or can’t keep up are consigned to a sweatbox that the guards refer to as The Hospital. A healthy young man dies in the opening scene.
The bulk of the story sees Duke trying to get his younger brother Johnny (Tom Ellis) relieved of the work detail, for simple survival. Johnny’s office job puts him in contact with Whiteside (Stanley Fields), a new employee who is actually a mole for the State Attorney General, looking for evidence of corruption. Hell’s Highway takes place entirely in the work camp among the sweaty convicts. The Ellis boys’ mother and Johnny’s girlfriend (Louise Carter & Rochelle Hudson) pay a one-scene visit.
The movie is just as tough as Mervyn LeRoy’s picture. It’s not a true story, but it does have more of a sense of humor. Black prisoners sing in their segregated tents. Once again, Clarence Muse is a standout. Charles Middleton, famed as Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials, is an amusingly practical Bible thumper. Duke’s wink-wink observations about Middleton’s three wives are pretty funny, if only because Hollywood movies don’t usually mock any Christian religion in this way. Should we assume that he’s a Mormon?
We know this is pre-Code when the camp cook minces and frets in a manner that everybody recognizes as homosexual, and accepts without comment. More daring is a subplot in which a corrupt guards murders another guard’s wife to cover up an affair. PCA-approved pictures outlawed negative depictions of ‘authority figures,’ along with sordid sexual crimes. Most of the cruelty in the chain gang camp is shown to be systemic, flowing down from the venal warden.
A difference between this picture and I Am a Fugitive is that there’s no implied call for revolution. The Paul Muni movie makes it seem as if the entire South is hopelessly corrupt. In Hell’s Highway throws a band-aid on the problem. The state moves in and cleans everything up, with Johnny providing evidence that sees all the fat cats arrested on the spot. As Duke is a real crook, there’s no blanket claim that Southern states are holding a slave workforce of unjustly convicted nice guys.
The best-known movie in the stack is The Cabin in the Cotton, the famous picture in which Bette Davis says the timeless line, “I’d like to kiss you, but I just washed my hair.” It’s well worth seeing the whole movie for that single line, as Davis is remarkable. She doesn’t steal the movie as much as shine from one corner of it. The surprise is that the show is one of Warners’ more radical pictures.
It may be the 20th century, but cotton workers suffer in a system that keeps them impoverished, at least on the farms owned by the rich planter Norwood (Berton Churchill). The pressure causes family man Tom Blake (David Landau) to drop dead. Norwood does what seems a charitable thing by sending Blake’s son Marvin (Richard Barthelmess) to school, but when the young man returns Norwood expects him to inform on his friends and family. Working in Norwood’s store as his accountant, Marvin finds himself in the middle of a bind that sounds inspired by Karl Marx. Called ‘peckerwoods,’ the cotton workers are systematically robbing the plantation. They expect Marvin to help them market their stolen cotton, and pressure him with class loyalty, family duty, and the need to exact vengeance for his father. And the girl Marvin likes the most, Betty Wright (Dorothy Jordan) is waiting for him.
On the other side is Marvin’s loyalty to the boss who pays him well and even invites him to live in the big house, where he becomes an amorous target for the ‘wild’ Madge Norwood (Bette Davis). Her father expects Marvin to help him find the thieves and send them to jail. Provoked by both sides, Marvin struggles to remain neutral. He feels like a traitor.
Richard Barthelmess is 37 playing 20, yet he’s excellent in this role. Dorothy Jordan is his innocent sweetheart; she would soon marry Merian C. Cooper, and later play Martha Edwards in the now-revered John Ford classic The Searchers. Berton Churchill was the 1930s avatar for corrupt entitlement, often playing crooked bankers. As soon as Churchill’s face flashed onscreen in Stagecoach, audiences knew to boo and hiss.
Bette Davis is a sensation. Her Madge is an irresistible tease, what with her platinum blonde hair and daring eyes. Thanks to the miracle of pre-Code licentiousness, Madge doesn’t just talk the talk. When she gets Marvin alone in the big house, she seduces him by disrobing. Yes, there’s a carefully timed fade-out involved, but she’s clearly putting it out there and giving him the green light. Amazing. This kind of scene would vanish for twenty years.
The movie bends over backwards to be politically neutral, but it’s unlikely that it found many friends in the South. The peckerwoods are shown to be lazy and dishonest, and have become radical arsonists. The domineering Norwood and his landowners enforce their will with a lynching. The prevailing system is oppressive feudalism. The film’s solution is basically a New Deal fantasy. Marvin blackmails Norwood into agreeing to a new ‘cooperative’ arrangement to prevent the planters from preying upon their laborers. In this Marvin is a much more credible mediator than the young hero of Metropolis, getting labor and capital to shake hands. Although the writing of the scene where Norwood gives in is excellent, it’s all far too pat. We’d sooner think that neither Norwood nor the thieves would let Marvin stay alive, given what he knows about them.
The racial element has been carefully excluded from the mix. In reality, many of the cotton workers oppressed by company store economics would be black, but all the major characters are white. We see stock footage of cotton-pickers, and most of them are black. In rear-projection shots, black pickers work in the background and live-action whites work up front. The only black character of consequence is a blind drifter (Clarence Muse, who else?) who shows up for one scene.
So what’s the verdict? Are Warners to be congratulated for exposing social inequality in the South? Or should they be criticized for their selective righteousness, removing the race issue from the equation?
But you’re more likely to be more concerned with Bette Davis flashing her eyes and talking about her hair.
MGM’s When Ladies Meet is from June of 1934. The Code is not yet in force, but Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg are already taking the high road. Yet just a few months later, some of the film’s jokes and even its central premise might likely have been rejected by the Production Code Administration.
When Ladies Meet is a good expression of MGM’s house philosophy for what constituted decent film content. The studio invested in expensive stage properties, and this original by Rachel Crothers has ‘sophisticated’ stamped on it in bold letters. Since nothing happens beyond people in fancy rooms talking to each other there’s no overtly salacious content. The pros and cons of infidelity are debated, not demonstrated, maintaining a higher social gloss than most of the Warner pictures that bluebloods found to be in such bad taste. No, the men here are in publishing and newspapers and one of the women is an acclaimed author; the main occupation on view is conspicuous elegance. They mostly attend parties — penthouse gatherings, house parties in the country, midnight fun on a yacht. The smoothly written play gives the upscale swells on view just enough personality to resemble real people.
The conflict is simple. Newspaperman Jimmie (Robert Montgomery) is upset that the love of his life Mary (Myrna Loy) has rejected him in favor of her publisher, Rogers (Frank Morgan). He’s a slightly older married man. Mary writes intimate love stories about women of quality that find moral reasons for breaking the social norms, mainly asking the question, ‘does a woman in love have a right to break up a marriage?’ To force the issue, the mischievous but actually quite savvy Jimmie makes sure that Rogers’ wife Clare (Ann Harding) and Mary get together, not knowing who each other is. A rainstorm keeps everyone overnight at the house of a friend, the gossipy Bridget (Alice Brady). To Jimmie’s surprise, the two women take a strong liking to each other. They stay up late debating the issue of free love vs. marriage vows. It’s only a matter of time before they realize how they’ve been set up.
When Ladies Meet exists in the MGM fantasy land of gorgeous clothing and elegant living; we don’t see so much as a crooked crease in a pant leg. As a drawing room comedy, it has a few awkward angles. Alice Brady is made to play her Bridget as a nosy busybody. Despite her cluelessness, Bridget behaves as if she has inside information about her friends’ love lives. The broadest jokes are her double-entendre malapropisms, which the other characters politely ignore. At one point she makes a tasteless joke about epileptics, that we’re supposed to find funny.
Mary and Rogers use Bridget to facilitate their supposedly chaste meetings. As nobody is sneaking off to hotels or shown hastily dressing in the middle of the day, any actual sex is theoretical. Bridget jokes about her male houseguest Walter (Martin Burton), who has few lines but is always ‘there.’ In the original play, was Walter Bridget’s boy toy? The MGM sheen encourages the idea that these sophisticates are far above such things. Frankly, I keep wanting Jon Lovitz to walk into a scene in a tuxedo, wave his arms about and exclaim, “And just what am I doing here? I’m SOPHISTICATED!”
Well, the presentation, the clothes and personalities are pretty slick. The best thing in the movie is Robert Montgomery, who carries off the arch tone with style to spare. Cary Grant wouldn’t be an improvement. Jimmie’s behavior is impish and coy, with the impression of a solid character underneath. In any reasonable social circle, his sneaky meddling would make him a pariah. But no, these are SOPHISTICATED people.
Of course audiences eat this stuff up; women and men come to the movies to see glamour and are fascinated by the breezy problems of rich people. When Mary and Clare discuss a woman’s right to break up a marriage in the name of a higher love, the play really has our attention for a couple of minutes. Of course, the prevailing fantasies about the rich are reinforced – all parties choose to discreetly withdraw, to be noble rather than violent or vindictive. Civility is maintained. Nobody becomes really upset. Getting emotional is something the servant (Luis Alberni) does, when rousted at two a.m. to effectively steal his employer’s car for one of the guests. Myrna Loy stares down Alberni’s objections as if he were a disobedient house pet.
Although Myrna Loy takes higher marks for pure glamour, top billed Ann Harding shows more acting strength and range. The movie to see Harding in is Paramount’s delirious romantic fantasy Peter Ibbetson, from the same year. It’s a bizarre, surreal dream-movie directed with great feeling by the normally non-fantastic Henry Hathaway.
I was confused for a minute until I found out that When Ladies Meet was remade in 1941 for Joan Crawford and Greer Garson, under the same title. That version is pretty weak in comparison, even with Garson’s smooth performance.
When the old folks talked about the Golden Age of Movies, I knew they meant glossy fantasies like this. For them Hollywood was a cinematic layer cake with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing on the top. How many times did my mother say that she wanted to see movies that let her escape real life?
This brings us to the odd film out in the set, I Sell Anything. Produced and released in the last half of 1934, it’s technically post-Code. But it plays like a pre-Code script tweaked to satisfy the PCA.
This movie and When Ladies Meet couldn’t be more different. ‘Spot Cash’ Cutler (Pat O’Brien) is a fast talking con artist down in the slums of 2nd Street, where it seems to be perfectly legal to run a storefront fraud ring. He and his cronies play auction games, using shills to amp up the bidding on junky watches, until the suckers are compete for the unseen contents of a suitcase, or pay big money ($20 to $50) for an object that they’re told is worth much more. Cutler’s assistant puts one fool through a crazy gauntlet, moving him from one expensive purchase to another. More often than not, the marks leave thinking they’ve scored a coup.
Cutler takes in Barbara (lovely Ann Dvorak), a destitute beauty basically in the same predicament Fay Wray was in a year earlier: ‘sleep on the streets or steal apples.’ Barbara joins in the jolly piracy. But Cutler becomes interested in the wealthy Millicent (Claire Dodd), who suggests that his larcenous talent could make much more money uptown. Cutler undertakes a risky, illegal scam to auction off fake antiques for big money. Barbara fears that he’s headed for big trouble.
The Code trimmings are easy to spot. When Barbara moves in with Cutler and his crew, carefully written dialogue makes clear that nothing illicit is going on — Cutler offers Barbara room & board in exchange for her good home cooked meals. There’s no hanky-panky between Cutler and Millicent either, hardly a hug or a kiss. In 1932 it’s likely that somebody would have been sleeping with somebody, just to make things seem more real. These hard-boiled con artists are pretty inconsistent. When not plying their shady craft, they behave like boy scouts.
At the conclusion more special dialogue assures us that the party who ran away with the ill-gotten money will be arrested at a later date. There must have been some kind of compromise worked out, as Cutler and his gang aren’t punished for fleecing the gullible rich. Perhaps the idea is that his crime is a gray area. All he does is exaggerate, floating fake stories about the ‘historicity’ of the items for sale. That’s just advertising.
The main scenes in the picture are the confidence performances, with O’Brien, Russell Hopton and Roscoe Karns pulling all manner of verbal and physical tricks to keep the suckers on the hook. This dates quite a bit, as what we see looks almost as broad as a burlesque skit. When Cutler is pushing antiques on the wealthy, telling them that Napoleon owned this or that, etc., he isn’t very convincing. To make the scheme work, the movie gives us a a pack of very rich, very stupid uptown bidders. More fun is the ‘antiques factory’ where second-hand furniture and bric-a-brac are aged and distressed to create blemishes of historical significance.
This is one film in which Claire Dodd doesn’t have to play a trampy ‘other woman’ who gets kicked in the rear. Ann Dvorak is just a dreamboat, one of those dolls that projects her beauty mainly through her eyes, except that here she’s been given a really attractive hairstyle as well. Dvorak was a major presence in the pre-Codes but soon had disputes with the studio and found herself benched. Pat O’Brien is… Pat O’Brien. He has his fans and he’s good at what he does, but his brand of fast patter seems to drain my energy, not add to it. James Cagney has that same skill and adds much more dynamism to the mix.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Forbidden Hollywood Volume 9 presents its five handsomely remastered shows on four discs — When Ladies Meet and I Sell Anything share a platter. The running times are so brief that file size is not an issue. The new restoration with the most impact is that for The Cabin in the Cotton. I tried to watch it on TV in the 1970s but the existing print back then was pretty terrible.
Several of the films come with trailers. The final verdict is that these are all entertaining pictures, censorship issues aside. Only the Bette Davis movie has content that might raise an eyebrow today. Well, not in my household. There are fun discoveries to be made here.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Forbidden Hollywood Volume 9 DVD-R rates:
Movies: Very Good
Video: I have to say Excellent
Sound: very good
Supplements: some trailers
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 21, 2015
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson