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Warners' new TCM Archives: Forbidden Hollywood Volume 2 set raises the number of films offered from three to five. In general it's a better mix: two early-talkie Norma Shearer 'shockers' and three great Warners potboilers starring Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell, Ruth Chatterton, Ann Dvorak and a doe-like Bette Davis. Accompanied by an efficient docu on Hollywood in the Pre-Code era, the set gives a good overview on what was considered risqué between 1930 and 1934. It displays Warners and MGM's distinctive house styles, and their strongly divergent attitudes regarding American society in the Great Depression.
MGM's 1930 The Divorcee (no accent) is said to be one of the first films to seriously challenge the brand new Production Code, by presenting a society wife that engages in adultery yet remains both respectable and unpunished. Socialite Jerry Bernard (Norma Shearer) marries ex- college sports star Ted Martin (Chester Morris); three years later Jerry discovers that Ted has been unfaithful. Furious, Jerry loses her head and sleeps with Ted's best friend, tuxedoed wastrel Don (Robert Montgomery). She then confesses all, wrongly thinking that Ted is willing to practice what he preaches regarding equality in marriage. They break up. With a divorce granted, Jerry throws herself into the wild life, but is unhappy. Old beau Paul (Conrad Nagel) pulls Jerry back from her errant ways, but she knows she'll only be happy with Ted.
The Divorcee establishes MGM's preference for 'upscale' stories set among the rich. Depression-era audiences loved to see swells that wear fancy clothes, party every night and can take off for a European cruise at a whim. The few ordinary people pictured are 'amusing' servants, or become objects of ridicule, as when one of the gang dresses up as a 'wop' to entertain at a party. The morals presented are only a step or two away from the naíve fantasy in films like Our Dancing Daughters: the anointed heroine gets to flaunt her sensuality but soon retreats to the safety of conventional values.
To its credit, the movie does confront the Double Standard. Ted Martin wants his wife to just forget his dalliance with the insulting, brazen Janice (Mary Doran) but flies into a drunken rage when told that she's had a moment of weakness. Jerry's night of sin is depicted with a single shot of curtains being drawn, but her subsequent descent into promiscuity becomes a superficial MGM fantasy seen mostly in montage. Swooning in luxury and sated with pleasure, Jerry takes a series of companions yet doesn't sleep with anybody. Her main transgressions appear to be smiling while drinking champagne, and slouching in chairs with her eyes half-open. At Metro, the wages of sin aren't half bad: jewelry, travel, fine clothing and cozy relaxation on the deck of a yacht, always with servants in attendance.
Norma Shearer got an Oscar for rolling her eyes and overreacting to everything; the dialogue sags with strained 'sophisticated' talk. Producer Robert Z. Leonard is said to have directed but no director's credit appears. The movie was personally tailored for Shearer by her husband Irving Thalberg, MGM's studio production head.
1931's A Free Soul has a lot more going for it, namely a tightly-plotted Adela Rogers St. Johns screenplay that jams together a stack of clichés and makes them look good. This time out Lionel Barrymore won the Oscar for Best Actor, making us wonder if Thalberg and Mayer had the fix in. Clarence Brown's excellent direction introduces Stephen Ashe (Barrymore), a hard-drinking lawyer who saves gambler Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable) from a murder rap. Ashe makes the mistake of introducing Wilfong to his daughter Jan, a 'free soul' who follows her father's lead in rebelling against their stuffy San Francisco family: "I don't want life to settle down around me like a pan of sour dough." Breaking off her engagement to polo star Dwight Winthrop (Leslie Howard), Jan keeps midnight appointments with Ace in the secret love nest above his illegal gambling den. Shamed by her father, Jan makes a deal: she'll give up Ace if pops stops drinking. Jan's life crumbles when her father falls off the wagon and disappears. The family rejects her, and the possessive Ace won't leave her alone.
A Free Soul's controversial scenes show Jan Ashe feeling quite happy and fulfilled in her sinful relationship with the immoral gangster Ace. She parades about in the kind of sheer gown that would soon make Jean Harlow fans sit up and take notice. The awkwardly conceived Ace Wilfong begins as a perfect gentleman leading an impressively polite gang. We'd like to think that his sudden conversion into a black-hearted monster is due to his obsession with Jan, but the script proposes a different motivation. Ashe defends Wilfong, takes his money, drinks with him and even uses him to embarrass his stuffy relatives. But when Ace declares his intention to marry Jan, Stephen shows what's really on his mind: "The only time I hate Democracy is when one of you mongrels forgets where you belong." Stephen may be referring to gangsters, but from the context of the movie we surmise that he means everyone below the Ashe's social station. Stephen's as much of an elitist snob as his relatives. Only the effete Dwight Winthrop (what a name; Leslie Howard was never more limp than here) is 'good enough' for Jan.
A Free Soul has plenty of excitement, even if it doesn't all add up. Jan thinks nothing of being targeted in an attempted machine-gunning (Ace's car has really good auto glass), or becoming the sex toy for a gangster, a gambit that works because Clark Gable is so winningly virile. Yet she can't stand up to the insults of a snooty aunt in the old homestead. The scariest part of A Free Soul is its condoning of premeditated murder, as long as the killer is high-toned and the victim a 'mongrel': "Only swine should travel with swine."
Everyone fares better in the acting department, if only because a year of experience in talkies has improved line deliveries. Director Clarence Brown keeps it all smooth and consistent. Lionel Barrymore's ludicrous final courtroom speech is an emotional plea for the jury to accept the MGM viewpoint on who's Good and who is Bad. Code or no Code, these films exhibit a great deal of twisted morality.
Disc 2 begins with Warner's 1932 Three on a Match, one of the best of the lesser-seen Pre-Codes. Mervyn LeRoy's direction compresses time with several elaborate montages (partly sourced from silent movies?) and races through its eventful storyline in just 63 minutes. The story has similarities to The Divorcee but couldn't be more different in approach; Warner's pro-Roosevelt, pro-labor house philosophy actually believes that ordinary working people and the wealthy can coexist. The Warner pictures have more vitality, and include content that MGM would shun as unforgivably vulgar.
An extended prologue (partly sourced from silent movies?) sketches the contrasting personalities of schoolgirls Mary Keaton, Vivian Revere and Ruth Wescott, starting in 1920. Bad girl Mary smokes and shows her bloomers to boys; Ruth becomes the valedictorian but must continue in secretarial school to make a living. Wealthy, chaste Vivian is voted 'most popular'. Among their schoolmates is a Jewish stereotype named Willie Goldberg, but the pianist at the commencement ceremony is a Japanese-American. Try finding a Japanese-American in an MGM movie that isn't a valet.
As an adult, Mary Keaton (Joan Blondell) serves a prison term, briefly sharing a scene with Glenda Farrell before seeking work on the outside as a showgirl. Ruth (Bette Davis) is a low-paid typist. Vivian (Ann Dvorak) marries Robert Kirkwood (Warren William) for money, bears a beautiful son but feels neglected and unsatisfied. She fantasizes about the torrid romance novels she read at her fancy finishing school. In 1930 Mary and Ruth gawk at Vivian's chauffeured limo. Who's happy and who's not? What does the future hold?
Plenty. Vivian asks for a vacation from domesticity and ends up taking her little boy Bobby and running away from her husband. Mary finds Viv shacked up with worthless playboy Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot), neglecting the child and drinking herself into insensibility. Loftus gets in hock with racketeers Ace and Harve (Edward Arnold & Humphrey Bogart) and Vivian adds cocaine to her vices. Mary and Ruth contrive to rescue Bobby, but the desperate Loftus resorts to blackmail and kidnapping. The gangsters take over, putting everyone's life in danger. Now a wretched addict, Vivian realizes that her child's life may be in danger.
Three on a Match reverses the conventions of 'respectable' Hollywood fare. A naughty schoolgirl can mature into responsible adulthood despite a bad beginning, and a society princess who goes slumming finds that a good social standing doesn't give one a free pass. Vivian Kirkwood disintegrates in booze and drugs, a much more believable fate than that shown in MGM's The Divorcee.
The underworld is not glamorized. Edward Arnold is introduced in a giant close-up plucking his nose hairs (so much for glamour) and Humphrey Bogart accepts child murder as a cost of doing business. Warners' criminals are not handsome charmers like Clark Gable's Ace Wilfong.
The racy dialogue and severe situations have a real edge. Loftus picks up Vivian with the line, "You're a real woman, not one of those stuffed brassieres you see on Park Avenue." Little Bobby begs for bread and milk, but his mom's too strung out to give a hoot, or even raise herself from the sofa.
Everyone's great in this picture, even the actor who plays little Bobby. Ann Dvorak is terrific as the drug-addled Vivian, a character that would fit well in a 1970s movie. Bette Davis has little to do; we just stare at her and think, was she ever really that young? Joan Blondell's Mary Keaton, holding the moral high ground despite her tainted past, is a fully formed Warners underdog character. Bogart's interpretation of the gangster is so modern, one wonders why Warners didn't leap to promote him. I guess Bogie didn't have the required looks for 1932 -- no perfect profile like Chester Morris.
It's important to note that Three on a Match doesn't challenge the standards of its time; it doesn't forgive Vivian for searching for something beyond her appointed place in society. Women must pretend to love their husbands no matter what -- wanting more is unnatural, and pursuing it is suicidal. Vivian's violent end is a dramatic expression of mother love.
Clearly designed to shock and titillate, 1933's Female is great camp entertainment. Ruth Chatterton plays Alison Drake, the woman president of an automobile manufacturing company whose love life compares with that of Catherine the Great: "Most women think men are a household necessity. Me, I'd rather have a canary."
A business dynamo during the day, Alison spends her evenings in her palatial home seducing attractive male employees. She goes through clerks and publicity executives like Kleenex, signaling her amorous intentions with a wink and a toss of a pillow onto a plush rug. Ignored or transferred to remote offices, her cast-off lovers wonder what hit them, like Fred MacMurray's ex-secretaries in The Apartment. One young Adonis is more interested in literature than romance (are we supposed to think him gay?) so Alison packs him off to school in Europe, all expenses paid. Made angry by weaklings and fortune hunters, Alison goes to a carnival shooting gallery to try her hand at a daring direct pick-up.
It's likely that 1933 audiences considered the movie's entire premise a wicked joke. Alison Drake's behavior is a conscious reversal of the droit de seigneur commonly enjoyed by powerful men, daring us to reconsider male and female roles in society. Today's empowered female executives will applaud Alison's independence, while it lasts. To preserve the status quo, Alison's undoing arrives in the form of Jim Thorne (George Brent), a quiet but resolute man's man who dismantles his female employer's self-image. Thorne rejects Alison's pillow toss games and holds out until she comes running after him. Curiously, the 'helpless, feminine' Alison Jim falls for is a facade she's cooked up for the afternoon. But that's okay by Thorne, because he's decided that women like Alison manifest several different personalities. By the fade out, Alison has surrendered her heart, her business and her independence. Jim will run things from here on in.
The final compromise isn't very progressive. Jim chirps: "You're just a woman after all. The job is too much for you!" and Alison agrees. We're much more impressed by provocative earlier lines, like "It takes more than flat heels and glasses to make a sensible woman!" 1
With only a 60-minute running time, Female really races. Warners packs it with pop tunes from its Busby Berkeley movies and director Michael Curtiz keeps every scene on task. The script finds cute bits of business for Ruth Donnelly, a middle-aged actress who became a fixture in Pre-Code movies, always arching her eyebrows in reaction to suggestive jokes. Warners can't quite match MGM for Art Deco opulence but they do their best. Alison's home has an organ loft, a giant spiral staircase and a pool that might be left over from Footlight Parade. Its exterior is the famous Ennis-Wright house, later featured famously in House on Haunted Hill.
Disc three jumps the calendar back to 1931 for William Wellman's Night Nurse. Wild Bill must have approached this assignment as a lark, yet it turned into something special anyway. Ostensibly a racy tale about hospital hi-jinks, it bounces back and forth between exploitative silliness and fresh ideas. Dead-broke high school dropout Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) is turned down for a nurse-trainee job until a kindly doctor (Charles Winninger) gives her a recommendation. Lora and co-trainee B. Maloney (Joan Blondell) climb out of their dresses at least every ten minutes, making this the 1931 equivalent of The Student Nurses. The peek-a-boo scenes are approached as if they were the reason to make the movie.
When caught breaking curfew by the nasty supervising nurse, Lora and B. end up pulling night shifts as punishment. Lora patches up a bootlegger's bullet wound (Ben Lyon) and doesn't report it. Claiming the gunshot was an accident, the bootlegger says "That's my story and nothing less than a couple of cops with rubber hoses can make me change it." That subversive bit of dialogue counters several years' worth of stuffy MGM Crime Doesn't Pay propaganda.
Lora has a tendency to faint in operating rooms but finds fulfillment in the maternity ward. Wellman shows what looks like a real newborn being washed right after birth, a beautiful scene. We see an Asian as a new mother and another woman breastfeeding, content surely considered too vulgar for MGM. Is my bias showing yet? Stanwyck is terrific as Lora, carrying each scene with total self-assurance.
The second half of the show dissolves into a thriller. B. and Lora work an at-home case and uncover a crime conspiracy. A corrupt doctor (Ralf Harolde) is purposely starving two sick children to death in a plot to collect their trust fund. Clark Gable plays the surly, unsympathetic chauffeur Nick in complete villain mode. Nick sidelines the mother by keeping her 'hopped up and fulla booze' in all night parties. When Lora objects, Nick knocks her flat.
The story is more than a little absurd, with Nick illogically expecting that Lora will keep her mouth shut about the abused children. Even less likely is Lora's relationship with her bootlegger boyfriend. He eventually comes to the rescue, using his underworld connections to straighten things out. The flippant, amoral finale condones a convenient murder that bothers Lora not one whit. It's all so casual that it makes us think the whole movie was a joke by the filmmakers, to prove what they could get away with! 2
Listed as an extra on disc three is Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood. The entertaining docu chronicles the story of the Production Code administered by Hays and Breen and influenced by the Catholic Legion of Decency. Made by Trailer Park, the show concentrates on the salacious extremes of Pre-code movie content while only touching upon the real effect of the Code: for over twenty years, a small body of overseers was able to control the content of everything shown on American screens, enforcing a narrow range of behaviors and attitudes. Anything critical of institutions or 'accepted' values was disallowed. Defenders claim that the Code say is responsible for charming movies that present sexuality indirectly, like Casablanca. Baloney. The Code wasn't primarily about Sex; it was about political repression. The Code helped keep American culture safely in Kindergarten.
Don't watch the documentary first, as it focuses on the films in this set and spoils most of their stories.
The five features in Warners' TCM Archives: Forbidden Hollywood Volume 2 are transferred in handsome B&W with strong soundtracks; even the early The Divorcee looks and sounds solid. All the features come with subtitles in English and French. Original trailers are provided for Female, Night Nurse and Three on a Match. Film historian and author Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta provide commentaries for The Divorcee and Night Nurse. They dispense a wealth of biographical and historical information using a scripted, 'informal' style that plays like the feel-good patter of TV infomercials. Perhaps Warners wants its Forbidden Hollywood series to reach beyond the fan base of confirmed film 'buffs'?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
TCM Archives: Forbidden Hollywood Volume 2 rates:
1. For readers stuck in the un-adventurous sexual present, a 'round heeled woman' is one easily tipped over on her back, in other words, (pardon) an easy lay.
2. Actually, after just making the case for MGM's 'approval' of the upper-class Leslie Howard killing a 'mongrel' gangster in A Free Soul, I have to concede that a more conservative observer could easily argue that the casual, off-screen murder in Night Nurse makes it look as though Warners approves of killing when committed by an anti-authoritarian hipster, in this case a hotshot bootlegger. (spoiler) Amusingly, in both films it is poor Clark Gable that ends up dead!
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