TCM Archives - Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume 2 is an irresistibly lurid selection of pre-Code yarns that had moviegoers flocking to theaters during the Great Depression. While none of these five flicks quite has the trashy appeal of 1933's Baby Face, which appeared on TCM's Volume 1, this collection boasts at least two dynamite potboilers in 3 on a Match and Night Nurse, as well as a first-rate comedy with Female.
The Divorcee (1930)
The Divorcee is a remarkably feminist film -- up to a point, anyway. In its saga of a wife reacting to her husband's infidelity, the picture has the temerity to examine society's double-standard about how men and women are judged for promiscuity. While the movie ultimately retreats for safer, more conventional ground, it still delivers some daring moments and a compelling lead performance by Norma Shearer.
Among the most celebrated of the pre-Code flicks, The Divorcee certainly qualified as racy. It couldn't help but be so, based as it was on an explosive 1929 bestseller, Ex-Wife. The book had been deemed so steamy, in fact, MGM opted not to credit the source material directly and instead declared the film was based on "a novel by Ursula Parrott." MGM could pretend to be above salacious material while still winking to movie audiences, after all, Parrott had only penned one novel up to that time. MGM production chief Irving Thalberg had been one of the Production Code's principal authors, but he knew a potential hit movie when he saw one.
The Divorcee begins with the engagement of two good-looking, rich and sociable young New Yorkers. Ted Martin (Chester Morris) is enchanted by the free-spirited, independent and androgynously named Jerry (Shearer), telling her admiringly, "You know, you've got a male point of view."
Three years later, their deliriously perfect marriage is put to the test when Jerry learns Ted has been unfaithful. Although Ted initially denies it, he eventually fesses up but insists the dalliance didn't mean a thing. "It isn't the end of the world, darling," he says.
Jerry's not reassured. Devastated but determined to get back at hubby, she hops in the sack with Ted's ne'er do well best friend, Don (a young Robert Montgomery). Later, when Jerry tells Ted she has "balanced their account," he isn't quite as nonchalant as he had been about his own indiscretion. He erupts at a friend's wedding, but Jerry will not be cowed. "From now on, you're the only man in the world that my door is closed to!" Jerry declares before proceeding with divorce and an impressive -- if emotionally empty -- succession of suitors and sex.
Screenwriters Nick Grinde, John Meehan and Zelda Sears dabble in issues of guilt, obligation and pride before eventually wimping out with a conclusion that reaffirms traditional gender roles. But no matter. Until then, The Divorcee proves to be surprisingly gutsy and hard-hitting. And Jerry Martin makes for an intriguing early figure of female empowerment, albeit one whose control chiefly stems from her sexual boldness.
Stilted acting and stagy direction weigh down The Divorcee, but the film sizzles when Norma Shearer is onscreen. To land the juicy role, she had to lobby her boss and husband, Irving Thalberg, who harbored doubts that his beloved wife could be glamorous enough. Shearer enlisted celebrated Los Angeles photographer George Hurrell to shoot photos of her in suggestive, sultry poses. The gambit paid off. Shearer snagged the part from Joan Crawford and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress.
A Free Soul (1931)
Shearer again turns up in A Free Soul, a heavyhanded melodrama about a negligent father and his free-spirited daughter. The actress portrays Jan, the rebellious daughter of hot-shot San Francisco defense attorney Stephen Ashe (Lionel Barrymore). It's an unconventional relationship. He's an alcoholic shunned by his blue-blooded family. She's a goodtime party gal who adores dad.
Trouble begins when Stephen successfully defends gangster Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable) against a charge of murder. In a memorable courtroom scene that predates by 65 years the image of defendant O.J. Simpson wrestling into a black glove, Stephen wins an acquittal after having Ace try on a hat found at the crime scene. The hat's too small, as it turns out, and if the hat doesn't fit ... well, you know the rest.
Perhaps Stephen would have been better served had Ace not beaten the rap. There is an immediate sexual charge between Jan and the smooth-talking gangster, and in no time at all, she dumps her namby-pamby beau (Leslie Howard, forever playing the chump to Gable) and takes up with the bad boy. On their first date, Ace survives a drive-by shooting, and Jan is hooked.
They strike up a clandestine affair that reaches a breaking point when Ace finally tells the pickled papa he wants to marry Jan. Stephen is unimpressed. "The only time I hate democracy," he growls, "is when one of you mongrels forgets where you belong!"
Even by 1931 standards, A Free Soul has not aged well. While certainly watchable, its clunky narrative and ham-fisted moralizing wears thin. Although director Clarence Brown makes it clear that Ace and Jan are hot 'n' heavy, the movie's pre-Code naughtiness is relatively benign. Shearer is sans brassiere in a few scenes, but that's about it for titillation.
The film was a critical and commercial smash. The scenery-chewing Barrymore won a Best Actor Oscar, while Shearer and director Brown scored Oscar nominations. The biggest winner, however, was the big-eared hunk who played Ace Wilfong. A Free Soul helped pave the way for Gable's stardom.
3 on a Match (1932)
Three on a Match is a blast, a fast-paced melodrama packed with promiscuity, alcoholism, implied drug use, crime and even an apple-cheeked little boy in peril. It's tawdry, unsubtle and wholly entertaining, with director Mervyn LeRoy employing a hammer-and-tongs approach that keeps the thing humming right along.
With a flurry of cheesy but effective montages showing the passage of time, 3 on a Match follows three young women who attended the same grade school but take very different paths in life. We begin in 1919, where Mary Keaton (Virginia Davis) is a reckless "bad girl" who doesn't mind giving the boys an eyeful of her bloomers. Such cavalier behavior doesn't sit well with the popular and pretty Vivian Revere (Anne Shirley), although another girl, Ruth Wescott (Betty Carse), is more tolerant of Mary's antics.
We revisit the three as grown women. Ruth (Bette Davis) works as a stenographer. Mary (Joan Blondell), following a stint in reform school, has transformed herself into a wisecracking chorus girl with the proverbial heart of gold. Then there is Vivian (Ann Dvorak), who has grown bored and restless with her life of luxury as the wife of a rich New York attorney. "Somehow the thing that makes other people happy leaves me cold," she confides to her old friends during reunion over lunch.
Back home, Vivian persuades her patient, understanding husband Jim (Warren William) into letting her take their 5-year-old son Bobby (Buster Phelps) for a trip aboard an ocean liner. Jim agrees in hopes that the vacation will help his wife shake off her melancholy.
But Vivian isn't just bored; apparently she is also very, very horny. On the ship, she runs into Mary, who makes the mistake of introducing Vivian to a smooth-talking ladies' man named Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot). "You're a real woman," Michael tells Vivian, "not one of those stuffed brassieres you see on Park Avenue." And in what might be a record for a fast seduction -- LeRoy underscores the fact by periodically cutting away to clocks -- Michael gets Vivian to abandon her wealthy husband, child in tow, and shack up for an endless row of booze and sex.
Three on a Match is proudly, irresistibly trashy. The New York Times scoffed at the time that the movie was "distasteful," but Vivian's downward spiral is so audacious, it can't be anything but mesmerizing. LeRoy slathers on the moral turpitude. Vivian neglects her son, sinking deeper into a quagmire of sin. Bobby is eventually reunited with his loving father, only to later be kidnapped by Michael and some gangster colleagues (one of whom is a then-unknown Humphrey Bogart).
The film's underlying premise would have sent Production Code proponents into a cold sweat. After all, the inference is that Mary is level-headed as the result of having exorcised her youthful demons. Conversely, the repressed "good girl" turns into a no-good tramp the minute she gets even a taste of the wild side.
The cast boasts some of Warner Brothers' finest from that time period. Bette Davis has little to do (she would later complain that LeRoy all but dismissed her potential), but Joan Blondell is great fun as the reformed heroine. Ann Dvorak is unforgettable once she begins her descent, all wild eyes and twitching lips as she comes to realize the magnitude of her sins. Three on a Match has its campy moments, but there is nothing goofy about its powerful, emotionally raw ending.
The car-manufacturing magnate at the center of Female is one tough cookie, a take-no-prisoners mogul by day and take-no-guff seductress by night. That, in a nutshell, sums up everything about this 1933 comic gem. The movie is funny, the dialogue is whip-smart, and director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) doesn't outwear his welcome, with the picture clocking in at a lean 60 minutes.
It also boasts a terrific, quasi-feminist lead performance by Ruth Chatterton. Having inherited the Drake Motor Car Company from her father, Alison Drake is a strong-willed, independent businesswoman who commands the boardroom. She proves equally adept in the bedroom. Come evening, Alison lures handsome male employees to her mansion under the auspices of discussing business, only to turn them into her playthings -- with the help of her feminine wiles and copious amounts of vodka. Alison's butler compares Alison to Catherine the Great, whom he says also plied her soldiers with vodka "to fortify their courage."
Alison's conquests are short-lived. The boy toys invariably profess their love to her at work the following morning, but she will have none of it. "To me, a woman in love is a pathetic spectacle," she confides to a friend. "She's either so miserable that she wants to die or so happy that you want to die."
That brassy exterior melts away when she falls for Jim Thorne (George Brent), a self-assured automotive engineer newly hired by Drake Motors. He resists the boss lady's aggressiveness, a rejection that only causes Alison to crater and resolve to be a "real" woman.
OK, so the feminism erodes by the film's end, but the majority of Female has chutzpah and charm to spare. Screenwriter Gene Markey, who also penned the notorious Pre-Code potboiler Baby Face, weds sophistication with bawdy humor, and Chatterton does a bold, sexy turn as the inimitable Alison Drake. What's not to like?
Night Nurse (1931)
Pulpy, violent and sexy, William Wellman's Night Nurse envisions a world seedy enough to make most film noirs look like Disneyland by comparison. Like 3 on a Match, the flick is short, fast and slam-bang entertainment.
Barbara Stanwyck stars as Lora Hart, a dedicated young nurse who lands work in a city hospital. There's not much else we need to know about Lora. She's pretty, she's strong-willed and she often needs to change into and out of clothes. For that latter task, she is often helped along by her nursing-school roommate, the wisecracking Miss Maloney (Joan Blondell in another scene-stealing performance).
Eventually, the gals are assigned as in-home nurses for two severely ill little girls (Betty Jane Graham and Marcia Mae Jones) who appear to be slowly dying of malnourishment. Lora is rightly disturbed by what she sees. The girls' mother, Mrs. Ritchie (Charlotte Merriam), is a drunken floozy we first meet passed out on a bearskin rug. When conscious, Mrs. Ritchie is entwined in some sort of unsavory relationship with her chauffeur, a vicious lug named Nick (Clark Gable). As for the sick girls, they are receiving shamelessly incompetent medical treatment from a twitchy doctor (Ralf Harolde) whose career counseling to Lora includes such threatening gems as "the successful nurse is the one who keeps her mouth shut."
Adapted from a Dora Macy novel, Night Nurse is gloriously, defiantly lurid. In addition to those scenes of Stanwyck and Blondell disrobing, Wellman tosses in Lora getting coldcocked by Nick, an attempted sexual assault and an avenging angel in the form of a likeable bootlegger (Ben Lyon) who takes a shine to our night nurse.
The camerawork is surprisingly fluid. From the film's opening shot, the point of view of a city ambulance barreling toward the hospital, Wellman indulges in a dynamic visual style uncommon for early talkies.
The cast seems to be having a grand time. Lyon isn't a particularly convincing gangster, but Stanwyck and Blondell have terrific comic chemistry together. Gable, who signed on to play Nick role after James Cagney dropped out, makes a properly menacing heavy. The change in casting proved fortuitous for the studio, Warner Brothers.
While Night Nurse earned some notoriety for its scantily clad leading ladies, Stanwyck credited Gable with the flick's box-office success. "It was Gable who brought the crowds to see Night Nurse," she said many years later. "The public couldn't get enough of him."
The three-DVD set is in a handsomely package digipak.
Considering that grain and scratches are inevitable for films more than 70 years old, the quintet of black-and-white films in Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 2 is in excellent condition. Three on a Match is particularly impressive, boasting sharp lines and shades. All movies are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
The single-channel mixes reflect the original audio tracks. The passage of decades has compromised clarity, especially in The Divorcee and A Free Soul, both of which suffer from muffled dialogue. Still, such wear and tear is hardly unexpected. Subtitles for all films are available in French and English for the hearing-impaired.
The centerpiece is an excellent documentary chronicling the pre-Code films of the early Thirties. Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood (67:52) is loaded with wonderful film clips -- from the notorious to the not-so-memorable -- and a passel of enthusiastic interviews from film scholars and filmmakers. It's a great primer for one of the more fascinating periods in Hollywood history.
Speaking of film scholars, The Divorcee and Night Nurse include an entertaining -- if occasionally frothy -- commentary by movie historians Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta. Also included are theatrical trailers for 3 on a Match, Female and Night Nurse.
The five films that comprise TCM Archives - Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume 2 are hardly classics, but they are fun, enthusiastic and happily sensationalistic. Joan Blondell cracks wise, Barbara Stanwyck shows off her body, Ann Dvorak sinks into squalor and Clark Gable slugs a gal. The Norma Shearer contributions don't pack the cheap thrills of, say, 3 on a Match, but there's not a bad flick in the bunch. Modern audiences might be most surprised to discover how the anything-goes pre-Code days spawned strong female characters unencumbered by social mores. That alone makes this collection a must-see for film buffs.