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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Pre-Code Hollywood Collection: Universal Backlot Series
Pre-Code Hollywood Collection: Universal Backlot Series
Universal // Unrated // April 7, 2009
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Review by DVD Savant | posted March 28, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The eye-opening Pre-Code Hollywood Collection: Universal Backlot Series is actually comprised of six Paramount features more interesting overall for the variety of talent on view -- sometimes very on view -- than the directors involved. Sex, infidelity, scandal, alcoholism, malicious gossip, unwed motherhood, murder and sleazy publishing get a solid workout, with more than enough leering, drinking, and hanky-panky to go around.

The package comes with a nine-minute interview docu featuring testimony from Hollywood history experts (Robert S. Birchard, Kirby Dick, Patricia King Hanson, Richard Jewell, Anthony Slide, Mark Vieira), great clips from truly warped Pre-Code sizzlers like DeMille's Sign of the Cross and unfortunately, some really tacky Public Domain stock footage. Also in the set is a copy of the full 1934 Production code, to help you understand just what the Code no longer permitted on America's screens only a few weeks after the last picture in this collection played in theaters. Movies with near-nudity or suggestive scenes were either censored or shelved outright, sometimes for decades.

The morally uplifting salacious fare begins with The Cheat (November 1931), a film directed by the young George Abbott, better known for a legendary career writing and directing plays on Broadway. Tallulah Bankhead stars as a rather confused young bride who is also an adventuress- gambler. Losing $10,000 that her young husband doesn't have, and foolish blowing a charity's $10,000 on the stock market, Bankhead barters her honor to a philandering businessman played by Irving Pichel (an actor in Dracula's Daughter and the director of Destination Moon).

The script equates "Asian" with "perverse". Pichel has spent a good deal of time in the Orient, and his mansion is decked out in Japanese style. For a party, he dresses Bankhead in an elegant Chinese outfit, like a trophy. The script gives him some barbaric Eastern ideas about sex -- like a secret cabinet with dolls fashioned after his female conquests. When Bankhead refuses to play ball at the last minute, he brands her with a hot iron, to claim her as his possession! Like a demented version of The Letter, further complications involve a shooting and a rather hilariously exaggerated trial, where, of course, the "truth burned into the flesh" must be publicly revealed. With Bankhead overdoing most of her scenes, it gets pretty sticky. The Production Code specifically rules out branding as acceptable subject manner; almost certainly with this film in mind.

The show is given superior Paramount production values. An Asian dance at the party provides an excuse for some revealing costumes. At one point Pichel takes Bankhead for a moonlight cruise, helping her into a fancy motorboat in a setup reminiscent of Some Like it Hot.

Merrily We Go to Hell (June 1932) is the sinister-sounding title of one of the better films in the bunch. Its director is Dorothy Arzner, who was literally the only female director in Hollywood until Ida Lupino came along at the end of the 1940s. Script and acting are tops in this tale of alcoholism and a scandalous "open marriage".

Sheltered socialite Sylvia Sidney is charmed by newspaperman Fredric March, a serious drinker who habitually misses appointments and must be poured into bed at night by his drinking friends. Against Sidney's father's wishes, they marry. March dries up long enough to write a play that takes the newlyweds to New York. Unfortunately, the star (Adrianne Allen) is March's old girlfriend, who causes him to fall off the wagon. Not knowing what to do, Sidney allows March to romance Allen, while she rebels and gets cozy with a handsome actor (Cary Grant). The Open Marriage arrangement is good for a few laughs before Sidney becomes more miserable than ever.

Big parts of this brittle, serious movie seem to float in booze. Dorothy Arzner's fine direction brings out the humor in the witty, fresh script. March is easy to forgive and Sylvia Sidney is as heartbreaking as ever. Both actors also look unbelievably, painfully young. We recognize Cary Grant by his voice long before we see him; his part's not big but he must have turned a lot of heads. The title is a throwaway phrase used by March whenever he offers a toast. Frankly, the vision of alcoholism presented here is more convincing than later, drippy psychological efforts like The Days of Wine and Roses.

Esther Howard has a good part as a drinking friend, and the unmistakable Theresa Harris has an early bit as, of course, a maid.

Hot Saturday (October 1932) is a clever, somewhat twisted morality tale set in a small town where "whatever happens on Saturday is the topic of gossip for the rest of the week." Cute bank clerk Nancy Carroll supports her family, yet her mother Jane Darwell wants to run her life. Nancy's gang takes off for a lakeside watering hole every Saturday to drink, dance and neck. Wealthy out-of-towner Cary Grant buzzes around Nancy's crib at the bank, igniting gossip even before he talks Nancy's date Edward Woods into relocating the party to his lavish lake house.

To Grant's surprise, the principled Nancy turns him down. Woods thinks something happened and forces his attentions on her in a rowboat. Nancy limps back to Grant's place. She's given a ride home, but the town thinks she's stayed the night. There's no use telling the truth; a Ladies' Club insists that Nancy be fired from her job. Family friend Randolph Scott, a geologist, just happens to be in town and proposes. Nancy's jealous "friends" make sure he finds out about her "hot Saturday" with Grant. What's a girl to do?

Director William A. Seiter gives Hot Saturday a nice feel for Americana in this decidedly anti-Andy Hardy town where all the swains (including Grady Sutton!) expect whatever girl they date to be in a frisky mood. Poor Nancy is assumed by all to be a tramp and betrayed by her peers because she's so popular. The script stays sharp until the final act, when all credibility goes out the window. Randolph Scott lives in a cave while doing his survey, but it's close enough to town for Nancy to rush to see him when she's distraught. She's unconscious and soaking wet, giving Randy the opportunity to do the James Stewart/Kim Novak gag: "Oh, I undressed you so your clothes could dry out, but it's okay, right?" (see box-top photo)

But then Nancy appears to lose all hope of landing Randolph Scott or Cary Grant. We'd really have been surprised if the geologist and the playboy ran off together instead, but no such luck. The rather amazing finish rescues Nancy in almost Cinderella fashion, ending with the suggestion that the quickest way to happiness and riches is to lose all your friends in a terrible scandal. Just the same, a great picture.

Marjorie Main has a standout bit as one of the town's nasty gossips. Cary Grant's servants are Japanese, which seems to be a requirement in 30's movies about bachelor lady-killers.

Another surprisingly effective film in the stack is Alexander Hall and George Somnes' Torch Singer (September 1933). This one swings wildly from Warners'-like social realism to fantasy glamour. Claudette Colbert stars, which almost always insures a good movie (she and Barbara Stanwyck seem to have that in common). Colbert plays a desperate unwed mother who must give birth at a poorhouse hospital because the father took off for China without leaving a forwarding address. Determined not to involve the father's wealthy family, Colbert tries to make a go of it alone, but soon has to admit defeat, and gives up the baby for adoption.

Several years later, Colbert is a popular cabaret singer, a budding star. Radio executive Ricardo Cortez (for once playing a nice guy) wants to get her on the air, but the sponsor's wife thinks Colbert's a wanton hussy. That's when Colbert accidentally becomes the velvet-voiced host of a children's program, telling stories and singing lullabyes. A broadcasting sensation, Colbert becomes obsessed with finding her lost daughter, and organizes a radio contest for that purpose. That's when her old boyfriend (David Manners) comes back from China, wondering if anybody's seen his gal ...

Again, Claudette Colbert makes this all work. She's heartbreaking as the traumatized unwed mother, and equally convincing as the seasoned performer refusing to make emotional commitments. Her conversion back to super-mother status is moving as well, although complicated by the expected Hollywood finish. Interestingly, an early scene shows Colbert and another single mother living without direct male support for a brief period. But sexual harassment results in a job loss, and the happy home breaks up. See the spoiler-laden footnote.

Murder at the Vanities (May 1934) is a lavish backstage extravaganza that's half musical and half who-dunnit. As the mystery is downright silly, the appeal is all in the attempts at comedy and the staging of a half-dozen song and dance numbers. "The Vanities" refers to Earl Carrol's Vanities, a popular upscale girly show featuring heaping stage-fuls of glamorous showgirls. "Through These Portals Pass the Most Beautiful Girls In The World" was Carroll's catchphrase. If director Mitchell Leisen's elaborate musical numbers seem tawdry or garish in comparison to Busby Berkeley's fantastic work over at Warners, it's most likely because real Earl Carroll numbers are being recreated, in all of their tacky glory.

And they're certainly eye opening. The statuesque women range from scantily clothed to peek-a-boo draped to hardly covered to out 'n' out nude (but holding their arms very carefully). What isn't cut-away is see-through. The old adage that a play had to be "cleaned up" for the movies wasn't a joke, as Broadway fare was much more risqué than most anything seen in the movies. If one looks close and has a good memory for faces (they have faces?) it is said that one can spot Lucille Ball, Lynn Bari and Ann Sheridan among the film's numerous skin tableaux.

Victor McLaglen is a leering, pea-brained police detective and Jack Oakie a hotshot stage manager with a yen for "Young and Healthy" platinum blonde Toby Wing, surely the most "available looking" glamour girl of the early 1930s. Kitty Carlisle of I've Got a Secret" is young, slim and a good singer; Gertrude Michael is the wicked songstress who belts out the tune Sweet Marijuana in front of the tackiest scenery of all time --- stage flats representing cactus, with a topless Carroll babe in each cactus flower. Carl Brisson, a guy apparently born with an insipid, unchanging grin on his face, is the lead male singer. His big number is the standard Cocktails for Two, the one forever vandalized by the Spike Jones comedy version with all the sound effects.

Duke Ellington's jazz band interrupts a symphonic version of the Second Hungarian Rhapsody, the classical piece ribbed by Dolores Gray and "Klenzrite" in It's Always Fair Weather. The scene isn't as liberating as one might think, even with "Ebony Rhapsody" dancers coming "from Harlem" to pitch in. Paramount seems to have lacked the corps of super-talented music arrangers that Warners and MGM used to such good effect.

What plot there is has two murders occurring backstage; it's all nonsense yet fairly well handled. Charles Middleton, Jessie Ralph and nervous Dorothy Stickney hang around as likely suspects; it seems that someone thought Stickney deserved a big break but her impassioned final speech isn't very good. Donald Meek plays the coroner; he looks older in 1934 than he does in his 1940s movies! In a scene that might fit in with a 70's Italian giallo slasher picture, one of the nude showgirls suddenly feels blood drops falling on her shoulder -- a woman has been stabbed to death on the scenery catwalks far above.

The final entry is director Erle C. Kenton's Search for Beauty (February 1934), a truly trashy film. Fresh from prison, flim-flam artists Robert Armstrong, James Gleason and Gertrude Michael launch an "exercise and health" magazine by signing on two idealistic young Olympic champions as editors. Buster Crabbe (a real Gold Medal swimmer) and English high diver Ida Lupino (blonde, bubbly and almost unrecognizable) are taken aback when the schemers then turn the magazine into a salacious excuse to show skin and tell hot stories illustrated with sexy pictures (many of which involve sexy Toby Wing, hot cha). Crabbe and Lupino turn the tables on the exploiters by diverting their internationally selected physical fitness experts to a fancy exercise hotel. Armstrong and Gleason lure a pack of hotel guests with promises of hanky panky with the beautiful athletes, but Crabbe enforces a curfew and makes everyone get up at 6:30 am to do calisthenics. It's hell, I tell you.

Search for Beauty is the 1934 equivalent of a smutty sex comedy. Special consideration is given to the magazine's licentious photo shoots, and the attempt to turn the health hotel into Orgy Central. Toby is easily talked into dancing on a table in her lingerie. To save her from a fate worse than death, Ida Lupino takes her place and dances in her silk pajamas. Crabbe's corps of perfect-specimen body-beautiful types are too pure to think about sex, and instead parade around shirtless with big smiles on their faces, like they know a secret we don't. The female athletes do plenty of marching, dancing and touch-your-toes windmills in light elastic tops that, as the saying goes, don't hide much. In other words, the film cheerfully practices what it pretends to preach against. Again we're told that Lynn Bari and Ann Sheridan are among the vitamin-enriched exercise-ettes; Sheridan is the "Athlete from Texas".

Crabbe did this movie after a stint as a Tarzan and before his big breakthrough as Flash Gordon. He doesn't quite yet know how to deliver a line but he's definitely enthusiastic and wholesome looking. Ida Lupino keeps her dignity but we're glad that she soon scored as a serious actress.


Pre-Code Hollywood Collection: Universal Backlot Series is a fine presentation. Some of the films are on the grainy side and the beginning of The Cheat is soft, but overall the quality is very good.  2

Universal's package text takes a slightly scandalized tone, calling this period "the most decadent in Hollywood History", when "censorship barely existed". It also misspells "marijuana". Although the experts try to explain that the Production Code was imposed by a minority of (mostly Catholic) bluenoses, the consensus of the bonus docu is that it was basically a good thing. The Code cut back on the excesses in a couple of films seen here but also made it difficult for the movies to present mature content. Thus began twenty years of restrictive censorship and the suppression of ideas counter to the status quo.

Woo-hoo comedies like Search for Beauty are fun, but Universal has plenty of Paramount Pre-codes in their library that really push the limit. Cecil B. DeMille's This Day and Age glorifies Fascist values and encourages vigilante violence. Made from William Faulkner's Sanctuary, 1933's The Story of Temple Drake was banned in several foreign countries. Code administrator Joe Breen decreed that it be banned here as well.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Pre-Code Hollywood Collection: Universal Backlot Series rates:
Movies: Very Good -- Excellent
Video: Very Good +
Sound: Very Good +
Supplements: Bonus featurette Forbidden Film: The Production Code Era
Packaging: Three discs in folding plastic and card holder with text envelope in card sleeve
Reviewed: March 26, 2009

Footnote:

1. SPOILER. In one fell swoop Colbert's entertainer recoups her daughter AND her Prince Charming (who didn't desert her after all, it was all a mistake encouraged by a wicked mother). Informed of Colbert's troubles, David Manners has apparently used his family's resources to wrest his daughter from her new parents. As this happens off-screen, we have to assume that he bought them off -- Torch Singer doesn't even want us to think about it! Lenore J. Coffee's screenplay begins in the Depression-land of hard knocks but ends up with everyone in glittering clothes in marble palaces.
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2. Readers incensed that the films haven't been restored to crystal clarity need to know some background on the subject. When MCA bought the pre-1948 Paramount library, they didn't want to take possession of hundreds of tons of nitrate negatives that are difficult to store and were the source of frequent vault fires. Acetate dupes were made of everything, in many cases only of cut versions (as in at least one slightly censored Marx Bros. movie). Longer original versions, outtakes, and other vault "extras" were destroyed. When Universal goes to retransfer a particular Paramount title, it's not uncommon to find that the only element available is an indifferently manufactured dupe negative.

At the UCLA Film Archive in the early 1970s our professors often screened one-of-a-kind original nitrate studio prints from Paramount, with two projectionists in the booth for fire safety. So I've seen pictures like The Night Has a Thousand Eyes and Von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress in utterly fantastic-looking original "silver screen" prints, that may no longer exist.

So, in other words, if an old movie doesn't look perfect, it's not necessarily because the studios aren't trying or don't care -- the materials to do a proper restoration may not be available. Although the transfers here are not as marvelous as those in Warners' The Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 3 (sourced directly from preserved nitrate negatives), they look very good.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson

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