Although Warner Home Video's Forbidden Hollywood series of spicy Pre-Code melodramas and comedies has had a good run going all the way back to the VHS era (heck, I remember spending a hard-earned $20 on a tape of Skyscraper Souls back in the day), there were fears that the introduction of their Warner Archives series of manufactured-on-demand DVDs might spell an end to it. Fear not, however - although scaled down in terms of packaging and bonus content, this latest edition of Forbidden Hollywood still delivers the goods.
The four discs that comprise Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 4 cover a wide variety of stories, including soufflé-light mannered comedy (Jewel Robbery), tense melodrama (Lawyer Man), showbiz/Manhattan tomfoolery (They Call It Sin), and sophisticated soapiness (Man Wanted). They have a remarkable consistency, however, which is due to them all being Warner Bros. pictures from 1932 (the jazzy, economical feel of that studio is all over these). Three of the four are directed by the versatile William Dieterlie, and several actors reappear in more than one film. Headliners like William Powell and the underrated Kay Francis have multiple appearances, along with reliable supporting performers like Helen Vinson, David Manners, Claire Dodd, Una Merkel, Elizabeth Patterson and probably a few dozen more that I may have forgotten.
By the way, Warner Archive's Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 5 is also available, containing the Barbara Stanwyck prison potboiler Ladies They Talk About (1933), James Cagney's dance marathon comedy Hard To Handle (1933), the Joan Blondell detective flick Miss Pinkerton (1932) and Warren William's fake clairvoyant drama The Mind Reader (1933). This review only concerns Volume 4, which consists of the following four corkers:
Jewel Robbery (1932; 68 minutes)
A lot of Jewel Robbery's sizzle comes from its stars' chemistry, despite this Lubitsch-lite bonbon not quite matching up to One Way Passage (another Warner Archive offering), the grand shipboard soap opera which Kay Francis and William Powell also shared in 1932. One thing is for certain, however - this is an excellent vehicle for Kay. Our first glimpse of the unique actress has her indulging in a decadent bubble bath, which typifies both the film's luxe escapism and Kay's take-the-jewels-and-run approach to it. The script is lively if somewhat too frou-frou, with a luxuriant production design that focuses on jewels, furs, etcetera to an almost fetishistic degree. The film also boasts plenty of Pre-Code business, including a thief hero, a married woman falling for another man and not feeling guilty about it, and the liberal use of laughter-inducing cigarettes.
Lawyer Man (1932; 72 minutes)
A fast-paced legal drama with gangsters, gams (that's the Pre-Code part), and swanky nightclubs galore, Lawyer Man isn't especially outstanding, but it's a whole lot of fun. It has that typical Warner Bros. Depression-era verve, with a script full of peppery if typical dialogue of the day (Powell's character actually says "listen, you mugs" at one point). Powell is his usual suave self in a decent performance, and Joan Blondell brings loads of her tradmark sass to the proceedings. She also shares an amusing bit with an unknown Sterling Holloway as a fellow who would be billed as "Olga's gay friend" in a more permissive age. Another interesting aspect of this film is the use of popular songs of the time to comment on the action: "Let's Put Out The Lights And Go To Sleep" is playing during a nightclub scene where Adam is being double crossed, and another pivotal scene with Adam is scored with "I Guess I'll Have To Change My Plan."
Man Wanted (1932; 62 minutes)
Another good vehicle for the ever-fashionable Francis, Man Wanted has a bit of fun with its unconventional leading couple. Even by 1930s actress standards, Kay Francis was quite unusual with her widow's peak, Elmer Fudd-like speech impediment and large, luminous eyes. The camera adored her, however, and she's never more well-captured than with Gregg Toland's camerawork in Man Wanted. It's interesting here to see the mannish Kay paired off with David Manners, a bland yet appealingly handsome actor with a softer, more vulnerable look than many of the alpha-men that would come about later in the '30s. The Breen Office didn't make sexually ambiguous movie stars go away, but Man Wanted demonstrates some of the subtlety that got lost when the Code went into effect. It's a delightful film with some funny, energetic support from Una Merkel and Andy Devine.
They Call It Sin (1932; 69 minutes)
They Call It Sin is another fun, fast-paced romp, albeit one whose pleasures are at a lower level than the other three flicks in this set. The most "Pre-Code" the film gets is the salacious title and the mere idea that Loretta Young's character is a wanton woman of shame. She isn't, of course, and the peccadilloes she gets involved in seem rather tame (and forgettable) by today's standards. That doesn't keep it from being an enjoyable film, however. Manners, Brent and Calhern all do a decent job, while the radiant Young delivers a good performance with Merkel contributing some solidly funny support. As the only film here not directed by William Dieterlie (the obscure Thornton Freeland handles the reigns here), the film is a little more clunky and unsure of its footing, however.
The four discs of Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 4 come in a standard-width DVD case, which is normal for Warner Archive releases but a slight comedown from the more elaborate fold-out packages on the first three Forbidden Hollywood sets.
Decent-looking prints are supplied on all four films, none of which have been digitally cleaned up. Better than public domain, at least. The persistent white specks, vertical lines, dust and scratches generally don't deter the viewing experience. Man Wanted appears to be the best-preserved of the bunch.
These are all in fabulous mono with no subtitles, for a somewhat ragged but serviceable aural experience (Lawyer Man does sport one scene that contains a consistent, annoying background tone, however).
Original theatrical trailers are supplied for all of the films except for They Call It Sin. The package back contains four tiny movie posters which begged to be printed larger as postcards (maybe Warner Archives can somehow include them in the future?).
Gritty, jazzy, slightly naughty and a whole lot of fun, the quartet of brisk Pre-Code offerings on Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 4 offer a good portrait of the Warner Bros. studio in 1932. Three of the films are terrific, the fourth more routine but still worthwhile, which makes it a good bet for Pre-Code fans (especially if you like William Powell and the beguiling Kay Francis). Recommended.