Nudity, premarital sex, violent crime, prostitution ... Hollywood could get away with most anything during the Pre-Code period. It's all in Warner Archives' recent m.o.d. collection, Forbidden Hollywood, Vol. 6.
A short history lesson: although the Hayes Code was established in 1930 as an agreed-upon set of guidelines between censorship boards and the Hollywood studios, at the time it was only loosely adhered to (after all, sex and violence sold tickets). It wasn't until the summer of 1934, when the Breen Office established a mandatory Production Code which stayed in place for more than thirty years. It is this pre-sanitized period that is celebrated in Warner Bros.' wonderful Forbidden Hollywood DVD series, currently at its seventh volume. As with all of volumes since last year's #4, the four-disc Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 6 reviewed here is available through the Warner Archive made-on-demand (m.o.d.) DVD reissues of undiscovered television and film from the bottomless Warner-owned vaults.
At first glance, the films selected for Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 6 appear to be a randomly selected bunch. The four films are all polished dramas released by MGM or Warner/First National in 1932-34, however, and to a certain extent each one deals with risk-taking material. While 1932's The Wet Parade takes a hard-hitting look at alcohol abuse, the 1934 production Massacre goes out of its way to portray Native Americans in a modern, non-stereotypical light. Washed-up silent idol John Gilbert defies expectations and helps transform the soapy histrionics of Downstairs into a penetrating drama that addresses social mores in a surprisingly astute way. Finally, the tropical corker Mandalay is what resulted when Warner Bros. employed the studio's most accomplished craftsmen in support of the period's most unique leading lady, Kay Francis.
The Wet Parade (1932; 118 minutes)
Although MGM pulled out all the stops for The Wet Parade, the end result winds up being something of a ponderous (but watchable) mess. It retains some fascination for the Prohibition/alcohol angle, and yet the film never adequately settles on one side or the other in the debate, a still contentious subject back in 1932. At least director Victor Fleming wrests some good performances out of his cast, highlighted by Robert Young (in his fifth film), Lewis Stone, and the always-great Walter Huston (the obscure Dorothy Jordan seems out of her depth, however). The heavy emoting in Sinclair's novel weighed this production down, however, which ultimately sags the film under its punishing, nearly two-hour length. The resulting human drama winds up being overly played out, and ultimately not satisfying. Not surprisingly, the best moment in The Wet Parade occurs with an utterly engrossing, dialogue-free montage depicting the bottling and packaging of bootlegged liquor, a sequence which must have delighted the producers of Boardwalk Empire.
Downstairs (1932; 77 minutes)
When I first saw Downstairs back in 2009, I noted that the film was "an undiscovered gem amongst movies from this period" - that assessment still holds true. It boasts a compelling story, unusually speedy pacing, handsome production values and a good performance by Gilbert, a solid presence who is unfairly thought of as a flop in sound pictures. He actually has something of a haunted quality in this period, which suits the "live for the now, regret it later" themes in Downstairs quite well. The film is also notable for the freewheeling sexuality of the characters, with the tension coming not from people having affairs (which happen aplenty) but the scandal that may erupt when they are exposed. It relates to one explosive scene (one of the best in Pre-Code cinema, in fact), when Virginia Bruce's Anna angrily defends her right to have a sexually fulfilling life to her disbelieving husband. It's astonishing proof of what would be lost only a few short years later. Unlike many of the films Warner picks for these sets, Downstairs is a perfect fit - still entertaining and very evocative of the Pre-Code era.
Mandalay (1934; 65 minutes)
Although Mandalay turns into a conventional shipboard romance after Francis boards the steamboat to the title region, it still serves as an excellent sample of the escapist "women's pictures" that studios cranked out like sausages at the time. Despite the exotic trappings, Kay Francis' Tanya has an emotional stability and common decency that people can relate with, then and now. And the fact that she becomes a high class hooker? Just part of the complexity of the Pre-Code era. Warner Bros./First National lavished a lot of care on this particular vehicle, with a top-notch wardrobe for Francis from designer Orry-Kelly, luminous cinematography by the great Tony Gaudio, and smooth direction by Michael Curtiz. Perhaps it was put into place to disguise the standard he-done-me-wrong plot, but most of the time viewers will be too busy gawking at the wild imagery (Presumably nude Francis dropping her robe! A montage that cleverly uses the image of a spinning fan!) to notice. Another good Kay Francis flick.
Massacre (1934; 70 minutes)
Awkwardly made at times but engrossing all the same, Massacre is another film that establishes Barthelmess as one of the definitive Pre-Code actors (although newbies to Barthelmess need to check out his amazing work in 1933's Heroes for Sale, included in the must-have Forbidden Hollywood, Vol. 3 set). Although it takes some adjusting to accept white actors Barthelmess and Dvorak as Natives, the film packs a lot of earnest yet non-preachy drama into its brisk 70 minutes (the location filming is good and most of the extras appear to be full-blooded Native, if that's any consolation). The stocky, intense Barthelmess plays Joe as a man who is able to straddle both Indian and White worlds effortlessly. The film does sport a regrettable stereotypical black sidekick (played by Clarence Muse), along with some credibility-defying scenes (Joe lassoing a man from a speeding car), but for the most part it's an earnest and memorable effort that deserves to get a second look.
The four discs of Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 6 come in a standard-width DVD case with no supplemental printed materials and basic info on the back cover. The menu designs on each disc are notably different from Volume 4 in the series (reviewed here), with individual designs based on the films' posters and lobby cards replacing Warner Archives' previous generic menus showing a backlot theater marquee. The discs themselves have a nicely redone, unified design as well.
Decent overall, but there are some slight problems with these unrestored transfers. The Wet Parade sports a comparatively nice looking picture with some dust and artifacts but an otherwise pleasantly balanced transfer. Downstairs is also mastered from a nicely preserved print, marred with a few instances of vertical white lines and small flecks and dust. Mandalay sports a pleasant picture, but the print used is markedly more aged with more artifacts and a few instances of flashing. The picture on Massacre also sports a fair share of dust and scratches, with one scene having the persistent jitter of warped or misaligned film.
All four films sport their original mono soundtrack in all their unvarnished, occasionally hiss- and pop-ridden glory. Nothing that great to speak of sonically, but there weren't too many instances of sound flaws distracting from the viewing experience, either. No subtitles are provided on these discs.
Lacking even basic scene-selection menus, the sole extra here is the interesting theatrical trailer on the Massacre disc. It's one of those previews that incorporates specially-filmed footage, here with actress Claire Dodd explaining the film's premise in a phony magazine interview setup.
Four-disc, four-film set Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 6 continues the efforts of Warner Bros. exhuming their film library for delightful Pre-Code goodies. It's not too fancy in presentation, but filled with fascinating stuff all the same. Offbeat but ponderous anti-liquor tirade The Wet Parade is the only mediocrity in the set; the other three (Mandalay, Massacre, and the painfully overlooked Downstairs) are terrific additions to this growing series. Recommended.