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That very topical bit of bailout dialogue comes not from the evening news but from a 1933 Warner Bros. movie, an entertainment made in the deepest hour of the Great Depression. "Pre-Code" Hollywood movies have been getting a lot of attention lately (while interest in Film Noir appears to be cooling off), and Warner Home Video's new The Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 3 takes a break from "Oo-la-lah" racy dialogue & sexy lingerie pictures to bring forward six tough-minded films from one very tough-minded director, William A. Wellman. Our interest in the Pre-Code era isn't just nostalgia for naughty double-entendres and jiggling flesh. When the Production Code was finally enforced in 1934, American movies were forced to sanitize their movies to a grade-school level.
Don't be fooled by bluenoses telling you that the movies were improved because filmmakers wanting to present adult themes were forced to be creative; that's an evasion, pure and simple. When the Code was enforced, movies could no longer address social or political issues directly, or tell the full truth about how ordinary Americans lived. Stories about disadvantaged people had to have uplifting messages about pulling one's self up by one's bootstraps, or finding that faith and love cured all problems. Institutions were no longer criticized. Frank Capra's celebrated movies conceived of American life as a feel-good Fairy Tale; when he tried to get serious in Meet John Doe, his "Capracorn" philosophy turned into incoherent mush.
The films in The Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 3 collection are just the sort that were withdrawn from circulation when the Code came in. Some were pulled from so far down in the vault that they have barely been seen in decades. The collection gives us a real appreciation of William Wellman's special gift: they're all plainspoken tales, and even when the stories are predictable the emotions are real. These pictures are almost in the spirit of the 1970s, but more honest overall. The story conflicts invariably involve content that the Hays and Breen office would declare unfit for the "decent" screen -- and every one brings up harsh realities that needed public expression.
Not only that, but the collection also presents great movie stars in roles that allow them some real latitude -- before the studios typecast them in repetitious "star" vehicles.
1931's Other Men's Women is a solid picture built on a simple premise: a railroad worker falls in love with the wife of his buddy. Wellman sets up interesting location scenes that integrate interiors and real backgrounds, as when locomotive fireman Bill White (Grant Withers) leaps off the front of a long freight to grab a quick bite at a trackside diner. A couple of minutes later, he jumps back on the train just as the caboose passes. The workaday realism continues off the tracks, where the railroad men live in bungalow houses. We see the Los Angeles City Hall in the background as they read their dialogue on the top of a moving train.
Bill's a lady's man with more than one woman on his string; waitress Marie (Joan Blondell) keeps getting too drunk to trick him into a wedding ring. She tells others that she's strictly "APO": "Ain't Puttin' Out". Unfortunately, an attraction blooms between Bill and Lily Kulper (Mary Astor), the sweet wife of his best friend Jack (Regis Toomey). A dispute escalates into a fight, which leads to tragic consequences. A year later, the ruined relationships come to a head when Bill gets an idea how to save a threatened railroad bridge in the middle of a massive flood (terrific special effects, here). The situation is melodramatic, the treatment is not. The adultery theme creates heartbreak all around, and is not an excuse for illicit "fun".
In the middle of this story, a familiar silhouette struts toward the camera down a long row of moving boxcars. It's James Cagney in his third movie. He's only in for a few minutes but he's given a chance to briefly cut a rug at a dance hall. Other Men's Women was made just before Cagney's breakthrough in William Wellman's The Public Enemy. Cagney doesn't try to steal scenes, but it's obvious that Wellman was impressed, and maneuvered to advance his career.
Mary Astor exudes a sexuality that seems way ahead of the men in the picture. She's convincing as a "happy housewife" yet conceals definite forbidden fires. The total sex quotient in the picture is one illicit kiss, but Other Men's Women simmers with credible passions in the lower middle class.1
Without ever directly saying so, 1932's The Purchase Price sets itself up as a class-A movie about the status of women in society. The oddly structured script begins in New York. Nightclub singer Joan Gordon (Barbara Stanwyck) is sick of being the kept woman of the slick bootlegger Eddie Fields (Lyle Talbot), and skips to Chicago. When the mob tracks her down again, Joan journeys to the far west as a mail-order bride for the proud farmer Jim Gilson (George Brent). Jim misreads her signals and is too forceful on their painfully plain wedding night. Convinced that he's been had, Jim avoids his bride for weeks. Depressed wheat markets are pushing Jim into insolvency. A neighbor offers to help keep Gilson in the farming business -- if Joan comes over to the neighbor's ranch to cook meals and "take care of him". Adding to the confusion, Eddie shows up in this muddy backwater and expects Joan to forget her marriage and leave with him for the big city. Rarely has the "woman as chattel" theme been this clearly stated.
The Purchase Price is adapted from Arthur Stringer's play The Mud Lark, which may or may not share the same concerns. Joan sees many women hooking up with men for protection and security; she prefers to hope for a soul partner. The somewhat exaggerated hick conditions on the prairie don't shake Joan's resolve, but she has difficulty convincing Jim of her sincerity. The Great Land provides the winning connection, when Joan proves to Jim that she's willing to work the fields at his side. Despite an atypical performance from Barbara Stanwyck -- she's honest and uncomplicated -- this is probably the weakest picture in the bunch. Try picturing George Brent as a noble man of the plow, and you'll understand the problem.
1932's Frisco Jenny comes from the same mold as the better-known "sacrificing mother" tales Madame X and Stella Dallas, with the difference that this mother's sacrifice is much greater. It's a solid acting opportunity for the nearly forgotten Ruth Chatterton (Female) and has a good role for Louis Calhern as an earlier version of his venal lawyer in The Asphalt Jungle.
Jenny Sandoval (Chatterton) works the cashier's box in her father's bar on the Barbary Coast; he forbids her to marry piano player Dan McAllister (James Murray, the hero of King Vidor's The Crowd). When Jenny tells her dad that she's pregnant, she receives a slap -- which is immediately followed by the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Left penniless and alone, Jenny must raise her baby while begging for coins with The Salvation Army. To avoid starvation, Jenny is soon running a string of "party girl" prostitutes. A dice game leads to the shooting death of a cheater (J. Carrol Naish, uncredited); Jenny helps cover for mob mouthpiece Steve Dutton (Calhern), and forms a lifelong partnership. "Frisco Jenny" becomes a serious procurer of women, an arrangement that pays the bills but ruins her chances at motherhood. Her baby, Daniel, is put in the foster care of Judge Reynolds (Berton Churchill, looking at this age much like Philip Seymour Hoffman). When she can afford to take Dan back, Jenny can't bear to tear him from the side of his new foster mother. She instead drops out of her son's life and keeps a scrapbook of his progress from afar.
Twenty years later Jenny is the ringleader of a group of brothel madams. The grown Dan Reynolds is now the new District Attorney, thanks to Jenny's sabotaging of the opposition candidate, a shill for the mob. But when Dan's policies put legal heat on Steve Dutton, the crooked lawyer threatens to spill the beans about Dan's true parentage.
Frisco Jenny puts some meat on the "sacrificing mother" skeleton. Jenny isn't the innocent victim of a single indiscretion. She gets a raw deal in life but chooses a crooked path for herself, and doesn't expect forgiveness. The ignominy that Jenny chooses for herself isn't arranged to create a soppy three-handkerchief ending. The maternal doom that settles in at the finale has much more integrity than the later "moral pretzel" films cleared by the censors.
Wellman's direction is extremely efficient. The salty ambiance of the Barbary Coast is established immediately when we see how the bar girls ply their trade. A successful chiseler gets men drunk and promises to meet them later. When the bar girl goes home, she must step over the drunks now littering the sidewalk, recovering the keys she gave them earlier in the evening.
A weak link in the film is the use of an Anglo woman (Helen Jerome Eddy) in makeup to portray Ahmah, Jenny's faithful Chinese servant. The woman is always present, even when logic says she shouldn't be. Ruth Chatterton takes not a single false step as Jenny, and Louis Calhern is a loyal criminal cohort until he's threatened. William Wellman is said to play a bit as a reporter.
Frisco Jenny can boast a killer earthquake sequence several years before MGM's San Francisco. One violent shot where the floor of the bar drops suddenly will surely take you by surprise.
Midnight Mary (1933), the sole MGM entry in the collection, works predictable changes on the Depression formula. Anita Loos' story begins with beautiful Mary Martin (19 year-old Loretta Young) awaiting a verdict for a murder; how an innocent teenager turned into a notorious woman provides the subject for an extended flashback.2.
Homeless and starving, Mary is imprisoned for shoplifting (a bum rap, remember this is an MGM film). Returned to the street, she becomes the paramour of stickup gang leader Leo Darcy (Ricardo Cortez). Mary and fellow good-time girl Bunny (Una Merkel) are accomplices in the robbery of an illegal casino. The crime goes bad but Mary slips away with Tom Mannering Jr. (Franchot Tone), the wealthy son and law partner of a famous attorney, who lives in a swank house just a few blocks away (more MGM glitz fantasy). Although Mary tries to go straight, Leo won't give her up. Various complications lead to Tom's life being threatened, just as he's ready to propose ... Mary knows that she might have to go to the gas chamber, but she picks up a gun to save the innocent Tom.
Midnight Mary veers between Pre-Code frankness and MGM glamour whitewash. Mary and Bunny are kept women, no excuses given, but the script assures us that Mary has "higher" cultural aspirations, that the oily Leo Darcy respects to some degree. Mary's also too noble to tell the truth to Tom Mannering's Prince Charming substitute, and chooses instead to play the "bad girl" to keep him out of danger. Unlike a true Pre-Code in the naturalistic mode, the story contrives a happy ending. Not only does it seem unlikely, it technically makes Midnight Mary less moral -- Mary Martin does engage in a lot of unpunished criminal activity.
Loretta Young is just ravishing, more so than in her later, more famous pictures. She comes off as a more relaxed and natural Joan Crawford type; MGM does her makeup to resemble Crawford. I could be wrong, but I think Young also shows up in a dress we've previously seen Crawford wear. Perhaps Louis B. Mayer wanted to put a scare into the ambitious Crawford, to show her that she could be replaced. Franchot Tone plays his usual smiling gent and Ricardo Cortez is a by-the-numbers baddie; Una Merkel is amusing. Andy Devine plays another wealthy playboy who keeps singing about "Blood on the saddle".
Still typical of MGM (Savant bias intentional), the moment Mary Martin is in the chips, she's suddenly waited on by personal servants -- even in the scummy hideout of a gang of thieves.
WIth 1933's Heroes for Sale Wellman goes for the throat. A thematic chaser for the previous year's I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Heroes tells the harrowing story of Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess), a WW1 soldier shot and captured by the Germans. They give Tom morphine to ease his pain, creating a drug dependancy. When Tom is repatriated, he's reunited with the soldier who thought he died and took credit for his heroic action.
The law won't allow doctors to help Tom with his addiction. The stigma of his condition leads to an undeserved stint on a prison farm. When he's released, Tom makes good working for a laundry. He marries the wonderful Ruth (Loretta Young, still gorgeous) and has a son. Together with a German immigrant inventor who happens to be a slogan-spouting Red (Robert Barrat), Tom introduces a timesaving invention to the laundry assembly line. The laundry's new owners use the invention to lay off 75% of the work force. Tom unfortunately tries to stop the angry mob of workers when they face off with the cops ... and disaster ensues.
The social horrors of Heroes for Sale never seem to end. Tom Holmes is the victim of every injustice under the sun, and a few more thrown in for good measure. He suffers a horrible personal loss and wanders the land living under bridges, like Tom Joad: the publication of The Grapes of Wrath was still six years away. Tom eventually meets the same man who "stole" his medals for bravery. When the bank failed, the "hero" was also reduced to a hobo.
Some details are just goofy. The Commie loudly proclaims that "the workers have nothing to lose but their chains," until he becomes wealthy, and suddenly changes his tune. That subplot was probably included so that Heroes for Sale can rail against injustice without appearing pro-Boshevik. The Commie shares his invention royalties 50-50 with Tom, but Tom gives the money to the Earth-Mother type played by Aline McMahon to feed the poor and care for his little boy. The ruthless Red Squad police harass and threaten Tom, so that he's forced to leave town. Yet when Tom expresses his opinion of America, he's insistent that the country he loves will pick itself up and be once again prosperous and just.
Wellman's direction keeps this grim parade going at a good pace. It's truly affecting, especially with the soulful Richard Barthelmess (one of D.W. Griffith's favorite actors) as the deserving, mostly uncomplaining hero. With its suppression of stories about drug addiction, the Production Code surely contributed to the American perception of addicts as criminals. Heroes for Sale presents a U.S. in economic collapse and seemingly on the verge of revolution.
Wild Boys of the Road, Wellman's seventh directorial release of 1933, is the only well-known title in the set, and is the source of the quote at the top of this review. It's the Killer App of Depression-Era social outrage and every bit the unforgettable experience promised in its trailer. Hundreds of thousands of American youths are being cast out onto the roads, leaving behind families that cannot feed them.
Young teens Eddie Smith and Tommy Gordon (Frankie Darro and Edwin Phillips) are best friends suffering cash-flow problems that get them ejected from a school dance. Tommy's mother has been drawing food from the Community Chest for a month, and Eddie comes home to find that his father has lost his job. The bank soon threatens to take their home. Eddie sells his nearly worthless wreck of a car (he throws an anchor out to serve as a parking brake), gives the money to his father, and with Tommy catches a freight train in hopes of finding work. They join hordes of boys forced into the same life. They meet Sally (Dorothy Coonan), a girl passing as a boy who's going to an aunt in Chicago. The aunt (Minna Gombell) turns out to be running a brothel and the kids barely escape a police raid.
Things get more desperate back on the railroad, where they're beaten and terrorized by railroad deputies. One young girl is raped by a railroad brakeman (Ward Bond, boo-hiss). That's when an old hobo asks the kids why they're running: ten or so railroad bulls can't do much against an army. The boys band together to fight back, and establish a squatters camp in a town until the cops bring out firemen with high-pressure water hoses. Eddie, Tom and Grace finally make it to the city, only to run afoul of crooks eager to trick naïve country hicks into committing crimes.
Wild Boys of the Road is perhaps the strongest scream of protest to come out of Hollywood in the Depression years. While other studios concentrated on escapist romances with exotic movie stars, Warners made a film where ordinary kids must leave their families, battle the authorities and risk their lives. Wellman stages a traumatic scene where a boy is run over by train; the frantic Eddie is apprehended by New York cops in front of a movie screen playing Footlight Parade.
The cast provides earnest, somewhat sentimentalized performances. The picture of Tom and Eddie's hometown is a grim version of an Andy Hardy movie -- the boys must steal gasoline to drive their girlfriends home, and Eddie's dad (Grant Mitchell) takes on a grim stare when he realizes that his chances of supporting his family are next to none. Sterling Holloway is effective as one of the kids on the run. Wellman concentrates on shots of kids hopping freight cars and performing risky moving-train stunts.
For the freckled, spirited Sally, Wellman cast Dorothy Coonan, a Busby Berkeley showgirl who wouldn't date him until his previous divorce (from this third wife) was final. They soon married, had seven children and stayed together until Wellman's death 41 years later.
With the enforcement of the Production Code, major studios ceased distributing Pre-Codes with politically "dangerous" content like Wild Boys of the Road, leaving the playing field to apolitical pictures that for the most part endorsed the status quo. In the few cases where controversial material was even considered, even Warner Bros. pictures tended toward caution. The general reputation of Pre-Code films doesn't account for the fact that Code effectively ended the studios' ability to make any film with a serious adult theme.
The six features in Warner Home Video's The Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 3 -- their best Pre-Code collection yet -- are presented in excellent restored B&W transfers with clear soundtracks. I'm informed by a Warners spokesman that planning for this set began in earnest about three years ago. Every title was restored from original nitrate camera neg except for the MGM film Midnight Mary, which had to be sourced from a safety dupe (but looks just fine).
The extras are worth describing in detail. Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta provide a commentary for Midnight Mary. John Gallagher does the honors for Heroes for Sale and William Wellman Jr.and Frank Thompson have recorded a track for Wild Boys of the Road.
Each feature disc carries original trailers and a selection of short subjects. Three S. Van Dine Detective Mystery two-reelers are included, from a series starring Donald Meek and John Hamilton (Perry White on the TV Superman show). Several cartoons find their way onto the discs, including a two-color Technicolor Bosko cartoon; Rochelle Hudson of Wild Boys of the Road provided the voice for Bosko's animated girl friend! A Pete Smith short is included as well.
With two features per disc, the fourth disc is devoted to a pair of long-form William Wellman documentaries, both presented by Turner Classic Movies. 2005's Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick was produced by William Wellman Jr. and Kenneth Carlson. It has great interview clips from Wellman's top stars, as well as input from Dorothy Coonan Wellman. 2007's The Men Who Made the Movies is a Richard Schickel piece that features a great vintage interview with the director.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. That "lower middle class" remark isn't entirely accurate: my father's family were railroad people in Iowa during the Depression. When many weren't doing so well, the secure union job and modest but steady pay put them in a special category. Because they could pay their bills, they were preferred customers and treated as such.
2. Breaking with the standard studio convention of dissolve flashbacks, a couple of the transitions are accomplished with direct, hard cuts, making Midnight Mary seem at times very modern.
TCM Archives' Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume One
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