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Yikes! Warners' Forbidden Hollywood series started back at the old MGM/UA Home Video a little before 1991, when I came on board to work with the video promotions. Laserdisc collectors may still remember a themed pre-Code montage of salacious shots and saucy dialogue on a freebie laser MGM put out a couple of years later -- with several shots of wide-eyed women in 1931 hairstyles going, "Ooh!" or "Woo-hoo!" as if being goosed off screen.
Last November the Warner Archive collection released the latest installment in the series, Forbidden Hollywood Volume 8. By now one might think the 'good stuff' would be all used up, but these four titles disprove it: one MGM item with the boss's wife doing her vamp act, and three Warners-First National goodies packed with content to brighten a breadline and send a censor to sharpen his blue pencil. Adultery! Disrespect for the law! Glamorous gamblers! Slick conmen and the dames that help them fleece the rubes! And no CGI, no profanity (well, sort of), no nudity (well, sort of)! Welcome once again to the slightly left-handed moral universe of pre-Code entertainment.
You'd think that Blonde Crazy would have been released long before now. It has a bright James Cagney performance, one of his first following the smash The Public Enemy, and a juicy romance angle between him and Depression down 'n' outer Joan Blondell. Cagney is Bert, a cocky bellboy in a small town hotel who makes ends meet by obtaining special services for the guests. A lot of good sleazy pulp literature originated in Midwestern hotels, it seems. Bert gets Ann (Joan Blondell) a chambermaid job, and soon enlists her in his petty blackmail schemes. Together they hit the confidence game circuit, and help the famous swindler Dapper Dan Barker (Louis Calhern) pull off a major sting. When Dan absconds with their money, Bert is too ashamed to tell Ann so he robs a jewelry store to pay off her end of the deal. To Bert's dismay, Ann falls in love with and marries the more cultured Joe Reynolds (a young Ray Milland). But first she engineers a spectacularly clever horseracing sting, as vengeance against Dapper Dan. That's when she finds out that her Joe isn't the gentleman she thought he was.
Blonde Crazy takes top marks in squishy morality, giving us thoroughly criminal leading players that don't really pay for their crimes. Sure one victim is a sleazy traveling salesman (Guy Kibbee) a type usually considered open season. But what about the jewelry store owner? Later film noir cautionary tales tell of dopes that try to cover little crimes with bigger crimes, and only themselves deeper in trouble. I can see many thieves telling themselves that they're just doing it to prove something to their girlfriend. To some degree I can see why pundits of the depression might worry that Hollywood's immorality would help bring about a revolution. The message in many of these films is that everything's a racket, so smart guys like Cagney are justified in getting theirs the easy way.
The movie is plenty funny and suggestive, with Bert checking out the tight dresses and bare backs of nightclub patrons, sashaying into Ann's bathroom during rub-a-dub time (the film isn't as revealing as Warners' great photography coverage) and representing the Ann-Bert relationship as an almost feral exchange of slaps. They're terrific together. Ray Milland hasn't got his act together yet and isn't much more than a pretty face who makes little or no impression. Louis Calhern is appropriately oily; it's truly enjoyable seeing him taken down in an operation rather similar to that in the 1973 Oscar winner The Sting. 1
With Strangers May Kiss we hop over to MGM, where Mayer and Thalberg's patrician idea of what constitutes sophisticated entertainment results in a 'shocking, scandalous' movie that is now mostly something to hoot at. The star is Norma Shearer, whose career continued purely by marriage to Boy Wonder Irving Thalberg. As a freedom-loving woman of the world Shearer's Lisbeth does a lot of posing in fancy gowns that show off her shoulders and back, her only really attractive attributes. Some swanky pre-Codes played with the notion of free marriage, tempting women with the fantasy of running wild. Of course, MGM's fantasy is a moneyed never-land where people drink in fancy hotels, spend every evening in a different night club and think nothing of bopping over to 'the continent' whenever the doldrums strike.
The story is inconsistent tripe. Independent-minded executive secretary Lisbeth (Shearer) throws herself at globetrotting journalist Alan Harlow (Neil Hamilton). She keeps saying she doesn't want marriage, and indeed in almost every scene refuses a proposal from alcoholic but sincere pal Steve (Robert Montgomery). A friend (Irene Rich) commits suicide upon finding her husband unfaithful, adding fuel to Lisbeth's argument. But her alternate approach is to run away to Mexico, following Alan on an assignment. He more or less ditches her there, dropping the news that, oh, he forgot to tell her he has a wife in France. In response Lisbeth goes on a multi-city European orgy, sleeping with whatever tuxedoed swain takes her fancy. Steve shames her into returning to New York, and 'pardons' her. He almost has her married when Alan shows up again, now divorced and ready to marry. But what will happen when Alan discovers that Lisbeth has made such a tramp of herself?
The movie doesn't even acknowledge a double standard. Lisbeth's European fling is represented by scenes of her throwing her hair around at parties, always with a drink in her hand. She also dances with more than one man. Her catting around is no more a stain on her soul than all those fancy dresses that keep popping up, the truth being that the movie is mostly an excuse to parade Shearer in high fashions. MGM's designer Adrian is a miracle man, as at 5'1" and with no discernable figure to exploit, Norma somehow comes off as attractive. Frankly, I can see Joan Crawford staying up late at nights trying to figure out ways for her nemesis to be poisoned, hit by a truck or stricken by an extremely tropical disease.
Neil Hamilton is a complete stiff who performs as if he were ordered to let Shearer do all the emoting, everything. He just gives her plaintive looks, and fails to respond to her requests for clarity in their relationship. He drags her 4,000 miles to Mexico (where she sports the stupidest sombrero of all time) and then exits for China, as an afterthought remembering to tell her he's married. Then he has the gall to be angry when she isn't lily-white for him after he shows up years later (we are told he tried to send letters).
Third wheel Robert Montgomery is the best thing in the movie, not because his character is good but because he at least seems to be having a good time of it all. Shearer chews scenery and shows off the fancy clothes. She puts on the worst imitation of sophistication ever, with every line punctuated by throaty laughs -- "ha-ha!" -- as if warming up to play Marie Antoinette (where she was actually very good). MGM's editing flubs once in a while, leaving in two "haha's" across a cut and making her seem even more ridiculous. Remember the horrid bit of emotive pantomime at the end of The Women, where Norma clutches her hands to her chest, and then rapturously throws them out to receive her long-missed husband? She pulls the same schtick here too, right in the middle of a crowded theater. You think she'd put someone's eye out.
The surprise of the collection is Hi, Nellie!, an early 1934 release that's technically pre-Code yet not as pushy with the salacious content as its neighbors. It's a very entertaining movie, sort of a flip-side to the older story about a muckracking newspaper, Five Star Final. Warners found Hi, Nellie! so likeable that it roughly remade it three times in five year intervals, as Love Is on the Air, You Can't Escape Forever and 1949's The House across the Street.
The movie's an atypical vehicle for Paul Muni, as the hero is just your standard issue newspaper managing editor, not a rebel against capitalism, or an inventor of Pasteurized milk. The paper in question runs its editorial department like a game of musical chairs. At the moment, the creepy Dawes (Douglass Dumbrille) is reporting, although he wants the editor's desk. Reporter Gerry (Glenda Farrell) has been busted for screwing up a good story, and is forced to write the lonelyhearts column under the fictitious name of Nellie. Editor Brad (Paul Muni) tries to get good journalism into his paper, and hits a big snag when he refuses to join the other dailies in crucifying a banker, who has apparently taken a powder after mysteriously lifting all of his bank's assets. Incensed, publisher Graham (Berton Churchill) reshuffles the deck: the incompetent Dawes takes the editor's chair and Gerry gets bumped back to reporter status. Bert quits in protest but finds that his contract requires him to take whatever Graham assigns him, which turns out to be the 'Nellie' desk. Humiliated, Bert gets drunk and trashes his office, but even under Dawes' constant ribbing pulls himself together and turns the 'Nellie' column into a circulation builder. The horrible reward for that is that Graham just tells him to keep up the good work. Gerry and Dawes continue with the ribbing. But then Brad's reporter buddy Shammy (dependable Ned Sparks) helps Brad uncover the true story behind the disappearance of the mystery banker. If they can dodge the liars and gangsters involved, Brad, Shammy and Gerry might get the story of year - and vindicate Brad's good judgment.
Hi, Nellie! is a competent, focused and funny all-round entertainment, which makes it a special discovery. It must have been shoved aside just for not being a front-rank Paul Muni showcase vehicle. All of the actors click and the newspaper milieu is engaging and unforced. One jerk employee keeps asking Gerry to go to dinner with him, while the paper's main copy boy Durkin (Donald Meek) upends conventions by having had the same job for decades, and not even being a nice guy. Everybody seems to enjoy seeing other employees humiliated, verbally and out in the open.
The movie has a little grave-robbing, verbal innuendo, run of the mill corruption and gangster action but little or none of the salacious content we crave. The main crook's lair is a fancy nightclub with a functioning carousel as its centerpiece, a nice bit of art direction. The suspenseful final act sees the reporters teaming up to trick the bad guys into revealing themselves. It's not a top Muni title, but he certainly gives it class. Kudos to favorites Glenda Farrell and Ned Sparks as well.
Dark Hazard is the oddest film in the bunch, an adaptation of a W.R.Burnett novel set in the world of dog racing. Burnett shows up in a truly screwy trailer as himself, wandering into a bookstore with his prize dog, ostensibly the one featured in the movie.
What might have worked on the page is given an awkward adaptation that lurches from one episode to the next. The unlikely Buck Turner (Edward G. Robinson) is meek and kind, but also a professional gambler with radical extremes of luck -- earning $20,000 one moment and busted the next. He falls in love with the lovely Marge (Genevieve Tobin) with the proviso that he'll be honest and stay away from gambling. Not much later, a crook in the gambling trade (Sidney Toler) makes sure Buck loses his job. But he did it so he could hire Buck to keep the accounts for a dog track in California. Marge goes along with this, but Buck starts gambling and becomes obsessed with owning a winning dog named Dark Hazard (War Cry). His lies to Marge include the attentions of Buck's old flame Val (Glenda Farrell), who brings some drunken friends over uninvited. Marge bolts back home, to a waiting old flame of her own (George Meeker).
At this point Dark Hazard suffers a full narrative breakdown, seemingly starting a new movie every three scenes or so. Buck shows up two years later and throws himself at Marge's mercy, and even takes a demeaning job in her boyfriend's factory. But then he runs away again to the gambling world, having finally bought the injured and supposedly now worthless Dark Hazard. In the space of literally one scene, the show flip-flops once again, with success and riches for everyone. There's not a coherent word to be said about it.
Edward G. Robinson made no bad movies, but this one comes close. Buck is too sincere to be a good liar, so he just comes off as schizophrenic, begging Marge for mercy and then thoughtlessly going back on his word three, no at least four times. And the scenes with the dog are just sick. Buck loves the dog, has to hug the dog. He's in rapture whenever it is near. Marge looks ridiculous, not calling the A.S.P.C.A. on Buck for alienation of affections. All the individual elements click in Dark Hazard but the show itself is a crazy mess. The bizarre endorsement of the gambling lifestyle and the sordid characterizations (courtesy Toler and Farrell) keep it more than entertaining.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Forbidden Hollywood Volume 8 gives each feature its own disc. Blonde Crazy and Hi, Nellie! are in great shape, Dark Hazard shows some damage and the MGM feature Strangers May Kiss looks a little worse for wear, as if good source materials had gone missing. It's still okay but can't deliver MGM's patented sliver-screen gloss. Audio on all the features is very good, with Strangers again hit with a higher level of hiss.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Special note: the racetrack episode involves a leisurely drive down a winding boulevard. All the rear-projection plates show Calhern and Blondell driving west on Sunset Blvd, through Beverly Hills and past Westwood. We see the area where Norma Desmond's house is supposed to be. But we're also given several shots that very clearly show U.C.L.A. (founded 1925) when it was just a quartet of large buildings on a hill. Janss Steps is there but almost nothing else -- no Pauley Pavilion and none of the other buildings now jamming every available square foot of real estate. It's an amazing shot. The only curious thing is that the angles throw us a bit -- we expect to see a hill block the view when we get to the side of campus where the UCLA dorms (Sproul, Dykstra, etc) would later be built.
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T'was Ever Thus.