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Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 8

Warner Archive // Unrated // November 18, 2014
List Price: $47.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted January 2, 2015 | E-mail the Author
In 1930, the Motion Picture Association of America (then known as The Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America) introduced the Production Code, a set of moral values that films made between 1934 and 1968 were expected to follow. Nicknamed "the Hays code" after the organization's president, Will Hays, these rules banned "pointed" profanity, sexual innuendo, and other supposedly incendiary topics ("white slavery" is also on the list) that some believed might be corrupting the public at large, especially youths. Warner's Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume 8 is yet another compilation set of films released before the code was created, just packed to the brim with what once passed for outrageous content.

Watching these four films, it might be worth questioning whether or not the folks at Warner (or, now, Warner Archive) have started to run out of lost gems for these collections. There is nothing particularly wrong with any of the four movies in this box, and two of them are fairly fun, but there's also nothing particularly special about any of them outside of being "taboo." They're pleasant pictures, more interesting from a historical standpoint than as stand-out filmmaking in and of themselves.

First, the good. The film's most complex entry is the last one. Dark Hazard follows Jim "Buck" Turner (Edward G. Robinson), who is addicted to the dog track races, where he has gambled himself into a halfway house. Determined to put his addiction behind him, he marries Marge Mayhew (Genevieve Tobin), daughter of the halfway house's owner, and gets a straight job in a hotel to pay their bills. Unfortunately, forces are at work to sabotage Jim's happily ever after. Not just people who are after him, including John Bright (Sidney Toler), but also the call of his own deeper desires, which eventually settle upon a racing dog named Dark Hazard. As much as Jim tries to stay the course, he can't stop thinking about the possibilities that Dark Hazard represents.

With a plot point literally named Dark Hazard, many people are likely to guess that the film is some sort of morality tale, in which we watch a good man slowly corrupted and even destroyed by his inability to stop gambling. However, although the Hays code certainly regulated salacious material, they were also essentially the moral police, insisting that criminals and low-lifes couldn't be shown to succeed in the movies either. The black-and-white nature of such a rule helped to stifle ambiguity and nuance in many movies, something arguably more destructive (if equally devoid of merit) than the more prudish parts of the code. Without giving too much away about Dark Hazard, it's a film that implies and suggests, prodding the viewer to draw their own conclusions about a story that won't hold their hands. (Keep an eye out for Glenda Farrell in a supporting role, star of another film in the set.)

Next, Blonde Crazy stars James Cagney as Bert Harris, a con man so in love with swindling, he's got a giant scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings of other grifts and scams. As the film begins, he's working as a bellhop in a midwest hotel when a gorgeous blonde walking in the lobby catches his eye. Her name is Anne Roberts (Joan Blondell), and she's there to talk to a woman about a potential position at the hotel. The position's already been filled, but Bert's mile-wide grin and fast-moving lips manage to get Anne hired. She rejects his romantic adventures, but is intrigued when he brings her in on suckering one of the hotel's lecherous customers out of a cool $5,000. From there, they hit the road, forming an uneven alliance. She's not so sure she wants to be a con artist, and he's trying to deny his feelings for her, all while they deal with another con man (Louis Calhern) who may not be interested in partnering with Bert so much as swindling him.

The story of Blonde Crazy feels fairly contemporary, especially whenever Blondell gets in on the action. Were it a more well-known movie, it'd be surprising nobody had remade it yet. Then again, the real appeal of the story isn't so much the swindles themselves, which are fairly simple and can be seen coming from a mile away, but the chemistry between Cagney and Blondell. She's lovely in a laid-back way, cooly assessing the energetic Bert and his big ideas, and Cagney's predictably animated, almost turning into a cartoon from time to time. The film builds nicely to a fun sequence involving replaceable license plate numbers and a horse race before suddenly taking a bit of a turn toward the dark and tragic. Not necessarily an undiscovered classic, but certainly charming.

Hi, Nellie! is the third in the set and a bit more hit-and-miss. Paul Muni plays Brad, a ruthless but successful editor at a newspaper, who gets hung up in company politics when a bank manager and half a million bucks from the same branch disappear at the same time. Every other paper in town presumes the guy ran off with the cash, but Brad puts his foot down, insistently running the disappearance on page one and burying the missing money elsewhere in the paper. Brad's boss attempts to fire him, but Brad cites his contract, a decision which comes back to bite him when Brad's lawyer points out that the contract doesn't specify a department or authority level for the contract to be fulfilled. He's demoted to the "Nellie Nelson" desk, where he adopts the voice of a love columnist in order to answer reader letters. Gerry (Glenda Farrell again), his office nemesis and the former Nellie Nelson, joins in with the rest of the office in teasing him mercilessly, but Brad remains hopeful his instincts will pay off.

Muni is an excellent actor, and he tears into the mean and bitter side of Brad with relish, so that the audience can soak up every last drop of schadenfreude when his smug contract talk backfires. He then turns into exactly what Gerry initially accuses him of, even though she eventually locates a little sympathy: a poor sport. The things the office puts him through as Nellie are no worse than the things he put Gerry through while she was Nellie, yet they reduce him to such self-pity that when she finds him in a bar after a particularly bitter outburst, he apologizes to his whiskey instead of her. Later, he whips himself into shape, yet still doesn't seem to have learned his lesson, striding back into the boss' office with more earned pride but an equally smug assumption that he's automatically going to have his old job back just for doing a good job. When the movie lets him off the hook with developments in the disappearing banker story shortly thereafter, it seals the film's fate as a fun diversion that ignores a more compelling redemption story.

The worst of the lot is Strangers May Kiss, about a love triangle between Lisbeth (Norma Shearer) and two men. Steve (Robert Montgomery) is rich and polite, whereas Alan (Neil Hamilton) is a bit more of a bad boy. One might think that's the scandal, but it's more likely that the controversial aspect of the movie is Lisbeth's insistence that marriage is a sham. Her friends and family constantly inquire as to whether or not she's any closer to walking down the aisle, which only fuels her fire at society's insistence that everyone ought to settle down. Her character is more interesting than the movie she occupies, a fairly dry extended courtship battle between Montgomery and Hamilton over Lisbeth's hand. Frankly, it'd be much more fun if she'd ditched both of them right off the bat and struck out on her own.

Warner Archive offers Forbidden Hollywood Volume 8 in a four-disc single-width case that houses all four of the DVDs on flap trays (a style of case often used for TV shows). The cover image is from Blonde Crazy, featuring Blondell in the bath, smiling at Cagney sitting next to the tub. The back cover basically just includes the billing blocks for the films, with no summaries or listing of the (very minimal) special features. The art is printed on a slightly thicker paper and has a similar appearance to art run off of a standard inkjet printer, and there is no insert.

The Video and Audio
All four films are presented in 1.33:1 full frame video, with Dolby Digital Mono soundtracks. All of them look and sound pretty good considering their age. Dirt and scratches are somewhat frequent but rarely intrusive, and while the images are sometimes on the soft side, there's still an impressive amount of detail on hand. Personally, when it comes to old films owned by major studios, it's not the picture I'm worried about so much as it is the audio, but all four of the mono tracks are pleasingly crisp and clean, with no exchanges lost to fuzzy or muffled audio. Disappointingly, Warner has opted not to encode these discs with any subtitle or captioning features, so if there were a problem, the viewer would be out of luck, but thankfully it isn't necessary. Of the four films, Strangers May Kiss is the roughest in terms of both picture and sound, featuring the most scratches and the roughest audio.

The Extras
None, other than three theatrical trailers, for Blonde Crazy, Hi, Nellie!, and Dark Hazard, housed on their respective discs.

Any compilation set is going to be a bit of a risk, but Forbidden Hollywood Volume 8 only serves up one excellent film alongside a good one, an okay one, and a weak one. For the price, I'd hope for a better batting average. Rent it.

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