Sunday, September 28, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, SEPT. 23, 1939

Those medieval dudes on the cover this week aren't the advertised "Lords of Creation," however lordly they look. Look below and you'll see that they advertise Philip Ketchum's latest Bretwalda story, "The Long Journey." Ketchum advances his saga to the 14th century as the latest in his line of Wiltons returns to England from the wars in France to find his homeland in the grip of the Black Death. The cover illustrates one of the penitent processions he encounters during his long journey to find his wife and child, who are either evacuated or kidnapped. Inevitably there's a villain taking advantage of the chaos to build political power for himself. Less predictably, our hero has a mysterious sidekick, a Christ-like friar known only as "Friend" who exhibits strange talents at dramatic moments. Characters in the story speculate that Friend might well be the Lord of Creation, but he's more likely something Ketchum threw into his otherwise mundane epic to keep things interesting for himself. The Bretwalda stories aspire to bittersweetness, since the wielders of the magic axe are destined for great joy and great sorrow. The great joy this time is that the hero reunites with his wife. The great sorrow is that she's got the plague, and he's going to stay with her and most likely die as well, while their child is raised in safety to continue the line. Ketchum's variations on his themes help keep the series interesting for us as it enters the homestretch. We'll see the end of it before the year is out.

As for the co-cover story, the first chapter of Lords of Creation introduces us to two-in-one author Eando Binder. Sound out that first name and you get the idea. Eando combines the brothers Earl and Otto Binder. Otto is better known in some quarters as the main writer of Captain Marvel's adventures in the golden age of comics, while Eando's best known creation is probably the conscientious robot Adam Link. Lords is a work of naive satire in that the Binders really seem to believe that they're reversing a typical theme of "fantastic" literature. It's yet another sleeper-awakens tale in which a modern-day American revives from suspended animation several thousand years in the future. The twist in the opening chapter is that the sleeper expects to see a word of technological marvels and utopian civilization, and takes a stubborn long time to realize that the world of 5000 A.D. is actually stuck in a "Second Stone Age." A few wise men have mastered enough of our English language to communicate with him through crudely written messages, but the culture has reverted almost to a medieval level. The Binders expect this to shock readers, but my impression is that, as in our anxious time, fantasists of the 1930s quite often imagined a dark future. Things were pretty bad when Buck Rogers woke up, for instance, and in Argosy's last-such serial, Minions of the Moon, the sleeper awakens to find some humans reverting to Viking culture. The trend may have been different in the actual science-fiction pulps which may be the actual target of the Binders' satire. Lords may be ahead of its time in blaming the collapse of civilization on resource exhaustion, but the resource in question isn't oil but metal. Overproduction exhausted the world's ores, forcing humanity to return to wood, stone and animal power -- but once the Binders establish this misfortune, they tease us by closing with the sight of an airplane flying over the primitive future settlement. That's definitely a good way to keep us reading next week.

To round out the serials, the MacIsaac-Harkins dialect tale River Rogues meanders to its conclusion while Theodore Roscoe adds an international cast of suspects or victims to Remember Tomorrow, his mystery teasing murders in 1939 by undead casualties of the last Great War. It's still too early to tell whether Roscoe will keep it creepy or end up debunking it all. That uncertainty works when our hero, an American mystery writer, momentarily doubts his sanity when a German shows up asking directions to a military unit's position. He could be a ghost, but he's actually a tourist doing research on the battlefield -- or at least that's all he is for now. Written well before the second Great War broke out in September 1939, Roscoe's serial is certainly ominously timely, and it should also be fun to see whether he paints himself into a corner, and whether he escapes anyway.

The stand-alones this week include an unlikely crime romance from Donald Barr Chidsey, "Little Rat, What Now?" Bennett Foster's solid western, "Spurs for Sacatone," Richard Howells Watkins's sea story "Ticket at Twenty," in which a youthful first mate must thwart sabotage by his own captain, and Brice Purcell's weird tale "The Aztec Heart," in which the ancient Mexican blood keeps an otherwise sophisticated modern man alive after a fatal encounter in Europe so he can die the traditional way, sacrificed on a pyramid. Overall this one is a pretty entertaining mix of genres and settings with two strong serials and most of the rest quite readable. We'll have a new serial next week, and our first encounter in this series with the reigning master of Foreign Legion stories, Georges Surdez, along with plenty more besides.
 
TO BE CONTINUED

Friday, September 26, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: BLONDE CRAZY (1931)

In 1931 James Cagney made his name as The Public Enemy, a vicious yet charismatic gangster who met a gruesome end. The best measure of Cagney's success was that he wasn't typed as a gangster, but became more of a lovable rogue in his early star vehicles. Here in Roy Del Ruth's film, released a few months after the breakthrough, Cagney's a bit of a clown, a bellboy in "the best hotel in a mid-size American city" with ambitions of being a master con man. As Bert Harris, he keeps a scrapbook of con games and grifts reported in the newspapers to give himself ideas. Bert is hungry for money and more than that; on impulse he arranges to land Ann Roberts (Joan Blondell) a job in the hotel linen department. It isn't the easiest job for Ann, who finds herself pawed over by guests (e.g. Guy Kibbee in repulsive lecher mode) and by Bert. Still, when Bert saves her from Kibbee by staging a fake arrest and eliciting a bribe from the embarrassed husband, Ann is impressed enough to become Bert's apprentice in grifting. Moving on to the best hotel in a large city, they hook up with Dapper Dan (Louis Calhern), a con-master Bert regards with some awe, but not enough suspicion. Distracting Bert with a female minion, Dan suckers our hero out of his and Ann's bankrolls. Not wanting to humiliate himself by admitting his suckerdom, Bert pulls off a two-stage con to make up her loss before she notices it. Seeing a story in the paper about an imminent society wedding, he goes to a swanky jewelry store and orders an expensive necklace on behalf of the bride's family. Ordering it delivered to the family's home -- the family's credit is so good, apparently, that no questions are asked when Bert acts in their name; not even identification is required -- he shows up there as a delivery man from the same store explaining that the necklace was delivered there by mistake. He pawns the necklace and avenges himself on Dan with a racetrack con, but tiring of the life, Ann has fallen for a handsome young banker (an early appearance of Ray Milland). Bert eventually moves on to the best hotel of the biggest city, but drops everything to answer Ann's entreaty when Milland gets into trouble. The young banker had dipped into the vault and now wants Bert to stage a break-in to cover his own theft. Again, Bert proves more sucker than shark, not realizing until it's almost too late that Milland has set him up....

As in many early starring roles, Cagney dances on the border of obnoxiousness with his brash aggression, and almost tumbles off the edge every time he calls Ann or others, "Hunnnn-nee!" in an exaggerated drawl. He redeems himself by making clear that Bert isn't as smart as he thinks he is -- he's right in that border zone that lets others underestimate him after taking advantage of him. As usual, Blondell complements him neatly while showing some Pre-Code flesh in a bathtub scene. Overall, this rarity among Cagney's early films -- shown this month on Turner Classic Movies, it hasn't yet had a DVD release -- is a fast-moving affair that actually seems to end too fast. Del Ruth directs at a whiplash pace, transitioning as often as not with sharp cuts rather than dissolves, with seeming loose ends trailing behind. You expect Calhern's character to make a comeback after he vows revenge on Bert, but that moment's the last we see of him. The final scene, with a wounded, jailed Cagney finally assured of Blondell's love, doesn't feel final -- certainly not by the brutal standard of Public Enemy and other early gangster-cycle films. It has a throwaway quality (and one more "Hunnnn-nee!") that left me feeling there was more story to be told -- or else that it was a second-thought happy ending, as if Bert was supposed to die in the trap Milland set for him. It wouldn't have been much of a comedy in that case, and Cagney's films in the wake of Public Enemy are comic more often than not. Did people find that film funny? I doubt it, but they probably wanted to see Cagney win thereafter, and by that standard Blonde Crazy is a split decision: he gets the girl but has to do time before he can have her. It still feels like they missed the last note, that Warner Bros. was still learning what to do with their new star. They'd learn soon enough.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: THE FINGER POINTS (1931)

John Francis Dillon's film is typical of the first round of the Warner Bros. gangster cycle in that it ends with the protagonist dead. The gruesome twosome of W. R. Burnett, author of Little Caesar, and John Monk Saunders, the ace of doomed-aviator pictures, joined forces to craft a story ripped from the headlines. Their inspiration was the career and death of Jake Lingle, a mobbed-up reporter for the Chicago Tribune who'd been whacked the year before. Lingle was a Chicago native, but Warners' substitute Lingle would be played by Richard Barthelmess and thus comes to the big city from the South. Breckinridge Lee lands a job at the "world's greatest newspaper" on the strength of a letter of introduction from his previous editor, but he hardly seems like a seasoned reporter. Lee's mild demeanor seems to hide considerable cunning, however. He manages to get into a soon-to-open mob-owned gambling den and questions the proprietor and his chief flunky -- the latter played by Clark Gable during his brief time as a Warners heavy. Lee manages to slip out while the head men debate what to do with him and publishes a front-page expose of the new casino. For this he gets beaten up by mob goons, and it is only when the world's greatest newspaper fails to help out with his hospital bills by giving him a raise or an advance on his salary that Breckinridge Lee becomes corrupt.

While he suffered for reporting on the illegal casino, Lee realizes that the mob suffered more from the publicity. Louis Blanco (Gable) generously explains to him that he can parlay this journalistic coup into a long-term racket. Powerful people will pay him to keep damaging news out of the newspaper. Actually they'll pay Louis Blanco, but Lee's cut will make him rich compared to his chicken-feed newspaper salary. Those who don't play ball will get exposed, reinforcing Lee's rep as an anti-crime crusader. He justifies his position to his girlfriend (Fay Wray) by portraying himself as preying on society's predators -- who actually suffers from that?

Inevitably power goes to Lee's head. He starts to go over Blanco's head to make deals and threats. Finally he's summoned into the presence of "Number One," the unnamed underworld overlord who warns him against reporting on another casino opening. Number One gets the old presidential treatment; we never see his face, and this deliberate omission can only mean that he's meant to be Al Capone, then still ruling Chicago crime. Unintimidated, Lee negotiates a $100,000 bribe but is warned that he'll be held responsible if anyone publishes a story about the Casino in his paper. To justify the title of the picture, Number One says that the finger will be pointing at Lee, and Dillon gives us a close-up of the gangster's finger to drive the point home. So of course Lee's co-worker Breezy (Regis Toomey), a rival both for stories and for Fay Wray, manages to crack the casino story on his own and gets a front-page story while Lee is making love to his girl. From this point the film doesn't even pretend to maintain suspense. Our hero is just plain doomed, and finally gets riddled with bullets in broad daylight on a busy street. With only Fay and the gangsters knowing the truth, Breckinridge Lee gets a hero's funeral to end the film on a grimly ironic note.

The Finger Points is another reminder of how dependent the Warners gangster genre was on the charismatic authenticity of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. By comparison, Clark Gable, while persuasive as a thuggish chauffeur in Warners' Night Nurse, hardly makes an impression as this film's primary gangster. He just doesn't seem like a "Louis Blanco," and in any event he has to take a back seat to the problematic Richard Barthelmess. Warners struggled with the silent idol they inherited from First National for several years of sound. His lilting accent seems, however unfairly, to have undermined his he-man pretensions. A southern drawl made Una Merkel cute but that may have been Barthelmess's weakness -- maybe his southern accent made him too cute for his own good. Voice aside, Barthelmess lacks the aggression that defined Warner Bros., as embodied not only by Cagney and Robinson but a small army of gold diggers in the studio stock company. The studio knew better, it seems, than to cast him as an actual gangster, but he isn't even very convincing as a corrupt reporter. The actor seems more out of his depth than the character he's playing is supposed to be. It may be telling that his best performance for Warners in the sound era, in William Wellman's Heroes For Sale, is one in which he plays an epic victim. Barthelmess and Gable's awkwardness in their roles keeps Finger Points out of the gangster-cinema canon despite a story that deserved better.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: TWO SECONDS (1932)

Mervyn LeRoy's third collaboration with Edward G. Robinson, following Little Caesar and Five Star Final, may remind movie buffs of Fritz Lang. Robinson, in an early departure from his tough-guy type, plays the sort of weakling who gets victimized by predatory women that the actor played for Lang a decade later in Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street. He also gets to make a climactic plea for his life similar to Peter Lorre's big scene in Lang's M. You might believe that LeRoy and/or Robinson had seen M, but they'd have to have gone abroad to do so, since the Lang film didn't open in the U.S. until 1933. Not impossible, but not necessary, either; Two Seconds is based on a stage play and the big speech would be a natural on the boards. Still, you will get a similar vibe because Robinson goes awesomely nuts during the tirade, filmed mostly (if not entirely) in a single take to showcase Edward G as a new master thespian.

The title derives from the notion that a man condemned to the electric chair has two seconds of consciousness before the juice does its work, during which he'll relive his whole life, as dying men are wont to do. There's some confusion about point-of-view throughout, however, since we see scenes in which Robinson, playing John Allen, isn't present or is more or less unconscious. We shouldn't see these things if John is reliving his experiences, but the two-second device may be introduced simply to segue into a cinematically objective account of John's misfortunes. John's a riveter working on a skyscraper construction project. He shares an apartment with the aptly named Bud (Preston Foster, recreating the part he created on Broadway). John's the more responsible flatmate, talking Bud out of throwing away his gambling winnings on a sure thing pitched by the neighborhood bookie (Guy Kibbee). Bud's engaged but has a roving eye, while John's a shy, lonely man. They talk themselves out of a double date with two struggling gold-diggers ("Looks like we don't eat tonight!") and John ends up on his own in a dance club, where he falls for Shirley Day (Vivienne Osborne), a sympathetic-seeming dime-a-dance girl. A masher paws Shirley until the picture lapses into Fist-a-Vision as John kayoes the bum. He gets Shirley fired in the process, however, and feels sorry for her. He also begins to believe he's found a soulmate who shares his intellectual and cultural aspirations, and makes a date with her to attend a lecture at the library. Bud warns him that Shirley's just another grasping female, but while John boasts of his resistance to female snares he clearly doesn't share his pal's suspicions.

Robinson has built this character up so effectively that it's a genuine shock, if not a blatant plot contrivance, to find that Shirley has gotten him plastered at a niteclub. John's weakness is that he can't hold his liquor, and Shirley finally drags the incoherent lush to a justice of the peace, whom she bribes with ten bucks to declare them married even though John has no idea what's going on. She drives a hostile Bud out of his apartment and sets up shop as Mrs. Allen, eventually explaining that "there's lots a Mrs. can get away with that a Miss can't." Predictably, the new wife drains John's savings, but hubby remains defensive in the face of Bud's denunciations. Bud pushes him too far when he suggests that Shirley is still earning money on the side the same way she used to while she worked at the dance hall. When John rises to threaten him, Bud backs off the edge of a girder and plunges to his death.

The tragedy shatters John, who quits his job. He feebly protests that he doesn't want to live off his wife but Shirley no longer cares what he thinks. The marriage is an arrangement of convenience now, though to her only as John wastes away. But a deus ex machina appears in the form of Kibbee's bookie, who reports that the money John had scraped together on an exotic wager has paid off to the tune of $388 -- that's thousands by today's standards. This good fortune drives John over the edge. He claims that Bud told him how to bet and frantically calculates how much of the money he actually needs to pay off his debts. He has several kinds of debts to pay off. He wants to pay back with his own money everyone whose bills have been paid with Shirley's dubious earnings. He then wants to pay Shirley back with lead for ruining his life.

Robinson is just about the only reason to watch Two Seconds, though Osborne gives an exceptional performance as more a monster femme fatale than the era's typical hard-boiled but good-natured gold digger. The payoff for the Robinson watcher, of course, is that closing speech, a convincing testament of madness in which John, who has offered no defense during his murder trial, pleads to be spared because he's actually redeemed himself through murder. The time to have killed him, he argues urgently, was when he was nothing but a "rat" living off his wife's vices. John simply can't understand why the state wants to kill him now that he's a man again. It's a great speech, delivered with gusto, and I don't really understand why it isn't recognized as one of Robinson's career highlights. I'll recommend this film to Robinson and Pre-Code fans for the speech alone.

His mightiest role? Probably not, but let Warner Bros. make the case in the original trailer for Two Seconds, courtesy of TCM.com.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, SEPTEMBER 16, 1939

In 1939 an issue of Argosy went to newstands a week in advance of the cover date. The September 16 issue went on sale on a Wednesday the week before, and by that time Hitler had invaded Poland and World War II had begun. By an accident of timing that issue gives the cover to Theodore Roscoe's new serial, a tale of a Europe haunted by the ghosts of the last war. Earlier this year we've seen Roscoe in tall-tale-and-debunk mode. Whether writing American gothics in his fictional town of Four Corners or the Foreign Legion yarns of Thibaut Corday, Roscoe outlines fantastic scenarios only to render them "real" with often ridiculously mundane explanations. But Roscoe is also one of the pioneers of the zombie genre in literature, with serials published in Argosy, and Remember Tomorrow teases a turn toward that territory. It also dares us to look for the trick behind everything by making its protagonist an author of mystery novels. He's a down-on-his-luck American who's come to France to sell his family's last remaining major asset, a French chateau purchased by his late father decades earlier. The house proves difficult to sell. That's because it borders the Foret de Feu in the "Red Zone," where the worst fighting of the Battle of the Somme took place during the Great War. The neighbors claim that the war hasn't ended in the Red Zone, where the dead wage war on the living. Recent deaths are blamed on the dead of the war, the "forgotten of God." The truth remains to be seen, since this opening installment restricts itself to establishing the setting and the mood. The mood is ominous and antiwar, which some readers may have thought appropriate for the moment:


"What I can't understand is what induced all these soldiers to throw their lives away as they did. What nullified their instinct for self-preservation and induced them to come out here and die in droves like herds of butchered cattle?"
"They died for France," the girl said.
He snapped, "What did the Germans die for? The British? The Americans? What? For the Kaiser? For King and Country? For Democracy? Don't you see those are just a lot of words?
"They are ideals," the girl said quietly, "I think the thousands who gave their lives in the World War did it because they thought it would make a better world for humanity to live in.
"Who's humanity?" he gestured impatiently, "Humanity, dear lady, is you and I. Well, do we thank those fellows who bled to death out here for us? We give them two minutes of silence every year on Armistice Day -- is that gratitude? But today we're falling for the same same old stock words and blah. Shouting the same empty phrases. Sharpening our weapons to make the same old mistakes. I don't wonder the peasants around here think these dead are turning over in their graves."


This should be interesting reading in the weeks to come. As for this week, if Roscoe is plainly antiwar, Robert Carse implicitly takes the other side in his historical tale, "Puritan's Progress." His Protestant hero is rescued at sea by the French who use him against the Spaniards, and he later rescues the French from a renegade in their own ranks who allies with buccaneers to take power for himself. The moral? While Puritans or Pilgrims historically fled from oppression, at least in American history, Carse's hero learns that "A man dare not flee from ferocity and tyranny; he must face them, fight them, and conquer." As an action story, this one's all right, though it has a slightly silly climax in which the imprisoned hero takes solace by reading an old, heavy Bible until his reading gives him the arm strength to overcome his personal oppressor. We needn't read any religious significance into this, however; any big book would do for the purpose.

 

Argosy was one of the most prestigious pulps, one veteran authors aspired to appear in after years of effort. Yet the editors boast this week of featuring three new authors, two of whom have published nothing anywhere else before. Was this a conscious search for new blood or was it done because novice authors work cheaper? In any event, the neophyte authors are Richard Blaker, whose novelet "Senor Sleight-of-Hand" is his only pulp work (according to the FictionMags Index), George Masselman, whose "Dutch Courage" is the first of five stories to appear in Argosy between now and January 1941, and John Wiggin, a baseball specialist who had already made the slicks earlier this year in Collier's. Blaker's story details the torture of a one-armed prospector in a 19th century banana republic, climaxing with the revealtion of an unlikely deception. Whatever readers thought of the story, Blaker, who had published a novel the previous year, would die (in battle? He appears to have been British) the following year. Masselman teases the butchering of an idealistic colonial official and his girlfriend in the Dutch East Indies, only to surprise readers with a favorable native reception to their humane policies. Wiggin wrote a baseball story that I didn't bother to read. Meanwhile, veteran contributor Philip Ketchum writes "Storm Over Claybank," with one of the standard western plots: lawman must prevent a lynching. Ketchum's good enough to make it fresh. A better western is Luke Short's serial Hurricane Range, which concludes on an action-packed note this week, while MacIsaac & Harkins' dialect serial River Rogues meanders toward its conclusion next week.

Joining the serial lineup next time will be yet another "modern man wakes up in far future" story, while Ketchum comes back immediately for his latest Bretwalda tale and Donald Barr Chidsey thrills us with a man writing fraudulent checks. Add the Roscoe serial to that and it ought to be an interesting issue overall.
 
TO BE CONTINUED

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: ANN CARVER'S PROFESSION (1933)

Fay Wray was the first and remains the greatest of Hollywood's scream queens. History has typed her as a damsel in distress, but this Columbia release proves that Wray's mighty vocal instrument could also be used as a weapon in a portrayal of a woman of power. Her Ann Carver works her way through law school as a short-order cook, while her boyfriend Lightning Bill Graham (Gene Raymond) is the campus football hero. She earns her law degree and passes the bar exam but appears satisfied with the life of a housewife while hubby struggles to bring home the bacon as an architect. His prospects for advancement are limited, and Bill limits them further by refusing an offer from his pal, now a niteclub owner -- to make more money as a singer. Perhaps clinging to an old code of amateurism -- he's a man of old codes -- Bill refuses to exploit his athletic celebrity to earn a living. Meanwhile, at a dinner party, Ann eavesdrops on a conversation about a high-profile legal case. It becomes clear that she's been following the story and her opinions are surprisingly expert and critical of the defendant's legal team, the leader of which is present at the party. Rather than offended, the old attorney is impressed, hiring Ann to take his place when illness keeps him out of court.

This case is dynamite. A young man of good family is being sued for breach of promise by a light-skinned "colored" woman (Diane Bori in her second and apparently last film performance, despite living until 2004, the same year Fay Wray died). He dropped her when he realized she was colored, but it's her contention that he knew she was colored all along, and it's the contention of her lawyer (Robert Barrat, straying off the Warner Bros. reservation) that "only a blithering idiot" would not have realized from the start that the plaintiff was colored -- he has her bare her shoulder in the witness box to illustrate the point. Unquestioned here is the implicit assumption that it would be OK for the defendant to dump the plaintiff if she had, in fact, deceived him about her race.

Ann declines to cross-examine the plaintiff, and asks for a recess when Barrat closes the case for his client. She returns to call Barrat as her only witness. Her first question to him is, "Are you a blithering idiot?" It's a highly irregular question, but Ann wants to prove a point. She does this by bringing six women into the courtroom. All have a similar complexion, but Ann announces that three of them are white, while three are black. Can Barrat tell white from black? His contention was that the average man should be able to tell, but while the judge spares him from answering, it's clear that he's flummoxed. All this testimony, and the six women, now stripped to their bathing suits, are thrown out, but Ann has introduced the necessary degree of doubt in jurors' minds to win the case for the defendant. We the audience are left to understand that the defendant honestly mistook the plaintiff for a white girl and was justified in dumping her once he realized his error. Does that make the film racist? Only insofar as it reflects the legal precedents prevailing in a more racist society than our own, and in any event the race angle is quickly eclipsed by the movie's sexual politics.

The newspapers report that a legal star is born, and Ann quickly becomes a full partner in the firm. She proves superhumanly versatile, masterful both in the "circus" tactics of the criminal courtroom and the subtleties of corporate law. Meanwhile, Bill continues to grind away at his architect job, increasingly self-conscious of who actually brings in the big bucks in the family. The last straw for him is when he lacks the cash on hand to pay the household servants, Ann having forgotten to write a check before heading to Washington to negotiate some big business deal. He can still make more money at his pal's niteclub -- the pal has an annoyingly "humorous" habit of cutting words off at the final syllab -- and now he decides to do so. If Ann's success has humiliated (not to mention emasculated) Bill, his plunge into show business humiliates her. She travels in elite company now, and having her husband sing for his supper on the strength of his athletic fame -- it sure isn't on the strength of Gene Raymond's singing; he stinks -- undermines her social standing. Ann Carver's Profession is often condemned as a sexist film, and it definitely is that, but Ann's classism arguably counterbalances Bill's sexism. Her contempt for his crooning is compounded by gossip linking him to the niteclub's female star, Carole Rodgers (Claire Dodd). Carole's "the hottest white girl in town," according to the niteclub's black ladies' room attendant, "She takes them there and brings 'em back alive." It doesn't help that Carole is aggressively pursuing Bill. Dragged to the niteclub by her new social set, Ann seethes as Carole plants one on Bill just offstage, but doesn't hear Bill tell Carole, "Never do that again!" While he sings his lousy number, Ann contemptuously throws coins at his feet and storms out.

The apparent end of Bill's marriage emboldens Carole, who attempts a drunken seduction of her co-star. Getting the cold shoulder, Carole manages to pass out on Bill's bed, crack her head on the metal bedpost, and strangle herself when her necklace gets caught on the post while she slides off the bed. It's hard to believe on screen, and in the movie itself Bill gets arrested for murdering Carole. Guess who represents him in court, whether Bill likes it or not? At this point, Ann Carver becomes a distaff Free Soul with Fay Wray in the Lionel Barrymore role as the defense attorney with a dysfunctional family. In A Free Soul, Barrymore defends his daughter's boyfriend by denouncing himself for having brought his girl up wrong so that she got in trouble with a gangster, which led to the boyfriend killing the gangster. Likewise, Ann Carver defends her husband by blaming herself -- referring to herself in the third person throughout and having first argued very persuasively that the prosecution has failed to prove either deed or motive -- for ruining poor hubby's life by having a career of her own. Barrymore's aria climaxes with the old man dropping dead in the courtroom; it's enough for Wray to have her character commit career suicide. "I have tried my last case," Ann declares, as Raymond beams with adoration.

The film's ending insults the intelligence not just because it accepts the necessity of Ann's retirement, but because somehow -- somehow in the way exposure to nuclear radiation somehow gives people super powers -- Bill now becomes a successful architect so they can live on his earnings after all. You hope against hope that we'll learn that Ann is acting as his legal counsel, since that seems like the only way he could get ahead -- but forget it; her destiny is to bear Bill's brats. She admires his design for their new home because it lets in sun and air; he answers that he's thinking of just that: a son and heir. Ha ha ha. The worst part of it all is that Wray's superwoman must surrender her career, and the world must do without a powerful legal mind, all for the sake of an utter loser. Gene Raymond is the blonde booby of Pre-Code cinema; the man makes George Brent come across like Gable. He does next to nothing in the picture besides pity himself and sing poorly. I can't help but think -- I guess I'd like to think, that even in 1933 audiences recognized that Bill was unworthy and undeserving of Ann, especially when Fay Wray is giving what probably is her greatest acting performance. Not most iconic, obviously, but greatest. She's as persuasive as an omnicompetent legal whiz as Ann is in the courtroom and boardroom. Weaponizing her verbal pyrotechnics, she blasts formidable character actors like Barrat off the screen and makes Raymond look even more like nothing than he normally does. The film itself concedes the point, given the evidence of Raymond, that men are the weaker sex, but it also argues, against all reason given the evidence of Wray, that women must sacrifice their ambitions and talents to take care of these big babies. It all makes you want to scream....

Monday, September 15, 2014

Pre-Code Parade and After: the domestication of Aline MacMahon

You're going to see two newspaper ads here, one giving Ann Dvorak top billing in Mervyn LeRoy's Heat Lightning, the other featuring Guy Kibbee as the title character of William Keighley's Big Hearted Herbert. The actual star of both pictures is Aline MacMahon, who during 1934, the year of Code Enforcement, underwent a kind of metamorphosis. Heat Lightning appeared in March and is still a Pre-Code picture ... boy, is it Pre-Code. In it, MacMahon is a woman disappointed in love who has set up a motor park and garage in the middle of the desert to get away from men, and has dragged her kid sister (Dvorak) with her. As Olga, MacMahon parades around in mechanic's overalls and is all business while Dvorak as Myra years to have a good time with a boy in the city, despite Olga's warnings. All sorts of interesting people pass through: a henpecked Edgar Kennedy with Jane Darwell for a wife; an elderly sugar daddy with two of Warner Bros.' most blatantly predatory gold diggers hovering over him, but not really caring to get too close; successful gold diggers Ruth Donnelly and Glenda Farrell returning from Reno with Frank McHugh as their chauffeur and, apparently, Farrell's lover; Preston Foster and Lyle Talbot as fugitive bank robbers. Turns out that Foster's character is Olga's old flame, and despite all of Olga's disdain for men and romance, and all her unheeded warnings to Myra, the flame rekindles, or so it seems. Just as Myra returns from her first tryst, just as disappointed and heartbroken as Olga predicted, Olga overhears Foster telling Talbot that he'd seduced her just to give Talbot time to crack the safe where Farrell and Donnelly have kept their jewels overnight, with their car in the shop. So of course she kills him, and then life goes on. The story, based on a play, seems like a draft version of Petrified Forest in some respects, and LeRoy's film is an ambitious production. He seems to have built a detailed set on location in the desert, then reproduced it on a soundstage so he could do the heat-lightning effects in night scenes. The sets allow him to do fairly lengthy tracking shots as characters walk around the grounds, as well as interesting point-of-view shots, e.g. from MacMahon's grease-monkey pit underneath a car. Heat Lightning is one of the climactic Pre-Code films and one of the sleaziest without being salacious like the Warners' gold-digger comedies. MacMahon grounds it with her understated performance as a frustrated, repressive, mature woman (aged 35) whose last chance for love has lethal consequences.

Big Hearted Herbert was released on the other side of the historic dividing line, in October 1934. In another adaptation of a play, MacMahon is the wife of Guy Kibbee (aged 52). The actors first met on-screen in Gold Diggers of 1933, but were teamed formally beginning with May 1934's The Merry Frinks, a dysfunctional-family comedy. After Herbert, they teamed up three more times over the next year, including an adaptation of Sinclar Lewis's Babbitt in which Kibbee played the archetypal bourgeois "boob" of the 1920s. For comparison's sake, Preston Foster was one year MacMahon's junior. As for Kibbee, Herbert arguably marks his domestication as well as MacMahon's. He could be a satyr in Pre-Code comedies, all the more transgressive for his age and sometimes-repulsive manner. But in Herbert both actors are thoroughly desexualized, and the film plays more like a TV sitcom. MacMahon does have top billing on-screen but Kibbee understandably dominates the film as the sort of reactionary who might be more recognizable today than his and Lewis's Babbitt is. Herbert Kalniss is a self-made man who rose from humble plumber to self-consciously humble bath and sink manufacturer, the sort who boasts incessantly and ad nauseum of being a "plain man" while spewing contempt for alleged elitists of all sorts: collegians, lawyers and other professional men. In short, the title is ironic if not sarcastic. MacMahon is the long-suffering wife, a more intelligent Edith Bunker who turns the tables on her husband after he humiliates his potential in-laws -- his daughter has returned from college with a fiance as a fait accompli -- with his tirades and arrogant crudities. For revenge, or simply to teach a lesson, she embarrasses Herbert in front of his business cronies by dressing down (with her kids) and behaving like a complete rube. That's the payoff -- well, she does threaten to leave him before he finally repents in characteristically grudging fashion -- and it just seems childish, sitcom-ish. Of course, you can't say a film like this wouldn't exist in the Pre-Code era, but Big Hearted Herbert seems like what the powers behind Code Enforcement wanted movies to be. It's a mildly entertaining movie entirely on the strength of Kibbee's stormcloud of a performance, but I'd understand if people find Herbert hateful rather than funny. The sad thing about it, especially if you happened to watch Heat Lightning first, as I did, is how diminished, desexualized and domesticated Aline MacMahon is, as if the actress of Herbert is the MacMahon Code Enforcement wanted, for reasons lost to time. What a waste.