Thursday, December 29, 2011

Pre-Code: THE WET PARADE (1932)

In American history, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is often portrayed as Upton Sinclair's nemesis. When the muckraking novelist, best known to this day for The Jungle, his epochal expose of the meatpacking business, won the 1934 Democratic party nomination for Governor of California with a program to "End Poverty in California" (EPIC) by taking over shuttered factories, the "Tiffany studio," spearheaded by boy-wonder producer Irving Thalberg, made fake newsreels portraying hoboes waiting to swarm the state as crushing propaganda against Sinclair. Two years earlier, M-G-M had put money in Sinclair's pocket by buying the movie rights to his latest novel. Having done that, the studio seemed unsure of how to promote the resulting Victor Fleming production. They could sell it as an all-star production, albeit cast more with up-and-comers than with established idols. They could emphasize its current-affairs relevant without letting on what side they took. Sinclair himself promoted the picture by staging a debate on Prohibition between infamous evangelist Aimee Semple MacPherson (pro) and Wet Parade star and future satan Walter Huston (anti). People could figure out the context from the title, of course. Do a Google News Archive search of "Wet Parade" for 1932 and you'll get more references to the campaign to repeal Prohibition than you will reviews of the Sinclair movie. For the author, the phrase clearly meant something else, since his novel reaches back before World War I to show the ravages of American alcoholism and portrays the movement to ratify the Prohibition amendment, as well as the resistance that followed ratification. The novel's long out of print but not in the public domain, so it's hard to compare it to Fleming's movie the way we can weigh Sinclair's Oil! against There Will Be Blood. It seems likely, however, that the movie takes a more ambivalent stand on Prohibition than Sinclair did.

Sinclair was something we may find hard to imagine today: a left-wing Prohibitionist. There were many like him; it's worthwhile to remember that women wanted the vote, in many cases, so they could elect politicians who would ban liquor, though as it happened the deed was done before most women had a chance to vote. Prohibition wasn't part of every self-styled progressive's agenda, but it was one of the elements that gave progressives a reputation that persists to the present day as busybodies hostile to personal freedom. Sinclair wasn't impressed by the personal-liberty argument. There's a pointed scene in the movie when Huston's alky ward-heeler makes a Democratic stump speech (from the back of a truck) warning his 1916 audience that Republican busybodies were conspiring to take away their personal liberties. In mid-speech, Fleming cuts to a Republican orator (John Wray) making the exact same charge against the Democratic party. The point is obvious: in both cases the rhetoric is nothing but cant. In the novel (I was able to scare up some extracts) Sinclair remarks that neither party was as concerned about personal liberty when the government banned cocaine and similar substances. He may have explained this in the book, but the movie doesn't make the comparison and doesn't address what I suspect was Sinclair's main argument -- that wealthy, greedy capitalists made money off booze and so made sure that politicians opposed banning it. The film only hints at the link between capital and liquor in one scene, an organizational meeting for a national crime syndicate in which the ringleader gives the local thugs their marching orders, then visits with a group of more respectable men to thank them for their investments and promise them a quick profit. The overall message of The Wet Parade seems to be that greed alone allowed people to poison themselves -- but the movie emphasizes a point that may have seemed ironic to Sinclair, or else only underlined his main point: the cure of Prohibition was in some ways worse than the disease.

The movie oddly echoes The Birth of a Nation in its attention to the intertwined destinies of a Southern and a Northern family. Fleming opens down south with the declining fortunes of Col. Roger Chilcothe (Lewis Stone), who attempts to swear off alcohol at the urging of his daughter Maggie May, aka "Persimmon" (Dorothy Jordan) when she sees how it's ruining his health. He can't resist the temptation of sociability, however, and goes on an epic bender, gambling away most of his wealth in the process. He's finally brought home, despite a bartender's protest that he still has a few dollars in him, only to suffer the DTs ("I'm in Hell!") while begging Persimmon for a drink. It's a defining pre-Code moment to see the future Judge Hardy, the iconic paterfamilias of the Code-Enforcement era, meeting his end face down in a pigsty as his faithful colored retainers wail with grief. The Colonel's son, Roger Jr. (Neil Hamilton) is an aspiring author and a follower in his father's staggering footsteps. His own path leads to the big city, where he takes up residence in the hotel operated by the family of Mr. Tarleton (Huston), the aforementioned rummy spellbinder. Tarleton's long-suffering son Kip (Robert Young) really runs things, and hates booze for what it's done to his dad and many of their tenants. That makes him a kindred spirit for Persimmon when she moves up north to join her brother, who sets up a lavish society speakeasy (on the strength of whatever literary success) once Prohibition takes effect. The signifier of his decadence, as is often the case in pre-Code cinema, is Myrna Loy, bottle-blond here as his sneering consort.

Prohibition hangs over the characters' heads like a Damocles sword for many years. Tarleton passionately opposes Republicans (and appears, unlike other pols, to believe his own rhetoric) because he assumes that they'll ban booze; he and his tenants celebrate Woodrow Wilson's last-minute re-election by dancing ring-around-the-rozy like kids. When Prohibition comes (on Wilson's watch, spurred by wartime restrictions on grain use), the last day before the new regime is an epic pub-crawl, with four identically dressed mourners as our tour guides ordering every bad to play "Auld Lang Syne." The new law doesn't compel anyone to renounce liquor; instead, people empty out liquor stores and hoard as much as they can. Kip Tarleton's blithe assumption that they'll all go dry within a year proves profoundly mistaken.

The Prohibition section of the movie feels the most like an Upton Sinclair story. That's because the real exploiters come to the fore: the bootleggers who exploit newly-illicit desires by pouring any compound into a bottle and counterfeiting familiar labels. An impressive montage illustrates the process with the kind of muckraking realism that made Sinclair's name. Instead of drying people out, Prohibition has only driven them to literally poison themselves, though the movie leaves you wondering how anyone survived, since every bootlegger seems to be bottling poison. Old Man Tarleton is driven mad by the bad stuff and beats his wife to death when she smashes his last jug of hooch. Chilcothe Jr. literally drinks himself blind on rotgut procured by his bellboy. When he bemoans his loss of sight, Loy silently slinks away; chasing her, he falls down a flight of stairs. Outraged by the horrors he's witnessed, Kip Tarleton becomes a Volstead agent -- and speaking of horrors, he's teamed with ace agent Abe Shilling, a master of disguise who is himself but a thin disguise for the dreaded Jimmy "Schnozzle" Durante. Known today as the elderly cartoon narrator of Frosty the Snowman, Durante lives in movie infamy as the motormouth sidekick inflicted by M-G-M on Buster Keaton, but The Wet Parade proves that you don't need to feel sorry for Keaton to feel bloodthirsty toward "Schnozzle." Under normal circumstances, this might be called a "rare dramatic role" for Durante, but that would be false advertising; the comic simply employs his familiar shtick incessantly ("Hot-cha-cha!" "I got a million of 'em," etc) until a bootlegger mercifully puts him out of our misery. I am tempted to recommend The Wet Parade to anyone who has ever wanted to see Jimmy Durante killed, but alas, he doesn't suffer enough, nor does he die quickly enough. Instead, he expires in Kip's arms, after reassuring him: "You know how cats got nine lives?...[wait for it]... I've got...a million...of 'em..." While Durante's character may have been inspired by the real-life "Izzy and Moe" team of Prohibition enforcers, I suspect that Upton Sinclair wrote no scene in which an agent infiltrates the Chilcothe speakeasy disguised as a Bulgarian diplomat with a beard that was probably saved for the Russian aviators of A Night of the Opera three years later. If part of the studio's purpose for this picture was to promote Robert Young as a star, they did him and themselves no favors by yoking him to Durante for the final section. And by that point the movie's message has been muddled. Like many a pre-Code crime film, it pleads for a stronger crackdown on gangsters. At the same time, it practically concedes, in the year before Repeal, that Prohibition was a failed experiment, without accounting persuasively or even coherently for the failure.

However you interpret it, Fleming's Wet Parade is an often-entertaining ensemble piece, with Huston standing out as a lovable rogue whose roguishness becomes less and less lovable. Like many pre-Code pieces, its primary interest is probably as a historical document, especially since it's one of the apparent minority of films (M-G-M's Marie Dressler vehicle Politics is another) that actually endorses Prohibition, whether with Sinclair's full vehemence or not. The fact that M-G-M adapted a Sinclair novel two years before declaring war on him -- the only other adaption of Sinclair I'm aware of between this one and There Will Be Blood is Disney's The Gnome-Mobile (!) -- definitely marks The Wet Parade, whatever its politics, as a pre-Code event. At almost two hours, it's an epic by early-talkie standards, as probably befits Sinclair's expansive vision. I probably shouldn't recommend it on its own terms, but no survey of pre-Code cinema is likely to be complete without it.

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