Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: THE NARROW CORNER (1933)

One of the things insisted on most vehemently in the period of Code Enforcement, from 1934 through the mid-1960s, was that movie characters couldn't get away with crimes, especially killing. Something like The Narrow Corner, despite its literary credentials as a W. Somerset Maugham novel, probably couldn't be made as a movie a year or two after Alfred E. Green's film came out. The hero (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) is clearly a fugitive as the film begins, though we don't find out why he's on the run until later in the picture. An American (or English) fugitive in exotic exile was a popular motif at this time; the idea combines the appealing prospect of starting over with the persistence of threat if not outright guilt for whatever you've done. This time there's the added terror of repeating your original mistake. Fred Blake, it turns out, killed a man back home. Green illustrates this awkwardly, in a manner presumably inspired by the Rouben Mamoulian Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, using a split screen to show both Fred telling the story and the story itself in flashback. Showing Fred talking really adds nothing to the sequence, which is highlighted by the faceless shot of a woman's hand putting a gun in Fred's hand as he grapples for life with her husband. This matters because Fred is falling in love again with another man's woman. The man is Ralph Bellamy in something like his eventual archetypal role as the loser boyfriend, the guy who gets dumped in favor of the more charismatic star. But this was still a time when Bellamy could win the girl in some of his pictures, and even when he doesn't you're in for a fight if you try to take his woman. In Narrow Corner he sort of wins but definitely loses, choking out Fairbanks in a fit of jealous rage but horrified immediately by what he's done. "I killed him," he moans in exactly the tone of voice you associate with those guilt-stricken, stupid predators who think they've done in Bugs Bunny, but before Junior can pop up and kiss him the inconsolable lug goes and kills himself. Bellamy dies, dead, as Old Ygor might explain it, Junior dies, live! The way is now clear for Fred Blake to get the girl, and as long as he can steer a boat through some treacherous reefs he and she can start over, presumably without worries over the man he did kill or the man for whose death he bears at least a little responsibility. Not that I object morally, mind you, but a lot of people in 1933 did seem to object to such seemingly triumphant immorality. For me it was just in keeping with the admirable seediness of the whole project, and it's preferable to some stories I've seen where the big twist is that the hero (or heroine) didn't actually kill anyone back home. Fairbanks, Bellamy and female lead Patricia Ellis are surrounded by a strong cast of grotesques, from alcoholic sea captains and opium-addicted doctors to cantankerous old codgers boasting of their ancient conquests in the islands. The show is purely studio and soundstage bound but the special effects for the story's dangerous sea voyages are, if modest, at least dramatically effective also. Narrow Corner is another entertaining Pre-Code star vehicle for Fairbanks Jr., for whom the period meant freedom, above all, from having to be his father's son on film. He showed a range in these few years at Warner Bros. that, his other virtues notwithstanding, he would never show again.

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