Friday, November 18, 2011

Pre-Code Parade: MARIE DRESSLER Double Feature

She is nobody's choice for Pre-Code poster girl, but Marie Dressler was one of the most popular actresses of the early-talkie era, and by virtue of dying in 1934, the year of Code enforcement, she is more a creature of that era than many of the more characteristic personalities who carried on under the Breen Office. Dressler arguably had the greatest "second act" in Hollywood history, having long ago starred in the first-ever American comedy feature, Mack Sennett's Tillie's Punctured Romance, for which Charlie Chaplin took second billing for the last time in his career. That was the peak of Dressler's first sojourn in moviedom, but the advent of talkies at the end of the 1920s demanded veteran stage actors with proven voices, and so she began a comeback around age sixty. She had high-profiled featured bits in films like The Girl Said No and nearly stole the "Garbo Talks" showcase Anna Christie from its star before hitting paydirt in George Hill's Min and Bill, which won her the Best Actress Oscar. From that point she was a top-billed star in her own right with an established persona as a lovable old battleaxe willing to go to extremes for her friends and loved ones. For all that Pre-Code emphasized sex, youth did not rule theaters unchallenged in those days; Dressler's peers among Hollywood's star elders included fiftysomething Will Rogers and fellow sexagenarian George Arliss. Age was accepted as a source of wisdom, and sometimes even wit, and also as an object of pathos. Dressler could serve up a double-dose of pathos when needed because she had not aged gracefully, and back then people still went to movies who could identify with her. Based on her movies that I've seen, these were folksier audiences with small-town values. There's little "Pre-Code" content in those movies, but they have something in common with the more sensational stuff, and that's a commitment to relevance, as the one-word titles of the following films make clear.

Charles Reisner's POLITICS (1931) makes Dressler a reluctant leader of a female-led reform movement and an unlikely candidate for mayor. Galvanized by the death of an innocent bystander in a gangland shootout outside a speakeasy, her Hattie Burns attends a mass meeting of women and steals the show by relentlessly questioning the condescending mayor about lax law enforcement until the beleaguered official finally flees the hall. She hadn't been as politically active as her more assertive pal Ivy Higgins, so it comes as a surprise to both women when the meeting spontaneously nominates Hattie, not Ivy, for mayor. Political and gender lines become one and the same as the men of the town, including Ivy's comedy-relief husband, try to compel their wives to quit politics and return to their housework. As it turns out, their most effective threat is to announce that they're all going out to get drunk. Doing that causes virtually all the women to abandon Hattie's first big rally, leaving her standing alone abjectly on the platform. She's not licked, though. Her counterattack is straight out of Aristophanes. She convinces the women to go on a household strike, refusing to perform any of their wifely duties until their husbands relent. Her strategy tips the balance of political power until some melodramatic complications kick in, most notably the fact that her own daughter is harboring a handsome, repentant and wounded young gangster under Hattie's very roof.

Politics goes against the Pre-Code grain by making heroines of women who demand more rigorous enforcement of Prohibition, but the gender angle makes it seem like anything but a reactionary film. In fact, the final drive for women's suffrage and the drive for Prohibition pretty much went hand-in-hand; suffragists sought the vote, in many cases, in order to play a greater role in defense of public morals. Politics is a reminder, at a time when Prohibition was on the ropes with many progressive-minded figures, of women's potential as political as well as moral leaders of society. As a film it's mildly amusing. Dressler could mug like any comic but she could also deliver dialogue in an understated, naturalistic fashion that makes her a likable actress most of the time, and films like this one make her appeal obvious. Compared with the next film, this is a modestly-scaled comedy-drama, but that's because the next film is somewhat berserk.

Sam Wood's sardonically titled PROSPERITY (1932) opens, just as sardonically, with an instrumental of "Happy Days Are Here Again," a tune certain to be recognized by the film's original initial audiences as Franklin D. Roosevelt's campaign song. Prosperity was released in the month of FDR's election, so most people probably heard that song in a "perhaps, but not yet" frame of mind. In any event, Prosperity is about anything but, unless you count the opening segment set in 1925, "when money still talked." Politics apparently made Dressler credible as an authority figure, for here she plays a widowed bank president, Maggie Warren, who hands control of the family business to her son John (future director Norman Foster), who proves less savvy at finance. Of course, the Depression doesn't help things. The Warrens' troubles are compounded by their in-laws. John's wife (Anita Page) is pleasant enough, but her mother Lizzie is an abomination. And here we must discuss the strange career of Polly Moran.

M-G-M's big thinkers apparently believed that their star comics needed sidekicks. Fans of Buster Keaton recall this with rue, for it resulted in Keaton being teamed with Jimmy Durante, whose fast-talking aggression seemed to suck the air from the already-declining silent legend. In Dressler's case, the studio teamed her with Moran, starting with the presumed-lost 1930 film Caught Short. Moran played Ivy Higgins in Politics but was (in retrospect) relatively restrained, much of her comedy confined to Ivy's banter with her stuttering husband. For Prosperity, however, the writers unleashed a human nightmare. Lizzie Praskins is surely one of the most hateful creatures ever to be deemed comedy relief in a moving picture. A lifelong friend of Maggie Warren, Lizzie can't help feeling or saying that John Warren isn't good enough for her daughter. Her pathological sniping at John continues even after the Warrens are compelled to move in with Lizzie after a bank collapse that Lizzie helped instigate. Due to some asinine misunderstanding, she'd removed her savings from the Warren bank, creating the impression that the bank was unsound. That provoked a bank run played by Wood for all its slapstick potential, from pushing and shoving people to cars crashing into one another outside. Meanwhile, Lizzie and Maggie resolved their dispute and Lizzie re-deposited her money -- only to be told by another depositor that she'd been lucky to withdraw her money before the run started. It hadn't occurred to her that she'd caused the run, so she panicked and withdrew her money again, exacerbating the run to the point that Maggie had to sell all her property to meet the demand for money. With John reduced to being her boarder along with Maggie, who has to return to work as a grocery clerk to raise money toward re-opening the bank, Lizzie still berates him as a failure until he leaves the house and his young family, with Maggie not far behind. That's the character of Lizzie Praskins, and on top of that Polly Moran's sole purpose as an actress is to be obnoxious as possible, no matter what the circumstances. This imperative reaches its climax as Prosperity threatens to slide from comedy-drama into farce-tragedy.

Near the end of his rope, John gets involved in a shady bond deal in hopes of reopening the bank, only to chase down a train in his car to reclaim the bonds before they can be used to ruin him. Foster does a remarkable stunt here, driving alongside the track, then ditching his car while it's still running and dashing onto the accelerating train in one take. Meanwhile, at the end of her rope, Maggie contemplates suicide in the expectation of a $10,000 insurance payout to her son. John manages to recover the bonds, but since Maggie isn't picking up the phone in their apartment he has to call Lizzie and ask her to tell Maggie that he's saved the day. Somehow he convinces her, and Lizzie promptly shows up to tell Maggie the news. But if you're contemplating suicide, probably the last thing you want to see or hear is Polly Moran chattering away at you. Assuming that Lizzie can have nothing helpful to say, Maggie urges her to leave. Having noticed a gun in the room, any human being would drive it into Maggie's head by any means necessary that she doesn't have to kill herself. But Lizzie is so stupid that she can't convey the necessary information; the most she can do is drive Maggie with her hectoring into another room where she can take poison -- right at the point where movie audiences are urging Dressler to take that gun and annihilate Moran. But there's no need to worry! Lizzie has saved the day without even knowing it! Earlier in the picture, she'd taken offense at Maggie leaving a bottle of poison within reach of their grandchildren. Her solution was to dump the poison and put the "Poison" label on a jug of prune juice. In a payoff of a gag from half the picture ago, it's that juice that Maggie drinks in mortal despair. Needless to say, however, John reaches home with the good news, Maggie gets to play a death scene, Lizzie finally straightens her out about the jug, and the picture ends with a bathroom gag. And "Happy Days Are Here Again" reprises.

Prosperity leaves you reeling, and yet it probably is a better film than Politics, and more certainly a more entertaining one, precisely because of its roller-coaster mood swings and Moran's demonic performance. It may be no accident, though, that it was the last Dressler-Moran pairing. Dressler still had three pictures in her, including her now-best-known turn in Dinner At Eight, so it's not as if there was no opportunity for Moran to work with her. It may well be that audience hostility to Lizzie Praskins drove Moran's career into a decline that only accelerated after Dressler's death. Despite all I've said, Moran's work in Prosperity has a "it's horrible, but you can't look away" quality that makes the film an appallingly compelling artifact of its time -- but she still didn't steal the film from Dressler, though the star probably needed to milk the tragicomedy for all it was worth to stay ahead. It took her long enough to regain stardom, and she kept on earning it to the end.

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