Friday, May 24, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: HIDE-OUT (1934)

1934 was the year of Code Enforcement and, probably not coincidentally, the advent of screwball comedy. There were plenty of genre milestones that year -- Frank Capra's It Happened One Night and Howard Hawks's Twentieth Century come to mind immediately -- but W.S. Van Dyke might have thought it was his job to invent screwball singlehandedly. He directed three comedies that year out of four credited features. The Thin Man is the best known of these and the first of the three. Released in May, it has a Pre-Code edge thanks to the Charleses' notorious binge drinking. By year's end Van Dyke had just about perfected screwball with Forsaking All Others, a weightless picture in which almost every line from every character is a whimsical wisecrack. Hide-Out came out in August, and as our newspaper ad indicates, publicists already recognized it as part of a comic trend. It'd be too neat to say it stands halfway between Thin Man and Forsaking in Van Dyke's comedic experimentation. Instead, Hide-Out looks further ahead, poised somewhere between Thin Man, in its initial urban-crime setting, and the goofier, more conservative comedies of the classic era. It shares Robert Montgomery with Forsaking and makes more interesting use of him. He plays Lucky Wilson, a New York gangster who specializes in shaking down nightclubs. The film opens with Lucky in his element, casually lording over one club in arrogant yet charming fashion. The floor show he visits is so overproduced that you'd think the numbers were actually taken from some aborted musical until you see Montgomery interact with the performers. The actor is at his best while flirting with a torch singer, propositioning her all through her song as if daring her to forget the lyrics or simply crack up with laughter. Lucky's a blatant crook but for the moment the film could be accused of glorifying gangsters. Van Dyke makes Lucky amiably menacing without making him mean. As a comedy, Hide-Out takes an almost nonjudgmental stance on Lucky's activities until the story gives him a chance to reflect on the consequences of his actions, or at least those of his peers.

Lucky's is stalked by a police detective (Edward Arnold) and eventually caught in a shoot-out in which he's slightly wounded. His boss (C. Henry Gordon) advises him to lie low while he's recovering, and has him sent to a Connecticut dairy farm. From this point the material becomes less interesting than the way it's filmed and performed. Lucky goes through some of the city slicker's rites of rural passage, struggling through such chores as milking a cow. He truly befriends his host family and truly falls for their pretty daughter (Maureen O'Sullivan, Van Dyke's Jane in Tarzan the Ape Man). He also strikes up a pal-ship with her younger brother Willie (Mickey Rooney). As he recuperates, he learns that the family once sold milk on the market but quit the trade after getting hassled by racketeers. It's never made clear whether Lucky's own mob was responsible, but his own reaction to this news indicates the long-delayed awakening of a conscience within him. When he gets the all-clear to return to New York, he insists on staying longer. The obvious reason is to stay close to the girl, but Lucky also comes to prefer farm life to city life. But can he stay on the farm and close to the girl without telling the truth about his past, or without the past catching up to him?

Hide-Out ends up being the least screwball of Van Dyke's 1934 comedies because it finally repudiates urban sophistication in favor of the happy simplicity of rural family life. It doesn't carry a Code seal, but it could easily symbolize the triumph of the hicks and the bourgeois moralists against the smart guys and sophisticates. What keeps it from insulting the intelligence is the snappiness of Van Dyke's direction and the breezy charm of Robert Montgomery. He often seems to pale in comparison with such M-G-M stablemates as Clark Gable (his co-star in Forsaking) and Spencer Tracy, but he truly makes a star impression here as a crook who reforms without ever getting sappy about it. Behind the camera, "One-Take Woody" literally keeps things moving with masterly tracking shots that sell both the corrupt sophistication of the nightclubs and the comforts of rural life. The director earned his one-take nickname (as opposed, say, to William "One-Shot" Beaudine) because he really knew what he was doing. If screwball was comedy's irreverent resistance to the domestication Code Enforcement seemed to demand, Van Dyke proved with Hide-Out that he could do domestication as well as screwball. It may be the closest he came to getting them both in one movie.

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