Sunday, November 2, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: JOURNAL OF A CRIME (1934)

How do you get away with murder? Forget about it! No, really how can you possibly get off the hook after you've deliberately killed somebody. Forget about it, I said! The story conference at Warner Bros. may have been worthy of Abbot and Costello, but the writers of William Keighley's high-society melodrama actually were adapting a French play, though I don't know if we can blame the French for the film's conclusion. Whoever's to blame, here's a late Pre-Code picture with a finish that probably wouldn't be permitted a year later. Ruth Chatterton is the jealous wife of successful playwright Adolphe Menjou, who has a crush on the ingenue of his newest operetta (Claire Dodd). She shoots the singer in the back during a rehearsal, but by coincidence a bank robber, who has just killed a teller, is in the theater trying to ditch the gendarmes by blending in with the stagehands. His clumsy attempt to flee once the law shows up to investigate the killing only gets him caught and blamed for the singer's death. Menjou quickly figures out what actually happened, but finds himself emotionally blackmailed into silence when Chatterton threatens to kill herself if he goes to the police. Instead, he intends to wait her out while she goes the way of Raskolnikov, slowly consuming herself with guilt, as much over the poor robber/murderer having to die in part for her own crime. She feels compelled to visit the prisoner and confess the truth, but as he sees it he's already going to die for the bank teller so the false charge doesn't really bother him. It bothers her increasingly, however; she faints upon reading news of the convict's execution. Finally at the breaking point, by which time Menjou pities rather than hates her, she finally makes an appointment to turn herself in to the Attorney General (an unusually benign Douglas Dumbrille), but in a twist deemed ridiculous even by contemporary reviewers Chatterton redeems herself by rescuing a child from an oncoming car and taking the hit herself. She suffers one of those cinematically fortunate brain injuries that does no permanent damage to her cognitive capacity but wipes out entirely her memories of the past, including the murder. In a denouement that leaves the hitherto relatively sympathetic Menjou looking like a creep, he decides he'll now keep his wife after all, presumably reconstructing her personality selectively to suit himself while she lives innocently ever after. There's something almost preposterously Christlike about it all. Chatterton endures a kind of death for her own sin only to be reborn pure, after talking to a thief who was willing to take her sin upon himself, asking in return only to learn the ending of Robinson Crusoe. Spoiler alert: "He returns to England." It all leaves me wondering who exactly in the audience was supposed to be pleased by this story. It's okay visually, and the rehearsal scenes climaxing in the shooting and the capture of the thief are particularly well shot. But it's hard to imagine anyone empathizing with the Chatterton or Menjou characters, since the former is redeemed at the cost of her personality while the latter perpetuates a cover-up forever after for selfish reasons. Refined in tone -- consider the stars, after all -- it has none of the sleaze identified with Pre-Code, but Journal ends up one of the period's most amoral pictures, and not in any particularly likable way. If the peasants marching on Hollywood in 1934 had said "Off with her head!" I'd have to agree with them just that once.

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