The More Pre-Codes, the Merrier: Forbidden Hollywood Volume 9, a New Warner Archive Release
November 17, 2015
To be honest, it's been a while since I've watched any of the Forbidden Hollywood DVD collections; I'm actually astonished to find that there are nine of them now! I own the first three, which include some of the more famous films from the pre-Code era. From about volume 4 onwards, the sets tend to contain a mixture of obscure titles with better known saucy ones thrown in. Though some of these volumes may not constitute the most notorious of the pre-Code period, it's nice to see a handful make it out of the vaults for the public to (finally) view and enjoy.
Forbidden Hollywood Volume 9 includes four pre-Codes - Big City Blues, Hell's Highway, The Cabin in the Cotton, When Ladies Meet - and one (barely) post-Code picture - I Sell Anything. The set provides a hearty variety of comedy, drama, and social commentary, and all the films appear here for the first time on DVD in the US (Hell's Highway was and still is available on Region 0 DVD). I had seen one movie previously, When Ladies Meet, so watching four new-to-me films in a row was a treat.
Without further ado, here they are:
Some conflicting imagery in this Big City Blues poster.
Big City Blues (1932)
Youthful Bud (Eric Linden) hops a train bound for New York City, and a montage encapsulating the energetic and overpowering spirit of the city engulfs him as he wanders the streets. After checking in to a fancy hotel, Bud's fast talking cousin Gibby (Walter Catlett) breezes in. Gibby instantly begins 'borrowing' money from Bud to entertain two young ladies, one of them being Vida (Joan Blondell), who hits it off with Bud. The resulting hotel party Gibby throws quickly turns into a drunken brawl, leaving one young woman dead. One by one, the partygoers flee the scene of the crime, with Bud the last to leave.
Police investigate the death and hop on Bud and Vida’s trail while Bud tries to locate Vida. After they find each other they head to a gambling hall in an attempt to multiply the rest of Bud’s money so they can ditch town. However, the cops catch up to them first and charge Bud for the murder. Will he be able to prove his innocence and go free, or will the Big Apple swallow him whole?
My Two Cents
The New York City montage near the beginning effectively sets the tone for the picture: fast paced, overwhelming, and kind of all over the place. It feels like director Mervyn LeRoy rushed through the story, which really starts to lose sense near the end, especially after Bud is charged with the murder. Seriously, if you turn your attention elsewhere for a few moments, you may miss the entire explanation, re: the real killer (which was more so a drunken accident than a cold blooded murder). What starts out as a light hearted fish out of water comedy lurches into an uneven heavy drama after the girl dies at the party. It's a lot to take in for the viewer, and certainly one insane introduction to New York for bright eyed, naïve Bud!
Eric Linden was perfectly cast as Bud; one look at him screams starry-eyed young Midwesterner totally lost in the big city. He also always, at least in his films from the early 30s, resembles a fresh faced 14 year old, and he was still pretty young here at 22. It's not hard to feel sorry for him as he continually gets taken advantage of, especially by Gibby. As usual, one of my favorite pre-Code dames, Joan Blondell, delivers a typical strong performance, infused here with a healthy dose of sensitivity and seriousness that serves to soften her usual chorus girl hard edge. I love Blondell's bulging eyes - seen in a close-up at one point - that usually cut through the bullsh*t but here belie a sense of trepidation. A supporting cast compiled of sturdy character actors from Guy Kibbee to Grant Mitchell to a young Humphrey Bogart all effectively fill the world that engulfs newcomer Bud.
Ad for Hell's Highway.
Hell's Highway (1932)
Duke Ellis (Richard Dix), convicted of a string of robberies, toils away on a chain gang building a road. After one convict dies in a sweat box, Duke, who is respected among the prisoners, plots a revolt that he puts off when his kid brother Johnny (Tom Brown) joins the prison family. Not used to the hard labor, Johnny is sent to the sweat box as punishment one day, and knowing what that could mean, Duke protests the move. In exchange for providing Johnny a cushy job indoors, the prison authorities request Duke’s assistance in convincing the men to work harder and complete the road.
Johnny soon finds out that Duke is on route to spending life in prison. His attempt to break Duke out inspires a mass riot that entangles all the prisoners and those in charge with mixed results.
My Two Cents
Though released one month earlier in 1932, Hell's Highway is overshadowed today by I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Perhaps one reason has to do with the limited availability of the former up until now.
The causality of the violence and the rampant inhumane treatment in this picture - from whips to that awful sweat box - stuns. I'm sure to an audience from 1932, most of whom were probably rather unfamiliar with what a chain gang looked like, felt similarly. Along with I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and other prison related films from the period (see: 1930's The Big House, 1931's The Criminal Code, 1933's Ladies They Talk About), Hell's Highway doesn't sugar coat the horrific conditions and brutal behavior inflicted upon these men. With a montage of headlines early on describing prison torture and the last minute twist in the name of justice, one would think this film could have inspired some rage and debate for prison reform. However, I'm not sure how many viewers were simply more concerned with their own dire predicament during the lowest years of the Depression.
Richard Dix, whose performance in 1931's Cimarron was termed overreaching by many, harnessed that energy and intensity well here, as he effectively commands his fellow prisoners but also reveals a soft side with his brother. A colorful and diverse cast of supporting players, ranging from a deaf prisoner to a star-gazing ‘psychic’ to a sadistic guard to a gay cook and more, all add a deeper dimension to the story, as one would expect a setting like this to contain a variety of characters. Another noteworthy point is the bold, bleak cinematography by Edward Cronjager which, like the story, doesn’t stray away from the nitty gritty and utter despair of the setting.
Richard Barthelmess front and center in this poster for The Cabin in the Cotton.
The Cabin in the Cotton (1932)
In the deep South, Marvin (Richard Barthelmess) is forced to forgo school to work in the cotton fields alongside his family. After his father dies, Madge (Bette Davis), the daughter of landowner Norwood (Berton Churchill), convinces her father to offer Marvin a job in his store after school. Marvin juggles school and his work to provide for his family, but when his mother remarries, Marvin moves out of his family's home and into the Norwood house.
With a rise in cotton stealing, Norwood puts Marvin on watch to help identify the culprits, but he soon finds himself in the middle of a landowner-tenant war when some of his family members pull him into the thefts. Tensions between the two rise when one tenant is shot and Norwood's store is burned to the ground. According to Norwood, Marvin retains the key to rebuilding the store, a copy of the books, which also contain the amounts the tenants owe Norwood. Marvin calls a meeting in an attempt to figure out a way for both sides to work together, but will they cooperate?
My Two Cents
A title card following the opening credits announces that the intent in telling the story of tenants vs. landowners in the South is to "picturize" the roles of both parties without taking sides. Well, I guess you can judge the veracity of that comment after you've watched the picture.
The second of two films in this set to focus on social and economic issues, The Cabin in the Cotton is more intriguing than entertaining to me, as this subject is one I'm not at all familiar with. I can't be certain as to how accurate the depictions of each side are, though in apparent fairness, both groups are portrayed negatively at points when it comes to theft. However, I can very well see how significant this picture and the working class struggle it portrays must have been at a time when the country was deep in the depths of the Depression. I even find it a bit eerie how the inequality, hatred, desperation and entitlement found throughout the film resonates so well in today’s world.
Bette Davis (whose face dominated the VHS edition of this film) and Richard Barthelmess in The Cabin in the Cotton.
From the landowners to the tenants and the ladies in between, all the actors delivered thought-provoking performances. Richard Barthelmess, who for some reason reminds me of Richard Dix (I may be getting my leading men in this set mixed up at this point), was extremely effective as the man trying to juggle both sides. Marvin's visibly torn between remaining loyal to his family and those he grew up with and his allegiance to Norwood, who gave him a job and opened his home to him, but he walks the line well. His rousing speech at the end must have given some audience members, particularly those in the South, chills; at that point, Marvin's loyalty leans firmly to one side, and I bet a good portion of the audience at that time probably supported his stance.
Arguably, young blonde Bette Davis provided substantial sex appeal - this is pre-Code Hollywood, after all - and with that stole most of her scenes. She operates in full southern seductress mode in this picture, complete with a cheeky flashing in one scene! And of course, who could forget the line she famously coos: “I’d like to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair.” Bye!
Advertisement for When Ladies Meet.
When Ladies Meet (1933)
Author Mary (Myrna Loy) fends off repeated marriage proposals from Jimmie (Robert Montgomery) because she's in love with her married publisher, Rogers (Frank Morgan). Mary fixes it up with pal Bridget (Alice Brady) for alone time with Rog at her country home to "work," but sensing something is up, Bridget makes sure they aren't by themselves.
On the way back to the city after a golf game with Clare (Ann Harding), Jimmie stops for directions...at Bridget's country house. Conveniently, Rog had been called back to the city because it turns out that Clare is his wife. Since Jimmie knows this, he asks Clare to lie to Mary about her real identity.
Clare and Mary get along well and quickly fall into a discussion on Mary's new book, marriage, and love. Eventually, Clare realizes Mary is Rogers' newest mistress, and moments later he walks in to confirm the truth to a surprised Mary, who didn't realize she was pouring her heart out to her lover's wife! Whatever will become of the threesome (of foursome, if you count Jimmie) now that all the cards are on the table?
When ladies meet...they take a picture for publicity purposes. Ann Harding, Myrna Loy, and Alice Brady.
My Two Cents
I hadn't seen this picture in a long time. In fact, the last version I watched was the 1941 Greer Garson-Joan Crawford remake, which must have been partially recycled from this version, as I recognized many sets and the dialogue sounded very familiar. Fun fact: Cedric Gibbons was nominated for an Oscar for Art Direction for this film and the 1941 revival!
When Ladies Meet is a talkative picture, and very little action actually transpires onscreen. At times, the dialogue wades into superfluous territory, resulting in some lines sounding a bit unnatural - I'm looking mostly at Mary here. Hands down the best scene involves Mary and Clare, when their conversation surrounding the plot of Mary's latest book continually collides with reality, unbeknownst to both of them at the time. Almost every sentence drips with irony and keeps the audience on edge as to when the ladies will see the light - and who will realize it first! It's a unique sequence filled with apprehension and suspense that features absolutely no action, only an escalating volley of ideas and beliefs that eventually brings both women down to reality.
As I've established in previous posts, I'm a big fan of Myrna Loy's. However, I think she was terribly miscast in this picture. I understand that Mary is supposed to be so caught up in her own ideology (and she is), but to me Loy's not very believable in the role; when she delivers her dialogue, nothing stands behind the words. Furthermore, Loy's scenes with Frank Morgan leave a cold impression; seriously, how those two could ever pass as convincing lovers is beyond me. Robert Montgomery, in a role he found himself in more than once - nice, semi-clingy best friend - turns in a standard performance, adding his customary dollop of humor while waiting for someone to come around. As usual, Alice Brady buzzes about, sprinting through 100 words a minute and not seeming to tire, ever. However, as solid as most of cast is, it's Ann Harding for the win here, even though this type of woman was one she was handed often and must have been comfortable playing - a rather dull on the outside, fascinating on the inside 'forward thinking' calm and collected wife. Nonetheless, Harding's stature, cool demeanor and restrained confidence prevail over all the other characters in every scene she appears in.
Ann Dvorak, Pat O'Brien and Claire Dodd in a promo photo for I Sell Anything.
I Sell Anything (1934)
I've heard nothing... and from what I gather, not many others have either.
Auctioneer "Spot Cash" Cutler (Pat O'Brien) operates his barely legal racket out of his 2nd Avenue New York City storefront with his cronies. After the crowd Cutler and his pals drum up one day leaves, a malnourished Barbara (Ann Dvorak) remains, slumped in a chair. Cutler reluctantly takes her in and makes her part of his team.
To the chagrin of his cohorts, sly Millicent (Claire Dodd), who once fleeced Cutler, persuades him to move his shop uptown to Broadway, because wealthier clientele = more money. Millicent convinces Cutler to auction off the items from a formerly wealthy family's home...except they'll swap the real heirlooms out for fakes. Now Barbara and team really voice their disapproval, but Cutler steams right ahead. Can he pull the swindle off, or will someone dupe him again?
My Two Cents
As proclaimed by the certificate of approval - number 234, to be exact - during the opening credits, I Sell Anything is actually a post-Code film. It was released in October 1934, so I'm guessing pre-production fell before the Code and production may have even straddled the line - I'm not sure on the latter. Other than Cutler's occupation, nothing really screams pre-Code here anyway, but the conclusion isn't as morally strong as you would expect from a post-Code film: at least one wrongdoer gets away and another seemingly does so too, though I guess a quick dialogue fix or two 'punishes' the offenders.
I Sell Anything is one of the weaker films in this set. The lack of direction makes it appear as if the actors improvised some of the scenes, though I have no idea if that's true or not. O'Brien carries the picture through several lengthy auction sequences which could have easily been trimmed down - note: the picture only runs 70 minutes, as is. Indeed, watching O'Brien ham it up and completely take the crowd are really the only entertaining bits. Besides him, the rest of the cast is given very little to do. Cutler's partners, Roscoe Karns, Russell Hopton, and Robert Barrat, work fine in their minimal roles, but to be honest, it looks like they just wandered over to set and were caught clowning around with the cameras on. The ladies don't fare too much better: Ann Dvorak, who resembles Loretta Young here with her bangs, is utterly wasted. She’s relegated to prop-like status, sitting pretty and warning Cutler about Millicent, a plea which falls on deaf ears. Her admiration for Cutler is highly predictable but not at all established or developed. Indeed, it's Millicent's beauty and scheming brains that captures Cutler's complete attention, which is something Dodd, the stronger female character here, provides for well.
As a pre-Code fan, I always welcome the arrival of previously unavailable pictures from the era on DVD (and I hope they keep 'em coming!). The four pre-Code and one post-Code titles included in this set certainly vary in quality and representation of the period but nevertheless are all worthy of at least one viewing.
Thank you to Warner Archive for providing me with a review copy of this volume. Please note Warner Archive releases are manufactured on demand (MOD). To order, visit the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop.com.