Monday, June 30, 2003


I don't normally get all misty about celebrity deaths, but Katharine Hepburn was not only a great actress but a great person and I was genuinely sad to hear of her passing yesterday. Her greatest performances, in films like THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, THE LION IN WINTER, STAGE DOOR, and LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, are absolutely transcendent. I can't exactly say that her presence alone made a movie great (I'm not a fan of BRINGING UP BABY, largely because of Hepburn's grating performance in a silly role) but I've never regretted watching anything she was in (well, maybe THE RAINMAKER...). This film with a strong feminist slant doesn't get much coverage or credit, but it's interesting considering the time in which it was produced, and Hepburn does ultimately make the movie well worth watching. She plays a woman who grows up under the thumb of a repressive father (Donald Crisp) in Victorian England. Early on, we see Hepburn and her sister (Elizabeth Allan) being harshly chastized by Crisp for minor infractions, which only stiffens Hepburn's resolve to become independent. Allan, with a bit less spine than her sister, still manages to get out of the house by marrying David Manners, a dashing soldier, in a coupling of which Crisp approves. Hepburn goes against her father by seeing Van Heflin on the sly--it turns out he is married with a vindictive wife who won't give him a divorce even though they are no longer a functioning couple. She eventually leaves him, then discovers she's pregnant. Off in Italy, Allan, who is also pregnant, finds out that Manners has died and she promptly collapses and dies. Hepburn delivers her child and pretends it's her niece. Only the nurse, Lucile Watson, knows the truth.

She meets rich but stuffy diplomat Herbert Marshall (aren't all of Marshall's characters stuffy?) who wants to marry Hepburn, but she wants to remain free, and she soon has a job at a "ladies" magazine where she shakes things up by writing editorials about topics other than sewing and cooking. Years later, she is a famous writer and her daughter (Doris Dudley) falls in love with Van Heflin's son. Rather than tell her daughter the truth about her parentage, she forbids Dudley to see the boy, not giving her a good reason. Despite her best intentions, public scandal follows and Herbert Marshall comes back on the scene with some common sense to bring things to a relatively happy ending. The strangest thing about the fairly complicated plot is that the strong, truth-telling Hepburn continues lying to her daughter when simply telling her the truth would simplify things, and, of course, make a shorter movie. The plot, with its occasional soap-operaish turns, moves along nicely, cramming many incidents into its 90 minute running time. Eily Malyon is memorable as the mean governess early in the film. Dudley looks remarkably like Hepburn. Manners, in one of his last movie roles, is handsome as usual but doesn't have much to do. Heflin is fine and Marshall is his usual passive self. In fact, all the men are rather weak compared to Hepburn. If you want to watch a Hepburn movie in celebration of her life and career, I'd suggest one of the four I mention above in the second sentence of this review. But this one isn't bad and actually wears better than some of her other RKO films of the 30's. Even though I know she would never had made another picture, I'm still sad that Katharine Hepburn is no longer in this world. Thank goodness we still have her films.

Friday, June 27, 2003

FEMALE (1933)

One of the most interesting pre-Code movies that Turner Classic showed in last month's "Complicated Women" series. Ruth Chatterton is very good as Alison Drake, the head of an automotive company. At the office, she is all work: serious and commanding and good at getting results. But she also keeps an eye open for hunky young men at work. She invites them to her mansion in the evening for a little slap and tickle, strictly on-the-side flings. The next day, they had better be all business; if they moon about romantically or push her for another date, they are likely to get sent to the Montreal office. One young man, Philip Reed, is worshipfully romantic but not lustfully inclinced enough for her taste, so he gets sent all the way to Paris, to study art! (I suspect the character was coded gay.) One night, thinking she needs to get out of her rut, she is on the prowl at a carnival when she meets George Brent. Sparks fly and the next day, she finds out that he is a master engineer just hired by the company. Their affair gets serious, but when he proposes marriage, she more or less laughs in his face, so he splits. Ultimately, she runs after him and agrees to renounce the company if he'll marry her.

That ending makes hash of much that has gone before, forcing a strong and independent woman to settle down at the cost of her career--the situation reminded me a bit of the plot of the recent comedy DOWN WITH LOVE, with Renee Zellweger as an author who seems to advocate casual affairs for women over falling in love. Until the end, however, the film is fun and different. Ferdinand Gottschalk is her secretary, who definitely is coded gay, except for his apparent romantic interest in Ruth Donnelly--they make a rather unconvincing couple in the same way that Edward Everett Horton and Helen Broderick (or Alice Brady) do in the Astaire/Rogers musicals. Other men in Chatterton's life include Johnny Mack Brown, Gavin Gordon, and Douglas Dumbrille. In her office, she has the biggest phone receiver I've ever seen! A few memorable lines: "Unethical? What's that got to do with business?"; "For some women, men are a household necessity--I'd rather have a canary."; she tells her maid, who has been complaining about her husband, "You wouldn't have these problems if you were a fallen woman." I haven't been terribly impressed with Chatterton before, but she's great here. Brent is also good, more charismatic than I've ever seen him. Highly recommended.

Thursday, June 26, 2003


Claudette Colbert brings this predictable soap opera to life, as does the pre-Code atmosphere of sin and decadence. Colbert plays Sally Trent, a chorus girl with, shall we say, aspirations. She gets pregnant by a rich boy (David Manners) who goes gallivanting off to China, not knowing about her predicament. She goes to a charity ward to have the baby and steadfastly refuses to give the father's name, despite the threat that she can be turned away if she doesn't. Afterward, Colbert and another single mom, Lydia Roberti, try to make a go of it as roommates, but ultimately her economic status forces Colbert to give up her child for anonymous adoption to go back to her career. A nicely done montage sequence shows Colbert's rise to fame as a torch singer (using the name Mimi Benton) and all-around figure of scandal. One day, she winds up on the radio, by accident, filling in for a new and nervous children's show host; Colbert does it as a lark, but she's a hit and she remains (under yet another name) on the air, eventually using the show as a way to find her daughter. The futility of the search and the bad influence of her drunken friends cause her to crash and burn, but just then, Manners comes back in her life and manages to locate the girl, adopt her for himself, and reunite with Colbert. We don't see how he accomplishes all this--it's downright supernatural! Colbert is very good throughout whether she's dumpy and weepy, or glamorous and on top of the world; actually, her best scenes are when she's weepy and on top of the world. Manners doesn't have much to do but he looks pretty doing it. Ricardo Cortez is fine as Colbert's society boyfriend who is basically a good egg. Baby LeRoy has a small part as Roberti's child, Charley Grapewin is the radio show sponsor, and Ethel Griffes is Manners' cold-hearted aunt. Despite the occasionally overdone melodrama and the improbable ending, this was fun to watch.

Monday, June 23, 2003

MILLIE (1931)

The actress Helen Twelvetrees has such a unique name, I've always wanted to see a movie of hers. Now that I have, I can safely say that her name is the most memorable thing about her. She's not bad in this fairly interesing melodrama, but the supporting cast outshines her. Twelevetrees is the long-suffering title heroine, whom we first see as a town girl being lusted after by some college boys. From their conversation, it's unclear what her reputation is, but at any rate, she's getting married to James Hall, a businessman from the big city. She has some wedding night jitters, but then we abruptly jump ahead three years; she has a daughter and her husband, she discovers, has a mistress. With some bolstering from gal pals Joan Blondell and Lilyan Tashman, she leaves Hall. Her line to him, "I don't care where I'm seen as long as I'm not seen with you," is reminiscent of Norma Sherear's similar line to her cheating hubby in THE DIVORCEE ("You're the only man in the world my door is closed to"). Millie then gets involved in a string of bad relationships. She moves in with a reporter (Robert Ames) who seems like a nice guy, but who also ends up cheating on her. John Halliday is a longtime admirer who she keeps putting off, and who, years later, has dastardly designs on Millie's teenage daughter (Anita Louise). Halliday takes the girl to his lodge, but Millie finds out and arrives just in time to shoot Halliday. The climax is the court case, where Millie hurts her own chances with the jury by not revealing her motive, hoping her daughter won't get dragged through the mud.

Blondell and Tashman wind up being far more interesting than Twelvetrees. They seem to be subtly coded as lesbians. We first see them sharing a bed, with a landlady present waiting for the rent money. The two are inseparable until Blondell, in a priceless scene, announces her decision to marry for money: "I feel I've done all I can with the present situation," she says, exchanging a loaded glance with Tashman. Twelevetrees and Tashman have a nice scene where, both a bit tipsy, they rail against men ("Nothing but tramps!"). Tashman also has a great, and given the context, wonderfully ambigious line, "When I'm through with a man, I'm just beginning." Frank McHugh has a supporting role as a reporter, and he has his own "queer" moment, mincing through a song called "It's Nice to be a Geranium" at a drunken party. Some long, stagy takes slow the pace occasionally, but it's fairly easy to watch and its pre-Code elements add to the enjoyment.

Saturday, June 21, 2003


Often referred to has a Technicolor film noir, this is really more like a soap opera with a psycho woman from hell as its main character; it perhaps inspired movies from QUEEN BEE to FATAL ATTRACTION. It has murder and a femme fatale, but it doesn't feel very noirish in atmosphere or other details. Gene Tierney (looking lovely and doing the best acting I've seen from her yet) plays Ellen, a "bad" girl whose main fault, according to her mother (Mary Philips), is that she loves too much. The film begins with the funeral of her father, whom she loved obsessively, and soon she transfers that familial obsession to a romantic one when she meets author Cornel Wilde on a train trip. They grow close quickly and she impulsively announces to her family and her ex-boyfriend (Vincent Price, wasted in a role which plays to none of his strengths) the news that she and Wilde are engaged, news that is a bit of a surprise to Wilde. After a brief idyllic time together, things start going badly as she becomes unreasonably jealous of anyone who captures Wilde's attention for any amount of time, including her sister (Jeanne Crain) and Wilde's handicapped little brother (Darryl Hickman). Most of the film takes place in the great outdoors, near mountains and lakes, at rustic cabins in the woods, and the cinematography is colorful and bright. Tierney has at least one great scene which plays out much like the scene in THE LITTLE FOXES where Bette Davis coldly and calculatedly lets someone die. There's another scene where Tierney, jealous now of her own unborn child, throws herself down the stairs to cause a miscarriage; the look on her face as she does this is something to behold. Other members of the cast include Gene Lockhart as a family doctor, Ray Collins, and Chill Wills. The last part of the movie, which becomes a courtroom drama, is anticlimactic. Definitely watchable, thanks largely to Tierney and the lovely settings.

Friday, June 20, 2003


This pre-Code melodrama was apparently inspired by a classic weeper called Madame X which Ruth Chatterton had starred in during the silent era. Here, Chatterton plays Jenny Sandoval, a notorious madam in San Francisco. Her story starts in 1906 when she's a young woman helping her father run a rowdy saloon. She wants to marry a man (James Murray of the silent classic THE CROWD) of whom her father doesn't approve, but before the situation can be resolved, the famous earthquake hits, killing both men. It turns out that Jenny was pregnant by Murray; she has her child with the help of her faithful Chinese companion (Helen Jerome Eddy). As she makes a living for herself through shady activities, she gets involved in helping a big shot lawyer (Louis Calhern) cover up a murder; she winds up implicated, but nothing can be proven so the charges are dropped. Still, a child welfare group takes her baby away to be raised by a well-off family. Many years later, Jenny is living well as a high-class madam and has followed from afar the career of her son (Donald Cook) who is now district attorney. The melodramatic plot machinations kick into overdrive here; suffice to say that just as Chatterton decides to retire and go to Europe, Calhern threatens to expose her ties to her son. Right in front of her son, Chatterton kills Calhern before he can blurt out her secret. Of course, Cook winds up prosecuting his own mother. There is some interesting camerawork here and there, and the earthquake scenes are nicely handled. Chatteron and Calhern are good, and Cook bears enough of a resemblance to Murray that briefly I thought Murray was playing a dual role as father and son. Eddy doesn't come off all that well--the main way she is made to seem Chinese is to have thick and shiny black hair. It didn't seem to occur to anyone to have a Chinese actress play the part. The up-front depiction of prostitution is the film's primary pre-Code quality; the story ends (predictably) rather badly for Chatterton, so she winds up punished for her independence and her strength. Interesting, especially in its first half, but not exactly compelling.

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

SO BIG (1932)

An adaptation of a "sprawling" Edna Ferber novel (she also wrote Showboat). I haven't read the book but this feels like an abruptly truncated adaptation. It's the story of one woman's life, from her relatively carefree youth to hard working farm wife and mother. A couple of major chunks of plotline seem to have been left out in the film. Barbara Stanwyck is the woman, raised in Chicago by her decent but somewhat shady gambling father. Just as she graduates from college he dies, leaving her with nothing. She gets a job outside the big city as a teacher in a farming community. Although it takes a while for her to fit in, she develops a mentoring freindship with a teenage boy (Dick Winslow); he longs to be educated and has an artistic bent, but his father (Alan Hale) needs him around the farm. Stanwyck gives him books to read and encourages his sketching--they both find some aspects of the rough land to be beautiful. Stanwyck marries and has a son and is sad to see Winslow leave home to find his way elsewhere, but she tries to raise her son to be independent and to go after his dreams. The movie makes an abrupt jump of over 20 years; Stanwyck's husband dies but she runs a business (involving prized asparagus) that allows her to live better--this plotline is very vague, as though quite a bit had been cut out from the book. Her son (Hardie Albright) goes to school to be an architect but decides that there's more money in selling bonds. The neighbor boy grows up to be a well known artist (George Brent) and eventually tracks Stanwyck down to let her know how much she inspired him. Much of the movie plays out like an episodic melodrama, though things rarely get too bogged down in pathos. Winslow is especially good as the young neighbor; Albright's callowness suits his character. Bette Davis has a small role as Albright's girlfriend but she has very little to do. OK, but not a classic; mostly for hardcore Stanwyck fans.

Monday, June 16, 2003


The title of this Warner Brothers B-film has almost no relevance to its plot. Still, this is a fairly enjoyable hour-long potpourri of crime story, romance, and even musical. The movie opens with George Reeves, a clerk at a drugstore, getting held up. Through fast thinking, he saves the day, collects a reward, and buys the store (talk about entrepreneurship!). The story then focuses on his brother, Dennis Morgan, a nightclub singer who does a humorous number dressed as a policeman, designed to get some kisses from the female clientele. The act backfires with Glenda Dickson, who comes from a family of policemen (Irish, of course), so Morgan decides to impress her by joining the force. He has to put up with Dickson's cop boyfriend (John Payne, young and lovely, but with an unflattering pencil-thin mustache), who really puts him through the paces during training. Hot-headed Morgan winds up suspended from the force for fighting, but when Reeves (remember him?) is killed by the gang behind the first hold-up, Morgan helps the cops track down the bad guys and saves Payne's life (and finally wins Dickson once and for all). Payne is much more likeable here than Morgan, who is too cocky for me; I kept wanting him to get knocked down a peg. John Hamilton, who played Perry White to George Reeves's Superman on TV, is the head cop. Fast-paced and fun, though I really thought Dickson should have chosen Payne.

Thursday, June 12, 2003


A newspaper romance that borrows a bit from THE FRONT PAGE (and therefore anticipates HIS GIRL FRIDAY). Bette Davis and George Brent are rival reporters who are also sort of in love. He wants her to give up her career for marriage and she wants him to admit that she is the equal of any male reporter. They both end up covering a murder case which in itself is not particularly interesting and never developed enough for the audience to care about, unlike the similar case in HIS GIRL FRIDAY. The two cheat each other in order to scoop each other and get into plenty of trouble with their bosses and the law. Finally, in a foregone conclusion, he admits that she *is* a great reporter and she agrees to quit her job and marry him. Except for the rather dispiriting ending, the movie is light and diverting. Roscoe Karns is Brent's photographer pal who seems to be subtly coded gay--and a dyke reporter named Nell (!) makes a brief appearance. Davis has two memorable lines: "Why don't you build a statue of yourself and hold services on Sunday?" and "When you smile like that, you look like a sick cat."

Tuesday, June 10, 2003


This is one of those short B-films that today would wind up as a TV pilot. Joan Blondell and Wallace Ford are two good souls who are at present down and out in New York City; they meet in Central Park and rather improbably fall in love--I like Ford, but he isn't really Blondell's speed. She is approached by some cops and asked to be a decoy for them in a sting operation later that evening; it turns out the "cops" are actually crooks who are using her as a front to pull off a jewelry heist at a big charity function. Meanwhile, we see a seemingly unrelated story develop, with Guy Kibbee as a Central Park cop just days away from retirement; the secret he's keeping, so that he will be sure to get his pension, is that he is going blind. He can fake it just enough to get by and is counting the days until he retires, but he has reason to worry when he hears that a former park zookeeper turned lunatic has escaped and may come back to his old haunt. That night, all the stories converge in the park, where a lion escapes from the zoo and terrorizes the area. Kibbee is responsible for letting the lunatic escape, but he gets a chance to redeem himself when the jewel crooks cross his path. Ford and Blondell are good together, but they seem more like buddies than potential lovers. Kibbee is a little less befuddled and a little more serious than his usual persona. There is footage of the real Central Park interspersed throughout the movie, though it seems pretty clear that the stars weren't on location. Lots of chases and fisticuffs in the last half keep this moving along nicely.

Friday, June 06, 2003


Not *all* forgotten pre-Code movies necessarily deserve to be found. I'm not sure if this one, an early production of David O. Selznick's, was actually ever lost, but it's very difficult to find information about in the reference books. Directed by Gregory LaCava (MY MAN GODFREY), it's like a "Reefer Madness" view (both in content and production values) of college students and their dating behaviors. Richard Cromwell (future husband of Angela Lansbury, and looking here a bit like Leonardo DiCaprio) plays a nice college boy who is in love with Dorothy Wilson, but flirts actively with others to stay "cool." The two have a fight and he stays up all night with the exotic but somewhat slutty waitress Arline Judge. Her father, Reginald Barlow, discovers them at 4 a.m. and demands a shotgun wedding. Professor John Halliday, who himself had a sad experience with love as a youth, helps the boy out of his dilemma. Eric Linden plays Duke, the slick lad who winds up, with Wilson, in a serious car crash. Grady Sutton has a small role as a student looking for his missing boxer shorts! The college atmosphere seems a bit more realistic than in a movie like GOOD NEWS, with lots of comic scenes between students stressing their casual attitudes about love and sex--and like most movies about college, there is almost no talk about classes. Moderately interesting if only because of the subject matter, but it certainly has its tedious stretches.

Tuesday, June 03, 2003


This was James Cagney's first film, and it's kind of a dry run for his later, more well known roles as a mother-obsessed bad guy in THE PUBLIC ENEMY and WHITE HEAT. Cagney wasn't first-billed, but he is the most compelling presence in the movie. The story takes place in a Coney Island-type amusement park where Cagney's mother (Lucille LaVerne) runs a penny arcade. Cagney helps out a little, but spends most of his time hanging out with shady characters and gambling. When big-time gangster Warren Hymer leaves for a few days, he puts Cagney in charge of his bootlegging business. Cagney skims a little off the top and when Hymer returns, he finds out and comes after him. In a middle of the night confrontation, Cagney shoots him dead, then loses his nerves and confesses, scared and blubbering, to his mother, who will do what she can to help her boy, even it it means framing innocent Grant Withers, a big lug who works odd jobs at the park and is sweet on Cagney's sister (Evalyn Knapp). Joan Blondell plays Cagney's girl--she doesn't have a lot to do with the plot, but like Cagney, she brings the movie to life whenever she's on screen. Withers looks the part, but his character is underwritten and he doesn't have the charisma that Cagney does, so despite getting first billing, Withers is overwhelmed by Cagney and Blondell. One character, played by Noel Madison, is named Buck Rogers! Short and sweet, with Cagney's breakdown the highlight of the movie.

Sunday, June 01, 2003


Turner Classic Movies featured pre-Code (1930-1934) movies in May, highlighting some wonderful films in conjunction with a very good book by Mick LaSalle called COMPLICATED WOMEN. I'm planning on spending much of this month getting around to some of those TCM films, and other movies of the same era. This one is a good starting point, as it's a film that certainly could not have been released after the Code crackdown in the summer of 1934. It's about a woman who can't choose between two suitors and so winds us having them both. The opening is a delight, and the best scene in the film. On a train to Paris, two buddies are stretched out and snoozing in their compartment: Gary Cooper is an artist and Fredric March is a playwright, neither very successful, and both perhaps a little proud of that. Miriam Hopkins enters the car and settles down across from them, between their propped-up feet. She, a successful commercial artist, sketches them then stretches out herself and nods off. As Cooper slowly wakes up, his hand grazes Hopkins' leg, leading to a moment on confusion before they all wake up and get to know each other. In Paris, they embark on a platonic menage a trois, living together with a "gentleman's agreement" to avoid sex. She helps both men attain success, and when March heads off to London for the opening of his play, Hopkins, deciding that she's "no gentleman," breaks their agreement and has an affair with Cooper. March takes it fairly well, but when he returns to Paris months later while Cooper is away, he and Hopkins have what amounts to a one-night stand. Cooper returns and catches them during what is clearly a post-coital breakfast. They all quarrel and Hopkins leaves them both for a passionless marriage to her stuffy mentor, Edward Everett Horton (playing an early and far less sinister version of the Clifton Webb character in LAURA). Later in New York, the two men come to Hopkins' rescue during a boring buisnessmen's party.

In the original Noel Coward play, there are hints of homoeroticism between the two men, but those are gone in the film, and I think it actually works better that way. Cooper and March are close friends who genuinely love each other and fall in love with the same girl, who falls for both of them. When the sexless menage doesn't work, the ending strongly implies that they will reach some kind of understanding between them; whether than means "time-sharing" or love as a trio is up to the viewer. Hopkins is sexy and frothy, playing a very independent woman; even when she gives in to the sexless Horton, it's clear that she's thought it through and made what seems like the most logical decision for the situation. March is almost as good, though Cooper feels a bit out of his element here. The most memorable line aside from Hopkins' "...and I'm no gentleman" is Horton's warning to both Cooper and March when he suspects early on that they are both (separately) carrying on with Hopkins: "Immorality may be fun, but it's not enough to take the place of 100% virtue and three square meals a day!" The Paris apartment set is nice, looking quite bohemian and lived in. The film loses some energy in the middle, but the first and last sections are great fun. Franklin Pangborn and Jane Darwell also appear. Ernst Lubitsch directed from a script by Ben Hecht that he was pround of having almost totally rewritten from the Coward play.