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Susti Heaven

Brand Perfect

Closet Nomad


Studio: Warner Home Video
Year: 1932-33
Cast: Mary Astor, James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, George Barnet, Lyle Talbot, Loretta Young
Director: William A. Wellman
Release Date: April 21, 2009, 1:43 pm
Rating: Not Rated for
Run Time: 07h:01m:46s

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Six films' worth of pre-Code goodness, from the TCM Archives.

Movie Grade: A-

DVD Grade: A-

I'm a naughty boy for having such a fondness for pre-Hays Code Hollywood pictures. It's always kind of a revelation to see themóthings got too saucy for the general public, apparently, some time in the mid 1930s, and so the production code came rolling in: no nudity, no profanity, bad guys get punished, along with odd little prohibitions, like no toilets. The pre-Code pictures are tame compared to anything that's on cable or even network TV these days, but it's always kind of refreshing, to see people from back in the day talking about getting drunk and getting laid. Things have changed a whole lot less than Grandma wants you to think.

This set of six bon bons, all directed by William A. Wellman, kicks off with Other Men's Women, though it really should just be Other Man's WomanóBill Grant Withers) and Jack (Regis Toomey) are pals working together on the railroad, but the dirty little secret comes out: Bill has the hots for Jack's wife, Lily, played by a flapperesque Mary Astor. Trouble is, she feels the same way, giving this the setup of what would later be called film noiróbut it doesn't make good on the premise of doing away with someone, alas, and becomes a tale of self-sacrifice. How boring is that?

It's especially notable for a supporting performance by James Cagney as a railyard swell, hopping a ride on the trains and then turning out nattily in a tux when it's time to take his best girl dancing. The camera work is dark and moody, lending it still more of a proto-noir air, but there are some bizarro choices, like P.O.V. shots from a blind man's perspective. (There are some sound problems, tooósome of the dialogue is muffled to the point of incomprehensibility, and you may want to snap on the subtitles.) Aside from an original trailer, the only extra of note with this one is a cartoon short, which comes with an apologetic intro for the 1930 clip not conforming to our contemporary political sensibilities.

Barbara Stanwyck is a saucy little number in the second half of the Disc One double feature, The Purchase Priceóshe plays Joan, a nightclub singer who thinks that she's reeled in the big fish with a rich beau. But Daddy's private dick finds out that the most prominent of her many boyfriends, Eddie, is a bootlegger, and worseóJoan lights out to Montreal to cool out, using an alias, and becomes an inadvertent mail order bride to avoid her past.

It's a classic fish-out-of-water setup, with the New York siren as the North Dakota prairie wifeóit's the same premise as
Sister Act
, basically, but with loggers instead of nuns. You've got to admire the efficiency of these moviesóthis one clocks in at a brisk 67 minutes and actually doesn't feel hurried. It's not much for verisimilitude, though, as lots of the picture looks like a Southern California backlot covered in Idaho Flakes to pass for North Dakota snow. (Along with an original trailer and another politically incorrect cartoon is a 1931 short, The Wall Street Mystery, with enough dastardly doings for Bernard Madoff and AIG combined.)

The first feature on Disc Two offers the vaguely Brechtian title Frisco Jenny, and even in 1932 Hollywood was a sucker for nostalgiaóstock footage from San Francisco and a title card reading "1906" prepare us for the earthquake, but not before we meet the title character, palyed by Ruth Chatterton. She's a working girl in a seedy nightclubóit's a whorehouse in all but name (even the pre-Code days had its limits). She's ready to run off with Dan the piano player, but her father, who runs the joint, isn't having it. What we get is part disaster movie, and part Mrs. Warren's Professionóthe quake offs the old man, Jenny is knocked up, and we gallop through the years as she gives her child up to a prosperous East Bay couple as she becomes Northern California's pre-eminent madame. Stylistically, the film is a reminder of how close we are to silent picturesóthis is as much nineteenth-century melodrama as anything elseóand even features a few bars of the USC fight song. Along with an original trailer, we get The Studio Murder Mystery, a contemporaneous short.

Loretta Young is our next bad girl, as Midnight Mary, a gun moll who can't catch a break. She's on trial for murder, and the ungainly framing device is her waiting in the court clerk's office, scanning the bindings of annual reports, and recalling what happened to her in the years on the calendar. We're in a world of gangsterism, of carnality and domestic violence, and a pursuit of that elusive commodity: class. It's a movie, on some level, about the trouble a swell pair of gams can get a girl into; as Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta point out on a workmanlike commentary track, the dangers of female sensuality may have been the most pressing perceived need for the production code. Other extras: Goofy Movies #1, in which MGM offers wacky hijinks like Minnie the Pretzel Twister; and Bosco's Parlor Pranks, notable for being an animated short in color, and a shameless Mickey/Pluto ripoff.

Loretta Young is featured in the first film on the third disc, but the name above the title is Robert Barthlmessóno, I'd never heard of him before eitheróand in Heroes for Sale, he's perpetually in the wrong place at the wrong time. The movie gallops ferociously with plotóit starts as a war picture, with Barthelmess as Tom in the trenches of World War I, fighting the "Heinies"óhe gets set up, and his act of heroism is claimed by the son of a rich man who's just plain yeller. It's like Hail the Conquering Hero but played without laughs; soon it becomes a junkie movie, with Tom trying to get off the morphine, and later turns into a Luddite screed about the evils of machines and automation, ending with a populist uprising that's of a piece with the conclusion of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. John Gallagher provides a strong and useful commentary trackóhe's great on Wellman and on the pre-Code Warner Brothers house style. Also here is a short, The Trans-Atlantic Mystery, about a jewel heist at the Stanhope; and an animated kitty chorus Sittin' on a Backyard Fence.

The set concludes with the wild ride that is Wild Boys of the Road, which starts like an Andy Hardy picture and ends up like The Grapes of Wrath It's all fun and games when Tommy and Eddie want to go to the danceógirls get in free, but it's seventy-five cents for boys, and when Tommy realizes he's flat broke, he borrows his best girl's shawl and hat and sneaks in to the party in drag. Things fall off in a hurry, though, and this quickly becomes a film about the price so many families paid during the Depressionóit's got a grim new relevance in our own economic times, in fact. Eddie's dad loses his job; Eddie sells his beat-up old car, then starts riding the rail, looking for work, and the film turns into the anarchic tale of marauding bands of unemployed, unemployable youth. It's got a Grand Guignol quality to it as well, rife with dismemberment and riots, most disturbingly with the police turning firehoses on hungry young men to turn them back as they try to get their first decent meal in weeks.

This one also sports perhaps the best of the commentary tracks, with Wellman biographer Frank Thompson, and the director's son, William Wellman Jr.óthey're warm and chatty and obviously enjoying celebrating the Wellman legacy. The accompanying cartoon, One Step Ahead of My Shadow, earns its politically incorrect warning by displaying every imaginable grotesque stereotype of Asians, seven minutes of animated yellow peril in black and white.

The bonus fourth disc brings still more info about Wellman, though not focused on the period of these films. Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick is a feature-length documentary, narrated by Alec Baldwin, with lots of clips of more famous Wellman pictures like Wings and The Public Enemy, many stills, and interviews with famous fans (like Martin Scorsese and Robert Wise) and actors who provide a link to Wellman's era and our own, a roster that includes Clint Eastwood, James Garner, Sidney Poitier, and (!) Nancy Reagan. And Sydney Pollack narrated the relevant installment of Richard Schickel's series The Men Who Made the Movies, which covers a lot of the same territory, but is particularly notable for having lots of great vintage Wellman interview footage.

Jon Danziger April 21, 2009, 1:43 pm