Hollywood Before the Code: “Nasty-Ass Movies for a Nasty-Ass World” at the Roxie Theater, San Francisco
By Richard von Busack
a place full of bewildered people who don’t understand they’re all in the wrong movie. The razz of saxophones blare underneath the too-bright neon, and every dark alley has a lurker in it. In the unpainted Walker Evans shacks around downtown, people close their windows and try to tune out the screams.
In one hovel, Donna Reed, with crowsfeet drawn on her cheekbones, plays an old maid who never got swept off her feat by the unborn George Bailey. You’d feel sorry for her—it’s too bad about the budget cuts that closed the Pottersville library. But this never was the kind of town that went for book learning. And a girl who looked like that should have gone into burlesque anyway.
When you’re visiting, do what the locals do. Tip whichever cop you see first a sawbuck—it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law. Then kiss the well worn bronze of the right wheel of the Potter Monument; at 500 feet tall, it’s the largest statue of a handicapped man ever built. They say it brings good luck.
Then stop at Nick’s (corner of 1st and S. Springfield) for a round or three or four, but don’t ask for anything foo-foo! Nick the bartender (Sheldon Leonard) spells it out for the slow-learners class: “We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don’t need any characters around to give the joint `atmosphere.’”
And then, with the rye burning a hole in your gut, stagger 400 feet to the Potter Theater (120 S. Springfield). The old girl sure could use a dash of paint, a little sweeping and few barrels of rat poison. And they say the man who invented Velcro got the idea from the way the old fleapit’s carpeting clung to his shoes. But no one could fault the kind of fare the Potter offers.
No one who values their health, anyway.
Not everyone is lucky enough to go to Pottersville, but Elliot Lavine and the Roxy Cinema in San Francisco try to recreate that one of a kind movie-going experience in a week-long program of Hollywood Before the Code: Nasty-Ass Films for A Nasty-Ass World (Mar 2-8).
If there’s a thread, it’s in the pre-code dates (nothing older than 1934) of these features; the early 1930s represented hard times for the film industry, and they were willing to shock an audience good to get some keisters into loges. Perhaps the indelicate title of this retrospective of some actually quite distinguished films is supposed to have the same effect. What are you waiting for?
Scarface/Three On a Match
The best of the 1930s gangster films. Some of the supposed classic gangster movies, such as Little Caesar and Public Enemy, turn out to be middling films graced with iconic performances by Bogart, Cagney or Edgar G. Robinson. Working under Howard Hughes, director Howard Hawks had a model for this: scriptwriter Ben Hecht’s previous gangster drama Underworld; it could be said that Hawks’ version of Scarface begins pretty much on the morning when Underworld’s set piece ends, at a confetti-and-streamers-choked Criminal’s Ball. And yet this one is unique: a dark, expressionist work, with grand shadows, blazing electric signs and oversized acting. The letter X predominating as a motif: either as double-crosses or the checking off of a settled score. Yet Scarface isn’t stagy, like a lot of expressionist film; it’s extraordinarily kinetic, charged with almost 1999 levels of collisions and gunfire; the scene of a beer barrel rolling loose from a truck, crashing through a wall, and killing a baby in a basement apartment is almost always quoted when someone is making a film about the war on crime in the Depression.
The various censor boards that tried to cut Scarface were right to worry: it has a crackling, wise-ass script, and it races along breathlessly, high on crime. Paul Muni, with an X-shaped scar on his left cheek, plays the thug Tony Camonte, whose rise and fall are hastened by his unnatural love for his sister (hot and mad-eyed Ann Dvorak); Anthony Perkins’ father Osgood is his soon to be x’d out boss, and Boris Karloff and George Raft are among the local criminal talent. 35mm print.
BILLED WITH Three on a Match. Three girls who were fellow students at P.S. 62 go their separate ways: Mary (Joan Blondell) ends up in reform school; Bette Davis becomes a secretary; and Vivian (Dvorak), the ritziest of the three, marries well but sickens of the rich life. She ditches her silk-hatted husband (an uncustomarily boring Warren William) in favor of strong drink and weak men. It’s Dvorak’s picture. Her awkward but forceful acting has something juicy that smoother actors lack. Humphrey Bogart has a small part as the kind of stolid, staring gunman type he’d later be mocking, right before punching them out. Did Bogart learn the toast “Here’s looking at you” from this movie?
Freaks/Island of Lost Souls
Experts differ over whether the chant is “gabba gabba” “gabble gabble,” “gibble gobble,” “hooble hobble” or even “Santorum in 2012,” but the upshot is the same: whatever the exact wording, the phrase is Freakenese for “an insult to one is an insult to all”. Your standard “Midget gets girl, midget loses girl, midget gets payback” melodrama by Tod Browning against the background of a circus, with a midway full of true-life differently-abled performers readying to join in the action. The less said about it the better, but you definitely won’t be going out for a bucket of chicken after the show. 16mm print.
BILLED WITH Island of Lost Souls. The Ramones picked up the freak rebel yell in the song “Pinhead”; likewise the band Devo helped themselves to the group-cheer of the denizens of the Island of Dr. Moreau, hell on earth by any other name. Charles Laughton, looking like an evil version of popular jazz sensation Paul Whiteman, is in the genetic modification trade. He uses his hairy majordomo (a shockingly made up Bela Lugosi) to do a little morals inculcation to the creatures he creates with serum and blade. It doesn’t take.
Richard Arlen and Leila Hayams as the shipwrecked on-lookers; Hammond, Indiana’s Kathleen Burke was picked out of 60,000 applicants to play Lota, the Panther Woman. Banned in England for three decades. 35mm print.
The Bitter Tea of General Yen/The Cheat
At just 88 minutes long, a breakthrough film. Not just a breakthrough for its director Frank Capra, who rightly understood it as one of his best works. Nor was it just a breakthrough for the studio, which was then one more low-budget dweller on Gower Street’s Poverty Row. It had its hopes: Columbia supposedly spent the vast sum of $1 million on The Bitter Tea of General Yen, and it was the first movie ever to play New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. But the real breakthrough in this compelling, dreamy romance are the racial taboos it shatters. During the Chinese Civil War, Megan (Barbara Stanwyck), a new arrival in Shanghai, hits the ground running. She and her husband plan to rescue some orphans. They’re separated. Megan wakes up as the honored guest of a Chinese warlord, General Yen (Nils Asther).
The movie belongs to an age when directors shaved a Scandinavian’s eyebrows and called him an Asian. But one would have to be desperately politically correct not to succumb to Asther’s humorous yet Byronic acting. “He was a marshmallow,” claimed his leading lady, who enjoyed a marshmallow now and then. Stanwyck who completely leaches the schmaltz out of this film. The actress, who never had a grain of Victorian prudery onscreen, modernizes the material by gives herself to it completely. “I accepted it, believed in it, and loved it” she told director Frank Capra’s biographer Joseph McBride.
McBride mentions the one director you might have expected to make such a film: Josef von Sternberg. There’s something of von Sternberg’s smoky languor in a scene where Megan watches peasants stealing into a grove of blossoming cherry trees to make love. But Capra’s no-nonsense plot grounds this movie admirably. Tightly crafted, almost brutal action sequences obscure the back-lot production values. And there is a voice of common sense amid the rapture. Yen’s moneyman (portly cynic Walter Connolly) growls his way through the film, briskly dispensing with the white-man outrage: “It’s no skin off my nose.” Connolly has the last word, a remarkable half-drunk monologue about the Buddhist wheel of life. The frightening idea of the Other—forbidding, inscrutable—dissolves in one of Capra’s rippling pools of images. 35mm print.
BILLED WITH The Cheat.
Apparently based on a story that won that year’s Bad Somerset Maugham Writing Competition, it’s a sound remake of a well-known Sessue Hayakawa picture of 1915. The villain is the later-blacklisted Irving Pichel, the son in law of Berkeley’s socialist mayor Jackson Stitt Wilson; he’s kind of a cross of Jack Palance and Shemp Howard. In this revenge melodrama, Pichel plays a kimono-wearing brute with a lot of money. Getting some of that cash lures in a happily married wife. The latter role gives one a chance to see Tallulah Bankhead, who never made the impression in films that she made on stage. She was a sensation, however: a well born Southerner, a world-class drinker, as crushed over by men as women; already the excesses were starting to tell on a face that once made Drew Barrymore look like a frump. 35mm print.
Murder at the Vanities/The Sensation Hunters
“Through these portals pass the most beautiful women in the world,” boasted nightclub owner Earl Carroll in neon lights. (Here’s what his club looked like in its prime.) Those beautiful women are on walkers now, but thanks to Mitchell Leisen’s featherweight comedy mystery, we can see them in their prime. Assistant manager Jack Oakie is on duty, having a raffish feud with a cop he forgot to put on the guest list. Said cop, Victor McLaglen, has to solve a backstage killing: “Maybe I’ll investigate this murder to music!” He peeps the nudie tableau-vivant stage acts; meanwhile Carl Brisson belabors “Cocktails for Two” so frequently that only Spike Jones’ version can save you the next day. And what do you know, Sir Duke Ellington himself performing something called “The Rape of the Rhapsody”; meanwhile Charles “Ming the Merciless” Middleton plays a reincarnated Liszt, tearing his hair out in frustration, before executing the entire orchestra with a tommy gun. Top that, Baz Luhrmann. 35mm print.
BILLED WITH The Sensation Hunters. An ocean-liner full of “a new load of squab” is heading for the Bull Ring Club in Panama City, a place desperate for the semi-choreographed antics of Trixie Schell and the Hotcha Girls. The girls promise to “knock you on your tortilla!”: Hollywood considered it one undifferentiated brown mass from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego in those days, as we see at the club: everyone from Argentine gauchos to banditos with knives.
Among the honeys are Jerry Royal (Arline Judge, like Debbie Reynolds in her saltiest period). Smart as she is, Jerry can’t wise up the film’s good girl Dale (Marion Burns, miming indigestion) who herself is caught between a raffish flyboy and a hardworking engineer.
It’s an all no name-cast: the well-upholstered Trixie is played by former teen star Juanita Hansen: a teen-star, that is, in the sense that she was a star in the nineteen teens. And Walter Brennan is umpteenth billed as a rube waiter.
Who needs stars when you can watch these dames act up as they judge the men (“it’s a regular he-harem!”), or sass the captain of the ocean liner (“How’s your old comp-ass?”), or watch Judge horsing around with a monocle she pinched off an English lecher. Off-screen, Judge must have liked men: she married 8 of them. Ultimately, Charles (Gilda) Vidor’s made-for-Monogram pic would be snugly joined in a double bill with either Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or The Wages of Fear. Note Whitman Chambers, who wrote the story, also wrote the novel used as the basis for a film called Sinner Take All. Note also the jazzy wipes used to shuffle this along, including the hithero unseen “elevator wipe” and “arrowhead wipe.” 16mm print.
Ladies of the Big House/Blondie Johnson
Nice account of the appeal of Joan Blondell here. Blondell was, as a title card once called her, an “armful of heaven”; the bright-eyed, light-footed, quick-witted dame in many early Warner Brothers musicals. Right on the edge between “maternal” and “seductive”, Blondell anticipates other comediennes who never were huge name above the title types, and yet who still have a rabid following (Catherine O’Hara, Anna Faris and Teri Garr come to mind). So it’s fitting Blondell is the mascot for this mini-fest. She appears in one of the few films made for her Blondie Johnson, as a girl who works her way up to the head of the rackets.
BILLED WITH Ladies of the Big House. Romanian-born Sylvia Sidney had one of the saddest faces in the movies—“they should have paid me by the tear,” she said of her career—but she was tough enough to have endured into the Tim Burton era; she’s the grandma whose Slim Whitman record saves planet Earth in Mars Attacks!) Heaven help the interviewer who phoned up without realizing she was nobody’s sweetheart. Here, Sidney plays a flower-girl who ends up framed and in jail, there encountering the previous girlfriend of the man who set her up.
The Story of Temple Drake/Call Her Savage
William Faulkner’s sordid but frequently incisive 1931 novel Sanctuary was the source for this shocker. Temple Drake, a man-teasing college girl—”too young to realize that people don’t just break the law for a holiday”—is abandoned by her drunken cake-eater boyfriend in a bootlegger’s lair. She’s raped and falls into sexual slavery, but goes along with it, maybe liking it, maybe not—and thereby hang a thousand English-lit theses. Miriam Hopkins stars as the Southern belle gone wrong; Jack La Rue is the “Popeye” character, renamed “Trigger.”
BILLED WITH Call Her Savage. “The titian-haired Clara Bow, who has had a lengthy vacation from the screen, is the termagant of the film Call Her Savage which is now at the Roxy [sic]”—Mordaunt Hall, New York Times, Nov 25, 1932. Silent movie sex symbol Clara Bow’s penultimate film is well known for its gay bar sequence. When not guzzling there, Bow’s Nasa Springer marries a drunk, squanders a fortune and takes a whip to a half-breed. Based on a novel by Tiffany Ellsworth Thayer, a flat earthest and the founder of the Fortean society. The Neglected Books blog notes that F. Scott Fitzgerald once described Thayer’s works as slime, nosed by curious children. Photographed by Lee Garmes.
The Black Cat aka House of Doom aka The Vanishing Body and Kongo
“Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not.” Edgar Ulmer threw out Poe’s story of a drunkard’s cat-killing rampage. Keeping the title, he made a threnody for World War One, scored with only the most apropos use of Beethoven’s 7th ever heard in a film. (Only Tarsem Singh’s 2006 The Fall can approach it.) It is, writes critic Phil Hardy, “a mortal duel between conducted by two men beyond mortal concerns, one because he has reached the limits of suffering, the other because he has passed the limits of cruelty.” It’s a melodrama, but an unusually vivid one: two innocents are drawn by accident to the modernist castle of Boris Karloff, a Satanist who decided to pitch his palace on the site of a WWI battlefield. “A masterpiece of construction built upon the ruins of the masterpiece of destruction…” Lugosi’s Dr. Vitus Verdegast muses; the doctor is on the scene to discuss some serious unfinished business with this priest of evil. If you’re getting déjà vu about the business of the floating female body in the vitrine, it was pinched by the makers of the animated The Adventures of Batman as the tomb for the living Mrs. Nora Friese, and has been used as a trope in Batmania ever since. 35mm print.
BILLED WITH Kongo. Basically an itch-house version of Heart of Darkness (Colon of Darkness might be a good title) though officially a sound remake of Lon Cheney’s West of Zanzibar featuring the actor who originated the role on stage, Walter Huston. He’s a legless trader who got into the Nietzsche or something, menacing the gibbering natives with stage magic; but he has a score to settle (and a scoreboard, yet, nailed up in his hut) and a plan to revenge himself on the person who kicked out his spine. Impressive stunt work by Huston, who has to do a lot of climbing: his devilishness led into a role as Satan in All That Money Can Buy not long after this. The wicked and tightly saronged Lupe Velez ornaments his lodge.