Tag Archives: Pre-Code

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) AND THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)

‘s The Old Dark House (1932) might be seen as a companion piece to his Bride Of Frankenstein (1935). Both represent Whale at his most personal within the grand-guignol genre. While Bride Of Frankenstein is post-Production Code, so that it’s thinly disguised gay spirituality had to be delivered indirectly via myth, the pre-Code Old Dark House is awash with eccentric characters mocking dogmatic, false religious morality. Tackling hypocrisy within religion was a frequent theme with this director. Like , Whale applied the critique through cutting humor. However, as a Surrealist, Buñuel naturally didn’t give a damn about the intended audience; Whale deliberately sought accessibility. As his character states in the biopic Gods And Monsters: “The trick is, not to spoil it for those who aren’t in on the joke.”

Both films are replete with Whale’s idiosyncratic humor. However, Whale’s British sensibilities are more pronounced in The Old Dark House, which makes it a stand apart from the other Carl Laemmle-produced Whale films. Although it opened to good box office in the States, The Old Dark House failed to repeat the success of Frankenstein. It did phenomenally well in England and throughout Europe, but it was simply too sophisticated for hayseed domestic audiences, and business quickly tailed off (it also undoubtedly suffered from the Freaks anti-horror backlash). The Old Dark House was only revived once in the States, its rights lapsed, and the film languished in obscurity. It was considered lost for over a decade before a print was discovered (Whale died believing it to be forever lost). It was partly restored by preservationist and Whale confidant . Near the end of his life, star Boris Karloff was grateful when informed of the discovery. The Old Dark House has been released on DVD via Kino, but still shows some deterioration. Hopefully, a more thorough restoration will be forthcoming.

R.C. Sheriff and Benn Levy adapted J.B. Priestly’s “Benighted” and, under Whale’s orchestration, superseded the original literary source. The film’s cast responds to Whale’s deviant humor with contagious enthusiasm. The film had to be as much fun to make as it is to watch.

Still from The Old Dark House (1932)The Old Dark House opens with travelers seeking refuge from a storm. Sanctuary appears in the form of an old dark Welsh house, but its promise of shelter is a facade. Unknown to Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) and their hitchhiking companion Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) a tempest is brewing within the house. They are joined by two more “invaders” who belatedly enter the scene: Gladys (Lilian Bond, oozing sex) and Sir William Continue reading PRE-CODE HEAVEN: OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) AND THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932) AND MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933)

The Mask Of Fu Manchu (1932) is a pre-Code pulp serial dressed up as a feature. It is grounded in its period, which includes a considerable amount of racist baggage. If you can get past that aspect, The Mask Of Fu Manchu is a pleasantly dumb, super-sized bag of heavily salted, heavily buttered theater popcorn.

At the movie’s center is ‘s crisply malicious performance as Manchu, which should go down as one of the most memorable examples of ham acting, on a level with Ricardo Montalbaln in The Wrath Of Kahn. The Caucasian-as-Oriental was a 30s and 40s casting fad (Peter Lorre, , Myrna Loy, and Karloff were frequent favorites in this department). revived the trend in the 60s when cast as Fu Manchu in a series of films. In contrast to Lee’s laconic portrayal of the Asian super villain, Karloff plays it to the hilt; his body language—from his condescending, sadistic grin to his prickly use of his hands—is electric. Manchu is clearly bisexual, and Karloff invests the character with a debauchery that rivals his Hjalmar Poelzig. He introduces Fah Lo See (Loy) to his subjects with these lines: “I am the most unfortunate of men. I have no son to follow me. Therefore, in shame I ask you to receive a message from my ugly and insignificant daughter.” Fu Manchu backs up his disdain for his offspring with an offer to pimp her out, which fails to earn much compassion from us for the poor girl, since Loy goes the distance in portraying Asian women unsympathetically. Loy’s performance is wildly uneven: bouts of lethargy are followed by orgasmic fiendishness (at its most fully-baked when she plays voyeur to a white man being horse whipped by two Africans). Half of her performance admirably competes with Karloff.

Still from The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)Although an atypical MGM production, Mask of Fu Manchu was lined with typical top studio talent. Co-written by Edgar Allen Wolf (The Wizard Of Oz) and John Willard (The Cat And The Canary), co-directed by Charles Brabin (1925’s Ben-Hur) and Charles Vidor (1946), gowns by the famous Adrian (Grand Hotel), and art direction by Cedric Gibbons (Singin’ in the Rain).

The Mask Of Fu Manchu is filled to the brim with mockery of Christian platitudes. Fu Manchu and Fah Lo See take every opportunity to sadistically ridicule WASP hypocrisy and, as bland as the heroes are, it’s easy to root for the villains—particularly when the opium addled antagonists are gleefully preparing to sacrifice the dull, virginal Karen Morley as she screams: “You hideous yellow monsters!” The plot is ho-hum, and the film manages to be alternately animated and static. It’s the trashy dialogue, villainous leads, erotic art direction, and sumptuous photography that sell it as an excuse for torture scenes, alligators, and genocidal death rays, oh my!

Still from Murders in the Zoo (1933)The opening scene of Murders In the Zoo (1933), in which sews a man’s mouth shut, was considered so gruesome that the film was long banned in England. The film shares certain themes with both Island of Lost Souls (1932) and The Most Dangerous Game (1933), but its uniqueness lies in Atwill’s manic, savory performance and its zoological themes. (Not coincidentally, apart from Atwill, the only performance of note is Kathleen Burke, AKA “the Panther Woman” from Island of Lost Souls). It is unfortunate that Atwill was wasted in Hollywood. He should have gone down as a horror star ranking near Karloff. Apart from playing the Burgermeister to inspectors and politicos, he only was permitted to shine in half a dozen or so features, one of which is the grand-guignol Murders In The Zoo. 

Here, Atwill plays the malevolent Dr. Eric Gorman, a distant cousin to both Dangerous Games‘ hunter of humans Zaroff and Island‘s self-styled God Dr. Moreau. Among Gorman’s victims is his much put upon wife Evelyn (Burke), whom he eventually feeds to crocodiles. After committing crimes against humanity in the jungles, Gorman acclimates himself into American society with relative ease. His vast wealth buys and influences friends. True to Depression-era morality, the elitist super rich are cold, calculating villains, the dregs of society, and (here) the true beasts. Quite a bit of time is spent on this social commentary, in between some rather nasty bookended homicides and brutal pre-Code misogyny.

The film’s primary flaw lies in the comedy relief supplied by Charles Ruggles. Most of that is forgiven in an elaborately staged banquet hall finale, with the self-appointed deity meeting his comeuppance, courtesy of unlocked cages and Mother Nature.

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: THE MAD GENIUS (1931), DOCTOR X (1932) AND MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) PLUS THE WALKING DEAD (1936)

The Mad Genius (1931), Doctor X (1932) and Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933) are three atypical films from Hungarian-American director Michael Curtiz. Better known for such classics as Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Casablanca (1942), and Mildred Pierce (1945), Curtiz was adept at practically every genre, including horror; although he only ventured there with this trio of pre-Coders and 1936’s Walking Dead (1936), starring .

Poster for The Mad Genius (1931)The Mad Genius stars “the Great Profile,” John Barrymore, and features a pre-Frankenstein (1931) Karloff in an uncredited bit part as an abusive Cossack father. It is a reworking of George du Marurier’s “Trilby” and the second 1931 Warner Brothers’ film featuring Barrymore as the mesmerist Svengali (the first was the more famous and successful Svengali, directed by Archie Mayo).

Here, Barrymore goes by the name Tsarakov, but he plays the same control freak, and gives a narcissistic performance.  He is a blatantly promiscuous puppeteer, awash in Freudian issues (transferring hatred of the ballerina mother who abandoned him to women dispatched by his weapon of choice: the casting couch).

In addition to his misogyny and disdain of religious conventions, Tsarakov is a manipulative coke dealer who controls his addicted customers by withholding supplies and forcing them into prostitution. Tsarakov gets his comeuppance when he falls in love with Nana (Marian Marsh, who was also the object of his unrequited affection in Svengali).

Only a few of Barrymore’s film capture his pristine stage presence, and this is not one of them. Wisely, Curtiz allowed Barrymore to give a performance which transcends the ham meter. The film is undeniably fascinating, aided considerably by the art deco sets (from hallucinatory art director Anton Grot) and Expressionistic lighting. The ballet numbers include a pompous finale with a pagan god that must have caused a few Legion of Decency heads to explode. The Mad Genius is an essential, curious artifact representing the era of pre-Code and deco.

Both Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum co-star perennial bad boy and quintessential scream queen Fay Wray. Of course, Wray is best known for being subjected to “the Eighth Wonder of the World,” but the mighty Kong really had nothing on Atwill. The actor would scandalize Hollywood in 1940 with an orgy involving a sixteen-year-old girl. The infamous resulting trial which found the actor guilty of perjury in 1942 reduced him to bit parts forever after. Lionel didn’t go quite so far under Curtiz’s direction, but the Hayes Office storm troopers could hardly censor the gleam in his eyes as he leered over a half nude Wray.

Cannibalism, brought to you in the beauty of two-strip Technicolor! Doctor X is a fascinating, if flawed, entry from a year of great films (although initially released in 1932, it played well into 1933). It set the standard for the mad doctor genre with a bizarre, phantasmagorical monotone color scheme that is both surprising and intense. Unfortunately, that intensity is almost sabotaged by Curtiz’s directorial weaknesses. He lacks the much-needed wit that someone like would have given the film. Instead, Curtiz opts for moronic, hayseed “comedy relief” via Lee Tracy. That, too, set another (unfortunate) genre standard that would be followed by acts like Abbott and Continue reading PRE-CODE HEAVEN: THE MAD GENIUS (1931), DOCTOR X (1932) AND MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) PLUS THE WALKING DEAD (1936)

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: RED-HEADED WOMAN (1932) AND THREE ON A MATCH (1932)

While tame by 21st century standards, the best of the pre-Code productions (1929-1934) flauntingly mocked the increasing threats of industry censorship and yet, for all those displays of sex and sin, still managed to stylishly outclass thirty years of (mostly) bland “moral majority approved” films that followed. It is, perhaps, not surprising that these films, caught in the tail pipe of Victorianism and under the Poe-like eye of the Catholic Legion of Decency, were also more authentically provocative and aesthetically conscientious than the bulk of the “opened floodgate” post-Code productions that began in the 1960s. Somehow, that stressful studio climate inspired filmmakers to produce movies that were very much enshrined in the amber of their specific time and place,  yet also transcend many of the films immediately following.

Red-Headed Woman (1932) is one of the sauciest examples from that all-too brief period. It helps considerably that it stars Jean Harlow, the quintessential pre-Code sex symbol. Harlow has often been referred to as the Marilyn Monroe of the 1930s. (Monroe idolized Harlow and even considered playing her predecessor in a biopic, but changed her mind after reading the script. Monroe reportedly quipped: “I hope they don’t do that to me after I’m gone.”) Actually, Harlow was more talented and interesting than that later icon. After numerous roles in features and short films (including a memorable bit in ‘s Double Whoopee), Harlow became an “overnight sensation” with 1930’s pre-Code Hell’s Angels (dir. Howard Hughes) and 1931’s The Public Enemy (dir. William Wellman). Having been dubbed “the Platinum Blonde” and “the Blonde Bombshell,” Harlow dyes her trademark tresses here to play a carrot-topped succubus.

With a screenplay written by Anita Loos and F. Scott Fitzgerald (based on Kate Brush’s “Wicked Lady”), and competently (if not altogether imaginatively) directed by Jack Conway, the strength of Red-Headed Woman lies in the writing and acting (the ladies seem to get it more than their male director).

Poster for Red Headed Woman (1932)Harlow is Lil, an unflinching mantis who ferociously devours her prey without even pausing once at the stop of moral consideration. Harlow imbues Lil with such intoxicating, nonchalant witchery that we initially root for her, regardless of how many Sunday School lessons we might have endured that strenuously warned us not to. It was this necromantic charm, combined with the film’s failure to punish its Eve, that partly inspired the moral outrage that accelerated strict enforcement of the Motion Pictures Production Code (the “Hays Code”) a Continue reading PRE-CODE HEAVEN: RED-HEADED WOMAN (1932) AND THREE ON A MATCH (1932)

BARBARA STANWYCK PRE-CODE DOUBLE FEATURE: NIGHT NURSE (1931) & BABY FACE (1933)

 was one of the naughty queens of Hollywood’s pre-Code era—if not the queen. Two of her best features that gave an “up yours” to the Hays office censors were Night Nurse (1931) and Baby Face (1933).

For those not in the know: the original author of the so-called Hays Production Code was the Presbyterian elder, Will H. Hays. The code was Hollywood’s self-created promise to be good following the Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, and William Desmond Taylor scandals. For the most part, before 1934 the Code was window dressing and was pretty much ignored. Moguls like Jack Warner, Darryl Zanuck, Carl Laemmle, Louis B.Mayer and Irving Thalberg took delight in shoving celluloid sin right in the censors’ faces. During the early thirties, the moguls won the battle, producing the early sound films that have now come to be known as “pre-Code films.”

However, in 1934, the studios lost the war when Breen replaced Hays. Joseph Breen was a constipated, Hollywood executive, in-house Keystone Kop type in cahoots with the Catholic League of Decency. Like that infamous organization, Breen saw the “big sin” as sex, and saw sex as undoubtedly on the mind and agenda of all those Christ-killing Hollywood Jews. Breen was a vile anti-Semite and saw Jewish-led celluloid muck merchants as being on a mission to open a Pandora’s box of sins on a gullible, innocent Christian public. The Hays Code was not only enforced, but now became even more rigid. The newly revised code composed an extensive lost of “dos” and “do nots.” Not surprisingly, over half of the do nots involved sex. The Code stayed in effect until the 1960s when it went the way of the dinosaur. (As we are apt to do in America, when freed to discuss sex, Hollywood then went from one extreme end of the pendulum to the opposite extreme end). Regardless, among the original do nots were: sex, sinners going unpunished,  sex, profanity (which included taking the divine name in vain), sex, any mention of virginity, sex, actual scenes of child birth, sex, use of drugs, sex, nudity, sex, interracial relationships, sex, lack of patriotism, sex, sedition, disrespect of flag, sex, sympathy for criminals, sex, disrespect for institutions, and sex.

A number of film historians have written volumes on the pre-Code era and, understandably, take delight in finding how many Code conventions were broken in that period. Night Nurse and Baby Face are two of the most infamous examples.

Still from Night Nurse (1931)
Still from “Night Nurse”

Night Nurse is directed by William A. Wellman, and co-stars with a young Clark Gable. Lora (Barbara Stanwyck)  is trying to get a job as a night nurse in the big city, despite having no high school education. She got the taste for nursing in the country while caring for her dying mother. The bitchy head nurse seems to think the lack of education is a big deal and sends our heroine packing, but not for long. Lora literally runs into well-heeled Dr. Bell (Charles Winninger), bats an eyelash, shows off her gams, and soon this tomato has been accepted into the trainee program.

Lora’s new roommate is Maloney (the vivacious Joan Blondell). Maloney is the smarty pants trainee and the two hit it off so well that they spend an awful lot of peek-a-boo time undressing one another down to their lingerie and climbing into bed together. On her way to sainthood, the nurturing Lora actually cares about the patients. One of those is a bootlegger named Mortie (Ben Lyon) who is really a good egg (sort of), though he gets fresh with our night nurse while she tends his bullet wound. When asked about his injury, Mortie concocts a story and vows: “Nothing less than a couple of cops with rubber hoses can make me change it!” 

When Lora inherits charge of two young girls, she runs into Nick (Clark Gable), a sexy, black silk robe wearing, gigolo chauffeur who tends to the girls’ dipsomaniac mama, the widowed Mrs. Ritchie (Charlotte Merriam). Nick is slowly starving the two whelps to order get their inheritance for Ritchie’s mobster boyfriend. In one jaw-dropping, memorable scene, Ritche is passed out on her bear skin rug, champagne glass empty, with the disgusted Lora standing over her, yelling: “You mother!” Things get even hairier when Lora threatens to call the kops and Nick socks her in the jaw! Lora, with hands on hips and darts for eyes, lives up to her moniker “Miss Iodine.” She whips the entire apathetic hospital into action, socks a phony in the mug, and solicits Mortie’s help to rid her of Nick. This beautifully lurid, period melodrama is blessed with Wellman’s visual panache and a shockingly nonchalant, amoral finale.

Baby Face is among the most notorious pre-Coders. Aiding its legendary status was its racier, pre-release edit (it was released just as the Production Code began to be enforced). The uncut version was believed lost until discovered at the Library of Congress in 2004. The Turner Classic Movies DVD release has both edits. Stick with the restored cut. Predictably, it’s more fun.

Babs is the aptly named Lily Powers, whose widowed, alcoholic father has been pimping her out to the mangy crowd that populates his speakeasy. One of Lily’s regular johns points her towards Nietzsche: “Be a master, not a slave, and use men to get the things you want,” he tells her. “Yeah.” Lily’s brain lights up together with her nihilistic cigarette. Lily becomes convinced of her feminine power when a convenient boiler explosion sends daddy to a much deserved hell.

With four bucks, Lily and her dad’s servant, Chico (Theresa Harris) hop aboard a train car. When the railman discovers them and threatens to kick them off, Chico suggests a romp in the hay. New York, here we come! Lily becomes “Baby Face” and spreads for anyone who can advance her career at the bank, including a young, curly topped .

Lily gives Lulu a run for the money and similar consequences await, including a murder-suicide scandal. Enter Tranholm (George Brent), Paris, marriage, eventual true love and realization that Nietzsche was clueless. Although director Alfred E. Green lacks Wellman’s directorial flair, he wisely defers to Stanwyck’s star power. Baby Face is not as outlandishly plotted as Night Nurse, lacks that earlier film’s idiosyncratic period zingers, and is bogged down with an unconvincing conversion at the finale. Still, for most of its ride, we are right there in the sack with Baby Face.

GARBO TALKS

This is the second part of a two-part series on Garbo: her silent film work was covered last week in “Garbo, Cinema’s Cool and Immortal Sphinx.” As successful as Greta Garbo’s pre-talkie films were in the States, they were even more popular in Europe, where sound was not a barrier. Louis B. Mayer, nervous about Garbo’s American market in the coming sound era, spared no expense and devised a simple campaign slogan for her first speaking role: “Garbo Talks.” In Anna Christie (1930) she takes half of forever to appear and when she does, she delivers a classic line in her inimitable, husky, accented voice: “Gif me a visky, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.” Unfortunately, it is the only classic thing about the film. Based on one of Eugene O’ Neil’s most mediocre seafaring plays, Anna Christie is hopelessly stagebound and static. Worse, Garbo is cast as an earthy, as opposed to exotic, prostitute, which was a misstep. By this time, Clarence Brown’s directing had shifted to autopilot. The film is, naturally, beautifully photographed. Marie Dressler, through hammy acting, does the impossible and steals the film from Garbo. Still, 1930 audiences, unsurprisingly, bought into the publicity and made it a huge hit. Garbo received an Oscar nomination for this film. It was the first of four nominations, none of which she won.

Garbo’s second talkie, Romance (1930) is an even more stilted affair, directed again by Brown. She is an opera star in love with a priest (a miscast Gavin Gordon). Things go south when he discovers she is not a virgin (the Hays production code was not yet being enforced). There is a lot of chatter, and Garbo looks ravishing, but her performance was hardly one of her best, despite a second Oscar nomination. As Cornelius, Lewis Stone steals everything but the camera.

Inspiration (1931) finds Brown again asleep in the director’s chair in a film that, amazingly, seems a pale imitation of her previous film, which wasn’t good to begin with. Garbo and Lewis Stone are refreshing, despite clunky dialogue. Robert Montgomery looks bored.

Garbo’s was still MGM’S hottest foreign commodity, but her last few films had shown a steady decline in the homegrown market. Under pressure, Garbo requested the up-and-coming Clark Gable as her co-star for Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1931). She lived to regret it. By all accounts, the two did not hit it off. Her European aloofness was not to his liking and she though him crass. Susan Lenox is one of Garbo’s oddest films and a definite pre-coder. She stars as an illegitimate Cinderella type, but she is hardly Snow White. Garbo goes through an entire smorgasbord of men, most of whom she leaves in ruins, and when macho suitor Gable discovers she is “fallen” (i.e. not a virgin) he dumps her, then is tormented by her. Naturally, he seeks her out again, although we are never quite convinced of his yearning. Garbo and Gable’s lack of chemistry is apparent, even though each conveys the qualities that made them sex symbols. Director Robert Z. Leonard was a prolific veteran of silents, and his discomfort with the sound medium is all too apparent. However, Leonard also gives the film a surreal, silent film like milieu with expressionistic camera angles and sets, some of which were later used for ‘s Freaks (1933). Gable, on the other hand, seems like he is stuck in the wrong film, and his character gives the film a misogynistic sheen. The 76 minute film was based on David Graham’s epic novel, and a slew of script writers make it seem like a highlight reel of the original narrative. Despite its flaws, Susan Lenox is a compelling early talkie that should be sought out. It did well at the American box office, but was not quite the hit hoped for.

Still of Greta Garbo in Mata Hari (1931)
Greta Garbo in Mata Hari (1931)

Since Hollywood in the thirties did not yet subscribe to the maxim “you are only as big as your last film,” Garbo was rushed into the sexy potboiler, Mata Hari (1932). The film itself is not good, mainly due to George Fitzmaurce’s unimaginative direction. That aside, Garbo sizzles. Audiences of the 30s did not go to see Garbo as a character in a narrative. Rather, they went to see films which catered to her personality. Mata Hari does (it is more about Garbo than a spy) and the gamble paid off; this was the star’s biggest box office hit. Undoubtedly, much of the credit goes to the famous costume designer Adrian, who adorns Garbo in her sexiest and most revealing outfits. Even though Mata Hari was a pre-code film, the censors took the scissors to it, jettisoning several extended seduction scenes. The scenes still exit, yet, oddly, have not been restored in any of the DVD releases. Like the film itself, Garbo is alternately campy and erotic. She worked even better playing off the effete Ramon Novarro, the lead from 1925’s silent Ben Hur who, in 1968, was the victim of one of Hollywood’s grisliest homicides. As campy as Garbo is in this, Novarro’s acting is even campier and his presence is even more dated. It is easy to see why his stardom did not extend into the sound era. Still, he is better than , who is at his worst here, nearly wrecking the film. Garbo takes forever to kill him.

Barrymore fared better in the all-star Grand Hotel (1932), opposite his brother John. Garbo, as a ballerina being courted by that “Great Profile,” convincingly exudes fatigue. The two stars had genuine chemistry on and off screen. It is one of her most extraordinary performances, rightfully earning her a third best Actress nomination. The film itself could serve as a reference for 30s art deco Hollywood glamor and is as artificial as one expects. A young , who is shockingly beautiful, and even human, shines. In contrast, Wallace Beery and the remaining cast are awful. Fortunately, Edmund Goulding directed this soaper with style. Irving Thalberg promoted the extravaganza with the tagline “Grand Hotel has more stars than there are in Heaven.” It paid off, and the movie took Continue reading GARBO TALKS

GARBO: CINEMA’S COOL AND IMMORTAL SPHINX

“What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober.”–Kenneth Tynan.

As many critics have pointed out, the films of Greta Garbo (1905-1990) have dated considerably, and few are actually good. Yet, Garbo remains pure cinema, an idea created through light, mirrors, and form for the celluloid dreams of her audience, who waxed ecstatic over her face alone.

Garbo came from poverty and started modeling at an early age before breaking into Swedish film. Among her early supporting roles was ‘s The Joyless Street (1925) (with sets by ). Despite sounding like a hidden treasure, it is an unremarkable film. After catching her performance in Mauritz Stiller’s The Saga of Gosta Berling (1925), Louis B. Mayer was struck with the actress’ star magnetism and wasted no time bringing her to Hollywood. Garbo was actually part of a package deal, as Mayer had originally wanted the brilliant Stiller as well. Mayer sent Garbo to the dentist, put her on a diet, and gave her English lessons to help her with taking direction. Her first assignment was Torrent (1926), directed by Monta Bell. Garbo had hoped for Stiller to direct. Disappointed, she accepted the assignment and worked on her lines at night. Bell was involved with actress Norma Shearer at the time, and antagonized Garbo. Yet, despite the tension, from her first frame, Garbo exuded an air of exoticism and European pathos. She burned up the screen in an otherwise unmemorable American debut.

Young Greta Garbo
Garbo in The Saga of Gosta Berling (1925)

Stiller was assigned to direct his protege in The Temptress (1926). Unfortunately, the director was unable to adapt to studio methods and was fired. Crushed, Stiller headed back to Sweden. Garbo wanted to leave with him, but he convinced her to remain in Hollywood. Within two years, Stiller was dead at 45. Garbo was devastated, and a pattern developed. Fred Niblo took over direction of the movie. The Temptress secured Garbo’s stardom. Seen today, it is, undeniably, a dated melodrama. She does not elicit sympathy, yet the 21-year-old star still commands our attention. Mayer was reportedly bewitched by her eyes; they gush torpid sex. She is a silent man-eater here, without ever resorting to vamp cliches. The only thing one remembers about it is her and the way she physically laid into her leading men as no other actress has before or since. Understandably, The Temptress made her a star.

Flesh and The Devil (1926) enshrined Garbo in superstardom and cast her for the first time opposite her greatest leading man, John Gilbert. It is the story of Garbo and Gilbert that served as the model for films like A Star is Born (in 1937, 1954, and 1976) and The Artist (2011). Gilbert was the established star, the leading romantic idol in Hollywood. Garbo was the newcomer. Over a few years, as her star ascended, his declined and, within a decade, Gilbert would meet a horrific end. Here, again, Garbo plays an unsympathetic woman who men kill and die for in a silly melodrama replete with two-dimensional archetypes. Continue reading GARBO: CINEMA’S COOL AND IMMORTAL SPHINX

BETTY BOOP, THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION: VOL 2 (2013)

Last week, I noted that Volume One of Betty Boop: The Essential Collection ended depressingly, with Betty’s boop-oop-a-doop stolen in Foxy Hunter… Thankfully, Volume Two quickly sets things right again with Betty’s premiere as a nameless, floppy-eared, French poodle caricature of Helen Kane in Dizzy Dishes (1930).

An army of Bettys show up (in a Dr. Moreau-like half-canine, half-human state) near the end of Bimbo’s Initiation (1931). In tackling the secret society of the Masons, Fleischer and company attempt to out-Dalí Salvador Dalí. The Mason are transformed into… whatever the hell they are, and Bimbo is put through a phantasmagorical rite. This balls-to-the-wall, off-the-meter entry is the best from either volume.

The ringmaster attempts to throw Betty on the casting couch in Boop-Oop-A-Doop (1932), but she she responds to his dirty whispers with a slap in the face and retains her boop-oop-a-doop, even when taming lions.

Betty Boop Limited (1932) is a rare, unfocused early misfire with Betty and Koko singing and dancing on a train (and not much else).

Betty Boop’s Bizzy Bee (1932) has flying wheat cakes, a surreal moon, and rowdy patrons being served up by hostess Betty.

Still from Betty Boop's Ups and Downs (1932)There is plenty of surrealism afoot in Betty Boop’s Ups and Downs (1932) when Betty’s house and the earth itself go up for sale. A flapper Venus tries to outbid a Semitic caricature in the guise of Saturn. Of course everything that goes up, must come down.

We tour through Betty Boop’s Museum (1932) and find Imhotep practicing Yiddish; a model for future Arab-Israeli relations. Flying skeletons and a musical number close this portion of the tour. Now, to your right for…

Betty Boop’s Big Boss (1933) who does not know the difference between innocent flirting and spewing naughty limericks in poor Betty’s ear. Naturally, an extended chase scene follows the harassment, but by the time the “poleece!” come out in full force, Betty has succumbed to the fat guy’s advances.

Popular violinist David Rubinoff  brings his famed Stradivarius to add a touch of artistic class to Betty Boop’s Morning, Noon and Night (1933) . This is a direct takeoff of Disney’s Silly Symphonies (which, of course eventually evolved into Fantasia). True to form, the  stamp the pastoral scene with their own idiosyncratic touch (the sun bedeviled with a bad case of influenza, and Tom Cat’s amorous Social Club).

With the inevitability of the enactment of the Production Code on the horizon, the rot stars setting in with Betty Boop Little Pal (1934). Betty is already taking on the mantle of a desexualized mother, and the equally offending surrealism of the early shorts is fast becoming a distant memory.

A femme lifeguard gets manned up in Betty Boop’s Prize Show (1934). Betty herself is claustrophobically glued inside of a dress, playing a Beth Marion schoolmarm to her . While Johnny and Beth were delightful in their B-Western environment, this dynamic is depressingly ill-fitted to our favorite boopster.

A saccharine Betty is reduced to following instead of creating trends in Keep in Style (1934). She tries on a variety of Decency approved dresses for an audience which, understandably, no longer cared.

Neither the classic “Minnie the Moocher,” Cab Calloway’s head flying through hell, nor the glorious jazz shorts are anywhere to be found, making the Essential moniker for these selections not entirely accurate. Hopefully, these oversights will be rectified in the upcoming volumes. Until then, these will mostly satisfy. Quibbles aside, overall, these are excellent gifts from Olive.

BETTY BOOP, THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION: VOL 1 (2013)

Hands down, the most indispensable DVD/Blu -ray collections released in 2013 are the two volumes of the Fleischer original Betty Boop cartoons from Olive films. Betty Boop, The Essential Collections, Vols 1 & 2 (2013) are long overdue. Although Volume 1 is not perfect (more on that later), it is the best Boop collection we have seen since the eight volume Definitive Collection distributed by Republic on VHS in 1996. (Earlier this year, Legend Films released The Uncensored Betty Boop, which is exactly what it says it is: pre-Hays Code Betty, but of fairly low-grade quality).

The Definitive Collection conceptually broke the Fleischer shorts into “the Birth of Betty”  (she debuted in 1930), “pre-Code,” “Surrealism,” and “Musical Madness.” However, the collection also featured the later, watered down, post-Code Betty, complete with her Promise Keeper-styled housedress and a boyfriend (to keep her monogamously domesticated). Since Republic strove to release a complete collection, this inclusion was necessary, but it’s certainly not Betty at her best. Indeed, it is the post-Code Betty which is indirectly responsible for the bland fridge magnets and license plates we have been saturated with by companies and persons who have probably never seen Betty in in her original incarnation.

The basic rule with Betty Boop is that the shorts are best up through 1934. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) Betty (making her first on-screen appearance in 49 years) tells that she was ruined by color. Actually, Betty Boop was spayed and destroyed by the Legion of Decency and by Will Hays. The proof of pudding is in shorts like The Foxy Hunter (1937) from Volume One, in which Betty is anything but foxy. Stuck in a servile, matronly role, she plays second banana to man’s best friend. Her trademark garter is long gone; remnants of a past sex life. In its place is Betty, stuck in a Dan Cathy-approved dress and relegated to June Cleaver’s kitchen. (Most, if not all, the Betty shorts featuring Pudgy the dog are painful to watch, especially after seeing Betty in her prime. Fortunately, her prime makes up most of Volumes 1 & 2).

Helen Kane, Model for Betty BoopFlappers Clara Bow and Helen Kane were the primary models for Max Fleischer and animator Grim Natwick when creating Betty. Kane attempted to sue Paramount and Fleischer studios for wrongful appropriation. Her suit was unsuccessful, despite the fact that Betty was clearly modeled after Kane’s distinct baby Bronx accent, look, persona, and songs such as “I Wanna Be Loved By You” and “Boop Boop a Doop.” Four different actresses had the dual job of voicing Betty and Olive Oyl from Fleischer’s “Popeye the Sailor” cartoons: Margie Hines (who was the first, hired because she sounded like Kane), Bonnie Poe (the only one of the four who  played a live action Betty, in a 1933 “Hollywood on Parade” short opposite  as Dracula) Kate Wright (briefly and sporadically, a fill-in), and, most famously, Mae Questel (who voiced Betty the longest, from 1931 all the way to her 1988 Roger Rabbit cameo). Fleischer spotted Questel performing in a club act that mixed elements of both Bow and Kane.

It is surprising that Olive Films has not included any of Betty’s jazz-scored shorts, but this concern may be premature, since the distributor has announced these are the first of  four volumes (the next two are slated for a 2014 release). Reportedly, Olive does not plan to release any of the Continue reading BETTY BOOP, THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION: VOL 1 (2013)

DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: JAMES WHALE, PART ONE

Journey’s End (1930) marked several firsts. It was the first film directed by , and it was the screen debut for actors Colin Clive and David Manners (actually Manners did have one previous credit, albeit uncredited). Journey’s End is a World War I film based on a popular play by R.C. Sherriff. Whale had previously directed the stage play, also starring Clive. The film version for Universal  is a typical example of early sound film that’s overly stage-bound. However, the literate adaptation, bleak ending, Clive’s canny, ulcerous performance, Benjamin Kline’s cinematography, and Whale’s own wartime experiences (as an officer in the trenches) gave a feeling of authenticity to studio heads and 1930 audiences. Luckily for all concerned, it was a tremendous success.

Whale followed with a second, superior war drama, Waterloo Bridge (1931). Starring Mae Clark (possibly in the best role of her career) the film was based on Robert E. Sherwood’s play. Clark’s portrayal of a prostitute in war torn London offended the Catholic Legion of Decency (who voiced no objections to the depiction of war and mass killing). This resulted in the film being unavailable for years. Legion of Decency condemnation or no, Whale’s film was a critical and box office hit upon its release, far superior to both the play itself and the watered down 1940 MGM remake. In the little space of a year, Whale’s style improved dramatically. Gone are all the stagey vestiges of his theater origins. Whale injects a feeling of authenticity and empathy with an outcast character, which led to his securing the prestigious assignment to adapt Frankenstein (1931).

Still from Frankenstein (1931)It is Frankenstein, not Dracula (1931) which is considered the grandfather of the American horror film, even if ‘s take on Bram Stoker’s vampire is somewhat undervalued today in critical reassessment (which erroneously prefers George Melford’s Spanish version). Regardless, Frankenstein is undeniably a superior film to both versions of Dracula, primarily because of Whale’s first-class sense of cinematic lucidity. Another reason is , who gives a pantomime performance worthy of Chaplin or Chaney. ‘s fictionalized Whale biopic, Gods and Monsters (1998), is condescending and unfair in regards to the relationship between Whale and Karloff. By all accounts the two worked very well together, resulting in a collaboration which reaped artistic riches. Colin Clive’s lugubrious portrayal of Dr. Frankenstein is as iconic as Karloff’s monster. Mae Clark, Edward van Sloan and  round off Whale’s Gothic misfit family. Jack Pierce’s makeup and Kenneth Strickfaden’s sets became much imitated. Whale’s handling of crowd scenes is remarkable, as if he personally directed every individual. Most likely this was due to Whale’s military training. Later Universal films helmed by lesser directors show sharp contrast with their mechanical, assembly-line mobs of villagers.

Whale followed his mega-hit with an odd choice: The Impatient Maiden (1932). It was originally titled “The Impatient Virgin,” but predictably that was Continue reading DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: JAMES WHALE, PART ONE