Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges (well, the ones with Curly, although I prefer Shemp), Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, and Mae West are among the few comedians of yesteryear who have withstood the test of time. There are far more who haven’t. Examples of this are Martin and Lewis (who never made a good film), Abbott & Costello (who perhaps made two good, but not great films) and … Wheeler and Woolsey. Who? See what I mean? Briefly, they were the hottest pair since peanut butter and jelly. For the most part, they deserve to be forgotten… with few exceptions, one being the pre-code comedy Diplomaniacs (1933, directed by William A. Seiter), which is one of the most jaw-dropping films of the 1930s. Possibly the most racist movie since D.W Griffith set the world on fire, it’s also about as straight as a flaming bunny and, in spite of itself, funny and weird as hell. Apart from one element, it could also serve as a banner film for MAGA fans.
Although Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey made a few films apart, it was only their work together (21 films in 8 years) that was successful. The teaming only ended with Woolsey’s premature death in 1938 from kidney failure. Their last film was 1937’s High Flyers, but with their risqué humor, the spot-on consensus is that their pre-code films are superior. Unlike other comedy teams, their films were not revived on television, which undoubtedly has contributed to their being largely forgotten. Still, it’s easy to see why their appeal hasn’t lasted. Their routines are stage-bound, both having come from vaudeville. Physically, Woolsey reminds one of George Burns. Wheeler is the skinny curly-haired boy.
Diplomaniacs came out the same year as Duck Soup and bears a similar, surreal anti-war message. The difference is in the latent homosexuality of their characters, which is a far cry from the raging hetero libidos of the Marx boys (that’s the one element MAGA boys have to get past, but they should, because there is plenty here for them).
Wheeler and Woolsey are barbers on the Adoop reservation, which doesn’t make for good business since red man can’t grow beard. Yup, every blatant stereotype about “Injuns” is intact. Naturally, the Native Americans are WASPS in face paint. The college educated chief can help the boys out financially with a commission to represent his tribe in the Geneva Peace conference.
James Whale‘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 Luis Buñuel, 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 biopicGods 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 Curtis Harrington. 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.
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)→
AKA Zéro de conduite: Jeunes diables au collège; Zero for Conduct
“In Zero, the school principal may be a fastidious, bearded midget and the drawing on a schoolboy’s notebook may suddenly turn into an animated cartoon, but the characters and settings still belong to a recognizable and even familiar universe. This is not simply an ordinary place where strange things occasionally happen, but a poetic universe we all instinctively know.”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Vigo’s Secret”
DIRECTED BY: Jean Vigo
FEATURING: Delphin, Jean Dasté, Louis Lefebvre, Gilbert Pruchon, Coco Golstein, Gérard de Bédarieux
PLOT: On their first day back at boarding school after vacation, three boys are given a “zero for conduct” and Sunday detention for returning to bed after morning wake-up. Angry, they develop a plot to rebel and disrupt the school’s upcoming commemoration ceremony, and recruit a fourth boy into the scheme. Meanwhile, the school’s headmaster, a dwarf, and a mean monitor nicknamed “Beanpole” make life miserable for the children, while a friendly teacher amuses the boys but also earns the ire of the administration.
Director Jean Vigo’s extraordinary backstory is almost as fascinating as his films. The son of an anarchist who died in prison, the auteur left a tiny (about three hours’ worth of film) but extremely impressive body of work before succumbing to tuberculosis, the age-old nemesis of romantic poets, at the age of 29. Adding to his mythological stature is the possibility that he may have contributed to his own demise by laboring on his final film up until his last moments, instead of getting much needed bed rest; he may have actually worked himself to death, literally giving his life for his art.
The film’s odd length (45 minutes) reflects the financier’s belief that there was an untapped niche for medium-length films. Vigo cut his original feature-length treatment to the producer’s specifications.
The strange music that accompanies the pillow fight scene was composed by Maurice Jaubert, who wrote the theme, transcribed it in reverse, then recorded the inverted score. The tape was then played in reverse so that the original theme returned, but transformed.
The film was based partly on Vigo’s childhood experiences, and the character of Tabard (the boy who swears in class and refuses to apologize) was based on the director himself. The line Tabard speaks in defiance of his teachers is a direct quote of an infamous insult Vigo’s father addressed to the French government.
Zéro de conduite was banned by the Comité National du Cinema. The film contained the word “merde!” and two scenes of brief nudity, but it was suppressed not for obscenity but for its “anti-French spirit” and “praise of indiscipline.”
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Inexplicably passing on a still from the pillow-fight scene, we instead select an image from the climax at the final convocation. The headmaster sits in the front row next to a prefect in Napoleonic dress. As acrobats (dressed as soldiers) entertain with handstands and routines on pommel horses, a closeup reveals that the second row of VIPs are life-sized dummies. No wonder the children on the rooftop are about to rain debris down on the scene.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Zéro de conduite is an important historical film. It founded the boarding school subgenre, creating a template used by Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and more weirdly by Lindsay Anderson (If…) With its dwarf headmaster, puppet spectators and drawings that come to life, the film is as playful and experimental as a mock rebellion staged by schoolboys before Sunday dinner. The movie’s manic/comic tone, meandering pacing, and even its too-long-for-a-short, too-short-for a feature length add to its singularity. Jean Vigo was already breaking cinema’s rules when they were only a few years old.
Clip from Criterion Collection special feature for Zéro de conduite
Barbara Stanwyck 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.
Night Nurse is directed by William A. Wellman, and co-stars Joan Blondell 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 John Wayne.
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.
Gold Diggers Of 1933 is Busby Berkeley‘s masterwork, assisted in no small way by the astute direction of Mervyn LeRoy, who had previously directed a number of stark, socially conscious films, such as Little Caesar (1931) and I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932). Like Berkeley, Leroy’s best work was at Warner Bothers and, like Berkeley, MGM would buy his contract and essentially neuter him.
This is the second of the Warners/Berkeley backstage 1933 musicals, beginning with 42nd Street and concluding with Footlight Parade. Gold Diggers is a mix of harsh realism and opulent fantasy, more so than any other musical from the Great Depression. It jump starts in high gear fantasy mode with Ginger Rogers, dressed only in a skimpy outfit made of silver dollars (with one coin strategically placed over her crotch), singing “We’re in the money.” Rogers’ handling of the lyrics morphs into a glossolalia-styled Pig Latin aria that seems like it would be more at home in a Buñuel movie than a Hollywood musical. Behind her, a chorus of babes holding up undulating coins sings “let’s spend it, send it rolling along.” This is Berkeley’s phantasmagoric “F_ you!” to the Depression. And how would you climax such an opening? With a crash, as debt collectors break up the number, taking with them every prop, every stitch of clothing and everything, leaving only a crumb, a crumb even too small for a mouse.
Next we meet up with a foursome of Depression-era women. And these are determined women, bonding together to make it through a man’s world in hard times. Ruby Keeler is at her innocent best. Joan Blondell is the wide awake, street-smart wisecracker. Aline MacMahon is the shrewd, conniving skeptic, and Rogers (who is a supporting character here) personifies the word “gold digger.” Although Rogers part is brief, she commands attention, especially in the opening scene, so much so that it is abundantly clear how and why she rose above her co-stars. Rogers could do Continue reading GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933→
Footlight Parade (1933) benefits greatly from the presence of actors James Cagney and Joan Blondell. Wisely, the film omits the coy indulgences of Busby Berkeley regulars Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, relegating them to the sidelines and musical numbers. Directed by Lloyd Bacon and choreographed by Berkeley, the film echoes Cagney’s rapid-fire delivery. It is often ranked as Berkeley’s best overall film.
The early 1930s were an era in which musicals and westerns pretty much ruled the roost, as far as quantity goes. As far as quality, with so many being produced, the bulk of Hollywood’s musicals, like their westerns, were wretched. MGM had a bigger reputation for musicals, but their Thirties’ output was predominantly tame fluff, and few have withstood the test of time. The grittier Warner Brothers productions, somewhat predictably, did it better, in no small part due to Busby Berkeley.
This is another “puttin’ on the show” extravaganza. The advent of sound has put an end to silent films in the midst of the Depression. Producer Cagney feels compelled to keep his crew fed and working, so he racks his brain for ideas. He arrives at the concept of “musical prologues” to introduce talkies. Cagney is a Berkeley-like character who has to contend with a scheming ex-wife, a back-stabbing fellow producer (Guy Kibbee), and a planted temptress mole (the quite good Claire Dodd). This cast of characters serve as much needed antagonists for the hyper-intense Cagney to bounce off of.
Joan Blondell perfectly parallels Cagney. She is his snappy secretary of substance who secretly loves him. She is no push-over, and, displaying as much energy as her boss, she exposes his crooked partner, saves him from the gold-digging Dodd, and serves as his sounding board. Blondell damn near steals the whole film from Cagney, and that’s no easy feat. Her tough, no-nonsense humor gets the better of Dodd, and she sends her rival packing with a swift kick to the daily duties: “as long as there is a sidewalk, you’ll have a job!” We’re almost as miffed as she is with Cagney for not Continue reading FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933)→
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42nd Street is the film that really made choreographer Busy Berkeley a star; and that, in itself, is telling. Although directed by Lloyd Bacon (a 1930’s version of a Ron Howard-type assembly line director), it was Berkeley who rightfully grabbed the honors.
The musical, it seemed, had already run its course when Warner Brothers released 42nd Street. Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer (1927) had been the ground-breaker, ushering in the advent of sound. But, in the six short years between The Jazz Singer and 42nd Street, the genre had already grown stale. Warner, on the verge of bankruptcy, took a huge gamble (studios used to do that) and brought in the innovative Berkeley, teamed him with the competent helmsman Bacon, an unknown (fresh) cast, and the expert songwriting team of Al Dubin and Harry Warren (who make a cameo in the film).
The plot is hackneyed, and would set the pattern for what constitutes a “Berkeley” film. It’s a backstage story about the struggles of a Broadway musical production (who really thought 1980’s Fame had an ounce of originality?) with an overly intense, self-destructive director (Warner Baxter, an archetype later taken to the extreme in Roy Scheider’s portrayal of Joe Gideon in 1979’s All That Jazz) and an understudy (Ruby Keeler) who, at the last moment, fills in for the injured star (Bebe Daniels) and becomes a star herself.
Of far more interest, plot-wise, is the nuanced filler material. Virginal Keeler and her leading fellar, golly-gee-wiz swell guy Dick Powell have limited charm and register as flat and clunky next to the wisecracking chorus girl Ginger Rogers (already projecting star quality) and the dirty old rich lecher Guy Kibbee. This is the Depression era and there is talk aplenty about the desperate struggle for money and success, which gives the film moments of sweaty substance. Star Daniels, no fluff actress, is clearly an occupant of Kibbee’s casting couch, even if she is in love with George Continue reading 42ND STREET (1933)→
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