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 Laurel & Hardy‘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).
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)
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
DIRECTED BY: Victor Fleming (credited), King Vidor, Mervyn LeRoy (uncredited)
FEATURING: Judy Garland, Margaret Hamilton, Frank Morgan, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley
PLOT: A cyclone carries a Kansas girl (and her little dog, too) to a magical land over the rainbow.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In creating a list of the 366 best weird movies of all time, The Wizard of Oz presents a huge challenge. After all, this Technicolor extravaganza contains such trippy imagery as a bizarre cyclone that hurls snatches of a young girl’s fears past her spinning window; a land of doll-like little people threatened by a witch; talking apple trees; a giant floating green head appearing and disappearing before a curtain of flame; knife-nosed, green-faced Cossack guards; and of course, flying monkeys—never underestimate the weirdness of flying monkeys. These should be the building blocks of a stunningly psychedelic pic, but if this magical movie only seems fantastic, never weird, it’s because the entire adventure feels so safe. The musical numbers, the comedy, and the deliciously stagey sets serve to remind all but the very youngest children that we’re in an artificial, sheltered environment, and that no harm can ever come to Dorothy. We’re invited to sit back and soak in the spectacle, not to experience it directly.
COMMENTS: Most reviews of The Wizard of Oz could be distilled down to two words: “me too.” Are you a viewer who loves the movie? Me, too. You admire the immaculate casting and performances? The unforgettable music? The clever nonsense wordplay of Continue reading CAPSULE: THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)