Codebreakers at Film Forum 

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Essential Pre-Code
July 15-August 11 at Film Forum

Once a year or so, Film Forum comes up with an excuse to screem lots of pre-Hays Code Hollywood films, the kind of half-remembered programmers that make up hours of TCM's fare. This year's installment, "Essential Pre-Code," in many ways a greatest hits from past years, grabbing titles from the newspaper series, the New York series, the Great Depression series, the Jean Harlow retro, et al. Bruce Goldstein's curatorship is typically adroit: the films he's dug up are better than stodgy, primitive technical oddities; they're nearly always watchable, and a few tossed-off gags are always guaranteed. Random sifting on boring, hot afternoons is recommended.

Auteurists who want visual assertion, though, will want to skip many of these titles, which tend to depend on casual performer virtuosity and snappy dialogue; at worst, they just have shock value. 1933's Baby Face is barely euphemistic about how Barbara Stanwyck sleeps her way up the corporate ladder (the camera cranes up the building as she devours one level of management after another), but aside from that plain-spoken bluntness there's not much to see: lest anyone miss the point, there's not just discussion of Nietzsche's Superman, but a close-up of the book's spine as well. Equally flat in its frankness, 1933's The Story Of Temple Drake offers up Miriam Hopkins as a Deep South slut (though the thunder and lightning looks more like a gothic horror movie than its ostensible Faulkner source would suggest) who gets raped and maltreated by hillbillies until she learns the value of chastity.

More sensitive is George Cukor's 1931 rarity Girls About Town, in which two high-priced escorts make their living entertaining visiting businessmen, getting them too drunk to be troublesome about trying to come up for a nightcap. Sensitive Wanda (Kay Francis) and her unrepentant gold-digger friend Marie (Lilyan Tashman) are objects of sympathy rather than sinners who have to be shamed: instead, Wanda wins over stolid Jim (square-jawed Joel McCrea) and Marie unites in female solidarity with the wife of a client, forcing jowly Midwestern businessman Eugene Pallette to spend money on his spouse. Snappy with melancholy streaks, Girls About Town has a rare third act that offers up happy endings without killing moral transgressors or sending anyone to jail; it's an underknown proto-feminist gem, a key part of Cukor's reputation as a "woman's director."

Hampered by a moralistic ending and some rough matte work in its depiction of bombings, James Whale's 1931 take on Robert Sherwood's thrice-filmed play Waterloo Bridge nevertheless offers up a still-contemporary romance between prostitute Mae Clarke and soldier Kent Douglass, two Americans abroad whose love affair plays out largely in her apartment. Whale shoots the two in naturalistic long takes as they cook dinner, share cigarettes and argue over who has the emotional upper hand. A World War I veteran himself, Whale transforms the cheap den into a deeply emotional space, charged with knowledge of the bombings and random deaths outside.

Less socially responsible but more fun is 1932's Love Me Tonight, Rouben Mamoulian's rabid defacement of the kind of sophisticated continental comedy on display in Lubitsch's Trouble In Paradise (also in the series). Through the usual farcical maneuvres, tailor Maurice Chevalier crashes a country house party as a Prince. Lubitsch's Europeans are suave and assured, but Mamoulian's are cartoonish and overexcitable. A deer hunt is staged like a Looney Tunes cartoon, with pizzicato strings for the cutely jumping prey and militant horns for the luckless dogs, cutting back and forth to emphasize the absurdity of the process. He's often dismissed as merely a clever technician, but Mamoulian's dexterity still impresses: at one point he cranes down to a miniature building's window, dissolves through the room into a kind of three witches ceremony conducted by three benevolent busybodies, cranes back out and down through another window. His upbeat tempo pushes farce into a live-action cartoon to exhilarating effect, stripping away the automatic respect normally granted to upper-class Europeans in Hollywood movies.

Even less romantic is 1932's Red Dust, in which Clark Gable's words of love to Jean Harlow begin with, "You talk too much but you're a cute little trick at that." Initially attracted to the ever-patrician Mary Astor, Gable soon realizes he's a bum and that Harlow is the one for him: less than flattering, but honest. Filmed on MGM's massive Stage 6, the rubber plantation sets convince, especially when everything stops for a documentary demonstration of rubber harvesting.

Film Forum's highlighting the hammy melodrama of Warren William on Thursdays, but an even better one-man show can be found in 1932's The Blessed Event, where unjustly forgotten 30s star Lee Tracy offers an exhilaratingly fast-talking turn as a conscienceless gossip columnist. In a nod to cinematic boundaries even pre-Code Hollywood couldn't cross, Tracy comes up with a new euphemisms to report scandalous pregancies, and his constant scoops on "blessed events" draws a wide range of ire. Heroically managing multiple phones, dictating on the run and altering the center of gravity everywhere he goes, Tracy offers a star turn in W.C. Fields's pork-pie hat, similarly using an all-American high-pitched whine at moments of excitement. His nemesis in Dick Powell, here a saccharine radio balladeer whose banal lyrics ("Every Jack to his Jill is calling again") make Tracy's eyes roll in scorn for the mediocre musical sequences marring so many Hollywood programmers. A crisp portrait of yellow journalism, The Blessed Event is like a benevolent counterpart to Sweet Smell of Success: pre-Code cinema at its workmanlike best.

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