Part of a series by David Cairns on forgotten pre-Code films.
Alice Brady said of her face: "It skids, that's the trouble with it. It needs chains. Just when I'm trying to be serious on the screen the thing skids, and I'm doing a tragic scene with a comic face. Look at it. I've often seen those little blonde babes around here giving me the once over. I'm sure they wonder how a face like that fits into pictures."
Stage Mother (1933) offers Brady, best remembered perhaps as the ditzy mom in My Man Godfrey (with Mischa Auer as her louche live-in lover), one of her rare dramatic roles, and she manages to keep her wonky face on the road throughout. With her unlikely, low voice, wide smile and indescribable cackle, Brady has a repertoire of grotesque traits to dazzle the viewer, but she also has an innate sympathy which she can afford to tamp down here, letting it smolder somewhere beneath the character's abrasive and manipulative surface.
MGM movies aren't known for their high pre-Code content: the studio was always too concerned with projecting class and sophistication to dip its toe in the Warner Bros. mire of innuendo, illegality, ethnicity and downright raucous smut-mongering. But there are notable exceptions: once you get over the initial shock of Freaks (1932), mostly embodied by the titular sideshow entertainers, there's a wagonload of filthy implication going on; Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman (1932) can compete with any scarlet harlot at any other studio, especially since she's not only venal and lusty but an actual psychopath; and Kongo (1932) deserves to be better known for its grubby tropical disrepute, it's scandalous racism, and its all-pervading miasma of debauchery and corruption.
Stage Mother can't compete with the above for dirtiness, but in its eviscerating attack on that holiest of holies, motherhood, it does its own thing very well, at least until the compromised ending. Brady plays a music hall performer who loses her trapeze artist husband in a fatal fall. Thereafter, her own career finished by advancing years and waistline, she pours her frustrated ambitions into her daughter, played by Tarzan's finest Jane, Maureen O'Sullivan (Cheetah didn't like her, but less hirsute males tend to find her quite palatable).
From the title and initial set-up the viewer's salivary glands are electro-shocked into salacious activity: just how awful a mother will Brady become? Well, avoiding too many spoilers, having made a dancer of her daughter, she has to deflect the attentions of painter Franchot Tone when he takes a shine to young Maureen (here, one rather sympathizes with the mother's concern). So what does she do? She travels covertly to Tone's wealthy parents, apprises them of the situation, and paints her own daughter as a vicious golddigger who wants thousands of dollars to leave their son alone. The money is dispensed, and Franchot learns about "the kind of girl" Maureen supposedly is, and the engagement is off.
The attraction of this kind of terrible behavior, when presented on the screen, is hard to pin down, but must have to do with the liberating effect of seeing fictional others doing things we wouldn't be caught dead contemplating ourselves. To put it all over, MGM assigned a skilled and dynamic director, Charles Brabin, who deserves more appreciation. His Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) is another good kinky pre-Code, Beast of the City is a brutal gangster flick exposing MGM's more fascistic tendencies, and Brabin was also responsible for the best stuff in Rasputin and the Empress (1932), with its brutal knock-down fight to the finish between Lionel and John Barrymore ("Get back in hell!").
Brabin had been directing since 1912, and his dynamic, expressive style doesn't seem to have been flattened one whit by the coming of sound. He has great fun with the trapeze sequence, swinging the camera from above along with the acrobatic subject, adding motion sickness to the vertigo and suspense. As Brady plots with a stagehand to intercept her daughter's mail, he films from behind a rack of keys. And in one scene, a casting call for child performers, he plunges us into the sub-mythical Tenth Circle of Hell, reserved for stage brats and the people who go to see them, or else maybe just for the audience of this film. We deserve it!
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.