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Forgotten Pre-Codes: "Stage Mother" (1933)

A scheming stage mother frustrates her daughter's romances in this pre-Code melo from savage scouser Charles Brabin.

Part of a series by David Cairns on forgotten pre-Code films. 

Stage Mother

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).

Stage Mother

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!").

Stage Mother

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!

Stage Mother

***

The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

Drew
The Beast of the City is something else. Brabin directs the hell out of that thing. I remember coming away with the impression that it winds up kind of subverting its fascist leanings with that completely ruthless Wild Bunch-esque ending – the cops come off just as bloodthirsty and unruly if not moreso than the criminals. And it’s got all kinds of little surreal touches sprinkled in, like the twin girls who talk/eat at the same time, plus braless Jean Harlow’s breasts nearly spilling out every 5 minutes. Brabin’s name always stuck with me because I thought it was such a dynamite pre-coder. Even the more low-key, dialogue-heavy expository scenes seemed to hum with this tense, coiled energy. Really look forward to checking out Stage Mother, it sounds pretty fascinating.
It’s true, Beast of the City is like a revenger’s tragedy, littering the ground with bodies in Act III. So there’s an ambivalence about the police methods shown… I need to check out Charles Vidor’s Muss ’em Up, which sounds altogether more committed to police brutality, as the title suggests…
Watched Mia’s Mama Moe O in Columbia programmer LET US LIVE the other night. Directed by Brahm with Lucien Ballard as DP (they would go on to do a couple other films together, for Fox, THE UNDYING MONSTER and THE LODGER). O’Sullivan had a knowing presence that belied her cute-as-a-button exterior. Here she convincingly busts her ass trying to prove fiance Fonda’s innocence, and by movie’s end all is well ( except for Fonda, whose mistrust of authority is palpable, and justified ). No sooner do I finish this film then I put on SKYSCRAPER SOULS, and voila, it’s Maureen again, being hounded by men-on-the-make at all turns. From an in-her-face bank teller (whom she eventually warms up to) to high-powered wheeler dealer and slick-smooth womanizer Warren William, she finds herself constantly on guard. And you know what? She holds her own throughout. She didn’t have Sylvia Sidney’s eyes, or Joan Blondell’s earthy gumption, but I’m beginning to think she deserves added scrutiny. Over and above those scenes she did with Tahz’n.
Skyscraper Souls! I’ve been meaning to watch that, but I keep forgetting who’s in it. Sounds irresistible. What Maureen has is extreme beauty, poise and pristine sexiness. For a brief moment in Stage Mother she appears as a shy, bookish nerd in glasses, and that’s quite charming too.

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