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New York's "Essential Pre-Code" Series: Week 3

Part three of our guide to New York's retrospective on pre-Code films.
Clark Gable and Joan Crawford in Possessed

Each year New York residents can look forward to two essential series programmed at the Film Forum, noirs and pre-Coders (that is, films made before the strict enforcing of the Motion Picture Production Code).  These near-annual retrospective traditions are refreshed and re-varied and re-repeated for neophytes and cinephiles alike, giving all the chance to see and see again great film on film.  Many titles in this year's Essential Pre-Codeseries, running an epic July 15 - August 11, are old favorites and some ache to be new discoveries; all in all there are far too many racy, slipshod, patter-filled celluloid splendors to be covered by one critic alone.  Faced with such a bounty, I've enlisted the kind help of some friends and colleagues,  asking them to sent in short pieces on their favorites in an incomplete but also in-progress survey and guide to one of the summer's most sought-after series.  In this entry: what's playing Friday, July 29 - August, July 4.  (Image above: publicity still of Clark Gable and Joan Crawford in Possessed.)

***

Possessed (Clarence Brown, 1931): Young Joan Crawford exits the paper box factory where she works, rejects a lovesick, dopey co-worker and stops to watch a train go by, each passing compartment containing scenes from a life she desperately craves. The train stops and a tuxedo-clad passenger offers our fair-haired Joan champagne advice and the courage to go home and tell her scared mother that men shouldn’t be the only ones allowed to use anything to get everything. From here she runs off to New York City and straight into the arms of a wealthy Clark Gable. A strange and moving picture, Possessed briskly tackles class and gender politics amidst a story of love threatened by society—the emotion no doubt enhanced by Crawford and Gable’s real life affair.  It doesn’t get better than watching Crawford’s face, masked in shadow, react as she eavesdrops on Gable and a group of heartless, classist and misogynistic men.  Gina Telaroli

Red-Headed Woman (Jack Conway, 1932): One of the most scandalous, hands-over-mouth shocking pre-codes of them all, shameless celebrating vicious gold-digger Jean Harlow's rise to riches at the expense of every lily-livered man who has the misfortune to cross her path. Aglow with Klieg-light radiance, Harlow is vulgar, trashy and ultimately psychopathic, but Anita Loos scabrous screenplay never deviates from a kind of aghast admiration at her effrontery and cold-blooded scheming. Chester Morris plays the stooge led by his dick into hellfire, and a youthful Charles Boyer crops up as Harlow's mercenary male counterpart. —David Cairns

The Public Enemy (William Wellman, 1931): A last-minute casting switch put Jimmy Cagney in the lead for this blazing gangster saga, and he seizes the opportunity, grappling it to the ground with bone-crunching energy. Nobody had seen such a direct, savage and unapologetic portrait of an irredeemable villain, and probably nobody has since. Cagney's aggression mingles with his dancer's grace, guided by tough guy director "Wild Bill" Wellman. After the more theatrical mobsters of Paul Muni and Edward G. Robinson, Cagney's simplicity seemed worryingly authentic, even if the scale of his performance puts him well beyond the bounds of conventional naturalism. The male leads shrivel around him, but a bevy of blonde beauties adds sizzle: Jean Harlow, Joan Blondell, and Mae Clarke, who receives the grapefruit to the kisser that assured her of immortality. —David Cairns

More often than not, this is recalled as a footnote in movie history, either as the first star vehicle for James Cagney or as an influential prototype of the gangster genre. But watch it fresh and you’ll find a movie vibrant in its particulars, filled with an excitement for living that distinguishes all of William Wellman’s output in the early 30s. In the first half, which introduces the working-class neighborhoods that will breed the bootlegging empires of Prohibition, Wellman launches into a buoyant tracking shot whenever he can: It’s like the whole movie is dancing. Of course, Cagney was a dancer himself, and his showman’s energy creates a unique tension with his character’s sadistic behavior. The achievement has been enshrined as Cagney’s alone, though it was Wellman’s idea to move him from a supporting role to the lead. This brackish inspiration (the same that would think to compose a frame around a bar sign reading “Don’t spit on the floors -- Remember the Jamestown flood!”) remains a secret powerhouse of American cinema.  —Ben Sachs

Call Her Savage (John Francis Dillon, 1932): The overall plot of Call Her Savage fades in memory, but I am unlikely to forget the spectacle of Clara Bow thrashing her lover senseless with a whip, and smashing a guitar over the head of some inoffensive onlooker, both incidents occurring (as I recall) within minutes of the film's beginning. Start as you mean to go on. This is Clara's best shot at playing the kind of startlingly amoral, passionate and disgraceful specimen Jean Harlow and Barbara Stanwyck did so well with. The movie's preposterous, but it's crowded with bizarre Pre-Code moments (camp singing waiters, etc). Bow was never comfortable in talkies, but here she masks it by attacking every moment with insane gusto. In one mirror-smashing scene, she actually seems to break through the screen itself. Be careful if you sit in the front row. —David Cairns

Blonde Venus (Josef von Sternberg, 1932): MIGHTY JO / JUNG: Next to Dishonored, Josef von Sternberg's Blonde Venus stands in 2011 as the least known of the JvS/Dietrich collaborations. Sternberg complicates the idea of woman's dissimulation by having Dietrich scrub her nude son in a claw-foot tub; her outrageous wig will find its echo in little Johnny's own Janus'ing, a harvest-fest mask slung wrong way round his skull. Marlene goes by "Helen Faraday" or "Jones" or "Troy" (like the Harfords' daughter in Eyes Wide Shut) or, in an astonishing dance-number that is one of Jo's greatest sequences, "Auntie Boonmee," whereupon she embodies and escalates the inherent terror of the formulation "the beast inside the woman" by reversing its nouns. And so Helen of the Consubstantial Opposites ascends to the ranks of the complex characters of Cinema, moving beyond moré and boundary. From the moment Herbert Marshall, Ph.D. on a Schwarzwald walking-tour discovers Dietrich in the guise of wood-nymph, an experiment in living has been set in motion: even the couple's connubial residence represents a project, the bedroom having been transformed literally into a chemistry lab. She'll leave the husband, she'll leave the kid, suck off Cary Grant, hit the Tropics and start a revue. She'll come home again. But the key to the ending arrives earlier, with Marshall gazing for Helen on her ship, his figure framed by branches in the arch that fascinates—recursion of imagery around the first encounter with his future wife—now gone sere. It's an image of understanding: water-sylphs have wings, he's caught in the gyves. No normal living. —Craig Keller

Female (Michael Curtiz, 1933): Begun by William Dieterle, taken over and directed to completion by William Wellman and eventually stolen by the studio and given to Michael Curtiz (he reshot all scenes with Johnny Mack Brown and was given the picture in name after a studio dispute with Wellman), Female plays not unlike the story of its direction. It starts on one strong and consistent path, a glorious vehicle for what could be (and should be, even today) a business and societal norm, only to change at the last minute due to politics—in this case deeply entrenched gender politics. Ruth Chatterton stars as a successful female CEO who demands both a high-powered career and a man in her life (and bed) only to be forced to choose between the two in the film’s final moments. Incredible seems the most apt description for many reasons, not the least of which is the set design, locations (Chatterton’s Alison Drake lives in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House), costumes and movement contained in the film’s compact 60 minutes. The line drawn between seriousness, subversiveness and satire is a fine one, but regardless of the intended message (which I’m still not sure of) it’s been awhile since a movie seduced me and broke my heart so quickly.  —Gina Telaroli

Cabin in the Cotton (Michael Curtiz, 1932): Fractious dealings between haves and have-nots down in cotton country receive an even-handed treatment. The film presents the sharecropping tenants (“peckerwoods”) as a group of disparate, flawed individuals–and from this does something good and something bad. Good: we see political solidarity dramatized and put into action among these individuals. This was common enough in Depression-era cinema, almost impossible to find in Hollywood today. Bad: the film still romanticizes its peckerwoods, overall. And it trafficks–very conventionally–in bootstrap economics as much as "compromise" politics. (Compare to two collaborations between Raoul Walsh and James Cagney to find superior treatments of some dovetailing themes in The Strawberry Blonde and A Lion Is in the Streets.) Star Richard Barthelmess is adequate in a fairly thankless, caught-between-two-worlds role. Bette Davis, as an alluring belle, provides a highlight for her sex appeal. Poor Barthelmess doesn't know what hits him.—Zach Campbell

Blessed Event (Roy Del Ruth, 1932): A perennial favorite of in-the-know onetime ink-stained wretches everywhere, Blessed Event absolutely deserves, and always lives up to, its rep. If MacKendrick's 1957 Sweet Smell of Successis an a clef account of Walter Winchell at the height of his pompous,self-regarding monomania, this utterly brisk 1932 Roy Del Ruth item (and man, didn't Del Ruth just direct a raftload of thoroughly enjoyable pictures?) is a Portraitof the Gossipmonger As A Young Con Man. Lee Tracy's Al Roberts is all rat-tat-tatpatter, sarcasm, innuendo, racial slurs and unblinking ethics violation. You'll share his contempt for feeb crooner Bunny Harmon (Dick Powell, knowingly sending up his own dominant persona of the era), be both bemused and heartened by Al’s apparent crisis ofapparent conscience, and delight in the casual literacy of a script in which Al’s secretary shruggingly invokes Tennyson in the vulgar confines of her tabloid office. —Glenn Kenny

Three on a Match (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932): Three on a Match disappoints only by not giving each of its leading ladies a story of equal weight, but that's OK—if Joan Blondell and Bette Davis are underused, the Ann Dvorak gangster/kidnapping story that comes to dominated is spectacularly hard-hitting. The shocking climax combines extreme narrative ruthlessness with ingenuity, and the air of menace is ably generated by an amazing rogues' gallery of hoodlum actors, led by Humphrey Bogart but incorporating Lyle Talbot, with his unsettling combination of round face and pointy features, like a human Sputnik; Allen Jenkins, simian simp, here projecting more than his usual share of malevolence, and Jack LaRue, an actor positively eager to embody any kind of evil the scenarists can dream up. David Cairns

The Match King (Herbert Bretherton & William Keighley, 1932): The baritone horn of honeyed avarice is Warren William's best instrument, and in The Match King he even provides his own chorus, in different stages of his rise from ballpark janitor to international match mogul repeating: "Don’t worry about anything until it happens, and then I'll take care of it." Nobody in the business could convincingly make such a promise sound both reassuring and a mustache-twirl for our benefit. William seemed a giant, over seventy feet tall, yet never unwilling to put his arm around your shoulder as he grinned wide and rummaged around for your wallet. The Match King, at 79 minutes, was epic in pre-Code dimensions; co-directed by Howard Bretherton and first-timer William Keighley (they would pair up again once more the following year, for the crackling Ladies They Talk About), its spastic leaps across time disorient the viewer as the evolution of the match king’s industrial dominance gives way to an ill-fitting romantic subplot. It's almost disappointing that the conclusion so patly completes the "rise and fall" circuit—it seems the greater truth that Warren William should be able to keep smooth-talking his way across infinite reiterations of ruthless conquest. —Jaime N. Christley

***

Guide to "Essential Pre-Code": Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4

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“More often than not, this is recalled as a footnote in movie history, either as the first star vehicle for James Cagney or as an influential prototype of the gangster genre.” Umm, since when was “The Public Enemy” considered a footnote? It’s one of the earliest and most important of all the classical gangster films. Just the grapefruit scene alone makes the film legendary.
Bobby, I wanted to say that the movie’s reputation had more to do with iconic images and establishing genre archetypes, as opposed to the particular ebb and flow of Wellman’s storytelling. But you’re right, it was the wrong choice of words.
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Fair enough.
But “a secret powerhouse of American cinema” is a terrific phrase, as is Jaime’s “baritone horn of honeyed avarice”.
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To quote Pulp Fiction, “Well, let’s not start sucking each others dicks just yet.” Terrific though it may be, as we already agreed, this film is hardly a secret. Let’s not uphold the terrific at the expense of the true.

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