Penthouse (1933) Woody Van Dyke

Penthouse_(film)Poor Mae Clarke, she always seems to get the sour end of the lollipop when it came to men. Cagney shoves a grapefruit in her face in THE PUBLIC ENEMY. Two years later in the 1933 film, LADY KILLER, Jimmy drags her by her hair and kicks her out of his apartment. That same year in “Penthouse” poor Mae is dumped for a high society dame by her new love, Phillip Holmes and soon after is shot dead. The dame just can’t get a break!

But I am getting ahead of the story. We first meet Jack Durant (Warner Baxter), a hot shot lawyer for a big time law firm, who likes to moonlight working for underworld clients like hoodlum boss Tony Gozotti (Nat Pendleton) who he saves from jail and the death penalty. The problem is Durant’s law firm does not like the idea of his defending hoodlums. Jack, on the other hand, like the edginess of dealing with these types of clients as well as the nightlife and the women that come with it. Continue reading

Short Takes: Cagney, Dodsworth and Scream of Fear

Each DawnEach Dawn I Die (***1/2) It is Cagney versus Raft in this classic 1939 Warner Brothers prison drama. Directed by William Keighley, Cagney is Frank Ross an investigative reporter who exposes a political candidate’s corrupt association with a construction company. After the article is published, Ross is snatched by some goons right in front of the newspaper building. He’s knocked out, soused with alcohol and tossed into a speeding car resulting in a car accident which kills three innocent people. Framed for the murders, Ross is sent to prison where he meets big shot Stacey (George Raft). At first, they get off on the wrong foot with Ross continuing to claim he was framed and innocent, all falling on deaf ears. The two become pals when Ross saves Stacey’s life from an attempt by another prisoner to kill him. Continue reading

Sabotage (1936) Alfred Hitchcock

sabotage-title-

More than seventy years after its release “Sabotage” remains relevant, in fact, it is even more relevant today, considering the world we live in, than in 1936 when it was first released. Based on Joseph Conrad’s short novel, “The Secret Agent,” the plot focuses on Karl Verloc (Oscar Homolka), a foreigner from an unnamed country. Verloc owns a local cinema in London and is a member of a terrorist group set on crippling London. His wife  (Sylvia Sidney) is completely unaware of her husband’s underground activities. Living with Mr. and Mrs. Volker is Mrs. Volker’s younger brother, Stevie (Desmond Tester) whose death in the film sparks its most famous sequence and is the centerpiece of the film.

Hitchcock sets up the opening moments with a nice sequence of shots. A dictionary page explaining the definition of the word sabotage as the opening credits appear followed by a series of shots as the city of London loses its electric power. Two investigators identify the cause, the result of sabotage, and then a quick cut to a close up of Karl Verloc (Oscar Homolka) our saboteur. Continue reading

Love is a Racket (1932) William Wellman

love is a racket Lobby Card

The early years of sound in the 1930’s, those pre-code years, were William Wellman’s most inspired and also his most productive. He was a man who dived into the modern age of sound filmmaking and the mechanical age. An aviator in World War I, he continued on with his love affair for airplanes throughout his career, from “Wings” to “Island in the Sky,” “The High and the Mighty” up to his final film, “Lafayette Escadrille.” Wellman’s work from this period also addressed the Great Depression head on with serious works like “Heroes for Sale” and “Wild Boys of the Road.” Like many film pioneers in the early days, Wellman worked fast and he worked best when he had actors who kept up with his speed, performers like Cagney, Stanwyck, Lombard and Frankie Darro. Later in his career his films developed a slower pace and the actors he worked with reflected that too e.g.; Henry Fonda in “The Ox-Bow Incident” and Robert Mitchum in “Track of the Cat.” Continue reading

The Story of Temple Drake (1933) Stephen Roberts

Temple Drake Title

One of the spiciest of the pre-code movies ever made was “The Story of Temple Drake” based on William Faulkner’s decadent novel, “Sanctuary” which was considered a scorcher for its time. Published in 1931, the novel dealt with rape, bondage and murder, and can probably be compared to today’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy in its notoriety. By the standard of the studios and the production code it was considered to be one of those books, like “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” some 15 years later, a work that was too hot for the screen and could not be made into a movie. Yet, just two years after its publication, Paramount purchased the rights and it arrived on the screen, though not without some fine major tuning and modifications. The Hays Office refused to allow the studio to name the novel in any way, subsequently during the opening credits it reads from a “novel by William Faulkner.” Still the film remains one of the most controversial and wicked of pre-code films. Faulkner, it is said, based his novel on a true story and wrote it expressly as a commercial venture to sell books with no consideration of  artistic intent.

Temple Drake, pre-code favorite Miriam Hopkins, is the granddaughter of an influential judge in a small Southern town. Temple has a ‘bad reputation’ with the boys always ending the evening in the bad seat of an automobile. Her name even ended up on a men’s room wall with some choice descriptions. Stephen Benbow is a local up and coming lawyer who is in love with Temple and wants to marry her but Temple admittedly has the devil in her and is not looking to settle down. Party girl Temple does go out on a date with Toddy Gowan and late one night driving, with too much to drink, at high speed Toddy loses control crashing off the side to the road with both Temple and Toddy tossed from the vehicle. Shook up but not badly hurt they are found by Trigger (Jack La Rue) the snappy dressing leader of a nearby bootlegging gang and Tommy (James Eagles) a teenage boy with mental issues or as they use to say, he’s a bit slow. Continue reading

The Maltese Falcon (1931) Roy Del Ruth

Okay, I am not going to tell you this original version of Dashiell Hammett’s now classic novel is better that John Huston’s 1941 masterpiece, but the truth is Roy Del Ruth’s 1931 pre-code has a sensual sinful aura the Huston/Bogart film lacks and it makes you want to keep it in your back pocket and save it for a night of wicked dreams.

After the release of the Huston/Bogart gem, Warner Brothers changed the title of the earlier flick to the more vapid and generic “Dangerous Woman” so as not to confuse anyone. Over the years this first version has practically been pushed into oblivion and only recently, thanks to TCM, popped back on to the screen. Continue reading

Short Takes: Natalie Wood, Diana Dors and Ginger Rogers

Short Takes returns with three reviews, totally unrelated. A young Natalie Wood stars in A CRY IN THE NIGHT while 1950′s Brit blonde bombshell Diana Dors is in THE UNHOLY WIFE. Finally, Ginger Rogers shines in the lightweight 5th AVENUE GIRL.

I wonder when they named this picture, “A Cry in the Night,” whose tears they were referring too, Natalie Wood’s character perhaps, who is kidnapped in the middle of the night or maybe the audience who had to sit through this cliché ridden tale about a child-like adult (Raymond Burr), think Lenny in “Of Mice and Men,” who watches young couples making out at a local lover’s lane.

After knocking out her boyfriend old Raymond kidnaps Ms. Wood taking her to his secret hideout where he confesses he just wants to be ‘friends.’  Yes, Nat makes a couple of feeble attempts to escape but in the end only manages to ripe her skirt so she can reveal some leg in order to keep the males in the audience awake.   Wood’s father, played by Edmond O’Brien, is an overbearing, over protective, sexist who finds it hard to believe his eighteen year old daughter would  willingly go to a lover’s lane of her own free will after he forbid her too. In fact, ole’ Edmond seems more concerned with wanting to beat the crap out of the boyfriend for this dirty deed than finding his daughter. Oh yeah, by the way, he’s a cop who naturally wants to be involved in the case though he should not be. The cast also includes Brian Donlevy as the sensible cop who attempts to control the out of control O’Brien. As directed by Frank Tuttle, there is nothing original here, to say the least. Tuttle is best known for making “This Gun For Hire” some fourteen years earlier which made Alan Ladd  a star. Ladd, by the way, is the narrator who opens the film and his company co-produced the film. Continue reading

Employees’ Entrance (1933) Roy Del Ruth

“Employees’ Entrance” is a classic! Not because of any artistic merit which there is little of but like most pre-code films for what is shown, said or at least insinuated. Themes that one year later after this film was released would be banned from the screen. With the enforcement of the production code, by Will Hays and company, the movie screen would be cleansed of nudity, loose women, drugs, cursing, homosexuals, sympathy for the poor and other so called vices and undesirable characters. American movies would be scrubbed clean of this kind of “filth” and homogenized into a world of celluloid unreality. And if and when they did appear, whores, murderers and their ilk would now be punished for their sins before the closing credits appeared on the screen. Even so called decent people, say for example married couples, could no longer sleep in the same bed. The baring of a female shoulder or a bit of leg was about as much nudity as you were going to get.

Of all the studios, Warner Brothers was the king of pre-code. The best, and again we are not talking artistic quality here, came from Warner Brothers/First National. Films like “Baby Face,” “Night Nurse,” “Blessed Event,” “The Public Enemy,” “Gold Diggers of 1933″ are just a few of the Warner Brothers/First National films incorporating soon to be forbidden topics. While some of these films may seem dated, even quaint today, a few still pack a punch and even remain relevant in our current society. “Five Star Final” deals with the lack of integrity and exploitation in the newspaper world and “Employees’ Entrance” gives us a bird’s eye view of big business, corporate greed, profits at any cost mentality which certainly still exist today. From the exploited topless photos of Kate Middleton to greed on Wall Street these films, made more than eighty years ago, still resonates with us in our present day. Continue reading

Vivacious Lady (1938) George Stevens

One can easily understand why James Stewart’s introverted professor falls so quickly and hard for Ginger Rogers nightclub entertainer, she is sexy, charming and adorable. “Vivacious Lady,” directed by George Stevens, is a smart and funny romantic comedy, in other words, the kind Hollywood does not or cannot make anymore. The film won’t make anyone’s top list of great comedies, it’s certainly not in the same class as THE LADY EVE, THE AWFUL TRUTH or BRINGING UP BABY but it does have its charm. Written by P.J. Wolfson and Ernest Pagano from a story by I.A.R. Wylie it is a remarkably simple story with a running time of 90 minutes and few of those minutes are wasted.

It’s love at first sight when Peter Morgan Jr. (James Stewart) falls for nightclub singer Francey Brent (Ginger Rogers) when he travels to New York to bring back home his wayward playboy cousin Keith (James Ellison). Within days the couple quickly marry and head back to Peter’s small hometown where he is a professor of Botany and his stanch, rigid, unyielding father, beautifully played by Charles Coburn, is the President of the University. Peter has always bowed to dad’s wishes, as does his mother (Beulah Bondi) who fakes heart problems just to gain sympathy and keep family peace when the senior Morgan gets on his high horse. You see, Morgan Sr. is a man who is just use to getting his way. Knowing his father, spineless Peter wants to hold off on announcing the marriage. Two attempts to tell Dad end abruptly with his father constantly interrupting him. As the conversations heat up, Peter’s mother would fake one of her ‘heart condition’ flare-ups. Also waiting back home is Peter’s fiancée, a stuffy, annoying woman named Helen (Frances Mercer) who is not letting Peter go too easily. Finally, the newlyweds are continuously attempting to consummate their marriage throughout the film. Continue reading