Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933) Lloyd Bacon

MSMDStereotypes run amuck in this Warner Brothers pre-code from 1933. Yet it is these categorizations that make this pre-code interesting to watch. It begins on the Lower East Side of New York, Orchard Street to be specific, an ethnic neighborhood which at various times was filled with Jewish, German, Italian and Puerto Rican immigrants among others. The script focuses on an Italian family. Tony has called for a doctor, his wife is giving birth, and he’s crying for help. An ambulance arrives with a doctor in tow, our heroine, Mary Stevens (Kay Francis). Tony is shocked. My God, the doctor is a woman! No, no, no, he wants a real doctor…a man! Having already lost one child, he threatens Mary with a machete if she fails to help his wife through to a successful birth. Mary locks herself in the bedroom with the expectant mother while Tony is being restrained by the police (called earlier by the frightened ambulance driver). As expected, the baby is successfully delivered and all is well. This short opening scene reveals how far we have come in our labeling of people and yet it also reveals how far we still have to go. I am sure there are still men out there who do not want to be treated by a female doctor just because she is a woman. Continue reading

The House on 56th Street (1933) Robert Florey

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It’s always a treat when you get the opportunity to discover a good film you never heard of before. I was totally unaware of this Robert Florey directed film when I saw it pop up on TCM’s schedule. It sounded interesting, so I set up my DVR to record. It turned out to be a real nice surprise.

Released during the Christmas season of 1933, The House on 56th Street had to be one of the last few films to be come out before the enforcement of the Production Code and all its many “Thou Shall Not’s” that would follow. It’s a good thing too because the film’s entire last act would have been marred had those devil censors got their oily hands on it. Continue reading

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

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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

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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