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

Born to be Bad (1934) Lowell Sherman

This late entry in the pre-code movie book, it opened in New York City on May 30th 1934 at the Rivoli Theater, stars the gorgeous Loretta Young as Letty Strong, a prostitute and con artist, and by the clothes she wears a successful one. She became pregnant at the age of 15, was helped by no one except for a kind old man who owns a local store where he let her live in the back.  Since then she has taught her son Mickey (Jackie Kelk), now school age, about seven or eight, how to con everyone; cheat, lie and steal  is her motto. Letty is hard as nails having built years of resentment into her short life.

Young’s co-star is an up and coming actor by the name of Cary Grant  who as Malcolm Trevot portsys a rich diary company owner whose wife Alyce (Marion Burns) cannot conceive the child he so desperately wants. Their worlds will collide when the young boy, roller skating while holding on to the back of a truck, swinging back and forth, runs into the path of a milk truck driven by Malcolm (early version of “Undercover Boss?”).  Letty and the kid lie about the accident, faking a severe injury and taking the case to court. However, once inside the courtroom, Mal and his lawyers prove the young boy was faking the injuries with film taken by investigators of Mickey running and jumping only a few days after the accident. As a result the court decides the boy should be taken from Mom’s custody and sent to a child services facility. Continue reading

Libeled Lady (1936) Jack Conway

William Powell and Myrna Loy made fourteen films together marking them as one of the most recognized and great screen team pairings. They first appeared together in 1934’s “Manhattan Melodrama” which was soon followed by “The Thin Man,” the first of six films they would make as Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles. They would go on to make eight more films with Powell always elegant and charming while Loy emoted style, wit and a flirtatious naughtiness. In 1936, they were teamed with two other of MGM’s grand stars, Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy, and made one of the most delightful and funny screwball comedies to grace the screen, “Libeled Lady.”

Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, “Libeled Lady” moves at a quick pace barely giving the viewer time to catch one’s breath. Directed by MGM house director, Jack Conway, Loy is Connie Allenbury, an heiress who is suing  a local newspaper for five million dollars for  printing false accusations about her stealing another woman’s husband. The paper’s editor is the scheming, crusty Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) who plans to obstruct the lawsuit by creating a scheme that will make Connie appear to be a real husband stealer. His plan is to enlist the services of Bill Chandler (William Powell), a former reporter for the paper, along with his own frustrated fiancé of two years, a reluctant Gladys  (Jean Harlow). Haggerty convinces both Bill and Gladys to get married to each other, but only for appearances sake, and not certainly not to be consummated! Bill will then “seduce” Connie, who is unaware that he is a married man, into a romantic relationship only to have Gladys come barging in causing a public scandal with  Tracy’s paper  breaking the news, forcing Connie to drop the suit.

Filled with one hilarious scene after another, arguably the most hysterical is the wedding scene of Bill and Gladys. At the end of the ceremony, the justice of the peace tells the bride and groom they can now kiss. The two uncomfortably peck each other reluctantly on the lips. When Haggerty congratulates the new bride with a kiss, it is a long and passionate, shocking the justice of the peace. The new husband, Bill looking on informs the flustered justice of the peace not to worry, “they are old friends… very old friends!”

A fishing scene is also a highlight with Bill pretending to be an expert on trout fishing to impress Connie’s father, a delightful Walter Connelly. He unnervingly finds himself in the stream soak and wet, yet somehow managing to bag the largest catch of the day (This whole sequence reminded me of Howard Hawk’s 1964 comedy, “Man’s Favorite Sport” where Rock Hudson passes himself off as an expert on fishing but has actually never fished). As the film progresses, the plot becomes thicker and wilder, with Gladys beginning to believe she is really falling in love with Bill, while Bill  actually falls in love with his supposed mark, Connie, and the two impetuously getting married. A jealous Gladys will accuse them of arson when she really means bigamy.

Marriage of convenience has been a common plot device in many comedies over the years, “Hired Wife,” “Come Live With Me,” “The Lady is Willing,” “Next Time I Marry,” and “The Doctor Takes a Wife” are a few films that have used the same theme.  I  actually watched the last of these film’s mentioned recently, a pleasant entertaining movie with Loretta Young and Ray Milland, though not in the same league as “Libeled Lady.” If “Libeled Lady” has a flaw it comes in the final minutes when all that is going on in the convoluted plot needs to be sorted out to ensure a happy ending, particularly the problem of Powell’s character who married Harlow during the course of the movie, but is in love with, and marries Loy, making Powell a bigamist. Well, we can’t have that, after all, this is 1936 and the production code is in effect, so as the film comes to its conclusion, Bill announces he looked into Gladys’ past and found that her Yucatan divorce from her first husband was illegal, subsequently, she was not free to have married him, making it legal for Bill to have married Connie. Only the put upon Gladys has her day, coming back with an unexpected topper, by announcing to everyone she followed the fiasco Yucantan divorce with a legal Reno divorce, freeing her to have married Bill! Unfortunately, both of these plot points come out of nowhere, like a mystery writer who injects a totally unexpected twist, an unseen and contrived idea into the storyline in the last chapter, with no previous hint earlier in the story, to surprise the reader. The entire scene is too manufactured and feels forced in order to resolve Bill’s double marriage dilemma.

That said, this is a not to be missed fun filled farce with a spectacular MGM cast. Myrna Loy who can express witty and naughty looks by just the raise of an eyebrow is matched flawlessly against her ideal screen partner, William Powell. Jean Harlow is a comedic gem with  the right touches of cunning and naiveté, and Spencer Tracy is perfect as the calculating newspaper editor who puts the paper above all else.

****

Cause for Alarm (1951) Tay Garnett

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You know you are really having a bad day when your invalid husband announces to you he just mailed a letter to the D.A. implicating you and his best friend in a plot to kill him. In “Cause for Alarm,” a 1951 low budget suburban noir, George Jones (Barry Sullivan) is confined to his bed  and his mind is deteriorating as well. A weak heart and paranoia make for a lethal combination as George convinces himself that his loving wife Ellen (Loretta Young), who has been taking care of him and his best friend, and physician, are out to kill him by slowly poisoning him.

cause_for_alarm_000004    In flashback we find out Ellen was first dating Lt. Ranney Grahame (Bruce Cowling), a young doctor and best friend to George. Grahame’s busy days left little time for romance and soon Ellen began dating George, falling in love and getting married. Now a few years later, George is confined to his bed with Ellen taking care of him and Grahame his physician.

With his condition deteriorating,  George comes to believe his wife and best friend are having an affair. George, who the good doctor recommends should see a psychologist, instead makes plans to retaliate by writing and secretly mailing an incriminating letter to the District Attorney outlining a supposed plot to murder him. After the letter is mailed, which Ellen herself unknowingly gave to the mailman, he tells her all about his plan. Confronting her, George ever more paranoid, now sets a plan in motion to kill Ellen except, well, poor George got himself so worked up that before he could pull the trigger on Ellen, he has a massive heart attack and drops dead with the pistol still clutched in his hands.cause_for_alarm_000006

Ellen is obviously relieved though not for long when she realizes the letter her husband mailed will incriminate her as his murderer. From what George told her just before he died, everything he put in the letter could be misinterpreted to prove there was a plot to kill him.  Attempts to get the letter back from the Post Office, the D.A. are in vain. With each passing moment, Ellen is becoming a bigger and bigger web of nerves, on the verge of a breakdown, all while her husband’s dead body remains upstairs in the bedroom. When George’s Aunt comes to visit and wants to see George, you fear the poor woman is going to go totally berserk. Later, Ranney shows up to check on George, and Ellen tells him what happened. He calmly goes upstairs, finds his friend’s body, and methodically begins to “clean up” the scene, rearranging the body, pulling the shades down. Surprisingly he shows no sign of distress over his friend’s recent demise.

cause_for_alarm_000011   A twist of an ending, which I will not give away, seems to clear Ellen. I say seems to  because while the assumption is Ellen is an innocent victim here, she and Ranney act more as if they are in a conspiracy to cover up a crime. It does leave a bit of doubt as to what really went on. Was George right about the love affair, or was he “rude and selfish” since he was a child, as his Aunt Clara mumbles during her visit. Ellen seems more concerned with clearing her name than her husband’s death. Of course, he did try to frame her for his approaching death. It is all kind of Hitchcockian, though without the irony, or a scent of black humor that Sir Alfred would have introduced.  cause_for_alarm_000020

Loretta Young manages to pull off a performance that miraculously comes close to the edge of “way too much” but somehow she holds it all in check with a great breakdown scene at the end. Despite a frazzled state for most of the film, she is certainly beautiful to look at and the film really belongs to her. This film came toward the end of a long movie career, and she was only a couple of years away from the beginning of a new start on TV with “The Loretta Young Show”, an anthology series where she started each show in an exquisite evening gown and was introduced as Miss Loretta Young. It was all very formal. Additionally, she starred in many of the episodes.  Another highlight of the film is Margalo Gillmore who gives a testy performance as Aunt Clara, hitting all the right and annoying buttons.  Also adding to the suspense is Andre Previn’s score and Tay Garnett’s direction. Garnett is no stranger to noirish style films though here he take the atmosphere out of the city and into suburbia. The film was produced by Young’s husband Tom Lewis, who also co-wrote the script along with Mel Dinelli. The film was amazingly shot in 14 days!

The Stranger (1946) Orson Welles

     “The Stranger” is considered an odd duck in Welles directorial hierarchy. The film was seen as a test to see if Welles could work within the system, meaning could he stay within budget.  Many film scholars have dismissed it as contract job, unlike his first two films and his later work, which all had Welles personal stamp all over them. The film even slipped into the public domain resulting in a lot of cheap poor reproduced DVD’s which has not helped enhance its reputation. Only recently did MGM release a high quality version for home video.  While the movie does not have the flare or the visual stunningness of “Citizen Kane” or “The Magnificent Ambersons”, “The Stranger” has enough Wellesian, touches to distinguish it as a Welles film and even more important it is an entertaining film to watch.

    Today, there is nothing original about the story we’ve seen it before, the man on the run who changes his identity living in a small town (Shadow of a Doubt). The former Nazi war criminal who fled, and is now living in another country (The Boys of Brazil, Apt Pupil), yet Welles style is evident. We see it in the long takes, the expressionistic lighting and unusual camera angles. While the story today is common, in 1946 it was not. “The Stranger” is also notable for its use, only a year after the end of World War 2, of actual concentration camp footage used to reveal the truth about Franz Kindler (Orson Welles) to his father in-law and wife.

    Welles himself pretty much disowned “The Stranger”, seeing it only as a ‘gun for hire’ job. It is the only film he directed where someone else wrote the script (Victor Trivas), and where he did not have control over editing. He also had problems with producer Sam Spiegel. Originally, Welles wanted Agnes Moorhead in the role of Inspector Wilson however, Spiegel wanted a name with more star power and Edward G. Robinson was signed for the role. Welles and Robinson did not get along, during the filming.  Spiegel would go on to produce epics like “The Bridge on the Rive Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia.”

    The plot involves a convicted war criminal, Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), who is released from prison in hope that he will lead officials to the more notorious Nazi, Franz Kindler. An investigator from the War Crimes Commission, Inspector Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) is assigned to follow Meinike. As planned, Meinike leads Wilson to the small New England town of Harper, Connecticut where we find Kindler leading a new life as Charles Rankin, a professor at a nearby college. Rankin is about to marry Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of the prominent citizen Judge Longstreet. From this point on, it becomes a cat and mouse game between Wilson and Kindler/Rankin. As Wilson gathers more and more evidence, he comes closer and closer to forcing Kindler to reveal to all his real identity. 

    Orson Welles, whose acting was more in demand than he directing, is always on edge as his character becomes more and more trapped in a vice like grip until the final exciting climax. The always good Edward G. Robinson seems to be doing a variation of his Barton Keyes character from Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity.” Loretta Young is good as the naive wife who wants to believe her husband is innocent and not whom Wilson says he is. Also notable are a young Richard Long as Mary’s brother and Billy House who plays Mr. Potter, the checker playing General Store owner.

    Ironically, “The Stranger” is one of Welles few films to do well at the box office and the film was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay.  Due to its success, Welles was able to go on and make “The Lady from Shanghai” next. Admittedly, “The Stranger” is not in the class “Citizen Kane”, The Magnificent Ambersons” or “Touch of Evil”, it is a more standard thriller with some Wellesian touches thrown in however; it does not deserve to be more than just a footnote from Welles filmography and is certainly well worth seeing.