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

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

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

Illicit (1931) Archie Mayo

“Illicit” was only Barbara Stanwyck’s fifth film and she was already a star. Having just appeared in Frank Capra’s “Ladies of Leisure” as a prostitute, or as they would call it, a ‘party girl’ for Columbia, Babs, who had arranged for non-exclusive contracts with both Columbia and Warner Brothers, starred in her next film  for Brothers Warner as a free thinking woman, a post feminist long before the term was even conceived.

Stanwyck is Anne Vincent and her lover, James Rennie, is wealthy Richard “Dick” Ives II. They have been happily living out of wedlock, going away together for weekends, enjoying life, but she refuses to marry Dick who wants to marry her. Anne explains her theories on marriage, how married couples become complacent, have kids and begin to take each other for granted leaving the fun and romance behind. Anne wants none of that. Eventually though pressure from friends and family force the couple to marry. Once married, egos get hurt, misunderstandings come out of the closet as well as former lovers. From Anne’s past comes Price Baines, played smoothly by Ricardo Cortez, who keeps popping up to complicate the situation. Late in the film Dick is about to run off with a former girlfriend (Natalie Moorhead) when the couple come to the realization they only want each other. 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

Picture Snatcher (1933) Lloyd Bacon

Within four years Cagney made 19 films establishing his brash New York City persona as an alternative to the typical Hollywood male stars of the era. Cagney and the advent of movies were a perfect fit. His fast talking self-confident, cocky style was a perfect antidote to the stiffness of many actors transforming themselves from silents to sound. Besides the cockier Cagney was, the more we loved him.

“Picture Snatcher” is a breezy fast paced entertaining pre-code film that does it all right without ever managing to achieve greatness. The film stars an electric James Cagney as Danny Kean a street wise recently released ex-con who decides to go straight.

After telling his former cohorts, and collecting his share of the last job before his incarceration, that he is quitting the rackets Danny gets a job at a New York tabloid called “The Graphic” through a connection he made with the City Editor Al McLean (Ralph Bellamy) while in the clink.  Not really suited for reporting but brash enough to take a job as a photographer when all others are reluctant to go the scene where a crazed firemen is hold up  with a rifle after discovering his wife’s remains in bed with another man after a fire. Posing as an insurance adjustor, Danny worms his way into the distraught man’s confidence while his only true goal is to steal a photo of the man’s family to publish in the paper.

Along the way Danny meets Allison (Alice White) a two timing dame who is suppose to be McLean’s girl but has desires for Danny who continually fights her off. Danny does have his principles, he does not fool around with a friend’s dame.  He is more attracted to a young journalism student  named Patricia Nolan (Patricia Ellis) who happens to be the daughter of tough but loveable cop Lt. Casey Nolan (Robert O’Connor).

Danny’s methods as a reporter are no better than they were as a hoodlum; he steals a pass from another reporter to gain entry into Sing Sing to witness an electrocution of a female prisoner. Inside the prison Danny, with a miniature camera strapped to his ankle, gets his money shot which makes the paper’s front page but in the process get s his girlfriend’s father/cop busted in rank as was in charge of security and received the blame for Danny slipping by.

The execution sequence is based on the true story of one Ruth Snyder who in 1928 became the first woman to be electrocuted since the late 1800′s. Snyder and her lover, who was also electrocuted, killed her husband for insurance money (should sound familiar, the case inspired James Cain to use as the basis for Double Indemnity).   The New York Daily News hired an out of town photographer from the Chicago Tribune, someone unknown to the prison guards at Sing Sing, to sneak in to witness the execution and snap the photo which appeared the next day on the front page of the Daily News with the headline DEAD!

Danny does redeem himself somewhat by the end of the film when he is caught in an apartment with one of his former hoodlum buddies, Jerry the Mug. He protects Jerry’s frightened wife and kids trapped in the apartment as Jerry recklessly shoots it out with the police. As the battle with the police is about to reach it dramatic end, Danny gets an incredible photo of Jerry as he shot to death by the police.

Written by Allan Rivkin and P.J. Wolfson based on a story by Danny Adhern, “The Picture Snatcher” is overall a light hearted fast moving film filled with gangsters and newspaperman directed by Lloyd Bacon and played to the hilt by Cagney. The films generally low opinion of the news media, whether intentional or not, remains relevant to today with the onslaught of all the in your face vulture paparazzi we see brought to the extremes today in gossip magazines and TV. To say the least it is Cagney’s film all the way, his exhilarating performance drives the film and must have been a revelation to audiences of the day who were used to more suave refined leading men than the in your face anti-authoritarian  character Cagney is here and would perfect in so many films yet to come.

He Was Her Man (1934) Lloyd Bacon

    The team of Cagney and Blondell never reached the iconic level of Tracy and Hepburn though these two Warner Brothers stars set off plenty of sparks in their six films together. Released in 1934 just short of the start date for the newly enforced policing of Hollywood sinema, ‘He Was Her Man’ is a slight but entertaining drama from the most street wise of Hollywood studios. Both stars play it low-key in this downbeat story, with Cagney even sporting a mustache.

    The plot evolves around Flicker Hayes (Cagney) recently released from jail and seeking revenge on the gang members who set him up to take the rap. Not expecting Flicker to be vindictive, his former buddies include him in on a new job. He squeals to the police on the plan, a drug company’s safe, resulting in one of the gang members being caught and sentenced to die in the electric chair. To avoid getting bumped off for his revenge driven deed, Flicker skips town settling in San Francisco where he meets down and out former prostitute Rose Lawrence (Blondell) who is on her way to a small fishing village to marry Nick Gardella (Victor Jory), a respectable fisherman she met who loves her despite her immoral past.  A couple of the gang members come west on a tip to find Flicker who decided to take Rose to the fishing village figuring the small out of the way town is a good place to hide.  Flicker and Rose don’t plan it but they fall in love.

    The gang members soon manage to track Flicker down at the seaside village, only they want to kill Rose also figuring she knows too much. Flicker, who she only knows by his alias Jerry Allan, convinces the thugs Rose knows nothing of his past and if they agree to leave her alone he’ll go with them. As the film concludes, Flicker and his two assassins drive off toward the ocean where they will do their dirty deed. Rose marries the kindly Nick as the film comes to a rather poignant conclusion.     

    Despite the movie’s final wedding scene, the film ends on a despondent note with our gangster hero going off to his death. Cagney is subdued in this film and fans who like the hyperactive Jimmie may be disappointed. Blondell in a rare lead role is also fairly subdued as Rose avoiding her usual perky wise cracking style. Victor Jory does well as Nick Gardella, the Portuguese fisherman in love with Blondell.  As a pre-code film, it met the standard sinful requirements in a few instances. First Bondell’s character makes it clear she was selling herself to survive and that wedding dress she wears at the end of the film is low cut enough to qualify for 2009. There is also, early in the film, a scene when Cagney’s character is squealing to the cops, telling them that the drug company going to be robbed is loaded with “junk and nose candy.”

    Directed by Warner’s studio director Lloyd Bacon, the film lacks the kind of action most folks expect from a Warner’s gangster film. Its countryside by the seas location instead of the big city is also a change of pace from what is generally expected. While this is not a must see, it is worth a look and Cagney and Blondell completist will be pleased.

** 1/2