Safe in Hell (1931)

 Safe in Hell (1931) movie poster

director William A. Wellman
viewed: 08/06/2018

“She’s the only white woman on the island.”

Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill), a  prostitute in New Orleans, accidentally kills an old lover who played her dirty. And now she needs to get out quick!’ Enter her seafaring beau, back from long months all over the globe.

“I’ve made my living the only way I could.”

Initially taken aback by this, Gilda’s fiancee still loves her and secrets her away to a small island nation in the Caribbean with no extradition policies. She’ll have to hide out, “Safe in Hell” while he ships out again.

William A. Wellman’s Safe in Hell  bears it’s origins as a play, but it’s also primo pre-code storytelling and characterization: those on the outsides of “polite society” who would not find their lives depicted after the Hays Code kicked in, plus frankness about sex, and in some cases, a very humanitarian outlook.

I’d just watched Wellman’s Frisco Jenny of the following year, which held some very similar aspects. The lead Gilda is a strong woman, acting in self-reliance, doing what she has to in order to live. True, both Jenny and Gilda end up taking noble stances that ultimately lead them to the gallows, though this tragic ending further empowers their noble motivations rather than acting as pure punishment.

Another great bit of repartee:

“May I ask you senior what are your intentions for the chicken? Honorable I hope?”

Safe in Hell also has a pretty nice jazzy score, and a all too brief singing performance by Nina Mae McKinney  (“The Black Garbo”).

Frisco Jenny (1932)

Frisco Jenny (1932) movie poster

director William A. Wellman
viewed: 08/04/2018

Frisco Jenny Sandoval (Ruth Chatterton) was raised in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, among the remnants of the Barbary Coast. She’s a young girl in love (and “in the family way”) when the 1906 earthquake hits and devastates the city and more specifically, Jenny herself. Poverty and begging alongside the slum preachers isn’t feeding her baby, so Jenny turns to the oldest profession and her own self-reliance.

William A. Wellman’s Frisco Jenny is pre-code Hollywood telling stories that would soon be deemed to salacious or racy to be frankly depicted in the years to follow. Jenny creates an empire, initially through managing other prostitutes, but then other madams as well. Her sly and not altogether on the level attorney Steve Dutton gets her out of many a jam, but also sets her up to lose her child into a wealthy foster family, setting the stage for later tragedy.

The character of Jenny is self-reliant and self-made, despite the limitations available to her and her reality of her times. The film’s empathy lies with her. And it’s interesting to see how empty the promises of the preacher, and later the grandstanding and self-righteous district attorney, typical emblems of societal correctness, echo hollowly.

Footlight Parade (1933)

Footlight Parade (1933) movie poster

directors Lloyd Bacon, Busby Berkeley
viewed: 08/02/2018

In Footlight Parade, James Cagney and Joan Blondell head up a picture about Showbiz, one of Hollywood’s popular themes of the Thirties.

Silent pictures are finished!”

But talking pictures aren’t just a fad, as Footlight Parade proves out. Rapid fire everything, as Chester Kent (Cagney) knocks out one dynamite production after another, a musical number producer (oddly enough of the non-cinematic type). This is the Depression, after all, and idea men and money-makers and entertainment still shine the light of hope and prosperity.

The first hour or so is high-paced comedy, as Cagney pumps out production after production, discovering talent left, right, and everywhere (heck, his stenographer gets a make-over and now she’s the female singing lead!) It’s all fun stuff, if not necessarily pure gold.

The last third of the Footlight Parade, Busby Berkeley transforms a good backstage comedy into unparalleled pure cinema in his nigh psychedelic musical numbers comprised of the human figure, fantasy, and genius.  

“By a Waterfall” is spectacle, visions, fantasia. Honestly, if you’ve never seen a Busby Berkeley number and only know him by his cultural references and homages, glimpses in short excerpts or stills, you really owe it to yourself to see this absolute Hollywood magic. There is nothing, truly, like it.

Blonde Crazy (1931)

Blonde Crazy (1931) movie poster

director  Roy Del Ruth
viewed: 08/01/2018

James Cagney is the sliest bellhop and Joan Blondell is his wise and game partner in grift in Roy Del Ruth’s Blonde Crazy.

This pre-code “romantic comedy-drama” is slaphappy and a total hoot. Like a lot of early “talkies”, Blonde Crazy spits patter miles and miles a minute, with deft gags peppering scenes with risqué business.

Cagney and Blondell are a plum pairing, tons of charisma and sparks. It’s unsurprising they shared the screen several times in their early years. Cagney just radiates energy.

These grifters set their sights on higher game in bigger cities, working their scams and earning their dough. Only sometimes the scammers get scammed, and somebody ends up in a jam.

The Death Kiss (1932)

The Death Kiss (1932) movie poster

director  Edwin L. Marin
viewed: 05/28/2018

The Death Kiss is a pre-code B-picture murder mystery, starring Bela Lugosi, David Manners, and Edward Van Sloan who appeared together one year earlier in the much more heralded Dracula (1931).

It’s a little meta, opening on a scene in which a woman kisses a man, marking him for execution by gunfire. A scene that is a scene on a movie set of a film called “The Death Kiss”. Only, someone set up some real bullets and killed the actor. Now we’ve got a murder mystery! At a Hollywood studio!

Frankly, it’s nonessential but not uninteresting. Outside of the notability of the cast vis-a-vis their prior, more famous grouping, and the film-within-a-film thing, it’s got little to really recommend it. There is, however, at the finale,  some kinda cool hand-tinting color of flashlights and gunfire, a reminder that odd innovations were still commonplace in the early Thirties.

And the movie poster is Deco cool.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

The Scarlet Empress (1934) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 05/16/2018

Josef von Sternberg’s biographical drama about Catherine the Great, The Scarlet Empress, has a lot of the Silent Epic about it: lavish sets, huge cast, and intertitles. Again, he dolls up Marlene Dietrich in lush, over-the-top outfits and figures her as the beauty among beauties, the woman above all others.

The Scarlet Empress comes at the very end of the Pre-Code Era, and it’s a decadent, bizarro piece of Hollywood extremes.  The Expressionistic sets are insane and wild, imaginative and evocative, while bearing only loosely to anything of historical or cultural accuracy. The matte paintings could use some work perhaps and the miniatures of Moscow are kind of silly. But those sets, they’re astoundingly weird and awesome.

Adapted in part from Catherine the Great’s own memoirs, the story tells of the young naif Princess Sophia, married off to the Grand Duke Peter of Russia to bear him a male heir. Peter is a simpering weirdo, trapped in a childish state, his mother, Empress Elizabeth, a cold and demanding ruler. Sophie is renamed Catherine, and herlessons in life teach her to take charge of her world, sex life (with a litany of lovers) and eventually of all of Russia as well.

I was struck as The Scarlet Empress could be a possible inspiration for Andy Milligan’s Torture Dungeon?

Sternberg depicts a world that is perverse, ornate opulence, heaped up in grotesqueries, doused with sadomasochism, lust, and icy passion. Such a visual fantasia.

 

 

Shanghai Express (1932)

Shanghai Express (1932) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 05/14/2018

If you’ve ever wondered why Marlene Dietrich is considered a sex symbol, just watch Shanghai Express. She is the definition of  movie star here, shot by director Josef von Sternberg and cameramen Lee Garmes and James Wong Howe into absolute iconic pure classic Hollywood cinema.

The cinematography is breathtaking, especially lighting and capturing  of Dietrich. Her outfits, stunning and sublime.

“Don’t you find respectable people terribly…dull?” – Shanghai Lily

Set during a Chinese civil war, the film takes place, largely, on the train of the title, en route for Shanghai but delayed and manipulated by Henry Chang (Warner Oland), a particular player in the country’s unrest. Dietrich is “Shanghai Lily”, an imported courtesan, who runs into an old lover (Clive Brook).  Anna Mae Wong is another mysterious figure on the crowded train, though there is just nowhere enough Anna Mae Wong in the film.

A pre-code gem, Shanghai Express is all intrigue, exotica,  and glamour. All dreamed up on some Hollywood sound stage.

Svengali (1931)

Svengali (1931) movie poster

director Archie Mayo
viewed: 01/04/2018

I first stumbled on Svengali as a horror film loving kid. Though I don’t recall the context being that it was exactly a horror film or what prompted me to watch it late one night, but I was quite impressed with it and have always meant to get back to it.

Adapted from George du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby, its horror cred is owed in part to its legacy relationship to the Gothic horror genre. That, and perhaps as important, are the film’s design and aesthetics, which straight borrowed from Expressionist cinema to a great effect. And, of course, John Barrymore in one of his most notable roles, the titular Svengali.

Marian Marsh stars as Trilby, the former titular heroine of the novel. As noted elsewhere, the film’s choice to focus on the villain rather than the heroine as the core of the story, turns this also from a more typical drama and into a darker, more supernatural film.

When I first saw this film, I probably couldn’t recognize the depiction of Svengali as being anti-Semitic, but if you’re familiar with the depictions of the era in which it was made, it’s hard to get away from. Some might argue that Barrymore makes more of the character than any simple racist caricature, but it is deeply imbued in his costume and make-up, as well as some other characteristics.

It’s a visually rich and inventive pre-code horror film. Sincerely recommended.

Night of Terror (1933)

Night of Terror (1933) movie poster

director Benjamin Stoloff
viewed: 12/26/2017

Night of Terror opens with a fairly awesome crystal ball credit sequence. What follows is pure pre-code kookiness with several over-lapping plots including one with a roving maniac.

“Your eyes are like dewdrops…”

I don’t understand all the nuances of camp and kitsch but this movie is full blown something.

Here’s Bela Lugosi slumming it only two years after his breakout Dracula.

I’d say it’s ridiculous fun but the ending just kicks it up an entire full notch. And you’ll just have to watch it to know why I cannot say more.

The Road to Ruin (1934)

The Road to Ruin (1934) movie poster

directors Dorothy Davenport, Melville Shyer
viewed: 05/12/2017

The Road to Ruin is a “talkie” re-make of a more controversial 1928 silent exploitation flick also directed by Dorothy Davenport and starring Helen Foster (who was notably closer in age to the teen she portrays in these pictures.) Though it has a great movie poster, the safe money is on the 1928 movie.

Per Wikipedia “The reviewer for Variety found the film “restrained” in comparison to the more “hotly sexed” silent version”.

Outside of a skinny-dipping scene, this doesn’t have a lot going for it in the more exploitative or even pre-code veins. This story of a teen turned on to sex and drink and drugs who dies after a botched abortion is almost boilerplate stuff. The film does tend to a more sympathetic portrayal of the teen’s psyche, not as judgmental as some of these flicks.

Gotta find me the 1928 version.