Saturday, February 25, 2012

Hollywood Before the Code: Elliot Lavine Strikes Again!

Our friend, film historian and programmer par excellence, Elliot Lavine, has embarked on an exploration of a different part of the cinematic past this March at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. From March 2-March 8, 2012, Elliot has put together a series of double features for those fortunate movie-goers in the Bay area. This "arsenal of artistic bravura" includes well known pre-codes such as Scarface, Call Her Savage, Three on a Match and The Bitter Tea of General Yen as well as less familiar classics that offer viewers a glimpse of a brazenly youthful Tallulah Bankhead in The Cheat, the delightful if now obscure Jack Oakie in the woozy comedy-mystery, Murder at the Vanities and a visit with the denizens of a green hell called Kongo with the masterful actor Walter Huston. The film critic for The San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle,(the author of two of the best overviews of the pre-code era, Complicated Women and Dangerous Men)  has also written in detail about this event.The San Francisco Bay Guardian also has a piece devoted to the "seedy delights" highlighted in this festival.

Below is the list of all the films to be included in this festival of the disreputable and more details can be seen at the Roxie Theater website:

Friday, March 2:

Scarface (1932-Howard Hawks):
In a violent story based on the career of Al Capone, this gangster story still sears its way through a character study of  remarkable brutality and twisted instincts, providing Paul Muni, Boris Karloff, George Raft, Karen Morley, and Ann Dvorak with emblematic roles that showed their talent and versatility. In B&W from a  35mm Studio Archive Print. 93 mins. 1932. FRI at 8:00 and 11:00 pm late show

More Below the Break...

Three on a Match (1932-Mervyn LeRoy):
 This briskly fatalistic story of three girls who grow into womanhood still seeking the excitement and security they had dreamed of as children. Their divergent paths cross again, and the complex lives of Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis and Joan Blondell become intertwined once more as the world changes during the hard scrabble years of the Great Depression, touching these women in unforeseen ways that include infidelity, the disintegration of a marriage, child endangerment and drug abuse. In the same year as she portrayed Paul Muni's sensual sister, Dvorak is a standout as the most troubled friend of the three young women. Also starring Humphrey Bogart, Warren William, and Lyle Talbot as those troublesome men in their lives.In B&W. HQ Digital. 63 mins. 1932. FRI at 6:45 and 9:45 pm.

Saturday, March 3:

Freaks (1932-Tod Browning):
Tod Browning's notorious film, casting actual circus freaks in a Grand Guignol style story, expanded the definition of horror in American film after WWI and the Depression. Singularly controversial and unseen for many years after its initial release, this unforgettable film also made a tacit argument for tolerance as well as frankness about the conventional world's capacity for cruelty.  Starring Wallace Ford, Olga Baclanova, Leila Hyams, Harry Earles. In B&W from a 16mm film print. 64 mins. 1932. SAT at 2:15, 5:00, 8:00 and 11:00 late show!

Island of Lost Souls (1932-Erle C. Kenton):
 H.G. Wells' "Island of Dr. Moreau" provided the jumping off point for filmmakers who explored one of the grotesquely logical outcomes of the scientific tailoring of life on earth. Richard Arlen's arrival on the island ruled over by the disturbing scientist Charles Laughton causes the "orderly" tropical universe to spin out of control in unexpected ways. Playing God yields some surprisingly unearthly creatures who are not quite human nor animal--taking especially alluring form in Kathleen Burke (who was simply billed as "The Panther Woman" at the time). This horror classic also features  Bela Lugosi and, Leila Hyams in the cast. In B&W from a 35mm Studio Archive Print 70 mins. 1932. SAT at 3:30, 6:30 and 9:30

 Sunday, March 4

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933-Frank Capra):
A commercial failure at the time of its first release, it may be director Frank Capra's most artistically interesting film, drawing a performance from Barbara Stanwyck as an American missionary kidnapped by a Chinese War Lord (Nils Asther, who was never better) that is unlike any other of her many stellar acting roles. The film, beautifully photographed in shimmering black and white by Joseph Walker ,explores themes of miscegenation, the power of erotic imagination, the line between civilized behavior and cruelty and the randomness of life in a distinctly un-Hollywood manner. Also starring Toshia Mori and Walter Connolly.In B&W from a 35mm Studio Archive Print. 88 mins. 1933. SUN at 1:15, 4:30, and 8:00

The Cheat (1931-George Abbott):
Love, willfulness, and an intriguingly decadent "Oriental" sense of honor erupt in this Tallulah Bankhead film in which the actress plays the idle, spoiled wife of a wealthy businessman whose neglect of her leads her to develop a gambling habit that catches the eye of Irving Pichel's somewhat sadistic Asian. Under the direction of theatrical legend George Abbott, Bankhead shines her patented steamy sullenness to a fare-thee-well, even as her debt to Pichel compels her toward physical ruin--not to mention that tarnished reputation she may be getting around the country club and the court house! Also starring Harvey Stephens as the square-jawed husband, who may just be the dullest man in shoe leather, even if he does love Tallulah. In B&W from a. 35mm Studio Archive Print. 74 mins. 1931. SUN at 3:00, 6:20, and 9:45

Monday, March 5: 

Murder at the Vanities (1934-Mitchell Leisen):
Enormous fun, this movie was released weeks prior to the imposition of the Production Code in July, 1934. Despite the coming chilling effect of the code, this delightfully silly movie concocts a pre-code cocktail brimming with double-entendres, cheeky chorus girls (look for Ann Sheridan in a tiny part and a bad perm), unbelievably inappropriate production numbers, all while murder, revenge, and skullduggery are afoot backstage. Jack Oakie, a show biz veteran of a type who no longer survives, (alas) keeps the mayhem and the pace of the show going, while Victor McLaglen lumbers around as a none-too-swift detective, worldly Gertrude Michael vamps and innocent Kitty Carlisle sings prettily (and cluelessly). The film includes an unbelievably outré number about "Sweet Marijuana" and several instances of suggestive dialogue. In addition to Jack Oakie, Kitty Carlisle, and Gertrude Michael, Carl Brisson is also on hand as a singing hunk whose biceps are bigger than his acting talent. In B&W from a 35mm Studio Archive Print! 89 mins. 1934. MON at 8:00 only!

Sensation Hunters (1933-Charles Vidor):
Never having seen this film, I can only quote from the Roxie Theater info: "While on a Pacific cruise, a pretty young showgirl joins up with a traveling group of cabaret performers and winds up scrambling for life and limb at the lowliest dive in Panama City! This vividly atmospheric pre-code pot-boiler belies its poverty row origins with a surprisingly witty script and solid direction from the man who would later bring GILDA to the big screen. An extremely rare film and one that will make a lasting impression; a lost gem rediscovered! Starring Arline Judge, Preston Foster, Marion Burns, Kenneth MacKenna. Directed by Charles Vidor. In B&W. 16mm film print. 73 mins. 1933. MON at 6:20 and 9:45"

Tuesday, March 6:

Ladies of the Big House (1931-Marion Gering):
The talent of a personal fave and an essential 1930s actress Sylvia Sidney is highlighted in this Paramount film as she endures the kind of travails that later prompted the actress to break away from her successful Hollywood career, even if she was being "paid by the tear." As a florist, Sidney spurns the advances of a vicious hoodlum (Earle Fox), leading the bum to frame her boyfriend (Gene Raymond, before he became completely dull) for murder--leading both lambs to their judicial slaughter and a long term for Sylvia in prison. Sidney manages to make friends with Ivory (played with a blend of warmth and dignity by Louise Beavers) in the slammer, though feisty Wynne Gibson as the gangster's former moll promises to make life even tougher for our heroine. The film's sympathetic portrayal of different races (in addition to African-American actress Louise Beavers, a Mexican convict gently played by Russian-born actress Miriam Goldina dies in childbirth), the strength of the women characters, and the wild action takes this film out of the ordinary. One other actor to look for: character actor Roscoe Karns, who plays a condemned man who passes the time on death row by playing Twenty Questions!  "A wild pre-code extravaganza with an abundance of heart-pounding big-house violence;cat-fights galore!" In B&W from a 35mm Studio Archive Print! 77 mins. 1931. TUE at 8:00 only!

Blondie Johnson (1933-Ray Enright):
Joan Blondell gives one of her best early performances as the effortlessly sexy, smart-mouthed yet careworn child of the Depression who will do "anything to make what really matters: dough." Rising to the top of the masculine heap in her milieu while fiercely guarding her virtue and her independence means becoming even tougher than the gangsters as she deals with men like Chester Morris. The actor plays a racketeer who "talks with his hands," and he may be the one hoodlum that Blondell finds harder to resist as she eventually falls for him--especially since both are adept at rapid-fire wise-cracks and give off a healthy sexuality that has rarely been captured on film (See Blondell's chemistry with James Cagney in Blonde Crazy (1933) for another dose of this film's medicine). The little known screenwriter Earl Baldwin, who also wrote the scripts for such snappy quintessential '30s fare as The Mouthpiece (1932), Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and Wonder Bar (1934), delivers the goods in the dialogue here as well-hot, topical, and quite funny.  Also featuring Sterling Holloway, Mae Busch, and Allen Jenkins. In B&W. HQ Digital. 67 mins. 1933. TUE at 6:30 and 9:35

Wednesday, March 7:

The Story of Temple Drake (1933-Stephen Roberts)
William Faulkner had already written his classic novels The Sound and the Fury (1929) and  As I Lay Dying (1930) by 1931, but he was desperate for money when Sanctuary, the brief book that provided the basis of this film, was published. Faulkner regarded the lurid tale of sexually frank and violent material to be a "sensational book written for money" which was written after the author "took a little time out, and speculated what a person in Mississippi would believe to be current trends, chose what I thought would be the right answer and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine and wrote it in about three week." Based on his knowledge of the underworld in Memphis, TN, and the details of  a story told to the writer by a woman in a New Orleans nightclub about her abduction by an impotent gangster, the sale of the novel to the movies was quickly accomplished--though the film's distribution may have helped to fuel the call for stronger self-regulation in the movie industry.

The story of a spoiled rich girl (Miriam Hopkins, at her sulky best), who becomes the 'property' of a brutal bootlegger and gangster Jack LaRue (whose career never fully recovered from this role) and the exposure of her degradation in a court of law, actually was rather tame and allusive compared to the book. One notable feature to watch for: the scene in the corn crib between LaRue and Hopkins was innovatively storyboarded by a young, Romanian-born artist eking out a living in Hollywood. His striking sense of design and the rhythmic power of his images gained Jean Negulesco a toehold in the studio system, eventually leading to a long career as a director.  Also featuring William Gargan and Florence Eldridge.  In B&W. HQ Digital. 70 mins. 1933. WED at 6:30 and 9:45

Call Her Savage (1932-John Francis Dillon)
The penultimate film of the truly likable Clara Bow, whose ripe sexuality is conveyed on the sound screen in a still-vibrant and appealing film performance that seems both artless and touching. A young woman, at odds with her censorious but rich father, escapes from her rural Western home to pursue a dissolute life in big cities. Driven by her conflicted impulses, Bow goes from a jazz baby to unhappy wife (was any woman ever made happy by Monroe Owsley in the movies?) to hedonistic divorcee to heartbreak to reconciliation in less than an hour and a half.

Wickedness on display includes racial mixing, speakeasies where gay men are present and daring to have fun, a husband who seems to be glad he has paresis, lots of drinking, Gilbert Roland being horse-whipped (and seemingly not minding it), and wrestling with a Great Dane (in a visual reference to a scurrilous rumor about the falling star). After seeing this film, a viewer can't help being sad that such a vibrant young actress ended her career so early, in part due to her own understandable fear of her own fame. Also starring Thelma Todd. In B&W. HQ Digital. 88 mins. 1932. WED at 8:00 only!

 Thursday, March 8: 

The Black Cat (1934-Edgar G. Ulmer):
Edgar Allan Poe's story only provided the title of this film, which begins with a very naive pair of honeymooners (Julie Bishop and David Manners) stranded in a Hungarian art-deco mansion, complete with a state-of-the-art basement where the owner pursues his odd hobby. The homeowner is played with sinister hauteur by Boris Karloff as an architect whose past includes torture of prisoners during WWI. A mysterious figure from this tragic past (Bela Lugosi) also appears on the doorstep, though his mission is to avenge the death of loved ones at the hands of the mad builder. Regarded as "a pre-code horror classic," the film's visual style and suggestions of horror linger in the imagination long after the 65 minute movie is over. In B&W from a 35mm Studio Archive Print. 65 mins. 1934. THURS at 6:40 and 9:45

Kongo (1932-William J. Cowen):
Playing a crippled man bent on a revenge, Walter Huston, who had created this role on the Broadway stage prior to Lon Chaney's more famous turn in the part in the silent West of Zanzibar (1928), the patriarch of the Huston family, wove one of the most memorable portraits of fetid evil on the American screen in this film. A truly disturbing story incorporating festering malice, racism, drug addiction, incest, it is Huston's "take no prisoners" style and the tender despair of Virginia Bruce that powers the film toward its inevitable end. Unlike any other film in Huston's career, the actor, who needed the money at the time of the production, reportedly regarded the movie as alot of hokum--though memories of  his character of "Deadlegs" Flint are not easily dismissed. Also starring  Lupe Velez and Conrad Nagel. In BW. HQ Digital. 86 mins. 1932. THURS at 8:00 only!

Previously, this blog followed Elliot Lavine's enlightening adventures in Film Noir in these three posts:

Elliot Lavine's Noir Film Festival and New Book Release


I Still Wake Up Dreaming: Elliot Lavine Rides Again

 I Wake Up Dreaming - 2011 The Legendary and The Lost!


Elliot said...

Beautifully done, Moira! Your personal take on these films are wonderful and I truly appreciate the spectacular graphics you've assembled for this. I do wish you could be here!! Thanks again - Elliot

Moira Finnie said...

It was my pleasure, Elliot. I only hope that this collection yields the kind of appreciative audiences you have had in the past. Now if only you could travel with these shows...


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