The series of horror films produced by Universal Studios in the 1930s and ’40s has long carried a specific mystique. The epoch of Expressionist horror that ushered the genre’s true arrival on screen had flowered in Germany but was waning by the time of the talkies. Whilst serious horror films were made in Hollywood throughout the silent period, jokey horrors were the most popular, lampooning the same dark and miasmic fantasias that the German filmmakers were revelling in. Many of the talented artistic progenitors of the Expressionist style, like directors F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Paul Leni, and camera wizard Karl Freund, decamped to Hollywood, which had already absorbed a lot of their style. A Hollywood horror revolution was officially kick-started by a native son, Tod Browning with Dracula (1931). Actually an adaptation of John L. Balderstone’s play taken from Bram Stoker’s novel, the film was charged with an enfolding sense of sonorous evil, and expertly exploited Béla Lugosi’s iconic charisma. Freund, who shot the film and helped meld the Expressionist ethic to the theatrical demands of early sound cinema,, emerged from the production with standing, as some felt he saved the difficult shoot, often filling in for the distracted Browning. Although more concrete than the intensely psychologised and symbolic Expressionist films, the specific power Universal’s approach was a dedication to making their horror films densely atmospheric and rarefied, close to cinematic mood poems and fables.
The great movies of their brand, including Dracula, Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Wolf Man (1941), and a few others, defined the horror film in many minds, and still influence how many envision the classic roster of genre ghouls. Universal eventually turned successes into franchises and hammered those into the ground, although even their silliest later monster pile-ups like House of Dracula (1946) are exceedingly well-made and entertaining. But the earlier Universal work is far more powerful and still works even as many of the films show their age. Dracula proved a gigantic hit, and was quickly followed by James Whale’s brilliant take on Frankenstein, which although very different to Mary Shelley’s source novel, touched on a kind of fairy tale beauty and menace. Perhaps after a few years of the Depression, American audiences were in a mood not all that different to the struggling early days of Weimar; either way, dark, eerie, perverse and violent visions suddenly became wildly popular, an id to accompany the ego warriors of the gangster films soaring in popularity at the same time.
Universal, searching for another realm of the fantastic to explore, next produced The Mummy. It was an inspired and obvious recourse. Since Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb ten years earlier, things Ancient Egyptian held great cultural power. The Mummy was an original property rather than a well-worn literary classic, albeit strongly influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Ring of Thoth” and “Lot 249” as well much of H. Rider Haggard’s writing. Keeping recent success in mind, the studio gave Boris Karloff, who had rocketed to stardom in Frankenstein, the title role, and had Balderstone pen the screenplay. Barely days before the shoot was to start, the studio pressed Freund to direct. When Universal returned to the idea of the mummy as monster in the Kharis series, kicked off by The Mummy’s Hand (1940), the more familiar version was created, that of a lurching, raggedly bandaged zombie slowly and remorselessly tracking victims. In this regard the original The Mummy can be a surprise, as the notion of a walking mummy is only briefly touched on in the film’s famous opening sequence.
That scene sees respected Egyptologist Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron), his friend and colleague Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan), and young assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) inspecting their latest discoveries on their 1921 field expedition. Sir Joseph, an old and wise hand, wants to carry on cataloguing in the order of discover as per usual practice, but Norton is too distracted by their big finds, a casket that proves to house a mummy, a high priest named Imhotep, and a box containing a hieroglyphic scroll. Muller, inspecting the casket, deduces the mummy was in fact a man buried alive, for treason or, more likely, sacrilege. “Maybe he got too gay with the Vestal virgins in the temple,” Norton theorises cheekily, getting closer to the mark than he thinks. Sir Joseph is momentarily shocked by the terrible curse inscribed on the box containing the scroll, which proves on inspection to be the mythical Scroll of Toth, inscribed with a spell for raising the dead. Muller, an occult expert, and Sir Joseph head out to argue the wisdom of prying any further into their find, leaving Norton alone, where curiosity proves far too powerful for him: he removes the scroll, transcribes and translates it, and reads the words quietly to himself. As he does so, the eyes of the mummy behind him slowly flicker open, its desiccated hands twitch and shift. The poor archaeologist is unaware until suddenly one mouldering hand reaches into the frame and lifts the scroll.
The walking dead disappears out the door, still only glimpsed only as a few trailing bandages, leaving behind the instantly mentally shattered Norton, who bursts into hysterical laughter and reports to Sir Joseph when he comes running, “He went for a little walk – you should’ve seen his face!” This opening is so arresting and memorable that it has long overshadowed the rest of the film. The technical limitations of early sound cinema, including sparing use of music, actually helped imbue the early Universal horrors with their power – these films work like stepping into some quieter, sinister antechamber of reality, in spite of the fact Dracula and The Mummy are both set in a contemporary world of motor cars and other noisy paraphernalia (even Frankenstein was set about 1900). Freund turns a static, all but eventless scene into a little minuet of delicate camera movements and judicious cuts. He privileges the viewer at first to the manifestations of something extraordinary occurring, but then cuts the viewer out from seeing the climax of the moment. He concentrates instead on Norton’s transgressive act as something nudging the edges of an unseen world as he silently recites the crucial text, and then his confrontation with something from beyond the bounds of human experience and sanity. The narrative jumps forward ten years and takes up again with Sir Joseph’s son Frank (David Manners) working with Professor Pearson (Leonard Mudie), on a new expedition on behalf of the British Museum that’s had a total flop of a digging season.
The events of ten years before are an enigma for these men, as Pearson ponders why David’s father vowed never to return to Egypt and David himself glibly theorises the boredom of digging in the desert broke Norton’s mind. A knock at the door of their base hut proves to be the strange, stalk-thin, brittle-skinned man claiming to be Ardeth Bey, who is of course is Imhotep himself, having cast off his grave wrappings and spent ten years practising Osiris knows what acts of dark magic to set himself up in the twentieth century and pass as a living being. Ardeth entices David and Pearson into facilitating his secret plan, by giving a clue to the location of the tomb of the Princess Anck-es-en-Amon. Intrigued by this seemingly wild surmise and anxious for anything resembling a find, the archaeologists set their diggers to the task and locate the tomb, fully intact with a bounty of untouched relics. So sensational is the find that Sir Joseph breaks his pledge and comes to oversee the removal of the treasure, which is then shipped to the Cairo Museum as prize exhibit. Freund offers another brilliant pirouette of style here as his camera explores the museum like a restless, hungry spirit, eventually zeroing in on the face on Anck-es-en-Amon’s casket. Freund then transitions via a whip-pan and an odd, delightful effect using a scrolling, illustrated cityscape as if the camera is racing across the city, to then halt on the face of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), gazing out at the pyramids as if staring into the past – the subliminal connection between her and the dead princess instantly stated.
The scrolling effect is deliberately artificial; a nod to the roots of fantastic cinema in magic lantern shows and theatrical effects, with an echo of Freund’s work for Murnau. It also reinforces an idea in the dialogue, a sense of disconnection from the reality of “this dreadful modern Cairo.” Helen is the daughter of the English governor of Sudan and an Egyptian woman “with a family tree a mile long,” and is the repository for a memory of nations and wandering spirits. Helen is being watched over by Muller and his wife (Kathryn Byron), but can’t concentrate on the “nice English boys” because something’s stirring in the night. That something is Imhotep, who breaks into the museum with the Scroll of Thoth and begins chanting her name in a ritual to bring her soul back to her body. Helen is the one who obeys the call as the Princess’s reincarnation, and Frank and his father come across her in a daze banging on the museum door. They take her to her apartment after she faints whilst Imhotep is chased by a museum guard who meets an ugly end in the shadows.
One distinctive quality of the Universal horror brand was that it upheld the notion that horror as a genre was essentially tragic, by concentrating on monsters and antiheroes who are often essentially cursed with existence, doomed to exist outside of the world and often prey on it. This idea stands in complete opposition to the tendency that emerged in the 1960s and still dominates the genre where the forces of evil have become increasingly one-dimensional and symbolic. Whale’s Frankenstein monster captured this idea with such power that it became a recurring motif, whilst Imhotep, in his desperate, eon-long search for his great love, exemplifies it. Appearing like a sun-dried praying mantis in kaftan and fez, Imhotep proceeds with Mandarin cool, alternately effete and concerted, afraid of being touched (“An Eastern prejudice,” he tells Sir Joseph by way of explanation after asking him not to) in case his skin comes off in mouldy flakes. But his parched and brittle body is belied by the power emanating from his eyes and the fixity of his desires. Universal’s make-up wiz Pierce created both the overtly gnarled and desiccated look of the mummy when first discovered and a subtler look for the revived and rejuvenated Ardeth, who looks just normal enough to pass but whose face bears a thousand tiny wrinkles as if someone tried to shrink his head.
Freund returns more than once to a single, stunning shot of Karloff’s face, every rut in Pierce’s make-up inscribed by the lighting and his eyes in shadow, only for his eyes to suddenly light up and reveal a dread, piercing stare. It’s a very simple effect, and yet it turns the idea of Imhotep’s deathless passion and innate force into a singular visual. The Mummy also helped codify a now-common form of morbid romanticism popular in the horror genre. Nowadays even Dracula, a human-shaped leech originally, has become a deathless romancer in search of his reincarnated darling in many recent takes on his story. Freund’s channelling of the Germanic liebestod tradition into a Hollywood movie was still a relatively new and powerful notion, and even segues into a perverse joke when Frank, half-jokingly and half-honestly, confesses to Helen that he fell in love with Anck-es-en-Amon’s mummified body after rifling through her personal effects. Archaeology as pick-up art by way of stalking and necrophilia.
The Mummy’s mood of subliminal obsession is mediated through intensely rhythmic visual and editing patterns, particularly the recurring images of Imhotep, swathed in shadow, chanting Anck-es-en-Amon’s name or reciting killing curses, alternately pathetic in his longing or terrible in his malevolence. Music and image build to crescendos as Imhotep screws up a fist to drive home his maledictions like lances. He kills Sir Joseph this way and also almost kills Frank, who is saved only by clasping onto a charm given to him by Muller, who serves as the de facto Van Helsing character. Van Sloan gets to display even more impressive pith as Muller than he did as Stoker’s savant, as he proclaims his desire to “get my hands on you – I’d break your dried flesh to pieces!”, but knows he can’t even approach the deadly magician. That’s another unusual aspect of The Mummy, too, as most horror films invoke the supernatural but very few place so much emphasis on mysticism as a form of power to be invoked and resisted. Every character in the film feels or wields an invisible influence, locked as they are within patterns of fate, from Sir Joseph’s Sudanese servant (Noble Johnson) who falls under the influence of Imhotep like one his ancestors did to that fallen but still potent empire, to Anck-es-en-Amon whose spirit continues to wander and find new bodies eternally for having broken her vows as a priestess of Isis.
The Mummy is perhaps the most overtly dreamlike and ethereal of horror films made between the coming of sound and the work of Georges Franju. An otherworldly quality is sustained throughout, a quality glimpsed at its strongest in moments like when Imhotep shows Helen their shared past in a shimmering pool of sacred water, or when Helen, swathed in white nightgown, stalks a corridor in a trance-state, leaving behind Frank’s crumped form on the floor. One the film’s most genuinely weird and jarring asides comes when Helen’s dog, nervous in Ardeth’s house of dark magic overseen by the cat goddess of evil sendings, Bast, is killed off-screen with a horrible wail. Most mummy tales exemplify, and indeed are today the most recognisable version, of a story pattern popular in a lot of Victorian-era fantastic fiction (also crime fiction, a la The Moonstone and The Sign of Four). In that pattern, exotic, mysterious objects from alien cultures come into the possession of hapless westerners, who find out just how much deadly power there is in the taboo objects of ransacked cultures. The forbidden object stood for a certain suppressed, half-conscious anxiety at the possible surge of forces stirred by colonialism, and reminded of the necessity of a certain stoic acceptance of foreign customs and rules.
This The Mummy has an aspect of this but moves in different directions. Imhotep re-emerges to torment the despoilers of a cultural heritage but also uses them to accomplish his ends. He lets Frank and Pearson commit the heresy he won’t, for he himself is a rebel against the demarcations of the sacred. He also happily reclaims ancient status when he mesmerically suborns the “Nubian” servant: the bath ain’t big enough for two imperialist powers. Karloff played Fu Manchu the same year in The Mask of Fu Manchu, and there’s a distinctly similar note of paranoia over the possibility of an aristocratic man from a non-Caucasian society creating a different, if no less oppressive, power paradigm. Here that pattern is complicated by Helen’s status as inheritor of dual legacies and existing in multiple ages. A deleted addendum to the lengthy flashback followed Anck-es-en-Amon’s spirit through many ages and places, disseminating the flow of civilisation out of Egypt and into Europe as well as the progress of her spirit. Imhotep is the power of things past but not forgotten; Helen/Anck-es-en-Amon is the life force that graces and never dies.
The vision of their shared history, including his own downfall and terrible death, Imhotep shows to Helen in his mystic pool, glimpsing how Anck-es-en-Amon died and Imhotep, the high priest to her priestess who had fallen in love with her against all taboos, tried to use the Scroll of Toth to revive her, only to be caught and sentenced to be buried alive. This sequence, which was recycled several times in Universal’s later mummy films, is a delight as a throwback to the fast-receding ideals of silent cinema, like a lost reel from some lost Cecil B. DeMille historical epic. Freund, like DeMille, takes the rectilinear styles of Ancient Egyptian art as a basis for stylising compositions and the movements of the actors within them, creating a ritualised form to evoke the distant past. More interestingly, though, Freund also utilises silent film acting styles to suggest the bygone and archaic – Freund both tipping his hat to the art form that had defined him and other filmmakers but which was already fading into legend. The close-up of Imhotep being wrapped in bandages before burial is excruciating, as Karloff communicates his unutterable fear and suffering even as he submits to his fate: this is, in its way, one of the most violent images ever committed to film. Imhotep’s pathos as a lover and antihero, where before he was merely a menacing ghoul, emerges here and gives context to the priest’s incredible defiance, even of his own death, a character who triangulates the dominating stature of Dracula, the victimised pathos of The Wolf Man‘s Larry Talbot, and the Promethean arrogance of Dr Frankenstein.
The Mummy hinges on Karloff’s ability to paint tortured depths in unlikely figures as well as sepulchral menace, his depictions of the alternations of hate, pain, longing, and a wry and haughty authority that drive the character making Imhotep one of the most genuinely interesting horror film villains. To have seen the film is to have his plangent chant of “Anck-es-en-Amon” forever in mind, reminiscent of that scene in Hour of the Wolf (1968) when the similar chant of “Pamina” in The Magic Flute is explored, the name as spell, love as transfiguring force. Indeed, Ingmar Bergman made that film in part as a tribute to his love for Universal’s horror films. Johann, a stage actress who was showcased as a potential movie star for a brief time but then retreated to Broadway and married John Houseman, is a fascinating presence. With her deep, silky voice and large-eyed beauty, she was at once able at once to seem the perfect flapper-age woman but also evoked a timeless quality. Her Helen looks and sounds like a being detached from the hoi-polloi of the twentieth century, and it’s easy to imagine her adrift on the rivers of time. Indeed, by the finale Imhotep has regressed her until she is once again Anck-es-en-Amon. Johann projects an easy sensuality and an aura of emotional maturity that belies her standing as damsel in distress, and she constantly nudges the viewer to remember this is a pre-Code film we’re watching. “What girl could fail to make a conquest who collapsed at a man’s feet in the moonlight?” she prods Frank amusedly when he professes instant passion for her, before adding: “Don’t you think I’ve had enough excitement for one evening without the additional thrill of a strange man making love to me?”
Manners, who had played a drippy Jonathan Harker in Dracula, is similarly outmatched here in a way that points to the way familiar romantic heroes were all but incidental in this kind of film long before the days of final girls. But Manners also fares better in playing Frank, who’s a rather oddball hero, a handsome nerd, albeit one whose romantic nerve once touched is impressively ardent: “You can tell me to go to the devil – but you can’t laugh at me,” as he proclaims with impressive determination as he declares his instant obsession to Helen. The Mummy is a flawed film for all its qualities. Balderstone’s script betrays something of the same stagy thinking that weighed down Dracula. Many scenes unfolds in the theatrical-like environs of the Whemples’ apartment, whilst Manners has deal with the lion’s share of unspeakable lines as romantic ingénue (“How I love you so!”). Freund’s last-minute hiring means that the filmmaking is flatly functional as often as it’s inspired. Freund was a profoundly gifted technician but only directed two horror films, this and Mad Love (1935). The degree to which he could take charge of material remained in question after the second film in particular was badly hampered by an unfocused narrative and excessive comic relief, and he stopped directing after that.
But The Mummy remains almost sui generis in its delicate sense of horror and tension, and resolves with a climax where the heroes, rushing to rescue Helen from Imhotep’s impending sacrifice and resurrection of her mortal form to remake her like himself, find themselves still outmatched by Imhotep’s power. Instead, aptly, it is up to Helen/Anck-es-en-Amon to defeat him by an act of prayer and contrition, calling on Isis to save her. Whereupon the statue of the goddess looking over the scene lifts a stony arm and strikes down the unruly priest with a curse that causes him to crumble to dust and skeletal remains, and Frank is left to try and drag Helen’s persona back from the murk of the past. This may well have influenced the similar deus ex machina punchline of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Although the staging of the finale is a bit awkward and rushed, it retains power for respecting the strange logic of this tale, where forces beyond rule all and love is an immutable force that distorts and rewrites reality. In celebrating this idea, The Mummy moves beyond Expressionist ideas into the realm of the authentically surreal.
When moviegoers think about Jews in the movies, portly studio moguls, skeletal victims of the Holocaust, or nebbishy, neurotic New Yorkers are the images that may spring immediately to mind. Fortunately, the steady stream of historic Jewish-themed and Yiddish-language films coming back into the world via the fine rescue and restoration work of the National Center for Jewish Film (NCJF) is offering a larger sense of the breadth and richness of Jewish life. The NCJF’s most recent restoration, now making its way around the world at festival screenings, is Mamele.
Mamele is a classic and important work for a number of reasons. It is the last Yiddish film shot in Poland, made just a year before the Nazis occupied Poland and began the destruction of the way of life depicted in the film. Mamele also stars “Queen of the Yiddish Musical” Molly Picon, a first-generation American of Polish immigrant parents who started in vaudeville at age 6, launching a highly successful 70-year career during which she would be nominated for a Golden Globe award for her portrayal of an Italian mother in Come Blow Your Horn (1963) and create an indelible Yente the Matchmaker in Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof (1971). Additionally, it preserves Picon’s trademark musical number “Abi Gezunt” (“As Long As You’re Healthy”) for posterity.
The film, set in the industrial town of Lodz, concerns the Samed family—father Berel (Max Bozyk), plain oldest sister Yetka (Ola Shlifko), attractive middle sister Berta (Gertrude Bullman), good-hearted youngest sister Havche (Picon), unemployed oldest brother Duvid (Max Pearlman), apprentice locksmith Zishe, and schoolboy Avremel. Mrs. Samed has been dead for three years, but she entrusted the welfare of the family to Havche, who gets her household money from the working members of the family to shop for the home. Her cooking, cleaning, sewing, errand-running, and maternal guidance are variously resented, ignored, or taken for granted, but her promise to her mother is sacred. Havche is lonely and abused—her father beat her when she was late bringing his coffee—but she finds solace in her friendship with Schlesinger (Edmund Zayenda), a promising musician who lives in an apartment across the courtyard.
Berta is romanced by Max Katz (Menasha Oppenheim), a slick thief who impresses her and Berel with his new car and ready cash. Katz will take what he can from Berta, but his real interest is to get Zishe to make a key to allow his partners in crime to get into a shop adjoining a bank, break through the wall, and rob the bank. An observant Havche follows Zishe and the men, accidentally brings a wall down on them, fishes Zishe out of the rubble, and forces Max to throw Berta over in a hilarious scene in which Havche tricks him into thinking she has a gun on him. However, a petty family argument finally pushes Havche over the edge, and she abandons the family to travel with the Schlesingers to the country. Romance blooms, the family realizes how lost they are without her, and Havche returns to her role of mamele (little mother), with Schlesinger joining the household as her husband.
Picon originally played the teenaged Havche the mamele on the stage when she was in her 20s. Although the actress was a tiny 4’11”, she was 40 and clearly a grown woman by the time she recreated the role on screen. The gross injustice of a child playing wife and mother to her ungrateful family thus is lost and her self-sacrifice more in keeping with the stereotype of mothers, in general, and Jewish mothers, in particular. Nonetheless, the fascinating cast of characters living modern lives in the big city alongside their religious observances make this film a lively affair. The wit and flair of the dialogue perfectly capture the Jewish personality. For example, a group of men are watching Berel play dominoes in a local hang-out. One asks another for a cigarette, then a match. The retort is, “What do you supply? The mouth?” The film shows a sukkot (temporary house) being built for the Festival of Sukkot, and the women serving food to the men inside. When a young boy asks why his mamma isn’t in the sukkot, his father replies “At Passover, you’ll ask questions…eat!”, a witticism referring to the four questions the youngest at the table always asks at every Passover seder.
Picon is a terrific and charismatic actress who initially was not a fluent Yiddish speaker. She eventually spoke like a native because Joseph Green, a Warsaw native who maintained a film production company in Poland, insisted she travel to Europe to learn the language and customs from the source. Picon shows off her musical chops not only with a clever rendition of “Abi Gezunt” sung as she prepares a meal, but especially in a vignette in which she talks to her grandmother’s photograph. Picon plays her grandmother as a young girl, a vibrant young woman, a plump matron, and a 78-year-old matriarch, singing about all the different ways she danced through her life. The sequence is well edited to mirror the reminiscences of an old woman, and Picon offers the right amount of comedy and pathos to the stand-out number. A nightclub sequence in which Bullman and Oppenheim offer a slice of contemporary nightlife balances out the more traditional, sentimental elements and opens this stagebound film up a bit.
While there’s no doubting the reality of situations like Havche’s, the film has a fairytale quality to it—a wisecracking Cinderella who gets her Prince Charming while checking to see that the soup is seasoned properly and her ketzele (kitten) gets a saucer of milk before she goes off to get married. I thoroughly enjoyed this showcase of talented performers putting over a classic of the Yiddish stage with just enough cinematic verve to please the discerning cinephile.
You can view before-and-after scenes of the restoration here.
Mamele screens Sunday, May 31, at the Spertus Institute, 610 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago. There will be a post-screening discussion with Lisa Rivo, codirector of The National Center for Jewish Film.
Most people who have heard of Edgar Ulmer know him as the director of the no-budget noir classic Detour (1945). But Ulmer, a Jewish emigré from Austria-Hungary, was well known to Jewish audiences for his Yiddish-language films. Many of these films were adapted from the thriving Yiddish theatre scene, with creative teams moving easily between the two worlds. Ulmer’s codirector, Jacob Ben-Ami, cofounded a Yiddish theatre troupe in Odessa, Russia, with playwright Peretz Hirshbein, who had a hit with Green Fields on stage and whose fame was such that he gets top billing in the film’s opening credits. Another Poverty Row effort from Ulmer, Green Fields channels that peculiar Ulmer magic, supported by Ben-Ami’s experience with the play, to elevate this gentle comedy into something more rueful and revealing.
A rabbinic student, Levi Yitskhok (Michael Gorrin), leaves his studies in search of some kind of truth not to be found in his books, including what he calls “better Jews.” This prototypical Wandering Jew walks for many miles, signaled by his figure superimposed on changing landscapes. Eventually, he comes upon a 14-year-old boy, Avrom Yankov (Herschel Bernardi, in his first screen role), who brings him to his parents’ cottage, where he lives with them and his big brother Hersh-Ber (Saul Levine) and older sister Tsine (Helen Beverly). His father and mother, Dovid-Noich (Isidore Cashier) and Rokhl (Anna Appel), are thrilled to have a scholar visit and believe it will bring great honor to their family to be his hosts. Despite being offered a permanent teaching post, the reluctant Levi Yitskhok is not sure this village offers what he is looking for. Nonetheless, he is persuaded to stay until after the High Holidays. His presence arouses the envy of Dovid-Noich and Rokhl’s neighbors, Elkone (Max Vodnoy) and Gitl (Lea Noemi), who conspire to house the “rebbe” themselves. Soon, the situation is complicated as Elkone and Gitl try to make a match between the rebbe and their daughter, Stera (Dena Drute), who is in love with Hersh-Ber. While the parents bicker and scheme, Tsine mounts a campaign of her own to learn how to read and write and, incidentally, capture Levi Yikskhok’s heart.
The opening, which shows peasants at work in the fields, must have caused pangs of nostalgia in European Jews in the audience who came to America after being forced off their lands. The equivalent of Ozu’s “pillow shots” interrupt the film at various junctures, thus glorifying the beauty and simplicity of rural life. The countryside is a place of health in this film, a place of light, contrasting with the dark synagogue the rebbe left at the beginning of the film, illuminated only by a single candle. Levi Yitskhok literally moves from darkness into light when he leaves, and the obsession the film has with finding the “true Jews” and being a good Jew isn’t one I entirely understand, but affirm as something I heard constantly when I was growing up.
The script and direction contrast the shy asceticism of Levi Yitskhok with rugged rail-splitter Hersh-Ber and the energetic Tsine and Stera, both unabashed flirts who run barefoot all day. Yet, healthful surroundings aren’t a total balm or the only need a Jew has. Dovid-Noich says that when he went to bury his father in an urban cemetery, he didn’t want to return to the countryside. The lack of educational opportunities in rural areas was certainly painful for many Jews—the characters constantly refer to themselves as ignorant—but a greater hardship was eviction from the Pale, discussed in the stories of Sholem Aleichem that formed the basis for Fiddler of the Roof, which broke up Jewish communities and made remnant populations feel isolated and vulnerable.
The overall shooting style and tone put me in mind of Soviet or communist Chinese propaganda showing the joyful, industrious peasant plowing furrows, planting potatoes, and chopping wood. Indeed, the closing shot of the film moves from Tsine and Levi Yitskhok walking past a plow in the foreground to a close-up of the plow itself. Yet these foreground shots are used to greater effect in other ways. For example, Tsine and Rokhl are shown preparing each course of a Sabbath meal at the wood-stoked hearth and taking turns carrying the food to the table in the background where the men are eating. There didn’t seem to be any place settings for the women, so this scene, while quite beautifully lit and a lovely slice of life, shows the unequal gender roles of a traditional Jewish household, an aspect of Jewish life that is reinforced when Tsine gives Levi Yitskhok an unpleasant surprise by showing him that she can write her name on a slate.
The characters in this film derive from familiar Yiddish theatre types—giddy girls, gossiping and contentious wives and their blowhard husbands, and the painfully pious rebbe. The acting tends to be broad, as many of the actors were used to playing to live audiences, and Bernardi, in particular, is physically awkward, his too-long sleeves—no doubt meant to show they were hand-me-downs—giving him a scarecrow-like appearance. Close-ups and two-shots are used too sparingly, but when they are, they really help the actors deepen their performances. I was particularly struck by Isidore Cashier’s emotional depth when talking about life in the countryside and the easy rapport he shared with Anna Appel that had me believing they were a long-time married couple. Helen Beverly is very appealing, and watching her watch Levi Yitskhok, curious at first, and then with more longing, made for a smooth and believable transition. Michael Gorrin didn’t always seem to know what to do—he walked around the cottage and barnyard in a pointlessly random way and his embarrassed looks were little more than mugging. Dena Drute and Saul Levine had a lot of chemistry, and I enjoyed their robust playing together. It’s a shame they didn’t have more screen time, as Tsine and Levi Yitskhok didn’t make a very riveting couple.
I have to say a word about the score and arrangements of Russian composer, conductor, choral director, and pianist Vladimir Heifetz. Heifetz composed some of the music for Eisenstein’s powerhouse film Battleship Potemkin (1925), the first of only three films he worked on during a very successful classical music career. As with that film, he demonstrates his ability to storytell with music, filling Green Fields with charmingly Jewish melodies and colors for the changing moods of the script—lively and sunny in the countryside, driving when accompanying work scenes, brooding and solemn in the synagogue and during the Sabbath meal. Heifetz’s contributions take Green Fields to a higher, more artistic level.
Green Fields was restored in 1978 by the National Center for Jewish Film, which has made it available on DVD.
Directors: Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast/Luchino Visconti
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s fascinating how a single story can be bent almost infinitely to suit the imagination and purposes of individual creatives. I recently had a chance to view two rare films that riff off the same basic plot—a grindingly poor, but attractive woman marries a wealthy older man for security and faces the dilemma of whether to leave him to be with the penniless man she loves. Both films were shot during difficult times in their respective countries: Laughter premiered just after the 1929 stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression, and Obsessione was shown as Mussolini’s fascist government was headed toward oblivion, with a feeling of defeat and waste settling over the Italian population. Yet, one film is the prototype of the screwball comedy, and the other a noir tragedy and the second film version of James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Laughter opens on a downbeat note, as Ralph la Sainte (Glenn Enders), an artist in love with our heroine, former chorus girl Peggy Gibson (Nancy Carroll), seeks her in vain at the mansion she shares with her stockbroker husband Mortimer (Frank Morgan). He leaves her a desperate note and returns to his garret on the wrong side of town, a side she called home before Mortimer plucked her out of the chorus line. Enter financially struggling composer/musician Paul Lockridge (Frederic March), fresh from Paris and looking to renew his love affair with pretty Peggy. The butler (Leonard Carey) who repeatedly asks for his card to present to Mrs. Gibson becomes the billboard on which the pair communicate, with Paul writing a message on his starched shirt front, and Peggy replying in kind that she is not at home, exclamation point! Paul brings Peggy youth, laughter, and love, whereas Mortimer can only clamp one jeweled bracelet after another around her wrist, thrilling to the ticker that tells him he has made more than $6 million that day rather than enjoying an impromptu vaudeville routine by Peggy and her friends in his drawing room. Circumstances will conspire to put Peggy in the same room with Ralph, ending in a tragedy that has Peggy reconsidering her priorities.
Obsessione begins in much more prosaic fashion, as a wheat-bearing truck stops at a roadside trattoria to gas up and dislodge Gino Costa (Massimo Girotti), a filthy, but handsome tramp who hitched a ride in the flatbed. He charms a meal out of Giovanna Bragana (Carla Calamai), the beautiful, young wife of the trattoria owner, Giuseppe Bragana (Juan de Landa), a fat, old man who treats her like a servant and possession. The attraction between Gino and Giovanna is as strong as her hatred of her husband, and she contrives to keep Gino around by having him pay for his meal with work. Giuseppe takes a liking to Gino and offers him a permanent job, but the lovers become impatient with Giuseppe constantly underfoot and start to run away together. After walking a while in high heels down a dirt road, Giovanna, tired and unhappy about her future prospects with her impoverished lover, turns back. However, their paths cross again, and fate moves them toward a murderous and tragic end.
Although Laughter and Obsessione take their shared plot in decidedly different directions, each manages to break new ground while providing commentary on the societies from which they emerged. Laughter may seem to have passed its moment in history by not depicting the ruin that befell people like Mortimer Gibson, but it foreshadows the desperation of the Depression while offering an escapist resolution to the love triangle that would become de rigueur in the 1930s. La Sainte represents the disillusionment of the age, a struggling artist whose failures in love and life lead to despair and tragedy. Although not specifically stated, it would be reasonable to assume that Peggy’s rejection of Paul and marriage to Mortimer were prompted at least in part by the decline of vaudeville and a tawdry future in burlesque and prostitution that sometimes awaited chorines like her. Obsessione makes this fate explicit in the character of Anita (Dhia Cristiani), an attractive woman who meets Gino in a park and tells him that she’s a dancer in a show—even challenges him to check her story out—but starts to remove her sweater the moment she discovers him in her one-room apartment hiding from the police.
In its own way, Obsessione offers a carefree escape for ordinary Italians through Visconti’s Neorealist approach to filming his story on the Italian streets. After Gino leaves the Braganas, he meets an itinerant carnival worker nicknamed “The Spaniard” (Elio Marcuzzo), who pays Gino’s train fare to Ancona, shares a room with him, and puts him to work advertising his street performance by wearing a sandwich board. Ancona is a lively place where people come to vacation, enjoy street fairs and carnival rides, and gather together communally to eat, drink, and participate in contests and games. Giuseppe and Giovanna run into Gino on their way to a singing contest at a large trattoria, and the jovial Giuseppe invites Gino to come. Giuseppe, justly proud of his fine singing voice, earns our sympathy with his innocent enthusiasm and friendship. The entire scene in Ancona, and later, in the Bragana trattoria, where Giovanna has increased business tremendously by introducing music and dancing to the restaurant, show the sweet life in the midst of tremendous hardship and sorrow, thus lifting the film to a more complex and affecting level.
Laughter, a product of Hollywood, can’t offer the same verisimilitude, but snappy dialogue cowritten by director d’Abbadie d’Arrast, energetic action, and some lovely comic set-pieces evoke the anything-goes attitude of the recently remembered Roaring ’20s. When Peggy meets Mortimer’s grown daughter Marjorie (Diane Ellis), their arch references to each other as “Mother” and “Daughter” signal the unconventional sophistication of their social set. Further, Peggy and Paul think nothing of going off together for a drive in the country without a word to her husband. When Paul conveniently runs out of gas and they get caught in the rain, they break into a conveniently empty house and crawl inside two bearskin rugs for a bit of whimsical playacting that defines a screwball romp. When they are arrested for breaking and entering, Mortimer comes in handy to secure their release—they even rate a police escort back to New York.
In both films, the romantic pairs’ yearning for love and happiness drive the action. Peggy decides that love is more important than money after seeing someone die for love of her. When she leaves her marriage, which even Mortimer acknowledges is not based on love, the audience gets an emotionally satisfying ending, with the attractive couple laughing gaily in a Parisian sidewalk café—not the Ritz, but certainly comfortable enough. Giuseppe knows the hard facts about his marriage of convenience, too, but he reckons that Giovanna will be rewarded soon enough—he is an old man and not likely to live much longer. Again, when Giovanna and Gino are eaten with guilt and eventually punished for their crime just when they seem to be headed for true happiness, audiences receive the emotional payoff righteousness demands. Both films are cruel to their aging patriarchs who, despite their cluelessness about how to treat a wife, had their redeeming qualities.
Film critic and educator Jonathan Rosenbaum chose Laughter as part of a film course he is teaching at the School of the Art Institute, “The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S.,” and it’s easy to see how a film that treats love largely as an optional confection is a transgressive reflection of the social upheaval that occurred before and after 1930. Carroll and March are an extremely likeable and appealing couple whose antics would have been a balm to audiences while offering mild titillation that asks them to consider which is the greater sin—love without marriage or marriage without love. Carroll and March must have provided considerable inspiration to Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night (1934), which offers perhaps a naughtier view of an unmarried couple on the road despite its appearance during early enforcement of the Production Code.
Obsessione, an international example of film noir shown at Noir City Chicago this year, is less ambiguous about what love makes permissible, signaling the fate that awaits the adulterous murderers when an account of a man shot dead by a cuckolded husband reaches the patrons of the trattoria near the beginning of the film. Even Visconti’s camera blocking when the couple first meets, Gino’s body obscuring all but Giovanna’s legs, lets us know who will be erased by the end of the film. Visconti also inserts the suggestion of a gay subtext with The Spaniard, who behaves like Gino does toward Giovanna, following him back to the trattoria and getting into a fistfight with him in a subtly played jealous rage. Love is not a confection in this film, but a trap, particularly for its noir antihero, who chucked a happy life when he caught the disease; Calamai, a late replacement for a pregnant Anna Magnani, turns full femme fatale in Ancona to get what she wants. Transgressive in its own time, the film was banned after Mussolini’s son rejected it as not reflecting the reality of the Italian people, and Visconti was forced to turn over all prints and negatives for destruction. We only have this valuable document of wartime Italian filmmaking, as well as Visconti’s pungent directorial debut, because Visconti held back one negative; the film stands as a candidate ripe for restoration.
Two forms largely seen as products of 20th century American life—screwball comedy and noir—reflect the more Janus-faced aspects of common human experiences. Laughter and Obsessione offer the commonality of human emotion particularized by their respective places and moments in time.
If I had to make a list of the most subversive love stories ever committed to film, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, would certainly be near the top. The interracial romance at the heart of the film was taboo in 1933, and remained so for many decades. But more subversive was the look at the love of money and destabilizing love of a Christian God missionaries spread throughout the world. This type of story is something of a surprise from Hollywood’s most successful idealizer of American values, Sicilian immigrant Frank Capra, and his female star, Barbara Stanwyck. Only two years earlier, the two had teamed to film The Miracle Woman, in which Stanwyck played a bitter and cynical evangelist whose faith in God is restored. In The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Capra and Stanwyck reversed this outcome, as a Chinese warlord “converts a missionary,” forcing her to see the charade of her blind loyalty to her missionary fiancé and her Christian mission, and acknowledge the attraction that has grown between them.
The film opens with the Chinese populace in Shanghai running in chaos to signal the civil war embroiling the country. In a well-appointed home, Western missionaries and expatriates are preparing for the wedding of Dr. Bob Strike (Gavin Gordon) and Megan Davis (Stanwyck), the latter of whom is coming from her upper-crust New England home to work side by side with her soon-to-be husband as a missionary.
In the muddy streets, Bob and Megan are making their way to the house in separate rickshaws. Megan’s rickshaw gets stuck in the mud, and before her driver can get it unstuck, he is mowed down by a large car driven by General Yen (Nils Ashter). Megan pleads with Yen to help the driver, but he is wondering why she would care about a stranger. She sees his head is bleeding and offers him her handkerchief. He demurs, pulling one of his own from his sleeve. They both cast a long gaze at each other as they go their separate ways.
When Bob and Megan reach the site of their wedding, Megan readies herself for the ceremony. Unfortunately, Bob has received word that a mission orphanage is in danger, and he must appeal to Yen to write him a safe-conduct pass. The assembled well-wishers are abuzz with the evils of General Yen, a crook who has amassed a fortune for his renegade army, and believe Bob will get nowhere with Yen. Nonetheless, with Megan insisting on accompanying him, Bob gets a note from Yen, which actually says that “This fool prefers orphans to the arms of his bride,” a joke only the Chinese who can read it can appreciate. Finding most of the orphanage already evacuated, Bob and Megan attempt to move the final group of six orphans and their nurse to safety. They duck machine gun fire that mows down an entire group of Chinese, but are nonetheless confronted by soldiers. Megan is hit on the head and loses consciousness, only to awaken in a beautifully appointed bedroom in what turns out to be General Yen’s summer palace where Mah-Li (Toshia Mori), Yen’s concubine, tends to her wounds. Yen has saved her, but what he intends to do with her is anyone’s guess.
Capra sets up situations in this film that he would plumb again in Lost Horizon (1937), in many ways, the reverse image of Bitter Tea. The opening scene of chaos is repeated at the beginning of Lost Horizon, and a kidnapping of the main character occurs. He also sets the second act of each picture in an exotic and isolated Asian locale, the better to remove his protagonists from the overweaning influence of their own Western enclaves. In both films, he critiques the base Western concerns that place a narrow morality and profit above all else. In the later film, George Conway (John Howard), the brother of idealist Robert Conway (Ronald Colman), considers himself a prisoner in the idyllic Shangri-La and spends most of his time planning to escape. In Bitter Tea, Megan is a prisoner who keeps demanding to be returned to Shanghai; her only contact with Western culture is American war profiteer Jones (Walter Connolly), whose sole interest in Yen and China is to enrich himself.
Where The Bitter Tea of General Yen parts company with Lost Horizon is in its smoldering, complex love story of mutual dislike and attraction. Megan strikes the first blow when she calls Yen a “yellow swine,” which visibly shakes him and shames Megan into realizing that she is full of prejudice against the people she came to China to help. Yen’s courtesy and refinement impress her, but she finds his barbarism incongruous. When she awakens one morning to the horror of prisoners being executed by a firing squad, she complains to Yen. His response is to send the firing squad down the road out of earshot, and excuses the executions as a kindness in comparison with the slow starvation they would suffer in his jail cells because he cannot afford to feed them all. “We are in the middle of a civil war,” he says, emphasizing in the most understated way the naivété of the missionaries who bring to the Chinese struggling for freedom “words, nothing but words.”
Ashter, made up with barely passable Asian features, towers over the diminutive Stanwyck, yet he never offers the menace she expects. He is highly insulted by her accusation that he meant to rape her, saying he only wants what is freely offered to him. Again, Megan’s prejudices are undercut—she is dealing with a man, not an ignorant heathen, from a civilization much more ancient than her Christian America and extending much earlier than the Christ era. Stanwyck is great at conveying a character who is far out of her depth, ignorant of her new surroundings and all they encompass, and weak even when asserting her strongest convictions. Her rebellion against Yen’s dinner invitations are paltry and her impassioned assurance that acts of mercy will bring Yen the greatest feeling in the world sounds desperate and hollow. Death is something she shrinks from, and Yen accurately chides her with “You are as afraid of death as you are of life.”
Capra builds a dreamy, romantic setting full of sparkling jewels, cherry-blossom moons, caressing costumes, and candle-kissed lighting. Stanwyck glows, her unusual beauty enhanced by Capra’s flattering, soft-focus close-ups, her tears like diamonds on her cheeks. Yen’s palace is enchanted, with simple acts like stirring a teacup handled with a painstaking decorum and touch. It is this atmosphere that seduces Megan and wraps the audience in a love-struck spell.
Megan observes young lovers courting on the picturesque grounds of the palace in scenes that are handled with a delicacy that reminded me of Lotte Reiniger’s fragile paper cutouts in The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926). Their laughter and embraces form a mirror to the experiences Megan hoped to have with Bob and that now seem to be transmuting. The eroticism of Yen and his environment, a veritable hothouse of the entwined vines of sex and death so similar to the overwhelming sexual swoon that is India in Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece Black Narcissus (1947), shakes Megan from her moral moorings. She dreams of Yen, first as the stereotypical Yellow Devil menacing her with his long, phallic fingernails, and then as her masked savior. In her dream, she welcomes him into her arms and most probably to her bed, though the camera discreetly demurs to her awakening. She doesn’t seem appalled at what her mind has concocted, truly marking this film as a product of Pre-Code Hollywood.
Megan’s misguided trust in a duplicitous Mah-Li, whom she saves from execution, ends up ruining Yen. He confronts her with his anger, but unexpectedly says that he intended to kill her, as he was entitled to do by her pledge to vouch for Mah-Li, and then join her forever in the land of their ancestors, a tormented confession of love that both confuses and thrills Megan. Ashter’s ardor is a sudden burst from a fairly controlled man, though Megan says at one point that “The subtlety of you Orientals is very much overestimated.” I found it so touching that when she finally acquiesces to her feelings, coming to Yen’s side in an Asian dress she refused to wear before, crying over her guilt in helpless surrender, he wipes her tears with his silk handkerchief: “The Chinese gave the world silk.” With these words that show the soft tenderness of his love, Yen drinks the poisoned tea he brewed so meticulously for his suicide and quietly dies, the fulfillment of his love for Megan his gift for the afterlife.
Capra includes an interesting postscript in which a drunken Jones plays amateur fortune teller for a quiet Megan as they sail for Shanghai. He can’t seem to decide whether Megan will go through with the life she planned before falling under Yen’s influence or give it up. Megan, with a self-knowledge incited by her brief romance—some might call it tragic, but to me it formed a perfect whole, a love transcending race, culture, and time—simply gazes with limpid eyes and a rueful smile as the film draws to a close.
What do you get when you cross a pre-Code women’s film with a gangster film and a screwball comedy? The deeply convoluted, but entertaining The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, of course, and the comic/tragic tones of the movie fit the occasion of the showing I attended. After the owner of the Patio Theater announced that he was throwing in the towel on making a go of the 1927 movie palace his family has run for three generations, the Northwest Chicago Film Society’s booking of Molly Louvain proved to be the one that brought down the curtain for the last time. A packed crowd came to say farewell, as well as to see this energetic pre-Coder and hear Christine Rice, author of Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel, discuss the film star and sign copies of her book.
In the cartoon before the feature, the NFCS seemed to make a comment on the loss of yet another vintage theater. Scary Crows (1937) shows a flock of crows completely decimate a farmer’s field while his girlfriend laughs at him. This utterly unfunny Columbia Pictures cartoon lent a depressing air to the evening that was slow to dissipate. But dissipate it did under the blinding hyperactivity of Lee Tracy and the equally blinding blonde wig of his costar Ann Dvorak wrestling with an adaptation of the play Tinsel Girl by Maurine Watkins, the author of the play that formed the basis for the film Chicago (1927).
Some of the elements Watkins brought to Chicago are present here, too—a Chicago setting, a rapacious press corps headed by Scotty Cornell (Tracy), a woman at the center of a crime, a man who’s a chump for the woman. It’s hard to know if Tinsel Girl had a straightforward story, but first-time adapter Edwin Gelsey, who would go on to pen some classic films of the 1930s (Gold Diggers of 1933, Flying Down to Rio ), created a gumbo whose flavors are a bit off.
When we meet Molly Louvain (Dvorak), she’s out with her rich beau Ralph (Don Dillaway) celebrating his birthday with a walk in the woods and, as we learn much later, a tumble in the hay. Ralph tells Molly he intends to keep her a secret from his family no longer by inviting her to his birthday party that evening. Molly, a cashier at a cigar counter whose mother abandoned her when she was seven, runs home and gussies up for her “big break.” There we are introduced to two of her suitors, wet-behind-the ears bellboy Jimmy (Richard Cromwell) and traveling salesman/crook Nick (Leslie Fenton), as well as Molly’s legs and lingerie in peek-a-boo shots common to most pre-Code films. When Molly arrives for the party, spending her last 95 cents on the cab ride, Ralph has been whisked away to New York by his mother, never to appear in the movie again. A dejected Molly, a seduced and abandoned woman now, descends the front stairs. Although we aren’t shown it, she takes up with Nick, a man who’s as rotten as she feels herself to be.
The film jumps three years in one minute. Director Curtiz shoots a series of license plates from different states to shorthand the itinerant life Molly leads with Nick, ending with one from Illinois—natch, the couple ends up in Chicago. Molly puts her adorable, two-year-old daughter Ann Marie (Jackie Lyn Dufton) in the care of a mother of nine (Claire McDowell), because she and Nick have fallen on hard times. Molly is working as a taxi dancer at the Roseland (apparently, a popular name for dance halls of the time), and Nick makes ends meet as a stick-up man.
Miraculously, Molly runs into Jimmy, now a college student, at the Roseland. When they exit to get a nightcap, Nick accosts them and forces them into a stolen car while he holds up a store. With the cops in pursuit, Nick gets plugged and mortally wounds one of his pursuers, while a panicked Molly drives away, fearing arrest. Although he survives, we never see Nick again. His influence is felt, however, through second-hand dialogue that reveals he has implicated Molly as the head of a robbery ring. Molly dyes her hair blonde and hides out with Jimmy in a boarding house where Scotty lives. The intrigue of the hunted woman and a headline-hungry reporter who is looking for her living under the same roof and, indeed, falling in love, pilots this film to its rapid conclusion.
At a mere 73 minutes, Molly Louvain leaves so much out that it’s hard to make sense of the characters, let alone the plot. It was not obvious to me that Molly had sex with Ralph, though perhaps a ’30s audience would see the clingy kissing and declarations of love as suggestive enough. I wasn’t even sure Ann Marie was Ralph’s daughter—she could just as easily have been Nick’s. As played by Dvorak, Molly doesn’t have a hard bone in her body. She slouches, smokes, and drinks like a hard case, but our sympathies never stray for a moment, particularly as she tries to do the right thing for her child and constantly pushes Jimmy away to keep him out of trouble. Similarly, although Jimmy keeps saying that Nick’s no good, we can’t see his assessment as anything but jealousy. Nick seems a little slick, but that’s kind of expected from a salesman, and he’s utterly charming with Molly. Possibly the fact that Dvorak and Fenton met and fell in love on this picture—they were married for 13 years—sabotaged Fenton’s tough-guy routine. His disappearance less than halfway through the picture took some of the air out of the drama he and Molly could have generated in a confrontation; it also cleared the decks for Tracy’s character to run roughshod over the picture.
Not that I’m complaining. Tracy, an actor I run hot and cold on, is at his best in Molly Louvain. A dynamo of almost acrobatic moves (watch him answer a candlestick phone by flipping the earpiece into his hand with one deft shake), his rapid-fire repartee is fairly mesmerizing. He and Dvorak spar with the best of the screwball couples destined to be together, though Scotty plays their romance as take it or leave it—he’s got an offer to go to Hollywood to write for pictures in his back pocket and a string of broken romances he’d be happy to continue with Molly. “When something takes a hold of you and goes right through you, you don’t care what anyone thinks—you go,” Molly says helplessly as Jimmy tries to keep her from running off with Scotty. Tracy has a similar effect on the audience.
The film features some great set pieces. A small moment has Molly sneak past a sleeping bathroom attendant to pour some peroxide of hydrogen into a sink to dunk her hair in. Even when pretending to be asleep, Louise Beavers manages to get a gentle laugh that is capped when the newly blonde Molly wakes her and gives the bewildered Beavers a tip. I enjoyed the riot of newspaper reporters, led by Frank McHugh, moving between the press room and the chief of police’s office, with a blustering beat cop played by Guy Kibbee trying to keep them in line—“Hogan’s Heroes” obviously took a cue from pictures like this. Perhaps my favorite moment was the Roseland scene. The city street, teeming and raucous, is joined by Jimmy and his college chums out on the town. The fresh-faced lads contrast beautifully with the glamor girls in the Roseland, the one time when Dvorak’s good-time gal routine plays true. Cromwell is awfully good as a straight arrow, and his boyish good looks add to the effect.
When the film plays the mother love card, it descends straight into weepy territory, the power of which overcomes even Scotty’s detachment. Will Molly, set to face prison for a crime she never knew was happening, find freedom and happiness with Scotty and Ann Marie? My greatest hope was that she’d lose that awful dye job!
In the hectic days of 1920s Hollywood, Jonas Sternberg, son of Austrian Jewish emigrants who had lived in the United States since childhood, was just one of many prodigious blow-ins. But he worked his way up through the ranks, and eventually appended an exotic, aristocratic background to his resume for his prestige-hungry industry by adding “von” to his name. The affectation fit Sternberg, a fan of the similarly faux-Junker, equally talented Erich von Stroheim, as it suited his aesthetic sensibility and self-image as outsized cinema artist, with a boldly cosmopolitan outlook and floridly artistic eye. He found success as a director with his stylised melodramas, like the prototypical gangster film, Underworld (1927); The Last Command (1928); and Docks of New York (1928).
Sternberg’s delight in rapturously visualised storytelling was threatened as cinema culture changed with the coming of sound. His first work in the new medium, Thunderbolt (1929), wasn’t popular, so he accepted an offer to work in Germany on an adaptation of a Heinrich Mann novel, which became The Blue Angel (1930). For the film, he made the discovery that would revive his career, and then mark it forever, by casting Marlene Dietrich as the femme fatale Lola-Lola. Dietrich gave Sternberg a face to fetishize, a model to construct intimate and spectacular cinematic dreams around. Dietrich was Sternberg’s canvas and alter ego, an actual upper-crust German, as imperious on screen as Sternberg wished to be off it. The Blue Angel became one of the most legendary films of the early sound period and an international hit.
Few collaborations of director and star have sustained as much mystique and fervent fascination as that between Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. Sternberg’s work with Dietrich remains something of a by-word for the quasi-erotic entrapment that can develop between the director male and the acting female, a reputation that probably stands in the way of the duo’s very real accomplishments. Sternberg brought Dietrich back to Hollywood with him, and initially gained great success in a feverishly creative partnership, as the fleshy Teutonic ingénue transformed into svelte Hollywood goddess. But within a couple of years, things were running off the rails. Having initially cast Dietrich as an amoral tart, and then as a redeemable woman of mystery in films like Morocco (1930) and Shanghai Express (1932), Sternberg elevated her to majestic feminine power with The Scarlet Empress, whilst the main male protagonist becomes the rueing fool, seemingly a studied autobiographical portrayal of how the power relations between director and star had steadily evolved.
For a time, however, it looked like both were doomed. Repeated flops sent Sternberg to the fringe, and Dietrich struggled to find a way to make herself acceptable to audiences tired of continental mystery. Dietrich recovered and became a fixture, but Sternberg, in spite of making several great films in the strangest ways and places after their union was sundered, remained an exile. The Scarlet Empress looks both forward and back, but is fundamentally unconcerned with its moment—the stolid, businesslike mid-1930s. The passion for visual expressiveness harks back to the already faded apogees of late silent film, as does the blending of New World energy and sardonic attitude with a hysterically Never-Never Land take on Russian political antiquity, in opposition to the stately, stagy charms of sound’s new prestige cinema like Rasputin and the Empress (1932), Cavalcade (1933), or Conquest (1937). And yet it plants seeds for high cinematic style’s resurgence with directors like Orson Welles and Sergei Eisenstein in his later works, and through to modern filmmakers.
The air of fin de siècle folly is exacerbated by awareness that the film’s calamitous flop was partly due to being targeted by Legion of Decency condemnation, making it a figurehead for the rising regime of the Production Code and the Hays Office, to which the film’s ornery sexuality and feverish celebration of an open id’s vision of history feels like a last blown raspberry. Sternberg reinterprets the life of Catherine The Great as a kind of filthy novel passed around the girls in a boarding school, girls much like the naïve but excitable young lady Catherine was when she was still called Sophia Fredericka. Raised by a sternly fixated mother, Princess Johanna Elizabeth (Olive Tell), as one of a stable of marriageable Hapsburg princesses, Sophia is introduced as a small girl (played as a child by Dietrich’s own daughter Maria) suffering from scarlet fever, already being bullied by her mother to conform to the plans for her, though her wry doctor encourages a show of defiance: “Stick out your tongue and say ‘ah.’”
Her tutor, Wagner (Edward Van Sloan), reads to her accounts of the wicked excesses and depravities of Russian nobility, accounts that spin Sophia’s rapt mind off into a whirl of sadistic delights. This is the first show of Sternberg’s wild imagery, a startlingly stylish roundelay of blood-curdling cruelty, with the various depictions seeming to “turn” as if on pages: a naked woman tumbling out of an iron maiden; men tethered in semi-abstract arrays, a horizontal tracking shot depicting a proliferation of bound hands; cruel machines with men spinning on them; an enthusiastic executioner lopping off heads; a gleeful Tsar tearing open the blouse of a trussed young woman; another beaming with lunatic pleasure as he rings a huge bell whose clapper has been replaced by some victim; and more stripped, topless lasses being burnt at the stake. Even after you’ve seen this sequence a handful of times it’s hard to process, so raw and stunning is it, how barely censored, how far beyond the pale of what would very soon be Hollywood norms. Sternberg uses blurring effects in the scene transitions to just slightly mask the bared breasts and gore. What makes it doubly weird and potent is the fact that a young girl’s head is being filled with this stuff and that on some level, like many kids, Sophia delights in such morbid detail. It will define her understanding, and, later, her wholehearted entrance into that world.
The grotesquely sexualised violence anticipates the friezes within the palace of the tsars, Sternberg cheekily dissolves from the man swinging in the bell to the grown Sophia, now a blond-ringleted, doll-lipped, wide-eyed naïf on a garden swing, signalling her fate has been sealed. Indeed, when she returns to the palace, she learns that her mother and slightly more empathic father, Prince August (C. Aubrey Smith), have arranged for her marriage to Grand Duke Peter of Russia. The rakish Count Alexei (John Lodge) has come to collect the princess, and Sophia’s mother insists on accompanying them to Russia, just managing to stymie Alexei’s nascent desire to seduce Sophia before their arrival. Met with all the grandeur and pomp of the autocratic state, Sophia is plunged directly into the midst of an insanely Byzantine world. The suffering victims of the early montage now seem to live within the fabric of that state, as the palace is filled with carved grotesques and statues mimicking and mocking the pretences of the living people who share space with them.
Although based on Catherine’s diaries, The Scarlet Empress is mostly a hymn to the way history ought to have gone, presenting Catherine at once as liberated debauchee and yet also cleansing force of futurism, and casually dismissing the national history as a hymn to “ignorance, violence, fear and oppression,” of which the grotesque Peter is a perfect example—imbecilic, devolved, and malignant. That was certainly Catherine’s own story, though some historians now think Peter was a much stronger liberalising influence who fell afoul of reactionaries thanks to his goodwill for Prussia and democratic proclivities. Sternberg doesn’t even seem to think much of Catherine as enlightened despot, describing her rather as the Messalina of the North, although that’s eventually revealed to be a kind of compliment. Although The Scarlet Empress depicts a woman rising to power in a highly masculine realm, Sternberg finds this logical, depicting it as a triumph for the exceptional female who harnesses men as a source of power through sex and charisma.
Catherine emerges, however, from the clasp of powerful matriarchs, in this case, her mother and then her stepmother, Russia’s present ruler, the Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser), who makes it perfectly clear to young Sophia that she’s been imported to give Russia an heir, and changes her name to Catherine to meet parochial standards. When Catherine is introduced to her husband-to-be, she finds Peter (Sam Jaffe) diverging widely from Count Alexei’s description of an exemplary specimen of manhood: he proves to be a bug-eyed half-wit with a free-floating id, a love of toys and a black-haired, feral-like mistress, Countess Vorontsova (Ruthelma Stevens). She has a habit of appearing at inopportune moments to collect the gadgets Peter leaves behind him, hoping to catch people in incriminating poses, as she does Catherine and Alexei. The gadget, a kind of spinning wheel with a soldier mounted on it, offers one of Sternberg’s many visual jokes, as when Peter first appears, he places it in Catherine’s lap, the rotating figure readily mirroring Catherine’s shock and sense of starting on a ride she can’t get off.
Sternberg had readily adapted to sound cinema, and indeed was one of the directors, along with the likes of Rouben Mamoulian, Alfred Hitchcock, Lewis Milestone, and Fritz Lang, who had done the hard work of proving the new form could balance visual form with the theatrical necessities of dialogue. And yet the scene grammar and structuring of The Scarlet Empress deliberately harkens back to the pure visual-tapestry effects of Fritz Lang and Stroheim, whilst anticipating the open-sprawl, elliptical structuring of later filmmakers like Luchino Visconti, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Sergio Leone, hacking back dialogue for many scenes and preferring visual exposition not just of story, but of character and psychology. Sternberg structures the film around two affairs of state, each building a particular rhythm, the first a plunge into eroticised hell. Catherine and Peter are married in a scene of heightened, almost dreamlike-beauty, where only Peter’s mad eyes belie the insidious realities behind the plethora of religious icons, veils, spectacular ornaments, robed holy men, and faces.
Sternberg binds Dietrich, Jaffe, and Lodge together in serial edits, making it clear the marriage is a strange kind of ménage a trois bound by guilt, jealousy, fear, and lunacy. Dietrich’s face becomes holy icon, as a votive candle is held up before her face in voluminous close-up, good looks transduced into adult beauty, the proximity of the candle sharpening the image with the kiss of hot light seeming to burn both pretty cheek and cinema screen, at the edge of both religious transcendence and infernal pain, as she is transfigured from single girl to woman who is going to have to survive in a world where marriage is a soul-rending crucible. The wedding gives way to arcane ritual, as Orthodox ministers bless the marriage bed, making it clear that Catherine has not married a man so much as a state, whilst she journeys to the wedding banquet through the bowels of the palace with more of its bizarre statuary.
The banquet is just as dense and tangled with overflowing detail as the wedding, but whereas Sternberg shot the nuptials from angles that carved up those details into faintly abstract, even cubist spectacles, the banquet is first glimpsed via an overhead tracking shot. The camera surveys the massive table festooned with the carcasses of roast animals and oddball decorations—a leaning skeleton arranged as if to drink from a pitcher of wine, a lushly female figurine clasping bunches of grapes, a roast deer with fruits stuck on its antlers—in a whorl of animal appetites and images of fecundity and death violently juxtaposed. A pull-back crane shot then regards the whole scene in all its teeming detail, like some vision of a Renaissance parable painter. Sternberg then offers portrait shots of the protagonists at the feasting table—fatuous Elizabeth is drunk and wobbly, doll-like Catherine is regaled by a fiddler, houndlike Alexei slouches testily, the patriarch Todorsky (Davison Clark) tilts his head in wry tedium—each lost in their own space of conflicting necessity and will, whilst other guests are unified with the twisted statues and bones. Catherine is soon installed in her bedroom, with its walls covered in spectacular gilt and icon paintings, promises of religious fulfilment both warding off evil and encaging her, as her husband, silhouetted and monstrous, steals in for the wedding night, and a title card and cutaway shows all Russia praying that night for an heir to the throne. But it soon becomes clear that Peter didn’t know what to do with her, and Catherine is increasingly browbeaten by Elizabeth for not conceiving yet.
Sternberg’s vision of the Kremlin is thoroughly psychologised, every corner dense with shadows and seemingly packed with gargoyles that leeringly mimic the stances and mindsets of the characters. Peter is a slinking, crawling id-beast, abused by his aunt the Empress, who drills holes in the walls of bedrooms for erotic insights. One of those walls is Elizabeth’s, whom he hopes to see with Catherine. One of the film’s most funny and memorable moments sees Catherine agog at the sight of Peter’s drill slowly worming its way through the eye of a portrait hanging on the wall. The hidden eyes that perceive all in a paranoid state are literalised in this shot as the décor comes to unseemly life, and reveal the luridly voyeuristic side of Sternberg’s imagination. Alexei, who starts off as the very image of a cavalier dripping masculine power, is increasingly marginalised, an onlooker of dark, marauding potency doomed nonetheless to be Catherine’s passive fool because he’s also Elizabeth’s lover. The Empress humiliates Catherine and chokes off her attachment to Alexei through an elaborate game whereby she has Catherine admit Alexei to her chamber via a secret door. Later, Catherine herself repeats the gesture with Alexei now as the unlucky doorman, as her way of letting him know why he’s out of favour, a gesture Alexei can finally only accept with wry, abashed grace. Sternberg’s framings see Alexei variously juxtaposed with arrow-stuck sufferers, looming beasts, and a horny devil that suggests both his sexual desire and his status as cuckold.
Elizabeth’s gesture in quelling Catherine’s crush on Alexei backfires, however, not on her, but on the system in which Catherine’s intended to be a mere cog. She tosses the locket Alexei gave her with his portrait out the window, and Sternberg portrays its fall as almost eternal, seeming to move through several different seasons and climes, a vision of romance wilfully denied. Catherine dives out into the snowy night immediately to find it, but instead is caught by guards, whereupon she determines to let one seduce her, initiating her into a self-willed future. The affair gives her a son, and whilst her husband’s wits are sharpened surprisingly by fury in realising he’s been cuckolded, Catherine’s motherhood is popularly hailed. This leaves her unshakeably secure for the time being, even as Elizabeth demands stringent care for the baby boy on pain of torturous execution if he so much as sniffles or coughs. Nonetheless, Peter declared war on Catherine as he invites her to his play pen to entertain her with the sight of his sawing the head off a blonde doll, signalling his intent to execute her once he becomes tsar, whilst Vorontsova mocks her. Of course, Catherine is arming herself well, having systematically seduced the entire officer corps. Peter, as a title card reveals, enjoys marching his living tin soldiers up and down the corridors of the palace when it’s raining, and stages a mock execution of Catherine. When faced with rows of fit young officers paraded before her, Catherine picks and chooses her lovers. Where Alexei almost seduced her in a horse pen as she nervously chewed on a stalk of hay, now she surveys her assemblies of manly flesh chewing on a hay stalk as insouciantly as Groucho Marx on his cigar.
When Elizabeth expires, Dietrich’s performance reaches an apogee in a subtle moment, when the patriarch rings the bell to announce the Empress’s death whilst Catherine is playing a game of blind-man’s bluff with her admirers. Catherine strips the blindfold from her eyes and, upon realising the bell’s import, her face is charged with electric fear, then exaltation and determination, now that her last defence other than what she can provide for herself is gone. The patriarch had already solicited Catherine to keep her husband from becoming tsar: “I suppose you know that the Grand Duke isn’t exactly pleased with the present state of affairs,” to which she replied, “State of affairs? What affairs? I haven’t had an affair for some time,” before assuring the priest that her own arts will get her further than any mere political conspiracy. Peter’s plotting perversely lays the seeds for his own destruction, during a particularly bratty display at a religious feast where it’s customary to give alms for the poor: Catherine and her circle donate lavishly to the patriarch, whilst Peter gives the patriarch a slap in the face, to which he responds so coolly, “That was for me—now what have you got for the poor?” Peter then offends Catherine by toasting Vorontsova and humiliating one of Catherine’s officer lovers, Captain Gregori Orloff (Gavin Gordon).
Sternberg offers more than a hint of onanistic delight in detailing Catherine’s gradual perversion from doe-eyed girl to hood-eyed seductress, but mixes it with a powerful strand of feminist-minded melodrama, a form popular in the pre-Code era that was just moving out of favour. Yet Sternberg laid a template for whole zones of modern popular culture yet to be invented. Camp culture would delight in the film’s exemplification of Sternberg’s fetishistic textures, particularly when regarding Dietrich, who occasionally becomes mere mask of female perfection bathed in delirious light and shade, shadowed by lace and veil. Shifts in status are registered in costuming in a way that rejects historicism and moves according to haute couture magazine logic: Catherine graduates from fluttery, flowery, conservative dresses to huge gowns adorned with frou frou, and then, as she charges to victory, a fabulous snow-white cavalry uniform that speaks to the deepest reaches of camp, as Sternberg, who had not shied away from spelling out Dietrich’s sexually ambiguous edge, rings the bells for his creation’s emergence not just as tsarina but as pansexual deity. Surface is gateway to truth in Sternberg’s vision here, every element placed not just for aesthetic value but also the creation of a mimetic world. Moreover, The Scarlet Empress, in its approach to a historical figure as a study of Catherine’s ascent from pawn to powerbroker, has proven persuasive; modern films taking a similar slant, like Elizabeth (1998) and Marie Antoinette (2006), do not merely evoke it, but recreate some of its accents note for note.
Sternberg’s approach, moreover, expanded the palette of Lang, Abel Gance, and Stroheim, and then permeated other directors’ sense for the possibilities of cinema even as it seemed to sink into oblivion. Michael Curtiz would slick it up and use it in his historical swashbucklers. Sergei Eisenstein would take permission from it for his Ivan the Terrible films. Similarities to and anticipations of Citizen Kane (1941) have been critically documented, particularly in the theme of lost innocence, power, and torment expressed through psyche-describing surroundings, whilst Orson Welles’ baroque Shakespeare films owe much of their similarly seething, surrealist-tinged sense of landscape and setting and internally divided visual grammar to Sternberg. The plethora of dreamy double-exposures and transformative close-ups run through an underground current into the short works of Kenneth Anger and into Martin Scorsese’s most stylised works: Taxi Driver (1976) is replete with its layered, interiorised, oneiric edge; Casino (1995) owes some of its mood of the imperial charnel house to it, as well as its swooning direction; whilst Kundun (1997) retells it as positive fable, but with a rhyming structure and vivaciously similar visual touches, like the entrance of the Chinese army carrying icons of their religion of Maoism, as Catherine’s partisans do here. Meanwhile, Ken Russell tried many times to affect a similar mix of high cultural spectacle and down-and-dirty exposé.
Sternberg had a fascination for intense, infernal moral fables, often with characters that trail their pasts like guilty secrets and are catapulted between social levels. All of his films with Dietrich contain an element of such fables, as does The Last Command. His version of Crime and Punishment (1935) walks Raskolnikov’s sweating existential terror through the expressionist world of Sternberg and fellow silent masters like G.W. Pabst and Frank Borzage, whilst The Shanghai Gesture (1941) similarly spins a young, spotless heroine down into Hades, where she finds she likes it. The Scarlet Empress plays its narrative as just such an innocent’s infinite corruption, but inverts the usual moral to end in a triumph that plays as cultural orgasm of nascent matriarchy. Only by accepting and indeed outpacing the process of corruption by others does Catherine master it and become a world-ordering force. The finale builds with intense rhythm as Catherine makes her move, joining her cavaliers and the patriarch for a ride first to refuge, and then into the palace. The perverted interior of the royal abode is invaded by brilliant white stallions ridden by Cossacks, raw natural force expelling evil, whilst the patriarch carries a cross festooned with a buckled Christ figure that suggests less religious exculpation than substitution.
Orloff takes revenge and does his duty by Catherine as he corners Peter in his bedroom and strangles him, a fate presaged earlier as Catherine, furious at Peter’s spurning of her at the fest, tied a scarf into a lethal knot. The soundtrack churns together Wagner and Tchaikovsky as apotheosis nears, whilst the visuals explode into criss-crossing double exposures, the very substance of the world seeming to leap as Catherine gains victory, the “1812 Overture” blaring out. The motif of political coup was undoubtedly as touchy to audiences of 1934 as was the general moral nullity, as much of Europe had just gone fascist, and the eventual downfall of the Russian nobility echoes right through the film. Sternberg subverts this, too, as he refashions the triumph of revolutions, be it American republican, Russian Soviet, or German Nazi, as the annunciation of Woman, with bells ringing out in sanctifying peals. Dietrich, beaming with almost fearsome glee, is last glimpsed with Sternberg’s wickedest symbolic flourish, holding onto the reins of her grand white steed as she is hailed by her studs. Here Sternberg again evokes the seamy flipside to the triumph, via the popular rumour that Catherine eventually died taking her obsession with large phalluses to an extreme with a horse.
Staying true to its title, Silent Star: Colleen Moore Talks about Her Hollywood discusses, in passing, only one of Moore’s sound pictures, 1933’s The Power and the Glory. In the first-person narrative, Moore says, “… I thought it was the best film I ever made, and the critics agreed with me. But the part I played in it was a heavy dramatic one in which I went from a young girl to a woman of sixty. The public didn’t care for me in that kind of part. They wanted me to go on being a wide-eyed, innocent little girl. I was too old for that—and too tired of it in any case. So I bowed out.”
Well, not exactly. Miss Moore, my favorite actress of the silent era, neglected to mention the three films she made in 1934 after The Power and the Glory: Social Register for Columbia, a return to her flapper persona helmed by Marshall Neilan, the director of her 1927 triumph, Her Wild Oat; Success at Any Price, directed by J. Walter Ruben during his three-year stint with RKO; and her final film, The Scarlet Letter, made by Majestic Pictures. Larry Darmour, a shrewd producer who released such crowd-pleasing series as The Whistler, Ellery Queen, and Crime Doctor under the Larry Darmour Productions moniker during the early 1930s, created Majestic as a prestige division of LDP. Majestic products were often indistinguishable from the formula westerns and crime films of its sister studio, leading one to assume that this adaptation of a classic American novel was an attempt to live up to its loftier ambitions.
The Scarlet Letter arrived at the start of serious enforcement of the Production Code, which may explain why its introductory title card assures us that the harsh punishments the Puritans imposed for moral lapses were necessary for the survival of the fledgling colonies of the rugged New World—certainly a call from the wild of pre-Code Hollywood to its fickle, sex-and-gun-happy audiences to stay the course. The sight of the town gossip being punished with a tongue splint, to the relief of her henpecked husband, we’re told, lightens the mood considerably.
However, the denunciation of the adulterous Hester Prynne (Moore), paraded before the town with baby Pearl in her arms as evidence of her sin of having sex following the presumed drowning of her husband at sea, brings the gravitas of the story to center stage. Moore, slim, pretty, and noble in her refusal to name her partner in moral crime instantly earns our sympathy. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the town’s minister and her illicit lover, the presumed saintly Arthur Dimmesdale, is played by the preternaturally handsome Hardie Albright, or that her husband (Henry B. Walthall), delivered just in time for the spectacle by the heathen who saved his life, is old and desperately in need of a shave and a haircut.
Despite the very unfortunate insertion of several comic characters and situations played with tepid enthusiasm by Alan Hale, Virginia Howell, and William Kent, this version of the familiar story is much better than one might expect. Although a sound picture, the film is executed with a strong flavor of silent film technique. Characters clutch their bosom when heartsick, the romantic blocking for Albright and Moore in their first scene alone together is all cheated-forward hugs and upright declamation, and Walthall looks slyly around him when he changes his signature from “Pr” to “Ch” in assuming a new identity as Roger Chillingworth. The strong visuals work well in delineating the life of the town, for example, a row of women rubbing their dirty clothes on long washboards by the river’s edge and some of the children pelting Pearl with mud in quite a savage scene. Details such as tepee-like assemblages of rifles standing in the center aisle of the church as Dimmesdale delivers his sermon and Roger speaking to a Native American in his own language are worthy of a prestige picture.
Moore delivers a generally strong performance within some of the creaky conventions of a movie that wanted to be both accurate and audience-friendly. She is dignified and convincing in her faith in both God and Dimmesdale, though not nearly as scared as Chillingworth correctly perceives she should be. She matches Dimmesdale for saintliness of deed and demeanor and is nearly rehabilitated in the opinion of the town. At the climax, when Arthur reveals the “A” he has burned into his chest to mirror her cloth one and falls dying at her feet, little Pearl (Cora Sue Collins) sheds the tears that never come to Moore’s eyes, nearly upstaging them both. This scene may reflect Moore’s own lack of enthusiasm for yet another part that she could have shaded with the moods of an outcast living precariously amid an intolerant populace, but that made her into just another wide-eyed innocent. It was time to step away.
Moore married her fourth and final husband, Homer Hargrave, and took up residence in Chicago, where the Museum of Science and Industry displays her beloved fairy castle to this day along with clips from her movies, including The Scarlet Letter. As a career capper, Moore needn’t have omitted this decent work from her recollections, but she must have preferred to remember her good notices in The Power and the Glory to living in the shadow of Lillian Gish’s indelible portrayal of Hester Prynne in the 1926 The Scarlet Letter. Moore says, “I wasn’t a girl any longer. And I had learned a number of things along the way which were more important to me in the long run than how to make successful movies. Back in Chicago, I had the husband and the home I had prayed for. I had two children who needed me. I had experienced there the satisfaction which comes from helping to make a community a better place in which to live. I had become at last a ‘private’ person.”
Swing High, Swing Low has long been considered director Mitchell Leisen’s best film, but one whose reputation is based more on received opinion than actual experience. For the general public, the film was missing in action until the 1960s, when three reels of a nitrate distribution copy were found. The American Film Institute finally restored the film in the 1970s after Leisen’s own 16mm print became available from the director’s estate. Even so, the uneven quality of the cobbled-together print has made showings of the restoration few and far between.
Naturally, the Northwest Chicago Film Society stepped in to resurrect this gem from an undervalued director at its weekly Wednesday screening. As a fan of women’s films, I have a strong affinity for Leisen, who made weepies that avoid camp through their sincerity. Some classify Swing High, Swing Low as a screwball comedy, but there are few laughs, as Leisen chooses to focus on the deep, but troubled love between his lead couple, Maggie King (Carole Lombard) and Skid Johnson (Fred MacMurray).
Patrolling the Panama Canal locks on his last day in the army, Skid spies Maggie, a shipboard beautician, looking over a railing at the massive lock machinery instead of attending to her customer (Esther Howard), who is packed with mud and wired like the bride of Frankenstein to a permanent-wave machine. Skid chats Maggie up, but she’s not buying what he’s selling. Nonetheless, Maggie’s ship sinks with the lowering water level, forcing Skid to get down on his knees to keep her in view—this brief and clever image forms a potent metaphor for their relationship as the film progresses.
Skid, disguised behind a floppy hat, manages to entice Maggie’s friend Ella (Jean Dixon) with a bargain price to act as their chauffeur around Panama City. Soon unmasked, Skid picks up his roommate Harry (Charles Butterworth), a hypochondriac pianist, to make the outing “safe” for Maggie, though he really means to foist Ella off on Harry so that he can paint the town red with Maggie. At their final stop, Skid shows off his considerable skills with a trumpet, quieting Maggie’s complaints that she hates the trumpet, but ends up in a bar fight that has the pair thrown in jail just long enough for Maggie to miss reboarding her ship. Stuck in Panama for two weeks, until the ship comes back through, she temporarily moves in with Harry and Skid. Soon she and Skid, a good-time guy and womanizer, fall deeply in love and get married.
The couple works together at Murphy’s, a nightclub run by its no-nonsense namesake (Cecil Cunningham), where they are successful enough to draw the attention of a booking agent from New York (Arthur Stewart Hull), who wants to sign Skid, but not Maggie. Their love is severely tested when Maggie pushes Skid to accept the contract, and he becomes an overnight sensation so distracted by the limelight and the maneuverings of his old girlfriend Anita (Dorothy Lamour) to rekindle their flame that he neglects to send for Maggie. She eventually pays her own way stateside, only to learn that Skid has spent the night in Anita’s room. Although he was passed out on the couch, Maggie makes no effort to get at the truth and merely files for divorce. Distraught over losing Maggie, Skid becomes a flaming alcoholic. Of course, he gets one last chance to climb out of the gutter, but it’s up to Maggie to persuade him to go on.
Yes, it’s a set-up from the word go and one that descends into predictable melodrama. But this is first-rate melodrama that is very shrewd about the character flaws and incompatibilities that were bound to cause trouble sooner or later. Maggie was sailing to California to marry a rich farmer (Harvey Stephens) she didn’t love because she failed at some unspecified career in New York. Her love for Skid is genuine, but she wants a man who is wildly successful, rather than the man she married, who was content to be a hit in a backwater. Despite knowing that Skid’s old girlfriend is singing at the New York club where he will be headlining, she is so anxious to have vicarious success through him that she ignores the risk Anita eventually proves to be.
For his part, Skid is skittish about commitment and the responsibilities of success. He jokes with Maggie about reenlisting in the army if he falls flat, but the appeal is real because there he doesn’t have to take responsibility for himself, only follow orders. He tries to back out of working at Murphy’s, and only makes a go of it because Maggie is there, chatting up customers to buy drinks and singing with him onstage. Despite premonitions of disaster, he won’t say no to Maggie’s insistence that he go to New York without her. He falls back on Anita in New York to be his Maggie/mommy substitute, gullibly believing only the surface of the intentions of those around him. He lacks an internal sense of self that becomes downright deadly for him when he is out of the relatively forgiving atmosphere of Panama.
The performances Leisen pulls out of Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard are extraordinarily intense and nuanced. Some think Lombard’s is her best, and I’m inclined to agree. Aside from Charles Butterworth’s laconic obliviousness and a short comic turn by Franklin Pangborn as the head of the ship’s beauty salon, Leisen doesn’t make the screwball aspects of the film come to life, wasting Lombard’s considerable comedic abilities. But the glow of love on her face is more than skin deep, the defense of Skid she makes when Ella tries to put him down helplessly vigorous, and the hurt and tears that come when marriage ends before love does heart-rending. At Murphy’s and at the close of the film, Leisen brings his camera in tight on Skid as he encircles Maggie with his arms and accompanies her as she sings “I Hear a Call to Arms,” a marvelously intimate and original staging that perfectly communicates their closeness and the way Skid leans on Maggie for support.
MacMurray is a surprisingly sexy and sensitive costar. Leisen helps MacMurray build his character in interesting ways, for example, after overhearing Ella and Maggie argue about him, Skid deciding to act like the cad Ella thinks he is to test Maggie’s devotion. When he learns Maggie is to remarry, he storms into her hotel room, drunk and in a frenzy, feigning gaiety and congratulations as he blows the Wedding March on his horn. The scene is so true to his character and to life, as is the appalled pain Lombard communicates at seeing him so destroyed and out of control. The contrast between the cheeky soldier and the wasted drunk, his shakes realistic, his fear glowing in his eyes, is a shock, but we were prepared all along the way. The depiction of two such crazy-in-love people unable to connect lifts the film out of straight melodrama and into the realm of pure dramatic tragedy.
An admiring word must be said of Leisen’s mise-en-scène, particularly during the scenes in Panama. The frames are crowded with people, rickety shacks, and street life that, even in black and white, seem to throw off the heat of the tropics that makes love grow as fast and as large as the tropical plants edging the frame. I was aghast that Maggie would want to leave Panama for New York, which Leisen contrasts as a sped-up, disorienting place that is both luxurious and isolating.
The original songs include Al Siegel and Sam Coslow’s “I Hear a Call to Arms” and “Panamania,” a great nightclub number sung by Lamour, as well as Leo Robins and Ralph Rainger’s “Then It Isn’t Love,” sung by Lombard and communicating Maggie’s feelings. These songs are really quite good and are well-integrated into the story, something that can’t always be said of 1930s music films. The attention to this detail is indicative of the entire enterprise, certainly a labor of love for the relatively untested director. Add in a fun cameo by a young Anthony Quinn speaking nothing but Spanish and a chicken rescued from a cockfight, and you will find watching Swing High, Swing Low a labor of love yourself.
“No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” — Roger Ebert
If there ever was a film that perfectly exemplified Roger Ebert’s opinion for me, it is the 1934 French adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. In the days after I finished watching this underexposed masterpiece by an inexplicably obscure director, and I kept flashing to random scenes and faces at odd moments. It is not that any particular scene grabbed me, though there are some fine set-pieces in the film, it is the entire experience that captured me. I didn’t want to rewatch it, I wanted it to continue. I literally longed for it to be part of my life.
The pull of this sweeping, period melodrama has proven irresistible to filmmakers and audiences alike, set as it is during the turbulent 19th century in France when the republic forged by revolution in 1789 was ruled off and on by “citizen” kings who, along with the aristocratic elite, had an eye toward the permanent restoration of the absolute power of the monarchy. There have been at least 25 filmed versions of Hugo’s 530,982-word tome, spanning from a Lumière short in 1897 to 2012’s operatic extravaganza under the direction of Oscar winner Tom Hooper.
Les Misérables can be slanted almost any way a filmmaker or studio wants. Hollywood productions seem to favor a romantic line, with Jean Valjean more of a matinee idol, such as in the 1952 version with Michael Rennie as Valjean. In France, Victor Hugo is a monumental historical figure, cultural influence, and chronicler of decisive moments in French history. Thus, French adaptations of his works lean toward noble ideals and the public stage. Raymond Bernard, a highly regarded director in France who is nearly unknown outside his native land, made this 281-minute film in three discrete parts that I viewed in two sittings; even at this length, the film sticks largely with the core story of convict Jean Valjean from his final days in prison to the end of his life. Bernard, a Jew and son and brother of two French playwrights, Tristan Bernard and Jean-Jacques Bernard, cut his teeth in silent films and went into hiding during World War II. His father was sent to a deportation camp during the war; though released due to public outcry, the rigors of his imprisonment shortened his life. The experiences of Père Bernard and Jean Valjean in this regard are ironically similar.
The film strikes an almost miraculous balance of the politics and rebellious fervor, social malaise and sacrifice, rags-to-riches drama and romance Hugo offered by helping us identify personally with each of the characters through a considered dramatization of their stories. Key to Bernard’s film is his Jean Valjean, the craggy and robust character actor Harry Baur, naturally built to exhibit the physical strength we see in the first scene that enables Police Inspector Javert (played here by the great Charles Vanel) to find him every time Valjean changes locations and identities. Veracity in this detail is crucial to accepting the cat-and-mouse pursuit that forms the through line on which the secondary stories are hung, and in my opinion, Baur is the definitive Valjean in this regard.
However, Baur brings much more to the role than physical stature. He grasps Valjean’s native wit and survival instinct, and understands Hugo’s critique of the temptation to lose touch with society’s underclass as one rises in the world. When Valjean, now the mayor of a small town, learns that his suspicious police inspector (Javert, of course) is off to a trial where the defendant has been identified as his bail-jumping quarry, Valjean rides to the defendant’s rescue, but not before considering an actual fork in the road that could lead him off the path of truth and justice. Valjean keeps a 40-sous coin he stole from a young man to remind him of the base human being he became during his imprisonment, but he is not immune to being blinded by the light. When he fails to recognize Thénardier (Charles Dullin), little Cosette’s (Gaby Triquet) cruel guardian when she was a child, who has fallen as low as Valjean has risen, he sets himself up to become a crime victim and barely escapes murder, as well as rearrest by Javert. The undercurrent throughout Baur’s touching, understated performance is the desire to be free, of particular importance to the French, but also a universal imperative that has seen this tale resonate through the ages in many lands.
Valjean’s encounter with Monseigneur Myriel (Henry Krauss) is particularly satisfying in this version because Bernard offers it with simplicity, brevity, and without necessarily endorsing religious conversion as the key to reform and salvation. The scene serves to highlight the inhuman conditions convicts endured by emphasizing the wonder Valjean experiences at being shown common courtesies and having a real bed to sleep in; the man who had the decency to steal a loaf of bread for his starving nieces and nephews starts to emerge and comes to full bloom in short order. Baur is particularly affecting when he goes to Thénardier’s inn to settle Fantine’s (Florelle) debts for Cosette’s care and agrees to whatever the greedy Thénardiers ask without question or hesitation; when it appears from their increasing demands that they will never let Cosette go, he decides on a fair price, pays it, and simply takes her hand and leads her away. The scene plays particularly well today as a reminder that those for whom no amount of money is enough—I am reminded of a comment Bill Gates made about encyclopedia companies that didn’t aggressively capture the electronic market: “Oh, they have finite greed.”—can never behave in a truly human manner and that one simply must part company with them.
Fantine is treated in a more fully realized fashion here, with her story expanded in ways that while not escaping melodramatic excess completely, relieve her of the burden of being nothing more than a pathetic victim. We see her while still employed in Valjean’s bead factory, daydreaming, working slowly, and incurring the envy of her boss (Yvonne Mea) because of her beauty. Thus, we see Fantine as a vain, careless woman whose character only comes to the forefront when it comes to her daughter Cosette. The horror of watching Fantine have her teeth pulled in the 2012 version becomes something almost comic in this film, as a scene in which her future of selling her hair and teeth is foretold moves to a full-face view of Fantine with a gap where her front teeth used to be. The image has an odd quality of ridicule about it, like locking a petty criminal into stocks in a public square, thus commenting on the costs of foolish vanity. Nonetheless, Fantine’s story contains an appropriate amount of sadness as she falls fatally ill and dies without seeing her daughter again.
The final scenes in Paris that see all of the major players converge in street warfare builds with tension. The ill fortune and ill will of the Thénardiers collide with Valjean’s charitable instincts and a grown-up Cosette’s (Josseline Gaël) love affair with Marius Pontmercy (Jean Servais), an aristocrat turned revolutionary, animates the final reckoning between Valjean and Javert. Cosette is little more than a sketch as a young woman, a far cry from the overburdened little girl whose delight in a street carnival, a lively scene of French village life that particularly distinguishes this version, reveals a spirit that she has wisely hidden from her taskmasters. Nonetheless, the grown-up Cosette’s ardor for Marius and affection for Valjean are palpable, with Valjean realizing from his own, sad experiences that the spirit he saved so many years ago could be broken if Marius is killed. Among the most vivid characters in this part of the tale are Marius’ royalist uncle Gillenormand (Max Dearly), who provides comic delight in denouncing and worrying about his nephew in the same breath, and the Thénardiers’ youngest child Gavroche, played by Émile Genevois. Genevois returns this character to the cunning, adventurous boy whose defiance of the king’s soldiers in the final battle has nothing to do with becoming a martyr, as in the 2012 version, and everything to do with keeping hope of victory alive. He scurries in the dark collecting ammunition from fallen soldiers as he sings, in beautiful voice, in mockery; it is only a matter of time before an annoyed fusilier’s aim finally finds its target, but not before Gavroche has recovered 400 rounds for the cause.
With chaos all around and the rebellion doomed, Javert’s private hunt for Valjean, who is carrying a wounded Marius through the Paris sewers, forms a particularly tense scene that foreshadows Valjean’s capture and Javert’s victory. Watching the aged and injured Valjean, still strong but having more difficulty carrying the unconscious Marius, makes us fear that French law will win out over natural law. When Javert is waiting for the pair at one of only two gateways out of the sewers, all hope is lost. Javert agrees to have Marius taken by coach to Gillenormand’s mansion, after which he will take Valjean into custody. But it is Javert who realizes that he has been in a prison, locked away from human intercourse by the rigidity of the law. He frees himself in a way that will keep him out of the grasp of the pitiless authorities, but his suicide, like everything else in this film, is dealt with economically with a shot of circular ripples radiating from a central point in the Seine River. Valjean has the last word as he lies dying, wishing not to be remembered by anyone but Cosette, finally becoming the symbol for the French spirit Hugo always intended.
Location shooting in Paris during the final third of the film prefigures Neorealism and deepens the sense of history with which the French live and identify. In addition, German Expressionism must have been an influence on Bernard. The skewed camera angles, cubist-inspired sets, and deep shadows that give expressionist films their menacing power work well in this story of crime and punishment set against the backdrop of violent history.
To help examine Raymond Bernard’s place in cinematic history, The Criterion Collection has issued a set in its Eclipse series that contains this film and Wooden Crosses (1932). The Criterion word on the set:
One of the greatest and least-known directors of all time, Raymond Bernard helped shape French cinema, at the dawn of the sound era, into a truly formidable industry. Typical of films from this period, Bernard’s dazzling dramas painted intimate melodrama on epic-scale canvases. These two masterpieces—the wrenching World War I tragedy WOODEN CROSSES and a mammoth, nearly five-hour LES MISÉRABLES, widely considered the greatest film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel—exemplify the formal and narrative brilliance of an unjustly overshadowed cinematic trailblazer.
Think hiring bankable actors to star in musicals and teaching them to sing and dance started with Baz Luhrmann and Rob Marshall? Think again. At the beginning of the 1930s, when motion pictures started to talk, dance, and sing with a vengeance, Hollywood studios scrambled to hire Broadway singers and dancers to meet popular demand for musicals like the ground-breaking The Jazz Singer (1927). The Fox Film Corporation, however, made the decidedly modern move of taking their most popular team, Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, and training them to be musical comedy stars. Their maiden voyage as a musical duo was 1929’s Sunny Side Up, and the great success of that picture almost guaranteed a repeat performance.
Delicious reteamed Gaynor and Farrell with David Butler, a director who has not been rediscovered by the cinephile community despite having a solid career that included helming several Shirley Temple pictures in the 1930s, the stellar Hope/Crosby/Lamour vehicle Road to Morocco in 1942, and a number of Doris Day films in the 1950s. Butler’s way with musicals offered audiences diversion, but he also brought an edge to Delicious that makes it of a piece with light entertainment of that decade that offered slices of reality from the Great Depression along with crowd-pleasing spectacle. Interestingly, Delicious is a film that must have had a direct influence on the ballet sequence in the classic Vincente Minnelli musical An American in Paris (1951) 20 years later. And why not—both films offer a magnificent suite by George Gershwin; indeed, Delicious boasts an entire score by George and his brother Ira, their first done especially for the movies.
The social issue discussed in Delicious is immigration. As economies collapsed around the world, hopeful immigrants set sail for the rumored gold-paved streets of the United States of America. Of course, with Americans falling out of work and into poverty in record numbers, too, immigrants had to prove they would not be a drain on the economy before they would be allowed through the gates of Ellis Island. Our heroine, Heather Gordon (Gaynor), is a Scottish lass who expects to live with her uncle in Idaho, which she imagines is close enough to visit her newfound friends in steerage, a musical troupe from Russia set to work at a nightclub in New York City. The composer of the troupe, Sascha (Raul Roulien), is in love with Heather, but once she meets Larry Beaumont (Farrell) in the onboard stable that holds his horse Poncho, there’s no doubt about who will be in the final clinch.
The film’s comedy is a little flaccid, relying heavily on the dubious skills of Swedish impersonator El Brendel, as Beaumont’s servant Chris Jansen, to bridge the complex plot. A little of El Brendel’s mugging goes a long way, and it is a small crime that he was allowed to introduce the wonderful Gershwin tune “Blah Blah Blah” to the world. He even gets an encore. The direction and editing are often sluggish. A scene of Detective O’Flynn (Lawrence O’Sullivan), an Irish immigration officer, chasing an escaped Heather around the ship after she is denied entry into the country, is interminable, neither funny nor suspenseful. O’Flynn pops up more often than Inspector Javert in Les Misérables to dog poor little Heather as she tries to prove she can pull her own weight in America as a member of the Russian troupe. Fortunately, as a consequence, we get treated to the delightful “Katinkitsha” at the Russian nightclub, which plays on the Gershwins’ own heritage as the children of Russian Jews and gives Gaynor a chance to show off her dancing skills while made up to look like a Russian nesting doll.
It’s interesting to see Virginia Cherrill, the sweet, blind girl in Chaplin’s miraculous City Lights (1931), as insincere socialite Diana Van Bergh. She toys with Larry’s affections, schemes with her granite-minded mother (Olive Tell) to keep Heather away from him, and even calls the cops on the lassie while pretending to help her, making her one of the more hissworthy villains I’ve seen in recent times. Hollywood always tended to side with virginal innocents, and despite the fact that Diana looks more Larry’s type and Gaynor plays Heather like a 12-year-old Kewpie doll with the worst Scottish accent I’ve ever heard (that is, when she even tries to put the accent on), there is no denying how magnetic Gaynor and Farrell are together.
The immigrant experience is treated both realistically and somewhat offensively. On the boat, each ethnic group gets a short vignette singing and dancing in their native garb, a caricature that telegraphs the setting to the audience with ease, but also one that reinforces stereotypes. The humorous, hopeful dream Heather has early in the film, “Welcome to the Melting Pot,” offers an equally unrealistic image held of America, as a cohort of Uncle Sams shake her hand, an imagined Mr. Ellis steps into the ocean from Ellis Island and emerges dripping wet to welcome her, and the Statue of Liberty boogies on her pedestal and rains money on her.
However, the chain blocking the stairs between steerage and the higher classes brings it home that the divisions in American society are not easily breached, and that guardians of the ruling order like O’Flynn, though they be immigrants themselves, are always available. The spacious, luxurious Beaumont estate and the one-room flat that houses the Russians contrast realistically, and the furtiveness of being an illegal immigrant is more than well documented. The best scene in the film, which clearly presages Gene Kelly’s dance through Paris, comes near the end, when Heather is on the run in the streets of New York, facing the rush of the crowds from the subway and seeing the skyscrapers loom and turn into the long-nailed hands of ghouls swallowing her up while Gershwin’s “New York Rhapsody” scores her journey. The special effects may be a little old-fashioned even for 1931, but the expressionistic horror remains shocking nonetheless.
Delicious isn’t the greatest musical to come out of the 1930s, but it’s a fascinating look at how marketing mechanisms Hollywood still employs today meshed with the social consciousness of the time. Further, it shows how the Gershwins told their own story on the silver screen through song. Although it is not any more fleshed than the Gershwin film biographies that came later, it does offer their unfiltered wit and vision in a vehicle that was truly a part of their own time.
There aren’t many actors with as defined and recognizable a screen persona as James Cagney. From his eccentric dancing in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) to his maniacal boast “Made it, Ma. Top of the world,” from White Heat (1949) and his star-making turn as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1930), which contained his most indelible moment—shoving half a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s kisser—Cagney stands out like the genius performer he was to even the most casual film fan. Many people are familiar with the line “You dirty rat,” a stand-by for impressionists doing their best to imitate Cagney. That line, always misquoted, was actually “You dirty, yellow-bellied rat,” and it came from the film under consideration here, Taxi! The film is fairly typical fare from Warner Bros.: action-packed, urban, socially conscious, a scrappy central love affair between the lead performers, a comic secondary love affair between two character actors. Yet it has some interesting characteristics well worth closer examination: the toolbox of acting techniques Cagney developed from real life, the Irish-Jewish connection so common in the early decades of cinematic history, and scenes that harken back to the days before moving pictures talked.
The story of Taxi! borrows from Harold Lloyd’s Speedy (1928), but instead of the consolidation of New York’s street cars, Taxi! concerns itself with the attempt of a taxicab company to drive independent cabbies out of business. As befits the pre-Code 1930s, Taxi! is more violent. In Speedy, the streetcar company merely tries to make Pop Dillon break his city contract by missing a day’s run, whereas Consolidated Cab, under orders from strong-arm boss Buck Gerard (David Landau), actually wrecks rival cabs—the film’s opening scene shows a metal worker fitting a Consolidated cab with steel beams under the wheel fenders to use as battering rams. Taxi! is also more topical, with Cagney’s character Matt Nolan preaching violent retaliation to an assembly of independent cabbies against the pleas to negotiate union-style terms by Sue Riley (Loretta Young), the daughter of a cabbie (Guy Kibbee) who went to prison for shooting the man who wrecked his cab. The fireworks of disagreement fan the attraction between Sue and Matt, and the two eventually marry.
What is so interesting about Taxi! is that it presents the complete Cagney: the tough guy, the lover, the dancer, and the mime. The latter isn’t something one necessarily thinks of when reviewing Cagney’s career, but his dancer’s background makes him a great physical actor. Director Roy Del Ruth, a silent film veteran, enjoys focusing on the wordless chemistry between Matt and Sue. Early on, Sue runs up the steep stairway to the elevated train, away from Matt, his friend Skeets (George E. Stone), and his brother Danny (Ray Cooke). The camera focuses on the backs of her legs, her stocking seams pointing toward parts more interesting, until Skeets finally says what our eyes have told us, “She’s got a great set of pins!”
When Sue and Matt have a fight, a pantomime routine brings them back together. Matt throws his hat through Sue’s open door. She looks at the name in the hat band and signals to her friend Ruby (Leila Bennett) with just a nod that she will see him. Matt comes in. Sue turns away, as Matt silently cajoles. When they break their silence, Sue says something rude to Matt. He grabs her by the neck, puts a fist near her face and says, “If I thought you meant it,” and then kisses her. The last gesture was taken straight from Cagney’s father, one of many appropriations the actor would make from people he observed.
Perhaps to contrast the elegant simplicity of these gestures, Ruby is a chatterbox with one of the world’s most annoying voices. Methinks Del Ruth was making a bit of a comment on the annoyance of shooting with sound. Nonetheless, the director knew how to use sound economically to great effect. In a scene of two cars motoring urgently toward the hideout of Gerard—one bearing Matt to kill him for murdering Danny and the other carrying Sue, racing to try to prevent it—all we hear are the different pitches of the car engines in quick cross-cutting that builds to the film’s climax.
Del Ruth had a sophisticated approach to his material that favored realism even while giving audiences what they wanted. He knew how to position the camera to show Cagney in all his fury, shooting him straight on with the pitiless look in his eyes the public craved. He shot a musical number, but avoided the usual production number obviousness that might have come from fellow director Mervyn LeRoy by making it a nightclub act and cross-cutting with Matt and Sue canoodling at a table as they celebrate their marriage earlier in the day. He also inserts a dance contest where Sue and Matt lose to a young woman and her dance partner (George Raft, in his screen debut), offering a bit of music while establishing Matt’s hot temper, which will drive a wedge between him and Sue and lead to tragedy.
In an unusual tip of the hat to realism, an early scene has Matt listening to a Jew speak in Yiddish to an uncomprehending Irish cop. Cagney went to school with Jews and was fluent in the language. When he cuts in to the conversation and susses out what the man wants, he says to the man in Yiddish, “Did you think I was a gentile?” and replies to the cop’s skeptical question, “Nolan! What part of Ireland did you come from?” with a Yiddish-inflected, “Delancey Street,” a street Jews settled when they came to New York. At the time this film was made, Jews and Irish shared a similar experience as working-class immigrants who were near the lowest rung of American society, and as such, they were often paired in movies to suggest a social milieu audiences would identify immediately. With a plot built around the plight of the independent worker in a society that was fixed to favor big business, this suggestion of working-class solidarity would have driven home the social message with the subtlety that distinguishes this film and makes it relevant today. There is even a divorce to wrestle with.
Cagney and Young are a very attractive couple who run hot and cold with believable intensity. Any actress who can hold her own with Cagney has my respect, but in fact, Young was making pictures before Cagney ever set foot on a sound stage (she has a cameo in Her Wild Oat ). Some of my favorite character actors, like Guy Kibbee and David Landau, turn in affecting performances, and there is even a treat for fans of The Public Enemy. Matt and Sue double-date with Ruby and Skeets to see “Her Hour of Love,” a dummy film starring Donald Cook, who lost the part of Tom Powers to Cagney, settling for the part of Tom’s brother instead. When Sue praises Cook’s romantic technique, Cagney bests him again by giving Sue a passionate kiss that would curl anyone’s toes. The whole scene is a bit of a commercial for Warner Bros. (they also advertise John Barrymore’s The Mad Genius  with a poster and a bit of dialogue) and a vintage bit of insider referencing for cinephiles that I adored.
James Cagney has a huge body of work, but for me, his work in the ’30s is unparalleled. The roiling social conditions, the frontier aspects of working with sound for the first time, and the pre-Code freedom filmmakers took full advantage of make many ’30s films unique treasures. Taxi! is one of them.
Among the many genius works of renaissance man Charlie Chaplin, City Lights stands as a singular achievement. It is not that other Chaplin films aren’t as funny, and the story for City Lights is certainly not as ambitious as, say, Modern Times (1936) or The Great Dictator (1940). If it were made today, we’d call it, perhaps dismissively, a romcom, a slapstick story of a poor man who loves a blind girl and uses his dubious encounters with the more prosperous outside world to help her.
Some may say that City Lights gets its reputation as Chaplin’s greatest film because of its miraculous last scene. No less a writer and film critic than James Agee had this to say about that famous scene:
At the end of City Lights the blind girl who has regained her sight, thanks to the Tramp, sees him for the first time. She has imagined and anticipated him as princely, to say the least; and it has never seriously occurred to him that he is inadequate. She recognizes who he must be by his shy, confident, shining joy as he comes silently toward her. And he recognizes himself, for the first time, through the terrible changes in her face. The camera just exchanges a few quiet close-ups of the emotions which shift and intensify in each face. It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.
As I watched that ending for the umpteenth time, and the hubby saw it for the very first time, our eyes moistened and our hearts agreed—this scene is indeed the finest ever committed to film. He and I, however, didn’t agree about what happened in the scene, and, in fact, I don’t agree with Agee about The Tramp suddenly seeming inadequate to himself when The Girl’s realization of who he really is is reflected back to him. But more on that later.
The film Chaplin made defied the demand for sound that was all the rage following the appearance of Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer in 1929. Wary of having his Everyman speak, Chaplin nonetheless wrote a score that used sound to put across some very funny gags indeed with both economy and wit.
The opening scene brilliantly sets up the great divide between the Establishment and The Tramp. Several rich poobahs stand on a dais in a square to unveil a statue they have donated to the city called “Peace and Prosperity.” Chaplin substitutes kazoos for voices, one pitched low for the men and another pitched high for the lady set to do the unveiling. No title cards are needed to understand the ceremonial claptrap that reaches its climax when the draping falls to reveal The Tramp sleeping on the lap of the central figure. Chaplin milks the uproar over the innocent desecration of this solemn moment by having The Tramp contorting with the grace of a born comic mime to free himself from the sword that has skewered his holey trousers; thinking further, one wonders what a figure with a drawn sword is doing in a statue called “Peace and Prosperity.”
From this antic opening, The Tramp moves through the crowded, uncaring streets to his fateful encounter with The Girl (newcomer Virginia Cherrill, discovered by Chaplin at a boxing match). In one of the many small comic moments that fill the film to overflowing, The Tramp negotiates the gridlocked traffic by climbing in one side of a car and emerging onto the sidewalk through the other side. When he closes the door, The Girl holds out a flower she entreats him to buy. Her entreaty startles The Tramp, who wonders why anyone would think he had the need for or the price of a flower for his ragged lapel. With great subtlety, Chaplin investigates this odd turn of events by having his Tramp take the flower and with slight, gentle movements, pass it in front of The Girl. When her eyes don’t register his movements, his heart instantly goes out to her, and he gives her a coin. When the owner of the car at the curb returns, closes the door, and drives away, The Girl calling out that he did not take his change, The Tramp understands the misunderstanding. From that point on, he plays the swell whenever he visits her and finds himself in both comic and dire circumstances as he tries to be her benefactor.
City Lights is chock full of comic set-pieces that showcase Chaplin’s nimble, cartoonlike movements, particularly when The Tramp comes into the orbit of The Millionaire (Harry Myers) who treats him like a brother when he is in his cups, but rejects him without recognition when he is sober. In perhaps my favorite comic bit of the film, The Tramp encounters The Millionaire on a riverfront as he slips a rope around his neck and prepares to lift the rock tied to the other end and toss it into the river. The Tramp runs to his rescue, only to have the rock dropped on his toe and the noose accidentally slipped over his head, dragging him into the drink. Naturally, in trying to rescue each other, both men end up pulling each other in again and again. The gag ends with the arrival of a policeman, but our fear for The Tramp is upended when The Millionaire declares him friend and takes him home.
The Tramp is scorned or asea when facing the work-a-day world. The Millionaire’s Butler (Al Ernest Garcia) does everything he can to get rid of The Tramp, while two boys on a street corner taunt him and pelt him with peas through a pea shooter. He tries to earn money to keep The Girl and her Grandmother (Florence Lee) from being evicted by shoveling manure from the streets. The Tramp watches a man lead a large team of mules down the street and heads in the opposite direction, only to be greeted by the completely unexpected sight of an elephant lumbering past him. It is with these visual surprises that Chaplin startles the audience and adds a certain whimsical warmth to moments of potential drama or romanticism. This is particularly true at the end of the first meeting of The Tramp and The Girl, when he sits quietly watching her as she gets up to freshen her flowers’ water in a nearby fountain. She fills a pot under his loving gaze, swirls the water around, and then flings it out, drenching her unseen admirer. He shakes himself and slinks off as the scene fades on the innocent Girl refilling the pot.
One of the most beautifully choreographed and realized scenes is The Tramp’s boxing match. After his arrangement to take a dive and split the $50 purse with his opponent falls through, The Tramp must do his best not to get pummeled by a fighter (Hank Mann) whose mere touch has sent men into a concussive swoon. The ingratiating smiles and handshakes he offers everyone from his opponent to his seconds are followed by a perfectly timed stutter step that keeps The Referee (Eddie Baker) between The Tramp and his foe. The Tramp manages a punch every fourth step and grabs the angry boxer in a desperate embrace to avoid a return blow. Further gags, again with The Tramp tangled in everything from the ropes to the bell marking the rounds, make for controlled anarchy and a rather suspenseful match. We almost can’t believe it when The Tramp loses, so close did Chaplin make the outcome, but winning is foreign territory to this outsider. Although Chaplin was by this time the most famous man in the world, one who remains an iconic influence today, he was emotionally bound in his work to his own beginnings as a poor boy who spent a good deal of his youth in a workhouse.
And then there is the final scene. Agee described the scene, and I would only draw your attention to something I learned from Roger Ebert. Notice what happens to the flower The Tramp takes from The Girl. In his close-ups, he holds it close to his face and simultaneously chews shyly on his finger while staring uninhibitedly at The Girl. In the reverse shot of The Girl, we see The Tramp’s hand lower, with the flower about chest high. So emotionally focused are Chaplin and Cherrill that this detail only registers after repeat viewings. I was quite reminded of a reader’s theatre performance I saw of Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell with Paul Henreid, Edward Mulhare, Ricardo Montalban, and Agnes Moorehead, in which my focus was so pulled by Mulhare that I never saw Henreid light a cigar. It’s magic in plain sight.
City Lights is, as its name suggests, lit from within because of the emotional depth of the connection between The Tramp and The Girl. The Tramp is a child with an unselfish love that seeks nothing in return, not even The Girl’s good opinion of him. Once The Girl touches and recognizes the hands she held so often, no terrible regard crosses her face; rather, she seems softly astonished and then sees that love, not wealth, has bought her sight. They outshine the brassy bulbs and neon of the metropolis in which they are barely bit players and prove themselves to be, like the painfully divided man and woman in F. W. Murnau’s masterwork Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans(1927), the real city lights.
The true romantic adventure film is a rare breed. Not an action film where a romance is grafted on as a momentary distraction from stunts and gunfights, a romantic adventure film generates excitement not just by posing danger to the characters’ bodies, but also to their innermost selves and their relationships. The Scarlet Pimpernel, a true romantic adventure film, was produced by Alexander Korda at a time when he and Alfred Hitchcock were the key drivers of British cinema in the early sound era. Korda’s productions, with their determinedly classy, yet peculiarly minimalist, intimate style, gained initial success with The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), buoyed by Charles Laughton’s Oscar-winning turn as the rapacious monarch. This and other productions tried to make virtues out of some of the perceived faults in the British industry, with its reliance on a theatrical tradition and cramped budgets, and exploited Britishness for its own sake whilst also bringing a noticeably tart perspective on that Britishness that perhaps only an immigrant like Korda could. At its best in films like Henry VIII, Rembrandt (1936), and The Scarlet Pimpernel, Korda’s house style interrogated assumptions about cinematic structuring that were quickly becoming truisms under Hollywood’s influence. With a gentle sense of dramaturgy, and intricate, dramatically encoded sequences playing out in a fashion moulded after historical tableaux plays, Korda’s films shared a spirit in common with those of William Wyler and Jean Renoir and anticipated Andre Bazin’s theories of mise-en-scène over montage. The Scarlet Pimpernel is a peculiar by-product: an adventure film without set-piece derring-do, and hardly even a gunshot—and it’s one of the most exciting films ever made.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is based on Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s literary hero, an English aristocrat who rescues the innocent victims of the Reign of Terror that accompanied the French Revolution. Orczy was herself actually Hungarian, but had married into the English aristocracy. Her first Pimpernel book debuted in 1905, and she was still alive and churning out books about her hero when this film was made. Orczy’s creation was and is fascinating and deeply consequential for pop culture, as she can in many ways be said to have invented a crucial type of modern hero: the man of action defying oppressive forces with disguises and cunning whilst maintaining a secret identity that masks his true nature. Simultaneously, whilst she stopped short of creating a proper female action hero, Orczy clearly invested a telling amount of interest and energy in creating Marguerite, Blakeney’s beautiful, intelligent, resourceful, yet initially morally questionable French wife who evolved throughout Orczy’s cycle into one of Percy’s agents. The Scarlet Pimpernel is built as much around the central romantic tangles and tortures the couple put each other through—an extended and fascinating metaphor for the problems of identity of many a couple actually settling down to the problem of really living together—as it is about period gallivanting and historical fancy.
Orczy had constructed that historical fancy around the plausible wish fulfilment of saving innocents from the worst excesses of a political movement. As the 20th century progressed, this fantasy was to become increasingly urgent, and when Korda’s production was released, geopolitical overtones vibrated through the whole affair. Leslie Howard would play an updated version of the hero he plays here in Pimpernel Smith (1941), and in doing so, reputedly inspire Raoul Wallenberg’s efforts to save Jews from the Holocaust. In the 1934 film, the sensation that something evil is happening just over the horizon, played out in icy diplomatic niceties and by men utilising proto-Cold War techniques, is nonetheless palpable, and the period French Revolution setting starts to sound more and more contemporary as Percy condemns men who “use high-sounding principles an excuse for the most bestial cruelty.” Indeed, The Scarlet Pimpernel, made five years before WWII started, feels more than a little like the first WWII movie, offering as it does a template of flight, disguise, and infiltration that any number of spy adventure melodramas in the coming years would. It even lays out a template for the kinds of patriotic encomium such films would often see, as when Percy recites the “this England” speech from Shakespeare’s Richard II. The coolness of the Korda style, at odds with the kind of florid historical filmmaking becoming popular in Hollywood that would soon flower in the second coming of the swashbuckler, builds and emphasises tension in an entirely different fashion to what one expects. As witty and defiant as Percy can be, there’s no campy winking at the audience in the fashion of Errol Flynn’s films, and the absence of a music score, already by 1934 an unusual lack, emphasises the sombre, subtle pitch of the drama.
The film begins with a discursive sequence of soldiers parading under the window of the Prince of Wales (Nigel Bruce). The Prince’s bluff and hearty charm seems for much of the movie as disconnected as the rest of his countrymen from the international reality, his soldiers marching prettily but not actually doing anything. The Prince confesses his pride in the fact that the Scarlet Pimpernel, rapidly becoming famous for his escapades, is English. In Paris, the situation the Pimpernel is fighting against is coldly depicted as victim after victim is sent to the guillotine in an assembly line of slaughter, and a neat dissolve from the guillotine itself to the Revolutionary logo of Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality packs ironic punch. A priest (Bramwell Fletcher, of The Mummy “He went for a little walk!” fame), actually one of the Pimpernel’s agents, gets an earful of bloodlust from a barber, before visiting a prison where families of the fallen nobility cringe in the cellar as a revolutionary official announces: “Madame Guillotine has fresh meat today.” The fake priest delivers a message in a bible to the family of the Count de Tournay (O. B. Clarence), his wife (Mabel Terry-Lewis) and daughter Suzanne (Joan Gardner). De Tournay, the former ambassador to Britain, is introduced playing cards with his fellows and contemplating with hard-won wisdom that his class has been “sheltered all our lives,” establishing him as a nice aristocrat fit to be rescued. As victims are called up to the tumbrel, rapid vignettes of grace under pressure include one aristocratic woman placing aside her book and adjusting her gloves with seemly calm, whilst outside the baying crowd awaits. Wife and daughter are dragged away to their deaths, torn from the Count, who is held back to be taken Robespierre.
But the Pimpernel’s promise to the De Tournays is good, as the crowd is distracted by a man on the rooftops shouting royalist slogans, a first sign of the depths of Percy’s cleverness in using the crowd’s own inchoate passion against it. As they pursue the rooftop agitator, Percy is able to swoop in and spirit away the family. The Pimpernel himself is disguised as an aged hag transporting her plague-ridden son out of the city, successfully bluffing his way past a guard who has already been seen capturing an aristocrat trying to escape and congratulating himself on his ability to sniff out his quarries. Moments after the Pimpernel gets out, a squad of mounted soldiers arrives to inform the guard he just let the Pimpernel escape, but the soldiers, under Sir Andrew Ffoulkes (Anthony Bushell), are themselves members of the Pimpernel’s band, and they escort the De Tournays across the Channel to safety. Meanwhile, Percy loses his hag’s guise, after a moment of deadpan transformative humour as Percy takes some snuff from his gold box whilst still in full ratty regalia, and then maintains the most businesslike of attitudes as he strips off the drag. He’s alerted by his operative Armand St. Just (Walter Rilla) that they have to return to rescue the Count and that a new, dangerous enemy has been set after them, Citizen Chauvelin (Raymond Massey), the Republic’s envoy to England. Armand also happens to be the brother of Percy’s wife, the former actress Marguerite (Merle Oberon), who is regarded as a traitor and murderer in French aristocratic circles because of her apparent role in the execution of the Marquis Saint Cyr and his family, the first aristocratic clan to go to the guillotine.
The remainder of the narrative revolves around a peculiar question: is Percy’s wife one of the people he despises? Is he operating out of guilt for her actions? Marguerite is first mentioned in a tavern conversation between Ffoulkes and the De Tournays, as they tell him about her evil acts, and he states with defensive pride that “Everyone in London knows Lady Blakeney.” Marguerite is introduced thus, like her husband, first through gossip and second-hand perception, an accumulation of legends that address only one apparent side of their natures. She is first glimpsed properly having her portrait painted by George Romney (Melville Cooper), supervising her conversion into a perfectly aestheticized image as Romney would do for Emma Hamilton. Percy studies the work twice, once in full fop character and then again more like himself, and finds it frustratingly lacking, as he attempts to discover the true woman behind the various images of her. As the husband wears a mask of false identity, he is questioning whether his wife does, too. When Armand asks about the chill between the couple, Percy explains that he once asked if she had truly denounced the Saint Cyrs: “She flashed back a yes as sharp as the guillotine!” “So that is why you ceased to love her,” Armand says, “What a tragedy.” Percy replies, “I shall love her ‘til the day I die, that’s the tragedy.” Such a line captures The Scarlet Pimpernel‘s rare feel for the smouldering romanticism lurking under the seemingly stoic and staid English surface. The very French and expressive Marguerite is conversely suffering her sudden and chilling alienation from Percy, who, as far as London society is concerned, is a shallow, witless gadabout obsessed with fashion and trivialities.
True to Quentin Tarantino’s maxim about secret identity as a mask that reveals and critiques, the version of himself that Sir Percy Blakeney presents to the world is a stinging study in English upper-crust complacency and cloddishness. Percy maintains his cover by playing a jackass, fop, and effeminate pseudo-wit. He predicts Beau Brummel by advising the Prince in fashion, ridiculing his tailor’s efforts (“I’ll have you know that this is the last word in sleeves!” “Oh I should hope so, for there should never be another like it!”), and reciting to anyone who’ll listen his poem about the Pimpernel (“They seek him here, they seek him there…”) which he has to censor when repeating it to society ladies. The fat, old former soldiers he teases as they lounge about his club congratulate themselves on their superiority to such callow youth: “What that young man needs is a year of two’s hard campaigning, facing powder and shot!” declares Winterbottom (Edmund Breon), whilst one of the Prince’s circle, contemplating the horrors in France, muses, “What do you expect of a lot of foreigners with no sporting instinct? If it wasn’t for our fox hunting and grouse shooting, I dare say we should be cruel, too!” When Marguerite wonders if Ffoulkes might be the Pimpernel, Percy derides the idea: “The fellow couldn’t hit a ball at Eton!” This tint of satire on the worst traits of the English upper crust is, of course, contrasted in how Percy and his fellows actually represent their class’s best qualities. Even the Prince finally reveals his hidden grit when, disgusted by news Robespierre is planning to execute the French King, he’s introduced to Chauvelin, who he welcomes as a private citizen: “We shall try to forget the government that sent you,” before turning his back and getting on with his pleasant evening.
The Scarlet Pimpernel’s layered and wit-laden script was composed by many hands, with Korda and Orczy adding some material to the credited foursome of Lajos Biró, S. N. Behrman, Robert E. Sherwood, and Arthur Wimperis. As per the Korda style, and perhaps partly reflecting the fact that the story had first appeared not as a novel but as a stage play, the narrative moves forward in a series of intensely orchestrated and carefully composed sequences. The actual job of direction fell to American Harold Young, making his third film after a long career as an editor: Young’s subsequent career would be largely unremarkable as a maker of B-movies, including The Mummy’s Tomb (1942). But the entire production bears the imprint of Korda, particularly in the carefully composed crowd scenes. Korda’s approach to spectacle was strange, offering lavish sets, casts, and costuming, and then often dismissing them, preferring to concentrate elliptically on peripheral details. The Scarlet Pimpernel deliberately detours from many key moments of action, and yet avoids staidness with its supple and functional cutting and quietly musical visual pacing.
Notable are little minuets of telling close-ups and dramatic camera angles in compositions that are fastidiously balanced, often with characters framed in association with statues that match their personality. A brilliant, pivotal moment occurs when Marguerite finally realises her husband is the Pimpernel, camera zeroing in on a tell-tale feature of a painting she stares at, and cutting back to a high shot of Marguerite gazing up, the moment of realisation rendered electric. The effect shifts emphasis from the physical intensity of the drama to the emotional, making The Scarlet Pimpernel all the more singular. It’s tempting, if running the risk of making facile presumptions, to ascribe some of the emotional intensity of The Scarlet Pimpernel to the way it offers such a fervent metaphor for the lives of so many of its creators. Korda and Howard were Hungarian with Jewish backgrounds, busy dissembling as perfect English entrepreneur and actor, whilst Orczy was also Hungarian, and Oberon was part-Indian, a side of herself she had to keep suppressed to avoid the censure in a still often segregated cinema screen.
One doesn’t look to The Scarlet Pimpernel for in-depth political considerations, and yet the brief depiction of Robespierre (Ernest Milton) is an amusing study in dictatorial power as the self-dramatized posturing of a child prodigy, one that seems cleverly pitched to evoke caricatures of Mussolini and Hitler as bratty buffoons for audiences of the 1930s. He stalks away from his desk after writing a death warrant with showy gravitas and situates himself before a nobly bearded bust, before calling Chauvelin and declaring effetely to De Tournay that “I send you people to the guillotine for the future happiness of the human race, but I don’t allow torture!” Chauvelin is both smarmy and serpentine in his confident espousal of the revolutionary cause, and also acutely aware of his vulnerability, tasked with capturing the Pimpernel and knowing it means his neck if he can’t. Chauvelin blackmails Marguerite into helping him identify the Pimpernel, having traced the various leads to Percy’s social circle. To manipulate Marguerite, he uses both standard pressures—arresting Armand and holding his fate over her—and his sinuous and unsettling psychological grip on her, as the keeper of her darkest secrets. Chauvelin was partly responsible for Marguerite’s denunciation of the Saint Cyrs, though her animosity towards the clan after the patriarch had her thrown in prison when his son wanted to marry her, was still powerful.
The film’s multiple story strands collide in a lengthy sequence at a ball held by Lord Grenville (Allan Jeayes) in which dancing is dismissed as frou frou in favour of the far more intricate cotillion of role-playing and gamesmanship. Percy swaps gracefully between fop and spymaster (he’s able to rescue himself from the coterie of trailing women and make contact with one of his agents with the cry, “Zounds! That’s a monstrous good collar!”), Chauvelin stalks through the proceedings with his hunting-dog smirk, and Marguerite is caught between camps, cold-shouldered by the De Tournays until the Prince, who worships Marguerite, commands them to make friends. Marguerite is tasked by Chauvelin to obtain a message Ffoulkes has tucked in his sleeve, and Marguerite rises to the challenge in a sublimely odd sequence in which dance music drifts sonorously in from the ballroom, Ffoulkes tries to both aid Marguerite and read the message, and Marguerite looks for a chance, any chance, to see it, too, whilst a confused crackle of the erotic and the illicit infuses the game of deception. She finally succeeds in getting hold of the letter and is able to reveal its contents to Chauvelin, that the Pimpernel will be in the library at midnight, which proves true, only Percy makes a play of being asleep on a couch, sprawled with indolent laziness. Percy seems to fake Chauvelin out by this means, but his joke proves to have been a bit too clever, for Chauvelin quickly realises the truth and sets in motion a plan to catch Percy the next time he ventures to France.
The weight of sustaining the film falls heavy on Howard’s and Oberon’s shoulders. Howard was just hitting the height of his fame, as he was starring in the hit play The Petrified Forest and had played the lead in a Hollywood adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage opposite Bette Davis. At first, Korda had offered the role of Percy to Charles Laughton after the success of Henry VIII, but fans of the books objected. Howard’s specific screen persona here came to the fore, in playing a man who seems emotionally obtuse and physically mild, and yet who actually possesses surprising moral and mental force; Howard would offer several variations on this character before his sad death in 1943. His performance as Percy, nonetheless, has a clarity and simplicity of technique that puts me in mind of Paul Scofield, in the precision of his shifts of character registered in diction and restrained physical emphasis, his delightful skill in swinging from pallid overcivility (the curse of his Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind, 1939) and mincing foppishness, to an unconventional, but steely, convincing rectitude. He’s particularly excellent in the key scene the couple have after the ball, in which Marguerite distraughtly confesses how Chauvelin has used her, and Percy asks just what she’s done in exchange for her brother’s freedom, with a sudden revelation of the anger and pain he’s been sitting on. As Marguerite breaks down and appeals to him with real desperation, he comes precariously close to kissing her as he realises she’s a victim and not a villain, but remembers himself at the last moment and pulls back with obvious difficulty.
Oberon was still a fairly fresh-minted movie star, although she had been leading a life laden with novel-worthy mystique for much of her life, rising from headliner in Bombay nightlife in her early teens to several years of bit roles after landing in Britain, and discovery by Korda, whom she would marry. She would go on to be an underutilised but reliable star in Hollywood, but she inhabits the difficult role of Marguerite perfectly. She keeps Marguerite’s emotional quandaries in focus, smouldering with guilt and disaffection even as she’s called upon to be the perfect, nerveless beauty, wife, secret agent, and emotional prostitute, speaking with rueful sadness after her husband’s made another of his embarrassing displays, “The biggest fool in England has the most complete contempt for his wife,” and insulting Percy with bite, “You were a man once!” The quiet romanticism of the film is indeed laced with the bitter taste of its opposite, the Noel Coward-esque cynicism apparent as Percy, in character and yet delivered with cold brutality, responds to Marguerite’s proposition that they should help Armand get married, “What has poor Armand done to be sentenced to matrimony? You should know better, my dear.” Massey likely never quite had as much fun in a film role as here, playing Chauvelin with a plummy, come-and-go accent, but more effectively offering his hangdog face and perpetual five o’clock shadow to imbue a faint air of shifty dishevelment to Chauvelin’s pretences to elegant villainy, the inelegant method and functionary brutality underneath constantly in evidence. His exchanges with Percy in foolish guise are droll in Chauvelin’s recoiling disgust of the seemingly oblivious aristocrat who sneakily makes jabs at Chauvelin’s fear of the guillotine under the pretext of giving him fashion tips; whenever Percy reaches to adjust Chauvelin’s cravat, the envoy recoils in alarm.
Chauvelin has his moment of triumph as he thinks he finally has Percy exactly where he wants him, in front of a firing squad, mouthing orders in anxious delight until he hears the shot. Once Marguerite ventures into enemy territory to warn Percy that Chauvelin is laying a trap for him, but once again makes herself perfect bait, as Chauvelin takes her prisoner and uses her as a means of forcing Percy into exchanging himself for her. Here the moral, physical, and romantic danger facing the characters crystallises in another marvellous moment of smouldering romanticism, as Marguerite declares she wants to die with her husband and fainting, Percy offering a last, breathlessly romantic kiss to her prone form before letting her be carried out. Percy pauses for his moment of poetically graceful patriotism before heading out to die—except, of course, Percy is too clever for Chauvelin, and, in one of the great action hero bluffs, his firing squad proves to be formed entirely of his own men. What’s rare about this last act is that in avoiding traditional action movie stunts, it generates a fervent tension that’s altogether sublime. The very finish twists Percy’s earlier black description of matrimony as a sentence, as he revises Chauvelin’s own pronouncement that Marguerite would be free when Percy died into an epigram of fidelity of a couple reforged into strong and confident partners in adventure. It’s worth noting that a sequel was produced three years later, but the only returning cast member was Bushell, and the film, whilst competent, was essentially an afterthought, which goes to show that half-hearted sequels are hardly a recent phenomenon.
The night after Election Day 2012, the Northwest Chicago Film Society came up with a topical screening that was the perfect way to end a brutal election season—the campaign-centered musical confection Thanks a Million. Written with exceeding wit by Nunnally Johnson and starring Dick Powell at his most adorable, Thanks a Million was exactly the balm this classic movie fan needed to shake off the anxiety of recent weeks.
The plot for Thanks a Million is simplicity itself. A traveling troupe of unemployed performers alights from a bus in “New Town,” where they are faced with a two-hour layover before they can catch their connecting bus to New York. Some of the troupe head into the town hall to get out of a torrential rain and witness the “Commonwealth” candidate for governor, Judge A. Darius Culliman (Raymond Walburn), lull the audience to sleep with his uninspired rhetoric. Troupe leader Ned Lyman (Fred Allen) meets with the party chiefs and offers his performers as the paid entertainment at Culliman’s election rallies to encourage voters to attend. The scheme is successful, but when Eric Land (Powell) wows the first audience with his singing, he is fired for pulling focus from Candidate Culliman. But when he saves the day by speaking in place of the drunk candidate at what was to be Land’s last rally, the election committee persuades Land to run for governor instead. The rest of the film chronicles his candidacy.
Like many a musical comedy whose first purpose is to entertain, Thanks a Million offers huge helpings of gags, songs, and dance. Powell, of course, made his mark in the fairly plotless extravaganzas produced by Warner Bros. earlier in the decade. As Eric Land, he outgrows his male ingénue type and takes on a more mature and far more sexy persona as he carries on a romance with dancer Sally Mason (Ann Dvorak) and simultaneously plays along with the amorous Mrs. Kruger (Margaret Irving), the wife of the party chairman (Alan Dinehart). The suggestion that he and Sally share a bed at the end of the evening and that Mrs. Kruger has arranged an adulterous liaison with him don’t seem to have bothered the post-Code Hays Office. Powell doesn’t forget to romance the movie audience either, as his sparkling close-ups are dotted with suggestive winks that must have thrilled his adoring fans, and boy, does he look good in a double-breasted suit!
Musical interludes include the singing/dancing sister act of Sally and Phoebe (Patsy Kelly), who don’t get much time to show either their terpsichore or acting skills. But they are a lot of fun to watch, and their blousy 30s clothing is a hoot. The Yacht Club Boys (James V. Kern, Charles Adler, George Kelly, and Billy Mann) get a couple of chances to harmonize, again with director Del Ruth favoring inviting close-ups. A gag involving Paul Whiteman and his band in which the “New Town” bus driver (Herbert Ashley) tries to drown out Lyman reading aloud (“I can’t hear myself read!”) using the radio broadcast of their music is broadened to a live concert of Whiteman, his orchestra, and featured singer Ramona playing for the opposition party. In this case, fighting musical fire with fire does the incumbent governor (Charles Richman) no good, but it’s fun to listen to Ramona’s 30s jazz phrasing of “New O’leans.” Violinist Rubinoff must have had a very good agent, because he gets a lot of screen time, including a gag performance where he pokes the bus driver with his bow repeatedly as he plays; far from amusing me, he had me frantic about the bus crashing in the driving rain.
The revelation of the film is radio star Fred Allen in his first movie role. I have heard his various shows many times on a local nostalgia radio show, but this was the first time I got a chance to see him in action. An early gag about his initial skepticism about the future of radio, which would have had a 1935 audience splitting their sides in laughter, was lost on our audience, but nothing else about his genius comic timing or acting abilities could escape notice. He delivers a fully realized character, making the most of the clever dialogue Johnson provided. For example, he signals his character’s relative poverty by referring to his cheap suit: “The last time I got this suit wet, the vest disappeared.” His confidence in the deal he struck—tearing up the bus tickets to New York—seems somehow justified by his bearing and rock-steady relationship with wisecracking Phoebe. I was more than thrilled to see him hold this loose cavalcade together and but for Powell and a very funny supporting turn by Walburn, Allen would have walked off with the picture.
In the only overt political statement in the film, Land eventually reveals the patronage appointments he was directed to make after the election and asks voters to choose Gov. Wildman. After a crazy car chase that sees Land try to outrun more than 100 motorcycle cops in a dizzying process shot, the now governor-elect is delivered to a rousing victory celebration for him and his party, which has morphed into the Square Deal Party (an allusion to the Democrats) despite the original candidate looking all the world like the wealthy banker in the game “Monopoly.” It would be churlish to complain about the confused politics, however, as no real-life political horse race would ever be as painlessly entertaining as Thanks a Million. If you’ve not been as lucky as we were to see what appeared to be a virgin print from the Twentieth Century-Fox vault, talk to your local art house about booking it. This film is just too enjoyable to stay locked in the dark.
Among master directors of women’s films are two men whose careers are intertwined. John Stahl, whose heyday occurred during the 1930s, and Douglas Sirk, the 1950s king of technicolor melodrama, each made versions of the same three novels: Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life, Lloyd C. Douglas’ Magnificent Obsession, and James M. Cain’s Serenade (Stahl’s film was called When Tomorrow Comes, and Sirk’s film was titled Interlude). It is hard to say what attracted Stahl and Sirk to genre films often disparagingly described as “weepies” and “soapers,” but it is fair to say that these two men wanted more from these stories than to give women a vicarious romance and a good cry. Neither Imitation of Life is a run-of-the-mill women’s film in any case. While its main story involves the fortunes and loves of a central female character, this story intersects with the racially charged travails of an African-American woman and her light-skinned daughter. Both films offer the view that a white woman can improve her circumstances with enough guts, ingenuity, and physical attractiveness, but that African Americans, even those light enough to pass for white, are inherently unable to realize the Horatio Alger dream of the self-made person that infects Americans to this very day.
Stahl’s film, a faithful adaptation of the Hurst novel, centers on Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert), a widow barely supporting herself and her three-year-old daughter Jessie (Baby Jane) by running her late husband’s maple syrup business. On a very busy morning, Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) and her four-year-old daughter Peola (Sebie Hendricks) fetch up at Bea’s door answering an ad for a live-in maid. They have come to the wrong address, and Bea offers her regrets. Just then, Bea runs upstairs to rescue a crying, fully clothed Jessie from the bathtub she slipped into to retrieve her rubber ducky. When Bea comes back downstairs, she sees that Delilah has been fixing her breakfast. Delilah basically volunteers to be Bea’s servant in exchange for room and board for her and her daughter, who has been a handicap to Delilah’s job search. Thus begins a relationship that will see an uncomplaining Delilah give up her secret pancake recipe, come along with Bea as she sets up a pancake house, and become the face of Aunt Delilah’s Pancake Flour and a household fixture as Bea’s success affords her a luxurious lifestyle and the attentions of ichthyologist Stephen Archer (Warren William).
Sirk’s film maintains the basic outline of the novel, but provides all but the Stephen Archer character with new names, and makes Bea, called Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) here, an aspiring actress. Lora and Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) meet at Coney Island beach while Lora is looking for her daughter Susie (Terry Burnham). Lora brings Annie and her daughter Sarah Jane (Karin Dicker) home because they are homeless. Lora also meets Steve Archer (John Gavin), an aspiring fine-art photographer, on the beach. Lora finds the same success as Bea, and like Delilah, Annie comes along for the ride.
Both of these films remark on race and gender relations, as well as the times in which they were made. Stahl’s film reflects the social consciousness of Depression-era America, saving its sympathy for the economic precariousness of women without men. Although the story makes both Bea and Delilah widows, many women lost men to the road as they looked for work and to despair through the bottle and abandonment. Bea must finagle her store using hard bargaining, charm, and a generous amount of bull. Delilah’s character is just as desperate to hold her family together, but Stahl plants her character firmly in a caricature of the jolly mammy.
Stahl’s treatment of Bea’s story is standard Hollywood glamour. Bea wears one luscious gown after another in the success part of the story, falls into a very quick and intense romance with Archer, who despite his seemingly ordinary career as a marine biologist, seems to be independently wealthy. The pair steals kisses, Colbert’s head tilted so far back I thought it would break off (couldn’t they have provided her with a step stool?). Finally, Bea and Stephen deal with the complication of a college-aged Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) falling for Archer by delaying their marriage with tortured longing until Jessie has gotten over him.
Delilah and Peola’s story is treated in both a demeaning and paradoxically realistic way. Louise Beavers’ Delilah is simple-minded, ignorant, emotional, and religious. There are ways to ask for room and board in lieu of payment that aren’t so butt-insulting as the way Stahl directed Beavers, making it sound like Delilah’s main delight in life is serving white folks. A close-up of Beavers posing for the image Bea wants on her restaurant sign is a caricature of the Aunt Jemima caricature; I can just hear audiences of the time busting a gut at her lengthy, demeaning mugging. During Delilah’s death scene, we get a full chorus of the black servants in Bea’s employ singing a field hand lament from behind closed doors, and Beavers is never accorded the dignity of a close-up. We really never see her full face in a scene normally so important that Alla Nazimova rewrote the story of her Camille (1921) so that she could die without Rudolph Valentino’s character in attendance to pull focus from her.
The paradoxically realistic parts, however, are Delilah’s religious faith and Peola’s perception of how different her life would be if she hadn’t been born black. Peola persistently tries to pass for white throughout the film. Fredi Washington, a light-skinned African American, plays Peola as a young woman who hates the restrictions on her, yet Fredi, with those same restrictions, never denied her race; indeed, she refused to pass for white when the studio bosses wanted to build her up, and went on to form the Negro Actors Guild to expand opportunities for African-American actors and fight discrimination. Although her character disowns her mother and comes to regret it in two emotionally wrenching scenes, Peola’s feeling of being white, which I read to mean she knows she’s as good as everyone else, announces her as a member of a new generation, one that would eventually go on to fight and win the battle for civil rights.
Delilah’s attempts to get Peola to accept who she is arise from her deep faith. She believes God made folks black and white for a reason and that it is nobody’s place to question that decision. Beavers makes Delilah’s professions of faith so effortlessly sincere and idealistic that she manages to flesh out her character and provide some believable motivation for her acceptance of a second-class role in Bea’s household and business. When, in the end, she is given the grandest funeral New York has ever seen, the film brings into focus the success of Delilah’s lifelong goal—her glorious assumption to heaven. That Bea honors her wish to keep house and accedes to her decisions about her daughter, for example, suggesting Delilah send Peola to an all-black university in the South, may seem as though she is reinforcing the limitations on the black community. Yet I felt more camaraderie between her and Delilah, a shared fate as widows and mothers, than would be evident in the 1959 version. Perhaps the most famous moment of this inventively shot film, one in which both women go off to bed, Bea climbing the stairs of her mansion and Delilah descending into the below-stairs quarters, may be Stahl’s one statement about the inequality that all the characters but Peola accept as the natural order of things.
Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life is a different animal altogether. With a script much more layered and explicit with regard to the evils of the world, it poses a greater indictment of the relationship between Lora and Annie. At the same time, it indulges in its own stereotyping, offering either objectification or infantilization of the women in the film.
Right off the bat, Steve, a photographer, snaps Lora’s picture as she searches frantically for her missing daughter. He insinuates himself into her search, wheedles an “invitation” to her home by offering to hand-deliver a photo of Susie and Sarah Jane, and then assumes prerogatives over Lora that seek to control how she pursues her acting career—a far cry from the genteel Warren William who is willing to do anything Bea says. While Lora puts him in his place, as well as talent agent Allen Loomis (Robert Alda), who agrees to get her work in exchange for her “escort” services, the choice to make Lora an aspiring actress puts her squarely in the ’50s mold of objectifying women; while post-success Bea was certainly a glamorous figure, she herself was not characterized as an object. Using her intelligence as well as her feminine wiles to get started in business was made to seem admirable, whereas Lora’s outright lying about being a film star to get in to see Loomis seems tawdry.
Lora and Annie are nowhere near equal footing. Annie exchanges domestic duties for a place to live. She offers no secret recipe or services that could help Lora advance her career aside from answering the phone “Mrs. Meredith’s residence.” Although Lora only rents the apartment in which all of them live, it is clearly her home, not Annie’s. There doesn’t seem to be any real camaraderie between Annie and Lora—the bonding that developed when Delilah rubbed Bea’s tired feet has no real match in this film. There is one foot-rubbing scene between Lora and Annie late in the film that is fleeting and rather perfunctory, and the film takes pains to show that Lora barely knows anything about Annie. When Annie describes who she’d like to have come to her funeral, Lora says she had no idea Annie knew so many people; Annie’s reply is the gentle rebuke, “You never asked.” Therefore, while Annie has a much richer on-camera (or, at least, scripted) life in Sirk’s version, the “all in this together” ethos of Stahl’s Depression-era film is largely lost.
Sarah Jane’s character, beautifully played as a young woman by Susan Kohner, is much more blatant in her contempt for the place of African Americans in her world. When Lora finds out Sarah Jane has a boyfriend, she asks if he is “the Hawkins boy”—the black son of the chauffeur in a neighboring household. Sarah Jane is deeply offended, and later puts on a shuck-and-jive show when her mother asks her to bring a meal tray into Lora and her guests. Sirk expressly ensures that we understand why Sarah Jane wants to pass. When her white boyfriend finds out she is actually black, he asks her if it’s true that she’s a nigger, slaps her silly, and leaves her laying in a puddle in a dark alley. This scene is brutal, but tracks with the ambivalence shown by the white lover in Cassavetes’ Shadows, which also premiered in 1959, and the general unease of the white community toward the burgeoning civil rights movement. On a less generous note, Sarah Jane leaves home to find herself as a scantily clad showgirl, not the respectable store clerk Peola tries to be before Delilah and Bea track her down. The ’50s didn’t leave women who wanted to make their own way in the world many options, and call girls and actresses abound in films of this time.
Among the supporting characters in each film, I found the contrast between Rochelle Hudson and Sandra Dee, who plays the college-aged Susie, to be almost freakish. Hudson’s Jessie is young, but not unintelligent or lacking in social graces. She and Stephen keep company together while Bea is tied up with work or helping Delilah find Peola; despite their age difference, Jessie manages to be decent company for Stephen and seems justified in thinking she could be a good wife for him. Sandra Dee’s Susie is a blithering idiot who seems hopped up on amphetamines. It’s hard to believe Sirk couldn’t rein her super-fueled perkiness in, so I smell a bit of studio interference on this one to keep the controversial aspects of the story from infecting their virginal starlet.
Ned Sparks is a wonderfully comic presence as the general manager of Bea’s company who begged for some free pancakes at her restaurant and gave her the million-dollar idea to box the flour and sell it. By contrast, Robert Alda’s presence in Lora’s life is an insult. He practically rapes her, and yet later, she’s happy to have him represent her and get his 10 percent cut. Maybe this is a comeuppance for Lora, whose crime of neglecting Susie and Steve is pure ’50s sexism.
Finally, ’50s notions of where a woman’s place should be, as well as the era’s blatant racism get the final word. Annie’s funeral offers a thrilling performance by Mahalia Jackson singing “Trouble of the World,” but truncates Sarah Jane’s moment with her mother’s casket. In the end, Lora shepherds Sarah Jane into the mourners’ limo, as the camera lingers lovingly on Lana Turner throwing a meaningful look at Steve and Susie that signals family life has finally won out over self-actualization.
I recently had a discussion with Jason Bellamy at his marvelous blog The Cooler about the relative merits of the 1942 biopic The Pride of the Yankees. I dislike that film intensely as a slapdash piece of hagiography, yet Jason argues persuasively that the film was an important morale booster for an American public suffering under the privations and fear that came with our involvement in World War II. Showing the courage with which Lou Gehrig faced his physical decline and death must have helped the millions of filmgoers who were facing death overseas or coming to terms with the loss of their loved ones.
In a similar vein, the 1930s saw a number of filmmakers around the world deal head on with the effects of the Great Depression and the threat of German aggression by making politically charged “popular front” movies, endorsed, but not sponsored by the Communist Party. Popular front movies were characterized by a vigorously democratic approach, frequently dealing with the hardships of working-class life and the need to stand together to better our collective circumstances. Frank Borzage trained his camera on the unemployed in Man’s Castle (1933), and Leo McCarey combined the plight of unemployment and old age in the heartbreaking Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), while less serious-minded approaches to social problems could be found in Mervyn LeRoy’s Gold Diggers of 1933 and Louis Milestone’s Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933).
In France, filmmakers with socialist sensibilities attempted to stir the populace to fight both monied interests and fascism; the pinnacle of these films was, in my opinion, Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise (1938). Two years earlier, Renoir was mulling whether to direct La belle équipe, scripted by Charles Spaak, his collaborator on Grand Illusion (1937) and The Lower Depths (1936). In the end, Renoir’s friend Julien Duvivier took the reins. La belle équipe, which translates as the beautiful team, does indeed bring together a beautiful team of designers, cinematographer, and actors, led by the complex, charismatic performance of Jean Gabin, to tell a quintessential film of the popular front in Europe.
France’s revolutionary motto “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” finds its representatives in this film. Mario (Rafael Medina) represents the active revolutionary—a Spanish republican ejected from a number of countries who is one step ahead of the French authorities. He is in a serious relationship with Huguette (Micheline Cheirel), a piece worker in a dried flower factory whose name is redolent of religious persecution in France. Forced to abandon his hotel room to avoid the gendarmes who have been sniffing around, Mario arranges to meet Huguette at a bistro where their unemployed friends Jean (Jean Gabin), Raymond (Raymond Aimos), Charles (Charles Vanel), and Jacques (Charles Dorat) eat on the credit the proprietor (Charles Granvat) reluctantly extends. The friends sneak Mario into their one-room digs at the King of England, evading the badgering hotel manager (Jacques Baumer) for a time. Eventually, Mario is discovered, but as great luck would have it, the good news arrives that the men have won the national lottery and will split ₣100,000. The residents pour out of their rooms to celebrate and drink the cases of congratulatory wine Raymond has arranged.
Jacques talks of using his share to emigrate to Canada, Raymond wants to start a small machine shop in the country, but Jean suggests that if they pool their money, they could do more together than they could alone and still maintain their great camaraderie and friendship. He suggests they open a guinguette—an open-air café on a river to attract the boating crowd. The men row down a river a few miles outside of Paris, passing one grand home after another, as Raymond scoffs that such opulence is not fit for their proletarian spirit. Finally, they find a husk of a house, burned and for sale. Raymond imagines a castle tower, Jean sees an open-air dance floor, and before long, the men have purchased the derelict building and started working to transform it into “Chez Nous (Our Place),” a tribute to collective labor and shared rewards.
The lot of the working class and political progressive is aired, miraculously without making one feel terribly depressed. When Jacques falls for Huguette, he leaves for Canada rather than introduce disharmony into the enterprise. When the police catch up with Mario, the gendarme (Fernand Charpin) is a kind and sympathetic grandfather who gives Mario a day’s reprieve to attend the pre-opening party the men throw for all their friends from the old neighborhood, and even brings his grandchildren to enjoy the party. When Huguette decides to join Mario in exile, her sickly grandmother (Marcelle Géniat) offers her blessing and even finds the strength to waltz with Jean at the opening party. The generous esprit de corps of the working class that typifies popular front movies is well developed by the nuanced performances and warm and lively mise-en-scène Duvivier encourages.
The film is teeming with ingenious and pleasurable moments. Mario despairs of getting Huguette a gift for her birthday, but the friends have a solution. While one distracts the owner of the bistro, the others lift and tilt a skill claw crane machine to win items to give her. When she comes to the bistro, each holds out the prize they snagged—a clock, an eraser—with Mario presenting her with the present she hoped for, a make-up compact. The scene is innocent, funny, and perfectly timed to endear the audience to their attempts to please Huguette with a minor bit of larceny. Indeed, larceny is a fall-back position of the working class, but cheating a penny-arcade machine or avoiding the rent collector are seen as a way to balance the scale with the monied classes.
Another lovely scene involves the men rowing down the river and stopping at the burned property. Each of them gives himself over to Raymond’s reverie, walking through the shell and imagining what they could do with the place. It’s a leap-of-faith moment, as the building is in extremely rough condition, but each of the actors helps us see what he sees with enthusiasm and imagination. When the construction is threatened by a violent storm, and the roof starts to blow away, we are horror-stricken and then encouraging as the men climb up in the downpour and use their bodies to hold the tiles down through the night.
The most serious threat to the enterprise is femme fatale Gina (Viviane Romance), the estranged wife of Charles. Unlike the more vicious American femmes fatale, Gina is merely a greedy hedonist. She manipulates a still-smitten Charles into giving her part of his winnings—they are still married, she reminds him—and lures Jean into an affair when he goes to her Paris apartment to reclaim the money, needed to repair the damage done by the storm. Jealousy threatens to tear the comrades apart; both Charles and Jean find Gina irresistible, and she lies without compunction to get what she wants or to seek revenge. It is a bit disconcerting to hear Jean exclaim about fraternal friendship being the more noble and lasting bond, but there is something so quintessentially French about examining the folly of love that it’s hard to feel offended. It must also be acknowledged that the women in the film are not caricatures, with Huguette a real part of the team and Gina a strong, if negative, agent of her own life, refusing to let Jean shame her for posing for nude photographs.
My cousin, who has lived in Paris for many years, relayed some comments she heard about French detective films to me: “The difference between American films and French ones is that the American ones have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the end is usually happy. In the French film, things happen every which way, and we can’t really follow who’s doing what why. And someone almost always ends up dead.” While La belle équipe isn’t a detective film, someone does indeed end up dead. In fact, there is an alternate, tragic ending to the happy one of the print the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs delivered from France to the theater; reportedly, rather than having one or the other, French audiences usually see both endings in succession when the film is screened.
Remains of “Chez Nous” can still be found on the riverbank where it was constructed. Tourists occasionally visit it out of curiosity and to remind themselves of a traditional type of communal meeting place that has declined in France. For modern film audiences in any country, La belle équipe is a wonderful reminder that a popular front that offered courage and camaraderie to people bent by fear and poverty is part of our heritage, with pleasures and lessons for a new generation.
In the early decades of cinema, the line between family films and adult films was not as rigidly drawn as it is today. While filmmakers were as fond of sentimentalizing children then as we seem to be of marginalizing them now, the variety of roles children played was much more varied and nuanced. No Greater Glory, a true family film, delivers a potent message from one of the most antiwar filmmakers of all time, Frank Borzage.
Borzage was a genius at finding the humanity in any situation and rendering it as an eye-opening experience by burrowing into the effects of social forces on individuals. No Greater Glory has what seems to be a simple plot—two neighborhood clubs of boys, too innocent to call gangs, fighting over a vacant lot—but uses it to show us the warrior roles they have already internalized from their society and how playing soldier is preparing them for actual combat.
The Paul Street Boys and the rival Red Shirts both seek control of the only open lot, a lumberyard, in their part of bustling Budapest. The younger and smaller Paul Street Boys fear the Red Shirts, but after hearing their teacher give a gassy speech about what a great honor it is to fight and die for one’s country, the youngsters decide to organize to fight for their playground. The boys meet to elect a president: Boka (Jimmy Butler) wins easily over Gereb (Jackie Searl) and takes command of the clubhouse and its army of boys.
Ernö Nemecsek (George P. Breakston), because he is smaller than any of the other Paul Street Boys, is the only boy with the rank of private (“Every army has its privates, and you’re ours,” says Boka) and desperately wants to get a commission and wear an officer’s cap. When a small band of Red Shirts steals the club’s flag from atop their clubhouse, Boka agrees to take Nemecsek on a mission to retrieve it, which Nemecsek hopes will earn him a commission. Nemecsek braves every terror, including a fall into the river they must row down to reach the Red Shirts’ assembly and hiding in a freezing pond in the botanic garden where the Red Shirts hold their meetings, a frog croaking in his face. Failing to recapture their flag, they discover instead that Gereb has thrown in with the Red Shirts and bribed the lumberyard guard to eject the Paul Street Boys and let the Red Shirts take over.
Nemecsek catches a cold from the damp and defies his parents’ orders to stay home so that he can return to the garden and complete his mission to recapture the flag. He is discovered and repeatedly dunked in the river by the Red Shirts until their leader Feri Ats (Frankie Darro) calls his soldiers off. Feri Ats and Boka meet to discuss the rules of a war to decide the fate of the lot, while Nemecsek lies gravely ill with pneumonia. A feverish Nemecsek receives his captain’s commission and cap from Boka just before the grand battle, his only thought to get up and join his comrades in arms in defending their playground.
Borzage was one of the very few directors in Hollywood to deal with the plight of Jews in Europe in the lead-up to American involvement in World War II. No Greater Glory is based on the autobiographical book by Hungarian playwright and novelist Ferenc Molnár, a Jew who escaped Nazi persecution in the mid 1930s, and the screenplay was written by Jo Swerling, a Jew who fled persecution in Russia. While the religious affiliations of the characters in No Greater Glory are not revealed, it’s not hard to read between the lines: young Nemecsek’s father (Ralph Morgan) is an impoverished tailor who, in lieu of payment, offers to make a suit or topcoat for a dismissive physician who comes to examine his ailing son and writes him off as a goner. Nemecsek himself is the only private in the Paul Street Boys, that is, the only human private—the other is a dog—an allusion to the subhuman status of Jews among anti-Semites. His desperate need to belong is a typical desire for children, but the lowly rank he has been assigned emphasizes his outsider status in microcosm and poses a real danger to him on a macrocosmic level.
Nonetheless, the film doesn’t get carried away with its larger message. The boys retain their youthful attitudes and concerns as they enact their mock war with a thin veneer of solemnity, with boys missing drills because they have to go home for dinner and other real-world restraints on children. The boys’ war is ingeniously rendered, with the creation of sand bombs and traps to capture the invading Red Shirts offering full range to the children’s imagination and fun. Their martinet attitudes suggest those of the pre-World War I gentleman soldier (the book was published in 1908), defanging the war game just a bit and elevating it as a noble venture.
Of course, after the obscene slaughter of the Great War, it would be hard to ever again see militarism in the same rarified light. Borzage’s addition of elements that tout the evils of war is sometimes very clumsy; for example, he introduces an antiwar tone with a heavy-handed opening scene in which a wounded soldier cries out his anguish and opposition to fighting from a field hospital in World War I to contrast the immediate cut to the gung-ho schoolteacher indoctrinating his impressionable students on its virtues. Despite Borzage’s efforts, the trajectory of the film comes down harder on the side of noble sacrifice, as Nemecsek finds acceptance by lying to protect the traitor Gerek from his angry father, as well as putting his life in danger to help his comrades. Unavoidably, perhaps, the fallen soldier receives the kinds of honors he probably would not have achieved in life, perpetuating the idea that the least of us can attain glory by dying in a socially acceptable way.
Nonetheless, Borzage finds both ironic and emotionally powerful ways for us to understand the human costs of war. The title of the film comes from a quote that offers a full measure of irony to the film:
No greater glory can be handed down than to conquer the barbarian, to recall the savage and the pagan to civility, to draw the ignorant within the orbit of reason, and to fill with reverence for divinity the godless and the ungodly. —Richard Hakluyt, letter to Sir Walter Raleigh
Children are among those needing to be civilized, and the film shows that the barbarity of war is the instrument by which our supposedly civilized societies channel their reckless savagery. Yet the instinct of a parent’s love is brought forward as a truer expression of reverence. Both Ralph Morgan and Lois Wilson give very sensitive, heartfelt performances as Nemecsek’s parents, genuinely worried about their son, scolding him for his own good to stay in and nurse his cold. Morgan’s conflict between attending to a customer and staying with his sick boy is excruciatingly real, and Wilson’s tears strong enough to provoke unfettered grieving not only among the cast of boys, but also this audience member. Soldiers were all children once, and their loss in war is nothing to be proud of, but rather something to grieve as a waste of the tender care with which they were raised to do something wonderful in the world. It was a bitter pill for me to learn that Jimmy Butler, easily the best of the boy actors, would have his promising life cut short on a World War II battlefield in France two days shy of his 24th birthday.
The film has its flaws. Affecting camera work, such as an atmospheric nighttime scene of a marble game under a bridge and the truly interesting angles of the lumberyard action, mix with cheap back projection and a sped-up camera during the mock war, leading to an inconsistent look that tends to take one out of the picture. The mass scene of mourners at the end of the film seemed unnecessary and cheapened the genuine emotion of the previous scene for me. But the weakest link by far was George Breakston. He was, no doubt, told to act annoying to justify his second-class status with the Paul Street Boys, but Breakston just was not able to integrate his pleading dialogue and incessant attempts to whistle through his fingers as the natural actions of a fully developed character. I didn’t grieve for him because of intrinsic qualities Breakston brought out in Nemecsek, but rather because everyone around him was so good at eliciting emotions from me. Because Nemecsek is the main character, this flaw is not minor.
Nonetheless, No Greater Glory offers the kind of dignity to the plight of the young that makes it a stand-out family film. As our era offers little for children to consume but comic book and animated films that often seem more aimed toward the adults who must accompany their children to the movies, I unreservedly recommend No Greater Glory as a film truly fit for the whole family.
“In the beginning was the Word.” Atheist Elmer Rice, author of the play Counsellor at Law as well as its screenplay, disagreed with what the Bible said that word was, choosing instead to make all words his god. He made a successful career as a playwright and screenwriter, and was lucky enough to find his perfect director in William Wyler. A rarity among Hollywood directors, Wyler respected the words on the page and did little to shape them into an auteuristic vision. His self-described mission was to entertain and make a lot of money, a stance to filmmaking that sent his star plummeting from the skies when the mid-century French critics anointed a canon of auteurs that expressly excluded him.
The fact that Wyler was content to be a showman did not preclude him from having a few expressive tics that show themselves in Counsellor at Law, a stagebound film that nonetheless allowed him to showcase some truly dazzling dialog. Further, sharing a Jewish background with Rice allowed Wyler to coach the badly miscast patrician John Barrymore to a halfway believable performance as a Jewish lawyer whose Lower East Side roots make his marriage to a blueblood with two children a decidely lopsided alliance.
In common with many films of the day, Counsellor at Law has the fast pace and snappy humor of a screwball comedy. Switchboard operator/receptionist Bessie Green (Isabel Jewell) adopts a rat-a-tat, sing-song style to answer phone calls and greet clients that might have been less grating and more funny if it had been played with more of a Jewish spin to it. A controlled chaos within the office, underlined by Jewell’s manic delivery, conveys the rapid-fire business of the successful law practice of George Simon (Barrymore) and John Tedesco (Onslow Stevens). Two Italian clients wait for Tedesco, peppering the dialog with their native language. Several people want to see Mr. Simon, including Zedorah Chapman (Mayo Methot), whom Simon has just defended successfully in a murder trial; Sarah Becker (Malka Kornstein), a friend from the old neighborhood who wants Simon to defend her son Harry (director-to-be Vincent Sherman), who has been roughed up and arrested by the cops for making pro-Communist speeches; and Charlie McFadden (John Hammond Daily), a process server and investigator Simon rescued from a life of crime.
In one of his characteristic flourishes, Wyler teases the audience like another client waiting in line by keeping Simon out of sight; our lead-up to the “reveal” is Barrymore’s hands working the phones on his desk. When Barrymore finally appears, it seems designed to encourage applause, a frequent occurrence in the theatre when the big-name star makes his or her first entrance and a nod to the stage origins of the film. Over-the-shoulder shots with delayed reaction shots, a Wyler staple, also dot Counsellor at Law. The most effective one shows Harry standing, his fist clenched, when he hears Cora’s children disparage the working class. When we finally do see his beaten face wild with anger, Wyler switches to the children and moves slowly in on their frightened faces.
Among the clichés of the script is Simon’s hard-working, ultra-efficient secretary “Rexy” Gordon (Bebe Daniels), a beautiful, young woman whose unrequited love for her boss plays out in painful expressions every time she must interact with his snobbish wife Cora (Doris Kenyon) and her repeated rebuffs of law clerk Herbert Wineberg’s (Marvin Kline) too-frequent attempts to ask her out. Wineberg’s persistence is deeply annoying, but Daniels’ beautifully modulated distress and growing agitation make these scenes a somewhat harrowing experience.
Another cliché is Simon’s mother Lena (Clara Langsner), a patient, self-effacing Yiddishe mama who repeatedly answers “I’ve got all the time in the world” when she is kept waiting to see her son. Nonetheless, Wyler keeps Langsner from overdoing it or tipping over into melodrama when she tries to guilt Simon into helping his wastrel brother David out of yet another jam or offering a hurt look when she speaks with Cora and it becomes clear that she has not seen Cora’s children in some time. I got a delightful jolt when Barrymore called his brother a gonif (crook), a beautifully integrated Yiddish expression that almost made me forget Barrymore’s perfect British profile.
The disconnect between Barrymore’s appearance and his character was a serious handicap for me; indeed, I could have seen Melvyn Douglas, who played a rival for Cora’s affection, as a better choice to play George. Yet, Barrymore offered a kind of intensity that stayed kosher, and suggested the avarice of his profession without making it a stereotype of the grasping Jew. When he lathers over a potential $100,000 payday that would compromise a friend of his wife’s, his eyes could light half of Manhattan; however, like the doting Jewish husband, he lets the suit go to please Cora.
George has blinded himself to his real position in his family—Cora’s children from a previous marriage, Dorothy (Barbara Perry) and Richard Dwight (future director Richard Quine), disdain George and proudly declare their father is in Washington, DC, yet George persists in calling himself their father. When he learns that Cora is abandoning him, his despair goes a bit too big, but Wyler achieved the appropriate somberness by keeping Barrymore in the shadows and having Daniels interrupt his intended leap out a window in a very quick scene that doesn’t allow for too much mugging for the camera.
Many small comic moments brighten the film. For example, when the adults who see Dorothy and Richard unfailingly exclaim, “my, how you’ve grown,” or words to that effect, not only does young Richard predict their comments, but he also adds, “What do they expect us to do? Get smaller?” Wise-cracking Bessie insults an inattentive boyfriend with, “Sure I missed you—like Booth missed Lincoln.” Middle-aged, ample secretary Goldie Rindskopf (Angela Jacobs) moves languidly through the office, her broad beam a vision of delight for the two Italians and a thoroughly refreshing, if superficial look at the sex appeal of an older woman.
Rice studied and practiced law for a short while, and his jaundiced view of the profession, from the emotional tricks and fake alibis that help lawyers get criminals acquitted, to the lobbying on behalf of big business and the flexible fees to cover losses, gets a full airing in the actions of George Simon. Class conflict is also well represented in the scenario, but anti-Semitism is only vaguely alluded to. Rice had seen the rise of the Nazis during a trip to Germany in 1932, but with only a few exceptions—most notably, the films of Frank Borzage—the studios stayed far away from the impending calamity; Counsellor at Law is no exception. Nonetheless, George Simon remains a fairly sympathetic character, and the subtext of presumed Aryan superiority represented by Cora and her set gives this film the kind of meat a thorough professional like Wyler could sink his teeth into.
Directors: Howard Hughes, James Whale, Edmund Goulding
By Roderick Heath
Few movie productions can be described as legendary events, but the making of Hell’s Angels has surely achieved that status. This mythologising reached its zenith with Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), which documented the extraordinary dash and cash expended on Howard Hughes’ would-be blockbuster. If one takes the modern concept of the blockbuster as a form that tries to dazzle an audience by constantly pushing its expectations for spectacle on screen, then Hell’s Angels is 1930’s equivalent of Star Wars (1977), Avatar (2009), and The Avengers (2012) wrapped up in one. Discounting early works like Intolerance (1916) where nobody really knew how much was spent on them, Hell’s Angels set a record for expense that took nearly 20 years to break, and it was released in the midst of the Great Depression, when Hollywood was starting to be more aware and wary of its profligate tendencies. Yet Hell’s Angels eventually piled up nearly $18 million at the box office and made Jean Harlow a movie star. All in all, not bad for an independent film. Hughes was, at the time, little more than a clever rich kid bedazzled by planes and movies, seeking to combine those two obsessions into one massive project. He poured his personal gusto and finances into a labour of love that took four years to complete, saw him wield the largest private air force in the world to make his vision come true, and resulted in the deaths of four airmen.
As that death toll alarmingly suggests, for anyone with admiration for the time when moviemaking meant really doing death-defying stuff, Hell’s Angels is still a rousing, hair-raising experience, yet the film itself has been largely neglected, even dismissed. Perhaps, such treatment suggests that’s one other thing it has in common with the modern blockbuster: grandiose spectacle allied to inconsequential drama. That’s not true, or at least not entirely. Yes, the basic plot of Hell’s Angels is pretty hackneyed: two brothers, one girl, war enough for all. As prejudicial as it sounds, Michael Bay’s awful Pearl Harbor (2001) can in some ways be described as its remake. But Hell’s Angels has, like many early talkies, an eccentric energy and an elastic and lawless sense of the new cinema on top of Hughes’ untrammelled creative vision that marks it as nearly sui generis, an exemplar from the time before Hollywood had firmly fashioned new templates and moulds for sound-era cinema.
The basic plot is just that, a framework around which the filmmakers weave a strangely antiheroic, erotically provocative, and morally open-ended drama, one that delves as insidiously and unremittingly into the notion of the Great War as a cultish auto-da-fé as many more self-consciously arty attempts. It definitely belongs in the front line, with The Big Parade (1926) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), of the era’s WWI dramas. Still, Hughes was no actor’s director, and to handle the dramatic portions of the film, he went through three directors, including two truly talented helmsmen on the rise in Hollywood. Edmund Goulding, who was to become MGM’s reputed lion tamer of star egos, moved in after Marshall Neilan took an early powder. When Hughes decided to reshoot most of the film as a talkie, and Goulding had moved on, he hired British war veteran James Whale, then still largely unknown except for having directed the stage play Journey’s End. Whale only finished up with a credit for having “staged” the dialogue by Joseph Moncure March, who retrofitted Harry Behn and Howard Estabrook’s original scenario. Whale’s touch is, however, apparent throughout Hell’s Angels, in the eccentric scene shaping, the increasingly neurotic mood that permeates the drama, a greater interest in character behaviour than dramatic beats, and an intuitively engaged attempt to reconcile the theatrical settings he was used to with new cinematic freedoms, an intuition that would reach florid heights in the likes of Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1932).
In the end, this was certainly Hughes’ baby, and it stands far above most of Hughes’ oeuvre: unlike The Outlaw (1943) and his big ’50s productions, Hell’s Angels isn’t chiefly a showman’s stunt, but a true attempt to make the biggest, boldest, and best movie he could. Scorsese wasn’t the only filmmaker impressed: Stanley Kubrick considered it one of his favourites, and elements of its ironic mix of antiwar saga and character drama with pervasive sexuality might have had an influence on Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), where, as in Hell’s Angels, that death-cult quality of war culminates in an act of self-sacrifice that result in mutual annihilation. The film also looks forward to attempts to paint war as a condition in which characters eddy in islets of frantic behaviour, like Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) or Phil Karlson’s Hell to Eternity(1960), in the face of impending death. Hughes’ film certainly displays a fascinating approach to the action-adventure tale that forms its heart in that he’s not out to simply wow the audience with bravura flimflam, but also to evoke a vision of warfare that is at once exhilarating and gruelling.
Hell’s Angels follows a familiar arc in tracing three young men, friends at Oxford, and their fates in the coming struggle. It opens in Germany just before the war, where German Karl Armstedt (John Darrow) is spending break with his English friends, brothers Monte (Ben Lyon) and Roy Rutledge (James Hall). Libidinous and variably honourable, the young men are up to the usual business of young men, and Monte passes on a German girl he’s picked up onto a bemused Karl so he can pursue classier game: Monte, the quintessential lover not a fighter, is caught in flagrante delicto with the Baroness Von Kranz (Jane Winton) by her husband the Baron (Lucien Prival), a peerless Prussian officer who, with coolly humorous dignity, presents Monte with his card to arrange the necessary satisfaction. Monte, having no intention of risking death in such a fashion, packs his bags and flees the country, but Roy, who trails clanging old-fashioned qualities like cans on string, poses as his brother for the Baron’s friends, fronts up to the dawn duel in a strikingly geometric, expressionistic scene, and cops a bullet in the arm. When the young trio are reunited at Oxford, news of the outbreak of the war on the continent sends Karl into an episode of anguish whilst Monte ignores it entirely. Karl leaves soon enough for his homeland. Roy quickly joins up, an act Monte, who maintains an ethical as well as personality-dictated pacifism, initially spurns. But he’s soon roped in by the promise of a kiss from a girl (rising starlet Marian Marsh) at a Royal Flying Corps recruiting station.
Undergraduate hijinks give way to the initially, collectively invigorating new reality, as Roy and Monte finish up as trainee pilots together, whilst society reorganises itself according to the new exigencies of war. Roy is head over heels in love with the upper-crust proto-flapper Helen (Harlow), the daughter of Lady Randolph (Evelyn Hall). Monte avoids meeting his brother’s object of fancy on the assumption she’ll be someone as drably upright as him. Roy is roped in to helping organise a ball Lady Randolph gives for departing servicemen and the girls, including Helen, who are joining the canteen service she’s sponsoring. The ball, filmed in a two-colour process, is an interlude of ebullient fin-de-siecle romanticism where Helen and her various boy-toys flit in and out of the shadowy garden like Shakespearean nymphs before a fall. Of course, the moment Monte claps eyes on Helen, sparks fly, to the point where they absent themselves from the party for a tryst in Helen’s apartment. Cue Harlow’s contribution to the language, “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?” as Monte is startled to find her someone who surpasses himself in libertine indulgence. An elided sex scene later, Monte is immediately stricken with self-disgust for betraying his brother, who idolises Helen: he sparks Helen’s catty wrath, and he tries to warn Roy that Helen isn’t the girl he’s romanticising, but Roy will need more direct evidence.
Helen embodies the shattering of apparent faiths that becomes the leitmotif of Hell’s Angels, as she refuses to play the beauteous embodiment of femininity to be defended, and rather treats the war as a smorgasbord of attractive masculinity just as the lads acted in peace time, an act that is consciously equated with the way the men use themselves up in the interests of systems that have no apparent interest in them. Early in the film, Monte watches as a radical preaches against the war, shouting “Down with capitalism! Down with war!”, only to be assaulted by the crowd; Monte’s bemused disquiet at the scene prefigures his own mounting misgivings about the great adventure. It’s fascinating to see Hughes, who finished up as the American Right’s ogrish caricature of its own paranoias, playing at radical chic in places throughout this film, which encompasses some of the popular anger of the postwar period against war profiteers and manipulative official rhetoric. Rather, war becomes a kind of heroic-sentimental religion of sacrifice, a note that reaches an apotheosis in one specific scene. Monte, as the only one who senses this and becomes almost schizoid in his simultaneous wish to prove his mettle whilst his good sense says run away, whittles him down, and he emerges a tragic antihero. Roy continues to live in a bubble of romantic certainties, whilst Monte, at once cynical and too aware of the underlying reality, is unable to maintain a stoic front and devolves into wild swings between tremulous anxiety and stony, maniacal bravado.
Made before the war film had become a programmatic genre, and indeed probably contributing many clichés-to-be to its lexicon, Hell’s Angels, like others from the spurt of WWI epics of its time, tries to encompass war as an entire social experience, not focusing merely on individuals in combat, but also on the jarring shift from civilian mores to military ones, and trying to summarise aspects of the milieu’s ethos and tragedy. To that end, Hughes and Whale offer a sprawl of discursive yet organic observation, in illustrative vignettes like the kiss that catches Monte in a moment of very Chaplinesque character comedy and the hectic group shots that punctuate it, from scenes of Germans eating and drinking and the giddy young Oxfordians, to the carousing soldiers that sprawl with Hogarthian humanity. Such shots, essayed with a technically impressive depth of field, try to give the film a constant, recurring contrast between the business of life in communities, endlessly rich, and the ruthlessness of the warfare.
There are almost essayistic excursions detailing the machinery of war—not just its technology, but its intricacies, from men receiving their uniforms to the arts of trying to catch zeppelins, parliamentarians announcing the war, power workers rushing to shut off the lights of London during a bombing raid, and shots exploring the workings of aircraft engines with a precise and fetishistic ebullience. Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive engineer’s sense of synergistic detail is here, albeit influenced thoroughly by the more sophisticated filmmakers of the ’20s, with hints of Vidor, Eisenstein, and Dziga Vertov evident. Hell’s Angels is technically superlative and brilliantly shot, the film’s one Oscar nomination having been for Tony Gaudio and Harry Perry’s cinematography and, as with many early sound films, the lack of nondiagetic music except at the credits is noticeable in the way one can sense the filmmakers not leaning on it to sustain and punctuate scenes. Instead, they unfold the story with a mixture of the theatrical and the naturalistic, which is perhaps one reason why I find a lot of movies from the period perversely more modern than much of what was made 10 or 20 years later. In a touch that notably captures the conventions of cinema changing from the silent to sound era, rather than subtitles or, as would usually be the practise until the ’70s, just having the German characters speak accented English to each other, silent-style title cards are used to translate their conversations. Hell’s Angels is also a quintessential pre-Code film, as good old-fashioned cursing and flickers of adult sexuality make it through where the later, much finer mesh of the Hays Office would have caught them—not that Hughes stopped trying to get one over on them.
Most importantly, it’s the lack of artifice Hughes wanted and achieved that makes Hell’s Angels a spellbinding show. Whilst one major set-piece involves model work, that work is remarkably good, the climax involves colossal acts of set destruction and dazzling aerial feats. Hughes shows his cast clearly braving the skies for stunts free of back projection and other tricks, heightening the sensation of real danger these sequences project. Whilst the drama of Hell’s Angels isn’t the peripheral distraction it’s often painted, this movie is, of course, chiefly an almighty action film, and it really catches fire in the first major set-piece action sequence, as a zeppelin mounts a bombing raid on London. Here, Hughes is attentive to a duel of war technique, as the airship lowers a man in a cockpit down through the clouds to spot where bombs should be dropped, whilst opponents on the ground listen with amplifying equipment for the sounds of the airship’s engines. Of course, the spotter for the zeppelin is Karl, turning his intimate knowledge of the city to use at the encouragement of the ship’s memorably intense, scar-faced Captain (Carl von Haartman), or at least he’s supposed to be. Queasy at the thought of bombing the city he loves, he instead misdirects the Captain to release his payload into a lake, the eruptions boiling and flashing under the water with a strange, alchemic beauty. News that an RFC squadron, including Roy and Monte, is chasing the zeppelin forces the Captain, in his need to gain altitude rapidly and desperation to keep the airship out of British hands, to lighten the ship by the most expeditious means available. His crew thus begin hurling themselves overboard in a consummation of perverse nationalistic liebestod. Not only that, but with Karl still dangling on his slowly lifting cockpit, the Captain orders the cable cut. The crewman who brings to bear a massive pair of chain cutters wimps out, so the Captain, declaring “Für Kaiser und Vaterland!”, does the job himself, and Karl plunges like a stone to his death. So much for him and the Fatherland.
As the RFC planes catch the zeppelin, Roy and Monte’s aircraft is damaged, forcing them to make a crash landing whilst the others continue the chase. The German gunners manage to beat off most of the attackers, the zeppelin’s titanic bulk gliding darkly through the eerily boiling nocturnal clouds, and the airplanes weave and dodge around it as they uselessly pepper it with bullets. But patriotic fanaticism meets its match as one of the British flyers, determined to bring the prey down, performs a suicidal dive from high above, and the exploding leviathan plunges to earth, nearly crushing Roy and Monte as they flee their plane’s wreckage. For most films, such a bravura sequence would be the climax, and the quality of special effects on display here is as high as anything Hollywood would see in the next 40 years. My earlier reference to Star Wars wasn’t entirely glib: it’s difficult to watch this scene and not recognise its conceptual influence, whether direct or as distant root, on the Death Star assault that climaxed Lucas’ film. Hell’s Angels shifts focus after an intermission to the Western Front, with the kind of stoic camaraderie that Hemingway was famous for projecting onto postwar civilian life, and which Whale’s stage work Journey’s End had also detailed is the norm. Monte, eaten up, unleashes his angry, sullen, hysterical feelings in a tirade against that code of grace under pressure, an explosion of rhetorical feeling that’s as excruciatingly exposed as a goldfish flapping on the carpet.
Harlow, still a teenager possessing a slightly baby-faced, but defined predatory power, became the star with her speciality for playing vixenish blondes, but she was obviously still learning, and some of the other performances, including the inert Darrow, are unspectacular. Lyons is very much the driving human element in a theatrical but often volubly urgent fashion: moving from the slightly flaky rake of the early scenes to his blistering tirade in the flyers’ mess, he pulls off the mad swings between cool determination, sozzled disinterest, and crumbling character. As stock as the situations are, Hughes and Whale let their actors play them out with a conscious resistance to melodramatic emphases: when Roy discovers that Helen isn’t the woman he thought she was, there’s no subsequent revelation why Monte already knew that. Monte simply drags his brother away and helps him drown his sorrows with clingy French courtesans.
Roy and Monte happen upon Helen making out with drunken abandon with a moustachioed officer in a moment of surprising carnality. When Monte subsequently wants to shirk their duty, his brother at first acquiesces, and finally drunkenly reminds Monte that they’ll be shot if they don’t turn up. They venture into battle sozzled and depressed, a vision of official heroism as adjunct to personal, existential crisis. The actual mission the brothers set off on is a virtual suicide jaunt to bomb a German arms depot as a prelude to a big push that might work with the ammunition supply suddenly curtailed. The duo are given a captured German Gotha bomber, with all the speed and manoeuvrability in the air of a flying whale, to penetrate enemy air space, and in an truly epic piece of bad luck, drop their bombs that destroy the enemy depot just as Von Richthofen (Wilhelm von Brincken) and his Flying Circus are flying by.
What follows is an amazing piece of cinema, both in concept and execution, as the German pilots circle the bomber tauntingly, a frantic Monte battling them off as Roy tries to drive the cumbersome machine toward their oncoming friends in their squadron: the fighters run interference as the bomber tries to make it to the end-zone, and Roy and Monte’s likably eccentric squadron pal Baldy Maloney (Roy Wilson) does desperate battle with a German lieutenant, Von Bruen (Frank Clarke), who fixes upon the bomber. When the two sides collide (some literally), all hell breaks loose in a sequence that resembles the eye-popping drive of modern special-effects cinema without special effects, but it still runs on the same sense of quicksilver, observant detail as other parts of the film: a pilot takes a quick nip of courage from a secreted bottle as he’s being chased down, another waves farewell to the man who just shot him, and shots that present with surgical detail bullets tearing motors and men apart. Hughes’ constant use of cameras mounted in the nose of the aircraft makes it a relentlessly experiential affair, as the dying pilots spit blood or cry in agony as their planes spiral madly to earth, sun and sky turning into abstract maelstroms. In cumulative effect, it’s less a standard action sequence than a scene squarely in a tradition of the opening of Saving Private Ryan (1998), trying to both thrill and horrify in accounting war as a fundamental process of intimate destruction. Hughes’ approach is made all the more intense by the lack of trick photography, and the obvious guts of the men doing this stuff. Pilots are riddled with bullets, roasted alive, and plunge pell-mell into the earth, including one jaw-dropping stunt Hughes finished up doing himself because none of the other pilots, many of whom were real veterans of the war’s aerial battles, would dare it; Hughes ended up crashing, receiving only minor injuries. Finally, Baldy manages to best the German pursuing his comrades, only for Von Richthofen, circling with Olympian interest in the contest, to swoop in and finish the bomber off.
The finale offers one of those wickedly intense moral quandaries that often arise in the war movie, as Roy and Monte, taken captive by the Germans, are faced with being shot quickly unless they spill the beans about where the upcoming attack will fall: for a final fateful joke, their interrogator proves to be Baron Von Kranz, who suggests the far less romanticised, more serpentine and aggressively purposeful twin to the humane Prussian Junker Erich Von Stroheim would later play in La Grande Illusion (1937). Monte, unable to cope with the fear of death, wants to spill the beans, so Roy cleverly manipulates Von Kranz into giving him a gun to kill Monte to cover up his own intended treachery. Considering how much of the film has equated war with sex and fidelity, both adventure and trial by combat, it finally segues into equating it with acts of familial loyalty. The story resolves in the gruesome spectacle of Roy shooting his brother in the back in what is finally more a mercy killing—Monte is happy he’s been saved from his own worst impulse—than fratricide, and the act of brotherly love is equated with what the two finally extract from their sacrifice, the chance for their brothers in arms to avoid being slaughtered. A final glimpse of victory partly mediates the bleakly deadpan shot of a depressed and sourly acquiescent Von Kranz, in his office, listening as Roy is marched out to meet his own deliverance, having proven that his own values were worth something, at the highest possible personal price. Over 80 years later, Hell’s Angels remains visceral, thrilling, and damn entertaining.