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.
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.
“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.
Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film
Director: John M. Stahl
Debut film of: Margaret Sullavan, actress
By Marilyn Ferdinand
According to actress Louise Brooks, Margaret Sullavan remains “mysterious… like a voice singing in the snow.” While this description may itself seem a bit inscrutable, if you think about how snow refracts and muffles sound, then there certainly is something to this comparison. Margaret Sullavan was an actress who made only 16 films, almost all of them hard to find and view. She might be entirely forgotten today if not for her starring role in the only recognized classic she made, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940). Yet it wasn’t really the paucity of performances and the obscurity into which most of them fell that made Margaret Sullavan an actress who was hard to pin down. She had a presence that seemed to hold dark, tragic secrets, an old soul who seemed mature beyond her years, even in her screen debut. Indeed, Only Yesterday began a string of screen deaths to which Margaret Sullavan would bring her special brand of stoic poignancy.
The story begins on October 29, 1929—the day that marked the end of the Roaring 20s and the beginning of the Great Depression. Frantic traders milling at the New York Stock Exchange share their collective misery as their fortunes crumble around them. One dejected man moves as though bent by a strong wind; he is persuaded by an eager worker to climb up on his shoeshine stand. Before his shine is finished, the man rises, gives the fellow some money, goes into a nearby men’s room, and blows his brains out.
In the next scene, we see a gay couple under a shop sign, the slyly named Deux Freres (Two Brothers), catching a taxi to attend one of the nearly daily soirees held at the home of society doyenne Phyllis Emerson (Benita Hume). The stock market crash is the talk of the evening, but it doesn’t supplant the usual intrigues. Phyllis cozies up to her lover, who wants her to leave her husband Jim (John Boles); Phyllis would rather play games with Jim’s latest lover Letitia (Noel Francis), who has just arrived at the party and is flashing the “famous” pearls Jim has not so discreetly bestowed upon her. Phyllis admires the pearls and then tells Letitia to be sure to pay for them—a great line that leaves Letitia nonplussed.
Jim arrives home and puts off the guests who seek his financial help. The Emersons are wiped out, too, and Jim sneaks off to his study, where he prepares to end it all as well. He sits down at his desk, pulls a gun out of one of its drawers, lights a cigarette, and goes through his mail. One letter catches his eye, and he opens it. Inside is the story of a woman who knew Jim long ago. The film moves into full flashback as we follow the story told by the letter writer, Mary Lane (Sullavan).
The flashback takes us from the Emersons’ sophisticated New York party to a much more quaint affair—a ball given by a good Virginia family for soldiers about to muster out to fight in the First World War. Mary Lane, just 18, flirts outrageously with Captain James Stanton Emerson, flippantly remarking that she has been in love with him for years. When he asks her to dance, we see from her looks and the way she holds him that this flip remark is absolutely true. The pair leaves the ballroom and goes for a walk in the formal garden. They disappear under a leafy canopy; when they return, Jim is helping Mary refasten her sash. The party’s over, not only for the guests at the ball, but also for Jim. Mary is the last thing on his mind when he musters out a couple of days later. Soon, Mary learns she is pregnant and elects to move in with her suffragette Aunt Julia (Billie Burke) in New York to spare her family embarrassment. She eagerly awaits the end of the war, when Jim will return to her and little Jimmy, the son she bears in his absence.
The end of the war and return of the troops have all of New York out in the streets to welcome them home. Mary works through the crowds, trying to catch sight of Jim, and then running the gantlet of well wishers to reach him as he leaves the parade to join Phyllis and some friends. The series of screen caps below wordlessly tell the story as Sullavan embodies Mary’s quiet excitement, and even quieter disappointment and hurt, as Jim looks her square in the face and fails to recognize her. Once at home, she yields to her broken heart and dreams, then forthrightly faces the reality of her life now as an single mother with little hope of uniting with her baby’s father.
The director, continuing to use devices like the calendar to place the characters in time, shows Julia perusing a newspaper whose headline indicates that the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) has been passed. That makes the year 1919, only a few months after the troops returned following the 1918 Armistice, and in that time, Mary has made no attempt to contact Jim. That day, however, Mary tells Julia she intends to end her torment and tell Jim who she is. Too late. The newspaper serves a plot-related purpose as well—Aunt Julia shows Mary the Emersons’ wedding announcement in that same paper. (It would have been fitting to have another newspaper announce the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the vote, because Mary becomes the epitome of the modern woman—an unwed mother supporting her child by becoming a success in business. Alas, the film’s greater interest in Mary’s private life counts as a missed opportunity, even though forward-thinking Julia and a suitor of Mary’s look at her unwed motherhood as something that “just happened.”)
The final meeting between Mary and Jim occurs again at a party—New Year’s Eve at the St. Regis Hotel. Mary and her date are out with Julia and her younger husband. Jim passes behind them and joins his party at a nearby table. Mary is happy and carefree until she notices Jim. He mistakes her stares for flirtation—it’s clear to the audience in this scene and the one that follows in which Jim and Mary take a taxi to his bachelor pad that Mary is very angry. Her every word is a veiled recrimination against a man too superficial and careless with the feelings of an 18 year old—a time when first love can mean everlasting love—to remember a night that meant the world to her. Again, Sullavan’s understated emotions simmering with indignation allow us to understand her as Jim never could have and make her obsessiveness through the years—a telegram every December 31 to Jim from “One Who Does Not Forget”—a bit easier to take.
This ability to act both text and subtext believably would serve Sullavan extremely well in The Shop Around the Corner, where her Miss Novak maintains a prickly, insulting demeanor with her coworker Mr. Kralik (James Stewart) while melting with genuine admiration and affection at the letters this same coworker—obviously a completely different man to her—sends her pseudononymously. However, in playing Miss Novak, it is Sullavan this time who is blind, who reacts to circumstances as they occur, just as Jim Emerson had. Yet, Sullavan’s ability to suggest emotion with the slightest of gestures—for example, the sight of her hand (shot from the rear of a bank of mailboxes) reaching into her mailbox, feeling around her cubbyhole thoroughly for an expected letter from “Dear Friend,” and then shrinking slightly and slowly sinking in disappointment to the bottom of the cubby—always allows audiences to identify with the woman beneath the prickly or stoic exterior.
Sullavan’s first performance is slightly mannered; even though she really was a Virginia belle, her giggly girlishness at the beginning of the film seems somewhat put on. Her deathbed scene in Only Yesterday is a bit of a wallowfest, but she’d soon learn to tame that tendency. In two other films of hers I’ve seen, The Mortal Storm (1940) and Cry Havoc (1943), she uses her emotional containment to embody bravery during wartime; she goes to her death in each of these films with the same clear-eyed realism tinged with emotional idealism with which she started her film career. Thus, remarkably, Sullavan’s screen persona seems pretty close to fully formed in Only Yesterday, elevating what could have been an ordinary melodrama (reproduced by Max Ophüls in his more sudsy 1946 film Letter from an Unknown Woman) to a memorable debut picture.
Dan Callahan provides an excellent review of Margaret Sullavan’s career in the August 2005 edition of Bright Lights Film Journal.
“Men trusted her with their loves, but not with their lives…”
In my travels around the classic film blogosphere, the name “Kay Francis” makes a mighty roar. It comes up so frequently among classic film buffs that I had to wonder what was wrong with me that I had never heard of her or even seen one of her pictures. Delving a little deeper, I found out that she was in Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise. As a big Lubitsch fan, I wondered why I hadn’t seen that film or registered her connection with him. I should have made Trouble in Paradise my introduction to Kay Francis, but instead, the first film I laid my hands on was a lesser work, Mary Stevens, M.D. Serendipity, I suppose, that this late pre-Code film also costars Greg Ferrara’s fave rave Glenda Farrell. He’s got a picture of Farrell holding a cat at the top of the right rail on his blog and greatly admires (as do I) her performance in another 1933 film, Mystery of the Wax Museum. So this one’s for all the legions of Kay Francis fans and for you, Greg.
The film opens to immediate action. A medical dispatcher takes an emergency call and hops in the ambulance with the doctor on call. When they arrive, an Italian immigrant named (whatta ya know?) Tony (Harold Huber) is hysterical with worry. When he sees that the doctor answering the call is a woman—our girl Mary Stevens (Kay Francis)—he refuses to let her near his wife. She asks him what’s wrong with his wife, and he says she’s going to have a baby. “Is that all?” she replies. He becomes incensed, saying that they lost another baby during delivery. He pulls out a cheese knife that looks more like a machete and tells her he will kill her if anything goes wrong. Her assistant Pete (George Cooper), worried about Tony, calls the police. By the time the baby arrives, the entire neighborhood is roused and the stairwell to Tony’s apartment filled with cops. Just another day in Little Italy. Just the kind of thing you’d expect to happen around a lady doctor.
Despite this first taste of prejudice, Mary graduates medical school with her childhood friend Don Andrews (Lyle Talbot), whom Mary considers her boyfriend. They open a practice together, he as a GP and she as a pediatrician. Glenda Carroll (Glenda Farrell) becomes their wise-to-the-world nurse. Business is slow for Don and slower for Mary. One night, Don breaks a date with Mary, making some poor excuse. He has met a glamour girl, the symbolically named Lois Rising (Thelma Todd), and falls in love with her and her well-connected father (Charles Wilson). Mary is downcast to hear that Don is going to marry Lois, but wishes him well. When Don’s father-in-law gets him a patronage job as head of the workers compensation office, Don invites Mary to take an office across from his in a location where she can get more than charity cases. She accepts and brings Glenda along.
Mary’s practice grows, but she still pines for Don, who has begun drinking because he is dissatisfied with both his phone-in job and his marriage. Mary, struggling to forget Don, takes off for a vacation. Don, who, with his political sponsors in government, is under suspicion for fraud, is told to leave town for a while. He and Mary end up going to the same place and eventually confessing their love for each other. Don says Lois wants a divorce as much as he does; Mary, reassured, spends the night with Don and makes plans for a future with him. In the morning, Don learns that he’s in the clear and feels free to quit his job and go back to practicing medicine the way he intended to.
Lois’ father gets wind of the pending divorce and forbids Lois to go to Reno, saying it will look suspicious if Don suddenly quits the Rising operation. Lois feigns pregnancy. Meanwhile, Mary really is pregnant. She arranges to go to Europe, where she will adopt her own baby, and then there will be no scandal. On her return with Glenda and baby Don, an outbreak of infantile paralysis (polio) is detected on board their ship. A race to get serum to the afflicted children in time gets underway, but tragedy waits in the wings.
This film may sound a bit melodramatic—and the trailer won’t disabuse anyone of that impression—but it actually deals with social problems in a fairly realistic way. Like all women’s films, Mary Stevens, M.D. has a heroine facing challenges in her life. The unwillingness of patients to accept her as their doctor, the scourge of polio and infant mortality among the immigrant classes, the difficulties faced by unwed mothers, and the perception that professional women are dowdy and masculine (helped along by the very unglamorous look Francis is given in the beginning of the film) were real obstacles.
On the other hand, the film’s indulgence in ethnic stereotypes, from Tony to a Jewish mother and her nebbish son, are a bit hard on the nerves. Mary transforms from ugly duckling to swan when she is with Don in their little hideaway, and her clothes conveniently start to fall dangerously low on her shoulders. Indeed, in the scene before Mary goes to Don’s room for their night of love—and there is no mistake about what they are up to—Francis has a top of some kind under her robe. When she shows up in Don’s room, the top is conspicuously missing.
Kay Francis is not only a beautiful and charismatic actress, but also a very good one. She brings so much nuance to her characterization of Mary, a woman trying to have it all in 1933! The pre-Code aspects of this film are important to that characterization, because we can see Mary as a sexual being without the lurid attractions of other pre-Code films. While her unwed mother isn’t quite as realistic as Margaret Sullavan’s in another 1933 film, Only Yesterday, it does show that audiences didn’t used to be cowards about the facts of life.
Lyle Talbot isn’t bad as Francis’ love interest, but he’s less able to make hay out of a somewhat sketchy role. Glenda Farrell is a little too wisecracking in this film for my tastes—an annoying characteristic of sidekicks through the ages—but she shows herself to be a solid friend and warms her Glenda up very nicely as the film progresses. In general, she’s a delight to watch. I also liked Thelma Todd in a small, but snappy role. Lloyd Bacon, the director of such fine films as Footlight Parade, Larceny, Inc., and Brother Orchid, kept a firm grip on the more hammy portions of the script and somehow made this 72-minute film seem very full.
Mary Stevens, M.D. is a solid women’s film from an era in which women were allowed to be real human beings on the silver screen. I hope we can see a resurgence of great leading ladies who, in their prime career years, are allowed to be mature women as well.
Before Jeanette MacDonald paired up with Nelson Eddy to define boring, sexless romance on the big screen, she made several films with that prototype of French bon vivants Maurice Chevalier. Most of these films were made with the fabled touch of director Ernst Lubitsch; the final mating of this threesome, capped by the great operetta compositions of Franz Lehar, is the most sublime of them all—The Merry Widow (1934). Somewhere in the middle, Rouben Mamoulian, whose knockout debut as a director was the melodrama Applause (1929), was given his chance with these appealing stars and fashioned one of their stock stories of an aristocratic woman and her common courter. While Mamoulian falls short of the waltzlike grace and romantic sensuality of Lubitsch, his comedic moments more than make up for it.
The famous opening scene gives a panoramic view of the Paris skyline and then moves in to listen to the rhythms by which the city wakes up—a woman beating a rug, some men cobbling shoes together, smoke stacks churning, and so forth. Finally, the camera moves to Maurice Courtelin (Chevalier), a Parisian tailor readying for his day while singing of the noise of Paris in “That’s the Song of Paree,” the first of several delightful—and some memorable—songs by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers.
Maurice reaches his shop as his fellow shopkeeper Pierre (George Davis) comes by to pick up the tuxedo Maurice has made for his wedding. Pierre forces a 2,000-franc fee on the reluctant Maurice, who prefers to give him the suit as a wedding gift. As Pierre goes off to try it on, Maurice welcomes the Viscount Gilbert de Varèze (Charlie Ruggles), for whom he has created an entire wardrobe. The Viscount, dressed in his underwear after escaping the arms of a woman whose husband had unexpectedly appeared, needs a suit—fast. Maurice quickly shoos another underwear-clad man—Pierre—out of the dressing room to make way for the Viscount, on whom Maurice is pinning the hopes for his fledgling shop. The Viscount emerges, pleased with the fit. Maurice asks him about the bill. The Viscount, a freeloader notorious throughout Paris, promises to pay him—he is headed to his uncle the Duke’s chateau that very evening for financial refreshment. On the way out, the Viscount touches Maurice for 500 francs. Maurice offers 1,000, pulling out the two 1,000-franc notes Pierre gave him. “Let’s just call it 2,000,” says the Viscount, snatching the bills before Maurice can figure it out. It’s an old gag, but Ruggles is such a master of timing that it works.
All is forgotten when Pierre emerges looking like a king himself. His and Maurice’s delight spins into the classic tune “Isn’t It Romantic,” which carries from the shop to the people along the street, through the countryside by train and horse-drawn wagon. Each singer tailors the lyrics to his or her individual circumstances in a symphony of clever, particular rhymes. Finally, it reaches Princess Jeanette in her country chateau, who sings the standard lyrics while lounging sensuously in her satin-sheeted bed. In this way, Mamoulian brings the lovers together, letting the audiences know they can expect exactly what they hoped for.
Maurice, spurred on by the other clothiers to whom he referred the Viscount, heads off to the chateau to demand his money. On the way, he hears a woman singing (“Lover”). It is the princess. When she stops he declares his love for her in song, the impertinent and naughty tune “Mimi” (“I’d like to have a little son of a Mimi by and by!”). We watch her full face assume an insulted but gauzily romantic look in the camera of Victor Milner, who shot several films for Lubitsch and knew how to get just the right touch. A small flash of humor crosses Jeanette’s face, but she’s soon slapping Maurice and running back to the chateau—where she passes out cold. The diagnosis? Dr. Armand de Fontinac (Joseph Cawthorn) says, “You’re not wasting away, you’re just wasted.”
We spend the rest of the film getting to the inevitable clutch in most entertaining fashion. Maurice is passed off as a baron by the Viscount to prevent his uncle Duke d’Artelines (C. Aubrey Smith, whose chipper rendition of “Mimi” in one of the film’s pass-around song sequences is wonderful) from learning of his debts. The Viscount’s sister, the man-hungry Countess Valentine (Myrna Loy) (“Do you ever think of anything but men?” “Yes, schoolboys.”), chases Maurice at every opportunity. Count de Savignac (Charles Butterworth), Jeanette’s nebbishy suitor, spends hours pouring over geneology books, suspecting there is no noble family named Courtelin. He also arranges to trip up Maurice on the stag hunt by choosing a challenging steed named Thunderbolt for him. Jeanette, appalled to find Maurice at the chateau as her cousin’s guest, says that she has chosen one instead—Solitude. Maurice, encouraged by the name, gladly agrees to it over the deadly sounding Thunderbolt. Unfortunately he learns that Solitude is so named because he always comes home alone. The gag showing the stall where Solitude is kept—danger signs, loud whinnying, and cowering stable hands—is corny, but funny, particularly when we get Maurice’s reaction shot. Another funny sight gag is when the princess, 22 years old and a widow for three years, shows Maurice a photo of her late husband, a comically posed elderly man (Tom Ricketts). The timing of the edit is perfect, and drew a big laugh out of me.
For a pre-Code film, this one’s attempts at suggestiveness are pretty tame. Maurice insults Jeanette’s seamstress for building her a dowdy riding habit. He makes a bet that he can do it better. Then we get to see him remove Jeanette’s unfinished riding jacket and take a tape measure to her every body part. It could have been sexy, but Mamoulian plays it safe. Maurice is all efficiency, and Jeanette doesn’t melt even a little at his ministrations. In fact, Jeanette is pretty stiff throughout this film—including her singing—a portent of what was to come with Nelson Eddy. Seeing her flirty, womanly performance in The Merry Widow was, for me, like seeing an entirely different actress, and again, with Chevalier. Thus, I blame Mamoulian for the tepid romance.
Nonetheless, there’s not too much wrong with this romantic comedy that’s sure to put a smile on your face. The Kino DVD also includes among its extras Chevalier singing his signature song “Louise” with all his cabaret charm.