Thursday, April 2, 2009

Ten recommendations from 1931

It was the year of Frankenstein and The Public Enemy and City Lights and Le Million.
But in addition to these and other milestone movies, 1931 was crowded with lesser-known gems. Here, in no order, is my pick of ten of the best:
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1. It Pays To Advertise

Clocking in at just over an hour, this is one of those everything-but-the-kitchen-sink trifles that manages to cram just about every pop-cultural obsession of the pre-Code era into its wafer-thin plot. In just the first few minutes, in fact, following one of the most delightful main title themes you'll ever hear, we have a chase in fast cars, a spoiled rich layabout, a showgirl, gossip-hungry newsmen, a crash in a private plane, the wastrel's businessman father bewailing his offspring's hedonism and looking gloomily at the stockmarket figures, the even more hedonistic best friend, his life given over entirely to pranks and high-living (could be Charlie Ruggles, could be Roland Young, actually it's Skeets Gallagher), and the resourceful secretary the son will fall for (either Claudette or Carole; in this case Carole: not laughing, golden, long-haired Lombard of late-thirties screwball vintage, but the other one, the pre-Code one, with the translucently white skin and short, slicked-back white-blonde hair.)
As the title suggests, the film is about big business and advertising, and points out the interesting paradox that so much of what is vile in modern culture has its roots in the twenties, a time rightly idolised as the most glamorous and charming period of modern history. Yes, the cancer that is modern advertising was invented in those sensation-hungry, business-obsessed years, but the intent behind it was so child-like and its manifestations so energetic and good-hearted it would be inane to hold a grudge. Like the idealistic predictions of modernist utopia made by Douglas Fairbanks and Norma Talmadge quoted elsewhere in this batch of posts on 1931, it was truly thought that a better world was being made, and the only sin here is one of naivety.
Some of the most delightful scenes, in fact, are those in which Skeets tries to convey the importance of advertising to the hero (played, I forgot to say, by actor and director Norman Foster), who considers it a mere passing fad:
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- That's been overdone! Nobody reads ads anymore. I don't.
- Oh you don't, don't ya? I guess you don't know what I mean when I say four out of five have it? It satisfies? Good to the last drop?
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Particularly amusing are the references to Listerine and its slogan "even your best friends won't tell you." Listerine, of course, was one of the defining success stories of twenties advertising, produced since the nineteenth century (as Lucy Moore notes in her book Anything Goes) as "a surgical antiseptic, a cure for venereal disease and a floor-cleaner, (it) was transformed by advertising into a magical product which would free its user from the dreadful, life-ruining scourge of halitosis - a faux-medical term for bad breath invented by the marketing men."
Once rebranded as a mouthwash, "Listerine's profits soared from 4115,000 to $8000,000 in just seven years."
Directed at a fine pitch of frenzy by Frank Tuttle, one of my favourite unsung movie masters, It Pays To Advertise is now chiefly remembered for a delightful if all-too brief appearance by Louise Brooks as showgirl Thelma Temple, star of the show Girlies Don't Tell. ("Oh boys, get a look at them gams!", as one reporter puts it.)
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2. Daughter of the Dragon

Anna May Wong had glamour to spare, and here she is in a pre-Code Hollywood lead, more or less, alongside her future Shanghai Express co-star Warner Oland, here playing Fu Manchu for the third time (or fourth if you count the very funny sketch in Paramount on Parade). But it's a cameo only, presumably because Oland had already embarked on the Charlie Chan series and had no further use for the character. Here, then, he dies about ten minutes in, and hands on the family business to Anna as his daughter Ling Moy. (Those familiar with Fu Manchu only from the later Karloff movie, or the even later Christopher Lees, will be surprised to see that the character here is not a torture-crazed megalomaniac master-criminal but a rather sad individual, driven merely to avenge himself against the man he deems, wrongly, to have been responsible for the death of his wife and son during the Boxer rebellion.)
Wong probably hated making this nonsense, but no amount of stereotyped melodrama can diminish her vivid beauty. (Interestingly, the 'Chinese poem' she recites in her appearance in one of the Hollywood on Parade shorts is from here.) It's also a (relatively) interesting role in that she spends most of the film disguising her intentions and pretending to be the damsel in distress, only revealing her true identity at the end, when the hero firmly rejects her attentions and returns to Dracula's Frances Dade, whereupon she reverts to Plan B and straps both into torture chairs. "My vengeance is inspired tonight," she tells him; "you will first have the torture of seeing her beauty eaten slowly away by hungry acid!"
Notable too for an early talkie appearance by silent Japanese star Sessue Hayakawa, and for a blatant dash of pre-Code lavender.
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3. Millie

And speaking of lavender, just wait till you get a load of Joan Blondell and Lilyan Tashman as co-habiting bed-sharers Angie and Helen in this cross-generational road to ruin barnstormer!
Helen Twelvetrees is the eponymous Millie, unlucky in love, playing the field and suffering at the hands of wolves and cads (with John Halliday at the head of the pack). Whole generations pass, and when her daughter ends up getting the Halliday treatment, guns go off and court cases ensue.
The rest is a blur of nightclubs, cocktails, drunken parties, trips to Coney, sassy dialogue and pre-Code sauce from the gals, plus a smashing song performed through bullhorns by a trio of crooners:
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She isn't a blonde, she's not a brunette,
She's Millie the redhead and hard to forget,
Look out for your heart, look out for your nerves,
She's Millie the redhead with dangerous curves!
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If you ever find yourself in danger of forgetting just why you love pre-Code, I prescribe this. It's got the lot.
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4. Dirigible

It's easy to forget the films Capra made before his style-defining breakthrough masterpiece It Happened One Night. History has rightly made monuments of the later blockbuster paeans to the American spirit (though pygmies frequently take pot-shots at them, they're standing firm at present) but it could be argued that there is more variety, more cinematic dexterity, certainly more surprises, in earlier masterpieces such as American Madness, Forbidden, The Bitter Tea of General Yen or any of the three he made in 1931.
Of these, Platinum Blonde and Miracle Woman are widely known and celebrated, but I've chosen to spotlight the odd one out, partly because it's tremendously enjoyable from first frame to last, partly because it was a big, technically demanding picture in no way meriting its relative obscurity, and lastly because, of all thirties Capra, this is the one where the revelation of his presence as director would come as the biggest surprise to anyone watching it unaware. ("The story was all strong, male-chauvinist adventure stuff," Fay Wray recalled in her autobiography, with "none of the delicate comedy sense that Robert Riskin was to help him find and establish as a trademark.")
It's part love triangle, part disaster spectacular, with some amazingly convincing effects work and dramatic scenes of aerial and polar peril. Fay is married to a daredevil aviator and would-be Lindy called Frisky Pierce but secretly in love with his superior (Jack Holt, a fairly stolid leading man with whom Wray was teamed an unaccountable five times). But the real attraction is the disaster movie stuff, which is still gripping.
Historically, it is an interesting snapshot of the time (actually 1930) when the US navy bought a bunch of German airships and went into production on their own, a scheme soon abandoned when all of the massive, cumbersome and uneconomical things crashed. The use of real documentary footage adds an extra layer to this already fascinating venture.
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5. The Pip From Pittsburgh
1931 was the year of Thelma Todd. This most vivacious of stars, who died so terribly with so much potential unfulfilled in 1935, made an incredible 18 films in this one year, and all over the place, with the Marxes in Monkey Business, Clara Bow in No Limit, and Joe E. Brown in Broadminded; in dramatic mode in the rarely seen, under-rated 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon and Corsair (in the latter trying out her proposed straight-role pseudonym Alison Lloyd), and in so many amazing shorts! In her own series with Zasu Pitts she clocked up five, including the classics On the Loose and Pajama Party; with Laurel & Hardy she made Chickens Come Home.
And then there's Charley Chase, perhaps the most criminally neglected of the great thirties comedians. Todd appeared many times with this delightful, multi-talented but now more or less forgotten star, including this treat, one of two from 1931 and probably my favourite Chase movie.
The premise is an odd one: Charley is grudgingly going on a double-date with a friend who always gets him uninspiring girls so he decides to deliberately spoil things by making himself as repulsive as possible. But when he gets there he finds he's been fixed up with the adorable Thelma, and spends the rest of the short attempting to wash, shave and change his suit, mostly while actually on the dance floor at a night club.
This is a fine example of the Hal Roach method, of which the Laurel & Hardy films are but one facet, combining as it does inventive sight gags, absurd slapstick, delightful touches of characterisation and sackloads of socio-historic detail. His directors and writers seem effortlessly to capture the mood and meaning of their times; the films (like those of Harold Lloyd the decade before) are genuinely valuable documents of their era. They are also extremely funny. And if you only know Charley from Sons of the Desert, start here.
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6. City Streets

City Streets was the second Hollywood project of Rouben Mamoulian, the maverick genius of talking cinema who would go on to direct such innovative masterpieces as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Love Me Tonight and Becky Sharp. Like his first film, the musical Applause (1929), City Streets sets its narrative against vibrantly used real locations, making use of unconventional angles and strikingly unusual, at times poetic, imagery, showing again that the supposed technological limitations of early sound cinema needed only imagination and skill to be overcome. The film is also famous for inventing the cinematic convention of the voice-over, used by Mamoulian against the objections of the studio, who feared audiences would be confused by the sound of disembodied voices.
The only story Maltese Falcon author Dashiell Hammett conceived expressly for the screen, it stars an excellent Sylvia Sidney (replacing Clara Bow after her much publicised nervous breakdown) and a young Gary Cooper as lovers whose relationship is cut short when she is caught carrying the gun used by her stepfather to kill a rival bootlegger. In prison she comes to reject the values of the criminal lifestyle she had previously urged Cooper to take up, and on release is horrified to discover that he has become henchman to ‘the big fella’, the lecherous head of the bootlegging organisation.
Because it's pre-Code, a lot of the crimes go unpunished, but the film is among the most cynical of the early gangster films in its total disenchantment with city living, which it portrays as almost inevitably corrupting. None of the gangsters are especially unpleasant as people, and some, such as Guy Kibbee’s jovial Pop, are downright likeable. It is not the basically ordinary individuals drawn to this world but only their trade, presented by Mamoulian as a fact of urban life to be avoided rather than resisted, that is repugnant. With all of its killings kept off-screen (conveyed through symbolic devices such as a shot of the victim’s hat floating along the river), City Streets is easily the most restrained of the first gangster talkies, but whether because or in spite of this more poetic approach, it was apparently considered the best of them by no less an authority than Al Capone himself.
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7. Kiki

Perhaps the most startling attempt ever by a major star to radically change their image. My God, it's interesting.
Mary Pickford is an oddity in film history, in that she occupies as sure a place in the pantheon of silent screen icons as Charlie Chaplin or Rudolph Valentino but almost entirely by virtue of her physical image (of radiant, blonde-ringletted purity) her nickname (‘America’s Sweetheart’) and her reputation as both high-ranking Hollywood royalty and shrewd businesswoman. Her films seem almost incidental, rarely revived and not widely available to the home collector. Not that she would have minded overmuch: she once expressed the bizarre wish that they all be destroyed at her death.
This may be due to the fact that her career ended rather unspectacularly in the early years of sound. She had tired of it, and of the peculiar restrictions her screen image imposed upon her, choosing to retire quietly in 1933. Though it is far from true to claim that she never took adult roles in her heyday, by far her greatest successes were those in which she played children: Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), or Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1918) or Daddy Long Legs (1919). She played twelve year-old Little Annie Rooney (1925) at the age of thirty-two. The same year she invited the readers of a film magazine to suggest new parts they would like to see her play, only to receive suggestions like Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland.
She made four talkies, all of them provocative departures from formula; she seemed intent upon forcing a new, more modern screen image on her public against their will. The first, Coquette (1929), was a women’s picture ending in tragedy, with Pickford not only speaking for the first time but also sporting a modern short hairstyle. The film was praised critically – Pickford won the best actress Oscar – but audiences didn’t want Mary without her curls.
And they certainly didn't want Kiki. Kiki is supposedly a feisty, sexy French chorus girl causing romantic strife. It is a shrill, boisterous, exhausting performance, boundlessly energetic but wrongly pitched either for farce or romantic comedy, at times bordering almost on the grotesque. There's a scene where she falls off the stage into a drum in the orchestra pit (as Chaplin would later do in Limelight) and, it's hard to say why, but there's just something a bit unpleasant about the way she plays it. She's sort of saying, "Aren't I hilarious and adorable and sexy all in one dynamic five-foot package?' She falls on her ass a few times, and does quite a bit of provocative undressing; and the plot would have us accept that Reginald Denny (fresh from the peerless Madam Satan) is at first infuriated, but finally enchanted by her. She wears him down, and she wears us down.
Yet you can't ever quite look away. Pickford and the camera just seem to have an understanding with each other; even in a performance this preposterous, Pickford the artist is totally in control of her effects. And while I can perfectly understand audiences, women especially, getting nothing at all out of this exasperating performance, I must confess that by the end I was coming round to seeing Denny's point of view, accepting in theory at least how a man could fall for this absurd creature. This is star quality of a rare intensity; it's impossible to ignore it, even when you are in danger of being bludgeoned to death by it.
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8. 24 Hours

The chief appeal in this morbid dirge (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) is the chance it offers to show two great stars at the height of their powers. (I say two because, likeable as Clive Brook is, he can't really be said to have powers as such: he gives exactly the same performance every time, and it's always one that doesn't require any facial expressions.)
Miriam Hopkins and Kay Francis would be teamed again, of course, in Trouble In Paradise, but that light and elegant thing is the mirror image of this sleazy slice of New York nightlife. Miriam, who is murdered just before the halfway mark, plays a trampy nightclub chanteuse, deserving full marks for her untrained but most effective delivery of a number called You're the One I Crave.
Kay, from the other side of the tracks, is in Brett Ashley mode, and few actresses of her generation so ably conveyed existential ennui and fatalistic erotic gloom.Watch her in the opening scene especially. She’s at a small party, depressed, bored, incredibly alluring in a very simple white dress, clearly the most fascinating woman in the room, but crippled with dissatisfaction and a physical beauty she carries like a hernia. She says virtually nothing, but every gesture, every movement tells. (You have to go back to Louise Brooks in Germany for anything comparable.)
As the title suggests, the whole narrative unfolds over a single twenty-four hour period; it's all good, gloomy pre-Code Paramount, with infidelity, jealousy, alcoholism, nightclubs and at least one dead body bleeding in the snow.
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9. The Finger Points

Regular readers of this blog (hah!) will know that I bow before no man in my impregnable, totally uncritical adoration of Fay Wray. I've even managed to work her twice into this list of ten recommended films of 1931, an honour accorded no other star. But even I am prepared to go so far as to admit that the majority of her screen roles in the thirties were somewhat, shall we say, colourless. She's almost always the good girl, suffering, noble and decent. There are magnificent exceptions, like her trampy vamp in One Sunday Afternoon and a glorious riproaring bitch in The Woman I Stole, but they are rare oases.
One of the most frustrating of all her films in this respect is Mystery of the Wax Museum, a film which has been going for ages when she finally shows up, and in which she in fact does virtually nothing until the amazing climax ("You fiend!") Folks, I love Glenda Farrell, and now she's there I'd never be parted with her, but why is she there? Why can't her role and Wray's be combined into one? Why? Because it's goody-goody Fay, ever the swooning damsel in distress, never the sparky girl reporter, that's why.
But if Loretta Young can be a reporter in Platinum Blonde and still be elegant and feminine and all that stuff, why can't Fay? Well, she can, and The Finger Points is where she gets her chance, as "Marcia Collins, queen of the sob sisters and the best-looking gal in the newspaper business".
Other attractions, should you need any: Clark Gable, moonlighting at Warners in his nasty gangster phase, the same year he socked Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse; Richard Barthelmess, silent star who drifted away in the talkies; Regis Toomey chewing gum; and a typical torn-from-the-headlines Warners scenario by the great W.R. Burnett, with dialogue by Lost Generationer (and Mr Fay Wray) John Monk Saunders. It's Warner gangsters and Front Page hacks in their usual fatal embrace; Barthelmess plays his customary wet sap who becomes a reporter, exposes a bunch of gangsters, gets beaten senseless, takes a pay-off and gets sucked into a world of corruption. Gable wears a bowler hat and spats. Fay looks concerned and occasionally pretends to use a typewriter. Was there ever a more beautiful woman in movies?
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10. Offers Herself as Bride For $10,000
You've seen Our Daily Bread. You've seen The Grapes of Wrath. But this two-minute dose of unvarnished, unsentimental reality packs a wallop their combined weight of melodrama can only suggest.
This is a report from Hearst Metrotone News, restored by the American National Film Preservation Foundation and recently issued on DVD as part of perhaps the most mouth-watering box-set of all time: Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film 1900-1934, the best in a series of themed releases of rare and important archive material. (This set, which I cannot recommend enough, is a banquet of 48 films on four discs, plus a half-inch thick book of programme notes, including De Mille's Godless Girl, William Desmond Taylor's The Soul of Youth, Mary Pickford in Griffith's Ramona, the earliest surviving King Vidor film Bud's Recruit, plus prohibition newsreels, serials, political cartoons, shorts and documentaries.)
The film consists of an interview with 21 year-old Mary Clowes. She is nervous but well-spoken, pretty and in her best frock. A vase of flowers is on a table next to where she is sitting. She explains how she has offered to give herself in marriage to 'any respectable white man, whether he be deaf, dumb, crippled or blind', provided he is prepared to give her a lump sum of ten thousand dollars.
The interviewer asks her why she wants the money:
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I intend to buy my (parents) a small farming house, and put the balance of the money in the bank so they can draw it out monthly to live on. And what prompted me to do this was, I received a letter from my mother a few weeks ago saying they were to be put out of the house on account of not paying the rent, and I got desperate and I didn't know what to do. My mother's a cripple and my father's been affected by ill-health for a long time, and he's too old to work anyway.
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All this is said without a trace of self-pity or resentment, and a smile on her face. The interviewer asks if she is their only means of support and in the same matter of fact manner she goes on to explain that both her brothers had been killed in the past two years, one in a mining accident, the other under a collapsing chimney while fighting a fire.
She has received, she says, thousands of proposals, and hopes that she will one day come to love her husband, as befits someone "willling to do that much for me."
The programme notes tell us that after three bounced cheques she gave up on the idea, but the publicity led to offers of paid employment that enabled her to support her parents herself. The film cuts out with her future still uncertain. You may find you can't put Mary Clowes out of your mind for days after.