Embracing The Melodrama #5: Merrily We Go To Hell (dir by Dorothy Arzner)

Merrily We Go To Hel

We conclude today’s melodramatic embrace by taking a look at another Pre-Code film.  Released in 1932, Merrily We Go To Hell takes a look at one of the institutions that the Production Code was meant to save: marriage.  It also takes a look at alcoholism, overprotective fathers, and what goes on backstage during a Broadway production.  In many ways, this movie is a comedy but, at heart, it’s a melodrama through and through.

Everyone should have a catchphrase.  Myself, for example, I tend to say “Stay Supple” a lot.  It drives some people crazy but I like the way it sounds and I also happen to think that it’s a pretty good expression of how I view life.  Alcoholic newspaper reporter Jerry Corbett (Fredric March) has a catch phrase of his own.  Every time he takes a drink, he toasts with, “Merrily, we go to Hell.”  Jerry has been haunted ever since he was dumped by his beautiful girlfriend, actress Claire Hempstead (Adrienne Ames), and he now spends all of his time drinking and dreaming of being a playwright.

However, things start to look up for Jerry when, at one of those decadent rooftop parties that always seem to show up in pre-Code films, he meets an innocent young heiress named Joan (Sylvia Sidney).  Jerry and Joan fall in love and, despite the reservations of Joan’s disapproving father (George Irving), they marry.  With Joan’s help, Jerry stops drinking and writes his play.  It’s called “When Women Say No” and despite the creepy and misogynistic title, it becomes a huge success.   Oh, did I say despite?  I meant to say because of.

(For those you sitting at home, I am currently dramatically rolling my eyes and shaking my head.)

However, there’s a problem.  Guess who is cast as the play’s leading lady?  That’s right — Claire!  Jerry may love Joan but he’s obsessed with Claire.  Having again fallen under her spell, Jerry is soon drinking again and neglecting his wife.  However — and this is what distinguishes Merrily We Go To Hell from even most films made today — Joan doesn’t just silently accept Jerry’s infidelity or sit around obsessing on how she can get her husband back.  Instead, she decides that if he can do it, she can do it.  And who can blame her when Charlie Baxter is around?  Not only is Charlie suave and handsome but he’s played by none other than Cary Grant!

Merrily we go to Hell indeed!

Merrily We Go To Hell is available as a part of the Pre-Code Hollywood Collection and I think it makes for a good double feature with The Cheat.  (The people who put together the Pre-Code Hollywood Collection obviously agreed with me because they put both films on the same disc.)  While Merrily We Go To Hell is, at heart, a very serious movie, it begins with a deceptively light touch.  Fredric March was such a charming actor and seems to be having so much fun playing Jerry as a charming and well-meaning fuckup, that you actually are surprised when the film reveals just how desperate a character he really is.  This is the epitome of the type of film that makes you laugh at the start just so it can make you cry at the end.

Incidentally, Merrily We Go To Hell was directed by Dorothy Arzner, one of the only female directors to work in Hollywood during the studio era.  As a director, she understands that, at heart, Merrily We Go To Hell is Joan’s story.  Whereas a male director would probably have focused almost exclusively on Jerry and used Joan as a mere plot device, Arzner is more interested in exploring why Joan marries Jerry in the first place and how she deals with the inevitable discovery that there’s actually less to Jerry than first met the eye.  It’s that perspective that ultimately elevates Merrily We Go To Hell above the level of being a mere domestic dramedy and makes it worth watching 82 years after it was first released.

Sylvia Sidney

Embracing The Melodrama #4: The Cheat (dir by George Abbott)

cheat-title-stillIn 1930, in response to claims that its movies were corrupting the youth of America (The more things change, the more they remain the same and all that…), Hollywood adopted the infamous Production Code.  In the days before ratings, the Code told studio filmmakers what they could and could not put on screen.  The Code told Hollywood that all crime must be punished, the only good sex was unseen married sex, that the clergy must be respected, and that the American way of life must be celebrated.  Audiences could get rest assured that, if a film had managed to pass the Code, then that film was safe for impressionable minds.

Though the code was written out in 1930, it was not enforced in 1934.  During those four years (known as the Pre-Code era), filmmakers responded to the looming reality of censorship by directing some of the most outlandishly sordid films that were ever made.  Knowing that they would soon be forced to “play nice,” filmmakers decided to embrace as much sex, violence, suggestive dialogue, and as many tawdry situations as possible.  The end results may have scandalized contemporary audiences but, for those of us today, these Pre-Code films can both be a lot of fun and continue to surprise us with just how far some of them went when it came to embracing the melodrama.

Take for example 1931’s The Cheat.  Tallulah Bankhead plays Elsa Carlyle.  Elsa is married to a boring but decent man named Jeff (Harvey Stephens).  Jeff makes money and then Elsa spends it.  Elsa is also a compulsive gambler and, after making one ill-fated bet at a local casino, Elsa finds herself owing more than she can pay.

That’s when the wonderfully sinister Hardy Livingstone (Irving Pichel) steps into the picture.  Livingstone is a rich man who has spent the last few years living in Japan.  As Livingstone explains after inviting Elsa back to his shadow-filled mansion, he is obsessed with Japanese culture, especially the idea of having his own personal geisha.  (Admittedly, the film itself promotes the simplistic western assumption of just what exactly a geisha is.  The truth is far more nuanced but — in the film’s defense — the brutish Livingstone doesn’t exactly come across like someone who would be smart enough to perceive or appreciate things like nuance.)  Hardy agrees to pay Elsa’s debt if Elsa agrees to become his personal sex slave.  Rather than tell her husband that she lost their money, Elsa agrees.

However, once Elsa returns home, she discovers that one of Jeff’s business deals has paid off.  They’re rich!  And Elsa now has more than enough money to pay back her gambling debts.  Elsa goes back to Hardy and tells him that the deal is off.  Hardy responds by declaring that Elsa is now his property and, to prove it, he literally brands her in a scene that is all the more disturbing because it is seen almost entirely in silhouette.

(Seriously, this was a pretty intense scene!  Eli Roth has nothing on George Abbott!)

As often happened in the 1930s, all of this leads to Elsa shooting Hardy and Jeff confessing that he did it and being put on trial for attempted murder.  The trial itself is pretty much a standard courtroom drama but it is memorable for the scene in which a bunch of courtroom observers are so offended by one witnesses’s testimony that they spontaneously respond by beating the crap out of the accused.

You can find The Cheat (along with 5 other films) on one of my favorite DVDs, the Pre-Code Hollywood Collection.  It’s a film that I highly recommend to anyone who wants to see just how sordid a Pre-Code Hollywood film could truly be.  Along with appealing to our historical curiosity, The Cheat also features an excellent lead performance from the legendary Tallulah Bankhead and a perfectly villainous turn from Irving Pichel.  Finally, like many Pre-Code films, The Cheat serves as an interesting walking tour through the usually hidden recesses of the American psyche.  In short, it’s a valuable portrait of the type of worldview that the Production Code was supposed to banish from existence.

The Cheat

Embracing the Melodrama #3: Body and Soul (dir by Oscar Micheaux)

Paul Robeson in Body and Soul

Let’s continue to embrace the melodrama with the 1925 silent “race” film, Body and Soul.

Body and Soul was directed by Oscar Micheaux, who may not be a household name but who is still a very important figure in the development of American film.  Though he may be forgotten today, Micheaux was the first major African-American filmmaker.  At a time when the major studios were only willing to use black actors as comic relief, Micheaux made films that attempted to seriously deal with race relations and provide a realistic portrait of black life in America.  As a result, Micheaux’s films serve as a historical record of a community that, for most of the 20s, was either ignored or condescended to by the majority of American films.  While Micheaux is believed to have directed 26 silent films, only 3 are known to have survived.  Of those three, Body and Soul is the best known and the most acclaimed.

In Body and Soul, Paul Robeson plays an escaped prisoner who, upon finding himself in the predominantly black town of Tatesville, Georgia, takes on the false identity of the Rt. Rev. Isaiah T. Jenkins.  While the majority of the citizens in town take one look at Jenkins’s collar and assume that he must actually be a man of God, Jenkins spends his private time drinking and coming up with schemes to swindle his congregation out of their money.  Jenkins also pursues a member of his congregation, Isabelle (Julia Theresa Russell), despite the fact that Isabelle is in love with the poor but decent Sylvester (who also happens to be Jenkins’ brother and who is also played by Robeson).  It all leads to tragedy, death, murder.  Indeed, for a film that was made and released in 1925, Body and Soul is surprisingly critical of organized religion.  Or, at least, it is until the awkwardly uplifting ending, which is best ignored.

For those of us who were raised on special effects and sweeping camera movements, there’s always a moment of adjustment that comes whenever we start to watch a silent film.  We tend to take cinematic magic for granted and, as a result, we are often surprised by the largely stationary camera, the minimal sets, and the overly theatrical style of performance that largely typifies the silent era.  All of these elements are present in this film but, once you adjust to the style of a different era, Body and Soul actually hold up fairly well.  If nothing else, the film’s portrait of a corrupt and decadent clergy is just as relevant today as it probably was in 1925.  But, to be honest, the film is mostly worth watching for Paul Robeson’s wonderful lead performance.  While he’s a bit on the dull side as Sylvester (but, then again, Sylvester is a dull character), Robeson turns Rev. Jenkins into a charismatic and magnetic force of corruption.  Whereas a lot of other actors (especially in the silent era) would have gone far too overboard with Jenkins’ villainy, Robeson plays up the reverend’s sinister charm.  As a result, Body and Soul remains both a valuable piece of cinematic history and a watchable melodrama.

Watch it below!


Embracing the Melodrama #2: Manslaughter (dir by Cecil B. DeMille)

Manslaughter Orgy

Manslaughter Orgy

You really can’t talk about film melodrama without talking about Cecil B. DeMille.

From a modern perspective, we tend to dismiss DeMille as simply being the director of the fun but undeniably campy version of The Ten Commandments that pops up on TV every Easter.  Those of us who know our Oscar history are usually quick to roll our eyes over the fact that DeMille’s film The Greatest Show On Earth won best picture over High Noon, The Quiet Man, Moulin Rogue, and such unnominated films as Singin’ In The Rain and The Bad and the Beautiful.  For those who know the history of the blacklist, DeMille is a convenient villain — a director who supported the blacklist while other more critically admired directors like John Huston and John Ford spoke out against it.  In fact, it sometimes seems that the only positive thing you hear about Cecil B. DeMille is that, when he showed up playing himself in Sunset Boulevard, he came across as being a nice man.

But, when you actually study the history of American film, it becomes obvious that — even if he’ll never be a critical favorite — Cecil B. DeMille is one of the most important figures in the history of American film.  Starting in 1913, DeMille directed movies for over 43 years.  In many ways, he was one of the first directors to truly understand how to best exploit the commercial possibilities of a good melodrama.  DeMille understood that audiences enjoyed watching sin at the start and during the middle of a film as long as a healthy dose of salvation was present at the end.  That salvation allowed audiences to embrace the sin without having to deal with guilt.  With his early silent films, DeMille established the formula that is still used in cinematic melodrama to this day.

Consider, for example, DeMille’s 1922 film Manslaughter.

Manslaughter tells the story of Lydia (Leatrice Joy), a wealthy young woman who — much like me — likes to drive fast and dance.  As we’re told in one of the opening title cards, “Her proud boast is that life has never stopped her!”  When we first meet Lydia, she’s in her car and she’s racing alongside a train.  When a cop pulls her over for speeding, Lydia nonchalantly bribes him with an expensive bracelet.  (Myself, I always just cry whenever I get stopped for speeding.  It’s just as effective and far less expensive.)

Lydia has a boyfriend, a rather self-righteous district attorney named Daniel O’Bannon (played by Thomas Meighan, a familiar face to those of us who enjoy silent melodrama).  We are informed that Daniel loves Lydia for the “girl he thinks she could be, not for the girl she is.”  Apparently, that’s meant to be romantic.  I don’t know — if a guy ever said that to me, I’d probably slap him.  And then I’d get my boyfriend to beat him up…

As Daniel watches Lydia drink and dance her way through a decadent Christmas celebration (which is captured, in loving and fascinating detail, by DeMille), he tells her, “Don’t you think you better put on the brakes before life does it for you?”

“Modern girls don’t sit home and knit!” Lydia replies.  (You go, Lydia!)

Eventually, Daniel finds himself musing that “we’re no different than Rome.”  He then proceeds to visualize all of the party goers taking part in a massive Roman orgy… (Daniel also visualizes what is reportedly one of the first same sex kisses to ever appear in a mainstream American film.)

Anyway, as you might be able to guess from the title, Lydia eventually kills someone with her reckless driving and guess who ends up prosecuting her in court?  None other than Daniel, who links Lydia’s irresponsible behavior to — you guessed it — the collapse of ancient Rome.  While Lydia find salvation in prison, Daniel starts to embrace the very sin that he originally railed against…

Manslaughter has got a reputation for being one of DeMille’s weaker silent films.  It’s definitely heavy-handed in its moralizing and Meighan, as good as he may have been in films like The Racket, is actually pretty boring here.  However, I still enjoyed Manslaughter, or I should say that I enjoyed the scenes in Manslaughter that unapologetically celebrated the decadence of Lydia’s life.  Leatrice Joy gives a fun and likable performance in those scenes and how can you not enjoy watching people get wild in the 1920s?

Watch Manslaughter below!

Embracing the Melodrama #1: Where Are My Children? (dir by Phillips Smalley and Lois Weber)

Where Are My Children

I love melodrama, don’t you?

Well, I hope you do because, for the next 10 days, I’m going to be taking a chronological look at fifty of the best (and worst) film melodramas of all time!  I’m going to start with a silent film that’s nearly 100 years old.  Written and directed by Lois Weber, one of the first female filmmakers, Where Are My Children? is a melodramatic look at an issue that is just as controversial today as it was when this film was first released in 1916.

Where Are My Children? tells the story of John Walton (played by Tyrone Power, Sr.), a upright district attorney who feels that all crime could be prevented if only there was a way to stop irresponsible and morally lax people from reproducing.  Walton’s only regret in life is that he and his wife have never had any children of their own.  While Walton is busy dealing with the prosecution of a medical practitioner who has been arrested for distributing pro-birth control literature, his wife is hiding a secret from him.  Because they would rather have social lives than families, she and her friends have been secretly getting abortions…

One of the great secrets of American film history is just how weird much of silent cinema truly was.  I think we tend to assume that because silent movies are old, they also have to be primitive, corny, silly, slow, and out-of-touch.  And, often times, they are!  But, if you’re a serious student of film, you owe it to yourself to watch as many silent movies as you can.  It’s important to know the history of what you love and a film like Where Are My Children? is quite definitely a part of that history.  Add to that, for every five silent films that have been rendered almost unwatchable by the passage of time, there’s going to be one — like Where Are My Children? — that has held up fairly well.  There’s an undeniable pleasure to discovering a silent film that still — despite all the odds — remains interesting.  And, finally, there’s the fact that silent films are often odd in ways that you’d never expect.

Let’s take Where Are My Children? for instance.  This is one of those films that literally opens in Heaven, with a lengthy explanation of how there are three different levels of babies — the “chance” children, the “unwanted” (who, we are told, are constantly sent back to Heaven and have been marked with the “sign of the serpent,”), and then finally there’s the select few children who have been blessed ahead of time “by the almighty.”  Creepy, no?  As the film progresses, it becomes obvious that Where Are My Children? is a pro-eugenics film.  Eugenics, of course, is the horrific idea that only certain, elite people should be allowed to have children, because of course undesirable adults will just have undesirable children who will eventually grow up to undesirable things.

Needless to say, a lot of very evil people have used eugenics to justify doing a lot of very evil things but what is often forgotten (or not even acknowledged) is that during the early 20th century, eugenics was considered to be a very progressive concept.  For all the good work that Margaret Sanger did towards promoting birth control and sex education, she was also a supporter of eugenics.  It was her 1916 arrest and trial for distributing contraception that inspired Phillips Smalley and Louis Weber to make Where Are My Children?

Ironically enough, this film — which, with its pro-sex education message, would probably be considered quite liberal by the cultural standards of 1916 — is probably now best known for being strongly anti-abortion, with Weber and Smalley going as far as to use double exposure (which was quite an advanced technique back in 1916) to show us the children that will never be born to the film’s characters.  It’s the sort of thing that would never happen in a mainstream movie today.  It’s also the sort of thing that a lot of modern progressive audiences will undoubtedly find to be incredibly offensive.  But, speaking as someone who strongly believes in my right to make my own decisions about what I do with my body, I find films like Where Are My Children? to be fascinating.  It has nothing to do with politics and everything to do history.  Where Are My Children? is a valuable time capsule.

Watch it below!