Pre Code Confidential #28: Edward G. Robinson in LITTLE CAESAR (Warner Brothers 1931)


cracked rear viewer

Gangster movies were nothing new in 1931. Josef von Sternberg’s UNDERWORLD (1927), Lewis Milestone’s THE RACKET (1928), and Bryan Foy’s LIGHTS OF NEW YORK (1929) had all dealt with urban organized crime onscreen (and Foy’s drama was the first “all-talking picture” to hit cinemas). But when Edward G. Robinson rat-a-tatted his way through Mervyn LeRoy’s LITTLE CAESAR, the gangster genre had finally arrived – with a vengeance! This highly influential flick opened the floodgates for a variety of films about mobsters, killers, and other assorted no-goodniks, and made an unlikely star out of the pugnacious Eddie G.

The film concerns the rise and fall of Rico “Little Caesar” Bandello, a small-time hood from the sticks who, along with partner in crime Joe Massara, moves to the big city and blasts his way up the ranks to become a gang boss. The diminutive Robinson exudes star power as the psychotic sociopath…

View original post 472 more words

Pre Code Confidential #26: THREE ON A MATCH (Warner Brothers 1932)


cracked rear viewer


Mervyn LeRoy is usually talked about today as a producer and director of classy, prestige pictures, but he first made his mark in the down-and-dirty world of Pre-Code films. LeRoy ushered in the gangster cycle with LITTLE CAESAR, making a star out of Edward G. Robinson, then followed up with Eddie G in the grimy tabloid drama FIVE STAR FINAL . I AM A FUGITVE FROM A CHAIN GANG tackled brutal penal conditions in the South, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 featured half-naked showgirls and the Depression Era anthem “Remember My Forgotten Man”, and HEAT LIGHTNING was banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency! LeRoy’s style in these early films was pedal-to-the-metal excitement, and THREE ON A MATCH is an outstanding example.

The film follows three young ladies from their schoolgirl days to adulthood: there’s wild child Mary, studious Ruth, and ‘most popular’ Vivien. I loved the way writer Lucien Hubbard’s…

View original post 554 more words

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Quo Vadis (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


The 1951 best picture nominee, Quo Vadis, is actually two movies in one.

The first movie is a rather stolid historical epic about life in ancient Rome.  The handsome but kind of dull Robert Taylor plays Marcus Vinincius, a Roman military officer who, after serving in Germany and Britain, returns to Rome and promptly falls in love with the virtuous Lygia (Deborah Kerr).  Complicating Marcus and Lygia’s relationship is the fact that Lygia is a devout Christian and a friend to Peter (Finlay Currie) and Paul (Abraham Sofaer).

Marcus’s uncle, meanwhile, is Petronius (Leo Genn), a government official who has a reputation for being a bon vivant.  In real-life, Petronius is believed to have been the author of the notoriously raunchy Satyricon.  You would never guess that from the way that Petronius is portrayed in Quo Vadis.  We’re continually told that Petronius is a notorious libertine but we don’t see much evidence of that, beyond the fact that he lives in a big palace and he has several slaves.  In fact, Petronius even falls in love with one of his slaves, Eunice (Marina Berti).

The second movie, which feels like it’s taking in a totally different cinematic universe from the adventures of Marcus and Lygia, deals with all of the intrigue in Nero’s court.  Nero (Peter Ustinov) is a giggling madman who dreams of rebuilding Rome in his image and who responds to almost every development by singing a terrible song about it.  Nero surrounds himself with sycophants who continually tell him that his every idea is brilliant but not even they can resist the temptation to roll their eyes whenever Nero grabs his lyre and starts to recite a terrible poem.  Nero is married to the beautiful but evil Poppaea (Patricia Laffan) and there’s nothing that they love more than going to the arena and watching people get eaten by lions.  It disturbs Nero when people sing before being eaten.  “They’re singing,” he says, his voice filled with shock an awe.

It’s difficult to describe just how different Ustinov’s performance is from everyone else’s in the film.  Whereas Taylor and even the usually dependable Deborah Kerr are stuck playing thin characters and often seem to be intimidated by playing such devout characters, Ustinov joyfully chews on every piece of scenery that he can get his hands on.  Nero may be the film’s villain but Ustinov gives a performance that feels more like it belongs in a silent comedy than a biblical epic.  Ustinov bulges his eyes.  He runs around the palace like he forgot to take his Adderall.  While Rome burns, Nero grins like a child who has finally figured out a way to outsmart his parents.  “You won’t give me more money?  I’ll just burn down the city!”

And the thing is — it all works.  The contrast between Ustinov and the rest of the characters should doom this film but, instead, it works brilliantly.  Whenever Ustinov’s performance gets to be too much, Robert Taylor and Leo Genn pop up and ground things.  Whenever things start to get too grounded, Ustinov throws everything back up in the air.  The conflict between the early Christians and the Roman Empire is perfectly epitomized in the contrast between Robert Taylor and Peter Ustinov.  It makes for a film that is entertaining almost despite itself.

Quo Vadis was nominated for best picture but lost to An American In Paris.

A Hidden ‘Poil’: THREE MEN ON A HORSE (Warner Brothers 1936)


cracked rear viewer

Frank McHugh got a rare starring role in the comedy THREE MEN ON A HORSE, based on the hit Broadway play by George Abbott and John Cecil Holmes. McHugh was usually cast as the funny friend of fellow members of “Hollywood’s Irish Mafia “ James Cagney and Pat O’Brien, but here he takes center stage as a meek, hen-pecked type who has an uncanny knack for picking winning horses – as long as he doesn’t bet on them!

Greeting card writer Erwin Trowbridge is beset by a whiney wife, obnoxious brother-in-law, and bullying boss. After a row with wifey brought on by meddling bro-in-law, Erwin leaves his humble Ozone Park, Queens abode and decides to skip work and get sloshed. Stumbling into a seedy hotel bar frequented by Runyonesque gamblers, Erwin gives them a winning pony – then passes out. The three mugs, Patsy, Charlie, and Frankie, bring him up…

View original post 380 more words

Pre Code Confidential #18: FIVE STAR FINAL (Warner Brothers 1931)


cracked rear viewer

Tabloid journalism has been around far longer than the cable “news” channels of today, with their 24 hour a day barrage of nonstop sleazy scandals and “fake news”. A circulation war between publishers Joseph Pulitzer (New York World) and William Randolph Hearst (New York Journal) in the 1890’s, filled with sensationalized headlines and mucho muckraking, gave birth to the term “Yellow Journalism”, derived from Richard Outcault’s guttersnipe character The Yellow Kid in his comic strip Hogan’s Alley, which appeared in both papers. This legacy of dirt-digging and gossip-mongering continued through the decades in supermarket rags like The National Enquirer and World Weekly News, leading us to where we are today with the so-called “mainstream media” stretching credibility to the max and bogus Internet click-bait sites abounding. All of which leads me to FIVE STAR FINAL, a Pre-Code drama about headhunting for headlines starring Edward G…

View original post 608 more words

Navy Blue & Gold: MISTER ROBERTS (Warner Brothers 1955)


cracked rear viewer

I grew up a “Navy brat”, often accompanying my dad to bases in Newport, RI. and Bethesda, MD. I’d hang out at the Enlisted Men’s Club he ran, watching Bugs Bunny and Road Runner cartoons with the sailors while dad did the books. I remember going aboard ship plenty of times, and saw one of my first movies with the crew on Family Night (the Cary Grant/Doris Day flick THAT TOUCH OF MINK). So naturally, I have a soft spot for nautical tales, and one of my favorites has always been MISTER ROBERTS.

The film marked Henry Fonda’s return to the screen after an eight year absence. Fonda had starred in the original Broadway production to great acclaim, and his performance is imbued with his own experiences during WWII. Douglas Roberts is a lieutenant (j.g.) assigned to the cargo ship Reluctant in the South Pacific, run by the vain…

View original post 733 more words

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Madame Curie (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  How long is it going to take her?  Probably about as long as it took scientists to discover radiation.  Still, she’s not giving up!  She recorded the 1943 best picture nominee, Madame Curie, off of TCM on February 16th.)

It would appear that if you wanted to produce a best picture nominee in the early 40s, the easiest way to do it was to cast Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson as husband and wife.

Consider the evidence: In 1941, Blossoms in The Dust was nominated for best picture.  Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon played wife and husband.

In 1942, Mrs. Miniver won best picture.  Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon played husband and wife.  Interestingly enough, Garson actually starred in another best picture nominee that year, Random Harvest.  Random Harvest is a far better picture than Mrs. Miniver and actually featured a better performance from Garson but it did not include Walter Pidgeon.  Make of that what you will.

Then, in 1943, Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon starred in Madame Curie.  Again, they played husband and wife and, again, their film was nominated for best picture.

As you can tell from the poster above, Madame Curie was advertised as being “Mr. and Mrs. Miniver together again.”  Actually, Garson and Pidgeon are playing characters far different from the stalwart and very British heroes of their previous film.  Instead, they are playing the Curies, Marie and Pierre.  The film opens with Pierre meeting Marie at a party and it juggles scenes of their romance with scenes of them discovering and playing with radiation.  Of course, it’s a struggle at times.  Their colleagues are dismissive of their efforts.  Both Pierre and Marie tend to get so caught up in their research that they close themselves off from the outside world.  Their efforts pay off when they isolate radium and win the 1903 Nobel Prize.  Of course, then Pierre gets run over by a horse while out buying his wife a pair of earrings.  Can Marie continue to do their research without him?

The unfortunate thing is that the movie pretty much ends with Marie winning her first Nobel Prize, which means that it leaves out some of the most interesting aspects of her life.  For instance, during World War I, she developed mobile X-ray units and worked in field hospitals.  She was also active in the struggle for Polish independence, even naming the first element that she ever discover polonium after her native country.  She spent almost her entire career working with radioactive material, often carrying radioactive isotopes in her pockets.  In 1934, Marie died of radiation poisoning.  Her research notes and other papers are so highly radioactive that they’re kept in a lead box and I assume that they probably glow whenever the lid is shut.  If you want to study Marie Curie’s notes, you have to put on a radiation suit.  Unfortunately, none of this is discussed in the resolutely positive movie.

Judging from what I’ve seen on TCM, Greer Garson appears to have been the Meryl Streep of her day, undeniably talented but a bit too obvious in her technique and just a little boring.  The same can be said of Madame Curie, which is a very well-made but not extremely memorable movie.  It’s like a lot of the films that were nominated for best picture in the 30s and the 40s — a big, prestige picture that never exactly comes to life.  The film is probably at its strongest in the beginning, when Walter Pidgeon does a pretty good job of playing Pierre as a brilliant introvert who is almost too shy to talk to Marie.  But, as the film progresses, it just becomes another slow-moving MGM biopic.

What movie beat Madame Curie for Best Picture?

None other than Casablanca.