Pre Code Confidential #27: Mae West in SHE DONE HIM WRONG (Paramount 1933)


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Bawdy Mae West had scandalized Broadway with her risque humor, and struggling Paramount Pictures snapped her to a movie deal. Her first was a supporting part in 1932’s NIGHT AFTER NIGHT, where she was allowed to rewrite her own dialog, and stole the show by purring sexually charged lines like “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie”. Mae’s presence helped refill Paramount’s coffers, and raised the hackles of censorship boards across America. It wasn’t long until the Production Code became strictly enforced, thanks in large part to Mae, but before then, she was given the spotlight in 1933’s SHE DONE HIM WRONG, based somewhat on her stage success DIAMOND LIL.

Like the play, SHE DONE HIM WRONG is set in The Bowery during the 1890’s, but here Diamond Lil is called Lady Lou, because the censors wanted to whitewash all vestiges of the ribald play. Diamond Lil or Lady…

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Halloween Havoc!: THE DEVIL DOLL (MGM 1936)


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Producer/director Tod Browning’s THE DEVIL DOLL is a film reminiscent of his silent efforts with the great Lon Chaney Sr. This bizarre little movie doesn’t get the attention of Browning’s DRACULA or FREAKS ,  and the ending’s a bit on the sappy side, but on the plus side it features Lionel Barrymore dressed in drag for most of the time, some neat early special effects work, and a weird premise based on a novel by science fiction writer A. Merritt, adapted for the screen by Guy Endore, Garrett Ford,  and Erich von Stroheim (!!).

Barrymore stars as Devil’s Island escapee Paul Lavond, and he pretty much carries the picture. Lavond and fellow con Marcel (Henry B. Walthall ) make it to Marcel’s home, where wife Melita (a pop-eyed Rafaela Ottiano) has been keeping the faith on her hubby’s experimental work… turning animals miniature, to solve the coming food shortage…

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Horror Film Review: The Devil-Doll (dir by Tod Browning)


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Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore) was just your ordinary Parisian bank owner until he was wrongly convicted of robbery and murder.  Sentenced to Devil’s Island and estranged from his beloved daughter, Lorraine (Maureen O’Sullivan), Paul spends 16 years plotting how to clear his name and progressively growing more bitter and angry.

He also befriends a scientist named Marcel (Henry B. Walthall).  Marcel has figured out the formula for shrinking people.  He’s convinced that shrunken people will eat less, use less fossil fuels, and take up a lot less space on the planet.  They’ll probably also be less likely to wage war on each other.  That’s right — the secret to world peace is shrinking the population.

However, Paul has other plans for that shrinking formula!  What better way to clear his name and seek revenge than by using a shrunken army of henchmen?

Uhmmm — okay, it sounds a little bit overcomplicated to me but who am I to doubt the wisdom of Lionel Barrymore?

(Yes, I know he’s Paul Lavond but, honestly, Lionel Barrymore is Lionel Barrymore regardless of who he’s playing.)

Anyway, Paul and Marcel escape from Devil’s Island but Marcel dies shortly afterward.  Paul, however, forms a partnership with Marcel’s widow, Maleta (Rafaela Ottiano).  Disguising himself as an elderly woman, Paul returns to Paris.  Not only does he use his disguise to watch over his daughter (who doesn’t realize that the kindly old woman is actually her father) but he also starts to develop quite a reputation for selling incredibly realistic dolls…

The Devil-Doll is an odd little mix of comedy and melodrama and, to be honest, it’s a bit too uneven to really work.  That said, the film is definitely worth watching just for the sight of Lionel Barrymore playing an elderly woman.  (Classic film lovers will immediately notice that, when in disguise, Lionel greatly resembles his sister, Ethel.)  This Christmas, when I’m watching It’s A Wonderful Life for the 100th time and Mr. Potter is cackling and plotting to put the Bailey Building and Loan out of business, I’ll have a hard time not thinking about The Devil-Doll.

The Devil-Doll was one of the final films to be directed by the legendary horror specialist, Tod Browning.  I’ve read that Browning’s later films suffered because Browning plunged into depression after the death of Lon Chaney, Sr. and he never quite recovered.  And, really, The Devil-Doll feels like a film that would have been perfect for Chaney’s unique talent.

But, that said, Lionel Barrymore appears to be having a lot of fun as Paul and his performance is the main reason to watch the film today.

The Fabulous Forties #4: Topper Returns (dir by Roy Del Ruth)


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The fourth film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was 1941’s Topper Returns.  Topper Returns was the third (and final) film to be made about Cosmo Topper (Roland Young).  Cosmo Topper is an upper class and mild-mannered banker who likes to collect automobiles and who is married to the somewhat daffy Clara (Billie Burke).  Cosmo would seem to be a pretty normal guy, except for the fact that he can talk to dead people.  In the first Topper film, a ghost played by Cary Grant helped him to learn how to appreciate life.  In the second Topper film, Topper Takes A Trip, a ghost played by Constance Bennett helped to save Topper and Clara’s marriage.  And in this Topper film, a ghost helps …. well actually, the ghost doesn’t help Topper out at all.  Instead, Topper helps the ghost solve her own murder.

When Gail Richards (Joan Blondell) visits her friend Ann Carrington (Carole Landis) for the weekend, she has no idea just how weird things are going to get.  First off, while Gail and Ann are riding in a taxi to the big and foreboding Carrington mansion, a mysterious man in black shoots out the taxi’s tires.  Though the taxi crashes, both Gail and Ann survive and are able to hitch a ride from Ann’s neighbor, Cosmo Topper.

Once they get to the mansion, Gail meets Ann’s strange family.  Gail loves the mansion and who wouldn’t, seeing as how it is big and dark and full of secret passageways?  However, Gail makes the big mistake of switching beds with Ann.  Later that night, when that man in black sneaks into the bedroom and attempts to stab Ann to death, he ends up killing Gail instead.  When we next see Gail, she’s a ghost who can’t leave our world until her murder has been solved.

No worries!  Gail isn’t that upset about being a ghost.  In fact,  she seems to be rather amused by it all.  She floats right over to Topper’s house and demands that he come over and solve her murder.  After some initial reluctance, Topper agrees.  Topper sneaks into the Carrington mansion and gets to work searching for clues and attempting to solve the crime.  Needless to say, it involves a lot of family secrets, hidden rooms, and dark passageways.

Now, I should admit that I haven’t seen the first two Topper films so I don’t know how Topper Returns compares to them.  The majority of the reviews that I’ve read online seem to indicate that Topper Returns is widely considered to be inferior when compared to the first two films.  It is true, as a lot of other reviewers have pointed out, that Topper himself occasionally seems almost superfluous to the film’s plot.  At no point does he mention that he has a history of talking to ghosts and, if not for the fact that the film’s title is Topper Returns, it would be easy to believe that this film was the first appearance of the character.

But no matter!  I enjoyed Topper Returns, mostly because I’d like to think that if I was ever murdered and came back as a ghost, I would manage to have as much fun doing so as Joan Blondell appears to be having in the role of Gail.  Funny, likable, and quick-witted, Gail isn’t going to let a little thing like being dead keep her from having fun!  I also appreciated that the film has a nicely morbid streak.  Towards the end of the film, there’s a cheerful conversation between Gail and another ghost.  Gail mentions that, as soon as the murder has been solved, she can go to Heaven and “you can go to…”  Gail lets her voice trail off but still make a point of glancing down at the ground.

For a modern viewer, the most problematic part of Topper Returns is the character of Chauffeur, who is Topper’s African-American servant and who doesn’t even get a proper name even though he’s in about 80% of the movie.  On the one hand, Chauffeur is written as a total racist stereotype and, as written, the majority of his lines will absolutely make you cringe.  On the other hand, he’s also played by Eddie Anderson, a talented comedic actor who always played his servants in such a way as to suggest that they were actually a hundred times smarter than the white people they were working for.  Though you may not like the way the character is written, it is possible to appreciate the subversive subtext that Anderson brings to his performance (a subtext which, undoubtedly, was not present in the original script).  Anderson was best known for playing comedian Jack Benny’s sidekick and, at one point during Topper Returns, he announces that he’s sick of ghosts and that he’s going “return to Mr. Benny!”

Taken on its own 1941 terms, Topper Returns was an enjoyable old, dark house movie.  Watch it for Joan Blondell having the time of her afterlife.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: She Done Him Wrong (dir by Lowell Sherman)


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When watching the 1933 film She Done Him Wrong, it helps to know a little something about American history.

It helps to know that the film was made at the tail end of the failed progressive experiment known as prohibition, an attempt to ban liquor in the U.S. which only served to make people idolize criminals and feel nostalgic for the time when you could just safely hang out in a saloon and get drunk with bunch of shady characters.

It helps to know that this film was made at a time when America was struggling through the Great Depression and, more than ever, movies were seen as an escape from reality.  The Depression also created a situation where, much like today, most Americans felt as if they were on the outside of the good life and, as a result, the most successful films of the time deal with outsiders getting something over on the smug and judgmental insiders.

It also helps to know that She Done Him Wrong was one of the last of the pre-Code films.  Though, by modern standards, the film may seem outwardly tame, the innuendo and subtext is anything but.  In fact, She Done Him Wrong was considered to be so racy that some people were actually scandalized when it became the biggest box office success of 1933.  (These were largely the same people who, 13 years before, celebrated the passage of prohibition.)  The infamous production code was largely instituted to make sure that a film like She Done Him Wrong could never be given another chance to corrupt filmgoers.

What exactly made She Done Him Wrong so controversial?

Well, it took place in a saloon in 1890s.  The saloon is owned by Gus (Noah Beery), who uses it as a front for prostitution and counterfeiting.  This is a film that features a lot of people drinking a lot of alcohol and it’s also a film that goes so far as to suggest that having a drink or two is not necessarily the worst thing in the world.  Captain Cummings (Cary Grant) runs a city mission that has opened up next to the bar and the film devotes a lot of time to poking fun at Cummings’s upright morality.  (Of course, Cummings has a secret of his own, one which suggests that his crusading attitude is just a convenient disguise.)  Though it would be repealed by the end of the year, Prohibition was still the law of the land when She Done Him Wrong was released and it’s fun to see how much the film has at the law’s expense.  That’s the type of fun that would basically be banned by the Production Code.

The Production Code would also require that all criminals be punished for their crimes by the end of a film.  In She Done Him Wrong, singer Lady Lou (Mae West) stabs to death the viscous Russian Rita (Rafaela Ottiano) and basically gets away with it.  It’s true that Lou was acting in self-defense but what makes She Done Him Wrong unique (for its time) is that Lou shows no remorse and that the killing is handled rather flippantly.  When the police, who have been searching the saloon for another criminal, burst into the room after Rita has been stabbed, Lou fools them by placing Rita’s corpse in a chair and combing her hair.  (“Haven’t you ever seen anyone comb someone’s hair before?”)  After the police leave, Lou has her bodyguard dispose of the body and Rita is never mentioned again.  Again, this is something that would never be allowed happen under the Production Code.

And then there’s the naked painting of Lou that hangs in the saloon.  Whenever it’s shown a screen, a man in a hat happens to be standing in just the right position to block the viewer from seeing the entire portrait.  Again, this would never have been allowed to happen under the Production Code.

And perhaps the biggest indication that this is a Pre-Code film is Mae West herself.  Reportedly, She Done Him Wrong was an extremely toned down version of West’s stage act but what was heard on-screen would certainly be enough to throw the guardians of decent society into a panic.  Nearly every line that she utters in this film is a double entendre but it’s not only what Mae West says.  It’s the way that she says it.  West may not have been a great actress but she had enough attitude that she didn’t need to be.  With every line, with every glance, with every movement, Mae West announces that she not only has sex but she enjoys it too.  In the Pre-Code days, that was unusual.  Once the Production Code went into effect, such a portrayal would be impossible.

As for the film itself — well, it’s pretty much just an excuse for Mae to be Mae.  There’s a plot, of course.  Lady Lou has many suitors and they all converge on the saloon at the same time.  However, Lou’s got her eye on the upstanding Captain Cummings.  (He’s a man in uniform, after all.)  It’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination but, if you’re into film history or if you’re curious to see how American social mores have changed (and occasionally, not changed) over the years, She Done Him Wrong is a must see.

She Done Him Wrong is only 66 minutes long and it’s the shortest film to ever receive an Oscar nomination for best picture.  It received no other nominations and lost to Cavalcade.