Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Lady for A Day (dir by Frank Capra)


The 1933 film, Lady For A Day, tells the story of Apple Annie (May Robson) and Dave the Dude (Warren William), who is perhaps the nicest gangster that you could ever hope to meet.

Of course, when I refer to Dave the Dude as being a gangster, I should make clear that he’s not the type of gangster who guns down his rivals or sells drugs in back alleys.  I mean, I guess he might do that but we certainly don’t see much of evidence of it in the film.  Instead, Dave is just a dapper gambler who travels with a bodyguard named Happy McGuire (Ned Sparks) and whose girlfriend, Missouri Martin (Glenda Farrell), owns a nightclub where, since this is a pre-code film, the acts are slightly racy but not excessively salacious.  The country may be mired in a depression but Dave appears to be doing okay for himself.  Yes, Dave may be a criminal but at least he’s honest about it.

Surviving the Depression has proven to be far more difficult for Apple Annie.  She’s known as Apple Annie because she makes a meager living by selling fruit on the streets of New York City.  Dave is one of her regular customers, as he believes that her apples bring him good luck.  Annie has a daughter named Louise (Jean Parker).  Louise has never met her mother, having spent the majority of her life in a Spanish convict.  Annie regularly steals stationary from a high class hotel so that she can sends letters to Louise.  Not wanting her daughter to be ashamed of her, Annie has always presented herself as being a rich woman named Mrs. E. Worthington Manville.

However, it now appears that Annie’s charade is about to be exposed.  Louise is coming to New York with her fiance, Carlos (Barry Norton) and her prospective father-in-law, Count Romero (Walter Connolly).  Annie knows that when the Louise arrives, she’s going to discover that her mother is not wealthy and that the marriage will probably be called off.  So, led by Dave, Annie’s customers conspire to fool Louise into believing that her mother really is a member of high society.  And if that means that Dave is going to have to not only kidnap (but, let’s be clear, not harm) three nosy reporters and then make a deal with not just the mayor but also the governor to pull of the deception, that’s exactly what he’s going to do.

Though it may be disguised as a sweet and rather simple comedy, Lady For A Day is actually a rather melancholy little film.  Even when Annie and her friends are pretending to be wealthy members of high society, the film is aware that their escape from reality is only temporary.  Eventually, they’ll have to return to the reality of being poor in 1930s America.  At heart, it’s a sad story but May Robson, Warren William, Glenda Farrell, and Guy Kibbee (who plays the pool hustler who is recruited to pretend to be Annie’s husband) all bring such sincerity to their roles that you can’t help but smile while watching it.  Rejected by “polite” society, Annie and her friends have formed a community of outsiders and, throughout the film, the audience is happy that, no matter what, they have each other.

Lady for a Day was the first Frank Capra film to ever be nominated for Best Picture.  Capra was also nominated, for the first time, for best director but he had the misfortune to be competing with Frank Lloyd, who directed Cavalcade.  At the awards ceremony, when host Will Rogers, announced the winner for best director, he said, “Come on up here, Frank!”  An excited Capra ran down to the podium, just to discover that Rogers had actually been talking to Frank Lloyd.  Rogers, seeing what had happened, quickly invited the other nominated director, Little Women‘s George Cukor, to come join Lloyd and Capra at the podium.  Fortunately, one year later, Capra would win the directing Oscar for It Happened One Night.

Cavalcade would go on to win Best Picture but Capra retained so much affection for Lady For A Day that it was the only one of his films that he would subsequently remake.  A Pocketful Of Miracles came out in 1961 and featured Bette Davis in the lead role.  It would be Capra’s final theatrical film.

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


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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…

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Cleaning Out the DVR #20: ALL-STAR PRE-CODE LADIES EDITION!


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I know all of you, like me, will be watching tonight’s 89th annual Major League Baseball All-Star G
ame, and… wait, what’s that? You say you WON’T be watching the All-Star Game? You have no interest in baseball? Heretics!! But I understand, I really do, and for you non-baseball enthusiasts I’ve assembled a quartet of Pre-Code films to view as an alternative, starring some of the era’s most fabulous females. While I watch the game, you can hunt down and enjoy the following four films celebrating the ladies of Pre-Code:

DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON (Paramount 1931; D: Lloyd Corrigan) – Exotic Anna May Wong stars as Princess Ling Moy, an “Oriental dancer” and daughter of the infamous Dr. Fu Manchu (Warner Oland)! When Fu dies, Ling Moy takes up the mantle of vengeance against the Petrie family, tasked with killing surviving son Ronald. Sessue Hayakawa (BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI)…

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Pre Code Confidential #10: Cecil B. DeMille’s CLEOPATRA (Paramount 1934)


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When I hear the words ‘Hollywood Epic’, the name Cecil B. DeMille immediately springs to mind. From his first film, 1914’s THE SQUAW MAN to his last, 1956’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, DeMille was synonymous with big, sprawling productions. The producer/director, who’s credited with almost singlehandedly inventing the language of film, made a smooth transition from silents to talkies, and his 1934 CLEOPATRA is a lavish Pre-Code spectacular featuring sex, violence, and a commanding performance by Claudette Colbert as the Queen of the Nile.

1934: Claudette Colbert in title role of Cecil B. DeMille's film Cleopatra.

While the film’s opulent sets (by Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier) and gorgeous B&W cinematography (by Victor Milner) are stunning, all eyes will be on the beautiful, half-naked Colbert. She gives a bravura performance as Cleopatra, the ambitious, scheming Egyptian queen. She’s sensuous and seductive, wrapping both Caesar and Marc Antony around her little finger, and devious in her political machinations. If I were compare her to Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 Joseph…

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Horror Film Review: The Wolf Man (dir by George Waggner)


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“Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night;

May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

— Gypsy Poem, The Wolf Man (1941)

Poor Larry Talbot.

We all know his story, of course.  The plot of the original Wolf Man is so iconic and has been imitated in so many other films that, even if you somehow have never seen the original 1941 film, you still know what happened.

Larry (played by Lon Chaney, Jr.) is a loser.  When we first meet him, he is nervously returning to his childhood home in Wales.  (Chaney doesn’t sounds at all Welsh nor does he sounds like he’s from any other part of the UK for that matter, but that’s not really important.)  Larry’s older brother has recently died and Larry hopes that maybe he can reconcile with his father, Sir John (Claude Rains).  Larry’s brother was the favored son, the one who lived up to the Talbot name and made his father proud.  Larry, on the other hand, hasn’t really succeeded at anything he’s ever done.  To use the slang of the time, Larry comes across as basically being a lug.  A big dumb lug.

After discovering that his father really doesn’t seem to want to have much to do with him, Larry goes for a stroll through the nearby village.  He buys a silver-headed walking stick, mostly so he can flirt with the salesgirl, Gwen (Evelyn Ankers).  It turns out that there’s a gypsy camp nearby.  What better place to go on a date!?

Well, perhaps Larry should have just invited her to the movies.  Not only does a fortune teller (Maria Ouspenskaya) see something terrible in his future but Larry ends up getting bitten by what appears to be a wolf.  The good news is that Larry was bitten while saving the life of one of Gwen’s friends, which is certainly going to make him look like good boyfriend material.  The bad news is that the wolf was actually the fortune teller’s son, Bela (played by none other than Bela Lugosi).  It turns out that Bela was a werewolf and now, Larry’s going to be a werewolf too!

Larry, needless to say, is not happy about this.  But then again, Larry wasn’t happy before he became the werewolf either.  Lon Chaney, Jr. played Larry Talbot in five different movies and I don’t think he smiled once.  I guess that’s understandable, seeing as how he was a werewolf.  In every film in which he appeared, Larry would beg someone to kill him and put him out of his misery.  And, in every sequel, Larry would somehow be brought back to life and have to go through it all over again.  I guess he earned the right to be a little glum.

But still, even before he’s bitten in The Wolf Man, Larry is kind of a boring character.  The only time that he’s interesting is when he’s a wolf man.  And really, he’s a far more successful werewolf than human.  When we first meet Larry, he apologizing to his father for never living up to his expectations.  But once Larry turns into the Wolf Man, he finally manages to get things done.  When he’s the wolf man, Larry has the inner drive that he lacks as a human.

To me, the heart of The Wolf Man is not to be found in Chaney’s glum performance.  Instead, it’s in Claude Rains’s performance as John.  When we first meet Sir John, he seems like a rather imposing figure but, over the course of this 70 minute film, John slowly lowers his guard.  We discover that he’s actually a loving father and there’s something rather sweet about watching as he slowly welcomes Larry back into his life.  Of course, it all ends in tragedy.  These things often do.

Everything, from the set design to shadowy cinematography to the hard-working fog machine (which keeps the moors looking properly creepy) to the performances of Claude Rains and Maria Ouspenskaya, comes together to make The Wolf Man into a genuine classic of horror cinema.  And, of course, I have to mention the brilliant makeup job that was done to transform Chaney into The Wolf Man.  

Still, I have to wonder — why did Lugosi turn into an actual wolf while Chaney turned into this?

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Oh well, it probably doesn’t matter.  Just relax and enjoy the damn film, as a wise person somewhere once said.  Be sure to watch The Wolf Man this holiday season!

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Imitation of Life (dir by John M. Stahl)


Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington in Imitation Of Life

Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington in Imitation Of Life

The 1934 film Imitation of Life opens with Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) standing on the back porch of a house owned by widowed mother Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert).  Delilah says that she’s come for the housekeeping position.  Bea tells her that there is no housekeeping position and quickly figures out that Delilah has the wrong address.  As Delilah wonders how she’s going to get to the other side of town in time to interview for the job, Bea hears her toddler daughter falling into the bathtub upstairs.  After Bea rescues her daughter, she agrees to hire Delilah as a housekeeper.

The rest of the film tells the story of their friendship.  It turns out that, because she knows an old family recipe, Delilah can make the world’s greatest pancakes.  Bea decides to go into business, selling Delilah’s pancakes and using Delilah as the product’s mascot.  Soon Delilah’s smiling face is on billboards and she’s known as Aunt Delilah.  When it comes time to incorporate the business, Bea and her partner, Elmer (Ned Sparks), offer Delilah 20% of the profits.  They tell Delilah that they’re all going to be rich but Delilah protests that she doesn’t want to be rich.  She just wants to take care of Bea and help to raise Bea’s daughter.

Delilah, incidentally, is African-American while Bea is white.

Despite the fact that Imitation of Life is considered to be an important landmark as far as Hollywood’s depiction of race is concerned, I have to admit that I was really uncomfortable with that scene.  First off, considering that Delilah was the one who came up with recipe and her face was being used to sell it, it was hard not to feel that she deserved a lot more than just 20%.  Beyond that, her refusal felt like it was largely included to let white audiences off the hook.  “Yes,” the film says at this point, “Delilah may be a servant but that’s the way she wants it!”

It was a definite false note in a film that, up to that point and particularly when compared to other movies released in the 30s, felt almost progressive in its depiction of American race relations.  Up until that scene, Bea and Delilah had been portrayed as friends and equals but, when Delilah refused that money, it felt like the film had lost the courage of its convictions.

However, there’s a shot that occurs just a few scenes afterwards.  Several years have passed.  Bea is rich.  Delilah is still her housekeeper but now the house has gotten much larger.  After having a conversation about Delilah’s daughter, Bea and Delilah walk over to a staircase and say goodnight.  Bea walks upstairs to her luxurious bedroom while, at the same time, Delilah walks downstairs to her much smaller apartment.  It’s a striking image of these two women heading different directions on the same staircase.  But it also visualizes what we all know.  For all of Delilah’s hard work, Bea is the one who is sleeping on the top floor.  It’s a scene that says that, even if it couldn’t openly acknowledge it, the film understands that Delilah deserves more than she’s been given.  It’s also a scene that reminds us that even someone as well-intentioned and kind-hearted as Bea cannot really hope understand what life is truly like for Delilah.

The film itself tells two stories, one of which we care about and one of which we don’t.  The story we don’t care about deals with Bea and her spoiled child, Jessie (Rochelle Hudson).  Jessie develops a crush on her mom’s boyfriend, Steve (Warren William).  It’s really not that interesting.

The other story is the reason why Imitation of Life is a historically important film.  Delilah’s daughter, Peola (Fredi Washington), is of mixed-race ancestry and is so light-skinned that she can pass for white.  Throughout the film, Peola desperately denies being black and, at one point, stares at herself in a mirror and demands to know why she can’t be white.  When Peola goes to school, she tells her classmates she is white and is mortified when Delilah shows up at her classroom.  When Peola gets older, she attends an all-black college in the South but, eventually, she runs away.

When Delilah tracks her daughter down, Peola is working as a cashier in a restaurant.  When Delilah confronts her, she is almost immediately confronted by the restaurant’s owner, who angrily tells her that the restaurant is a “whites only” establishment.  Peola pretends not to know her mother.

Beyond the confrontation between Peola and Delilah, that scene in the restaurant is important for another reason.  It’s the only time that the film provides any direct evidence as to why Peola wants to pass for white.  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  We all know why Peola thinks that society will treat her differently if it believes that she’s white.  (And we also know that she’s right.)  But this scene is the first time that the film itself acknowledges the fact that, in America, a white girl is going to have more opportunities than a black girl.  Up until that point, white audiences in 1934 would have been able to dismiss Peola as just being selfish or unappreciative but, with this scene, the film reminds viewers that Peola has every reason to believe that life would be easier for her as a white girl than as an African-American.  It’s a scene that would hopefully make audiences consider that maybe they should be angrier with a society that allows a restaurant to serve only whites than they are with Peola.  It’s a scene that says to the audience, “Who are you to sit there and judge Peola when you probably wouldn’t even allow Delilah to enter the theater and watch the movie with you?”

Imitation of Life was nominated for best picture of the year and, though it lost to It Happened One Night,  Imitation of Life is still historically important as the first best picture nominee to attempt to deal with racism in America.  (Despite a strong pre-nomination campaign, Louise Beavers failed to receive a nomination.  It would be another 5 years before Hattie McDaniel would be the first African-American nominee and winner for her role as Mammy in Gone With The Wind.  Interestingly enough, McDaniel got the role after Beavers turned it down.)

Following the box office success of Imitation of Life, there were several films made about “passing.”  The majority of them starred white actresses as light-skinned African-American characters.  Imitation of Life was unique in that Fredi Washington, who played Peola, actually was African-American.  As will be obvious to anyone who watches Imitation of Life, Fredi Washington had both the talent and the beauty to be a major star.  However, she was considered to be too sophisticated to play a maid or to take on any of the comedy relief roles that were usually given to African-American performers.  (And, as an African-American, no major studio would cast her in a lead or romantic role.)  As such, her film career ended just three years after Imitation of Life and she spent the next 50 years as a stage performer and a civil rights activist.  (For an interesting look at the history of African-Americans in the film industry, I would suggest checking out Donald Bogle’s Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood.)  

Like Peola, Washington herself could have passed for white.  She was often asked if she was ever tempted to do so.  I’m going to end this review with the answer that she gave to a reporter from The Chicago Defender:

“I have never tried to pass for white and never had any desire, I am proud of my race. In ‘Imitation of Life’, I was showing how a girl might feel under the circumstances but I am not showing how I felt.  I am an American citizen and by God, we all have inalienable rights and wherever those rights are tampered with, there is nothing left to do but fight…and I fight. How many people do you think there are in this country who do not have mixed blood, there’s very few if any, what makes us who we are, are our culture and experience. No matter how white I look, on the inside I feel black. There are many whites who are mixed blood, but still go by white, why such a big deal if I go as Negro, because people can’t believe that I am proud to be a Negro and not white. To prove I don’t buy white superiority I chose to be a Negro.”