An Offer You Can’t Refuse #1: The Public Enemy (dir by William Wellman)


For this month, I’ve decided to review movies about mobsters.

There’s no specific reason for that, beyond the fact that I just happen to love mobster movies.  Of course, a good gangster film is rarely just about crime.  Anyone who has ever seen The Godfather can tell you that.  At their best, American gangster films are about the American dream and the lengths that some will go to achieve it.

Plus, they’re just a lot of fun to watch.  Some of the greatest actors of all time made their mark in gangster films.

Take 1931’s The Public Enemy, for instance.

Produced during the final days of prohibition and the early years of the Great Depression, The Public Enemy tells the story of three boys who grew up poor.  Tom Powers (James Cagney) and his friend, Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) pursued a life of crime, rising through the ranks of organized crime before eventually meeting a tragic end.  The third, Mike Powers (Donald Cook), stayed on the straight-and-narrow path.  He went into the Marines and he rebuked his brother, Tom, when he discovered that Tom’s money was due to “blood and beer.”

The film opens and closes with a title card that basically tells us that Mike Powers has the right idea but, when you watch the film, you can’t help but wonder if maybe Tom had a point about his brother being kind of a sap.  Mike might be a decent citizen and he might have a chestful of medals as the result of his wartime heroics but what else does he have?  Tom Powers, meanwhile, has no education and, it would appear, no conscience, no real friends, and no one that he really loves and yet he becomes a rich man who is acquainted with powerful figures.  While Mike stays at home with their mother, Tom lives in an ornate penthouse.  When his first girlfriend (Mae Clarke) gets on his nerves, Tom shoves a grapefruit in her face and then gets an even more glamorous girlfriend, Gwen (Jean Harlow).  (Meanwhile, even dumb old Matt is doing okay for himself, marrying a woman played by Joan Blondell.)  It’s hard not to imagine that the film’s original audience — who were still reeling from the Stock Market Crash of 1929 — looked at Mike and Tom Powers and quickly decided that they’d much rather be a part of Tom’s life than Mike’s.  Even if Tom is destined for an early grave or a lifetime behind bars, at least he appears to be having fun.  Speaking for myself, I’d much rather go out with the guy who has nice clothe and his own luxury apartment than with the self-righteous dud who is still living at home with his mother.

Of course, another reason why we gravitate towards Tom Powers is because he’s played by James Cagney, who was one of the most charismatic of the stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age and whose performance still holds up today.  Cagney gives a ferocious performance, snarling out his lines and always moving like a caged animal, even when he’s just preparing to have breakfast.  He’s full of an energy that’s both dangerous and exciting to watch.  Cagney also brings a very powerful anger to the role of Tom Powers.  As played Cagney, Tom Power is not just a criminal because he’s greedy.  He’s also a criminal because he has no use for a society that he feels has rejected him since birth and which has never given him a fair chance.  He becomes wealthy not just because he wants money but because he wants to taunt everyone who ever said that he wouldn’t amount to anything.  He’s every crime is more than act of greed.  It’s also an act of rebellion, a joyful to a society that wants to tell people what they’re allowed to believe and do.  He’s the ultimate 1930s rebel, giving the the finger to not only the two Hoovers (Herbert and J. Edgar) but also to the good government leftists would be soon be swept into power with FDR.  Despite the fact that The Public Enemy was made nearly 90 years ago, there’s nothing creaky about Cagney’s performance.  It still feels vital and powerful today and it elevates the entire film.

The Public Enemy holds up surprisingly well.  The film may be close to 90 but Cagney’s ferocious performance still feels fresh and powerfully alive.

 

4 Shots From 4 Inaugural Oscar Winners: Wings, Sunrise, The Last Command, Seventh Heaven


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking.

Today is the 90th anniversary of the very first Academy Awards ceremony!

On May 16th, 1929, a private dinner was held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, California.  The dinner was largely meant to celebrate the establishment of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  The brainchild of Louis B. Mayer, the AMPAS was founded to help mediate labor disputes between the studios and the unions.  As almost an afterthought, it was decided that AMPAS would also give out annual awards to honor the best films of the year.

12 awards were handed out on May 16th, before an audience of 270 people.  The entire awards ceremony took 15 minutes.  That’s quite a contrast to what the Academy eventually became.

In honor of that 15-minute ceremony, here’s….

4 Shots From 4 Films Honored At The Very First Oscar Ceremony

Wings (1927, dir by William Wellman) Won The Outstanding Production Awards

Sunrise (1927, dir by F.W. Murnau) Won Best Unique and Artistic Picture

The Last Command (1928, dir by Josef von Sternberg) Won Best Actor — Emil Jannings

Seventh Heaven (1927, dir by Frank Borzage) Winner Best Actress — Janet Gaynor

Along with her performance in Seventh Heaven, Janet Gaynor was also honored for her work in Street Angel and Sunrise.  Emil Jannings was honored for his work in both The Last Command and The Way of all Flesh,

Here’s what else won at the inaugural Oscar ceremony:

Best Direction, Comedy Picture — Lewis Milestone for Two Arabian Knights

Best Direction, Drama Picture — Frank Borzage for Seventh Heaven

Best Original Story — Ben Hecht for Underworld

Best Adaptation — Benjamin Glazer for Seventh Heaven, based on the play by Austin Strong

Best Art Direction — William Cameron Menzies for The Dove and Tempest

Best Cinematography — Charles Rosher and Karl Struss for Sunrise

Best Engineering Effects — Roy Pomeroy for Wings

Best Title Writing — Joseph Farnham for Fair Co-Ed; Laugh, Clown, Laugh; and Telling the World.

Bump’N’Grind: LADY OF BURLESQUE (United Artists 1943)


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Famed striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee published a steamy mystery novel called “The G-String Murders” in 1941, all about backstage intrigue at a burlesque house. The book was a best seller, and so of course Hollywood came a-calling, and William Wellman was assigned the director’s job for LADY OF BURLESQUE, a somewhat sanitized version of Gypsy’s racy tome, though Wellman and screenwriter James Gunn got away with what they could in those heavy-handed Production Code days.

The film opens with the glittering lights of The Great White Way, then takes a turn onto 42nd Street, where benevolent burlesque impresario S.B. Foss (J. Edward Bromberg) has purchased the old Opera House to present his bump’n’grind shows. Barbara Stanwyck plays new headliner Dixie Daisy, and (as they said back then) va-va-voom…

La Stanwyck is some kinda hot in her skimpy Edith Head-designed costume! Dixie sings “Take It Off the E-String, Put It…

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4 Shots From 4 Clara Bow Films: It, Wings, Dangerous Curves, Call Her Savage


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking.

Happy birthday to my pre-code role model, the amazing Clara Bow!

4 Shots From 4 Clara Bow Films

It (1927, dir by Clarence G. Badger)

Wings (1928, dir by William Wellman)

Dangerous Curves (1929, dir by Lothar Mendes)

Call Her Savage (1932, dir by John Francis Dillon)

 

Pre Code Confidential #20: SAFE IN HELL (Warner Brothers 1931)


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“Wild Bill” Wellman  gave us some of the wildest movies of the Pre-Code Era: THE PUBLIC ENEMY, NIGHT NURSE, FRISCO JENNY, HEROES FOR SALE, WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD. But for sheer, unadulterated sleaze, you can’t beat SAFE IN HELL, chock full of lust, murder, shady characters, and a marvelous performance by the virtually forgotten Dorothy Mackaill.

Scantily clad Gilda Karlson (Mackaill) is a New Orleans prostitute, and there’s no doubt about it right from the get-go! We see her lounging around as she takes a call from her madam (Cecil Cunningham) to go out on a job and show a john a good time. That john turns out to be Piet van Saal (Ralf Harolde), the man she was caught in flagrante delicto with by his wife, leading to her current sordid life. Piet tries to rekindle that old flame (for a price, of course), but Gilda turns him…

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Cleaning out the DVR: Night Nurse (dir by William A. Wellman)


(Lisa is once again cleaning out her DVR!  She recorded the 1931 film Night Nurse off of TCM on May 3rd.)

Night Nurse follows the sordid nights and quiet days of Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck), a high school dropout who dreams of becoming a nurse.  Fortunately, she manages to get hired on as a trainee nurse at a big city hospital.  Along the way, she gets a new BFF (Joan Blondell), a potential new boyfriend named Mortie (Ben Lyon), who is not only handsome and nice but a bootlegger too, and valuable life lessons on how to defend herself against smirky male doctors.  Yay!

Unfortunately, even if you manage to survive the rigorous training program, the life of a night nurse is never easy.  For instance, Lora gets hired to help look after the Ritchie children.  The Ritchies may be rich but they’ve got so much drama going on that maybe it would be better if they were poor.  The kids, for instance, are always sick and their doctor (Ralf Harolde) is apparently hooked on morphine.  The mother (Charlotte Merriam) is always passed out drunk.  Meanwhile, the family’s chauffeur, Nick (Clark Gable!), is a total brute who appears to have dangerous plans of his own.

Made in 1931, Night Nurse is a pre-code film, which is to say that it was made before the production code mandated what was and was not acceptable in the movies.  Occasionally, among film fans like myself, there’s a tendency to assume that any pre-code film is actually going to be some sort of subversive, over-the-top masterpiece.  We always think about the epic orgies that Cecil B. DeMille would slip into his silent films or maybe Douglas Fairbanks playing a constantly sniffing detective named Coke Ennyday in The Mystery of the Leaping Fish or the old stories about anonymous stagehands accidentally getting gunned down during the filming of Little Caesar or The Public Enemy.  However, just as often, the pre-code label just means that a film is going to feature a few winky double entendres, a bootlegger hero, and at last one scene of the film’s heroine getting undressed.  If you want to become an expert on 1930s lingerie, just spend a weekend watching pre-code films.

That’s certainly the case with Night Nurse, which only takes 7 minute to reach its first scene of nurses changing out of street clothes and into uniform.  As for the bootlegger hero, that’s taken care of as soon as Mortie shows up and flashes his charming smile despite having a bullet in his hand.  As played by Ben Lyon, Mortie is not exactly the most convincing gangster to ever show up in a pre-code film but no matter!  He’s got charm and not every gangster can be Edward G. Robinson…

If it sound like I’m being critical of Night Nurse, I’m not.  I watch Night Nurse every time that it shows up on TCM and I actually love the film.  It’s a cheerfully silly melodrama, the type of innocently risqué film that could only be made during the pre-code era.  Stanwyck and Blondell are a perfect team and whenever I listened to them trade sarcastic quips or watched them as they try to get away with breaking curfew, I couldn’t help but think of my own friends.  Seriously, everyone should be as lucky as to have a BFF like Joan Blondell.  And finally, you get Clark Gable as the bad guy.  Gable is really mean and hateful in this movie and it takes a while to get used to seeing him without his mustache.  To be honest, he’s not as handsome without the facial hair.  But still — he’s Clark freaking Gable and, even in this early role, he had so much charisma and screen presence that it’s impossible not to watch him.

I was going to start this review by saying that Night Nurse sounded like a good title for an MCU film.  However, my boyfriend informed me that apparently, there actually was a Marvel comic book called Night Nurse.  Apparently, it had nothing to do with this movie.  That’s a shame but hopefully, someone at Lifetime will read this review and decide to remake Night Nurse with an all Canadian cast.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed on this one!

Anyway, Night Nurse shows up on TCM constantly.  Keep an eye out for it!

4 Shots From 4 Films: Dancing Mothers, It, Wings, The Wild Party


Happy birthday, Clara Bow!

4 Shots From 4 Films

Dancing Mothers (1926, dir by Herbert Brenon)

It (1927, directed by Clarence Badger)

Wings (1927, dir by William Wellman)

The Wild Party (1929, dir by Dorothy Arzner)

The Fabulous Forties #50: Lady of Burlesque (dir by William A. Wellman)


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Way back in April, I started on a series of reviews.  I announced that I would be watching and reviewing all 50 of the public domain films included in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set.

At the time, I expected that it would take me maybe two weeks.  At the most, two and a half.  After all, I wondered, how long can I take?  Well, needless to say, it took me a little longer than two weeks.  In fact, it took me nearly 3 months.  (In my defense, May turned out to be a very busy month for me and I wasn’t able to review a single Fabulous Forties film.)  However, what’s important is that, after all this time, I am currently writing up the last of my Fabulous Forties reviews!

(And, right now, you’re reading it.)

On the whole, the Fabulous Forties has turned out to be pretty uneven box set.  It contains a few classics, like My Man Godfrey, His Girl Friday, and The Last Chance.  There are several good films, like The Black Book and Trapped.  And then there’s quite a few mediocre and forgettable films, like The Town Went Wild and Jungle Man.  (Dear God, Jungle Man…)  As I started on the final film in the set, I wasn’t sure what I was about to see…

Well, no worries!  The Fabulous Forties ends on a high note!  The 50th film is the wonderfully entertaining 1943 comedy-musical-mystery Lady of Burlesque!

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Lady of Burlesque (which was released in the UK under the title Striptease Lady) takes place in an old and somewhat decrepit New York burlesque house, the type of place where the audience is almost all male, the owners are somewhat sleazy, and the performers are a cross between cynical veterans and naive newcomers who are hoping for their first big break.

As quickly becomes apparent, the theater would fall apart if not for its main attraction, Dixie Daisy (Barbara Stanwyck).  Dixie serves as a mentor for the newcomers and a confidante for the veterans.  She knows how to keep the audience entertained, even when two dancers are loudly screaming at each other offstage.  She knows how to deal with the sleazy owners and how to placate the owners of the Chinese restaurant next door.  Dixie also knows better than to get romantically involved with any of male comics who perform at the theater but that doesn’t stop her from flirting with one of them, Biff Brannigan (Micahel O’Shea, playing his role with an almost poignant earnestness).  As I watched the film, I could tell that Barbara Stanwyck was neither a natural dancer nor singer but it didn’t matter because, whether Dixie was trying to keep peace backstage or performing onstage and singing a song called, “Take It Off The E-String, Play It On The G-String,” Stanwyck totally committed herself to the role.

Plus, her outfits were to die for!

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Seriously, as I watched Lady of Burlesque, I totally wanted to get a job dancing in an old timey burlesque house!  If only I had a time machine…

Of course, it should be understood that the acts in Lady of Burlesque are risqué but, by today’s standards, they’re also rather innocent.   The jokes may be full of double meaning but it’s all hidden in the subtext.  The costumes may be sexy but they also stay on.  (That probably had more to do with the production code than to do with the realities of 1940s burlesque.)

Anyway, Lady of Burlesque is technically a murder mystery but mostly, it’s just an excuse to show the performances happening onstage and a few comedic (and occasionally dramatic) vignettes of what it was like to be backstage in a burlesque house.  Two dancers are murdered but the show must go on.  Even as Dixie solves the murders and tries to keep everyone calm, the show must go on.  In fact, that’s one of the true joys of Lady of Burlesque.  Regardless of what madness might be going on backstage, the show never stops!  In fact, the film often seems undecided about whether or not the backstage murders are bad because of the loss of life or the fact that they threaten to interrupt the performances onstage.  Lady of Burlesque becomes a tribute to the work ethic of entertainers everywhere!

Lady of Burlesque was based on a novel by Gypsy Rose Lee.  The name of that novel was The G-String Murders.  Not surprisingly, that title was changed for the film version.

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Well, that concludes the Fabulous Forties!  In a few weeks, I’ll start in on my next Mill Creek box set, the Nifty Fifties!  Until then, enjoy Lady of Burlesque!

4 Shots From 4 Films: Madam Satan, Safe In Hell, Rasputin and the Empress, and Search For Beauty


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films.  As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films is all about letting the visuals do the talking.

All of the scenes below come from films that were made and released between the introduction of sound in the late 1920s and the adoption of the infamous Hays Production Code in 1934.  This was truly an exciting time for film as an art form.  Not only were filmmakers intoxicated with discovering what they could accomplish through the medium but they were also unhindered by censorship or regulation.  The end result was some of the most visually imaginative and narratively daring films to ever be released by the major American studios.

There’s a reason why film lovers continue to eagerly seek out pre-code films.  And if you want to experience what made the pre-Code era so memorable, you could not do any worse than to start with the four films featured in this post.

Madam Satan (1930, dir by Cecil B. DeMille)

Madam Satan (1930, dir by Cecil B. DeMille)

Safe in Hell (1931)

Safe in Hell (1931, dir by William Wellman)

Rasputin and the Empress (1932, dir by Richard Boleslawski)

Rasputin and the Empress (1932, dir by Richard Boleslawski)

Search For Beauty (1934, dir by Erle C. Kenton)

Search For Beauty (1934, dir by Erle C. Kenton)

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #9: A Star is Born (dir by William Wellman)


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“Hello everybody.  This is Mrs. Norman Maine.”

— Mrs. Norman Maine (Janet Gaynor) in A Star Is Born (1937)

When I first saw the red neon of the opening credits of the 1937 best picture nominee, A Star Is Born, I thought to myself, “This is a real movie movie.”  And I was so impressed by that thought that I even jotted it down in my review notes and now, looking down at my notes, I’m struggling to figure out how to explain just what exactly it was that I meant.

I think that what I was trying to say, in my own way, was that, when we think of a typical big budget Hollywood romance, A Star Is Born is the type of film of which we tend to think.  It’s a big, glossy film that is shot in vibrant technicolor and which features a self-sacrificing woman (Esther Blodgett, played by Janet Gaynor) falling in love with a self-destructive but ultimately noble man (Norman Maine, played by Fredric March).  It’s a film that has romance, humor, and tragedy.  It’s a film that’s designed to make you laugh, cry, and ultimately fall in love.  It’s pure melodrama, the type of film that would probably be made for Lifetime today.  (And, in fact, it has been remade for Lifetime a number of times, just never under the title A Star Is Born.)

It’s a familiar story that, if I may indulge in a cliché, as old as the movies.  Esther is a girl who lives on a farm in North Dakota and she wants to be a star, despite being told by her aunt that she need to start concentrating on finding a man and having children.  Esther’s grandmother (Fay Robson) tells Eleanor to pursue her dreams and loans her some money to take with her to Hollywood.

With stars in her eyes, Esther goes out to California and deals with rejection after rejection.  (She does, however, manage to rent out an apartment.  The weekly rent is $6.00.)  Esther does befriend an assistant director (Andy Devine) who gets Esther a job as a waitress at a party.  As Esther serves the food, she imitates everyone from Katharine Hepburn to Mae West, all in an attempt to get noticed.

And, amazingly enough, it works!  She meets film star, Norman Maine.  With Norman’s help, she gets her first screen test and, after her name is changed to Vicki Lester, Esther is put under contract to a studio.  She and Norman also fall in love and soon end up married.  However, while Vicki Lester is rising to stardom, Norman is descending into irrelevance.  He’s an alcoholic who has managed to alienate almost everyone in Hollywood.  When Vicki wins her first award, Norman shows up at the ceremony drunk and destroys what little is left of his career.

Will Vicki be able to save Norman from his demons?  And will she be able to do so without destroying her own career?

Well, you probably already know the answer.  A Star Is Born is one of those stories that everyone seems to know, regardless of whether they’ve actually seen the film or not.  (And even if they haven’t seen the 1937 version, chances are that they’ve seen one of the many remakes or ripoffs.)  The original Star Is Born is an undeniably familiar and old-fashioned movie but it holds up as a celebration of both old Hollywood glamour and a heartfelt romance.

And it’s in the public domain!

Watch the original A Star is Born below!