Friday, December 26, 2014
'Forbidden Hollywood' V8: Sinsational Amorality Tales
The wonderfully decadent fun in the four pre-Code films that comprise the Warner Archive DVD set "Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 8" revolve around deliciously naughty characters who either got coal in their Christmas stockings or ended up having Krampus the anti-Claus stuff them in a sack and throw them in a river.
The Unreal TV review of "Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 7" provides a primer on the concept of the Hays Code and the story elements that exist in films before the Code standards becomes the buzzkill of the motion picture industry.
V8 starts with the most witty of the lot; "Blonde Crazy" from 1931 starring the always excellent James Cagney and Joan Blondell has enough double entendres, suggestive dialogue, and sly glances for an entire season of the '70s sitcom "Three's Company." An example of the racy (and witty) tone in the film is Cagney's smooth operator Bert Harris telling Blondell's titular blonde Anne Roberts that she will not have to spend her days working if she sticks with him and her responding by asking whether she will need to work nights.
This film gets underway with Bert dragging Anne on a con-funded cross-country trip to get revenge on grifters who outgrifted him. This results in a wonderful scheme and twists that do not fully support either the notion that crime never pays nor the Code standard that every criminal must end up in jail or dead.
Fellow 1931 film "Strangers May Kiss" stars Hollywood royalty Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery as sweeties Lisbeth and Steve. The salacious rub this time is that Lisbeth leaves the very kind and nice marriage-oriented Steve to live in sin with the more daring and free-spirited Alan. Neil Hamilton, who also stars in the soon-to-be-reviewed silent film "Why Be Good," goes onto play Commissioner Gordon in the '66 "Batman" series.
The pre-Code elements of this one include a rather tragic suicide related to a particularly cynical pre-Code accepted plot line.
Poor Lisbeth learns on choosing Alan over Steve that cads cannot be trusted and suffers the consequences. This not so melo melodrama ends with a highly symbolic walk up the aisle.
"Hi, Nellie" moves things to 1934 and wonderfully combines the genres of a big-city newspaper comedy and light noir; the title refers to the pen-name of the poor sucker who suffers the punishment of being stuck with writing the lovelorn advice column of the rag around which "Nellie" revolves. In this case, managing editor "Brad" Bradshaw gets that job after not following the pack in believing that a prominent citizen is guilty of running off with the money that causes a bank failure.
Regular Oscar nominee for his dramatic roles (and Best Actor winner for "The Last Angry Man") Paul Muni does a great job portraying Brad as a highly skilled and almost equally frustrated newspaperman who does not suffer fools gladly. Very prolific film and television actress Glenda Farrell does just as well as plucky girl reporter Gerry whose previous sins make her the prior Nellie, and who gets sprung when Brad ends up with the job.
Although the underlying criminal plot regarding the theft of the bank funds is not much more clever than a Scooby-Doo plot, the interactions among the reporters and others at the paper is very entertaining. Additionally, the on-screen chemistry of Muni and Farrell does not approach that of Tracy and Hepburn but is at least as good as that of fellow newspaper pros Cain and Hatcher.
One of the best scenes in "Nellie" has Gerry forcing Brad to pose as her secretary; a similar scene shows that this gal is not afraid to fight fire (or door slams) with the same.
V8 winds up with the aptly titled 1934 Edward G. Robinson film "Dark Hazard." This one has Robinson playing compulsive gambler/tough guy Jim Turner, whose enormous chip in his shoulder and addiction seriously threatens his relationship with the very loving Marge Mayhew.
"Hazard" comes the closest to the four in V8 to being a morality tale; Turner greatly suffers regarding his addiction and experiences a couple of Hollywood miracles that are reminiscent of post-Code Hollywood.
Aside from being good or very good, these films provide a nice reminder of the days when hangups do not interfere with making a really fun film. This is especially true regarding "Blonde," which opens with a scene in which two highly probable prostitutes jadedly banter about catching the eye of the hotel detective in a lobby. Sixty years later, Hollywood glamorizes this by having the hooker wind up with the American Gigolo (dashing naval officer) of her dreams.
Anyone with questions or comments regarding V8 is welcome to email me; you can also connect on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.