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

“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 down flat (“You don’t think I’d drink with you, you son of a…”). When Piet gets too aggressive, Gilda whips a bottle of hootch at his head, knocking him cold,  and scrams just as his apartment catches fire. All this, and we’re only about ten minutes in!

The cops have a description of Gilda leaving the scene and, just as she’s about to take it on the lam, her seafaring beau Carl (Donald Woods) shows up at the door, newly promoted to officer and dying to get hitched. Gilda confesses all, including how she’s been paying the rent while he’s been away, and Carl almost walks out, but when they hear sirens wailing outside, he helps her escape. Carl smuggles her by crate to the Caribbean island of Tortuga, where there’s no extradition treaty. Gilda checks in under an assumed name, and the couple hold a DIY wedding ceremony in an abandoned church. Carl has to depart for the sea once again, leaving Gilda at the hotel amongst a bunch of leering thieves and cutthroats:

The boys: (l-r) Gustav von Seyffertitz, Victor Varconi, Ivan Simpson, Charles Middleton, John Wray (with Clarence Muse in the background)

Since she’s “the only white woman on the island”, these seedy horndogs all try to hit on Gilda, without success. Worse of all is Mr. Bruno (Morgan Wallace ), the island’s jailer and resident hangman, whose lust for Gilda knows no bounds. In fact, the only people kind to her are hotel proprietor Leonie (Nina Mae McKinney) and porter Newcastle (Clarence Muse ), both of whom are black – and may be the only decent people in the film besides love-struck Carl, which was pretty much unheard of in 1931! Carl’s letters to Gilda from sea are being diverted to Bruno, and Gilda, suffering from boredom and longing for Carl, finally exits her room to party with the criminals, drinking and smoking with abandon!

Having blown off some steam, while still remaining faithful to Carl, who should walk into the hotel but a very much alive Piet van Saal! Seems he escape a fiery fate and had his wife cash in on the insurance policy, only to abscond with the loot and head to Tortuga. Gilda’s now free to return to The Big Easy, and wires Carl to give him the good news. Bruno, not wanting her to leave, gives her a gun for protection, knowing full well carrying firearms is illegal. The hangman then goes to get a warrant for her arrest, but once again van Saal gets far too aggressive, attempting to rape Gilda, who shoots him dead (this time it’s permanent!). A trial is held, and it looks like Gilda will get off on self-defense, but Bruno insists she won’t get off on the gun charge, giving her six months in his prison farm, where she’ll do his bidding. Rather than letting Bruno get his slimy hands on her, Gilda bursts into court and states she shot van Saal in cold blood, and she’s convicted. Carl returns from sea, but it’s too late, as Gilda is led to the gallows.

Miss Mackaill is not only sexy as hell, but a fine, natural actress. She was a star in the silent era in such films as THE MAN WHO CAME BACK, THE MINE WITH THE IRON DOOR, CHICKIE, JOANNA, and THE DANCER OF PARIS. Sadly, many of her movies are considered lost today. She had a pleasant voice, good looks, and tons of acting talent, but after losing her contract with First National (which merged with Warners), she was relegated to smaller parts at large studios and bigger ones at the indies. Dorothy Mackaill retired from the screen in 1937, later moving to Hawaii, living at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel as their star in residence. Her last acting roles were a couple of bits on HAWAII FIVE-O before dying of liver failure in 1990.

SAFE IN HELL, with it’s steamy plotline and wicked characters, is a film that could only be made in the Pre-Code Era. Dorothy Mackaill’s performance is top shelf stuff, and Wellman doesn’t pull any punches. Like I always say, they didn’t call him “Wild Bill” for nothing!

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Pre Code Confidential #19: Marlene Dietrich in SHANGHAI EXPRESS (Paramount 1932)

Marlene Dietrich is TCM’S Star of the Month for May, and “Shanghai Express” airs tonight at 12:00 midnight EST. 

A train ride from Peking to Shanghai is fraught with danger and romance in Josef von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS, a whirlwind of a movie starring that Teutonic whirlwind herself, Marlene Dietrich. This was the fourth of their seven collaborations together, and their biggest hit, nominated for three Oscars and winning for Lee Garmes’s striking black and white cinematography.

The Director and his Muse

Dietrich became a huge sensation as the sultry seductress Lola Lola in Sternberg’s 1930 German film THE BLUE ANGEL, and the pair headed to America to work for Paramount. Marlene became the autocratic director’s muse, as he molded her screen image into a glamorous object of lust and desire. Sternberg’s Expressionistic painting of light and shadows, aided by Dietrich’s innate sexuality, turned the former chorus girl and cabaret singer into the ultimate icon of forbidden lust, an exotic carnal creature that rocked audiences all over the world. Just watch her in SHANGHAI EXPRESS, or any of their films together for that matter: Marlene just oozes sex out of every pore!

Here she plays Shanghai Lily, a notorious “coaster” (read: prostitute) travelling with her equally exotic companion Hui Lei (the amazing Anna May Wong). Also on board is British Captain Doc Henry (Clive Brook), whose heart was broken by Lil when she was known as Madeline, before her life of ill-repute (“It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily”, she purrs). There are others on that train: American gambler Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette ), snooty Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale), opium dealer Baum (Gustav von Seffertitz), French Major Lenard (Emile Chautard), pious Reverend Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), and the mysterious Eurasian Henry Wong (Warner Oland), who is in reality leader of the revolutionary Army.

The train is stopped by government forces and a high-ranking rebel is taken into custody. In reprisal, Chang wires ahead, and his men overtake the train. All are questioned by the warlord, and Baum, who insulted Chang earlier, is branded with a hot iron for his insolence. Doc, who’s on his way to operate on Shanghai’s Governor General, is taken hostage to facilitate an exchange for Chang’s officer. The lusty Chang sets his sights on Lily, offering to take her to his hideout, but Doc steps in and decks him, causing Chang to release her and drag her friend Hui into his makeshift headquarters (the implication is Chang rapes her).

Not one to suffer an insult gladly, Chang refuses to release Doc when his man is returned, at least not until he has been blinded. Lily sacrifices her freedom by agreeing to go with Chang, bravely telling Doc it’s of her own free will so he’ll depart. Hui creeps her way through Sternberg’s shadow-world and gets her revenge by stabbing Chang to death, allowing Doc to free Lily, still not knowing she did it for his sake. It takes the sanctimonious Carmichael, who observed Lily praying for Doc’s safety earlier, to uncover the truth, and the former lovers start anew in their quest for happiness.

The supporting cast is excellent, especially Pallette and Oland (“You’re in China, where time and life have no value”). Anna May Wong, a star in her own right since the silent era, is a quiet balance to Dietrich’s more flamboyant Lily, and the two fallen angels (Carmichael describes them as “One is yellow, one is white, but both their souls are rotten”) make quite an enticing pair. The only performance I didn’t care for was Clive Brook’s “stiff upper lip” acting as Doc, but that has more to do with me than Brook himself, who was a popular star in the early 30’s. Familiar Face spotters will have to look fast for the uncredited Forrester Harvey and Willie Fung .

Jules Furthman’s  screenplay is loaded with double entendres and pithy lines, which Dietrich delivers in her signature sensuous style. SHANGHAI EXPRESS, with its outlandish look, noirish shadowplay, and erotic subject matter, is a near-perfect film, and a good starting point for those of you unfamiliar with the provocative Pre-Code wonders of Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg.

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

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. Robinson and a colorful supporting cast.

Robinson and director Mervyn LeRoy , fresh off the hit gangster epic LITTLE CAESAR, reunited for this sordid little tale as E.G. plays Randall, managing editor of the fictional New York Gazette, pressured by his publisher to boost sagging sales by jazzing things up with girlie pics and juicy scandals. Rehashing the twenty year old Nancy Voorhees murder case, in which a young secretary shot and killed her boss/lover, Randall assembles his team to dig up everything they can on her life today. Staff floozie Kitty Carmody hunts down her whereabouts; Nancy is now Mrs. Michael Townsend, whose daughter Jenny is about to be wed to wealthy manufacturing heir Phillip Weeks.

Isopod, an ex-divinity student ejected for drinking and lasciviousness, impersonates a reverend and visits the Townsends, learning the couple is afraid all this bad publicity will harm Jenny, who was born out-of-wedlock and isn’t Michael’s child. A drunken Isopod brings the scoop back to Randall and the smear campaign is on! A distraught Nancy ends up committing suicide; when Michael finds the body he follows suit. Kitty and her photographer sneak into the Townsend’s apartment and take a pic of the two bodies on their bathroom floor. The scandal causes the upper crust Weeks’s to demand the wedding be called off, and a hysterical Jenny grabs a gun and confronts Randall, Isopod, and publisher Hinchcliffe in an amazingly tense dramatic scene, concluding with Randall telling Hinchcliffe just what he can do with his bloody paper!

Robinson’s staccato line delivery and perpetual scowl make Randall seem as real a newspaper man as you can get. Reluctant at first to sensationalize his paper, he dives right into the mudpit to deliver the goods. His forlorn face when he learns of the tragedy is unforgettable, and his compulsive hand washing throughout the movie suggests a man who can never get all the filth off of them. The fact that Robinson, who gave brilliant performances in films like DR. EHRLICH’S MAGIC BULLET, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, SCARLET STREET , KEY LARGO , and so many others, never won an Oscar, only awarded a posthumous statuette two months after his death, is another black eye on the Academy.

A pre-FRANKENSTEIN Boris Karloff plays the unctuous reporter Isopod, a leering slimebag of a man just as creepy as any monster or mad doctor he ever played… maybe creepier! Ona Munson (GONE WITH THE WIND’s Belle Watling) is Kitty, the girl who’s “been around”, George E. Stone (E.G.’s LITTLE CAESAR henchman) is Ziggie, a street hardened “idea man”, and Aline MacMahon makes her film debut as Randall’s secretary Miss Taylor, who’s secretly in love with her boss. Marian Marsh as Jenny is cloying at first, but heats things up when she becomes unhinged at the end. Veterans H.B. Warner and Frances Starr as Michael and Nancy are okay, but Anthony Bushell is rah-ther wooden as Phillip. Familiar Faces include Oscar Apfel, Gladys Lloyd (Mrs. Edward G. Robinson), and the hypnotic Polly Walters as an uncredited switchboard operator.

One innovative scene I found fascinating was a triple-split screen with Nancy frantically trying to call Randall and Hinchcliffe, leading to her death. Le Roy moves his camera to good effect; the film is rarely static, yet LeRoy’s work as director seems to get overlooked in conversations among film buffs today. FIVE STAR FINAL is admittedly creaky in some spots, but overall holds up well, and is as relevant in today’s world as it was 87 years ago. The more things change, the more they remain the same… and more’s the pity.

Richard Outcault’s The Yellow Kid

Pre Code Confidential #17: BED OF ROSES (RKO 1933)

If someone you know is one of those film fans wondering what’s all the hubbub about “Pre-Code” films, may I make a suggestion? Watch BED OF ROSES with them, a totally amoral concoction from director Gregory LaCava , with Constance Bennett and Pert Kelton getting about as sinful as Stormy Daniels without actually performing onscreen sex! This one’ll have your eyes popping out seeing what they could get away with back in 1933, when the Great Depression was at its lowest and lust was riding high!

Lorry Evans (our gal Constance) and her pal Minnie Brown (the devilishly delightful Kelton) have just been released from a Louisiana slammer after serving time for hooking. You’d think they’d have learned their lesson, but no… soon as they get out, Minnie sweet talks a trucker for a ride, offering to pay by hopping in the back with him while Lorry drives! These two ‘ladies’ then hop a steamboat to The Big Easy, looking to fleece some chumps. Minnie manages to score some hootch and hooks up with a couple of travelling salesmen, while Lorry’s got her eye on bigger game, namely rich publisher Stephen Page. When Lorry gets busted ripping off one of the chump’s wallet, she takes a swan dive straight into the mighty Mississippi.

Fortunately for Lorry (and the film… otherwise it’d be shorter than its 67 minutes!), she’s fished out of the river by Dan, captain of a cotton barge. When they pull into port, Lorry scoots off with Dan’s loot and, passing herself off as a reporter, slinks her way into the sanctimonious Page’s office. She gets the publisher bombed, and sets things up so when he awakens, he gets the impression they had wild sex! Scheming Lorry blackmails the older Page, who sets her up in a luxurious ‘love nest’. Lorry’s living large now!

But the larcenous little sexpot feels bad about Dan, and returns to the docks to repay his dough, telling him she has a job as a “governess”. Dan, who’s kinda sweet on her despite her grafting ways, wants to take her out, but she can’t commit. Who pops up at Lorry’s penthouse digs but old pal Minnie, now married to one of those chumps, and Lorry confesses to her friend that she’s falling in love with Dan. He proposes, but Lorry gets cold feet when sugar daddy Page threatens to tell Dan what she’s really all about. A wild Mardi Gras party ends up with Lorry on the run, but true love is triumphant in the end.

Constance Bennett doesn’t get the attention many actress of the era do today, but at the time she was the highest paid actress in Hollywood. Films like SIN TAKES A HOLIDAY, WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? (which served as the basis for A STAR IS BORN), OUR BETTERS, and MOULIN ROUGE were box office smashes, as were later ones like TOPPER and MERRILY WE LIVE. By the 40’s Constance’s film career was practically over, though she’d invested wisely and was a very rich woman. She’s sexy, saucy, and a whole lot of fun in this one, a go-go golddigger who will use whatever means necessary to reach her goal of easy living, until she meets her match with Captain Dan.

Speaking of a whole lot of fun, I can’t say enough about Pert Kelton’s Minnie. In films such as THE BOWERY, THE MEANEST GAL IN TOWN, KELLY THE SECOND, and YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, Pert is as brassy as the best of ’em, and her presence always livens up the proceedings. She was the original Alice Kramden in Jackie Gleason’s THE HONEYMOONERS comedy sketches, but the dreaded blacklist forced her out. Pert Kelton was off screens large and small until the early 60’s, when she staged a mini comeback with supporting roles in THE MUSIC MAN, LOVE AND KISSES, and THE COMIC , and a smattering of TV appearances.

Joel McCrea  was a young up-and-comer when cast as Dan, and his easygoing charm was already evident. John Halliday (Page) is one of those Familiar Faces I’m always talking about; his best known part is as Katherine Hepburn’s father in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. Jane Darwell , Tom Herbert, Matt McHugh , Robert Emmett O’Connor, Franklin Pangborn , and Samuel S. Hinds also pop up in small roles. The dialog and situations are about as risqué as you could get back then without having the theater raided, and LaCava keeps it all running smooth and brisk. BED OF ROSES makes for a great introduction to the Pre-Code Era, and will have you drooling for more like those chumps drooling for more of Lorry and Minnie. It doesn’t get shown very often, but is well worth seeking out!

 

Pre Code Confidential #16: Gable & Harlow in RED DUST (MGM 1932)

(Hello, all! I haven’t been able to do much posting this week due to a severe bout of sciatica. I’m starting to feel better, and have watched tons of films while recuperating… stay tuned!)

  

Rising young MGM stars Clark Gable (31) and Jean Harlow (21) were red-hot in 1932, and the studio teamed them for the first time in the steamy romance RED DUST. Actually, Gable and Harlow had acted together in the previous year’s gangster epic THE SECRET SIX, but as part of the ensemble. RED DUST marked their first pairing as a screen team, and the duo make the film burn as hot as the sweltering jungle setting!

He-man Gable plays he-man Denny Carson, owner of a rubber plantation in French Indochina (now known as Vietnam). Denny’s a no-nonsense, tough taskmaster, as hard on his foremen as he is on the coolies. Into this manly milieu steps Vantine (Harlow), a platinum blonde Saigon hooker who travelled by supply boat looking for a place to lay low for a while. Denny’s originally against the idea, but Vantine’s playfulness soon cracks his macho armor, and the two become more than just friends.

Vantine’s about to leave on the return trip (Denny tells her, “Goodbye kid, nice having ya!”), when new engineer Gary Willis (Gene Raymond) and his refined bride Barbara (Mary Astor ) come ashore. The happy hooker notices that certain look on Denny’s face when he spots Babs, and gets jealous, hoping to rekindle things with Denny down the road. Gary has developed “fever” (malaria?), and reluctant Denny helps nurse him back to health, hoping to score points with beautiful Barbara.

Guess who drops back in – it’s Vantine, after the old scow gets disabled chugging down the swamp. Denny warns her not to interfere as he sends Gary and his men out on a month-long surveying mission, making sure Barbara stays behind. Monsoon season is about to arrive, but there’s also a storm brewing  between Denny, Barbara, and Vantine…

RED DUST has the justly famous scene with a nude Harlow bathing in a rain barrel, a sequence where she’s flirty, flippant, and a whole lot of fun as Gable tries to keep her from Astor’s prying eyes. Gable and Harlow have such great chemistry together, calling each other ‘Fred’ and ‘Lily’, and their sex appeal is still heating up viewers 80+ years later. The suggestive dialogue is hot as ever, and that final scene where Harlow’s reading Gable a children’s story while he’s recuperating from a gunshot wound (“Hippity-hop, hippity-hop”, she coos while Gable tries to get frisky) is a Pre-Code classic. It’s easy to see why RED DUST put them both in the upper echelons of MGM stardom.

Stereotyped but wonderful Willie Fung

There’s chemistry and sexual tension too between Gable and costar Mary Astor. The film gave an added boost to her career as well, and Astor went on to become one of Hollywood’s finest actresses. Gene Raymond, as the cuckolded husband, was known primarily as a song-and-dance man, but here the only song-and-dance he gets is from Gable! Familiar Faces slogging through the brutal swamp include Donald Crisp, Forrester Harvey, and Tully Marshall. Comic relief of a sort is supplied by Willie Fung, a Chinese actor relegated to stereotyped servant roles. Some may view Fung’s movie parts as being racist (and they were – times were different), but Mr. Fung managed to make quite a good living in Hollywood, appearing in 138 films, from 1922’s HURRICANE’S GAL to 1944’s THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN. Though many times he went uncredited, movie buffs all know it’s Willie whenever he pops up!

John Lee Mahin delivers a rugged script, and director Victor Fleming was an MGM workhorse whose credits include THE WIZARD OF OZ, GONE WITH THE WIND, and tons of classic films you’ve all seen. RED DUST was a sizzling success, raking in over a million dollars in the midst of the Depression Era, and made both Gable and Harlow forces to be reckoned with in Hollywood. 21 years later, John Ford directed a remake, MOGAMBO, with a now 52-year-old Gable reprising his leading role, and co-starring Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly (Jean Harlow having died tragically of kidney disease at age 26). The story scorched the box office once again, but as much I love Ford, I prefer the original, where Clark Gable and Jean Harlow simultaneously seduced us all, and soared their way into the Hollywood stratosphere.

More ‘Pre-Code Confidential’!!:

1. James Cagney in LADY KILLER

2. Walter Huston in KONGO

3. Joan Blondell in MAKE ME A STAR

4. Boris Karloff in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU

5. The All-Star HOLLYWOOD PARTY

6. Gable & Harlow in THE SECRET SIX

7. Loretta Young in PLAY-GIRL

8. Barbara Stanwyck in BABY FACE

9. Cagney & Blondell in BLONDE CRAZY

10. Claudette Colbert in DeMille’s CLEOPATRA

11. 1931’s THE MALTESE FALCON

12. Joan Crawford in DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE

13. Wallace Beery in John Ford’s FLESH

14. Lee Tracy & Lupe Velez in THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH

15. Cagney (again!) in THE MAYOR OF HELL

 

Pre Code Confidential #15: James Cagney in THE MAYOR OF HELL (Warner Brothers 1933)

The Brothers Warner never shied away from social issues of the Depression Era in their films, from bootlegging gangsters (LITTLE CAESAR, THE PUBLIC ENEMY) to “yellow” journalism (FIVE STAR FINAL, PICTURE SNATCHER) to  rampant illicit sex (BABY FACE, CONVENTION CITY)… even the musical GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 featured an ode to the unemployed and destitute, “Remember My Forgotten Man”. THE MAYOR OF HELL tackles the juvenile justice system, as a gang of slum kids get tossed in a reform school run by a crooked superintendent and suffer extremely harsh conditions, until a political hack takes over and implements change. The hack… why, it’s none other than Jimmy Cagney !

Cagney bursts on the scene in typical Cagney fashion about a third of the way  into the movie, pulling up to the prison gate as the guard demands to know who goes there: “Gargan, the new deputy commissioner, ya screw!”. Patsy Gargan may be a ward heeler and got his job through political patronage, but he was a slum kid himself once, and when he witnesses the brutality going on, he tells Superintendent Thompson, “I’m gonna run this racket my way from now on!”. Of course, Patsy’s not totally altruistic; he’s hot for prison nurse Dorothy Griffin, whose ideas to make the school a better place (like the kids self-governing, better food, no more whippings) he helps implement.

Patsy’s got other problems on the outside, and when he goes to deal with a crook trying to muscle in on his voting racket, he winds up accidentally shooting the thug and has to take it on the lam, leaving the school back in Thompson’s hands. The old way of doing things return, but when one sickly youngster ends up dying in the ‘cooler’, the kids take matters into their own hands, starting a riot and putting Thompson on trial, finding him guilty of murder. Thompson jumps out the window and is chased to the top of a barn, which the kids set afire, causing Thompson’s death! Patsy returns just in the nick of time, before the kids raze the school to the ground.

 

Though Cagney’s the nominal star here, the spotlight falls on the street punks, a wild bunch of boys if there ever was one. Frankie Darro , soon to star a few months later in William Wellman’s WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, is ringleader Jimmy, a cocky kid with a bad attitude that no one can reach… until Cagney comes along. The early scenes of the kids depict their hardscrabble lives, raising hell on the streets, and being sentenced in court.  Though they come from differing (and, admittedly, stereotyped) ethnicities, they share a common bond of poverty and lack of education, learning crime as a way to make a fast buck. Among them are Our Gang’s Allen “Farina” Hoskins, outstanding in a dramatic role for once; Raymond Borzage (son of director Frank) as the sickly, doomed ‘Skinny’, former silent child star Mickey Bennett as Jimmy’s tough rival Butch, and future TV director Sidney Miller as Izzy, the comic relief Jewish kid.

The adults in the cast include Madge Evans as nurse Dorothy, sympathetic to the boys’ plight and working for change, Allen Jenkins as Patsy’s sidekick Mike (who cringes whenever the kids call him ‘Uncle Mike’ at Cagney’s request!), and Dudley Diggs as the rotten, corrupt Thompson. Harold Huber plays the hood who tries to take over Patsy’s turf, and after getting punched goes after Patsy with a hearty “Dirty son of a…”. Robert Barrat, Arthur Byron, Edwin Maxwell, Sheila Terry, and Fred “Snowflake” Toones are among the other Familiar Faces in the cast. THE MAYOR OF HELL was retooled and remade twice by Warners as vehicles for The Dead End Kids : 1938’s CRIME SCHOOL (with Humphrey Bogart in the Cagney role) and 1939’s HELL’S KITCHEN (this time with Ronald Reagan!), but neither can hold a candle to this underrated  little film. Frankie Darro and his wild boys make The Dead Enders look like a bunch of cream puffs, and I’m pretty sure they’d mop up the floor with Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, and company in a street fight!

Pre Code Confidential #14: THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH (RKO 1932)

Director Gregory LaCava is remembered today mainly for a pair of bona fide classics: MY MAN GODFREY and STAGE DOOR. LaCava, who started his career in early silent animation, was also responsible for THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH, a Pre-Code screwball comedy begging to be rediscovered. It’s a crazy, innovative, pedal-to-the-metal farce headlined by fast-talking Lee Tracy and “Mexican Spitfire” Lupe Velez as a pair of carny con artists who work their way up to The Great White Way in grand comic style.

Tracy does his rapid-fire spieling schtick as a carnival barker promoting hot-tempered tamale Lupe, a hootchie dancer who spends most of the movie wearing next to nothing. Together with pal Eugene Pallette , they leave the carny life behind (with the law on their tails!) and head for Broadway, where Lee promises Lupe he’ll make her a star. The trio pawn Lupe off as Turkish Princess Exotica (with Tracy pawning off an unwitting Pallette as a eunuch!), and set their sights on Broadway impresario Merle Farrell, played to perfection by the perpetually befuddled Frank Morgan. Tracy’s promotional stunt includes importing a lion named Stamboli straight from Coney Island!

Soon hustler Tracy has Lupe under contract to Merle Farrell’s Follies, where the former hootchie becomes a Broadway sensation singing and dancing to the double entendre laden “The Carpenter Song”. She then dumps the loquacious Lee for old goat Morgan, causing him to promote a new find, hotel maid Gladys, redubbing her Eve, Queen of the Nudists! The hustling huckster also manages to snap a photo of Morgan and Lupe in a compromising situation, which he proceeds to plaster all over the producer’s office. Morgan’s no fool, so Lupe gets dumped, and Eve gets her follies spot. Lee misses his spicy little enchilada though, and a riotous scene finds every noise he hears reminding him of “The Carpenter Song”. The unhappy Tracy decides to chuck it all and return to carny life, where he finds his pal Pallette running the old show, and little Latin Lupe doing her hootchie thing once again. And they lived happily ever after!

Lee and Lupe make a great screen team, their styles meshing perfectly amidst all the zaniness going on here. Morgan and Pallette’s comic talents add to the merriment, and Shirley Chambers’ dumb blonde turn as Gladys/Eve holds her own with the star quartet. Franklin Pangborn is on hand as (what else?) the hotel manager, and “Queen of the Extras” Bess Flowers has a larger than usual part playing Tracy’s secretary. Max Steiner contributes the music, and even appears as the conductor at the Follies! We also get Teresa Harris (Barbara Stanwyck’s BABY FACE companion) in a brief bit as Lupe’s maid.

LaCava and Corey Ford’s screenplay is full of sharp, sparkling dialog, off the wall comedy situations, and blazing banter between Lee and Lupe. THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH is a Pre-Code delight, a forgotten little gem waiting to be savored by movie buffs. So what are you waiting for – go find it!

Read more “Pre-Code Confidential”!

LADY KILLER (1933)

KONGO (1932)

MAKE ME A STAR (1932)

THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932)

HOLLYWOOD PARTY (1934)

THE SECRET SIX (1931)

PLAY-GIRL (1932)

BABY FACE (1932)

BLONDE CRAZY (1931)

CLEOPATRA (1934)

THE MALTESE FALCON (1931)

DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE (1931)

FLESH (1932)