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


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 script is structured, with headlines and music of the day preceding looks in on the girls at various periods of their lives. Mary winds up in a women’s reformatory before becoming a chorus girl, studious Ruth goes to business school and remains studious, while Vivien settles into society by marrying rich lawyer Bob Kirkland and having a son.

Then we focus on modern (1932) times, as Vivien is discontent with her life,  longing to break free of convention and her loveless marriage (at least, loveless on her part). A chance meeting with old pal Mary leads her to meeting Michael Loftus, who immediately puts the moves on Viv. The heavy drinking, gambling Loftus turns her on, and she vanishes with her child, shacking up with the degenerate and joining him on the road to ruin.

Bob is determined to get his son back, and Mary is also concerned that Vivien’s out-of-control drinking and partying is causing her to neglect the boy, so she drops a dime to Bob, who not only reclaims his kid and divorces Viv, but marries Mary and makes Ruth the governess! Vivien is now a destitute alcoholic and drug addict, and borrows money from Mary to help pay Michael’s gambling debts. But it’s not nearly enough, so Michael tries to blackmail Bob by threatening to reveal Mary’s sordid past. His gambit fails, so he gets the bright idea to kidnap Junior, which leads to the vicious gangsters he owes money to wanting a piece of the action….

And all this happens in just a swift 63 minutes! Ann Dvorak plays the part of Vivien for all its worth, going from ‘The Girl Most Likely To Succeed’ to ‘America’s Most Wanted’, and her descent into degradation is astounding. ‘Wild Child’ Mary is played by who else but everybody’s favorite Pre-Code Dame, Joan Blondell . Studious Ruth doesn’t get to do much but be studious, which is a shame, since she’s played by Bette Davis in one of her earliest roles. A pair of Pre-Code he-men, Warren William and Lyle Talbot , play Bob and Michael, respectively.

One of the kidnappers, the snarling Harve, is none other than Humphrey Bogart in just his tenth feature. It’s Bogie’s first screen gangster part, and seems like a precursor to his later Duke Mantee character in THE PETRIFIED FOREST. Familiar Faces abound in lesser roles: Edward Arnold (Bogie’s gangster boss), Herman Bing, Clara Blandick (‘Aunty Em’ herself as Joanie’s mom), Frankie Darro , Patricia Ellis, Glenda Farrell (in a cameo as one of Joan’s cellmates), June Gittleson, Allen Jenkins and Jack LaRue (Bogie’s murderous cohorts), Sidney Miller, Grant Mitchell, Buster Phelps (the annoyingly cute boy), Anne Shirley (Vivien as a child), and Sheila Terry. Allegedly, a 12-year-old Jack Webb is one of the schoolyard kids.

THREE ON A MATCH is a Red-Hot (sorry) Pre-Code that got Warners in hot water with the censors for its parallels to the then-in-the-news Lindbergh Kidnapping Case. Some posed publicity stills of Joan also caused quite a stir:

That’s Our Joanie, always causing trouble! The stills were banned after the Production Code went into effect, but most Pre-Code fans know about them  by now, thanks to the Internet. Racy and ripped from the headlines of the day, THREE ON A MATCH is a must-see for fans of the Pre-Code Era!

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Pre Code Confidential #25: The Stars Are Out for a Delicious DINNER AT EIGHT (MGM 1933)

After the success of 1932’s all-star GRAND HOTEL, MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer kept his sharp eyes peeled for a follow-up vehicle. The answer came with DINNER AT EIGHT, based on the witty Broadway smash written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Mayer assigned his newest producer (and son-in-law) David O. Selznick, fresh from making hits at RKO, who in turn handed the director’s reigns to another MGM newcomer, George Cukor. Both would have long, prosperous careers there and elsewhere. Frances Marion and Herman Mankiewicz adapted the play to the screen for the studio with “more stars than there are in heaven”, and those stars truly shine in this film (in the interest of fairness, the stars will be presented to you alphabetically):

John Barrymore as Larry Renault 

The Great Profile plays aging, alcoholic former silent star Larry Renault in a role that surely hit close to home. Barrymore’s star was certainly on the decline at this juncture of his career, yet he gives a magnificently poignant performance as an actor who doesn’t know (or doesn’t want to believe) he’s washed up. His ‘final solution’ scene is heartbreaking and will haunt you long after the final reel.

Lionel Barrymore as Oliver Jordan

Though Lionel’s part of the financially and physically ailing shipping magnate Jordan isn’t as flashy as brother John’s, he’s the film’s moral center, trying desperately to keep a stiff upper lip for his wife Millicent’s big social bash while suffering inside. Lionel’s been accused of sometimes overacting, but he definitely underplays it here. In fact, I’ve never seen him give a bad performance!

Wallace Beery as Dan Packard

Beery , on the other hand, frequently sliced the ham thick onscreen, and as the crude Packard, he mugs it up with the best of them. Whether berating Jordan’s offices (“Say, who put up this building – Peter Stuyvesant?”) or battling with his peroxide blonde wife Kitty (and we’ll get to HER later), Beery brings an overbearing, obnoxious presence to this dinner… just the way the part was written, and he’s a perfect fit!

Billie Burke as Millicent Jordan

Dithering Millicent is oblivious to everything going on around her except her precious dinner party, and nobody could’ve done justice to the role the way Burke does. The character would have been unsympathetic in lesser hands, but the veteran actress makes one feel sorry for her onscreen plight. Offscreen, Miss Burke’s real-life husband, Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, died before the film was competed, making her performance even more amazing, considering what she was going through.

Marie Dressler as Carlotta Vance

Out of all the cast of pros, Marie Dressler unquestionably steals the film as the down-on-her-luck former stage star Vance. Dressler is an absolute delight as the once celebrated Carlotta, now “flat as a mill pond, I haven’t got a sou”. She also gets off the best lines (“If there’s one thing I know, it’s men. I ought to, it’s been my life’s work”), including that now-classic final exchange with Kitty Packard, which features one of the greatest double-takes in movie history!

Jean Harlow as Kitty Packard

While John Barrymore was on his way down, Jean Harlow’s star was shooting skyward, and DINNER AT EIGHT is the film that put her over the moon. Vulgar Kitty makes her husband, the rough-hewn Dan, look like an English Lord, and she’s a total scream as the social climbing sexpot. Her battles with Beery are more than just acting – the two despised each other, despite MGM costarring them in three films together. Jean sparkles and shines as she bickers with Beery, and their dialog together is priceless. Of course, the final scene, where Kitty tells Carlotta, “I was reading a book the other day”, will live forever in the annals of great movie moments!

Madge Evans as Paula Jordan

She may not have been as big a name as the others, but Madge Evans, who made her film debut as a child way back in 1914, holds her own as the spoiled teenage daughter Paula Jordan, who’s having a clandestine torrid affair with Barrymore’s much older Larry Renault (the two appeared together on Broadway in 1917, when Madge was eight!). Evans played in several Pre-Codes, including THE GREEKS HAD A WORD FOR THEM, HALLEUJAH I’M A BUM, THE MAYOR OF HELL , and BEAUTY FOR SALE, as well as another all-star film, 1935’s DAVID COPPERFIELD, before retiring in 1939 after marrying playwright Sidney Kingsfield.

Edmund Lowe as Dr. Wayne Talbot 

Paula Jordan’s not the only one fooling around in this picture, as Kitty Packard has taken up with her married physician Dr. Wayne Talbot, played by he-man Edmund Lowe , another veteran of the silent screen. Lowe was still a name in 1933, and though his part is secondary to all the commotion going on, he gives a dynamic performance as the philandering husband of Karen Morley – who’s part is even smaller!

Lee Tracy as Max Kane

Who else for the role of Renault’s fast-taking agent Max Kane than Hollywood’s fastest talker, Lee Tracy ! Tracy’s more subdued than usual as the agent desperately trying to get his has-been client a part in a play, but when he finally breaks down and tells Renault the truth, he lets him have it with both barrels, triggering the despondent actor’s tragic suicide.

There are other stars in minor roles, like Jean Hersholt’s producer Jo Stengel, Louise Closser Hale and Grant Withers as Millicent’s last-minute guests, and character actress Hilda Vaughn as Kitty’s avaricious maid Tina, and all get brief chances to shine. DINNER AT EIGHT is movie magic from start to finish, with enough going on to fill a dozen films! Those who have never seen it are missing not only one of the best Pre-Codes, but simply one of the best movies ever made, with a once-in-a-lifetime cast at their peak!

And now for that Famous Final Scene:

More in the “Pre-Code Confidential” Series:

LADY KILLER – KONGO – MAKE ME A STAR – THE MASK OF FU MANCHU – HOLLYWOOD PARTY – THE SECRET SIX – PLAY-GIRL – BABY FACE – BLONDE CRAZY – CLEOPATRA – THE MALTESE FALCON – DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE – FLESH – THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH – THE MAYOR OF HELL – RED DUST – BED OF ROSES – FIVE STAR FINAL – SHANGHAI EXPRESS – SAFE IN HELL – DIPLOMANIACS – GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE – BLONDE VENUS – THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE

Pre-Code Confidential #24: THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (Paramount 1933)


I’d heard so much about THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE – that it was so depraved and salacious it almost singlehandedly led to stricter enforcement of the Production Code – that it was almost a letdown when I first viewed it. I say almost because, knowing the era this adaptation of William Faulkner’s SANCTUARY was made, I understand how shocked audiences must have been. THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE could be a TV Movie of the Week today, but in 1933 people couldn’t handle this level of lasciviousness.

Georgia-born Miriam Hopkins is outstanding as Southern belle Temple, though she does lay on the “sho’ nuffs” a little too thick at times. Temple, daughter of a prominent judge, is a wild child, a big tease to all the men in town. Solid, steadfast lawyer Stephen Benbow wants to marry her, but the self-centered Temple thinks he’s too dull, preferring to party all night. While speeding down a dirt road with the equally irresponsible Toddy Gowan on their way to a backwoods roadhouse, they get into an accident. The two are found by some  moonshiners and their big city bootleg connection, the cold-blooded gangster Trigger, and taken to their gloomy Gothic hideout.

Temple is then raped in the barn by Trigger, who shoots her young hillbilly bodyguard Tommy. The girl is in shock, as Trigger lugs her along his sordid path, making their way to Miss Reba’s Place, where she’s forced into a life of prostitution. Moonshiner Lee Goodwin is arrested for Tommy’s death, and Benbow is appointed council, but he refuses to talk, fearing reprisal from Trigger. Lee’s common-law wife Ruby isn’t afraid to speak the truth though, and Benbow tracks down Trigger with a subpoena. To his shock, Benbow finds the missing Temple with him. The murderous Trigger reaches in his pocket for his gun, but Temple gets between them, telling Benbow she’s been with the gangster all along, willingly, acting as his alibi and secretly saving Benbow’s life.

Temple then tries to leave Trigger, but the vicious hood won’t let her. He’s about to lay another smackdown on her when she grabs his gat and shoots her tormentor. Returning to her hometown just in time for the trial, Temple’s  father is outraged when Benbow plans to put his daughter on the stand, and now Temple faces a moral dilemma: tell the truth and suffer total disgrace for herself and her family name, or let an innocent man hang for a crime he didn’t commit…

Miriam gives one of her best performances as Temple, the party girl whose lifestyle leads her on the road to ruin. Hopkins doesn’t get the acclaim her contemporaries Bette Davis and Joan Crawford do, but her work in this and 30’s films like DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE , TROUBLE IN PARADISE, DESIGN FOR LIVING, BECKY SHARP, and THESE THREE show what a talented actress she was. Jack LaRue (Trigger) was Hollywood’s most hissable gangster, and here he’s so repugnant and evil, with that ever-present cigarette dangling from his mouth, you can’t help but hate him. Florence Eldridge (wife of Fredric March) is really good as the hardened Ruby, as is Irving Pichel in the role of Lee. William Gargan plays Benbow as written – bland – and one can see why Temple isn’t interested. A plethora of Familiar Faces appear: Oscar Apfel , Louise Beavers, John Carradine (a courtroom extra), William Collier Jr (the wastrel Toddy), Jobyna Howland, Elizabeth Patterson, Sir Guy Standing (Judge Drake), Grady Sutton , and Kent Taylor.

Faulkner’s controversial novel had to be watered down, even in the Pre-Code era, by scriptwriter Oliver Garrett, and even then, the censors demanded cuts due to pressure from the newly formed Catholic Legion of Decency . The rape itself, as well as any mention of Temple being a prostitute, are only implied, but you’ll get the drift (onscreen murders seem to be okay, though!). DP Karl Struss had worked on F.W. Murnau’s silent classic SUNRISE (receiving an Oscar) and early talkies COQUETTE, DR. JEKYLL, and ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. His camerawork on THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE was film noir before the term was ever coined.

Director Stephen Roberts handles the material well, cutting at times to the busybody townspeople talking about the scandalous Temple, and keeping the film moving at a brisk pace. Roberts had a long career in silent movies, mainly directing shorts, before being assigned to features. He died in 1936 after making only six more pictures. TEMPLE DRAKE may not have killed him, but it’s sinful reputation pretty much killed his career. The story was remade as SANCTUARY in 1961, but despite looser film restrictions it’s even more watered down than the original! I’d like to see a contemporary filmmaker(Quentin Tarantino? Martin Scorsese?) tackle the material, but for now, I’ll settle for the sleaziness of THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE.

 

Pre Code Confidential #23: Marlene Dietrich in BLONDE VENUS (Paramount 1932)

Director Josef von Sternberg and his marvelous muse Marlene Dietrich  teamed for their fifth film together with BLONDE VENUS, a deliciously decadent soap opera that’s a whole lot of fun for Pre-Code lovers. Sternberg indulges his Marlene fetish by exploring both sides of her personality, as both Madonna and whore, and Dietrich plays it to the hilt in a film that no censor would dare let pass just a scant two years later.

How’s this for an opening: a group of schoolboys hiking through the Black Forest stumble upon a bevy of naked stage chanteuses taking a swim! The girls scream and try to hide, and beautiful Helen (Marlene) tries to shoo them away. Ned Faraday refuses until Helen agrees to meet him later. Flash forward to a scene of Helen and Ned now married with a young son named Johnny. Ned, a chemist by trade, has been poisoned by radiation and is thinking of selling his body to science. There’s a chance of a cure, but it’s in Dresden, and New Yorker Ned can’t afford the $1500 for the trip.  Helen offers to return to the stage to raise the money, and although Ned disapproves, he eventually comes to grips with the fact there’s no other way out.

From there, we follow Helen’s journey from docile hausfrau to nightclub sensation to wandering prostitute, with Sternberg’s camera slavishly keeping all eyes on Marlene. Dietrich could command the screen with the best of them – Cagney, Wayne, Lugosi at his peak. She gets an agent, who gets “all hopped up” over this “pip” of a woman, and lands her a gig at a club, redubbing her “The Blonde Venus”. Her ‘Hot Voodoo’ number, with Marlene crouching about in a gorilla costume, then seductively stripping it off piece by piece while donning a blonde afro wig, with native dancers writhing to the pounding rhythm of the drums, then turning into a hot jazz vamp, her knowing smile exuding sex appeal, makes the film worth watching all by itself!

In the audience is political ‘boss’ Nick Townsend, who immediately wants her, and Nick always gets what he wants. This was the fourth film appearance for 28-year-old Cary Grant , before he honed his screen persona to perfection, and he’s quite effective in the part. Helen tells Ned the club manager has given her an advance, and he’s off to Dresden, but in reality the money came from Nick – and now they’re more than just friends! When Ned returns from abroad and finds his home empty, he tracks her down. She tells him the truth, and he threatens to take Johnny away from her, so Helen and her child take a powder, an oddessy that takes them halfway across the country, trailed by a PI who catches up with her in Galveston.

After coming to the realization she’s “no good at all, no good for anything”, Helen gives up Johnny and sinks to a new low. Heartbroken and drunk, staggering into a flophouse, Helen’s on the verge of suicide, but instead winds up back to Europe, becoming the Toast of Paris. We get another number, “I Couldn’t Be Annoyed”, which Marlene sings in both French and English, dressed in a masculine white tuxedo and smoking from a long cigarette holder. Nick, who went abroad to forget her, is again in the audience, but now Helen is “cold as the proverbial icicle”. She returns to New York with him so she can see Johnny one more time, and things come full circle in a real tear-jerker of an ending.

All this goes on under the watchful eye of Sternberg and DP Bert Glennon, a favorite of both the German director and John Ford. Sternberg’s trademark Expressionist shadowplay would be a heavy influence on films noir to come. The breakneck script by Jules Furthman and S.K. Lauren (allegedly from an original story by Dietrich herself) takes Marlene from domestic bliss to the depths of despair, and the audience on a ride filled with eye-popping moments.

Herbert Marshall  has the thankless part of Ned Faraday, although BLOND VENUS would make him a star in America. It’s a bit of a stretch to find Ned, who first laid eyes on Helen skinnydipping, would turn so prudish, but these were the mores of the times. Little Dickie Moore , former OUR GANG star, was one of the busiest child actors of the early thirties, and he’s good as young Johnny. Future Charlie Chan Sidney Toler warms up for the role as Detective Wilson, Rita LeRoy has a juicy bit as Helen’s rival Taxi Belle, and among the Familiar Faces are Al Bridge, Cecil Cunningham , the ubiquitous Bess Flowers , Mary Gordon, Sterling Holloway , Hattie McDaniel, Clarence Muse, Robert Emmett O’Connor, Dewey Robinson, and Morgan Wallace. BLONDE VENUS is a merry-go-round of a movie, and though some don’t rank it high in the von Sternberg/Dietrich catalogue, I found it a delightful exercise in debauchery, and as I said earlier, that “Hot Voodoo” number alone makes it worthy of your attention!

Pre Code Confidential #22: GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE (MGM 1933)

One of the most bizarre films of any era is GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE, a political fantasy extolling the joys of a totalitarian dictatorship in America! Produced by the independent Walter Wanger , a staunch anti-Fascist(1) , and financed by William Randolph Hearst, the left-leaning newspaper magnate(2) who served as the inspiration for CITIZEN KANE, the film shows what would happen if all the political power in Washington were consolidated in one man – and shows it to be a good thing!

Newsreel footage is interspersed with the inauguration of President Judson Hammond (Walter Huston ), newly elected at the height of the Depression. Hammond is a typically phony, glad-handing politician, more concerned in towing the party line and maintaining the status quo than helping the people that elected him. Though he promises peace and prosperity, Hammond tells the press he regards the problems of unemployment, homelessness, and rampant crime as “a local problem”. He’s more interested in playing with his little nephew (Dickie Moore ) in the Oval Office than listening to a radio appeal from John Bronson (David Landau), leader of the “army of the unemployed”, to meet and discuss the Nation’s troubles. Hammond, like most politicians, just doesn’t care – the bachelor president’s idea of job creation is giving his ‘side piece’ Pendie Malloy (Karen Morley ) the position of personal secretary.

The bubbleheaded Hammond also gets his kicks driving at high speeds, which results in a car crash that puts the president in a coma. Doctors say in private he’s “beyond any human help” – and that’s when a breeze wafts through an open window, and Hammond is bathed in a white light, the implication being a visitation from a Higher Power. Hammond comes out of the coma a changed man, no longer just another party hack, but a man determined to serve the people. He fires his entire Deep State Cabinet and meets with the unemployed “forgotten men”, taking his message directly to the people, calling for the creation of a Construction Army that puts everyone to work on infrastructure. An outraged Congress screams for his impeachment, leading him to disband that cesspool of do-nothings and use the power of the Presidency to declare martial law, making himself Supreme Leader of the country!

Hammond goes into action, putting a moratorium on housing foreclosures, changing the nation’s banking laws, giving direct aid to agriculture, and repealing the 18th Amendment, opening government liquor stores throughout the land. This doesn’t sit well with the criminal element, putting their bootlegging operations out of business, and the crime lord Nick Diamond (C. Henry Gordon ) retaliates by not only bombing the stores, but a drive-by at the White House that injures Pendie! Hammond creates a Federal Police Force, led by his Press Secretary Beek Beekman (Franchot Tone ), who use armored tanks and machine guns to obliterate the gangsters, then sentences them to death at a military tribunal, executing the enemies of the state by firing squad!

In his last master stroke, Hammond decides to pull America out of her financial doldrums by making Europe and the rest of the world pay their war debts by threat of force, gathering the heads of state on his yacht for a grand showing of America’s military might, and calling for worldwide disarmament. The nations of the world agree to his terms, and they all sign Hammond’s “Washington Covenant”, fulfilling his earlier promise of peace and prosperity. The president collapses during the signing, and once again that eerie wind blows through the window as Judson Hammond expires, his job complete.

Gregory LaCava (l) with Walter Huston, Franchot Tone, and Karen Morley

GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE was directed by Gregory LaCava , who headed Hearst’s animation studio Independent Film Services from 1915-18 before moving to live-action two-reelers and eventually full features. Most of LaCava’s films are comedies with social commentary thrown in, like FIFTH AVENUE GIRL, STAGE DOOR, and his most famous movie, MY MAN GODFREY. Here, his direction takes things seriously, though I can’t help but believe, knowing LaCava’s own political views, that there’s more than a touch of satire involved.

William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945)

This excursion into fascist fantasy was written by Carey Wilson, who would later produce and narrate propaganda films for the war effort and the Department of Defense. Hearst himself is rumored to have penned some of Hammond’s speeches (3), inputting his own political philosophies into the narrative. The real newly elected president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, watched and enjoyed the film, stating “it would do a lot of good” (4), and actually incorporated some of Hammond’s political ideas into his New Deal. Hearst was a steadfast Roosevelt supporter until disagreements regarding FDR’s vetoing of the Bonus Bill (which would’ve supplied extra aid to WWI vets) and support for joining the World Court (5), coupled with Hearst’s continued fawning over Adolf Hitler, caused a political rift that never healed.

MGM boss Louis B. Mayer hated GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE, and wanted to lock it up and throw away the key after sitting through a preview (6). But all the fuss and furor some critics have over this film is meaningless; after all, this is America, Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, right? A political dictatorship? It could never happen here… or could it? COULD IT?

Sources 

(1) Hollywood Renegade Archives (website)

(2) William Randolph Hearst: His Role in American Progressivism (Ray Everett Littlefield III, University Press 1980)

(3) The Hollywood Movie Made For FDR’s Inauguration (Richard Brody, The New Yorker)

(4) The Hollywood Hit Movie That Urged FDR to Become a Fascist (Jeff Greenfield, Politico, 3/25/18)

(5) The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst (David Nasaw, Houghton Mifflin 2000)

(6) The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code (Leonard J. Leff and Jerald Simmons, University Press of Kentucky 2001) 

Pre-Code Confidential #21: Wheeler & Woosley in DIPLOMANIACS (RKO 1933)

Political satire in film ran rampant during the Pre-Code Era. Somewhere between W.C. Fields’s MILLION DOLLAR LEGS and the Marx Brothers’ DUCK SOUP  sits DIPLOMANIACS, Wheeler & Woolsey’s madcap take on war and peace, 1930’s style. It’s purely preposterous, unadulterated farce, and is guaranteed to offend someone, if not everyone.

Let’s get it out of the way right now: DIPLOMANIACS is not politically correct in any way, shape, or form. It’s loaded with racist stereotypes, casting Hugh Herbert as a not-so-wise Chinaman (“It is written that it is written that it is written that it is written”), lambastes Jews, Native Americans, and homosexuals, and portrays women as sex objects (spy Marjorie White is delivered in plastic wrap). A bomb tossed into the peace talks causes everyone to turn blackface, leading to a prolonged minstrel number! If you’re already offended, stop reading… but if you can take the heat, by all means let’s continue!

W&W play barbers on an Indian reservation (!) offered a million dollars each from the Native chief (who’s Oxford educated and speaks perfect English) to represent the tribe at the Geneva Peace Conference. Winklereid, General Manager of the High Explosive Bullet Company, is charged with stopping them by his four co-conspirators (Schmerzenpuppen, Puppenschmerzen, Schmerzenschmerzen, and Puppenpuppen). With his Oriental sidekick Chow Chow, Winklereid enlists the aid of vamp Dolores to seduce Bert and steal their dough and peace documents (“I’ve got what it takes to take what they’ve got!”). When she fails, the bad guys turn to Paris underworld boss Fifi, with her kiss of death and gang of cutthroats (and don’t ask how they got to Paris instead of Geneva!). Finally making their way to Switzerland, W&W land in the middle of a violent peace conference chaired by the ill-tempered Edgar Kennedy , until that bomb hits and plunges the world into war!

Interspersed in all this nonsense are musical numbers (including some Busby Berkeley-style choreography and the aforementioned blackface number), zany sight gags and one-liners, and Bert Wheeler’s classic vaudeville “crying” skit. The script by Joseph L. Mankiewicz  (yes, that Joe Mankiewicz) and Henry Myers gets away with all sorts of innuendoes (Winklereid: “This is no time for sex” Fifi: “That’s what you say”), and skewers just about everything in sight – no one is safe in this film! Louis Calhern, Ambassador Trentino in DUCK SOUP, plays Winklereid, cute little Marjorie White (who starred in The Three Stooges first solo short WOMAN HATERS) is Dolores, and Phyllis Barry, who also played with the Stooges in THREE LITTLE SEW AND SEWS (as well as Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante in WHAT! NO BEER?) is Fifi.

Director William A. Seiter was no stranger to comedy, having got his start with Mack Sennett. Seiter then moved to Universal for a series of silent comedies starring Reginald Denny. If he’d only directed the Laurel & Hardy classic SONS OF THE DESERT , Seiter’s name would be immortalized, but his career encompassed much more than that gem. He guided W&W through three other films (CAUGHT PLASTERED, PEACH O’RENO, GIRL CRAZY), Wheeler’s solo outing TOO MANY COOKS, a pair of Shirley Temple films (DIMPLES, STOWAWAY), PROFESSIONAL SWEETHEART, THE RICHEST GIRL IN THE WORLD, ROBERTA, ROOM SERVICE (with the Marx Bros). NICE GIRL?,  LITTLE GIANT (starring Abbott & Costello), ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, and DEAR BRAT, ending his career with television’s THE GALE STORM SHOW.

Like I said earlier, if you’re easily offended, you can skip DIPLOMANIACS. But if, like me, you view older films in the context of their times, you’ll discover an outrageously funny movie that’s about as wild as Pre-Code movies get. Plus, you get a chance to see two funny men, Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, at the top of their game. Any takers?

 

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!