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!

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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!

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!