Pre Code Confidential #10: Cecil B. DeMille’s CLEOPATRA (Paramount 1934)

cbde1

When I hear the words ‘Hollywood Epic’, the name Cecil B. DeMille immediately springs to mind. From his first film, 1914’s THE SQUAW MAN to his last, 1956’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, DeMille was synonymous with big, sprawling productions. The producer/director, who’s credited with almost singlehandedly inventing the language of film, made a smooth transition from silents to talkies, and his 1934 CLEOPATRA is a lavish Pre-Code spectacular featuring sex, violence, and a commanding performance by Claudette Colbert as the Queen of the Nile.

1934: Claudette Colbert in title role of Cecil B. DeMille's film Cleopatra.

While the film’s opulent sets (by Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier) and gorgeous B&W cinematography (by Victor Milner) are stunning, all eyes will be on the beautiful, half-naked Colbert. She gives a bravura performance as Cleopatra, the ambitious, scheming Egyptian queen. She’s sensuous and seductive, wrapping both Caesar and Marc Antony around her little finger, and devious in her political machinations. If I were compare her to Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 Joseph L. Mankeiwicz version, I’d have to give the edge to Claudette; Liz may be more voluptuous, but Claudette’s definitely a more playful, tantalizing Cleo. And as for that famous milk bath scene, well…

colbert_milk_bath

…hot damn!!!

cbd3

Cleo’s two lovers are both well cast, with smooth Warren William making a sturdy Julius Caesar. When her hopes to rule Rome alongside Caesar are dashed on the Ides of March, Cleo sets her sights on warrior Marc Antony, played with boyish enthusiasm by Henry Wilcoxon. She seduces him with wine, food, and her undeniable charms, gifting Antony with “clams from the sea” (in which a net is hauled up filled with writhing mermaids bearing shells filled with jewels), then celebrating with the bizarre tableau of dancing cat-women being whipped by a burly soldier! Who can resist a pitch like that!

cbd5

There are tons of Familiar Faces in this one, including Irving Pichel as Cleo’s confidant Apollodorus, Gertrude Michael as Caesar’s wife Calpurnia, C. Aubrey Smith as Enobarbus, Ian Keith as Octavian, Joseph Schildkraut as King Herod, and Richard Alexander, Lionel Belmore, Edgar Dearing, Claudia Dell, William Farnum, Edwin Maxwell, and Leonard Mudie in various roles. Look fast for a young John Carradine among the cast of thousands.

cbd6

Cecil B. DeMille certainly knew how to hold an audience’s interest. Whether it’s in the battle scenes containing much carnage (and, truth be told, much stock footage), or in all the half-naked women, the film is a visual delight, even when Claudette’s not on the screen. Nobody captured the decadence of ancient times quite like DeMille, and CLEOPATRA’s got decadence to spare, coming right before Will Hayes began his puritanical reign of terror with the Production Code. It was nominated for five Oscars (Best Picture, Assistant Director, Sound Recording, Editing), winning for Milner’s cinematography. Conspicuous by it’s absence on that list is Claudette Colbert’s performance, but I don’t think she minded; she won that same year for the screwball classic IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT.

cbd4

The 1934 CLEOPATRA is half the length of the ’63 Liz & Dick opus, and is a whole lot more fun. Cecil B. DeMille doesn’t get much attention these days, but he was unquestionably one of Hollywood’s most important figures, and this film is a great example of Pre-Code excess. I was as mesmerized by Claudette Colbert’s star turn as I was by DeMille’s epically delicious debauchery. I think you will be, too.

Pre Code Confidential #9: James Cagney in BLONDE CRAZY (Warner Brothers 1931)

blcr1

When James Cagney burst onto the screen like a machine gun barrage in 1931’s THE PUBLIC ENEMY, a star was immediately born. His rough-and-tumble personality was perfectly suited to films of the era, and he’s given a good showcase in BLONDE CRAZY, along with Pre-Code cutie Joan Blondell , who could dish it out with the best of them. Though it’s a little creaky in spots, BLONDE CRAZY is tons of fun, and Cagney gives everybody a lesson in what being a movie star is all about.

jnj2

Cagney plays Bert Harris, a bantamweight bellboy looking to make a fast buck during the Depression running crap games and selling bootleg hootch. When he first meets blonde Anne Roberts (our girl Joan) he ogles her body lecherously, and we know right from the get-go what his intentions are! But Anne’s no sucker, she a been-around-the-block kinda gal, and soon this dynamic duo are running the old “gotcha” game on square Mr. Johnson, setting him up for blackmail like a rat in a trap, with Anne as the cheese.

The pair take their ill-gotten gains and high-tail it to the big city, hooking up with slick con man Dapper Dan (Louis Calhern ) . Dan and his squeeze Helen end up conning Bert out of his loot, and Bert has to pull a jewelry store swindle to get his and Anne’s money back. Meanwhile, Anne meets up with a swell guy, earnest stockbroker Joe Reynolds, played by a VERY young (24 at the time) Ray Milland.

blcr3

Bert heads to the Big Apple to get even with Dan, and he and Anne stage an elaborate horse racing con to bilk the bilker. Bert finally pops the question, but Anne confesses she’s in love with Joe, and after she gets hitched, Bert takes a year off to live the high life in Europe. Upon his return, Anne asks for his help, as Joe’s done a little swindling of his own at the firm. Bert’s plan goes awry as Joe sets him up, winding up in a car chase with the law, getting tommy-gunned, and sent to stir for his troubles. Anne realizes Bert’s the guy for her after all and visits him in the prison infirmary,  promising to wait.

blcr4

Cagney’s magnetic personality carries the film, with his roguish charm and optimistic outlook. The way he calls Joan (and every skirt he lays an eye on) “huuuuuney” show his devil-may-care attitude toward life, and is reflected in his dialog, ripping off statements like “The world owes me a living” and “Not tough, just mercenary” with that trademark staccato Cagney delivery. The Depression’s robbed him of a shot for a decent life, so he makes his own the only way he knows how, by conning the suckers of the world. The film also gives us Jimmy’s famous line “That dirt, double-crossing rat!”, bastardized by scores of impressionists as “You dirty rat!”.

blcr5

Let’s not forget Joan Blondell, one of Pre-Code’s Queens, who’s on equal footing with Cagney here. Her hard-broad persona always comes with a soft heart, and her longevity in films is testament to her acting talents. I lost count of how many times she slaps Cagney’s face in this film, but it must’ve been pretty raw by the time filming ended! It wouldn’t be a Pre-Code without a little raciness, and Joan’s bathtub scene with Jimmy certainly fills the bill!

There’s a plethora of Familiar Faces in smaller roles, including Guy Kibbee , Noel Francis, Nat Pendleton , Maude Eburne, Ward Bond , a pre-Western ‘Wild’ Bill Elliott, Russell Hayden, and Charles Lane . An actress I’d never noticed before named Polly Waters turns up as Jimmy’s first girlfriend, and she’s a bundle of sexual joy to behold! Miss Waters was featured in a handful of Pre-Code films, mostly in smaller roles, and I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes peeled for her.

BLONDE CRAZY, Polly Walters, Joan Blondell, 1931
Battling Blondes: Polly vs Joan!

Director Roy Del Ruth guides the players through their paces with his usual deft hand, keeping things moving at a brisk speed. BLONDE CRAZY shows Cagney at his  Pre-Code best, and he and Joan take the movie and run away with it. A pair of aces for sure, huuuuuney!

 

Pre Code Confidential #8: Barbara Stanwyck in BABY FACE (Warner Brothers 1933)

babyface1

Barbara Stanwyck uses sex as a weapon and screws her way to the top in BABY FACE, an outrageously blatant Pre-Coder that had the censors heads spinning back in 1933. Miss Stanwyck plays Lily Powers, a young woman who works in her Pop’s speakeasy in smog-filled Erie, PA, where Pop’s been pimping her out since she was 14. Lily has a black female friend named Chico who seems to be more than just a friend (though it’s never stated, the implication’s definitely there). All the men paw over her like dogs with a piece of raw meat except the elderly Mr. Cragg, who gives her a book by Fredrich Nietzche along with some advice: “You have power… you don’t realize your potentialities… you must use men, not let them use you… exploit yourself, use men! Be strong, defiant!”.

babyface2

When Pop’s still blows to smithereens, taking Pop with it, Lily and Chico hop a freight train to New York City. It’s here she first tries out Cragg’s advice by seducing the railman who tries to throw them off. Arriving in The Big Apple, Lily and Chico stop outside the Gotham Trust Company, a huge skyscraper that’s an obvious phallic symbol. Lily quickly lands a job by seducing an office boy and begins her climb to the top. One of her first victims is a young John Wayne , an innocent sheep to Lily’s ravenous wolf. Wayne introduces her to Douglass Dumbrille , who’s been around enough to know better, but inevitably succumbs to Lily’s carnal charms.

babyface3

Lily and her boss get caught together in the lady’s room by his boss, Stevens (Donald Cook); he’s dismissed, but sly Lily gives a sob story about the rat forcing himself on her, and the gullible Stevens makes her his secretary. If you guessed Stevens is next on Lily’s list, give yourself a hand! However, Stevens is engaged to bank VP Carter’s daughter, who catches the two fooling around in his office, and she flees up to Daddy’s suite. Big Daddy Carter orders Stevens to fire Lily, but the jerk can’t bring himself to do it. Lily’s called up to see Carter and gives him another sob story claiming she didn’t know about the engagement. Carter then axes Lily, but sets her up in a lavish penthouse to become his mistress! Stevens loses his cool, barging in on them and shooting his former future Father-in-law, then committing suicide in Lily’s boudoir!

babyface4

This headline-inducing scandal results in the Board of Directors terminating the bank’s president and bringing in the founder’s grandson Courtland Trenholm (George Brent). “a playboy… society globetrotter” with no experience whatsoever. But Courtland’s no dummy; after Lily demands $15 Grand for her diary (the newspaper’s have offered ten), Courtland refuses, not buying her story (“I’m a victim of circumstance!”) and shipping her off to their Paris branch under an assumed alias. Courtland thinks he’s solved he problem, but when he arrives in Gay Paree, there’s Lily, and yep, he falls for her, this time actually marrying Lily, resulting in another scandal that forces the bank’s closure, an indictment for Courtland, and a suicide attempt.

babyface5

I’ve gotta say, the men in BABY FACE act like complete idiots, practically driven to the brink of madness by Lily’s sexual prowess. She must be really good to elicit that kind of response! This kind of sex scandal isn’t unheard of in real life,  especially among the rich and powerful (hello, Anthony Weiner!), which leads me to conclude the more money and fame you have, the stupider you get! Stanwyck is really good as Lily, the original Material Girl, who goes after what she wants using what she has. Equally good is Theresa Harris as Lily’s companion, Chico, who spends much of the film singing “St. Louis Blues”. Harris was an African-American actress and singer who’s featured in many classic films of the 30’s and 40’s, and doesn’t play to the stereotype of the times, but rather as an equal. Other Familiar Faces dotting the cast (besides those mentioned) are Robert Barratt, Henry Kolker, Margaret Lindsay Nat Pendleton Harry Gribbon , and Edward Van Sloan .

babyface6

Director Alfred E. Green keeps things moving as fast as Lily herself. His fifty year career in films includes directing two stars to Oscars (George Arliss in DISRAELI, Bette Davis in DANGEROUS), but he’s most remembered for THE JOLSON STORY. Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola based their sordid little screenplay on a story from Daryl F. Zanuck, shortly before he moved over to Twentieth Century Pictures. The cinematography by veteran James Van Trees is superb, as is Anton Grot’s amazing art direction. BABY FACE contributed mightily to the formation of the Hays Code, its frank look at a wanton woman causing blood vessels to pop in prudes across the country. It’s a film of its time, when the Great Depression caused desperate people to take desperate measures, and a must-see for lovers of Pre-Code films.

Pre Code Confidential #7: PLAY-GIRL (Warner Brothers 1932)

playgirl1

One of the many fun things about Pre-Code films is seeing how they get away with racy dialog without being overly explicit. The risqué double entendres fly freely in PLAY-GIRL, starring Loretta Young as an independent woman who ends up marrying a degenerate gambler, winding up pregnant and husbandless until the conclusion. The story didn’t really matter to me; it was the innuendo-laden script that kept me interested.

That saucy script was written by Maurine Dallas Watkins, who wrote the play “Chicago”, later adapted into the 1942 film ROXIE HART with Ginger Rogers, and then turned into Bob Fosse’s smash Broadway musical CHICAGO, which in turn became the Oscar winning Best Picture of 2002. Ms. Watkins was a former crime reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and based her play on the murder trial of “jazz babies” Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner. Hollywood beckoned, and she wrote screenplays for UP THE RIVER (the film debuts of both Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart), THE STRANGE LOVE OF MOLLY LOUVAIN, THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (uncredited), and LIBELED LADY (Tracy again, with Jean Harlow, William Powell, and Myrna Loy).

Pre Code Queen Winnie Lightner
Pre Code Queen Winnie Lightner

Though the plot revolves around Loretta Young’s travails, Pre-Code favorite Winnie Lightener receives top billing as Loretta’s best friend Georgina. Lightner’s bawdy persona made her a star in the 1929 musical GOLD DIGGERS OF BROADWAY, which is now regrettably a lost film. Winnie starred early Technicolor musical comedies like HOLD EVERYTHING (with Joe E. Brown), THE LIFE OF THE PARTY, and GOLD DUST GERTIE (with Olsen & Johnson), but after the Production Code went into place, her career stalled, and by 1934 she retired from the screen to become Mrs. Roy Del Ruth.

loretta

Winnie gets most of the good lines in this one. While sleeping with roommate Loretta, her panties go flying off the clothesline. Loretta asks what she’s going to do, and Winnie replies, “Keep off step ladders”. Later, when Winnie’s at work, bent over on top of a ladder, a customer quips, “I guess you ain’t got just what I want”. Loretta reads a book on merchandising, trying to better herself, and Winnie tells her, “You don’t see Peggy Joyce* reading no merchandise books and she’s a somebody. Her merchandise is the kind that sells on sight!”.

playgirl4

The girls also have a frenemy named Edna at the department store they work at, Edna. She’s played by another Pre-Code favorite, Dorothy Burgess (HOLD YOUR MAN, STRICTLY PERSONAL, BLACK MOON). Dorothy and Winnie are constantly at each other’s throats, and this bit of dialog is probably the best, when Loretta throws a party at her new apartment:

Winnie: “Ooh, can I see the bedroom?”

Dorothy: “You usually do”.

Winnie: “Well you oughta know, I generally meet you coming out!”

The picture’s no great shakes, but it’s the witty, sexually laced banter that makes it worthwhile. There are plenty of Familiar Faces here, with Guy Kibbee as Winnie’s sugar daddy, Norman Foster as the gambler who Loretta falls in love with, and DRACULA’s Edward  Van Sloan as the department store owner. James Ellison, Noel Madison, George “Gabby” Hayes, Roscoe Karns, and perennial cop Robert Emmett O’Connor appear in small roles. PLAY-GIRL is a fine example of what Pre-Code’s are all about, and though it’s hardly a classic, the dialog alone makes it a film to put on your must-see list.

(*Peggy Hopkins Joyce was an actress known for her many marriages and divorces, love affairs, and extravagant lifestyle. She appeared with W.C. Fields in the all-star comedy INTERNATIONAL HOUSE.)

The Pre-Code Confidential Series:

Pre Code Confidential #6: Jean Harlow in THE SECRET SIX (MGM 1931)

six1

(Once again, your Cracked Rear Viewer is taking part in the TCM Summer Under The Stars Blogathon, hosted by Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film  .  Just like last year, I’ll be posting on two stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age: Jean Harlow (8/7) and Boris Karloff (8/26).)

jean1

Before she became The Platinum Blonde Bombshell of 1930’s Hollywood, Jean Harlow played a pivotal role in early gangster films. She was James Cagney’s second moll in the essential THE PUBLIC ENEMY, and a slutty seductress in THE BEAST OF THE CITY. In THE SECRET SIX, Jean plays a temptress who turns on the mob in a wild Pre-Code film that represents another milestone for Miss Harlow: it’s her first of six with costar Clark Gable.

THE SECRET SIX [US 1931] WALLACE BEERY, JOHNNY MACK BROWN, JEAN HARLOW

Wallace Beery plays Slaughterhouse Scorpio, who rises from the stockyards to the top of the gangster heap. He accomplishes this by brute force, bribery, and rubbing out his rivals. Slaughterhouse is as thirsty for power as his customers are for bootleg booze, and he’ll go to any lengths to get it, including using sexy Ann Courtland (Harlow) to seduce reporter Hank ( Johnny Mack Brown ).

six3

Hank’s fellow reporter Carl (a moustacheless Clark Gable) is also hot for Ann, but he’s too smart to fall for Slaughterhouse’s games. Carl becomes a double agent working for The Secret Six, a mysterious group of public officials determined to take Slaughterhouse down. When Hank goes searching for Slaughterhouse’s gun, instrument of many a murder, Ann warns him that the gangster is after him. She helps him escape, but the reporter is gunned down in a subway car.

Slaughterhouse is arrested and taken to trial. His aide Metz, whom everyone thought was mute, breaks down and confesses. Ann testifies, but the rigged jury finds Slaughterhouse not guilty in a gross miscarriage of justice! Carl and Ann are about to be taken for  ride, but The Secret Six swing into action with warrants for Slaughterhouse and his mob for tax evasion, arson, murder, and deportation. There’s a violent shootout and a twist ending before Slaughterhouse is finally captured and executed by the state.

six4

This movie’s loads of fun for gangster film devotees, with its blazing machine guns, colorful slang, and seeing stars in early roles. Beery excels as the rough and tumble, braggadocios Slaughterhouse in a part tailor-made for his talents. Good old Judge Hardy Lewis Stone is on the wrong side of the law here as lawyer Newt Newton, the brains behind the brawn,. Ralph Bellamy makes his screen debut as gangster Johnny Franks, one of Slaughterhouse’s early victims, and it’s a hoot to watch Bellamy play a hoodlum! Marjorie Rambeau shines as the floozy Peaches, and John Miljan, Theodore Von Eltz, and Murry Kinnell all add to the excitement. Even Johnny Mack Brown, more known as a cowboy hero, is good his role as the doomed Hank.

six5

20-year-old Jean Harlow stands out as Anne, adding a depth of emotion to her scenes, especially her time on the witness stand. Starting out as a typical bad girl, Harlow’s change of heart during the proceedings let her show off her acting chops, and this film led to both her and Gable receiving contracts with MGM and a successful string of hits lasting until her unfortunate death in 1937. Jean Harlow’s three contributions to the gangster genre weren’t large, but were important in getting her noticed after critics excoriated her in Howard Hughes’ 1930 HELL’S ANGELS.

Unlike many early talkies, THE SECRET SIX is fast-paced and energetic, thanks to director George Hill, with a dynamite script from his then-wife Frances Marion. The cast of pros, including young Jean Harlow, bring the tale to rip-roaring life. THE SECRET SIX hasn’t received the attention and accolades of THE PUBLIC ENEMY, LITTLE CAESAR, or SCARFACE, but it’s just as exciting as those classics, and contains one of the genre’s best casts. For a wild screen ride, and a look at Jean Harlow becoming an accomplished actress, pick Six- THE SECRET SIX!

 

Pre Code Confidential #5: HOLLYWOOD PARTY (MGM 1934)

hp1

One of the most bizarre films of the Pre-Code (or any) era is HOLLYWOOD PARTY. This practically plotless hodgepodge stars Jimmy Durante as jungle movie hero Schnarzan, whose films are tanking at the box office. The public has grown tired of his battles with “moth-eaten, toothless lions”, so his producer decides to buy new ones from the adventurer Baron Munchausen (radio star Jack Pearl doing his schtick). Schnarzan throws a big Hollywood party for the Baron, hoping to win his favor, but screen rival Liondola (dialect comic Georges Givot), disguising himself as the Grand Royal Duke of Peloponnesia, crashes the bash and tries to buy the lions for himself with the help of Oklahoma oil baron Harvey Crump (the perpetually perplexed  Charles Butterworth).

hp2

All this is just an excuse for a series of unrelated comic bits featuring some of the era’s top funnymen. Durante, as the nominal star, gets the bulk of the material. He’s a roar in a “Schnarzan” trailer with his half-naked costar, the fiery and funny Lupe Velez. A reincarnation skit features Jimmy as Adam at the Garden of Eden and Paul Revere’s horse! He even gets to clown around with the one and only Mickey Mouse (voiced by Walt Disney), which segues into a color Disney cartoon, “Hot Chocolate Soldiers”.

hp3

Ted Healy and his Three Stooges show up, with Moe, Larry, and Curly as autograph hounds at the door and do a bit about Neanderthal craniums with three eminent professors. Mack Sennett veteran Polly Moran is Butterworth’s social-climbing wife, who gets involved in some amorous (and racy!) situations with Durante and Givot. Young lovers Eddie Quillan and June Clyde pitch woo and sing the comical “I’ve Had My Moments”.

hp4

But it’s Laurel & Hardy who manage to steal the film, showing up in the last half as a pair of ragamuffins who sold the lions to Baron Munchausen. Seems the Baron gave them a check for fifty thousand tiddy-winks, and they want their lions back! After some shenanigans at the front door with butler Tom Kennedy, they crash the party and meet Lupe Velez at the bar. This turns into a classic “tit for tat” bit involving Stan, Ollie, Lupe, and a bowl of raw eggs (which the team later reprised in THE BULLFIGHTERS). Stan and Ollie let one of the lions loose, and Schnarzan engages in a fierce battle, only to awaken from what’s been a dream Durante had after reading a Tarzan book!

hp5

HOLLYWOOD PARTY features tons of scantily clad women in musical sequences singing and dancing to some pretty forgettable songs. It was released about a month before the Code went into effect, and edited upon rerelease by the censors. What survives is still funny, and of interest to fans of early 30’s comedy. Also in the cast are Leonid Kinskey, Edwin Maxwell, Jed Prouty, Arthur Treacher (as a butler, of course), Robert Young (doing a bit as a radio announcer), and the ubiquitous Bess Flowers (if you look close, you’ll spot her!).

hp6

Richard Boleslavsky usually gets the director’s credit, but research has shown the film had multiple hands working on different sequences. George Stevens handled the Laurel & Hardy scenes, and Allan Dwan, Edmund Goulding, Russell Mack, Charles Reisner, Roy Rowland, and Sam Wood all took turns in the director’s chair, but who did what is up for speculation. This gives HOLLYWOOD PARTY a disconnected feeling, like a series of two-reelers slapped together, but somehow it works. It’s a zany look at Hollywood Bacchanalia before the code went into effect, and film buff’s delight. If you’re a fan of any of the comedians I’ve mentioned, it’s definately worth checking out.

More PRE-CODE CONFIDENTIAL:

Pre Code Confidential #4: Boris Karloff in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (MGM 1932)

“Rooted in medieval fears of Genghis Khan and the Mongolian invasions of Europe, the Yellow Peril combines racist terror of alien cultures, sexual anxieties, and the belief that the West will be overpowered and enveloped by the irresistible, dark, occult forces of the East”- Gina Marchetti, Romance and the Yellow Peril: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (University of California Press, 1994)

fu1

First, a brief history lesson: The Yellow Peril was a particular brand of xenophobia that spread in the late 19th/early 20th century. Named by (of all people) Kaiser Wilhelm II of  Germany, and given credibility during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, this “fear of the unknown” basically said those “inscrutable” Chinese were going to come over and slaughter all the good white Christians and rape their women. Popular culture of the times played on these fears by depicting villainous Oriental characters as barbaric, opium-smoking deviants who lusted for nothing less than racial miscegenation and total world dominance! Comic strips featured evil adversaries like The Dragon Lady (Terry and the Pirates) and Ming the Merciless (Flash Gordon) and the pulps were filled with Eastern devils such as Wu Fang and Dr. Yen Sin.  But the granddaddy of them all was Sax Rohmer’s insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, who terrorized Western Civilization in a series of novels from 1913 to 1959. Fu first came to the screen in two silent British serials with Harry Agar Lyons as the megalomaniacal doctor.  Paramount Pictures brought Fu Manchu to Hollywood in 1929 in THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU, starring Warner Oland (the future Charlie Chan). Oland returned to the role in the aptly titled THE RETURN OF DR. FU MANCHU, and later had what was pretty much a cameo in DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON, with Fu’s fiendish spawn (played by the sexy and tragic Anna May Wong) handling most of the villainy.

All of which brings us to THE MASK OF FU MANCHU. And boy, if you thought MGM laid the perversion on thick with KONGO , wait’ll you get a load of this one! Never mind the rampant racism, this movie’s chock full of  blatant sexual lust, drug use, gruesome tortures, and possibly even incest. Wow! Don’t get me wrong now, I enjoy all this stuff, I just don’t expect to see it in a film from 1932. It’s part of what makes rediscovering these Pre-Codes so much fun.

fu3

The plot’s fairly simple: A British expedition is sent to Asia to find the tomb of Genghis Khan before Dr. Fu Manchu gets his hands on the treasures there, including Khan’s golden mask and scimitar, which Fu will use to claim he’s the rightful heir of Khan and kick off a race war. Sir Lionel Barton is sent by British Intelligence, led by Sir Nayland Smith, to lead the dig, but he’s kidnapped by Fu’s minions in the British Museum disguised as mummies! He’s strapped under a bell and tortured while Fu toys with him, eventually killing the old boy. Sheila, Barton’s daughter, and her oversized boyfriend Terry go with Sir Nayland and his crew to search for Sir Lionel, where they’re captured by Fu, along with his “ugly and insignificant daughter” Fah Lo See, and placed in various torture devices. Sheila is set to be sacrificed to Fu’s gods, as he implores his followers to “Kill the white man and take his women!” Of course, our stalwart heroes foil the “hideous yellow menace” and the British Empire makes the world safe for Caucasians everywhere. (See, fairly simple!)

The movie’s serial-like pacing keeps things zipping along. Director Charles Brabin, husband of silent screen vamp Theda Bara, was an old pro, having been in pictures since 1911. His career was mainly in the silent era, though he did do a few Pre-Codes before retiring, including the gangster flick THE BEAST OF THE CITY with Walter Huston and Jean Harlow. MGM gave this one a pretty big budget, with Cedric Gibbons providing some stunning art direction, and famed electrical wizard Kenneth Strickfaden designing Fu’s weird scientific machinery, as he did in FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

fu2

Speaking of Frankenstein, Boris Karloff is sensational as Fu Manchu. He exaggerates his natural lisp, making Fu sound like a slithering serpent. Cecil Holland’s makeup has Karloff looking like a grotesque characture of a Chinaman, with his drooping moustache and long claws. Boris delights in punishing his enemies, gleefully torturing them by dangling Smith over a crocodile pit, shooting up Terry with spider venom, reptile organs, and dragon blood to control his will, and placing another in the old “walls closing in” device, only these walls are full of sharp silver spikes! Dear Boris has a field day as he wickedly attempts to “dispatch (them) to (their) cold, saintly Christian paradise”, and conquer the world. He’s obviously having a blast in the role, and is a depraved delight.

fu4

That “ugly and insignificant daughter” is none other than Myrna Loy, and she’s great as the lascivious Fah Lo See. From the moment she first appears on camera, her braless headlights beaming, we know Fah Lo See’s a wanton woman. The scene where Terry’s being whipped while Fah Lo See watches, practically drooling, commanding her slaves to go “Faster, faster!” is a highlight of Pre-Code excess. Nora Charles was never this horny! The two romantic leads, Karen Morley (SCARFACE, OUR DAILY BREAD) and Charles Starrett (better known as The Durango Kid), aren’t nearly as interesting as Fu and his daughter. Lewis Stone (Andy’s dad Judge Hardy) plays Nayland Smith as a staunch, macho defender of the Crown and all things Anglo-Saxon. Jean Hersholt, Lawrence Grant, and David Torrence round out the cast, but all eyes will be on Karloff and Loy at their deranged, pain-inflicting best.

fu5

The Yellow Peril fervor switched from Chinese madmen to Japanese war mongers in the 1940’s, and there’s plenty of filmic evidence of racist sentiments in the ultra-patriotic movies of that era. But the Chinese supervillain stereotype continued well into the 60’s, influencing everything from James Bond’s DR. NO to Marvel Comics villain The Yellow Claw to a new series of Fu Manchu films starring Christopher Lee. THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, despite its racist elements, is one of the most devilishly fun Pre-Codes around, and features yet another star turn for the great Boris Karloff. Definitely worth watching for the sheer madness of it all!