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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more “Pre-Code Confidential”!

LADY KILLER (1933)

KONGO (1932)

MAKE ME A STAR (1932)

THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932)

HOLLYWOOD PARTY (1934)

THE SECRET SIX (1931)

PLAY-GIRL (1932)

BABY FACE (1932)

BLONDE CRAZY (1931)

CLEOPATRA (1934)

THE MALTESE FALCON (1931)

DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE (1931)

FLESH (1932)

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Still Great Entertainment: Gable & Harlow in CHINA SEAS (MGM 1935)

Back in the 1970’s, Boston’s WCVB-TV Channel 5 ran a weekend late-nite movie series called “The Great Entertainment”. For 18 years, host Frank Avruch did Robert Osbourne-like introductions to the station’s library of MGM films, way before the advent of cable. This is where I first saw and fell in love with many of the classic movies and stars of the 30’s and 40’s. When TCM recently aired CHINA SEAS, I hadn’t seen the film in decades, and knew I had to DVR it. It had made an impression on me, and while rewatching I was not disappointed; it’s still a rousing piece of entertainment!

Clark Gable is rugged sea captain Alan Gaskill, carrying a quarter million British pounds worth of gold as cargo aboard his liner heading from Hong Kong to Singapore. Jean Harlow plays ‘China Doll’ Portland, Gaskill’s in-port squeeze who comes along against his wishes. Gaskill’s former flame, refined Sybil Barclay (Rosalind Russell), shows up, and the skipper gives China Doll the big freeze. While Gaskill tries to rekindle that old flame, Dolly takes up with wild animal importer Jamesy McArdle ( Wallace Beery ), who unbeknownst to all is in league with a gang of Malay pirates out to hijack all that loot!

This was Gable & Harlow’s fourth go-round together, and the no-nonsense he-man was the perfect foil for the brassy platinum blonde. Their Jules Furthman/Kevin James McGuiness-penned banter sparkles, with Harlow making the most out of her by-now-familiar floozy with a heart of gold persona. Beery, who appeared with the two in 1931’s THE SECRET SIX , had honed his loveable rogue role down to a science, and the three stars all shine brightly in this romp.

The diverse passenger list is a Familiar Face lover’s dream, with Lewis Stone a disgraced third officer who redeems himself in grand fashion, humorist Robert Benchley  a tipsy American novelist who spends the movie inebriated, stiff-upper-lip C. Aubrey Smith  the fleet’s owner, Akim Tamiroff a shady jewel thief embroiled with passengers Edward Brophy and Lillian Bond, Hattie McDaniel Harlow’s wisecracking traveling companion, and Ivan Lebedeff the chief pirate. Dudley Diggs, Willie Fung, Forrester Harvey, William Henry, and Donald Meek are also onboard for the ride.

For a film made in 1935, there sure are a lot of Pre-Code elements here. There’s no doubt Harlow’s China Doll is less than virginal, and the violence is fairly graphic for the era. The scene during a raging typhoon features extras getting run over by a runaway steamroller, and Gable suffers through the agonizing torture of the dreaded ‘Malay Boot’ at the sadistic hands of the pirates. Executive producer Irving Thalberg had been planning CHINA SEAS for over five years, and it seems some of those Pre-Code elements sailed right past the Hayes Office!

Director Tay Garnett was the ideal choice to helm CHINA SEAS, striking the right balance of masculine action with his deft comic touch. Garnett’s career stretched back to the days of Mack Sennett, and among his filmography you’ll find gems like SHE COULDN’T TAKE IT, SEVEN SINNERS, MY FAVORITE SPY, BATAAN, THE CROSS OF LORRAINE, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, and A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT. He dove right into episodic TV in the 50’s and 60’s, and capped off his career with a pair of family friendly made-in-Alaska flicks, CHALLENGE TO BE FREE and TIMBER TRAMPS. Garnett’s movies are well worth looking into.

CHINA SEAS is a rollicking adventure with a cast of professionals at their peak, headlined by the red-hot screen team of Gable & Harlow. I’ve been hearing a lot recently about how millennials don’t really get into older, black and white movies, but I think this film will turn anyone into a classic film buff. It’s “Great Entertainment”, indeed!

Fast & Furious Hitchcock: THE 39 STEPS (Gaumont-British 1935)

The chase is on – and on – as Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll are pursued by cops and spies while pursuing a deadly secret in Alfred Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS. The “double chase”, first used by Hitch in his silent THE LODGER (1927), playfully keeps the film’s motor running in high gear, and introduces us to two of his soon-to-be famous tropes, the “McGuffin” and the ice blonde. It’s certainly an important film for Hitchcock, as it caught the eye of Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, who would bring Hitch to America’s shores five years later.

Donat, later an Oscar winner for 1939’s GOODBYE MR. CHIPS, plays Richard Hannay, trapped in circumstances beyond his control. The film begins in one of Hitchcock’s favorite places, a crowded public landmark, in this case a music hall (the marquee reminiscent of the shot of Anna Ondry walking past “A New Comedy” in BLACKMAIL ), as Hannay watches a performance by Mr. Memory (and his fabulous moustache!). The boisterous crowd heckles the entertainer, and soon a brawl breaks out among the drunken patrons. Shots are fired during the chaos, and as the horde disperses, we learn it was a ruse, a diversion created by Annabella Smith (German actress Lucie Mannheim), who tells Richard she’s a freelance spy working for the Brits to protect a secret important to the crown. At Richard’s apartment, she’s killed by a knife in the back, handing him a map of Scotland before dying.

Richard’s forced to take it on the lam, pursued by two spies as well as wanted by the constabulary for murder. His cleaning lady has discovered the body, and her scream segues into a train whistle. Richard’s on board, trying to elude the cops, and ducks into Pamela Shaneakwa’s (Carroll) compartment, only to be fingered by her to the cops. He escapes by climbing atop a very high bridge, another favorite Hitchcock spot.  Seeking shelter at the farm of an old Scot (John Laurie, later of the Brit sitcom DAD’S ARMY) and his much younger bride (the future Dame Peggy Ashcroft), he stays the night, and the old coot suspects Richard’s hitting on his wife. The man tries to turn in him for reward money, only to have the lass help him escape (she receives a kiss from the dashing Donat for her efforts!).

Richard makes his way to the home of Professor Jordan, thinking he’s an ally of Annabella, only to find out the man’s leader of the spy gang! He’s almost killed (I won’t tell you how he dodges that bullet, you’ll have to watch the movie!), and lives to tell his tale to the local sheriff, who doesn’t believe him – no one does! Crashing through a window, he loses them in a crowded parade and winds up in the midst of a political rally, spouting a gibberish speech when he’s recognized by none other than Pamela. Two cops escort him out, with Pamela in tow as a witness, and handcuff them together. You guessed it, the cops are really part of the spy plot, and Richard manages to escape once again, this time chained to Pamela, who hates the accused murderer!

THE 39 STEPS has everything you could ask for in a Hitchcock film: action, romance, comedy, spies, and many of his famous signatures. There’s the innocent man involved in extraordinary circumstances, danger in public places, voyeurism (Carroll taking off her stockings, later putting them back on), trains, high places, and an exciting (and unexpected) conclusion that takes us back to Mr. Memory. And yes, the director does one of his patented cameos; again, it’s up to you to find him! The secret of THE 39 STEPS is not as important as how Hitchcock gets to it, and the journey is fun indeed.

Donat and Carroll make a marvelous pair, and the comedy between them is has a decidedly screwball flavor. Madeleine Carroll played “the ice blonde” in Hitchcock’s THE SECRET AGENT the following year, then moved to Hollywood to star in vintage fare like THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN, ON THE AVENUE, DeMille’s NORTHWEST MOUNTED POLICE, and the Bob Hope spy spoof MY FAVORITE BLONDE. At one point she was the highest paid actress in the world, but gave it all up to aid in the war effort after her sister was killed during the Blitz. She died in 1987 at the age of 81.

Hitchcock would make five more films in England before beginning the next phase of his career in America with REBECCA. His British films of the 30’s were but a proving ground for greater things to come. THE 39 STEPS gives the viewer a chance to observe the Master of Suspense honing his unique style and vision, which would serve him well in the decades to come.

Early Hitchcock: BLACKMAIL (1929) and MURDER! (1930)

TCM is running Alfred Hitchcock  movies all month long under the umbrella of “50 Years of Hitchcock” and, in conjunction with Ball State University, conducting a six-week course on The Master of Suspense’s life and works. Since I’m participating, I figured it would be a good excuse for me to write some blog posts on Hitchcock’s films, sort of killing two birds with one stone. Today I’d like to discuss two of his early talking films, both produced at British International Pictures. Let’s start with Hitchcock’s first “talkie”, 1929’s BLACKMAIL.

BLACKMAIL was originally scheduled to be a silent film with some sound sequences, but Hitchcock clandestinely shot the whole thing with sound. Producer John Maxwell liked what he saw and released it in both silent and sound versions. BLACKMAIL is considered the first British talkie, though some of its scenes are silent with music only, and Hitchcock, ever the innovator, was there first. It was only his 11th film in the director’s chair, and evidence of “The Hitchcock Touch” was already emerging.

The plot centers on Alice White, who ditches her police detective boyfriend Frank Webber for a date with Crewe, an artist. Crewe invites her up to his studio apartment, and after persuading her to put on a ballerina outfit, attempts to rape her. There’s a struggle (unseen behind a curtain), Alice reaches for a knife, and stabs her assailant to death. Horrified by the act, Alice wanders in a daze down the streets of Chelsea, imagining a neon sign touting a shaker of gin turning into a stabbing knife, and a wino’s arm the would-be rapist’s lifeless limb. Frank, one of the investigators assigned to the case, stumbles upon Alice’s glove in the flat and hides it from his colleagues. But there’s a fly in the ointment: a small time crook named Tracy, who was outside casing the joint when the murder occurred, has possession of Alice’s other glove, and isn’t above indulging in a little game of… blackmail!

Hitchcock seems to be enjoying this new toy of sound, utilizing it to add punctuation to scenes. When the local gossip chatters on and on about the murder while a still freaked out Alice and her parents have breakfast, the word “knife” is repeated over and over, until all Alice (and the viewer) hears is “knife”, the rest becoming garbled noise, as Alice tries to slice bread, finally throwing the repulsive object across the room, jolting both her parents and the audience! Music, figuring so prominently in Hitch’s later films, is featured to great advantage, as the soon-to-be dead  rapist (who’s played by Cyril Ritchard, known to millions of baby boomers as Captain Hook in the oft-repeated TV production of PETER PAN) croons a ditty to Alice called “Miss Up-To-Date”.

For an early talkie, the film is rarely static, as Hitchcock keeps a lively pace despite the limitations of the new sound equipment. His black humor is showcased when, while Alice walks down the street in a stupor, we see a marquee advertising “A New Comedy”, and in the ending’s strange turn of events. Hitchcock’s voyeurism fetish shows up as we see Alice dress and undress several times, as do his shots of imposing staircases and a chase scene in a highly public place (in this case the British Museum, juxtaposed among some bizarre artifacts). And of course, Hitchcock does one of his famous cameos, being annoyed by an obnoxious brat aboard a train (another familiar Hitch motif).

MURDER! is Hitchcock’s only whodunit, a genre he allegedly detested. Unlike BLACKMAIL, MURDER! is very static, only really coming to life during the final scene set in a circus. Herbert Marshall  plays Sir John Menier, an actor sitting on a jury pressured to convict a young actress of the title crime, who opens his own private investigation before she’s scheduled to hang. It’s a Hitchcockian theme, the amateur sleuth thrown into an extraordinary circumstance, but the film dragged for me, hampered by the conventions of the genre. It’s based on a play by the director’s friend Gerald du Maurier, whose daughter Daphne’s books were later adapted into Hitchcock films – JAMAICA INN, REBECCA, and THE BIRDS.

Classical music is used in the soundtrack, but since the entire orchestra was on set to play it live, it’s too damn loud and drowns out some of the dialog. Marshall had to record his lines ahead of time and mouth them, but he’s still nearly unintelligible in one scene. The film starts off well, with a scream, but soon gets bogged down by its slow, deliberate pace. There are traces of the “Hitchcock Touch” (black humor, voyeurism, mirror reflections), and even a brief cameo, but on the whole MURDER! is lesser Hitchcock, and I’d recommend it only to completests and students of the director. In MURDER!, the director is dabbling in a genre he wasn’t really interested in, and despite a few “Hitchcock Touches”, doesn’t hold up well. BLACKMAIL, on the other hand,  is an engaging film that shows Alfred Hitchcock adapting well to the new medium of sound films, and foreshadows greater things to come.   And there’ll certainly be more Hitchcock to come here in the very near future!

 

Pre-Code Confidential #13: Wallace Beery in John Ford’s FLESH (MGM 1932)

Long before his John Wayne collaborations, John Ford had worked to perfect his own style as a filmmaker. Even though the cranky, idiosyncratic Ford, who directed his first film way back in 1917,  had his directing credit removed from 1932’s FLESH, it is credited as “A John Ford Production”, and one can tell this is definitely a “John Ford Picture”.  The man himself thought the film was lousy, and most critics agreed, but I’m in the minority opinion. I think it’s worthy of reappraisal for film lovers to get a glimpse of some vintage Ford, with solid performances by Wallace Beery, Karen Morley, and Ricardo Cortez. Plus, as a long-time pro wrestling buff, the grappling game setting appeals to me, as do the many Pre-Code themes and moments.

Beery once again is a good-natured lug, a German wrestler named Polakai who doubles as a waiter in a rowdy beer garden, toting a keg on his massive shoulders. Morley is  Laura, an American just released from prison with no visible means of support. She runs up a hefty tab and is unable to pay, so Polakai takes care of it. Later, Laura is walking the streets and spotted by a local polizeibeamte. The smitten Polakai takes her in, giving this stranger in a strange land a place to stay, much to the shock of his neighbors.

What Polakai doesn’t know is Laura is carrying a torch for her lover, the still incarcerated Nicky (Cortez), as well as carrying Nicky’s baby! Polakai catches her trying to lift his stash of cash, and she gives him a sob story about helping spring her “brother” from jail, so the naïve rassler insists on helping her once again. When Nicky is released, and finds out Laura’s pregnant, the rat drops her like a hot weinerschnitzel and skedaddles back to the states. This leaves Laura with little choice: convincing Polakai she’s carrying his child, the dumb brute does the honorable thing and marries her.

Polakai wins the championship of Germany while she gives birth to a son, then  takes his new family in tow and comes to America to compete for the World’s Championship. Now the roles are reversed, with Polakai the “stranger in a strange land”.  Slimy Nicky worms his way back into the picture and becomes Polakai’s manager, but when the big lug learns the American rasslin’ racket is fixed, he refuses to play ball and decides to return to Germany. Nicky, not wanting to lose his new meal ticket, smacks Laura around to force her to convince him otherwise. She achieves this by leaving him, backing Polakai into a corner, and the hulking grappler agrees to “wrestle crooked”. He discovers the effects of American bootleg whiskey and hits the bottle hard, unable to function on the night of his big championship bout. Nicky is steamed when the brute is unable to get out of bed and shoves Laura to the floor, angering the giant. She confesses everything to Polakai, who rises from his sickbed and strangles Nicky. Polakai is arrested shortly after winning the title, and Laura visits him in prison, stating she’s leaving town, but Polakai begs her to stay. Despite all that’s occurred, he’s still in love with his American liebchin.

Appropriately, since half the film is set in Germany, Ford utilizes an Expressionistic style in FLESH. The director had worked alongside F.W. Murnau on the Fox lot, and Murnau’s SUNRISE (1927) was an eye-opener for Ford. He considered it a masterpiece of filmmaking, and it heavily influenced Ford’s silents FOUR SONS (1928) and HANGMAN’S HOUSE (1928), as well as his later, more “arty” films like THE INFORMER, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, and (to a certain extent) THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Ford’s signature doorway motif shows up, as do some marvelous overhead shots, and the use of shadows give FLESH even more of an “Ufa” feel.  Though everybody knows Ford called the shot selections on his films, DP Arthur Edeson was no slouch; Edeson was the man behind the camera for such classics as FRANKENSTEIN, THE INVISIBLE MAN, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, THE MALTESE FALCON, SERGEANT YORK, and CASABLANCA , and surely must’ve had some input into the look of the film.

A whole host of writers worked on the screenplay for FLESH, both credited and uncredited. Film director Edmund Goulding is credited with the story, adapted by writers Leonard Praskins and Edgar Allan Woolf. Moss Hart wrote the dialog, while William Faulkner, John W. Considine Jr. and Hanns Kraly made uncredited contributions. Faulkner’s participation inspired the Coen Brothers to parody him “writing a Wallace Beery wrestling story” in their 1991 film BARTON FINK.

Beery goes for pathos as the dim-witted but kind-hearted bear Polakai, although even John Ford himself couldn’t restrain the actor completely from mugging for the camera (this would be their only film together). Karen Morley (Laura) is superb in a difficult role, as she was in the Pre-Codes SCARFACE, THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, DINNER AT EIGHT, and King Vidor’s excellent 1934 OUR DAILY BREAD. Morley was a fine actress whose career, along with husband Lloyd Gough, was ruined by HUAC in 1947. Ricardo Cortez is vile as ever in the part of Nicky; the former “competitor” to Valentino’s Latin Lover crown made a career out of playing low-down snakes in 30’s films before turning to directing. Familiar Faces rounding out the cast are Vince Barnett , Herman Bing, Ed Brophy , Jean Hersholt, Wilbur Mack, John Miljan, and Frank Reicher . Ford favorite Ward Bond   plays one of Beery’s early sparring partners, and ex-wrestler Nat Pendleton  is cast as (what else?) a wrestler. The film also features an appearance by real life heavyweight champ Wladek Zbyszko, who fought such greats of the era as “Strangler” Ed Lewis and Joe Stecher.

I’m unsure why Ford chose to pull his name from the director’s credit. FLESH isn’t a bad movie by any means, and in fact is quite entertaining. It’s been said he felt constricted working at MGM, and didn’t work at the studio again until 1945’s THEY WERE EXPENDABLE. By that time, John Ford had already won three of his record four directing Oscars, and was a force to be reckoned with in cinema. FLESH offers viewers a chance to see the master in an early, experimental stage, and for that reason alone deserves to be seen.

 

Pre Code Confidential #12: Joan Crawford in DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE (MGM 1931)

MGM co-starred Joan Crawford and Clark Gable for the first time with their 1931 gangland saga DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE. Well, not exactly co-starring; 27-year-old Joan was already a screen veteran and a star, while 30-year-old newcomer Gable was billed sixth in this, his third picture (not counting his extra work). Regardless of billing, the pair had a definite sexual dynamic between them onscreen (and offscreen as well, if you know your Hollywood history), and the studio would team them again in seven more films.

Joan is carefree Chicago socialite Bonnie Jordan, with a twit of a boyfriend (Lester Vail) and a wastrel brother named Roddy (William Bakewell) who’s got a penchant for booze. When the stock market crashes and their Pop croaks on the exchange floor, the kids are left with neither money or marketable skills. Bonnie’s upper-crust boyfriend Bob offers to do the honorable thing and marry her, but that horrified look on her face says it all! Rejecting the twit, Bonnie’s determined to find a “man-sized job” and make it on her own.

Steadfast Bonnie lands a job as a cub reporter in the male-dominated newspaper racket, where all the wisenheimers crack wise and ogle the pretty new filly’s form (and I love that “clickety-clack” of all the typewriters in the newsroom!) She’s befriended by ace crime reporter Bert Scranton (Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards, the voice of Jiminy Cricket!), who takes her under his wing. Roddy also gets a job, pushing hooch to his society pals for tough bootlegger Jake Luva (Gable). All eyes will be on Gable when he enters the scene, looking hard as nails and twice as dangerous.

Roddy unwittingly becomes the wheelman in a St. Valentine’s Day-style massacre, with seven rival hoods mowed down by machine gun fire inside a garage. A shaken Roddy heads to the bar in Luva’s nightclub, where his loose lips meet up with Scranton’s ears. Luva ‘s not happy, and orders the lad to kill the nosy reporter or else! Accompanied by a pair of goons, Roddy reluctantly does the deed, then is forced to lay low in one of Luva’s apartments.

Bonnie becomes bait to get the goods on the gang, posing as “Mary Smith, a tough girl from Missouri… a cheap moll in the underworld”. She gets a gig as a dancer at the nightclub, which allows Joan to strut her stuff and show off those gorgeous gams in a hotcha cabaret scene. She catches the eye of Luva, who invites her up to his room and tries to put the make on her. Bonnie’s saved by the bell when the phone rings, but when she picks it up she hears Roddy’s voice on the other end. Rushing to his apartment, Bonnie finds out the truth. However, Luva discovers Bonnie’s identity, and he’s about the take the siblings for a long ride when Roddy finally grows a set and guns down the gang boss and his goon, getting killed in the process. Brave Bonnie calls the story in, and she’s about to leave the paper for a new life when that twit Bob shows up and they get back together.

The film suffers from some rah-ther stagey performances by the supporting cast, as many early talkies do. But there’s no denying the sexual tension oozing from Joan’s and Gable’s pores, and their all-too-brief scenes together make this film worthwhile. The Pre-Code-iest scene involves Joan and her young society friends diving into the ocean in their underwear that was risqué for the time, and Joan’s flapper-girl hoofing is pretty steamy. Director Harry Beaumont had worked with Crawford before (OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS), and helmed 1929’s Oscar-winning THE BROADWAY MELODY. Screenwriter Aurania Rouverol delivers some tough dialog, later gaining fame for introducing the world to a much gentler bunch: teenage Andy Hardy and his family in the hit play A FAMILY AFFAIR! DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE isn’t on a par with other early gangster films, but as the first teaming of Crawford and Gable, it’s a movie that should be seen by classic film lovers at least once.

Catch up with the “Pre Code Confidential” series:

 

Screwball Comedian: Joe E. Brown in ALIBI IKE (Warner Brothers 1935)

We’re about a quarter of the way through the baseball season, so let’s take a trip to the ballpark with Joe E. Brown in ALIBI IKE, a 1935 comedy based on a story by Ring Lardner, one of the best baseball writers of the early 20th Century. Brown, known for his wide mouth and comical yell, is an admittedly acquired taste; his “gosh, golly” country bumpkin persona is not exactly what modern audiences go for these days.  But back in the 30’s he was one of Hollywood’s top box-office draws, specializing in sports themed comedies  revolving around wrestling (SIT TIGHT), track and field (LOCAL BOY MAKES GOOD), swimming (YOU SAID A MOUTHFUL), polo (POLO JOE), football ($1,000 A TOUCHDOWN), and racing (boats in TOP SPEED, airplanes in GOING WILD, bicycles in SIX DAY BIKE RACE).

ALIBI IKE is the final chapter in Brown’s “baseball trilogy”. The first, 1932’s FIREMAN, SAVE MY CHILD, found him as a player for the St. Louis Cardinals who doubles as a fireman and part-time inventor. 1933’s ELMER THE GREAT has Brown as an egotistical rookie for the Chicago Cubs. In ALIBI IKE, he’s back in a Cubs uniform as Frank X. Farrell, a hick-from-the-sticks with an unorthodox pitching style and a blazing fastball. His teammates nickname him “Alibi Ike” for his proclivity to come up with an outrageous excuse for everything, but his raw talent sets the league abuzz, raising the hopes of the Cubs long-suffering manager Cap (played by Fred Mertz himself, cranky William Frawley).

The rube’s never been interested in women until he meets Cap’s sister-in-law Dolly, who thinks he’s “cute”. This was movie audiences first glimpse at a 19-year-old actress who definitely had a future before her… Olivia de Havilland ! Olivia had already filmed A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT DREAM (also featuring Brown) and THE IRISH IN US, but ALIBI IKE was released first. She’s pretty darn “cute” herself as Dolly, and has great chemistry with Brown. Later that year, Olivia would costar with Errol Flynn in CAPTAIN BLOOD , becoming half of one of the screen’s most romantic couples.

Ike is paid a visit by the president of “The Young Men’s High Ideals Club”, which he soon finds out is a front for a gambling ring that threatens him to throw some games or else! When Dolly breaks up with him over a misunderstanding, the lovestruck hurler loses his first game. Through circumstances, Cap and the team’s president think he’s in with the gamblers, and on the night of the big pennant deciding game against the Giants, Ike is kidnapped! Of course, you just know he’ll escape and wind up winning both the game and the girl, right?

The only quibble I have with ALIBI IKE is the big night game is played on the Cubs’ home field, which as all us baseball fans know didn’t get lights for night games until 1988! Otherwise, this is one of the all-time great baseball comedies, with actors that actually look like ball players for a change. The cast includes Familiar Faces Ruth Donnelly (as Frawley’s wife), Roscoe Karns, Jack Norton  (sober for a change, as a reporter!), Frank Coghlin Jr (Billy Batson in the serial CAPTAIN MARVEL), and Fred “Snowflake” Toones. Hard-core baseball enthusiasts may recognize former old-time players Gump Cantrell, Cedric Durst, Mike Gazella, Don Hurst, and Bob Meusel, as well as Jim Thorpe, whose life story was made into a 1951 biofilm starring Burt Lancaster.

William Wister Haines adapted his screenplay from Lardner’s story, giving Brown plenty of comic opportunities, and director Ray Enright ( PLAY-GIRL , ANGELS WASH THEIR FACES, GUNG HO!) keeps things moving along at a brisk pace. ALIBI IKE is a wonderful place to start if you’re not familiar with Brown’s work, classic movie lovers will want to catch it for Olivia’s screen debut, and baseball fans for the sheer joy of it. Honestly, I think even non-baseball fans will get a kick out of ALIBI IKE. Now let’s play ball!