Pre Code Confidential #27: Mae West in SHE DONE HIM WRONG (Paramount 1933)

Bawdy Mae West had scandalized Broadway with her risque humor, and struggling Paramount Pictures snapped her to a movie deal. Her first was a supporting part in 1932’s NIGHT AFTER NIGHT, where she was allowed to rewrite her own dialog, and stole the show by purring sexually charged lines like “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie”. Mae’s presence helped refill Paramount’s coffers, and raised the hackles of censorship boards across America. It wasn’t long until the Production Code became strictly enforced, thanks in large part to Mae, but before then, she was given the spotlight in 1933’s SHE DONE HIM WRONG, based somewhat on her stage success DIAMOND LIL.

Like the play, SHE DONE HIM WRONG is set in The Bowery during the 1890’s, but here Diamond Lil is called Lady Lou, because the censors wanted to whitewash all vestiges of the ribald play. Diamond Lil or Lady Lou, Mae is still Mae, and no one could deliver sexual innuendo like her! Lou is, according to her, “One of the finest women ever walked the streets”, a saloon singer who attracts men like a magnet. Owner Gus Jordan keeps her adorned in diamonds, Russian gigolo Serge Stanieff is infatuated, even prim Salvation Army reformer Captain Cummings has a crush on her. When Lou visits her ex-lover Chick Clark in stir, he’s driven so mad with jealousy he escapes to make sure Lou’s being true (fat chance!).

The plot revolves around some shady white slavery business involving Gus, Serge, and Russian Rita, but that takes a backseat to Mae and her ribald double entendres. This is the film where she coos to a young Cary Grant (playing the reformer!), “Why’ncha come up sometime and see me”. Cary asks if she’s ever met a man that could make her happy, to which Mae replies, “Sure, lots of times”. Or this little gem: “When women go wrong, men go right after them”. She also gets to sing three hot numbers, “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone”, “A Guy What Takes His Time”, and “Frankie & Johnny”.

Mae always claimed to have ‘discovered’ Cary Grant, but he’d already made seven films by this point, including the Pre-Code classic BLONDE VENUS with Marlene Dietrich. Grant was 29 at the time, while Mae was approaching 40, but a little thing like age never stopped Mae West, and the sexual heat between them is believable. Gruff Noah Beery Sr. plays saloon owner Gus, oily Gilbert Roland is the oily Serge, and Owen Moore the jealousy-driven Chick. Other cast members include Rafaela Ottiano as Russian Rita (reprising her stage role), Dewey Robinson as Lou’s loyal bodyguard Spider, and the delightful Louise Beavers as Lou’s maid Pearl. Familiar Faces abound in lesser parts: Arthur Housman , Rochelle Hudson , Tom Kennedy , Fuzzy Knight , David Landau, among others.

Though the prudes were outraged at Mae’s onscreen behavior, SHE DONE HIM WRONG  packed ’em in around the country, and was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar that year (the shortest movie ever nominated, clocking in at 66 minutes). The Production Code clampdown a year later watered Mae’s earthy persona down considerably, but even watered down Mae West was better than none at all. She still found ways to sneak some in (as in this from MY LITTLE CHICKADEE: “I was in a tight spot, but I managed to wiggle out of it”), but Mae’s shocking one-liners mostly found themselves on the cutting room floor. Mae West never gave in or gave up though, and continued to be her raunchy self for years to come. She was Hollywood’s first Liberated Woman, and SHE DONE HIM WRONG represents the immortal Mae West at her lustful best!

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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!

Stop the Presses!: Howard Hawks’ HIS GIRL FRIDAY (Columbia 1940)

In my opinion, Howard Hawks’ HIS GIRL FRIDAY is one of the greatest screwball comedies ever made, a full speed ahead movie that’s pretty much got everything a film fan could want. A remake of the 1930 Lewis Milestone classic THE FRONT PAGE (itself an adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s Broadway smash), Hawks adds a delightful twist by turning ace reporter Hildy Johnson into editor Walter Burns’ ex-wife… and casting no less than Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in the roles!

The two stars are in top form as the bickering ex-spouses, with their rapid fire banter nothing short of verbal dynamite. Grant in particular spouts off words quicker than a rapper (where did he get all that wind!) and his facial expressions and comic squeals (reminiscent of Curly Howard!) are simply priceless! Roz is more than his match as Hildy, with one lightning-fast zinger  after another. Miss Russell stated in her autobiography she didn’t think her part was funny enough, so she hired a writer to craft some good quips for her  character. Hawks didn’t mind, and encouraged the pair to ad-lib at will!

There’s a lot to love for classic movie fans, including some laugh out loud in-jokes sure to leave you in stitches. Charles Lederer turns his screenplay from  the original 1930 version on its ear by changing Hildy’s gender, which in turn gives Ralph Bellamy a chance to shine as Hildy’s fiancé Bruce Baldwin, a boring insurance salesman from Albany. The contrast between high-octane, high-strung Grant and gullible bumpkin Bellamy is vast as the ocean, and Ralph’s just as funny as the two stars. The press room is packed with character actors like Cliff Edwards , Porter Hall , Frank Jenks, Roscoe Karns , Regis Toomey, and Ernest Truex, as big a bunch of reprobates as your likely to find. John Qualen plays the meek murderer Earl Williams, Gene Lockhart and Clarence Kolb represent the crooked political hacks determined to hang Williams, Abner Biberman essays Grant’s devious but dumb right-hand man, Alma Kruger is a scream playing Bellamy’s oh-so-proper mother, and veteran comic Billy Gilbert has a juicy bit as the governor’s messenger.

I’d like to single out Helen Mack here for her dramatic turn as the tortured, doomed prostitute Molly Malloy, whose kindness she showed to Earl Williams is exploited by the press hounds. Miss Mack, star of 1933’s SON OF KONG, is the only member of the cast who doesn’t get to play for laughs, instead giving an emotional performance as Molly, dogged by the newspaper reporters and sacrificing herself to save the now escaped and hidden Earl by doing a swan dive out the window. While everyone around her is in full comedy mode, she adds some gravitas to the proceedings. It must have been tough to keep a straight face amidst all that comedic talent, but Helen Mack pulls it off, and deserves some recognition for her efforts.

Hawks certainly keeps things moving with his fluid camerawork, bringing what could’ve been too stagey to roaring life. And yes, there’s that trademark overlapping dialog of his, with Grant and Russell constantly talking over each other during their exchanges. Hawks made some great films in virtually every genre, but of all his screwball comedies (TWENTIETH CENTURY, BRINGING UP BABY, BALL OF FIRE, I WAS A MALE WAR BRIDE, MONKEY BUSINESS), I love HIS GIRL FRIDAY the best. It’s a sure-fire cure for the blues, a non-stop frolic of fun, and without question a screen classic you can’t afford to miss.

Spy in the House of Love: Alfred Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS (RKO 1946)

You won’t find a more glamorous pair of spies than Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Alfred Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS… except maybe in other films that feature Cary Grant as a spy! The Master of Suspense once again goes full speed ahead in bringing this exciting espionage caper to the screen loaded with the usual “Hitchcock Touches”, and introducing a few new ones along the way.

Alicia Huberman’s father has just been convicted of treason, and party girl Alicia soon finds herself seduced by suave T.R. Devlin. Awakening the next morning with a massive hangover, Alicia discovers Devlin’s a government agent (ours, of course!) charged with recruiting her to infiltrate a nest of ex-Nazis in Brazil. The target: Alexander Sebastian, a former flame of hers. The wealthy industrialist Sebastian is snack-dab in the middle of a fiendish Nazi plot, and Alicia’s job is to find out what’s going on. Meanwhile, the two fall madly in love.

Alicia gets invited to a dinner party loaded with Sebastian’s co-conspirators, including his suspicious mother. There’s something sinister about those wine bottles, but there’s a fly in the ointment: Sebastian asks her to marry him to prove she’s not in love with Devlin! Devlin, ever the company man, gives her the brush-off, and Alicia continues her mission as Mrs. Alexander Sebastian. Alicia steals the key to the wine cellar and, at a lavish party, she and Devlin investigate, finding bottles full of “some kind of metal ore”. Sebastian discovers the truth about Alicia’s allegiance, and he and his mother decide the only way out is to slowly poison her…

Ingrid’s Alicia Huberman is no Ilsa Lund, that’s for sure! In fact, the implication is she’s a high-priced call girl, but the censors preferred the more demur term “party girl”. Cary Grant is as sophisticated as ever, and he and Bergman make a crackling screen team (the pair would later team again in 1958’s INDISCREET). Speaking of those censors, it seems they had a rule forbidding onscreen kissing longer than three seconds (Good Lord!). Hitchcock, ever the innovator, got around this by having Grant and Bergman embrace in a passionate lip-lock for two-and-a-half seconds, then murmur a few sweet nothings, then kiss again. This went on for two-and-a-half minutes, and though it may sound strange, the scene is actually pretty damn hot! Leave it to Hitch to beat the devil at his own game!

The outstanding supporting cast is headed by Claude Rains as Alexander Sebastian. As usual, Rains commands the screen whenever he’s on it, really tough to do when you’re opposite Grant and Bergman! Veteran Austrian actress Leopoldine Konstantine makes her first (and only) American film appearance as Madame Sebastian, as knee-deep in the conspiracy as her son. Familiar Faces include Bea Benaderet, Wally Brown , Louis Calhern , Gavin Gordon, Donald Kerr , Moroni Olsen, and Ivan Treisault. Bess Flowers can be spotted in the huge party scene, along with Hitchcock in his regular cameo.

That party scene begins with an overhead shot atop the staircase (a favorite Hitchcock motif) that tracks all the way down to Alicia’s hand, which holds the key to the wine cellar and the plot. This and all the other fantastic camerawork come courtesy of DP Ted Tetzlaff, whose cinematography credits include classics MY MAN GODFREY, EASY LIVING, and THE MORE THE MERRIER. Tetzlaff was also a director in his own right, helming the 1949 film noir THE WINDOW . RKO’s music man Roy Webb delivers one of his best scores, and the screenplay by Ben Hecht is downright perfect. With all that talent in front of and behind the camera, it’s no small wonder NOTORIOUS was one of 1946’s biggest hits, ranking #7 at the box office and scoring Oscar nominations for Rains and Hecht. The movie is as glamorous and entertaining today as it was then, with Hitchcock, Grant, Bergman, and Rains all at their best, and makes a good place to start for those few out there (are there any?) who have yet to discover the work of Alfred Hitchcock.

Curiouser & Curiouser: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (Paramount 1933)

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Lewis Carroll’s 1865 children’s classic ALICE IN WONDERLAND was turned into an all-star spectacular by Paramount in 1933. But the stars were mostly unrecognizable under heavy makeup and costumes, turning audiences off and causing the film to bomb at the box office. Seen today, the 1933 ALICE is a trippy visual delight for early movie buffs, thanks in large part to the art direction of William Cameron Menzies.

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Menzies’ designs are truly out there, giving ALICE the surrealistic quality of the books themselves. He actually storyboarded his ideas right into the physical script, earning a co-writer credit along with Joseph L. Mankiewicz . Menzies was the cinematic wizard whose art direction brought the magical 1924 THE THIEF OF BAGDAD to life. He was co-director and special effects designer for 1932’s CHANDU THE MAGICIAN, and the title of Production Designer was invented for him on the classic GONE WITH THE WIND. Menzies also directed a few films; especially of note are the science fiction entries THINGS TO COME and INVADERS FROM MARS.

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You all know the story: young Alice is snowed in and bored, daydreaming away the time. She falls asleep, and dreamily takes a trip through the looking glass, where everything is backwards, and the chess board comes to life. Alice goes outside and follows the White Rabbit (Skeets Gallagher) down the hole, where she encounters a strange world inhabited by Caterpillar (Ned Sparks), Frog (Sterling Holloway ), The Duchess (Alison Skipworth) and her baby (Billy Barty), The Cheshire Cat (Richard Arlen), The March Hare (Charlie Ruggles ), The Mad Hatter (Edward Everett Horton), The Doormouse (Jackie Searl), The King and Queen of Hearts (Alec B. Francis, May Robson), Gryphon (William Austin), The Mock Turtle (Cary Grant), The Red Queen (Edna May Oliver), The White Queen (Louise Fazenda), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Roscoe Karns, Jack Oakie), Humpty Dumpty (W.C. Fields ), and The White Knight (Gary Cooper ) on her madcap journey through Wonderland.

Alice In Wonderland (1933) | Pers: Alison Skipworth | Dir: Norman Z. (M) Mcleod | Ref: ALI012AJ | Photo Credit: [ The Kobal Collection / Paramount ] | Editorial use only related to cinema, television and personalities. Not for cover use, advertising or fictional works without specific prior agreement

Nineteen year old Charlotte Henry stars as  twelve year old Alice, and she’s perfect in the part. In fact, she was too perfect, as she became so closely identified with Alice it was tough for her to get other roles. After costarring as Bo-Peep in Laurel & Hardy’s BABES IN TOYLAND (retitled MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS), Henry appeared in CHARLIE CHAN AT THE OPERA (with Boris Karloff) and the Frank Buck serial JUNGLE MENACE before retiring from film at the age of 28.

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Film fanatics will be able to recognize many of the stars by their distinct voices. Grant, Cooper, and Fields (who’s my personal favorite) are easy, but true movie afficianados won’t have trouble finding Oakie, Ruggles, Horton, Holloway, or Oliver. Leon Errol Roscoe Ates , Baby LeRoy, and Mae Marsh also take part in this hallucinogenic fantasy directed by Norman Z. McLeod. The director was a comedy specialist, working with greats like Fields (IT’S A GIFT, IF I HAD A MILLION), The Marx Brothers (MONKEY BUSINESS , HORSE FEATHERS), Bob Hope (THE ROAD TO RIO, THE PALEFACE), and Danny Kaye (THE KID FROM BROOKLYN, THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY), and helming the classic ghost comedy TOPPER.

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Besides the Fields and Cooper segments, one part of the film I really enjoyed was when Tweedledee and Tweedledum relate the story of The Walrus and The Carpenter to Alice. Here the movie veers off into animation by Hugh Harman and Rudoph Ising, a pair of Disney veterans who’d later inaugurate Warner’s Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. It’s a cute little vignette done by the animation pioneers, who later created such characters as Bosko and Barney Bear. ALICE IN WONDERLAND probably won’t appeal to those who’re enamored of CGI, but it was way ahead of its time, and is historically worth a look. After all, it isn’t every day you get a chances to see Cary Grant as The Mock Turtle or W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty, now is it?