Happy Birthday, Jean Harlow: THE BEAST OF THE CITY (MGM 1932)

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In honor of Jean Harlow’s birthday (born March 3, 1911), TCM ran a Harlow marathon today. Since I was at work, I recorded a few of them. I couldn’t wait to get home and view THE BEAST OF THE CITY for three reasons: 1) Harlow, of course, 2) it’s a Pre-Code film I’ve never seen, and 3) it was directed by Charles Brabin, who gave us the devilishly decadent THE MASK OF FU MANCHU. I’d heard a lot about this movie and its violent ending, and though not nearly as gruesome as today’s films, it’s vigilante justice packs a punch that must’ve been pretty shocking in 1932.

The movie starts off with a forward from President Hoover (that’s Herbert, kids, not J. Edgar) decrying the glorification of gangsters in films, and saying we should be glorifying the police instead. We then get into the story, as we find Captain Jim Fitzgerald (aka “Fighting Fitz”) on the scene of a quadruple murder, where the Dopey gang members are found hung, clutching nickles in their dead fists. This is the calling card of the city’s top mobster, Sam Belmonte, who controls all the rackets. Fitz has Belmonte and his top torpedo Chollo picked up, but once again they’re released on a writ of habeas  corpus. The cops can never pin anything on the well-connected Belmonte, and public outcry from citizens and the newspapers demand a shakeup in the department. Fighting Fitz is part of the shakeup, and he gets transferred to a quieter precinct.

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Fitz’s younger brother Ed, a vice cop, hasn’t quite made his mark on the force. Ed’s an easygoing type, until he meets Belmonte’s moll, the platinum blonde Daisy Stevens, in a lineup. Daisy seduces the young cop (“I know what every young girl oughta know”), plying him with booze and sex. Daisy thinks Ed’s her new meal ticket, one she can use to her advantage. She persuades Ed to do some dirty work for Belmonte, and he winds up on the gangster’s payroll.

Meanwhile, Fitz gets a visit from old pals Tom and Mac, who chide him about his new gig. Just then, a call comes in about a bank robbery, and the three take off in hot pursuit. Fitz shoots one down, taking a slug himself in the process, and they capture the second. He’s hailed as a hero, and named the new Police Chief. He immediately gets to work cracking down on crime, raiding the local speakeasies and rounding up a mass of reprobates into a huge cell. Fitz gives the underworld an earful (“Take away your guns and your hop and you’re nothing but  bunch of dirty, yellow maggots”), and puts them on notice that things are going to change.

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Ed, drinking hard and living it up with Daisy, asks for a promotion, but Fitz denies him until he proves his worth. Fitz gives Ed an assignment to guard a shipment of money being sent by a bank. Daisy, ever the schemer, tells him she’s going to leave town with a rich boyfriend unless he can come up with some dough. She uses her wiles to get Ed to set up a heist, and has Chollo hire some boys to do the job. What Ed doesn’t realize is Fitz has Tom and Mac stake out the scene, and they stumble onto the fake robbery. The men chase the truck down, bullets flying, and a little girl ends up dead, as does Mac.

The two robbers are brought into Fitz’s office, and while Tom I.D.’s them, Ed says he can’t remember due to the conk on the head he received. The crooks put the finger on Ed, causing Fitz to almost choke his brother out. A trial ensues, and Belmonte hires a grandstanding mouthpiece to defend the trio. He gets them off in a travesty of justice, and remorseful Ed begs Fitz for forgiveness. Fitz develops a plan for revenge, and rounds up Tom and about a dozen od his best men. They have Ed burst in to Belmonte’s celebration party. Belmonte welcomes him, but Ed greets the boss with a smack in the face. He tells the gang he’s going to spill his guts to the papers. Fitz and his men come in and ask Belmonte if he wants to go quietly. The gangster refuses, as Fitz had guessed, and the cops brutally gun down the entire mob. The two brothers die as well, joining hands in a last gesture of solidarity, their work complete.

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Jean Harlow had been in movies about four years, notably in Howard Hughes’ aviation drama HELL’S ANGELS, before making THE BEAST OF THE CITY. The role of Daisy opened some eyes at MGM, and led to her being cast in RED DUST with Clark Gable, and from there a string of classic hits (DINNER AT EIGHT, RECKLESS, CHINA SEAS, RIFFRAFF, LIBELED LADY) until her untimely death from uremic poisoning in 1937 at age 26. Harlow was Hollywood’s original blonde bombshell, and Daisy was a showcase part for her. Whether she’s giving a cop the raspberry, dancing seductively for Ed in her apartment, or cooing lines like “Ya drink beer to make ya cool, and it just makes ya hot”,  Jean Harlow lets everyone know she’s not just another pretty face, but a talented actress.

I’ll go over the rest of the cast briefly, as I know I’m getting a bit long-winded here for an 86 minute movie. Walter Huston stars as Fitz, the no-nonsense crimefighter, a role far removed from his other 1932 starrer, KONGO . Dependable Wallace Ford plays brother Ed. The mild-mannered Dr. Christian, Jean Hersholt, sinks his teeth into the villainous Belmonte, and J. Carrol Naish is good as his slimy second-in-command. The Familiar Face Brigade is represented by actors Ed Brophy, George Chandler, Dorothy Granger, Arthur Hoyt, Robert Emmett O’Connor, and Nat Pendleton. And Fitz’s son is none other than little Mickey Rooney, who steals just about every scene he’s in.

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THE BEAST OF THE CITY isn’t quite in the same class as SCARFACE or THE PUBLIC ENEMY (both of which also featured Harlow in smaller roles), but it’s still entertaining, if a bit creaky in spots. There’s plenty of cool Pre-Code moments to be on the lookout for, and that ending of vigilante justice makes one wonder just who the true BEAST OF THE CITY was, Belmonte or Fitz. It’s a great chance to watch Jean Harlow sizzle in an early role, one that grabbed Hollywood’s attention and brought her to stardom, and for that, film fans can all be grateful.

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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!