Pre Code Confidential #19: Marlene Dietrich in SHANGHAI EXPRESS (Paramount 1932)

Marlene Dietrich is TCM’S Star of the Month for May, and “Shanghai Express” airs tonight at 12:00 midnight EST. 

A train ride from Peking to Shanghai is fraught with danger and romance in Josef von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS, a whirlwind of a movie starring that Teutonic whirlwind herself, Marlene Dietrich. This was the fourth of their seven collaborations together, and their biggest hit, nominated for three Oscars and winning for Lee Garmes’s striking black and white cinematography.

The Director and his Muse

Dietrich became a huge sensation as the sultry seductress Lola Lola in Sternberg’s 1930 German film THE BLUE ANGEL, and the pair headed to America to work for Paramount. Marlene became the autocratic director’s muse, as he molded her screen image into a glamorous object of lust and desire. Sternberg’s Expressionistic painting of light and shadows, aided by Dietrich’s innate sexuality, turned the former chorus girl and cabaret singer into the ultimate icon of forbidden lust, an exotic carnal creature that rocked audiences all over the world. Just watch her in SHANGHAI EXPRESS, or any of their films together for that matter: Marlene just oozes sex out of every pore!

Here she plays Shanghai Lily, a notorious “coaster” (read: prostitute) travelling with her equally exotic companion Hui Lei (the amazing Anna May Wong). Also on board is British Captain Doc Henry (Clive Brook), whose heart was broken by Lil when she was known as Madeline, before her life of ill-repute (“It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily”, she purrs). There are others on that train: American gambler Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette ), snooty Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale), opium dealer Baum (Gustav von Seffertitz), French Major Lenard (Emile Chautard), pious Reverend Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), and the mysterious Eurasian Henry Wong (Warner Oland), who is in reality leader of the revolutionary Army.

The train is stopped by government forces and a high-ranking rebel is taken into custody. In reprisal, Chang wires ahead, and his men overtake the train. All are questioned by the warlord, and Baum, who insulted Chang earlier, is branded with a hot iron for his insolence. Doc, who’s on his way to operate on Shanghai’s Governor General, is taken hostage to facilitate an exchange for Chang’s officer. The lusty Chang sets his sights on Lily, offering to take her to his hideout, but Doc steps in and decks him, causing Chang to release her and drag her friend Hui into his makeshift headquarters (the implication is Chang rapes her).

Not one to suffer an insult gladly, Chang refuses to release Doc when his man is returned, at least not until he has been blinded. Lily sacrifices her freedom by agreeing to go with Chang, bravely telling Doc it’s of her own free will so he’ll depart. Hui creeps her way through Sternberg’s shadow-world and gets her revenge by stabbing Chang to death, allowing Doc to free Lily, still not knowing she did it for his sake. It takes the sanctimonious Carmichael, who observed Lily praying for Doc’s safety earlier, to uncover the truth, and the former lovers start anew in their quest for happiness.

The supporting cast is excellent, especially Pallette and Oland (“You’re in China, where time and life have no value”). Anna May Wong, a star in her own right since the silent era, is a quiet balance to Dietrich’s more flamboyant Lily, and the two fallen angels (Carmichael describes them as “One is yellow, one is white, but both their souls are rotten”) make quite an enticing pair. The only performance I didn’t care for was Clive Brook’s “stiff upper lip” acting as Doc, but that has more to do with me than Brook himself, who was a popular star in the early 30’s. Familiar Face spotters will have to look fast for the uncredited Forrester Harvey and Willie Fung .

Jules Furthman’s  screenplay is loaded with double entendres and pithy lines, which Dietrich delivers in her signature sensuous style. SHANGHAI EXPRESS, with its outlandish look, noirish shadowplay, and erotic subject matter, is a near-perfect film, and a good starting point for those of you unfamiliar with the provocative Pre-Code wonders of Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg.

Pre Code Confidential #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)

Structural Failure: THE BIG STREET (RKO 1942)

When I hear the word “Runyonesque”, I think about racetrack touts, colorful Broadway denizens, dames with hearts of gold, and the like. If you want to make a Runyonesque movie, what better way than to have author Damon Runyon himself produce it, as RKO did for 1942’s THE BIG STREET. All the elements are there, the jargon, the characters, but the film suffers from abrupt shifts in tone from comedy to drama, and a totally unpleasant role for Lucille Ball . The result is an uneven movie with a real downer of an ending.

Based on Runyon’s short story “Little Pinks”, it follows the unrequited love of bus boy Augustus “Little Pinks” Pinkerton for torch singing gold digger Gloria Lyons, dubbed “Her Highness” by Pinks. Henry Fonda plays Pinks as  lovestruck, spineless sad sack, dubbing Lucy Her Highness, even though she’s thoroughly rotten to him. When she’s smacked by her gangster boyfriend Case Ables ( Barton MacLane ) down the stairs and loses the ability to walk, she still treats Pinks like shit. The two leads aren’t very happy characters, and the movie suffers because of it.

It’s Pinks who helps her the most, paying her hospital bills and willing to practically wheel her all the way to Miami (the scene they cause at the Holland Tunnel is a comic standout), yet Her Highness is just using the lowly bus boy, her only goal being to snag millionaire playboy Decatur Reed (William T. Orr, later a successful television producer for Warner Bros). I think it’s Lucy’s character that turned me off; even at the end (which I won’t spoil for those who want to watch), I didn’t have much sympathy for her. She’s a self absorbed, total bitch, especially in her treatment of those who care about her, and almost completely ruined the film for me.

The movie’s saving grace is the eccentric supporting cast that brings those trademark “Runyonesque” characters to vivid life. Ray Collins   and Sam Levene hit the bull’s-eye as a pair of erudite gamblers named Professor B and Horsethief. Eugene Pallette and Agnes Moorehead shine in the parts of Violette Shumberg and Nicely-Nicely Johnson, a “fat-and-skinny” odd couple (the Nicely-Nicely character would later pop up in GUYS & DOLLS, played this time by Stubby Kaye). Millard Mitchell   has an early role as retired hood Gentleman George. Among the other Familiar Faces around the big street you’ll find Louise Beavers, Hans Conreid, George Cleveland, Charlie Hall, Donald Kerr, Marian Martin, John Miljan, and Dewey Robinson. Ozzie Nelson and his Orchestra play in MacLane’s Miami nightclub, and look closely for Bess Flowers and a young Marie Windsor as faces in the crowd.

Director Irving Reis (THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBY-SOXER, ALL MY SONS) had the unenviable task of balancing the bittersweet comedy-drama of Leonard Spielgass’s script, and isn’t quite up to it. Reis was fairly new in the director’s chair at the time, and those schizophrenic shifts from offbeat comical Runyonesque hoods to mean Lucy throwing shade at Fonda are quite jarring. Perhaps if director Reis had toned down Ball’s character a few notches and let Fonda lighten up a bit, I’d feel different. As it stands, I chalk it up as an interesting failure, but fans of Fonda, Ball, and Damon Runyon yarns will probably want to judge for themselves.

 

Why I Love THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (Warner Brothers 1938)

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Readers of this blog know CASABLANCA is my all-time favorite movie, but THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD is definitely in the Top Ten, maybe even Top Five (I’d have to think about it… sounds like a future post!). The story’s been told on-screen dozens of times, from the silent 1922 Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler to Disney’s 1973 animated version to the recent Russell Crowe/Ridley Scott offering. But it’s this 1938  classic that remains definitive, thanks to a marvelous cast, breathtaking Technicolor, and the greatest cinematic swordfight in history.

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You all know the legend of Robin Hood by now, so no need for a recap. Instead, I’ll go right into what makes this film so great, starting with Errol Flynn as the brave Sir Robin of Locksley. Flynn was at the peak of his career here, after starring in such action-packed hits as CAPTAIN BLOOD   , THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, and THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER. The dashing Australian’s charisma jumps through the screen in scene after scene, and his athletic performance is a joy to behold. Maid Marion puts it best when she says, “He’s brave and he’s reckless, yet he’s gentle and kind”.

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Marion of course is Olivia de Havilland , in the third of her eight films with Flynn. Olivia was 22 at the time, and this film cemented her status as a movie star. Lady Marion Fitzwalter isn’t just some stereotypical damsel in distress. A haughty noblewoman at first, looking down her nose at the outlaw Robin, she soon has a change of heart when she sees firsthand the plight of the oppressed Saxons. Marion aids in freeing Robin from the gallows, and is imprisoned for her troubles. Her love scenes with Errol are electricifying; you can see the warmth they have for each other in their eyes.

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Basil Rathbone  is at his evil best as Sir Guy of Gisbourne. He’s just so despicable, I can just imagine the booing and hissing of 1938 audiences. Imperious, full of himself, conniving, and deceitful, Rathbone is the baddest of screen bad guys here. Both Rathbone and Flynn were accomplished fencers, and their climactic duel to the death may very well be the most exciting three minutes in Hollywood history. Basil’s matched in the villain department by Claude Rains’ Prince John, the effeminate usurper to his brother Richard’s throne. Both men were among the greatest actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and together they’re a terrific pair of foils for the jaunty Flynn.

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Let’s not forget Robin’s Merry Men, consisting of a fine cast of character actors. Patric Knowles makes a charming Will Scarlet, ever loyal to Robin. Alan Hale Sr., an offscreen pal of Flynn, is just right as Little John, and their first meeting battling with staffs over who’s going to cross that log is just one of many memorable moments. Gruff voiced Eugene Pallette gives a rowdy edge to Friar Tuck, who also meets Robin under not the best of circumstances. Even Herbert Mundin (Much the Miller) and Una O’Connor (Marion’s handmaiden Bess), both of whom I usually find annoying, are welcome additions to the cast.

Familiar Face spotters will want to catch Ian Hunter as good King Richard, and Melville Cooper as the rotten Sheriff of Nottingham. Look closely for Lionel Belmore, Harry Cording, Frank Hagney, Holmes Herbert, Carole Landis, Lester Matthews, and Leonard Mudie. Oh, and there’s another star appearing in this: Roy Rogers’ horse Trigger, as Marion’s steed!

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Michael Curtiz took over the directorial reigns from William Keighley, though both receive screen credit. Curtiz was Warner’s go-to guy, and doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. The fact is, this is the man who directed CASABLANCA, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, CAPTAIN BLOOD, MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM , THE SEA HAWK, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, MILDRED PIERCE, LIFE WITH FATHER, and WHITE CHRISTMAS, among many others. I’ve said it before: anyone with that kind of resume deserves to belong in the conversation of all-time great directors. Period.

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The stirring score by film music pioneer Erich Wolfgang Korngold won an Oscar, as it should have. It’s one of Hollywood’s most exciting pieces of music, and can be enjoyed without the movie. Indeed, it’s been played by numerous symphonies for decades now. The art direction (Carl Jules Weyl) and editing (Ralph Dawson) also won Oscars, and the costumes by Milo Anderson and cinematography by Tony Gaudio should have. Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I. Miller crafted the perfect action script, well-balanced with humor and romance. Producer Hal Wallis does his usual meticulous job getting every detail right, and the Technicolor is bright and vivid. If you want to turn young kids on to classic films, this is the one to show them.

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD is for kids of all ages, from five to ninety-five. It’s must viewing for lover’s of classic film, and as close to perfection as a movie can get. This enduring film has passed the test of time, and will be remembered and viewed as long as there are movie lovers left alive. Don’t miss it!

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