Cleaning Out the DVR #24: Crime Does Not Pay!

We’re way overdue for a Cleaning Out the DVR post – haven’t done one since back in April! – so let’s jump right in with 4 capsule reviews of 4 classic crime films:

SINNERS’ HOLIDAY (Warner Brothers 1930; D: John Adolfi) – Early talkie interesting as the screen debut of James Cagney , mixed up in “the booze racket”, who shoots bootlegger Warren Hymer, and who’s penny arcade owner maw Lucille LaVerne covers up by pinning the murder on daughter Evalyn Knapp’s ex-con boyfriend Grant Withers. Some pretty racy Pre-Code elements include Joan Blondell as Cagney’s “gutter floozie” main squeeze. Film’s 60 minute running time makes it speed by, aided by some fluid for the era camerawork. Fun Fact: Cagney and Blondell appeared in the original Broadway play “Penny Arcade”; when superstar entertainer Al Jolson bought the rights, he insisted Jimmy and Joan be cast in the film version, and the rest is screen history. Thanks, Al!

THE BLUE GARDENIA (Warner Brothers 1953; D: Fritz Lang ) – Minor but well done film noir with Anne Baxter, after receiving a ‘Dear Jane’ letter from her soldier boyfriend, falling into the clutches of lecherous artist Raymond Burr ,who plies her with ‘Polynesean Pearl Divers’, gets her drunk, and tries to take advantage of her. Anne grabs a fireplace poker, then blacks out, wakes up, discovers his dead body, and thinks she killed him. Did she? Veteran noir cinematographer Nicholas Musuracra’s shadowy camerawork helps elevate this a few notches above the average ‘B’, as does a high powered cast led by Richard Conte as a newspaperman out to solve the case (and sell papers!), Ann Southern and Jeff Donnell as Anne’s roommates, George Reeves as a dogged homicide captain, and Familiar Faces like Richard Erdman, Frank Ferguson, Celia Lovsky, Almira Sessions, Robert Shayne, and Ray Walker. Based on  short story by Vera Caspary, who also wrote the source novel for LAURA. Not top-shelf Lang, but still entertaining. Fun Fact: Nat King Cole has a cameo singing the title tune in a Chinese restaurant, but the real ‘Fun Fact’ is the guy playing violin behind him… that’s Papa John Creach, who later played rock fiddle in the 70’s with Jefferson Airplane/Starship and Hot Tuna!

ILLEGA(Warner Brothers 1955; D: Lewis Allen) – ‘Original Gangster’ Edward G. Robinson stars as a tough, erudite DA who sends the wrong man to the chair, crawls into a bottle of Scotch, and crawls out as a criminal defense attorney working for racketeer Albert Dekker. EG’s practically the whole show, though he’s surrounded by a top-notch supporting cast, including Nina Foch as his protege, Hugh Marlowe as her husband, Jan Merlin as Dekker’s grinning torpedo, Ellen Corby as EG’s loyal secretary, and Jayne Mansfield in an small early role as Dekker’s moll. Keep your eyes peeled for some Familiar TV Faces: DeForest Kelly (STAR TREK) as EG’S doomed client, Henry “Bomber” Kulky (LIFE OF RILEY, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA) as a witness, Ed Platt (GET SMART) as the DA successor, and sour-voiced Herb Vigran, who guested in just about every TV show ever, as a bailiff. Fun Fact: Co-screenwriter W.R. Burnett wrote the novel LITTLE CAESAR, which Warners turned into Eddie G’s first gangster flick back in 1930!

DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY (20th Century-Fox 1974, D: John Hough) – The late Peter Fonda costars with sexy Susan George in this classic chase movie from the Golden Age of Muscle Cars. Fonda and fellow AIP bikesploitation vet Adam Rourke (a personal fave of mine!) are a down-on-their-luck NASCAR driver and mechanic, respectively,  who pull off a robbery and are saddled with ditzy George, with Vic Morrow as the maverick police captain in hot pursuit. The stars are likable, the cars are cool (a ’66 Impala and a ’69 Charger), and there’s plenty of spectacular stunt driving in this fast’n’furious Exploitation gem, with an explosive ending! Fun Fact: Roddy McDowell has an uncredited role as the grocery store manager whose family is held hostage.

BONUS: Now kick back and enjoy the noir-flavored blues of Papa John Creach and his band doing “There Ain’t No More Country Girls” from sometime in the 70’s:

Pre-Code Confidential #29: Joan Blondell is BLONDIE JOHNSON (Warner Bros 1933)

There are many contenders for the crown Queen of Pre-Code – Jean Harlow, Miriam Hopkins, Barbara Stanwyck, Mae West, and a slew of other dames – but there’s only one Joan Blondell! Rose Joan Blondell was “born in a trunk” (as they say) to vaudevillian parents on August 30, 1906, and made her stage debut at the tender age of four months. Little Joanie took to show biz like a duck to water, and worked her way up to Broadway, costarring with a young actor named James Cagney in 1930’s PENNY ARCADE; the pair went to Hollywood for the film version, retitled SINNERS’ HOLIDAY, their first of seven screen teamings.

Our Girl Joanie struck a chord with Depression Era audiences: she was a tough, wisecracking, fast-talking, been-around-the-block tomato whose tough-as-leather veneer cloaked a heart of gold. Joan and Glenda Farrell had ’em rolling in the aisles as a pair of Gold Digging Dames in nine movies, and she more than held her own with screen tough guys Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and their ilk. In BLONDIE JOHNSON, Joan plays no mere gangster’s moll, but a full-fledged Queen of the Rackets in a fast-paced outing directed by Warner workhorse Ray Enright , opposite another movie tough guy, Chester Morris.

We meet Blondie at the Welfare and Relief Office looking for help. It’s the midst of the Depression, and she hasn’t worked in four months (“The boss wouldn’t let me alone”). Blondie and her sick mom are living in the back of a drug store, and when the old lady dies of pneumonia, Blondie vows not to go down to poverty: “I’m gonna get money and I’m gonna get plenty of it!”. She works up a sob-story racket with cabbie friend Red (Sterling Holloway), and her first victim is the somewhat dimwitted, gum chomping Danny (Morris), right hand man to racket boss Maxie (Arthur Vinton).

Danny gets wise, but Blondie comes up with a scheme to get fellow hood Louie (Allen Jenkins) off on charges – by pretending to be his pregnant fiance, playing on the jury’s sympathy! She then uses Danny to move up in rank, and when Maxie’s rubbed out in a rat-a-tat hail of machine gun fire, Blondie’s in charge. Danny tries to get Blondie out of the way so he can marry rich actress Gladys (Calire Dodd), but Blondie’s way too smart for him, and Danny finds himself outside looking in. Later, the boys think Danny’s turned squealer and decide to pay him a visit without Blondie’s okay…

Joan is dynamite as Blondie, and Depression audiences must’ve sympathized with her portrayal of a woman who, abused and abandoned by the system, strikes out on her own to take what she needs… and then some! Blondie’s all business, no time for cut-rate romances, and she concentrates on stealing everything in sight… including the movie! Joan and Chester have some pretty good chemistry here, with some crackling hard-boiled dialog by screenwriter Earl Baldwin (DOCTOR X, WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, BROTHER ORCHID). The supporting cast is top-shelf, and besides those Familiar Faces I’ve already mentioned, you’ll spot Mae Busch (who’a a real hoot as a gangland gal), Joseph Cawthorn, Earle Foxe, Olin Howland, Eddie Kane, Tom Kennedy, Charles Lane, Sam McDaniel, and Toshia Mori (fresh off her success in THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN).

Joan Blondell’s a lot of fun to watch in BLONDIE JOHNSON, and she continued to be for another 46 years of screen and TV appearances. Always brassy, always sassy, and never bashful, Joan torched the screen in whatever era she acted in, but it’s her Pre-Code catalog we’ll forever cherish. Whenever this tough-talking dame comes into the picture, film lover’s know they’ll be getting their money’s worth!

Royal Flush: THE CINCINNATI KID (MGM 1965)

There are movies about the high-stakes world of poker, and then there’s THE CINCINNATI KID. This gripping look at backroom gambling has long been a favorite of mine because of the high-powered all-star cast led by two acting icons from two separate generations – “The Epitome of Cool” Steve McQueen and “Original Gangster” Edward G. Robinson . The film was a breakthrough for director Norman Jewison, who went after this from lightweight fluff like 40 POUNDS OF TROUBLE and SEND ME NO FLOWERS to weightier material like IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR.

The film revolves around a poker showdown between up and coming young stud Eric Stoner, known as The Kid, and veteran Lancey Howard, venerated in card playing circles as The Man. This theme of young tyro vs old pro wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, having been hashed and rehashed in countless Westerns over the years, but screenwriters Terry Southern and Ring Lardner Jr’s changing the setting from a dusty cowtown to a five-card stud table for that inevitable showdown makes all the difference.

THE PLAYERS

Steve McQueen as The Kid

McQueen was at the top of his game after starring in hits like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and THE GREAT ESCAPE, and his intense underplaying as The Kid captures the zeitgeist of mid-60’s cool like no other.

Edward G. Robinson as Lancey, “The Man”

Eddie G. had burst into screen history as bombastic Rico Bandello in LITTLE CAESAR 35 years earlier, but his performance here is both shaded and subtle. Robinson SHOULD’VE won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but wasn’t even nominated – Yet Another Oscar Crime (in my humble opinion)!

Ann-Margret  as Melba

For my money, nobody did onscreen sluttiness  better than Annie, and here she’s at her steamy best as trampy Melba, wife of game dealer Shooter.

Karl Malden  as Shooter

Malden excels as the cuckolded, compromised dealer, saddled with both a loveless marriage to Melba and huge debts to rich gambler Slade. Like Robinson, Malden should have been at least considered for an Oscar nom.

Tuesday Weld  as Christian

The criminally underrated Miss Weld turns in a fine performance as The Kid’s sweet but slightly dimwitted girl Christian. Tuesday had previously costarred opposite McQueen in SOLDIER IN THE RAIN, and the pair work well together.

Joan Blondell  as Lady Fingers

Another 30’s icon, Our Girl Joanie is at her best as the boisterous, been-there-done-that relief dealer Lady Fingers. Blondell and Robinson were reunited here for the first time since 1936’s BULLETS OR BALLOTS, and watching these two old pros together again is a joy!

Rip Torn  as Slade

The late, great Rip Torn, who passed away a few short days ago at age 88, plays Slade, the bad guy of the piece. He’s the embodiment of Southern decadence, and is always worth watching (for more Rip Torn performances, watch his Judas Iscariot in KING OF KINGS, writer Henry Miller in TROPIC OF CANCER, country singer Maury Dann in PAYDAY, and of course Zed in the MEN IN BLACK movies. Rest in peace, Rip).

Jack Weston as Pig

Weston doesn’t get much attention these days, but this marvelous character actor graced us in movies ranging from THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET to WAIT UNTIL DARK, CACTUS FLOWER to GATOR, HIGH ROAD TO CHINA to DIRTY DANCING. His role is small here, but Weston always manages to shine.

Cab Calloway as Yeller

Like Weston, Calloway’s part is small, but without the “Hi-De-Ho” Man, THE CINCINNATI KID just wouldn’t have been the same. Calloway hadn’t been on American screens since 1958’s ST. LOUIS BLUES, and it’s always a treat to see him again.

Add to that list a plethora of Familiar Faces, including Jeff Corey , Robert DoQui, Theo Marcuse, Burt Mustin, Milton Selzer, Ron Soble, Karl Swenson, Dub Taylor , Irene Tedrow (as Tuesday’s mom), Charles Wagenheim , and Midge Ware, and you’ve got a Master Class of screen acting going on (and a special shout-out goes to young Ken Grant as the nickle-pitching shoeshine boy). Lalo Schifrin provides the jazzy score, DP Philip Lathrop’s shot composition is perfectly framed, and future director Hal Ashby adds some stunning editing work. THE CINCINNATI KID is a real treat for film buffs, one I’ve seen many times over, and surely will again.

Pre Code Confidential #26: THREE ON A MATCH (Warner Brothers 1932)


Mervyn LeRoy is usually talked about today as a producer and director of classy, prestige pictures, but he first made his mark in the down-and-dirty world of Pre-Code films. LeRoy ushered in the gangster cycle with LITTLE CAESAR, making a star out of Edward G. Robinson, then followed up with Eddie G in the grimy tabloid drama FIVE STAR FINAL . I AM A FUGITVE FROM A CHAIN GANG tackled brutal penal conditions in the South, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 featured half-naked showgirls and the Depression Era anthem “Remember My Forgotten Man”, and HEAT LIGHTNING was banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency! LeRoy’s style in these early films was pedal-to-the-metal excitement, and THREE ON A MATCH is an outstanding example.

The film follows three young ladies from their schoolgirl days to adulthood: there’s wild child Mary, studious Ruth, and ‘most popular’ Vivien. I loved the way writer Lucien Hubbard’s script is structured, with headlines and music of the day preceding looks in on the girls at various periods of their lives. Mary winds up in a women’s reformatory before becoming a chorus girl, studious Ruth goes to business school and remains studious, while Vivien settles into society by marrying rich lawyer Bob Kirkland and having a son.

Then we focus on modern (1932) times, as Vivien is discontent with her life,  longing to break free of convention and her loveless marriage (at least, loveless on her part). A chance meeting with old pal Mary leads her to meeting Michael Loftus, who immediately puts the moves on Viv. The heavy drinking, gambling Loftus turns her on, and she vanishes with her child, shacking up with the degenerate and joining him on the road to ruin.

Bob is determined to get his son back, and Mary is also concerned that Vivien’s out-of-control drinking and partying is causing her to neglect the boy, so she drops a dime to Bob, who not only reclaims his kid and divorces Viv, but marries Mary and makes Ruth the governess! Vivien is now a destitute alcoholic and drug addict, and borrows money from Mary to help pay Michael’s gambling debts. But it’s not nearly enough, so Michael tries to blackmail Bob by threatening to reveal Mary’s sordid past. His gambit fails, so he gets the bright idea to kidnap Junior, which leads to the vicious gangsters he owes money to wanting a piece of the action….

And all this happens in just a swift 63 minutes! Ann Dvorak plays the part of Vivien for all its worth, going from ‘The Girl Most Likely To Succeed’ to ‘America’s Most Wanted’, and her descent into degradation is astounding. ‘Wild Child’ Mary is played by who else but everybody’s favorite Pre-Code Dame, Joan Blondell . Studious Ruth doesn’t get to do much but be studious, which is a shame, since she’s played by Bette Davis in one of her earliest roles. A pair of Pre-Code he-men, Warren William and Lyle Talbot , play Bob and Michael, respectively.

One of the kidnappers, the snarling Harve, is none other than Humphrey Bogart in just his tenth feature. It’s Bogie’s first screen gangster part, and seems like a precursor to his later Duke Mantee character in THE PETRIFIED FOREST. Familiar Faces abound in lesser roles: Edward Arnold (Bogie’s gangster boss), Herman Bing, Clara Blandick (‘Aunty Em’ herself as Joanie’s mom), Frankie Darro , Patricia Ellis, Glenda Farrell (in a cameo as one of Joan’s cellmates), June Gittleson, Allen Jenkins and Jack LaRue (Bogie’s murderous cohorts), Sidney Miller, Grant Mitchell, Buster Phelps (the annoyingly cute boy), Anne Shirley (Vivien as a child), and Sheila Terry. Allegedly, a 12-year-old Jack Webb is one of the schoolyard kids.

THREE ON A MATCH is a Red-Hot (sorry) Pre-Code that got Warners in hot water with the censors for its parallels to the then-in-the-news Lindbergh Kidnapping Case. Some posed publicity stills of Joan also caused quite a stir:

That’s Our Joanie, always causing trouble! The stills were banned after the Production Code went into effect, but most Pre-Code fans know about them  by now, thanks to the Internet. Racy and ripped from the headlines of the day, THREE ON A MATCH is a must-see for fans of the Pre-Code Era!

Cleaning Out the DVR #20: ALL-STAR PRE-CODE LADIES EDITION!



I know all of you, like me, will be watching tonight’s 89th annual Major League Baseball All-Star G
ame, and… wait, what’s that? You say you WON’T be watching the All-Star Game? You have no interest in baseball? Heretics!! But I understand, I really do, and for you non-baseball enthusiasts I’ve assembled a quartet of Pre-Code films to view as an alternative, starring some of the era’s most fabulous females. While I watch the game, you can hunt down and enjoy the following four films celebrating the ladies of Pre-Code:

DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON (Paramount 1931; D: Lloyd Corrigan) – Exotic Anna May Wong stars as Princess Ling Moy, an “Oriental dancer” and daughter of the infamous Dr. Fu Manchu (Warner Oland)! When Fu dies, Ling Moy takes up the mantle of vengeance against the Petrie family, tasked with killing surviving son Ronald. Sessue Hayakawa (BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) plays Chinese detective Ah Kee, assigned to Scotland Yard to track down the last of Fu’s organization, who falls in love with Ling Moy. This was the last of a trilogy of films in which Oland portrays the fiendish Fu (1929’s THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCH, 1930’s TH RETURN OF FU MANCHU), and though he perishes early on, honorable daughter Wong is just as devious as dear old dad! Director Corrigan and cinematographer Victor Milner do some interesting work with shadows and light, overhead shots, and camera angles; though Corrigan is best remembered today as a character actor, he directed 12 features (and one short) between 1930 and 1937, and is quite good behind the camera. A film that’s structured like a serial, with secret passageways, sadistic tortures, and definite horror undertones, fans of Anna May Wong won’t want to miss it. Fun Fact: Bramwell Fletcher, who plays Ronald, was the actor who “died laughing” in 1932’s THE MUMMY .


MILLIE (RKO 1931; D: John Francis Dillon) – For a brief, shining moment in the early 1930’s, sad-eyed beauty Helen Twelvetrees was one of the Pre-Code Era’s most popular stars, gaining fame in a series of “women’s weepies”. MILLIE was my first chance to see this actress I’d heard so much about, and she excels as Millie Blake, who we first meet as an innocent college girl who marries rich Jack Maitland (Robert Ames), has a child, then discovers he’s a cheating cad. Getting a divorce (and giving up custody in the process), Millie’s next beau also turns out to be a two-timer, causing her to declare her independence from men and become a wild party girl. Years pass, and her now 16 year old daughter (Anita Louise) is almost compromised by one of Millie’s ex-lovers (John Halliday ), whom Mama Bear Millie shoots, leading to a scandalous trial. Joan Blondell and Lilyan Tashman are on hand as Millie’s golddigging pals (see picture above), and director John Francis Dillon knew his soapy stuff, having also guided Pre-Code ladies Ann Harding (GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST), Evelyn Brent (THE PAGAN LADY), and Clara Bow (CALL HER SAVAGE). MILLIE’s a bit dated (okay, more than a bit) and slow going in places, but Miss Twelvetrees made it all worthwhile. Fun Fact: Edward LeSaint plays the judge, and made a career out of magistrate roles; Three Stooges fans will recognize him from their 1934 short DISORDER IN THE COURT.

THE STRANGE LOVE OF MOLLY LOUVAIN (Warner Brothers 1932; D: Michael Curtiz ) – “I’m a pretty bad egg”, says Molly, but Ann Dvorak (SCARFACE, THREE ON A MATCH, HEAT LIGHTNING) is a pretty good actress, starring as poor working girl Molly, who gets pregnant and jilted, gives up her child, and hits the road with small-time crook Leslie Fenton. She leaves the bum to work in a dance hall, encountering naïve young Richard Cromwell. Fenton shows up, steals a car, kills a cop, gets shot himself, and Molly and the starry-eyed kid take it on the lam. Dubbed “the beautiful brunette bandit” by the press, Molly dyes her hair blonde, and the pair lay low… until fast-talking reporter Lee Tracy makes his appearance! There’s great chemistry between Dvorak and Tracy in this racy, double entendree-laden little movie, with a dynamite twist ending I did not see coming. It’s also packed with Familiar Faces: Ben Alexander, Louise Beavers, Richard Cramer, Guy Kibbee , Hank Mann, Frank McHugh , Charles Middleton, and Snub Pollard all pop up in small roles. This lightning-paced entry is an unjustly neglected Pre-Code gem that deserves a larger audience! Fun Fact: A newspaper headline misspells Molly’s last name as “Louvaine”.

SMARTY (Warner Brothers 1934; D: Robert Florey ) – Queen of Pre-Code Joan Blondell is back, and therapists would have a field day with her character of Vicki, a manipulative minx who equates being hit with being loved. Before you jump out of your skin, this is a romantic comedy – now you can jump! S& M overtones abound, and sexual innuendoes fly freely, as Joan’s incessant teasing of hubby Warren William (including a reference to “diced carrots”, obviously a penis size dig) leads him to slapping her face at a bridge party, and Joan winding up married to her divorce lawyer, Edward Everett Horton , who she also tortures into smacking her – but it’s a ploy to get back together with Warren! The censors must’ve been apoplectic viewing SMARTY, one of the last films in the Pre-Code cycle, as Joan also appears in various stages of undress, a voyeur’s delight. Despite the kinky subject matter, the movie is quite funny, with solid support from Claire Dodd, Frank McHugh, and Leonard Carey. Let me be clear: hitting women is NOT funny, but you’re doing yourself a disservice in letting that stop you from watching this outrageous screwball comedy. Fun Fact: Look fast for Dennis O’Keefe in one of his early, uncredited parts as a nightclub patron.

A Hidden ‘Poil’: THREE MEN ON A HORSE (Warner Brothers 1936)

Frank McHugh got a rare starring role in the comedy THREE MEN ON A HORSE, based on the hit Broadway play by George Abbott and John Cecil Holmes. McHugh was usually cast as the funny friend of fellow members of “Hollywood’s Irish Mafia “ James Cagney and Pat O’Brien, but here he takes center stage as a meek, hen-pecked type who has an uncanny knack for picking winning horses – as long as he doesn’t bet on them!

Greeting card writer Erwin Trowbridge is beset by a whiney wife, obnoxious brother-in-law, and bullying boss. After a row with wifey brought on by meddling bro-in-law, Erwin leaves his humble Ozone Park, Queens abode and decides to skip work and get sloshed. Stumbling into a seedy hotel bar frequented by Runyonesque gamblers, Erwin gives them a winning pony – then passes out. The three mugs, Patsy, Charlie, and Frankie, bring him up to Patsy’s room to recuperate, hoping the little genius will bring them good luck, not to mention winners.

Patsy, who thinks Erwin’s greeting card verses are sheer poetry, calls boss Carver to demand a raise for the schlep, which results in Erwin’s firing. The gamblers head to the track, but when Patsy returns, he catches Erwin with his dame Mabel in a compromising position. It was all a mistake, but Erwin’s winning well has run dry… seems he can’t pick horses unless he’s riding on the Ozone Park bus! Needless to say, Patsy and the boys accommodate him, leading to further complications with wife Audrey, in-law Clarence, and mean Mr. Carver….

THREE MEN ON A HORSE does suffer from staginess, which is surprising since the director is Mervyn LeRoy , famous for “moving” pictures like LITTLE CAESAR, I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG, and QUO VADIS, among others. The exaggerated “New Yawk” accents the actors use (‘Oy-win’ for Erwin, for example) gets a bit annoying at times, as does Carol Hughes’ whiney portrayal of whiney Audrey. The saving grace is a marvelous cast of character actors, all of whom get a chance to shine.

McHugh is great as the spineless Oy-win, I mean Erwin, who finally gets to assert himself at the end. He’s especially good during his drunk scenes… not a stretch for one of “Hollywood’s Irish Mafia”! Joan Blondell , playing Patsy’s “goil” Mabel, is a welcome sight in any movie. Patsy himself is Sam Levene , making his film debut in the role he originated on Broadway. His cohorts are Allen Jenkins (sarcastic Charlie) and Teddy Hart (Frankie), an actor I know little about except he played Crowbar in a few ‘Ma & Pa Kettle’ epics. Old reliable Guy Kibbee is boss Carver, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson gets in on the fun as an elevator operator who plays the ponies, and that “Master of the Slow Burn” Edgar Kennedy gets some good laughs as Harry the bartender.

It’s a minor movie, to be sure, but one that on the whole is enjoyable. It gives McHugh and company a chance to break free of their usual secondary parts and have some fun. Despite a couple of quibbles, THREE MEN ON A HORSE is a comedy “woith” watching!

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!”.

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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 #3: MAKE ME A STAR (Paramount 1932)

1932's Make Me a Star
1932’s Make Me a Star

MAKE ME A STAR is an odd Pre Code film unsure what it wants to be. It starts off as a comedy about a movie-mad country bumpkin named Merton (Stuart Erwin) in the small town of Simsbury who dreams of becoming a cowboy star like his idol, Buck Benson (George Templeton). He’s even studying to become a thespian by listening to recordings from the National Correspondence Academy of Acting. Town busybody Mrs. Scudder (Zasu Pitts)  complains about Merton’s absent-mindedness to his boss, general store owner Gashwiler (Charles Sellon). Merton has a supportive friend, Tessie (Helen Jerome Eddy) who helps him set up a photo-shoot. But things go awry when Merton, dressed in full cowboy regalia, loses control of Gashwiler’s horse, causing a ruckus in the town square. Gashwiler fires Merton, and the starry-eyed yokel takes a train to Hollywood.

The film veers off into drama from here, as Merton tries to crash the movies, without success. Comic actress Flips Montague (Joan Blondell) feels sorry for the rube, and wrangles him an extra role in a Buck Benson production. But the talentless Merton promptly blows his one line and is fired from the set. Dejected and broke, he hides out on the studio lot, where Flips finds him living days later, hungry and disheveled. She buys him breakfast and tells him to forget his dreams (“You haven’t got a Chinaman’s chance”), offering him train fare back to Simsbury.  He politely refuses, determined to make it in Hollywood.

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Flips takes him to see her director Jeff Baird (Sam Hardy) and comes up with a plan to star Merton in a Buck Benson parody. The two don’t tell him it’s a farce though, because Merton abhors slapstick, thinking it’s degrading to the noble art of acting. While Merton (acting under the moniker Whoop Ryder) plays it straight, he’s surrounded by Baird’s comedy stars (veterans Ben Turpin, Snub Pollard, and Bud Jamison) hamming it up. The movie’s then gimmicked up in post-production with comic sound effects, sped-up action, and a high-pitched voice for Merton. When the finished product “Wide Open Spaces” is previewed, the audience howls with laughter. Poor Merton is mortified, and is ready to give up show business. He goes to see Flips one last time, who’s taken a shine to the boy, and feels terrible about the whole mess. Merton breaks down and cries, cradled in Flips’ arms in a real downbeat ending.

MAKE ME A STAR was based on a novel by Harry Leon Wilson and stage play by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly. It was originally filmed as MERTON OF THE MOVIES in a 1924 silent version, and remade again as a Red Skelton vehicle in 1947 under the same name. The director of MAKE ME A STAR was William Beaudine, who shows great restraint with the material, not letting things get too maudlin. Beaudine had been around since the dawn of Hollywood, and could make a good picture when given the opportunity. Unfortunately, he somehow became stuck on Poverty Row during the 1930’s and cranked out hundreds of Grade B and lower potboilers for studios like Monogram, PRC, and the indies for the next thirty years, earning the nickname “One Shot” for bringing ’em in quick and cheap. MAKE ME A STAR allows Beaudine a chance to show he had talent, and his fate as a low-budget maestro wasn’t fully deserved.

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Stuart Erwin has never been one of my favorites. He’s clearly going for pathos, but comes off as just pathetic. Merton’s such a dimwit it’s hard to muster any sympathy for him. Joan Blondell plays her usual tough dame with a heart of gold  who’s seen it all. In the hands of a lesser actress, the improbable budding romance between Flips and Merton would be unbelievable, but Blondell’s talent somehow makes it work, despite Erwin. She’s the glue that holds the latter half of this schizophrenic film together.

The most interesting thing about MAKE ME A STAR is the cameos by some of Paramount’s brightest stars of the day. Pay attention and you’ll see Tallulah Bankhead, Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, Fredric March, Jack Oakie, Charlie Ruggles, and Sylvia Sidney parade across the screen in quick bits. This alone makes the film worth a look, but ultimately it’s a disappointment.  Aficionados of early 30’s Hollywood will want to see it; if that’s not you, don’t bother.

Dark Carnival: NIGHTMARE ALLEY (20th Century Fox, 1947)

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Swashbuckling matinee idol Tyrone Power was cast against type as a self-centered con artist who gets his comeuppance in  1947’s offbeat noir NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Power and director Edmund Goulding teamed the previous year for the hit THE RAZOR’S EDGE, and the star desperately wanted his next movie to be based on the dark novel by William Lindsay Gresham. Studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck didn’t like the idea, but since Power was 20th Century-Fox’s biggest star, he agreed to greenlight the film. Turned out Zanuck’s instincts were right: audiences rejected the handsome Power in the role of a heel, and although he received good reviews for his performance, NIGHTMARE ALLEY bombed at the box office. Today it’s regarded as one of the genre’s best, its unique backdrop and theme setting it apart from other noirs of the era.

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Stan Carlisle (Power), the type of guy who could talk a cat off a fish wagon (as my grandmother used to say) loves everything about the carny life. He’s particularly fascinated by ‘The Geek’, who bites the heads off chickens and drinks their blood. Stan  works as the barker for Mlle. Zeena’s mindreading act. Zeena and husband  Pete used to work the big time until she did him wrong and Pete hit the bottle hard. Stan’s got a thing going on with Zeena, and also has the hots for Molly, who does an electric-woman act. Strongman Bruno sees through the slick-talking Stan, and is protective of the young girl.

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Zeena and Pete had a secret code they used to use in their act, but Pete’s too drunk now to be able to pull it off. She’s been weaning Pete off the booze slowly so she can send him for ‘the cure’. Stan sees Pete with a bad case of the shakes, and gives him a bottle of moonshine. But he’s mixed up the bottles, and gives the old lush wood alcohol, causing Pete’s death. Stan uses the opportunity to get Zeena to teach him the code, assisted by Molly. Stan finally seduces Molly, and when the carny folks find out, they force the two to get married. But now that he has both Molly and the code, he leaves the carny for the bright lights of Chicago and bigger and better things.

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The couple begin appearing at a swanky nightclub as mentalist ‘The Great Stanton’, using the code to wow audiences and  become toasts of the town. Psychologist Lilith Ritter catches the act and tries to trip him up, but Stan sees through her ruse  and turns the tables. Lilith is as big a phony as Stan, recording her patient’s sessions without their knowledge. Stan and Lilith use that knowledge to their advantage when Stan reinvents himself as a spiritual medium, bilking rich folks who long to hear from their dear departed dead ones. They set their sights on wealthy Ezra Grindle, coercing Molly into playing his dead love. Molly refuses to go along with the charade at first, telling Stan, “You’re going against God…just laughing your head off at these chumps”. Stan talks her into it, but Molly, upon seeing the elderly Grindle on his knees praying at the sight of her, blows Stan’s cover and runs. Stan knocks Grindle down and, back at their hotel, tells Molly to meet him at the train station.

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Stan goes to Lilith to get his $150,000 and flee town. But the devious psychologist rips him off (giving him a suitcase with bundles of ones), and the master con discovers he’s been conned himself. Returning to Lilith’s abode through the window, she stalls for time while the maid calls the cops. When Lilith threatens to tell the police he’s an unstable patient with wild delusions, Stan realizes he’s beat, and has to take it on the lam. He tells Molly to go back to the carny, while he hits the booze and lives in fleabitten hotels and hobo jungles. Destitute and desperate, Stan becomes a shell of his former self. Stumbling on a carny, he tries to get work, but the boss says there’s no openings for magicians or fortune tellers. There is one position available however, and alcohol soaked Stan becomes what he dreads…the carnival Geek! (“Mister, I was made for it!”‘)

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This being Hollywood, the ending finds Molly at the same carny, and there’s hope for Stan. The book version is apparently much darker, with Stan resigned to his lowly fate. The Geek looms large throughout the film, as we hear his wailing and see him only in longshot, making The Geek all the more enigmatic. Edmund Goulding and DP Lee Garmes create a dark carnival indeed, and the movie reminded me a lot of Tod Browning’s FREAKS in its depiction of carny life. Goulding doesn’t get much recognition as a filmmaker, though he’s responsible for gems like LOVE (1927), GRAND HOTEL (1932), THE DAWN PATROL (1938), and DARK VICTORY (1939), as well as the aforementioned RAZOR’S EDGE. Screenwriter Jules Furthman began in the silent era, and some of his best contributions to cinema were the scripts for two Marlene Dietrich vehicles (SHANGHAI EXPRESS and BLONDE VENUS, both 1932), MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935), Howard Hughes’s then-controversial THE OUTLAW (1943), and the Bogie & Bacall starrers TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944) and THE BIG SLEEP (1946). His last was the John Wayne/Howard Hawks Western RIO BRAVO (1959).

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Tyrone Power shows he’s more than just a pretty face as Stanton Carlisle. Whether he’s telling tales of his early life at an orphanage or pouring on the charm to his latest female conquest, we’re never sure if Stan’s telling the truth or not. Power took a big risk in taking this role, and shows great range as an actor. Coleen Gray never quite made the leap from ingénue to major star, but she’s good in the sympathetic role of Molly. Her credits include KISS OF DEATH, RED RIVER, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (which is on my review list), Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING, and the underrated horror film THE LEECH WOMAN. Joan Blondell (Zeena) needs no introduction to movie fans, having been a star at Warners since the early 30’s. Blondell was one of the screen’s finest character actresses. Helen Walker (Lilith) had a promising career going when a car accident, in which a serviceman was killed, led to her being accused of drunk driving. Her films after that were few and far between. Ian Keith (Pete) is one of those actors you know but can’t quite name, usually in villainous supporting roles. Mike Mazurki (Bruno) however is well known for his long film career. The ex-wrestler played in everything from noirs (MURDER MY SWEET, NIGHT AND THE CITY) to comedies (SOME LIKE IT HOT, It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World), to episodes of THE MUNSTERS, GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, and THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, to Rod Stewart’s 1984 video “Infatuation”. NIGHTMARE ALLEY gives us a gritty look at the fringes of showbiz, where grifters and carny cons ply their trade, looking to make a quick buck off the rubes. It’s unlike any other noir, there’s no private eyes or femme fatales here, and it’s well worth your time.

Now, just for the hell of it, here’s Rod Stweart’s 1984 dance hit “Infatuation”, featuring Mike Mazurki, the beautiful Kay Lenz, and Jeff Beck on guitar, from the days when MTV actually played MUSIC!: