Fool’s Gold: BARBARY COAST (United Artists 1935)

BARBARY COAST probably would’ve been better had it been made during the Pre-Code era. Don’t misunderstand; I liked the film. It’s an entertaining period piece directed by Howard Hawks , with his trademark overlapping dialog and perfect eye for composition, rivaled by only a handful (Ford and Hitchcock spring immediately to mind). But for me, this tale of rowdy San Francisco during California’s Gold Rush was too sanitized by Hays Code enforcer Joseph Breen, who demanded major script changes by screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.

The result is a film that’s just misses the classic status mark. It’s 1849, and Susan Rutledge arrives in Frisco to marry her rich boyfriend, who has struck it rich in the gold strike. When she finds out he’s been killed by gambling czar Luis Chandalis, owner of the Bella Donna saloon, avaricious Susan sets her sights on him. Chandalis becomes enamored of her, dubbing her Swan and putting her to work at his crooked roulette wheel. Some of the townsfolk, including newly arrived newspaper editor Col. Cobb, aren’t happy living under Chandalis’s thumb, but his gang of cutthroats and murders prove to be too much to handle.

When Cobb prints a story detailing Chandalis’s misdeeds, the crooked town boss threatens him, only to be saved by his friend Swan. The upset Swan rides out, getting caught in a rainstorm, and stumbles upon the cabin of young miner Jim Charmichael, who speaks with a poet’s soul. When the insanely jealous Chandalis hears Swan was seen with another man, he threatens to find out who it was and kill him. Of course, Jim comes to Frisco, promptly losing his gold at Swan’s crooked roulette wheel, and has to work for Chandalis, who puts two and two together and goes after Jim, just as the fed-up townspeople unite for some vigilante justice of their own.

Sure, it’s melodramatic as hell, but Hawks and his excellent cast kept me glued to the screen. Miriam Hopkins (Swan) is one tough cookie at first, caring only for gold and the finer things in life. The tough cookie begins to crumble though when she meets Jim, and allows Miriam to engage in some dramatically weepy histrionics. Edward G. Robinson (Chandalis), despite his puffy ruffled shirts and dangling earring, is basically doing a variation on his gangster parts (“You work at the table, see”) – which isn’t a bad thing! Handsome he-man Joel McCrea (Jim) and his easygoing charm certainly fills the bill as Miriam’s poetry spouting romantic interest.

The supporting cast includes then 41-year-old Walter Brennan as the cantankerous old coot Old Atrocity, Brian Donlevy in one of his patented bloodthirsty henchman roles, Frank Craven as the crusading editor, and Harry Carey Sr. as leader of the vigilantes. Other Familiar Faces in smaller parts are Herman Bing, Clyde Cook, Ed Gargan, J.M. Kerrigan, Frank McHugh , Donald Meek, football legend Jim Thorpe, and Hank Worden . An uncredited David Niven appears early as a drunken sailor getting thrown out of Robinson’s saloon. Veteran cinematographer Ray June, whose career stretched all the at back to 1915, perfectly captures the mise en scene Hawks wanted. June’s work can be seen in such diverse films as HORSE FEATHERS, TREASURE ISLAND, CHINA SEAS , STRIKE UP THE BAND, H.M. PULHAM ESQ., A SOUTHERN YANKEE, THE COURT JESTER, FUNNY FACE, and his final feature HOUSEBOAT.

All this is set to a sweeping Alfred Newman score that features cues from old-time favorites like “Oh Susanna” and “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair”. BARBARY COAST is a fun film, full of romance, action, and humor, made by a cast and crew of professionals who knew what they were doing, and did it well. I’ll hold off on calling it a classic, however; now, if it had been made in the Pre-Code era, with just a tad more spice…      

 

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Pre Code Confidential #17: BED OF ROSES (RKO 1933)

If someone you know is one of those film fans wondering what’s all the hubbub about “Pre-Code” films, may I make a suggestion? Watch BED OF ROSES with them, a totally amoral concoction from director Gregory LaCava , with Constance Bennett and Pert Kelton getting about as sinful as Stormy Daniels without actually performing onscreen sex! This one’ll have your eyes popping out seeing what they could get away with back in 1933, when the Great Depression was at its lowest and lust was riding high!

Lorry Evans (our gal Constance) and her pal Minnie Brown (the devilishly delightful Kelton) have just been released from a Louisiana slammer after serving time for hooking. You’d think they’d have learned their lesson, but no… soon as they get out, Minnie sweet talks a trucker for a ride, offering to pay by hopping in the back with him while Lorry drives! These two ‘ladies’ then hop a steamboat to The Big Easy, looking to fleece some chumps. Minnie manages to score some hootch and hooks up with a couple of travelling salesmen, while Lorry’s got her eye on bigger game, namely rich publisher Stephen Page. When Lorry gets busted ripping off one of the chump’s wallet, she takes a swan dive straight into the mighty Mississippi.

Fortunately for Lorry (and the film… otherwise it’d be shorter than its 67 minutes!), she’s fished out of the river by Dan, captain of a cotton barge. When they pull into port, Lorry scoots off with Dan’s loot and, passing herself off as a reporter, slinks her way into the sanctimonious Page’s office. She gets the publisher bombed, and sets things up so when he awakens, he gets the impression they had wild sex! Scheming Lorry blackmails the older Page, who sets her up in a luxurious ‘love nest’. Lorry’s living large now!

But the larcenous little sexpot feels bad about Dan, and returns to the docks to repay his dough, telling him she has a job as a “governess”. Dan, who’s kinda sweet on her despite her grafting ways, wants to take her out, but she can’t commit. Who pops up at Lorry’s penthouse digs but old pal Minnie, now married to one of those chumps, and Lorry confesses to her friend that she’s falling in love with Dan. He proposes, but Lorry gets cold feet when sugar daddy Page threatens to tell Dan what she’s really all about. A wild Mardi Gras party ends up with Lorry on the run, but true love is triumphant in the end.

Constance Bennett doesn’t get the attention many actress of the era do today, but at the time she was the highest paid actress in Hollywood. Films like SIN TAKES A HOLIDAY, WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? (which served as the basis for A STAR IS BORN), OUR BETTERS, and MOULIN ROUGE were box office smashes, as were later ones like TOPPER and MERRILY WE LIVE. By the 40’s Constance’s film career was practically over, though she’d invested wisely and was a very rich woman. She’s sexy, saucy, and a whole lot of fun in this one, a go-go golddigger who will use whatever means necessary to reach her goal of easy living, until she meets her match with Captain Dan.

Speaking of a whole lot of fun, I can’t say enough about Pert Kelton’s Minnie. In films such as THE BOWERY, THE MEANEST GAL IN TOWN, KELLY THE SECOND, and YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, Pert is as brassy as the best of ’em, and her presence always livens up the proceedings. She was the original Alice Kramden in Jackie Gleason’s THE HONEYMOONERS comedy sketches, but the dreaded blacklist forced her out. Pert Kelton was off screens large and small until the early 60’s, when she staged a mini comeback with supporting roles in THE MUSIC MAN, LOVE AND KISSES, and THE COMIC , and a smattering of TV appearances.

Joel McCrea  was a young up-and-comer when cast as Dan, and his easygoing charm was already evident. John Halliday (Page) is one of those Familiar Faces I’m always talking about; his best known part is as Katherine Hepburn’s father in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. Jane Darwell , Tom Herbert, Matt McHugh , Robert Emmett O’Connor, Franklin Pangborn , and Samuel S. Hinds also pop up in small roles. The dialog and situations are about as risqué as you could get back then without having the theater raided, and LaCava keeps it all running smooth and brisk. BED OF ROSES makes for a great introduction to the Pre-Code Era, and will have you drooling for more like those chumps drooling for more of Lorry and Minnie. It doesn’t get shown very often, but is well worth seeking out!

 

Windmills of Your Mind: Alfred Hitchcock’s FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (United Artists 1940)

(When Maddy Loves Her Classic Films invited me to join in on the Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon, I jumped at the chance! I’ve just completed the Ball State/TCM 50 YEARS OF HITCHCOCK course, and have been knee-deep in his movies for a month now!)

Alfred Hitchcock’s second American film found the Master of Suspense back in the spy game with FORGEIGN CORRESPONDENT, this time with American star Joel McCrea caught up in those familiar “extraordinary circumstances” we’ve all come to love. Like REBECCA that same year, this film was nominated for Best Picture, an extraordinary circumstance indeed for a director new to these shores. Offhand I can only think of three other directors to hold that distinction – John Ford (also in ’40), Sam Wood (1942), and Francis Ford Coppola (1974). Good company, to say the least! (And please correct me if I’m wrong, any of you film fans out there).

Crime beat reporter Johnny Jones (McCrea) is sent to Europe to cover the impending war with a fresh set of eyes. Given the rather pretentious pen name ‘Huntley Haverstock’, Johnny goes to London and meets up with fellow reporter Stebbins (Robert Benchley), who has a weakness for booze and women. He’s assigned to cover the Universal Peace Party’s big conference, where Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Oscar nominee Albert Basserman), who holds the key to peace or war in Europe, is scheduled to appear. Van Meer doesn’t show, but Johnny does meet the UPP’s leader Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall) and his beautiful daughter Carol (Laraine Day), and of course Red-Blooded American wolf Johnny tries to put the make on her!

Next stop: Holland, where Van Meer is to make an important speech, only to be shot dead on the steps of the conference hall. The chase is on, with Johnny tracking the assassin, with help from Carol and reporter Scott ffolliot (George Sanders, on the good guy’s side for a change), to an old windmill. It’s there Johnny discovers Van Meer alive but not well, drugged by a nest of rotten spies! Johnny returns with the police, only to find the windmill deserted except for a tramp. What happened to Van Meer? Who’s behind the spy ring? You’ll have to watch to find out!

One of Hitchcock’s motivations for coming to America was the chance to work with top Hollywood stars, and in Joel McCrea he got an actor at the height of his success. Already a star with films like DEAD END and UNION PACIFIC under his belt, McCrea’s everyman persona would serve him well in the decade to come. Here, he’s Hitchcock’s “stranger in a strange land”, in over his head with all this foreign spy business, but comes through in typical All-American hero style. Laraine Day’s career was just getting off the ground, having costarred in the MGM DR. KILDARE series, and she and Joel make a fine romantic duo, once things get going.

Humorist Benchley had a hand in the screenplay along nine other writers, both credited (Benchley, Charles Bennett, Joan Harrison, James Hilton) and uncredited (Harold Clurman, Ben Hecht, John Howard Lawson, John Lee Mahan, Richard Maibaum), and adds his dry wit to the proceedings. Sanders shines as the secondary lead, and German actor Basserman deserved his nomination. Herbert Marshall had appeared in Hitchcock’s MURDER! ten years earlier; his role as Fisher is among his best. Kris Kringle himself, Edmund Gwenn plays an assassin hired to off McCrea. Their scene together atop Westminister Cathedral is just one of the film’s many highlights. There are lots of other Familiar Faces in this game of cat-and-mouse: Eduardo Cianelli , Harry Davenport, Charles Halton, Holmes Herbert, Leonard Mudie, Barbara Pepper , Charles Wagenheim, and Ian Wolfe . And of course Hitch in his traditional cameo!

There are so many ‘Hitchcock Touches’ in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, it could be a primer on how to make a Hitchcockian thriller! Van Meer’s secret “Treaty Clause #27” is the film’s McGuffin, vital to the characters yet meaningless in terms of plot. Danger in high places is covered with McCrea climbing out his hotel window to escape two ersatz cops (then the scene turns into a crowded chaos direct from A NIGHT AT THE OPERA!), and later on the eventful plane ride. Danger in public places comes in both the murder on the conference hall steps and inside those ominous windmills. There are comedic bits with Benchley (and with McCrea having trouble holding on to his hat), mirror images, winding staircases, and Hitchcock’s sure sign of portending doom, birds! All this, plus a stirring call to arms by McCrea at the conclusion, adds up to one of Hitchcock’s most entertaining films. Just think, this was only his second in his new adopted homeland! Many more classics were to come, but FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT remains one of my personal Hitchcock favorites.

Cockeyed Caravan: SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (Paramount 1941)

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I’m no expert on Preston Sturges, having seen only two of his films, but after viewing SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS I now have a craving to see them all! This swift (and Swiftian) satire on Hollywood stars Joel McCrea as a successful slapstick comedy director yearning to make important, socially conscious films who gets more than he bargained for when he hits the road to discover what human misery and suffering is all about.

John L. “Sully” Sullivan sets his studio bosses on their collective ear when he tells them he wants to film an adaptation of ” O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, a serious novel by ‘Sinclair Beckstein’. The head honcho balks, wanting Sully to do another comedy, but Sully’s not dissuaded, deciding to see what life among the downtrodden is first-hand. He dresses in rags and sets out on his quest, followed by a gaggle of PR flacks in a bus. Somehow he keeps winding up back in Hollywood, where he meets a girl (her name is never given) in a diner, a disillusioned young actress about to leave Tinseltown behind.

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After the pair get arrested for stealing a car, which is actually his in the first place, Sullivan reveals his true identity to her, taking The Girl to his palatial estate. She’s angry at first, having thought him a real hobo, but when he’s determined to continue his odyssey she becomes equally determined to join him. From there they hop a freight train and live among the homeless souls, dining in soup kitchens and sleeping in a crowded shelter, learning how the poor and desperate souls live. Having gathered enough material, the director decides to hand out $1000 in fives to the street people in gratitude.

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Then the film takes a turn to the dramatic, as Sully gets rolled by the same bum who previously stole his shoes, and dragged onto a train leaving the station. The unfortunate crook drops the ill-gotten dough and is run over by an oncoming locomotive. The studio execs believe the dead man is Sully, who wakes up concussed and confused, charged with trespass and atrocious assault, winding up in a prison work camp run by a brutal overseer who doesn’t take any guff.

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Everything turns out okay in the end, as Sullivan finds a way to be freed and discovers making comedies isn’t so bad after all. Joel McCrea is flawless as the idealistic, earnest director, whose journey of self-discovery leads him to this conclusion: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan”. Sturges punctures the pretentiousness of Hollywood elitists who think they can save the world, suggesting that maybe what the world needs more of is a good, hearty laugh. The fact remains while comedies do big box-office, they get very little love come Oscar time. The great screen comics of their respective eras have rarely been rewarded for their efforts, usually settling for a lifetime achievement award after they’re way past their prime, while “relevant” dramas get all the accolades. Myself, I’d rather be entertained than preached at.

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Veronica Lake  shines as The Girl, showing a flair for comedy as the struggling starlet. She’s the perfect match for McCrea, with comic timing that’s just right. Tons of Familiar Faces parade on the screen, like William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn,  Porter Hall Byron Foulger , Eric Blore, Torbin Meyer, Esther Howard , Almira Sessions, Frank Moran, Chester Conklin, and Dewey Robinson, many of whom appeared in subsequent Sturges films as a sort of stock company. A shout-out goes to Jess Lee Brooks as a black preacher who allows the prisoners to attend his church for a movie, leading the congregation in a stirring rendition of ‘Go Down, Moses” (that’s Madame Sul-Te-Wan  at the organ). Ray Milland also appears in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo.

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SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS is social commentary disguised as screwball comedy, or maybe vice versa. Its rapid-fire dialog, great sight gags, and satirical skewering of Hollywood makes it a must-see for film fans. It carries a timeless message, and that is, as Donald O’Connor would say, “Make Em Laugh”! I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for more Preston Sturges films in the future, because we all need to stop and have a good laugh these days.