Yukon Gold: THE SPOILERS (Universal 1942)

What’s this?? A “Northern” Western set in 1900 Alaska Gold Rush territory starring my two favorite cowboys, John Wayne and Randolph Scott ? With the ever-enticing Marlene Dietrich thrown in as a sexy saloon owner? Count me in! THE SPOILERS is a big, brawling, boisterous film loaded with romance, action, and, most importantly,  a sense of humor. It’s the kind of Hollywood entertainment epic that, as they say, “just don’t make ’em like that anymore”. I’ve never been quite sure who “they” are, but in regards to THE SPOILERS, they’re right – and more’s the pity!

Rex Beach’s popular 1906 novel had been filmed three times before (1914, 1923, 1930), and would be one more time after (in 1955), but with The Duke, Rugged Randy, and La Dietrich on board, this has got to be the best of the bunch. Even though audiences were more than familiar with the story, which would be used time and time again unofficially (that is, stolen!) in lesser Klondike films, THE SPOILERS was a big hit, raking in over a million dollars at the box office (a hefty sum at the time!).

Prospector’s claims are being jumped by unscrupulous officials, chief among them new Gold Commissioner Alexander McNamara (Scott). Big Roy Glennister (Wayne), co-owner of the Midas Mining Company, returns from Seattle, smitten with pretty young Helen Chester, niece of new law’n’order Judge Stillman, who’s secretly in cahoots with McNamara. Cherry Malotte (Marlene), operator of The Northern Saloon and Roy’s gal pal, is jealous of the attention her man’s giving Helen, and flirts with McNamara. The two crooked officials make an attempt to wrest The Midas from Roy and his partner, crusty old Al Dextry, through legal chicanery, resulting in Roy jailed on a trumped-up murder charge. Cherry discovers the truth and assists in freeing Roy before the crooks can set him up to be killed, and the entire thing winds up with a knock-down, drag-out, four-minute saloon brawl (yes, I timed it!) between Wayne and Scott (and their stunt doubles Eddie Parker, Allen Pomeroy, Gil Perkins, and Jack Parker, to give credit where credit is due!).

Duke only gets third billing behind Marlene and Scott, even though he’s really the star of the show, mainly because he was on loan from Republic Pictures, while Randolph was under a Universal contract, and Marlene was… well, Marlene! Wayne and Dietrich were in the midst of a torrid affair begun while shooting 1940’s SEVEN SINNERS together, and you can practically feel the heat between them rising from the screen, giving the sexual innuendos they throw at each other (courtesy of screenwriters Lawrence Hazard and Tom Reed) a little extra zip! When Duke tells Marlene (use your inner John Wayne voice here), “I imagine that dress is supposed to have a chilling effect. Well, if it is, it isn’t working – cause you’d look good to me, baby, in a burlap bag”, his eyes tell you he means it!

Randolph Scott turns his syrupy Southern charm to The Dark Side, and makes for an oily villain. Scott had played shady characters before, but none as the out-and-out bad guy of the piece, and wouldn’t again until his last film, 1962’s RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. Another actor usually on the right side of the law, Samuel S. Hinds , is the crooked judge. Harry Carey (Sr) plays Wayne’s partner Dextry, mentoring the younger man onscreen much as he did off it. Margaret Lindsay gets the thankless part of Helen – sorry, but she’s no match for Marlene! Former D.W. Griffith star Richard Barthelmess does good work as saloon card dealer The Bronco Kid, who carries a torch for his boss Cherry.

Three Cowboys: Harry Carey, John Wayne, William Farnum

There are other interesting casting choices in THE SPOILERS. William Farnum , who starred in the 1914 original, is on hand as a lawyer on the side of the good guys. Hollywood’s perennial souse Jack Norton plays the town drunk, and gets to perform some heroics for a change! Robert W. Service, a real life poet who wrote about the Yukon Gold Rush days, has a brief bit as (what else?) a poet (you can read his most famous, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”, by clicking on this link ). George Cleveland and Russell Simpson are a pair of grizzled old miners, and oh-so-many other Familiar Faces appear: Irving Bacon, Marietta Carey (as Cherry’s maid Idabelle), Willie Fung , weaselly Charles Halton, Bud Osbourne – happy hunting!


Director Ray Enright keeps the pace brisk and the comedy breezy, like when Idabelle runs into Roy wearing blackface – wait, I didn’t tell you The Duke appears in blackface? Don’t worry, it’s all part of the plot, as is when he comes out wearing one of Marlene’s feathery nightgowns. Wait, I didn’t tell you he appears in semi-drag, too? Well, if your appetite isn’t whetted enough by now to watch THE SPOILERS, then I guess there’s no hope for you. If it is, strap yourselves in, because you’re about to go on one hell of an entertaining ride!

Screwball Comedian: Joe E. Brown in ALIBI IKE (Warner Brothers 1935)

We’re about a quarter of the way through the baseball season, so let’s take a trip to the ballpark with Joe E. Brown in ALIBI IKE, a 1935 comedy based on a story by Ring Lardner, one of the best baseball writers of the early 20th Century. Brown, known for his wide mouth and comical yell, is an admittedly acquired taste; his “gosh, golly” country bumpkin persona is not exactly what modern audiences go for these days.  But back in the 30’s he was one of Hollywood’s top box-office draws, specializing in sports themed comedies  revolving around wrestling (SIT TIGHT), track and field (LOCAL BOY MAKES GOOD), swimming (YOU SAID A MOUTHFUL), polo (POLO JOE), football ($1,000 A TOUCHDOWN), and racing (boats in TOP SPEED, airplanes in GOING WILD, bicycles in SIX DAY BIKE RACE).

ALIBI IKE is the final chapter in Brown’s “baseball trilogy”. The first, 1932’s FIREMAN, SAVE MY CHILD, found him as a player for the St. Louis Cardinals who doubles as a fireman and part-time inventor. 1933’s ELMER THE GREAT has Brown as an egotistical rookie for the Chicago Cubs. In ALIBI IKE, he’s back in a Cubs uniform as Frank X. Farrell, a hick-from-the-sticks with an unorthodox pitching style and a blazing fastball. His teammates nickname him “Alibi Ike” for his proclivity to come up with an outrageous excuse for everything, but his raw talent sets the league abuzz, raising the hopes of the Cubs long-suffering manager Cap (played by Fred Mertz himself, cranky William Frawley).

The rube’s never been interested in women until he meets Cap’s sister-in-law Dolly, who thinks he’s “cute”. This was movie audiences first glimpse at a 19-year-old actress who definitely had a future before her… Olivia de Havilland ! Olivia had already filmed A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT DREAM (also featuring Brown) and THE IRISH IN US, but ALIBI IKE was released first. She’s pretty darn “cute” herself as Dolly, and has great chemistry with Brown. Later that year, Olivia would costar with Errol Flynn in CAPTAIN BLOOD , becoming half of one of the screen’s most romantic couples.

Ike is paid a visit by the president of “The Young Men’s High Ideals Club”, which he soon finds out is a front for a gambling ring that threatens him to throw some games or else! When Dolly breaks up with him over a misunderstanding, the lovestruck hurler loses his first game. Through circumstances, Cap and the team’s president think he’s in with the gamblers, and on the night of the big pennant deciding game against the Giants, Ike is kidnapped! Of course, you just know he’ll escape and wind up winning both the game and the girl, right?

The only quibble I have with ALIBI IKE is the big night game is played on the Cubs’ home field, which as all us baseball fans know didn’t get lights for night games until 1988! Otherwise, this is one of the all-time great baseball comedies, with actors that actually look like ball players for a change. The cast includes Familiar Faces Ruth Donnelly (as Frawley’s wife), Roscoe Karns, Jack Norton  (sober for a change, as a reporter!), Frank Coghlin Jr (Billy Batson in the serial CAPTAIN MARVEL), and Fred “Snowflake” Toones. Hard-core baseball enthusiasts may recognize former old-time players Gump Cantrell, Cedric Durst, Mike Gazella, Don Hurst, and Bob Meusel, as well as Jim Thorpe, whose life story was made into a 1951 biofilm starring Burt Lancaster.

William Wister Haines adapted his screenplay from Lardner’s story, giving Brown plenty of comic opportunities, and director Ray Enright ( PLAY-GIRL , ANGELS WASH THEIR FACES, GUNG HO!) keeps things moving along at a brisk pace. ALIBI IKE is a wonderful place to start if you’re not familiar with Brown’s work, classic movie lovers will want to catch it for Olivia’s screen debut, and baseball fans for the sheer joy of it. Honestly, I think even non-baseball fans will get a kick out of ALIBI IKE. Now let’s play ball!

 

Pre Code Confidential #7: PLAY-GIRL (Warner Brothers 1932)

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One of the many fun things about Pre-Code films is seeing how they get away with racy dialog without being overly explicit. The risqué double entendres fly freely in PLAY-GIRL, starring Loretta Young as an independent woman who ends up marrying a degenerate gambler, winding up pregnant and husbandless until the conclusion. The story didn’t really matter to me; it was the innuendo-laden script that kept me interested.

That saucy script was written by Maurine Dallas Watkins, who wrote the play “Chicago”, later adapted into the 1942 film ROXIE HART with Ginger Rogers, and then turned into Bob Fosse’s smash Broadway musical CHICAGO, which in turn became the Oscar winning Best Picture of 2002. Ms. Watkins was a former crime reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and based her play on the murder trial of “jazz babies” Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner. Hollywood beckoned, and she wrote screenplays for UP THE RIVER (the film debuts of both Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart), THE STRANGE LOVE OF MOLLY LOUVAIN, THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (uncredited), and LIBELED LADY (Tracy again, with Jean Harlow, William Powell, and Myrna Loy).

Pre Code Queen Winnie Lightner
Pre Code Queen Winnie Lightner

Though the plot revolves around Loretta Young’s travails, Pre-Code favorite Winnie Lightener receives top billing as Loretta’s best friend Georgina. Lightner’s bawdy persona made her a star in the 1929 musical GOLD DIGGERS OF BROADWAY, which is now regrettably a lost film. Winnie starred early Technicolor musical comedies like HOLD EVERYTHING (with Joe E. Brown), THE LIFE OF THE PARTY, and GOLD DUST GERTIE (with Olsen & Johnson), but after the Production Code went into place, her career stalled, and by 1934 she retired from the screen to become Mrs. Roy Del Ruth.

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Winnie gets most of the good lines in this one. While sleeping with roommate Loretta, her panties go flying off the clothesline. Loretta asks what she’s going to do, and Winnie replies, “Keep off step ladders”. Later, when Winnie’s at work, bent over on top of a ladder, a customer quips, “I guess you ain’t got just what I want”. Loretta reads a book on merchandising, trying to better herself, and Winnie tells her, “You don’t see Peggy Joyce* reading no merchandise books and she’s a somebody. Her merchandise is the kind that sells on sight!”.

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The girls also have a frenemy named Edna at the department store they work at, Edna. She’s played by another Pre-Code favorite, Dorothy Burgess (HOLD YOUR MAN, STRICTLY PERSONAL, BLACK MOON). Dorothy and Winnie are constantly at each other’s throats, and this bit of dialog is probably the best, when Loretta throws a party at her new apartment:

Winnie: “Ooh, can I see the bedroom?”

Dorothy: “You usually do”.

Winnie: “Well you oughta know, I generally meet you coming out!”

The picture’s no great shakes, but it’s the witty, sexually laced banter that makes it worthwhile. There are plenty of Familiar Faces here, with Guy Kibbee as Winnie’s sugar daddy, Norman Foster as the gambler who Loretta falls in love with, and DRACULA’s Edward  Van Sloan as the department store owner. James Ellison, Noel Madison, George “Gabby” Hayes, Roscoe Karns, and perennial cop Robert Emmett O’Connor appear in small roles. PLAY-GIRL is a fine example of what Pre-Code’s are all about, and though it’s hardly a classic, the dialog alone makes it a film to put on your must-see list.

(*Peggy Hopkins Joyce was an actress known for her many marriages and divorces, love affairs, and extravagant lifestyle. She appeared with W.C. Fields in the all-star comedy INTERNATIONAL HOUSE.)

The Pre-Code Confidential Series: