You’re The Top!: Eleanor Powell Was BORN TO DANCE (MGM 1936)

Dancing masters like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and The Nicholas Brothers all agreed… Eleanor Powell was the tops! The 24-year-old star made a big splash in MGM’s BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936, and the studio quickly followed up with BORN TO DANCE, showcasing Eleanor’s tap-dancing prowess in a fun musical-comedy-romance featuring a cavalcade of stars, and an original score by Cole Porter. Yep, Leo the Lion was going big on this one!

The plot’s your typical Boy Meets Girl/Boy Loses Girl/Boy Wins Girl Back fluff, this time around concerning submarine sailors in port and the babes they chase after. Nora Paige (Eleanor) enters the Lonely Hearts Club (no, not Sgt. Pepper’s! ) looking for work as a hoofer (“You don’t use a fan?”, says wisecracking Jenny Saks, played by wisecracking Una Merkel ). Nora shows what she can do in the hot number “Rap, Tap On Wood”, a joyous dance number (that Eleanor makes look so easy!). Enter sailor Ted Barker (Jimmy Stewart… hey, what’s he doing here??) and it’s love at first sight, because that’s the way things work in these movies!

When Ted saves musical comedy star Lucy James’ (Virginia Bruce) pet peke Cheeky from drowning, the publicity machine gets cranking: “FAMOUS ACTRESS IN LOVE WITH GOB” read the headlines, and poor Nora is stood up while Ted dines with Lucy. Misunderstandings abound, as Nora tells Ted she’s a married woman with a child (actually Jenny’s kid, whose dad is Ted’s sailor pal ‘Gunny’) so he’ll leave her alone. Nora then gets a job as a Broadway understudy for… who else but Lucy! The temperamental Lucy gets Nora canned, Jenny spills the beans, and the whole thing ends up with a rousing, twelve-minute, patriotic, Depression-busting showstopper set on a battleship that becomes a dazzling showcase for the terpsichorean talents of Miss Powell.

The stars of “Born to Dance”: Frances Langford, Buddy Ebsen, Eleanor, Jimmy, Una Merkel, Sid Silvers

Eleanor has some marvelous numbers, and I especially enjoyed the athletic love dance she does in Central Park after Jimmy croons Porter’s classic “You’d Be So Easy To Love” to her – and far as Jimmy’s singing goes, let’s just say Bing Crosby had nothing to worry about! Curiously, while Stewart was allowed to sing, Eleanor’s vocals are all dubbed by Marjorie Lane (wife of actor Brian Donlevy). The number “Hey, Babe, Hey” is another stunner, performed by Eleanor, Jimmy, and fellow cast members Una, Sid Silvers (Gunny), Buddy Ebsen (Mushy), and Frances Langford (Peppy), each getting a chance to shine. And then there’s that finale “Swingin’ the Jinx Away”, where Eleanor is a whirling bundle of energy and shows just why her contemporaries considered her the best ever!

Beautiful Virginia Bruce

Virginia Bruce has never looked more beautiful to me, but then again I’ve only seen her in two other films – as the tortured victim in the Pre-Code KONGO and the title role in THE INVISIBLE WOMAN , where I hardly saw her at all! Miss Bruce gets to introduce the world to the Porter standard “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” here, and her voice is as lovely as the rest of her. Una Merkel gets all the good laugh lines; after seeing Ted with Lucy James in the papers, she quips, “That dame’s first name shoulda been Jesse”. And to her precocious daughter (Juanita Quigley): “Sally, you’re gonna drive me to stop drinking!”. Blustery Raymond Walburn is on hand as the blustery submarine captain, Helen Troy has a cute bit as a nasally telephone operator, and Reginald Gardiner plays a cop who comes across Ted and Nora in the park and breaks into a funny impersonation of famed conductor Leopold Stokowski.

Dependable Roy Del Ruth directed, and with this cast it must have been a dream job. I know I use the phrase “They don’t make ’em like this anymore” a little too frequently on this platform, but in this case the old cliché fits like a glove. And they sure don’t make stars like Eleanor Powell anymore, a multi- talented lady whose career was all-too-brief, but oh-so-memorable:

Pre Code Confidential #11: THE MALTESE FALCON (Warner Brothers 1931)

Everybody knows the 1941 Humphrey Bogart/John Huston classic THE MALTESE FALCON, but only true film fanatics watch the original 1931 version. Since I fall squarely into that category, I recently viewed the first adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s seminal private eye yarn. The film, like it’s more famous remake, follows the novel’s plot closely, with the added spice that Pre-Code movies bring to the table.

Cortez is no Bogie, but he’ll do

The odds are six-two-and-even if you’re reading this post, you don’t need a plot recap. What I intend to do is go over some of the differences between the two versions. Let’s start with Sam Spade himself, the prototype hard-boiled detective. Suave, slick-haired Ricardo Cortez  interprets the role as a grinning horndog who’s never met a skirt he didn’t like. We meet Spade in the opening shot, clinching a dame in silhouette at the door to his office. Then the door opens and the camera pans down to the girl’s gorgeous gam, hitching up her stocking, so there’s no doubt that more than just business was being conducted behind that closed door. This sets the tone for Cortez’s character, an amoral man completely out for himself. We later discover he’s been banging his partner Miles Archer’s wife Iva (and as she’s played by the lovely Thelma Todd  , who could blame him?!?). He’s also got a thing going on with secretary Effie ( Una Merkel , another Pre-Code cutie). Cortez made a career playing shady types, and though his Spade differs from the more cynical Bogart , he does well in the role of less than honorable gumshoe.

Bebe in the bathtub/la-dee-da-dee-dah!

Bebe Daniels plays opposite Cortez as the lying, duplicitous Ruth Wanderly, enacted in the Huston film by Mary Astor. Miss Daniels, a star in the silent era, was more closely associated with early musicals (DIXIANA, 42ND STREET), and is no match for Astor in the dramatic department. However, she does get to strut her Pre-Code stuff more freely than Astor did ten years later. There’s a scene where Ruth and Sam are passionately kissing while a record comes to an end; the scene changes to Daniels asleep in his bed the next morning. Sam answers the door to find Iva, who spies Ruth peeking through the bedroom door… in her kimono! Later, when a thousand dollar bill goes missing from an envelope, Sam orders Ruth to “take off your clothes” so he can search her… and she does! Though she’s no Mary Astor (let’s face it, few actresses were), Bebe Daniels does fine in the pivotal role of Ruth Wanderly.

Diggs & Frye… more than just friends?

The villainous trio of Casper Gutman, “Dr.” Joel Cairo, and the gunsel Wilmer Cook are portrayed with no ambiguity about their homosexuality. Right off the bat, Effie tells Sam a “gorgeous new customer” has arrived, and in walks the effeminate Dr. Cairo (Danish actor Otto Matieson). Gutman (Irishman Dudley Diggs) sports feminine curls and is more than fond of his hired goon Wilmer, played by none other than Dwight Frye. It was a very good year for Frye, as he appeared in both FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA for Universal in 1931. There’s also some homophobic slurs tossed by Spade at the homicide dicks Dundy and Polhaus (Robert Elliott, J. Farrell McDonald), as he teases Dundy with the sobriquets “sweetheart” and “darling”, much to their chagrin.

When Warner Brothers wanted to re-release the ’31 version in 1936, the then-in-place Hayes Production Code had a fit, claiming it was too “lewd” and unacceptable to be put on the Silver Screen again. Warners then commissioned a remake, retitled SATAN MET A LADY, changing some things around and starring Warren William and Bette Davis in the Cortez and Daniels roles. The new film was a bomb (Davis hated it), and Hammett’s story sat untouched until John Huston got ahold of it in 1941, and the rest is film history. The Huston/Bogart MALTESE FALCON remains the definitive version, and is still my favorite, but this  Roy Del Ruth  1931 Pre-Code take has a lot to offer. While not nearly as atmospheric or influential as the later film, this MALTESE FALCON is at least the stuff that Pre-Code dreams are made of!

The “Pre Code Confidential” Files:

  1. LADY KILLER
  2. KONGO
  3. MAKE ME A STAR
  4. THE MASK OF FU MANCHU
  5. HOLLYWOOD PARTY
  6. THE SECRET SIX
  7. PLAY-GIRL
  8. BABY FACE
  9. BLONDE CRAZY
  10. CLEOPATRA

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!

 

Christmas Surprise: IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE (Allied Artists 1947)

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I’d never heard of IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE until it’s recent broadcast on TCM. This unsung little holiday gem was a TV staple for decades before being pulled from viewing in 1990, only resurfacing in 2009 when a small but dedicated band of classic film fans put the pressure on to see it aired once again. And I’m glad they did, for this charming, unpretensious comedy boasts a marvelous cast, an Oscar-nominated screenplay, and a Frank Capra-esque feel without a lot of the Capra-corn.

Capra himself was scheduled to direct it back in 1945, but instead he chose to make another Christmas film you may have heard of, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Veteran Roy Del Ruth obtained the rights, and IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE became the first release of Allied Artists, the larger budgeted, more prestigious arm of Monogram Pictures (and you know how much I love Monogram movies!). The film was cast, shooting began, and the movie was released- in Easter season! I’m not quite sure why a movie based around the Christmas season was released on Easter, but it didn’t matter, as moviegoers packed their local theaters, and Allied Artists had a huge hit on their hands.

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The story: When “industrial wizard” Michael J. O’Connor, “the second richest man in the world”, goes south to Virginia during the winter months, hobo Aloysius McKeever and his dog Sammy appropriate the property. McKeever meets Jim Bullock, a homeless vet evicted from his room because O’Connor bought his building to put up another skyscraper. McKeever invites Jim to stay with him until he gets settled somewhere.

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O’Connor’s headstrong 18 year old daughter Trudy, still depressed over her parent’s divorce, runs away from boarding school and heads to the family mansion. She’s caught by McKeever and Jim, who think she’s a thief trying to steal a mink coat. When she overhears the two talking about the reason they’re in her home, she plays along, calling herself ‘Trudy Smith’ from Dubuque, Iowa, one of fourteen children with an alcoholic father who beats them all regularly.

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Trudy falls for Jim, and while they stroll down the street they run into a couple of Jim’s old Army buddies, Whitey and Hank, and their families, currently all living in their car due to the housing crisis. Soon all nine people are squatting in the O’Connor homestead, and Jim comes up with a plan to turn a former Army camp into housing for homeless veterans. O’Connor tracks down Trudy, but she persuades pop into playing along so Jim won’t think she’s a spoiled little rich girl. He does for a time, but soon gets fed up with the situation and threatens to call the police, forcing Trudy to call mom Mary in Palm Beach, who arrives and gets in on the charade by posing as an Irish cook!

Got all that so far? Good, but there’s a catch: unbeknownst to each, O’Connor is bidding on that same Army property as Jim, causing more complications. But you just know everything’s going to work out in the end; after all, it’s a Christmas movie, and that’s what Christmas movies do! Producer/director Del Ruth wraps things up neatly with a bow on top, and screenwriter Everett Freeman sends us all home happy in the end (his script lost the Oscar to another Yuletime classic that year, MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET!).

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Victor Moore gets top billing as McKeever, a gentle soul of a hobo who’s wiser than his outward appearance lets on. Moore was a star of Broadway and early silent flicks who became a reliable character actor (GOLD DIGGERS OF 1937, SWING TIME). He’s definitely an acquired taste, but is more than acceptable here. The young lovers are well played by Don DeFore and Gale Storm . I’ve told you about my long-time crush on Miss Storm here through viewing reruns of her sitcom MY LITTLE MARGIE. Gale had a lovely singing voice to boot, but for some reason Del Ruth chose to have her dubbed! Doesn’t matter, Monogram’s home-grown starlet shines anyway as Trudy.

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It’s Charles Ruggles who really made the film for me as the millionaire O’Connor. Ruggles’ facial expressions, vocal inflections, and willingness to take a pratfall or two are a joy to behold, and the veteran comic character star walks away with the movie’s acting honors. Pre-Code darling Ann Harding (HOLIDAY, THE ANIMAL KINGDOM, THE LIFE OF VERGIE WINTERS), always a welcome presence, has terrific chemistry with Ruggles as his former spouse. Young Alan Hale Jr (Gilligan’s Skipper!) plays Jim’s pal Whitey, and Dorothea Kent (a lovely lass) is his wife. Other Familiar Faces joining in on the fun are Leon Belasco, Edward Brophy, Chester Clute, Dudley Dickerson, James Flavin, John Hamilton, Charles Lane, George Lloyd, and Grant Mitchell.

IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE will be on my Christmas watch list from now on, a delightful screwball tale the whole family can enjoy. Tired of the same old holiday movies? Give this one a try; you can thank me later!

 

Pre-Code Confidential #1: James Cagney in LADY KILLER (Warner Brothers, 1933)

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Pre-Code Hollywood movies like LADY KILLER are always fun to watch. They’re filled with risqué business, sly innuendos, and are much more adult in content than post-1934 films. This little gem features James Cagney in one of his patented tough guy roles as Dan Quigley. Dan’s a brash, cocky movie usher who gets fired for insulting his patrons. While indulging in rolling some dice at a hotel lobby, he sees Myra (Mae Clarke)  drop her purse as she’s leaving. Ladies man Dan follows her to her apartment with it, hoping for some afternoon delight.

Dan and Myra
Dan and Myra

Myra’s grateful, and offers him a drink (Her: “Chaser?” Him: “Always have been!”). Myra’s “brother-in-law” Duke (Douglass Dumbrille) emerges from the next room, and invites Dan to play a little poker. Losing all his dough, Dan leaves the apartment. He comes across a gentleman holding another purse in the hallway looking for Myra. Realizing he’s been set up, he storms back in and demands his money back. Yet another sucker comes in with a purse, and Dan muscles his way in on the con. Soon he’s leading the gang, and they make enough to open their own speakeasy, the Seven-Eleven Club. The gang branches out into burglary, targeting a rich widow. Dan fakes a car accident, weaseling his way into her home to get a layout of the joint. Things go awry when a maid is “brutally slugged” and dies. One of the gang squeals and gets iced by his pals just as the cops raid the Seven-Eleven. The gang takes it on the lam, with Dan and Myra ending up in LA. The coppers pick him up at the train station for questioning, and hold him on bail. He calls Myra at their pre-arranged hotel room to post bond, but the devious dame has hooked up with Duke scramed to Mexico, leaving Dan high and dry. Dan’s released when “New York can’t get the goods” on him, with a warning to find employment in 48 hours or get out of town. At a pool hall, Dan’s discovered by a Hollywood producer looking for new faces, and begins working as an extra in a prison picture.

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LADY KILLER now shifts gears to give us a backstage look at Hollywood. Cagney does bits as a con and an Indian chief (!) as the tone turns from gangster pic to comedy. He meets up with leading lady Lois Underwood (Margret Lindsey) and becomes a star in his own right. Seems the studio’s looking for the “rough and ready” type, and Dan writes bogus fan letters extolling his popularity! Now a star (complete with pencil-thin moustache), Dan and Lois start dating. She facetiously tells him she wants “a crate of monkeys, Tyrolean yodelers, and an elephant” for her birthday party, and wise guy Dan obliges in a hysterical scene.

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Dan’s still the same street kid he’s always been, as we see where he makes a critic literally eat his words (an actor’s dream!). Dan brings Lois to his apartment, only to find Myra waiting in his bed! Lois storms out. In a scene that could only happen in a Pre-Code movie, he drags Myra out by her hair and kicks her ass out the door! It’s not the first time Cagney brutalized Clarke on screen. Film fans all remember the classic grapefruit scene in PUBLIC ENEMY.

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Next day, we find the old gang back in town (including Myra), wanting Dan’s Hollywood contacts to set up more robberies. Dan gives then ten grand to keep away from him and leave Hollywood, but Duke and his boys take a guided tour of star’s homes to do their own dirty work. Lois’s house gets robbed and a cop is killed during the escape. Dan busts in on their hideout, gun in hand, and demands the loot to return to Lois. The cops then arrive and arrest him, allowing the gang to flee. They bail him out, and Myra is waiting for him in a car. She confesses to Dan he’s being set up by his old pals who plan to bump him off on the highway. But Dan’s no dummy. He’s alerted the coppers, and they’re in pursuit. A wild car chase with tommy-guns blazing sets up the final shootout. Dan is exonerated, and he and Lois fly to Yuma for their wedding.

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LADY KILLER is fast paced fun, loaded with snappy dialogue. One of the gang asks Dan where he’d like them to go, and he replies with a smile, “Need I say?” Offering one of them some fruit, Dan slyly says, “You like fruit. That I know.” In one scene, he sneakily kisses Myra on the breast (through her dress). The film’s director Roy Del Ruth got his start as a Mack Sennett gag writer. The veteran also worked with Cagney in BLONDE CRAZY, TAXI, and BLESSED EVENT. Other films include THE BABE RUTH STORY, the noir RED LIGHT, and horror entries PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE and THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE. Del Ruth was by no means a top-flight director, but he did some interesting films and his career deserves a second look.

LADY KILLER abounds with familiar faces, Besides Dumbrille (who’s good as Duke), the gang members are Raymond Hatton, Leslie Fenton, and Russell Hopton. Others in various roles are Henry O’Neill, Luis Alberni, Herman Bing, George Chandler, Edwin Maxwell, Dewey Robinson, Sam McDaniel, and Dennis O’Keefe. While not a classic, LADY KILLER is a great example of Pre-Code filmmaking, with an energetic performance by Cagney. Pre-Code fans, gangster buffs, and movie manques looking for a peek at the soundstages of 30s Hollywood will all enjoy this well made time capsule.