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.

Pre Code Confidential #10: Cecil B. DeMille’s CLEOPATRA (Paramount 1934)

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When I hear the words ‘Hollywood Epic’, the name Cecil B. DeMille immediately springs to mind. From his first film, 1914’s THE SQUAW MAN to his last, 1956’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, DeMille was synonymous with big, sprawling productions. The producer/director, who’s credited with almost singlehandedly inventing the language of film, made a smooth transition from silents to talkies, and his 1934 CLEOPATRA is a lavish Pre-Code spectacular featuring sex, violence, and a commanding performance by Claudette Colbert as the Queen of the Nile.

1934: Claudette Colbert in title role of Cecil B. DeMille's film Cleopatra.

While the film’s opulent sets (by Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier) and gorgeous B&W cinematography (by Victor Milner) are stunning, all eyes will be on the beautiful, half-naked Colbert. She gives a bravura performance as Cleopatra, the ambitious, scheming Egyptian queen. She’s sensuous and seductive, wrapping both Caesar and Marc Antony around her little finger, and devious in her political machinations. If I were compare her to Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 Joseph L. Mankeiwicz version, I’d have to give the edge to Claudette; Liz may be more voluptuous, but Claudette’s definitely a more playful, tantalizing Cleo. And as for that famous milk bath scene, well…

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…hot damn!!!

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Cleo’s two lovers are both well cast, with smooth Warren William making a sturdy Julius Caesar. When her hopes to rule Rome alongside Caesar are dashed on the Ides of March, Cleo sets her sights on warrior Marc Antony, played with boyish enthusiasm by Henry Wilcoxon. She seduces him with wine, food, and her undeniable charms, gifting Antony with “clams from the sea” (in which a net is hauled up filled with writhing mermaids bearing shells filled with jewels), then celebrating with the bizarre tableau of dancing cat-women being whipped by a burly soldier! Who can resist a pitch like that!

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There are tons of Familiar Faces in this one, including Irving Pichel as Cleo’s confidant Apollodorus, Gertrude Michael as Caesar’s wife Calpurnia, C. Aubrey Smith as Enobarbus, Ian Keith as Octavian, Joseph Schildkraut as King Herod, and Richard Alexander, Lionel Belmore, Edgar Dearing, Claudia Dell, William Farnum, Edwin Maxwell, and Leonard Mudie in various roles. Look fast for a young John Carradine among the cast of thousands.

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Cecil B. DeMille certainly knew how to hold an audience’s interest. Whether it’s in the battle scenes containing much carnage (and, truth be told, much stock footage), or in all the half-naked women, the film is a visual delight, even when Claudette’s not on the screen. Nobody captured the decadence of ancient times quite like DeMille, and CLEOPATRA’s got decadence to spare, coming right before Will Hayes began his puritanical reign of terror with the Production Code. It was nominated for five Oscars (Best Picture, Assistant Director, Sound Recording, Editing), winning for Milner’s cinematography. Conspicuous by it’s absence on that list is Claudette Colbert’s performance, but I don’t think she minded; she won that same year for the screwball classic IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT.

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The 1934 CLEOPATRA is half the length of the ’63 Liz & Dick opus, and is a whole lot more fun. Cecil B. DeMille doesn’t get much attention these days, but he was unquestionably one of Hollywood’s most important figures, and this film is a great example of Pre-Code excess. I was as mesmerized by Claudette Colbert’s star turn as I was by DeMille’s epically delicious debauchery. I think you will be, too.

Halloween Havoc!: THE WOLF MAN (Universal 1941)

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We’re heading down the Halloween Havoc! homestretch and for the last week of October I’ll be dusting of my Universal Classic Horror tapes (yes I still have a VHS player…doesn’t everybody?) From watching them on late night TV to reading about them in “Famous Monsters of Filmland” and “Castle of Frankenstein” magazines, these are the films that got me started as a life-long lover of macabre movies. So let’s take a trip down Monster Memory Lane with one of my personal favorites, THE WOLF MAN.

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Prodigal son Larry Talbot returns to his Welsh home of Llanwelly after spending 18 years in America. Father Sir John Talbot is an astronomer, and through the telescope Larry spies beautiful village girl Gwen Conliffe. Fun loving Larry is captivated by her, so he heads to her father’s antique shop to work his charm on the lass. Larry flirts away,  and on impulse buys a cane with a silver wolf’s head attached. This is where we hear that famous poem for the first time: “Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers by night/ May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the Autumn moon is bright”. (I tried to find a YouTube clip but no dice! Sorry!)

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Gwen agrees to go to the gypsy camp to have their fortunes read, dragging along her friend Jenny Williams. When Bela the gypsy reads Jenny’s palm, he sees doom in her future. She’s attacked by a wolf and Larry bashes its head in with his silver cane, getting bit in the process. Gwen and Maleva, gypsy mother of Bela, bring Larry home, but the next day Bela’s dead body is discovered in the wolf’s stead. Larry’s wound is mysteriously gone, in its place a pentagram…the sign of the werewolf!

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Lon Chaney Jr always said Larry Talbot was his “baby”, and the role made him a star at Universal. The transformation from happy-go-lucky Larry to conflicted, morose victim of lycanthropy earned Chaney the title of “The Screen’s Master Character Creator” in Universal’s advertising hype. Chaney is the only actor to portray all the studio’s major monsters: Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and The Mummy, as well as appearing as The Wolf Man in four sequels. His roles in mainstream films like OF MICE AND MEN, HIGH NOON, and THE DEFIANT ONES brought critical acclaim, but Chaney’s lifelong battle with the bottle saw him ending his career in B-Westerns and Al Adamson schlockers. Larry Talbot was his signature role, and his contributions to cinematic horror will not be soon forgotten.

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“A Universal Cast is Worth Repeating” and nowhere is that truer than in THE WOLF MAN. Scream Queen Evelyn Ankers was Universal’s go-to girl when it came to horror, and she’s at her best in this one. Bela the gypsy is of course horror icon Bela Lugosi. Lugosi only gets about two minutes of screen time as the doomed gypsy, but he makes the most of it, playing the part with an understated melancholy. The Invisible Man himself, Claude Rains lends dignity to Sir John, who refuses to believe his son is a werewolf. Also giving a dignified performance is diminutive Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva. The twice Oscar nominated Ouspenskaya returned to the role in the sequel, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. Warren William, Patric Knowles, and Fay Helm (the unfortunate Jenny) lend good support, but Ralph Bellamy is annoying as the local constable.

Curt Siodmak wrote the intelligent script. The German immigrant never achieved the success of his brother, director Robert (THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, THE KILLERS, CRISS CROSS), but was a major figure in the horror genre. His novel Donovan’s Brain is a classic, and his screenplays for THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, and THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS hold up well. As for his directorial career…well, he was a good writer! George Waggner directed this one, and while his screen career is undistinguished, he found his niche working on television shows like 77 SUNSET STRIP, THE MAN FROM UNCLE, and BATMAN. Makeup artist Jack Pierce created one of his masterpieces for Chaney, and the Wolf Man’s visage still  manages to frighten. THE WOLF MAN ranks with the best of Universal’s 30s classics, and while the recent remake wasn’t all that bad, it was missing one key element. Sorry Benicio Del Toro, but you’re just no Lon Chaney Jr!