It’s Valentine’s weekend and we take a romantic trip to The Electric Cinema to see It Happened One Night, Frank Capra’s 1934 romantic comedy that is one of only three films to win all Big Five Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay). As usual, Mike hasn’t seen it before, while José’s seen it plenty. Does it hold up?
José talks of its democratic appeal, set largely in the American South during the lowest point of the Great Depression and showing people coming together despite hardship, lack of work and even fainting from hunger. We discuss the development of the relationship between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, including the wisdom of sharing a motel room with a man you just met, the propriety depicted (such as forgoing a lucrative reward, instead only claiming your expenses), and of course, the madness of Alan Hale’s singing.
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The second of eight films Joan Crawford and Clark Gable would make together and part of a cycle of films that would transform Gable into a star in the early 30s.
Laughing Sinners gives Crawford solo billing in what was then a controversial tale of a café entertainer (Crawford as Ivy ‘Bunny’ Stevens) who’s in love with a low-rent travelling salesman (Neil Hamilton as Howard ‘Howdy’ Palmer). He dumps her in the middle of a love song she’s prepared especially for him to run off and marry an heiress, news that drives ‘Bunny’ to want to jump off a bridge. But just as she’s about to, she’s rescued by Carl Loomis (Clark Gable), a guy who knows all about the low life and has recently come out of the slammer. He’s now found God and has become a Christian soldier for the Salvation Army. ‘Bunny’ joins him and the Salvation Army and is transformed into saintly ‘Ivy’. But ‘Howdy’ returns, she sleeps with him, finds herself condemned to be a ‘bunny’ once more, only to saved once again by Carl’s empathy and compassion. Just before the fade-out, we see Ivy and Carl, holding hands in uniform, marching through green pastures and into the horizon. One is drawn to giggling but there’s a rawness to the film that prevents it.
Laughing Sinners is pre-code and quite racy. I prefer the Crawford of this period — the good-time hootchy girl who sings and dances ‘red-hot blues’ — to the suffering masochist she later became. She brings real energy and verve to every scene she’s in, whether rushing madly with desire to meet her lover at the train, dancing the Charleston at the club (see above), or even later in the hotel room where she’s dancing at the table for all the travelling salesmen. When she turns noble she turns dull.
Luckily, it’s in those scenes Gable appears, and even pre-moustache, wearing an apron and scrambling eggs for Ivy, he’s a force to be reckoned with. I was particularly taken with the scene above, the way he walks when he threatens the salesman; the growl in his voice when he says ‘get out of here before I throw you out’. Neil Hamilton is handsome enough and he gives a good performance. But he’s no match for Gable. Particularly when Gable turns tender. He’s clearly destined for stardom here; and Crawford and Gable have terrific chemistry.
I was quite taken with the moment Ivy/Bunny tells him, ‘Oh you’ve been wonderful Carl. More wonderful than anyone’s ever been. I’m sorry on your account if I couldn’t make the grade. I tried honest but it’s no use….Don’t you see I was only fooling myself. I wanted to go back all the time. I nearly died pretending to be something I’m not. That’s why I broke out tonight. I stood it as long as I could and… ‘ These tales of repression, of fall and redemption, of the conflicts between inner desires and social constraints and the toll these struggles take on the psyche remain resonant.
The film is an adaptation of a play, Torch Song by Kenyon Nicholson and is no great shakes as cinema. But it is very much worth seeing for Crawford and Gable and also as a commentary on its times. One gets glimpses, sometimes sideways of ‘structures of feeling’ and also bits like the clip above, where some travelling salesmen begin to sing in that down-low way I always associate with Mae West and a whole period of American culture is instantly evoked.
Bombshell has an opening montage that is very instructive in how studios and audiences perceived the life and function of a film star. We see Jean Harlow as Lola Burns in film magazines, in newspapers, awarding prizes, being the subject of scandal, in advertisements selling hosiery, and on film-screens — bigger than life — with an audience enraptured as she’s embraced by Gable; celebrity, scandal, glamour, the personal and the social, significance and signification, already all rolled into one. One of the many interesting things about the montage is that we see men reading Modern Screen, Photoplay, Silver Screen and other movie magazines as avidly as women, which, even whilst keeping in mind that Lola Burns/Jean Harlow is meant to be a sex-symbol, is not exactly what one expects. We see audiences enraptured by the image, copying Lola’s stockings and perfumes, her name in lights and finally a hypnotic reunion in the dark where audiences identify, desire and long to that image provided by Burns/Harlow; and of course Harlow does seem to burn up the screen with joy, and wit and life as it all unfolds: A glorious beginning to an entertaining film.
Warners has a less showy version of stardom in 1933 with James Cagney playing a character clearly influenced by George Raft in Lady Killer (Roy del Ruth, 1933):
China Seas is big-budget, all-star orientalist tosh with exciting action sequences, well-directed by Tay Garnett. I don’t know that it’s much worth seeing today unless you love Jean Harlow (which I do) or want to see how movie star like Gable can sleepwalk through a performance and still be appealing or are curious as to just how bad Rosalind Russell was at playing English aristocrats early in her career. What I most loved about the movie was the way Robert Benchley was deployed as a kind of punctuation mark in the narrative. He’s got no role really. He’s just brought in to punch up the tired narrative, lift the tenor and add a laugh, all of which he succeeds magnificently in doing. It’s a lesson to performers in how to steal a movie in five minutes and to screenwriters in how a movie is not all story and meaning and how in the words of the immortal Lubitsch, one shouldn’t ‘sneeze at a laugh’; though one is at all times willing to drink to it.
The clip below is the entirety of his role, a collection of all his scenes in the film in chronological order; bits, lines and gags; all totalling just over five minutes; and, aside from a few cracks between Jean Harlow and Hattie McDaniel, the only scenes from the movie one is tempted to see again.
I love this opening for so many reasons: the way it begins with the factory whistle, tilts and then cranes down to show the crowd of workers surging out of the factory, settles on the boyfriend (Wallace Ford), finds Joan Crawford, and tracks back with them as a couple. We see it’s a working couple, a make-do couple, a couple only because it’s the best available in a town without many options. I love the dissolve into the next shot and the way the camera then tracks along with the couple but with the background in focus so we can see the poverty, the drunkenness, a fight between a married couple where the woman is left at home, alone and distressed. We know that’s Crawford’s future if she stays there. I love the way Crawford shows her tiredness and dissatisfaction and the way that she says her only way out of this life and this place is her looks and whatever fellas like about her; we all know what it is, that she’s got it and that she’s willing to use it. I love the way Brown creates a dreamyness of tone when Crawford gazes in on the train from the outside and he frames the windows of the train carriage as a view into a different world, a better world, more glamorous, like film frames run through a sprocket, like cinema. It’s how Brown conveys that going to the movies is many factory workers’ way out of a repetitive, dehumanising, exploitative milieu of mindless labour and into another dimension, a marvellous one of glamorous possibilities. And an awestruck Crawford is our conduit into it. She’s us; us as we could be if we had her looks, her drive and her gumption. It’s a technically superb opening, beautiful to look at, expressive of social conditions and full of feeling.
According to Donald Spoto, in the book on Crawford he intriguingly entitled, Possessed, ‘the film struck a powerful responsive chord among Depression-era women of 1931, deprived of prospects and caught in frightening economic circumstances. In their neighbourhood screens was Joan Crawford — sensual yet strong-willed, vulnerable but determined, and willing, as Marian says, “to use whatever men find attractive about me” to succeed.
In a way Marian was Joan Crawford’ (p.87).
And according to Crawford Clarence Brown was ‘a genius’ (p.86). This is certainly a great and complex job of directing, a great performance from Crawford and a film that lays claim to being one of the land-mark films of the pre-Code era.