It can sometimes feel like Warner Brother had only a handful of songs at its disposal in the early Thirties: here it’s once again ‘We’re in the Money,’ probably America’s most overplayed song of 1933, that practically constitutes the soundtrack. The film is worth watching today for many reasons: an opportunity to understand why George Arliss was such a big star in the early 30s (he’s got energy, theatrical verve, good timing); a chance to see a very blonde and very pretty Bette Davis in an early role (she credits Mr. Arliss, as she always referred to him and as he was often billed, with helping her early in her career); and perhaps most significantly, the film’s deft ideological operation of reconciling ‘The Working Man’ with America’s owners of Capital. Not unlike today, middle-management is depicted as the swindling cause of every problem.
Arliss plays John Reeves, owner of one of the biggest shoe-companies in America. His company is being so well run by his nephew, Benjamin (Hardie Albright) that he feels the need to prove he’s not ready to be put to pasture yet. Reeves goes fishing and meets two nice but spoiled rich kids, Jenny (Bette Davis) and Tommy (Theodor Newton), who swim over to his dinghy from their yacht in order to get a lift to the bootleggers. The kids turn out to be the heirs to Reeves’ biggest competitor, Heartland Shoes. They’re being swindled by Heartland’s manager, Fred Pettison (Gordon Westcott), who is secretly running it right to the ground under their very noses so he can buy it cheap. Reeves had respected their father and been in love with their mother. In a heartbeat, he becomes their guardian, teaches the young heirs the value of work and the value of money, teaches his nephew there’s life in the old man yet, Jenny and Benjamin fall in love, Pettison gets booted out and — under a loving paternal gaze — the two companies merge along with the young couple. Capitalism is once more saved from chisellers by love, street smarts and hard work for the benefit of all.
This is not exactly typical, as Mick La Salle writes in Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man, ‘Calvin Coolidge, president during the economic boom, reflected his era’s reverence for business when he said, “The Man who builds a factory builds a temple.” But President Franlin Roosevelt, entering office at the height of the Depression in March 1933, saw a different situation, “The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civiliztion.” In this new climate, the old values seemed inapplicable, naïve, sometimes hypocritical. Occassionally, a film might come along, such as Arliss’s The Workiing Man (1933), in which he played a shoe manufacturer with a thing or two to teach the younger generation. But for the most part, busines in pre-Code films was pretty much nasty and dog-eat-dog, a life for men with a killer instinct (p.161)’.
There are two aspects that especially caught my eye: one, in the clip above, the identification of the factory owner as ‘the working man’ — in this film, they are one and the same; the other the muddled, or perhaps complex, attempt to endow Bette Davis’ character with the ideal traits of an Edwardian lady (sentimental, filial, etc) but also those of a modern career girl: independent, eager to go out into the world and learn about business. Bette Davis’ star persona would be a site of struggle for this type of ideological discourse for decades to come.
The other element that caught my eye (see above)contra to the snappy wipes and cuts so characteristic of Warner Brothers film of this era is the length of time a letter was allowed to roll onscreen. Everything is fast, fast, fast but then we’re shown a letter the film seems to come to a stop for an inordinate amount of time, like the filmmakers wanted to maker sure the audience got the chance to read it but weren’t too confident of the audience’s level of reading skills.
It’s a film I’m glad I saw.
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.
An extraordinary clip from ‘the pre-Code Ex-Lady (Robert Florey, USA, 1933), the film that was meant to turn Bette Davis into an above-the-title star but didn’t. Here Bette Davis, whilst emphasising she’s not ‘that kind of girl’, nonetheless has a boyfriend who has a key to her flat. She favours work, is not interested in marriage or children, and has ‘modern’ ideas about sexual relations outside of marriage and believes. She also believes in a woman’s rights to her body and to her own agency. This couldn’t be expressed more clearly by Ex-Lady. It’s the kind of clip that illustrates how even this early in her career her star persona was already a sight of struggle over notions of femininity. I wonder how feminist film studies might have been differently written had these films been more available in the 70s.
A programmer but one that packs a lot of power: Ruth Brock (Nancy Carroll), a small town working girl, is accused of doing things she didn’t do with Romer Sheffield (Cary Grant) by Conny Billop (Edward Woods), a co-worker who failed to force her to do the same things with him. Town gossip gets so ugly she loses her job at the bank as well as her childhood sweetheart and prospective husband, Bill Fadden (Randolph Scott) — nice, handsome but a bit self-righteous and rigid; she’s really better off without him. She gets so fed up with the injustice of it all that she eventually does end up doing all the things with Romer she was at first wrongfully accused of — ‘The things you believed about me last night were lies. But this morning they’re the truth,’ she tells Bill –and is shown to have a wonderful time doing it. At the end of the film, Ruth and Rumer say good-by to Hicksville and all its social restrictions and drive off to New York to marriage and adventure.
The film starts with a striking and fluid travelling shot of a note being passed by the tellers in a bank that one initially suspects has something to do with the world of high finance but which turns out to be a request for a date. That sets the tone for the film: sexy, smart, cynical; with a rueful wisecracking edge one associates more with the twenties than the thirties (The eponymous novel it’s based on, by Harvey Fergusson, was published in 1926).
Hot Saturday is today worth seeing for many reasons. I love the whizz bang type of plot development in these pre-codes: no mucking around, on with the story. Also, it’s logical, makes sense, doesn’t contradict anything else. It’s just fast in telling you everything you need to know; and that speed has its own uplifting energy.
The bulk of American cinema has so sentimentalized small-town life –- think of the fictional Carvel, where all of the Andy Hardy films are set — that its representation in Hot Saturday is a surprise and a tonic. Here all the oppressive aspects of small-town living are teased out one after the other from the very first title card which warns us: ‘Marysville boasted one bank, two fire engines, four street cars and a busy telephone exchange. Everyone knew on Sunday what everyone else did on Saturday…and the rest of the week.’ Moreover, all the gossip is exaggerated, people’s characters are dissected and impugned, and this in a place where the appearance of high morals is a necessary passport to employment and the ability to earn a living.
In Marysville a ‘hot’ Saturday can ruin your life; and all the characters are aware of it. When Connie suggests taking the gang to Romer’s cottage beforehand, his friend warns him, ‘the town would burn down to the ground if we took the girls within a mile of that guy.’ Romer’s and out-of-towner who’s seen as rich and decadent; fancy women are seen driving around in his car; being seen with him is enough to ruin any girl’s reputation. But the lure of free drinks in luxurious surroundings is too strong. Ruth is a girl who saves up for new knickers; Romer has great clothes, a posh pad, a fancy chauffer-driven car and a Japanese servant who speaks English better than the rubes and knows how to put them in their place. All the luxurious living is there not only as a story point to contrast to the life of the working stiff but as a way of offering a tantalizing peek at the posh life to a Depression audience.
But any kind of connection to that which is different much less glamorous may exact a price in the narrow-minded small town. Later in the film, Ruth tells Romer that she’s been ‘sneered, scorned, talked about – you don’t know what it’s like to live in a small town. You can only play on the surface and even if you’re honest about that you’re not safe from a lot of evil-minded people’.
But the film posits that one can find no safety whatsoever in a small town like Marysville, even without incurring gossip. After all, the reason why she walked through a forest to get to Romer is to escape Connie’s advances: ‘what do you expect for a boat ride, Marlene Dietrich?’ She basically avoids something that seems uncomfortably close to rape; and her lucky escape is punished, mainly by the women of the town (though Connie’s no gent) whose tarring of her reputation results in the loss of her job and the eventual collapse of her marriage prospects (the only other out), home and family.
The film’s critique of small-town life is matched by its critique of the family. Hot Saturday is no Meet Me in St. Louis in this regard. For her family, Ruth is a meal ticket. She’s the only one in work, buys her father his cigars, gives her mother the rest of her pay packet — though that doesn’t spare her from being bullied into chores — and she’s got a greedy younger sister stealing the few thing she’s got (the knicker-ripping scene is great). Yet, all of this is mingled, with affection, responsibility and a kind of love. The film’s views on family are varied and textured. But critical.
Hot Saturday offers a complex view of people and of society. It has an eye open to weakness, lies, jealousy, laziness, theft, pride, appearances, vanity; all are touched on but with a forgiving eye. It is also good at conveying the elements of sex and desire that make for a ‘hot’ Saturday. In the ‘I’m burning for you’ clip below, listen to the lyrics of the song: ‘call the fire engine, and the whole darn crew, tell them all to hurry cause I’m burning for you’. Note the wonderful panning shot of people dancing and the discrete and offhand revelation of the frank sexuality with which many of them move. See also how the light of the illuminated dance floor goes up the women’s dresses and offers the audience the outline of a shapely leg in peek-a-boo style. This is a film that knows what a ‘hot’ Saturday is and, better yet, knows how to communicate it to the audience, how to make us feel its heat.
According to the AFI’s catalogue listing on the film, when Hot Saturday was released, Variety commented that the ‘film has no A-name draw in its cast’. However, one of the main pleasures in seeing the film today lies in watching Cary Grant, Nancy Carroll and Randolph Scott. Cary, in his first year in pictures is surprisingly top-billed over Nancy Carroll, who is really the lead in the film, and had been one of the very top Paramount stars only a few years earlier.
Grant looks impossibly handsome wearing a Noel Coward-esque wardrobe. He’s wearing more make-up than Nancy but does the glamour and dash to perfection; it is already a joy to watch him move. One can see him becoming ‘Cary Grant’ much more clearly than in some of the Mae West films he was doing in the same period.
Nancy Carroll’s got a heart shaped face that needs careful photography and whoever designed her hairdos did her no favours here. She looks very puffy and worn out in the early bank scenes but kewpie-doll pretty in the rest and she’s very alive and vivacious throughout. Cliff Aliperti in Immortal Ephemera writes that ‘Nancy Carroll has just concluded her period of major stardom by the time of Hot Saturday. She had been not only Paramount’s top star, but just a couple of years earlier she was receiving more fan mail than any other star at any studio.’ One can understand why she was such a big star and can only wonder at why she didn’t remain one.
Randolph Scott is stiff as a board but rather nice to look at also. The film might be of particular interest to all those intrigued by the rumours that Cary and Randolph were an off-screen couple, as the clip below is bound to raise a chuckle amongst them. Fan culture in general and this type of sub-cultural discourse on film is as much a part of cinematic culture as any other dimension and the film would to me be worth seeing if only for this.
But the film offers much more than this. Hot Saturday is smart with a slight accent on cynical; wise to people and their self-interest and foibles but without judging them too harshly; romantic but also aware of the sizzle of sex and the power of its pull; knowledgeable too of the social cost one might have to pay in succumbing, and conscious also of the glamour of the high life and its appeal to characters within the film and audiences watching it. It’s got a fantastic score composed of jazzy versions of the hits of the period (‘One Hour With You’, ‘Isn’t it Romantic’ and several others) and a great cast upon whom the downslide and upswings of star careers can be intriguingly charted.
One of the films released on DVD as part of the great Pre-Code Hollywood Collection in the Universal Backlot Series and which includes Merrily We Go to Hell.
The president of the Drake Motor Company — rich, smart, ruthless, successful – is female. But is she a woman? She acts like a man: ‘I treat men the same way they’ve always treated women.’ ‘Love takes too much time. A woman in love is a pathetic spectacle.’ But she does love men: ‘Lots of them’. She picks out her sexiest employees, asks them over for dinner, and rings the butler to bring over the vodka to ‘fortify their courage’. When they get love-sick and start demanding more, she buys them off; and if that doesn’t work, she ships them out to Montreal, which in this film is like outer Siberia. It’s all love ‘em and leave him with Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) so she can put her energies where they really count – business. We’re told she gets rid of suitors ‘Just as Napoleon would have dismissed a ballet girl. She’s never met a man worthy of her. She never will’. But of course, she does; unfortunately for us, it’s George Brent.
The film begins in that gloriously dynamic way typical of early 30s Warner Brothers: We see the entrance to the Drake Motor Company, and then it’s irises out, horizontal wipes, diagonal wipes and quick cuts to show us what they’re manufacturing and how. It’s barely a minute into the film and it’s already exciting. Two clerks gossiping tell us ‘The President’s blowing the roof off?’ ‘Who’s getting it this time?’ before we’re shown that this scary and powerful captain of industry is not a man; nor is she just any woman – she’s Ruth Chatterton, already of a certain age, clipped diction, soignée, a big star who was then also considered a great enough actress to warrant the billing of ‘Miss’ Ruth Chatterton — no more respectful accolade was then possible.
Throughout the first half of the film, Chatterton is filmed either in her office, busily answering phones with a huge window as backdrop showing the factory buildings, or in her ultra-modern and glamorous home, wearing glorious gowns in the living room or lounging around the pool with her prey. Michael Curtiz1, the director, makes every shot interesting and the film is a pleasure to look at. Sadly, she then meets George Brent at a shooting gallery. He’s a better shot, rebuffs her and of course she falls in love. When it turns out he works for her, she gets up to her old tricks but they predictably don’t work on him; too bad for us.
At the beginning of the film, she tells her board they’ve got statistic poisoning. She’s fed up with statistics and she wants action and change. By the end of the film, she does what Katharine Hepburn will do almost ten years later in Woman of the Year (George Stevens, USA, 1942) to get Spencer Tracy — she diminishes herself to satisfy his idea of womanliness. At the end of the film, she endangers a business deal in New York to chase after him at a country fair. She gets him, promising to turn over the business to him to him and have nine children. The film ends with both of them on the way to make the business deal in New York. This viewer at least was left hoping that once they got there, got the deal, and she got her way with him, she’d return to her factory and leave him with a bus ticket to Montreal under the pillow.
- I should qualify this. According to Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, a thorough, wonderfully researched new book on Curtiz by Alan K. Rode that’s just been published (2017) by the University of Kentucky Press, ‘William Dieterle began filming Female on July 17, 1933, became ill after nine days, and was replaced by William Wellman. Wellman directed for the next ten days, until Jack Warner halted production. Warner screened Wellman’s footage and reportedly disliked the performance of George Blackwood. Blackwood was cast as one of the numerous male employees whom Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) — the high-powered vibrantly sexual CEO of an automobile company — invites to her house to first seduce and then exile to the firm’s distant Montreal office.
For whatever reason, Warner uncharacteristically ordered scenes reshot using Johnny Mack Brown in place of Blackwood, along with some additional sequences to bolster what he considered a weak film. By September, Wellman was directing College Coach. Curtiz was tasked with retakes beginning on September 3 and wrapped the picture ten days later. As a reward for reshooting in record time, Curtiz ended up with the sole screen credit, even though he directed little more than a third of the picture.
This is a film where characters have names like Mae, Gert, Lil and Toots O’Neill. The women are all hookers and waitresses; the men cab drivers and pimps. The film’s world is the New York of the Great Depression, a place where women have to do what they can to get by but once they do…. ‘You’d think there’d be some men you could tell that kind of thing to and they’d understand,’ says Mae (Carole Lombard), referring to her street-walking past. ‘There were some but they all died in the Civil War,’ says Lil.
The film begins with Mae being run out of town by the cops, placed on a bus and told to go home. She immediately gets off at the first stop, hails a cab and then stiffs the driver for the money. When she sees him later and tries to return the money she catches him in the middle of telling the story but with him getting the money back as no woman is going to get the best of him. It’s a meet cute where they end up arguing: ‘I don’t like your face’ My face is ok’, ‘Yeah it’s ok for you, you’re behind it’. The driver’s name is Jimmy (Pat O’Brien) and of course he helps get her a ‘decent’ job as a waitress, they fall in love, and he does what he’s said he’d never do, marry before he’s got enough money to set up his own business. Needless to say, the past comes back to haunt them. They overcome that but once he knows of her past, trust becomes an issue. It all gets resolved at the end but not without a bit of murder and lot of melodrama.
Poverty-row Columbia was where Carole Lombard went to in the early 30s for the meaty parts she wasn’t getting at Paramount, her home studio. On the evidence of Virtue, she was smart to. Robert Riskin, already contributing depth and crackle to Capra’s films (The Miracle Woman, Platinum Blonde, American Madness) and soon to be even more famous as the screenwriter of Capra’s most celebrated and successful films of the 1930s (It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take it With You) also wrote the screenplay for Virtue. It has a hackneyed plot but it’s hard-boiled, tries hard to be unsentimental, and has crackling dialogue: ‘Ya ever been married’, ‘So many times I got rice marks all over me’.
Perhaps even more important than the film’s themes of acceptance and forgiveness are the ways the film first articulates misogyny (everything Pat O’Brien’s Jimmy thinks about women and spouts to the character of Frank played by Ward Bond) and then condemns it (all the plot points prove Jimmy wrong). The film also intelligently dramatises the importance of friendships between women (Mae’s relationship with Lil) without being blind about them (what Gert ends up doing). One gets a real sense of the precariousness of good people’s existence in a harsh economic climate, how humour ennobles, and the priggishness of people yet to understand that there are many types of virtue.
At the heart of the film is Carole Lombard who is the main reason for seeing it. How someone so beautiful can seem believable as a down-and-out streetwalker and so emotionally transparent whilst evoking a wide range of sometimes contradictory feeling and simultaneously cracking wise is one of the miracles of 1930s movies.
According to Michelle Morgan in Carole Lombard: Twentieth-Century Star, the film was well-reviewed with the Motion Picture Herald addressing a serious issue: ‘Possessed of a certain dramatic effectiveness and succeeding in becoming reasonably entertaining, this picture nevertheless presents the exhibitor with something in the nature of a problem in selling. The reasons is that the theme is concerned primarily with the attempted and finally successful return to respectability of a girl of extremely easy virtue.
Even devoted cinephiles might have trouble placing Richard Barthelmess today. Casual film fans might remember him as Rita Hayworth’s husband in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939); fans of silent cinema might remember the delicacy and longing he brought to his role of Chen Huang, the Chinese man who falls in love and tries to protect Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish) in D.W. Griffith’s sublime Broken Blossoms (1919). He was a great star of the 20s, nominated for the very first Academy Awards in 1927 for two roles, The Patent Leather Kid (1927) and The Noose (1928), and he ran his own production company, Inspiration Film Company with Charless Duell and director Henry King. In Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man, Mick Lasalle argues that ‘As talkies found their voice, Richard Barthelmess emerged as one of the most exciting figures of the era.[i]’
Barthelmess had a clause in his contract allowing him to choose his own stories and LaSalle argues that Barthelmess ‘used his stardom to examine untraveled avenues of the American soul. From his first sound film, Weary River (1929), until the enforcement of the Code in July 1934, he created a body of work unique in its exploration of racism, corruption, the dark side of business and the effects of the war…No single American film star has ever created a talkie legacy anything like Barthelmess’s in its relentlessness of conscience or seriousness of purpose’[ii]. The Last Flight is part of that legacy.
In The Last Flight four wounded and damaged WWI pilots – Cary (Richard Barthelmess), Shep (David Manners) Bill (John Mack Brown) and Francis (Elliot Nugent) — unwilling to return home and all that it represents in terms of who they were, who they hoped to be and who they are now, attempt to drink away the trauma of WWI in the great capitals of Europe and fail. The wounds are physical, and though not without challenges, can be overcome; Cary, for example, needs both his burnt hands to hold his drink; awkward in company but it certainly no deterrent to getting high. The damage, however, is psychological, over-hanging and unshakeable. They’re each in their different way broken in body and are collectively part of a generation that as so beautifully evoked by F. Scott Fitzgerald was in all kinds of ways ‘lost’.
The film begins with an exciting areal sequence in which we’re shown Cary and Shep’s plane get hit. We then see how Cary brings the burning plane down 6000 feet at the expense of burning his hands and how both pilots are so wounded they’re in critical condition. They get through it and live but as the film goes on to dramatise, not really. As in many early 30’s films, the plot moves very quickly, and in a couple of minutes it’s already Armistice Day, Cary and Shep are discharged and Cary asks Shep, ‘The old guerre is finie. What are you going to do now?’
‘There they go’, says the Doctor as he discharges them, ‘Out to face life and their whole preparation was in training for death,’ thus neatly articulating the film’s overarching theme.
The Last Flight explores existential meaninglessness as a moveable feast in which being blotto is insufficient to render one oblivious to oblivion. Death is only an elegantly-lived step away. A bullfight becomes a metaphor for the condition these men suffer from and the viewpoint they share. What’s the point of living when death is galloping at you?; and if you choose life, how to deal with death – do you dance or flirt or fight with it before it eventually wins. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is an obvious influence.
On their way out the military base, Cary and Shep hook up with Bill and Francis, who are in a similar situation to theirs and head on to Paris. On one of their drinking sprees there the four boys meet Nikki – ‘Her name is Nikki. She holds men’s teeth. She sits at the bar and drinks champagne,’ is how Cary describes her. Nikki’s rich, frail, brittle and – for reasons the film does not quite make clear – as damaged and as in need of saving as they are. It’s hard to tell whether Nikki is spouting Surrealist non-sequiteurs or whether she’s just a sweet drunk who’s seeing things from a skewed perspective and just doesn’t make sense: ‘I can walk faster in red shoes’.
The men, always tipsy, tumble at her feet on their way to her bed, which they never quite reach. Her innocence, the men’s competiveness and a distinct gallantry, learnt from despair, shared by the protagonists and beautifully evoked by the film, protects her. She becomes the object of their romantic longings, their mascot, winning her and protecting her from others, particularly Frank (Walter Byron) a nasty journalist they keep bumping into before eventually bumping off, lends a purpose to their wonderings. As Mick Lasalle notes in his wonderful book on men in pre-code Hollywood, ‘These men are past an interest in sex, too smashed up inside for small human things to make much difference. Their playful mooning over legs, feet, and back is ghostly, as if evoking some dim memory when such things were to live and die for.’[iii]
One by one the film knocks each of these men out of the picture. Bill jumps into a corrida to show the bullfighters how it’s done but gets gored: ‘that bull sure was hostile’. At a fair later on, nasty Frank pulls a gun on Nikki, is stopped by Cary but the gun accidentally goes off. Cary confronts him and just as Frank is about to shoot him, Francis fires several bullets at him and stops him cold. ‘That’s the last we’ll see of Francis. We’ll never see him again,’ says Cary as Francis disappears into the night. Nikki, awestruck, says, ‘did you look into his eyes (when he was shooting Frank). That’s the only time I’ve ever seen him really happy.’ Shep is the collateral damage of Frank’s fight with Cary. He experiences his expiration as the first descent of the burning plane, except that this time Cary’s not there to land it safely and save him. ‘You may not believe it’, says Shep but…’, this second crash, his second death, the first being the death of his spirit in the war is ‘the best thing that’s ever happened to me’. In the end Helen Chandler and Richard Barthelmess are left alone to save each other.
The film is beautifully directed by Dieterle. As we can see in the scene at the fair (above), we get the false official gaiety of the fair, with the undertow of seediness and danger and sadness. Dieterle makes intelligent choices, starting with a medium close-up of Francis with a beer in his hand looking purposefully as gunshots are heard on the soundtrack and the camera pulls back to reveal all of the characters at the shooting gallery, each with a drink, each with a gun. We will subsequently learn why the close-up has been on Francis. Every moment of the scene ties in to the overall theme. The men are all good at shooting, at killing. Nikki’s tipsy and can’t see straight. They protect her by doing what they were trained to do but in a world which no longer has a place for that training. Dieterle evokes this beautifully and every composition, every camera move, every cut counts. What’s evoked is the excitement that’s no longer possible; the destructiveness of the skills they have; the feeling that death and the void is the only place in which these men will find respite; Francis’ cool and deadly accuracy in shooting and the wonderful image of his disappearing into the night.
I still don’t quite ‘get’ the Barthelmess of the sound era. As he aged and his face spread he lost the delicate features that in his youth had enabled him to depict poetry and fragility. Here he’s silent, squat, ready to throw a punch but suffering subsequently over the morality of doing so. He’s very good. But his presence doesn’t reverberate in the mind as it does when watching his earlier silent films. Still, he is the person to thank for this exciting mix of gallantry, flippant melancholy, a kind of despairing hopefulness. It’s a film that feels slow and odd for the first part and then all the elements coalesce and becomes moving and rather great.
LaSalle notes that, ‘It’s a strange film – indeed, it’s unique – and it excites every critic who sees it’[iv] (p.98). It’s true of my experience watching it; furthermore, it makes one positively long to see more Barthelmess films of this period.
[i] Mick LaSalle, Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man, Thomas Dunne Books, New York, 2002, p. 30.
[ii] LaSalle, ibid., pp. 30-31
[iii] Mick LaSalle, p. 100
[iv] LaSalle, ibid, p. 98
Early ‘30s drivel. Tallulah Bankhead is Carlotta, a loose woman getting by singing badly and blowing on dice in cheap Panamanian dives. Fredric March is Dick Grady, an alkie bum crawling through the same low joints begging for a chance to kiss the bottle. We’re told he’s beyond redemption but we know it’s not true because we’re also told he’s got a law degree. When Tallu accidentally kills a man who’s trying to kill her, he gets her off even though everyone thinks she’s guilty. The trial wins him a new job and a new lease on life. She in turn changes her identity to Ann Trevor (she lets him choose the name), returns to America and becomes a famous interior decorator. One can see the rest of the plot coming a mile away; in fact, if one cared, one could have figured it out in the first two minutes.
Tallulah’s entrance, false through and through and not un-camp.
This is a lazy treatment of trite material, clearly derivative of Somerset Maugham’s Rain, visually uninteresting and worth seeing only for Tallulah Bankhead, whose career in Hollywood this film helped to ruin. It’s not that she’s good. In fact, she’s rather awful, not for one moment believable as either of the characters she plays in the film, and she’s not even believable in the emotions she’s meant to be feeling. She makes big theatrical gestures, or raises the pitch of her voice for emphasis like she’s batting the point over to the last row, vividly outlining an emotion so that the audience knows exactly what she’s meant to be feeling , doing and why; but the gestures are so broad and sketchy, the line readings so over-emphatic; she’s like vivid cartoon sketch indicating the outlines but burlesquing the interior and performing the dialogue as if it were variety for radio. She’s a star doing a caricature of a person, a High Definition simulation sparking an idea, false through and through and yet riveting to watch. I can’t remember who said of Cagney that he seemed to displace air but Bankhead does it here. Mind you Cagney was honest and true and he incited identification and feeling; Bankhead is completely unbelievable, fake to her last eyelash, but nonetheless inciting admiration and applause. They both have presence and they both have energy.
A star entrance, finely acted
Fredric March is an interesting contrast to Tallulah. He’s given a real star entrance, appearing through swinging saloon doors whilst characters talk about him: ‘what would you say he was?’ asks an onlooker. The camera glances at him once more: ‘oh a beggar, a tramp; ‘a beggar, a tramp and a university graduate’. After we’re told who he is, after the build-up where the supporting actors get to do the thankless work of conveying plot, the scene is set for the star to be this new person we’re told about and to shine, to dazzle us with his being and performing. It’s classic build-up to a star entrance and March gives a lovely performance: restrained, worked-through; there are so many things to admire: the way he raises his voice on ‘just one little scotch’, the way he pushes shoulders back and chest out whilst giving the ‘Oh Mr. James Bradford’ line enough irony make the very name a put-down; or the croak he gives to the Met in Metcalfe; or the way he lifts himself on his toes as he stops himself from saying ‘Hell’. It’s the work of a really intelligent actor with gifts to match. And yet….his eyes never really catch the light. As becomes clear later in the film, he’s a performer who needs to act to be great; he can’t simply satisfy an audience with his being
Freddy disappears from view in a dull scene
When Fredric March isn’t given something to do, he becomes dull, fades from the screen. A good example of this is the scene where, after he’s saved her and after she’s built a new identity and career in New York, they meet by chance at a pool party (see clip above). The dialogue is trite. It’s shot by a stage director who clearly doesn’t know how to stage a scene for the camera so we end up with most of it in a static medium shot. Once again, you never see his eyes, and I do think it’s partly do with their being deep-set and partly to do with him maybe not knowing enough about the camera to move them in the direction of the light; but worse actors than he are more watchable when they have nothing to do (think not only of stars like Cooper but even ‘charm’ actors like Robert Wagner). Then look at Tallulah, who is better here than she is when she’s given lines and situations of greater importance but still not good: her speaking wobbles between her rich native Alabaman Southern and the 1920s English upper-class miaul we now associate with the Mitfords, she over-emphasises her speech and her gestures yet…she looks lovely in profile, her eyes catch the light and she keeps the audience’s eyes constantly on her; and if the film is worth watching at all, it’s because of her though she never once matches the fineness, the trueness or even arguably the beauty of March’s first entrance — something to think about.
George Abbott directed one more film, The Cheat, once again with Tallulah Bankhead, before returning back to Broadway, where he belonged, to resume his legendary stage career; he would yet find a way to delight film audiences, a way that involve the services of Stanley Donen as co-director, in the much under-valued The Pajama Gama (1957).
Post Script: some of you might find this, which suggests how the film should be marketed, of interest:
Laughter is a sophisticated comedy that is also a serious work dramatising the conflict between the pursuit of money and the pursuit of happiness. It’s a vehicle for Nancy Carroll, one of the biggest stars of the 1930s, now somewhat forgotten.
It’s a film that offers many pleasures: the gruff and scatty teddy-bearishness of Frank Morgan; gorgeous Art Deco settings; magnificent Cartier jewels; the kewpie-doll loveliness of Nancy Carrol herself, most beautifully dressed in late ’20s/early ’30s chic; a young and handsome Fredric March ably conveying the weightier aspects of the drama; a soundtrack by the great Vernon Duke that features jazz and classical music, placing both on an equal footing; and even a brief appearance by that film buff’s delight, Eric Blore, here bubbly and lovely, wearing an angel costume and exuding all kinds of gayness. If it weren’t for an undertow of sadness that seeps right through all levels of the film, Laughter could almost be a screwball. Certainly it’s of historical interest as at least an early precursor to the genre.
The received wisdom regarding early talkies is that sound recording was then so cumbersome and primitive that it restricted camera movement and diminished cinema, rendering films static and stagey. This is patently untrue of Laughter.
The first shot (see below) is a long take that begins with a fade-in on a man inside a phone booth filmed from the outside so that he’s framed by the window, saying bitterly, ‘so I can call back tomorrow, eh?’, then the camera tracks to the right following his movements but from outside a corner-shop – he’s inside, the camera is outside, the shop window is the barrier that allows us to see in. The camera then goes past a lamppost to create a sense of perspective on the New York street, keeps the character in the centre of the frame as passersby walk around him and tracks in almost imperceptibly as the character goes into the door of a building door.
In the meantime, St. James Infirmary one of the great jazz songs of the period starts playing extra-diegetically and the camera tilts up to a window as the shot dissolves into the next one and we see the same man entering his apartment and unwrapping a gun. It’s a great shot and a great opening to the film: dramatic, visually arresting, dynamic in movement, exciting to hear. The first shot was enough to make me sit up, pay attention and ask ‘who directed this?’
The answer is Harry D’Abbadie d’Arrast. I’d come across the name before and remembered it for its effrontery but I knew nothing of the man or the artist. A little research reveals that he was a French aristocrat born in Argentina – thus the name — who served in WWI, was introduced to the movies by George Fitzmaurice (director of Lilac Time and Son of the Sheik), went to work for Chaplin, first as a researcher (Women of Paris) then as assistant director (Gold Rush), before directing his own highly acclaimed films, of which Laughter is the best remembered. James Harvey calls his early comedie like Dry Martini and A Gentleman of Paris ‘Lubitsch-like’ (p. 78). D’Abbadie d’Arrast married Silent Film Star Eleanor Bordman, stopped directing films in Hollywood in 1933 (Topaze, with John Barrymore and Myrna Loy, is the last Hollywood film credited to him) and died in Monte Carlo where he’d been working as a croupier. There’s an interesting biography to be written about him and I hope someday someone does.
Like with Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle, Laughter is structured around five central characters: ex Ziegfield chorus girl Peggy gave up pennyless musician Paul Lockridge (Fredric March) for rich industrialist C. Mortimer Gibson (Frank Morgan) but is finding the marriage so unsatisfying she’s having an affair with a sculptor, Ralph Le Sainte (Glenn Anders), who’s so crazy for Peggy he first threatens suicide over her and later tries to emulate her by also marrying for money with Mortimer Gibson’s daughter, Marjorie (Diane Ellis). Five characters, six potential couples, one dilemma: to choose laughter and love or to go for the cash and all that goes with it?
I was surprised to see how much Pauline Kael loved Laughter, calling it ‘an ode to impracticality.’ She didn’t usually have much patience for the type of movie that starts with a poor artist in a garrett speaking poetically to a statue of his beloved about the depth of his love for her and the hopelessness of life whilst feeding us all the background we need to follow the story that unfolds, even if it is as beautifully shot as it is here. Glen Anders is almost as expressive as the piece of marble he’s speaking to and luckily for us the picture doesn’t stay on him for very long.
From the beginning we know Peggy and the poor sap of a Saint are having an affair. Clearly the Cartier jewelery her husband is giving her is not enough to keep her happy. C. Mortimer Gibson can’t give Peggy what she wants; and Peggy can’t give Ralph La Sainte what he wants either — everyone’s unhappy. It’s at that moment that Paul Lockridge arrives from Paris to turn everything upside down; he’s the catalyst for change and he’s given an entrance worthy of the conflict he’ll cause.
Paul is Peggy’s ex, a musician, and only recently returned from Paris. The pace at which March makes his first appearance, walking briskly through the New York penthouse, is a pace then much admired by Europeans who found its energy unusual and energizing. Noel Coward returned to England from New York in the early 20s insisting that his plays be spoken faster and that the actors move more briskly, at a New York pace, at the pace of the jazz era if not of jazz itself. Speed, energy, New York as a metonym for America, modernity, democracy, potentiality: there’s something in March’s walk, the sunny transparency of his face and the intensity with which he speaks in his first entrance in that early scene that evokes all of that.
When Peggy’s butler insists on a calling card, Paul writes his name on the Butler’s starched shirtfront. When the butler presents this greeting to Peggy, she writes that she’s out on the same same shirtfront, letting Paul know that she’s in but doesn’t want to see him. Whilst she goes for her assignation with Le Sap, I mean Le Sainte, Fredric March shows he’s a democrat and oblivious to her wealth by going into the kitchen, speaking on familiar terms with Pearl, Peggy’s maid, who he clearly knows from before, grabbing a chicken leg and going to play classical music duets with the butler whilst having a beer, which is where Peggy’s husband finds him.
Paul’s breezyness is visualised for us by the nonchalant yet well-aimed throw of his hat onto a deco sculpture of frolicking nymphs, an image that recurs often in the Laughter. Much is made too of C. Mortimer Gibson trying to remove the hat from such placements, of his awareness of appearances, surfaces, place and position and his sensitivity to the restrictions imposed by correct adherence to convention.
The film rather exhibits a rich person’s idealization of the pleasures of third class travel and all that it connotes. Laughter is a film for the ‘common man’ but is not against the rich. And perhaps the latter has something to do with the film’s conceptualisation of average people as ‘poor’ artists who can afford to live in Paris working at their love, art and drinking without having to be stuck washing dishes at the Ritz like Orwell’s down and outers.
There are two scenes that are meant to evoke the price Peggy is paying for the penthouse and the Cartier bracelets. The famous one is the scene where Peggy and Paul break into someone’s house, frolic under bearskins and get arrested for breaking and entering.
Before that, however, there’s the marvelous scene after Peggy’s picked up her step-daughter Marjorie from the Ocean liner after returning from her Paris sojourn and we see the customs people confiscating all the liquor Marjorie’s tried to smuggle in. Marjorie and Peggy are both the same age, two jazz babies with cropped hair who like to smoke, drink and dance. One of them still can.
When they return to the penthouse, they find Paul at the piano and Marjorie asks him, ‘do you know “Raring to Go”’? He sure does. As the stuffy millionaire looks on bewildered, the three young ones let themselves go to the beat and the rhythm of the jazz, Paul playing, Peggy and Marjorie dancing with abandon, letting go of place and position in a moment that Pauline Kael has called ‘one of the loveliest, happiest moments in the movies of this period (see clip below).’ It’s a moment of joy, a moment of sensuality and of youth, the likes of which Peggy doesn’t get to experience much anymore.
These two moments of escape can be interestingly considered alongside the two speeches that put across the film’s meaning. In the first of those, after the bear-skin frolic, as they are taken home via police escort, sirens blaring, March says, ‘You can’t go on with this, with everything that it stands for, that noise, that, money that power….I want to tell you that you’re dying…You’re having a ghastly time, you’re whole life is false. Nothing you do is really you. God didn’t want you to live like this. You’re dying from want of nourishment, from want of laughter. You were born for laughter. Nothing in your life is as important as that. Laughter could take that whole life of yours — that house, those jewels — and blow them to pieces. You’re rich. You’re dirty rich. Nothing but laughter can make you clean.’
Fredric March is magnificent saying this. He doesn’t make a meal of it. In fact he underplays it. It’s a long soliloquy but filmed as a two-shot with Nancy Carroll as Peggy listening in so we’re permitted to see her reaction to what he’s saying. But March is the one who has to deliver, sustain and holds the quite long shot, and stay in character whilst giving meaning to the lines and putting across all the metaphors and symbolism whilst conveying the sense of a person speaking rather than an author dramatising the play’s central theme (and I use the word ‘play’ advisedly) in a speech rather weighted down by poetry, .
March is rather brilliant with it. As he’s had to be in the film as a whole because what he represents, and what he’s convincingly conveyed, is a combined alternative to both a man who can make $8,450,000 in one afternoon AND another artist at least as talented as he who, on top of that, is willing to top himself for love of Peggy. But this moment, this speech on how the lack of laughter is causing Peggy to die inside, is also the moment the film loses its audience. Can you imagine audiences in 1930, a year after the crash, pre-New Deal, no social security to speak of, Hoovervilles sprouting everywhere, apple-sellers appearing out of the wood-work, trains full of vagrants criss-crossing the country in search of work…and here are these rich people living in Art Deco penthouses above the clouds and wearing Cartier jewels moaning about how terrible their life is because they don’t have laughter?
Later, when Carroll is given a similar speech to say to her husband as reasons for leaving him, ‘laughter’ has been replaced with ‘love’. The film treats them as two sides of the same coin, different but inseparable. By then love has become a matter of life and death. St. Sculptor who speaks to statures and can’t quite bring himself to marry for money, has killed himself for love of Peggy, removing him from the picture, removing the threat to the Gibson name his marriage to Mortimer’s daughter would have represented, and removing the only other obstacle, aside from her husband, to Peggy’s getting together with Paul.
It’s worth mentioning that the film was written by Donald Ogden Stewart, an East Coast Main Liner, a liberal later to be blacklisted in the McCarthy era for his politics, a writer famous for the breezy elegance he brought to Philip Barry film adaptations such as Holiday, The Philadephia Story, andWithout Love but also famous in his own right as a writer of sophisticated comedy prized by collaborators such as Lubitsch (That Uncertain Feeling), Leo McCarey (Love Affair) and especially Cukor (Dinner at Eight, Keeper of the Flame plus all the Barry adaptations). It’s worth mentioning because some of themes seen here rhyme with those of Holiday especially but also those in Without Love and one even finds an echo of March’s ‘Laughter’ speech in the ‘Fires Banked Down’ speech that James Stewart speaks to Katharine Hepburn in The Philadephia Story. The writers involved may be one reason why Kael saw a connection to later screwballs.
There’s a wonderful coda at the end of Laughter: Paul and Peggy are snuggling in a sidewalk café in Paris and basking in the glow of being called ‘les amoreux’ . In fact they’re now married, blissfully planning on making love and music together, when Nancy’s eyes suddenly alight on a woman’s wrist. We see what she sees in a close-up: row upon row of glistening diamond bracelets. She can’t keep her eyes off of them until she notices Paul looking at her, ‘I didn’t say anything’ she says giggles before they laugh and kiss. But love and laughter aside, the audience senses that Paul better find a way of getting her a penthouse and some bracelets pronto. It’s no surprise that Herman Mankiewicz, co-writer of Citizen Kane and producer of this one, late in his life remembered Laughter as his favourite film. It’s a pretty dazzling one.
The film got good reviews but was not a popular success. According to James Harvey in Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, ‘Six years later, during the heyday of screwball comedy, Herman Maniewicz recalled Laughter to an interviewer – ruefully. Reflecting on the success of such later films as It Happened One Night and My Man Godfrey, Maniewicz told the press: “we” did it firs, Laughter was “the original of this madcap type of screen story (pp.78-79).”‘
A legendary film, difficult to see until now, and worth watching for many reasons: it’s adapted from the Kaufman and Ferber Broadway hit from 1927 and is based on the Barrymores; it makes one understand why Ina Claire was a Broadway superstar and then considered without equal in light comedy, something heretofore hard for me to grasp having seen her only in supporting parts, even when she’s been very good in them, like in Ninotchka; it’s one of the films directed by George Cukor in his first year as a film director, was a hit, and paved the way for the type of brilliant career he would go on to have, often mining a similar vein of sophisticated comedy — themes of the relation between theatre and life, women’s struggles with being and doing; it’s a pre-code film with quite daring moments (March undressing, March playful with sexual orientation, March patting a man in the bum); the film skews the traditional placement of gender in film where men do and women are there to be looked at — here women do and feel; March in the Barrymore role is put on all kinds of display, including sexually; the film is enveloped in an oblique but nonetheless evident haze of aspects of gay culture — camp, innuendo, the theatrical, the performative, the excessive (and this includes the male flesh on display)
The most famous scene in the film is March’s entrance (see clip below), which begins as a coup-de-théâtre, where everyone’s looking in his direction. We see someone swathed in fur and then March-as-Barrymore is revealed, and is revealed to be as theatrical as the famous profile he is impersonating. It’s the entrance usually afforded stars, and the role, a handsome bigger-than-life rake of a film star, attracted all kinds of theatre actors who looked down on cinema, weren’t afraid to be theatrical and weren’t yet top-ranking stars themselves (Laurence Olivier played the part in the West End). March’s success in it won him a Paramount contract.
The scene is also famous because of the crane shot that follows March after his entrance from the stairs and into the bathroom as he undresses. According to Arthur Jacobson, ‘We didn’t have such things as camera cranes in 1930, so we had to figure out how to do it’ (loc 1020). They did it with a forklift and moved the camera backward and forward by having about twenty men pushing it. It’s worth it. The scene dazzles technically — appealing to those interested in the development of film as an art form in the era of sound – and for rather more base motives, as March does a little strip-tease throughout the scene, including a little flash of bum, and then quite a tease of the opening and closing of the shower door, a tease at the audience with perhaps an attempt to mask the suggestiveness of the scene, whilst having the peekaboo take place during a conversation with his mother and his sister, which of course is also motivated via the representation of the particular, and particularly titillating, mores of theatre and bohemia. Very much worth a look.
Charles Tranberg, Fredric March: A Consummate Actor Duncan, Oklahoma: BearManor Media, loc. 1020 in Kindle.
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.