Warner Bros. has a lot of pre-Code cinema, so much that they’re up to volume 8 of their popular Forbidden Hollywood series. I was fortunate to receive the latest volume and the four movies contained within. In the interest of time, I’ll be doing up mini-reviews of each movie in order to create an encapsulation of the entire set.
Blonde Crazy (1931)
The set kicks off with Blonde Crazy, a 1931 crime comedy starring James Cagney and Joan Blondell. Bert and Anna (Cagney and Blondell) are former hotel employees who discover it’s easier to grift wealthy people out of their money. Unfortunately, Bert never knows when to say when, turning his life into a series of ups and downs.
By 1931, Cagney and Blondell were working their way up the ladder. In fact, Cagney’s iconic performance in The Public Enemy was released the same year as Blonde Crazy. Unfortunately, that’s one of the few high points I can say about the film. The glitz and glamour of con artistry plays nicely on-screen, and if you have to be conned by anyone you could do worse than someone as beautiful as Joan Blondell. Cagney and Blondell do their best to work through the subpar script that, too often, falls on plot repetition as a means of progression. For instance, scenes end with a finality akin to a television commercial, only to start back up with Bert and Anna in a new place doing the exact same thing. Later on, Bert gets an influx of money but loses it through bad business dealings. This is fine once, but by the second time it happens the 79 minutes of the movie feel like they’re made up as they go along. And let’s not get started on the jokes involving Anna being put in situations where she’s nearly assaulted, one of which happens with Bert!
Cagney and Blondell are great, but they’re mired in terrible characters. Cagney’s slick but his constant catchphrase, “HEY BAAABY” turns into nails on a chalkboard by the 24th time he says it. He leads this movie, leaving Blondell on her own or off-screen significantly. The end climax hews too closely to The Roaring Twenties, but Cagney takes the material with as much gravity as he did that picture. Poor Blondell, aside from being the object of lust, is the honeypot and little else. She does get some fantastic moments against the guys, walloping both Cagney and Guy Kibbee in the face (poor Cagney’s face must have looked like meat with how many times he’s slapped), but the third act sees her married to a man who, for reasons of pure plot contrivance, was decent before they married and becomes a total cad after. The plot does nothing more than lead into Cagney and Blondell’s eventual romance, which really seems like settling since Anna hasn’t met a decent man in the entirety of the movie.
You can chalk up Blonde Crazy as an early entry in the more illustrious careers of Blondell and Cagney. They’re too good for the movie, and the script never serves them with any material of note, so their acting has to work double-time to make up for it. And the title fails to make sense. Blondell is blonde, as is Noel Francis as Helen, but no one ever goes crazy for them outside of a few isolated incidents. If you’re a Cagney/Blondell completist, give it a watch.
The Grand Duchess of women scorned, Norma Shearer, hasn’t succeeded in ensnaring me in her charms with every movie. Although my distaste for The Women is well-documented, I enjoyed her in Smilin’ Through, and her pre-Code work is entertaining. Strangers May Kiss is similar to The Divorcee, released a year prior, but where The Divorcee saw Norma reveling in life after marriage Strangers May Kiss doesn’t even have her say “I do.”
Lisbeth (Shearer) finds marriage old-fashioned but is madly in love with Alan (Neil Hamilton) to the detriment of her childhood friend Steve (Robert Montgomery). When Lisbeth learns Alan is married, Lisbeth wonders why a man’s philandering is acceptable?
Throughout the entire runtime of Strangers May Kiss I waited for the plot to tell a story about bucking traditions only for the character to prove to us why tradition is important in the end. We saw a similar trajectory in The Divorcee where, for all Shearer’s proselytizing about the single life, she returned to her marriage. Not so, at all, here. Shearer’s Lisbeth is a free soul, wondering what a piece of paper could do to further her and Alan’s love. Despite the admonishments from her friend Celia (Irene Rich) and Geneva (Marjorie Rambeau), Lisbeth won’t reconsider. In fact, Lisbeth’s guarded attitude turns out for the best when Celia catches her husband with another woman (another woman with zero remorse for her actions). Celia, unable to cope, throws herself out the window in despair. Not exactly proving the point to Lisbeth! Celia’s husband doesn’t feel too bad, and from there Lisbeth openly questions why men are allowed to believe women are either wives to scorn or “sweethearts” to play with, while women are taught that marriage is the only means of happiness. When Alan casually reveals that, for him, Lisbeth is his “sweetheart” while his wife sits at home, the look of disappointment for Lisbeth is seen and felt. Lisbeth is no better than countless other women.
From there I expected the requisite path to be followed: Lisbeth has her fun but ends up with the kindhearted Steve. Robert Montgomery plays comic relief and the “right guy” to great effect. Shearer and him have playful chemistry, the kind two kids who grew up together exhibit. Montgomery’s likeability leaves you rooting for him without it feeling like the script’s reasserting tradition. No, the movie sees Lisbeth have her fun and Alan being unable to handle it. Lisbeth ends up leaving him because of his inability to understand the double standard! Okay, from there we HAVE to assert tradition right? The ending is a pleasant surprise because, even though Lisbeth finds a guy, it isn’t the guy or the path that you’d expect, and I’ll leave it at that.
Strangers May Kiss takes an entirely new path to romance, substituting preaching for questioning and logic. Norma Shearer gives a frisky, intelligent performance. Love conquers all, but it doesn’t always require a race to the altar!
Hi, Nellie (1934)
Hi, Nellie is the requisite “political corruption” film common in pre-Codes. It tells the story of two warring reporters, played by Paul Muni and Glenda Farrell, with Muni’s character, Brad, doing some detecting while penning his newspapers “Heartthrobs” column. The term “Hi, Nellie” is used a lot as a term of derision for whoever writes the “Heartthrobs” (as they’re writing under the alias of Nellie Nelson).
Political movies regarding corruption always play awkwardly for me, maybe because, coupled with the fast talking of the 1930s and a lack of subtitles, it’s hard understanding who’s the villain and why. Hi, Nellie adds a bit of The Thin Man/His Girl Friday here with the flameup between Brad and Gerry (Farrell) regarding the Heartthrobs column. Ace reporter, Brad, finds himself demoted because he refuses to toe the line about a certain politician accused of corruption. He ends up taking Gerry’s job, but she’s just happy she can make fun of him. Muni and Farrell have great repartee between each other. After watching Muni in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, he seamlessly slips into a lighter role with ease. Of course, no one matches Glenda Farrell as the equally masculine, Gerry. Gerry wants a better lot in life and is relegated to Heartthrobs on the basis of being a lady. The script never forces a love story between her and Brad, although it’s implied they’ve shared something in the past, and Gerry becomes her own person in the end.
Hi, Nellie is a far cry from the multilayered Strangers May Kiss but it’s got the buddy/romance feeling missing from Blonde Crazy. Paul Muni shows range, creeping out of the shadows to play a stauncher version of Nick Charles, while Glenda Farrell continues to perfect the tough-as-nails newspaper dame.
Dark Hazard (1934)
The final film in the set sees Edward G. Robinson as Jim “Buck” Turner, a down-on-his luck gambler who finds a second chance at success with a dog named Dark Hazard. As he struggles to right his professional life, his personal life sees him torn between domesticity with his wife, Marge (Genevieve Tobin) and the woman who truly understands him (Glenda Farrell).
There’s a few different movies within Dark Hazard: A) the cautionary gambler’s tale B) the domestic issues inherent within part A and C) a story of someone who believes in the luck of the draw. In a couple of years, movies like Dark Hazard would be firmly in the cautionary category a la The Lost Weekend. Instead, Jim is a relatively good man compelled to gamble. There’s no fears of “addiction” here. We never see Jim risk his family or put himself in harm’s way for a good dog. If anything, the movie wants Jim to find a woman who truly understands the role gambling plays in his life. Thus the B) part of the movie.
Neither Genevieve Tobin’s Marge nor Farrell’s Valerie are bad women. They each have their flaws and accomplishments. Each brings their own special brand of talent to Jim’s life. Marge is the ideal woman to settle down with, but she’s snooty and wants a world of opulence that he can’t provide without gambling. Conversely, Valerie and Jim are partners in the gambling game, but Jim is denied the respectability and stability he craves. In the end, Valerie makes the most sense for Jim as Dark Hazard really wants to be about following one’s dreams…so long as you’re not destroying everyone you love in the process. It’s easy to see this as soft on gambling, it is, but it’s also about never counting someone out. Edward G. Robinson, himself not the typical leading man, would continue to change his persona with the times lending him an air of “dark hazard” to himself.
As with the last several Forbidden Hollywood films, you can’t make this a blind buy unless you love everything pre-Code and want the best selection of titles. I’d recommend watching this purely for Strangers May Kiss with Hi, Nellie and Dark Hazard kicking up the rear. (Blonde Crazy was not my favorite by a long shot.)
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