Monday, September 28, 2009

A Precode Look at WWI

Heroes for Sale is nearly unrelenting in the intensity of pain that the character of Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) goes through.  A soldier in the first World War, who is severely wounded in an enemy action, he ends up addicted to morphine when his German doctor can only relieve his pain rather than remove the shrapnel in his body. He returns to America to find that his fellow soldier George (Grant Mitchell) has been given awards for bravery for leading the action in which Tom was injured, while George hid in a foxhole, paralyzed with fear.  George attempts to help his friend, as much out of fear of being revealed as anything else, until Tom's addiction becomes known, at which point Tom is fired from his bank job and put into a rehabilitation center.

Cured of his drug problem, Tom starts over, marries (Loretta Young as Ruth), becomes successful, only to have everything taken away from him yet again.  He loses his job, his wife, his son and finally ends up one of the depression homeless, primarily because he refuses to live upon the pain of his fellow man.
William Wellman never lets up in this story. Just when you think Tom will make it, something else happens to him.  Richard Barthelmess is wonderful as Tom. We felt for him at every moment.  He had had a remarkable career in silents, which continued into the 1930's, finally petering out (unfortunately) in the 1940's.  We had previously seen him in Only Angels Have Wings, and looked forward to seeing him in a lead role; he was not a disappointment. 

Unlike the previously discussed Midnight Mary,  Loretta Young plays an innocent girl in Heroes for Sale, someone who loves her husband and son with her whole heart.  Young is quite good in what is really a small part.
Besides Barthelmess, though, the other actor of real interest is Aline MacMahon as Mary Dennis.  Of particular note is a scene during which she realizes that Tom has feelings for Ruth. Watch her face - Aline MacMahon will break your heart.

Ms. MacMahon began her career in 1931, and continued working until 1975.  She had started on Broadway, appearing in The Madras House in 1921 - she would continue to work on the New York stage until 1975.  She spent her film career in supporting roles, like Trixie Lorraine in Gold Diggers of 1933 and Mrs. Murray in The Search.  Married once (from 1928 until her husband's death in 1975), she retired in after completing For the Use of the Hall.  She died in 1991, aged 92.  

Here's a scene with the always wonderful Aline MacMahon and Richard Barthelmess:

Next week, we conclude this particular precode set with Wild Boys of the Road.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Meeting "Midnight Mary"

The discussion for today will focus on Midnight Mary.  We were all fascinated to see Loretta Young play a prostitute/gun moll. One is NOT used to her playing anything but the sweet innocent. However, she was excellent in this, a tribute to her abilities as an actress.  Though Midnight Mary IS a traditional woman's picture, it is also a condemnation of the Great Depression, and the conditions that women faced as a result. Mary Martin ends up in reform school, primarily because she is an orphan and has no one to defend her (when it is her friend who is stealing).  When she returns to the community, she is unable to find work, and ultimately turns to prostitution just to pay for food.  We noticed that there are real similarities to the situation facing Myra in Waterloo Bridge (we were discussing the the 1931 version - because it fit our "precode" focus, but this certainly applies to the the 1940 version as well).

Quite a bit of our discussion was about Ricardo Cortez, this time playing Leo, the mobster (who is a really awful human being). He is, of course, so very different in this than his role in Torch Singer.  We found an interesting comparison to Franchot Tone's Tom, who is our hero in the film.  Though he marries another woman after Mary rejects him, we felt that Tone made the character a lot stronger than we would have expected.  We also liked Mary's relationship with him.  Her desire to protect him from her past was lovely; we also felt that he was well aware of her past, and that it made no difference to him.

Here's a scene, featuring Loretta Young and Ricardo Cortez:

Next posting will be about another very interesting William Wellman film: Heroes for Sale.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Ruth Chatterton Survives the San Francisco Earthquake

San Francisco was not the first movie to show the devastating effects of the San Francisco earthquake. In fact, Ruth Chatterton's Jenny in this week's Frisco Jenny also made it out of the wreckage. However, unlike the latter movie, the earthquake begins this movie, setting up a chain of events that drive our heroine to unwed motherhood and prostitution.  Of all the movies we've seen so far, this one had the most traditional "code" feeling. Jenny may become wealthy as a madam, but she had no happiness, and justice is served in the end (I won't reveal the ending). 

Our discussion focused on comparison to a few other movies we had seen in the past. First, we considered Female, also starring Ruth Chatterton. While that too results in a rather traditional ending, the character does not get her "just desserts" (if you will), and she is going to live happily, in spite of her rather unfettered lifestyle.  We also ended up looking at the earthquake scene again, and then comparing it to the earthquake scene in San Francisco.  We were fascinated that, in the latter, the earthquake is shown almost entirely in close up. A broken wagon wheel here, some falling bricks there, a face looking up - all seen almost exclusively from Blackie Norton (Clark Gable's) perspective, making for a very personal, very emotional set of scenes.  Frisco Jenny avoids close-ups, and Jenny is almost entirely removed from the action once she sees her father killed by falling debris.  Thus, the earthquake here IS the actor. Wellman combines stock footage with studio shots to show the destruction of the City from quake and fire.  It works beautifully, but is less a city of people than the latter film will be. When we return to Jenny, it is at least seven months later, and Jenny has concerns other than rebuilding the City. (Too bad she didn't run into Jeannette MacDonald in her distress. Imagine how much happier her life would have been!!)

Here is a trailer:

Next week, we venture on to precode Loretta Young!  Join us then.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Stanwyck Sings too!

Perhaps we should call The Purchase Price Torch Singer II, since Barbara Stanwyck also plays a torch singer of spotty reputation and also does her own singing (though to far less beneficial effect than Ms. Colbert in Torch Singer. One understands why Ms. Stanwyck was later dubbed in Ball of Fire!  We have a trailer below, with her singing included.) Stanwyck's Joan Gordon wants to marry; however her lover Eddie Fields (Lyle Talbot) quickly informs us and reminds her that he is already married. She has a possibility - a young man of wealth named Don Leslie (Hardie Albright), who dumps her because his father has discovered her relationship with Fields. She leaves town - mainly to get away from Eddie. Then, she changes places with a hotel maid to travel to North Dakota as the mail order pride of Jim Gibson, played by George Brent.

We've liked George Brent in pretty much everything we've seen him in, but not this one. His Jim is a creep. His near-rape attempt of his stranger bride on their first night together we found revolting, and his assumption that molesting her immediately was his right as a "husband" doubled our dislike of Jim.  I can't speak for my fellow movie watchers here, but I know I found Eddie a lot more attractive (and wife or no wife, I would have gone off with him. He's a much nicer man, and cared more about Joan's well-being than Jim ever does).

The other creep in the movie was Bull McDowell (played by David Landau), who offers to advance Jim money IF Joan will act with a house maid (with benefits, of course). We also found the rather odd man who stands around barking rather disturbing (we couldn't figure out WHY he was barking!)

Stanwyck, who is good in everything, is wonderful in this, and the movie is worth seeing just for her. There is no question about Joan's character. We see her return a house key to Eddie, as she goes off to marry. But she attempts to be a good wife (in all but the physical sense) to Jim, as she tries to win him over. She is good to her neighbors, and smart and strong. We loved the scene where she goes off to assist a woman newly delivered of an infant; alone, and  still too weak to care for her newborn and young daughter, Joan steps in, cooks, cleans and gets the family back on an even keel. At that point, I dare anyone to NOT be in love with Joan.

 As promised, here is a trailer with Stanwyck singing:

Tune in next time for Frisco Jenny.