More Misconduct: Ten Memorable Pre-Code Actors

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Following my recent post about actresses who shone in Hollywood’s Pre-Code years (late 1920s through 1934), here is a selection of clips starring some talented male performers from the same era. Of course, these are not the only ten; there are many more men who did noteworthy work in this golden age – John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, George Brent, Gary Cooper, Leslie Howard, Walter Huston, Fredric March, Joel McCrea, Paul Muni, Lee Tracy, etc., etc. – but the following choices that I have highlighted below are among the very best. Like with my previous post, I have paired each scene with excerpts from the New York Times review of the film in question. Most of the critiques are appreciative of the actors’ skills but it’s interesting to see just how off-key a few of the evaluations are, given our eighty-plus years of hindsight.

James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931, dir. William A. Wellman). Andre Sennwald, 1931: “It is just another gangster film at the Strand, weaker than most in its story, stronger than most in its acting, and, like most, maintaining a certain level of interest through the last burst of machine-gun fire … Edward Woods and James Cagney, as Matt and Tom respectively, give remarkably lifelike portraits of young hoodlums. The story follows their careers from boyhood, through the war period, and into the early days of prohibition, when the public thirst made their peculiar talents profitable. Slugging disloyal bartenders, shooting down rival beermen, slapping their women crudely across the face, strutting with a vast self-satisfaction through their little world, they contribute a hard and true picture of the unheroic gangster.”

Ricardo Cortez in The Maltese Falcon (1931, dir. Roy Del Ruth). Unknown reviewer, 1931: “The adventures of Sam Spade, private detective of the firm of Spade & Archer (that is, before Archer is waylaid in an alley and put out of the way), are here reported smoothly, fluidly, with cultivated humor and a keen intelligence, these qualities being manifest all the way along. Played with disarming ease and warmth by Ricardo Cortez, the character of Sam Spade is enormously unique and attractive … Bebe Daniels performs exceptionally well under Mr. Del Ruth’s knowing hand, and there is no flaw in the miming of such players as Dudley Digges, Una Merkel, Robert Elliott, Otto Matieson and the others. But it is Mr. Cortez’s film—and Mr. Del Ruth’s. And probably Mr. Hammett’s.”

Edward G. Robinson in Five Star Final (1931, dir. Mervyn LeRoy). Mordaunt Hall, 1931: “Edward G. Robinson, the gangster of ‘Little Caesar’ and the gambling barber of ‘Smart Money,’ gives another strong performance as the editor of a muck-raking tabloid in the pictorial translation of Louis Weitzenkorn’s play, ‘Five Star Final,’ which was offered for the first time last night at the Winter Garden … With a big cigar in the corner of his mouth most of the time, Edward G. Robinson, as Randall, the editor of The New York Gazette, makes the most of every line.”

Bela Lugosi in Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932, dir. Robert Florey). Andre Sennwald, 1932: “‘Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ which was offered at the Mayfair Theatre last night, represents a collaboration between Edgar Allan Poe, Tom Reed and Dale Van Every. Poe, it would seem, contributed the title and the Messrs. Reed and Van Every thought up a story to go with it. For this synthetic blood curdler, with its crazy scientist and its shadowy ape, is not in any important respect to be confused with Poe’s ratiocinative detective story … What it is that Bela Lugosi, who fills the rôle of Dr. Mirakle, is trying to prove with his blood tests remains to the end a matter of conjecture. The entire production suffers from an overzealous effort at terrorization, and the cast, inspired by the general hysteria, succumbs to the temptation to overact. Miss Sidney Fox and Leon Waycoff [note: aka Leon Ames] are the romantic leads and Bert Roach supplies some tepid comedy. The name of the actor who played the part of the ape is not divulged.” [Note: Dr. Mirakle’s victim in this scene, a “Woman of the Streets,” is played by Arlene Francis.]

Maurice Chevalier in Love Me Tonight (1932, dir. Rouben Mamoulian). Mordaunt Hall, 1932: “This new picture is a musical fantasy, in which Mr. Mamoulian never neglects an opportunity to conjure with, the microphone or make the most of the camera. There are episodes in this production that merited applause and the only reason the audience failed to clap their hands was because they evidently thought they might miss a few words of dialogue or one of the melodious bits of music. With all its frequent signs of precision and straining for effect, it has moments when it is elastic, when it is nicely spontaneous. M. Chevalier is as ingratiating as ever. Sometimes he appears in his familiar straw that, sometimes in a cap and sometimes bare-headed, and, except for a few moments of vexation or when singing of his heart’s desire, he smiles in his characteristically agreeable fashion.”

John Gilbert in Downstairs (1932, dir. Monta Bell). Mordaunt Hall, 1932: “In ‘Downstairs,’ the current film attraction at the Capitol, John Gilbert plays a chauffeur and Paul Lukas appears as his superior, a butler, in the household of an Austrian nobleman named Baron von Bergen. Mr. Gilbert is the author of this story, which he sold to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for no less than $1. The chief points of interest in it are Mr. Gilbert’s somewhat ingenuous attempt to impersonate a rascally automobile driver and Virginia Bruce’s charming presence.”

Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise (1932, dir. Ernst Lubitsch). Mordaunt Hall, 1932: “Surely ‘Trouble in Paradise,’ a picture which was presented at the Rivoli yesterday, points no moral and the tale it tells is scant and innocuous, yet, because it was fashioned by the alert-minded Ernst Lubitsch, it is a shimmering, engaging piece of work. In virtually every scene the lively imagination of the German producer shines forth and it seems as though he were the only person in Hollywood who could have turned out such an effective entertainment from such a feathery story … This merry trifle, which was first spun as a play by Laszlo Aladar and arranged for a motion picture by Grover Jones and Samson Raphaelson, deals, if you please, with those light-fingered gentry who rob and pick pockets. Imagine the charming Miriam Hopkins impersonating an ingratiating, capable thief! Then try to visualize Herbert Marshall as a delightful scoundrel who might look upon Alias Jimmy Valentine as a posing blunderer! They are such an interesting pair of crooks that it is not altogether astonishing that the other characters find them companionable … Mr. Marshall is as smooth and easy as ever.”

Warren William in Employees’ Entrance (1933, dir. Roy Del Ruth). Mordaunt Hall, 1933: “In the Capitol’s screen offering, ‘Employees’ Entrance,’ Warren William gives quite an efficient portrait of a dictator of an important department store. Love affairs are not neglected in this chronicle, and although Mr. William as Kurt Anderson, whose intentions are always strictly dishonorable when it comes to a pretty girl, does well in these scenes, he is at his best in those wherein he reveals the department store manager’s ruthlessness in business and in dealing with the employees … Mr. William rather overacts at times, but there is no doubt that he supplies a definite characterization and one that is on the whole interesting.”

Jack La Rue in The Story of Temple Drake (1933, dir. Stephen Roberts). Mordaunt Hall, 1933 – describing La Rue’s part in the movie: “… It is at this point that the sinister-eyed Trigger (Mr. LaRue) enters the tale. He is a bootlegger who does not hesitate to use his pistol. He has terrified the persons in the squalid, filthy place where Toddy and Temple are forced by Trigger to take refuge. Here one finds Tommy, a weak-minded lad; Ruby Lemar, a pathetic example of white trash, and Lee Goodwin, who, big as he is, appreciates that a bullet is mightier than a fist. Trigger has a habit of showing the whites of his eyes, and never does a smile cross his forbidding countenance. His pistol is always ready. He kills Tommy as if he were a dog and then decides to force Temple to go with him to ‘the city.’ Lee is arrested for the murder of Tommy, and he prefers to take his chances of hanging rather than mention Trigger’s name.”

Clark Gable in It Happened One Night (1934, dir. Frank Capra). Mordaunt Hall, 1934: “There are few serious moments in “It Happened One Night,” a screen feast which awaits visitors to the Radio City, and if there is a welter of improbable incidents these hectic doings serve to generate plenty of laughter. The pseudo suspense is kept on the wing until a few seconds before the picture ends, but it is a foregone conclusion that the producers would never dare to have the characters acted by Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert separated when the curtain falls … Miss Colbert gives an engaging and lively performance. Mr. Gable is excellent in his rôle.”

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