Baby Face. Directed by Alfred E. Green. What a winner! Barbara Stanwyck sizzles as Lily Powers, a man-eater who uses Nietzschean philosophy as the guiding principle behind her using men in order to get what she wants. The film is packed with interesting actors, including Theresa Harris as Lily’s pal Chico; it’s unusual to see the portrayal of a genuine friendship between white and black characters in a 1933 film – later in the film Chico assumes the role of Lily’s maid, partly out of convenience but also done for appearance’s sake because any other living arrangement probably would have been impossible in such an upper-class apartment house; Lily still treats Chico as a close confidante and gives Chico all the same kinds of clothes, furs and jewels that she wears herself. George Brent, Donald Cook, Alphonse Ethier, Henry Kolker (nicknamed “Fuzzy Wuzzy” in the film), Margaret Lindsay, a young John Wayne (baby-faced himself!) and Douglass Dumbrille also co-star as Stanwyck’s boy toys and/or adversaries. You will also catch sight of a few other recognizable faces in uncredited roles, chiefly the tragic former star James Murray (from King Vidor’s silent masterpiece The Crowd) as the train brakeman who is Lily’s first conquest, Nat Pendleton as a hunky, shirtless laborer drinking in Stanwyck’s father’s bar and Toby Wing as one of Stanwyck’s co-workers in one of the film’s first scenes set in the bank office (I believe it’s the scene right before Stanwyck and Dumbrille have their dalliance in the ladies’ room; Wing and another actress gossip among themselves about Stanwyck’s behavior around the office). Alfred E. Green’s smart direction and James Van Trees’ excellent cinematography add pizzazz to the picture, but it’s Stanwyck and the saucy pre-Code dialogue/actions that make the film as spicy now as it was over 80 years ago. Wow!
P.S. Thank goodness for TCM’s “Forbidden Hollywood” collection for making Baby Face available on DVD, but it goes without saying that you must watch the original, uncut film rather than the theatrical release, since both are included on the same disc. You need to experience Baby Face as it was intended.
42nd Street. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. “Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!” So says stage director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) to ingénue Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) in the Busby Berkeley-choreographed spectacle that launched all the variation-on-a-theme backstage musicals that came after it. 42nd Street might not make use of all of its talented performers as well as two Berkeley pictures that came later, Gold Diggers of 1933 (see review below) and Footlight Parade, but Lloyd Bacon’s snappy direction keeps the whole thing moving at a great pace and the musical numbers are suitably entertaining. The title tune features Keeler in one of my favorite pre-Code costumes, worn as she tells the story of the neighborhood where “the underworld can meet the elite” – characters from all walks of life are welcome if they have dancing feet. To return to the cast, some of the other famous faces include Bebe Daniels (as the established leading lady who makes way for young Ruby), George Brent, Guy Kibbee, Una Merkel, Ginger Rogers, Ned Sparks, Dick Powell, Allen Jenkins and George E. Stone. Powell appears in my other favorite number in the film, “Young and Healthy,” with unbilled blonde chorine Toby Wing (previously mentioned for having appeared in Baby Face, Wing was an oft-seen cutie in the early 1930s, although she rarely received onscreen credit), advising then-17-year-old Toby that they ought to take advantage of their youthful vigor because “in a year or two or three, maybe we will be too old!” (Perhaps the final shot of Powell and Wing in that segment is supposed to be proof of that idea, their strained smiles and wrinkles an indication of the dermatological warping that comes with age.) Truer words could not have been said about the shelf lives of chorus girls, even though the same could not be said of Dick Powell, who remained a movie star for another two decades.
Gold Diggers of 1933. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Choreographer Busby Berkeley expanded upon his vision of the ultimate backstage musical by blending the romantic comedy elements of LeRoy’s film (adapted from an Avery Hopwood play) with the main characters’ concerns over being able to find jobs and put on shows at the height of the Great Depression. Gal pals Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon and Ruby Keeler pursue different avenues for surviving the economic crisis: Blondell falls for millionaire Warren William (in one of his few pre-Code roles that didn’t require him to play a salacious seducer – in fact, quite the opposite), MacMahon makes time with rotund sugar daddy Guy Kibbee (complete with lookalike pooch) and Keeler pairs up with her most frequent cinematic partner, Dick Powell, a songwriter eager to make his mark on Broadway. Gold Diggers’ songs, written by lyricist Al Dubin and composer Harry Warren, include a hopeful dream of striking it rich (“We’re in the Money”), a surreal song-and-dance performed in darkness lit only by neon-glowing violins (“Shadow Waltz”), a risqué ode to friskiness in public (“Pettin’ in the Park”) and, in a most sobering conclusion to the film, the epic ballad “Remember My Forgotten Man,” a tribute to World War I’s soldiers (those died and also those who returned, neglected by society and the government). “Forgotten Man” gives a voice to the powerful contralto of African-American singer Etta Moten, as well as a dramatic showcase for Joan Blondell, a much underrated actress who was pegged as a comedienne in the pre-Code days yet was equally gifted when called on to be serious. It’s hard to forget the sight of Blondell surrounded by all the lost souls, a bleak yet necessary shot on which to end.
I Am Suzanne!. Directed by Rowland V. Lee. This odd but fascinating pre-Code film showed all week at the Museum of Modern Art in late January and early February 2015. As per usual, there were some weird patrons present in the audience at the screening I attended (the women sitting directly behind me were these thirtysomething hipsters who laughed very loudly and obnoxiously, or worse, chatting in response to everything) but the film was so enjoyable on the big screen that I didn’t mind too much. Lilian Harvey was divinely photogenic; she was a mixture of her contemporaries in some ways (a Garbo hairstyle, Dietrich eyebrows), but her long-legged dancing feels completely her own. It’s sure not like anything I’ve seen in any other 30s films. Her dramatic performance as danseuse Suzanne was quite good and both the acting and the dancing (both the footwork and the fashion of the outfit) felt markedly modern; I could see performers from today wearing the same. Gene Raymond is charmingly handsome as Tony, the puppeteer who is so in love with Suzanne that he creates a miniature puppet replica of her – only to fall for his wood-and-string creation even harder! Leslie Banks and Georgia Caine are also good as Harvey’s manipulative managers, but it’s the puppeteering, in both the literal and emotional senses, which forms the most interesting part of the film. Photographed by Lee Garmes and edited by Harold D. Schuster, the film captures not just the lyric beauty of Lilian Harvey but also a bizarre and captivating nightmare sequence involving Harvey being put on trial in a courtroom run by dozens of marionettes. Definitely check this film out if you have a chance.
The Story of Temple Drake. Directed by Stephen Roberts. One of the most notorious pre-Code films for its bluntly sexual and violent content, which led to condemnation from the Catholic Legion of Decency (then an institution with immense power), The Story of Temple Drake is a fascinating feature. It gave Miriam Hopkins – one of the most brilliant yet overlooked actresses of the 1930s – a terrific vehicle for her sweet Southern charms, spinning her dialogue with that slow, honey-glazed drawl of hers, and also for her dramatic abilities in harrowing situations involving harassment, rape (or, I should say, the implication of it as the scene fades out) and sexual slavery. Of equal merit here is Karl Struss’s cinematography, bathing sets in light and shadow as if the tale were proto-noir and giving Hopkins, William Gargan (her true, righteous love), Jack La Rue (the man who attacks Hopkins and forces her into prostitution) and Florence Eldridge (the woman who tends the shack where Hopkins experiences her abuse) some extraordinary extreme close-ups as they stare directly into the camera. Clearly the fact that the film runs only 70 minutes is due to how much footage was cut out thanks to the Legion and the Hays Office, but what remains is oftentimes shocking (even for the 1930-34 period of American cinema) and always compelling.