Colossus of Rhode Island

1933-Babyface

December 31, 2010
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Babyface from The Village Voice

Babyface from The Village Voice

Even today Babyface is still a fairly racy film and I imagine that most modern viewers would be shocked at some of the content.  To me, this may be the quintessential pre-code movie.  The plot revolves around a young woman named Lily (played by Barbara Stanwyck) who works at her father’s speakeasy.  There are no pretensions to happiness or affection in her life.  Her father leaves her alone with a politically connected man who wants to take advantage of her (her father does this knowing what will happen and it is implied that it isn’t the first time he has done so).  She rebuffs his advances and, because of the man’s connections to city hall, damages her father’s business (you can see this scene in the photo above.  She’s threatening to hit him with a bottle).  Her father dies soon after and she decides to move on to another city.

Lily begins work at a bank and uses sex to move her way up the corporate ladder.  She finds a man to take care of her until she can find someone with more wealth and position, leaving a trail of broken men in her wake.  Of course (since this is Hollywood we’re dealing with) she meets a man with good character and falls for him.  The ultimate fate of this relationship at end of the movie points out the greatness of the script and Stanwyck’s portrayal.  She must choose between her money and the man who loves her.  She initially chooses the money but eventually reconsiders.  I would not have been surprised if she did not reconsider at all and simply moved on to another man.  This is the great strength of the movie, it does things so outside of our expectations that any ending that the screenwriters came up with would not have surprised me.

Stanwyck is brilliant as the unscrupulous and world-weary Lily.  Changing from a frowning woman who is fed up with life to whatever mood her current beau requires quickly and seamlessly.  The supporting cast is also quite good and features many character actors that appear in other great movies from the era.

Lily’s relationship with her compatriot Chico is interesting for a film from this time period.  Chico was an employee at her father’s speakeasy.  Lily cares for almost no one in the film except Chico, who is African-American.  They have, especially for the era, a surprisingly equal relationship (although it is clear that Lily is calling the shots) until Lily becomes wealthy.  When they were both poor, Lily cared for her and treated her as a friend.  When Lily becomes rich, she hires Chico and treats her more like a maid.  It is an interesting look at race and class relations during the depression.

All in all, Babyface, is a great watch and definitely worth checking out.  Make sure that you get a fairly recent version (I watched the version from the TCM Forbidden Hollywood collection) because, as you can imagine, certain prints were heavily censored for release and you may not be getting the whole film.

Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1933 worth seeing):

Some critics believe that Duck Soup is the greatest Marx Brothers movie and it is a ton of fun.  It might be little too anarchical if you are not used to the brothers sense of humor, so I usually recommend starting with another film if you aren’t sold on them, but Duck Soup is an awesome film.

The Island of Lost Souls is a movie adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau starring Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi.  It is a well-acted and interesting movie about the nature of humanity.  The Invisible Man was the first American movie appearance of Claude Rains.  Directed by James Whale, it is a meditation on the corrupting influence of power and the dangers of human experimentation.

Queen Christina is a period piece that is good for all you Garbo fans out there.  I find her fascinating onscreen, but cannot really tell you why.  King Kong is a genuine classic that everyone should see.  I don’t think that I need to write too much about it.  Fay Wray, the female lead of King Kong and the lead of last year’s entry, Dr. X, is joined by her Dr. X co-star, Lionel Atwill in The Vampire Bat.  It’s a fun horror film that features one of my favorite character actors of all time, Dwight Frye.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is the last film collaboration between husband and wife team Fritz Lang and Thea Von Harbou.  Lang left Germany with Hitler’s rise to power and his wife joined the Nazi Party.  The movie was banned by the Nazis and was not shown in Germany (anything the Nazis banned is worth a look, in my opinion).

Did you know?  (1933 Trivial knowledge)

  • Babyface’s male lead, George Brent, had to flee his native Ireland because he was an active member of the IRA and had a price on his head.
  • In Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters the main character realizes that he life is worth living when he goes to see Duck Soup on the big screen.
  • One of Stanwyck’s quickly dismissed suitors in Babyface is a pre-fame John Wayne.
  • Duck Soup was the last Marx Brothers Movie to feature Zeppo.
  • Famous as a blonde, Fay Wray actually wore a blond wig in King Kong.
  • Gloria Stuart, the female lead in The Invisible Man would be nominated for an Academy Award 64 years later.  She played Rose in 1997’s Titanic.

Favorite Quote:

You don’t know your out until they stop counting.  Wake up kid, Baby Face is moving outta your class.”  One of Babyface’s co-workers to one of her former suitors.


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1932-Dr. X

December 22, 2010
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Dr. X Theatrical Poster

Dr. X Theatrical Poster

I assume that most readers have not seen Dr. X.  Most of you have probably not even heard of it.  It is well-made mystery/thriller with some humor thrown in for good measure.  The story revolves around a series of cannibalistic murders, with the trail leading to a science academy (it is pretty racy stuff for 1932).  The students are away for the holidays, so the murderer has to be one of the teachers still in residence.  This leads to the wonderful experience of having a thriller with multiple mad scientists.  Lionel Atwill plays the eponymous doctor.  Throw in Fay Wray as his daughter (her characters first line is a scream, something that she was justifiably famous for) and add Lee Tracy as an intrepid reporter after a story (not because he is fearless and dedicated to truth, but because his boss threatens his job) and you have the makings of a fun time at the movies.

Directed by Michael Curtiz (who directed classics like Casablanca, and Yankee Doodle Dandy) this is also the first color film to be highlighted as the choice for this blog.  Curtiz uses and light and shadow well.  Characters are introduced in silhouette, we see very little of the killer, appearing onscreen only occasionally before the climax.  Tracy provides the comic relief (such as it is) and the grounding in reality (such as it is).  Tracy, it occurs to me, is probably an acquired taste and not for everyone.  Personally, I love quick-talking newspaper reporters from the early depression era.  But that’s just me I guess.

Dr. X is a wonderful little picture.  It isn’t going to change your life, but you are going to have a fun watching it.  One of the reasons I’ve highlighted it, however, is that Dr. X and a follow-up released in 1939, The Return of Dr. X, are great examples to illustrate ways the Hayes Code (often also called the Production Code) neutered Hollywood and stifled creativity.  Dr. X is a fairly racy picture.  The themes include cannibalism and murder, Tracy’s character visits a whorehouse early in the movie (only to use the phone, but being Lee Tracy, he does have other things on his mind).  For all its faults, it is a fun and interesting time at the moves.

In 1934, the Hayes Code began to be enforced.  This set out guidelines of what was acceptable in the motion pictures industry and seriously hampered what could and could not be viewed on screen (I can’t get into too much detail here, because of my “no research” policy, but if you are interested in seeing some of the particulars, I’m sure looking the code up on wikipedia would provide some insight).  Moviemakers were no longer able to portray criminals in any kind of sympathetic light, sexuality was unacceptable, and anything even remotely offensive to the stodgiest of people was considered off limits.

From the advent of sound through the middle of the 1930s, around a half a decade, studios made movies that pushed boundaries and challenged social mores.  It isn’t a coincidence that some of the greatest horror, gangster, and social commentary movies of all time were filmed during this brief era.  This all stopped rather abruptly and we can see the result in The Return of Dr. X, a film hampered by the limitations of censorship that couldn’t even be saved by the fact that it was Bogart’s only turn in a horror movie.  Dr. X’s return (I say this loosely, because clearly they are not connected story-wide in any way but title) lacks the sizzle of the original.  Even though it is a more recent film, The Return of Dr. X feels older than Dr. X.

I’m not arguing that great movies weren’t made during the censorship era (which lasted for 30 years).  Some of the greatest movies ever were produced during this time and the argument can be made that they ways they circumvented the censors (coded references to sex, off-screen deaths that were even more chilling because they were not seen) made for even better movies.  But can you imagine if some of the actors and directors working during this period had more creative control over their work?

I do love Dr. X and it is definitely worth a look, but it is also important to understand the background of censorship in Hollywood that made The Return of Dr. X so different from it predecessor.  The Pre-Code era in Hollywood is one of the most exiting and interesting times in the history of cinema and I encourage you to watch as many of these wonderful films as you can.

If you’re interested in this subject, there are two books Dangerous Men and Complicated Women about actors in the pre-code era that are worth checking out of your local library.  There’s also a series of DVD sets that feature pre-code movies called Forbidden Hollywood.  If you’re interested in seeing Dr. X and The Return of Dr. X you can get both of them in the Hollywood Legends of Horror DVD box set.

Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1932 worth seeing):

1932 was another very strong year for movies.  Grand Hotel is a truly grand piece that features one of the first “all-star” casts that I can think of.  I’m a Fugitive from a Chain Gang stars the incomparable Paul Muni in a wonderful work of social commentary that sheds a light on the troubles of the Great Depression.  Muni also starred in the original version of Scarface, as an Italian gangster who made his money with booze rather than a Cuban gangster who made his money with drugs (I would bet that most of my loyal readers didn’t know that the version of Scarface starring Al Pacino was a remake).

Once again, the Marx Brothers are in top form with Horse Feathers, a great place to get starting watching their movies if you haven’t seen any of them yet.  It’s all about the laughable farce that big-time college football is amateur football.  The Most Dangerous Game, starring Joel McCrea and Fay Wray is well-paced and fun take on the famous short story.

The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff and Murders in the Rue Morgue starring Bela Lugosi, are two great horror films from the era.  Rue Morgue is particularly jarring and is a great example of some of the possibilities in horror before the enforcement of the Hayes Code.  Tod Browning made Freaks fresh off his success as director of Dracula .  The movie stars real carnival performers and demonstrates that goodness is not necessarily tied to physical beauty.  It is still a strange movie decades later.  Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr is an endlessly interesting take on the vampire movie and feels like an ongoing dream sequence.

Three on a Match features Warren William, Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis, and one of Humphrey Bogart’s earliest gangster/tough guy roles.  I know that this makes me a little strange, but that cast is enough to make me swoon.

Did you know?  (1932 Trivial knowledge)

  • Lee Tracy was a fairly big star in the Pre-Code era.  His characterizations were well-suited to the era, but his career never recovered after he drunkenly urinated on a parade from his hotel balcony while shooting a movie in Mexico (that is not a joke).
  • The Most Dangerous Game was filmed on many of the sets used the following year for King Kong.
  • The Mummy was directed by Karl Freund, who is probably my favorite cinematographer.  He was cinematographer on Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Last Laugh, Dracula, and Metropolis, among others.
  • Edward van Sloane appeared in The Mummy because it was almost impossible to make an awesome horror movie in the early ‘30s without him.
  • Tod Browning had a wealth of personal information to draw upon while making Freaks as he had worked at a circus earlier in his life.
  • Although forgotten by many today, Paul Muni was one of the most respected actors of his day.  He heavily researched the characters he was set to play if they were real or based on real people and his acting lacks the stiltedness often associated with the era’s leading men.
  • There’s an unconfirmed rumor that Capone was such a fan of Scarface that he owned a print of it.  Howard Hughes was the producer and Boris Karloff even has a small role.

Favorite Quote:

“What’s the matter with me?  Nothin’ at all.  Only I spent all last night laying next to a bunch of stiffs, looking at a lot of goofy guys.  I let a dame poke a gun in my stomach, and then I let a dumb policeman slip me a trick cigar.”

“Say you want to draw another paycheck don’t you?”

“Certainly, that’s my aim in life, but I’d like to keep our of the bughouse to enjoy it.”

Lee Taylor, Lee Tracy’s character in the movie, talking to his editor.


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I write things...this thing that I'm writing and you're reading is a series of posts, starting with 1920 and focusing on a movie from each year that I think you should see.

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