Saturday, April 25, 2015

Stubs – Female

Female (1933) Starring: Ruth Chatterton, George Brent, Lois Wilson, Johnny Mack Brown, Ruth Donnelly, Ferdinand Gottschalk. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Screenplay by Gene Markey, Kathryn Scola. Suggested by the novel Female by Donald Henderson Clarke. Produced by Robert Presnell. Run Time: 60 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Drama

It should come as a surprise to no one that films made in Hollywood from 1930 until 1968, were made under censorship guidelines called the Motion Picture Production Code. These guidelines were drawn up to self-regulate the motion picture industry. But until 1934, the code wasn’t enforced. That changed with the establishment of the Breen office, the precursor to the MPAA, headed by Joseph Breen.

Films made before 1934 are referred to as Pre-code. While they often deal with subjects the code prohibits, they are not necessarily filled with blood or nudity. However, they do deal with subject matters that the code would prohibit or at least restrict being dealt with openly. Such is the case with Female (1933).

Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) is the powerful president of Drake Automotive.

Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) is the president of a large automobile company, Drake Automotive, which she took over after her father's death, is cynical about love. Her life is almost immediately contrasted against that of her old friend, Harriet (Lois Wilson), who drops by for a visit on her road trip to Rochester. Alison invites her to spend the night at her mansion. Unlike Alison, Harriet is married with three children. But in exchange, Alison is pampered by a team of servants, including a masseuse.

Alison likes being pampered.

That night, in addition to Harriet, Alison invites one of her new department heads, George C. Cooper (Johnny Mack Brown), to her house under the pretense of talking business. At 9:30, Harriet excuses herself for the night and to call her husband. Alone with Cooper, Alison is disinterested in discussing Cooper’s sales idea. Plying him with vodka, brought by her butler James (Robert Greig), and music, a recording Shanghai Lil playing, she seduces Cooper, who naturally falls immediately in love with her.

Allison is more interested in George than his sales ideas.

The next morning, Alison’s work day starts while she is still in bed. She is given stock quotes (taken over the phone) along with her breakfast. When she gets to the office, she is cool to Cooper, but it is quickly apparent he is not the first man at the office she’s slept with. Briggs (Gavin Gordon), one of her male secretaries, admits his undying love for her.

Alison has her weaselly office manager, Pettigrew (Ferdinand Gottschalk), transfer Briggs to the Montreal office and hire female secretaries to replace the male ones. When flowers arrive from Cooper, she calls him into her office and tells him not to read anything into what had happened. Pettigrew is then dispatched to the Comptroller to have a bonus check drawn up for Cooper. Based on their conversation, it is clear Cooper is now one of many who have received the usual amount of bonus.

Miss Frothingham (Ruth Donnelly) arrives and almost instantly becomes the target for Pettigrew’s own come-ons.

Alison naturally has a pipe organ in her house.

Meanwhile, Alison invites another employee, a young designer named Claybourne (Phillip Reed) to her house. This time Shanghai Lil is being played on a pipe organ in the house while Alison. Despite her hard press and the offer of vodka, Claybourne is more of a romantic than even Alison can stomach. When he admits that he doesn’t know much about women, she lets him off the hook and offers to have Pettigrew arrange for him to go to Paris to study art.

Claybourne (Phillup Reed) is too much of a romantic for Alison and gets sent to Paris to study art.

At a board meeting, Alison tells her department heads that their new line of cars needs a new feature to separate it from the other brands out there. When one of her department heads says that it would take a year for them to develop such technology, she is informed by another that someone has already invented it, a man named Jim Thorne. Even though he is under contract to a competitor, Alison is adamant that they sign him.

Later, after a party at her house for her dealers, and a proposal of marriage from Mumford (Douglas Dumbrille), one of her biggest distributors, she flees. Driving into the city, she is fascinated by a man at a shooting gallery. Alison is pretty good, too, but not as good as the man. She follows him to a food truck for a beer. When a street person tries to become a part of their conversation, they excuse themselves and go dancing. Afterwards, they go back to the food truck for a hamburger. When once again the stranger gets too familiar, the man excuses himself. Alison follows after him, but the man rebuffs her, saying he doesn’t take pick-ups home.

Jim Thorne (George Brent) doesn't know he's buying a hamburger for his new boss.

The next day, they bump into each other at the factory. The man introduces himself as Jim Thorne (George Brent), but treats her like she’s a secretary. Later, when Alison calls him into her office, he still thinks she’s a nobody and treats her as such. Only when others treat her with the respect of the head of a company does he clue in. Once again, she invited him over for dinner to discuss his designs for his automatic transmission.

She tries to ply him with vodka, but it has no effect on him, as he had worked in Russia for a time and used to brush his teeth with vodka. He once again rebuffs her advances and tells her he is only interested in business. But Alison doesn’t give up on Thorne. She hires a private investigator and is keenly interested when she finds out that he had dinner with Miss Joyce (Jean Muir), his secretary. She even considers sacking Joyce but doesn’t.

The next day, Jim discovers his pick-up is really his boss.

When Pettigrew tells her that men, like Thorne, want a woman who is a more down-to-earth, Alison tricks Thorne into a private picnic by the lake where she pretends to be helpless. It’s a little different approach for her, but it works. However, when Thorne gets a marriage license, she turns down his proposal. Mad, he quits the company and drives away. Even though Drake Motors needs an infusion of cash, Alison has a momentary breakdown, before gaining her composure. She tells the board that she will personally go to New York to talk to bankers. But instead, she chases after Thorne. She finds that she’s gaining on him when she quizzes people at gas stations and greasy spoons along the route the police have told her he’s taking. On a whim, she stops at a carnival with a shooting gallery and Thorne is there shooting.

Eventually Alison gives up everything for the love of a good man.

She tearfully admits to him that she’s willing to risk bankruptcy to be with him. He accepts her love, then, affirming that no one will take her company away from her, drives her to an airport to catch a flight to New York so she can make her meetings later in the afternoon. As they drive, she happily reveals that after their marriage, she will let him run the company so she can stay home and raise the children. She plans to have nine.

While not a name many are familiar with nowadays, Ruth Chatterton was, for a time, a very accomplished actress in Hollywood. Her first film was 1928’s Sins of the Fathers, a silent-made sound released film starring Emil Jannings. (Like many films from this time period, the film is reportedly lost.) With stage experience, she was in demand as the studios switched from silent films to sound. While she was signed to Paramount, she received a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her part in MGM’s Madame X (1929). The following year she received a second nomination for her role in Sarah and Son (1930). She left Paramount for Warner Bros., where she starred in Female.

She appeared in Samuel Goldwyn’s Dodsworth (1936) and gave what many feel was her best performance, but for which she wasn’t nominated. Warner Bros. was looking for younger and more bankable stars, Ruth was born in 1892, so she moved to England. Her final film was A Royal Divorce (1938). She did come out of retirement in the 1950’s to appear on television in such productions as an adaptation of Dodsworth on CBS.

While Michael Curtiz is credited as the director, he was really only brought in for some reshooting. William Dieterle was originally signed to direct, but he became ill and was replaced by William Wellman, who directed Wings (1927), Other Men's Women (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931). When filming was completed, Jack Warner decided that he didn’t like the original actor who was playing Cooper. Wellman wasn’t available for reshoots with Johnny Mack Brown, having started shooting College Coach (1933), so Curtiz was assigned. Though he did not direct most of the film, he was given the director’s credit on the film. It is all about timing.

The Ennis house in Los Angeles, designed by Frank Lloyd
 Wright, was used for exterior shots of Alison's mansion.

Exteriors of Alison’s mansion were filmed at Frank Lloyd Wright designed Ennis house in Los Feliz. An example of Wright’s textile block design, the house is constructed of interlocking pre-cast concrete blocks. Shot on a budget of between $260,000 to $286,000, Female made about $451,000 worldwide. Not an overwhelming success.

Despite being Pre-Code and dealing with sex, the film, like most studio films at this time, was devoid of nudity. There are hints of it, as we see Alison get a massage and then take a shower, but she is covered up when we see her. The sex is depicted subtly: a throw pillow on the floor and carafe of vodka delivered by the butler and the audience knows what’s supposed to happen next.

The basic premise of Female that what all women, no matter how successful, really want is to be married and have children, has been proven to be antiquated. A career is no longer something a woman only has until she’s married and/or has children. Portraying a woman as running a major corporation, making cars no less, and bossing around men was probably provocative at the time. Even though we still have a disparity in pay between men and women, the glass ceiling has been broken if not shattered. Today, several very large companies are run by women, including General Motors, which is run by Mary Barra.

Until Alison is in love, she is not a very likeable character. While she is the boss at Drake, she is cold, calculating, ruthless and out for herself both financially and sexually. I can hear the argument that these would be more acceptable traits for a male lead than with a woman. That may be true, but I would venture that they probably wouldn’t necessarily be the hero of the film, even back then, and they probably wouldn’t be any more likeable than Alison was with those same traits.

This film could easily be a what-not-to-do example in a seminar on workplace sexual harassment. Not only does Alison sleep with her employees and try to either buy them off or punish them, which I believe is the definition of creating a hostile workplace, [perhaps Drake Motors was facing bankruptcy due to all of the payouts Alison was forced to make] but Pettigrew, who is Alison’s version of Dracula’s Renfield, also gets into the act, inviting Miss Frothingham up to his lonely apartment to look at some pictures. However, this sort of treatment of employees is depicted in many films, especially pre-Code ones; what was new here was a female boss doing this to her male employees. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, but not good for any other barnyard poultry put into uncomfortable situations.

As Alison asserts correctly, men, like women, can be attracted to money and power. The idea that a woman could be single and sexually active was not appropriate subject matter under the Production Code, so Female was a film that couldn’t be made for another 35 years. Not a great film, but it does have an interesting tables turned approach to the battle of the sexes.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Stubs – Three on A Match

Three on a Match (1932) Starring: Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis, Warren William, Lyle Talbot, Humphrey Bogart, Allen Jenkins and Edward Arnold. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Screenplay by Lucien Hubbard. Based on a short story by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright. Produced by Samuel Bischoff, Raymond Griffith and Darryl F. Zanuck.  Run Time: 63 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Crime, Drama

There is the old superstition about lighting three cigarettes on the same match. It apparently goes back to at least The Boer Wars stating that the third soldier to light his cigarette will be killed or at least shot. The idea was also popularized by the Swedish match tycoon Ivar Kreuger, the subject of The Match King (1932) starring Warren William, in order to sell more matches.

This superstition is the basis for the film Three on a Match (1932). The three are childhood acquaintances reunited as young adults, Mary Keaton (Joan Blondell), Ruth Westcott (Bette Davis) and Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak). The film uses an interesting montage to show the passage of time from 1919 to 1932 as we watch the three girls develop. Their characteristics are pretty well set from the beginning. Mary (played as a child by Virginia Davis) is a tomboy, not afraid to show her bloomers or to smoke with the boys. Ruth (played as a child by Betty Carse) is the studious one. Vivian (played as a child by Dawn O'Day) is from a well-to-do family, pretty and popular.

In one foreshadowing sequence, we see Mary stealing away Vivian’s boyfriend Bobby (Frankie Darro) to meet in the “you know where” place. The two of them and another boy smoke cigarettes while everyone else is in class. (It should be noted that Jack Webb, famous for Dragnet, is supposedly somewhere in the sequence uncredited as “boy in the schoolyard”. He’s about 12 years old and this would be his first appearance on film; if you can find him.)

Three on a Match spends about a third of its run time setting up the characters of the girls. After they graduate primary school, in 1921, Vivian is off to a private boarding school, Ruth, whose family is less fortunate, is off to business school to learn stenography and Mary is doomed for reform school, having barely graduated in the first place.

Mrs. Keaton (Clara Blandick) has to convince the principal to let Mary (Virginia Davis) graduate.

When we next catch a glimpse of the girls in 1925 and they’re all grown up, at least now the adult actresses have assumed the roles: Mary is indeed in state reform school and not liking it. Vivian is at Miss Jason's School for Young Ladies and is as popular as ever. Meanwhile Ruth is at the Metropolitan Business College, sharpening up her typing skills.

Ruth (Bette Davis) attends business school after graduation,

Fast forward to 1930, at the beauty shop. Mary, who is now an entertainer, mentions to one of the beauticians that she’s run into old friend, Ruth Westcott, from P.S. No. 62. Vivian, who is in the other booth, overhears her and sends her attendant over to check. Mary remembers Vivian and the two agree to have lunch with Ruth.

It is at this lunch the three women light their cigarettes with the same match, Vivian being the last one. Of the three, Vivian seems to have the best life. Married to a successful lawyer, Robert Kirkwood (Warren William), she also has a three and a half year-old boy they call Junior (Dickie Moore) and lives, especially compared to the life of an actress and stenographer, in wealth with a chauffeur driven car outside waiting for her.

Things change after Ruth (Bette Davis), Mary (Joan Blondell) and Vivian
 (Ann Dvorak) share a match to light three cigarettes at lunch.

But Vivian isn’t satisfied and after coming home late from a fancy party, she tells Robert about her state. He suggests that they go away together, but she insists on going alone, but taking Junior with her. Robert is agreeable, hoping that being on her own in Europe for a few weeks will cure her of her blues.

Work gets in the way as Vivian's husband, Robert (Warren William), receives a telegram.

Robert is with her on board her ship, which is to depart at midnight, when one of the boys from the office brings him a telegram that requires his immediate attention. Soon after he leaves, Vivian runs into Mary, who is on board for a bon voyage party for some friends. In her party is Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot). Handsome and suave, he pays attention to Mary, who leaves her sleeping son in the care of one of the ship’s stewardesses, to attend. She gets there around 10:30 and before the ship leaves port has decided to run off with Michael.

Michael (Lyle Talbot) sweeps Vivian off her feet when they meet at her bon voyage party.

It is only after the ship lands that Vivian is reported missing. Robert knows that she’s done this deliberately and hires detectives to find her. Vivian quickly loses all interest in anything but drinking and Michael. Junior is left to fend for himself most of the time.

Once off the ship, Junior (Dickie Moore) is left to fend for himself while Mom drinks.

Mary tells Ruth that she’s concerned about Junior and tries to convince Vivian to let Ruth’s sister and husband take care of him while Vivian sorts things out. Failing that, she goes to Robert and tells him where he can find Vivian and the boy.

Mary tries to convince Vivian to let her take Junior away from her.

Robert takes the boy away and Vivian doesn’t try to fight it. Robert and Junior summer with Mary and Ruth and on the day Robert’s divorce is final, he marries Mary and hires Ruth to be Junior’s new nanny.

Ruth and Mary playing with Junior at the beach.

We then see two municipal workers sharing lunch, with one of them telling the other the story of how Mary and Vivian have traded places in the limo and points out that the first Mrs. Kirkwood is waiting for the new one. Vivian tells Mary that she’s down on her luck. Michael never had any money and Vivian has already sold all of her jewelry. Mary gives Vivian $80, which Vivian then hands over to Michael.

The street cleaner (Spencer Charter) tells another municipal
worker how Mary and Vivian have traded lots in life.

Michael, we learn, has a gambling debt he owes to Ace (Edward Arnold) of $2000. Harve (Humphrey Bogart) informs Michael that his check bounced and takes him to see Ace. The $80 Michael has is not near enough and Ace tells Michael to get the rest of the money.

Michael tries to blackmail Robert about Mary’s criminal past, but Robert give him a little lesson in the law and tells him no newspaper would buy the story and kicks him out of his office.

Seeing no way out, Michael, who knows Junior, finds him in the park. He convinces him that his mother is crying for him and takes him back to her. He demands a $2000 ransom for the boy. But Ace hears about the kidnapping on the police radio and decides they can do better. He sends Harve and Dick (Allen Jenkins) and another henchman (Jack La Rue) to takeover and the ransom is upped to $25,000.

Michael's not happy about it, but Ace sends his henchmen, including Harve
 (Humphrey Bogart), over to handle the ransom negotiatoins for Junior.

Vivian, who by now is addicted to snorting heroin (signaled by Harve brushing his hand under his nose miming the dissolute mother), is held hostage too and not allowed to leave the apartment. Having withdrawals, we hear her cries, which the henchmen treat with violence.

Harve indicating Vivian is addicted to snorting heroin.

After ten days and a failed drop, and with the police closing in, Ace decides it’s time to kill the boy and retreat. Michael is given the task, but when he wimps out he’s knocked unconscious. Vivian, hearing what’s going on, has Junior hide, but thinking it’s a game, Junior attracts the attention of the henchmen in the other room. When they investigate, it looks like Vivian is trying to put on makeup but is so out of it, she’s getting most of it on her dressing gown.

With the police nearby and before the henchmen can kill Junior, Vivian leaps through a nailed shut window and falls to her death. The police find the message that the Kirkwood boy is on the fourth floor and run off to save him. The film ends with Junior and father reunited, praying for mommy’s soul.

Three on a Match came out on October 29, 1932. Earlier that year, Charles Lindbergh’s son, Charles Lindbergh Jr., was kidnapped on March 1st and his dead body was found May 12th. When the film came out five months later many censor boards were reluctant to pass a film that contained a child kidnapping, since they felt the public would resent the film.

Later, East coast censor boards agreed to pass this picture because the kidnappers in it are captured, but they subsequently entered into a "gentlemen's agreement" that the industry would not, for a time, make any more pictures with kidnapping themes. The film was remade, aren’t they all, by Warner Bros. in 1938 as Broadway Musketeers and would also feature a kidnapping, but time had passed since the Lindbergh kidnapping so it was not as controversial.

One of the interesting things about the movie is that so many of the actors involved were so near the beginnings of their careers. Blondell, who had only been making movies since 1930, was already appearing in her 20th feature. Previous films included Sinners’ Holiday (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), Night Nurse (1931) and The Crowd Roars (1932). When Mary becomes an adult, she’s a performer in Broadway shows, which seemed to foreshadow Blondell's role as Carol King in Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933).

Dvorak, who had appeared in silent films as a child actress, had been taking adult roles in talkies since 1929. 1932 would be a watershed year for her as she would appear in Scarface, The Crowd Roars and Three on a Match.

Ruth Elizabeth Davis, or Bette Davis as we know her, had only been in Hollywood since December 1930, invited to Hollywood by a Universal talent scout after her Broadway debut in Broken Dishes (1929). After failing a couple of screen tests, Universal considered terminating her contract, but cinematographer/director Karl Freund, interceded. He thought she had “lovely eyes” and she was cast in The Bad Sister (1931). She would appear in six films before Universal cancelled her contract.

Davis was preparing to move back to New York, when she was cast by George Arliss in The Man Who Played God (1932). Warner Bros. signed her to a five year contract and she remained at the studio for the next eighteen.

Warren William had spent most of the 1920’s on Broadway acting in such plays as The Town That Forgot God. The movie adaptation would mark his film debut. However, he wouldn’t come to Hollywood again until 1931 and his role as Robert Kirkwood would only be his 9th film after that. His next film, The Match King (1932), is foreshadowed in the movie as well.

Three on a Match would be one of Lyle Talbot’s best known films. He would have a career that spanned nearly 56 years, from 1931 to 1987, and he would appear in about 150 movies and dozens of television shows during that time. In addition, he would also appear on stage during the 40’s, 60’s and 70’s. Of interest to films based on comic books, Talbot would be the first live action actor to play two prominent DC Comics characters on-screen: Commissioner Gordon in the Batman and Robin serial (1949) and Lex Luthor in the Atom Man vs. Superman serial (1950).

Humphrey Bogart had been in and out of films since The Dancing Town (1928), a two reeler starring Helen Hayes. Three on a Match marks his first gangster role, the type of part he would be famous for playing throughout the 1930’s in such films as The Petrified Forest (1936), Dead End (1937), The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939). As the years would go on, Bogart would get better with these kinds of roles, but you do see the beginnings of what will become one of his most iconic types of roles.

In what was quite the supporting cast, we also have Allen Jenkins, Edward Arnold and Jack La Rue. While Jenkins would make a career playing comedic henchmen, in Three on a Match, only his sixth film, he plays it mean. 

Ace's henchmen included Humphrey Bogart (Harve), Allen Jenkins (Dick),
Stanley Price and Jack La Rue (both uncreduted).

Edward Arnold, who had been acting in films since The Misleading Lady (1916), had gone back to the stage. He had made his talkie debut only early in the year in Okay America! For Jack La Rue, Three on a Match would be another nameless uncredited role. He was supposedly sometimes confused for Humphrey Bogart, so it’s interesting to see them in a film together.

The film is well made for what was probably intended as just another programmer. I especially liked the parade of time montage that uses news headlines, popular song sheets, and excerpts from the news weeklies to show what was going on in the world starting with 1919 and every time the film skips forward. While I have to imagine some of this was old news at the time to the audience, most having lived through the time period, it does serve modern audiences as a history lesson about what was happening elsewhere at key moments in the film.

Not well received when first released, Three on a Match isn’t really a bad movie. With a running time of a little over an hour, there isn’t much to like or dislike for that matter. I do feel the film spends an inordinate amount of time setting up the characters, as we go back to grade school with them. While I appreciate the effort to develop the characters, there seems to be little reason to develop Ruth’s. She is really the third wheel in this film and Davis is really not much of a factor. After Junior is kidnapped, I don’t think she appears again, except for a quick shot of Kirkwood telling the police they have to find his son. Her role is small and insignificant.

Other than that, the movie tells a fairly complicated story in a pretty straight forward way. And for all the controversy about it, the film does have a happy ending. What more could you ask Hollywood for than that?

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Stubs – Other Men’s Women

Other Men’s Women (1931) Starring: Grant Withers, Mary Astor, Regis Toomey, James Cagney, Fred Kohler, J. Farrell MacDonald, Joan Blondell. Directed by William Wellman. Screenplay (Story and Adaptation) by Maude Fulton. No Producer Credited. Run Time: 70 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Romance, Drama.

Following his debut in Sinners’ Holiday(1930), James Cagney (and co-star Joan Blondell) were off and running at Warner Bros. Cagney was immediately put into The Doorway to Hell (1930), a film already in production, before making his breakout performance in The Public Enemy (1931). At least that’s how Cagney told it in his autobiography Cagney by Cagney. He skips over the film in between, his third film, Other Men’s Women (1931).

This would mark his second film with Blondell and his first with director William Wellman, the director of Wings (1927), one of the great films from the silent era and, simply put, one of the best films ever made. But Other Men’s Women is simply a programmer with a higher than usual pedigree. It tells the story of a love triangle between two friends and one of the friend’s wife told against the background of a railroad yard. Originally titled The Steel Highway, after the story written by Maude Fulton, the title was changed to Other Men’s Women, which sounds more salacious than it really is.

Bill White (Grant Withers) is an easy-going smooth-talking railroad engineer, with a girl at every stop. The film opens with him jumping off the train as it rolls through a station with just enough time to go into the café and order food. It’s obvious that he and the waitress behind the counter (Lillian Worth) have some sort of history, though it’s undefined and Bill is more interested in pursuing the train than a date with her. He does leave a dime short on the bill, but leaving a stick of gum, saying “Have a little chew on me,” a phrase he would repeat throughout the movie.

Bill (Grant Withers) is pretty chummy with the waitress at the station's cafe.

Director William Wellman certainly didn’t have qualms about putting his actors into dangerous situations. As you’ll recall in Wings, the actors actually flew the planes. In Other Men’s Women, it is trains. While I don’t believe they were actually driving the trains, we do see Grant Withers run to catch the caboose and then walk across the tops of the train cars to the engine, where the chief engineer, Jack Kulper (Regis Toomey), is driving.

Bill and Jack (Regis Toomey) are co-workers and old friends.

After Jack invites Bill over to the house to celebrate his second wedding anniversary, Ed (James Cagney) appears on top of the train cars (not sure where he got on board). Ed and Bill carry on a conversation on top of the moving train as it pulls into its final destination. (It’s obviously Los Angeles, as the City Hall can clearly be seen in the background, but the location in the story is never spelled out.) We even see them knowingly duck when a low bridge is coming up behind them.

Ed (James Cagney) and Bill carry on a casual conversation on top of a box car of a moving train.

As at the last station, Bill has a relationship with the girl working behind the counter at the café, Marie (Joan Blondell). There are two other railroad workers at the counter (Pat Harmon and Lee Moran) trying to chat Marie up, but she tells them she’s A.P.O. (Ain’t Putting Out). She’s Bill’s girl, she tells them, even though she might have danced with another man recently. But despite Marie’s devotion, Bill isn’t so sure about their relationship. Marie wants to get married right away, since Bill sort of proposed a few nights before, but Bill backs out, remembering Jack’s invitation to dinner and using it as an excuse. He begs off marriage for now, but Marie isn’t buying it and a piece of chewing gum isn’t going to make up for her hurt feelings.

Marie (Joan Blondell) wants Bill to marry her, but he makes excuses.

Bill, who has a bit of a drinking problem, goes back to his boarding house and gets drunk. But he’s also behind in the rent and his stuttering landlady, Miss Astor (Lucille Ward), kicks him out. Jack, who has been out buying gardening tools and seeds, drops by to get Bill. He pays off Miss Astor for Bill and takes him home.

Bill is drunk when he comes to Jack's to meet Lily (Mary Astor).

There, Lily (Mary Astor) is making dinner with the help of their neighbor, co-railroad worker and aptly-named Peg-Leg (J. Farrell MacDonald). She welcomes Bill into her home and sets him up with a bath. Later, Peg-Leg tries to help Lily plant the sweat pea seeds Jack brought, but he has understandable trouble with a shovel. Bill offers to help, turning the soil, Peg-Leg pokes the hole in the ground and Lily comes behind him with the seeds.

Together Peg-Leg (J. Farrell MacDonald), Bill and Lily plant sweet peas.

Months go by and when Jack goes to the store for the newspapers, ice cream and gum, Lily and Bill discover they’re in love. It starts out innocently enough, with Lily sewing a button on his shirt, but they kiss and admit their mutual attraction. Bill wants her to tell Jack right away, but she refuses. When Jack comes home, Bill sneaks out, packing his belongings and heading to stay at the Y. Jack wants to know what happened, but Lily admits to nothing. Jack isn’t stupid and knows he’s being lied to, so instead of eating with her, he heads into work, where he’s due to work that night with Bill. Left alone, Lily breaks down and cries.

It starts out innocently enough, but Lily and Bill find they're in love with each other.

On board the train, Jack keeps after Bill asking about his problem with Lily. Bill breaks down and admits to Jack that he and Lily are in love. The men get into a fight while the train is hurling down the tracks. A signal ahead warns the train to brake, but they don’t see it. Bill knocks Jack to the floor just before their train runs into the caboose of another train moving to a side track.

Bill, who already has a bit of a reputation, takes the blame for the accident and is suspended. He ends up back with Marie, getting drunk at a dance hall. Ed comes in from the rain, late for his date. Under his work clothes, he’s wearing a tux.

Ed shows up at the dance hall, probably as an excuse for Cagney to showcase his dancing skills.

At their table, Marie has once again convinced Bill to marry her, or at least she thinks she has. After Ed’s date gives her the corsage she’s wearing to use for a bouquet, Bill gets cold feet. Marie has finally had enough and leaves.

Bill and Marie reconcile, but only briefly.

Ed asks Bill if he’s been to see Jack, prompting him to go out to their house. Lily isn’t anxious to let Bill in, but he tells her they have to get past their problems so they can work together. He doesn’t know that in the fight Jack was blinded. Jack overhears them talking and when Peg-Leg arrives, he knows for sure it was Bill.

After Marie leaves him, Ed asks Bill if he's been to see Jack, but neglects to mention he's blind.

Jack tells Lily that he wants her to go back to visit her parents for a couple of weeks. His excuse is that the rain is causing floods and he wants her to be safe. Reluctantly, she agrees to go.

Bill, back to work, is teamed up with Ed, but the train is delayed because the rain and wind are threatening the main railroad bridge. Bill comes up with an idea to stabilize the bridge with an engine pulling flatcars filled with cement. Even though they like Bill’s out-of-the-box thinking, the request isn’t approved.

Jack, who happens to be at the railroad yard, overhears the idea and even though he can’t see, makes his way through the yard, narrowly avoiding being hit by an engine, to the roundhouse, where he somehow picks the right engine that has the cement laden trailers already attached. When Bill sees Jack go by in the engine, he jumps onboard.

Bill thinks he’s convinced Jack not to do such a fool-hearty stunt, but Jack manages to sucker punch Bill, knocking him unconscious. He then drags his friend and throws him out of the still moving train, narrowly avoiding bouncing him off the track.

Everyone from the yard hurries to the train, but no one can reach it in time. Jack drives the train out onto the bridge, but it collapses under him, sending the engine and the flat cars into the water.

Bill has to be restrained from trying to run after the train Jack is driving.

Months go by and Bill is back to his old routine, going back to the diner he visited in the first scene, trying to grab a bite while the train rolls through the station. There is a new waitress there, but she knows the routine. Meanwhile, Lily departs another train and enters the café for some coffee. Bill asks if she’s back only to sell the house, but she tells him she plans to stay there and invites him out to visit.

After being gone for several months, Lily returns home. Now free, she and Bill can pursue their romance.

Bill has to return to the train, but there is obviously a spring in his step as he maneuvers across the boxcars to the engine.

The writing by Maude Fulton is pretty clever and funny. Bill’s “Have a chew on me” is used throughout the beginning of the film as his little catch phrase, no matter what the situation. Fulton, who began as a Broadway stage actress, wrote and directed plays before coming to Hollywood. Getting her start in silent films, where she wrote intertitles, she would write 21 films and appear in five.

The biggest problem with the dialogue, though, is that sometimes it is hard to understand everything that is being said. The sound quality is lacking at times, so some clever bits are probably lost, though we still manage to tell what’s going on in the story.

Music, something that we think of now as a necessity, is kept to a minimum here. There is no music accompanying the credits at the beginning or ending and there virtually is no background music. There are a couple of songs, all from Warner Bros. musicals released the previous year. “Leave A Little Smile” from Oh Sailor Behave (1930) is sung by Withers, Astor and MacDonald more as a song they can’t get out of their heads. “The Kiss Waltz” from Dancing Sweeties (1930) is played on the Kulper’s phonograph the fateful day Bill and Lily discover they’re in love. “Tomorrow is Another Day” from Big Boy (1930) is played at the restaurant/dance hall. Nothing spectacular or memorable about any of them.

Grant Withers is good in the role of the smooth-talking Bill. It is easy to see how the handsome actor was an early sound film star. He has a good comedic sense and can hold his own. But still he is upstaged by the coming of the likes of Cagney.

Despite his dramatic entrance and his dancing display, Ed is almost a superfluous part. It is easy to see why Cagney may have overlooked it in his own reminiscences about his career. You get the real sense that Warner Bros. knew they had something in the young actor, but hadn’t hit on the right formula just yet. That would come with the next film, when actor and persona were brought together in Public Enemy.

It is hard to imagine that just a few years prior to this film, Mary Astor was released from her contract with Fox. Apparently, they didn’t think she could make the transition from silent films to talkies, finding her voice too deep. But the pretty actress wasn’t out of work for too long. After taking voice training and singing lessons she signed with First National in 1930 to make The Lash (1930). Between that film and Other Men’s Women, she made seven other films, including Holiday (1930) that would be remade eight years later with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. A versatile actress, Astor would appear in such films as Dodsworth (1936), The Hurricane (1937) and The Prisoner of Zenda (1937). While she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Sandra Kovak in The Great Lie (1941), she may best be remembered for another role she played that same year. Astor was one of the screen’s great femme fatales as Brigid O'Shaughnessy in the classic The Maltese Falcon (1941).

Joan Blondell had a little more to do in Other Men’s Women then she did in Sinners’ Holiday, but she still seems to be underutilized as Marie. She does get to do more acting, showing more range, but Marie is a modern woman in the making. She is able to hold her own against the men at the counter, though she still longs to be married and settle down. It’s too bad for her that her taste in men includes Bill.

The love triangle between Bill, Lily and Jack is handled differently than it would be in a few years. While nothing more than a kiss and a few “I love you”s pass between Bill and Lily, it is still considered an affair of the heart. Lily doesn’t want to hurt Jack, so she can’t tell him that she loves Bill. While Jack may not have seen the affair coming, he certainly does his best to get out of the way. His fool-hearty mission is tantamount to committing suicide. The happy ending that Bill and Lily can now be together would not fly after the production code was in effect. Either the affair would never happen or they would have to pay some sort of penance for it.

Getting beyond its status as a pre-code romance, Other Men’s Women is not a bad movie, though certainly not a classic. Most of the people involved would go on to make better movies in the future. This is a case where all the talent involved doesn’t add up to greatness.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Stubs – Sinners’ Holiday

Sinners’ Holiday (1930) Starring: Grant Withers, Evalyn Knapp, James Cagney, Lucille La Verne, Joan Blondell. Directed by John G. Adolfi. Screenplay by George Rosener, Harvey F. Thew. Based on the play Penny Arcade by Marie Baumer (New York, 10 Mar 1930). No Producer Credited.  Run Time: 59 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Melodrama, Crime, Romance.

On March 10, 1930, an original play opened on Broadway called Penny Arcade. Written by Marie Baumer and directed by William Keighley, the play ran for only 24 performances at the Fulton Theatre, closing on or about March 19th. Considered a flop by anyone’s terms, the play caught the eye of Al Jolson, a singer/actor perhaps best known for The Jazz Singer (1927), the film that ushered in the sound era in Hollywood.

Jolson paid $20,000 for the film rights, which he later sold to Warner Bros. studios. Jolson had one provision, two of the cast members, James Cagney and Joan Blondell, be given parts in the film version. While they apparently auditioned for the leads, they did end up playing the same parts they had on stage.

What probably attracted the brothers Warner to the story was the gangster element. After the success of The Lights of New York (1928), the studios’ first all-talking feature, the gangster genre was developing into their specialty.

The play’s director, William Keighley would later go onto a career as a film director, but for this film John G. Adolfi was chosen. Adolfi’s career dated back to silent films, but he was not known as a director of gangster films, usually working on the films of genteel actor George Arliss.

Shot in three weeks, the film would open by the end of September and go into general release on October 10th. Penny Arcade went through a few name changes, including Women in Love, before settling on Sinners’ Holiday. Cagney would recall in his autobiography that: “There was a great vogue for pictures with “holiday” in the title, and Sinners’ Holiday was a part of that trend. That title has as much to do with the picture as Winnie the Pooh!”

On an amusement park prier, Ma Delano (Lucille La Verne) owns and operates a penny arcade, along with other booths like the one next door run by Buck Rogers (Noel Madison) which is like a dunking booth with a twist. 

Rather than dumping the girl in the cage into water, hitting the bull’s-eye tips her back so that you can see up her skirt. If you hit the target hard enough and knock her so far back she falls off her perch, you win a cigar.

Harry (James Cagney) is Ma's (Lucille La Verne) favorite. Still, he's up to no good.

Ma Delano runs her arcade with the help of her children, Joe (Ray Gallagher), Jennie (Evalyn Knapp) and Harry (James Cagney). Joe does his best to keep the attractions running while Jennie is mostly sent on errands by Ma. Harry is Ma’s favorite and is a ne’er-do-well. Despite her ban on liquor, Harry spends most of his time at a nearby speakeasy run by Mitch (Warren Hymer). Mitch’s sideshow, which serves as a cover, features women in skimpy outfits. His barker for the sideshow is Angel Harrigan (Grant Withers), a drifter with a jail record.

Angel (Grant Withers) works as a barker for a sideshow run by Mitch.

Angel is in love with Jennie and, so apparently, is Mitch. When Mitch puts on the heavy pass on Jennie, Angel intercedes. Knowing that Jennie prefers Angel gets him fired, but Angel quits before Mitch can. Angel is about to leave town without saying good-bye, when Jennie sees him and talks him into staying, getting him a job with Ma at the penny arcade. She hires him to try to keep the machines running when Joe can’t.

Publicity shot re-enacting Angel stopping Mitch (Warren Hymer) from harassing Jennie (Evalyn Knapp).

Harry, unbeknownst to Ma, has been working with Mitch and actually takes over the operation of the speakeasy when Mitch is arrested by Detective Sykes (Purnell Pratt) on suspicion of murdering a cohort. Ma hates liquor, not because it’s illegal, but because what it had done to Harry’s father, her late husband. When she finds the Buck has been directing people to Mitch’s speakeasy, she fires him from his booth.

Mitch isn’t in jail for long, as the evidence wasn’t enough for an indictment. But as soon as he’s out of jail, he finds that Harry has been skimming profits from the speakeasy. He plans to get him and sends Buck to find Harry.

To celebrate his release, other barkers on the pier throw him a party. Harry doesn’t go and instead makes a date with Myrtle (Joan Blondell), who works as a model at another booth run by Happy (Hank Mann). Her job is to pose in a prop car with strange men. But Harry has to go see Ma first, leaving Myrtle to wait for him. But Ma doesn’t like Myrtle and doesn’t want Harry to leave the house, which is right next to the penny arcade.

Harry makes a date with Myrtle (Joan Blondell), but has to go see his Ma first.

Harry though, knowing that Mitch is looking for him, takes his brother’s gun, which is in with Angel’s things, and sneaks out of the house. Angel has previously been sent by Ma to look for Harry. Meanwhile, Mitch has commandeered Buck’s booth to wait for Harry to leave the house. Upstairs, Jennie is about to go to bed when she looks out her bedroom window which overlooks the pier. She sees Mitch confront Harry gun drawn. Harry, though, takes out his own gun and shoots and kills Mitch. Jennie watches while her brother pulls the dead body into the booth and locks it inside out of view.

Mitch confronts Harry about skimmy profits from the speakeasy.

A patrol cop hears the gunshots and comes running. Angel is returning back to Ma’s, where he has a room as part of his employment. The two talk, but Angel convinces him that it must have been a car backfire. Once the cop leaves, Harry sneaks back into the house.

The next morning, Detective Sykes returns to the pier looking for Mitch. Harry begs Myrtle to give him an alibi, which she agrees to do. When Angel tries to break into Buck’s old booth to retrieve a pair of pliers he had lent him and now needs, Jennie stops him.

Later, Buck returns to his booth and breaks in to retrieve some personal items he’d left there. When he finds the body, he tells Sykes, who is speaking to Ma at the penny arcade. Det. Sykes is suspicious of Harry at first, but Myrtle gives him an alibi, much to Happy’s dissatisfaction. (The relationship between Happy and Myrtle is never defined, but Happy, who has the most elaborate and still worst comb-over ever, at least, seems jealous of Myrtle being with other men.)

Happy (Hank Mann) has an elaborate but really obvious comb-over.

Sykes then suspects Angel, who not only had a public falling out with Mitch, but also has a criminal record. The police start to search the park and close it down to the public, much to Ma’s and the other proprietor’s dismay. While you would expect the police to start with Ma’s house, they don’t. While they’re waiting, Harry breaks down and confesses to Ma. Not happy about Jennie and Angel’s burgeoning romance and their plans to leave, Ma decides to kill two birds with one stone. She decides to hide the gun in plain sight, putting it back with Angel’s suitcase.

Eventually, the police find the murder weapon and arrest Angel for the murder. While they are taking him away, Jennie finally breaks down and tells Sykes that she saw her brother Harry shoot Mitch. Harry is then led away.
With the murder solved, the park is reopened. Ma has no time to worry about Harry; there are suckers to fleece. She even puts Angel back to work as barker out to bring in customers.

In order to save Angel from being taken away by Det. Sykes (Purnell Pratt),
Jennie finally admits her brother Harry shot Mitch.

There are no records available about how well the film did at the box-office; Time magazine did appreciate its length and concise story. However, for only 60 minutes there is still filler. There is a scene in the film with Jennie and Angel down at the beach. She seems to run hot and cold throughout the movie, openly flirting with Angel one minute and then here not wanting him to kiss her even when they are all alone under the pier. While I’m sure this might have played well on stage and their relationship is important to the plot, this still feels like wasted time.

Grant Withers, who is the lead, had his greatest success in early talkies. Young, handsome and able to show sensitivity, Withers would get top billing in two early Cagney films, this and Other Men’s Women (1931). But as the years went by, Withers' stature fell. While he did manage to get a 10 year contract at Republic Films, he did not have the splashy career Cagney was destined to have. In Sinners' Holiday, he seems to be good-natured with a dry sense of humor. He’s likable, which is about all his character is required to be.

Likewise, Evelyn Knapp was a star out of the gates with talking pictures. She was one of fourteen girls, along with the likes of Ginger Rogers and Gloria Stuart, selected as "WAMPAS Baby Stars" in 1932. She would star in Bachelor Mother (1932), a film that would be remade in 1939 with Ginger Rogers in the lead. Knapp would co-star with Cagney and Edward G. Robinson in Smart Money (1931) and find success in serials, starring in the title role in the Perils of Pauline (1933). In Sinners' Holiday, she is mostly fickle eye candy. Her character can’t seem to make up her mind if she’s in love with Angel or not, but she finally rises up to do the right thing, even If it means her brother goes to jail.

Lucille La Verne had been acting since 1888, starting out on stage before moving to silent films in 1915 with Over Night. She may be best remembered for, but uncredited as, the voice of the Queen and the Witch in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), which would turn out to be her last film. Here she plays a strong and somewhat devious woman. She manages to infuse a rather one-dimensional role with a little depth.

While Cagney is not the star, you get the feeling he’s being prepared by the studio for bigger things. However, I wouldn’t say Cagney hit it out of the ballpark on his first time at bat. His character may play a killer, but it is almost by accident. This is not the tough gangster character that Cagney will become famous for playing. Harry, like Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949), is a momma’s boy. Cagney, to his credit, plays it well and you can see the beginnings of a movie persona that he would get to develop over time. The Warner Bros. obviously say something, because his original contract, which had only covered the three week shoot, was extended and he was added to The Doorway to Hell (1930), starring Lew Ayres, that was already in production.

James Cagney, whose career was just starting, was going places after Sinners' Holiday.

Joan Blondell had appeared in a few Warner Bros. shorts before Sinners' Holiday, including Broadway’s Like That (1930), which also starred Humphrey Bogart, and the feature The Office Wife (1930), which was shot at the same time as, but released before, Sinners' Holiday. Blondell is underused in this role, mostly limited to looking pretty, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of meat on Myrtle’s bones.

Joan Blondell isn't given much to do in Sinners' Holiday.

One other note about the actors in the film, Hank Mann, Myrtle’s boss Happy, got his start as one of cinema’s first film comedians, working with Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, as an original Keystone Cop. Fellow ensemble actor, Edgar Kennedy, credits Mann with originating the idea for the Cops in the first place. Again, his part in the film doesn’t really stretch the actor or give him a chance to demonstrate any comedic capabilities.

This is one of those films that is almost over before you know it. Typical of Warner Bros. programmers of the time, no grass grows under the characters in this film. The plot keeps moving forward, taking only a slight break for the scene with Jennie and Angel on the beach. The story really isn’t that bad, complete with treachery and deceit and, of course, murder. While this definitely has the elements of the gangster genre, including prohibition and a speakeasy, Sinners' Holiday is not nearly as violent nor the characters as menacing as would become more typical of the genre.

Overall, Sinners' Holiday is a film that might have gone completely unnoticed if it hadn’t been the debut of James Cagney, one of the biggest stars of the 1930s and 40s. A decent film, but certainly not a great one, it is worth watching if you’re a fan of Cagney’s.