Thursday, January 10, 2013

Last Night on TCM...: Loretta Young Before the Code

Making her film debut as a child actress in the early teens before graduating to more adult fare at the ripe age of 15 in Lon Chaney's Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928), Loretta Young is best remembered today for her Emmy-winning 1950s TV show "The Loretta Young Show", a classy drama anthology series featuring her in lavish gowns and family friendly fare, and winning the Best Actress Oscar in 1947 for The Farmer's Daughter. Young was a lifelong Catholic, her religion informing most of her career decisions, resulting in a beautiful squeaky clean image throughout most of her years in front of the camera. Of course years later, taking into consideration her divorces and her illegitimate daughter with Clark Gable, we know about Loretta's wild side, one she worked hard to keep from the public eye. Adding to the delicious tarnishing of an impossibly flawless image are her works in pre-Code films, putting her in, as Robert Osborne puts it, "salacious situations", ones that years later, after paying her dues and becoming a bigger star, she would never deign to appear in. As TCM's Star of the Month, every Wednesday packs the schedule with some of Young's most interesting and noteworthy films, and tonight is all about the pre-Code naughtiness that I find so irresistible. Almost all are from her first contract studio, First-National, the little company absorbed by Warner Brothers, and one of the best producers of lurid melodramas in the early 1930s.

 Roy del Ruth's Employees' Entrance (1933) has developed a cult following over the years, especially after it appeared as part of MGM/UA's Forbidden Hollywood VHS series, and for good reason. Warren William, a favorite smarmy mustachioed heel in pre-Code films whose career floundered after Hollywood started cleaning up its act, stars as Kurt Anderson, a tyrannical employee at Franklin Monroe & Co., a giant department store he helps profit in the millions. Almost immediately after he threatens his way into a higher executive position, the store begins feeling the effects of the Depression and Anderson begins feeling the fire under his tush as he must continue proving his worth. He fires an elderly employee, and when he jumps out a window summarizes, "When a man outlives his usefulness, he should jump out a window." Young co-stars as Madeline Walters, a beautiful model who Anderson hires for the ladies' department and sleeps with as a reward, an action that comes back to haunt her when she secretly marries Anderson's new assistant (Wallace Ford), giving the vicious bastard ammunition to ruin their lives. Vibrant bleached blonde Alice White, the same year as her two-timing sex scandal virtually destroyed her career, is Polly, a flirtatious employee Anderson uses to seduce an executive to keep him distracted from the hostile takeover of the store.

Where other studios and films tried to avoid even using the word "Depression", First-National and Warner Brothers' socially-conscious films had no qualms working the poverty and fear of the era into their story lines. A Franklin Monroe board meeting desperate for ideas to save the store is reflective of many real-life meetings that must have taken place in large businesses nationwide. Kurt Anderson is one of the most evil "heroes" the silver screen has ever seen, an early example of an anti-hero that the audience could never root for. Scholars like Thomas Doherty have argued that Anderson is an unusual kind of sympathetic, a man without love in his life and licked by the Depression, which is a rather bold analysis of such a hateful and venomous protagonist. But he might have a point. Del Ruth doesn't punish Anderson by the end of the film, letting the humorless blackmailer off the hook, and reunites the young lovers, infidelity and all, after a suicide attempt. For some reason, this has remained MIA as part of the Warner Archives Collection, but it's one to look out for when it airs on TCM again. Further proof that First-National/WB made the best pre-Code films, Employees' Entrance is one of the most obscure and rewarding gems of the era.

Original theatrical trailer for Employees' Entrance (1933)

William Wellman's Heroes for Sale (1933) is a film I saw at Film Forum early last year, double featured with his equally potent drama Wild Boys on the Road (1933), and both are in the top tier of pre-Code films. Revisiting it on TCM, I still maintain that it's one of the best films of the 1930s, politically explosive and socially relevant, even today. Fading silent star Richard Barthelmess, before he left the screen for good, stars as Tom Holmes, a WWI vet who performs a heroic act, is left for dead on the battlefield, and is nursed back to health to return to the US, only to discover that an old friend has taken credit for his heroism. To make matters worse, his medical treatment has resulted in a morphine addiction, which leads to him losing his job and struggling to make a living. The film follows the ups and downs of Tom's life, as he marries beautiful Ruth (our Miss Young), only to lose her in a senseless labor riot tragedy, which also lands him in jail and on the FBI's watch list as he gets out and walks the roads of America with his fellow vets searching for work.

If someone asked me to name a handful of films to introduce newcomers to the wonders of pre-Code films, Heroes for Sale would be on that short list. Not only does the film feature controversial subjects forbidden in films post-1934 (drug addiction, violence, questioning authority), it contains some of the most poignant scenes capturing life in the Depression that any film, before or since, has ever shown. To say anymore would sound like mere rambling hyperbole, so just take it from me: see this film. It's available on DVD with several other marvelous Wellman pre-Code features, including Wild Boys, and is an essential addition to any classic film fan's library.

Original theatrical trailer for Heroes for Sale (1933)

Young was loaned out to Darryl Zanuck and 20th Century-Fox for one of her last pre-Code wonders, Born to Be Bad (1934). With a title like that, it has to deliver the tantalizing goods, right before the Production Code cracked down on films like this, featuring unwed mothers, immoral behavior, and rebellious attitudes. We first see our heroine, Letty Strong, in a stunning gown, drinking champagne and surrounded by male admirers at a swanky club in the opening sequence. The next shot: Letty in revealing lingerie in her bedroom. Yep, this is pre-Code all right. And just look at that poster above! When she isn't living the high life of a party girl, Letty is a single mother dealing with an unruly young son named Mickey (Jackie Kelk) who is constantly skipping school and causing trouble. She has a confidante named Fuzzy (Henry Travers), who helped the poor unwed mother when she was down on her luck (Mickey was born in the backroom of his bookstore), and a procurer named Steve who books her "appointments". Wild boy Mickey is run over by a milk truck driven by president of the dairy company, Malcolm Trevor (pre-stardom Cary Grant), giving Letty the wise idea to get Mickey to lie about his injuries to fleece Trevor of more money. The plan backfires, resulting in Mickey being taken from Letty and placed in a boys' home. Re-enter Malcolm, who adopts Mickey in order for Letty to be able to see her son on a regular basis. But this girl still has some bad left in her, as she tries to use her body and blackmail to get Mickey back on a permanent basis. As Malcolm says, "You're bad, bad all the way through. You're just a beautiful bad girl." Indeed!

Born to Be Bad is especially surprising considering it doesn't seem to even try hiding the fact that Letty is a prostitute. She refers to her clients by their hometowns (Detroit, St. Louis) and has phone conversations with Steve setting up her next tricks. But apparently, even with such controversial and obvious scenes, the film was plagued with censorship problems from the get-go, reportedly re-written and re-shot to please the Hays Office. All said and done, it doesn't seem to have made much difference; the film is still full of alarming sexiness and innuendo, as well as a cliched Jewish lawyer sure to raise eyebrows. Young is quite amazing in a role that must have been a challenge to her delicate sensibilities, speechifying about her rough past and her right to raise a child to face the world with strength and decency, and it's interesting to see her work with Cary Grant a full decade before they re-teamed for their enduring classic The Bishop's Wife (1947). Running a brief 62 minutes, the film just flies by and is a pleasant last gap of pre-Code badness.

Young worked again with director Wellman in Midnight Mary (1933), another film included in the pre-Code set with Heroes for Sale. While Wellman is remembered today mostly for his work on testosterone-driven films like Wings (1927), Blood Alley (1955), and The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), his films with women in the 1930s are exceptional and, for my money, the best of his career. Wellman's women are tough, no-nonsense, and frequently atypical of their contemporaries. Both Wellman and Young were borrowed from First-National/WB by MGM to make this one, and it pales in comparison to their work at their home studio, but it's still a good time to be had by those seeking Depression-era melodrama.

Introduced reading Cosmo while waiting for a jury to decide whether she's guilty of murder, Mary Martin (Young) sits with the court clerk (Charley Grapewin), remembering her past as it plays out before our eyes. Her mother dies when she is 9, she is caught for stealing and thrown into reform school, and gets out only to become a teenage prostitute walking the streets. But deep down, Mary is a good girl. She accidentally plays lookout for a hoodlum boyfriend of hers and guiltily donates her $50 pay-off to the Salvation Army. Anxious to get a decent job and pull herself out of poverty, she finds herself drawn back into the world of gangsters and crime by her girlfriend Bunny (Una Merkel), becoming the bitter kept moll of Leo Darcy (Ricardo Cortez). Seductive lawyer Tom Mannering (Franchot Tone, around the time he started dating Joan Crawford) offers her a way out, paying for secretarial school and helping her move towards her dream of becoming a businesswoman, and of course the pair fall in love. But there's no escaping your past, as Mary is tossed in jail for not squealing on the whereabouts of wanted man Leo and hooks back up with the louse upon her release.

In a role written by Anita Loos for MGM contract player Jean Harlow (who passed on it), Young does well with a multi-layered character, but at times self-consciously acts as if she knows she's replacing someone with more star power. Wellman, used to flying by the seat of his pants with quick shooting schedules and B-movie budgets, doesn't seem to be having much of a good time, either. Because this is MGM, the Depression presented here has a glossy look to it, robbing it of the sense of realism that First-National/WB brought to similar stories of girls gone bad around the same time. Amusing character actor Warren Hymer is fun as a comic relief hood, Andy Devine gives his trademark whine as Tom's buddy Sammy, and the marvelous Louise Beavers is (of course) wasted as Anna, Mary's maid. With plentiful innuendo and some fine characterizations, Midnight Mary isn't a complete waste, but it's not indicative of the kind of fun to be had with films of its type.

And we're back where pre-Code belongs, First National/WB, with They Call It Sin (1932). What a title, and what a delicious little morsel! Stranded in Merton, Kansas on a stopover during a business trip, Jimmy Decker (David Manners, the year after Dracula) becomes taken with lovely church organist and aspiring songwriter Marion Cullen (Young), a vibrant young girl whose parents feel that her spirited ways are downright sinful. Yeah, smiling a lot and walking down the street with a boy would really piss God off. Upon learning that the Cullens aren't really her parents, and her true mother was a trashy singer who made a pit stop in town while touring with her band, Marion decides to go for it and escape to New York City, where Jimmy will surely be happy to see her. She arrives to find Jimmy engaged to perky Enid Hollister (Helen Vinson), despite his continued feelings for her, and hits the pavement looking for work in the music business, pursued by Jimmy's best friend, Dr. Tony Travers (romantic lead favorite George Brent). A third man enters her life in the form of sleazy theatrical producer Ford Humphries (go-to villain Louis Calhern), providing Marion with a multitude of choices in her search for happiness and success.

Women in the Depression would kill for the opportunities given Marion in this film! At every turn, she finds herself presented with some new exciting possibility in work or romance, and this is what makes pre-Code films such interesting vehicles for their female protagonists. Even when they succumb to sinful temptation, it is often for good reason: the American dream. Young feels right at home as small-town goodie two-shoes Marion, and she is surrounded by great company. The male cast is like a Mt. Rushmore of handsome in the 1930s: George Brent, David Manners, and Louis Calhern. Triple swoon! Una Merkel, misused in Midnight Mary, is simply marvelous as Dixie Dare, the Southern belle dancer who adopts Marion in their mutual search for work in Manhattan. Hollywood never gave her the leading roles she deserved, but as a comic character actress, she proved memorable in almost everything. She appears here in a sultry scene prancing around in her underwear. Add always-great character actor Roscoe Karns (Shapely in It Happened One Night) to the mix and you've got a doozy of a cast in a delightfully compact little winner!

Three-minute preview clip of They Call It Sin (1932)

You'll need to prepare yourself for The Hatchet Man (1932). A film focused on Tong wars among Chinese immigrants in 1930s San Francisco, every key role is played by a white actor. Warner Brothers apparently could not (or would not) enlist the talents of Anna May Wong or anyone else of legitimate Chinese descent for a film without white characters. An opening credits crawl gives historical background to the Tong wars in San Francisco, described as having the largest Chinese population outside of the homeland. The "hatchet man" is defined as being the dispenser of justice, essentially a hired killer assigned targets by the leaders of a Tong. As hatchet man Wong Low Get, Edward G. Robinson is ordered to kill his childhood friend Sun Yat Ming (J. Carroll Naish), who forgives him before the deed but asks that Wong raise his daughter Toya (Young). Things get complicated and weird when Toya comes of age and Wong proposes to, okay...but when he becomes distracted by a new Tong war, she begins a relationship with younger Tong gangster Harry (Leslie Fenton). Wong is expelled from the Tong for allowing the pair to elope and to regain his honor, he treks to China to right the wrong done to him.

Wellman, who had previously tackled Tong wars in the unusual silent-talkie hybrid Chinatown Nights (1929), develops beautiful atmosphere in the San Francisco streets and slums, as he did in that earlier film. The beheading execution scene of Yat Ming is nicely cross-cut with infant Toya's doll's head falling off, and there are some grotesque moments of uneasy violence throughout the film (including perhaps the best pre-Code ending of all). The political incorrectness of Hatchet Man makes it relatively difficult to watch in many scenes, especially with the ludicrous makeup used on Robinson, Young, and Fenton. One wonders why, if the unproduced play it was based on was purchased by WB, they didn't just translate the general storyline into an American gangster story, where it would have worked just as well. No one involved with this one looks back on it without embarrassment, and while it's not that much of a mess, it's pretty compellingly bad.

Watch the whole movie The Hatchet Man (1932), if you dare...

Young is back in the department store in Play-Girl (1932), a lovely salesgirl working with her best friend, wisecracking blonde Georgine (top-billed songstress Winnie Lightner, in one of only a handful of films before marrying director Roy del Ruth). Georgine and Buster are two young women eking out a living working behind the store counter, Buster in infant wear and Georgine in (gulp) plumbing supplies. They live in a tiny apartment in New York City while trying to land the perfect man. While Georgine sidles up to fellow employee Finky (brilliant character actor Guy Kibbee) in an effort to get out of plumbing, Buster is wooed by humorous charmer Wally (Norman Foster), and the quartet goes on a camping vacation together. Buster and Wally marry, but she discovers on their honeymoon that he's a career gambler, causing her to cast him out when she becomes pregnant and she doesn't trust him to support her and the baby. Of course this being the Depression, she falls on hard times and has to start gambling herself to pay her bills.

The best thing about pre-Code films is that, for the most part, they clock in between 60 and 75 minutes, so the pacing is quick, the dialogue snappy, and the stories engaging. This one runs an hour and is great fun the whole way through. It runs the emotional gamut from gut-busting comedy to heart-breaking tragedy, which says a lot for its brief running time. "I don't want a good time. I just want to be safe." is a statement that perfectly describes the women in pre-Code films, and the working woman heroine of Play-Girl is one of Young's finest. She might be the pretty center of the film, but it's Lightner who's the star of the show. Her loud New Yawk voice is perfect for delivering one zinger after another, reminding me of Ethel Merman but tolerable. Georgine's tete-a-tete's with fellow shopgirl Edna (Dorothy Burgess) are classic. Asking to see Buster's new apartment's bedroom, Edna cracks, "You usually do." Georgine turns it right around: "You should know. I run into you coming out." Zing! On the flipside, Buster's final childbirth scene is made all the more moving by the character's reveal that her mother died giving birth to her, so her tears and terror are very potent and beautifully acted by Young. On a final note, it's fun to see that the department store boss is played by Dr. Van Helsing (Edward van Sloan).

The earliest film of the evening, The Ruling Voice (1931), is barely a Loretta Young film, but is an interesting entry in First National's gangster cycle..though it isn't really about the rat-a-tat-tat gangsters familiar from Little Caesar (1930) and The Public Enemy (1931). A series of Depression-era newspaper headlines remind us that costs are going up at the same rate as unemployment, and we are clued in as to what informs the rising prices of, well, everything. Jack Bannister (Walter Huston), working behind the front of a contracting business, runs the biggest protection racket in the country, using force to extort money from grocers, dairies, newspapers, etc. These businesses have to raise prices in order to survive as well as pay off Bannister's goons. Throwing a snag into Bannister's business as usual is the return of his estranged daughter Gloria (Young), who returns from going to school in Europe with a rich fiancee in tow, Dick Cheney (yes, that's his name, and he's played by David Manners, who would appear with Young again in They Call It Sin). When Gloria learns of her father's secret syndicate, she turns her back on him, causing trouble in her engagement in the process and speaking to Bannister's guilty conscience.

Going into The Ruling Voice expecting 1) a Loretta Young film or 2) a gangster movie will result in sure disappointment. Young looks lovely and is quite moving in a few scenes, but that's to be expected, and her subplot really drags down what could have been a compelling crime drama. Huston is quite good as a sophisticated alternative to the usual film gangsters, but he's no sneering Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, or Paul Muni, meaning he lacks a certain magnetism that goes hand in hand with the best criminals of pre-Code cinema. The mix of family melodrama and Depression-era institutional crime is ultimately kind of a letdown. Silent star Doris Kenyon is excellent as a wealthy customer of Bannister's, and another of the most reliable and talented character actors of the era, Willard Robertson, has a great bit as a traitor to Bannister's business. Dudley Digges (who was positively frightful in Oriental get-up in The Hatchet Man) recalls the best Charles Laughton as Bannister's personal assistant, and figures into some of the film's humorous moments. Despite the pacing problems, there is some great photography here, as well as a handful of memorable tense moments, and the performances make it worth seeing for the curious.

The final Loretta Young vehicle of the night, She Had to Say Yes (1933), pairs Young again with the marvelous Winnie Lightner as well as another popular pre-Code leading man, Lyle Talbot, who like Warren William ended up in films of much lesser quality after 1934's Code enforcement. Talbot is best-known today for appearing in the films of Ed Wood, but he was a dashing figure in films like Three on a Match (1932), 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932), and Ladies They Talk About (1933). He also helped found SAG, though that piece of important history is often forgotten when examining his career. And believe it or not, this was Busby Berkeley's directorial debut!

It's back to the workplace, a favorite locale for First National/WB women , in this case the boutique Sol Glass & Co. Sex is on the brain from the opening sequence as a pair of shapely legs put on some nylons in close-up and women parade in front of double mirrors in revealing lingerie and dresses (designed by Orry-Kelly, responsible for almost all of Young's outfits in tonight's films). Executive Tommy Nelson (Regis Toomey) is introduced with lipstick on his cheek from a phone booth rendezvous with his secretary, Flo Denny (Young, in perhaps her most sexual screen entrance). It seems the company is suffering from dwindling sales, but in a board meeting, Tommy picks up on the fact that their biggest clients are taking advantage of the female clothing models without following through with purchases. Rather than pair clients up with flighty dress girls, the company proposes that, in exchange for a bonus and commission, the girls in the stenography pool be paired up with clients in the hopes of them following through and landing sales. Essentially the ladies become playgirls with the company as a very powerful pimp; officially they are called "customer girls". Initially Tommy refuses to let Flo participate, but when he slyly convinces her to go out with Danny Drew (Talbot) so he can two-time her with catty blonde Birdie (Suzanne Kilborn), little does he expect the sparks that will fly between the duo. After Danny attempts to date rape Flo (!), he sees that she really isn't in on the customer girl scam, and begins to develop genuine feelings for her.

Filled with sexism, but also surprising commentary on women in the Depression-era working world, She Had to Say Yes is bold and shocking in its title alone. The fact is that, actually, she didn't have to say yes. All the women in the film are asked, not told, if they would be interested in the customer girl system, and not all of them participate. When offered the quite lucrative deal of being paid commission on any sales gained through their dating clients, it ends up being a pretty impressive way for the women to exert their sexuality and establish financial security solely due to their gender. They essentially save the company! The idea of Flo warming to the guy who was ready to take advantage of her may seem outrageous,'s Lyle Talbot. He's irresistible, folks, and he wouldn't ditch her for a bleached blonde floozy like Birdie. Young is also almost raped by a drunken Tommy, making this maybe the most victimized character she ever played. As in Play-Girl, Winnie Lightner is an absolute scream! Called up by Flo as she frets about what to do when Drew brings her back to his hotel room, she exclaims, "What do I think you should do? Hey do you want 'em to take out my telephone?" She should have been a star, and it's sad that not only did she retire and never look back (no interviews with her exist, that I've found), but her husband, pre-Code director par excellence Roy del Ruth, didn't make films as great as when he did pre-1934. Some may say the same about Loretta Young, whose bright smile and impressive range were perhaps at their best before the Code allowed her to melt into the soft and safe persona she embraced to her death.

Brief clip of Loretta Young, Winnie Lightner, and sexual innuendo in She Had to Say Yes (1933)

The incredible Winnie Lightner throwing out one-liners like a pro in She Had to Say Yes (1933)

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