Pleasures of the Pre-Code: Forbidden Hollywood Volumes 4 and 5

This astounding publicity shot of a screwfaced James Cagney reluctantly probing the shoulder of a coolly admiring Claire Dodd should sell anyone on the value of Hard To Handle (1933), or of the two new volumes of WB’s Forbidden Hollywood DVD series that is releasing it. The way Cagney separates his left ring and pinky fingers – as if he couldn’t bear to put the effort into using all five digits – exemplifies his casual mastery (even in PR shoots!) in fleshing out the con-artist cads he played throughout this period. And this is only one of the pleasures found within volumes 4 and 5 of the series, which includes a trio of treats from director William Dieterle, and snappy banter from the likes of Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell. The last edition appeared in 2009, containing a bevy of depression-scarred William Wellman films, but as DVD sales have continued to crater, so has the prominence of this series, with the new editions being released on WB’s movies-on-demand line, the Warner Archive.

Volume 4 includes Jewel Robbery (1932), Lawyer Man (1932), Man Wanted (1932) and They Call It Sin (1932). The first three were directed by William Dieterle in his first flurry of creativity after arriving from Germany in 1931. I have enthused about Jewel Robbery in this space before, but it is truly a marvel, an effervescent sex (and drugs) comedy that is also one of Hollywood’s rare explorations of female desire. Kay Francis wishes for adventure, and in swoops the slick-haired and slicker-tongued thief William Powell, waiting to sweep her away. Lawyer Man (shot in 21 days) finds Powell back as a smooth talker, this time as an idealistic New York City lawyer brought low by the corruption in the system and in his loins. His sole connection to his former straight life is his ever-loyal and plucky secretary Lola, played with usual verve by Joan Blondell.

Blondell is the star of Miss Pinkerton (1932), part of Volume 5, which also includes Hard To Handle (’33), Ladies They Talk About (’33) and The Mind Reader (’33). As with Kay Francis in Jewel Robbery, Blondell plays a gal eager for adventure, although instead of a society dame, she’s a gum-smacking nurse. While dressing down to her negligee in the employee lounge, she dreams of an escape from routine and the smell of chloroform. Then she is plucked to minister to a sick old crone in an old dark house. It turns out the crone’s nephew may have been murdered there, and the detective in charge (George Brent) has tapped Blondell to glean any info she can from its nervous inhabitants. The story is a third-rate whodunit, but it’s directed by the prolific pro Lloyd Bacon with speed and plenty of comically looming shadows, and Blondell is as charming as ever, blazing through the dusty plot mechanics with a brassy bravado.

Then there’s Hard To Handle, a breezy comedy about an endearing shyster. Cagney is loose and playful as Lefty Merrill, a two-bit scam artist who goes from promoting a phony “treasure hunt” (which causes a riot) to becoming the CEO of his own giant PR firm. The art of the con is essential knowledge for the advertising biz, as Cagney lies his way up the ladder. His rise is paralleled with his gal pal Ruth (Mary Brian), an aspiring model whose scheming mother Lil (Ruth Donnelly) plans to marry her to the richest husband possible. As Lefty’s fortune’s rise and fall and rise again, so does Lil’s interest. Everyone has an angle, but this is no cynical satire, but rather a bubbly romantic comedy. Director Mervyn LeRoy simply lets Cagney spin like a top, his machine-gunning speech patterns timed to nimble half-pirouettes, a man in constant motion, forever searching for a score. Scrounging for money was simply a fact of life, with no moral qualms attached.

Ladies They Talk About is saddled with moralizing speeches, by radio pedagogue David Slade (Preston Foster). A non-denominational preacher, he gains fame (and one assumes) fortune from railing against the vices pre-code Warner Brothers capitalized so heartily on. But while Slade wins in the end, there is plenty of titillation in between his hollow victory. The focus of his efforts is Nan Taylor (a particularly slinky Barbara Stanwyck), who got arrested for acting as a decoy for a gang of bank robbers. Initially posing as innocent, Slade sets up a PR assault to set her free, until she offhandedly admits her guilt, and Slade lets her go to jail. One of the earliest women-in-prison movies, Ladies They Talk About excels in scenes of female camaraderie, as Stanywck strikes up an instant friendship with another tough broad played by Lillian Roth. She takes her on a tour of the cell block, a hard-bitten crew of murderers and thieves given a roll-call in close-up, no innocents here. Directors Howard Bretherton and William Keighley give a sense of their daily routine in an impressive tracking shot across multiple cells. A particularly grim vision of femininity as imprisonment, Nan’s union with Slade retrospectively looks like she’s trading one cell for another.

Warren William’s characters, however, thoroughly enjoy the patriarchy and wring every advantage possible out of it. In The Mind Reader (shot in 22 days), William plays another con-artist of the carny kind, pulling teeth “painlessly” at a county fair, selling hair tonic on the road, and finally hitting the jackpot in the fortune telling business. He slaps a towel on his head, calls himself “Chandra”, and William has women pledging their bank accounts to him. Busy milking the rubes, he also finds time to fall in love with boring good-girl Sylvia (Constance Cummings), who only marries him if he promises to quit the con game. He agrees, and pathetically goes door-to-door selling wire brushes.  William tells a friend, “I’m on the straight and narrow…you know…the wife.” Bored and broken, William realizes he’s a cheat at heart, and returns to soothsaying even though he knows it could destroy his life. In the shattering penultimate sequence, William is shown drunk in Tijuana, the perfectly oiled William coiffure mussed into a mess. Overcome by self-loathing, he re-directs it toward the crowd, berating them for believing his lies of their future, believing that his own had all but run out.

A cornucopia of deviant money-grubbing borne out of the Great Depression, volumes 4 and 5 of Forbidden Hollywood are ideal viewing for our never-ending Great Recession, with the added value of sublime performances from Kay Francis, James Cagney, Joan Blondell and Barbara Stanwyck. There is no finer way to spend an economic apocalypse than in their company.

0 Response Pleasures of the Pre-Code: Forbidden Hollywood Volumes 4 and 5
Posted By vp19 : July 24, 2012 10:30 am

Let’s not forget the grapefruit in-jokes that populate “Hard To Handle” (a Florida development Cagney is promoting is called “Grapefruit Acres”). I consider this his best comedy of the ’30s — and I love how Mary Brian and Ruth Donnelly’s characters frequently dress alike.

Another interesting angle is that Warners sought to borrow Carole Lombard from Paramount for the Brian role, but she apparently read the script and rejected it. About a year before, Lombard spurned a chance to work with Cagney on “Taxi!”, but at the time she considered being loaned out demeaning. The success of “Taxi!” changed her mind about that, and she subsequently went to Columbia for “Virtue” and “No More Orchids.” (Carole and James weren’t the closest of friends, but apparently there was no inherent acrimony between them.) Lombard was frequently praised by her peers for her script sense, but this is proof that nobody bats 1.000; Brian was a good leading lady, yet one wonders whether Cagney could have elicited something from Carole that audiences didn’t see until she worked with John Barrymore in “Twentieth Century.”

Anyway, these look like two terrific sets, a nice pre-Code complement to the recent Columbia issue (which includes “Virtue” among its five films).

Posted By Juana Maria : July 24, 2012 4:40 pm

From the first photo in this article don’t give me any of that James Cagney was faithful to wife except when Merle Oberon was flaunting herself at him! He looks every bit the naughty Irishman that lives in many an American male!

Posted By Qalice : July 24, 2012 6:37 pm

I’m completely obsesses with pre-Code movies and I’ll have to get my mitts on this set. I’m grateful to TCM for airing so many pre-Code movies and whetting my appetite!

Posted By Jason : July 24, 2012 7:32 pm

I really hope that if future sets are released, they showcase some more Warren William films. In particular, “Skyscraper Souls” and “Employees’ Entrance.” I suppose we should be happy with whatever we get though.

Posted By robbushblog : July 24, 2012 7:55 pm

Is that Mary Brian as both a brunette at top and a blonde in profile further down? They look like different women. While the brunette is very attracrive, the blonde is stunning, at least she is in profile.

Posted By mvtt : July 25, 2012 3:19 am

The top photo is Claire Dodd, who is also in Hard to Handle. hmm, Claire Dodd or Mary Brian – tough choice – both were gorgeous. i prefer Mary Brian, if only because i most associate Claire Dodd with bad girl roles, the types of characters that make you want to boo and hiss at the screen, (in ‘Footlight Parade’, for example).

Posted By robbushblog : July 25, 2012 9:12 am

So the blonde is Mary Brian? I couldn’t find any other pictures of her looking quite like that. I went through about 10 pages on Google Images.

And now to Google Claire Dodd. Thanks, mvtt!

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : July 25, 2012 10:03 am

My apologies for identifying the woman in the top photo as Mary Brian. She is the main actress in the film, so I just assumed it was her. I will make the fix. Thanks to MVTT for the catching my mistake.

Posted By Links 7.25.12 « Speakeasy : July 25, 2012 11:43 am

[...] cool pic of the day: “publicity shot of a screwfaced James Cagney &Claire Dodd should sell anyone on the value of Hard To Handle” read the rest via tcm movie morlocks [...]

Posted By swac44 : July 25, 2012 12:27 pm

Weird, didn’t get an email notification about this post, but that’s the Internet for you. Glad to read something a little more in-depth on these welcome releases from Warner Archives. I have all of the previous Forbidden Hollywood sets (on DVD and laserdisc) and simply can’t get enough of these films. Too bad the new Fox MOD collection doesn’t have any prime pre-codes, but I’m sure they’ll release some eventually (especially the Spencer Tracy titles).

Finally saw Jewel Robbery on TCM a few weeks ago, what a treat, after reading about it all these years. It’s definitely a film I will return to, early ’30s filmmaking at its breeziest.

Posted By Jenni : July 25, 2012 7:00 pm

One of my favorite Francis-Powell films is (sorry name of film escapes me) is where she is wealthy, but doomed to die young of a heart condition, and he is a death penalty criminal being transported via ocean liner to his fate, they meet on the liner, and fall in love. Such a bittersweet film but well done. Your post has made me want to get my hands on Jewel Robbery. I’m wondering, which pairing of Francis-Powell came first. Jewel Robbery or the title I can’t recall?

Posted By swac44 : July 25, 2012 10:18 pm

That would be One Way Passage, which I saw for the first time a couple of months ago on TCM. Quite enjoyable, and like most of these films, told with a breezy, not-a-frame-wasted style that wraps everything up in 75 minutes. What more do you need?

Now if I could just see Ladies’ Man from 1930 with Powell, Francis AND Carole Lombard! Or Street of Chance with Powell, Francis AND Jean Arthur! Talk about dream casting.

Posted By sbbn : July 25, 2012 11:34 pm

Jewel Robbery is unquestionably one of my favorite films, a terrific pre-code that almost out-Lubitsches Lubitsch. It has been screaming for a decent DVD release for ages, and I’m so glad to see it’s getting one.

VP19 is right about the grapefruit jokes in Hard to Handle; there are also a few in 1933′s Lady Killer.

Posted By Jenni : July 26, 2012 9:47 pm

Thank you, yes, One Way Passage!

Posted By Juana Maria : July 27, 2012 3:09 pm

I always like “Baby Face” and “Safe in Hell”,they seem more realistic than movies after the code was enforced. That and I love Barbara Stanwyck movies. I lnow she is not in the other movie but it is interesting if though I don’t know the cast.

Posted By Terry Sherwood : July 27, 2012 4:04 pm

This article contains the term Shyster which is a racist term to Jewish people. It refers to Shylock. I would suggest you edit your copy or become more aquainted with language. I was disgusted.

Posted By S : July 27, 2012 7:28 pm

In regard to the above reply, I know a little German and was sure the word “shyster” came from a rather naughty German word that had nothing to do with Jewish people. So I looked it up, and pretty much everything I found online seems to agree to an extent. Further, the “Shylock” etymology is false, just an urban legend. See both Wikipedia and (should be the first results in a web search) for examples.

That said, many feel it’s a coded term, i.e. a dog whistle, for an anti-Semitic slur. And maybe over the years it has come to mean something anti-Semitic amongst a certain group of people, but it’s not commonly defined that way; therefore, charging that the author should “become more aquainted [sic] with language” is not at all appropriate, in my opinion.

Posted By swac44 : July 28, 2012 10:21 am

Reminds me of the time someone wanted to rake me over the coals for my use of the word “nebbish”. Sheesh.

Posted By Terry Sherwood : July 28, 2012 10:58 pm

So then the swastika is to display because it is a hindu symbol or has the meaning changed??? Any hint whatever it is and the term should be removed. Is it ok to smoke my “Fag”? Victorian Ghost stories used the term ‘queer’ for something supernatural and odd happening. I wonder why that isn’t used anymore? I can accept it in a film of that time like Edward G Robinson playing Chinese man or Richard Barthelmess being billed as ‘The Chink” due to society but not from a writer of today. Better words to have used to describe what you are trying to do without it.

Posted By swac44 : July 29, 2012 1:39 pm

“Is it ok to smoke my “Fag”?”

Sure, the British don’t seem to have a problem with it. It’s all about context.

I don’t see anyone refusing to use the term “a chink in their armour,” the English language is flexible enough to allow synonyms. I have no plans to sing “don we now our festive apparel” at Christmas any time soon.

Posted By Juana Maria : July 30, 2012 1:57 pm

I think you have all gotten far off the topic we started with. However, I do agree words should be used carefully so as not to offend others. I remember there being offensive words in “Blazing Saddles” and many people think that movie is so funny! Well,it is funny,but the racist terms removed from it would not detract from most of the jokes. Also,in “The Tall T”,Henry Silva plays a character called “Chink”. There is rather obscure film called “The McMasters” which is difficult to listen to because of the “N” word being used constantly! I do not condone racisism! It is ugly and destructive!

Posted By robbushblog : July 30, 2012 8:22 pm

The point of the racial slurs used in Blazing Saddles was in making fun of people who use racial slurs; to make them appear ignorant. It succeeds magnificently.

Posted By Stacia : July 30, 2012 10:09 pm

Rob is correct. The race-based jokes in Blazing Saddles are social commentary. It’s not the same as the casual racism in films like The Tall T, it’s specifically designed to examine and deconstruct that racism.

Also, to Terry, the Nazi swastika is not the same as the Hindu symbol you refer to. All you have to do is go to Wikipedia (as was suggested earlier) and see MANY cultures still use the symbol today.

Further, “queer” doesn’t always mean gay, but even when it does, it’s not a pejorative. Many identify as queer; it’s the “Q” in QUILTBAG. I recently participated in the terrific Queer Films Blogathon, and I would have been pretty upset had someone come along and tried to lecture all of us in the ‘thon by claiming “queer” was an offensive word.

This is such a strange thread, with two people giving a host of examples that actually contradict the point they’re attempting to make.

Posted By Karin : August 9, 2012 7:57 am

Yes please – more Warren William films on DVD !

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