It's hard to believe that Warner Archive has just released volume 9 of Forbidden Hollywood, and encouraging that the series still offers high quality films. This time around, the collection has a more sober, socially conscious tone, though since this is the pre-code era, everyone still manages to squeeze in a little fun.
Big City Blues (1932) stars Eric Linden as Bud Reeves, a naïve, but determined small town boy who sets out for New York when he is given a small inheritance. There he is greeted by his older cousin Gibby (Walter Catlett), a dubious sponsor who is eager to help himself to his country cousin's cash.
Gibby introduces him to his friends, which ends up being big trouble for Bud. The exception is the essentially decent Vida (Joan Blondell), who so lights the young man's fire he appears to lose his virginity the first time he lays his eyes on her. A big party turns bad, and Reeves finds himself in one nightmarish situation after the other. It's basically the pre-code version of After Hours (1985).
This is a pretty cringe worthy film. Though it's played for laughs, it's painful to watch Gibby constantly take advantage of Bud, and the characters make so many bad decisions you want to bite a rock. It's also disconcerting the way the tone abruptly shifts, from naughty comedy to high tension drama. Big City Blues has its moments though: some snappy dialogue, a couple of heartfelt moments, and the amusingly young and clean-shaven Humphrey Bogart in a small role. It is also once again clear that Joan Blondell could do no wrong.
Hell's Highway (1932) certainly doesn't suffer from shifts in tone. It is bleak from beginning to end, though a thread of dark humor keeps it entertaining. Richard Dix is a career convict on the chain gang, and one of the few prisoners to be respected by the otherwise brutal guards. He makes plans to escape, but cancels them when he realizes his younger brother is a recent arrival at the camp. A murder, and outrage over the inhumane treatment of the guards leads the prisoners to riot, forcing an audience for their grievances.
Though the film is serious in its indictment of the prison system, the banter between a cast of eccentric characters adds just the right hint of humor. Music and illustrations are used to interesting effect, making the story bearable, but never lessening the impact of the message. Butter-voiced Dix fits this milieu perfectly, as a man who commands respect despite his flaws, and partly due to his own ability to laugh at the insanity of it all.
Cabin in the Cotton (1932) featured over-the-title billed Richard Barthelmess, but everyone remembers it for featuring a sexy Bette Davis, with bleached-blonde hair floating over her head like a halo, breaking out of those early drab sister roles as the daughter of a plantation owner.
It's a soberly wrought drama about trouble between landowners and cotton pickers, and it explores loyalty and social justice in a surprisingly complex way. The message doesn't stick though. All you remember is Davis singing Willie The Weeper and dropping trou for a stunned Barthelmess on a Sunday afternoon. The poor guy just can't handle all that blonde sizzle. The same holds true for the actor, who seems too sensitive, maybe even fragile, for the bold new age of talkies. His sloop-shouldered humility works well for the role though.
Everyone is thinking about sex in When Ladies Meet (1933). When a character quips, "you know better than I do how sticky you are," everyone knows exactly what he means. But it is most admirable for the honest way it approaches romantic fidelity and love.
Robert Montgomery pines for novelist Myrna Loy, who dismisses him in favor of her married publisher (Frank Morgan). One weekend, as the illicit pair have a rendezvous under the cover of work at a socialite's (Alice Brady) country home, Montgomery arranges for Morgan to return to town and for Loy to meet Ann Harding, the publisher's wife. He neglects to tell Loy who she really is though. The women become fond of each other, but Harding receives a jolt when she realizes she is talking to her husband's current paramour, the one she fears might be the woman to take him away from her.
This a great showcase for strong performances from Myrna Loy, Robert Montgomery, Alice Brady and Frank Morgan. They play slightly skewed versions of their pre-code personas, the same characters, but all of them a bit more self-aware. Brady is especially savvy to the fact that she is seen as an airhead, and doesn't seem too eager to let her intelligence be known. As another female character says, "it certainly doesn't pay to be too capable," especially for women in that era.
As good as the rest of the cast is, Harding easily steals the movie. The stage origins of the dialogue are clear; everyone is spouting well-honed ideas and not a bit of it seems real. Except for Harding that is. When she talks about "the ghastly job of living together," it sounds especially honest. She has a way of acting that, while still clearly being a performance, feels genuine.
Though actually a post-code film, I Sell Anything (1934) still has a bit of that anti-establishment glee that characterized the era. It stars Pat O'Brien as Spot Cash, the lead auctioneer at a shady, storefront auction house. He thinks that he has tricked a socialite (Claire Dodd) into paying too much for a buckle, only to find she has pulled a fast one on him. And it isn't the end of her schemes either.
Someone neglected to tell Spot that Claire Dodd always means trouble, which everyone else can see in her cat-that-ate-the-canary smirk. He's also predictably blind to the charms of Ann Dvorak, who once again is the loyal gal pal who waits patiently to be noticed.
Everyone in the cast could and would do better, but it's amusing to hear O'Brien race through his sales pitches and auction patter. Spot is creative and very convincing. You do believe that he could sell anyone anything.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs, though limited initial sets will be pressed. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.