I'll admit to being disappointed when I learned that volume 10 of Warner Archive's Forbidden Hollywood series would be the last. From the first installment, these sets of pre-code movies have always been a must-have for me. I've made so many great discoveries through the series over the years, and enjoyed being able to own copies of films I'd only previously had access to through TCM and aging VHS tapes.
There's something to be said for leaving the party while you are still having fun though. Every volume of the series has been well curated and it is good that it is finishing strong with a set of intriguing films. It is also encouraging that Warner Archive has emphasized that it remains committed to releasing pre-code films, something which I have already seen to be true.
Guilty Hands (1931)
Lionel Barrymore plays an oily, amoral D.A. who kills a womanizing client (Alan Mowbray) during a weekend party at his isolated estate when he learns the man plans to marry his much younger daughter (Madge Evans) the next day. Thinking he has committed the perfect crime, he confidently asserts to the police that it is a suicide. He soon realizes that the dead man's long-suffering mistress (Kay Francis) is on to him though, and a battle of wits and wills ensues.
A lot happens in the brief 69 minutes of this efficient little thriller. It's an interesting role for Francis. She's as fashionable as always, but she gets to play a clever sleuth in that string of pearls and satin evening dress. It's amusing to watch the delight she takes in each new discovery as she unravels the particulars of Barrymore's crime. Though she can go a bit too bug-eyed in some of the more dramatic scenes, she hits the right spots emotionally in one of her more intriguing performances.
I found the relationship between Barrymore and Evans a bit odd, with the overly cozy body contact and long kisses on the mouth. Was such contact between fathers and daughters deemed acceptable back in the day? Or is there something to be read from what I found to be the unsettling sensuality of their bond?
The Mouthpiece (1932)
At first this law drama seems to be serving up the same wolfish Warren William to be found in most of his pre-codes. That type is subverted here though, and in an interesting way. You keep thinking the story is settling back into a conventional rut, when it takes another unexpected turn and tricks you yet again.
William is Vince Day, a lawyer who discards his morals and starts representing criminals when he learns he has sent a wrongfully convicted man to the electric chair. He uses unconventional methods to keep crooks out of jail, resorting to sensational behavior like punching state witnesses and taking poison to make his point (only to have his stomach pumped just in time). Young Southern belle Celia Farraday (Sidney Fox) catches his eye, and he prepares to make another conquest, but she is much wiser than her innocent demeanor would have you believe.
When Celia begins to turn the tables on Vince, he is as stunned as if every dastardly Warren William character were lining up to take it on the chin. There is danger of excessive sentimentality, but Fox keeps her character sharp and crisp. Vince, while capable of change, adjusts his personality subtly. You believe that he had good in him all along, but also that the cad is never going to entirely disappear.
Secrets of the French Police (1932)
Despite running barely over an hour, this brisk flick manages to cover several genres, and none of them thoroughly. It's a bit of a romance, mostly a police procedural, sort of a comedy, but with hints of horror.
Frank Morgan stars as police inspector François St. Cyr, an innovative gumshoe with a crime lab and a passion for advanced investigative techniques. Eugenie Dorain (Gwili Andre) and Leon Renault (John Warburton) are lovers, she a flower girl, he a petty criminal. Eugenie is kidnapped by power-mad General Hans Moloff (Gregory Ratoff) who hypnotizes her into believing she is the exiled Princess Anastasia. He also kills women and coats them in wax, just like in that year's Mystery of the Wax Museum (1932).
You are more likely to enjoy this movie if you don't try to understand it. Just take in the visuals, like Morgan's striking method of creating a larger-than-life police sketch, the creepy wax figures and the trippy hypnotism scene. The leads also have just enough to offer. Morgan is lightly amusing and clever; Andre is a bit stiff, but intriguing for her unusual beauty; and Warburton is a slight, but interesting talent with a soft-eyed, gentle, but confident style that reminded me of Cary Elwes as Westly in The Princess Bride.
It isn't quite good, but it's an experience worth having.
The Match King (1932)
An interesting, and rare for the time, pre-credit sequence sets up this quasi-biopic of Swedish match mogul Ivar Krueger like a comedy, but it is always at its core a story of a tragic man. William is Paul Kroll, a Swedish man working various cons in Chicago who heeds a call to return home to save the family business, a struggling match factory.
Kroll is fond of saying, "Never worry about anything till it happens. I'll take care of it then." The only problem is that he seems to tell himself this too, but his chief talent is conning investors and bankers into loans he can't repay.
Though he never makes enough to cover debts, he does know how to build sales: Kroll comes up with Krueger's real-life idea to create the superstition that lighting three cigarettes on a match is bad luck in order to quickly increase sales by a third. He is also not above resorting to murder to stamp out competition and reduce his own risks. Even in the pre-code age, there's no way he's getting away with it all, though it's always interesting to watch him try.
Lili Damita is a fascinating Garbo/Dietrich hybrid as Marta Molnar, an actress who mesmerizes Kroll.
Ever in My Heart (1933)
This movie starts with a perfect romance which unsteadily becomes a tragedy. Stanwyck is Mary Archer, a wealthy small town girl all ready to marry her cousin Jeff (you know she won't because he's Ralph Bellamy, eternal resident of Dumpsville). She changes her plans when she becomes completely smitten by Jeff's German friend Hugo (Otto Kruger). They marry, have a child, and live a happy life as respected members of the community. Then World War I breaks out and Hugo's German heritage is suddenly viewed as a threat by the townspeople.
What follows is typically frustrating and heartbreaking, especially after the warmth of the opening scenes. Mary wonders what to do with her life, while from across the room a group of women from the town read each other newspaper horror stories about the war. One woman gasps, "Oh my gracious goodness, why I thought they only did those things in the Bible," and you know the propaganda machine is in full swing. Then begins the patient wait for common sense to prevail, or a believable tragedy to break the tension, but neither happens. This is a movie that stays true to human nature, but not so much to its core characters.
There's a scene where Mary gets a letter from Hugo in which he says he has joined the German army out of frustration with his treatment in America. For just a moment, a surge of tears reveals the force she had as a young actress whenever her character was in pain. It's frustrating though, because instead of spitting out an indignant rebuke of the situation, she suffers in silence. Though it is great acting, it isn't the Stanwyck the film needs. If there was ever a situation in which she needed to get angry and spew vitriol, this is it.
I can't completely dislike this movie, because Stanwyck has never been so beautiful, and she is always worth watching. While Otto Kruger had unconventional looks for a romantic lead, the pair has many tender and charming moments together. They have the unusually-charged chemistry of a pair who no one would think to match, but turns out to be perfectly in sync. This is why the way it all plays out is frustrating and in a lot of ways implausible, but it is worth the watch to see these actors together.
Love pre-codes? Grieving the end of the Forbidden Hollywood series? Check back tomorrow for a very special giveaway!
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.