Sunday, May 18th, 2008


Films In This Collection

  • Night Nurse
  • Three on a Match
  • The Divorcee
  • A Free Soul
  • Female

Special Features

  • Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin, and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood
  • Audio Commentaries on Night Nurse and The Divorcee
  • Theatrical trailers for Night Nurse, Three on a Match, and Night Nurse

Warner Bros. is doing classic film fans a great favor by releasing these rather rare pre-code gems on DVD for the first time. In 2006 they release the first volume, which featured the films Red Headed Woman, Baby Face, and Waterloo Bridge. While that volume was certainly a treat, and featured three excellent films (especially the beautiful Waterloo Bridge, which needs to be seen by everyone), special features were sparse and it didn’t feel like a very complete collection.

The second volume, however, is a real treat for any pre-code fan. Not only does it contain five of the absolute most essential film from the era, it also has commentaries and an in-depth documentary that really helps to create the entire pre-code experience for this set.

Vol. 2 features two Norma Shearer films, The Divorcee and A Free Soul. Shearer was considered the queen of the pre-code era, and these two films are the most important of her early 1930s career. The Divorcee is considered an extremely important and racy film, but there seems to be no escape from the values of the time, and in the end the themes of female empowerment are undercut by the double standard the film tries so hard to fight against. A Free Soul, however, is a fascinating and sensual film with Norma Shearer as a good girl gone bad and Clark Gable as a sexually charge gangster. Shearer and Gable were always a good pair, and they sizzle together in this wonderful pre-code which won Lionel Barrymore an Oscar.

Three on a Match may be the most important film of the era, simply as a non-stop example of all the rules filmmakers could break in the early 1930s. Before release, several minutes were cut from the film, so that it just became scene after scene of pre-code debauchery. Drug use, child abuse, sex outside of marriage, violence. While Three on a Match isn’t a particularly good film – it’s very dreary and plodding – it’s essential to watch as a great example of pre-code. And Ann Dvorak gives an absolutely phenomenal performance, possibly her very best.

Night Nurse is another film that seems to be just a huge collection of pre-code moments, though it’s certainly a better film than Three on a Match. It’s a film about a plot to starve children to death, and along the way feature violence against women, leading ladies in various states of undress, a consistently drunken mother, and a charming and completely likable bootlegger as the leading man. But unlike Three on a Match, its story is interesting and its very well paced. Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell make a very fun team.

Female is probably my favorite film on the set. Ruth Chatterton, a very underappreciated actress from the era, gives an excellent and extremely sexual performance as a CEO who likes to make her employees her boy toys. Chatterton was an older woman – she was 40 years old when this movie was released – and she used that wonderful fact to separate herself from her contemporaries. Her grace and maturity are unmatched. She’s sexy and she’s smart. Watching her seduce her latest man is some of the most fun a pre-code film has to offer. No man could resist the lovely Ruth Chatterton. She was in charge, in the board room and in the bedroom.

The special features on the set really help in giving the viewer an even deeper understanding of the films and politics of the pre-code era. The documentary Thou Shalt Not is fascinating, and features some great clips and pieces of some of the best movies of the era. The commentaries on Night Nurse and The Divorcee are both in depth and enthusiastic, done by people who are both knowledgeable of the era and who clearly love the films.

Forbidden Hollywood vol. 2 is simply one of the very best DVD sets to come out in a very long time. If you’re a classic film fan, it’s a must have.

By Katie Richardson

Year: 1934

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Starring: Aline MacMahon, Ann Dvorak, Preston Foster, Lyle Talbot, Glenda Farrell

I’ve watched this film twice in the last month. The first time I saw it I was not too impressed. I felt the film never seemed to lift itself off the ground that it was lifeless in the first half and only slightly improves in the second half. After a second viewing of the film I have to say that while this is not classic in the sense of The Petrified Forest, which it is sometimes compared too at least in setting, Heat Lightening is an entertaining film with a stand out performance by Aline MacMahon, an almost forgotten actress today.

This 1934 Warner Brothers “B” movie involves two sisters, Myra (Ann Dorvak) and Olga (Alice MacMahon) who run a gas station/restaurant/rest stop in the California desert. This is where the entire film takes place and where the similarities to The Petrified Forest come from. But the films are entirely different. The Petrified Forest, made two years later, in 1936, had loftier goals commenting on capitalism, class distinction, and race. Heat Lightening just tells a good story.

The movie opens with director Mervyn LeRoy panning his camera right, across the desert and coming upon the rest stop run by the two sisters. This opening panning shot reminded me of D.W. Griffith who frequently used the pan shot to open and close many of his films such as The Girl and Her Trust. The films start on a comical bent with the first customers to arrive, Herbert (the great Edgar Kennedy famous for his slow burn in many Laurel & Hardy films) and his domineering wife Gladys (Jane Darwell). Their car is over heated and Herbert is seen pushing the car into the station. Olga, the older and overall wearing mechanic of the two sisters, takes care of the car while the couple cool off with a couple of sodas. They soon take off and are never seen again. Other than some dated comical relief and the need to pad a film that barely runs a little over an hour they serve no purpose and could have easily been cut from the film.

The two sisters have been running the rest stop for a couple of years now and while Olga is happy with this quiet reclusive life where nothing much happens, Myra, younger, is restless and wants to go places and experience life. Like tonight she is looking to go out with Steve a local lothario who Olga, being the more experienced and over protective sister, disapproves of. “You put a man and a woman together and it gets complicated.” Olga tells her younger naïve sister.

Another car pulls in this time with two small time crooks, George (Preston Foster) and Jeff (Lyle Talbot). They’re on the run after recently robbing a bank where George shot and killed two of the banks employees. George soon recognizes Olga as an old girlfriend from some years ago back in Oklahoma. Suspicious of what he’s doing here she tells him she’s through with her previous life and is now making an honest living, something he would not know anything about.

Outside more customers arrive. This time its two rich women (Glenda Farrell and Ruth Donnelly) driven by their Chauffeur (Frank McHugh). Their car has an over heated gasket that Olga can fix pretty quickly but the Chauffeur pleads to her to stall so they will have to spend the night. He’s too tired to keep going and the women are driving him crazy.

George, hearing these two women have just come from Reno and are loaded with jewelry, decides that he and Jeff should stick around, despite the fact that the police are after them. He’s got a plan that will relieve the two ladies of some of that jewelry. He tries to reconnect with Olga but she keeps him at arms length insisting her days of dance halls, gambling and guys like him are over. But Olga still has a soft spot for George and George knows it.

As the night heats up and the lightening strikes increase, the evening ushers in some spicy pre-code scenes that heat it up even more. Myra sneaks out to be with her bad boy Steve. Olga gets out of her overalls and into a dress to prove she still an attractive woman and sneaks into a room with George. Even the Chauffeur and the younger of the two rich women (Glenda Farrell) spend some cozy time together.

Late that night Myra’s date drops her off and as she sneaks back into her room she sees Olga coming out of another room suspecting she’s been with her former lover. Olga follows Myra to her room where they confront each other but it ends with Olga consoling Myra who confesses to being used and dumped by her cad of a date. Leaving Myra’s room Olga finds George and Jeff trying to break into the safe where the rich women’s jewelry is being kept for safety. While I won’t reveal the ending here, I will say that it should have been more dramatic and as a result is a bit of a let down. In the end though the two sisters and their rest stop are soon settled back into their quiet life in the desert where nothing much happens.

The star performance here is by Aline MacMahon who is excellent as Olga and it is worth watching just for her. Ann Dorvak is beautiful but has a smaller role and is not asked to do much as the young sister which is disappointing. Overall, the entire cast is good. I especially liked Glenda Farrell, Ruth Donnelly and Frank McHugh as the two rich dames and their chauffeur. Heat Lightening is entertaining and at approximately 65 minutes moves at a nice pace.

By John Greco

Year: 1933

Director: Robert Z. Leonard

Starring: Joan Crawford, Franchot Tone, Clark Gable


The same year Warner Brothers release 42nd Street (1933) MGM came out with Dancing Lady, a backstage musical complete with a Busby Berkeley style finale. If you had to compare the two, the win would certainly go to 42nd Street, which one the great musicals of all time. That is certainly not a knock on Dancing Lady. It came certainly hold its head high. The film stars Joan Crawford, Clark Gable and Franchot Tone. Joan is a downtown burlesques dancer whose dream is to make the big time on Broadway. Janie “Duchess” Barlow (Crawford) is released on bail, after a raid on the burlesques house where she performs before a mostly male audience. Slumming that evening with his multiple girlfriends is millionaire playboy Tod Newton (Tone) who after the raid all decide to go to court for the entertainment value until Tod suddenly takes an interest in Janie and ends up paying her bail. Smitten by this ambitious woman who wants to be a dancer more than anything else he secretly helps her get an audition in a new Broadway production he is financing and is being directed by Patch Gallagher (Gable). What follows is a love triangle between Crawford, Gable and Tone. Tone love Crawford, who clearly is attracted to Gable who at first hates Crawford then falls in love with her.


The real treat here is that the film gives you the rare chance to see Joan Crawford show off her dancing talent in a sound film and also some skin in a couple of pre-code scenes that take place at the beginning during the raid on the burlesques house. You also get to see Crawford romance two of Hollywood’s best, Gable and Tone. Crawford and Gable always sizzle on the screen. Here she is as beautiful as Gable is macho. A cinematic match made in Hollywood heaven.

The film is also loaded with a lot of future stars in early screen appearances. You get to see Fred Astaire in his film debut dance with Crawford. That in itself makes this film a must see! Nelson Eddy also appears in what was his only second film. The Three Stooges perform some of their classic style slapstick. They were billed as Ted Healy and his Stooges in the opening credits. Healy was a vaudevillian with The Stooges as part of his act. Eventually The Stooges would split from Healy and go off on their own to bigger fame. Also look for Eve Arden in a walk on, Robert Benchley and character actor Sterling Holloway.

Year: 1959

Director: Delbert Mann

Starring: Fredric March, Kim Novak, Glenda Farrell

Middle of the Night is a story of a May/December romance. Written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Delbert Mann. Mann directed three films written by Cheyefsky, Marty, his first film which won Best Picture of the Year and he won the Best Director award, followed by The Bachelor Party and Middle of the Night. Later on Cheyefsky would write the screenplays for Network and The Hospital. Middle of the Night started out as a TV episode on the anthology series “The Philco Television Playhouse” and starred E.G. Marshall and Eva Marie Saint. In 1956, Cheyefsky turned it into a play and it opened on Broadway with Edward G. Robinson as the older man and Gena Rowlands as the young woman. In this 1959 movie Fredric March and Kim Novak have the roles.

Jerry (March), a 56 year old lonely widower, is a successful businessman in the garment district in New York and 24 year old Betty is working there as a receptionist and part time model. Betty is newly divorced and uncertain about her future. The story centers on their romance and decision to marry, the ups and downs of relationships in general and specifically about one with a wide age difference. There’s an uncomfortable meeting where Jerry meets Betty’s mother who’s about the same age as he is and an even more painful confrontation with his family, which includes his daughter, a year younger than Betty, and his single over protective nagging sister. Everyone seems to have an opinion though the one thing everyone is in agreement on is that they are against the marriage. Then there are their own insecurities, Jerry’s jealousy when she talks to younger men or will she leave him in a few years? Betty anxieties are over her newly divorced husband, a mostly unemployed musician who wants her back and a father fixation. At the end, despite all the objections from family and their own uncertainties they love each other and maybe they have a chance.

Fredric March is excellent as Jerry who at 56 feels that life has passed him by. Family and friends tell him that he should relax in his old age and take it easy. Jerry feels like everyone is ready to put him out to pasture until he starts dating Betty who makes him feel alive again. He tells everyone he’ll have enough time to take it easy when he’s dead! You totally believe March in this role, the struggles and fears that he is facing at this particular junction in his life. Kim Novak also does a fine job as the young and insecure Betty whose father dumped his family when she was young. Conflicted about the breakup of her marriage she finds comfort and security with Jerry. She brings a nice vulnerability to Betty that makes her real. Through out her career Novak has been underrated as an actress. She holds her own here with a magnificent cast that includes Lee Grant, Martin Balsam, Albert Dekker and Glenda Farrell. There are also some nice location scenes of New York’s garment district and other areas circa the late 1950’s.

One aspect that I found interesting is how old the actors look considering the age they are portraying. Fredric March who was 62 at the time portrays a man who is 56. Albert Dekker’s character was 59 ( he was 54 in real life), however both men look closer to being in their late 60’s maybe even in their 70’s. Compared to some of today’s actors equivalent in age like Dennis Quaid (54) or Jeff Bridges (58) or Harrison Ford (65) they looked much older than the ages they are portraying. Lifestyle? Healthier living? Whatever it is, people do look a lot young today than their counterparts of forty or fifty years ago..

Delbert Mann began his career during the Golden Age of Television drama. When people discussed directors from the Golden Age of Television who came to film in the late 50’s and early 60’s the names usually consist of John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn.. Delbert Mann is rarely mentioned yet his resume in those early years is pretty impressive. His debut film was Marty, which as previously mentioned won a few Oscars. That was followed by The Bachelor Party in 1957, Desire Under the Elms, Separate Tables, Middle of the Night and Dark at the Top of the Stairs. All of these were adaptations of stage plays except for Marty and The Bachelor Party. In the 1960’s Mann had success with two Doris Day comedies, That Touch of Mink and Lover Come Back. He made a few more films including Mister Buddwing and The Pink Jungle before going back to television in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Mann was a solid actor’s director and always told a good story.

Middle of the Night had a rare showing on TCM recently. Today this film is almost forgotten and it does not deserve this fate. It has never been released in any home video format.

By John Greco