January 2009

Greg and I are finally going to be recording the Kay Francis podcast soon, so everyone go ahead, be awesome, and fill out the podcast survey for us!


It’s that wonderful time of the year again! It’s nearing the Academy Awards. In less than a month, we’ll see who gets to take home the statue.

I always wonder, “Will anybody even remember some of these nominees 70 years from now?” There are certainly a lot of Best Picture nominees from the past that have completely left the public’s  memory. So I figured I’d try to help people remember. Here are some of the best obscure and forgotten Best Picture  nominees of the classic era.

The Racket (1928.)
The Racket was nominated for Best Production at the very first Academy Awards. John Cromwell (who directed some of the all time greatest melodramas) directed this crime tale, making it on of the definitive crime stories of all time. Because it was unavailable for so long, it’s been overshadowed by gangster classics like Public Enemy and Little Caesar, but it deserves to stand up there with the rest of them. Watching The Racket is almost like observing a little slice of the time. It lacks glamor, and it a downright gritty films that really captures the feel of the era it was made and set in.

The Big House (1930)
This prison drama was nominated for Best Picture the year that  the WWI masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front took home the prize. The Big House, however, did earn Frances Marion a screenwriting award. It truly is a fantastic script and a beautifully told story about life behind bars. I think what really makes it great is its cast. Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, Robert Montgomery, and Leila Hyams all give top notch performances.

Bad Girl (1931)
One of Borzage’s Depression era masterpieces, Borzage took home his second Best Director Oscar for this film, while it lost to Grand Hotel for Best Picture. Raw and real, it’s a beautiful love story that ignores sentimentality and truly puts you in the time and place of its setting, the Depression

Five Star Final (1931)
This is a brilliant newspaper. Most of the movies you see about newspaper men are comedies (The Front Page, Platinum Blond). Five Star Final is an excellent drama starring Edward G. Robinson as a newspaper man who is struggling with morality and the guilt of a story gone wrong. It’s one of Robinson’s very best performances.

Smilin’ Through (1932)
This is one of my favorite love stories. There are two love stories going on at once, the past and present, bound together forever by desting and blood. Norma Shearer’s performance is top notch, and it’s told so meticulously, perfectly, beautifully, and emotionally. I wish love stories like this were made today.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)
This is definitely Norma Shearer’s finest dramatic performance. She plays the ill poet Elizabeth Browning, and the film tells the story of her relationship with her tyrannical father, and falling in love with Robert Browning. It’s a great love story, but the most interesting part of the film comes from the strange relationship between Elizabeth and he father, playing absolutely brilliantly by Charles Laughton.

Dodsworth (1936)
It isn’t often you find a movie like Dodsworth. Instead of focusing on young lovers, it tells the story of an older couple after the husband retires. Not only does it focus on older characters, it also deals with the characters facing their older age. Both Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton are amazing, not fearing playing these older characters.

Dead End (1937)
This is one of the strongest gangster films ever. It’s not about the life of crime.  It subtly shows the evolution of the gangster, a victim of circumstance. We see a young gang that will probably eventually turn into the character portrayed by Humphrey Bogart. Claire Trevor received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for a performance that’s only a few minutes long, but absolutely perfect and beautiful. The whole cast is amazing. It’s a brilliantly performance film.

Four Daughters (1938.)
This movie almost doesn’t seem like it fits among the other nominees (among them Jezebel, Pygmalion, The Grand Illusion) until you see that the winner was the small comedy You Can’t Take It With You. Four Daughters is a very quiet family drama that draws from its complicated and conflicted characters to form its story. This movie made John Garfield a star. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

To be continued…..

By Katie Richardson

Year: 1929
Director: Frank Borzage
Cast: Charles Farrell, Mary Duncan, Ivan Linow, Margaret Mann, Alfred Sabato, Bert Woodruff

Rosalee (Duncan) is the mistress of the wealthy Marsden (Sabato), who is sent to prison for murder. She meets Allen John (Farrell) while he’s swimming in the river by which she lives. Allen John wants to take care of the lonely woman, and while Rosalee at first finds his innocence and naive nature amusing, the pair begin to fall in love.

This reconstruction is one of the biggest reasons I was so excited about the Borzage DVD set. I’d seen it once a few years ago, and I couldn’t wait to see it again, becuase I remembered it being extremely romantic and sexy. No complete print exists. Several reels are missing from the film. What remains is most of the middle part of the film. The beginning and ending (and a scene or two in between) are shown through the use of stills. But what survives are the love scenes, which are among the best of all of silent film. Borzage was an incredible romantic director, and these scenes have a sort of ache to them that’s beautiful.

It’s definitely Borzage’s most sexual film. Unlike the innocents in his films with Janet Gaynor, Mary Duncan’s Rosalee is almost a vamp and a femme fatale. Certainly a woman of looser morals since she is allowing herself to be kept by a rich murderer.  That contrast with Allen John’s innocence is perfect. It’s almost like, through simply meeting Rosalee, he’s receiving his first sexual education.

It’s kind of hard to really get in depth about this movie since so much of it is missing. The reconstruction through use of still is very good, and we know exactly what the story is. But, like I said, what remains are the love scenes. And those scenes are beautifully atmospheric. There’s definitely more of a sexuality than most of Borzage’s films, but it’s also extremely spiritual.

Farrell is, as always with Borzage, very good and dependable. But it’s Mary Duncan as the troubled woman that makes the film shine. She’s sexy yet vulnerable, cruel but sweet. It’s her indecision about the relationship that drives the film.

The River may not be complete, but it sure feels like it is.

By Katie Richardson

Year: 1928

Director: William Wellman

Cast: Louise Brooks, Wallace Beery, Richard Arlen

This film is notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Beggars of Life is the last American picture the sensational Louise Brooks made before scurrying off to Deutschland to collaborate with G.W. Pabst. For this Paramount production, she was teamed up with surly taskmaster William Wellman for a match made in hell. To hear Wellman’s own son tell it, the studio loathed both the troublesome actress and this director and the heads thought pairing them together for an adaptation of Jim Tully’s novel would be just the ticket to ruin both their careers. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Beggars of Life is a beautiful tale of two hoboes’ difficult journey to find happiness and a place to call home.

The film begins by showing us the handsome but rag tag tramp named Jim — Richard Arlen — stumbling upon a farmhouse with wonderful smells emanating out of the screendoor. He slowly glances inside and he sees a man seated with his back to the front door. The source of the wonderful aroma is the man’s as yet untouched breakfast. Obviously starving, Jim licks his lips and not being able to stand it any longer, he knocks on the door and asks if he can work in exchange for a meal. When the man does not acknowledge his pleas, our lead walks around the table and sees that the farmer has been killed by a bullet wound to the head. The audience can empathize with Jim’s confusion. Is the killer still in the house? Should I run or stay and quickly eat something? Are the authorities on their way? Just then a noise is made upstairs. A frightened young woman in men’s clothing (Brooks) emerges at the top of the stairs.

The girl named Nancy musters up the courage to descend the staircase and address this stranger. Brooks’ character is the stepdaughter of the deceased and yes, she shot him. Wellman takes this opportunity to superimpose the beautiful visage of the actress telling her story of self-defense over background scenes of an attempted rape at the hands of her stepfather. Apparently the child abuse had been occurring over a period of years and she could no longer take it. This is a fantastic visual sequence and it reminded me of camera techniques I’d seen used in Sunrise. Nancy is petrified and puzzled as to her next step. Jim reluctantly agrees to bring her along with him, primarily because he feels sorry for her and doesn’t want to see the youngster hanged. They decide to go separate ways at a set of railroad tracks. He’ll go west enroute to Canada and his uncle’s farm and she can head east. When our heroine fails miserably @ hopping her last train — falling painfully on her keester — Arlen’s character reluctantly accepts her as a traveling companion.

They sleep inside a haystack that evening and these are the funniest scenes in the picture. To have these complete strangers sleeping in such close, claustrophobic quarters is quite effective. Wellman takes full advantage of closeups on the two faces: Brooks frightened mug and Arlen’s inquisitive one. When Jim throws both his legs over hers the look on Brooks’ face is hilarious. The audience eventually realizes that he is just keeping her warm after seeing his companion shivering but the initial doubt as to his intentions is priceless. The next day Jim spots a wanted poster with Nancy’s picture on it offering $1,000 in reward money for her capture. He quickly seizes the poster before the girl sees it and stuffs it into his jacket pocket. By nightfall they reach a well-known encampment area frequented by other hoboes. The boisterous Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery) is the leader of this bunch of misfits. When the Arkansas Snake questions his authority, the two men decide to strike a temporary truce so they can imbibe on the whiskey Red absconded with from a nearby still.

The more the Arkansas Snake — played by Bob Perry — examines the features of Jim’s younger “brother” the more suspicious he becomes. When he walks over and yanks Nancy’s cap off, the whole camp gasps: this hobo is a woman. Desperate to stop the chaos, Jim flashes the wanted poster and warns that while they all fight over the girl, the cops are closing in. At first Beery’s character isn’t too keen on a fugitive female traveling w/ his gang. The decision is foisted upon him when two law officers descend on the camp and spy the girl. Sheer numbers overwhelm the cops and the hoboes handcuff them together to a tree. The gang beats it for the nearest set of rails and they hop a steamer bound for Canada. Inside the moving train car, Oklahoma Red gets territorial and lustful deciding that they no longer have any use for Jim. A lame scene follows where Beery’s leader sets up a kangaroo court as a ruse and announces his unsurprising verdict as the judge: the girl stays and Arlen’s hoboe is to be booted off the train. Not too thrilled @ the prospect of being alone with a bunch of smelly, lecherous men, Brooks’ quick-thinking character decides to pit the men against themselves by claiming her own man. She chooses the Arkansas Snake to be her champion and the expected free for all comes in the form of a scrum. In the resulting melee, Jim is able to secure the leader’s gun and immediate disaster is averted.

The hoboes are unaware that there are several lawman aboard the same train searching for Brooks’ killer. When the dicks are spotted by someone in the gang, Oklahoma Red leaps outside and unlinks their cars from the rest of the train. The director presents us with some breathtaking moments as the cars pick up speed through a mountain pass. Beery’s character desperately turns the brake wheel and finally manages to slow their progress to something manageable. They reach the end of the track and are out of harms way for the moment. The group splits up with Jim and Nancy headed for a shack down in the canyon where they can care for the injured. Red comes back some time later in a stolen Ford and a dress he swiped from a clothesline. He tells the girl to put it on because the cops are looking for a woman in men’s clothing but we suspect his motives are of a more carnal nature. Once everyone gets over their shock at how gorgeous she looks, Oklahoma Red’s sinister plans are exposed. The gang leader tells her he has a car and the ability to take her with him to Canada and away from the grasp of the police. He won’t take Jim, however. What follows is not to be revealed here but I’ll just say that Oklahoma Red turns out to be one of the most selfless, unappreciated players in this story.

I guess Brooks’ memoirs contain anecdotes of Wellman’s misogyny. She accused him of being a wife beater and abusive toward women in general. She particularly didn’t like him making her do the stunts in the film herself. There are three pretty painful pratfalls in the movie and one fall off a train in particular that I find hard to believe they didn’t double for the combustible actress. Though they both reconciled in old age, Arlen and Brooks couldn’t stand each other either. Whatever the truths, the unpleasant experience of working on Beggars of Life was the impetus behind Brooks’ acceptance to go abroad and work with Pabst. I remember the great producer Robert Evans saying that fighting on a project is healthy. He was always more worried when everyone got along too well. Paramount’s expectations were not realized and the bickering director and actress would become icons of the film industry. Beggars of Life is one of the outstanding movies of the Silent Era and certainly the best American picture Brooks ever appeared in.

By James White

The lovely Sybille has alerted me to yet another Pre-code DVD set that will soon hit the market. Just a few weeks after the third volume of “Forbidden Hollywood” hits the shelves, Universal will release six of its classic pre-codes on the “Pre-Code Hollywood Collection”. The films are The Cheat, Merrilly We Go to Hell, Hot Saturday, Torch Singer, Murder at the Vanities, and Search For Beauty. It will also feature a documentary on the era. It will be released on April 7th.

Classic Flix has the cover art.


Year: 1949

Director: Max Ophuls

Cast: Joan Bennett, James Mason, Geraldine Brooks, Roy Roberts, Shepperd Strudwick

This gem is a foray into film noir for the great director Max Ophuls. The Reckless Moment presents a 39-year-old Joan Bennett in a matronly role we’re not used to seeing from the wonderful actress. She played memorable femme fatales in films like Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street. But in this movie, Bennett really expands as a performer. Lucia Harper is an anal, fidgety, bourgeois haus frau raising a family in the bland suburbs of Balboa, California.

The film begins in voice over as Mrs. Harper explains why she had to drive 50 miles to Los Angeles. It seems her underage daughter is romantically linked to a slimy art dealer named Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick). She finds him at his business and admonishes the man to cease and desist where her daughter is concerned. Darby counters that he will only stop seeing Bea — played by Geraldine Brooks — if her mother is willing to buy him off. Offended by the very notion, Lucia refuses and leaves. Surely Bea will want no part of this lech when told about their conversation. Instead, Brooks’ teenager rips her mother for butting into her affairs and refuses to believe that Darby would make such a despicable offer. She arranges to meet her lover in the family boathouse out back later that evening.

When Bea meets the art dealer he shamelessly admits to his part in the blackmail. Furious at herself for having believed in such a foul man, Miss Harper slaps Darby and then hits him over the head with a flashlight. She stomps out of the boathouse leaving a dazed and confused boyfriend. As Strudwick’s character staggers after the girl, he accidentally kills himself by tripping on the dock and falling on an exposed anchor. Hurt and ashamed, Bea tells her mom everything but she is not aware that Darby is dead. When Mrs. Harper discovers the body early next morning, all she can do is think how this death would impact the family name and their standing in the community. Not to mention the fate of her daughter. She uses a motorboat to dump the corpse in the middle of the lake.

Murder doesn’t happen in a burg like Balboa. The newspapers are all over the scandalous mystery of this dead outsider who has washed ashore. Amid the stress of murder, cleaning it up, and not reporting the incident Lucia is presented with yet another obstacle: Martin Donnelly (James Mason). The Irish emigre works for a ruthless loan shark named Nagle (Roy Roberts). He has in his possession several incriminating love letters Bea wrote to Darby. Unless she comes up with $5,000, Donnelly is prepared to release them to the media. The Donnellys don’t keep that kind of money on hand, especially with her husband in Europe on business. She awkwardly tries to stall Mason’s character but he cautions that his employer is impatient and will stop at nothing to collect.

What follows as Mason and Bennett meet clandestinely several times comes from out of left field. Seeing the lengths this woman will go to protect her family members — Lucia hocks all her jewelry out of desperation — has an impact on Donnelly. He was raised by a terrible woman in Ireland and if he would have had a mother like this one, might his life have turned out differently? Mrs. Harper is surprised then when her blackmailer claims she doesn’t have to pay Nagle because he’ll take care of it. He reports that the police have already arrested one of Darby’s associates so Bea is in the clear. Lucia protests that she doesn’t want to see an innocent man take the rap but Mason’s henchman assures her if he was in the art dealer’s circle of acquaintances, then he was guilty of some other crime. Upon hearing there won’t be any payday, Nagle erupts and has a confrontation with Donnelly.

That evening, the loan shark pays his own visit to the Harper household. The suspicious housekeeper tells Nagle to wait in the boathouse for Lucia. When told she can’t pay, Nagle pulls a knife. The climax of this picture you can see coming but the cynical statement of Ophul’s last shot is a less than flattering comment on bourgeois values. There’s alway a ton of smoking in films noir but other than Jean-Paul Belmondo, I’ve never seen a performer smoke as much on screen as Bennett does in The Reckless Moment. I understand an actor’s desire to establish the mental/physical state of their character but man. While riding in the car with Donnelly, Lucia lights one cigarette with the butt of another. Even the Irishmen points it out as he warns how bad it is for her health.

Ophuls brings his circular camera technique in tow and he illicits compelling performances from our two leads. The Earrings of Madame de… is his best movie but this film noir is my second favorite from his fantastic body of work.

By James White

Man, they are rolling these things out like crazy now. Which makes Katie a very happy girl.  The third volume of Forbidden Hollywood, a series of pre-code DVD releases, will hit shelves on March 24th. That’s just 3 days before my birthday!

The focus of the set is “William Wellman at Warner Bros”, and the films on the set are…

Other Men’s Women
The Purchase Price
Midnight Mary
Heroes For Sale
Frisco Jenny
Wild Boys of the Road

Not quite as exciting a line-up as their past sets, but all very good, and essential pre-code films. Midnight Mary and Heroes for Sale are two of my all time favorite films.

There’s also a bonus disc with two documentaries on Wellman. The set also includes some short films and cartoons. And, all kinds of YAY!, commentaries on Midnight Mary, Heroes For Sale, and Wild Boys of the Road.

Classic Flix has the cover art…

I kind of wish it was just a general WB set instead of focusing on Wellman. That way we might be able to finally get Taxi! on DVD.

This is exciting news indeed. It looks like they were really serious when they said they wanted to get at least one of these sets out a year. Obviously sales are good enough for it. It’s just wonderful that these pre-code films are finally being released on DVD. And not just released, but released with beautiful prints and special features.

What are some other movies you’d like to see on these upcoming sets. Like I said, I’d love to see Taxi! And, naturally, Man’s Castle. Employees’ Entrance is one that really deserves a DVD release as well.

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