You lucky ducks. Since I didn’t do a post last week, I’m doing two posts today. So woohoo for you guys!

Minna Gombell is DEFINITELY an actress who really doesn’t get the attention she deserves. Even among the character actors she’s often forgotten. I adore her. It may just be because she made a few movies with my personal god, Frank Borzage. But I’ve always appreciated her performances and I’ve always been impressed by her range.

Gombell was nearing 40 when she started out in Hollywood during the birth of the talkies. With very, very few exceptions (Ruth Chatterton being one), actresses of that age were no longer “allowed” by Hollywood standards to be leading ladies. So these actresses of a certain age became character actors, to play older best friend types, or mothers. It was the really good character actors who took these roles and practically stole the films they were in with their amazing performances. Minna Gombell was one of those actors. In this post, I’ll take a look at a few of the films Gombell made with Borzage, my favorite director.

Bad Girl (1931)
In her first film with Borzage, Gombell plays Edna, the older best friend of Sally Eiler’s Dorothy. Bad Girl is a movie about a young marriage and expecting a child during the Depression. It’s a really mature movie, exploring the damage that a lack of communication can do to a relationship. Both Dorothy and her husband Eddie (played by James Dunn) are pretty nervous and high strung. They’re newlyweds, they’re expecting a baby, money is tight, and they both think that the other one doesn’t want the baby. With two lead characters who are such messes, Gombell’s Edna is the sturdy, steady, calming force in the movie. She herself is a single mother, but the character shows how one can actually get through even the toughest of times.

After Tomorrow (1932)
In her second film with director Frank Borzage, Gombell gives what I think is by far her finest performance. She’s Else, the mother of Sidney (Marian Nixon), who is in love with and trying to plan her wedding to Pete (Charles Farrell), but they have little money and marriage is starting to look impossible. The love story between Pete and Sidney is sweet, but the real emotion of the film comes from Gombell. Else is a restless and unhappy woman. She loves her daughter, but she married and had a child at a young age, and now that she’s older she feels that she’s wasted her life away cooking for her husband and ironing her daughter’s clothes. Gombell’s performance is absolutely amazing. This is a character who could very easily garner no sympathy from the viewer, but Gombell creates such a complex character. You hate her for the way she treats her husband and the way she runs away, but at the same time you still genuinely feel for her and the way she’s feeling. It’s a truly beautiful performance, and it makes one of the Borzage’s lesser film completely worth watching.

By Katie Richardson

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Year: 1932

Director: John Cromwell

Cast: Miriam Hopkins, George Bancroft, Alan Mowbray

What’s with the weird title given the subject matter? I guess this was a rushed second choice to the original (Red Harvest) because they didn’t want any confusion with Daishell Hammett’s popular novel by the same name which had been published just three years prior. To be honest, if this wasn’t Hopkins in a steamy Pre-Code film, I probably wouldn’t have watched it after reading the synopsis. MH plays a Tsarist aristocrat on the lam with some of her contemporaries. The setting is during the 1919 Russian Revolution and the Red Brigade is looking to execute any of the monied classes of the current regime. They manage to narrowly escape via a train car to a safer city behind the skirmish line. Once settled, the privileged waste no time resuming their nonstop lifestyle characterized by black-tie dinners and the consumption of copious amounts of expensive wine and fine foods.

Kylenko (George Bancroft) is the leader of the Resistance and he and his minions descend on all this decadence with other ideas in mind. They crash the glamorous upper class setting and vulgarly grab the food right off people’s plates and brazenly mock the entitled. There is mayhem with frightened diners running everywhere. Except for Maria (Miriam Hopkins). She defiantly stays at her table and stubbornly orders the ruffians out of the establishment. The mob find her insolence under the circumstances humorous and Bancroft’s imposing soldier takes an immediate interest in the sexy aristocrat. He learns later that Maria was not born into wealth but managed to maneuver the class waters between the wage-earner and privileged sectors of Russian society. The Brigade takes its prisoners on a ship set to sail for a Revolutionary stronghold, where their captives will face trial for their lives.

Hopkins’ character and her friends realize that they must somehow get the ship turned around and headed to a friendly port along the Crimean coastline. They devise a plan to fool the navigator by messing with the ship’s compass so that it will display the opposite direction that the vessel is actually traveling. There’s just one problem: they need a diversion and her name is Maria. She pretends to have come to her senses and confesses to Kylenko that she knows her place is alongside her people. To prove her newfound loyalty, Maria makes it clear that she will sleep with him as a gesture of earnestness. The viewer witnesses some pretty intense Pre-Code moments when the elegant Ms. Yaskaya looks doomed to service this sweaty cad.

I was quite surprised when I saw the quality of this picture. The performances of the headliners are excellent and this happy outcome is in no small matter due to Cromwell’s deft handling of two tremendous egos. Bancroft’s temper was legendary and we’ve already covered Hopkins’ endless demand for retakes. The double entendres used by Hopkins are exquisite in their Pre-Code sumptuousness. There is another great scene where she continues to play the piano as if she hasn’t a care in the world while everything around her is in chaos.

By James White

Year: 1932
Director: Monta Bell
Cast: John Gilbert, Virginia Bruce, Paul Lucas, Bodil Rosing, Reginald Owen, Olga Baclanova, Hedda Hopper

Karl (Gilbert) arrives at his job as the new chauffer for the Baron and Baroness von Burgen (Owen and Balcanova) on the day of the butler, Albert’s (Lucas) wedding to Anna (Bruce), the Baroness’ maid. Everyone is charmed by Karl, but soon he proves to be a cad, trying to steal money from the cook, seducing Anna, and blackmailing the Baroness.

Watching Downstairs, it’s kind of hard to believe Gilbert’s sound career didn’t work out. Sure, he didn’t have voice most expected him to have when they watched him in silent films, but this movie is just a tour de force for him. Not only does he star in it, he also wrote the story, which is a pretty impressive one. And his performance is amazing. It’s kind of interesting to see a character who is so completely irredeemable, yet so charming at the same time. He’s a horrible person, but he’s attractive and sexy, and Gilbert owns the role completely. After watching him play the romantic hero so often in silent film, it’s amazing to see such a transformation.

Gilbert’s definitely the high point of the film. While the rest of the cast isn’t bad, they don’t shine the way he does. Virginia Bruce does give a very good performance, and I think she’s more beautiful here than she ever was. And, like I said, it is a very good performance. Anna becomes quite the complicated character. She starts out as a sweet, innocent wife. Then, when Karl seduces her, she’s almost overwhelmed with guilt. But the confrontation scene between her and her husband shows a different side. While she still feel guilty, she shows a strength and a morality that’s not exactly black and white. She’s sorry, but lays a good deal of the blame on her husband, for loving her in a way completely void of passion.

Paul Lukas is decent, compared to Karl and Anna, the character of Albert is pretty boring, even after his passion rises after discovering the affair. He’s a character that’s hard to like or feel really sorry for. In this case, all the sympathy goes to Anna in this situation.

Downstairs is a very tight and well told drama. All the scenes flow together very nicely. It’s really perfectly paced. Not a shot feels out of place or tacked on. They all tie into the story. And it’s so full of pre-code goodness. The fact alone that the main character is basically a villain is something you wouldn’t see in just a few films. Same with the fact that the wife is committed adultery and is still the heroine of the story in the end. And then there’s Karl’s ending, who seems to pay for his sins in the house of the Baron and Baronss. But after leaving that job, he simply moves on to another one, presumably to pull the same tricks yet again.

By Katie Richardson

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1932

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Cast: Miriam Hopkins, Herbert Marshall, Kay Francis

Since Valentines Day is tomorrow I tried to brainstorm on which films I’ve seen that best exemplify aspects of both romance and cinema from Hollywood’s Classic Era. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen it recently or the fact tha I just completed a Miriam Hopkins countdown on another website, but Trouble in Paradise hits the sweet spot. The acting, direction, and narrative thread for this film are such a potent combination that Lubitsch’s great comedy is considered among the best movies ever made. But enough of that already, lets get to the romance: you get two great love stories for the price of one here. Although Marshall and Francis never consummate their attraction physically, the perfume heiress and the thief share several moments where you swear they are making love mentally. It is Hopkins’ grifter that holds the key to Marshall’s heart, however. They were made for each other and when Hopkins lets out a squeal of joy upon hearing Marshall’s commitment, it is an affirmation that romance isn’t dead. If you’re looking for a good Valentines Day movie to watch this weekend, look no further. This is the picture.

Here’s a review of Trouble in Paradise that I wrote on January 15th of this year:

This movie is a scream.

It is said that this is Lubitsch’s favorite of all the films he made and boy, you can see why. If someone were to ask me what the best example of a Pre-Code comedy is, Trouble in Paradise comes immediately to mind.

MH (Lily) plays a jewel thief who poses as a visiting aristocrat in Venice. She meets Gaston Monescu — played wonderfully by Herbert Marshall — the greatest jewel thief in the world who is pulling the same charade. He arranges for a private dinner in his suite. As the two discuss the banalities of being a baron or countess of the aristocratic class, Lily confesses that she found out he really is the great Monescu and not only is she not disappointed, but she is proud of her chosen profession. What follows is a show of affection and then, in my opinion, the best scene of the film. Each thief starts to reveal what they’ve stolen from their counterpart in a strip poker-esque, escalating exchange culminating in a coup de grace for Gaston. These two thieves were made for each other.

The lovers quickly establish a grift partnership and the road eventually leads to Paris. They seek out the recently widowed Mariette Colet (Kay Francis) whose deceased husband left her the largest perfume manufacturer in France. Gaston scams his way into Mariette’s circle via his considerable charm and hutzpah. Having already stolen her diamond-encrusted purse, Marshall’s character returns it only after a reward is offered. So impressed with his “honesty” and candor, Mrs. Colet hires him as her personal business secretary. To set the con in place, Gaston brings Lily onboard as his assistant. When our protagonist learns that his boss keeps $100,000 French francs in her house safe, the prize is in sight.

To really sell the scheme, the jewel thief does more than just flirt with Mariette. He rolls his sleaves up and discovers some improprieties that have occurred under current management. It is clear that Francis’ widow has strong sexual urges where her new secretary is concerned. While Gaston starts out encouraging her behavior as a necessary part of a successful heist, he becomes quite attracted to the perfume magnate. Hopkins’ assistant is quite jealous of all the unprofessional attention this woman is showering on her man. Yet like a pro, she keeps her eye on the ball and gains Mariette’s confidence. When a previous theft victim recognizes Monescu and then the firm’s chairman of the board accuses him of embezzlement, the thieves fear the jig is up. Amazingly, Madame Colet defends her secretary and they are in the clear even if the window of opportunity has shrunk.

Gaston and Lily agree on the big night, one where Francis’ character will be out on the town for a social commitment. But Marshall’s thief, so smitten with his target’s appeal, can’t resist arranging to consummate their mutual attraction. When Lily finds out about this impending tryst, she is furious and steals the safe’s valuables herself. When Gaston discovers what his partner has done out of jealousy on his behalf, he decides to come clean (sort of) with his employer. He claims to have stolen the $100,000 francs himself, confesses that he is really Monescu the notorious jewel thief, reveals that he can prove her chairman of the board has been embezzling funds for years, and that despite all that’s gone on, he still loves her. Lily comes clean and strikes a bargain with Mariette: she’ll give permission to Gaston for a conjugal visit if she can keep the money she stole. At that moment, Monescu realizes there is truly only one woman who possesses his heart. He tastefully declines the proposition and joins his beloved enroute to the next paradise of their choosing.

Right from the opening scene — Lubitsch’s camera establishes we’re in Venice via a medium shot of a trash-laden gondola — we find moments throughout where this great German emigre is winking at the audience. Even the opening title credits begin with “Trouble in…” and you see a picture of a bed before a pause and then the word “Paradise” comes into view. The dialogue sizzles with sexual innuendoes, double entendres, and very adult, intelligent banter. The three primary players are awesome all around. Marshall is especially effective as the handsome rake and irresistable con man. What to say about Hopkins? She’s cute as a button in this great film. To hear her squeal w/ happiness in the final frame when she knows that Gaston is hers, is to experience a slice of heaven. Avoiding Trouble in Paradise is to miss out on arguably the best comedy of the Pre-Code era.

by James White


Year: 1932
Director: Frank Borzage
Cast: Charles Farrell, Marian Nixon, Minna Gombell, William Collier Sr, Josephine Hull, William Pawley, Greta Grandstedt

Peter (Farrell) and Sidney (Nixon) are a pair of young lovers in the midst of the Depression. They want to marry each other, but can’t yet afford it, because Peter’s mother refuses to move in with them. So they continue to work and save, despite the feeling that it will never happen. Sidney’s mother (Gombell) is miserable in her home life and wants to run away with her lover (Pawley).

After Tomorrow is definitely one of the lesser films on the DVD set. Borzage’s themes of love overcoming all obstacles are still very prevalent, but it doesn’t quite hit on a spiritual, transcendant level of his best work. His young lovers also aren’t nearly as interesting as most of his others, like Chico and Diane, Bill and Trina, or Tim and Mary. Despite the difficulties and roadblocks in their relationship, there’s a lack of emotional complication that makes Borzage’s love stories so amazing. Farrell and Nixon are both very good in their roles as the idealistic couple, though. They have strong chemistry, and there are several scenes where they click so well as a couple that it just puts a smile on your face.

The emotional complications of the film come from the older characters, in particular Minna Gombell’s restless mother. Really, I’d say the core of the films emotional conflict comes from her, and she’s certainly the most interesting part of the film. Gombell was a fantastic character actress who I’m only really just now completely discovering, and she’s quite the talent. This character could come off as detestable, but even when she does horrible things, Gombell makes her sympathetic. And Borzage is able to make us identify with both her and her jilted husband and child.

After Tomorrow also lacks the fairy tale feel of a Borzage film. While it’s set in the depths of the Depression, which completely effects the lives of all the characters, it feels a lot more raw and real than Borzage’s other efforts. This is probably one of the most realistic depictions I’ve seen of the Depression.

Held up against other Borzage works, After  Tomorrow is definitely one of his lesser, least interesting films. But held up on its own, it’s a very solid romance with some interesting characters.

By Katie Richardson

Year: 1932

Director: William J. Cowen

Starring: Walter Huston, Lupe Valez, Conrad Nagel, Virginia Bruce, C. Henry Gordon, Mitchell Lewis, Forrester Harvey, Curtis Nero

Though more forgiving of films that are reductionist and stereotypically bigoted towards different cultures from the 20s through 50s, I still have a difficult time dropping all my own biases and beliefs to appreciate films made in an era where it was acceptable. This gets in my way of my appreciation of Kongo, an otherwise creepy and sweaty horror tragedy that bleeds atmosphere. Though it does not aim for shocks or scares, it aims to disgust and repel the viewer with it’s degradation of the human body and spirit. It twists and contorts our perception of humanity through the mangled body of the twisted protagonist, Flint , a man so driven by the desire to revenge he degrades not only his own existence, but that of a young woman who he believes is his enemy’s daughter.

Set in the depths of Africa, Flint has convinced the natives that he is a voodoo God through the use of a few simple magic tricks. It’s all part of his master plan to avenge the man who crippled and stole his wife 20 years ago, though he attests it’s not for these actions, but rather his “sneer”. Brought to life by Walter Huston, reprising his Broadway role, it’s clear that the horror comes as much from the man’s paralyzed body as his disturbed mind. Horror has always been deeply rooted in “perversions” of the human body, from Frankenstein to Cronenberg’s The Fly, there is little more that is upsetting than a body that isn’t as it should be. Though Flint is only paralyzed, the film emphasizes the grotesque nature of his disability, by having him crawl around and have Huston constantly fussing and bringing attention to his legs. This reminds me very much of Freaks, where entire conversations seemed entirely superfluous to the audience watching one of the “freaks” perform some sort of task like in a slideshow. Though, this film never aims to sympathise with Flint’s condition, it’s just a display of his frightening body.

The film’s greatest horror is the treatment of Ann. When she was born, Flint had sent her to a convent in order for her to be brought up “pure” and right, only to rip her away at 18, to destroy her spirit and take away her purity. Though mentioned only in passing or hinted at, his degradation seemed to have included rape and sending her to a madhouse in Zanzibar. There are also implications that she worked as a prostitute and now, dying of some disease, he medicates her with alcohol only to worsen her condition.

The film’s saviour, is quite ironically, a junkie who just happens to stumble by. He’s also a doctor, and on that virtue alone, is kept to eventually treat Flint for the pain in his legs. The man comes to love Ann and vows to save her, though ironically, is first saved from his addiction by Flint himself.

Though most of the horror comes from degradation and humiliation, the film also has a very strong atmosphere that actually is very reminiscent of Val Lewton’s work in the 1940s. Darkness and fragmented lighting is used, particularly Venetian blinds. Though the treatment of Voodoo and African culture is extremely problematic, the use of obscure traditions (some of which are still alive today unfortunately, notably the practise of Sati in Hinduism), and strong music adds to the creeping atmosphere.

By Justine Smith

Cast: Joan Crawford, Robert Montgomery, Nils Asther, Lewis Stone, May Robson, Louise Closser Hale

Joan Crawford plays the title character, a woman of questionable morals who’s taken up with  Emile (Asther), who is manipulative and controlling. She finally leaves him, and on the boat meets Jerry Darrow (Montgomery) and she falls in love. But she fears if he knows about her part with Emile that he will leave her, so she attempts to keep it a secret. Which becomes difficult when Emile meets them at the docks. Emile refuses to leave her alone, so Letty resorts to drastic measures.

Letty Lynton is something of a legend among classic film fans. It’s rights have been tied up in legal issues since the late 1930s. A federal court ruled that the story was too close to the play Dishonored Lady, making the film an unauthorized adaptation, thus keeping it completely out of circulation. For decades, it was simply impossible to find, and for years it’s been quite the accomplishment to find a bootleg of it. Recently, though, it’s become a little more available through various rare film dealers. And now, it’s available on YouTube.

Made during the pre-code era, Letty Lynton certainly takes advantage of the things women were allowed to get away with in film at the time. Not only does Letty get away with living the wild life, she also gets away with murder, and in the end still gets the man she loves and the life she wants. These are definitely the makings of pre-code melodrama, and Letty Lynton is one of the best, mainly because of Crawford’s performance. It’s all in her eyes, the fear of being discovered as a “wild” woman, and the fear of losing Jerry. The scene in which she kills Emile has some of Crawford’s best acting, and watching her unravel is certainly entertaining.

Crawford is paired yet again with Robert Montgomery. While he doesn’t have quite as much to do here as he does in his other films with Crawford, he’s still endlessly charming and watchable. He’s definitely not the caddish character he played in so many films. He’s a good man, and his love for Letty is admirable. Crawford and Montgomery were always a really good pair, and this film definitely benefits from that.

It’s legend of this as a lost film might make one a little disappointed in what they end up seeing, but if you just go into it expecting a quality pre-code melodrama, you’ll be pleased.

Part 1 , Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10

By Katie Richardson

Cast: Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Erich Von Stroheim, Owen Moore, Hedda Hopper

In one of Garbo’s strangest films, she plays amnesiac nightclub singer Zara, who only has a memory that goes ten years back. She lives with the controlling writer Carl Salter (Von Stroheim) in a twisted, sadistic relationship. Tony (Moore) comes along one night claiming that Zara is actually Maria Varelli, the vanished wife of his friend Bruno (Douglas). Zara goes with Tony, despite not really believing she’s Maria, to get away from Salter. Both Bruno and Tony completely believe that Zara is Maria. But Zara struggles between not really believing she is Maria and wanting to stay with Bruno.

The film is based on a play by Luigi Pirandello, and one has to wonder if the story was an inspiration on Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The two stories share extremely similar plot points and themes. As the viewer, we’re torn between Zara’s inability to believe she really is Maria, and Bruno’s certainty that she is, never certain which we believe. It’s very possible that Bruno and Tony, who have been clinging to an almost non existant hope for over ten years, are simply seeing what they want to see in Zara. It’s fascinating to watch Zara make the transformation from drunken nightclub singer to Italian Countess, and you have to wonder if she’s simply becoming who she always really was, or making a forced transformation to try to be what Bruno wants her to be. The only source of information we have on what Maria was really like is second hand, through the people who knew her and an old diary, so it’s hard to even tell if Zara is truly becoming like Maria at all. Even in the end, it’s left open and we don’t know for sure. It’s a really fascinating examination of perception, identity, and even hope.

Beyond those parts of the story, As You Desire Me also explores a really destructive relationship between Zara and Salter. Not a lot of screentime is given to the pair (an extended scene early in the film and the finale), but Salter’s need to control Zara is one of the main conflicts of the film, and leads to the climax. It’s interesting to compare Zara’s relationship with Bruno to her relationship with Salter. It could be argued that both are equally destructive (up until the conclusion, at least). While Salter may be more controlling and sadistic, with Bruno being gentle and loving, both relationships are initially based on the man seeing what they want to see in Zara, not necessarilly what’s really there. They project their own ideas on to her, essentially making her become what the want her to be (Thus the title). It’s a really interesting exploration of relationships. I don’t think people expect a film this emotionally and psychologically complex to come from 1930s Hollywood.

After seeing nearly every film Garbo made (there are still one or two of her European films I haven’t seen), I’m comfortable with saying that this is her best performance. The character falls in between the troubled vamps from early in her career and the self sacrificing tarnished angels from later in her career. Zara is so often confused, desperate, and even frightened that it would be easy for an actress to portray her as scatterbrained, weak, and pathetic. But Garbo gives her strength. She’s a strong women who’s endured extreme hardship, and while he situation is complicated and she’s certainly not sure what to do about it, she still has the strength to go on. And Garbo mixes that strength with a gentle vulnerability of spirit. It’s that combination that makes her so incredibly convincing and sympathetic in the role.

Both of the lead men (Von Stroheim and Douglas) give interesting performances. Von Stroheim’s Salter is pretty fascinating to watch. His desire to control a woman he so clearly holds a great deal of contempt for could come off as ridiculous, but Von Stroheim simply has the personality to make it believable. Again, he doesn’t have much screen time, but he makes his mark with just a few scenes. Douglas is much better known for his comedies, so it’s a little strange to see him in such a melodramatic role. Of the main three cast members, he is the weakest (I don’t really want to say ‘weakest’, since it’s not at all a bad performance. It’s just not as fantastic as the other two). He really pulls off a sort of urgent desperation in his scenes with Garbo, both for Zara to really be Maria, and to make up for ten years of lost time with his wife.

As You Desire Me is a really unique film to come out of the 1930s. I think it’s one that people who are a little wary of older films will really enjoy. It explores some pretty emotionally and psychologically complex themes that I don’t think people expect from older films. This is definitely one of my all time favorites.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7

By Katie Richardson

Year: 1932

Director: Jack Conway

Cast: Jean Harlow, Chester Morris, Una Merkel, Lewis Stone, Leila Hymes, Henry Stephenson, May Robson, Charles Boyer, Harvey Clark

Red-Headed Woman is a very simple movie that follows a gold digger named Lillian as played by Jean Harlow as she shamelessly uses her sexuality to try and climb higher and higher. While the movie seemed mediocre to me I could certainly see why some would enjoy it more then I did. My sympathy for her boss and what he goes through as she does everything in her power to ruin his marriage got in the way of enjoying her antics. Some enjoyment comes from seeing such blatant sexuality portrayed in this pre-code film, but the shock value of hearing sex frankly discussed and sexuality paraded so freely in such an old film wears off quickly. It certainly doesn’t make up for the overly simple story line and the stiff acting of the films atypical leading man, played by Chester Morris. The acting highlights were Una Merkel, who plays Lillian’s roommate and best friend and Jean Harlow herself.

Red-Headed Woman is one of the quintessential films that typifies the typecasting that plagued Jean Harlow’s short career. The film also contains some well known scenes and dialogue from Harlow’s career that would have to be included on any reel featuring her most memorable moments. An example being the placement of a key down her blouse.  A key that is a married man’s only hope of getting out of the bedroom she has just locked him in, alone, with her. Another example is a famous line where Lillian asks a store clerk if the dress she is considering buying is transparent and after receiving the reply that it is, eagerly deciding to purchase it.

The film is an interesting look at the lengths a woman so inclined would go to in order to secure status and wealth. My assumption is that the film was meant to be light and fun, a sexual romp on celluloid, if you will, but I couldn’t help but get distracted by the tragedy of Jean Harlow’s character and the mayhem her promiscuous choices cause. I wonder if any women would find any sort of joy out of the portrayal of power a woman wielding her sexuality can have and the influence she can have simply by being beautiful and sexually accessible. My guess is that most women would look down on her and find her inability to be successful in a less demeaning way tragic. It is interesting to see how a woman willing to abandon all self-respect can so easily throw a monkey wrench in the lives of incredibly powerful and influential men. Perhaps I over thought this movie. Those interested in simply seeing a 1930s film that deals candidly with the subject of sex will likely get a kick out of this naughty bit of nostalgia.

Year: 1932

Cast: Marie Dressler, Jean Hersholt, Myrna Loy, Richard Cromwell

Director: Clarence Brown

When their mother dies in childbirth, the Smith children turn to their nanny Emma (Dressler). As they grow up, Dressler loves them as though they were her own. She has a special bond with Ronnie (Cromwell), who never knew his mother, though Isabelle (Loy) is stuck up and insists on treating Emma as little more than a servant. As the children grow older, their father Frederick (Hersholt) and Emma being to feel lonely and end up marrying each other. On their honeymoon, Frederick dies, and leaves everything in his will to Emma so she can properly provide for the children. Isabelle refuses to believe her father would leave her nothing, and tries to prove that Emma killed her father.

Marie Dressler was definitely one of the more interesting stars of the 1930s. While she’d had some success in silent film, she had pretty much disappeared from the radar until Anna Christie in 1930. She won the Best Actress Oscar for Min and Bill, and was nominated again for Emma. While not at all the type of beautiful star so many people adored, Dressler was one of the top box office stars of her time. She was certainly one of the most talented and dynamic actresses. In Emma, she’s extremely sympathetic, and gives one hell of a performance. It’s hard to believe a woman would be able to love “her” children after the way Isabelle treats her, but there’s never a doubt that Dressler means every word she says when she refuses to allow the lawyers to talk about the kids the way the do, even if it means she’ll be found guilty of murder.

Loy is also interesting in this film. Before her breakout year of 1934, she was often cast as villainous characters, and that’s pretty much what she is here. She’s stuck up, self centered, selfish, and vindictive. And so completely easy to hate. She really does give a very good performance that’s completely against the type she would soon come to play.

The film does lose a bit of steam in the middle. While the murder trial is indeed interesting, I was much more enthralled by the relationship/romance between Emma and Frederick. There was a lot of genuine emotion and affection in this love story between two older people, and that made the first half of the films a lot more interesting than the second half. A romance like this is so rare to find in film, especially classic film. I really would have loved an entire film just about Emma and Frederick’s marriage.