080. The Smiling Lieutenant (Ernst Lubitsch, 1931)
It’s kind of strange to see Miriam Hopkins, the actress who I think is the true Queen of Pre-Code film, playing such a sweet, timid character. No actress during the era enjoyed her sexuality more than Hopkins, but she’s able to play the inexperienced slightly prudish wife of Maurice Chevalier so well and so convincingly that it’s hard to believe it’s the same woman. Until the end, that is, when she becomes the sexual being that Hopkins was known for. It’s almost like watching the birth of the Pre-Code queen. The “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” number with Hopkins and Claudette Colbert is easily the high point of the movie. One wouldn’t think that these women would get along (since they’re rivals for the same man) but they have so much chemistry, almost more than either woman has with Chevalier. This is a Lubitsch movie, so it’s just as sophisticated as it is sexy, and it’s a joy to watch.

079. Conquest (Clarence Brown, 1937)
It’s refreshing when a movie that’s based on fact comes right out and says, before the movie even starts, that the story has been seriously embellished and that it’s a more romanticized version of the events that actually happened. Conquest, a movie about the love story between Napoleon and his mistress, the Polish Countess Marie Walewska, does this. It starts with the disclaimer. It’s nice to see a movie not hide that it’s not 100% fact. Because when the movie is good, that doesn’t really matter, and Conquest is good. It’s very good. It’s kind of amazing that this was made during the strict era of code enforcement considering the entire story is about a romantic relationship between the Countess, who has left her husband, and Napoleon, who eventually becomes married to someone else, even though they never marry. The love story really is beautifully told. It starts out with Marie mostly taking on the role of the Emperor’s mistress to help her country, but she comes to truly love this man. Conquest is also somewhat unique in that Garbo really doesn’t take on the dominant role in the relationship. Usually she’s playing the alpha to a weaker man, but this time that’s not so. It’s a heartbreaking love story that’ s brilliantly performed by the Garbo and Charles Boyer.

078. The Rules of the Game (La regle du jeu) (Jean Renoir, 1939)
Robert Altman’s Gosford Park is one of my favorite films of the 2000s, and it probably wouldn’t exist were it not for Jean Renoir’s amazing examination of the upper class The Rules of the Game. There were a lot of American films in the 1930s about wealthy people, but the most critical Hollywood was of the upper class was usually just depiction them as screwy and kind of lovably out of their minds (see My Man Godfrey and Merrily We Live). But the French filmmaker’s work looks at the real faults of the upper class in the 1930s and just how they were quite different from the common man, not just in their income, but in their attitudes. The most impressive part of the film is how it’s not particularly intimate. The viewer is not treated as part of the experience. We’re merely observers of the action, kept at a distance that almost (almost) makes the film cold. We’re seeing the way these people would act if we weren’t around watching them, which gives the film a voyeuristic feeling.

077. Today We Live (Howard Hawks, 1933)
I really love World War I movies, and I think that there aren’t enough of them. Today We Live doesn’t follow the tradition war movie formula. It focuses  mostly on Joan Crawford’s character and how she deals with the war, with her brother and her best friend (and later husband) serving. We see a little bit of action, but it’s mostly about the effects that the war has on the people on the periphery. Sure, it has it’s faults, like the whole things in the 1930s where, as long as it was set in the 20th century, everyone wore the latest 1930s fashions. But in the end, that really has no effect on ho this story just works on an emotional level. Crawford’s character has a lot of big choices to make, and sometimes she makes the wrong ones, but that perfectly reflects the confusion that comes from being indirectly involved in a war. Franchot Tone plays her brother and Robert Young their best friend, and they both deliver incredibly supporting performances.

076. Fugitive Lovers (Richard Boleslawski, 1934)
Road Romances were a neat little subgenre of Romantic Comedy in the 1930s. The most notable is probably Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, but perhaps the most overlooked is Richard Boleslawski’s Fugitive Lovers. It’s another pairing of the endlessly adorable and enchanting Robert Montgomery and Madge Evans. This time Montgomery is an escaped convict who grabs a ride on the bus that Madge Evans is traveling on, trying to get away from the mobster who’s infatuated with her, who follows her anyway. It’s a pretty simple movie, but it’s incredibly sweet and has a surprising amount of character development for such a short comedy. The relationship between Evans and Montgomery has a very natural feel to it. Montgomery is great as always, but I think it’s Evans who’s particularly impressive here. She’s playing a character who’s a little bit sharper and snippier than her usual characters, and there are moments where she’s flat out hilarious. Nat Pendleton is the main supporting player, as Evans’ mobster stalker. He’s always a joy to watch, and this time is no different. He also has one of the most surprising and satisfying character moments in the whole film.

By Katie Richardson

Photobucket

Year: 1933

Director: King Vidor

Cast: Miriam Hopkins, Lionel Barrymore, Franchot Tone, Beulah Bondi

The most notable aspect of this Vidor Pre-Code film is the mutual fondness that emerges on the screen between Hopkins and the great Lionel Barrymore. Their tender moments really sustain the picture and become its backbone.

Louise Starr (Hopkins) is a big city woman with small country roots. She divorces her husband at a time when a girl emerging from the dissolution of a marriage was looked down upon. On a holiday, this metropolitan woman decides to re-discover her sense of self and visit the old family farm. Grandpa Storr (Barrymore) couldn’t be more thrilled to have his granddaughter back in the fold. She gets a much cooler reception from her relative Beatrice — played by Beulah Bondi — who runs the household and cares for Barrymore’s character. Quite active for a man of his years, Grandpa takes great delight in showing his granddaughter just how addictive rural life can be. When he introduces Louise to his favorite neighbor, Guy (Franchot Tone), she is instantly enamored with the intelligent farmer and surprised by his sophistication. Unfortunately, Guy is married with a young child and unavailable. Still, the two spend much time together because they find common interests. Naturally, the town is rife with gossip. Despite these ill-feelings, our lead finds that the farm has grounded her and the longer she stays, it becomes harder to leave.

The biggest source of aggravation between Beatrice and Louise is the question of inheritance. Bondi’s house frau has put all her eggs in one basket, weezling her way into what she thinks is a massive inheritance when the patriarch passes on. With Hopkins’ character in the picture, will she get screwed? The elderly former military man has no intention of dying quickly, however, and he’s still got a few tricks up his sleeve.

The Stranger’s Return is not a great film. What it does have is Miriam Hopkins @ the pinnacle of her physical perfection. She is a star in the biggest sense of the word and the performer’s onscreen magnetism will leave you wanting to see as much of her work as you can.

By James White

Every Girl Should Be Married is definitely the least of the three films discussed in this series. While Three Loves Has Nancy and Tom, Dick, and Harry are cute, sweet, simple romantic comedies with unique, likable characters and unpredictable outcomes, Every Girl Should Be Married lacks… pretty much all those things. And there’s some creepiness thrown in as well. A lot of creepiness, actually.

Anabel (Betsy Drake) has a nice boyfriend back home, but meets the perfect man in Dr. Madison Brown (Cary Grant). She’s determined to marry him, but he shows little interest, so she invents a scheme to trap him. This scheme involves following him around, invading his personal life so she can learn every single thing about him, and basically being a lunatic. During this endeavor, she attracts the attentions of her boss, Roger Stanford (Franchot Tone), and she considers playing the two men off of each other.

If this movie was remade today, there’s no way it could be made as anything other than a psychological thriller. Really, I’m not sure how his movie was perceived back when it original released. Instead of coming of as quirky and cute, Anabel comes across as a clingy, desperate lunatic, and definitely on of my most hated film characters. She stalks Madison relentlessly, invades his privacy to learn every detail of his life, down to the magazines he reads. When he takes out another girl, she behaves like he’s cheating on her, even though she really barely notices her. It’s not cute. It’s creepy.

And Betsy Drake’s performance doesn’t really help. The actress has almost no charisma. Perhaps if a better actress had the role, it wouldn’t have been quite so damn creepy, but Drake is completely void of charisma.  The character she creates is like those girls you couldn’t stand in high school. The ones who’s life was dependent completely on the guy she liked, who was so overdramatic about that she’d cry in the bathroom anytime he ignored her, and acted like they were going steady if he so much as glanced at her. The girl who thought that psycho obsessive stalking somehow proved her love.

That’s actually the biggest problem with the movie, and it’s evident in the title. While Three Loves Has Nancy is really about how the men are dependent on Nancy, and Tom, Dick, and Harry is such a light movie that the idea of dependence is never really important, Every Girl Should Be Married, even with a female lead who’s supposed to seem strong, is incredibly insulting. Anabel’s life is completely incomplete and worthless without this man, despite the fact that she has a not-so-bad job and a wonderful best friend. All of it means nothing unless she can marry a doctor. There are films where, even though I have problems with their politics, I can’t fault because they’re products of their times. But watch so many movies from this time and before, where women were becoming wonderfully self sufficient and independent, Every Girl Should Be Married is just an insulting step backward.

Franchot Tone plays the other guy yet again, and is by far the best part of the movie. His character is the cad with a heart of gold. He’s clearly after one thing, but he also has a genuine admiration and affection for Anabel (god knows why). He’s the most likable, and the most interesting thing in the movie.

But there’s never any question of who she’s going to end up with. Her hometown boyfriend is basically forgotten, the affectionate cad is used only to help Anabel’s sill scheme, and the film sends the horrible message that stalking a man like a crazy person will win you Cary Grant’s heart.


In the first of these movies Janet Gaynor plays the role she was so good at, the simple, sweet, slightly naive, but very adorable small town girl (she even starred in a movie called Small Town Girl). She’s Nancy, from a small town down south, who’s engaged to marry her longtime love George, who’s supposed to be arriving by train. When he fails to show up for the wedding,  Nancy heads to New York to find him and takes up with author Mal Niles (Robert Montgomery), who finds her small town sweetness and wisdom to be irritating, but can’t bring himself to throw her out on the street because he’s the only person she knows, so he decides to use her as the inspiration for a new character.

Nancy also meets Mal’s publisher, Bob Hanson (Franchot Tone), a troubled drunk who takes to Nancy immediately, hires her as his cook without really asking her, and falls in love with her. Nancy, while trying to find George, finds herself falling in love with Mal, while Mal is basically a big child who is completely unable to express or even understand his feelings.

I really love Three Loves Has Nancy, but I love it more for its leading men than for its leading lady. Gaynor is a wonderful actress, and is so charismatic and likable. But Nancy sometimes comes off as a bit irritating, and you can see where Mal is coming from earlier in the film. Most of the time she’s great, but there are moments, like where she’s freaking out on the train because she thinks someone has stolen her bag, that you get irritated at the country bumpkin-ness of it. She adds a rural charm to the urban world the men live in, but while she helps change this world, or at least the men in it, the world doesn’t really change her. Really, Nancy as a character doesn’t do much growing. She mostly acts as a catalyst for the growth of Mal and Bob, who turn out to be rather fascinating characters.

Bob is a lonely man who really just needs someone to care about him. So when Nancy comes along, despite the fact that she isn’t in love with him, she does care enough about him to give him the confidence boost he needs. At the same time, however, we see that he still needs to grow because he does view Nancy as more of an object than as a human. He moves her things into his apartment and hires her as his cook without asking, when he decides to marry her, he calls both his family and hers to announce it without even telling her. Perhaps he needs Nancy more than Mal does, but while he does show character growth, he still doesn’t deserve her in the end.

Mal, as the lead character, is much more complicated, and even entertaining. We see early on how he mostly views life as nothing but a silly story from the way he turns everything into a story narration in his head. He both minimizes the importance of certain things in his life while at the same time. He treats everything, from his girlfriend (played by Claire Dodd) to his career as nothing more than silly diversions. When he starts to feel smothered by his girlfriend’s marriage talk, he takes off on a book signing tour to get away from her, and then ditches the tour as soon as he discovers that she’s gone on the road with her theater company. He’s initially extremely annoyed with Nancy, and were he not to base a character on her, he probably would go on continuing to be. It’s because he’s made this decision to make her into a character that forces him to really look at her and understand her. And even then it’s not until he discovers Bob’s intentions, and he’s faced with losing her, that he finally grows up, and the narration in his head tells him to get things together.

George is the third love, and is actually of very little consequence. While Nancy serves as a catalyst for the men to grow up, George is little more than the catalyst for getting Nancy out of the small town and into the big city. You almost forget George even exists until he shows up at the end, pretty much just to show the difference between the romantic ideals Nancy once had and the ones she has now.

And the best part about the movie is that it’s never quite clear who Nancy might end up with until the end. It just a question of who’s going to grow up enough to deserve her.

The Thin Man is without a doubt the most popular screwball mystery film (or rather, series of films) in Hollywood history. And it’s easy to see why. Not only are the stories constantly engaging, not only do the scripts sparkle, but it’s Powell and Loy. And that’s a combination you just can’t go wrong with.

At the same time, though, a large part of the appeal lies simply with the type of film itself. There’s something really special about a film that combines quick witted humor and a tangled web of mystery. And while The Thin Man certainly did it best, over and over again, there were several films made after the first Thin Man, screwball mysteries with the same style, humor, and intrigue.

Star of Midnight
Perhaps the best of the Thin Man knockoffs, Star of Midnight also stars William Powell, only this time he’s a lawyer who just happens to be really good at solving crimes. Stepping into Loy’s Nora shoes is Ginger Rogers, equally as charming, just in a more vivacious and in your face way than the always graceful Loy.

I’d say the mystery is more compelling than at least the original Thin Man film. It concerns a mysterious veiled singing star who disappears in the middle of a show. As the story unfolds, the mystery aspect almost overtakes the comedy aspect. This may be one of the reasons I actually prefer Star of Midnight to The Thin Man. The mystery is very strong, distinct, and easy to follow. As are the characters.

I’m also extremely fond of the romance. While the strength of The Thin Man ‘s romance lies in the fact that Nick and Nora are already happily married, in Star of Midnight it lies in the wonderful dynamic between Rogers and Powell. Rogers plays the daughter of an old friend of Powell’s, who’s known the older man since she was just a kid. This could end up being creepy. But Rogers’ aggressive pursuit, paired with Powell’s ever wearing resistance, and their adorable banter, makes it perfect. All the time he’s exasperated by her, and her efforts to help with the investigation, it’s easy to see that, underneath it all, he just thinks she’s adorable. This was the only film Powell and Rogers made together, which is unfortunate, because they were so good together.

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford
Powell starred in yet another one of these with the wonderful and daffy The Ex-Mrs. Bradford. This one leans more toward the screwball side of things than either The Thin Man or Star of Midnight, and I suspect that has something to do with the presence of Jean Arthur, one of the queens of screwball. While Arthur was a fantastically talented actress and could do pretty much anything, her naturally high strung attitude and Minnie Mouse voice make her the perfect fit for screwball, and her Mrs. Bradford is one of the daffiest dames of the genres.

The mystery involves a horse race, much like the later Shadow of the Thin Man. However, unlike Star of Midnight, the mystery isn’t as as easy to follow and the characters aren’t as distinctive. The mystery is probably harder to follow than the original Thin Man. But that really is okay, since as I said, it leans more toward the screwball.

Arthur and Powell are a really excellent team. They’d worked together several years earlier in a pair of Philo Vance mysteries, and Powell predicted great things for Arthur’s future. They have a strong chemistry. Powell’s laid back ease is both the perfect match and foil for Arthur’s madcap heroine (they actually remind me of my friend Brandy and Brian). I also really enjoy the dynamic of this relationship. While in Star of Midnight the pair is just starting to get together, in and The Thin Man they’re married, in The Ex-Mrs Bradford they’re divorced, but still very much in love.

Fast and Loose
Montgomery steps into the detective role in the second film of the “Fast” series, as a rare book expert who gets himself tied up in murder mysteries that for some reason involve rare books (apparently, there was enough rare book crime back then for three movies to be made about it.) As bizarre as that kind of mystery sounds, it actually give the screwball mystery and interesting spin. I’d say Fast and Loose has probably the most sophisticated feel of all the screwball mysteries.

And the mystery, involving a fake Shakespeare manuscript, is actually very intriguing, and held my interest in the films just as much as the screwball and romance elements. The characters of the mystery aren’t just easy to tell apart, but they’re interesting in their own right. It’s just a really well crafted mystery.

But, with Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell in the lead roles, it’s also extremely funny. Most of the humor in the film comes from their interaction as a (very much in love) married couple. Montgomery and Rosalind Russell made several films together, both comedic and dramatic, and this is probably the most fun of their pairings. They had such a solid chemistry. In terms of her style, at least in the 1930s and early 1940s, Russell is pretty much the female version of Montgomery, and it’s so much fun watching them play off of each other.

As I said, this is the second film in the “Fast” series but, oddly, each film has a different set of actors. The first, Fast Company, stars Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice, and the third, Fast and Furious, starred Franchot Tone and Ann Sothern. Both are really good, fun films, but Loose is easily the best.

By Katie Richardson

Year: 1935

Director: Victor Fleming

Starring: Jean Harlow, William Powell, Franchot Tone, Rosalind Russell

This film is a comedy/musical that oddly morphs into melodrama after an out-of-the-blue tragedy strikes. Ned Reilly (William Powell) is a lawyer with a fondness for gambling. He’s especially close to Granny (May Robson) and her granddaughter Mona Leslie (Jean Harlow). When the picture starts, it is up to old faithful Ned to bail out troublesome Mona from jail for an egregious traffic violation. He works his slick magic and gets Harlow’s character out on a technicality. It’s clear from the outset that while Ned may come on as a family friend, he is undoubtedly interested in Mona romantically. What really catapults this movie above other average fare is the wonderful banter between Ned and the two women. That’s where the picture really gets its heart.

Mona is a successful showgirl. She catches the eye of wealthy playboy Bob Harrison (Franchot Tone) and he simply must have her. Blind to Ned’s secret affections for her, Mona gets caught up in the idea of love and the allure of riches that Bob can bring to the table. The lovers elope immediately. Bob’s family is about as blue blood as rich people get and they are less than happy at the news. When he brings his new bride home to meet everyone not only are they unenthusiastic, but the Harrisons are boorish in their put downs and snobbish behavior toward our blonde. It turns out that Bob was expected to wed Jo Mercer (Rosalind Russell) who comes from a proper family. All the disapprovals build up resentment within Bob and when he finds out that Jo moved on and married someone else, he snaps.

Mona finds herself pregnant and in the midst of a scandal. She has trouble resuming her musical career. Desperate to help the woman he loves, Ned risks everything he has to produce her next show. When the platinum blonde comes on stage and starts to sing the first tune she is met by such a hostile audience that she is forced to stop singing and address their despicable behavior. Finished with her harangue, Harlow’s singer resumes the song and afterward the crowd responds with wild applause and cheering. Evidently her resiliency and determination won them over. The last sentimental shot between Powell and Harlow will not work for everyone but it got to me. As for the other performances, we get a brief couple of moments from Mickey Rooney as he plays a kid running a lemonade stand. Russell shines in kind of a thankless part of the dumped ex-love. Robson’s Granny is really fun to watch as she is quite a spitfire. Reckless shifts too much in tone to be considered a great movie. But the witty repartee between Harlow and Powell carries the day.

Year: 1934

Director: Paul Sloane

Cast: Franchot Tone, Karen Morley, May Robson, Jack LaRue, Nat Pendleton, Gladys George

Benny (Tone) is returning to his mother after spending time in prison. While he was gone, his mother (Robson) took in their neighbor, Bertha (Morley), whose mother had died. Benny promises Bertha and his mother that his days of crime are behind him and he wants to go straight. But his old friends (LaRue and Pendleton) and his old flame (George) want him to come back into their business.

Straight is the Way is a short and sweet B-picture that’s just a good watch. It’s a very basic film, not outstanding in any way, but not terrible in any way either. The characters in the film are Jewish, and it’s interesting to see a movie about the mob with Jewish characters. The film does have an odd structure. There’s not much of a flow to the story, not much of climax, but it does have a certain pace to it and it’s an enjoyable story.

Tone gives a really solid performance. Not one of his best, but he’s charismatic and it’s fun to see him play a character who’s a little morally ambiguous. Sometimes it’s hard to see where his motivations are coming from, until the love story between Benny and Bertha really starts to blossom. The romance is the strongest aspect of the film. Morley and Tone are a really good pair. Morley is the perfect good girl to Gladys George’s bad girl, and Tone’s growing love for her is interesting to watch as he believes he’s not good enough for her.

And I have to mention the supporting performances from Jack LaRue and Nat Pendleton. LaRue was one of the slimiest actors of the 1930s, and he does his usual good job of playing the bad guy here. And Pendleton is so much fun, as always. Charming, kind of adorable, and funny. He always gives a movie a special kick.

Straight Is the Way certainly isn’t a great movie, but for a 1930s B-picture, it’s a fun way to spend an hour, and the unusual structure is somewhat refreshing.

By Katie Richardson

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.