090. Anna Christie (Clarence Brown, 1930)
MGM kept Greta Garbo in silent films longer than any other star in Hollywood. It wasn’t until 1930 that she made her talkie debut in the title role in Anna Christie.  It was really the perfect role for Garbo – the world weary prostitute of Swedish descent. The film is based on the play by Eugene O’Neill, who wasn’t the sunniest of playwrights. It’s a grim and gloomy story that could have easily been bogged down by its own sadness and despair had director Clarence Brown not put such importance on the family dynamic between Anna and her father, played by George F. Marion. Anna hides her past from her father, with whom she’s recently been reunited, for fear of disappointing him. While there is a love story in the film, the movie is really about the relationship between a father and daughter and the difficulties they have relating to one another after being separated for 15 years.

089. Of Human Bondage (John Cromwell, 1934)
Bette Davis had been working steadily in mostly unremarkable pictures until 1934 when she appeared in her breakout role in Of Human Bondage. Davis was a brave actress. Not many would take on a character as vile and horrible as Mildred, and even fewer would work so hard to make the character as horrible as possible. As a result, Davis created one of the biggest film bitches of all time, and cemented her place in Hollywood history as one of the all time greats. W. Somerset Maugham’s story of obsession and abuse is a dark one, filled with characters you can never quite feel sorry for. Nevertheless, watching the power Mildred holds over Leslie Howard’s Carey and the inexplicable pull he feels toward her is fascinating to watch. We’re basically watching a series of events that leads to a train crashing. We recognize that these things are going to lead to a disaster, we’re powerless to stop it, but it’s impossible not to be entranced by it.

088. Vivacious Lady (George Stevens, 1938)
Ginger Rogers and James Stewart were close friends for most of their lives, and they shared a really amazing chemistry on screen. In the 1930s and 1940s, they were both the “every man” (or woman) stars. Unlike much of Hollywood, which seemed glamorous and untouchable, Stewart and Roger seemed like they belonged with us. Like they were regular Joes. And pairing the two worked so well on film. Which is why it’s surprising that the only made one movie together, the delightful romantic comedy Vivacious Lady. The basic story is a little hackneyed – Stewart comes from a wealthy and respectable family, so he’s afraid to tell them that he’s married a showgirl – but the fact that director George Stevens can take that story and make something so funny and heartfelt is what’s beautiful about the whole thing. The romance between Stewart and Rogers feels incredibly genuine, and the family dynamic, while screwball and therefor a little daffy, actually feels real and honest. Despite the screwball elements, this is a movie that feels true.

087. Living on Velvet (Frank Borzage, 1935)
Living on Velvet is one of Borzage’s less recognized films. On the surface is seems to be a typical romantic melodrama, but it’s actually one of Borzage’s darkest stories. George Brent’s character, Terry, has lost his family in a plane crash while he was piloting, so he spends much of his life basically courting death, even after he marries Kay Francis’ Amy. He’s so much more damaged than any of Borzage’s other heroes. So damage that not even his love for Amy can save his soul.  Rather, much of the film seems to be about how their love for each other isn’t enough. For once in a Borzage film, it’s the outside forces that his heroes and heroines are usually so isolated from which are needed to save their lives. It’s an interesting departure for Borzage, less spiritual and certainly darker.

086. Dodsworth (William Wyler, 1936)
Hollywood romances, in both classic and modern film, are usually about young people. While it’s becoming a bit more common in current film to give older people the spotlight, that was a rarity in classic film, which makes Dodsworth a breath of fresh air. The leads are Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton, 52 and 44 years of age, respectively. Chatterton was lucky enough to have an ageless face, and was able to play the leading ladies in roles that might have gone to younger actresses for much of the 1930s. But in Dodsworth she embraced her age to play an older woman, the mother of an adult child, and the wife of a man who’s just retired. The film continues to be unconventional, telling the story of a long time romance unraveling. It’s sometimes heartbreaking to watch, but it’s such a well done film that you can’t tear your eyes away. It’s also brilliantly performed by its entire cast, especially Chatterton, who isn’t afraid to reveal the incredibly unlikable traits of her character.

Stay tuned for 85-81.

By Katie Richardson

Photobucket

Year: 1933

Director: Michael Curtiz

Starring: Ruth Chatterton, George Brent, and Ferdinand Gottschalk

Female is a Pre-Code effort that is unlike any other from the early 1930s. Unlike Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Baby Face — who sleeps her way to the top of the corporate ladder — Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) is already the CEO of her own automobile manufacturing concern. She is a sexual predator that is the equal of any male you’ve seen in film. A tough no nonsense businesswoman by day, Alison treats her company like a carnal candy store. This female captain of industry surveys her office space daily for potential boy toys amongst her employees. Her modus operandi is to pick a potential lover, invite them to her palatial digs on the premise of important shop talk, and then interrupt any professional discussion with sexual seduction. These young men are intoxicated by her lustful wares and they are left hopelessly under Ms. Drake’s spell. Of course she discards them immediately, even brazenly transferring them elsewhere in the firm if they give her any difficulties the next day.

Our protagonist gets the tables turned on her when she steals a top design engineer from a rival company. Jim Thorne (George Brent) rebuffs her advances which infuriates his new boss. He’s not impressed by her come ons. The female CEO is suddenly without the power of her sex appeal. Not used to losing, Alison pursues Thorne relentlessly until she ultimately wins him over. They fall in and out of love quickly. The engineer wants a conventional woman who will maintain a home and take care of his needs. When he leaves the company, Chatterton’s character is useless on the job. All she can think about is the one that got away.

What ensues is a crazy cross-country search until Ms. Drake is able to find her man at a carnival shooting at targets. How fitting when you consider that hanging out in an amusement park is what they did on their first successful date. Then the bottom sort of falls out of the picture as this tough CEO proclaims that she’s no superwoman and agrees to do the decent thing and marry him. What?! I can only imagine that this was thrown in as a salve to the fragile egos of the male audience. If the filmmakers had not emasculated Alison in the third act, this might have gone down as the best Pre-Code film out there.

There are some excellent production values starting with the Drake mansion. This is a real Frank Lloyd Wright creation in the Hollywood Hills known as the Ennis House. For 1933, its Grecian touches and art deco flavor are quite stirring. Our lead even has an ornate live organ halfway up one of her walls. The swimming pool is a sight to see and provides the setting for one of the funnier moments when the lady of the house rejects one boy because he’s too “poetic” (read: homosexual). Michael Curtiz received the director’s credit even though he was the third helmsman on the picture. William Dieterle got sick and William Wellman came aboard only to get in a dispute with the studio over money. Warner Bros. booted him off the set and brought in Curtiz to finish the project. Another interesting thing to note is that Brent and Chatterton were married in real life during Female. This probably didn’t hurt their onscreen performances which were seamless.

Despite the flawed and jarring reversal in this movie, I’m inclined to recommend it highly. I just love the idea of a strong woman getting away with the same boorish workplace behavior that was second nature to several male managers forever. I’ve really only seen this dynamic in one other film called Disclosure starring Demi Moore and Michael Douglas. But for 1930s America, Chatterton’s in-your-face sexuality must have seemed shocking. Oh, and I actually learned something by watching Female. I now know what it means when I’m with a woman and she casually tosses a pillow on the livingroom floor.

By James White

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