The Criminal Code (1931)

Crime Doesn’t Pay

The Criminal Code explores the issue of turning a normal person who made a mistake into a criminal through time spent in prison and ends up abiding by the criminal code itself. The same subject matter is also explored in the movie Caged made 19 later; nothing seems to change. Robert Graham (Phillip Homles) is a sheltered pretty boy who got a rotten break (similar to Robert Montgomery in The Big House). However unlike Montgomery in The Big House, Graham is put in a cell with two guys (including Boris Karloff’s Galloway) who look out for him. Although you do have to suspend your disbelief a bit over the movie fast forwarding six years and Graham not being remotely criminalised within that time. Among the film’s examination of the American legal and penal system, Walter Huston explains how it would be possible for someone to get off the hook for a crime such as manslaughter; “A year’s delay, a new trial, the witnesses would fade away, they always do, the whole mess would get cold, the paper’s would have something else to yap about. I’d get him off; he’d never serve a day”. Great thought provoking stuff.

Walter Huston plays the warden of the unnamed prison. He is stern but fair and a real “Yes sir!” type as evident from his first appearance with the manner in which he addresses a female witness (“Never mind that, pull down the shade”). The man is one lightening fast talker who can interrogate like a boss but his greatest of moment on badassery comes from the scene in which he goes into the prison yard to confront protesting, yammering prisoners face to face without any guards. Just look at the way he walks into the yard and lights up a cigar. As he approaches the prisoners the yammering stops and they don’t lay a hand on him. Simply put, this guy is badass. Perhaps unrealistically so but that’s why we have movies.

The Criminal Code was Boris Karloff’s first significant screen role in the part of Galloway. With his dominating, tall, lanky figure he steals the show; his monologue on why’s he’s in the slammer with the shadows across his face is hair raising stuff. Galloway has a vengeance with a guard named Gleason which gives the film some dark comic relief such as the two awkwardly passing each other on the stairs to Karloff’s recurring use of the lines “I don’t like you” and “I got an appointment with you”. Likewise the other memorable cast member, albeit in a very brief role is Andy Devine who is very hard to miss with that highly distinctive voice of his.

The Criminal Code uses the same set created for MGM’s The Big House released the year before. With its more intricate cinematography the film doesn’t capture the sense of claustrophobia seen in The Big House but still captures the mundanity of prison life. As an early talkie there is no music present in The Criminal Code but rather the sound of prisoners marching along with various other sound effects are just as effective as any music score could be.

The Criminal Code is also host to one of the most shocking moments in pre-code cinema (and was even featured in Karloff film Targets from 1968). When Galloway chases a squealer into a room while yammering is going on in the background from the prison yard, Galloway walks into the room with the squealer cornered as he slowly closes the door as the squealer looks on in terror. What happens next is up to the viewer’s imagination.

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Dance, Fools, Dance (1931)

I Pity the Dancing Fool

Dance, Fools, Dance begins with a party onboard on yacht in which the younglings jump off the boat for a late night swim in their underwear while the older men are ignorant of a possible fall in stocks and the idea of forthcoming great depression; the last days of the carefree, roaring twenties seen through the lens of 1931.

Bonnie Jordan (Joan Crawford) and her brother Rodney (William Bakewell) are young, glamorous people who never worked a day in their life and show no resentment for it ether, from a father who doesn’t want his children to have the hard time he had. They don’t exactly mourn over the death of their father but the loss of their fortune following the stock market crash is the tragedy which gets a reaction out of them. Regardless Bonnie deals with the loss of their fortune surprisingly well and accepts the fault of being left nothing from their father because she and her brother didn’t finish school. This is the crux of the character and what makes her interesting. She doesn’t doesn’t choose the easy way out of getting married to a wealthy man even though the opportunity comes to her but rather desires the thrill to make it on her own as she herself later puts it.

I don’t believe many people are aware of just how endearing Crawford was in her younger, pre-shoulder pad days. In Dance, Fools, Dance she exemplifies a working class heroine with an aura of refreshingly simple, straightforward bravery which really makes you route for her character; plus there is the joy of watching her flex her dancing talents.

Clark Gable is a mere 5th on the cast list, even William Holden (no, not that one) is higher than him but his introductory scene is hard to forget. The downbeat piano music as one of his servants puts a blazer on him as he then blows smoke in a woman’s face; tells you everything you need to know without a spoken word. Likewise Bonnie’s bother Rodney is a memorable character himself as someone who is shocked by the criminal underworld where his alcohol came from before the depression after taking his supply of booze for granted for so long. Likewise the other great cast member is Cliff Edwards as Bert Scranton who makes for an endearing comic sidekick and mentor to Bonnie.

Dance, Fools Dance isn’t quite a great film, its concept could be fleshed out and explored to a greater degree and would have been ripe for a remake (and maybe a title that wouldn’t sound like something a James Bond villain would say). Although even at that despite the film being imperfect it would still be hard to top with that endearingly creaky, early 30’s, pre-code charm.

A Free Soul (1931)

Rhett Vs Ashley

I find Clarence Brown is not a terribly remarkable director with many of his films being by the numbers but he does have has a few worthwhile movies under his belt. A Free Soul isn’t a great film as the plot is on the ordinary side but it does have enough to elevate the film above this – plus I am a sucker for the MGM product of the 1930’s. The common elements of a contemporary, pre code melodrama are here; alcoholism, adultery, gangsters, corruption of authority etc.

Norma Shearer’s nude silhouette in the first shot sets the tone of A Free Soul; a movie full of lust and sexual desire. One of the biggest stars of the film itself is the slinky silk dress Shearer wears to Grandma’s party and Clark Gable’s apartment. The dress is sexually suggestive to say the least and shows off alot of skin. The design of the dress is cut to slide over her body in all the right ways to make her appear naked without actually being so as well as show off her assets. It’s clear that costume design was taken very seriously in the days of old Hollywood as well as the art of how to wear clothes.

Outfits are one thing though, with Shearer and Gable’s scenes together steaming things up, in contrast to her fiancé played by Leslie Howard of whom she shares nowhere near the same level of sexual chemistry with. Gable played a number of gangsters in his career but none as such a player as Ace Wilfong (his gangster’s hideout and apartment are to be envied). Likewise there is an unusually intimate relationship between Norma Shearer and her father played by Lionel Barrymore. Their interactions feel more like what you would expect between husband and wife as she refers to him as “darling”, ”dear” and ”sweetheart” while also being extremely affectionate with him such as scene at the very beginning of the film in which she asks him to fetch her undies.

I’m astounding at Norma Shearer’s ability to burst of the screen with her sheer presence and I do wish I could call myself a bigger fan but her filmography is a bit lackluster in my view. Regardless there are enough melodramatic theatrics to keep A Free Soul interesting including a character’s much unexpected death by the last character you would expect and a courtroom finale in which Barrymore tears the scenery (I just have to ask though would questioning your own daughter not be a conflict of interest?). The only scene which really disrupts the tone of the film is the moment in which Barrymore pulls a Buster Keaton by grabbing onto a train as it goes past and disappears out of sight, very odd.

The Finger Points (1931)

Extra! Extra! Read All About It!

In order for gangsters to thrive,three forms of corruption are required; the corruption of politicians, the police and finally the press. Unlike the newspaper in Warner Bros’ Five Star Final (also released in 1931) the paper of The Finger Points known simply as The Press are proud to be socially responsible and even calling themselves “the world’s best newspaper”. However the paper’s employee’s don’t entirely relish in this corny mentality as seen when the editor gives a speech at the end of the working day on what he calls the paper’s crusade, yet afterwards the employees just laugh it up. Likewise we also discover that reporters for The Press often just avoid on reporting on the activity of gangsters in order to avoid the consequences.

Breckenridge Lee (Richard Barthelmess) on the other hand goes on step further and takes bribes from gangsters in order to supress stories. The plot of The Finger Points was inspired by the true story of Alfred “Jake” Lingle, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune whom had been supressing stories for $60,000 a year from Al Capone. Lingle was shot to death on June 9th, 1930 – a day before he was to testify against Capone.

Richard Barthelmess was an actor with a gentle and sensitive nature that had a lot going on behind his deep set brooding eyes. I don’t think any other actor could have performed the role of the naïve but eager go-getting southerner Breckenridge “Breck” Lee. At the beginning of the film he gives a letter to the managing editor of The Press from his former editor of the Savannah Constitution,calling Breckenridge Lee “one of the best reporters I’ve ever had” and “He’s got the stuff. All he needs is a chance to show it. Give him a break into the big league”. Breckenridge mentions he only did general reporting although can I assume Savannah isn’t as tough as New York City in a movie which showcases the divide between northerners and southerners. Likewise Breck’s group of friends along with Marcia (Fray Wray) and Charlie (Regis Toomey) really make for a fun trio.

I’ve read a number of reviews calling Breck’s transition to corruption unconvincing – I must disagree. I find the film makes this transition convincing in several ways; the pressure he’s under from the hospital bills he has to pay, his general naivety plus it is evident from his previous journalistic success that the recognition is slightly going to his head.

The Finger Points opens with an impressive, showy shot of a moving train as the camera pans from one side of it to another, once again disproving the notion that films from the early 30’s where largely static. This is also exemplified with a number of long panning shots of the expansive and busy newspaper office with the sound of typewriters going on non-stop in the background; I never tire of classic atmosphere of a newspaper office.

My main reason for seeking out this obscurity was for a certain Clark Gable in an early supporting role while on loan to Warner Bros from MGM. Along with Warner’s Night Nurse released the same year, Gable is the show stealer. He is nowhere near as overtly evil than his role in Night Nurse, instead playing a sympathetic but still manipulative gangster in The Finger Points. He is also given more screen time than in Night Nurse, in this one of his best early screen roles.

The crime boss in The Finger Points is simply referred to as “Number 1” and during his one scene in the movie he is only scene sitting from behind a desk with his back to the camera with a face which is never seen like Dr Claw from Inspector Gadget.There is even a shot which visualises the title of the movie in which we see a close up of Number 1’s hand holding a cigar and pointing his finger towards the camera. I love this whole sequence as it leans towards being a live action cartoon but doesn’t take away from the serious nature of the film.

The Finger Points has never seen the light of day on home video. As I’ve said before, no other decade seems to have as many hidden gems as the 1930’s; a real archaeological site of cinema.

Sporting Blood (1931)

The Electric Horseman

Sporting Blood was Clark Gable’s first top billed role, playing a gangster with a softer side, willing to take the shots but not at the expense at the life of a dumb animal. Just one problem though; he doesn’t show up until half way through! I’ve seen some movies in which it takes a long time for the top billed star to show up but this is the most extreme example I’ve seen of this; so don’t go in expecting Gable from scene 1. Sporting          Blood has an odd narrative structure with characters introduced late in the game and a second half which largely contrasts the first half but it works. The first half takes place in a peaceful farm paradise, the latter in a world of gangsters in which Tommy Boy becomes a commodity merely being passed around.

Sporting Blood is a romantic tribute to the world of equestrianism, set in the horse racing heartland of Kentucky; and when I say romantic, I mean romantic. This is a movie which would have you believe a entire group of horses would come running to a horse being taken away in a truck as a sign of farewell. But the anamorphisation of animals doesn’t end there; when Madge Evans proclaims, “What do I want to run him in the Derby for? For himself, for running for himself. Don’t you think a horse has some rights, the same as you and me to run straight and honest and to give his best in order to win what he can.” We’re all guilty of it though, aren’t we?

“Since the beginning of time the Horse has been Man’s loyal friend…BUT Man has not always been the friend the Horse has to Man….”, this section of the opening prologue confuses me; didn’t early man hunt horses for food? But I digress. I found myself getting engaged in the story with the death of Tommy Boy’s mother Southern Queen (was a real horse injured here?) and I believe must of this can be credited to the very naturalistic acting present in Sporting Blood. Unlike other films of the classic Hollywood era, Sporting Blood features African American actors in prominent roles. While they are still presented in a stereotypical manner and seem dim-witted at times, they are treated with more dignity and illicit genuine emotion, especially the black children near the beginning of the film feel just like real kids.

Sporting Blood gets a major benefit from its handsome production values, location filming and impressive race footage which gets right up close to the action. The film is full of in depth compositions and extensive camera pans; just look at the gorgeous use of lighting and shadows when Tommy Boy is introduced to his new mother. It also wouldn’t be pre code without some drug use thrown in there, ok its horse narcotics but still (“We’ve hopped him up so much in the last few months that it ain’t working like it used to”). Sporting Blood isn’t the most intense film ever but ia one with a relaxing charm to it.

Five Star Final (1931)

The Scum

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Five Star Final is 85 years old yet nothing has changed in that the public still has an appetite to read about filth in newspapers. The themes here would be looked at in many newspaper comedies throughout the 1930’s, however this is no screwball comedy – it’s deadly serious. I guess we can’t say “back in my day journalists had ethics”. The real life inspiration for Five Star Final came from a New York tabloid called New York Evening Graphic. At the time of the film release the Evening Graphic was losing circulation because its new editor was attempting to make it a more respectable paper, just like the character of Randall played by Edward G. Robinson the editor of the fictional tabloid newspaper The Gazette.

Randall is an editor who is not without ethics. Despite the objections of the paper’s management, “Randall won’t print pictures of girls in underwear in the pictures section” and prints cables from The League of Nations. The pressure is on him to stop printing “actual news” and more sensationalist stories and gossip. When Randall gives in we see the full sleaze of Edward G. Robinson; after all nobody could do sleaze better than him.

The stealer of the show however is Boris Karloff as Isopod. This isn’t a horror movie but his performance feel like one straight from a horror picture with is distinctive, eerie voice. Isopod is a disgraced priest of whom Randall disguises as a practicing priest to go undercover and do the paper’s dirty work; a creep who is full of crap and as Randall puts it “You’re the most blasphemous looking thing I’ve ever seen”. The name Isopod in Greek means ‘even footed’ but more commonly is the name an unpleasant looking order of crustacean parasites so I guess it works.

The Gazette has a number of shady practices; they bully retailers and vandalise their stalls for not putting their papers on top. Likewise they employee a pretty girl played by Ona Munson to do dirty work for the paper although the main reason they’re choosing her for the job is that she’s not flat chested, as evident by the shot in which Aline MacMahon is clearly looking at her rack (even Isopod enjoys checking her out).

In order the increase the circulation of The Gazette, Randall unearths a 20 year old murder case for the sake of a sensational story later titled, “Famous Killer’s Girl to Wed Society Man”. Today with this internet thing we’ve got going on it would be highly unlikely someone could hide the fact they were once tried for murder while Isopod could just get a photograph of the murder’s daughter on Facebook. But the fact remains the same: sensationalist news stories can affect the lives of innocent associates.

The film has a truly superb cast with everyone having their moment in the sun and this being a film set in the world of journalism, the dialogue flows at a rapid fire rate; a form of acting which is truly a thing of the past. Marian Marsh’s breakdown at the end is hair raising melodramatic brilliance, even if her husband just happens to walk in as she pulls out a gun in a delightfully improbable turn of events.

The production values are excellent helmed under the great director Mervyn Le Roy (such an impressive back catalogue). The use of sound in the opening credits with boys shouting “extra!” and the noise of the printing press sets the atmosphere while it’s evident the studio strived for this production to have authentic sets. Many shots in Five Star Final have an impressive level of depth such as that of George E. Stone with his feet up in foreground as he sits back while on the phone.

Five Star Final contains innovative use of split screen as Mrs Voorhes (Frances Starr) in the middle of the frame is trapped between paper employees who go about their business as usual and try to ignore her but also shows the paper as voyeuristic spies. Yes, the filmmakers sure love their symbolism here. Throughout the film Randall is constantly washing his hands (“50 times a day” apparently) while the paper employees going to the bar and drink in order to deal with their conscience. Likewise Randall’s closeted love interest Miss Taylor played by Aline MacMahon has feelings towards him but objects to his job and the paper; she is symbolic of his conscious. To top it all off, the film ends with an image of the paper lying in the gutter like the filthy rag it is; a final powerful image to stick in your mind.

The Mad Genius (1931)

Emphasis on the Word Mad

I feel like no other decade seems to have as many obscure gems lost to time as the 1930’s; case in point, The Mad Genius. Coming out in the same year as the iconic adaptations of Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde; but in my humble opinion, The Mad Genius is a better and more intriguing film than any of those.

The opening of The Mad Genius does a superb job at setting a time and place; central Europe in the early 20th century. There is an impeccable level of detail in creating the world of a travelling performer; with the falling of the rain, the wind and the sound of horse and carriage taking full advantage of sound technology to create a world. Equally as impressive is Vladimar Ivan Tsarakov’s (John Barrymore) Berlin theatre and the large scale stage set with hints of German expressionism throughout and the wide spread use of music in the soundtrack, unlike other early talkies.

John Barrymore is (unsurprisingly) mesmerising as Vladimar Ivan Tsarakov (quite a name), one of the most repulsive characters he ever played as he spends the movie spewing pompous and at times mad scientist like dialogue. He has a misogynistic attitude towards women and is even seen ogling up the skirts of his dancers, in one of the film’s very pre-code elements. He is even a drug dealer, although the word drug is never used in the film nor is it indentified what substances appear in the film. In one scene in which he refuses to deal drugs with the stage director played by Luis Alberni, I love his summary on drugs when he throws them into the fire; “If I drop this, you will be free, but you will suffer of course, but in the end, you will be happier than you could ever dream”. Likewise In one of the movie’s comic highlights there is an early use of profanity in film; “It’s unbelievable that there’s any human being living, who should be such a stupid ass”.

One of the many interesting observations in The Mad Genius is the combination of elements from other movies. The plot itself is derivative of Barrymore’s previous horror outing Svengali, while Tsarakov’s desire to create a great ballet dancer out of a young boy is a variation on Dr Frankenstein (which the movie itself alludes to). When Tsarakov is wearing on overcoat he is bent over like Quasimodo; Barrymore’s facial appearance is very similar to that of Bela Lugosi in White Zombie, likewise his voice is reminiscent of Lugosi’s Dracula. The theatre setting has vibes of The Phantom of the Opera and perhaps most interestingly are the elements of The Red Shoes with the film’s inclusion of ballet and the themes of going to extremes for one’s art. Could Powell and Pressburger have taken inspiration from The Mad Genius?

Night Nurse (1931)

I’m Nick…the Chauffeur!

It doesn’t take long into the film to see Night Nurse is a very negative portrayal of the health service. Dr Kildare this is not and even makes 1934’s Men In White come off as a more an idealised vision on the health care system in the 1930’s; Night Nurse is anything but. All within the first ten minutes Barbara Stanwyck is turned down for the job as a nurse but then gets it after catching the fancy from a doctor, one of the interns is a pervert and Joan Blondell recommends tricking patients into thinking you’ve saved their life in order to get money out of them. Blondell’s character in particular I really found myself loathing from an actress who normally played such likable characters. She clearly dislikes her profession and even recites the Florence Nightingale pledge while chewing gum. Night Nurse is a movie with a wide range of despicable human beings on display. Also is that a scene which appears to show an actual baby in distress: Not very comfortable viewing.

Night Nurse is a perfect example of the kind of pictures Warner Bros produced during the 1930’s; a thought provoking socially conscious melodrama. Whether or not it’s exaggerated the plot of hospital corruption and the ineffectiveness of both the hospital and the authorities to prevent child abuse, the movie does succeed in packing a punch. What does it say when the intervention of gangsters is required to save the life of a child? Warner Bros where also known for featuring ethnic casts in their movies. At the beginning of the movie a shot focuses on a group of Chinese people sitting around a hospital bed speaking in their native language although here it doesn’t have any bearing on the rest of the plot. There is also an emphasises that the shop which is broken into in order to steal milk for a bath in order to save the lives of malnourished children is from a Kosher delicatessen. Is there a particular reason for this? This was 1931 but history has made of this scene of the delicatessen windows being smashed unintentional creepy.

The best reason to see Night Nurse though is Clark Gable in a role which I point to as proof of his acting ability. Gable is scary enough as a character who wants to murder children and isn’t afraid to punch a woman but this is multiplied by the fact that he’s dressed like a Nazi. Ok not really, it’s a chauffeur’s uniform but when I first saw him wearing this, my instant reaction was “Why is he dressed like an SS officer?” He could have had a knack at playing villains; such unrealised potential. His character’s introduction with the use of a camera zoom and the uttering of “I’m Nick…the chauffeur” gives me chills – melodramatic perfection.

The Champ (1931)

Million Dollar Baby

I can’t imagine what kind an inhuman monster devoid of feelings one would have to be in order to not be moved by this film. Jackie Cooper as Dink and Wallace Beery as his father simply referred to as ‘The Champ’ is one of the most heartfelt and compelling on screen relationships I’ve ever seen. A father who is a loser yet his son worships him despite the father not keeping his promises to stop drinking and gambling; regardless the father truly loves his son back. Despite his questionable character as a viewer I still feel a sympathetic liking for the character. With these two I feel I’m observing real human behavior, not acting.

The film’s naturalistic and unmanufactured feel just doesn’t extend to the performances, partially thanks to the widespread use of real world locations. Champ and Dink’s bedroom also appears run down and unpolished, it doesn’t look like your typical shinny Hollywood interior set; is it even a set at all? The Champ also disproves the misconception of movies from the 1930’s being static, right from the opening scene as the camera pans in several unbroken shots or the sequence in which Champ arises from bed in the morning with the camera following and zooming in on his movements are the room.

I initially reacted of dismay when Dink’s mother and her husband tries to separate him from The Champ, screaming to myself in my head “how dare you destroy this beautiful relationship!”. Thankfully I was glad they just didn’t just descend into becoming cliché villains. Child actors typically get on my nerves, not because of the children themselves but because of the way they are portrayed in movies, often as dim witted and overly cutesy (it seems Dink is smart enough that he even drives a full of adults in one scene, even if the steering wheel movements don’t match that of the car’s). Not here though. Every time Jackie Cooper utters the name of The Champ (“Come on Champ”, “I want The Champ!”) I have myself a laugh of joy. Watch and let the waterworks roll.