Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Warner Archive Pre-Code Batch

I received and viewed a number of pre-Code titles from the Warner Archive over the past couple months, a number of which I've already written about.  The Hatchet Man, Skyscraper Souls, Employees' Entrance, One Way Passage, and What Price Hollywood?, however, I've been sitting on for awhile.

What Price Hollywood? (1932, George Cukor), is one of several films that fall into the "making and breaking of a Hollywood star" tradition.  Cukor's own A Star Is Born (1954) is probably the most famous of this strain.  Since I still haven't seen the latter film, though, I'm unable to compare or comment further.  A Star Is Born is available from WHV on a beautiful restored Blu-ray (which has been sitting unwatched in my collection for far too long now), while the earlier Show People, King Vidor's sublime 1928 silent dramedy starring Marion Davies and William Haines, is available from the WA. I've had the opportunity to see the latter projected on 35mm and it's, for me, the high point of "backstage Hollywood" pictures, with no shortage of treasures--in the form of vintage Hollywood location footage and umpteen star cameos--for late silent aficionados and students of early Hollywood history.

What Price Hollywood? finds Brown Derby waitress Constance Bennett hitching her wagon to star director Lowell Sherman (himself a director of several films until his untimely death in 1934), who's also battling a debilitating addiction to alchohol.  I was fascinated by the period and industry-specific details that we get at the beginning of the film: the real Brown Derby--with producers taking phone calls and making pitches at their tables, Bennett practicing her first walk-on bit all through the night at her rooming house, and Bennett crashing the dailies screening session at the studio screening room.

Despite the fact that Sherman's alcoholism was no doubt a taboo onscreen subject at the time, and while I appreciate the film's willingness to tackle such a subject, I was less interested in the portrayal of his descent into life-ruining addiction, as well as the relationship between Bennett and boring, polo-playing rich boy Neil Hamilton.  I haven't seen enough Hamilton performances to know if he's always such a drip, or if that's just the character.

Watch this one for Bennett's superb performance--particularly in the aforementioned scene in which she rehearses and rehearses her sole line of dialogue and the proper method of descending a staircase...priceless.

Also of interest is the mysterious Rowland Brown's role as one of eight(!) writers on the picture. Brown would go onto direct three potent pre-Code dramas--Quick MillionsBlood Money, and Hell's Highway--before possibly being blackballed from his promising directorial career for possibly punching out a producer.  Since Brown's own career was said to have spiraled downward due to his own problems with alcohol, it makes Sherman's onscreen plight in What Price Hollywood? that much more poignant and hard-hitting.

William Wellman's The Hatchet Man (1933) has some unfortunate make-up for stars Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young, neither of whom are very convincing as members of the San Francisco Chinese-American community.  Throughout the film, it's just about impossible to separate Robinson's usual persona, particularly his singular vocal delivery, from this rather different character, even as he's somewhat hidden under make-up. What the film does have going for it, is the atmospheric opening in which Tong hit man Robinson must execute his close friend (J. Carrol Naish) and the decidedly pre-Code relationship of Young (who was quite young at the time of filming, 18 or 19) and Robinson, which goes from adopted daughter-father to wife-husband.  The superb finale, which is as eerie and evocative as the film's opening, has one of the great proto-EC Comics endings that were common in the pre-Code days; earlier I wrote about another such example in Mandalay.

It's quite fitting that Roy Del Ruth's Employees' Entrance (1933) and Edgar Selwyn's Skyscraper Souls (1932), both starring "the King of pre-Code" Warren William, reside in the same WA Forbidden Hollywood collection.  The surprise is that Skyscraper Souls was a loan-out to MGM for WB contract player William.  It was MGM, of course, who created the single-location all-star cast ensemble piece with Grand Hotel, and Skyscraper Souls, released a few months later, is in the same category, albeit with a less star-studded cast. Employees' Entrance is in the same mode, although it was produced at William's home studio, WB. 

Both pictures are united by their aforementioned ensemble structure, but also their placement of William--in full-on ruthless dictator mode--at the top of the heap.  In the case of the earlier film, William is the autocratic chief executive of a building, almost certainly modeled after the just-completed Empire State Building, which he is scheming to take over from the other investors.  In the latter film, he is the take-no-prisoners manager of a big city department store who will step over anything and anyone in order to keep his perch.  In both films, he is the real man in charge even if he technically answers to others.  William is at his cruel and scheming best in each film, archetypal William characters which will surely leave his devotees delighted.  

Of course, there is a rogues gallery of great pre-Code players in each, with Wallace Ford, in his younger, skinnier guise, appearing in key roles in each film.  Maureen O'Sullivan (mother of Mia) was as bewitching to me as she was William, as the ingenue he covets almost as much as his precious skyscraper; Loretta Young ably fills in Employees' Entrance as the object of the King's lust.  As for some of the other "faces," Anita Page, who lived to be 98, will set hearts equally atwitter, as Maureen's less wholesome pal in Skyscraper Souls.  Gregory Ratoff, one of many Eastern European imports who flourished in Jewish (or, "Jewy"), or other non-specified ethnic roles in the pre-Code era, has a major role in Skyscraper Souls, as well as in What Price Hollywood?.  Actor-turned-director Norman Foster, humanitarian Jean Hersholt, Verree Teasdale, Hedda Hopper, and Ruth Donnelly are a few of the other notable players and faces who turn up in at least one of these films.

Tay Garnett's One Way Passage (1932) is one of several films that partnered William Powell and Kay Francis when the two stars were at WB.  What could be a dreadfully maudlin romance is instead decidedly not, as its sentimental aspects are effectively balanced by humor (particularly from the great Aline MacMahon and Frank McHugh, as well as the lesser known Warren Hymer) and an overall sense of restraint and subtlety from the filmmakers.  The screenplay was co-written by, of all people, Brown Derby owner Wilson Mizner. The other writer was Joseph Jackson, who died young, but not before he penned several other notable pre-Code titles, including the recently-revived Safe in Hell and High Pressure, also starring Powell, which I wrote about here.  Although much different in tone, I was reminded of Safe in Hell when watching One Way Passage due to both films featuring doomed / condemned characters hiding out in exotic, tropical locales.  Garnett is probably best known for the 1946 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

In my research on One Way Passage I was heartened to see that hard-boiled writer Charles Willeford (Cockfighter, Miami Blues) counted the film as his favorite, based on an eventful childhood viewing, which moved him so much so that he refused to ever revisit the film; whether that was because he didn't want to cry his eyes out again, or because he did not want to sully the "special-ness" of his first viewing, I'm not certain.

From Willeford's 1988 memoir I Was Looking for a Street

After lunch I walked across the street to the Tower Theater and watched a double feature. There was an orange juice stand on the corner of Eighth and Broadway, and you could drink all of the orange juice you wanted for a dime. But there was a trick to it, and I was cheated out of a dime several times until I finally caught on. The orange juice they pumped up was so astonishingly cold the first sip gave you a headache right between the eyes and it was difficult to finish one glass, let alone two. The movie was a dime too and I usually spent my remaining nickel on a candy bar. I saw One Way Passage with William Powell and Kay Francis in the Tower Theater and the ending was so tragic it almost broke my heart. One Way Passage is still my all-time favorite movie but I have never risked seeing it again. I cried so hard when the movie ended the usher took me out to the lobby and gave me a glass of water. 

Some of the very striking archival imagery seen in this article comes from this invaluable (FREE!) resource.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Norma Rae (1979, Martin Ritt)

If Norma Rae had been a sleeper or "undiscovered gem" I'd probably have seen it long ago, but it's an Oscar-winner and I can't deny sometimes turning my nose up at such films.  My loss.  I finally saw Martin Ritt's rousing and intelligent drama last night via Fox's new Blu-ray, which sports a very film-like image.  Sally Field deservedly won her first Academy Award for Best Actress in the title role, a small town North Carolina factory worker who bravely works with a New York labor organizer (an excellent Ron Leibman) to unionize the textile mill where she and most of her fellow townspeople have slaved away for generations, under terrible conditions.

Inspired by the story of textile worker Cheryl Lee Sutton, Ritt's film is one of the great progressive films to somehow escape from Hollywood into the marketplace...it's strongly pro-worker, pro-women, and advocates for cooperation and camaraderie amongst people of different racial, ethnic, religious, social, and geographic backgrounds.  Like James Bridges' The China Syndrome, also released in 1979, it is an impassioned cry against injustices perpetrated by a powerful, established foe--in this case, management and big business.  Both films have strong female protagonists (Jane Fonda in China Syndrome) who become more radicalized and learn to fight as the films progress.  With the Reagan era just around the corner, it's a minor miracle that these uncompromising, undeniably left-leaning, cinematic indictments of the establishment were even greenlit.

I can't say I was ever a big fan of Field's, but then with one role--Norma Rae, in this case--I was completely won over. She's thoroughly convincing as a single mother from the Deep South, with minimal education, an active (and unfairly maligned) sex life, a rebellious streak, toughness, and a willingness and desire to step outside her comfort zone in order to better herself and her loved ones, i.e. trusting and teaming up with a Northern Jew in order to bring a union to the factory.

I never felt like Field was acting here or having to try very hard to affect a working-class brio; it seems to come naturally to her and I felt that this "organic" quality extended to the rest of the film.  Ritt and screenwriters Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch do a fine a job of not beating their message over viewers' heads.  I think of it as a more of a massage, in comparison to others in the same canon such as Erin Brockovich, which I admittedly haven't seen in years, but which I recall as being much louder and less subtle.

Norma Rae is a smart, well-crafted piece, which doesn't resort to cheap tricks or get overly or falsely sentimental; these are things I can't always put exactly into words, but I know them when I see them and they are anathema to me.  As an example of the film's admirable restraint in this regard, composer David Shire is one of the best in his field, but his music is used sparingly here; to the film's credit, its most dramatic and moving moments play in a more documentary-like fashion, with very little non-diegetic sounds such as a dramatic score. In fact, the sound you will probably most remember after watching Norma Rae is that of the extremely loud factory machinery, which the characters are constantly competing with to be heard.  It's a nice analogy for the overall narrative, if you like that sort of thing.

The fine supporting cast includes the aforementioned Leibman, who should have gotten some Supporting Actor nominations for his work here.  Leibman has many fine moments in the film, none more so than his moving, chivalrous farewell scene with Field, which confounds not only audience expectations, but also Norma Rae's.

As Norma Rae's dim, but decent new husband, Beau Bridges has less screen time than Leibman, though he is, as always, a welcome presence.  I got a kick out of the scene where he bemoans Norma Rae holding a union meeting in their home, particularly because there are black men attending, all while wearing a t-shirt with a faded Woodstock logo...this dichotomy is apt for his character, who is looser and more liberal than most folks in their staunchly Baptist town, but who will not cross all the lines that Norma Rae is willing to.

Sharp-eyed viewers will note that Field's onscreen time with Beau, was sandwiched by love interest roles with brother Jeff in Bob Rafelson's Stay Hungry and Robert Mulligan's Kiss Me Goodbye. Almost romantic rivals in Norma Rae, Leibman and Bridges earlier played best pals in Douglas Schwartz's 1973 buddy road movie Your Three Minutes Are Up!.

There's no shortage of top '70s character talent filling out the rest of the cast, a number of whom are sadly no longer with us: Pat Hingle, Barbara Baxley, Gail Strickland, Bob Minor, Frank McRae, Morgan Paull, Noble Willingham, Gregory Walcott, James Luisi, John Calvin, and Grace Zabriskie (who would play a factory worker again a few years later in An Officer and a Gentleman), among others.  You might not recognize all of them by name, but you will know their faces.

Sutton apparently was not happy with the film at the time of its release, which is unfortunate because I think it's a beautiful tribute to her fighting spirit.  In a tragic example of history seeming to repeat itself, years later, she had to fight with her health insurance company in order to get coverage for the brain cancer that would eventually kill her, losing precious time to start her medical treatments.

In addition to composer Shire, notable tech credits belong to editor Sidney Levin (Nashville, Mean Streets, and several other Ritt titles) and d.p. John A. Alonzo (Chinatown, Scarface, Harold and Maude) who shot the film in the surprising (to me, anyway), but ultimately apt 'scope ratio; the extra wide 2.35:1 framing is ideal for the machinery and worker-filled factory floors where so much of the film is staged. The aforementioned Blu-ray does a superb job of recreating the original look of this film for home consumption.  There is no unsightly grain reduction or over-brightening.  It was an ideal way to get acquainted with this exceptional film.

Field has often been ridiculed because of her "You like me!" speech when accepting the Oscar for Best Actress for Places in the Heart.  That said, I think her acceptance speech for Norma Rae, like her performance in the film, is right on...she is genuinely appreciative of everyone who helped her earn that award, and it's quite moving as far as these types of speeches go.