Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Pre-Code and Wonderful (Warner Instant Archive Picks)

Good morning!

The other day, as we were going over monthly expenses (like the tiny little business I consider our husband-and-wife domestic team to be), I realized we have three, count 'em, THREE online movie subscriptions. I'm thinking about dropping Netflix and Hulu, but nothing, neither penury nor penny-pinching nor parsimony, will get between me and my Warner Instant Archive! I'd keep it above the others, and here's why. I think about how before, I would either spending twenty bucks a pop for the every-once-and-awhile purchase of a MUST SEE twenties' or thirties' movie, or else eating my heart out that I would never see Marion Davies in whatever because I couldn't justify dropping $25 on a sixty minute movie I don't even know if I'll like. However! For the low, low price of $9.99 a month, I can glut my little eyeballs in as much pre 1950 cinema as time will allow! This weekend, Matthew had to work and I pulled up a chair to the old Roku, kicking and wheezing for not being a Roku 3 and trying to work in spite of itself, and (after some cussing and online re-registering of channels) managed to squeeze in three movies. Three! They're all about an hour apiece, but gee, did those hours buoy my little spirits right back up to where I needed them to be (after a hard work week).

Wanna see what I saw? I'll give you the goods on what I watched this weekend. What do all three share in common? A connection to Loretta Young, a pre-code Hollywood release date, and my hearty recommendation! Take a look:

1) They Call It Sin (1932, 66 minutes)

  • The synopsisA stunning 19 year old Loretta Young stars as a na├»ve church organist in Kansas. Marion Cullen's (Young) world is turned upside down when she has an affair with a visiting--married--businessman. The tryst leads her to New York City where she gets a job with a theatrical producer who immediately sets his sights on her as a prize. Now, can she survive his advances and the seedy city closing in around her, or will she became a victim to desires?
  • The skinny: I don't know that the "tryst" of the synopsis necessarily ever happened there...Loretta Young and David Manners do stay out in his car until really late, but as much as I was expecting him to intimate there was some kind of pre-code devilment, I honestly didn't get that from the scene. And he was only engaged, not married, at that point! Did the synopsis writer watch the movie? With a brisk 66 minute run time, the story moves along pretty speedily up until the third act, where there's a possible murder to solve and brave so-called sacrifices to be made in the name of propriety. Oh, the bellyaching for what was up to then a very modern, enjoyable story line. "We couldn't build our happiness on someone else's...unhappiness," Young bleats in one of the last scenes, selflessly thinking of David's selfless wife, who has offered to give un-selfless David a divorce. Outmartyring one another in thirties' pictures is never much fun, especially in this just-on-the-cusp-of-code era, and it's the only unpleasant-to-watch exchange in the whole movie. From the moment you see her bedecked in yards, and YARDS, of white organza, complete with a wide brimmed matching hat, at the organ in the aforementioned Kansas church, you can't take your eyes off Loretta Young. She is easily one of the prettiest 1930's actresses on the scene, with none of that straight-back, high collar stiffness that put me off her acting in the forties' and fifties'... in this and the next movie I saw her in, I couldn't believe how natural her acting was. What happened, Loretta? I can't stand you in The Bishop's Wife, and that's WITH Cary Grant to look at! Also, this movie is very "unsinful" save one scene of the camera lingering lasciviously on Young in a diaphanous step-in chemise as she changes for work. There's an implied "kept" relationship with the producer guy, but even that is light on the dirty laundry. In sum: the title is way more scandalous than the actual plot.
  • What (else) surprised me: UNA MERKEL! She plays an adorable second-banana to Loretta Young as the Kentucky-drawling, aptly named Dixie Dare, and about steals any scene she's in. Cartwheels in this adorable sailor-themed dance outfit she has for one rehearsal as a chorus girl? A living Kewpie doll! I kept hoping there was some reason Loretta Young's roommate would have reason to be in the scene and additionally kind of want to be her. Also, how completely non-essential to the plot poor George Brent is, though I love him in other, same-era movies. I found myself rooting for snobby theatrical producer Louis Calhern at one point just out of lack of interest in the other two male characters.
  • Rating: **** out of ***** fashion plate outfits that Loretta Young wears (which, consequently, is almost the ratio of dresses she wears that I too would like to wear). 

2) Taxi! (1932, 68 minutes)

  • The synopsis: A keystone in James Cagney's rise to stardom, Taxi stars the gritty actor as a hardened New York City cab driver. As a corporate interest attempts to eliminate all independent cabbies in the city, Cagney recruits a gang to stand up to them - violently. Directed by Roy Del Ruth, several of the gunfight sequences in the film used live machine-gun bullets. Taxi is also the first film in which Cagney danced and where he spoke his famous line, "You dirty rat!"
  • The skinny: James Cagney in the thirties'...other than his hotheaded temper, that man is possibly my dreamiest dream crush. I know! What about Clark Gable, Cary Grant, or any of those other tall drinks of water onscreen at the time? Between his electric charisma, machine gun dialogue delivery, diminutive but neat frame, and smooth as silk dance moves...I'm telling you, this is my kind of guy. He opens up the movie surprising a fellow Irish policeman by talking Yiddish to a monolingual gent from the old country ("What part of Ireland are you from, anyway?" the befuddled cop asks...did you know Cagney could speak Yiddish in real life from his childhood in the Lower East Side of New York?), and then pummeling two guys from "the corportation" who try to horn in on his taxi business by blocking him in to a sidestreet space. You tell it to 'em, Jimmy! Scrap away! While there is about a ten minute scene with a "revenge and retribution" angle and Cagney trying to shoot up a closet where he thinks the guy who killed his brother is hiding, this is emphatically not a gangster picture at all. Cagney tries to organize the independent taxi cab drivers in New York against the syndicate, but spends way more time trying to win Loretta Young's heart (and keep it!). I spend a lot of time in this movie sighing a lovesick sigh. It's a good thing I married a scrappy, devilishly charismatic, good-at-dancing, tiny little guy in real life, or I'd be more heartbroken over it! ;)
  • What surprised me: How "non-gritty" this movie is. You would think from the synopsis that you're in for one of Cagney's hardboiled performances, when what really makes this movie shine is its "everyday Joe" feeling. When Young and Cagney go on a double date with another couple to the movies, the scenes swing back and forth from the meta-movie drama and the in-the-theater reality. You can really see the contrast between the mannered movie folk on the screen ("I love you, I dare say!" type characters dripping with glamour) with the working class working stiffs in the audience 
  • Rating: ***** out of ***** tiny James Cagney suits (***** out of ***** love beams). 
3) Other Men's Women (1931, 70 minutes):

  • The synopsisWilliam Wellman directs this frank pre-Code drama about two locomotive men caught up in a turbulent love triangle. Mary Astor plays the lady in question – married to one man (Regis Toomey) but in love with his pal (Grant Withers). Sparkling with wit, romance and Wellman’s already apparent macho elan, two supporting players capture the eye, and nearly the show – James Cagney and Joan Blondell.
  • The skinny: The opening scenes on the train, with the men nonchalantly running down the skinny walkway across the tops of cars as they hurtle forward, reminded me of some of Wellman's other silent work in that it is an immediately breathtaking visual statement. Dude could frame a shot, and in this top notch transfer, the opening reel is as crisp and clear as anything you could want today. Dreamboat James Cagney, for his own part, actually does a little jig on top of the moving train! The love triangle is way less turbulent than you think, and the dialogue between Mary Astor and Grant Wither plods towards its eventual climactic conclusion ("Oh no! We love each other! When did we fall in love?!") What's much more interesting is, as the synopsis hints, the real-deal performances by Cagney and Blondell. Their fresh-as-paint interpretations of two up-from-under spitfires make you wish the whole movie was about them. I don't know how Mary Astor got so much better at acting in talkies in such a short amount of time, but if counts any, she's GREAT in The Maltese Falcon, around ten years later. Also, her 1920's Clara Bow/Janet Gaynor esque eyebrows have calmed down considerably by the forties', greatly to the benefit of that tragically beautiful face. I quit watching around the time (spoiler alert) Regis Toomey went blind...I need to pick it back up and see if Withers redeems himself by saving his blind pal from the impending flood--the city dam's been threatening to break for days in the railroad town. See, that sounds WAY exciting as I type it, but was tough-going in terms of actual movie watching. I will, however, persevere.
  • What surprised me: I didn't realize, as I picked this out of the pre-code bunch, that this movie has two things in common with Taxi!-- one, James Cagney being (delightful) in it; two, star Grant Withers was actually briefly married to Loretta Young! He was twenty six to her seventeen when they eloped after meeting on the set of the (ironically titled) Too Young to Marry-- the union was annulled the next year.
  • Rating: *** out of ***** guys that work on trains  (* out of *** of Loretta Young's ex-husbands)

So! What do you think about these movies? Which one looks the most intriguing to you? Seen any good black and white pictures lately? What really jumps out of a synopsis to make you want (or not want) to watch a movie? Let's talk!

That's all for today, but I will be back here tomorrow with more vintage rants and ramblings. Have a great Wednesday! I'll talk to you tomorrow.


  1. I love Cagney. He's so kinetic, just an eternally coiled spring ready to...well...spring :D
    I've seen these also and they're loads of fun. TAXI! is probably my favorite of the three.

    1. AGREED! Best of the bunch. I am realizing a lot of my high marks for "They Call It Sin" are for how much I love Loretta Young's clothes in it...

  2. How did I not know about Warner Instant Archive? I must check out-immediately! I love Una Merkel, I always get a kick out of seeing her. More and more I am becoming interested in the character actors of early Hollywood-they are what so often makes the movie shine.

    Other Men's Women-I've seen it several times, and as much as I love Mary Astor-not crazy about this movie. The highlights are definitely Jimmy Cagney and Joan Blondell-I love the scene with them at the dance hall.



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