The Wet Parade (1932)

Drink!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Wet Parade is unusually long for a pre-code film at 2 hours resulting in a real mini-epic and an informative history lesson on the topic of the prohibition of alcohol in The United States by people who had just lived through it. Whereas most films on the topic focus on the criminal side of prohibition, The Wet Parade focuses on how it affected regular law abiding people.

The first act of The Wet Parade takes places in the American south and this portion of the film does meander a bit (also what is up with that cut made 19 minutes into the movie? – It couldn’t have been less jarring if they tried). None the less it’s worth patient wait for the shocking, pre-code melodramatics this act has to offer as Lewis Stone in the role of a southern gentleman succumbs to the bottle in the most over the top fashion. It’s not enough that he ends up victim to alcoholism; he has to be found dead in a literal pigsty. After the proceeding funeral his daughter Maggie (Dorothy Jordan) offers a beautiful, histrionic breakdown after seeing her father’s friends using whiskey have a toast to their departed friend (“And I only hope I live to see the day, that every bit that was ever made is poured into a cesspool where it belongs”). So yes, just blame the drink and not place any personal responsibility on her father’s lack of self-control. – More on this later.

The remainder of The Wet Parade takes place in New York City in which Maggie is introduced to the hotel owning Tarleton family and their son Kip (Robert Young). Walter Houston as the father of the family couldn’t ham it up more if he tried in the role of Pow Tarleton with his manly, Victorian demeanor. Pow is a hardcore Democrat and Woodrow Wilson fanboy as he drunkenly fawns over the commander in chief. Early in the film, he is seen giving a rousing political speech on the street which is contrast to a Republican elsewhere as it intercuts to both sides accusing the other of infringing on people’s liberates. –  Huston himself would go on to portray a fictional POTUS himself the following year in Gabriel Over the White House.

Films dealing with politics in Hollywood’s golden age rarely would mention actual political parties and by extension not identify characters as being associated with actual real-life parties (at most they would imply party connections). The Wet Parade is an exception to this as various characters are identified as being either Republican or Democrat. There is no clear political alliance The Wet Parade sides with yet it is an interesting observation that all the identified Democrats in the film are rowdy men’s men and heavy drinkers (“I never knew a Republican that could hold more than a pint”) while the two identified Republicans are pretty boys who don’t drink.

The Wet Parade provides an overview of the events which eventually leads to prohibition being enacted. This begins with the re-election of Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and immediately after the results come in on election night, a group of Democrats sing a loud isolationism chant which dissolves into stock footage of marching troops to George M. Cohen’s ‘Over There’. – Nice one. With the US involved in the Great War we see the food control act introduced which Pow refers to as “the hick towns of the Bible belt are behind this, a snide blue-nosed trick to force the county into prohibition”. The Anti-Saloon League then begins pushing to get the Food Control Act into permanent, national law. This is followed by a scene in which we see the angry reaction from the soldiers in the trenches on whom it’s supposed to benefit, frustrated that they won’t be able to get a drink once they return home.

Following the introduction of prohibition, Pow’s wife catches him with a drink in the basement and grabs the bottle off him before smashing it on the floor. Pow strangles her then proceeds to beat her up, killing the poor woman in one of the most shocking moments in pre-code cinema. As a result, Kip and Maggie unite to crusade against the illegal alcohol trade, united by the damage and death alcohol has brought upon both their families. There is a historical analogy in this as long-time leader of the Anti-Saloon League Wayne Wheeler was himself was motivated by his disdain for alcohol due to a childhood incident in which an intoxicated hired hand accidentally stabbed Wheeler with a hayfork.

The Wet Parade showcases the negative effect alcohol can have on people’s lives but more importantly demonstrates how prohibition caused more problems than it solves, removing the tool rather than going to the root of the problem. As one of the gangsters in the film describes the illegal trade, “An industry bigger than the one they abolished”. The film even goes as far as acknowledging the government was behind the poisoning alcohol which made drinkers lose their sight. In one scene Kip and Maggie are given a good talking down by a friend (Neil Hamilton) in a line which best sums up the moral crusade which was prohibition; “People have been drinking for thousands of years, you can’t keep liquor away from people that want it. The minute you tell them they can’t have it more of them are going to stop drinking and get drunk instead.”

Rounding out the large cast of The Wet Parade is Myrna Loy during her bad girl phase. Her character is based on actress and speakeasy owner Texas Guinan and she even utters Guinan’s catchphrase “Give the little lady a big hand!”. The movie does not let down in its Loy factor and she has a satisfying amount of screen time even if it takes an hour until she first appears.

The Wet Parade is directed by Victor Fleming, most famous for directing The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind both in the same year. I think The Wet Parade may be the most interesting film he’s done outside of that. Outside of the film’s opening act in the American south, the remainder of the picture moves at a very brisk pace and features a large number of long takes. The Wet Parade is one of the most informative films on this period of American history and makes for a great double feature with the James Cagney prohibition spanning gangster picture The Roaring Twenties.

Advertisements

Alias The Doctor (1932)

workplace3

Doctor Implausible and the Suspension of Disbelief (Now There’s a Band Name)

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Had Alias The Doctor been made in the 1950’s it could likely have been directed by Douglas Sirk with its implausible melodramatic madness. When watching the film for the first time I was unaware of just how improbable the plot was going to be and after several “oh come on!” moments I realised this was a film in which I had to embrace the lack of plausibility rather than fight against it.

A car just happens to crash outside the house of Karl Brenner (Richard Barthelmess) on the night in which he comes home for the first time since being released from prison after taking the heat for his brother Stephan’s  failed and unqualified attempt at surgery when they where students at college only to find out he has since passed away and must perform surgery on the victims of the car crash despite previously being kicked out of medical school for said crime only to impress a local surgeon and have Karl’s mother tell the surgeon that Karl is actually Stephan so Karl masquerades under his dead brother’s name with no further identification than a medical certificate; oh just roll with it. Alias The Doctor is a movie which trades logic for emotion as Karl deals with the dilemma of committing fraud in order to save lives.

This is the perfect example of an hour long movie which packs a lot into that short space of time; quality over quantity. Aside from the story being full of delightfully absurd turns, it’s other great asset are the visuals. You can’t talk about a Michael Curtiz film without talking about the visuals and Alias The Doctor is one of the more visually avant-garde films of the 1930’s with its use of expressionism, shadows, tilted camera angles, high contrast lighting as well as striking set design from Anton Grot (that opening shot of Karl ploughing the field would surely make John Ford jealous). This is Hollywood’s imagining of Europe as seen in may 1930’s films through and through.

Boris Karloff had originally filmed scenes for the film as an autopsy surgeon but was replaced by Nigel De Brulier when he was not available for retakes after British censors objected to the gruesomeness of his scenes. While it’s disappointing that Karloff would be removed from the film, Nigel De Brulier is surprisingly Karloff-like in his creepy demur and even walks just like Karloff. The character of the autopsy surgeon has several brief appearances towards the end of the film and doesn’t affect the story but builds up to one dark, humorous punch line in which he is seen preparing himself for the expected death of Karl’s mother during her surgery. Likewise, Karl is in love with his adopted sister, I know they’re not related by blood but still. Where else but pre-code cinema can you get his kind of unashamed perversion?

Alias The Doctor even has an amusing depiction of a two-tier health care system in which a patient inquiries to Karl on why he is being charged (“Any doctor can serve a broken arm!”) only for Karl to reply, “But that’s the point, you kept me away from patients who needed me, people who couldn’t afford to pay a doctor. That’s our system”.

They save the best for last which Barthelmess’ monologue to the medial committee on why he should be allowed to operate on his mother despite being exposed as a fraud (albeit under highly unusual circumstances). This is storytelling which calls to the viewer’s raw emotion for a rebellious ignorance over rules and regulations; reality need not apply. Being an actor of the silent era, Barthelmess can convey a lot with his face while having a great voice to boot.

There is no record of Alias The Doctor every being released on home video prior to being issued on the Warner Archive Collection in 2010. Shame that such a visual work of art would have been out of reach for decades. I’ll say it now and I’ll it again; the 1930’s is an archaeological treasure chest of obscure gems.

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

The Wrath of Genghis Kahn

Talk about a trashy film, just how trashy? Boris Karloff plays a sort of Asian Hitler hell-bent on exterminating the white race, or how about the scene which involves Myrna Loy having a sexual fetish from seeing a man being whipped. Man, pre-code Hollywood was not right in the head. The film’s plot is like an Indiana Jones film which never got made (or more importantly could never be made), like Indiana Jones getting an artifact before the Nazis to avoid them harnessing its power to take over the world except here its Asian Nazis. This is the kind of film which is so off the wall that its fun describing it in one of the purest pieces of pulp escapism to come out of the 1930’s.

In today’s politically correct world where everything offends everyone and people are obsessed with racism (like seriously, what well-known movie doesn’t have a “This movie is racist” topic on IMDB) I find there’s a certain joy that comes from watching something as shocking and politically incorrect as The Mask of Fu Manchu; like a kid watching R rated movies behind their parent’s back. Even as late as the 90’s scenes from The Mask of Fu Manchu had to be cut for a VHS release (thankfully now in it’s fully restored original version on DVD) – notice for example how picture quality degrades for the line “A China man beat me? He couldn’t do it”.

Old Hollywood had an odd fascination with East Asia and Eastern Asian mysticism as Lewis Stone’s characters states, “Will we ever understand these eastern races, will he ever learn anything?”. Is it right to simply dismiss The Mask of Fu Manchu as a “racist” film? Is there a malicious intent with the film to demonize a race and culture with Dr. Fu Manchu being the anthesis to Judeo Christian values, or is it merely the representation of the perversion of a foreign culture and race.

No expense is spared on Fu Manchu’s layer. This is the bad guy layer that would make James Bond villains jealous. Complete with torture devices, crocodile pits, an assortment of mad scientist gizmos of topped with all-round luscious deco making The Mask of Fu Manchu one of the most visually sumptuous films of the pre-code era. Like any Bond villain Fu Manchu could kill his opponents with a simple gunshot but instead puts them on devices which will kill them at a slow pace, and yes, they’re able to escape and halt the bad guy’s evil plans.

Boris Karloff prevents the character of Fu Manchu coming off a total caricature, showing he is a man of taste and culture and one who puts the genius in evil genius, boasting that he is a doctor three times over having graduating from three different universities. Likewise, it amazes me how Myrna Loy transformed her image from an exotic to something as far from that as possible within such a short period of time; thankfully she didn’t do these kinds of roles for too long a period of time. I delight at that stoic dialogue she delivers and her ever menacing presence.

Jewel Robbery (1932)

Pre-Code Jewel

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

I remember people criticizing The Wolf of Wall Street as immoral, then I’d love to see their reaction to this 83-year-old gem.

Kay Francis has one of my favourite character introductions ever, as an army of servants march to pamper her after getting up in the afternoon, lying in a bathtub, briefing showing off one leg shot up in the air then being pampered like a goddess ahead of her day of leisure. Jewel Robbery’s display of wealth would be explicit for any era, never mind the great depression. Francis’ reaction to being handed a box of jewels from Powell makes Lorelei Lee of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes look like less of a gold digger. Yes, these are shallow, superficial characters who never get punished for their actions, but that’s ok, only classic Hollywood actors could pull this off, making us enjoy rooting for characters like this. Although Francis’ character is at least self-aware of this, in one pivotal scene stating that she is shallow and weak as she leads a shallow and weak life and with a little courage she could run away from it.

William Powell is the coolest criminal ever; you would enjoy being held in a stick up by this guy. This being pre-code, a criminal is the hero of the story who deceives dim-witted guards. His methods of robbery, differentiating from what he calls “the stick ‘em up and shoot ‘em down school, no mess, no confusion” is so fascinating. Would his methods work in real life or is this just movie fantasy? He even gives his victims marijuana to calm them down. This movie waves the whole gauntlet of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Ok, there’s no rock ‘n’ roll but there’s sex and drugs. The jewel robbery itself is so snappy and fast-paced. It takes up a large portion of the film (which at one point made me wonder if the film would be a sort of high-class version of Dog Day Afternoon) and it’s over in a jiffy.

Jewel Robbery is one of the most erotic and sexist films I’ve ever seen. Many of the scenes and dialogues are provoking in some way from Kay Francis wearing dress looks like it’s about to fall of her and exposes her backside to William Powell wrapping his arms around Francis to grab a ring of her finger; this is what you call a titillating movie. I also love Kay Francis and her girlfriend’s excited reaction to discovering a man infiltrated their house. Plus has there ever existed an actual dwelling that has an interior similar to that of William Powell’s hideout? If I ever win the lottery I am going to hand a copy of this movie to an interior decorator. Also, the newspaper which appears near the beginning of the movie is called “Weiner Journal”.

A Bill of Divorcement (1932)

A Star Is Born

Katharine’s Hepburn’s screen debut proved to be a stronger film than I expected, starring alongside the great John Barrymore in this tragic mental illness melodrama and when I say tragic, I do mean tragic. Boy does this movie lay it on thick but it sure made this viewer’s hear sink. Even before Barrymore appears on screen I was already starting to feel sorry for this character upon learning he’s spent years at a mental asylum with shell shock and couldn’t pursue his music, and that’s only the beginning. You know that dirty word people like to throw around, “manipulative”; well this movie certainly manipulated me. Yet despite the story laying additional tragic layers after another, the performances make it work and prevent it from coming come off as totally ridiculous.

Watching Katharine Hepburn I would never have guessed this was her first film, she is entirely natural and gives the impression of someone has much acting experience. Plus she was never more youthful than she is here, springing full of energy and life. Supposedly director George Cuckor inserted shots in the film which did nothing to advance the story nor deepen character but were simply lingering shots of Hepburn in which the audience could adjust and get acquainted with her.

John Barrymore, however, is the main star of the show. Throughout the film there is a sadness and fragile nature of his voice while he denies the reality of the situation to himself and pulling the puppy dog eyes; with the occasional scenery chewing outburst. He’s a ham but a lovable ham. I feel the most powerful moment in the film is the scene in which Barrymore breaks into tears into the arms of his neglectful wife (Billie Burke) while she can’t even bear to look at him; I almost broke into a tear myself.

I’ve read many comments describing the film “stagey” – not at all. Shots are framed with depth, often at different angles and with objects framed in the foreground; George Cukor was a better director than that. A Bill of Divorcement is a heart sinker if there ever was one.