***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.