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.

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Queen Christina (1933)

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Garbo Reigns!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The costume drama, a genre I struggle with; wealthy, upper-class people with problems and conflicts I just can’t summon any interest in. However, there is a handful which I do manage to enjoy and Queen Christina is one of them; what is it about Queen Christina which makes it compelling? The craftsmanship of the underappreciated director Rouben Mamoulian is certainly a factor but ultimately I believe it all comes down to the fascinating individual at the center of the film.

Queen Christina is the role Greta Garbo was born to play, the androgynous, unconventional Swedish film star as the androgynous, unconventional 17th Century Swedish Queen.  Christina is one of the great gender-bending characters in film history, referring to herself in masculine pronouns to having what could be mistaken as the body of a man; just look at those incredibly broad shoulders Garbo possesses when they are exposed. In the opening to Queen Christina her confidant Axel Oxenstierna (Lewis Milestone) speaks of how Christina was brought up as a boy in order to prepare her for the throne. This does raise the question; do positions of power require a sacrifice of feminine virtues? If the role was reversed of a king dressing and living as a woman, just how powerful and noble would such a king come off? Likewise while it is a likely possibility of Christina being bisexual, the girl on girl kiss she shares with Countess Ebba Sparre (Elizabeth Young) never struck me as a particularly romantic kiss and more of a sign of friendship, however, Christina speaking of the two of them going to the county for three nights would certainly imply otherwise. Yet even if you’re the biggest tomboy in the world like Christina, there still exists in her the desire to be a woman with her proclamation to love interest Antonio (John Gilbert) “that it had been so enchanting to be a woman. Not a queen, just a woman in man’s arms”.

The fascinating figure of Queen Christina goes beyond her disregard of social norms. She is a figure of great intellect with her values of personal freedom, the quest for knowledge, self-improvement as well as spending the few spare moments she has reading books (“One can feel nostalgia for places one has never seen” – so true). As a Queen she has a great sense of national pride and has a fierce devotion to the individual citizens of her county; a romanticised depiction of a world leader many of us wish was more of a reality.

The one portion of Queen Christina which puts realism to the side is that in which she escapes from her palace to the country in order to get away from the strain of being a ruler. I enjoy the trope of a public figure in power sneaking out disguised as a commoner as seen in films such as Roman Holiday or The Shoes of the Fisherman. What is hard to shallow however is everyone Christina meets on her escapade including future lover Antonio and the alumni of the inn she spends the night mistaking her for a man. I know it was unusual back then for a woman to ride on horseback, carry a sword and pistol and go to a tavern to drink but she still clearly has the face of a woman. Regardless I can overlook this lack of realism as it doesn’t impair my enjoyment of the film.

John Gilbert shows in Queen Christina that he was an effective presence in talkies (contrary to the popular belief that his failure to make the jump from silent to talkies destroyed his career). I don’t find him quite great but he is good enough. After a night of lovemaking with Antonio, Christina compares the experience to how God must have felt when he created the world; yep, she went there. The ending of Queen Christina on the other hand in one which inspires even if everything is not tied up in a neat bow. It is a tragedy in one sense but with one of the greatest uses of close up in film history of Garbo’s expressionless face looking out to sea, the viewer gets to write their own ending.

Treasure Island (1934)

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Me Timbers Remain Shivered

I’ve never read the book Treasure Island so I can’t compare this 1934 adaptation to the source material but rather give a point of view as someone who watched the film out of admiration for the stars involved. Treasure Island doesn’t have the unmanufactured feel or the neo-realism of the previous pairing of Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper of The Champ (then again few films do) but I was satisfied to get my fill of another Beery-Cooper pairing. The chemistry they share, what a pure and natural delight.

For me Cooper’s performance in Treasure Island is priceless; a little kid trying to act tough. I can’t help but let out an “awwwww!!” at any moment when he’s in over his head. I can see how his performance would rub others the wrong way but I can’t get enough of it. Cooper’s relationship to Beery, in reality, was nothing like it was in fiction but watching him on screen you would never think otherwise. You can see the admiration Jim Hawkins has for Long John Silver on his face and likewise, when he discovers the truth about Long John, just look at the pure horror that bestows his face. Wallace Beery on other hand looks just like a true, rugged seafarer and a beast of a pirate. Being an actor of the silent era he has a beat-up face which says so much. Beery simply had the look this role required.

Treasure Island saw the return of the swashbuckler to Hollywood, popular during the 1920’s but almost nonexistent during the pre-code era. Coming from MGM, the production values are second to none, even throwing some exotic animals into the mix and a taster of what was to come in MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty.

Before Beery appears on screen Lionel Barrymore as Billy Bones steals any scene he occupies and when I say steals, I mean steals. I can’t determine whether or not his performance is supposed to be funny or not but his scenery-chewing grounceness, rambling and his constant desire for rum cracks me up (“Bottle of rum ya old hag!!”).

The ending is an emotional punch to the gut albeit one of mixed emotions. It’s not clear during the film whether or not Long John has any affection for Jim or is just manipulating him and taking advantage of his naivety. Regardless of watching Jackie Cooper crying his little heart out as Beery embarks of the ship, you would need to have a heart of stone not to be moved.

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.

The Big House (1930)

You Know What They Do To Guys Up At The Big House!

I suspect The Big House helped birth many of the conventions, staples and slang terms which have come to define prison films. Many of the classic elements are here but they manage to feel fresh instead of coming off as worn out clichés.

The big impact this film had for me was that it made me a fan of two of its main stars, Robert Montgomery and Wallace Beery. The Big House made Beery a star, establishing his loveable lug persona and making him one of the biggest stars of the early 30’s and one of the most unconventional stars in Hollywood history. Beery has a contradictory screen persona as seen here as his role of Butch; a thuggish brute one minute but as gentle as a puppy the next. However, I feel Robert Montgomery is the one who steals the show, even If he doesn’t have as much screen time as Beery and Chester Morris. Montgomery strikes me as the most interesting character in the film, as a privileged pretty boy convicted of manslaughter while drunk driving; he appears to be barely ready for adulthood, let alone ready for serving 10 years in prison. Throughout the entire film, you can tell he’s completely out of his element with his trembling manner and naive wide-eyed stare. Unlike the rest of the prisoners, he is not a criminal in the common sense, displaying how it’s a scary possibility for any regular person to end up in prison regards of their background or social standing.

Being an early talkie, The Big House features many long static camera shots, muffled sound and no background music. However, I feel these technical limitations are one of the film’s greatest assets as they heighten the claustrophobia of the cells and other confined areas of the prison. If The Big House was made or remade later in the sound era with more advanced cinematography and clearer sound and a music score, it would not be as effective. The sound design itself is impressive, with the sound effects of whistles, prisoners marching or turning their plates in perfect unison in the mess hall showcase the routine nature of prison life and its mundanity.

The film’s screenwriter, Frances Marion interviewed actual prisoners and prison personnel when writing The Big House, making the film an as authentic as possible look at the American prison system in 1930. Director George W. Hill apparently threatened to fire anyone caught acting and forbade the use of makeup in the film. The sets don’t look like Hollywood sets and this is not a romanticized look at prison such as movies like Ladies They Talk About. At the beginning of the film the prison’s warden (Lewis Stone), delivers a monologue about the general public wanting criminals locked behind bars but don’t care about their treatment or rehabilitation once in prison. Here the prisoners have nothing to do all day in the overcrowded prison but grow animosity towards the guards and plot on how they are going to make their escape. Shortly after watching The Big House, I heard a discussion on the radio regarding the deteriorating conditions of prisons in the UK in 2014 and a caller phoned in and mirrored the exact points Lewis Stone made in The Big House; 80 years later and nothing has changed.