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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The Criminal Code (1931)

Crime Doesn’t Pay

The Criminal Code explores the issue of turning a normal person who made a mistake into a criminal through time spent in prison and ends up abiding by the criminal code itself. The same subject matter is also explored in the movie Caged made 19 later; nothing seems to change. Robert Graham (Phillip Homles) is a sheltered pretty boy who got a rotten break (similar to Robert Montgomery in The Big House). However, unlike Montgomery in The Big House, Graham is put in a cell with two guys (including Boris Karloff’s Galloway) who look out for him. Although you do have to suspend your disbelief a bit over the movie fast forwarding six years and Graham not being remotely criminalised within that time. Among the film’s examination of the American legal and penal system, Walter Huston explains how it would be possible for someone to get off the hook for a crime such as manslaughter; “A year’s delay, a new trial, the witnesses would fade away, they always do, the whole mess would get cold, the papers would have something else to yap about. I’d get him off; he’d never serve a day”. Great thought provoking stuff.

Walter Huston plays the warden of the unnamed prison. He is stern but fair and a real “Yes sir!” type as evident from his first appearance with the manner in which he addresses a female witness (“Never mind that, pull down the shade”). The man is one lightning-fast talker who can interrogate like a boss but his greatest moment of badassery comes from the scene in which he goes into the prison yard to confront protesting, yammering prisoners face to face without any guards. Just look at the way he walks into the yard and lights up a cigar. As he approaches the prisoners the yammering stops and they don’t lay a hand on him. Simply put, this guy is badass. Perhaps unrealistically so but that’s why we have movies.

The Criminal Code was Boris Karloff’s first significant screen role in the part of Galloway. With his dominating, tall, lanky figure he steals the show; his monologue on why’s he’s in the slammer with the shadows across his face is hair-raising stuff. Galloway has a vengeance with a guard named Gleason which gives the film some dark comic relief such as the two awkwardly passing each other on the stairs to Karloff’s recurring use of the lines “I don’t like you” and “I got an appointment with you”. Likewise, the other memorable cast member, albeit in a very brief role is Andy Devine who is very hard to miss with that highly distinctive voice of his.

The Criminal Code uses the same set created for MGM’s The Big House released the year before. With its more intricate cinematography, the film doesn’t capture the sense of claustrophobia seen in The Big House but still captures the mundanity of prison life. As an early talkie, there is no music present in The Criminal Code but rather the sound of prisoners marching along with various other sound effects are just as effective as any music score could be.

The Criminal Code is also host to one of the most shocking moments in pre-code cinema (and was even featured in Karloff film Targets from 1968). When Galloway chases a squealer into a room while yammering is going on in the background from the prison yard, Galloway walks into the room with the squealer cornered as he slowly closes the door as the squealer looks on in terror. What happens next is up to the viewer’s imagination.

The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933)

Women Weaken Legs!

I’ve seen many a boxing film and despite having no real interest in the sport I find they often make for great stories – I consider The Prizefighter and the Lady (written by the great Francis Marion) as one of the great unsung boxing films with its less than conventional and exceedingly well acted and conveyed love triangle. What’s particularly striking about this romance is how intriguingly pathetic in a way it is. Belle (Myrna Loy) falls in love with a dunce of a jock named Steven (played by real-life boxer Max Baer) – “A big kid” as Belle calls him. Steven is a man who doesn’t seem to know any better and Belle is fully aware of this but can’t help that she has fallen for him; you really can feel the raw sexual attraction between these two, especially in their introductory scene in which Loy has nothing but a blanket draped over her.

The third end of the triangle of this not so swooning love story is Willie Ryan (Otto Kruger) as Belle’s original lover. Willie is a crime boss but is not presented as your typical hardnosed gangster (nor is it clear what the extent of his criminal activities are). Willie cares deeply for Belle and the two even talk openly about Belle’s newly found feelings for Steven. However, Belle eventually informs Willie she has got married to Steven and leaves him and her life as a socialite for more mundane and dowdy existence, leaving Willie with one heartbroken face with two tears coming off his face. – The Prizefighter and the Lady is full of little, subtle acting moments like this you wouldn’t notice on first viewing.

Perhaps that would be enough drama but no, Steven, the ladies man who is all muscles and no brain is cheating on Belle with multiple women. It does raise the question of what sane man would play adultery when you’re married to Myrna Loy?! The female lead of Prizefighter and the Lady would be a unique part for any major Hollywood actress. MGM was known for their glamorous stars yet here is Myrna Loy appearing dowdy and I suspect at times not be wearing any makeup – we are even introduced to her being lifted out of a car wreck and covered in dirt. While I’m not a fashion connoisseur every once in a while I will see a film from the 1930s and fawn over the outfits. Every outfit worn by Loy in The Prizefighter and the Lady is to die for. Likewise, her singing of the song Downstream River in the nightclub is enchanting, even if it’s obviously not her voice doing the singing. – She is a quintessential symbol of urbanity.

Oh yeah, and there is boxing in this film too, right? Older films generally aren’t known for their stellar boxing scenes. The film’s combination of slowed down footage and frequent cuts doesn’t look fantastic but it’s not totally immersion breaking. Likewise, I just wish the film could have done without the rather cheap, 7-minute long musical number entitled “Lucky Fella, Lucky Guy”. What more than compensates is the gorgeous high contrast cinematography in the boxing arenas; you can feel the grit and grime of the sweaty, smoke-filled atmosphere in another example of the type of neo-realism the pre-code era had to offer.