Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 8 DVD Review: Four Films That Broke the Code

The Warner Archive Collection presents a quartet of Pre-Code classics that delve into vice with very little virtue.
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Once more, the guys and gals at the Warner Archive - along with the folks at the Turner Entertainment Corp. - have assembled another collection of rarities from the early '30s, made at a time before the Hays Office established its moralistic Production Code upon the film industry. Prior to when the Code was fully enforced in 1934, filmmakers were able to get away with quite a bit more than they would in later decades. Skin, sin, and a frequently-seen seductive grin lured audiences into theaters as easily as the various elements of vice (often without a whole heck of a lot of virtue) inveigled many a wayward individual onscreen into a hedonistic lifestyle. And there's no better way to kick off this four-disc set than with the 1931 dramedy, Blonde Crazy.

Blonde Crazy is one of those movies that you just know was re-titled sometime before or immediately after its initial release. (There is no evidence to prove this, but the credit on the trailer sticks out like a sore thumb.) And while our film's anti-hero, portrayed by the great James Cagney, definitely has a thing for women with fairer-colored hair, he's no Harpo Marx about the subject (though he sure can beckon them in like Chico Marx!). The film takes place back in a day when hotels were often the hub of high society and elegant members of the underworld alike, something that is entirely unfathomable in this day and age, wherein you're lucky to find a joint that sets out pre-packaged bear claws that have passed their sell-by dates in a shameful attempt to offer patrons a continental breakfast. But that's beside the point.

Here, Cagney starts out as a mere bellhop at the most prestigious hotel in a small town, selling homemade hooch during Prohibition and just conning suckers out of their dough any way he can. After pulling the right strings to get beautiful Joan Blondell a job, he takes the eye-catcher in as a partner. Soon, the pair make their way up to hotels in larger cities - each with new prey. And predators. Louis Calhern, a "so young, he's almost unrecognizable" Ray Milland, Nat Pendleton, Ward Bond, Richard Cramer, and Charles Lane - in one of his first of hundreds of roles as a hotel desk clerk (seriously) - all pop up in this charming tale of confidence trickery and sex appeal. A brief scene about swastika good luck charms (pre-WWII, kids) looks as if an insert close-up was removed sometimes during/after the war, but it's nowhere near as weird as the "moral" ending somebody evidently thought the project needed. Those dirty, double-crossin' rats…!

Miss Norma Shearer takes the lead in Strangers May Kiss, the second title (and disc) in this latest Forbidden Hollywood collection. Also made in Prohibition Era 1931, this film finds our starlet as Lisbeth - a free spirited New York City gal who thinks marriage is old fashioned. In fact, the supposedly sacred act proves fatal in one well-done early moment, wherein Lisbeth's aunt (Irene Rich, the other Margaret Dumont), despondent o'er the fact that she just saw her dearly-beloved hubby of twelve years cavorting with young ladies of even freer spirits (with the help of some not-so-free bootlegged spirits), takes a plunge out of her swank apartment window; the scene dissolving into a depressing Christmas Eve setting. But I'm getting slightly off the subject here. In any case, the point is: dear ol' Lisbeth has two men in her life - but not necessarily in that way.

On the one hand, she has the always inebriated (but happy) Steve (Robert Montgomery), who has always worshiped the very ground she walks on and whose one and only wish is to marry the pretty girl. On the other side of the spectrum is jet-setting Alan (as played by Neil Hamilton, yes Commissioner Gordon's got game), an always-on-the-go journalist who likes having a devoted, diluted woman like Lisbeth at his disposal to turn on and off as he pleases and whenever he's in town (yes, Neil's a real jerk in this one). When Alan pushes Lisbeth away once more, she bounces off to Europe and becomes the personal high society plaything-for-hire of the entire civilized continent (look closely and you'll see young Ray Milland again). Soon, Alan comes-a-callin' once again - this time with matrimony on his mind - but subsequently rejects her when he hears of her ribald adventures, to wit Mr. Montgomery gets to say the best line in the entire film. "We mix a lot of things, but we take our women straight." Ouch.

A much lighter tale is in store for us on Disc Three, wherein 1934's Hi, Nellie comes into play. The inimitable Paul Muni - cinema's first and foremost Scarface - gets a chance to show off another side of his abilities, that of comedy, as a real hot shot managing editor of a five star newspaper in the big city. You know that quintessential managing editor figure you always see in the old movies about newspapers? The guy with the fedora way back on his head and necktie undone around his unbuttoned shirt? Yes, he's that guy, through and through, make no mistake about it. The whole staff serve their chief dutifully, and the lovably misogynistic heel simply adores tormenting his old gal pal Gerry (Glenda Farrell) - a former hot shot reporter, herself - by keeping her in charge of the publication's sordid "Nellie Nelson" advice column; her punishment for having dropped the ball a few months earlier.

But when a prominent lawyer vanishes along with all of the liquid assets of a bank, every other paper publishes a headline that seems pretty viable. Muni, on the other hand, feels that he knew the missing man too well and insists the incidents are unrelated. Unfortunately for him, the math proves otherwise - and it isn't long before our man is demoted to the duty of handling the advice column all by himself (wherein everybody mockingly says the title of the movie to him, just to get his goat that much more). Muni's rarely-seen comical talent feels as natural as his ability to be a public menace, and Ned Sparks is a hoot as his partner in (anti) crime. Douglass Dumbrille is Muni's rival at the paper, Donald Meek is in perfect form as an aging copy boy, and the familiar, welcomed faces of Harold Huber, Donald Meeker, and Hobart Cavanaugh are just some of the performers who commit memorable performances to this decidedly sinless Pre-Code treat.

Dark Harvest, the last entry in this four-film/four-disc set, also hails from 1934, and has several connections to the previous film. Firstly, it co-stars Glenda Farrell once again, though this time 'round, she plays a "bad" girl. Secondly, it was one of many movies adapted from the works of author W.R. Burnett, who had not only penned Edward G. Robinson's big hit Little Caesar, but also Paul Muni's Scarface. Sure, that's a bit of a lousy connection, but it counts in my book nevertheless, people. But it is the star of the former blockbuster, Mr. Robinson, who takes the helm here as a compulsive gambler nicknamed Buck. When Buck's luck goes south for the winter, he heads to a quiet peaceful town; wherein he promptly woos and weds a young naive Genevieve Tobin and promises to never place another bet ever again.

Well, I'm sure you can imagine how well that pans out - especially when big wig gambler guru Sidney Toler offers him a job out in sunny California overseeing a newly-opened dog racing track. It is there that Buck not only discovers a new thrill to lose his money on, but develops a fondness for possessing a prize-worthy canine named Dark Hazard (played by real life racetrack winner Far Cry). Ms. Farrell is a woman straight from Buck's frivolous past (and who threatens his immediate future), while Robert Barrat, Hobart Cavanaugh and George Meeker also appear in this somewhat serious flick. The disc also includes a rare, lengthy promotional trailer for the film, where a young actress goes to buy the new novel Dark Hazard only to meet actor Edward G. Robinson and author W.R. Burnett themselves (the latter of whom is so camera shy, it hurts).

Blonde Crazy and Hi, Nellie also sport their original theatrical trailers. All four films are presented in their 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratios and are in as good of condition as they are likely to get in this lifetime - barring the unlikely resurgence of one of the commonly-overlooked titles. That said, the presentations are quite nice overall, and the accompanying mono English soundtracks deliver admirably. No subtitles are included, but they aren't entirely necessary throughout this set. There are no additional special features apart from the aforementioned three trailers, but when you have a four-movie collection of forgotten classics from Forbidden Hollywood full of classic leading men and lovely ladies indulging in promiscuous situations, you have something special unto itself.

Recommended.

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