Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume Three Review
For the background to the Hays Code, and a general discussion of the pre-Code era (roughly 1929 to the Code’s enforcement in June 1934), please see my review of the first Forbidden Hollywood Collection.
Warner’s collections, drawing on their own archives, plus those of MGM and First National, have increased in size and scope. Following their success, Universal have released their own Pre-Code set, which my colleague clydefro has reviewed here. However, this third volume differs from its predecessors in that all six features have the same director. So it’s not just a Pre-Code box, it’s also a William A. Wellman box.
William Augustus Wellman was born in 1896 and served in World War I as a fighter pilot. In peacetime, he continued to work as an aviator until friendship with Douglas Fairbanks led to some acting roles in silent films at the end of the decade. Disliking acting, Wellman began to work behind the camera, working his way up the ladder until he made his directing debut in 1920. In 1927, he directed Wings, the first winner of the Best Picture Oscar, and the only silent to do so.
Wellman had an enviable reputation for speed and efficiency. That’s not to mention a considerable economy of narrative: all six of these films come in under an hour and a quarter. It’s no wonder that Clint Eastwood, who has similar hallmarks as a director, is an admirer of his. He was certainly prolific: in the Pre-Code era, as defined above, he directed over twenty feature films, in a wide range of genres. However, with such a range and prolificity, Wellman tends to be an underrated director, though individual films of his have classic status. Though nominated three times as Best Director, his only Oscar was for writing the original 1937 version of A Star is Born.
This box-set isn’t a best-of: Wings has yet to make it to DVD, The Public Enemy featured in Warners’ first Gangsters collection, and Night Nurse was one of the highlights of the second Forbidden Hollywood box. But what these six films show is that there was more to Pre-Code Hollywood than unusually risqué subject matter – two of the best films here have very little of this. But Pre-Code films could also deal with tough subject matter, including themes such as drug addiction and rape that would become taboo for many years after 1934. Above all, Warner Bros was one of the few studios that even acknowledged to its audiences that there was a Depression, though the two latest of these films also refer to President Roosevelt’s New Deal as hope for the future.
Other Men’s Women (1931, 69:55)
Wellman had begun his career in silent pictures. However, with the arrival of sound, he was a director who rapidly overcome the limitations on movement of the camera that the new technology brought with it. The opening sequence of Other Men’s Women (also known as The Steel Highway) is a case in point; Bill (Grant Withers) jumps from a moving train and goes into a trackside diner. The scene continues inside the diner as trains pass – and because we saw Bill come in that door, that train is a real one and not rear-projected. Such uninsistent realism was a Wellman trademark.
Such flourishes as this, and a violent fistfight near the end, enliven a fairly standard love-triangle drama. It isn't helped by the two rather second-string leading men being overshadowed by two supporting players soon to be much more famous than them: Joan Blondell and James Cagney. Blondell has a nice moment early on where she says that she’s A.P.O., as in “ain’t puttin’ out”.
The Purchase Price (1932, 67:39)
Joan Gordon (Barbara Stanwyck) is the moll of Eddie Fields (Lyle Talbot). Tiring of him, she runs away to North Dakota and becomes the mail-order bride of farmer Jim Gilson (George Brent). Their relationship is stormy to say the least, not helped by Eddie's return...
Barbara Stanwyck worked with Wellman several times. The Purchase Price isn’t on the same level as their collaboration Night Nurse, from the same year, but it’s engaging enough. Again, Wellman's sense of realism is a plus, particularly in sequences set in the deep snows of winter, and in a climax involving a well-achieved fire.
Disc Two contains two road-to-ruin melodramas which differ in their redemptiveness. Both centre on fine performances from their lead actresses. This bears out the observation that the Pre-Code era was a strong one for women’s roles. Once the Code was enforced, most parts available were much less complex with fewer shades of grey. With the advent of the Code, many women's screen personas had to be adjusted, and if you're used to the later versions, their Pre-Code work could be an eye-opener for you.
Frisco Jenny (1932, 70:34)
Wellman made Frisco Jenny on loan-out to MGM. If a film begins with scratchy archive footage and the caption “San Francisco 1906”, you know the earthquake is not far away. But, unlike in 1936's San Francisco say, it’s not the star of the show, and Wellman and his screenwriters bring it on about ten minutes in with some impressive special effects, killing off Jenny Sandoval’s (Ruth Chatterton) father and her lover. To make ends meet, she sets up a business hiring out escort girls. She puts her son up for adoption, and he rises to prominence as a District Attorney who campaigns to close down brothels...
Certainly there are Pre-Code angles in abundance, as you can gather from the synopsis above – and I haven't included a killing and Jenny being put on trial for her life. Unfortunately just as typical of the time is Helen Jerome Eddy's stage-makeup-Oriental as Jenny’s amah, her first and perhaps only friend.
MGM had a more glossy style than Warners, as can be seen particulaly in the gowns that the in-house designer Orry-Kelly has the leading lady wear. Ruth Chatterton played the lead in Female, which can be found in Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 2. She was older than other leading actresses of the time (thirty-eight when she made Frisco Jenny), she retired from acting in the late 1930s, though returned in the 1950s on the new medium of television. She is somewhat undersung nowadays, probably known best for Dodsworth in 1936, for William Wyler and opposite Walter Huston, but Frisco Jenny and Female show that she did flourish in the years before the Code.
Midnight Mary (1933, 74:20)
Mary (Loretta Young) is on trial for murder. As she awaits the jury’s verdict, her story unfolds in flashback. We follow her progress from childhood orphan to good-time girl to jailbird, and on release from prison her efforts to stay on the straight and narrow.
Midnight Mary is a vehicle for nineteen-year-old Loretta Young. That really is her playing a nine-year-old (along with Una Merkel, in her late twenties at the time) in the first flashback. Young got religion in later years, and has a reputation for saccharine roles as a result. This film shows that the parts available to women had to change once the Code was enforced, and Young was not the only actress who had to readjust. In Midnight Mary Young plays a bad girl with the best of them – just look at her come-to-bed eyes in the screengrab above.
Disc Three showcases two hard-hitting films which tackle themes directly relevant to their Depression-era audiences. In many ways, these two are the best films in this set.
Heroes for Sale (1933, 71:21)
World War I. Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) is involved in the capture of a German officer. However, he is shot and believed dead., and Roger Winston (Gordon Westcott), who had had a failure of nerve, is the apparent only survivor and is hailed as a hero. However, Tom was found by the Germans to be still alive and became a prisoner of war. Released after the armistice, he is in pain from shrapnel still in his spine, and addicted to the morphine given to him as a result. However, he finds that American society is less than welcoming to him.
Heroes for Sale is a fascinating social document of its era, taking in drug addiction and the rise of Communism. The former was soon to be a taboo theme under the Code, until challenged by Otto Preminger with The Man with the Golden Arm in 1955. As for the latter theme, Wellman’s film is even-handed, with good and bad seen on both sides. The bosses may be greedy and out to exploit their workers, but the Communists are not free of double standards themselves. This does allow him to stage a surprisingly graphically violent riot sequence late on. Heroes for Sale is ahead of its time in having its German soldiers speaking German without subtitles, something which was most unusual in Hollywood movies until the 1960s.
Richard Barthelmess had been a leading silent actor, and a favourite of D.W. Griffith: he had rescued Lillian Gish from the ice floes in Way Down East. He gives one of his best sound performances – which surprisingly escaped Oscar attention – and is ably supported by Aline MacMahon and Loretta Young as the women in his life.
Wild Boys of the Road (1933, 68:00)
It's the height of the Depression. Tommy (Edwin Phillips) and Eddie (Frankie Darro) are in high school. Tommy's mother has been out of work for months when Eddie's father loses his job as well. The two boys decide to ride the freight trains in their search for work. Along the way, they find Sally (Dorothy Coonan), who has disguised herself as a boy. The three of them stick together, finding other youngsters like them camped in dilapidated buildings and often moved on by the authorities.
Although its first third is partly comic – including one boy’s attempt to crash a party by being disguised as a girl, so as to get in free – the hard edge of Wild Boys of the Road (aka Dangerous Days) is clear from the outset. The film was a favourite of Wellman’s, not least because of his casting of ex-Busby Berkeley chorus girl Dorothy Coonan as Sally. Soon afterwards she became his fourth and longest-standing wife. The original storyline was even harsher, with Sally being forced into prostitution, but what ended up onscreen is still strong stuff There’s a rape (offscreen, but it’s clear what has happened), which provokes vigilante justice against its perpetrator (Ward Bond, in an early role), and one boy has his leg crushed by a train. Wellman excels at this kind of unsentimental realism, and he tells his story economically in just over an hour. However, as with Heroes for Sale, the film, and any implied criticism, is softened by an ending that heralds change in America, in the shape of Roosevelt’s New Deal.
As is the way with many Pre-Code films, five of these were released in the UK but with two exceptions all suffered cuts from a BBFC that was particularly puritanical at the time. Rather surprisingly, Wild Boys of the Road (under the title Dangerous Days) seems to have got through unscathed. Frisco Jenny appears not to have been released in the UK at all.
Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 3 is a four-disc set. All four discs are dual-layered, NTSC format and encoded for Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4. As all the films are very short, they are presented two to a disc, with a menu for each, plus extras. Disc Four contains two documentaries about William A. Wellman.
All the films were shot in black and white and are presented in 4:3 with no anamorphic enhancement necessary. The films are in excellent condition, even making allowances for their being over seventy-five years old. Blacks and greyscale and contrast are fine and grain is pleasingly filmlike (though there's a lot of it in Midnight Mary).
The soundtracks are the original mono, presented over the centre channel only. (The commentaries and extras have 2.0 soundtracks.) The oldest film in this set (Other Men’s Women) dates back to 1930, which is a year after Hollywood’s first all-talkie. The hiss and crackle and the limited dynamic range are inherent in these early soundtracks, and part of their charm, Music may lose a little at the top and bottom ends, but dialogue is clear. English (hard-of-hearing) and French subtitles are provided.
Commentaries are provided for Midnight Mary. Heroes for Sale and Wild Boys of the Road. For Midnight Mary it's the work of Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta, who provided two commentaries in the previous Forbidden Hollywood volume. As with those, it's a bright and brisk chat, probably aimed (understandably) at people likely to be less familiar with Pre-Code Hollywood. Film historian John Gallagher talks about Heroes for Sale, with informative results. A more personal touch appears with Wild Boys of the Road as the commentary is by William Wellman Jr (with historian Frank Thompson). Wellman adds some anecdotes of a film that was a favourite of his father and introduced him to his mother, therefore being partly responsible for his own existence.
In addition to the commentaries, and like many of their archive releases, Warners have provided a supporting programme to their features, made up of trailers for all six films, Vitaphone short films and Merrie Melodies cartoons, as follows. Other Men's Women - cartoon You Don't Know What You're Doin'!(6:51), theatrical trailer (2:46). The Purchase Price - short The Wall Street Mystery (17:13), cartoon Moonlight for Two (6:51), theatrical trailer (1:18). Frisco Jenny - short The Studio Murder Mystery (18:51), theatrical trailer (2:29). Midnight Mary - short Goofy Movies #1 (8:33), cartoon Bosko's Parlor Pranks (7:49), theatrical trailer (2:21) Heroes for Sale - .short The Trans-Atlantic Mystery (21:38), cartoon Sittin' on a Backyard Fence (7:18), theatrical trailer (1:55). Wild Boys of the Road - .cartoon One Step Ahead of My Shadow (7:16), theatrical trailer (2:19).
Three of the shorts are S.S. Van Dine mysteries, two-reelers starring Donald Meek as the criminologist Dr Crabtree. Goofy Movies #1 is Pete Smith’s “a whole evening's entertainment on one reel”, with a comic newsreel and a cut-down feature that ends in a Pre-Code clinch. Three of the five cartoons begin with full-screen text warnings that they are products of their time, and are distinctly politically incorrect in their use of racial stereotypes, but are shown uncensored. (The Wall Street Mystery deserves a similar warning for its eye-rolling black elevator attendant, but doesn’t get one.) In the case of You Don't Know What You're Doin'! and Moonlight for Two these are passing characters of the Black and White Minstrel variety, in the first case a brief jokey reference to the then-recent The Jazz Singer. That’s nothing compared to the jaw-dropping One Step Ahead of My Shadow, effectively one giant production number in which Chinese stereotypes run rampant. Not needing any such advice for the sensitive is a Bosko short. No, it’s not the notorious Bosko’s Picture Show, which introduced the F-word to Hollywood over thirty years early (see the Thou Shalt Not documentary on the second Forbidden Hollywood Collection), but Bosko’s Parlor Pranks. It’s a strange experience watching cartoons in black and white as you hardly get to seem them outside DVD collections and archive showings, especially as Disney led the way in the use of colour from the mid-30s onwards. However, Bosko’s Parlor Pranks is in the rare luxury of early colour.The four cartoons are in excellent shape, the live action shorts less so, with the Van Dine mysteries looking especially soft.
As this is a Wellman box as well as a Pre-Code box, Disc Four is given over to two documentaries about the man himself.Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick (93:47) dates from 1995. Alec Baldwin narrates as the film looks at the whole of Wellman's life and career, from his World War I experience to his breaking into the film business. Each of his major films is discussed with clips. He retired after 1958's Lafayette Escadrille, in his sixties by then, with his health beginning to decline – he had arthritis from his wartime injuries – and Hollywood beginning to change and the studio system beginning to break down. He died in 1975. Interviewees include Clint Eastwood, James Garner, Burgess Meredith, Robert Mitchum and Dorothy Wellman and others in archive footage. The Men Who Made the Movies: William A. Wellman (57:48) is a shorter piece made for TCM in 2007. It differs from the longer documentary by being built around an archive interview with the man himself, interspersed with clips from his major films.
Warners's Forbidden Hollywood Collections go from strength to strength with this third volume. As I say above it's welcome that other studios are dipping into their own archives. There are still plenty of other films from this fascinating – but often hard to access – era of Hollywood history that aren't available on disc yet.