William Wellman

Midnight Mary (1933)

Midnight Mary 1933 posterLife hasn’t been easy for Mary Martin (Loretta Young).  Her mother died when she was very young and as a teenager, she was sent to reform school for a crime she didn’t commit.  After getting out of reform school, she tries her hardest to find a job, but there aren’t any jobs to be had.  When Mary’s friend Bunny (Una Merkel) introduces Mary to Leo Darcy (Ricardo Cortez) and his gang, Mary can’t resist the prospect of having food and shelter, so she gets involved with them too.

While Leo and his gang are planning a robbery at a casino one night, Mary catches the eye of lawyer Tom Mannering, Jr. (Franchot Tone) and it’s love at first sight.  He knows that she’s tied up with Leo, but when the police arrive at the casino, he helps Mary escape.  He brings her to his place for dinner and the have a lovely evening together.  Before she leaves, she asks him to help her find a real job so she can go straight.  After she goes to secretarial school, he finds her a job as a secretary in his law firm.  But when they go out to eat one night, a cop recognizes Mary from the night at the casino and arrests her.  She refuses to implicate Leo, so she is sent to jail.

A year later, Mary is a free woman again.  Tom has since married another woman and Mary’s job prospects haven’t gotten any better.  It isn’t long before she’s involved with Leo and his gang again.  When Mary and Leo run into Tom and his wife at a nightclub one night, Leo becomes very jealous of Tom.  Even though Mary does everything in her power to convince him that she doesn’t care about Tom anymore, Leo still wants Tom dead.  He has some of his men try to do the job, but they only succeed in taking out Tom’s friend instead.  Leo decides to do it himself and Mary does the only thing she can do to save Tom — kill Leo first.

I just love Midnight Mary; it’s easily one of my favorite pre-codes.   And how could I not love it?  Midnight Mary is one bright, shining gem of a movie.  It has so many of the qualities that I love about movies from this era.  Fast paced story?  Check. Strong lead character? Check. Scandalous material? Check, check, and check!  But above all else, Loretta Young is fabulous in it.  In fact, the entire cast is wonderful with Franchot Tone, Ricardo Cortez, and Una Merkel, who are all quite perfectly cast in their respective roles.  And I can’t neglect to mention the first-rate direction from William Wellman!  It’s a winner in every respect.

The Public Enemy (1931)

Even from a young age, it was pretty clear that Tom Powers (James Cagney) and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) weren’t on the road to becoming fine, upstanding citizens.  They got their start working for gangster Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell) as children, and when they grew up a bit, he put them to work on bigger jobs.  However, when their first real job goes horribly wrong, Putty Nose leaves them to fend for themselves.  With Putty Nose out of the picture, Tom and Matt get friendly with Nails Nathan (Leslie Fenton) and Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O’Connor) and move into the bootlegging racket.

Tom quickly becomes a key player in the local bootlegging ring and starts living the life of a big time gangster.  He’s making lots of money, he gets custom made suits, and rides around town in a nice car.  On the other hand, Tom’s brother Mike (Donald Cook) has taken the more legitimate route in life.  He goes to school, works on a streetcar,  and serves in World War I.  Even though Mike isn’t ashamed of earning an honest living, he has a hard time coping with the fact that he works so hard and barely gets by while his brother is getting rich by breaking the law.  Ma Powers (Beryl Mercer) remains oblivious to how Tom really earns a living and only wants to think the best of her son.

The bootlegging racket continues to be extremely lucrative for Tom and he only becomes more cutthroat and aggressive with time.  When Putty Nose comes back to town, Tom and Matt shoot him.  The women Tom dates aren’t safe, either.  When his girlfriend Kitty (Mae Clarke) gets on his last nerve, he shoves a grapefruit in her face and immediately ditches her for Gwen (Jean Harlow).  Tom’s enemies don’t even have to be human.  After Nails dies from being thrown off his horse, Tom heads on over to the stable and guns down the horse.  So when his best friend Matt is killed by a rival gang, you better believe Tom is out for blood.  But even a big shot like Tom Powers isn’t big enough to take out an entire gang by himself.

Oh, how I love The Public Enemy.  It’s very easily one of my absolute favorite movies.  There’s so much I’d love to say about it that I don’t think I can possibly fit it all in one post.  I could watch it a hundred times and not get tired of it.  Not only do I love the gangster storyline, but I’m also fascinated by the conflict between Tom and his brother.  With two such strong stories going on, The Public Enemy fits more into 83 minutes than a lot of movies do in two hours.

And, of course, I adore James Cagney.  I believe The Public Enemy was the first Cagney movie I ever saw and he instantly became one of my favorite actors.  Originally, Cagney was set to play the part of Matt Doyle and Edward Woods was supposed to be Tom Powers.  But thank goodness director William Wellman realized that Cagney would have hit it out of the park as Tom and had them switch parts.  Cagney’s tour de force performance made him a full-fledged star after only one year of being in movies.

If you ever have the opportunity to see The Public Enemy on the big screen, I very highly recommend going.  When you think of movies that are best seen on the big screen, you probably think of movies like Star Wars or 2001: A Space Odyssey, but believe me, James Cagney was meant to be seen on the big screen.  His screen presence is incredible if you watch him on just a normal-sized television. But when you’re seeing him on a twenty foot tall screen? Every little movement, smirk, and expression is magnified a hundred times and it’s a much more intense experience than it is to watch at home.  This scene in particular is absolutely incredible when you see it in a theater.  I was very pleasantly surprised by how much seeing it on the big screen really added to the whole experience.

What’s on TCM: March 2012

Happy March, everybody!  There are plenty of things I’m looking forward to on TCM this month!  First of all, there’s the tail end of 31 Days of Oscars.  The end of 31 Days of Oscars means the return of Silent Sunday Nights, and it’s back with some excellent silents.  Lovers of pre-codes should definitely keep an eye on the schedule this month because I noticed quite a few pre-codes mixed in there.  Starting this month, Drew Barrymore will take over Alec Baldwin’s co-hosting duties for The Essentials.  Karl Malden is the star of the month and I haven’t seen very many of his movies, so this is a good chance for me to see more of his work.  Every Monday night this month will feature films from the British new wave era, which is something I’m very eager to see.  So, let’s get on to all my highlights for the month:

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So Big! (1932)

As a young girl, it looks like Selina Peake (Barbara Stawnyck) has got the life.  Her father is well off and he sends her to one of the best finishing schools in Chicago.  That all changes when her father suddenly dies and leaves her with no money to support herself.  With some help from her friends’ father, she gets a job as a school teacher in a small farming community outside of Chicago.  She moves in with the Pooles, a family of farmers.  Their son Roelf Pool (Dick Winslow as a child, George Brent as an adult) is too busy working on the farm to attend school, so Selina tutors him when he has time.  Roelf develops a bit of a crush on Selina and becomes very jealous when she falls in love with Pervus De Jong, another farmer, and marries him.

Selina and Pervus soon have a son, Dirk (Dickie Moore as a child, George Brent as an adult).  Selina wants Dirk to grow up to be able to do all the things she wasn’t able to.  When her husband dies, she continues to work hard on the farm to make that happen and she does it all alone.  Death also pays a visit to the Pool family and Roelf’s mother also dies, prompting him to leave home.  The years fly by and Roelf has become the talk of the art world as a sculptor in Europe and Dirk has recently graduated from college with a degree in architecture.  But Dirk isn’t especially fond of being an architect, and when he begins seeing a married woman who offers to get him a job as a bond salesman for her husband’s company, he takes her up on the offer.

Even though Dirk quickly works his way up to assistant manager and is making much more money than he was as an architect, Selina can’t help but be a little disappointed that her son doesn’t have the job she always dreamed he would have.  One day, he meets artist Dallas O’Mara (Bette Davis) and instantly falls in love with her.  Although Dallas also likes Dirk, but she won’t marry him because she prefers people who look rugged, like they’ve really lived and worked and suffered.  Eventually, Roelf makes a triumphant return to America and to Dirk’s surprise, finds out that Roelf and Dallas know each other and that she is planning to bring him to see his mother.  A big reason Roelf wanted to come home was to thank Selina for helping him become the person he now is.

So Big! isn’t one of my favorites.  A lot of the shifts in time were pretty abrupt and jarring, but I liked it well enough and it’s quite interesting in some respects.  Considering that Stella Dallas went on to become one of Barbara Stanwyck’s most definitive movies, it’s interesting to look at this as something of an early precursor to Stella Dallas.  Only it’s kind of like Stella Dallas in reverse.  Instead of a lower class girl aspiring to be part of the upper class and sacrifices everything for her child, it’s an upper class girl who becomes a farmer’s wife and works hard to give her child everything.  It’s also interesting to see a young Barbara Stanwyck crossing paths with a young Bette Davis.  Unfortunately, their characters don’t actually interact with each other, which is too bad, but it’s exciting just to get to see the two of them in the same movie together.

Heroes For Sale (1933)

During World War I, Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) goes off to fight with his hometown friend Roger Winston (Gordon Westcott).  At one point, Roger is supposed to undertake a risky maneuver to capture a German prisoner.  When it comes time to go through with it, Roger is paralyzed with fear and Tom jumps in to finish the job.  But then Tom is shot and Roger has to finish it himself.  Roger believes Tom is dead and is given some very impressive accolades for his bravery.  Even though Roger knows the truth, he doesn’t have it in him to tell the truth.  Meanwhile, Tom is still alive and has been getting treatment in a German P.O.W. camp.  After the war is over, Tom is released but is sent home with a bad morphine addiction.  He runs into Roger on the boat home and Roger tells Tom how awful he feels about taking his awards, but Tom is surprisingly forgiving about it.

Once they get back home, Roger is given a hero’s welcome but makes sure that Tom is given a job at his father’s bank.  However, Tom’s dependency on morphine proves to interfere with his work and Roger’s father fires him.  Tom is sent to rehab and successfully beats his addiction, and once he is released, he moves to Chicago and things finally start to look up for him.  He meets Ruth (Loretta Young), a woman who lives in the same building as him.  She works at a laundry service and suggests that he try to get a job there, too.  He starts out as a truck driver, but when his boss notices that he is the only driver bringing in new business, he is promoted.  Not only is he now bringing in more money, but he marries Ruth and the two of them soon are expecting a baby.

All is going well until Tom and Ruth’s neighbor Max comes to him with a laundry machine idea, looking for money to get a patent for it.  Tom helps Max get the money together and sells the machine to the laundry service he works at under the condition that nobody lose their job because of it.  And at first, that’s great, but then the owner of the laundry service dies suddenly and it is taken over by new management who have no interest in abiding by that rule and 75% of the employees are fired, including Tom.  The fired workers start a riot that kills Ruth, and even though Tom tries to stop them, he is sent to jail.

While in jail, Tom earns a fortune from his machine, but refuses to touch even one cent of it because he considers the money dirty.  He’s released after five years and finds that he barely recognizes his own son anymore.  He also finds out that he is a suspected communist and a group of anti-communist officers want to run him out of town.  With no other option, Tom decides to leave town, but gives all his money to his friend Mary (Aline MacMahon), who has been taking care of his son and runs a restaurant with her father.  He tells Mary to use the money to feed anybody who needs it free of charge and to take care of his son.  Once Tom leaves town, he becomes one of the many homeless drifters and finds his old “friend” Roger among them.  Roger’s father’s bank has closed and he had done some time in jail for illegal investing.  The two of them remain hopeful that the New Deal will improve things for them, and back in Chicago, we find that Mary has made sure that Tom’s son knows what an honorable man his father is.

Heroes for Sale is one of the great hard-hitting social commentary type of pre-codes.  That poster with Loretta Young in the slinky evening gown is pretty misleading.  This is such a brutally honest movie that doesn’t try to gloss over anything in the slightest.  Between the way it showed a blind veteran coming home after the war, drug addiction, and even the way Ruth died, there is absolutely nothing pretty about this movie.  And Loretta Young’s character most certainly was not wearing any glamorous evening gowns like that.  This is one of my favorite sound films by Richard Barthelmess, I thought he really hit it out of the park.  And for how much stuff happens in this movie, it is amazing that director William Wellman was able to fit all of it in in a little over an hour.  Don’t miss this movie!

Love is a Racket (1932)

It’s never a good idea to give too much of yourself in a relationship, and that’s a lesson newspaper columnist Jimmy Russell (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) is about to find out the hard way.  He’s in love with aspiring actress Mary Wodehouse (Frances Dee), and since he writes the Broadway gossip column, he uses that to help influence her career.  His friend Sally (Ann Dvorak) has been in love with him, but he’s too blind to see that Mary will take him for everything she can get.  Even though Mary has also been seeing a Broadway producer, when Mary writes a bunch of bad checks, of course Jimmy wants to jump in and pay them off for her.  But it turns out someone has beaten him to the punch.  Gangster Eddie Shaw (Lyle Talbot) isn’t too happy with Jimmy or his newspaper since he found out they were planning to break a story about a racket he’s involved in.  Even though Jimmy agreed to kill the story, Eddie went ahead and bought up all of Mary’s bad checks.  Eddie tells Jimmy that he’s headed off to Atlantic City for a few days and Jimmy follows them, but when Jimmy arrives, he finds out it’s a trap and is held captive by one of Eddie’s cronies.

Meanwhile, in New York, Eddie takes this opportunity to start winning Mary over.  He sends her a bracelet and a telegram telling her to come over to his place.  Mary is scared and with Jimmy out of town, doesn’t know what to do.  Finally, her Aunt Hattie decides she can’t sit idly by and watch Mary fall in with a guy like Eddie, so she decides to settle the score herself.  By now, Jimmy has gotten away from Eddie’s cronies and makes it back to Eddie’s apartment just in time to see Jimmy dead and Hattie ditching the evidence.  Still wanting to protect Mary, he destroys all the evidence and makes it look like Eddie killed himself.  But in yet another crazy twist of fate, Jimmy’s friend Stanley (Lee Tracy) also comes by just in time to see Jimmy shove Eddie’s body off the building and assumes that Jimmy was the one who killed him.

Everyone believes that Eddie committed suicide, but Stanley doesn’t know the real story.  To protect his friend, he took some incriminating evidence from the scene of the crime and hands them over to Jimmy.  He has no intention of ratting his friend out, he just doesn’t want them falling into the wrong hands.  Later, they head back to Jimmy’s apartment and get a telegram from Mary announcing her sudden marriage to that Broadway producer.  Finally, Jimmy realizes what a sap he’s been.  He sends Aunt Hattie a little wedding present — the gun she used to kill Eddie — and declares that he will never fall in love again.  But the way he looks at Sally lets us know that won’t last long.

I think Love is a Racket is something of an underrated pre-code.  The story is pretty convoluted, but its sharp script and strong cast make it pretty enjoyable.  Doug Fairbanks, Jr., Frances Dee, Lyle Talbot, and Lee Tracy are all great, although it’s too bad that there wasn’t more to Ann Dvorak’s character.  She gets some witty lines to say, but other than that, there’s just not a whole lot of substance to her part.  Give this one a shot next time it’s on TCM.  With a runtime of just over an hour, what have you got to lose?

Other Men’s Women (1931)

Bill White (Grant Withers) is the irresponsible kind of guy that women are usually warned to stay away from.  He may have a job as a train engineer, but he’s a womanizer who drinks too much.  He does have a girlfriend named Marie (Joan Blondell), but she’s eager to get married and he isn’t.  Bill’s longtime friend Jack (Regis Toomey) is a bit more stable and has been married to Lily (Mary Astor) for two years.  On the night of their second anniversary, Jack invites Bill to join him and Lily for dinner.  But when Bill gets thrown out of his boarding house because of his irresponsible behavior, he’s invited to stay with them.

Living with Jack and Lily seems to have a good effect on Bill.  He straightens up his act a bit and is able to help out around the house a lot.  Everybody seems to be benefiting from this arrangement.  That is until one day when Bill realizes there is a woman he’d be willing to settle down for after all– Lily.  Lily has also fallen in love with Bill, but Bill cares too much about Jack to carry on with Lily behind his back and leaves with no explanation.  Jack knows that something happened between Bill and Lily and confronts him about it while they’re at work on a train.  They get into a huge fight that leaves Jack blind.

Bill feels terribly guilty after the accident and starts hitting the bottle again.  He goes back to Marie and in a drunken stupor, the both of them nearly get married.  But he backs out at the last minute and goes to see Jack instead.  Jack has no desire to hear from his former friend and when he finds out Bill had come over, he sends Lily away for a few weeks. Bill falls into a very deep depression and when their town is hit by some heavy rainfall that causes the river to overflow and flood the town, Bill decides to drive a train engine off a bridge as a way to dam up the river.  Jack has also fallen into a severe depression and when he finds out about Bill’s idea, decides to beat him to the punch.  Bill tries to stop him but Jack knocks him unconscious, throws him off the train, and carries on with the plan.  Some months later, Lily comes back to town and she and Bill run into each other.  Lily is still open to a relationship with Bill, which makes him happier than he has ever been.

I really enjoyed this movie.  Good story with good acting and good direction by William Wellman.  I loved Grant Withers as Bill and James Cagney and Joan Blondell are standouts in their minor roles.  Cagney played Jack and Bill’s friend Eddie Bailey, and even though he doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, you can definitely see that he was a real up and comer.  The interesting thing about Other Men’s Women is that it can just as easily appeal to someone interested in the love triangle aspect of the story as it can to someone in the mood for something more gritty.  When this movie is gritty, it’s pretty darn gritty.  The fight scenes are very well done and it was interesting to see how it dealt with Jack’s blindness, especially just before he got on the train to drive it off the bridge.

What’s on TCM: June 2011

How is it already June?  But anyway, it’s shaping up to be a fun month on TCM.  Every Thursday this month, TCM will be showing a night full of classic drive-in movies.  So if you’re like me and love cheesy monster movies, you’re going to love this month.  There’s also the return of Essentials, Jr. on Sunday nights at 8:00 PM, hosted this year by Bill Hader.  The Star of the Month is the lovely Jean Simmons, who I’ve always found to be a bit on the under-appreciated side.  With no further ado, let’s go on to my TCM picks for the month…

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Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

Eddie Smith (Frankie Darro) and Tommy Gordon (Edwin Phillips) are a couple of young guys who are, like everybody else in 1933, feeling the pain of the Great Depression.  At first, Eddie’s doing OK since his father has a good job, but Tommy’s mom has been out of work for so long that Tommy has to sneak into a school dance because he can’t afford to pay.  After Tommy gets thrown out of the dance, he tells Eddie that he’s thinking of dropping out of school to look for a job of his own.  Eddie tries to get Tommy a job working for his dad, only to find out his dad has also lost his job.  Eventually, the guys decide to skip town and look for work elsewhere.  They hop on a train, where they meet Sally (Dorothy Coogan), a runaway from Seattle headed to Chicago to live with her aunt.  When they arrive in Chicago, they’re greeted by police turning people away because there aren’t enough jobs in Chicago for the people who already live there.  But since Sally has a letter from her aunt, she’s allowed to stay and she tells the cops that Eddie and Tommy are also family.

Sally, Tommy, and Eddie go to see Sally’s aunt Carrie, who is thrilled to see them.  She invites them in and gives them some cake, but the comfort is short-lived.  Right as they get there, police raid Carrie’s brothel, so they hightail it back to the railroad.  But riding the rails is aw brutal lifestyle.  They’re constantly having to hide from police, girls get raped, and eventually, Tommy looses one of his legs when it’s run over by a train.  When they get to Cleveland, they set up camp and continue to look for work, but Tommy gets pretty depressed because he feels like he’s useless with only one leg.  When the campers are forced out of Cleveland, the three of them make their way to New York and things finally start to look up when Eddie gets a job as an elevator operator.  The only catch is that he needs some new clothes, so they head out to do some panhandling.  While they’re panhandling, some guys approach Eddie with a way for him to make a quick five dollars.  All he had to do was go to a theater ticket booth and hand the worker a note and wait.  He doesn’t realize he’s gotten involved in a robbery and is arrested.  But when Eddie tells the judge about all they’ve been through, the judge takes pity on the kids and helps them instead of sending them to jail or back home.

Pre-code movies were more than just hookers and gangsters, they were also often brutally honest looks at society.  Wild Boys of the Road is a perfect example of that kind of gritty realism that would go unseen again for decades after the pre-code era came to an end.  You definitely can’t accuse William Wellman of trying to glorify riding the rails here.  He is completely unrestrained in showing exactly how dangerous of a life it was.  Even though the movie is going on 80 years old, there are parts of it you can still see playing out in today’s world, especially in this economy.

Frisco Jenny (1932)

In 1906, Jenny Sandoval (Ruth Chatterton) was working in a saloon in San Francisco with her father Jim, the owner, and her boyfriend Dan McAllister (James Murray), the piano player.  Jenny and Dan are ready to get married, but Jim isn’t happy about it at all.  As Jenny argues with her father over their decision, the big earthquake of 1906 strikes and both Jim and Dan are killed.  Having no one else to turn to, Jenny makes friends with a Chinese woman named Amah.  We soon find out the reason why Jenny and Dan were in a rush to get married: she was going to have a baby.  Amah helps Jenny take care of her baby, also named Dan, but when Jenny has no money to buy food for Dan, she has to take drastic action.  With help from crooked lawyer Steve Dutton (Louis Calhern), she starts her own brothel.  One night, Jenny and her girls are at a party and Steve and a man named Ed Harris are doing some gambling in another room.  Steve catches Ed cheating and Jenny walks in just in time to see Steve shoot Ed.  Jenny tries to cover for Ed, but she still gets arrested.  When Steve gets her out of jail, she finds out that Dan will be taken away from her because of the whole mess.  Rather than have Dan taken away, Steve arranges for Dan to be given up to a nice, respectable family.

Jenny never stops caring for Dan and watches him grow up from afar.  She keeps a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about him and eventually he grows up to run for District Attorney (adult Dan played by Donald Cook).  However, since Jenny is still running her brothel and has also taken up bootlegging, Dan’s opponent would act more in her best interest.  But Jenny still wants to see Dan win and even orchestrates a scandal for his opponent so he’ll drop out of the race.  Once Dan is officially District Attorney, his first order of business is to put Steve and Jenny out of business.  Steve, desperate to stay out of jail, goes to tell Dan the truth about who his mother is.  But not wanting to ruin Dan’s career, Jenny shoots Steve before he can tell Dan the truth.  Jenny is put on trial and her own son sends her to death row.

Ruth Chatterton is another one of those great actresses from the pre-code era who is sadly underrated today.  Even though Frisco Jenny is quite similar to Ruth’s earlier movie Madame X, which earned her an Oscar nomination, that doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting movie.  Ruth Chatterton once again brought her “A” game and made Jenny very likable and sympathetic, especially in her final scene where she agonizes over whether or not to finally tell Dan that she is his mother.  Ruth got some good help from Louis Calhern, who did a good job of playing smarmy, and director William Wellman.  The movie was entertaining, but as I said, the story’s been done before.  But ultimately, it’s got some good performances and it’s only about 70 minutes long, so I’m willing to forgive the unoriginal story.  I’ll gladly re-watch it just because I liked Ruth Chatterton in it so much.