1930s

What We Know About “Convention City”

Convention City Joan Blondell

Nothing makes a person want to see something quite like being told they can’t see it. Anytime a movie causes a stir because of its content, people will inevitably want to see it for themselves so they can make up their own minds about it. But when you take a movie that has a reputation for scandalous content and add in the fact that nobody can see it — literally — you get a movie that becomes a special breed of legendary film.

In 1933’s Convention City, the employees of the Honeywell Rubber Company arrive in Atlantic City for a convention. Of course, business the last thing on the minds of the visitors and they quickly get mixed up with booze, women, and other acts of debauchery. When it was released, it did pretty well at the box office, but it’s been largely unseen since then because no prints are currently known to exist. Not even the original theatrical trailer is known to exist.

When Convention City was released in December 1933, Hollywood was in the midst of its glorious pre-code era, which would come to an end less than a year later when the production codes started being fully enforced in July of 1934. Films during this era were often very suggestive, risqué, and innuendo-laden and Convention City certainly has a reputation in that respect. A critic for the New York Times said of Convention City, “Several of the jokes require a subterranean mind to be understood correctly.” In one of her books, Joan Blondell wrote about how she had a private copy of the movie and liked to screen it at parties because of its content, describing it as, “…the raunchiest there has ever been…we had so many hysterically dirty things in it.” Blondell also described Convention City as being ” burlesque-y.” In fact, legend has it that Warner Brothers ultimately destroyed the film because its content was so completely unfit to be re-released under the production codes. (We’ll talk more about that in just a minute.)

Convention City was more than just risqué content, though; it also had a pretty stellar cast. Several top stars of the time such as Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Mary Astor, and Adolphe Menjou are all in the film, leading Screenland magazine to dub Convention City, “the comedy Grand Hotel.” Even if it didn’t have a reputation for scandalous content, the cast alone would be enough to have classic film fans clamoring to find a print of it.

First of all, let’s discuss the idea that Convention City was destroyed because it was simply too controversial to be re-released. It is true that Warner Brothers listed their negative of Convention City as being junked in 1948, but according to Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project, this was because the nitrate negative had deteriorated and could potentially pose a safety hazard. However, hundreds of prints were made for the film’s original release and were circulated around the world. Just because Warners junked the original negative, that doesn’t necessarily mean every single print of the film was successfully recalled and destroyed, too. Over the years, stories about it being shown later in the 1930s and 1940s have surfaced, so there is evidence to suggest that not all prints were systematically destroyed by Warner Brothers.

There’s also the fact that, despite its reputation, Convention City was hardly the most controversial film to come out of the pre-code era. Other highly controversial films like Baby Face and The Story of Temple Drake were both also deemed unsuitable to be re-released under the production codes, but we’re still able to see those movies today. (Although Baby Face was only available in a censored form until an uncut print was found in one of the Library of Congress’ film vaults in 2004.) So content alone clearly wasn’t enough for a movie to automatically earn a one-way ticket into oblivion.

Not everything about Convention City has been lost to the ages, though. Some footage that had been filmed for establishing shots in Convention City was discovered in the late 1990s. Several stills from the film still exist, as does the original script. Thanks to the fact that the script still exists, a few live readings of the script have been staged over the years. Some people who attended the live readings have compared it to 1934’s The Merry Wives of Reno, which features some of the same stars as Convention City.  The fact that Convention City has been compared to Merry Wives of Reno both delights and frustrates me since I seem to remember that movie being pretty hilarious.

So, while there might not be any prints of Convention City that are currently known to exist, there is still a possibility that a print could be found someday. Many film historians and archivists are certainly keeping an eye out for this lost pre-code gem. If a print ever is found, it will absolutely be a very happy day for pre-code cinema fans everywhere.

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The Goddess (1934)

The Goddess 1934

An unnamed single woman (Ruan Lingyu) has no other choice but to work as a prostitute to support her infant son (Li Keng). She absolutely adores her son and wants him to have a more opportunities to have a better life than she did. One night, while walking the streets, she ends up taking shelter with a big gambler (Zhang Zhizhi), the gambler decides that she is officially his property. She doesn’t like him and tries to get away from him, but he finds her again. He’s so intimidating that she has no other choice but to do what he says.

A few years pass and she’s still under the gambler’s control, but she continues working as a prostitute to be able to send her son to a good school. However, the parents of her son’s classmates are aware of what her profession is and her son is shunned by his classmates. There’s such a commotion about her that her principal has to come see her to find out whether or not the rumors are true. If they were, he’s have to expel her son. But after meeting her and seeing how sincerely she cares for her son, he doesn’t have the heart to do anything. But then the principal is forced to resign and her son is expelled anyway.

She realizes that if she wants to give her son a better life, her only choice is to move someplace where nobody knows them. She’s been hiding money away, but when she goes to get it, she realizes the gambler has taken it. She demands her money back and he refuses, so she hits him over the head with a bottle, killing him. She’s sentenced to 12 years in prison and her son is headed for an orphanage. When the son’s former principal reads about what happened, she goes to see her and offers to raise her son and give him a good education.

Although the silent film industry in America had come to a complete stop before 1934, aside from Chaplin, they were still being produced in China because so few theaters could afford to upgrade to sound technology and because so many dialects are spoken in China. The Goddess is one of the most influential films made in China and stars the wonderful Ruan Lingyu, who was considered to be China’s answer to Greta Garbo. Her performance was beautiful, heartfelt, and sensitive. The story may be melodramatic, but Ruan’s performance elevates it above ordinary melodrama. I can think of several American films from around this era that have a similar premise of a fallen woman making a major sacrifice for her child, but The Goddess is better than any of them.

If you’ve never seen The Goddess, it’s well worth seeing just for a chance to see Ruan Lingyu in action. She was a major star in China who committed suicide at the age of 24. Only 8 of her movies are known to survive and The Goddess is a fine example of what a talent she was.

Dancing Co-Ed (1939)

Dancing Co-Ed 1939Freddie and Toddie Tobin are one of the most popular dancing duos working and are about to start making a new movie together, but when news breaks that Toddie is pregnant, they need to find someone to take her place in their new film. The studio moguls decide that instead of getting another big-name star to take Toddie’s place, they should cast an unknown and hold a nationwide contest for college students to find her replacement. But to make sure they’re choosing someone who is up to the demands of working with a dancer like Freddie, they choose a real dancer named Patty Marlow (Lana Turner) and enroll her in college so she can “win” the contest.

Patty isn’t too happy about the prospect of going back to school and since she isn’t all that educated to begin with, the studio’s press agent gets his secretary Eve (Ann Rutherford) to take her entrance exams for her and pays for her to go back to school, too. While at school, she ends up falling in love with Pug Braddock (Richard Carlson), who works for the school paper. Much to her surprise, she also starts to really like journalism, too. Pug is skeptical about this big nationwide contest and wants to do an expose about it. Patty tries to continue with the contest, while trying to convince Pug she’s on the level at the same time. Of course, it isn’t long before he finds out the truth, but everything works out in the end.

Some movies don’t aspire to be anything more than lighthearted fun and that’s exactly what Dancing Co-Ed does. Fluffy, formulaic, nonsense plot? Absolutely! But is it fun to watch? Oh, yeah! I’ve spent all day not feeling very well and this was exactly the sort of movie I needed to lift my spirits a little bit. Not only does it have a very young Lana Turner, still pretty early in her career at this point and very beautiful and charming, it has a really great supporting cast with people like Ann Rutherford, Roscoe Karns, and Monty Woolley, who plays one of Patty’s professors. It’s simply a really cute movie. Nothing Earth shattering, but sometimes you just need something fun and cute and Dancing Co-Ed fits the bill perfectly. I loved it.

A Woman of Affairs (1928)

A Woman of Affairs Garbo Gilbert

Diana Merrick (Greta Garbo) and Neville Holderness (John Gilbert) have been friends since childhood and ever since they were very young, Diana has been madly in love with Neville. They want to get married, but Neville’s father doesn’t approve and sends him to work in Egypt for a few years, where he will be able to make a lot of money. Diana wants to wait for him, but after a couple of years, she marries David Furness (John Mack Brown), someone Diana’s brother Jeffry (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) adores. It isn’t that Diana doesn’t like David, it’s that her heart will always belong to Neville. On their wedding night, David and Diana are visited by the police and David suddenly commits suicide.

Diana knows why he killed himself, but won’t say, and Jeffry believes David did it because of her. David’s death drives a huge wedge between Jeffry and Diana. Jeffry, already a heavy drinker, keeps drinking his way down a path of self-destruction while Diana becomes a woman notorious for having lots of affairs. The years go by and Neville comes home, but he’s engaged to marry Constance (Dorothy Sebastian). Just before their wedding, Diana calls for a doctor friend of theirs, who happens to be having dinner with Neville and Constance that night, to get help for Jeffry. Jeffry is extremely ill and won’t let Diana help. After she leaves, Neville follows her out and they end up spending the night together.

Several months later, after Neville and Constance are married, Neville gets a message saying that Diana is sick and she keeps asking for him. She’s been recovering from a miscarriage and is in a delirious state. When he goes to see her, she doesn’t even recognize him. But when she comes to her senses a little bit, she declares her love for him, not realizing he’s brought Constance with him. Neville’s never stopped loving her, but now that he has a chance to be with his true love, does he leave Constance behind?

A Lady of Affairs is pure melodrama, but it’s really great melodrama. Few actresses were made to work in silent film the way Greta Garbo was. The simple movement of her eyebrows spoke volumes and she is positively radiant in this movie. She gives a fantastic performance and although I wouldn’t say this is the best pairing of Garbo and John Gilbert (it’s awfully hard to top the cinematic explosion that is Flesh and the Devil), but Gilbert is very good in it, too, and it’s easy to see why they were such a hit with movie audiences. Great stars, beautiful cinematography, an interesting story (a bit scandalous for its time, but still toned down from the book it was based on), it all adds up to one entertaining movie.

The Murder Man (1935)

The Murder Man 1935When J. Spencer Halford (Theodor von Eltz), a business man known for his shady dealings that have swindled lots of people out of their money, is found murdered in his car, it’s exactly the kind of story local newspaper reporter Steve Grey (Spencer Tracy) is best at handling. His reputation for writing about murder cases has earned him the nickname of “The Murder Man.” At least, this would be the perfect story for Steve, if his other coworkers could find him; he also has a reputation for being a hard drinker who often wakes up in places that aren’t his home.

When he’s found and gets to work, he comes up with a theory that Halford was killed by a shot fired from the shooting gallery across the street and that Halford’s business partner Henry Mander (Harvey Stevens) killed him to collect on his insurance policy. Enough evidence is found to support that theory, Mander is put on trial, and Steve is one witness to testify against him. His testimony is enough for him to be found guilty and Mander is sentenced to death.

Although this should be a victory for Steve, he feels awful about it. His boss and his girlfriend Mary (Virginia Bruce), the newspaper’s advice columnist, both convince him to take a vacation, but that doesn’t do much good. Just before Mander is set to be executed, Steve’s fellow reporter Shorty (James Stewart) convinces him to do the final jailhouse interview with Mander. It should be an explosive story, but after meeting with Mander, Steve can’t write the story. He knows Mander is innocent and knows who really killed him and must tell the truth before it’s too late.

The Murder Man is an absolute gem. A very tightly-told crime story with a great twist at the end. I usually find most plot twists to be rather predictable, but I liked this one. It’s also noteworthy for being a major film milestone for two film legends — Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart. This was the first movie Spencer Tracy made while under contract to MGM; he went on to work for the studio for 20 more years. He certainly made the most of his MGM debut, he was great in it. This is also the first featured, credited film role for Jimmy Stewart. Since it’s an extremely early role for him, he’s not given a whole lot to do, but it’s still just fun to see Jimmy Stewart in his first featured role. Virginia Bruce rounds out a great cast as the sympathetic, likable girlfriend. I’m not sure why I’ve never heard of it before today, but I sure am glad I decided to watch it. As much as I find it ridiculous that a real reporter would have this much power over a murder investigation, these types of 1930s newspaper movies sure are entertaining.

Turn Back the Clock (1933)

Turn Back the Clock 1933

Joe Gimlet (Lee Tracy) is a middle-aged man who runs a store with his wife Mary (Mae Clarke). Times are tough and they’re barely eking out a living when one day, their old friend Ted Wright (Otto Kruger) comes into the shop and they agree to get together. Ted has been faring a bit better than Joe and Mary; he went on to become a very successful bank president and is married to Elvina (Peggy Shannon), another old friend of theirs. They agree to get together and spend an evening together.

Growing up, Ted was infatuated with Mary and Joe is still kicking himself for turning down a business proposition from Elvina’s father when he was younger that would have made him a millionaire. Despite everything he has, Ted admits to being jealous of everything Joe and Mary have and offers Joe the chance to get in on an investment. Joe really wants to take him up on the investment opportunity, but it would wipe out their savings and Mary doesn’t think it’s a good idea. She and Joe get into a big argument about it that night and Joe gets very drunk, leaves the house, and gets hit by a car.

Joe is taken to a hospital where he’s put under ether and dreams that he’s a young man once again. Now he has a chance to undo all the mistakes he made so many years ago. Not only does he take Elvina’s father up on that business offer, he marries her and uses his knowledge of the future to make some very wise investments and ends up being offered a very important consultant position with the government regarding World War I. Mary, on the other hand, married Ted and the two of them live a modest life running a shop together. But there’s the age-old question of whether or not money truly makes a person happier.

Movies about a person having a fantasy about either going back in time, into the future are hardly, or otherwise experiencing an alternate reality are hardly anything unique, but Turn Back the Clock somehow manages to not feel clichéd. I can’t quite put my finger on what prevents it from feeling trite, but it manages to pull it off. It may be because it does have a touch of sentimentality to it, but not in a heavy-handed way. It’s a slow build to Joe’s epiphany that maybe wealth and power isn’t quite what it’s cracked up to be and never heads into being overly dramatic. The cast is great, it’s a particularly great Lee Tracy vehicle. It’s certainly interesting to see them try to make young Mae Clarke into a drab middle-aged woman. And hey, it’s even got a special guest appearance by the Three Stooges as an added bonus. All in all, I’d say it’s a movie that deserves to be a bit more well-known than it currently seems to be.

Captured! (1933)

Captured 1933

Captain Fred Allison (Leslie Howard) has been stuck in a German P.O.W. camp for two years. Not only is he stuck in terrible conditions, he misses his wife Monica (Margaret Lindsay) dearly and although it’s been a long time since he last got a letter from her, the hope of hearing from her is the big thing that keeps him going every day. He also tries to make life better for himself and his fellow prisoners and even makes a deal with the new commandant Carl Ehrlich (Paul Lukas) to personally be responsible for the behavior of the other prisoners if they are granted more privileges.

One day, Jack Digby (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), Fred’s best friend, is brought to the camp with a group of new prisoners. Fred is thrilled to see his old friend, plus he knows Jack had seen Monica just a few months ago and he’s eager to know how she is. But when Fred talks to him, Jack seems unusually distant and uncomfortable, and eager to escape, even though Fred tries to talk him out of it. What Fred doesn’t realize is that Jack has fallen in love with Monica and feels terribly guilty for it. He doesn’t find out the truth until Jack makes an escape attempt and he sees a letter to Jack in Monica’s handwriting.

The same night Jack tries to escape, another soldier rapes and murders a woman and the German officers think Jack is the guilty party, so they set out to bring him back and execute him. After he’s brought back to the camp, Jack accuses Fred of doing this to him to out of anger about his affair with Monica. Just as Jack is about to face the firing squad, Fred finds a letter of confession from the real murderer and has to decide whether or not to tell the truth.

Captured! is a pretty good little movie that deserves to be a little more widely known. I don’t think I would have heard of it if it hadn’t been on today’s Summer Under the Stars lineup. Like many other pre-codes, it’s only a little over an hour long, but manages to fit a lot in during that time thanks to good pacing and generally effective storytelling. It’s got a great cast with very good performances from Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Leslie Howard, and Paul Lukas. If you’re a fan of either one of them, Captured! is definitely worth your time. Perhaps a little forced and overly dramatic near the end, but still, a pretty enjoyable movie and I’m glad I decided to take a chance on it today.