We’ve made it to the final ten favorite movies! I hope you enjoyed reading about my hundred favorite movies as much as I enjoyed writing about them. I’m definitely thinking that I might have to do some more big lists like this in the future! Thanks again to Colin from Pick ‘n’ Mix Flix Reviews for suggesting I do this list in the first place! Now, with further ado, my final ten favorites…
Dennis Carson (Clark Gable) is a rubber plantation owner in Indochina and quite content with his life the way it is. He’s not too thrilled when he comes home one night to find Vantine (Jean Harl0w), a wise-cracking prostitute on the lam from Saigon, staying at his plantation house. Dennis is willing to tolerate her presence, but eventually she’s able to win him over.
Dennis has fun with Vantine, but is glad to see her leave just in time for his new surveyor and his wife, Gary and Barbara Willis (Gene Raymond and Mary Astor), to arrive. Unfortunately, Gary has arrived with a case of malaria and needs to rest before he can start working. Barbara isn’t too keen on Dennis, but once she sees how he takes care of her husband, she’s pretty won over. Dennis is also quite interested in Mrs. Willis. But then, Vantine makes a surprise return to the plantation after her boat got damaged on the trip. Dennis does everything he can to keep Barbara and Vantine separated. After all, he wouldn’t want Barbara to get the wrong idea. When Gary is well enough to work again, Dennis sends him down river to do some surveying work, leaving Barbara alone at the plantation. Dennis takes this opportunity to get to know Barbara a little better and the two of them start an affair. Eventually, Dennis and Barbara decide they want to get married, so Dennis heads out to join Gary on his job to tell him. But when he gets to talking with Gary, he realizes just how much Gary loves Barbara and he doesn’t have the heart to break up their marriage. He’s also come to realize that neither Barbara or Dennis would really be happy living on the plantation. Dennis heads back to the plantation to console himself with booze and Vantine. When Barbara comes in to see what’s going on, he makes a big act out of declaring that he never really loved her anyway. Furious, she shoots him. Meanwhile, Gary has decided to return to the plantation house after catching wind of their affair and walks in just after Dennis is shot. Dennis says she shot him after he made a pass at her and Vantine backs his story up. Barbara and Gary leave the plantation and Vantine nurses Dennis back to health.
Jean Harlow really was one of the pre-code queens. One of the documentaries on the pre-code era, I forget if it was Complicated Women or Thou Shalt Not, described her as a “happy pagan” and I can’t think of a better way to describe her in Red Dust. She was a prostitute, but she was full of snappy lines and always seemed to be having a great time, nothing to indicate that she’s really a bad person. Even though she made some really great movies during the production code era, her whole image and persona were just made for pre-codes. The famous rain barrel bathing scene is definitely one of the greatest scenes of her career. Just watch how she revels in being provocative and shocking:
I also really love Harlow’s chemistry with Clark Gable. They are one of my favorite on-screen pairs because between Gable’s attitude and Harlow’s sassiness, what could go wrong? MGM originally wanted Greta Garbo to play Jean Harlow’s role and I am so glad they decided to change their minds. As much as I adore Garbo, she would have been completely wrong for Red Dust. First of all, Garbo and Gable weren’t particularly fond of each other so they wouldn’t have had that great chemistry that Harlow had with him. Secondly, it’s hard to imagine Garbo playing that rain barrel scene with such zeal.
Aside from some rather cringe-inducing portrayals of Asians, Red Dust was a pretty darn engaging movie. Great writing, great acting, and very pre-code. Lots of fun!
If you work for Baron Nicky von Burgen (Reginald Owen) and Baroness Eloise von Burgen (Olga Baclanova) long enough, you will be treated like family. So when their longtime butler Albert (Paul Lukas) marries Anna (Virginia Bruce), their maid, the Baron throws them a lavish wedding. During the reception, the family’s new chauffeur Karl (John Gilbert) shows up and we know right away he’s up to no good when he runs into Countess De Marmac (Hedda Hopper), his former employer with whom he had an affair. Little do we know just how evil he really is. That night, Albert is called into work on his wedding night after another butler gets drunk on the job. When Anna is alone, Karl makes his first move on her by telling her a made-up story about how she reminds him of his dead mother. But Anna isn’t the only woman in the house he tries to start something with. He also sleeps with Sophie, the cook, and the Baroness. He’s not terribly interested in Sophie, though, he only uses her for money. He makes friends with Albert, but continues to pursue Anna. One day, Karl gives Anna a piece of the Baroness’s jewelery. When the Baroness confronts her about wearing her jewelery, Karl steps in and says he gave it to her as a gift and subtly reminds her that he’s got dirt on her. The Baroness drops the subject and Karl endeared himself closer to Anna with that move.
The Baroness is now keen to get rid of Karl. So when she knows Albert is listening, she mentions to the Baron that she thinks Anna and Karl are having an affair. Later, just before the Baron and Baroness are set to leave on a boating trip, she tells Albert to go ahead and get rid of some of the staff while they’re gone. But before they leave, the Baron changes his mind and decides he wants Albert to come on the trip with him, leaving Anna and Karl alone for the duration of the trip. Karl takes Anna out for dinner, gets her drunk, and finally gets her to give into his advances. When Albert comes home, he fires Karl and Anna admits to what happened. But before he leaves, Karl goes to the Baroness and threatens to reveal their affair unless she keeps him on board and she relents. Humiliated, Albert goes to the Baroness to resign, but she tells him what Karl has done and begs him to stay. Karl plans to leave the next day, but not before he gets more of Sophie’s money. He tries to convince Anna to leave with him, but she refuses. Karl and Albert end up getting into a huge fight and when the Baron is in the room, Anna forces Karl to give Sophie her money back. Karl finally leaves, but he only moves onto another victim.
Wow! I have to say, there are a lot of extremely unlikable characters in pre-code movies, but John Gilbert as Karl is one of the most impressively deplorable characters I’ve ever seen. He is just so incredibly shameless and ruthless! And John Gilbert plays him extraordinarily well! And he should, considering he wrote the story himself. If you only really know John Gilbert as a silent film actor, then you should definitely check out Downstairs. His performance here dispels the widely spread story that John Gilbert had a terrible voice and acting style for talkies. Clearly his lack of success in talkies had more to do with him daring to cross Louis B. Mayer because, as can be seen here, there is nothing wrong with his voice or his acting. Considering he had to resort to writing a story and selling it to MGM for $1 just to get a good talkie role speaks volumes of just how much Mayer had it out for him.
Virginia Bruce was also great, gotta love the very pre-code scene where she confesses to cheating on her husband and blames him for it. I also liked seeing Olga Baclanova playing a fairly honest and likable character since the only other movie I’ve seen her in is Freaks, where she was anything but honest and likable. All in all, a darn good movie. Not only one of John Gilbert’s best talkies, but a real highlight in his whole career.
Bonnie Jordan (Joan Crawford) and her brother Rodney (William Bakewell) were enjoying living the high life on their father’s dime. But when the stock market crashes, the family not only loses all their money, they also lose their father. Bonnie and Jordan are left with nothing and have no other choice but to get jobs. Bonnie gets a job as a reporter for The New York Star while Rodney starts working with infamous bootlegger Jake Luva (Clark Gable). Bonnie takes her new social standing in stride and realizes she doesn’t even miss her old crowd. She learns to love her job and makes friends with the paper’s star reporter Bert Scranton (Cliff Edwards). Bonnie is unaware of what her brother’s job really is until some bootleggers get shot. While Bert is investigating the story for the paper, he talks to Rodney, who accidentally admits that Luva’s gang was involved in the shooting. When Luva finds out about it, he handles it in true gangster style: he tells Rodney to either kill Bert or he will be killed. Of course, Rodney chooses to save himself.
The newspaper editor is devastated over the loss of his best reporter and assigns Bonnie to go undercover to find out who killed Bert. She gets a job dancing at Luva’s nightclub, much to the surprise of Rodney, their old circle of friends, and her ex-boyfriend Bob Townsend. But Luva takes a shine to Bonnie and invites her back to his apartment. While she’s there, she answers his phone to find Rodney on the other end of the line. At last, she knows just how involved with Luva’s gang Rodney is. Rodney shows up at the apartment and gets into a huge argument with Luva. He tries to kill Luva to save Bonnie, but Luva also kills Rodney. Bonnie sure got her story, all right. She decides it will be her last story for the paper, but as she’s leaving the offices, her ex-boyfriend Bob shows up to propose to her. He’d proposed earlier, but he didn’t really love her then. This time he means it.
Dance, Fools, Dance wasn’t meant to win any Academy Awards, but it sure was entertaining from beginning to end. Joan’s performance is pretty solid and it’s always nice to see her paired with Clark Gable. It’s also always fun to get a chance to see Joan dance, because she really was a fantastic dancer:
Clark Gable made a pretty good gangster and I liked William Bakewell as Rodney. The story about what happens when one sibling takes legitimate jobs and another turns to crime reminded me a lot of The Public Enemy and there’s no denying that The Public Enemy had the more layered and developed story of the two. But just because it isn’t in the same league as The Public Enemy certainly doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie, it’s really a great little jewel of the pre-code era.
Helen Faraday (Marlene Dietrich) is a former showgirl married to chemist Ned (Herbert Marshall) and mother to Johnny (Dickie Moore). She gave up her stage career to become a wife and mother, but when Ned gets Radium poisoning and needs to go to Germany for treatment, Helen goes back to performing to get the money. After her first performance, she meets the young and wealthy Nick Townsend (Cary Grant). He’s quite smitten with her and she uses him to get all the money she needs to pay for her husband’s treatment. While Ned is in Germany, Helen carries on her affair with Nick. The two of them have a swell time living in luxury, but since Helen wasn’t living in her apartment during this time, she misses a telegram from Ned saying he’d be returning two weeks earlier than expected. Of course, Ned is absolutely livid and Helen takes Johnny and leaves before Ned can take Johnny from her. Ned reports them as missing and the two of them travel from town to town, Helen taking any job she can get. Sometimes she can get a job in a nightclub, sometimes she works on a farm, but eventually, she has to turn to prostitution.
When the law finally catches up with her, she hands Johnny over to Ned. Without Johnny around, Helen hits rock bottom and is stuck living in a flophouse. But eventually, she manages to pull herself up and go over to Paris. Under the name Helen Jones, she becomes a nightclub sensation and even runs into Nick again. They become engaged, but Nick realizes the only thing that truly makes Helen happy is Johnny. Nick arranges for Helen to see Johnny one more time. But when Ned sees Helen with Johnny again, it makes him question whether or not he wants her to stay.
Blonde Venus is one of my favorite Marlene Dietrich movies, I rank it right up there with The Blue Angel and Witness for the Prosecution. The story might not be perfect, but I like it anyway. For example, I don’t really understand why she carries on an affair with Nick. Does she not want to be alone? Does she want the lifestyle he can offer? I’m not really sure. This is one of her famous collaborations with director Josef von Sternberg, but I think this one is rather different from his other collaborations with her. Usually, von Sternberg bent over backwards to make Dietrich’s character into the most outrageously glamorous person you’ll ever see. Think of the lavish costumes and sets of The Scarlett Empress and Shanghai Lily’s extravagant wardrobe in Shanghai Express. But here, we don’t see that quite as much. Oh sure, Helen has some glamorous stage costumes and some scenes where she wears some nice things Nick has clearly paid for. But we also see her giving Johnny a bath and wearing tattered dresses, things Shanghai Lily wouldn’t be caught dead wearing.
I’m quite fond of Dietrich’s performance here because even though we get to see the glamorous side of Dietrich that we know quite well, but I also liked getting to see Dietrich the mother. Dickie Moore was just adorable and I really enjoyed his scenes with Marlene. Blonde Venus came very early in Cary Grant’s career, and even though there are hints at just how suave and charming he could be, he hadn’t quite found his niche yet. And it didn’t help that, according to Cary, von Sternberg didn’t really direct him all that much. I would have really liked to see Cary and Marlene do another movie together after Cary had become a more developed actor. There was definitely some chemistry there, I think they could have done something great.
Barbara Stanwyck plays Lora Hart, a high school drop-out looking to get a job as a nurse. At first, she’s turned down because of the fact that she didn’t finish high school, but after she runs into Dr. Bell (Charles Winninger) as she’s leaving the hospital, Dr. Bell helps get her in as a probationary nurse. Another nurse, B. Maloney (Joan Blondell), takes Lora under her wing and shows her the ropes. She learns to care for babies, help with surgeries, how to turn down advances from the interns, and when to keep quiet about stitching up bootleggers after they’re injured under questionable circumstances. After helping out one bootlegger, Mortie (Ben Lyon), he becomes quite fond of her.
When Lora has completed her training, she’s hired as a private nurse by Mrs. Ritchie to care for her two sick children. On her first night of duty, Lora talks to the children and hears some worrisome details regarding Nick, the chauffeur (Clark Gable). She also begins to suspect that the children are being starved to death. The housekeeper, Mrs. Maxwell, tells Lora to never mind what the children tell her and that everything is fine. The rest of the night involves taking care of an extremely drunk Mrs. Ritchie and getting smacked around by the infamous Nick. The next day, she goes to see Dr. Ranger to express her concerns, but he won’t listen to her. She then goes to see Dr. Bell, who does listen to her, but tells her to keep working there to get more evidence.
Time goes by and the children don’t get any better. In fact, one of them winds up on the verge of death. Mrs. Ritchie is so drunk that she can’t comprehend this fact. On the other hand, the usually stoic Mrs. Maxwell has become deeply concerned. After a couple of drinks, Mrs. Maxwell lets it slip to Lora that Nick and Dr. Ranger are in cahoots to murder the children so Nick can marry Mrs. Ritchie and get to their trust funds. Lora calls Dr. Bell over and they try to get the girl to the hospital, but Nick punches Dr. Bell. Luckily, Mortie happens to be there delivering some booze and sees to it that Nick stays out of the way. In the end, Lora saves the little girl and Mortie sees to it that Nick never hurts anyone ever again.
Night Nurse does have a lot of gratuitous undressing scenes, but it’s not the most risqué pre-code I’ve ever seen. However, it is one of the grittiest and most socially aware. It deals with alcoholism, child abuse, violence against women, medical ethics, bootleggers, murder, and the fact that a lot of dangerous things can get brushed under the rug when you’re wealthy. There are also hints at drug abuse by Dr. Ranger. You sure weren’t going to see all that in any 1950s movie!
Even though this came pretty early in Barbara Stanwyck’s career, we get to see her excelling at being the tough talking dame she’d later become known for. The scene where the child is dying and Lora goes to confront the extremely inebriated Mrs. Ritchie and her friend is simply glorious. She does a fabulous job of telling Mrs. Ritchie what a pathetic excuse for a mother she is. I love seeing her stand up to Nick and to fight for what is clearly right. I also really like the relationship between Stanwyck’s character and Joan Blondell’s. I’m surprised Joan and Barbara only made one other film together, they made a good duo. Clark Gable gets relatively little screen time, but he makes the most of what time he does get. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Clark Gable be so intense and intimidating before. All in all, a highly entertaining flick!
Usually, a baby being born is a joyous occasion. But not for Sally Trent. Sally’s boyfriend Mike (David Manners) has left for China, unaware he had a baby on the way, leaving Sally alone, broke, and with no other choice but to give birth in a charity hospital. She has a baby girl, also named Sally, and makes friends with Dora (Lyda Roberti), who is in the same boat as her. Sally and Dora get an apartment together, help take care of each other’s babies, but when Dora moves out to get married, Sally is right back where she started. She does anything she can to get money to take care of her daughter. She even resorts to visiting Mike’s family, but they won’t help her. Sally is left with no other choice but to put her daughter up for adoption. She only asks the nun to make sure her baby’s name will always be Sally.
With her daughter gone, Sally becomes a popular nightclub singer under the name Mimi Benton. Now she’s got a swanky apartment, a maid, fabulous gowns, and a boyfriend, Tony (Ricardo Cortez), who runs a radio station. On the night a children’s’ program was set to debut at Tony’s station, Mimi happens to see the show’s star get a vicious case of stage fright. Mimi steps in and handles the whole show like a true professional. The sponsors love her and she’s given a contract on the spot. The radio show becomes a huge success, even if Mimi performs it from her apartment, drink in hand. But when she receives some fan mail from a little girl named Sally, she realizes that her daughter might be listening to her show. So Mimi comes up with an idea for a contest where she picks a name (of course the name is Sally) and asks everyone with that name to write in with their birth dates and she would send them a doll on their birthday. But when Mimi gets a surprise visit from Michael and she tells him she had a baby, he also wants to seek his daughter out. Without telling Mimi, he finds their daughter and adopts her. Mimi finds out when she gets a letter from a Sally with the right birthdate and goes to deliver the doll in person.
I loved, loved, loved Claudette Colbert in Torch Singer! She did some of her best work ever early in the movie when Sally is completely alone and vulnerable. There’s nothing overly dramatic about the scenes where she is putting her daughter up for adoption, the emotion is played just right. She came off as very maternal, which is something we see again later in Since You Went Away. But when she becomes Mimi, boy, do you believe that she’s the life of the party. With those gowns and that presence and attitude, I wanted to go to a party with Mimi! Lydia Roberti, Ricardo Cortez, and Mildred Washington also made for a fantastic supporting cast.
This movie really had me going up until the incredibly unbelievable ending. It was such an incredible stretch of the imagination, especially for a movie that had so many honest and realistic scenes in it. But I haven’t let that ending deter this movie from becoming a repeat viewer for me. I think if it had a weaker lead actress, this would have been a rather forgettable movie, but Claudette really made it work.
The Greeks Had a Word for Them has a pretty straightforward story: Three former showgirl friends, Schatzi (Joan Blondell), Polaire (Madge Evans), and Jean (Ina Claire), are all determined to land themselves some rich men. They all live together and share pretty much everything: jewelery, clothes, and even men. Well, they don’t exactly share the men as much as they steal them. Jean is particularly unscrupulous about making a move for her friends’ men. She even goes as far as to plant one of her necklaces on Polaire just as she’s about to meet her rich fiance’s father to make her look like a thief. Jean does manage to snag Justin, Polaire’s fiance’s father, and is all set to marry him, but backs out at the last-minute because she doesn’t want to give up her fun, single life and heads to Paris with Polaire and Schatzi.
If a movie about three gold digging friends, one of whom is named Schatzi, sounds familiar, that’s because you probably best remember it as How to Marry a Millionaire starring Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and Betty Grable. But much like The Letter and Waterloo Bridge, the pre-code version is quite significantly different from the production code era version. In fact, I’d say the only real similarities between the two movies are the fact that they’re both about three gold digging friends, some of the names are similar, one person backs out of a wedding, and only one of them ends up with a rich man in the end. In the 1953 version, all the women set out to land rich men on their own, but in the 1932 version, the three friends are constantly stealing each others’ men. There was so much backstabbing and man stealing going on between them, it’s beyond me why these three ladies stayed friends. Well, at least I don’t get why they stayed friends with Jean anyway. If they were really serious about trying to land rich men, considering how incredibly ruthless Jean was, I’d think they’d want to keep her far, far away from their men. The pre-code version is also much boozier and full of scenes where the ladies are seen wearing their slips for absolutely no real reason.
Even though I thought it was pretty fun and entertaining, I wouldn’t call it one of my favorites. I actually preferred How to Marry a Millionaire to this version. I mostly just found the character of Jean so very unlikable. I know she was supposed to be a very over the top character, but yikes! Like I said, the fact that these two women wanted to be friends with such an awful woman is totally baffling to me. Maybe if they had been able to go with their original choice of Jean Harlow for that part, she might have been able to give the character some more charm. On the whole, the movie wasn’t bad. I’d watch it again if nothing else was on, but I don’t know if I’d go out of my way to watch it again. But if you do watch it, be sure to keep an eye out for Betty Grable’s bit part as a hat check girl!
Another week, another ten movies! This week, I’ve got lots of musicals, some silents that have only gotten better with age, and movies with some of my favorite snappy lines. Now, onto the movies!
When chorus girl Myra Deauville (Mae Clarke) finds herself out of work, she assumes she’ll be able to find herself a new show soon enough. Two years later and still no work, she has no choice but to become a hooker to support herself. She and her friend Kitty (Doris Lloyd) walk the streets together, but one night during an air raid, she stops to help an older woman trying to carry a lot of potatoes. Roy (Douglass Montgomery), a soldier on leave, stops to help them and when he realizes Myra is an American, the two of them hit it off right away. Once potato lady was taken care of, he goes back to Myra’s apartment with her to wait out the air raid. Roy falls madly in love with Myra, and even though Myra feels the same way, she doesn’t want to get too close to him. She only tells him that she’s an unemployed chorus girl, she doesn’t want him to know she’s a prostitute.
Soon enough, Roy wants to bring Myra out to the country to meet his family. Of course, she initially refuses, but Roy ends up tricking her into meeting them. His sister Janet is played by a very young Bette Davis. His family seems to like her and Roy proposes, but Myra can’t stand having this secret on her conscience so she tells his mother the truth. Although his mother is very understanding, she asks her not to marry Roy. The next day, she sneaks back to London without saying goodbye to Roy. Roy comes back to London to find out what happened and begs her to marry him. He has to go back to the war very soon, so he’s trying to make it happen fast. She agrees, but while he’s out of the room, she sneaks out the window. After she leaves, Roy runs into Myra’s landlord looking to collect the rent. Myra’s landlord lets the cat out of the bag about what Myra’s real job is, but Roy still loves her. He heads out to Waterloo Bridge to look for her and finds her mere minutes before he has to leave for the war again. He begs her to agree to marry him when he comes back or he’ll refuse to leave. Myra agrees, but alas, their marriage was never meant to be.
Waterloo Bridge is best remembered for the production code era version starring Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor. But the 1940 version of Waterloo Bridge only vaguely resembles its pre-code counterpart. The Vivien Leigh version starts out like the Mae Clarke version, meeting Roy by Waterloo Bridge during an air raid, but then it goes on quite a detour before it resembles the 1931 version again. First of all, the fact that Myra was a prostitute had to be really downplayed in the Vivien Leigh version. The whole part about Roy being mistakenly reported as dead never happened in the Mae Clarke version. Mae Clarke’s Myra is never thrown out of a show because of Roy like Vivien Leigh’s Myra was. In the Vivien Leigh version, Myra is much more willing to marry Roy while Mae Clarke always tried to avoid it as much as possible.
When I watch Waterloo Bridge, all I can think is how underrated an actress Mae Clarke is. She’s best remembered for having a grapefruit shoved in her face by James Cagney in The Public Enemy, but you can see in Waterloo Bridge that there was a lot more to her than that. She had a solid career in the 1930s, but it slowed down by the 40s, and by the 50s and 60s, she was doing a lot of TV stuff and uncredited parts in major movies like Singin’ in the Rain, Pat and Mike, The Catered Affair, and Thoroughly Modern Millie. Going by her performance here, I really think she really should have been a much bigger star and it’s beyond me why she wasn’t. It’s her performance that puts this movie on equal footing with Vivien Leigh’s Waterloo Bridge.