NaBloPoMo 2012

The Mouthpiece (1932)

As a prosecuting attorney, it’s Vincent Day’s (Warren William) job to see that guilty parties get the punishments they deserve.  But when Vincent mistakenly sends an innocent man to the electric chair, the guilt is too much for him to bear and he vows to never prosecute again and becomes a defense attorney instead.  He starts out defending the innocent and the satisfaction of helping them out is good and all, but then he discovers the real money is in defending the guilty.

Once Vincent starts working with the seedier crowd, business is booming.  He even has to hire Celia (Sidney Fox) as a second secretary to help out Miss Hickey (Aline MacMahon), his main secretary.  Celia is young, beautiful, and very naive.  Vincent is very attracted to her, but she only has eyes for her fiance Johnny (William Janney).  However, she admires the work Vincent does, thinking he’s honestly protecting innocent people.  One day in court, she watches in awe as he drinks a bottle of poison from the evidence to prove that it’s harmless.  Little does she know that afterward, Vincent went straight from the courthouse to a two-bit doctor to have his stomach pumped.

Later that night, Vincent has Celia come to his apartment under the guise of needing some work done, but he comes on to her instead and she turns him down.  Worst of all, she finds out the truth about what happened in court that day.  Completely disillusioned, she gives her two weeks notice, but refuses to be paid for it.  She doesn’t want to take any money gotten through such dirty ways.  Vincent has no problem meeting women, but Celia’s rejection really stings him badly.  On Celia’s last day, Vincent gives her a check for a hundred dollars and proves that he earned it through legitimate means.

Celia and Johnny are planning to get married right away, but then Johnny is framed for stealing some bonds and gets arrested.  Of course, Celia knows Vincent is the only one who can help him, but when she tries to find him, he’s gone off on a very long bender.  Miss Hickey sobers him up and he gets to work clearing Johnny’s name and getting the person who was really responsible for stealing the bonds arrested.  This move costs him the trust of the criminal underworld, but that doesn’t bother Vincent at all since he’s decided to go straight again.  As he leaves to see Cecile get married, he’s gunned down outside his office.

I have been very excited to see The Mouthpiece for a long time now, since I’d heard Cliff from Immortal Ephemera speak very highly of it.  I was not disappointed at all, it’s now my favorite Warren William movie.  This is exactly the kind of character Warren William is best known for playing and he plays Vincent to the hilt.  The Mouthpiece also has a phenomenal supporting cast.  Aileen MacMahon was a flawless choice to play Vincent’s loyal secretary and Sidney Fox sure had that wide-eyed and innocent act down pat.

The Mouthpiece also has a nice, fast pace and great dialogue, so it’s rather surprising that it’s not a more well-known movie.  I don’t see it on TCM very often, nor has it even been released by Warner Archive.  Let’s hope that changes, because The Mouthpiece deserves to be rediscovered.  Any fan of pre-codes would go crazy for it.

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Jewel Robbery (1932)

Baroness Teri (Kay Francis) has a life that many would envy.  She’s married to Baron Franz (Henry Kolker), who can easily afford to buy her all the furs and jewelery she could ever want.  There’s just one problem — he’s incredibly boring.  Teri desperately needs some excitement in her life, so she openly dates other men, but gets bored with them pretty quickly, too.

When Teri and Franz go to a jewelery store so that Franz can buy Teri a very large diamond ring, the store is robbed by an unnamed robber (William Powell).  This is no ordinary jewel thief, though.  He’s very suave, charming, and has the unusual habit of giving marijuana to the people he robs so they won’t call the police.  And it just so happens that this robber is exactly the type of man  Teri has been longing for.  He flirts with her as he steals her new ring from her, and she’s so enchanted with him that she doesn’t even need the marijuana to stop her from talking to the cops.

When Teri gets back home, she finds some mysterious flowers waiting for her and discovers that her jewelry safe has been opened.  However, nothing has been stolen.  In fact, something has been added to it — the ring that had just been stolen from her.  The robber sneaks up to her room and Teri tries to get him to take the ring back since there’s no way for her to wear it without raising suspicions.  He refuses, and it isn’t long before there’s a knock at the door from Detective Fritz (Alan Mowbray), who arrests Teri for being an accomplice to the robber.

It just so happens that Detective Fritz isn’t a detective after all, he’s actually working for the robber.  Fritz brings Teri to the robber’s apartment, where he spends the night wooing her and she falls even more deeply under his spell.  They make plans to run away to Nice together, but before they can leave, the real police show up.  The robber and his gang escape, but first, they tie Teri to a chair so the cops won’t accuse her of being an accomplice.  When all is said and done, her name stays clear, but she announces that she could use a vacation to recover from her “ordeal.”  Perhaps some time in Nice would do the trick…

If you know someone who thinks old movies were all super sanitized and boring, Jewel Robbery is the perfect movie to prove them wrong.  With its witty banter, infidelity, jewel heists, and drug use, Jewel Robbery is perfectly pre-code from start to finish.  The chemistry between Kay Francis and William Powell is phenomenal and it’s very hard not to laugh at the scenes of the jewelery store’s security guard acting high as a kite after the robber gives him that joint.  There’s nothing about it I didn’t like.  It’s a total delight to watch and is absolutely essential pre-code viewing.

Liz & Dick (2012)

Liz & Dick opens with the title appearing over this picture, the movie’s one and only decent publicity photo. It’s all downhill from there.

If you’re pressed for time, I can sum up my thoughts on Liz & Dick in five seconds:

Now, on to my real review.

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Bird of Paradise (1932)

While sailing on a yacht in the South Seas, Johnny Baker (Joel McCrea) and his friends meet a bunch of natives while sailing close to their island.  But when Johnny sees a shark swimming nearby, he tries to catch it, and is pulled overboard.  Luckily for him, a beautiful native girl named Luana (Dolores del Rio) dives in to save him.  There is an immediate attraction between them, but when Johnny and his friends spend an evening with the natives, he’s told that she’s supposed to marry a prince on a nearby island.

That doesn’t stop Johnny from pursing her, though, and she feels the same way toward him.  They sneak away to see each other during the night, but when Luana’s father finds out what’s going on, he forces her to marry that prince immediately.  When Johnny finds out what’s happening, he crashes the wedding and whisks her away to a nearby island.  They build some shelter and spend weeks basking in their own, private tropical paradise.

Even though they are blissfully happy on the island, Johnny would like to bring Luana home with him.  Before he can do that, though, the volcano Pele begins to erupt and Luana knows that she will soon have to be sacrificed to appease the volcano god.  Sure enough, it isn’t long before Luana is dragged back to her island for the sacrifice.  Johnny follows, but he’s captured and is set to be sacrificed alongside Luana.  Johnny’s friends arrive to rescue them just in the nick of time.  He still wants Luana to come home with him, but Luana believes it would be best if she allowed herself to be sacrificed to the volcano god.

Bird of Paradise is likeable, but it just didn’t grab my attention enough for me to get terribly invested in it.  However, it’s a very beautifully shot movie.  Even though it’s filmed in black and white so we don’t get to see any lush, tropical colors, King Vidor really captured the essence of this tropical paradise.  There’s one scene where Luana and Johnny go swimming together and Luana isn’t wearing anything.  At first, I thought it was very reminiscent of the infamous swimming scene from Tarzan and His Mate, but then I realized that Bird of Paradise actually pre-dates Tarzan and His Mate by two years.

Joel McCrea and Dolores del Rio are both certainly fun to watch, but the movie also has a some other noteworthy names working behind the scenes.  Bird of Paradise has the distinction of being the first sound film to have a full symphonic musical score, which was created by none other than Max Steiner.  Busby Berkeley, who was still an up-and-coming choreographer at the time, choreographed the film’s jungle dance scenes.  Less than a year after working on Bird of Paradise, Berkeley would move on to bigger and better things when he went to Warner Brothers and made 42nd Street.

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: December 2012

It’s hard to believe we’re already down to the final month of 2012, but leave it to TCM to end the year on a high note!  There is so much going on that I’m excited for.  First and foremost, we get Barbara Stanwyck as Star of the Month!  Every Wednesday night in December will kick off a 24-hour block of Stanwyck movies, and since I know a lot of my readers are big Stanwyck fans, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got plenty of room on your DVRs.  Every Friday night this month will be a salute to director Ernst Lubitsch, so you know every Friday night is going to be good.

Naturally, you can expect plenty of Christmas movies throughout the month.  Also worth noting is Baby Peggy night on December 3rd.  Baby Peggy is one of the last surviving stars from the silent era and was recently the subject of the documentary Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room, which will be airing on TCM that night along with some of her movies.

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Sadie Thompson (1928)

When prostitute Sadie Thompson (Gloria Swanson) arrives on the island of Tutuila, she expects to only be making a brief stopover before going on to Apia.  But then her boat needs to be quarantined for ten days and she waits the time out by staying in a hotel along with religious zealot Alfred Davidson (Lionel Barrymore).  Sadie quickly makes friends with a number of soldiers in the area, including Tim O’Hara (Raoul Walsh), who is in love with her and wants her to go to Australia and settle down with him after his orders are up.

Davidson gets to work imposing his moral views on the island’s natives and particularly on Sadie, who he recognizes from her days as a prostitute in San Francisco.  Sadie absolutely despises Davidson and refuses to give into his demands to repent.  But then Davidson finds out that if she goes back to San Francisco, she will be arrested, so he goes to the governor to have him force her back to San Francisco.  He tells her that the only way to fully repent her sins is to server her sentence and then go straight.

Sadie’s spirit has finally been broken and she begins to repent the way Davidson wants her to.  She spends three straight days praying and decides to take on a more modest life.  When Tim comes to see her, he’s shocked to find the vivacious Sadie now a shell of her former self.  He does his best to get her away from Davidson, but she insists on staying.  However, Davidson, a married man, is beginning to have impure thoughts about Sadie.  He has no idea how to cope with the idea that even he can’t live up to his moral expectations so he drowns himself, leaving Sadie to make plans to leave for Australia with Tim.

Sadie Thompson was the last movie triumph for Gloria Swanson until she made Sunset Boulevard twenty-two years later.  Not only was Swanson the star, she was also its producer.  She had signed with United Artists the year before and made her first film for them, The Love of Sunya, which she wasn’t entirely happy with.  For her next film, she wanted to do something that was both cutting edge and a surefire hit.  So she met with director Raoul Walsh and they came up with the idea of doing a film version of the play “Rain.”

At the time, “Rain” was thought to be completely un-filmable.  It may have been a hit on Broadway, but with its subject matter, Will Hays would never allow it to be turned into a movie.  Not only that, a number of prominent producers in Hollywood had all agreed that they wouldn’t try to make a movie out of “Rain.”  However, Gloria was extremely clever about how she made this movie come together.

The key was not saying it was based on the play, but on Somerset Maugham’s original short story.  And then she got personal approval from the most unlikely of sources — Will Hays himself.  One afternoon, she spoke to Hays about a movie she wanted to produce and gave him a general outline of the story, the name of the author, and mentioned what she would change to make it meet his standards.  Hays didn’t notice the similarities between this short story and the play “Rain,” so he said it sounded acceptable to him.

Swanson and Walsh went to work getting the rights to the story and writing the script.  When they announced the movie, they didn’t make any big announcements to the press.  Instead, they took out a very small ad buried in the back of the newspaper and expected it to be overshadowed by the excitement of Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic.  But people noticed and all heck broke loose.  They received an indignant telegram from the MPAA, signed by virtually every major mogul in Hollywood.

Since so many of the signers controlled the major theater chains in America, their disapproval could have kept Sadie Thompson from being widely seen. Gloria wasn’t about to give up on Sadie, though, and personally appealed to every single name on that telegram.  The only person willing to go to bat and defend her was Marcus Loew, who was able to get the matter dropped.  Sadie Thompson went on to be a huge success and Gloria gave one of the best performances of her career.