Adolphe Menjou

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.

Father Takes a Wife (1941)

Father Takes a Wife 1941When Frederic Osborne Senior (Adolphe Menjou), a man who has a reputation for never missing a day at the office, suddenly seems to have lost all interest in his business, his son, Junior (John Howard) is both frustrated and confused as to what’s brought on this sudden change in attitude. One day, Senior comes in and informs Junior he’ll be in charge of running the family business from now on because he’s fallen in love and is getting married.

The woman Senior has fallen madly in love with is Leslie Collier (Gloria Swanson), a famous actress who is planning to give up the stage to marry Senior. But the relationship between Leslie and Senior starts to become strained before they even make it to the altar. When Senior, Junior, and Junior’s wife Enid (Florence Rice) go to see her final performance in her play, Senior becomes extremely jealous of her over-affectionate leading man. Then before the wedding, they squabble over her insistence on continuing to use her maiden name. But they go through with the wedding and head off on their honeymoon cruise.

After they’ve set sail, Leslie and Senior find out Carlos Bardez (Desi Arnaz) has been found as a stowaway. Senior allows him to stay, and it turns out Carlos has been a successful singer in other countries and Leslie wants to help him launch his career in America. She becomes his impresario and Senior becomes extremely jealous of all the attention Carlos is getting from Leslie. It nearly drives Leslie and Senior to divorce, but when Junior and Enid try to help, Carlos ends up nearly driving them apart, too. Can Junior and Senior save their marriages and get Carlos out of the picture?

Father Takes a Wife is cute, but not remarkable. Adolphe Menjou has some nice comedic moments and Gloria Swanson isn’t bad in it, but the story falls flat. On the surface, the story sounded like it might have potential, but even with the decent amount of talent involved, Father Takes a Wife just doesn’t measure up. As a Gloria Swanson fan, I thought it was somewhat interesting mostly because it gave me a chance to see her in something that came after her silent films and before Sunset Blvd.; she didn’t make too many movies during that time frame. If you’re a particularly big fan of Swanson, Menjou, or Arnaz, you might want to give it a shot, but otherwise, you’re not missing much.

Gold Diggers of 1935

Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935)

During the summer months, the Wentworth Plaza is a popular destination for wealthy people to beat the heat. Among them is Mrs. Prentice (Alice Brady) and her daughter Ann (Gloria Stuart). Although Mrs. Prentice has more money than most people could ever dream of having, she’s notorious for being an absurdly cheap penny-pincher. She also wants Ann to marry T. Mosley Thorpe (Hugh Herbert), an older but very rich man who is an expert on snuffboxes. Thorpe is not Ann’s type at all and she desperately wants to have some fun.

Finally, Mrs. Prentice agrees to let her have some fun by hiring Dick Curtis (Dick Powell) to be her escort for the summer. Although Dick is engaged to Arline (Dorothy Dare), she approves of the idea since the money is good. Dick and Ann have a lot of fun together (and enjoy running up Mrs. Prentice’s bills), and it isn’t long before they fall in love with each other.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Prentice is at work organizing her annual show to raise money for the Milk Fund. She ends up hiring Nicoleff (Adolphe Menjou) to direct the show, but she doesn’t realize that he’s working with other people to make the show as lavish and extravagant as possible so they can get more money out of Mrs. Prentice.

Simply put, Gold Diggers of 1935 pales in comparison to 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, or Gold Diggers of 1933. It’s not like the basic plotlines of those movies are anything complex, but the plot of Gold Diggers of 1935 feels paper-thin in comparison. I also really missed stars like Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, and Ginger Rogers; although Alice Brady clearly has a field day hamming it up as the wealthy cheapskate.

But, since this is a Busby Berkeley movie, Gold Diggers of 1935 features some truly stunning musical numbers. Although 1935, on the whole, is really weak compared to his big hits of 1933, Busby Berkeley was still bringing his “A” game to the musical numbers. In terms of ambition and creative vision, he really outdid himself. No one is expecting anyone to honestly believe these numbers could actually be done on a real stage, but they’re an extravagant feast for the eyes. “The Words Are in My Heart” number with all those pianos is simply breathtaking and calling “The Lullaby of Broadway” a musical number almost feels like it’s selling it short; it’s more like a short film unto itself.

The Front Page (1931)

The Front Page 1931Just before Earl Williams (George E. Stone) is to be executed, the big question on many newspaper reporters minds is where isn’t about the execution, but where Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien) is.  Hildy is one of the top reporters in Chicago and with the execution being such a big story, it’s odd that Hildy is nowhere to be found.  The truth is, Hildy has had enough of the newspaper world and is ready to leave it behind to marry his girlfriend Peggy (Mary Grant).  He’s happy to stop by the press room at the courthouse to say goodbye to his friends, but the one person he absolutely does not want to see is his editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou).  He knows that if he visits Walter, he’ll get suckered into staying at the paper.

But before Hildy can leave town, Earl Williams escapes.  The reporters in the press room rush to get on the story and Hildy can’t help but be caught up in the excitement and gets to work on the story himself.  After a while, Peggy arrives at the press room, not happy about being pushed aside for the newspaper yet again.  As much as Hildy would like to be with Peggy, he gets the scoop of a lifetime when Williams climbs in through a window of the press room.  Hildy hides Williams from the other reporters and when the other reporters are back in the press room, Williams’ friend Molly (Mae Clarke) distracts them by jumping out a window.

While Hildy works, Walter comes to check on him and of course, he tries to convince Hildy to stay on at the paper.  As the action unfolds, Hildy is left to juggle the big story and his soon-to-be wife.

If the story of The Front Page sounds familiar, that’s probably because it’s best remembered as its remake, 1940’s His Girl Friday.  Although The Front Page is a pretty good movie, it’s one of the rare times where I liked the remake better than the original.  Pat O’Brien and Adolphe Menjou are fine, but I much prefer Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.  The Front Page is funny and fast paced, but His Girl Friday is full of even faster dialogue and the screwball factor is really amped up.  I really don’t mean to imply that The Front Page isn’t worth watching, but His Girl Friday took everything that was good about The Front Page and ran with it.

Morocco (1930)

Morocco 1930When nightclub singer Amy Jolly (Marlene Dietrich) arrives in Morocco, she’s already lived and loved a lot and it’s left her exhausted.  The last thing she wants is to fall in love and be hurt yet again.  But when she spots Legionnaire Tom Brown (Gary Cooper) in the audience during one of her performances, she can’t resist him.  She gives him a key to her place and he comes to visit her.  As they get to know each other, Amy really takes a liking to Tom, but is still hesitant to get too involved.

Before meeting Amy, Tom had a reputation for being quite the ladies man.  He had even been carrying on an affair with his superior officer Caesare’s (Ullrich Haupt) wife, but broke things off with her to be with Amy.  However, Caesare knew what had been going on and sends Tom on a mission that could very well cost him his life.

Before Tom leaves on his mission, he overhears Amy rejecting a proposal from Kennington La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou).  Kennington is a rich man and can offer Amy so many things that Tom simply cannot.  Even though he loves Amy, he believes she would be better off with Kennington and decides to take himself out of the picture.  While he is gone, Amy agrees to marry Kennington. But when she finds out Tom is back in town, reportedly injured, she can’t help but rush to be with him.  Recognizing who Amy really loves and wanting her to be happy, Kennington even gives her a ride to see him.

The critical consensus for Morocco seems to be that it’s one of the best movies Josef von Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich.  Although I do like Morocco, it’s not one of my personal favorite Dietrich movies.  As far as the von Sternberg collaborations go, I prefer The Blue Angel and Blonde VenusMorocco just leaves me a little bit cold.  Dietrich herself is divine; she has such a commanding screen presence and she can work a tuxedo like nobody else.  The exotic locale is perfect for von Sternberg’s style.  The story just doesn’t pull me all the way in, though.

A Farewell to Arms (1932)

During World War I, Lieutenant Frederic Henry (Gary Cooper) serves the Italian Army as an ambulance driver and in his free time, enjoys going out drinking with Major Rinaldi (Adolphe Menjou).  When one of their nights on the town is interrupted by an air raid, Frederic takes shelter alongside nurse Catherine Barkley (Helen Hayes).  However, their first meeting is less than ideal for other reasons — he mistakes her for a prostitute he had been talking to earlier.

But Frederic gets another chance to make an impression on Catherine when Rinaldi arranges a double date for them and Catherine and her friend Helen (Mary Philips).  Rinaldi is in love with Catherine and had intended Helen to be Frederic’s date, but Frederic and Catherine fall madly in love with each other that night and start having an affair.  Army regulations forbid their romance, but rules suddenly don’t seem to mean much to Frederic.  Before he is sent off to the front lines, he insists on stopping to say goodbye to Catherine.  Rinaldi, still bitter that Catherine prefers Frederic over him, sees to it that Catherine is transferred to Milan to keep her away from him.

As fate would have it, Frederic is injured and is taken to Catherine’s new hospital.  Their feelings for each other are still as strong as ever and they are secretly married in Frederic’s hospital room.  Frederic spends the next three months recuperating and he and Catherine couldn’t be happier together.  But when he has to go back to the war, there’s one thing he doesn’t know — Catherine is pregnant.  She leaves the hospital for Switzerland to wait for him and even though they write to each other regularly, Rinaldi sees to it that neither of them receive their letters.

When Frederic becomes concerned over Catherine’s lack of letters, he deserts the Army to find her.  He eventually manages to find Helen, who tells him about the baby, but she’s so angry about what he’s done to Catherine that she refuses to tell him where she is.  Now even more desperate to find her, he takes out an ad in the newspaper looking for her, which gets Rinaldi’s attention.  Finally realizing just how much Frederic loves Catherine, he finally tells him where she is.  But when he finally makes his way to her, she’s not in good health.

When people talk about pre-codes, A Farewell to Arms isn’t one that comes up very often and I have no idea why that is.  In terms of shocking content, A Farewell to Arms has got plenty of stuff to make your jaw drop: rape, forbidden love, very frank discussions of relationships,  and of course, the scene with the prostitute early in the movie.

But A Farewell to Arms has a lot more to offer than risqué scenes.  Frank Borzage offers up some top-notch direction and Charles Lang completely deserved the Academy Award he won for his beautiful cinematography.  I absolutely loved Gary Cooper’s performance as Fredric and Adolphe Menjou is an excellent supporting player.  As for Helen Hayes, I haven’t seen very many of her movies, but her work here made me want to see more of her.  I’ve never read A Farewell to Arms so I can’t critique it as an adaptation, but I do know Hemingway didn’t care for the movie.  All I can do is take the movie for what it is and I very much enjoyed it, much more than I expected to.

What’s on TCM: September 2012

Happy September, everyone!  I hope you all enjoyed this year’s edition of Summer Under the Stars.  One good thing may be coming to an end, but fear not, there are some very, very cool things to look forward to in September.

Silent film fans, rejoice!  Every Thursday night this month, TCM will be spotlighting movies produced at Mack Sennett studios, which means there will be tons of silent films being played during prime time.  83 short films will be included in this tribute, the vast majority of which have never been shown in TCM before, and will feature stars  such as Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Fatty Arbuckle, and Gloria Swanson.  I, for one, am very excited for this!

Lauren Bacall is the Star of the Month and every Wednesday night in September will be full of her movies.  September 3rd will be TCM’s annual tribute to the Telluride Film Festival

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