Gene Raymond

Sadie McKee 1934

Sadie McKee (1934)

Sadie McKee (Joan Crawford) works as a part-time maid in the home of the Alderson family, where her mother has worked as a cook for years. The Alderson’s son, Michael (Franchot Tone), has long had a crush on Sadie, but Sadie is in love with Tommy (Gene Raymond), who has just been fired from his job working for the Aldersons. While working at a dinner one night, she hears disparaging remarks about Tommy, tells them all off, and runs off to New York City with Tommy to get married.

Once they get into town, Sadie and Tommy meet Opal (Jean Dixon), an older, hardened nightclub performer who helps them get a room at a boarding house. They plan to marry the next day, but need to spend the morning looking for jobs. While Sadie is out job hunting, Tommy is taking a bath at the boarding house and when Dolly (Esther Ralston) overhears him singing, she recruits him to join her nightclub act. He accepts, but has to leave town immediately, leaving a heartbroken Sadie behind.

With some help from Opal, Sadie gets a job dancing in a nightclub and one night, a very drunk (and very rich) customer named Jack Brennan (Edward Arnold) insists that she join him at his table. It turns out that Michael is there with him that night. Michael warns Sadie to leave Jack alone, but she doesn’t listen and it isn’t long before they’re married. Although the marriage gives Sadie a boost in social status, she’s forced to deal with Jack’s alcoholism, which is on the verge of costing him his life. And although she deeply cares about Jack, her heart still hasn’t forgotten Tommy.

Sadie McKee is a pretty quintessential 1930s Joan Crawford movie. She plays a working class woman who finds herself moving into a higher class, she gets to wear some fabulous Adrian gowns, and it was directed by Clarence Brown, who worked very well with Joan. Plus it also starred one of her most famous co-stars, Franchot Tone. In addition to Tone and Crawford, Gene Raymond, Esther Ralston, Jean Dixon, and Edward Arnold are all great in their supporting roles. I thought Esther Ralston and Jean Dixon were particularly great in their respective roles; I loved the scene between Ralston and Crawford when she goes to confront Dolly. Sure, Sadie McKee may be a bit heavy on the melodrama, but it is entertaining and that’s exactly what I wanted from it.

Pre-Code Essentials: Red Dust (1932)

Red Dust Harlow Gable

Plot

Dennis Carson (Clark Gable) is content with his life as a bachelor and the rustic lifestyle that comes with being a rubber plantation owner. He’s not too thrilled when he finds on-the-lam prostitute Vantine (Jean Harlow) crashing at his plantation house, but she eventually wins him over with her wisecracking ways. They get along well, but since Vantine plans to catch the next boat out of town, Dennis never means for their relationship to be anything more than temporary.

After Vantine leaves, engineer Gary Willis (Gene Raymond) and his wife Barbara (Mary Astor) arrive for Gary to start work on the plantation. Dennis is immediately drawn to Barbara and does everything he can to spend time alone with her, but Vantine throws a wrench into his plans when her boat fails to set sail as expected. Vantine loves Dennis and is incredibly jealous to realize that he’s in love with Barbara. Dennis continues to relentlessly pursue Barbara and eventually convinces Barbara to leave her husband, but changes his mind when he realizes how much Gary loves Barbara.


My Thoughts

Before Jean Harlow was cast as Vantine, Greta Garbo had been considered for the part. As much as I love Garbo, I’m definitely not sorry that the part was re-cast. She would have been all wrong for this part and her chemistry with Gable, as seen in Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise, just wasn’t that spectacular. Passable, but not remarkable.

But as for Jean Harlow? She was perfect for this part. I just can’t get enough of her and Clark Gable together. Tied with Wife vs. SecretaryRed Dust is my favorite movie they did together. Here, they have the perfect rapport with each other for exchanging their snappy, saucy lines. Gable and Harlow were hardly a one-note duo, either. In Red Dust, they’re supposed to be a bit brash and have an overt attraction to each other. But on the flip side, there’s Wife vs. Secretary, where they were supposed to have good chemistry, but in a far more chaste way, yet with just enough of a spark left to leave the audience wondering, “will they or won’t they?”

Gable also had a wonderful co-star in Mary Astor. The scene where Dennis carries Barbara back to her room in the storm is one of the steamiest scenes you’ll ever see.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

Vantine taking a bath in the rain barrel.

This exchange between Barbara and Dennis: “We shouldn’t have done that.” “But we did.”


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Jean Harlow plays a very likable prostitute and Clark Gable plays a man stuck in a love triangle between the likable prostitute and a married woman. It’s the stuff pre-code dreams are made of.

Flying Down to Rio (1933)

Band leader Roger Bond (Gene Raymond) is a notorious womanizer.  While his band is playing in Miami, the lovely Belinha De Rezenda (Dolores del Rio) catches his eye and isn’t about to let the hotel’s rule about staff not fraternizing with guests stand in his way.  Fred Ayers (Fred Astaire), his friend/choreographer/accordion player, knows that this will not end well at all and sure enough, he is right.  When Belinha’s chaperone finds out what Roger is doing, she gets him fired.  But when he finds out Belinha is headed to Rio de Janeiro, he gets in touch with his friend Julio (Raul Roulien) in Rio and gets the band a gig playing at the hotel Julio works at.  And it just so happens that Roger likes to fly and has his own two-seat plane, so he offers to give Belinha a lift.

Along the way, Roger plays the old “engine trouble” card and lands his plane on a secluded beach in Haiti.  He spends the whole night trying to win Belinha over, but he soon finds out there is one little detail she’s neglected to mention — she’s engaged.  Roger isn’t about to let that stand in the way, but when she finds out that there wasn’t really a problem with the engine, she storms off and catches another plane to Rio.  When Roger finally makes his own way to Rio, he asks his friend Julio to help him win Belinha back, but doesn’t realize that Julio is the person Belinha is engaged to.  Not only that, her father owns the hotel they’re now playing at.

While Fred and Honey Hale (Ginger Rogers), the band’s singer, are having fun learning the local dances, things aren’t going so smoothly for Belinha’s father.  Some business rivals are trying to put his hotel out of business before it even opens and has the police shut down the band’s rehearsals, knowing they couldn’t get their entertainment permits in time for the grand opening festivities.  But then Roger has a stroke of genius and decides to do their show in the air, where they wouldn’t need permits.  They come up with a show that involves plenty of showgirls dancing on the wings of airplanes.  The show is a huge success and Belinha’s father is so grateful to Roger for saving his hotel that he sends him a heartfelt letter thanking him for all he has done.  After that, Roger doesn’t have the heart to split up Belinha and Julio.  But Julio realizes that Belinha would be much happier with Roger and doesn’t want to get between them.

Flying Down to Rio is best remembered for being the first movie to feature Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers together.  But don’t go into it expecting something along the lines of Swing Time or Follow the Fleet.  Flying Down to Rio was really intended to be a vehicle for Dolores del Rio, so Fred and Ginger are just supporting roles.  But even in their supporting role status, they’re clearly the scene stealers of the movie.  If you set the Fred and Ginger factor aside, Flying Down to Rio stands well on its own as a real pre-code classic.  It’s got some fun innuendo and even though there’s no way that musical number on the airplanes would ever actually work as a real show, it’s such an unforgettable scene.  Overall, a very fun movie.

The House on 56th Street (1933)

So many showgirls dream of meeting a wealthy man and giving up the stage to marry them.  But Peggy Stone (Kay Francis) is one of the few who actually sees that dream come true.  When we first meet her, she’s working as a showgirl and even though she is seeing Lyndon Fiske (John Halliday), she is also seeing Monte Van Tyle (Gene Raymond).  Although she’s enjoyed her time with Lyndon, Monte is the one she loves and when he proposes, she gladly accepts.  When she breaks the news to Lyndon, he appears to take it in stride.  Monte and Peggy get married, head off to Europe for their honeymoon, and when they return, they move into a home on 56th Street that Monte had built for them.  Married life is wonderful for the Van Tyles.  They couldn’t be happier and they soon welcome a daughter, Eleanor.

But that all changes one day when Peggy runs into Lyndon again by accident.  He tells Peggy that he is dying and wants to spend the rest of his time with her.  Peggy wants nothing to do with him, but eventually goes to see him one last time to say goodbye.  Not willing to take “no” for an answer, Lyndon pulls a gun out and threatens to kill himself.  Peggy tries to wrestle the gun away from him, but in the struggle, he accidentally shoots himself and dies.  Even though Peggy is innocent, she is sentenced to twenty years in prison.  In the time that she’s gone, Monte is killed in World War I and Eleanor is told that her mother died in prison.

When Peggy gets out of prison, she finds out that she’s been left $5,000, so she gets herself made over and goes on a cruise.  On the ship, she meets card sharp Bill Blaine (Ricardo Cortez) and plays poker with him one night.  Luckily for her, her father had also been a big gambler so she saw through all his tricks and managed to win.  The two of them fall in love and with their gambling skills combined, they become an unstoppable duo.  When they return to New York, Bill gets them both jobs in a new gambling house, which happens to be in the house Peggy used to live in with Monte.  Peggy earns quite a reputation for being an unbeatable blackjack dealer, but she momentarily loses her touch one night when her now grown up and married daughter Eleanor (Margaret Lindsay) comes to her table.  When the night is over, Eleanor has gambled herself $15,000 into debt.  Peggy wants the casino to let the debt go, but the owner insists and when Eleanor comes to see him the next day, she shoots him.  Not willing to put her motherly instincts aside, she tries to cover for Eleanor and offers to take the fall for it.

The House on 56th Street was an okay movie.  It’s enjoyable enough, but the story wasn’t really anything special.  The basic premise has been done before in movies like Frisco Jenny and Madame X.  But even if the story wasn’t particularly original, at least Kay Francis was pretty good in it.  But ultimately, even Kay’s performance doesn’t really save the movie.  It’s not a bad movie, but I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to see it.

Red Dust (1932)

Red Dust 1932 Clark Gable Jean Harlow

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!