Jean Harlow

China Seas 1935

China Seas (1935)

Alan Gaskell (Clark Gable) is a boat captain with a reputation for hard drinking, but that all changes during a voyage in which he finds himself on a boat with Sybil (Rosalind Russell), a former lover who is now a refined, high society woman. Well, at least he wants to change for her. But on board the same ship is China Doll (Jean Harlow), another one of Alan’s former lovers who still adores him. China is much less refined than Sybil and is more like the hard-drinking and fun-loving Alan.

When China sees Alan with Sybil, she becomes incredibly jealous. Things get even worse when China finds out Alan and Sybil plan to get married as soon as possible. She spends the night drinking with her friend Jamesy (Wallace Beery), and accidentally finds out Jamesy is working with some pirates to steal a large amount of gold that is being transported on the ship. Once Jamesy finds out that China knows what’s going on, he intimidates her into helping him. China tries to warn Alan, but he’s drunk and says hurtful things to her. Out of anger, she steals his key to the ship’s arsenal so the pirates will be able to hijack the ship.

China Seas is one of those movies that’s a bit formulaic, but I don’t mind that because I like the formula. It reminds me a lot of Red Dust in the sense that they’re both about a man (Gable) who has an unrefined woman (Harlow) in love with him, but he falls in love with a more upper class woman (Mary Astor in Red Dust and Rosalind Russell in China Seas), only China Seas takes place on a boat instead of a plantation. But unlike Red DustChina Seas was made while production codes were being enforced, so it lacks a lot of the incredible steam and innuendo that Red Dust had. But even with the production codes, Gable and Harlow are still a first-rate team and the movie itself is a nice mix of romance and adventure with very high production values. It might not be one of the absolute best movies either Harlow or Gable made, but it’s still really entertaining.

Pre-Code Essentials: Red-Headed Woman (1932)

Red-Headed Woman 1932

Plot

Lil Andrews (Jean Harlow) is a woman who lives on the wrong side of the tracks, but she’ll stop at nothing to move up in the world. The best way she can think of to accomplish that goal is to marry a wealthy man and she sets her sights on her boss, Bill Legendre (Chester Morris). The fact that he’s happily married and devoted to his wife Irene (Leila Hyams) means nothing to Lil. She relentlessly tries to seduce Bill to break up their marriage.

When Lil finally succeeds in destroying Bill’s marriage, she marries him and completely throws herself into her new role of high society wife. She shows off her newfound status at every chance she gets, but is totally dismayed when she’s continually snubbed by the other elite people in town, who are still loyal friends to Irene. Just when Lil thinks she’s found a way to force them to accept her, they ditch her party to go to Irene’s instead.

Fed up, Lil leaves to spend some time in New York. Meanwhile, Bill has reason to suspect that Lil has been two-timing him.


My Thoughts

For as cold and relentless Lil is, it’s hard not to love Jean Harlow in this role. She is just so incredibly brazen, forward, and over the top; it’s extremely hard to not be entertained by her. I especially love the scene where she’s driving down the street to her hair apartment in her flashy new car, wearing her expensive new clothes, with her dog sitting in the passenger seat, turning the heads of everybody on the sidewalk. As she’s driving along, there’s marching band music playing, and when she turns the car off, the music stops, so it turns out the music is what was playing on her car radio. It always makes me laugh so hard that she was essentially throwing herself a one-woman parade; it’s too much and I love it.

Red-Headed Woman also features a nice, sharp script by Anita Loos and a wonderful supporting cast of Chester Morris, Leila Hyams, and Una Merkel.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

While trying on a dress:

Lil: “Can you see through this?”

Saleswoman: “I’m afraid you can, Miss.”

Lil: “I’ll wear it.”

Saleswoman: “Oh…”

Lil putting Bill’s picture into her garter belt.

The completely gratuitous scene where Lil’s catches her friend Sally (Una Merkel) wearing her pajamas and makes her take them off.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

There were lots of movies about adultery during the pre-code era, but Lil is without a doubt the most completely shameless homewrecker of the era. Red-Headed Woman is another movie that was a nightmare for the Hays Office before the cameras even started rolling. Between Lil’s unapologetic adultery and the fact that in the end, she tries to shoot Bill (sorry for the spoiler) and gets away with it (and all of her other behavior) was very problematic for censors. Once the Hays Code was being more strictly enforced, any kind of criminal or amoral behavior had to be punished and that certainly doesn’t happen here. Seventeen cuts had to be made to it for it to be released in the United States, but it was banned in the United Kingdom and wasn’t officially screened there until 1965 — although King George V kept a copy of it in his personal collection.

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.

Pre-Code Essentials: The Public Enemy (1931)

The Public Enemy 1931

Plot

Even from a young age, it was abundantly clear that Tom Powers (James Cageny) wasn’t on the path to being a law-abiding citizen. Along with his best friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), they grow from being young punks to real gangsters under the guidance of “Putty Nose” (Murray Kinnell). But when Putty Nose betrays Tom and Matt, they get in close with “Nails” Nathan (Leslie Fenton) and move into the bootlegging syndicate. Meanwhile, Tom’s brother Mike (Donald Cook) has taken a completely different path in life. While his brother is getting rich by breaking the law, Mike enlists in the military to serve in WWI and works hard to earn an honest living when he returns. Mike deeply resents how his brother is getting rich by breaking the law while he tries so hard to lead an honest life and gets nothing in return.

Tom and Matt become quite well known in the criminal underworld and Tom is particularly ruthless. Given the opportunity, he kills his old mentor Putty Nose. Tom is also awful to the women in his life. When he gets tired of seeing Kitty (Mae Clarke), he ends it by shoving a grapefruit in her face and starts taking up with Gwen (Jean Harlow) instead. After Nails Nathan dies in an accident, Tom gets even more aggressive and gets involved in a nasty mob war that ends up being his downfall.


My Thoughts

Not only is The Public Enemy one of my favorite pre-codes, it’s one of my favorite movies in general. When I saw it for the first time, I wasn’t terribly interested in gangster movies, but I picked up a copy of it because I’d heard it was good and because I like Jean Harlow. The Public Enemy isn’t Jean Harlow’s finest moment, but this is the movie that made me a fan of the gangster genre. With Cagney’s tour de force performance, its well-written script, and fast pace, how could I not be pulled in by it? The Public Enemy is a prime example of why I adore the early 1930s style of film making so much. It clocks in at just 83 minutes, but has a very complex, layered story that is fast paced, but never feels rushed. There’s a very fine line between “fast paced” and “rushed,” but The Public Enemy walks that line flawlessly. And then there’s Cagney. I just can’t say enough about how much I adore his performance as Tom Powers.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

Tom’s gay tailor.

Tom’s derogatory behavior towards women, most infamously when Mae Clarke gets the grapefruit in the face.

All of Tom’s criminal activities.

Tom being raped by Paddy Ryan’s girlfriend:


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

You know a movie is tough when they have to add an introduction explaining that the movie you’re about to see isn’t meant to glorify this behavior. Gangster movies had their first real golden age during the pre-code era. Not only was there The Public Enemy, there was also Little Caesar and Scarface. There were certainly gangster movies that came after the production codes were being enforced, but the pre-code era allowed them to be more violent and be a bit more ruthless and sinister. A lot of the more violent scenes were edited out when The Public Enemy was re-released under the influence of the production codes.

In one noteworthy scene, Tom goes to a tailor to be measured for a suit and the tailor is meant to be a flamboyantly gay man. When the movie was re-released, the bit where the tailor comments on Tom’s arm muscles ended up on the cutting room floor along with some of the movie’s more violent moments.

TCMFF 2014, Day 3 — From “Father of the Bride” to “Freaks”

Saturday, April 12, 2014:

Father of the Bride Spencer Tracy Elizabeth TaylorAfter having ended the previous day’s movies with Eraserhead, I woke up this morning in need of a little levity.  Originally, I had been planning to see Stella Dallas, but decided to go with Father of the Bride instead.  Not only is it a very funny movie, I had never seen a Spencer Tracy or Elizabeth Taylor movie in a theater before.  Plus it had the added bonus of playing in the same theater as the next movie I wanted to see, Godzilla.

Father of the Bride was delightful as always.  Godzilla was so much fun to see with a crowd and boy was the crowd enthusiastic!  This screening was the world premiere of a new restoration of the original Japanese version of Godzilla, in all its Raymond Burr-free glory.  The picture quality was absolutely stunning.  If you have the chance to go see this restoration on the big screen, I very highly recommend it.  Godzilla was introduced by historian Eddie von Mueller and Gareth Edwards, director of the upcoming Godzilla movie.

Godzilla

From Godzilla, it was back to Club TCM to check out the conversation with editor Thelma Schoonmaker hosted by author and historian Cari Beauchamp. In addition to Schoonmaker’s long collaboration with director Martin Scorsese (her work on his films has won three Academy Awards), she was an editor on the groundbreaking documentary Woodstock and was married to legendary British filmmaker Michael Powell, half of the Powell and Pressburger team.  (Fun fact: Martin Scorsese was also an editor/assistant director on Woodstock.  Scorsese brought cufflinks with him to Woodstock because he thought they’d be going out to dinner while they were there.)

Thelma Schoonmaker Cari Beauchamp TCMFF 2014

Photo courtesy Getty Images

Of the movies she’s done with Scorsese, she discussed Raging Bull the most. Raging Bull was a very challenging film to edit because there was so much improvisation from the actors; a challenge revisited with Scorsese’s most recent film, The Wolf of Wall Street.  She doesn’t visit the sets of his movies because she thinks it’s important to have a cold eye in the editing room.  Schoonmaker credits Scorsese with teaching her everything she knows about editing because he’s a director who thinks like an editor. As for what quality Scorsese most admires most in her, he knows he can trust her.  Ever since the time in film school when she helped him fix his student film that hadn’t been cut properly, he’s known she will do what’s right for his films.

Schoonmaker spoke very fondly of her time with husband Michael Powell. She’s very active in preserving her husband’s film legacy and also introduced his film A Matter of Life and Death at the festival.  She plays a role in overseeing the restorations of Powell’s work and mentioned that after this conversation, she was heading out to check some work on a transfer on one of his films.  If you are hoping to see a HD print of The Tales of Hoffman, you’ll be glad to know that she said the original negative is in excellent condition.

Next up was “Hollywood Home Movies: Treasures from the Academy Film Archive.”  We were treated to rare behind-the-scenes footage and personal home movies of film legends.  This was a must-see event for me because I knew it would be a totally unique event that I wouldn’t be able to attend elsewhere.  I was definitely not disappointed; the home movies we saw were absolutely fascinating.

The selections included home movies of Florenz Ziegfeld and Billie Burke, an extremely playful Alfred Hitchcock at home with Alma and daughter Pat, Jean Harlow in her dressing room, visitors to Hearst Mansion (including a cameo from Howard Hughes), Gilbert Roland and Constance Bennett with friends on their boat, behind the scenes footage of Gone With the Wind, the It’s a Wonderful Life wrap party picnic, Walt Disney riding on a backyard railroad, location footage of Oklahoma!, behind the scenes of Jerry Lewis on The Geisha Boy, and a montage of movie stars with their pets and other animals.

Vivien Leigh behind the scenes Gone With the Wind

Behind the scenes of Gone With the Wind

My favorite clips were the Ziegfeld/Burke home movies, which included Florenz Ziegfeld frolicking with a butterfly net and a pet elephant trying to walk into daughter Patricia’s playhouse; the Hitchcock home movies; and Jean Harlow in her dressing room.  I found the Jean Harlow footage particularly interesting because it wasn’t official, studio-sanctioned footage; it appeared to be filmed by a friend or MGM employee who was casually testing out their personal home movie camera.  So it doesn’t show “Jean Harlow the movie star,” it’s Jean being herself, casually chatting with the camera operator.  Even when she wasn’t being “Jean Harlow the movie star,” she was captivating to watch.  The hosts from AMPAS said they could tell from some grain on the film that it had originally been filmed in color, but unfortunately, they only had a black and white copy.

The Gone With the Wind behind the scenes footage was a real treat.  It was color 8mm footage that showed Vivien Leigh with her stand in, Clark Gable riding horses with Cammie King, and the setups for filming the scene at Twelve Oaks where Scarlett is surrounded by all the men at the party and the scene where Rhett and Scarlett are on their honeymoon and are having dinner with the can-can dancers in the background.  I was also thrilled to see the It’s a Wonderful Life picnic since that was something Karolyn Grimes had talked about when I saw her at the Redford back in November.

The types of film used for some of the home movies were also unintentionally revealing about the types of people who used it.  The Ziegfeld/Burke home movies were filmed on 35mm, something that would have only been used by the very wealthy in the early 1920s.  The Hitchcock home movies, which dated from 1929-1936, were in color, so it should come as no surprise that he was definitely a person on the cutting edge of film.

After “Hollywood Home Movies,” I headed over to the Chinese theater for A Hard Day’s Night.  I was really torn between seeing A Hard Day’s Night and Bell, Book, and Candle introduced by Kim Novak at the Egyptian.  I had been leaning more toward Bell, Book, and Candle, but I really wanted to see something at the Chinese theater and I was starting to worry that I might not get to see anything there, so A Hard Day’s Night won.

Alec Baldwin Don Was TCMFF 2014

Photo courtesy Getty Images

Beatlemania may have started 50 years ago, but it was still going strong at TCMFF.  I couldn’t have asked for a better venue to see A Hard Day’s Night in. Their sound system is wonderful, so it was a dream to hear all those Beatles classics  that way.  The picture quality was absolutely pristine.  The Chinese theater seats over 900 so it was packed with a lot of enthusiastic fans.  The excitement was palpable and I loved every minute of being a part of it.

A Hard Day’s Night was introduced by Alec Baldwin and music producer Don Was (who has produced albums for Ringo Starr, The Rolling Stones, Bob Seger, Bob Dylan, just to name a few).  Their introduction was one of my favorite introductions of the festival; it was hard to not be engrossed by their enthusiasm.

Then it was time to head to the El Capitan to get in line for The Women.  I joined Raquel (Out of the Past), K.C. (A Classic Movie Blog), and Lara (Backlots), who are exactly the kind of people you want to be in line with to see The Women. I had so much fun discussing the movie with them and quoting the famous, “There’s a name for you ladies…” line in unison.

The Women TCMFF 2014

Photo courtesy Getty Images

Over the course of TCMFF, I saw a lot of movies with very enthusiastic crowds, but I think the crowd for The Women took the cake.  I’m used to people applauding for certain things like a star’s entrance or a name appearing in the opening credits.  Since this is a movie with such an incredible cast, there was a lot of applauding going on.  The crowd went wild for Norma Shearer saying, “I’ve had two years to grow claws, mother! Jungle red!” It’s a fabulous movie to watch at home and even better to see with a crowd.  The Women was introduced by Ben Mankiewicz and actress Anna Kendrick. Much shade was thrown at the 2008 remake.

Freaks Poster

The last movie of the day was the midnight screening of Freaks.  I honestly don’t remember a whole lot about this screening since I was pretty exhausted by the time I got there.  But I’m glad I had to check out one of the ultimate midnight movies on the big screen.

And I just love the fact that I started this day with Father of the Bride and ended it with Freaks. 

The Secret Six (1931)

The Secret Six 1931 PosterLooking to make some fast money, Scorpio (Wallace Beery) meets with gangsters Johnny Franks (Ralph Bellamy) and Mizoski (Paul Hurst) about joining a bootlegging racket.  They work for Newton (Lewis Stone) and he wants to muscle fellow bootlegger Joe Colimo (John Miljan) out of some of his territory.  Of course, Colimo isn’t about to take that sitting down. He gets into a gunfight with Newton’s guys and Colimo’s brother is killed in the crossfire.  When Colimo comes looking to get even, Johnny tries to set Scorpio up to take the fall, but Scorpio figures out what’s going on and turns the tables on Johnny.

With all the excitement, police and newspaper reporters flock to Newton’s headquarters.  Among them are reporters Hank (John Mack Brown) and Carl (Clark Gable), who take a linking to Newton’s associate Anne (Jean Harlow).  Each of them is hoping to get the scoop from Anne.  After the excitement surrounding Johnny and Colimo dies down, Scorpio  continues to prove to be a valuable asset to the gang and even helps get Mizoski elected as Mayor.  Not content with just running a small town, Scorpio sets his sights on taking over the big city, too.  But the big city doesn’t want Scorpio around. A group called The Secret Six is formed to fight his influence and Carl is recruited to help their cause.

The Secret Six is a somewhat unusual MGM movie in that it has none of the gloss generally associated with MGM movies and instead has all of the grit of a Warner Brothers movie.  Indeed, The Secret Six was produced by Irving Thalberg in an attempt to compete with Warner Brothers’ gangster hits like The Public Enemy. Although The Secret Six is an enjoyable movie with a good cast, it lacks the organic quality that Little Caesar and The Public Enemy have.   It’s a movie that tried so hard to follow a trend that it simply could not have that effortless quality of the trendsetter.

Fashion in Film: Berets

If you’re like me, you often find yourself watching films and seeing tons of fashion styles you would love to wear in real life.  I watch movies from so many decades and from so many different genres, if I actually did copy all the styles I like, I’d have one diverse wardrobe.  But if there’s one accessory you could easily get a lot of mileage out of, it’s a beret.  Berets have been a popular hat style for decades, so if you want to go for a Norma Shearer inspired look one day and a Faye Dunaway inspired look the next, a beret could easily work for both styles.

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