Joan Blondell

The King and the Chorus Girl (1937)

King and the Chorus Girl 1937Alfred Bruger VII (Fernand Gravet), a former king, is now living in Paris with his last two subjects, Count Humbert (Edward Everett Horton) and Duchess Anna (Mary Nash). His life has no direction, he never goes out, and the only enjoyment he gets out of life is by drinking himself into oblivion. Nothing interests him anymore, but one night, Humbert and Anna talk him into going out to the Folies Bergere in hopes he will find something that will bring him a little bit of happiness.

At first, Alfred is totally unimpressed by the show at the Folies Bergere, but then chorus girl Dorothy Ellis (Joan Blondell) takes the stage and Alfred is instantly smitten. He insists that Anna and Humbert invite her to join him for dinner at home after the show. But when Anna arrives, Alfred is already asleep. Anna isn’t about to spend her night waiting for him, so she leaves, much to the amazement of Humbert and Anna. Not many women have the gumption to do that to Alfred!

When Alfred wakes up the next morning, he’s disappointed to find that she left, but the fact that she doesn’t fall over herself to pursue a former king is very intriguing to him. In fact, getting ditched by Dorothy makes Alfred feel more alive than he’s felt in a long time, and he wants to see her again. Anna and Humbert are so impressed by the influence she’s had on him, they arrange for her to keep rejecting his advances and she agrees. But, of course, things get complicated when she actually does fall in love with him.

The King and the Chorus Girl is most noteworthy for being Groucho Marx’s only attempt at screenwriting. For being written by one of the Marx Brothers, the kings of completely anarchic comedy, I was pleasantly surprised by how grounded the style of comedy in The King and the Chorus Girl is. The script wasn’t perfect, but the movie is still funny and charming without being zany and off the wall. Actually, I appreciated getting to see a little bit of a different side to Groucho’s talents.

I kind of wish Groucho had written more films because I think he could have potentially come up with something really great with a little more experience at screenwriting and writing for other actors. Joan Blondell in particular is an actress I though would do well in a movie with dialogue written by Groucho Marx, and she was indeed the high point of the movie. It wasn’t one of the highlights of her career or anything, but she’s likable enough in it. I think the movie in general could have been greatly improved with a different leading man; Fernand Gravet didn’t really do much for me at all. I probably sound like I’m being rather harsh on The King and the Chorus Girl, but I really did enjoy it for the most part, it just needed a bit more polishing.

Kansas City Princess

Kansas City Princess (1934)

Rosie (Joan Blondell) and Marie (Glenda Farrell) are two manicurists from Kansas City. Rosie has been seeing a gangster who goes by the name of Dynamite (Robert Armstrong) and just before he leaves for St. Louis, he gives Rosie an engagement ring. While Dynamite is out of town, Marie, who thinks Rosie could do better, encourages Rosie to go out with one of their rich clients. Rosie reluctantly goes along with it and the whole thing goes horribly wrong when it turns out her date is also a criminal who steals her engagement ring. Things get even worse when Rosie hears that Dynamite is coming back to town earlier than expected so she doesn’t even have time to fix things.

Rosie and Marie know Dynamite will be furious when he finds out what’s happened, so they disguise themselves as members of the Outdoor Girls of America and get on a train headed to New York. But Dynamite finds out what’s going on before they can leave the station so he follows them to New York. Once in New York, Rosie and Marie hop in a cab with two businessmen and stick with them as they board a ship headed to Paris with Dynamite hot on their trail.

While on the ship, Dynamite meets millionaire Junior Ashcraft (Hugh Herbert), who is heading to Paris to put an end to his wife’s affair. When Marie and Rosie hear about a rich man being on board, they can’t resist posing as manicurists so they can try to play him. The plan falls flat when Junior reveals the truth, but Junior is still willing to help the ladies out. Once they get to Paris, Junior comes up with a plan to stop his wife’s affair by having Rose pose as her lover’s boyfriend. Little does he know his wife and the detective he’s hired to follow her have plans of their own.

Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell are two of my favorite sassy, fast-talking pre-code actresses so any movie that features both of them is going to be very intriguing to me. Kansas City Princess starts out being so much of what I love about many Warner Brothers pre-codes — fast-paced, funny, and full of snappy dialogue — but, unfortunately, the movie loses a lot of momentum about halfway through. Considering how many things Kansas City Princess had working in its favor and it did start out looking promising, the fact that it failed to hold my interest for 64 minutes was pretty disappointing. Not even the fabulous chemistry of Blondell and Farrell could save it. They did the best they could with what they had to work with, it’s just they didn’t have much to work with.

Pre-Code Essentials: Three on a Match (1932)

Three on a match 1932

Plot

Even from a very young age, Mary Keaton (Joan Blondell), Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak), and Ruth Wescott (Bette Davis) were on completely different paths in life. They were classmates together as children; Mary the class bad girl, Vivian the popular one, and Ruth was one of the most studious.

Ten years after parting ways, they run into each other and meet for lunch. After a stint in reform school, Mary is now working as a showgirl. Ruth is a stenographer and Vivian married to powerful attorney Robert Kirkwood (Warren William). Although Vivian seems to have everything a person could ever want, she’s grown increasingly dissatisfied with her life. To shake up her life, Vivian takes her son on a trip, but on the ship, she gets mixed up with gambler Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot). Before long, she’s descended into a life of drugs and alcohol, making it impossible for her to take good care of her son.

Mary is aware of Vivian’s hard partying and goes to see Robert to come up with a plan to at least get the child away from her. Once her son is away from her, Vivian and Robert divorce and Vivian hits rock bottom. When Vivian and Michael are desperate for money, Michael kidnaps Vivian’s son and holds him hostage.


My Thoughts

When I first saw Three on a Match, I was mostly watching it for Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart since those are two of my favorite movie stars. I know I’m not the only one who was drawn to this movie because of those two, but while many people watch for Bogart and Davis, they stay for Ann Dvorak. Out of all the major stars, Ann Dvorak is now the least widely remembered of the bunch, but she completely steals the movie from every single one of her costars. Bogart and Davis, at the time, were up-and-coming stars and weren’t being used to their full potential yet. Warren William and Joan Blondell are both good, but are totally eclipsed by Ann Dvorak’s mesmerizing presence.

Three on a Match is also a master class in efficient storytelling. It fits more into 63 minutes than most movies do in two hours.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

Herve (Humphrey Bogart) insinuating Vivian’s drug addiction.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

One last “fallen woman” tale for this series of essential pre-codes. In some ways, Vivian’s story reminds me of several other “fallen woman” movies I’ve highlighted this month, but her story ends up feeling really unique. Vivian reminds me a bit of Temple Drake from The Story of Temple Drake in the sense that they were both women with a pretty high standing in society and when they fall, they fall very hard. They both slip into these incredibly dirty worlds that are anything but fun. Three on a Match does nothing to glorify the lifestyle Vivian and Michael end up leading. But the fact that Vivian is a mother and her lifestyle directly endangers her child adds a more shocking element to her story. Helen Faraday from Blonde Venus is another fallen woman who is also a mother, but she was much more concerned about her child’s welfare; Vivian was too strung out to properly care for her son. However, she does redeem herself in the end by making the ultimate sacrifice for her child.

Pre-Code Essentials: Footlight Parade (1933)

Footlight Parade By a Waterfall

Plot

When talkie pictures come into popularity, it starts cutting into business for Broadway musical producer Chester Kent (James Cagney). He’s in dire need of a hit show, but everyone keeps flocking to these newfangled talking pictures instead. He’s convinced this is just a fad, but when his business partners take him to the theater to see one for himself, he becomes fascinated with the musical stage show the theater puts on before each movie. Chester decides he needs to get into the prologue game and convinces his business partners what a brilliant plan it is.

Chester gets right to work on his prologues with help from his faithful secretary Nan (Joan Blondell). Nan is deeply in love with Chester, but Chester is so busy, he doesn’t even realize it. He’s got all these prologues to produce, which is anything but a smooth process. He’s going through a divorce and now finds himself getting caught up with gold diggers. Everything that can go wrong does, but when a huge opportunity comes along, he has no other choice but to pull himself and his team together and get three prologues ready to perform in three days.


My Thoughts

Sometimes, an actor or director gets on a big streak of hit movies that when we look back, we say, “Wow, that was a great year for them!” For Busby Berkeley, that year was 1933. In 1933, his distinct brand of choreography made 42nd Street a huge hit, and then he topped himself by following it up with Gold Diggers of 1933. Last, but certainly not least, he one-upped himself again with Footlight Parade. These three movies are some of the most iconic movie musicals ever produced and the fact that they all came out in the same year is absolutely astonishing. With Footlight Parade, Berkeley really pushed himself and came up with some of the most imaginative and whimsical numbers of his career. (For years before I’d even seen any Busby Berkeley musical, I’d see pictures of the chorus girls standing on that fountain as part of the “By a Waterfall” number and know it was a Busby Berkeley scene. That’s how emblematic that scene is for Busby Berkeley.) By this point, he was pretty much done even pretending that these musical numbers could ever be produced on a real stage. But they are so witty, clever, saucy, and imaginative, it’s really easy to just go along with it.

For me, Footlight Parade is also one of James Cagney’s best movies. He is truly a force of nature in it; he truly leaves me in awe. Actors who can do gangster movies and musicals equally well are a rare breed and Cagney certainly falls into that category. He absolutely nails its rapid-fire dialogue and excels at working in such a fast-paced environment. And his dancing…oh, my.  Some of the dance moves he does in this movie look like early precursors to some of Michael Jackson’s dance moves. And like Michael Jackson, he makes all that dancing look so incredibly easy and effortless. But if you ever try some of those moves yourself, you’ll quickly realize how hard it really is.

However, out of Berkeley’s big three hits of 1933, Footlight Parade is the one whose plot now seems the most dated. 42nd Street is the classic backstage musical and people have no problem understanding Gold Diggers of 1933 deals heavily with the Great Depression.  But the fact that many movie theaters used to put on these musical prologues before movies during the early talkie era is now largely forgotten, except by film history buffs.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

All of the musical numbers.

“Outside, Countess! As long as they’ve got sidewalks, you’ve got a job!”


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Each of Busby Berkeley’s three big musical hits of 1933 are full of pre-code material, but Footlight Parade easily tops them all. Innuendo, adultery, references to prostitution, tons and tons of chorus girls in skimpy outfits, bawdy musical numbers…Footlight Parade spends many of its 104 minutes openly thumbing its nose at censors. I love how there are several instances of Chester being told that censors either will or do object to content in his prologues. These are clearly jabs at movie censorship boards and the movie is essentially acknowledging and making fun of its own pre-code-ness, which is something I have never seen happen in any other pre-code movie.

Pre-Code Essentials: Night Nurse (1931)

Barbara Stanwyck Night Nurse

Plot

When Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) lands a job as a probationary nurse at a hospital, she quickly learns the ropes with help from Maloney (Joan Blondell). One lesson she learns is that sometimes the patients she helps will be eager to show their gratitude. For Lora, that patient ends up being Mortie (Ben Lyon), a bootlegger she takes care of after he’s shot. She breaks from protocol by not reporting his gunshot wounds to the authorities, keeping Mortie out of hot water.

After becoming a full-fleged nurse, Lora becomes a night nurse for the two young children of socialite Mrs. Ritchey (Charlotte Merriam). One of her children has already died and Lora immediately recognizes that the two surviving children are starving to death, but Mrs. Ritchey can’t pull herself away from the booze to care. She’s deeply concerned about the treatment the children’s doctor is prescribing and about how much authority their chauffeur Nick (Clark Gable) has over the family. Lora does everything she can to get help, but has a hard time getting anybody to listen to her. When she finally gets help from a doctor she trusts, he advises her to stay and gather evidence.

As one of the Ritchey children is on the brink of death, a housekeeper tips Lora off about how she thinks Nick and the children’s doctor are plotting to murder the children as a way to get their trust fund. But the only person who can help Lora save the children is Mortie.


My Thoughts

Whether you’re a big fan of Barbara Stanwyck or of pre-codes in general, you’ll love Night Nurse. This is one of Barbara Stanwyck’s best tough talking dame roles; she is an absolute boss in this movie. Watching her fight with people for the sake of protecting the children is truly a thing of beauty. I also loved seeing Stanwyck teamed with Joan Blondell. I really wish Blondell and Stanwyck had done more movies together. They are two of my favorite actresses from the pre-code era, so I wish I could see more movies where they play best friends who go around being sassy together.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

Gratuitous undressing galore.

The fact that a bootlegger ends up being one of the heroes.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Sure, Night Nurse has plentiful innuendo and gratuitous undressing scenes, but the ending is very distinctly pre-code. Not only does a criminal end up being one of the heroes, the movie ends with him casually alluding to the fact that he just had Nick bumped off, then happily driving off with Lora as Nick’s body is delivered to the morgue. Not that anybody is sorry to see Nick go, but it’s a much darker type of happy ending than a lot of people typically think of old movies as having.

Pre-Code Essentials: Union Depot (1932)

Union Depot Joan Blondell Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Plot

After getting out of jail, Chick Miller (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) heads over to the train station and hits the jackpot when he finds an abandoned suitcase with a nice suit and a bunch of money inside. He puts on the suit, gets some dinner, and starts looking around the station for a companion for the night. The train station is full of prostitutes and he sets his sights on Ruth Collins (Joan Blondell). Ruth is a dancer who was stranded in town when she was injured and had to recover. To get by, Dr. Bernardi, a lecherous, blind doctor, has been paying Ruth to read smutty books aloud to him. She can go back to her old job, but she needs money for a train ticket to Salt Lake City and she’s afraid Dr. Bernardi is following her.

Chick takes pity on Ruth and offers to buy her a train ticket, no strings attached. He buys her a ticket, he buys her dinner, and he insists on buying her some new clothes. Although they have a lovely night together, everything goes awry when they find themselves mixed up with some counterfeit money and Dr. Bernardi makes a return.


My Thoughts

If you like movies that don’t waste time, Union Depot is right up your alley. It takes a couple of minutes before the plot actually gets moving, but the first few minutes do a great job of establishing the atmosphere of this train station. Blondell and Fairbanks are a really likable duo; it’s too bad they weren’t teamed up again in any other movies. Union Depot is an excellent example of the types of movies Warner Brothers was known for making at the time: gritty and fast-paced. All in all, a pretty great way to spend 67 minutes.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

The amount of prostitutes you see within the first few minutes of the movie.

Poor Ruth’s job with Dr. Bernardi.

The sheer creepiness that is Dr. Bernardi.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Union Depot doesn’t get nearly enough credit for being one of the all-time great pre-codes. I have no idea why that is because it’s one of the most thoroughly pre-code movies I’ve ever seen. (And unlike a lot of other movies I can think of that are only worth watching for the pre-code content, Union Depot actually is a pretty decent little movie.) If you aren’t familiar with the pre-code era and are under the impression that classic films were all sweet and wholesome, the first ten minutes alone of Union Depot will make your jaw hit the floor. But what really cinches this as an essential pre-code is the character of Dr. Bernardi. The pre-code era had plenty of lecherous characters, but Dr. Bernardi was one of the creepiest. It’s made so clear that he was a complete pervert who preys on vulnerable women that it’s easy to understand why poor Ruth was so desperate to get away from him.

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.