Margaret Lindsay

Dangerous (1935)

Bette Davis Dangerous

Actress Joyce Heath (Bette Davis) had once been hailed as the most promising new actress on Broadway, the best thing since Jeanne Eagels.  But then her career takes a turn for the worse, leaving her a broke, alcoholic mess.  Virtually the only person who hasn’t lost faith in her is architect Don Bellows (Franchot Tone).  Seeing Joyce in a performance of Romeo and Juliet inspired Don to follow his dream of becoming an architect, so when Don finds Joyce getting drunk one night, he feels compelled to help her.

Don takes Joyce out to his country home to help her get her life back on track.  Even though Don is already engaged to Gail Armitage (Margaret Lindsay), Don starts to fall in love with Joyce.  However, Joyce believes she’s cursed to bring bad luck to anyone who gets too close to her.  Don’s willing to take his chances, though, and uses all his money to finance a play that would be absolutely perfect for Joyce to play the lead in.

Rehearsals for the play go very well and Joyce is on top of her game — she’s professional and her performance is a real knock-out.  The show is practically guaranteed to be a smash hit.  But just before the show is to open, Don proposes to Joyce and Joyce turns him down.  What Don doesn’t realize is that Joyce is already married to a man named Gordon Heath (John Eldredge).  Joyce would like to marry Don, but Gordon refuses to divorce her.  After asking him for a divorce, Joyce takes him for a drive and threatens to crash the car if he doesn’t divorce her.  Gordon still refuses so Joyce drives into a tree, leaving Gordon with serious injuries.

Joyce’s injuries were less serious than Gordon’s, but they’re enough to stop the show from opening as planned, leaving Don broke.  When Don finds out about Gordon, he tells her the only curse she has is being a very selfish woman.  Joyce realizes that Don is right and starts focusing on making things right with her life.  She lets Don go to reconcile with Gail while she gets the play back up and running.  The play does indeed become a smash hit and Joyce begins to reconcile her own marriage to Gordon.

Dangerous brought Bette Davis her first Academy Award for Best Actress, and it was well deserved.  Certainly one of her first great film performances, but as her career progressed, she would top her work in Dangerous time and time again.  On the whole, Dangerous is a very good, engaging, quick-moving drama.  I loved everything about it.  It’s one of those wonderful 1930s movies that manages to fit a lot a lot of action into a short amount of time (in this case, about 80 minutes), but never feels rushed. Franchot Tone made a great co-star for Bette and gives a fine performance as well.  I’d definitely recommend Dangerous to any Bette Davis fan or anyone who enjoys 1930s movies in general.

Merry Wives of Reno (1934)

Frank and Madge Hammond (Donald Woods and Margaret Lindsay, respectively) have been married for one year and couldn’t be happier together.  However, all of that comes to an end on the day of their first anniversary.  Madge had made a special dinner that night, but then Frank has to go see Bunny Fitch (Glenda Farrell) about selling her a boat.  But when he gets to her apartment, he quickly realizes she’s not interested in a boat, it’s him she’s interested in. And with her husband Colonel J. Kingsley Fitch (Hugh Herbert) out of town, she’s looking for some company.

While Frank is trying to fight off Bunny’s advances, Tom Fraser (Guy Kibbee) comes by to see Bunny and Frank ends up sneaking out down the fire escape, leaving behind his new coat, an anniversary present from Madge.  What Frank doesn’t realize is that Tom is actually his neighbor.  Tom and his wife Lois (Ruth Donnelly) aren’t nearly as happily married as Frank and Madge and Lois is well aware of his womanizing, heavy-drinking tendencies.  But then Colonel Fitch comes home unexpectedly early and Tom also ends up leaving through the fire escape, also leaving his coat behind.  When the Colonel asks about the extra coats, Bunny tries to make him think they’re his.

When Madge asks Frank where his coat is, he says he gave it to a homeless person.  Madge is skeptical, but when she goes to the salon and overhears Bunny telling the real story, she decides then and there that she wants a divorce and gets on the train to Reno. It just so happens that Lois, Bunny, and the Colonel are all on the same train and Tom and Frank aren’t far behind them. Once everyone makes it to Reno, the states of each of their marriages are constantly up in the air.  But when Bunny realizes that she’s responsible for all of their heartaches, she comes up with a scheme to set everything right again.

If you love extremely fast-paced screwball comedies, Merry Wives of Reno should be right up your alley.  This is the kind of movie that I had to watch twice to fully catch everything. But this is a movie I didn’t want to tear myself away from for more than a few seconds at a time because it’s an absolute riot.  Not only is it hilarious, but the cast is perfect.  Guy Kibbee was hilarious in it and who doesn’t love a wise-cracking Glenda Farrell?  It’s too bad more people don’t seem to know about Merry Wives of Reno (as of writing this, it only has 4 reviews on IMDB and doesn’t have a Wikipedia page), because it’s a real gem.  Keep an eye out for this one because you’ll be in for 64 minutes of total fun.

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.

Baby Face (1933)

Baby Face 1933 Barbara Stanwyck

To say that Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) had a lousy upbringing is a huge understatement.  Her mother died when she was very young, leaving her to be raised by her father Nick, the owner of a speakeasy in Erie, Pennsylvania.  He makes her work in the speakeasy and has even been pimping her out to his customers since she was fourteen years old.  She does have two friends in Chico (Theresa Harris), her co-worker, and Adolf,  a cobbler who is a big fan of Nietzsche.  Lily has had just about enough of her life and is ready to leave, but just as she gets into a huge fight with her father about it, a still explodes and he’s killed in the fire.  Not knowing where else to turn, she turns to Adolf, who advises her to go to a big city and use men to get whatever she wants.  So she and Chico sneak onto the next train, where Lily seduces a worker on the train so he won’t throw them off the train.

When they arrive in New York City, Lily sets her heart on getting a job at the Gotham Trust.  She’s never worked in an office before, but once again, she seduces her way into the job.  She continues to use men left and right to move up within the company.  Even a young John Wayne is no match for Barbara Stanwyck’s wiles.  She works her way up to executive Ned Stevens (Donald Cook).  Ned’s happily engaged to Ann Carter (Margaret Lindsay), but Lily likes the challenge.  She even specifically arranges it so that Ann will find her together with Ned!  Ann tries to get her father J.R. Carter, the vice president of the company, to make Lily back off, but Lily wins him over in her usual style.  Not only does Lily get herself a new boyfriend, he gets her a stylish new apartment and a job for Chico as her maid.  What Lily doesn’t count on is Ned flying into a jealous rage and shooting J.R. before shooting himself.

The only man who seems able to resist Lily is Courtland Trenholm (George Brent).  After he’s elected president of the company, Lily’s first order of business is to try to get $15,000 from the company to stop her from handing over her personal diary to the press.  Instead, Courtland gives her a job in their Paris office to get her out of the way.  Lily accepts, and in Paris, she works her way up to being the head of the travel bureau.  When Courtland stops by the Paris office, he’s quite surprised to see that she wasn’t just another gold digger and finally succumbs to Lily’s charms.  Like J.R. before him, Courtland buys Lily lots of expensive gifts.  Unfortunately, Courtland finds himself in hot water after the bank fails.  He turns to Lily and asks her to sell her expensive jewelery so he can afford to defend himself, but she refuses.  Rather than face ruin, he shoots himself.  But Lily realizes that no amount of money can buy true love and changes her mind.  She finds Courtland in time and she’s able to save his life.

You didn’t think I was going to spend thirty days talking about pre-codes and not mention Baby Face, did you?  There were some pretty scandalous movies made in the pre-code era, but I think Baby Face is most definitely the most sordid of all the pre-codes.  There is absolutely nothing even remotely safe about Baby Face.  It takes elements that would be controversial enough on their own, but then adds a twist to them that makes them even more shocking.  Not only was Lily a prostitute, she was pimped out at a very young age by her own father.  And not only does she use men to get ahead in life, she’s actually encouraged to do so and she doesn’t blink an eye at her own behavior.  Baby Face is Barbara Stanwyck at her toughest and she is amazing to watch.  If you’ve never seen this movie before, just watch this clip:

It’s always great to watch Barbara Stanwyck telling somebody off and the scene where Lily yells at her father is my favorite instance of that.  And I love her tough girl attitude in that scene.  Who else could break a bottle over a man’s head and go back to her drink like it was nothing more than hitting a fly with a flyswatter?  This is one of those movies that truly must be seen to be believed.

Lady Killer (1933)

Lady Killer 1933 James Cagney

When Dan Quigley (James Cagney) loses his job as an usher in a movie theater, he turns to running a dice game in a hotel lobby.  While in the hotel one day, he spots the lovely Myra Gale (Mae Clarke) sitting in the lobby and as she gets up to leave, she drops her purse.  Dan follows her to return it, but she leaves before he can.  He drops by her apartment later that day to return it, and she invites him in for a drink and introduces him to her brother-in-law, who is in the middle of a poker game.  Not being able to resist a card game, Dan decides to join the game and he gets taken to the cleaners.  As he leaves the apartment, he meets someone else carrying a purse and looking for Myra.  Dan quickly realizes that Myra’s purse dropping is only a ruse to lure men into a crooked poker game.  Never one to miss a business opportunity, he goes back into the apartment and demands to get in on the action.

With Dan bringing in new people to take advantage of, business is booming.  But then the gang sets their sights on a wealthy widow.  Dan stages a car accident with the woman and arranges it so that he and another member of the gang can get inside her house.  They manage to pull off the robbery, but they start feeling the heat from the police after a butler they knocked unconscious dies.  The gang flees for Los Angeles and Dan is arrested before he even leaves the train station.  When he calls up Myra and asks her to bail him out, she says she’ll help him, but instead she skips town with his money.  The police have to let him go because they don’t have enough evidence to hold him, but they warn him to either get a job in the next 48 hours or get out-of-town.

As luck would have it, Dan is approached by a couple of people in the movie business who offer him some work as an extra.  It turns out he’s a natural in front of the camera, so he gets more and more work in the movies and, thanks to some clever self-promotion, he becomes quite a star.  He also wins the heart of movie star Lois Underwood (Margaret Lindsay).  When he brings Lois by his apartment one night, he’s quite surprised to see Myra there waiting for him.  Myra’s there to blackmail him into helping the gang break into the homes of movie stars or she’ll ruin his career by revealing his past.  Success hasn’t made Dan completely lose his tough guy behavior though and he grabs Myra by the hair and throws her into the hallway.  And people thought the grapefruit scene in The Public Enemy was harsh!  But Dan ultimately goes to the gang and offers them $10,000 if they leave town.  They take the money, but they don’t run.  After they steal some of Lois’ jewelry, Dan catches them and takes the jewelry to return it.  But before he can do that, the police nab him, assume he’s responsible for the robbery, and throw him in jail.  The gang realizes that Dan could really send them all up the river and decides to bail him out of jail and then kill him.  They go to bail Dan out of jail, but little do they know that Dan has a trick up his sleeve.

I love gangster movies and I love comedies, but it seems like the two of those don’t come together terribly often.  I can think of Some Like it Hot and Larceny Inc. off-hand, but it’s really a treat to see James Cagney having some fun with the gangster genre.  Cagney really had great comedic timing and I loved being able to see him work that into that tough guy part he played so brilliantly.  I loved all the in-jokes about The Public Enemy, especially when Mae Clarke is reading from a brochure about Los Angeles and looks concerned when she mentions grapefruits as one of its top crops.  It also gets in some great jabs at the film industry, especially the absurdity of having white actors play different races.  The scene where Cagney gets his skin sprayed to look like an Indian chief is hilarious! It’s another one of those great movies that manages to pack a whole lot into a short run-time.  It’s 75 minutes of pure fun and entertainment.