William Wellman

Frisco Jenny (1932)

Frisco Jenny 1932 Ruth Chatterton

In 1906, Jenny Sandoval (Ruth Chatterton) was working in a saloon in San Francisco with her father Jim, the owner, and her boyfriend Dan McAllister (James Murray), the piano player.  Jenny and Dan are ready to get married, but Jim isn’t happy about it at all.  As Jenny argues with her father over their decision, the big earthquake of 1906 strikes and both Jim and Dan are killed.  Having no one else to turn to, Jenny makes friends with a Chinese woman named Amah.  We soon find out the reason why Jenny and Dan were in a rush to get married: she was going to have a baby.  Amah helps Jenny take care of her baby, also named Dan, but when Jenny has no money to buy food for Dan, she has to take drastic action.  With help from crooked lawyer Steve Dutton (Louis Calhern), she starts her own brothel.  One night, Jenny and her girls are at a party and Steve and a man named Ed Harris are doing some gambling in another room.  Steve catches Ed cheating and Jenny walks in just in time to see Steve shoot Ed.  Jenny tries to cover for Ed, but she still gets arrested.  When Steve gets her out of jail, she finds out that Dan will be taken away from her because of the whole mess.  Rather than have Dan taken away, Steve arranges for Dan to be given up to a nice, respectable family.

Jenny never stops caring for Dan and watches him grow up from afar.  She keeps a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about him and eventually he grows up to run for District Attorney (adult Dan played by Donald Cook).  However, since Jenny is still running her brothel and has also taken up bootlegging, Dan’s opponent would act more in her best interest.  But Jenny still wants to see Dan win and even orchestrates a scandal for his opponent so he’ll drop out of the race.  Once Dan is officially District Attorney, his first order of business is to put Steve and Jenny out of business.  Steve, desperate to stay out of jail, goes to tell Dan the truth about who his mother is.  But not wanting to ruin Dan’s career, Jenny shoots Steve before he can tell Dan the truth.  Jenny is put on trial and her own son sends her to death row.

Ruth Chatterton is another one of those great actresses from the pre-code era who is sadly underrated today.  Even though Frisco Jenny is quite similar to Ruth’s earlier movie Madame X, which earned her an Oscar nomination, that doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting movie.  Ruth Chatterton once again brought her “A” game and made Jenny very likable and sympathetic, especially in her final scene where she agonizes over whether or not to finally tell Dan that she is his mother.  Ruth got some good help from Louis Calhern, who did a good job of playing smarmy, and director William Wellman.  The movie was entertaining, but as I said, the story’s been done before.  But ultimately, it’s got some good performances and it’s only about 70 minutes long, so I’m willing to forgive the unoriginal story.  I’ll gladly re-watch it just because I liked Ruth Chatterton in it so much.

Night Nurse (1931)

Night Nurse 1931 Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck plays Lora Hart, a high school drop-out looking to get a job as a nurse.  At first, she’s turned down because of the fact that she didn’t finish high school, but after she runs into Dr. Bell (Charles Winninger) as she’s leaving the hospital, Dr. Bell helps get her in as a probationary nurse.  Another nurse, B. Maloney (Joan Blondell), takes Lora under her wing and shows her the ropes.  She learns to care for babies, help with surgeries, how to turn down advances from the interns, and when to keep quiet about stitching up bootleggers after they’re injured under questionable circumstances.  After helping out one bootlegger, Mortie (Ben Lyon), he becomes quite fond of her.

When Lora has completed her training, she’s hired as a private nurse by Mrs. Ritchie to care for her two sick children.  On her first night of duty, Lora talks to the children and hears some worrisome details regarding Nick, the chauffeur (Clark Gable).  She also begins to suspect that the children are being starved to death.  The housekeeper, Mrs. Maxwell, tells Lora to never mind what the children tell her and that everything is fine.  The rest of the night involves taking care of an extremely drunk Mrs. Ritchie and getting smacked around by the infamous Nick.  The next day, she goes to see Dr. Ranger to express her concerns, but he won’t listen to her.  She then goes to see Dr. Bell, who does listen to her, but tells her to keep working there to get more evidence.

Time goes by and the children don’t get any better.  In fact, one of them winds up on the verge of death.  Mrs. Ritchie is so drunk that she can’t comprehend this fact.  On the other hand, the usually stoic Mrs. Maxwell has become deeply concerned.  After a couple of drinks, Mrs. Maxwell lets it slip to Lora that Nick and Dr. Ranger are in cahoots to murder the children so Nick can marry Mrs. Ritchie and get to their trust funds.  Lora calls Dr. Bell over and they try to get the girl to the hospital, but Nick punches Dr. Bell.  Luckily, Mortie happens to be there delivering some booze and sees to it that Nick stays out of the way.  In the end, Lora saves the little girl and Mortie sees to it that Nick never hurts anyone ever again.

Night Nurse does have a lot of gratuitous undressing scenes, but it’s not the most risqué pre-code I’ve ever seen.  However, it is one of the grittiest and most socially aware.  It deals with alcoholism, child abuse, violence against women, medical ethics, bootleggers, murder, and the fact that a lot of dangerous things can get brushed under the rug when you’re wealthy.  There are also hints at drug abuse by Dr. Ranger.  You sure weren’t going to see all that in any 1950s movie!

Even though this came pretty early in Barbara Stanwyck’s career, we get to see her excelling at being the tough talking dame she’d later become known for.  The scene where the child is dying and Lora goes to confront the extremely inebriated Mrs. Ritchie and her friend is simply glorious.  She does a fabulous job of telling Mrs. Ritchie what a pathetic excuse for a mother she is.  I love seeing her stand up to Nick and to fight for what is clearly right.  I also really like the relationship between Stanwyck’s character and Joan Blondell’s.  I’m surprised Joan and Barbara only made one other film together, they made a good duo.  Clark Gable gets relatively little screen time, but he makes the most of what time he does get.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen Clark Gable be so intense and intimidating before.  All in all, a highly entertaining flick!

Safe in Hell (1931)

Safe in Hell 1931

Gilda Karlson (Dorothy Mackaill) had been working as a secretary until she g0t involved with a man named Piet (Ralf Harolde), who caused her to lose her job.  Unable to get any other work, she turned to working as a lady of the night to support herself.  One night, she’s called to entertain a gentleman and when she arrives, she realizes the gentleman is none other than Piet.  The two of them get into a fight that ends with Piet being knocked unconscious and Gilda accidentally starting a fire.  Gilda flees the scene and is ready to flee the whole country when it’s reported that Piet is dead.  Luckily for her, her old sailor boyfriend Carl (Donald Cook) comes home and agrees to help her get to Tortuga, where she can’t be extradited.  When they get to Tortuga, Gilda and Carl are married before Carl has to leave for work again.

Gilda stays in a hotel where she instantly becomes the object of affection for all the other men staying there.  But Gilda mainly just holes up in her room to avoid the attention.  Eventually, the loneliness gets to her and she goes downstairs to be her old, life of the party self again.  But when she makes it perfectly clear that she won’t be breaking her promise and the men accept that fact.  Bruno, the executioner, is the only one who doesn’t want to give up so easily.  He does anything he can to make Gilda think that Carl has abandoned her.  After a surprise visitor shows up at the hotel and tells everyone about Gilda’s past, Bruno gives Gilda a gun to protect herself even though guns are illegal on the island.  When one of the men attacks her, she shoots him.  She is put on trial and Bruno announces that even if she’s cleared of murder, he’d still send her to jail for having the gun he gave her.  The only way she could save herself is to be to start seeing Bruno.  Realizing she’s been set up, Gilda decides she would rather be executed than be unfaithful to Carl and confesses to a murder she didn’t commit.

Oh, how I love Safe in Hell.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie announce its pre-code status faster than Safe in Hell did.  The first scene is the scene of the phone ringing and Dorothy Mackaill answering it, lounging with her feet on the desk and wearing a robe.  Pure pre-code.  I love how complex Gilda is as a character.  She may be a hooker, but she isn’t a bad person.  She doesn’t become a lady of the night because she wants to, she did it because she had no other choice after being completely ripped off.  At heart, she is a truly faithful and honest person.  When she promises to be loyal to somebody, she goes out of her way to remain true.  As we see in the end, she would rather die than be unfaithful.  Dorothy Mackaill did a phenomenal job playing her.  Safe in Hell is also noteworthy for the fact we get to see two black actors, Noble Johnson and Nina Mae McKinney, regularly interacting with white actors and not playing stereotypes.  Pretty much my only complaint about this movie is that the big twist was extremely far-fetched.  I didn’t see it coming, but that’s because it was such a stretch of the imagination.  But otherwise, it’s a fantastic movie.  It’s a pre-code through and through.  I can’t believe this wasn’t released as part of one of the Forbidden Hollywood collections.