The Public Enemy (1931)

The Public Enemy (1931). 83 minutes. Directed by William A. Wellman. Starring James Cagney (as Tom Powers), Jean Harlow (as Gwen Allen), Edward Woods (as Matt Doyle), Joan Blondell (as Mamie), Mae Clarke (as Kitty), Donald Cook (as Michael Powers), Leslie Fenton (as Nails Nathan), Beryl Mercer (as Ma Powers), Robert Emmett O’Connor (as Paddy Ryan), and Murray Kinnell (as Putty Nose).

The Public Enemy is the pre-Code movie that solidified legendary actor James Cagney’s reputation for playing tough-guy criminal types. It made a major contribution to the gangster genre under development in the early sound period, which included such groundbreaking films as Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932). Pre-Code gangster films typically feature slick criminal characters who at times are positioned as worthy of our admiration for their personal style, confidence, and strident disregard for authority. One of the wonderful things about the best of those movies, however, is the way that they also provocatively ask us to … Read the rest

Nightmare Alley (1947)

Nightmare Alley (1947)

Nightmare Alley (1947). 110 minutes. Directed by Edmund Goulding. Starring Tyrone Power (as Stanton Carlisle), Joan Blondell (as Zeena Krumbein), Coleen Gray (as Molly Carlisle), Helen Walker (as Lilith Ritter), Taylor Holmes (as Ezra Grindle), Mike Mazurki (as Bruno), and Ian Keith (as Pete Krumbein).

Nightmare Alley is a wonderful, exceedingly suggestive, and excessively seedy film noir that follows its protagonist, a mesmerist, as he moves from small-time carnival barker to big-time con artist with legions of devotees. Its themes and atmosphere might quickly convince you that it belongs to the world of noir with its shadows, dark streets, con games, and untrustworthy strangers, but its budget might not. From the sprawling, ten-acre carnival set created for it on the 20th Century Fox backlot to other lush outdoor sets, and even the indulgent evening gowns worn by actress Coleen Gray, Nightmare Alley looks luxurious and expensive, unlike a typical film noir. In spite of its high-end look, the movie was … Read the rest

Smarty (1934)

Smarty (1934)

Smarty (1934). 65 minutes. Directed by Robert Florey. Starring Joan Blondell (as Vicki Wallace Thorpe), Warren William (as Tony Wallace), Edward Everett Horton (as Vernon Thorpe), Frank McHugh (as George Lancaster), Claire Dodd (as Nita), Joan Wheeler (as Mrs. Bonnie Durham), Virginia Sale (as Vicki’s maid), and Leonard Carey (as Tony’s butler).

We live in an era where filmmakers deliberately produce raunchy comedies that exceed the limits of good taste in an effort both to thrill their target audiences and to be thought of as cutting edge. But I find most modern comedies rather tepid when it comes to the task of truly offending me. For something that has more punch, I have to look back to the pre-Code era, the time before Hollywood’s internal censorship office began enforcing the moral guidelines known collectively as the Production Code. Smarty, a late pre-Code movie, is about as far away from being a politically correct comedy as you can get, … Read the rest

Night Nurse (1931)

Night Nurse (1931)

Night Nurse (1931). 72 minutes. Directed by William Wellman. Starring Barbara Stanwyck (as Lora Hart), Ben Lyon (as Mortie/Pal), Joan Blondell (as B. Maloney), Clark Gable (as Nick), Blanche Friderici (as Mrs. Maxwell), Charlotte Merriam (as Mrs. Ritchie), Charles Winniger (as Dr. Arthur Bell), Edward J. Nugent (as Eagen), Vera Lewis (as Miss Dillon), and Ralf Harolde (as Dr. Milton A. Ranger).

Night Nurse boasts many attractions: actresses Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell in the bloom of youth, an almost baby-faced Clark Gable in one of his earliest speaking roles, and a screenplay based on Grace Perkins’s crime novel of the same name. But the main reason to see Night Nurse is because it is a prime example of the type of kinky movie made during what we now call the pre-Code Hollywood period (1929 to mid-1934), which spanned from the advent of sound films to the creation of the Production Code Administration, the internal censorship office of Hollywood’s … Read the rest

Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936)

Gold Diggers of 1937

Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936). 101 minutes. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Starring Dick Powell (as Rosmer Peck), Joan Blondell (as Norma Perry), Glenda Farrell (as Genevieve Larkin), Victor Moore (as J. J. Hobart), Lee Dixon (as Boop Oglethorpe), Osgood Perkins (as Morty Wethered), and Charles D. Brown (as Tom Hugo). Musical sequences directed by Busby Berkeley. Music and lyrics by Harry Warren, Al Dubin, Harold Arlen, and E. Y. Harburg.

Generally speaking, it is hard not to like a Gold Diggers movie. Even though this is the fifth iteration of the franchise, stars Dick Powell and Joan Blondell remain cute and perky throughout, and the music, in particular the songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, is first rate. Much like the other Gold Diggers movies, Gold Diggers of 1937 (released in 1936) makes a special appeal to Depression-weary cinema-goers by explicitly referring to the economic circumstances of the times and to the individual characters’ financial predicaments; but its … Read the rest

Dames (1934)

"Dames" (1934) featured image

Dames (1934). 91 minutes. Directed by Ray Enright. Musical direction by Busby Berkeley. Starring Dick Powell (as Jimmy Higgins), Ruby Keeler (as Barbara Hemingway), Joan Blondell (as Mabel Anderson), ZaSu Pitts (as Matilda Ounce Hemingway), Guy Kibbee (as Horace Peter Hemingway), and Hugh Herbert (as Ezra Ounce). Music and lyrics by Harry Warren and Al Dubin.

Warner Bros. could have called this movie Gold Diggers of 1934 and its title would have made at least as much sense as the one they settled on.  Much like the Gold Diggers movies, which I have reviewed previously (here and here), Dames focuses on characters who scheme to get their hands on an impressive sum of money and the way their lives intertwine with characters who are plotting to raise funds to put on a spectacular musical — all played by the usual Busby Berkeley suspects.  The first set of schemers is Matilda and Horace Hemingway, who stand to inherit millions … Read the rest

Gold Diggers of 1933

"Gold Diggers of 1933." Detail from original movie poster.

Gold Diggers of 1933. 96 minutes.  Directed by Mervyn LeRoy; musical numbers directed by Busby Berkeley.  Starring Warren William (as Lawrence Bradford), Joan Blondell (as Carol King), Aline MacMahon (as Trixie Lorraine), Ruby Keeler (as Polly Parker), Dick Powell (as Brad Roberts), Guy Kibbee (as Fanuel H. Peabody), and Ginger Rogers (as Fay Fortune).  Music and lyrics by Harry Warren and Al Dubin.

In the depths of the American Depression, movie attendance sank considerably and movie theaters, mostly owned by the studios, were going out of business.  Theaters struggled to persuade people to part with the little money they had for the sake of entertainment.  Studios were forced to adopt new strategies to ensure their survival.  Many strove to offer theater-goers an experience that could not be reproduced outside of a movie theater—something unique and outlandish that made the price of admission worth it.  Gold Diggers of 1933 is a great example of this strategy as it was put … Read the rest