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A real clunker
21 May 2002
This film is painfully inept and should be avoided by all except lovers of camp. It's the oft-told story of the boyhood friends--where one goes straight and the other becomes a crook. For a vastly better version of the story, watch "Manhattan Melodrama." In "Never Love a Stranger," the dialogue is incredibly wooden and the plot contrivances both silly and obvious. Really, I don't know why I watched to the end except that I was hoping for a good courtroom scene, but none ever materialized.
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Easy Virtue (1928)
Hitchcock excels in cracking silent about divorce
15 March 2002
"Easy Virtue" is an early and impressive Hitchcock in which the master displays a range of innovative filmic devices (such as the way we learn about a marriage proposal by watching the eavesdropping hotel switchboard operator rather than by seeing the man or woman talking on the phone).

The story is based on a play by Noel Coward and (contrary to the other posted IMDB comment on the film) I believe the movie is excellent. The solo organ score on the videotape I watched was absolutely stunning.

The film tackles a range of issues relating to divorce that would become taboo after adoption of the Production Code in 1934. Our heroine Larita is married to a drunken brute. After he catches her almost (but not quite) being seduced by the artist who has been painting her picture, he brings suit for divorce. Adultery is the only ground for divorce in England at this time and we see a gripping trial scene in which the jury has to decide whether to believe Larita's denials. Of course, the jury can't see beyond its Victorian preconceptions (if she's alone with him all day, of course they've slept together) and it finds her guilty.

Now a disgraced woman of "easy virtue," Larita takes to the Riviera where she ensnares a rich young suitor (after he hits her in the eye with a tennis ball). Unfortunately, she doesn't tell him about her checkered past and naturally Larita's family hates her on sight.

This story takes on a range of highly relevant divorce issues. The film skillfully lampoons the absurdity of fault divorce and the need to try questions of adultery to a jury. It takes quite seriously the way that society treated a divorced woman as damaged goods. It attacks the sexual double standard with zeal and skewers the stuffy English aristocracy to great effect. After 1934, divorce didn't exist in the movies (except in comedies where the spouses remarry in the end) and the important legal and social issues raised by divorce and female sexuality were erased from the screen by the censors. Very few early films (silent or sound) ever dealt so candidly with the harsh realities of divorce; "Easy Virtue" compares favorably to the outstanding "One More River" (1934) in its straightforward and quite moving treatment of the issues.
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Reno (1939)
A moderately interesting B movie about Reno divorce law practice
24 February 2001
"Reno" is a decent B movie about about the life and times of a Nevada divorce lawyer. We first meet William Shear as the proprietor of a Reno gambling casino. Strangely he is found to have a crooked roulette wheel. At his preliminary hearing, we learn his story and ultimately determine why this previously honest and respected casino owner resorted to cheating.

Shear was a Reno lawyer who made a good living litigating mining claims. He turned to representing women who wanted quickie divorces after the miners left. Because the movie industry's production code prevented favorable treatment of divorce, the institution of Nevada divorces is very negatively portrayed. Shear's clients are all greedy, unhappy people and most of them try to seduce Shear even though he is married. The divorce practice and Reno lifestyle take a serious toll on Shear's marriage and his client solicitation tactics get him into deep trouble.

The picture is worth watching as an interesting treatment of the problems of divorce and mining law practice in Reno in the early part of the century. Shear's character is well developed and the competition between Shear and an established Reno attorney is also interesting. The plot contrivances, however, are very creaky and the female roles are shallow and unengaging.
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One of the sappiest plots in film history
31 July 2000
Audiences will groan at the character of Mary Donnell. Bette Davis is normally looking out for number one--and she's definitely her good old self in the first half of the movie. The widow of a gangster, Donnell has become a super-competent legal secretary for a respected attorney in a big firm. She fends off unwanted press attention and generally handles herself quite well as a tough single girl in the big city.

She becomes the mistress of her married boss at the law firm (although the Hays Office undoubtedly required the removal of any breath of sexual content here, it should be pretty obvious to all what is going on). In the second half of the movie, which focusses on Jack Merrick (Henry Fonda), whom Donnell has always loved, she achieves peaks of self-sacrifice that will send you staggering to the bathroom to throw up.

This is the sort of film that gives soap opera a bad name.
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Necessary Parties (1988 TV Movie)
Arkin is terrific as a lawyer turned auto mechanic who represents a teen intervening in his parents' divorce case.
5 May 2000
Lots of films and television shows explore divorce (and its prequels and sequels) from the point of view of the adult participants but few explore it from the point of view of the kids. The normal speech that parents give to their kids is that children are better off when their quarreling parents split than when they caged together. Fourteen year old Chris Mills rejects that idea. He's firmly convinced that his parents are wrong to get divorced; with some work their marriage can be saved. And Chris and kid sister Jenny will have an intact family. But nobody's listening.

So Chris takes an unusual tack--he gets his own lawyer to fight the divorce. Enter Archie Corelli, played by Alan Arkin (who also wrote the script). Archie's a lawyer who abandoned the law because he decided that our justice system hides rather than finds the truth. He's much happier running his car repair business. However, he agrees to represent Chris for a $10 fee. Chris' grandpa (the familiar Donald Moffat) agrees to be Chris' guardian ad litem in the suit and Chris files a motion to intervene in his parents' divorce case, arguing that he is a third party beneficiary of their marriage contract. Needless to say, both parents and their lawyers are outraged about his meddler into their private affairs.

Strangely, this little made-for-TV drama turns out to be quite touching. The two child actors are quite strong and Arkin is terrific. And the subject is a very serious one--half of all marriages end in divorce and a high percentage of children suffer at least one highly disruptive divorce. More often than not, the kids wind up in a household headed by their mother and suffer a radically decreased standard of living. Their relationship with the non-custodial parent is badly disrupted, perhaps destroyed. All kinds of psychological, social, and financial pathologies are likely to result.

And one last word in favor of Archie Corelli--an idealistic lawyer fed up with law practice who takes a case essentially pro bono because he likes the client and because he thinks that the legal system just might deliver a little bit of justice for once. We don't see too many lawyers like Archie in the films and television shows of today (and maybe not in real life either). Arkin deserves a lot of credit for creating the role.
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I Accuse (1938)
A stunningly effective anti-war classic.
5 May 2000
J'Accuse surely ranks as one of the most stunningly effective anti-war films ever made. Its early scenes involve a group of French soldiers who are compelled to go out on a hopeless and utterly pointless patrol. The men are instantly slaughtered by the Germans. The next morning, an armistice is declared. The men on patrol were the last to die. Think of the great anti-war films you've seen--like "Paths of Glory" or "All Quiet on the Western Front." In my opinion, Abel Gance's "J'Accuse" ranks with these masterpieces and, in its final scenes, even surpasses them.

Jean Diaz is the sole survivor of the doomed patrol. Before the men leave the trenches, Diaz swore to his colleagues that their sacrifice would not be in vain--there would be no more wars. Diaz devotes his life to achieving this goal for which he sacrifices everything. Of course, he fails miserably, as the European powers prepare for a new and even more catastrophic war. In the final scenes, Diaz plays his last and best card in scenes that will not be soon forgotten by those who are fortunate enough to see this great film.
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The Prodigal (1931)
A mishmash of comedy, drama, music, and racist portrayals.
2 May 2000
"The Prodigal" appears to be assembled from leftover script ideas from other films. It opens with some pretty good scenes of the lives of tramps in the early Depression years. Soon it focusses on Jeff Farraday, one of the tramps who actually comes from a wealthy Southern plantation family. Jeff has been exiled from the family, served time in jail, and is detested by his brother Rodman and sister Christine. The Farraday family seems to be withstanding the Depression quite well. Jeff returns to the plantation with a couple of other bums, is welcomed by his adoring mother, scorned by his siblings, and falls in love with the charming and perky Antonia, the wife of his brother Rodman. Rodman, of course, is a cruel, bullying stuffed shirt who hates Antonia but won't give her a divorce.

The film veers from melodramatic family conflict to awkward love scenes to thoroughly unfunny comedy to incongruous musical numbers. Jeff is played by opera-singer Lawrence Tibbett who frequently breaks into song. Tibbett can really sing but he can't act, nor can any of the other characters in this mishmash. But then with lines like these, it would be impossible for any actor to seem anything other than ridiculous.

Not to be overlooked are the really horrible portrayals of the blacks on the plantation. Even for the time (when Aunt Jemima type characters are standard), these racist portrayals are extreme. One farmhand is a whining, sniveling wimp; other scenes involving the darkies' BBQ make a viewer want to crawl under the table.
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A tearjerker focuses on the impact of divorce on children
14 March 2000
From 1934 to 1968, the Hays Code and the Production Code Administration imposed a rigid system of self-censorship on the movie industry. The Code banned treatment of certain subjects, one of which was divorce. Thus for the middle third of the century, American film basically ignored the subject of divorce--while millions of people were getting divorced and the divorce rate was rising steadily. Mostly the subject is treated in romantic comedies such as "The Awful Truth" in which a couple gets divorced at the beginning of the film and remarries at the end. The couples are usually quite wealthy and they almost never have children. Obviously, this sort of movie divorce is nothing like the real thing.

"Child of Divorce" is one of the very few serious treatments of divorce during the Hays Code era. Because it treats the subject in a very negative light, it was not censored. The Herrick Library of the Motion Picture Academy in Beverly Hills preserves all the files of the Production Code Administration. The file on "Child of Divorce" indicates that the script was passed without any objections.

Bobbi is a sensitive and loving 8 year old girl, very devoted to her parents Ray and Joan. Ray is on the road a lot and Joan starts an affair with Michael. Bobbi and her friends spot Joan making out with Michael in the park. Soon the inevitable occurs and Ray and Joan split up. The divorce court must decide which spouse is the more guilty (this was necessary in the era of fault divorce when the spouses did not enter into a collusive agreement). Bobbi is required to testify that she saw her father strike her mother (of course, the mother struck the first blow). Since Joan obviously was committing adultery, which was always considered much more serious than mere spousal abuse, this hearing is a bit puzzling. But it is a miserable experience for all concerned and it is very tough on the kid.

The judge awards custody to Joan (evidently because Ray was the guilty party); Ray is allowed to have Bobbi during the summers. However, Bobbi is miserable. She can't stand Michael. And when she finally goes to see Ray, she finds out that he is involved with Lucille. The child collapses.

The solution, recommended by a kindly family doctor: boarding school. And there Bobbi learns to make the best of it. Here's where you'll go for your hankies.

Although the picture is mediocre in execution and the acting basically quite wooden (except for Sharyn Moffett who plays Bobbi), the picture is quite worthwhile and genuinely touching. It was far ahead of its time and stands out as one of the very few candid explorations of the realities of divorce that appeared during the Hays era. The couple gets divorced over Joan's love affair; quite realistic. They don't get back together. Both spouses remarry--and hopefully are happier with their new spouses than the old ones. Even more realistic. The legal aspects of the divorce are quite miserable. Still more realistic. And the divorce is devastating for the child--very realistic indeed. Divorce is almost always a traumatic event in the lives of children--and sometimes it's as catastrophic as it was for Bobbi in this film. Parents have extremely difficulty with both custodial and non-custodial arrangements and the kids detest their new step parents. Right on target. Not until the pictures of the late 1970's and early 1980's do we find comparable exploration of what divorce is really all about. Think of "Kramer vs. Kramer," "An Unmarried Woman," or "Shoot the Moon" as modern-day versions of the themes explored in "Child of Divorce" way back in 1946. Too bad the film is commercially unavailable and lacks even a Maltin summary in IMDB.
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Divorce (1945)
This film comes across as a sermon against divorce. It is incredibly preachy and completely lacking in dramatic interest.
13 March 2000
"Divorce" opens with a crawl condemning divorce as certain to produce misery. It follows with a scene in family court in which a judge refuses to grant one divorce (thus forcing a couple who hate each other to stay together). He reluctantly grants a second despite the obvious collusion involved. The judge preaches against divorce as purely a product of selfishness and bitterness. In the second case, the wife is the oft-married Diane Carter who is a pure gold digger. She isn't present to hear the judge's opinion of her character.

Diane then returns to her home town where she quickly establishes herself as a world class home wrecker. With little effort, she breaks up the happy marriage of Bob and Martha. Diane offers Bob unlimited investment money for his struggling business and a lot more excitement than Martha and their two loving kids. When she catches on, Martha insists on a divorce and rejects all support, taking a humble job in a department store to support herself and the children. The children suffer badly from their dad's absence. Meanwhile, Bob discovers that Diane is no bed of roses.

Viewers of this film must understand that divorce was one of those forbidden subjects under the Hays Code. Filmmakers simply were not allowed to make a serious, balanced film about divorce. The Hays Code was written by a priest and a prominent Catholic layman (Daniel Lord and Martin Quigley). From 1934 on, the Code was firmly administered by a prominent Catholic layman (Joseph I. Breen). One of the reasons the industry accepted self censorship was to ward off boycott threats from the Catholic church. So it is no surprise that the Hays Code firmly embodied Catholic moral teachings--especially including absolute opposition to divorce. Broadly speaking, the only kind of divorce movies that got made during this period were romantic comedies (like "The Awful Truth") in which couples get divorced early in the picture but remarry in the end.

"Divorce" is a serious movie on the subject of divorce that could easily have been produced by the Catholic church to impress teenagers or young married couples at weekend retreats. It puts divorce on the level of genocide in the moral firmament. Its preachiness is incredible and its dramatic value is nil. Needless to say, Breen approved of this film without any reservations. (The censorship files are preserved at the Motion Picture Academy's Herrick library in Beverly Hills).
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Unashamed (1932)
Extremely melodramatic but quite interesting film about sexual mores and "The Unwritten Law"
28 February 2000
In "The Unashamed" the Ogdens are a wealthy family that is very close and loving. Jean falls in love with a crass fortune hunter named Harry Swift who is obviously after her money. Her father and brother try everything to dissuade her. To force the issue, Harry persuades Jean to spend the night in a hotel with him (horrors!) When they fling this unheard of behavior in the face of her father and brother, to induce them to consent to marriage, things go badly. Jean's brother Dick shoots and kills Swift. However, Dick wants only to protect Jean's honor so he insists to his defense lawyer, Trask, that Jean be kept out of it completely.

The latter half of the movie consists of Dick's trial, and Trask's problem in trying to save Dick from the electric chair while protecting his wishes not to tell the real story of what happened. Thus Trask is not allowed to use the "unwritten law" as a defense (that's the one that allows husbands to kills their wives and wives' lovers). In addition, Jean is extremely bitter toward her father and brother since they've ruined her happiness. So she's not about to cooperate in the defense. Until...

This picture is extremely melodramatic, in a style which seems rather alien to us today, and a lot of the acting and dialogue is too stagy for our taste. Nevertheless, for its time, it was quite well done. The issues of class, honor and gender that the film raises may seem quaint but there were very real to rich people of the 20's and 30's. Similarly, the courtroom scenes are quite well executed with a real attempt to observe appropriate legal proecdures. The ultimate twist ending is also quite effective and will remind you of a more recent (and classic) courtroom movie.
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Reno (1930)
A melodrama, typical of its time, highlights interesting divorce issues
24 February 2000
"Reno" involves the breakup of the marriage of Felicia and Alex. Alex is the sort of bullying, condescending man who must always have his way. He's also cheating with Rita and rubs Felicia's nose in it. Felicia decides she's had enough and heads for Reno to get a divorce. Meanwhile, Felicia's old flame Dick shows up in Reno as well. Alex is determined to catch the virtuous Felicia cheating so he can get the divorce (and custody of their child) or force Felicia to crawl back to him on her hands and knees. The story works itself out in typically melodramatic fashion, but nevertheless has its interesting elements. The script reflects the family law of the time (in which everything turns on which spouse is caught being unfaithful, even in Nevada) and also accurately reflects the sexist attitudes of both Alex (and other men) as well as the Nevada judge.
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A solid story about business success and marital disintegration that was remarkable for its time
9 February 2000
"Payment on Demand" begins when David tells Joyce that he wants a divorce. In flashbacks we see how the couple came from humble beginnings and worked their way into affluence. David started from being a lawyer with no clients and worked his way up to being vice president of his best client, a steel company. Joyce was always preoccupied with security, money and status; she is a selfish, manipulative social climber and we can readily see why David wants out. As always, Bette Davis plays the bitch with consummate skill.

What follows shows the old-style divorce process at its worst and chronicles Joyce's life as a single woman. While this part is very well written, it is dated. We learn that an older single woman has no life (other than having to pay younger men to sleep with them) and you're always better off with a man.

While the themes of this film may seem pretty conventional by today's standards, they were anything but in 1951. Divorce was a subject literally ruled off the screen by the very Catholic-oriented Hays Code. Aside from frothy romantic comedies like "The Awful Truth," people just didn't get divorced because they were fed up with their spouses. Nor do films of that Hays era (from 1934 until 1968) ever delve into the actual process of contested divorce (such as the negotiations about property settlements). This film does all that. While the ending may seem disappointing (and was probably a concession to the censors), the rest of the film is excellent and way ahead of its time.
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A noir classic that still stings
27 January 2000
"The Postman Always Rings Twice" is a superb adaptation of Cain's novel and its story of sexual attraction, adultery, murder, and betrayal still resonates beautifully today.

I'd like to answer the previous posting asking for an explanation of the title but to do so would give away the exquisite twist ending of the film. Suffice it to say that the title means that you think you got away with it but you didn't really--that old Postman always gets you.

In the book "Dame in the Kimono" by Leonard Leff and Jerold Simmons, pp. 127-40, there is a terrific discussion of the struggle between the producers of "Postman" and Joseph Breen, the boss of the Production Office that administered the Hays Code. After considerable controversy about two earlier Cain adaptations ("Mildred Pierce" and "Double Indemnity"), "Postman" was extremely sensitive. Breen blocked this film for ten years and demanded a vast number of changes that tone down Cain's novel and make it much less sexy. The changes leave a lot of the relationship between Frank and Cora ambiguous. The changes also insert the sort of "compensating values" at the end of the film that the PCA always insisted on. What sounds like an intriguing scene involving Frank's earlier girlfriend who had a circus act with animals (lions, tigers, pumas) rolling around got cut out completely.

And so it goes. Yet, as with many other great films of the era, none of the PCA cuts and alterations really matter all that much. What remains is just great. The sexual material is quite explicit enough to do the job--much sexier, to me, than a more explicit treatment. Not to be overlooked is the terrific legal strategizing by the defense attorney near the end of the film.

To quote Cain, "Postman" is about "a couple of jerks who discover that a murder, though dreadful enough morally, can be a love story too, but then wake up to discover that once they've pulled the thing off, no two people can share this terrible scret and live on the same earth." Leff & Simmons, p. 129. That says it all.
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Paid (1930)
A bit contrived and melodramatic, this oldie still packs a punch
12 January 2000
"Paid" is the story of Mary Turner (Joan Crawford), who spent three years in the pen for stealing from her boss (Gilder's Department Store)--a crime which she didn't commit. She vows revenge as she's dragged away. We see the sentencing phase of her trial with an inept defense lawyer and a vicious, contemptuous DA who keeps interrupting her. Indeed, one recurring theme of this film is its criticism of the justice system--the DA and the cops care only about pleasing the rich by harassing the poor.

According to Vieira, Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood p. 19 (1999), Crawford got the role when Norma Shearer went on maternity leave. Vieira also says that a five-minute fight scene in the women's shower in prison was cut from the film by the studio. There are stills of Crawford and the fight scene at pp. 24-25.

Mary learns some law while in the joint and she and her prison friend Aggie find some clever ways to make money and frustrate the cops by staying just "within the law" (the title of the play from which the film is drawn as well as the 1939 remake). Mary hangs out with Aggie's gang of petty criminals led by Joe Garson. Joe is, in fact, a kind and decent person who just can't say no to the big payoff. Meanwhile, Mary seduces and marries Gilder's son--just to take revenge on the man who falsely accused her of stealing.

While the final portions of "Paid" get rather contrived (there's a major heist which goes badly wrong) and the ending is melodramatic, I think "Paid" was pretty good and Crawford was excellent. The low ratings assigned by IMDb users to this film are not justified. The film is involving and it has some important things to say about class and justice.
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Quite simply, the finest movie about lawyers ever made
11 January 2000
Tragically, "Counsellor at Law" has never been released on video, so only pirate copies are available. I strongly advise you to get hold of one because the film is unquestionably a 10 on IMDB's scale--probably the best movie about a lawyer ever made. Another possibility is to see the play by Elmer Rice which the movie follows quite closely and which is presented in little theaters around the country from time to time.

Start with John Barrymore's absolutely unforgettable portrayal of attorney George Simon. Continue with the stunning art deco set and the direction which moves the action along at about 200 miles per hour. Most important, the film, which is set entirely in Simon's office, illustrates a tremendous range of business and personal problems confronting the high-powered New York lawyer in the 1930's.

On the personal side, Simon is an up from the gutter Jew who has made it big-time in the waspy world of New York law and business. He's married to an aristocratic non-Jewish woman who seems to despise him (along with her ungrateful kids). So one big theme of the film is the conflict between Simon's poverty-stricken past (his very common mother, his nogoodnick brother) and his newly acquired upper-class status in the non-Jewish community. Simon has feet in both camps and the conflict is revealing and very poignant.

On the business side, Simon has relationships with his partner, with the other lawyers in his firm, and with his staff--each one clearly and unforgettably etched (you'll never forget the telephone operator). He sees a range of clients and confronts a range of ethical problems. He's very tough when he needs to be, and has a huge soft heart as well. He cares deeply about his clients, and that has gotten him into trouble--big trouble.

Not to spoil the story, this film will knock your socks off. Although there have been hundreds of lawyer movies since 1933, none surpass this brilliant film for its insight into the life of the lawyer and into the perils of vertical class mobility.
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What's the bottom line? A great and successful businessman with a disastrous personal life
10 January 2000
The story of Tom Garner opens with his grand funeral and is told through a series of elegant flashbacks narrated by his faithful lifetime friend Henry. Henry and his wife debate whether Tom was a great man and a genius or an utterly worthless scoundrel. The film is beautifully written, acted and directed, and I highly recommend it.

Tom was the fabulously rich and successful owner of a large railroad, dominating his board of directors and his competition, terrorizing his employees, slaughtering strikers. Tom's ambitious wife Sally was responsible for all of Tom's success. When he met her, he was illiterate and entirely content with his work as a trackwalker for the railroad. Sally teaches him to read and takes over his trackwalker job while Tom goes to school. He starts to rise one step at a time through the railroad hierarchy until he eventually takes over as president.

But as Tom becomes a business tycoon, his marriage to Sally gradually falls to pieces. His spoiled son despises him, and he takes up with a much younger woman (the aptly named Eve), with predictably catastrophic consequences. In his business life, Tom is a total success; in his personal life, a disastrous failure. Much like the Hearst figure in "Citizen Kane," Tom symbolizes the best and the worst of the capitalist system.

Spencer Tracy is terrific in the role of Tom Garner and the business scenes ring with authenticity. Colleen Moore is also excellent as Sally; both of them age beautifully in the multi-generational story. The film was written by Preston Sturges, but is nothing like the screwball comedies for which Sturges became famous.
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Free love and nude modeling won't keep a girl from finding happiness
10 January 2000
The common law in "The Common Law" is that a girl is better off married than living in sin. That's a message that the Hays Code censors could have gotten behind, but they never could have approved this 1931 film. In 1931, the Hays Code was in effect but the Production Code Administration and its tough boss Joe Breen, which rigidly enforced the Code, didn't come into existence until 1934. As a result, the studios were able to ignore the Code and get away with sexual themes that would soon become utterly unthinkable. This was a necessity in 1931 because sex brought people into the theaters and the industry was desperate to sell tickets during the depths of the Depression.

Valerie West, an American in Paris, makes her living by being the mistress of a rich American, Dick Cardemon, but she dumps him and starts a career as a nude model. She models for a mediocre but rich American painter named John Neville who falls madly in love with her. However, he evidently assumed she was a virgin because he dumps her when he finds out about Cardemon.

Later Valerie manages to pick up John once again at a very sexy Artists' Ball (there's a still photo of the ball in Vieira, "Sin in Soft Focus" (1999), p. 56). This time Valerie and John decide to live together without getting married, but that causes quite a scandal back home. John's snooty family tries to break them up, but...

The film is a very effective attack on the sexual double standard and on American upper-class conspicuous consumption, snootiness, and prudishness. Attacks on the upper class were quite popular in the early 1930's, given people's desperation in the Depression and the natural tendency to blame the rich for what happened. The film also shows that a smart, spunky, and beautiful girl can make very good despite having engaged in lots of free love (not to mention nude modeling) with rich men. Valerie is not punished for all that sin--in violation of the so-called "compensating values" norm later enforced by Breen and the Production Office. That norm would require that she receive some horrible punishment for engaging in extra-marital sex--but quite to the contrary, Valerie comes out just fine.

The film is an exceptionally interesting example of the kind of movies that were made at the beginning of the sound era but before the curtain came down in 1934 on candid treatments of sexual behavior.
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Interesting adaptation of Faulkner story with strong legal subplot
6 January 2000
Temple Drake is a well brought up Southern woman who has a strong wild and crazy streak. She refuses marriage proposals from Steven Benbow, a dedicated and ethical young lawyer, because she knows she isn't ready to settle down. She is, in fact, a notorious sexual tease. Soon she's being held by a group of bootleggers and is raped by a hood named Trigger. Temple's wild streak takes over and she decides to stay with Trigger, perhaps working as a prostitute. Pretty heady stuff for the 1930's!

I particularly liked the character of Benbow who willingly takes all of the pro bono criminal cases assigned to him by the judge (Temple's haughty father) and handles even the hopeless ones with great dedication. In the courtroom scene that ends this film, Benbow's skill and ethics are put to the test.

There is an extensive discussion and analysis of "Temple Drake" in Thomas Doherty, "Pre-Code Hollywood" (1999) at 114-17. The story of the film's struggle with the censors (both in Hollywood and in the states) is told in Thomas Vieira, "Sin in Soft Focus" (1999) 149-50; stills from the film appear at 158-59.
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Back Street (1961)
Painfully implausible, over-produced other-woman melodrama
3 January 2000
Rae Smith, a talented and successful fashion designer, is the other woman in the sour marriage of Paul and Liz Saxon. Paul is the fabulously rich department store chain owner. Liz is a vicious, parasitic alcoholic who likes having the security of her marriage to Paul from which to conduct her little affairs. Easily manipulated, Paul just can't get rid of Liz to take up with Rae. From Rae's point of view, of course, Paul is the only love of her life and no other man could ever enter her bed. During the lengthy periods when the creaky plot separates her from Paul, she appears to take a vow of chastity.

Divorce is out of the question since Liz won't give Paul a divorce. Under the old fault-standard for divorce, the innocent party could prevent divorce (yet he fails to take advantage of Liz's adultery, mental illness, or alcoholism to sue her for divorce). Just walking out on Liz without a divorce is also impossible because Liz just attempts suicide to bring him back--a tactic which in real life would be guaranteed to drive him away once and for all. And then there's Paul's children, who Liz manipulates as a weapon against Paul. Somehow, Paul believes that the status quo is better for the kids than dispensing with Liz who is anything but a fit parent.

Meanwhile, poor Rae becomes fabulously wealthy but must remain as Paul's kept woman, lurking in the back streets (actually she lives in locations that are anything but the back streets; she's ensconced in lavish villas in Rome and Paris). Her great career as a designer appears to allow her to leave the office at any moment for a tryst. And so, this nonsense continues until the final castastrophe. Remember, during the Hays censorship Code era (which lingered until 1968), adulterers had to suffer terrible punishment.

The characters are completely lacking in nuance in this film. Liz is all bad. Paul is saintly, responsible, and long-suffering. Rae is incredibly talented, ridiculously loyal, self-sacrificing, and monogamous to a fault. The film has lots of soaring (but highly derivative) music, gorgeous locations, stunning costumes, and utter lack of plausible human motivation.

Anybody who can succumb to this over-produced, absurd movie has a definite weakness for weepy soap opera plots.
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Craig's Wife (1936)
The institution of marriage takes a big hit
3 January 2000
Harriet Craig (Rosalind Russell) is a thoroughly hateful character. This is one of those films that gains power from the strength of the villainous antagonist rather than from a relatively weak protagonist.

Harriet is married to the gentle henpecked Walter Craig. Walter never catches on, even though the Craigs have no friends and Walter has become something of a laughing stock in town. Harriet never cared much for Walter, but she sure liked his money which enabled her to have a beautiful home, servants, and a respectable place in the community. Harriet is, therefore, one of those respectable, upwardly mobile prostitutes who uses marriage to barter her good looks for money and position. It's not a pretty picture.

However, Harriet's strategy for maintaining her marriage is deeply flawed. She acts like a manipulative, controlling cold-hearted bitch at all times and ultimately her life implodes.

This film is quite well done and the viewer just can't escape a warm feeling of satisfaction as the malevolent Harriet gets what's coming to her--and more. Although the Harriet character lacks nuance (she's just SO witchy), the story still worked, at least for me. This emotional resonance indicates that the writers, actors, and director Dorothy Arzner did a good job in projecting a wholly believable villain.
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A zestier pre-Code version of the familiar "A Star is Born" story
29 December 1999
It's fun to compare "What Price Hollywood," made in 1932, to the more familiar 1937 version of "A Star is Born" (as well as its two later remakes). An important historic event intervened between the two: the Hays Code became rigidly enforced in 1934. The 1932 version is much spicier. Mary, the unknown knockout in in the 1932 version, is a saucy waitress at the legendary Brown Derby restaurant trying to catch the eye of a movie big shot. She's pretty sophisticated and, you believe, would happily do whatever is required to land an acting job. She readily allows herself to be picked up and taken to a premiere by a famous (but fading) director, which launches her great career. In the 1937 version, Esther, the ingenue, is straight off the farm and comes to Hollywood without a clue about the movie biz. She's a goody-two-shoes who would be shocked about what it usually takes to break into the biz. She catches the eye of a famous (but fading and highly alcoholic) actor when she waitresses at a party.

There is one major plot difference: in the 1932 version, Mary marries a rich polo playing socialite who divorces her (while she's pregnant) because he is fed up with movie people. This is highly realistic--movie stars had terrible marital problems. In the 1937 version, Esther marries the actor who was her mentor and is sucked into his hopeless downward spiral. Divorce is a perfectly acceptable solution to marital problems in 1932 but, under the constraints of the Code, was out of the question in 1937.

Both films are well worth seeing. They're loaded with insights about Hollywood and filmmaking (both the creative and the business end), the rapacious movie press, and the fans--an insatiable monster that devours the object of its affection. The declining fortunes of the director (in "What Price Hollywood") and the actor (in "A Star is Born") are quite fascinating. But of the two--the 1932 version is a lot more fun.
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Terrific comedy about the newspaper biz, class struggle and true love
28 December 1999
Stew Smith is a salt of the earth, street smart, cynical wisecracking reporter who's proud of his $75 a week salary. While tracking a story about a rich kid involved in a breach of promise suit, he gets involved with the Schuylers. This group of nitwits is a super-rich family trying desperately to avoid bad publicity. Stew catches the eye of the gorgeous Ann Schuyler, and the two fall madly in love to the absolute horror of Anne's snooty mother (who unfortunately is afflicted with gastritis). Indeed, Stew and Ann actually get married--with predictably catastrophic results. How will the filmmakers deliver Stew out of Ann's arms and into the arms of Gallagher--the equally gorgeous reporter who's madly in love with Stew?

This wonderful Frank Capra comedy must have appealed greatly to the sentiments of the 1931 audience at the very depths of the Depression. The Schuylers (and their idiot lawyer Dexter Grayson) were everything that people loved to hate--snooty, superior, stupid, wholly undeserving of their vast riches. They are mocked ruthlessly, while Stew Smith and Gallagher, as worthy representatives of the working class, are portrayed with understanding and compassion. Stew briefly embraces the idle life of the super-rich (even to wearing garters), but, of course, this doesn't last long.

This is more than just a film for Frank Capra fans--it's a glorious spoof of the old-time newspaper business and a tasty bit of social history.
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Possibly the worst courtroom picture ever made
23 December 1999
"Shadow of a Doubt" is an incredible turkey. It's so bad that it's bad; it has no redeeming value, even as camp. It should be viewed only by those who are desperate and have no alternatives. In this probably straight-to-video release, Melanie Griffith and Tom Berenger seem humiliated by their lines and appear to be trying to get through the ordeal as quickly as possible. It's impossible to understand how top-flight actors could have committed to this project.

Griffith is miscast as defense lawyer Kitt Devereux. Berenger plays Jack Campioni, the DA who is Devereux's ex-husband, and who opposes her in the trial which is the core of the film. (Prosecuting offices, particularly large ones like LA, would never assign a prosecutor to a case who has a relationship or former relationship with the defense lawyer).

The story, if it can be called that, is full of holes and is ridiculous in the extreme. It concerns a troubled young woman from a rich LA family who is murdered in her hot tub. Devereux receives a $300,000 retainer to defend Bobby Medina who is accused of committing the crime. Medina, a Latino rap artist, had sex with the victim shortly before she was killed. Although Medina would have no motive to kill the victim (quite the opposite), and despite solid evidence from the victim's roommate that exculpates Medina, Campioni immediately charges him with first degree murder. Also heavily involved is Paul Saxon, a California senator and leading presidential candidate, as well as Saxon's dragon-lady mother Sylvia. It seems that Campioni will become attorney general if Saxon wins the Presidency, so Campioni has an incentive to distract attention from Saxon's involvement in the murder. Incidentally, Saxon is given speeches to read that are so left-liberal that he would not be a plausible candidate for the San Francisco water board, much less President.

Medina's trial is probably the most ineptly written in the long history of courtroom drama on film. Devereux leads off by mentioning a failed plea bargain in her opening statement as evidence that the DA obviously doesn't think Medina is guilty. That wins you sanctions in any court, but nothing happens to Devereux aside from the court sustaining an objection. Devereux and Campioni also discuss the case over drinks in a highly improper manner.

Normally, writers of courtroom drama hire technical assistants to help guide them through the niceties of evidence and trial procedure. The writers here evidently couldn't afford advisers so they just made it all up. The blunders are too numerous to catalog. Incidentally, Devereux addresses a jury neatly dressed in suits and ties; undoubtedly accurate if the movie were set in the 50's but juries in LA these days are casually dressed.

The films works neither as a thriller nor as a courtroom drama and should never have been made at all.
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A devastatingly brilliant pre-production code glimpse of the lives of the rich and famous.
20 December 1999
The framing device of "Dinner at Eight" is deceptively banal--a rich woman plans a dinner party for some snooty English upper- crusts (who in fact don't show up). The guests who do appear, however, consist of a set of the greatest actors in the history of film. They're handed a brilliant screenplay that radiates mature wit and genuine compassion, while spinning off the most delicious double entendres. Director George Cukor is at the top of his game (and the art direction is sensational too). The result--one of the finest movies I've ever had the privilege to see. "Dinner at Eight," released in 1933, could never have been made even a year later because it violates numerous provisions of the Hays Code (which became rigidly enforceable on July 1, 1934). In this film we have lots of candidly portrayed adultery as well as young women sleeping with older men (none of whom are punished for violating the rule that sex occurs only within marriage as the Hays Code required). We have trashy tramps (who get away with it quite nicely), blackmailing maids, washed up actors and actresses, alcoholics, virtuous but failing businessmen, and viciously dishonest businessmen who prey on the business failures and get invited to be in the President's cabinet. We even have one guy who would rather go see a Garbo movie than come to a dinner party (and who among the visitors to this website could blame him?) In this film, divorce is a perfectly acceptable option for a failed marriage (the Hays Code ruled out divorce except in the most extreme situations). While many great films were made under the suffocating hand of the censors, "Dinner at Eight" achingly reminds us of what we lost when censorship came in--the ability of great writers, directors and actors to tell candid and honest stories about the way people actually lived and loved.
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Brilliantly executed tale with remarkable political insight
25 October 1999
Mr. Skeffington is remarkable for its time because it candidly deals with the subject of anti-semitism. Skeffington is a successful Jewish stockbroker who rose from the slums. Fanny Trellis came from aristocratic wealth but is now broke. Their marriage of convenience outrages Fanny's blueblooded family and relatives. The film contains a candid treatment of marital disintegration and mutual infidelity followed by a typical N.Y. fault-based divorce (in which both parties are at fault but the husband allows a default divorce to proceed). Fanny gladly gives up custody of her daughter so that she can maintain her liberated lifestyle; little Fanny is responsibly raised by her father (who schleps her off to Germany). There is also a painful scene in which father and daughter agree to stay together in which the father warns her that by staying with him she will be treated as Jewish and will confront discrimination, especially in Germany. All of this was quite unusual for films of the time. Of course, the film was made in 1944 when anti-Nazi themes were permissible, but even then it was rare to see even reasonably candid treatment of divorce and child custody issues and rarer yet to see anti-semitism.
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