Sunday, February 26, 2023

Hangman’s Knot (1952)

Hangman’s Knot is a 1952 western and it stars Randolph Scott, always an enticing prospect. It was written and directed by Roy Huggins who would later have an impressive career in television, being involved in classic series such as Maverick and The Rockford Files.

It starts with a gang led by Randolph Scott carrying out a daring robbery. Their target is a wagon carrying a gold shipment. The wagon has a military escort. The robbery is successful. The soldiers escorting the wagon are all killed.

But things are not what they appear to be. The robbery wasn’t carried out by bandits but by Confederate soldiers undertaking a daring mission. Randolph Scot’s characters isn’t an outlaw, he’s a major in the Confederate Army. The problem is that when they carried out the attack on the gold wagon the war had been over for a month, but they didn’t know that.

Now they’re in a tricky situation. Nobody is going to believe them if they say they were just doing their duty as soldiers and didn’t know the war was over. They’re going to be hunted down as outlaws. And that’s what happens. There are posses out everywhere searching for them. They can expect to be hanged.

They do have the gold. The question is what to do with that gold. They didn’t steal it. They were acting under military orders. As far as they’re concerned they’re not thieves. But since they have the gold it might be better to keep it. If they ride into the nearest Union Army post to return the gold they’ll certainly be hanged. The Major isn’t sure that they’re justified in keeping the gold for themselves but (quite apart from the practical difficulties involved) he doesn’t relish the idea of handing it over to the Union Army. For the time being they’ll hold onto it.

One of the posses catches up to them. The Major and his comrades are holed up in a stagecoach way station. It’s a standoff. There are too many in the posse for there to be a chance of breaking out. On the other hand there aren’t enough men in the posse to have a chance of storming the way station. It’s an interesting balance.

And the Major has made sure that the men in the posse know about the gold. He figures it might be useful if those deputies are thinking more about gold than about catching outlaws.

As the Major expected the members of the posse are soon consumed by gold fever. That breeds dissension but it still doesn’t necessarily give the Major and his men the chance to escape.

Tension builds within the way station as well. The Major had commandeered a stagecoach, with two passengers. A man and a woman. And there’s the old guy in charge of the way station, and his daughter. There’s no way of knowing how difficult these people might become.

There’s also simmering tension between the Major and his second-in-command, played by Lee Marvin. It’s fuelled by longstanding resentment and by gold and by that woman passenger, who happens to be young and pretty.

So there’s dissension on both sides.

This movie begins with stirring action scenes and it ends the same way. Huggins handles the action pretty well. He handles the psychological stresses equally well.

Randolph Scott gives his usual reliable performance, with just a touch of moral ambiguity. He and his men didn’t steal that gold as such but the Major does intend to keep it. Lee Marvin gives a trademark entertainingly psychotic performance. Donna Reed is a fine heroine. The supporting cast is strong.

Umbrella Entertainment have released this movie on DVD in Region 4 in their excellent (and good value) Six Shooter Classics series. It gets a good transfer. It’s fullframe, which is the correct aspect ratio.

Hangman’s Knot is a fine little western. There’s enough action to satisfy any reasonable person but there’s a bit more to it than that. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Baby Face (1933)

Baby Face, released in 1933, is one of the most notorious of all pre-code movies. Barbara Stanwyck stars as a girl who sleeps her way to the top. A girl who becomes known as Baby Face.

Lily Powers (Stanwyck) grows up in a small hick town. Her father runs a bar and he distils bootleg liquor. He also pimps out his daughter. He does this once too often and she decides to leave. When the still blows up he doesn’t have much choice.

There’s an old guy in the town who had befriended her. He’s into German philosophy and he sees potential in this girl. She could be a success if only she could learn to be a bit more focused, and learn to crush every trace of sentiment in her makeup.

Becoming focused and stamping out sentiment is something that Lily learns very quickly.

She arrives in New York with four dollars in her purse. What she needs is a job. The biggest building she can see is the Gotham Bank building. There should be lots of opportunities there for a smart girl.

Landing a job is easy. When there’s a man in charge of handing out jobs Lily will never lack for work. She’s asked if she has any experience. She replies that she has plenty.

The first job isn’t much but Lily knows how to move on to better positions. If you want a better job, find a more powerful man who can get it for you. Lily goes through lots of jobs at the bank, and lots of men. Eventually the bank president, Mr Carter, gets her the kind of job she likes, one where she doesn’t actually have to show up at the office. She can just laze around in her luxury apartment, admiring her furs and jewellery, while waiting for Mr Carter to find some time when he can get away from his wife.

Lily has reached one of her goals but there are complications. Some men just don’t understand when they’re not needed any more and keep turning up on the doorstep like lost puppies. Men like Mr Stevens. Men like that tend to do silly tiresome things that make life difficult for a girl.

Lily’s life gets very complicated. Now she has to deal with Courtland Trenholm George Brent). He runs the bank. Lily has never had any trouble managing men but Mr Trenholm is quite a challenge. He’s as smart as she is. In other ways he seems to be just like all the other men she’s known. That pleases her, since she knows how to handle such men. But it also vaguely disappoints her.

And her life is about to get complicated again.

The version of this movie that I saw was the prerelease print which is the movie as it was originally made. The 1933 theatrical release was censored. After 1934 the movie was of course banned. The prerelease version makes it crystal clear that Lily offers sex in exchange for advancement and presents. She’s not leading the men to believe that maybe she’ll sleep with them. It’s very obvious that she does sleep with them.

Society’s self-appointed moral guardians were outraged by this movie. They saw Lily as being essentially a high-class whore. Which is pretty much what she is. Of course if she’d stayed in her home town she would still have been a whore, but she’d have been a cheap whore. Moving to New York allows her to become a very expensive whore. Those are the only two options that life has to offer her.

Even more outrage was caused by Lily’s lack of shame or remorse. She’s a realist. And the men know the score. She’s offering them sex in exchange for advancement and money and they’re offering her advancement and money in exchange for sex. As far as Lily is aware that’s just how the world works. She’s unsentimental and ruthless but she doesn’t treat men any worse than they’ve always treated her. The moral watchdogs were not happy about seeing such a brutally realistic view of life being portrayed and they certainly weren’t happy about the suggestion that rich, powerful respectable men participate in such transactions.

A further level of outrage was added by the fact that several of the men with whom Lily gets involved are married men.

Barbara Stanwyck is extraordinarily good. And very sexy. While we might not entirely approve of Lily we can’t help liking her. George Brent is also very good.

This movie is one of three pre-code gems included in the TCM Archives Forbidden Hollywood two-disc DVD set which I bought recently. Both discs were faulty and Baby Face is the only one of the three movies I managed to get to play, and even then only with difficulty. Of course I may have been unlucky to get a faulty set. Baby Face gets a very nice transfer and the fact that it’s the uncut version is a major bonus.

Baby Face is a must-see for pre-code fans and for Barbara Stanwyck fans. In fact it’s a must-see movie for any classic movie fan. This is pre-code Hollywood at it’s most brutally honest. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

3:10 to Yuma (1957)

3:10 to Yuma is a 1957 Delmer Daves-directed western which, perhaps surprisingly for its time period, is not shot in colour or in the Cinemascope ratio. It still manages to look glorious. This is one of Hollywood’s many 1950s attempts to make grown-up westerns and it’s one of the most successful.

It starts with a stagecoach robbery. A real western cliché but don’t panic, this movie becomes steadily less clichéd and more intriguing as it progresses.

The robbery is carried out by the gang led by the notorious Ben Wade (Glenn Ford). The stagecoach driver is killed by Wade although it’s not quite a killing in cold blood.

The robbery is witnessed by farmer Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and his two sons. Dan makes no attempt to interfere. This is a totally sensible decision. Against twelve armed men all he could succeed in doing is to get himself, and possibly his sons, killed. His sons are a bit disappointed by their father’s lack of heroism and later we get the feeling that maybe his wife Alice (Leora Dane) feels a bit that way herself. And maybe Dan does too.

But this is a western that will try to avoid clichés. Dan is not a coward who has to redeem himself for his cowardice. He does have to redeem himself, but not for cowardice. There’s more a sense that he hasn’t been a great success in life, the farm is struggling and he hasn’t been able to provide for his wife and children the way he feels that a man should.

Capturing Ben Wade proves to be surprisingly easy. Holding on to him will be the problem. He’s been captured lots of times. His gang always busts him loose. Nobody has ever been able to hold him.

The sheriff has a plan. The essence of it is to make sure Wade’s gang doesn’t know where he’s being held, and then to get him on the 3.10 train to Yuma. Yuma should be able to hold him.

The sheriff needs a couple of volunteers to carry out the plan. Nobody is keen to volunteer, except the town drunk Alex Potter. The sheriff doesn’t want him but Alex swears he won’t drink until Wade is on that train. The sheriff wants Dan Evans to volunteer. Dan isn’t interested. He has a wife and kids. Then Mr. Butterfield (Robert Emhardt), the owner of the stagecoach line, offers Dan $200 to do the job. Dan can’t refuse. There’s a drought and his cattle need water and he desperately needs the money to buy water for them.

Dan and Alex only need to keep Wade under wraps until 3.10 the next day. The sheriff is a clever man and his plan is a good one, but Wade and his gang are clever men as well. Maybe cleverer than the sheriff.

Dan is holding Wade in a hotel room in Contention City, waiting for that train. And now the tension starts to build. Wade offers Dan a lot of money to allow him to escape. Ten thousand dollars would tempt any man. Ten thousand dollars would solve all Dan’s problems and allow him to provide a secure future for his wife and sons. And while Wade tempts Dan, the sheriff’s plan starts to fall apart. Wade’s gang is on the way.

One of the best things about this movie is that every single character is initially set up as a stock western character. We know exactly how they will behave. But they don’t behave that way. They behave like real people. They surprise us by defying our expectations but their behaviour always makes sense. Their motivations are realistic. What’s really great is that this doesn’t just apply to the two main characters, Dan and Ben Wade, it applies to every character in the movie.Even the most minor characters.

This is a movie about people who have to make choices and those choices are not simplistic choices between good and evil. There’s also no simple dividing line between heroism and cowardice. Playing the hero is fine but if you have a wife and children dependent on you then heroism can be foolish and irresponsible. Sometimes it takes more moral courage to put your family first and forego the heroics.

The supporting cast includes two of my favourite character actors, Henry Jones and Robert Emhardt, and they both get to play characters who turn out to be rather complex.

Ben Wade is definitely the bad guy and he’s a killer. But he’s also not a stock western villain. He’s not quite an outlaw with a code of ethics but there are some things he just can’t do because he’s not made that way. Early on, when Dan and his sons witness the stagecoach robbery, the obvious, simple, easy, safe thing to do would be to kill them. This never even occurs to Wade. It would be a lowdown mean thing to do. Ben Wade isn’t a good man but he’s not lowdown and mean. He does take their horses, but he makes sure the horses are returned to them. Again, stealing horses from a struggling farmer would be lowdown and mean. For Wade killing is sometimes an unavoidable necessity, and he feels no regrets or remorse, but he gets no pleasure from killing. When he’s captured he’s prepared to kill in order to escape, but he’d prefer to escape without killing anyone.

Glenn Ford’s low-key acting approach contrasts perfectly with Van Heflin’s emotional angst-ridden performance. Different acting styles, but equally effective.

The worst thing about the Production Code was that it pretty much demanded predictable endings. Ten minutes into a movie you generally know how it will end, because the Production Code only allows for one ending, with good triumphant, the bad guy punished and the bad girl dead. But 3:10 to Yuma manages to come up with a genuinely unexpected ending which still manages to stay within the letter of the Code. Not everyone likes the ending, but at least it’s not the ending that genre expectations lead us to expect.

This is a movie that looks superb. Daves has been criticised for his love of crane shots but personally I have no problems with directors who try to make every scene visually interesting. Daves has put some thought into every shot composition. The black-and-white cinematography by Charles Lawton Jr is just right. This is a dry harsh country caught in the grip of drought. The starkness of black-and-white conveys that in a way that colour could not have done.

The movie was based on an Elmore Leonard short story. Leonard liked the movie, but hated the 2007 remake.

3:10 to Yuma is one of the great westerns. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Millie (1931)

Millie is a 1931 RKO pre-code romantic melodrama with a fair leavening of wit and humour in the early stages. It covers seventeen years in a woman’s life.

Millie (Helen Twelvetrees) is a small town girl. She marries Jack Maitland because he seems like a nice guy, he has good prospects and she’s in love with him. They set off for the bright lights of New York.

Three years later the marriage is looking a bit rocky. They have a daughter, Connie. Millie is bored and lonely and she wonders if Jack still loves her. He just doesn’t seem very affectionate any more. He doesn’t even seem to want to kiss her.

Millie gets a call from an old friend she grew up with, Angie (Joan Blondell). Angie lives with her friend Helen (Lilyan Tashman). The three meet up for drinks at a ritzy bar and there Millie spots her husband Jack. Jack is with a cheap blonde. That’s it for Millie. She gets a divorce.

Millie decides she’ll have to get a job. Angie is deeply shocked. Getting a job is something she herself has never even contemplated. As long as there are men in the world why would a girl want to work?

In theory Angie and Helen are chorus girls. Judging by the expensive fashionable clothes they wear we assume they have other sources of income.

Millie gets a job at the cigar counter in a hotel. She meets reporter Tommy Rock (Robert Ames) and falls for him. Tommy wants to marry her but Millie has decided that she3’s tried marriage and it didn’t work. She wants her independence. She’s also being romanced by smooth-talking middle-aged playboy Jimmy Damier (John Halliday).

The movie keeps jumping forward, a few years at a time. Millie is doing well at her job and she’s been promoted.

Things are a bit rocky for her on the romance front. It doesn’t work out with Tommy. She gets involved with Jimmy, and with other men.

Jumping forward a few years later and Millie is still independent, she still has lots of men friends and her daughter Connie is now sixteen. And Connie is a worry. She’s a nice kid but naïve and vulnerable and she gets into a tricky situation with a man, Millie gets involved, there’s a gun involved and it ends in court. Which brings us to a big melodramatic finale.

This is the only Helen Twelvetrees movie I’ve ever seen. She’s vivacious and charming. She was fairly successful in the pre-code era but after that her career faded quickly. She died of a drug overdose at the age of 49.

Lilyan Tashman’s life was even more tragic. Three years after making Millie she was dead. She’s great fun in Millie.

Joan Blondell is of course wonderful. Early on she gets lots of racy dialogue and no-one could deliver risqué lines they way Joan Blondell could. She was never quite a top-rank star but she was able to sustain a successful acting career for half a century. She is never less than delightful in her pre-code movies.

This is definitely a very pre-code movie. Women don’t necessarily get punished for having sex, even if they’re not married. Millie is obviously living with Tommy out of wedlock for several years. She is obviously sleeping with Jimmy. She is obviously sleeping with plenty of other men. But all this is just taken for granted.

There are those who will try to tell you that Angie and Helen are lesbians. That’s wishful thinking. There is zero evidence in the movie to support this theory, and plenty of evidence to the contrary. There's also no evidence that Angie and Helen are prostitutes, although they have no objections to being kept by men.

This is definitely a movie that is critical of the rigidity of traditional sexual morality. Like a lot of pre-code movies it’s not necessarily arguing for the abandonment of traditional morality, but rather for that morality to be loosened up considerably and leavened with some humanity and flexibility. It treats sex as a normal part of life, even for unmarried women.

Millie is one of five pre-code movies in Kino Lorber’s RKO Classic Romances set, released on both DVD and Blu-Ray.

Millie is a fine example of the pre-code melodrama. Highly recommended.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Male and Female (1919)

Male and Female is a 1919 Cecil B. DeMille comedy/melodrama and it’s the movie that made twenty-year-old Gloria Swanson a major star.

This is a DeMille comedy so don’t expect any slapstick. DeMille’s silent comedies were witty and sophisticated comedies of manners. The movie was based on J.M. Barrie’s 1902 hit play The Admirable Crichton.

The story concerns an aristocratic family shipwrecked on a remote island in the South Seas. They soon discover that their survival depends on the butler, Crichton. He’s the only one who understands what they will need to do in order to survive. It’s obviously a satire on class relations.

The early scenes in the palatial home of Lord Loam (Theodore Roberts) set up some of the key relationships and conflicts.

Crichton (Thomas Meighan) is the butler. He’s a very efficient butler and the household runs smoothly. Of course to the family he’s a mere servant. A valuable servant, but still just a servant.

Tweeny, the scullery maid (played by the amazingly cute eighteen-year-old Lila Lee), is hopelessly in love with Crichton. Crichton isn’t interested. He’s fallen madly in love with Lord Loam’s spoilt but beautiful daughter Lady Mary (Gloria Swanson). It’s hopeless of course. Aristocratic ladies do not marry servants. Actually one of Lady Mary’s friends did marry her chauffeur. Lady Mary was horrified. She would never consider doing anything so outrageous.

Everything changes when the family sets off in a yacht for a cruise in the South Seas. The yacht is shipwrecked. The island does not appear on any charts. This is 1919. There weren’t going to be any aerial searches. They could be stuck on the island for years.

The members of the aristocratic family naturally assume that they will be able to lie about on the beach while Crichton and Tweeny fix breakfast for them and do all those menial tasks that servants are supposed to carry out. Crichton has other ideas. He realises that if they’re going to survive they will all have to pitch in and work. This causes outrage. Lady Mary is aghast. But they don’t have much choice. It’s immediately apparent that Crichton is the only one who has a clue what he’s doing and it’s equally obvious that he is a natural leader. He simply takes charge.

Pretty soon Crichton is more or less king of the tiny island. Lady Mary’s feelings towards him have changed radically. She wants to be his willing slave. He’s so strong and wise and decisive. And so manly.

In Lady Mary and Tweeny both want to be Crichton’s slave. It has to be said that Crichton rather enjoys having two beautiful women competing for his attentions.

The ending is not the typical Hollywood ending you’ll be expecting.

Like a number of other DeMille silent movies this one includes an historical dream/fantasy sequence. DeMille loved these scenes and they gave him an early opportunity to display his skill at creating an atmosphere of decadence which he could use as a counterpoint to the decadence of the modern world. And an opportunity to show his mastery of historical spectacle. In this case the fantasy starts out being Crichton’s fantasy, with himself as a Babylonian king and Lady Mary as his slave. Crichton likes this fantasy. It excites Lady Mary a good deal as well.

The shipwreck scene provides DeMille with another opportunity to offer spectacle. DeMille set high standards for himself and for those who worked for him. If the movie was going to include a shipwreck scene it would be a shipwreck scene that would knock the audience’s socks off. And it does. It’s not just impressive by the standards of 1919. It’s impressive by the standards of today.

Gloria Swanson was an ideal star from DeMille’s point of view. She wasn’t given to the exaggerated performances that we often associate with silent film stars. She looked fabulous in the fashions of 1919. She looked fabulous in the ancient Babylonian costumes. And she looked great dressed as a kind of amazon huntress, a guise in which she also appears in this movie. She was sexy and glamorous.

Some of the DVD releases of this movie have been savagely cut. The copy I have is an Italian DVD which includes the full original cut 115-minute cut in two versions, one with the title cards in English and the other with the title cards in Italian. The transfer is acceptable.

If you think of slapstick when someone mentions silent comedies you’ll be pleasantly surprised by this one. It’s sophisticated comedy, and it’s also a fine romantic melodrama and an effective satire. And it’s a DeMille movie so it’s always visually interesting. When I saw this movie for the first time some years back it changed the way I think about silent cinema. Very highly recommended.

Friday, February 10, 2023

The Man from the Alamo (1953)

The Man from the Alamo is a 1953 Budd Boetticher western. This was three years before Boetticher teamed up with Randolph Scott for the seven westerns on which the director’s reputation now mostly rests.

It is 1836 and the siege of The Alamo provides the background. With the fort clearly doomed Colonel Travis gives his men the choice. They can stay and fight or they can leave. One man chooses to leave. His name is John Stroud (Glenn Ford).

Stroud had what he considered to be compelling reasons for his choice but now he’s branded as a coward. He narrowly escapes lynching. He joins up with a guerrilla force fighting on the Mexican side but he has his reasons for doing so. Stroud’s problem is that he has good reasons for everything he does but all his actions can be, and are, misunderstood.

The guerrilla force commanded by Jess Wade (Victor Jory) is nothing more than a gang of bandits and cut-throats. Stroud despises them but he has his reasons for joining them. He wants to find the man who murdered his wife and child while he was fighting at the Alamo.

First he needs to break out of gaol. Which proves to be surprisingly easy.

All the women, children and old men of the town are being evacuated in a wagon train. That wagon train will play a pivotal rôle in Stroud’s quest. Wade’s gang intend to rob it, believing that the gold from the town’s bank is in one of the wagons. It’s not likely that Wade’s guerrillas will leave many of the women and children alive.

If the two major themes of westerns are revenge and redemption then this movie has a hero who is seeking both. Glenn Ford was a fine choice for the lead rôle. He wasn’t a showy Oscar-bait actor but he had a knack for conveying intensity and internalised suffering, without any of the histrionics that became increasingly common in the 50s as Method acting became all the rage.

It’s a nicely judged performance. Stroud has to be bitter without being an obnoxious misanthrope and he has to be somewhat tortured, but not overly so. Stroud is reasonably comfortable in his mind that his actions at the Alamo were justified and that he’s no coward but he has a few niggling doubts. Ford gets it just right.

Which brings us to another theme of this movie - the conflict between loyalty to a nation and personal loyalties. Stroud had to choose between loyalty to Texas and loyalty to his family.

Later there will be another conflict, between loyalty to a nation and loyalty to one’s own local community. Boetticher doesn’t labour the point but the movie on the whole comes down on the side of personal loyalty. What’s the point in being loyal to a nation if it means sacrificing your own family?

It’s also interesting that this is a movie at least peripherally about the Alamo but the movie’s bad guys are not Mexicans. They’re Americans. Wade’s gang of thieves and murderers are Americans.

And the one person left for whom Stroud really cares is a little Mexican boy whose father was killed by Wade’s men. The boy, Carlos, has more or less adopted Stroud as a substitute father. This is a movie that keeps raising interesting questions about loyalty. It’s also a movie that treats right and wrong and good and evil as things that get complicated. It’s a mistake to jump to conclusions about a man’s actions and it’s a mistake to rush to judgment on a man or on a group of people.

Beth Anders (Julie Adams) also discovers how complicated like can get. She believes Stroud is a coward but when he needs help she offers that help. Whatever he’s done he’s a man and he’s suffering. And she starts to consider the possibility that maybe he’s telling the truth about his actions.

This is an intelligent grown-up western, which of course is what you expect from Budd Boetticher. It’s also an exciting action-packed movie with large-scale action sequences which Boetticher handles expertly. This really is a fine western and it’s highly recommended.

The Australian Umbrella DVD release (in their marvellous Six Shooter Classics series) is barebones but offers a nice transfer. The movie was shot in the 1.37:1 ratio in Technicolor.

I’ve reviewed other Budd Boetticher westerns - The Tall T (1956), Ride Lonesome (1959), 7 Men From Now (1956) and Comanche Station (1960). All of them very much worth seeing.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Hot Saturday (1932)

Hot Saturday is a pre-code Paramount melodrama which gave Cary Grant one of his first (if not his first) starring rôles.

The movie is set in a typical American small town. Marysville is a town in which everyone is respectable. You’d better be respectable if you know what’s good for you. If you stray even a little from the path of middle class morality you’ll be destroyed by scandal and gossip.

Ruth Brock (Nancy Carroll) works at the town’s bank. She’s pretty and she’d like to have fun, if she dared to. She already has a reputation for flirting and in Marysville that’s worse than having a reputation as an axe murderess.

Two of the young men at the bank are pursuing Ruth. One has no chance. The other, Connie (Edward Woods), fancies himself as having a good chance. He assumes that he’s irresistible to women. He’s the closest thing Marysville has to a town Lothario.

Then a major threat to Connie’s chances arrives on the scene. Romer Sheffield (Cary Grant) has everything that Connie lacks. He has class. He has genuine charm. He isn’t sleazy. He’s extremely rich. Not surprisingly Ruth is flattered when Romer takes a shine to her.

On Saturdays all the young people of the town head to Willow Springs. Willow Springs offers music and dancing. It’s the closest thing they have to a den of iniquity. Young men and women have even been known to be so carried away by the lure of sin as to kiss each other.

Romer invites the young crowd to his place on the lake on a fine Saturday afternoon. Romer and Ruth flirt. Then the crowd head for Willow Springs. Connie takes Ruth boating and gets a bit too too enthusiastic in his pursuit of her. She runs off and heads for Romer’s house.

No real actual harm has been done. Ruth’s virtue is intact. But in fact a great deal of harm has been done. Ruth was seen at Romer’s house and she was seen arriving home very late. There’s plenty of ammunition there for the town’s gossips. And there are at least three people who are jealous enough of Ruth to be willing to make her life a misery.

There may be a way out for Ruth - marriage to Bill Fadden (Randolph Scott), the young man her parents always hoped she would marry. He’s totally respectable, from a totally resectable family, and he’s well set-up financially. Which matters to Ruth’s parents - they’ve been sponging off her for years. Her salary from the bank supports them.

The question is whether Bill will marry her now that the town gossips have decided she’s the town whore.

There’s plenty of pre-code naughtiness here. Before he took a shine to Ruth Romer had a girlfriend and it’s made quite clear that she was his mistress. And of course there are the obligatory pre-code scenes of girls in their underwear. And poor Ruth gets soaking wet and Bill has to undress her (with his hands not his eyes) and put her to bed even though they’re not even married. So she’s in his bed stark naked.

Nancy Carroll was, briefly, a huge star and an Oscar-nominated one. The momentum of her career was spent by the mid-30s. She’s charming and excellent in Hot Saturday.

Cary Grant’s screen persona was already almost (but not quite) fully formed when he made this movie. Romer Sheffield is regarded by the town gossips as a monster of depravity but the audience knows he’s really a pretty nice guy and that his charm isn’t fake. Randolph Scott is rather good too.

With a pre-code movie you just never know what to expect from the ending. Sometimes you get a moral ending but sometimes the movie stays pre-code right to the end. The latter is the case with Hot Saturday. Early on the movie takes aim at narrow-minded moralising and it keeps on landing its punches and it doesn’t let up at the end.

Hot Saturday is a delightful pre-code romantic melodrama and while it outraged puritans at the time it’s very much a feelgood movie. Like so many pre-code movies it seems much more modern than Hollywood movies of the 40s and 50s. Highly recommended.

Hot Saturday is one of the six movies in the Universal Backlot Pre-Code Collection DVD boxed set, a set that every pre-code fan should own.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

The Nevadan (1950)

The Nevadan is a 1950 western and it stars Randolph Scott which is usually enough reason in itself to watch a movie.

It starts in great style, with a lot of information conveyed to the viewer very economically. We know that Tom Tanner (Forrest Tucker) was involved in a big gold robbery, we know he had the gold but when he was arrested there was no sign of any gold at all. It’s a safe bet he stashed it away somewhere safe. Tanner is on his way to stand trial for the robbery when he escapes.

He makes his escape successfully but he’s followed by a rather odd character. Andrew Barclay (Randolph Scott) is dressed in big city clothes and looks just like a city boy who wouldn’t last five minutes in the Wild West. We very quickly realise that looks are deceptive. There’s a lot more to this guy than meets the eye.

And now Tanner has robbed a bank, but all he took was a piece of paper. We figure that paper is the key to the location of the loot.

Barclay follows Tanner to the town of Twin Forks. Twin Forks is owned lock, stock and barrel by Edward Galt (played by George Macready in inimitable sinister style). Galt is just too rich to be an honest man.

Barclay has already encountered Galt’s daughter Karen (Dorothy Malone). Karen runs a ranch for her father. She’s pretty but high-spirited.

Galt knows about the gold and he wants it. He isn’t sure about this Barclay character but he figures Barclay must be after the gold as well.

Tanner is set up by Galt and that gives Barclay the chance to force him into a partnership. They’ll split the money. But they’ll have to get to the gold before Galt does.

It’s an uneasy partnership. The two men don’t trust each other.

I like movies that have thematic complexity and moral ambiguity and interesting characters with depth to them but I’m also quite OK with movies that just offer pure entertainment. The Nevadan falls into the pure entertainment category but it has a few problems.

The major problem is the hackneyed storyline. You can see every plot twist coming up a mile away. The big plot twist is revealed too early but that doesn’t matter because it was totally predictable right from the start. There’s not a great deal of genuine suspense because it’s obvious that this is a movie that is not going to take any risks.

The characters are thin to say the least.

The cast is good. People like Randolph Scott, Dorothy Malone and George Macready are too good to give bad performances but the script gives them very little to work with and they’re not given any opportunities to stretch their performances in interesting ways.

On the plus side the pacing is excellent, that opening sequence is impressive and the action climax is handled pretty well.

It looks great, with some lovely location shooting. It was shot in the Academy ratio and in Cinecolor.

Umbrella’s DVD release in their excellent Six Shooter Classics series is barebones but offers a very good transfer. And it’s pleasingly inexpensive. This is not a movie that you’d bother to buy on Blu-Ray and in any case it hasn’t been released in that format.

This is not a terrible movie. It’s well made and it’s a harmless time-waster but it just doesn’t offer up anything to distinguish it from dozens of by-the-numbers B-westerns.

Hardcore Randolph Scott fans will want to see The Nevadan. Apart from that, if you don’t mind undemanding westerns and you can pick up the DVD cheap it’s probably worth a look.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Bombshell (1933)

Bombshell (later retitled Blonde Bombshell) is a 1933 MGM pre-code comedy with Jean Harlow playing a Hollywood star who is a bit like - Jean Harlow. With some hints of other famous (and notorious) female movie stars including fairly obviously Clara Bow. In fact there’s a great deal of Clara Bow in the character played by Harlow. It’s not exactly an exposé of Hollywood sex and sin. It’s more a glorious lighthearted celebration of Hollywood decadence but with plenty of satirical swipes at the hypocrisy, phoneyness and insanity of Tinsel Town.

Harlow plays Lola Burns, currently the biggest star in Hollywood. To say that Lola’s life is crazy would be putting it mildly. Some the craziness is caused by her family - her boozy bombastic father (played by Frank Morgan) and her worthless alcoholic brother Junior (Ted Healy). Some is caused by her constant succession of boyfriends. Her latest paramour is an Italian nobleman, the Marquis Hugo di Binelli di Pisa (Ivan Lebedeff). Hugo is really just a jumped-up penniless gigolo but Lola has fallen for the phoney nobleman schtick. Some of the craziness is engineered by Lola’s publicist E.J. ‘Space’ Hanlon (Lee Tracy). And a lot of the craziness stems from Lola’s bewildering series of enthusiasms.

Lola didn’t get to the top in Hollywood by being an intellectual genius. She’s the archetypal ditzy blonde. But she’s sweet and she’s adorable.

Her current director Jim Brogan (Pat O’Brien) is in love with her and wants to marry her. Space Hanlon is in love with her and wants to marry her. Naturally each of them tries to sabotage the other’s romantic efforts.

Lola resents Space’s efforts to drum up publicity for her. She thinks that it’s always bad publicity. But Space understands that bad publicity is good publicity. That’s a concept Lola has never been able to grasp.

Lola’s latest enthusiasm is babies. She wants a baby. At least she wants to adopt a baby. Or at least she wants to take a baby home from the orphanage on 30 day approval.

Lola will have to be interviewed by two very respectable elderly ladies to determine her suitability as an adoptive mother. While the interview is being conducted her household naturally erupts into total chaos.

Harlow is in dazzling form. She’s sexy and she gets some risqué lines and this being a pre-code movie she doesn’t need to tone down her innate sexiness at all. She’s also extremely funny. This might not be her best movie but it’s definitely her funniest performance. And while Lola Burns is incredibly ditzy we never lose sight of the fact that she’s a nice girl and fundamentally good-natured. We don’t have to feel bad about laughing at her. There’s nothing mean-spirited about the way Lola Burns is portrayed.

We really want Lola to be happy and to find love.

I’ve always felt that a little bit of Lee Tracy goes a long way but surprisingly I really liked him in this movie. Space Hanlon is supposed to be a deplorable human being. Somehow Tracy makes him rather likeable - he has no morals and no ethics but this is Hollywood and he’s no worse than anyone else in that town and he really isn’t malicious. He just wants publicity for Lola, that’s his job and he’s good at it. And I have to admit that in Bombshell he’s funny.

The supporting cast is simply wonderful. Frank Morgan as Lola’s father, Una Merkel as her personal secretary, Louise Beavers as her maid and Leonard Carey as her hapless butler are the standouts but there’s not a bad performance in the film.

This is a very meta movie. At one point Lola is doing reshoots for one of her earlier movies, Red Dust. And Lola is referred to as the It Girl, which was of course the moniker applied to Clara Bow. It’s also very clear that in this movie Jean Harlow is an actress playing the part of an actress whose life is a performance. It gets quite postmodern at times. It’s obvious that Harlow understood all this - her performance is sly and clever.

When the mood switches to romance the romance with wealthy Boston blue-blood Gifford Middleton (Franchot Tone) plays out like a scene from a 1920s Hollywood romantic melodrama with Tone playing his rôle in a deliberately cornball way.

Being a pre-code movie the dialogue gets quite risqué at times. You never doubt for a moment that all these people have sex regularly and regard it as a normal part of life. And marriage is strictly optional. The movie isn’t attacking marriage or love. Lola wants love. And probably marriage. But it certainly doesn’t suggest that that has to mean devoting herself to baking and child-rearing.

The Warner Archive DVD is barebones but it’s a decent transfer. It would of course be nice to see an extras-laden Blu-Ray boxed set of Harlow’s superb pre-code movies but so far there’s no sign of that happening.

Bombshell is a delight from start to finish. It’s a grown-up movie and it’s a feelgood movie and it’s a very funny movie. Very highly recommended.