The Corporate Ladder and How to Climb It

Despite a long and prolific career, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is more famous for being the son of the silent era superstar Douglas Fairbanks Sr., his Hollywood social connections (including ex-wife Joan Crawford) and a handful of films in which he’s overshadowed by his co-stars (Greta Garbo in A Woman of Affairs [1928], Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar [1931], Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory [1933], and Cary Grant in Gunga Din [1939]).  Continue reading

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Lee Tracy Does Washington

Whenever a repertory cinema like NYC’s Film Forum or a film archive like the George Eastman Museum programs a Pre-Code series you can bet that Lee Tracy is bound to be in a few of the famous titles such as The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, Love is a Racket, Doctor X, Blessed Event (all released in 1932) and Bombshell (1933). He’s also likely to be playing some kind of shady careerist such as a carnival barker, ambulance-chasing lawyer or tabloid newsman. That’s probably due to his legendary performance on Broadway in 1928 as reporter Hildy Johnson in The Front Page, written by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to play the role in the 1931 screen version – Pat O’Brien won that honor and Rosalind Russell played the female version in Howard Hawks’ 1940 remake, His Girl Friday – but Fox Pictures realized Tracy’s potential and brought him to Hollywood in 1929.  Continue reading

From Tenement to Penthouse: A Pre-Code Affair

Warren William and Marian Marsh in the Pre-Code drama, Under Eighteen (1931), directed by Archie Mayo.

Warren William and Marian Marsh in the Pre-Code drama, Under Eighteen (1931), directed by Archie Mayo.

One of several Pre-Code dramas helmed by Warner Bros. contract director Archie Mayo in 1931, Under Eighteen is a cautionary tale for the working girl that was lost in the shuffle of too many similar programmers released that same year. Seen today, it provides a unique window into the past when studios like Warner Bros. catered to Depression Era-audiences, particularly women, with movie plots that mirrored situations and circumstances in the lives of their audience.    Continue reading

Kay Francis as the Notorious ‘Spot White’

Kay Francis has that come-hither look in Mandalay (1934), an often overlooked Pre-Code drama

Kay Francis has that come-hither look in Mandalay (1934), an often overlooked Pre-Code drama

Today her place in film history rates little more than a footnote in the ascendancy of Warner Bros. as a major Hollywood studio, but Kay Francis was their first major female star whom they had lured away from Paramount in 1931. During her peak years for the studio between 1932 and 1935, she specialized in melodramas, soap operas and lightweight comedies which accented her elegance and chic fashion sense but also stereotyped her in increasingly inferior films.

She was dethroned by Bette Davis as Warners’ top star in 1936 and, by 1938, she was labeled “box office poison” in an article by The Hollywood Reporter. Still, there are several essential must-see titles among the more than sixty-five movies that she made (Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise [1932], Jewel Robbery [1932], Wonder Bar [1934], for example) and Mandalay (1934) is one of her best dramatic showcases as well as an enormously entertaining, eyebrow-raising Pre-Code wonder. (It was made before the Code was officially enforced but released after the fact.)    Continue reading

Scandal Sheet Smackdown

Five Star Final posterIn the early thirties, most studios steered clear of social protest films but not Warner Bros. They embraced the genre with the same muckraking glee that characterized some of their subjects. Prison reform was addressed in one of their most famous films, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), with equally controversial topics like the rise in urban crime and drug addiction among war veterans being presented in The Public Enemy (1931) and Heroes for Sale (1933), respectively. Five Star Final (1931), on the other hand, addressed a different type of social problem – tabloid journalism.    Continue reading