Cagney & Blondell: Made for Each Other

Could there have been a more ideally matched couple from the Warner Bros. stock company than this pair of New York natives with their street-smart ways and attitudes to match? It seems strange that James Cagney and Joan Blondell aren’t usually included in that rarified group of Gable & Harlow or Tracy & Hepburn or Bogart & Bacall or Loy & Powell and others but Blonde Crazy (1931) alone is reason enough to add this duo to the Hollywood leading couples A-list.  Continue reading

Irene Dunne in a Sinclair Lewis World

Among the many film adaptations of Sinclair Lewis novels over the years, Ann Vickers (1933) is probably the least known of them all, and, it wasn’t among the most popular or critically acclaimed of Lewis’s novels either. Those would be Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927) and Dodsworth (1929). Yet, Ann Vickers is probably Lewis’s most fully developed female protagonist and the 1933 film version starring Irene Dunne and Walter Huston is a flawed but fascinating movie that provides an apt example of how the work of a great American writer can be completely altered, distorted or softened by Hollywood and the Production Code officials.   Continue reading

Like Catnip for Women

David Manners (center) turns on the charm for Ann Dvorak as Ken Murray looks on in Crooner (1932).

Thanks to Warner Archives and several other distributors there have been an astonishing number of Pre-Code films made available to classic movie fans on DVD, MOD and streaming services over the years. But not every title is available and there are still some major omissions such as A Free Soul (1931) starring Norma Shearer or The Story of Temple Drake (1933) with Miriam Hopkins. There are also lesser-known oddities awaiting discovery such as Crooner (1932), which pops up occasionally on Turner Classic Movies. Directed by Lloyd Bacon, starring David Manners, Ann Dvorak and J. Carrol Naish and clocking in at a brisk 68 minutes, the film charts the rise and fall of Teddy Taylor (Manners), a struggling musician and his jazz band, Ted Taylor’s Collegiates.  Continue reading

Aline MacMahon in Heat Lightning

Publicity portrait of Aline MacMahon in the 1930s.

Most classic movie fans know Aline MacMahon as the wise-cracking Trixie in Gold Diggers of 1933, the devoted wife of Guy Kibbee in William Keighley’s film version of Babbitt (1934) or the victimized heiress in George B. Seitz’s Kind Lady (1935). These were stand-out roles but she was usually relegated to supporting parts, especially during her contract years at Warners Bros. With her Irish/Russian ancestry, MacMahon was not a conventional leading lady but she had an offbeat beauty that was both soulful and melancholy. These qualities, plus a steely toughness and dry sense of humor, make her performance in Heat Lightning (1934) particularly memorable. It also marked her first film in a leading role after playing character parts in 12 movies.   Continue reading

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

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