Most classic movie fans are well aware of the impressive and versatile film legacy of William A. Wellman, who directed Wings (1927), the first film to win the Best Picture Oscar in the Academy’s history, as well as bona fide classics like the 1937 version of A Star is Born and the gritty WW2 drama, Battleground (1949). It has only been in recent years, however, that Wellman fans have become acquainted with the groundbreaking Pre-Code dramas he helmed in the early thirties thanks to DVD releases from the Warner Archive Collection. Outside of occasional airings on Turner Classic movies, most of Wellman’s racy, vibrant work in the Pre-Code era had been unseen for years. But suddenly the floodgates were open and film buffs were finally able to enjoy the eyebrow-raising excesses of Night Nurse (1931), Love is a Racket (1932), Frisco Jenny (1932) and Heroes for Sale (1933), to name just a few. The diamond in the rough for my money though is Safe in Hell (1931), featuring a gutsy, no-holds-barred performance by Dorothy MacKaill. When you see this film, you can understand why the Production Code was created.Continue reading
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Before Bogart Became Bogie
For that small number of gifted actors who become screen legends, the path to stardom is rarely predictable. Sometimes it’s a case of pure luck. Other times it’s achieved after years of honing their craft and screen persona through hard earned experience. I can’t think of a better example of the latter than Humphrey Bogart who made twelve films (two of them short subjects, 1928’s The Dancing Town and 1930’s Broadway’s Like That) before his breakout supporting role as the vicious gangster Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936). The irony is that despite playing that same character on Broadway where he won unanimous critical acclaim, Warner Bros. wanted Edward G. Robinson for the role. If it hadn’t been for the film’s star, Leslie Howard, who played opposite Bogart on Broadway and demanded that he be cast in the film or he would quit, Bogart might not be as famous today. Continue reading
Kay Francis as the Notorious ‘Spot White’
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 , Jewel Robbery , Wonder Bar , 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