More on the Pre-Code Hollywood Collection and Max Fleischer’s Superman

I delve deeper into  the Pre-Code Hollywood Collection (and its sister release Cleopatra – 75th Anniversary Edition) at Parallax View.

Paramount boasted a more elegant style and opulent touch, more glamour and soft-focus gloss than the working class Warner films and a roster of directors that included Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, Cecil B. DeMille and Mitchell Leisen, a director who began as a costume designer and art director on Douglas Fairbanks adventures and Cecil B. DeMille spectacles.

Earl Carroll and the lovely chorus girls of the Vanities
Earl Carroll and the lovely chorus girls of the Vanities

I bring up Leisen in particular because his 1934 Murder at the Vanities is a highlight of the set, a combination backstage musical, showbiz comedy and murder mystery, all with the sex and smart-alecky attitude and snappy pace of the best pre-code studio pictures. Leisen mentored under DeMille as the director transformed himself from silky sex comedy director to self-promoting epic filmmaker and king of the spectacle. Leisen’s earlier film, the classy drama Death Takes a Holiday, is a somewhat lugubrious production but by Murder at the Vanities, Leisen starts to come into his own as a deft director of light romantic comedy and cool, clever Hollywood entertainment. It’s based on a play by Earl Carroll, creator of the “Vanities” stage spectacles, and while he doesn’t appear in the film as such, Carroll’s presence hovers over the entire film through cagey name dropping. Carl Brisson and Kitty Carlisle (as the singing stars and romantic sweethearts) headline the show onstage but the offstage antics by fast-talking manager Jack Oakie (playing a former newspaperman and all-around wise guy trying to prove himself to boss Carroll) steal the film. He outmaneuvers thickheaded Irish cop Victor McLaglen (in his usual hammy lug of a performance) in a race to solve a murder before the curtain drops and handily wins the battle of wits with snappy repartee and smartly delivered quips.

I also celebrate the glories of Max Fleischer’s Superman from Warner Home Video:

Max Fleischer’s Superman gives creative credit to producer Max Fleischer but it was his brother, Dave Fleischer, who directed the first eight shorts and created the handsome, graceful texture and theatrical sensibility of the series. The colors are soft and subtle in some scenes, rich and vivid in others, and are filled with dramatic washes of shadows throughout. The stories evoke the wild tales of the adventure serials and the genre films of the time (”The Mummy Strikes” is very much a superhero take on the Universal mummy movies). But visually they are more like superhero noir pieces, more suggestive of the dark mood of Batman more than the squeaky clean man of steel image we’ve come to expect, and the anthem-ic theme and dynamic scores by Sammy Timberg are fabulous, moody and suggestive when called for and rousing when the action kicks into gear. They are brilliant adventure cinema soundtracks, which gets to the heart of the genius of the series: these cartoons are more like the live action films of the era than the cartoons of the time, a stylized vision of the real world painted directly onto the screen in smooth strokes and evocative visuals, into which marvelous monsters and a mythic hero appear to do battle.

Read the complete feature at Parallax View here.

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Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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