MOD Movies: The ‘Forbidden’ Movies of Pre-Code Hollywood

There were a couple of years when Hollywood, moving from the purely visual (with textual assist) storytelling of silent to the immediacy of sound, struggled to find its voice. When it did, the talkies exploded. When stilted line-readings in awkwardly-placed microphones gave way to rapid-fire patter and free-wheeling interplay, the verbal energy sent a lot movies racing, even when the visuals remained restrained.

That’s part of the fun of the early thirties Hollywood movies, but only part. Before the  crackdown of the production code, these films fizzed with sex and sass, wise-guys and smart dames, hustlers and sharpies and even elegant society folk with wit and wiles and insouciant charm.

And personality. Lots of personality, thanks to stars like James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, William Powell, Joan Blondell, and the great stock company of supporting players at Warner Bros.. That, more than anything mentioned above, recommends the eight films on two recent collections from the Warner Archive.

Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 4” (Warner Archive) showcases the debonair grace and amused attitude of William Powell in “Jewel Robbery” (1932), playing a cultured jewel thief in Vienna who romances a bored Baroness (Kay Francis) brought to life by his unconventional courtship. He’s a guy who conducts a robbery as if hosting a soiree, keeping his victims duly entertained while relieving them of their valuables. Not exactly drawing room wit, but quite lively and fun when Powell is delivering the remarks, and as for its pre-code bonafides, there is an extended sequence with a “drugged cigarette” that is the earliest example of stoner gags I’ve ever seen.

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DVDs for 3/24/09 – William Wellman, In Treatment, Twilight and Bond… James Bond

Hollywood pro William Wellman directed more than 80 films in every genre over the course of four decades, but for my money, he was never more interesting than in the early sound era, where his energy and audacity powered over a dozen short, sharp, street-smart films filled with saucy sexiness and startling violence and mixed with varying measures of social commentary. Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three collects six features by the enormously prolific director from that era (and two documentaries) on a four-disc set, and they are something else, films strewn with wild melodrama, romantic triangles, brawny action and some of the sexiest scenes of heavy petting and passionate smooching you’ve seen out of old Hollywood, with more frank sexuality more suggested than shown but there is no mistaking the suggestions.

I cover all six films – with special attention paid to the two mad masterpieces of depression-era outrage and helplessness Heroes for Sale and Wild Boys of the Road (both 1933) – in my review on Parallax View.

The intense and thoroughly riveting In Treatment, a series developed for HBO by Rodrigo Garcia (who directed half the series himself), is presented in an unconventional format: five half-hour episodes a week over the course of nine weeks. Each feature psychiatrist Paul (Gabriel Byrne) in a weekly session with his patients and, at the end of the week, with his own therapist (Dianne Wiest), with whom he has an adversarial relationship. Which isn’t all that different from many of his own patients: Laura (Melissa George) is in love with Paul and spends her sessions trying to rouse an emotion from him; Alex (Blair Underwood) is a hyper-competitive Navy pilot who treats his session like verbal sparring matches; Sophie (Mia Wasikowska) is a teenage gymnast with deep emotional conflicts; and Amy and Jake (Embeth Davidtz, Josh Charles) are married couple who can turn ferocious in the middle of a session. The show was adapted from the Israeli series Be’Tipul and many of the American scripts are based on episodes written by Ari Folman, the writer/director of the Oscar nominated film Waltz With Bashir. Garcia is a cinematic short story craftsman and this series, like his films, is adept at exploring uncomfortable relationships and tense emotional states.
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DVD of the Week – ‘No Country For Old Men’ – March 11, 2008

Weeks after taking home Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director(s) and Best Adapted Screenplay, No Country For Old Men arrives on DVD.

(T)he Coen Bros.’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel is their masterpiece, a perfect match of story and storyteller. Josh Brolin stars as an easy-going Vietnam Vet poaching in the Texas desert who stumbles into the wreckage of a drug deal gone ballistic and ambles off with a fortune in drug money. Javier Bardem won an Oscar playing methodical mercenary Chigurh, a relentless killer with an indeterminate accent and the creepiest haircut ever allowed in a movie out to recover the money. But the story is really about Tommy Lee Jones’ laconic Sheriff Bell, a dedicated lawman following the trail of the corpses left in Chigurh’s wake and becoming more disillusioned with the world with every death he’s unable to prevent. The Coens don’t explain, they show in meticulous detail with evocative and creative flair, slowly unraveling a story that seems to be spinning out the control of everyone but the filmmakers. Their methodical deliberateness tracks every detail of the story. There are no random elements, just those details we don’t yet know, and that’s far more dangerous. Cinematographer (and Oscar nominee) Roger Deakins gives it the feel of a primeval frontier with his simple, stark images, a world neither compassionate nor cruel, simply harsh and indifferent and unforgiving of stupid mistakes and overweening arrogance.

The film is accompanied by three featurettes. The 24-minute “The Making of No Country For Old Men” is the most interesting, thanks to interviews with (among others) Tommy Lee Jones and the Coen Bros., who sum up their cinematic approach with classic understatment:

“A lot of it is very procedural, people doing things to cover their tracks…,” begins Ethan in a thought completed by Joel with, “It’s about physical activity in order to achieve a purpose, which honestly we’ve always been fascinated by.”

Read the complete DVD review here.

I reviewed the film for the Seattle P-I here.

 

My other pick of the week spotlights racy films from Hollywood’s pre-code sound era, when the studios fought to attract audiences in the depths of the depression with cost-effective spectacles of sex, violence and other forbidden activities. TCM Archives: Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 2: Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘No Country For Old Men’ – March 11, 2008”