I started off this year’s #PreCodeApril event on Twitter with one of the all-time great pre-code films, The Public Enemy (1931). This film is also one of the premier gangster films, and is the film that made James Cagney a star. It was also one of Jean Harlow’s first big parts. With all the hype surrounding the film and its massive starpower, it is amazing that it has eluded me until now. Of course, I knew about the famous grapefruit scene between Cagney and Mae Clarke. I just hadn’t seen the scene within the context of the film.
The Public Enemy, 1931 Starring: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke Director: William A. Wellman Studio: Warner Brothers
SYNOPSIS: The Public Enemy takes place over about a twenty year (give or take) span of time. At the beginning of the film, it’s the early 1900s. We meet our main characters, Tom Powers (Cagney) and his best friend, Matt Doyle (Woods), as children living in Chicago. The two boys are troublemakers and are seen engaging in petty theft around town. They work for a gangster named “Putty Nose.” Putty Nose has the boys steal small items, then he pays them for the items. Putty presumably then sells them for a higher price to someone else. Putty Nose then invites the boys to participate in a robbery at a fur warehouse. The heist goes awry when Tom is startled by a stuffed bear and shoots at it. His gunshot alerts the police to their presence, who end up shooting one of the members of Putty’s gang. Tom and Matt gun the police officer down. When the boys go to Putty for help, they discover that he’s left town. This incident establishes a grudge that Tom carries with him to adulthood.
Time passes and the two boys grow up. By 1920, with Prohibition in full swing, Tom and Matt are enlisted by a bootlegger to help distribute his illicit liquor. Tom and Matt are living the high life as bootleggers. They eventually get girlfriends, Kitty (Clarke) and Mamie (Blondell). Tom and Kitty quickly tire of one another. Their relationship reaches its bitter end (literally) when Tom pushes a grapefruit half into Kitty’s face. Eventually Tom meets another woman, Gwen (Harlow), who admits that she’s been with a lot of men. As time passes, Tom’s illicit activity and relationships with other noted members of the underground makes him the target of a rival gang.
MY THOUGHTS: This was such an amazing film. At first I wasn’t sure what to think of it, I was just anticipating the grapefruit scene. But Cagney was mesmerizing on screen. Apparently, he was supposed to have the supporting role as Matt Doyle, with Edward Woods in the leading role as Tom. However, when the first day’s rushes came back, director William A. Wellman realized what charisma and starpower Cagney had and switched his and Woods’ roles. And while Woods may have been the loser in the deal, the world is richer for Wellman’s insight. Cagney is fantastic in this film and with a less interesting lead (read: Woods), the film might have been average at best. Cagney elevates the material. The ending was truly gruesome. I was not expecting it. Joan Blondell was excellent, even in her small role. She and Cagney make a delightful team. Harlow had flashes of what made her a big star, but it is obvious that she is still very early in her career. Having watched a few of Harlow’s pre-codes, she really comes to her own a year later in 1932 with Red-Headed Woman and Red Dust.
2021 is (finally) coming to a close. While the year wasn’t so hot as a whole, except for my fabulous trip to Southern California in October, it was another year of discovering new favorite films. One of the best thing about being a fan of film, especially classic film, is that you never run out of “new” movies to see. As Lauren Bacall says in an episode of Private Screenings with Robert Osborne, “It’s not an old movie, if you haven’t seen it,” and I couldn’t agree more. There is an entire world of movies to discover, a world of films just waiting to become someone’s favorite.
Without further adieu, in no particular order, here are some of my new favorites that I watched for the first time in 2021:
#1 Road House (1948) This was a fabulous film noir that I watched right at the start of the new year. It is the final volume in the Fox Film Noir DVD series (I own the entire collection). I decided to take a look at it, because I’m a big fan of Ida Lupino. In addition to Lupino, it also starred Cornel Wilde, Richard Widmark, and Celeste Holm. At first, it seems like Ida is going to be the femme fatale, but it is soon revealed that she is a woman who will not be made a pawn in the games of the men, Wilde and Widmark. Even though she was originally brought into the Road House by Widmark to be another of his fly by night floozies, she refuses to be used and becomes a big star and later saves the day. In a time when every woman who wasn’t Judy Garland or Doris Day was dubbed, Ida uses her own voice to warble out “One for my Baby (And One More For the Road)” and it was fabulous.
#2 Mrs. Miniver (1942). I know. This is a big Oscar winner. A major classic of the studio era, but I hadn’t seen it yet. I absolutely loved this movie and actually bought the blu-ray literally right after watching it. That’s how much I loved it. Greer Garson won an Oscar playing the titular Mrs. Miniver and infamously delivered the longest acceptance speech, a record which still stands today. Long-winded speech or not, Garson deserved her award. In Mrs. Miniver, Garson portrays a very stoic woman and mother who stays strong and protects her family even directly in the line of fire during the German invasion of Britain. She puts humanity above all else, even when directly threatened by an injured German pilot. The scene with Mrs. Miniver and her husband and children hiding in the shelter while bombs fall all around them is heartbreaking. This family does not know what they’ll find when they emerge, or whether their house will still be standing. Despite everything, Mrs. Miniver remains a calm influence even in the middle of a tumultuous event, like a World War. I cannot say enough good things about this film, it was fantastic.
#3 Girl Happy (1965). Like the esteemed Mrs. Miniver, this Elvis movie is another film that I purchased immediately after watching it. I loved it. For years, with the exception of Viva Las Vegas (my favorite Elvis movie), I wrote off Elvis’ movies as pure fluff, and not fluffy in a good way, and many of Elvis’ movies are ridiculous, like Girl Happy, but if you can suspend disbelief and just go along with whatever plot is presented, I’ve found that many of Elvis’ movies are enjoyable diversions. In Girl Happy, Elvis plays a musician (a premise setting up lots of opportunities for Elvis to sing) who, along with his band, is hired by his boss to indirectly chaperone his 18-year old daughter, Shelley Fabares. Shelley is traveling to Florida for Spring Break and her overprotective father is worried. Elvis happily agrees, because he gets an all expenses paid trip to Florida. Like how most movies with this plot go (see Too Many Girls), Elvis starts to fall in love with the girl whom he’s chaperoning, and the girl discovers that he was hired to watch her and gets upset. Regardless, this movie was charming, fun, and I loved it.
#4 History is Made at Night (1937) This was a movie that I’d never even heard of until I heard that Criterion was restoring it and releasing it as part of their esteemed (at least among the boutique label community) line of films. I first watched it on the Criterion Channel and must have seen a pre-restoration print, because it was pretty rough. After watching it, I couldn’t believe that I’d never heard of it. It had one of my faves, Jean Arthur! And Charles “LUCY! RAWWWR” Boyer. How has this movie been hiding from me this entire time? In this movie, Jean Arthur plays Irene, a woman who leaves her husband, Bruce, (Colin Clive) after he falsely accuses her of having an affair. To prevent the divorce from being finalized, Bruce tries to manipulate a situation to frame Irene for infidelity. He hires his chauffeur to pretend to be Irene’s lover, so that a private detective walks in and catches them in a compromising position. While this is taking place, Paul (Charles Boyer) is walking by Irene’s window. He overhears the ruckus and comes to Irene’s rescue, pretending to be an armed burglar. It’s a weird set-up, but ultimately leads to a beautiful love story with an ending that I was not expecting.
#5 Naked Alibi (1954). This was another film noir that I’d never heard of until I was reading Sterling Hayden’s filmography and discovered that he’d made a film with one of my faves, Gloria Grahame. Fortunately, my library had this film available and I was able to borrow it. This was a great movie. Hayden plays a police chief who tails a suspect, Willis, to Mexico. Willis is suspected to be the mastermind behind a series of crimes in the small town from which he and Hayden hail. While in a border town on the Mexican border, Hayden meets Grahame, a singer with whom he becomes smitten. Unfortunately, Grahame is the girlfriend of Willis, despite the shoddy treatment she receives from him. Hayden and Grahame’s connection with one another continues to grow until the very end of the film. This was a wonderful film and I thought that Gloria Grahame looked absolutely gorgeous.
#6 Dead End (1937). Despite the appearance of the Dead End Kids, whom I cannot stand (I don’t get their appeal), I thought this was a great movie. This film is a story about social classes and the privileges that are afforded to those of a higher social standing. The neighborhood in the film is a “dead end” both figuratively and literally. The rich live in high rise apartments that overlook the slums and tenements. Those who are not privileged to live in the high rises literally have the rich looking down upon them. If you have the misfortune to be born into the slums, it is all you can do to get out. Some try to do so honorably, like Dave (Joel McCrea), who dreams of making a career as an architect. However, he can’t just seem to book the right gig, so he has to survive by doing odd jobs. Others, like Drina (Sylvia Sidney) have slightly less honorable means to get out of the tenement, she wants to marry a rich man. Then, there are those like Hugh “Baby Face” Martin (Humphrey Bogart), who did manage to get out of the slums, but he did so by becoming a big-time mobster. The Dead End Kids represent the next generation who most likely will remain in the slums, unless they can somehow be guided into making a better life for themselves. Marjorie Main has a heartbreaking role as Baby Face’s mother. Claire Trevor is fantastic as Baby Face’s old girlfriend, who was never able to get out of the slums.
#7 Klute (1971) This was the first film in Alan J. Pakula’s “Paranoia Trilogy,” which unfortunately I watched all out of order. I don’t think the films in the trilogy have anything to do with one another, so I think I’m okay. Anyway, there’s just something about the 1970s thrillers that I find fascinating. There’s a grittiness, a seediness, combined with the earth tones aesthetic that I just love watching. Anyway, in this film, Jane Fonda gives an Oscar-winning performance as Bree Daniels, a prostitute who aids police detective, John Klute, in investigating a murder. After finding an obscene letter addressed to Bree in the murder victim’s office, Klute rents an apartment in Bree’s building and begins tracing her. Concurrently, Bree is working as a freelance call girl to support herself while she tries to make it as a model/actress. Bree is also trying to find meaning in her life through sessions with a psychiatrist. This was such a fantastic movie and I was on the edge of my seat waiting to find out who was responsible for the murder.
#8 Thunder on the Hill (1951) I am a big fan of Ann Blyth and this was a film of hers that I hadn’t heard of until I purchased Kino Lorber’s Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema box sets. Thunder on the Hill, by the way, is on the second collection in the series. In this film, Blyth plays Valerie, a young woman convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged. However, on her way to the gallows, Valerie and the police officers accompanying her, are forced to spend the night in the hospital ward of a convent due to massive flooding. Running the hospital ward is Sister Mary (Claudette Colbert), a woman who is also battling with her own mental troubles involving her sister’s suicide. Valerie is understandably combative and angry, but confides to Sister Mary that she is innocent of the crime of which she was convicted. Sister Mary, who has been warned in the past about meddling in other people’s affairs, is convinced of Valerie’s innocence and sets to save her before she is executed. This was such a wonderful film. It was interesting to see Blyth in such a different role than that of Veda in Mildred Pierce or the mermaid in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid. I loved the suspense of the story and the cinematography was gorgeous. I am also a big fan of Douglas Sirk, so this film fit the bill.
#9 King Creole (1958) A second Elvis film on the list? Yes! I watched a lot of Elvis movies this year according to LetterBoxd, so it was bound to happen. This was an excellent film. It was much higher brow fare than Elvis would be offered once he returned from his stint in the army. In this movie, Elvis plays super senior Danny, who has failed high school once and looks like he’ll fail it again due to his behavior. He is offered a chance to graduate if he agrees to take night classes, but Danny turns it down, much to the chagrin of his father, Dean Jagger. There is drama between Danny and his father, in that Jagger lost his job as a pharmacist after his wife died. The family is forced to leave their nice home outside of New Orleans for a much more modest flat in the French Quarter. To help make ends meet, Danny was working before and after school. Now with school out of the way, Danny starts working at a club. As how most Elvis movies go, he is coerced into singing and is offered a job performing at the club, much to the chagrin of the club’s main act. Danny is soon a sensation. Eventually his connection with the local gangs threaten to affect his family, his relationship with a young woman named Nellie (Dolores Hart), and his life. This was such a great movie with a stellar cast. Aside from Elvis, Dean Jagger and Dolores Hart, Carolyn Jones, Walter Matthau, Vic Morrow, and Paul Stewart also star in this film… and it was directed by none other than Michael Curtiz!
#10 Private Lives (1931) This was a fabulous pre-code starring Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery. In this film, Shearer and Montgomery play Amanda and Elyot, two ex-spouses who end up staying at the same hotel while honeymooning with their new respective spouses. Both honeymoons are NOT going well. Amanda and her new husband Victor (Reginald Denny) are already fighting due to Victor’s incessant need to talk about Elyot. Because yes, let’s talk about your new bride’s ex-husband on your honeymoon. Great idea, Victor. Elyot is dealing with the same thing from his new wife, Sybil (Una Merkel) who won’t stop asking about Amanda. Eventually, Amanda and Elyot find each other and begin to reminisce about “the old times.” They end up leaving the hotel together and head to a new place in St. Moritz. This was a fabulous pre-code that had plenty of racy moments. I am not as big a fan of Shearer in her production code movies like The Women, but I love her in pre-code. She and Montgomery also make a great pairing. Poor Una Merkel is wasted in her role, but she is wonderful in her scenes.
#11 Hold Back the Dawn (1941) This was an amazing movie. One that I’d always wanted to see but it seemed like it was never on TCM–then finally it was and the movie was everything I’d hoped it would be. In this film, Charles Boyer stars as Georges Iscovescu, a Romanian immigrant who is stuck in a Mexican border town. Per immigration laws, he is looking at up to an eight year wait to obtain a quota number for entry in the United States. Georges then runs into an old flame, Anita Dixon (Paulette Goddard), an Australian who married a US citizen purely to obtain US citizenship. As soon as she could, she divorced the man and retained her citizenship status. Anita suggests that Georges do the same thing, then he and she could be free to start a new life together in New York. Georges immediately goes to work and spots Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland), a California school teacher whose bus has broken down. The bus is set to be repaired shortly, but Georges manipulates the situation (by “losing” a vital piece of the bus’s machinery) and forces Emmy and her class to stay overnight. This gives Georges enough time to woo Emmy and they are married after a whirlwind romance. However, Georges is required to wait in Mexico a few weeks before he can join Emmy in California. Emmy returns unexpectedly and Georges takes her on a trip (under the guise of a honeymoon, but in reality he is trying to hide from an immigration officer who is looking for con artists like Georges and Anita). Georges’ plans are complicated when he finds himself falling in love with Emmy. This was such an amazing film. Even though we’re supposed to dislike Georges, it’s hard to do because it’s Charles-freaking-Boyer. It’s easy to see why Emmy falls for him. I love true, legitimate romantic films (with no contrived plot points), and this is one of the best that I’ve seen.
#12 Gaslight (1944) Another Charles Boyer film! Third one on the list! Surprisingly Boyer was not on my top 10 actors watched in 2021, per Letterboxd. This was an amazing film. I don’t know how I went so long without seeing it. This is the film that gave the name to a form of psychological abuse, where one partner mentally manipulates another into thinking that they’re losing their mind. In this film, Boyer plays Gregory Anton, a pianist who marries Alice Alquist (Ingrid Bergman), a famous opera singer. Gregory works as Alice’s accompanist. At first, Gregory seems sweet, he convinces Alice that they move into her deceased aunt’s old home #9 Thornton Square in London, seemingly under the guise that Alice loved her aunt so much and that her aunt would want her home to be lived in. However, Gregory has ulterior motives which are revealed throughout the film. To keep Alice from catching onto Gregory’s motives, he gaslights her by manipulating situations and then making her think she caused them. Alice begins to think she’s going insane. And while she begins to question Gregory’s actions, he’s gotten her mind so messed up that she can’t convince herself that she’s right. A young, 17-year old Angela Lansbury makes her film debut as Nancy, a tart of a maid who takes pleasure in observing Gregory’s manipulation of Alice. Nancy even plays along to exacerbate the situation. Ingrid Bergman’s performance was a tour-de-force and she deserved every piece of the Oscar that she received.
#13 I Want to Live! (1958) If there are two things I love, it’s classic film and true crime. I Want to Live! has both. This film is a biopic of Barbara Graham, a prostitute who was executed in California in 1955 for her part in the murder of a wealthy widow. Susan Hayward gives an Oscar-winning performance as the doomed woman who at the beginning of the film, works as a prostitute who is arrested for soliciting sex across state lines. She then receives jail time after providing a false alibi to two friends who committed crimes. Despite her growing rap sheet, Barbara continues to “make a living” by committing petty crimes and turning tricks. Eventually, she hits the big time when she gets a job working with a big time thief, Emmett Perkins. Her job is to lure men into his illegal gambling parlor. Meanwhile, her husband has a drug addiction and is unemployed–leaving Barbara as the breadwinner. Eventually Perkins ends up becoming involved with criminals, John Santo and Bruce King. Barbara returns to Perkins’ establishment which is soon raided by the police. Barbara surrenders to the police for her involvement in the gambling ring, but soon learns that she is being accused in being complicit with Santo and King’s murder of a wealthy widow. Barbara tries to give her alibi, saying that she was home with her husband and son, but her husband has skipped town. Unless he can be found, Barbara is toast. This was such an amazing film. I know that there was controversy regarding how Barbara Graham was portrayed in the film, versus the real life events. I can’t comment on that; but what I can say is that real facts or not, this was a great movie.
#14 Suspense (1946) I went into this film noir not knowing entirely what to expect. It starred Barry Sullivan whom I like and Albert Dekker who always turns in a good performance. Sullivan and Dekker’s co-star was British figure skater, Belita. Often when athletes are put into films, especially athletes whose sport is exploited on screen, the results can vary drastically–especially if the athlete has limited acting talent. Sometimes this is good, such as the case with Johnny Weissmuller in the Tarzan series. Other times, it can be limiting like is the case with Belita in another film of hers that I’ve seen. However, in this film, I was pleasantly surprised. I’m not saying Belita was amazing; but she was asked to play a figure skater, and Belita delivers on that front. In this film, Sullivan plays schemer, Joe Morgan, a newcomer to New York City who ends up taking a job at a theater as a peanut vendor. Belita plays the star performer, figure skater, Roberta. Albert Dekker plays Leonard, the owner of the theater and Roberta’s husband. Joe ends up suggesting a new act for Roberta, which revitalizes the show–as a reward he is made a manager. When Leonard leaves for a business trip, he puts Joe in charge. Joe and Roberta end up striking up a romance which Leonard soon discovers. This was a fantastic film. I actually was in suspense and couldn’t wait to see what would happen next.
#15 The China Syndrome (1979) This was another 1970s thriller that I watched which I really enjoyed. In this film, Jane Fonda plays television reporter, Kimberly Wells, who keeps getting stuck with the fluff stories during the local news segments. There is chauvinism present at the station, as it is thought that she couldn’t possibly handle a serious story. Her cameraman is the hot-tempered Richard Adams (Michael Douglas). One day, Kimberly and Richard end up getting a plum gig: doing a report from the Ventana, CA nuclear power plant. While visiting, they witness a malfunction in the nuclear power plant turbine operation and emergency shutdown protocol. Richard, despite being asked not to film, covertly records the entire incident. The incident is played off as not a big deal, but it becomes clear that the plant was thisclose to a meltdown. Jack Lemmon gives a fantastic performance as Jack Godell, the supervisor of the plant. Wilford Brimley was also excellent as the long-time employee, Ted Spindler, who battles with knowing what is right and his resentment over being passed up for promotion opportunities. I loved this movie. This isn’t normally my type of thing, but as a fan of 1970s thrillers and Fonda and Lemmon, I gave it a try. I’m glad I did. I was captivated from beginning to end and I especially loved Lemmon’s performance in the second half of this movie.
A Cry in the Night (1956). Raymond Burr, Natalie Wood, Edmond O’Brien.
Jane Fonda in Five Acts (2018). A fabulous documentary on HBO Max.
The Caine Mutiny (1954). Humphrey Bogart, Fred MacMurray, Van Johnson, Jose Ferrer.
Once a Thief (1965). Alain Delon, Ann-Margret, Van Heflin.
Walk on the Wild Side (1962). Laurence Harvey, Jane Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Anne Baxter, Capucine.
Moonrise (1948). Dane Clark, Lloyd Bridges, Gail Patrick.
The Glass Wall (1953). Vittorio Gassman, Gloria Grahame.
The Big Combo (1955). Richard Conte, Cornel Wilde, Jean Wallace.
Muppets Haunted Mansion (2021) The Great Gonzo, Pepe, Will Arnett.
Die Hard (1988) Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson.
Confession (1937) Kay Francis, Basil Rathbone, Ian Hunter.
Three Days of the Condor (1975) Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Max Von Sydow, Cliff Robertson.
I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955) Susan Hayward, Richard Conte, Eddie Albert.
Possessed (1947) Joan Crawford, Van Heflin, Raymond Massey