Before & After

#17 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

In 1932, Clark Gable, still in his pre-mustache days, made a great pre-code picture with Jean Harlow called Red Dust.  Gable plays Dennis, the owner of a rubber plantation in Indochina.  He lives a physically demanding life devoid of creature comforts.

His world is upended when he goes from having no female company to two very different women vying for his affection.  First, Jean Harlow’s Vantine shows up unannounced.  She’s a bawdy and fun loving prostitute running from trouble, and at first Dennis can’t take his eyes off her.

But when surveyor Gary Willis shows up, Dennis’ head is turned by Gary’s sophisticated wife, Barbara.  

It’s obvious to the audience and to everyone on the plantation except Barbara and Dennis that they are all wrong for one another.  Barbara could never survive in such rugged conditions, and Dennis is not about to shine himself up.

Vantine knows she and Dennis are made for each other, two feral animals in the middle of the jungle, but she’s content to wait for Dennis to come around.  She’s amused by his attempts to make himself suitable for Barbara, whom Vantine calls “The Duchess.”  Unlike Barbara, Vantine doesn’t take life—or herself—too seriously.  And she lives to annoy Dennis.

Harlow is known for her sex appeal, the original blond bombshell.  But what we forget is just how funny she was.  She’s a wonderful comedienne with great timing, which she puts to great use in the film.

Gable is deliciously young and handsome.  He’s always sweaty with two day’s stubble, and I don’t blame Barbara or Vantine for going after him.

Harlow and Gable spark off each other, and it makes it impossible to believe that Dennis will end up with Barbara.  Their chemistry burns up every scene.

But it is Harlow’s Vantine who gets all the best lines.

Twenty-one years later, well after the enforcement of the production code and Gable’s mustache years, MGM remade Red Dust.  They moved the setting to Africa and retitled it Mogambo.  Instead of a rubber plantation, the main character traps African animals to sell to zoos and circuses.  The prostitute is replaced by a showgirl.  The husband and wife that show up are there to make a gorilla documentary instead of a survey.  Otherwise, the plot is remarkably similar.

The Red Dust role played by twenty-one year old Harlow was replaced in Mogambo with thirty-one year old Ava Gardner.  The twenty-six year old Mary Astor role was played by twenty-four year old Grace Kelly.

And the role previously played by thirty-one year old Clark Gable?  

Now played by fifty-two year old Clark Gable.

Ah, Hollywood.

(In truth, Harlow was dead by 1953, but let’s not pretend her status as a corpse had any bearing on the decision to cast a younger actress in the role.  And let’s not forget that Mary Astor was certainly still acting at the time.)

For me, Mogambo was not a great film, certainly not as good as Red Dust.

Ava Gardner’s Honey Bear just doesn’t sparkle like Harlow’s Vantine.  Part of it is the rules of the production code, of course.  In a pre-code world, Vantine is allowed to swagger about as an unrepentant floozy.  The audience is allowed to sympathize with her despite her lack of concern about her checkered present.

Compare Harlow’s entrance as Vantine with Gardner as Honey Bear:

Honey Bear is not as refined as Grace Kelly’s Mrs. Nordley, but it’s not obvious that she’s so much farther down on the social circle that Vic is justified in ordering her not to speak to Mrs. Nordley.  He just comes across as a jerk.

Honey Bear’s past is also whitewashed.  She was once in love with a man who was killed in the war, you see, and so she’s taken a bit of a wrong turn because her heart was shattered.

She’s also terribly jealous and miserable over Vic’s infatuation with Mrs. Nordley.  There is none of Vantine’s amused teasing.  Honey Bear is furious at being unceremoniously thrown over for another woman.

Clark before the mustache and production code with Harlow…..and after with Gardner.

And I hate to say it, but Clark Gable is too old.  He’s twice as old as Grace Kelly and looks even older.  To watch the King of Hollywood lusting after Grace Kelly is just a bit pathetic, and that’s not what the film was going for. (I’ll say nothing of their real life on-set affair.)  And his chemistry with Gardner is non-existent.

Grace Kelly, Clark Gable

Red Dust zips along, but Mogamo drags.  And thanks to the production code, though twenty-years older, Red Dust is actually a much racier and sexier film.

The critics disagree with me, as critics often do.  Gardner was nominated for an Oscar for Lead Actress, and Kelly for Supporting Actress.  Back in 1932, Harlow and Astor weren’t nominated for a thing.  Red Dust did a decent box office, but Mogambo was a smash.

Don’t listen to the critics or the audiences.  Listen to me—next time you’ve got a hankering for Clark Gable in the jungle, skip him with Gardner in the technicolor Mogambo and settle in to watch him with Harlow in black and white.

You won’t be sorry.

(You Won’t) See Jane Swim

#16 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

The Catholics had been raging about the immorality of Hollywood since 1930.  By 1934, the inevitable collision occurred once the Catholics began speaking a language Hollywood understood.

Money.

In 1933, the National Legion of Decency was formed, a Catholic organization that advised which films were suitable for audiences.

Priests encouraged parishioners to join the Legion, which entailed signing a pledge card conveniently located in the Sunday pews.  The pledge begins:

I wish to join the Legion of Decency, which condemns vile and unwholesome moving pictures. I unite with all who protest against them as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country and to religion. I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land. … Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.

Catholics feared the movies would interfere with their eternal salvation, and Hollywood’s box office began to suffer.

Finally the critics had Hollywood’s attention.

In 1934, Philadelphia’s Cardinal Dougherty pressed his advantage and preached from the pulpit that Catholics in his diocese were to boycott all movies, and made clear that to disobey was to sin.

The boycotts raged, and other Christian groups joined, spreading the movement beyond the Catholic Church.  Christian groups wrote letters in protest of the films, and stayed home.

Within weeks, Hollywood had lost several million dollars.

Cardinal Dougherty, our old friend Martin Quigley, and all those in favor of good, clean, pictures had their boot on Hollywood’s neck.

The studios didn’t so much surrender as decline to commit box office suicide.

The studios dragged out the old production code out of a closet, dusted it off, made a few changes, and probably figured they’d be back to their old tricks after the dust settled.

But Joseph Breen had other ideas.  He was the head of the newly formed Production Code Administration, and had an independence from the studios that Will Hays and his censorship board had lacked.  Now, movies could not be shown unless they earned the PCA’s official seal of approval.

Breen had true power, and he wielded it for two decades.

One of the first films to test the limits of Breen’s new power was Tarzan and His Mate, the first of many sequels to Tarzan the Ape Man.

As it’s been remade many times over, most people know the basic plot.  Tarzan is a mythic white man who is king of a piece of African jungle so remote no other white man has ever seen it.  How Tarzan came to live in the jungle (with a huge knife) is never explained.  In the first film, British socialite Jane Parker accompanies her father on safari and meets and falls in love with Tarzan.  She stays with him in the jungle, and in subsequent films they have all sorts of adventures.  Olympic swimming gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller plays Tarzan in a total of twelve Tarzan movies, the first six with Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane.  (When the films moved from MGM to RKO in the 1940s, Brenda Joyce was recast as Jane.)

Tarzan and His Mate is the second film in the series, and inarguably the sexiest.  The film shows Jane and Tarzan—an unmarried couple—in bed together.  Even without the bed scene, it is obvious by their constant touching and tender looks that Jane and Tarzan have a robust sex life.  

Jane also wears a surprisingly skimpy loincloth that had angry prudes sending Maureen O’Sullivan thousands of letters objecting to the costume.  No objections to Johnny Weissmuller’s equally revealing loincloth are recorded.  

Jane’s silhouette is also shown as she undresses inside a tent.

But most damning, there was an underwater scene where Jane and Tarzan go for an extended swim.

And Jane is stark naked for nearly three minutes.

I don’t have to tell you that Joseph Breen blew a gasket, do I?

It didn’t matter that the scene was tasteful and not tawdry.  It didn’t matter that it was a expression of love not raw sex.  It didn’t matter that it was a brilliant underwater ballet so intricate that O’Sullivan needed a swimming stunt double for part of it.

Don’t take my word for it.  See for yourself:

None of it mattered.  Breen rejected the film outright.  Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer at MGM appealed the ruling, but to no avail.

Unless the swimming scene was removed (along with some others), the film would never see the light of day.

Thalberg removed the scene, and I imagine he gritted his teeth the whole time.

After the code enforcement, the Tarzan movies changed.  They became less sexy, more silly.  The films focused less on the chemistry and love story between Jane and Tarzan and more on Tarzan’s adventures.  Jane is increasingly sidelined, and ultimately becomes a passive spectator to Tarzan’s heroism, and a doting mother to their son.

In future films, they are not shown in bed together, and Jane’s skimpy loincloth becomes a full dress.  Tarzan’s loincloth shows no discernible increase in length.

They find an abandoned baby in a plane crash and raise him as their own, because the code prohibits them having a biological baby when they are not married.  (No allowances are made for the fact that there is no one around to marry them.)

Even so, let me be clear—these are wonderful films.  Popcorn movies of the highest order. 

Although I hadn’t intended to watch them all, I tore through all the Weissmuller-O’Sullivan films.  They fell into a predictable groove—opening with a scene of domestic tranquility before some outside force threatened their Garden of Eden.  Over the course of the film, Jane and Tarzan would go for an extended swim, Tarzan would kill a lion, crocodile, hippo or all three with his bare hands, and their monkey Cheetah would get into mischief and laugh his crazy head off. Tarzan would eliminate the threat, and their idyllic life would be restored.

It should’ve worn thin, but I loved it every time.  I watched these films in the early days of the coronavirus, when professional sports and borders were closing and offices took the unprecedented step of sending workers home indefinitely.  Everything was new and terrifying, and I would turn off CNN nearly trembling and enter the magical world of Tarzan.

But it highlights a recurring theme in my mind—wondering about all the films that were never made because of the strict enforcement of the production code that began in 1934.

With the enforcement of the production code, all movies had to be suitable for all ages.

As The Nation asked, “How can a movie which satisfies a child of twelve be made morally safe for a man of 35?  Thus far the censors have spent all their time protecting children against adult movies; they might better protect adults against childlike movies.”

As we’ll see, the great creative minds of Hollywood were more than up to the task.

Olivia de Havilland Turns 104 Today

Olivia de Havilland is a living legend.

Emphasis on the living. Today she turns an incredible 104.

She’s the last living old Hollywood icon. She got her start playing opposite Errol Flynn in adventure movies like Captain Blood, and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

In 1939 she was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for her role as Melanie in Gone With the Wind, the most successful movie that ever has been and ever will be.

She won twin Lead Actress Oscars for her roles in To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949). She was also nominated for her work in The Snake Pit (1948).

We’ll cover her films and more in the Golden Age of Hollywood series–including her successful lawsuit against Warner Brothers that toppled the studio system and her long running feud with her sister, the actress Joan Fontaine (whom we’ll also get to.)

Oh, the stories she could tell.

But for now, let’s wish her a Happy Birthday for 104 incredible years.

The Essential De Havilland Filmography

Wild Wild West

#15 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

The studios were running wild, flaunting the production code by glorifying criminals, adulterers, fornicators, and gold diggers.  

And the men and women who’d demanded the code were taking notice.

The clashes between Hollywood and the Catholic priests and Women’s Groups who wanted them to clean up their act were growing in frequency and intensity.

Catholic priests labeled certain films sinful and threatened boycotts.

Martin Quigley, one of the original authors of the code, was incensed that Hollywood had no intention of honoring their end of the bargain.

Hollywood may have tried harder to work within the confines of the code but for two inescapable facts—first, the country was in the throes of the Depression and most of the Hollywood studios were struggling for survival.

Second, and most important— audiences loved sexy, violent, and naughty films.

Despite what they told their priests, they plunked down their increasingly limited dollars to watch them.

The oncoming censorship war was likely inevitable.

But the match that lit the fire and turned the Catholic opposition into a full blown crusade?

It wasn’t James Cagney’s gangster films.  Or the beautiful young starlets over at MGM running around committing adultery and demanding divorcees.

It wasn’t even Jean Harlow’s gleeful home-wrecking.

It was a forty-year old playwright from Brooklyn.

Mae West made the would-be censors positively apoplectic.

Mae West—like her character Lou in She Done Him Wrong—was a woman in charge.  She made her own money and decisions, spoke her mind, and used her sexuality wherever and however she could.

She was a quadruple threat—actress, writer, singer, businesswoman.

She’d been a successful playwright in New York, and adapted her plays for the screen.

Her plays had previously been passed over by Hollywood for being too racy.  But in 1933, Paramount was on the verge of going belly up and decided to go for broke.

Her films She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel were so successful they literally pulled Paramount out of bankruptcy.

We remember her today—and audiences loved her then—for the wry sexual innuendo in her films.  She wrote and spoke all the movie’s famous lines.

Lines like:

Woman: Ah, Lady Lou, you’re a fine gal, a fine woman.

Lou: One of the finest women ever walked the streets.

Or the famous, “Why don’t you come up some time and see me?” said in her come-hither way to an impossibly young (and unknown) Cary Grant.

Or my favorite:

Captain Cummings: Haven’t you ever met a man that could make you happy?

Lou: Sure, lots of times.

I could go on and on.  In fact, She Done Him Wrong is little more than a vehicle for Mae West to strut around and be, well, Mae West.

She sings, she zings, she has all the good lines, and rules every scene.

Even Cary Grant can’t steal a scene from her.

Mae West knew exactly what her audience wanted from her, and gave it to them both on and off the screen.  In a time when stars were much more reserved with the press, Mae West could always be counted on for a colorful interview.

I love the myth of Mae West.  I love the fact that she stormed Hollywood in her forties and made her mark as a sexpot.  I loved that she wrote her own films.  I love that she was shrewd businesswoman.  I love that she was always playing the character of “Mae West.”  I love that while people thought she was selling sex, she was actually selling wit.

But I can’t honestly say I love her movies.  I fell asleep repeatedly through She Done Him Wrong, and would recommend that if you want a taste of Mae West, you’re better off watching a compilation video of all her best lines on You Tube rather than one of her films.

Despite the huge box office success of She Done Him Wrong, and I’m No Angel, Mae West faded quickly from the Hollywood scene.  Once the production code was enforced, Hollywood could no longer make the exaggerated, bawdy films that were West’s forte.  

But her impact went far beyond her movies, for they led to a nationwide mobilization of Catholics and other groups who were fed up with Hollywood’s supposed filth.

And as we’ll see next week, they won a battle that would give the censors control of films and change the face of Hollywood for decades.

You Don’t Know Joan

#14 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Here’s an infuriating fact—in 2020, most people know Joan Crawford only as Mommie Dearest—a badly aging insane woman with thick eyebrows who beats her adopted daughter.

No line Crawford ever uttered in her movies will be as famous as Faye Dunaway as Joan screaming, “No wire hangers ever!”

The film Mommie Dearest was based on a memoir written by Joan’s daughter, and though the accuracy of both has been widely questioned, it is indisputable that Joan and Christina did not get along, and that Joan was not a particularly good mother.

It’s also indisputable that Joan was a driven and increasingly haunted woman.  She had pulled herself out of a childhood of grinding poverty and never felt worthy of her success.  She forbade wire hangers because her mother worked in a dry cleaner’s, and Joan did not like to be reminded of her past.

Joan gave her life to her career—like many big stars, she had a string of failed marriages and strained relationships with her children.  Her work was all she had, and when age took its toll on her career, she never recovered.

But all that comes later.  

Today let’s talk about Joan in 1931.  She was young and beautiful, and right on the heels of Garbo and Norma Shearer as one of the MGM Queens. She was all glamour and potential.

(Strangely enough, Crawford actually starred in two unrelated films both called Possessed, one in 1931 for MGM and one much later in 1947 when she’d moved over to Warner Brothers.)

Joan had top billing in 1931’s Possessed, over Clark Gable, her up and coming co-star.

She plays Marian Martin, a poor but ambitious girl who ditches her job at the paper mill to find adventure and a rich man in New York.  She finds all that and love too with Gable’s Mark Whitney.  She transforms herself into a sophisticated kept woman.  But Mark does not want to marry, and thus Marian has to suffer the myriad indignities that come with being a mistress and not a wife in 1931.  

It is no exaggeration to say that I adore this movie.  It’s the first movie we’ve covered that you absolutely must watch if you want to appreciate Old Hollywood.  Young Joan is the ultimate Hollywood Glamour Girl and Young Clark doesn’t yet have his trademark mustache.  It’s got an ending that’ll make you melt, and plenty of hot backstage gossip.  

For when the director said cut, Crawford and Gable weren’t turning down the heat.  They’d made two previous pictures together, and the sparks were obvious to all.  In Possessed, those sparks burst into flame.

Though both married at the time, Crawford and Gable began a lusty affair.  

Crawford and Gable would maintain their on-again, off-again affair for years, and though it eventually ended, they made eight movies together and remained lifelong friends.

Some thought they would eventually marry, but from all accounts they never considered it.  Joan was too headstrong and ambitious and felt it would never work. Gable was a tightwad and didn’t want the expense of a divorce.

Some say that Joan wasn’t a great actress, that she got by first on beauty and later on a willingness to take any role, no matter how pathetic.

This is a disservice to Joan Craword.  You can count on one hand the number of actors and actresses who have had more successful careers than Joan Crawford.

You don’t survive in Hollywood for forty-five years without talent.  You don’t make ninety-two films, with thirty of those films coming after age forty in a time and business when women were washed up when they could no longer play the young love interest.

Garbo hung it up at thirty-six.  Shearer at forty.

But Joan Crawford was just getting started.

Sleeping Your Way To The Top

#13 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Chester Morris and Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman

One of the most popular pre-code storylines was that of a beautiful young woman who seduces unsuspecting men in a calculated effort to raise her station in life by becoming his well-kept mistress.  If the gold digger is clever enough and persistent, she may even find herself a rich man’s wife.

In Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck is deliciously calculating as Lily Powers, a woman who begins life ruthlessly exploited by men until she turns the tables and learns to use men to get what she wants.

It’s a great film, and no one could’ve played it better than Stanwyck.  Her deep, non-nonsense voice and the cold look in her eyes tells you these poor saps never had a chance.

The film opens in her father’s seedy speakeasy, where Lily serves beer to shirtless and sweaty men who constantly manhandle her.  Her father takes money from a man for sex with Lily, and it’s clear it isn’t the first time.

The whole film is worth watching just for the opening scene.  No shrinking violet, Lily fends the men off with cutting remarks and even smashes one overzealous john over the head with an empty beer bottle.  Still she cannot escape the grim circumstances of her life.

When her father dies in an accident, Cragg, an elderly cobbler and her only male friend, encourages her to use her beauty and looks to gain power over men.

She moves to the city and gets an office job by sleeping with the boss’ assistant.  Soon she’s moved up to the boss, then his boss, and then his boss.  The movie uses a great visual of showing the outside of the office, tracking higher and higher up the building as Lily literally “sleeps her way to the top.”

Barbara Stanwyck

While Lily Powers is motivated by desperation, the Red-Headed woman’s Lil “Red” Andrews is simply after mischief.  

It was a role Jean Harlow was born to play.

Harlow’s career began with Howard Hughes, playing Helen, the promiscuous girlfriend of Roy in Hell’s Angels.  Fame grew as she played highly sexual mob molls, most famously in The Public Enemy.

But Harlow found her stride in Red-Headed Woman, her first headlining role.

Unlike Baby Face, Red-Headed Woman is played as burlesque, an outrageous farce of the gold digger trope.  Red is a shameless maneater, going as far as to lock her prey in a room with him so he can’t escape her seductions.

The tone suited Harlow’s style perfectly.  Harlow was a young, curvy, beautiful woman who oozed sex.  But her voice didn’t match her body—you expect a husky seductive tone, like Stanwyck, or Lauren Bacall, or even Jessica Rabbit.

But when she talks, she sounds more like a gum-cracking truck stop waitress. 

There’s a playfulness to her sexuality that previewed the screwball comedy.

And in the hands of the right screenwriter, that combination is magic.

Unfortunately, F. Scott Fitzgerald was not the right screenwriter.  The famous author did not have nearly the success in Hollywood as he had as a Great American Novelist.  Writing scripts takes a very different skill set than writing novels, and very few can master both.  The novelist has complete freedom over the world and is the sole voice (at least until his editor sees the first draft).  The novelist has a comparatively long time to complete the work and fewer structural rules.

In contrast, the screenwriter (especially in the 1930s) worked under tight deadlines, sometimes writing or rewriting scripts over a weekend.  There is constant feedback from multiple sources, a strict structure, and the work of many writers is ultimately cobbled together to form the finished product.

For a legendary novelist like Fitzgerald, it can feel like a major demotion.

So for all his literary brilliance, Fitzgerald could not capture the humor and wit producer Irving Thalberg wanted for Red-Headed Woman, and he called in Anita Loos, his ace in the bullpen that could always get the job done.

Anita Loos

Anita Loos could do it all.  In her long career, she worked on over a hundred film scripts.  She also wrote for Broadway, as well as having multiple fiction and nonfiction works published.

She had a particular talent for writing the sexual innuendo-laced female dialogue that Thalberg wanted for Red-Headed Women.

Once Loos fixed the script—which was really a complete rewrite, Thalberg knew it had a winner.

Red-Headed Woman is a zany delight, filled with physical comedy that borders on slapstick and a script that zings as Red steals away one husband before going after another, and falling in love with a third.

The best part?

She gets away with it.  

No moment of repentance, no promise to change her ways, no seeing the light through true love.

Instead, we see Red in the back of a limousine, with the rich husband who bankrolls her lifestyle and the man she loves chauffeuring the car.

Who says a woman can’t have it all?

Shock Value

#12 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

The quote above is from a review published in Vanity Fair magazine.  It is just another example of how the censors in the 1930s were wringing their hands over the movies instead of worrying about more important things.

It looks so silly to us now, in the modern era, when we’ve moved past the belief that a movie could inspire violence.  

Those people in the 1930s and their quaint movie violence and their old-fashioned, paternalistic worries about the impact of art on society.

It’s a nice thing to tell ourselves.  There’s only one problem.

This review wasn’t written in 1932 about Scarface.

It was written last year about Joker, a film starring Joaquin Phoenix is his Oscar winning role as psychopathic Arthur Fleck who rises to glory among disaffected American men when he murders someone on live television.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

After the trouble with the censors on Hell’s Angels, Howard Hughes doubled-down.

It was almost as if he went looking for the most objectionable film he could possibly make as a follow up.

It was almost as if he took the ban on gangster films as a dare.

He made Scarface, at least in part, for the shock value.  Just like Joker.

In the film Scarface, screenwriter Ben Hecht wrote a script based loosely on Al Capone, who had a scar on his face like the one Tony Camonte sports in the film.  He also drew inspiration from the Borgias, a treacherous Spanish family that ascended to power and the papacy in the fifteenth century and was accused of murder, adultery, and incest.

The Hays Office warned Hughes not to make the film, and vowed that people would not see it if he did.

Hughes sent his director Howard Hawks a memo:  “Screw the Hays Office.  Start the picture and make it as realistic, as exciting, as grisly as possible.”

Hawks did.  The film follows a similar line as the Warners Brothers gangster films, but with more graphic violence.  Tony Camonte bullies his way up the ladder of organized crime, using a machine gun to mow down anyone who gets in his way.  He builds a fortress with steel doors and windows to protect himself from his enemies, and explodes in jealous rages when his sister so much as looks at another man.

Scarface gloried in its excesses—Tony murders, steals, and lies with reckless abandon.

The Hays Office had never outright rejected a film, but it came close with Scarface.

It demanded changes—primarily around removing the insinuations of incest between Tony and his sister.  (In the original version, Tony tears her dress and slaps her after seeing her dancing with a man.  When he discovers she’s eloped, he murders her new husband in cold blood, even though he’s a trusted friend and business partner.)

Brotherly love…

They also wanted changes in the ending—in a lost version, after the cops surround him, Tony runs into the street firing his machine gun.  They don’t take him down until he’s emptied of bullets, and the movie ends with the clicking sound of him firing empty rounds as he dies.

But for once the Hays Office had success in suppressing a movie, and very few people saw the uncut version.  The film was banned outright in multiple states and after its initial run, it was unseen until 1980, when Universal bought the rights and released it on video.

Howard Hughes was incensed that the censors had ruined his film, and believed their effort was politically motivated.  He left Hollywood after Scarface, and did not make another film for ten years.

Since he died in 1976, it is impossible to know what Hughes would have thought of the gory remake of his film in 1983.  Likely he would have been envious, for Al Pacino’s Scarface gloried in violence, foul language, drugs, and sex.  

Fifty years after the fact, director Brian De Palma got to make the unrepentantly shocking film Hughes wanted.

As to whether or not Hughes would’ve liked Joker, I couldn’t hazard a guess.

“Dirty, Rotten, Sordid, and Cheap.”

#11 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

No one was going to tell Howard Hughes how to make movies.

Not the studios, and certainly not the Production Code.

Hughes was young and brash, and had made a fortune in his mid-twenties through various businesses and investments.  He decided to take his money to Hollywood and make films that would cause a stir.

With Hell’s Angels, he more than succeeded.

In the 1930’s, studios operated like movie factories with directors, stars, and producers as employees.  The studios ultimately controlled which films each director and star would work in.  The talent had few options if they didn’t want to do an assigned film.

No studio would have greenlit Hell’s Angels, so Hughes produced and directed it himself and released it through United Artists, a distribution company for independently made films.

His plight to make the movie is depicted in the 2004 film The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes.  An early scene in The Aviator shows Hughes at the premier of Hell’s Angels with Jean Harlow (played by Gwen Stefani) on his arm, and hints at the madness that will eventually overtake him.

But back to Hell’s Angels, a surprisingly honest, clear-eyed, and cynical view of war.  

The movie tells the story of two very different British brothers.  Roy is honest, kind, always willing to step up and do his duty.  Monte is a cad, lazy and selfish, but really not a bad guy.  He’s just not as honorable as Roy, though few people are.

Both Roy and Monte are at Oxford with their best friend, a German named Karl, when World War I breaks out.

Karl is distraught when he is drafted by the German army, knowing he must fight against his friends and England, a country he has grown to love.  

But he has no choice but to comply with the call of his country in a futile war.

Dutiful Roy immediately enlists.  Monte has no intention of doing so until he is swept up in the moment at a recruitment drive where he is promised a kiss from a pretty girl if he joins the fight.

Jean Harlow makes her screen debut as Helen, square Roy’s unexpectedly gorgeous girlfriend who goes to France with the Royal Flying Corps and volunteers as a canteen girl.

She seduces Monte, inviting him back to her apartment and uttering the famous line, “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?”

Though Roy never finds out, Monte is ashamed of himself.  Helen is not, and continues to make a fool of the unsuspecting Roy by catting around while he is out flying dangerous military missions.

Meanwhile, Karl is living in hell.  As a member of the German Air Force, he is given the task of bombardier-observer on a German Zeppelin sent to bomb London, the city that he loves and thinks of as home.

Instead of bombing Trafalgar Square as ordered, he guides the Zeppelin over water so the bombs cause no damage.  He has to know this will cost him his life, but his fellow comrades kill him before they even discover his traitorous act—they cut Karl’s spy nest free and send him spiralling to his death to free up weight on the Zeppelin and allow it to speed away from pursuing British fighter planes. 

Back at the Royal Flying Corps, Monte is struggling.  Though a good pilot, he’s afraid of fighting, afraid of dying.  Roy tries to keep him going, but Monte’s desperation is palpable.  It’s clear he’s not cut out for military life, and it’s clear he’d quit if he could.  But it’s death by the Germans or court martial if he deserts the RFC, so he tries to hang on until the war ends.

In one chilling scene, Monte feigns illness to get out of a night mission.  Noting that he’s pulled this trick before, his fellow soldiers call him yellow and Monte—the only soldier in the scene not in uniform— explodes into a searing anti-war speech:

“That’s a lie, I’m not yellow!  I can see things as they are, that’s all, and I’m sick of this rotten business.  You fools, why do you let them kill you like this?  What are you fighting for?  Patriotism, duty, are you mad?  Can’t you see they’re just words, words coined by politicians and profiteers to trick you into fighting for them?  What’s a word compared with life, the only life you’ve got?  I’ll give ‘em a word:  murder!  That’s what this dirty, rotten politician’s war is, murder!  You know it as well as I do.  Yellow, am I?  You’re the ones that are yellow.  I’ve got guts to say what I think, you’re afraid to say it.  So afraid of being called yellow, you’d rather be killed first.  You fools!”

It has no impact on his fellow soldiers, but it sends chills up the viewer’s spine.  Unlike World War II, in which the Allies stopped a madman and saved the world, so much life was lost for so little gain in the quagmire of World War I.

A movie that so overtly questioned patriotism and challenged the legitimacy of war could not have been during the Production Code years of 1934-1954, certainly not during World War II, when the U.S. Government’s Office of War Information screened all Hollywood films and insisted only patriotic films be made.

It certainly could not have been made during World War I itself, when President Woodrow Wilson’s Sedition Act of 1918 made it a crime to criticize the U.S. government in an effort to maintain the country’s strong morale and war support. 

The film broke every rule set by the censors—Helen’s overt and unrepentant sexuality, violence, and a slew of bad language—including son a bitch, god damn, for Christ’s sake, hell, and ass.

The movie has several extended flying scenes that were universally praised as a technical achievement.

As for the rest of it?

As Lamar Trotti, a code reviewer, wrote to his boss Will Hays, “The difficulty, as you know, lies in the fact that the story of Hell’s Angels is stupid, rotten, sordid, and cheap.”

The regional censors cut an average of thirty minutes from the two-hour film.

It’s a good movie, though slow getting started.  I would’ve cut out thirty minutes too, but it would’ve been thirty minutes of opening exposition.  Unlike the censors, I would’ve left in the good parts.  The flying sequences are impressive even today, and the ending truly shocked me.  It’s depressing, and it lacks that glamour and star power (despite Harlow’s debut in a small part) that makes these old movies sing to modern audiences.

If you love war movies, you might want to give it a try.  But honestly, I’d recommend watching The Aviator instead.

If It Doesn’t Fit…

#10 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Norma Shearer followed up her Oscar winning performance in The Divorcée with A Free Soul, the story of Jan Ashe, a woman who is caught between three men—her straightlaced, respectable fiance (Leslie Howard), a charming and exciting gangster (Clark Gable), and the true love of her life, her father (Lionel Barrymore.)

Her father, Stephen Ashe, is a brilliant lawyer, yet his uppercrust family have shunned him due to his alcoholism and tendency toward representing criminals and lowlifes.  Loyal Jan stands with him against his family and tries to moderate his alcohol intake with little success.  Stephen loves his daughter and her doting, but because of his preoccupation with the bottle and the courtroom, he lets her run wild, the “free soul” of the title.

Early in the film, Stepen defends gangster Ace Wilfong of a murder charge.  The main piece of evidence condemning Ace is the hat found at the scene of the crime, along with witness testimony stating a hatless Ace left the scene shorty after the murder.

In a scene that made me wonder if Johnnie Cochran has seen the film, Stephen instructs Ace to stand and put on the hat, which turns out to be comically small for Ace’s head.

I could practically hear him say, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

Life imitates art, indeed.  For the benefit of our readers under thirty-five, I’m referring to the moment in the O.J. Simpson murder trial when O.J. put on the bloody gloves found at the scene, and held his hands up to show the jury that the gloves were too small.  Not as small as Ace’s hat, but both cases were won in that performative moment, regardless of the rest of the evidence.

Ace is handsome, charming, and trouble, so of course Jan immediately falls in love with him and breaks off her engagement with the loving and stable Dwight.  Jan and Ace embark on a whirlwind romance, complete with clandestine overnight visits.

Jan thinks the affair is great fun, but things turn serious when Ace tells her father he wants to marry her.  Stephen is outraged at the idea—he has no problem drinking Ace’s bootleg booze and getting him off for murder, but has no intention of letting his daughter marry a lowlife gangster.

Angry and insulted, Ace returns to his apartment to find Jan waiting for him.  When he proposes to her (without telling her of his encounter with her father), she too brushes off the idea of marriage, albeit with more tact.  Ace realizes Jan sees him as nothing more than her dirty little secret and has no intention of taking their relationship public.

He is angry, but when Jan lays back on the divan, arms outstretched and says, “C’mon.  Put ‘em around me,” he obliges.

When Stephen finds them together, he drags Jan away and she is stunned at his anger and the depths of his disappointment.  They realize they are both out of control—Stephen’s drinking has escalated, and Jan is entangled with the wrong sort of man.  They make a bargain:  Jan will never see Ace again if Stephen quits drinking.

This movie calls to mind Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle, another story of a daughter who idolizes her alcoholic father.  As with A Free Soul, the daughter runs wild and the most poignant scene involves young Jeannette asking her father to give up drinking.  In Jeannett’s case, she has asked him to stop drinking as her tenth birthday present.

In both stories, the fathers make the promise to stop drinking, knowing they cannot keep it.

In Jan’s case, she returns to Ace when her father starts drinking again.  But Ace’s wounded pride has made him both violent and possessive, and when Jan again refuses to marry him, he promises to expose to the world that they have slept together, marking her as a ruined woman no decent man would want.

Except good old Dwight still wants her.  Though meant to be heroic, Dwight comes off as a bit of a patsy when he takes it upon himself to shoot Ace dead to protect Jan’s nonexistent virtue.

This sets up a dramatic final courtroom scene, where an off-the-rails Stephen pulls himself together enough to defend Dwight.  He puts Jan on the stand and she confesses all.  She is distraught and ashamed of her behavior, and Stephen takes the blame, saying that she had no choice but to grow up wild with a drunkard who associated with criminals as a father.

It’s a rousing speech, one that won Lionel Barrymore his only Oscar.

The film also garnered Shearer’s third of an eventual five nominations for Best Actress.  

It was also one of the films that catapulted Clark Gable into leading man status.

Overall, it’s a very good film that holds up over time.  Shearer is delightfully charming, and Gable is Gable in all his glory.

It was, of course, hugely controversial at the time.  In particular, the scene where Jan holds out her arms to Ace was nearly universally cut by the regional censors.

Though the censor board was mostly ignored in the pre-code era, after the Warner Brothers films and A Free Soul, the board insisted the studios not make anymore gangster films.

It’s funny that A Free Soul is the straw that broke the camel’s back.  It’s much less violent than Little Caesar or Public Enemy, but it committed two sins that those films, for all their transgressions, did not.

First, Little Caesar and Tom Powers pay for their crimes with their lives.  And while Jan is humiliated in open court, she ultimately gets a happy ending when Dwight is acquitted and they go off to New York to start a new life together.  

Second, and most damningly, A Free Soul glorifies a woman having sex outside of marriage.  More shockingly, she refuses when Ace proposes.  

The studios, fearing government-mandated censorship, complied with the edict and put the gangster films on ice.

But as we’ll see next week, there was a way to make movies outside the studio system.  If you had enough money and enough moxie, you could make whatever picture you wanted.

Twenty-six year old business magnate Howard Hughes had plenty of both.

Beer and Blood and Grapefruit

#9 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

To study old American movies is to study American history, which makes you realize what a winding road we’ve taken from landing the Mayflower to Zooming our way through the 2020 pandemic.

From my modern viewpoint where congress could not agree on the fact that the sky is blue, I find it impossible that two-thirds of congress and the states once agreed to outlaw the sale, manufacture, and importation of alcohol.  

Welcome to Prohibition.

For thirteen years, from 1920-1933, the country was dry.

Dry on paper, that is.

For on the one hand, the temperance movement was celebrating the elimination of alcohol and all its evil effects, poverty and disease chief among them.

On the other hand, it was the Roaring Twenties, one of the most romanticized periods of American history, where the rich drank champagne while wearing flapper dresses and tuxedos, while the lower class packed into speakeasies for a taste of bathtub gin.

The twenties were a complete contradiction.  That sounds more like the America I know.

Prohibition created a huge vacuum in the supply of alcohol, but the demand remained.  Someone willing to break the law to fulfill that demand stood to make a killing.

Enter the bootlegger.

Al Capone

As Al Capone, the first and most famous bootlegging gangster said, “I give the public what the public wants.”

Hollywood did the same.

Because gangsters were another American contradiction.  At once envied and feared, valorized for their ostentatious wealth and rebellion against an unpopular law and vilified for fighting like animals over territory and leaving the city streets soaked in blood.

Producer Jack Warner was interested in making films about the gritty life of those on the bottom rungs of society’s ladder.

MGM had their stars, Universal had their monsters, and Warner Brothers had gangsters.

Little Caesar was the first full talking gangster film, the story of the rise and fall of two friends, Rico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) and Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.)  

Rico and Joe move to Chicago, where Rico ruthlessly works his way to the top of a gang of organized crime.  As he ascends from enforcing thug to top dog, Rico buys expensive suits, expensive cars, expensive guns.

Little Caesar…Robinson even looks like Capone

Joe loses his taste for the violence and falls in love.  He wants to make an honest living as a dancer, but learns quickly how difficult it is to quit the mob.

Rico is addicted to money, power, and the thrill of danger.  It gets lonely at the top, and despite the women, money, and booze, Rico grows paranoid and angry.  He must always look over his shoulder and stay one step ahead of the cops and his enemies.

Rico has a moment of redemption when he finds he cannot kill Joe, despite the fact that Joe’s girlfriend intends to spill the mob’s secrets to the police.  

But as the film takes pains to show—mainly to get it past the regional censors—a life of crime doesn’t pay and Rico’s descent is swift and complete.  The cops dismantle his organization, and he ends up living in a homeless shelter, all his fancy clothes and women gone.

Rico dies in the gutter he was once so proud to have crawled out of.

To the dismay of those who wanted cleaner pictures, Little Caesar was a box office hit.

Despite the ending, the film promoted a romanticized view of organized crime.  Children idolized Rico and his fancy lifestyle but quickly forgot the moralizing title cards.

While the censors wrung their hands, Jack Warner ordered up another picture just like it.

The Public Enemy is even better.

The film opens with the protagonist Tom Powers as a young boy.  We see that while he has a decent mother and father, Tom is a bad seed with a predilection for stealing and cruelty.

He purposely trips a girl who’s roller skating and his father takes a strap to him that is obviously well worn from prior whippings.

James Cagney plays the adult Tom Powers as he works his way up the ranks of an organized crime gang that sells bootleg beer.  For the first time in his life, Tom has power and money.

His upgraded suits, fancy cars, and false charm are just a veneer over the surface of his thin skin.  Violent and insecure, he can’t let even the smallest slights go unavenged.

Tom tries to give a wad of cash to his mother (who is only too happy to believe his lies about where it comes from), but his brother Michael rejects it and accuses Tom of hiding behind a gun.  Insulted, Tom tears the money to pieces and throws it in Michael’s face.

Later, Tom proudly brings a keg of his bootlegged beer to a family dinner.  Michael throws the keg across the room, shouting that Tom is a murderer and the keg is full of “beer and blood.”

With a chilling grin of cruelty, Tom tells his war hero brother, “Your hands ain’t so clean.  You kill and like it.  You didn’t get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.”

He shoots Putty Nose in the back years after Putty Nose left him behind to be caught by the cops on his first job.

And most famously, when his girlfriend gets on his nerves, he smashes a grapefruit in her face.  The look he gives her before he walks away is one of pure contempt.

(Poor Mae Clark—after a forty year career that spanned into the 1960s and featured dozens of leading roles in the pictures, and even a stint on General Hospital, she will forever be remembered as the girl who took a grapefruit to the face)

More even than the public enemy, Tom is his own worst enemy.

He has partners not friends, sex not love, greed not mercy, pride not duty.

Tom couldn’t change even if he wanted to, and comes to a bad end when his enemies leave his disfigured body on his mother’s doorstep.

There is a through line that runs from these early Warner Brothers films to Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Godfather (1972), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), right up to Martin Scorsese’s 2019 Oscar nominated film The Irishman.

As time passes the films get bloodier, alcohol shifts to cocaine, and the f-word litters every page of the script, but at their core, these films are about broken men who find power only in the way of the gun.