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.

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?

“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.

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.