Before I start, I really need to make note of a special event that I missed from last month, as May 23rd 2011 was the one hundredth anniversary of the very lovely Dorothy Lee. For me, Dorothy Lee is a truly archetypal pre code star and a perfect example of why the era appeals to me so much. Of course, she is best known for her many appearances with Wheeler and Woolsey, thirteen in all. In fact, so integral to the act is she that you could make a strong argument for the team to really be billed as a trio. Anyway, the early sound era always interests me because of the feeling you get of watching something new come into its own. As the silent era ended, the studios obviously in a panic started hiring just about anyone they could find from the stages of Broadway and beyond to bolster the ranks of the silent survivors making their first tentative forays into sound. As a result, movie cast lists of the era are often eclectic, with a mix of players either on the way down or the way up, and others searching to find their place on the bill. The combination of often struggling silent stars adjusting to the new medium and the musical theater imports trying to find the correct level to perform at makes films often very interesting.
The movies of the pre code era are full of careers that stalled despite their potential or, in the case of Miss Lee actors that had a slightly haphazard charm that would eventually be silenced by the glossy productions of the late 30s. I’m not saying Dorothy Lee was untalented, as that’s far from the case but she was obviously a musical stage star adapting to a medium she wasn’t quite at ease with. This slight lack of confidence, to me gives her bags of charm and in a way makes her performances (and especially her song and dance routines with Bert Wheeler) shine with real (nervous) energy. She’s not the only one that this rough round the edges charm applies to (Clara Bow’s sound appearances would also make the list, but for different reasons), as it can be seen in many other stars and starlets from 1929 to the early 1930s. It’s the effect of filmmakers just throwing everything they had at a wall to see what sticks. Of course, once they found out what worked and what didn’t, movies became (naturally) a much slicker looking operation. Personally I feel the switch over to ‘gloss’ was some time in late 1936 to early 1937. After that, the machine was in full effect and a lot of the soul of the early sound films was forever lost.
Getting back to Dorothy Lee, she like many of her contemporary early sound stars faded somewhat as the 30s marched on and her vivacious, permanently peppy brand of song, dance, comedy and romance was lost to the world. For me, she is every bit as big a star as those who came after her. Watch any of her routines with Wheeler and Woolsey and you will see a brand of entertainment that you just want to wrap your arms around and hug! Cute as a button and with bags of talent, Dorothy Lee was a character that could only shine in the pre code era of exuberance and fun.
Movie highlights of the last few months –
Passion Flower (1930) – Well, not exactly a highlight but interesting nonetheless. This fairly creaky melodrama of infidelity has the usual story of a happily married man (Charles Bickford), lured from the arms of his loving wife (Kay Johnson) by a cruel temptress (Kay Francis). I was quite looking forward to this one but the presentation was so flat and lifeless, as director William de Mille frames everything with a static matter of fact view that gets virtually nothing out of its talented cast. The movie was a MGM production, and all it shows is that in many respects in 1930 they were lagging somewhat behind their competitors First National / Warners and Paramount in terms of making exciting and relevant dramatic pictures. Even Kay Francis, still in her home wrecker phase, doesn’t get the chance to enjoy the freedom of the pre code spirit. In comparison to the similar role from First National's A Notorious Affair earlier in the year, Miss Francis is a very restrained seductress. Another problem is that the leading man Charles Bickford just isn’t suited to the role. He’s too gruff to be a sympathetic leading man, and better suited to a more action-orientated scenario. Kay Johnson is fine but really doesn’t leave much of an impression. If nothing else, the film shows how much of a star Kay Francis was this early in her career. She looks striking (she’s immaculately dressed as usual) and though she doesn’t exactly steal her scenes (the direction is so sluggish that just making it through to the next scene is a victory for cast and viewer) but she’s plainly got more screen presence and charisma than any of the other main players. Even the usually excellent Lewis Stone is reduced to mere wallpaper, and the presence of Zasu Pitts as a morbidly depressed landlady isn’t as funny as it could be. Passion Flower is definitely worth seeing, but really only as a comparison to other more exciting films being made as the time, and for confirmation that in 1930, Kay Francis was one to watch.
East Side of Heaven (1939) – Lately, I’ve begun to better understand what a huge ‘king of all media’ figure Bing Crosby was in the 30’s and beyond. I think these days, his influence on modern society (and especially music) is largely overlooked. Indeed, Bing Crosby the movie star is almost taken for granted – Christmas musicals, Road pictures, singing priests and little else. There certainly seems to be more to his acting career than that, but a lot like Elvis Presley in the 60s he was also guilty of churning out films to meet the demand of his public. Recently I was listening to a Lux Radio Theater from 1937 where Crosby is announced for the following week to rapturous applause and female squeals (the only other person I’ve heard get a reaction when announced was Jean Harlow, possibly due to the rarity value of her appearing on the air). You just don’t associate Bing Crosby with teenage screams, but in the pre Sinatra age his singing must have hit the spot. Anyway, this particular Crosby movie of the month features none other that Joan Blondell and is actually rather good. Crosby plays a singing (obviously) taxi driver who finds himself with a baby to look after and a whole lot of trouble (you can basically fill in the gaps of the plot yourself – it involved lots of baby hiding, a confused girlfriend and a kidnapping). The big surprise is how good Crosby and Blondell work as a team in their one and only film together (incidentally, in the aforementioned Lux episode - 'She Loves Me Not' broadcast November 8th 1937 fact fans - , Joan Blondell was also Crosby’s co star and they share the same chemistry on radio). In fact, it’s almost like old times for Joan, who by 1939 was winding down as a featured star. Of course, with Bing being the main draw, she was never to have the chance of a great screen partnership (luckily Dick Powell was still around to supply that) but there is definitely a rapport between the two stars, though possibly five years too late…
My Life with Caroline (1941) – Ronald Colman gets to show his exquisite comic timing once again in this unjustly neglected farce. Colman plays a long suffering husband who, to keep his marriage intact lets his flighty wife (Anna Lee) think she is having an affair. In fact, Colman is actually pulling the strings by manipulating his wife and her new beau (Reginald Gardiner) in order to wreck the affair and send her running back to him. As is usual with these sorts of films, the plot is somewhat more complicated than my brief description would allow. Interestingly, it’s mainly told by flashback, with Colman looking straight into the camera and talking to the viewer whilst recounting the story. This gives an odd sense of whimsy to a tale that played wrong could look to be in dubious taste. Although the film has an excellent cast (dependable types like Charles Winninger and Gilbert Roland), and a great director in Lewis Milestone (there’s some wonderful camera work, including a long tracking shot through a ski lodge at the start that’s very impressive) it’s Ronald Colman who holds it all together buy somehow making his character sympathetic and funny rather than manipulative and cold. I have no idea why it’s not a better known movie other than the fact that Ronald Colman is largely out of favour these days. I guess I’ll just have to sing his praises until more people notice!
Old Time Radio Highlight – This time I haven’t been listening to much Hollywood related radio but I need to mention the show that has really helped to get me through some tough times (and they made some films so it’s kind of relevant) – Lum and Abner. At first when I listened to the show I was confused by the characters and didn’t really find them very funny but as I made my way through each of the 15 minute episodes I slowly realized why the characters were so beloved. Like Amos n’ Andy they used the short episode time and daily frequency to build up a whole world of living characters engaging in their own soap like dramas. With Lum and Abner, because so many of the episodes still exist, I have started to really get the sense of them living in a real community (sadly the gripping comic soap opera of Amos n’ Andy is a little more difficult to follow due to the lack of existing shows) where the rural humour is gentle and subtle. In time, the characters have slowly come into focus, so that now I really do feel (like millions of listeners all those years ago) that they are my “ old friends down in Pine Ridge”. It’s difficult to fully explain their appeal, but listening to them has a soothing, calming effect on the soul, like slipping off into a dream. I find myself walking down the road or out shopping and quietly worrying if Lum is going to manage to convince the townsfolk that he’s innocent of whatever disaster has befallen him this week. I think that’s quite impressive for a radio show about a way of life half way across the world and separated by over 70 years. In Lum and Abner, Chester Lauck and Norris Goff created two truly universal and gentle characters that continue to make me very happy. I’m currently up to 1942 right now and although there is another decade to go, I will miss my two friends when I get to the end of the shows.
That’s all for now, as I draw a line under my past misfortune and get back to the business of watching movies. I have a huge backlog so I better get started. Thank you to anyone who has followed this blog up until now or even taken the time to occasionally read it, and I hope I can give you something worth reading in the months to come. Until next time...