Once Upon a Time…Fritz Lang Made a Romantic Comedy (You and Me, 1938)

you and me

“The Big Shots aren’t little crooks like you. They’re politicians.”

If Karl Marx baked a birthday cake and laced it with marijuana, the results would probably be very similar to You and Me (1938), a delicious grab bag of a movie which combines humour, film-noir, romance, musical numbers and a social message all to delightful – and dizzying – effect.  But what did Paramount expect when they asked Fritz Lang, the German director best known for his Weimar-era expressionist films such as Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), to direct a romantic comedy?

Continue reading “Once Upon a Time…Fritz Lang Made a Romantic Comedy (You and Me, 1938)”

A Savage Detour into Hell: Review of Detour (1945), the (Tough) Mama of Film Noir.

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“There oughta be a law against dames with claws.”   

Straight out of Poverty Row, what Detour (1945) lacks in budget, it makes up for in style. Written by Martin Goldsmith (The Twilight Zone) and starring Tom Neal and the inimitable Ann Savage, Detour is to film noir what The Public Enemy (1931) is to the gangster flick: it isn’t the first in its genre but it’s certainly one of the most definitive and influential. In A Pictorial History of Crime Films (1975), author Ian Cameron calls Detour “well in the running to being the cheapest really good talkie to come out of Hollywood.”

There’s no Public Enemy-style grapefruit in Detour but if there was, it would undoubtedly be Ann Savage smashing the breakfast fruit into Tom Neal’s face and not the other way around. As Vera, the unhinged hitchhiker whom our wide-eyed protagonist Al Roberts (Neal) has the misfortune of picking up, Savage is the most dangerous of all film noir dames: the femme who puts the “fatal” in femme fatale.

Continue reading “A Savage Detour into Hell: Review of Detour (1945), the (Tough) Mama of Film Noir.”

Let ‘em Eat Grapefruit: The Fierce Martyrdom of Mae Clarke

my girlfriend

“I’m sorry I ever agreed to do the grapefruit bit.” – Mae Clarke

In black & white film, Mae Clarke inhabited the grey zone exclusive to Pre-Code cinema. “Nice Girl”, “Bad Girl”, “Hooker with a Heart of Gold”: Clarke’s characters never stayed still long enough to fit into easy Hollywood tropes. She wouldn’t let them.

Sexy but too sophisticated for cheesecake and yet too edgy to be a sophisticate, Mae’s defiance at being easily defined is probably one of the reasons why her career waned with the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in July of 1934.

In 1931 though, during Hollywood’s bold Pre-Code era, Mae was at the height of her career, delivering memorable performances in four important films which continue to awe, inspire and influence today: Frankenstein, The Front Page, Waterloo Bridge and The Public Enemy.  In three of these films Mae comes to a bad end; in one she dies, in two she narrowly escapes death and in the fourth she famously endures a degrading humiliation. In all four movies, Mae portrays tragic figures who derive little pleasure and much pain from their romantic attachments.

Here I will explore Mae’s most famous roles. Interestingly, Mae was rumored to be author Anita Loos’ inspiration for bubbly blonde showgirl Lorelei Lee in her 1925 novel “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, suggesting that perhaps Mae’s real life personality contradicted her somber onscreen presence. Continue reading “Let ‘em Eat Grapefruit: The Fierce Martyrdom of Mae Clarke”

The Public Enemy (1931) and the Real-Life Pain of Losing a Sibling

siblings

1931 could arguably be summed up as “the year of the gangster”: the newspapers were full of ‘em: stories of “bloody bootleg rackets” and “bootlegger bandit death trysts” dominated the headlines and, thanks to the Warner Brothers studio, the silver screen as well. The studio, which only a few years earlier had revolutionized the industry by ushering in sound with 1927’s The Jazz Singer, began 1931 with a bang when they released the gangster talkie Little Caesar, a film so popular that theaters had to keep it running 24 hours a day just to satisfy audience demand. Riding the wave of gunfire, Warner Brothers followed Little Caesar with The Public Enemy, released in April of 1931. Considered one of the most influential gangster films of all time, The Public Enemy starred firecracker James Cagney, shooting his words out quicker than bullets from a Tommy gun as Tom Powers, a nasty bootlegger bending Prohibition – and the streets of Chicago – to his will.

For all of its violence, guns (and grapefruit), The Public Enemy is at its core a movie about family. The script was adapted from Kubec Glasmon and John Bright’s novel Beer and Blood and that title sums up all of Tom’s world: his “beer” family of bootleggers and his “blood” family, played here by Beryl Mercer as his naïve, loving mother and Donald Cook as his conservative big brother Mike.

The relationship between brothers Tom and Mike is interesting. It is complicated and intense in the way that relationships between real-life siblings often are. Tom Powers may thumb his nose at Mike’s responsible lifestyle (“He’s too busy going to school – he’s learning how to be poor”) but the hard-core gangster – who can literally shoot a man in the back before calling his moll up for a date – doesn’t defend himself when his disapproving brother gives him a sock in the jaw (and the punch was reportedly real – Cook hit Cagney so hard that Cagney cracked a tooth).

No matter how many times I have seen it, the ending of The Public Enemy always shakes me to the core. A repentant Tom Powers reconciles with his mother and Mike. He is in the hospital after a violent shoot-out and he vows to leave the gangster lifestyle behind and return home to them.  His mother and Mike jubilantly prepare for his homecoming just as Tom is kidnapped by rival gangsters. In the film’s final scene, Mike opens the door, expecting Tom, only to be greeted by his brother’s mummified corpse being tossed onto his mother’s living room floor. In shock and pummeled with grief, Mike slowly lurches toward the camera as the needle on a phonograph scratches over a now forgotten record.

This scene hits me on a personal level because that is exactly how it feels to lose a sibling: it is a record that never stops skipping. It is a song that never plays out.

Two years after I lost my sister and long before I ever saw The Public Enemy, I wrote a long poem titled “Making Words” as both a tribute to her and also as a way to work through my bereavement. I too used the image of a broken record as a symbol for my grief:

I was the one who had to make it into words for Mom.  You know that.  You were there, sitting on top of her stereo, hiding behind her cat and thinking that I couldn’t see you.

You were the one scratching the needle over the record; the song was Daydream Believer and it started skipping.  The Monkees stopped dancing.  Mom’s heart opened up and swallowed the words and I couldn’t reach her anymore.

That’s what gets me too about the ending of The Public Enemy: knowing that Mike will have to be the one to tell Ma that her baby is never coming home.

I know how that feels and this is why The Public Enemy is such a personal film for me. Like Mike and Tom, the relationship between my own sister and I was rocked by sibling rivalry but anchored with love.

Bullets and Bombshells: Blondie Johnson (1933)

Blondie gang

By Heather Babcock (2019)

“I know all the answers and I know what it’s all about. I found out that the only thing worthwhile is dough. And I’m gonna get it, see.” – Blondie Johnson (Joan Blondell)

Move over James Cagney. In 1933, Warner Brothers put a feminine twist on their popular gangster genre with Blondie Johnson, a rags to bullets tale starring the smart and sassy Joan Blondell as the titular Blondie: a tough as nails beauty who – in a rare move for a Pre-Code film – uses her brains rather than her body, rising from impoverishment to wealth and power as the city’s biggest – and smartest – crime boss.

In Little Caesar (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931), it was a hunger for power that drove the male protagonists to crime.  For Blondie, it’s simply hunger.

Blondie Johnson (1933) opens in a Welfare and Relief Association office where our down-on-her-luck heroine is begging for help for herself and her sick mother, who have just been kicked out of their tenement. (We know at first glance that Blondie is down-on-her-luck because she isn’t wearing any lipstick and her stockings have runs in them – in 1930’s movies, no make-up and torn stockings symbolize destitution.)  When the welfare agent curtly asks her to state her case, Blondie explains that she’s been out of work for four months after having to quit her job because of sexual harassment. “He wouldn’t leave me alone,” she says of her former boss. “So you quit,” the agent replies indifferently, his tone soaked with victim blaming. He then rejects her welfare application. Demoralized, Blondie looks hopelessly at the other welfare applicants awaiting their fate. The camera pans over tired, rain drenched souls in broken shoes and threadbare clothing; all the stuffing yanked out of them, their bodies slumped over like Capitalism’s discarded toys.  These are the faces of the Great Depression and the images bring to mind the work of photographer Dorothea Lange. This scene alone is a bold move for a popcorn flick that was released during a time when theaters shied away from showing any newsreel footage of breadlines and poverty. Unflinching realism is a staple of Warner Brothers’ Pre-Code movies.  You would never see such a scene in an MGM film. Continue reading “Bullets and Bombshells: Blondie Johnson (1933)”

Beer and Blood: The Birth of the Public Enemy (1931)

cool dudes

By Heather Babcock

THREE DETROIT GANGSTERS MASSACRED: DEAD VICTIMS STILL HOLD CIGARS THEY SMOKED WHEN GUNS SPOKE, screamed a rather poetic real life Globe newspaper headline on September 17th, 1931.

Prohibition, now over a decade old, had transformed ordinary citizens into lawbreakers and everyday hoodlums into wealthy, bloodthirsty demigods. 1931 could arguably be summed up as “the year of the gangster”: the newspapers were full of ‘em – stories of “bloody bootleg rackets” and “bootlegger bandit death trysts” dominated the headlines and, thanks to the Warner Brothers studio, the silver screen as well. The studio, which only a few years earlier had revolutionized the industry by ushering in sound (or “talkies”) with 1927’s The Jazz Singer, began 1931 with a bang when they released Little Caesar.

“Be somebody,” Rico, Little Caesar’s ambitious thug, played by the incomparable Edward G. Robinson, enthuses at the start of the film. To “be somebody” is to be rich but as Rico warns “Money’s all right but it ain’t everything. Be somebody. Look hard at a bunch of guys and know that they’ll do anything you tell ‘em. Have your own way or nothin’.”

In other words, to “be somebody” is to live the American Dream and in an America caught in the double-fisted grip of Prohibition and the Great Depression, it was a dream gone dangerously delirious – a dream fueled by buckets of bathtub gin; a dream which could be poisonous if taken straight.

Little Caesar was a massive hit – so much so that theatres had to keep it running twenty-four hours a day just to satisfy audience demand; they had done the same thing almost four years earlier with Underworld, Josef von Sternberg’s 1927 gangland epic for Paramount Pictures.  Underworld, a film dripping with both beauty and brutality, is considered by many to be the first successful gangster picture – the Grand Daddy of all gangster movies if you will – but it was a silent film; it wasn’t until the gangsters began to talk when the genre truly secured its choke hold on the public’s imagination. It is a testament to the power and influence of the movies that when we picture Prohibition-era gangsters today it is not the real-life criminals, such as Al Capone or Jack “Legs” Diamond, who immediately come to mind but rather Edward G. Robinson, a cigar anchored between his lips, or James Cagney, shooting his words out quicker than bullets from a Tommy gun.

Riding the wave of gunfire, Warner Brothers followed Little Caesar with The Public Enemy, released in April of that same year. In The Public Enemy, James Cagney stars as the nasty break-your-word-and-I’ll-break-your-face bootlegger Tom Powers. One wonders if we would still be discussing this film eighty-seven years later if it were not for Cagney. I say that not to lessen the talent of the movie’s other stars, but there has never been any question that The Public Enemy is Cagney’s picture. Originally Edward Woods was signed on to play Tom Powers, with Cagney as his side-kick Matt. However when director William “Wild Bill” Wellman was viewing the early footage he realized that it was Cagney, and not the handsome but reticent Woods, who crackled with an almost frightening intensity. Wellman switched the actors’ roles and both a classic movie and a star were born.

(Excerpt from my 2018 essay “Beer and Blood: The Birth of the Public Enemy (1931))

 

 

Mae Clarke: Beyond the Grapefruit

mae clarke

Mae Clarke: Beyond the Grapefruit

by Heather Babcock, 2019

In the early 1930s, gangster movies used real bullets but the most explosive scene in The Public Enemy (1931) doesn’t involve gun fire at all: the film’s most notorious moment happens as the film’s protagonist, bootlegger Tom Powers (James Cagney), sits down to breakfast with his moll Kitty, played by the lovely Mae Clarke. They have obviously just had sex and Tom is acting more than a little cold and distracted. Kitty, looking fabulous in a pair of silk lounging pajamas, asks him if he has met someone he likes better. Cagney’s sneer curls up like a fist as he picks up a half grapefruit and smashes it in Mae’s face. It is a cruel scene which still shocks today and it confirms our suspicion that Tom Powers is a sociopath.

It seems that almost every man who had a hand in making The Public Enemy has their own story of how this scene came to be shot; the most commonly accepted theory is also the most condescending: the belief that the scene was improvised by Cagney and director William A. Wellman, without Clarke’s knowledge or consent and that her response was thus genuine. This assumption irritates me as it is dismissive of Clarke’s admirable acting talents and relegates her to little more than a prop. Well, Mae Clarke was no prop and she sure as hell wasn’t a hack either: in 1931, in addition to the Public Enemy, she delivered strong performances in three important films: Waterloo Bridge, Frankenstein and The Front Page. As for that grapefruit, I’m going to go with Mae’s version of the story, both because I trust her talent and because I like her better than all those other mugs: in a 1983 interview with American Classic Screen, Mae said that the script originally called for Cagney throwing the grapefruit at her and then storming out. After trying this out, Wellman and Cagney felt that the scene wasn’t quite working so they took Mae aside and asked her if she would be okay with Cagney pushing the grapefruit in her face. Mae didn’t like the idea but agreed to do it on the condition that the scene be shot once and with no retakes. According to Mae, Wellman and Cagney agreed to her conditions. Still, according to her close friends, Mae always hated the “grapefruit scene”.

Viewers today may honor her talent by watching this great actress in the powerful role for which she would undoubtedly prefer to be remembered: as chorus girl turned prostitute Myra in James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge (1931).

Mae Clarke was much more than just “the dame who gets the grapefruit facial”. The most criminal thing about the Public Enemy is that she did not even receive a screen credit.

– Heather Babcock, 2019 (from my essay Beer and Blood: The Birth of the Public Enemy)