photo found from Lee Tracy by Imogen Sara Smith
Before 1939's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, there was a nice 1932 film titled Washington Merry-Go-Round. The lead was played by Lee Tracy. It was a scathing depiction of widespread, American corruption. For at least now, it can be viewed here.
I'm not saying all silent movies were bad, but once sound was added, cinema finally took on the ability to shape the zeitgeist more than any other form of media. Most of the silent film stars didn't have the voices or acting skills to make the transition. The greats from the stage along with very talented writers were the ones who enabled films to become potential vehicles for positive, social change.
It can probably be fairly argued that precode talkies had a lot to do with bringing Prohibition to an end. The gangster genre showed how corrupt ptb's were the ones benefitting from booze being illegal. Realistic precode depictions of life during the Depression probably had a lot to do with FDR generating necessary political clout to pass through New Deal legislation.
The ptb's went after Hollywood, because many films were too intelligent and close to the truth. Prostitution, for example, was convincingly being argued as a result of class conflict rather than immorality. Too many African-Americans were being portrayed as human beings. Films promoting female capacity for sexual pleasure were attacking patriarchy at its roots. Mae West had to be neutered. You couldn't have women calling the shots concerning their own bodies.
Paul Muni's depiction of a chain gang fugitive also hit the spot without rubbing it out. He had been unjustly sentenced to cruel and unusual punishment for eating a hamburger. A real bad guy made it seem he would cover the bill. Here's a spoiler, so skip the rest of this paragraph, if you don't want to read the ending...... Muni escapes. He can't start a new life, because he will be busted yet again. He had already tried that route in the past. The irony is that he has to become a thief in order to survive. I'm going from memory here. I think he is asked at the end how he is able to keep living. He responds, "I steal." Thus, the movie was an indictment of a system which creates crime. Once the Code kicked in during the summer of 1934, such an ending would never have been allowed. The Code said no criminal could get away with his or her activities. Those aware of the Code thus realise how predictable later movies became. With precode movies, there was a spontaneity to the endings missing from afterwhich the Code was enforced.
For at least now, I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang can be viewed here.
Unfortunately many precode movies were butchered when they came out for rerelease, and the originals were forever lost. Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde starring Frederick March and Miriam Hopkins comes to mind. Plenty of it was butchered by the censors on rerelease. It even went missing for many decades as the producers of a lame remake with Spencer Tracy bought the rights and then buried it. One movie called Convention City has been completely lost. The only available glimpse of the movie on the internet appears to be this still.
Though according to this article, many more stills are available through the George Eastman House, and there is hope a copy of the film will eventually be located.
I'm loving finding old movies through youtube. I'm wary of posting links, because I don't want to possibly be the reason such films get scratched from public view. Since I'm just a small time blogger, maybe these fears are unfounded. If I'm able to locate them, you'd think anyone verklempt over copyrights could find them too. When you find a good one, you must watch them as soon as possible. That's all I'm saying.
Here are a few good ones I recently watched. This first one won't probably last too long at youtube. I won't even mention the title. It had to have the most A stars in one cast ever put together- John and Lionel Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, Lee Tracy, Billie Burke, Karen Morley, and other top notch actors and actresses. It covered the Depression. It also covered the awkward transition from silent movies to talkies. It's a must see for any movie buff, and I'm grateful to have found it.
With a bit of fishing around, other good movies though less well-known can be watched. I found a couple starring John Barrymore. There's State's Attorney. Barrymore defends and then falls in love with a prostitute. This is the kind of flick I mentioned before, where during the Depression some women went into the oldest profession in order to keep eating.
There was also a sequence about halfway through it I'd like to touch on, as we get closer to the keep it in your skirt portion of this blog entry. Barrymore became a District Attorney. In one scene he held no punches in cross-examining a husband murderer played by Mary Duncan. I am no prude. Though I do appreciate subtlety over the Sharon Stone type crap. Barrymore played an exceptional attorney, though he was also a womaniser and drunk. In one scene he checks out Mary's legs, and she tells him to stop it.
I liked that part of the scene. It was realistic. The lady who also covered up her legs by the way was played by Jill Esmond. She was Olivier's wife who he dumped for Vivien Leigh.
What I found very interesting was how bad Mary Duncan was as an actress, as in too much ham to go with the gams. She had some success in silent films. She was in a few movies after sound arrived. I think that was only because she was sizzling hot. I'm somewhat disappointed the Barrymore's were so old that the prime of their careers were mostly spent in stage performances we'll never be able to see. John, Lionel, and Ethel did get in a lot of movies, but John only had so much more to offer due to his drinking. Ethel came up with some good stuff but because of age, we only got to see her usually as Grandmom. Lionel had skills too but was also up there in age. I thought Bette Davis could act, but imho, those three were much better than Davis could have ever imagined being. People should also definitely check out Marie Dressler in Dinner at Eight. She was born in 1865! Nonetheless, she was actually a big draw in the 30's. I love it when we can get back to history like this. Kids and even adults nowadays don't seem to have any clue how young a nation we are. They don't seem to have any grasp of history. Much of precode Hollywood was more modern and realistic than 99% of the crap put out since the 80's. I recommend folks check out these older movies.
An even better Barrymore movie for at least now can be seen here. It was titled Counsellor at Law. It subtly covered anti-semitism. It also effectively covered class issues in the early years of the Depression. Please watch this movie.
Here's a good link where folks can learn more about some precode titles. That specific page descibes some flicks from 1932. You can scroll down and go to pages covering the other few years of precode talkies.
Here's another movie I recommend. It's called A Free Soul. That's from 1931.
But back to that previous link. I was shocked to find out disgusting films known as shorties had set the stage for Shirley Temple soon becoming a wholesome movie star. FilmSite.org wrote,
This was a prime example of 15 minute (one-reeler) child exploitation films - eight Educational Pictures' Baby Burlesks shorts (with toddlers playing adult roles and wearing provocative clothing). All of them featured four-year-old Shirley Temple. The young Temple's first film appearance was in in Runt Page (1932) as Lulu Parsnips (a take-off on Louella Parsons); in the second film War Babies (1932), Temple (as Charmaine) accepted a large lollypop from doughboy little boys; in Kid in Hollywood (1933), Temple was cast with the titillating name Morelegs Sweettrick (a play on the name Marlene Dietrich), and in Polly Tix in Washington (1933), Temple took the part of Polly Tix, a high-priced call girl/prostitute (!) sent by corrupt officials to influence a backwoods politician. Tasteless films such as these led to an outcry for more wholesome films that didn't eroticize children.That sounded unbelievable. But one can find those shorts at youtube and see that it's true. Ugh. Here's a screenshot from Kid in Hollywood.
To repeat, I'm not a prude, but those movies were disgusting and bordered on being child pornography. Children should never be sexualised.
And neither should teenagers. In Connecticut, there has been a backlash against the use of skimpy outfits for cheerleaders.
Bridgeport cheerleaders say uniforms expose too much skin
That being pointed out and along with the Shirley Temple exploitation movies put to the side, I do appreciate the sexy nature and realism centered on social issues of much of precode Hollywood. Those movies did present a challenge to the status quo. It is disgusting that censorship was alive and well in American Cinema from 1934 into the 1960's. It's also a shame that modern films lack the writing and acting that befits the phrase, "They don't make them like they used to."
The Last Mile 1932 (Anti-death penalty, African-American actor also featured)