China Seas (1935): Celebrating Clark Gable On The Silver Screen

by Paul Batters

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Of all the stars that graced the silver screen during MGM’s heyday, none was ever as dominant as Clark Gable. Younger generations may have never seen any of his films, yet Gable’s face is still recognisable to them today.  Justifiably, he was called the ‘King Of Hollywood’ and was without doubt the king of his home turf – MGM Studios. For classic film fans, there are quite a number of Gable’s films that are particularly celebrated, none moreso than Gone With The Wind.

During the mid 1930s, Gable was arguably Hollywood’s biggest star, which was certainly assured after his Academy Award winning performance in 1934’s sleeper hit, It Happened One Night, directed by Frank Capra and also starring Claudette Colbert. The film was a ‘punishment’ of sorts by MGM, lending Gable to the studio when he complained about the roles he was getting. It would showcase Gable’s talent for screwball comedy, as well as quick repartee. MGM would not make that mistake again and would jealously guard their now biggest star.

With stardom assured, MGM spared little expense in the films in which Gable featured. During the period that immediately followed, many film historians tend to focus on two films –Mutiny On The Bounty (1935) and San Francisco (1936). Both reveal classic MGM production values, with outstanding casts and were huge hits for MGM. They are both exemplary in showcasing Gable’s screen presence and talent. Yet China Seas, the film he made not long after It Happened One Night, whilst not completely forgotten, does not get as much attention as the aforementioned films.

As biographer Warren G. Harris points out, Gable had just come off an Oscar win which meant a new lucrative MGM contract, with far better conditions. China Seas would be the first film of this new contract, which meant star treatment for Gable.

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Directed by Tay Garnett, MGM’s golden boy, Irving Thalberg, had eyed China Seas for production since 1931.  With some of MGM’s biggest stars and a supporting cast with good depth, China Seas was a big hit for the glamorous studio in 1935 and further cemented Gable’s superstar status. An adventure/romance sea epic, China Seas, was the perfect vehicle for Gable and MGM’s other major star, Jean Harlow, with both appearing in their fourth film together. The studio wanted to capitalise on the wonderful screen chemistry that the two shared and they certainly sparkle, with the raw sexuality of Harlow matching the man’s man machismo of Gable.

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From the opening scene, Herbert Stothart’s musical score underpins the busyness of the port of contemporary Hong Kong, which in 1935 means it’s an integral part of the British Empire. The hustle and bustle eventually focuses on the ‘Kin Lu’, a steamer that runs between Hong Kong and that other port of British empirical power of the period, Singapore. The steamer’s captain, Alan Gaskell (Clark Gable), has a reputation as tough, fearless and a hard player. Most are wise enough to stay out of his way or at the very least make sure they don’t arouse his ire if they can’t. However, we soon discover that deep down Gaskell is a good guy, particularly when parrying with the ships’ owner, Sir Guy (C. Aubrey Smith). Despite all appearances, the two share a mutual respect and affection, and Sir Guy recognises that he has a captain that is worth keeping. The duplicitous Jamesy McArdle (Wallace Berry) wears the façade of a friendly though rough-edged trader in the Orient but as the audience soon discovers, Jamesy has other plans and is in league with a gang of pirates. Garnett sets the tension early and establishes the story’s later complication when a number of the aforementioned Chinese pirates disguised as women are caught by Gaskell. McArdle praises Gaskell whilst sending out a message to keep the caught pirates quiet. McArdle’s warmth and geniality is the perfect cover for a dangerous man in league with desperate men.

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Furthermore, the 250,000 British Pounds in gold bullion to be transported to Singapore has been hidden in the steamroller. McArdle knows it’s on board through his contacts and he and the pirate gang are after it. But naturally only Gaskell (and the audience) knows where it is. Will McArdle and the pirates get the gold?

We get a feel for who Gaskell is early in the piece, particularly when addressing his crew. As he chews out the first mate Dawson (Dudley Digges), Gaskell barks at him, ‘Its bad enough to have a ship that looks like this and a Captain that looks like me, without having a Chief Officer who looks like you!’ When entering his quarters, Gaskell finds the young newly appointed officer Rockwell (William Henry) mocking his captain in the mirror, to which Gaskell gives Rockwell all the space necessary to embarrass himself. Suitably chastened, Rockwell asks for forgiveness, to which Gaskell smiles and says forget it. Gaskell may be tough but deep down he’s a ‘good egg’. He even smiles to himself once the inexperienced officer leaves the cabin, tripping over himself.

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But we also see Gaskell’s compassion for the newly appointed Third Officer Davids (Lewis Stone), a former captain himself who was disgraced after being the only survivor of a pirate raid, whilst the rest of his crew perished. Gaskell is gruff with Davids yet welcomes him on board and even casually offers him one of his own uniforms. There is an element of well-placed foreshadowing, and even Gaskell looks up afterward with a moment of thought. Will Davids rise to the occasion if and when needed?

Before long Gaskell finds that former girlfriend and ‘professional entertainer’ Dolly ‘China Doll’ Portland (Jean Harlow) is on board. It seems that Dolly is very much a part of the China Seas, illustrated by her familiarity with the crew and her warm interaction with McArdle as they are boarding.  The interaction is a great example of the snappy and witty dialogue that liberally peppers the script from start to finish:

Dolly: Say, there ain’t enough dough in all Asia to make me change the way I feel about one guy.

Jamesy: Still crazy about that Gaskell, huh? Well, whenever you get tired of running around with an Airedale and you want to run around with a St. Bernard, why you let me know.

Dolly: Sure.Whenever I get lost in the Alps, I’ll whistle for you.

Jamesy: All right, I’ll come running.

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Gaskell tries to shoo her off the ship, to which she Dolly gets defensive and defiant:

Gaskell: Get on your horse, we’re shoving off.

Dolly: Say, why are you so anxious to get me out of your sight? Is that hunk of caviar makin’ the round trip?

Gaskell: What hunk of caviar

Dolly: That redhead Russian princess that was on board from Singapore.

Gaskell: She isn’t a Russian and she isn’t a princess and I have my doubts about her hair color.

But Dolly manipulates Gaskell into letting her stay. Their relationship seems to be one that has been more physical than emotional, judging by Gaskell’s annoyance when she gets ‘close’, after which she returns to being sassy to save the situation.

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But Gaskell will discover a greater affaire de Coeur to deal with, when he discovers that a former love from England, Sybil Barclay (Rosalind Russell) is on board. The now widowed English rose hints at their former (and possible future) romance when she delicately quips to him ‘I’m in your hands again, Alan’.  When told immediately afterwards that he looks like he’s seen a ghost, Gaskell slowly responds ‘I have…’. All this is quietly witnessed by Dolly and the pang of sadness she emotes is impossible to ignore.

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Before long the ship is at sea and Gaskell and Sybil become reunited and are joined by Sir Guy at dinner. Dolly, encouraged by McArdle thanks to his desire to disrupt and distract Gaskell, cannot hide her jealousy nor allude to the details of her prior relationship with Gaskell. Her hot temper and aggression gets the better of her, leaving some of the other guests embarrassed and feeling awkward. Gaskell responds to Dolly’s jibes with a cold smile and a short ‘that’s right, darling’ sending Dolly a clear message. But perhaps the most telling and revealing moment belongs to Sybil, who says nothing but smiles sadly at Dolly and then responds with equal sadness to Dolly’s aggressive demand:

Dolly: What are you grinning at?

Sybil: You must be very fond of him.

Dolly: What makes you think so?

Sybil: To humiliate yourself like this.

The situation gets uglier as Dolly declares loudly ‘don’t worry, he knows where the royal suite is and so do I! And I had it the first time I sailed on this ship!’ Not long after, while trying to apologise, Dolly gets the cold treatment from Gaskell who tells her to stay far away.

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But Dolly is not going to quit her man, despite her initial congratulations when she hears Gaskell and Sybil are going to be married. It means not only quitting the China Seas but also obviously leaving Dolly.  Attempting to see if the rumours are true, Gaskell finds Dolly in his cabin under the pretense that she is borrowing one of his books ‘to improve my mind’. What follows is Gaskell’s barely veiled revelation as to why he is marrying Sybil, with a cruel putdown that is impossible to not decipher:

Gaskell: Did you ever see an English river, Dolly?

Dolly: No, I’m dumb with geography, just like I am with everything else.

Gaskell:Well, it’s cool and clear and clean. Put a stream like that alongside any river out here – dirty, yellow, muddy – you’ll see the difference.

Needless to say, Dolly is unimpressed at the insult.

The drama and sniping that follows will test Gaskell particularly when Dolly begins flirting and drinking with McArdle.

But the real test will be the mighty storm that has suddenly sprung up and the passengers, as well as the precious cargo, are in danger. The storm sequence is packed with action and beautifully shot and Gaskell risks all to save the steamroller, as well as protect his ship. By all accounts, Gable did his own stunts much to the concern of MGM.. But it takes nothing away from what still proves an exciting action sequence that leaves the audience holding their breath.  The typhoon proves to be an ominous sign of worst to come.

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Here also is where Garnett uses well-placed secondary characters to further the story. The disgraced former captain Davids, now Third Officer, fails in his duty to help during the storm. He has also failed Gaskell who put his faith in him and gave him a chance. Will he redeem himself? Will he be the only one who lets Gaskell down?

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The audience discovers the answer as the turning point in the film arrives when Dolly is put to the test in terms of her love and loyalty towards Gaskell. Whilst playing a drinking game with McArdle, Dolly discovers the truth and later risks all to try and warn Gaskell about McArdle’s intentions. His fatigue after the storm, disappointment and anger towards Dolly results in his rejection of her, much to his misfortune. Like the classic and clichéd woman scorned, Dolly swears she will make Gaskell pay and sure enough painfully goes into league with McArdle to assist him in his plans.

 

Dolly: You just wait! I’ll fix you! You’ll be lower than a coolie! You’ll be lower than Davids! You’ll come crawlin’ to me on your knees!

With Dolly’s assistance, McArdle puts his plan into action and the pirates board seeking the gold. Robbing the passengers, Gaskell appears calm and collected as they ransack the ship for the gold. McArdle’s duplicity is played to the hilt as he pretends to be concerned whilst secretly desperate to find the gold. Gaskell’s toughness is put to the test as the pirates torture him with ‘the boot’ and despite McArdle’s false concern, Gaskell merely replies that his size is 9C. The brutality of the torture is difficult to bear and we see just how callous McArdle is as well. He’s clever enough to play out his deception, even as Gaskell is being tortured. Yet all is not doom and gloom, as Davids redeems himself during the pirate raid – exactly how will not be revealed here.

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Indeed, to avoid spoilers, this reviewer will not divulge the result of the pirate raid or what the consequences are. Needless to say, the tension and drama continues right to the very end with Gable at his very best.

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Overall, China Seasis a thoroughly entertaining feature film, with the perfect combination of action, adventure, romance and even some comic relief.  Running at 87 minutes, it feels a little longer thanks to plenty of action and well-written dialogue. Additionally, the film is very well paced and Garnett handles direction with appropriate use of tension with tact to drive the story forward. Humour is injected in the right places and it certainly works well when Gable and Harlow fire their lines at each other. Much of the fire of their work during the Pre-Code Era had to be tempered for China Seas but their fire is a sizzling slow burn that does not disappoint. There’s also the allure of an exotic setting a la Red Dust, with plenty of sexual jealousy to add spice to the adventure. Admittedly, Harlow is less the loose, dangerous woman of Red Dust and more a loveable party-girl who only has eyes for Gable and whose heart belongs to him as well.

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The sub-plots and intrigues of the secondary characters at times may seem superfluous but they rarely interrupt the story and indeed often work well to add interest. Lewis Stone as the disgraced former captain, who initially shows cowardice during a storm, finds the hero within himself during the great crisis moment in the film. There are interjections of humour with the permanently inebriated Charlie McCaleb (Robert Benchley) oblivious to the typhoon’s might as he attempts to play chopsticks on a piano that’s wreaking havoc and later trying to light a cigarette as waves crash into the film. Throughout the film, Benchley throws out highbrow one-liners that would be right at home around the Algonquin Round Table.

Jamesy: Twenty years on the China Seas and she never lost a spangle.

McCaleb: I had a spangle once. It was a cocker spangle. She had a liter of field mice.

Conversely, Edward Brophy as Timmons provides some blue-collar humour surrounding the sub-plot of his wife’s jewellery. Played by the beautiful Lillian Bond, it’s hard to imagine her with Brophy but she’s also manipulated by Romanoff (Akim Tamiroff) with suggestions that would have been more explicit before the Code took hold.  Some great dialogue also highlights an uncredited appearance by Hattie McDaniel as Isabel McCarthy, Dolly’s maid:

Dolly: Would you say that I look like a lady?

Isabel: No, sir, Miss Dolly. I been with you all too long to insult you that way.

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With all due respect to the film’s cast and creators, there is fair amount of silliness and removal from reality in China Seas. The story itself is pretty far fetched and Gable as an Englishman who is ex-Navy is about as believable as a snowman in the Sahara. How a character like Dolly ends up in the China Seas is anyone’s guess. Many of the characters seem to fit the formula but it’s a formula that works and suspense of disbelief is very easy to achieve because China Seasis so much fun to watch and enjoy. The dialogue and interaction between the characters feels natural, leaving the audience believing in the relationships that are depicted on the screen.  The stiltedness of dialogue and movement that could be found in some of the early Pre-Code films is no longer present and it seems that MGM found a ‘formula’ that worked well. Yes, the parallels with Red Dust are evident but Garnett does more with the material he has and the action scenes are incredibly well done.

Not only is the success of China Seastestament to Tay Garnett as director and the high production values afforded by Thalberg and MGM but also due in particular to the great cast. For Thalberg, it was a return to the all-star cast format that had been used by MGM in Grand Hotel. And it certainly paid off. Beery is outstanding as the dangerous McArdle, particularly as he appears so likeable as the friendly trader. The audience can even feel for him when he readily admits his feelings for Dolly:

Jamesy: Lovin’ you is the only decent thing I ever did in my entire life. And even that was a mistake.

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Aubrey is as British as they come, with a dignity in profile that even Barrymore would admire. The gorgeous Rosalind Russell as an English aristocrat shows poise even in a secondary role and to the script writer’s credit shows a little more than your standard secondary role. And of course, Jean Harlow is at her very best, matching Gable moment for moment and certainly outshines some of her more celebrated roles from the early 1930s. For my money, the chemistry that they shared on screen is best appreciated in this film.

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But it’s the incredible talent of Clark Gable that makes this film a real gem. Yes Gable is playing Gable but that’s why it’s so much fun. Tough, uncompromising and with a powerful sense of self-deprecation, there are moments galore where you cannot help but like him. With so many great films as exemplars of Clark Gable at his best, China Seas should be added to the list of must-see Gable films.

 

This article is a proud entry into the Second Clark Gable Blogathon, kindly hosted by Love Letters To Hollywood. A huge thank you for hosting and allowing me to take part! Please go to the link for other great articles on the King Of Hollywood, Clark Gable.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

 

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Possessed (1931): The new and sophisticated Joan Crawford

by Paul Batters

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 “There’s everything wrong with me…My clothes, my shoes, my hands and the way I talk. But at least I know it.” Marian Martin (Joan Crawford) Possessed (1931)

It’s no surprise that Joan Crawford is one of the great legends of the silver screen. Her career spanned five decades, with appearances in an incredible number of films across genres and eras. It is easy to forget that she began her career during the silent era and indeed became an established star, before her successful move into talkies at MGM. Her life story is one of determination, endurance and overcoming the adversity of an incredibly difficult early life. Unfortunately, the narrative has tended to focus on gossip, her infamous ‘dual’ with Bette Davis and the equally infamous claims made in her daughter’s book Mommie Dearest, which was also brought to the screen with Faye Dunaway playing the actress. Scandal and sordid stories have over-shadowed the reality that Joan Crawford was perhaps one of the most hard-working actresses in Hollywood history, who supported many up-and-coming actors and actresses, as well as making a fair share of enemies.

It’s also a shame that her best known films are those in her late career or at best the films she made from the 1940s onwards. Yet there is an incredibly rich array of films to enjoy prior to this period in her career. With the growing interest in Pre-Code film, the films that made Joan Crawford a major star during the early 1930s are becoming better known and available to film fans. For my money, Possessed (1931) is one of the best of her films from the Pre-Code era and perhaps one of the best she made with her on and off-screen lover, Clark Gable at MGM. It’s also one of her most important films, for reasons I will detail briefly.

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Crawford was certainly a well-established star at MGM by 1931 yet was still in the shadows of stars such as Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo., despite being one of the studio’s highest grossing actresses. True, she would outlast and perhaps even surpass both but her frustrations in 1931 were very real that she would forever be given Shearer’s ‘cast-off’ roles. However, Possessedwould seal Crawford’s stardom and her persona would greatly appeal to Depression audiences; the rags-to-riches girl who reached her dreams and left poverty behind. There would be a number of films which Crawford starred in that used a similar theme but there is something more about her role in Possessed. It would be one of the first films to put the nail in the coffin of the ‘flapper’ persona and bring forward a far more sophisticated identity. The determined girl rising out of poverty from the lower classes, which as Bob Thomas pointed out was far more appealing, saw a new woman who celebrated independence and a refusal to accept ‘one’s lot in life’.

In some ways, the persona of poor girl makes good or to be more precise ‘shop girl makes good’ was not exactly untrue and this is one of the reasons why Possessed resonated with audiences and still stands as testimony to the strength of Crawford’s Pre-Code films. Of course, Crawford’s image was greatly enhanced by a new sleek sophistication, aided by MGM’s costume and make-up department but to dismiss her as anything but a clothes horse is a clear mistake and an act of disrespect to her acting ability.

Possessed is a story of Marian Martin, a woman who is unabashedly out for herself, reflecting a strong sense of a woman who desires her own identity, freedom and escape from poverty and mediocrity. Marian wants to be liberated from Smalltown, U.S.A, which during the era meant a small-minded town, working for peanuts in a dirty factory and ending up married with kids and old before her time – at least in the context of the story. She sees her future as being bound to Al (Wallace Ford), an uninspiring man who also works in a factory. Marian cannot see a way out but senses there is more out there for her.

A chance encounter near the railway station is a flashpoint moment where Marian sees the ‘other side’. Looking in the first class carriages, she gets a glimpse of those living the glamorous life; the sumptuous food being prepared, a girl in lace getting changed, a couple in their best threads dancing. It is perhaps a nonsensical and unrealistic moment but director Clarence Brown is making more of a symbolic gesture, with each carriage offering a fleeting look into another world as Marian looks in from the outside.

But a chance stop sees Marian conversing with a very tipsy Wally Stuart who offers her champagne and his address if she ever makes it to New York. Stuart also offers some advice which Marian perhaps already knows yet is unsure how to act on:

“There are two kinds of people. The ones ‘in’ and the ones ‘out.”

Returning home to an angry Al, who discovers the piece of paper with Stuart’s name and that she has been drinking, Marian finds courage and her voice, declaring that her life is her own and nobody else’s. Marian is taking a chance on a drunken promise but it’s all she needs to leave and start a new life. Yet when she arrives at Wally Stuart’s home, he meets her in dual disbelief as he cannot remember talking to her and is surprised that anyone would believe him while he was drunk at any rate. Indeed, Stuart tries to dissuade Marian with some fairly dark dialogue – “The East River is full of girls who took advice from a man like me” – but he is also testing Marian and goes through a roll call of excuses as to why she is in New York, with a ‘heard-it-all-before’ cynicism. Yet Marian is steadfast and true to her individuality, declaring that she is there for herself and no-one else.

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What is obvious is a powerfully- feminist overtone that present during the Pre-Code Era, with women refusing to accept their role in life to be decided by men and additionally that they would do whatever was necessary to determine their life journey. Marian is spirited and willing to take a chance, even the most minute chance, to rise above the limitations that stand before her – if she doesn’t take that chance. Ultimately, Marian realises that she has nothing to lose and everything to gain and staying where she is will give her assurances in life but also stagnate her. Marian makes this clear to her own mother:

‘If I were a man, you’d think it would be right for me to go out and get everything I could out of life and use everything I had to get it. Why should men be so different? All they’ve got is their brains and they’re not afraid to use them…well, neither am I!’ 

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This brave and bold belief almost comes undone when she goes to New York but fate has her meet wealthy lawyer Mark Whitney (Clark Gable) who admires Marian’s spunk and her honesty in what she wants out of life. Before long Marian and Mark are in a relationship and in the Pre-Code era that means they are ‘living in sin’, as a couple outside the institution of marriage.

The story then jumps three years later and the audience discovers that the couple are together, with Marian a sophisticated, refined and highly polished partner to the now politically-aspirational Mark. But there is more to the two than a couple enjoying the high-life, with Marian certainly in love with Mark, and the fact that he is still with Marian after three years suggests that Mark is also devoted to her. However, he avoids talk of marriage, partly because he’s been previously bitten hard and also because of his political ambitions which could derail if their marriage failed. Marian accepts this, yet during a party, Marian is reminded of her more humble origins when a colleague of Mark brings his rather common and vulgar ‘mistress’. In the eyes of society, a woman is not respectable unless she is married.

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But for the couple, things will get even more complicated when Marian’s old boyfriend Al arrives back in her life, seeking not only to get her back but to also exploit Mark Whitney for business opportunities. This complication will not only threaten the couple but Mark’s hopes for his political career and even his desire to marry Marian may results in a scandal.

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Marian is left with an incredibly difficult decision and the audience is left wondering what she will do?

This reviewer will leave that for the reader to discover!

It is a fatal mistake to dismiss Possessed as another ‘rags to riches’ story or a typical Crawford vehicle of the ‘shop-girl made good’ plotline that she did so often. Neither are true. The film is a far more sophisticated story and the ending is one of high drama and more adult thematically. As biographer Donald Spoto points out, Crawford as Marian ‘struck a powerful, responsive chord among Depression-era women of 1931, deprived of prospects and caught in frightening economic circumstances…Crawford (was) sensual yet strong-willed, vulnerable yet determined…’ It is a film which highlights a woman’s strength to seek something greater, not about a woman using sex for material gain. It is a film which is more about sacrifice than greed, love than sex and hope than the despair of being a ‘kept woman’. Again, to quote Spoto, Possessed is more than movie with a pretty face. But with respect to her performance, it’s hard to ignore how beautiful, sexually alluring and glamorous Joan Crawford is in Possessed.

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Indeed, the key characters in Possessed are also far from caricatures and deeply-layered people which resonate through their vulnerabilities as well as their strengths. Crawford’s superb performance is not only drawn from her innate understanding of Marian but because of her also due to her strong sense of Marian’s character arc and how to build on and develop it, and ultimately deliver it. As a result, Marian becomes a deeply fascinating individual whose is anything but selfish despite her earlier declarations to all who will listen that to the contrary. What is most important about the role, as already mentioned, is that Marian represents a new woman of the early 1930s which leaves behind the hedonism and superficial desires of the dancing flapper of the 1920s. The role also revealed that Crawford was a far greater actress than some critics gave her credit for.

Likewise, Mark Whitney is an interesting character, far removed from a typified playboy lawyer using Marian for sex. He has a damaged past, deeply hurt by failed love, and makes no pretence  regarding his relationship with Marian. Yet he does love her and this comes to the fore during the crucial and pivotal moment in the film. Gable shows solid acting chops through a balanced performance and as for Crawford, Possessed was an important film for Gable. It gave him a more rounded and interesting role, removed from the heavies and one-dimensional roles he was usually getting at MGM. However, unlike Crawford, Gable was not a major star but this was a huge step in that direction.

Possessed is a well-crafted film, with solid pacing and edited into a tight 76 minutes. The script by Lenore Coffee was a great asset to the film’s director Clarence Brown, who was not only well-known and reliable for bringing in films under time and budget but was a fantastic director. Brown’s time at MGM saw him work with some of the studio’s greats including three films with Greta Garbo. Crawford would always praise Clarence Brown for his brilliance as a director and a man who helped her greatly in terms of her confidence and technique.

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Brown was also savvy enough to pick up on and utilise the ‘volcanic attraction between his stars’, as Crawford described it. According to Gable biographer Warren. G Harris, which would also be confirmed by Crawford, the film’s stars would become engaged in a full-fledged affair, with the passion and emotion existing both on and off screen. The chemistry is there to see on the screen and both sizzle when they are together. Fact and fiction comes into play and blends on the screen in a highly sexual way – one scene shows them arriving late to a party, with a strong hint that their tardiness is due to something more than being unable to get a cab. One wonders if there were times they came to the set, still in the excitement of off-screen interludes. This is not meant in a crude, cheap or voyeuristic way but which cannot be ignored in what it gave to the romance we see between the key characters on the screen. Indeed, Crawford would later state that the affair which began there would last a lifetime (on and off) and was a wonderful relationship between two close friends who knew each other and held no pretensions. L.B Mayer, with typical iron-fisted cruelty, would kill any hope of a more meaningful relationship, by threatening their careers.

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Yet despite such interference in her life, Crawford would always be thankful to MGM for giving her the life and career that she had. In fairness, Crawford gave plenty in return, in films like Possessed, which were box-office hits for the studio but in helping to shape the studio as a place where magic was made. The 1930s was a golden era for Crawford, and her films during the Pre-Code era were highly successful. But Possessed is arguably the best of them, as well as one of the most important films of her career. And one of Joan Crawford’s finest performances.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history. 

This article is an entry in the Joan Crawford: Queen Of The Silver Screen Blogathon, kindly hosted by Pale Writer and Poppity Talks Classic Film. Please visit for some fantastic articles! A huge thank you to both these wonderful bloggers for hosting and allowing me to take part. 

A Review of Libeled Lady (1936): One of the great final performances of Jean Harlow

by Paul Batters

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You can’t build a life on hate, or a marriage on spite. Marriage is too important. Mine only lasted an hour, but… I know.. Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy)

There are legends of cinema who became stars in the heavens as well as on the silver screen way before their time. They are forever remembered young, vital and beautiful; lives tragically cut short through illness or accident such as Rudolph Valentino, Carole Lombard and of course Marilyn Monroe. But with all due respect to the latter, it was an earlier star who first embodied the concept of the ‘blonde bombshell’. Jean Harlow was a star who combined sexiness with sass, quick-fire delivery with a devastating sexual slow-burn and was electric on the silver screen. Her chemistry with her co-stars saw her as one of the premier stars of MGM and her death would shock the Hollywood film community.

Yet her performances on screen remain timeless and a testimony to her long-lasting legendary status.

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Libeled Lady was one of her final performances and such was her status that she received top billing over William Powell (her fiancé), Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy. Despite signing on for the key role of Connie Allenbury, MGM ‘s Louis B. Mayer wanted Powell paired with Loy to capitalise on the pair’s prior successes. Settling for the role of Gladys, Harlow still gives a spirited performance in a film that is fun, fast-paced and enjoyable. By all reports, Harlow was not bitter and ended up enjoying the role and the film overall.  Additionally, this great screwball comedy is a showcase of MGM’s top talent, something that few studios could boast and a characteristic that was commonplace on the MGM lot. On the surface, it’s easy to suggest that Libeled Lady was a vehicle for Loy and Powell, and as already mentioned Mayer wanted the two together. However, Harlow (and for that matter Spencer Tracy) were far more than supporting actors and the fact that Harlow received top billing suggests that as well.

The story, set around newspaper reporting, drew on a context popular and topical at the time, with numerous studios producing films with newspaper/reporting themes. Aside from radio and the newsreel, people got their news from newspapers (printed at least twice a day) so the ‘chase for the story’, journalists on the hunt etc were very familiar. However, in an era when newspapers were the kings of media, getting it wrong and being sued was a serious matter! As a result, the context allowed for all kinds of gags and quick-fire dialogue that were an integral part of screwball comedy and would suit Jean Harlow down to a tea. It certainly shows in her fine performance.

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The plot revolves around Connie as a wealthy woman accused of breaking up a marriage and the fictitious New York Evening Star newspaper, run by Warren Hagerty (Spencer Tracy) is being sued by Connie for an incredible $5,000,000 for running the false story. Despite the occupational headache this had created for Hagerty, on a personal level it means his marriage to fiancée Gladys Benton (Jean Harlow) is now on hold till he cleans up the mess.

Gladys: You can’t do this to me, Warren Haggerty. Not to me. First, it was a fire at sea. Then it was a kidnapping. What’s the gag this time?
Warren Haggerty: Darling, there’s no gag. The newspaper’s made a mistake.
Gladys: Yeah, well so has little Gladys – engaged to a newspaperman.

In desperation, Hagerty calls on a former star journalist of the newspaper (and apparent womaniser) Bill Chandler (William Powell) who is an ‘expert on libel cases’ and is manipulated into accepting big money to help Hagerty. The crazy plan is for Chandler to marry Gladys (in name only) and masquerade as a married couple. The suave Chandler is then supposed to pursue and seduce Connie, only to be ‘discovered’ by a suitably distraught Gladys and use this as leverage to force Connie to drop the lawsuit. This mad scheme is only agreed to by Gladys, as Hagerty promises to marry her after the plan succeeds.

So how will this all end up? This reviewer will offer up no revelations and you will have to find out for yourself.

If you’re reading this and thinking that the plot sounds absolutely ridiculous, you would be absolutely correct. Under a weak director with second rate actors and poor production values, Libeled Lady becomes a forgotten film and deservedly so. Yet what follows is classic screwball with a healthy dose of farce. What keeps it all together is tight pacing and a very-well written and cohesive script, with crackling dialogue that is right up there with the best screwball comedies of the era. The best of MGM production values are in place and most important of all, you have four of the best and brightest stars of the 1930s. Their chemistry is top shelf and the work off each other with crispness and a complete understanding of what makes farce work – accepting the absurdity of the plot yet making it enjoyable and believable to the audience, even when we know it’s ridiculous.

With the Breen Code in full force, the sexual escapades that could be easily exploited (especially by today’s standards) are deftly dealt with and allow for plenty of laughs, with subtle as well as clever innuendo on the nature of marriage and relationships. However, some of the thematic commentary on marriage becomes an ugly revelation of the ‘norms’ of the time i.e. how couples ‘fought’. There’s also a very cynical view of marriage that is exhibited:

Hagerty: “You mustn’t fight.”

Chandler: “Why not, we’re married.”

Yet there are also some fascinating insights into society’s views on the role of women and reviewer Jennie Kermode makes a valid point; “Gladys is caught between mainstream society’s concept of a virtuous woman and Hollywood’s demonization of it as a force curtailing male ambition”. If there was one star who in real life epitomised and suffered this paradox, it was certainly Jean Harlow.

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Partnering Loy and Powell was not just MGM looking to capitalise on their previous pairings for big box office bucks. The two had wonderful chemistry and could work off each other, the way Rogers and Astaire did on a dance-floor. The rest of the cast are also strong, with Spencer Tracy perfect as the fast-talking and hard-boiled newspaper editor.

There’s plenty of style and sophistication in this classic MGM production, and the chemistry between Loy and Powell is a delight to enjoy. Make no mistake, however, Harlow is far from over-shadowed and her screen presence and real-life relationship with Powell adds a fascinating dimension to their own screen performances. Indeed, Harlow steals many scenes, simply through her presence and charisma, despite her personal health being not at its’ best and terrible tragedy was only around the corner. By all reports, the cast were very close and got along well, which meant an enjoyable shoot for all concerned and the great relationships they shared certainly transfer onto the silver screen. According to Frank Miller at TCM, there were all kinds of gags and off-screen fun which lightened the mood, added to the good atmosphere and even drew Powell out of his dressing room to join in on the amusement.

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The film does build on some already well-established plot devices. As already mentioned, the newspaper angle had already been utilised in films such as It Happened One Night and Platinum Blonde, with far more originality than Libeled Lady. Not to mention the character of the ‘young rich girl’ living a leisurely lifestyle, which had been visited numerous times and would be re-visited numerous times in the future to the point of exhaustion. But you could pull Libeled Lady apart a little too much and miss the fun in the process. As Dennis Schwartz points out, “It’s harmless fun and not worth thinking about it too much. I would recommend just sitting back and going with the lively romp and lavishly costumed production”.

Case in point – the ‘fishing scene’ is hilarious, utilising the talents of Powell with that wonderful actor Walter Connolly, who is always a delight. Of course it’s a little silly but it also has charm mixed in with the laughs and it’s moments like this that make Libeled Lady so much fun.

Despite Powell and Harlow being an off-screen couple, the two did not get to spend a great deal of on-screen time together. However, by all reports Harlow would visit on the set during Powell’s scenes and when the two share screen time, it’s not hard to see Harlow’s real life love for her man.

Kermode correctly states, Libeled Lady ‘was made in an era when screwball comedy capers were at their best. They were also at their most prolific, with MGM focused on finding great pairings..’. This is not strictly a Jean Harlow film but one which displays the best of MGM. Audiences thought so too, as the film did very well at the box office and firmly established Harlow’s place at the top of MGM’s star roster.

However, with respect to the many great actresses of the era, put someone else in the role and it would not be the same film. Gladys’ lines have that sass and sizzle that only Jean Harlow could have delivered – and makes the film a delight to watch.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Black Legion (1937): A Warning Against Fascism And Bigotry

by Paul Batters

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Cinema has always been used as a medium to outline social issues and concerns and bring them to the attention of audiences. Of all the major studios, which produced ‘social message’ films, Warner Bros. perhaps did them best during the classic era and certainly produced some interesting social message films during the 1930s. Films such as Mervyn LeRoy’s I Was A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932) were so successful that they became influential in challenging the penal system’s use of chain gangs. Even the gangster genre would step into the realm of the message film, examining the shaping of the mobster and the social ills that created crime in films such as Dead End (1937) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1938).

What made them successful, particularly during the 1930s, was that the stories were often drawn from real events (or at the very least inspired by real events) that had been reported in the media. More often than not, these films as a result, aesthetically used a realist approach to narrative and even at times felt like a newsreel. These films also had great appeal to the working class, who were grappling with the Great Depression and the complexities of navigating their way through the difficulties they faced each day.

To the credit of Warner Bros, they were quite courageous in making these films. True, they were often programmers that were easy to produce and ran at about 70 to 80 minutes in total. Yet they did not exactly lack in production values and indeed had strong casts with very capable and talented directors, using well-written scripts. Most of all, they tackled subjects which were controversial and Warner Bros. were also perhaps the only studio who were not afraid to openly condemn Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and early days of World War Two.

Black Legion (1937) is perhaps one of Warner Bros. best ‘social message’ movies and one that has largely been ‘forgotten’. As a Warner Bros, film, it could be easily dismissed as another programmer but it has pedigree far beyond a typical B-picture. Directed by Archie Mayo (with some of the film directed by an uncredited Michael Curtiz), it was also overseen by the talented Hal B. Wallis and producer Robert Lord. As already mentioned, the story itself, scripted from a Robert Lord story by Abem Finkel and William Wister Haines, was drawn from actual events and a contemporary news story, which had shocked the nation at that time.

It is also a film that gave Bogart his first chance major opportunity to showcase his range of abilities and remove himself from the usual role of gangster/tough guy that he had been playing in numerous roles. Bogart certainly seized on this opportunity, shaping a very human and dimensional portrayal of Taylor, which was praised by critics at the time.

Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart) is a typical American mid-Western factory worker, married to his lovely wife Ruth (Erin O’Brien-Moore). Indeed, the Taylors are what would have been termed at the time, as ‘all-American’ and the un-named town in which they live would have typified the same ideal of America in the mid-west. Hardworking and industrious, the Taylors are also close friends with their neighbours, the Grogans who run a boarding house. Ed Jackson (Dick Foran) who lives there and develops a romantic interest in Betty Grogan (Ann Sheridan) is Frank’s best friend and works with Frank at the same factory. Everything appears idyllic, with the possibility of promotion when the shop floor steward Tommy Smith (John Litel) announces the position.

Frank dreams of better things for himself and his family, so far as to consider purchasing a new car. However, his dreams are shattered when the promotion goes to the hard-working son of a Polish immigrant, Joe Dombrowski (Henry Brandon).

Frank becomes bitter and his disappointment festers into something worse. Ed Jackson tells Frank to let it go and that he can’t begrudge Dombrowski’s success as he’s always working to better himself instead of just drinking beer and listening to the ballgame on the radio. But Frank’s anger and disappointment is seized on and fed by another work colleague, Cliff (Joseph Sawyer) who sells Frank the reason for his losing the promotion – immigrants are taking over America and stealing jobs from good Americans. Frank’s push into the darkness is also assisted by his coming across a radio program, denouncing foreigners and declaring the need to protect American values – ‘America for Americans’ comes the catch-cry.

Before long, Frank accepts Cliff’s invitation to a ‘secret meeting’ and he joins the Black Legion, a Ku Klux Klan type group who wear hooded garments and use violence against anyone not truly ‘American’. Frank pledges his allegiance to the violent organisation, reciting a terrible oath that by all accounts was an actual word for word recital of the initiation. He is then ordered to purchase a gun and a hooded uniform, which is described as a necessary sacrifice for the cause.

 

 

 

 

 

But Frank’s initial apprehension seems to be dispelled in a striking scene, where Frank poses with his newly purchased revolver. It is a chilling and disturbing scene, which foreshadows De Niro as Travis Bickle some 40 years later. Instead of a mirror, the camera focuses on Frank’s shadow, pointing his gun and seeing how it looks. But Bogart is powerful at showing how it feels to hold the gun and it perhaps the most obvious first step into Frank’s collapse and a brilliantly depicted disintegration of someone who was a ‘family man’. In this scene, the sad truth shows a little man trying to be big and the terrible and wholly-mistaken misconception that a gun makes a man, comes to the fore as well as a theme.

Before long, Frank is taking part in the violent and brutal actions that the Black Legion deems protecting American values. They target the Dombrowski farm, burning it to the ground and sending them out of town, satisfying Frank’s violent jealousy. Before long Frank gains the promotion due to Dombrowski’s departure, which initially vindicates Frank’s feelings and actions.

However, Frank’s success is short-term and not only does he lose his promotion but he begins to lose those around him. The great irony in this tragedy is that Frank loses what he has sought to ‘protect’, his family. The desire for the American dream, symbolised by a new car and material objects, results in Frank losing his focus on love for his family. He ignores his son Buddy to listen to a radio program spouting bigotry instead of the usual time spent together listening to serial Speed Foster. He isolates himself from his wife, staying out late with the Legion and even beginning to drink. However, Frank’s demise is far from a clichéd fall from grace – director Archie Mayo is astute enough to establish Frank’s character as already flawed, lacking the work ethic and ambition to better himself yet despising someone that does have those qualities.

Eventually, Frank finds himself so deep in trouble that he will even betray the friend who tries to help him and forgets his earlier family-focused principles, starting a relationship with Pearl Davis (Helen Flint), a woman whose morals would be described as ‘loose’ to use the 1930s euphemism. But Mayo is careful to pin Frank’s downfall on Frank’s own weaknesses and failings – and not on some wicked woman who seduces an innocent man from his loving wife and family. Frank has been seduced and allowed himself to fall to the ugliness of bigotry and racism.

The tragedy of the story reaches its’ zenith when Frank finds himself caught up in murder and a courtroom ending, which mirrors the real-life accounts that the story was drawn from. This reviewer will leave readers to discover the outcomes for themselves.

Black Legion is a very-well crafted film which paces well and never loses its’ audience. There are a good number of reasons why it works.

Directors Archie Mayo (and an uncredited Michael Curtiz) make effective use of the 83 minute time frame of the film. Aside from the sub-plot of Ed and Betty’s romance, the story paces well and few scenes are drawn out or over-cooked. Each scene is tailored together perfectly, adding depth and avoiding clichés as the audience watches Frank’s personal collapse. The tragedy that unfolds is all the more believable because there is conviction in what we see on the screen – and sadly, the audience is fully aware that racial violence and bigotry is not in the imagination of film-makers but a real and terrible reality. As a result, Black Legion is more than a morality tale and indeed aims to make us feel uncomfortable and concerned. Mayo does adopt a documentary style suited to the nature of the thematic approach, allowing for the realism that permeated social message films of the period. Patricia King Hanson and Anthony Slide make the point that whilst there are elements of melodrama, the emphasis remains on that very realism mentioned and the characters on the screen are shaped and portrayed in a way, which audiences would have identified with. The regular use of the radio is also a brilliant touch of realism at punctuating dramatic points, and in particular turning points in the film.

Bogart’s performance is outstanding and critics in 1937 felt it was his breakthrough film. Following from his menacing turn as Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936), Bogart took a role that was neither glamorous or heroic or empathetic to an audience. Indeed, Frank Taylor is far from an admirable man and aside from the earlier scenes showing a typified working-man and his family, the truth shows a weak man, looking for excuses for his own failures and missed opportunities. Wallis had wanted E.G Robinson but Bogart fit the story concept of someone who ‘looked American’, which would not only fit the very demographic that the Klan and Legion in real life were aiming for but also typify the emotional experience of that demographic and tap into the psychology of the very individual drawn to the Klan. Bogart exhibits a powerful emotional range in Taylor’s decline and disintegration, exposing a raw reality that such men are inherently weak and racism and bigotry becomes an easy and seductive excuse.

The lovely Erin O’Brien-Moore (whose career was tragically effected by burns from a freak accident) is strong as Frank’s wife. Ann Sheridan is as solid as always in a secondary role, though she doesn’t have much else to do other than act as a romance interest for Dick Foran. Helen Flint is cast as the cheap tart that is always on the prowl for a man and winds up with Taylor near the end of the film. She works as a plot device to highlight how far Frank has fallen but admittedly her performance is a little overdone. Nonetheless, it takes nothing away from the power of the film. Interesting enough, Dick Foran appears to be more interested in drinking and minding his own business yet when the crisis arises with Frank, it is Foran’s character who tries to save him and shows he has deeper principles than first displayed.

 

 

 

 

 

Despite the critics hailing the film and its’ nomination for a number of awards, including Best Screenplay at the Oscars for 1937, Black Legion would not make Bogart a star. As A.M Sperber and Eric Lax point out, the harsh reality on the Warner Bros. lot was that Bogart was not going to get a look in before their established stars in Cagney, Robinson and Raft. Additionally, The New York Times, whilst hailing the film as powerful and superb, noted that the film was too hard-hitting and close to the bone to have a lasting impact. Bogart would go back to supporting roles and whilst he didn’t know it at the time, stardom was still four or five years away.

What is particularly scary about Black Legion is that it still hits close to the bone, particularly in this era, as strong as it ever did. The rising ugliness of populism openly espousing racism, bigotry and sexism has become more than evident in the world today, dividing people and polarising society. It warns of the dangers of fascism, which is a message not singular to the period but one very relevant in the 21st century. The radio spouting out ‘America for Americans’ and ‘hordes of…foreigners’ is a terrifying harbinger of what is being heard today. Black Legion taps into a number of interesting asides regarding such demagoguery and what drives racist organisations; the exploitation of the very people – ‘real Americans’ – for financial and political gains. New members are forced to buy a hooded uniform and gun, and Legion leaders higher up the chain makes demands on subordinates to gain more members in order to bring in more profits. The interesting comment being made here is that rich business men are the real power behind such organisations, and the undertones of what drives fascism and is also examined in other films such as Meet John Doe, is certainly a controversial issue. It is incredible that the scene showing the businessmen pushing for more members to gain more funds was even allowed yet placed in the film.

Black Legion deserves far more attention than it has previously had and is usually ignored not only as a social message picture but also one which shows one of Bogart’s finest performances in an unsympathetic role of a weak man. As an Australian and thus an outsider to the experience of Trump’s America, it is still impossible not to make the link between what happens in the film and what is happening in America today. However, the spectre of fascism and bigotry is not to be ignored by anyone in any nation. Black Legion makes this more than evident and is a powerful film that stands up strong in its’ truth and delivery – today as much as it did in 1937.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

‘It Happened One Night’ (1934); The First Film To Win The Big Five At The Oscars

by Paul Batters

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‘A film about the making of ‘It Happened One Night’ would have been much funnier than the picture itself’ Frank Capra, Director

In Academy Award history, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) stands tall and is part of cinema folklore. It is one of those films that, as legend has it, simply shouldn’t have happened. No one at the time guessed that it would be not only the biggest hit of 1934 but stand the test of time as one of cinema’s best comedies. The critics weren’t as scathing as is often reported but they weren’t exactly over the moon about it on its’ initial release. The cast and crew never dreamed it would be anything special either. As Peter Van Gelder in ‘Off Screen, On Screen’ states, it was the public that showed good taste. Capra’s gem would also be one of the pioneering films of screwball comedy, spark all sorts of fashion trends and even inspire the birth of one of animation’s most loved and enduring cartoon characters.

Perhaps one of Gable’s lines in the film sums up why it was such a success, when he says to Colbert’s character that it’s ‘a simple story for simple people’. The story sounds simple enough. A rich and spoiled heiress, Ellen Andrews (Claudette Colbert), marries an opportunist named King Westley against her father’s will. The father arranges to have the marriage annulled but his daughter escapes her father and takes a bus from Miami to reach her new husband in New York. On the bus she meets reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) who eventually recognises her and makes an offer – he’ll help Ellen get to New York but she must give him the whole story or he gives her up to her father. Ellen agrees but what follows is not what either expected. They fall in love. However, as always – love is not so simple.

Filmmaking is not so simple either and a number of important factors combined to make the film such a success. Susan King in the L.A Times mentions an interesting quote in her review of the film:

‘Capra told Richard Schickel in “The Men Who Made the Movies“: “We made the picture really quickly — four weeks. We stumbled through, we laughed our way through it. And this goes to show you how much luck and timing and being in the right place at the right time means in show business.”’

One of its’ most incredible achievements occurred at the Academy Awards ceremony on February 27, 1935 at the Biltmore Hotel. Here, the industry having finally caught on rewarded the film for what the public already knew. It Happened One Night would win the five major Awards – Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Film. The film’s Academy Award success has become a benchmark and film fans, critics and punters still wonder each year if any film will achieve the same success.

Audiences loved it. It’s worth having a look at each category in reference to the film and discovering how It Happened One Night, just happened to become one of cinema’s great classic films.

Best Actress – Claudette Colbert

The role of Ellen Andrews was reportedly knocked back by a bevy of actresses including Miriam Hopkins, Margaret Sullavan and Myrna Loy, who would later say ‘they sent me the worst script ever, completely different from the film. But there were also actresses who would have played the part. Columbia Studios head Harry Cohn had suggested Loretta Young but Capra rejected this. Bette Davis actually wanted the role but Warner Bros. refused her, perhaps as punishment for her pushing to star in Of Human Bondage at RKO. Carole Lombard was interested but was already involved in another project.

Colbert was another Harry Cohn suggestion, which Capra never imagined would work. Colbert had worked with Capra back in 1927 and vowed never to do so again. Additionally, she was a star at Paramount and appearing in a B-Picture studio like Columbia was unheard of. The now oft-told story recounts how Colbert made a huge demand for $50,000 and would only commit to the four-week shoot. Incredibly, Cohn agreed.

According to Joseph McBride in his autobiography of Capra, Colbert fit the role perfectly. The director believed that Colbert had the best figure in Hollywood and channelled her reticence and combativeness on the set to his advantage. Colbert certainly did not endear herself to the cast, with Capra’s cinematographer, Joe Walker resenting her ‘angry sulking’. But this works in the opening scene, when as Ellen she overturns a tray and her later bristling when Ellen reveals her love for Peter to her father. Despite Colbert’s difficulties on the set, she is wonderful in the role and her performance was called ‘lively and engaging’ by the New York Times. Her talent for comedy became apparent and her career would re-ignite, starring in a series of successful comedies throughout the 1930s.

Yet when she completed the film, Colbert got away quick to join friends in a holiday and exclaimed ‘I’ve just finished the worst picture in the world’. 

Colbert was genuinely stunned when she won the Award for Best Actress. Convinced she would never win it, she was boarding a train for New York, when informed she would be receiving the Award. Somehow the train was delayed and she made it to accept the Award. She seems to have been quite emotional upon accepting and added that she owed her award to Frank Capra.

Best Actor – Clark Gable

How Gable ended up in Capra’s film is also part of film folklore. It wasn’t strictly a form of punishment handed down from Mayer for Gable’s apparent complaining of poor roles, although this was part of the reason. Originally, Capra wanted Robert Montgomery but Mayer rejected this, as he wanted to use Montgomery in his own ‘bus picture’. Gable was Capra’s next choice and he got his wish. At that time, Gable was not yet movie royalty and found himself often being cast as the ‘heavy’ or in ‘gigolo’ roles. However, he was not impressed being sent to Columbia to take a role in a B-picture. And he made this known to Capra by being belligerent at first and even turning up drunk. In addition, he had been quite ill before filming which didn’t add to his demeanour.

Like Colbert, Gable never dreamed he would win the Award for Best Actor. He scoffed at the idea and was humbled when he did receive it, stating “There are too many good actors in this business. But I feel as happy as a kid and a little foolish they picked me”. His ability to loosen up, feel natural and discover his own rhythms and comedic timing, allowed Gable to deliver an excellent performance, which stands tall in film history.

Best Screenplay – Robert Riskin

Riskin would be a long time collaborator with Frank Capra, despite there being some animosity over creative ownership. Adapted from Samuel Hopkins Adams’ story Night Bus, it was a story, which no one was particularly keen on filming and the crew initially just saw the film as a job that they needed to get through. Riskin himself, instead of Capra, pitched the film to Cohn at Columbia, which perhaps sealed the deal.

Both MGM and Universal had produced their own ‘bus pictures’ and they had not fared particularly well. Riskin, however, added his own touches to the script, which heightened the comedy and helped drive the story forward with a naturalness that audiences loved. Most importantly Riskin tapped into the key themes that the audience of 1934 Depression-ravaged America understood and found appealing. To quote Capra’s biographer Joseph McBride:

‘ The appeal of the film…was the profoundly satisfying and encouraging spectacle of the proletarian hero humbling, satisfying and finally winning over the ‘spoiled brat’ heiress, a story that not only provided a fantasy of upward mobility, both sexual and economic but…represented the leveling of class barriers in the Depression’

Riskin did this a number of ways in the script. He drew on one of his early poems ‘A Dollar Ninety Three’, which was a satirical look at trying to enjoy a romantic holiday on an empty pocket. As a result, the comedy works as the audience watches the two, especially Ellen Andrews, trying to get by on very little. How would that have resonated with audiences during the Depression? Peter’s integrity, at a time of desperation, is the perfect indicator of his love for Ellen. When meeting her father over a ‘financial matter’, Peter only wants the $39.60 he had to spend on getting Ellen home. Her father is astounded and sees this as a sign of true love.

Riskin and Capra both played up class differences but Riskin was also careful to not completely demonize the rich. Walter Connolly’s role is certainly a sympathetic one, who can see through King Westley as an opportunist.

Riskin’s dialogue is snappy, funny and at times risqué without seeming lewd, and a major strength of the film. The story is not particularly original or even complicated. But even as any well-written comedy has, the moments of drama are well placed and lift the story when needed. Riskin would bristle at Capra’s repeated mantra of ‘one film, one man’, as the collaborative efforts of any film attest. Riskin’s contribution to this classic cannot be overstated.

Best Director – Frank Capra

Capra is one of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors and rightfully so. He had worked and struggled for years at Columbia, a studio that was beneath the contempt of majors such as MGM and Paramount. His success with It Happened One Night put Columbia on the map and out of Poverty Row.

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Capra’s direction of the film is masterful and this is evident in the pacing of a film that isn’t exactly brimming with action and excitement. Yet the audience is captivated by the route the story takes and cares deeply about the characters. This is in great part due to the magic and freshness of Gable and Colbert as a screen couple but also because Capra knew how to exploit and bring out the best in them both. Capra’s natural eye and feel for what would work shapes the film into a comedic and romantic delight. Some of the most memorable scenes become timeless because of Capra’s sensibilities; the ‘Walls Of Jericho’ scene with a shirtless Gable and Colbert in her slip played on the sexual tension needed without the scene being overcooked or exploited pointlessly and the hitch-hiking scene had Capra coax Colbert to show a bare leg. The scene which perhaps illustrates Capra’s fine sense of direction and pacing is the ‘The Man On The Flying Trapeze” scene – a folksy and joyous scene which seemed natural, warm and spontaneous. It provides an intimate moment of singing and music, without the usual big budget and fantastical production that was typical of a musical scene. Gable seems to be enjoying it immensely although Colbert stated that she initially couldn’t see how it worked into the story. Capra gently alleviated her concerns and it was afterwards that Colbert saw the appeal of the scene and realized that ‘I knew we had something’. Capra had sensed this whilst filming the scene, as extras and even the bus driver joined in. Extra cameras were brought in and the scene also provided a reason for the bus crash. Capra saw the appeal of the scene and worked to bring it into his over-arching vision and feel for ‘the people’.

The critics appreciated his work. Kate Cameron in The Daily News exclaimed ‘The direction is excellent. Frank Capra never lets his picture lag for a moment. It is never very exciting, but it moves along snappily and it is full of amusing situations’. Today, critics have been just as appreciative. David Kehr in The Chicago Reader has stated, ‘This is Capra at his best, very funny and very light, with a minimum of populist posturing’.

Winning his first Academy Award had a sense of the bittersweet for Capra. He has been terribly ill prior to the ceremony and would for some time suffer what he called the ‘catastrophe of success’ in spite of future classics such as Mr Deeds Comes To Town (1936) and Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) to come.

Best Film – Columbia Pictures (Harry Cohn and Frank Capra)

The category celebrates and acknowledges that film is a collaborative art-form and It Happened One Night combines the best elements of the artform. Again, not many expected the film to win any awards, yet it snagged the biggest prize of all and there are few who would argue today that it didn’t deserve it.

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Capra acknowledged that comedies at that point in time were not something that many stars were aching to work in. It Happened One Night changed all that and the fact that major studios now rushed to produce romantic and screwball comedies. The appeal of the film was not merely an audience fad – it had something and it still has today.

Eric Melin in his review for Scene-Stealers.com sums up the lasting appeal of the film brilliantly:

‘Viewed even today with all of its plot elements recycled ad nauseam by Hollywood (for rom-coms, road trip comedies, odd couple/buddy films, etc.), the film still holds up because we believe Gable and Colbert and can identify with them both right away’.

Capra’s direction, Riskin’s script and particularly the magic of Gable and Colbert as a screen couple all combined to create one of Hollywood’s most memorable and special films.

When the Award for Best Picture was announced, it was Harry Cohn who accepted the award. After 11 years, playing second fiddle to the majors, the studio he headed had finally made it. Incredibly, Cohn produced an infinitely rare moment of humility, generosity and deference to Capra and Riskin, where he thanked them and stated about himself ‘I was only an innocent bystander’.

The film that never should have been has remained beloved by many and deservedly so.

Special Mentions

  • The Supporting Cast

There are a number of faces whose time on the screen is limited yet add memorable and valuable performances to the film. Walter Connolly is wonderful as Ellen’s millionaire father, who is anything but a heartless baron. That’s Ward Bond as the bus driver, who will later appear with Gable in Gone With The Wind and would have a long career in film and television. Roscoe Karns as Oscar Shapely ‘from Orange, New Jersey’ is as annoying as always and the delightful Alan Hale has a short moment as a small-time grifter. My personal favourite is Charles C. Wilson as Joe Gordon, the tough, brash newspaper editor with a heart of gold.

  • The Inspiration for Bugs Bunny

Both Friz Freleng and Bob Clampett have gone on record stating that the Gable’s eating a carrot and talking with his mouth full inspired the creation of everyone’s favourite rabbit. Additionally, the name ‘Bugs’ could have been inspired during the scene where Peter scares Oscar Shapely off by mentioning the terrible fate of ‘Bugs’ Dooley.

  • The Sets

Most of the scenes were shot without purpose built sets. The budget simply wasn’t there. The bus scenes were filmed on a cut-away and perhaps the most interesting scene from a technical point of view was the scene where Peter and Ellen almost kiss whilst sleeping in hay. That scene was actually filmed inside a circus tent during the day, with the sounds of crickets edited in later. This sound technique was very new and would become normal practice soon afterwards.

A special thank you to Kellee at Unspoken and Freckled, Aurora (aka @CitizenScreen) of Once Upon A Screen, Paula (aka @Paula_Guthat) of Paula’s Cinema Club, for the opportunity to be part of the ’31 Days Of Oscar’ Blogathon. For links to the this event, please click on the following link: 

https://kelleepratt.com/2018/02/23/day-one-31-days-of-oscar-blogathon/

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Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Patron Saint Of The Mad Scientist: A Look At ‘The Island of Lost Souls’ (1932)

by Paul Batters

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‘Mr. Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God?’ Dr Moreau

The early 1930s saw the beginnings of the classic horror cycle, spawned by the incredible success of Universal’s two big releases, Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1932). Both films would put Universal on the map as the home of horror and other studios also sought to cash in on Universal’s success. Even M.G.M did with Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Paramount faired a little better with the brilliant remake of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde (1932) and in the same year made another film that, like Freaks, would be banned in the U.K. Based on the story ‘The Island Of Dr Moreau’, its’ author H.G Wells would also denounce the film. Despite Paramount’s huge advertising campaign, it was a commercial failure as well.

It would be forgotten until revived when interest in classic horror films grew during the 1960s, thanks to television re-runs and monster movie magazines like Famous Monsters Of Filmland.

As a result, The Island of Lost Souls (1932) has become a curiosity, as much as a deserved addition in the pantheon of the mad scientist genre.

So what makes it interesting?

The story itself has all the hallmarks of the horror film with the mad scientist at its’ core. On an isolated island, Dr Moreau (Charles Laughton) is obsessed with turning different animals into humans, delving into the possibilities of speeding up the process of evolution. This is itself reflects the aberration that other mad scientists find themselves involved with. However, unlike Dr. Frankenstein who seeks to create life from dead human tissue, Moreau aims to transform already living animals into humans. However, the aberration does not end there, as he also aims to mate his ‘creations’. It is into this world that our heroes, Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) and Ruth Thomas (Leila Hyams) are thrown, with Moreau’s intent to make them part of his experiments. At first, Moreau shows them his successes but also his ‘less successful experiments’ with a casual wave. Horrific enough – but there is more horror to come! Needless to say, the reviewer will attempt to avoid any further plot developments in order to spare the reader any spoilers. But of course no guarantees can be given.

Thematically, The Island Of Lost Souls does explore the classic features of the mad scientist. Dr Moreau is a man who has isolated himself from the world in his pursuits and forgone the methodology of his discipline. Like Victor Frankenstein, he sneers at the mainstream scientific world and seeks answers in the same sacrilegious way. But of course such isolation creates a greater disconnect from a moral centre which questions his actions, as well as the fundamental aspect of science – peer assessment and the challenging of theories. Moreau, as a result, becomes a man who sees himself beyond reproach and thus the danger has long set in for Moreau. His sense of himself as a ‘god’ mirrors what Frankenstein initially feels. At one point, Moreau literally plagiarises Frankenstein and states “Do you know what it feels like to be God?’ However, Frankenstein’s ‘God moment’ will not last, as he is repelled by his creation and regrets his mistakes. Moreau, however, is undeterred and like the true mad scientist, continues ‘working ‘, not merely intoxicated by his ‘Godliness’ but is completely immersed in it.

Like Frankenstein, Moreau does not wish to be at the mercy of nature. Indeed, his goal is to control it, again reflecting the perception of himself as God. His desire to mate his creations with the at-first unsuspecting heroes of the story, expands on this desire for control. Yet here runs a deeper thematic concern that Moreau is as much a prisoner of this as are his creations. His desire to be God will be his downfall, as is the lot of any mad scientist. Trapped on his own island, Moreau is also trapped by his obsession and unable to look beyond it. Strangely, the concept of reason, which is a fundamental principle of science, eludes him completely. Admittedly, Parker’s attempt to play wiser head to Moreau is not only poorly done but also futile as well as beyond the reach of Parker. Moreau has developed his own logic to suit his schemes and experiments – as any mad scientist who knows his or her business would do.

Moreau is not ‘mad’ in the deranged sense of the world, nor is he a sadist fulfilled by the infliction of pain. Indeed, he is indifferent to the pain, which he inflicts, especially when examining his creations. The scene where he is examining Lota the Panther woman is particularly horrific, not only because of the pain and disgust that it draws from the audience but more so due to Moreau’s complete disconnection from Lota’s pain and the clinical method in which he examines her. As Randy Rasmussen points out in “Children Of The Night’, Moreau is enraged at Lota’s bestial flesh regaining its’ dominance but rejoices at her tears, as they betray her humanity – the aim of his experiments.

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But Moreau as God cannot only be sustained by his own self-image. It needs to be fed and endorsed by followers – hence the congregation being his own creations. Like any god, Moreau sets the laws to be lived by, partially so that he can control them but also because it feeds his god-like status and illustrated his control over nature. The laws are spoken as ritual by the creatures and they are further controlled by the fear of the House Of Pain, the place of punishment where the breakers of the law are sent. Moreau’s whip and gun are but extensions of his will, both of which represent law and order rather than any sadistic quality.

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The greatest strength of the film is the characterisation of Dr Moreau by the irrepressible Charles Laughton. I would venture to say that his performance is beyond the film and one of the key features that lifts it out of mediocrity. The display of arrogance as an all-knowing scientist with a powerful God complex becomes apparent from the smallest gesture in the way he casually wields his whip to the use of his voice when he commands his creations. The goatee adds a satanic element, contrasting with his white suit, making for a stark appearance. But this is accentuated by the almost relaxed manner in which Laughton strides and the supreme confidence is more than apparent, particularly when he reveals his abhorrent experiments and mad scheme to Parker. Laughton dominates every scene, leaving his fellow cast members looking wooden and staid.

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However, in fairness, there is another performance, which deserves mention. It easy to miss Bela Lugosi in his extremely hirsute role as the Sayer Of The Law. Under the layers of hair, Lugosi emanates the tortured soul of Moreau’s creation, repeating the mantra of his creator’s law, “Are we not men?” It is the question, which reflects one of the great questions regarding what makes us human – is it enough to have that consciousness? For Moreau’s experiments, this is the key aspect to what it means to be human. The very asking of the question suggests that human consciousness is present. The ending of the film will suggest even more, with quite the allegory about who makes laws to govern – God or humans?

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Kathleen Burke as Lota the Panther Woman played a roll which was central to the marketing campaign for the film’s release. Beautiful and sensual, Burke is also effective in the role. Lota is the prize creation for the mad scientist and Burke successfully portrays the duality of the role.

In the end, Moreau will face the terrible and awful dilemma that seems to be the lot of the mad scientist. As tempting as it is, this reviewer will not give away that ending. Needless, to say the audience will recognize the irony for the mad scientist who becomes undone by his own devices. Despite the genius of the mad scientist, being doomed to failure seems to be his or her lot in the genre. Perhaps the mad scientist’s greatest sin is that he commits the greatest sacrilege not necessarily against God but against science itself and the laws of nature.

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The Island Of Lost Souls feels like a journey into darkness – one that is disturbing and at times repellent, particularly in view of the cruelty of the key character. The greatest irony is that the mad scientist, believing they are bringing enlightenment into the world, has created that darkness. Instead of improving the world, the mad scientist has inflicted pain, trauma and death. Moreau is the very symbol of the mad scientist and that ultimately the very person that he has fooled most of all – is himself.

The Island Of Lost Souls is available through the Criterion Collection and is a must for not only fans of horror film but also those who are captivated by the mad dreams of the mad scientist.

This review was part of the 2017 Movie Scientist Blogathon hosted by Christina Wehner – https://christinawehner.wordpress.com/2017/06/17/great-scott-the-movie-scientist-blogathon-is-back/

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

A Pre-Code Tale: Review Of ‘Dark Hazard’ (1934)

by Paul Batters

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“If you marry that gambler, you’ll marry into a life of trouble and disaster.”

The Pre-code Hollywood period is a fascinating time for film and still fascinates audiences today, perhaps more than ever. The time period for Pre-code is relatively brief, from 1929 through to June 1934 when the Code took hold. But what a period it was for film! Pre-Code Hollywood challenged old norms and values and saw the emerging of new stars and even new genres. Whilst Dark Hazard would not be one of the period’s ‘classics’, it is still an interesting film for fans of Pre-Code and particularly for fans of one of Hollywood’s greats, Edward G. Robinson.

Released by Warner Brothers in February 1934 and directed by Alfred E. Green, Dark Hazard has all the appearance of a morality tale but twists and turns into anything but. Indeed, a very different ending can be imagined if Dark Hazard had been made a year or two later!

Jim Turner (Edward G. Robinson) is a professional gambler, outlined in the opening scene when he wins $20,000 at the racetrack. Alongside him is Val (Glenda Farrell), who seems very at ease and in her natural environment of fast action and excitement. As Jim collects, a fellow behind him looks on begrudgingly, just before he collects his winnings of $6. But Turner’s success is short-lived, as in the next scene he is cleaned out at a casino, left to borrow $5 from the doorman for a cab ride. Jim slides from successful gambler to working as a cashier at the same racetrack where he won his fortune, seeking lodgings at a boarding house run by Mrs. Mayhew (Emma Dunn), a dour fuddy-duddy who asks for references and demands ‘good character’ of her boarders. Jim is especially taken, by Mayhew’s beautiful daughter Marge (Genevieve Tobin), who doesn’t seem bothered by his working at a racetrack.

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The pacing of the film moves fast, perhaps a little too fast. By the next scene, Marge intends to marry Jim, sternly warned by her mother that the marriage is doomed because of Jim’s past as a gambler. Marge claims Jim is all done with gambling but the warning will proves ominous. It’s only ten minutes into the film and Jim and Marge are married and living in Chicago where, working as a hotel clerk, he comes across John Bright (Sidney Toler), who constantly provokes Jim. Wanting to keep his job, Jim ignores the constant ribbing, remembering the advice of his dour and hard-hearted boss that he needs to ‘look out for number one’ and that ‘jobs are scarce’. The financial troubles of Marge’s family add to Jim’s pressures. Although he stays true to his promise to not gamble, Jim can’t help but look at the form guide, giving tips to other hotel guests who show their appreciation by sharing in their winnings.

During Christmas, Jim sneaks away from the front desk to see Marge in their room. However, Jim makes it clear why he’s there to see her and whilst there is nothing salacious about sexual desire between husband and wife, it’s certainly a reflection of the Pre-Code era that such desire is shown! As Marge shoos him back to work, Jim even begs ‘just five minutes, Marge’, as he paws and kisses her. The intimacy shown on screen, even between a married couple, would become too much for the Code after 1934.

The turn of events for Jim will come after an altercation with Bright sees him fired, with Bright daring Jim to meet him at a nearby restaurant the next morning. Jim does just that and starts a scuffle, which ends with Bright and his off-sider, calming the situation down and explaining that the whole thing was ‘a joke’ and producing one of the best lines in the film as he tells Jim ‘Don’t be an Airedale and sit down’. The scene also shows Robinson at his toughest in the film, showing no fear when he’s threatened with a gun and even daring the holder to use it.

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This impresses Bright and it turns out that he was testing Jim all along, wanting him to run a racetrack in California. Jim is ecstatic as not only is the money good but he returns to the game that he knows best, with people he can deal with. Marge is unhappy at his newfound job but goes along with him to California to a new life in a nice home with a garden.

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At this point in the film, what becomes evident is the inversed world depicted. Something, which could only happen in the world of the Pre-Code era. Jim and the people he integrates with, all operate and socialize in the world of gambling, which by all other standards is occupied by shady characters, gangsters, loose women and ne’er-do-wells. Yet in Dark Hazard, they are all honest, straightforward and stand by each other. There’s no backstabbing or exploitation and a win is happily paid and a loss stoically accepted. Val doesn’t try to juice him for his winnings at the track. When Jim loses his money, the doorman happily lends him money for a cab. John Bright, at first, exudes nastiness and appears to be a bully. Yet he’s testing Jim, seeing greater worth in him and treating him square once the joke is over. Later in California when Jim is checking the books, he finds everything is square and those involved in the day to day running of the track have also been square.

However, most of the people outside Jim’s world are quite the opposite. Despite the façade of respectability, principle and honesty, the people in this larger world are mean, double-faced and pretentious. Marge’s family is not exactly one filled with happiness nor one with principle. Mrs. Mayhew looks down her nose at Jim for his gambling, with her snooty, judgmental and disparaging remarks when he first appears at the boarding house. Hypocrisy could be added to her list of failings, as later she seems to have no qualms about sending letters to her daughter for money. Marge’s brother is a no-account and weak individual, leaning on anyone for money and apparently indulging in his own vices. Pres Barrow (George Meeker), an early boyfriend of Marge’s, looks sneaky enough and we learn that he ‘owns most of the town’, a hint at small-town corruption and entitlement. Jim’s boss at the hotel is not only mean and cantankerous but also cruel, ordering Jim to throw out a guest who is behind on the rent at Christmas. Chicago is pretty cold that time of the year!

But it is Marge particularly who disappoints. When they first meet, she apparently has no problems with Jim’s being a professional gambler. But she never accepts him for who he is and what he does, pushing him to change and because Jim loves her, that’s what he tries to do. Marge also complains about lack of money and worries for her family back home in Ohio instead of her own home and marriage. As the story progresses, Marge will disappoint even further.

The turning points in the film arrive while Jim is at the track.

The first is a reunion with Val, which obviously indicates some feelings still exist. They reminisce over some stories, which allude to intimacy beyond what the Hays Code would come to accept. Val isn’t bitter that Jim is married nor does it stop her from having other designs on him. She smiles and throws a line without any bile: ‘Another good man on the straight and narrow’, which also indicates her view of marriage and what it does to people.

The second turning point in the story is Jim’s discovery of Dark Hazard, the greyhound and it will be this meeting that will be fortuitous. Marge’s frustrations with Jim’s gambling and lifestyle will deepen with his obsession of the racing dog and it will come to represent the rift that continues to grow between them. Jim, on the other hand, cannot see what lies ahead and as with any addiction, tries to wave away Marge’s concerns without listening to her. In fairness to Marge, who finds herself pregnant, her concerns exacerbate when bills aren’t paid and the gambling increases. She is also unimpressed with Jim’s friends, particularly one evening when Val arrives with two other friends, one of which is more than inebriated. Val makes it clear to Marge that she and Jim had shared more than just friendship, which adds further fuel to the fight between Marge and Jim.

It will prove the breaking point and Marge wants Jim to leave. Jim still refuses to see the damage being caused. Indeed, Jim succumbs to a night out gambling with Val till all hours and it’s when they get back to her hotel that Val tests Jim in a very sensual way. Lying back on a divan, Val offers herself up to him, accentuating her assets and letting her body do the talking. Jim is obviously tempted but stays true to Marge and is shooed off my Val. Jim delivers a line heavy with suggestion and one which must have bothered the censors:

‘It’s the first time I ever let you down, Val’.

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Jim returns to his home at the crack of dawn, with $20,000 in winnings in his pocket. He thinks that this will pacify Marge and he even lies that he has just woken up to water the bamboo. Marge delivers her best line, with a brilliant wisecrack:

‘Looks like you’ve been watering the bamboo all night’.

The moment is taken for granted but Marge then pulls a fast one on Jim, leaving with his money and returning home to Ohio. She also leaves a note that if he truly wants to make a change and leave behind his gambling, that he can go to her and they can start again. After all, there is also a child on the way.

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As affable and likeable as Jim is – and as much as the audience is not thrilled with Marge – one cannot help but be disappointed in Jim’s decision not to follow. Marge does care for him and instead of thinking of her and his unborn child, Jim chooses gambling.

Time passes and the last couple of years have not been kind to Jim. Shabby and broke, he train hops to Ohio and ends up on Marge’s doorstep. His former mother-in-law is shocked to see him but Marge welcomes him in. He discovers that Marge is seeing her old flame Pres Barrow and that she is seeking a divorce.

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Yet despite this, Jim agrees to reform and reaches out to Marge, and they re-connect. But it will not last long – as Dark Hazard comes back into his life. Saving the dog from being put down, Jim purchases the dog and brings it home, to which Marge responds with exasperation and resignation that their marriage cannot survive. Yet for Jim, Dark Hazard is symbolic of his own situation. Like Jim, Dark Hazard is broken and given up as a failure and a has-been. Jim sees his bringing Dark Hazard back to health and success as a form of his own personal revival and phoenix-like rising from the ashes of defeat. But this desire will be the death knell for his chances with Marge. The marriage collapses into Jim starting to drink and Marge seeing Pres Barrow again and the audience cannot help suspect that Pres Barrow has been agitating behind the scene. A confrontation where Jim slugs Barrow becomes the final realization for Jim that his marriage is doomed, as Marge comforts Pres.

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If this were a morality tale, which is how it appears up to this point, the final scene would be Jim standing on a dusty road with Dark Hazard. Pathetically sharing a sandwich with the dog, Jim seems deluded as he claims that he’ll make it big again. This is where the story should end – with Jim defeated by his gambling addiction. Not only has Jim lost his winnings over time but more importantly he has lost his wife and child and any possibility of a secure and happy future. Jim’s future appears doomed.

Yet that is not the way of the Pre-Code world.

The audience discovers that Dark Hazard has recovered and Jim has been travelling around the world, making his fortune and becoming a great success. Dark Hazard has proved the winning ticket for Jim and not only is he living the good life but the audience discovers that Jim is with Val.

Jim has the final word, delivering a line which links back to an earlier attempt by Val to get Jim into bed:

“This time, honey, I won’t disappoint you!”

Oh my!

Dark Hazard is by no means a classic and to be fair is in many ways a forgotten film. (Incidentally, I first saw it on the old TNT channel and it has been released as part of Warner Archive’s ‘8th Forbidden Hollywood’ collection on DVD). Yet it perfectly illustrates the values of the time and reflects the zeitgeist of the Depression Era. Jim Turner is very much a man on his own against the world, bucking against a system that demands subservience to a failed economy. He makes his own luck and owns the losses, as much as he owns the big wins. Jim is not a violent man but he stands up for himself, when it all becomes too much. Even in this day and age, Jim’s story is one that encourages us to be true to ourselves and not lose our identity to please others.

Audiences would have admired these characteristics at a time when most people felt powerless. They would have cheered when the hotel boss got his just desserts, as he represents the type of employer that many of them would have had. But he also represents the economy, which brought so many to their knees and the lack of empathy from those in power for those who were struggling. The same could be said for Pres Barrow, the kind of small town baron who had control and power over peoples’ lives. As far as Jim is concerned, Pres interferes in his marriage to Marge and he decides to do something about it. There is futility in Jim’s punching Pres Barrow and perhaps many in the audience would have empathized with the futility of hitting out against monster that the Depression was.

On another level, Dark Hazard is the story of the rise and fall, and incredible rise again of Jim Turner – a man whose transparent independence also reveals something deeper. He is a man who prides himself on his ability to pick a winner and whose sense of self-worth is very much shaped by winning and winning big. ‘People used to pay plenty’ for his tips, he says, reflecting how he measures his self-worth. When meeting again with Val at the racetrack, she reminisces how a casino shut down its’ tables when they saw Jim approaching. Jim gets all puffed up, enjoying the story and affirming his identity as a top gambler,

In spite of the seeming moralizing of the dangers of gambling, Jim finds redemption and even greater success – through gambling!

Thus, Dark Hazard IS a morality tale but not the one you thought you were watching!

When all is said and done, the film belongs to one man alone and that is Edward G Robinson. And let’s be honest, the film only gets any viewing today because he’s in it. With the pacing and storyline slightly awry, E.G holds it together with an enthusiastic performance, with flashes of the tough guy thrown in for good measure where necessary to the plot.

Genevieve Tobin is as beautiful and angelic as always, yet I find it hard to warm to Marge. She loves Jim yet wants him to change. She pressures him with her family’s financial problems and he’s more than willing to help – yet complains about the way he obtains the answer. In some ways, Marge represents straight society with all its’ claims to propriety and decency, yet reeking with hypocrisy and condemnation. Additionally, despite her claim to love Jim, she rarely accepts his true nature despite knowing exactly who he is and what he does.

Perhaps the most under-used player in the performance is the always-electric Glenda Farrell, who lights up the screen and is quicker than what the director’s pacing allows. For my money, Farrell is the perfect partner for E.G and she plays her part to the hilt. As Val, she is certainly fun to be around and you can see Jim is perhaps still taken with her, even though he is married. The hot seduction scene is shaped as much by the sultry Farrell laying back and showing her goods, as much as it is countered by Jim’s hesitation and final refusal. Val isn’t exactly angry but certainly disappointed and her shooing him away illustrates this. I get the sense that inside Val is saying to herself ‘what happened to you, Jim? Did you lose your manhood when you got married, as well as yourself?’. This is certainly obvious when in deliberate ear-shot of Jim, she picks up the phone and asks the porter for a wheelchair, adding before the screen fades ‘No, I didn’t do anything to him’.

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But what I feel is most admirable about Val is that she doesn’t want Jim to change and encourages him to be himself – honest and true to who he is. Val is no gold-digger either nor does she waste his money. Indeed, at the end of the film we see that Jim’s spend-happy demeanor has been tempered. It’s Val who exercises some fiscal responsibility. Moreso, Val never quits on Jim and obviously loves and wants him even when he is married. Yes, there is an attempt at seduction but not because Val is a seductress in the classic sense. She wants Jim but she won’t wreck a marriage per se and sends him off home. In fact, she just might be enticing Jim to be himself and be true to his own instincts and thus be truly happy. Marge on the other hand is rarely happy with Jim and eventually gives up on him, even taking his winnings and running back to Ohio. 

In his autobiography, ‘All My Yesterdays: An Autobiography’ (1973), Robinson claimed that he ‘loathed it’ and appeared glad that it was a forgotten film. Being the consummate professional that he was, it’s hard to find that sense of loathing in his performance. 

Fans of Edward G Robinson will still enjoy this odd little Pre-Code film and indeed fans of Pre-Code will also be surprised by how entertaining Dark Hazard is. So if you have 70 minutes to kill one fine evening or on a Sunday afternoon, try Dark Hazard and enjoy the strange little ride it takes you on.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.