CMBA’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles blogathon… TAXI! (1932)

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Crooked cabbies, hot Irish tempers, and bad situations with good intentions. Roy Del Ruth’s 1932 PreCode nugget has a variety sampling of yummy delights.

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As if struggling to make ends meet as a taxi driver in the Depression isn’t bad enough, mafia styling competition just made it worse. Our story begins with Guy Kibbee as ole man Pop Riley who has comfortably carved out a little corner for his meager cab business. But his crooked competition “Consolidated” would feel more comfortable taking it all for themselves. In their nasty ways, David Landau as Buck Gerard arranges for his man in a truck (brawn over brains fave character actor Nat Pendleton) to crash in “accidentally” to said cabbie and thereby eliminate his Consolidated competition. Pops Riley is justifiably incensed, pulls out a gun and shoot down the man who just destroyed his means to earn a living.

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Pop’s daughter is the beautiful, doe-eyed Loretta Young as Sue. Her approach to resolve these troubled matters is a non-violent, peaceful one. Exactly opposite in ideology is young cabbie James Cagney as Mike Nolan. Despite their differences, opposites soon attract and after Pop Riley dies in a prison hospital as he serves his time for his revengeful crime, Sue and Mike get married. George E. Stone as Skeets and Leila Bennett as Ruby serve as the comical sidekicks and wingmen for the two lovebirds.

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Nolan’s temper is tested more than once as we see him lose his patience with a clueless man on the elevator who turns out to be the marriage license clerk and later on their wedding night at a dance club when Buck Gerard himself pokes the bear by antagonizing Nolan and lands up stabbing the wrong Nolan boy. Danny Nolan doesn’t make it on the operating table. Now Mike is a man on a mission, for fateful and deadly revenge. But at what cost? Is his marriage worth sacrificing in order to balance the scales of justice on his own terms? To what length will Sue go to protect her man from serving inevitable prison time for murder, even as justified as it may be, including paying for Buck’s escape? I won’t spoil the real conclusion but rest assured it all balances out nicely in the end.

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This film is less about public transportation and more about dealing within our constraints and challenges in a troubled world, while seeking justice. A balancing act of life, especially for a feisty Irish life. The character studies are splendid.

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Funny duo Stone and Bennett as Skeet and Ruby are a quirky pair that provide witty breaks throughout. Dry cynicism with a nasal dead-pan Bennett especially, as she’s given generous latitude of lines to ramble on nonsensically, yet it delivers. Ruby to Skeet: “C’mon I feel like being bored and you can do the job better than anybody I know.” 

Sweet Loretta Young is a mere nineteen years old here and it’s tough to look away. Her beauty is stunning and her acting skills show evidence of her long career to come.

Cagney’s early career portrayal shows off his first on-screen dancing, with a fox trot dance-off contest against George Raft! It’s also his film appearance with the “you dirty rat” claim to fame. Only it’s not. Well, not quite. To be specific, James Cagney boldly threatens, “Come out and take it you dirty, yellow-bellied rat or I’ll give it to you through the door!” As for his performance itself, Cagney was already showing us the variety, depth and brilliance of his talents. From speaking in convincing yiddish in an opening scene to his moving scene of heart-break of grieving his brother’s loss, this little film has a lot to offer.

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*This was my contribution to CMBA’s PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES Blogathon. Only members of the Classic Movie Blog Association may participate and I’m proud to belong to this fun group of talented writers.

The Cost of Success in EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE (1933)

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“There’s no room for sympathy or softness – my code is smash or be smashed!”… Warren William as Kurt Anderson

In the heart of the Great Depression of 1933, Roy Del Ruth’s EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE was released just a few months prior to the election that ousted stock-market-crashing President Hoover and ushered in economic-rebuilder President FDR. The political and economic climate of desperation and uncertainty in this country is a significant influence felt throughout this film.

In this Pre-Code gem, ruthless and cold-hearted Kurt Anderson (Warren William) is head of business operations at the Franklin-Monroe department store. He rules with an iron-fist and his ONLY concern is the success of the business. He doesn’t respect the bankers that rule from the board of directors nor Franklin Monroe himself because he views them as lazy and pretentiously out-of-touch from the capitalist efficiency he demands in order to continue growth. So he chooses to manipulate them instead, to suit his own (and the company’s) needs.

He also ruthlessly dictates over the staff that report to him. But if the employee works as hard and loyally as he does, he shows a tad more respect and loyalty to the working class. Well, sorta. In the case of Garfinkel (Frank Reicher), a 3rd party vendor who was supposed to deliver coats in time for a big advertised sale, reports that he’s only able to provide a portion of the entire inventory, otherwise missing his deadline by a few days. This does not go over well with Anderson. Despite Garfinkel’s $30,000 investment, Anderson cancels the contract immediately with a “now get outta here!”

At a manager’s meeting, the youngest exec, Martin (Wallace Ford) proposes an unconventional idea which is rejected by a 30-year-tenured, senior manager, Higgins, who expresses guarded caution to anything risky in light of the market volatility. Anderson explodes, “Higgins, get out! You’re through… You’re too old … You’re dead wood.” Higgins begs for better respect considering his decades of commitment to the company to which Anderson only barks, “now get out.” Later, after several failed attempts to speak with Anderson, Higgins jumps to his death off the ninth floor. Martin witnesses Anderson’s response to this tragic news which is completely void of any emotion or compassion.

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But wait, the list of victims deepens. When a very beautiful and young Madeleine (Loretta Young) first meets Anderson, she is at a vulnerable low point. She’s literally camped out in the home section of the store (assumedly to not only get a jump to the front of the line to apply for a job, but also as a desperate means of residence). She quickly discovers who he is and how he operates. His initial charm is rapidly replaced with his true intentions. She agrees to go on a ‘date’ with him in order to get a position with the company.

Before too long, Madeleine replaces the shame of her ‘Anderson incident’ with meeting and falling in love with Martin. Meanwhile, Martin has become Anderson’s protege. He sees Martin as a hard-working, out-of-the-box thinker whom he can mold to his liking. When Anderson takes him under his wing to place Martin on the fast track of upward mobility, it comes at a hefty price. Anderson makes his expectations clear to Martin. In order to replace Higgins as his right-hand-man, Anderson requires Martin to be fully available around the clock, ruthlessly ambitious as himself, and single. To Anderson, women are disposable toys, nothing more. “Sure I like them. In their place. But there’s no time for wives in this job. Love ’em and leave ’em. Get me?”

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Martin and Madeleine secretly marry and vow to hide their marriage so Martin can strengthen his career. As anyone can imagine, this plan is doomed from the start. How could anyone keep such a secret from a sharp and calculating guy like Kurt Anderson? And after a lover’s spat between Martin and Madeleine at a staff party, Martin proceeds to get wasted with his buddies and never makes it home.

For Madeleine, this evening is much more horrific. While more than plenty intoxicated and alone in a separate room, predator Anderson stalks and corners his prey and strategically elevates her intoxication to completely plastered. He then hands her his key to a room upstairs where he insists that she can sleep it off while he remains a gentleman downstairs at the Employee’s Ball. We then see Madeleine knocked out cold on a bed as slimy Anderson creeps in.

Whether you’ve never seen this film or you’re a huge fan that could recite the lines, I’ll leave the rest of the plot details untold to encourage you to see this film very soon. While building a case to show you what a monster Kurt Anderson is, what we haven’t addressed yet is why this film is so appealing. All of these shocking errors of human behavior are also vivid examples of that rare era of ‘forbidden Hollywood fruit’ known as Pre-Code. Not unlike slowing down to see that mangled wreckage from a car accident moments prior, or simply being mesmorized by your favorite on-screen villain, we crave to see what Warren William as Kurt Anderson will do next.

Surely movie goers at the time of this film’s release were completely conflicted. Anderson is a character who has some redeeming qualities to an audience that was struggling to find work and bolster the economy. He valued hard work, he was willing to sacrifice his personal life to ensure a company’s survival, he created jobs for more than a thousand people, and he didn’t have to ‘kiss ass’ of the wealthy to get that done. These are all merits a 1933 audience would applaud. But at what cost?

Let’s not forget that this man is a true predator and a rapist. He gets what he wants in life and he doesn’t care how many victims suffer and sacrifice their own livelihood to support his aspirations. Whether they attempt or commit suicide, or he tries to break up a marriage, or he cruelly deceives via a charming promise that turns ugly and empty, he maintains zero emotional responsibility. In modern psychology, many would suggest he’s a sociopath. So why do we feel strangely invested in his story, as equally as his victims’? I have two words for that answer: Warren William.

While it helps that the audience is already conflicted by the merits of his work ethic; moreover it’s the charms of the bad guy we love to hate… Warren William is tough to match. A side effect of being a Pre-Code fan, is the challenge of looking into the dirty mirror. Do you relate to the victims and root for their hopeful redemption? Or are you shocked because you curiously lifted the curtain, peering into the Pre-Code peepshow, secretly rooting for the villian and pondered why?

Keep in mind, a truly rotten scoundrel is not near as darkly delicious without a polar opposite hero or heroine as a pillar of morality and good-heart to counter all that evil. This was an example of a very young Loretta Young who was early in the process of developing her acting craft. She does a splendid job considering. In my humble opinion she also never looked more beautiful. While I don’t think she is portrayed as fairytale-level innocent, I’m definitely not blaming the victim here. I believe, if anything, she is very realistic in what would be an intensely challenging position for her character. As for Martin, surely he is a somewhat-flawed victim. While he was one of Anderson’s many victims, he was in greater control and choice than his wife and many others. From the moment he said “I do”, he chose Anderson and his broken moral compass over his wife. His benefits-to-risk ratio was greater than the others, as well.

->This post is my 2nd contribution to the PRE-CODE BLOGATHON hosted by Danny at Pre-Code(dot)Com and Karen at Shadows & Satin– peruse each of these sites for all the wonderful entries…

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Orson Welles in THE STRANGER (1946)

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah). This post is dedicated to all the families tragically affected by this horrific period in history, and in hopes that we shall never forget to recognize the faces of evil, while remembering to seek out the goodness in humanity…

The great villains of the big screen have always been a draw for audiences. We love to hate the evil doers, the bad boys and naughty ladies. A magnificent protagonist is nothing without a strong antagonist and vice-versa. These roles are clearly defined for us in Orson Welles’ THE STRANGER (1946).

In THE STRANGER (1946), the evil antagonist doesn’t get much more evil than a nazi. And not just any nazi; but Franz Kindler (portrayed by Orson Welles), the mastermind nazi responsible for the horrific deaths of millions in the Holocaust. First we are introduced to Mr. Wilson (portrayed by Edward G. Robinson) of the War Crimes Commission who is searching for this evil fugitive from justice. Kindler has effectively kept his identity a complete mystery. No photos, no identifying marks and no trace of his whereabouts exist. Our only clue that sets Kindler apart is his obsessive passion for clocks. And the only connection to Kindler is his former partner in crime and fellow nazi Konrad Meinike (portrayed by Konstantine Shayne). So Wilson releases Meinike in hopes he’ll lead him to Kindler, then follows him to Harper, Connecticut.

In this quaint little town, Wilson arrives pretending to be an antique dealer, tight on Meinike’s trail. But soon Meinike gives him the slip in the school gymnasium and knocks him out cold. Then Meinike makes an uncomfortable visit to Kindler’s home. Kindler is now operating under the guise as Charles Rankin, professor at the local prep school. He also is about to be married to a beautiful and deeply compassionate woman, Mary Longstreet. She’s at his house hanging curtains as Meinike mysteriously shows up looking for “Rankin.” Mary is puzzled why this foreign-accented stranger leaves without giving his name or why he’s so anxious to see her soon-to-be-husband.

When Meinike catches up with Kindler aka Rankin their conversation is brief. He admits that he was followed but believes he killed his pursuer. Kindler knows he can’t afford to have Meinike near him, as the only threat in revealing his true identity and ruining his cover. So, he kills Meinike right in broad daylight, out in the woods but close by to students running by. He swiftly covers up his body with dirt, rocks and leaves. Meanwhile, Wilson awakens (not quite as dead as Meinike had thought) and is treated by the local doctor. He manages to charm his way into a dinner at the Longstreet home to find clues on the whereabouts of Meinike and Kindler because he heard this Professor Rankin has an affinity for clocks, such as the town’s clock tower that has become his hobby to restore. The dinner attendees include Mary’s father, Mary’s brother Noah, Wilson, the doctor, and Mr. and Mrs. Rankin, just back from their honeymoon. The conversation becomes intriguing when the topic of ‘what to do with the post-Holocaust Germans’ and Professor Rankin responds that “Marx was not a German, but a Jew.” Wilson knows only a nazi would make this statement so he decides to stay longer.

Wilson decides to confide in Noah as to his real identity and purpose for his stay, in hopes to somehow get the truth to Mary. He knows this won’t be easy. When Rankin takes Red, Mary’s beloved Irish Setter for a walk, the dog starts digging at Meinike’s secret grave site. That night Rankin locks Red in the cellar to keep him from revealing the dead body. When Red starts howling, Charles Rankin tells Mary he plans to keep her dog locked up or on a chain around the clock. This disturbs Mary greatly- she doesn’t believe in imprisoning her pet. He’s starting to show a whole new side of himself to his new bride. Pace picks up quickly as Red is found dead and Wilson and Noah discover he’s been murdered from poisoning. Based on further evidence on Red, Wilson concludes the proximity of Meinike’s burial site. With both Red and Meinike dead bodies discovered, Wilson knows it’s only a matter of time before Kindler makes another bold move. This time it’s likely to kill his new wife, who surely must be wondering how this murdered man is connected to her husband and why her husband has pressured her to pretend she never met Meinike. Earlier Rankin concocts a lie for Mary as to why they must keep his connection to Meinike a secret but he also admits he is the one who killed him… for a ‘good reason.’ Shockingly, Mary accepts his lies and continues to support him.

Wilson knows he must act immediately and boldly. He sees Mary’s blind loyalty to her husband but has faith that her strong morality will lead her to eventually accept the truth. It must be shown to her in shocking realness to break through. Wilson and Mr. Longstreet arrange a private meeting with Mary. She’s curious and worried. In this meeting, Wilson comes straight with Mary for the first time. After explaining his real occupation and purpose for his stay in Harper, he gets to the core of the matter with reels of Kindler’s horrors in Europe. [Interestingly, this was the very first time the real footage from the Holocaust was actually shown in a feature film.] When he explains this horrific connection to her directly, she is overwhelmed and runs out in deep denial and disbelief.

For the benefit of any unfamiliar with this film, I’ll leave the remainder of the film and its dramatic conclusion for you to see for yourself. Orson does a wonderful job both in front of and behind the camera as its director and leading villain. But he is not the big player in this film. And maybe that’s why Welles said this was one of his least favorite films. Edward G. Robinson takes the lead as the wise and insightful detective, a true champion for truth and justice. In his small stature and approachable casualness, he gains acceptance quickly by those around him. He’s genuine. It’s because of the strong case this character builds, the evilness in Welles’ character is so strong via contrast. We don’t see as much screen time with Welles’ character Kindler/Rankin and yet we don’t even have to. Through Robinson’s performance we despise Kindler while barely seeing him on screen. Then Welles adds fear in our hearts via his solid performance.

To add to our perception of Kindler’s evil ways, Loretta Young contributes a strong contrast through her splendid portrayal of the sweet and trusting Mary Longstreet/Mrs. Charles Rankin. Her capacity for an infinite belief in goodness in others is both her downfall but also her saving grace. She is so pure in her love for her new husband that it distorts her ability to see his villainous ways. Despite being in love, it is also due to her faith in humanity that it’s impossible for a person like Mary to stay supportive of a truly evil monster like Kindler, once evidence reveals the truth. Loretta Young does a superb job of embodying Mary in an authentic manner. She is not so much vulnerable and naive as Kindler had hoped when targeting her to be his cover, rather her moral compass is unyielding. In a way, by being his polar opposite, her pure goodness of heart is his ultimate nemesis…

The following post is my very tardy contribution to THE GREAT VILLAIN Blogathon, hosted by Karen of SHADOWS AND SATIN, Ruth of SILVER SCREENINGS and Kristen of SPEAKEASY. For all the magnificent villain entries that delivered in a more timely manner, check out the full list of wonderful blog posts.

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