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.

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Classic Movie History Project: Women In Film 1932-1934

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What made the Pre-Code era so scandalous, was the content and characterizations in those films made between 1930-1934 in a time when censorship was in name only. In the years 1932-1934, these were the rebellious years of filmmaking where the envelope was pushed so far, the Hays code of censorship was finally enforced. One of the benefits of this scintillating period was the portrayal of women in a liberated and empowered way.

Women were nor longer just sinners or saints. These women were more real than we had ever seen before. We felt sympathy for the nice women who were also naughty, and the naughty women who were also nice. These women were liberated enough to live life more as they chose. They were more in control of their lifestyles -whether it was to hold a career, or to be sexually liberated in choosing their romantic partners (sometimes more than one at a time, and sometimes suggesting homosexuality). These women in film from the years 1932-1934 were no longer simple linear characters, they were complex and often on par with men.

Here are just a few examples:

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William Dieterle’s MAN WANTED (1933)

Kay Francis is Lois Ames, the splendid example of the woman who could have it all. Her character is in charge of her life. She’s the hard-working and successful career woman as the editor of her family magazine. She’s high-styled, beautiful and happy. Her husband is a spoiled, wealthy party boy whose only exercise is polo and secretly chasing other women.

She came from money and married into money. So she works not because she has to, but because she wants to (which she directly asserts more than once in the film). Things get more complex when she hires a man to be her secretary (the adorable David Manners). Life is suddenly filled with all sorts of choices. Note: there are a couple of lesbian references via stereotypes of whom to expect as the female editor prior to meeting her.

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Michael Curtiz/ William Dieterle/ William A. Wellman’s FEMALE (1933): 

Ruth Chatterton as Alison Drake makes Lois Ames look like a girl scout when it comes to the freedoms to pursue men. Drake is the top executive of an automobile factory who aggressively pursues and chews up men, then tosses them out to pursue her next conquest. She even has rituals she follows to snare her ‘victims’ not unlike Rock Hudson in PILLOW TALK.

She is also seemingly happy in her lifestyle of plethora of choices, that is until she meets engineer/business partner, George Brent as Jim Thorne. When she falls in love for the first time, she eventually finds herself at a crossroad to make a hard choice of love over her career. Personally, I hate this ending but it’s a fun change of character while it lasts. Why can’t she have monogamous love and still continue as the boss? Oh, Hollywood you came SO close on this one.

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Ernst Lubitsch’s DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933):

Two men in Paris, Frederic March as playwright Tom Chambers and Gary Cooper as painter George Curtis, fall for free-spirited Miriam Hopkins as Gilda Farrell. She can’t decide between the two so she shares her flat with both.

Based on the original play by Noel Coward, Ben Hecht and Samuel Hoffenstein crafted the hilarious screenplay as Ernst Lubitsch used his razor-sharp genius to infuriate the censors with constant sexual chat and innuendos.  Although it just barely made it through the Hays office, it was banned by the Legion of Decency and refused a certificate by the PCA for re-release in 1934.

Other Notable Female Characters of Dimension in Films:

Blonde Venus (1932) Directed by Josef von Sternberg Shown: Marlene Dietrich

 

 

 

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Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932) and BLONDE VENUS (1932)

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Jean Harlow in Jack Conway’s RED-HEADED WOMAN (1932) and Victor Fleming’s RED DUST (1932)

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Joan Crawford in Lewis Milestone’s RAIN (1932)

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Greta Garbo in Rouben Mamoulian’s QUEEN CHRISTINA

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Mae West in Lowell Sherman’s SHE DONE HIM WRONG (1933) and Wesley Ruggles’ I’M NO ANGEL (1933)

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Thelma Todd in Frank Tuttle’s THIS IS THE NIGHT (1932)

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Loretta Young in Roy Del Ruth’s EMPLOYEE’S ENTRANCE (1933), William A. Wellman’s MIDNIGHT MARY (1933) and Lowell Sherman’s BORN TO BE BAD (1934)

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Bette Davis in Robert Florey’s EX-LADY (1933) [Bette played the empowered female with fierce ferocity throughout her career but those roles built up stronger for her after Pre-Code]

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Katharine Hepburn in Dorothy Arzner’s CHRISTOPHER STRONG (1933) and Sylvia Sidney in Dorothy Arzner’s MERRILY WE GO TO HELL (1932) [Dorothy Arzner was one of the rare female directors at this time]

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Miriam Hopkins in Stephen Roberts’ THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (1933)

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Busby Berkley musicals featured free-spirited ladies like Joan Blondell, Una Merkel, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, Aline MacMahon, and Bebe Daniels in Mervyn LeRoy’s GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933), Lloyd Bacon/Busby Berkeley’s 42ND STREET (1933), Lloyd Bacon’s FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933), Ray Enright/Busby Berkeley’s DAMES (1934)

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Barbara Stanwyck in Alfred E. Green’s BABY FACE (1933) and LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT (1933)

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Naked Maureen O’Sullivan swimming in Cedric Gibbons’ TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934)

These films portrayed women in varying shades of adultery, prostitution, betrayal, ambition, determination, confidence, inhibition,  and empowerment. Sometimes as the instigator, sometimes the victim. These roles were not always depicted in the most flattering light, but they pushed the boundaries for women regardless.

Many salacious films presenting titillating female characters occurred prior to 1932 but the films made from 1932-1934 hit the censorship ceiling. While the films mentioned above are not a complete list, it touches upon many colorful examples of women that scared the begeezus out of ole Will Hays and the Catholic bishops over at the Legion of Decency. It’s a shame, really. Because it’s astonishing how few empowered or juicy female roles have come along since the enforcement of the Code beyond that summer of 1934.

So when you see MILDRED PIERCE, DOUBLE INDEMNITY or THE LETTER, note that the strong noirish Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis of the post-WWII 40’s and 50’s have the Pre-Code Joan, Babs and Bette to thank (along with all the other amazing Pre-Code women and filmmakers). Not to mention those roles that followed like Sigourney Weaver in ALIENS, Jodie Foster in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and the more current crop of comedy gems like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in BABY MAMA, Kristen Wiig and cast in BRIDESMAIDS, and Melissa McCarthy in SPY. As the saying goes, well-behaved women seldom make history…

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This article was my contribution to the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, hosted by talented Fritzi aka @MoviesSilently of Movies Silently, Ruth aka @925screenings of Silver Screenings, and Aurora aka @CitizenScreen of Once Upon A Screen and sponsored by Flicker Alley, on June 26-28. Check each of their sites for the updated lists of participating bloggers.

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