Joan Blondell, Shining Star Forced to be a Satellite

“I don’t know what the secret to longevity as an actress is… maybe it’s the audience seeing itself in you.” … Joan Blondell

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Joanie should know. Joan Blondell, born Rose Joan Blondell on August 30, 1906, in NYC, lived her entire life performing on stage and screen. She died of leukemia on December 25, 1979 in Santa Monica, CA. It is bittersweet to honor this remarkable woman so close to what will be the 37th anniversary of her death this Christmas day.

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Joan was born to entertain audiences. She cut her teeth working with her comic parents on the vaudeville stages from age three to seventeen, while educated at the Professional Children’s School. She was a seasoned pro by the time she transitioned to the Ziegfeld Follies and then onto the Broadway stage.

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It was a Broadway production that paired her with James Cagney, which lead to five more celebrated film features, starting with John G. Adolfi’s SINNERS’ HOLIDAY (1931) where they reprised their stage roles. The other Blondell/Cagney paired films that followed are:  William Wellman’s OTHER MEN’S WOMEN (1931), William Wellman’s THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), Howard Hawks’ THE CROWD ROARS (1932), Lloyd Bacon’s FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933), and HE WAS HER MAN (1934). The chemistry sizzle on the screen was visible between these two talents, making for memorable performances that launched both of their careers into an explosion of roles in the Pre-Code era. While they supposedly kept their romance limited to the screen, Cagney said she was the only woman other than his wife he ever loved.

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But to give you some perspective on just how much Blondell worked starting with the early talkies of the Pre-Codes and throughout the duration of the 1930s, she was in over fifty films during that decade alone. Most of this ridiculously busy schedule could be attributed to her contract with Warner Brothers. They kept her working fast and furious in roles at a time when being employed was a very good thing. And she enjoyed her WB family of co-star friends and filming crews immensely. The problem was, while she found herself in-demand and in work, she was not only typecast but stuck below the top tier of the marquee.

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While others demanded more and knew how to cause ripples within the political studio system in a persuasive way (like her good friend Bette Davis), Blondell thought of her job as a job. Joan punched the clock and went home when the job was done. She worked extremely hard, acted consistently professional, but didn’t desire to play the ambitious game.

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Working free of the studio playbook in the 1940s and 1950s, the work was less frequent and the pace less brutal; yet offered some meatier roles, such as Gail Richards in TOPPER RETURNS (1941), Aunt Sissy in A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (1945), Zeena Krumbein in NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947), and Annie Rawlins in THE BLUE VEIL (1951) for which she was nominated for An Oscar, Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Even still, she struggled to garner critical acclaim in a way that moved her name up to the leading lady, mega star status.

The 1950s ushered in the television age and Joan Blondell was determined to be a player. The frequency of roles kept her busier but yet again, she found herself working harder, not smarter in struggling to move her name to the top position in billing.

The 1960s and 1970s brought memorable roles such as Jenny in SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GUNFIGHTER (1971), Lady Fingers in THE CINCINNATI KID (1965), Sarah Goode in OPENING NIGHT (1977) and Dolly in THE CHAMP (1979). Her TV work continued with roles such as Lottie Hatfield in “Here Come the Brides.” Fans unaware of her saucy and leggy days as a Pre-Code platinum blonde may know her more for her later work such as Vi in GREASE (1978) or caught her in reruns from retro TV networks such her bit parts in 50’s TV westerns, Starsky and Hutch (1976), The Love Boat (1978), Fantasy Island (1979) and so much more.

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She worked right up until the end, even while battling the Leukemia that ultimately took her life in 1979, with her last role being Aunt Coll in THE WOMAN INSIDE (1981), released posthumously. With 160 acting credits to her name, and after publishing her popular 1972 autobiographical novel “Center Door Fancy,” Joan never quit.

Married three times, divorced three times, her first husband famed cinematographer George S. Barnes (m. 1933-1936) was a decision reflecting her “naive sophisticate”(as James Cagney called her) ways of a younger Joanie, fresh in her film career. Emotionally dysfunctional, this relationship was fated for disaster. Barnes was still married to his third wife as their romance grew and he assured her the marriage was on paper only and would be ended swiftly. During this time of officially divorcing his third wife and marrying Joan (he went on to marry for a total seven times), she became pregnant and he arranged for the termination. Their son and only child from the marriage, TV producer/director Norman Scott Barnes was born in 1934 but later changed his last name to Powell in 1938 when Barnes relinquished all parental rights and he was adopted by Joan’s second husband.

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Her second marriage to actor Dick Powell (m. 1936-1944) was more stable but tepid in romance. In addition to adopting Norman, they had a child together, Ellen Powell, who is known for her makeup department work in film and tv, such as her Emmy nominated work in hair styling.

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Joan and Dick made ten musicals together. But after they both had grown weary of the incessant typecasting of formulaic musicals each began over a decade prior, just as they attempted to move their careers in more dramatic roles, their marriage also became stagnant. Right up until the time Dick left Joan for actress June Allyson. In this same pivotal year Dick Powell left one marriage for another, he left his sugary musicals and boyish charm behind with MURDER MY SWEET (1944), launching a dramatically different type in his cinematic world with film noir and never looked back.

Her last husband (m. 1947-1950), producer Michael Todd was said to be physically abusive and a financial mess, thanks to heavy gambling and repeatedly poor investments. She found this relationship to be her most passionate. Great for the bedroom initially but later his behavior revealed itself into abuse. His chaotic ways also wiped out her savings. So she continued to work for the next three decades-because financially she had to.

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She wasn’t always lucky in love or ambition, but certainly made up for it in talent, enduring work ethic and generosity of spirit. Time after time, this unforgettable performer played second-fiddle, the rapid-fire, sharp-tongued best friend, the second lead, the snarky office gal, the lingerie-clad roomie, the sharp opportunist, the frowzy, lovable saloon owner, the gangster’s girlfriend, the wise aunt, and the down-to-earth, tell-it-like-it-is scene-stealer. She was all these nuances of woman and more. She mastered tv and film, Pre-Codes, dramas, and comedies. But she never truly reached the well-deserved splendor of consistent top billing.

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While I admire the entire breadth of Joan Blondell’s work, I am always biased towards her early days of Pre-Codes. You couldn’t find a better pair of sexy gams in those Busby Berkley musicals and she delivered such hilariously sassy lines with the perfect punch. Take a look at her delicious delivery of “As long as they’ve got sidewalks, YOU’VE got a job!” as she proceeds to kick the woman out the door, right in the tuchus, in Lloyd Bacon’s FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933) or her haunting “My Forgotten Man” in Mervyn LeRoy’s THE GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933. There are too many to list here (because the woman was a damn work-horse during those years!) But no matter how small the role, Joan Blondell made it her own and she made it memorable. So yes, Joanie, you did know the secret to longevity as actress, and perhaps your greatest role in life was that of survivor- a role this audience member and countless other fans can relate.

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*This was my contribution to the What A Character! Blogathon, hosted by Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, and yours truly. Please review all three days for a recap of fantastic character actor tributes… THANK YOU & ENJOY!! 🙂

day one: kellee

day two: aurora

day three: paula

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The Seduction of SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932)

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Josef von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS was the top grossing film of 1932 (in US and Canada)- at the apex of the salacious Pre-Code era. With good reason.

This exotic film takes us on a journey via rail in Northern China from Peking to Shanghai. There’s a uniquely diverse group of passengers that sometimes clash and sometimes simmer for the ride. Ultimately, each are surprised to find out who can be trusted, and who should be feared, when they become directly embroiled in local politics and civil unrest. And when old flames rekindle things really start to sizzle.

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Marlene Dietrich portrays Shanghai Lily, along with her traveling companion, Anna May Wong as Hui Fei, and they make a HELLUVA entrance. Shanghai Lily is mysterious, drop-dead gorgeous and with every little movement she poses draped in the most stunning fashions, enveloped in the most sensuous glowing light and shadows. Her boudoir reputation precedes her.

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Shanghai Lily: “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”

As for Ms. Anna May Wong’s Hui Fei, she is one tough lady and not to be messed with. While Hui Fei projects street-wise, her striking companion is apparently bedroom savvy. Like Shanghai Lily, she also carries herself with high style and a penetrating beauty.

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Clive Brook plays Captain “Doc” Harvey. He’s a suave military man and a former lover to Shanghai Lily. He’s apprehensive to her flirtations at first with the promiscuous rumors. As hard as he tries to avoid falling for her, in the end, and via her sacrifices that reveals her love for him, her undeniable sexual appeal and their love prevail.

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As for the rest of the cast of key characters, Warner Oland (most famous for his many turns as Charlie Chan) is untrustworthy Mr. Henry Chang. Lawrence Grant is Reverend Carmichael, who discovers there’s more to Shanghai Lily than a tarnished reputation. Louise Glosser Hale is the uptight, prude Mrs. Haggerty.  And Eugene Pallette is spectacular as the hilarious Sam Salt.

For comic relief, Eugene Pallette’s Sam Salt delivers the most witty lines. Keep in mind that by today’s standards they are blatantly racist, but there’s something about his delivery (thanks to that lovable Pallette way) that makes us laugh at his non-PC ignorance of Chinese culture, rather than the 1932 audiences that likely laughed with him. As my daughter pointed out, he’s sorta a Pre-Code Peter Griffin (Family Guy reference):

Sam Salt: “I can’t make head or tail outta’ you, Mr. Chang. Are you Chinese, or are you white, or what are you?”
Mr. Henry Chang: “My mother is Chinese. My father was white.”
Sam Salt: “You look more like a white man to me.”
Mr. Henry Chang: “I’m not proud of my white blood.”
Sam Salt: “Oh, you’re not, are you?”
Mr. Henry Chang: “No, I’m not.”
Sam Salt: “Rather be a Chinaman, huh?”
Mr. Henry Chang: “Yes.”
Sam Salt: “What future is there in bein’ a Chinaman? You’re born, eat your way through a handful of rice, and you die. What a country! Let’s have a drink!”

Sam Salt: “I don’t know what you’re saying brother… but don’t say it again.”

Along with these inappropriately funny moments, the other characters provide us entertainment in just how uncomfortable they are just to be near Shanghai Lily, as though her ill-repute will somehow rub off. But what really makes this film is not these things, nor the story (although those are all great), it’s the visual telling of the story… through dramatic, jaw-dropping fashions and through the so-hot-the-screen-steams images of Marlene Dietrich.

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When you consider Marlene Dietrich’s personal life as well as her behind the scenes relationship with director Josef von Sternberg, this performance may not come as a surprise. She was brilliant in understanding how to convey her image on screen in just the perfect light and shadows. That is, she was the perfect student of Josef von Sternberg’s teachings in these skills (skills she utilized the remainder of her life.)

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But when you add in Dietrich’s own extremely sexual persona, it’s no wonder this film unravels as though we the audience are experiencing one long seduction directly from the empress of Pre-Code seduction herself. Let’s face it, she isn’t really seducing the ilk of glossy smooth Clive Brook. The camera is the object of her desire. And we all benefit in her aim.

This perspective on SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932) is my contribution to the “Hot & Bothered Blogathon” as hosted by those saucy bloggers Theresa of Cinemaven’s Essays from the Couch and Aurora of Citizen Screen, July 9-10. Explore both of their sites to read more lustful and licentious posts.

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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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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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Salacious Sins in I’M NO ANGEL (1933)

MaeWest_CaryGrant_closeup Mae West was an original. Her personality was bigger than life and her sexuality was a powerful force of nature. In West’s second writing credit on film, Wesley Ruggles’ I’M NO ANGEL stands out as a definitive Pre-Code. Following the success of SHE DONE HIM WRONG released earlier that year, the even greater popularity of I’M NO ANGEL as the top grossing film of 1933 surely made William Harrison Hays sweat and squirm.

Sex and the Art of Seduction:

To wax-erotic if you’ll allow me some creative license, the tone and plot flows as sexually charged as its female lead. Mae West as Tira starts as a sideshow carney seducing men with song and hip undulations in a form-fitting sequined gown. The crowd is hypnotized.

Tira's gown leaves little to the imagination, to the delight of the circus crowd.

Tira’s gown leaves little to the imagination, to the delight of the circus crowd.

The superstitions of her more humble beginnings is reflected as she consults the fortune teller to predict her future. An opportunity* arises for Tira to climb from rags to riches when circus manager Bill Barton forces her to become the new lion tamer. She’s in the big tent as the main attraction and the hottest ticket in town. Now bejeweled in the most luxurious fabrics and bling, her entrance has been elevated atop an elephant in a grand procession to dominate the big cats under the big top. The foreplay continues as Tira utilizes her sexual prowness to tease the affections of as many men as there are signs in the zodiac.

ya know, just a typical glamorous lion tamer

ya know, just a typical glamorous lion tamer

The Men of Tira:

*While meeting one of her admirers, a slimy pickpocket Slick Wiley attempts to rob him by striking his head with a bottle. Assuming he’s killed the man, Slick flees, but he’s soon caught and arrested by the police. To avoid being betrayed by Slick, Tira asks for a loan from Bill Barton to escape. He only offers her the money if she agrees to become the new lion tamer and put her head into the mouth of a lion.

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a seduction turns ugly

Tira lures Jack into her web of seduction

Tira lures Jack into her web of seduction

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As now the most sought after act in New York, one of her suitors visits her backstage, drawn in like a moth to the flame. Wealthy Kirk Lawrence is engaged to another woman but is so transfixed by her feminine wiles, he continues to pursue her and lavishes her with extravagant gifts. When we see his catty and pious fiancee confront Tira, she is no match for the confidence and wits of this lion tamer. We actually root for ‘the other woman’! But when she meets Kirk’s business partner Jack Clayton (Cary Grant), Kirk is yesterday’s news. This is the real deal. They fall in love and decide to get married.

The Climax:

For fear of losing his biggest asset and money-maker, Barton schemes with Slick Wiley (now out of jail) to corrupt the engagement. Slick shows up at Tira’s place just before Clayton arrives, as Slick asserts that he and Tira are old lovers and back together again. The cad! Without explanation, Clayton avoids Tira and coldly breaks off their engagement. But Tira has the upperhand yet again by taking him to court, suing for breach of contract. What follows is a climatic courtroom scene of Mae West at her empowered best.

a grand and glamorous wedding dress awaiting Grant!

a grand and glamorous wedding dress awaiting Grant!

on the set of I'M NO ANGEL for the brilliant court scene

on the set of I’M NO ANGEL for the brilliant court scene

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 The Lady Was a Progressive:

Mae West was a unique sex symbol, even in her day. When flat- chested, wispy thin, young ladies were dominating the silver screen, here sauntered in a 40 year old curvaceous provocateur, dropping double entendres with razor sharp humor. (See examples below.)

Some criticized Mae West for always writing in herself as the character with the best lines and the most on-screen attention. But frankly, who could blame her? Afterall, this woman was born to stand out. Something tells me if she was a man, this criticism would not be an issue.

Besides having the audacity to be a sexually confident female in charge of her career, West introduced another revolutionary first in I’M NO ANGEL. In several scenes, Tira is seen communicating with her maids in a way that is more similar to girlfriends chatting gossip at a sleepover. Granted, yes, these African American actresses are still being shown as domestic servants, as was typically the best on-screen role to be found. But it was actually more common for any speaking roles to be given to white actors in blackface. And even less common to display a nearly peer-like interaction between a wealthy caucasian female and her black maid/s.

the rapport between Tira and her maids was rather progressive for its time

the rapport between Tira and her maids was rather progressive for its time

This was a lady of style, of charismatic persona, of breaking boundaries and social codes (she even spent 10 days in jail for moral indecency for a risque role), of magnetic sexuality, and of highly intelligent humor. I’ll also submit that Mae West was an original take-charge feminist. All of this and the deliciously young Cary Grant too- all of the makings of the pinnacle Pre-Code that rocked the Hays code at its core.

SNAPPY DIALOGUE!

Tira: “Beulah, peel me a grape.”

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Tira: “It’s not the men in your life that counts, its the life in your men.” 

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Fortune Teller: “Keep this where you may consult it frequently.”

Tira: “Alright, I’ll take it to bed with me.”

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Clayton: “You were wonderful tonight.” Tira: “Yeah, I’m always wonderful at night.” Clayton: “Tonight, you were especially good.” Tira: “Well… When I’m good, I’m very good. But, when I’m bad… (winks at him) I’m better.”

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Director: Wesley Ruggles Producer: William LeBaron Screenwriting: Harlan Thompson and Mae West Cinematography: Leo Tover Cast: Mae West (Tira), Cary Grant (Jack Clayton), Gregory Ratoff (Benny Pinkowitz), Edward Arnold (Big Bill Barton), Ralf Harolde (Slick Wiley). B&W-88 mins.

->This post is my 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… precodebanner3

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