Posted September 15, 2017 by D. K. Holm
One of the interesting things about “Films in Focus” is that from week to week the reader never knew what Sarris was going to cover. It might be CE3K, it might be three French films for adults, or it might be a tennis match. In his column for 12 September, 1977, Andrew Sarris took on six pre-Code Columbia films presented at the Theatre 80 by Howard Otway. In doing so, he and Otway anticipated the interest in pre-Code movies, especially Warner Bros. films, that arose in 1999, thanks to a traveling show and books such as Thomas Doherty’s Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema; 1930–1934 and others.
One of the pleasures of the old “Films in Focus” pages is the ads, for theaters showing interesting things and which were the lifeblood of movie buffs, as seen in the documentary Cinemania, and movie reviewers, as seen in For the Love of Movies. I’ve never been to any of these theaters, but feel as if I have.
Two of the films featured Barbara Stanwyck, Mexicali Rose, from 1929, and Ten Cents a Dance from 1931. Sarris doesn’t spend too much time on the directors. The column is focused on the performers. He summarizes them in the second paragraph, deeming the “director-as-auteur factor” negligible, characterizing most of the helmers as “dregs.” But, as Sarris frequently asserted, there is always room for for further research. With so many discs, videotapes, and on line streaming services tracking down films and careers can become a rabbit hole with unending byways.
Erle C. Kenton directed Mexicali Rose, in which Stanwyck seems ill-suited for the part of vamp. Kenton started out as one of the original Keystone Kops, and went on to do The Island of Lost Souls and several later Universal horror films, plus one of the Rathbone-Sherlock Holmes modernizations, and like most directors of the time handled multiple genres, before closing out his career in television. Whether there is a personality hidden within these pictures would require a deep dive into this native Montanan’s 143 credits. Sarris is interesting on the implications of the core drama of this film, in which a successful club owner is guardian to a young naive college football player. The acting is uneven, and even Stanwyck is shaky, though on the other hand, some of the passing-through character actors are attuned to the new exigencies of sound. The racial “humor” is painful. According to Victoria Wilson in her detailed biography of Stanwyck, this film came at a time when the actress was struggling to find a footing in Hollywood. According to her,Kenton, who came out of silent film, didn’t know or care about spoken dialogue.
The other Stanwyck feature, Ten Cents a Dance, is directed by Lionel Barrymore, of all people, but Sarris notes that Barrymore was taking arthritis medicine at the time, which put him literally to sleep in the director’s chair. He has 15 directing credits from 1913 to 1931, including a version of Madam X, but most of the films are short subjects and most are uncredited. This was his last credited feature and it enjoys the addition of literate lines from credited screenwriter Jo Swerling, such as Stanwyck quoting “And so to bed.” But the story is dreary, if well-acted by Ricardo Cortez as the rich one of the two men vying for Stanwyck’s hand. The curious twist is that the suitor who seems like the responsible normal guy turns out to be the wastrel with anger issues. According to Wilson, the film was difficult in many ways. As an actor, Cortez gave her “nothing,” and Barrymore was distant. Then she fell on the set and injured her spine, making the rest of the shoot precarious.
The Menace, from 1932 gives Sarris the chance to discuss Bette Davis ab ovo. She has a secondary role as the love interest, and the director is Roy William Neill, arguably the actual founder of American film noir. Naturally, he is Irish. Another genre hopper, he started in the silent era and ended up doing most of the Universal Sherlock Holmes films with Rathbone. His last credit is Black Angel, with Dan Duryea and Peter Lorre, from a Cornell Woolrich book. The convoluted and preposterous plot of The Menace gives Sarris the opportunity to note, “Was there ever a more boring writer of ‘suspense’ than Edgar Wallace?”
Three Wise Girls, from 1932, and Virtue, also from 1932, shows Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard “fully developed as star personalities somewhat earlier than the conventional wisdom had led us to expect.“ Harlow is already a sex minx, and director William Beaudine is careful to show her undressing within the first five minutes, implying full nudity with a cut away to a chair of mounting clothes, but she is also despite her baby fat face a tough cookie who doesn’t tolerate guff or handsiness. I must part company with Sarris on Beaudine. Far from being “dregs,” he was an efficient genre specialist with a long list of credits (372). If we can resurrect the career of the similar William Witney, why not Beaudine? Despite or because of his flair for films that appealed to kids, he ended up doing Lassie and Disney on television. The film charts the love progress of three women in the big city, not unlike a Jacqueline Susann novel, and there are at least a few surprises in the plot.
Virtue makes no bones about the fact that Lombard is playing a hooker, and her run ins with the law lead her to fellow Columbia contract player Pat O’Brien. Murder and drunkenness are also involved, but there is much wit to the dialogue and the plotting, probably because Robert Riskin contributed to the script. Director Edward Buzzell did some uncredited work on Ten Cents a Dance and went on to make 41 films, including several Marx Brothers comedies. Lombard is fantastic. Jack La Rue’s villain of the piece is presented with surprising complexity.
Love Affair (1932) is minor Bogart “before he found the secret of his screen destiny.” The film deals with obsessions of the time, aviation and economically mismatched mates. Swerling also contributed to this screenplay and it’s directed by Thornton Freeland, who later did Flying Down to Rio, the first Astair-Rogers dance fest. His filmography of a mere 26 director credits makes any eventual auteur research manageable.
Read this column if for nothing else, Sarris’s analysis of Stanwyck.
Here’s how you can find the the Columbia survey. Find, if you can this page in the Google newspaper archive.Type in page 23 in the page search box and slide to the right hand side of the double page spread of 44-45.