42nd Street (1933)

Thanks to The Prytania’s Classic Movies series that we regularly attend on Sunday mornings, I recently got to see my very first Busby Berkeley musical . . . on the big screen! Berkeley’s elaborate, geometrically patterned choreography style is something I’ve known about since I was a child, as it’s often featured in highlight reels as the typifying example of Old Hollywood extravagance. The choreographer’s style involved onscreen audiences watching a stage play where a Rockettes-type chorus line kicks & twists rhythmically in an increasingly elaborate pattern that would be impossible to stage outside the dreamlike ream of cinema, only for the audience to applaud at the end as if they had collectively hallucinated the act. The common interpretation of this choreography’s popularity is that it offered a fantastic escape for real-life audiences during the lean times of The Great Depression. The geometric patterns of torsos & limbs twisting in unison like an organic kaleidoscope would be beautiful in any context, but its extravagance is said to have been especially alluring for Depression Era audiences who would have been forcibly acclimated to finding only minor, stripped-down joys outside the cinema. What I didn’t know until I saw one of these spectacles for myself is that Berkeley & his major studio collaborators were likely popular for an entirely different reason than their era’s dire economic circumstances; they, along with their audience, were horny as fuck.

Busby Berkeley is a fetishist and his obsession is stockinged gams. It’s a sexual fixation apparently shared by the director & studio heads that helped bring the first of Berkeley’s classic musicals to the screen, but the wag of their own tongues does little to match the way lady’s legs are lustfully presented in Berkeley’s choreography. There isn’t much to 42nd Street plot-wise that you wouldn’t see in any other backstage musical. This is the story of an emotionally and professionally exhausted Broadway producer who wants to put on One Last Show to secure his legacy as an entertainer. We watch as the mad perfectionist pushes his theatre company to the brink of physical & emotional destruction as the opening night of the show nears. Then, at the last minute, his star is injured and must be replaced by a naïve chorus girl who’s just getting started in the biz. The show (or at least the Berkeley-choregraphed hallucination) goes great and the new star is a hit, but the producer is still bummed & unfulfilled. None of this really matters, of course, at least not nearly as much as the film’s true obsession: Dem Gams. Casting directors command young actors to lift their dresses so they can get a better peak at the walking sticks beneath. Conversations are frequently staged under staircases so the audience can watch gams climb their way upscreen instead of focusing on dialogue. Berkeley’s big musical-number climax is a twisty, kaleidoscopic orgy of gams! gams! gams!, all wrapped in sheer dancers’ stockings. The film is shamelessly fetishistic, as is all the greatest art.

This overt, shameless horniness for women’s barely covered legs was no subconscious mistake, either. 42nd Street arrived in a pre-Code era when shameless tongue-wagging was a Hollywood norm. Sexuality is an explicit, purposeful presence in nearly all the film’s dialogue. Women boast names like Anytime Annie, openly discuss landing Broadway jobs through casting-couch politics, encourage total-pervert producers to invest in their art, and sport the same Power-Top tuxes that Blake Lively wore in A Simple Favor. The film is a little coy in directly depicting onscreen sexual contact (and in explicitly acknowledging the homosexual desire that’s barely concealed by its heteronormative surface), but for the most part it proudly wears its horniness on its sleeve as a badge of Dishonor. As a lifelong lover of Pretentious Smut, I found all this fetishistic fervor to be a most pleasant surprise. I entered 42nd Street expecting a respectable, traditional backstage musical with some early glimpses at the extravagant choreography that made Busby Berkeley a legend. What I found was a technically gorgeous porno about women’s stockinged legs, a film that was much more interested in the infinite potential ways those body parts could be displayed & arranged than it was in the inner lives of the women attached to them. It’s shameless smut hiding behind an artistic pretense and has been historically lauded due to its Depression Era context; in other words, it’s a gem.

-Brandon Ledet

The Seven Year Itch (1955)

I’m not convinced the effect was intentional from anyone involved, but the Big Studio comedy classic The Seven Year Itch might be one of the few rare examples of a movie that was saved by the Hays Code, rather than stifled by it. Adapted for the screen by comedy legend Billy Wilder from a mildly raunchy stage play, The Seven Year Itch suffered many negotiations & revisions at the behest of the overly moralistic Hays Code & the overly protective playwright of its source material. As is usual with risqué comedies of its era, this revision process dulled much of its sex humor, or at least obscured it behind a veil of winking insinuations. It also, unintentionally, made for a much more fascinating picture in the process by abstracting its POV. The original version of The Seven Year Itch features the inner monologues of a pair of upstairs & downstairs neighbors in an apartment complex – offering the POV of a young single woman & older married man in the middle of an adulterous sexual tryst. Hays Code censorship & other production restrictions removed the woman’s POV from that dynamic, as well as the extramarital sex the pair indulged in. You would think that these changes would enhance the film’s sexist, male chauvinist POV, but it curiously has the exact opposite effect. Through censorship & writing process bickering, The Seven Year Itch transformed into something strangely compelling, if not outright surreal.

The male chauvinist protagonist in question is played by Tom Ewell, perhaps the most milquetoast screen presence of all time. Experiencing a midlife crisis at the exact seven-year mark when married couples supposedly tend to cheat in boredom, he finds himself alone in NYC for the summer. While their wives & children escape to cool off on lakeside vacations, businessmen husbands stay behind in the hot city ostensibly to continue their work, but actually use the opportunity to drink, cheat, and let loose. As explained in a constant torrent of soliloquies to the audience, our protagonist Richard believes himself to be above that boorish, animalistic behavior. It’s only that his macho virility is too irresistible to women, so it’s the young seductresses’ fault that he gets into trouble as a wayward husband, not his own. Just looking at the mild-mannered, middle-aged dolt, we know these delusions of macho grandeur to be far beyond the realm of reality. However, there’s an initial unease in not knowing whether we’re meant to be sympathetic to his complaints that marriage & the modern world are what’s holding back his dominant alpha male energy, rather than him just being an unremarkable specimen of a middle-aged sap. As his delusions & paranoid fantasies escalate, though, it becomes crystal clear that we’re not watching the justified political rants of the Modern American Male stifled by his environment, but rather the ravings of a total lunatic who has entirely detached from reality. He might as well be bloviating into a bullhorn from a street corner in a tinfoil hat rather than working in a brick & mortar office building.

There are no bounds to Richard’s paranoid fantasies. Any vague recollection he has of being alone with a woman other than his wife is distorted into their being violent temptresses who cannot resist his “tremendous personal magnetism.” When his wife misses a phone call while on vacation, he becomes panicked that she’s necking with another married man on a romantic hayride. When seen talking to another woman while his wife is away, he imagines the exact gossip trail that would lead the intel back to her, convinced that she instantaneously knows of his planed infidelity. These fantasies are increasingly ludicrous & far-fetched, making Richard the most blatantly unreliable narrator that you can imagine, one who compulsively feels the need to narrate every thought that comes to his delusional mind. How are we to trust his version of events, then, when he begins an inevitable romantic affair with his upstairs neighbor, who has only moved in when he was left to his own devices by his family & whom has been seen by no other reliable source in the film? Marilyn Monroe’s portrayal of the ditzy, naive blonde upstairs who is entirely clueless to the sexual desires of every man around her (or so she pretends) is such an exaggerated, draggy version of femininity it can only be the physical manifestation of a man’s fantasy-bimbo. And, since Richard is the most fantasy-prone man on the planet, he’s the exact kind who could imagine an entire person into existence if left alone for too long with too many bottles of Scotch. Yes, by the time Richard says the name “Marilyn Monroe” aloud in the script it becomes clear that his upstairs neighbor isn’t real at all, only a Fight Club-style figment of a milquetoast man’s delusional imagination.

This reading of The Seven Year Itch, the one where Marilyn Monroe’s upstairs temptress is nothing but a male fantasy, would not be possible without Hays Code intervention. The Hays Code’s regulations drop the neighbor’s own inner monologues and the suggestion that the affair is consummated with actual sex, leaving only a nameless blonde knockout who has no inner life & no clue what effect her high-femme vava-voom presence has on the men who drool over her. Monroe, of course, is iconic casting for this role; the scene where she wrestles with the skirt of her white dress over a gusty subway grate is as iconic of a Studio Era image as any dorm room poster of Breakfast at Tiffany’s or The Wizard of Oz or whatever image you can conjure. Before it becomes clear that Richard is a raving lunatic, her breathy temptress presence is the film’s only saving grace. All the swanky music, lush De Luxe color, Saul Bass animation, and cheeky sex humor are in service of a nastily chauvinist view of the world where wives are disciplinarian shrews and all other women are gateways to sin, so that The Seven Year Itch’s surface pleasures only sour & rot in the context of the overall tone. Monroe is a (moaning) breath of fresh air in that idiotic macho worldview, lightening up the mood with an exaggerated femme-drag screen presence in a deliciously subversive way. The movie eventually catches up with her, dropping its initial sympathy with its pathetic protagonist’s “Woe is the modern man” POV to become a character study for a total loser & a complete psychopath. The Seven Year Itch is less a swanky sex comedy than it is the ravings of man driven mad by the social pressures of toxic masculinity, as well as a testament to the unintended virtues of Hay’s Code censorship.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 38: Young at Heart (1954)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Young at Heart(1954) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “I don’t care much for movies that get all serious about their love affairs, because I think the actors tend to take it too solemnly and end up silly. I like it better when love simply makes the characters very happy, as when Doris Day first falls for Frank Sinatra in Young at Heart.

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Ebert never properly reviewed the film, but when reminiscing about Frank Sinatra’s legendary career onscreen, he wrote, “The image that lingers is from Young at Heart, when he pushed back his hat, lit a cigarette, sat down at a piano and sang to Doris Day and broke her heart. He never had the looks to be a matinee idol, but he had a voice – the Voice – and he had a screen presence, and for a time in the 1950s, Frank Sinatra was one of the most interesting and successful actors in American movies.”

The Hays Code had a peculiar way of obscuring intent in older Hollywood fare. Films that superficially appear to be wholesome & chaste can sometimes be subversively disguising much darker, less moralistic themes than what that infamous production code permitted. It’s also tempting to read too much into that subversion in attempting to parse out artists’ intent vs. what Major Studios of the one era would allow. The musical romance Young at Heart operates within this historical grey area, concluding a schmaltzy musical reverie with an absurdly handed tragic conclusion that’s incongruous with the film’s overall tone, then immediately reversed. The film either doesn’t have the heart to follow through on its own devastating implications or was obstructed by Studio heads’ demands for a happy conclusion to a generally happy story. Its ending can be read either way, both literally blissful or figuratively tragic, making it only increasingly, frustratingly bizarre the longer you sit with it.

A remake of a popular 1930s musical titled Four Daughters, Young at Heart functions on the surface as a well-behaved Technicolor romance. Doris Day stars as an eligible bachelorette at the center of a musical family mostly made up of daughters desperate to be married off. With an alarming focus on anxieties of weight loss & living single, the desperately lonely girls (adult women, really) are all awestruck by the arrival of a handsome, overconfident songwriter played by Gig Young. As he’s employed to write songs for the family, the girls all separately pine for his affection, something that’s awarded to Doris Day’s lead, to her sisters’ jealousy. Much of this early stretch of the film is dependent on the simple joy of watching Doris Day sing, a talent that’s dedicated to culturally toxic, marriage-obsessed diddies like “Til My Love Comes for Me,” “Ready, Willing, and Able,” “Hold Me in Your Arms,” and “Make it Soon.” Thankfully this nauseous love fest is disrupted by the arrival of Frank Sinatra as a troubled, dangerous piano player and friend to the songwriter beau. For her sisters’ sake and because she’s genuinely turned on by his talent, Doris Day’s protagonist leaves her dream man for this sad puppy dog of a romantic rival. This much-needed interjection of danger & sexuality opens the film up to an increasingly tense conflict of hurt feelings, romantic betrayals, and declining mental health. This all culminates in a climactic suicide that feels miles & miles away from the sunny, romantic (even if unhealthily marriage & weight obsessed) disposition of the film’s opening stretch.

Or does it? In an incredibly bizarre denouement, the tragic suicide that tears this family apart is undone with an idyllic Easter morning get-together, the attempted death being retconned as a failure. The 1930s version, Four Daughters, stuck to the implications of the suicide while Young at Heart tacks on a happy ending so artificially saccharine it can almost be read as dream of Heaven. As Four Daughter was also produced under the Hays Code, it’s unclear whether the suicide was not allowed by the studio for moral reasons, its actor‘s vanity, or a general preference for romantic musicals to end on a happy note. What’s even more unclear is what director Gordon Douglas (who helmed the horror classic Them! this same year) intended to convey in its ending. Is the final scene supposed to be taken as a literal happy conclusion to a dark chapter in these sisters’ lives or is it a subversive workaround that concludes the story on a more logical beat, subtly indicating that its image of peace & romantic calm is actually a vision of Heaven? I honestly have no idea what to make of it, thanks to more notorious Hays Code & Studio System shenanigans, which almost makes for a more intriguing conclusion than the straightforward approach of Four Daughters.

If you read Young at Heart as a straight, well-behaved Technicolor romance, it’s a kind of unremarkable, modest pleasure. Doris Day & Frank Sinatra are compelling performers, but most of the material is a cookie cutter approach to movie magic. The in-the-moment intensity & absurdly incongruous fallout of the film’s climactic suicide scene is what really makes it interesting as a Studio System relic. It’s impossible to know what Studio Notes or Hays Code adherence might have steered Young at Heart to such a bizarrely artificial conclusion., but it created an interesting tension in the process. Just as Sinatra’s arrival earlier in the film disrupted its chaste, serene romance, Gordon’s return to that chastity after such a tensely bleak suicide sequence feels like just as much of an intrusion, so much so that the scene can be comfortably read as a supernatural broadcast from Heaven above. The censorship of the Hays Code era encourages that kind of skeptical, overreaching reading of what movies are doing on the surface vs. what they’re getting away with beneath it, whether or not that kind of interpretation is warranted here specifically.

Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating (3/5, 60%)

Next Lesson: Dogfight (1991)

-Brandon Ledet

Waterloo Bridge (1931)

Old Hollywood legend James Whale is most famous for directing the first two Frankenstein films, both of which are highly ranked among Universal’s classic Famous Monsters relics. The project that landed him that job was far outside the confines of the horror genre, though: a wartime drama titled Waterloo Bridge. Bringing in the production of Waterloo Bridge on-time & under-budget for Warner Brothers, Whale earned the respect & attention of Universal executives, who then gave him free reign to helm any property owned by the studio, of which he chose Frankenstein. That follow-up has obviously outshone his work on Waterloo Bridge in terms of defining his legacy as an auteur, but Waterloo Bridge was a resounding success with a long-lasting legacy of its own. A pre-Code drama about a sex worker making do & unexpectedly finding love in wartime, Waterloo Bridge is a controversial work that, although subjected to censorship & patchy distribution as the moral landscape of Hollywood changed after its release, was popular enough to inspire two (toned down) remakes in the following decades. It’s an impressively bleak work of Old Hollywood filmmaking that, while drastically different from the Frankenstein series in terms of genre, telegraphed much of the grim atmosphere & well-budgeted spectacle that would soon define Whale’s career.

Mae Clarke (of Frankenstein fame, naturally) stars as an American prostitute struggling to make ends meet in a nondescript English slum. Introduced as just one chorus girl among many in a lavish stage musical before casually soliciting men & avoiding cops at her real job walking the streets, our financially & emotionally broken protagonist is a microcosm of the young people who’re made into living ghosts by the Great War. She takes no pleasure in sex work, which is mostly a desperate necessity to (barely) cover her rent. The dread of a life that can’t be sustained forever is made even more unbearable by the constant air raids that terrorize London, sending its worse-for-the-wear citizens seeking shelter at a moment’s notice. In one of these air raid crises, Clarke’s fragile antiheroine meets a wealthy, naïve American solider (Douglass Montgomery) who instantly falls in love with her. She bats away his sweet offerings of rent money, pretty dresses, and marriage purely out of self-loathing, believing that her sordid lifestyle & family history means she doesn’t deserve happiness with such a well-to-do sweetheart. Indeed, his heart visibly breaks in half when he first discovers her profession, but his offer of marriage & lifelong happiness stands anyway. The conflict of Waterloo Bridge is tragic, but largely internal; it depends entirely on if a young woman can forgive herself for the “immoral” things she had to do to survive. It doesn’t end well.

The painfully earnest performances from Clarke & Montgomery drive much of Waterloo Bridge, which often shows its origins as a stage play in long, uninterrupted conversations during air raids & romantic getaways. Whale strategically chooses moments to splurge on spectacle, funneling most of his budget into a few isolated effects shots that almost trick you into thinking you’re watching a war epic instead of a parlor drama. Huge crowds of extras & bomb-dropping model airplanes bookend enough of the single-apartment dialogue-dumps that the whole thing feels way more extravagantly expansive that it truly is at its core. You can easily tell what Universal execs saw in Whale’s financial resourcefulness & why they had the faith in him that led to Frankenstein. A few choices, like the soldier’s off-putting sense of entitlement or his practically deaf father’s one-note version of comic relief, prevent the film from being an all-time classic, but they feel tied to the writing & the source material more than anything Whale had influenced. His mark on the film is delivering a powerfully grim punch to the gut on a bare bones budget, something that helped launch his career & establish his reputation as an Old Hollywood legend.

Presuming most modern audiences aren’t 1930s producers looking to fund the long-dead James Whale’s next project, Waterloo Bridge mostly offers 2010s film nerds one of those glimpses of grimy pre-Code Hollywood sex & violence that feel so out of place in ancient black & white studio pictures (thanks to the moralistic bullies who censored them into oblivion). Besides not shying away from the source material’s matter-of-fact discussion of the practicality of sex work, Whale also searches for sexual tension in the details of dialogue & body language. Chorus girls are filmed in their dressing rooms, lounging in see-through underwear. When one prostitute complains to a friend that the men conducting air raids give her “the willies,” she glibly responds, “Well, they are men, aren’t they?” As Montgomery’s worked-up soldier gets hot & bothered in Clarke’s presence, he strokes the blatantly phallic corner post of her bed, leering. Waterloo Bridge is not a sexy movie. It’s too relentlessly grim & ultimately tragic to earn that descriptor. Its frank discussions of sex & sex work make for a striking Old Hollywood wartime drama, though, something I imagine was lost in its two Hays Code-era remakes. I can’t say it’s my favorite work I’ve ever seen form James Whale or even the most shockingly sex-comfortable pre-Code film I’ve encountered (Baby Face is tough competition for that distinction), but it is an impressive small-scale work for something that’s essentially a grimy stage play with occasional war epic aspirations.

-Brandon Ledet

Baby Face (1933)

I’ve been casually flipping through & taking notes on Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon for a few months now (even though it’s essentially a lengthy gossip rag & could easily be read in an afternoon), which really is one of the better trashy reads on cinema history out there. If even a tenth of Anger’s ancient gossip is to be believed, the early days of Hollywoodland were a reckless, anything-goes bacchanal of drugs, sex, murder, and glamor, a just-born industry living out its youthful transgressions with unfathomable lust & fervor. There’s an obvious allure to these tawdry movie industry legends that just about anyone should be able to latch onto, but for film nerds early Hollywood gossip & myths are especially intoxicating. Among its more prurient interests, Anger’s book offers a glimpse of American cinema before it was defanged by the browbeating morality of the Hays Code, a time when Major Studio filmmaking was just as wild & transgressive as any art in production. I could have easily devoured Hollywood Babylon in a single sitting, but I find myself slowing way down to take notes on as may films Anger mentions as possible, hoping to find a movie-shaped doorway into the freewheeling times when the Studio System’s tawdriest works were being produced. That’s why it was beautifully serendipitous to recently find a used copy of a Warner Archives release titled Forbidden Hollywood at a second-hand media store. Featuring pre-Code pictures from Old Hollywood’s wildest era, the modest collection found its way into my personal stash at the exact right moment of my life, not only because of the surprising modern relevance of its crown jewel: 1933’s Baby Face.

A Barbara Stanwyck vehicle released just one year before the Hays Code was first strictly enforced, Baby Face is one of the most notorious examples of pre-Code Hollywood boundary-testing. It’s a grimy, cynical work about weaponized female sexuality and corporate culture exploitation, a true wonder as a Studio System relic. What’s most incredible, though, is the way its basic premise of lifelong sexual harassment corrupting & limiting women’s professional opportunities as autonomous adults continues to be vividly relevant to the current Cultural Discourse. The solution for combating that patriarchal oppression (essentially a Fuck Your Way to the Top ethos) has drastically changed, but the circumstances have not. The Forbidden Hollywood DVD features a recently discovered “pre-release” cut of Baby Face that includes extended sequences & alternate takes that are even racier than the version of the film that ruffled feathers in 1930s theaters. The official theatrical cut is plenty shocking for its time as is, though, not only in its casual approach to aggressive female sexuality, but also in its strides towards equality for onscreen black representation. The film is by no means a prophetic reflection of 2010s political ideology, but it is an incredibly honest screed about social & institutional oppression of women in the 1930s. It’s a kind of honesty we’re not used to associating with Old Hollywood pictures, thanks to the blanket moralizing of the Hays Code that would soon neuter American Cinema until the New Hollywood movement took over decades later. Its world of casual sex, suicide, interracial friendship, untold hundreds of cigarettes, and swanky Dixieland jazz paints a picture of what Old Hollywood could’ve been, if it were only allowed to fully blossom into its flagrantly amoral ideal.

Barbara Stanwyck stars as a put-upon barmaid who’s been harassed, cat-called, and groped every day of her life since she was a teen. Her father is her employer and, without consent, her pimp, charging men by the hour to be alone in the bar with her. A grim factory smoke tableau fills the window to the world outside their lowly speakeasy. A tragic accident suddenly frees her from this imprisonment and she flees to the city with her best friend (a black servant played by Theresa Harris) to establish her own place in the world. Resourceless and encouraged by the only speakeasy customer who’s ever been nice to her to stop being a pushover for horny men’s whims, she consciously decides to use her sexuality to earn money & status. Early in the film, Stanwyck’s antihero walks up to an impossibly tall skyscraper bank with no contacts or experience necessary for employment. To put it crassly, she systematically fucks her way to the top floor over the course of the movie, leaving behind a trail of heartbroken men in her path to financial success. Stanwyck is incredible in the role, confidently delivering lines like, “I don’t owe you a thing. Whatever I do is my business,” with a nonchalance that borders on viciousness, but never enough to turn the audience against her. The tragedy of the film is not the bosses, managers, and banking associates she seduces & leaves ruined, but in a climactic decision that jeopardizes the money she’s earned though the transgression. Using her intimacy as leverage and often waiting a beat to decide how to act before claiming another “victim” (would-be-harasser), she flips the power dynamic of a corporate world stacked against women by weaponizing the one asset that’s been afforded her: sex appeal. By the time she’s holding a major bank’s entire board of directors hostage with that one minor resource, Baby Face becomes a perverted David vs Goliath story and the movie is clearly rooting for her succeed by any means necessary.

Obviously, the theatrical edits made to soften Baby Face’s sexual transgressions also weaken its modern appeal. A moralistic coda about changing her casual sexin’ ways is tacked onto the story and stands out as just as much of a sore thumb as the similar false ending to The Bad Seed. Her amoral life coach is more of a Christian finger-wagger in the theatrical cut, scolding her for doing what he encourages her to do in the original, unreleased version of the story: fucking for power. Small moments of sex & violence are more explicitly depicted in the “pre-release” cut, hammering home what’s only implied in the version that’s been publicly available for decades. No matter which cut of Baby Face you’re privileged to see, however, the movie still shines as a grimy, transgressive wonder of Old School Hollywood boundary-pushing. Pre-Code Hollywood really was an amoral Babylon of hedonistic indulgences in sex & violence, as evidenced by the fact that even Baby Face’s censored, theatrical cut is more thematically & morally risky than most modern Major Studio releases dare to be. The fact that it accomplishes this while tackling an issue that’s currently commanding our cultural zeitgeist (the exploitation & sexual degradation of women in a male-dominated workplaces) only makes it all the more astounding.

-Brandon Ledet

Crime of Passion (1957)

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fourstar

(Viewed 9/4/2015, available on Netflix)

Maybe the moral of this story is that ambitious women shouldn’t get married. Maybe the moral of this story is that ambitious women are unstable and will come to unsavory ends. Maybe the moral of this story is that forcing social roles onto people creates monsters.

Barbara Stanwyck’s Kathy goes from an ambitious journalist to a stifled housewife to a conniving and manipulative antihero. One of the reasons that I love and return to Film Noir is the presentation of flawed, but still very human characters. Viewers can identify with Kathy up until her last couple of turns. Who hasn’t been so caught up in the excitement of love that they make bad decisions? Who hasn’t been so bored by a mediocre party that they wanted to run screaming? We start losing her when she begins to manipulate the people around her, first out of “love” for her husband, and then out of the pleasure of fulfilling her own ambition, and we get to follow her dark journey towards violence and desperation.

I think that, maybe,at the time of its release, Crime of Passion was meant to convey a moral tale about learning to be happy in your station in life. Crime of Passion was made during the Hays Code era, and therefore bad behavior must be balanced with punishment. Not that Kathy should get away with her transgressions . . .

Despite the emphasis on punishing characters for behaving outside of carefully stipulated norms, I see a feminist subtext that makes the movie work for a modern viewer. I watched Crime of Passion like a tragedy about a woman trapped into a stifling life without any outlets for her own needs and wants, slowly descending into darkness.

I can recommend this movie for anyone looking for a drama or would like to see some solid acting from well-known silver screen actors. It’s a pretty accessible movie even though it comes out of a different era in movie making. Barbara Stanwyck delivers a fair performance, and Fay Wray (yes, that Fay Wray) plays a small role in the movie as well. The leading man, Sterling Hayden as Police Lieutenant Billy Doyle, comes across convincingly as a manipulatable rube. Raymond Burr (yes, that Perry Mason) does well as the hard-boiled Police Inspector that has Kathy’s number from the start.

-Erin Kinchen

The Man Who Laughs (1928)

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(Viewed 07/14/2015, available on YouTube.)

I have to admit that I had no idea what I was getting into with this film.  A black and white picture of Conrad Veidt with a painfully grotesque smile and desperate eyes was posted online next to an illustration of Batman’s Joker.  The Man Who Laughs – inspiration for the Joker!”

I’m a sucker for a dramatic photo.  And for Batman.

The Man Who Laughs turns out to be a gorgeous 17th century period piece filmed on the eve of the sound age and the Hays Code, based on Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel.  The Laughing Man himself, Conrad Veidt, is well known for his other roles in movies such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Casablanca, and I’m sure that you’ve all heard of this film already and that I’m behind the curve on this one.  The 1928 Universal Pictures movie is a melodrama, a romance, a comedy, a swashbuckler, and a thriller.  The story follows a man who, kidnapped and mutilated as a child to punish his father, lives as a performer until his lost identity catches up with him and drags him into a world of intrigue.  There is not a speck of realism to be found and it’s completely delightful.

Conrad Veidt’s portrayal of the mutilated clown Gwynplaine is a fantastically overwrought exploration of existential crisis.  Mary Philbin’s portrayal of the literally blindly innocent Dea is one of the most beautiful presentations of spotless femininity that I have ever seen on film (helped no doubt by constantly luminescent lighting).  Olga Molnar presents a contrasting and archetypically vampy performance of the Countess Josiana: beautiful, sexual, powerful, and cruelly self interested.

The Man Who Laughs is a fun watch, and as a (mostly) silent film it will require your actual attention and a modicum of active investment.  I found the pacing quick enough and the story engaging enough to keep me interested without much effort.  The visual lushness of the movie makes it a treat to watch.  I would consider this movie to be a fairly accessible silent film for anyone interested in dipping their toes into the world of pre-sound movies, and should go on your list if you’re interested in pre-Code movies, German Expressionism (even though it’s an American film), or visual inspirations for the Joker.

-Erin Kinchen