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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Cinema Nocturne
by Adam Hakari

Films of the mid-'30s and onward through the following few decades have a reputation for being a stifling sort, and for good reason. With stronger enforcement of the Production Code in 1934 came even more restrictions studios had to abide by if they hoped to get their pictures widely released. Movies could only hint or dance around concepts that they'd previously confronted head-on, as said sights and subjects were now deemed too taboo for mass consumption. But before the Code really took effect, Tinseltown unleashed quite the brave array of features upon audiences, using the relatively young medium of cinema to boldly address social issues, sexual themes, and other touchy topics of the time. Handful by handful, the Warner Archive Collection has been doing movie buffs a solid by rescuing these trail-blazers from obscurity and giving them new life on home media under the "Forbidden Hollywood" label. The tradition continues with the ninth volume in this series, whose five challenging titles cover everything from tales of capitalism's dark consequences to economic inequality.

BIG CITY BLUES (1932). A whirlwind of booze, chorus girls, and murder greet a small-town sap (Eric Linden) when goes to make his mark in the Big Apple. On the surface, Big City Blues looks to be a most comically exaggerated mortality tale...and upon closer examination, that's what it is underneath, too. You'd expect this Mervyn LeRoy-directed flick to lead to a more knowing and street-smart conclusion than it does, given how impossibly naive Linden's character is made out to be as he embarks on his metropolitan jaunt. His obliviousness to the rampant swindling that crosses his path is all a lot of obvious set-up for when he's eventually accused of a horrible crime and gets the rug ironically yanked out beneath him in the third act, but the film doesn't know how to really proceed once it gets that far. It's trapped in this serio-comic limbo, wherein the story's players are utilized neither as three-dimensional human beings we're concerned with or as purposeful caricatures serving as the means through which a grown-up Aesop fable is conveyed. Big City Blues isn't bereft of the occasional wisened barb or the charm that comes from watching an older film in which everyone talks like newsreel announcers, but whether it was aiming for legit emotional depth or the easiest satire possible, it missed the boat by a long shot.

THE CABIN IN THE COTTON (1932).The educated son (Richard Barthelmess) of poor tenant farmers is caught between worlds when he's taken under his landlord's wing. The Cabin in the Cotton opens with a title card explaining how it intends to simply tell a story and take no sides in the debate at its core, which at first feels like the movie's way of extending a courtesy to the audience before settling on a particular POV anyway. But it isn't long before you realize that, indeed, director Michael Curtiz (of Casablanca fame) isn't letting anyone off the hook here, be they the fat cat plantation owners or the penniless folks in their employ. In hopes of bridging the social and economic gaps between each class, the flick seeks to position both on equal footing...the only trouble is that its way of doing so involves making all concerned parties look like the most horrible people possible. What with the farmers depicted as sneaky thieves and the upper-crust types toying with them for their own amusement, it's no wonder Barthelmess becomes so fed up, only we the viewers aren't privy to the humanity that apparently inspires him to want unity so passionately. Though admirable for setting out on a complicated narrative path, The Cabin in the Cotton gradually becomes lost, uninteresting, and unfocused during its journey.

HELL'S HIGHWAY (1932). A career crook (Richard Dix) comes to learn of the corruption that keeps the chain gang he's in good and oppressed. Inspired by 1930's hit prison drama The Big House, Hell's Highway tells a story that, while not as awash in moral ambiguity, is perhaps even more emotionally-satisfying. Despite a load of cons serving as our leads, the flick makes no bones about where it wants our sympathies to end up, casting those who run the gang as out-and-out scoundrels prone to crime aplenty in their own right. Regardless of what the prisoners may have done to get to where they are, we cheer them on for the whole ride, a dicey scenario that director Rowland Brown mostly turns to his advantage. Many of the characters and subplots (one of which shows Dix trying to steer his newly-incarcerated brother towards the straight-and-narrow) lean a lot on tired cliches, yet they're handled with enough care and tact that you're still drawn to them in any case. The acting is solid across the whole ensemble, and while the writing tends to get simplistic, it's never condescendingly so, its methods of contriving dramatic tension corny but earnest. The flood of similar prison pictures in the decades following Hell's Highway have made it get lost in the shuffle, but all those years of convention haven't dampened its stirring power one bit.

I SELL ANYTHING (1934). A small-time hustler (Pat O'Brien) graduates to bilking the wealthy with a bogus auction. Out of all the titles in this collection, it was perhaps I Sell Anything that attracted yours truly's curiosity the most. Aside from seeming like the perfect opportunity to indulge in my affinity for rapid-fire, old-timey dialogue, the film appeared to be one that might use the moral gray area that  many pre-code productions inhabited to its advantage. Not only could O'Brien's wheeler-dealer find himself taken to task, so could his marks, whose abject avarice solidifies the inevitable fleecing of their dough. To an extent, this is what comes to pass in I Sell Anything, only rather than the biting condemnation of rampant greed in all walks of society, we get sort of a toothless dramedy that largely lobs softballs. The story does stick to its "being ludicrously selfish is bad" guns, but it does nothing compelling with it, nonchalantly making its way through O'Brien's journey from con artist to victim himself and depriving it of some much-needed narrative heft. Even the scenes that spotlight O'Brien's fast-talking ways aren't terribly clever in their design, leaning less on satisfying wordplay to help his swindles succeed and more on his targets just being that dense. Although it has the advantage of a magnetic leading man in its corner, I Sell Anything's sleight of hand can't distract viewers from its wasted potential.

WHEN LADIES MEET (1933). A series of romantic entanglements flare up amongst a fledgling writer (Myrna Loy), her would-be suitor (Robert Montgomery), her publisher (Frank Morgan) -- and the publisher's wife (Ann Harding). Based on the play by Rachel Crothers, When Ladies Meet was born at a time when the lifestyles of the rich and caucasian were all the rage on stage. Thanks to writers such as Noel Coward, theaters everywhere were abuzz with melodramatic productions teeming with wisdom, wit, and warnings of wandering eyes within the upper crust. But though some of these proved to be poignant morality tales, others failed to supply any incentive for audiences to give a flip about what their obscenely wealthy heroes were up to. As far as this first of the show's two cinematic adaptations goes, When Ladies Meet travels in the latter circles, eagerly chatting up a storm but rarely imparting any substantial observations. Given how much about the plot is predicted on its characters hiding their true feelings beneath layers of smarmy detachment, verbal runaround is to be expected. Nevertheless, the dialogue is so dry and wooden, it's hard to describe the process leading up to everyone finally learning some common sense as anything but a chore. Save for an exception or two (as when Harding majestically lays into her fellow castmates for their frivolous disregard for relationships toward the end), few of the many words exchanged here carry much dramatic weight, let alone conjure any memorably wry zingers. Valiantly try as its talented actors might to imbue the material with personality, When Ladies Meet's inherent stodginess sadly sees to it that all their efforts are for naught.

(Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 9 is available on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection:

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