Combustible Celluloid
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With: Norma Shearer, Clark Gable, Lionel Barrymore, Joan Blondell, Bette Davis, Ann Dvorak, Ruth Chatterton, Barbara Stanwyck, Virginia Davis, Chester Morris, Conrad Nagel, Helen Johnson, George Brent
Written by: John Bright, Donald Henderson Clark, Becky Gardiner, Oliver H.P. Garrett, Kubec Glasmon, Nick Grinde, Lucien Hubbard, Charles Kenyon, Gene Markey, John Meehan, Kathryn Scola, Zelda Sears
Directed by: Clarence Brown, Michael Curtiz, Robert Z. Leonard, Mervyn LeRoy, William Wellman
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 370
Date: 03/18/2013

Forbidden Hollywood Collection Vol. 2 (2008)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Pre-Code Cuts

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The pre-code era reigned in Hollywood roughly from the end of the silent era to the middle of 1934 when the Hays Code began cracking down on certain aberrant behavior in movies. In 2006, Warner Home Video released the tantalizing Volume One of its Forbidden Hollywood Collection, featuring two different cuts of the ultimate pre-code movie Baby Face (1933). That was a keeper, but pre-code fans know that there are dozens more films out there, and many not yet available on video or DVD. Volume 2 has finally surfaced with -- count 'em -- five new films. Each one is more seductive than the last, though I'm afraid none of them quite rank with the astonishing Baby Face, or even with that set's other classic, James Whale's Waterloo Bridge (1931). The new set begins elegantly with two Oscar-winning Norma Shearer films, The Divorcee (1930) and A Free Soul (1931). Shearer was a star for a short while, with a strikingly angular, beautiful face (you can almost see the color of her eyes through the black and white film) and an astonishingly natural onscreen skill; her co-stars generally look clumsy in her presence. But her marriage to studio boss Irving Thalberg earned her a kind of scorn, and she didn't seem particularly suited to the limelight. She retired from film at the end of the 1930s and died in 1983.

Shearer won Best Actress for The Divorcee, a slightly clunky, but emotionally pungent tale of marital decay. Swinging New Yorker Jerry (Shearer) marries Ted (Chester Morris), much to the dismay of jealous Paul (Conrad Nagel). Drunk, Paul crashes his car, disfigures Dorothy (Helen Johnson) and agrees to marry her out of a sense of duty. But when Ted has an affair, Jerry leaves him and starts up an affair with Paul, though her heart isn't in it. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard, the film is much more complicated and more skillfully staged than a plot synopsis makes it sound. Events unfold inside moments, rather than making up moments themselves, so that they come as a surprise rather than as a hammer blow. A Free Soul is even kookier; this time Shearer's co-star Lionel Barrymore won an Oscar in the role of her father. He's a slick lawyer who defends crook Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable). But Jan Ashe (Shearer) falls for him. Still, she loves her dad so much that she strikes a bargain: if he stops drinking, she'll stop seeing Ace. So they head to the hills to camp and live off the land for a while! When they get back, though, things have grown far worse. Clarence Brown directed this one with far more bombast than The Divorcee, but it's definitely not easy to predict! Both these films are featured on Disc One. Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta provide a commentary track for The Divorcee. For some reason, the San Francisco Chronicle's film critic Mick La Salle, who is a leading authority on Norma Shearer, is nowhere to be seen.

Disc Two begins with Mervyn LeRoy's Three on a Match (1932). Three women were friends at school: Mary, the popular, troublemaking one, Ruth, the smart one and Vivian, the well-to-do one. When they grow up, they get back in touch as Joan Blondell, Bette Davis and Ann Dvorak. Mary (Blondell) has had a hard life, but has developed impeccable street smarts. Ruth works as a secretary and has a pretty ordinary life. But Vivian has married wealthy, has a wonderful boy and is bored. One a cruise, she runs off with a gangster, and her husband marries Mary. Dvorak is positively chilling going through her stages of decline, from mere selfishness to twitchy, junkie behavior. All this is miraculously packed into 63 minutes! Virginia Davis, who was the star of Disney's "Alice" cartoons in the silent era, plays Mary as a child. The trailer for Three on a Match is included. Female (1933) features one of the greatest female characters ever filmed in Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton), a hard headed but beautiful female executive for an auto company. She frequently invites men to her mansion to sleep with them and discards them soon after (they fawn over her at the office). Of course, she meets the right guy Jim Thorne (George Brent) who changes all that (what a letdown)! This one had a troubled history: William Dieterle began directing, fell ill and was replaced by William "Wild Bill" Wellman. But Wellman got into a fight over his contract and Michael Curtiz, who had been called in to do a few final fixes, earned final and sole directorial credit. The film runs only 60 minutes!

Disc Three comes with the best movie of the set, Wellman's Night Nurse (1931), starring Barbara Stanwyck. (Laserdisc collectors might own the old double-feature of this and Baby Face.) She plays the title character, and along with her pal (Joan Blondell) gets an assignment at a creepy mansion, caring for two sick kids. She soon discovers that the children are being slowly murdered and that a sadistic, violent chauffeur (Clark Gable) may be involved. Wellman was the strongest of these five directors, with the swiftest pacing and the surest hand for action. This is tough stuff, and Stanwyck is no pushover. Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta return for a commentary track. Also on this disc is the set's obligatory documentary, the 63-minute Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood, with its informative collection of clips and talking heads (still no Mick La Salle). Quality on all the films ranges from excellent to average, depending on the age of the print. English subtitles are available.

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