Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930)

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Because we’re still celebrating Pride Month here at the Garden, I thought I’d talk about one of my favorite LGBT moments in Pre-Code Hollywood: THAT scene with Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930). The one that always comes up. The one that’s been talked about a million times. Morocco‘s greatest claim to fame.

Dietrich received her only Oscar nomination for Morocco (dir. Josef von Sternberg), in which she plays Amy Jolly, a nightclub singer, who falls in love with a Legionnaire, Private Tom Brown (Gary Cooper), whom she meets just as she arrives in Morocco. Problem is, they’re both being pursued by other people – imagine! Later on, they meet again in the nightclub where Amy performs, in what is undoubtedly one of the most iconic LGBT moments in film history. In she comes, wearing a tuxedo and a top hat, smoking a cigarette, in all her Marlene Dietrich glory, looking so excruciatingly sexy, it’s ridiculous. You can’t take your eyes off her, and why would you want to? Cooper’s face as he lays eyes on her says it all, really. And even though the scene (and the film) is meant to be about the two of them, it really isn’t. At all. This is all about Dietrich, with those eyes, and that smirk, and that face, and that suit, singing ‘Quand L’amour Meurt’, and kissing another woman on the lips. Wonderful.

This was Dietrich’s Hollywood debut and what a debut! The film itself is rather average but her performance and this scene particularly elevate it to classic status, rightly so. It’s ground-breaking, it’s daring, it’s fabulous, and it’s deliciously hot. Of course it is, it’s Marlene, for goodness’ sake.

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DOUBLE BILL #15: Hell’s Highway (1932) and Ladies They Talk About (1933)

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I will never not love Pre-Code. I am constantly in awe of it and I am always amazed at how much they got away with. And because it’s Pride Month, I thought I’d take a look at two of the many (yes) films that dealt with LGBT issues or showed LGBT characters in one way or another. This wasn’t done in an obvious way back then, so we don’t have a whole lot to go on, but what we do get out of some of these films has rightfully gone down in history. And even though there’s quite a few films and scenes to choose from, I went with these two because I feel they get slightly overlooked.

Hell’s Highway (1932, dir. Rowland Brown) is one of the most brutal and horrifying prison films from Hollywood’s Pre-Code era, if not of all time. Centered around the horrible death of an inmate by a prison guard, Hell’s Highway depicts the horrors of prison life in an honest and gritty way, which at times can be downright uncomfortable to watch. And that’s one of the things I love about it. But most of all, I love the relationships between the characters. The brotherly love between Duke (Richard Dix) and Johnny (Tom Brown), in paticular, is endearing and the film’s greatest asset. And then of course, there’s the prison cook, played by Eddie Hart, a gay man who enjoys some quiet time with the guards in the (regrettably) few scenes he’s in. He’s human, he’s flamboyant, and he’s unapologetic about it. He’s also never ridiculed or made to look like a gimmick. He’s just simply one of them. They’re all in it together, after all.

In Ladies They Talk About (1933, dir. William Keighley and Howard Bretherton), Nan Taylor (Barbara Stanwyck) is the decoy in a bank robbery, orchestrated by her and her gang. After getting caught, she confesses her guilt to radio personality and evangelist David Slade (Preston S. Foster), who, despite being in love with her, ends up turning her in. At San Quentin State Prison, her smart-talking, no-nonsense ways get her into trouble right from the off – nothing she can’t handle though. ‘Sister’ Susie (Dorothy Burgess), a David Slade devotee, gets angry when Nan turns off his radio show as soon as she walks in and the two of them begin their on-going feud. Nan strikes up a friendship with Linda (Lillian Roth) right away, and she tells her all about the inmates as well as the prison’s facilities. In the washroom, we’re introduced to the ‘butch’ inmate, sporting a suit and smoking a cigar. ‘Watch out for her, she likes to wrestle’, Linda tells Nan, after which, our lesbian inmate turns around and gives Nan the eye. In a later scene, she’s seen in a montage flexing her arms, much to the admiration of her cellmate (girlfriend?).

What I like about these two films and their respective characters is that, even though they have a relatively short screentime, they did not go unnoticed and they got their point across, even if at times they succumbed to being a stereotype (hey, it was the 1930s), and they undoubtedly made their mark and helped shape LGBT cinema. Hell’s Highway and Ladies They Talk About are just two of them, however, and there is so much LGBT stuff to get through in Pre-Code. I mean, who can forget Marlene Dietrich in that scene from Morocco (1930)? But that’s for another post.

Johnny Guitar (1954): Guilty Pleasure? Nah

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Johnny Guitar (dir. Nicholas Ray), the Casablanca of westerns, is a psychological melodrama that often gets overlooked and unfairly dismissed. It’s not the greatest of westerns by any means but it’s a darn good film nonetheless. And I love how utterly, outrageously fabulous it is. I love Vienna (Joan Crawford), a strong-willed, unapologetic badass, and one of Crawford’s greatest creations; I love her outfits (the Queen of Fabulous has never looked more fabulous!), and Sterling Hayden is always a joy to watch. Not to mention that it’s got some of the best dialogue ever – ‘I searched for you in every man I met’, in particular, is a wonderful line. Is Johnny Guitar a guilty pleasure? Nah, just a pleasure.

COMEDY GOLD #5: Sister Act from The Awful Truth (1937)

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I think Irene Dunne’s performance in The Awful Truth (1937) is one of the greatest, most nuanced comedic performances of all time and while I could have chosen any scene from it (‘I know, my toast is burning’ was a strong contender), I do think the moment when she pretends to be her ex-husband Jerry (Cary Grant)’s sister is a great one. From the moment she walks in, until the moment she is dragged out by Jerry, having weirded out his fiancé’s family, it is pure, crazy fun. I just love the randomness of it all. Like when she suddenly gets up and says ‘Say, wait a minute, don’t anybody leave this room, I’ve lost my purse!’ – it’s such a silly moment! And of course, her hilarious rendition of ‘My Dreams Are Gone With The Wind’ is one of the highlights of the film. Her silly dance and her attempt at doing the hip thrust, which prompts one of the most adorable moments in the film (‘I never could do that!’) are pure comedy gold. She was nominated for an Oscar for this performance and it certainly stands out as one of the absolute greatest in screwball comedy history.

Dynamic Duos Blogathon – Anthony Mann and John Alton

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Anthony Mann and John Alton are one of the most overlooked partnerships in Hollywood history. And one of the greatest. In fact, I love them as a team so much, that when Once Upon a Screen and Classic Movie Hub announced their Dynamic Duos blogathon, they were the first ones I thought of. I was hoping a director-cinematographer duo would be allowed and whadda ya know?

Mann and Alton made five films together: T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), He Walked By Night (1948) (Mann was uncredited), Reign of Terror (a.k.a. The Black Book) (1949), Border Incident (1949) and Devil’s Doorway (1950).

T-Men is an all-time favorite. The first time I watched it, I was mesmerized. I loved how tense the plot was – two Treasury men go undercover in order to take down a counterfeit ring -, I loved the tight friendship between Dennis (Dennis O’Keefe) and Tony (Alfred Ryder) – somebody please come with a bromance name for these two – and I loved the shadows. Which is a given in film noir, but when John Alton is responsible for them, it’s something else. The opening scene is without a doubt one of my favorite moments in the history of cinema. I’m so obsessed with it, I wrote a poem about it (Don’t laugh, it was for a competition). I think it’s one of the coldest, most gasp-out-loud frightening sequences in noir and it’s all about the lighting. Our villain coming out of the shadows only to be perfectly framed by the light as he shoots is a glorious moment. And the whole thing sets the mood perfectly for what I think is probably the most tense noir of all.

In Raw Deal (1948), Joe (Dennis O’Keefe) is getting out of prison with the help of his girlfriend (and the film’s narrator) Pat (Claire Trevor) and he’s ready to go after the man (Raymond Burr) who put him there in the first place. There’s a wonderful sense of increasing tension in Raw Deal, and the last ten minutes of the film are some of the most unbelievably dramatic in noir history, starting with the scene in the boat. Joe standing in the doorframe, with the light from the outside coming through it as he makes plans for the future, and Pat’s barely lit face as she deals with her emotional turmoil is a beautiful contrast and the perfect segway into the fog-soaked shoot-out climax. This is one of Mann-Alton’s best moments, in my opinion.

And if we’re going to talk about shoot-out climaxes, He Walked By Night (1948) has to be right up there. In this seci-documentary noir, LA cops are on the hunt for an astonishingly clever criminal, played by Richard Basehart. Technically, Anthony Mann was uncredited, but he did co-direct it with Alfred L. Werker and that Mann/Alton magic is very much still there. The stark, no-nonsense low-key lighting gives this docu-drama that delicious noir feel and it never goes unnoticed. The film’s exhausting, strikingly dark (literally) ending is one of Alton’s finest moments.

Their fourth film together, Reign of Terror (or The Black Book) (1949) is a mix between historical and noir, with just a touch of B-movie bizarreness (and that’s a compliment). The plot revolves around Robespierre (Richard Basehart), France’s most powerful man and wannabe dictator, and his obsession with the retrieval of the Black Book of Death during the French Revolution. Mann and Alton’s camera work and lighting creates a sense of claustrophobia and tension – Charles (Robert Cummings) and Madelon (Arlene Dahl)’s first encounter is a stand-out moment – that remains throughout the film.

Plot-wise, Border Incident (1949) is rather similar to T-Men: two federal agents, Pablo Rodriguez (Ricardo Montalban) and Jack Bearnes (George Murphy), go undercorver to try and stop the smuggling of Mexican migrant workers across the border to the USA. Alton’s cinematography provides Border Incident with a sense of urgency, claustrophobia and danger in the midst of all that Imperial Valley openness and the contrast between the two highlights the seriousness of the subject matter even more. The film’s iconic quicksand ending is only its second best scene, after the tractor scene, which is probably one of the most horrifying moments in film noir history and if you think Mann is going to spare you the details, think again.

Their sixth and final film together, Devil’s Doorway (1950) follows Lance Poole (Robert Taylor), an Indian who won the Medal of Honor, as he returns home from the Civil War to raise cattle, only to find anything but a hero’s welcome from the people who want to take his land. This is Mann’s first Western and we begin to notice the elements that would forever be associated with his 1950s period, in particular the psychological and emotional depth of the main character, played wonderfully by Robert Taylor. Alton’s dark imagery createst tension and conflict, most notably in the bar confrontation scene, right from its stunning opening shot.

Starting with T-Men and ending with Devil’s Doorway, Mann and Alton created visual symphony and I wish they’d carried on making films together. They are, without a doubt, one of my favorite movie duos ever and one that I go back to every once in a while, to be mesmerized all over again.

DOUBLE BILL #14: Animal Crackers (1930) and Horse Feathers (1932)

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Marx Brothers films are the wackiest things ever put on screen. They might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I, for one, adore them. And while Animal Crackers (1930) and Horse Feathers (1932) are not as iconic as, say, Duck Soup (1933), they’re still as zany and full of hilarious gags and one-liners.

In Animal Crackers (dir. Victor Heerman), Mrs Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont) hosts a welcome home party for the famous explorer Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx), during which a valuable painting goes missing. You can see where this is going…

In Horse Feathers (dir. Norman Z. McLeod), Groucho Marx plays Prof. Wagstaff, the new president of Huxley College, who, influenced by his son Frank (Zeppo Marx), recruits two players to beat Darwin University in the upcoming football game. Misunderstandings ensue (you don’t say…) and he ends up hiring Baravelli (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx).

Like all Marx Brothers films, Animal Crackers and Horse Feathers are crazy, slightly outdated, and extremely funny. I don’t know about you, but, for me, watching their films consists mostly of trying to write down all the funny one-liners I can, you know, so I can use them in real life – we all do that, right? Animal Crackers boasts perhaps the most famous Marx Brothers line of them all (‘One night I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know’), while the ‘I no got a car, I just got a chauffeur’ exchange in Horse Feathers might just be one of the most underrated they’ve ever done.

I’m not sure where these two rank in my personal Marx Brothers top 10, but fortunately I don’t have to make up my mind about that. That’s the beauty of their films. They’re so funny and, in a way, interchangeable, that you can watch them over and over again and just have a good time. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to practise my Marx Brothers lines.

Thoughts on The Big Sleep (1946)

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I like to say I have a love-hate relationship with The Big Sleep. I don’t. I love The Big Sleep. And it grows on me every time I watch it. Maybe because I understand it a little bit better each time. But regardless of its excruciatingly convoluted plot, it is such a fun and exciting film to watch. It has so much going for it. The sexual tension, the big and bold noir shots, the performances, the Bogie-Bacall chemistry (*fans self*)… Not to mention that, as far as noirs go, the humor is second to none. I love that about it. On the surface, it looks and feels like the darkest, most action-packed noir, and yet the humor provides excellent comic relief throughout. It’s an all-around perfect piece of entertainment and it works on every level. And Howard Hawks was quite simply a magnificent director. But I think I’ve fangirled over him too much as it is.

COMEDY GOLD #4: Doris’ version of events from Adam’s Rib (1949)

d689e58487837ab1c57b8c5f1a54f857--katharine-hepburn-ribsThe real-life case of attorneys William Dwight Whitney and Dorothy Whitney and their clients Raymond Massey (yes, that Raymond Massey) and Adrienne Allen inspired powerhouse screenwriting team of Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon to write Adam’s Rib (1949), a comedy about the battle of the sexes, in which Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy play two lawyers on opposite sides in a case involving a woman who shot her unfaithful husband.
Adam’s Rib is the most famous and well-regarded of the nine films starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy and while they shine as the rivaling married lawyers defending their married clients, Judy Holliday is a revelation as the scorned wife. Hepburn famously asked director George Cukor to focus on Holliday during the scene where her character explains what happened in order to showcase her talents and to guarantee that she’d be cast in the film version of Born Yesterday (1950) and boy, did it work. Not only did she indeed get the role she’d originated on Broadway – winning the Best Actress Oscar in the process – but the scene is one of the funniest in the film. You can’t take your eyes off her! Her account of the events is hilarious, her timing is perfect and her deadpan expression is downright adorable. She’s an endearing, sympathetic character that you root for throughout the film and this is probably her best moment. Judy Holliday had a gift for comedy and I’ve often wondered what her career would have been like in her later years. No doubt she’d have continued to make people laugh well into old age. It’s a shame she died so young, but we’ll always have her movies.