stanwyck_1930tvln021809Continued from yesterday’s post:

Back to the matter in hand. Following the documentary on Friday night was Forbidden (1932), directed by Frank Capra and starring Barbara Stanwyck and Adolph Menjou in an excellent example of the sort of themes that would be nigh-on impossible to treat following the introduction of certification. Stanwyck is a lonely librarian who falls in love with wealthy lawyer Menjou on a cruise to Havana. They continue their affair back in New York, but an argument over his not leaving his (invalid!) wife forces them apart, at which point Stanwyck drops a sprog. They get back together, of course, but she remains his mistress, set up in an apartment and standing by him as his career progresses through mayor-hood to governorship. All the while she is working as Mary Sunshine, a newspaper agony aunt who dispenses such advice as “if you love him and he loves you what else matters?” by which dictum she has condemned herself to a life in the shadows. Ralph Bellamy, far more dynamic than usual, plays her editor, endearingly archetypal, and whilst continually proposing to Stanwyck, is obsessed with proving his suspicions that Menjou is a double-dealing hypocrite. Menjou is convinced of this himself, and only to save his resignation does Stanwyck leave him to marry Bellamy.

It’s a romantic tragedy, and aside from the sight of Stanwyck with a blood-stained mouth frenziedly emptying all six chambers into Bellamy’s prone body at the end, there’s little in the way of dialogue or action that would outrage decent citizens; rather, it has a remarkable moral ambiguity, of a sort that would be quite eliminated by the 1934 code (it is even suggested that Menjou’s wealth actually comes from this wife). To make matters worse, the immoral lovers are granted such poignant moments as an uneasy silence in the back of a taxicab, contemplating the prospect of Stawnwyck’s masquerading as their child’s governess, the brat blathering between them; Stanwyck’s face when she sees the wife take to the child with such joy, and in which lies revealed a whole future of unhappiness; or a desperate having-it-out in the teeming rain on a park bench.

Although the ending is hurried on, with Menjou dying of a swiftly-introduced illness in her arms, pardoned by him from her jail-term after only a year, it manages some genuine emotion through superlative acting (by Stanwyck) and lighting (the highlighting of Menjou’s noble profile) ; and the final shot of this old woman walking away in her drab overcoat, as the camera takes in more of the bustle in the street, reveals that in some ways the whole film, tied firmly to her perspective throughout, has been asking the question of what sort of a life might such an anonymous-seeming figure have had.

blondell_j2tvln021809Although the passing of time is clumsily handled, this is, ultimately, rather a good film, with Capra on good form in some marvelously light-hearted stretches, handling the tragedy with restraint, and treating of a perfectly legitimate subject in a humanistic manner. The other pictures in the Egyptian’s series have less claim to seriousness (although the social realism elements of the crime films confer some validity). Stanwyck was out on Thursday evening also, in Night Nurse (1931) in which she trains in a hospital with saucy room-mate Joan Blondell before foiling a murky plot to do away with the two children in her first assigned care.

The most immediately “objectionable” element is that the two girls strip to lacy underwear at any opportunity (always the French knickers!), with Blondell casually unrolling Stanwyck’s stocking at one point, and the pair snuggling rather too cosily in bed at another. But the depiction of debauchery in the villainous household goes similarly beyond the pale; the mother is first seen in exquisite decadence, passed out in a slinky black evening dress with dazzling sparkly straps, clutching a giant (empty) glass, face down on a polar bearskin rug; she doesn’t play a scene sober, her living room later the venue for a wild party with a jazz band in the corner, while Stanwyck struggles to uncover a scrap of motherly feeling in her in the adjoining bar-room (”I’m a dipsomaniac and proud” she declares repeatedly – at least Stanwyck gets to floor the drunken boyfriend with one haymaker punch). But the movie doesn’t let it all hang out. Earlier, when villainous chauffeur Clark Gable beats Stanwyck to the ground, we see only their legs, and a couple of times someone’s being called a “dirty lousy..” before the sound fades out in the name of moral decency. Nonsense but fun, and played with pep.

This was paired with another Blondell picture, Three On A Match (1932) in which three school friends – the most popular, the most intelligent and the most likely to end in reform school – reunite in later life having apparently fulfilled expectations. But married and wealthy Ann Dvorak is suffering from some vague existential anhedonia (plus she’s frigid) and hotfoots it with her kid for life as a dame; she too is discovered passed out, by her husband, with booze, cigs and another man’s monogrammed cigar case. In addition to adultery and child neglect, she gets hooked on drugs and, held captive for the kid’s ransom by a characterful band gangsters (including a menacing Humphrey Bogart), leaps from a fourth story window with a lipstick message on her nightie to help the police. Dvorak herself is rather good, effectively implying the lost soul behind the perfect facade, and hauntingly hollow-eyed in her degradation. Blondell is rather underused, however, after carrying the first third or so, and poor old Bette Davis as the third friend barely gets a look in. The focus is on Dvorak’s descent to depravity, which is of course excused by the final reel redemption.

madam-satantvln021809The final words, however, should be reserved for deMille’s extraordinary Madame Satan (1930). Very little can convey the headache-inducing weirdness of this film, but were it no so bizarre it would be quite unwatchable. Its opening shot of a caged bird clunkingly indicates the set-up, wherein sweet Angela is married to carousing and philandering Bob, and is either too submissive or too stupid to suspect his indiscretions, or else does so and merely toys with him; each is implied in the rather tired bedroom farce that constitutes the first half, with repeatedly sighing and pained-looking best friend, and a typical Trixie with annoying dimples and hefty thighs (tho she does sport a splendid striped fur-trimmed bejewelled gauntleted sheer dressing gown at one point). The penny finally drops for Angela, and she uses the occasion of the friend’s masked ball to give Bob a taste of his own medicine. And in amongst all this the maid abruptly breaks into song to console her.

madamsatan2tvln021809This is the first sign of the weirdness to come. The second is that ball is taking place on a zeppelin.The costumes are outrageous (and frequently skimpy/skintight); the waitresses drive drinks carts shaped as mini zeppelins; women dressed as clocks bang the ringers on their heads; the crowd comes in singing and dancing before several characters that look like gladiators perform a Berkeley-esque routine on the ballroom stairs, transforming their metallic costumes into parts of machinery as they whir about and women are rotated in the air like propellers. The dance of the zeppelin, no less. Then an auction of girls in ever more incredible get-ups (one comes as clouds, another as water), all conducted bizarrely in rhyming couplets, and interrupted by the arrival of Angela, her upper modesty covered only by artfully placed flames of fabric over pale sheer, caped and masked with horns as Madam Satan. There’s much play made of heat and burning and going to hell with Madame Satan throughout her protracted seduction of her husband, which has almost run its course when lightning strikes the zeppelin and everyone has to grab a parachute and leap to safety (girls with bare legs flapping). Chaos reigns as people dash to and fro, but the band plays on. By the time the zeppelin breaks up (rather good effects shots) Bob’s the only one left, having given his parachute to Angela; fortunately the plummeting wreck passes over the city reservoir into which he conveniently dives. He ends the film in cosy domesticity, declaring that he was “a fool to wander so far from the fireside in search of fire” and moral outrage is assuaged.

images: eeweems, dennis, irina, demille