Friday, June 23, 2017

Now Playing: "Night Nurse" (1931)

Ah, how I love my Pre-Codes.  There is nothing like them.

The little gem I am talking about today came out a year before my previously discussed film Downstairs but it's just as wild, woolly and fun.  I'm talking about Night Nurse, a film that not only told the moviegoing public that oaths (Hippocratic or otherwise) are for sissies but gave us a kimono clad young Clark Gable.  Thank you, movie gods.

She may have more than nursing in mind.
One of the amazing things, of which there are many, about Night Nurse is that this was strictly a B film.  Barbara Stanwyck would hit it big beginning in 1932 but at the time this film came out, she hadn't yet achieved full prominence.  Gable was still an unknown when this was filmed, although the release of A Free Soul in June of 1931 (two months ahead of Night Nurse) had built him a reputation and a growing female following.

As fair warning, spoilers lay ahead!

Night Nurse is about Lora Hart (Stanwyck), an idealistic young woman who is driven to be a nurse by compassion and a genuine desire to help people, lack of experience or education be damned.  In what is a swift and nifty bit of exposition, in only a few sentences we get Lora's background.  It's the scene in which she tries to get a job at the local hospital, only to be shot down by the bulldog HBIC, who tells us by way of reading over Lora's history that she nursed her sick, now deceased, mother, was unable to graduate high school due to her mother's illness and her grocer wrote her a letter of recommendation.  I love this brief scene so much because so many movies and television shows today have forgotten how to do excellent (and subtle) exposition.  Instead of light scenes like this, we are hit over the head with an anvil and smacked with a 2x4 by way of forced, unnatural and clunky dialogue.  You know what I mean.  No forensics tech or detective has to explain to another why they are doing what they are doing or have done (and in such technical terms) unless a camera is there.  It's a clunky and painful way to exposit information.  This scene is a perfect case study in how not to insult and potentially put the audience to sleep.

Anyhow, back to our film,  Our heroine, with the oh-so-appropriate last name, is leaving the hospital, sans job, when she is plowed down by the resident neurosurgeon who likes what he sees and tells the bulldog, who is practically licking his feet, to find Lora a job, which she does.  A gum smacking nurse called Maloney (played with absolute bravura by Joan Blondell) is assigned to show Lora the ropes and room with her.  This is another thing we learn in Night Nurse - - nurse recruits not only work all the time (one day off a week), they live in what amounts to hospital dorms with check-ins and lights out at certain times.  Maloney teaches Lora that interns are scum, that doctors never marry nurses (only interns do that) and nursing is a pretty dirty and often thankless job.

Lyon, Blondell and Stanwyck bonding over a bullet
While both ladies are assigned to the emergency clinic, Lora encounters a gunshot victim (Ben Lyon) she correctly deduces is a bootlegger (he's wearing a silk shirt after all.)  She treats him without filing the required police report because he seems like a nice guy (even bootleggers can have a heart, no pun intended) and Maloney offers an assist.  Morty is grateful and calls Lora his "pal."  He sends her a bottle of rye as a thank you; when she graduates, he sends her an enormous (and kinda tacky) floral arrangement referencing "pal."

Meanwhile, Maloney has gotten a job as a day nurse to two children who were in the hospital for starvation; she arranges for Lora to be their night nurse.  This is where she (and we) are introduced to the shady as hell Gable as Nick the chauffeur.  Or should I say the "chauffeur," because it's obvious that Nick's duties do not end with parking the car.  The children's mother, to whom he reportedly "works," is a worthless pile of permed hair, furs and liquor.

Yes, you are.
On her first night of employ, Lora is assaulted by a drunken associate of Mrs. Ritchey, the mother.  She is saved from a possible rape by Nick, who pulls the drunk off her and gives him a wallop. Nick wants for her to treat the Missus; when Lora refuses to do so without a doctor present, Nick gives her a punch that knocks her out.  Oh, and he does it while wearing a silky robe which makes it oh so hard to dislike him.  Make no mistake, though, Nick is a bad guy.

Lora rightfully returns to the hospital to complain about this treatment, and report Dr. Ranger, the doctor assigned to treat the children, who is clearly on the take.  Her kindly benefactor, Dr. Bell, tells her he cannot overstep his bounds with the sleazy Dr. Ranger and, as there is no evidence, nothing can be done but he does encourage Lora to return to the hornets' nest in order to gain evidence and, presumably, protect the children.

He's bad, I know he's bad  . . . 
This she does, because she is Stanwyck, after all, and everything goes down in a major way immediately.  The oldest child is basically dying, the mother is drunk and Morty shows up to do business with Nick.  Because Nick's a bad guy. He quickly figures out that Nick is the one that popped Lora and guards both Lora and the children's nanny while they treat the child and call for Dr. Bell, who arrives in time to give the child a blood transfusion with Lora's blood.  Lora is going to press charges against Mrs. Ritchey, which will basically end her nursing career (as people apparently will no longer trust a nurse who is not down with negligence) but that's okay because she saved the children and she's got Morty, to boot (no pun intended.)

The film wraps up with Lora driving off into the sunset with Morty and his silk shirts and Morty informing her that  she no longer needs to worry about Nick because Morty has friends. Or should I say "friends."  Cut to an ambulance pulling into the hospital where Lora worked with the driver saying the stiff inside was "taken for a ride" and he wasn't a bootlegger because he was wearing a chauffeur's uniform.  Dum dum DUM!  Fade out.

Let's just start with the obvious, shall we?  What was going on in the world that Lora would be told to go back to the private residence where she was attacked, assaulted and threatened?  That's just crazy.  And certainly no endorsement for the police.

As far as lack of endorsements go, I can't see movie audiences of the early 1930s watching Night Nurse and rushing out to join the medical field because it's not shown to be a bastion of morality here.  At least one doctor is shown to be on the take, interns are depicted as slimy horndogs not to be trusted and the nurses are the bottom of the totem pole - - disrespected, tired and ultimately jaded.  Even Lora, so optimistic and altruistic at the beginning of the film, seems hardened and wise to the world by the end (although we really can't blame her.)

Barbara Stanwyck, as always, is excellent here.  She portrays Lora with stars in her eyes in the beginning but who, by the time she meets Morty in the emergency clinic, is able to trade quips and barbs with him, all while cleaning out his gunshot wound.  I saw flashes of her upcoming role as Lily Powers in Baby Face when she was dealing with the drunkards as the night nurse.  Watching her look with disgust at the children's mother while muttering "You mother . . . " is amazing. You know at least mentally another word follows "mother."  It doesn't need to be said because Stanwyck's inflection is everything.  I also love her "oh yeah?" retort before she hauls off and socks a drunk right in the kisser.  This, my friends, is the essence of the Pre-Code.

Joan Blondell, as previously mentioned, plays Mahoney with bravura.  How can you not love Joan?  She's the wisecracking girlfriend we all have, need to have or want.  She's no nonsense and brings Stanwyck's Lora back down to earth in the beginning.  Sadly, while she is front and center during the first half of the film, she almost disappears during the second half; only in the forefront when she's relaying information to Stanwyck in her position as the day nurse.  A shame, really.

Ben Lyon was well cast as the bootlegger with the heart of gold (and arm of lead.)  He's attractive, without being pretty or over the top, and you can almost understand why Stanwyck's Lora would fall for him.  I say almost because let's be honest.  He's not a great guy.   He's a bootlegger.  He's legally a criminal.  He has a dangerous job (he's been shot at least once that we know of) which means Lora will be in danger so long as she's with him.  It's a fascinating choice that the writer of Night Nurse decided to make Lora's knight in shining armor a bootlegger rather than a rich playboy (Franchot Tone in Dancing Lady) or attorney (Franchot Tone in Midnight Mary; Franchot Tone in Sadie McKee.)  Wow, Franchot Tone got around, didn't he?  But I digress.  We, as the audience, are supposed to be happy that Lora ends up with a bootlegger.  Which is better than ending up with a toe tag or with the lascivious Nick who would either starve you, run you over with a car or pimp you out but still.

Gable's role as Nick is a supporting one and he is most definitely not seen on screen enough.  Yeah, I'm a Gable fan.  He's a terrible person but you can understand how he gets the ladies because damn if he isn't totally hot.  He isn't confrontational with Lora from the first moment but he absolutely takes control and tells her how it's going to be.  When he socks her, we are in no doubt as to how shady he is; when he's carrying her from the room, we are left wondering whether he's going to take her for a ride or give her a ride on the Gable Express.  He dumps her on a sofa in her own room but he does stand by, watching her.  Again, he's a bad guy but the sexual undertones . . . yowza.

As a major plot point in the film involves the attempted murder of children, Night Nurse is a gritty film.  These children are the only two characters in the film who aren't jaundiced and cynical about life.  The wealthy are presented as aimless drunkards who only care about money and the next party; the criminals are on the make; and some of the medical practitioners are little above the criminal element themselves.

That said, the film is insanely enjoyable and occurs in a relatively skimpy seventy-two minutes.  But what a ride!   Pop some popcorn, grab a drink and buckle up for an enjoyable Pre-Code experience.

Night Nurse is available on DVD through TCM Archives Forbidden Hollywood Collection and shows up on occasion in TCM's rotation.

For your enjoyment, here is a clip of the infamous "oh yeah?" and "You mother . . . " scene.


Monday, June 19, 2017

John Gilbert and the Excellence of "Downstairs"

If you're going to talk about silent films, great silent film couples and how the advent of the talkies brought on the destruction of a once-great career, you cannot avoid talking about John Gilbert.  He had it all - - film success, high profile affairs with insanely popular actresses (Barbara La Marr; Laurette Taylor;  Bebe Daniels; Lupe Velez; Mae Murray; Greta Garbo; and Marlene Dietrich to name but a few), excesses, marriages, divorces, a career nosedive and early death.  That's the quick and dirty version.  The actual truth of John Gilbert requires much more than a simple post.

With all the available fodder on Jack (as he was known to friends), very little is ever said about his 1932 film Downstairs.  A terrible oversight and shame because Downstairs is a masterpiece of nuance and one that was delivered several generations too early for its movie-going audience.

Downstairs was written by Jack around 1928, at a time when he was still at the top of his game. He had written it with himself in mind as the lead - - a suggestion that horrified his bosses at MGM because the lead, Karl, was an unapologetic, self-serving crook.  How would it look for The Great Lover (as Gilbert had been nicknamed) to portray an irredeemable heel?

The script sat for several years, until Jack's career hit a downturn.  How that happened has reached mythical status over the years (Louis B. Mayer insulted Gilbert and Gilbert punched him; Mayer vowed revenge and wreaked havoc with the sound of Gilbert's films or Mayer planted a story that audiences laughed at Gilbert's allegedly high and effeminate voice in his first talkie.)  It's unlikely that Mayer would tamper with films that were in the can because, hey, a dollar's a dollar and Mayer was all about making more of them.  But at a certain point - - after his botched nuptials with Garbo, in which the actress stood him up at the altar - - Jack was given progressively worse scripts and directors that were either inept or didn't understand the actor, causing a drop in his popularity.  However, he still had a contract with MGM and a friend in production chief Irving Thalberg. Perhaps Thalberg felt guilty over Mayer's shabby treatment of a man who had made the studio a ton of money or that Jack's misfortunes, brought on by the depression caused by his lackluster career, were putting him into the drink. Regardless, Thalberg gave him two assignments that showcased exactly how versatile and talented John Gilbert was.

The first, The Phantom of Paris, a mystery, had been slated for Lon Chaney, who died of cancer in 1930.  Jack stepped into the role of a magician/showman who was accused of murder and uses his mastery of magic and disguise to solve the crime and find the real killer.   He does well in Phantom, playing very debonair (and true to type); it was not an easy task to take over for Lon Chaney.

In Downstairs, he played against type.  Very much against type. As the scheming, blackmailing chauffeur Karl, Jack is both repugnant and mesmerizing.  He's a scoundrel for sure but he takes it a step further.  He blatantly seduces women for material needs - - money, shopping, clothing - - or just for fun and then dumps them when they have served their purpose.  It doesn't matter if the woman is young, old, single or married; if she has the means, Karl has the time for seduction.  And you know that Karl knows how to lay down the pipe.

Anna weakly tries to fend off Karl (good luck, sister) 
His current target is new bride Anna (played by Virginia Bruce, who would become Jack's new bride off-screen shortly after the film wrapped), a maid in the residence where Karl is working.  Anna is so kind that Karl opens up to her in his attempts to woo her:  "I've had to fight my way through life alone. Bad men and bad women. I've never been in love with anyone good, like you, before. I didn't know how to treat you."

Good, right?  I mean, he knows exactly what to say.  I think we can figure that he's never been in love with anyone before.  And he knows how to hook his mark.  Jack's delivery, along with his expressions, are perfection here.  You can see exactly when he realizes he's reeling in his "fish," and she's all his.  It's the subtle type of nuance in which the best Pre-Code movies deliver and John Gilbert delivered.

Downstairs is about wealthy Vienna society, the differences between those who live "upstairs" and those who live "downstairs" (hence, the name) and sex.  Lots of sex.  Jack oozes the same sex appeal he was so notorious for as the dashing Great Lover, only here he's not doing it for love but for gain.  He's so smooth, so sexually charged and electrifying that you can't truly hate him, despite his at-times vicious behavior.  So charming is he that in one scene he manages to seduce and engage in shenanigans while actually picking his nose.

Downstairs was given a redheaded stepchild release (thanks, MGM) after the fairly disastrous premiere of His Glorious Night (the film which launched a thousand and one conspiracy theories) and the critics of the day roundly hated it.  They, like theater patrons, chose to ignore Jack's risque dialogue and witty banter and were confused by the leading man's portrayal of such a remorseless character, who gets no type of comeuppance that would be required post Pre-Code.

It's tragic that no one, save John Gilbert himself, seemed to realize that he wanted to play against type because it's real.  People like Karl existed and do exist.  He wanted to be someone on screen other than the man who ran after Garbo, or types like her, mad with love and lust, murmuring sweet nothings. In Downstairs, he proved that not only could he act out those parts but he could write them as well.

I think that Jack chose to do Downstairs, at least in part, as a "screw you" to MGM, who apparently felt they owed to nothing to a man who helped to build their empire.  While the exact role of Mayer in Jack's downfall is in question, there is no doubt that Mayer disliked him heartily and had no use for the man unless his blood and sweat were transforming into coins with which to line the studio coffers.

If Downstairs had been released fifty years later, I've no doubt that John Gilbert would have been greeted with acclaim and lauded with praise and awards.  The more jaded 1970s (and after) audiences would have recognized Karl in their co-worker, neighbor or spouse.  The movie audiences of the early 1930s were happy to have cads on screen but not portrayed by actors who typically played the "good guys," and certainly not if they never saw the error of their ways.

John Gilbert had believed so much in Downstairs that he sold the rights to MGM for a single dollar.  He made no salary off his work as a writer and the film at the time only cemented the belief that he was washed up.  The film ended up losing money and was chalked up as another "miss" for Jack.  Garbo would insist that he be given the role opposite her in the successful Queen Christina in 1933 but it did little to help his sagging career.  He would end his MGM contract with a B picture that same year.  The following year, Columbia cast him in The Captain Hates the Sea, in which he played a frustrated playwright.  The hope for any comeback was soured by the constant drinking that was done by Jack and co-stars Victor McLaglen, Leon Errol, Walter Catlett and Walter Connolly.  It would end up being Jack's last film appearance.

In December of 1935, Jack suffered a serious heart attack that left him weak and in poor health.  On January 9, 1936, he suffered a second and fatal heart attack.  At the time of his death, he had been slated to appear in the film Desire, with Marlene Dietrich, who he was romantically involved with at the time

Despite his career slide, and a divorce in 1934 from Virginia Bruce (his fourth), he would leave an estate valued at nearly $6.5 million in today's dollars.  The bulk of it went, at his direction, to Virginia and their daughter Susan.

It would take the inception of Turner Classic Movies and a rebirth of the appreciation of the Pre-Code films for Downstairs to find a new and much more appreciative audience.  Today, we aren't shocked at the lengths to which persons will go in order to obtain money and have their egos stroked; we can appreciate Jack's performance and his desire to take on the role of a less than moral and likable character.

Fortunately, John Gilbert today is remembered in a far kinder light than he was in 1936.  His voice, a subject of innuendo and controversy, was never effeminate or laughable and in fact, was crisp and distinctive.  What the actual reason for his falling out with Mayer and MGM, it certainly was not due to his acting or to Downstairs.

Jack gets the last laugh

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Downfall of Lee Tracy

Lee Tracy, like Warren William, is a sadly lost Pre-Code gem for all but the most devoted classic movie fans today.  At one time, he was the essence of Pre-Code films - - a fast talking, slick wiseguy with the ever-present telephone in his hand.  He was full of energy; he never stopped moving, a showcase of nervousness and nerve, wired and wiry.

Lee was not conventionally handsome.  In fact, he was almost homely with a nasally voice to match; he was certainly no Gable, Flynn or even Barrymore.  Yet, movie audiences of the early 1930s loved him and his portrayals. Nobody ever got the best of him and when he's on screen, he is utterly impossible to ignore.

He had attended military academy, served in World War I and played semi-professional baseball in St. Louis, all before turning an eye toward acting.  He hit Broadway in the 1920s and in 1929, appeared as the irrepressible Hildy Johnson in The Front Page (a role that Rosalind Russell would take over as the script was flipped to make Hildy a woman, opposite Cary Grant's Walter Burns in the 1940 His Girl Friday).  This role would lead him to film stardom; The Front Page was everything that the Pre-Codes stood for . . . fast talking, witty repartee, and rude heroes.  Lee Tracy had it all in spades.

That same year, he arrived in Hollywood. It was a time of great transition for films, as talking came in.  Lee Tracy never had a problem speaking and being heard.  He would return to Broadway, in between films, before journeying back to Hollywood in 1932 - - the year that Lee Tracy was made.

The film that put him over was The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, in which Lee played a heel who seduced the sweet and innocent Ann Dvorak.  He did this by (get ready for it) putting her down and actually promising to betray her.  Only Lee Tracy, folks. He wasn't the star of the movie but he managed to steal the picture.

In Blessed Event
His next several films - Love is a Racket, Doctor X, Clear All the Wires! and Advice to the Lovelorn - would put him in the newsroom (a popular destination in Pre-Code films) before moving him into the political arena with Night Mayor and Washington Merry Go Round.  He would hit his stride and deliver what is possibly his greatest performance with Blessed Event, in which he played a very, very thinly veiled version of columnist Walter Winchell.  Heck, he out-Winchelled Winchell.  Blessed Event is full of zingers and stingers and never loses steam.  It's absolutely what every sharp movie hopes and should be.

Lee also appeared in two of 1933's biggest hits - - Dinner at Eight and Bombshell, both with Jean Harlow.  The first film was an ensemble of MGM heavies and, playing a desperate agent, he held his ground against the likes of John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery; the second was a Harlow showpiece in which the lovely Jean played a Harlowesque movie star with Lee portraying her publicist.  In both he demonstrates range and the future that should have been assured to him as a movie star.

Unfortunately for Lee Tracy, he was a notorious hell raiser off-screen.  He liked to drink, which would sometimes cause him to miss work, and that same drinking would lead him to be standoffish and rude to interviewers, something he often did.  He said in one interview that he had no desire for a home or children but preferred to be transient, living in hotel rooms. Compare this to Clark Gable, who didn't necessarily want the home and wife, despite having both, but who played by studio rules.  By the way, Keanu Reeves would make this same type of comment decades later and be lauded for it but this statement was anathema in the early 1930s. He attempted to get out of paying his taxes and tried to write off money he spent in Hollywood as a business expense. (He maintained a home in Pennsylvania.)  He paid MGM monetary tips in order to let him sleep late in the morning, as he was often sleeping off events from the night before.  In 1935, he was arrested after drunkenly firing his gun through a neighbor's window.  His excuse?  He was aiming at an ashtray he never cared for.

Through it all, Lee managed to maintain both his career and his fans. It's possible - - heck, even likely - - that his missteps and bad behaviors became sport to movie audiences.  Maybe even to his studio, until events that transpired (or did not) in Mexico City in 1934.

Lee was filming Viva Villa!, a fictionalized biography of Pancho Villa, with Wallace Beery and Lupe Velez.  As the legend goes, he stepped out of his hotel room, onto the balcony, and urinated on a passing military parade below. Desi Arnaz would later support this accounting of events in his autobiography.  However, other crew members gave differing versions of events.  The cinematographer on the film, Charles G. Clarke, said that he was standing outside during the parade and the urinating incident did not occur.  He said that Tracy was standing on his balcony watching the parade when a Mexican below made an obscene gesture at him.  Tracy returned the favor and the papers the next day reported that he had insulted Mexico, Mexicans and their flag. Lee Tracy himself said that there was no balcony outside his hotel room, but a window grate and the incident was an accident blown out of proportion.

Regardless, MGM decided it had had enough, invoking the morals clause on Tracy and fired him. Because the story had caused an uproar in Mexico and MGM wanted to maintain good relations with the country in order to continue filming there (and having its films released there), they sacrificed Tracy.

Lee Tracy wasn't the only person to be fired from Viva Villa! on account of what may or may not have happened during this parade.  The film's original director, Howard Hawks, was also fired after he refused to testify against Lee.  Jack Conway took Hawks' place and Stuart Erwin took Tracy's.  The film went on to great reception and profit.

Lee Tracy did not stop working, even though he had been given a pink slip by the creme de la creme of Hollywood studios. He took roles in B movies and on the stage.  He returned to military service during World War II and his career post-War would consist primarily of television appearances.  He even married in 1938, to a woman looking to sell him an insurance policy on his yacht; surprisingly, the marriage would stick for the remainder of his life.

Tracy may have been combative and a drinker - - and definitely a combative drunk - - but he had also been a wise real estate investor that had left him extremely wealthy.  (Hence, the aforementioned yacht.) While other discarded actors and actresses may have wound up living in poverty post-career or even giving in to drinking and drugging, he kept on keeping on.

Joyful in The Best Man, his final appearance
He made a triumphant return to Hollywood in 1964 with The Best Man, in a role in which he would garner the only Academy Award nomination of his career.  Only four years later, at the age of seventy, Lee Tracy would succumb to cancer.

He is an interesting enigma.  On the one hand, his story is very narrowly a cautionary tale; what may happen if you blow a good thing to excess.  His career was on the upswing, he was insanely popular and yet his studio still canned him after one too many straws on the proverbial camel's back. On the other, Tracy managed to survive just fine, thank you very much, without Hollywood and MGM.  He was fortunate enough, thanks to his investments, to work when he wanted and only when he wanted. Could we all be so lucky . . .

Here's the rub in the whole thing though, regardless of what really did or did not happen in Mexico City.  No one knew it, obviously, but the Pre-Code era was quickly coming to an end.  By 1935, Will Hays would step into his ironclad role of monitoring and judging the morality of Hollywood (something that would remain in effect until the 1960s.)  The Pre-Codes would be dead and along with them, those roles that Lee Tracy specialized in.  The death of the Pre-Codes impacted the career of his contemporary Warren William, who also played characters that would no longer be acceptable once Hays instituted his policy.  (William would continue to act, mostly in B films and supporting roles until his premature death but never regained his Pre-Code star status.) The same could have happened to Tracy but thanks, or due unfortunately, to an accident, an intentional act or a rumor, Lee Tracy's contract was cancelled and we would never find out.