Tag Archives: 30s

Zero de Conduite (1933)

 “Do you want a zero in conduct?”

French director Jean Vigo made only two feature length films (and two short films) before dying at the age 29. L’Atalante is an much acclaimed film–but Zero de Conduite has fallen into obscurity. Upon its release, Zero de Conduite–a short tale of schoolboy rebellion–was banned in France. Perhaps it was judged too subversive–Vigo’s father Eugene Bonaventure de Vigo (AKA Miguel Almareyda) was in his youth, a prominent anarchist. Vigo’s father later abandoned his anarchist beliefs, became mired in some shady political activities, and was murdered in jail.

zero-de-conduiteThe film begins with the return of various schoolboys to a strict boarding school. The school environment serves as a microcosm of French society–with those in charge, corrupt and dictatorial. The boys live on a diet on beans, and teachers search for sweets, which are then confiscated. The teachers threaten the boys with the dreaded “zero in conduct” if they misbehave, and of course, that principle only works if one cares about such things. It’s not long before three troublemakers–instigators Bruel, Caussat, and Colin–are identified. The film depicts a number of ridiculous rigid rules, and the boys’ reaction to them. While one teacher is tolerant–the Chaplinesque Huguet–other teachers are notoriously strict. One of the teachers even seems to have a questionable taste for one of the boys. After a particularly trivial infraction, the boys lead a revolt against authority on alumni day. In one unforgettable scene, a pillow fight rains feathers down on the rebellious boys as they somersault in a crowded dormitory.

Unfortunately, this is a terrible print. One scene takes place in a railway station at night, and it’s very difficult to make out some of the action. The sound is crackly, and white splotches appear on the print. In spite of all this, however, the film evokes the magical, irrepressible spirit of childhood, and it certainly revived the ecstasy of my rebellious schooldays. In French with English subtitles

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Filed under France, Jean Vigo, Political/social films, Silent

Three on a Match (1932)

 “She’ll probably go to reform school.”

threeThree on a Match is the story of three schoolgirls who lose touch with each other, but reunite by chance a few years later. Mary (Joan Blondell) is the wild one who gets in trouble and ends up in a reform school. Ruth (Bette Davis) is the serious, quiet one who becomes a stenographer. Vivian (Ann Dvorak) is the popular, pretty girl. With just a few brief scenes, the plot establishes the basic character of each girl, and then shows how each girl is essentially still the same in adulthood.

When the three women–now adults–meet in New York, Vivian is married to the highly successful lawyer Robert Kirkwood (Warren William). While Ruth and Mary envy Vivian’s social position, her chauffeur driven car etc., they also feel that she’s incredibly lucky to have such a nice husband. Vivian, however, is bored to tears by her husband and her lifestyle. She’s the sort of person who never appreciates the good things in life because they fall into her lap so easily. Vivian’s pouting results in her husband suggesting that she needs a holiday. Vivian packs up the couple’s only son and heads for a ship sailing to Europe.

Unfortunately, Vivian meets a lowlife gangster Michael Loftus (Lyle Taylor) and jumps right into disaster….

Three on a Match is a pre-code film made in 1932. It’s a bit sentimental, but well acted. A tight plot, and a stellar cast create a delightful film. Bette Davis has only a tiny role, and Humphrey Bogart also stars in a small (but memorable) role as gangster, Harve.

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Filed under Bette Davis

Baby Face (1933)

 “Yeah, I’m a tramp, and who’s to blame?”

The marvelous Barbara Stanwyck stars as gold-digger Lily Powers in the pre-Hayes code film, Baby Face. Lily is raised in a depressingly poor and grimy mill town. Her father runs an unofficial speakeasy and makes his own moonshine in the outdoor shed. Lily serves drinks–and a lot more–to the male customers. When Lily becomes tired of her father’s ‘arrangement’ with some of the male customers, she escapes to New York. Here she begins her long, hard climb to wealth–man by man. Along the way, she ruins careers, wrecks lives and even causes a suicide.

babyfaceLily Powers is a great character–very focused, avaricious, hard-edged and driven. Thanks to the early scenes that depict the harsh realities of her life, her ambitious and self-protective need to accumulate wealth is clearly understood. When she first arrives in New York, she identifies a building she wants to work in, and then rapidly rises to the top of the food chain using her looks and various male supervisors along the way. The film doesn’t try to hide Lily’s harpy-like materialistic tendencies, and she’s seen beginning work at literally the bottom floor of an office building. Then scenes depict Lily’s plying her tactics (this includes letting men look down her blouse). Honky tonk music plays as the camera sweeps the front of the office building and Lily moves up to another department (and figuratively improves her place in society). With each new department, she brings herself to the attention of increasingly wealthier men–until she manages to reach the top floor–leaving a trail of broken men in her destructive climb.

As Lily’s jobs become more important, so do the men she seduces. At first, the men have little to lose–she discards a very young John Wayne with little more than a broken heart, but as she crushes more powerful men, the stakes become greater. And this inevitably leads to a front-page scandal.

Stanwyck fans will love watching her unleashed in this role–at one point she acknowledges: “I’m not like other women. All the gentleness and kindness in me has been killed.” There’s little pretense regarding her single-minded ambitious drive, and from the beginning of the film until the last scene, this is clearly Stanwyck’s film.

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Filed under Barbara Stanwyck

Satan Met a Lady (1936)

 “A blonde’s been the death of many a man.”

satan-met-a-ladyIn Satan Met a Lady, mystery woman Valerie Purvis (Bette Davis) employs private detective, Ames (Porter Hall) to track down a man. Ames is killed and his partner Ted Shayne (William Warren) takes up the case. Soon Shayne is offered money by various people who all want to possess the legendary Horn of Roland that is reputedly stuffed with gems. Valerie Purvis–one of the people after the Horn–plays fast and loose with ladies’ man Shayne.

Satan Met a Lady is based on the Dashiell Hammett novel, Watch on the Rhine, and that same novel also inspired The Maltese Falcon. Satan Met a Lady made in 1936, is almost unrecognizable as The Maltese Falcon–one of the greats of the film noir genre made only 5 years later in 1941. If you’re expecting to see a different version of The Maltese Falcon, then you’ll be disappointed in Satan Met a Lady. If you’re a Bette Davis fan, you may still be disappointed. It’s not one of her best roles–actually in the line-up of her career, it’s very weak. The lead female role of Valerie Purvis is a role without bite and only a little guile. The role hems in Davis’s talent, and she’s not allowed any great evil scenes, and only luke-warm flirtation. Shayne’s abysmally dense, but ever-faithful secretary, Miss Murgatroyd (Marie Wilson) is supposed to be endearing, but she’s mainly rather annoying. William Warren as the smooth operator, Shayne, calls women “kitten”, “heart-throb”, “precious”, “child” “sister”, and “honey” throughout the film, and after a while, Shayne’s self-adoration becomes a bit tedious. Many of the scenes should be serious (a gun is pulled on Shayne, for example), and this is just an excuse for light repartee and sly jokes that bounce around like after-dinner conversation. The plot can’t seem to make a firm stand–is this a screwball comedy or a thriller? The film is well-paced, only mildly entertaining, and there are a few genuinely funny moments. For me, however, the main interest comes in seeing how the 30s interpreted the novel. Watching Satan Met a Lady and The Maltese Falcon allows the viewer to see how the world changed to a much darker place in just a few years, and these two films reflect that change. From director William Dieterle.

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Ex-Lady (1935)

 “Cheap, cheap, my daughter, cheap!”

ex-ladyIn Ex-Lady single career girl, illustrator, Helen Bauer (Bette Davis) maintains a long-term relationship with advertising agency owner Don Peterson (Gene Raymond). He wants to get married, but she’s averse to the idea. She’d much prefer to live together. With proto feminist ideas, Helen sees marriage as “dull” and the death of romance and freedom. The married couples in the film underscore that notion. While Helen and Don’s relationship sparkles with the joy they find in each other’s company, married friends seem bored and disinterested in one another.

Don presses the idea of marriage, and Helen finally gives in. The newlyweds leave for a whirlwind honeymoon to Cuba, but when they return, Don’s business has lost several accounts in his absence. Helen, who has given up her freelance illustrator status to join Don’s firm, has job offers–but with other advertising agencies. Soon there are strains in the marriage, and both Don and Helen feel the loss of the marvelous freedom they’d enjoyed when they lived together.

Ex-Lady is a morality tale. Both Don and Helen have to learn the hard way that marriage is a commitment. When they get married, it’s as though they’re ‘trying marriage’ to see if it works for them, and then of course, when the first obstacles occur, marriage takes the blame for it. Would-be lovers distract both Don and Helen from the marriage. Nick Malvyn (Monroe Owsley) is waiting for Helen to come to her senses and go off with him. And Peggy Smith (Kay Strozzi), the much younger wife of an aging businessman, can’t wait to get her hands on Don.

This pre-code film is interesting for its proto feminist ideas, and one of the best lines occurs when married friend, Hugo regrets the fact that the hobble skirt is no longer in vogue. He notes that women “couldn’t walk fast nor far in the hobble skirt. You could trust them.” As a vehicle for Bette Davis, this pre-code film is a pedestrian romance. The fine talent of this great actress is contained in little more than a sweet bedroom drama, and Davis is confined in a role of a glamorous woman whose emotions never rise above mildly disappointed. There’s no fire or passion here, and that’s unfortunate. As a hardcore Davis fan, it’s still hard to pass up the opportunity to see her in anything, but Ex-Lady was NOT a film Davis was proud of. Incidentally, Ex-Lady is remake of an earlier film , Illicit, starring Barbara Stanwyck. From director Robert Florey.

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Filed under Bette Davis

Purchase Price (1932)

 “I’ve kept myself fairly respectable through it all.”

the purchase pricePurchase Price is a delightful, fresh and funny film starring a young Barbara Stanwyck as “naughty nightclub” singer Joan Gordon. When the film begins, she’s hoping to leave her singing career behind and marry the son of the wealthy Leslie family, but that romance ends when a private detective reveals Joan’s liaison with racketeer Eddie Fields (Lyle Talbot). Eddie is only too happy to see Joan back in circulation again, but Joan impulsively takes a train to Montreal and works at a nightclub there under the assumed name Francine La Rue. With Eddie on her tracks, Joan decides to switch places with a maid who’s just arranged a mail-order marriage to a wheat farmer. On the way to the farm, Joan sits with other mail-order brides who brag about the various amenities their bridegrooms have, and the expression on Joan’s face is priceless as the other brides brag about plumbing and radios. But at this point, Joan has gone too far to back out, and she arrives in a desolate, dusty little town.

Laconic, sniffing wheat farmer Jim Gilson (George Brent) marries Joan, and they begin their bumpy married life together. There are some great scenes when the neighbours arrive for the traditional, bizarre “shivelry” ceremony–an evening of uninhibited, raucous, drunken rioting. The rest of the film juxtaposes their rocky romance against the financial troubles of the farm.

This is a great role for Stanwyck–her strong character possesses a wonderful sense of wry humour–often directed at her own decisions, and her reactions to the behaviour and bizarre customs of the locals are priceless. When the film begins, she has the world-weary, savvy-edge of the experienced nightclub singer who has heard ever pick-up line in the book. She’s tired of it all, and she wants a change, and that’s exactly what she gets when she decides to be a mail-order bride. There’s a slight issue with believability (Joan’s marriage to a complete stranger)–but the film is so funny, Joan’s decision to launch herself into an unknown fate with a farmer is acceptable. Directed by William Wellman, the film’s conclusion was rather abrupt, but Stanwyck fans will love every minute of this lighthearted, perfectly paced comedy.

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Filed under Barbara Stanwyck, Comedy