Random observations: Pre-Code edition

Better Davis typewriter

It doesn’t have to be a manifesto every Friday (he says to himself, justifying the feeling of not wanting to spend a lot of time here today). Sometimes it just comes down to a whole bunch of ideas and opinions, some of them hare-brained, some of them half thought-out, and all of them mine. Dig…

Arthur Byron in 20,000 Years at Sing Sing

Arthur Byron is kind of dead weight in THE MUMMY (1932) so it took me by surprise to observe how righteously bad-ass he is as the Warden in 20,000 YEARS AT SING SING (1932). He’s not as abrasive as Walter Huston was in THE CRIMINAL CODE (1931) — Byron had played Huston’s role on Broadway — or as steel rod stiff as Lewis Stone in THE BIG HOUSE (1930); in fact, he’s kind of a slouchy dude who would prefer to take people at their word and likes to chill and watch his kids play. But when shit gets real back at the cellblock, out comes the .38. I like that he dons a hat to attend a prison riot. That’s class. Byron made surprisingly few movies, being more of a stage actor. He was President of Actor’s Equity between 1938 and 1940.

Joe Sawyer

Joe Sawyer is always welcome. You know who I’m talking about, right? I’m talking about Joe Sawyer! There he is in the center of the frame above, to the right of that day player with the quizzical look on his face. You may remember Joe from such films as THE INFORMER (1935), BLACK LEGION (1937), THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940), SERGEANT YORK (1941), and IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953), where he and Russell Johnson got duplicated by aliens. I only recently found out that Sawyer was Canadian, born in Guelph, Ontario, hometown of my Video Watchdog compatriot John Charles. Sawyer (who got his start in Hollywood as sandy haired jocks in college films) usually played jerks but I light up whenever he walks into the room. He died the same month as Warren Oates. Man, how hard did April 1982 suck?

Aline MacMahon

Aline MacMahon was so beautiful and, yeah, know what you’re thinking: “But what about your thing with Eve Arden?! What about your thing with Gale Sondergaard?! What about your thing with Mary Treen?!” I know! I love my dark, smart women! And, yeah, you’re probably thinking “Okay, but what about your thing with Miriam Hopkins?!” Miriam is an anomaly and she knows that and she understands and it’s all good between us. Anyway. Aline MacMahon… oh, but I grow weak-kneed just thinking of her. Look at that stony perfect face! That dimpled chin, those heavy-lidded eyes (that missed nothing. Nothing!) and that pursed Ipswitch mouth, from which such barbs were launched. Oh, to have been pinioned by her! To have been put in my place! To have been taken off at the ankles with a well-turned rejoinder and an arched eyebrow! She made her Broadway debut in 1921 and was still at it in 1975, in a Joe Papp revival of of TRELAWNEY OF THE WELLS opposite  John Lithgow, Meryl Streep, and Mandy Patinkin. I got to see Gale Sondergaard on the stage when I was a kid but never Aline MacMahon and I’m all the poorer for it now. We lost Aline in 1991, but at a ripe old age, bless her. Watch an Aline MacMahon movie today!

Beast of the City

Resolved: J. Carrol Naish was always up to some bullshit.

Noble Johnson

I don’t know nearly enough about Noble Johnson. A busy ethnic character actor in Hollywood from the dawn of feature films who was often called upon in Hollywood to play heathens, savages, ogres, and aboriginals of every stripe, in such films as MOBY DICK (1930), MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932), THE MUMMY (1932), THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1933, pictured), KING KONG (1933), and a bunch of red Indians, Johnson was a childhood friend of Lon Chaney and a pioneer African-American film producer, whose THE REALIZATION OF A NEGRO’S AMBITION (1916) seemed a more than reasonable response to D. W. Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION (1915). Movie star handsome, Johnson was too often buried under weird makeup for his Hollywood films, the last of which he made in 1950, after thirty-five years in the business. I’d read his bio. Is anyone writing his bio?

The Guilty Generation

The more movies I see featuring Boris Karloff pre-FRANKENSTEIN (1931), films in which he is able to speak and movie and behave like a normal human being (albeit at times in the service of un-good) and wear nice clothes, the more remarkable his career-defining turn as Mary Shelley’s man-made man seems to me. Karloff got his big break at Columbia in the prison drama THE CRIMINAL CODE (1931) but his murderous trustee Galloway was a silent stalker very much in the mode of Ardeth Bey in THE MUMMY (1932), where his disquieting physiognomy stole focus from his abilities as an actor. Karloff had a lot more fun, and had a lot more to say, as Robert Young’s gangster father in THE GUILTY GENERATION (1931, pictured), as a dapper, gay-coded hitman in GRAFT (1931), as a street corner pimp named Sport in SMART MONEY (1931), as Depression era do-gooder Richard Dix’s poetry-quoting right hand (the left hand was Paul Hurst) in THE PUBLIC DEFENDER (1931), and as a lecherous divinity school dropout who discovers his true calling as a disreputable newsman in FIVE STAR FINAL (1931). Karloff is so good, so compelling, so magnetic, and often so funny in these early roles that to go back to FRANKENSTEIN on the other side of them is a completely different experience. Take the test and see for yourself – watch Karloff’s pre-Code films and then throw James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN on the turntable and see if you’re not seeing the film — and Karloff — with an entirely new set of eyes.

That’s enough out of me today.

26 Responses Random observations: Pre-Code edition
Posted By Bob Gutowski : February 1, 2013 2:16 pm

I saw Aline MacMahon in THE CRUCIBLE at Lincoln Center in the early 70s. She played the sweet and wise old Rebecca Nurse, who OF COURSE ends up being accused of being a witch by those troublesome brats, and hangs for it. What a wonderful speaking voice she had! How excited I was as I got more into film and later realized who it was I had seen on stage!

Posted By Bob Gutowski : February 1, 2013 2:16 pm

I saw Aline MacMahon in THE CRUCIBLE at Lincoln Center in the early 70s. She played the sweet and wise old Rebecca Nurse, who OF COURSE ends up being accused of being a witch by those troublesome brats, and hangs for it. What a wonderful speaking voice she had! How excited I was as I got more into film and later realized who it was I had seen on stage!

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : February 1, 2013 2:25 pm

How wonderful, Bob! I’m parboiled with jealousy over here!

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : February 1, 2013 2:25 pm

How wonderful, Bob! I’m parboiled with jealousy over here!

Posted By Doug : February 1, 2013 4:11 pm

The scene at the end of “20,000 YEARS AT SING SING” where the warden realizes the sacrifice that Spencer Tracy is making, his hand is shaking holding a match and Tracy steadies that hand-that is Art.
An aside-the scene earlier in the movie when Bette Davis visits Tracy in prison, all dolled up…has a homage in the 1984 comedy “Johnny Dangerously” when Marilu Henner visits Michael Keaton.
RHS-among my crushes the standouts would be Thelma Todd, Myrna Loy and Ginger Rogers. Ladies who were fun, and funny.

Posted By Doug : February 1, 2013 4:11 pm

The scene at the end of “20,000 YEARS AT SING SING” where the warden realizes the sacrifice that Spencer Tracy is making, his hand is shaking holding a match and Tracy steadies that hand-that is Art.
An aside-the scene earlier in the movie when Bette Davis visits Tracy in prison, all dolled up…has a homage in the 1984 comedy “Johnny Dangerously” when Marilu Henner visits Michael Keaton.
RHS-among my crushes the standouts would be Thelma Todd, Myrna Loy and Ginger Rogers. Ladies who were fun, and funny.

Posted By swac44 : February 1, 2013 4:55 pm

I’ve only become an Aline MacMahon fan recently, but there’s something about her I find truly compelling. Even playing the firm, but understanding matron of the maternity ward in the Loretta Young/ensemble drama Life Begins (1932) there’s something very believable about her performance.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this film before, but I highly recommend seeing her in the comedy Once in a Lifetime (1932), with Jackie Oakie, as a failed actress who turns to giving silent film stars elocution lessons. It’s basically Singin’ in the Rain, only 20 years earlier and without songs or dancing. It’s a rare starring role for her, and she’s terrific in it.

That reminds me, I’ve got Weekend Marriage on my DVR, must give that a spin this weekend.

Posted By swac44 : February 1, 2013 4:55 pm

I’ve only become an Aline MacMahon fan recently, but there’s something about her I find truly compelling. Even playing the firm, but understanding matron of the maternity ward in the Loretta Young/ensemble drama Life Begins (1932) there’s something very believable about her performance.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this film before, but I highly recommend seeing her in the comedy Once in a Lifetime (1932), with Jackie Oakie, as a failed actress who turns to giving silent film stars elocution lessons. It’s basically Singin’ in the Rain, only 20 years earlier and without songs or dancing. It’s a rare starring role for her, and she’s terrific in it.

That reminds me, I’ve got Weekend Marriage on my DVR, must give that a spin this weekend.

Posted By Emgee : February 1, 2013 5:01 pm

Aline MacMahon AND Joan Blondell together in Golddiggers of ’33 sums up Precode pleasure for me.

Posted By Emgee : February 1, 2013 5:01 pm

Aline MacMahon AND Joan Blondell together in Golddiggers of ’33 sums up Precode pleasure for me.

Posted By Patricia Nolan-Hall : February 1, 2013 5:16 pm

Joe Sawyer was born in Guelph, Ontario and I’m always pleased to note a fellow Canuck on the classic screen. To me, he will forever be Sergeant O’Hara on “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin”, my childhood favourite. It always hurts a little to see him doing dirt in the oldies.

Posted By Patricia Nolan-Hall : February 1, 2013 5:16 pm

Joe Sawyer was born in Guelph, Ontario and I’m always pleased to note a fellow Canuck on the classic screen. To me, he will forever be Sergeant O’Hara on “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin”, my childhood favourite. It always hurts a little to see him doing dirt in the oldies.

Posted By Qalice : February 1, 2013 8:09 pm

I’m thrilled to find that I’m not the only fan of Aline MacMahon! I first became aware of her in The Search with Montgomery Clift, and I’ve only recently enjoyed her razor-sharp wit in early 30s comedies. She had a unique combination of height, quickness, beautiful voice and eyes that seem to belong to an old soul. Thank you for reminding me!

Posted By Qalice : February 1, 2013 8:09 pm

I’m thrilled to find that I’m not the only fan of Aline MacMahon! I first became aware of her in The Search with Montgomery Clift, and I’ve only recently enjoyed her razor-sharp wit in early 30s comedies. She had a unique combination of height, quickness, beautiful voice and eyes that seem to belong to an old soul. Thank you for reminding me!

Posted By Grand Old Movies : February 2, 2013 11:44 am

I’ve loved Aline McMahon since seeing her in Gold Diggers of 1933 so many decades back – I loved how she pronounces the name “FAN-neee!” to Guy Kibbee, dragging out those 2 syllables so suggestively. If you haven’t seen it, check her out in the pre-Coder Heat Lightning, in which she makes sweat, overalls, and rumpled hair look like the last word in mature sex appeal.

Posted By Grand Old Movies : February 2, 2013 11:44 am

I’ve loved Aline McMahon since seeing her in Gold Diggers of 1933 so many decades back – I loved how she pronounces the name “FAN-neee!” to Guy Kibbee, dragging out those 2 syllables so suggestively. If you haven’t seen it, check her out in the pre-Coder Heat Lightning, in which she makes sweat, overalls, and rumpled hair look like the last word in mature sex appeal.

Posted By jbryant : February 2, 2013 7:39 pm

Ditto to Grand Old Movies’ suggestion of “Heat Lightning” for a look at MacMahon in her prime.

One of my favorite J. Carroll Naish moments is in Richard Fleischer’s VIOLENT SATURDAY (1955), in which he plays a cool and dapper member of Stephen McNally’s heist gang. After giving candy to a mouthy Amish boy, Naish says, “Stick these in your kisser and go suck on ‘em.”

Posted By jbryant : February 2, 2013 7:39 pm

Ditto to Grand Old Movies’ suggestion of “Heat Lightning” for a look at MacMahon in her prime.

One of my favorite J. Carroll Naish moments is in Richard Fleischer’s VIOLENT SATURDAY (1955), in which he plays a cool and dapper member of Stephen McNally’s heist gang. After giving candy to a mouthy Amish boy, Naish says, “Stick these in your kisser and go suck on ‘em.”

Posted By Richard B : February 3, 2013 12:40 am

I picked up some old movie stills when the local paper was clearing out its archives; one has Aline McMahon and I haven’t a clue what film it was from.

Posted By Richard B : February 3, 2013 12:40 am

I picked up some old movie stills when the local paper was clearing out its archives; one has Aline McMahon and I haven’t a clue what film it was from.

Posted By Mike Doran : February 4, 2013 12:27 pm

I’m a bit surprised that no one so far has mentioned the “Doubleday and Ames” Army comedies that Joe Sawyer teamed with William Tracy for Hal Roach in the early ’40s.
These were “streamliners” (45 minute running time) in which Tracy was a geeky guy with a photographic memory and Sawyer was his exasperated topkick; the joke was that they both ended up as Sergeants, co-equal on the base. It was a love-hate relationship: Tracy loved Sawyer and Sawyer hated Tracy.
The duo did five Streamliners in the early war years; post-war, Roach reunited them for three slightly longer B-features, and I’ve heard (can’t confirm) that they were considered for early TV.

Posted By Mike Doran : February 4, 2013 12:27 pm

I’m a bit surprised that no one so far has mentioned the “Doubleday and Ames” Army comedies that Joe Sawyer teamed with William Tracy for Hal Roach in the early ’40s.
These were “streamliners” (45 minute running time) in which Tracy was a geeky guy with a photographic memory and Sawyer was his exasperated topkick; the joke was that they both ended up as Sergeants, co-equal on the base. It was a love-hate relationship: Tracy loved Sawyer and Sawyer hated Tracy.
The duo did five Streamliners in the early war years; post-war, Roach reunited them for three slightly longer B-features, and I’ve heard (can’t confirm) that they were considered for early TV.

Posted By Stacia : February 7, 2013 6:40 am

Hey, Joe Sawyer! I’m watching him right now in the serial Raiders of Ghost City, where he plays a guy named Idaho Jones, because who else would Sawyer play?

Posted By Stacia : February 7, 2013 6:40 am

Hey, Joe Sawyer! I’m watching him right now in the serial Raiders of Ghost City, where he plays a guy named Idaho Jones, because who else would Sawyer play?

Posted By robbushblog : February 11, 2013 3:17 am

I must see Violent Saturday now, based solely on that short scene description.

Posted By robbushblog : February 11, 2013 3:17 am

I must see Violent Saturday now, based solely on that short scene description.

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