Hypno-Murder: Secrets of the French Police (1932)

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Secrets of the French Police is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink oddity that flings together police procedurals, adventure serials, and a horror villain with hypno-murder powers. Never settling into one genre for more than a few scenes, it’s totally incoherent and bizarrely entertaining, as it absorbs influences from the famous French Inspector Bertillon to Dracula and The Mystery of the Wax Museum. This RKO programmer from 1932 is now on DVD as part of the Warner Archive’s Forbidden Hollywood Volume 10, and is recommended for those with attention deficit disorder.

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Last Call: Her Man (1930)

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Tay Garnett’s Her Man (1930) has had a small but enduring auteurist cult, for those lucky enough to have seen the Cinematheque Francaise print that circulated in the ’50s and ’60s. In his American Cinema, Andrew Sarris wrote of its “extraordinarily fluid camera movements that dispel the myth of static talkies”, while British critic Raymond Durgnat compared it favorably to Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port (1928). Poet John Ashbery saw it in Paris in the late ’50s, and it was an inspiration for his “Pavane pour Helen Twelvetrees”, which you can read here.  The film has seemingly disappeared from view since then, with David Thomson erroneously stating that it was a “lost film” in his Biographical Dictionary of Film. It wasn’t lost, but just hiding. The camera negative was discovered in the Columbia Pictures collection at the Library of Congress, and a 4K restoration was performed by Sony Pictures, with funding provided by the Film Foundation. This week the Museum of Modern Art, courtesy of Adjunct Curator Dave Kehr, is screening the restoration of Her Man, alongside some of director Tay Garnett’s other silent and early sound features (including Celebrity, The Spieler, and One Way Passage). Her Man is a redemptive romance that takes place in one of the scummiest bars in Havana: the Thalia. There Garnett wends his camera through a knockabout group of con artists, drunks and killers to get to his dewy-eyed lovers, who strong-arm their way out the door.

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Happy Birthday William Wellman

blogopenerDirector William Wellman was born on this day, February 29, in 1896. That would make today his 120th birthday, or his 30th, depending on your feelings regarding leap year. Nicknamed Wild Bill because of his adventurous days as a pilot for the Lafayette Flying Corps during WWI, Wellman led one of those audacious lives that makes for good storytellers. Wellman’s medium of choice for telling stories was the Hollywood film. Movie fans can celebrate Wild Bill’s birthday this week on TCM by watching three of his best-known films: Battleground (March 1, 10:00am, EST), Wild Boys of the Road (March 3, 5:00am, EST), and The Public Enemy (March 3, 8:30am, EST).

Though infamous for browbeating his actors and intimidating his actresses, Wellman is justly famous for his male-dominated action movies (The Public Enemy), adventures about men in adversity (Wings), or stories about the interaction of men within a group (The Ox-Bow Incident, The Story of G.I. Joe, Battleground). However, I prefer Wellman’s early melodramas featuring female protagonists who are down on their luck, down and out, or just down on love. Usually, these melodramas are not discussed as part of Wellman’s body of work; they are most often considered and assessed as pre-Code films.

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Capitolfest: The Best Film Festival You’ve Never Heard Of

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Every year in August, all roads lead to Rome—Rome, New York, that is. For three days, the historic Capitol Theatre in downtown Rome hosts an amazing film festival that is a showcase for rarely exhibited films of the silent and early sound eras. All of the 18 features and 9 shorts and cartoons shown at Capitolfest 13 last weekend were projected in 35mm by carbon-arc, variable-speed projectors. I had almost forgotten how deep and rich celluloid black can be, or the subtle differences in the gray scale, until I saw the first film, The Flying Ace, projected onto the Capitol’s big screen.

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A Forgotten Film to Remember: The Most Dangerous Game

gameopenerIn David Fincher’s Zodiac, the protagonist Robert Graysmith discovers that some of the letters written by the infamous Zodiac killer contain partial quotes from the 1932 film The Most Dangerous Game. In an incredibly tense sequence, Graysmith visits the projectionist of a revival theater where the Zodiac may have seen the film. The creepy projectionist lures Graysmith into his basement to look for a poster as sounds from above suggest the pair is not alone. In the plot of The Most Dangerous Game, a character hunts human beings for sport, not unlike the Zodiac killer and, ironically, not unlike Graysmith, who spent years of his life obsessed with finding the identity of the Zodiac. If you are curious about the movie forever linked with one of the most notorious unsolved murder cases in history, The Most Dangerous Game airs on TCM this Wednesday at 4:30pm.

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A Forgotten Pre-Code to Remember: Kongo

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This month, TCM’s Friday Night Spotlight, titled Classic Pre-Code, boasts an impressive line-up of both familiar and little-known movies released prior to the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code. Despite the diverse selection, there is one film I wish could have been included. With its racism, prostitution, drug addiction, perversion, and torture, Kongo reveals just how far pre-Code films could push the limits of shock and taste.

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Pre-Code Primer: There’s More to Pre-Code Movies Than Sin

This month, TCM turns its Friday Night Spotlight on Classic Pre-Code Movies. What better way to end the week than to watch 24 hours of pre-Code musicals, dramas, gangster flicks, and comedies. Viewers are fascinated by the frank portrayals of sexuality, prostitution, illicit romances, and strong-willed women that are found in those movies released between the coming of sound and 1934, when the Motion Picture Production Code became mandatory. But, pre-Code movies are more than just sex, sin, and indiscretion. They dared to criticize America’s social institutions, expose the sexism and bias against women in the work place, depict the difficulties of child-bearing, and reveal the dark side of romantic relationships for women. Set your DVRs for these pre-Code gems that serve as a crash course in this brief but significant era of film history.

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Meet Toby Wing, the Darling of the Photographers

tobyopenerIf I could go one day without hearing about the dreaded Kardashians, I would be thrilled. The most superficial of celebrities, they are famous for being famous, with no body of work to support their fame. How could this gaggle of girls with no discernable talents be the center of media attention? Recently, while researching a pre-Code film in newspapers of the era, I came to understand the construction of celebrity more fully. I was reminded that while gossip, rumors, and accusations pour from the Internet at an alarming rate, there have always been Kardashians eager to climb into the spotlight, and media outlets eager to keep them there.

Toby Wing was treated like the Kim Kardashian of her day. However, there are some differences: She did display a healthy degree of ambition, she parlayed her celebrity into a short-lived studio contract and a few supporting roles, and her famous family left a positive mark on history. Her life story offers insight into the Hollywood publicity machine, which has always churned out celebrities lie dolls on an assembly line.

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Lee Tracy: A Welcome Nuisance

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“It didn’t take those women at the stage door to convince me I was nobody’s hero. I’d looked into a mirror once or twice. These light eyes, these limp features, these scars all over my face!”

-Lee Tracy, Picture Play Magazine, 1933

Although his career lasted until 1965, the image of Lee Tracy will forever be of a chatterbox on the make, established during his prolific run of pre-codes in the early 1930s. Whether he plays a tabloid reporter or ambulance chasing lawyer, Tracy’s characters were always looking for an angle as sharp as the crease in his fedora. His catalytic personality, a shotgun blast of nasal putdowns, led him to leading man roles, overcoming the perceived shortcomings of his pockmarked face, thinning hair and bantamweight build. Audiences, though, liked to root for this ruthless underdog. The Warner Archive released three Tracy pre-codes on DVD last week: The Half Naked Truth (’32) Turn Back The Clock (’33) and The Nuisance (’33). In The Half Naked Truth, Tracy is a con-man/publicist as he turns hoochie coochie dancer Lupe Velez into a Broadway star. A hidden gem directed by Gregory La Cava, I wrote about it last year. So today I’ll focus on the latter two. He is cast against type in Turn Black the Clock, a proto It’s A Wonderful Life where his meek tobacconist is granted a time-traveling chance to re-live his life for money instead of love. The Nuisance, though, is a prime rat-a-tat Tracy, in which he hammers the local train company with phony injury claims, with the aid of his drunken doctor pal Frank Morgan. Cinematographer Gregg Toland and director Jack Conway make sure the camera moves with as much agility as Tracy’s tongue.

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Forgotten Films to Remember: ‘Finishing School’

finishposterIn the last 10 years, the popularity of pre-Code movies has soared through the publication of coffee-table books and the release of DVD series. “Pre-Code” refers to those films released before film censorship became mandatory in Hollywood. Though the Motion Picture Production Code was adopted by Hollywood in 1930, it was not enforced until June 1934. Movies released between 1930 and 1934 often surprise viewers with their adult content, double entendres, perverted characters, and independent women. Movie lovers eagerly watch for outrageous characters, suggestive lines of dialogue, and sexual situations that would never have passed the guidelines after 1934.

Status as a pre-Code film has breathed life into some movies that would not have otherwise stood the test of time. Some of them have gained name recognition because of their inclusion in books and DVD series, including A Free Soul, which was part of TCM’s Forbidden Hollywood series. I recently watched this melodrama starring Norma Shearer, Lionel Barrymore, Leslie Howard, and Clark Gable in his break-out role. Shearer went braless in silky gowns; she slept with Gable, who played a ruthless gangster; and, she spoke of marriage and children with disdain: These are characteristics that fans of pre-Code movies embrace. However, I found the characters in A Free Soul unlikable, the scenes between Shearer and Barrymore tedious and dull, and their acting too broad—even for melodrama. They seemed to be competing with each other for who could be the most dramatic, as though they anticipated their nominations for Academy Awards. (Barrymore won; Shearer did not.)

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