Preston Sturges has a knack for screwball comedy patter and pratfalls, all of which is very much in evidence here. It’s undoubtedly a very silly story — though that much is not unusual — about a father-and-daughter gambling duo working a cruise ship who spot an easy target in the foolish naïveté of Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), scion to a brewing fortune. However, their plans are complicated in that Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) falls in love with her mark. The action is all infinitely improved by the wittiness of Preston Sturges’ screenplay and the delivery of Stanwyck — a radiant light that keeps the film going through all its plot contrivances. Fonda acquits himself well too, even if he’s called on to be rather too clumsy in his frequent falls, and is supported by reliable character actors like Charles Coburn and the wonderfully gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette as the pair’s respective fathers. It may not be the greatest of Sturges’s films, but it certainly holds up to repeat viewings.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Preston Sturges (based on the story “Two Bad Hats” by Monckton Hoffe) | Cinematographer Victor Milner | Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, William Demarest | Length 94 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 22 August 2016 (and earlier on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 19 June 2016, and on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2003)
This so-called ‘pre-Code’ Hollywood film, part of a retrospective taking place here in London, is renowned for being one of the films which finally ensured the enforcement of the Production Code (which ruled against general licentiousness in the pictures). For its content, it’s a fascinating film: a compelling Barbara Stanwyck plays Lilly, who starts out as a barmaid at a suburban speakasy, forced from an early age by her tyrannical father to sell herself to her customers, though she is hardly passive around these drunken oafs seen swilling their beer. When her father dies in a fire at the bar, it’s her face that is framed in close-up, reacting utterly impassively to his death. She soon moves to the city with her black co-worker, prompted in part by the words of a local cobbler, the only man she admires, who quotes Nietzsche at her, exhorting her to do whatever she can to control men and help herself. Almost immediately, having hopped illegally onto a freight train, she is seen bargaining with a furious railroad worker, using sex to get what she wants. When the pair arrive in the city, she follows this pattern by literally sleeping her way to the top of a company, a vignette on each floor between her and a hapless male manager followed by the camera moving up the outside of the building to frame her next office conquest. It’s only when she reaches the boardroom (though sadly she’s never a board member, just the mistress of the President) that she encounters resistance from the founder’s playboy son, Courtland (George Brent). Yet while he sees through her ruse, this is hardly the end of her story. It’s tempting to just recount the plot blow by blow, for that’s where a lot of the film’s power to shock (at least, relative to the other films of the period) lies. Dramatically, it does rely rather extensively on Stanwyck’s performance, as stretches of it is constructed from a number of fairly repetitive scenes of office conquests, married men succumbing to her insistent charms. That said, Stanwyck is fantastic, and it’s great to see a film that largely withholds judgement from its predatory female star, though she does eventually succumb to romantic feelings towards Courtland.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW Director Alfred E. Green | Writers Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola (based on a story by Darryl F. Zanuck [as Mark Canfield]) | Cinematographer James Van Trees | Starring Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent | Length 76 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 11 May 2014
A fascinating little pre-Code film, largely overlooked these days, but one which revels in its seedy criminal sub-plots and in which, tellingly, none of the characters ever seeks the help of the authorities to solve their problems. Lora (Barbara Stanwyck), whose only dream is to help people, manages to finagle her way into a nurse’s job by flirting with the right doctor, and her first job is to be rostered on the night shift, helping the chronically ill daughters of a wealthy family. She quickly discovers that something foul is afoot: the mother is only ever seen liquored up and partying, while the children’s doctor is a shady character with little interest in their health. Added to the mix is the black-liveried chauffeur (a clean-shaven Clark Gable), looking every bit the fascist footsoldier and with all the moral scruples that might suggest. Stanwyck gets to be a tough no-nonsense central character who is no-one’s stooge, though she falls into a wary relationship with bootlegger Mortie (Ben Lyon), who wins her heart in the end with some off-screen vigilante vengeance. The director, William Wellman, also has a propensity for showing his two nurses, Lora and Maloney (Joan Blondell), changing into their nurse’s uniforms, which would be leering if it weren’t all so tame by modern standards (though perhaps a little racier than the soon-to-be-enforced Production Code would allow for). Like many films of the period, it clocks in at a brisk running time, and is certainly worth looking out for.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW Director William A. Wellman | Writer Oliver H. P. Garrett (based on the novel by Grace Perkins [as Dora Macy]) | Cinematographer Barney McGill | Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell, Ben Lyon, Clark Gable | Length 72 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 11 May 2014