May 24, 2018

On DVD: 5 Pre-Codes from Warner Archive

I love it when Warner Archive releases a flood of pre-codes. It almost makes up for the end of the Forbidden Hollywood box set series--almost. The company has thankfully stayed true to its promise to continue to make films from this era available on DVD. I enjoyed this latest batch, which includes a pair of flicks starring Ronald Coleman, early Kay Francis and Loretta Young talkies, and a good mix of genres.

A Notorious Affair (1930) is an unusual melodrama in that it features Kay Francis, but stars Billie Dove in what would eventually be the standard Francis role. Dove is a young heiress who falls in love with an impoverished musician (Basil Rathbone) and leaves her wealthy enclave for a more humble life. Rathbone falls for his thrill seeking patron, the Countess Balakiereff (Francis), causing Dove heartbreak and falling into ill health himself.

After watching Francis suffer nobly through so many melodramas, it is fun to see her be bad. With her slicked back bob and dangerous smile, she is the type to cap a flirtation with an attractive specimen below her balcony by tossing down her keys. I would have loved to have seen her in more roles like these, because it looks like she’s having a blast.

It’s rough to watch the usually dashing and devilish Rathbone play a weak and whiny character, though he does possess some consumptive glamour. Dove seems to think she deserves him, though she has better prospects. Still, despite her faulty romantic radar, she suffers elegantly, with those big eyes and a delicate bird beak nose that points down just so.

The Ship From Shanghai (1930) begins with a jaunty Chinese ensemble playing Singin’ in the Rain in a Shanghai nightclub. It’s about the last light moment in this tense flick that all but creates the template for many a shipbound terror flick.

Wealthy Conrad Nagel and and Kay Johnson join a group from their set on 3-month yacht voyage across the Atlantic. There they are eventually held captive by the vengeful ship steward (Louis Wolheim) and crew, who despise the snooty passengers and their high-handed ways. Of course, the truth is the steward only longs to be a part of their world, a fact made clear when he puts the moves on Johnson.

The film takes a sharp dive from playful luxury, to sweaty, nasty horror. You spend the first part of the film observing the off-putting privileged passengers and the next repulsed by Wolheim and his men. It isn’t enthralling drama, but it serves its purpose as a solid entertainment and keeps a good pace through its 67 minute running time.

The Devil to Pay (1930), stars Ronald Coleman as an irresponsible playboy attempting to bounce back from his careless loss of another chunk of his father’s fortune. Cut off from the family coffers, he returns to his mistress, but soon abandons her for a young heiress. This airy set-up then begins to deflate, as the necessary romantic conflict is something more easy to resolve than the plot would have it.

The film features a teenage Loretta Young as the heiress and Myrna Loy as Coleman’s actress mistress in a rare early role where she doesn’t play an Oriental temptress. As Coleman’s love interests, the effect they have varies widely. While Loy is charming and more age-appropriate for her male lead, she hasn’t yet honed the edges of the sharply appealing persona that would be the cornerstone of her legend. On the other hand, Young seems to have arrived in the talkies with her image fully-formed, if a bit coltish.

Coleman is reliably elegant and mischievous in a role that John Gilbert could also have mastered with ease. It’s a fun romp, enjoyable because for most of the running time you get the simple enjoyment of watching these attractive people at play.

Condemned (1929) also headlines Ronald Coleman, this time as a prisoner on Devil’s Island. Upon his arrival on a tightly-packed ship, he and his fellow prisoners are told there is not escape, upon which he turns to wink at his friend (Louise Wolheim). The warden (Dudley Diggs) observes Coleman’s elegant manner and decides to put him to work for his wife (Ann Harding) in their home.

The pair hit it off right away, establishing a friendly rapport. They are two attractive people though, and the inevitable happens: Coleman buys Harding a monkey in the market, inflaming her passions and Diggs’ envy. The pair plan to escape together, with the help of  Wolheim (he's one of those bruisers with a big heart and a delightfully smooshed nose).

Coleman and Harding have a solid, if not sizzling, chemistry and the action moves along efficiently. While much of the story runs along familiar lines, there are a few good jolts away from predictability.

Of the films reviewed here, Condemned has the most notable wear and tear, with lots of hiss and popping on the soundtrack, though the image is for the most part clean and clear.

The best of the bunch is The Lost Squadron (1932), a post-World War I drama set in Hollywood. Upon release from the army, a quartet of American fliers (Richard Dix, Joel McCrea, Robert Armstrong, and Hugh Herbert) pledges allegiance to each other and their fallen countrymen, who they refer to as “the lost squadron.” Jobs are scarce, but alcoholic Armstrong finds success as a stuntman in the movies and eventually the other three find work alongside him.

Hollywood is no safe haven though, as Dix runs afoul of a sadistic director (Erich von Stroheim). The men find themselves faced with an enemy more deadly than any they ever faced in wartime. Mary Astor and Dorothy Jordan are the women in their lives, and while this is an emphatically male-driven film, these actresses have a powerful presence.

The Lost Squadron has an unusually vibrant soundscape for an early talkie, drawing much of its drama from eerily rushing wind, whistling, and the shifts between quietly eerie or contemplative scenes and more raucous, celebratory moments. It is this high level of craft, and the charisma of the varied cast which make this an unsung gem worthy of classic status.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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