Dec 11, 2018
Pre-Codes on DVD: Passion Flower (1930) and Hide-Out (1934)
When Warner Archive announced that it would no longer be releasing the Forbidden Hollywood box sets, I was concerned, despite the company’s claims that it would still offer a steady stream of pre-code releases. While I still miss the sense of discovery in wading through those sets, I have been satisfied with the films from the period that have been offered since, including an interesting pair of new-to-disc flicks. I’d never even heard of Passion Flower (1930) and Hide-Out (1934) before their recent DVD release, so I approached both cold, with varying results.
Passion Flower (1930) is a standard melodrama: all about the varying degrees of suffering its characters endure. It stars two Kays: Ms. Johnson as a wealthy girl who marries her chauffeur (Charles Bickford) and is disowned by her father, and Ms. Francis as her so-called friend who first offers financial help, but then decides she wants to help herself to her friend’s hubby. By then there are children in the mix, so her selfishness is especially cold-hearted.
This was one of the films where Kay Francis set the template for two key aspects of her persona: the dangerously sexy husband thief (see also A Notorious Affair ) and the ever suffering glamour puss (Mandalay ). Here she only imagines herself the victim though. Even among the pre-code stars, only Kay Francis could feel sorry for herself for stealing another woman’s husband.
Francis is essentially the reason to watch; Johnson and Bickford aren’t nearly as intriguing, at least partly because they don’t have much to work with. As the oldest son of the pair, pre-Rascals Dickie Moore is reliably adorable and keeps his parents in line with his tiny pout and seal eyes. Zasu Pitts is also a bright spot as a tender-hearted landlady. It isn’t a production of distinction, but everyone is playing reassuringly to type.
Hide-Out (1934) could have been a standard fish-out-of-water yarn, but its cast and the staging of the production give it life beyond its familiar plot. Robert Montgomery plays a womanizing New York gangster-lite party boy who gets himself in trouble with the law. He escapes to an isolated farmhouse, where he is quickly charmed by his hosts, the wholesome Miller family, and falls in love with their daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan).
Director W.S. Van Dyke keeps the action light and brisk, transitioning confidently from the busy nightclub scenes in the first part of the film to the homier farm scenes to follow. The juxtaposition of the two worlds is enjoyable, with lots of songs and dancing girls bringing life to the city milieu and young Mickey Rooney taking on the role of entertainer on the farm as the youngest of the Miller clan.
There’s a great cast at play here and they are all at the top of their game. Montgomery, O’Sullivan and Rooney are especially lively—as are Elizabeth Patterson as Mama Miller and Edward Arnold as a tough, but jovial police detective. They all seem to be enjoying themselves together, as if the feeling of a happy set is translating to the screen. The laughs are a little more genuine than in a similar production and the relationship between O’Sullivan and Montgomery feels especially real as it develops from affection to love.
As I wondered where this surplus of cast camaraderie came from, it occurred to me that Montgomery might have had something to do with it. I thought about the way he always brought a little extra fire out of Norma Shearer in the romantic comedies they did, and how even playing an utterly evil character as he did in Night Must Fall (1937), he remained completely charming and infused the rest of the cast with his electricity. It’s something worthy of more thought: The Montgomery Effect. I’ve always thought he was underrated; now I’m thinking his appeal was also influential for his costars.
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.