There are to date three volumes of "Forbidden Hollywood" DVDs churned out by TCM featuring pre-code films from the Warner Brothers stable and wonderful collections of (largely minor) movies they are. I have two of the three sets and may well treat myself to the third in due course, although none of the featured movies fall into my 'must-see' list. I have, however, been having a look at the five movies featured in the second volume, of which only the above film is new to me. But what a treat it has proved to be, brilliantly put together by director Mervyn LeRoy.
With a beautifully-worked montage of headlines and film clips we cover the passing of the years between 1919 and 1932, following our three heroines from their early primary school days together through to their more recent lives. The three are bad girl Joan Blondell -- a reform-school graduate, Ann Dvorak -- the rich, spoiled and popular one played by Anne Shirley as a youngster, and brainbox Bette Davis who is too poor to go on to high school and who trains as an office worker. When their paths cross again ten years later, Dvorak is married to wealthy lawyer Warren William with a three-year old son, but bored to tears with her pampered existence; Blondell is trying to make it as a showgirl, and Davis is ploughing on with her staid life. Over lunch, the myth of misfortune befalling the third to light their cigarette on a single match is debunked, but Dvorak's comfy life soon goes into a tailspin when she becomes number three. Looking for a break from her boredom, she inveigles her husband to let her sail to Europe with their son, but disembarks before the ship sails to begin a sordid affair with a ne'er-do-well whom she has just met (Lyle Talbot), barely noticing her dirty and hungry son (until William eventually finds him.)
Being made in the wonderful years before the Hays Code put a damper on such things, we view the wages of adultery, child neglect, cocaine usage, and kidnapping. As Dvorak's life becomes more dissolute, the other two actresses begin to fill the gap in the life of the young boy and William's. When the boy is grabbed again by a desperate Talbot to raise money to settle a gambling debt with mobster Edward Arnold, his gang of toughies (including new boy Humphrey Bogart, Allen Jenkins, and an unbilled Jack LaRue) horn in on the action. Only a final sacrifice of nearly forgotten mother-love on the part of Dvorak can resolve the action.
Although often billed as a Bette Davis feature, she in fact has the least showy part in this film, since it was yet early days for her Warner Brothers contract, and the strongest role is Dvorak's. The child actor given an inordinate amount of screen time comes across as a hard-to-stomach, obnoxious curly-headed brat, a male Shirley Temple if you will, but without any of her cheeky charm. When Dvorak, who came to prominence in 1932 with "Scarface", one of her eight (!) films for the studio that year, discovered that the kid was getting the same salary as hers, she bitched like hell. The unfortunate result is that the studio rewarded this talented actress's rebellion with a run of less attractive roles in increasingly minor productions, to the extent that she is hardly remembered today. However this movie, along with "Scarface" proves that they punished an actress who should have given us even more great roles to cherish. Oddly enough, it was the young Miss Davis who flourished at the studio, at least until such time when she too had a moan about their casting decisions and miserly pay packets.
Guess what? Yes, the London Film Festival has come around again and will be taking up much of my time for the next week or so. There weren't that many films in the programme that sparked my imagination and I have only booked for nine of the many, but you can rest assured that my next entry will begin my reviews of this year's delectations.