Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Midnight Mary (1933)

Film buffs should really be grateful to the commercial instincts of the various DVD labels which, in their search for new product, have packaged some pretty obscure material. The big studio-linked labels can count on reasonable sales for the latest blockbusters (or would-be tentpole flicks), but, you may wonder, where is the motivation for churning out pristine copies of little-known and rarely-seen movies. While it probably all comes back to 'earning a crust', the expansion of the DVD market (far wider than the earlier VHS market) and the relatively low cost of those shiny discs has created a whole new generation of movie collectors. Don't tell me that it is easier to rent or cheaper to watch on-line; there is a great satisfaction in owning films which one can re-visit, in much the same way that bibliophiles build a library of print. To me, at least, it is comforting to know that they are there, ready and waiting.

There have been three collections now, churned out by TCM, of "Forbidden Hollywood" films concentrating on the so-called pre-code movies of the early 1930s, before the Hays Office put their kibosh on racy, sexual, or generally controversial films. Universal has followed suit and issued a six-disc set entitled 'Pre-code Hollywood'. Many of these movies now seem badly dated and don't appear terribly out of keeping with our modern morals, but they serve as a welcome reminder of how Hollywood might have evolved without its twenty-odd years of righteous interference. They also offer us the opportunity to watch early roles for some of the top stars of the 30s, 40s, and beyond: Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, and many more.

The third TCM collection focuses on six films directed by William A. Wellman, a veteran of Hollywood's silent days and a stylish workman who went on to direct a number of classics. The film under discussion is typical of these 'fobidden' movies. Loretta Young plays a woman who awaits the jury's return at her trial for murder and reflects back on the events which have brought her to that point. Young began appearing in films at a very young age and it is hard to believe that she was only twenty when this film was made; she is gorgeously gowned, a luminously beautiful woman (not a girl in any sense), and an accomplished player as well. After a spell in a reformatory for a crime of which she was innocent and the failure to find work on her release, she falls under the protection of gangster Ricardo Cortez (a Brooklyn native who changed his name to appear more dashing and exotic). It is clear that she is his mistress and that he is not just looking after her through the goodness of his heart. During a casino heist that he has planned she meets dashing, rich lawyer Franchot Tone, who is immediately smitten with her, admiting that he finds her sexually attractive, but who remains a gentleman. He helps her to find honest work -- something that evaded her earlier attempts -- and they soon admit their growing love for each other. However when it looks like she will be arrested for her link to Cortez, she selflessly dumps him to protect him and his family. Refusing to snitch on her former pals, she ends up in pokey, but takes up with Cortez again on her release (Tone having married his society fiancee in the meantime). After a chance meeting with the unhappy Tone (his wife is a flighty, selfish bitch), the sparks are still there, but the jealous Cortez decides to kill his rival -- forcing Young to shoot her lover to save her true love.

Even though the jury returns a 'guilty' verdict, the movie is given a happy ending when Tone decides to produce new evidence and to testify on her behalf. For a long time thereafter in Hays' Movieland, murderers and the sexually promiscuous had to be punished -- come what may. Both Tone and Young give wonderful performances, but much of the remaining cast, including the one-note Cortez, his gangster minions (Warren Hymer and Harold Huber), Una Merkel as Young's brassy and extremely common friend, and Andy Devine as a foghorn-voiced friend of Tone's, are frankly a little hard to watch and to stomach. Yet, taken in the right frame of mind, it is all good fun, and I particularly love the fact that even gangsters could boast butlers (the unflappable Halliwell Hobbes) or that even kept women would have a black 'lady's maid' (an uncredited Louise Beavers). At just over 70 minutes, Wellman keeps the action moving and throws in some bravura camera work to keep us happily engaged.
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