“Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 3” is the third time Warner Bros. has dipped into its vaults and released a collection of pre-Production Code movies, but it’s the first time the studio has focused on a single director.
“Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 3” is the third time Warner Bros. has dipped into its vaults and released a collection of pre-Production Code movies, but it’s the first time the studio has focused on a single director. All six films here were directed by William Wellman, the same guy who helmed such classics as Jimmy Cagney’s “The Public Enemy” and the original “A Star is Born.” The movies in this set are less well-known, but they’re all entertaining. Two of them rank among Wellman’s best.
First, a bit of history. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Hollywood adopted its Production Code to keep the movies on the straight and narrow, morally speaking. Until 1934, though, when power-hungry Joseph Breen took over the job of morals czar, no one paid much attention to these rules. That’s why, more than 75 years later, pre-Code movies can still startle modern audiences with their adult themes, bold violence, risque dialogue and surprisingly frank sexuality.
Four of the movies in this set, like the movies in previous “Forbidden Hollywood” collections, focus on female characters. There’s a wife with two suitors (Mary Astor in “Other Men’s Women”), a young woman facing a murder rap (Loretta Young in “Midnight Mary”), a madam whose son is the district attorney (Ruth Chatterton in “Frisco Jenny”) and a nightclub singer who winds up on a farm (Barbara Stanwyck in “The Purchase Price.”) They’re all fine films, with the stylish “Midnight Mary” being the most entertaining. But they’re just warm-up acts for the real gems in this set: two stark dramas that portray Depression life in terms uneasily appropriate for our modern world.
“Heroes for Sale” (1933) follows Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess), a soldier whose bravery in World War I earns him a nasty morphine addiction he brings back to the States. Unable to hold a bank job, Holmes eventually kicks the habit, finds work in a laundry and falls in love with a co-worker (Loretta Young). But his plan to improve the laundry’s productivity backfires when the new owners slash the work force, and when Holmes tries to stop a workers’ riot, someone he loves winds up dead. As the movie ends, Holmes is back on the road, separated from his son, with few prospects for a bright future. Somehow, he seems optimistic. But it’s hard to see why.
“Wild Boys of the Road” (also 1933) is even darker, mostly because the horrible events Holmes faced (and worse) happen to a bunch of kids. When we meet our heroes, Eddie (Frankie Darro) and Tommy (Edwin Phillips), they’re a couple of care-free high-schoolers. But after Eddie’s dad is laid off, the two hit the road, figuring their parents will have an easier time with fewer mouths to feed. The rest of the film is a nightmarish journey across America sparked by riots, police beatings, dismemberment and even a rape (by actor Ward Bond, of all people). Like “Heroes for Sale,” “Wild Boys of the Road” manages to end on an upbeat note (and with a big nod to FDR’s New Deal) but it’s hard to forget all the pain that preceded that happy ending.
Sure, these movies sound bleak, but they’re so thrillingly made that they can’t help but be entertaining. Barthelmess brings a real sense of conviction to his character, and Darro is so full of life as Eddie that it’s a shock to see his spirit almost — but not quite — beaten out of him. Plus, Wellman really knew how to tell a story, and as fascinating as these films are as history, they’re even more fun as pure entertainment.
Besides the six films, “Forbidden Hollywood: Vol. 3” includes a pair of documentaries about Wellman, cartoons, short subjects and commentary tracks. With the economy as it is, some people are comparing these days to the Great Depression. Spend a few hours with this set and you’ll realize things aren’t quite that bad. Yet.
Will Pfeifer writes about new DVDs on Tuesdays and older ones on Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 815-987-1244. Read his Movie Man blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/movieman/. See video reviews at rrstar.com/multimedia.
Some DVDs out today...
“Dennis Miller: The HBO Comedy Specials”
“The IT Crowd: The Complete First Season”
“Marley & Me”
“Ricky Gervais: Out of England”
And some CDs …
Keith Urban, “Defying Gravity”
Diana Krall, “Quiet Nights”
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “It’s Blitz”
Peter Bjorn & John, “Living Thing”
Burn Halo, “Burn Halo”
Silverstein, “Shipwreck in the Sand”
Ministry, “Adios ...”
Gomez, “A New Tide”
Clay Aiken, “Playlist: The Very Best of Clay Aiken”
Sources: dvdtalk.com, tophitsonline.com