'Little Caesar'’s Salad Days: Film Forum presents 'Warner Bros.: Tough Guys, Tough Dames…Tough Pictures'

ScreenerBlog

It didn’t have the pricey glamour of MGM, the velvety polish of Paramount or the cheery slickness of Twentieth Century Fox, but Warner Bros. had gritty energy—and the studio played it for all it was worth. As one of the “majors” during the Golden Age of Hollywood, Warner's bigger-budgeted films couldn’t compete in terms of production value with its rivals, so the company concealed its less-than-spectacular sets in shadows, creating atmospherics instead of “art” (Busby Berkeley notwithstanding). Universal was figuring out a similar trick, prompting its own specialty, horror. But the Warner Bros. brand of economical expressionism resulted in a wider range of genres, including some of Hollywood’s finest gangster movies, film noirs and family melodramas.

New York’s Film Forum is reviving examples of these motion pictures (all screened in 35mm) for their series “Warner Bros.: Tough Guys, Tough Dames…Tough Pictures,” running September 22 through October 5. Select screenings have added value in introductions from historian and critic David Thomson, whose new book Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio, is all about the studio’s history and style.

To be fair, not all WB pictures from this era are as good as the ones in the Forum series. (How could they be?) The studio was particularly weak when it came to comedies, a Paramount forte. Yet the best of Warner's heyday remain vivid, heady experiences thanks to a mix of black-and-white chiaroscuro imagery, fast narrative pacing, forceful ensemble performances and an often progressive political edge not commonly shared by other Hollywood movies of the time.

What you won’t see are some Warner Bros. classics that don’t quite fit the “tough guys, tough dames” theme. One notable example is Casablanca (1943), where, after all, Humphrey Bogart's Rick cries in his drink over Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa. Yet other omissions are a little baffling. There is not a single frame of Barbara Stanwyck, despite the fact that Stanwyck played the toughest of all the “dames” on the Warner lot of the 1930s. Where are Night Nurse (1931), Ladies They Talk About (1933), or the uncensored version of Baby Face (1933), for example? An additional quibble along these lines is that Bette Davis, who is represented by five titles, could have be seen in tougher roles than the ones chosen. Why not revisit Marked Woman (1937), where Davis’ clip-joint “hostess” goes toe-to-toe with Eduardo Ciannelli's gangster villain, or In This Our Life (1942), where her Southern belle's scheming ways become downright psychotic? I guess it depends on how you define "tough dame."

Here and there, dated depictions of gender, race and class intrude on the enjoyment. Yet in most respects, Film Forum’s lineup provides a collection of vibrant, provocative samplings of what Warner Bros. did best with whatever material, talent and resources it had. Here, then, is a viewer’s guide for those unfamiliar with these classics and almost-classics:

The series starts (on Friday, September 22) with a double-bill of Little Caesar (1931) and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1933). The violent nature of these films, both directed by Mervyn LeRoy, was a byproduct of a less culturally restrictive era before the oppressive censorship rules imposed by the Production Code of America took effect. Based on the novel by W.R. Burnett, which loosely chronicled the exploits of Al Capone, Little Caesar was the first in the gangster picture wave. It contains Edward G. Robinson's much-parodied (but vigorous) star-making portrayal of “Rico,” the Chicago mobster who meets a bad end. LeRoy's direction is more fluid than that of most other early “talkies” of the period. This was only one of the filmmaker’s seven(!) feature assignments in 1931.

LeRoy's direction of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang is greatly advanced, a cinematic achievement considered so powerful and persuasive in its day—graphically exposing the brutal conditions of prison life—that the resultant audience uproar helped pave the way for penal reform in several states. The story, based on actual events, is realized in a manner that still feels unrelentingly horrific. Paul Muni, in the title role, for once tones down his tendency to overact, delivering his most controlled and moving work as an abused, hunted and ultimately tragic hero. (The final scene is particularly haunting.) At the evening screening, David Thomson will introduce Chain Gang, which will be followed by a book-signing.

On Saturday, September 23, Thomson is back for the afternoon showing of White Heat (1949). Star James Cagney lights up the screen (literally!), giving one of his best performances in one of his best vehicles. Like Chain Gang, the ending is unforgettable, but this time more atomic-age explosive than Depression-era soul-stirring. Under Raoul Walsh's crisp, expert direction, White Heat successfully revived what had long since faded, thanks in part to post-Code constraints: truly exciting gangster pictures. Cagney gives his all as the sociopathic Cody Jarrett, a ruthless hood with a mother fixation. Only Cagney could portray such a gleefully crazed character without turning him into a cartoon. He is well supported by Edmond O'Brien as the double agent embedded with Cody's gang and Virginia Mayo as his “trophy moll.” (White Heat returns on Monday, September 25.)

On the same bill is the comparatively underwhelming High Sierra (1941), also directed by Walsh, but this time starring Humphrey Bogart as Mad Dog Earle, a thug on the run. With his hair shorn on the sides, Bogart evokes a modern-day aura and gives a tense, understated turn, in contrast to the larger-than-life Cagney and Robinson approaches. Likewise, Ida Lupino, as Mad Dog’s pathetic “moll,” stays measured, less over-the-top than she could be during this period. And yet the whole thing never quite soars, in part due to the W. R. Burnett novel’s familiar, unsurprising storyline, as adapted by John Huston. The Rockies look terrific, though.

Bogie reappears (with David Thomson) on Sunday, September 24 for two better movies—or at least two livelier ones. Howard Hawks directs Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). Like White Heat, these films circumvent the censorship restrictions of the time, if in a very different way: by packing the dialogue with sexual innuendo and exploiting the magnetic chemistry of its famously married co-stars. The loose Ernest Hemingway adaptation To Have and Have Not (1944), presented by Thomson before the afternoon show, is most indelible for introducing Bacall to the big screen. Her knowing, seductive scenes with Bogart highlight the first half of the movie, while the second half becomes earnest and melodramatic and, thus, less interesting.

On the other hand, The Big Sleep is fun all the way through, never taking itself too seriously as an adaptation of a Raymond Chandler Philip Marlowe mystery (co-scripted by William Faulkner, no less). This time, noir-ish set-piece after set-piece create disorienting, humorous suspense even when the story itself doesn't hold together. Bogart and Bacall are at their sexiest here, and plenty of additional, weirder “tough guys and dames” pop up throughout. That group includes those played by Dorothy Malone, John Ridgley and Martha Vickers (as a thumb-sucking “nymphomaniac”!).

Earlier in the day on September 24, for a separate screening again introduced by Thomson, we return to the early 1930s for Heroes for Sale (1933), one of the most downbeat entries in the series. The largely forgotten Richard Barthelmess plays a WWI veteran who becomes a drug addict. His fortunes only get worse from there, though FDR’s New Deal offers a glimmer of hope at the denouement. Up until then, director William Wellman conceives an atmosphere as bleak as any work about the Great Depression and its societal effects.

The Hawks double feature repeats on Monday, September 25, along with two lesser known titles: Other Men’s Women (1931) and The Hatchet Man (1932). These pre-Code flicks, courtesy of William Wellman, are memorable, if not entirely for good reasons. Other Men’s Women (1931) features a young, pre-stardom Jimmy Cagney ballasting an old-hat story about an alcoholic, homeless engineer (Grant Withers) who comes between the husband and wife (Regis Toomey and Mary Astor) who take him in. In addition to the always dynamic Cagney, Astor’s cool presence and a sassy Joan Blondell rescue the shopworn melodrama. The Hatchet Man (1932) is even more problematic, as it features Edward G. Robinson in yellowface. The Hatchet Man at least moves along briskly up to its surprising jolt of a finish.

On Tuesday, September 26, two politically significant projects screen back-to-back: Black Legion (1935) and They Won’t Forget (1937). Both pull their punches, yet each stands out in admirable ways. While its racial issues are whitewashed, Black Legion was the first major Hollywood production to indict the KKK, tying the Klan to Depression-era desperation. Humphrey Bogart, rather than playing a “tough,” is unexpectedly empathetic as a disillusioned factory worker swept into the Klan’s terrorist activities. Archie Mayo’s direction is competent, but it’s the subject matter that keeps things disturbingly stimulating—and timely. Based on the infamous Leo Frank murder trial and subsequent lynching, They Won’t Forget also sidesteps the thorny issue of race that fueled that real-life 1913 event, but Mervyn LeRoy’s direction has greater impact than Mayo’s effort on Black Legion. A very young Lana Turner as the murder victim steals the film from the pros, Claude Rains and Otto Kruger.

Joan Crawford gets her day and her due on Wednesday, September 27, with two of her bigger Warner’s hits: Humoresque (1946) and Possessed (1947). Stodgily directed by Jean Negulesco, Humoresque is based on a Fannie Hurst novel and features the mismatching of Crawford’s haughty society patron and John Garfield’s poor-yet-talented violinist. Crawford makes the most of her scenes, though the tiresome narrative revolves primarily around Garfield’s character. (Garfield fans might have preferred They Made Me a Criminal, 1939, as part of the festival.) Possessed, a study of a psychologically disturbed woman obsessed with her former lover (the underrated Van Heflin), holds up much better. Twists in the story, Curtis Bernhardt’s assured, stylish direction, and one of Crawford’s most substantial acting jobs make this a top example of the post-WWII noir cycle.

Thursday, September 28 gives us two more with Cagney: Public Enemy (1931) and Lady Killer (1933). Even fiercer in spirit than Little Caesar, thanks to William Wellman’s direction and Cagney’s high-charged, breakthrough performance, Public Enemy contains a number of standout moments, the most infamous of which has gangster Cagney pushing half a breakfast grapefruit into the face of Mae Clarke. (Jean Harlow and Joan Blondell are his two other “molls.”) Public Enemy is paired with the later, lesser-known Lady Killer, again opposite Mae Clarke. In another tour de force, Cagney assumes the title role, going from small-time hood to movie star. Roy Del Ruth directs with the sort of tongue-in-cheek humor the implausible story deserves.

Friday, September 29 sees a double-bill of two John Huston-directed Bogart classics: The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Key Largo (1948). Falcon, Huston’s first film as a director, is the better of the two, featuring Bogart as Sam Spade, Dashiell Hammett’s intense, insecure private eye, who finds himself surrounded and confounded by a gallery of ghoulish characters: Mary Astor’s deceptive heroine, Sydney Greenstreet’s overly jovial “Fat Man,” Peter Lorre’s mysterious but foppish swindler and much of the rest of Warner’s stock company in smaller parts (Lee Patrick, Elisha Cook Jr., Gladys George, and even Walter Huston in a comical cameo).

Key Largo is visually less arresting but also showcases a great cast, this time divided into two groups: the thugs led by Edward G. Robinson, holding the guests of a Florida hotel hostage, and the hostages themselves, including Bogart and Bacall. In a revisionist twist, Bogart’s hero does not initially stand up to Robinson’s vicious taunts. But the inevitable, climactic showdown “rectifies” Huston’s daring, postwar depiction of moral cowardice. Still, the high point remains “moll” Claire Trevor’s drunken rendition of “Moanin’ Low,” a searing sequence that helped win Trevor the Best Supporting Actress Academy award.

If you haven’t had enough Davis vs. Crawford after “Feud,” try the Saturday, September 30 bill: The Letter (1940) and Mildred Pierce (1945). Davis’ The Letter—based on a W. Somerset Maugham play—is not the actress’ best film directed by William Wyler (that would be Jezebel, 1938), and again Asian stereotyping mars part of story. But little can top the opening scene, which has Davis coldly shooting her lover multiple times. Herbert Marshall lends his usual silky dignity to the part of Davis’ cuckolded husband. Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce, based on the James M. Cain novel, is a much “juicier” melodrama, unencumbered by the stagebound limitations of the Davis vehicle. Crawford won her Oscar for playing a divorced housewife who toils to become a restaurant chain owner but gets nothing but heartache from her spoiled-rotten daughter (a terrifying Ann Blyth). While Mildred’s masochism overwhelms her toughness, Blyth’s character makes up for that. Eve Arden, as the heroine’s best friend, contributes her own welcome brand of “tough” in the form of sardonic wisecracks. Meanwhile, by contrast, all the men (Zachary Scott, Jack Carson, etc.) come across as pitifully weak.

The single show on Sunday, October 1 is John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), featuring three “hombres” who are nothing but tough (desperately so). Bogart, Tim Holt and Walter Huston play prospector partners out to cheat one another while searching for gold in 1920s Mexico. The dark morality tale symbolizes the cynical nature of the American mood after WWII. Incidentally, both father and son Huston won Oscars for their collaboration, though Bogart’s brave performance as an unredeemable anti-hero deserved one, too.

Edward G. Robinson is back on Monday, October 2 with two good ones in which he is not cast as a gangster. First, Mervyn LeRoy’s Two Seconds (1932) has been generally overlooked and deserves more recognition. As a naïve man who kills his grifter wife in a rage, Robinson is excellent, and the innovative flashback structure adds suspense to a splendidly sordid yet compassionate recounting of the events leading up to the man’s conviction and execution (which takes place in “two seconds”). The breezier but more pedestrian Kid Galahad (1937), from director Michael Curtiz, combines gangster and boxing pictures in a tale of a promoter (Robinson) tangling with a syndicate boss (Bogart), thus offering reversal of their good guy/bad guy roles later in Key Largo. Bette Davis appears as the promoter’s girlfriend but isn’t given much to do. (No wonder the actress sued the studio to get better parts.)

Both Now, Voyager (1942) and A Stolen Life (1946), paired together on Tuesday, October 3, granted Davis the better parts she was seeking, but neither are the best selections for this series. Sure, Davis’ character gains confidence in Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager, but her initially mousy, mother-dominated character never achieves a hard-boiled core. The real “tough dame” of the piece is played by Gladys Cooper, as the abusive matriarch. In Curtis Bernhardt’s A Stolen Life, Davis assumes dual roles (in split screen) as a good sister and her bad twin. But (spoiler alert) the bad Bette disappears early on, so we could hardly call the vulnerable, guilt-wracked good Bette a model of strength (though Davis herself produced the movie). Catch “The Carol Burnett Show”’s parody of this one first to enjoy it more.

Davis stays around on Wednesday, October 4, but Humphrey Bogart is the main attraction in both The Petrified Forest (1936) and The Roaring Twenties (1939). In the former, Bogart gets his chance at his first real gangster part, which proved a star-making turn. Davis, meanwhile, plays a waitress, one of the unfortunate victims in an Arizona bar held captive by Bogart’s vicious Duke Mantee. Leslie Howard as a wandering British poet is another, more improbable hostage in Archie Mayo’s sober, austere adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood’s play. Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties has a classic ending, like so many other gangster pictures, though the time-spanning narrative lessens the tension in the story of three young men (Bogart, Cagney and Jeffrey Lynn) and how they go their separate ways from the end of WWI to the end of Prohibition in 1933. The men surely qualify as “tough” (this was the last of three movies to pair Cagney and Bogart), yet Gladys George proves the most formidable of the bunch, stealing the show as an aging nightclub singer. (Once again, Carol Burnett spoofed this movie, choosing for herself the George role, not the insipid one played by leading lady Priscilla Lane.)

That smooth blend of family melodrama and film noir, Mildred Pierce, returns to wrap up the festival on Thursday, October 5. As an added treat on the same date, the earliest WB musicals are celebrated with The Jazz Singer (1927), to commemorate its 90th anniversary, and a program of Vitaphone Varieties from 1926-1927. The latter will be introduced by Ron Hutchinson, the founder of The Vitaphone Project.

Say what you will about Warner Bros. today, or the entertainment products that have emerged from their conglomerate, Time Warner, but the Warner Bros. movies of the old days—the ones produced by the actual brothers named Warner—were often crackling good. Of course, there were average ones, too, but even the below-par WB of yesteryear seems superior, and certainly more artistically identifiable, than the same company’s current output. See for yourself at the Film Forum over the next two weeks!

Contact the Film Forum or visit the website for movie showtimes.