I’ve been looking forward to the relaunched Forbidden Hollywood line — now coming from the Warner Archive — for months now, and the actual product does not disappoint. These are 1932 movies, so they’re scratchy, at times, both visually and on the soundtrack, but oh, what fun they are! And how wonderful to watch 80-year-old movies so easily!
Forbidden Hollywood Volume 4 consists of four discs, one per movie, in a single case. Each film is just over an hour long, and each disc (except for They Call It Sin) also has the movie’s trailer, which runs about two minutes.
Imagine yourself in Vienna, married to a rich but dull baron who gives you diamonds but doesn’t thrill you. Then you’re caught up in a Jewel Robbery, and flirting with the gentleman thief (William Powell, who subdues his victims with “funny” cigarettes) gives you all the charm and excitement you could dream of!
That’s the situation starring Kay Francis (who shouldn’t be appearing in a film where she has to say “robber”; with her lisp, it comes out “wobber”). She’s introduced kicking her long legs up in the air out of a bubble bath, a silly thing to do but rather daring at the time in what it suggests, and sufficiently indicative of her physicality. She’s surrounded by a squad of beauticians, masseuses, and general maids to make her even more lovely and make clear how pampered she is. Her love of jewelry is unapologetic and even refreshing in her materialism — how else was a well-bred woman to ensure her comfortable retirement? (In some scenes, she seems to love the gems more than any of the men in the movie.)
It’s a trifle, but fun for escapism. The film makes us root for a thief and an adulterous wife to run off together, in defiance of the law and proper society. Powell’s character is clever, so much so that he sends a loose blonde to distract the local policeman, playing on everyone’s baser desires. When he locks up the robbery hostages in separate safes, he asks Francis whether she’d prefer to be with her husband or the man we all know is her lover. She ducks the question, saying she’d rather not be locked up at all. But it’s okay, since Powell appreciates her stubbornness.
Jewel Robbery is only 68 minutes, with plenty of scandalous behavior, innuendo dialogue, and double-twists of plot, but I love this film. It’s so alluring and sophisticated in its international entanglements. Much of the “I still can’t believe I saw that” appeal is summed up in this gown worn by Francis late in the movie (and shown on the box set cover).
I have no idea how the thing stays on, since it’s strapless, backless, and appears to be a quite substantial material. (Elastic sleeves or glue, I guess.) The whole thing drips sex, as she looks like it’s about to slide off any minute. You can see why the moralists were worried about the ideas films like this would give the masses.
Powell returns as a downtown lawyer (with a roaming eye for women) whose clients are working-class immigrants. After beating a high-powered rival (Alan Dinehart) in a case, he’s offered an opportunity to join his upscale firm. Blondell is Powell’s secretary, holding a crush for him, keeping him out of trouble, and showing off her legs.
Joan Blondell and William Powell in Lawyer Man
Soon enough, Powell is involved with his new partner’s sister (Helen Vinson), a driving society woman who always gets what she wants. There’s also a corrupt politician who frames Powell, again with the aid of a pretty girl (Claire Dodd). She brought him a breach of promise case that makes him some powerful enemies who dump him out of his high-class position. (For younger readers, it used to be the case that women could sue if men promised to marry them and didn’t.)
Lawyer Man doesn’t have the snap of the previous film. It’s odd watching Powell get tongue-tied over women, even weirder to see him as a sloppy drunk. He’s not particularly believable as either a lower-class man of the people or a clueless sap getting played, either. Also, all the political scheming, while representative of the times, may seem too obvious to today’s viewers. Events move quickly, but I didn’t have much connection to the threats and schemes.
The social commentary is that of an underdog who learns to never trust the richies. There’s a lot in common with 80s high school movies that way. You can’t join the upper crust, because they’ll turn on you and drop you in a heartbeat when things get tough. I prefer the pre-Codes with more sizzle. This one is too focused on plot to the exclusion of much else. Plus, I wish Powell and Blondell had more chemistry together.
Joan Blondell and Sterling Holloway in Lawyer Man
My favorite moment was a brief scene where an uncredited Sterling Holloway (voice of Winnie the Pooh!) tells an unhappy Blondell that “you’re in love with your boss and he won’t give you a tumble,” stating what’s obvious to everyone.
Kay Francis is a workaholic magazine editor; David Manners the sporting goods salesman who comes to her office to demonstrate a rowing machine and winds up working as her secretary. She’s so demanding that she needs a man in the job, since the women she’s hired just aren’t up to it. (sheesh)
David Manners and Kay Francis in Man Wanted
Francis’ husband lazes around and plays polo, while she comes to depend on Manners’ hard-working Harvard man. This leads to romantic complications, of course, as everyone is suspicious of a female boss with a male secretary anyway. That they get along so well and have similar drives only makes it worse.
The supporting cast in this one is great, with Manners’ buddy played by Andy Devine and his girlfriend Una Merkel. (Devine, a former college sports hero, relates everything back to his time on the field in his foghorn voice.) Typical of Francis films, the wardrobe is also eye-catching. She’s more than just a clotheshorse here, though, as she’s very well-suited to the role of a then-modern businesswoman.
Man Wanted isn’t particularly original or deep, but the performances are fun. The acceptance of divorce as a potentially good thing when spouses are fundamentally mismatched, and the mature way everyone handles the attraction across marriage lines, is what makes this a pre-Code.
They Call It Sin
Since I follow Powell and Francis whenever they pop up on TCM, I’d seen the previous movies before. This was the film that was new to me. The luminous Loretta Young is a church organist who gets involved with David Manners, a traveling salesman, when he passes through her Kansas town. He sweeps her off her feet, and she thinks it’s love.
When she comes home after being out too late with the stranger, the woman she thinks is her mother suddenly tells her she’s adopted and disowns her as thinking she’s too good for the town. That’s all Young needs to run off to the big city … where she finds that he’s engaged and she was just a way to waste some time on a sleepy Sunday. George Brent is Manners’ friend, who takes care of finding Young a place to stay and getting her settled.
Loretta Young and George Brent in They Call It Sin
Young hooks up with showgirl Una Merkel, who shows her the ropes of the entertainment business. She’s no longer the sweet, innocent, small-town girl, but a city woman in a low-cut sheer dress deciding whether to succumb to baser propositions. Does she choose an honest relationship with a single doctor, becoming a girlfriend-with-benefits to her boss (Louis Calhern), or fooling around with the original salesman, now married but still interested? Given that this is Young, I bet you’re not surprised that she makes a moral decision.
The most salacious thing about They Call It Sin is the title. Beyond that, it’s a melodramatic soap opera with some lovely dresses and a glimpse at a very different era (but maybe not so much). I did find the later sub-plot, about Young’s piano compositions being stolen, oddly timely, even if it does lead to a surprising death, suddenly changing the tone of the film. (The studio provided a review copy.)