When Judge Kristin Munson grows up, she wants to be a dame like Barbara Stanwyck. Or Xena: Warrior Princess. She hasn't decided yet.
"I suppose you think you're too superior for marriage and love and children, the things women were born for?"
From 1929 through 1934, after the advent of talkies but before the enforcement of the production code, Hollywood films were awash with sex, booze, and partial nudity. Sound had liberated the movies and the people in them, particularly the women. If old movies conjure images of consumptive heroines, simpering virgins, suffering wives, and noble mothers, baby, are you in for a surprise.
Facts of the Case
Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume Two contains five films spanning Hollywood's pre-code heyday.
A Free Soul
Three on a Match
If you couldn't tell from the box art, Forbidden Hollywood likes to put the focus on the female, and with good cause. Not only are the characters here refreshingly complex compared to the virgin/whore binary of the '40s and '50s, but equally amazing to our generation. These days, Hollywood women only seem take the lead in biopics or romantic comedies, a landscape populated by pickle-faced blondes going to "wacky" lengths to get their man, confusing clumsy with cute, and cute with characterization. Unlike those irritating protagonists, the women here are opinionated, sexy, and strong, sometimes glamorous, and always a little flawed. Not only does Forbidden Hollywood showcase the work of forgotten actresses playing scandalous roles, but many of the films feature scripts co-written by women from books by female authors.
Box sets live and die by the movies they contain, and this collection is a winner, offering drama, comedy, and more than a dash of crime. The five pictures show the glamorous side of Prohibition and its seamy underbelly, mixing art deco sets and gorgeous gowns with snappy dialogue, and tacking on a lesson or incongruous happy ending as a way of keeping up appearances. Female's first conquest has a voice like the Little Engine That Could going over a hill and Norma Shearer is more than a bit histrionic in A Free Soul, but otherwise the movies boast a wonderful collection of Golden Age Hollywood talent.
I could spend paragraphs extolling the virtues of these movies, heaping praise on the intense and beautiful Norma Shearer and the underrated Ann Dvorak, worshipping the wisecracking delivery of Joan Blondell or the no-nonsense charm of Barbara Stanwyck. I could rave about the snappy banter, the wholesale rejection of sexist standards, the jaw-dropping plot points, or the surprising sexiness, but then we'd be here all day. Instead, I've picked the strongest and slightest pictures from the collection, and I'll leave the pleasure of all the things I've mentioned to discover and re-discover for yourself.
Clocking in at just over an hour, Three on a Match feels more like an extended short subject on the sins of liquor than a feature, complete with simplistic characters and alarmist plot. Apparently, all it takes is an hour of gin and jazz to send a sheltered wife on a downward spiral. Despite the title, the pictures is really only about two women: the bad girl gone good and the goody two shoes gone bad, in spite of her sickeningly perfect husband and son. We never see how Blondell's character evolves from goodtime gal jailbird to kindhearted chorus girl because the movie prefers to wallow in the socialite's sensational descent. Dvorak's character is unfortunately the only one with any dimension but, by portraying a dissatisfied housewife who feels she's never lived, the movie acknowledges a problem 30 years before it was addressed by The Feminine Mystique.
On the other end of the spectrum is Female, a comedy with a surprisingly feminist viewpoint. Not only does the heroine run the family business, it's the very manly business of making automobiles. Instead of depicting the sexually open Alison as a ruthless man-eater, she's funny and sweet, intelligent and capable. Fancy that! Adored and respected by the men around her, her driver defends her in brawls, her elderly assistant worships her, and her butler compares her to Catherine the Great. She also doesn't need a husband to complete her. "Most women consider a man a household necessity. Myself, I'd rather have a canary," she tells her scandalized friend. Female boasts the strongest dialogue, a bold plot, and a complicated protagonist played by a vibrant Ruth Chatterton. None of this can make up for the movie's reversion to traditional Hollywood territory, but it helps soothe some of the pain.
All of the films in the collection have restored full frame pictures and digital mono soundtracks. Except for the odd flicker, pop, or dusting of grain, everything looks and sound beautiful, with the exception of A Free Soul, whose sound is so muddy in places you can't make out the dialogue. Thankfully, every film comes with English subtitles. Three un-restored trailers, two commentary tracks, and a brand new documentary beef up the overall package.
"Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin, and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood" is a primer on the pre-code era, providing movie titles with all its clips to help you feed your fix once you've finished this set. Watching the hour-long doc is a bit of a catch-22: although it's an introduction to the films and the climate in which they were made, it also spoils the endings to three of the movies in the collection. This isn't going to deter pre-code buffs, but the newly converted have to choose between having background information and flying blind. The commentaries for The Divorcee and Night Nurse are informative but bland. Film historians Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta occasionally come to life and make a spontaneous crack or drop a fact about the actual movie they're watching, but mostly sound like they're reading from a film encyclopedia. The majority of each track is biographical information on the actors, and because the two show so little of their own personalities, the meager film analysis comes off as snobby.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Not everything about the Pre-code was perfect. Norma Shearer and Lionel Barrymore have a disturbing father/daughter relationship that smacks more of a sugar daddy and his child bride in A Free Soul. The newness of the talking format means The Divorcee's big moments are undercut by their staginess. Night Nurse is full of gratuitous changing scenes, using the lingerie and lithe figures of Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell to pad out the slow moments. Both Night Nurse and Three on a Match take their sweet time getting to the main plot while A Free Soul is forever summing up, as it crams in every plot twist in the melodramatic playbook, including a ridiculous courtroom scene.
Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume Two vastly improves on Volume 1, offering more variety, more bonuses, and more movies. If your idea of movie magic is seeing strong actresses in suitably challenging roles, pick this one up and you'll have a swell time.
Not Guilty, sister.
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Scales of Justice, The Divorcee
Perp Profile, The Divorcee
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Divorcee
• Commentary by Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta
Scales of Justice, A Free Soul
Perp Profile, A Free Soul
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, A Free Soul
Scales of Justice, Night Nurse
Perp Profile, Night Nurse
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Night Nurse
• "Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin, and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood"
Scales of Justice, Three On A Match
Perp Profile, Three On A Match
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Three On A Match
• Original Theatrical Trailer
Scales of Justice, Female
Perp Profile, Female
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Female
• Theatrical Trailer
Review content copyright © 2008 Kristin Munson; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.