Judge Gordon Sullivan does have one quibble: dialogue with semaphores is tricky for the modern viewer.
Tempters and temptresses!
Hopefully by Forbidden Hollywood Volume 4, viewers will be well aware of what it means to release a "Pre-Code Classic," but for those just tuning in, here's a brief recap: Hollywood has always been a bit dangerous. Anything as popular as cinema has the potential to warp minds and morals, and to ensure that the studios weren't taken over by political oversight they adopted self-censorship as the model (the so-called "Code"). Of course, like all self-censorship the plan only works if the self is diligent. For four years (between 1930 and 1934), Hollywood was not inclined to be diligent. Though the Code was in place, it was virtually unenforced. Though not scandalous by today's reality TV-enhanced standards, many films between '30 and '34 took on taboo topics like adultery and premarital sex (and even a bit of flesh!). For this fourth collection of pre-Code flicks, Warner Bros. has given viewers a grab bag of films from the era: three feature director William Dieterle, and two star William Powell, though the only thread that unites them all is their status as pre-code flicks. Though they don't all hit the mark, this set is worthwhile if only for Jewel Robbery alone.
This set includes four films:
• Jewel Robbery—William Powell is a jewel thief who seduces a Baroness (played by Kay Francis) during the jewel robbery
• Lawyer Man—Powell returns again to play a scheming shyster who's down but not out.
• Man Wanted—Kay Francis returns as a married magazine editor who becomes smitten with another man.
• They Call it Sin—When a travelling businessman falls for a young girl in Kansas, he brings her back to New York City. Once there, she discovers he's already engaged and so embarks on a musical career of her own.
The weird thing to understand about the pre-Code era is that it wasn't a free-for-all. We're not talking '70s grindhouse, where everybody with a camera was trying to push every film to the limit by showing as much as possible. What makes the pre-Code films special is that they were still working in style that required hinting, subtlety, and suggestion. They wouldn't show a naked woman, but a woman in a bath was just right. They wouldn't show a couple having sex, but a single line of dialogue would let informed viewers know that's what was going to happen. In the best of hands, this led to a witty, sophisticated style that demanded much of the viewer, who had to parse innuendo, looks, and tiny details to truly appreciate how far outside the bounds of good taste the film had gone.
No film in this set embodies that aesthetic more than Jewel Robbery. The dialogue sparkles, the situation is absurd (and absurdly funny), and Dieterle isn't afraid to push the bounds a bit. Before meeting the dashing jewel thief, the Baroness has both a husband and a lover already. Moreover, we're introduced to her while she's in a bubble bath. Not only does the film glorify a criminal (as a lover no less), but has several scenes where the thief and the Baroness are alone together in various boudoirs. Overall, it's a comedy that compares favorably to the contemporary films of Ernst Lubitsch (a master of the pre-Code talkie).
Powell and Dieterle team again for Lawyer Man, one of a string of lawyer films from the era. It's a rise and fall story of a lawyer who wins an important case against a corrupt racketeer. When Powell is hired by a big-shot firm because of his exploits he's framed in a scandal by the racketeer. Along the way, he's loved by his faithful secretary. This film feels a bit more generic than Jewel Robbery, and though there are plenty of classic pre-Code moments (like Powell's love of "the dames"), it's a more forgettable film.
Man Wanted switches things up by focusing on a woman, and a powerful one at that. It must have been scandalous in 1932 to admit that a woman could be a strong professional and have family life and still be unfulfilled. It's the perfect stuff of comedy, and between the talents of Dieterle and veteran DP Gregg Toland (famous for, amongst others, giving us the look of Citizen Kane), Man Wanted breezes by in its 69 minutes.
They Call it Sin is another fairly generic effort, this time with the focus on the naïve young woman who comes to the big city. Because of its pre-Code status, the film can go a bit further than films in the late '30s might have in showing how Loretta Young's character is being exploited. The film moves briskly, becoming more and more absurd, but never rises above other examples of the genre.
As an Archive Collection set, these four films don't get any extras (aside from trailers on the first three films) and no attempts have been made to give these prints any kind of remastering. With that said, these four films look pretty amazing. I've seen budget releases of other films from the era that are unwatchable, but aside from a healthy amount of damage (most of it visible as the occasional line or speckle), these prints are in great shape. Contrast is generally appropriate, and black levels remain consistent. They're not pristine, but for a series of films that would otherwise see no release at all these are better than most would expect. Audio for all four films include acceptable mono tracks. They have aged a little bit more than the visuals, but dialogue is always easy to discern, even if everything sounds a bit thin.
Pre-Code flicks do not have broad appeal. They usually require some knowledge of the period and the history to truly appreciate them. I don't generally recommend most pre-Code flicks to the general public without some prep first. These films are no exception. Though it's relatively easy to appreciate the snappy dialogue and convoluted plots of these films, it does take a certain amount of work to appreciate them eight decades later. Unless you're already a fan of pre-Code films, you're probably better off starting with some of the more famous examples, like the films of Ernst Lubitsch.
Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 4 is worth a purchase just to acquire Jewel Robbery, with the other films as a nice bonus. All four offer a bit of 1930s scandal and give an interesting peek into the kind of movies popular with America during the Great Depression. Though I doubt they'll scandalize today, these films still maintain a surprising amount of charm.
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Scales of Justice, Jewel Robbery
Perp Profile, Jewel Robbery
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Jewel Robbery
Scales of Justice, Lawyer Man
Perp Profile, Lawyer Man
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Lawyer Man
Scales of Justice, Man Wanted
Perp Profile, Man Wanted
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Man Wanted
Scales of Justice, They Call It Sin
Perp Profile, They Call It Sin
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, They Call It Sin
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