Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger was "scandalized" by shots of feet off the floor, brassieres, and women smoking. Then a smokin' woman walked in and knocked his feet off the floor.
Our review of Waterloo Bridge, published February 11th, 2009, is also available.
"When I kiss 'em, they stay kissed for a long time."—Red
The stifling Production Code that once dominated Hollywood is long gone. Yet decisions made in 1934 about what should be off-limits have arguably colored American cinema ever since. This set presents three of the pre-code films that helped shape (or curb, most likely) the American film industry.
The first two films in Volume One of TCM's Forbidden Hollywood Collection match my impressions of early 1930's film, which is to say they are theatrical and dry. They often stumble over cinematic conventions that have since been ironed out. Nonetheless, both films hold enough attraction for modern cinema buffs enough to feature them on DVD. The third film is a DVD treasure: an original, uncut version of Baby Face, one of Hollywood's most notorious films.
The appeal of Red-Headed Woman is easy to sum up: Jean Harlow's bare breast. There's more to Red-Headed Woman than that, of course, but think about the potency of that one brief flash of skin. Jean Harlow is one of the biggest names in the history of film. Along with her contemporaries in the Golden Age, Harlow helped forge a legacy of quality, glamour, and grace. Rarely, if ever, were such marquee actresses caught in the buff. The shot itself is unremarkable when contrasted with modern images such as Basic Instinct's notorious flash. Yet the shock of seeing a casually naked Jean Harlow magnifies the impact.
Other than Harlow-as-harlot, Red-Headed Woman doesn't have much to recommend it. Lilly "Red" Andrews is disingenuous to the point where nothing she does is surprising or compelling. The only mystery is why Bill Legendre (Chester Morris) falls for her. In its sultry moments, Red-Headed Woman does a decent job of portraying this uncontrollable lust, but the film is ham-fisted in its delivery. Harlow is sexy and funny in the role, so Red-Headed Woman remains watchable.
Waterloo Bridge is remarkable for different reasons. Chief among them is that the print has been locked up for years, essentially a "lost" film. Based on a play by Robert Sherwood, Waterloo Bridge was remade in 1940 with Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh. Mae Clarke lacks Vivien Leigh's star power, known mostly for being the gal who got a face full of Cagney's grapefruit in The Public Enemy. Waterloo Bridge is her best performance, and thus highly sought after by fans of early Hollywood.
It may be her best performance, but that doesn't mean what it could. Mae starts out level, becomes even-keeled, and ends flat—except for a few moments of overblown outbursts so melodramatic and stagey that they'd put Ru Paul to shame. When she threw her head back and wailed at the ceiling, I couldn't decide between laughter and annoyance. Even so, Mae nails several key moments, such as her revelation to her would-be mother in law. For his part, Douglass Montgomery is uncertain, even tremulous; ghastly eye shadow doesn't help his cause.
Despite their annoyances, the leads are not the problem with Waterloo Bridge. They muster up a serviceable chemistry that has made an impact on fans of the film. The problem with Waterloo Bridge is everything else. It is stagey, talky, and unfocused. I didn't get that Mae's character Myra was a prostitute until she came out and said so. One minute she's an actress getting furs backstage from admirers, and then bam! she's walking around London looking for a man. Could be I'm obtuse, or it could be Waterloo Bridge's unfortunate habit of jump shifting its train of thought without providing enough context cues. When the point is finally made, the drawn-out denouement is painful. Even director James Whale seems unsure what to do with this mess; after a lengthy, unproductive, tearful exchange on Waterloo Bridge, soldier boy drives off and Myra gets blown up by a well-placed bomb. What is our take home message supposed to be? Perhaps "the instant a prostitute thinks she can fall in love and get married, she shall be smitten from the sky?"
When compared against the third film in this set, Red-Headed Woman seems like a handful of rudely formed clay set against a Ming vase. Few films from any era portray a woman trading her body for wealth and power as vividly as does Baby Face. Though it has no nudity or blood, Baby Face is shocking; Barbara Stanwyck's performance as the depraved slut Lily Powers leaves no human darkness to our imagination.
Like other straightforward narratives of the day such as The Public Enemy, Baby Face tells an uncomplicated story. Downtrodden Lily has nothing to look forward to but stripping in a dive bar. She learns to use her sexuality to get what she wants when a jaded mentor turns her on to Nietzsche. Thinking big, Lily uses men as stepping stones against the neat metaphor of a financial skyscraper. We follow her chain of men from the first to the last, with each link meeting the same general fate. In terms of plot complexity, Baby Face has very little.
It compensates with audacity. In particular, the audacity to show us a woman who has given up on the idea of love or emotional happiness; one who will drop her panties at the drop of a hat if it will get her something she wants. Yet at no time does Lily Powers come across as a cheap hussy, which distinguishes her from Red. By thrusting this outwardly chaste but inwardly remorseless sexual predator into an otherwise normal environment, Baby Face achieves an effortless ability to shock. One minute Lily is answering the phones; the next minute she's luring the manager into the Ladies Room for sex. As this cycle escalates, we can only watch in morbid fascination.
Unlike Jean Harlow's obvious, high-pitched take on the gold-digging girl from the wrong side of the tracks, Stanwyck's has teeth. We see her fending off breast-clutching leeches by brandishing a shattered beer bottle. We watch in horror as her father prostitutes her without her consent. Unlike Red's or Myra's implied circumstances, we know precisely where Lily Powers came from and where her life isn't going. Her resigned demeanor reinforces her barmaid days throughout the rest of the film.
This critical backstory is the foundation for all that follows. Lilly's come-hither eyes mask a menace forged by years worth of despicable men. Their base actions have eroded her conscience and even her ability to recognize love. Her inability to recognize tenderness is clear when she tells her final conquest what she really wants: to have a Mrs. in front of her name on her tombstone. He can divorce her in two weeks, no problem. Marriage and "love" to her are a means of being recognized as someone worth loving; Lilly entertains no notion that she could actually love or be loved. This heartbreaking revelation brings home the magnitude of her warped perspective, and turns her from a villain into a tragic character.
These ruminations aside, Baby Face is powered by lurid sex. In Fight Club, the fight scenes are more disturbing because the camera cuts away to crowd reactions. This same horror permeates Baby Face. We don't see Lilly giving oral sex in exchange for a train ride, or see her hike up her dress and offer herself to middle management, but we know it is happening just off screen. When she is onscreen, Barbara Stanwyck radiates a perverse sexual energy. It is easy to believe that Baby Face single-handedly ushered in the Hays Code.
The DVD package by Warner Brothers is as mixed as the films in the set. Literally: the discs are mislabeled. The trifold case in a cardboard sleeve is handsome, though I wish they'd included a pocket for the single-sheet liner notes. None of the films has impressive sound, but each track gets the job done. Red-Headed Woman has a notable background hiss and several pops in the soundtrack, but it was the worst of the lot. It also had inferior transfer quality compared to the other two, with numerous scratches and nicks in the print. Red-Headed Woman also suffers from an odd streak of yellow colorization down the middle of the B&W print. The good news is that Baby Face and Waterloo Bridge look great, with detailed, smooth transfers.
Aside from a brief intro and trailer, the set has no extras…unless you count an alternate theatrical cut of Baby Face, which I do. This is one of DVDs greatest benefits, a chance to see alternate versions of films in your own living room. I can't help but feel that Baby Face's relatively demure status in modern eyes is because of the neutered cut. The cut shown on this DVD is superior in every way, from its explicit themes to its uncompromising ending.
With minimal extras and at least one dubious transfer, Volume One of TCM's Forbidden Hollywood Collection is not a slam dunk DVD set. But its centerpiece is well worth these nuisances, and the supporting films are strong enough to make it a true set.
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Scales of Justice, Waterloo Bridge
Perp Profile, Waterloo Bridge
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Waterloo Bridge
Scales of Justice, Red-Headed Woman
Perp Profile, Red-Headed Woman
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Red-Headed Woman
• Introduction by Robert Osborne
Scales of Justice, Baby Face
Perp Profile, Baby Face
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Baby Face
• Theatrical Trailer
Review content copyright © 2007 Rob Lineberger; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.