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03.25.09

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Phaedra

Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. Three

Four discs; Warner Home Video; $49.98

By Michael S. Gant


This sterling set from the Turner Classic Movies archives brings us a time capsule from an era—the hard years of the Depression in the early '30s—that looks more and more relevant by the day. It brings together six features by the indefatigable director William A. Wellman: Other Men's Women (1931), The Purchase Price (1932), Frisco Jenny (1932), Heroes for Sale (1933), Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and Midnight Mary (1933). All come from Warner Bros. (except the last, which is an MGM oddity), the studio with the most interest in exposing the plight of the economically downtrodden rather than just entertaining them in the dark.

Wellman's style is active but never overbearing, casual but never slapdash. His camera work is remarkably fluid without being showy. He knew how to let actors kid around and josh each other before cranking up the melodrama. The films often address the despair over joblessness and poverty that gripped the country as the Hoover administration gave way to the Roosevelt era. Even when the narratives look back to the Roaring '20s, there is plenty of misery visited upon the ordinary working stiffs who can't get a break.

The most explicitly activist entry is Wild Boys of the Road, in which teenager Eddie (Frankie Darro, a small-statured dynamo who crossed Jimmy Cagney with a portent of Michael J. Fox) learns that his dad has been laid off. Eddie and his buddy Tommy head for New York to look for work, jumping freight trains along the way. After a few nasty encounters with railroad detectives and some very dangerous-looking stunts (Wellman was fascinated with trains and planes), Eddie, Tommy and a bunch of other kids end up living in the New York municipal dump. The ending, rather improbably, finds Tommy saved by a friendly judge, but not before he delivers a speech that sounds very up-to-date: "We can't go home 'cause our folk are poor; they can't get jobs, and there isn't enough to eat. You're sending us to jail 'cause you don't wanna see us; you wanna forget us, but you can't do it 'cause I'm not the only one; there's thousands like me and more hitting the road every day." A penultimate shot of the National Recovery Agency eagle silhouette holds out hope that the new president can restore hope—familiar, eh?Heroes for Sale starts with World War I and moves through the '20s into the Depression with another cry of understanding for the common man. Richard Barthelmess plays Tom Holmes, who returns from the trenches deprived of a much-deserved medal by his craven upper-class comrade and with a serious morphine habit because of his painful wounds. After five years on the "state narcotic farm," Tom works his way up the hierarchy at an industrial laundry and marries sweet Ruth (the impossibly lovely Loretta Young, who can make even simple cotton shifts look glamorous). Tom sells the laundry on new more-productive machines, but with the naive proviso that no jobs or wages be lost in the process. When the corporate villains renege (a tracking shot through the fully staffed laundry is tellingly contrasted with the same tracking shot after massive layoffs), Tom is caught up in a worker/police riot. The film's politics are a bit of a muddle, but Wellman doesn't demonize the angry workers, and he paints a very negative picture of the "Red Squad" detectives who unfairly target Tom. Although the film concludes with some steely optimism from Tom about how America is, as Roosevelt says, sure to get better, the ending is actually quite dismal, as Tom marches off across country with the rest of the jobless men, with no prospect in sight but happy that at least "it's stopped raining."

In Midnight Mary, Loretta Young plays a woman who keeps falling into a life of crime because an honest job is impossible to come by, even before the stock market crash. Salvation finally comes in the form of a rich playboy (Franchot Tone) and some last-minute courtroom antics. This was an MGM film, and Wellman feels a little uncomfortable in the studio's posher settings. A saucy Barbara Stanwyck plays a similar character in The Purchase Price; fleeing the attentions of a gangster (Lyle Talbot), she ends up in North Dakota as the mail-order bride of a farmer (George Brent, trying too hard for hick comedy). For reasons that just aren't convincing, she falls in love with the big lug, even though it means slopping hogs and enduring freezing nights. Strangely, and maybe coincidentally, the story echoes the just rereleased and much-superior 1930 Murnau drama City Girl, with Mary Duncan moving to Charles Farrell's farm. Purchase Price demonstrates Wellman's weakness for some really excruciating low comic relief.Other Men's Women pits a locomotive engineer (Regis Toomey) against his handsome fireman (Grant Withers) for the affections of the engineer's young wife (Mary Astor). The triangle is soap-opera basic, but the railroad footage (done on location in the Southern Pacific yards in L.A.) is sensational, with steam engines spewing clouds of smoke and slowly grinding up to speed. Clearly, the realistic setting was a selling point; the trailer sells the film as combining "The passions of men and the power of locomotives." Only the climatic bridge collapse looks to be a special effect with miniatures. Jimmy Cagney and Joan Blondell show up in small parts. The least of the films in the set is Frisco Jenny, despite its Great Earthquake mayhem. Ruth Chatterton plays the daughter of a saloon-owner who must give up her son for adoption by society types. Later, having made herself a leading bootlegger, she is brought to justice by her own unknowing offspring, who has grown up to be the district attorney. This wonderful glimpse into the grit and dash of the early sound era comes with two documentaries about Wellman; trailers; Vitaphone shorts; period cartoons; and film scholar commentaries.

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