Last night (Monday) was a triple-bill of "pre-code" films. A funny thought, I was talking to a friend last night and noted that there were certainly some very nice, wholesome films before the Hays code was implemented. But "pre-code" obviously contains the promise that these were films that spurred the creation of a production code. I.e., these were nasty little films that had to be stamped out. Thankfully, they survived.
Also, since this was a time capsule of Prohibition days, we were treated in the mezzanine to free Speakeasy Big Daddy IPA. So my memory of the films might be a little clouded.
A HOUSE DIVIDED (1931): Directed by William Wyler. First up, a story of a gruff widower fisherman (Walter Huston,) his overly sensitive son (Douglas Montgomery,) and his mail-order bride (Helen Chandler.) She's the father's mail-order bride, although there's some confusion at first. See, he had his son write the letter, and when she arrives she thinks she's to be married to the son. And she clearly likes that idea better than marrying the father. In fact, she'd rather go back to Montana than marry him. But the wedding goes forward anyway, and soon enough the tension pits father against son. I kind of nodded off during the climax, but I heard it was pretty intense.
THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR (1933): Directed by the incomparable James Whale (FRANKENSTEIN, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE INVISIBLE MAN) and featuring a brief semi-nude scene (nothing that would make modern audiences blink, but scandalous at the time) of a young Gloria Stuart (yes, the Gloria Stuart of TITANIC fame.) She is caught cheating on her husband Walter (Paul Lukas) and shot dead in the opening scenes. The rest of the movie is a courtroom drama in which Walter's best friend and brilliant lawyer Paul Held (Frank Morgan) defends him, and in the process comes to realize his own wife Maria (Nancy Carroll) is cheating on him in almost exactly the same way. But while Walter acted in the passion of the moment, Paul is a cold, calculating lawyer. So he plans his revenge carefully, and in conjunction with Walter's defense. A great drama full of James Whale's unique brand of dark comic playfulness.
LAUGHTER IN HELL (1933): Long thought to be a lost film, this was actually always in Universal's vault (all films of the night were Universal, produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr. And kudos to Universal for "doing it right" not just in terms of archiving and preserving their films, but for letting their film prints be seen.) It's the story of Barney Slaney (Pat O'brien) and his lifelong feud with the Perkins boys--Ed (Douglas Dumbrille) and Grover (Arthur Vinton.) In fact, it goes all the way back to their childhood when they tormented him as he learned about his mother's death (those Perkins boys are downright assholes.) And it continues into adulthood when he wins the hand of beautiful Marybelle (Merna Kennedy) but Grover moves in on her while he's away (he's a train engineer.) A bit of murder in the heat of passion, and Barney is sentenced to life on the chain gang--a chain gang run by none other than Ed Perkins. There's a rather abrupt ending, and I don't really want to give spoilers, but I do want to point out that Gloria Stuart shows up again in this movie. And while in the last movie she was murdered by her husband, this time she ends up with the man who had previously murdered his wife. Weird coincidence!
Total Running Time: 207 minutes
My Total Minutes: 312,099