"Peach-O-Reno," or May Divorce Be With You

In 1929, Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey came west to RKO Pictures to appear in the film version of "Rio Rita," in which they had appeared on Broadway. They stayed in Hollywood and made movies, mostly for RKO, until Woolsey died in 1938.

By the time they appeared in the 1931 film "Peach-O-Reno," the boys had appeared in nine films together with mostly the same formula -- they were usually comical con men trying to outwit the law or other authorities while making time with the frails (Dorothy Lee often played Wheeler's romantic interest). Woolsey wore goggly-looking eyeglasses and smoked a stogie; Wheeler did more athletic comedy and was a better singer-dancer. If the team suffered in comparison to the Marx Brothers (And who wouldn't?), they were still popular at the box office.

In "Peach-O-Reno," Wheeler and Woolsey play divorce attorneys Wattles and Swift, the sharpest shysters in the biggest little city in the world.

Woolsey (to clerk): File these letters in alphabetical order, and then burn them.
They have a bus that meets prospective divorcees at the train station and brings them to the office, where young women dressed in bellhop costumes escort clients from one attorney to the other. Then, at night, a change comes over the office, and the young women:

The lawyers take on the divorce case of Joe and Aggie Bruno (Joseph Cawthorn and Cora Witherspoon), with Wheeler representing one and Woolsey representing the other. Then their grown daughters arrive -- Pansy (Zelma O'Neal) and Prudence (Lee). They hope to reconcile their parents, and they catch the boys' eye:

Woolsey: Are you married?

Pansy: No, we just look worn out on account of the trip.

To provide grounds for the Brunos' divorce, Wheeler dresses as a woman and poses as Mr. Bruno's date. Which, of course, gives Wheeler and Woolsey a chance to parody a dance team.

Woolsey: I promised the folks we would render them a number.

Wheeler: Render? We'll tear it apart!

When Mrs. Bruno finds out the boys are handling both sides of the case, she gets angry:

Mrs. Bruno (to Woolsey): There you are! How can you look me in the face?

Woolsey: I'm just getting used to it, I suppose.

The Bruno divorce goes to trial:

Woolsey (to Bruno): How long have you been married?

Bruno: I just celebrated my 25th university.

Woolsey: Then you weren't always round-shouldered.

Then the Brunos reunite, and love fills the courtroom:


After Woolsey's death, Wheeler made a few B-movies and did a vaudeville tour in the 1940s with Dorothy Lee. Then in 1955, he played Smokey Joe on the CBS western series "Brave Eagle." He died in 1968. 

Here is a full cast and credits listing for "Peach-O-Reno."

"Dance, Fools, Dance" and the MGM Effect

In the early 1930s, MGM boasted that it had under contract "More Stars Than There Are in Heaven," but the movies that we think of as classically MGM -- perfectly pruned packages of gloss and glamour and very little awareness of the outside world -- really didn't come along until the mid-1930s. Of all the Hollywood studios, you get the feeling that MGM was the one place where executives -- particularly grand poobah Louis B. Mayer -- welcomed the motion picture code because its limitations on salty behavior and innuendo dovetailed so beautifully with his idealized vision of American society.

At any rate, the 1931 film "Dance, Fools, Dance" offers an early look at what we might call the MGM effect, as demonstrated by the character played by and the performance given by the heroine, Joan Crawford. At this point, Crawford and Norma Shearer were the co-queens of the MGM lot.

"Dance, Fools, Dance" opens on a yacht. We can tell this is an MGM film as opposed to, say, Warner Bros., because the yacht isn't owned by bootleggers. It's owned by Crawford's wealthy father, and she's on board with her hunky boyfriend, uttering devil-may-care lines like "I believe in -- trying love out." Also on board is a party of carefree, wealthy young people. Because this is a pre-code film, Crawford has a risque suggestion -- let's go swimming in our underwear -- and we see it happen:

Crawford's father is forgiving of his daughter's antics, but he's also grumbling about the volatility of the market, and sure enough, within a scene or two, his big stock crashes, and so does dad. He's cashed in his chips and lies flat on the floor of the stock exchange.

Amazingly, given the number of financial whizzes he must have known, father had no life insurance, so Bonnie (Crawford) and ne'er-do-well brother Rodney (William Bakewell) are flat busted. What to do?

Bonnie: You [could] do what a great many others have done in those circumstances -- go to work.

Rodney: Work? Hah!

Bob (Lester Vail), Bonnie's boyfriend from the yacht, the swimmer in his BVDs, comes by and Bonnie hopes he'll sweep her away into wealthy wedlock. But he just makes noises about marriage being "the right thing to do" and love doesn't seem to be involved, so she lets him off the hook. Then she has to stand by and overhear her former friends make fun of her as the furniture is being auctioned off.    

So Bonnie goes out and gets a newspaper job, where her seatmate is Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards, later the voice of Jiminy Cricket. And brother Rodney goes out and gets a job, too, for bootlegger Jake Luva (Clark Gable, fresh off playing a bootlegger opposite Norma Shearer in "A Free Soul").

It doesn't take long before Rodney "Work? Hah!" Jordan is in over his head. He gets mixed up in a shootout and is warned not to talk. Meanwhile, over at the newspaper, Bonnie is unaware her brother is involved and uses strange facial expressions to convey her interest in covering the story:


Rodney blabs about the shootout to Edwards, who has gone to sniff out the story. The bad guys know Edwards knows, so they shadow him as he heads back to the paper, and Rodney is given an unpleasant assignment:

Crawford then goes undercover at the speakeasy to find out what happened to Edwards, still not knowing her brother was involved. Naturally, she becomes the lead dancer in the floor show, and attracts the attention of Gable. He delivers that never-fail pickup line: "You got me goin', sister."

They go to Gable's apartment, where she picks up a ringing phone and discovers that her brother is on the line, wanting to talk to Gable.

She does not handle it well:

Clearly, Crawford's character is not cut out for undercover work, and that's another way that "Dance, Fools, Dance" demonstrates the MGM effect. The movie is built around its star, and Crawford never misses a chance to break down dramatically over anything that happens.

In the final showdown, brother Rodney and bad guy Gable gun each other down and again, it's all about Crawford. She has dipped her toe into the underworld and can't wait to pull it back out. Rich boyfriend reappears and re-proposes, and she leaves the newspaper. You can't help but compare it with what would've happened in a Warner Bros. movie -- Joan Blondell or Glenda Farrell or Bette Davis would have played Crawford's role in a much more likably cynical manner. When the big reveal comes about her brother being involved with gangsters, they would've reacted, but kept it together, actually making their performance more involving and less showboat-y. And forget about the rich boyfriend -- in the Warner Bros. version, Blondell//Farrell//Davis would've ended up with the paper's handsome star reporter, undoubtedly played by George Brent.

Here's the full cast and crew for "Dance, Fools, Dance."

"The Girl Said No," and So Did William Haines

William Haines (1900-73) was one of those movie stars who easily made the transition from silent to sound films. In the late 1920s he was one of MGM's biggest stars -- handsome, athletic and relaxed on screen, with an appealing goofball side.

But he was also gay, and that's why William Haines stopped making movies in 1934.

Actually, it was being gay and being involved in a scandal or two that even MGM's ruthless publicity department couldn't cover up -- or maybe they just stopped trying. He was arrested in a YMCA in 1933 after being caught in a compromising position with another man. The story goes that Haines was then ordered into an arranged marriage by studio brass. He refused and ended up leaving MGM. After two films for Mascot Pictures on poverty row, he left the movies altogether.

"The Girl Said No," released in 1930, follows the formula for a Haines picture. When it begins, he's a well-to-do, happy-go-lucky, likably arrogant guy just out of college. The opening scene tells you what you need to know:

Haines plays Tom Ward, who's just graduated. Through a friend, his father has arranged a bank job for Tom, but he's too interested in going out to party with friends. (Lesson from watching too many movies made in the early 1930s -- large open cars really lent themselves to transporting drunken crowds around town.)

While out on the town, Tom spots Mary Howe (Leila Hyams). She's the steady girl of his college rival (Francis X. Bushman) but Tom is smitten by her and becomes downright stalker-y in his pursuit of her. She tries to discourage him. "I get your chill," he says, "But I'll be right there when your fever rises."

When he finds that she works at a brokerage, he tries to get a job there:

True to the Haines film formula, Tom gets the confidence knocked out of him about two-thirds of the way through the picture. There's a family crisis, and Tom becomes the family's primary breadwinner. He's also in charge of keeping up everyone's spirits around the house, including good old mom (Clara Blandick, later Auntie Em in "The Wizard of Oz").

While he's keeping home and hearth together, Tom stops pursuing Mary, but she misses his fun "kidnappings" and the way he sabotaged all her other dates, and she still can't warm up to his rival. He says he loves her, and the best she can do is "I like you like everything."  Tom re-joins the brokerage (he was fired during his cocky days) and is given a tough assignment -- selling a boatload of bonds to the rich and eccentric Hettie Brown (Marie Dressler), modeled after the real-life Molly Brown, of "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" fame.

The scene with Dressler and Haines lasts about ten minutes, and it's vaudeville stuff -- he wants to get her signature on a check, and he's posing as a doctor so she won't throw him out. Then he gives her some alcohol, and Dressler starts chewing the art deco scenery with her drunk act:

Both Haines and Dressler are pros, and the scene -- ad libs included -- flows nicely. The check gets signed and Hettie wants Tom to handle all her financial affairs. Then it's off to foil the wedding of Mary and the rival by (of course) kidnapping and gagging the bride, which she loves, and everything ends happily ever after.

After his film career ended, Haines didn't exactly suffer -- he began an interior design business and many of his clients were the actresses he'd appeared opposite at MGM, including Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer. Nancy and Ronald Reagan were also steadfast clients and friends. Haines was lucky in love, too -- his partner, James Shields, stayed with him for over 40 years and committed suicide a year after Haines died.

If you'd like to learn more about Haines, check out William Mann's book "Wisecracker: The Life and Times of Hollywood's First Openly Gay Star." Highly recommended.

Here are full credits for "The Girl Said No."

The Eric Linden Film Festival: "Big City Blues" and "Life Begins"

"But I AM talking in my deep voice!"

Of all the actors who appeared in 1930s movies, Eric Linden (1909-1994) was certainly one of them.

He played a variety of roles, including young salesman, young father, young traveler, young rich man, young detective, young gambler and not-quite-as-young soldier with gangrene leg (in 1939's "Gone with the Wind"; perhaps you've heard of it). Befitting his youthful appearance, he played characters named "Bud" in at least three movies. He also played characters named Freddie, Eddie, Benjy and (spoiler alert) Amputation Case ("GWTW").

During the first half of the 1930s, Linden toiled at Warner Bros., where he played opposite contract players including James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Loretta Young, Ned Sparks, Lyle Talbot, Humphrey Bogart and Guy Kibbee. Despite all this experience, his voice never changed.

We begin our scholarly analysis with the 1932 film "Big City Blues," Linden's seventh film. Here he is Bud "Bud" Reeves of Hoopersville, Indiana, who has inherited a bit of money and is bound for New York City. While waiting for the train he has a little talk with the philosophical stationmaster (Grant Mitchell):

In the city, Bud is greeted by cousin Gibboney (Walter Catlett), a Big Apple chiseler who is rotten to the core. He gladly appropriates Bud's bread and throws a big party. "The boss said you was having ladies over so we put labels on the bottles," says Gibboney's bootlegger.

The future Sam Spade faces off against the
future next-door neighbor on "The Adventures
of Ozzie and Harriet."
Gibboney also introduces Bud to chorus girl Vida (Joan Blondell), another small towner who's come to New York. She's a good egg, but almost everyone else at the party is rotten -- they drink the liquor Bud has paid for and a couple of them get plastered, leading to a fight between romantic rivals Lyle Talbot and Humphrey Bogart. In what they used to call the ensuing melee, a girl is accidentally killed and everyone skedaddles. Bud ducks out as well and wanders the city, trying to figure out what to do next.

Bud's journey eventually leads him to a nightclub that Vida mentioned, where he meets Serena (Jobyna Howland), an older woman who's so philosophical she might be the hometown stationmaster in drag:

All's well that ends well, of course -- Bud and Vida are reunited. Bud is cleared of the murder and he hightails it back to Hoopersville, where faithful dog Duke awaits.

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, whose next film would be the gloriously melodramatic "Three on a Match" and then the classic "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang," "Big City Blues" is slight, short (just over 60 minutes) and, like its hero, a little shaky.

In "Life Begins," also released in 1932, Linden's character's name is Jed, but he's pretty much still Bud, this time as a young father. The setting of "Life Begins" is, of course, a maternity ward, and it's a slice-of-depression-life ensemble drama, similar to Warner films "From Headquarters" and "Union Depot," both released about the same time. Linden is the hero of sorts and Loretta Young, as Linden's wife, is the heroine, but there are also lots of eccentric, incidental characters, played by Warner's stalwarts, who spice up the story line. Frank McHugh, for instance, plays a nervous father with a weakened wife. Will she make it? Glenda Farrell is a saloon singer pregnant with twins who can't wait to give them up for cash. Will she take it? And Aline MacMahon is the head nurse with a heart of gold who's always carrying a sleeping baby. Will she wake it?

There's also a pre-code single mother, a psychotic baby snatcher and a few oafish doctors whose bedside manner consists of saying "there, there" a lot. But the real melodrama is contributed by Young and Linden -- she's serving time for killing a man. He probably tried to sexually assault her, but murder is murder ("Some guys deserve to be killed," Farrell says). Anyway, once the baby is born, Young will head back to prison, so her time in the maternity ward is also the first time husband and wife have been together in months. And he's worried about her health, so he's as exhausted as she is. Linden plays the whole movie as if he's carrying a safe on his back, and his big scene comes at the end, after the baby is born:

By the end of the 1930s, Linden's career consisted in small roles in A pictures, like "Gone with the Wind," and lead roles in B and C pictures such as "Here's Flash Casey" and "Everything's on Ice." He went back to his first love, the theatre, for a while but ended up working as a civil servant in Orange County, California.

Here are the credits for "Big City Blues" and "Life Begins".

And here are the previews for both films:

"Girl Missing": How Glenda Farrell Got Us Through the Great Depression

In 1933, Glenda Farrell appeared in 10 movies at Warner Bros. and one at Columbia Pictures -- that's 11 movies in 12 months. In all of them, she pretty much played the same role -- a fast talking, quick thinking, wisecracking, goodhearted dame who was usually the heroine's best friend.

"Listen up, ya mug! Amscray! Can't you see
  you're being played for a sap? Drop that frail!"

But what Farrell may have lacked in range she made up for in sheer onscreen presence and style -- you always knew what to expect from her, and rarely is she an unwelcome presence in the movies she appears in.

"Girl Missing" is a great example -- she's Kay Curtis, the sidekick of June Dale (Mary Brian). They're chorus girls in between shows who've wangled a trip to a Palm Springs resort with a wealthy dullard (Guy Kibbee). He finally gets wise and leaves them holding the bag, addressing a goodbye note to "The G.D. Sisters." "I don't know if he means gold diggers or another well-known word," Farrell says.

While trying to find a sugar daddy to pay their hotel bill, they encounter a fellow chorus girl who's hiding her identity so she can marry the wealthy Henry Gibson (Ben Lyon).  She gives them the high hat, but when she disappears and a reward is offered, Kay and June smell a rat (played by Lyle Talbot) and set to work.

There isn't a whole lot more to "Girl Missing," but it moves at a swift pace right up to the ending, where Farrell's character wraps everything up in pretty pink ribbons, Talbot is put in the pokey, and Lyon and Brian form a vaudeville act -- not really, but with those names, they should.

"Girl Missing" was released on March 4, 1933, the same day President Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated and promptly closed the nation's lending institutions for a "holiday" to prevent bank runs. It was, by most accounts, the depth of the Great Depression. Movies like "Girl Missing" and performers like Farrell, and her Warner co-players James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, to name just two, represented a kind of quintessentially American character -- tough, realistic, good humored, unafraid.

For complete credits and other information, click here.

"What Price Hollywood," or A Star Is Torn

You can't talk about the 1932 film "What Price Hollywood?" without dishing some Hollywood dirt -- that the plot, for instance, was inspired by the real-life marriage of rising star Colleen Moore and producer John McCormick, or that Lowell Sherman based his portrayal of dipsomaniac director Max Carey on his one-time real-life brother-in-law, John Barrymore.

"What Price Hollywood?" benefits from those anchors in reality. True, the rise of Mary Evans (Constance Bennett) from waitress at the Brown Derby to a movie star billed as "America's Pal" is a little too speedy, and studio mogul Julius Saxe (Gregory Ratoff) is a little too fatherly, but the movie doesn't shy away from satirizing and, in some cases, criticizing Hollywood and its star culture.

We begin in a Hollywood apartment where Mary is simultaneously fantasizing and getting ready for work:

(Didja know that the trademark for the short-lived RKO-Pathe partnership was a giant rooster standing in Iceland?)

"You can't see a smile over the radio, Constance
-- allow me to try some bird calls."
Anyway, at the restaurant Mary waits on brilliant-but-boiled director Max Carey (Sherman). He's taken with her looks and spunk and invites her to attend a movie premiere with him -- in a broken-down tin lizzy he just bought as a gag. She ends up wangling a small role in Carey's next picture, and after a rough start she makes good. Then she's signed to a long-term contract and becomes "America's Pal."

The relationship between Mary and Carey remains platonic, but nonetheless he's bothered when Mary falls in love with polo-playing Lonnie Borden (Neil Hamilton). Lonnie's kind of a stuffed shirt, but he does love Mary, and he even goes along with it when their wedding is Hollywood-ized by Saxe and his staff. The result plays like something out of "Day of the Locust":

It doesn't take long, however, before Lonnie starts resenting Mary's career and her loyalty to Carey, who's on a fast downhill slide. When Carey shows up at the house drunk in the middle of the night, Lonnie leaves in a huff -- a 1925 two-door Huff, to badly paraphrase Groucho Marx.

But Mary stays true to Carey, even bailing him out of the drunk tank and bringing him home to recover.

Mary: From tonight on, you're going dry.

Max: From tonight on, I won't cause you any more trouble.  

Mary exits, and Max gets out of bed. Then, in a striking montage co-created by Soviet great Slavko Vorkapitch, he makes some decisions of his own:

Mary's shock at finding Max's body echoes her first movie bit for Max, where she played a party girl who ends up in the same situation. Nicely done.

Max's suicide at Mary's house triggers rumors of a scandal, and her films are boycotted by "upright" women's groups. Mary's only thought is that Lonnie will now challenge her for custody of their young son, so she escapes to Europe. By the end, however, Mary and Lonnie have reunited and there's talk of a comeback film, because if there's anything Hollywood loves more than a fall from grace it's forgiving the fallen woman (see Bergman, Ingrid).

There are other nice little touches in "What Price Hollywood?," including this exchange between Mary and Saxe about her next film:

Mary: I don't think I should have a baby in every picture I do.

Saxe: This one is different -- you're getting married first!     

Ratoff, with his heavy Russian accent, is part parody and part perfect as Saxe -- in one scene he sits at his massive desk and nurses his ulcer with a bowl of crackers and milk. It's interesting to see Eddie Anderson, a few years away from achieving comic fame as Rochester on "The Jack Benny Program," as Carey's non-stereotypical valet, and Neil Hamilton, later Commissioner Gordon on the 1960s TV series version of "Batman," as a romantic lead.

Bennett is fine, but the real person to watch in "What Price Hollywood?" is Sherman. He handles this role with an easy grace, probably because in real life, he was a director as well as an actor (after this film he would direct Mae West in "She Done Him Wrong," followed by Katharine Hepburn in her Oscar-winning role as the star of "Morning Glory.") He would die shortly thereafter, in 1934. 

Here is a listing of full cast and credits.

"Mystery of the Wax Museum," or Statue of Limitations

At the heart of 1933's "Mystery of the Wax Museum" are two actresses doing what they did best in 1930s movies -- Glenda Farrell wisecracking and Fay Wray screaming. Farrell, of course, was cast as the heroine's fresh dame best friend in dozens of Warner Bros. pictures, and Wray is best known as King Kong's girlfriend.

In this movie, they're roommates -- Farrell is a reporter trying to prove herself ("I'm gonna make news if I've gotta bite a dog") and Wray is a demure little thing whose boyfriend is a wax sculptor who works for the mysterious Dr. Igor (Lionel Atwill), aka Dr. Bearded McCrazy.

As the movie opens, we learn Dr. Igor's story -- he ran a wax museum in London where his evil partner (Edwin Maxwell) torches the place for the insurance money. This leads to a striking sequence where the museum is destroyed, with echoes of the melting faces from "Raiders of the Lost Ark":

"The Mystery of the Wax Museum" was shot in an early form of technicolor, using two colors as opposed to the later version, which would use three. It looks a little muddy, and the print shown on Turner Classic Movies doesn't help. Still, the process adds an extra element of creepiness, and it also helps that in you can show dummies being stabbed, melted and beheaded as opposed to real people. Of course, in several scenes, the wax dummies are played by humans, and it's fun to try and catch them blinking or breathing. (Okay, not a LOT of fun, but fun.) 

Anyway, we move forward ten years. The doctor is wheelchair bound as a result of injuries from the fire and he can no longer sculpt. But he has assistants sculpting for him, and his new museum is just about to open in New York City. Farrell, on the lookout for a story, gets interested when she sees a resemblance between the museum's Joan of Arc statue and a recent murder victim that has vanished from the morgue:

Meanwhile, Dr. McCrazy has his sights on Wray, who looks just like his perfect vision of Marie Antoinette, and therefore must be spirited down to the doctor's ultramodern laboratory, where the centerpiece is a very nicely designed art deco cauldron of boiling wax:

With its expressionistic sets, lurid tableaus and pre-code (wax) violence and nudity, "Mystery of the Wax Museum" is anything but embalmed.

Here's a list of full cast and credits.

I Love Lombard: "Virtue"

"Altogether she was turbulent, sensible and friendly, and as such she became so agreeable that a number of indifferent or downright poor films couldn't hurt her. She was lightly symbolic of an American type, unspoiled and sporty." -- Ethan Mordden on Carole Lombard
The 1932 film "Virtue" is only a so-so showcase for Carole Lombard. She did her best work in comedies, where she could showcase her sexy goofiness and horsey laugh. Here she is more somber, as a prostitute named Mae. At the beginning of the film she is being escorted by the law out of New York City, placed on a train going to Danbury, Connecticut. But she gets off at 125th street before the train leaves town and makes her way back to the flat of a friend, Lil (Mayo Methot).

Lil: Danbury. That's where they make hats, isn't it?

Mae: Yeah. I'd go there but I got a hat.

On her way back to Lil's, Mae hailed a cab driven by Jimmy (Pat O'Brien) and stiffed him on the fare. But to show him (and us) that she's on the square, she finds him and pays him back:

Mae gets a job in a restaurant, and she and Jimmy become an item, but she's hesitant to tell him of her past. He finds out the hard way -- on their wedding night, when the cop who escorted Mae out of town shows up on her doorstep. He leaves in a fury, then cools down and they start life together.

Jimmy's a donut-dunking regular guy who's saving up to buy a gas station, and things are going swell until an old friend, Gert (Shirley Grey), shows up. She gives Mae a hard-luck story and chisels $200 out of her from Jimmy's savings. Of course, the deal for the gas station comes through the next day, and Mae scrambles to get the money back, visiting Gert in the hotel where she once took her customers. Jimmy sees her there and immediately suspects she's back to her old ways.

The plot complication could be solved with two minutes of conversation, but then you wouldn't have a movie. And to further complicate things, Mae is wrongly accused of a murder committed by Lil's no-good boyfriend (Jack LaRue).

How much you like "Virtue" depends a lot on how much you like Lombard. Unlike contemporaries such as Claudette Colbert or Joan Crawford, Lombard doesn't fall back on prim mannerisms, and unlike Jean Harlow, she doesn't push her sex appeal right into your face. She's refreshingly goofy when she needs to be, and downright sexy in everyday clothes -- check out her dress in the scene above. Robert Riskin's script is full of funny wisecracks and a nicely done dramatic moment where Lil's boyfriend gets his comeuppance, and there are nice supporting turns by Ward Bond as O'Brien's pal and by Methot as Lil (at the time, she was married to Humphrey Bogart, and Hollywood legend says they fought -- sometimes physically -- all the time).

The final scene offers a nice chance to see a goofy Lombard:

For full cast and credits, click here.