The Elliott Nugent Film Festival: "Wise Girls" and "The Last Flight"

Of all the actors and actresses who appeared in 1930s movies, Elliott Nugent (1896-1980) was certainly one of them.

Actually, if Nugent's known at all today, it's probably more for his abilities as a director and writer than as an actor. He collaborated with longtime friend James Thurber (they were both from Ohio and attended OSU together) on "The Male Animal," a Broadway hit in 1940 that was turned into a 1942 film with Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland. (On Broadway, Nugent also starred, opposite a young Gene Tierney, and he directed the film version.)

Nugent also directed several above-average pre-code pictures, including "The Mouthpiece," "Life Begins" and "Three-Cornered Moon." And later in the 1930s and into the '40s he directed comedies with Harold Lloyd, Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.

As an actor, Nugent was mostly at MGM. He played Marion Davies's fiancee in 1930's "Not So Dumb" and he played straight man opposite Lon Chaney and a gorilla in Chaney's only talkie, "The Unholy Three."

But Nugent's best performances onscreen tended to be in dryly comic roles, and the 1929 film "Wise Girls" offers a nice example. This is pretty much an all-Nugent show -- it's based on a play by Nugent and his father, actor J.C. Nugent, and it stars both of them. The staging is also attributed to them -- like a lot of early talkies it takes place largely on one set, with a static camera and lots of entrances and exits. Screen direction is by one E. Mason Hopper, who brings things to a deadly halt more than a few times.

"Wise Girls" starts with this title card:

In other words, this is low-key humor in the style of The New Yorker, designed to elicit smiles more than belly laughs.

"Wise Girls" is a domestic comedy set in the Bence household. Dad Bence (J.C. Nugent) is irascibly, Fred Mertzian, comic. He's driven to distraction by the escapades of his grown daughters, particularly the highly strung Kate (Norma Lee), who's determined to be an artiste in the worst way, and is succeeding.  

Kate's dalliances with the muse have included a book called "Angie's Temptation," and based on her pretentious manner we can easily imagine how good it is. Nevertheless, a local attorney named Duke (Roland Young) loves Kate so much that he has published the book for her, but she doesn't know he's involved -- she thinks it was bought solely on its own merit. The book was less than a best seller -- in fact, a bunch of copies were dumped at the local YMCA, where one resident, Kempy (Elliott Nugent), read the book and fell in love with the author.

In the course of about ten minutes, Duke and Kate have a falling out over her ambitions and Kempy, a plumber, shows up at the Bence house to fix a leaky pipe. Younger sister Ruth (Marion Shilling) discovers Kempy's love for the book and all parties involved, and she makes sure to introduce Kempy and Kate. Kate is still smarting from Duke's rejection, so she's more than ready for a new admirer:

The sudden marriage of Kempy and Ruth gives dad lots of reasons to sputter, and the elder Nugent has the character type down to a T. He's put out that his daughter isn't marrying the wealthy Duke, and he's convinced that Kempy is out for his money:

It takes, frankly, much more time than it should to establish that Kate and Duke belong together and that sister Ruth loves Kempy, and vice versa. "Wise Girls" is one of those early talkies that can be a real slog, but every so often you stumble across a scene with some bright dialogue. Here's another nice example, between Kempy and Ruth, who, admittedly, says her lines as if she learned them phonetically:

All's well that ends well in "Wise Girls," but 1931's "The Last Flight" is decidedly more downbeat. It was one of Nugent's last acting assignments for a while, and truthfully he's a bit shoved off to the side, fourth-billed under Richard Barthelmess, David Manners and Johnny Mack Brown. The four of them are shell-shocked pilots trying to drink away their trauma in post-World War I Paris.

"The Last Flight" is written by John Monk Saunders, who knew this territory -- he also wrote "Wings" and "The Dawn Patrol." In real life he was a flight instructor, although during the war he never got out of Florida. "The Last Flight" is a slightly weird but interesting mix of "The Dawn Patrol" and ersatz Hemingway. The four fliers speak in somewhat self-conscious declarative sentences in between cocktails. But this a pre-code movie through and through, unapologetic about its viewpoint -- you can't even imagine a studio remaking something like this until the 1950s.

We first meet the men after Cary (Barthelmess) and Shep (Manners) have survived a serious plane crash. Cary's hands have been badly burned and Shep has a nervous tic in his eye that requires the wearing of really cool-looking smoked glasses.

The war is over, and they're being released from the hospital. Cary can't hold anything, but hey, no problem -- the doctor just tucks Cary's discharge papers into his armpit.

Then he watches philosophically as they walk away.

Doctor: Now they're out to face life -- and their whole training was in preparation for death. It's like dropping a fine Swiss watch on the pavement. ... They're spent bullets -- like projectiles, shaped for war and aimed at the enemy. Now they've fallen back to earth spent, cooled off, useless. ... What good are they?

OK, doc, I think we get it.

Brown and Nugent round out the quartet as, respectively, Bill, an ex-football star whose laces have loosened a bit and Francis, a skilled marksman with narcolepsy. The plot thickens when the men meet Nikki (Helen Chandler) in a Paris bar. She wasn't in the war, but she can still match them quirk for quirk -- she keeps turtles in her bathtub and often says her lines while staring into space.

When Nikki sees Cary having to use both hands to hold his martini she thoughtlessly laughs, and then just as thoughtlessly pities Cary. Shep and Bill have to set her straight:

Nikki straddles the line between being vulnerable and annoying, but the men take her under their collective wing. She's especially attracted to Cary. Oh -- and there's a tag along, a creepy American reporter named Frink (Walter Byron) whose designs on Nikki are less than honorable.

Anyway, the group continues its bar hopping and committing assorted hi-jinks -- like when big Bill tackles a horse to prove he was an All-American. Again, Nugent doesn't get much meat in this movie. But there is one brief, good example, set in (where else?) a bar:

Following a sweet scene in which Cary and Nikki visit Pere Lachaise and the graves of Abelard and Heloise (Nikki ends up naming her turtles after them), we're off to Lisbon. Once there, much drinking ensues, along with visits to the bull fights and then a shooting gallery. What can go wrong?


A lot can go wrong, actually, including a final showdown between Frink and the boys. It happens at the shooting gallery, and, for the first time in the picture, it gives Nugent's character something to do:


With that exit into the darkness, Nugent also disappeared from in front of the cameras for a while. But his directoral trail leads from pre-codes to 1939's "The Cat and the Canary," the first of several pictures with Bob Hope, also including "Never Say Die" and "My Favorite Brunette." Nugent also directed Harold Lloyd in "Professor Beware," Danny Kaye in "Up in Arms" and Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald in "Welcome, Stranger." And he directed the charming 1948 sleeper "My Girl Tisa" and the 1949 version of "The Great Gatsby" with Alan Ladd. He also returned to acting now and then -- he starred onstage opposite Katharine Hepburn in "Without Love" in the role that went to Spencer Tracy in the 1945 film.

(One last point about "The Last Flight" -- just after the movie came out, Saunders turned the story into a Broadway musical, "Nikki," with his wife, Fay Wray, in the title role. It ran about a month. Playing Cary Lockwood was a young actor named Archie Leach who appropriated the character's name when he went to Hollywood shortly thereafter. But people told him Lockwood was too long a last name, so he chose Grant instead.)

Oh -- and since Nugent's "My Favorite Brunette" is in the public domain, here it is:

Pre-Code vs Post-Code: "A Free Soul" and "The Girl Who Had Everything"

Adela Rogers St. Johns's novel "A Free Soul" was filmed twice -- once in 1931, under its original title, and again in 1953 as "The Girl Who Had Everything." In both cases the female leads were played by MGM royalty -- Norma Shearer and Elizabeth Taylor, respectively.

The character they play is the impulsive, independent-minded daughter of a well-known defense attorney (Lionel Barrymore in the 1931 version and William Powell in 1953) who has an ill-considered affair with one of dad's clients, an underworld character (Clark Gable in 1931 and Fernando Lamas in 1953) whose outer hunkiness hides an inner ugliness.    

As we've come to expect in these comparisons, the 1931 pre-code telling of this story has a bite, an edge and a blatant sexuality that the later version doesn't. For instance, Shearer's Jan Ashe gets so wrapped up in life with Gable's Ace Wilfong that she ends up keeping half her wardrobe at his place.

And Ace's criminal lifestyle is pretty clear for all to see -- on his first outing with Jan, they're serenaded by a machine gun:

(Hello, Roscoe Ates!)

The 1953 film is more muted in every way. Lamas's Victor Raimondi isn't a high-profile gangster accused of murder like Ace. By comparison, he's practically an insurance salesman. He runs a horse racing news service -- it's a legitimate business, but it's also heavily subscribed to by bookies, and so he ends up as a target of a congressional crime commission, where he's represented by Steven Latimer (Powell). There are vague hints of sleazy doings behind the curtain, but Victor stays cool and immaculately groomed, even when he's climbing out of a swimming pool.

Toward the end of the movie, both men reveal their true colors to the women who love lust after them, and, again, Gable takes the cake for nastiness:

It's weird, but Taylor and Lamas as a couple don't really generate that much heat, especially compared to Shearer and Gable. Maybe it's just the difference between Andre Previn's hormonal score and that dress Shearer is wearing, but compare these two bedroom scenes:

The biggest difference between the two movies, however, is the portrayal of the father, named Steven in both films. In the 1953 film, Steven Latimer has retired to Lexington, Kentucky to raise horses and has a little bit of trouble with the bottle. In the 1931 film, Steven Ashe is a world-class drunk, ostracized by his wealthy family and judged by just about everyone except loyal daughter Jan. Barrymore won an Oscar for his role, and it's perfect awards bait -- Ashe flails, falls into the gutter and then pulls himself out with Jan's help to deliver a dramatic summation in court that literally drains him of all remaining life.

The 1931 film also much more effectively dramatizes the similarities between father and daughter. In the movie's most effective scene, they both reluctantly make a pact to swear off the dangerous things they love too much -- alcohol for Steven and Ace for Jan. It's terrifying for both of them. Father and daughter go on a three-month camping trip and they successfully escape their demons, but as soon as the decision is made to go back home, Steven falls off the wagon.

The 1953 film handles the same scene almost laughably -- Steven takes Joan to the Smoky Mountains, servants in tow, to get Victor out of her system. He has nothing at stake. She throws a fit after four days and goes back to Victor. The end. Steven might drink a little, but in this movie -- Powell's last for MGM, by the way -- it's no more a problem than Nick Charles's love of cocktails.

Barrymore, of course, squeezes every drop of melodrama out of his character (you wonder if he got any pointers about alcoholic mannerisms from brother John), and in one scene where Ace asks Steven's permission to marry Jan, Barrymore summons all the mean drunk behavior at his disposal to pile-drive Ace into the ground:

"The Girl Who Had Everything" has a similar scene, but not nearly as nasty:

If the 1931 version of "A Free Soul" is influenced by gangsterism and prohibition, the 1953 version is informed by the Kefauver Commission, whose televised hearings on organized crime introduced America to such polished gangsters as Louis Costello and Mickey Cohen -- men who had much more in common with Victor Raimondi than they did with Ace Wilfong. They aren't nearly as colorful as the old school gangsters, and "The Girl Who Had Everything" isn't nearly as colorful as  -- well, just about anything.

"Dillinger," or That Old Gangster of Mine

In the most exciting news since the introduction of the Pocket Catheter, it's time for another installment of Motion Pictures Told Through Still Pictures with Goofy Captions! Here for your edification is the 1945 film...

... which is "Regnillid" spelled backwards.

This is the hard-hitting, totally true, no really story of
famous gangster John Dillinger. We first meet him on
the day he has stolen a new suit from a five year old. 

Dillinger then shoves a Twizzler in his pocket and holds up
a candy store. Oh, the irony!  

(Sad trombone)

John ends up in the jug, where he starts
making new friends. 

His jolly compatriots include (left to right) Specs, Sneezy,
Romeo and Anthony Dellavorte, Certified Financial Planner.

Once John is released from prison, he does what any loyal
friend would do. He smuggles guns to his pals inside by
hiding them in a barrel of cement -- THE SAME CEMENT BEING

The new gang soon begins robbing banks with the vigor
of someone who is very vigorous. 

Oh -- and Dillinger meets a young woman who will
soon play a significant role in his DOWNFALL. 

But in the meantime, Hoosiers are in a state of terror
that will remain unequaled until the glory days of Bobby Knight!

Banks are being robbed all over Indiana, including
... El Segundo?

The fame makes Dillinger a worldwide celebrity,
but he starts to get a little unstable.

He takes up hobbies, including woodworking ...

... and model railroading.

Finally, he decides to rob a bank by using baby powder
and his gang decides it's time to move on to another
criminal mastermind. 

But the girl stays in the picture. And she starts wondering
where she's going to get some money to buy Christmas presents.

She and Dillinger decide to forget their troubles and
go to a movie theatre IT DOES TOO LOOK LIKE A

He is totally inconspicuous. 

Then, outside the theatre, Dillinger makes his fatal
mistake. He weighs himself and pays for it with a slug.

(Sad trombone.)

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "Say It with Songs"

There is so, so, so much to make fun of in the 1929 film "Say It with Songs" that it's tempting to just kick back and start taking shots.

I mean, come on -- you have Al Jolson in full "world's greatest entertainer" mode, hamminess in overdrive, shoving his mug into the camera in what seems like every single scene, including one where he singlehandedly saves his son's life and restores his speech through pure Mammy power.

You have scenes of suffocating parental pathos between Jolson and Davey Lee, who was a huge hit opposite Jolson in 1928's "The Singing Fool" as Jolson's otherwise nameless son, Sonny Boy, appearing here as Jolson's other otherwise nameless son, Little Pal.

Finally, our man ends up in stir, the world's saddest convict, cheering up the other inmates with a passive-aggressive little ditty called "Why Can't You?" that includes these lyrics:

Violets from tiny seeds
Fight their way up through the weeds
Violets can do it
Why can't you?

Yes, prison isn't bad enough -- the punishment includes an Al Jolson motivational seminar. See for yourself:

So there's a lot to make fun of in "Say It with Songs." And yet -- stay with me here -- this movie is not totally absurd. It actually offers just the slightest taste of what would be the future at Warner Bros.: the urban-based, tough-talking, fast-moving dramas, like "The Public Enemy" and "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang," that the studio would be known for just a few years hence, all under the supervision of Darryl F. Zanuck, who gets top writing credit for "Say It with Songs."

Of course, it's a bug jump from Al Jolson to Paul Muni. (Adapts Jolson voice) But you can see the seeds -- the tiny seeds! Fighting their way up through the weeds! Mammy!

"Say It with Songs" is tailored to Jolson's, ah, unique style. Here he is Joe Lane, a singer on his way up at a radio station. The movie's first scene establishes the station's programming -- a combination of commercials, singers and health and beauty "experts":

But then there is Joe, who stands out like a sore thumb. He is on the way up, but he has his irresponsible side. This is demonstrated when he gets involved in a crap game at the radio station. This is further demonstrated when he promises his wife he'll meet her for a date and keeps her cooling her heels for two hours. She makes empty threats to leave him, but the love between Joe and Little Pal keeps her from pulling the trigger.

But soft! There is trouble behind the microphone. The station's unscrupulous manager (Kenneth Thomson, a cad once again) is making moves on Joe's wife Katherine (Marian Nixon), the very mother of Little Pal!

Katherine tells Joe about the passes, and he knocks the station manager silly. Unfortunately, the guy falls and hits his head on a lamppost, and he ends up seriously killed. And before you can say (with apologies to Johnny Cash) "Jolson Prison Blues," Joe is in the jug.

Meanwhile, on the outside, Katherine has sent Little Pal off to boarding school and she goes back to work for a doctor who's always loved her. To spare her from society's wrath, Joe tells Katherine he wants a divorce, giving Jolson the opportunity to act noble and victimized at the same time.

Then Joe is released from prison, and "Say It with Songs" really gets maudlin. We'll spare you the details because you can watch it online but here's the scene where Little Pal recovers, no thanks to a network of doctors, but because of fatherly egotism -- I mean, love:

A couple of facts about "Say It with Songs": The songs were by the writing team of DeSylva, Brown and Henderson, who also wrote the megahit "Sonny Boy" for "The Singing Fool"; as part of his deal, Jolson's name was added as a songwriter, entitling him to a share of that sweet royalty money. This is in addition to the $500,000 he received from Warners. Also, contrary to Wikipedia and other sources, "Say It with Songs" wasn't a flop -- it grossed more than $2 million, which placed it in the rarefied company of other pre-code Warner hits like "Noah's Ark" and "42nd Street."

"Jolson Prison Blues." Heh.