"Below the Sea," or Love and Depth

Ronald Reagan is credited with a great line about his days of making B-movies: "They didn't want them good, they wanted them Thursday."

And that's the standard rap -- they were projector fodder destined to belong at the bottom of double features with forgettable actors, mediocre scripts, blah blah blah blah.

But the thing is, despite low budgets and tight shooting schedules, the Hollywood assembly system in the 1930s was still capable of cranking out movies that were better than they had any right to be. "Below the Sea" is a good example. This 1933 film boasts a script by Frank Capra collaborator Jo Swerling, creative direction by Al Rogell and vivid performances by Ralph Bellamy, Fay Wray and Frederick Vogeding.

Frederick Vogeding?

Vogeding appeared in several dozen movies between 1933-42, usually in small parts as doctors or military men. Beginning with 1939's "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" he made frequent appearances as Gestapo officers. "Below the Sea" features one of his rare leading roles.

We open during the final days of World War I, in a German sub commanded by Vogeding's character. The men converse in their native tongue, with no subtitles. And right around the time one of them says something that sounds like "I want a Zima," there's an explosion.

Then, in battle footage thrillingly borrowed from the RKO movie "Suicide Fleet" (and who knows where else), the sub, she is sunk. There are only two survivors -- the captain and some other guy. Both of them are aware that the sub was carrying a load of gold bricks, and while they dry off on a desert island the other guy draws up a map of the location, which gives the captain nasty ideas:

(By the way, in a post-code movie the guy just would have fallen off the cliff; only in a pre-code movie would you see the body go all the way down, bouncing off outcroppings along the way.)

Fast forward twelve years, and the captain has changed his name to Schlemmer. He's been waiting all this time to retrieve the precious stash, and he's talked a waterfront bar owner/floozy (Esther Howard) into financing the trip in exchange for a cut. He's also hired a deep sea diver, Mac, played by snarling Ralph Bellamy.

Their first trip out to get the treasure is doomed because there's a big storm, and because Schlemmer keeps the destination a secret, so the crew doesn't know where to go. This doesn't quite make sense to me, but it gives Bellamy a chance to wear a rain slicker and hat like the Gorton fisherman on those old TV commercials.

Another three years pass, and Schlemmer has signed on as the captain of a scientific expedition, and he's bringing Mac with him. They're aboard the good ship Adventure, funded by socialite Diana Templeton (Fay Wray in full-blown hottie mode). Templeton is sincere about science, but she also knows the power of public relations, so she does things like pose for photos in Mac's diving suit.

Mac in turn is so nasty to her that there's really no doubt how he really feels, especially since Diana gives as good as she gets:

The byplay between Wray and Bellamy is one of the highlights of "Under the Sea." He scowls and puffs his pipe as she runs around the boat wearing anchor-accented outfits. And she kisses other guys in front of him just to get him hot. But when she puts on Mac's diving outfit and goes down without his permission, that's a bridge too far. He purposely takes his time rescuing her and she passes out. He gets in trouble for it, but she shows her mettle by apologizing to him. And he finds himself torn between Diana and the loot in the sub:

Meanwhile, Schlemmer and his floozy are ready to bring the gold to the surface and cheat Mac out of his cut. They drug him and take off to collect the booty. Mac awakens just in time to discover that Diana is down in the diving bell again and it's being attacked by an amorous octopus, so instead of heading off Schlemmer he changes into his suit and dives in to rescue her:

This also seems like a good time to mention that the diving bell looks just like the isolation booth on the 1950s quiz show "The $64,000 Question," except that the diving bell doesn't have a giant lipstick on each side of the window (the show's sponsor was Revlon).

In the end, the captain's nefarious scheme comes to naught, and Diana and Mac end up together. As a couple they generate actual heat -- it's nice to see Bellamy playing something other than the milquetoast role he essayed in romantic comedies, and Wray's character is tough and likable. Their clinches seem unusually enthusiastic -- makes you wonder if something was going on in real life between them, as well.

Here are full credits for "Below the Sea."

Podcast: The Quiz Show Scandals -- "Twenty-One"

We end our two-part look at the quiz show scandals with the most infamous example of all -- the NBC program "Twenty-One." Contestants on the show were deliberately given answers to questions, directed to lose games and were even coached on how, for maximum dramatic effect, to hesitate when answering a question. The show's most popular contestant, Charles Van Doren, was celebrated for his intellect and humility and rewarded with a job on NBC-TV. But he ended up revealing his role in the hoax during a dramatic congressional hearing, and his reputation was forever tarnished.

Pre-Code vs Post-Code: "The Crowd Roars" and "Indianapolis Speedway"

Pre-code versus post-code is the difference between a Duesenberg and a Hummer, between cafe au lait and chocolate milk, between a camisole and a union suit.

Take the differences, for instance, between the 1932 film "The Crowd Roars" and the 1939 film "Indianapolis Speedway." Same story (by Howard Hawks, who also directed the first film), same setting, same characters (with different names, in some cases), even much of the same racetrack footage. By the way, want to know how to switch up your stock footage of a crowd? Just flip the image, like this:

And, since these are Warner Bros. films made in the 1930s, naturally both of them feature Frank McHugh -- playing the same character, and even with the same name. Spud. (Frank McHugh was born to play guys named Spud.)

But there's a distinct difference in the way the film's romantic relationships are portrayed, and, by extension, in the relationship between the brothers at the center of the story.

The brothers are Joe and Eddie Greer, played by James Cagney and Eric Linden in "The Crowd Roars" and Pat O'Brien and John Payne in "Indianapolis Speedway." Joe is a world-famous racing driver who drinks and carouses a little too much, tilting slightly but not totally into arrogance. Eddie is his hero-worshiping brother, who also wants to race.

In the 1939 version, Joe's reluctance to work with Eddie has a noble basis -- he wants Eddie to finish college, at Joe's expense. But after Joe leaves his hometown and his visit with Eddie to return to Los Angeles, he finds an unexpected stowaway.

In the 1932 version, Joe's reluctant to work with Eddie for two reasons -- one is because of Eddie's inexperience, but the other is that Joe doesn't want Eddie to know that he's shacking up with longtime frail Lee (Ann Dvorak). Once Eddie enters Joe's life, Joe starts giving the cold shoulder to the bewildered Lee. In "Indianapolis Speedway," by contrast, Joe and Lee (Gale Page) are already engaged, which makes their coupling a little more legitimate. When Joe gives Lee the brushoff in "Indianapolis," he makes it clear it's because he wants to tutor Eddie. In "The Crowd Roars," Lee grins and bears it, but in "Indianapolis Speedway" she gets rightfully honked off. Here are the two scenes:

But the real woman trouble in both movies comes from Lee's friend. In "The Crowd Roars," her name is Ann (Joan Blondell) and in "Indianapolis Speedway" her name is Frankie (Ann Sheridan). In both movies, she's first portrayed as bad news, and Joe doesn't want her "corrupting" his pure younger brother. In "The Crowd Roars," when Ann meets Eddie and starts showing some leg, Joe sneers, "Why don't you stand on your head while you're at it?" -- a line that's as likely to show up in "Indianapolis Speedway" as I am to grow a tail. In "Indianapolis Speedway," Frankie -- who's the roommate of Ann -- is known for feminine wiles that have driven at least one racer track wacky. (Sheridan, at the peak of her reign as Warner's "Oomph Girl," is top billed here -- and like Blondell, she is shown in the skimpiest post-code outfits possible.)

Here's how Cagney and O'Brien handle the problem of the other woman:

Even by Cagney standards, the character of Joe is wound unusually tight. His obsession with keeping Eddie from sinful entanglements and what he perceives as loose women -- playing around for me, but not for thee -- goes beyond brotherly concern and makes him seem like a hypocrite.

O'Brien portrays Joe as a little wearier -- the movie is telling us that what he needs is to settle down with a good woman, but it'll take him about 65 minutes to figure that out.

All around, in fact, the Joe in "Indianapolis Speedway" seems more human and more vulnerable. The relationship between the brothers is much warmer -- in the 1932 film, Joe dominates Eddie the way that Cagney naturally dominates the more diffident Linden. Payne, by contrast, has a stronger screen presence and makes more of an impression opposite O'Brien.

In both versions, Joe's downfall comes when, out of anger at Eddie's romance, he causes a fiery crash that kills Spud (Twice!). Joe is spooked and can't bring himself to race again, but he gravitates toward Indianapolis on the day of the 500. Eddie is racing, and when he is injured, Joe jumps back behind the wheel with Eddie as his co-driver. Guess who wins?

In the 1932 film, the reunion between the brothers isn't even played out -- Joe just jumps in the car and takes off. But in the 1939 version, there's a spoken rapprochement between the brothers, capped off when Eddie gives Joe his trademark cigar to chomp on for good luck. Guess who wins?

Here are the full credits for "The Crowd Roars" (which also features several real-life drivers as themselves) and "Indianapolis Speedway."

Screen Capture Theatre: "The Chapman Report," or I Kinsey What You Did There

A funny thing happened to movies in the early 1960s -- they got more "daring" in the sense that they included sexual language and dealt with adult themes. The weird thing is, they did this in an awkward, shame-based way -- so much so that they seem downright childish compared to the sense of frankness and real adult behavior in your average pre-code movie.

But don't take my highly authoritative word for it -- join me as Screen Capture Theatre wanders into the 1962 film ...

Any resemblance between the characters in this movie
and actual women is purely coincidental.

Greetings, ladies and gentlemen of science! My name is Professor Doctor Mr.
Chapman, M.D., and I am a world-famous sexual researcher in the manner
of such luminaries as Alfred Kinsey, Masters and Johnson and Lindsay Lohan.

Heh heh, they said "probe."

"Dear Professor Doctor Mr. Chapman. My name is Jane, and I am a healthy,
perfectly normal young woman who is repelled by any physical contact
whatsoever, especially with men of the opposite sex, yuck."

"Some have called me frigid, and when I opened my mouth to
answer them a light came on. Can you help?"

Dear Jane: I have the perfect remedy. You need to indulge in some
promiscuous smoking with one of my researchers, stat!

"Dear Whatever Your Name Is: My name is Shelley and my husband
is more interested in watching TV than in watching me. I want to get racy, he
wants 'Ben Casey'! And the other night, when he was watching 'Leave It to Beaver' ..."

"... anyway, I am now having an affair. Any suggestions?"

Dear Shelley: Perhaps a long trip might bring you and your husband
closer together. I suggest a cruise on the ocean liner Poseidon. Bon voyage!

"Hello, handsome. You can call me Claire. Actually, you can call me anything --
just call me ;). I have no sexual hangups at all ..."

"... just ask any delivery guy who comes to my house."

"Or musician. Or anything with chest hair, for that matter."

"Never mind about her, dear sir! Pay attention to me! My name is
Glynis and I am terribly self-absorbed. My smarmy husband is just
as pretentious as I am, so we get along splendidly ..."

"... but the other day I met a younger man on the beach when I caught
his ball, and I'm, um ... curious."

Dear Glynis: It sounds as if you might need to become involved in a
cause bigger than yourself. May I suggest women's suffrage?

I'm afraid that's all the time we have today for oversimplifying
people's sexual behavior. Next week's topic will be "The Future" -- a time of
widely available birth control, medication for erectile dysfunction and
widespread gay marriage. Ha ha! Just kidding! Drive safely!