Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Cocoanuts - 1929

The Cocoanuts (1929) is a sublime way to end this series on The Era of Wonderful Nonsense, not only for the nutty hijinks of the Marx Brothers, but of their shrewd assessment of the foibles of their era so skillfully worked into the story.

We continue our series on the 1920s and its similarities to our era that began with our introduction here, The Racket (1928) here, and Joan Crawford’s Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Our Modern Maidens (1929). They bring us a gamut of Jazz Age stories: flappers, college capers, hip flasks, gangsters and bootleggers, a world of societal revolution and at the same time a breakdown of what has been termed traditional morals, that was even celebrated.

The Marx Brothers had a hit on Broadway with their musical comedy The Cocoanuts, and its transference to film as one of the very early “all singing, all dancing – all talking movies” is remarkably clever due to some intelligent and laugh-out -oud lines that are a match for any cynical banter in a modern television sitcom.

But instead of using this sarcasm to paint themselves as the leaders of popular taste – since neither “cool” or “hip” or “groovy” were invented yet – and “the cat’s pajamas” just don’t seem to fit the Marx Brothers even if the phrase fits the 1920s – this talented gang of four never aspire to anything but holding themselves apart from society and enjoying the freedom of being outcasts.

As such they are free to mock and parody one of the decade’s most sacred shrines – investment and speculation. It was an era where wealth disparity created a chasm between the very rich and the very poor at an alarmingly fast rate and would have terrible consequences by the end of the decade. To be sure, there was a middle-class somewhere in between which, after World War I, sought to reward themselves with all the newfangled gadgets that were making life so much more easy and exciting, and perhaps expensive, than for their parents’ generation. Consumerism, commercialism, and credit joined together in a frantic dance as people for the first time were able to buy home appliances like electric stoves and washing machines and not only purchase them, but purchase them through credit on-time payments. Buying on credit meant that people could own property and suburban homes in a manner such as they could not at one time and this marvel of credit also extended to the new opportunity of buying common stocks.

Once the world of only the most educated and wealthy investors, now every man could own stocks. Most of the purchases were made “on margin,” which meant one was paying only a fraction of the stock’s price—buying on credit.

Among the myriad of get-rich-quick schemes that occurred in that decade, one of the most enticing, and flawed, was the great Florida land boom. This is the topic of the Marx Brothers play, The Cocoanuts.

It opened at the Lyric Theater in December 1925 and ran through August 1926. George S. Kaufman wrote the book of the musical, and music and lyrics were by Irving Berlin. With this stellar Broadway pedigree was added the brilliant and chaotic four Marx brothers: Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo. Straight man, or woman, Margaret Dumont was in the cast as well and made the leap to film with the boys.

The real estate bubble satirized in the play and film had been centered around Miami, which was promoted as an exotic tropical paradise for those who wanted to live there, retire there, and many others who just wanted to invest, flip properties and get in on the ground floor of what was sure to be a spectacular land boom. However, the area saw not so much extensive construction as of mere speculation on land value. At the start of 1925 investment was beginning to look shaky when land was offered at prices not according to appraised value, but according to how much brokers could jack up the price – whether it was swampland, which many naïve outsiders were surprised to find there was so much of in Florida, or land that really had any value for commercial or residential use. Soon the authorities and the banks began to take a closer look at what was revealed to be a bit of a shell game operated by unscrupulous brokers. There were other elements that caused the boom to go bust including difficulties with existing infrastructure and railroad service. In another portent of really bad luck, a schooner sank in Miami Harbor and blocked access to shipping.

Soon the hucksters could not find enough suckers to maintain this game, and the soaring prices of land began to plummet. That September 1926, as if matters weren't bad enough, a hurricane slammed into Miami which drove developers into bankruptcy.  It was a month after The Cocoanuts closed on Broadway.

The film version included Mary Eaton as the daughter of Margaret Dumont, both come to stay at a Florida hotel run by Groucho Marx. He is also involved in the shady land deals. A side story involves Oscar Shaw and Cyril Ring as rivals for Mary’s hand, and Kay Francis along as a jewel thief in partnership with Cyril Ring. Their scheme is to swipe the jewels of Margaret Dumont. Built around this plot is a zany kaleidoscope of music – several tunes by Irving Berlin but not all that were in the play – and Harpo and Chico generally turning the place into mayhem.  The movie, produced by Paramount was filmed at the Astoria Studio in Queens. Soon, the movie industry pulled up stakes on the east coast, put on sunglasses, and headed to Hollywood.

Being an early talkie, the movie seems to be taken pretty much as it might have been produced on stage, a succession of quick gags, skits interspersed with sudden lavish musical numbers, lots of chorus girls (high heels on the beach?).  The idyllic seascape is a noticeably fake backdrop, the kind Wile E. Coyote would usually smash into.

It was an era where men still wore tank tops attached to their bathing suits. For younger classic film fans, I’ll just note that this was not an affectation of the movies. On public beaches right up until the late thirties and even early forties, men were required to wear either a tank top or some kind of shirt along with their swim trunks. Going topless was not allowed.

The lines, a lot of them really laugh-out-loud, are often specifically reflective of their era and may go over the heads of some younger fans. Even something like Groucho’s remark, “There’s nothing like liberty, except for Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post.” Liberty and Collier’s were, like The Saturday Evening Post very popular magazines. The newsstand on the corner, in the train station, or on the first floor of your office building was the nerve center, the communications headquarters of the day

Mary Eaton and Oscar Shaw sing a romantic duet and Bob has one of those trilling tenors. It really sounds like it’s sung live.  Mary’s hair is Marcel-waved.  She is also equipped with a trilling voice considered proper vocal technique of the stage-trained of the day.

Other favorite lines “This is the biggest development since Sophie Tucker.”

Chico and Harpo arrive at the hotel and are asked “You want a suite on the third floor?” Chico’s response, “No, I want a polack in the basement.”  Inappropriate for today, but funny and evocative of the “melting pot” with which were we once so comfortable.

Groucho remarks, “All along the river there are levies.”

To which Chico responds, “That’s a Jewish neighborhood?”

And then of course, we have the famous viaduct and “why a duck?” exchange.

Kay Francis, sleek and sophisticated, with her short, boyish flapper hair slicked back off her forehead, spends time tussling with Harpo, who of course, has a habit of trying to get people to hold his leg. It was Kay’s second movie after several years in the theater, and her stardom was ahead of her. She seems a little too high voltage for this silly slapstick, but we can see at least the promise not only of her career in the 1930s, but that here, although looking like a flapper, she is not a flighty, man-chasing coed, but instead looks as if she has spent the decade as one of the “Lost Generation,” in Paris with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and not doing the Charleston with young men who swallow goldfish.

The movie, as with other Marx Brothers movies, breaks for intermittent and surprising cultural interludes as both Chico and Harpo display their splendid musicianship, which brings the chaos down to a quiet reflective center before it revs up again. It is as surprising as their silliest antics because it keeps us off-balance.

It is a way, the movie is like a perfect bridge between the innocent and lighthearted and somewhat sophomoric banter of the 1920s and the more sophisticated screwball comedy of the 1930s with its emphasis on social commentary. The Marx Brothers perfectly bridge the eras.

Groucho conducts a land auction, a common scene in the Florida land boom and he tries to get Chico to jack up the price by putting in outrageous bids. He utters the immortal words “You can get any kind of house you want, even stucco – oh, how you can get stuck-o.”

The jewel thieves are foiled, and true love prevails, although I think the most exquisite moment is the “He wants his shirt” song to the tune of “Habanera”/“Toreador” in Carmen sung by Basil Ruysdael in a bass-baritone.

The Florida land boom had an unhappier ending, that for a time, never seemed to end. A month after The Cocoanuts closed on Broadway, the September 1926 Miami Hurricane hit, leading to a lot of bankruptcies among the land developers, and a second killer Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928 (over 2,500 fatalities) and the stock market crash of 1929 effectively capped off the decade for Florida investment opportunities, real or imagined. The 1930s were bleak.

The stock market crash was also personally devastating to Groucho Marx.  Though known for being very frugal, ever mindful of his poverty-stricken childhood, he invested his entire life savings in the market that came to its own spectacular bubble in 1928. He lost it all in 1929.

In the excellent television documentary from the American Experience series on PBS The Crash of 1929 (1990), Groucho’s son Arthur was interviewed and recalled, “My father was ready to kill himself.”

Eventually, unlike millions of Americans, Groucho had a reprieve from destitution and found a lucrative career with his brothers in Hollywood.

These movies we discussed for the past few weeks tell us a lot about where our mindset was at the end of the Jazz Age but one aspect of that decade I suppose was difficult for the filmmakers then to capture, at least in one single movie, was the great struggle between conservative fundamentalists represented by the bankers and by Wall Street that were seen as demigods who were reflected in the glow of their fabulous ever-rising stock market, with extremists such as the KKK at the height of its power, with the animosity and outright hostility to immigrants and immigration, when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the White  House – versus progressives whose influence on the decade must have seemed appallingly radical, such as women flooding of the workforce in jobs such as secretarial work, which was once restricted for men (the new occupation of being a telephone operator was actually deemed better for women than men because it was reckoned that women had more pleasing voices and were more inviting on the phone); the almost shocking change in women’s apparel from what it had been during World War I – as we noted in our introduction, so comically and charmingly alluded to in the 1920s musical parody Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967); and the flaming youth that somehow took the spotlight in a society where the media was beginning not only to reflect who we were but to create who we were.

As regards the stock market, there are ominous similarities today, not only because of the great wealth disparity in our country that, when it happens no matter what era it happens, always leads to crashes, but because of allowing once again our greed to make us so naïve as to think the systems we have put in place are not fallible. Economist Roger Babson is well known for having predicted the 1920s stock market crash and also well known for being greatly disparaged because of it. Nobody wanted such bad news. Recently, we have experienced some market swings, and the market watchers, particularly on CNBC, rather than reporting dispassionately, instantly became cheerleaders and indignant deniers. Granted, money is an excitable issue, but journalists should just report what happens and not make excuses for what happens or attempt to deflect what is happening as if loathing to be held responsible for bad news.

This is not to say that we’re going to end up with bread lines and bank failures if the market takes a dive, but whether we do or not, whether the market crashes and we end up in another depression, we should receive the facts as simply and as unemotionally as possible. The truth, even when it is unpleasant, is better to hear than the same old spin.

We should pay more attention to the 1920s not just because of our bouncing stock market, but because of so many other coincidences that exists between that decade and ours. We might well learn valuable lessons. That’s what our parents, our grandparents, and our great-grandparents are for, to teach us.

As we noted in the intro to this series, historian William E. Leuchtenburg in his The Perils of Prosperity 1914-32 remarked, “Never was a decade snuffed out so quickly as the 1920s.”

The Great Depression loomed on the other side of the door, but also a more liberal and progressive era culturally, artistically, and politically that saved the nation in a frightening time.  It took courage to sing “Happy Days Are Here Again,” and make it so.

Groucho Marx, whose screen persona created sanity from havoc, wrote in his book The Groucho Phile: An Illustrated Life, "I've been a liberal Democrat all my life," and observed,  "I frankly find Democrats a better, more sympathetic crowd.... I'll continue to believe that Democrats have a greater regard for the common man than Republicans do."

Have a look here at the documentary The Crash of 1929.

Thank you for joining me on this series.  This Sunday we’ll take part in the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Kellee from Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula from Paula’s Cinema Club.  My contribution—Joan Crawford’s Oscar for Mildred Pierce.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Our Modern Maidens (1929)

In Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Our Modern Maidens (1929),  Joan Crawford epitomizes the daring flapper, living only for the moment, the eternal symbol (one of many glitzy symbols) of the 1920s. We continue today with part 3 of our series on the 1920s – Then and Now.

Novelist-turned-Hollywood-writer F. Scott Fitzgerald saw in Joan Crawford the essence of the flapper, as he is noted to have remarked:

Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.

He might have been describing her in these two movies.  Our Dancing Daughters stars Joan as a high-octane flapper or “modern,” her name for the first time above the title.  This movie and Our Modern Maidens are "modern" morality plays of sorts – Joan Crawford is not so much a scandalous woman but a survivor on her own terms in a fast-paced world. There is something brave and admirable about her, despite the implied warning about a life of burning the candle at both ends.

We open on Joan Crawford during a frenetic shimmy as she changes into a party frock for an evening out. Her well-to-do parents, played by Dorothy Cumming and Huntley Gordon, give her free reign, and she adores them. They have a great relationship.

This is immediately contrasted with the less well-off family of a conniving mother and daughter played by Kathlyn Williams and Anita Page. Her mother wants Anita to marry rich and passes on the age-old advice that men want wives who are virtuous – but to get them one must be only virtuous-appearing and yet not so virtuous that one fails to entrap a male and drag him to the altar. This will happen to our hero Johnny Mack Brown, the millionaire’s son.

Life is a whirlwind of parties for Joan and her “crowd.” Dorothy Sebastian plays Beatrice, a friend with a “past” which she loathes to confess to her intended, played by Nils Asther. She eventually does confess, he forgives her, they are happily married, but reminders of her past are thrown in her path every moment, straining her marriage. It is not smooth sailing for those who are not virtuous to begin with, even if their friends and their families give them pass.

I’d have to say my favorite character is played by Edward J. Nugent, who also appears in Our Modern Maidens as a slick-haired callow youth with a smart line, a boyish worthlessness, and a tennis sweater.  He has enormous personality and plays to the camera very well.  I get a kick out of him.

When we first meet Joan getting dressed to go to her party, she goes downstairs – every private home and every public ballroom is dripping with Art Deco ornamentation – she has a companionable drink with her father, and is toasted by three young men all standing at attention in their tuxedos. Each offers her a sip from his glass, and she obliges because she is Diana the famed huntress – not of men, but of life and good times.

When she meets Johnny Mack Brown, she does not immediately throw herself at him but she flirts with him and they develop feelings for each other. Anita Page, however, openly throws herself at him in pseudo-virtuous manner – always insinuating herself in between Joan and Johnny.

Johnny is clearly smitten with Joan, but he is wary about her goodtime girl reputation, and he feels he must uphold the family honor by considering the matter very carefully. In the meantime, on an outing with the fake good girl Anita Page, she traps him, with the help of her conniving mother, into not so much proposing to her as refusing to embarrass her in public by saying, “Hold the phone, I never asked you to marry me.”  He is too much of a gentleman for that.

Joan, of course, is crushed. And she is angry, because she feels that even though she has led life in the fast lane, she has never lied about herself or attempted to trick anybody into marrying her.

She lashes out at Anita Page and her "nasty little mind.” She is disappointed in Johnny Mack Brown but she doesn’t blame him. She understands that one must play by the rules or at least accept the consequences for not doing so. Anita marries Johnny, but they are miserable. She never loved him, she just loves his money and she has grown bored stiff being the wife of the millionaire’s son. She runs around on him.

In a climactic scene at a party, she catches Johnny Mack Brown and Joan having a quiet conversation and accuses them of infidelity.  She has had a little too much to drink. 

At the bottom of a very long staircase are three scrubwomen, and she mocks them in a way that will engender our pity for her. She asks them why they are working, and thinking of her own self-interested mother, “Don’t you have pretty daughters?” She knows she has been prostituted by her mother for a cushy life. Here we see what will be a theme in later decades for movies: The younger generation blaming the elder.

While quite drunk, Anita will fall down the very long set of stairs, landing at the feet of three scrub women in a terribly sad end to her life.

We cut to two years later when Joan returns from Europe and she will marry Johnny Mack Brown. Moral of the story? To thine own self be true. And suffer the consequences.

Our Modern Maidens is not the sequel we might expect, at least not in terms of having the same characters, but there is the continued theme of what’s a flapper to do to find true love?

Here, Joan Crawford is called Billie, and an interesting point of trivia is that she went by the nickname of Billie as a kid, and this is what her first husband, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., called her. This movie capitalizes on their real-life romance by putting young Doug in the role of her boyfriend.

The movie starts on the night of the prom where Joan is a senior at an exclusive girls' school – again she is the rich, spoiled flapper with the zest for living. Two jalopies careen down the road at night nearly causing a traffic accident, and they pull up and have an impromptu prom on the side of the road, dancing to the music on the car radio. This is a generation besotted with technology, radio and cars in a way that baffled their elders. Our friend Edward J. Nugent is along for the ride in this movie as well, only here he plays Reg. Playing fellows named Freddie or Reg pretty much indicates this is going to be a guy with a hip flask in the pocket of his white flannel tennis pants.

Anita Page is back along for the ride, only this time she’s not the rival nasty girl, she’s Joan’s good friend named Kentucky. She is sweet, innocent, naïve, and as loyal as a hound dog. She also has an unspoken crush on Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and her infatuation with him is rather heartbreaking.

Just as the title suggests, these young women are “modern." These are modern maidens who crash life like they are crashing a party. On the train, Joan meets Rod La Rocque, who is a wealthy man well connected in government. It seems that upon graduation from college Douglas Fairbanks Jr. wants to pursue a career in the diplomatic corps. They believe that Rod La Rocque can open doors for them and get him a post in Paris – Paris in the 1920s—this is about the only flirtation we get with the famed expatriates of the decade.

Joan Crawford flirts shamelessly with Rod La Rocque in order to wheedle a position out of him for Doug, and Doug, though he has misgivings, goes along with it.

Anita Page is also seen in many scenes strumming a ukulele. So far we are meeting our quota of 1920s images.

At a party, again in the giant Art Deco ballroom, Joan is the center of attention, dancing herself silly, playing drums, in a whirlwind of jazz. Douglas get the spotlight, too, doing impressions—silent impressions – of John Barrymore and Jack Gilbert and Robin Hood, perhaps a take on his father? Joan disappears for a moment and then returns in a scanty outfit with a wild pattern and performs not just for the crowd but specifically for Rod La Rocque in a dramatic scene.

Douglas knows she’s going over the top for his sake and he feels uncomfortable with it, but assuages his discomfort by having a brief fling with Kentucky, who has such a crush on him. He feels like a cad. “I was cad!” The title card tells us.

Meanwhile, Joan gets herself invited to Rod’s hunting lodge, a rustic venue with knives, guns and whips on the walls, guy stuff. Whips? He is in love with her and he agrees to help Doug get a position in Paris because she affirms that Doug is only a friend of hers. However, after the appointment to Paris, Rod La Rocque reads in the newspaper that Doug and Joan are going to be married. Well now, isn’t this awkward.

She tries to apologize for shamelessly using him and leading him on, but he, hurt and angry, sets her up at his hunting lodge for a fate worse than death, and when she shrinks from him, he goads her, “What’s the matter? I thought you were a 'modern'!” Wearing nothing but his bathrobe (clothes got all wet in the rain), she submits to him because she feels she owes him, but he pulls back and she admiringly says, “I knew you were too decent.”

He throws it back in her face. “It’s not decency. I just don’t want you.” It is a great line and she is as shattered as she is relieved, because she is ashamed.

Doug and Joan have an opulent wedding but Kentucky is clearly upset and not just because she is losing Doug. Finally, Joan gets the truth out of her when Joan discovers a doctor’s appointment card for “Mrs.” Kentucky. This is movie code for Kentucky has gone to a GYN and she is pregnant.

“I didn’t want you to know, Billie!” Kentucky apparently wants to spare both her friends and when Doug enters to collect his bride and go on the honeymoon, he is flummoxed because he didn’t know Kentucky was pregnant after their one fling either. “You poor, brave little kid!” Doug says.  Nobody seems to realize how humiliating this sounds, even in a silent movie. 

Unlike Our Dancing Daughters, where Joan paid the price of losing a lover but then eventually gets him back through the convenient death of the third person in the triangle, this movie takes an interesting turn. Joan simply gives Doug to Kentucky. We’re never told if Doug, who is truly fond of Kentucky, really wants to spend the rest of his life married to her.  Nevertheless, this is what Joan does because she loves both of them, and she skips out and pretends to be a true modern, an uncaring, selfish woman with loose morals and no feelings, parading this persona for the sake of the reporters, of her friends, and her father, who washes his hands of her.

“What you think of a girl going on a honeymoon alone. Modern, isn’t it?” For a moment, our Edward J. Nugent steps out of his callow youth role and attempts to stand up to the crowd with her to give her support, but she kindly and sweetly says she is going alone. She will take no one along the path to perdition with her.

She goes off to Paris, but she is eventually joined by Rod, still reading about her in newspapers.  He still loves her, and she will go back with him to his cottage in the Argentine. 

It doesn’t seem like the “modern” thing to do, but perhaps the 1920s flappers were having second thoughts about the whole flapper thing.  Society might have gotten a little tired of the wild party, too.  A huge hangover was coming at the end of 1929.

The decade was notable for being perhaps the first wave of a future norm where the youth of the country seemed to run the show. Their tastes and their interests were catered to, and created, American pop culture.

Both Joan Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. are quite good in this movie, both attractive and able to woo the camera with a glance or a clinch, or, as in Joan’s case, a spirited Charleston, and we can see why Joan Crawford became a star in this role of the flapper. She gets to show a lot of different emotions like selfishness, regret, loyalty, love, shame. She laughs, she cries, she dances.

It’s a silent movie but there are sounds added to the track in which we hear the buzz of a crowd, a radio announcement. There is no dialogue except for what we see on the title cards, but there is incidental background noise, a way to ease us into sound pictures. Our Dancing Daughters made her a star. It has been reported that she climbed out of the lesser roles in Hollywood by making the producers notice her when she moonlighted in dance contests.  She “rocked” the Charleston, and the Black Bottom.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Joan were married just before the movie was released and they were married for four years. But unlike the characters of the “moderns” she played, she was not welcome by Doug’s father, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and stepmother, Mary Pickford, and she felt out of place in their world. Her background was really more like the shop girls that she would portray in the 1930s, beginning with her next film released in 1930, which was considered the third in the trilogy of films, called Our Blushing Brides. That one is a sound film and we see that Joan makes the transition to sound recording very well. She does not play the same character, of course; she plays a department store clerk and her love interest is Robert Montgomery.  When glancing at this trilogy of films, we can see where Joan’s career and film persona was headed, and where the country was going, too.  The flashy “moderns” she played in Our Dancing Daughters and in Our Modern Maidens were left behind in the 1920s.  When the party ended, the flapper had either left the room, or was passed out on the floor.  

In Our Blushing Brides she’s the working girl, who might be Cinderella, or maybe just another dame down on her luck.

Women revolutionized the decade as much as they scandalized it.  Fashions, mores, work force, and the economy rode the waves of women's empowerment.  This was gently satirized in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), as we mentioned in the intro, but our now somewhat condescending view of that era and its women belies the fact that they set the stage for much of the twentieth century.

Come back next Thursday the 22nd when we discuss the last film in our 1920s series, a Marx Brothers romp, The Cocoanuts from 1929.  It reflects not only the zaniness of the 1920s, and of the Marx Brothers brand in particular, but also hints at our near future as it makes fun of the Florida land boom that went bust in the middle 1920s, a forerunner to the terrific stock market crash just a few months after the movie was released.

The first two posts in this series are the intro here, and The Racket (1928).

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Racket (1928)

The Racket (1928) is surprisingly cynical, even while still coyly presenting what we recognize as frothy 1920s images – including speakeasies, callow youth, and an almost manic desire to rebel. Even those inclined to think that silent movies, by virtue of their being silent, are a bit of a joke will still see much in this movie that is starkly modern and which speaks to us today.

Producer Howard Hughes was only twenty-three years old when he took this on for one of his very first projects in the film industry. It is a story of Chicago gangsters and the honest cop who tries to bring them down. The honest cop, played by Thomas Meighan, one of the most popular leading men of his day, is not so incorruptible that he doesn’t resort to beating up suspects to get the truth. This is, after all, Chicago, and it is, after all, the 1920s. The film makes no explanation and certainly no apology for his beating up suspects in custody, rather it paints him as a savvy hero of the dirty streets he patrols. With the musical score that is now part of the restored film, we see a bit of cheerleading on the side for Meighan with a dash of “The Minstrel Boy” and other Irish tunes when he appears on screen. The gangster, played by Louis Wolheim, says he is, “just a dumb harp.” More on that later.

Louis Wolheim plays Nick Scarsi, a gang leader whose only trouble is women, whom he does not trust, and his younger brother, whom he cannot control. Wolheim commands every scene he’s in, not only because of his imposing size and that craggy boxer’s nose in the middle of his scowling face, but because he was one of the early silent screen actors who somehow figured out that he didn’t need to over emote or to pantomime to excess his feelings to overcome the lack of sound. All he had to do was stand still and raise an eyebrow and all attention was on him. We last saw him here in another great role in Danger Lights (1930) with Jean Arthur.

His kid brother is played by George E. Stone, a typical 1920s youth chaffing at being sent to college and takes every opportunity to rebel against it. His Brilliantine hair, his pencil thin mustache, and his hip flask tell us he is the cat’s pajamas, but he wants nothing more than to ditch college and hang out with his big brother Louis – and the women in the corrupt wards his brother controls who flock to powerful men. Younger brother George E. Stone is not particularly interested in being a gangster; he just likes the idea of sitting around in a nightclub while chorus girls fawn over him because of his brother.

One such is Marie Provost, who plays a chorus girl with the incongruously famous name Helen Hayes. Considering Miss Hayes was well known on Broadway at that time, one wonders why they didn’t bother to change the name, but it brings a chuckle every time I see it on the title card.

Marie Provost is no fool, however, and she’s no shrinking violet. When Wolheim brings his gang and his brother to a private party at a speakeasy, they are in evening dress, the prohibited liquor flowing, and the girls are free and easy. When Miss Provost is rebuffed by Louis Wolheim, who regards all women as poison, she immediately attaches herself to his younger brother. She does it not simply because she knows the younger brother is an easier mark, which he is, but she does it purposely to needle Wolheim. Considering he’s the kingpin of the neighborhood, it’s quite a daring act.

A rival gang arrives and Wolheim is always looking for a showdown but Thomas Meighan and his men quickly take control, though the rival gang leader has been killed. Wolheim and his men are taken into custody over the killing, but they are soon released because Wolheim has a connection with “the old man,” who is a corrupt judge. He arranges for Meighan to be sent to a suburban precinct where the cop will no longer be in his hair. It is a moment of disgrace for Meighan.

Wolheim’s younger brother is cutting capers behind his back and drives around in a jalopy with Marie Provost. He gets a little rough with Marie and she tells him off. He gets in a hit-and-run accident and the pedestrian he hits will later die. Both he and Marie are brought into the nearby police station for questioning. It is Meighan’s new precinct. At first, Meighan is unaware he has his enemy’s younger brother in the lockup.

Three reporters hanging around looking for a story now inject a little levity in the proceedings. Two are hard-boiled veterans, and one is a cub reporter just out of college. He is handsome young John Darrow, and we know he is new at this game because he is very polite, a little nervous, wears his press pass very prominently tucked into his hat band – about the size of a billboard – and instead of a trench coat he wears his college boy slicker with doodles drawn on the back of it in indelible ink. This was one of the great fads of the 1920s, writing doodles and “witty” sayings on raincoats and on jalopies. Darrow made a number of films in the 1920s through the middle part of the 1930s, and then later became a talent agent.

The veteran newshounds tease him a little, but Marie Provost gently vamps the innocent young man to the point where he is so charmed, that when she is locked up in the cell with streetwalkers, he brings her a care package – toiletries and a virginal nightgown. She smirks demurely and this hard gal must have a heart of gold because she does not tease him mercilessly. At the end of the movie, for his own good, she will send him on his way.

The movie is filled with very witty lines, macabre humor and brutal enough to be unflattering enough to all concerned – the police, despite our heroic Meighan; the corrupt district attorney; and the judges – to have this film banned for a time in Chicago, which apparently was not fond of being depicted as a den of political corruption. (The infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre would occur only three months after this movie was released.)

Louis Wolheim shoots a police sergeant in his attempt to escape from the station house where he has gone to free his younger brother. The innocent cub reporter helps identify him, solve the crime, and justice prevails. Thomas Meighan, who knows when to kick out the reporters and knows when to use them for publicity, sends them off to write up a story that will put fear in the hearts of other gangs. At the end of the film, he announces he is tired and would like to go to bed but he has to finish the report and mop up this incident. When he’s finished, by morning, he expects it will be time to go to Mass. He smiles, with a glint in his eye, and we are given in this character another stereotyped personification of the Irish cop – quick with his fists but charming as all get-out.

This last scene was, for its day, more daring than it looks.

In an era when immigrants were not as welcome as they had been around the turn-of-the-century – legislation in the 1920s pushed by the Republican-controlled Congress sought to limit immigration severely – the Irish had been in this country long enough to have gained a foothold and climbed in society to positions beyond the police station house, and newer waves of immigration from other countries took the brunt of prejudice.  However, there was still a strong anti-Catholic bias in the country, which with a shift towards conservatism in the 1920s, would defeat Al Smith, the Governor of New York, in his run for the presidency in 1928. Historian William Leuchtenburg in his The Perils of Prosperity 1914-32, quotes the “liberal” Protestant publication Christian Century which remarked regarding Al Smith’s run for presidency that Protestants could not “look with unconcern upon the seating of a representative of an alien culture, of a medieval Latin mentality, of an undemocratic hierarchy and of a foreign potentate in the great office of the president of the United States.”

Mr. Leuchtenburg notes, “Smith was seen as the spokesman for the foreigner, a man, if elected, would flood the nation with a new type of European immigrants...” George Ford Milton, editor and historian from Tennessee, wrote that Smith’s appeal was “to the aliens, who feel that the older America, the America of the Anglo-Saxon stock, is a hateful thing which must be overturned and humiliated; to the northern negroes, who lust for social equality and racial dominance; to the Catholics who would been made to believe that they are entitled to the White House, and to the Jews who likewise are to be instilled with the feeling that this is the time for God’s chosen people to chastise America yesteryear.”

In 1924, four years before this film was released, the Ku Klux Klan had reached the height of its popularity because it was “anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-Negro, and antiforeigner.” In Birmingham, Alabama, “a Klansman murdered a Catholic priest and was acquitted;” in Illinois “two hours after a monster Klan ceremony a Roman Catholic Church was burned.” This from a chapter the author titles “Political Fundamentalism.” We see its mutations today. When the Klan lost its power, it was largely due to sexual and bribery scandals among its leadership that were unpalatable to Middle America at the time. Murder, brutality, and oppression as expressions of bigotry were apparently okay.

The Racket is fast-paced and frank; it carries very few gimmicks, and the writing is top-notch. It is daring, and was nominated for one of the very first Academy Awards. It began the gangster genre of motion pictures, and for many years was thought to have been lost. It was released in November 1928. The Era of Wonderful Nonsense had one more year to go.

Come back next Thursday, February 15th when we will discuss two more films from the tail end of the decade: Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Our Modern Maidens (1929). Both films star Joan Crawford, whom novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald labeled the quintessential flapper. Women had won the right to vote at the beginning of the decade (and it was recorded that many were overwhelmingly supportive of Democrat Al Smith for president); by the end of the decade, so these two movies will have you believe, they were running the show.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The 1920s - Then and Now - Intro

The 1920s were silent – but only as far as the movies. It was actually a loud and raucous decade, but one that, despite our image of quaint innocence, was actually strangely close to our own era socially, politically, and as regards the economy. The movies captured some of that, either intentionally or incidentally. But not all of it.

Over the next three posts were going to discuss a few films from the 1920s, including The Racket (1928), The Cocoanuts (1929), Our Dancing Daughters (1928), and Our Modern Maidens (1929). The latter two movies, both starring Joan Crawford, leave us with the impression of the decade being dominated by flappers. Perhaps the most well-known chronicler of that era, the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of Joan:

Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.

The hedonistic young woman of the 1920s with the rouged knees may have shocked her parents, but she has come down to us as a more or less comic cliché. She was called a “modern.” She has been interpreted, and innocuously, many decades later, in the film Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), and The Boy Friend (1971).

Both movies are musicals, and interestingly, while The Boy Friend had its origins as a Broadway hit starring Julie Andrews in 1954, Thoroughly Modern Millie, which starred Julie Andrews, ended up being a Broadway hit in 2002, taking the opposite direction. The movie The Boy Friend starred Twiggy, whose pencil-thin figure and wide eyes epitomized the flapper. Glenda Jackson plays an uncredited role as the stage star who breaks her foot, for whom Twiggy must go on as an understudy. That movie is a rather heavy-handed spoof of early Hollywood films, overladen with Busby Berkeley fantasy sequences.  Some dialogue, such as when Twiggy is admonished that she must go out a youngster and come back a star, are taken pretty much verbatim from 42nd Street (1933).
The movie lacks the subtler, silly charm that Thoroughly Modern Millie had which, along with Miss Andrews starred James Fox, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing, and John Gavin – who I really think was the funniest of the bunch just by being straight-faced through it all. The wonderful Beatrice Lillie appeared here in her last film. Being spoofs, they are more interested in exaggeration, as is the nature of parody, and though they are fun to watch, they are about is genuine a view of the 1920s as mock apple pie is to real apple pie. Perhaps, though, they were the vanguard of the 1970s nostalgia craze.

The 1920s is remembered for being The Era of Wonderful Nonsense, The Jazz Age.  Often films made much later that are set in that decade, such as The Helen Morgan Story (1957), which we discussed here, are jammed with slangy dialogue and visual triggers like hip flasks as a shortcut to jog something in our collective memory about the decade.

One of the few movies made after the dust of that decade had settled that actually remembered the era not with nostalgia but with chagrin and something like regret was The Roaring Twenties (1939), which we discussed here.  The movies actually made in the 1920s, however, especially the freewheeling chaos of Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton films, seem to celebrate the technology that shaped the era – the phones, the cars, the flickers. The antics may be as remote to our present day as a black-and-white silent Felix the Cat cartoon to a modern-day CGI animated feature, but this fascination with technology and consumer products should key us into a mindset that was closer to our own than we realize.  It wasn't the only similarity to our era.

Though we recall 1920 as the year women won the right to vote – and all the bold flappers were called “moderns,” the decade was not really as progressive as it may seem. A generation of expatriates, writers, artists, musicians, composers, were living out their dreams overseas because of what they regarded as stifling and overbearing conservatism at home, including its most virulent and perhaps, to them, objectionable edict: Prohibition.

It was the era of the Palmer raids, the red scare and the wholesale roundup and deportation of immigrant aliens.  The National Origins Act restricted immigration. Sacco and Vanzetti were put to death in the electric chair after a trial that left much room for doubt about their actual guilt, but the climate of the red scare and sudden animosity toward the foreign-born usurped any interest in finding out the truth.  As poet Edna St. Vincent Millay noted:

[The] men were castaways upon our shore, and we, an ignorant savage tribe, have put them to death because their speech and their manners were different from our own, and because to the untutored mind that which is strange is in its infancy ludicrous, but in its prime evil, dangerous, and to be done away with.

It was the era of the Scopes trial when a high school biology teacher was tried in court for teaching anything but creationism.

It saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan to its most powerful point, most especially in Indiana, with resultant beatings, lynchings, and shootings. Benito Mussolini founded a fascist regime in Italy, and Hitler began his fascist crusade, but we flirted with it, too, long before we met up with those devils in another generation.

The 1920s saw the rise of religious fundamentalism joined with materialism.  President Harding spoke of returning to “normalcy” after World War I and yearned for an orderly, Calvinistic world that never existed. The word “normalcy” never existed before that, either; it was made up for the occasion.

Under a trio of Republican presidents there were restrictive tariffs, scandal most notably in the Harding administration, and a stock market run ruthlessly like a Ponzi scheme. The shareholders’ titanic profits took precedence over the workers’ meager share (though wages did increase during the 1920s, unlike our own era), and an expansion of credit and few restrictions led to a booming economy and a dizzying stock market bubble in the year 1928.  Republicans controlled the Congress and the presidency through the decade that began with a depression and ended with one. 

It was an era of pop heroes, perhaps the most famous of which was Charles A. Lindbergh, who flew the first solo trans-Atlantic flight.  In another decade, he became involved in the America First committee and was a Nazi sympathizer.  If we think of the 1920s only in terms of “Oh, you kid,” and “23-skidoo,” it may be that the silent movies, though only a fraction of which that were made have survived, have bequeathed to us the image of an “Era of Wonderful Nonsense.”  There was a lot more going on off the set, and some of it quite serious.  Movies had been around since the turn of the twentieth century, but the 1920s was the turning point that made film a huge part of our national psyche, yet the flickers didn’t catch everything that was going on.

One could say that our era is more like the 1920s than it is of any other decade in the past century.  One film that resonates this is The Crowd (1928), which we discussed here in this previous post. This unflinching examination of a fellow whose failure to cope is summed up in one of its title cards, “We do not know how big the crowd is, and what opposition it is…until we get out of step with it.”

The excellent narrative history The Perils of Prosperity by historian William E. Leuchtenburg gives us many points on which to make the comparisons between that world and ours.  Perhaps another reason why we are left mainly with lightweight images of flappers, speakeasies, and bathtub gin is that the door slammed shut very quickly on the Jazz Age in October 1929 when the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began.  As Mr. Leuchtenburg remarks in a sympathetic if ominous epilogue: “Never was a decade snuffed out so quickly as the 1920s.”

Come back next Thursday, February 8th, when we’ll discuss The Racket (1928) about mobsters and political corruption—the first film to be produced by a young Howard Hughes.

Related Products