TCM Classic Film Festival 2022: Part Two, by David Bax
TCM Classic Film Festival 2022 Part Two
After The Letter, here comes another movie with a Max Steiner score (not the last of the festival for me, either), Michael Curtiz‘ Angels with Dirty Faces. A crime picture with James Cagney in the lead and featuring a large role for Humphrey Bogart before he was really Humphrey Bogart (not the last of those of the festival for me, either), it’s kind of surprising how close the movie comes to being a prototype for “inspiring teacher” movies like Dangerous Minds, with Cagney’s Rocky, a recently released career criminal, taking a group of young street toughs under his wing. Spoilers, though, he doesn’t get them to stand on any desks or anything. But there are plenty of evidence as to why, despite the overall movieness of it all, Angels with Dirty Faces is an influential gangster flick. It’s not just the sharp but unshowy dialogue but, when we see Rocky with his tie pin, peak lapels and double breasted suit, we know what young Henry Hill’s mom means in Goodfellas when she screams, “You look like a gangster!” And now I know what Paulie Walnuts is referencing when he asks, “Whaddaya know, whaddaya say?”
When you attend the TCM Classic Film Festival, you will have the opportunity to see multiple pre-Code movies. These are often hot ticket screenings at the festival and those introducing these aged gems will often play into the hype by describing each of them as “quintessential pre-Code.” That’s not always true but Mervyn LeRoy’s Three on a Match is a curious case. With its references to the flouting of prohibition, it has the soft scandalousness we tend to associate with the term. But, to me, what really defines this era of Hollywood is a focus on women who desire sex and other things not commonly prescribed to them by the status quo. Three on a Match certainly fits the bill, not just with its references to suffrage but, more specifically, with its tale of a wealthy, stifled housewife (Ann Dvorak) who leaves her gilded cage behind in favor of a romance with a small time criminal and a subsequent drug addiction. But, with clunky storytelling, like exposition delivered via newspaper headlines and the fact that her two best friends (Joan Blondell and Bette Davis) end up aligning with her jilted husband against her, the movie actually exhibits quite a bit of the moralizing that would come to define the Joseph Breen years of the Code. It’s still fun, though, and, once again, we get some early Bogart action.
Next up for me was Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T, which immediately stood out given that I’d only seen black and white movies at the festival up to this point and this Western showcases full desert brilliance. Another stark difference is that this tale of a ranch hand (Randolph Scott) held captive by outlaws along with an heiress (Maureen O’Sullivan) came out on the other side of Breen’s stewardship of the Production Code but before the institution of the Motion Picture Association’s ratings system. There’s a little bit more that Hollywood movies could get away with during this period and The Tall T gets away with as much as possible, reflecting Elmore Leonard’s source material in its brutality.
It was clear there was something special about William Wyler’s (again!) Counsellor at Law from the introduction of the delightfully hilarious, thick Brooklyn accented receptionist played by Isabel Jewell, who answer phones and transfers call at a rabbit’s pace, all while carrying on telling a never-ending story to her coworkers and placing her lunch order with the office’s errand boy. It’s such a big performance, in the best way possible, that it feels perfectly suited to the movie’s overall impression of being playlike. There are only a few sets—the lawyer’s (John Barrymore) waiting room, personal secretary’s office, private office and the elevator bank outside of it all—all of them gorgeous Art Deco creations through which characters cycle via doors and hallways almost like a farce. Counsellor at Law isn’t quite a comedy, though. It’s more like a very early precursor to Uncut Gems, the tale of a likable but unscrupulous schemer who keeps getting himself further and further in over his head. We want the son of a bitch to win, even when his motivations in the cases he takes and how he defends them are just as likely to be based on personal gain as they are on virtue. This one may not qualify as “quintessential pre-Code” according to the definition I outlined above but it thrives in exactly the kind of moral gray era Breen would find suspicious only a short time later.