Turner Classic Movies plucks more Forbidden fruit

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They put up with the same crap from men that women have been putting up with for years: philandering, hypocrisy, brutality, alcoholism, possessiveness and other general forms of oppression.

They were the women of the “Pre-Code” era of Hollywood, which has always been a bit of a misnomer in that they existed during the early days of the Hays Code but didn’t come under real scrutiny until about four years in. But from about 1930-1934, Hollywood pushed the envelope as much as it could, and the result was female characters who were never more audacious, never more daring, never more independent. For the second time, Turner Classic Movies tonight pays tribute to these films and their heroines with the next installment of Forbidden Hollywood, with the screening of five mini-classics: The Divorcee (1930), A Free Soul (1931), Three on a Match (1932), Female (1933) and Night Nurse (1931). Following the 8 p.m. screening of The Divorcee, TCM will premiere Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood, a 68-minute documentary about the period, followed by Night Nurse, Three on a Match and Female, then a replaying of Thou Shalt Not, and finally A Free Soul.

On Tuesday, Warner Home Video releases the Pre-Code films and the documentary as a three-disc TCM Archives release (pictured), including commentary on The Divorcee and Night Nurse by film historians Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta.

TCM and Warner Home Video already broke out some of the big dogs with 2006’s trilogy: Baby Face (also with Stanwyck), Red-Headed Woman and Waterloo Bridge.

This next batch of movies is blessed with multiple early appearances by some of Hollywood’s greatest stars, including Norma Shearer, Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Clark Gable, as well as some of its great directors (William A. Wellman, Michael Curtiz).

While we get early peeks at Gable and even Humphrey Bogart (as, not surprisingly, a hoodlum), it is the women who dominate these films, and in keeping with the Pre-Code era, they are pretty shocking in their behavior and frankness. In The Divorcee, Shearer plays a recently married woman who decides to match her husband Jerry’s (Chester Morris) infidelity by cheating on him with his best friend (Robert Montgomery). As she throws Jerry’s initial “It doesn’t mean a thing” apology back in his face, she says, “I’ve balanced the account.” She then proceeds to live a wild if unfulfilled life as a party girl, with its implicit promiscuity. The role won her an Oscar for Best Actress.

Shearer, wife of studio exec Irving Thalberg, then starred as A Free Soul in which she finds herself trapped between a doting alcoholic father (Oscar winner Lionel Barrymore), a prissy fiancee (Leslie Howard) and the flamboyant gangster (Gable) whom her father successfully defends in court. By the movie’s end, she’s made quite a mess of things, but has a good time along the way, including a tryst with the gangster that she must admit to in court.

Mark A. Vieira, author of Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood, notes in the Thou Shalt Not documentary how A Free Soul spans the spectrum of bad behavior: “There’s adultery, frigidity, drug use, child abuse, drunkenness, kidnapping, violence … .” And, he notes, the Pre-Code era was the perfect setting for the charismatic Dvorak: “She was like a raw nerve, a loose wire vibrating and sparking. She really had that nervous energy.”

Three on a Match features Ann Dvorak as a bored housewife who, after reuniting with childhood classmates Bette Davis and Joan Blondell, leaves doting socialite husband Warren William for the wild life.

The most enjoyable of the set is Ruth Chatterton as an automobile-company CEO in Female, in which her Alison Drake lives like a man: bossing everyone around, sleeping with the help and basically doing what she pleases — until she meets her match in George Brent’s Jim Thorne.

Chatterton is particularly hilarious as the man-eating Alison Drake. Whem a dim-witted employee comes to her lair one night to “talk business,” he gushes about his enthusiasm. “Are you naturally enthusiastic?” she says with a gleam in her eye, then flips a throw pillow onto an area on the floor clearly meant for making whoopee. And when she realizes that Jim Thorne doesn’t want to play her promiscuous games, she declares, “Gentle and feminine? Huh. So that’s what they want. Well, we aim to please… .”

Stanwyck stunned viewers with her performance in Baby Face as a woman who literally sleeps her way to the top of a company, but is more idealistically formidable in Night Nurse as a high school dropout who becomes a nurse. She endures a crushing hospital bureaucracy and sexism all around her only to stumble onto a murder plot while caring for the sick preadolescent son of a wealthy family. (Here again, Gable plays the heavy.)

The best thing about watching these movies is how such supposedly wild behavior brings out the best in the actresses. All of them, in one or at one time or another, becomes empowered, and with power comes a certain kind of electricity. You can practically see someone like Dvorak licking her chops at exploring her freedom regardless of the consequences.

Stanwyck’s always been one of my favorite actresses, mainly because I grew up on her Victoria Barkley matriarch character on TV’s “The Big Valley.” (Remember how she challenged Lee Majors: “Show us some of Tom Barkley’s guts!”) Here we get to see the iron-willed Stanwyck in her early days, getting right up in Clark Gable’s grill and swearing that she won’t let him kill the little boy. She practically shouts her speeches, capping off an answer to someone with “In a big way, sister!”

Elsewhere, though, you can see director William A. Wellman taking liberties with the Pre-Code times, using every excuse to show Stanwyck and Blondell (one of the most underrated actresses ever) stripping down to their underwear. Clearly to these actresses, this type of pornography came with the territory, something to get through to enjoy those juicy lines.

There are some minor deficiencies in all this Pre-Code packaging. All five films are familiar to faithful TCM viewers, and Thou Shalt Not feels like a comparative knockoff when lined up against last year’s exhaustively researched and sourced Brando documentary. With its overstuffing of film critics and historians, Thou Shalt Not takes on a bit of a talking-head feel.

Considering Turner’s massive archives, which fueled a Stanwyck documentary (Fire and Desire) a few years ago, you’d think they could have included old interviews with some of the stars of these films to go along with the contemporary interviews. I like Leonard Maltin as much as the next guy, and hell, Hugh Hefner probably could have starred in one of those films, but I’ll take a dusted-off interview with Barbara Stanwyck or Bette Davis any day of the week. In a big way, sister.

Check out this trailer for Night Nurse.

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