Pushing the pre-code envelope: “Torch Singer”

As anyone who’s read my movie musings knows, I love Claudette Colbert as evidenced by my posts on It Happened One Night and Midnight. There’s another favorite of mine (heck, I love most of her films) called Torch Singer. This one has become a particular favorite of mine partially because it was my introduction to pre-code cinema.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term pre-code, it describes the period between roughly 1930-1934 when censorship was not enforced in Hollywood. As such, the storylines, characters, and innuendo they got away with seem outrageous considering the rules which did end up being enforced from 1934-1968.

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lol her underwear is pants, guys!

Some of those rules included not allowing couples to be shown in the same bed, at the same time, banned curse words, as well as not making any sort of immoral behavior look attractive or beautiful. Now, obviously filmmakers found a way to get around those rules to a certain extent, but there is something fascinating about films made during the pre-code era.

If you’re unfamiliar, Torch Singer, made in 1933, follows Sally Trent (Claudette Colbert), a woman who finds herself in a difficult situation when she becomes pregnant. She has the child and even raises her for a time, before realizing she’s just not making enough money. Ultimately, she gives up the baby for adoption. Meanwhile, the father of the child, Mike (David Manners) leaves the country, not having known about the baby in the first place. Sally changes her name to Mimi Benton and becomes a successful torch singer, drinking and partying in excess. Mimi then gets hired as the host of a radio talk show for kids and soon realizes she can use the show as a means for finding her daughter and as always…DRAMA ENSUESSSS.

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Welcome to pre-code cinema, guys!

Here are just a few reasons you need to check out Torch Singer!

The Cast

This movie, to me, is all about Claudette Colbert. It’s a fairly short film and she carries it. She finds a way to have you like her character, despite some of the bad choices she makes. This was still a year off from It Happened One Night, and obviously much more “out there,” but it’s still our same Claudette, sassy as ever!

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I can’t help but look at this gif and be like, what is that guy doing? #NeedsSomeDancingLessons?

David Manners, who was famous for his roles in horror films like Dracula and The Mummy, plays Sally/Mimi’s love interest, Mike. I’d like to say he plays a big part and you feel so much when they’re reunited, but honestly, he’s okay. It’s Claudette’s movie.

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He’s trying to be sassy, but he can’t pull it off. #RealTalk

The Script

Here we get to the fun that is pre-code. The lines are hilarious and pushing boundaries. The screenplay based on the story “Mike” by Grace Perkins, was adapted by two women, Lenore J. Coffee and Lynn Starling. As such, there’s a sensitivity to the script that I think sets it apart from other “women’s pictures” which were written by men. The story itself was tabboo just in showing an unwed woman becoming pregnant in the first place, not to mention the real doubts she has as to what kind of mother she will be. It definitely feels like it’s from a female point of view.

Additionally, I love that the star of this film is not the romance, but the reuniting of a mother and her child. That is where the emotional weight lies in this film, not with her ex-lover, but with her daughter. For a film that’s only a little over an hour, Torch Singer and Colbert’s performance has a lot to it.

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I’M
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NOT
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CRYINNNNG.

The Lines:

Okay, there’s just too many good ones not to share a few:

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or:

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and this one where Mike tells Mimi she’s become hard:

 

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The Singing

I’m also a musical fanatic as most people who know me know and as such, I get a kick out of seeing Claudette sing her torch songs with her raspy, yet still beautiful, voice.

It’s a sweet, feminist melodrama and a great introduction to pre-code cinema!

Written by two women, starring a woman, and about a woman’s struggles, this film is definitely a #FeministClassic and it’s great way into pre-code cinema, where women really got their chance to shine, in shades of grey as all different kinds of people. There’s no trailer for the film unfortunately, but take my advice, go out and buy the Pre-Code Hollywood Collection set from Universal. It’s one-hundred percent worth it and I promise, you’ll be a pre-code convert after devouring those films!

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A mother’s advice. Maybe a bit soon for a seven year-old, but whatever…

Gifs and photos property of Paramount Pictures.

The Film that won Olivia De Havilland her first Academy Award

A few weeks back, I saw a new film in theaters which is surprising considering this has been such a bad year for movies. That film was called A Light Between Oceans. The film was not bad nor was it very good. But, it did make me think about a movie I saw a while back called To Each His Own, mostly because the plot was, like, ninety percent the same.

I’ve spoken about Olivia De Havilland twice before on this blog when I wrote about Gone With the Wind and The Heiress, which makes me laugh because I’ve only recently started watching the bulk of her films. I came across To Each His Own when TCM was honoring De Havilland for her 100th birthday. It’s not remembered as a standout classic film, but more just remembered as the film which won Olivia her first Oscar.

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Wasn’t she gorgeous? #FASHIONGOALS // Courtesy of Culturalist.com

I, however, really enjoyed it. If you’re not familiar, To Each His Own is a small character drama about a middle-aged woman named Jody Norris (De Havilland), who’s looking back on her youth when she lived in a small town and had a baby out of wedlock. Because the town is so small, she concocts a plan to keep the baby without anyone knowing it’s hers.

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The foolproof plan…#UMMM

However, the plan goes awry. The baby is adopted by a friend of hers (whose own baby just died). Jody plans to tell them everything and take her baby back, but her father stops her, telling her she’d ruin her baby’s life (really meaning his reputation). Later, after her father passes, she tries to get her baby back and does but the child doesn’t want her. He wants his “real parents.” Dejected, she sends the child back to live with the adoptive parents. DRAMMMMMMA.

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Some baby MAMA drama. #ImSoFunny

Here are just a few reasons you should check out To Each His Own:

The Cast

Obviously, this was the role than won Olivia De Havilland her first Oscar and her performance is certainly worthy. Not only does she convincingly play her character as a middle-aged woman and a young ingenue, but she also gives us the big emotional moments in a quiet, understated, authentic way. Director Mitchell Leisen was so convinced De Havilland would win an Oscar for her performance that at the end of shooting, he gave her a charm bracelet with a mini Oscar on it.

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If Oscars could be won for BEST HAIR…

Broadway actor John Lund had his theatrical debut with this film. He played Captain Bart Cosgrove, Olivia’s love interest, and also played their son whom she meets in her middle age. He’s quite remarkable because even though you can tell it’s the same actor playing both roles, his mannerisms are completely different.

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He’s singing to her here by the way…

The Direction

The script was by Olivia’s own admission, a “conventional soap opera (TCM Article).” She believed the only person who could make it more than that would be Director Mitchell Leisen, whom she had been directed by in the film which won her her first Oscar nom, Hold Back the Dawn. He was unenthusiastic about directing this particular film, but Olivia insisted and so, he worked to improve the script as much as possible and went all in.

As production went on, he apparently did become more enthusiastic and Olivia credits Leisen’s direction with her Oscar win. In reading about the film, what stands out about his direction is how detail-oriented he was. Whether it was about something out of place for the time period or a slight tweak to Olivia’s performance, he was a perfectionist. He didn’t want to be a hired hand; he was more than that.

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An example of the small moments Leisen captured…

The Story

This is really what it’s all about. Now, it’s true that this story has some soap-operatic elements. However, what I love is that the film is rich in character development and emotional moments. It’s not an original story – there are several variations on this concept including two of my favorite films, The Torch Singer and Bachelor Mother. 

Much of this film surrounds the drama between Jody and the family that is raising her child. It’s a contentious situation. The other family is not willing to give him up and Jody eventually blackmails them into getting him back only to come to the realization that her son doesn’t want to be with her.

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Her eyes are crazy THOUGH…#Amiright?

This is a theme which is shown again in the film I mentioned at the beginning of this article, The Light Between Oceans. That film is dramatically much darker, but it does also cover the heartbreak that occurs when the parent is reunited with their child, only to be ultimately rejected.

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Having to watch your child grow up without you…

To me, this story is really pondering the question, “What makes someone a parent?” Is it simply the biological component or is it being there for the child, as a parent would be? Obviously, in ideal situations it’s both. But, many aren’t that lucky. As a child, having a present adult in your life who loves you and cares about your well-being means more than what it biologically means to be a parent.

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HEART BREAKING…

That’s really what makes the tale so heartbreaking. In both films, it’s not the biological parent’s fault that their child grew up with another family. But, that doesn’t change the reality that the child doesn’t see their biological parent as their “real” one.

It’s a sincere and moving melodrama

In the hands of less talented people, this film could have been a sappy, annoying soap opera. But because of Leisen and De Havilland’s brilliant performance, the material is lifted into being a emotional and earnest story about the love between a mother and her child. I don’t want to ruin the film’s ending, but I will say it’s a beautiful one. Any mothers out there will probably tear up. Who am I kidding? I’m not a mother and I teared up. All of you will be tearing up…or maybe I’ll say, you should be.

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Olivia De Havilland is EVERYTHING. 

Below is a link to the full movie, on Youtube. Enjoy the feels. 😭

Main Photo and Gifs – Copyright of Paramount Pictures

 

Forgotten Gems: Max Ophuls’ ‘Caught’

Throughout my life, I’ve been told that it’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as it is a poor man. No doubt an adage from a different time, I’m fairly sure it’s my mom’s ambition in life to marry me off to a rich man. Okay, so maybe I’m being a bit extreme. She also wants him to be nice and have good values and stuff. But, rich is up there…

Over this labor day weekend, I was introduced to a film that attempts to answer the question, “Does marrying rich equal happiness?” The film is Caught. Made in 1949, Caught marked the first film that James Mason made in America. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t want to see it when my dad first pitched it to me – I said “Another film noir?” I tend to get annoyed because the only thing my dad wants to watch is film noir, but this one is different and well worth the watch.

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Every girl’s dream…apparently. #FANTASY

If you’re unfamiliar, Caught follows Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes), a young, idealistic, poor girl. She wants to move up in life and so, decides to go to charm school where she’ll be given the tools she need to not just have the job she wants, but the husband she wants too. She gets lucky, marrying Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), but she quickly finds out wealth is not enough alone to make her happy. Ohlrig, who treats her like his employee, tells her to take a trip. Instead, she decides to get a job as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. It’s there that she meets Dr. Larry Quinada (James Mason) who she develops an attraction to. Only one problem – she’s still married! Let’s just say DRAMA ENSUES.

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RICH!!! #MoneyFixesEverythingRight?

Here are just a few reasons you need to check out Caught ASAP:

The Cast

The cast is everything in Caught. Although the film was marketed using James Mason, its star was really Barbara Bel Geddes. Though most know her from the long running TV soap Dallas or her small role in Vertigo, Bel Geddes had quite an impressive early career. She starred in films made by George Stevens and Elia Kazan and played opposite stars like Henry Fonda and Irene Dunne. But, this film is really her shining moment. In watching her, it’s easy to see how naturally talented she was. As my dad put it, she was not a drop-dead gorgeous beauty like Ava Gardner; instead, she was a softer beauty, the “girl next door.” In essence, she looked like someone you could actually know.

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I’m sorry…why did everyone want mink coats again? #HAIRGOALS

As I already said, Caught was James Mason’s first film in America. At the time, he was already known across the pond in England. I had, of course, seen James Mason in many films before this, but I’d never thought of him as a romantic lead. This film changed my mind. He was around forty at the time he made Caught and probably at his most handsome. But, really what was so attractive about him in this film is the intelligence he exudes. He’s attractive, yes. But, he also seems like a real person. He’s believable and genuine and I’m gonna say it, sexy.

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Look at those dimples. #SWOON

Robert Ryan is also wonderful as Smith Ohlrig, the Howard Hughes-inspired millionaire Leonora marries. So easily this character could have been one note – the evil villain. But there are moments when he seems human too and that, I think, is thanks Ryan’s nuanced performance.

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What a “silly girl!” #DatingIsFun

The Script

The script was written by Arthur Laurents, who also wrote West Side Story, Rope and The Way We Were. Though the film was adapted from Libbie Block’s book Wild Calendar, much inspiration was taken from director Ophuls experience working for Howard Hughes.

I was surprised at how frank the film was, not just in regards to marriage but also in its recognition of a woman’s position in the late 1940’s. This is from a female point of view and it recognizes that a woman’s options during that time were limited. I love that Mason’s character tells her not to make decisions because of social conventions, i.e. how it’s going to look.

I was particularly fascinated by the lack of options Leonora had. She couldn’t just get divorced from her husband. Beyond how her reputation would have been ruined (which IMHO is bullshit), there was unequal power. Her husband had immense resources at his disposal and she had none. He could ruin her and would ruin her if she crossed him.

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James Mason doesn’t mess around. #RealTalk

The Romance

If you’ve read any of my other posts, you know I’m obsessed with romance and Caught is no exception. Even though there are only a few romantic scenes in the film, I couldn’t help but ship James Mason and Barbara Bel Geddes’ affair. Their chemistry is real and understated. It kind of reminded me of the romance in Waitress or Suspicion. Get ready to swoon!

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My heart drops.
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That smile when he says OK….#ThoseSuspendersTHOUGH
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First comes love, then comes marriage…
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Something about black&white, amiright?

The Direction 

Max Ophuls, also known as Max Oppenheimer, made most of his films in France. He was only in the U.S. from 1941 to 1950. Most of the films he made were period romances. Max had been fired from Vendetta, a film which was produced by Howard Hughes. Caught is an amalgam of genres. It’s a melodrama and a thriller, but also, based on the stylistic choices and subject matter, a film noir. A famous, talented filmmaker in his own right, Jean Luc Godard called Caught,“Max’s best American film (Godard, TCM Article).”

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Uh oh….#WomanInPeril

The Cinematography

Though this was not an A-film, the production values were high. This is especially true in regards to the cinematography. Lee Garmes, who was famous for films like Scarface (the original 30’s film) and Duel in the Sun, shot the film with subtlety, letting moments unfold organically. He worked for producer David O. Selznick quite a bit and it is rumored that shot a large portion of Gone With the Wind.

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Those angles THOUGH.

It’s a thrilling, thought-provoking melodrama with incredible performances

The world has changed quite a bit since the late 1940’s, especially in regards to the way we define traditional male and female roles in society. However, this film is still relevant. It comments on society’s expectations and also criticizes them. It’s true that with wealth comes security, but that’s only in regards to financial matters. True security comes with accepting and loving both yourself and your partner. One without the other does not equal fulfillment.

It’s always a joy when I see a wonderful film which is not as well known as the major classics. It’s like uncovering treasure. Imagine this: this film was made almost seventy years ago and yet, there’s a lot to say.

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#REALTALK

I would put a link to the trailer below, but the whole movie happens to be on Youtube. So, happy watching!