Tuesday, October 11, 2011


This 1933 pre-code movie was not only shown on TCM recently, but over four minutes were added to it which weren't in the movie when it first came out or for most of the decades since. A negative of the full film was found several years ago in I think New Zealand!

The most fascinating thing about BABY FACE are those four some minutes, because what they show as part of the influence a German immigrant cobbler has on the young woman played by a very young Barbara Stanwyck is him introducing her to the ideas of Nietzsche!

The film is bold enough in other ways that once the movie code was introduced would not be seen again until the 1970s and afterward, if even then. For instance, Stanwyck's motherless character has obviously been sexually abused, pimped by her father (and there's even a hint that he may have abused her as well)! And the only person she trusts and the only constant person in her life is an African-American young woman her age and equally as attractive (they both seem in their teens when the movie begins).

But it's also the close ups of a book by Nietzsche and another of some lines from the book that were cut from the original and seem so extreme even now. That and the insitence from the cobbler that Stanwyck's character is smart enough to rise in the world if she uses her sex appeal to make men do what she wants, using these men as stepping stones to more and more wealth and therefore security for herself (remember this was at the beginning of The Great Depression).

It's a tour de force performance by Stanwyck (which isn't that uncommon with her). The only drawback is that some of the actors seem to be still in silent films (with the exception of a boyishly young John Wayne in a tiny part). And George Brent plays the male lead, an actor who was always cast as the big handsome hero even, as here, long after he actually looked like one.

Speaking of silent movie mugging, STREET SCENE is one of the most amazing historical documents I've ever seen from Hollywood and had never seen until TCM showed it last week. It stars Sylvia Sydney, another amazing actress from the early 1930s and beyond (though her appeal as a romantic lead diminished rapidly making her a "character actor" only years after being a sex symbol star, as opposed to Stanwyck whose sex appeal lasted well into her fifties).

This film is shot almost entirely on one set, play-like (it's adapted from the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Elmer Rice play), on the steps in front of a tenement building in Manhattan in which tenants of various ethnic origin live their lives relatively publicly. Half the actors seem to still be acting in silent films and others seem to be acting for the stage. But Sydney and a handful of others work so intimately for film that they anchor the rest of the cast in a pre-code reality that again is harshly realistic.

Some of that reality is skewed in unexpected ways, unexpected that is if you know history only from the movies in the decades that followed. For instance there is a lot of outright anti-semiticism in the story, yet the Jewish family—a "pappa," older sister and brother—are depicted as the smartest people in the building, and in many ways the most moral and heroic ("poppa" is politically radical, even Utopian, a man of ideas, the sister is a self-sacrificing teacher, giving up her own life to help her family, particularly her brother, the young self-tormented scholar his sister intends to see gets to go to law school).

And, something that did not surprise me but may others, the real villains of the flick are all Irish-Americans, who for the most part are prejudiced bullies, male and female. The single Italian immigrant is happy-go-lucky full of life (and admiration for Mussolini!) and married to the single German-immigrant (very interesting, especially considering that the rare cross ethnic marriages at that time were mostly between Irish and German Catholics) who is also jolly and of course competent, etc.

The only African-Americans and Asian-Americans are incidental, part of the scenery. But it's still an amazingly various cast of characters pretty realistically portrayed, and Sylvia Sydney is wonderful to watch.

This is a more recent flick, last year in fact. A star vehicle, as they used to say, for an aging Robert Duvall playing a rural hermit-like character who wants to stage his own funeral (which was in all the trailers and ads so I'm not giving anything away). He is, of course, magnificent in it. As is Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray and others in the cast. It's worth watching for the acting. Though the payoff in the plot did not entirely work for me, I was still moved to tears.

This has elements of recent action movies and recent comedies that I'm sure the filmmakers thought would guarantee big audiences, especially since it stars the seemingly unendingly popular Seth Rogen as the usual "everyman" character only this time one who becomes a superhero, sort of.

What ruined the fun of the action scenes and the comedy for me though, and perhaps added to the failure of the film in terms of the kind of success expected for it, was the violence. Watching a supposed "hero" kick a person who is lying on the ground, already incapacitated, and do it repeatedly in some cases, took away any positive feelings I had for this supposed "hero" or the actor playing him, Seth Rogen. (And I think this behavior was meant to be funny, like the "hero" is only capable of kicking an already down man after his Asian "sidekick" "Cato" as actually subdued the villain!)

Back in the day, Robert Redford, like many classic Hollywood stars, would refuse to play characters whose actions he felt his audience would not accept from him. Smart move. It's what made many of the old stars last so long.

I find Rogen funny at times, pleasant at times, aggravatingly self-satisfied with his own humor at times, but I never felt any strong antipathy for him until I saw this flick, and didn't even recognize it until I thought about it afterwards.

So, I don't recommend THE GREEN HORNET to anyone, even for a little escapist entertainment.


Anonymous said...

I "grew up" watching The Green Hornet on our ARVIN radio...

used to put on my home-made Green Hornet Mask and

listen I think that the Superman show and maybe Batman seal STOLE a lot of "stuff" from the Green Hornet serial

like Kato... this gotta be about the GH broadcasts around 1949 through about 1955 !

I think that Eddie Walker still broadcasts Green Hornet episodes on his Old Time Radio Show !

Tom King said...

thanks for the recommendations. Baby Face is going on my netflix queue