Friday, March 01, 2013

HOLLYWOOD BEFORE THE CODE: DEEPER, DARKER, NASTIER!!—BLOOD MONEY (1933)

Perhaps the most salacious quality of Blood Money (1933) [IMDb, Wikipedia]—the second half of tonight's opening night double-bill of Elliot Lavine's pre-Code series "Hollywood Before the Code: Deeper, Darker, Nastier!!"—is its endearing portrayals of transvestism and sadomasochism, which titillate and entertain (and/or offend) audiences as much today as they did 70+ years ago. Directed by Rowland Brown and based on a script that conflated Brown's short story "Bail Bond" with reporter Speed Kendall's short story "Bail Me Out," Blood Money's crime narrative concerns crooked bail bondsman Bill Bailey (George Bancroft) and the erotic triangulation he negotiates between longtime lover Ruby Darling (stage actress Judith Anderson in her film debut), and thrill-seeking socialite Elaine Talbart (Frances Dee). The film was considered to be lost for nearly 40 years before reappearing.

Unimpressed with the particeps criminis of Blood Money's "pavement plot", New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall expressed moral indignation: "This whimsical little tale of thievery, thuggery and attempted slaughter was mistaken for entertainment by Darryl Zanuck" but those "unfortunate enough to want some suggestion of logic in their motion pictures will be somewhat disappointed in this effusion." Overall, Hall characterized Blood Money as "flat stuff". Consider Hall's priggish disdain all the more reason to catch this rare screening.

There's great information on Blood Money at the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) website, including a detailed plot synopsis, and the following discussion of the film's hurdles with the censors: "According to a memo in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the Maryland State Motion Picture Board initially banned this film on the grounds that it was 'salacious and would incite law-abiding citizens to crime.' The ruling was appealed by the Baltimore United Artists manager to Judge Samuel K. Dennis of the Baltimore City Court, who reversed the censor board's decision. While Judge Dennis stated in his decision that the film was 'ineffective' as far as inciting anyone to commit crimes, he called it 'objectionable on the grounds of extreme stupidity and dullness rather than on moral grounds.' Bernard B. Gough, the chairman of the censor board, stated that he could not appeal the reversal because the law made no provision for an appeal. In 1934, this film was on the first list of films banned for members of the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency. In July 1935, PCA Director Joseph Breen ruled that the film was in violation of both the spirit and letter of the Production Code because of 'the portrayal of a crook as the sympathetic leading character, and the complete absence of any attempt to portray the forces of law and order as opposing his illegal activities.' "


At TCM's companion blog Movies Morlocks, Moira Finnie observes: "Made at Twentieth Century Productions a little over a year before their merger with Fox Studios in 1935, the film went ahead in the first year of Darryl Zanuck's stewardship of the studio. It was one of the movies that seems to reflect the young mogul's brashly iconoclastic Warner Brothers' roots. Featuring themes centered around an exploitive relationship between the corrupt rich and the underworld, the symbiotic ties between criminals and police, loyalty among thieves that was often more reliable than conventional morality, shifting gender roles, and the stranger fruits of human desire, it is far less known than other crime films of that same period, such as Little Caesar and Public Enemy."

Finnie also details the problems George Bancroft was having with his career at the time. Bancroft was as much a victim of the transition from silent films to talkies as he was of his own inflated ego. "He reportedly became more difficult to work with," Finnie writes, "refusing direction at times, and allegedly claiming in one scene in which his character was to die that 'One bullet can't kill Bancroft!' " It had been a year since he had been cast in a film and his appearance in Blood Money seemed a transparent effort on Zanuck's part to revive his flailing career, as noted in Mordaunt Hall's New York Times review, though Hall does concede: "Mr. Bancroft does as well as his role permits."

Blood Money marked the film debut of Judith Anderson (better known for her next role seven years later as lesbian housekeeper Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca). As Ruby Darling she plays a "nightclub hostess", which—as Dennis Harvey has so wryly pointed out in his preview of the Roxie pre-Code series—is no doubt a euphemism for the world's oldest profession, often "never exactly named" in these pre-Code narratives. "This latest Roxie series," he notes, "features plenty of its practitioners, dames at once hard-boiled and over-easy but ready to go soft for an upstanding guy."

Ruby Darling goes soft for Bill Bailey, that's for sure, though calling him "upstanding" would be a stretch. Mordaunt Hall complained that Anderson—already well-admired for her stage performances—floundered in "a part which does not give her any great opportunity to display her real ability." But Moira Finnie counters: "Anderson's presence ... is that of a glamorously assertive, sensual woman who realizes Bailey's many weaknesses may be part of his appeal for her. Having helped Bancroft when he was thrown off the police, she shares a fondness for her boyfriend's tendency to play both sides of the street, and appears to wield an unusual amount of power for a female character in what is superficially a gangster film. While Judith Anderson would play another powerful criminal in Lady Scarface (1941), this is actually a better role than that simpler later film. Exercising more influence over other denizens of the underworld as the story develops, Anderson brings some of the authority that she must have had playing in her classical stage roles to this part."

"Frances Dee is attractive as the silly society girl," Hall comments succinctly. A more provocative characterization comes from Danny Peary who describes Elaine Talbart as "a woman years ahead of her time." Dee is familiar to me largely through her role in Val Lewton's I Walked With A Zombie (1943), and her turn in Blood Money is—in my estimation—the film's most fascinating character. When Dee was interviewed for the TCM documentary Complicated Women (2002), she described her character Elaine Talbart as "a rather weird character, to say the least. She was a kleptomaniac, a nymphomaniac, and anything in between." Her enthusiasm for masochism would put a gay power bottom to shame. One of her best lines is: "What I need is someone to give me a good thrashing. I'd follow him around like a dog on a leash."

When she meets Ruby Darling's brutish younger brother Drury Darling (Chick Chandler) at the racetrack, Elaine "goes for the thief like a feline does catnip" (Ivan G. Shrieve, Jr.) and thrills in his rough kisses that "hurt her lip." And her closing scene, as described by Leonard Maltin, is "a knockout." (Best left unspoiled.)  Finnie adds: "According to her biographer, Andrew Wentnik, 'When a friend … admonished her for playing a prostitute in Blood Money (1933), she denied it saying, 'I played a masochistic nymphomaniacal kleptomaniac, not a prostitute.' "  Incidentally, during the scene at the racetrack when Talbart falls for Drury, he's in the company of two women, one who is Lucille Ball in an uncredited role.

Another uncredited role of note would be Katherine Williams who IMDb describes as the "Nightclub Woman Wearing Monocle". In one of my favorite scenes from the film, Bill Bailey enters Ruby Darling's "nightclub" and encounters a mannish young woman at the bar dressed in a suit and sporting a monocle. He offers her a cigar. She smells it and scoffs, "You big sissy!" As the rough Drury Darling is initially depicted as this cross-dressing woman's partner—he chases after her—one wonders who's zooming who in this S&M merry-go-round?

But all that might be a blind, of course. For a solid queer reading of her character, check out Butch In Progress. "Her outfit," they write, "gorgeous as it is, could be used as an example of 'How to dress a lesbian in classic film'." They're quoting from David M. Lugowski's essay "Queering the New Deal: Lesbian and Gay Representation and the Depression-era cultural Politics of Hollywood's Production-Code" where Lugowski writes: "At her most overt, the lesbian was clad in a mannishly tailored suit (often a tuxedo), her hair slicked back or cut in a short bob. She sometimes sported a monocle and cigarette holder (or cigar!) and invariably possessed a deep alto voice and a haughty, aggressive attitude toward men, work, or any business at hand. Objections arose because she seemed to usurp male privilege; perhaps the pansy seemed to give it up."

Within that same scene is a fantastic performance by Blossom Seeley who, Mordaunt Hall writes, "wears a big hat and sings", though her performance is much more engaging than that for situating Mae West's bawdy influences. According to notes at TCM, Variety speculated that some of Blossom Seeley's scenes were cut. How unfortunate!

 

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