Tuesday, September 9, 2014

From the DVR: Bette Davis Double Feature - Parachute Jumper (1933) and Ex-Lady (1933)

If you’ve been making tuning in The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ on Fridays a regular habit this month, you’re no doubt aware that Tee Cee Em is featuring in its “Friday Night Spotlight” movies made during Hollywood’s famed “pre-Code” era.  There’s a lot to watch in September—though admittedly I’ve seen most of the movies—but there are a few features with which I’m unfamiliar (and a couple I don’t own), and so the Toshiba has been getting a regular workout.  Chiefly among these “I-don’t-owns” were a trio of Bette Davis potboilers from her ingénue days at Warners; I also recorded Bette in The Big Shakedown (1934) but have not had a chance to look at it yet.

Parachute Jumper (1933) spotlights Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Frank McHugh as Bill Keller and Toodles Cooper, a pair of Marine Corps flyers who’ve finished their commitment to Uncle Sam and soon hope to be gainfully employed with a company that has promised to hire them as commercial pilots.  Sadly, they arrive at the business’ main office in the Big Apple…and learn that their employer has gone out of business.  It’s the Depression, kiddies, and our heroes are soon pounding the pavements in search of work.

While making his pavement rounds one day, Bill makes the acquaintance of an out-of-work stenographer named Patricia Kent (Bette).  Keller decides he doesn’t like her name and decides to tab her “Alabama”…something I’m sure would go over big in real life, by the way.  (“No, I don’t like your name, Brittani with an ‘i’—from now on I’m calling you ‘North Dakota.’”)  Bill invites ‘Bama to move in with him and Toodles (there’s a bit of risqué business when Bill enters his lady’s boudoir one evening and Alabama makes it clear there’ll be none of that, thank-you-very-much) and soon the three of them are on the unemployment line.

Bill picks up $75 at a parachute jumping exhibition (he comes close to being run over by a train, much to Alabama’s horror) and is able to parlay that windfall into a job with a socialite (Claire Dodd) as her chauffeur (and, as subtly implied, her kept man).  That leads to Bill’s working for Kurt Weber, a bootlegger (Leo Carrillo), and a bit of trouble with the Border Patrol; Keller shoots two of their planes down believing them to be hijackers.  Realizing that it’s just a matter of time before he gets into real trouble, Alabama convinces Bill to resign…but not before Weber plans on framing Keller by hiding narcotics (dope!) into the booze contraband.

Leonard Maltin describes Jumper in his Classic Movie Guide as a “fast-moving, enjoyable Warner Bros. programmer”; I don’t know what Len considers “fast-moving”…but if I catch myself looking at my watch while I’m watching a movie I can assure you that ain't it.  I didn’t dislike Jumper but the screenplay (courtesy of John Francis Larkin, from a story by Rian James) often seems like it was written during a furious session of Mad-Libs.  I probably liked it better than its leading lady, who considered Jumper her least favorite of all her films.  Bette wasn’t fond of the film’s director, either; she thought Alfred E. Green (who would direct her in the film that nabbed her one of two Best Actress Oscars, Dangerous) possessed “an infantile sense of humor.”  (William Dieterle was originally signed to direct Jumper, but the picture he was working on ran over and he handed the reins to Green.) For that matter, Davis’ leading man, Doug, Jr., didn’t particularly think Bette was a load of laughs (though he did admire her work ethic).

But I’ll say this for Davis: she gives her all even when she’s having to wallow through slop like this, and she, Fairbanks and McHugh make a nice trio.  The ubiquitous Harold Huber plays Carrillo’s goon, and I got a chuckle out of seeing Walter Brennan as a counterman and Nat Pendleton as a cop who pulls Fairbanks over for speeding.  (There are quick bits from Leon Ames, Stanley Blystone, George Chandler and Dewey Robinson, too.)

I recently watched Barbara Stanwyck’s Illicit (1931) for a “Where’s That Been?” entry at ClassicFlix...and so  I decided to take in Ex-Lady as well, the 1933 remake.  La Bette plays an illustrator in this one; a free-spirited gal who’s quite taken with ad man Gene Raymond…why, they’re even canoodling despite the fact that they’re not (gasp!) married!  But Bette’s pa and ma (Alphonse Ethier, Bodil Rosing) highly disapprove, and even Raymond’s leaning toward tying the knot and making the darn thing legal.

So the two lovebirds do the rice-and-old-shoes thing, and no sooner are they back from their honeymoon when Raymond gets word that his business isn’t doing well, and that starts to put a strain on the marriage.  (Well, that and his dalliance with one of Bette’s dearest friends, played by Kay Strozzi.)  In an attempt to save their union, Bette proposes (well, that might be a poor choice of words) that the two of them live separately but still see one another; that just makes matters worse, with Bette spending time in the company of an oily gigolo (Monroe Owsley).  The two of them finally agree that though their marriage isn’t perfect, love will help them through the rough patches.

I consider Ex-Lady a better film than the original for a number of reasons: I think Robert Florey’s direction is better (Archie Mayo helmed the Stanwyck original) and Gene Raymond, though he’ll never be mistaken for one of my favorites, is far superior to the actor who plays his part in Illicit—James Rennie.  But Ex-Lady has an entry on the debit side of the ledger: I prefer Illicit’s Charles Butterworth and Joan Blondell to their Lady counterparts, Frank McHugh and Claire Dodd (I believe there was a federal law in the 1930s that either McHugh or Allen Jenkins had to be in every WB film under penalty of imprisonment—but don’t quote me on that) and Ricardo Cortez is far more convincing a homewrecker than Monroe Owsley, who looked like a guy who’d be doing my taxes.  Bette and Babs are neck-and-neck as far as the female lead goes; Davis is more convincing as a woman who can’t figure out why society dictates she should be married…but Stanwyck looks mighty fetching in that clingy kimono.

Ex-Lady was Davis’ first starring feature for Warner Brothers, and she must have had the same affinity for it that she did Parachute Jumper because director Robert Aldrich used clips from both movies in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) to demonstrate how horrible a film actress Baby Jane Hudson (Davis) really was.  You and I know, of course, an artist has to have the freedom to be bad before they’re good…and while both Davis features hardly represent her at the peak of her powers they’ll certainly entertain you if you’re in the right mood.  Jumper is available as a MOD disc from the Warner Archive...but Lady is part of a four-film set, Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 7, that's worth the purchase for Skyscraper Souls (1932) and Employees' Entrance (1933).


Danny said...

I actually liked Illicit marginally more than Ex-Lady, if only because Ex tries too hard to explain why the main character wants to be free of marriage rather than just let her want that. If that makes any sense.

And if you want a truly useless Bette performance, check out Fashions of 1934, where she's pretty much stuck playing the guard at the asylum while William Powell, Frank McHugh and Hugh Herbert run berserk.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Ex tries too hard to explain why the main character wants to be free of marriage rather than just let her want that. If that makes any sense.

Makes perfect sense, and I think you raise a legitimate point. Illicit doesn't bother with all that expository nonsense, so I think it all boils down to personal preference (again, I wish Ex-Lady had supporting actors the caliber of Butterworth and Blondell...and a better title, come to think of it).

And if you want a truly useless Bette performance, check out Fashions of 1934, where she's pretty much stuck playing the guard at the asylum while William Powell, Frank McHugh and Hugh Herbert run berserk.

We could destroy an old-growth forest writing up Bette's WTF assignments like Jimmy the Gent and Satan Met a Lady. I've seen Fashions, and she looks uncomfortable in it...but the beauty of Bette is she's too much of a professional to really just say "to hell with it" and start phoning it in.