Down Yesteryear Lane

(I’ll occasionally re-post some of the stuff from my old website. Of those which represented my sometimes slightly puzzled encounters with old movies, this was one I thought came off ok.)

An Everyday Tale Of Spatchcocked Ladies In Giant Wheels, Husband-Purchasing, And Explosives Ill-Advisedly Detonated By Way Of Sledgehammer. Plus Guitar Ballad.

DYNAMITE (1929)

This astounding movie relic kicks off, and just about kicks the bucket, with an antediluvian courtroom scene of tremendous bucket-slopping emotion, acted substantially slower than real time, and with a sense of legal procedure apparently derived from a close study of the famous novels of Lewis Carroll.

This could well be the granddaddy of all movie cliché courtroom scenes, and they don’t miss a trick, unfortunately. All you need to know is that a taciturn miner – who sure talks a lot for a tight-lipped kind of guy, and slowly – gets convicted of a murder he didn’t commit and sentenced to death. That’s Charles Bickford, and we’ll be getting back to him later in the picture.

Next we’re in the jazz age, with flappers and floppers and possibly even a flat-foot floogie with a floy-floy, somewhere up the back of one of the more debauched ensemble scenes. This is where you become more keenly aware that our directorial host is none other than Cecil B. “Ready when you are, Mr” DeMille, who before he got around to making his famously vulgar epic movies sanctified by Biblical references apparently used to have a pretty snappy line in cheerily dirty movies concerning “marital complications”, sanctified by a bit of sleight of hand moralisation in the tail end of the closing innings. *

We meet our outstandingly feckless heroine (Kay Johnson) as she is light-heartedly devastating the hopes of the three grim old vultures who are the executors of the trust left to her by her departed father, who must have sensed the loop-de-loop direction her life was heading in, or maybe he just marked the gin bottles at home. The vultures want her to settle down and approximate a regular human being, a point on which Fey Kay is only too keen to disillusion them, her chief ammunition being that the guy she’s in love with is already inconveniently married to someone else. We leave the old birds to fizz and pop like bottles of home-brewed beer, but not before they’ve subtly dropped a 200 kilo anchor of plot development that if KJ doesn’t get married by a certain (and, unsurprisingly, imminent) date, she loses her whole inheritance, which will go to a shelter for mad cats, or institute of advanced gopher research, or something disappointing along those lines.

We then whiz along with Kay to someone or other’s palatial estate, where we meet the straying hubby, a dashing moustachioed breadstick played by Conrad Nagel, who looks like a Conrad Nagel, and even sounds like a Conrad Nagel. But don’t ring now – there’s more. We also meet the wife (Julia Faye), a fellow society dingbat – and what a dingbat – who doesn’t seem to care that her polo-jockey hubby is fooling around with Fey Kay in plain sight, and it turns out there’s a reason for that. She’s got her own branch-line relationship, with a young hunk played by a very young Joel McCrea with his chest thrust out and an anxious air suggesting that all these society hijinx aren’t quite his area, and he’s looking around for the football helmet and football field he’s misplaced.

All this fierce modernity is getting a little wearing, so Cec does the only thing that makes sense under the circumstances and cranks it up five or six notches. We meet the whole society rent-a-crowd who seem to spend most of their on-screen time urgently flouting prohibition and drinking most of the eastern seaboard dry. Every possible readymade character template is religiously exploited, right down to the comedy relief guy whose character name is actually “Life of the Party” right there in the credits.

Conrad, who is no oil painting between his high forehead and soup-strainer moustache, has such a “Top Hole! What Fun! Awfully good sport, old man!” approach to absolutely everything that he inadvertently becomes the comedy hero of the picture. However he has morals, apparently, and won’t park his polo pony in Kay Johnson’s well-maintained stable until his marriage is officially kaput. His wife – zesty and mildly insane little funster that she is – is a little flighty over putting an end-date on the pantomime marriage, so while Nagel is temporarily detained elsewhere – possibly conducting scientific tests to determine the tightest polo shirt which can be worn by human males without crushing the chest to the consistency of laundry powder – the two she-wolves calmly barter a cash price to determine his freedom, in a scene which seemingly takes us from breezy-moralled ultra-modernity into the vague area of white slavery.

Meanwhile, back in the Big House, Charles Bickford is cooling his heels, waiting patiently for the gallows to be manufactured, an activity which is being inconsiderately conducted at irritating volume directly outside his barred window. Just his luck to get sent to a prison which had never executed anyone before, and had to knock up a gallows from scratch, I guess. Even worse, there’s a guy in a nearby cell who plays guitar and sings, and just wait till you hear the dilly of a song he’s singing. If I was Bickford, I’d have asked to be put on work detail on the scaffold just to get the thing up quicker and get away from the guitar guy.

Soon Kay Johnson turns up so we can eventually weld the two halves of the movie together, and that’s probably about as much thought as went into the enterprise. She has to get married to someone who won’t stick around and get in the way, Bickford needs money so his kid sister won’t get thrown into an orphanage after his neck gets stretched, and soon we’re joined by a priest and a watchful warden and the two protagonists are hitched.

This is a sequence more harrowing than virtually any in a legitimate horror picture in movie history. While Dynamite is technologically pretty advanced for an early-ish sound movie, the one problem they clearly hadn’t nailed was how to mix sound from various sources. All the sound in any scene is quite audible, but it’s all equally audible, whether it’s a vague waft of background atmosphere or featured dialogue.** So in this scene, you have a nightmarish aural tableau consisting of the two featured players, the unfortunately ultra-realistic droning tones of the priest, Guitar George nasally brutalising his way through possibly the most punishingly dreary song ever committed to film, and the relentless hammering of the unseen Keystone Kops Konstruction Krew directly outside the window – all at precisely the same level, which is, if absolutely nothing else, loud.

You could conceivably use this soundtrack today, on a tape loop, to torture suspected spies into a willing and detailed confession in record time, whether or not they’d actually committed the acts of which they were accused. It may be the longest five minutes in a non art-movie, outside of the scene in The Bellboy where Jerry Lewis endlessly fumbles around with a few ice-cubes and pulls faces into the camera while character actors the calibre of Peter Lorre and Hans Conried have to stand around in the background trying not to look bored.

The very next day, via a sub-plot so blatantly, and cackhandedly, inserted purely for the purposes of advancing the otherwise unrelated action the viewer may feel the need for recourse to a neck-brace, the real murderer is discovered and Bickford is set free. This initiates the odd problem for Kay Johnson, in particular that the husband she’s got isn’t one she wants, and the husband she wants is still technically someone else’s.

It also initiates the odd problem for us, in that we’re still only about one third of the way into the picture, and it turns out there’s still roughly two completely different movies to work our way through before we’re shot of the whole business.

Basically these break down into the fish-out-of-water movie where to fulfil the terms of her inheritance – there’s a late-breaking scenario development where it’s revealed that it’s not enough she was married by a certain date, she also has to be living with the guy on that date, which is around the time your suspicions are confirmed that they’re pretty much making up this tune as they’re humming along – Fey Kay has to park her hold-all in Bickford’s house in his mining hometown, and cook, clean etc for a week for a reliable, and not noticeably unpredictable, barrel of “society girl roughs it as a regular housewife” type laughs. You’ll be even less shocked when I tell you that they start to develop feelings for each other.

Then there’s movie number three, which involves all kinds of suspense, thrills, and any number of kitchen sinks as the legal team of Bickford, Johnson, and Nagel (the latter not exactly one to miss a big shindig) wind up stuck down the mine with too little oxygen, too many love interests, and the age-old problem of having plenty of dynamite to blast their way out, but a complete absence of blasting caps to set the stuff off. Hey, don’t laugh – imagine how irritating this would be if it happened to you. Anyway it’s a situation which seems entirely in place in a movie which contains a jail which has a death-row, and executes people, but inconveniently lacks a gallows with which to do so, thus requiring that one be built at the last minute. Not to mention a mine which has perpetual gas-leaks on level five and leaves a large box of dynamite down there to keep them company. And security sufficiently lax to allow two society loafers to hop the elevator down there whenever they feel like it. After a while, you get the impression that the tuxedo-clowns gargling gallons of cheap hooch in the jazz age debauch scenes weren’t the only ones on the set – apparently whoever fashioned the screenplay may also have discovered the key to the firewater cabinet.

Anyway, you’ll be relieved to know that with a bit of good ol’ American ungenuity, they hit on a solution to the dilemma, which involves hitting as the solution – someone has to take a sledgehammer and belt the dynamite, thus achieving freedom for two, and a much roomier pair of pants for the designated hitter. You get a romantic triangle, much heightened drama, a definitive resolution, and an almost impossible task left for the plucky embalmers.

Against pretty much all the odds, Dynamite is pretty giddy fun for almost the whole ramshackle ride give or take the opening mortuary of a court scene, the stuff in the prison, and yet another wayward subplot about a young boy’s life or death struggle for survival after being run over. Perhaps it’s just as well that it’s impossible to put this latter matter to a vote with modern-day viewers. The results might be less than salutary, given the already mind-buckling length of the picture, and the pretty much inescapable feeling that we’ve already got quite enough subplots, if not separate movies, to be going on with.

For a 1929 movie that runs a reel or so over the two-hour mark, it moves along quite dashingly, relatively speaking, and mostly holds the attention, sometimes out of sheer audacity in manifesting plot turns like a conjurer producing flora and fauna from various sleeves, props and trouser legs.

On the subject of trouser-legs, this is a defiantly “pre-Code” movie, which means it contains concepts, and visual demonstrations thereof, racy enough to beat the band, with enough left over to also beat the orchestra leader and any music copyists in the vicinity. *** Those of a firm belief that movies of this degree of antiquity necessarily have a certain neck-to-knee prim quaintness built in may find themselves having to call Mr Antenna to retrieve their eyebrows from the roof.

Of all Mr DeMille’s many quintessential epic movie moments, recited like incantations by buffs and critics alike down lo these many, many years, none may be more epic than the somewhat less-famous featured set-piece from Dynamite, which pits a number of young ladies against each other in a unique race, consisting of them revolving, spread-eagled, while bound in some form of giant metal wheel, and wearing what looks for all the world like elaborate, matching underwear. You can have your Ben Hur chariot race and your Moses parting the waters and all that old rope – where else can you get rotating ladies on a big lawn in multi-layered lingerie? Dynamite – that’s where.

The good news for the be-cabled is that Dynamite turns up once in a blue polo chukka on Turner Classic Movies, in a print of inexplicable crispness given the passing of eight decades and any real audience for this sort of beer-bubble polka, all the better to enjoy Conrad Nagel’s moustache and the complete absence of anything resembling sound mixing.

I strongly recommend that you see this bizarre entertainment given the opportunity – it brings new life and complete meaning to the adjective “sprawling”. It’s a little like a heartfelt, genuine utterance at a glittering awards show – there’s every chance you’ve never seen anything like it.

(8 out of 11 on the proprietary Leapster “one better” [LOB] scale)

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* Posterity, and a wayward sense of humour, demands yet another explanatory retelling of perhaps the greatest of all determinedly apocryphal of showbiz tales. Cecil B. DeMille was filming one of his famous epics, let’s say the silent version of the The Ten Commandments. There was one scene of a particular expansive and complicated nature involving horses, chariots, and thousands of tons of human extras. DeMille lined his cameramen up and explained carefully that because of the elaborate nature of the business within the scene, the epic scale, and particularly because the ending of said sequence involved the destruction of a large portion of the main set, that there was only one opportunity to film the thing, and it was imperative that it be successfully recorded first time, or the entire film would come to naught. Having drilled all talent involved, and with three cameramen all recording the action from different angles, DeMille retired with reasonable confidence to the director’s chair and called action. Amazingly, all went to perfection. Soldiers battled, chariots rumbled, the multitudes ran, those who were meant to tumble, fall, die or whatever, did so impeccably on cue, and the set was blasted completely according to plans. As the dust died down, DeMille called cut and strode to the first of the cameramen to get the post-mortem. “Did you get it?” asked the screen great, and Cameraman #1 responded, “I’m sorry Mr DeMille, with all the sand kicked up by the horses, some got in the shutter-gate, and the film was ruined. DeMille was a little shaken, but he had two other cameras rolling, and soon recovered his stride. Heading up to the next shooter, he asked “Did you get it?”, and Cameraman #2 said with a sad shake of his head, “Sorry Mr DeMille, but a stone kicked up cracked the lens and I didn’t get any of it.”
DeMille is pretty worried by now, and runs the whole distance of the set up to the third guy. He gets there panting, and gasps to the guy “You’re my last chance. The entire film stands or falls on what’s in your camera. Now tell me, did you get it?” And Cameraman #3 turns beaming to face his boss, and pipes brightly: “Ready when you are, Mr DeMille!”

This one has been told more than some of the more popular Bible stories down the years, and has seen many variations, including to what film it pertains, let alone which sequence. Often it is referred to either the silent or sound versions of Ben Hur. The chariot race in either would appear to be a natural fit for the story, but this theory still presents something of a conundrum being that neither of them were directed by Cecil B. DeMille. It would be nice to think there’s a grain of truth in it somewhere. Regardless, it is undeniably true that as a signatory definition of the application of Murphy’s Law to showbiz (or indeed any workplace, and many other applications in everyday life), as witnessed on a daily, if not hourly basis to this day, the principle of “Ready when you are, Mr DeMille” has long since ascended to a Greater Truth than any mere documentable fact.

** Anyone who’s ever tried to record an interview with a condenser microphone only later to discover phones ringing/workmen hammering/rain falling in the background recorded in blistering clarity but the interviewee’s voice somewhat anaemically twittering away semi-audibly in the ruck is familiar with the kind of sound-scape routinely captured with breathtaking alacrity in Dynamite. One potential claim to fame for this film should be more closely examined by movie historians: DeMille may have been the first to invent the use of over-lapping dialogue, some four decades before it was generally thought to have first achieved currency. A perfectly valid, though perhaps somewhat churlish question would be whether he MEANT to invent overlapping dialogue here, or whether it arose inevitably from the limitations of the technology. I say overlapping dialogue is overlapping dialogue, and it’s seldom been heard since with such a rigorous lack of clarity.

*** Since the term “pre-Code” still turns up a bit in scholarly, if not Eton-collared, film literature – and the Leonard Maltin movie guides – and the term itself may as well be considered IN code at this late juncture, a brief explanation may be necessary. When the film industry was copping considerable flak on account of its licentious ways on screen, not to mention off, a do-gooder and power-broker called Will Hays concocted something called the Motion Picture Production Code in 1930. It was a self-policing pre-release censorship method akin to the in-house “Standards and Practices” boards run by the major US television networks some years down the tracks. The idea was to get in first, and get the wowsers off the movie industry’s backs, before they could arouse popular sentiment against Hollywood and do some real damage in the box-office area. It wasn’t a purely cosmetic affair however. It was a real code, set out in some detail, which proscribed the inclusion of certain depictions, material and even approaches to characterisation. (For example, criminals couldn’t be heroes of a picture, and had to be shown to have bad things happen to them.)

It was rigorously applied from around the middle of 1934, and whatever salutary effects it may have had in building Hollywood into the world-straddling entertainment monolith it became and protecting profits from potential ravaging by God-botherers – and at least in its early years of application it did arguably assist in achieving these goals – it also, to a degree, locked Hollywood movies into a pre-pubescent “One leg on the floor next to the billiard table” approach to sexuality and many other subjects for more than 40 years, until the Code came a-tumbling down in the mid-60s, right on time to join the splintering of the old studio system into greater independence, and independents, and the fresh-air stampede of “new attitude” US movies of the late 60s and early 70s.

So ‘pre-Code’ is generally used to mean the early sound pictures made before the Motion Picture Production Code came into effect. (Though it would logically also apply to silent pictures.) For those previously unexposed to this kind of early Hollywood material, there’s a lot more lawlessness, flesh, and florid displays of underwear and kink-flavoured immorality than might be expected from the period. Once again, Turner Classic Movies seems to be the one organisation on the face of the planet whose avowed mission is to disseminate this kind of salty, fruity, three kinds o’ nuts, material, and even then, not all that frequently. But when one of these strange, unsung pre-Code beer-barrel Bacchanals turns up, you’re strongly advised from this corner to give it a burl. It’s like Hollywood made horny-handed dirty “We’re all adults here” pictures for a few years, took forty years off, and then started exactly where they’d left off. Well there was a lot more swearing in the 70s movies, but other than that, it was a case of the less things changed, the more they’d stayed the same.

Just by way of further definition, the term ‘Hays Code’ was used interchangeably with ‘Motion Picture Production Code’ and ‘The Hays Office’ was a reference to the organisation he headed on behalf of the Hollywood studios, the MPPDA – Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc. Hays regime ended in 1945. The Code stayed in place until 1966. By way of further clarification, lest any eager young researchers fall pants over toupee into the obvious trap here, Will Hay (singular) was a British farce comedian who made movies in the 1930s and 40s, and had no interest one way or the other in controlling the exposure of feminine underwear in American movies. Being a British comedian his only conceivable interest in the subject matter would have been from the point of view of one of his male cast members possibly wearing it for mildly ribald comic effect.

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3 thoughts on “Down Yesteryear Lane

  1. Leapster, I see you have renamed the rating scale. Re the old MPHOAHC scale, what is the connection between Margaret Pomeranz and hubcaps?

  2. What isn’t?

    I guess at the time I was thinking, in purely theoretical terms I might add, about what kind of receptacle you could put multiple shrunken Marge Pomerantz heads on. This is apparently one of the places where that creative thinking stuff can take you while producing a website.

    Eventually, I guess the joke just seemed to get old. Marge sure doesn’t represent my idea of a pinnacle, or even auction pinochle, of anything to do with movie reviewing, but she loves the movies and is probably a decent enough old stick.

    I’m happy to hang my hat on having developed the important innovation of the only reviewing scale (that I’m aware of) that goes up to eleven, and thus is, indeed, ‘one better’.

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