Welcome to Mick LaSalle

Past chats with our guests.

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Welcome to Mick LaSalle

Post by moira finnie »

Welcome to all who've decided to explore the history of Pre-Code movies and the interesting people involved in film production during this fascinating period.

Here's the spot where questions can be fielded with author Mick LaSalle beginning on Monday, Dec. 17th until Friday, Dec. 21st.. Mr. LaSalle's best known books are Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood (St. Martin's Press, 2000) and Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002). His lively mind and engaging writing style can be enjoyed regularly in his writing about film and culture for the San Francisco Chronicle and at his blog. In addition to this, Mick teaches at Stanford University and his first book was made into the TCM documentary, Complicated Women (2003), which has aired several times since its initial broadcast.

As always at the SSO, we hope that your questions for our December Guest Star will be polite, pertinent, and abundant. We're delighted to have this opportunity and thank Mick LaSalle for stopping by our site.

This thread is now open! Let the questions begin!
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Post by moira finnie »

To break the ice with questions for Mick LaSalle, I'd like to ask our guest what prompted his interest in the period of Pre-Code movies. Was there one film or director or film star he can recall that piqued his interest in Pre-Codes?
I hope others will post their questions here as well now.
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Post by Dewey1960 »

Good morning, Mick, nice to have you here! This past week on TCM has been a virtual goldmine of pre-code classics and rarities. Have there been any that particularly caught your interest? Any you hadn't seen before?
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Post by CoffeeDan »

Greetings, Mick! Thanks for stopping by . . .

I've done some extensive research on John Gilbert, and I was intrigued by your comment in Dangerous Men that you like Gilbert's talking films better than his silents. Care to explain this more fully?
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Post by micklas »

Good morning everybody (or afternoon if you're on the East Coast). I've never worked with emoticons before :lol: so this is very :P and makes me feel positively :lol: :o and :shock: . And now that I got that out of my system, let me go through your questions.
I'll take the easy one first. Alas, I haven't seen anything on TCM this week. This is a very busy time of year for film critics, and I've been seeing new released and plowing through academy screeners of movies I haven't seen, AND writing tons of reviews, so I could go on vacation the last two weeks of the year. Actually, being here is how I'm celebrating my first day of vacation.
John Gilbert. To me that talkie personality is HIM, a very modern guy, wry, ironic, intelligent, somewhat untrustworthy, enormously likable, not a dashing romantic hero, but an interesting, complex person. The silent personality, while containing these elements, is somewhat overlaid with the silent era's notion of heroics, which makes his silent persona OK but of necessity, a bit more generic than the talkie incarnation.
I got interested in old movies before I got interested in pre-Codes. I got interested in Greta Garbo when I was about twenty, but her pre-Codes aren't very pre-Code, with the exception of QUEEN CHRISTINA. QC was a revelation and made me interested in pre-Code movies, but not enough to pursue that interest -- and in any case, there was no opportunity to do so. Those movies weren't available, and until Bruce Goldstein came up with the idea in the late 1980s, there were no pre-Code festivals.
My first real awareness of pre-Code as something really special was when I saw Ginger Rogers sing MUSIC MAKES ME in FLYING DOWN TO RIO. And this coincided with my gradual disenchantment with old movies as being too formulaic. I got to the point where I could guess where they were going, and a lot of times I didn't like where they went. (Woman quits her job to marry the one guy in the movie you hate, etc.) My interest in classic film then became confined to stars I liked (people like Bogart, Gable, Lombard, etc), although by the mid-1980s I had an awareness of pre-Code and would make a point of seeing pre-Code movies when I had the chance. I also, by the late 1980s, started taping every pre-Code movie that came on AMC with the vague but stated idea of maybe someday writing a book about it.
This all began to become more possible in April 1994 when TCM started. Suddenly everything became available and I began taping and watching everything, while planning -- I got this idea that same month -- to write a book on Shearer, a kind of critical appreciation. That idea morphed over the next four years. I had an idea I wanted to do a book about Shearer and then do a book about all the women of the pre-Code era. But after about 100 rejections of nine versions of a book proposal, I put the idea together -- and that was COMPLICATED WOMEN.
By the way, the thing that excited me about Shearer was that, having a decent grounding in pre-Code, I was able to see that her movies were just a little more pre-Code than everybody else's. I had an inkling in 1992, when I first saw A FREE SOUL. But this was confirmed for me a year and a half later with THE DIVORCEE, which I recognized as a radical film and a real breakthrough -- BUT WHICH NOT A SINGLE BOOK I READ acknowledged. That sent me to the library to do research, and when I saw that the people of 1930 recognized that film for the breakthrough it was, I knew that this was a piece of film history that had to be reclaimed, that basically an injustice had been done to someone who was essentially a feminist pioneer.
So basically in early 1994, the pre-Code interest combined with the Shearer interest into a compelling impulse to give certain ideas and discoveries a public platform.
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Post by moira finnie »

Since there seems to be a lull in the questions for the moment, here are a few more...
"I have followed Mr. Hay's advice and have taken up a completely sexless, nun-like, legs-crossed existence." ~Tallulah Bankhead, commenting on Will Hays and the Production Code's impact on movies
1.) In The Devil and the Deep (1932) and Faithless(1934), Tallulah Bankhead seems to be playing some interesting, independently minded characters. I realize that she had little interest in playing the Hollywood game, (see the quote above as amusing evidence), but do you see her early films as important milestones in Pre-Code movies?

2.) After seeing Safe in Hell (1931) for the first time as part of TCM's tribute to William Wellman this month, I was very impressed with Nina Mae McKinney in that movie. Could you please comment on some of the ways that race figured in films of the Pre-Code period and contrast that with what came later in post 1934 studio movies?

3.) Your writing about Richard Barthelemess in Dangerous Men made me seek out several of his early talkies. In Wellman's Heroes for Sale (1931), another film that I'd never seen before this month on TCM, do you think that Barthelmess chose such serious roles despite some of their more controversial aspects or was he secure enough artistically and financially by that time simply not to care about the impact they may have had on his career?

4.) In Queen Chistina, which you mentioned as being one of the early talkie movies that intrigued you, I find John Gilbert's acting to be remarkably old-fashioned compared to Garbo. I wondered if it may have been due to the awkwardness of his relationship with Garbo and MGM management at the time, or the direction by Rouben Mamoulian as well as the fact that his character is not particularly well written, in contrast to Garbo's role. Interestingly, I thought he gave fluid, much more modern, and at times electrifying performances in other films such as Downstairs (1932) and Fast Workers (1933) playing working class guys on the make. His voice, clearly, was also not a problem at all. Do you think that Gilbert's career decline was a result of his own self-destruction
or was he a "victim" of the Production Code?

Thanks in advance for any of your comments.
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Post by Lzcutter »

Welcome Mr. LaSalle!

I was hoping you could talk a bit about that wonderful lost film "Convention City".

There have been many stories about the destruction of the film and I was hoping you could shed some light on which of the stories, if any, is actually true.

Also, what was it about "Convention City" that appalled so many of the so-called "moral keepers" of the day.
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Post by Jezebel38 »

Hi Mick - I have a bunch of questions, but I was going to let the others line up first. Lzcutter beat me to the punch about Convention City. I've read elsewhere that there was a reading of the script at a gathering in NY - and from what was repeated, it sure sounds smarmy.

Post by klondike »

Hey there, Mr. L!
Welcome to the Silver Screen Oasis, where the members are not just passingly passionate about old movies, but oftimes get virtually Medieval about them!
Yet . . we always strive to remain polite!
(Everybody, check your crossbows at the door - we've a guest in the house!)
OK, my opening question -
I've not yet had the opportunity to enjoy your "Complicated Women" volume, and am only glancingly familiar (so far) with "Dangerous Men", so let me throw-out a question of variable depth that somewhat bridges both:
In your opinion, was their any real truth (evidential or otherwise) to the brief flurry of rumors about a romance between Bob Mitchum (absolutely the coolest dude in Hollywood) and Ava Gardner (even on a cloudy day, the most breathtaking beauty ever to shimmer crost that big, silv'ry screen)?
I mean, I know they got way into hanging-out together between scenes on The Locket, that he nicknamed her "Honest Ave", and that she arm-candied for him at various galas promoting the film . . but that's where the scuttlebut seems to fork, and stay divided.
I know your main focus of late has been on matters Pre-Code, but I'm betting you've at leat considered this situation - so what's your take?
(By the way, do you have any relations in western Washington State? I knew this guy named LaSalle back on Vashon Island, and he still owes me $10 and a couple o' beers . . . . :? )
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Post by Birdy »

Hello, Mick -
What a great topic to have spent time studying and writing about. I have become a pre-code fan in the last 10 years and only learned the term a couple of years back. Although it is supposed to refer to specific dates, the term pre-code seems to be more qualitative than quantitative in nature ( as when you described N. Shearer as being 'a little more pre-code than the others'). Could you elaborate? (I'm an Una Merkel and Alice Brady fan, myself.)
Thank you, B
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Post by micklas »

OK, whipping through your questions . . .

Sorry to Klondike -- no relations in Washington State (do hope you get your money back) and no idea about Mitchum and Gardner. I didn't know there were rumors

Lzcutter -- about CONVENTION CITY. My friend, Mark Vieira, read the screenplay, and says it looks to have been really outrageous and fun, but it doesn't seem as though it was horribly lewd, just a little more risque than the usual risque fare. The problem is Jack Warner took a dislike to it. . . . A few years ago, a trailer for the movie surfaced, leading to rumors that the movie had been discovered intact in Japan. Unfortunately that was not the case.

Qualitative and quantitative in pre-Code: Well, it's qualitative in the sense that the films practically constitute a genre. But it's quantitative in that there are definite chronological borders. There are no pre-Codes after the pre-Code era, not in fact or in spirit.

Moira -- With the exception of FAITHLESS, Tallulah's movies are not unusually daring, and in terms of their elements, they don't really break new ground. I just don't think of her as a particularly important pre-Code star, not only in terms of popularity but in terms of the work itself. She's good, i like her as a kind of American answer to Garbo, and I like that crazy interview she gave right before FAITHLESS was released, about how she needed a man, etc. But I don't really think she did much on screen that was important.
Race in pre-Codes -- well the pre-Codes were pretty racist. That's one of the things that the Code tried to rein in, racist remarks and stereotypes, and also ethnic stereotypes. But the value of the pre-Codes is not in that they present the modern world, a world that we would like to inhabit. The value is that they speak honestly of their own world, and preserve the attitides and ideas of the time. So all that stuff is interesting, even if we don't like it. The real sad thing is that there were some really good performers who never got a chance -- Clarence Muse and Fredi Washington (or for that matter Josepine Baker) and plenty more.
Barthelmess -- I have no idea what was on Barthelmess's mind with regard to those protest films. I know he insisted on making them, and I know that he had it in his contract that he could make what he wanted, but he left behind no statement about why he did what he did. I talked to Fay Wray once and asked her if her husband, John Monk Saunders, ever used to talk politics with Barthelmess. She didn't remember her husband talking politics at all -- and he made what we would regard as protest films. So who knows what these people were thinking?
Finally, as for Gilbert. What brought him down was very complicated. His voice wasn't bad, but when he opened his mouth people rejected him, so there was something going on there. It had something to do with acting styles, and something to do with the great lover not translating into talkies, but maybe his voice wasn't what people expected. I wrote the following in the Chronicle a couple of years ago and will quote it rather than rewrite it here:

Gilbert's fall from stardom was unique in film history. Other stars have faded; Gilbert fell out of the sky. In 1929, he was the biggest film star in the world, loved by fans and critics. Then his first talkie, "His Glorious Night," came out, and in an instant, his career was on the ropes. He never recovered. Once his career was reeling, MGM did little to help him. In fact, there's evidence that the studio, on orders from Mayer, who hated him, planted negative stories about him, put him in inferior projects and did its best to hasten his end.

Still, studio collusion can't explain why, on the basis of one stinker, Gilbert's career should have been reeling to begin with. Had a change in public consciousness transformed the popular notion of the hero? Was Gilbert's voice, though fine in itself, different from what the public expected? Was "His Glorious Night" so awful -- and Gilbert's role such a damaging unintentional parody of the silent roles that had fueled his stardom -- that it couldn't help but change the way people thought about him? Or did heavy silent-movie lovemaking just not translate into words without seeming silly? All these factors probably had a hand.
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Post by micklas »

I go into the Gilbert thing in more detail in DANGEROUS MEN. It's endlessly fascinating, and the scene in HIS GLORIOUS NIGHT is classic cinema's equivalent of the Zapruder film. Horrible, but you keep looking, trying to figure it out.

Post by feaito »

Welcome Mr. La Salle!

I've become very interested in Pre-Codes in these last few years and I've been highly enlightened by your excellent books "Dangerous Men" and "Complicated Women".

1.- My first question concerns the movie "The Merry Widow" (1934). I'm a fan of the film and I've always been aware of the cuts in the print that was officially released on VHS by Warners. Do you know if the ex-TCM Library really has a complete uncut version of this wonderful film? Has it ever been aired on TCM or screened at a Film Festival? Have you ever seen it?

2.- Do you have any particular favorite film/s among Pre-Codes? And why?

3.- Have you seen the uncensored version of Garbo's "Mata Hari" that was discovered in Europe? And if you have, Does the uncut footage make much difference to the film?

4.- I consider "Love Me Tonight" not only the best Pre-Code musical ever filmed, but one of the all-time best musical films. Sadly, the nymphomaniac Countess played by lovely Myrna Loy, hasn't as much screen time as it had been intended by Mamoulian (or so I recall). Do you think that this was mainly due to Censorship or that it rather that had to do with Jeanette MacDonald being the Star of the film?

5.- On the same vein, could you elaborate on Miss MacDonald's change of image after the Code was enforced? The creature that starred in the racy Paramount Pre-Code musical films and those Fox comedies has scarce relation with MGM's Operetta Diva. I've read that her 1931 (lost) film "Annabelle's Affairs" was really hot!

Thanks in advance for your answers and valuable feedback!!
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Post by MissGoddess »

Hi, and welcome to SSO Mr LaSalle. I gave your book Dangerous Men as a gift once to a boyfriend and it's been his favorite ever since. I basically chose it because of the cover photograph of Clark Gable. I wondered if you chose that photo yourself? Along with Gary Cooper, Gable is my favorite classic actor and watching Night Nurse and A Free Soul my breath just gets sucked away by his overwhelming presence. Especially taken in comparison to other leading men of the early thirties---there was no comparison. BG (before Gable) they were usually "gentlemen" to some degree, traditionally heroic, or were rather commonplace and "safe". I have only glanced through your book but I wondered if you thought Gable was the man who really redefined or set the bar for what audiences would be looking for in a leading man? Or is there another actor who galvinized the change to a more rough-and-tumble, assured style?
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Post by pilgrimsoul »

Thanks for visiting Mr. LaSalle. I haven't had much time to post, but when I saw the notice of your appearance here, I had to set aside some time to visit this site again.

As a bit of a novice when it comes to Pre-Code movies, could you recommend seeking out "The Trial of Temple Drake"? Why is it never shown or seemingly available for purchase today? What do you think of the work of Miriam Hopkins? Why didn't she have a bigger career in film? Was it her personality or just professional breaks and/or lack of them?

Also, since "The Hatchet Man" (1932) starring Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young as Chinese-Americans is being shown on Thursday on TCM, I was wondering if you thought that the film reinforced the racial and ethnic stereotypes that were mentioned earlier today as having been more virulent in films prior to the Production Code? Do you know how the Asian community reacted to the film at the time of its release?

Thank you for taking the time to visit.