Those who enjoyed Volume One of Turner Classic Movies' Forbidden Hollywood Collection will undoubtedly be thrilled by Volume Two. Before the Hays Code neutralized the sexually oriented behavior that could be shown in Hollywood movies for over three decades, there was a crop of movies that reflected a more laissez-faire attitude toward risqué subjects like promiscuity, homosexuality and drug use. Three films were presented over two discs in Volume One, and five are presented here over three discs along with a new seventy-minute documentary produced specifically for this set and aired on the TCM network.
Disc One contains two early classics starring Norma Shearer, 1930's "The Divorcee" (***1/2) and 1931's "A Free Soul" (****). Along with Garbo, Shearer was fast becoming MGM's prestige star at the time thanks to some degree to her marriage to the mythic studio head Irving Thalberg. However, she was also uniquely talented as proven by the diversity of her films. Although she is remembered today more for her later roles in the title role of 1938's Marie Antoinette and as the virtuous center of 1939's The Women, Shearer plays Jerry Martin, the blazing center of "The Divorcee" in which she plays a carefree young wife who cheats on her husband after he carelessly cheats on her. Instead of treating her in Scarlet Letter fashion, the film takes a refreshing look at the double standards between men and women when it comes to adultery. Naturally, they eventually regret their behavior but not before a lot of alcohol-fueled hell-raising with their fair-weather friends.
In comparing the two Shearer vehicles, I find "A Free Soul" the more interesting film because it has some sizzling dialogue from screenwriter Adela Rogers St. John and an uncommonly powerful cast that includes Clark Gable, Leslie Howard and Lionel Barrymore. She plays Rogers St. Johns' alter ego, Jan Ashe, the free-spirited daughter of an alcoholic attorney (Barrymore) who successfully defends mob leader Ace Wilfong (Gable) in a murder case that is eerily prescient of the O.J. Simpson criminal trial. Jan gets hot and steamy over Ace, even though she is engaged to the socially acceptable Dwight (Howard). The inevitable complications occur with alcohol abuse, gambling and murder. Although not a natural temptress like Garbo, Shearer manages to imbue her role with an effective carnality mixed with her innate nobility. Gable was in his sinister period, while Barrymore pulls out the stops as her father, especially in the climactic murder trial scene. As an indication of public acceptance of these racy films, Barrymore won an Oscar for his role here, as did Shearer for "The Divorcee".
Disc Two is a Warner Brothers double-header with the studio feeling like the working class cousin to the glossier MGM. Both films barely run an hour, and not a scene is wasted in these fast-moving vehicles. The first is 1932's "Three on a Match" (****), which follows three schoolmates over the course of a dozen years. Joan Blondell plays Mary Keaton, the dropout who goes to reform school for her wild ways; a bottle-blonde Bette Davis plays class valedictorian Ruth Wescott who becomes a stenographer; and the forgotten Ann Dvorak plays popular Vivian Revere who marries a wealthy lawyer and has a son. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, the film is most intriguing for the way the plot twists the characters' fates. In a very early role, Davis barely registers as Ruth, but Blondell is terrifically likable showing how Mary turns her life around. Bearing a striking resemblance to Luise Rainer, Dvorak gets the meatiest role as Vivian as she descends from bored socialite to unrepentant cocaine addict. It's a mesmerizing turn capped by a shocking finale. A very young Humphrey Bogart shows up in a minor role as what else, a gangster.
The second half of Disc Two is 1933's "Female" (****), the most intriguing of the five films as it manages to be a sociological statement as well as a romantic comedy. Directed by Michael Curtiz, it centers on Alison Drake, the powerful CEO of an automobile company. There is great fun watching her order her subservient male staff around like a drill sergeant and using them for inappropriate conjugal visits at her palatial estate to satisfy her desires. Naturally, she meets her match in auto designer Jim Thorne first in a meet-cute situation and then in a battle of wills at the company. Ruth Chatterton (the selfish wife in Dodsworth) is wonderfully game as Alison, while the usually bland George Brent (her real-life husband at the time) complements her well as Jim. The ending is trite but inevitable. Pay attention to the fascinating Art Deco set decorations, including the use of Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House as Alison's mansion.
Disc Three contains 1931's "Night Nurse" (***1/2), a tense melodrama starring Barbara Stanwyck in the title role as Lora Hart assigned to take care of the two young daughters in a wealthy family. However, she uncovers a plot hatched by their alcoholic mother to kill the girls in order to steal their trust funds with the assistance of a nasty chauffeur and a corrupt doctor. Directed by William Wellman, the movie features several risqué moments with Stanwyck and pal Joan Blondell dressing and undressing in their uniforms, as well as moments of unexpected violence. Again, Clark Gable shows up in a sinister role as the chauffeur and slaps Stanwyck around with convincing malevolence. While I prefer her work in 1933's "Baby Face" on Volume One, no one shined more than Stanwyck in these pre-code films since her non-nonsense manner was a perfect fit for the era's candor and directness.
The 2008 documentary on Disc Three, "Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood" (****1/2), offers a fascinating overview of the pre-code period before 1934 when the Legion of Decency helped bring about strict adherence to the Hays Code. It offers plenty of clips from both famous and obscure films of the period including those on the Forbidden Hollywood Collection. Some are surprising such as scenes cut from 1933's King Kong, one where the giant ape strips the gown off Fay Wray and another where people are literally eaten and crushed. My favorite is the nude sequence with a body double for Maureen O'Sullivan swimming provocatively with Johnny Weissmuller in 1934's Tarzan and His Mate. Several people provide comments including the late Jack Valenti (who developed the film rating system still in use today), social critic Camille Paglia and director John Landis. As for extras, film historians Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta provide informative and often enthusiastic commentary tracks for "The Divorcee" and "Night Nurse". The original theatrical trailers are included for "Three on a Match", "Female" and "Night Nurse".