TCM Discoveries Blogathon: A Wicked Woman (1934)

Introduction

When I first heard about the TCM Discoveries Blogathon hosted by Nitrate Diva only one film really came to mind: A Wicked Woman.

The reason is that at current it is a sort of cinematic white whale for me. I’m sure any film enthusiast knows the feeling. It’s one I’ve known at many times. in fact, it’s of the larger themes of a novel I have to get back to editing (future plug! For more current works go here.)

Probably the first cinematic white whale I had was Satantango. Now, that was a blind buy. I heard of this seven-hour film and what it was like and I had to see it. But that was a blind buy. With A Wicked Woman the story of estrangement of viewer and film is a bit different.

A Wicked Woman (1934, MGM)

The first difference is that it’s a film I’ve seen. I believe it’s one I happened to see pop up on the schedule right before I was about to post my piece on Jackie Searl. It lived on my DVR for a while until the time came for it to be swapped out. The content could not be saved and I haven’t seen it on the TCM schedule since despite looking for it periodically and inquiring also.

Therefore, the limited availability of the film makes this a post that would also fit into my Film Activism category. I’ll get into that as well as how it may resurface again aside from TCM re-air. Clearly, I am glad TCM saw fit to air this fairly obscure title, otherwise, I would not have seen it at all.

Before getting into the journey since I saw it. A bit of what this film actually is.

Synopsis

One thing I’ve discovered since this film aired is more of the wealth of information that TCM provides on its website. Even on a little-known title such as this one there is a bit of information. The first being a highly detailed synopsis. It’s complete from beginning to end. For the purpose of this post I will include only the beginning, which is a very strong open that got me hooked:

When her abusive, rum-running husband Ed storms into their Louisiana bayou shack one night, hotly pursued by the sheriff, pregnant Naomi Trice refuses to allow him to flee with their son Curtis. Determined to take Curtis, Ed knocks Naomi to the floor and tries to force his way to the boy’s bed, but is shot and killed by Naomi. After dumping Ed’s body in the swamp, Naomi gives birth to a boy, Neddie, whose leg is misshapen because of Ed’s abuse. The sheriff, whom Ed had shot while escaping, questions Naomi about her husband, but she refuses to reveal her deed. Later, she makes a pledge to God that if she is allowed to rear all of her children–Curtis, Yancey, Roseanne and Neddie–safely into adulthood, she will give herself up and pay the consequences of her crime. Naomi then moves her family away from the swamp and the still suspicious sheriff, changes her name to Stroud and eventually settles in a small Northern town.

Despite the cause of the leg abnormality, which may fall more of the category weird science than real science, there’s a lot to glom on to that makes this brisk, taut tale one worth watching: an abused wife and child easily engender universal sympathy; however, what sets this film apart is Naomi’s willingness to turn herself in when the time comes. It’s not seeking to get away but rather buying time.

The film then survives an abrupt jump in time of ten years. This is quite a feat because regardless of when it happens this can be jarring, particularly in a tale with young characters, and with so much time passing, things can change and not always for the better and the new complications don’t always work as well as the set-up.


A Wicked Woman (1934, MGM)

However, the film’s usage of secrets, and motherly responsibility, provide renewable and palpable drama and lead to a thrilling and satisfactory finale.

Backstory

A Wicked Woman (1934, MGM)

In terms of facts outside the story there are some interesting things to note. The release date of the film is cited as being December 7th, 1934 just after the Code came in, and I agree with Cliff Aliperti’s take on its content in that regard:

Ever notice these titles released immediately after Code enforcement, those from the last half of 1934 and even into ’35, are still a bit rougher than what follows? Take away the Production Code Administration banner at the front of A Wicked Woman and I’d have thought it was a pre-Code release.

Like many films produced in that era, it was an adaptation of a contemporary novel. A Wicked Woman by Anne Austin was released in 1933 and though out of print today is cited as having been 376 pages, which makes a feature under eighty minutes that works quite a screenwriting feat.

A Wicked Woman (1934, MGM)

A review of the novel from New Books I dug up is not kind to the book overall but can’t help but praise Austin. It seems much of what the film breezes through is likely the latter half of the book which is described as:

Eventually, in the murder trial which clears Naomi, Miss Austin gets back to her own stuff, and does it very well.

Kirkus Reviews seemed more willing to give the book its due:

Melodrama, perhaps, but there is a strong human interest element which gives it dignity.

Though the film didn’t end up being one of the highest grossing films of 1934 (Per reports it failed to earn back its budget) or land on any lists it was a popular enough book for MGM to option and adapt in short order.

Here are some notices for the film that I found. First from Movie Mirror:

“This tough drama shows a mother struggling to raise her four children alone so that they will be able to survive without her, sacrificing her feelings to instill firm discipline.”

The New York Times recognized in it some of the contrary to the melodrama aspect that make it work, namely Mady Christians in the lead:

Yet Miss Christians wades into this ponderous drama with such genuine sincerity and skill that it becomes not only credible, which is a feat in itself, but impressive and considerably touching as well. Somehow in its description of Naomi’s latter-day household, the children growing up into the pangs of adolescence while the mother watches their development with patient and self-effacing pride, the photoplay comes to have a surprising freshness and conviction. Always you are aware that the work is marshaling all its forces for an unashamed assault upon the tear ducts, but you also discover that its assault is a success, and you find yourself helplessly engrossed in this woman’s courage and devotion. In addition to Miss Christians’s virtuoso performance, there is an almost flawless cast to assist her.

Other Info and Searches

A Wicked Woman (1934, MGM)

Also available on TCM’s site that is of note is that three different running times are listed 71,74 and 76. I’m not sure if this means there was content cut but I believe the one TCM aired was the longest such cut.

When available I’ve requested airings, tried to set reminders, and shown interest in a DVD.

TCM also provides this background information I only found there:

Although reviews claim that Mady Christians, a well-known German stage and screen actress who had worked at Ufa’s Berlin studios, made her American screen debut in A Wicked Woman, modern biographical sources note that Christians actually had starred in a 1916 American film, Audrey, under the name Margarete Christians (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1911-20; F1.0179). Christians moved to the United States in 1933 to escape persecution by the Nazis. Her most celebrated role was as the title character in the 1944 Broadway play I Remember Mama. Shortly before her death in 1951, Christians was blacklisted by the Hollywood community for her reputed involvement with the Communist party.

A Wicked Woman was screenwriter and actress Zelda Sears’s last film. She died on February 19, 1935. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, Sears, who occasionally appeared in pictures she scripted, had been reluctant to act in this film. Early pre-production Hollywood Reporter news items announced first that William K. Howard was to direct Helen Hayes in the film, and then that Clarence Brown was to direct Hayes and Lee Tracy. None of these directors or actors worked on the production, however.

A Hollywood Reporter pre-production news item announced that Erskine Caldwell was assigned to write dialogue for the film, but his contribution to the final film has not been determined. Hollywood Reporter production charts add Benny Baker and Joe Twerp to the cast, but their participation in the final film has not been determined.

Although Hollywood Reporter news items announced that Christians was to sing “In the Hash,” a “novelty song” by Burton Lane, as well as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” the only song actually performed in the movie was Lane’s “In Louisiana,” which was sung by an all-black group.

I also recently bugged Warner Archive about it this film. Firstly, to confirm that it was one in their purview. It is:

Then I proceeded to inquire on Facebook;

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So it’s a possibility that this film will be released by the Archive eventually. Therefore, I recommend that if you’ve seen it you like the post, or comment it, if you haven’t be on the lookout on TCM as it may pop up again.

Conclusion

A Wicked Woman (1934, MGM)

Quite frankly finding films like A Wicked Woman is what TCM is all about to me. Some classics are so universal and immortal if you love movies enough you’ll find a way to see them. A channel like TCM will bring you the things you may not have even known existed much less thought to see, and that’s a great thing.

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Favorite Older Films First Viewed in 2013 (Part 1 of 5)

This is an idea I first saw on Rupert Pupkin Speaks. The idea is to list your favorite films from the past year that you saw for the first time, but exclude new releases. This allows much more variety and creates a lot of great suggestions if you read many of them.

Since I tracked these films much more closely this year my list grew long. I will occasionally combine selections by theme, but there is enough for five posts. These choices are in no particular order.

Enjoy!

The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974)

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There’s not much that can be said (I’m quite sure) about these two films that hasn’t already been said. Perhaps what is likely more interesting to you who read this is how and why I went so long without seeing these films. I think with a lot of movies it boils down to wanting enough separation from all the hyperbole. I think once I started developing some eclectic tastes that hearing merely that: “It’s great. You HAVE to see it.” became more of a deterrent than an incentive.

Quite frankly I nearly put just part two here because it’s that much better (it’s like watching two amazing movies at the same time) but you can’t have one without the other, and one thing I take solace in is that as opposed to people who saw them as they were released I saw part two a week after part one and only waited 24 hours before being terribly let down by part 3.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Warner Bros.)

I tried to split where I saw these films when creating the five parts of this series. Thus, the likelihood of having consecutive classics is lessened. I saw this film during 31 Days of Oscar.

This was my initial capsule review:

This is an incredibly intricate and thankfully subtle-when-it-counts psychological drama. It also has an interesting approach of showing us what is seemingly your typical, bitter, drunken, couple of academia, then when their guests arrive we start to learn, slowly but surely who they really are, and the portrait painted is shocking, harrowing and really makes you think.

A personal note is that I recall the Walpurgisnacht segment from an acting class I took in college as it was one of the assigned scenes. It was interesting to not only see a film version, but also to be exposed to the entire work.

A Wicked Woman (1934)

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This is a film I saw thanks to TCM, and fittingly features an actor I spotlighted in the Children in Film Blogathon, Jackie Searl. This is a film that offers in his filmography another break from his usually slimy, bratty persona. It’s also one of his older performances from when he could still be considered a young actor and eventually transitioned to adult character roles.

It’s a brisk tale that’s a melodramatic romance. It’s briefer synopsis as offered by the IMDb is rather a simple one:

A mother, who, to save her children from a bestial father and herself from being killed, kills her husband and makes a bargain with God that if she remains free for ten years, in order to raise her children, she will then give herself up to justice.

The complications that could occur are inherent and the film does well to put some unexpected spins on the scenarios that ensue.

Lifeboat (1944)

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This was a year that more and more saw more gray area tales with World War II as a backdrop. However, this one is by no means new. What’s fascinating in this film is that despite its unity of space, and the potential visual doldrums that any seafaring tales can bring on; this film remains vibrant, tense and character-based throughout, and through Old Hollywood magic (and Hitch) is pretty great to look at throughout.

The suspense is palpable because of the characters, how their drawn and the situations they find themselves in.

Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (1943)

Tarzan's Desert Mystery (1943, RKO)

It seems that some series have some late sequence gold in them. This film in the Weissmuller era, and in the RKO years nonetheless; pulls off quite a miraculous feat in being as enjoyable as it is.

This movie is ridiculously fun to watch. It’s crowd-pleasing aspects drench it and still radiate off the screen to this very day. Having traversed the series anew my expectations were corrected, but even thinking back to where they (the expectations) had been this blew those right out of the water regardless.

You don’t have to watch all the prior Weissmuller Tarzan films to get this one, but you’ll certainly have more of an appreciation of how unexpected this one was if you have.

Blondie (1938)

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When people discuss that sequels are not new they often cite the glut of Blondie films that were made from the late-1930s through the early 1950s. Having gotten a cheap boxset a while back I decided to crack the seal when I heard this cited several times over.

Blondie was still in a fairly consistent rotation through syndicates in the comics section of newspapers when I was young. However, that was a small taste, and lower down the reading list for me. Despite the fact that these films seem to be TV cuts with a later scene of confusion spliced in at the head of the film as a carrot. Regardless, it’s well set-up, still funny and fairly timeless. It’s a series I’ll gladly continue through the next year.

Love on the Run (1979)

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Yes, I had somehow not completed the Antoine Doinel films. I love Truffaut, and somehow I hadn’t. My miscalculation was that there would be a predictable ebb-and-flow to the series. I like The 400 Blows just fine. I don’t hold it as highly as others either in his canon or the whole of his career. But viewing the entire series its a wondrous journey and this is perhaps my favorite. It cannot and would not be viewed out of sequence, as I made such mistakes in the past, but viewed in sequence you may find your own favorite. There’s much magic later on in the series, as opposed to most.

Asylum (1972)

Asylum (1971, Amicus Productions)

I have to admit I had not even heard of Asylum until a few years ago when the horror anthology became something I was more consciously aware of. My reticence again was due to hype. I don’t have sufficient frame of reference to rule this out as the best ever, but while it’s not the one I enjoyed most it is crazy good and a fairly cohesive one as opposed to most.

Dracula (1931; Spanish Version)

Dracula (1931, Universal)

Here’s another case where there’s a classic film that I liked and appreciate but was not as giddy about as some are. When I heard about this foreign-language version (an aspect of the Hollywood system that will probably never cease to fascinate me) I knew I had to see this and may as well get the legacy box.

The alternately scored Dracula
is also great, but this one was made simultaneously with its own original score and while some things are trade-offs (like no Lugosi) some large and some small aspects are so great, and nearly predictive of what I wanted to see in the original.

If anything this is the earliest proof that a remake or alternate version of a film is much like a revival of a stage play: it’s not a replacement, just a different vision and this is one I responded to greatly.

Children in Film Blogathon: Jackie Searl

When by chance I found that Comet Over Hollywood was doing this blogathon there were a number of options I could have selected. Quite frankly, I was a little late in noticing that it existed so some good options that I also would have liked to have covered were taken. However, I don’t regret it because whenever possible I like to go a bit outside the norm. And choosing to discuss Jackie Searl (or Searle as he was occasionally credited) does that. The first thing that sets the selection apart is that he was rarely a leading player, more often he played in support.

However, this year, somewhat in the spirit of my Neutron Star Award, I’ve had chance to find not only more range in his performances but also a rare early lead. While Jackie had a long career as a character actor after a hiatus that allowed him to transition in the age range, he was frequently cast to his type. Yes, films type actors young and old alike.

Realizing his range did hearken me back to something I heard Jack Lemmon say back on Inside the Actor’s Studio. He was recalling a conversation wherein he complained to his agent about the kinds of roles he was getting and being offered. “But I can do Shakespeare,” he protested. His agent responded simply and calmly “Yes, Jack, but other people are better at it.” That’s not to say actors shouldn’t take risks and directors haven’t done great things when casting against type, but typing happens for a reason and it’s usually because said actor is inordinately good at a particular task. With Searl, in his younger days, he was not only usually a heavy, a villain, but he had an innate ability to come off as smug and detestable, which is quite a higher calling than simply playing a villain.

Gentle Julia (1936, Fox)

What reminded me of the the Lemmon story was when I saw him in earlier roles in Poverty Row titles. One in particular, which may go down as one of my favorite new discoveries of the year is Hearts of Humanity. Here he plays the affected child, suddenly orphaned, new to the States, who is the honorable one, who sets the example for his wayward, newly-adopted brother and sacrifices himself for him. The only thing off about him at all is his Irish accent, but that wasn’t uncommon back then. Not that Searl wasn’t adept at an accent. In fact, before I decided to do this focus on him I thought his playing American was putting on an accent not when he was playing British, which he did often.

So in that film, and in other titles like One Year Later and High Gear, all of a sudden there was this complete other side to him. Granted the writing, such that it was, made him obviously perceived as a likable character, but he pulls it off with ease. Many mature, trained actors have issues not only shaking their persona but their perception. Searl was the pre-eminant, go-to jerk of the young actor set around this time (the early-to-mid-1930s). But playing the good kid was his “Shakespeare;” he was good at it but he was so much better at engendering an audience’s antipathy that he got those roles more often then not when the studio films came his way.

Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936, Selznick)

Peck’s Bad Boy is another film wherein you see him in his more usual mold, whereas Jackie Cooper, being the lead is a more rounded character and has justifications for his actions; he’s merely antagonistic. In fact, in one of his first appearances, The Sins of the Children, his type was set as his sole purpose in playing the younger version of one of the main characters was to be bratty. Slightly different from those two, but still on the unlikable end of the spectrum, was his turn as the doltish false claimant to the title in Little Lord Fauntleroy.

No Greater Glory (1934, MGM)

Of the films of his I’ve seen thus far he had one role of significant size that had an arc, and change of heart. In No Greater Glory he starts off in the vein you most often saw him: officious, haughty and bothersome. As events transpire, however, he softens. The maturation of the characters, as well as the message conveyed are among the things that make that particular film so powerful. That same year saw the release of A Wicked Woman, which implemented well his ability to cry and allowed him to play the victim. As he grew, parts that allowed him to show both sides of his ability came more frequently. In Little Tough Guy he does end up being a slimy type, but if you didn’t know who he was you’d buy the nice, rich kid act he pulls through the first few scenes, but slowly and surely he shows his character’s true colors. It may not be his most impressive turn, but there’s a confident ease to all he does that stands as a harbinger of the long-lasting ability to do character work that he found later on.

The generation of young actors that graced the silver screen when sound was in its infancy was perhaps one of the deepest in movie history. If you follow the trajectory of a lot young performers, many of whom were usually relegated to supporting roles, you could really see just how gifted a lot of these actors are – the fact that a talent like Searl’s was usually utilized as a supplement is testament to that, but it does not make his work any less effective or memorable.