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;

WickedWomanComment

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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Poverty Row April: Hearts of Humanity (1932)

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old Poverty Row April post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically depending on the theme. Enjoy!

Hearts of Humanity (1932)

They don’t make melodramas like they used to. To be a little less trite, because they make nothing like they used to, what made melodramas in the Pre-Code and Golden Age era work was the unrelenting wave of unabashed emotion, the incredible circumstance, be it hardship or triumph, the near-cloying tugging at heart strings in a tale with a more straight-forward narrative style made for a less cynical world. Yes, these date them, but any film from any period can be perceived as dated. What these films don’t fear is trying too hard for the emotional response.

In this film there’s an example of much of what I was talking about as a boy is orphaned one day through two unrelated acts. Both his parents die on the same day. His father has just learned of his mother’s demise when he meets his unfortunate fate. The plot that follows his less high-stakes to an extent, but it is moving. Jean Hersholt is endearing in the lead and Jackie Searl showed his ability to play endearing characters as well as conniving ones, though his Irish accent isn’t that great. It’s a simple film, but a truly enjoyable one in the style that only this era could produce.

8/10

Poverty Row April 2014 – Wrap-Up

Impetus

The original inspiration for this series was as research for a side fictional writing project. It proved much more fruitful last year. Here are the films I viewed then.

Films Viewed

Mickey's Race (1933)

Here are the films I saw this past year:

Hoosier Schoolboy
Little Pal (a.k.a. The Healer)
Tomorrow’s Children
Officer Thirteen
Mickey’s Race

One of the films I saw prior to this year’s time frame, and lot of the selections were influenced by the passing of Mickey Rooney.

Comments on the Future

While I won’t go so far as to strike the tab from the menu screen, I don’t think this will be a month-long focus next year. Rather, when I feel like a quick screening I will come back to these titles. It’s already a site category and a short niche of film history that interests me greatly that I’d like to continue to feature, just not in such a singular way.

Poverty Row April: Officer Thirteen (1932)

In this year’s Poverty Row April post I said I’d dedicate Sundays to sharing features. However, I missed last week so I will get two up this weekend.

When I found out that this was available from Alpha Home Video I did not find it on the Internet Archive. It has surfaced since I saw it. This film features early performances by both Mickey Rooney and Jackie Searl.

The film deals with a cop who seeks vigilante justice when the system won’t find solutions. It’s a surprisingly effective title.

To view the film go here.

Favorite Older Films First Viewed in 2013 (Part 2 of 5)

This is an list 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 Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979, Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation)

One theme that was hard to split up among all these lists were the works of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. While Fassbinder made the lists in 2011 and 2012 I saw one and two films of his in those years respectively. This year I saw quite a bit more, and then got both region 2 box set of his films.

I was more hooked on his work than any other filmmaker this year, and this is the first of his selections that will show up here. The postbellum period in Germany’s history was one of his major preoccupations and while I’ve not yet seen all that’s readily available this appears to be both the most evocative and effective of his works on the time period; whereas Fassbinder paints the portrait of a nation, and a period of time, through the eyes of one woman.

The Narrow Margin (1952)

The Narrow Margin (1952, RKO Radio Picutres)

This is another selection from 31 Days of Oscar and was one of the films I had heard the least about going into my viewing. Here was my initial take:

Here’s another film with a short running time but a hell of a lot of wallop. The setup is great: cops escorting a grand jury witness cross-country to testify against a mobster. When you throw in the fact that it’s a film noir tale, you know you’re gonna be thrown for a loop quite a few times and boy does it have some doozies up its sleeve. This movie’s the kind of good that had me absolutely buzzing after it was over. Amazing.

It was a late night viewing that kept me riveted and is very memorable.

The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968)

The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968, Disney)

Viewed, but not written up, during my March to Disney theme this film had a few surprises in store. Sure enough there were a few staples of Disney live-action musicals within in, especially enjoyable toe-tapping songs; but perhaps most surprising (in a move reflective of the time in which the film was produced, and something that would never happen now) there’s a lot of familial in-fighting of a political nature. Not only that but the backdrop is one of frontier days prior to the Dakotas joining the union. Therefore, there’s also an American history reminder folded neatly into the plot, which if you pay close attention to the Walt Disney World attractions was a favorite of Uncle Walt himself also. There’s much to like in this not-too-frequently-referred-to film.

Hearts of Humanity (1932)

Hearts of Humanity (1932)

This is a film that was part of my Poverty Row April theme this past year. It’s also an example of how the initial scoring is not always indicative of how lasting a film will be. There was a film that scored higher, in part because of a more generic title, that I had to slip back in to the final post because this one was more memorable.

Here’s a blurb from my original review:

In this film there’s an example of much of what I was talking about as a boy is orphaned one day through two unrelated acts. Both his parents die on the same day. His father has just learned of his mother’s demise when he meets his unfortunate fate. The plot that follows his less high-stakes to an extent, but it is moving. Jean Hersholt is endearing in the lead and Jackie Searl shows his ability to play endearing characters as well as conniving ones, though his Irish accent isn’t that great. It’s a simple film, but a truly enjoyable one in the style that only this era could produce.

This is a film you can find on archive.org.

Blood Car (2007)

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I’m not very up-to-date on HBO and Showtime. I have, at the moment, one show I watch on DVD (i.e. late) from each. I say that by way of an introduction to the fact that I’ve been slow to catch up on the Anna Chlumsky renaissance, most notably HBO’s Veep. Granted she has a supporting role, but this was one of her first roles back from her departure from acting after a promising, if not A-list, career as a young actress.

Blood Car is a hilarious horror/comedy that riffs tremendously on current events and concerns and takes them to absurd extremes for comedic and horrific effect. Fueling automobiles with blood is a tad ridiculous, but how far away from that are we really?

Ariel (1988)

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Over the course of the week via Netflix I finally viewed the Proletariat Trilogy, which I had meant to see for quite some time. I thought that perhaps the films were just going to seem passable, although brisk, a bit off-balance comedically, unique and visual; but then there was Ariel. A man’s father commits suicide and he is framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Upon escaping from jail he wants to flee the country but of course things don’t go smoothly. I would recommend all the films as they are short and quick-moving but this is the unusually warmest and most human.

Orphans of the Storm (1921)

The Gish Sisters

Here’s one I was able to see, yes, because it’s on YouTube but the reason I even looked for it was a blogathon. Silent features, even if you’ve seen more than a few, can be a bit daunting; especially one this lengthy. However, the later the vintage on a silent feature the more like the modern language of film it is, that and this film very quickly absorbs you as I stated in more words in my original post.

Dead Ringer (1964)

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I shouldn’t have to try too hard to sell a film starring Bette Davis and Bette Davis. However, what bears noting is that the film is worth watching for more than just the unique double-starring role for the legend. It’s a classic revenge thriller formula with a great ending and brilliant support from Karl Malden.

The Fly (1958) and Return of the Fly (1959)

The Fly (1958, 20th Century Fox)

I discussed the entire original Fly Trilogy during 61 Days of Halloween. However, they really stood out through now. I took a while to watch the box, and didn’t get in as many new vintage titles during that timeframe this year as I wanted to, but these were great not just on their own but also how they work back to back (as I watched them very close to one another. They make a great double-bill.

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.

In Memoriam: Jackie Cooper

Jackie Cooper

As is my usual policy when deciding to write an in memoriam piece I don’t like to rush it to strike while the news cycle is hot. Part of the reason why is that I like to give the people I choose to write about their due rather than being short and sweet to the point of being curt.

Jackie Cooper’s was a long and extensive career that can not be summed up in a few short and sweet sentences. I’ll try and give it better perspective here.

From 1929-1931 Cooper made about 13 shorts as part of Hal Roach’s legendary Little Rascals troupe. Hal Roach being one of the legendary producers of Hollywood and the Rascals being one of his longest lasting legacies.

Below in two parts you’ll find one of their shorts where Cooper features prominently.

1931 turned out to be a watershed year for the young actor who in that year went most of the way to establishing his Hollywood immortality. First, there is his participation in the film Skippy, which earned him a nomination as Best Actor. A film which is mysteriously unavailable on DVD in the US.

However, in that year he also delivered what is likely his most memorable performance in The Champ, a film for which Wallace Beery captured Best Actor.

Another fine and more mature performance from Cooper can be found in the film Peck’s Bad Boy, which is a wonderful example of classic filmmaking because the story is so simple but so emotive. It also features two outstanding antagonistic performances by Dorothy Peterson and Jackie Searl. The film can be seen in its entirety here:

http://www.archive.org/flow/flowplayer.commercial-3.2.1.swf

Mickey Rooney, Freddie Batholomew and Jackie Cooper in The Devil is a Sissy (MGM)

Surprisingly Cooper never did capture the Juvenile Award, a special Academy Award that was awarded to a deserving young actor from 1934 to 1960. However, he did have another memorable performance with two of the other finest actors of his generation Freddie Bartholomew and Mickey Rooney in The Devil is a Sissy in 1936. His character being the most hardened of the lot.

While like many child actors Cooper found the work to be not as good or as consistent as he transitioned to adulthood he did keep working and with the advent of television he transitioned mediums and started building a long and impressive resume of guest appearances on the small screen.

Jackie Cooper with Emmy

Eventually he made his way behind the scenes as a director and producer. Some of his directorial credits include episodes of M*A*S*H for which he won an Emmy for the episode “Carry on, Hawkeye,” Mary Tyler Moore, The Rockford Files, The White Shadow for which he won an Emmy for the Pilot episode, Magnum, P.I., Cagney & Lacey, The Adventures of Superboy and Jake & the Fatman.

Between 1948 and 1971 there was but television work, he also garnered consecutive Emmy nominations as an actor in 1961 and 1962 for his work on Hennesey, but then there was the occasional blip of a film until he was cast as Perry White, the editor of the Daily Planet, in the Superman films, the initial wave. It is in this capacity that he is known and remembered by many today as I have mentioned before many are lucky to be known by all for one film or project, even more fortunate are those who are known by many.

Jackie Cooper had many incarnations as an entertainer but in all of them he entertained audiences and endeared himself to them. He will be dearly remembered and sorely missed. He left an indelible mark on film and left innumerous memories behind. Let us take a moment and reflect on them.

Jackie Cooper in Superman (Warner Bros.)