Need help figuring out what to watch this week on Warner Archive Instant? The Retro Set has you covered with our must watch Warner Archive picks! Each week, we select a small handful of must watch titles from the Warner Archive Instant catalog: some hidden gems, others well-known and beloved classics. All deserving of a look or two (or five).
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This week we’ve got a Edward G Robinson as a hatchet-wielding executioner, Jean Harlow as a good girl stuck in a bad girl’s body, and Audrey Hepburn as a cellist with a yen for Gary Cooper.
Must Watch Warner Archive Instant Picks: 10.16.14
Wade’s Pick: The Hatchet Man (1932)
God bless the early 1930s! Most talkies would clock in at an hour and change, which is why theatres usually played triple bills with shorts, cartoons and newsreels – a full day’s entertainment. Short run time is also a reason to check out The Hatchet Man, an early First National/Warner Bros. attempt at showing what crime is like in desperate, fast-moving Chinatown. The film is in and out in just over an hour, telling its story in a swift and lean manner. Directed with muscularity by Wild Bill Wellman, The Hatchet Man begins with a sweeping crane shot that seems to never end, showing life in San Francisco’s busy Chinatown during a funeral procession, interrupted by the Tong Clan’s banner drop, decreeing war has begun! Down from Sacramento comes the executioner, fittingly referred to as “the hatchet man”, who dispenses justice, bringing order to the Tong Wars with the swift and bloody swing of his hatchet.
Riding a wave of popularity after hitting it big as Little Caesar just a year earlier, Edward G. Robinson was brought in to many Warner Bros talkies as the criminal kingpin in any iteration the studio could think of. Time has not been kind to The Hatchet Man as the main cast is played by Caucasians in “Oriental” makeup. And while there are several cringe-worthy moments, it is Robinson, who chooses not to fall prey to cheap stereotypes and plays his character straight, and Wellman’s fast-paced, sinewy direction that makes The Hatchet Man a fascinating and somewhat feral melodrama. It is so successfully rendered, we can almost forgive Loretta Young’s painfully stretched eyes and caked on makeup. Almost.
Carley’s Pick: The Girl From Missouri (1934)
By 1934, Jean Harlow — the original platinum blonde bombshell — was one of the top five box office attractions in the world. But the image that brought her fame, that of the streetwise sex kitten, had come under serious fire. Harlow, along with Norma Shearer and Mae West, found herself a prime target of the pious cries from the outraged Legion of Decency, which demanded the Production Code Administration, headed by the toxic Joseph I. Breen, to clean up Hollywood pictures by getting rid of the elements that had so deliciously dominated early ’30s cinema: sex and violence. Harlow’s films were an especially easy target. That year, when MGM began production on her latest feature, an Anita Loos romantic comedy entitled Eadie Was a Lady, the production office pushed back. Hard. The film had the unfortunate timing of coinciding with the great censorship campaign of 1934, and the film is a perfect example of the moral whitewashing that swept through Hollywood that summer: the script was rewritten countless times and the scenes retaken, take after endless take, until the Breen office gave it a pass. Even the title changes were a reflection of the heat being put on the studios: Eadie Was a Lady became 100% Pure, then Born to Be Kissed, then It Pays to Be Good, and finally the thoroughly underwhelming and inoffensive The Girl From Missouri.
The Breen office’s fingerprints are all over this film, eye-rollingly so, but it is a testament to Jack Conway’s tight direction, and the sparkling comraderie of Harlow and co-star Franchot Tone, that the film does not suffer more than one would suppose in the light of such a hatchet job. The story is melodrama 101: Harlow is a chorus girl whose sexy figure more or less spells trouble, even though she’s just a good little girl from Missouri. Wanting to bag a wealthy husband, she finds herself in a spot when the old millionaire she tries to flirt with at a party (Lewis Stone) kills himself. Lionel Barrymore, a calculating businessman, knows Harlow’s involvement is accidental and covers for her. Harlow, still determined to settle down with a wealthy man, follows Barrymore to Palm Beach, with a smart-talking sidekick (the always delightful Patsy Kelly) at her side. Franchot Tone (who more or less had the market cornered on playful, charming rakes) is Barrymore’s playboy son whom Harlow mistakes for just another penniless flirt out to get under her dress. And she’s right–except for the penniless part. But (and here’s where Breen stepped in) Harlow is a virtuous sort, who refuses so much as to accept gifts from Tone, let alone give him a kiss, until she’s sure he has marriage on his mind. The Girl from Missouri is fascinating when taken in historical context, as one has to wonder how different it would have been had Loos’ original script got the green light. The film is a swan song to the carefree pre-code era, but also a glimpse at how clever directors and writers would have to be over the next several years to sneak past the censors.
Jill’s Pick: Love in the Afternoon (1957)
Billy Wilder had a knack for giving sophistication, class, and sentimentality to situations that, under typical circumstances, would be considered sordid. In his 1957 romantic drama Love in the Afternoon, Wilder cleverly dodges the Production Code to tell the story of a young woman’s “sky rockets in flight, afternoon delight” affair with a much older playboy. Our lovers, Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper) and Ariane (Audrey Hepburn), meet under rather strange circumstances. Ariane’s father, Claude (Maurice Chevalier), is a private detective specializing in cheating spouse cases. He lives and works out of the apartment he shares with Ariane, his only child. Claude has recently been hired by a distraught husband who suspects his wife is having an affair with someone in Paris. The wife is involved with the notorious ladies man Flannagan, who makes regular trips to Paris for business…and pleasure. Claude is very familiar with Flannagan and his exploits, as he has been involved with many other women that Claude has been hired to investigate. Once the distraught husband, Monsieur X (hilariously played by John McGiver) is told of the affair, he confides in Claude that he is going to kill Flannagan. Despite Claude’s efforts to protect his daughter from the seedy goings-on of his business, she overhears Monsieur X’s plan and decides to warn Flannagan. All it takes is one face-to-face with Flannagan to send her in a romantic tailspin. The two set a date to meet, in his hotel suite, for the following afternoon. To protect her identity, Ariane refuses to disclose her name, so Flannagan gives her a nickname: Thin Girl. Ariane falls in love with Flannagan, but she must never let him know, because the commitment will scare him away. To keep him interested in her (and jealous), Ariane portrays herself as Flannagan’s female equivalent. She recounts the elaborate details of affairs with a multitude of men, ranging from an importer/exporter…to a bullfighter…to an artist. Of course she can weave these tales because she has access to a rather impressive “library” in her father’s office.
Love in the Afternoon is a charming film that is romantic, heartbreaking, and at times quite funny. The Parisian location, story, and music are all reminiscent of many of the films made by the great Ernst Lubitsch. This is no coincidence; Wilder co-wrote screenplays for Lubitsch comedies such as Ninotchka and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. Wilder’s Afternoon is the perfect homage to one of the best. Audrey Hepburn is at her most charming as the young, naive Ariane. She is perfectly cast for the role. As for Coop’s Frank Flannagan, well, let’s just say he doesn’t have the same romantic appeal as he did in his earlier days. Not to mention the huge age gap between him and Hepburn (why did they always pair her with the old guard? Maybe she was just too sophisticated for her contemporaries). Supposedly Wilder’s first choice for Flannagan was Cary Grant, but he was never able to convince Grant to take the role…or any role for that matter. Wilder once commented on Grant’s “unavailability”: “It was a disappointment to me that [Grant] never said yes to any picture I offered him. He didn’t explain why. He had very strong ideas about what parts he wanted.” Oh, what could have been (yes, he was older, too. But Cary Grant never really aged on-screen). Even Grant-less, Love in the Afternoon is a sweet movie that, if you weren’t already, will make you fall in love with Audrey. And the way she looks at Coop will make you forget the not-so-good casting.