Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 9 - Pre-Code Classics [4 Discs] [DVD]

In the 1930s, movies made before the censoring Hays Code were tough, raw and unforgivingly adult. This four-disc set includes pre-Code classics Big City Blues (with Joan Blondell and a young Humphrey Bogart), Hell's Highway (with Richard Dix), The Cabin in the Cotton (with Bette Davis delivering the unforgettable put-down "I'd love to kiss you, but I just washed my hair") and When Ladies Meet (with Myrna Loy). Includes the post-Code bonus feature I Sell Anything (with Pat O'Brien and Ann Dvorak).
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The Cabin in the Cotton
Henry Harrison Kroll's novel Cabin in the Cotton was an attack on wealthy southern landowners who exploited their sharecroppers. While the landowners still don't come off too well in Warner Bros.' film version of Kroll's novel, the film tries to avoid stepping on powerful toes, even composing an opening-title disclaimer pointing out that both sides of the issue had arguments in their favor. Richard Barthelmess, 23 going on 45, plays a sharecropper's son who wants to improve his lot with a college education. Land baron Berton Churchill advises Barthelmess' father to get those "silly ideas" out of our hero's head, lest he forget his place. Bette Davis plays Churchill's seductive daughter, whose influence with daddy enables Barthelmess to rise to the position of Churchill's bookkeeper. When Barthelmess discovers that Churchill is cooking the books, Churchill counters that Barthelmess wouldn't have any chance to advance himself without the largess of the landowners. He even tries to get Barthelmess to inform on those field workers who plan to organize a union. A potentially bloody confrontation between the workers and management is quelled by Barthelmess, who manages to wangle compromises from both sides. The only thing Barthelmess loses is Davis, but he is compensated by the affections of longtime sweetheart Dorothy Jordan. Nobody really remembers the plot complications in Cabin in the Cotton; to most viewers, the film is memorable only for Bette Davis' classic line "Ah'd love to kiss ya, but ah jest washed ma hair." ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

Big City Blues
Based on the play New York Town by Ward Morehouse, Mervyn LeRoy directs the black-and-white 1932 comedy drama Big City Blues. A small-town innocent from Indiana, Bud Reeves (Eric Linden) inherits money and goes to New York to get in all sorts of trouble. He meets up with his cousin Gibby (Walter Catlett), who introduces him to chorus girl Vida Fleet (Joan Blondell). Bud and Gibby then throw a drunken hotel party with bootleg liquor that gets out of hand and a young woman (Josephine Dunn) is hit on the head and accidentally killed. Bud and Vida go gambling and drinking to escape the cops, but they are caught and arrested with everyone else from the party. Eventually, the police find the real killer and release everyone. Bud leaves for Indiana, but plans to go back, get his dog, and marry Vida. Humphrey Bogart appears in a brief uncredited role as Shep Adkins, a guy who gets into a fight with Lyle Talbot during the party. ~ Andrea LeVasseur, Rovi

I Sell Anything
"I Sell Anything" is the boast of penny-ante auctioneer Spot Cash Cutler (Pat O'Brien), and he more than makes good his boast in this brisk Warner Bros. programmer. When Cutler accidentally sells a rare antique to clever Millicent Clark (Claire Dodd) for a mere 50 bucks, he demands a cut when Millicent resells the item to a museum for $5000. Instead, she talks him into utilizing his talents at a high-class Broadway auction house. This leads to a series of double- and triple-crosses as Millicent maneuvers Cutler into selling the worthless items cluttering the home of her boyfriend Smiley Thompson (Russell Hopton), leaving our hero empty-handed except for the love of his ever-patient sweetheart Barbara (Ann Dvorak). The cast of I Sell Anything lists "three stooges," but they're played by Hobart Cavanaugh, Gus Shy and Harry Tyler rather than Curly, Larry and Moe. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

When Ladies Meet
Henry Beaumont directed this verbose adaptation of Rachel Crother's play. Ann Harding plays Claire Woodruff, the wife of philandering publisher Rogers Woodruf (Frank Morgan). Myrna Loy is Mary Howard, a lithe and beautiful writer of novels with whom Rogers is in love. Meanwhile, her friend Jimmie Lee (Robert Montgomery), a frosty newspaper man who continually puts down her novel writing, is actually in love with her. When Claire and Mary finally meet up with each other to discuss characters in a new book Mary is writing, Claire, in a blunt and common-sensical way, provides Mary with her own personal take on love and philandering husbands. ~ Paul Brenner, Rovi

Hell's Highway
Often referred to as an imitation of Warner's legendary prison drama I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), RKO's stirring Hell's Highway was actually released a few months earlier. The two films were in production at the same time, but RKO was determined to beat the competition (which also included Universal's Laughter in Hell, 1933) and not a few corners were cut. All three films were set in a generic Southern state (read Georgia) and depicted a horrid penal system more akin to the Middle Ages than the supposedly enlightened 1930s. In Hell's Highway, the chain gang prisoners wear uniforms with a large target printed on the back and the torture instrument du jour is a so-called sweatbox, in constant operation so that unscrupulous contractor Billings (Oscar Apfel) may construct his "Liberty Highway" on time and under budget. When a prisoner dies from exposure in the dreaded contraption, Duke Ellis (Richard Dix) concocts a plan to escape. The escape comes to an abrupt halt with the sudden arrival of his kid brother, Johnny (Tom Brown). The latter ends up in the sweatbox, but Duke has the kid transferred to office duty by using a bit of blackmail. There is a climactic prison riot, during which Duke is killed after saving his brother once again. Or at least that was what a preview audience saw. The death of the film's hero proved so shocking that RKO hastily filmed an alternative ending and Hell's Highway, as it survives today, concludes with Billings being charged with murder (the sweatbox situation) and Duke asked to testify against him. Typical of pre-code Hollywood, Hell's Highway features an openly gay prisoner (who bats his eyes at the prison guards), several scenes of torture, an appearance of near equality between black and white inmates, a bible-quoting polygamist (Charles Middleton), a wife-murdering guard (Warner Richmond), and, for added verisimilitude, a handicapped character who, when mortally wounded during the riot, signs his farewell to this world. Hell's Highway may not have enjoyed the status of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, but it remains a powerful indictment of the Georgian penal system of 1931 and a fine, well-acted film in its own right. ~ Hans J. Wollstein, Rovi

Cast & Crew

  • Richard Barthelmess
    Richard Barthelmess - Marvin Blake
  • Dorothy Jordan
    Dorothy Jordan - Betty Wright
  • Bette Davis
    Bette Davis - Madge
  • Henry B. Walthall
    Henry B. Walthall - Eph Clinton
  • Berton Churchill
    Berton Churchill - Lane Norwood

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