Monday, July 11, 2011

The Joys of Pre-Code Romance

Film: Me and My Gal
Format: Internet video on laptop.

Because at least some of the people who show up at this site every now and again are fellow 1001 Movies bloggers, some of this site’s visitors know the pain of a movie that can’t be located. I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to locate films that are obscure over the past few months. My best guess is that between three and five percent of the films will be headaches to locate.

One of those films is Raoul Walsh’s 1932 pre-code Me and My Gal. Those who have looked for it know that it’s easy to locate pictures and clips and DVDs of the 1942 For Me and My Gal with Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, but Me and My Gal with Spencer Tracy? Nothing. Well, I found it. Those looking for it can head here.

Me and My Gal is a pre-code comedy, and a Prohibition-era comedy, which makes for an interesting combination. There’s tons of drinking and plenty of sexual innuendo, which is a bit surprising if one isn’t quite prepared for it. There also seems to be at least a little of an attempt to cash in on the box office success of films like The Public Enemy and Little Caesar, because there’s also a hefty gangster element to this film. Me and My Gal was made in a time when cops were always good guys, even if they snagged a banana off a passing porter, drunks were harmless fun, and in comedies the bad guys were bad enough only to cause a romantic headache, not really hurt anybody.

Police officer Danny Dolan (Tracy) is working on the docks, snagging an occasional piece of fruit and dealing with a drunk (Will Stanton) who makes frequent appearances as a sort of constant comic relief. During his rounds he encounters Helen Riley (Joan Bennett) a fast-talking waitress at a dockside chowderhouse. The attraction between the pair is as immediate as it is evident, considering the fact that the two do nothing but insult each other. We learn to trust Dolan immediately when he rescues a dog from being drowned—any guy who saves a pooch can’t be a bad guy in the cinematic language of the day.

Also down at the docks is Al (Adrian Morris), a detective, looking for the arrival of Duke (George Walsh), a criminal returning to the city. Thanks to the drunk, Duke makes it to the docks without being captured. As it turns out, Duke’s old girlfriend is Kate Riley (Marion Burns), Helen’s sister. Kate hasn’t forgotten about Duke, but is getting married in search of a less stressful relationship. Her new husband-to-be (George Chandler) is a relatively safe catch who works on a ship. Kate gets married, but Duke wants some compensation—the numbers for the safe deposit boxes where Kate works.

It’s all in good fun, with Danny trying to put the make on Helen, until Duke manages a prison break so simple it’s brilliant. He shows up at the newly-married Kate’s house demanding that she help him with a heist. Compounding matters, Duke hides out in the house of Kate’s father-in-law, who is paralyzed and can only communicate by blinking in Morse code.

Of course, this is a Hollywood movie from the 1930s, so the good guys are going to win, and nothing too terrible is going to happen to Helen, Danny, Kate, or anybody else who isn’t an overt criminal. In fact, nothing too terrible happens to the drunk, who exists here solely as something for us to laugh at. There’s no doubt from the outset that Danny and Helen will wind up together and happy, that Kate’s marriage will work out and that Duke will eventually be behind bars for a good, long time...or will at least get what's coming to him.

And so what? In many respects, the crime aspects of this film serve as nothing more than a way for us to get Danny involved in Helen’s life and to stay there, since it’s her sister who is in trouble. We get to see a lot of the movie clich├ęs/tropes that have existed since, well, since films like this one. Kate, for instance, turns on a radio just in time to hear about Duke’s prison break. The dialogue is whipcrack smart and a lot of fun to listen to; it puts me in mind of similar films of the era like The Thin Man.

Had this movie been made a few years later, it would be considerably different. We wouldn’t see the newlywed Kate kissing another man or hiding him from the law. We wouldn’t get the awesome innuendo and internal monologues of Helen and Danny as they cuddle on the couch. We most certainly wouldn’t see Spencer Tracy climb over the diner’s counter to get at sweet, sweet Helen.

This movie has once again reminded me of something I know but seem to frequently forget—I love the fast-talking “screwy dame” film heroine of the 1930s. I love them all. Joan Blondell, Joan Bennett, Ruby Keeler, Kate Hepburn, Myrna Loy, Claudette Colbert, Rosalind Russell…the list goes on, and I love them all. I love the patter, the hats worn at a rakish tilt, the knack for taking guff and handing it right back. It’s an attitude that’s missing from modern films. Oh, modern movies have plenty of “attitude,” but these days, that means women who act like men. The heroines of screwball comedies and other films of the era had moxie, and I do genuinely love me some moxie.

I hear from many people who don’t appreciate older films that one of the reasons is that the plots don’t make a lot of common sense. I agree with that, but I don’t agree that it’s a problem. Certainly there are a lot of coincidences and extraordinary happenings in this film. The cop happens to fall for the sister of the bad guy’s girlfriend? And? This is somehow more extraordinary than The Proposal or How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days? It isn’t. More importantly, Me and My Gal also isn’t a cinematic turd like it’s hard-to-believe modern counterparts.

Why to watch Me and My Gal: A simple feel-good from a simpler time.
Why not to watch: More plot coincidences than a Dickens novel.

7 comments:

  1. Thanks for noting the location Steve! I am also having trouble locating "La Chienne" and "Shanghai Express" from this time period as well - any help would be appreciated.

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  2. I make a regular check of the tough-to-find. This is the most recent that I've spotted, and it was evidently a recent upload; it's only been there for about 5 weeks.

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  3. Interesting.

    So far I haven't had trouble finding any films ... give it time.

    Great review Steve.

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  4. what's the best source for pre-code movies? does netflix have some? do libraries? do i use torrents? or, gulp, buy them from amazon or a specialty house?

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  5. Netflix has quite a few, as do many libraries. I've learned to look at early films sort of like foreign films in terms of availability. In general, ones that are pretty well known are pretty easy to get. Rare ones take some doing.

    God forbid you want to watch a relatively obscure foreign movie from 1930!

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  6. Another great Hollywood movie from the early 1930s that I'd never seen before! Last winter, when I was using YouTube to watch bunches and bunches of pre-1936 movies that I hadn't seen, this was one that wasn't on YouTube. But now it's available, and I'm so glad because it's wonderful!

    A lot of the time, I can take or leave Spencer Tracy, but he's great in this! I'm not sure I've seen him in anything this far back. I'll have to look for more of his early early films.

    And Joan Bennett! The year after this, she was one of the little women in Little Woman. She was the dumb one, and she's great! But what a contrast with this film! Wisecracking, hard-boiled, haughty ... and hilarious!

    Not to mention a great supporting cast of people I recognize but whose names I don't know. Well, I know Henry B. Walthall (the lead in Birth of a Nation), and he's really good here, even though all he does is blink his eyes in Morse Code.

    And George Chandler as the guy who marries Joan Bennett's sister! The greatest bit player of them all! And he was credited in this movie!

    There's a lot to love about this movie. I especially liked that sequence where they were poking a little fun at Strange Inner Tubes, and we could hear their thoughts for a few minutes. I've seen Strange Interlude (with Norma Shearer) and pretty much the only reason to see it is for the extra appreciation you derive from 1930s films where they make fun of it. (In addition to Me and My Gal, there's a Marx Brothers movie where Groucho has a weird monologue. Is it Animal Crackers? Might be Duck Soup.)

    I should have seen this a long time ago! I just had no idea what it was really about so I always avoided it because of the title.

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    1. Yeah, it's a bit of fun. There are some cute ideas here and that's more than enough for a movie like this one. This is how quirky little rom-coms ought to be done.

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