Friends of Dorothy

The unremitting sleaziness of William Wellman’s 1931 “Safe in Hell” has earned the film a place in the pre-code pantheon, as well as a recent release as part of the Warner Archive Collection.

Playing a New Orleans prostitute who takes it on the lam after braining her ex-lover with a bottle of bootleg hooch, Dorothy Mackaill provides a memorably hard-bitten presence, but the role turns out to be something of an anomaly for the British-born actress, who had achieved minor stardom in the 1920s in a series of light, working-girl comedies made for First National. Mackaill worked with some of the leading comedy directors of the period, including Alfred Santell (“Subway Sadie,” 1926) and William A. Seiter (“Waterfront,” 1928), but the vast majority of her silent work is lost, making an accurate appraisal of her career an impossibility. Although she made an easy transition to sound, she was one of several First National stars whose contracts were not renewed when the studio was taken over by Warner Brothers, and by 1934 her career was effectively over.

Nevertheless, encouraged by the WAC release of a Mackaill double bill, “The Office Wife” (Lloyd Bacon, 1930) and “Party Husband” (Clarence G. Badger, 1931), as well as by the coincidental appearance of Thornton Freeland’s 1932 “Love Affair” as part of a TCM/Sony Humprhey Bogart collection, I press ahead in this week’s New York Times column with an attempt at an appreciation. If anyone has seen other Mackaill performances, or would care to recommend other overlooked performers of the period, please share.

92 comments to Friends of Dorothy

  • Shawn Stone

    Leila Hyams is charming and funny in THE BIG BROADCAST, too. Most of her silent films seem to be lost, but she can be glimpsed in DANCING MOTHERS, and she’s second-billed to Rin-Tin-Tin in LAND OF THE SILVER FOX, which I haven’t seen but is at Eastman House.

  • Alex

    Robert Regan writes “I think is pretty safe to say that all of us here are essentially auteurists in one form or another, but it is a pleasure to see how many of us appreciate the value of one of the most important elements of mise-en-scene, namely the actors, and how wonderful that we are doing our bit to keep some of these remarkable people from being forgotten.

    Hu-rah! But how about “doing our bit” to see that some of the big artful new stars like Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbinder get some attention?

  • Robert Regan

    Yes, Alex. There appear to be many people who love film, but seem to think that great screen acting ended some time in the fifties or sixties. There is no dearth of excellent actors in the cinema today. The two newcomers you mention are proof, as are also a number of talented but underappreciated players who have been demonstrating their ability for some time. I’m thinking Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Kirsten Dunst, and Michelle Monaghan. Norma Desmond was wrong. We still have faces!

  • david hare

    Barry maybe you can advise me if these are on the WBA Big Band Swing dvds: on the laser Vitaphone Swing box there were a couple of 1937 two reeler sets of the Artie Shaw band. In one of them Artie gets horn player Tony Pastor to solo in a rendition of “Pros-Tchai”. Tony is wearing a coke spoon around his tuxedoed neck.

  • Barry Putterman

    David, I’m not sure why you would consider me to be an authority on coke spoons, but the two Artie Shaw shorts are in fact in this box. However, the only thing that I see around Tony Pastor’s neck during that number is the same thing that everybody in the sax section wears around their necks which attaches to the back of their instruments. Indeed, Tony re-attaches it to the back of his tenor as he is sitting down to rejoin the section.

    Not only is Artie represented by two entires in this box, but so also are the apparently much beloved Ozzie Nelson and Borah Minevitch & His Harmonica Rascals. AND Larry Clinton and his lads turn up three times.

    On a more cinematic note, Betty Hutton fans can catch her as part of the Vincent Lopez orchestra, billed as “Public Jitterbug # 1″ and singing a, shall we say, spirited rendition of “Old Man Mose.

  • david hare

    As you can see nor am I an authority on said spoons! Or woodwinds I think.

    I will quietly go and murder the friend who insisted it was a coke spoon.

    Sniff!

  • Tom Brueggemann

    The weird thing for me, as a decades-long auteurist, is that my two favorite films of the last two years have both been directors that I previously didn’t think would make great films – David Fincher and Tomas Alfredson (good certainly, but not my best of the year). And both of the films are indeed full of top to bottom high quality craft, and perhaps that contributes to my love for them. It does scare me a little.

    Meantime, my recent favorite at least English language director has made for me three problematic, underwhelming films in a row, after making a handful of great films in the last 20 years (Clint Eastwood).

    Color me perplexed.

  • Oliver_C

    The problem with auteurism only comes if you end up thinking, as Truffaut might have put it, that True Crime must be inherently more interesting than Zodiac.

  • Robert Regan

    Well, D.K., you have certainly brought up three truly Lost Women, even one who seems to have survived movies and who did not suffer an early death. I haven’t yet seen Maren Jensen, but her name has been suggested by a number of people on MUBI.

    I’ve only seen a few of Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith’s films, but even in small parts she made a strong impression, not looking like “all the other girls”.

    Claudia Jennings was an absolute knockout in Unholy Rollers by “lost director” Vernon Zimmerman. I’ve seen a few other of her films, but have not yet again experienced the impact of Claudia on wheels. Let me parenthetically add here that, though I have never attended a roller derby and don’t expect to, I have been enchanted by this spectacle on the screens three times: Unholy Rollers, Kansas City Bomber with Raquel Welch, and the recent Whip It with Drew Barrymore who also produced and directed. Are there any other roller derby movies I should look for?

  • mark gross

    To return to Dorothy MacKaill for a moment, I’m in the process of browsing the Warner Archive & came upon an early sound musical made by First National which hasn’t been mentioned on this thread yet: THE GREAT DIVIDE, co-starring Dorothy MacKaill & Ian Keith with Myrna Loy in one of her many vamp roles. I clicked on the title because it nudged a distant memory. I believe I saw this many decades ago at MOMA, possibly during their musical series (which was in the early 70′s). I remember finding the film surprisingly watchable, though I don’t remember too many details. I only remember Ms. Mackaill being gusty and fun to watch and a much better singer than I expected. I think the source was a theatrical warhorse that had been filmed a number of times before, involving a man kidnapping his girlfriend in order to let her know he really loves her, or something along those lines. Barry, I believe you’ve seen almost everything on the Warner Archive. Would you or anyone else like to comment?

  • joe dante

    Robert, you might try Tay Garnett’s THE FIREBALL (1950) with Mickey Rooney as an orphan working his way up the derby ladder who gets sidelined by polio. Apparently it’s based on a true story. Pat O’Brien plays another priest and Marilyn Monroe has an early role. It’s based on a story by Horace McCoy. I haven’t seen it in years.

  • Barry Putterman

    First coke spoons and now THE GREAT DIVIDE. When did I get anointed the Professor Irwin Corey of cinematic footnotes!?

    I saw THE BARKER at Cinecon, but if I saw the Reginald Barker under discussion, it must have fallen into the great divide between my memory and my consciousness. Possibly under hypnosis it will all come back to me. But I’m telling you, this getting to be be just too much pressure!

    Now please, cut away to two federal investigators snorting and rolling their eyes because I want to invite the audience to laugh at this rant.

  • Robert Regan

    Thanks, Joe. I remember that I did see The Fireball, but I hope I can be forgiven if a movie I saw in 1950 has largely escaped me. I will look for it on the double.

  • mark gross

    Barry, Professor Irwin Corey used to bother me for comps when I managed a movie theatre, and I would never think of putting the two of you in the same category. I was just laboring under the delusion that you had seen everything.

  • Alex

    Tom Brueggemann,

    How early need auteurship be apparent or even be present? Seems to me experience may well play a role not to be realized in one’s “first” film. Indeed, seems to me fluctuates and fades, and not just with opportunity. of course, this is awkward ,disallowing one to say “X is art, for it’s by A.”

    Glad to hear of another enthusiast for TINKER, TAILOR.

    Seems to me Finchers been great his last four efforts, though in some decline since ZODIAC.

  • Barry Putterman

    Mark, remember those Warner Brothers cartoons where a character would say; “well, now I’ve seen everything’ and then blow his brains out? Well, I’m still standing.

  • Rick K.

    An update to a much earlier thread expressing hope (someday) for an official (or at least upgraded) release of Anthony Mann’s THE BLACK BOOK, the director’s most resourceful, dazzling film noir (unmistakably noir despite its French Revolution backdrop) … happily, it appears prayers have been answered. Sony’s Columbia Classic MOD service, which surreptitiously infiltrates small batches of obscure but often beautifully rendered studio holdings for DVD collectors to absorb, has bestowed upon us a newly mastered DVD-R of the original Eagle-Lion release (Columbia logo attached), which is a tremendous leap from those former PD compromises we’ve seen up to now. To place it in one’s DVD player is to surrender unconditionally to an hour and a half of pure cinema (Mann, Alton and Menzies in top form!) …. any pauses or interruptions were unthinkable once the titles and opening montage in all their exquisite b/w glory had graced my home screen. At any rate, it can now be obtained through most of those online channels which distribute for Columbia, so the long wait is over for a definitive reference copy of this unsung gem, unless of course Twilight Time decides it could sell a limited edition 3000 copies on blu-ray (let the campaign begin!).

  • Rick K – thanks, I’ve heard great things said about THE BLACK BOOK before, but never been able to see that Mann!

    I’m going directly to try and order me one!

  • joe dante

    Let me second the enthusiasm for THE BLACK BOOK. Mann, Alton and Menzies! It may be the Classics Illustrated version of history, but it’s a real spellbinder, and very witty in the bargain (“Don’t call me Max!”). It’s public domain, so we should be doubly grateful Sony decided to go the distance after VCI and Alpha put out their respectively fuzzy and censored versions (Mike Schlesinger, are you listening? Thank you). Anyone out there have a trailer for this? I’d love to use it on Trailers from Hell.

  • One more vote for REIGN OF TERROR, aka THE BLACK BOOK. An interesting character is the police chief Fouché, the forerunner of Himmler, Beriya, Mielke… and J. Edgar? The topical message of the movie was anti-totalitarian, with historical parallels to the reigns of terror of Hitler and Stalin. But many may have also noticed the parallel of THE BLACK BOOK to the Black List. I have only seen a 16 mm print of this masterpiece, but the visual power could be appreciated even so. http://anttialanenfilmdiary.blogspot.com/1998/04/reign-of-terror.html

  • Alexander Gray and Bernice Claire made several musicals together in the pre-code era. They were the first “singing team” in musical films. They are mainly forgotten today, though. They had terrific voices.

    Their version of NO, NO NANETTE (Clarence Badger, 1930) is reportedly lost. The delightful book SCREEN DECO by Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers has a fascinating still of them at a spectacular set representing a Deco airport. Would love to see this film.

    *
    I love THE BLACK BOOK too.

  • Barry Lane

    You can’t put Hoover on a list with Himmler. What’s wrong with you…?

  • Barry Lane (January 15, 2012 at 10:15 am), I didn’t mean that Hoover and Himmler are alike, but “a policeman’s job is only easy in a police state” (Touch of Evil).

  • Alex

    THE BLACK BOOK has to be one of the great realizations of spectacle acheived via cinematography and design despite limited means. It is, however, indeed very Classics Illustrated — this is to say an expression of striking characterization and thematic seriousness through very broad, if bold, strokes.

    Not sure such Mann noirs as “Raw Deal,” “He Walked by Night,” “Desperate” “Railroaded” might not include more affecting, if not more dazzling, film noir.

  • Barry Putterman

    Antti, I’m not quite sure what you intended by quoting that line from TOUCH OF EVIL. But whatever one thinks of Hoover’s performance, his job was not especially easy. And most of us here in the U.S. like to think that we are not actually living in a police state.

  • Barry Putterman (January 15, 2012 at 12:05 pm): I agree that Hoover’s job was not easy, Q.E.D! But according to the J. Edgar movie he was also tempted by certain tricks that Joseph Fouché and Hank Quinlan were too fond of.

  • Barry Putterman

    No doubt Antti. But couldn’t that be said of just about any person who seeks and achieves a position of great responsibility and power? Doesn’t it sort of come with the territory?

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘most of us here in the U.S. like to think that we are not actually living in a police state.’

    Recently reported in Japan was death of Gordon Hirabayashi who refused to obey order 9066 and was imprisoned because he was of Japanese ancestry. For Japanese-American people, America was police state during WWII.

    During J. Edgar Hoover period (1924-1972)America was police state depending on position in social hierarchy. For dissident, black people, immigrant America was police state.

    To day Japan is police state for people of Korean ancestry.

    Since today is Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in America there is reporting about Civil Rights movement, and there was subversion of Civil Rights Movement by FBI from order of Hoover. When there was crime against Civil Rights activist he did not like to investigate and had to pressured to do something.

    ‘But couldn’t that be said of just about any person who seeks and achieves a position of great responsibility and power? Doesn’t it sort of come with the territory?’

    This argument was used to defend Japanese war criminal. It is what leader says to excuse, just like soldier who is only following order of leader. Believing this excuse, then no one is responsible. It is not so good argument.

  • Barry Putterman

    Junko, the second line of mine which you quote was in response to Antti’s saying that Hovver was TEMPTED by tricks used by Fouche and Quinlan. So countering that with examples relating to war crimes is not such a good argument either.

    A good example of the temptations of power would be the Japanese internment camps; which was a policy of Franklin Roosevelt’s that J. Edgar Hoover opposed.

    Hoover’s record in relation to the civil rights movement was atrocious. However, claiming that the U.S. was or is a police state for dissident black people, or, for that matter Japan is for the Korean immigrants, would need a lot more evidential support and a more focused definition of what is meant by the term “police state.”

  • Rick K.

    Alex … I think Mann/Alton films like RAW DEAL and T-MEN are most significant as transitional films in the noir cycle, signaling the use of natural location for stylistic effect as an increasingly dominant trend. What they achieved was an astonishing application of expressionist technique beyond the usual studio sets where lighting and camerawork were much more easily controlled for psychological intent. Alton was one of the very few cinematographers who were able to manage this revised approach with such finesse (Metty was another). Compare Mann/Alton with Dassin/Daniels of THE NAKED CITY, and there is a considerable difference. BLACK BOOK came after these films, but by retreating primarily to the sets and artistry of Menzies (necessary for recreation of period), they created something of a glorious last stand of studio noir aesthetic and, as you say, spectacle achieved via cinematography and design. As sometimes noted, BLACK BOOK plays a lot like a gangster film in period disguise. Most of my favorite noirs were made during the 40’s … by the 50’s, the basic look of noir had changed.

  • Robert Garrick

    TCM has been showing (at least once or twice a year) a beautiful copy of “The Black Book.” Mann said in an interview that he was very pleased “with that one.”

    Barry, my favorite “now I’ve seen everything” moment comes in the WB Merry Melody “Horton Hatches the Egg” (1942), where a fish (who looks and talks like Peter Lorre) emerges from the ocean and sees a palm tree in a boat with an elephant sitting on top of it. The fish does a double take, utters the line, and then produces a gun (from underwater–how does he do that?) and blows his brains out.

    Then there’s the canary (who sounds like Jack Benny), who commits gun-to-head suicide after speaking the line in the Bob Clampett-directed “The Sour Puss” (1940). Some TV stations used to edit that scene out of the cartoon in order to protect the tender sensibilities of their viewers, but it’s back in now.

  • Rick K.

    joe … I’ve scoured all the trailers I recorded going back to vhs, but THE BLACK BOOK appears to be rarer than eggshell of a two-headed roc … guess you’ll have to stick with scorpions for now.

  • Brian Dauth

    Barry: The stop-and-frisk policies of the NYPD against Black and Latino citizens are evidence of a police state since they are motivated not by any suspicion of criminal activity, but merely by membership in a profiled group. Such unchecked police power is a hallmark of a police state where particular groups are singled out for government surveillance. Hoover’s passionate advocacy for surveillance helped to legitimize this approach. Eastwood’s film is interesting in that it posits that Hoover’s own life could not have endured such scrutiny.

  • Barry Putterman

    Brian, I believe that there is a specific term for what you are describing; “racial profiling.” No doubt, racial profiling would exist in all police states, but it doesn’t define a police state in and of itself.

  • Alex Hicks

    Rick K.,

    Agreed, and nicely put. But you’d probably agree that Alton could be utterly superb indoors, As in the in THE SCAR. My favorite noir shooting is probably studio stiff by others than Slton, though –e.g., Bredell’s for THE UNSUSPECTED and THE KILLERS, Seitz’s for DOUBLE INDEMNITY, and Musuraca’s for OUT OF THE PAST (nonpareil outdoors as well as in).

    Interesting the great, heavily studio, lighting in 3-strip Tchnicolor was on it’s way out in tandem with the the great noir chiaroscura. Film seldom’d look so good before or after, never has looked so cinsistently good.

  • jbryant

    Mann’s DESPERATE was shot by George E. Diskant, and while his noir (and noir-ish) work doesn’t get as much love as the brilliant John Alton’s, he wasn’t chopped liver: THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, ON DANGEROUS GROUND, THE NARROW MARGIN, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, and a particular favorite of mine, Ted Tetzlaff’s RIFFRAFF (1947), a great-looking, snappy blend of noir and CASABLANCA-style intrigue. And Pat O’Brien is awesome in it.

  • Tony Williams

    I have to agree completely with Junko here. America is now a police state especially with the signing of that Congressional Bill that allows for the arrest of American citizens without trial and their incarceration without access to legal representation. At a stroke of the pen, the current occupant of the White House has dissolved the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Also, although Hoover may not have been in favor of Japanese-American concentration camps, he fully supported Hubert Humprey’s attempt (suppirted by both Kennedys) to set up camps for American radicals during the post-war era. Reynold Humphries’s AMERICA’S BLACKLISTS is essential reading for this period. Let us not whitewash this appalling man, engage in denial tactics, and be fully aware that his legacy is now fully operational today. Eastwood’s film tends to deny the worst aspects of Hoover’s role, especially in having a sympathetic view of the notorious Attorny General Palmer in terms of the Red Raids reducing Emma Goldmnann’s historical sitgnificance to the “fear of the feminine.”

  • ‘A good example of the temptations of power would be the Japanese internment camps; which was a policy of Franklin Roosevelt’s that J. Edgar Hoover opposed.’

    As a matter of fact Hoover thought internment was unnecessary but he was not opposed to it, particularly after the logistics were given over to the Dept. of the Interior. Also, the idea didn’t originate with FDR but came from Harold Ickes and the California business community; FDR signed off on it though.

    Gordon Hirabayashi was the plaintiff in Hirabayshi v. USA, and his conviction was overturned in 1986 on the basis of evidence suppressed by the government, evidence that had been gathered by the FBI and that was known to Hoover who said not a word about its existence on discovery requests made by the defense. Not exactly the same thing as Capt. Quinlan fabricating evidence but just as bad in its consequences.

    Concerning what constitutes a police state, it seems to me that national security is a more accurate description of conditions in the USA at different points in its history. For evidence of this contention see “Aliens and Dissenters: Federal Suppression of Radicals” and 600 thousand plus pages of declassified documents available for perusal at the National Security Archives website: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/.

    The example cited by Brian adds to Junko’s observation that one’s position in the social hierarchy accounts for the frequency of one’s encounters with law enforcement. For many of us the real function of the police is social control and there job is to keep in line those elements that might prove troublesome to the powers that be, the people to whom Hoover was responsible.

    It is sometimes argued by those who deny the existence of a national security apparatus that we are more free today than ever before. One’s ability to accept such reassurance partly depends on the class conditions and life chances that one confronts. The well off individual whose views fit into that portion of the American political spectrum known as the “mainstream” (from conservative Republican to liberal Democrat) and whose political actions are limited to the standardized forms of participation — informal discussion, television viewing, web surfing, newspaper reading, and voting is apt to dismiss the contention that America is a national security state. But those who oppose the existing political orthodoxy and who find themselves under surveillance and subjected to the intimidations, harassments, and sanctions of the U.S. national security state have a less sanguine view.

    In 1975 when I was attending NYU I copied a form letter for requesting any documents held on me by the FBI from a feminist newspaper called “Majority Report”; I didn’t think I’d get anything, but lo and behold I received 4 redacted pages dating back to when I was a senior in high school reporting my involvement in campaigning for a local Peace and Freedom Party candidate, a perfectly legal party. Later on when NYC dissolved its Red Squad I went with a group of other dissidents (including Allen Ginsberg the poet and the pacifist Dave Dellinger) where I obtained a much thicker file.

    It seems that the ability of most middle-class whites to perceive the national security features of American society is seriously blunted not only by their class experiences but by the aura of familiarity and legitimacy that enshrouds the established political culture. In making comparisons between their society and others. Thus the organized forms of police violence in America are seen as isolated, aberrant happenings–on the infrequent occasions they’re reported–rather than as manifestations of our social order. But the same practices in certain other lands are treated as predictable components of undemocratic systems. Many social arrangements and happenings that would evoke strongly negative sentiments if defined as products of an authoritarian state become, by their proximity and cultural familiarity (“racial profiling” for example,) no cause for alarm when practice at home.

  • Modern forms of surveillance have far less to do with politics than marketing. I’m sure Mr. Hoover’s files contained far less information about far fewer people than the massive databases now being maintained by Apple, Google and Amazon, which these corporations are using to scrutinize private behavior on a scale and in much greater detail that J. Edgar could ever imagine.

    But let’s get back to movies, shall we?

  • “let’s get back to movies, shall we?”

    Fine by me Dave. I do all my soap boxing elsewhere anyway.

  • Alex

    The most interesting thing about J. EDGAR is DiCaprio’s inability to deliver the original Hoover’s imposing presence, despite much intelligent acting and direction. Fortunately this failing is not ruinous, unlike Sean Pen and Steven Zaillian’s failure to provide any inkling of Huey Long’s extreme cleverness in ALL THE KING’s MEN (2006).

    Not that J. EDGAR’s not a good film, nor DiCaprio’s J. Edgar better realized than Branagh’s dim, dumpy Olivier. (Three cheers to Michelle Williams, thiugh she inevitably lacks Marilyn delicacy and charge!)

  • Brian Dauth

    I think it interesting to compare J. EDGAR with INVICTUS which both deal of historical figures and how they exercised power in their official duties.