Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Mae West: Hit of 1933

MAE WEST, the price of a movie ticket, and the American economy were on the mind of a New York City film critic this week.
• • Let's begin by saying that DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg is putting up a good front these days.
• • In his intriguing piece in The Village Voice, J. Hoberman writes: "More optimistically and historically," Jeffrey Katzenberg recalled, the motion-picture product "has actually been recession-proof." Optimistic? You bet: Back in 1930, Hollywood had considered itself "depression-proof," too.
• • For the American people, the first five years of the Great Depression — 1930 through 1934 — were the worst of times and the really worst of times. For the American movie industry, the period would also bring the worst of economic times. In another way, though, it was the best. The early '30s were the days of "Breadlines & Champagne," as Film Forum has dubbed its month-long, all-35mm celebration of the pre-Code, the Socially Conscious, and the Screwball — three manifestations of the richest period in Hollywood history.
• • Crisis may be stimulus to popular art — the Nixon years were great for movies as well — and the Great Depression created chaos for all. Busily rewiring their theaters for newly developed "talking pictures" and importing verbally adroit talent from the Broadway stage to make them, the Hollywood studios initially ignored the stock market crash. The crash, however, did not ignore them. The novelty of sound soon faded. By the end of 1931, the record motion-picture audience of the previous year was down by a third and falling. So were ticket prices. Production costs, however, had doubled.
• • Warner Bros., the studio that led the initially profitable shift to talking pictures, was now hemorrhaging money. Universal terminated hundreds of employees and would soon join RKO in receivership — followed by Fox and, in what was then America's second largest bankruptcy to date, Paramount. As movie houses darkened, exhibitors played exploitation angles, promoting double features, dish giveaways, and weekly lotteries called "bank nights" — which, as part of its retro, Film Forum plans to revive. By the time Franklin Roosevelt took office in March 1933, theaters were empty, production slates slashed, cash flow dried up. The industry was near collapse. But the product was better than ever.
• • Sound brought a new hyper-verbal cinema, racy, and insolent. The talkies also changed the nature of stardom.
• • (The great voices of the early 1930s are recycled to this day: Cagney, Hepburn, Peter Lorre, Groucho Marx, W.C. Fields, and Mae West.)
• • Hard times pushed desperate producers toward sensationalism. The studios ignored their own Production Code. Crime paid, so did sin. Street-smart criminals traded brazen double entendres with fast-talking chorines. Gangsters ruled the 1931-32 season; bad girls followed, as Variety estimated 80 percent of the pictures released in the 1932-33 season had a "sex slant."
• • • • The biggest hit of 1933 • • • •
• • The trend peaked with Mae West, whose first feature, She Done Him Wrong, was the biggest hit of 1933, returning 10 times its production costs in North America alone and precipitating a national crusade to clean up the movies. Fittingly, "Breadlines & Champagne" opens with West's follow-up, I'm No Angel — selling tickets at the Depression price of 35 cents.
• • The movies of the early '30s were at once more naturalistic and more theatrical than silent movies — and, thanks to tight budgets and the exigencies of the double feature, far snappier. In addition to trafficking in sex and violence, talkies assimilated the vaudeville aesthetic of ethnic stereotype and crazy comedy, creating a rowdy new American idiom in which every other line seemed to include an appreciative "Swell!" or questioning "On the level?" Extravagant fantasies alternated with cynical realism. The period brought forth a remarkable number of enduring celluloid archetypes: Paul Muni's Scarface and Jean Harlow's Platinum Blonde, the Universal horrors Dracula and Frankenstein, Tarzan and King Kong, Betty Boop and even Mickey Mouse. The chaos (and lack of supervision) allowed filmmakers like Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, and Busby Berkeley to do their best work — unlike today, when every project is necessarily pre-sold and vetted.
• • "Breadlines & Champagne" [at New York's Film Forum] doesn't showcase the full range of early-'30s Hollywood, but it is particularly rich in "preachment yarns" — movies that trafficked in lurid topicality while expressing a measure of passionately confused social protest. ...
— — Excerpt: — —
• • Article: "Why Hard Times Won't Mean Good Times at the Movies Again — — Brother, can you spare $12?"
• • Byline: J. Hoberman
• • Published in: The Village Voice
• • Published on: Tuesday, 3rd February 2009
• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •
• • "I'm No Angel" is being shown as part of the 1930s series "Breadlines and Champagne," which will run from Friday February 6th through March 5 at the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, New York, NY 10014. Info and screentimes are available by phoning 212-727-8110 — — or by visiting online.
• • Come up and see Mae every day online:
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• • Photo: • • Mae West • • 1933 • •
Mae West.

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