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Murder and Marriage in the Hollywood '30s

Virginia Bruce and Spencer Tracy in The Murder Man (1935)

In these three '30s-era films we see the wise-cracking reporter role subverted, the stereotyped melodrama played out, and a sympathetic, Pre-Code eye toward adultery.

The Murder Man

Director: Tim Whelan
Cast: Spencer Tracy, Virginia Bruce
Distributor: Warner Archive
Year: 1935
Release date: 2015-02-03

Another Language

Director: Edward H. Griffith
Cast: Helen Hayes, Robert Montgomery
Distributor: Warner Archive
Year: 1933
Release date: 2015-10-06

What Every Woman Knows

Director: Gregory La Cava
Cast: Helen Hayes, Brian Aherne
Distributor: Warner Archive
Year: 1934
Release date: 2015-10-06

Now available on demand from Warner Archive are three 1930s obscurities that deserve to be better known for excellence of story, acting and direction.

The Murder Man belongs to Warner Brothers' punchy genre of newspaper pictures about hard-living, wise-cracking, cynical, sometimes unscrupulous reporters who try to scoop each other, usually on a big murder story. It belongs to these, yet also subverts or reinvents the genre with an original script by Tim Whelan (who also directs) and John C. Higgins (who did several '40s noirs), from a story by Whelan and Guy Bolton (known for musical comedies). While the dialogue is rich in sassy urban atmosphere and the direction vigorous, it's the story that surprises.

With his natural, underplayed ease, Spencer Tracy is in command as Steve Grey, an ace crime reporter nicknamed "the murder man". He's so good, he shows an uncanny ability to anticipate the turns a case will take, thus writing the story and having it blaring from the headlines just in time for the events therein to unfold. That's what happens when he wanders in from one of his epic inebriations in time to cover the baffling story of a fraudulent investor shot to death in the backseat of his car. Grey's methods evoke the satirical line of reporter tales popularized by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, which is one reason this movie successfully straddles more than one genre.

Also in the picture are Virginia Bruce as his eyebrow-fluttering semi-girlfriend and advice columnist, Lionel Atwill as the homicide detective, Robert Barrat as the shouting editor, Harvey Stephens as the victim's partner in fraud, and, among the crew of sassy journalists, William Demarest and lanky young James Stewart in his feature debut. Whelan, who later directed several classy films in England, deserves to have his career investigated further.

After "first lady of the American theatre" Helen Hayes was courted by Hollywood and given an Oscar for The Sin of Madelon Claudet, a punishing pre-Code woman's melodrama no better or worse than many others, she had several classy projects, including two MGM films based on good plays. The lesser one is Another Language, in which Hayes plays a newlywed whose husband (Robert Montgomery) is dominated by his manipulative mother (Louise Closser Hale) and the rest of his loud, vulgar, frumpy family, who sniff at the bride's high-toned airs, like taking art classes.

Screenwriting giants Herman J. Mankiewicz and Donald Ogden Stewart, known for their wit, adapted Rose Franken's play. The situation relies on stereotypes, especially the mother, but it doesn't drag and it's well-played by a cast that includes Margaret Hamilton as an in-law whose sensibility comes closest to the writers; Henry Travers as good-natured Pop; John Beal as a cow-eyed nephew-in-law who falls for his auntie; and a glimpse of Edward Arnold as an art teacher. Edward H. Griffith directed for taste-conscious producer Walter Wanger, and photographer Ray June smoothly tracks forward and backward in the lengthy opening scene on shipboard.

Better and more fun is What Every Woman Knows, directed by Gregory La Cava of many sparkling comedies, here co-producing with the equally classy Albert Lewin from the James Barrie play in which Hayes starred many times. Poor but proud Scotsman John Shand (Brian Aherne, excellent), who likes to shoot off his mouth, signs a contract to marry the "spinster" Mary (in her late 20s) in return for having his education paid for by her father (David Torrance) and brothers (Donald Crisp, Dudley Digges). When she helps him win a seat in Parliament, he nearly comes a cropper over an affair with a glamorous aristocrat (Madge Evans) in a development that might have been inspired by the scandal around Irish MP Charles Parnell. Lucile Watson, Henry Stephenson and Donald Meek complete the cast.

In other words, Hayes again plays a newlywed saving her marriage with an uptight idiot, this time more convincingly. He finally realizes his wife is smarter and better for his political career, a sly attitude that saves the story from being a condescending "woman behind the throne" tale -- but the players make their characters warmly human, as well. This pre-Code film's forgiving attitude toward adultery wouldn't have been possible one year later.


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