Last year, Warner Home Video, in conjuction with Turner Classic Movies, issued "Forbidden Hollywood," a set that included a few early thirties' goodies: Barbara Stanwyck's steamy "Baby Face," in both a bowdlerized censored version and a restored original version (only five minutes of footage is added, but it changes the film considerably), the Jean Harlow gem "Red-Headed Woman" and the original 1931 "Waterloo Bridge," arguably Mae Clarke's finest performance. That sold so well that Warners will come out with a second volume in the series:
And while the first collection was sort of skimpy on extras, this version will feature trailers for a few of the films, a commentary track (should you choose to listen to it) and a new documentary, "Thou Shalt Not: Sin And Censorship In Pre-Code Hollywood," illustrating the pre-Code era. (The documentary "Complicated Women," which covers similar ground and has aired on Turner Classic Movies, wasn't included in this set because DVD rights to some of the segments couldn't be secured.)
This volume features five films (plus "Thou Shalt Not") on three DVD's, including two Oscar-winning performances. Both of those are on disc 1, which features two classics from Norma Shearer, arguably the actress whose reputation has been most restored by the pre-Code revival. Shearer won the best actress Academy Award in 1930 for "The Divorcee," playing a woman who decides to get even with her philandering husband (and confront the sexual double standard) by staging her own tryst.
The following year, she made "A Free Soul,' playing the daughter of an alcoholic attorney (Lionel Barrymore, who won the best actor Oscar) who's defending a gangster (Clark Gable) on a murder charge. She dumps her upper-class boyfriend (Leslie Howard) for the gangster, becoming his mistress.
Disc 2 travels from MGM in Culver City to Warners in Burbank for a pair of films, "Three On A Match" from 1932 (actually released under the First National subsidiary), and "Female," released the following year. "Three On A Match" examines the lives of three childhood girlfriends as they become adults and are faced with the challenges of city life. Joan Blondell is a chorus girl, Bette Davis a level-headed secretary and Ann Dvorak a woman about to ditch her wealthy husband for a gangster (Lyle Talbot). It's typical Warners product for the time -- fastpaced, urban and cynical as hell...which is what makes it so wonderful. A young Humphrey Bogart has a supporting role as one of Talbot's henchmen, and Anne Shirley, who would act with Carole Lombard in "Vigil In The Night" in 1940, here acts under her original stage name, Dawn O'Day, portraying Dvorak's character as a child.
"Female" stars Ruth Chatterton, a fine actress, as a tough president of an automobile company -- a nontraditional role for a woman in 1933 -- who meets her match in a number of ways in a similarly headstrong new employee (George Brent, Chatterton's real-life husband). By today's standards, the ending might seem like a copout, but just to see a character such as this created in 1933 was subversive. The set design is full of sumptuous corporate splendor.
Blondell and Gable return in disc 3, both in supporting roles, for Stanwyck's 1931 film "Night Nurse." A fast-paced drama with some comedic moments, Stanwyck portrays the title character, hired by a wealthy family to look after their children. She discovers a nefarious plot by chauffeur Gable to rob the family; she gets help from wisecracking fellow nurse Blondell and bootlegger Ben Lyon. It's directed by William Wellman, who directed "Public Enemy" the same year and Lombard's "Nothing Sacred" six years later.
By the way, list price for the box set is $49.99, but TCM is offering a pre-sale for $42.49. Go to http://turnerclassic.moviesunlimited.com/wn.asp?media=d for details.
Yes, 2008 looks to be a good year for pre-Code buffs. Let's hope classic films sell well enough to continue to warrant such loving care.