I'm a little under half of the way through Warner's wonderful Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume Three, which assembles six films by the great, but underrated-by-Andrew-Sarris-in-The American Cinema director William "Wild Bill" Wellman. Of the first four of the six films—I haven't listened to any of the commentaries yet, and have yet to check out the two films on the third disc, or the documentaries on Wellman on the fourth disc—the only one I'd call a stone masterpiece is 1931's Other Men's Women, a jarring study of what one might call entirely innocent infidelity, made with a sensitivity to space, and place, and movement that is still staggering to witness today. It was released the same year as Wellman's The Public Enemy, and is in several respects (James Cagney's performance and Enemy's shattering finale notwithstanding) the better film. 1932's The Purchase Price is not so good as Other Men's Women, its set-up being a rather uneasy cross between Murnau's City Girl and any generic pic of the day featuring a gangster's discontented moll; and Midnight Mary and Frisco Jenny, both from 1933, are crackling, juicy, a bit overly-serious melodramas that might have disappeared had they not benefitted from the particularities of Wellman's touch. Which, in each of the films, goes beyond his snap-crackle-pop narrative sense. What's more striking than that is how he gives the female leads in each film their own heads. He doesn't judge, never lords it over them. Even the most morally breezy of pre-Code pictures had a hard time resisting the misogyny that was part and parcel of the culture back in the day. Wellman didn't just like women, he respected them. Mary Astor's torn wife in Other Men's Women would have been condemned by almost any other director of the time. Barbara Stanwyck's scheming chantoozie, on the run from her gangster boyfriend in The Purchase Price, is allowed her reasons. Wellman makes Ruth Chatterton's Frisco Jenny, a brothel manager who gives up the son who will grow up to become a D.A. and send her up the river, a less treacly, but still heartbreaking, ur-Stella Dallas.
It's his portrayal of putative bad girl and murderess Mary Miller in Midnight Mary that raises the most eyebrows. Partially because it's Loretta Young, who not only had mostly played exploited virgins, but in real life kept a "swear" penaltyjar on her movie sets, who is here portraying, well, a full-blooded expert in the erotic arts.
Well, maybe. The most jaw-dropping scene is late in the picture, wherein she's attempting to distract her no-goodnik gangster boyfriend Leo Darcy (Ricardo Cortez). First, she strikes a pose potent enough to make him grip the outer edge of his dresser drawer, as seen above. Next, she falls into his arms, and starts whispering sweet nothings in his ear, the better to make him impersonate Gaston Modot in Bunuel's L'Age d'Or.
Hokely mokely. With this shot, and the next...
...during which we hear no dialogue, we, or, perhaps I should say, the more dirty-minded in the audience (which, let's face it, Wellman is trying to get us all to be), can only infer the absolutely filthy things she's telling him she's gonna do for/to him if only he doesn't rush out of there...
...and she tries to seal the deal with a kiss.
It doesn't quite work the way she planned, which leaves the more dirty-minded among us to contemplate just what a sap Cortez's character was for not staying put. Ah, well. Still—the portrait here goes beyond its substantial sexual heat, and even beyond a study of a woman's wiles. It's complex, non-moralistic, and fully cognizant of its erotics, as it were. Tough-minded, unsentimental...appreciative.
HAT TIP: The great Doug Pratt, who suggested the ear-nibbling shot as an Image For The Day.