Il Cinema Ritrovato: The Dark Streak in Universal’s Pre-Code Era

In the last week of June, as the blistering summer heat held Bologna in its grip, the Italian city at the foot of the Apennine Mountains hosted the 30th edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato. A festival of the old, the forgotten, the restored, it is a dream for anyone with a heart to discover unsung gems of many a decade ago, or to feast their eyes on restored classics from the world over. The festival boasted many sections, some focusing on directors such as Jacques Becker or Mario Soldati, or a veritable movie star like Marlon Brando, while others delved into more obscure fare like early Japanese colour cinema or the works of Iran’s first independent film studio, Golestan.

One of the sections focused on a better-known studio, Universal Pictures, and in particular the years in which Carl Laemmle, Jr., son of the studio’s founder, was head of production from 1928 to 1936. In this ‘interbellum’ of sorts between silent cinema and the Production Code years, Universal under Laemmle, Jr. produced a string of challenging and audacious films, chief among them the anti-war epic All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). The selection of films at Il Cinema Ritrovato, however, included mostly lesser-known works, and two in particular – Afraid to Talk and Laughter in Hell – showed the darker edge Universal films acquired under the rule of the younger Laemmle, as opposed to the more standard line of westerns, comedies and serials produced before he took the reins. Both films, directed by Edward L. Cahn, display a cynical, bleak outlook on the world, something that might not be out of place in our current times, hitting on themes that are still relevant today, the recent NYPD corruption scandal being a prime example.

A similar scandal lies at the heart of Afraid to Talk (1932), a stunning reminder that some things never change. Young bellboy Eddie (Eric Linden) witnesses the killing of crime chief Jake Stransky at the hands of rival Jig Skelli (Edward Arnold). Eddie is shot as well, survives his wounds, but is reluctant to testify at first in fear for his life and that of his wife Peggy (Sidney Fox). When District Attorney Anderson (Tully Marshall) offers him protection he agrees to name Skelli, but the gang leader turns the tables by producing documents that lay bare the corruption of the D.A., as well as the mayor and a half dozen other high-ranking city officials. Anderson then sets his sights on Eddie as the fall guy, accusing him of the murder and torturing him into a confession.

The interesting thing about Afraid to Talk is that it has no hero. Eddie is little more than a blank canvas on which to paint the corruption of the other characters, with whom we spend considerably more time. And while things end well for Eddie and less so for most of the corrupt officials, a cynical last scene shows that Anderson’s place is quickly taken over by his Assistant District Attorney (Louis Calhern), who proved himself just as corrupt over the course of the story. The film refuses to end on a high moral note, or to wrap things up nicely. Such films are rare now, and would have been impossible in the period, starting only a few years after the making of Afraid to Talk, when the Production Code was in force. Furthermore, the film shows both gangsters and city officials taking part in bacchanals, and includes a seemingly homosexual character (for no apparent reason, by the way), all things that would be hard to do in later years.

Cahn’s second film at the festival, Laughter in Hell (1933), even caused controversy upon release, Pre-Code era or not. It tells the woeful tale of Barney Slaney (Pat O’Brien), an Irish mine worker who was left motherless early in life. Years later, a grown man, he marries and becomes a railroad engineer. His wife, however, cheats on him with his childhood nemesis, and in a jealous rage Barney kills both her and her illicit lover. Sentenced to a life on the chain gang, he is subjected to the cruel taunts of the man in charge, Ed Perkins (Douglass Dumbrille), who happens to be the brother of the man Barney killed, and another childhood bully (to say the story is slightly contrived is an understatement). After watching a cruel lynching of four black prisoners, Barney plans an escape and manages to drag Perkins into a grave he is digging for one of the lynched men. In the ensuing mayhem, Barney gets away. A drifter now, he happens upon a farm where he encounters Lorraine (a young Gloria Stuart at the beginning of her career), whose whole family has been eradicated by the plague. Together they move on, and when Lorraine sticks by him as Barney’s story is questioned by a local sheriff (while they stay overnight at a friendly farmer’s), the two seem destined to be together as they ride off the next morning.

Where Afraid to Talk had no hero to speak of, Laughter in Hell has the bleakest of anti-heroes. No matter which way you look at it, Barney Slaney still killed two people, and later causes a third to be killed as well. However bad the wrongdoings against him, it’s still a radical move to make this desolate and sullen man the heart of the film. The real controversy, however, comes from its depiction of the lynching of four black prisoners in a prolonged scene about midway through the film. The scene caused quite a stir among reviewers at the time, although it drew praise from black film critics. Such a bleak and damning look at the treatment of African Americans was extremely rare (and still is), and the scene, including the lengthy prayers and hymns sung by fellow black prisoners after the hanging (somewhat reminiscent of the burial scene in 12 Years a Slave recently), is a harrowing anchor in a film where happiness is hard won. It isn’t until the very last scene, which sees Barney and his newfound love riding their wagon into an uncertain future, that we find something of a happy ending. The rather abrupt conclusion of this scene is both jarring and fitting, as it seems to want to deny these two people the happiness that was absent from the rest of the film, as if it wants to purge itself of any joy, and because it seems to suggest the replacement of an original ending that was too tough to handle even for Laemmle, Jr. Edward L. Cahn never made a film for Universal again, a fact which only adds to the mystery of the suprising ending. What it does mean is that the film builds to a staggering crescendo, and ends with a bang, leaving the viewer stunned and flabbergasted.

Both films are bleak to their core and politically charged. Perhaps a sign of a world in between two wars, but certainly a testament to the ambitious and risk-taking nature of the younger Laemmle. Budget overruns on the production of Show Boat (1936) caused the studio to change hands and forced Laemmle out, but his short span at the helm delivered a string of artistically daring films that built a dark streak in the Universal catalog, a dark streak it may never have had since.