Pre-Code and loving it: The World Gone Mad (1933)

Pre-Code and loving it: The World Gone Mad (1933)

Prior to the strict oversight and enforcement of the Production Code on the content of Hollywood films in 1934, producers' approach to modern mores, sex, crime and other aspects of contemporary life was fairly free-wheeling, not simply salacious for the heck of it (these movies still had to play in Peoria, so to speak) but a recognition of the adult understanding of the Depression-era movie audience. People went to the movies for escapism, but accepted contemporary concerns as part of the viewing experience; the reality-based movies produced by Warner Bros. such as I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG, WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD and HEROES FOR SALE (1932-1933) were popular because they were about issues and social problems seen in the newspapers. With them came a certain frank appreciation of human behavior, from social attitudes to even profanity, the latter not overdone but still there and usually limited to "damn."

In a way, the so-called Pre-Code films offer an honest view of America and society that seems surprising to today's viewers encountering them for the first time, their understanding of classic Hollywood cinema influenced by the less-reckless but still entertaining productions of the 1940s into the '50s when the code and its oversight arm, the Breen Office, held sway over the studios.

Before the code was implemented to answer protests from religious and social groups, such as the American Catholic Church's Legion of Decency that objected to the content of U.S. cinema up to that time, it appeared the larger film companies possessed the free-and-easy attitude toward the social norm, not by showing it on the screen but more by discussing it, either openly or in the innuendo-laden dialogue of any Mae West movie from Paramount. But pre-code liberties also extended to the emerging B movie, the lower-budgeted entry on the bottom of a double feature, enjoying a surge in popularity as audiences demanded more bang for the admission price with a full program.

That bring us to THE WORLD GONE MAD, released by Majestic Pictures on April 15, 1933, which closely resembles a typical Warners programmer of the day in telling a swift-moving tale of murder, criminal activity and still-contemporary examination of Wall Street chicanery at the expense of the public. For these and other reasons, as film historian Don Miller pointed out in his classic 1973 study B MOVIES, THE WORLD GONE MAD was one of the little Majestic firm's most successful flicks, and that was saying something. Majestic's releases "were relatively few, but for all that shrewdly made, with an eye on the box office and the purse strings as well," Miller observed (Ballantine Books reprint, 1988, page 19).
Edward T. Lowe's screenplay gets down to business immediately. Graham Gaines (Richard Tucker), corrupt partner in the Cromwell Investment Corporation, is worried that District Attorney Avery Henderson (Wallis Clark) will expose his systematic plundering of Cromwell subsidiary Suburban Utilities by falsifying its income statements. He goes to high class but ruthless bootlegger Christopher Bruno (Louis Calhern) to arrange for Henderson's untimely demise before the cat gets out of the bag.

The arrogant Gaines is totally unconcerned with the how the crime will affect Suburban's investors, telling a nervous associate (Huntley Gordon) that "the public be damned!" (an alternate title for the film). Henderson, as yet unaware that the crime involves the Cromwell group, is lured to the apartment of one Nina Lamont (Evelyn Brent) to obtain documents confirming the theft and is slain by Bruno's paid assassin Ramon Salvadore (J. Carrol Naish). Henderson's widow (Geneva Mitchell) and young son (Buster Phelps) must not only deal with the shock of the murder but the scandalous implications of the upright Henderson's body found in a woman's apartment.

The incident spurs Henderson's friends, assistant D.A. Lionel Houston (Neil Hamilton) and reporter Andy Terrell (Pat O'Brien) to clear his name and solve the murder. Houston, appointed to fill Henderson's seat, takes the high road by pledging to follow through on the probe into the investment fraud, making him another target for Gaines and Bruno. A murder attempt on Houston disguised as a traffic accident fails.

Andy, suspecting underworld connections, takes the nightclub route where he quickly falls for singer Carlotta Lamont, the "Nina" who snared Henderson into the death trap. Carlotta is the girlfriend of Bruno, who doesn't appreciate Andy's interest in her. Neither Bruno or Andy know that Carlotta is also stepping out with Ramon, who spends his off-hours reading the memoirs of Casanova.

Houston's persistence is rewarded with proof that the Cromwell firm is "rotten from top to bottom." This creates a problem for the public servant because he's engaged to Diana Cromwell (Mary Brian), daughter of the firm's president, Grover Cromwell (John St. Polis), both unaware of Gaines' perfidy. Father and daughter cannot at first accept the truth and send Houston packing, but a subsequent showdown between Cromwell and Gaines bares the truth (and Gaines once more tells the sap investors where they can get off). Appealing to Gaines' greed and fear of exposure, Cromwell suggests they swipe a multi-million dollar gold shipment and flee the country, an idea Gaines gleefully accepts. Enroute to the gold storage site, Cromwell instead steers his car into the path of a speeding train and certain doom for both.

Andy's dalliance with Carlotta at her apartment turns deadly when Bruno and Ramon arrive, forcing him to call Houston and get him there so both he and Andy, who have learned too much, can be bumped off. Houston, who's gotten wise to the danger he and Andy face, arrives with the police, who gun down Ramon and take the other two miscreants into custody. Andy lets his scoop wait until he calls to notify Henderson's widow and son that his friend's name is cleared.

In a comic relief coda, Andy arrives at the church where Houston and Diana are getting married without his pants, accidentally burned by his Yiddish tailor (Max Davidson). The newlyweds leave by another door and take Andy's taxi. To the amusement of the crowd also leaving the church, Andy seizes what's left of his dignity and proudly marches off.

Despite a storyline packed with too many coincidences, THE WORLD GONE MAD is an impressively fast and well-acted 71 minutes of Depression-era thrills. In the midst of its breathless pace, there is snappy dialogue to spare, much of it handled by Pat O'Brien as diamond-in-the-rough Andy. Lowe's script carries a bit more profanity than heard in B movies of the day, but seems appropriate in underlining Andy's desperate quest to get the bottom of Henderson's murder. And Gaines' casual resorting to murder to eliminate his enemies carries a chill one can't quite shake off. His explanation for stealing the funds to finance "pyramiding ... trying to make ten dollars out of one" continues to echo down the canyons of lower Manhattan in our current post-Bernie Madoff age.

Indeed, in those days of anti-Wall Street sentiment as the economic downturn worsened, THE WORLD GONE MAD does not condemn capitalism. No mainstream film company dependent on financing from New York-based sources would go that far and especially in the spring of 1933 when confidence in the system was at risk. Rather, THE WORLD GONE MAD reflects public interest and newspaper coverage of aberrations to the system like the fictional Gaines, who were only out for personal gain. (Houston sternly declares at one point that such con artists should be lined up and shot for the ruin they have brought upon trusting investors).

Ironically, Richard Tucker, who played the hateful Gaines so convincingly, became a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild in 1933. In films since 1911, Tucker notched more than 260 screen roles, many of them as Gaines types, in everything from A features to serials prior to his death in 1942 at 58.

Such contemporary concerns marked the initial run of product from Majestic, which began releasing movies in 1932. One of its early releases, THE CRUSADER, was somewhat similar to (and as risque as) THE WORLD GONE MAD, this time with the titular heroic D.A. (H.B. Warner) and muckraking reporter (Ned Sparks) at cross-purposes. THE WORLD GONE MAD refined this approach and as Don Miller pointed out, received top playdates in major-city theaters due to a product shortage in the spring and summer of the year of its release. (Posters for THE VAMPIRE BAT, Majestic's other major film of early 1933, are seen behind Houston and Diana as they depart a theater).

Under the direction of William Christy Cabanne, who signed his films as simply Christy Cabanne, THE WORLD GONE MAD flows efficiently, telling its story mostly in high-contrast lighting and head-on cinematography by Ira Morgan. Cabanne allows for a flourish at the start, beginning with views of New York skyscrapers that briefly glaze over and wobble to indicate something is amiss in the nation's fiscal center.

Cabanne (1888-1950) is credited with directing 166 films starting in 1912, and racked up other assignments as a producer, writer and actor. In fact, in a swift sequence illustrating the domino effect of setting up Henderson's slaying, one of the men making the deal on the phone (seen only in profile) resembles the distinguished-looking Cabanne. A budget filmmaking much in demand in the 1930s and '40s, Cabanne is best-known for helming Universal's THE MUMMY'S HAND (1940), the lively follow-up to its 1932 classic THE MUMMY, and Screen Guild's SCARED TO DEATH (1947), Bela Lugosi's only color film. Frequently called upon for westerns, Cabanne's final movie was issued by Monogram in 1948: SILVER TRAILS starred western singer Jimmy Wakely, who was headlining a series for the studio at the time.

Sexual intrigues enter into the proceedings of THE WORLD GONE MAD, especially in Andy's falling hard for the treacherous Carlotta. For a smart guy, you'd think he would have known better, but then we wouldn't have a story and a set-up for the climax; his nose leads him directly to Carlotta and her lovers. One sequence opens in her darkened bedroom as the unseen Carlotta and Andy engage in tipsy small talk; the implication is that they are enjoying post-coital bliss. Then Andy lights a cigarette, offering enough light to show us that they are indeed lounging on the bed, but are clothed and have drunk themselves into a pleasant buzz. Such scenes even suggesting premarital sex were verboten after the code became effective.

This doesn't help our appreciation of Andy when earlier, in a meeting with Ramon, he dismisses the killer's preference for Casanova, comparing the great lover's writings to pornography. Andy also hints at xenophobia, referring to Ramon at least four times as "the spic." With the code in place, name-calling of minorities became rare in movies (except during World War II), but the playing to stereotype spoke volumes of then-current attitudes. Actually, J. Carrol Naish makes Ramon one of the more charming characters in THE WORLD GONE MAD, despite his  profession.

O'Brien's fast-talking newshawk channels his Hildy Johnson in THE FRONT PAGE (1931) and set the stage for his skill in playing good guys with questionable traits. In his 1967 autobiography THE WIND AT MY BACK, O'Brien (1899-1983) said he was hired to play Hildy, the demon reporter longing for the quiet life, for Howard Hughes' film production on the basis of his having enacted the part in the Broadway hit by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. (Lee Tracy originated the part on stage).

As filming started, O'Brien confessed to director Lewis Milestone that, yes, he had been in THE FRONT PAGE, but not in New York. He had actually portrayed Hildy's nemesis, editor Walter Burns, in a stock company presentation in Cleveland. "The only thing they asked me in New York was whether I played in THE FRONT PAGE on the stage ... nobody asked me where, or what role," he told Milestone. (Avon Books edition, page 126).

Nevertheless, O'Brien captured the essence of Hildy and counted it among the three top roles of his movie career (the others, of course, the lead in KNUTE ROCKNE, ALL-AMERICAN, and Father Duffy in THE FIGHTING 69th, both from 1940).

THE FRONT PAGE was actually O'Brien's second Hollywood film, having made his debut in a Claudette Colbert vehicle for Paramount, HONOR AMONG LOVERS (1931). THE WORLD GONE MAD was among the last freelance assignments the actor obtained from his agent, Myron Selznick, before signing a three-year contract with Warners. With extensions, O'Brien was associated with that studio until 1940, remembered today for his co-starring roles with James Cagney.

Of the lead players, O'Brien was the newest to the Hollywood scene, although THE WORLD GONE MAD was his 15th screen role (and reunited him with Mary Brian, who played his fiancee Peggy in THE FRONT PAGE). As Don Miller noted in B MOVIES, Majestic, like other Poverty Row companies, drew upon the available talent roster for its casts and was more successful than others in attracting big names to bolster the marquee value. THE VAMPIRE BAT benefited from netting as its leads Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas, Dwight Frye and George E. Stone, late of Warner Bros.

Evelyn Brent (1901-1975) had been in films since 1915, first on the East Coast and in Hollywood since 1922. Dark and exoti-looking, her success in silents yielded her parts like THE WORLD GONE MAD's Carlotta Lamont in talkies as she matured. Yet Brent brought conviction to such roles, and her Carlotta is a well-turned study in treachery. Brent forsook acting after appearing in AGAIN, PIONEERS! (1950) for the Protestant Film Commission, and pursued a career as an agent.

Neil Hamilton is the image of forthright heroism as Houston, an interesting contrast to O'Brien's rakish reporter. Hamilton (1899-1984) came to Paramount in the mid-'20s after acting in some D.W. Griffith productions in New York. At the time of his appearance as Houston, Hamilton was between gigs as adventurer Harry Holt in M-G-M's first two movies about the Lord of the Jungle, TARZAN THE APE MAN (1932) and TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934). Turning to TV for more steady work starting in the late '40s, Hamilton became a familiar sight to Baby Boomers as Commissioner Gordon on the hit BATMAN series of 1966-1968.

Louis Calhern had entered movies briefly in 1921 but spent the rest of the decade on the stage. He returned to movies in 1931, lending class to roles such as THE WORLD GONE MAD's handsome racketeer. That same year, he joined the Marx Brothers in one of their best comedies, DUCK SOUP, as the sneaky diplomat Trentino. Calhern alternated movies with work on Broadway until the late '40s, when he signed with M-G-M. He was in Japan working on its production of TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON in May 1956 whe he died of a heart attack at 61. (He was replaced by Paul Ford, who had played the part on Broadway).

Exposure THE WORLD GONE MAD received with additional bookings boded well for Majestic, although it was ultimately unable to survive the economic blight that shuttered such smaller concerns as Chesterfield, Invicible and Mayfair. Majestic closed its doors in 1935 and among its last releases was an austere version of Nathaniel Hawthorne's THE SCARLET LETTER (1934), designed as a comeback vehicle for silent star Colleen Moore.

While producers had resisted or paid lip service to criticism and calls for action against what was perceived as loose conduct on the screen since the '20s, the economic impact of a boycott threat could not be ignored as studios struggled against the Depression.

The Production Code Administration was armed with the purity seal on films it deemed acceptable to audiences, withholding it for those it didn't until changes the PCA handed down were implemented. The process started in the outline stage of a new production, with rigorous oversight on scripts as to behavior, social interaction and contemporary themes. Racy comedies were revamped, gangster movies homogenized and, in the view of the Legion of Decency, sins such as suicide were not seen or discussed in movies.

Devoutly Catholic, O'Brien defended the role of the Legion of Decency. "The impression has been that the Legion was trying to force its opinions on all Americans," he wrote. "Actually, it provided for Catholics a moral evaluation of the pictures being offered to the movie-going public." But three decades later, movie self-censorship a thing of the past as the influence of the Breen Office faded, O'Brien admitted some of the restrictions on films, such as married couples sleeping in separate beds, "seem(ed) oddly funny." (THE WIND AT MY BACK, page 176).

Debate continues today over the Production Code's worth. When not used as fodder for anti-Catholic sentiment, the code is blamed in some quarters for retarding adult themes in movies, suppressing the role of women in society and regarding audiences as idiots. Others maintain the code forced producers, directors and writers to be more creative and tasteful in portraying human behavior, employing mood, camerawork and literate dialogue to make their point. Demand for more realistic presentations of American life, expressed by the film noir movement that swept Hollywood in the post-World War II years, eventually led to a more liberated film expression, coupled with the decline of the old studio system and rise in independent production.

Thus, a film like THE WORLD GONE MAD may be quaint to some or a yawn to those who prefer similarly-themed pictures from the major studios, but it remains as worthy a study in pre-code frankness and maturity as its better-known competitors.

An aside: THE WORLD GONE MAD began appearing in home video collections early in the new century, but often billed as a horror film, which it definitely is not. The confusion may stem from the title, which suggests horrific events, or its connection to THE VAMPIRE BAT, which extended to its creative crew. Producer Phil Goldstone, scenarist Edward Lowe and most of the technicians from THE VAMPIRE BAT worked on THE WORLD GONE MAD, save for VAMPIRE's director, Frank R. Strayer (1891-1964).


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