Variety: Universal's other movies of the early '30s (Part 2)
Universal in the early 1930s was also the place where directors of note in Hollywood received initial opportunities to practice their craft, in addition to employing known talent such as John Ford. Among the newer crop to find work at Big U, reportedly because of Carl Laemmle Sr.'s famous tendency toward nepotism, was William Wyler (born William Weiller) whose own emphasis on bringing heavy drama to life cinematically was evident when he directed A HOUSE DIVIDED (1931), taking a soap-operatic plot in the Dale Van Every-John B. Clymer script and giving it a certain sensitivity in collaboration with its three stars, Walter Huston, Helen Chandler and Douglass Montgomery.
A HOUSE DIVIDED is occupied by brutish fisherman Seth Law (Huston) and his meek son Matt (Montgomery), who yearns to leave the dismal beach community in which he was raised. A widower who's worn out too many housekeepers with his demanding ways, Seth advertises in a magazine for a replacement and believes he's getting a stout yet submissive candidate who will also serve as a wife. Instead, comely young Ruth Evans (Chandler) arrives in her place and is initially rejected by Seth, although she and Matt soon share an attraction. Seth changes his mind, forces a marriage that is opposed by Matt, and a resulting fight between father and son leaves Seth crippled. Tensions continue to rise as Matt and Ruth, tending to Seth's needs, can no longer conceal their feelings for one another.
Responsible for such future classics as WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939), THE LETTER (1940) and BEN-HUR (1959), Wyler (1902-1981) had graduated from silent westerns to talkie features with HELL'S HEROES (1929) starring Charles Bickford and THE STORM (1930) with Lupe Velez, both dramas that featured interpersonal conflict as major plot points. A HOUSE DIVIDED, which featured dialogue by Huston's then 25-year-old son John, compels viewing through the mature approach brought to the project and succeeds in maintaining suspense right up until the climactic storm and rescue of Ruth that decides everyone's fate. The commitment to providing something different and as dramatic as anything offered by rival studios makes A HOUSE DIVIDED well above average for Universal product of the time. Location shooting helped establish the mood supporting the drama.
The fine performances are led by Walter Huston, perhaps drawing on the stage experience of his lead role in Eugene O'Neill's DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS that brought him to prominence several years earlier. Huston gives Seth a duality that goes well beyond the expected ogre histrionics. Chandler, who had one of her best cinematic years in 1931 starting with her heroine role in DRACULA, reveals the acting skills that won her a maddeningly brief acclaim in the day. Montgomery, billed under the screen name of Kent Douglass given to him in Whale's WATERLOO BRIDGE of a few months earlier, is vulnerable but sympathetic as the son struggling to escape his father's dominance. A HOUSE DIVIDED went into release on Dec. 5, 1931.
Whale (1889-1957) had well-acquitted himself with the Laemmles in WATERLOO BRIDGE, his first Universal directorial credit that perfectly fit Junior Laemmle's passion for quality product, but cemented his reputation with the Nov. 21, 1931, release of FRANKENSTEIN, Universal's horror follow-up to DRACULA. But a new talent had to be kept busy with other projects before coming up with his next masterpiece of the macabre, so Whale's next assignment was a frank depiction of contemporary romance entitled THE IMPATIENT MAIDEN, released March 1, 1932.
Mae Clarke, the female lead of WATERLOO BRIDGE and FRANKENSTEIN, co-starred with reliable Lew Ayres of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT as a hard-working but restless secretary to a smooth divorce lawyer (John Halliday). When she and her roomate (Una Merkel) discover that a neighbor (Helen Jerome Eddy) in their run-down apartment house has tried to kill herself after her husband deserts her, she finds herself attracted to the responding ambulance surgeon (Ayres). Because our heroine cannot wait for the finer things in life she seems to desire, she becomes unhappy with the doctor's low-paying dedication to his profession and leaves him to become her boss's mistress. A medical emergency and desperate surgical procedure reunite the lovers.
The framework of the story was derived from a 1931 novel by Donald Henderson Clarke, THE IMPATIENT VIRGIN, and unfolds on screen with some dark Whale touches, especially in the depiction of the part of town where Ruth Robbins (Clarke) and her friend Betty (Merkel) reside. Without the stricter enforcement of the Production Code that was to come in another two years, the narrative is refreshingly adult for the time and well-acted by Clarke, whose 19-year-old character is surprisingly sage about love, marriage and all of the incidentals that go with them. The hospital atmosphere occupied by Dr. Myron Brown (Ayres) and his driver buddy Clarence (Andy Devine) carries an irreverent air that lightens the grim realities of their jobs. Whale makes good use of a Los Angeles location trip to the Angel's Flight/Bunker Hill section to establish the opening scenes, including a trip on the famous funicular railway that served the area.
Ayres might have later viewed his role as the medico as training for his nine-film stint as Dr. James Kildare at M-G-M between 1938 and 1942. The actor, whose career with Universal lasted until 1934, was swiftly reteamed with Clarke for the lower-case but interesting underworld drama NIGHT WORLD (1932), co-starring with FRANKENSTEIN's Monster, Boris Karloff, under Hobart Henley's direction. "I was never a big star, but a well-known leading man and player," Ayres self-deprecatingly reflected in a late-in-life interview. "And I did a lot of character roles later, but I never considered myself a big star or anything like that."* Whale indulged his penchant for the unusual with THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) before moving on to THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935).
Ford's status as a major Hollywood filmmaker had been long in effect when he came to Universal to film AIR MAIL, released Nov. 3, 1932. It was a brief reunion with the studio in which Ford (1894-1973) cut his directorial teeth with a set of well-regarded, World War I-era westerns starring Harry Carey, moving on to Fox to create one of the great dramas of pioneer days in 1924's THE IRON HORSE. His preference for telling virile stories peopled with strong characters had also long asserted itself, and AIR MAIL is a prime example of men (and their women) resolutely facing down danger and human conflict.
Steely Mike Miller (Ralph Bellamy) manages the Desert Airport which has an air mail contract with the Post Office. He and his pilots continually face treacherous weather from the nearby mountain range in order to get the mail through, and when one of the fliers perishes, he's forced to hire Duke Talbot (Pat O'Brien), a reckless daredevil with whom Mike clashes. Duke eventually quits, but when he learns Mike has been stranded in a remote region following a crash, he typically throws all caution to the wind, swipes a biplane and effects a rescue, barely making it back to base. The stuff of many a flying melodrama to come, AIR MAIL is thrilling in all the right parts -- the rescue attempt arouses as much suspense as the similarly-desperate Antarctic mission in Frank Capra's DIRIGIBLE (1931) -- but never abandons the human element in telling its story.
Aviation champion Frank Wead, co-author of DIRIGIBLE and whose life story was the subject of Ford's THE WINGS OF EAGLES (1957), also had a hand in the screenplay of AIR MAIL, whose plot seems to have been a first draft of his 1935 play CEILING ZERO, filmed by Warner Bros. the following year at James Cagney's behest. CEILING ZERO dealt with an airport facing tough weather and economic conditions, including a serious-minded manager bedeviled by the cocky pilot with a reputation. Ironically, the role of the sensible guy in the screen version of CEILING ZERO was enacted by O'Brien, who had a fine time playing what became the devil-may-care Cagney part in AIR MAIL. In AIR MAIL, Ford does a convincing job of depicting the rough-edged world of the fliers who accept the constant peril in their lives not only because they need the job, but are in love with the whole idea of flight.
Bellamy, then at the beginning of his movie career, is determination personified as Mike, the type of role John Wayne tackled again and again for Ford into the 1960s. Bellamy receives fine support from fellow newcomer Gloria Stuart and such Universal favorites as Russell Hopton, Slim Summerville and Frank Albertson. Effective in a smaller role was Leslie Fenton, who later on forsook acting for the director's chair. As a piece of high adventure, AIR MAIL was a superlative offering for the larger audiences sought by the Laemmles.
Which brings us to one of the final productions under the Laemmle regime, SUTTER'S GOLD, released March 1, 1936, a month prior to Universal being taken over by the finance group that had floated loans to allow the studio to produce potential hit-makers such as this one and Whale's well-regarded but unsuccessful version of SHOW BOAT, which followed SUTTER'S GOLD into theaters in May. It had been hoped SUTTER'S GOLD, a boisterous yet mostly inaccurate account of the Swiss immigrant John Sutter (Edward Arnold) on whose land the California Gold Rush began in 1849, would rescue the studio financially, but the episodic nature of telling the story of Sutter (1803-1880), given epic status in the screenplay by Jack Kirkwood, Walter Woods and George O'Neil, worked against its success.
It does, however, provide us with an idea of what Universal could do with a reportedly $2 million budget that involved a heavy amount of location shooting, including sequences aboard a slave vessel commandeered by Sutter and his comic relief sidekick (Lee Tracy) before they get to California. Later scenes of Sutter and friends routing Spanish forces opposing his bid for independence denote sweep and production value thanks to director James Cruze (1884-1942), who came to prominence with the first mammoth western of the silent period in THE COVERED WAGON (1923).
While Clive Hirschhorn declared Arnold miscast as Sutter,** he's actually quite acceptable in the type of big shot role that came to mark his career. In fact, Universal had already teamed Arnold and SUTTER'S GOLD co-star Binnie Barnes in DIAMOND JIM, its 1935 version of the life of James Buchanan "Diamond Jim" Brady (1856-1917), high roller and philanthropist of America's Gilded Age during the late 19th Century. Soon to follow for Arnold were similarly ebullient leading parts in COME AND GET IT (1936) and THE TOAST OF NEW YORK (1937), in addition to darker-shaded variants for Capra in YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938), MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939) and MEET JOHN DOE (1941).
Tracy's wisecracking performance, while more attuned to the day in which SUTTER'S GOLD was produced, is nonetheless welcome, leavening the disappointment endured by Sutter in later life as he attempted to recover the property lost to claim jumpers. This portion of the film, including an utterly false incident involving the death of Sutter's son (William Janney) before his eyes, left audiences with a sour taste. In reality, John Augustus Sutter Jr., who had a notable public career, outlived his father by 17 years.
The New Universal that followed in the wake of the Laemmles was even more aggressively tuned to the smaller situations, cranking out B product, musicals with Deanna Durbin, series flicks and serials with an occasional bigger production to attract more revenue, but maintained the spirit of variety that had marked the studio's earlier efforts. Lacking, however, was the desire to experiment and reach for class that was the hallmark of Junior Laemmle's hopes, leaving his relatively brief reign as executive producer, answerable only to his father, a unique and quite special period in the entertainment giant's history.
For further reading, we recommend "The Lost Treasures of Universal" by Michael H. Price, first published in Midnight Marquee, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2003, and reprinted in Price, Van Cliburn and George E. Turner, FORGOTTEN HORRORS, VOL. 10: THE MISSING YEARS, Lower Klopstokia: Cremo Studios, 2016.
* Steven Randisi, "A Final Interview with Lew Ayres, Actor and Filmmaker," Films of the Golden Age, No. 10, Fall 1997, p. 26.
** Hirschhorn, THE UNIVERSAL STORY, New York: Crown Publishers, 1983, p. 93.