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In 2006, Warner Bros. released the first Forbidden Hollywood collection, a clearing-house of vintage dramas under the TCM Archives label. Their aim was a classic cinephile's dream: put out an assortment of pictures made before the notorious Motion Picture Production Code took all the fun out of the industry in one convenient set. Two further volumes were compiled before the duties of unearthing relics from a more sexually and thematically adventurous chapter of Tinseltown's history were handed off to the studio's fast-growing Warner Archive Collection. Already busy cranking out treasure after old-timey treasure, the Warner Archive gang have done Forbidden Hollywood fans proud, giving us in their recently-released seventh set four films that cover everything from murder and big business to infidelity and man's self-destructive quest for more.

Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 7
Employees' Entrance (1933) (Dir. Roy Del Ruth)
Featured earlier this year in Warner Archive's Philo Vance collection, Warren William strikes again in a decidedly more intense role. He plays Kurt Anderson, a department store muckity-muck whose cost-cutting ways and instantaneous firing of dead weight has resulted in nearly a decade of sky-high profits. But the Depression's arrival has forced him to take even more extreme measures to stay afloat -- which include breaking apart his new assistant (Wallace Ford) from the model (Loretta Young) both men have fallen for. Employees' Entrance is ruthless in its indictment of capitalism's dark side, of cash-hungry monsters with no emotion other than disdain for those who impede their hunt for profits. But the film is such a bulldog, its main character is less the towering, magnetic figure he's intended to be and more of a blunt political cartoon come to life. It'd be a few years until Citizen Kane would provide the ultimate portrait of a young man's ambitions warping him into a soulless corporate raider, but that Employees' Entrance just barely peeks behind that curtain of complexity before slamming it shut is a huge drawback. Not only is the reason for Anderson's Mr. Krabs-ian nature blitzed past us in a flash, his order-barking is so flimsily-written, you have no idea how his commands are saving or sinking his store. Then again, Employees' Entrance was written more with a romantic angle in mind over satirical observations, and on that level, it's fine. Still, for a film that makes a lot of noise, there isn't much of it we haven't heard already.

Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 7
Ex-Lady (1933) (Dir. Robert Florey)
Helen Bauer (Bette Davis) is an artist who knows what she wants out of life: to draw, to have fun, and to not be tied down to one significant other. Too bad that hasn't sunken in with the other men in her life, including Don Peterson (Gene Raymond), who manages to finally pester her into marrying him. But just as she starts warming to domesticity, Helen ends up rethinking her situation yet again when she catches Don in the midst of an affair. With a protagonist who's very assured and upfront about her relationship needs, it's no wonder that Ex-Lady was included in this set. It's very much sophisticated and ahead of its time, its premise built on Helen's partners being too dense and self-involved to realize when she's telling them point blank what she expects from a romance. Of course, the big ironic twist comes when Don -- who showered Helen with promises of being a one-gal guy -- starts to stray himself, but Ex-Lady does remarkably little with the material once that bomb is dropped. From fits being thrown to Helen pondering cheating on Don out of spite, the last two acts pale in comparison to how daringly that first one carries itself. It also doesn't help that the film awkwardly tries manuevering its equally strong-willed lead characters into a happy ending, when we've seen no evidence that their marriage would be filled with anything but jealousy and bitterness. Luckily, Ex-Lady boasts such a confident turn from Davis and enough wit in the script, any disappointment doesn't linger for long. It could've done more, but being a fraction revolutionary certainly tops not trying at all.

Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 7
The Hatchet Man (1932) (Dir. William A. Wellman)
In another life, Wong Low Get (Edward G. Robinson) was a Tong assassin who retired his blades after executing a childhood friend. Times have changed, and Wong is now a respected businessman about to be married to his pal's grown daughter, Sun Toya (Loretta Young). But the old ways beckon him to return to his killing roots, which coincide with his spouse's growing attraction to a younger man. The spectre of "yellowface" does hang a bit over The Hatchet Man; it is a product of its time, when all actors of color and different cultures (let alone Asians) getting to play lead characters of their own backgrounds was virtually nonexistent. Yet in spite of its pulpy title and the facepalm-inducing passing-off of white actors as Chinese, The Hatchet Man gradually reveals itself as a rather provocative and progressive film, as well as the highlight of this collection. It's another story about the past coming to terms with the future, only not as discriminatory as you'd assume. The movie is as judgmental about the arcane, Hollywoodized traditions from "the old country" it depicts as it is towards an America that sheds morals at a mile a minute. In the middle of it all is Wong, whose conflicting desires to let Sun Toya live the life that she chooses and abide by his ancestral code of honor comes through in a sad, pained performance delivered amazingly by Robinson. While you do get some juicy thrills from Wong doling out justice with his weapons of choice, The Hatchet Man is a surprisingly wise feature that assures you that he thought on it for a good, long time first.

Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 7
Skyscraper Souls (1932) (Dir. Edgar Selwyn)
Warren William closes out the set by playing a blowhard not too distant from the sort he gave life to in Employees' Entrance. Again, William is cast as the self-proclaimed lord and master of a metropolitan high-rise, only this time, his David Dwight hasn't been as fiscally fortunate. The multi-million dollar loan he owes on a 100-story office building is due soon, and unbeknownst to the working-class schlubs who dwell within, Dwight's playing fast and loose with their futures in order to claim the tower as his own. But if you thought Employees' Entrance was a fairly shallow drama about the perils of pride, ambition, and whatnot, then prepare for Skyscraper Souls to be even more vapid and less constructive. Though I'm told its source novel has a good deal more to do with feminism and women in the era's workplace, the film replaces all that with endless shots of guys in boxy suits either droning about stocks or being unfathomably lecherous. The amount of meaty, thought-provoking content here is shockingly low, with Dwight lobbing speech after speech at us without once drawing us into caring about how his power grab effects him or the underlings at his beck and call. The subplots of the latter only amount to uninteresting slices of melodrama, and William's Dwight imparts more business jargon than honest insight into his aggressive personality. Skyscraper Souls has almost no lust or life to speak of, a passionless picture that does no favors to those filmmakers actually trying to make what happens to a bunch of rich white people seem interesting.

Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 7
Video
All four films are presented in a full-screen, 1.37 : 1 aspect ratio. Being a burn-on-demand DVD-R release (and not one of Warner Archive's remastered discs), there is a fair amount of grain and wear to the entire quartet, but it never becomes too distracting. Each presentation is on par with the quality you would expect from a Turner Classic Movies airing. Employees' Entrance ends up looking the best, with its nighttime sequences holding up as well as its day scenes. Still, as much as I love seeing an old favorites like Universal's monster movies cleaned up for Blu-ray, I'm just as much of a sucker for a standard-def treat that wears its age like a badge of honor.

Audio
All four titles are presented with English-only, Dolby Digital Mono soundtracks. You'll hear the occasional hiss and crackle of film grain, but like the video, it never gets bothersome and only adds to the charm of seeing a line-up of flicks plucked from relative obscurity. You get the right effect no matter what you pop in, from Warren William yelling up a storm in Skyscraper Souls to the bustling Chinatown streets of The Hatchet Man.

Extras
Theatrical trailers for The Hatchet Man, Employees' Entrance, and Ex-Lady are available on their respective discs.

Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 7
Overall
With one genuinely excellent title, two passable flicks that just fell short of their marks, and one barren husk of a drama, it's tough to suggest ponying up the cash for Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 7. Vintage movie junkies and completists will want to swipe this to fill up shelf space in a heartbeat, but if you're straight-up looking for something good to watch, you'd be better off waiting for TCM to air The Hatchet Man (maaaaaaybe Ex-Lady, too).

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the DVD image quality.


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