Pre-Code Movie Appreciation Thread (1930–33)

I just saw Jewel Thief (1932) last night on TV—what a delightful, naughty little film! Bored wife Kay Francis falls in love with urbane robber William Powell, who plies his victims with reefers, and promises to make love to Kay “in ways I’ve only dreamed of.” (I might add that the nasty screenwriters gave Kay, who talked liked Baba Wawa, lines like “Thewe’s someone walking in the gawden—I heaw the gwavel cwunching.”)

I think of Hollywood’s Golden Years as 1930–33, when movies were naughty but not filthy, before the reinforced Production Code was put into effect by evil madman Joe Breen, in mid-1934. What great films! They could get away with offhand, adult references to sex (all kinds) and drugs, and evil did indeed win out sometimes.

Just look at some of the films released in 1932 alone, maybe the high point of the early talkies: Bill of Divorcement, Blonde Venus (Marlene Dietrich in a gorilla outfit!), Call Her Savage (Clara Bow’s best talkie), Devil and the Deep (Tallulah Bankhead on a submarine!), Downstairs (John Gilbert’s best talkie), Freaks, Grand Hotel, The Half-Naked Truth (Lupe Velez as a cooch dancer), Horse Feathers, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, If I Had a Million, Love Me Tonight (one of the best musicals ever), The Mask of Fu Manchu (just ask Ike about that one!), Million Dollar Legs (maybe my all-time favorite comedy), Night After Night (Mae West’s debut), One Way Passage (great tear-jerker), Rain (Joan Crawford’s best performance, ever), Red Dust (Harlow and Gable!), DeMille’s *Sign of the Cross, Strange Interlude *(AND its two-reel parody, Strange Inner Tube!), *Tarzan the Ape Man, Thirteen Women *(bizarre!), What Price Hollywood? Jesus—and they say 1939 was a good year!

What are some of your favorite pre-Code films?

Eve, I saw Jewel Thief last night too, and very quickly regretted not taping it. Gotta love a movie where the robber escapes by getting the chief of police high on pot.

I’ve been on something of a pre-code kick myself lately. Some of my favorites: [ul]
[li]Trouble in Paradise[/li]1932
One of my favorite Ernst Lubitsch films. Also with Kay Francis. Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall are a couple of con artists who fall in love. They team up to bilk Kay Francis of her money. Kay and Herbert become involved (they even visit each other’s bedrooms!). The law steps in, and Miriam and Herbert must flee. The happy ending is that they escape to con again!
[li]Baby Face[/li]1933
Barbara Stanwyck, whose father dies shortly after trying to force her into prostitution, makes her way to the big city, where she uses her sexual wiles to secure her place in society. (Tagline: “She climbed the ladder of success–wrong by wrong!”)
Again with Barbara Stanwyck. She’s too independent to succumb to her lover’s marriage proposal, so he blackmails her into wedded bliss. They try it out, they begin to hate each other, and the happy ending is that they decide to go back to their premarital ways.
(Tagline: “She dared!”)
In this Cecil B. Demille non-epic (who’da thunk?), Kay Johnson is in love with a married man, but in order to inherit a fortune she has to be married on her 21st birthday. His wife is dragging her feet in granting him a divorce, so Kay will either have to marry someone else or be cut off without a cent. So she marries a condemned criminal due to die at dawn. Minutes before the execution, the real murderer confesses, and Kay’s new husband is freed from jail. He shows up at her penthouse and is morally outraged at the decadence of her life. Brilliant bit of social commentary here: the lifelong jailbird holds the moral highground over the wealthy socialite. He leaves in disgust. She’s relieved until she discovers the will’s fine print: she must remain with her husband for two weeks to fulfill the entailment. He refuses to return to her den of iniquity, so she must move into his shack down by the coal mill. Domestic fumbling ensues, they form a bond, and the triangle–her married beau arrives at one point–ends up in the bowels of the coal mine. Which collapses. Their only hope of escape requires one of the men to sacrifice his life to save hers. She must choose.
(Tagline: “She Denied Him Her Love, So He Took It! She Stole His Name, Tricked Him, Humbled Him and–in the end–Worshipped Him!”)
Helen Twelvetrees is the prostitute who must turn to murder to save her daughter from dishonor. This one I DID tape.
(Tagline: “Torn From Her Arms–Child Of Love A Woman Can Give But Once!”)[/ul]

Lissnener, I can’t get as enthused as you over Trouble in Paradise, as Herbert Marshall throws me into a coma (I think his wooden leg metastasized). And Miriam Hopkins reminds me of a chipmunk on crack. But I do love Kay Fwancis!

But I also love Millie (that scene with Joan Blondell and Helen Twelvetrees in bed!), and Baby Face—the only thing wriong with that movie is that Teresa Harris, as Babs’ black pal, vanishes so early in the film. Harris was by far the sexiest black actress in 1930s films! Not that she had much competition, of course . . .

Speaking of early DeMille talkies, ever see Madame Satan?

No to Madme Satan.

Herbert Marshall leaves me pretty cold too, but he IS in some of my favorite movies. And I really, really love Miriam Hopkins for her being Bette Davis’s greatest nemesis and sparkiest screen partner, so she gets some retroactive credit in TiP for that. I can watch her and Bette hate each other beneath their roles in Old Friends and Old Maid over and over again.

As far as Teresa Harris in BF, it’s my memory that she sticks by Stanwyck, though in a disappointingly backgroundy way, through most of the movie?

Forgot to point out that Herbert Marshall is, of course, also in Blonde Venus (taped it! Though The Scarlet Empress is my favorite Dietrich). It helps if you just pretend he and Tom Conway are the same person; I can’t tell them apart anyway. That way their combined ouevre contains one of my lifetime top tens, I Walked with a Zombie.

Teresa Harris vanishes in Baby Face just after she and Babs land in New York, sadly. I’d love to do an article on her, but there is virtually no information on her!

Ah, yes—Marlene having to choose between whiny, radioactive Herbert Marshall and cute, rich Cary Grant in Blonde Venus . . . I love the exchange between Marlene and that other cabaret singer:

“They call me Taxi Belle.”
“Do you charge for the first mile?”

I’ve seen Madame Satan!

Costume party on board a Zeppelin, anyone?

I’m very fond of Murders in the Rue Morgue and White Zombie, both 1932, both starring a pre-morphine addicted Bela Lugosi.

The former has a scene where Arlene Francis is crucified, and the latter features a villain named “Murder Legendre.” It don’t take all that much to make ME happy.

“The former has a scene where Arlene Francis is crucified . . .”

Arlene: “Does your job have anything to do with woodworking?”

De Mille’s The Way of the Cross is adifferent sort of epic. Sure there’s the virtuous Christians, and the high living Roman guy who falls for one of them. But all, repeat all, of the good people die in this one. And all the mean ones live and are still prospering at the end of the picture, Nero, Pompeia his wife, etc. And check out the scene where the bad girl dances around the good girl, singing a song titled The Naked Moon , and is running her hands up and down the good girl’s body… I think she kissed her too.

One silent picture that stunned me was Broken Blossoms, starring Lillian Gish. She played a young girl who is regularly beaten and abused by her scummy father. A local shopkeeper(a Chinese man) takes her in and nurses her back to health. The father finds her, kills her with another beating, and when this is discovered by the shopowner, he kills the dad then commits suicide. Not a happy ending. And the epilogue asks the poignant question “Maybe you don’t beat your children, but how often have you hurt them with unkind words?” This latter statement is more of a paraphrase, I don’t have a video of the film

“One silent picture that stunned me was Broken Blossoms, starring Lillian Gish.”

—Oh. Well. If we’re gonna get into silents, that’s a whole other thread—one you’ll have to bind and gag me to shut me up about . . . I can go on about silents till the cows come home, have their Ovaltine and go to bed.

Wasn’t the Charles Laughton version of The Island of Dr. Moreau pre-code? I think the title was different than Dr. Moreau, but can’t recall, but I can’t imagine the whole bestiality subplot with the panther woman being allowed under the code.

If you don’t mind a gritty film…
On my top list is “I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang.”
The title is horrible (how do you fit that on a marque?) and sounds like a cheap B. But WB spent time and money on the thing and it shows.
Paul Muni is excellent. The film doesn’t wimp out with a “Hollywood” ending.

How about a spoiler? Did she choose the jailbird or the other guy?

The title was Island of Lost Souls , from 1933. Let us not forget that period saw also the birth of most horror movies standards : Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, King Kong….

“On my top list is ‘I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang’ (1932) The title is horrible . . .”

—It was based on the autobiographical book I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang (the state of Georgia made them shorten it). Dorothy Parker, who liked to fancy herself an ex-debutante, threatened to call her own memoirs I Am a Fugitive from a Daisy Chain Gang.

I love films of the 30s and agree that the pre-code ones were quite an eye-opener for their risque dialog.

For instance 42nd Street is filled with sexual innuendo: Anytime Annie (“The only time she said no was when she didn’t understand the question”), who seems to sleep with anyone who has money. Guy Kibbee as the millionaire who obviously expects to sleep with star Bebe Daniels (though it’s unclear whether she lets him). Ruby Keeler’s look of horror when George Brent carries her into his bedroom (it turns out he acts the gentleman, but it’s clear that Ruby thinks he want to sleep with her). And of course, the delightfully subtle risque line:

Male Dancer: Want to sit on my lap.
Female Dancer: I’m no flagpole sitter.

The ending, too, is deliciously ironic: Warner Baxter kills himself (literally) to turn Ruby Keeler into a star, and the audience thinks he just sat back and did nothing.

Amazing film.

Notice in Tarzan and his Mate that Maureen Sullivan can swim naked, but Johnny Weismuller has to shave his armpits. I guess they took the John Ruskin view that nudity has to resemble marble statues.

I was astonished at Footlight Parade, myself. I was generally aware that The Code came down on something, but I kind of thought it was mostly Betty Boop’s upper thighs. The film is at once more innocent and yet more daring than the usual fare we see these days, featuring among other things an elaborately staged musical number about a hotel where people meet to have pre-marital sex, and an water dancing number featuring scores of nymphs who at one point all line up for what has to be a world record continuous stream of crotch shots.