“The only thing we can do: let’s forget sex.” So says Miriam Hopkins in Ernst Lubitsch’s risqué 1933 throuple comedy Design for Living, but the statement could have come straight from the Breen Office a year later. Hollywood had nervously created its own self-censoring code of conduct in 1930, hoping to prevent Washington from sending someone from the east coast to supervise film content. Yt wasn’t put into proper effect until four years later, though, when the pressures of religious organizations (mainly motivated by Mae West‘s films) became strong enough to scare studio heads into falling into line.
As a result, films made before 1934 have come to be known, despite its being an erroneous description, as “pre-Code” entertainment, famous for elements that would soon be reigned in. Of course, if you expect to see something akin to 9 ½ Weeks or Blue Is the Warmest Colour, you’ll be surprised at how tame most of these movies are: sure, there are a lot more skimpy negligees (my favourite example, in James Whale’s The Old Dark House, a detoured Gloria Stuart enters a drafty, crumbling manor and decides to immediately change into her lingerie), but the most excessive exploitation, in line with public morality about sex at the time, is nothing compared to what would break through in the sixties. The truth is, pre-Code movies aren’t so much notable for their visual excesses as they are for their lack of moral guidance and emphasis on guilt: extra-marital sex is sophisticated rather than sinful, divorces are logical and not tragic, and sometimes crime does pay; in the years to come, censors would make sure that none of this would continue, and if sexuality or criminal violence were employed for the sake of a film’s narrative excitement, they had to be followed by the proper outcomes.
The Criterion Channel celebrates the era of pre-Code Hollywood through the output of one specific studio, whose films were celebrated for their abundance of glamour and exoticism and, because of this, also produced some of the most extreme examples of pre-Code morality. Paramount Pictures presented luscious images of faraway lands (mostly designed by production designer Hans Dreier), beautiful men in uniforms or tuxes, and glamorous women in stunning Travis Banton gowns. They gave us Marlene Dietrich and Mae West, whose films saved Paramount from bankruptcy in the early thirties, and the romantic comedies of Ernst Lubitsch, with his refined, sophisticated wit and thinly veiled, sexually frank dialogue. The years under censorship would eventually result in screwball comedies, films with perfectly designed narrative structures that cleverly looped their way around Code restrictions. Before this, the films about romantic entanglements are messier, the plots don’t work out as smoothly as you expect, and they emphasize desire and frustration more than anything else.
Thanks to its east coast studio in Astoria, Paramount also had access to Broadway talent who didn’t have to travel far to make movies while maintaining their stage careers, resulting in the likes of the Marx Brothers finding their way onto the screen. The downside to this was, as Imogen Sara Smith points out in her excellent introduction to this collection, that vaudeville was immortalized while simultaneously being killed by the popularity of motion pictures. By the next decade, the war made entertainment important and escapism was looked down upon, and all the above stars and their fare were seen as lowbrow. With the censors cutting up her material, West decided to get out of the business altogether, Dietrich was still glamorous but her sexuality wasn’t nearly as transgressive, and the Marx Brothers watered down their social-challenging zaniness to little more than sight gags.
In this collection, however, there are songs about marijuana, beautiful men being pursued by women, some shockingly gory violence and some dangerous, accidental (?) sideboob slips. In short, this collection is impossible to resist.
Reviews are by Bil Antoniou except where noted. Many thanks to Rachel Ho for her invaluable contributions.
MUST-SEE PRE-CODE FILMS
Morocco (Josef Von Sternberg, 1930)
Rachel Ho: The Josef von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich partnership is legendary and unique: I can’t think of too many director-actress relationships as complementary as theirs. In Morocco, we are gifted one of Dietrich’s most famous looks (performing in a men’s tux) and some of the beautiful stylish lighting that would become synonymous with her decades later. It’s is a love story between Dietrich’s Amy and Gary Cooper’s Tom, a member of the French Foreign Legion, two star-crossed lovers whose egos get in their way with the added pressure of wartime. Aside from the love story, it also has some gender-bending offerings, particularly salacious for the time. Along with Dietrich’s masculine dress and kiss with another woman, the character of Monsieur La Bessière (Adolphe Menjou) — a wealthy man in love with Amy — is interesting. Amy’s love for Tom is obvious to everyone, including La Bessière, and where Amy has taken on the masculine, La Bessière’s compassion for Amy’s lost love feels stereotypically feminine. Morocco is a simple love story that was ahead of its time.
The Cheat (George Abbott, 1931)
A rare treat, Tallulah Bankhead in a leading role on film. She plays a high society dame who gets herself into trouble at the roulette table, then doubles her five thousand dollar debt by making a side-bet with the casino owner. She steals from a fundraiser that she is working on and tries to double her money on the stock market but loses that too, forcing her to accept the help of sneaky Irving Pichel and agree to his bargain: she gets the cash and he gets to spend time with her. The open manner in which Pichel specifies exactly what kind of time he’d like to spend is the pre-Code indicator here, while his character’s connection with a vague concept of Asian culture (taking advantage of viewers’ simultaneous fascination and fear of the mystical east) would remain a stereotype throughout the golden age of the medium. Bankhead is hilariously campy in her melodramatic scenes, but watch the casual ease with which she performs seemingly innocuous moments. It’s incredible how often she could be in a movie from a much later, more modern period.
The Devil Is Driving (Benjamin Stoloff, 1932)
Edmund Lowe needs work and is thrown a lucky bone by brother-in-law James Gleeson, who hires him to work in his garage. The auto shop is actually a front for a ring of thieves who steal cars, strip them and re-sell them to shady secret buyers, which Lowe doesn’t know until a near-fatal accident involving his little nephew (Dickie Moore) is followed by the death of a close family member. Once he begins “snooping around,” he discovers criminal activity that implicates his hot blond girlfriend (Wynne Gibson) and nearly gets him killed. Thrilling action sequences pep up an exciting story about passion and crime. Its morally-sound ending presages the days when all Code-approved gangster films would make sure to give the bad guys their due.
Merrily We Go to Hell (Dorothy Arzner, 1932)
Sylvia Sidney is marvelous as a wealthy heiress who meets journalist Fredric March at a party and falls in love with him, not realizing that his fun drunk personality at parties is actually the surface of a despondent alcoholic. They marry and her money allows him the opportunity to give up reporting in order to pursue his real passion, playwriting, but that only makes him drink more when his hit play casts his ex-girlfriend in the lead role. Not wanting a man she has to force to stay with her, Sidney agrees to an open relationship and gallivants with Cary Grant before a crisis forces the couple to decide about their future. Skimpy evening wear and some pretty racy images, including March purposely kissing a woman to make his wife jealous, are among the more scandalous elements of this one, but what really makes it so good is the direction by the great Dorothy Arzner, who employs beautiful images in the name of enriching the drama rather than undermining it.
Murder at the Vanities (Mitchell Leisen, 1934)
On stage, the glamorous escapism of the Earl Carroll Vanities dazzles audiences with musical numbers (including the very provocative “Marijuana Song” and a performance by Duke Ellington), but it’s all criminal activity backstage, with two grisly murders that confound the show’s producer (Jack Oakie) and bring on the interference of a girl-crazy detective (Victor McLaglen). The show’s star (Carl Brisson) has a few secrets involving the wardrobe lady (the always wonderful Jessie Ralph), while his fiancée (Kitty Carlisle) is the star of the show, but her getting both the part and the man has enraged featured actress lady Gertrude Michael. Two bodies are found stabbed with hat pins and, while the show continues to entertain under the footlights, everyone keeps busy trying to solve the crimes by the end of the night. Juicy fun.
Hot Saturday (William A. Seiter, 1932)
A perfect specimen of a pre-Code film, Hot Saturday has a plot that will be familiar to fans of movies from the period but whose outcome would be drastically different if it were made a few years later. Nancy Carroll is excellent as a small town bank teller who stays too late at a party being thrown by visiting wealthy playboy Cary Grant. Rumours spread that she has compromised her virtue and she becomes a pariah in the community, losing her job and inviting harsh criticism from her relentlessly miserable mother (Jane Darwell). She tries to slip out of trouble by marrying her visiting childhood friend Randolph Scott, but when that plan is foiled by the bank president’s daughter, who is also her vicious rival, she makes a decision about just how important it is to be good enough for the small-minded people around her. The modernity of the ending is still shockingly refreshing today, the whole thing is stylish and fun and the performances are all superb.
This Is the Night (Frank Tuttle, 1932)
Sex is practically in the celluloid in this erotic comedy about two lovers (Roland Young, Thelma Todd) trying to get away for an adulterous vacation in Venice. Todd is upset when her javelin-throwing husband (Cary Grant in his film debut, and you can’t tell) comes home early and finds Young at their Paris apartment, pretending innocence and insisting that the train tickets she bought were a surprise vacation for her husband. Young says that he’s also taking the same trip with his wife, which requires him to hire a woman (Lily Damita) to pretend to be his spouse. The trouble is, Grant never falls for the story, while Todd gets incredibly jealous of the hired beard, leading to all manner of silly complications once they reach the city of romantic gondola rides and murky canals. Visually dazzling, delightfully funny and, like many pre-Code sex comedies, it lacks the rigid and polished structure of later screwball classics, its other shocking elements include a running joke of Todd’s clothes constantly being torn off, and Damita performing a brief but tantalizing striptease.
I’m No Angel (Wesley Ruggles, 1933)
Writer and star Mae West, “the mistress of the single entendre” as Imogen Sara Smith calls her, was basically the cornerstone of Paramount’s profits in the thirties, and this delightful comedy shows her at her sassiest. Featuring some of her most memorable enduring lines (“When I’m good I’m good, but when I’m bad I’m better”), the silly plot has her playing a circus performer who becomes a classy lion tamer, mainly as an excuse to make her way through the studio’s entire roster of male performers without ever breaking a bead of sweat. The star is having a marvelous time flouting propriety and you can’t help but get deep pleasure out of watching her do it, among the last of her truly transgressive films before the censors began invading her scripts with their pesky demands.
Torch Singer (Alexander Hall, George Somnes, 1933)
This pre-cursor to Stella Dallas puts the blame for a single mother’s suffering not on her bad judgment, but on the patriarchal society that forces her into a vulnerable position. Claudette Colbert struggles to raise her baby on her own, but decides to give her up for adoption, then becomes a notorious club singer who also takes a job on a new children’s show being broadcast on her boyfriend’s radio station. This gives her the chance to get away from her hard-partying bad girl life and seek out the child from whom she’s been separated for so long. A rather illogical plot twist in the last few minutes doesn’t stop this one from being a fascinating example of pre-code morality.
The Virtuous Sin (George Cukor, Louis J. Gasnier, 1930)
Kay Francis is excellent as a dutiful wife whose doctor husband is conscripted by the Russian army to fight in the Great War. She tries to get him exempt from duty but fails. Then, when he is insubordinate to his “Ironface” General (Walter Huston), he is court-martialed and placed in jail to await execution by firing squad. She insinuates herself into a nightclub frequented by the General’s soldiers where she poses as a good-time gal in order to seduce Huston and save her husband’s life. Women sacrificing their virtue for the sake of love wouldn’t vanish with the code, but this one eschews instructive guilt in favour of making sure every character finds their bliss.
Murders in the Zoo (A. Edward Sutherland, 1933)
Rachel Ho: A little bit too camp, a little bit too wooden, but utterly bewitching. Lionel Atwill plays Eric Gorman, a dangerously jealous husband whose wife, Evelyn (Kathleen Burke) wants a divorce to marry Roger Hewitt (John Lodge). Eric is a big-game hunter whose prize captures are collected at a major zoo that has fallen on financial difficulties. Throughout the film, Eric is shown murdering the men Evelyn takes an interest in, using his knowledge of animals to his advantage. For the era, Murders in the Zoo is quite horrific. It starts off with a man whose mouth has been sewn up and there’s a pretty surprising death scene towards the end. To add an extra layer for modern-day audiences, live animals are used throughout the film, including a finale, which, according to Gregory William Mank’s book, The Very Witching Time of Night: Dark Alleys of Classic Horror Cinema, 17 cats (e.g. lions, leopards, etc.) engaged in a fight leading to one puma’s death. Animal welfare be damned.
This Day and Age (Cecil B. DeMille, 1933)
Rachel Ho: A film that tested the censors of the day, This Day and Age challenges concepts of law and order and can be accused of inspiring the youth to rise up and question authority. Charles Bickford plays gangster Louis Garrett who literally gets away with murder. A local high school student, Steve (Richard Cromwell) who witnessed the murder is humiliated on the witness stand and later attempts to seek justice on Garrett. Coincidentally, Steve’s high school is participating in ‘youth week’ during this time wherein students take on various civic positions in an attempt to learn how government works. This Day and Age is an engaging vigilante-centric drama, although not quite at the same level of Cecil B. DeMille’s later work. With retrospect, the themes introduced in the film are even more poignant given the introduction of The Code one year after its release.
FOR FANS ONLY
The Cocoanuts (Robert Florey, Joseph Santley, 1929)
Rachel Ho: The first talkie of the Marx Brothers to be formally released, the film is set in Florida during the 1920s’ land boom where Mr. Hammer (Groucho Marx) runs the Hotel de Cocoanut with Jamison (Zeppo Marx). Harpo and Chico arrive at the hotel with empty suitcases in an apparent attempt to rob guests of the resort. Meanwhile, hotel guest Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont) is dealing with some family drama as she and her daughter, Polly (Mary Eaton), disagree on whom the young Potter should marry. Where The Cocoanuts is weak on storyline, it’s rich in gags, physical slapstick and word tennis all included. In fact, this is the film where the famous ‘why a duck?’/viaduct gag comes from, and it’s a pure delight. Unfortunately though, it isn’t the strongest effort by the Marx Brothers, but given it’s their first true feature film (and especially given the legacy the comedic brothers would eventually leave behind), it can be forgiven. Not much happens in this film, rather it’s a collection of individual gags that sometimes work together. Generally speaking, though, The Cocoanuts is for Marx Brothers completists.
Million Dollar Legs (Edward F. Cline, 1932)
Pure silliness incorporates the upcoming Los Angeles Olympics into a delightful comedic caper starring W.C. Fields as the president of the fictional country of Klopstokia. The nation’s main import, export and citizenry of “Goats and Nuts” is in financial trouble, and an American businessman (Jack Oakie) who is sweet on Fields’ daughter (Susan Fleming) has the answer: send a team to the L.A. games! Along the way, the two lovers unearth a plot to overthrow the president involving a cabal of traitors who employ the shameless “Mata Machree, The Woman No Man Can Resist” (Lyda Roberti) to help their nefarious plans. Anything goes in this early, wholly anarchic script co-written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932)
Jewel thieves Edward Marshall and Miriam Hopkins meet while robbing the same mark and fall in love, moving their operations to the manor of a perfume tycoon (Kay Francis) where they pose as her staff while plotting to rob her blind. Marshall falls in love with his target and creates a volatile love triangle in which witty double entendres about sex and crime are volleyed about liberally amid the gorgeous art déco furnishings. Blessed with the glinty magic of the Lubitsch touch, this curious precursor to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has the energy of later screwball comedies but with an unbridled sexual energy that would soon be brought under control by the Code years, showing off the era’s screen queen Francis to superb effect as she outshines her co-stars with her radiant, confident presence.
International House (A. Edward Sutherland, 1933)
The comedic antics are out of control as a group of characters gathers at the International Hotel in Wu Hu, China to witness a new invention, the “Radioscope” (sort of a television prototype that allows the viewer to snoop on events happening around the world). American businessman Stuart Erwin has come to buy the machine before his Russian rival (Bela Legosi) can get to it, but the rash on his face makes the hotel doctor (George Burns) and his daffy nurse (Gracie Allen) think he has contagious measles, and the hotel is put under quarantine. Real-life socialite Peggy Hopkins Joyce plays a fictional version of herself as a man-eating heiress who is annoyed by a gyroscope-flying W.C. Fields until she learns he’s a millionaire. Burns and Allen have the film’s funniest moments, while the radioscope bits are excuses for some fun musical numbers (including appearances by Cab Calloway and Baby Rose Marie). The whole thing flies by like a good-natured breeze and features some impressive use of photographic effects and scale models.
An American Tragedy (Josef Von Sternberg, 1931)
Theodore Dreiser was so angry about the liberties that von Sternberg took with his source novel that he sued the studio, unsuccessful in getting the film shelved but Paramount still forced the director to include more scenes that were from the book. Von Sternberg disavowed the project (which would later be filmed more successfully as A Place in the Sun by George Stevens in 1951), about a social climbing working man (Phillips Holmes, in this case) who kills his pregnant girlfriend (Sylvia Sidney) so he can have a chance to marry a wealthy society heiress (Francis Dee). Sidney’s character is given much more sympathy in this version, while the romance between the other two is given very little time, nor is Dreiser’s commentary on the American class system anywhere to be found. True to its pre-Code nature, there is a lot of frank talk about abortion and sex, with Holmes taking personal responsibility for his actions rather than succumbing to the unseen punishment of societal judgment.
Ladies Man (Lothar Mendes, 1931)
Rachel Ho: Lead by the debonair William Powell as gigolo Jamie Darricott, Ladies Man centres around Jamie’s relationship with Mrs. Fendley (Olive Tell) whose daughter Rachel (Carole Lombard) has developed feelings for him. A thin plot with rather lacklustre and awkward performances (Lombard has a particularly cringey drunk sequence), it is a surprising dud considering the cast involved. While only 70 minutes long, it drags on with a terrible script and stilted delivery. The most curious part of the film is the remarkable lack of chemistry between Powell and Lombard who were courting in real-life at the time. And while Powell turns in the best performance of the ensemble, it’s not enough to save Ladies Man.
Kiss and Make-Up (Harlan Thompson, 1934)
Depression-era women had the opportunity to see glamorous women whom they could simultaneously admire and judge in this silly, forgettable romance. Cary Grant plays a world-famous plastic surgeon who specializes in turning even the most hopeless cases into beautiful specimens, not caring that his work alienates his patients from their husbands, often because of their romantic feelings for the good doctor. He up and marries one of them right after his divorce, but on their sunny honeymoon finds himself bored of being with someone who is always dieting and moisturizing. He starts to realize that his “normal” secretary might be the way to go. Hopelessly dated and remarkably trite, this precursor to Nip/Tuck has a few curious attractions but otherwise can easily be skipped.