On Twitter, April is Pre-Code film month. I’m not going to be grandiose and proclaim that I’m going to watch Pre-Code every single day in April. I’d like to, but let’s face it, it probably won’t happen. I still haven’t finished my Noirvember 2020 films. Maybe by Noirvember 2021, I’ll have the previous Noirvember complete. With that out of the way, what I will say is that I plan to watch more pre-code films in April (and in the future, of course) and I will document them here. I am also trying to complete my Forbidden Hollywood collection. There are 10 volumes. I need 6-8 and I’ll have completed the collection. So I have PLENTY of precode options available.
A “Pre-Code” film is a label assigned to films that were created and released after the talkies were in full swing, but before the Hays Production Code went into effect July 1934. The Pre-Code era is roughly 1929-mid 1934. Pre-Code films are popular among classic film fans due to the looser content restrictions that were in place during the era. These loose restrictions allowed films to get away with absolutely wild content (for the 1930s) that they would not be allowed to under the rules imposed by Will Hays and the Production Code. Pre-Code films contained sexual innuendo, rape, interracial sexual and romantic relationships, drug use, promiscuity, prostitution, adultery, violence and homosexuality. Many of these topics, especially interracial relationships and homosexuality were taboo in the 1930s.
Under the Hays Production Code, filmmakers often had to remove or modify the content of their films to earn the Production Code office’s seal of approval. Oftentimes, filmmakers would try to skirt the Production Code by adding innuendo, clever editing, symbolism, anything that could get the implication across without explicitly showing anything. Some people may argue that the Production Code’s restrictions caused the filmmakers to have to exhibit more creativity; but others (like me) would argue that filmmakers were forced to compromise on the actual story they wanted to tell due to the Production Code’s restrictions. Due to the lack of rules, the Pre-Code filmmakers were able to stay true to their vision. The absence and subsequent adoption of the Production Code gives Pre-Code and Production Code films two very different looks and vibes.
The Production Code is the most representative of the Classic Hollywood era. This small five-year period of Classic Hollywood, the Pre-Code Era, is often overlooked. Let us celebrate Pre-Code films in all their glory.
This month I have watched…
- Jewel Robbery (1932)
- Ladies They Talk About (1933)
- Riptide (1934)
- Smarty (1934)
- Private Lives (1931)
- Fog Over Frisco (1934)
Jewel Robbery (1932)
Stars: William Powell, Kay Francis, Helen Vinson, Hardie Albright
Summary: Kay Francis plays Baroness Teri von Horhenfels. Though she is rich and part of the high society set, Teri is very bored by her husband. To relieve the tedium of her day-to-day life, she carries on numerous affairs. Naturally. One day, while shopping for more diamond jewelry (as we all do), the store is robbed by a wealthy, suave thief (William Powell). Powell’s character, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have a name. He is simply, “The Robber.” As we all do when being robbed, Teri finds herself smitten with the handsome robber. He is also entranced by her beauty. After locking Teri’s husband and boyfriend (yes) into a safe and slipping a “special cigarette” (aka marijuana) to the shop proprietor, Hollander, The Robber makes off with Teri’s 28-carat ring.
Later, Teri and her friend, Marianne (Helen Vinson), discover that Teri’s home has been broken into. However, they are surprised to find that her ring has been returned! After a fake raid that leads to a fake arrest, Teri discovers that The Robber is just as much in love with her as she is in him. Soon she has to decide whether or not to stay with her humdrum, but rich husband, or leave with The Robber, with whom she’s in love.
My Thoughts: I thought this was a very fun film. It is odd to fall in love with someone robbing you, but it’s William Powell. He can’t be all bad, right? I especially loved the ending. I always enjoy Kay Francis; but the real revelation was Helen Vinson! She was fantastic and in quite a few films!
Ladies They Talk About (1933)
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Preston Foster, Lyle Talbot, Lillian Roth, Ruth Donnelly
Summary: Stanwyck plays Nan Taylor, the female member of a gang of bank robbers. In their latest heist, Nan poses as a regular customer to distract the security guard while the rest of the gang robs the bank. As part of her cover, she even goes as far as to call the police to report the bank robbery, but her cover is blown when a police officer recognizes her. It seems that he had arrested her previously. In a weird part of the story, a local radio star, David Slade (Foster), falls in love with her and gets the DA to release her from prison. David is convinced that he can reform Nan. However, when Nan confesses to the robbery, the DA throws the book at her and puts her in jail. While in prison, Nan’s cronies visit her and let her know that they’re working on a plan to get her and her imprisoned male cohorts out of the clink. It seems that the men are literally imprisoned on the other side of the wall. Nan and her partner hatch a scheme to have Nan make a copy of the Prison Matron’s (Donnelly) key, so that the men can escape.
My Thoughts: This is my favorite “women in prison” movie. The women’s prison cracks me up. The women are allowed to decorate their cells with curtains, little sinks, art, the whole nine yards. They pass the time doing each other’s hair. Another woman sings a love song to a photo of Joe E. Brown (Joe E. Brown!). Stanwyck wears a very flattering, nicely tailored jail uniform. The Prison Matron is nice, friendly and chatty to Stanwyck… nothing like Hope Emerson towards Eleanor Parker in Caged! The whole subplot between Nan and Slade is weird as-is the ending; but the prison scenes are awesome.
Starring: Norma Shearer, Robert Montgomery, Herbert Marshall
Summary: At the beginning of the film, British Lord Philip Rexford (Marshall) is trying on his bizarre beetle costume for an insect-themed masquerade party. In another room at the hotel, American Mary (Shearer) is also trying on her costume for the same party. Apparently, Mary is supposed to be a “Lady Sky Bug” which upon further research, I discovered that that was not a real insect. Mary’s costume is quite scandalous. Mary and Philip had met prior during their trip and meet up in Mary’s hotel room. They decide to ditch the party and meet up later at a club. Their date goes very well and it’s safe to assume that they spent the remainder of their respective trips together. Fast forward a few years (forward enough that Philip and Mary now have a daughter that’s big enough to not have to sleep in a crib) and live together in Philip’s large estate. Philip has to take a trip to America (for whatever business Lords have). At the same time, his Aunt Hetty (Mrs. Patrick Campbell, her actual first name being Beatrice) shows up and convinces Mary to accompany her back home to the French Riviera while Philip is out of the country. Mary agrees.
While on her vacation in the French Riviera, Mary really lives it up: drinking and dancing the nights away in the club. One evening, she gets word that her old beau, American playboy Tommie Trent (Montgomery), is also staying at the hotel. She decides to visit Tommie on a lark. However, her lark soon rekindles the flame, at least the flame he had towards her. The two spend a lot of time partying and drinking together. Eventually, the press gets wind of Lord Rexford’s wife living it up with an American playboy, and her old boyfriend and they are photographed in a compromising position. Of course, the photo is plastered in newspapers worldwide. Lord Rexford sees the photo and is furious. Mary is now forced to defend herself, save her marriage, and face her past.
My Thoughts: This was a great movie. The beginning of the film, with Marshall and Shearer dressed in bizarre bug costumes is hilarious. Shearer looks great in her costume, even if it is nuts. Montgomery is charming and I love him and Shearer together. They were also great in The Divorcee and I’m looking forward to Private Lives which I hope to see soon. I thought it was interesting how it was alluded to that Shearer had a sexual past prior to her marriage to Marshall, as later she’s forced to confront it when it’s thrown back in her face by Marshall. I also loved the striped halter dress that Shearer wears in the scene when she first meets up with Marshall. It was very chic!
Starring: Joan Blondell, Warren William, Edward Everett Horton, Frank McHugh, Claire Dodd
Summary: Joan Blondell plays Vicki, a woman who has been married for some time to her husband, Tony (Warren William). She teases him, needles him, does everything she can to get a rise out of him. At the beginning of the film, Vicki and Tony are getting ready to meet up with friends to celebrate Vicki’s birthday. However, Vicki decides last minute that she’d rather stay home and invite friends over to play Bridge. The catch? She’s invited her friend Vernon (Edward Everett Horton) who very clearly has a crush on Vicki. Obviously, Vicki has only invited Vernon to get a rise out of Tony.
The party does not go well. Vicki continues to aggravate Tony by being flirtatious with Vernon and making advances towards him. The evening culminates with Tony slapping Vicki–which leads the two to divorce court. Oh yeah, and Vernon, a divorce lawyer, represents Vicki in the case. And oh yeah, they get married after Vicki’s divorce is granted.
My Thoughts: Throughout this film, the dialogue and slapping scenes makes the film look like it endorses spousal abuse. When the film ended, I was somewhat turned off by it, even for a 1934 film. Then, I read another take on the film (pre-code.com) offering a different viewpoint. The author suggested that the slapping and dialogue about hitting women, was not promoting spousal abuse, but rather it was Vicki who wanted rough sex. She was frustrated when Tony, and later Vernon, could not give her what she needed. Some of the dialogue and Vicki’s behavior supports this idea. Through this lens, “Smarty” comes across as a very progressive film for 1934. I am actually inclined to believe the rough sex theory, as it explains Vicki’s behavior.
Private Lives (1931)
Starring: Norma Shearer, Robert Montgomery, Reginald Denny, Una Merkel
Summary: In “Private Lives,” Shearer plays Amanda Prynne, a recent divorcee and newlywed (!). She has married her new husband, Victor (Reginald Denny). Montgomery plays Elyot Chase (I have no idea why his name is spelled that way), ex-husband to Amanda, and newlywed. He has married his new wife, Sibyl (Una Merkel, who unfortunately is incredibly annoying in this film). As luck would have it, both ex-spouses find themselves staying at the same hotel on the French Riviera. Not only are they in the same hotel, but they’re staying in rooms with neighboring balconies!
Both couples end up getting in a fight, culminating with Victor and Sibyl storming out of their respective rooms, leaving their spouses alone in the room. Amanda and Elyot discover that they’re staying in adjoining rooms and soon the flame is rekindled. They decide to ditch their spouses and run off to Switzerland together to stay in Amanda’s chalet. Now on a second honeymoon (of sorts), it’s obvious that they’re having a VERY romantic time with one another. For all the romance that they’re having, they’re also having a very tumultuous time as well. Passionate love evolves into passionate fighting. Will they stay together? Or will they return to their spouses?
My Thoughts: I thought this was a really fun film. Like I said earlier, I love the pairing of Shearer and Montgomery in these pre-codes. They’re a lot of fun together and this film was no exception. It was also pretty racy for a 1931 film, which is all one can ask for when watching a pre-code. Una Merkel, who I normally love, was so annoying in this film. I don’t blame Montgomery for bailing on her one bit.
Fog Over Frisco (1934)
Starring: Bette Davis, Margaret Lindsay, Lyle Talbot
Summary: Bette is the bad girl (of course). She plays Arlene, a socialite with a very questionable taste in friends. Arlene manipulates her fiance Spencer (the ever-present Lyle Talbot who seemingly was in every pre-code ever made), and uses his connection to her stepfather’s brokerage firm to steal bonds and turn them into cash. This cash finances Arlene’s lavish lifestyle.
At some point, Arlene tires of Spencer and hooks up with another guy and continues her thieving ways. But because Arlene is a socialite and somewhat naive to the San Francisco underground scene, she ends up getting in over her head and turns up missing. Her sister, Val (Margaret Lindsay), who is the good sister, decides to investigate and find out where her sister is. A reporter and a photographer join her investigation and the three of them find themselves getting deeper and deeper into some nefarious activities.
My Thoughts: This is a pretty decent film. I know Bette didn’t have a lot of good things to say about her early career, but this is one of the early films of her’s that she liked. Bette’s character is despicable which is what makes her so awesome.