Screening Report: Pre-Code Fun at Film Forum’s 1933 Festival

Joan_BlondellThis weekend, Film Forum kicked off 1933: Hollywood’s Naughtiest, Bawdiest Year – a monthlong, 66-film retrospective of my favorite year in movie history.

I didn’t say it was the best year in movie history, of course. That honor, at least during the studio era, is usually awarded to 1939. But 1933 was sexier, more violent, more lurid, more open-minded, and generally more fun than ’39 or, in my opinion, any other twelve-month period in American filmmaking until (at least) the end of the 1950s. 

It was also the year that the studios finally perfected the art and technology of sound filmmaking, and began to consistently churn out movies that looked and sounded like films would for the next two decades. Gone were the scratchy, tinny soundtracks and static staginess of early Talkies. In 1933, Hollywood was firing on all cylinders – inspired by both the creative challenges of attracting audiences during the worst year of the Great Depression, and the renewed optimism (at least for Democrats) inspired by the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Little_GiantFilm Forum started the festivities on Friday with a bang: Roy Del Ruth’s THE LITTLE GIANT, a gangster “comedy” with Edward G. Robinson gently spoofing the persona he had perfected in LITTLE CAESAR (1931). Mirroring the political and social upheaval of the year in which it was made, THE LITTLE GIANT tells the story of bootlegger James Francis “Bugs” Ahearn (Robinson), who retires from bootlegging as Prohibition repeal looms. Nothing goes smoothly on his road to redemption, and Bugs is forced to rely on some old tricks when a family of grifters tries to take the toughest mug in Chicago for a ride.

The second half of the single-admission double feature on Friday was Del Ruth’s EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE starring prototypical Pre-Code cad Warren William as Kurt Anderson, ruthless general manager of a giant New York CityEmployees_Entrance department store. Lovely Loretta Young is the down-and-out girl who falls for Anderson’s charms – and into his bed – and Wallace Ford is the good-natured protegee who falls for Loretta. (And really, who wouldn’t fall for Loretta Young in 1933, or any year?)

Seeing EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE with a large crowd was a particular treat. Every hyperbolically heinous utterance from Warren William’s character was met with applause or appreciative laughter. And it wasn’t the “Oh, isn’t this hilariously quaint” mockery that you sometimes get from newbies at classic film screenings. This was an informed crowd eating up the delicious Pre-Code dialogue and sharing the love, communally. What a delight.

Saturday brought a screening of what may be my favorite Pre-Code film of all time: Mervyn Le Roy and Busby Berkeley’s seminal GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933. This is a film I have seen many times – on TCM, at the TCM Classic Film Festival, even at Film Forum. But the enthusiastic reactions of my fellow audience members made it feel like I was seeing the movie for the first time. GOLD DIGGERS was preceded by Scrappy’s Party, a trippy, one-reel cartoon produced by Columbia’s Screen Gems unit featuring “animated cameos” from the Marx Bros., Laurel and Hardy, Babe Ruth, Albert Einstein, and Ghandi. (Yes, it’s as odd as it sounds).

Annex - Rogers, Ginger (Sitting Pretty)_01The second half of the bill on Saturday was Harry Joe Brown’s SITTING PRETTY, a rarely seen Paramount musical starring Jack Oakie and Jack Haley as Tin Pan Alley songwriters with Ginger Rogers as an all-singing, all-dancing lunch counter proprietress. Highlights include sexy Thelma Todd as a conniving starlet who breaks up the duo, intentionally bad ditties like I Wanna Meander with Miranda, Jerry Tucker as Ginger’s wisecracking eight-year-old brother Buzz, Ginger singing Did You Ever See a Dream Walking, and the Busby Berkeley homage/rip-off that is the big closing number.

The weekend concluded with a Sunday night screening of George Cukor’s DINNER AT EIGHT, based upon the stage play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. I’ve always found this film to be too long and too stage bound, but the big crowd in attendance at Film Forum ate it up. No other movie I saw this weekend got more laughter or applause than DINNER AT EIGHT, with most of it going to delightful Marie Dressler in her penultimate role as straight-talking Carlotta Vance and Jean Harlow as “poisonous little rattlesnake” Kitty Packard.

And this is why I love to watch classic films with live audiences, even when I’ve seen the film before. There are so many nuances I caught on the big screen this weekend that I had missed during TV or DVD viewings, so many moments in which my fellow audience members reminded me of what I love about these films. Plus, nothing beats seeing a film you love with  a roomful of people who feel the same way. It’s the closest thing this lapsed Catholic gets nowadays to a religious experience.

Annex - Harlow, Jean (Dinner at Eight)_10

Photos courtesy Film Forum, Photofest and Dr. Macro.

A complete schedule for 1933: Hollywood’s Naughtiest, Bawdiest Year is available here.

About willmckinley

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer, producer and classic film obsessive. He’s been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by host Robert Osborne), Sirius Satellite Radio and the TCM podcast. Will has written for PBS and his byline has appeared more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News.
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12 Responses to Screening Report: Pre-Code Fun at Film Forum’s 1933 Festival

    • willmckinley says:

      Paula – This is just the beginning! I’m going to try to go every day this week. Unfortunately I’m out of town for large parts of this month, so I’m binging while I’m here!

      • Paula says:

        You’re not helping! Seriously, good for you that you get to experience these as they were meant to be…I would binge if i could.

  1. Jennifer says:

    Sounds like a fabulous time!

  2. Sounds great, Will! I’m hoping to catch a day near the end (possibly either Temple Drake or Cagney day depending how plans come together) but it hurt to miss Warren in my favorite! My preference runs to ’32–a little edgier and not quite as refined–but ’33 runs a very close second!

  3. “[N]othing beats seeing a film you love with a roomful of people who feel the same way. ” Amen to that!

    • willmckinley says:

      It’s so true. That’s why I love the TCM Film Festival. I’ll see a movie I’ve watched a million times, and the buzz from the crowd makes it seem like the first time. Lots of people say, “Why would you fly across the country to see movies you can watch on TV.” That’s why.

  4. Sam Juliano says:

    Great report here Will. I attended every single screening in the pre-code festival from last year (I am a northern New Jersey resident who is a regular at the Film Forum -I have been attending the Film Forum Jr. offerings with my kids every week, and just saw the stupendous LITTLE FUGITIVE last week – and this fabulous festival repeats most of the films I saw at the pre-code. But for the few that aren’t encores I will be attending.

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Sam. You and I were probably at a lot of those Pre-Code screenings together. Glad to hear you’ve been enjoying the FF Junior screenings. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the crowds they’ve been drawing, particularly for some obscure titles. I was there for HORSE FEATHERS and I WAS BORN, BUT.

  5. Judy says:

    Will, I’m so jealous – it must be great seeing these pre-Codes on the big screen and, as you say, with a room full of like-minded people. I’ve seen a few classic films in this way over the last year or two and it is definitely a completely different experience from seeing them on TV – but I haven’t been lucky enough to see many pre-Code films in this way. I’m another fan of 1932 over 33, but both were great years!

  6. Pingback: Employees' Entrance (1933) Review, with Warren William | Pre-Code.Com

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