Sex sells, the old saying goes. It also employs, or at least it did in movies made before enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code began in 1934.
In the The Columbia Pictures Pre-Code Collection, a five-film DVD set from Turner Classic Movies and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, just about every leading female character makes ends meet by leveraging what the Good Lord gave her. And those who aren’t prostitutes, madams, dance hall “hostesses,” kept women, or mistresses spend most of their time fending off predatory creeps in dead-end jobs.
In TEN CENTS A DANCE (1931), based upon the popular ballad by Rodgers and Hart, Barbara Stanwyck is a taxi dancer who marries an abusive embezzler. In ARIZONA (1931), Laura La Plante is a good time girl of a certain age (27!) who falls for womanizing West Point cadet John Wayne (yes, that John Wayne), only to marry his 40-something adopted father when the young soldier kicks her to the curb. Doomed starlet Jean Harlow headlines THREE WISE GIRLS (1932) as a small town soda jerk who tries to make her fortune as a New York City lingerie model, and instead falls for a married lush. Stanwyck strikes back in SHOPWORN (1932) as a waitress sent to the pokey by rich boyfriend Regis Toomey’s snobbish mother (Clara Blandick – Aunt Em from THE WIZARD OF OZ) for violation of the Public Morals Act, only to take a “post-graduate course” in bad behavior once she busts out. And comely comedienne Carole Lombard plays it straight as a reformed streetwalker who falls for dimwitted cabbie Pat O’Brien in VIRTUE (1932).
Every few months between the spring of 1931 and fall of 1932, Columbia Pictures shocked moviegoers with these increasingly bleak portraits of Depression Era womanhood. Ironically, four of the five often-lurid films in this set were written by Robert Riskin, who penned heart-warming screenplays for Frank Capra classics like IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934), MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN (1936), and YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938). The only film not written by Riskin, TEN CENTS A DANCE, features a screenplay by his frequent partner Jo Swerling, another Capra crony who contributed to the script for IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). And to make matters even more creatively incestuous, DANCE was directed by Lionel Barrymore – Mr. Potter himself.
Capra, who classed up Columbia with 20 films directed between 1928 and 1939, didn’t helm any of these potboilers (TCM highlights his Pre-Code work in another box), though a number of his tropes are on display: the young, working class hero(ine) seeking her fortune; inter-class romance; abuse of authority; consideration of suicide; the redemptive power of love; and, of course, the uplifting conclusion. Because these are Columbia Pictures, not Warner Bros. or First National, each of our heroines SPOILER ALERT! enjoys an unequivocal happy ending, though her collective journeys are arguably more harrowing than anything male Capra heroes like George Bailey, Jefferson Smith or Longfellow Deeds would endure.
These early, sometimes roughly produced Columbia talkies are far more a product of go-for-broke Pre-Code filmmaking than the Capra Style Guide, however. Movies made during this all-too-brief era (1930-34) are often heralded (by me) for presenting strong female characters with liberated ideals unheard of in real life. But these films are more regressive, with a perverse pile-on pervading the narratives that feels more admonitional than aspirational. The primary identity for these heroines as subjects of desire seems tragically exploitive, which was a common argument made by detractors of the highly sexualized Pre-Code Zeitgeist. It’s one I myself have never considered, perhaps until now.
The alternate argument is that Pre-Code movies offered a frank assessment of the steep climb young American women faced in the early 1930s – challenges that were rarely pretty, or neatly resolved after 68 minutes. Was the female moviegoer made stronger by the knowledge that every Tom, Dick and Harry wanted to get into her pants (or skirt, considering the era)? Or was she better served by the absurdly courtly fantasies propagated by the Code? I still believe it’s the former, though perhaps now with an asterisk.
If you crave the prurience of Pre-Code, these selections won’t disappoint. In fact, The Columbia Pictures Pre-Code Collection is arguably more on-point for fans of the era than the recent Forbidden Hollywood releases from the Warner Archive Collection, both of which felt padded with at least one head-scratcher (I’m looking at you, MISS PINKERTON). The Columbia box contains five prototypical samples that would pass any Sex & Scandal litmus test, with powerful performances from some of the most interesting actresses of the 1930s (and a few, like Harlowe and Marie Prevost, who didn’t survive the ’30s). The difference is that the Pre-Code films I’ve seen from Warner Bros. and its First National subsidiary are a lot more fun to watch than these snappy but bleak soap operas. Still, I enjoyed these films, particularly the two with Stanwyck. But my recommendation comes with a warning: don’t binge-watch like I did. By the end of 348 minutes I was ready to join Mae Clarke’s character in THREE WISE GIRLS when she offed herself with a swig of poison. And I’m not a girl, and it’s not 1932.
Regarding running times, it’s important to note that at least two transfers in this set appear to be edited versions censored by the Production Code Administration for post-1934 re-release. VIRTUE has been partially restored, with the reinstatement of the audio (but not the picture) for the opening scene in which Lombard’s identity as a prostitute is confirmed. (A text screen on the DVD explains this, blaming the edit on the Code). SHOPWORN seems to be the most altered, and even a cursory viewing suggests that large stretches of narrative are missing. To compensate, TCM includes a still photo from an edited sequence in the special features with the accompanying text, “This scene does not appear in the final film,” but with no explanation of why. Did the scene actually appear in the initial release? If so, when was it removed, and why, and by whom? All of this information must exist in Columbia’s files.
The SHOPWORN disc does include a pdf file of New York Censor Board documents outlining the specific cuts required in order for the film to play in the Empire State in 1932, but that’s only part of the film’s bowdlerization history. I want to know the rest. And while the arbitrary absurdity of a 1930s censorship document is interesting, the battle over SHOPWORN would have been better explicated in an on-camera segment than a pdf attachment. TCM host Robert Osborne does appear in an extremely brief introductory video, but makes no mention of the fact that at least two of the films in The Columbia Pictures Pre-Code Collection are not, in fact, presented in their original Pre-Code versions. Instead, he offers a perfunctory history of chief censor Will Hays and the office that bore his name, along with one- or two-sentence intros for each film. For a box set that’s all about film censorship, I wish TCM had done a deeper dive into the topic. An informative text article by Frank Miller, author of Censored Hollywood: Sex, Sin and Violence, is included on the first disc, but it requires clicking through 15 screens to read it, which I think most people are disinclined to do on their TV sets.
Other than the Miller article, pdf and Osborne intro, special features are limited to scans of publicity stills, lobby cards and movie posters. If original trailers weren’t available, how about including a racy short or two – Columbia certainly made plenty of them – or a background piece on the studio’s Poverty Row history? DVD sales may be decreasing, but one way to keep them strong with classic film fans is to give us content we can’t get anywhere else, and special features that are actually special. Close captioning and animated menus with music would also be nice. Still, silent menus feel very retro, and not in a good way.
One final note: the packaging for this set, while stylish, contains the least intuitive DVD storage mechanism I have ever encountered. I eventually figured it out, but simple directions that state “push down on the disc to release the catch” should be included in future pressings.
Columbia Pictures Pre-Code Collection
Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment/TCM
Format: Pressed DVDs
Quantity: 5 discs/1 film per disc
Aspect Ratio: 1.33.1 Full Frame
Special Features: On-camera introduction by Robert Osborne; digital image gallery featuring behind-the-scenes photos, publicity stills, lobby cards, movie posters, scene stills. Text: Censor Board document; TCMDb article by Frank Miller.
1. TEN CENTS A DANCE (1931)
Release Date: March 6, 1931 Duration: 75 minutes (originally 80, per AFI)
Director: Lionel Barrymore Producer: Harry Cohn
Writers: Jo Swerling (story and screenplay), Dorothy Howell (Continuity)
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Barbara O’Neill), Ricardo Cortez (Bradley Carlton), Monroe Owsley (Eddie Miller), Sally Blane (Molly), Blanche Friderici (Mrs. Blanchard, dance hall matron), Phyllis Crane (Eunice, dancer who propositions Eddie), Pat Harmon (Casey, the bouncer), David Newall (Ralph), Martha Sleeper (Nancy), Sidney Bracey (Wilson, Carlton’s butler)
2. ARIZONA (1931)
Release Date: June 27, 1931 Duration: 67 minutes (originally 71)
Director: George B. Seitz Producer: Harry Cohn
Writers: Augustus E. Thomas (play), Dorothy Howell (Continuity), Robert Riskin (adaptation and dialogue)
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Cast: Laura La Plante (Evelyn Palmer Bonham), John Wayne (Lt. Bob Denton), June Clyde (Bonnie Palmer, Evelyn’s sister), Forrest Stanley (Col. Frank Bonham), Nina Quartero (Conchita), Susan Fleming (Dot, Evelyn’s friend), Loretta Sayers (Peggy, Evelyn’s friend)
3. THREE WISE GIRLS (1932)
Release Date: January 11, 1932 Duration: 68 minutes
Director: William Beaudine Producer: Harry Cohn
Writers: Wilson Collison (story Blonde Baby); Agnes Christine Johnson and Robert Riskin (adaptation and dialogue)
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Cast: Jean Harlow (Cassie Barnes), Mae Clarke (Gladys Kane), Marie Prevost (Dot O’Brien), Walter Byron (Jerome “Jerry” Wilson), Andy Devine (Jimmy Callahan, Jerry’s chauffeur), Natalie Moorhead (Ruth Wilson, Jerry’s wife), Robert Dudley (Lem, the druggist), Walter Miller (Manager of drugstore in NY), Jameson Thomas (Arthur Phelps, Gladys’s married boyfriend), Armand Kaliz (Andre, owner of the boutique), Lucy Beaumont (Mrs. Barnes, Cassie’s mother), Kathrin Clare Ward (Mrs Kane, Gladys’ mother)
4. SHOPWORN (1932)
Release Date: March 25, 1932 Duration: 67 minutes (originally 72 or 78, per AFI)
Director: Nick Grinde Producer: Harry Cohn
Writers: Sarah Y. Mason (story); Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin (adaptation and dialogue)
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Kitty Lane), Regis Toomey (David Livingston), Zasu Pitts (Aunt Dot), Lucien Littlefield (Uncle Fred), Clara Blandick (Mrs. Livingston, David’s mother), Tom London (Pa Lane, Kitty’s father), Oscar Apfel (Judge William Forbes), Albert Conti (Andre Renoir), Sidney Bracey (Photographer), Harry Todd (Henry, the counterman at the Campus Cafe), Maude Turner Gordon (Mrs. Thorne, dowager at banquet party), Joe Sawyer (Construction camp doctor who hits on Kitty)
5. VIRTUE (1932)
Release Date: October 25, 1932 Duration: 68 minutes (originally 69, per AFI)
Director: Edward Buzzell Producer: Harry Cohn
Writers: Ethel Hill (story); Robert Riskin (screenplay)
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Cast: Carole Lombard (Mae), Pat O’Brien (Jimmy Doyle), Ward Bond (Frank), Shirley Grey (Gert Hanlon), Mayo Methot (Lil Blair), Jack La Rue (Toots O’Neil), Detective MacKenzie (Willard Robertson)
The only films I’ve seen in this set are the two Stanwyck films, so I can’t speak for the others, but in general I am a fan of pre-codes and tend to take the “frank assessment” side of the argument. You ask “Was the female moviegoer made stronger by the knowledge that every Tom, Dick and Harry wanted to get into her pants (or skirt, considering the era)?,” and I think yes. The contrast of sexualization in pre-codes versus the fluttery romances that were portrayed under the code reminds me a lot of the realizations that I had growing up. When I was a wee little one, I had grand expectations of growing up and finding a perfect man who would be willing to wait until marriage and would regularly make grand romantic gestures – a very “code” view of the future. I’m now 21 years old and, needless to say, have not come anywhere near finding that fantasy relationship. With so many “party girl”/”lady of the night” lead characters, pre-codes often seem like great exaggerations of the focus on sex, but in essence they’re still rooted in very real ideas that female moviegoers of the time could learn from.
Lindsey, thanks for the great comment. I’m glad to hear that you feel that way, though I’m not glad that you haven’t found that “fantasy relationship” (yet). I’ve always wondered how many young women who spent their lives going to movies multiple times per week in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s were encouraged to look for relationships that didn’t exist, or weren’t based in reality. When people say, “Things were simpler in the old days” I think they are often talking about the perception created by the movies, not the reality of life itself.
I find the films of the 1950s to be the worst offenders in that regard. After women were liberated, to some degree, by the war, and by being forced to work outside the home, there seems to have been an effort to curtail those new freedoms in ’50s movies – to recast the “You Can Do It” generation as non-sexual homemakers in pearls. My mother, who was a teenager in the ’50s, talked often about how the messages of the movies ran counter to her instincts, and the trouble she had in rectifying the two.
But in that sense, today’s media isn’t much better. Most depictions of college life (sometimes even high school) focus on debauchery, to the point where a lot of kids, I think, behave in the ways the media suggests, regardless of personal preference. That may be more progressive, but it’s hardly more empowering.
I completely agree about the films of the ’50s, though I must admit I do enjoy a lot of them in spite of their flaws. My parents were both born in 1965 so they haven’t been able to reveal anything about the reality of the time, but my grandma for one completely buys into the “housewife in pearls” ideal rather than feeling any inner conflict. She worked once her kids got older, but for the most part she always did (and still does, though not very successfully since she can’t cook well and hates to spend time cleaning) aspire to the pristine wife/caretaker stereotype. The researcher in me is desperate to track down journals/memoirs for more perspective on this, but that’ll have to wait until finals are done next week, haha.
I think the media in any era is prone to perpetuating rigid stereotypes and ideals, and there’s no way in hell today’s ideals are any more empowering than those of the past. You should see how many dirty looks I get from my fellow students when they find out I’m not a drinker! I’m automatically labeled as “boring” because, like you said, debauchery has become the new standard for teens and young adults.
I never drank in college either, and I turned out okay! I always prefer people who do what they want, rather than what they’re told.
Nice, thorough piece, Will. I always like a piece with more questions than answers. After all, your questions about exploitation, portrayal of women and arguments about the depiction of women as sex workers and objects/victims of male lust do all bear on these films, but these films, by themselves don’t comprise the entire pre-Code era.
But there is so much there–themes and characterizations that would be more obliquely referred to in post-Code film and weepies; later exploitation films that used these same stories “educationally”; soap operas themselves. In fact, one film I’ve been thinking about for months is Ladies They Talk About, the earliest women in prison film I know of. It’s exactly like later women in prison films, except somehow less prurient. Melodrama’s popular in one form or another, but I guess I prefer the causes for it to be a little more along the lines of these Columbia films.
And the other thing that’s been striking more more lately is the relationship between women in these films, and that might be the best thing about them to me. The female characters can be friends, not in some kind of signifying way–3 sentences to indicate someone is the love interest’s best friend before she returns her focus to the lead. In High Voltage, there’s an adorable scene where a young woman wants to befriend and impress Carole Lombard’s character, an escaped convict. And it’s just so sweet and refreshing. It makes me wonder how the Code changed that, made interactions between female characters so awkward and unnatural.
Anyway, I have yammered on enough. Thanks again for a swell essay.
Carol, it felt odd for me to write something and not have a defined opinion about it. I almost always do, and I’m glad that doesn’t come off as unfocused. As for LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT, I love it. I also love Stanwyck in it. There’s a toughness to her that would never be interpreted as victimhood. Same goes for BABY FACE. She’s sort of that way in SHOPWORN, but not so much in TEN CENTS A DANCE. I prefer the empowered heroines of Pre-Code. So many of those films starred women, and so many afterwards did not. I wish that had turned out differently.
And thanks for the compliments, by the way.
Wow – sounds like the struggles that went on in the films continued on after their release, with all the censoring of material by the boards. I agree, it would be nice if these DVD disks provided more background or informed commentary; people not familiar with the pre-Code era or classic-era Hollywood might be more inclined to seek out more older films if they had more knowledge about them. Thanks for such an informative post, I’ll look out for this set!
Thanks for the comment. TCM is usually so spot-on with its curation, I’m surprised they didn’t do better with this. There was a real opportunity to indoctrinate the unfamiliar and bring the issue of Code-Era film censorship to life. I’m glad TCM released these films, but I wish the overall presentation had been better.
I will be much shorter with my comments. I like pre-code. Thanks for the write-up…good stuff here!
Thanks for the pithy thoughts, Joel. Appreciated, as always.
Thanks for offering both a thorough overview of this collection’s contents and so much more than a DVD review—how many reviews stimulate this kind of thought about the paradox at the heart of the Pre-Code era’s depiction of women? I tend to be a big proponent of the early 1930s “working girl” as a proto-feminist figure in film. However, I also tend to get more depressed by happy endings from that era than I do by the sad ones! Whether Pre-Codies are ideologically repressive or liberating, on the whole, is a messy question and I’m glad that you made us dwell in it.
Hollywood, as usual, certainly hedged its bets with those lame, redemptive conclusions which pandered to a code of morality that often seems quaint and silly today. However, I always wonder, did 1930s viewers really “buy” those endings? Or did the working girl in the movie theater look at her date as the lights went up, think about the purchase price of that night out, and realize that one shouldn’t trust fantasies? Perhaps these uneasily blissful conclusions, especially when well-directed and acted, sparked a certain cynical awareness in the minds of the already hardened working girls of the Depression.
Thanks Diva. (I never know what to call you. Nitrate?) My favorite Pre-Codes are the ones that end unhappily, like SAFE IN HELL. This is why I often equate the films of the early ’30s with the post-1965 American New Wave. I love the unhappy endings that both of these eras often provide.
And I think you’re right about certain (female) members of the audience doing some eye-rolling at the Post-Code-Enforcement films. There were plenty of girls out there who knew the score, despite the nonsense Hollywood was trying to serve up.
Great post, Will – write-up and images. It’s gotten to the point I can’t even think “pre-code” without thinking of you. (I’m sure you enjoy knowing that)
I’m surprised to read that the films are not presented in their original ‘pre-code’ versions so really, what’s the point then? And all you state about the much-needed special features are right on point. I know it’s usually THE deciding factor in my purchasing film sets given TCM itself offers such a great variety of films to keep us entertained.
Thanks Aurora. I’m glad to see these films, even if the versions available in the Columbia library are compromised. But I do think a discussion of that *on-camera* would have been a very valuable educational opportunity for the viewers.
Also, I thought about this when you tweeted about breaking your DVD of THE THORN BIRDS. I almost broke one of the DVDs in this set, because of the annoying packaging.
I’m still upset about it, as silly as it is. Plus I’m careful it’s not like I yank it out of the case. I will add this to my cart in Amazon then, I guess. I have Vol. three of the TCM pre-code set I got last year for Christmas I still haven’t seen but the addiction must be fed. Great information as always.
And coincidentally, I recently finished a post on the history of Columbia Pictures I’ll publish in January.
I’ll look forward to that. I think I have every available Pre-Code DVD set: the first three Forbidden Hollywood sets from TCM; Volume 4 and 5 from Warner Archive; the Columbia set; and an excellent box I *highly* recommend: the Pre-Code Hollywood Collection from the Universal Backlot series. BTW this is the deal of the Century – 6 movies for only $26.63 ! http://www.amazon.com/Pre-Code-Hollywood-Collection-Saturday-Universal/dp/B001QFFBAM/ref=sr_1_4?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1355767032&sr=1-4&keywords=universal+backlot+series
OK. Stop it now. Added that one and the Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 2 AND the Greta Garbo Coll also on sale.
Pingback: Shopworn (1932), with Barbara Stanwyck | Pre-Code.Com
Pingback: Ten Cents a Dance (1931) Starring Barbara Stanwyck — Immortal Ephemera
are there subtitles on the DVDs from this pack ? Columbia Pictures Pre-Code Collection
As far as I know there was just this one set.
does the DVD set include subtitles ?