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