On a recent Friday night, I struggled to find an empty seat at Film Forum, the Downtown Manhattan movie mecca where I spend most of my free time and discretionary dollars. Sold out shows are not uncommon at the cinema, but the movie I was about to see was neither a heavily promoted new release, nor a critically acclaimed art film. It was BABY FACE, an 80-year-old, black-and-white potboiler about a steel town prostitute who sleeps her way to the top in the big city during the worst year of the Great Depression.
Even more striking than the size of the audience was its demographic composition. This wasn’t a persnickety collection of sallow-complected, middle-aged, revival house rats (although I was there, so there was at least one). It was a diverse crowd of young, stylishly dressed urbanites (some might even call them “hipsters”) out for weekend fun with friends. And they were choosing to spend the evening with Barbara Stanwyck, an actress who was dead before many of them were even born.
I’ve seen BABY FACE many times, and perhaps some others in the audience had as well. But based upon the reactions during and after, it seemed as though many were getting an introduction to the First-wave feminism of the Pre-Code Era.
“That was good,” a tattooed twenty-something seated in front of me said to her companion as the house lights came up. “We should watch more of these.”
For four glorious weeks, Film Forum’s recently completed retrospective 1933: Hollywood’s Naughtiest, Bawdiest Year provided daily discoveries for both the energized newbie and the wizened veteran (I fall somewhere in between). Sixty-six features (most in 35 mm) and countless cartoons, newsreels and vintage trailers unspooled in single-admission double features, with one marathon triple feature on the closing day of the series. For members of “the only autonomous nonprofit cinema in New York City,” a discounted $7 ticket brought an evening of expertly curated programming that was both entertaining and educational. It was like the most interesting survey course I never took in film school – with the best popcorn in the city. (I‘ve spent the last few weeks at the gym working off the “popcorn weight” I gained during the series.)
Of the thirty features I saw – trust me, I would have been there every day if my job didn’t take me out of town for two weeks – nearly half were entirely new to me. Some I had meant to see for years, others I had never heard of. And I watched longtime favorites like BABY FACE with fresh eyes, because of the rare opportunity to see them with “civilian” audiences.
As every evangelist knows, the choir must be replenished from time to time with new congregants (whatever age they may be). While I love seeing old movies on the big screen at fan-oriented events like the TCM Festival, those audiences are already believers. There’s no moment of salvation, no baptism in the Church of Classic Film. The real fun happens at the moment of conversion.
While there was a core constituency of Old Movie Weirdos present during the 1933 series, there were also plenty of unfamiliar faces. Sometimes the revelations those audiences provided were positive, like the reminder that Busby Berkeley’s choreography is always awe-inducing, or that James Cagney is still a charismatic crowd-pleaser, or that the original KING KONG can capture the imagination of a child raised on computer-generated hyper-realism. (After a Sunday morning “Film Forum Junior” screening of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s giant monkey masterpiece, a group of little boys pounded their chests and growled on the sidewalk outside the theater, just like I used to when I watched KONG on TV every Thanksgiving.)
In other cases, the epiphanies were less pleasant. The persistent laughter during a late Friday night screening of THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE surprised me, considering that the eponymous heroine is raped and Miriam Hopkins’ portrayal of the aftermath is painfully realistic, even for a Pre-Code. I attributed the lighthearted reactions to the timeslot, but it was also an important reminder that the presentational acting style of Studio Era films (particularly early Talkies) can take some getting used to. For some, it will always be hilarious, regardless of the subject matter.
For the record, I try not to audit audiences’ responses and tsk-tsk based upon my own opinions of propriety. I grew up with these movies and live with them daily; I accept the fact that unfamiliar viewers may need time to acclimate. Every purist started out as a rookie, even if we were watching The Little Rascals at age five and had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.
Some of the juiciest revelations in the 1933 series came from the guests and special programs that were sprinkled throughout the series.
At a screening of WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, John Gallagher, co-author (with Frank Thompson) of the upcoming Nothing Sacred: The Cinema of William Wellman revealed that the film’s 37-year-old director “pursued” the 18-year-old female lead Dorothy (Dottie) Coonan, who soon after became Mrs. William Wellman. Gallagher also told the audience that Wild Bill “hated” Jack Warner and producer Hal Wallis, and left Warner Bros. after outgoing production chief Darryl F. Zanuck departed to form Twentieth Century Pictures. (Wellman would not make another film for Warner’s for more than two decades after WILD BOYS.)
Before DANCING LADY, Joan Crawford’s grandson Casey LaLonde presented excerpts from his grandmother’s home movies of the late ‘30s and provided insight into the life of a woman many know only from her daughter Christina’s infamous tell-all Mommie Dearest. LaLonde appears to be on a mission to rehabilitate his grandmother’s image, and poked fun at his aunt Christina – whom he has never met – while showing footage from her third birthday party. The home movies featured the earliest extant footage of Crawford in color, with startlingly bright red hair and a freckle-filled face. They also include some shots of the still-sexy thirty-something sunbathing au naturel at the home of her married boyfriend, New York Daily Mirror publisher Charles McCabe.
“That’s Joan’s first nude scene,” Lalonde said with a laugh. “First and only.”
A hot ticket I was not present for was the live recreation of the notorious lost film CONVENTION CITY, featuring fifteen actors, period music, stock footage and stills. Film Forum’s longtime repertory programmer Bruce Goldstein produced a similar event at the recent TCM Film Festival, with a live performance of the missing soundtrack to Frank Capra’s 1929 murder mystery THE DONOVAN AFFAIR. That screening was, by far, my favorite of the weekend, so I can only imagine what I missed at CONVENTION CITY (and curse my day job for making me miss it).
Other special screenings included a program of recently restored Vitaphone short subjects with historian and film preservationist Ron Hutchinson, a compilation of Betty Boop shorts from the famed Fleischer Studios, and Cartoon Cut-ups of 1933, a collection of rare animation curated by Greg Ford. (You can read my coverage of that event here.)
“Pre-Code” has become shorthand for sexy, and there was plenty of that on display at Film Forum. But what I love about this era in American filmmaking goes way beyond the salacious. There’s a refreshing, almost disconcerting candor to these films that was largely lost after enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code began in July of 1934. The best titles in this series demonstrated that, and still resonate with audiences today.
The 30 features I saw in the 1933 series were produced and/or distributed by nine different studios. Warner Bros. and its First National subsidiary led the pack with a combined twelve entries; MGM followed with five; four came from Paramount Pictures; RKO and Fox each provided two; and single entries came from United Artists, Columbia and Twentieth Century (which merged with Fox two years later). There were also two independently produced and distributed films.
The following are notes on ten of the films I saw (from Warner and First National), and how you can watch them at home (popcorn not included):
BABY FACE (Alfred E. Green, Warner Bros.)
With their gritty style and socially conscious sensibility, Warner Bros. was the preeminent producer of what we now call Pre-Code. And this one has come to be known as the masterpiece of the art form. Barbara Stanwyck plays Lilly Powers, a self-described “tramp” who, as the trailer brags, “made IT pay.” For 76 sexy, sinful minutes, Lily uses her unassuming, girl-next-door good looks to seduce a parade of patsies on her way to the top, culminating in a climatic montage of all the men she bedded, just in case you lost count. Costume designer Orry-Kelly tracks her ascent in a menagerie of gowns that get fancier and fancier as she moves up the ladder.
Even though the Code wasn’t actively being enforced at the time of the film’s release in December of 1933, edits were required by the New York State Censorship Board. Thankfully, the original, unedited version remains, and is available on DVD. It’s fun to compare the two, particularly the scene in which Cragg the Cobbler gives Lily a pep talk before she goes to the big city. What you see there, in microcosm, is everything that was wrong with the Code.
Look for a young John Wayne as one of Lily’s early conquests, and the great Theresa Harris as Chico, Lily’s sidekick. The equality of their relationship was way ahead of its time.
42ND STREET (Lloyd Bacon, Warner Bros.) + GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, Warner Bros.)
“You’re going out a youngster,” director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) tells green chorine Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) when she’s forced to replace the injured lead (Bebe Daniels) in 42nd STREET. “But you’ve got to come back a star!”
This line is sometimes misquoted as the more definitive (and optimistic) “But you’re coming back a star!” As delivered by Baxter, who portrays the director in need of a comeback, it’s as much of a plea as it is a threat. This speaks to the underlying sense of sheer desperation that covers 42nd STREET like a coat of greasepaint, a darkness that’s almost entirely lacking in GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, released just weeks later.
Both films feature inventive choreography by Busby Berkeley, catchy tunes by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics), Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler as young lovers, and comic relief from Guy Kibbee and Ned Sparks. Both also address the challenges of the Depression, but GOLD DIGGERS (based on a play by Avery Hopwood) is a farce. While the My Forgotten Man number is a rousing yet downbeat ending, it’s nothing like the shot of a forlorn Warner Baxter sitting on the steps of the theater as the audience streams out at the end of 42Nd STREET.
Apparently, the character of the director was gay in the book upon which 42nd STREET is based. This is not addressed in the movie, save for one line from Warner Baxter. “Come on home with me, will you?” Marsh says to his assistant Andy (George E. Stone). “I’m lonesome.” Even in Pre-Code days, certain things were still off limits.
DVD: The Busby Berkeley Collection Volume 1 w/ 42ND STREET (1933), FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933), DAMES (1934), GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933), and GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935 (1935)
Streaming: 42nd STREET: Amazon GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933: Amazon
HARD TO HANDLE (Mervyn LeRoy, Warner Bros.)
“I always knew the public was dumb, and they panned out even dumber than I thought!” smalltime con artist Lefty Merrill (James Cagney) says. After promoting a phony dance marathon with his girlfriend Ruth (Mary Brian) set up to win the $1,000 prize, Lefty’s partner Mac (John Sheehan) steals the money, and Lefty is forced to hustle to prove himself to his girl and her gold-digging mother, Lil (Ruth Donnelly). Our hero wears out his welcome in Southern California, and follows Ruth and her mom to New York, where he finally hits the jackpot. But his big score is a set-up, and Lefty ends up holding the bag on a shady land deal. Locked up for fraud, Lefty runs into Mac, who gives him an idea: what better way to sell grapefruit farms to the suckers than by creating a grapefruit diet craze? For once, his scheme finally pans out, but is it too late to win back his girl?
Mary Brian gets second billing here as Cagney’s girlfriend, but his real co-star is Ruth Donnelly as his money-obsessed prospective mother-in-law. Donnelly, a Warner contractee and frequent bit player, is given the best lines in the film, all having to do with her desperate search for a rich son-in-law. “All bridegrooms are slightly used,” she tells her daughter when she finds her boyfriend in a clinch with another girl. “We’re sneezing away a fortune!”
There are a lot of in-jokes as well, with Cagney once again cast as a sharpie (as in BLONDE CRAZY, released a year earlier) and the plot turning on grapefruits, a reference to his famous fruit assault in THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931). Just about everyone in this movie is a hustler which, to me, is what Pre-Code is all about. For my money, Cagney was never more fun to watch than in these early ’30s pictures. He may have refined his craft in later years, but in the early 1930s he defined the art of talkie acting.
DVD: Forbidden Hollywood Volume 5 (from Warner Archive) w/ MISS PINKERTON (1932), LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT (1933), and THE MIND READER (1933)
PICTURE SNATCHER (Lloyd Bacon, Warner Bros.)
Danny Kean (James Cagney) trades prison stripes for ink stains and flash bulbs, as he tries to go straight as a photojournalist. Danny signs on at the Graphic News, the least reputable paper in New York (and that’s saying a lot), and uses his hustle and chutzpah to get scoop after scoop. All the while he’s got to fight off the dames: Allison, the editor’s girl (Alice White); Pat (Patricia Ellis), the daughter of the cop who sent him up the river; and Olive (Barbara Rogers), the moll of gangster Jerry the Mug (Ralf Harolde). When Jerry bumps off a couple of cops, Danny uses his criminal connections to get the story of the century. But is it too late for a happy ending?
Honestly, after seeing the trio of Cagney films as a triple feature at Film Forum, I had to re-watch them at home to keep them straight. I think this is my favorite of the three, mostly because of the supporting cast: Ralph Bellamy as the boozy editor, Alice White as his aggressively horny girlfriend, Sterling Holloway as a bespectacled journalism student, and Robert Emmett O’Connor as the cop father of Cagney’s girl. It’s also the most believable of the three, perhaps because it’s based on real events. Like Cagney’s character, a real life crime reporter secretly snatched pictures of the execution of a female prisoner at Sing Sing in 1928. But he probably didn’t do it with Cagney’s panache.
DVD: Warner Bros. Gangsters Collection Volume 3 w/ SMART MONEY (1931), THE MAYOR OF HELL (1933), LADY KILLER (1933), BLACK LEGION (1937), and BROTHER ORCHID (1940)
MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (Michael Curtiz, Warner Bros.)
Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) is a master sculptor who operates a wax museum in London in 1921. With the business failing, his partner Edwin Maxwell (Joe Worth) concocts a scheme to burn it down for the insurance money. Igor refuses but Maxwell sets the museum ablaze, with Igor inside. Disfigured but alive, the sculptor resurfaces in New York twelve years later, where he opens another wax museum. When a model commits suicide, a newspaper editor (Frank McHugh) sends girl reporter Florence Dempsey (Glenda Farrell) to investigate. Florence notices that the sculpture of Joan of Arc in the wax museum bears a striking resemblance to the dead model, whose body has gone missing. But Igor has plans for the reporter that involve a vat of boiling wax, and immortality as his beloved Marie Antoinette.
If this plot sounds familiar, it’s because MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM was remade twenty years later as the far more famous HOUSE OF WAX with Vincent Price in the Lionel Atwill role. Whereas HOUSE had 3-D as its gimmick, MYSTERY had the Technicolor two-color process, which was already out of date at the time of the film’s release. In fact, MYSTERY was the last feature film to use it.
DVD: Available as a special feature on the HOUSE OF WAX DVD from 2003
EMPLOYEE’S ENTRANCE (Roy Del Ruth, First National Pictures)
“There’s no room for sympathy or softness!” bellows Kurt Anderson (Warren William), general manager at the Franklin Monroe Department Store. “My code is smash or be smashed!”
Anderson is universally despised by his 12,000 employees, but he’s keeping them all off the bread lines in the depths of the Great Depression. Desperate for a job, Madeline Walters (Loretta Young) meets Anderson in the store one evening after closing, and ends up spending the night at his palatial apartment. She’s rewarded with a modeling job, and catches the eye of Anderson’s protégé, Martin West (Wallace Ford). They secretly marry but, after a company party, a tipsy Madeline spends another night with the charismatic boss. The guilt overwhelms her and she tries to take her own life. Is this the end for the young lovers? And more importantly, why do girls always seem to go for assholes?
Pre-marital sex, infidelity, suicide, drunkenness, and Warren William – EMPLOYEE’S ENTRANCE has so many of the things I love about films of this era. But it’s far from my favorite Warren William vehicle, mostly because the “magnificent scoundrel” of Pre-Code is not particularly charming. At his best, William manages to be both caddish and sympathetic. But here, he’s cartoonishly villainous, spouting a collection of delightfully quotable lines that never coalesce into anything more than one dimension. I usually find myself on the side of William’s characters, despite (or sometimes because of) his ethical lapses. That’s not the case here, and I hate myself for it. How could I ever root for the bland young hero over the deliciously evil Warren William? But alas, I do. Maybe I’m supposed to feel that way, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
Although EMPLOYEE’S ENTRANCE is not my favorite Warren William film, there’s still plenty to like. Twenty-year-old Loretta Young is luminously sexy and deliciously complex as Madeleine. And Alice White is delightful (as always) as the pragmatic Polly, who “saved a couple” of scruples in the stock market crash and ends up cashing them in in in the salacious service of her boss. And the tight, 75-minute potboiler has a wealth of quotable lines and a (mostly) happy ending for the bad guy – something you wouldn’t see much of after 1934.
DVD: Forbidden Hollywood Volume 7 w/ THE HATCHET MAN (1932), SKYSCRAPER SOULS (1932), and EX-LADY (1933)
FEMALE (Michael Curtiz & William A. Wellman, First National Pictures)
To me, a woman in love is a pathetic spectacle,” says Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton), CEO of the Drake Motor Car Company. Allison prefers her romantic dalliances to be businesslike affairs, after hours, with underlings. Everything changes when she meets handsome Jim Thorne (George Brent) at a carnival and he rebuffs her advances. Things get even more complicated when Allison’s new engineer shows up the next morning – and it’s Jim. She continues her pursuit but her new hire wants no part of it. “I was engaged as an engineer, not a gigolo,” he scolds. “I’m a man. I prefer to do my own hunting.” Will Allison give up her wanton ways for true love?
Although I enjoyed FEMALE, it’s unfortunately the worst kind of false feminism. Allison is portrayed as an unapologetically powerful female executive who turns into a gushy girl when she meets the right guy. “I’ve been expecting this for some time,” her first lieutenant Pettigrew (Ferdinand Gottschalk) says when she goes gaga for Jim. “You’re just a woman.” Come on. I know this is 1933, but don’t attract an audience with a suggestive premise and then deliver a sermon about “traditional values.” “Marriage and love and children – the things that women were born for,” Jim preaches to Allison. This character would never go for such a regressive male chauvinist, even in 1933.
DVD: Forbidden Hollywood Volume 2 w/ THE DIVORCEE (1930), A FREE SOUL (1931), NIGHT NURSE (1931) and THREE ON A MATCH (1932)
HEROES FOR SALE (William Wellman, First National Pictures)
Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) is a World War I hero who comes home with an addiction to morphine. He gets a job at a bank working for the father of the father of his old Army buddy (Gordon Wescott) – a coward who shirked his duties in battle and was rewarded with a medal that was rightfully Tom’s. His addiction gets the better of him and Tom is forced into rehab. Finally, he achieves success in Chicago, falls in love with Ruth (Loretta Young), and fathers a child (Ronnie Cosby). But business goes awry, his wife is killed and Tom is sent to jail. Will this “forgotten man” ever get the second chance he’s earned?
HEROES FOR SALE is a grim tale of the horrors of war, drug addiction, death, red panic and Depression-era despair. Barthelmess is excellent, and portrays the drug abuser as a sympathetic victim in a way that the movies would not do again until the 1950s. As with all the Warner/First National Pre-Codes, the supporting cast is uniformly strong. Charley Grapewin and Aline MacMahon as a father and daughter who manage a soup kitchen are standouts. This is one of my favorite William Wellman films, and a must see for fans of Pre-Code.
DVD: Forbidden Hollywood Volume 3 w/ OTHER MEN’S WOMEN (1931), THE PURCHASE PRICE (1932), FRISCO JENNY (1932), MIDNIGHT MARY (1933) and WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (1933)
WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (William A. Wellman, First National Pictures)
Eddie (Frankie Darro) and Tommy (Edwin Phillips) are two small-town high school kids who take to the rails when the Depression strikes their parents. On the train they meet Sally (Dorothy Coonan, the future Mrs. Wellman) who dresses like a boy and talks tough. The kids get off in Chicago to stay with Sally’s Aunt Carrie, who just happens to be a hooker. But the kids don’t care, because she has some homebaked cake. When the brothel is raided by the cops, the kids head out once again, this time for Columbus, Ohio. There, tragedy strikes, Tommy is nearly killed by a train and another member of their growing community of wild boys (and girls) is raped. Finally, in New York, the kids end up unwitting accomplices in a crime. Will justice give them a second chance or turn them into criminals?
DVD: Forbidden Hollywood Volume 3 w/ OTHER MEN’S WOMEN (1931), THE PURCHASE PRICE (1932), FRISCO JENNY (1932), MIDNIGHT MARY (1933), and HEROES FOR SALE (1933)
Streaming: Warner Archive Instant in 1080p high definition!
To be continued, with titles from MGM, Paramount, RKO, Fox, Twentieth Century, Columbia and United Artists…