For example, if I choose to stay home on a Friday and watch movies all day long in my jammies, I can do it – without apology or explanation. And that’s exactly what I did yesterday; I binge-watched Turner Classic Movies from the moment I awoke to the minute I collapsed in a bleary eyed heap, with only a quick break to shower with the volume cranked up to a level that, no doubt, incensed my neighbors. (Ask me if I care.)
Between 9:45 a.m. on Friday morning and 2:45 a.m. on Saturday I watched 12 films, ate two diner deliveries (both featuring French fries), consumed seven cans of Diet Dr. Pepper, ate a batch of Slice + Bake chocolate chip cookies, and otherwise pushed the limits of health, waistline, and eye strain to a level that might earn wrist-slaps from at least two of my healthcare providers (if you know them, don’t rat me out, particularly because I haven’t filled my new prescription for eyeglasses yet). It was a lifestyle befitting Hollywood’s decadent Pre-Code Era, the four-year period of unfettered creative freedom the major studios enjoyed during the early days of sound filmmaking, until Taliban-esque censorship guidelines ruined everyone’s fun (at least for the next three decades).
As regular viewers of the channel know, on Friday TCM kicked off a month-long Pre-Code festival, with 67 films spread out over weekly 24-hour marathons, beginning each Friday at 6 a.m and continuing through the primetime hours, with hosts Robert Osborne and Alec Baldwin (who, according to Osborne, participated in the programming of the series).
Watching movies from Hollywood’s most notorious era may not be for everyone, particularly if you’re a reformed drinker, smoker, or hooker. (I’m only one of those; I’ll let you guess which.) But for me, it’s a no-brainer; I’ll pretty much watch anything released between 1930 and 1934, even if it’s not a great movie, because I find this era in American filmmaking unendingly fascinating. “Pre-Code” has become shorthand for sexy, and there was plenty of that on display on TCM yesterday, but what I love about the period 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 demonstrate that, and still resonate with audiences today.
Lots of my “friends” on social media expressed jealousy yesterday regarding my ability to cast responsibility to the wind and plunk myself down on the couch for 17 hours, non-stop. And to you haters I say, we all make our own decisions in life. Someday, when you’re happily retired and living off your pension/401(k), you can enjoy old movies all day with your grandkids, while I’m living alone in a refrigerator box under the 59th Street Bridge – my own private Hooverville.
I kid. Or maybe I don’t. Regardless, here’s the best news of all: you don’t have to be home every Friday to watch these movies, nor do you have to run out and buy a gigantic, new 5,000-hour DVR to record them all.
Thanks to Watch TCM, the streaming app the network launched last November, cable subscribers can watch every one of the 16 movies that aired Friday on-demand, on your computer, tablet, or smartphone. And the films that aired in primetime include Osborne and Baldwin’s wrap-arounds. (I know some people can’t stand Baldwin, but he and Osborne have excellent co-host chemistry on-camera.)
If you love Pre-Code movies, this is a chance to love your favorites over and over and over again (sorry, I got carried away there). If you’ve never seen a film from this era, TCM is offering the equivalent of a Pre-Code 101 course on-line and, if you already pay for the channel, it’s entirely free. It’s a perfectly way to immerse yourself in the era, and track the subtle evolutions in production methods, studio “house style,” and acting technique over the first four years of the Sound Era. (Unfortunately, Time Warner Cable does not yet support the app, but all other cable and satellite providers do, and it’s extremely user-friendly.
And if the word “app” sounds to you like Ginger Roger’s Pig Latin in GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, fear not! You can always simply watch the films on your computer on TCM’s website. (The Watch TCM app is not available on your TV or via a streaming player like Roku, due to rights issues.)
Films appear on the website/app approximately three hours after they air on TV, and they’re available for 7 days to watch whenever and wherever you want. So if you’re a responsible adult (unlike me) you can still indulge in all the louche Pre-Code shenanigans this month at your leisure (preferably, draped over a divan wearing something sparkly).
Here are notes on three of my favorites that aired yesterday – films you can watch anytime until September 12:
BABY FACE (1933 – 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 CITIZEN KANE 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 that’s the version that circulates today. 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.
FEMALE (1933 – 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.
WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (1933 – 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 like a tough guy. 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 just baked a cake. Yum!
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?
You can check out the schedule for the remaining films in the Pre-Code series at the following links: September 12 (17 films), September 19 (16 films + one documentary), and September 26 (17 films). I highly recommend you visit two essential websites for Pre-Code fans: Danny Reid’s Pre-Code.com and Cliff Aliperti’s Immortal Ephemera. Both feature reviews and essays on many of the films and performers featured in the series.You can also read my review of SAFE IN HELL (1931) here. And my thoughts on NIGHT NURSE (1931) are here. Notes on the films above appeared previously on this site, because I’m too busy watching movies to write a bunch of new shit.