Times were tough for just about everyone during the 1930’s, including Paramount Studios. In the early 1930’s, Paramount was on the brink of financial disaster and with the Great Depression, audiences needed darn good reasons to spend what money they had on movie tickets. Paramount was facing some pretty tough competition, too. MGM had Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, and Joan Crawford; Warner Brothers had their gangster flicks and Busby Berkley musicals. But Paramount rose to the challenge and created some of the most definitive movies of the decade with some of the best talent in town.
One star vital to Paramount’s success in the 30’s was Mae West. West came to Paramount in 1932 after gaining notoriety for writing her own risqué Broadway shows. She made her film debut opposite George Raft in Night after Night, for which she was allowed to re-write her own scenes. Her quips made her a runaway success and she followed it up in 1933 with She Done Him Wrong, an adaptation of her hit Broadway play “Diamond Lil.” Even though it was made during the pre-code era, She Done Him Wrong still had to be toned down from the stage version, but West has said the thought the film was funnier than the stage version. Audiences certainly loved it and She Done Him Wrong earned a Best Picture Academy Award nomination. She followed it up with I’m No Angel, another smash hit. Mae West’s movies are often credited with saving Paramount from bankruptcy.
But when the production codes went into full force in July of 1934, that put a damper on her signature risqué humor and she only made a handful of movies after that. But Mae West didn’t need a long film career to make a splash. It’s been nearly eighty years since the release of She Done Him Wrong and “Why don’t you come up some time and see me,” remains one of the most iconic lines in film history.
Mae West’s movies were a big reason why the production codes became so strict in 1934, but Cecil B. DeMille certainly had a hand in that, too. DeMille was responsible for three of the most notorious films of the pre-code era: 1930’s Madam Satan (which was actually made at MGM), 1932’s Sign of the Cross, and 1934’s Cleopatra. Sign of the Cross in particular was a real sore spot for some religious groups who did not appreciate DeMille making such risque films with religious themes. But DeMille continued to thrive for over twenty years after the production codes went into effect. He closed out the decade with Union Pacific, which won the Palme d’Or at the 1939 Cannes Film Festival.
Director Ernst Lubitsch came to America in 1922 and went from studio to studio for a while before making his first talkie, The Love Parade, at Paramount in 1929. The Love Parade started Lubitsch on a roll of sophisticated musicals and comedies such as The Smiling Lieutenant, One Hour With You, Design for Living, and Trouble in Paradise, all of which are bear that distinctive Lubitsch touch. In 1935, Lubitsch became Paramount’s production manager, but the job wasn’t a very good fit for him and he only did that for one year before heading off to MGM.
Mae West wasn’t the only Paramount star to successfully transition from stage to screen. In 1925, The Marx Brothers hit the stage in their play “The Cocoanuts” and in 1929, The Cocoanuts became their feature film debut. When the Marx Brothers saw The Cocoanuts for the first time, they thought it was terrible and tried to buy the film’s negative. But Paramount refused to sell it, The Cocoanuts became a huge success, and the brothers followed it up with another movie based on a stage hit, Animal Crackers, in 1930. They had continued success at Paramount with Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and last, but certainly not least, Duck Soup. The Marxes left Paramount after Duck Soup and headed over to MGM in 1935 to make A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races.
Claudette Colbert also got her start on the stage. She’d tried her hand at film in 1927, but wasn’t too crazy about the experience and preferred acting on stage. But when the Great Depression hit and it became harder to find work on stage, Colbert signed with Paramount in 1929. During the 30’s, she made two movies with Ernst Lubitsch, The Smiling Lieutenant and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, and two with Cecil B. DeMille, Cleopatra and Sign of the Cross. Although she had been doing well at Paramount, her biggest success came in 1934 when she reluctantly starred in It Happened One Night for Columbia. When she won the Best Actress Oscar, it allowed her to command a higher salary from Paramount and by 1936, she was the highest paid actress in Hollywood. Colbert ended the 1930s on a high note at Paramount with the delightful comedy Midnight.
After the success of The Blue Angel, Marlene Dietrich came to Paramount to continue collaborating with director Josef von Sternberg. Her first American film, Morocco, featured the now legendary scene of Dietrich performing in a nightclub wearing a tuxedo. It also brought Dietrich her one and only Best Actress Oscar nomination. Dietrich and von Sternberg were a match made in cinema heaven and they truly brought out the best in each other. Movies such as Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, The Devil is a Woman, and Shanghai Express proved to be some of the best work of each of their careers.