NaBloPoMo 2014

Pre-Code Essentials: Baby Face (1933)

Barbara Stanwyck Baby Face

Plot

From the time she was just 14 years old, Lil Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) was pimped out by her father to the customers of the sleazy speakeasy he runs. She hates the dingy, disgusting world she’s stuck in and her only two friends are her co-worker Chico (Theresa Harris) and the local cobbler. When her father is suddenly killed in an accident, the cobbler encourages her to go out and make a better life for herself by exploiting men.

Lil takes the suggestion and she and Chico hop on the next train out of town, with Lil seducing any man she needs to get her way. They make their way to New York City and Lil decides she wants to work at Gotham Trust and sleeps her way into getting a job, then continues seducing other men to work her way up in the company. It isn’t long before she’s living in a swanky apartment with Chico working as her maid.

After he many affairs ends up causing a big scandal for the company, Courtland Trenholm (George Brent) takes over as president. At first it seems Courtland is one of the few men who can resist Lil’s charms, but he eventually succumbs. He may have changed his tune about Lil, but has her relationship with Courtland made Lil a changed woman?


My Thoughts

I have a hard time resisting any movie that involves Barbara Stanwyck being a total tough woman and not taking anything from anyone and Baby Face is one of her best movies in that respect. The whole beginning where she’s stuck in that dingy speakeasy, breaking glasses over people’s heads or pouring hot coffee on men who try to manhandle her, yelling at her good-for-nothing father, talking smack about the guys in the joint to Chico, it’s all just spectacular.

As much as I adore Stanwyck in it, I love everything else about Baby Face just as much — the writing, the direction, the costume design, the music. I have a particular fondness for the music. A really gritty version of the song “St. Louis Blues” plays throughout the movie, and whenever I hear that song, it makes me think of Baby Face. I also really love how Lil’s promotions at work are represented by exterior shots of the building, with the camera moving up one floor each time she moves up in the company.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

The entire movie, really. But I love the part when Lil goes to apply for a job at Gotham Trust and this exchange happens:

Guy: Have you got any experience?

Lil: Plenty.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

I don’t think anyone will argue that Baby Face is the reigning champion of pre-code content. Baby Face was Warner Brother’s response to MGM’s Red-Headed Woman, and they certainly managed to one-up MGM. A movie about a woman who is pimped out by her own father, then actively encouraged to make her way in life by seducing men was simply completely unacceptable to censors. To get it approved, the cobbler’s speech about how Lil should exploit men had to be changed to a speech about being strong and in control, but specifically warning against going about it the wrong way. Between that and some of the suggestiveness being toned down, a watered-down version of Baby Face made its way to theaters, but still managed to cause a ruckus in many cities. The uncensored version went unseen until it was discovered in a Library of Congress film vault in 2004. The uncensored version and the censored theatrical version are included as part of the “Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume 1” DVD set and the uncensored version is frequently shown on Turner Classic Movies.

Pre-Code Essentials: Three on a Match (1932)

Three on a match 1932

Plot

Even from a very young age, Mary Keaton (Joan Blondell), Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak), and Ruth Wescott (Bette Davis) were on completely different paths in life. They were classmates together as children; Mary the class bad girl, Vivian the popular one, and Ruth was one of the most studious.

Ten years after parting ways, they run into each other and meet for lunch. After a stint in reform school, Mary is now working as a showgirl. Ruth is a stenographer and Vivian married to powerful attorney Robert Kirkwood (Warren William). Although Vivian seems to have everything a person could ever want, she’s grown increasingly dissatisfied with her life. To shake up her life, Vivian takes her son on a trip, but on the ship, she gets mixed up with gambler Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot). Before long, she’s descended into a life of drugs and alcohol, making it impossible for her to take good care of her son.

Mary is aware of Vivian’s hard partying and goes to see Robert to come up with a plan to at least get the child away from her. Once her son is away from her, Vivian and Robert divorce and Vivian hits rock bottom. When Vivian and Michael are desperate for money, Michael kidnaps Vivian’s son and holds him hostage.


My Thoughts

When I first saw Three on a Match, I was mostly watching it for Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart since those are two of my favorite movie stars. I know I’m not the only one who was drawn to this movie because of those two, but while many people watch for Bogart and Davis, they stay for Ann Dvorak. Out of all the major stars, Ann Dvorak is now the least widely remembered of the bunch, but she completely steals the movie from every single one of her costars. Bogart and Davis, at the time, were up-and-coming stars and weren’t being used to their full potential yet. Warren William and Joan Blondell are both good, but are totally eclipsed by Ann Dvorak’s mesmerizing presence.

Three on a Match is also a master class in efficient storytelling. It fits more into 63 minutes than most movies do in two hours.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

Herve (Humphrey Bogart) insinuating Vivian’s drug addiction.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

One last “fallen woman” tale for this series of essential pre-codes. In some ways, Vivian’s story reminds me of several other “fallen woman” movies I’ve highlighted this month, but her story ends up feeling really unique. Vivian reminds me a bit of Temple Drake from The Story of Temple Drake in the sense that they were both women with a pretty high standing in society and when they fall, they fall very hard. They both slip into these incredibly dirty worlds that are anything but fun. Three on a Match does nothing to glorify the lifestyle Vivian and Michael end up leading. But the fact that Vivian is a mother and her lifestyle directly endangers her child adds a more shocking element to her story. Helen Faraday from Blonde Venus is another fallen woman who is also a mother, but she was much more concerned about her child’s welfare; Vivian was too strung out to properly care for her son. However, she does redeem herself in the end by making the ultimate sacrifice for her child.

Pre-Code Essentials: Red-Headed Woman (1932)

Red-Headed Woman 1932

Plot

Lil Andrews (Jean Harlow) is a woman who lives on the wrong side of the tracks, but she’ll stop at nothing to move up in the world. The best way she can think of to accomplish that goal is to marry a wealthy man and she sets her sights on her boss, Bill Legendre (Chester Morris). The fact that he’s happily married and devoted to his wife Irene (Leila Hyams) means nothing to Lil. She relentlessly tries to seduce Bill to break up their marriage.

When Lil finally succeeds in destroying Bill’s marriage, she marries him and completely throws herself into her new role of high society wife. She shows off her newfound status at every chance she gets, but is totally dismayed when she’s continually snubbed by the other elite people in town, who are still loyal friends to Irene. Just when Lil thinks she’s found a way to force them to accept her, they ditch her party to go to Irene’s instead.

Fed up, Lil leaves to spend some time in New York. Meanwhile, Bill has reason to suspect that Lil has been two-timing him.


My Thoughts

For as cold and relentless Lil is, it’s hard not to love Jean Harlow in this role. She is just so incredibly brazen, forward, and over the top; it’s extremely hard to not be entertained by her. I especially love the scene where she’s driving down the street to her hair apartment in her flashy new car, wearing her expensive new clothes, with her dog sitting in the passenger seat, turning the heads of everybody on the sidewalk. As she’s driving along, there’s marching band music playing, and when she turns the car off, the music stops, so it turns out the music is what was playing on her car radio. It always makes me laugh so hard that she was essentially throwing herself a one-woman parade; it’s too much and I love it.

Red-Headed Woman also features a nice, sharp script by Anita Loos and a wonderful supporting cast of Chester Morris, Leila Hyams, and Una Merkel.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

While trying on a dress:

Lil: “Can you see through this?”

Saleswoman: “I’m afraid you can, Miss.”

Lil: “I’ll wear it.”

Saleswoman: “Oh…”

Lil putting Bill’s picture into her garter belt.

The completely gratuitous scene where Lil’s catches her friend Sally (Una Merkel) wearing her pajamas and makes her take them off.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

There were lots of movies about adultery during the pre-code era, but Lil is without a doubt the most completely shameless homewrecker of the era. Red-Headed Woman is another movie that was a nightmare for the Hays Office before the cameras even started rolling. Between Lil’s unapologetic adultery and the fact that in the end, she tries to shoot Bill (sorry for the spoiler) and gets away with it (and all of her other behavior) was very problematic for censors. Once the Hays Code was being more strictly enforced, any kind of criminal or amoral behavior had to be punished and that certainly doesn’t happen here. Seventeen cuts had to be made to it for it to be released in the United States, but it was banned in the United Kingdom and wasn’t officially screened there until 1965 — although King George V kept a copy of it in his personal collection.

Pre-Code Essentials: The Divorcee (1930)

The Divorcee 1930 Norma Shearer

Plot

When Jerry (Norma Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) decide to get married, one of the most important things they both want is for their marriage to be a marriage of equals. They live together happily married for three years, but that all changes on the night of their third anniversary party. Several of their friends arrive at Ted and Jerry’s home, including Janice (Mary Doran). Ted and Janice had a brief affair some time ago and it doesn’t take long for Jerry to pick up on the fact that they aren’t just friends. She pressures Ted into admitting to the affair, but he swears it doesn’t mean a thing.

Jerry is devastated by Ted’s infidelity, but since their marriage was supposed to be built on equality, she evens the score by having an affair with Ted’s best friend Don (Robert Montgomery). She admits to it and also tells him it didn’t mean anything to her, but Ted is furious. However, Jerry is even angrier at Ted’s double standards and insists on a divorce so she can be free to pursue as many men as she pleases. But will that kind of lifestyle make her happy?


My Thoughts

I really don’t think The Divorcee gets enough credit nowadays. Although it’s widely accepted as one of the greatest pre-code films, it doesn’t get enough recognition for being a good movie in general. Time has actually been quite kind to The Divorcee, which is a lot more than can be said for many other movies from this era. It lacks the general creakiness that is characteristic of many movies from the late 1920s and very early 1930s. The writing is great and the story still feels very modern and relevant. You could do a remake of it today and audiences could forget how long ago the original story was written. Norma Shearer’s performance is still wonderful; not the sort you have to say, “Well, standards were different back then” about. It’s a very smart, well produced movie that deserves a little more recognition beyond its pre-code factor.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

When Jerry tells Ted she’s “balanced their accounts.”

The scene where Jerry furiously tells Ted that from then on, he’s the only man her door is closed to.

The whole plot in general.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

The Divorcee is based on the novel “Ex-Wife” by Ursula Parrot, which was a bestseller in 1929 because of its scandalous content. Obviously, trying to turn it into a movie was going to be a very risky endeavor because being tied to such a book was going to practically set out a welcome mat for censors and moral crusaders. You might notice that the book is never directly credited as being the basis for the movie; it’s simply stated as being “based on a novel by Ursula Parrot.”

Taking on a provocative character like Jerry was also definitely a big career risk for Norma Shearer. By the time she made The Divorcee, she was an established star, but audiences loved her for playing respectable characters. But she was bound and determined to liven up her image with something more scandalous; a move that could have either brought her career to a new level or been career suicide. Her husband Irving Thalberg didn’t think she was right for the part and even Norma’s maid thought playing such a character would be a bad idea. But she certainly proved them all wrong and not only successfully changed her screen image, but won an Academy Award in the process.

Pre-Code Essentials: Scarface (1932)

Scarface 1932

Plot

With the death of gang leader Big Louie Costillo, the doors are open for major gang activity as various gangs fight to take control over the south side of Chicago’s bootlegging racket. Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) is the ruthlessly ambitious right hand man for gangster Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins). Johnny gains control of the south side with Tony’s help, but Tony isn’t content to settle for just the south side; he wants to control the north side, too, even though doing so would mean starting a war with some gangsters Johnny specifically told him to leave alone. Rival gang leader Tom Gaffney (Boris Karloff) tries to have Tony killed, but only ends up introducing Tony to tommy guns in the process.

Not only is Tony trying to oust Johnny for the title of Chicago’s top gang leader, he also has his sights on Jonny’s girlfriend Poppy (Karen Morley). Johnny realizes how dangerously out of control Tony is and tries to have him killed, but Tony once again survives and kills Johnny. Johnny finally has everything that he wants — complete control over Chicago and Poppy. But his antics haven’t gone unnoticed by the police, who are moving in on him. Tony also has to worry about his younger sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), who has taken an interest in his lifestyle.


My Thoughts

Paul Muni doesn’t seem to get enough credit for playing one of the all-time greatest movie gangsters. Cagney, Bogart, and Robinson were all great movie tough guys, but none of their characters had the unrestrained glee that Tony took in killing people. Cold blooded? Absolutely. But giddy about killing? Not quite. When faced with a hail of gunfire, Tony lights up like a kid on Christmas morning. I’m certainly no stranger to gangster movies, but this version of Scarface is really jaw dropping compared to many others (including ones made in the late 1960s and beyond, although I’ve actually never seen the Al Pacino version of Scarface) because of that fact.

And I certainly can’t neglect to mention Ann Dvorak, who is truly electrifying as Cesca.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

The pure joy Tony takes in killing people.

The incestuous tones to Tony’s relationship with Cesca.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Scarface was a nightmare for censors before it even started filming. The original screenplay included Tony’s mother being supportive of her son’s (for lack of a better word) career and featured a hypocritical politician who rallies against criminals like Tony by day, but goes to parties with him by night. The Hays Office insisted on so many script revisions, Howard Hughes eventually got so fed up with it, he told director Howard Hawks to just go ahead and make the movie as violent and as realistic as possible. There was a lot of concern that even though Tony dies at the end, the movie still glorified criminal lifestyles. An alternate ending was filmed where Tony turns himself in, but censors still objected to that version.

To make some effort to appease the censors, some of the violence was toned down, the subtitle “The Shame of a Nation” was added, and a text introduction condemning Tony’s behavior were added to the movie.

Pre-Code Essentials: She Done Him Wrong (1933)

She Done Him Wrong Mae West Cary Grant

Plot

Saloon performer Lady Lou (Mae West) is one of the most admired women in town. Men are in love with her, women want to be friends with her. Lou loves two things — men and diamonds — and her boss Gus Jordan (Noah Beery) is happy to supply her with all the jewels she wants. But the profits from running the saloon just isn’t enough to keep up with Lou’s expensive taste, so he resorts to criminal activities to pay for Lou’s jewelry.

Gus is also running for sheriff, but his opponent Dan Flynn (David Landau) is well aware of his illegal activities and would love nothing more than to be able to expose Gus and have Lou all to himself. Gus wouldn’t be the first man to take such drastic measures to make Lou happy. Her former boyfriend Chick Clark (Owen Moore) is in prison serving time for trying to steal jewelry for Lou. She’s promised to be faithful to him while he’s in jail, but not only has she been seeing Gus, she’s also had her eyes set on Captain Cummings (Cary Grant), a local missionary.

Lou finds herself in a tough situation when all the main men in her life end up making appearances at the saloon on one fateful night.


My Thoughts

I just love Mae West and She Done Him Wrong is a an example of Mae West doing what Mae West did best. Only she could pull off writing a play where she stars as the most admired woman around and other characters spend a lot of time discussing how fabulous she is, then turn it into a movie that went on to become a Best Picture nominee. She created the perfect vehicle for herself and I’ve got to give her credit for that. Not only was she a bit of an unlikely movie star (she was 40 when She Done Him Wrong was released, quite a bit older than the average movie starlet just starting to make a splash at the box office), she truly built her career in a way that nobody else did at the time. She was in complete charge of every aspect of her career, which is something I completely respect.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

Mae West’s endless double entendres.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

No list of essential pre-codes would be complete without an appearance from the queen of the double entendre, Mae West. She Done Him Wrong is frequently cited as being one of the movies that infuriated censors to the extent that it provoked the strict enforcement of the production codes. The movie may only be 66 minutes long, but it took two years to turn Mae West’s stage hit Diamond Lil into a movie because it was such a challenge to get the bawdy content past the censors. Upon its release, it caused a huge commotion and was banned in Atlanta, Australia, Austria, and Finland. Mae West certainly wasn’t fazed by the outcry. She was later quoted as saying, “I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”

Pre-Code Essentials: Footlight Parade (1933)

Footlight Parade By a Waterfall

Plot

When talkie pictures come into popularity, it starts cutting into business for Broadway musical producer Chester Kent (James Cagney). He’s in dire need of a hit show, but everyone keeps flocking to these newfangled talking pictures instead. He’s convinced this is just a fad, but when his business partners take him to the theater to see one for himself, he becomes fascinated with the musical stage show the theater puts on before each movie. Chester decides he needs to get into the prologue game and convinces his business partners what a brilliant plan it is.

Chester gets right to work on his prologues with help from his faithful secretary Nan (Joan Blondell). Nan is deeply in love with Chester, but Chester is so busy, he doesn’t even realize it. He’s got all these prologues to produce, which is anything but a smooth process. He’s going through a divorce and now finds himself getting caught up with gold diggers. Everything that can go wrong does, but when a huge opportunity comes along, he has no other choice but to pull himself and his team together and get three prologues ready to perform in three days.


My Thoughts

Sometimes, an actor or director gets on a big streak of hit movies that when we look back, we say, “Wow, that was a great year for them!” For Busby Berkeley, that year was 1933. In 1933, his distinct brand of choreography made 42nd Street a huge hit, and then he topped himself by following it up with Gold Diggers of 1933. Last, but certainly not least, he one-upped himself again with Footlight Parade. These three movies are some of the most iconic movie musicals ever produced and the fact that they all came out in the same year is absolutely astonishing. With Footlight Parade, Berkeley really pushed himself and came up with some of the most imaginative and whimsical numbers of his career. (For years before I’d even seen any Busby Berkeley musical, I’d see pictures of the chorus girls standing on that fountain as part of the “By a Waterfall” number and know it was a Busby Berkeley scene. That’s how emblematic that scene is for Busby Berkeley.) By this point, he was pretty much done even pretending that these musical numbers could ever be produced on a real stage. But they are so witty, clever, saucy, and imaginative, it’s really easy to just go along with it.

For me, Footlight Parade is also one of James Cagney’s best movies. He is truly a force of nature in it; he truly leaves me in awe. Actors who can do gangster movies and musicals equally well are a rare breed and Cagney certainly falls into that category. He absolutely nails its rapid-fire dialogue and excels at working in such a fast-paced environment. And his dancing…oh, my.  Some of the dance moves he does in this movie look like early precursors to some of Michael Jackson’s dance moves. And like Michael Jackson, he makes all that dancing look so incredibly easy and effortless. But if you ever try some of those moves yourself, you’ll quickly realize how hard it really is.

However, out of Berkeley’s big three hits of 1933, Footlight Parade is the one whose plot now seems the most dated. 42nd Street is the classic backstage musical and people have no problem understanding Gold Diggers of 1933 deals heavily with the Great Depression.  But the fact that many movie theaters used to put on these musical prologues before movies during the early talkie era is now largely forgotten, except by film history buffs.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

All of the musical numbers.

“Outside, Countess! As long as they’ve got sidewalks, you’ve got a job!”


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Each of Busby Berkeley’s three big musical hits of 1933 are full of pre-code material, but Footlight Parade easily tops them all. Innuendo, adultery, references to prostitution, tons and tons of chorus girls in skimpy outfits, bawdy musical numbers…Footlight Parade spends many of its 104 minutes openly thumbing its nose at censors. I love how there are several instances of Chester being told that censors either will or do object to content in his prologues. These are clearly jabs at movie censorship boards and the movie is essentially acknowledging and making fun of its own pre-code-ness, which is something I have never seen happen in any other pre-code movie.