Pre-Codes

Kansas City Princess

Kansas City Princess (1934)

Rosie (Joan Blondell) and Marie (Glenda Farrell) are two manicurists from Kansas City. Rosie has been seeing a gangster who goes by the name of Dynamite (Robert Armstrong) and just before he leaves for St. Louis, he gives Rosie an engagement ring. While Dynamite is out of town, Marie, who thinks Rosie could do better, encourages Rosie to go out with one of their rich clients. Rosie reluctantly goes along with it and the whole thing goes horribly wrong when it turns out her date is also a criminal who steals her engagement ring. Things get even worse when Rosie hears that Dynamite is coming back to town earlier than expected so she doesn’t even have time to fix things.

Rosie and Marie know Dynamite will be furious when he finds out what’s happened, so they disguise themselves as members of the Outdoor Girls of America and get on a train headed to New York. But Dynamite finds out what’s going on before they can leave the station so he follows them to New York. Once in New York, Rosie and Marie hop in a cab with two businessmen and stick with them as they board a ship headed to Paris with Dynamite hot on their trail.

While on the ship, Dynamite meets millionaire Junior Ashcraft (Hugh Herbert), who is heading to Paris to put an end to his wife’s affair. When Marie and Rosie hear about a rich man being on board, they can’t resist posing as manicurists so they can try to play him. The plan falls flat when Junior reveals the truth, but Junior is still willing to help the ladies out. Once they get to Paris, Junior comes up with a plan to stop his wife’s affair by having Rose pose as her lover’s boyfriend. Little does he know his wife and the detective he’s hired to follow her have plans of their own.

Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell are two of my favorite sassy, fast-talking pre-code actresses so any movie that features both of them is going to be very intriguing to me. Kansas City Princess starts out being so much of what I love about many Warner Brothers pre-codes — fast-paced, funny, and full of snappy dialogue — but, unfortunately, the movie loses a lot of momentum about halfway through. Considering how many things Kansas City Princess had working in its favor and it did start out looking promising, the fact that it failed to hold my interest for 64 minutes was pretty disappointing. Not even the fabulous chemistry of Blondell and Farrell could save it. They did the best they could with what they had to work with, it’s just they didn’t have much to work with.

Let Us Be Gay 1930

Let Us Be Gay (1930)

After years of marriage, Kitty Brown (Norma Shearer) still adores her husband Bob (Rod La Rocque) and is faithfully devoted to him and their two children. She doesn’t dress stylishly and she doesn’t spend much time on hair or makeup, but she’s happy. At least, she’s happy until Bob’s mistress drops by the house one day. She’s heartbroken and wants nothing to do with him. But she’s not one to sit around and feel sorry for herself. After he divorce, Kitty gets a makeover and earns a reputation for being notorious maneater.

Three years after her divorce, Kitty is invited to spend a weekend at the home of Mrs. Bouccicault (Marie Dressler). Mrs. Boucciault’s granddaughter Diane (Sally Eilers) is engaged to be married to Bruce (Raymond Hackett), but is not-too-secretly seeing a man named Bob on the side. She invites Kitty because she’s practically an expert at stealing men away from women and asks her to work her magic on Bob. She agrees, not realizing Bob is her ex-husband.

Bob hasn’t seen Kitty since their divorce and he can barely recognize her as the woman he used to be married to. Although it’s an awkward reunion at first, but old feelings start to come back.

I liked Let Us Be Gay more than I expected to. At the time of writing this post, it gets 6.5 stars on IMDB, so really, a pretty average rating by IMDB standards. But it was a pretty entertaining little movie. I loved Norma in it. Seeing Norma play dowdy was certainly a fun surprise; she was hardly recognizable. But after Kitty has her makeover, we get to see Norma doing everything that makes me love her early 1930s roles. Marie Dressler was a lot of fun as the over-the-top Mrs. Bouccicault. And Sally Eilers was a real treat, especially in her drunk scenes. The ending was a bit of a letdown, but I had so much fun watching everything else leading up to that point, I still really like the movie on the whole.

Ladies of Leisure (1930)

Ladies of Leisure 1930After ducking out of a party with his wealthy friends, Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves) happens to drive past by call girl Kay Arnold (Barbara Stanwyck) rowing along in a boat as she escaped from a different party. He offers her a ride, which she gladly accepts. Jerry is an aspiring artist and decides he wants Kay to be the subject of his next painting and Kay accepts. Things are tense when she first poses for him. He doesn’t like the way she’s dressed when she arrives and his fiancée isn’t exactly happy about his new model.

Tensions continue to grow, but once Jerry finally gets what he wants from Kay, it’s magic.  By now, they’ve also fallen in love with each other and after he spends nearly all night painting her, he asks her to sleep on the couch. They spend all night pining for each other, but the next morning, their happiness is shattered when Jerry’s conservative, upper-class father arrives and demands he stop seeing Kay. He refuses, even if it means being an outcast from the entire family. Jerry and Kay plan to run off together, until Jerry’s mother personally comes to see Kay and begs her to leave her son alone.

I never cease to be amazed by the quality of many of Barbara Stanwyck’s early films. Ladies of Leisure was only Stanwyck’s 4th film, but she hits it out of the park. This was the movie that made her a star. She was paired with director Frank Capra here and he understood exactly what to do with her. There are so many great stars who, early in their careers, went through a stage where studios didn’t quite know what to do with them so they stuck them in all sorts of different types of roles to see what worked and what didn’t. The ones who seemed to find their niche right away and became big stars within their first few movies are comparatively rare, but Stanwyck was one of them (Faye Dunaway and James Cagney are a couple of others.) Her performance is by far the best reason to see this movie.

On the whole, Ladies of Leisure isn’t fantastic. For Capra, this wasn’t one of his best directorial efforts, but he certainly grew as a director over time. The story is average; nothing too exciting or original. But the things that are right about it are so right that they make an otherwise forgettable movie one worth seeing. Capra also not only had Stanwyck as a leading lady, he had cinematographer Joseph Walker on his team, who did a fantastic job of making the movie look beautiful. Between Walker and Stanwyck, they help to distract from some of the other parts of the movie that aren’t as strong.

Smart Money 1931

Smart Money (1931)

Nick Venizelos (Edward G. Robinson) runs a barbershop by day, but has a reputation for being a very shrewd gambler by night. Known as Nick the Barber, he runs games out of the back room of his barbershop along with his friend Jack (James Cagney) and a lot of his friends believe he could win big if he went into the city and got into a game with some other big name gamblers. They’re even willing to chip in money for Nick to go to the city to gamble with.

Armed with $10,000, Nick takes a train to the city and gets to work at finding out where the action is. If there’s one thing Nick can’t resist, it’s a pretty blonde and when he sees hotel employee Marie (Noel Francis), he’s drawn to her like a magnet. She tips him off about a big card game and when he arrives, Nick thinks he’s playing with notorious gambler Hickory Smart. The only problem is that Hickory Smart is serving a prison sentence in Florida and Nick ends up losing big time to conman Sleepy Sam (Ralf Harolde). When Nick finds out what’s going on, he tries to win his money back, but gets beaten up and he vows to get even with them someday.

Nick goes back to being a barber, but within a few months, he’s ready to get his revenge. Not only does he successfully con the con men, his reputation as a gambler quickly grows. He even gets to finally play cards with Hickory Smart — and wins! He becomes infamous for being one of the biggest gamblers around, which doesn’t go unnoticed by the District Attorney. But Nick soon realizes his new position is being jeopardized by a woman he’s been trying to help.

Smart Money isn’t one of the all-time great gangster movies, but it’s enjoyable enough. The most interesting thing it has going for it is that it showcases two of Warner Brothers’s biggest stars right as their careers were starting to really take off. Edward G. Robinson had just recently had his career breakthrough with Little Caesar and Cagney was working on Smart Money at the same time he was working on The Public EnemyThe Public Enemy ended up being released first, so although Cagney is a supporting actor in Smart Money, he became an A-lister by the time it was released (which explains why Cagney gets equal billing with Robinson.) Smart Money was also, surprisingly, the only movie the two actors made together. It’s really too bad Cagney and Robinson didn’t do another movie together where they both really got to be on equal footing.

Not only does Smart Money have Cagney and Robinson as they were on their way up, it also features a very brief appearance from another rising star, Boris Karloff. Smart Money was released shortly before the public saw his iconic performance in Frankenstein. Keep an eye out for him in the beginning of the movie as one of the gamblers in the backroom of Nick’s barber shop.

Gable Lombard No Man of Her Own

No Man of Her Own (1932)

Babe Stewart (Clark Gable) has a reputation in Manhattan for being a crooked gambler and the police would love to be able to nab him. When his lover Kay (Dorothy Mackaill) doesn’t take too kindly to Babe trying to give her the brush-off, she threatens to rat him out to the cops. To stay a few steps ahead of the law, Babe takes cover in Glendale, a small town he chose at random.

Connie Randall (Carole Lombard) is a librarian in Glendale. She’s young, unmarried, and utterly bored with her existence. She’s dying for some excitement in her life and finds it when she meets Babe. She knows she shouldn’t go after the first stranger in town she meets, but he’s eager to pursue her and she desperately wants to let him. With the flip a coin, they’re headed toward the altar and headed back to Manhattan together.

Only Connie is totally oblivious to her new husband’s criminal history; she thinks he works on Wall Street all day. She discovers the truth when she finds a deck of stacked cards and shuffles them so his game will be ruined. When Babe finds out what she’s done, he’s angry at first, but ultimately still loves her and knows the best thing he can do is pay his debt to society and go straight.

I liked No Man of Her Own more than I expected to. Being able to see Lombard and Gable together absolutely made the film. If this movie had featured lesser stars, I don’t think anybody would still be talking about No Man of Her Own today. But they successfully took a movie with a so-so story and made it enjoyable through sheer chemistry. Even though this was made several years before they were married, they had fantastic chemistry together. If it weren’t for the fact that Lombard and Gable worked at different studios at the time, I like to think they probably would have done more movies together. I particularly loved their scenes together before they moved back to Manhattan. And I’m always happy to see Dorothy Mackaill, even though she doesn’t get much screen time here. All in all, there are far worse ways you could spend 85 minutes.

Men In White (1934)

Men In White Poster 1934 (1)If you ever find yourself in the hospital, Dr. George Ferguson (Clark Gable) is the kind of doctor you’d want to have looking after you. He very deeply cares about all of his patients and will do anything to help them. But since George is just an intern, he has to deal with long hours at the hospital and sometimes isn’t even able to take his previously scheduled nights off, much to the frustration of his fiancée, Laura (Myrna Loy). Even though George loves working in the hospital, Laura insists that he specialize and open his own practice once they’re married so he can keep better hours.

But working in medicine isn’t easy and can take an emotional toll even on a dedicated doctor like George. Just after saving one young patient’s life, George finds out another one of his young patients has died. Barbara (Elizabeth Allan), a nurse George works with at the hospital, is also struggling with the emotional toll of working in medical care. When she comes to borrow some notes from George, they end up starting an affair.

Some time later, Laura is still struggling to accept George’s career choice. To try to help her understand, George’s mentor Dr. Hochberg (Jean Hersholt) invites Laura to observe one of George’s operations. As fate would have it, she observes George operating on Barbara who, although not explicitly stated, is suffering from a botched illegal abortion. In her delirium, she tells George she loves him, while Laura happens to be standing right there. After the operation, Laura refuses to talk to him and George is consumed with guilt over Barbara. Although he loves Laura, he wants to marry Barbara when she’s well enough and take care of her. That is, until fate steps in and makes his decisions for him.

Men in White isn’t a movie I hear talked about very often outside of the realm of pre-code cinema, but it is a pretty effectively produced movie. Not one of the all-time greats or even an overlooked highlight in the careers of either Gable or Loy, but it’s an intriguing, well-written story. The hospital sets are pretty impressive and, best of all, Gable and Loy are both very good in their respective roles, so if you’re a fan of either one of them, Men in White is worth your time.

Pre-Code Essentials: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1931

Plot

Dr. Henry Jekyll (Fredric March) is a very highly respected doctor in London and is extremely dedicated to his patients. He also believes that deep down, every human being has the capability of being both good and evil. When he isn’t tending to his patients, Dr. Jekyll develops a potion that unleashes the ugly, evil side of his personality, which physically manifests as a wolf-like creature named Mr. Hyde.

Acting as Mr. Hyde, he goes down to the tavern where Ivy (Miriam Hopkins) works. He promises to give her anything she needs if she keeps him company. While Dr. Jekyll is extremely kind and had helped Ivy in the past, Mr. Hyde is extremely controlling and abusive. Ivy is absolutely terrified of Mr. Hyde and while he’s gone, Ivy’s landlady suggests that she go see Dr. Jekyll for help with getting away from Mr. Hyde. When Dr. Jekyll realizes how his alter ego has hurt Ivy so, he vows to never take the potion again, but Mr. Hyde begins reappearing without the potion and Mr. Hyde kills Ivy. As Dr. Jekyll, he repents for how his experiments have interfered with God’s will and breaks off his engagement to Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart) as penance, but it isn’t enough to spare Muriel from being exposed to the horrors of Mr. Hyde.


My Thoughts

Easily one of the finest horror movies ever produced. The Academy Awards have a reputation for snubbing horror and science fiction movies, but even they couldn’t ignore the brilliance of Fredric March’s performance. As great as Fredric March is in it, his makeup is equally incredible. Not only is the make-up he wears as Mr. Hyde truly astonishing, I love how they showed his transition from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. It’s without a doubt one of the greatest makeup jobs ever committed to celluloid.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

Miriam Hopkins’ long, drawn-out striptease.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Miriam Hopkins’ striptease after being rescued by Dr. Jekyll is easily one of the most notorious scenes in pre-code history. I think it’s been included in virtually every compilation I’ve ever seen of clips showcasing the sort of things you could get away with during the pre-code era.

Pre-Code Essentials: Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein Boris Karloff

Plot

Young scientist Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) thinks he has stumbled unto the secret for bringing the dead back to life. At night, he and his assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) toil away in an abandoned, secluded building and stealing corpses to experiment on. Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) becomes concerned about his strange behavior and arrives at his secret laboratory just in time to see him successfully bring the Creature (Boris Karloff) to life. It isn’t long before Frankenstein decides the Creature could be potentially dangerous and must be destroyed.

Before he is completely certain the Creature has been killed, Frankenstein leaves to get ready for his wedding. The Creature kills Frankenstein’s assistant and escapes, finding his way to a nearby town. He meets a young girl, Maria (Marilyn Harris), who invites him to float flowers in the lake with her. When he runs out of flowers, he throws Maria in the water, thinking she will float too. When she doesn’t float, the horrified Creature runs away to the house where the wedding is to take place, frightens Elizabeth, and escapes again. When the villagers find out what has happened to Maria, they band together with torches to hunt the monster down. Dr. Frankenstein joins the mob and when the Creature finds him, he drags Frankenstein to an abandoned windmill. The villagers corner him there and burn the windmill down.


My Thoughts

Frankenstein is my personal favorite of the Universal horror films. It’s an extremely intelligent horror film and it’s interesting to see a horror movie that leaves you sympathizing with the Creature. I really don’t like referring to the Creature as a monster because Dr. Frankenstein is the real monster here. The Creature never asked to be brought back to life, he doesn’t understand what’s going on, and all he can do is react in very primal, visceral ways and nobody around him understands that.

Boris Karloff is absolutely genius as the Creature. Although Frankenstein is not a silent film, Karloff’s performance is a testament to how much an actor can do without actually saying anything. When you take a performance as brilliant as Karloff’s and combine it with that unforgettable makeup by Jack Pierce, you get a truly unforgettable character. The story of Frankenstein has been adapted for the screen many times over the years, but Karloff remains the most famous actor to play the Creature for a very good reason.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

After the creature is first brought to life, Dr. Frankenstein declares, “It’s alive! It’s alive! In the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!”


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Compared to some other movies turned out during the glorious pre-code era, Frankenstein might seem pretty tame in comparison. Sure, it lacks the gratuitous undressing, gangsters, and innuendo that other pre-codes have in spades, but it’s an excellent example of another big part of the production code: issues surrounding religion. Many censors objected to anything that portrayed religious leaders in an unflattering light (The Miracle Woman and Rain are prime examples of that) or anything that could be seen as blasphemous. Dr. Frankenstein’s desire to play God most certainly fell into the “blasphemous” category, specifically his line about knowing what it feels like to be God. This line was edited out when Frankenstein was re-released after the production codes were being enforced and wasn’t fully restored until several decades later. Note how the concept of playing God is quite explicitly condemned in 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein.

Censors also took issue with the scene where the Creature throws the little girl into the water. Many people thought this scene was too violent and gruesome and cut the part where we see the Creature actually throwing the girl into the water. Personally, I think actually seeing the Creature throw the girl into the water is way less disturbing than to leave it showing the Creature reaching for the girl and letting the imagination run wild.

The Letter (1940) vs. The Letter (1929)

The Letter Jeanne Eagels Bette Davis

If I ever want to talk about the differences between the pre-code era and the Hays Code era of filmmaking, I can’t think of a better example to use than The Letter.  The Letter was originally a stage play by Somerset Maugham and was adapted as a film for the first time in 1929 with Jeanne Eagels starring as Leslie Crosbie. The Letter returned to the silver screen in 1940 with the incomparable Bette Davis having her turn as Leslie. So we have two movies based on the exact same source material, but because of the production codes that were in place for the 1940 version, the movies are incredibly different.

One of the key differences is that in the 1940 version, it takes the viewer time to find out whether or not Leslie is telling the truth.  The movie opens with Leslie shooting Mr. Hammond, but we don’t see what led up to it and the truth doesn’t come out until later.  But in the 1929 version, we see everything that led to Hammond’s death. We see Leslie writing the letter inviting Hammond to come over and we see what happens when he tries to end his relationship with Leslie. (We also see that Mr. Hammond is living with a woman who isn’t his wife, which would have been strictly verboten by the Hays Code. Hammond was married in the 1940 version.) So while audiences might have been able to sympathize with Bette Davis’ Leslie Crosbie for at least part of the movie, there’s nothing sympathetic about Jeanne Eagles’ Leslie Crosbie. In the 1929 version, we watch Leslie kill a man in cold blood, lie through her teeth about it, and get away with it.

In fact, the Leslie Crosbie played by Jeanne Eagels is a perfect representation of so many things the Hays Code abhorred — a completely unrepentant sinner who literally gets away with murder. When Jeanne delivers the famous line, “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed,” it is as an act of defiance in response to her response to her husband trying to punish her. But when it was Bette’s turn to deliver the same line, she couldn’t get away with saying it the same way. Not only is there nothing defiant about it, Mrs. Hammond makes sure Leslie pays for what she’s done.

It’s also worth noting that in the 1929 version of The Letter, it’s much more apparent that Leslie’s hatred of Li-Ti, Hammond’s mistress, is very racially motivated. As if it weren’t enough that Hammond had moved on, Leslie can’t stand that he moved on with a Chinese woman. Li-Ti realizes this and has a little fun with it by doing everything she can to make Leslie very uncomfortable when she comes to buy the letter. While Li-Ti takes the opportunity to humiliate Leslie in front of as many people as she can during that scene, the 1940 version of this scene plays out with a lot  more tension and drama and with fewer witnesses.

But despite the differences between the two versions of The Letter, there is one very notable similarity — Herbert Marshall.  In the 1929 version of The Letter, Herbert Marshall played the ill-fated Hammond. In the 1940 version, he played Robert, Leslie’s husband.

Gold Diggers of 1933: The Ultimate Early 1930s Film

Gold Diggers of 1933 Ginger RogersWhen a movie is described as being a product its time, it’s often meant in a sort of apologetic way.  It’s the sort of thing I say about creaky early talkies like The Broadway Melody or The Hollywood Revue of 1929.  It’s basically a nicer way of saying, “Look, I know this isn’t particularly good by today’s standards, but you’ve gotta remember…”

However, a movie being a product of its time isn’t necessarily a one-way ticket to being dubbed a cinematic fossil just a few years down the road.  Movies such as Saturday Night Fever and Since You Went Away completely embraced the eras they were made in but are still loved by audiences today.  Gold Diggers of 1933 is another product of its time that remains as entertaining as it was eighty-one years ago.

Trixie Lorraine: “Isn’t there going to be any comedy in the show?

Barney Hopkins: “Oh, plenty!  The gay side, the hard-boiled side, the cynical and funny side of the Depression!  I’ll make ’em laugh at you starving to death, honey!”

Gold Diggers of 1933 is a perfect reflection of so many things that were happening in the film industry at the time.  First and foremost, it dealt with the Great Depression during the Great Depression.  Even though times were tough, audiences were still flocking to movie theaters for a little bit of cheap escapism.  Gold Diggers of 1933 managed to directly address the Depression while still offering the fun and escapist qualities audiences craved.  When the character Barney Hopkins declares the show he’s producing is going to be a comedy about the Depression, it’s more like a mission statement for the movie because that’s exactly what it ends up being — funny but with a hard-boiled side.

Gold Diggers of 1933

When we first meet the main characters, they’re all struggling just like everybody else was at the time.  They lose their jobs in the first scene; they have to steal milk and avoid the landlady because they can’t pay their rent.  When they find out a new show being produced, the ladies play a game to decide which one of them goes to find out about it because they don’t have enough nice clothes for everyone to go.  Even though the name of the movie has the phrase “gold diggers” in it, the main characters aren’t heartless mantraps; they’re very likable characters who are mistakenly stereotyped as gold diggers.  It’s not hard to want these characters to come out on top.

The film’s escapist elements come from the extravagant Busby Berkeley musical numbers.  The musical numbers have nothing to do with the overall story of the movie, but they’re the most memorable scenes of the movie.  These numbers could never be done on a real stage, but it sure is fun to suspend disbelief and just enjoy them for what they are.  The opening number, “We’re in the Money,” is fun to watch although it sets an ironic tone for the movie.  “The Shadow Waltz” is a moment of pure whimsy.

Gold Diggers of 1933 Forgotten Man

Because Gold Diggers of 1933 was made in the pre-code era, it gets away with being more risqué and political than many people think of older films as being. “Pettin’ in the Park” is risqué comedy for risqué comedy’s sake.  For a movie that offers so much escapism, it ends on a very political and haunting note with the “Remember My Forgotten Man” number.  “Remember My Forgotten Man” is a scathing indictment of the way World War I veterans were being treated at the time.  Both gritty and extravagant, it’s a stunning finale.