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Revisiting Pre-Code Hollywood

If you like snap, crackle and pop in your storytelling, dialogue, and performances, you want to watch films made in the early 1930s—through mid-1934, to be exact—when to avoid censorship on a broad, national scale Hollywood revised its Production Code and started enforcing its tenets. Almost everything changed: hemlines, modes of love-making, references to everything from drugs to suicide. Writers had to be clever if they

Regis Toomey, Marian Marsh and Warren William in Beauty and the Boss (1932).

wanted to deal with adult themes, and producer David O. Selznick had to fight tooth and nail to get permission for Clark Gable to say, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” at the end of Gone With the Wind. It wouldn’t have been an issue in 1932. Those tantalizing, uncensored early-30s titles are known to film buffs everywhere as pre-Code movies. Bruce Goldstein has chosen fifty of them for his new series, Essential Pre-Code, which unspools at New York City’s Film Forum beginning this Friday, July 15 and runs through August 11.

Some of the selections are famous (King Kong, The Public Enemy, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), some are infamous (Scarface, The Story of Temple Drake, the restored—

Baby Face, which is now seamier than ever), and others are hidden gems worthy of discovery (James Whale’s original version of Waterloo Bridge, with a knockout performance by Mae Clarke, William Dieterle’s Jewel Robbery with Kay Francis and William Powell, a sophisticated comedy worthy of Lubitsch himself).

A personal highlight for me (and my wife, who seconds this particular opinion) would be the series’ Thursday night double-bills featuring Warren William, “the king of heels.” William was a stage-trained actor who some people referred to as the poor man’s John Barrymore, partly because of his looks, and partly because of his theatrical manner and bearing. He worked in Hollywood through the late 1940s, and headlined an enjoyable B-movie series at Columbia called The Lone Wolf, but there is no question that his finest hour (or hours) came in the early 1930s when he made one socko picture after another at Warner Bros., often playing cads and con men. (He was so good at it that MGM borrowed him in 1932 to play a ruthless businessman in their Warner-like movie Skyscraper Souls.) Almost all his best movies are represented in the Film Forum series: Three on a Match, The Match King (which David Letterman recently referenced on his show while discussing his fondness for Turner Classic Movies with Alec Baldwin), The Mouthpiece, Beauty and the Boss, Employees Entrance, The Mind Reader, Skyscraper Souls, and Upperworld.

Because so many of these movies tend to be short, Bruce has programmed triple-features on Tuesday nights. Yes, in slightly more time than it takes to endure Transformers: Dark of the Moon you can enjoy three full-length features like Me and My Gal with Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett, which manages to embrace comedy, romance, and melodrama (with a plethora of snappy dialogue), Rowland Brown’s rowdy Blood Money with Judith Anderson and George Bancroft, and the endearingly odd Sailor’s Luck with James Dunn, Sally Eilers, and Victor Jory as a slimy character named Baron Portola. These pictures are daring, disarming, full of energy and surprise; they tackle all sorts of then-taboo subjects, and some of them can still raise an eyebrow today.

Innocent Marian Marsh encounters suave Warren William in Under Eighteen (1932).

I first saw many of these movies when the late, great William K. Everson showed them at his screening series in Manhattan years ago, and Bruce Goldstein acknowledges his debt to Bill in Film Forum’s press release, stating, “When I did my first Pre-Code festival, I relied mostly on film collectors–chiefly the legendary William K. Everson, who had the world’s greatest collection of films from this era–to provide us with 16mm prints of varying quality. In the intervening years, there has been a sea change in the world of film preservation and we’re now able to offer everything in beautiful 35mm copies. The Library of Congress, in particular, has been an extraordinary resource. Many of the prints in the current series have been made off original camera negatives in the Library’s collection.”

Many of these films are shown on TCM, and some (but not all) are available on DVD. I still wish I could camp out in lower Manhattan and revisit these saucy films on a theater screen with a simpatico audience. If you live in New York or plan to visit during the next month, make a calendar note by checking the complete Film Forum schedule HERE. You can also look up Bill Everson’s original program notes HERE.

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