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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.

7 comments

  1. Peggy says:

    Dear Leonard, Was putting credits together to try to get my pension from AFTRA before they merge with Sag, and I saw that you are featuring Warren Williams this week.. When I was new in Hollywood, in Late 1942 or early 43 I worked with Warren Williams on a series he did at NBC, I remember sitting on the plastic couch outside of studio G waiting for the rehearsal to begin for his show, and he and I sat and talked for awhile. Those were differnet times for radio, ABC had moved into NBC and they were calling themselves the Blue Network. I think what we did was a syndicated series..But it was such a kick for me to think that this Movie Personality,a favorite of my mother's, was still working and doing radio. There were other unusual shows on at that time, in the same location: Box 13 with Alan Ladd and sometimes George Raft would fill in for him..and there were about six others all being syndicated: Arlene Francis in :Anne Scotland, Detective", directed by Helen Mack. I worked on all of them: "The Jury Is Out", "Great Jury Trials" and "Strange Wills" was Warren Williams' .Peggy

  2. Dorothy Gladys says:

    I think the second photo is actually from “Beauty and the Boss” and not “Under Eighteen”.

  3. Kristine C. says:

    Leonard :
    As always, very informative, on Pre-Code Hollywood. You know, one of the
    Andy Hardy movies’ script, had to be changed, due to censorship problems.
    It was when Andy Hardy went to New York. Ray MacDonald played an
    acquaintance, Andy met n N.Y., who committed suicide, in the story. The
    censors weren’t sure about keeping that in the script. Also, Patricia Dane,
    who was married to band leader Tommy Dorsey, played an older woman
    trying to teach Andy about life. I wonder what the original script was like.
    I always enjoy reading your E-mail news. I once lived in California.
    Kristine C.

  4. Jim Reinecke says:

    I know how you feel, Mark Orr! I’m not too far from you geographically, planted here in Bagdad on the Mississippi (AKA St. Louis, MO). Scanning the tantalizing menu of early-30’s goodies I took some small degree of solace (a VERY small one) in the fact that I have seen most of these films at one time or another. . .but very few on a big screen. However, back in the ’80’s, a local university located here (Webster U) presented a number of these movies with the frosting on the cake of having the late Mr. Everson present many of them himself. He was a frequent guest of David Kinder, the man who planned all of the film series at Webster. For those of you who only know William K. Everson through his scholarly yet very entertaining writings on movie history, I can tell you that you really missed something not meeting this brilliant and very warm gentleman. And to hear him speak on his subject. . .the wonderfully cultured British voice (Leonard, I’m sure that you can attest to that!) that seemed part James Mason and part Anthony Hopkins, and his artful give-and-take with audience members during his post-film Q&A sessions. . .some cherished memories there! But, Leonard, I want to address one of my favorite pre-code movies that seems to have fallen into a much-undeserved black hole (keep an eye peeled for this one, folks, as it does occasionally pop up on TCM. . .I’m very happy that I taped it back in 2003 on one of its presentations and can now revisit it at my leisure): It’s a Warner film from the end of the period called I’VE GOT YOUR NUMBER. Released in early 1934 it stars Pat O’Brien as a phone company trouble shooter (with the ubiquitous Allen Jenkins as his crony) and Joan Blondell as a switchboard operator who catches Pat’s eye. Brimming with in your face, double-entendre dialogue (example: O’Brien and Jenkins servicing an obvious house of ill repute contains several references to the girls wanting a phone with a “long chord. . .just long enough to reach the bed!”) and a great supporting cast (the aforementioned Jenkins, Glenda Farrell as a phony crystal-ball gazer and the one and only Eugene Pallette as O’Brien and Jenkins’ boss) this nasty, funky, breezy Warners gem is a joy to watch and hear and old pro director Lloyd Bacon gets it all on and off screen in 69 minutes. I was hoping that it would find its way to your updated Classic Movie Guide last year but it’s still conspicuous by its absence. Hopefully in the 3rd edition (2015 I would suppose) this little diamond in the rough will be covered. It’s a doozy!

  5. Mark A. Vieira says:

    Leonard, I credit you for introducing all of us to “Skyscraper Souls” in the 80s. When I saw it at the Castro Theatre in 1988, I was really impressed, and I still regard it as one of the best ensemble films of the period. Here’s hoping it will be released by the Warner Archives soon.

    I’m sure you’ll agree that their recent release of the 1929 version of “The Letter” is truly significant. Jeanne Eagels gives an incredible performance. I hadn’t realized that this was the first sound film made at Astoria. It’s very pre-Code; lots of “damns” in the dialogue—and she isn’t punished in the last reel for her crime. At least not by the law.

  6. Mark Orr says:

    Oh, to be there, instead of being stuck in the cultural armpit of all the known universes that is Middle Tennessee! Nice to see the first Maltese Falcon get some love. The Huston version is one of the top ten best movies of all time, but the first is pretty darn good, too. Alas for poor Warren William, an actor I generally enjoy watching, he got stuck in the inbetween remake, which is probably Bette Davis’ worst film. In lieu of being there, I shall read Hammett’s book for the twentieth time.

  7. Jordan R. Young says:

    Thanks for recommending some titles I wasn’t aware of, Leonard… In your opinion, does Miriam Hopkins utter the F word in “Design for Living”–as our friend RWB once noted–and if so where?

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