Pre-Code Hollywood Collection

Cheers to Universal for releasing six rarely-seen Paramount titles of the 1930s that haven’t been on home video before, in exquisite transfers from the original negatives. In years past I’ve seen most of these in museum or archive showings, often in 16mm, and they’ve never looked so good.

Not one of these titles could be called…

a classic, but each one has qualities that make it notable, or at least worth a look, and every film earns its “notorious” pre-Code status to some degree. Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) is a romantic drama that doesn’t amount to much but it’s got a dilly of an opening sequence, in a miniature rendering of Manhattan’s rooftops, and strong, sincere performances by Sylvia Sidney and Fredric March. Search for Beauty (1934) is the silliest of the bunch, with Buster Crabbe and Ida Lupino (in her bleach-blonde starlet period) as Olympic athletes who are exploited by scheming Robert Armstrong and his partner-in-crime James Gleason. (I hadn’t seen this film in thirty-five years but I’ve always remembered one dialogue exchange between Armstrong and cynical girlfriend Gertrude Michael. Fired up with a new cockeyed get-rich-quick scheme, Armstrong enthuses, “What’s the most sought-after thing in the country today?” Michael replies drily, “A medium-priced giraffe.”) The movie also features the “30 Winners in the International Beauty Contest, Chosen from England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and The United States.”

Murder at the Vanities (1934) is a murder mystery set backstage at Earl Carroll’s Vanities. It’s a fascinating curio and one of those few pre-Code movies one might actually call smutty. Why, it’s got everything the Code was established to wipe off the screen: near-nudity, street slang (“nuts to you”), sexual innuendo, a song called “Sweet Marijuana” and a production number with the unfortunate title “The Rape of the Rhapsody.” The staging of those numbers by Larry Ceballos and Leroy Prinz is eye-popping, both in its creativity (a bevy of chorines lying supine on the stage, brandishing ostrich-feather fans, is made to simulate waves on the ocean) and in its leering of female flesh. The cast is led by Jack Oakie, Victor McLaglen, romantic leads Carl Brisson (who introduces “Cocktails for Two”) and Kitty Carlisle, and such supporting favorites as Gertrude Michael, Jessie Ralph, Toby Wing, Gail Patrick, and Dorothy Stickney. Duke Ellington and his Orchestra show up for one number, dressed in white tie and tails, and there’s a lovely featured spot for one of my all-time favorite character men, Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless) as—of all things—a ham actor. Director Mitchell Leisen even gives himself a cameo as the show’s conductor in the orchestra pit.

Torch Singer (1933) is a lavishly-mounted soap opera with Claudette Colbert having a child out of wedlock, giving it up for adoption, then leaving that life behind as she becomes a scandalous nightclub chanteuse. Colbert’s singing voice is passable but makes it clear why she didn’t star in musicals, though she “sells” the movie’s keynote song, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Love” by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger. (Rainger even turns up on camera as a pianist in one scene.)

Hot Saturday (1932) was a favorite of William K. Everson’s, and I first saw it ages ago when he screened it at the New School in Manhattan. It’s a modest film but awfully interesting on several counts: the winsome Nancy Carroll, whose career was on the downturn, is surrounded by two young leading men who were just beginning theirs, Cary Grant and Randolph Scott. (Carroll even takes second billing to newcomer Grant.) The supporting cast is well-chosen and features Edward Woods, Lilian Bond, William Collier, Sr., Jane Darwell, and my old favorite Grady Sutton. It was shot largely on location, in an unnamed small town just like the one it depicts, and at beautiful Lake Arrowhead. The film’s underscore is a virtual medley of tunes from that year’s Paramount musicals One Hour With You and Love Me Tonight, and there’s a catchy new song, “Burning For You,” by Sam Coslow and Arthur Johnston that isn’t cited in the credits and wasn’t even published. Best of all, the screenplay by the estimable Seton I. Miller (adapted by Josephine Lovett and Joseph Moncure March from a novel by Harvey Fergusson) captures the best and (mostly) worst aspects of small-town life, particularly the notion that everybody knows everybody else’s business. The reliable and underrated William Seiter maintains a light touch throughout this likable film.

The only one I haven’t had time to screen yet is the one I’ve never seen, the 1931 talkie remake of The Cheat starring Tallulah Bankhead. I hope to screen it soon and update this review. In the meantime, I encourage anyone who loves old movies to check out this well-priced DVD set. Incidentally, the cleverest bonus feature of the set is a reproduction of the actual 1934 Production Code manifesto. I wonder how many people have ever actually read it through?

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June 2024