Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Some choice Pre-Code movies

That Pre-Code era of the 1930s is well documented now, when Hollywood was turning out lots of racy movies between 1929 and '34 which are quite suggestive and even flaunt nudity - that locker room scene (above) from the 1934 title SEARCH FOR BEAUTY would be unimaginable in the '40s or the '50s (no nudity in the locker room in PICNIC!). The Pre-Code era flouted censorship and pushed the boundaries when producers and directors found ways to suggest topics which sold tickets during the Depression era. The self-censoring Production Code by the movie industry (to avoid further regulation) came into operation in 1934 which immediately toned down the likes of Mae West ... as Code chief Joseph Breen had the power to veto any film. Without his seal of approval movies could not be shown and studios fined if they violated the Code, which of course encouraged movie makers to suggest what could not be shown. Here are some of my particular favourites:

MIDNIGHT MARY is a terrific snappy little thriller from William Wellman in '33, with Loretta Young at her loveliest as the girl (she is shown as a child of 10 with clever use of camera setups) who becomes involved with gangsters and society guy Franchot Tone. Its sheer delight.

FRISCO JENNY is another Wellman from the same period, a darker tale with Ruth Chatterton as the San Francisco madam working her way up high society, giving up her son - its almost like MADAME X - who defends her in court at the end, not knowing who she is. Its hardboiled and tough, just like Jenny herself.

THE HATCHET MAN is an amazing little thriller from '32, also by Wellman, with Edward G Robinson and Loretta Young both playing Chinese in a tough tale of a Tong executioner and the girl he falls for.

MAN'S CASTLE from Frank Borzage is the quintesstial Depression tale with a lot of poetic realism as Spencer Tracy and Loretta (as the ideal depression waif) try to rise above the shantytown slum around them. Tracy and Young did have a romance during the film, but both being Catholics, it could not last. Loretta was one of the most prolific stars of the '30s - with 9 movies in 1933 alone! She is a recent discovery for me as her cinema career was over by the time I started movie-going in the '50s and I never saw her television series but just knew her from her strait-laced '40s persona. Back in the '30s though it was a different story, she is also terrific in ZOO IN BUDAPEST and De Mille's THE CRUSADES.

BABY FACE must be one of the best known pre-codes as Barbara Stanwyck brazenly works her way up to the executive suite by snaring all those hapless men en route. The tagline went: "She climbed the ladder of success, wrong by wrong"!

BED OF ROSES is another delightful 1933 title by Gregory La Cava, with Constance Bennett perfect as the girl on the make as she and a pal, ex-hookers, leave prison and determine to fleece some more suckers. Joel McCrea is the nice guy she falls for on his riverboat. It's very suggestive as it shows her blackmailing the rich guy and causing mayhem until she realises what she really wants ...

SEARCH FOR BEAUTY by the (unknown to me) Erle Kenton must be one of the most visually clever films of the pre-code era. It shows con artists duping Olympic athletes into appearing in their porn magazine and shows ladies blatantly focusing on the crotches of the swimmers, as young Buster Crabble and an uncrecognisable Ida Lupino star, and there are no inhibitions in the locker room.

A good starting point for Pre-Code films is the box-set "Pre-Code Hollywood", which has 6 interesting items: Tallulah Bankhead in THE CHEAT, Dorothy Arzner's MERRILY WE GO TO HELL with Fredric March and Sylvia Sidney; Randolph Scott and Cary Grant in HOT SATURDAY with Nancy Carroll, Claudette Colbert in TORCH SINGER, the aforementioned SEARCH FOR BEAUTY and all those semi-naked chorus girls in MURDER AT THE VANITIES by Mitchell Leisen, which got into circulation just before the Code came into force! There is also the "Forbidden Hollywood" series.
LADIES IN LOVE may not be Pre-Code as such, being 1936, but its one I like a lot now and was a terrific discovery last year. Probably the first of the Fox '3- girls-sharing-an-apartment-and-looking-for-love' movies it is set in Budapest and teams up Loretta Young, Constance Bennett and Janet Gaynor, with a young Tyrone Power and Paul Lukas in support, as well as Simone Simon. The others may look dated now, but Loretta is lovely and quite modern here, nicely dressed in black and white outfits, with interesting line readings and just being very appealing. [This was just after Loretta's CALL OF THE WILD with Clark Gable which resulted in her having his baby (on the rebound from her romance with Tracy) which she later adopted; Loretta was later one of Hollywood's most prominent Roman Catholics].

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