A new and remarkable energy animated the American cinema between the coming of sound at the end of the 1920’s and the strict enforcement of the 1934 Production Code censoring "unwholesome" onscreen behavior. During the pre-Code era Hollywood found commercial and critical success in a series of films that radically expanded the previously acceptable thresholds for exploring sex and crime related themes. The twilight of the Jazz Age and the Great Depression encouraged directors and screenwriters to seriously
examine the moral and sociopolitical underpinnings of the changing nation through frank and, quite often, extremely graphic stories designed to titillate and shock. Encouraged by the box office, Hollywood produced startling depictions of infidelity, prostitution, drug use, crime, homosexuality and miscegenation. The injustices of corporate capitalism and the sexual experimentation of the period, particularly by women, were also newly exploited as fitting subjects for the screen.
The frequent mythologization of the pre-Code cinema as an apogee of daring and uncompromised studio filmmaking often obscures the fact that the compromise of the Production Code was, in fact, self-imposed by the studios themselves. Although Hollywood directors and screenwriters would ultimately discover a creative friction working with and against subsequent censorship rules, the films of the pre-Code era reveal the potential of a decidedly unruly cinema largely unrestrained by the mores of polite society. In tribute to and in celebration of this unique and fertile period in American film history the HFA presents a selection of films from pre-Code Hollywood designed to enlighten, shock and entertain.
Special thanks to Mimi Brody of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, Schawn Belston of Fox and Mike Mashon of the Library of Congress.
Directed by John Francis Dillon.
With Clara Bow, Gilbert Roland, Thelma Todd
US 1932, 35mm, b/w, 87 min.
Former "It" Girl Clara Bow blazed her way into the 1930’s with this scorching cautionary tale about a Texas
debutante gone bad. Adultery and miscegenation, strict taboos of the Hays Code, are mere details in Nasa "Dynamite" Springer's whirlwind life of spirited rebellion and debauchery. One of the most beloved films of pre-Code aficionados, Call Her Savage features a fascinating Hollywood recreation of a Greenwich Village cabaret, complete with a pair of mincing pansies and a slumming expedition. A subversive and wickedly entertaining film. Print courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Directed by Rowland Brown.
With George Bancroft, Frances Dee, Judith Anderson
US 1933, 35mm, b/w, 65 min.
A minor masterpiece by one of the 1930s great overlooked talents, Roland Brown, Blood Money offers a biting portrait of corporate capitalism as a mad circus run by thieves and perverts. Brown assembles a fascinating line-up of rogues from Los Angeles’ seedy underbelly – sexual masochists, cross-dressing lesbians, kleptomaniacs and corrupt politicians. George Bancroft stars as Bailey, a crooked bail bondsman smitten with a nubile and rich nymphomaniac who is also one of his clients. Eager for an extra set of manhandling hands, she in turn falls for a young bank robber, who pulls the whole lot into a
citywide scandal. Print courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Directed by Erle C. Kenton.
With Larry "Buster" Crabbe, Ida Lupino, Robert Armstrong
US 1934, 35mm, b/w, 78 min.
Ida Lupino’s riotous American screen debut is a risqué tale of two
Olympic athletes duped by a pair of unscrupulous hustlers into fronting a nudie tabloid disguised as a fitness magazine. While the athletes dream of opening a fitness resort, their patrons have other ideas. Much like the magazine at the center of the film, Search for Beauty itself often seems to be little more than an excuse to parade cheese - and beefcake - before the camera. The result is an entertaining comedy with a playfully
dirty mind. Print courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Directed by Ralph Murphy.
With Charles Farrell, Marguerite Churchill, Charlie Ruggles
US 1933, 35mm, b/w, 75 min.
This musical romp through bohemian Paris stars Charles Farrell as an
amateur American painter who wins an all-expenses-paid trip to the City of Light to study art. But the Tennessee wallflower (who uses his imagination to paint nudes, out of modesty) falls in with a boisterous crowd in turn of the century Montparnasse and gets schooled in affairs of a more indelicate nature. In the film's très moderne nightclubs and starving artists' lofts, anything goes as Paris' finest vamps and chiselers exploit the "banjo-eyed numbskull" for a good time. Print courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy.
With Edward G. Robinson, Vivienne Osborn
US 1932, 35mm, b/w, 68 min.
Strapped to the electric chair, John Allen (Robinson) recalls the sordid circumstances leading to his murder conviction. In the final moments of his life, memories of the doomed man's past rush in. Robinson's incredible performance – one of the highlights of his storied career – makes palpably real the struggles of a riveter with grand ambitions destroyed by a loveless marriage and a scheming taxi dancer. Following the success of Little Caesar, Robinson and director Mervyn LeRoy reunited to deliver this disturbing tale of crime and its cruel punishment. Print courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Directed by William Wellman.
With Frankie Darro, Edwin Phillips
US 1933, 35mm, b/w, 68 min.
Impoverished by the Depression, teenage buddies Tom and Ed take
off to fend for themselves and lighten their unemployed parents' load. Far from home, the boys' romantic dreams of new found freedom and idyllic odyssey are shattered by the brutal lessons of the dog-eat-dog nature of life on the ragged fringes of
society. Director Wellman (Public Enemy) brings a vivid ferocity to this hard-edged road movie. Such clear-eyed and unflinching depictions of poverty, lawlessness and the victimization of youth would soon become rare in Hollywood. Print courtesy of Warner Brothers.
Directed by William Cowen.
With Walter Huston, Lupe Velez, Conrad Nagel
US 1932, 35mm, b/w, 86 min.
One of the most shocking and lurid films of the pre-Code era, this underrated gem stars Walter Huston as "Deadlegs" Flint, a ruthless trader in the Congo who seeks revenge on the man who crippled him by tormenting his daughter (Velez), dragging her from a convent to a brothel. Deep in the jungle, Flint rules over a rogue's gallery of grotesques with sex, drugs and alcohol – not to mention – leeches! Not for the fainthearted. Print courtesy of Warner Brothers.
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
With Fredric March, Claudette Colbert, Charles Laughton
US 1932, 35mm, b/w, 122 min.
Cecil B. DeMille pulls out all the stops in this tale of early Christians
persecuted in ancient Rome. Charles Laughton stars as a leering, lascivious Nero, complete with spit curls. In the words of Paramount's publicity, "Rome burns again! The sets are marvelous and the costumes spell sex. There's Claudette Colbert in a milk bath. And Fredric March using the sensuous Joyzelle [as a dancing slave] to break down the resistance of Elissa Landi [as a virtuous young Christian] – mentally, and how!" Print courtesy of the University of California Los Angeles Film & Television Archive.
Directed by Roy del Ruth.
With Warren William, Loretta Young, Wallace Ford
US 1933, 35mm, b/w, 75 min.
Employee's Entrance offers a deeply cynical look into the cutthroat world of the skyscraper boardrooms floating above the miseries of the Depression era. The ever-dastardly Warren William stars as a self-made mogul who rules his department store with an iron fist and a ruthless drive, in sharp contrast to the calcified stasis embodied by his cautious board of directors. Cracking wise and gleefully driving his enemies to suicide, William remains a very modern and disturbingly seductive anti-hero. Loretta Young co-stars as one of the unemployed driven to desperate measures. Print courtesy of Warner Brothers.
Directed by Michael Curtiz.
With Ruth Chatterton, George Brent, Lois Wilson
US 1933, 35mm, b/w, 60 min.
Ruth Chatterton is Alison Drake, the owner of an automobile factory who, like a latter-day Catherine the Great, keeps a stable of studs chosen from among her comeliest male employees. But as soon as any of them show signs of wanting some romance along with their sex, Alison cuts them loose. She finally meets her match in the form of George Brent – Chatterton's real husband at the time – who drives her nuts by resisting her entirely. Sadly overlooked today, Chatterton was one of the greatest female stars of the pre-Code era. Print courtesy of Warner Brothers.