There are three stages to a love affair with pre-Code movies:
Stage One: “What’s a pre-Code movie?”
Stage Two: “Hot damn! She’s really taking those off!”
Stage Three: “Why the hell haven’t more people heard of these?”
In case you’re still in stage one, you should know that pre-Code cinema refers to the body of movies produced in Hollywood between roughly 1929 and 1934, a period when the film industry was supposed to be censoring all risqué content. To say the least, it wasn’t.
So, if you associate old movies with plodding black-and-white boredom or family-safe entertainment, chances are you just haven’t seen the right pre-Code flick. You haven’t seen Barbara Stanwyck seducing a skyscraper full of businessmen. Or Jean Harlow flirtatiously baring her garters. Or Ann Dvorak screaming in a cocaine-fueled panic. When you start watching pre-Codes, the sheer amounts of sex, drugs, alcohol, and violence will shock and surprise you. (Stage two!) You’ll chuckle, you’ll do a few double takes, and you’ll understand that people in the 1930s were really no different from people today. Only better dressed.
However, as your addiction to pre-Code movies grows (Cue stage three!), you’ll realize that these films deserve profound respect. More than mere titillating relics of Hollywood gone wild, many of them rank among the boldest and best movies ever made.
I decided to do a pre-Code A to Z, with a different title for each letter in the alphabet, because I wanted to feature a weird, slightly arbitrary collection of pre-Codes instead of a traditional top ten. Make no mistake: I am not presenting this post as a definitive catalogue of the most important movies made during those years of innovation and excess.
Instead, consider this post a (hopefully) fun way to discover or rediscover one of the richest periods in American cinema. To that end, I’ve tried to mix old standbys with a few obscure gems. Please excuse me if your favorite doesn’t get a mention. By all means, though, feel free to mention it in a comment!
IMPORTANT NOTE: On each Friday of this month, September 2014, Turner Classic Movies is screening pre-Code movies. They’re showing most of the films on this list, the ones with asterisks by the titles. So there’s never been a better time to tune in and learn your ABCs…
Now, pick a letter and go to town.
A is for I’m No Angel* (Wesley Ruggles, 1933)
The Story: A canny circus dancer gains notoriety for taming lions—and rich society men.
Why You Should Watch It: Too many people remember Mae West solely as a curvaceous sex symbol, beckoning men into her boudoir. Too few realize that she wrote her own dialogue, outfoxed censors, and singlehandedly saved Paramount from financial collapse. In I’m No Angel, West rattles off enough quotable lines to put on every throw pillow in your house.
Pre-Code Content: Unrepentant gold-digging and premarital sex
B is for Baby Face* (Alfred E. Green, 1933)
The Story: Versed in Nietzsche as well as hard knocks, Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) literally sleeps her way to the top of an affluent bank, leaving wrecked lives in her wake.
Why You Should Watch It: Stanwyck delivered what might be the greatest performance of her career as the shrewd, sizzling Lily, fueled by rage and ambition. Her barely-concealed contempt for the lecherous men who see her body as their de facto property makes Baby Face something of a revenge fantasy. As she exploits the leering executives who think they’re exploiting her, every man’s dream turns into every man’s nightmare: a sex object with a brain.
Pre-Code Content: Lingerie (a given), implications of prostitution, interracial friendship, and enough implied sex to make a censor faint.
C is for Call Her Savage* (John Francis Dillon, 1932)
The Story: The willful daughter of a Texas rancher, Nasa Springer (Clara Bow) races from one catastrophe to another, plunging into catfights, barroom brawls, an abusive marriage, and prostitution.
Why You Should Watch It: The enormously popular ‘It Girl’ of the silent screen, Bow proved her acting chops for the sound era by transcending this melodrama’s overwhelming tawdriness. Interestingly enough, the film suggests that Nasa’s misfortunes stem from the corruption of the big city and of civilization in general. Only by returning to the serenity of nature can she be redeemed. Call her savage? Well, she’s not half as savage as the culture that makes her suffer.
Pre-Code Content: Erotic wrestling with a Great Dane, Clara Bow sans brassiere, a speakeasy, illicit sex, miscegenation—almost every pre-Code no-no, really.
D is for Design for Living* (Ernst Lubitsch, 1933)
The Story: Torn between the two gorgeous men in her life, Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) chooses both. And the threesome’s “gentleman’s agreement” to shun sex doesn’t stand a chance.
Why You Should Watch It: If I had to explain to someone what wit is—not to mention double entendre—I’d show them this movie. The Lubitsch touch will tickle you from beginning to end.
Pre-Code Content: Uh, it’s about a ménage à trois!
E is for Employees’ Entrance* (Roy Del Ruth, 1933)
The Story: Ruthless executive Kurt Anderson (Warren Wiliam) squeezes profit out of a vast department store during the Great Depression and treats the lady employees as his personal harem.
Why You Should Watch It: No pre-Code movie represented the harsh conditions facing working men and especially women with more conviction and honesty than Employees’ Entrance. Ironically, though, the hard-hitting drama showcases Warren William’s despicable charms at their zenith. William had an improbable knack for making audience members savor the misdeeds of the egotistical shysters they hated in real life. Because both the employees and their harsh bosses strike us as intriguing individuals with flaws and virtues, this portrait of a business coping with a bad economy crackles with realistic conflict.
Pre-Code Content: Levels of sexual harassment that even today’s creepiest senators would wince at; dialogue like, “Oh, it’s you. I didn’t know you with your clothes on.”; suicide
F is for Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)
The Story: Aw, come on. You gotta know this. It’s alive! It’s escaped! It’s running amok!
Why You Should Watch It: Sure, there’s no nudity, but Whale’s Frankenstein capitalized on pre-Code permissiveness by condensing Shelley’s novel down to a morbid meditation on unholy ambition. Dr. Frankenstein’s obsession with creating new life culminates in a line of dialogue so controversial that was cut from the film for years: “In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!”
Pre-Code Content: Heaping helpings of blasphemy, explicit drowning of a little girl, and graphic violence
G is for Gold Diggers of 1933* (Mervyn LeRoy and Busby Berkeley)
The Story: During the production of a big musical show, naive chorine Polly (Ruby Keeler) falls in love with a young songwriter (Dick Powell), but his wealthy brother (Warren William) objects to the match. Polly’s wisecracking roommates (Joan Blondell and Aline MacMahon) set out to hustle the millionaire.
Why You Should Watch It: Pure cinema. Like pornography, it’s something difficult to describe, but you know it when you see it. And if you don’t see it in Busby Berkeley’s dazzling sequences of audiovisual ecstasy, maybe you need to have your eyes examined. Harnessing the power of the film medium, Berkeley imagined musical numbers that never could’ve existed on a stage and arranged mind-boggling geometric pattens with human bodies. From the upbeat “We’re in the Money” opening to the heartbreaking “Remember My Forgotten Man” finale, Gold Diggers choreographs both the fantasies and the realities of the Depression.
Pre-Code Content: Characters who run around in their lingerie most of the time, a steady stream of innuendo, and an entire musical number devoted to the delight of getting frisky in public spaces.
H is for Hot Saturday* (William A. Seiter, 1933)
The Story: A well-behaved bank clerk (Nancy Carroll), forced by circumstances to spend an innocent night in the local Casanova’s house, faces ostracism from her town’s pack of busybodies.
Why You Should Watch It: Because it totally nails small-town hypocrisy and, in so doing, thumbs its nose at the narrow morals imposed by the Production Code. Rather than stoning the “sinner” and rewarding the self-righteous, Hot Saturday gives a happy ending to its wronged protagonist and mercilessly mocks the so-called guardians of decency. Plus, super-young Cary Grant as the town bad boy gives us all a reason to lose our reputations with a smile.
Pre-Code Content: A nearly nude Carroll, two sisters fighting over their underwear, attempted rape, non-stop gossip about sex
I is for I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)
The Story: Wrongly arrested for petty theft, a Depression-era bum (Paul Muni) endures years of hard labor on a chain gang.
Why You Should Watch It: During the pre-Code years, the energizing anarchy of popular gangster movies was balanced out by bleak, often claustrophobic prison movies. In this biting example, the justice system so comprehensively fails our innocent protagonist that he has no choice but to resort to crime. How’s that for irony?
Pre-Code Content: Extensive depictions of prison beatings, some illicit sex, sympathetic portrayal of theft and escaped convicts
J is for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde* (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931)
The Story: There’s good and evil in every man, and when Dr. Jekyll (Fredric March) concocts a potion to separate the two he unleashes his brutish alter ego upon the world.
Why You Should Watch It: The most unsettling adaptation of Stevenson’s horror classic, this version emphasizes Hyde’s animalistic brutality while clearly suggesting that such ugliness lurks within all humanity. The transformation scene—done in a single take using special colored makeup and camera filters—remains just as amazing 80 years later. And the scenes of Hyde’s gleeful abuse inflicted on the prostitute Ivy remain just as chilling.
Pre-Code Content: Prostitution, Hopkins naked in bed, gruesome scenes of violence
K is for Kongo (William J. Cowen, 1932)
The Story: In a hellish region of jungle, paraplegic tyrant ‘Deadlegs’ Flint (Walter Huston) wreaks revenge on the rival who stole his wife by subjecting the man’s daughter to every imaginable form of degradation.
Why You Should Watch It: Grimy, sweaty, and generally repellent, Kongo gets my nod for the most disturbing film of the pre-Code era. However, under its layers of shock value, Kongo reveals a streak of heartbreaking tragedy, supported by a ferocious performance from Huston.
Pre-Code Content: Incest, prostitution, drug abuse, torture… you name it.
L is for Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932)
The Story: Going to collect a debt at a chateau, a Parisian tailor (Maurice Chevalier) decides to pawn himself off as an aristocrat and woo an ethereal princess (Jeannette MacDonald).
Why You Should Watch It: Busby Berkeley wasn’t the only innovator working in the musical genre during the early 1930s. Rouben Mamoulian pulled out the whole toolkit of movie magic, including fast and slow motion, superimposition, and oodles of camera movements, to add sparkle to this naughty romance. Flowing seamlessly into the plot, the musical numbers, including a wonderful stroll down a Paris street, brim with humor and ease. Fair warning though: you might not be able to get “Isn’t It Romantic?” out of your head.
Pre-Code Content: Myrna Loy as a nymphomaniac, extensive leering, lingerie, and almost constant risqué banter
M is for Man’s Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933)
The Story: A roguish drifter (Spencer Tracy) falls for an idealistic waif (Loretta Young), moves her into his shantytown, and struggles with the prospect of settling down.
Why You Should Watch It: Like a daisy growing out of asphalt, Man’s Castle reminds the viewer of the miraculous persistence of beauty, hope, and love during the darkest times. This shimmering, sadly little-known masterpiece reframes the tribulations of the Depression as surreal fairy tale obstacles and teases disarmingly vulnerable performances from Young and Tracy.
Pre-Code Content: Skinny dipping, racy banter, premarital sex, discussions of pregnancy and possible abortion, unpunished crime
N is for Night Nurse* (William Wellman, 1931)
The Story: Assigned to care for two rich, neglected children, a tough nurse (Barbara Stanwyck) vows to protect them from a scheming chauffeur (a moustache-less Clark Gable).
Why You Should Watch It: Having a bad day? Watch Stanwyck punch out an offensive drunk. I promise, you’ll feel better. You might also want to watch this for the chance to see Stanwyck and Joan Blondell taking off their clothes. And by clothes, I mean nurse uniforms. Really. This movie is so fetishistic at times that I worry I’ve been added to some sort of cautionary watch list for buying it.
Pre-Code Content: Lingerie, girl-on-girl cuddling in said lingerie, drunkenness, sympathetic gangsters, unpunished murder
O is for One-Way Passage (Tay Garnett, 1932)
The Story: On a ship bound for America, a convicted murderer (William Powell) and a dying woman (Kay Francis) fall in love and decide to seize their brief window of happiness.
Why You Should Watch It: Pre-Code Warner Brothers specialized in gritty, rough-and-tumble plots torn straight from the front page, but this tender love story shows that the studio could also excel at more sentimental fare. Melancholy but never mawkish, the romance between Francis and Powell urges us all to make the most of life’s fleeting joys.
Pre-Code Content: Likable criminals, a cop who lets a certain pretty crook go, and the sexiest ellipsis you ever saw
P is for The Public Enemy* (William Wellman, 1931)
The Story: An Irish hoodlum takes over a piece of the bootlegging racket, incurring the wrath of his war hero brother.
Why You Should Watch It: James Cagney’s performance as Tom Powers forever defined the 1930s gangster—carnivorously attractive, irrepressibly cocky, and, when provoked, utterly remorseless. Little Caesar came first and Scarface boasted more splashy violence, but The Public Enemy best captured the take-no-prisoners stakes of bootlegging. William Wellman cleverly amplified the impact of violent outbursts by hiding them off-screen, so that when the final blow comes at the movie’s conclusion, we’re left reeling and horrified.
Pre-Code Content: Exciting and glamorous depictions of the gangster lifestyle
Q is for Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933)
The Story: Wise Queen Christina attempts to steer Sweden’s macho government towards peace and progress, but her love affair with a Spanish emissary jeopardizes the future of her reign.
Why You Should Watch It: Never has diplomacy seemed so sexy. Garbo’s Queen Christina would be imposing and controversial even today. Not unlike the high-rolling woman executive in the corporate drama Female (made the same year), Christina rules her love life and her country with the same unabashed pride and control.
Pre-Code Content: Cross-dressing, not-so-subtle intimations of bisexuality, and intoxicatingly sensual love scenes.
R is for Red-Headed Woman* (Jack Conway, 1932)
The Story: A low-class secretary (Jean Harlow) schemes her way into her employer’s bed—and his wallet.
Why You Should Watch It: Harlow turns in a flagrant and fetching performance, cooing like a baby, flashing her underwear, and feistily haranguing any stuffy hypocrites who criticize her. In contrast to the bitterness of Baby Face, this brisk comedy encourages us to laugh with the brazen gold-digging protagonist as she twists men around her little finger.
Pre-Code Content: Harlow taking off her clothes, forcefully seducing gullible idiots, shooting her ex-lover, and getting away with it all scot-free.
S is for The Story of Temple Drake* (Stephen Roberts, 1933)
The Story: Assaulted and kidnapped by a sadistic gangster (Jack LaRue), privileged Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) copes with her shame and longs to escape. Will she have the courage to return home and come forward with the truth about what happened?
Why You Should Watch It: Who would have thought that such a sordid story could look so beautiful? Based on Faulkner’s scandalous Sanctuary, this landmark of pre-Code cinema combines the eloquent visual storytelling of the silent era with the advantages of sound.
Pre-Code Content: Rape, murder, bootlegging, a practically nude Hopkins—this one is not for the faint of heart!
T is for Three on a Match* (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)
The Story: Reckless Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak) marries well but bores easily. When she gets mixed up with a petty racketeer, she puts her young child in danger.
Why You Should Watch It: One word—Dvorak. I wonder how the film strip itself didn’t melt under the heat of her blisteringly intense performance as a pampered wife who devolves into a grungy cokehead.
Pre-Code Content: Oh, boy… drugs, sex, child abuse, violence, lingerie. This one seems to make it onto everybody’s pre-Code list, and deservedly so.
U is for Under Eighteen (Archie Mayo, 1932)
The Story: Saddled with the responsibility for her family during the Depression, a plucky teen (Marian Marsh) approaches a wolfish tycoon (Warren William, who else?) to help her sister escape a bad marriage.
Why You Should Watch It: Warren William utters one of the most famous lines of the pre-Code era, “Why don’t you take off your clothes and stay a while?” Despite an egregious cop-out ending, Under Eighteen actually offers an interesting commentary on male hypocrisy. Whether men actively victimize women or passively stand by, the film makes it clear that they’re part of the problem.
Pre-Code Content: Gaggles of models undressing, illicit affairs, and an appropriately loathsome depiction of an abusive husband and domestic violence
V is for Virtue* (Edward Buzzell, 1932)
The Story: A New York streetwalker (Carole Lombard) falls for a cab driver (Pat O’Brien) and jumps at the chance to marry him, but his lack of trust strains their relationship.
Why You Should Watch It: A lot of pre-Code movies deal with the difficulties of a disgraced woman trying to go straight. What sets this one apart is the slangy, authentic rhythm of the dialogue, written by the great Robert Riskin, and the warm chemistry between Lombard and O’Brien.
Pre-Code Content: Prostitution as a major plot element (empathetically depicted, too) and an onscreen murder
W is for What Price Hollywood? (George Cukor, 1932)
The Story: A waitress at the Brown Derby (Constance Bennett) dreams of becoming a movie star. When she gets her wish, however, she learns how cruel fame can be.
Why You Should Watch It: Cukor’s obscure but astonishingly great melodrama satirizes Tinseltown as a purveyor of toxic illusions. With its tantalizing glimpses behind the scenes of early 1930s moviemaking, What Price Hollywood? deconstructs the glamorous myths of the studio system and bares the mercilessness of both the film industry and the public it feeds.
Pre-Code Content: Lingerie, alcoholism, divorce, and a vivid suicide scene
X is for Doctor X (Michael Curtiz, 1932)
The Story: A streetwise reporter (Lee Tracy) races to find a serial killer among a group of sinister doctors before the maniac strikes again.
Why You Should Watch It: One of only a few feature films shot in early two-strip Technicolor, this thriller not only serves up some serious pink- and green-tinged eye candy, but also treats us to one of the decade’s craziest plots.
Pre-Code Content: Nightmarish makeup; allusions to sexual assault, cannibalism, and serial killings; Fay Wray in a skimpy negligée
Y is for The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra, 1933)
The Story: Held prisoner by a Chinese warlord (Nils Asther), an American missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) struggles to reform her captor even as she confronts her own ingrained prejudice.
Why You Should Watch It: The name Frank Capra tends to conjure nostalgic visions of America as it was, but this lush, exotic tale of forbidden love stands out as one of his most complex works.
Pre-Code Content: Interracial eroticism, discussions of Christian hypocrisy
Z is for Murders at the Zoo (A. Edward Sutherland, 1933)
The Story: A pathologically jealous millionaire (Lionel Atwill) conspires to bump off any man he suspects of touching his wife. And, given his passion for wild animals, he’s not at a loss of ways to dispose of the perceived interlopers.
Why You Should Watch It: When a movie starts with a guy having his mouth stitched shut, you know you’re in for a real bloodbath. This proto-slasher contains some of the most luridly violent scenes you’ll catch in a classic Hollywood movie.
Pre-Code Content: Hints of bestiality, scatological humor, kinky innuendos, casual adultery, and lurid violence.