Pre-Code Hollywood Collection Review

Reveling in sex and alcohol, six rarely shown films, all made before Hollywood clamped down on decency, are unleashed from Universal and reviewed by clydefro.

Though less remarkable individually, the six Paramount films collected by Universal for its Pre-Code Hollywood Collection combine for a consistently interesting package. There’s sex, sin, scandal, and alcohol. But mostly sex. When the Production Code, also commonly known as the Hays Code after its straitlaced architect Will Hays, was finally given teeth by head censor Joseph Breen in mid-1934 the impetus seemed to be a desire to tone down a perceived bawdiness in Hollywood. The Code included provisions that effectively muted violence and the lionisation of gangsters, ensuring no clean getaways, but the main target always seemed to be sex. Whether it was restricting how much flesh could be shown, the portrayal of unmarried relations and/or pregnancy, or any insinuation that most anyone anywhere was engaging in a sexual act, the limitations of what could and could not be shown in an approved movie usually revolved around sex.

Thus, the unbridled joy in watching Hollywood films made prior to the Code being enforced is in how blatantly sex was flaunted. It would take over thirty years before movies were this free to address audiences again, and it’s all been handled with far less charm ever since. These movies, usually made between 1930 and 1934, are far more provocative than nearly anything that’s come down the pipeline over the past sixty to seventy years. We titter and snicker because of how unexpected it is to see the things these pictures showed and hear the things that came out of the mouths of Lombard or Stanwyck or Colbert or any number of other actresses. The situations are often adult in nature and intentionally provocative because that’s what audiences most responded to at the time. This was the era of the Great Depression, when people were justifiably down and looking for escapism without being pandered to or beaten over the head with someone else’s morals. Prohibition was even in effect through 1933. Times were rough and the last thing audiences wanted to be told was that they couldn’t see a pretty actress in a negligee.

And now we’re in 2009 and I’m not sure times are quite as different as conventional wisdom might suggest. Certainly we’re inundated with sex as a tool for commerce at every turn. Somehow, none of it feels quite as naughty as watching Nancy Carroll throw the actress playing her sister in Hot Saturday down on the bed as she rips off her underpants. There’s an issue of context that dictates just how shocked a viewer will be from one film to the next. Our collective jadedness won’t allow for much of a jaw drop when watching whatever lowbrow shenanigans the latest box office hit has to offer, but the expectations are far different with older movies. Anything that feels weird or odd or strangely off-kilter tends to get our attention. The Pre-Code films generally run only 70 or 80 minutes, but the best ones will leave you gasping half a dozen times or more.

The current economic climate of uncertainty and despair are unfortunately part of a shared dilemma audiences of today have with those of the Pre-Code era. References to the Depression in these movies sting a bit sharper now than they might have a couple of years ago. Whether Universal recognised this newfound relevance or was simply following the lead of Warner Bros. – now up to three volumes in its Forbidden Hollywood DVD series – having six previously unreleased and somewhat rare films spread across three discs for this new set is a big step in the right direction. I don’t know how many people were necessarily clamouring for these particular choices, and there’s no denying that Universal just keeps sitting on a treasure trove of early Paramount films not yet available on DVD, but I’ll take what they’re offering without much complaint. That would be: Tallulah Bankhead in The Cheat, the deliciously titled Merrily We Go to Hell with Fredric March and Sylvia Sidney, Hot Saturday featuring real life pals Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, Torch Singer starring Claudette Colbert, an early Mitchell Leisen picture called Murder at the Vanities, and Buster Crabbe and Ida Lupino in Search for Beauty.

The Cheat (1931, 68 mins.) can lay claim to one of those huge moments where even the most cynical of viewers will be forgiven for letting out an audible gasp of disbelief. Without wanting to build it up too much or ruin the surprise, I’ll hint that the moment in question involves Bankhead, Irving Pichel, who is probably better recognised for his work behind the camera, and hot, searing metal. If I’m taken aback at a scene like that, how would the audiences of 1931 have reacted? Your mind can turn in the direction of it being camp now, but the scene certainly opens the eyes. The rest of the movie is maybe less remarkable, though seeing Tallulah Bankhead on screen is always a treat since she made so few pictures, and Pichel’s character Livingston is utterly depraved. There’s also an intriguing poke at the stock market by equating its uncertainty with the high stakes gambling Bankhead falls victim to before seeking help from her admirer Livingston.

Like most all films of this period, the plot isn’t terribly inventive and it’s the odd quirks like Livingston’s obsession with the Far East and the dolls he makes for all of his sexual conquests that tend to linger after the end credits. Bankhead plays a woman with a gambling problem who loses ten grand on a simple high card bet. She’s afraid to tell her husband Jeffrey (Harvey Stephens) and instead it’s Livingston who offers to give her the money. With strings attached. When a stock tip looks to be can’t-miss, she bets, er invests another $10,000 that isn’t even hers and is intended to fund party expenses. Now down $20,000, she revisits Livingston’s offer, but struggles mightily with the idea of selling herself to repay the debt. Things soon take a turn for the worse and we end up with a courtroom finale and confession ending. Not bad for less than 68 minutes.

A little longer and maybe a little better overall, Dorothy Arzner’s Merrily We Go to Hell (1932, 83 mins.) stars Sylvia Sidney as the daughter of a coffee magnate and Fredric March as a newspaper man with a drinking problem. They meet at a party and, despite the disapproval of Mr. coffee, Sidney falls hard for March, who’s been nursing the wounds of his last relationship – an actress – for awhile. The performances from the two leads are really the main attraction. March was a brilliant actor, quite possibly the finest America had to offer on film in the ’30s, and Sidney has probably never gotten the acclaim she deserved. They really lend a sense of realism and depth to the relationship. I was particularly impressed with Sidney here. She’s marvelous as a lonely young woman who’s never sure whether men are interested in her or her father’s money. Determined to stick with March through most anything, she conveys a beautifully delicate sense of being in love. Her performance makes the behaviour of March’s character seem even worse than it is.

There’s some wonderful discussion of the so-called “modern marriage” of the day in the film. It’s basically referring to an open marriage, which I have to admit not realising that many couples in 1932 were particularly keen on having. When March sells a play and it conveniently turns out that his lost love is to star, poor Sidney suffers before reaching her breaking point. “Single life, double beds, and triple bromides in the morning,” she says. Enter a young Cary Grant, briefly appearing to co-star in March’s play and develop an interest in Sidney. Even Cary’s not enough to keep Sidney in New York, though, and she moves back home to Chicago after seeing March kiss his leading lady without any shame. Because it’s Hollywood and audiences ultimately want conflicts to be resolved favourably, hope glimmers on. March nicely balances being an asshole when a bottle’s around and still eliciting our sympathy when Sidney leaves. These are two characters we actually want to end up together.

Contrast that with the apathy felt for Nancy Carroll’s Ruth and Cary Grant as the aristocratic Romer Sheffield in Hot Saturday (1932, 73 mins.). Directed by George Abbott, the film is notable mainly as a too-serious screed against small town gossip, the kind that ruins a girl’s reputation, and for that panty removal scene mentioned above. Ruth gets completely ostracised from the community and fired from her job due to exaggerated rumours and innuendo over Sheffield’s car taking her home late one night. Crushed, she tracks down family friend Bill (Randolph Scott), who’s in town on an expedition, and collapses mud-soaked in his tent. We see Bill start to relieve Ruth of her dirty clothing and then a cut to her undergarments hanging from a line as she wakes up, naked and wrapped in a blanket. And Bill is the one Ruth’s parents want her to marry! The innocent night out at Sheffield’s has further repercussions when Bill, now engaged to Ruth, learns of the incident and immediately assigns guilt to his fiancée.

There’s not much else going on in Hot Saturday. The film’s title refers to when the town’s young working class cut loose dancing and drinking and taking illicit boat rides. Then if the girls do anything that might be construed as unladylike they face the wrath of the gossip brigade. That’s the idea at least. We actually only see Ruth made a victim of nosy telephone chatters, and the other girls either do well to hide their indiscretions or no one cares. The implication is never that everyone else is completely chaste. If Carroll was a more appealing actress there might then be some sympathy for Ruth, but the total destruction of her reputation is done in such broad fashion it can hardly be taken seriously. Whether Ruth goes for Bill or Romer it wouldn’t register either way. While Grant’s a magnetic enough actor to always draw attention, especially when he’s sporting a resplendent white suit, his character in the film is a bit perplexing. He’s rich, lives in a huge house with an Asian manservant, and paid off his girlfriend just to stay away. Yet, Sheffield also has this nice guy veneer he projects that doesn’t compute with the rest of the package.

Speaking of personality changes, Claudette Colbert plays one character with at least three distinctly different identities in Torch Singer (1933, 72 mins.). The film, credited to both Alexander Hall and George Somnes, lets Colbert run the gamut from unwed mother who must give up her daughter for adoption to sultry and scandalous night club singer who takes on the persona of radio host “Aunt Jenny” to tuck children in with bedtime stories and lullabies. What initially looks like a melodrama-laced weepie quickly picks up the pace to have a little fun amid the tears. Only a commanding actress of Colbert’s calibre, especially at this stage of her career, could so ably carry a movie that has as neat a bow tied on its ending as you’ll ever witness. She goes from Sally Trent, a pregnant gal down on her luck and forced to give birth at a free clinic operated by nuns, to the glamourous crooner Mimi Benton, looked down upon by women and fawned over by men.

Colbert sings enough to qualify the picture as a semi-musical, and she really comes into her own when extemporaneously taking the microphone to become wholesome Aunt Jenny. After the character receives a generous amount of positive feedback from radio listeners, the station and sponsor are persuaded to keep Sally/Mimi around as long as she keeps her real identity a secret. We get an amusing scene where Colbert, who’s insisted on doing the programme from her home, performs for all the little boys and girls listening in while firmly grasping (and sampling) a drink. Like sex, alcohol flowed quite freely in the days before the Code, often without any finger wagging. I’m not sure drinking has ever been portrayed as jovially in film as we tend to see it in the early ’30s, when, of course, it was illegal to purchase. People get drunk, even go on benders like Colbert does in Torch Singer, but the alcoholism as disease angle isn’t really broached until maybe Billy Wilder’s adaptation of The Lost Weekend, in 1945. More commonly, it provides another hurdle for the protagonist to fight through, as with Colbert straightening up long enough to garble a plea across the radio in the hope of a reunion with her little girl.

For something off on an entirely different wavelength than the previous four films in the set, take a look at Murder at the Vanities (1934, 89 mins.). Or don’t. Yeah, probably don’t. Most people eager to own or rent these movies are unlikely to skip one, but take heed that this thing is a total mess. With authorship attributed in the credits to Earl Carroll, who produced, directed and co-wrote the Broadway play, and director Mitchell Leisen’s name thrown in somewhere in the middle of the opening titles, I’m not sure which of the two deserves primary blame. I’d also question why Universal included this movie at all. It qualifies as Pre-Code with ample amounts of flesh from a parade of pretty girls – I spotted Lucille Ball around the 16:34 mark – but the nearly ninety minute runtime and insistence on one production number after another mashed against two backstage murders really ruins the snappy momentum from the other five films. Even a performance from Duke Ellington can’t save the picture.

It’s not that the mere idea of endless production numbers and a pair of backstage murders is unappealing on its surface. Clearly, however, these aren’t Busby Berkeley-level dance routines or Hammettesque whodunits. We’re stuck with lifeless songs made interesting solely on how skimpy the outfits of the background dancers are. This culminates in the “Sweet Marijuana” number with topless girls holding their arms over their chests while sitting on fake plants and one brave blonde getting blood dripped on her bare shoulder from the corpse in the rafters. (The scene probably sounds more exciting than it actually is.) When pretty ladies sprawl out in huge clams it’s not half as clever as it could be. In between the dancing doll routines a plot of some sort attempts to poke us awake. It’s dreadful. An accented Carl Brisson speaks his lines with all the emotion we’d expect from a Danish ex-boxer playing a Viennese singer. He’s one of the many suspects when a murder is closely followed by another. Kitty Carlisle makes her film debut as Brisson’s betrothed while Jack Oakie is the show’s producer. Despite the two murders, neither Oakie nor Victor McLaglen as the NYC police lieutenant trying to make sense of the whole thing and land a date with one of the chorus girls in the process seems too distressed by the end. Bubbly Toby Wing makes the best of her short screen time, but has an even better go of it in the other film on the disc.

Search for Beauty (1934, 78 mins.) lets Wing dance on a table in lingerie while surrounding men hoot, holler and ogle. Subtlety is not the film’s strong suit. I’m not entirely confident it really has a strong suit, but I am positive that it would crush any eggshells in its path. Out fresh-faced stars are Larry “Buster” Crabbe, a couple years prior to Flash Gordon, and a very young (19 or 20) Ida Lupino sporting blonde hair and badly drawn eyebrows. Actual gold medal-winning swimmer Crabbe plays gold medal-winning swimmer Don Jackson. Lupino’s character Barbara Hilton is shown winning a gold of her own at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The plot finds the squeaky clean duo inadvertently roped into becoming editors for a skin magazine. Robert Armstrong (“Carl Denham” in King Kong) and Gertrude Michael co-star with James Gleason as newly freed ex-cons trying to make it big with a dusty health and exercise rag. They plan to liven things up by cashing in on the gold medal winners’ names while filling the pages with pin-ups and tawdry stories.

Buster and Ida are appalled at the trashy nature of something their names are attached too so they make a deal to open up Health Acres as a hotel with mandatory exercise. Since it’s being staffed by the winners of a body-beautiful contest from across America and the British Empire, Health Acres gets the green light from Armstrong and company as a way to entice the rich, fat and ugly to cozy up with pretty young things. Basically a brothel. There’s really no forgetting the Pre-Code nature of Search for Beauty. Director Erle C. Kenton, who also helmed Island of Lost Souls, includes a shocking display of bare backsides in the male locker room after Crabbe’s Olympic win. There isn’t any more overt nudity, but an extended sequence with the contest winners is far more provocative. Shirtless young men in tight shorts and natural-looking women clothed in barely there white tops and bottoms – including a young Ann Sheridan representing Texas – perform a floor exercise unlike any other. It’s smacked with wholesome innocence while clearly evoking far less pure ideas. You truly must see it to believe such a thing could even exist in a studio-backed film of 1934.

And yet, hindsight can be a funny thing. In addition to being impressed at the sheer audacity required to push a stunt like this through, I was left with a troubled feeling. It was nothing too heavy or sour, and the film overall probably sits beside Merrily We Go to Hell as the best in the set. But seeing the young, strong, and strapping bodies on display, every one lily white and devoid of any hint of “ethnicity,” gave me reason to pause. Thoughts of Hitler and his Nazi youth camps, equally full of clean, racially pure specimens in perfect rhythm, sprang to mind. A different time and a different place, and certainly not the way to best think of Search for Beauty, but this particular display, done without a hint of irony, would be right at home in a Nazi propaganda piece. There’s great power in film. We all know that. Certain things can take on new layers never intended at the time and I’m sure that was the case here. That doesn’t change how eerie the scene comes across now, or my reaction to it.

The Discs

You can see right off that Universal has aced two important packaging aspects on its Pre-Code Hollywood Collection. The three dual-layered discs are housed in a digipak and do not overlap each other. The discs are also single-sided, allowing for two films per DVD. Universal has nicely evolved from the horrible days of using DVD-18 discs on its Glamour Collection sets.

All six films are transferred progressively and in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. From the start, I was surprised to see how well The Cheat and Merrily We Go to Hell looked given those are the two oldest films (not by much, of course). The Cheat is a little soft and with some obvious grain, but still above average for a film of its vintage. Merrily We Go to Hell fares even better, with a slightly sharper image and lower grain levels. The latter does have an unfortunate quirk of wobbling or jiggling in the frame for several minutes near the beginning. This was noticeable almost to the point of distraction but it does go away as the film progresses. Both of these films on the first disc are largely free from any significant damage marks and have reasonably good contrast. Hot Saturday is a little softer in comparison, with more grain, but it too looks satisfactory. Torch Singer exhibits some print damage early on, and is roughly on par in detail and grain with Hot Saturday. Between the 70 and 71 minute marks of Torch Singer, there’s a little bit missing from the scene. This wouldn’t appear to be anything of major significance, but it’s easy to pick up on. Murder at the Vanities has probably the most damage of any of the films in the set, but still nothing overly troubling and the damage is mainly in the form of vertical lines. Search for Beauty looks quite good, with minor damage, but decent enough detail and contrast.

The English Dolby Digital mono tracks for all films come through without major complaint. I didn’t detect any audio problems of note. The Cheat and Merrily We Go to Hell exhibit little to no hiss or crackle. Volume is strong and consistent. I did hear some hiss in Hot Saturday on occasion. No issues with Torch Singer, Murder at the Vanities or Search for Beauty. Subtitles are offered in English, Spanish and French, and are yellow in colour.

A single supplement is nonetheless well done and can be found on disc one with The Cheat. “Forbidden Film: The Production Code Era” (9:44) highlights the history and circumstances of the Code. The Depression is cited as why it took a few years before actually enforcing the Code, with television as the ultimate reason for stretching and finally ending it. Much is made of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross and Cleopatra, making this featurette ideally suited for inclusion in a release of those films and, indeed, it can also be found on Universal’s newest edition of Cleopatra.

For good measure, there’s a copy of the Production Code included in printed form inside the digipak case. It’s rather small in size and reminded me of the written material included in last year’s Touch of Evil edition.

Final Thoughts

Universal’s ownership of nearly every sound picture made at Paramount prior to 1950 gives the studio an incredibly strong catalog, but, alas, one it too often ignores. These six relatively obscure films are a welcome step in the right direction. The fact that all were originally released prior to the enforcement of the Production Code affords them some increased interest that’s entirely earned upon diving in to Universal’s set. There’s a dud (Murder at the Vanities) in the bunch and no major gems, but the combined strengths overall make the package a curiosity worth seeking out, especially given the generally excellent audio and video quality.

clydefro jones

Updated: Apr 07, 2009

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