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The last decade has witnessed a revival of interest in the films of “pre-Code” Hollywood, a term covering the bracing period in the early ’30s when the movies had learned how to talk and began spouting a number of saucy, even shocking thoughts. Few topics were taboo; flicks were laced with a salutary wisecracking humor that helped ease the pain of the Depression during the pre-Code era, which lasted roughly from 1930, when silent films were at last dead ducks, until mid 1934, when the repressive Production Code began to be rigidly enforced.
The prime mover for the Code was the Catholic Church, whose Legion of Decency swore its members to stay away from “condemned” films. The Code itself was a Catholic document, largely written by Father Daniel Lord, a Jesuit priest. It was Joseph Breen, another prominent Catholic (and notorious anti-Semite) who was chosen to administer it. He and his successors laid a dead hand on every movie that came their way, attempting to eliminate the showing or mentioning of nearly everything pertaining to normal human adults from American films. Few producers risked making a picture unbecoming to the morality standards of the Code, which was not completely discarded until 1968. Simply put, the anomalous religious picture was that Catholic organizations were dictating to Jewish studio heads the content of films to be shown in a preponderantly Protestant country.
The Film Forum series (organized by programmers Bruce Goldstein and Tom Toth) includes more than 50 movies whose tough-talking heroines are often dames, broads, floozies, gold diggers, or streetwalkers. They could be brazen hussies flouncing around in their lingerie, gun molls, or unwed mothers; some were just admirably free-spirited, independent women who balked at traditional gender roles. The films are lean and snappy-paced, their average length 75 to 80 minutes.
The retro features a number of classic performances from the period: Barbara Stanwyck sleeping her way up the corporate ladder in Baby Face (1933); aggressive Ruth Chatterton firmly in the corporate saddle from the get-go in Female(1933); low-down, libidinous Mae West sashaying into a den of lions in I’m No Angel (1933); Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman (1932), a mordant tale of a poor girl who clambers up a number of beds to wealth and happiness.
Norma Shearer has frequently been unfairly written off as a no-talent with the luck to marry the head of production at MGM, Irving Thalberg. The actress did become a tad fluttery and mannered at times later in her career, but she’s at her best in two of the liveliest films in the show, Sidney Franklin’s Private Lives and Clarence Brown’s A Free Soul (both 1931). She brings a good deal of high-strung verve to her portrayal of the mercurial Amanda, heroine of Franklin’s adaptation of Noël Coward’s smash comedy. In Private Lives’ climactic scene, in which she and Robert Montgomery—divorced but still lovers at heart—demolish furniture and vases and knock each other around, the director sensibly films the action in long takes, giving Shearer room to play the scene with a hysterical edge, going for deeper emotions as well as farce. A Free Soul features her most openly sexual performance. She’s spot-on as the spoiled flapper daughter who becomes a gangster’s lover. Their romance turns violent; the picture is capped by a memorably melodramatic courtroom-scene finale. A Free Soul made Clark Gable a star—following its release, the studio received thousands of letters asking to see more of “the guy who slapped Norma Shearer.”
The program includes several extremely rare films, some of which have never been revived. Erle C. Kenton’s From Hell to Heaven (1933) is one of the forgotten programmers made by Carole Lombard at Paramount before she blossomed as the greatest of screwball comediennes. It involves a bunch of mostly shady characters in a hotel who are all counting on the outcome of a handicapped horse race to change their lives. It’s only moderately diverting, although the inventive cinematography is noteworthy for the number of elaborate zoom shots, uncommon for the period.
Gregory LaCava’s Gallant Lady (1933) is one of the excellent films made by Darryl Zanuck’s tiny studio, Twentieth Century Pictures, before it merged with Fox in 1935. This most cheerful of weepies stars radiant ash-blond Ann Harding as a woman whose lover is killed in a plane crash before her eyes (as we see in the startling opening scene). After becoming a mother several months later, she’s unable to care for the child and puts it up for adoption. The bulk of the film concerns her attempts to regain her son. The supporting cast is superb—Clive Brook as Ann’s pal, a doctor imprisoned for a mercy killing; comic relief Tullio Carminati as a lovesick Italian count who follows her around and warbles a song at every opportunity. As usual, LaCava handles friendships between men and women with great tact and subtlety. And Harding is impeccable: Although she’s pretty much forgotten today, her serene patrician beauty and delicate acting style made her unique among the rowdy screen divas of the period.Gallant Lady, her richest film, is surely the best of the “unknown” pictures in Film Forum’s juicy retro.