Once upon a time the unconglomerated movie studios owned themselves and could afford the luxury of individual personalities. In the early 1930s, Paramount was the essential Hollywood studio, the one that best represented the juncture of glamour, romance, and illusion. Its productions had a luminous quality and a sophisticated style—many of the top stars, directors, cameramen, and designers were of European origin. Before the Production Code cracked down in 1934, the company turned out entertaining pictures in every genre, but above all, a slew of sly and suggestive comedies and musicals.
Film Forum’s four-week series features a number of classics starring the house’s torchbearers—Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, the Marx Brothers—along with a roster of genuine rarities: Edward Sutherland’s June Moon (1931), William C. DeMille’s Two Kinds of Woman (1932), and Marion Gering’s Pick-Up (1933). One unclassifiable classic, Edward Cline’s Million Dollar Legs (1932), is true-blue Paramount—no other studio would have touched Joe Mankiewicz’s loony script, an absurdist satire on the Olympic Games. This comedy (embraced by the surrealists in France) stars W.C. Fields as the president of the strangely athletic country of Klopstokia, where all the men are named George and children jump six feet high.
Another Paramount regular of the period, Charles Laughton, was a brilliant performer who could play good guys or bad guys with equal conviction. He’s irredeemably iniquitous in all three of his starring vehicles here. In Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932), he’s unforgettable as depraved emperor Nero, throwing Christians to the lions and hosting splendiferous orgies while Mrs. Nero (Claudette Colbert) cavorts nude in huge pools of asses’ milk. In Stuart Walker’s deliciously dreadful White Woman (1933), Laughton’s a mincing, murderous cockney scoundrel who rules a Malaysian trading empire and rescues café singer Carole Lombard when she’s accused of being “a loose white woman who is tempting the natives.” And in Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls (1933), he’s flamboyantly fearsome as Dr. Moreau, a mad scientist who attempts to speed up evolution. It’s screening on a Kathleen Burke double bill. She’s the sultry half-human panther woman in Island, and—in Eddie Sutherland’s terrific shocker Murders in the Zoo (1933)—the wife of an insanely jealous sportsman (Lionel Atwill).
Two major filmmakers in the series, George Cukor and Rouben Mamoulian, were imported from Broadway during the panic period when movies went “audible.” Cukor’s fast and bawdy Girls About Town (1931) details the shenanigans of a pair of gold diggers (Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman)—in reality, high-priced whores. It’s a veritable fashion show, with slithery Travis Banton gowns, moderne sets, and oodles of lingerie, an enjoyable minor work whose bitchy theatricality prefigures scenes in later Cukor pictures, particularly The Women.
Mamoulian’s ferocious Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), the definitive screen version of Stevenson’s story, stars Fredric March, handsome enough to be Jekyll and actor enough to be Hyde. This remarkable picture makes it clear that Hyde is the embodiment of Jekyll’s id, tracing Jekyll’s troubles to the repressions of Victorian society in scenes that would not have been possible after the Code. In Love Me Tonight (1932), Mamoulian created the most endearing of 1930s musicals, a modern fairy tale about a Parisian tailor (Maurice Chevalier) who romances a haughty princess (Jeanette MacDonald). His career went into decline, but in the pre-Code days there was no more versatile and imaginative director in all Hollywood.