Pre-Code cinema as we know it existed four short years, between the dawn of sound in 1929 and the draconian implication of the Catholic Legion of Decency’s “code of motion picture ethics” in 1934. In that time between, sin, vice, and wife swapping reigned supreme (the Code existed but wasn’t rigidly enforced), and film fans are just beginning to realize what a little oasis of sordid sophistication it was, right in time for DVD and beautiful restorations in great packages such as this one. Universal’s Pre-Code set follows in the successful footsteps of TCM’s Forbidden Hollywood volumes, and gathers a cross-section of pre-Code scandals, and includes the Code itself — an original stapled memo reproduction — as a bonus. While no film amongst these six meta-lurid little morality plays measure up to the insane delight of Baby Face or Night Nurse, they’re all consistently good and very pre-Code in the saucy and sly way they doublespeak their mind right under the Code’ss noses, turning the adages and edicts of “small town morality” against themselves, exposing hypocrisy and fascist tendencies as it supplies skin, sizzle, and booze aplenty.
Disc One: The Cheat (1931) / Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)
Kicking things off is The Cheat, a prime example of the once ubiquitous “women’s picture.” Rich bachelor (Irving Pichel) offers to ‘help’ married woman (Tallulah Bankhead) out of her dire straits in exchange for (censored) — a plot line all but gone from our modern cinema with the exception of that old Demi Moore classic, Indecent Proposal (1993). Crashing like a drunken ferry between the banks of marriage’s ho-hum sanctity and the liberal miscegenation fantasia (Pichel’s character is coded gay/Asian, with a great sculpture collection, a penchant for sadism and silk pajamas), The Cheat bangs itself up pretty bad in order for the heroine to be finally — for the sake of her children or her husband’s reputation — forced into backing out of the deal. Pichel (the black-lipstick wearing assistant of Dracula’s Daughter in 1935) is plenty creepy, but Bankhead, stoop-shouldered like a boxer or Garbo in Anna Christie as the gambling addict who doesn’t want her husband to find out she’s in debt, isn’t exactly the stuff that dreams are made of. What’s so sordidly pre-Code about it all is that the “cheat” of the title refers not to Tallulah cheating at cards, or cheating on her husband, but rather cheating on Pichel — our lonesome bachelor — by trying to reneg after he’s already paid off. In other words, this sort of deal was — in the pre-Code universe — as valid and holy (or unholy) as the state of marriage itself! Doth thou solemnly swear to never welsh on a bet, or back out of a quid pro quo? Bankhead tries to have it both ways in other things as well, such as mixing the off-kilter stringency of Bette Davis with the languid of Garbo (and here at least — as opposed to her turn in Lifeboat — with none of either’s acid wit). But that doesn’t excuse her welshing! Pichel brands her breast with a hot poker bearing his initials as punishment, and it all comes out (and off) in the requisite courtroom showdown! There’s lots of great exotica trappings to be seen (the tag line should have been: “He’s like Fu Manchu, but for love“) and elaborate lighting in spots that the excellent restoration brings out lovingly, with Pichel’s bachelor den all elaborate shadows and paganism and the stiff white upper lip marble of the husband as drab as a post office foyer.
Merrily We Go to Hell deals with infidelity and vice as well, but much more directly, providing a clear-eyed look at boozy Chicago columnist Frederic March, who meets cute and marries a naive young heiress (Sylvia Sidney) to the dismay of her worldly old father. How often in these films has the stodgy old-fashioned dad been right? Hollywood being full of drunks like March’s character, this is a very unusual tactic. With her help, March sobers up enough to write one hit play, but then who should be cast in it but an actress who once threw over March for being too small-time? Now that Sidney’s cleaned him up this hussy swoops down on him like a hawk, and soon old March’s drunk and AWOL once again. Sidney becomes a drunk herself and shags up with Cary Grant (oh shame where is thy sting?). Director Dorothy Azner clearly relishes all the soapy hand wringing: “You seem to want a modern wife, that’s what I’m going to be,” Sidney toasts: “I give you the modern marriage: separate lives, twin beds, and two bromides in the morning.” But of course, she’s pregnant . . .
The best part is how Go To Hell overcompensates for the relative lack of inebriation seen at most booze parties in 1930s movies. Here the night’s not half over and most of the guests lie around all over the couches and floor as in some half-conscious orgy. The lighting is beautiful in the excellent restoration, with lots of glinting light on everyone’s hair. Cute little Sylvia Sidney’s big eyes gradually harden from love-struck kid to disillusioned swinger, and March is an ideal mix of adorably tipsy and shobnoxshiosh.
Disc Two: Torch Singer (1933) and Hot Saturday (1932)
One of the side benefits of re-examining these old films is finding previously ignored stars who seem suddenly modern in today’s light, and in Torch Singer we have one, the amazing Ricardo Cortez, who always manages to be sympathetic and complex even when operating squarely within the lines of “dirty ethnic gangster.” As the obligatory well-heeled guy who really loves Claudette Colbert’s titular Torch Singer he’s creepy yet kind, loveable yet slimy. He adores her, but she’s a woman who loves her absentee child too much, whom she had to give away for adoption in typical women’s picture martyr fashion early in the film (rich David Manners is the biological father who conveniently leaves for China before he gets the news). Conte signs her to sing on the wireless, raunchy ditties like: “You can have me if you want me / but you can’t be mine alone / give me liberty or give me love,” and she shacks up with any man who gives her diamonds. All is well until she tires of her hedonism and starts looking desperately for her lost child. David Manners returns and gets the child, or a child, from somewhere. What did he do, buy it back? Hadn’t they seen Changeling?
Set in the “Smalltown USA” of pre-war Americana, Hot Saturday earns its pre-Code stripes by exposing smalltown bourgeois morality as actually causing what it seeks to condemn, the way a jealous spouse will drive his hitherto faithful spouse to cheat. Cary Grant is the local playboy who seduces teenage bank employee Colbert. She starts out dating some local shrimp afflicted with what Sydney Falco would call “a bad case of integrity.” Grant meanwhile buys off his current girl with a $10,000 check and sends her on some other guy’s yacht in order to clear the decks for pleasant action. All the shrimp’s combative jealousy and the town’s gossip only bring Grant and Colbert closer in the end, which means the forces of Oscar Wilde triumph over Clifford Odets!
Disc Three: Murder at the Vanities (1934) / Search for Beauty (1934)
Murder at the Vanities is fun but marred by needless antagonism between Errol Carroll stand-in Jackie Oakie and Victor McLagen as one of the dopiest homicide detectives in all New York City. Oakie’s not meant to be a lead man — his big broad face and braying smugness works fine in small doses such as Million Dollar Legs, but here it’s just too much. If James Cagney were in this part, all that “I’m too busy to talk to you” bluster would have teeth and fur, but Oakie’s just a melon. Meanwhile a tall Germanic singer of the operatic style (all the rage in early musicals) protects his mother, the cleaning woman, from a snoopy detective girl who is soon found murdered. Musical numbers drag along and McLagen and Oakie yell into each other’s faces. The weirdest bit is a three-part musical “The Rape and Revenge of the Rapture” wherein Duke Ellington’s band appears in black to deflower the Germanic purity of the waltz played by a white-clad honky orchestra. The jazz intrudes and gradually takes over (hence the “rape”) until Charles Middleton as the Nazi-esque conductor machine guns them all (the “revenge”). Pretty harsh, but it’s all worth it when topless girls (their forearms covering their nipples) come up out of giant peyote buttons to sing “Marijuana.” What were those cats on anyway? None of it can stand up to anything by Busby Berkley, but little moments like that make it an instant pre-Code classic.
The fascist subtext angle continues with Search for Beauty, a sly send-up of the exercise and fitness craze with a young Buster Crabbe as an Olympic swimmer and good-natured exercise ubermensch who gets roped into endorsing Robert Armstrong’s sleazy “fitness” magazine. While Crabbe is off judging perfect-man competitions, Armstrong and his low-rent cohorts add photoplay re-enactments of scandalous love stories. Like an embodiment of the Code itself, Buster must use every inch of his American sincerity and love of health to clean up the magazine and subdue the agents of vice and lethargy!
You can’t fault a movie for being an a priori Nazi parable (the gymnastic musical number would be right at home in Triumph of the Will) if it so aptly doubles for an attack on the Code: like Hitler, Joseph Breen was a seething racist and anti-Semite, so the Borscht Belt Runyonesqueness of Armstrong and his pornographer cohorts seem designed specifically to enrage him. The climax occurs at a country estate-turned- spa, where Armstrong has lured rich reprobates (of both sexes) with the empty promise of late-night training sessions with zee “perfect specimens.” Buster counters this by enforcing his 6 AM wake-up call for morning calisthenics — through force if necessary. The sight of these Aryan supermen and women lifting the crooked old swindlers up out of bed and compelling them into the sunlight to do stretches is many things: ( a) a metaphor of U.S.-British imperialism and/or Nazi concentration camps; (b) a semi-funny satire of America’s endless see-saw between over-indulgence and prohibition; and (c) a send-up of the Code itself, which imposes distinctly Christian attitudes on all America under the guise of “moral purity” while only creating suffering and hypocrisy.
The included Code booklet is hilarious to read in this sense — promoting white Christian values uber alles. In all fairness there is something to be said for eliminating specific details of elaborate and successful bank robbery plans for starving depression-era audiences, but everything else is iffy, and of course we’re still recovering from the damage done by keeping whole generations in the dark about the specific pros and cons of sexual promiscuity and mind-altering drugs.
Extras on the set are nil except for a talking-head documentary on the Code, included on the first disc, which zips along with lots of interesting historical data and Scarface clips.