Barbara Stanwyck was one of the naughty queens of Hollywood’s pre-Code era—if not the queen. Two of her best features that gave an “up yours” to the Hays office censors were Night Nurse (1931) and Baby Face (1933).
For those not in the know: the original author of the so-called Hays Production Code was the Presbyterian elder, Will H. Hays. The code was Hollywood’s self-created promise to be good following the Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, and William Desmond Taylor scandals. For the most part, before 1934 the Code was window dressing and was pretty much ignored. Moguls like Jack Warner, Darryl Zanuck, Carl Laemmle, Louis B.Mayer and Irving Thalberg took delight in shoving celluloid sin right in the censors’ faces. During the early thirties, the moguls won the battle, producing the early sound films that have now come to be known as “pre-Code films.”
While tame by 21st century standards, the best of the pre-code productions (1929-1934) flauntingly mocked the increasing threats of industry censorship and yet, for all those displays of sex and sin, still managed to stylishly outclass thirty years of (mostly) bland “moral majority approved” films that followed. It is, perhaps, not surprising that these films, caught in the tail pipe of Victorianism and under the Poe-like eye of the Catholic Legion of Decency, were also more authentically provocative and aesthetically conscientious than the bulk of the “opened floodgate” post-Code productions that began in the 1960s. Somehow, that stressful studio climate inspired filmmakers to produce movies that were very much enshrined in the amber of their specific time and place, yet also transcend many of the films immediately following.
Red-Headed Woman (1932) is one of the sauciest examples from that all-too brief period. It helps considerably that it stars Jean Harlow, the quintessential pre-Code sex symbol. Harlow has often been referred to as the Marilyn Monroe of the 1930s. (Monroe idolized Harlow and even considered playing her predecessor in a biopic, but changed her mind after reading the script. Monroe reportedly quipped: “I hope they don’t do that to me after I’m gone.”) Actually, Harlow was more talented and interesting than that later icon. After numerous roles in features and short films (including a memorable bit in Laurel and Hardy‘s Double Whoopee), Harlow became an “overnight sensation” with 1930’s pre-Code Hell’s Angels (dir. Howard Hughes) and 1931’sThe Public Enemy (dir. William Wellman). Having been dubbed “the Platinum Blonde” and “the Blonde Bombshell,” Harlow dyes her trademark tresses here to play a carrot-topped succubus.
Tyrone Power was 20th Century Fox’s answer to Warner Brothers’ Errol Flynn. However, as dated as Flynn’s style of acting is, he does generate a kind of cartoon excitement. Watching the bulk of Power’s swashbucklers is more of a burden. Power is typically bland. He died at 44 from a heart attack during an on-screen duel with actor George Sanders in the filming of Solomon and Sheeba (1959). Flynn died less than a year later. Both are known for iconic roles: Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Power in The Mark of Zorro (1940). They acted together only once: in Henry King’s version of The Sun Also Rises (1957), which (as per most cinematic Hemingway adaptations) is best avoided. Rumors in Hollywood have long claimed that Flynn and Power engaged in a brief affair. If so, then, yes, there was more to Zorro and Robin Hood than tights and mask. Of course, the seedier aspects of Flynn’s “wicked, wicked ways” are well known. Yet, behind that boyish persona, Power too had a darker personality. This began to surface later in his career with chosen roles, such as Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and in the earlier Nightmare Alley (1947).
Power came from a long line of actors, and although he desired meatier roles, he settled on the stability of his studio contract, rarely venturing outside of assignments. Nightmare Alley was a notable exception. After reading William Greshen’s novel Power purchased the rights and begged Darryl Zanuck to allow him to play the part of the seedy Stanton Carlisle. Reluctantly, Zanuck agreed, although he did little to promote the film.
Edmund Goulding was given the directorial reigns after he and Power had worked together in the drama The Razor’s Edge (1946). Although that film received mixed reviews, it was a commercially successful departure for the actor and commercial success was, of course, Zanuck’s primary concern. Goulding’s reputation had been cemented with the high class soaper Grand Hotel (1932) starring John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford. A string of glossy, star-powered melodramas followed: Riptide (1934) with Norma Shearer and Dark Victory (1939), The Old Maid (1939), and The Great Lie (1941), all with Bette Davis. Zanuck’s choice of Goulding was strange but purposeful (for Zanuck). Nightmare Alley lacks the visceral quality of the novel (whose author, not surprisingly, committed suicide). With such a potent literary source, the film might have emerged as something deliriously akin to Tod Browning‘s Freaks (1932), but it lacks an obsessive director at the helm. Where Nightmare Alley does succeed is in Goulding’s direction of the superb Joan Blondell as the affable clairvoyant Zeena, Colleen Grey as the dainty circus girl Molly, and Helen Walker as the icy Dr. Lilith. (Goulding, a woman’s director, had gifted Academy Award winning performances to Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis, Mary Astor, Joan Fontaine, and Anne Baxter).
Gold Diggers Of 1933 is Busby Berkeley`s masterwork, assisted in no small way by the astute direction of Mervyn LeRoy, who had previously directed a number of stark, socially conscious films, such as Little Caesar (1931) and I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932). Like Berkeley, Leroy’s best work was at Warner Bothers and, like Berkeley, MGM would buy his contract and essentially neuter him.
This is the second of the Warners/Berkeley backstage 1933 musicals, beginning with 42nd Street and concluding with Footlight Parade. Gold Diggers is a mix of harsh realism and opulent fantasy, more so than any other musical from the Great Depression. It jump starts in high gear fantasy mode with Ginger Rogers, dressed only in a skimpy outfit made of silver dollars (with one coin strategically placed over her crotch), singing “We’re in the money.” Rogers’ handling of the lyrics morphs into a glossolalia-styled Pig Latin aria that seems like it would be more at home in a Buñuel movie than a Hollywood musical. Behind her, a chorus of babes holding up undulating coins sings “let’s spend it, send it rolling along.” This is Berkeley’s phantasmagoric “F_ you!” to the Depression. And how would you climax such an opening? With a crash, as debt collectors break up the number, taking with them every prop, every stitch of clothing and everything, leaving only a crumb, a crumb even too small for a mouse.