Tag Archives: 1932

Pre-Code Hollywood #11 – The Sign of the Cross (1932)

The_sign_of_crossThe Sign of the Cross (1932)
Directed by: Cecil B. DeMille
Written by: Waldemar Young, Sidney Buchman (based on The Sign of the Cross by Wilson Barrett)
Starring: Fredric March, Elissa Landi, Claudette Colbert, Charles Laughton

Famous producer Cecil B. DeMille made a career out of forging some of Hollywood’s grandest epics, including The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cleopatra, and Union Pacific. DeMille’s religious epic The Sign of the Cross is another in a series of films at least partially responsible for the creation of the Hays Code, and it’s easy to see why when looking at it in a historical context. DeMille’s 1932 epic is filled with sexuality and violence, and tells a story that is chock full of intense bigotry and hatred. The Sign of the Cross is perhaps one of the ultimate examples of the sheer potential held by filmmakers in pre-code Hollywood – it’s full of ambitious filmmaking, passion, and depravity.

The Sign of the Cross takes place in the year 64 A.D., where the Roman Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) has just burned down the city. The action has been blamed on those of the Christian faith, creating an extremely anti-Christian sentiment without Rome. A young and lustful Marcus Superbus (Fredric March), prefect of Rome, is taken by Mercia (Elissa Landi) who he sees defending her fellow Christians. Marcus tries everything he can to seduce Mercia, but her devotion to her faith will not allow her to fall for Marcus’ games. When she hears of Marcus’ new infatuation, a jealous Empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) demands that Mercia be killed. This puts Marcus into a complicated and dangerous situation, torn between his beliefs and the beliefs of his nation – no matter what decisions are made by Marcus and Mercia, it surely won’t be pretty.
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Religious epics have always been one of my favorite genres, with both Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments being lifelong favorites of mine. Unfortunately, The Sign of the Cross doesn’t hold a candle to either of those terrific pictures. While I can admire the grandiose nature of DeMille’s pre-code classic, very little of it actually stuck with me in any meaningful way. It stands as more of a fun, deranged curiosity than most of the true greats of the genre. That isn’t to say it’s all bad – the production design alone makes The Sign of the Cross more than worthy of a watch, especially in the context of pre-code Hollywood. Costumes and sets feel lavish and genuine, transporting viewers to the Roman Empire – the entire film feels as large in scale as many epics from the time period. It’s immediately clear that DeMille had an eye for detail, and a knack for capturing detailed period pieces on film. The film’s dark cinematography helps set the mood, featuring some terrific use of light and shadows during its many nighttime scenes. Cinematographer Karl Struss was nominated for an Academy Award for his efforts, making it the only nomination that The Sign of the Cross would receive.

The memorable performances by great actors like Charles Laughton, Claudette Colbert, and Fredric March all help to further The Sign of the Cross’ terrific mood and atmosphere. Laughton steals the show (as he always did) as Emperor Nero, whose sinister nature and indescribable prejudices make him very easy to hate. Nero is portrayed as a lazy, spiteful, worm of a man, and Laughton plays it up perfectly. Colbert’s sexually-charged performance as Empress Poppaea is every bit as memorable as Laughton’s, only for completely different reasons. Poppaea uses her beauty and sex appeal to her advantage in every scene, creating some of the film’s most titillating moments – the most iconic of which being an early scene that sees Colbert bathing in asses milk. Unfortunately for The Sign of the Cross, many of the supporting performances can’t exactly live up to those of the legendary main cast.

The Sign of the Cross’ weakest aspect is its story, which feels inconsequential in comparison to the sheer size and scope of the film. While there are many iconic and memorable moments throughout, there is little to nothing substantial connecting these moments to one another. The movie is ultimately a love story at its core, and not a terribly compelling one either. This is a shame, because the brutality and visceral nature of DeMille’s film could have made it truly unique had it featured stronger writing and pacing. Clocking in at over two hours long, I found myself begging for more of the aforementioned iconic moments. Luckily, the pre-code content of the film is consistent throughout, with scenes of brutal violence and outright sexuality being enough to hold viewers’ attention. This is certainly a film that would not have been possible following the enforcement of the Hays Code – in fact, DeMille’s film was heavily edited and censored until its restoration in the 1990’s.
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While Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross is a far cry from some of the incredible films we’ve taken a look at throughout our Pre-Code Hollywood marathon, there are hints of greatness throughout. The lavish set decoration and costuming rival some of the greatest epics of its time, the lead performances are wonderfully exaggerated and theatrical, and the film’s pre-code nature still does enough to shock and titillate today. It’s unfortunate that the film couldn’t overcome a weak central story, bloated run-time, and some underwhelming supporting performances – there’s a masterpiece in here somewhere. With all that said, The Sign of the Cross is sadly not recommended – it’d be best to see this one as a curiosity, much in the same way people view Caligula today.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #10 – Scarface (1932)

MV5BODM2MzNjNzUtMzdkNy00Y2VhLTg5NzctOWY5ZmUxM2U0YmRmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUxODE0MDY@._V1_Scarface (1932)
Directed by: Howard Hawks, Richard Rosson
Written by: W.R. Burnett, John Lee Mahin, Seton I. Miller, Ben Hecht (story by) (based on Scarface by Armitage Trail)
Starring: Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, Osgood Perkins, Karen Morley, Boris Karloff

Director Howard Hawks is one of the most influential filmmakers in movie history, and 1932’s Scarface stands as his first masterpiece. The surprisingly violent and action-packed picture helped to lay the foundation of what defines gangster films to this very day, being aided by Brian De Palma’s 1983 remake of the same name. Scarface is everything great about Hollywood before the Hays Code was enforced, featuring countless sequences of excessive violence, and portraying organized crime in a way that had never been seen before.

The first shot we see is a series of still title cards condemning the actions that took place during the Prohibition, and the subsequent gang rule of America in general. It demands that viewers take a stand and help create a change, rather than demanding that their government be the difference maker. From there, we meet Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), an Italian immigrant settled in Chicago, acting as a crony for mafioso Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins). After the assassination of a rival mob boss, Tony quickly rises in the ranks as Lovo gains a stranglehold on the city’s bootlegging business. Not one to back down to a challenge, Tony decides to take a little slice of the pie for himself, ordering the killing of an Irish gang leader. His actions lead to Johnny Lovo becoming paranoid about his protege, questioning his motives and the relationship between the two. Scarface culminates in an explosive and thrilling confrontation with the police that sees Tony all alone after burning every bridge he built on his rise to the top.
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From the get-go, it’s easy to see that Howard Hawks and company are incredibly passionate about the story being told in Scarface. The film serves as a brutal indictment of what had become of modern American life, and a bold shot at the infamous gangster Al Capone. Hawks pulls no punches with his telling of Scarface, going as far as accusing Capone of having incestuous feelings for his own sister. While it’s easy to say that Scarface is nothing but a glorification of the gangster lifestyle because of the excessive violence featured within, Hawks’ film serves as far more. It’s a tale of boundless greed and corruption that affects everybody within, and the misguided ambitions of its protagonist. The expert direction by Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson help to distinguish many of Scarface’s shootout scenes, taking advantage of expert blocking and fluid camera movement. A car chase scene in the last act nicely shows off some of Hawks’ terrific action direction, following both cars involved with ease. The visuals featured within Scarface also help to elevate the film as a masterpiece, with Hawks using subtle imagery of “x”s in each major death scene. It’s obvious to me that Hawks wanted his film to stand as a call to arms, but to also stand out from all other films being made in Hollywood during this era.

Scarface’s central performance is another reason why Hawks’ picture works so well as a gangster picture. Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte serves as a fictional stand-in for mobster Al Capone, the young gangster is as ambitious and passionate as they come. Just below the surface of Tony is an unbridled rage that can only be satisfied through bloodshed and a quick rise to the top of a corrupt empire. Muni’s Tony Camonte is easily one of the most compelling main characters of our Pre-Code marathon yet, making James Cagney’s character in The Public Enemy look somewhat sane and functional. Paul Muni was one of Hollywood’s first “chameleon” actors, taking on a wide range of challenging roles that saw him eventually rewarded with an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1936. Muni’s portrayal of Tony is deeply troubled, angry, and impulsive – every one of his outbursts feels genuine and horrifying. Without a star like Muni at its helm, Scarface might be nothing more than just another brutal gangster picture.

The pre-code nature of Scarface is obvious from the very first moments of the film. The audience is constantly thrown into chaotic shootouts that almost always have a high body count. We see execution-style assassinations, drive-by shootings, murders in public places including restaurants, cafes, and even a bowling alley. Things are only made worse with the introduction of the machine gun, which allows Tony and his goon squad to effortlessly mow down the competition. Aside from the violence featured, Scarface has subtle hints towards Tony holding incestuous feelings towards his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak), features a ton of gun running and bootlegging, and fast women who are taken advantage of by our cast of classy gangsters. Almost every scene in Scarface features something that the Hays Code would never have allowed, making this a much watch in the context of pre-code Hollywood.
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Howard Hawks’ Scarface is a classic thrill-ride that stands out as being truly exciting and groundbreaking. It features some of my favorite shootouts ever captured on film, a truly terrific (and despicable) performance by Paul Muni, incredible direction, and a passionate moral message at its core. This film is essential viewing material when discussing pre-code Hollywood, and when looking at the history of action and crime movies in general. Scarface gets my highest recommendation.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #9 – Red-Headed Woman (1932)

220px-Redheadedwoman1932Red-Headed Woman (1932)
Directed by: Jack Conway
Written by: Anita Loos (based on Red-Headed Woman by Katherine Brush)
Starring: Jean Harlow, Chester Morris, Lewis Stone, Charles Boyer, Una Merkel, Henry Stephenson, Leila Hyams

“So gentlemen prefer blondes, do they?” – The first words uttered in Jack Conway’s Red-Headed Woman perfectly set the tone for what’s to follow. It’s unclear whether the Jean Harlow vehicle was intended to be a drama, a comedy, a romance, or a confused moral tale, but the 1932 film ends up being a strangely compelling blend of all four. Red-Headed Woman is full of unlikable characters with less than noble intentions, all of whom take part in some form of premarital debauchery at one point or another. This may just be the most “pre-code” film of the marathon yet, delightfully teasing the audience with its naughty nature.

Red-Headed Woman starts by introducing Lillian ‘Lil’ Andrews (Jean Harlow), a young lower-class woman who will seemingly stop at nothing in order to live a life free of worry. She quickly seduces her boss Bill Legendre Jr. (Chester Morris), eventually forcing him to leave his lovely wife Irene (Leila Hyams). Unfortunately for Lil, she is soon seen by those around her as a fast, cheap, manipulative homewrecker, which in turn wreaks havoc on her social life and self-esteem. After marrying Bill, Lil quickly sets her sights on a rich tycoon named Charles Gaerste (Henry Stephenson). Thinking Gaerste will propel her into the life of a classy socialite, Lil can’t help but carry out yet another affair – one that will likely end in disaster for all those involved.
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My absolute favorite thing about Red-Headed Woman is that it’s a picture that is outwardly very proud of its less than moral story, revelling in its tantalizing nature. There is no major character who isn’t acting purely out of selfishness – everybody in Red-Headed Woman is out to gain something from somebody. Whether it’s Lil’s want to be included in the everyday activities of the rich and famous, Bill Jr.’s need for sexual satisfaction, Bill Sr.’s want for his son to be seen as a respectable young man, or Charles Gaerste’s want of a much younger woman whom he is free to exploit sexually – it’s every man for himself in Red-Headed Woman. On top of selfish character motivations, our protagonist Lil is quite possibly one of the most frustrating lead characters in cinematic history. Harlow’s Lil continually digs herself deeper and deeper into situations that can only ends badly for her, yet it’s obvious that they excite her too much to ever put an end to her impulsiveness. Lillian is a heavily flawed, ugly character who I loved spending 80 minutes with, even if many of those minutes were indeed rather frustrating.

Jean Harlow’s campy lead performance is delightfully mad in all of its heavy exaggeration. Harlow is somebody whose performances I’ve always enjoyed, and Red-Headed Woman is absolutely no different. It’s obvious that the legendary actress had a lot of fun playing the amoral Lil; a part that only some incredibly brave actresses could have gotten away with playing in 1932. Jean Harlow’s Lil is trashy, overly emotional, and almost entirely vapid, and yet she somehow manages to fool multiple people into falling for her charms. The 21-year old Harlow is the absolute highlight of Red-Headed Woman – it’s hard to believe that five years from the film’s release she would be dead at just 26 years old. Chester Morris’ turn as Bill Legendre Jr. is another of the film’s highlights, improving on his earlier performance in previously-reviewed The Divorcee. Though Bill’s life seems to be falling apart because of Lil’s involvement, he’s clearly so infatuated (and sexually excited) with her that he just doesn’t care.

The film’s shameless script is the final major part of what makes Red-Headed Woman such a delight. Written by Anita Loos (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), who took screenwriting duties over for novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald after his dismissal from the film, Red-Headed Woman knows exactly what it is from the word go. Loos’ script is full of frank discussions about sex and infidelity, which is very refreshing for a film of the era. The screenplay sees Lil taking multiple lovers, forming unlikely relationships with men far more successful herself, and is loaded to the brim with hilarious innuendo. Every beat of Loos’ screenplay is delightful, and at just 80-minutes long, Red-Headed Woman is effortlessly entertaining. I was delighted to see that Loos didn’t try to force a schmaltzy, moralistic ending into the film, instead ending on a hilarious and rather unexpected beat. Some of the pre-code elements featured in Red-Headed Woman include the repeated sexualization of Jean Harlow’s Lil, many counts of premarital and extramarital sex, domestic abuse, divorce, and trading sex in order to move up the social ladder.
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Jack Conway’s Red-Headed Woman is a delight from start to finish, mainly due to its willingness to embrace many of its naughty pre-code elements, a fun script by Anita Loos, and a highly memorable lead performance from the indelible Jean Harlow. It’s a brilliant send up to the desperate, unsatisfied, horny people throughout history who have settled for people completely wrong for them, and to the impulsive, ugly, hysterical nature of love. While it’s not exactly groundbreaking, it was just too much fun to pass up. Red-Headed Woman is highly recommended.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #8 – The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

Most_Dangerous_Game_posterThe Most Dangerous Game (1932)
Directed by: Irving Pichel, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Written by: James Ashmore Creelman (based on The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell)
Starring: Joel McCrea, Fay Wray, Leslie Banks, Robert Armstrong

The production of The Most Dangerous Game is almost as interesting as the film itself, based on Richard Connell’s famous 1924 short story of the same name. The film was shot at night on RKO Studio sets built for the following year’s King Kong. The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong would share various cast and crew, most notably stars Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong, composer Max Steiner, and director Ernest B. Schoedsack. Merian C. Cooper, producer of The Most Dangerous Game, would also go on to co-direct King Kong. Anybody who has seen the incredible Kong film might be familiar with many of the sets featured in the last half of The Most Dangerous Game, giving the whole project an odd, but comfortable, sense of familiarity. While this film was not nearly as financially successful as King Kong, it is regarded by many as the strongest adaptation of Connell’s story, and one of the very best pre-code examples of a tight, effective thriller.

The Most Dangerous Game sees famous hunter Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) become shipwrecked on an island owned by a Russian Count named Zaroff (Leslie Banks). There he is joined by siblings Eve (Fay Wray) and Martin (Robert Armstrong) Trowbridge, who were also shipwrecked on the island in a completely unrelated accident. Things start off innocently enough, but soon it is clear to Rainsford that something about Zaroff is amiss. The Count’s leading hobby is that of hunting, but not in the same way that Bob is accustomed to. Zaroff speaks of the hunt satisfying the primal, savage urges of man, and it’s clear that he has continuously tried to raise the stakes of his big game expeditions. In other words, hunting makes Zaroff horny…really, really disturbingly horny. No longer satisfied with buffalo or tigers, Zaroff has decided on a new prey…man.
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At just slightly over an hour long, The Most Dangerous Game runs at one hell of a fast clip. Its short run time doesn’t afford it the detailed world-building that longer films feature, but it isn’t really a movie that needs it to be memorable. We are immediately thrown into the film by briefly meeting Bob Rainsford, establishing that he is a famed hunter and our protagonist. From there, The Most Dangerous Game hardly ever lets up – we experience the yacht’s crash, which leaves Bob alone and in a desperate situation, and then quickly move on to Zaroff’s chateau. Once there, the sinister atmosphere begins to build, thanks in part to some excellent set designs, and an efficient screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman. The dialogue is quick, unsubtle, and concise, which makes the film feel pulpy, but the result is something thrilling, fun, and efficient. Zaroff’s introduction can be likened to the introduction of some of the famous Universal horror movie monsters from the same time period – the character is immediately established as being intimidating, mysterious, and deeply compelling in his worldview. Once he begins conversing with Bob about hunting, he can’t help but say a little too much – he’s far more interested in the thrill of the hunt than anybody else in the chateau, even the world renowned hunter. His festishizing of hunting makes Zaroff even more disturbing to viewers, especially when he begins to give Fay Wray’s Eve some mean side eye. The concise nature of the screenplay is one of the best things about The Most Dangerous Game – it’s clear from just ten minutes into the film that the gang are in for one hell of a night.

The performances in The Most Dangerous Game are all around solid, with the standout being Leslie Banks’ Zaroff. While he doesn’t exactly pass for a Russian Count, his presence is nonetheless sinister. He puts on a gentlemanly facade on the outside, but it’s clear by the film’s ending that he’s anything but. Zaroff sets strict rules for his (literal) manhunts, and yet takes every measure to ensure that the odds are always in his favour – not exactly sportsmanlike in my opinion. Banks’ over-the-top performance makes Zaroff an unlikable, but compelling and very fun villain. The film’s direction is another highlight, especially in its action set-pieces late in the film. Bob and Eve are forced to play to Zaroff’s disturbing fantasies, running through detailed jungle sets in almost complete darkness. These scenes are thrilling and incredibly well-paced, never allowing Bob and Eve to rest for more than a moment before they catch a glimpse of their hunter. The two climactic action scenes feel modern in their blocking and choreography, and are helped by some foggy, shadow-heavy cinematography by Henry W. Gerrard. These scenes also feature much of the film’s pre-code elements, with Bob being forced to kill several of Zaroff’s hunting dogs, and later killing more than one of his assailants. The most egregious example of The Most Dangerous Game’s pre-code content lays in Zaroff’s sexualization of the thrill of the hunt – while he never outright says that hunting gets his rocks off, it’s made pretty obvious that something about it is satisfying him on a deeper level.
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The Most Dangerous Game is one hell of a thrill ride – it’s fast-paced thanks to a tight screenplay, features a great hammy villainous performance from Leslie Banks, and has some tremendous early action set-pieces. It’s not exactly a piece of highbrow drama, but it’s earned its place in cinematic history by being a balls to the wall adaptation of a memorable story. If you’re interested in seeing this terrific film, you’re in luck. The Most Dangerous Game has fallen into public domain, meaning that there are no longer any legitimate rights holders. It can be viewed legally and for free here on YouTubeThe Most Dangerous Game is highly recommended

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Pre-Code Hollywood #7 – I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

Poster - I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang_01I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy
Written by: Howard J. Green, Brown Holmes (based on I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! by Robert E. Burns)
Starring: Paul Muni, Glenda Farrell, Helen Vinson, Noel Francis

Mervyn LeRoy’s adaptation of Robert E. Burns’ similarly titled autobiography I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! is as progressive as any film we’ve taken a look at in our Pre-Code marathon. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang takes a critical look at the injustice taking place in America’s justice system during the early 20th century, and tells the tale of one man who wouldn’t let the system break him down. While it may not be wholly notable for its pre-code elements, LeRoy’s film is memorable for completely different reasons – its impact on the United States legal system and popular culture as a whole is far too important to overlook.

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang follows Sergeant James Allen (Paul Muni) upon his return to America in a new post-World War I world. James decides against returning to his dull pre-war life, and opts to become an engineer and put his skills to use. Unfortunately for James Allen, his lack of experience and a general lack of opportunities forces him to fall into a period of poverty. After befriending a seemingly helpful man, James is unwittingly pulled into a restaurant robbery and is forced into serving ten long years on a chain gang. James toils away on the chain gang until he sees his opportunity to escape, but not without every police officer in the South looking for him. After being blackmailed into marrying a spiteful and petty woman named Marie (Glenda Farrell), James is eventually caught and sent back to the chain gang. It is here that he pleads with the authorities for him freedom – a pardon in exchange for his turning himself in. Unfortunately for James Allen, nothing is ever quite as it seems in this strange new world.
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I was surprised by just how modern I Am a Fugitive’s message and general world outlook was – it’s one of the absolute best things about the film. The script in general was terrific – adapted by Howard J. Green and Brown Holmes, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang never slows down for a minute during its 90 minute runtime. Just when you think James Allen is out in the clear, something awful inevitably happens and leaves us in a panic. The development of James Allen as a character is a joy to watch, despite everything he’s up against. He starts off as an idealistic young man just returning back from the war, and ends as a cynical, betrayed, and beaten down shell of a man – once a hero of his generation, now forced into a life of crime. No matter how beaten down our hero was, I always had some hope tucked away – but this isn’t a film with a typical Hollywood ending. I Am a Fugitive’s ending is in the same vein as the one found in The Public Enemy, both of which tell us that sometimes life just isn’t fair, and sometimes something as simple as rehabilitation or institutional change just isn’t possible in the specific time and place. That isn’t to say that it’s a completely hopeless and dour ending, just a hauntingly dark and ambiguous one. Throughout the entire film, James Allen is punished for his positive and idealistic outlook towards the world. He left for the war as a fresh-faced and hopeful kid, proud to serve his country, and returned to find his country full of hopelessness. It’s a crime that Green and Holmes were not recognized by the Academy for their screenplay, because I Am A Fugitive would be nothing without it.

Paul Muni’s central performance as James Allen is another highlight of the film – he perfectly portrays the aforementioned trajectory of James Allen from young, idealistic hero to betrayed, beaten down criminal. Muni was rightfully nominated for Best Actor for his performance as James Allen, ultimately losing to the legendary Charles Laughton for The Private Life of Henry VIII. Muni would have his moment in the sun in 1936, when he won the Academy Award for The Story of Louis Pasteur. After the release of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, audiences throughout the United States started to change their opinions about the United States justice system, enraging many officials within the system and prompting a series of lawsuits against the studio. This is just one of the many early examples of mainstream Hollywood films having a positive impact on the modern world at large – it certainly wouldn’t be the last one. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang would go on to be nominated for Best Picture at that year’s Oscars, losing to the inferior Cavalcade in a regrettable decision by the Academy. As mentioned previously, I Am a Fugitive does not feature many of the pre-code elements that made other films famous – instead its groundbreaking nature came in its revealing look at a corrupt system, its attitude and critical outlook, and its haunting ending.
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I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is without a doubt the strongest film I’ve seen during our Pre-Code marathon thus far, and one that I’m glad I finally had an excuse to catch up with. Its screenplay takes a highly critical look at a corrupt and archaic branch of government, and caused an entire nation to change its opinion of said system. It perfectly follows a compelling character during a short, but highly important time of his life, and sees him realistically broken down and built back up again over a period of just 90 minutes. Paul Muni’s lead performance is incredible, and more than makes up for the lack of memorable supporting performances around him. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a thrilling, haunting, and ultimately rather tragic tale of corruption in early 20th century America – its importance cannot be understated. It gets my highest recommendation.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #6 – Blonde Venus (1932)

MV5BNDMwYmZmZDYtMjA1NS00YzJkLWI2ODUtZTA2NTgwMGI3Mzc0L2ltYWdlL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUxODE0MDY@._V1_Blonde Venus (1932)
Directed by: Josef von Sternberg
Written by: Jules Furthman, S.K. Lauren
Starring: Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, Cary Grant, Dickie Moore

Being something of a self-professed film buff, I like to think that I’m fairly well-versed in movie history, especially when it comes to Hollywood. I have to admit that the films of Josef von Sternberg are a massive blind spot of mine, and the director’s relatively small filmography is one of the more daunting things I’ve yet to tackle. Sternberg’s 1932 film Blonde Venus seemed like a perfect place to start off because of its pre-code nature, so naturally I took advantage of the pairing. While Blonde Venus is generally considered to be one of Sternberg’s least memorable directorial efforts, I had quite a strong initial reaction to it – it features a very good performance from Marlene Dietrich, another Hollywood legend I have little experience with, a compelling narrative with real stakes, and is at its core a rather complex morality tale. An impressive and emotional supporting turn from Herbert Marshall certainly helps keep the film together, and an early appearance from Cary Grant was a joy to see.

Blonde Venus follows Helen (Marlene Dietrich) and Ned (Herbert Marshall) Faraday, a young married couple living together with their son Johnny (Dickie Moore). Ned had recently come down with a serious illness as a result of one of his experiments, and the Faraday’s do not have the money for treatment. Helen vows to return to the theatre in order to earn the funding needed to send Ned away to Germany for treatment. Helen’s work in the theatre quickly attracts the attention of Nick Townsend (Cary Grant), a cocksure young politician. With Ned leaving for Germany, Helen and Nick begin to have a love affair . Helen and Johnny move into an apartment owned by Nick, and Helen gradually falls in love with the young politician. When Ned returns home to find Helen and Johnny missing, things begin to fall apart. Ned eventually files for a divorce from Helen, causing her to flee with Johnny in order to keep her young son. What follows is an exciting, morally complex tale of a mother stopping at nothing to protect her young son, and the self-destruction she experiences when she loses him.
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The first act of Blonde Venus serves strictly to set up the private lives of Helen and Ned Faraday, delivering a great deal of character development and exposition in a short twenty minutes. While it certainly isn’t the most exciting or innovative part of the film, it’s important in setting context for the events to come. When Marlene Dietrich takes to the stage for her famous “Hot Voodoo” musical number, Blonde Venus truly picks up and becomes something truly memorable. The number reveals Helen’s nature as a living, breathing woman with sexual needs and desires – a truly modern woman in a world that isn’t yet ready for these things. In this scene, Helen is simultaneously a strong matriarchal figure and a free, modern woman with real power over an audience made up almost entirely of older men. From here, Blonde Venus reveals its true nature as something more than a typical “woman’s picture” – a complex morality tale tackling themes of sex, marriage, freedom, and one’s meaning in life.

The film’s middle act sees Helen running away with her young son Johnny, followed in hot pursuit by her ex-husband Ned and a seemingly endless amount of law enforcement and private investigators. This section of the film is easily the most exciting, though it is rather brief. We see Ned’s desperation to get his son back from the woman who betrayed him, and Helen’s willingness to do anything to survive. When Helen hits rock bottom, she opts to return her son to her ex-husband, later making a pledge to kill herself. Instead of traditional suicide, Helen chooses an unfulfilling life of solitude, taking to the stage and using the men around her to become more successful than ever before. It is here where both Marlene Dietrich and Herbert Marshall shine – both of their characters have very real motivations for their actions, making it difficult to root for just one. The more radical pre-code elements of the film rear their heads during this act, where Helen is eventually forced to prostitute herself in order to feed Johnny. We also see a man threaten to punch his wife, and many subtle references to Helen’s sexuality in general. Hell, the entire first act of the film is about a married woman having an affair – if that doesn’t break the Code’s views of marriage, I don’t know what does.
blonde-venus-01-gJosef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus is a very strong entry into our pre-code marathon. While it may not be his best regarded film, I struggle to find many problems with it outside of some minor pacing issues. The first act is rather slow and filled with exposition, but it’s all vital in the context of what comes later. The film’s ending is disappointing in its suddenness, but it’s too sweet and good-natured to flat out hate. Marlene Dietrich’s performance as Helen Faraday is strong and groundbreaking in its portrayal of a modern, dignified woman who isn’t afraid to put her sexuality on display. Herbert Marshall’s turn as her spiteful, but well-meaning ex husband Ned is equally impressive. Blonde Venus tells a compelling rise and fall (and rise again) story of a truly compelling character, and is more than worth your time. Blonde Venus comes highly recommended.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #3 – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

JekyllHyde1931Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Directed by: Rouben Mamoulian
Written by: Samuel Hoffenstein, Percy Heath (based on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson)
Starring: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart, Edgar Norton

The first film of our latest marathon to feature elements of horror and suspense, Rouben Mamoulian’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story holds its own against its contemporary Universal monster movies that were scaring audiences globally. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a tremendous critical and financial success at the time of its release, earning an Academy Award for star Fredric March, along with several other nominations. Its pre-code roots are clear from the very outset of the film, where we see more early examples of open human sexuality, malicious stalking, and later on the eventual killing of human beings for pleasure.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde follows the titular Dr. Henry Jekyll (Fredric March), a kind and brilliant young doctor who is in the very upper echelon of his field. He intends to marry Muriel (Rose Hobart), the daughter of Brigadier General Sir Danvers Carrew (Halliwell Hobbes), who does not care much for Jekyll. While Muriel and her father are away, Jekyll develops a drug that supposedly releases the more “sinister” side of human beings. The groundbreaking new drug brings out the worst in Dr. Jekyll, transforming him into the evil Mr. Edward Hyde. The violent Mr. Hyde begins stalking Ivy Pierson (Miriam Hopkins), a young patient of Hyde’s. After the eventual murder of Ivy, Dr. Jekyll knows that he can no longer control the transformations, and tries desperately to push Muriel out of his life before she too is hurt by Hyde. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a suspenseful, atmospheric, and intelligent horror film that rivals most of its contemporaries. Actor Fredric March took home a much deserved Academy Award for Best Actor for his dual-personality performance, with the film also nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Adapted Writing.
6 - Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Horror films of the 1930’s are most famous for their thick Gothic atmosphere, with many of the most successful examples being based on novels written in the 1800’s. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is no different than many of its contemporaries in this respect, but seems to pull less punches than those other films. We see the sinister Mr. Hyde essentially sexually assaulting a young woman, as well as stalking and eventually murdering her to satisfy his own blood lust. These elements of brutality don’t seem to be found in other horror films of the era. Classics like Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein are more famous for the sheer power of their suggestive content, whereas Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is far more upfront when it comes to showing its horrific content. The transformation from Dr. Henry Jekyll to Mr. Edward Hyde is effective and frightening, thanks in part to Fredric March’s incredible performance and the terrific make-up effects by Wally Westmore. The camera focuses on March’s face for nearly thirty seconds during the initial transformation scene, which employs some truly impressive special effects and gives the audience a frightening sneak peek of the primitive-looking Mr. Hyde. Director Rouben Mamoulian expertly uses first person camera techniques to further the film’s suspense, which may be one of the first instances of the technique I’ve seen in a horror film. Mamoulian’s camera follows Hyde through all of his hideous acts, which increases the film’s sense of immersion and implicates the audience as helpless accessories to his crimes. Besides the horrific content found within Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, my favorite example of its pre-code nature is an early scene where Dr. Jekyll first meets Ivy Pierson – she has been hurt in what appears to be a mugging, and Dr. Jekyll carries her up to her room in order to treat her wounds. In a shocking turn of events, Pierson admits she was exaggerating in order to get Dr. Jekyll alone with her, and seduces the young doctor. Miriam Hopkins’ mostly naked figure and dangling leg have become iconic images, and for good reason. The scene perfectly captures a palpable sexual tension and the sexual desires of a young woman, both of which would be prohibited by the proposed Hays Code. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde gets away with a great deal in terms of violent and sexual content, largely thanks to the skills of its director and cast, and its famous source material. It’s a landmark moment for the horror genre, and a highlight of the pre-code era as a whole. Unfortunately for the film, it suffers from some of the same pacing issues that affect many of its contemporaries. The buildup to Mr. Hyde’s violent outbursts is longer than I expected, and the film’s ending comes all too suddenly.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde boasts several terrific performances in Fredric March’s award-winning take on Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde, who is simultaneously brilliant and charming, and depraved and hideous, Miriam Hopkins’ independent and provocative Ivy Pierson, and Rose Hobart’s sweet Muriel Carrew. Director Rouben Mamoulian employs groundbreaking first-person camera techniques to terrify and titillate his audience, and make-up artist Wally Westmore creates a believably hideous Mr. Hyde. While it suffers from some of the same pacing issues that plague early horror films, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a tremendous example of the power that early horror films hold even today. Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is highly recommended.

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