Back when Hollywood played it fast and sassy
PRE-CODE is back. For the third time in less than five years, the UCLA Film & Television Archive has come up with a series devoted to this most exciting era of American film, a time when movies were just learning to talk and had the irrational exuberance to prove it.
Made from 1930 to 1934, the year when Hollywood’s bawdy excesses led to a stricter system of enforcement, pre-Code films pushed boundaries of all sorts. “More unbridled, salacious, subversive, and just plain bizarre than what came afterwards,” Thomas Doherty writes in his thoughtful history, “Pre-Code Hollywood,” “they look like Hollywood cinema but the moral terrain is so off-kilter they seem imported from a parallel universe.”
Starting Friday and running on weekends through Feb. 23 in the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, “Universal Preservation: Pre-Code Films From the Universal and Paramount Libraries” focuses on recently refurbished items from these two studios.
Pre-Code films are popular today for a variety of reasons. In these days of elephantine studio movies that regularly run close to three hours, it’s a relief to see pictures that get the job done fast: The longest of the 12 films in the UCLA series is 87 minutes, and eight of the dozen clock in in the snappy 70s.
More than that, these films’ brisk presentation of often-racy pre-Code material is guaranteed to keep you awake. When a character in one of the UCLA movies says, “I have an idea,” it’s par for the course to have someone snap back, “They must be giving them away.”
The emphasis of this particular pre-Code series is not necessarily on the salacious but on the unusual and little-seen. Only two of these films have been previously screened at UCLA, none of them is available on DVD and, says the archive, “many have not been screened publicly in decades.”
What this series also offers is a chance to see major actors before they had their breakthrough roles -- William Powell as the big-time New York gambler “Natural” Marsden in 1930’s “Street of Chance” and Claudette Colbert as a spoiled daughter of privilege who learns what really matters in 1930’s “Manslaughter.”
Also, by virtue of when and how they were made, these films provide a kind of window into attitudes and ideas in Depression-era America, a time when a nosy investigative reporter could be teased with the statement, “I bet you know where prosperity is hiding.”
Though the pictures in this series weren’t picked for provocative content, that doesn’t mean it’s entirely absent. Especially notable for its stimulating aspects is the aptly named “Hot Saturday.” This lively 1932 comedy stars Nancy Carroll as a good girl suspected of having gone bad with super-rich Cary Grant, whose morals are so suspect that he lounges around his house in a Japanese robe. While this film predates the actor’s career-making roles with Mae West, it already finds him in full Cary Grant mode as the suaver-than-suave romantic sophisticate.
On the same bill with “Hot Saturday” is 1933’s “White Woman,” which stars Carole Lombard as a world-weary torch singer run out of town in the mysterious East because men leer at her too much.
This film, however, is owned body and soul by her costar Charles Laughton, who plays Horace Prin, King of the River, in a performance so skillfully over the top, in such a masterly combination of wildly differing tones, that it’s irresistible.
Agreeing with that judgment is Laughton biographer Simon Callow, who wrote: “With his giggling and teasing and playacting, Laughton adds many layers of refinement to Prin’s unpleasantness. . . . It’s an original piece of acting, its preposterousness suggesting a real malevolence, a kind of absurd comic destructiveness which in a more credible setting . . . might have been very striking indeed.”
Opening the series is its most interesting film, 1931’s “City Streets,” a nifty crime melodrama notable for being based on a story by Dashiell Hammett and for being the second sound film (after the groundbreaking “Applause”) by one of the first directors to get the most out of the new medium: Rouben Mamoulian.
So in addition to providing a brooding crime story that starred Gary Cooper and gave Sylvia Sidney her first leading role, “City Streets” glories in the opportunity to bring the sounds of the everyday world -- bottling plants, freight trains and all -- to the screen. And, as shot by Lee Garmes, it looks every inch the proto-noir it is.
You’ll see stars
Playing with “City Streets” is a real curio, 1932’s “The Miracle Man,” which UCLA programmer Mimi Brody justifiably calls “the anti-pre-Code pre-Code movie.” The story of what happens when a gang of cynical con artists comes across a genuine faith healer, this film is also notable because it’s a remake of a silent film, in large part lost, that was one of Lon Chaney’s early signature roles.
Aside from Mamoulian, the other major director represented here is James Whale, who inexplicably chose “Impatient Maiden” as his follow-up to “Frankenstein.” This cynical romantic comedy stars Mae Clarke as someone who feels men should be experienced like bootleg liquor: “Gulp it down, hope for the best.” The film is also notable for documentary glimpses of Bunker Hill and the sight of eternal sidekick Andy Devine before he put on all those pounds.
One of the two UCLA repeats in this series is 1931’s memorable “The Cheat,” a George Abbott film that stars a convincing Tallulah Bankhead as a bored and fearless society wife who is also a compulsive gambler. After she loses $10,000 intended for, of all things, the Milk Fund, she begins a flirtation with an impossibly wealthy and extremely oily seducer who has the nasty habit, picked up from years in the Orient, of branding everything he possesses. Yes, everything.
Another of the series’ true curiosities is “Okay, America!” It stars Lew Ayres as a Walter Winchell-type newspaper columnist read by everybody in New York who ends up involved in a story so screwy he has to go to the White House and brief an outraged president to straighten it out. They don’t make them like this anymore, which is why we’re so crazy about them today.
A schedule for the series appears in The List on Page 28.