1932: Oh What a Pre-Code Year it Was!

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This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon. 

While researching and writing Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel, I spent a lot of time in 1932. This was Ann’s breakout year, the year she made some of her most memorable films – and the year she torpedoed her career by walking out on Warner Bros. for that 8 month honeymoon. 1932 has also come to stand out for me as an exceptional year for pre-Code films in general. Hollywood was finally getting over its growing pains from the transition to sound and in 1932, the quality of the cinematography was matching the sophistication of many of the scripts.

The following list represents some of my personal favorite pre-Code films of 1932 and by no means is meant to serve has a comprehensive reference. My apologies in advance if I failed to mention some of your favs.

 

Red Headed Woman (MGM, Jack Conway)

RedHeadedWoman

Whenever I hear the term pre-Code, Red Headed Woman is the first film that comes to mind. Jean Harlow is sassy, shocking, yet sympathetic as Lil Andrews, a working class gal trying to get ahead the only way she knows how. Despite her many misdeeds during the course of the film, Lil comes out ahead at the end which is ok with us, though the Hays Office was probably pretty ticked!

 

Red Dust (MGM, Victor Fleming)

RedDust

Only in the pre-Code era could Clark Gable share a steamy wet scene with Mary Astor, and end up with call-girl Jean Harlow at the end. Red Dust is full of beautiful people doing “naughty” things in a tropical setting and is fantastic. Knowing that some of Harlow’s playful scenes came on the heels of husband Paul Bern’s unexpected death makes her performance as the hooker with a heart of gold that much more impressive.

 

Faithless (MGM, Harry Beaumont)

Faithless

Faithless is a personal favorite with Tallulah Bankhead acting her heart out as a wealthy socialite who loses everything in the crash of ’29 and eventually hits rock bottom. Robert Montgomery is her on again, off again love interest and is given much more to do than many of his other early MGM works.

 

Freaks (MGM, Todd Browning)

Freaks

I was at a party a couple of years back where one of the guests, who was obnoxious to begin with, started spouting off how overrated Freaks is. My husband attributed his pontificating as being contrary for the sake of being contrary, and I agree. In my opinion, Freaks is unlike any film ever made, and 80+ years later there are still lessons to be learned from it. Casting people with physical abnormalities does indeed have a great deal of shock value, but their portrayal still has many elements of sympathy, even if the end is particularly brutal. The fact that the posh and glamours MGM made this film under the watchful eye of Irving Thalberg makes me love it all the more.

 

Horse Feathers (Paramount, Norman Z. McLeod)

HorseFeathers

I don’t think I can adequately express just how much I love the Marx Brothers. I love them as a group, I love them individually, I really love them with Zeppo, which means I especially love them in the pre-Code era. Their films with Paramount are unparalleled masterpieces of joy and madness (though I do waiver a bit on The Cocoanuts),  and Horse Feathers is included in that bunch. Building on the concept of Groucho as a university Dean, the brothers wreak their very special kind of havoc on the college’s football program. Groucho’s straight woman Margaret Dumont is missing from this one, but her shoes are more than filled by Thelma Todd as the “college widow” being wooed by one and all. Horse Feathers is such a personal favorite that lyrics from the movie’s theme song, “Everyone Says I Love You” was printed on the cover of our wedding program.

 

Rain (United Artists, Lewis Milestone)

Rain

This 1932 retelling of the story of Sadie Thompson, a prostitute who unwillingly drives a overzealous missionary mad was a coveted role. Howard Hughes desperately tried to secure the part for his contract player Ann Dvorak, but Sadie went to Joan Crawford. The film did not do well at the box office and was apparently too much of a departure for Crawford’s fans. Joan distanced her self from the film and delved out harsh words about it later on. In retrospect, Rain is a damn fine film, highly stylized under the direction of Lewis Milestone who actually got a very strong performance out of Crawford, not to mention costar Walter Huston.

 

Trouble in Paradise (Paramount, Ernst Lubitsch)

TroubleinParadise

Trouble in Paradise is a wonderfully sophisticated comedy, though would we expect anything less from Lubitsch? This tale of a pair of jewel thieves who infiltrate the world of a successful business woman in order to con her only gets better each time I view it. Herbert Marshall is superb as the con artist who inadvertently falls in love with his target, and Kay Francis is equally engaging as the wealthy business owner. However, Miriam Hopkins damn near steals the film as Marshall’s jealous accomplice and is a sheer delight.

 

Blonde Venus (Paramount, Josef von Sternberg)

BlondeVenus

Marlene Dietrich dressed in a gorilla suite, from which she does a strip tease before donning a blonde afro wig to sing a song called “Hot Voodoo” surrounded by scantily clad men dressed as “natives.”

‘Nuff said.

 

And of course…

 

Scarface (Caddo Co., Howard Hawks)

Scarface Half Sheet

When producer Howard Hughes hired director Howard Hawks and writer Ben Hecht in 1931, he expected an adaptation of the Armitage Trail book Scarface. The resulting film only turned out to be loosely based on the source material, but is a savage masterpiece that stands out as one of the quintessential gangster films of the day, if not all time. Even in the pre-Code era which seemed to be a filmmaking free for all, Hughes fought censorship battles that dragged on for months. The film was actually cut by September of 1931, but wasn’t released until the following March. Paul Muni can be a bit over the top as Tony Camonte, but is still effective, and George Raft, Karen Morley, and Boris Karloff are all delightful. And let’s not forget the divine Ann Dvorak, who in her credited film debit sears across the screen as the restless and doomed Cesca Camonte.

 

Three on a Match (Warner Bros./First National, Mervyn Leroy)

ThreeonaMatch

If Red Headed Woman is the first film that comes to mind when I hear the term “pre-Code,” then Three on a Match is a close second. Clocking in at around 63 minutes, this film possibly packs in more than any other. Joan Blondell and Bette Davis are featured, but at its heart is Ann Dvorak who starts off at the top of the world and then throws it all away for hot sex and drugs. Thrown in Humphrey Bogart, Warren William, Jack LaRue, Edward Arnold, Allan Jenkins, and Glena Farrell and how could you not love this film? Incidentally, Three on a Match was my introduction to Ann Dvorak many moons ago which got me started on my journey to document her life and career. So, had I not seen it when I did, I might not be writing this post right now.

 

The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (Warner Bros./First National, Michael Curtiz)

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I have said it before, but I’ll repeat it again – Molly Louvain is not necessarily the best of the pre-Code titles, but it’s one of the few times Ann Dvorak was given a film to carry and she does a more than adequate job. As the jilted Molly, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who falls into the arms a small time crook and later a wisecracking newspaper reporter, Ann more than holds her own even in scenes opposite the high-energy Lee Tracy. Also worth noting is that co-star Leslie Fenton became Ann’s first husband mere weeks after filming Molly Louvain and their off screen chemistry shines through in their scenes together. (Unfortunately, in all my years of collecting, I have never seen a poster or lobby card from this film!)

Well, there you have it – a highlight of some of my favorite pre-Codes of 1932, but by no means all of them. Feel free to add your favorite 1932 gems in the comments.

(All images, except from Molly Louvain, courtesy of Heritage Auctions)

21 Responses to “1932: Oh What a Pre-Code Year it Was!”

  1. Patricia Nolan-Hall (Caftan Woman) says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the unforgettable movies you selected from 1932. My late dad was a great fan of Ms. Dvorak and made certain we always tuned in when a chance to see one of her films came our way.

    Some of my other favourites from 1932 include “The Beast of the City”, “Broken Lullaby”, “The Mummy” and the Charles Laughton bit in “If I Had a Million”.

  2. Cliff Aliperti says:

    Nice picks from what is actually my favorite film year–I can and will, seriously, watch anything from ’32. I really feel like they perfected the talkie in this year and were on a nice path before Code enforcement came along in ’34 to throw up new challenges. I love that you included FAITHLESS, agree, Tallulah is great in it! Just to piggy-back your list I’ll add THE MUMMY, Clara Bow in CALL HER SAVAGE, more Dietrich/Von Sternberg in SHANGHAI EXPRESS, more Muni in CHAIN GANG, too much William Powell–often with Kay Francis too–to name them all, and a handful of key Warren William titles led by SKYSCRAPER SOULS. Fantastic year!

  3. admin says:

    Thanks Patricia, for the kind words and excellent 1932 additions!

  4. admin says:

    Yeah, 1932 is also my favorite year and not just because of Ann-D!

  5. Kendahl says:

    You know how a lot of people say 1939 was the best year in classic film? 1932 is totally my 1939. Many of my favorites are from this year and in this post!

  6. Silver Screenings says:

    I agree with Cliff – I love Warren WIlliam in “Skyscraper Souls”, but I admire the list you’ve assembled. Some impressive titles indeed! 1932 was a fantastic year, when you put all these films together in one list.

    Excellent post! Thanks for participating in the blogathon. :)

  7. Tim says:

    Love your look at 1932. To be honest, I haven’t seen most of these films, but you have peaked my interest. I haven’t seen Horse Feather’s in a VERY long time but am really in the mood to revisit it, Scarface intrigues me since it has Karloff in it and I have a new appreciation for Muni after seeing The Life of Emile Zola, and I’ve been meaning to watch Freaks for a long time, I even have a copy of it, but think I need to wait for the right time to view it.

    Oh, and may pick-up your book about Anna Dvorak. I know I’ve seen her in something but can’t remember what. I’m always interested in learning about those lesser known Hollywood greats.

  8. Joe Thompson says:

    What a great selection of movies. I loved what you had on the cover of your wedding program. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Catherine says:

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog post covering 1932. You’ve chosen some great films to represent that wonderful year of cinema. “Red Dust”, “Rain” and “Scarface” are my personal favourites from that year. :-)

    In addition to those films on your list, I also love “The Mummy” and “Smilin’ Through”.

  10. kristina says:

    such a great post, so many great picks, and it says a lot about the bounty of 1932 movies that everyone has so many more titles to add! I never knew about Ann D being considered for Rain, that would’ve been something. What strikes me most is the wealth of meaty roles for men and women, every single one you list there is so rich for the actors.

  11. admin says:

    I was actually about to add “Skyscraper Souls,” but figured the list was long enough! Thanks again everyone for the positive feedback. 1932 was an amazing year.

    And see Scarface if you haven’t!

  12. mike says:

    This Saturday nite TCM is running a mini Tallulah Bankhead festival, lead of by the “Essentials” screening of “Lifeboat”, followed by “Faithless”. I wish that “Devil and the Deep” (also from ’32)was one of the titles being shown, a whacked out love triangle involving Tallulah, Gary Cooper, and Charles Laughton. It features an underwater scene with Tallulah that must be seen to be believed.

    As much as I love Ann D’s work from this period, my favorite actress from the pre-code era has to be Miriam Hopkins. A Southern belle like Tallulah, no actress had a better run of films in the first half of the 30s. She especially shined in her 3 Lubitsch films. He loved working with her, and was able to tone down some of her theatricality.

    My first ever viewing of “Temple Drake” when TCM showed it recently a highlight of my movie watching career over the last couple of decades.

  13. admin says:

    Obviously Ann-D is my first love, but I also adore Miriam Hopkins. If there weren’t someone already working on a bio of her, I would have dove into that next!

  14. Girls Do Film says:

    What a wonderful post, and so many true classics. I have a hard time choosing my personal favourite, but I think Scarface is certainly up there.
    Thank you for sharing!

  15. Scott says:

    Excellent choices, all.

    It would be extremely difficult to pick a favorite among the ones you listed. “Horsefeathers” (how come I never ran into any ‘college widows’ like Thelma Todd when I was in college?) and “Red Dust” (as much as I loved Harlow in this, as much as she and Gable meant to be together at the end, the scene where he kisses the rain-drenched Mary Astor is, for my money, about as sexy a scene as has ever been filmed) have been long-time favorites, but “Three On A Match” is, now, right up there with any of them.

    Glad for others to have noted “Call Her Savage” and “The Mummy” for inclusion, as well.

    Another title worthy of mention might be “Taxi!” with James Cagney and the astonishingly beautiful young Loretta Young. We not only get to hear Jimmy speak Yiddish in this one, but he comes as close, here, as he ever did in uttering his trademark ‘You dirty rat!’, when he shouts “Come and take it, you dirty yellow-bellied rat, or I’ll give it to you through the door!’

  16. FlickChick says:

    Oh, what a great year 1932 was! Your choices were awesome and, of course, Ann sparkled!

  17. mike says:

    There should be mention of the Great Garbo here; she made 3 films in ’32 – Grand Hotel, As You Desire Me, and Mata Hari. The first is the most celebrated, but she shares screen time in that one. I’d go with “Mata Hari”, a chance to see her in some amazing costumes.

  18. Fritzi Kramer says:

    Ooo, what a treat this was! Thanks for bringing us so many goodies from 1932! I am still blown away by Scarface, my unrivaled favorite of the Big Three gangster classics. And Horse Feathers… Yes, I agree that Cocoanuts is a bit on the fence but still had some great bits.

    In any case, thanks so much for the amazing contribution!

  19. Le says:

    Wonderful list! Like you, I also love the Marx Brothers to pieces. They’re wonderful!
    From your list, my favorites are Trouble in Paradise and Scarfac, but another comment mentioned The Mummy, that is another personal favorite.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Greetings!

  20. admin says:

    I guess it goes without saying that Scarface is also my favorite of the Big Three. :D

    Thanks for coordinating this!

  21. admin says:

    Since so many people have mentioned the Mummy, I should admit my deep dark secret – I have never seen it, which is why it’s not on my list.

    Excellent post! Had know idea 1925 was such a memorable year for film.

  22. Scott says:

    A viewing of “The Mummy” is greatly recommended.

    Of “Dracula”, ‘Frankenstein” and “The Mummy” — which became the ‘franchises’, so to speak, for Universal studios during the decade that followed — the latter one remains my favorite.

    Highly atmospheric tale of reincarnation, directed by the great German Expressionist cinematographer Karl Freund, with a fascinating performance by Boris Karloff, which was evident even under the amazing make-up. It still creeps me out.

    “He… He … went for a little walk!”

  23. mike says:

    I watched “Faithless” (first viewing) last nite; I did enjoy, but the happy ending (well, sorta happy, Bob M does forgive her walk on the wild side) seems a little tacked on.

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