1932: Oh What a Pre-Code Year it Was!
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)
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)
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 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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.”
And of course…
Scarface (Caddo Co., Howard Hawks)
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)
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)
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)