Other than high society oblivious to the Depression and lots of lingerie and production by Paramount there is little in common among the six 1931-mid-1934 movies on three discs of “Pre-Code Hollywood Collection.” There is also a brief overview of Hollywood censorship that would be helpful for those unfamiliar with the Hayes Office and what went before in the way of an unenforced code.
I have a very dim view of small-town small mindedness, but even I was shocked by William Seiter’s (1932) “Hot Saturday, in which Nancy Caroll’s attempt to avoid rape by Edward Wood lead to her being maligned or shunned. I the end Cary Grant is driving off to New York with her but after horribly false gossip that even her childhood sweetheart (Randolph Scott) wavers in disbelieving her. She also has a very censorious and greedy mother, played by the usually benign Jane Darwell.
Seiter also directed Astaire and Rogers in one of their best movies (Roberta, 1935) and Astaire with a divine Rita Hayworth in “You Were Never Lovelier” from 1942. Plus the hilarious Marx brothers’ “Room Service” (1938) and the ludicrous but amusing “One Touch of Venus” (1948) with Robert Walker and a divine and funny Ava Gardner. I guess he was something of a “women’s director.” Nancy Carroll (Shopworn Angel) was affecting and lovely as Ruth Brock. Cary Grant, in a much bigger role than in “Merrily We Go to Hell,” wore a lot of obvious makeup and s fey kimono, while Scott was all butch, all stiff. For me, this is the standout of the collection.
The searing but not sleazy 1932 “Merrily, We go hell”, directed by Dorothy Arzner, with a dipsomaniac Frederic March, and the love of Sylvie Sydney, who some reason in in luck with him, though he is always drunk and often cruel. I like her stand-by father (George Irving) as she makes stupid, self- harming decisions, and Sydney registers pain March’s character is too drunk to notice. Cary Grant appeared for part of a nightclub scene (the high life scenes from 1930s movie continue to amaze me. Depression, what Depression?) March really put the ”maniac” in dipsomaniac in a remarkable performance.
“The Cheat” was the oldest of the four Tallulah Bankhead movies I’ve seen (1931, directed by George Abbott). It was over the top with Bankhead playing a woman desperate to cover her gambling dead and Irving Pichel as a collector of Japanese art desperate to have her. The flat-chested Bankhead acted up a storm of desperation first about the gambling debt, when about her husband taking the blame for her shooting Pichel.
Re “Torch Singer” (1933:) I can’t decide which is more preposterous, Claudette Colbert as a chorus girl who zooms to being Manhattan’s premier chanteuse or the plot in which she bears and has to give up a child while the father, not knowing she was pregnant, is in China. The movie is notable for being one in which Ricardo Cortez is not shot by a outraged woman. Colbert could sing, but could not sell a song like Marlene Dietrich playing a nightclub singer and desperate mother in “Blond Venus,” made the previous year.
Finished and released just before enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code in 1934, “Search for Beauty” has some male rear nudity (a locker-room scene) but no sex. I’d say it had some violence, rather sadistic treatment by Aryan athletes suggested by Buster Crabbe (a 1932 Olympic gold medal-winner who plays Don Jackson, who becomes the editor of a fitness and exercise magazine) of sleazy older men and women. The models of fitness quickly turn into fascist squads enforcing a schedule of mandatory exercise that begins at 6:30 AM. Rarely has “body fascism” been so fascist. Leni Riefenstahl included black bodies, Paramount only white ones and more credibly portrayed athleticism as well as smooth-skinned models of Aryan perfection (from North America and the British Empire, including Ireland).
In addition to an often-shirtless Crabbe, clad only in swimming trunks, it starred an unrecognizable (voice or face) Ida Lupino (in her film debut), and a recognizable James Gleason in an unusually dull as an echo of Robert Armstrong, the wheeler-dealer who want to publish little-clad people and have sexy stories under the guise of promoting exercise. The physician on its board of directors say that it has “just enough moral to sneak them through the mails,” It objectifies men (especially Crabbe) as much as it does women. As the upholder of truth and righteousness, Crabbe is scenic but off-putting. As much as the magazine, the movie is smut posing as moralism.
An even more peculiar 1934 (getting in under the wire of the Production Code) is “Murder at the Vanities,” directed by rising director Mitchell Leisen. It includes an inept murder investigation by oafish police lieutenant Victor McLaglen, who is more interested at ogling chorus girls than solving the case of two murders in and above the opening of a musical by fast-talking impresario Jack Oakie. Carl Brisson was tall, but had no talent acting, singing of dancing. Kitty Carlisle had little do other than stand supportively by and go on with the show even after two attempts to murder her occur between her dressing room and the stage. (There are three consummated murders of women as well within the movie, one of them onstage.)
The music is mostly operetta with a very bizarre invasion by Duke Ellington and his orchestra (notable for having an early mixed-race production number. It also has a lot of skimpily dressed women onstage and backstage (and some passing black female nudity). Even Carlisle has a number in which she is close to being naked. And another in which she sings in praise of “sweet marijuana.” The numbers of a stage set musical as not as delirious as Busby Berkeley ones, more stage-confined.
©2018, Stephen O. Murray