Essential

My 10 Essential Pre-Code Hollywood Films

Starting this blog, I wanted to create a site with as much information as I possibly could, as well as fill it with reviews and other cool stuff that made me fall in love with the era as much as I have. That’s why I’ve assembled what I consider to be the 10 essential Pre-Code Hollywood films, movies that are worth exploring to better understand why the era is so beloved and fascinating.

These are my opinions, of course, so if you disagree with any of these or have some suggestions of your own, feel free to point it out below.

1. The Divorcee

One of the most thoughtful and passionate looks at marriage and infidelity in any era, The Divorcee is Norma Shearer’s time to shine. She plays Jerry, an idealistic young woman who marries her lover, Ted. A few years later, Ted grows bored and cheats on her: in retaliation, she sleeps with another man to ‘balance the books’. He’s outraged, and the movie takes aim of the view that women must be more chaste than men, with Shearer living it up and exploring her new found freedom. Brilliantly directed by Robert Z. Leonard, it’s touching and fascinating.

(My full review here)

2. King Kong

Pre-Code films don’t get much bigger than this. While both Kong and the similarly wonderful Frankenstein deal with monsters who may be more humane than their pursuers, Kong is a superlative spectacle. It’s also been completely unsurpassed in two other high budget remakes, and the dude even took on Godzilla at one point. He’s big, and if you watch this movie, you’ll understand why.

3. Safe in Hell

I wrote the longest review I’ve ever written for Safe in Hell, which definitely deserves it. William Wellman cloaks the nasty tale of a murderess hidden away in a Caribbean hellhole in a visual feast full of symbols and shadows. Feminist and bold, Dorothy MacKaill knocks it out of the park as she attempts to survive the sweltering heat with her virtue intact.

(My full review here)

4. Red Dust

A grand melodrama that puts two of the hottest stars of the era in one of the steamiest places on earth. Jean Harlow is a lady of ill repute who ends up at Clark Gable’s rubber plantation. She falls for him, but he has his eyes on a pretty city girl whose husband works for Gable. It’s sordid and nasty (with a heaping spoonful of racism for kicks) and very Pre-Code.

(My full review here)

5. Scarface: Shame of a Nation 

While the likes of Al Capone, John Dillinger, and Babyface Nelson have become modern myths of American enterprise and ingenuity, it’s easy to forget that the movies were around back then, too, and not everyone was keen on the gang wars that turned cities into bloodbaths. Howard Hawks’ Scarface is both a repudiation and glorification of the gangster, creating a man (played sublimely by Paul Muni) who comes across little better as a violent force of juvenile aggression. And his relationship with his sister is mighty interesting, too.

(My full review here)

6. Footlight Parade 

There are probably few movies made with quite so many innuendos and phallic imagery being thrown at the audience in the guise of a family friendly musical. Starring a rogue’s gallery of Warner’s stars, we’ve got Jimmy Cagney at his most exuberant, Joan Blondell at her sweetest, Ruby Keeler at her most athletic, Dick Powell being his playful boyish self, and a bevy of supporting actors around the edges. More importantly, there’s choreography guru Busby Berkeley who takes us through the film’s three musical numbers, each one a fun and stunning feat of dream logic and romance.

(My full review here)

7. Trouble in Paradise 

Ernst Lubitsch’s charming comedy masterpiece is all of the sophistication and wit you could ask for in a film from any time period. Starring two of the era’s best (and most unjustly forgotten) female actors with Kay Francis and Miriam Hopkins, it’s a cocktail of charm and fun, all the while flouting the Production Code with a wry grin.

(My full review here)

8. Wild Boys of the Road 

There’s some great ‘social awareness’ pictures in the early days of the Depression, and while a lot of people will favor the intensity of Heroes for Sale or I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, I think Wild Boys is probably the most wholly engaging. The story of two boys who are sick of being a burden on their unemployed parents, they become passengers on the railway, going from town to town in hope of finding work. They end up building a community, but that community terrifies the roughnecks of the railroad and the cities full of distrusting adults. It’s shocking and ballsy as all hell, as you get to see just how low America could get at its worst time.

(My full review here)

9. Diplomaniacs

It was a brief mental debate whether to pick perennial World War satire Duck Soup for the list, but, honestly, as funny as it is, it’s been relatively neutered by censorship boards over the decades that eliminated most of its risque footage and jokes. Diplomaniacs, however, suffers no such subtraction, and while both are funny, Diplomaniacs still feels startlingly relevant.

(My full review here)

10. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

One of my favorite movies, Rouben Mamoullian’s unbelievably stylish Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has it all: great acting, special effects that still stun, Freudian undertones out the ying yang, and a narrative that points its finger at the audience. It’s exciting and a visual feast, and mainlines the vitality of the era in one amazing package.

I know a lot of you will have your own opinions, so let me know: what am I missing? What would your list be?

Danny

Danny lives outside Tokyo, Japan, with his lovely wife and two yappy dogs. He blogs bi-weekly at pre-code.com, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.

11 thoughts on “My 10 Essential Pre-Code Hollywood Films

  1. I’m having such fun finding stuff on your site, Danny! I’m definitely on board with some of these — especially The Divorcee, which is one of my all-time faves, Safe in Hell, and Red Dust. I’d also include Baby Face and Red-Headed Woman, Mandalay, and Private Lives, I think . . .

    1. Those are also all great picks! I think rewatching Baby Face definitely made me want to add it to the list, and those others you mentioned are fantastic. I might revise this list every couple of years, and I’ll keep those in mind!

  2. Great list, though I will admit the ending of The Divorcee irked me a bit. I would also recommend The Most Dangerous Game (1932) for its shocking violence and sexual subtext as well as Duck Soup (1933) for its insane innuendos.

    1. I don’t mind the ending to The Divorcee, but those other too are also top tier stuff– I only skipped Duck Soup since I figured everyone should watch it, pre-Code or not. I have to revisit this article at some point, and those are great suggestions!

  3. What a great blog!!! I think I would have to include Baby Face in any top ten. I am also wondering why you don’t include Love Me Tonight and The Merry Widow (1934 version). But thanks for putting all this together. I have been fascinated by this area of film study ever since I read “Sin in Soft Focus” by Mark Verira. Cheers!

    1. Thanks for the nice words! For those movies you mention, Baby Face didn’t get a nod since it had been a while since I’d seen it– and it’s definitely something I’ve regretted since revisiting it. For the other two, I haven’t seen them yet! That’s why I rarely make lists for the site, since there’s still so much to go. I’ll probably revise this later in the year, and I’ll definitely hit The Merry Widow by then. Thanks again for reading, and if you haven’t, check out Complicated Women by Mick LaSalle and Dame in the Kimono by Leonard Leff and Jerold Simmons– they’re also great takes on the era and how censorship affected American films.

      1. Thanks for the tip about those books – will check ‘em out! Regarding films for the list that should be checked out, I must mention one title that nobody seems to have seen and which has never been on TV as far as I know. That is “The Story of Temple Drake”, the 1933 adaptation of William Faulkner’s novel ‘Sanctuary’, starring Miriam Hopkins and Jack La Rue (in his most norious role) and which graphically depicts a particularly nasty rape. It was never re-released after the Code became enforced as the entire film contravened the rules so much. I keep hoping it will be released on dvd but in spite of one demand DVD-R bringing dozens of obscure titles out of the vaults, this one stays hidden. Was it really so bad? Also, do try and see Mae West’s “I’m No Angel” if you haven’t – it’s the raciest and funniest of all her films and some sources claim was the film that provoked Will Hays and the Catholic church to join forces and insist the Code be enforced. I should also mention De Mille’s “Sign of the Cross” with perhaps the screen’s first lesbian dance and truly shocking scenes in the arena. The uncut version was found in De Mille’s private library and is still strong stuff after 82 years.

        1. Thanks for all the great info. I’ve heard of Temple Drake for sure, I just haven’t found a good copy of it to watch yet– it’s certainly infamous enough. I haven’t seen I’m No Angel in a while and want to revisit it soon; ditto for Sign. So many movies to see, so little time!

  4. Well.I mostly agree on this list,but poor barbara stanwyck should have been here somewhere…and not even a warren william flick?

    1. I’ll be the first to admit that this page is out of date. Hopefully by the end of the year it’ll be updated and expanded– and definitely with some William and Stanwyck. Cheers!

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