Essentials

My List of Essential Pre-Code Hollywood Films

I am not a list person. This is one of the reasons that you don’t see a whole lot on this site. But I also understand that it’s nice to get a list of movies to serve as a good jumping off point for people who have just discovered pre-Code cinema or for people who love films of the early 30s to compare and contrast my selections with their own. That, and not many people have the time and energy to watch all of the movies made during the pre-Code period.

Please note that this list skips a few movies that have long been categorized as ‘great films’ regardless of the period– All Quiet on the Western Front, Dracula, Duck Soup, Frankenstein, Grand Hotel, It Happened One Night, King Kong, and The Thin Man are all rightful classics that you should seek out if, for some unfathomable reason, you haven’t seen them before. I cover these on the site, of course, but I wanted to save this list for the more discerning connoisseur whose goal is to dig a bit deeper into pre-Code Hollywood.

These are my opinions, of course, and this list constantly changes on both paper and in my head. If you disagree with any of these or have some suggestions of your own, feel free to point it out in the comments at the bottom!

Essential Pre-Code Hollywood Films


Baby Face poster essential pre-code list

Baby Face (1933)

Barbara Stanwyck stars as a woman who has spent her entire life being sexually exploited by her father as a means to further his own end. After he dies in a fire (which her character, Lily, watches with a barely-contained smirk), she decides it’s time to exploit her sex for her own monetary gain. She works her way up the corporate ladder, one bathroom rendezvous at a time.

Frank in its sexual politics and utterly malicious in its view of men, Baby Face drew a lot of ire from the Hays Office and was edited before release (including the addition of a blatantly false ending) in hopes of minimizing the potency of its message. Nothing doing.

Click here to read my full review.


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Bad Girl (1931)

Frank Borzage cut a wide swath over cinema history and many of his entries in the early 1930s, like Man’s Castle and A Farewell to Arms, are among his greatest. Bad Girl is a wonderfully rich drama that closely examines how a quick courtship can go awry. Beautiful and smart and wonderfully mature, it’s a great example of a movie with shades of grey that the Production Code would soon set its sights on.

Click here to read my full review.


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The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932)

Of Frank Capra’s many great melodramas of the early 1930s (including the brazen religious satire The Miracle Woman), The Bitter Tea of General Yen stands head and tails above the rest. A pointed look at American arrogance contrasted against a Chinese civil war. This movies politics and portrayal of a love affair between a Chinese man and an American woman make it truly noteworthy.

Click here to read my full review.

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The Black Cat (1934)

The first teaming of horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi sets the stage for one of the most wicked horror movies put to film. Heavy editing by Universal after it was finished give the movie a dreamlike quality, only emphasizing the movie’s dark themes, among them including incest, necrophilia, and satanism. Something you really have to see to believe.

Click here to read my full review.

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Blonde Venus (1932)

No one captured the artistic zeitgeist of the continental European flair as much as German director Josef Von Sternberg. His collaborations with Marlene Dietrich are legendary, and Blonde Venus may be one of their best.

Click here to read my full review.

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Call Her Savage (1932)

Star Clara Bow’s last ditch effort at talkie stardom is the completely nuts Call Her Savage which works as a good, inelegant companion film to the above Blonde Venus.

This shit is nuts.

Click here to read my full review.


Diplomaniacs (1933)

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.

Click here to read my full review.

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The Divorcee (1930)

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.

Click here to read my full review.

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

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.

Click here to read my full review.

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Employee’s Entrance (1933)

Few movies are more darkly funny and daring (all while wearing the pretense of normality) than Employee’s Entrance. Set in the world of department stores, we watch as good, hardworking men chafe under incompetent management. Warren William is a nasty, effective middle manager who manipulates his employees (and does far worse than that) to bring his business back on top.

Click here to read my full review.

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Freaks (1932)

One of the most controversial and weird movies ever made is about a troupe of circus freaks and how they react when one of their own is humiliated by a beautiful acrobat. Freaky, fascinating stuff.

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Gabriel Over the White House (1933)

The suddenness of the Great Depression did not just shake the economic fortunes of the country, but its political roots as well. While countries like Italy and Germany turned to fascism, the United States stayed a democracy… though not everyone thought that was the best idea. A wild fantasy, Gabriel Over the White House

Click here to read my full review.

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Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

One of my favorite movies, no film embodies the pre-Code era more than this one. But that’s a review for another day.

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Hallelujah (1929)

An extremely rare pre-Code film with an all African-American cast and great direction by King Vidor.

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Heroes for Sale (1933)

The ups and downs of post-World War I America as well as the despondency of the Great Depression are captured in this tight Warner Brothers thriller which takes Richard Barthelmess from the trenches to the gutter, through drug addiction and true love. It’s spry, heartfelt, and a gut punch, all at once.

Click here to read my full review.

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I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)

A daring expose on the conditions in Southern prisons, I Am a Fugitive ignited a national debate on prisons and prisoner treatment. Definitely one of the best of the Warner Brother’s socially conscious pictures of the early 30s.

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I’m No Angel (1933)

Mae West was one of the most controversial figures of the early part of the 20th century, a bold, vivacious, and undeniable sexual force of reckoning. Her contract at Paramount sent censors in a tizzy, and I’m No Angel remains her best film, a bold thesis statement beautifully expounded upon.

Click here to read my full review.

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The Lost Patrol (1934)

One of John Ford’s earliest ‘great’ films, The Lost Patrol is another example of an isolationist, anti-war parable that’s filled with effective performances and a brutal, nihilistic ending.

Click here to read my full review.

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Murder at the Vanities (1934)

As one of the final exclamation points in the pre-Code era, Murder at the Vanities is an unhinged musical that plays on everything that’s come before it and pushes the dial up to 11. Besides portraying interracial dancing and callous murder, there is a ton of flesh on display, as well as an entire song extolling the virtues of “Sweet Marihuana.”

Click here to read my full review.

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Night Nurse (1931)

While there are a lot of great dramas on this list, Night Nurse is one of the most wildly silly movies of the early 30s, representing a moral looseness that’s just as fun as the brazen ways the filmmakers invent to  get stars Joan Blondell and Barbara Stanwyck to constantly undress.

Click here to read my full review.

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Queen Christina (1933)

Screen queen Greta Garbo had her best years in the early 30s, and her portrayal of the matriarch Queen Christina may be her best chance to show off her range and exotic allure of them all.

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Red Dust (1932)

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.

Click here to read my full review.

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Red Headed Woman (1933)

Taking on sexpot Jean Harlow was one of MGM’s most daring decisions, and creating a movie that showcased her considerable charm and talent may just have well been suicide. Red Headed Woman is the story of a gold digger who works her way up a series of weak men using her wits and legs to great effect. It’s bawdy and brilliant.

Click here to read my full review.

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Safe in Hell (1931)

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.

Click here to read my full review.

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Scarface (1932)

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.

Click here to read my full review.

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Story of Temple Drake (1933)

Miriam Hopkins stars in this adaptation of William Faulkner’s infamous Sanctuary, the story of a girl who says ‘yes’ an awful lot until a brutal rape and a cast of despicable characters change her life. Haunting and dreamlike, Story is a movie that had to be mostly told in implication, but it remains a fascinating attempt of taking truly sordid material and reworking it for the screen.

Click here to read my full review.

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The Sign of the Cross (1933)

Cecil B. DeMille’s films were often filled with sin and sex, fitting comfortably under the aegis of censorship due to their ‘historical’ or ‘religious’ natures. This film, an expose of the early Roman Empire and the depravity of the Emperor Nero, contains a lot of lavish moments, including a nearly-nude Claudette Colbert and sexual perversion galore.

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Smarty (1934)

One of the true great oddities of the early 1930s, this ribald sex comedy is about impotency and rough sex– without ever being able to address either of those issues by name. With a cast of Warner Brother’s best comedians, it’s an intensely divisive film, and, more often than not, completely reviled because of its seeming endorsement of spousal abuse. Whatever you think of it, there’s no doubt that a movie like it couldn’t have been made after 1934, and, honestly, it’s amazing it got made then, too!

Click here to read my full review.

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Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

The Tarzan films, which would soon become the province of young children as the 30s evolved, began as sexy, fun adventure movies. Tarzan and His Mate is infamous for its nude swimming scene between Tarzan and his ‘mate’, a moment of serene beauty that was pointed at for future censorship.

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Three on a Match (1932)

Another fun Warner Brothers flick that shows how three women overcome their class differences and either make it big by marrying up or fall down into a spiral of drug addiction. But, no, really, it’s fun.

Click here to read my full review.

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Trader Horn (1931)

Nominated for Best Picture (no, really), this African adventure movie set the standard for racist adventure movies that were churned out in the first part of the decade.

 

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Trouble in Paradise (1932)

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.

Click here to read my full review.

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Zoo in Budapest (1933)

A rare, sensual and surreal film from Fox.

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Click here to read my full review.

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.

13 thoughts on “My List of 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!

  5. Surprised that Peach-O-Reno wasn’t on here since it is probably W & W’s most overtly pre-code outing, other than the hacked to bits So This is Africa. Hips, Hips, Hooray has a lot of scantily clad chorus girls and what not, but as a film overall it’s not THAT pre-code in terms of plot.

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