Tag Archives: pre-code

Forbidden (1932)

“You’re poison to me. Poison. I wish I’d never met you!”

The Frank Capra pre-code film Forbidden examines a love affair between a single career girl and a politician. Yes, the story of the backstreet love affair has been done a million times, but there are nice little complications to Forbidden that elevate this drama from the mediocre. And of course, it does star Barbara Stanwyck….

The film begins with librarian, Lulu Smith (Barbara Stanwyck) deciding on a whim (and infected with spring fever) to cash in her savings and take a cruise to Havana. In the library, she’s a spectacled frump complete with a bun, but once aboard ship, she’s dressed in a full-length evening gown, fur stole and glittery jewelry, but she’s still noticeably alone–a fact that confounds the ship’s crew. 

Lulu meets and promptly falls in love with another solitary passenger, Bob (Adolphe Menjou). Nicknaming each other 66 and 99 (after the numbers of their cabins), Bob and Lulu spend the entire time together–both on the cruise ship and later in Cuba’s nightclubs. Their love affair is light and devil-may-care. Any serious discussion is deliberately avoided–although at one point Lulu does drop a broad suggestion about skipping the homeward bound ship and staying in Havana.

But Lulu and Bob return to their old lives. She begins working at a newspaper office where she attracts the interest of Holland (Ralph Bellamy), but Lulu makes it clear she’s not interested. Meanwhile Bob’s continuing relationship with Lulu is marginalized into the odd stolen hour, and in spite of the fact he’s a lawyer, Lulu never sees his name in the paper. Eventually of course, Bob reveals he’s married and cannot divorce his wife. Lulu is content to take crumbs but circumstances drive the couple apart.

Forbidden traces the relationship between Bob and Lulu over several decades. Bob’s political career soars while Lulu remains in the background, and she sacrifices again and again–career, relationships, motherhood–these issues are sacrificed on the altar of Bob’s home and career.  Forbidden explores the oppositional forces of selfishness and selflessness through their relationship.  At first, Bob and Lulu think of themselves and their desires, but then Bob shifts and suddenly he has to protect his wife, Helen (Dorothy Peterson) due to  her ‘invalidism’. His argument against a divorce to protect his wife also rather conveniently ensures the continuance of his political career. The film doesn’t explore Bob’s motives a great deal, but the tantalizing possibility that Bob uses his wife as an excuse to protect his political ambition is evident. 

Forbidden is a film that can generate a lot of intriguing discussions, and I suspect many of us would have different opinions about the characters, their motives, and just how selfish or unselfish they really are.

The film makes it clear that Lulu and Bob both very deftly avoid any discussion of their lives when they first meet. In fact at one point, Bob seems (in retrospect) on the verge of confession, when Lulu stops him. Later, Bob’s late night visits must also rouse Lulu’s suspicions but once again she avoids confronting the truth until she’s forced to. This conspiracy of silence extends beyond the lovebirds and even includes Bob’s wife. During one scene in the film, Bob’s wife is about to take off for Europe for a ‘cure,’ and she gives Bob carte blanche to do as he pleases, telling him:

“While I’m away, I want you to have a good time and I won’t ask any questions either.”

So it seems that Bob and Lulu’s affair will be ignored by the missus just as long as he keeps it under wraps. So we have a mistress who’d rather not know about the wife, and a wife who’d rather not know about the mistress. And what of Bob? He has his proverbial cake and eats it too. At one point, Bob rather lamely tells Lulu: “why I’ve taken your life almost as though I’d been a murderer,” and in another scene, he whines (rather unconvincingly, I thought) about how difficult his life is.

Then there’s the question of Holland. He’s every bit as ambitious as Bob, but his goal as newspaper editor is to ruin Bob’s career, and so Holland digs hard and deep for a scandal. Lulu uses Holland, and yet Holland uses Lulu too. So basically we see these four adults in twisted relationships that are a bizarre combination of selfishness and selflessness, and by the time the film ends the results of these relationships are disastrous and destructive.

Forbidden is a really interesting early pre-code vehicle for Stanwyck. The drama steers clear of hysteria and too much melodrama. The weepy bits are well done and conducted with beautiful touches–my favourite scene is when Bob runs after Lulu in the rain. Catch the moment when the rain drips from Bob’s hat. It’s a magnificent touch.

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Bombshell (1933)

bombshellI’ve never seen a Jean Harlow film I didn’t enjoy, but I think Bombshell may very well be my favourite, and that surprises me a bit as I really enjoy the pairing of Harlow-Gable in some of her other major films. Perhaps the film’s success lies partly in the fact that it’s pre-code, and the perfectly timed performances mesh with a sparkling script that matches Harlow’s talents. Bombshell is a thinly disguised homage to Harlow and the cult of celebrity, yet at the same time, Harlow so seems to enjoy taking a sly dig at her own real-life career.

Bombshell begins with images of actress Lola Burns (Jean Harlow) and then clips of Harlow’s real-life films mingle with shots of adoring, fixated fans as they stare at the big screen. Quickly establishing the way in which Burns is seen on the big screen and how she is idolised by her fans, the film then cleverly leads into the way Lola Burns really lives.

The film opens with a very typical day-in-the-life of Lola Burns. It’s morning and she wakes up in her splendid mansion in a bedroom complete with frills, silk and feathers for that despotic harem-brothel look . Even though she’s a wealthy woman and surrounded by servants, Lola’s life is a mess. Both Lola’s drunken brother and her obnoxious gambler father sponge off her while trying to manage her career, and this translates to ensuring she stays in harness, earning the money they spend. To make matters worse, she’s surrounded by out-of-control servants who take advantage of her good natured generosity. Lola’s chaotic life even follows her to the studio, and the fact that everywhere she travels she’s accompanied by her three Old English Sheepdogs doesn’t exactly help matters. If she’s not tripping over dogs, she’s juggling interviews, fans and gossip-hungry reporters. And on top of all this, the studio’s publicist, E.J. “Space” Hanlon (Lee Tracy) exploits every angle of Lola’s personal life in order to keep her on the front page. There is literally nothing that Space wouldn’t sink to in order to get a headline. 

Merging real-life with fiction, Lola is filming Red Dust with Gable while she has a romance with slimy Hugo, the Marquis Di Pisa Di Pisa (Ivan Lebedeff). The Marquis, a notorious gigolo (also called a “fungi,” a “rummage sale Romeo,” and a “glorified barber“) sponges off of vulnerable female Hollywood stars who are impressed with his foreign accent and his title. Of course, to the Marquis, Lola is a perfect target.

The plot follows Lola’s romance with the Marquis, her various whims (such as adopting a baby) and her romance with snotty poet Gifford Middleton (Franchot Tone). Meanwhile Space subverts snd sabotages Lola’s decisions about her life turning everything into a smutty headline for the studio. While the film keeps an even beat and a steady stream of comedy, some of the film’s funniest scenes occur when Lola meets blue-blood Gifford and his family. Tone’s romantic lines are priceless: “Your hair is like a field of silver daisies. I’d like to run barefoot through your hair!” Tone, of course, gained a great deal of notoriety a few years later in 1951 when he was in a fight with actor Tom Neal over the beautiful, self-destructive actress Barbara Payton.

The very lovely, luminous Jean Harlow is marvelous as the blonde Bombshell. She was just 22 when the film was released and tragically died just four years later in 1937. She’s so young in Bombshell and yet she delivers the performance of a confident, seasoned performer, never missing a beat, full of life, and simply perfect for this role.

This precode film includes a few hints at sex. For example, early in the film, Lola wonders what happened to the negligee she just gave to her maid, and the following exchange takes place:

Lola: I didn’t give you that for a negligee. That’s an evening wrap.

Loretta: I know Miss Burns, but the negligee you gave me got all tore up the night before last.

Lola: Your day off is sure brutal on your lingerie.

And in another scene, Lola is planning to adopt a baby but Space jumps to the wrong conclusion and thinks that Lola is about to be an unwed mother. Then horror of horrors, the dialogue leads Space to think that Lola doesn’t know who the father of her baby is. It’s a funny scene and of course the audience is on the joke, but when the Hays Code came into power, this exchange simply wouldn’t have happened.

Anyway, if you want to watch a Harlow film and don’t know where to start, Bombshell is a marvellous film and showcases Harlow at her glittering best. Directed by Victor Fleming.


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Three on a Match (1932)

 “She’ll probably go to reform school.”

threeThree on a Match is the story of three schoolgirls who lose touch with each other, but reunite by chance a few years later. Mary (Joan Blondell) is the wild one who gets in trouble and ends up in a reform school. Ruth (Bette Davis) is the serious, quiet one who becomes a stenographer. Vivian (Ann Dvorak) is the popular, pretty girl. With just a few brief scenes, the plot establishes the basic character of each girl, and then shows how each girl is essentially still the same in adulthood.

When the three women–now adults–meet in New York, Vivian is married to the highly successful lawyer Robert Kirkwood (Warren William). While Ruth and Mary envy Vivian’s social position, her chauffeur driven car etc., they also feel that she’s incredibly lucky to have such a nice husband. Vivian, however, is bored to tears by her husband and her lifestyle. She’s the sort of person who never appreciates the good things in life because they fall into her lap so easily. Vivian’s pouting results in her husband suggesting that she needs a holiday. Vivian packs up the couple’s only son and heads for a ship sailing to Europe.

Unfortunately, Vivian meets a lowlife gangster Michael Loftus (Lyle Taylor) and jumps right into disaster….

Three on a Match is a pre-code film made in 1932. It’s a bit sentimental, but well acted. A tight plot, and a stellar cast create a delightful film. Bette Davis has only a tiny role, and Humphrey Bogart also stars in a small (but memorable) role as gangster, Harve.

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Baby Face (1933)

 “Yeah, I’m a tramp, and who’s to blame?”

The marvelous Barbara Stanwyck stars as gold-digger Lily Powers in the pre-Hayes code film, Baby Face. Lily is raised in a depressingly poor and grimy mill town. Her father runs an unofficial speakeasy and makes his own moonshine in the outdoor shed. Lily serves drinks–and a lot more–to the male customers. When Lily becomes tired of her father’s ‘arrangement’ with some of the male customers, she escapes to New York. Here she begins her long, hard climb to wealth–man by man. Along the way, she ruins careers, wrecks lives and even causes a suicide.

babyfaceLily Powers is a great character–very focused, avaricious, hard-edged and driven. Thanks to the early scenes that depict the harsh realities of her life, her ambitious and self-protective need to accumulate wealth is clearly understood. When she first arrives in New York, she identifies a building she wants to work in, and then rapidly rises to the top of the food chain using her looks and various male supervisors along the way. The film doesn’t try to hide Lily’s harpy-like materialistic tendencies, and she’s seen beginning work at literally the bottom floor of an office building. Then scenes depict Lily’s plying her tactics (this includes letting men look down her blouse). Honky tonk music plays as the camera sweeps the front of the office building and Lily moves up to another department (and figuratively improves her place in society). With each new department, she brings herself to the attention of increasingly wealthier men–until she manages to reach the top floor–leaving a trail of broken men in her destructive climb.

As Lily’s jobs become more important, so do the men she seduces. At first, the men have little to lose–she discards a very young John Wayne with little more than a broken heart, but as she crushes more powerful men, the stakes become greater. And this inevitably leads to a front-page scandal.

Stanwyck fans will love watching her unleashed in this role–at one point she acknowledges: “I’m not like other women. All the gentleness and kindness in me has been killed.” There’s little pretense regarding her single-minded ambitious drive, and from the beginning of the film until the last scene, this is clearly Stanwyck’s film.

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Ex-Lady (1935)

 “Cheap, cheap, my daughter, cheap!”

ex-ladyIn Ex-Lady single career girl, illustrator, Helen Bauer (Bette Davis) maintains a long-term relationship with advertising agency owner Don Peterson (Gene Raymond). He wants to get married, but she’s averse to the idea. She’d much prefer to live together. With proto feminist ideas, Helen sees marriage as “dull” and the death of romance and freedom. The married couples in the film underscore that notion. While Helen and Don’s relationship sparkles with the joy they find in each other’s company, married friends seem bored and disinterested in one another.

Don presses the idea of marriage, and Helen finally gives in. The newlyweds leave for a whirlwind honeymoon to Cuba, but when they return, Don’s business has lost several accounts in his absence. Helen, who has given up her freelance illustrator status to join Don’s firm, has job offers–but with other advertising agencies. Soon there are strains in the marriage, and both Don and Helen feel the loss of the marvelous freedom they’d enjoyed when they lived together.

Ex-Lady is a morality tale. Both Don and Helen have to learn the hard way that marriage is a commitment. When they get married, it’s as though they’re ‘trying marriage’ to see if it works for them, and then of course, when the first obstacles occur, marriage takes the blame for it. Would-be lovers distract both Don and Helen from the marriage. Nick Malvyn (Monroe Owsley) is waiting for Helen to come to her senses and go off with him. And Peggy Smith (Kay Strozzi), the much younger wife of an aging businessman, can’t wait to get her hands on Don.

This pre-code film is interesting for its proto feminist ideas, and one of the best lines occurs when married friend, Hugo regrets the fact that the hobble skirt is no longer in vogue. He notes that women “couldn’t walk fast nor far in the hobble skirt. You could trust them.” As a vehicle for Bette Davis, this pre-code film is a pedestrian romance. The fine talent of this great actress is contained in little more than a sweet bedroom drama, and Davis is confined in a role of a glamorous woman whose emotions never rise above mildly disappointed. There’s no fire or passion here, and that’s unfortunate. As a hardcore Davis fan, it’s still hard to pass up the opportunity to see her in anything, but Ex-Lady was NOT a film Davis was proud of. Incidentally, Ex-Lady is remake of an earlier film , Illicit, starring Barbara Stanwyck. From director Robert Florey.

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Night After Night (1932)


night after night“Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.”

Ex-Boxer Joe Anton (George Raft) runs a successful speakeasy. Now that he’s hit the good times, he’s turned his ambitions towards high society. Joe is captivated by a lonely, high class woman named Jerry Healey (Constance Cummings) who sits alone at his speakeasy night after night. In order to impress Jerry, Joe employs a teacher to educate him, teach him good manners, and improve his speech.

Joe’s life is complicated by current and former relationships. Iris (Wynne Gibson) is his current jealous flame, and he can’t wait to get rid of her. Maudie (Mae West) is a former good-natured flame who blows into town and into the speakeasy.

Night after Night has a flimsy, romantic plot that puts George Raft in the amusing and slightly whimsical role of being a man whose grammar has to be corrected in order to impress a ‘lady’. The film’s laughs come from teacher, Miss Mabel Jellyman (Alison Skipworth) and Maudie. When these two women get together, the situation loosens up. A subplot concerning a gangster and the sale of the speakeasy runs throughout the film.

Night after Night gave Mae West her first film role. It’s a fairly small part (she appears in only four scenes), but she steals the film. The romance between Joe and Miss Healey seems tepid and misguided at best, but when Maudie shows up at the speakeasy, the fun begins. She immediately strikes up an unlikely friendship with Miss Jellyman, and the pair of them get drunk. Night after Night was made in 1932–and with Hays Code was not yet enforced, Joe’s great line remains in the film: “if I was a pirate and I had you on my ship, I wouldn’t toss you to my crew.” From director Archie Mayo.

Mae West: “You stick with me dearie, and I’ll make you platinum blonde.”

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Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932)

“I offer you nothing, and you accept it.”

When the pre-code film The Strange Love of Molly Louvain begins, Molly (Ann Dvorak) works behind the cigar counter at a hotel. She’s about to be introduced to her boyfriend Ralph’s wealthy family, but she’s also fending off two other men–bellhop Jimmy Cook (Richard Cromwell) and sleazy traveling salesman Nick Grant (Leslie Fenton). When Ralph dumps Molly, she plunges into a relationship with Grant, and he drags her into a life of crime. When Molly hits rock bottom, she’s working as a dance hall hostess.

The Strange Love of Molly Louvain is a good-girl-gone-wrong story with all the overtones of a grand soap opera. Molly grew up in poverty and was abandoned as a child by her mother who left her in a boarding house and ran off with a man. While Molly nurses this fact, she eventually discovers that history does repeat itself, and in an ironic twist of fate, she finally understands her mother’s desperation.

Jimmy Cook is the decent, good man who believes in Molly–even when she doesn’t believe in herself. And there’s another man in Molly’s life–jaded, ambitious newspaper reporter Scotty Cornell (Lee Tracy). The role of Scotty brightens the film–he’s wisecracking, manic, confident, and the minute he lays eyes on Molly, he labels her a “tinsel girl.” What’s interesting about The Strange Love of Molly Louvain–and what makes it’s different from many films in the same genre–is the fact that Molly’s redemption comes in a two-fold manner–through her actions with her child, and through the relationship she finally selects. Directed by Michael Curtiz.

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Ladies They Talk About (1933)

 “Don’t worry about my conscience, sweetheart.”

ladies they talk aboutThe pre-Hays Code film Ladies They Talk About stars Barbara Stanwyck as Nan Taylor–a gun moll who helps knock off a bank. When the robbery goes sour, Nan is caught. Anti-crime crusader, Dave Slade (Preston Foster) rages against Nan from his pulpit, but when he meets her in person, he recognizes her as a childhood friend. She was the daughter of the town deacon, and he was the son of the town drunk. A romance is kindled, and Slade is prepared to pull strings to save Nan, but when she comes clean about the robbery, Slade is horrified. Nan goes off to jail, but their paths are destined to cross again.

This is a splendid role for Stanwyck. She switches her behaviour back and forth–depending on the audience she’s playing to. In one scene, she’s ushered in the district attorney’s office, where she coyly displays her legs while playing the innocent victim of circumstance. When the district attorney tells her she’s “wasting that panorama” Nan immediately drops the coy act and slides back into her tough gang girl demeanor.

A great deal of the film is spent inside San Quentin. While the men’s prison is shown as militaristic, the women’s prison is depicted as a social club with cliques. There are all types in here–including one prisoner who’s besotted with Slade, and also the motherly Aunt Maggie who insists her only crime was she ran a beauty salon. There’s even a pet Cockatoo brought in to make the female prisoners behave, and some scenes focus on the female prisoners adjusting their undies. Class politics exist within the jail–an upper-class woman totes her Pekingese around while expecting to get her laundry done free by the ‘maid’ Mustard. Nan soon finds her footing in jail and declares, “I never let anything lick me yet, and I never will.” Unfortunately, the lead male role just can’t get the backbone to hold his own against Stanwyck, but it matters little since this is her film anyway. Directed by Howard Bretherton and William Keighley, Ladies They Talk About is a delightful film for Stanwyck fans.

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Night Nurse (1931)

“Don’t think you can muzzle me.”

Night Nurse directed by William Wellman, is an extremely entertaining film, and it’s also a marvelous vehicle for the talented Barbara Stanwyck. When the film begins, Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) is trying to get a job as a nurse at a hospital, but she’s hampered by her lack of high school diploma. A kind and widely respected doctor takes up Lora’s cause, and she’s added to the student nursing staff at the hospital. The plot follows Lora’s training, and while some emphasis is placed on Lora and fellow fun-loving student Maloney’s (Joan Blondell) attempts to circumvent curfew, it’s also clear that Lora takes her chosen career very seriously.

night-nurseOne evening, Lora is working in the emergency room, and she meets a bootlegger named Mortie (Ben Lyon). A moment of kindness seals their friendship, and it also raises the film’s major theme–medical ethics. Mortie tells Lora that doctors and nurses cover things up at the hospital, and his comment makes an impact.

Lora’s first assignment following graduation is to care for two little girls in their home. The children are suffering from malnutrition and anemia, yet the family is wealthy. There’s obviously something very peculiar afoot–the children’s mother, Mrs. Ritchey (Charlotte Merriam) is drunk most of the time and hosts wild parties, an acidic housekeeper spies on the nurses, the children complain of hunger, and Nick (Clark Gable), the sinister chauffeur lurks in the background. When the situation at the Ritchey home deteriorates one evening, Lora’s medical ethics are tested, and she must chose between the care of her young patients or take a chance that may wreck her career.

Night Nurse is a powerful pre-code drama. Yes, there are lots of fluffy, enjoyable scenes that involve Stanwyck running around in her undies a great deal (check out the VHS cover), but the core of the film covers some serious material. This is a marvelous role for Stanwyck, and her character has a spine of steel that refuses to bend. There are many great scenes in the film–Nora facing down the drunken Mrs. Ritchey, and Nora arguing with the slimy Dr. Ranger (Ralf Harolde), for example. But the very best scene occurs between Nick and Lora–she confronts him, and he tries to bully her. Lora doesn’t back down–in fact she gets right in his face, and the camera is angled just perfectly to catch the unflinching eye contact between these two characters. If you are a Stanwyck fan, don’t miss this one.

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