In this primer for this fall’s Sirens and Spitfires: Liberated Ladies of Pre-Code Cinema series, co-curator Michaela Owens explains why you shouldn’t sleep on this fierce line-up.
What does pre-Code mean? To keep it brief, in the 1920s, Hollywood had so many scandals that, to avoid repercussions from political and religious groups, the major movie studios formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America and hired former Postmaster General — and native Hoosier — Will Hays to help get Hollywood’s act together. Enter the Production Code, aka the Hays Code, which told studios what they shouldn’t do in order to prevent their movies from getting censored. The Hays Office forgot one thing, though: sex sells, baby! And nothing was going to stop the studios from raking in all the money they could. So, until the Code was fully enforced in 1934, the pre-Code era thrived and we ended up with films like the five stunners that are part of IU Cinema’s series Sirens and Spitfires: Liberated Ladies of Pre-Code Cinema.
If you think old movies are creaky relics of a bygone era, these films will prove just how wrong you are.
Three on a Match (1932)
Why you should see it: Covering 13 years in just 63 minutes — with dashes of sex, drugs, booze, and child kidnapping thrown in to keep things spicy — Three on a Match is, in the words of Joan Blondell biographer Matthew Kennedy, “a primal scream against the injustices visited upon women.” Starring Blondell, Bette Davis, and Ann Dvorak, the film focuses on three different friends as they struggle in a world that would rather see them as low-level career gals, sassy bad girls, or well-behaved society wives. A flop with critics and the box office when it was released, Three on a Match has since become recognized as a prime example of pre-Code cinema and the strong women characters it specialized in, as well as the lean, mean style of Warner Bros. with its cynical worldview, fast-paced storytelling, and deep bench of talent, including Lyle Talbot (one of my favorite pre-Code bad boys), the fabulous Glenda Farrell, Humphrey Bogart in a small but menacing part before he became a star, and leading man Warren William not playing a sleazeball for once in a pre-Code.
Who to keep your eye on: For a movie that has Bette Davis, I’m going to say something shocking: she is not who you’re going to be talking about after you see this film. That would be Ann Dvorak, whose remarkable performance as the rich dame who falls into a life of degradation gives Three on a Match its power and its unforgettable ending.
Unlike Bette and Joan Blondell, Dvorak did not become an icon of the classic film era. This wasn’t because she wasn’t talented; history just wasn’t on her side. One of the first actors to rebel against a major studio — yep, even before James Cagney, Bette, and Olivia de Havilland — Dvorak walked out on Warner Bros. the same year as Three on a Match and traveled the world for 8 months. She would later sue the studio and eventually left Warners in the late ‘30s, after which she became a freelancer. As the years went on, she faded from the public eye, partly because many of her pre-Code films, which were arguably her best work, wound up in vaults. The year she died, 1979, would be the same year her most iconic film, the original Scarface, was finally available again after its producer, Howard Hughes, had pulled it from circulation four decades before for no known reason. Other Dvorak pre-Codes wouldn’t be re-released until the dawn of home video in the ‘90s.
Jewel Robbery (1932)
Why you should see it: To be blunt, this film is the one I love the most in the series. A breezy romantic comedy that will almost certainly remind you of Ernst Lubitsch — it was actually directed by William Dieterle, one of classic Hollywood’s most sensuous filmmakers — Jewel Robbery unfolds like an erotic fantasy dreamed up by its leading lady, Baroness Teri von Horhenfels (Kay Francis). Bored with her husband and her latest lover, Teri is surprised to find herself the target of a jewelry heist and even more surprised that the handsome thief (William Powell) just might finally be the one man who can satisfy her… and her insatiable hunger for diamonds.
Who to keep your eye on: With her smoky voice and strikingly beautiful smile, Kay Francis was the crown jewel of the Warners lot in the early ‘30s. Unbearably sophisticated and stylish, she also possessed an adorable spontaneity and cheery affection that prove quite disarming, especially in her comedies. Although she has been considered more of a mannequin for her dazzling movie wardrobes than a serious actress, Francis was a superb talent who elevated everything she was in through sheer presence alone.
Offscreen, she was just as magnetic. A bisexual queen with a habit of calling herself a “damn fool” in her diary every time she realized she slept with the wrong person, she also killed Warner Bros. with kindness when they tried to force her (and her enormous salary) out the door and she left over $1 million to a seeing-eye dog organization when she died. How can you not love her?
Red-Headed Woman (1932)
Why you should see it: One of the funniest actors of the pre-Code era, Jean Harlow sparkles as the scheming secretary who will do whatever it takes to move up in the world. While there are certainly dramatic turns to the story, the script does a wondrous job in not taking them too seriously and softening the action with comedy in order to make Harlow’s rise and fall (and rise) all the more enjoyable to witness. A true gem.
Who to keep your eye on: A game-changer for Jean Harlow’s career, Red-Headed Woman illustrated her unmatched ability to be a blonde bombshell and a first-rate comedienne at the same time, and paved the way for her iconic work in Red Dust, Dinner at Eight, Libeled Lady, and others.
Another acid-tongued blonde you’ll love here, though, is Una Merkel. One of the great supporting players from this period, Merkel was often the bubbly best friend with a Kentucky twang and a cute scrunched-up face that belied her cynical street smarts. Any time Merkel’s name appears in the credits, you know that at the very least her performance will give you a good time, and she makes a terrific pair with Harlow.
Shanghai Express (1932)
Why you should see it: “Sumptuous” doesn’t even begin to describe Josef von Sternberg’s work. “Moody” and “sensual” don’t quite cover it, either, although all three words are perfect descriptors for this masterpiece. The fourth of seven collaborations between Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, Shanghai Express is a visually stunning and emotionally complex tale of romance, revenge, and redemption.
Who to keep your eye on: Marlene Dietrich is a capital-S star in everything she does, and she gives a phenomenal performance here, but I gotta go with Anna May Wong. Considered the first Chinese-American movie star, Wong was a mesmerizing actress and fashion icon who should’ve been as big as Dietrich if the film industry’s racism hadn’t stifled the roles she deserved. To quote Pre-Code.com in its review of Shanghai Express, “Wong’s ability to balance a quiet anger, distant amusement, and sheer bravado is nothing short of fantastic.” Although she was often relegated to B-movies, particularly after the Code’s enforcement, the actress still managed to portray her characters with dignity, positivity, and a hell of a lot of talent. There’s so much more that could be said about Wong’s historic career, but I encourage you to go out and do your own research — she was an icon in every sense of the word.
Baby Face (1933)
Why you should see it: To put it simply, Baby Face is one of the most pre-Code movies to ever pre-Code. Considered one of the films that brought this era of Hollywood to an end because it was just too damn salacious, it’s the story of Lily Powers (an astonishing Barbara Stanwyck), a woman whose traumatic past fuels her to use her sexual power to attain the finer things in life. The film was Warner Bros.’ answer to MGM’s Red-Headed Woman and the two are definitely in conversation with each other, but while Red-Headed Woman is fizzy and even occasionally goofy, Baby Face is harder, angrier, and more complex in its characterization of its titular siren. It is, without a doubt, one of the most essential pre-Codes out there.
Who to keep your eye on: Barbara Stanwyck is everything.
But I also want to shout out two supporting actresses who don’t get nearly enough love, Margaret Lindsay and Theresa Harris. Lindsay, to be fair, has a very small part in Baby Face as a woman whose fiancé and father are casualties of Stanwyck’s ruthlessness, so you’d be forgiven if you don’t think she makes much of an impression here. However, I highly recommend you seek out her other work, like Jezebel with Bette Davis and Henry Fonda; Back in Circulation, which is more of a Joan Blondell vehicle but she’s still great; The Law in Her Hands, where she plays a lawyer alongside Glenda Farrell; and The House of the Seven Gables, which gave her her greatest role opposite two silken-voiced titans, Vincent Price and George Sanders. A reliable actress whose longtime romantic partner was Broadway actress Mary McCarty, Lindsay refused to play the Hollywood game and once said, “I don’t care to be called by my first name and to be ‘darling’ to everyone on the lot.”
Similar to Anna May Wong, Theresa Harris should’ve had a brighter career than playing the maid to characters portrayed by the likes of Myrna Loy, Esther Williams, and Kay Francis. In the pre-Code era, she was able to find a few roles that asked more of her, such as Hold Your Man with Jean Harlow and Baby Face, where she is more of a cherished friend to Stanwyck’s character than an outright servant (although her job does become maid to Lily). After the Code’s enforcement, she did wonderful work in such films as Tell No Tales, Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and Out of the Past, but ultimately, in the words of Harris herself, “Hollywood had no parts for me.” Hollywood’s racism robbed so many people of so many incredible careers, and the more you see of Harris and the vivacity she brought to her roles, the more you feel that loss.
IU Cinema’s Sirens and Spitfires series starts this Saturday, September 9, with Three on a Match. This will be followed by Jewel Robbery on September 23, complete with a post-film Q&A about the Hays Code and sex in cinema that you don’t want to miss; Red-Headed Woman on September 30; Shanghai Express on October 7, and Baby Face on October 21.
Michaela OwensMichaela Owens
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