The Naked Muse

Sculptor Richard Waldow (Brian Aherne) creates a work of art inspired by his model Lily Czepanek (Marlene Dietrich) in The Song of Songs (1933), a Pre-Code drama.

Here’s a rarely seen Pre-Code curiosity made during the early period of Marlene Dietrich’s career at Paramount, The Song of Songs (1933). It is usually overlooked amid the Josef von Sternberg collaborations that made her famous such as The Blue Angel (1930), Morocco (1930) and Shanghai Express (1932), yet, it provides a fascinating look at Dietrich under a different director (Rouben Mamoulian) as well as a departure from her usual persona as a vamp or prostitute (at least in the beginning). The film is also generously seasoned with romance, decadence, melodrama, earthy humor, some musical numbers and a disaster – there is a fire in the final act.

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The Case of the Fake MD

Most medical dramas focus on storylines about the inner workings of a hospital, rivalries between staff members, patients in crisis situations or maybe all of the above. Bedside (1934) is unique in that the main character, Dr. J. Herbert Martell aka Bob Brown, isn’t a real doctor at all. He’s only an X-ray technician posing as a MD and his motivation has nothing to do with the Hippocratic Oath. He’s a dirty rotten scoundrel and you know he’s up to no good from the start because he is played by Warren William, a familiar face in films of the Pre-Code period.

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Carole Lombard: Shady Lady

Prior to her breakout role opposite John Barrymore in the screwball comedy Twentieth Century (1934), Carole Lombard was a struggling young contract player at Paramount Pictures where her talent was often squandered in mediocre projects and B-pictures like It Pays to Advertise (1931), No One Man (1932) and Supernatural (1933). There were exceptions, of course, and one of the better examples is Virtue (1932), which confirms Lombard’s promise as an actress in her pre-stardom years.   Continue reading

Before Bogart Became Bogie

For that small number of gifted actors who become screen legends, the path to stardom is rarely predictable. Sometimes it’s a case of pure luck. Other times it’s achieved after years of honing their craft and screen persona through hard earned experience. I can’t think of a better example of the latter than Humphrey Bogart who made twelve films (two of them short subjects, 1928’s The Dancing Town and 1930’s Broadway’s Like That) before his breakout supporting role as the vicious gangster Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936). The irony is that despite playing that same character on Broadway where he won unanimous critical acclaim, Warner Bros. wanted Edward G. Robinson for the role. If it hadn’t been for the film’s star, Leslie Howard, who played opposite Bogart on Broadway and demanded that he be cast in the film or he would quit, Bogart might not be as famous today.  Continue reading

Cagney & Blondell: Made for Each Other

Could there have been a more ideally matched couple from the Warner Bros. stock company than this pair of New York natives with their street-smart ways and attitudes to match? It seems strange that James Cagney and Joan Blondell aren’t usually included in that rarified group of Gable & Harlow or Tracy & Hepburn or Bogart & Bacall or Loy & Powell and others but Blonde Crazy (1931) alone is reason enough to add this duo to the Hollywood leading couples A-list.  Continue reading

Irene Dunne in a Sinclair Lewis World

Among the many film adaptations of Sinclair Lewis novels over the years, Ann Vickers (1933) is probably the least known of them all, and, it wasn’t among the most popular or critically acclaimed of Lewis’s novels either. Those would be Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927) and Dodsworth (1929). Yet, Ann Vickers is probably Lewis’s most fully developed female protagonist and the 1933 film version starring Irene Dunne and Walter Huston is a flawed but fascinating movie that provides an apt example of how the work of a great American writer can be completely altered, distorted or softened by Hollywood and the Production Code officials.   Continue reading

Like Catnip for Women

David Manners (center) turns on the charm for Ann Dvorak as Ken Murray looks on in Crooner (1932).

Thanks to Warner Archives and several other distributors there have been an astonishing number of Pre-Code films made available to classic movie fans on DVD, MOD and streaming services over the years. But not every title is available and there are still some major omissions such as A Free Soul (1931) starring Norma Shearer or The Story of Temple Drake (1933) with Miriam Hopkins. There are also lesser-known oddities awaiting discovery such as Crooner (1932), which pops up occasionally on Turner Classic Movies. Directed by Lloyd Bacon, starring David Manners, Ann Dvorak and J. Carrol Naish and clocking in at a brisk 68 minutes, the film charts the rise and fall of Teddy Taylor (Manners), a struggling musician and his jazz band, Ted Taylor’s Collegiates.  Continue reading

Aline MacMahon in Heat Lightning

Publicity portrait of Aline MacMahon in the 1930s.

Most classic movie fans know Aline MacMahon as the wise-cracking Trixie in Gold Diggers of 1933, the devoted wife of Guy Kibbee in William Keighley’s film version of Babbitt (1934) or the victimized heiress in George B. Seitz’s Kind Lady (1935). These were stand-out roles but she was usually relegated to supporting parts, especially during her contract years at Warners Bros. With her Irish/Russian ancestry, MacMahon was not a conventional leading lady but she had an offbeat beauty that was both soulful and melancholy. These qualities, plus a steely toughness and dry sense of humor, make her performance in Heat Lightning (1934) particularly memorable. It also marked her first film in a leading role after playing character parts in 12 movies.   Continue reading

The Corporate Ladder and How to Climb It

Despite a long and prolific career, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is more famous for being the son of the silent era superstar Douglas Fairbanks Sr., his Hollywood social connections (including ex-wife Joan Crawford) and a handful of films in which he’s overshadowed by his co-stars (Greta Garbo in A Woman of Affairs [1928], Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar [1931], Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory [1933], and Cary Grant in Gunga Din [1939]).  Continue reading

Lee Tracy Does Washington

Whenever a repertory cinema like NYC’s Film Forum or a film archive like the George Eastman Museum programs a Pre-Code series you can bet that Lee Tracy is bound to be in a few of the famous titles such as The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, Love is a Racket, Doctor X, Blessed Event (all released in 1932) and Bombshell (1933). He’s also likely to be playing some kind of shady careerist such as a carnival barker, ambulance-chasing lawyer or tabloid newsman. That’s probably due to his legendary performance on Broadway in 1928 as reporter Hildy Johnson in The Front Page, written by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to play the role in the 1931 screen version – Pat O’Brien won that honor and Rosalind Russell played the female version in Howard Hawks’ 1940 remake, His Girl Friday – but Fox Pictures realized Tracy’s potential and brought him to Hollywood in 1929.  Continue reading