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
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
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 , Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar , Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory , and Cary Grant in Gunga Din ). Continue reading
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
One of several Pre-Code dramas helmed by Warner Bros. contract director Archie Mayo in 1931, Under Eighteen is a cautionary tale for the working girl that was lost in the shuffle of too many similar programmers released that same year. Seen today, it provides a unique window into the past when studios like Warner Bros. catered to Depression Era-audiences, particularly women, with movie plots that mirrored situations and circumstances in the lives of their audience. Continue reading
Today her place in film history rates little more than a footnote in the ascendancy of Warner Bros. as a major Hollywood studio, but Kay Francis was their first major female star whom they had lured away from Paramount in 1931. During her peak years for the studio between 1932 and 1935, she specialized in melodramas, soap operas and lightweight comedies which accented her elegance and chic fashion sense but also stereotyped her in increasingly inferior films.
She was dethroned by Bette Davis as Warners’ top star in 1936 and, by 1938, she was labeled “box office poison” in an article by The Hollywood Reporter. Still, there are several essential must-see titles among the more than sixty-five movies that she made (Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise , Jewel Robbery , Wonder Bar , for example) and Mandalay (1934) is one of her best dramatic showcases as well as an enormously entertaining, eyebrow-raising Pre-Code wonder. (It was made before the Code was officially enforced but released after the fact.) Continue reading
In the early thirties, most studios steered clear of social protest films but not Warner Bros. They embraced the genre with the same muckraking glee that characterized some of their subjects. Prison reform was addressed in one of their most famous films, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), with equally controversial topics like the rise in urban crime and drug addiction among war veterans being presented in The Public Enemy (1931) and Heroes for Sale (1933), respectively. Five Star Final (1931), on the other hand, addressed a different type of social problem – tabloid journalism. Continue reading