Hollywood’s Second Greatest Year

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While most film scholars, critics, and fans consider 1939 to be classic-era Hollywood’s greatest year (start with Gone With The Wind and work up from there), New York City’s Film Forum is making a case for the year 1933 as the cinematic annus mirablis. Beginning Friday, February 8, 2013, the city’s pre-eminent revival cinema is running “1933: Hollywood’s Naughtiest, Bawdiest Year,” a four-week series on the films released during the year that can be thought of as the depth of the Depression and the height of pre-Code. The result was a torrent of some of the most freewheeling, energetic, and radical movies ever to sizzle on this country’s screens. If you need any confirmation as to what a blend of economic desperation and uncensored freedom can accomplish in cinematic art and anarchy, then hie yourself over to West Houston Street from now through March 7 to sample the best that ever came out of the West Coast. (Run, don’t walk, we advise. Even take a plane.)

As if to drive home how exhilarating the combo of economic woes and uncensored fun can be, the series, programmed by Bruce Goldstein, starts with a bang-up double feature of The Little Giant and Employees’ Entrance (2/8), two films whose antics will raise the eyebrows and keep them raised. As a gangster in the first film looking to go “posh” as Prohibition ends, Edward G. Robinson nuzzles high-society gal Helen Vinson’s breasts, cracks jokes about cocaine and kept women, and, in the film’s most startling line, complains about how a “lot of fags with handkerchiefs up their sleeves” have been putting one over him. When we first saw this film, Robinson’s remark on “fags” had us doing double-takes, but the rest of the film isn’t far behind in the ‘just WHAT did he say?’ department. And Employees’ Entrance presents, in all his wolverine glory, Warren William, cinema’s ultimate pre-Code actor, seducing a down-on-her-luck Loretta Young twice while ruthlessly dragging a department store out of bankruptcy to keep his employees employed. Audiences may deplore his Machiavellian methods (including a boardroom take-over and one worker driven to suicide), but William’s character is a stark demonstration of how desperate times require desperate measures. He uses any means necessary to survive; and if morals are breached and ethics abused, at least paychecks are issued and bodies kept fed.

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Big Bad Wolf: Warren William eyes innocent Loretta Young in Employees’ Entrance.

Survival by any means is a theme that keeps surfacing in Film Forum’s cornucopia, whether it’s the starving chorus girls scrounging one decent suit out of an array of worn-too-often clothes to impress a producer in Gold Diggers of 1933 (2/9), or Barbara Stanwyck grimly sleeping her way through the feeding chain of men in a bank to get to the biggest and richest game on top (objectively correlated by the camera’s series of pans up the side of the building she works in) in Baby Face (2/15), or homeless teenagers scrabbling to keep body and soul together while they ride the rails and dodge the bulls in Wild Boys of the Road (3/4). But the series is more than a look at the Depression; it comprises a survey of the vast array of product that the Hollywood studios, even in dire times, could still create and release to audiences over the course of one year: cartoons (a program devoted to Betty Boop on 2/19); shorts (Vitaphone Varieties, 2/25); musicals (42nd Street and Footlight Parade, 2/16); historical epics (Cavalcade and The Private Life of Henry VIII, 2/24); topical dramas (Richard Barthelmess encountering drug addiction and radical politics in Heroes for Sale, 2/11; and the loony dictator-saves-the-world fantasy Gabriel Over The White House, 2/18); family films (Little Women, 2/23); crime thrillers (Blood Money and Laughter in Hell, two films whose titles tell all, 2/26); and even horror (King Kong and Mystery of the Wax Museum on 3/3, and the still-shocking Island of Lost Souls on 2/28). A sprinkling of European films (Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, 2/21, and Gustav Machaty’s Ecstasy, 3/1, which became famous for its scene of a young Hedy Lamarr racing naked through a field) lends the series an international scope, letting us see that the cinematic riches of 1933 weren’t confined to Hollywood alone.

What runs through these all these films is the tough but titillating aura of what we now call pre-Code cinema, those racily unsentimental and fast-talking-cum-fast-paced movies that caught the turmoil of a country in socio-economic upheaval, before the puritanical Production Code slap down of 1934. Some of the films, even in that relatively relaxed year, were still the focus of a censorship uproar, such as The Story of Temple Drake (3/1), whose depiction of party-girl Miriam Hopkins’ rape, pimping, and coming-to-like-it degradation by sleazy gangster Jack LaRue earned it a condemnation from the Legion of Decency. But what also distinguished pre-Code is not merely a desire to shock but an attempt to portray Depression-era life and its disruptions honestly, as it was being lived and breathed by everyday human beings. Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young’s unmarried co-habitation in a shanty town in Man’s Castle (2/20) is romantic yet clear-eyed in its view of love and accommodation during the Depression. With once-accepted certainties and institutions (jobs, banks, law and order, marriage) all caving in, the lovers must cling together on faith in themselves alone. The film’s last image, of Tracy and Young in idyllic repose in a boxcar, captures both the lovers’ rapt isolation and their uncertain future in a world where the comforts of a stable home may be as transitory as a ride on a train.

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Loretta Young and Spencer Tracy embrace in Man’s Castle.

What comes out of these films, however, is not merely a refreshing, and often hilarious, candor in speech and behavior (even in throwaway bits, such as the chorine in 42nd Street leaping off a chorus boy’s lap, complaining that it’s as comfortable as “sitting on a flag pole”), but a cocking-of-the-snoot at any complacent bovine, sacred or otherwise, in an authoritative or institutional posture. Thus the Marx Brothers’ takeover of Fredonia in Duck Soup (2/17) trashes politics, while the schoolboys’ riot in Zero for Conduct (2/19) does the same for education; the menage-à-trois of Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March, and Gary Cooper in Design for Living (2/10) mocks the life of both stodgy domesticity and rakish bohemia; the wild international conference in International House (2/17) sends up all such self-important big-wig gatherings (and it also features the immortal clash of W.C. Fields and Bela Lugosi, with Burns and Allen thrown in for good measure); the harsh portraits of reform school and prison in respectively The Mayor of Hell (2/20) and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (2/26) take bitter aim at the country’s incarceration systems; and Mae West makes fun of just about everything in She Done Him Wrong (2/27) and I’m No Angel (3/1). Hollywood even mocks itself in Bombshell (2/14) in which Jean Harlow plays a not-so-very-disguised version of both Clara Bow and herself, a movie star harassed by leeching relatives, thieving servants, clueless studio bosses, louche con artists, and an amorously hustling press agent, played by the inimitable Lee Tracy, an actor whose pugnacious, screwed-walnut visage and explosive onscreen energy sums up the whole gritty, manic, in-your-face thrust of everything we think of as pre-Code.

The last-mentioned West, Harlow, and Tracy bring up another series’ aspect that should send golden-age Hollywood fans flocking for seats: the actors. One advantage of such a concentrated retrospective is we can see how then-youthful stars could vary their screen personas, could still shift, like quicksilver, between remarkably contrasting roles. Spencer Tracy is both a philosophical death-row con in Sing Sing and a footloose, irresponsible tramp in Man’s Castle, while Charles Laughton veers in behavioral extremes between the lustily comic King Henry VIII and the sadistically leering Dr. Moreau in Island of Lost Souls. Katharine Hepburn gives us not only her indelible Jo March of Little Women but the moonily gauche actress of Morning Glory (2/23) and the ethereal, doomed aviatrix of Christopher Strong (2/15); a scene in the latter movie, featuring her in a shimmering moth’s costume, may be the single most lovely image of the actress. Hepburn’s role in this film, as a woman caught between her married lover and her career, highlights what may be most surprising about pre-Code films for today’s audiences: the strong parts and independent characters these movies offered women. Ruth Chatteron’s Female (3/7) is an executive who beds the young men in her company’s ’typing pool’ as a perk of her position, exercising the (taken-for-granted) power assumed by a similarly placed man. Chatterton was a major actress of the early 30s who’s nearly forgotten today. Although past thirty herself when she began her film career, she could be accepted by viewers as a sexy, and sexual woman. Like Mae West, another mature actress, Chatterton fit into the flesh-and-blood pre-Code world in a way that would be unheard of in later, youth-and-perfection obsessed eras.

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Katharine Hepburn in her ‘moth’ costume, with co-star Colin Clive in Christopher Strong.

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Ruth Chatteron (gazing at her upside-down reflection) embodies mature sex appeal in Female.

Many other iconic pre-Code actors are featured, including Harlow, Hopkins, Young, Stanwyck, Joan Blondell, Ginger Rogers, Clark Gable (Hold Your Man, 2/14), the Barrymore brothers and Marie Dressler (Dinner at Eight, 2/10), Eddie Cantor (Roman Scandals, 2/19), as well as both Garbo and Dietrich dispelling glamour while flouting convention in the double bill of Queen Christina and The Song of Songs (on 2/13). But the one actor we must single out is James Cagney, who seems to have dominated 1933, and films of the early 1930s in general, the way Jack Nicholson seemed to define films of the early 1970s. Along with Footlight Parade and The Mayor of Hell (Cagney skittering and mercurial in the first, brusque and determined in the second), Film Forum is devoting a triple bill to the actor (on 3/2) of Picture Snatcher, Hard to Handle, and Lady Killer. This is the quintessential Cagney, tough, funny, and fast-fast-fast, his every move a dance step, his every gesture a swing from the heels. If Cagney often sounded out of breath in these films, it’s no wonder: making one film after another, most with running times of little over an hour, Cagney hasn’t time to stop; he streaks through his roles like a shark chasing prey, all instinct and nerve. (And, like a shark, you sense that Cagney must keep moving to survive.) Something in the films of this year seems to have reached deep into the actor and called forth his most visceral, kinetic responses; not until 1949’s White Heat would Cagney again be as electrically charged as he is here.

Film Forum is providing one other feature of note in this series. Along with showcasing both the well-known (e.g., Dinner at Eight) and the obscure (John Ford’s Pilgrimage, 2/11; Max Ophuls’ Liebelie, 3/1), it’s also offering the lost: on 2/18, the theater is presenting a staged reading of the script of Convention City, maybe the most risqué and notorious of all pre-Code movies. Centered on the (very) wild goings-on during a sales convention, the film was thought so racy that its studio, Warner Bros., reportedly had all copies destroyed; no known copy is known to exist today. (Movie lovers, check those dusty film reels in your attics!) Film Forum promises that its reading will “have every innuendo intact.” That’s a promise that will be amply fulfilled by all the films—fun, fast, and furious—in this series.

For a complete schedule of “1933,” please visit the Film Forum’s Web site here.

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  1. This sounds like a wonderful season – as a fan of the pre-Code period I would love to be able to see some of these on the big screen and do hope that maybe the BFI in London will get hold of some of the featured prints in due course. That reading of the script of ‘Convention City’ sounds like quite an event. You make a lot of great points here – must agree with you on how Cagney seems to embody so much of the era, and also on how many strong parts for women there are in these films of the early 1930s.

    I especially like your comment:
    “But what also distinguished pre-Code is not merely a desire to shock but an attempt to portray Depression-era life and its disruptions honestly, as it was being lived and breathed by everyday human beings.” Totally agree with that and with your thoughts on ‘Man’s Castle’ – it’s a beautiful still that you have chosen from this film,which puts across the thwarted tenderness at its heart.

    • “Thwarted tenderness” is a great phrase to describe Man’s Castle – so much of the film focuses on how Loretta Young’s character must deal with Spencer Tracy’s character’s inability or unwillingness to express his feelings, which essentially makes her the stronger, more dominant person. More than any other era, pre-Code films favored the actresses, allowed them to take charge, express emotion, even sin and fail in their lives. Interesting that pre-Code, although seen as a Hollywood ‘period,’ seems to reach audiences from all over. There’s an honesty in these films that Hollywood never recaptured after 1934.

      We think Cagney’s best films were his early 30s ones, which best caught his energy and aggression. His later 30s and early 40s films sentimentalized him a bit (though he gives wonderful performances in The Roaring Twenties and Angels with Dirty Faces). Warner Bros seems to have overworked Cagney in the pre-Code era; much of his later career with the studio seems to have been taken up with contract disputes (although WB seems to have overworked all its actors!). Thanks so much for visiting and for your always-thoughtful comments!

  2. “Hard To Handle” may be Cagney’s best comedy up until “One, Two, Three.” Not only do you get his trademark energy, but all sorts of in-jokes (several involving grapefruit!). Plus, there’s the wonderful Ruth Donnelly as the mother of his girlfriend (they invariably wear identical outfits). That girlfriend could have been played by Carole Lombard, who Warners sought on loan from Paramount — but Lombard, known within the industry as a good judge of scripts, for some reason didn’t like the part and refused the loanout. Mary Brian ended up with the role, and Carole’s 1933 output instead included the likes of the bizarre, atypical “Supernatural,” the over-the-top “White Woman” and the adequate, if unspectacular, “Brief Moment” at Columbia (a play adaptation initially planned for Barbara Stanwyck).

    • Cagney and Carole would have made an interesting team, his proletarian energy and sizzle matched against her classy sass. Perhaps she felt that she would have been outmatched by her co-star; or that her role would have been overshadowed by Ruth Donnelly (whom we adore; just a wonderful comic actress). Or maybe Carole wanted to avoid Warner Bros., which was not the easiest studio to work at. Both Supernatural and White Woman are pretty bad films, though (there’s a story that while making Supernatural Carole was heard to complain, “Who do you have to screw to get off this picture?”). Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  3. What a wonderfully written, informative piece on what sounds like a marvelous series of screenings. I am totally with you on your admiration for what these pre-Code films provided in the way of artistically challenging narratives that bucked convention, rejuvenated stale cliches, and provided mature entertainment that didn’t feel the need to pander.
    I’m all for self-regulation in the arts, but it’s a pity that the oppressive hand of “appropriate” mass entertainment so often has resulted in the perpetuation of bland stereotypes and rote storylines with artificial morality tacked onto them.
    I fell in love with several pre-Code films when TCM screened a series of them some while back. So many of these films were brimming with a maturity that was lost just a few years later.Like that brief time in the late 60s/early 70s when films branched out towards adulthood, I harbor a soft spot for any period in the development of an art form when the conservative masses failed to hold sway over their content. (By the way, James Cagney during this period was so sexy…Wow! What magnetism!)
    A very enjoyable essay! Thanks!

    • Thanks so much, Ken, for visiting and for your always perceptive comments. The Production Code that clamped down in mid-1934, and that held sway until 1968 (when the ratings system replaced it), really watered down Hollywood films for decades, denying the reality spread out all around them. When you read the Code’s policies, you’re astonished by the attitude that films had to portray an idealized environment, a “this is how we would like it to be” rather than acknowledging what actually is (the prohibition on depictions of prostitution, for example, as if censoring it could make it ‘go away’). No doubt the efflorescence of personal film-making from the late 60s through the early 70s happened in part because directors no longer had to conform to norms laid down by a restrictive Code. (Then ‘Jaws’ happened, and the economics of the blockbuster took over…ah, well!)

      Cagney was unbelievably sexy in the early 30s! There really wasn’t another actor like him, except maybe the early Clark Gable, who brought a sexy menace onscreen. But even with these actors you can see a difference after 1934, when their onscreen personae were softened, made slicker (in Gable’s case) or more sentimental (in Cagney’s). At least Cagney’s early films haven’t been lost, so we can still watch him in all his glory!

  4. Wow, this festival sounds like a blast! (too bad I live several hundred miles away.) There are many pics I’ve never seen (and should have), such as the memorably titled MAYOR OF HELL.

    • You’re in luck – The Mayor of Hell is on DVD, part of the Warner Bros Gangster collection, v.3, and it’s definitely worth a look (can be found on Amazon) – it’s like a pre-Dead-End kids film, only even tougher, with Frankie Darro co-starring with Cagney. We recently saw the showing of Laughter in Hell, about chain-gang life (and once thought to be a lost film), and it’s unbelievably gritty and savage; don’t think any film maker could get close to it today. We wish the series could go on twice as long! Thanks, as always, for stopping by and commenting, Rick!

  5. Extremely well-written article. You make a fantastic case for 1933. I did a similar post (actually same title lol I swear I didn’t copy you), but about 1944.

    • Thanks so much for your comment. I think you could make the argument for several years in Hollywood, such as 1946 (the year of The Best Years of Our Lives) or 1959 (Ben-Hur, etc).

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