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.
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.
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.
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.