New York's "Essential Pre-Code" Series: Week 2

Part two of our guide to New York's retrospective on pre-Code films.
Daniel Kasman

Each year New York residents can look forward to two essential series programmed at the Film Forum, noirs and pre-Coders (that is, films made before the strict enforcing of the Motion Picture Production Code).  These near-annual retrospective traditions are refreshed and re-varied and re-repeated for neophytes and cinephiles alike, giving all the chance to see and see again great film on film.  Many titles in this year's Essential Pre-Code series, running an epic July 15 - August 11, are old favorites and some ache to be new discoveries; all in all there are far too many racy, slipshod, patter-filled celluloid splendors to be covered by one critic alone.  Faced with such a bounty, I've enlisted the kind help of some friends and colleagues,  asking them to sent in short pieces on their favorites in an incomplete but also in-progress survey and guide to one of the summer's most sought-after series.  In this entry: what's playing Friday, July 22 - Thursday, July 28.  (Image: publicity still from Howard Hawks' Scarface.)


Roman Scandals (Frank Tuttle, 1933): A great platter of wrongness served up for your depraved delectation. As Sam Goldwyn lollops in pursuit of some dimly-grasped idea of musical glamor and class, campy, oh-so-Jewish Eddie Cantor blacks up and infiltrates a ladies' bathhouse to sing "Keep Young and Beautiful" to a bevy of not-so-ancient Roman beauties, naked under perspex.

"Take care of all those charms,
And you'll always be in someone's arms.
Keep young and beautiful,
If you want to be loved."

The steam-bath shrinks him to the size of a five-year-old. Busby Berkeley stages the numbers, complete with blonde's death-fall in slave market (BB always liked to throw a little death plunge into his tap numbers), and lurking somewhere in the chorus is a young Lucille Ball, who shaved her eyebrows in line with the fashion of the day. They never grew back. —David Cairns

Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932): A surprising amount of Howard Hawks' unstable, weirdly graceful universe is informed by the imminence of death and the proximity of offscreen space, tied to the risks of tangling with sudden impulses. Few of his films are more aware of this encroaching void than Scarface, where X is made to mark the offscreen spot around every narrative corner. This frighteningly brutal black comedy, the least romantic of his crowd-pleasers—a much better gangster film than any of the Godfathers, especially when it comes to confronting reality—was made when people were far less deluded than they are today about the fact that their lives and destinies were being controlled by crooks. What makes it bleaker than Only Angels Have Wings and Rio Bravo is the small and indecisive role friendship is allowed to play in holding back the darkness; perhaps only Land of the Pharaohs betrays a comparable nihilistic bleakness. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

The Maltese Falcon (Roy del Ruth, 1931): Two years after it was first serialized in the pulp pages of Black Mask, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon hit the big screen in this first of three adaptations. Ricardo Cortez stars as Private Eye Sam Spade, whose inquiry into the disappearance of Ruth Wonderly’s (Bebe Daniels) missing sister quickly lands him in a heap of trouble. The cops want to nab Spade for his partner’s murder, Wonderly’s trying to play him for a sap, and a crew of double-dealers are nipping at his heels, all because of some mysterious icon of a black bird. Director Roy Del Ruth’s emphasizes the libidinous and scandalous pleasures of Hammett’s original story. Unlike the later and more famous performance by Humphrey Bogart, Ricardo Cortez plays Spade like a playboy. With his slicked back hair and a licentious smile, it is clear that this Spade is more interested in the fringe benefits of the fleshy kind than the Falcon. Most strikingly, Cortez’s spade is not homophobic (as in the original text), and he seems to take great pleasure in miming bondage while Joel Cairo searches for the treasure. In keeping with the free-wheeling pre-Code spirit, Cortez’s Spade scorns the cops, mocks his clients, sleeps with his partner’s wife, strip-searches the ladies, cops every potential feel, and even at the end takes this whole falcon shebang—murder and all—with a grain of salt.  —Cullen Gallagher

The Story of Temple Drake (Stephen Roberts, 1933): Like Ozu in the early 30s, Stephen Roberts—the mauditest of auteurs maudits—rarely moved the camera towards the action. Instead, he preferred a backwards dolly that invariably began with either a close-up or a figure framed in medium-shot and then, in pulling away, slowly revealed the space around the actor or actors; during this backwards movement, figures were kept centered in the frame with a lot of headroom, making every set look a tad cavernous. Story of Temple Drake—a blunt, brisk adaptation of Faulkner's Sanctuary starring a lot of shadows and Miriam Hopkins' lovely face—is sort of a 70-minute showcase for this technique; again and again, Roberts begins a scene by pointing the camera at a concrete detail and then unveils an ambiguous bigger picture. Which isn’t to say that Roberts is all about the backwards dolly (or never dollies forward); he had a remarkable attentiveness for facial expressions, and his reaction shots, which all seem to last one or two seconds longer than usual, convey the inner worlds of his subjects with the same unshowy clarity his backwards dollies use to depict the way those same subjects carry themselves in hostile or indifferent environments: an empathetic cinema where the point-of-view continually fluctuates between interior and exterior. —Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

The Sign of the Cross (Cecil B. DeMille, 1932): Second best sequence in the movie: Christian girl abducted by Roman officer for an evening orgy is about to be raped by lesbian belly dancer—but a group of Christian prisoners outside are singing hymns at the top of their lungs while being marched to their deaths, throwing cold holy water on the proceedings. No one knew better than DeMille how to walk the pre-Code tightrope, giving audiences perverse visions they’d never cop to wanting, chas(ten)ed with enough sanctimonious window dressing to let everyone off. But the best sequence in the film is the best Roman arena sequence ever, making hacks of William Wyler and Ridley Scott: among an assortment of al fresco atrocities that suggest DeMille was really De Sade, the live alligators approaching a half-naked tied-down girl is icing on the cake—but the pre-King Kong gorilla about to hang his banana on a half-naked tied-up girl is icing on the icing.  —Kevin Lee

Homely city apartments, stairwells and hallways where cups of sugar and greetings and warnings are exchanged; a few precious cinematic elements stretched the way the characters stretch meals, budgets and repartee (Me and My Gal); a gracefully unspooling tapestry of pure sardonic urbanity, and the wildest, most impulse-driven rich girl in movies (Blood Money); a pavement-hard outlook and a protective urge that's just as durable (Night Nurse); a wildly vibrant and vivacious field of energy and activity, every actor and object and space tied together and woven into a warmly supportive cocoon (The Bowery); Allen Jenkins in a doorman's uniform handing his old carny partner Warren William a cigar: "Try one o' these narcotics–a buck a smash" (The Mind Reader). From Manny Farber’s classroom notes: "The tight relationship between real and onscreen life gave the Thirties movie a terrifically liberated, race-horse quality…These lean, zesty items, which move ahead at a fast clip, are truly action films, employing intricate close quarter choreographies and linear strategies that unfold with staccato speed." —Kent Jones

Me and My Gal (Raoul Walsh, 1932): Early on, Spencer Tracy bellies up to a dockside diner bar where he asks for a bag of bones to feed his newly acquired dog. Tracy plays a cop with a cavalier attitude toward the finer points of the law–i.e., a fine old-fashioned "neighborhood cop." He calls the girl manning the cash register "Red," though she's both blonde and unappreciative. She's also Joan Bennett. The two enjoy a courtship of tough talk and subtle misunderstandings. This film boasts vivid pictorialism in almost every shot and gesture, all over the frame and into its depths: it could be called "Tales of the City." There's also an escaped fugitive and one of cinema's greatest on-screen drunk acts (played by Will Stanton, who repeated the feat in Sailor's Luck the following year).  —Zach Campbell

Blood Money (Rowland Brown, 1933): Clearly Rowland Brown would have been a major Hollywood writer-director had he sustained a career for more than three films. Blood Money, his last effort, is consistently smart and appealingly indirect, its dialogue circling its subject matter with deadpan amusement. The film's most striking character, Frances Dee's nymphomaniac masochist upper-class thrill seeker, is herself a bit of a genre sendup whose extremity is a wild joke shared with the viewer. Brown's storytelling is built less around exposition than around a series of privileged moments that reorient us - such as Dee's brash "So what?" to George Bancroft when her theft of his watch is exposed. Partaking of the Russian influence prevalent at the time, Brown's visuals tend toward static angled shots, hard-edged images that jibe with the tone of dry abstraction.  —Dan Sallitt

Sailor's Luck (Raoul Walsh, 1933): Raoul Walsh followed the marvelous Me and My Gal with this even more inventive and audacious comedy, which carries over several characters actors from the earlier film (at least one, Frank Moran, playing the same role) and placed them in support of Fox’s leading stars couple of the moment, James Dunn and Sally Eilers (Bad Girl). He's a sailor on shore leave; she’s an unemployed looker who’s trying to get a job as a swimming pool lifeguard, even though she can't swim. It's love–which, in Walsh's world, always carries a powerful current of sexuality–at first sight, but first the couple has to overcome a number of comic misunderstandings and scrapes, most motivatedby the oily villainy of Eilers' predatory landlord (Victory Jory). It winds up with a brawl at a marathon dance, filmed by Walsh as a great, exhilarating surge of energy through a complex, deep-focus space.  —Dave Kehr

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932): Again, Rouben Mamoulian tears up the rulebook for this fiery, sexual take on Stevenson's Victorian sci-fi horror. Prim scientist Fredric March mutates into a bestial, neanderthal brute, gradually corrupted from savage innocence to debauched sadism. Mamoulian threw in everything, including his own pounding heartbeat on the soundtrack for the subjective camera transformation scenes. Miriam Hopkins spills from her bedsheets in voluptuous, unapologetic soft-porn glory, before her topple into the terror of a frighteningly convincing abusive relationship. —David Cairns

Waterloo Bridge (James Whale, 1931): James Whale was a director regularly capable of disarming his audience with his psychological perception: even in his noted horror movies, characters reveal longings and neuroses whose authenticity shatters the conventions of the genre. When Whale got to direct human dramas (like One More River [1934] or this), he treated the form as a canvas on which he could paint a broad range of emotions. Case in point, the plot of Waterloo Bridge is unexceptional melodrama—an impoverished dancer-turned-prostitute tries to conceal her identity from the soldier she’s fallen in love with—but Whale imagines it as though it had never been told before. When the heroine begins selling herself on the street near the beginning of the film, the turn is sharp, decisive: everyday pathos is treated matter-of-factly to intensify her emotional struggle later on; and when the film reaches its tragic conclusion, it has the taste of genuine loss. —Ben Sachs

The Mouthpiece (Elliott Nugent & James Flood, 1932): The script's inciting incident renders a state of Warren William that is rarely witnessed: unqualified remorse, as his spellbinding courtroom theatrics result in the death of an innocent man. For his newly-minted private practice, his grandstanding criminal defense attorney Vincent Day turns to defending crooked outfits small and large with even greater and more inventive stagecraft (slugging a prizefighter, ingesting deadly poison), and his longing for baby doll Celia Farraday (the tragic Sidney Fox) is no less colossal. Like The Mind Reader, this is that rare vehicle for William where he’s 60/40 an okay guy, as opposed to the usual 30/70. When Day finds out Celia is smitten with a lower-class boy her own age, he roughs the kid up—but only to make absolutely certain he’s on the level. Aided but not abetted by nursemaid-secretary Aline MacMahon (at least half as maternal as she would be in later pictures, such as The Man from Laramie), Day eventually repays his overdue spiritual debt, in a scene that easily could have have inspired Fritz Lang when he made The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. —Jaime N. Christley


Guide to "Essential Pre-Code": Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4

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