Pre-code Unknown

In which I continue my slow spread across the internet. Picture one of those burning maps you’d get in the opening titles of Hollywood war or western pic: that’s me and the internet.

At The Daily Notebook, I contribute to the ongoing process of capsule-reviewing highlights of New York’s Film Forum pre-code series, along with Gina Telaroli, Ben Sachs, Craig Keller, Glenn Kenny, Zach Campbell and Jaime N. Christley. I’ve tackled THE PUBLIC ENEMY, THREE ON A MATCH (above), RED-HEADED WOMAN and CALL HER SAVAGE.

And at Electric Sheep, I chip in to the round-up of this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, with pieces on TROLLHUNTER and TO HELL AND BACK AGAIN.

Been viewing a lot of pre-codes lately, because Fiona’s been unwell and pre-codes are perfect when you’re doped up on painkillers. Here are capsules of a few more we ran —


This is a really beautiful pre-code pastoral (was that even a thing?) in which unloved foster-child Jean Parker falls from juvie home runaway Tom Brown. Memorable nastiness from the foster family, but the movie isn’t overall about making you want the bad guys to suffer horrendous fates, although some of the time you do. In the end, this tender film satisfies you by rewarding the good characters instead.

Notable for Parker’s nude scene and the sympathetic view of pre-marital sex and extra-marital pregnancy, and taking the side of the despised outlaws over the nominal pillars of the community. Elliot Nugent directs, and it’s interesting to see small-town values being repeatedly trashed in these movies.


We had David Wingrove to dinner with the plan to watch the ne plus ultra of Bad Cinema, Baz Luhrman’s emetic epic AUSTRALIA, but even he, who owns a copy of BOXING HELENA and watched WILD ORCHID four times, couldn’t make it through the antipodean hellscape (it’s like being injected into the mind of a ten-year-old with ADHD), and so a nice 80-minute pre-code seemed the ideal antidote.

Warren William — the starving lion — magnificent scoundrel — king of the pre-codes — the other Great Profile — is a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi schemer who tries to dominate the world, starting with a humble match factory. He saves the family firm with money borrowed on holdings that don’t exist, which means he’ll always owe more money than he can pay back, “until I own everything in the world, and then I’ll only owe money to myself.” On the way to his inevitable fall, Glenda Farrell, Claire Dodd and Lily Damita become notches on his bedpost. Every now and then the screenwriters have WW do something truly rotten on a personal level, in case we find his massive-scale financial chicanery too endearing. “This is like a primer in capitalism,” our dinner guest remarked, awestruck.


Our new favourite Nancy Carroll is torn between rich playboy Cary Grant and homespun geologist Randolph Scott. Quite a choice. But meanwhile smalltown gossip threatens her future. Chief slanderer and hottie Lilian Bond makes malice seem almost sexy, and this is a useful rebuttal to Leo McCarey’s claim that he taught Cary Grant everything. Grant is stiff in his Mae West and Sternberg movies, but effective for Leisen and Walsh and, in this case, the less celebrated William A. Seiter.


Grant again, paired with blonde Joan Bennett, who’s notably abrasive and snappy under Raoul Walsh’s rambunctious purview. She’s a manicurist-turned-crime-reporter (!), he’s a police detective, and they’re hot on the trail of a ring of burglars, fences and baby-killers. Walter Pidgeon makes an assured snake-in-the-grass, and the accidental assassination of a sleeping tot shows how pre-codes could turn reckless tonal inconsistency into some kind of demented virtue. Isn’t this supposed to be a comedy?


The best and pre-codiest pre-codes overall may be the Warners films, but the Fox films are the rarest, thanks to that library’s largely unexploited status (apart from the legendary Murnau & Borzage at Fox box set). This is Walsh again, and Bennett again (with a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t beauty spot) and Spencer Tracy, during that part of his career where he played ostensibly lovable louts rather than patrician paterfamilias types. Here he rises through the police force and into Joan’s arms in a sweet, sassy romance that folds in a crime story and some alcoholic Irish shenanigans. Twice, Bennett’s father turns to the camera and invites us all to have a drink. Another character is paralyzed and communicates by blinking, allowing for some THERESE RAQUIN inspired plot twists, and the weirdest scene is cued by Tracy talking about a movie he just saw, “STRANGE INNERTUBE or something,” which leads to a series of internal monologues by himself and Bennett as they cuddle up on their date. Crazy stuff.

Walsh made a quasi-sequel, SAILOR’S LUCK, which has been getting a lot of attention in New York screenings and on the blogosphere, and which we’ll certainly be watching next.

28 Responses to “Pre-code Unknown”

  1. Manny Farber has long insisted that ME AND MY GAL was Walsh’s best film. It’s mix of genres and shifts in tone is proto-New Wave. And the much misunderstood Spencer Tracy(one of Robert DeNiro’s favourite actors) is brilliant as is the blonde Joan Bennett. She would die her hair in the late 30s and have a whole another career as a dramatic actress.

  2. Jenny Eardley Says:

    The director of HOT SATURDAY was William A Seiter, when I saw you had two Nugents I wondered if they were brothers and went to look them up!

    These look like fun, I’ve got to get hold of some pre-codes, never see anything like this on TV these days.

  3. I sort of know how that happened, I must’ve got distracted. Correcting now!

    in the US, TCM has basically rewritten film history by making all this stuff available. Warren William is now a star again after sixty years in oblivion.

    The young Spencer Tracy is more like the older DeNiro — a face-pulling ham. He revels in his own grotesquerie, though, and it’s quite bracing.

  4. Tag Gallagher noted that Spencer Tracy initially won respect from directors and critics for bringing a proto-method naturalism to his performances. He also notes that without the right director and material, Tracy was prime Ham, shamelessly chewing scenery and undermining his co-stars. DeNiro in general is more generous as a performer, leaving scenery chewing to Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson.

    The pre-Code Tracy is more relaxed, both in this and MAN’S CASTLE.

  5. Another good pre-code Tracy is Face in the Sky — all these Fox films are impossible to see in good copies, and as a result the origins of Tracy as star — horny proletarian — are obscured.

  6. This was back when Tracy was interesting — well before he morphed into paperweight Katherine Hepburn idolized out of all proportion.

    Pre-code Cinema is alays fun. And I trust you’ll also find fun at my Oscar Levant Day at Dennis Cooper’s

  7. David Boxwell Says:

    Apparently, all of Fox’s pre-1937 negatives went up in flames in a fire. It’s a studio whose output is almost terra incognita. But, miracle of miracles, CALL HER SAVAGE exists in a good enough print to reveal Clara’s erect nipples as her playmate Great Dane’s bollocks swing back and forth, back and forth….

    I love Pre-Code H’wood just for that one scene alone.

  8. I thought Grant’s acting in Hot Saturday showed a lot less stiffness than many early Grant performances. Maybe he was just relieved to be away from Sternberg and relaxed, or Seiter got him to loosen up.

    The Match King’s only real problem for me is the romance William has with Lili Damita. It slows the film down and there isn’t much fun in watching WW become smitten.

    About Spencer Tracy, I wholeheartedly agree with David E. He’s way more interesting in his Fox period than he would be after MGM got their mitts on him.

  9. La Faustin Says:

    The three stars are so appealing that I always hope HOT SATURDAY will turn into DESIGN FOR LIVING, but repeated viewings have failed to satisfy. Wouldn’t Grant have been lovely in the Lubitsch DFL? I wonder why he wasn’t cast.

  10. I don’t know why Lubitsch never used Grant — it does seem that he liked getting interesting results out of people not known for light comedy, like Coop and Garbo, but he didn’t mind working with more obvious comedy stylists too.

    Billy Wilder very much wanted to direct Grant but it seems Cary, sensing that Wilder wouldn’t be much fun to be directed by, steered clear without ever declaring an antipathy.

    And Wilder’s projected The Marx Brothers At The United Nations foundered for similar reasons.

  11. Apparently Cary Grant was considered for the Melvyn Douglas role in NINOTCHKA but for some reason he couldn’t get him. I like DESIGN FOR LIVING plenty enough with its current cast and I don’t know, but I just don’t see Cary pairing well against Miriam Hopkins whereas Cooper does it well.

    Miriam Hopkins is one career that really declined after censorship came in. I’ve seen her a lot lately. In Lubitsch’s underrated THE SMILING LIEUTENANT and especially THE STRANGER’S RETURN, directed by off-screen beau King Vidor. There’s an anecdote I read somewhere that Lubitsch gave her the script of DESIGN FOR LIVING right before she went to meet Vidor for a date. Afterwards, she read the script with Vidor and found a note from Lubitsch at the end suggesting that Vidor was free to make any script suggestions that came to mind.

  12. La Faustin Says:

    Interesting … Miriam Hopkins was hard to pair onscreen, wasn’t she? What do you think would have gone wrong with Grant vs. Hopkins? I suppose the fact that ANY pairing with Hopkins seems to be “versus” rather than “and” is part of the issue.

    Ever seen ALL OF ME, with Hopkins, Frederic March, George Raft, and Helen Mack? I can never decide what I think about it — what are your thoughts?

  13. La Faustin Says:

    Ooh! ALL OF ME was based on a Broadway play, CHRYSALIS. The show was a flop, but look at the cast:

    The part played by Frederic March onscreen was played by Humphrey Bogart.

    Miriam Hopkins => Margaret Sullavan

    George Raft => Elisha Cook, Jr.

    Helen Mack => June Walker, whose jaw-dropping Broadway credits should be checked out on

  14. Can’t get hold of a decent copy of All of Me at present, so it’ll have to wait. Miriam did OK opposite diverse stars such as March, Chevalier and Jack La Rue.

    And her post code career does include the surprisingly amoral Becky Sharp, Barbary Coast, These Three and The Old Maid.

    Of later roles, The Mating Season and The Heiress are notable.

    She deserves to be better known, perhaps not in the Davis and Stanwyck arena, but close enough.

  15. Christopher Says:

    Miriam Hopkins was on The Flying Nun last weekend…Yes she would have blended in well with the psycho bitches of the 60s,Davis,Crawford,Stanwyck,DeHavilland…Once they were divas of the silver they are the Famous Monsters of Filmland..

  16. Jenny Eardley Says:

    When I saw the name Helen Mack I thought of Bogie, thought she might have been one of his wives but that was Helen Menken. Here’s what the Bogart bio I have says about CHRYSALIS: “Brooks Atkinson declared in The New York Times that the play was ‘astonishingly insignificant’ and that ‘Bogart plays the wastrel in his usual style.'” He seems to be going through a bad time, the depression is probably having an effect on ticket sales. Later he turns up at the apartment of Henrietta Kaye, who was also in Chrysalis, gets drunk and complains that Eddie G Robinson gets all his jobs.

  17. David Boxwell Says:

    It got to the point by the late 40s that only Wyler (and a few others ) gave her work, for old time’s sake, since she was a monster of a scene-stealer and wouldn’t take direction. Her work in Penn’s THE CHASE (66) has to be seen to be believed. No scenery went unchewed . . .

  18. Hopkins didn’t suffer as badly as some other female stars when the code was enforced, she just appeared in lousy films after code enforcement – you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Miriam in something purporting to be screwball comedy. Helen Twelvetrees’ career dried up after the code, and so also Natalie Moorhead’s went. Also, too, Mae Clarke. Constance Bennett got a temporary career revival after Topper, but it didn’t last many years.

  19. And of course Mae West was… well, emasculated doesn’t sound right, but you get the idea.

    Hopkins makes a good mother-in-law from hell in The Mating Season, and an aunt from hell in The Children’s Hour (it’s nice that she’s back in that, having been in the original version).

  20. Re: Mae West – maybe desexed?

  21. Yes, that works on the required double level. Or “unsexed”, to get all Shakespearean with it. What a Lady Macbeth she would have made! With Fields as her husband, Groucho as King Duncan, Stan & Ollie as the murderers, and Grady Sutton as Banquo.

  22. Saw Dr. J & Mr. H. the other night at F.F. Also, your blurb…

    The subjective iris shots that introduce the film first 5 minutes reminded me of The Man with X Ray Eyes. It was nice that March is first introduced as a reflection in a mirror. And I think it might have gone back to the POV after that.

    Waterloo Bridge. which it was paired with. was great. despite some stagey sequences, but even then, Mae Clarke’s natural presence played against some stilted dialog. And Whale did some hilarious juxtapositioning with a stilted bedpost, as to just point out that. about the dialog.
    When the film was freed from exposition, Whale directed some great comic scenes with the soldier’s family, that included Bette Davis.
    And Frederick Kerr does a great comic turn as the major.

  23. How many lives does Close ruin with that piece of advice?

    Good scene, though.

    The POV at the start of Dr J arguably just sets up the device so Mamoulian can use it for the first transformation, which is a magnificent idea. Many of the film’s best touches are subjective, like the way Miriam Hopkins’ swinging leg haunts the film for a full minute via lap dissolve, evoking her impact on Dr J.

    Isn’t Douglass Montgomery (AKA Kent Douglass) an intriguing presence in Waterloo Bridge? A great forgotten actor.

  24. That line is from Waterloo Bridge?

    The prints the the Film Forum showed were quite poor, and there was some awkward cutting/ editing that happened around that scene with Hopkins; but did see her swinging leg.

    Both Clarke and Montgomery had surprisingly modern screen presence, despite whatever they had to do or say.

    Opening scene was great

    And I thought that overhead shot at the end, provided a bit of a jolt.

  25. In its pristine form, the swinging leg sequence is expertly cut: Mamoulian teases the censor by having Hopkins invite him/us to turn away before she undresses, then shoots the scene from his POV, with her smiling at the camera, and when we see a discarded garter land at his feet, their facing her…

  26. david wingrove Says:

    According to my favourite critic Paul Roen, Miriam Hopkins did indeed appear in a Grande Dame Guignol horror flick at some point in the 60s or 70s. It’s called HOLLYWOOD HORROR HOUSE and co-stars (of all people) Gale Sondergaard as a housekeeper named Lez. (Get it?)

    Roen says the film is wretched and I don’t know anyone else who has ever seen it. Still, I’d be lying if I said I’m not curious.

    BTW, I’ve only seen WILD ORCHID three times (to my knowledge) and had to walk out the first time because my Brazilian ex-boyfriend found it so grossly offensive.

    Which it is, of course…but it’s still better than 9 1/2 WEEKS!

  27. Carole Lombard was initially cast as the female lead in “Hot Saturday,” but she balked at the assignment and the role went to Nancy Carroll ( Carole reportedly had learned that Miriam Hopkins was backing out of a film with a co-star borrowed on a loanout from MGM because one of the conditions was that he receive top billing, not Miriam. So Lombard got the part…the film was “No Man Of Her Own,” the co-star Clark Gable (though their romance didn’t start for more than three years, in early 1936). For a trade ad that initially announced a Hopkins-Gable teaming, with the film at first titled “No Bed Of Her Own,” see (Lombard ended up in several films Hopkins either turned down or wasn’t ultimately cast in, including “Bolero” and “To Be Or Not To Be.”)

    Had never heard anything about Cary Grant and “Ninotchka”; from what I understand, the male lead was to have been none other than William Powell, who never made a sound film with Ernst Lubitsch (not sure about silents). Nothing against Melvyn Douglas, who’s fine in the role, but imagine the sublime Powell being directed by Lubitsch and playing opposite Greta Garbo. Alas, it never materialized because Powell was coming off a severe illness and had to decline the assignment. A Powell-Garbo “Ninotchka” is as tantalizing a what-might-have-been as a late ’30s screwball pairing of Carole and Cary (they show fine chemistry in the drama “In Name Only,” but comedy is what made them both legends)..

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