Playlist: 3 Pre-Code Hollywood Productions

October 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

1. MOROCCO (Josef von Sternberg, 1930)

One of the oft-acknowledged tropes of the pre-code era was a frankness about sexuality that could never have flown after the passing of the Hayes Code in 1934, a fact that too frequently allows viewers to write off these movies as little more than dirty amusements, the kind of hardboiled quickies good for little more than arousing our ‘how was that allowed back then?’ curiosity. But this production code narrative of content censorship hardly accommodates Josef von Sternberg’s MOROCCO, a film absent any edgy displays of sex or violence, but one consumed by a bitter world-weariness that knows no equivalent in the Hollywood of passionate young lovers for whom wedding bells await. Marlene Dietrich is a newly arrived nightclub singer in Morocco and Gary Cooper a French Legionnaire who takes a liking to her. The two fall in love—insofar as love can be detected beneath cynical exteriors fortified by lifetimes of discontent—but neither seems ready to commit, Cooper eventually leaving her to a wealthy suitor as he and his unit depart for their next post. Sternberg’s pristine compositions appear to entrap his lovers in their respective existential cages even as his play with light and shadow hints at strong currents of feeling flowing underneath otherwise glacial surfaces. When Dietrich finally gives herself over to Cooper, the effect is explosive, an expression of love pitched at a level of devotion that few films have matched. MOROCCO is the rare Hollywood film that has already lost its innocence from the outset, and the rare pre-code production that has a thing or two to teach about platonic love.

Available on DVD.

2. NIGHT NURSE (William Welman, 1931)

NIGHT NURSE is pre-code Hollywood par excellence, a sixty-minute compression of hours’ worth of material that races along its bumpy road to completion without so much as a slight nudge of the brakes. Barbara Stanwyck is an uneducated girl who desperately wants to be a nurse, but her goodwill isn’t enough to cut it in a tough Depression-era environment where the only men who aren’t physically abusive run the sorry gamut from gun-toting bootlegger to easily corruptible hospital official. The first half-hour follows Stanwyck through a wide range of new-on-the-job nursing experiences—a camaraderie with a fellow nurse played by Joan Blondell, a run-in with a gangster suffering a bullet wound—only for the second to veer sharply into the realm of working girl nightmare. Assigned to take care of the children of an alcoholic socialite, Stanwyck stumbles upon a sick inheritance scheme designed to starve them to death. Stripped of the security of nursing school, it’s now Stanwyck against the world—and she’s not pulling punches. NIGHT NURSE’s terseness is owed in large part to director William Wellman, an uneven filmmaker who embodied the unflinching, rough-and-tumble spirit of the pre-code era in his economical direction, paring down his stories to only the blunt essentials. It goes without saying that NIGHT NURSE is one of his strongest films.

Available on DVD.

3. SCARFACE (Howard Hawks, 1932)

The most well known movie on the list, SCARFACE is perhaps the highest priority for viewers who really want to see what pre-code Hollywood was all about. Not only does it boast plentiful violence, but it frames that violence within the anarchic Chicago of the Prohibition years, in which storefront shootouts are a fact of everyday life. The freewheeling brutality gets at a historical reality, an authentic sense of public terror that goes far beyond the mere stoking of our baser cinematic cravings. But its depiction of mob violence is only one drop in the bucket next to its countless other delights, not least among them Howard Hawks’ direction. Hawks takes Wellman’s economy and one-ups it, finding more expressive visual means of telling his story and choosing his ellipses more carefully. The saga of Paul Muni’s ‘Tony’ Camonte, the movie’s ‘hero,’ is one that encompasses a tightly drawn system of mob relations, a distinctly American drive for power, and an incestuous lust just waiting to burst forth. SCARFACE is an only sometimes intentional political allegory, a picture of American urban chaos seen through the eyes of one of cinema’s greatest storytellers and master stylists.

Available on DVD and Amazon streaming. – Stuart


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