TCM Launches Pre-Code Focus Today

Pre-Code Hollywood Collection

I’m a huge fan of Pre-Code movies, those films put out from 1930-1934, before Hollywood became subject to the Hays Code to maintain morality in its films. These early films tackled difficult subjects for a radically changing culture — the Depression was in effect, people were still arguing about what movies “should” be, sound films were relatively new, and morality, particularly as demonstrated by moviemakers both off- and on-screen, was a matter of much debate. Or, alternately, they showed more skin and/or violence than middle American morality protectors were comfortable with. Or both.

My favorites of the type are those that explicitly tackle how men and women should relate. Many of the women in these films have their own careers and their own ideas, and they battle against double standards while acknowledging they like sex — or at least are willing to participate in it for their own reasons.

Every Friday in September, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is spotlighting Classic Pre-Code Movies, a wonderful festival and a perfect subject for the channel.

TCM Friday Night Spotlight Classic Pre-Code

Unfortunately, I’m late talking about this, so you’ve already missed the marvelous Ex-Lady (1933), in which Bette Davis doesn’t believe in marriage, so she wants to live with her boyfriend instead. And Female (1933), in which the underrated and powerful Ruth Chatterton runs a company, sleeps with young executives, and drops them quickly as soon as she’s done. (Or, if you have an iPad and a cable company that supports the Watch TCM app, you can catch them for another week.)

Many of these films have a tacked-on “happy” ending in which the women come to realize the virtue of marriage and settle down. But before that conventional, often abrupt, resolution, it’s great fun to see the variety of roles and lifestyles portrayed.

Still coming up (in an hour!) is the wonderful introductory documentary Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin, and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood (or it’s airing again in two weeks). Must-watches tonight are two of the most well-known and potent Pre-Codes: Baby Face (1933) and The Divorcee (1930).

Theresa Harris and Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face

Theresa Harris and Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face

In Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck works her way out of poverty and a background of abuse by sleeping with a succession of banking executives. Literally, she works her way up, with the camera zooming into successively higher floors of the company’s skyscraper. Has one of my favorite movie quotes of all time, as she’s showing off her cache of jewelry and stock certificates to her maid: “That’s half a million dollars. Someday, I’ll have the other half that goes with it.”

Norma Shearer in The Divorcee

The Divorcee — can you tell the movie is about sex?

Norma Shearer, party girl, in The Divorcee

Norma Shearer, party girl, in The Divorcee

In The Divorcee, Norma Shearer deals with her husband’s straying by having her own affair, which he finds unforgivable. She then sets off to become a European adventuress. The title is a giveaway, as we’re talking about a time when divorce itself was scandalous.

Lots of athletics in Search for Beauty

Lots of athletics in Search for Beauty

Later tonight/tomorrow morning, there’s another kind of Pre-Code, the “look at that skin on the screen!” kind. Search for Beauty (1934) is about a con artist putting out a “health and beauty” magazine that’s just an excuse for naughty pictures. Two Olympians (young Buster Crabbe and Ida Lupino) are roped into being front figures, and there’s a lot of exercising in skimpy, near-see-through outfits. Fun comeuppance for the exploiters, too.

These films are also available on DVD in these excellent collections:

Forbidden Hollywood Volume 1
Baby Face
Forbidden Hollywood Volume 2
The Divorcee
Pre-Code Hollywood Collection
Search for Beauty

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