Posted ~ July 18th, 2016
Recently I was surprised to find that an unusually movie-savvy friend, was somewhat unfamiliar with the joys of pre-code glory. She asked me to type in ‘movies of 1932’, pick my favourites and explain what it is about them that makes magic for me. I found this a good a chance as any to highlight finer points of the pre-code anatomy using these 1932 gems for clarification and introduction to many a fresh-faced future legend.
What is it about pre-codes that gets me? For one, the raw emotions; not quite as expertly handled and cleverly hidden as the polished filmmaking of the forties turned into. This polish, of course, was due to various reasons, the Hays office being one of them and social and technical progress another. Another reason these pre-codes resonate with me is that this is when stars were made. Not just a personality put in a movie and in there for their extended 15 minutes of fame. These were stars to last. This was the beginning of legends. The birth of greatness. Carefully molded, brought up and sent to finishing school, which is what you see the result of by the time the 30s get older and wiser. So many of the big and true stars of later years cut their teeth and grew up in the 30s – this is where they blossomed and who doesn’t like spring?
The thirties made movies for men – think of the gangsters, the cowboys, the hard-boiled eggs and the chiselled gentlemen. But the 30s was also a place in movie history where there were puh-lenty of strong, juicy and fascinating roles revolving around dames of all kinds, too. What’s that? Democratic, you say? Sure, female protagonists all over the place and not a squawk about it.
I started out with a list of ten movies for this post, but find there is too much to say and so made the gruelling choice of cutting my list. To 8 1/2. Which is no reference to Fellini, I’m almost sorry to say. Just almost, though.
The list is not by way of ranking, because that simply can’t be done. Entirely biased and almost politically uninspired I have chosen movies that just tickles ME for one reason or another. I’ve also chosen films that can highlight a favourite star, perhaps, or show off some of those traits that makes me delight in pre-codes. And for clarification, I’m not going to describe the plot of the movies. You have imdb.com for that. I’m just telling you one or two things that I’ve noticed and liked about certain glorious movies. That’s easy enough, isn’t it?
Take a look at this video, made by my brilliant friend Sara. As you can tell, she gets it, too. This is what I feel about pre-codes.
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“WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD?” / “ROCKABYE”
“What Price Hollywood?” is the story of “A Star is Born” before that star was born. Also before “The Artist” was born. Same story, though, despite all films being Oscar-nominated for their original stories. It is an early look at Hollywood beyond the glamour and behind the cameras. That in itself is interesting on its own, but then Constance Bennett enters the picture, which makes it a different ballgame entirely. The films give such poignant portraits of the Hollywood characters – those behind the screen – and looks quite honestly and frankly at the cynical and the serious of that cock-eyed business. The rise and fall and the blatant abuse of people. The climb up and the overwhelming urge to jump right off the top once you get there. The completely unglamorous and thankless dive back down once your star isn’t bright enough anymore.
In this film, though, Constance Bennett outshines them all. Many seem to have issues with Constance Bennett and her fabulousness. Something about her being icy and bitchy and all sorts of things Averages accuse Awesomes of being when Average is jealous. Yes, Constance Bennett was larger than life, but slinkier than any. She was tougher than most, but prettier than all. She didn’t actually take Hollywood seriously, but she made Hollywood pay for her services more than anybody else’s. Born into thespian nobility, yes, but this ball of fire was fighting it out for herself. Not necessarily because she needed to battle, but because she loved the battle. Despite all these fabulous traits that often take first billing to cover up a lack of talent – make no mistake – this girl could act. She didn’t really give herself credit for that, though, and would later say when a journalist was inquiring about her career:
“Be truthful. Remember, I was no Bernhardt. PS: Did I really make a film called ‘Bed of Roses’?”
While she did have her share of roles to suit what most people thought of her – La Bennett – her movies like those she made in 1932 show off her talent and not just the infamous tinsel. While “What Price Hollywood?” is the more famous 1932 flicks, she also gave us a fascinating little film with oft co-star Joel ‘Yummy’ McCrea called “Rockabye”. “Rockabye” is another one of those stories where you don’t really care that much for the story, you just want to gaze at the people in it and imagine their eternal happiness together. The film has some fascinating changes in pace and skips from a gangster-driven start (with a young and dashing Walter Pidgeon as the crooked fella), to a soft and sad family drama; suddenly it’s flirtatious and wise-cracking, then sweet and bubbly ( “…and there are balloooons everywhere!” ) – it’s all there.
What both “Rockabye” and “What Price Hollywood?” demonstrate is that ‘La Bennett’ handled Les Babies like a pro and without any pretence or diva-isms. In both films she is seen with adorable, blond curly-headed babies and the affection and naturalness she handles them with is decidedly something most people seem not to have seen her show. Her characters are protective and almost childlike in their devotion to these cuties and sure to cause some serious ovary-stirring from female viewers. Despite all those two movies offer, I must admit it’s the baby & Bennett combination that gets me.
What La Bennett also demonstrate in these films is that she could – especially within those delightfully tothe-point and non-Wellesian plots and norms of pre-codes – go through drastic personal changes, switches in moods, motherhood, musical numbers(the girl could sing!), wise-cracks, life-altering disasters, fierce bouts of love and personal tragedy — all within a finely paced 70-80 minutes. (New wave and modern movie makers: take notes.) Both films are masterfully and delicately directed by George Cukor and both have a fair share of wise-cracks, electric romance, heart-break and cuteness.
I could write a book about The Bennetts and the stories would beat out any Hollywood movie.
With a rather lovable lunatic for an acting father (Richard Bennett), a gorgeous and sensitive mother of 4th generation acting stock (Adrienne Morrison), Constance and Joan became the legends to beat them all. (They had a third sister, Barbara, who was soulful and sensitive in looks and humour like their mother. Despite some victories as a dancer and brief appearances in movies, she went through much personal anguish and was always somewhat of a troubled soul.)
Fascinating characters the Bennett sisters were, and led tumultuous lives. They were drop-dead gorgeous in quite different ways, with intelligence far beyond Hollywood norm and talent beyond human norm. The sisters were first seen on the silver screen back in 1916, as little dead fairies dancing around their famous real-life parents in the silent film “The Valley of Decision”. Constance made her first big splash in silents later on, too, but it’s in the 30s both of them really get going. If you are not already well familiar with this family, 1932 is where to start, which leads me neatly to the next film.
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“ME AND MY GAL”
The Bennett banter continues. This time it’s little sister Joan’s turn and the pace is quite different. “Me and My Gal” is a wonderfully sassy, crime-solving, wor-king class pre-code with Spencer Tracy and Joan battling it out with every wise-crack. There is a crime story involved here, but let’s face it – like with “The Thin Man” films – that’s not really what we are paying attention to. What makes a film like this is the chemistry, the dialogue, the rough edges and the brassy characters. This film also carries some delightfully unconventional momentums, like an out and out spoof of “Strange Interlude” (referred to as “Strange Inner Tube or something”), breakage of the holy fourth wall and a whole flora of obscure gestures we can only delight at and guess at their meanings. All of these quirks are things you would not have seen in the more polished era a few years on.
Because this film IS the cracking dialogue, allow me to enter some passages here to demonstrate:
Danny: “You’ve got a sweet little disposition. How would you like to come with me to the park and help me tramp down all the flowers?”
Helen: “With feet like yours you don’t need me to help ya.”
Danny: “Let me know when you’ve got a day off, will ya, and I’ll take you for a nice trip to the cemetery.”
Helen: “I’d love to – let me know when you’re making your last trip.”
…later on, as they are getting chummier, we find Danny and Helen on the couch, in each other’s arms, spoofing “Strange Interlude” —
We also find a delightful supporting cast in “Me and my Gal”. To mention a few there is Spencer Tracy’s echoing partner in crime-solving Bert Hanlon, the eternal drunk trouble-maker Will Stanton, Joan Bennett’s bantering and rowdy Irish father J. Farrell McDonald and his daughter played by Marion Burns.
This was just one of the films teaming Tracy and Bennett. They also did another pre-code called “She Wanted a Millionaire” as well as the more known “Father of the Bride” and “Father’s Little Dividend” in the early 50s. It is fascinating to see how their on-screen characters as well as personas adapt to the times, and to see how they evolve as an, albeit imaginary, couple over the years. Two great performers known for their professionalism and lack of fuss on the set, which I’m sure contributed to Raoul Walsh being able to crack through the filming of “Me and My Gal” in a break-neck 19 days.
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“A FAREWELL TO ARMS”
Oh boy, now we’re getting out the big guns. One big gun is Gary Cooper, who never acted so well in all his mighty career as he does here. The other big gun comes in the form of teeny, tiny and utterly brilliant Helen Hayes – ‘The First Lady of the American Theatre’. The two of them raise each other to thespian heights rarely seen on screen. In addition to this splendour you have the underrated master of human conflict on film, Frank Borzage, to guide them through Ernest Hemingway’s timeless masterpiece of war’s ungallant and cruel doings. Promiscuity, doubt, fear, conflict and snug fitting uniforms are king.
What surprised me about this film, aside from its raw honesty, are the technical finesses Frank Borzage makes to place you there in the middle of it all. Unconventional camera angles, blurry ultra close-ups, magnificent tracking shots and a fascinating use of prolonged sound after the screen has gone dark or almost comical voice-overs are all tricks that really place you IN there. When you hear those lovers cooing in their nest, but the picture goes dark it’s as if closing your eyes to enjoy the sensation of a lover’s
kiss. The ultra close-up highlights the fuzzy and mixed up way you get when you’re in love (I’ve heard). The tracking camera the way you seem to step back and still all you can see is the light of your life. In a way it’s beautifully and unconventionally stylized and inventive, but so sparsely used it could never be called pretentious (are you taking notes, Orson? No? No, I thought so…). It’s so subtle that it only serves in presenting you with the raw and unglamorous emotion of war. Cooper and Hayes are masters at their craft and Hayes’ grand Theatre title indicates much snootiness, yet their roles and interpretations here seem so natural and effortless the pain and joy they suffer hits you tenfold. So-called weepies seem to be a genre reserved for emotional females the world over, but I firmly believe this film – maybe because of Hemingway’s frank and bitter tale – offers as much by way of a man’s point of view as that of a woman. They are equal in that respect and they both have to go through their individual war experience.
I hate it when people ask me what my favourite film is – as if there is one set way of enjoying and appreciating a film. As if you can choose ONE. Well, ever since I saw this film I have decided that this one fills the criteria those silly people probably mean, so this is my answer from now on – after I’ve plainly mapped out my sentiments regarding such a question, naturally.
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Once again I would suggest this film to anyone who thinks Irene Dunne was some 40s goodie-two-shoes. This is the film that brought her the dubious title “Queen of the Weepies” and established her as a strong and long-suffering dramatic actress.
Like with many other films that I seem to favour, the film follows a lady’s point of view; an impressive, lovable, but really much too kind-hearted lady. We follow this lady from her youth until the end and Dunne’s graceful aging is staggering. This was (yet another) thing she was good at. It has little to do with make-up, wigs and props, but everything to do with her whole being, her demeanour, her attitude and her pace. As a young lady she is all bouncy, hopeful, naïve and perky. As she gets a bit ‘older’ you can tell she is more impatient, more cynical as life isn’t unfolding like it should. But then as an older lady she is settled, slowed down, at peace and with a great inner strength mixed with more than a dash of regrets and sorrows. For more examples of Irene Dunne’s masterful aging see also “The Secret Life of Madame Blanche”, “Show Boat”, “The White Cliffs of Dover” and “Cimarron” – the latter being her break-through film.
Once again, this being a pre-code, what rattles me and what gets me is how candid it is. Don’t just look at the plot and hear the dialogue. (SPOILER ALERT!) Watch Dunne’s face as she begs for an illegitimate child by her married lover (John Boles) – she just needs someone to shower her love on and you can tell from the way she asks she’s been thinking a lot about this. It’s a hard thing to ask and yet she still wants it and dares ask for it. The story of her life, really; she just wants to love someone and she loves with all her heart, no matter what curve~balls life throws her. Her love triumphs conventions, but her vast patience abides by them.
Here, just see the thing, ok? You won’t regret it. You’re welcome.