Our old movies column returns for its first installment of 2023, and we’re taking you back 90 years to the pre-Code films of 1933…
Welcome to 2023, a year full of remarkable promises and, more excitingly, films. Movies beyond your wildest dreams, including Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, the much spoken about drama Tár, a brand new Dune and some Marvel films, I guess. There’s also Damien Chazelle’s wild silent movie opus Babylon – which I shall most definitely speak about more.
However, for my very first column of the year, I will be looking at movies from 90 years ago. To celebrate the turn into 2023, I will be going back to my favourite pre-Code era and suggest some films which you can enjoy.
One of the biggest movies of 1933 was the Academy Award-winning film Cavalcade. Directed by Frank Lloyd, it would win Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Art Direction. Based on a play written by Noel Coward, this stunning epic follows the lives of one family as they travel through important historical events such as the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic, and World War I.
At the time it was a commercial success, but over the years people have turned against it somewhat, accusing the film of being overly sentimental and incoherent. It was also, er, Hitler’s favourite film. Moving on.
So, let’s move on to the 1933 films which I would highly recommend. The actual film of the year, in my opinion at least, is Baby Face. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, the film revolves around a young girl who, thanks to advice from her father, uses her womanly wiles to work up the social and professional food chain. Directed by Alfred E. Green, Baby Face is a sexy and empowering movie with an astonishing lead performance by Stanwyck. It was also a radical film which, sadly, helped the censors enforce the Hays Code the following year.
There were many exceptional and evocative dramas of the year which still move to this day. William Warren and Loretta Young star in Roy Del Ruth’s Employee’s Entrance, a tentative and damning look at how a corporate man wields his power against his unfortunate staff. Dorothy Arzner’s romantic drama Christopher Strong sees the immutable Katharine Hepburn as Lady Cynthia Darrington, an accomplished aviator who unfortunately conducts an illicit affair with the titular character, played by Colin Clive – alas, their relationship has devastating consequences. Though, the film does feature Hepburn in a cockroach costume, so it’s a must see.
Speaking of amazing costumes, Claudette Colbert has a brilliant clown one in Tonight Is Ours. Starring alongside Fredric March, this sweeping and intense film sees a young princess fall in love with a common man, only for her duty to tear them apart. Kay Francis plays a woman wrongly convicted of murder in Robert Florey’s brilliant The House On 56th Street, and she gives an incredible lead performance.
Of the dramas, however, The Story Of Temple Drake is the most excellent – albeit sad. Featuring Miriam Hopkins in the titular role, Stephen Roberts’ film stars a young socialite who’s kidnapped and assaulted by a brutal gangster. Hopkins is tremendous in the lead role here as she tackles the trauma effectively. This dark film, however, is also credited with bringing the Hays Code into effect – in fact, some more harrowing sequences were cut.
I have spoken in great length about the astonishing wartime drama The Eagle And The Hawk. For fans of anti-war movies such as All Quiet On The Western Front (1930) and Broken Lullaby (1932), this meditative and ground-breaking film by Stuart Walker sees a celebrated fighter pilot grapple with war-time loss and death. Fredric March and Cary Grant star in unforgettable roles.
Rouben Mamoulian’s LBGT-charged Queen Christina, with Greta Garbo in the lead role, was also released in 1933. I have similarly spoken in depth about how amazing this movie is.
If you were highly confused by Greta Gerwig’s time-jumping in her (perfect) adaptation of Little Women (2019) then may I counter with Katharine Hepburn playing a 15-year-old Jo March when she was 26? Ah, I’m sure that’s something you can look past, because the older incarnation of the film is brilliant. George Cukor’s 1933 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel was the first sound version, and was so celebrated that it won an Academy Award and was a box-office smash.
Speaking of family films and book adaptations, 1933 saw a most unusual adaptation of Alice In Wonderland. With Cary Grant as the (horrifying) Mock Turtle, Gary Cooper as the White Knight, Edward Everett Horton as the Hatter, and W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty, this has a stacked cast and is rather impressive, albeit strange.
There were some incredible comedies released. Starting with one of the best and most celebrated – Ernst Lubitsch’s Design For Living. Yet another (very loose) adaptation of a Noel Coward play, this sexually charged piece sees Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March and Gary Cooper start a polyamorous relationship. Funny, timely, and teeming with such great dialogue, this is a charming, hilarious piece.
If you’re more attracted to slapstick comedy, then the Marx Brothers released their definitive comedy in 1933. Duck Soup is a hilarious affair with one of the most famous mirror scenes of all time. If you like your comedy tinged with a bit of drama, then Dinner At Eight is more for you. Featuring John and Lionel Barrymore as well as Jean Harlow, this accomplished piece is about human lives as they move towards a dinner date. It has, by far, one of the greatest ending lines in the whole of cinematic history.
Special mention must go to the Queen of the Innuendo Mae West. Her two brilliant and most famous films, alongside Cary Grant, were released – She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel. I’d advise watching as it’s a masterclass in delivery and flirtation.
There were plenty of horrors released in 1933, including one of my favourites, Mystery Of The Wax Museum, which sees the sprightly Glenda Farrell as Florence Dempsey, a terrific female reporter, trying to solve a string of murders and missing bodies. Carol Lombard stars as a medium who finds herself unwillingly possessed by a murderous spirit in the sexy Supernatural.
Based on a novella by HG Wells, The Invisible Man sees Claude Rains delight as a man driven crazy the minute he becomes, well, invisible. There’s also the epic King Kong featuring Fay Wray and some ground-breaking stop-motion animation to create the monsters. Finally, The Vampire Bat came out. Whilst it’s not as great as Dracula, it does have Dwight Frye.
Sorry to mention the festive season just as we’ve left it behind but good lord, Christmas musical I Am Suzanne is absolutely terrifying. It revolves around a puppeteer who becomes infatuated with a dancer – to the point where he creates a doll of her. It’s an absolute fever dream of a film.
Let’s end this article with a few toe-tapping dance numbers, especially from the phenomenal Busby Berkely. Backstage musical 42nd Street stars Ruby Keeley, Ginger Rogers and Dick Powell. With songs such as You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me and the titular number, it’s an exquisite musical. Adapted for the stage, it’s considered one of the best musicals of all time.
A similar musical that revolves around a dance troupe is Gold Diggers Of 1933 with Joan Blondell and Ginger Rogers. It has immense songs such as Remember My Forgotten Man and We’re In The Money. Likewise, James Cagney leads a group of prologue dancers in Footlight Parade. Also featuring numbers by Busby Berkley and starring Blondell, Keeler and Powell, this riotous movie has the kinky number The Honeymoon Hotel! Finally, Clark Gable and Joan Crawford star in the scintillating Dancing Lady, a movie that was also the screen debut of legend Fred Astaire!
That’s certainly a lot of films to get stuck into. Have fun going back 90 years for some fantastic 1933 films.
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