Old films: movie musicals of the Pre-Code era

The Smiling Lieutenant
Share this Article:

Sarah Cook recommends some Pre-Code Hollywood musicals to add some romance to your Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day is on the horizon. It is a time for love – all things that are so gooey and mushy. There are red hearts all around us. Gifts are being exchanged – flowers, chocolates, and promises people don’t intend to keep. For lovers, it is a sentimental time to get cosy with your partner. For singletons, it’s a chance to seek out the possibility of a new relationship.


Try three issues of Film Stories magazine – for just £1: right here!

Or, like me, indulge in chocolates, cheap sparkling wine, and some good romantic films, happy in the knowledge that I don’t have to spend my money on anyone other than myself. Still, I cannot help but watch some good romantic movies. That because even though cynical about relationships, I’m still a helpless romantic and nothing says love more so than musicals of ninety years ago.

The sweeping scores, the big dance numbers, and the aching torch numbers that a filled with so much yearning. I love them all. So welcome to my exploration of pre-code musicals just in time for Valentine’s day!

In the later 1920s, early 1930s, musicals – or music films – could easily be split into two distinctive subgenres. The first – and perhaps the most predominant storyline – revolves around the backstage antics of a troupe putting on extravagant shows. The movies are popularised by incredible and, to be honest, insane musical numbers that make absolutely no sense on stage.

The best movies in the category usually came from choreographer Busby Berkeley. His astonishing legacy in classic musicals is unrivalled. From swimming pools, to tap-dancing, to props, Berkeley and hundreds of dancers performed in-sync numbers that wow and delight.

Footlight Parade is one of the Pre-Code eras best musicals. Starring James Cagney, Dick Powell, and Ruby Keeler, it sees a dance troupe traipse around New York, putting on musical numbers before a movie. Footlight Parade (1933) is famous for its risqué numbers too. Honeymoon Hotel takes us on a journey with a newlywed couple (it’s implied the couple are marrying just so they can get laid.) They get a room in the titular establishment, much to the shock of the residents and staff. Why? Because despite the name, the Honeymoon Hotel is only used by mistresses. Even in Shang-Hai Lil – a number riddled with yellowface, I might add – it is implied that the named character and her cohorts are prostitutes.

Footlight Parade

Footlight Parade

Berkeley’s By the Waterfall number is triumphant though. The number features 300 synchronised swimmers who performer their watery ballet with finesse and beauty. Berkeley has choreographed a number of musicals that are equally impressive and showcase truly amazing dancing sequences including 42nd Street(1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), and Dames (1934).

The second subgenre is musicals as we tend to know and love them – everyday characters who spring into song whenever they have an immense feeling. The most notable movies in the Pre-Code era that follow this trend come from the legend and the icon that is Ernst Lubitsch. Lubitsch often did musicals with lead actor Maurice Chevalier. The first of these outings is The Love Parade (1929) which follows a philandering solider marrying a princess. In this particular Pre-Code era, Chevalier would be paired with Jeanette MacDonald. They are brilliant together.

Though I am smitten for a Chevalier and MacDonald movie, The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) is the best of Lubitsch’s musicals. It features Miriam Hopkins and Claudette Colbert as two people vying for the same man. Ultimately, the two women realise that they are in love with one another and ride off into the sunset. Okay, so that doesn’t happen, but Colbert and Hopkins do bond over underwear in musical number Jazz Up Your Underwear. The Smiling Lieutenant is succinct in its hilarity and superb performances by the three leads.

That said, the production was marred with troubles with both Lubitsch and Chevalier struggling with a claustrophobic set. Other highlights from the pair include One Hour With You (1932) and The Merry Widow (1934) .

If you like movie musicals which are absolutely bizarre then the Pre-Code era doesn’t disappoint. There are two major ones which may need to be seen. First is I Am Suzanne (1933) which in contemporary reviews is celebrated as a children’s film. I can assure you that, like children’s film of yesteryear, it is horrifying.

The musical sees Lillian Harvey as the titular character – a tightrope performer who falls in love with a puppeteer. The film opens with a demented snowman costume and goes downhill from there. One scene sees Gene Raymond as Tony, a puppeteer, explaining how he immortalised past relationships in his wooden puppets because they’ll never change or leave him. Somehow this film isn’t a horror. Even when Suzanne says that Tony is more obsessed with the puppet version of her. Then there is a whole hellish nightmare sequence where Suzanne is plunged into jail for murdering a puppet. Every second of this film is so wonderfully bizarre and the puppetry by Podrecca’s Piccoli Marionettes and the Yale Puppeteers, creates some impressive sequences.

Cecil B. DeMille’s musical outing Madam Satan (1930) is another incredible outing which sees a woman try to make a fool of her cheating, scoundrel of a husband. In doing so, she attends a party in a blimp (one filled with the most outrageous costumes) and tries to ensnare him whilst disguised as the eponymous character. The movie is wildly entertaining. One suspects Cecil Be DeMille was aiming for a moral story about adultery, similarly to his preaching in The Sign of the Cross (1930), only for the film to wind up celebrating the very thing it was meant to be condemning. Pushing aside the blimp disaster, of course. It’s a movie about an extravagant costume party on a blimp – what’s not to love?

Madam Satan

Madam Satan

There are some musicals that may not fall into the above categories, and may not be about love at all, include Claudette Colbert’s movie of yearning Torch Singer (1933), Helen Morgan’s morose Applause (1929). There’s also Clarke Gable and Joan Crawford’s romance Dancing Lady (1933) in which the former rubs oil into the latter’s leg and it is practically porn. The Marx Brothers outings such as Horse Feathers (1932) and Coconuts (1929) are also filled with musical numbers but, alas, I am not that well versed in Marx Brothers movies (a fact I am attempting to rectify).

It would be remiss of me to talk about musical and music films without talk about Al Jolson. The actor and performer, best known for his use of blackface in The Jazz Singer (1927), is often celebrated, and derided in equal measure. Blackface is most definitely racist and was used to mock the African American community. Though this wasn’t necessary to case for Jolson, who, was credited in helping black actors and performers cross the barriers into mainstream movies, it definitely mars his legacy. In a future articles, I am definitely keen to explore racism and black actors in the Pre-Code era that will dive into the legacy of Jolson. For now, I’d definitely like to suggest Hallelujah, I’m A Bum (1933) as one of (many) Jolson movie without blackface and extreme leftist connotations.

There are so many musicals to explore in the Pre-Code era. From Girl of the Rio (1932) to Murder at the Vanities(1934), there are a whole heap of tuneful films to tumble into. I haven’t even begun to speak about Siegfried and his gals. Plus, all the variety movies that studios used to put together!

So, to end this article, let’s talk about my favourite Pre-Code musical. Alas, the one Fredric March musical Footlights and Fools (1929) is actually a lost film.

However, as I’ve mentioned before in my ode to films from 1932, I absolutely adore Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight. It is a triumphant and creative whirlwind with fantastic lead performances by Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. The film sees Chevalier as a tailor who poses as a nobleman and MacDonald is the princess who falls in love with him.

With incredibly invention to the musical numbers and a leads that have consistent and constant chemistry with one another in any one of their movies, Love Me Tonight is an essential Valentine’s Day viewing.

So, if you don’t have any Valentine’s Day plans, why not partake in a Pre-Code musical? Why not Love Me Tonight?

Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:

Follow Film Stories on Twitter here, and on Facebook here.

Buy our Film Stories and Film Stories Junior print magazines here.

Become a Patron here.

Share this Article:

Related Stories

More like this