Old Movies: Pre-code film recommendations for April

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night
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This week in our old movies column, we challenge you to take part in pre-code April – here’s some recommendations of films to watch.

It’s Pre-Code April time! Established last year by film critic, author, and podcaster Matthew Turner, the object is pretty simple – watch as many pre-Code films as possible. For those who don’t know, pre-Code signifies an era in Hollywood cinema from 1929 to 1934 where films were more risqué with their content.

There are oodles of films out there to start watching with snappy runtimes, dark themes, or brilliant comedies.

So, if you’re looking for something to watch, I am going to dive into my repertoire and suggest some movies at random that you must see if you’re partaking in Pre-Code April (And I will try to leave Fredric March, who gets lots of mentions in these columns, out of it – though you should watch all his films!).

I Am No Angel (1933)
Dir. Wesley Ruggles

“Come up and see me sometime.”

Mae West – the queen of the sultry innuendos. Here she leads this fantastic romantic drama that is pretty much everything that’s perfect about the pre-Code era. She stars as a circus star who agrees to put her head into the lions mouth but comes into a hot-headed dispute with her boss.

Starring opposite Cary Grant, this is an absolute treat as everything West says is positively indecent and decadent. You’ll be quoting it for a while after your first watch.

The Age of Consent (1932)
Dir. Gregory La Cava

Mike and Betty are two college lovers who are destined to be with one another. However, they keep getting into the gender politics of being young while also trying to be in a relationship. They break-up a lot throughout the film and get into all sorts of hijinks.

In true pre-Code fashion, a lot happens in just an hour and four minutes, plus the ending really jumps the shark. Still, it does tackle a lot of themes about sex and love that some modern films haven’t even worked out yet.

Grand Hotel (1932)
Dir. Edmund Goulding

One Grand Hotel. One Crawford. One Garbo. One Grand Hotel. Two Barrymores.

The acting dynasty steal scenes in this epic drama. The film revolves around the residents of the titular hotel. John Barrymore plays a Baron (who is also a gambler and con man) who’s trying to get rich from the pockets of the wealthier elite there. Lionel Barrymore is a dying man who wishes to spend his life savings on luxury. Garbo is an ailing dancer who falls for the Baron whilst Crawford is an assistant who is trying to unravel the truth about the people who populate the hotel.

A terrific look at the intricate lives of the characters, with stellar performances by all involved. Grand Hotel won the Best Picture Academy Award despite not being nominated in any other category!

Jewell Robbery (1932)
Dir. William Dieterle

Kay Francis and William Powell shine in this brilliant comedy caper dripping and oozing with sexuality. Heiress Teri is bored with her life. Whilst shopping with a would-be fiance, she is held up by a suave thief and ends up falling in love with him.

The incredible chemistry between Francis and Powell is divine and Kay Francis delivers some seductively saucy lines that are dripping with need. A lot of fun with a brilliant ending as well!

The Criminal Code (1931)
Dir. Howard Hawks

Walter Huston leads this stellar film which looks at the abhorrent psychological turmoil that is the American prison system. The story sees Huston as DA Mark Brady who makes an example of the young and naive Robert Graham after he accidentally kills a man during a pub brawl. However, the hardships of prison start to drastically alter Graham.

This is an intense look at a system which breaks men, as well as the power of friendships forged in jail. There are some shocking scenes and Hawks’ use of a violent soundscape is absolutely haunting. Plus, it has a supporting performance by Boris Karloff in a role where he isn’t a towering monster!

poster for Double Door

Double Door (1934)
Dir. Charles Vidor

Move over Mrs. Danvers, there’s a new manipulative psychopath in town. This time it’s Victoria Van Brett in Charles Vidor’s brooding horror-drama Double Door. The film sees Victoria hound her brother Rip’s new wife Anne in a game of manipulation and cruel, mental domination.

Based on a stage show that apparently made Broadway gasp; this film deals with everything from incest to murder. It boasts an astonishingly good lead performance by Mary Morris who, sadly, only starred in one film.

City Streets (1931)
Dir. Rouben Mamoulian

Starring Sylvia Sidney and Gary Cooper, City Streets revolves around a gallery showman who falls in love with a racketeer’s daughter. When her own father implicates her in a murder, she is sent to prison and good ol’ dad tries to bring the showman (known only as The Kid) into the gang in order to free her.

Classed as a proto-noir flick, this film is teeming with impressive characters and snappy dialogue that burns and yearns all at once. Mamoulian is truly one of the masters of pre-Code cinema, so the shots and the transitions are seriously inventive.

Trouble in Paradise (1932)
Dir. Ernst Lubitsch

Speaking of masters of cinema, here’s Lubitsch. There are many films of his that you can dive into from this era and enjoy, particularly his musicals with the one and only Maurice Chevalier.

However, there’s just something special about Trouble in Paradise. The film sees Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins star as a gentleman thief and lady pickpocket who fall in love. Yet when they try to con a beautiful woman – Kay Francis – out of her fortune, mischief arises when one of pair starts to fall in love with her.

Funny, succinct, and utterly watchable, this is an impeccable Lubitsch film. It was also one of the inspirations for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.

It Happened One Night (1934)
Dir. Frank Capra

This is an incredible road journey, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, that sees our couple jibe and chide each other until they fall irresistibly in love with one another. It revolves around a socialite who runs away to elope against her father’s wishes and a down-n-out reporter who bumps into her on the bus.

Not only does it have some fantastic spats between Gable and Colbert, it also has some iconic scenes including Colbert stopping traffic with just the sight of her flesh.

It was the first film to win the big five major Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Actor. The other two films to succeed doing this are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The Wild Party (1929)
Dir. Dorothy Arzner

I would be remiss to not mention at least one Dorothy Arzner film! The Wild Party is classed as Clara Bow’s first ever talkie and boy what a riot it is! She stars as a college student who bumps into, and butts heads with, her would-be professor on a train. Their relationship is strained but ultimately, as it is always the case, they fall for each other. 

True story, Arzner invented the boom mic to help Clara Bow get used to sound equipment. The film also stars Fredric March in his one of his first leading roles and it is often cited as the film that propelled him to stardom.

What will you be watching this pre-Code April?

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