Old movies: the men of Pre-Code Hollywood

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night
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Our old movies column returns, and this time we’re appreciating some of the greatest male talents of the Pre-Code era.


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Right the way back when I first started this Old Movies spot at Film Stories, I spoke about my favourite Pre-Code film actresses, including the incredible talents of Marlene Dietrich, Joan Blondell and Claudette Colbert.

So let’s bring on the men, and let the fun begin! Today, I am going back to the 1930s to look at some of the great actors of the time – performers who brought an incredible screen presence to the Golden Age of Hollywood – so much so that their iconic range altered how we view cinema and echoed across generations to this very day.

James Cagney (1899 – 1986)

Has there ever been anyone as versatile as James Cagney? A man who could be menacing and evil in one thrilling movie, and yet delight and tickle with a toe-tapping number in a musical. What’s more, he played both parts so very well.

Whether it’s a romantic lead or a gangster on the edge of darkness, Cagney could greatly encapsulate a character in an utterly memorable way. Who doesn’t love his vicious shoving of a grapefruit into poor Mae Clarke’s face in The Public Enemy?

The gravitas that Cagney had on the big screen is unmatched, even by stars of today.

Must Watch: The Public Enemy (1931), Footlight Parade (1933), Blonde Crazy (1931)

Clark Gable (1901 – 1960)

Gable is probably better known for his later work but he really cut his teeth during the Pre-Code era. Starring opposite the likes of Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford, Gable had a talent for playing gruff, sardonic men who sparred with their female counterparts until they fell hopelessly in love with one another. One of his most famous films is Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. One of the greatest romantic comedies of all time, which sparked off the screwballs, it sees Gable and Claudette Colbert become unlikely allies on an unexpected road trip. A definite must see for film fans, and it helped Gable win an Oscar!

Must Watch: It Happened One Night (1934,) A Free Soul (1931), Dance, Fools, Dance (1931)

Warren William (1894 – 1948)

Warren William has two distinct roles – the grouchy, rich man in a comedy who is hapless to the whims of the women around him, and an absolute villain. Both of which he plays to great furore.

The two films which showcase this best are my personal favourites of WilliamEmployee’s Entrance and Smarty.

The former sees William play an abusive manager of a department store in a truly chilling depiction of powerful men who use their position to take advantage. The latter is a riotous performance as a man who is playfully tortured by his wife – Joan Blondell – in a very modern and funny film!

Must Watch: Smarty (1934), Employee’s Entrance (1933), Gold Diggers Of 33 (1933)

Smarty starring Joan Blondell

Chester Morris (1901 – 1970)

Chester Morris I think is perhaps the lesser-known Hollywood star on this list, but that doesn’t make him any less special.

As an actor who had a serious and commanding screen presence, Chester Morris made his sound debut in 1929 proto-noir film Albi, playing a thief who gets embroiled in a serious crime. His best-known Pre-Code work is playing the absolute fool who cheats on Norma Shearer in the wonderful The Divorcee and pays the price for it! However, his best performance is in mystery film The Bat Whispers, a crime caper mystery which was the inspiration for Batman!

Here’s a little Chester Morris tidbit that I just learned – during World War II, Morris performed magic at over 350 USA shows, having been practicing since he was 12!

Must Watch: Red-Headed Woman (1932), The Bat Whispers (1930), The Divorcee (1930)

Maurice Chevalier (1900 – 1970)

Thank heavens for Maurice Chevalier!

The French actor truly mastered the musical in the 1930s, especially when he was paired with the incomparable Ernst Lubitsch.

Often staring opposite Jeanette MacDonald, Chevalier’s musicals are brilliant fun. The leading man could not only sing, but he was extremely debonair and often spent time breaking the fourth wall to address the audience, enchanting us also. He did a lot of projects with Lubitsch but truthfully, his best work is in Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight.

Fun fact: If you happen to recognise Chevalier’s singing voice, that’s because he sang the title sequence for Disney’s The Aristocats!

Must Watch: Love Me Tonight (1932), The Love Parade (1929), The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

Cary Grant (1922 – 1966)

Cary Grant is best known for his work in the late 1930s and 1940s, especially with screwball romantic comedies such as Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Philadelphia Story (1940), and His Girl Friday (1940).

But there was a time when we put Cary Grant in eyeliner and put him opposite Mae West, and it was glorious! Though he’s best known for his work after the era, Grant excelled in the Pre-Code era, especially when playing with the thick-voiced, innuendo-laden West.

Grant’s best work during this time was playing the heel to Fredric March in Stuart Walker’s anti-war movie The Eagle And The Hawk (1931) as fighter pilots struggle, mentally, with the horrors of warfare.

Must Watch: The Eagle And The Hawk (1931), Hot Saturday (1932), I Am No Angel (1933)

The Eagle And The Hawk

George Raft (1924 – 1980)

Raft is perhaps best known for playing those absolutely untrustworthy gangsters who try to usurp their bosses or swindle their molls or genuinely don’t have a very good time with their life of crime. This is most notable in one of his breakthrough performances in the original Scarface.

However, did you know that Raft was also a dancer? In fact, similarly to Cagney, he could happily flit through a musical number or two!

Beyond Pre-Code films, George Raft would continue his acclaimed roles and whilst I am trying to focus on films from the 1930s, it would be amiss of me to ignore his fantastic performance in They Drive By Night.

Must Watch: Scarface (1932), Dancers In The Dark (1932,) They Drive By Night (1940)

Lionel Barrymore (1878 – 1954)

Most people know the oldest of the Barrymores for his dastardly performance as the villainous Mr Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life. Before he was making Jimmy Stewart’s life hell, however, Lionel Barrymore was already a wonderful and brilliant and accomplished actor – part of a famous acting family (that still lives to this day in one fantastic Drew). In fact, Lionel would often be in films alongside his brother John.

Barrymore’s finer performances came with everyday men who were grappling with something torturous – such as alcoholism in A Free Soul or cancer in Grand Hotel. What Lionel did, and was always magical at, was empathetic humanisation of these characters, beyond their happenstance.

Must Watch: A Free Soul (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), Dinner At Eight (1933)

Dinner At Eight

John Barrymore
(1882 – 1942)

A profile carved by the gods. John Barrymore was an absolute (and gorgeous) icon during the silent era of films, especially as Dr Jekyll in the 1921 adaptation of the novella. Unlike some silent stars, John Barrymore made the seamless transition into the talkies and became an equally accomplished star of sound.

There is something truly enigmatic about the performer. He was suave and sophisticated, but with an alluring trouble seated beneath his exterior. He could thrill as a hypnotising villain, charm as an elusive thief and be unforgettable in a screwball comedy. John Barrymore is one of the greatest actors of all time.

Must Watch: Twentieth Century (1934), Arsene Lupin (1932), Svengali (1931)

Fredric March (1896 – 1975)

Regular readers knew that he was going to be here. He is, after all, one of my favourite actors and his range is insanely good. I’ve already dedicated many an article to this Academy-award winning man, so I’ll keep this entry brief. Go watch the 1931 version of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde. Please.

If you aren’t a fan of horror, then any project March did with director Dorothy Arzner will do – especially Honor Among Lovers (which has the hottest 11 seconds I have ever seen on screen).

Must Watch: Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1931), Honor Among Lovers (1931), Merrily We Go Hell (1932)

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