Old movies: the romances of 90 years ago

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Welcome to our regular column, where we dig right back into cinema history: and we’re starting with a bit of romance.

Eleven seconds. There are eleven seconds in the entirety of cinematic history that are the most romantic. Well, I believe anyway.

They belong  in Dorothy Arzner’s 1931 drama Honor Among Lovers. The scene itself sees Fredric March and Claudette Colbert exchange hushed words in a garden. March’s character longs for the already-married Colbert after he failed to confess his love before her nuptials. Regardless, a gift is given, March wraps a sought-after watch across Colbert’s wrist. Then he sighs. Not just any sigh, the deep and aching sigh of regret and unrequited adoration.

It happens in eleven seconds, but it makes your heart soar.


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Welcome to this new column where I dive deep into old movies. From silent movies to the swinging sisters, I will be charting my journey. I am starting with pre-code movies, an era of film between silence and censorship. I will swim through genres, actors, directors, and more.

For this week, I am thinking on this particular scene because love is in the air. After all, last weekend saw Valentine’s Day.

Whilst it’s been nice for once to not be constantly bombarded with heart-shaped shop displays, I’ve still found myself drawn to the romantic movies of 90 years ago. And, of course, to Fredric March and Claudette Colbert – one of pre-code finest couples.

They appeared in four movies together, three of those romantic and the other a raunchy historical romp that has to be seen to be believed. Honor Among Lovers is their best. Their first scene and kiss together is imbued with so much chemistry that I had to pause and rewind so many times. My intense crush on both March and Colbert didn’t help.

Their second best? Stuart Walker’s Tonight Is Ours (1931) as a fawning March languishes on Colbert’s bosom, desperate to stop the moon from leaving the sky.

Whilst I find the pairing of Fredric March and Claudette Colbert the utmost best in pre-code romance, they do work alongside others. For March, it’s most notably Sylvia Sidney, Miriam Hopkins, and Nancy Carroll; Maurice Chevalier, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable for Colbert. Of course, Gable and Colbert’s It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934) is famed for its screwball antics, helping Colbert win an Academy Award.

When it comes to romance in the pre-code, I often think of Ernst Lubitsch. His unique spin on romance, with his fluid camera-work and gliding dialogue, are unforgettable.

Based on a Noel Coward play, Design For Living (1931) sees Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper, and the aforementioned March conduct a fun and illicit polyamorous relationship. Maurice Chevalier appeared in numerous romantic musicals directed by Lubitsch such as The Love Parade (1930,) The Smiling Lieutenant (1931,) and The Merry Widow (1934.) Each follows the same charming Chevalier winking to the camera in his very French manner, seducing women whenever he can.

Pre-code saw plenty more of heart-slipping musicals too, including James Cagney in Footlight Parade (1933) and Anita Page in Broadway Melody (1929).

Of course, Valentine’s Day often provokes an opposite emotion in many – disgust. For those seeking an alternative to all the fluff, then look no further than Barbara Stanwyck’s Baby Face, (1933) as a woman uses her prowess and sex to rise up the ranks of a business (pouring hot coffee on pawing, disgusting men. There’s also Norma Shearer in The Divorcee (1930) as she plays the same game as her cheating husband and gives a lustful, sinister look to the camera that’s unforgettable. And you could always watch Colbert and March in Cecil B. DeMile’s The Sign of a Cross (1932) as two raunchy, rabble-rousing Romans hell-bent on destroying Christianity.  It gets bonus points for short tunics and ass milk baths aplenty.

Then there’s always horror. However, horrors themselves can be tinged with poetry and love; Dracula enchanting a helpless Mina, Frankenstein demanding his own pieced together bride, and even Dr. Jekyll is driven mad by decadence and passion.

But that’s a crypt that we’ll open in future weeks…

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