Pre-Code April | 5 classics to put on your radar

Dorothy Mackaill in the pre-code hollywood film, Safe In Hell
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The 1934 implementation of the Hays Code changed the face of Hollywood. Luckily, Sarah Cook is on hand with some scandalous pre-Code treats to enjoy this April.

Pre-Code April is in full force this year. Similar to Noir-vember, the spring exploration of classic cinema was curated by film critic Matthew Turner and, for old film lovers such as myself, it’s a fun month of diving into some truly marvelous cinema.

Whilst there may only be a day left, there is still plenty of time to watch as many pre-Code films as possible. After all, most of them have a runtime of under 90 minutes.

So, here are just a few suggestions to get your Pre-Code April juices flowing!

The Love Parade (1929)
Dir. Ernst Lubitsch

Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald in the Love Parade, a pre-code hollywood film

The first of many musicals directed by Lubitsch, starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald (in her big screen debut!), The Love Parade revolves around a queen in a fictional kingdom called Sylvania who is wooed by a singing courier. Unfortunately, the minute they are wed, the courtier discoverers life inside the palace is incredibly boring.

This might be longer than my promised under-90-minute runtime, but it is worth every single second. Lubitsch’s brand of dry and silly humour sparks in this catchy, funny musical, a highlight being the song our courtier sings (Paris, Stay The Same) when leaving his beloved city. A song that is promptly sung by another crooner and… a dog.

Union Depot (1932)
Dir. Alfred E. Green

I absolutely adore this film. Over 90 years old and yet it still feels fresh.

The premise is simple: it takes place over the course of one night in the titular train station, following the snapshots of different lives as they travel to and from the city. Then the film focuses on Chick, who is fresh out of prison. Hungry and homeless, Chick hustles his way into the heart of showgirl Ruth.

Featuring Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Joan Blondell, this is a smart and quick-witted outing. Memorable scenes in the first half include a woman saying goodbye to her husband on one train as it departs, before her lover appears immediately on the train pulling in.

Safe in Hell (1931)
William A. Wellman

Dorothy Mackaill in the pre-code hollywood film, Safe In Hell

Toeing the line between exploitation fiction and compelling thriller, William A Wellman’s Safe In Hell is a palpably heart-racing Pre-Code outing.

Sex worker Gilda accidentally kills a client and is forced to flee to an unknown island in the Caribbean where a lot of criminals reside. There, she is forced to defend herself against the brutish population of violent expats.

The constant threat of sexual violence imbues this heated affair with a toe-curling tension. Wellman directs this movie so brilliantly that it feels hot and sweaty and dirty all at once. Dorothy Mackaill is a powerhouse in her leading performance as Gilda, wearing her fear and anguish like a loose-fitting dressing gown.

Read more: Cavalcade, a Best Picture Oscar winner that hasn’t aged too well

Ladies of Leisure (1930)
Dir. Frank Capra

The queen of pre-Code Hollywood herself Barbara Stanwyck delights in this romantic outing from the It’s A Wonderful Life director.

Stanwyck stars as Kary Arnold, a gold digger who tries to find herself a very rich husband. When she meets Jerry Strong, an affluent man who aspires to be an artist, she agrees to be his model. Soon, their relationship starts to turn into something more.

This is the film that pretty much launched Stanwyck’s career thanks to her plucky line delivery and absolutely unforgettable screen presence. She is one of old Hollywood’s finest actors – even in her earlier roles, where she can zip from a woman cloying for a rich husband to a desperate lover at the drop of a trilby.

Applause (1929)
Dir. Rouben Mamoulian

still from the 1929 film, Applause

I cannot leave Pre-Code April without at least mentioning my favourite director. Applause revolves around the backstage antics of musical hall performers, where burlesque star Kitty Darling tries to save her well-educated daughter April from following in her footsteps.

Led by an exquisite Helen Morgan, the film is a damning look at the exploitative side of the old live performance industry. Mamoulian is such a visionary director, inventive with his camera direction, and Applause comes alive with such incredible angles that bring to life the suffocating nature of showbusiness. The sound, too, including the titular echo of rabid audiences and the chatter of backstage, only adds to the morose journey for our characters.

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