The greatest on-screen couples of Pre-Code Hollywood

Love Me Tonight
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It’s Valentines Day, so in this week’s old movies column we’re taking a look at the greatest couple of Pre-Code Hollywood…


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Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!

Love is most certainly in the air with twee decorations and pink hearts dotted in shop windows. Couples are linking arms, holding hands, and gushing about how terribly infatuated they are with one another in public, and private, displays of affection. It is so dreamy. Or, not, if you are like me – terminally single.

Regardless, Valentine’s Day is the perfect time to talk about some romance in our old movies. Previously I’ve spoken about my favourite Pre-Code romance movies, but this Valentine’s Day I’m going to talk about the best chemistry between actors that have made some scintillating and exciting movies!

Honourable Mention: Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in Queen Christina (1933). One of the last performances from Gilbert, obtained thanks to Garbo’s insistence that he be cast. The pair are great together but, knowing what we infer from the real Queen Christina’s life, the character would be best suited to Countess Ebba Sparre. Especially as the pair enjoy a very intense kiss in the film.

John Barrymore and Carole Lombard – Twentieth Century (1934)

The precursor to screwball comedies, Twentieth Century is an enjoyable battle of wits between Barrymore and Lombard. The film revolves around a tempestuous Broadway producer who trains a young starlet – but when she becomes famous, she starts to hit back at his cruel tutelage.

Directed by Howard Hawks and written by Ben Hecht, this film relies on the absolute brilliance of our two leads and, luckily, they are no less than superb. They spar on the screen like heavyweights. Barrymore has never been more magnificent whilst the spunky Lombard commands her own sparkling presence. Cruelly, but no less hilariously, the pair battle in this must-see Pre-Code movie.

Fredric March and Evelyn Venables – Death Takes A Holiday (1934)

I’ve spoken before about how Fredric March has undeniable chemistry with a lot of actresses, including committing to screen the hottest 11 seconds ever with Claudette Colbert in Dorothy Arzner’s Honor Among Lovers (1933).

However, I wanted to talk about another performance that relies heavily on the chemistry between the two actors – Death Takes A Holiday. The film does exactly what it says – Death decides he’ll take some time off in order to learn about life and love. There he meets Grazia, and the pair become quickly acquainted.

Evelyn Venable plays one of the original goth girls courting the affections of death himself. The way she looks at him is only matched by his admiration for her as well. March and Venable make this awfully titled movie completely dream-like, ravishingly devastating, and utterly romantic.

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night

It Happened One Night

Clarke Gable and Claudette Colbert – It Happened One Night (1934)

There is nothing more enjoyable than an enemies to lovers storyline. Especially when those enemies are thrown together on a road trip filled with hilarious hijinks and one-bed hotel rooms.

The film revolves around a reporter on the hunt for the latest scoop following a runaway heiress to New York in order to sell her story.

Gable and Colbert are perfect together. There is no other explanation. They’re electric when they are on-screen – whether it’s their immediate dislike of one other or the gradual turn into affection, they dazzle in this hilarious film.

Frank Capra’s movie delighted so much on first release that it one Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress for everyone involved. It Happened One Night is still an enjoyable to this day.

Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich – Morocco (1930)

One of Marlene Dietrich’s first Hollywood films completely changed cinema. Well, that might be hyperbolic, but her opening sequence in this film – a gender-fluid, bisexual number – is permanently imprinted on my brain.

But we’re not talking about that (though I could for absolute days), we’re talking about her incredible chemistry with the handsome Gary Cooper.

Directed by Josef von Sternberg, Morocco revolves around the Foreign Legion who occupy the town of Mogador. Legionnaire Tom Brown falls for cabaret singer Amy Jolly and the pair begin an illicit affair whilst pursued by figures from their past.

Cooper and Dietrich are a fantastic leading couple, as their personalities clash while they fall for one another as the war rages on in the background. It’s a remarkable coupling in a movie about a turbulent relationship with a damning end.

The final sequence of Dietrich marching across the desert, following her lover to war with other ill-fated wives, is a haunting image.

James Cagney and Joan Blondell – Blonde Crazy (1931)

There are so many films with Cagney and Blondell that I could’ve chosen because together they are gold. However, this aptly titled film is one of my favourites.

The movie revolves around a con man who’s working as bellhop Bert Harris, hoping to swindle rich clientele out of their fortune. However, when Anne Roberts is hired by the hotel as a chambermaid, sparks immediately fly. Soon Anne becomes involved in Bert’s schemes.

From some seriously intense slaps to iconic line-deliveries, Blonde Crazy is a testament to the utter brilliance of Cagney and Blondell, which is why they were repeatedly paired together on the big screen.

Blonde Crazy has an iconic scene as well – Joan Blondell cheekily lounging in a bathtub.

The poster for Jewel Robbery, starring William Powell and Kay Francis.

Jewel Robbery

Kay Francis and William Powell – Jewel Robbery (1933)

On paper, a spoiled rich heiress lusting over the man who robbed her (in, albeit, a very gentleman like way), shouldn’t work – but Francis and Powell make this highly amusing comedy irresistible.

Kay Francis plays Baroness Teri von Horhenfels, who’s bored with her marriage. Meeting both her lover and her husband at a jewellery store one day, whilst also courting an extravagant diamond ring, the shop is held at gunpoint by William Powell’s jewel thief, known only as The Robber, who gives his victims strange cigarettes to make them more accepting of the act.

Teri is immediately smitten and will stop at nothing to earn the robber’s affections.

Raunchy in the best Pre-Code way, with quick-fire dialogue delivered deliciously well from Francis and Powell, this is an utterly amoral adventure that is highly entertaining. Emphasis on high.

Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald – Love Me Tonight (1932)

There are many musicals with Chevalier and MacDonald that I could’ve chosen for this list. Like Cagney and Blondell, the couple just have a certain je nes c’est quoi on the big screen.

Whilst there are so many movies I could’ve chosen, I couldn’t resist diving into my absolute favourite – Love Me Tonight. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, this musical revolves around a Parisian tailor who poses as a nobleman to win the heart of the princess he has fallen in love with.

With unforgettable musical numbers and a swooning direction, Macdonald and Chevalier are a dream singing duo who create magic with a melody and satisfy with a song.

Norma Shearer in The Divorcee

The Divorcee

Norma Shearer and Everyone The Divorcee (1930)

Shearer was once deemed unappealing by her husband Irving Thalberg, who insisted she wasn’t sexy enough to star in this dangerously devilish film The Divorcee. How wrong he was, because Shearer is so sexy here that she practically burns a hole through the celluloid.

Directed by Robert Z. Leonard, the film revolves around Jerry, who leaves her husband Ted after he has been unfaithful to her. Instead of wallowing in misery, she decides to have a few affairs of her own.

Shearer won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance here, where she flirts and flounces through relationships, sparking heated exchanges between the likes of Chester Morris and Conrad Nagel. She oozes appeal with almost everyone she comes into contact with.

When I say everyone, I mean the audience as well. There’s one look that Shearer seemingly gives the camera whilst she caresses her suitor in the back of a car, and let me tell you, I crumbled like a cheesecake.

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