Old Movies: Pre-Code Queens

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With Queen Elizabeth II’s platinum jubilee at the end of the week, celebrate by watching some Pre-Code movies featuring their very own queens. 

Long live the Queen. More specifically, these Pre-Code Queens. Yes, the UK is in throes of celebration for dear old Lizzie, especially as we all get a few extra days off this week. Still, whether you are a royalist or not, everything in the world is screaming out loud about the Queen right now.

What better way to celebrate than to travel back to that immortal Pre-Code era and indulge in some films about some very terrific queens – played by Pre-Code royalty. So, sit on your throne, and by royal decree, enjoy this list!

Tonight Is Ours (1933)
Dir Stuart Walker

Based on Noel Coward’s play The Queen Was In The Parlour, Tonight Is Ours is a romantic drama starring Claudette Colbert and Fredric March – actors who have the most undeniably poignant chemistry on screen. It revolves around widowed Princess Nadja (of Ruritania) who has finally escaped the clutches of her abusive husband after his death. Free, on a random New Year’s Eve party, she meets Sabien and the pair fall madly in love with one another. However, they are pulled apart when the King is assassinated, and Nadja is the only successor.

Colbert is terrific to watch as she is torn between the loyalties of her country and the love of her life. There’s also some wonderful scenes between her and the prince she is forced to marry as they realise that their union will be loveless. Though it is slow in paces, the action comes from these meetings and conversations as Nadja battles her government and her lost love.

Apropos for nothing but Tonight Is Ours has one of the most scintillating images of the era with Colbert cradling March post-romp, as he gazes longingly up at her. It’s actually one of my favourites.

Queen Christina (1933)
Dir Rouben Mamoulian

Greta Garbo takes the lead in Mamoulian’s historical epic. It revolves around Queen Christina of Sweden, who took the throne when she was just six years old and led her country through the Thirty Years War.

Dressed more like a man and with a boisterous energy, Garbo’s Christina takes charge throughout the movie, and it is electrifying to watch.

There is a brilliant kiss between Christina and Ebba, though it is fleeting and both women wind up in heterosexual relationships by the end of the film. However, historically, the real Queen Christina was probably actually a lesbian (or queer in some way). At the very least, she kissed women and was a tomboy, eventually abdicating because of her refusal to marry, in hopes that she could live the life that she wanted.

Sometimes, however, is nice to imagine that Christina and Ebba rode off into the sunset despite their loveless marriages.

Queen Christina

Queen Christina

The Scarlett Empress (1934)

Dir Josef von Sternberg

The umpteenth pairing for director Josef Von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich in this story about the life of Catherine the Great. Though perhaps less raunchy than the television series The Great, The Scarlett Empress is a brilliant movie that depicts Catherine from her reluctant betrothal to the petulant Peter to her fiery revolution.

As ever, Dietrich is truly marvelous to watch on screen as she transforms Catherine over the course of the film. Starting off wide-eyed, in the belief that love can conquer all, she is dismayed to learn that her husband is juvenile – more obsessed with his toy soldiers. After this bitter disappointment, she soon falls for her aide Count Alexey Razumovsky. Over time, between the affair and her awful in-laws, Catherine develops a steely resolve to lead her people and overthrow Peter. Dietrich handles these facets of Catherine remarkably well, captivating from the minute she is on screen.

Plus, von Sternberg leans heavily into German expressionism, so the film is extremely exciting to watch – especially when folk glower seductively in the heavy shadows.

Mary Queen of Scots (1936)
Dir John Ford

Okay, this isn’t technically Pre-Code, but who can deny Katharine Hepburn a place on this list? Long before Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie sparred off as the warring cousins Mary and Elizabeth, Hepburn and Florence Eldrige played the battling Queens.

Also featuring Fredric March and Douglas Walton, Mary Queen of Scots is a historic epic about the queen of Scotland striking terror into Queen Elizabeth I heart when she takes the throne.

The film has its detractors, even today, and one might feel they are watching a very wordy play. There are also very few Scottish accents from the main players, though some might be thankful for that. However, Hepburn is always magnificent to watch – even if she is playing an exaggerated corset bound version of herself.

Fun fact, this was Hepburn’s second big flop and it’s failure would cause her to be dubbed “box office poison” until her comeback in The Philadelphia Story (1940).

The Love Parade

The Love Parade (1929)
Dir Ernst Lubitsch

The first ever ‘talkie’ film by director extraordinaire Lubitsch? The film debut of the magnificent Jeanette MacDonald? Maurice Chevalier?! Yes please!

This comedy caper has all the right boxes ticked, plus it’s a musical, what more do you need? The film revolves around womanizer Count Alfred Renard who falls in love with Queen Louise of Sylvania but finds his role as a figurehead to be completely unbearable.

I cannot truly explain what a joy this film really is. It’s a spectacular and rompy affair with some brilliant showstopping numbers. My favourite is Paris, Stay the Same in which the song is sung by many characters, including a dog. The fluidity of the music really showcased Lubitsch’s brilliant handling of sound. It made Chevalier a household name and also proved MacDonald a sparkling lead actress. Charming and brilliant – the film was nominated for six Academy awards and helped save an ailing Paramount Pictures.

Cleopatra (1934)
Dir Cecil B DeMille

We started with Claudette Colbert, and we shall end with her most acclaimed role – Cleopatra.

Starring opposite Warren Williams and Henry Wilcoxon as Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony, Cleopatra looks at the Egyptian Queen and her tenuous rule over her kingdom, all the while she woos lovers such the aforementioned Roman rulers.

DeMille’s triumphant film was created just a slither after the enforcement of the Hays Code. However, the director got away with some risqué imagery including opening his movie with a naked slave girl. Plus, there is a risqué, extravagant seduction sequence on a barge (which, by the way, is a mouthful to say). The art deco production design, dripping with richness, and the haunting music by Rudolph George Kopp makes this film unforgettable.

However, it is Colbert who is truly captivating here. Having worked previously with DeMille on The Sign Of The Cross (1932), Colbert is commanding as the titular Queen and proves herself both sexy and smart in this somewhat raunchy film.

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