Monday, September 15, 2014

"Trouble in Paradise" (1933)


Lubitsch.

For some people, that’s all you have to say. He was one of the first “star” directors, a director whose films people would go see regardless of who the actors were, which meant he could get top stars like Greta Garbo begging to work with him. I could populate an entire Top 10 list with only Lubitsch’s films, and if I did, the number one spot would be a tough, tough call between Trouble in Paradise and 1942's To Be or Not To Be. But we’re talking about Pre-Code films here so, for today, Trouble in Paradise is going to take the top spot.

This is one of Lubitsch’s nine collaborations with New York playwright Samson Raphaelson, who also wrote two other beloved Lubitsch films, The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and Heaven Can Wait (1943). But much as I love those films, they can’t hold a candle to Trouble in Paradise.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Night Nurse (1931)

Let’s say this first – if you like Pre-Code movies, you will love Night Nurse. It’s a full blast of the fun that Pre-Code films can hold: wisecracking best friends, snappy dialogue, unconventional plot twists and, of course, Barbara Stanwyck in her early red-headed days.

But it’s an unusual role for Stanwyck, because the character of Laura Hart is something we don’t expect from the usually hard-boiled Stanwyck: a starry-eyed idealist. She’s not na├»ve – it’s established from the start that she’s a working-class girl who was forced to drop out of high school and work to support herself – but she loves nursing and wants to be the best nurse she can be. Even at the end of the film when she’s forced to leave the field she loves, her disillusionment hasn’t made her hard or cynical. She remains the same warm, caring, confident person we saw when the film opened.

It’s sometimes startling to see the contrast between the Pre-Code Stanwyck and her Production Code persona. There is a definite difference between the two. In her Production Code films, there’s something a little cold about Stanwyck even in her romances – something a little remote and mysterious. In her Pre-Code films, Stanwyck holds nothing back. She lays it all on the table and dares the audience to judge her for it.  And director William “Wild Bill” Wellman backs her up with a tough, punchy film that showcases Stanwyck’s strengths as an actress.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

UPDATED: TCM Pre-Code Fridays: DVR Alerts for Sept. 12

Still working on my piece about Night Nurse (which I hope to have up tomorrow), but I wanted to get the DVR alerts in so people have time to plan and/or program:

Friday, September 12

Definite YESes (seen and recommended)
The Age of Consent (3:00 p.m. ET -- watch it and then read my essay about it here!)
Red-Headed Woman (6:30 p.m. ET)
Design For Living (9:30 p.m. ET)
Trouble In Paradise (11:15 p.m. ET)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (12:45 a.m. ET)
Freaks (3:45 a.m. ET)

Good Bets (that I haven't seen, but plan to)
Ten Cents  A Dance (7:00 a.m. ET)
ADDED: Double Harness (10:00 a.m. ET) -- recommended by NotMax
Mary Stevens, M.D. (1:45 p.m. ET)
Bombshell (4:45 p.m. ET)
Red Dust (8:00 p.m. ET)
The Story of Temple Drake (2:30 a.m. ET)
Jewel Robbery (5:00 a.m. ET)

If you can only see one movie this week, make it Trouble In Paradise -- you will never be sorry, though your friends will get tired of you repeating lines from it. If you can only see two, the second one should be Design For Living. As far as essays go, I'm planning to aim for Trouble In Paradise ("Constantinople!") and The Story of Temple Drake, which was suppressed for many decades because it was so incredibly scandalous.

Stars of the day: Jean Harlow (Red-Headed Woman, Bombshell, Red Dust), Miriam Hopkins (Design for Living, Trouble In Paradise, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Story of Temple Drake) and Kay Francis (Trouble In Paradise, Mary Stevens M.D., Jewel Robbery)

Also note that I added Double Harness to the Good Bets list at the recommendation of NotMax.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Divorcee (1930)

** If you have a participating cable TV provider, you can stream this month's movies to your computer using WatchTCM, so you can still watch this film and upcoming selections if you missed Friday's broadcast. **

I’m probably going to be writing about multiple films from TCM Pre-Code Fridays since there’s such an embarrassment of riches, but I’m going to start with The Divorcee because I think its charms are a little less obvious to modern audiences.


First of all: Norma Shearer. The First Lady of MGM. Married to top MGM executive Irving Thalberg. And yet she wasn’t interested in the classy, ladylike roles that Thalberg wanted to shove the object of his affections into, like so many doting movie executives before and after him. She wanted to play modern, complicated women dealing with changing social mores – there’s a reason Mick LaSalle chose her photograph for the cover of his book Complicated Women. She played thieves (A Lady of Chance, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney), kept women (The Trial of Mary Dugan), and freethinking adults who believed they should have the same freedom as men – which is what Shearer’s character Jerry believes in The Divorcee.

Friday, September 5, 2014

"Love Me Tonight" (1932)


One of the things I'm enjoying most about watching these Pre-Code films is that I'm able to re-discover what made some stars into "stars" in the first place.  My spouse's first experience with Barbara Stanwyck was seeing her on the 1980s nighttime soap operas Dynasty and The Colbys and, understandably, he wondered what the big deal was.  Even when he was older and saw some of her Production Code classics like Double Indemnity and The Lady Eve, he still didn't really "get" Stanwyck.

Then we watched Night Nurse and ... damn!  Now he got it.

For me, that was the reaction I had to Maurice Chevalier when I saw Love Me Tonight.  I knew Chevalier from his later years in Hollywood, most notably playing a dirty old man singing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" in Gigi, but I'd never seen him in his prime.  And all I can say is ... damn!  Now I get it.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

DVR Alert -- Week 1 of TCM's Pre-Code Fridays

Yes, I'm WAY late to this, but here are my recommendations for your DVR pleasure starting tomorrow (Friday Sept. 5):

Definite YESes (seen and recommended)
Night Nurse (4:00 pm ET)
Baby Face (8:00 pm ET)
The Divorcee (9:30 pm ET)
Gold Diggers of 1933 (1:00 am ET)

Good bets (that I haven't seen)
Wild Boys of the Road (11:00 am ET)
Safe in Hell (12:15 pm ET)
Female (2:45 pm)

Also, if you catch the opening of Taxi! (4:15 am ET), you ca see James Cagney speaking Yiddish like a native (which he pretty much was, since he picked it up from the other kids in the tenements of New York).

I haven't quite decided which of these I'm going to write about over the weekend, but the best bets are either Night Nurse or The Divorcee, so if your DVR space is limited, I would go with those. Happy viewing!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

DVR Alert -- But Not Pre-Code!

I'm traveling this weekend and may not have time for a full essay, but I wanted to alert people to set their DVRs for a NON-Pre Code movie. 

I Walked With A Zombie is a cool little horror movie produced by Val Lewton in 1943 and directed by Jacques Tourneur. Lewton described it as "Jane Eyre in the West Indies," but that jokey description conceals what the true horror examined in the film is: the lingering aftereffects of slavery on both the former owners and the former slaves. 

But it's also an atmospheric gothic tale with a strong heroine and no gore (under the Code, no gore was allowed anyway) that's well worth watching. Even horror movie chickens should be able to handle this one. 

CORRECTION! Airs Saturday Oct. 19 at 2:15 am ET / Friday Oct. 17at 11:15 pm PT. Enjoy!