I can’t believe I waited so long to create a list of essential Precodes. Looking at the most grounding breaking and entertaining of the era’s movies are something I think all people interested in Precode should do. I have done my best to try and condense all the films I have watched and enjoyed over the years into one list. I found, in creating the list, that several early 1930’s films I loved and could watch over and over, were probably not worthy of the name ‘essential’ despite my level of personal enjoyment. I first decided a list of 25 would be sufficient but could not decide on the films that should make up the limited number. As a compromise, I will make a list of 50 Essential Precodes. This is my first batch with the next one coming next week. The next half of the list is not finalised so any suggestions would be very welcome. Check out part 1 of my Essential Precodes:
1) Anna Christie (1930)
The much anticipated first speaking role for Greta Garbo, Anna Christie (1930) is an interesting drama about a young women haunted by her dishonourable past. It shows Anna (Garbo) trying to repent her sins and find a stable life for herself. This film is all about Garbo, her famous first lines and continued allure despite her perfect facial expressions being corrupted by speech.
2) Divorcee (1930)
A breakout film for Norma Shearer, who despite being a famous actor since the silent days, was typecasted in pure, ingénue roles before starring as the sexually liberated Jerry Martin. The film highlighted a double standard in society (which still exists today) which makes it acceptable for the husband to philander but not for his wife. Shearer appears as wife who discovers her husband (Chester Morris) is having an affair. After confronting her husband who proclaims that the relationship didn't "mean a thing", Jerry responds in-kind by sleeping with mutual friend Don (Robert Montgomery). Instead of behaving flippantly about Jerry's indiscretion, her husband demands a divorce. Outraged by the hypocrisy, Jerry responds by bedding as many men as she can get her hands on. A shocking film for its time and surprisingly relevant today, Divorcee (1930) is one of Precode's best.
3) Public Enemy (1931)
My favourite of the Precode gangster films, Public Enemy (1931), is a 360 degree view of Depression Era gangs who peddled liquor during prohibition. The movie shows the main character Tom (James Cagney) as sympathetic and human, featuring scenes of his hopeless childhood and close relationship to his mother. I couldn't help but like him, except of course for the famous grapefruit scene. It's easy to see why the censors hated this film. Tom is a criminal but likeable, dependable, relatable, skilled, the typical anti-hero.
4) Dracula (1931)
The first speaking version of Bram Stoker's novel, Dracula, depicting the bloodsucking vampire has become understandably a cult classic. The well-known story of Count Dracula and his attempts to turn Mina (Helen Chandler) into a vampire while avoiding the suspicion of Prof. Van Helsing. While the movie has little special effects, Bela Lugosi, doesn't need assistance with his creepy facial expressions and close-ups enough to scare most audience members. This film, like others, has been put on a pedestal and people generally watch it pretty high expectations. Just remember, filmmakers didn't have the technology they do now, I think they did a great job despite it.
5) A Free Soul (1931)
Another strikingly modern film starring the radiant Norma Shearer who seemed to rule the Pre-code era. Instead of portraying an extramarital affair, A Free Soul (1931) shows Shearer in a pre-marital sexual relationship with bad boy, gangster Clark Gable. The pair have no intension of tying the knot and Shearer has no qualms showing up unannounced and seducing Gable's character in - I must say - a dress that hides barely anything. The film is a testament to the changing societal attitudes and the power of Shearer. As well as being a great multidimensional plot and wonderful casting - including the performances of Lionel Barrymore and a young Leslie Howard, A Free Soul (1931) is surprisingly relevant and relatable today.
6) Trouble in Paradise (1932)
A sophisticated film, Trouble in Paradise (1932), is mostly known today due to the enduring reputation of director, Ernest Lubitsch. It is an entertaining, adult romantic comedy about a love triangle situation between Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis and Herbert Marshall. Hopkins and Marshall are thieves who fall in love and decide to join forces to rob a beautiful perfume company owner (Francis). The con falters when Marshall and Francis start to get too cosy. This film is a great example of the Precode era's propensity for creating truly adult and sophisticated content. Its subtle humour is also amazing.
7) Red Headed Woman (1932)
The Precode platinum blonde, Jean Harlow, made a style change to star as the title character in the shocking and emotional, Red Headed Woman (1932). Like the main character in Baby Face, Harlow stars as Lil, a woman who will do anything to be rich and become a part of high society. Of course, being Precode, 'anything' means using her body and unquestionable sexuality. This includes desperately seducing a variety of rich men, breaking up marriages and even murder. Plus, in open defiance to Will Hays, Harlow's character is never punished for her actions. Note: a warning to some viewers, there is a kind of disturbing domestic violence scene which at the same time is pretty 'Fifty Shades of Grey'.
8) I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
A crime/ drama film starring Paul Muni as a wrongfully convicted prisoner who becomes part of a brutal Southern chain gang. He quickly escapes to Chicago and attempts to make a success of himself but finds his past never leaves him. Based on the true story of convict Robert Elliott Burn who was himself a chain gang member before escaping and becoming a fugitive. The film is a must watch simply for its impact on Depression Era America. Shocked by the use of chain gangs and the abuses and ill treatment of criminals which, despite being largely fictional in the movie, were a staple of many state’s judicial systems, society rallied against the behaviour.
9) Scarface (1932)
A shocking early gangster film starring prolific and somewhat forgotten actor, Paul Muni, as crime boss, Tony, a thinly veiled characterisation of Al Capone. Scarface (1932) moves through Tony's journey from Italian immigrant to a leading member of a mafia gang to the head of a crime gang. The film is surprisingly violent especially as Tony sparks an all-in gang war filled with gun fights and massacres. Muni is commanding and brilliant.
10) Freaks (1932)
Despite the film’s title, Freaks (1932) is surprisingly sympathetic and positive to the 'freaks' it forefronts. The movie follows a range of characters who work as carnival sideshow performers. Most had never performed in feature films before and do a great job. Interestingly it is the 'normal' characters who are portrayed as villains; with the main plot of the film describing trapeze artists Cleopatra's (Olga Baclanova) scheme to seduce and marry little person, Hans (Harry Earles) just for his money. All the characters support Hans and fight against Cleopatra. As well as this story, other subplots show the 'freaks' as living ordinary lives by falling in love and having children. Due to the film’s title I waited years to watch it, but found it heart-warming and unbelievably modern despite the themes.
11) Call Her Savage (1932)
Clara Bow feature, Call Her Savage (1932), is full of elements which would have be staunchly banned just two years later. The film revolves around Nasa (Bow), a wild society woman who owes her rebellious and feisty nature to the fact that she is half white, half Native American Indian. Of course, her heritage is a dark secret with her mother cheating on Nasa's father with an Indian man resulting in her birth. Nasa rebels against her family, partying hard and marrying an abusive playboy. Despite learning the error of her ways, filmmakers ensure audiences get a long and shocking view of Nasa's debauched life from her party lifestyle and alcoholism to rape, pregnancy without marriage and prostitution. I don't care what anyone says, Precode Clara Bow is simply radiant.
12) Safe in Hell (1932)
Safe in Hell (1932) is an often overlooked Precode due to its lack of an enduring 'star'. The forgotten and very talented, Dorothy Mackaill, leads as the easy-going, nonchalant prostitute, Gilda, who fleas to a Caribbean island after she is accused of murdering her former pimp. While the audience is in no doubt of Gilda's profession, her boyfriend Carl (Donald Cook) doesn't seem to care and, not only helps her escape, but marries her on the island. Carl leaves the vulnerable Gilda on the island filled with criminals and all around dodgy dealers. Another look at the realistic consequences of the Great Depression, the film doesn't judge Gilda but is more sympathetic to her. Mackaill portrays her as basically a 'good woman' who faces impossible situations. A staple character in Precode.
13) Shanghai Express (1932)
A stunning film starring the even more radiant, Marlene Dietrich, as international courtesan Shanghai Lily who, alongside fellow prostitute Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), becomes embroiled in the activities of fellow passengers on an express train to Shanghai during the Chinese civil war. This film is all about the beauty of Dietrich whose incredible bone structure is perfectly lite by the talents of director, Josef von Sternberg. Sternberg also focuses on his location with the scenes of the dank and shadowy train extremely eerie and mysterious.
14) Jewel Robbery (1932)
A hilarious film not just because of the great performances from stars, William Powell and Kay Francis, but the use of marijuana to lighten the mood. Francis plays a bored and rich Countess who falls for a charming thief (Powell) while he is stealing from her. The Countess' desire for excitement entirely trumps her love for material objects. Powell and Francis are brilliant together with Powell trying to resist all her attempts to seduce him. Plus, Powell's use of drugs to subdue his victims and the police force is strangely entertaining.
15) Grand Hotel (1932)
One of the first big budget, full length ensemble films to be released by a major studio, Grand Hotel (1932), was a massive hit with audiences. A multi-plot story, it resolves around patrons of The Grand Hotel in Berlin including a wealthy industrialist's (Wallace Beery) attempts to seduce his stenographer (Joan Crawford), the weird relationship between a Russian ballerina (Greta Garbo) and a thieving Baron (John Barrymore) and the final days of a dying accountant (Lionel Barrymore). The film is remarkably modern and mature both with its script and production. Well worth a watch.
16) Baby Face (1933)
My first choice for people wanting a taste of Precode Hollywood. Baby Face, starring the unstoppable Barbara Stanwyck, has it all. Basically, it is about a young, attractive woman (Stanwyck) who - determined to rid herself of her drunken father who forced her into prostitution since she was 14 - uses any means necessary to become rich. The film leaves little to the imagination with Stanwyck sleeping her way to the top of a large firm. It's surprising shocking and sleazy for such an early film with several references to Friedrich Nietzsche's ideology on exploitation adding to its impact on modern audiences.
17) Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
My favourite Precode musical, Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), has that great combination of entertaining and visually appealing musical numbers, great array of characters, romance and a bit of comedy on the side. Starring Warren William, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Dick Powell and Guy Kibbee as characters who - for one reason or another - have become embroiled in the lower end of the show business. In addition to a decent plot, the films main attraction is the amazing and innovative choreography from Busby Berkeley who uses the scantily clad, and sometimes actually naked, troupe of showgirls in mind-bending routines. A must watch even just to experience Berkeley's genius!
18) King Kong (1933)
A classic film that most people have either seen or heard about. The plot is pretty straightforward about a gigantic ape who temporarily stops tormenting African villagers to pursue beautiful woman, Ann (Fay Wray). Despite its age, the film, with its early special affects is extremely watchable today. Plus as the star and Kong's idol, Wray is radiant, accomplished and made for the role. Need I say more?
19) The Story of Temple Drake (1933)
One of the most disturbing films from the Precode era which many credit for the introduction of the enforced Hays Code. Miriam Hopkins plays Temple Drake, a Southern society woman who is rapped by gang leader Trigger (Jack La Rue). She then becomes something between a lover and a forced sex slave. The film includes some controversial and harrowing scenes and themes not to mention a pretty shocking rape scene. It is another example of Precode filmmaker’s efforts at realism.
20) Employee's Entrance (1933)
Starring probably my favourite actor from the early 30's, Warren William, as a ruthless, emotionless department store general manager who employees his business tactics to seduce a vulnerable female employee (Loretta Young). The movie is all about the cynicism and hopelessness of Depression Era society. Due to widespread poverty and unemployment, there is an incredible power imbalance between the boss and their workers which ultimately leads to exploitation. It is another powerful and emotional Precode film. I note that Young has never looked better and the dumb-blonde Alice White is even more enchanting.
21) I'm No Angel (1933)
Anyone who hasn't seen a Mae West film is definitely missing out! With her best feature, I'm No Angel, also one of Precode's best and, interestingly, one of the most profitable films of the era. West stars as circus performer, Tira, who spends her time navigating through the men in her life and controlling the lions in her circus act. With West the primary author of the script, all men find Tira irresistible as do most woman - except for a few 'jealous' types. West is incredible in this movie, shimmying and purring through the scenes with ease. My favourite scenes include Tira representing herself in a 'breach of promise' lawsuit where she effortlessly seduces the judge and the entire jury. Another interesting element is Tira's relationship with her black maids. They are her equals and have a pretty large part in the film compared to others of the period.
22) Female (1933)
As the title suggests, Female (1933) is all about empowering women. Another overlooked talent, Ruth Chatterton, stars as the owner of an automobile company who is intent on running the firm with a no-nonsense and emotionless attitude. She uses the same philosophy when it comes to her sex life; finding, using and discarding a string of her male employees. Her methods for seduction - vodka, pillows and blunt talking prove effective on most men except for employee Jim Thorne (George Brent) who prefers a more submissive woman. Female (1933) is a surprisingly modern film which, instead of telling women to be either career or motherhood orientated, says she can be both.
23) Design for Living (1933)
One of my favourite films just for the taboo subject matter, Design for Living (1933) tackles a forbidden topic - open relationships and ménage-a-trois! Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March and Gary Cooper star as the bohemian threesome who try to work as a three-cornered relationship. Of course, they first agree there would be no sex between the couples but that 'gentlemen's agreement' doesn't last long. Despite the shocking themes, this movie is a comedy with the almost inseparable March and Cooper providing a lot of the laughs. I can't help but be jealous of Hopkins having to choose between the pair.
24) Hips, Hips, Hooray (1934)
I couldn't have a list of Precode films without mentioning one starring comedy duo, Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. My favourite of their movies Hips, Hips, Hooray (1934) has to be seen to be believed with the amount of almost naked showgirls, sexual innuendo and excruciatingly funny shenanigans the pair get themselves into. The plot to this film doesn't really matter, just make sure to keep your eyes open for the shocking costumes and ears open for the nutty jokes.
25) Thin Man (1934)
A hilarious, entertaining and sophisticated comedy masquerading as a mystery film, Thin Man (1934) is a credit to its stars, William Powell and Myrna Loy, who are incredibly natural together. For a time I believed the pair must have been married in real life. For me solving the murder of the 'thin man' takes a back foot to the entertaining love-hate relationship between married couple Powell and Loy and the antics of their inquisitive dog, Asta. Despite being married, there is amazing sexual tension between the pair and Loy is a definite incarnation of the perfect wife. A great kind of saucy early screwball comedy for lovers of Post-code comedies.