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.