New DVDs: Pre-Code Paramount

hot-saturday

It’s immensely gratifying to see Universal Studios Home Entertainment stepping up to the plate with their new “Pre-Code Hollywood Collection.” Finally, the studio seems to be digging below the surface of one of the richest libraries in the industry, going beyond star-driven (or even director-driven) anthologies to gather some lesser-known work that has not been available (over the counter, at least) since MCA-TV shut down their television and non-theatrical divisions decades ago. This new collection includes superbly mastered editions of six pre-code films, only one of which, Mitchell Leisen’s “Murder at the Vanities” (1934) has much of a reputation. William A. Seiter’s “Hot Saturday” (1932) is a particularly rich and iconoclastic work by an underrated filmmaker whose career offers many points of comparison to Leo McCarey; Erle C. Kenton’s “Search for Beauty” (1934) is a fascinatingly idiosyncratic work that features an extensive and seemingly anachronistic use of zooms and extreme wide-angle lenses, as well as a wavering tone that manages to be both bitterly cynical and cheerfully proto-fascist. Also included are “The Cheat,” George Abbott’s theatrical 1931 remake of the scandalous Cecil B. De Mille hit of 1915; Dorothy Arzner’s oppressive tale of alcoholic devastation “Merrily We Go to Hell” (1932) and “Torch Singer” (1933), a story of show business, booze and unwed motherhood (waveringly directed by Alexander Hall and George Somnes) that seems to anticipate Susan Hayward’s entire career. More details in the New York Times.

119 comments to New DVDs: Pre-Code Paramount

  • skelly

    Speaking of pre-code, fast moving. lots of plot and 3 act structure – just watched Borzage’s SECRETS (1933 version) which aired on TCM last week. Can’t recall a film that was so clearly segmented into 3 acts – almost like 3 seperate films. Doesn’t really work but was surprised with the “Western” section (the middle portion) which was the best – never associated Borzage with horse buckles.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    I am not surprised that young people today may have some problems with the way actors spoke in films made sixty or seventy years ago. If people in the thirties or forties had been able to hear how people spoke (either on stage or in real life)around 1850 they would also have been surprised. Styles change constantly and the way people speak does to. For example a whole generation of young American women speak very fast in a highly nasal tone and with inflexions and mannerisms that didn’t exist at all thirty years ago. I’m sure most of them are not even aware of that change (if you try to talk to them about it they don’t seem to understand what you’re talking about)– their way of speaking is the norm to them, they start picking up that way of speaking at a very young age.

  • Johan Andreasson

    I got a big kick out of watching the Will Rogers movies from the early thirties in the Ford At Fox box. This was an actor that was totally unfamiliar to me, and his slow, improvisational way of talking, which I guess was meant to sound old fashioned, now sounded much more modern than the actors surrounding him.

  • There’s a difference between MTV editing (fast and redundant) and MTV pacing (slow and redundant). When a filmmaker like Michael Mann or Tony Scott uses five or six shots to cover an action that Hawks or Walsh would have covered in one, they’re dragging out the scene, not compressing it. Wellman’s “The Public Enemy” runs 83 minutes; does anyone doubt that Mann’s “Public Enemies” will run approximately twice as long?

  • Dave wrote: “Wellman’s “The Public Enemy” runs 83 minutes; does anyone doubt that Mann’s “Public Enemies” will run approximately twice as long?”

    Well, he has changed the title from singular to plural, so maybe that gives him the right to go twice as long ??

  • Of course, Adrian — and I’m sure it will be twice as good!

  • James L. Neibaur

    It is too pat to state that we should take for granted young people will naturally not be able to respond to, or properly absorb, the fast-talk and particular slang of 30s films. We all saw those films as young people, and they were very old movies then, nobody spoke like that in our day, but still we were able to appreciate them.

    I have the same experience as Alex, in that students I have taught will have trouble keeping up with the pace of a film where the dialog moves too quickly and dispenses with as much smart wit. It doesn’t have to be the 30s, as they would have the same problem with, say, One Two Three (1961). They respond very well to the physical comedy of Buster Keaton, and have no problem with the pathos of Chaplin, but fast-paced dialog humor in the style of Ben Hecht or The Marx Brothers leaves them confused.

  • jbryant

    I’m sure that one big problem for young folks trying to follow dialogue humor in classic films is the unfamiliarity of the references. Lots of slang and other then-contemporary references might as well be Latin to young ears. But this was true even when I was discovering this stuff in the 70s. Somehow I got most of it, in context. If I didn’t understand something, I’d look it up.

  • nicolas saada

    how about this “3 acts” thing ? Wouldn’t you say that breaking a film in acts is almost contemporary to the arrival of television and commercial breaks ? I am convinced it’s linked to that. And it’s truer of American films than european films. Commercial breaks did not appear on Europen television before the seventies-eighties. And you can’t break a Truffaur, a Bergman or even a Powell film in acts. They seem completely independant from this culture. It’s really strange. I mean Hollywood films before television are, as we said here, too fats paced, too compact, to even fall into the “break it into acts” routine. When tv arrives, films has to become more important : you have
    1) the “intermission” in big scale films
    2) the “break into acts” culture.
    Interestingly enough, the only film genre to use the “acts” structure before television is the serial, which, as we know was designed as 5 or even 8 hours films broken into “miniseries”, a format later used by television.
    I would add to this that today’s Hollywood blockbusters are mmore “episodes” structured, than “acts” structured. Every scene in Iron Man is built like the teaser of the following scene and the “summary” of the previous one, as in tv shows like 24. I am sure we could all comment on this particular phenomenon.

  • Michael Dempsey

    “The three-act thing” is, like “fish out of water,” “character arc,” “likeability,” “paying off the character,” and other cliches of this kind too numerous to mention, is one more piece of phony Hollywood gospel intended to reduce movie-making to a formulaic enterprise that will yield only massive hits.

    Bertrand Tavernier, in particular, has railed eloquently against this apparently unkillable stupidity in several interviews.

  • jbryant

    I didn’t mean to start a whole debate on “the three-act thing,” which does indeed seem to be a Hollywood construct. And I should’ve qualified my statement about “most” post-30s films seeming to have a 30- page first act. I meant most Hollywood studio films of that era. Of course I’m generalizing and my comment isn’t based on research with a stopwatch or anything. Let’s just say that among films that use a three-act structure, the first acts are shorter than they used to be. I only brought it up as a related point regarding the evolution of pacing in film.

  • Barry Putterman

    Good Gravy! Take a break for a weekend and all hell breaks loose. Now we’re not even sure whether there WAS a pre Code era.

    Well, “pre code” like “Film Noir” or any other shorthand term is useful up to a point but only tells a certain part of the story. Mike’s point about the mutually exclusive approaches is very well taken. All four are needed for serious comprehension. Still, look at women’s costuming in 1933 and then again in 1935 and tell me nothing changed. As for SHANGHAI GESTURE, the lead character had to have her named changed from Mother Goddam to Mother Gin Sling. THAT code is what we’re talking about.

    Hollywood pacing changed in the 40s when a greater distinction began being made between and A and a B film and fewer films were being made due to World War II. Television re-enforced that in the 50s.

    Hollywood studios have been trying to reduce filmmaking to a commercial science since the 10s and those who make the movies have been trying to artistically deal with it ever since. That’s how auteaurism was born.

  • Shawn Stone

    “Still, look at women’s costuming in 1933 and then again in 1935 and tell me nothing changed.”

    Barry,

    It can be summed up with two films: GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 and GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935.

  • Barry Putterman

    Right on the button Shawn!

  • skelly

    Senses of Cinema article aside, I certainly wouldn’t want to debate that the content (or wardrobe) of Hollywood films post-code was just as racy or salacious or whatever, but I think the other elements that other commentators here have suggested that they appreciate about pre-code films – their economy, pace, looseness of structure or lack of adherence to what may seem like storytelling rules/formula were retained for a number of years post-code. Narrative style evolved more slowly as influenced by other factors (like tv as nicolas saada noted). The narrative pace and style of 1935 films like HANDS ACCROSS THE TABLE, ALICE ADAMS, PETER IBBETSON, THE DEVIL IS IS A WOMAN, RUGGLES OF RED GAP, SYLVIA SCARLET, STRANDED, IF ONLY YOU COULD COOK, THE GOOD FAIRY (to cite some I’ve seen) doesn’t seem much different than similar 1932 or 33 efforts. Of course content wise – Hepburn in ALICE ADAMS is no Stanwyck in BABY FACE or Dunne in MAGNFICIENT OBESSION is no Harlow in RED HEADED WOMAN – different stories were being told.

  • Tommy Kelly

    Not one comment on Miriam Hopkins mentions the 1931 film 24 Hours (Paramount) also Kay Francis. Hopkins is a torch singer and sings two songs – - loved one of them. Must be seen to be appreciated by today’s fans of pre-code films. She is murdered in the film while her automatic phonograph plays a 1931 hit “Out Of Nowhere” Terrific movie. Wish they would put it on DVD.

  • Shawn Stone

    Yes, 24 HOURS is a solid crime/love triangle film. Hopkins is the lower-class mistress, Francis the icy wife of Clive Brook. That would be good for another pre-code set.

  • jbryant

    Speaking of Pre-Code films with murder involving Kay Francis and a phonograph (but not Miriam Hopkins), I’ve always liked Van Dyke’s “Guilty Hands,” a fun little mystery with Lionel Barrymore as a lawyer who puts to the test his own theory that murder can be justifiable. When he learns that his loving daughter is engaged to his most immoral client, Barrymore decides to use his knowledge of the law to commit the perfect murder and make it look like suicide.

    Van Dyke shoots the opening scene in a particularly interesting way: it’s almost completely dark, but we hear Barrymore and some other men discussing his justifiable homicide theory. The scene brightens briefly when one man lights a cigarette, but we still don’t have our bearings. Then the lights come up full and we see that we’re on a train that has just come through a tunnel. Cool effect, and there are some other good shots along the way to an absurd but smashingly effective climax.

  • Alex

    One thumb up for “The Story of Temple Drake,” a visually and dramatically gripping films, despite its consisttently too-theatrical and otherwise wildly variable perfomances. Jack Le Rues deadpaning is more than offet by Miriam Hopkins in one of her best dramatic performances, I’m not sure it isn’t better than all other Faulkner adaptions except “Tarnished Angels” and “Intruder in the Dust.”