Dec 30, 2009
Pre-Code Hollywood

The picture is from a scene in Murder at the Vanities. This is one of a series of pre-Code films made between 1930 and 1934 before the motion picture production code went into effect. The marks on the lovely lady’s shoulder are blood from the victim on the catwalk above her.

The Cheat—This is a remake of the 1915 de Mille film of the same name. In the original the villain was played by Sessue Hayakawa (the colonel in The Bridge on the River Kwai), here he’s played by Irving Pichel. In both cases a woman embezzles money from a charity, and is compelled to cover it up by borrowing money. In the original Hayakawa plays a Japanese character, while in the remake Pichel is an Orientalist. The woman’s husband is accused of shooting the villain, and the woman saves him. It should be noted that both films have a scene where the woman is branded. This may be a bit intense for some viewers.

Merrily We Go to Hell—Frederick March plays an alcoholic reporter. The film deals with alcoholism and open marriage in a serious way, and shows the consequences of both.

Hot Saturday—A woman spends time with a man who has a bad reputation. Nothing happens to her, but it ruins her reputation. Cary Grant and Randolph Scott star.

The Torch Singer—Claudette Colbert plays a singer who has an illegitimate child. She has to give the child up for adoption when she is unable to support her, and becomes a torch singer in a nightclub under another name. She is referred to a couple of times as a “notorious torch singer.” It’s not clear to me whether there was social opprobrium attached to being a torch singer, which I think of as singing a type of music, or whether the notoriety was because she sang in a nightclub and led a fast life. She winds up looking for her daughter. Since it was the ‘30s, there is a happy ending. Colbert sings a song with the refrain “give me liberty or give me love.” Very torchy.

Murder at the Vanities—It took me a long while to realize that I like musicals. This is a murder mystery that is set during the opening performance of a musical revue called The Vanities. This serves as an excuse to show lots of girls in skimpy costumes, and to serve up some musical numbers, including the notorious Sweet Marijuana number. The plot is risible, but the girls are lovely, and the music includes Duke Ellington, so how can you miss this one?

Search for Beauty—How to have your cake and eat it when it comes to soft-core pornography. The movie itself is not pornographic, but it deals with how some magazines and some movies managed to skirt censorship during the days when the Comstock Act was enforced. A conman and conwoman get out of prison, and take over a defunct fitness magazine. They get two Olympic athletes, played by Buster Crabbe and Ida Lupino, to sign on as editors. Since the magazine is devoted to health and fitness this gives the conmen an opportunity to have athletic bodies on display in various states of undress. They also add true confession type articles, such as “I Loved an Artist” to the magazine. The articles are passed by a censorship board, but some recognize that the articles are 99% lust and 1% morality. Thirty some years later the Supreme Court would rule that movies could get away with just about anything as long as there was some kind of artistic merit or pretense to social relevance. This would be spoofed in some outright pornography, and it is anticipated here.