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Friday Night Spotlight - Classic Pre-Code
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Classic Pre-Code

Pre-Code Hollywood is generally considered to be the era in the American film industry between the introduction of sound in the late 1920s and the strict enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code beginning in the mid-1930s. Films of this period included unflinching portrayals of such subject matter as sexuality, prostitution, illegal drug use, abortion and extreme violence. Without the interference of censors, law-breakers in the movies were often allowed to profit from their schemes, and fallen women became the heroines of many films. Gangster films were popular, and their protagonists were viewed with some sympathy despite their law-breaking ways.

In a continuation of its popular "Friday Night Spotlight" franchise, TCM shines a light on this free-wheeling cinematic period, presenting a weekly 24-hour festival of pre-Code movies. Each Friday in September, Alec Baldwin and TCM host Robert Osborne will introduce the films airing in primetime. The collection, which includes a total of 67 movies, covers a wide range of genres and represents the output of all the major Hollywood studios of the era.

The freedom and daring of the period provided opportunities for performers who embraced the racy pre-Code themes. Barbara Stanwyck boldly carved out a career as an independent, sensuous woman of the times in many films including Illicit (1931), Night Nurse (1931), Ladies They Talk About (1933) and, especially, Baby Face (1933), in which she plays a ruthless young beauty who uses sex to get ahead, literally sleeping her way to the top - the highest floor of the bank where she works!

Mae West's naughtiest double-entendres in such movies as I'm No Angel and She Done Him Wrong (both 1933, and both featuring Cary Grant) could only have survived in the pre-Code era. Jean Harlow, she of the platinum-blonde hair and revealing costumes, also took advantage of the open sexuality to become a sensation in such vehicles as Red Dust (1932), Red-Headed Woman (1932), Three Wise Girls (1932) and Bombshell (1933).

Although not closely associated with the sensuousness of the period, Bette Davis made her share of hard-hitting pre-Code Warner Bros. dramas that reflected Pre-Code frankness; among these were Ex-Lady (1933), Parachute Jumper (1933) and The Big Shakedown (1934). Another Warners player, Joan Blondell, specialized in playing loose-living "floozies" and was kept busy in such films as Three on a Match (1932), Union Depot (1932), Blonde Crazy (1931) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). Another down-to-earth type, Mae Clarke, starred in Waterloo Bridge (1931), Parole Girl (1933), Lady Killer (1933) and Penthouse (1933).

Meanwhile, Norma Shearer held forth at MGM in such racy stories as The Divorcee (1930), for which she won an Academy Award as Best Actress, and A Free Soul (1931), which brought an Oscar to costar Lionel Barrymore. Miriam Hopkins starred in such sophisticated and risqué vehicles as Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Design for Living (1933, based on the Noel Coward play), along with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931, with Oscar-winning Fredric March in the title roles) and The Story of Temple Drake (1933). Ruth Chatterton appeared in Frisco Jenny (1932) and Female (1933), while clotheshorse Kay Francis was the star of For the Defense (1930), Jewel Robbery (1932) and Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933). Ann Harding was featured in When Ladies Meet and Double Harness (both 1933).

The normally demure Loretta Young is a surprising name to find in so many notable pre-Code films - but she usually played an innocent young woman forced to deal with various forms of debauchery. Her films in the festival include Loose Ankles (1930), The Hatchet Man (1932), They Call It Sin (1932), She Had to Say Yes (1933), Heroes for Sale (1933), Midnight Mary (1933), Skyscraper Souls (1932) and Employees' Entrance (1933).

In the latter two films Young was teamed with Warren William, the male actor who may have benefited most from the indulgent nature of the time with his creation of a gallery of unrepentant villains and anti-heroes. Known as the "King of Pre-Code," William starred in such other films as Beauty and the Boss (1932) and The Mind Reader (1933). The leading "gangster" stars of the period, Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar, 1931), James Cagney (The Public Enemy, 1931) and Paul Muni (Scarface, 1932) gained heroic stature in the eyes of the public while filling their crime melodramas with realistic grit and violence. Robinson's non-gangster pre-Codes included The Hatchet Man (1932), Two Seconds (1932) and The Little Giant (1933); among Cagney's were Other Men's Women (1931), Footlight Parade (1933) and Taxi! (1932).

An important director of the period was William Wellman, who favored dramas of social consciousness such as Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and Safe in Hell (1931). Wellman also directed pre-Code showcases of Barbara Stanwyck, Loretta Young, Edward G. Robinson and other stars. Tod Browning's Freaks (1932), featuring actual sideshow performers, was one of the genuine shockers of the era. Josef von Sternberg directed Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus (1932), the steamy story of a cabaret singer who goes to great lengths to protect her family. At MGM, studio director Clarence Brown put Joan Crawford through her paces in Possessed (1931), in which she's a small-town girl who becomes the mistress of a wealthy attorney (Clark Gable).

The Pre-Code lineup includes two TCM premieres: the drama Call Her Savage (1932) starring Clara Bow, and the musical Search for Beauty (1934) starring Ida Lupino. Other films in the series include The Naughty Flirt (1931) with Myrna Loy in a supporting role, Hot Saturday (1932) starring Cary Grant, Virtue (1932) starring Carole Lombard, State's Attorney (1932) starring John Barrymore, Downstairs (1932) starring John Gilbert and The Age of Consent (1932) with Dorothy Wilson. Also screening is Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood (2008), a documentary by Jota Pego in which filmmakers, historians and other commentators discuss the cultural, political, economic and religious implications of the era.

By Roger Fristoe
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