I thought I would mix things up a little bit this month. Each week I will be a post that’s a top ten list. Each will be essentials of some kind. Some will be specific to genres, directors, topics, etc. To start things off, I’m writing about a topic near and dear to my classic film loving heart: pre-code movies. Before censorship laws took hold, Hollywood made some pretty daring movies. Here are the top ten essential pre-code movies every classic film fan should see.
1. Baby Face (1933)
The definitive pre-code movie to me is Baby Face. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, one of the most versatile actresses in classic Hollywood, it’s story seems racy even today. Stanwyck plays Lilly Powers, a woman who has been sexual exploited her whole life by her father. Powers gets fed up and finally tells her father off. Then she decides to turn the tables by exploiting men in the same way. She sleeps her way to the top of a New York City bank, Films that frank about sexuality rarely get made today. Back in the 30s it blew people’s minds, but was also highly controversial. In its initial release, several US cities banned it for its sexual innuendo. According to IMDB, the uncensored version of the film was not seen until 2004 at the London Film Festival.
2. The Public Enemy (1931)
One of the staples of the pre-code era was gangster films. And one actor who excelled at playing tough gangsters was James Cagney. A song and dance man at heart, Cagney had an amazing ability to turn on a dime and go from pleasant to white hot rage. A case in point is Cagney’s portrayal of gangster Tom Powers in The Public Enemy. It follows the exploits of Powers as a rises as a figure in the Chicago underworld during the prohibition era. What sets The Public Enemy apart from other films of its kind (besides Cagney’s brilliant performance) is how unflinching it is in its portrayal of onscreen violence. It may look tame today because it’s in black and white. But it was shocking for its time. Along with Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932), The Public Enemy is an essential pre-code crime movie.
3. King Kong (1933)
King Kong has had remakes and sequels made since its release in 1933. While many of them have more advanced special effects, there’s a real charm to the original. King Kong himself feels very lifelike considering the film was made before advanced CGI and animatronics. The imagination to create not just Kong himself, but the stop motion dinosaurs and other creatures on Skull Island are impressive even today. King Kong set the stage for every creature feature that followed, including Godzilla and all its knockoffs.
4. All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)
There have been so many war movies made over the years that it’s hard to pick just one. But, for my money, the best war movie ever made is All Quiet On The Western Front. One of the reasons it reigns supreme in my eyes is how unflinchingly honest it is about war, especially its futility. It follows a group of German school boys talked into volunteering to fight in World War I. This isn’t a war film with glamorous heroics and a battalion of colorful characters. Its a sobering look at how going through combat changes, and in this case, disillusions them to the cause. It was bold in 1930 and it’s plenty bold in 2019,
5. Freaks (1932)
Tod Browning may be best known for directing Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931). But he made another horror film in the pre-code era that has become a definitive cult classic. That movie is Freaks. Following the backstage drama of a circus troupe, especially a sideshow performer and his gold digging lover, Freaks showed audiences kinds of people rarely seen before: people with arms and legs, bearded ladies, etc. While the film was released in 1932, it was banned in the UK until 1963.
6. Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
Musicals that were about the backstage process of making musicals were a big part of the pre-code era. One of the best of all of them is Gold Diggers of 1933. Chorus girls Carol (Joan Blondell), Polly (Ruby Keeler) and Trixie (Aline MacMahon) learn that Barney (Ned Sparks) is putting on a Broadway show. While Barney claims he has parts for all of them, the trouble is he doesn’t have the money to put the show on. He lucks out when his neighbor, Brad Roberts (Dick Powell) signs on to write some of the songs. Brad comes from a wealthy family. Through screwball comedy circumstances, Brad ends up being in the show after initially refusing to perform. His wealthy family objects, and threatens to cut off his money. Gold Diggers of 1933 is a great time capsule of the type of movies audiences flocked to during the Great Depression. The best part of the movie is a musical called Remember My Forgotten Man, a stirring salute to soldiers struggling when they came back home. The movie is one of the many great movies of choreographer Busby Berkeley. Shadow Waltz in particular is one of his greatest numbers.
7. The Divorcee (1930)
Norma Shearer is a name far too few people know today outside of those who are classic film devotees. While my favorite film of hers is The Women (1939), she also made a film that was ahead of its time way back in 1930. In The Divorcee, Shearer plays Jerry. When Jerry discovers that husband Ted (Chester Morris) has been unfaithful to her, she responds by having an affair herself. The Divorcee tackled the taboo subject of infidelity in a very adult way. And the risk of the making the movie paid off when Shearer won an Oscar for Best Actress.
8. The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
The Most Dangerous Game is a really involving thriller that deserves a wider audience. When passengers on a luxury cabin cruiser become shipwrecked on a remote island, they start disappearing one by one. It turns out the seemingly benign island resident, Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), is not all that he seems. Turns out he’s a big game hunter. Except the big game he likes to hunt is humans. Bob (Joel McCrea) and Eve (Fay Wray) are the last surviving passengers. The movie follows their desperate fight for survival. It’s a real nail biter that will have you on the edge of your seat.
9. She Done Him Wrong (1933)
Mae West was a woman ahead of her time. A woman who was never afraid of being frank about her sexuality, West exuded charisma and was right and home in pre-code comedies. One of her best was She Done Him Wrong, where she plays nightclub owner Lady Lou. She has men suitors, including a vicious criminal who is coming back to see her, not realizing she hasn’t exactly been faithful to him. In to help her deal with the problem is temperance league leader Captain Cummings (Cary Grant). I love Cary Grant in any genre. But my favorite Cary Grant is screwball comedy Cary Grant. He and West are magnificent together in this movie. It’s amazing how some of the racy jokes got by in 1933,
10. Duck Soup (1933)
The Marx Brothers remain one of the greatest comedy acts of all time. And they appeared in a definitive pre-code comedy called Duck Soup. What makes this a great movie isn’t just the usual Marx Brothers formula of one-liners from Groucho, the physical comedy of Harpo, etc. What makes this a standout in their series of comedies is what a biting political satire it is. Groucho plays Freedonia president Rufus T. Firefly. The country is headed for financial ruin. Neighboring country Sylvania is plotting to overthrow Freedonia. Duck Soup takes aim at everything that frustrates us about government and politics. It’s sharp, funny and feels all too relevant in 2019.