The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

An ongoing survey of the Criterion Forum membership to create lists of the best films of each decade and genre.
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domino harvey
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The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#1 Post by domino harvey » Thu Oct 04, 2018 2:20 pm

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THE PRE-CODE HOLLYWOOD (1927-1934) MINI-LIST
OCTOBER 16 - DECEMBER 13 2018

All lists should be submitted to me, domino harvey, via PM no later than December 13th


No lists will be accepted prior to October 16th
Your list should contain a minimum ten films in ranked order on list, and a maximum of twenty films
You may submit a list with any number between 10-20

ELIGIBILITY
All sound American films made up until the actual enforcement of the Hays Code in 1934 are eligible. Films of any length are eligible. Films may or may not contain salacious material that would run afoul of the Production Code, as naughtiness is not really a measurable metric for the purposes of this list. However, the spirit of the list should lead you towards movies that have a "Pre-Code ethos" to them, whatever the hell that means!

FORUM RESOURCES
Hollywood Pre-Code Films

the Alternate Oscars: Best Picture (1927-1968)
the Animal Kingdom
Blonde Venus
Busby Berkeley Collections
Carole Lombard
the Cecil B DeMille Collection
Design for Living
the Eagle and the Hawk
Eclipse Series 8: Lubitsch Musicals
Gangsters Collection
the Greta Garbo Signature Collection
Howard Hawks
Island of Lost Souls (Criterion)
Island of Lost Souls (MoC)
Island of Lost Souls (Spanish)
Josef von Sternberg
King of Jazz
the Last Flight
Libeled Lady
Marlene Dietrich 18 DVD Collection
Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, and Carole Lombard Collections
the Marx Brothers
Murnau, Borzage, and Fox
the Musicals List Discussion and Suggestions
Night Flight
1930s List Discussion and Suggestions (2.0)
the Scarlet Empress
Screen Goddesses Collection: Marlene Dietrich
the Story of Temple Drake
Street Scene
Sternberg and Dietrich in R2
Sternberg Dietrichs in different regions
TCM Archives: Forbidden Hollywood Collections
TCM Vault Collection
Thirteen Women
Trouble in Paradise (Criterion)
Trouble in Paradise (MoC)
Universal Backlot Series
Unreleased Warner Bros Titles
Upcoming Movies on TV (UK)
Vintage Film Buff
Warner Brothers Archive Collection
Warner Classic Comedies Collection
William A Wellman
William Dieterle

EXTERNAL LINKS
All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!
DVD Beaver's Pre-Code DVD Guide (Outdated/Incomplete)
Pre-Coded Messages

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domino harvey
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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#2 Post by domino harvey » Wed Oct 24, 2018 10:54 pm

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Good Dame (Marion Gering 1934)

Sylvia Sidney’s chorine gets her purse stolen at a carnival while watching Frederic March’s 3-Card Monte game. Turns out March’s pal is the one who boosted her bag and this is just the beginning of a speedy series of downbeat notes delivered with surprising lightness and a deft touch. Imagine if Lilja 4-Ever was a romantic comedy and you’d be in the ballpark of this cynical and smart film. Sidney’s character is quasi-virginal: she’s untouched in the heart, but not necessarily elsewhere. Yet March’s nogoodnik lights something inside her, and despite his best efforts to deny it, likewise. The film has lots of slang-heavy bon mots that makes it a delight to just listen to, and the film eventually pivots into being quite a sweet romance— no small feat after a scene in which March appears to rape Sidney. Her behavior the morning after is, I believe, further evidence that he did, and yet somehow the film pulls off the unthinkable by making this a loving pairing— perhaps the ambiguity allows one to go along with this. There’s a wonderful scene in which the two play house inside a fancy apartment that neither would ever be able to afford; they share an invisible meal, marvel at a dumbwaiter, and March, with the enthusiasm of a child, is stunned to learn that a bed can be more than just a “flop” in a fleabag hotel. It’s a great scene, and proof that often the most credible romantic comedies are made by the most cynical minds! Highly recommended.

+++++

So. This thread’s been open for over a week and no one’s posted anything. Perhaps no one was aware I'd unlocked it. BUT let’s get this rolling, shall we?

Good Dame inadvertently ended up being the perfect film to watch first for this project because it is nce and filthy at times— my favorite “Pre-Code moment” being when a cooch dancer is called before a judge and told she must either pay $50 or go to jail for six months. Her response? “Judge, let me go for an hour and I’ll earn $50!” Love it!

Ostensibly any Hollywood film made in the years covered by this Mini-List is eligible, but for my own list, I will be weighing the quality of the film with the freedoms it exercises. Not necessarily vulgarity, but I think all of the films I choose will need something that distinguishes them from what the studios could crank out a few years after. What metrics will YOU be using to make your list? Any good suggestions? What’s a lock for your list?

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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#3 Post by knives » Wed Oct 24, 2018 11:03 pm

Definitely was ignorant that this was already open. I think, to differentiate this from the other list I'll probably do something similar to you with the films having something that feels precode whether that be in terms of content or themes (there's plenty of topics that wouldn't fly later on).

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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#4 Post by Rayon Vert » Wed Oct 24, 2018 11:07 pm

Hadn't noticed either.

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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#5 Post by Feego » Thu Oct 25, 2018 11:01 am

I don’t think I’ll be watching much in the next couple of months expressly for this list, but here are a few notes I made for pre-coders watched and re-watched throughout the year.

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Night After Night (1932, Archie Mayo)
This film is mostly noted today for being Mae West’s first movie, although she only has a supporting role. George Raft plays the lead as a gangster running a swanky speakeasy while trying to affect class and culture in order to hang with the upper crust and impress socialite Constance Cummings. This is all fairly bland, but where the movie comes alive is in the social milieu depicted in the speakeasy, with lots of great character turns. Wynne Gibson plays a jealous hussy constantly giving Raft trouble, and Roscoe Karns is Raft’s devoted butler/partner in crime who has to deal with her. Best of all is Mae West, who absolutely steals the film as good-time-gal Maudie, for whom goodness had nothing to do with her diamonds. From the moment she sashays in, it’s clear that she is a STAR. In her debut role, West firmly establishes the persona she would be known for, from her irreverent one-liners to her motherly nurturing of outcasts. The relationship she starts up with Raft’s prim grammar coach Alison Skipworth is pure pre-code delight, with Skipworth eventually kicking off her heels (and quite a bit more) and the two women, no joke, ending up in bed together! Back to the main story, I was actually surprised that this doesn’t go the way of other gangster pictures of the era and essentially condones Raft’s lifestyle, or at least does not actively condemn him. In other news, Raft flashes a little booty as he steps into the bathtub (above).

She Done Him Wrong (1933, Lowell Sherman)
For a film that's barely over an hour long, there's a lot going on storywise, and unfortunately it all becomes pretty muddled. Cary Grant plays the mannequin West invites to come up some time and see her, and she mentally undresses smoldering Gilbert Roland more than once. There's also a brief cat fight between West and Rafaela Ottiano's cleavages. Suffice it to say that while this may be West's most famous movie by name and a Best Picture nominee to boot, it's mainly of interest to see her in action and hear her brazen innuendo. Otherwise, the story and supporting characters are barely serviceable.

I’m No Angel (1933, Wesley Ruggles)
A definite upgrade over She Done Him Wrong, with a more tightly controlled story and more interesting supporting characters. Mae West is, of course, still the main attraction, tossing off some of her raciest lines and sporting chic fashions (seriously, she must have as many costume changes as Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra). Since Cary Grant gets to play something approaching a character this time around, it's fun to watch them canoodling. It's even more fun, however, to see her sassing it up with her black maids, including an all-too-brief showing by Hattie McDaniel.

Alice in Wonderland (1933, Norman Z. McLeod)
There is nothing salacious about this ostensibly family-oriented film that couldn’t be shown in a Hollywood movie just two years later. However, there is a freakishness to it that does seem fairly unthinkable later in the decade, more in line with the WTF finale of Doctor X. The stars of yesteryear don grotesque masks as Lewis Carroll’s creations. While Paramount may have touted their stellar cast, the real star is the oppressive visual design, combining oversized costumes, papier mache masks, matte paintings, process screens, fast motion, slow motion, wire work, and virtually every special effect known to movies at the time. Clocking in at just 75 minutes, this is nevertheless a grueling exercise in style that verges on the nightmarish. We might hear the familiar voice of Cary Grant, but it's blubbering forlornly from the frozen-faced calf's head of the mock turtle. Miss American Pie Charlotte Henry surely makes for the bravest of Alices, remaining unphased in the face of such freakshow horrors as Alison Skipworth's ugly duchess and Louise Fazenda's white queen, who comes blowing onto the screen from out of nowhere. The whole thing culminates in a vision of hell breaking loose like no other, with shadow figures dancing ominously, dishes taking flight like birds, the white queen vanishing into a tea cup, and our heroine being strangled out of her slumber. This gives both Disney and Svankmajer's versions a run for their money in the insanity department.

The Mummy (1932, Karl Freund)
This film's status as a horror classic is easily justified by its opening setpiece alone, in which young Bramwell Fletcher's sanity is instantly destroyed by the sight of Karloff's mummy coming to life. It's a beautifully shot and designed sequence, approaching the mythic with Fletcher literally opening a Pandora's box of horror. Jack Pierce's iconic mummy makeup is limited to only seconds of screen time, but it's enough to haunt the rest of the movie. After this brilliant opening, the film settles into a curious retread of Universal's Dracula, with its undead villain setting his sights on a nubile young woman while Edward Van Sloan's wise doctor tries to convince skeptical David Manners that there are supernatural horrors afoot (the opening credits even play out over the same excerpt from "Swan Lake" as Dracula!). As in the earlier film, Van Sloan is right, Manners is useless, and the villain uses hypnosis to lure his object of desire to her doom. The most interesting thing about the story is the way it anticipates the reincarnated love interest angle that would find its way into later Dracula adaptations, most notably Coppola's. As the exotic heroine, Zita Johann is fashioned in a very revealing outfit toward the end. Another pre-code aspect that is noticeably missing from Universal’s later mummy pictures is the lingering sense of necrophilia. Where the 1940s movies are content to just have the mummy shuffle about in wraps and throttle people, Karloff’s urbane villain is a more clearly defined sexual threat.

The Invisible Man (1933, James Whale)
A fun take on H.G. Wells' semi-comic horror novella, made more comical still by James Whale's knack for morbid humor. There's some confusion in the way the movie tries to draw more sympathy for our invisible villain than Wells did while at the same time upping his body count from just a handful in the book to a whopping 124! Overall, this feels slight compared to the triumphs of Whale's other Universal horrors, but what stands out are the visual effects and Claude Rains' theatrical performance. It's really amazing that we don't see Rains' face on screen for 99.99% of the film, and yet he truly owns every minute of it. He can be quite funny at times ("Here we go gathering nuts in may!"), and he can be tender with Gloria Stuart, but he is perhaps the most violently menacing of all the Universal monsters. As far as pre-code qualities go, certainly this movie has an incredibly high body count, although we don’t see most of those deaths onscreen. Rains’ character is also nude through most of it, which we also technically don’t see.

Applause (1929, Rouben Mamoulian)
Mamoulian breaks free of early talkie limitations with a film that is alive with innovation and movement, ironically in the service of plunging us into the mire of such a sordid melodrama. It's almost hard to believe this was a Hollywood production as it's absolutely free of glitz and glamour. The burlesque backdrop is appropriately seedy, with leering old geezers getting their kicks watching overweight, toothless grannies gyrate in costumes that threaten to break loose at any moment. Helen Morgan is achingly tragic as the washed-up performer who wants the best for her child but can't get past her own misguided desire for success. She provides a real human element in a film that is nearly overwhelmed (though charmingly so) by technique. Never judgmental, the film establishes a supportive unit amongst the burlesque dancers in the early scene in which they form a bee line to see Morgan's new baby. It all ends on a note of bitter irony that is refreshingly not moralizing. Lots of exposed flesh throughout and a couple of pre-Gone with the Wind “damns” for those keeping note.

The Maltese Falcon (1931, Roy Del Ruth)
I consciously made the effort not to compare this film to the more famous 1941 version and instead judge it on its own merits. The problem is, there are few merits here. For a movie in which people are brutally murdered and our main characters are constantly in danger of being snuffed out themselves, there is no gravity to the looming threat of violence. Characters brandish guns and go through the motions, but there is no conviction. Perhaps the actors play it too lightly. Ricardo Cortez plays Sam Spade as a rakish womanizer, more of a Don Juan type who leers at and kisses every woman in sight. This provides some nice pre-code chuckles, but it doesn't lend itself to what is apparently supposed to be a tense film. Likewise, Del Ruth's direction is not bad, but he keeps us at a slight remove from everything, denying us the chance to truly feel the tension. The gay undertones are refreshingly strong in the relationship between Gutman and Wilmer (Dwight Frye!), with Gutman frequently stroking the younger man's cheek. Bebe Daniels takes a revealing bath, and her subsequent donning of a robe belonging to Spade’s other mistress provided the title for the essential Production Code book The Dame in the Kimono. This isn't terrible, but it's easy to see why it has been completely overshadowed by John Huston's classic.

Three-Cornered Moon (1933, Elliott Nugent)
A truly miserable "comedy" about a frivolous family that discovers they are wiped out by the market crash (four years after it happened) and must deign to get jobs. Elliott Nugent's direction is dire, showing no sense of comedy pacing or setup. The story's theatrical roots are glaring. Mary Boland plays a character that is meant to be flighty in that wonderful Billie Burke manner, but instead she's just downright stupid. Scenes that are played for straight drama work a little better, but the surrounding attempts at comedy are head-smacking failures. The worst offender is a Swedish maid who doesn't speak English. She refers to the oven as "she" and thinks the English word for flowers is "George." Hardy har. It's not funny at the beginning of the movie, and it becomes progressively less funny as the movie plays out. A good cast led by a game Claudette Colbert can't save this. In pre-code news, Colbert walks off a job rather than perform favors for the boss.

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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#6 Post by Matt » Thu Oct 25, 2018 3:36 pm

How are we handling films without spoken dialogue but with synchronized music and sound effects tracks? There are several Warner Bros. examples of this (which are essentially silent films with recorded scores, none of which I plan to vote for), but I'm thinking specifically of Watson & Webber's experimental Lot in Sodom from 1933, which definitely has a "pre-code ethos" given the plentiful bared male torsos.

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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#7 Post by knives » Thu Oct 25, 2018 3:48 pm

For whatever reason pre-code mentally to me suggests a studio, or at least poverty row studio, brandishing. Something as pure independent as I remember that being for me wouldn't apply. That's the only reason though.

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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#8 Post by domino harvey » Thu Oct 25, 2018 6:51 pm

My thinking is that a Pre-Code film really needs to be a talkie, and while a synchronized sound-only film as late as 1933 sounds like it's making an aesthetic choice, an experimental film doesn't really fit what I perceive "Pre-Code" to be

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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#9 Post by domino harvey » Thu Oct 25, 2018 7:04 pm

Feego, Alice in Wonderland is a hot mess, but at least it embraces its weirdness! No danger of it making my list, but it's probably worth seeing at least once in everyone's lifetime

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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#10 Post by Rayon Vert » Thu Oct 25, 2018 7:06 pm

So what does a pre-code ethos mean beyond sex (The Smiling Lieutenant) and violence (The Public Enemy)? Are there any other factors that should call our attention?
Last edited by Rayon Vert on Thu Oct 25, 2018 7:26 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#11 Post by domino harvey » Thu Oct 25, 2018 7:12 pm

I think that's a subjective call. For me it can be either/both of those things, language, guilty characters without redemption, or even strongly willed non-domestic-minded women. A film like Friends of Mr Sweeney is a great example of a not especially ribald comedy that nevertheless lets criminals get away with their crime and shows taken women surviving seduction. It couldn't be the same film were it made a year later, so for me, that's enough

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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#12 Post by knives » Thu Oct 25, 2018 7:15 pm

Ethnic diversity for one. Outside of circuit films the code made it difficult to have prominent minority representation with religious minorities in particular getting the short end of the stick.

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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#13 Post by sinemadelisikiz » Thu Oct 25, 2018 7:20 pm

Sacrilege and Interracial relationships (think The Bitter Tea of General Yen) were big no-nos too.

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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#14 Post by Rayon Vert » Thu Oct 25, 2018 7:22 pm

Thanks.

One thing I'm wondering about is social commentary, though. One of those Forbidden Hollywood dvd sets were Wellman films like Wild Boys of the Road and Heroes for Sale. Or think about I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang . But are those films of a nature that couldn't have been made after the Code? Are later, Code-era WB social problem films like Black Fury and Black Legion not equally "progressive"?
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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#15 Post by domino harvey » Thu Oct 25, 2018 7:22 pm

Oh my God, I just watched the trailer for Friends of Mr Sweeney for the first time (which in true trailer fashion contains the film's funniest line) and how great is this?

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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#16 Post by domino harvey » Thu Oct 25, 2018 7:27 pm

I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang! is a great example of a film that would easily make my top 5 for this period, but wouldn't make my list of Pre-Codes at all because there's nothing a similar social problem picture couldn't do a few years later. Perhaps some of the torment Muni receives would be toned down, but I don't think it's enough-- for me. It's still eligible for this list!

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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#17 Post by Rayon Vert » Thu Oct 25, 2018 7:32 pm

Makes sense.

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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#18 Post by Rayon Vert » Thu Oct 25, 2018 7:39 pm

This BFI article about pre-code Hollywood offers types of controversial subject matter defining the era. When it comes to "gritty realism" (convicts, forgotten men, subjects "ripped from the headlines", etc.), it does make a case for including films like Chain Gang, but, yeah, I can't see some of those films not necessarily being made after the Code. Confusing.

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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#19 Post by Feego » Thu Oct 25, 2018 7:44 pm

While it may not be the thrust of the plot, I think the Glenda Farrell character in Chain Gang is enough to qualify the movie as a true pre-coder. She and Muni live together before marriage, and she openly fools around with other men during their marriage.

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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#20 Post by domino harvey » Thu Oct 25, 2018 7:53 pm

I should probably also confess that I am mostly skeptical/dubious of "Pre-Code" as anything more than a contemporary marketing tool. Many of these films are pretty bad, with maybe one eyebrow raising moment to distinguish them from each other, and they get overpraised and overvalued by those looking for reasons to find these films superior to the product studios turned out during their true golden years. Like any randomly selected time period chosen from the studio era, there are enough films of interest within these years to merit study and consideration, but I'd say other than the deadzone of Hollywood for the few years immediately following Code enforcement, you have to go all the way to the end of the studio era in the sixties to start finding overall returns on the whole as meager

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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#21 Post by Matt » Thu Oct 25, 2018 9:53 pm

domino harvey wrote:
Thu Oct 25, 2018 6:51 pm
My thinking is that a Pre-Code film really needs to be a talkie, and while a synchronized sound-only film as late as 1933 sounds like it's making an aesthetic choice, an experimental film doesn't really fit what I perceive "Pre-Code" to be
Thanks. I have to say that my example being an experimental film made me question its suitability for this list more so than the soundtrack issue. I would feel much more confident about drafting a list limited to studio talkies (and maybe musical shorts and cartoons) than trying to shoehorn in independent and experimental films, especially since the studios were responsible for and subject to the code in the first place.

Also, I guess I cant put Man of Aran on my list either (and it’s technically a British film, too). When can we do a “blatantly fraudulent documentaries” mini-list?

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang will absolutely be on my list. I love its bleakness and I love Paul Muni. I think it’s not just a social problem film but one of the foundational, defining texts of the genre (along with about a half-dozen Wellman films that will also be on my list).

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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#22 Post by Slaphappy » Fri Oct 26, 2018 6:15 am

I think my list would consist mostly of well known spectacles, adventure movies and horror like Sign of the Cross, Tarzan the Ape Man, King Kong, Murders in the Rue Morgue and Emperor Jones. Most obscure melodramas have been ok+ at best since seeing Baby Face. For me the two biggest discoveries have been musical comedies Diplomaniacs and Whoopee!. Both were stunningly entertaining and easily equal better known titles of that era. In Diplomaniacs "Indian Nation" recruits Wheeler and Woolsey on a secret mission to represent them in a League of Nations summit. Lots of outrageous and naughty humor and musical numbers. Gags combine exceptionally well verbal and visual humor for an early sound movie. Whoopee! has Busby Berkeley choreographies shot in delirious early Technicolor and Eddie Cantor's role is by far the funniest I've seen from him. He's not the best actor to carry a movie, so it's good that there a lot of visual galore going on besides his jokes and songs. Palmy Days is another good pre-code title from him.

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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#23 Post by Gregory » Fri Oct 26, 2018 5:40 pm

Tarzan and His Mate is another great one. Very risqué, but the near-nudity, actual nudity, and sexually charged scenes in it don't feel gratuitous because Weissmuller and O'Sullivan display such grace and chemistry. The beautiful underwater ballet sequence (likely inspired by Dolores Del Rio's in Bird of Paradise) was performed with Josephine McKim as O'Sullivan's body double. At the conclusion, Jane (now O'Sullivan again) rises out of the water and shows a bare breast—and yes, that probably was a bit gratuitous. The Production Code was being enforced to some degree already, and this meant that MGM sent premiered different versions of the swimming sequence to various territories, but a week later all prints were ordered censored.
Aside from all that, what's remarkable about the freedom the film's couple dwell in is that Jane is a woman of class from England but is shown living with Tarzan unmarried, sleeping in the nude, and so on. The films that followed showed not only the loincloth costumes becoming increasingly full and frumpy but the domestication of Tarzan and Jane into "proper" living in their tree house—starting in Tarzan Escapes and the one after that, in which Tarzan "finds" a son, so that they become a nuclear family unit without having to broach the icky pregnancy issue.

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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#24 Post by L.A. » Fri Oct 26, 2018 6:05 pm

Is Rasputin and the Empress (1932) worth checking out?

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Re: The Pre-Code Hollywood Mini-List Discussion + Suggestions

#25 Post by knives » Sat Oct 27, 2018 7:43 pm

Yes, I wrote about it a bit in the '30s thread.

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