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What a weird and wonderful world the pre-code films of the early 1930s inhabit. With the advent of sound, Hollywood was stretching and growing and experimenting in many directions, not the least of which was finding ways to make mature, profound statements, and until 1933, it had a way to say them. All of that changed, of course, when the Hays Code became a standardized method of censoring content.
Illicit is one of those weird and wonderful films; not because it tries so hard to push the boundaries of acceptable sex and liquor consumption, (which it offers a fair share of) but because it presents not just a modern woman, but a downright hippie! Society playgirl Ann Vincent (a lithesome Barbara Stanwyck) attempts to redefine what love is and the best ways to insure that the innocence of a young love maintain its level of sexual fun and commitment. Ann is the young daughter of well-to-do society folk. Her boyfriend, Dick Ives, (James Rennie) is also a rich boy, and they’ve been banging away late nights and weekends – thinking no one is the wiser. The funny thing is, “Dickie” is the only one that’s clueless. His dad, his drunken friends, they all know he and Ann are booty-callin’ it up – and they just don’t care. Dickie has been trying to make an honest girl out of Ann since they first started “dating,” but Ann prefers to keep things as they are. In fact she thinks that putting a ring on it will bring resentment and ultimately, misery. Dickie, ever the Victorian, gets his dad involved, and the two press Ann into relenting and finally marrying Dickie.
Yet again, the woman is always right, and once they exchange rings and vows, the thrill is gone just as Ann predicted, and Dickie begins fooling around. Ann, ever the post modern woman, tries to let him have his fun, but they begin to resent one another, so she wants a divorce and he wants her to forget his transgressions and stay together. In steps Ricardo Cortez as the rich ladykiller who’s always thought of Ann as the “one who got away,” and you have a recipe for pure matrimonial mayhem.
While this early talkie is ALL talkie — sometimes to distraction — the forward thinking plot and character of Ann is still a lightning bolt to conventional wisdom of the period. Definitely check this one out, if not for the adorable performance by Barbara Stanwyck. (I know, I know, “adorable Stanwyck?” But this isn’t The Big Valley’s Victoria Barkley I’m talking about, but slinky, hottie 20-something Stanwyck).
Carley’s Pick: Lady Killer (1933)
So much to love in so little time. At a tight 76 minutes, Roy Del Ruth’s Lady Killer covers a hell of a lot of territory: from Chicago to Los Angeles; from movie usher to movie star; from small small-time slumming to big-time schmoozing, Lady Killer is a lightning quick pre-code with a preposterous plot but enough crack-fire direction and hard-as-nails performances that make it thoroughly irresistible.
It goes something like this: Cagey is working as an usher at a big time Chicago theatre. Now, before you scoff, in the 1930s a job as an usher was no laughing matter. It was a serious profession that required strict supervision–which, already you can tell, is something that a Cagney character is not suited for. So, bad boy Cagney who likes to chew gum and shoot craps in the men’s room is quickly given the boot. He then falls into the web of a small-time con operation whose, uh, figurehead is the sexy Mae Clarke. The ultimate gangster’s moll, she is entirely without conscience and therefore thrilling to watch. Cagney takes the small time gang and, using his streetwise smarts, transforms them into a bona-fide big time operation. Only problem? Cagney, for all his bad boy gruffness, does have a conscience. And when things start getting deadly, he opts out.
You can see where this is heading, I’m sure. He tries to duck the cops by fleeing west with Clarke to sunny Los Angeles. Only, it’s not so sunny. Nor is it such a good idea. The cops are waiting for Cagney, and Clarke leaves him flat. And, well, here’s where movie magic comes in. After spending some time in the Pen, well … Cagney goes Hollywood. He’s recruited by a casting director and starts life as a Hollywood extra. But before your eyes roll too far into the back of your head, the selling point is this: Cagney hates it. Sprayed with brown paint and forced to play a Sioux Chieftain, he is as miserable and annoyed at the ridiculousness of it all as we are. But soon the bit parts turn to leading roles, and Cagney is quickly touted as the “famous he-man of the screen.” (Warner Bros obviously capitalizing of its own success.) He even finds love, with his fellow leading lady. But, of course, with only 30 minutes left in the running time things have to happen fast and that they do.
Mae Clarke & Co show up in town with plenty of blackmail to get their hands on his fortune, end up framing him for one of their robberies, and Cagney is in jeopardy of losing his career and reputation if he can’t prove his innocence. Conveniently Mae Clarke has a last minute change of heart, as do the cops, and everyone lives happily ever after. Hey, what do you expect in 72 minutes?
Directed by pre-code king Roy Del Ruth, and featuring a sassy, deliciously taut script, Lady Killer is a pre-code charmer that won’t disappoint.
And yes, there’ s the obligatory James Cagney/Mae Clarke domestic violence scene:
Jill’s Pick: Born to Dance (1936)
It’s often said that 1936 was a particularly abysmal year for Hollywood. We beg to differ as some of our favorite films were released that year: After the Thin Man, Dodsworth, Modern Times, My Man Godfrey, Libeled Lady, and Born to Dance.
Directed by Roy Del Ruth, Born to Dance features the talents of the exceptionally gifted dancer/choreographer Eleanor Powell. While her career was relatively short, Powell’s time at the top was significant. She provided a much needed boost to a financially embarrassed MGM and carefree entertainment for weary Depression-era audiences. Powell was luminous, with a smile that could warm even the coldest of hearts…but mainly she was just a damn good dancer. Even the great Fred Astaire (whom Powell co-starred with one time in The Broadway Melody of 1940) once said: “She ‘put ’em down like a man’, no ricky-ticky-sissy stuff with Ellie. She really knocked out a tap dance in a class by herself.” High praise indeed.
Born to Dance features a story we’ve seen variations of many times before (most notably in the Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly directed musical On the Town ): three sailors are on leave and out in the big city (James Stewart, Sid Silvers, Buddy Ebsen). One reunites with his wife, while the other two are looking for love. A perfect set-up for a little singing and dancing. As for any discernible plot? Forget about it because you will not find one here. A few wisecracks from the great character actress Una Merkel; a warbling rendition of Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love” by James Stewart (!!!!); a young, lanky, speckled pup cute Buddy Ebsen serenading the ladies at the Lonely Hearts Club; Eleanor Powell’s outstanding, over-the-top dance numbers with back breaking leg kicks. All of it perfectly comes together to make Born to Dance one of the most entertaining musicals of the 1930s.