Pre-Code films over Frisco
by Erin Blackwell
Before there was Noir, there was Pre-Code. The Roxie filmhouse is hosting a week of sizzling 1930s melodramas, March 1-7, at a nostalgic $11 per double feature, transporting us back to the heyday of Cagney, Colbert, Davis, Dietrich, Lombard, Tracy, and a host of fabulous supporting players: Ruth Donnelly, Douglas Dumbrille, Jimmy McHugh, Lyle Talbot. On March 7, Margaret Talbot, author of the memoir The Entertainer, will be on hand to illuminate her father's career.
These mostly B-movies, predating the severe clampdown of the Hays Code of censorship, depict life as lived in all its tawdry, vicious melodrama. The reigning aesthetic is Realism, affording a detailed glimpse into the depths of the American experience. It's the opposite side of the spectrum from the high-gloss studio product that belied the widespread poverty, violence, and corruption of the Great Depression.
"Why should we care about these pre-Code films?" asks the Roxie's director of programming Elliot Lavine in a recent e-mail. "Because for a very brief time, about four years really, Hollywood produced films that were audacious – lurid, violent, and sex-charged. These are films with real bite, genuinely shocking and provocative."
Lavine, a tall guy who teaches at Stanford in his spare time, wore yellow shoes to the press screenings. Sporting a professorial goatee and glasses, he exudes the passion of a deep-tissue fanatic who's been programming festivals for over 20 years.
"From the time sound came in, in 1929," he writes, "Hollywood producers, directors, and writers seized the opportunity to expand the horizons of film content. Frank adult dialogue combined with a reckless disregard for complacency gave us pictures replicating the realities of the Depression: rampant gangsterism, sexual repression, prostitution, the works. The heroine of the typical Warner Bros or Fox picture was a prostitute, drug addict, or unwed mother. Gangsters were depicted as noble heroes, and occasionally got away with murder."
What strikes the modern viewer about these films – alongside their easy, wisecracking joie de vivre – is their innocence, sincerity, sentimentality, acute social perspective, and sheer, unbridled energy. They're not as disenfranchised as Noir. They lack the despairing cynicism of Tarantino. The social fabric is torn but not yet shredded. The production values, scripts, acting and direction are top-drawer.
Opening the festival March 1 is Blood Money (1933), starring theater great Judith Anderson, aka Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's Rebecca, as a glam brothel madam who loses her bail bondsman lover to a depraved high-society heiress. This fast-paced action flick portrays L.A. in all its seedy glory, from a hula at the Brentwood estate of a Dole Pineapple executive to Blossom Seely's vamping "San Francisco Bay" at a speakeasy.
There's not much fog in Fog Over Frisco (1934), a lurid tale of financial fraud and roadsters with rumble seats, but its extensive location shots take in the Bay, Pacific Heights, and a climactic chase along Market Street. Not to mention a young, lithe, peroxide-blonde Bette Davis moving at warp speed in an unmannered portrayal of a corrupt child of the 1%. (Plays March 7 with:)
Heat Lightning (1934), a lyrical portrayal of two sisters who run a gas station in the middle of the desert. Long-limbed Aline MacMahon, famous for her deft deadpan comedy, plays a grease monkey in overalls, disillusioned by love. Soulful Ann Dvorak is her kid sister, yearning for romance while waiting tables. When two gangsters on the lam meet two Reno divorcees with car trouble, this languid comedy of manners ends with a murderous twist.
Be sure to look for Lyle Talbot in the above-mentioned double bill. He is remarkable for the longevity of his career as a portrayer of ordinariness. This Average Joe character actor found his niche on early TV, playing the mild-mannered next-door neighbor of Ozzie and Harriet. He also descended to the heights of notoriety in Edward D. Wood's films Glen or Glenda (1953) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1956).
Photo: Roxie Theater
Everything in the festival is worth seeing at least once, from Marlene Dietrich's exotic, quixotic Shanghai Express (1933) March 3, to the obvious delights of the March 2 triple bill of horror: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) starring Frederic March, Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) with Bela Lugosi, and Black Moon (1934) with Fay Wray.
So if these films are so great, why ain't we never seen none of em?
"Almost overnight these films all but vanished," says Lavine. "Most pre-Code films were omitted from the huge packages of classic films sold to television stations in the 50s and 60s. So it's very refreshing to be able to excavate these jewels and present them in a way that reminds us a little bit about ourselves, as well as the industry that created them."
Hollywood Before the Code: Deeper, Darker, Nastier! Fri.-Thurs., March 1-7, Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St.