My Favorite Pre-Codes (Or Something Like That)
Lately, I’ve been struggling with (well, not really struggling – maybe just thinking about? Mulling over?) my definition of “favorite” movie. For instance, I’ve long considered my “favorite” to be Gone With the Wind. But just lately, I’ve started to wonder what constitutes a favorite, because if the number of times I’ve viewed a film is a primary factor, then my favorite movie would be, without question, The Women (1939). I suppose I’m loathe to downgrade GWTW from the “favorite” designation for several reasons – I do love it dearly, and it’s such a sweeping epic – in short, it’s the type of film that “ought” to be considered a favorite, if you know what I mean.
Anyway, enough rambling. For today’s post, I’d originally planned to write about my “favorite” pre-Codes, but that plan somehow morphed, instead, into a post about the pre-Codes I’ve seen the most often. Which raises the question again – should they be one and the same? I think, for now, I will take a page out of Scarlett O’Hara’s book and think about that tomorrow. As for today, here are the top five pre-Codes that I watch over and over again – and you might want to, too!
The Divorcee (1930)
I think I watch this pre-Code more than any other – it’s like comfort food. First off, I could be perfectly content watching Norma Shearer polish silver and Robert Montgomery read the classifieds. Add Chester Morris into the mix, and it’s a recipe for hog heaven! And the story is great: loyal, loving wife learns that her hubby has stepped out on her, and she “balances the accounts” by doing the horizontal hokey pokey with his best friend. What’s not to love?
Baby Face (1933)
This is one of the first pre-Codes I ever saw, if not THE first. I just remember watching the screen, practically slack-jawed in disbelief at what I was seeing. The film depicts the pennies-to-plenty saga of Lily Powers (played by the awe-inspiring Barbara Stanwyck), who quite literally sleeps her way to the top of the company where she is employed. And just in case you don’t understand what she’s up to, the filmmakers make it perfectly clear, every time the camera pans the outside of her building, climbing ever skyward with each conquest she makes. (Bonus – there is an even pre-Codier version of this movie than the one I saw originally! Known as the pre-theatrical release version, this one is available in the TCM Forbidden Hollywood Collection box set – if you’ve never seen it, what are you waiting for?)
Red-Headed Woman (1932)
Like Baby Face, this was one of my first pre-Codes, and once again I was completely shocked (but in a good way!) by the cinematic shenanigans taking place. Jean Harlow stars as Lil Andrews (what is with these dames named Lil, anyway?), who boldly sets her sights on her very married boss and doesn’t let up until she’s got him right where she wants him. And if Lil’s brazen tactics don’t knock you for a loop, you’ll be staggered, thunderstruck, and just plain gobsmacked by the film’s ending! It’s the best.
Weekend Marriage (1932)
I have a love-mild dislike relationship with Loretta Young. I love her pre-Code stuff, but anything after 1934, not so much. Fortunately for me, she has lots of pre-Code goodies to offer, and one of those that I love best is Weekend Marriage. In it, Young plays Lola Davis, who’s itching to become a wife, but refuses to quit her job. Can a woman be an asset in the workplace and still cook a mean leg of lamb, darn her husband’s socks, and make the bed every day? This movie certainly has an interesting twist on the subject, and throws everything at you but the kitchen sink in order to make the point. Plus, it has Ricardo Cortez!
Sadie McKee (1934)
By now, is it even necessary for me to say that I love Joan Crawford? Especially pre-Code Joan Crawford? (I think not.) She. Was. ALL. THAT. And she’s all that and more in the title role of this feature, which depicts her ascension from cook’s daughter and occasional helper, to the wife of what appears to be the richest man on the planet. In between, we’re treated to lots of pre-Codian goodness, including premarital sex, infidelity, alcoholism, classism, and some sort of fatal mystery disease that I’ve yet to be able to identify. Oh – and the cast includes a nice, juicy role for the great Jean Dixon, who was only seen in 16 features during her career, but turned in memorable performances in such films as My Man Godfrey (1936), where she played the worldly wise housekeeper in the nutty Bullock house, and Holiday (1938), where she was featured as the worldly wise wife of Everett Edward Horton.
So that’s it. Five of the pre-Codes that I am most likely to pop in the VCR on any given day. In compiling this list, though, I realized that there are a whole lot more like these – so stay tuned for the next batch of my favorite – er, I mean – most-often seen pre-Codes!