Bad Boys: The Men of Pre-Code
I’m so fond of gals like Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard and Loretta Young, Dorothy Mackaill and Joan Blondell (and I could go on and on and on) that I’m afraid I’ve given little attention to the manly side of these fascinating features. So today I’m shining the spotlight on my favorite men of the pre-Code era – after all, what would pre-Code be without ‘em?
My pre-Code dream boat. He’s just so adorable – not to mention witty, sophisticated, and just plain fun. I think I loved him best in Private Lives (1931), where he played Elyot, who loved his ex-wife Norma Shearer not wisely but too well, if you know what I mean. Speaking of Norma Shearer, another favorite is The Divorcee (1931), where Montgomery played the best friend of Norma’s husband – and who she used to even the score after learning of her husband’s infidelity. I also liked Montgomery a lot in Faithless (1932), where he went from riches to rags in his on-again, off-again relationship with Tallulah Bankhead, and The Easiest Way (1931), where he was the ideal beau for Constance Bennett. Let’s just say I never met a Robert Montgomery character I didn’t like. (Except maybe Tony Jardine in Our Blushing Brides (1930), and even he reformed at the end!)
Could any discussion of pre-Code men be complete without this guy? He was a patient and loving husband and father in Three on A Match (1932), but I preferred his seedy bachelors, like the ones he played in Under 18 (1931) with that cute-as-a-bug’s-ear Marian Marsh, or Employees Entrance (1933), starring Loretta Young. Some of my other favorite William movies were Skyscraper Souls (1932), where he was a thoroughly conscienceless businessman; Upperworld (1934), which starred him as an oil tycoon and unfaithful (and unlucky) spouse; and Smarty (1934), a totally wacky film and, for William, a rare comedic role as a cuckolded hubby. You could always count on Warren William to bring his ‘A’ game, no matter what the part!
Swarthy, sexy, and often sleazy – I always know I’m going to love a pre-Code if this guy is in it. How do I love his bad boy roles? Let me count them: in Mandalay (1934), he left poor Kay Francis high and dry to fend for herself in a decadent nightclub; in Midnight Mary (1933), he was a ruthless gangster who treated poor Loretta Young like a piece of furniture; and in The House on 56th Street (1933), he was once again bedeviling poor Kay Francis, this time as an unscrupulous gambler. Oh, he wasn’t always bad – he was a pretty nice guy in Illicit (1931), with Barbara Stanwyck, and practically a saint in another Stanwyck starrer that same year, Ten Cents a Dance (1931). Still, these performances pale in comparison to the others. Can I help it if I like (on-screen) bad boys?
Like Ricardo Cortez, I can count on Lyle Talbot to fulfill the not-a-good-guy quotient. Two of the best movies where I loved to hate him were Three on a Match (1932) and She Had to Say Yes (1933). In the first, he was a simply awful playboy who rubbed shoulders with hoods, turned Ann Dvorak into a drug addict, and even kidnapped her son! And in She Had to Say Yes, he was a traveling salesman who, in one scene, practically forced himself on Loretta Young (who didn’t earn my sympathy because she was so STOOPID).
The Divorcee (1930). Red-Headed Woman (1932). Blondie Johnson (1933). Three of my favorite pre-Codes and each starring Chester Morris. I’m not sure what it is about him that I like so much – his square jaw and slicked-back hairdo don’t exactly make me swoon, but he has that certain something that keeps me coming back for more! Interestingly, in each of these films, he played a man who, at his core, was decent, loving, and faithful, but possessed a flaw in his character that made him stray a little left of center. And yet, you still like him!
This gray-haired gentleman was in so many of the pre-Codes that I love. Their Own Desire (1929), The Office Wife (1930), My Past (1931), The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), Night Court (1932), Letty Lynton (1932), Red-Headed Woman (1932) – geez, was he in every movie made between 1930 and 1934?
Foster eventually found his way behind the camera, but while he was still in front of it, he turned in some of my favorite performances. He was Anita Page’s good-for-nothing pool playing spouse in Under 18, Leila Hyams’s philandering husband in Men Call it Love (1931), Maureen O’Sullivan’s a loving supportive boyfriend in Skyscraper Souls (1932), and a spouse unhappy with the success of wife Loretta Young in Week-End Marriage (1932). He wasn’t necessarily the world’s greatest thespian, but he was a gas to watch!
And who are YOUR favorite pre-Code men? Let’s celebrate them today!