The Great Villain Blogathon 2019: Pre-Code Villainy

There’s a lot to love about pre-Code.

The scandalous plots. The memorable lines. The gratuitous shots of ladies in their undies.

And then there’re the bad guys – the fellas who were often the forebears of the heavies of the film noir era: scoundrels, cheaters, murderers, and rogues.

To celebrate the fifth annual Great Villain Blogathon presented with my partners in crime, Kristina over at Speakeasy and Ruth at Silver Screenings, I’m shining the spotlight on three no-goodniks from the pre-Code era – whether their parts were large or small, they each made their marks in these films and left an impression that lingered long after the final reel sputtered into silence.

Harve (Humphrey Bogart) in Three on a Match (1932)

What it’s about:

Three childhood friends – Mary (Joan Blondell), Vivian (Ann Dvorak), and Ruth (Bette Davis) – have a chance encounter after years apart and have lunch together to catch up on each others’ lives. Ruth and Mary are working girls, but Vivian has the most outwardly enviable life; she’s married to a wealthy, devoted husband (Warren William) and has an adorable young son (Buster Phelps). “Outwardly” is the operative word, however – in reality, Vivian is bored with her staid existence and longs for some excitement, which she gets in spades when she starts an affair with local gambler Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot). Eventually, she winds up broke, living with Loftus in a dump, and hooked on drugs. And that isn’t the worst of it.

Harve is not a nice guy.

The Villain:

Bogart plays Harve, a cold-blooded gangster who encounters Vivian when he comes to collect on a debt owed to the mob by Loftus. But Harve isn’t satisfied with the $2,000 Loftus owes him – when the mob learns that Vivian’s young son is with her, they demand a $25,000 ransom from his father.

On screen for less than five minutes, Bogart’s Harve manages to demonstrate a streak of cruel ruthlessness. One of his most chilling moments comes after he manhandles Vivian, causing her son to plaintively whine, “You mustn’t hurt my mama.” Harve affixes the tyke with a steady, unsympathetic gaze and responds, “Okay. I’ll bear that in mind.”

General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery) in Grand Hotel (1932)

What it’s about:

Based on a best-selling novel by Vicki Baum, Grand Hotel looks at the intertwined lives and loves, tragedies and triumphs, of a small set of hotel guests, employees, and passers-through during a 24-hour period at the title establishment in Berlin. These include Baron Von Gaigern (John Barrymore), a financially strapped nobleman who hopes to boost his income by burglarizing the room of a famous ballerina (Greta Garbo); Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), who is dying of some unnamed malady and is using his life savings for one final, magnificent hurrah; General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery), a wealthy factory owner who is desperate to close an all-important merger with another company; and Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford), a stenographer who reports to the hotel to do some dictation for Preysing.

Preysing is not a nice guy. Also, he’s married.

The Villain:

Preysing is bombastic, self-absorbed, and ill-mannered – not to mention a bit of a creep. He’s at first superior and brusque toward Flaemmchen, but it doesn’t take him long to start appreciating her feminine attributes and the very married director winds up proposing that Flaem do more for him than take dictation, if you know what I mean. But that’s just the beginning. Later, Preysing gets into a vicious argument with Otto Kringelein, who happens to work in Preysing’s factory. When Kringelein chastises his employer for his low wages and unfair working conditions, Preysing publicly accuses the dying man of embezzlement, fires him from his position, and physically attacks him. And later, when he catches Baron Von Gaigern stealing from his room, Preysing’s villainy escalates to another, more lethal, level.

Nick Powers (Robert Barrat) in Baby Face (1933)

What it’s about:

Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) works for her father, Nick (Robert Barrat) in a Philadelphia speakeasy, serving drinks to rowdy crowds of drunken men and fending off their unwanted advances. After Nick’s sudden, unexpected death, Lily heads for New York, hitching a ride on a freight train – and when she’s caught by a railroad worker, she bribes him with sex so that he won’t turn her over to police. Once in New York, she lands a corporate office job, then proceeds to literally sleep her way from job to job, each time offering her sexual favors in order to better her status.

Lily’s dad is not a nice guy.

The Villain:

Lily’s father is killed in an explosion in the first 15 minutes of the film. But before his sudden demise, his villainy is on full display – in one scene, Nick tries to ensure protection for his illegal bootleg whiskey enterprise by offering Lily’s “services” to a local politician. When Nick discovers that Lily has rebuffed the man’s advances (leaving him with a burnt hand and a bloody face, incidentally) Nick furiously berates her, telling Lily that she “never was any good – I oughta kill you!” Lily’s response gives us a good idea of what’s been going on in her home due to her father’s machinations: “Yeah, I’m a tramp, and who’s to blame? My father!” she says. “A swell start you gave me. Ever since I was 14, what’s it been? Nothing but men – dirty, rotten men!” What a prince. Need I say that Lily didn’t shed any tears when dear old dad was blown to smithereens?

Me, either.


Who are your favorite pre-Code villains? Let me know and I’ll cover them in a future post! Meanwhile, be sure to check out the great contributions that are part of this year’s Great Villain Blogathon!

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

~ by shadowsandsatin on May 26, 2019.

22 Responses to “The Great Villain Blogathon 2019: Pre-Code Villainy”

  1. You had me at Pre-Code! Harve is one of my favorite Bogart characters because he plays him so darn vicious. My favorite pre-code villain is probably Irving Pichel’s Hardy Livingstone in The Cheat (1931). Slinking around in a robe and branding people…yech.

    • Zoe, you are so right about Bogart’s Harve — it’s almost hard to believe that this is the same actor who gave us Philip Marlowe and Rick in Casablanca. Thank you so much for the idea about Hardy Livingstone — YECH is right!

  2. Have been meaning to catch Grand Hotel (1932). Thanks for the piece on the villain which I will return to when I’ve seen the film

  3. Great piece! 3 classic Pre-Code villains! My favorite: Trigger (Jack LaRue) from The Story of Temple Drake

    Sent from my iPhone


  4. “…scoundrels, cheaters, murderers, and rogues” Oh, my! You succinctly highlighted and skewered three of the most skin-crawling villains of the era. Eww!

    I would like to add Paul Muni as Tony Camonte in Scarface and Warner Oland as Henry Chang in Shanghai Express to this dishonour roll.

    -Caftan Woman

  5. Great peice. Three classic villains as truly reminds you why I adore pre-code movies

  6. […] Shadows and Satin: Pre-Code Villainy […]

  7. These are super picks, I do love a bad Bogart, he was great at villainy. I first “noticed” Robert Barrat in Mountain Justice where he was an awful abusive father, another actor who could play thoroughly hateful! Another fun year cohosting!!

  8. Ah brilliant. Love all three of these films!

  9. ALL of these villains make your skin crawl. Great post, Karen!

    While he might not be as bad a baddie as these guys, David Landau as Bull McDowell in The Purchase Price (1932) is one of the villains I love to hate.

  10. I love Pre-Code films! You definitely picked some of the best Pre-Code villains. I think it would be hard for me to pick a favourite, but if pressed to do so I think I would go with Dr. Moreau from Island of Lost Souls. It is hard to get more villainous than a sadist with a God complex!

  11. So glad you mentioned Lilly’s father, Nick, in Baby Face. He is a villain in every sense of the word.

    Great choices here, and I love your fab idea of featuring three despicable pre-code villains.

    Also: Thanks for being a marvellous co-host!

  12. I love a bit of gratuitous anything, really….. 😀

  13. All those villains are pretty memorable – even Bogie, only on screen for five minutes! As a lover of Grand Hotel, I must say Preising is my “favorite” of the three.
    Thanks for co-hosting this great blogathon!

  14. What a great article! I saw Grand Hotel for the first time not a long time ago and I liked it much more than I would have thought! And Baby Face is perhaps the perfect pre-code!

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