Pre-Code Tribute

"Movie Magazine International" Special Report

(Air Date: Week Of 6/1/94)

By Monica Sullivan

Warner Bros. films of the 1930's were far more characteristic of their time than, say, the overproduced M.G.M. movies made during the same period. The clothes, hair-styles, lifestyles and spending patterns of the on-screen characters were more in step with the folks who paid their hard-earned dimes to watch them. And, in the very early thirties, pictures made at Warner Bros. also dealt with tough subjects in a realistic way.

Mervyn Le Roy's "I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang" revealed the harsh true-life of an innocent man hounded by the authorities for a crime he didn't commit. "42nd Street" was Lloyd Bacon's new-style Hollywood musical: the life of a producer was shown for the unglamorous, thankless lot it often is, and only Busby Berkeley's production numbers convey any sense of artistic joy. "Wild Boys Of The Road" was William Wellman's grueling, sometimes graphically violent vision of Depression gang life among the very young. James Cagney was the quintessential Depression protagonist: he was a skunk to Mae Clarke in "Lady Killer" and Wellman's "Public Enemy", but was humanised by reform school kids in "Mayor Of Hell". Cagney was most often seen playing the angles, though, as in "Blonde Crazy" and "Taxi". Films of the pre-code era like 1931's "Five Star Final" showed the consequences of unchecked tabloid-style journalism: the sequence where reporter Ona Munson discovers the bodies of two scandal-ridden victims driven to suicide is genuinely eerie in light of Munson's eventual suicide in 1955.

"Night Nurse", another Wellman classic, supplied Clark Gable with a sinister early role as a sadistic chauffeur and transformed bootlegger Ben Lyon into a hero who helps Barbara Stanwyck's resourceful title character save two children from abuse and neglect. Stanwyck also sparkled in "Baby Face" as an ambitious career girl who sleeps her way to the top with a (mostly) clear conscience. And Bette Davis' all-too fleeting appearance as a flashy murder victim in "Fog Over Frisco" makes us vividly aware of why she became Queen of the Lot while the likable but uncharacteristic Margaret Lindsey was forever fated to support stars like Davis, among others. Rent these movies at your local video store and see why the movies made before July 1, 1934 still seem so timely and frank even by the standards of the great grandchildren of the pioneers who created them.

Copyright 1994 Monica Sullivan

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