Judge Daryl Loomis thinks you're really swell.
"My father warned me about men and booze, but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine."—Tallulah Bankhead
Those free-wheeling, go-for-broke years of early Hollywood are long gone now, their voices silenced by the enforced censorship known as the Hayes Production Code. On the pages of the mandate, laid out in clear terms, were the dos and don'ts of movie-making from that point forward. Sexuality, overt or otherwise? Keep your pants on. Drinking and partying? Put a lid on it. Anti-government sentiment? Ship that attitude back to Siberia, Comrade. Luckily, those unrestrained times before the code are being slowly release and this six-film collection from Universal's vaults shows pretty clearly why certain groups felt that restraints were necessary.
Facts of the Case
The Cheat: This remake of the 1915 Cecil B. Demille film of the same name stars the great Tallulah Bankhead (Lifeboat) as a fun-loving, aristocratic woman who gets sunk by losing a $10,000 game of blackjack. To keep this fact away from her husband, she gambles her charity's money on the stock market. When she loses everything in the deal, she turns to the only place she can: ultra-rich traveler Hardy Livingstone (Irving Pichel, Westward Passage). He's more than willing to give her the money, but she must become his property.
Merrily We Go to Hell: At a party one night, reporter Jerry Corbett (Frederic March, Manslaughter) meets heiress Joan Prentice (Silvia Sydney, The Miracle Man) and falls head-over-heels in love. Jerry's only trouble is that he's a raging alcoholic and, though Joan knows this, she agrees to marry him anyway. She tries to make it work but, no matter how much Jerry loves her, he can't keep his demons under wraps. After Jerry gets his play produced in New York and learns that the lead actress is his old flame, who broke his heart years before, Joan may not be able to take it any longer.
Hot Saturday: No matter how demonized he is in the community, Roland Sheffield (Cary Grant, Bringing Up Baby) is extremely popular with the bored, young teenagers whose parents hate him. When he invites them all up to his estate for a wild Saturday night party, they come in throngs, but things get out of hand with all that liquor freely flowing. When Ruth Brock (Nancy Carroll, Sin Sister), a young girl Roland has had his eyes on, is accosted by one of the boys, Roland helps her but, as a result of his bad reputation, makes Ruth the center of the town's vicious gossip circle, potentially ruining her life.
Torch Singer: When the man who got her pregnant disappears to China, Sally Trent (Claudette Colbert, Cleopatra) must have her baby in the free clinic with nothing but her singing voice to support her and her new baby. Because of the Depression, she cannot find a job and cannot support her daughter so is forced to give her up to an orphanage. Changing her name to Mimi Benton, she becomes a notoriously sexy hit in the clubs during the passing years, but the girl she left behind has never left her mind. When she gets a job with a radio station as child-programming star Aunt Jenny, she finally sees a way she can reach out to her daughter.
Murder at the Vanities: It's opening night for the Vanities's new musical production but, just as the curtain's about to go up, jealousy and vengeance rear their ugly heads and somebody turns up dead. When the investigator arrives, two more mysteriously perish. The show must go on, so the performers are forced to navigate their scenes one second and answer questions about their guilt the next.
Search for Beauty: In one of the racier pre-code pictures made, a pair of newly-released con artists have a great scheme for going straight: they'll start a health magazine and put pictures of scantily-clad athletes on its pages. To get a publisher, they con two Olympic athletes (Buster Crabbe, Tarzan the Fearless) and Ida Lupino, High Sierra) into becoming the editors. The initial idea of the nudie cuties in the magazine flies in the face of the clean living, exercise heavy lifestyles of the athletes and, because they are the reason the publisher gave up the money in the first place, they have the power to thwart the plans of our sex-obsessed hoodwinkers.
Unlike the Warner versions of the pre-code collections, the films in Universal's first entry in these sets aren't overtly connected. They were not chosen at random, however. Since they focus heavily on the seedier side of filmmaking, there's no doubt why these films couldn't be made even a few years later. The choices don't give the best impression of that time period of Hollywood cinema, but they have been specifically selected for their content to demonstrate some of the reasons for the code.
We start fast out of the gate with The Cheat, directed by George Abbott. This remake of the even more bizarre 1915 Cecil B. Demille (Sign of the Cross) original has shocking moments even today. Tallulah Bankhead was a phenomenal actress and her lead performance, guilty and innocent at once, is dripping with sexuality. The themes of white slavery and miscegenation send the story way over the top. The performances are good, unsubtle fun and those interested in early 20th Century America's fixation on Oriental culture will final a lot to sink their teeth into.
Merrily We Go to Hell is a better film than its predecessor, but also quite a bit more somber. Frederic March is surprisingly subtle and appealing as the lead drunk and Silvia "The Saddest Eyes in Hollywood" Sydney is stunningly beautiful, but those big wet eyes show so much pain. The two have great chemistry together and the direction by Dorothy Arzner is assured and strong. It is hard to see why this cautionary tale, about the weight of drinking on a marriage, couldn't be made after the code was enforced, but Prohibition was in swing and any enjoyment of the fire water was strictly forbidden.
Starting off the second disc is Hot Saturday, which makes for a sexier title than a film. Not the best entry in the collection, but not the worst, it does feature Cary Grant in a small but important role. We have plenty of films about bored teens getting in trouble and they haven't changed much since 1932. The difference here is Grant's seduction of underaged Nancy Carroll while remaining the hero, not to mention an attempted rape and scores of young people drinking liquor (gasp!).
Torch Singer, while often overly dramatic and sentimental, is an emotional story of a woman's search for her daughter. While nobody applauds a character for giving away her baby, Claudette Colbert's performance when she signs the paperwork is heartbreaking and her fall into infamy afterward is absolutely tragic, no matter what kind of happy face she puts on in front of her friends. Featuring a sexy rendition of "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Love," the code breaking in Torch Singer comes from the sympathetic attention to single mothers, wild partying, and a heroine who is far from squeaky clean.
The final two features bottom out in quality, but they're the lurid cream of this crop. The first, Murder at the Vanities, is a musical like any other, with a lame murder mystery plot that weaves around a slew of performance numbers. While the performances are atrocious, the film does a good job of weaving the mystery around the show happening on stage. In its plot, this one is pretty tame, but the cavalcade of nearly nude bodies in the production numbers would have been too hot to handle only a few months after its release.
Lastly, and most strangely, we have Search for Beauty, which is as much a scam as the magazine the characters run. There is one reason for Search for Beauty to exist: as an excuse to display gorgeous, athletic men and women while they "exercise." It's like a fitness video without instructions, but including a plot. Buster Crabbe is hilarious as the American swimming champion and Ida Lupino is fetching and plucky as the British diver. Together, they emcee the parade of bodies, shot close-up and segmented. This way, we get individual body parts shown separately: a thigh here, a back there, a butt over there. Watch out all you body part fetishists, this may get you a little hot under the collar. While the story here is utterly worthless, the film does sport some oddly innovative cinematography, with a series of horizontally layered montages, making the 1932 Olympic footage disorienting but quite engaging. I've never really seen the trick used before or since, but it works.
Universal's three-disc release of the Pre-Code Hollywood Collection is quite good, though not the complete package that Warner Bros versions sport. Visually, the movies look quite good. There is some damage to the prints, but they are well restored and have a good, consistent look throughout the films. The sound, while unspectacular in Mono, does the job perfectly well. There is only one extra on the disc: a twenty minute featurette giving some facts about the Hayes Code and the films that were made before and after. Though it does supply some useful information, some of their statements are questionable and mostly only apply to the movies on this set and not the period in general. The other supplement, an extremely useful one, is a printed copy of the Hayes Code (or at least excerpts from it) detailing all the things that would no longer be acceptable. This text sheds light on how movies changed after 1934, not simply because the sex and violence were toned down, but because of the intent to infantilize films so that the youngest child to the oldest adult could go see every movie together. Of course, directors got around it in more or less subtle ways, but it's a shame to think about what kind of art could have been made without the code in place.
Universal's Pre-Code Hollywood Collection contains some very good films and some very questionable ones. But it is invaluable footage of a time before filmmakers had the eyes of bureaucracy peering over their shoulders, molding their art into something deemed acceptable and neutering the thoughts of the artists. Universal has done a good job restoring the films and are commended for their inclusion of the actual Hayes Production Code. I wish there were many more extras, but they are still commended for their release.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice, The Cheat
Perp Profile, The Cheat
Distinguishing Marks, The Cheat
Scales of Justice, Hot Saturday
Perp Profile, Hot Saturday
Distinguishing Marks, Hot Saturday
Scales of Justice, Merrily We Go To Hell
Perp Profile, Merrily We Go To Hell
Distinguishing Marks, Merrily We Go To Hell
Scales of Justice, Torch Singer
Perp Profile, Torch Singer
Distinguishing Marks, Torch Singer
Scales of Justice, Murder At The Vanities
Perp Profile, Murder At The Vanities
Distinguishing Marks, Murder At The Vanities
Scales of Justice, Search For Beauty
Perp Profile, Search For Beauty
Distinguishing Marks, Search For Beauty
Review content copyright © 2009 Daryl Loomis; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.