Codes of (Mis)conduct: Ten Memorable Pre-Code Actresses

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To celebrate the Film Forum’s current retrospective of scandalous Pre-Code (late 1920s-1934) films, titled “IT GIRLS, Flappers, Jazz Babies & Vamps,” here are clips from Pre-Code films starring ten of my favorite actresses from that era. Of course there are many more performers who have been left out of this post – Tallulah Bankhead, Joan Blondell, Ruth Chatterton, Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Helen Hayes, Carole Lombard, Sylvia Sidney and Loretta Young, to name a few – but the ten videos below should be good starting points for anyone curious about this fascinating part of film history. Each clip is accompanied by quotes by New York Times film critics. The reviews didn’t always “get” the essence of the performances – Clara Bow in Call Her Savage, for example, is stunning (just look at the power of her eyes, even more remarkable than they were in her silent films!) – but each piece of commentary makes points worth noting.

Jeanne Eagels in The Letter (1929, dir. Jean de Limur). Dave Kehr, 2011: “As the only surviving sound film of the radically innovative Broadway star Jeanne Eagels, the film is an important piece of theater history, preserving the performance style of a brilliant, eccentric and spectacularly self-destructive actress (who would die of a drug overdose seven months after the film’s release) … Eagels turned out to be a perfect match for Maugham’s Leslie Crosbie, the unhappy wife of a dull British planter (Reginald Owen) stranded in the jungles of Singapore. At a time when stage acting was more often concerned with elocution than emotion (as the canned theatrical performances of many other early talkies testify), Eagels seemed like a raw nerve, a conduit of convulsive feeling … Fixing her husband, and the audience, with a glare of pure hatred, Eagels spits out the famous curtain line — ‘With all my heart, and all my soul, I still love the man I killed!’ — and then, clearly carried away by the passion she has summoned, repeats it to even greater effect. It’s a moment so sharp and vivid that it doesn’t seem like acting at all, but rather an intensified form of being.”

Norma Shearer in The Divorcee (1930, dir. Robert Z. Leonard). Mordaunt Hall, 1930: “With the possible exception of Jerry, played by the charming Miss Shearer, none of the characters is particularly real. They appear and go, saying their say as if dangled by the director. There is the jesting knave, the fool and the selfish lover. Yet the players cannot be held to account for being mere puppets. It lies with Robert Z. Leonard, the director, the adapters, and possibly to some extent with the censor … Miss Shearer does all that is possible in the circumstances with her rôle.” (Note: Norma Shearer won the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance.)

Joan Crawford in Possessed (1931, dir. Clarence Brown). Mordaunt Hall, 1931: “The familiar theme or a small-town factory girl who becomes the mistress of a wealthy New Yorker is set forth with new ideas which result in surprises if not in a measure of suspense … There are many interesting minor details put into the sequences and the final episodes are pictured in a stirring fashion. Miss Crawford adds another excellent performance to her list and Mr. Gable delivers a portrayal that is nicely restrained.”

Kay Francis in Man Wanted (1932, dir. William Dieterle). “B.W.N.” (not sure who that was), 1932: “Kay Francis radiates so much charm throughout ‘Man Wanted’ at Warners’ Strand this week that the familiar theme somehow does not matter. She is ably assisted by David Manners and a well-balanced cast. The screen play, originally called ‘A Dangerous Brunette,’ is the very thing for Miss Francis, who dresses with such good taste.”

Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman (1932, dir. Jack Conway). “L.N.” (not sure who that was), 1932: “The Capitol’s current visitor concerns itself with a topic that has long puzzled more strenuous philosophers than M.-G.-M.—that of love as it is practiced on either side of the rail-road tracks. For the producers of ‘Red Headed Woman’ it might be said that they have ended in the same place with the philosophers. There is a stone wall there, and East will remain separate from West through many more films indeed. After taking a stenographer across the tracks and to the barred gates of the social columns the picture apparently begins to find itself pretty funny. It is all right, after that, for laughter is a great thing. Its last moments are quite amusing, due to a final lack of serious contemplation. But earlier, when the characters are wrestling with their consciences—and each other—it goes away off on what is still called the deep end. The story is about a stenographer who wants to get along, and up … Jean Harlow, as Lil Andrews, does very well as the stenographer from the other social world—if the impossibility of it all be taken into consideration.”

Clara Bow in Call Her Savage (1932, dir. John Francis Dillon). Mordaunt Hall, 1932: “The titian-haired Clara Bow, who has had a lengthy vacation from the screen, is the termagant of the film ‘Call Her Savage,’ which is now at the Roxy. This pictorial tale hails from a novel by Tiffany Thayer and it was directed by John Francis Dillon, who is evidently no great believer in subtlety. It is scarcely an offering that can be recommended for its plausibility, but who knows but that there may be a girl somewhere like Nasa Springer. Miss Bow does quite well by the rôle of this fiery-tempered impulsive Nasa, but whether the flow of incidents makes for satisfactory entertainment is a matter of opinion.”

Mae West in She Done Him Wrong (1933, dir. Lowell Sherman). Andre Sennwald, 1933: “Mae West is to be seen at the Paramount in a hearty and blustering cinematic cartoon of the devilish ’90s. With the haughty strut and the nasal twang which are the principal assets of her repertoire, she filled the screen with gaudy humor. Illustrating the troubled career of Lady Lou, whose heart is bigger than her sense of decorum, she rhymed ‘amateur’ and ‘connoisseur’ in one of her beer-hall ballads and, on the whole, gave a remarkably suspicious impersonation of Diamond Lil. In fact, ‘She Done Him Wrong,’ with a few discreet cuts and alterations, is the same ‘Diamond Lil’ without which no bibliography of Miss West’s literary works would be complete … Miss West gives a highly amusing performance, which necessarily overshadows the commendable efforts of Gary [sic] Grant, Noah Beery, Owen Moore, David Landau and Rafaela Ottiano.”

Miriam Hopkins in The Story of Temple Drake (1933, dir. Stephen Roberts). Mordaunt Hall, 1933: “At the Paramount is a free translation of William Faulkner’s book, ‘Sanctuary,’ which in film form bears the title of ‘The Story of Temple Drake.’ Considering the changes that were to be expected in bringing this novel to the screen, the producers have wrought a highly intelligent production. It is grim and sordid, but at the same time a picture which is enormously helped by its definite dramatic value. There are times when exaggerations occur, but, after allowing for them, it is a narrative which like ‘Today We Live,’ the first of Mr. Faulkner’s literary efforts to be filmed, can boast of no little originality. Whether it will prove a satisfactory diversion for the general run of cinemagoers is problematical. Oliver H. P. Garrett is responsible for the script and Stephen Roberts directed this offering. The principal rôles are acted by Miriam Hopkins, Jack LaRue, William Gargan, William Collier Jr., Irving Pichel and Florence Eldridge. It is a well chosen cast. Miss Hopkins delivers a capital portrayal as Temple Drake … There are loopholes in the story as it comes to the screen, but the adroitly sustained suspense atones for such shortcomings. Besides Miss Hopkins’s clever impersonation, splendid work is contributed by Mr. Pichel as Lee, Mr. Gargan as Benbow, Mr. LaRue as the frightening Trigger, Mr. Collier as Toddy, Sir Guy Standing as Temple’s grandfather and Florence Eldridge as the unfortunate Ruby.”

Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face (1933, dir. Alfred E. Green). Mordaunt Hall, 1933: “‘Baby Face,’ the picture which recently aroused the ire of Will Hays and also was responsible for the resignation of Darryl Zanuck as assistant to Jack Warner at the Warner Brothers’ studios, is now on exhibition at the Strand. It is an unsavory subject, with incidents set forth in an inexpert fashion. Barbara Stanwyck acts Lily Powers, who becomes known as Baby Face. She is presumed to have good intentions, but they are discouraged by her father, who keeps a disreputable speakeasy. A cobbler named Cragg, presumed to be an omnivorous reader, tells Lily of her beauty and the power she might have over men. This inspires Lily to leave for New York, where through a flirtation she succeeds in finding employment…”

Greta Garbo in Queen Christina (1933, dir. Rouben Mamoulian). Mordaunt Hall, 1933: “Soon after entering the Astor Theatre last night for the presentation of Greta Garbo’s first picture in eighteen months, the spectators were transported by the evanescent shadows from the snow of New York in 1933 to the snows of Sweden in 1650. The current offering, known as ‘Queen Christina,’ is a skillful blend of history and fiction in which the Nordic star, looking as alluring as ever, gives a performance which merits nothing but the highest praise. She appears every inch a queen … As Queen Christina, Miss Garbo reveals her sense of humor and she handles some of the reticent levity in a superb fashion. She is forceful as Her Majesty and charming as Christina the woman.”

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One thought on “Codes of (Mis)conduct: Ten Memorable Pre-Code Actresses

  1. Pingback: More Misconduct: Ten Memorable Pre-Code Actors | The Iron Cupcake

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