King Kong (1933)

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Every legend has the basis of truth. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) needs to finish his movie and has the perfect location – faraway Skull Island. But he still needs to find a leading lady. This is Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) who’s done a little extra work but has never played a large role. She has a romance aboard Captain Englehorn’s (Frank Reicher) ship the Venture with John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). No one knows what they will encounter on this island but once they reach it they find terrified natives seemingly worshipping a giant and the beast now has Ann in his sights and she is quickly kidnapped. Carl and John have to make their way through the jungle looking for Kong and Ann, whilst avoiding all sorts of prehistoric creatures and once successful they determine to transport Beast back to New York City to publicise their new movie … Women don’t mean to be a bother. Gorgeous, eerie and inventive, with a fairytale theme that resonates through the ages, this is a classic of Pre-Code Hollywood and is so clever in its structure:  before she ever encounters Beast, Ann is filmed rehearsing her potential reaction to a monster, so we are always present in the moviemaking process and the notion of predatory males hangs over the story like a fug. A warning about civilisation, greed and Hollywood itself, this is one of the most brilliant, beautiful and tender films ever made. Directed by Merian C. Cooper (the miniatures) and Ernest B. Schoedsack (the dialogue scenes) although neither is credited; with magical stop-motion effects by Willis O’Brien and an original story by Cooper and Edgar Wallace, with uncredited rewrites by James Ashmore Creelman who was working on The Most Dangerous Game (also starring Wray) at the time; with a final rewrite by Ruth Rose, who was Schoedsack’s wife.This is notable for the first proper original Hollywood movie score, composed by Max Steiner.  It was beauty killed the beast

Only Yesterday (1933)

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Eden was never like this. A man considers committing suicide in the wake of the Wall Street Crash when he sees a letter marked Personal, Urgent! … In 1917 young Mary Lane (Margaret Sullavan) has a one-night stand with soldier James Stanton Emerson (John Boles) and she becomes pregnant. She moves away from her small town to live with her free-thinking aunt Julia (Billie Burke) and gives birth to Emerson’s son. Their paths cross again when he returns from France but he doesn’t even recognise her and she finds out in a newspaper that he has married. Ten years later when he is a successful businessman he seduces her again. She falls ill. Subsequently she learns she is dying and writes to him … I’ve never known anyone as lovely as you are. Adapted by William Hurlbut, Arthur Richman and George O’Neil from the 1931 non-fiction bestseller by Frederick Lewis Allan, but the relationship with the putative source is very loose and in fact this has the ring of Letter From an Unknown Woman (written by Stefan Zweig in 1922 and translated into English ten years later).  Nowadays this film is principally of interest as the screen debut and charming performance of the intensely charismatic Margaret Sullavan and as part of a rehabilitation of director John M. Stahl, renowned for his melodramas or women’s pictures, as they used to be called. I’m not ashamed. I suppose I ought to be, but I’m not. In a new volume about Stahl, historian Charles Barr makes the case for this being among the best films of the Thirties. I’m not sure that it is, but we should be grateful to director/producer Stahl for bringing Sullavan, his Broadway discovery, to Hollywood. As a Pre-Code narrative of illegitimacy and men and women’s very different experiences of romantic love, it’s very well dramatised, filled with moments of truth. If he had changed a thousand ways I would still know him. Some key lines on contemporary womanhood are delivered by Billie Burke playing Mary’s suffragist aunt: It’s just another of those biological events… It isn’t even good melodrama. It’s just something that happened. There is little indication of WW1 in terms of costume, everything speaks to the time it was made, but the characterisation is everything – Sullavan is sweet, Boles is a dirty cad.  It is truly terrible when he returns from the war and doesn’t even remember her. And any film with Edna May Oliver is something to love. We’ve turned that double standard on its head

A Farewell to Arms (1932)


This gloriously romantic if somewhat synoptic adaptation of Hemingway’s partly autobiographical classic is let down only by the occasionally ill-chosen shot of lollipop lady Helen Hayes, whose disproportionately short stature and large head look hugely comical beside the elegant Cooper, the forever Hemingway avatar. He’s the WW1 ambulance driver who falls in love with an English nurse over the objections of jealous CO Adolphe Menjou. When they are reunited and have a proper relationship Menjou deploys her to another hospital and the lovers’ letters are intercepted by him to try and split them up. Cooper eventually deserts his post to find her, now dying after delivering their stillborn son. Filled with brilliant setpieces and moments of true romance by screenwriters Benjamin Glazer and Oliver H.P. Garrett and the master director, Frank Borzage whose compositions (shot by the amazingly talented DoP Charles Lang) are quite breathtaking. A Pre-Code masterpiece with some astonishing intimations of sex. Happy Valentine’s Day!

The Devil to Pay! (1930)

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A fun drama with Ronald Colman as the black sheep of a posh family who’s sold up in Africa and is back to try his luck in England with the money he’s left – which is damn all after he’s bought a cute dog in a pet shop. He catches up with old flame showgirl Myrna Loy and then returns home to take the heat from Papa but inadvertently gets in the way of the engagement of beautiful and wealthy Loretta Young whose grand duke fiance is  not impressed. Colman is great in a spirited performance in which he has a lot of colours, and all of them are charming as he is spied on, tested and does something unexpected. We can pretty much foretell the ending but it’s an entertaining watch. And that dog is great! Written by Frederick Lonsdale and Benjamin Glazer as a follow up to Bulldog Drummond, with music by Alfred Newman, cinematography by Gregg Toland (and George Barnes) and all handled neatly by director George Fitzmaurice who replaced Irving Cummings.

Arrowsmith (1931)


Sinclair Lewis’ great 1925 novel deals with the temptations faced by doctors who could just go on the lecture circuit and pontificate rather than do good. And these days most of them go on vast junkets financed by Big Pharma and peddle their wares to gullible patients who gobble up anti-depressants and their brain functions are rewired  – a Simon Curtis doc would suggest this was a conspiracy with western governments to suppress protests against the fundaments of modern liberal democracies … looks like the meds finally wore off, eh?! Ronald Colman decides to tackle the plague head-on after missing out on a career-enhancing opportunity, making a fatal mistake with a child suffering from diphtheria and his wife, a nurse (Helen Hayes) loses their pregnancy. He takes off to the Caribbean to fight bubonic plague and meets the woman who will become his second wife (Myrna Loy) while all around him succumb. This vastly truncated adaptation by Sidney Howard was directed at warp speed by John Ford because he was kept off the bottle for the shoot. It’s good to see Hayes – some of us only really know this legendary actress from Disney and Agatha Christie in the 70s and 80s [if anyone knows where I can see The Snoop Sisters please let me know!]; and things liven up with Loy, but her part of the story barely happens. Strange pre-Code version of a work of cultural and scientific significance by a writer who seems to have been a seer in consideration of current events, but worth catching for the performances, Alfred Newman’s score and filling any gaps in your John Ford education.

The Masquerader (1933)

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What’s better than a Ronald Colman movie? A Ronald Colman movie with TWO Ronald Colmans! And this pre-Code drama about a dissolute English politician John Chilcote whose drug-taking is threatening to wreck his career is a curate’s egg in the sense that while both Colman as the politico and the (obviously identical) cousin, journalist John Loder, who impersonates him to save his reputation both generate very different kinds of heat, you’re looking for the physical seams and if you look hard enough you can spot them. However it’s the content which is truly surprising and this is an adaptation of a pretty nifty novel by Katherine Cecil Thurston which was then turned into a play by John Hunter Booth and very well served in Howard Estabrook’s interpretation, gifted by some great dialogue by Moss Hart. What a team! There are great scenes in parliament and with the women in the man/men’s life – both  Elissa Landi as the estranged wife and Juliette Compton as the mistress give incredibly good performances. Halliwell Hobbes is marvellous as loyal servant Brock. Really, some sharp stuff for its day and some lovely London fog! Shot by Gregg Toland and directed by Richard Wallace. And for another Ronald Colman ‘double’ don’t forget he did the same in The Prisoner of Zenda!

Cynara (1932)

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Fascinating pre-Code melodrama with Ronald Colman as the staid London barrister whose rock solid marriage to the disarming Kay Francis when she takes off for Venice with her flighty younger sister is challenged when Mephistopholean colleague Henry Stephenson manoeuvres him into a romance with attractive shopgirl Phyllis Barry. Cunningly adapted by Frances Marion and Lynn Starling from the novel by Robert Gore-Brown, this is structured as a flashback and there are some startling slices of dialogue to cut through the class froth. This is an opportunity to experience the fragrant charms of cult fave Francis while Colman is typically good. Directed by King Vidor.

Finishing School (1934)

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Any film with Billie Burke has me at Hello. But she leaves pretty quickly, after dropping off daughter Frances Dee at a v. posh boarding school in this pre-Code drama co-written and directed by Wanda Tuchock (adapting from a play). Ginger Rogers is Dee’s room-mate Pony, the It girl in the school or ‘The Pal’ as she is billed in the interesting titles sequence. She organises a weekend trip to the city where Dee fulfils her ambition to ‘get tight’ (!) and meets Bruce Cabot, a lower class med student bringing room service in the hotel where they stay. She has to stay at school over the Christmas vacation (neglectful folks going to Florida)  and they fall in love (look at that lovely shot with snowflakes falling into his shoeprints outside the boat house) a situation that causes consternation. In a world where Thou Shalt Not Get Caught is the edict, this promises more than it can deliver but is fascinating for its portrayal of class difference, underage smoking, drinking and sex, pregnancy (Dee is called Virginia for a reason), what  girls do when they wear mouth braces (I remember!), twisty ending, the fact that the Catholic Church condemned it (always a good sign) and as a relic of its time – plus Ginger giving her all. Some things never change however – trampy teenage girls come from all classes! Fun fact:  5 months after the film opened, Dee gave birth to actor Jody McCrea, her son by husband Joel McCrea. Their marriage survived until his death. She died aged 94. This was the year the Production Code introduced in 1930 came into force under Joseph Breen, hence the interest in a pre-Code film such as this, which aroused such ire amid the new push for purity in a sea of ambiguity.