When Hollywood Dared

Pre-Code Hollywood Collection: The Cheat/Merrily We Go to Hell/Hot Saturday/Torch Singer/Murder at the Vanities/Search for Beauty

Universal Studios, 3 DVDs, $49.98

Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume Three: Other Men’s Women/The Purchase Price/Frisco Jenny/Midnight Mary/Heroes for Sale/Wild Boys of the Road

Warner Home Video, 4 DVDs, $49.98
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Condé Nast Archive
Jean Harlow, 1934; photograph by George Hurrell from Vanity Fair: The Portraits: A Century of Iconic Images, with a foreword by Graydon Carter and published by Abrams

The term “pre-Code”—denoting the Hollywood films of the early talkie era, before full enforcement of the Production Code was imposed in 1934—has been enjoying the kind of currency previously attained by “film noir,” and for similar reasons: it’s at once a promise of buried pleasures and shorthand for an aesthetic aura that is complex enough to encompass both campy artifice and rough-edged immediacy. It isn’t of course news that to the early 1930s we owe the most enduring mythic figures of talking pictures: the gangsters incarnated by Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, the chorines of Busby Berkeley’s epic musical numbers, the iconic fright masks of Frankenstein and Dracula and The Mummy, and—before their comedy was normalized and bowdlerized—the Marx Brothers and Mae West. But these represent only the glittering surface of a legacy with many hidden layers. After 1934 many pre-Code movies were either put on the shelf or reissued in censored form; most weren’t shown on television; and for a long time they were frustratingly hard to find on video.

All that has begun to change, bringing a wholesale reassessment of movies once seen more as the curios of a transitional moment. The last few years have seen a flood of cable television screenings (usually on Turner Classic Movies), restorations, and reissues. A series of pre-Code retrospectives at New York’s Film Forum has helped to instill a wider taste for movies like Baby Face, Employees’ Entrance, and Night World—movies that still seem too raucously unsettled to submit to the term “classic.” In only the last few months, two notable box sets have been added to the mix: a Pre-Code Hollywood Collection offering six little-known Paramount films (including the fascinating early Cary Grant vehicle Hot Saturday, with its persuasively unsentimental fresco of small-town life) and a third installment of the pioneering Forbidden Hollywood series that makes available six essential works from the extremely rich pre-Code catalog of director William Wellman.

These Wellman films are the ideal starting point for a reconsideration of the period, whether one begins with a desperate, unemployed Loretta Young in Midnight Mary glancing up at neon signs that transform themselves into NO JOBS TODAY and NO HELP WANTED; or with Ruth Chatterton in Frisco Jenny playing host, as the doyenne of San Francisco’s brothel-keepers, to a conclave of superannuated courtesans; or with Frankie Darro and others in Wild Boys of the Road defending their hobo jungle against an onslaught of police in scenes that here and there look almost documentary; or with Richard Barthelmess in Heroes for Sale undergoing a sort of modern American Calvary as a war hero reduced to morphine addict, prisoner, and finally vagrant herded along a dark and rain-swept highway. It is not simply that these films evoke a lost …

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