Spring is coming up sass mouth.
Megan McGurk introduces four Pre-Code woman’s pictures, Thursdays in March in the Brooks Hotel Cinema, Drury Street, Dublin.
Tickets available through Eventbrite
Girls About Town (1931)
Series 9 opens and closes with Kay Francis, because she was top of the box office during the Pre-Code era, playing a wide range of complex women. Here she plays a clip joint hostess along with Lilyan Tashman. They breakfast at twilight on aspirin and juice before they empty men’s pockets for a living. Kay Francis complains about the middle-class Babbitt types who paw the gals and tear their dresses each night, so she decides to go straight for Joel McCrea. Lilyan Tashman, with a smooth mercenary platinum wave and a caramel-coated purr in her voice, evens the score with wisecracks. George Cukor proves he had a gift for directing women in this early-career gem.
Midnight Mary (1933)
In Pre-Codes, one of the biggest themes was ‘the kept woman’. Sometimes it worked out, as it did for Joan Crawford, who trades a love nest for marriage and respectability with Clark Gable in Possessed (1931). Then other times, as with Loretta Young in this picture, she realises that while she reads books written in the Enlightenment era, she’s embroiled with a mug from the criminal rackets (Ricardo Cortez). Loretta decides that being poor isn’t half as bad as being kept by louse. All she wants is a good job. Enter Franchot Tone, in one of his best society roles, trading quips with a scandalised butler. Una Merkel, as Loretta’s sidekick, plays an unabashedly greedy dame, and is wonderful, as always. William Wellman’s innovative work as director exhibits great care for the subject matter.
Don’t get the impression that women in Pre-Codes were all sex workers or fallen women. Sometimes they were the brains behind the rackets (Joan Crawford in Paid, from 1930, or Joan Blondell in Blondie Johnson, from 1933), or a magazine editor (Kay Francis in Man Wanted, 1932), a social worker and best-selling author (Irene Dunne in Ann Vickers, 1933) or even head of a factory. In Female, Ruth Chatterton plays the boss of an automobile company. In her downtime, she unwinds with casual sex, often with the men who are on her payroll. If men complain, or want anything more intimate than a fling, they can expect a pink slip in their pay packet. Ruth Chatterton looks supremely comfortable behind a huge desk in a corner office wearing enviable suits and frocks. George Brent is the one man able to resist her terms. Chatterton and Brent were married in real life at this time, and their passion for one another shows. Director Michael Curtiz crafts one of the most significant films about sex and power ever produced by Hollywood.
What do you do when your lover commits the ultimate betrayal? Kay Francis is woefully unprepared for the moment when Ricardo Cortez uses her as payment to settle his debts with a brothel owner. Abandoned and devastated, Kay heeds advice from the brothel’s madame, who reasons that since a man got her into trouble, she should use them for a way out. With hair like an Art Deco sculpture, and exquisite outfits, Kay transforms herself into ‘Spot White’, a sensation every man must have. If the Academy Awards had acknowledged costume design (they didn’t until 1948), Orry-Kelly’s glamorous ensembles would have been hard to beat. Director Michael Curtiz helms a picture that celebrates resourceful sass mouth dames.
BONUS FEATURE: Havana Widows (1933) with Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell will close out Series 9.