Be sound and wear a mask over your nose and mouth.
MADAM SATAN (1930) screens 2 September
Kay Johnson plays a long-suffering wife with a cheating husband (Reginald Denny). To win him back, she uses a fake accent and wears a smoking hot devil ensemble (by Adrian) for a costume ball aboard a zeppelin. Cecil B DeMille’s picture has one of the wildest party scenes in the pre-Code era.
JEWEL ROBBERY (1932) screens 9 September
Kay Francis plays a society dame who falls for a robber (William Powell) during a heist. She has an exquisite wardrobe by Orry-Kelly, including a velvet gown that defies gravity.
THIRTY-DAY PRINCESS (1934) screens 16 September
One minute Sylvia Sidney is stealing a turkey dinner from the Automat, and the next, she’s propositioned with a job to impersonate a visiting royal for a month. A nosey reporter (Cary Grant) smells something fishy. Sylvia looks super cute (poor or rich) in designs by Howard Greer.
BOLERO (1934) screens 23 September
Carole Lombard joins up with a taxi dancer (George Raft) who dreams of opening his own nightclub in Paris. In real life, Raft paid the bills by pleasuring women on and off the dance floor before he signed a Hollywood contract. Carole is draped in silk and satin confections from Travis Banton.
THE SCARLETT EMPRESS (1934) screens 30 September
Playing Catherine the Great, Marlene Dietrich finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage to a debauched idiot (Sam Jaffe) and lusts after Count Alexi (John Lodge). Josef von Sternberg attempted to match the scenery with perversity of the Russian court. Travis Banton swaddles Marlene in an orgy of fur.
In 1928, Harry Cohn sent Frank Capra to replace Irwin Willat on the location shoot for Submarine. Although Capra was reluctant to take over for an experienced director who had the loyalty of cast and crew, he accepted the assignment once the studio head guaranteed that he could reshoot the entire picture. When Capra had reviewed Willat’s rushes, he recoiled at the way the leading men, Jack Holt and Ralph Graves, were made up. In his memoir, The Name Above the Title, Capra recalled how the actors were painted with a heavy hand, with overly drawn faces that lacked realism, which detracted from the story. Holt and Graves wore exaggerated eyeliner and lip rouge that would have been better suited on a vaudeville troupe, rather than face a camera close-up.
Capra argued with Holt that the fussy hairpiece he wore made him look worse and that went double for the face paint. Eventually Holt and Graves were convinced, but only after they viewed the footage Capra shot of them bare faced and with a natural hairline compared to their original makeup. Capra vowed to himself ‘as soon as I was important enough I would get rid of makeup, come actors, come cameramen, come all the Westmores’. He complains about makeup during several passages in his book.
Two years after the Navy picture, Capra directed Barbara Stanwyck in her star vehicle, Ladies ofLeisure, and held firm to his anti-greasepaint principle. In her study of Barbara Stanwyck’s career, Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Ella Smith includes an interview with cinematographer Joseph Walker, who photographed Ladies of Leisure. Walker had been advised by studio boss Harry Cohn to make sure that Stanwyck looked glamorous, in line with what the major studios did when they shot the stars. Capra disagreed with how she should be photographed, and stressed his anti-makeup agenda with Walker:
‘Yes, she does look wonderful—but I feel we are losing something. I think she is potentially a great actress, a unique personality, but we are not getting it on the screen. I want to shoot the sequence over with no make-up, no glamorous portraits—just show her as she really is and I think she will be great’.
Whenever Capra shows Stanwyck wearing cosmetics in a scene during Ladies of Leisure, it’s not applied in a glamorous style. In her first scene, Stanwyck steps out of a row boat, with a torn dress strap and smudged mascara, suggesting a narrow escape from rowdy men.
In another scene, Ralph Graves peels off Stanwyck’s false lashes and wipes off her makeup, decades before James Mason washed makeup from Judy Garland in A Star isBorn (1954). The society artist Graves plays thinks Stanwyck’s makeup obscures her true essence, a quality of innocence and hope that he hopes to capture on canvas. Stanwyck’s character wonders why he wants her to look homely, because she equates makeup with the nature of femininity, but since he’s paying by the hour, she submits.
Only briefly did Capra indulge the pleasure of cosmetics during a great scene for Barbara Stanwyck in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), when Toshia Mori opens an ornate dressing table full of ornate bottles and jars to assist a woman in the seductive arts. Even then, Capra depicts makeup as a false masque she must assume to please the warlord character played by Nils Asther.
As Capra notes in his autobiography, during their first time working together, Stanwyck cringed at the sight of herself on a big screen when she had an emotional scene. Capra realised that after she watched the rushes, she adjusted her reactions to look more conventionally attractive on the screen. Stanwyck’s biographer Victoria Wilson, in Steel True, reports that Stanwyck didn’t like the way her mouth pulled to one side when she spoke quickly, nor did she enjoy seeing veins pop out on her throat, or the way her hands looked. Capra chose the most expedient solution and told Stanwyck to stay out of the screening room and avoid of the rushes.
Capra’s attitude about makeup is frustrating because it seems like a lack of vision from a man who was an innovator in many respects. Skilled makeup artists use a palette of shades just like a cinematographer uses light to paint a scene. The anti-makeup position that Capra takes sounds like arguments about female purity. The idea of a ‘pure’, natural, or unspoiled woman has all the hallmarks of a backward and regressive worldview. Capra’s aversion to face paint is so easily debunked with any number of Barbara Stanwyck pre-Code pictures where makeup enhances her performance.
Stanwyck once told an interviewer that Frank Capra taught her that acting is all about the eyes. The actor thinks and makes it real for the audience with their eyes. Often though, in the early part of her film career, Barbara Stanwyck shows us plenty with her mouth, and more so when she wears lipstick. The sound of her voice giving out to a man brings me pure joy, especially at a time when it’s easy to feel like life is nothing but chaos and injustice. Stanwyck referred to the moment in her pictures where she detonated onscreen as the ‘Get Outs’. For Stanwyck, the ‘Get Outs’ were the scenes where she shouted abuse at a man and showed him the door. In her pre-Code pictures, before Stanwyck absorbed lessons about studio acting, she was an emotive dynamo waiting to release pent-up frustration.
In her early films, Stanwyck didn’t care how she looked when she was angry. In a scene where she meets with lies, bully tactics, or the smug resolve of someone in a position of power (usually a man), her thermostat rises. When she reaches a boil, her mouth blasts open and contorts on the right side. During a ‘Get Out’, Barbara Stanwyck snarls a five-alarm tirade which always delivers a satisfying moment of truth. Whether she faces men who try to push women around or spoilt rich dames, Stanwyck puts them on notice with a fiery blast.
As Blondie McClune, Marion Davies has only one dress to her name. Although she saves money for a new one, her mother needs the cash to pay rent. Blondie’s oldest friend, Lurleen Cavanaugh, played by Billie Dove, lives in the same cold-water tenement, but soon moves into a penthouse after she lands a spot in the Follies, thanks to her ability to wear a skirt made of pearls. Lurleen changes her name to Lottie and develops notions. The story by Frances Marion and dialogue by Anita Loos captures a passionate rivalry between women who want to shed their origin. And Marion’s impression of Greta Garbo is not to be missed.
In his memoir, Frank Capra described his goal as a director: ‘I would sing the songs of the working stiffs, of the short-changed Joes, the born poor, the afflicted. I would gamble with the long-shot players who light candles in the wind, and resent with the pushed-around because of race or birth. Above all, I would fight for their causes on the screens of the world.’ Capra also included the pushed-around Janes of the world in his pictures. He made five of them starring Barbara Stanwyck. In Forbidden, Capra’s answer to Back Street (1932), Stanwyck plays a small-town librarian. Tired of dull routine, Stanwyck longs for adventure. She cashes in her savings for a new wardrobe and lavish cruise, where she hooks up with a married man. Will she be content as a mistress?
Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)
Dorothy Arzner’s cautionary tale shows women why they should avoid a hasty marriage to a random lad from a party. Arzner’s picture scuppers the romantic myth that women can save men from themselves. Sylvia Sidney stars as a socialite who falls for a dissolute writer, played by Fredric March. Each time he proves unworthy, she ignores the facts. What happens when she agrees to a modern marriage on his terms? James Baldwin once wrote that Sylvia Sidney ‘was the only American film actress who reminded me of reality’. Sylvia Sidney bore her share of troubles onscreen with an angelic grace that was the antithesis of hardboiled dames from the pre-Code era.
Shanghai Express (1932)
closes with the fourth film Marlene Dietrich made with Josef von Sternberg,
which was the top-grossing film from a stand-out year for pre-Code woman’s
pictures. Nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, it won for Best
Cinematography from Lee Garmes. In an elaborate feathered costume designed by
Travis Banton, Marlene looks like an exotic bird who longs for wings fast
enough to carry her away from men. You can’t beat Dietrich and von Sternberg
for style, mood, and dramatic atmosphere. Anna May Wong gives a standout
If Clark Gable’s line delivery doesn’t make you gasp the way it does Barbara Stanwyck, you’re probably in the wrong cinema. Stanwyck proves why she’s Queen of the Pre-Codes in this gritty picture about injustice, corruption and the most vicious cruelty. When no one else cares or intervenes, Stanwyck charges the bullies full steam. She can’t go wrong with Joan Blondell on her side. This was the first of five pictures Stanwyck made with director William Wellman. He said of her ‘she not only knew her own lines but everyone else’s. I love her.’
Joan Crawford works in a paper box factory. She watches the train cars full of glamorous people on their way to New York one night after work, when a stranger in the caboose pours out her first taste of bubbles, and then tells her to run to the big city to be done wrong by. Crawford makes her way to New York and snags the first rich man she encounters—Clark Gable. In a love nest feathered by Gable, she does everything that becomes a lady. Without a wedding ring, society will always regard her as a chippy from the sticks. Joan made life-long fans among women for this tale about double standards and social climbing.
Thirteen Women (1932)
If only we had the fifteen minutes that were cut from the original picture. No doubt the edited sequences contained additional stylish revenge scenes. Myrna Loy plays a biracial girl who suffered untold misery from the privileged white girls in an exclusive boarding school. She was tormented by her classmates. All grown up, Myrna mesmerises a famed astrologer into sending horoscopes that she designs with the power of suggestion to bring about a series of gruesome tragedies. Irene Dunne plays one of the former pupils who denies the power of the star charts. This is the only horror picture I’ve included in the series so far. Not to be missed.
No Man of Her Own (1932)
What does a small-town librarian do for fun? Well, if you’re Carole Lombard, you hook up with a random dude (Clark Gable) one night after the library closes and parlay that into wedded bliss. Lombard soon learns what her husband really does for a living, which rocks her to the core. Can she make him go straight? This was the only picture that Lombard and Gable made together. Although their romance did not commence until the Mayfair Ball in 1936, they still generate enough heat to burn down the stacks.
Jean Harlow stars in a picture that borrows from Clara Bow’s life story. Beset by moochers who feed stories to the tabloids, Harlow’s character endures the studio’s demanding schedule, while she picks up the tab for a shower of freeloaders. Harlow strips the varnish off the glamour factory and shows viewers the grind behind the glitz. She’s at her snarling-best in this picture. Sass mouth dame all the way.
By 1932, hundreds of girls arrived in Hollywood each week looking for the opportunity to make a screen test. While they cooled their heels, George Cukor gave them the playbook for how to nail one in What Price Hollywood? In his first masterpiece, Constance Bennett plays Mary Evans, a waitress in the Brown Derby, an ambitious woman who scans the glossies for style tips between Garbo impressions and fine-tuning her glamour-puss poses. When she finagles a plum director’s table, she not only scores a noteworthy entrance to a film premiere, she also wheedles a coveted screen test—through yodelling, rather than any tawdry manoeuvres under the sheets.
Mary’s screen test serves as a masterclass in acting craft. Every aspiring starlet in the balcony should have been taking notes. Lowell Sherman plays director Max Carey, a seasoned Hollywood hit-maker. He offers bare bones direction for Mary to descend from the middle of a staircase and deliver two simple lines to the actor standing at the bannister: ‘Hello, Buzzy. You haven’t proposed to me yet tonight’. Then she’s supposed to look and notice a dead body on the floor. To Mary and the audience, it seems like a snap. Do three little things (walk, speak, react) and then sign a contract.
Like Mary, the audience overlooks how many controlled actions need to dovetail with timing for a solid performance. An actor dilutes many isolated components down to one fluid gesture to appear natural. When Mary first attempts the scene, her shoulders graze earlobes they’re so hunched; stiff forearms hold clenched fists; heels pound each stair like a spade in parched soil; finally, two lines collapse into one, delivered at breakneck speed. Mary executes instructions without perception. Max’s pained expression tells the audience what they already know: she stinks.