Category Archives: pre-code

Busby Berkeley musicals

Joan Blondell and James Cagney in Footlight Parade

Joan Blondell and James Cagney in Footlight Parade

Hi to all those visiting my blog! I haven’t been around here much lately, and I’m afraid my projected themes fell by the wayside… though I might still resurrect them. But, anyway, I intend to get the show back on the road with some postings about musicals and then see where the spirit takes me. I’ve been enjoying the great Busby Berkeley movies in recent months, especially as I had the opportunity to see Footlight Parade during the pre-Code festival at the BFI in London earlier this year. This was also the first opportunity I’ve ever had to see a James Cagney film on the big screen – I’ve seen just about all his films, bar a couple of TV productions. but only on the small screen ( in many cases on Youtube). It was a revelation to see those spectacular Berkeley numbers as they should be seen – and I have more big-screen joy coming up next month, when Ipswich Film Society plans a screening of Gold Diggers of 1933. 

In the meantime, I’ve been lucky enough to get my hands on an imported TCM mini set in their Greatest Classic Films series, thanks to my daughter who gave it to me for my birthday. On two double-sided discs, it contains the aforementioned Footlight Parade, 42nd Street, and two lesser-known Berkeley films, Dames and Gold Diggers of 1937.  Some films in this TCM series are coded for region 1 only, while others are region free – but luckily, although I’m in the UK, I do have the ability to watch multi-region. A big bonus is that these DVDs have lots of special features, including trailers and featurettes. too. Just wondering, what are anyone’s favourite Berkeley musicals? I especially love 42nd Street, but am looking forward to discovering some of his lesser-known offerings. Watch this space for a review of Gold Diggers of 1937 coming up in the next couple of days.

Young Bride (William A. Seiter, 1932)

Helen Twelvetrees and Eric Linden

Helen Twelvetrees and Eric Linden



I’m back in the Pre-Code groove after seeing quite a few of them in recent weeks – including this rather slight but enjoyable melodrama. I was attracted to Young Bride because it stars Helen Twelvetrees and Eric Linden, who are both now sadly forgotten, but  were talented actors of the era. It also has a good director, William A. Seiter, who directed the Astaire and Rogers musical Roberta, as well as Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert. What’s more, it was one of the first films executive produced by David O. Selznick.

Helen Twelvetrees gets top billing here for what is essentially a woman’s emotion picture, centred on a lonely young girl who falls in love with Mr Wrong. The original working title of this film was ‘Love Starved’, and that’s a good description of Twelvetrees’ character, Allie Smith, who has recently lost her beloved mother and now leads an isolated existence in the flat they shared. What’s more, Allie has a job as… wait for it… a librarian. Continue reading

I Cover the Waterfront (James Cruze, 1933)

This is my contribution to the Journalism in Classic Film blogathon organised by Comet over Hollywood and Lindsay’s Movie Musings – please do visit and read the other postings.

Ben Lyon and Claudette Colbert

Ben Lyon and Claudette Colbert

Many 1930s films about journalists are set in big city newsrooms, with multiple editions hitting the streets all through the day. Some even feature several rival newspapers battling for stories, and whole packs of reporters jostling to be first with the news. Pre-Code romantic melodrama I Cover the Waterfront is rather different. Ben Lyon stars as Joe Miller, a young journalist with a lonely and unglamorous job covering the ships which arrive and depart  on an unnamed Californian waterfront. As author Max Miller wrote in the book of real-life stories which inspired the movie: “I have been here so long that even the seagulls recognise me.”

Inevitably, the apparently sleepy backwater soon turns out to be anything but, as Joe manages to dig out a sensational story, and finds himself caught in a moral dilemma to rival any in those big-city films. He deliberately sets out to romance Julie Kirk (Claudette Colbert) in order to get the dirt on her criminal father, fisherman Eli, who is smuggling Chinese immigrants into the country… but soon realises he is in danger of breaking her heart, along with his own. The result is a powerful drama where the investigative reporter is a hero, but his determination to nail his scoop at any cost also has its dark side.

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Christopher Strong (Dorothy Arzner, 1933)

Katharine Hepburn as Lady Cynthia Darrington

Katharine Hepburn as Lady Cynthia Darrington

Aviation movies have long held a fascination for me, but I haven’t seen many featuring female aviators — and most of those I have seen are a disappointment. For instance, I was recently excited at the chance to see the German silent film The Ship of Lost Men (1929), starring my favourite actress, Marlene Dietrich, as a pioneering pilot, but sadly she is only seen in the air for a second or so before landing in the sea, and the film as a whole isn’t very memorable. Dorothy Mackaill, another fine actress, plays a spoilt rich girl playing at being a pilot in the pre-Code Love Affair (1932), the film which features Humphrey Bogart’s first romantic lead role, but, again, she spends very little time in the air and the film doesn’t really live up to its great cast.

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It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934)

It Happened 1It was a film made in just four weeks, and on a shoestring. Clark Gable was forced to star in it as a punishment, according to some accounts, and turned up drunk and angry to meet director Frank Capra.  At the end of filming, Claudette Colbert said “I just finished the worst picture in the world.”  Yet, somehow, It Happened One Night, the tale of a runaway heiress who joins forces with an unemployed journalist on a long-distance bus trip,  ended up as a smash hit and multi-Oscar winner. It touched a nerve in the Great Depression – and still does so now, in our own hard times nearly 80 years on. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen during a rerelease in the UK, and the audience’s reaction showed just how well this early screwball tale of a couple travelling on a late-night bus has worn.

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The Thin Man (WS Van Dyke, 1934)

The Thin Man 1If there’s one  murder mystery where nobody cares whodunit, it has to be The Thin Man. Why waste time puzzling over clues when you could be enjoying William Powell and Myrna Loy, and their portrayal of  glamorous detectives Nick and Nora Charles?  The scenes everybody remembers from this sparkling pre-Code comedy-drama are all about Nick and Nora – and, of course, their wire-haired terrier, Asta.

For the uninitiated, the film centres on supposedly retired private detective Nick Charles, who has given up the day job to concentrate on enjoying life with his rich wife. Or so he thinks – but, inevitably, when the couple leave their San Francisco home and visit his native New York to stay in a grand hotel suite there over Christmas, the festivities get mixed up with solving one last crime. Which will lead to plenty more “last crimes” in a series of sequels. There is a fine supporting cast, including Maureen O’Sullivan as a lovelorn young girl and Nat Pendleton as a comic  detective, and the murder mystery is well done in itself, leading up to a scene round the dinner table where Nick brings all the suspects together before revealing the killer. However,  it isn’t what anybody remembers the film for. Few people even remember that the phrase “The Thin Man” is actually supposed to refer to a character involved in the murder mystery, a complicated tangle about an eccentric scientist suspected of killing his ex-lover, and not to William Powell.

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Night Flight (Clarence Brown, 1933)

nightflight4   MGM was at one time said to have “more stars than there are in heaven”. The studio certainly poured quite a few of them into its 1933 drama Night Flight, produced by David O Selznick and directed by Clarence Brown, which features both John and Lionel Barrymore along with Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy.  It’s an all-star cast list to rival Grand Hotel or Dinner at Eight, but this lesser-known film is on a smaller scale and doesn’t have the same compelling quality as the other two – perhaps because it was severely cut after its premiere, so what we have are the butchered remains of an epic. Most of the time the various stars are kept separate, with several of them never sharing a scene. The two Barrymores are both superb and bring the film alive whenever they are on screen, especially when they are together. But some of the other actors are wasted, especially Gable, who hardly speaks a line and is only seen wearing a helmet in the cockpit of his plane, having to act silently by means of his eyes alone.

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