Category Archives: pre-code

Anna Sten

This is my contribution to the Russia in Classic Film blogathon, being organised by Movies Silently. Please take a look at the great range of posts on films, stars and directors with Russian links.

Anna Sten in Nana, from the Doctor Macro website

Anna Sten in Nana, from the Doctor Macro website

She’s known as ‘Goldwyn’s Folly’ – if she gets a mention at all, that is. But, after seeing a few of her films, I feel that actress Anna Sten deserves more recognition. The Russian star  was a victim of over-hype by the studio – with failed attempts to turn her into the “new” Garbo or Dietrich, rather than creating an image around her own screen personality. She was also advertised as the “Passionate Peasant”, which didn’t sit well with the glamorous photos used to celebrate her beauty.

Either because of too much publicity, the studio’s choice of roles or for some other reason, Sten failed to set the box office alight. That’s not in doubt… but I do get fed up with the claims in reviews of some of her films that she “couldn’t act” or “lacked talent”. Her success before arriving in the US surely proves the opposite – and her acting ability also shines through in the films she did make in Hollywood.

Born in Kiev, probably in 1908 though records vary, Anna was half Ukrainian and half-Swedish. She attended theatre school and, after being discovered by legendary theatre director Stanislavsky, appeared on stage and in a number of Russian and German silent films. She went on to star in German talkies, including an acclaimed production of The Brothers Karamazov made in 1931 – I’ve just seen this and it’s a forgotten gem.

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Take Five: Happy New Year!

A Happy New Year to all readers of my blog, and thanks very much for your support, visits, comments and ‘likes’ during 2014. I’m hoping to post a bit more regularly here over the coming 12 months, so watch this space.

A while back, I launched a series of mini-reviews mentioning 5 films on a particular theme – I’m now resurrecting the idea for a quick look at some movies about New Year, in no particular order.

Cavalcade 81. Cavalcade (Frank Lloyd, 1933): I’ve just got round to watching this pre-Code, an adaptation of a stage play by Noel Coward which revolves around a series of tableaux centred on momentous events in British life. It begins with New Year’s Eve at the dawn of the 20th century, and runs through to New Year’s Eve 1933.  The way it blends together the story of two families above and below stairs clearly shows the way forward to TV series such as Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs, while the intensely-felt central performance of Diana Wynyard as an aristocratic mother at times reminded me of Celia Johnson in Coward’s later classic, Brief Encounter. I really enjoyed it, despite the fact that many people don’t. Anyway, yes, it is episodic, but what great episodes. Also, the music is excellent, especially Ursula Jeans’ performance of Coward’s song Twentieth Century Blues - even if you don’t want to see the whole film, just treat yourself to this clip!

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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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