Ladies of “Pre-Code” (and their men): Joan Blondell and James Cagney in Blonde Crazy (WB, 1931), Jean Harlow and Chester Morris in Red-Headed Woman (MGM, 1932) and Kay Francis with William Powell in One Way Passage (WB, 1932).
My interest in film history and “classic movies” began with movies of the 1930s, in particular those of the “pre-code” era, though at the time neither term — “classic movies” nor “pre-code” — had yet to gain currency or even be coined, to my knowledge. It wasn’t an affinity brought about by choice as by availability. It’s what was broadcast on the late, late shows on local television. Almost by default, the early 1930s became my favorite film period. I hadn’t been exposed to much silent film as yet, and I would eventually become more interested in early film. But in terms of style, I’ve retained a soft spot for the early sound films, especially those that followed the first wave of “all-talking, all-singing” musical revues. I’m referring to the frank films of Hollywood in the pre-production code era — roughly 1929 to 1934 — and the gangsters, bootleggers, hookers, bored society babes, night nurses, slick swells, jewel robbers and assorted public enemies that populated them.
Enough essay, more illustration. Here are some images, a small fraction of the thousands that I’ve gathered and prepared for the various articles on films and stars of the era and haven’t been able to use, but are more than worthy of seeing outside the context of those articles, maybe with just a little commentary along the way. (And if you haven’t read the original articles, I’ve included links to them as well.) Most of them are still frames from films. Other photos and images of similar interest can be found in the “East 14th Street Gallery,” via Flickr, on the right side column of this site.
I plan on adding to the few here that I’ve started with, or else I’ll just create another post, so if you like what you see here and want to see more, please check back later for new additions (OR SUBSCRIBE: See the upper far-right column!).
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The Office Wife (Warner Brothers, 1930, Director: Lloyd Bacon, Cinematographer: William Rees).
In her second film, the brash Broadway babe Blondell steals virtually all of her scenes with Dorothy Mackaill, a silent star who had gotten her start onstage (and in Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolics when Blondell was still a child in her family’s vaudeville act). In fairness, Mackaill plays the straight-woman to Blondell’s randy comic role as girl who uses her physical assets to get ahead in the business world.
Above: in Sinners’ Holiday (WB, 1930, Director: John G. Adolfi, Cinematographer: Ira Morgan).
Blondell was a fool for no man. Not even as Myrtle, “The Little Happiness Girl” at Coney Island, or as Cagney’s mother calls her, “that Tenth Avenue cruiser!” (Tenth Avenue being at the time a rather unsavory stretch on the far West Side of Manhattan through Hell’s Kitchen and the meat-packing district. Now it’s pricey real-estate along with the rest of the borough.)
The fourth film Joan Blondell made with James Cagney, and arguably their best pairing if not their best film (second only to 1931’s The Public Enemy). Blondell was Cagney’s ideal co-star, and their six films together hardly seem enough. Despite their incredible onscreen chemistry, they never played actual lovers. They typically played characters who genuinely belonged together, but were too hard-headed to realize it, each usually relegated to pining for someone else who was unobtainable. Blonde Crazy was the epitome of this weird, stunted relationship — until the very end of the film. And even then, Cagney is in prison by the time they finally admit they belong together.
Below: The Public Enemy (WB, 1931, Director: William A. Wellman, Cinematographer: Dev Jennings).
I remember eagerly anticipating this film on the late show as my first chance to see the legendary Jean Harlow. Compared to Blondell, she was a major disappointment. This film clearly belonged to Cagney’s punk gangster Tom Powers, But Blondell’s Mamie, not Harlow’s Gwen, was the girl you wanted to spend more time with. Of course Cagney pines for the self-absorbed Gwen while his pal Matt (Edward Woods) has eyes for Mamie.
Below, as Mamie looks on, Tom tells Gwen he has “business” to take care of . . .
. . . while Mamie appeals to gangster kingpin “Nails” Nathan (Leslie Fenton) to intercede before the violence starts.
Below: Joan Blondell, Photoplay Magazine, April 1931.
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Red-Headed Woman (MGM, 1932, Director: Jack Conway, Cinematographer: Hal Rosson).
Harlow’s Gwen in The Public Enemy is not, as I discovered, the best introduction to the amazing Blonde Bombshell, “Baby Jean.” Red-Headed Woman, however, IS. In the opening sequence, in which Harlow gets her red tint and tries on her see-through skirt, we think it’s a comedy. In fact, it is a rather blunt, even brutal, study of a slutty young woman who doesn’t see the harm of destroying a marriage. In fact, she finds it exhilarating and even great fun.
“So blondes have more fun, do they?”
Below: Would any filmmaker today have the balls to display so brazenly two such incredible profiles? They look as if they are ready to hack each other apart. And they do, metaphorically speaking. (Jean Harlow and Chester Morris)
Harlow confesses her desire for Bill (Chester Morris) — and her amusement at breaking up his marriage — to her BFF, Sally, played by Una Merkel.
Una Merkel made a career of playing gal pals and various other supporting roles to some of Hollywood’s top female stars, including Loretta Young (3 times), Myrna Loy, Norma Shearer, Jeanette MacDonald, Kay Francis, Madge Evans, Ann Harding, Irene Dunne and, of course Jean Harlow. In addition to Red-Headed Woman, Harlow and Merkel were paired in Bombshell (1932), Rif-Raff (1935) and Harlow’s last film, Saratoga (1937).
Above, Harlow discovers Sally is wearing her frock, and demands that she strip immediately. We agree.
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Girls About Town (Paramount, 1931, Director: George Cukor, Cinematographer: Ernest Haller).
In addition to being an unusual and striking beauty, Kay Francis displayed a lot more range than she is typically given credit for by those who claim to have seen her films. This scene from Girls About Town, playing a hooker trying to interest (seriously) a skeptical Joel McCrea, shows what she could do. These still frames give only a hint (the post Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman: Girls About Town shows a bit more).
Above, with Lilyan Tashman as a couple of not-so-happy hookers. Tashman, nearly ten years older than Francis, had been in the Ziegfeld Follies in the 1910s and had been making movies since the early 20s. Francis was a relative newbie on Broadway at the time she was signed to a film contract by Paramount in 1929, but she and Tashman traveled in the same social circles: actors, writers, athletes, gay, straight, and had a personal chemistry that shows in the casual camaraderie of Girls About Town.
Kay Francis was publicized by Paramount as a fashion-savvy, east-coast sophisticate, which was not much of an exaggeration. According to her publicity (quoted in Photoplay in January, 1931) She was 5′ 7″ (most other sources say between 5′ 8″ and 5′ 10″ which judging by her films the tallest figure is most likely), weighed about 118 and measured 33, 25 1/2, 35, an ideal clothes-hanger.
One Way Passage (WB, 1932, Director: Tay Garnett, Cinematographer: Robert Kurrle).
Lilyan Tashman may have been her best onscreen female co-star, but William Powell was her ideal man. They made six films together — Street of Chance (1930), For the Defense (1930) and Ladies’ Man (1931) for Paramount, then three more after both stars defected to Warner Brothers — Man Wanted, Jewel Robbery and One Way Passage (all from 1932).
For better or worse, no couple ever made smoking seem more romantic than William Powell and Kay Francis in One Way Passage. But then again, they play doomed lovers.
Previous posts on Kay Francis (and William Powell and Lilyan Tashman): The Fascinating Miss Francis, Kay Francis, One-Way Passage, Kay Francis and William Powell: Jewel Robbery, Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman: Girls About Town, Kay Francis, M.D. and Kay Francis, Beginnings.