Pre-Code Paramount at the Criterion Channel

As silent movies died and the talkies took over, movies became racier. The jokes got raunchier. The gowns were more revealing. And the bad girl could get the good guy – or maybe two good guys. This so-called “Pre-Code era” died in 1934, when the censors of the Production Code Administration took away much of the fun.

During that time, Paramount gave considerable freedom to their filmmakers. Auteurs like Ernst Lubitsch and Josef Von Sternberg could make almost anything they wanted. And not just directors. Actors such as Mae West and the Marx Brothers could pretty much make the movies they wanted to make.

The Criterion Channel is running a collection of 19 pre-code Paramount films. Here are some that I’ve seen. I’m looking forward for more of the rest.

A Design for Living (1933)

Impeccable credentials occasionally pay off. Design for Living is every bit as good as you’d expect from Ernst Lubitsch directing a Ben Hecht screen adaptation of a Noel Coward play. Of course, it also helps to have a great cast. Best friends Gary Cooper and Fredric March both want the beautiful and sexy Miriam Hopkins. She wants both of them. Edward Everett Horton plays the disapproving bluenose. A very funny and sexy pre-code charmer.

A Trouble in Paradise (1932)

What’s so fascinating and entertaining about witty, sophisticated crooks that makes us want to root for them? Probably our own desire to get away with it. This near-perfect pre-code screwball proves that whatever it is, it works. Yet another deliciously amoral Ernst Lubitsch comedy about sex, love, money, and larceny. Starring Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, and Herbert Marshall.

B+ I’m No Angel (1933)

In what I believe is Mae West’s best movie (I haven’t seen them all), she deals with carnies, lions, snooty millionaires, crooks, and a very young and sexy Cary Grant. The bluenoses and the aristocrats try to bring her down, but she’s Mae West (whatever her character’s name is), and she knows how to win via sex appeal. The final act takes place in a very funny and unlikely courtroom, where she’s suing Grant. That’s no problem – the judge and the all-male jury are soon eating out of her hands. As she says in the movie, “It’s not the men in your life; it’s the life in your men.” That line, and the entire screenplay, were written by West.

B Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

This surprisingly serious tearjerker deals with alcoholism, class stratifications, and adultery. A wealthy young woman (Sylvia Sidney) falls for a writer with a severe drinking problem. He also has an infidelity problem. He frequently fails her, and yet she keeps coming back. And no, it never feels repetitive. Written by Edwin Justus Mayer from a story by Cleo Lucas, and directed by Dorothy Arzner – one of the very few women who got to direct in the studio era. An unknown Cary Grant has a small part.

B- The Cocoanuts (1929)

The Marx Brothers’ first movie is an amateurish effort with occasional scenes of brilliance, with only hints at the laughs to come. But it’s fascinating to watch, if only from an historical perspective. As a very early talky based on a stage play, Cocoanuts suffers from the bad audio, static staging, and mostly dull photography of the transitional period, despite a few attempts at visual flair. The movie spends too much time on the dull jewel-thief plot and not enough on the brothers. But the non-speaking Harpo gives his best screen performance. Whether he’s drinking ink, stealing handkerchiefs, or “swimming” across a perfectly dry room, he’s both hilarious and transcendent.

Paramount and the Brothers made four more pre-code comedies. All of them are better than The Cocoanuts.

C+ Morocco (1930)

Josef Von Sternberg – a director who cared more about visuals than characters or story – creates his own form of Orientalism – a world that could only exist in a black-and-white imagination. Aside from the strange, hazy, and lovely visuals, Morocco is worthwhile for one early scene when Marlene Dietrich performs in a nightclub. The plot, such as it is, circles around Dietrich’s choice between a dapper and kind millionaire (Adolphe Menjou) and a tall, handsome légionnaire (Gary Cooper). While watching this movie, it occurred to me that I have only experienced the phrase Foreign Legion in old movies.

Movies I can’t review

These are films I saw and liked long ago. But I don’t remember them enough to write about them.

[Note 3/7/22: Since I posted this article, I’ve seen Million Dollar Lets and International House. You can find my opinions of them at this more recent article.]]

But there’s one Paramount film of that period that really needed to be on this list – the ultimate movie of the depression: If I Had a Million.