Three of the four movies here are part of the Criterion Channels’ current Pre-Code Paramount series. I saw and liked two of the Pre-Code movies decades ago, and was disappointed when seeing them again.
But hey, when two of the four films star W.C. Fields, they can’t be totally bad.
A- Hive (2021)
It’s the sort of upbeat story that Hollywood can make without thinking, but this time, it’s not all that happy. Fahrije is probably a war widow – her husband’s body was never found. To put food on the table for her two children and her father-in-law, she starts raising bees, and sells honey and ajvar. A group of other women join her. But the village is extremely sexist. Physical attacks come frequently, as the men try to remind her that she’s “only a woman” and shouldn’t go into business. Based on a true story.
B+ Million Dollar Legs (1932)
Before the Marx Brothers created Freedonia, Jack Oakie and W.C. Fields birthed the absurd nation of Klopstokia, where all women are named Angela and all men George. Better yet, all the citizens are extremely strong and athletic – even if few of them look it. To fill their treasury, the good citizens go to Los Angeles to win the Olympics. Don’t expect anything that makes sense. Exceptionally silly and hysterically funny.
C+ International House (1933)
So many talented comedians, and so few laughs–and even fewer songs. A Chinese inventor creates what we now know as television. Businessmen swarm from all over the world to a hotel in Wuhu, China, to bid for rights to the patent. That could have worked if the jokes were funnier and music more frequent. Even with the talents of W.C. Fields, Rudy Vallee, Burns and Allen, Cab Calloway, Bela Lugosi, Rose Marie, and the king of high-strung comedy, Franklin Pangborn.
D+ Murder at the Vanities (1934)
A backstage murder doesn’t stop opening night in a big Broadway show. A ridiculous idea, but there’s little that’s believable or entertaining in this ridiculous musical. But that’s not the big problem. The songs aren’t special, and the dancing looks like a watered-down version of Busby Berkeley. The movie’s major draw to 21st-century viewers is how pre-code this film really is. You’ve got chorus girls wearing very skimpy clothes, dripping blood, and a song about marijuana.