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.
The Criterion Channel is running a collection of racy Paramount movies of that era. Paramount wasn’t just racy. It was a happy home for such auteur directors as Ernst Lubitsch, Rouben Mamoulian, Josef von Sternberg, Cecil B. DeMille, and Dorothy Arzner.
I haven’t seen all of these, and I don’t even like some the ones I’ve seen. But here are the ones I can recommend.
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. Edward Everett Horton plays the disapproving bluenose.
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+ Shanghai Express (1932)
Josef von Sternberg created this seductive, romantic, and totally inaccurate vision of China without ever stepping off the Paramount lot. Add von Sternberg’s muse, Marlene Dietrich, photographed with the most gorgeous black-and-white lighting imaginable, and you have an exotic and erotic tale. The story is something of a precursor to Stagecoach, with a cross-section of humanity traveling through dangerous territory. But most of the characters are shallow, and the movie goes on way too long after the suspense is over.
B The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)
This early Hollywood musical isn’t Lubitsch at his best, but it’s still an enjoyable romp. Maurice Chevalier plays the title character, who is, of course, irresistible to women. He falls for a beautiful violinist (Claudette Colbert), but then a spoiled and virginal princess (Miriam Hopkins, in her first work with Lubitsch) falls for him even though he doesn’t love her. Everyone is charming, funny, and often singing.
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- If I Had a Million (1932)
Here’s the ultimate wish fantasy of the Great Depression. A dying tycoon gives his money away to eight strangers – one million dollar check at a time. And then, of course, we see what each of these lucky people do with their sudden fortune (in 1932 money). Some of the stories are funny; others are serious. W. C. Fields rams into cars he considers “road hogs.” A prostitute sleeps alone in a fine hotel. No one will take a forger’s million-dollar check. Each story was shot by a different director.