Hot Saturdays: Gems from Pre-Code Hollywood

Date Film Time
1/21 Scarface 2 pm
1/28 Call Her Savage 2 pm
2/4 Blood Money 2 pm
2/11 Hot Saturday with School for Romance 2 pm
2/18 A House Divided 2 pm
2/25 The Woman I Stole 2 pm
3/3 Dancers in the Dark 2 pm

Warm up this winter with several rare and risqué films from Hollywood’s pre-Code period. The early sound era was one of the most fascinating in Hollywood history—a time when filmmakers flouted the barely enforced censorship codes and American audiences were offered (often sympathetic) characters who engaged in adultery, sexual deviance, and all manner of criminality before the eventual crackdown by censors in summer of 1934.

In his book Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema, film scholar Thomas Doherty writes that “For four years, the Code commandments were violated with impunity and inventiveness in a series of wildly eccentric films. More unbridled, salacious, subversive, and just plain bizarre than what came afterwards, they look like Hollywood cinema but the moral terrain is so off-kilter they seem imported from a parallel universe.”

Our series commences with a screening of the original Scarface, Howard Hawks’ daring depiction of a demented Chicago gangster. Also included is Hot Saturday, starring a young Cary Grant; the notorious Blood Money, starring Frances Dee as a nymphomaniacal kleptomaniac; Clara Bow’s outrageous early talkie Call Her Savage, and rarities starring Walter Huston (A House Divided), Fay Wray (The Woman I Stole) and Miriam Hopkins (Dancers in the Dark).


Saturday, January 21, 2012 2:00 PM
(Howard Hawks, 1932, USA, 35mm, 93 min.)

Loosely based on the legendary Al Capone, this masterful portrait of a brutal Chicago mobster features Paul Muni in a star-making performance. A key film in the Hawks oeuvre, Scarface is a pull-no-punches story of a man who will let nothing get in the way of his unholy obsessions: to rise to the top of the rackets and to prevent any man from getting near his sister (Ann Dvorak). Directed with aplomb by Hawks and featuring a crackling script by Ben Hecht, Scarface remains one of the greatest of all gangster films.

Call Her Savage

Saturday, January 28, 2012 2:00 PM
(John Francis Dillon, 1932, USA, 35mm, 87 min.)

Clara Bow delivers a knock out punch as Nasa “Dynamite” Springer, a Texas socialite incapable of controlling her temper. Showcasing Bow’s trademark feistiness, Call Her Savage luxuriates in pre-Code provocation, placing the willful Nasa in a panoply of unsavory settings: Chicago speakeasies, New Orleans slums, and an anarchist café in the East Village complete with a gay cabaret (a scene later immortalized in the documentary The Celluloid Closet). Over-the-top yet affecting, Bow turns in a stellar performance as the titular “savage,” a woman whose inborn ferocity stymies all attempts at her domestication.

Blood Money

Saturday, February 4, 2012 2:00 PM
(Rowland Brown, 1933, USA, 35mm, 65 min.)

In this down and dirty exploration of the Los Angeles underworld, George Bancroft plays Bill Bailey, a crooked bail bondsman who can bribe his way out of any jam. Doe-eyed Frances Dee plays against type as socialite Elaine Talbart, a masochistic kleptomaniac looking for a bad man to treat her wrong. Mayhem ensues when the two get mixed up with a serial bank robber. Blood Money is a deliciously perverse tale of double-crosses and dark desires. This still shockingly subversive film garnered the dubious honor of being first on the list of banned films from the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency.

Hot Saturday

Saturday, February 11, 2012 2:00 PM
(William A. Seiter, 1932, USA, 35mm, 73 min.)

Nancy Carroll stars as Ruth Brock, a cute young bank teller who longs for adventure and an escape from small town doldrums. Excitement arrives when a wealthy playboy, Romer Sheffield (Cary Grant), comes to town and hosts a summer soiree at his luxe woodland retreat. Soon Ruth must choose between the debonair Sheffield and her former beau, Bill (Randolph Scott), who’s still sweet on her. Hot Saturday is notable for its unexpected (and decidedly pre-Code) conclusion, and for the early roles of its male leads: Randolph Scott, who would later rise to fame as a stoic hero in Budd Boetticher’s westerns, and a young Cary Grant in his first leading man role.

Preceded by:

School for Romance

(Archie Gottler, 1934, USA, 35mm, 20 min.)

In this hilarious short film produced by Columbia Pictures, professor “Romansky” provides lectures on lovemaking to a group of cute co-eds–including a young Betty Grable.

A House Divided

Saturday, February 18, 2012 2:00 PM
(William Wyler, 1931, USA, 35mm, 68 min.)

An early sound film for Universal by veteran director Wyler, this ultra rare feature stars Walter Huston as a brutish patriarch in a small fishing village who sends for a mousy mail order bride after the death of his wife. When a beautiful young woman (Helen Chandler) arrives instead, his grown son (Kent Douglass) falls for her, creating ample tension in the already explosive household. With expressionist visuals and gothic flair, A House Divided features masterful direction by Wyler and an exquisite performance by Huston.

The Woman I Stole

Saturday, February 25, 2012 2:00 PM
(Irving Cummings, 1933, USA, 35mm, 70 min.)

This rarely screened feature from Columbia Pictures concerns a love triangle between ex-pat Americans in the North African desert. Jim (Jack Holt) is on a mission to exploit the area’s oil reserves while fighting off local Arab bandits (who are apparently “treacherous” enough to demand access to their own country’s natural resources). At the same time, Jim is hot for the cold-hearted Vida (Fay Wray), and he concocts a scheme to steal her from her unwitting husband. Delightfully campy and politically incorrect in every sense, the film also features an unintentionally hilarious ending you won’t soon forget.

Dancers in the Dark

Saturday, March 3, 2012 2:00 PM
(David Burton, 1932, USA, 35mm, 74 min.)

Miriam Hopkins stars as Gloria, a dime-a-dance girl with a questionable past who finds herself caught between three men at the nightclub where she works: bandleader Duke (Jack Oakie), wholesome saxophone player Floyd (William Collier Jr.), and vile gangster Louie (George Raft). When she decides to go straight and get serious with Floyd, the other men take it upon themselves to try to expose Gloria’s fickle heart. Hopkins, an often-overlooked actress, offers a performance both sultry and sweet, especially in her seductive rendition of the song St. Louis Blues.