Sarah Cook returns to celebrate pre-Hays Code cinema, and she’s trying to get a party going.

Reader, Tonight Is Ours.

This year has been a turbulent one, filled with uncertainty and fear. As we face the possibility of another lockdown cancelling our festivities, sometimes it is hard to keep Smilin’ Through. Whilst there may be Trouble In Paradise, sometimes a little celebration and laughter are key to help ease this current cold climate  – whether it is solo or safe with loved ones.


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So, I’ve got the perfect Design For Living. It’s time to Dance, Fools, Dance, and let’s party like it’s pre-code!

First of all, you’ve got to get an outfit. The outfit is crucial for any party. In the 1930s, glitzy party dresses that draped down to the floor were popular and show-up frequently in pre-Code movies. However, they simply do not beat costumes. Whether it’s Katherine Hepburn as a grasshopper in Christopher Strong (1933) or Claudette Colbert’s harlequin outfit in Tonight Is Ours (1933).

There’s one film that towers above when it comes to creative costumes – Madam Satan (1930.) Cecil B DeMille’s musical misfire may be a cult classic film because it is so bad, it is phenomenal. This curious oddity sees a woman disguise herself at a party to ensnare her cheating husband. The party itself is held, hilariously, in a blimp where the scorned wife transforms into the seductive, titular Madam Satan. There’s a whole musical segment where there’s a parade of costumes which includes clocks, electricity, cats, and a chandelier.

Madam Satan

Madam Satan

You can’t beat a bit of wild and wonderful wears.

Now, where are you going to host the party? Perhaps we can head to Ancient Rome for a moonlight orgy such as The Sign Of The Cross (1932.) Maybe see Champagne Ivy in a Victorian London music hall like horror film Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1931). There’s also the secret dorm room parties like the girls in The Wild Party (1930) enjoy.

The location is key, especially if there is a grand staircase one can make a dramatic entrance on. I cannot stress this enough; I love a good pre-Code staircase. Others may prefer a balcony where love blossoms or dancing cheek-to-cheek in a ballroom with your loved one. However, the grand staircase is such drama. Imagine it: The object of your love catches you looking the most divine and falls desperately in love with you. All the while the crowd below sees how ridiculously successful you are. The power of the staircase! The best example of this is Kay Francis dripping in silver, walking dramatically down the stairs in Mandalay (1933).

Just beware of any blimps. It’s not the most trusted venue.

So, you have the outfit, you have the locations, and there’s an endless supply of champagne, gin, and whiskey, no matter how hard prohibition tries to stop you. The next task is the invitations. Pre-Code films are filled with tempestuous relationships and affairs, so you have to be careful who you invite. There are warring spouses in films such as Smarty (1934,) lovelorn exes in The Divorcee (1930,) or maybe even Death himself will pay a visit and take your girl, like he does in Death Takes A Holiday (1934.) Your party is going to be filled with drama no matter who you invite (so that staircase is key!)

Make sure that if you are going to have an affair, you note your other half may also wish to do so, and, given that invitation to do so at a party in your own home, they will bring home Cary Grant.

Finally, a party wouldn’t be a party if there wasn’t any dancing. Of course, what better dancing is there than big numbers in a musical and the Pre-Code era is full of them. Most famously are the ones choreographed by Busby Berkeley. Highlights include the cheeky number ‘Honeymoon Hotel’ in James Cagney-led Footlight Parade (1932,) the gorgeous geometrical dances in Dames (1934,) and Ginger Rogers’ number ‘We’re In The Money’ during Gold-Diggers Of 1933 (1933)

Of course, Berkeley musicals aren’t all pre-Code has to other. For example, Ernst Lubitsch, one of the greatest directors of all time, has had a fair few – teaming up with French actor and crooner Maurice Chevalier for a number of films including Love Parade (1929) and The Smiling Lieutenant (1931).

Love Me Tonight

Love Me Tonight

However, my personal favourite musical from the Pre-Code era is Love Me Tonight (1932.) I’m a sucker for several things – Maurice Chevalier, Musicals, and Mamoulian. Though many think it’s a Lubitsch blueprint, Mamoulian holds his own in this humorous and harmonious movie that has great tunes and even greater laughs. Check out the song that is carried from character to character in a brilliantly inventive number.

We’ve got the outfit, the location, the company, and the music. I guess the last thing to do is to toast to a bright new year – and what better way to denounce 2021 like Fredric March does in Dorothy Arzner’s dark comedy. So, raise your glass and say out loud with me – Merrily We Go To Hell!

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