In our weekly old movies column, a chat with the man trying to get us all to watch late 1920s and 1930s cinema this April.
Stumbling into pre-Hays Code 1930s cinema, for me, was an accident. Another obsession (the Victorian era) led me into the history of cinema when I watched Rouben Mamoulin’s Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1931). Since, I have discovered a whole different world of cinema that wasn’t bound by the rigidity that we think of when we look back at the Golden Age of Hollywood. From saucy, head-strong women to topics such as adultery, depression, and more, these movies are surprising and brilliant.
Thankfully, there seems to be a whole community of people online who are eager to promote these movies. Much like #Noirvember or #Shocktober, film critic, author, and podcaster Matthew Turner has created Pre-Code April for people to enjoy a whole month of pre-code movies. I happily spoke to Matthew Turner to talk about the upcoming event.
What exactly is Pre-Code April?
Broadly, the term Pre-Code refers to American movies made between 1929 and 1934, before the introduction of the Hays Code, which enforced standardised censorship guidelines across all Hollywood films.
The basic idea is that people watch – or at least tweet about – a Pre-Code film a day in April, adding the hashtag #PreCodeApril so that all the tweets can be seen in the same place. That said, there are no hard and fast rules – if people want to watch just one Pre-Code film in April or spend the month watching as many as they can back-to-back, that’s great. The more the merrier.
As for where the idea came from, I need to give credit where it’s due. I don’t know who came up with #Shocktober, but #Noirvember (watching and tweeting about film noir movies in November) was invented by Marya Gates (@oldfilmsflicker).
The idea for #PreCodeApril was directly inspired by how much fun I had during #Noirvember over the past two years. I thought it would be great to do the same thing for Pre-Code movies, in part because although I’ve seen most of the classic 1930s films, I realised there were a huge number of Pre-Code films I’d never seen.
For example, I have a Letterboxd list of 700 Pre-Code films and I’ve only seen 170 of them. I picked April partly because it’s six months away from #Noirvember and partly because of the shared ‘pr’ sound in APRil and PRe-Code. I love a bit of word play, however tenuous!
Where did your love of Pre-Code come from?
As my social media username (@FilmFan1971) suggests, I’ve been a lifelong film fanatic, so I’ve always loved old movies. I was given a copy of Danny Peary’s Guide for the Film Fanatic in 1987 (that’s where I took FilmFan from when I first discovered the internet) and I’ve spent the last 34 years of my life working my way through it, so the Pre-Code films I’d previously seen were the ones in Peary’s book. They’re also the ones I’ll be prioritising with my own #PreCodeApril line-up.
What do you enjoy about Pre-Code movies?
I’m interested in how incredibly shocking some of the Pre-Code films are, particularly in terms of sex, drugs, language and violence.
I saw The Public Enemy (1931, pictured at the top of the article) as a teenager not long after I got Peary’s book and I remember being absolutely horrified by the ending of that film. The subject matter of Pre-Code films is always fascinating – all the social issue stuff (poverty, alcoholism, drug use, prostitution) hits hard and there are depictions of, say, sexual relationships that still seem shocking even by today’s standards. That’s of particular interest to me also, as I have a podcast on erotic thrillers (Fatal Attractions – see @FatalAttractPod on Twitter) and it’s fun to compare and contrast.
There are lots of other different aspects too, from seeing the early appearances of stars like Barbara Stanwyck and Humphrey Bogart to discovering the work of 1930s actors like Kay Francis and Joan Blondell, both of whom made dozens of films in the ’30s but largely disappeared in the ’40s (Francis retired in the ’50s, but Blondell moved into TV and continued working right up until her death in 1979).
And of course there’s Mae West and Jean Harlow, whose careers perfectly encapsulate Pre-Code movies.
What do you hope people get out of Pre-Code April?
I think it probably depends where you’re coming from.
For classic film fans like myself, I hope people share their pre-existing love of Pre-Code films and flag up some of their favourites, as well as maybe taking the opportunity to tick a few unseen films off their own watchlists (that’s what I’ll be doing). For newcomers, I hope people discover a love of the genre and will be inspired to seek out more Pre-Code films. I feel quite strongly that more people should see classic films, so if even one person is inspired to watch their first 1930s film because of Pre-Code April, I’ll consider that a great success. I’m also hoping that Pre-Code enthusiasts will make connections with each other through the hashtag and share each other’s posts, have their own conversations, that sort of thing.
What films should people start with?
How much space do we have?
For horror, I’d start with stuff like Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932, pictured below), famed for the chant “one of us, one of us.” There’s also Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931) and A. Edward Sutherland’s Murders in the Zoo (1933), which has one of the most shocking images I’ve seen in any film, let alone 1930s stuff.
For gangster films, I’d go with the classic trio of Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931) and Scarface (1932).
For sex comedies, I’d suggest Design For Living (1933), or anything by Ernst Lubitsch, really, Bombshell (1933) – or any Jean Harlow comedy – and The Greeks Had a Word For Them (1932).
For social issues, I highly recommend Ladies of Leisure (1930) – which is an extraordinary film anyway – Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and Gabriel Over the White House (1933).
Then there’s the Busby Berkeley musicals, which are a genre in and of themselves – but Gold Diggers of 1933 is a must-see if you’ve never seen it.
On top of that, I have a handful of my own favourites, like the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon (which I only saw recently, but fell instantly in love with it – it’s amazing), Finishing School – which has a fabulous supporting turn from Ginger Rogers (1934), I’m No Angel (1933) – Mae West and a very young Cary Grant, and Three on a Match (1932) – which has an insane ending), alongside established ’30s classics like The Thin Man (1934), Duck Soup (1933), and the quintessential romcom, It Happened One Night (1934).
Where can people watch these movies?
This is the tricky bit. Many of them are in the public domain, so there are quite a few on YouTube and a handful on Amazon Prime, although obviously the quality varies quite a bit. Lots of them are available quite cheaply on DVD too (you can pick up Pre-Code box sets), plus it’s always worth keeping an eye on channels like TCM and TalkingPicturesTV.
I’ll be posting YouTube and Amazon Prime lists on my Twitter feed a few days before Pre-Code April kicks off, to point people in the right direction. I will say this though – pretty much everything is out there somewhere, so if there’s a specific film that you want to watch, then please DM me on Twitter and I’ll help you find it.
You can follow Matthew Turner at @FilmFan1971 and listen to his podcast @FatalAtractPod.
You can also pick up his book What to Watch When on Amazon!
We can’t wait to see you all at #PreCodeApril!
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