Raise your hand if you know what “pre-Code” means. Did you get a little hormonal surge reading that term? If so then you really know pre-Code and all it implies and promises.
In the late 1920s, when sound came into motion pictures, the Hollywood studios began feeling their oats and things got very naughty very fast. All of a sudden, hookers, drug addicts, gangsters, murderers, cheating husbands and wives, and—egads—gay people started showing up in movies, and things got so supercharged that the morally righteous enforced a Motion Picture Code beginning in 1934 and heavily censored movies thereafter. Heavily, heavily censored them. But for an all-too-brief five years, movies were heaven—or hell, depending on your point of view.
Personally, I think it was the be-all and end-all time of the Golden Age, and I can only imagine the result if the Code hadn’t come in to tame your vintage libertines like Harlow, Lombard, Rogers, and then Lana and Rita—not to mention Gable, Cagney, and Flynn. Alas, we’ll never know.
The other day I watched a 1929 musical called The Love Parade that had a strange effect on my red blood. It’s a dreamlike operetta about a rakish French nobleman, Count Renard, assigned to the court of Queen Louise of Sylvania, a verging-on-spinsterhood proper young lady who, upon introduction to Count Renard and the reading of a report about his scandalous reputation back home in France, tries to surrender her virginity as quickly as possible.
They’re married before the end of the first reel and then things get predictably complicated when the proud and still naughty Frenchman grows restless as, basically, the do-less “first husband” of the land. A happy ending can only be achieved after the count has asserted his authority and the queen has given herself freely into submission to her man. The basic theme here: bad boys are the way to go!
Even though this thing was made 87 years ago in fading black and white; even though they hadn’t really figured out sound recording yet and one sentence is over-modulated and the next is muffled, I think this picture is incendiary.
Jeanette MacDonald was 26 when she made her motion picture debut here after finding fame on Broadway. I can’t say I know much about early Jeanette pictures, and I hope my learned readership can enlighten me. Was she always this sexy before the Code came in? I heard myself say aloud, “She’s HOT!” while watching The Love Parade, and Mary said in her most doubtful voice, “Really?” Yes, really. Later on Jeanette would be teamed with Nelson Eddy, and together they’d take their operatic voices on an odyssey through many successful MGM musicals, all of them fine for family viewing, so this earlier incarnation of vine-ripening Ms. MacDonald was, to me, a pleasant surprise.
Maurice Chevalier was 15 years Jeanette’s senior and making his second American picture with The Love Parade. These two Paramount Players enjoyed chemistry together that would propel them into more pictures as a love team. From a distance, The Smiling Lieutenant, Love Me Tonight, One Night with You, and The Merry Widow seem to have been cut from the same bolt of cloth as The Love Parade—is that right? I’m pleading ignorance here because I’ve avoided early musicals studiously over the years and only knew Chevalier as the farcical grandfather guy from pictures of the 1960s. And the one the Marx Bros. tried to imitate in Monkey Business.
I also had no idea Chevalier was wounded in World War I and a POW for two years. Having some grasp of how the Germans felt about the French, I can’t imagine life in a prison camp from 1914 to 1916 was much in the way of fun, and maybe this gave Chevalier the joie de vivre that marked his screen persona—after you’ve seen hell, everything that followed had to be gravy, especially romping through a land of make-believe with Jeanette MacDonald.
Broadway entertainer Lillian Roth, then 19, took on the role of a maid in The Love Parade and spent her time as comic relief observing the torrid goings-on between the queen and count. I’ve got a glamor shot of Lillian on my wall that serves as testimony to my affection for the pre-I’ll Cry Tomorrow Roth, this being her memoir of addiction and recovery. Here she is at 47 interviewed by Mike Wallace about her life, saying at one point, “I’ve never felt … quite … adequate.” She describes a lifetime of not believing she was good enough, pretty enough, or talented enough (thanks to an abusive, perfectionistic stage mother)—all of which led Lillian Roth to the bottle for solace.
The great Ernst Lubitsch directed The Love Parade, his first talking picture in a fantastic career that included crossing paths with two of my own biographical subjects, Carole Lombard (chronicled in Fireball) in To Be or Not to Be and James Stewart (covered in Mission) in The Shop Around the Corner. Lubitsch really did have quite the touch, a way of finding flesh-and-blood humanity, romance, and yes, deep sexuality in each and every picture. As detailed in Fireball, Gable referred to Lubitsch as “the horny Hun” and warned Mrs. Gable to stay away—you can imagine what sharp-tongued Lombard said to her husband in response. In I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Lillian Roth describes how the canny Lubitsch plucked her from the stage for Hollywood stardom in his first talkie with Chevalier, which led Lillian to assume she’d be the Frenchman’s love interest. But all along Lubitsch intended Roth and diminutive physical comedian Lupino Lane to play absurd counterpoint to MacDonald and Chevalier, and Lubitsch held fast to his vision even against Lillian’s tears and protests. The pain of this ego blow and its effect on her subsequent career comes through in the I’ll Cry Tomorrow narrative and served as one more factor in her descent into addiction.
The Love Parade was nominated for six Academy Awards, including an unlikely nod to the smug and self-satisfied Chevalier. Whatever, just watch and listen as Jeanette sings the haunting Dream Lover in that operatic voice and try to get it out of your head afterward. For good measure, here’s the instrumental waltz version. It’s a dreamy song for a picture about dreamy lovers.
Pardon me while I go panning for more pre-Code Hollywood gold. I’ve seen all the usual pre-Codes, but never thought to look under rocks labeled musical-comedy, where I shouted Eureka! upon discovery of The Love Parade.
Her singing voice was exquisite and her figure food for the eyes. What about Fay Ray’s early films, if not the uncut King Kong scene of her dropping from the rope and is seen swimming in the ocean below?
I love Fay Wray, Christopher. For a time there she was the hardest-working woman in show business and she kept her style and sense of humor until the end–70 years after beauty tamed the beast.
Well said, Tom. The article you point us to unmasks me as the same kind of chauvinist that created pre-Code pictures. It also mentions our puritanical roots that made 1930 Hollywood fertile ground for salacious fare: “Americans do lecherous, off-color comedy with great gusto, but they tend to get nervous about sensuality and eroticism.” It was true in 1930 and it may be truer now.
“She’s HOT!”, he says.
Yeah, David Denby can turn a phrase. Loved what he said about Powell and Loy, and the importance of the East Coast scriptwriters giving women a voice.
I really never thought of Jeanette MacDonald as a pre-code kind of gal. In her later MGM movies she always came across as a little milquetoast. I know she was a pet of Louis B. Mayer. I’ll have to check this one out. My favorite pre-code movies are A Free Soul with Norma Shearer and Red Headed Woman with an unrepentant bad girl-Jean Harlow.
i have long enjoyed the sexy sauciness and risque humour to be found in the best of the Ernst Lubitsch comedies. Trouble in Paradise may be the most celebrated of his pre-code films but certainly his works with Chevalier and MacDonald rank very highly, as well.
It’s my understanding that his two stars were not particularly fond of one another. Certainly Chevalier was the bigger star of the two at the time, but her turn would come soon afterward at MGM when teamed with Nelson Eddy.
The teaming of Maurice and Jeanette that I enjoy the most is 1932’s Love Me Tonight, a clever and infectious concoction of Rogers and Hart songs (including the immortal Isn’t It Romantic) and risque humour. And the supporting cast in this film is really first rate, including the likes of Myrna Loy (whose character is completely man crazy) and Charlie Ruggles.
There’s a moment in the film in which Ruggles, upon encountering Loy, asks her if she would go for a doctor.
“Sure,” the lady replies, “bring him in.”
But the film also has one of the most unexpected of all sights, with cuts to various cast members singing the popular hit song, “Mimi,” but among them is the normally crusty C. Aubrey Smith, fresh out of bed in a nightgown, but now beaming and cheerfully singing a few of the song’s lyrics while acting as close to cutesy cuddly as you would ever see him on the screen.
At the end of the film one lover is on horseback pursuing the other in a train. But there’s a reversal of roles here, for it’s Jeanette MacDonald riding that horse, passing the train then riding up onto the tracks and dismounting, forcing the train to pull to a halt just a matter of feet before striking her. (There are low angle camera shots looking up at Jeanette as she stands on the tracks, hands on her hips, looking proud and determined – she’s not going anywhere).
But it was actually innovative Rouben Mamoulian that was guiding all the action here. The best of the Chevailier-MacDonald encounters, in my opinion, Love Me Tonight had Mamoulian out-Lubitsching Lubitsch.
As a gal of French-Canadian stock, I remember the large Chevalier record collection at my grandparents’ house. My grandmother said my Pepe had a huge crush on Jeanette, and I couldn’t see why until I viewed her in those early flicks with Chevalier. Those later films with Eddy restored her virginity and robbed her of her sauciness. However, my own favorite Chevalier film is “The Smiling Lieutenant.” How can you surpass a saucer-eyed Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins singing about spicing up their lingerie?
I read that MacDonald was just plain turned off by the advances of “Pepe,” which you’d never know to watch them together onscreen. I always wondered how actors do that–act like they’re in love when in real life they don’t like one another. Me? It’d never work. I guess the lesson to be learned is never play poker with an actor.
Thank you for the French-Canadian perspective on Chevalier and MacDonald. I need to catch The Smiling Lieutenant as well.
I think pre-code showed the sex appeal of all girls back then, except for Janet Gaynor.
Norma Shearer, Loretta Young, Macdonald.
They all had “it” during pre code…but 1934 came and they had to play it safer.
You made me LOL Priscila. “…except for Janet Gaynor.” I agree with you that she just didn’t have “it.”
Check out Lubitsch’s 1933 “Design for Living” from Noel Coward’s play of the same name. From reviews the play was by far the better effort, but I think the movie is terrific. I am not a fan of Miriam Hopkins but this is her at her very, very best. She meets Frederic March (a playwright) and his pal Gary Cooper (a painter) on a train. She’s interested in both men but can’t decide between them so decides they should all live together. The trio make a gentleman’s agreement to keep it platonic. This doesn’t last long as Hopkins lounges seductively with Cooper and says, “I know we had a gentlemen’s agreement, but I’m not a gentleman.” The movie is very sexual as Hopkins alternates between the two men. To add more interest, there’s also Edward Everett Horton as Hopkin’s boss who wants her for himself. The script is written by Ben Hecht and the buzz was that only one line of Coward’s play was left in the movie. I like Hecht’s rapid fire, clever dialogue and the word “sex” is used several times. They got this movie in right under the pre-code wire, but it may be that the wire was moved up precisely because of this movie.
You can watch it on youtube in its entirety here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=boQQnENbnWo
I’ve just caught the Miriam Hopkins bug, Marina, and so I appreciate the recommendation. I find the early 1930s to be fascinating for the liberalism and permissiveness that took root. To me those lines of dialogue that make you go, “Whoa!” or, “Did she just say what I think she said?” make pre-Code a blast to watch.