Claudette Colbert, Mae West, Gary Cooper: Paramount pre-Code classics at Film Forum
“Paramount Before the Code,” consisting of more than 40 classics, semi-classics, and forgotten gems from Hollywood's little-remembered Naughty Age, will be screened at New York City's Film Forum from June 24 to July 21. The program features Paramount movies released during the years between the coming of sound in 1928 and the institutionalization of the Production Code, a sort of morality covenant between the studios and the censors, in mid-1934. (Image: Claudette Colbert, Fredric March The Sign of the Cross.)
'Paramount Before the Code' movies
The scheduled movies range from well-known and widely available fare – including Cecil B. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross (1932), featuring Fredric March, Elissa Landi, Claudette Colbert, and Charles Laughton; Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel / Der Blaue Engel (1930), with leggy Marlene Dietrich seducing stern professor Emil Jannings; and Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932), with jewel thief Herbert Marshall trying to seduce rich lady Kay Francis – to the rarely seen two-strip Technicolor musical Follow Thru (1930), with Nancy Carroll and Charles 'Buddy' Rogers; the creepy mad doctor tale Island of Lost Souls (1933), with Charles Laughton; and the early George Cukor dramatic comedy Girls About Town (1932), with Lilyan Tashman and Kay Francis.
Mae West: Sex saves
Mae West, Paramount's box office savior during the Great Depression, could also be called the one-woman catalyst for the implementation of the Production Code. In the early '30s, Christian and right-wing groups were so shocked, so outraged, and so turned on by the myriad naughty double entendres found in West's two 1933 releases, She Done Him Wrong and I'm No Angel, that they had to find a way to stop that swishing locomotive of immorality.
Though mild by today's gutter standards, Mae West's tirades and sexual innuendoes still entertain because they are both clever and perfectly timed. She Done Him Wrong and I'm No Angel are part of the Film Forum series, and in both films West lures and lusts after a very young – and surprisingly ineffectual – Cary Grant. (West can also be seen in This Is the Night, her first screen appearance.)
Carole Lombard, the Marx Brothers, and other pre-Coders
Besides the aforementioned Mae West, Kay Francis, Cary Grant, and Marlene Dietrich, “Paramount Before the Code” will also showcase the likes of Jeanette MacDonald, Maurice Chevalier, Carole Lombard, George Raft, the Marx Brothers, Sylvia Sidney (excellent opposite and equally good Gary Cooper in Rouben Mamoulian's 1931 crime drama City Streets), and the underrated Miriam Hopkins (outstanding in both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Trouble in Paradise). And let me emphasize Claudette Colbert, who, before she became the perfect example of American womanhood, was both tempted and tempting in the aforementioned The Sign of the Cross and Cleopatra.
And don't miss Gertrude Michael's erotic fascination with hunky Buster Crabbe (of the Flash Gordon serials) in the risque (and bizarre) 1934 comedy Search for Beauty.
Admittedly, there are a few duds in the program – White Woman (1933), a tale of jealousy and lust in the jungle starring Charles Laughton and Carole Lombard, comes to mind. But even that, as laughably bad as it is, must be seen to be believed.
Claudette Colbert, Fredric March The Sign of the Cross image: Paramount Pictures.