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Pre-Code Paramount Movies: Claudette Colbert + Mae West

Film Forum screenings: Claudette Colbert & Mae West + Gary Cooper Paramount Pre-Code classics

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

“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.

‘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), starring Fredric March, Elissa Landi, Claudette Colbert, and Charles Laughton, and featuring a bit of nudity, a fey emperor, a “lesbian” dance number, some asses’ milk bathing, and, as per the film’s marketing, dozens of Christians “executed in various and diverting ways.”

Plus 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 + 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.

Sorrell and Son screening: Long-thought-lost silent classic to be shown in Hollywood

Sorrell and Son will be the first presentation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ new periodic screening series “Lost and Found,” featuring restored archival rediscoveries. The screening will take place on June 16 at the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study’s Linwood Dunn Theater. Michael Mortilla will provide live musical accompaniment for the first U.S. public screening of Sorrell and Son in more than six decades.

Directed by Herbert Brenon, probably best known for the silent version of Peter Pan, Sorrell and Son stars several popular film performers of that era, among them H.B. Warner (Jesus in Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings), Anna Q. Nilsson, Nils Asther, Alice Joyce, Carmel Myers, and Mary Nolan.

Based on a popular novel by Warwick Deeping, the story of Sorrell and Son concerns a father (H.B. Warner) and his son (Mickey McBan, as a child; Nils Asther, as an adult), who, after being deserted by their ambitious wife / mother (Anna Q. Nilsson), strive to maintain their loving relationship in spite of severe financial difficulties. (Seven years later, Warner reprised his role in a minor English-made talkie version of the story.)

‘Superbly mounted’ early Academy Award nominee

Upon its release via United Artists in 1927, Sorrell and Son was referred to by Variety as a “beautiful story [that] has been superbly mounted, ably directed and well cast.” The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Direction of a Dramatic Picture in the first year of the awards. (That year, there was a Best Comedy Direction category as well.)

Sorrell and Son restoration

Despite restoration efforts, the only surviving print of Sorrell and Son suffers from deterioration and parts of its last reel are still missing. As was the case with the 1928 Gloria Swanson vehicle Sadie Thompson, Sorrell and Son‘s final segment has been reconstructed with the use of stills and title cards.

Claudette Colbert and Fredric March The Sign of the Cross image: Paramount Pictures.

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