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A Preview of AFI Silver's Pre-Code Weekend

June 12, 2024

When I was alerted to AFI Silver's Classic Film weekend devoted to the pre-Code era, I was naturally intrigued. That said, the festival takes place in the DC area, a long way from where I live in Los Angeles. But soon thereafter, I was asked to introduce Baby Face (1933), and my mind was quickly made up.


Co-curated by author, archivist, and film historian David Pierce, the fest runs June 13-16 and features a wide array of pre-Codes—silent and sound entries, US and international features—with an equally impressive array of historians on hand to discuss the movies.


I’ve been pretty busy preparing my introduction and some other projects that hopefully I’ll be able to share soon, but I wanted to do a quick preview of the fest. Check out the full schedule HERE.

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I fly overnight on Wednesday, so Thursday morning will be tough for me with the time change on top of a 5am arrival. Normally, I would not pass up the opportunity to watch a Joan Blondell-James Cagney pre-Code comedy (1931’s Blonde Crazy), but most likely, I’ll be napping. That said, I’m extremely excited to kick off my fest experience with Forgotten Faces (1928). This silent thriller starring Clive Brook, William Powell, and Mary Brian screened at Cinecon recently, and regrettably, I missed it. (I was this close to buying a day pass just to see it; that’s how rarely it plays!)


After that, I finally get to see a Mae West movie on the big screen! I attempted She Done Him Wrong (1933) at the TCM Classic Film Festival this year, and that did not work out in my favor. With no giant lines to contend with, I’m excited to finally experience West’s wit with an audience.  

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Ina Claire in The Greeks Had a Word for Them.

I’m hoping to stay awake for the world premiere DCP restoration of The Greeks Had a Word for Them (1932). This image of Ina Claire has graced many books, and I’ve always been intrigued by it. I’ve actually seen this movie, but getting to witness a new restoration (beautifully done by the Film Foundation and Library of Congress) of a rarely screened film in a theater is a treat that I don’t want to pass up! Plus, I’m interested to hear more about the restored scenes from David Pierce.


I’d love to catch the last film of the day, 1935’s Fanfare D’Amour, remade in the US as Some Like it Hot (1959), but a 9pm start time after a red eye spells disaster.

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Billie Dove stuns in Cock of the Air.


Friday starts with Cock of the Air (1932), a Howard Hughes production about a woman (Billie Dove) who relentlessly pursues a womanizing army officer (Chester Morris). This is another pre-Code I’ve seen before, but this version isn’t widely available and rarely screened, so it’s definitely a priority. Furthermore, this film features scenes restored from censor cuts… that were missing sound. The Academy hired actors to re-create the lost dialogue and sound effects, which makes for a very unique experience! (In fact, I don’t think any other pre-Code has received similar treatment...)

Baby Face (1933) is up next, and I kinda *have* to be there. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Baby Face at least five times in a theater, but this Barbara Stanwyck starrer is so entertaining that I never hesitate to watch it again. Most of the films playing at this fest screen back to back, meaning attendees don’t have to make any hard choices, but Baby Face is one of the rare titles to conflict with another entry, the Josephine Baker feature Zou Zou (1934). I’ve never seen this, but it’s definitely on my list!

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A Spanish-language poster for Her Man.

My last film of the day will be Her Man (1930), an underappreciated drama starring Helen Twelvetrees and Ricardo Cortez. Farran Smith Nehme will be discussing women in pre-Codes with David Pierce prior to the screening, a conversation I’m eagerly looking forward to.


I’m having dinner that evening with two childhood friends who I haven’t gotten together with in years, so I’ll have to skip the Anna May Wong silent feature City Butterfly (1929) and Josef von Sternberg’s masterpiece Shanghai Express (1932). I’ve seen the latter several times, and hopefully I’ll have another chance to catch the former someday!

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I have high ambitions for Saturday—mainly, to make it to every movie. That’s also because half of the films screening I’ve never seen before. It all starts with Man, Woman and Sin (1927). First of all, this title is so provocative, I love it. Second, this John Gilbert-Jeanne Eagels feature played at Cinecon one year, and again, I missed out. Third, the above art. I mean, come on.


Then comes the second and final dilemma of the fest. Me and My Gal (1932), starring young Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett, is another new-to-me title. Fox pre-Codes rarely make it out of the vault, and when they do, you owe them a watch! BUT, it’s playing against the Jean Harlow classic Red-Headed Woman (1932). While I’ve seen Harlow’s society climbing comedy many times, this is another movie I’ve long wanted to watch with an audience. (The industry’s internal censors actually advised state censor boards to evaluate this film in a theater with a crowd so they could witness the crowd laughing at Harlow’s antics and not with her!)

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Post-lunch, I get to indulge in a film I had never even heard of, Ladies Must Love (1933). This Universal pre-Code about four gold diggers doesn’t seem to be readily available, and it stars Neil Hamilton, which makes it a must-see for me.


Clara Bow kicks off Saturday evening’s festivities with her final film, the entertaining Hoop-la (1933), preceded by the recently discovered Bow short The Pill Pounder (1923). I’m excited to see both of these and hear what Bow biographer David Stenn has to share.


They saved the darkest for last on Saturday: The Story of Temple Drake (1933). This infamous drama starring Miriam Hopkins was one of the films that pushed things over the edge and led to the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934. Apparently, this doesn’t get shown theatrically often, and though it starts late for me, it’s a short movie, so I’m going to try my best to stay awake.

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I fly home Sunday evening, so that means I’m only able to catch two films, but I’m making them count. Both are selections I haven’t seen and once again, haven’t heard of! Christopher Bean (1933) stars Lionel Barrymore and Marie Dressler, two huge stars, but it has never been re-issued, aired on TV, or released on DVD. I'm curious to hear why it's been banished to the vaults for so long...


My fest ends with an apt pre-Code title, Laughter in Hell (1933), co-starring Pat O’Brien and Gloria Stuart. Murder, chain gangs, racial tensions, epidemics—wow. That’s a lot for 70 minutes, but I expect nothing less from the pre-Code period. Steven C. Smith will be delivering a presentation on the era beforehand, which I’m also excited to see.


Out of the three remaining titles—1928’s Alraune (aka A Daughter of Destiny), 1932’s Hot Saturday, and 1933’s Employees’ Entrance—I’m most upset to miss the first one. Alraune stars Brigitte Helm, who mesmerizes me in everything I see her in, which most recently has been 1928’s Abwege (aka The Devious Path) and 1929’s Manolescu. (Of course, I’d love to catch Hot Saturday and Employees’ Entrance again, but I’ve re-watched both recently.)


I’m excited for my first trip to AFI Silver—and that I get to enjoy a ton of pre-Codes, to boot! If you’ll be attending the fest, tell me what titles you're most interesting in seeing. 

thanks for stopping by!

I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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