Previewing the Pre-Codes Playing at the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival
April 3, 2023
Without a doubt, one of my favorite parts about the TCM Classic Film Festival is getting to watch pre-Codes on the big screen. This year, TCM programmed a mix of classic and under-the-radar titles that seasoned viewers and new fans alike will enjoy. Here’s a mini preview of those seven selections and what I’m hoping to catch. (In a perfect fest world, I’d love to see them all! Sigh.)
One Way Passage (1932)
Someone pointed out to me recently that Kay Francis and William Powell appeared in six movies together. Wow! I knew they were frequent co-stars, but perhaps because their partnership was so short lived (1930-1932) and some of their movies are harder to come by, they aren’t as well-known a screen team as Powell and Myrna Loy. That said, I do adore them as a pre-Code pair. While I prefer Powell and Francis in comedies like Jewel Robbery (1932), they give heart-wrenching performances in One Way Passage as a terminally ill socialite and convicted murderer, respectively, who enjoy a short-lived shipboard romance. Jewel Robbery was the first pre-Code to play last year’s fest, so it’s interesting to note another Powell-Francis pre-Code starrer helps open 2023’s event. I missed out on Jewel Robbery, but here’s hoping I will make it to One Way Passage. All aboard!
King Kong (1933)
The iconic King Kong celebrates its 90th anniversary this year, which is reason enough to see the movie on the big screen with a TCMFF audience. Another reason? It’s screening in the IMAX Theater. Yes, IMAX! A giant screen fit for a giant classic. After getting through the film’s slow start (to me), I always relish seeing the beast in action, and I enjoy many of the movie’s pre-Code elements. Though I actually just saw King Kong at the New Beverly a few months ago, I was strongly considering opting in for the IMAX experience. Sadly, though, its 9am start time on Friday coincides with the beginning of my work day. Please enjoy it for me, friends.
Footlight Parade (1933)
I’m probably in the minority on this one, but Footlight Parade is my favorite of the early 1930s Warner Brothers backstage musicals. (Heck, it even has a longer running time than many of WB’s other musicals, yet I still love it—and I’m a firm advocate for shorter movies.) While I actually enjoy the Busby Berkeley musical numbers in Gold Diggers of 1933 more, it’s the Jimmy Cagney-Joan Blondell chemistry that gets me here. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing this on the big screen at the historic Orpheum Theatre almost a decade ago, which will have to continue holding me over; this film screens on Friday daytime, when I’ll still be working. That said, the wonderful Bruce Goldstein will be doing the intro, and I just know he’ll share some gems from Footlight Parade’s Production Code Administration file with the audience. So, if you’re reading this, I highly recommend catching this screening. (I’ll also share a few notes from the PCA file on my Twitter HERE.)
Loretta Young and Spencer Tracy in Man's Castle.
Man’s Castle (1933)
I saw this Columbia pre-Code, which I accidentally referred to as a Fox film here and on Twitter, a while ago. The Frank Borzage-directed picture finds Spencer Tracy living in a homeless camp and taking in a down-on-her luck Loretta Young. I remember there being a lot going on, commentary-wise—socially, sexually, religiously—and being struck by Tracy’s character, especially his attitude towards work, life, and love. (Some of those in a negative way, I recall.) And the relationship he and Young share for part of the film—causally cohabitating like it’s nothing—was still quite eye-opening for the era. The late start time will pose a challenge to me, but despite that, I’m excited to experience this seldom screened movie once again with other classic film fans.
The Wiser Sex (1932)
Blonde Claudette Colbert! Lilyan Tashman! Mobsters and murder frame-ups! Going undercover! The only pre-Code playing this year that I’ve yet to see! And I’ll even take Melvyn Douglas, who I’m not usually a big fan of! TCM always programs one or two super rare pre-Codes, and this is the big one this year; the summary alone informs me that we’re in for a treat. Luckily, TCM wised up and placed The Wiser Sex in the Hollywood Legion Theater, which seats over 500. It’s a 9am start time, which means I need to make the trek up the hill before 8am, but I think the odds are in my favor with a theater that big. I'm very much looking forward to experiencing this (hopefully) hidden treasure at the beautiful Legion Theater.
It doesn't get more pre-Code than this: Miriam Hopkins in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
One of my absolute favorite stills from the pre-Code period comes from this movie, which you can witness above: Miriam Hopkins’ Ivy sitting in bed, bare leg swinging, devilishly looking into the camera. That alone makes me want to see this film on the big screen. Ivy’s bawdiness and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (Fredric March)’s brutishness clash in unsettling ways in this picture, but they’re so good that you want to keep watching; not to mention, March won an Oscar for this role, and I am always astonished by his transformation. While I would love to watch this in a theater again—and with an intro by Oscar-winning makeup artist Michael Westmore—this programming block is the toughest of the whole fest for me. Ultimately, I’ll be prioritizing special guests Ann-Margret and Russ Tamblyn over this pre-Code, but know it was a difficult decision!
No Man of Her Own (1932)
Future husband and wife Clark Gable and Carole Lombard met while making this film, so you know it must be good. (While apparently no sparks flew at the time—they were both married to others—you can feel their chemistry onscreen.) She plays a librarian, complete with Lombard-level snark and wit, and he plays a card shark; I'll admit I still don’t understand how they fall in love, but I’m all for it. Plus, No Man of Her Own packs in plenty of suggestive— and downright frank—pre-Code dialogue and elements. I’ve actually seen this movie before, but it’s not one that is regularly screened, so in a way, I consider it to be one of the rarer pre-Codes playing at this year’s fest. I’m so excited to watch this on the big screen with a big crowd, and I’m already anticipating a few moments that the audience will just eat up!
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