100. Liliom (Frank Borzage, 1930)
It’s not exactly the easiest love story for a modern generation to swallow, despite the fact that in its musical form (the wonderful Carousel) it’s one of the most beloved romances of all time. Nevertheless, with its endlessly flawed hero, his doormat wife, and their unconventional version of love, this is one romance that modern feminists aren’t going to be fans of. And it’s true, in its final moments, trying to sell physical abuse as some kind of sign of affection doesn’t really work as well as it wants to. But before that point, director Frank Borzage still managed to do what he always did best: he took an immensely flawed couple with an even more flawed relationship and made it beautiful. Liliom and Julie’s marriage isn’t near perfect. He’s lazy with a bad temper, she allows him to walk all over her. But underneath it all, there is a deep love there and an understanding that the pair has for one another that is unparalleled.  And even in the end, while (perhaps ill-advisedly) sugar coating Liliom’s domestic abuse, Borzage never let’s Liliom off the hook, which leaves us with a heartbreaking conclusion. Despite what seems to be an uplifting ending, we really know that even with the best of intentions, even in death some men can’t change.

099. Made For Each Other (John Cromwell, 1939)
Carole Lombard is one of the greatest comedic talents to ever appear on the screen. Because she’s so famous for her comedic efforts, her dramatic performances are, at best, often forgotten, and, at worst, ridiculed as being “a waste of her talent”.  But her talent really did shine through in her dramatic roles, and Made for Each Other is proof of that. The film is a unique love story. In most romances we get to see the falling in love part, with “happily ever after” being the end of the story”.  Here, it’s the beginning, and it’s not so much “happily ever after” as it is “with a whole lot of bumps along the way.” Marriage is hard work, and this movie shows it, complete with disapproving mothers-in-law, terrible bosses, and sick children. It still hold up particularly well today as proof that, no matter the decade, marriage comes with the same problems and the same responsibilities. Made For Each Other is a dose of reality, maybe not one that everyone wants to see, especially from the classic era, but one that’s honest and, because of that, rewarding.

098. History Is Made At Night (Frank Borzage, 1937)
It’s not secret that director Frank Borzage was all about the transcendent power of love and all the spirituality that entails. It’s a hallmark of his films, and it figures quite prominently in History Is Made At Night. But what’s most prominent in this little romantic oddity is an element that’s only a latent theme in his other films: the battle between good and evil. Underneath the surface of a lush romance is a very primal tug of war between two forces. The evil is personified in the quite substantive form of Colin Clive’s downright deranged and insanely jealous ex-husband, while the good is represented less by the lovers (Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur), and more by the undying love that they share. With shifts between romantic comedy, psychological drama, and disaster film, History Is Made At Night may seem downright schizophrenic at times, but no matter what genre it’s veering into, it always maintains Borzage’s warmth, romance, and optimism.

097. Heroes For Sale (William A. Wellman, 1933)
Unflinching yet still somehow optimistic, Wild Bill Wellman’s Depression-era saga Heroes For Sale is one of the decade’s best glimpses into the way times really were for millions of Americans. It’s not just one problem for leading man Richard Barthelmess. It starts with one thing and then just starts to snowball from there. It’s pre-code in the best possible way, dealing with issues like drug addiction head on, and never pulling its punches (there’s a character death which leads to one shot that is one of the most startling in all of classic film). Wellman wasn’t afraid to make things as dark as possible for his characters, because that’s the way things were in the world around him, and somehow, like no other director really could, he balanced this crushing sadness with a certain amount of hope. Even though they couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, it was there, somewhere, and eventually they would see it, if they just kept looking.

096. Pygmalion (Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, 1938)
Despite all the fawning that goes on over the overblown My Fair Lady, the gloriously simple 1938 version of Pygmalion is still the best version to ever appear on the big screen. Everything about this movie is perfect, from its head to its toes. Wendy Hiller is the best Eliza Doolittle there possible could be, beautiful enough to be convincing as the lady she becomes, but with just enough grit and uniqueness to keep her believable as the lovable street urchin. Leslie Howard’s refined gruffness is inimitable, and the chemistry they share is one of a kind. The story of Pygmalion is special in that it’s a love story without being a romance. It’s not about falling in love, and the big dramatic feelings that come with it. It’s about companionship, finding where you fit. What a novel idea, to sell that as such a quiet, unassuming thing as this.

Stay tuned for 95-91.

By Katie Richardson

Essential Pre-Code Films

Man’s Castle

Midnight Mary

Employees’ Entrance

Life Begins

Heroes For Sale

When people today think of Loretta Young, they usually think of the good Christian girl who starring in wholesome films like The Bishop’s Wife. But Loretta Young had been acting in films since the 1920s, and was actually one of the most active actresses of the pre-code era. She showed her fantastic range time and time again during the era, playing a wide variety of roles, from the good girl (Platinum Blond, Heroes for Sale) to the sexy bad girls (Midnight Mary, Born to Bad) to the girls in between (Employees’ Entrance, Life Begins).

Her angel face certainly allowed for her to play those good girl roles, but as with most pre-code films, morality wasn’t black and white, and those good girls weren’t always quite so good, just like the bad girls weren’t always quite so bad. She was a sweet girl getting ready to have a baby in Life Begins – but she was in prison for killing her boss. She was the seductive girlfriend of a gangster in Midnight Mary, but she was really just a victim of unfortunate circumstance.

And anybody who argues that good girl Young simply couldn’t be convincing as a bad girl have to watch Midnight Mary. It’s an extremely sexy performance, and Young pulls off the characters conflicted morality and cynical spirit with complete ease and talent. And then there’s the scene where she whispers naughty things into Ricardo Cortez’s ear. Yeah… an angel she was not.

That extended into her personal life as well. She wasn’t quite the pious soul she wanted everyone to think she was, as evidenced by her many affairs with her leading men, and the illegitimate child she had with Clark Gable.

Loretta Young was a much more fascinating actress that most people give her credit for.

By Katie Richardson