050. The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh, 1939)
The Roaring Twenties is one of the most amazing gangster dramas of the classic era, but it’s probably the least recognized among the “big” ones. Few gangster films have a leading character as likable as James Cagney’s Eddie Bartlett. And because he’s so likable, his downfall is absolutely heartbreaking. This probably is the most emotional of all the major gangster films of the era. The film is about more than just Eddie’s downfall, though. It’s about the downfall of the country, how is went from the fun Roaring Twenties to the Great Depression. And it has one of the most fantastic closing lines of all time. “He used to be a big shot.”

049. Men In White (Richard Boleslawski, 1934)
As with Life Begins, Men In White is a fascinating look at how things were so much different in the medical world in the 1930s. But it’s also one of the most daring films to come out of the pre-code era. It’s not just about sex and violence. It tackles some really important social issues of the time. The topic of abortion was so taboo they had to tip toe around it in the dialogue, even during the pre-code era. It was a bold move, and the films handles it delicately but honestly. It’s an emotionally powerful film in more ways than one.

048. Nothing Sacred (William Wellman, 1937)
Few actresses could do screwball comedy as well as Carole Lombard (Fort Wayne native, thank you very much). There were many gifted comic actresses in the 1930s, but I think Lombard was at the top of the list, and I really can’t imagine anyone else playing Hazel Flagg in Nothing Sacred. She really carries the movie, being sweet, funny, and likable despite the fact that we know she’s lying the whole time. Fredric March was no screwball slouch either, and the pairing of these two is absolutely perfect. I enjoy the way it often buck romcom norm, as with their first kiss, which we don’t even see. It’s amazing how director William Wellman was able to make a kiss we didn’t even get to see so incredibly romantic.

047. Mannequin (Frank Borzage, 1937)
Believe it or not, it took me awhile to warm up to Mannequin. I know, right? A Frank Borzage movie I didn’t love instantly. It took a few viewings for me to appreciate and really see the beauty in the love story between Joan Crawford’s Jesse and Spencer Tracy’s Hennessey. It’s a very slow build. Jesse starts the relationship married to another man, and Hennessey loves her from afar. But it turns out her husband is a pretty big loser, so she divorces him. Hennessey pursues her, she resists, but then they marry. Jesse doesn’t really love Hennessey at this point, and they both know it, but they figure that love will grow. And it does.

046. The Man In Possession (Sam Wood, 1931)
The Man In Possession might be the sexiest pre-code film I’ve ever seen. Of course, like most pre-code films, it uses sly innuendos and the like, but even then it’s a lot more blatant and in-your-face about its sexuality than most films from the era. There’s a moment where Irene Purcell’s Crystal wakes up in the morning, obviously sated and worn out from a night of lovemaking with Robert Montgomery’s Raymond, and the maid finds Crystal’s nightgown at the end of the bed. And it’s pretty much ripped in half. That’s probably the most blatantly sexual moment in all of pre-code film. Thankfully, though, there’s more than just that to the film. It’s a clever, very funny comedy. And it has Robert Montgomery. Which is always good.

Richard Boleslawski is another of the many, many great, yet underappreciated directors that we love here at Obscure Classics. While he directed a few films in his native Russia (in the area which is now Poland) between 1915 and 1921, his career didn’t really take off until he came to America. His first job wasn’t exactly the brightest omen of things to come. He did fill in work for Erich von Stroheim on the ill-fated Queen Kelly, which was something of a disaster that was never finished. Fortunately, his first job was not an indicator for the rest of his career, and while he never made a picture as big as Gone With the Wind or Grand Hotel, he made many excellent studio pictures before his career was tragically cut short by his sudden death in 1937. A few of his films, Beauty for Sale and Fugitive Lovers, get quite a lot of talk on this site, so here are a few of his films that haven’t received quite as much attention.

The Mystery of Mr. X (1934)
The Mystery of Mr. X is one of the man mystery/comedies to come out of the 1930s, and while it’s not quite as good as The Thin Man or The Mad Miss Manton, it’s definitely in the upper echelon of these types of films. It’s a little bit different than these other films in that its lead character, played wonderfully by Robert Montgomery, is not a detective, or a doctor/detective, or lawyer/detective. He’s ‘technically’ not a good guy at all, he’s a gentleman thief. He gets caught up in a murder when he’s stealing a diamond at the same time a policeman is being murdered just outside the building. Scotland Yard assumes the murder and theft were committed by the same man, and Montgomery is left to prove himself innocent.

His leading lady is Elizabeth Allan, and the two of them share a really wonderful chemistry that really makes me wish they had made more films together. The screenplay sparkles, and Boleslawski easily mixed the humor with some truly suspenseful scenes.

Men In White (1934)
I’ve talked about this movie a few times on this site. It’s a really incredible pre-code film, which tackles some pretty taboo issues with incredible finesse.

In Men In White, Clark Gable plays a young doctor in love with Myrna Loy, but his constantly busy schedule puts a strain on their relationship, and he ends up having a one night stand with nursing student Elizabeth Allan. She gets pregnant and has a back alley abortion, which is predictably botched and she ends up in the hospital, fighting for her life.

Abortion was perhaps the most taboo subject that could be covered in film in the 1930s, and even during the pre-code era, films had to be delicate about the way it approached the topic. The word “abortion” is never used. It’s hinted at without the word ever being spoken. Boleslawski takes a topic that could be sensationalized and tells a very personal story with it.

The Painted Veil (1934)
Boleslawski’s version of W. Somerset Maugham’s brilliant novel The Painted Veil isn’t nearly as good as the almost perfect 2006 adaptation starring Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, and Liev Schreiber. Naturally, the subject matter had to be handled much more delicately in the 1930s. But for what it is, which is basically a watered down version of Maugham’s story, it’s still a pretty good movie, with a really good performance from Garbo.

Garbo plays a restless woman who marries scientist Herbert Marshall even though she doesn’t really love him. This lack of love, combined with Marshall’s constant working, leads to Garbo having an affair with George Brent. When he husband discovers her infidelity, he takes her with him to inland China to fight the region’s illness, assuming they’ll both probably die. But in these worst of conditions, Garbo grows as a human being, as does her love for her husband.

This movie really only tells half the story of Maugham’s novel, leaving us with the happy ending, rather than going past that to the true, tragic ending of the story. But despite the sunny-ing up of the story, Boleslawski’s film does something that very few films at the time did. It takes a very honest and mature look at adult relationships and marriage.

By Katie Richardson

Today in film, like in regular life, pregnancy is no big deal. There are pregnant characters in film all the time. Movies about being pregnant, movies about giving birth, movies about having a new baby. In this day and age, “which actress is pregnant now?” talk is the most popular type of gossip you can find in the rags.

But back in the earlier days of film, having a baby apparently wasn’t so commonplace. The word “pregnant” was never uttered on screen. In the cases it was a happy thing, they would just say that they were “having a baby”. In unhappy cases, films usually allowed the shocked, uncomfortable silence tell the story.

And women NEVER showed. Apparently, back in the 1930s, babies didn’t actually grow in utero. They must have been like those toys that get bigger as you add water, only with 1930s babies you added air and as soon as they were delivered they ballooned into a regular sized infant.

In pre-code film, there were a lot of cases of women having babies or getting pregnant before marriage. These were usually portrayed as unhappy situations, but sometimes the woman was still able to raise the child happilly. After enforcement of the code began, it seemed like it wasn’t even possible to conceive a child out of wedlock. It was quite awhile before women were allowed to have children outside of happy marriages, and even then, in most cases, they were still married. They had just separated from their husbands.

Yes, pregnancy in classic film is a strange thing. Here are some films with notable, baffling pregnancies.

Mary Pickford isn’t pregnant in Tess of the Storm Country, but she vows to help out a woman who is. Pickford falls in love with the wealthy Lloyd Hughes, whose sister becomes pregnant. Before she can marry the father of her child, he’s killed. So Pickford takes pity on the poor woman, helps her through the pregnancy, and then takes care of the child.

This pregnancy is a classic example of the shame that came along with having a baby out of wedlock. To protect her friend, Pickford allows people to think the child is hers, even risking her relationship with the man she loves. And in those days, a sin like this had to have punishment, and in the end the child dies.

In Bad Girl, Sally Eilers and James Dunn are young lovers during the Depression who marry quickly after meeting and struggle financially, especially once Eilers finds out she’s pregnant. Director Frank Borzage creates a really interesting and intimate drama between these characters based  almost entirely around the pregnancy. Both characters have a hard time handling the idea that they’re going to be parents, and both of them thing that the other doesn’t want the baby.

Eilers becomes pregnant early in the movie, and it’s a very prominent plot point in the film. But she never shows and it’s difficult to keep track of how far along she is until the baby is born. But Borzage’s look at the anxieties and uncertainty of being parents for the first time was a rare look at pregnancy in classic film.

Life Begins is a film all about pregnancy. Hence the title. Loretta Young plays a young married woman who is in jail for murder. She’s also pregnant, and is apparently far enough along that she must be admitted to the maternity ward of a hospital (you’d never know she was that far along, though). It’s there that she meets a whole bunch of other pregnant women, all very different, including brassy showgirl Glenda Farrell.

It’s a very moving film with a lot of top notch performances, but it’s also a really interesting look at the way hospitals worked back then. It’s movies like these that really give you a glimpse into a world that no longer exists. It’s just so strange and baffling the way things were done. First of all, the fact that pregnant women had to be admitted to the hospital months before he due date. Husbands were only allowed to visit their wives at the hospital for an hour or two a day. There were no private rooms for the women.They all had a bed in a large single room. And the husbands weren’t even allowed to be in the delivery room. It’s just such a strange look back.

Pregnancy isn’t the main theme in Beauty For Sale. This is one of those cases where it’s never implicitly stated, just silently and shamefully suggested. The story revolve around the romantic troubles of three friends, and troubles of Florence McKinney is the saddest of all. She’s in love with the boss’s son, having a clandestine affair. When she frantically tries to convince him to marry her, it’s made clear, without words, that she’s pregnant. He promises to marry her, but abandons her the night before the wedding, leaving the country. It’s a small part of the movie, but it’s certainly the most tragic, and Florine McKinney delivers a really fantastic performance.

Beauty For Sale is another example of the “secret shame” pregnancy story lines. The film is full of pre-code goodness, and it balances the lighter side of those ideas (gold digging, whee!) with the darker side (McKinney’s pregnancy) extremely well. The idea is that being pregnant before marriage is so horrible it can’t even be spoken aloud, only alluded to. While it’s wonderfully pre-code, it still takes on the idea that those who sin must be punished (or at least the women who sin), and McKinney’s character meets a tragic fate.

It’s pretty much a rule that I have to write about Man’s Castle at least once a week here, so here we are, filling that quota. It’s one of the most lenient of pre-code films. Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young live together in their Hoovershack, clearly sharing a bed and having a sexual relationship, without being married. Young becomes pregnant. While the revelation comes somewhat late in the film, it’s the main conflict point in the film. And, refreshingly, the conflict has absolutely nothing to do with societal norms and expectations. Frank Borzage couldn’t care less about the social implications of an illegitimate child on these people – it’s hardly the worst thing that’s happening in the world at the time. The conflict is completely between Bill and Trina and what the baby does to their relationship.

It looks like they’re caving to societal expectations by getting married. But as with most Borzage weddings, it doesn’t seem to be a legally binding ceremony. It’s performed by a man who is no longer a minister, with no legal documents being signed. The marriage is completely spiritual (and isn’t even really consummated as such until later in the film when Bill realizes he wants to stay with Trina). In Man’s Castle, pregnancy is not a plot point to shock or hold a mirror up to society. It’s simply a driving force for two characters. While initially it looks like it’s going to drive them apart, the pregnancy just brings them closer together. And we’re given something of Christ-story correlation, when Bill does the math and figures out the baby will be born in December. “Sort of a Christmas present, huh, Bill?” Trina says.

Men In White has perhaps the most controversial use of pregnancy in pre-code film. Clark Gable plays a doctor who is engaged to Myrna Loy. When the couple has an argument, Gable has a one-night stand with Elizabeth Allen. She becomes pregnant, and instead of having the baby or even telling Gable, she has a back alley abortion. The procedure is botched, and she’s admitted to the hospital to repair the damage, where Gable finds out that she had been pregnant with his child.

Even in pre-code, the topic had to be handled delicately. The one stand is only implied, with a discreet fade out. The abortion is never calle as such. They dance around it in their dialogue:

“Ruptured appendix?”
“Worst than that.”
“……..why didn’t she come to us?”

But from their behavior, it’s clear what has happened. Men In White is one of the most daring pre-code films.
 

When Kitty Foyle was made in 1940, the code was still being strictly enforced. So Ginger Rogers, in the title role, becomes pregnant while she is still marriage to her husband, Dennis Morgan. But she doesn’t find out she’s pregnant until they’ve separated. This is one of the many ways films made during enforcement worked around the code and bent the rules. Rogers was no longer with her husband, she was single woman, but she had committed no sin since they had been married when the baby was conceived.

However, she still plans on raising the child as a single mother. The pregnancy moves quickly, and is not a major part of the story. The baby dies, which is an important part of the formation of Kitty Foyle’s character.

With it being such a rare thing in classic film (as opposed to today), pregnancy in film was always a major plot point. Either it was used to shock the audiences or drive the story further. 

 

By Katie Richardson