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.

The Man in Possession (1931) and Personal Property (1937)

The Story: Raymond Dabney returns to his family after serving a prison term. His adoring mother welcomes him back with open arms, but his uptight father and brother Claude want to pay him to leave town. Raymond refuses the insulting offer and stumbles into a job working for the sheriff as a man in possession, assigned to the home of socialite Crystal Weatherby. Crystal is formerly wealthy, but has fallen on hard times after the death of her husband and cannot pay her bills, so Raymond must stay at her house and make sure she doesn’t try to sell any of her possessions. Crystal, meanwhile, is attempting to marry a rich man who can take care of her problems.

The fundamental difference between these films comes down to the times in which they were made. Six years may not seem like that much of a difference, but in terms of filmmaking it’s an enormous difference. The Man In Possession was made in the middle of the pre-code era, when a story about a morally questionable man staying alone in a big house with a sexy socialite could flourish. In 1937, the production code was being strictly enforced, and so many possibilities for this story are simply not allowed.

The Man In Possession….. Directed by Sam Wood
Starring…..
Robert Montgomery, Charlotte Greenwood, Irene Purcell, C.Aubrey Smith, Reginald Denny, Alan Mowbry

Robert Montgomery is cast as Raymond, and there’s nobody who could have played the role better. He was the best actor of the era. He had a huge range, but he seemed to delight in playing these kinds of roles – sexually charged, morally questionable, but ultimately decent and incredibly romantic men. He rules the role with a special gleam in his eye. He’s sexy, he’s mischievous, and we can tell from the very beginning that no lady would stand a chance resisting him. He’s not at all intimidating, though. He’s charming, and as the film goes on he becomes more and more romantic.

Irene Purcell is his leading lady. Purcell was a stage actress, and she made less than 10 films (and only a few of note). But she’s really a delightful actress. She has a quality that makes her perfect for Crystal in a way no other actress could be. She doesn’t feel like a movie star, which makes her more believable and likeable as social climbing schemer. Actresses like Joan Crawford or Constance Bennett could have played the role, but not as convincingly as Purcell. Crystal is a really unique character. She’s classy in a way, but it’s a feigned class. Like Montgomery, there’s a little gleam in her eye. She’s just coarse enough to be his perfect match.

The Man In Possession uses its pre-code status to perfect advantage. Like I said before, it’s a story that’s tailor-made for the era. These two beautiful, mischievous people spending the night in a house alone together? How can that be anything else but a pre-code set up. Their chemistry alone in scenes where they’re simply verbally sparring almost seems indecent. And then there’s the sex. It’s some of the most blatant I’ve ever seen in classic film. Obviously, it’s not an explicit sex scene, but it’s more than implied with the two of them kissing, falling back on the couch, the light turning off, and Crystal sighing Raymond’s name. And then, if there was any doubt about what happened, the next morning the maid finds Crystal’s nightgown at the end of the bed. Ripped in half.

But beyond the pre-code goodness, it’s just a great romance because of the chemistry between Montgomery and Purcell. They don’t just have sexual chemistry. They fell like two souls who are perfectly matched. It’s more than sex. It’s completely believable that in the span of one night together the two have fallen completely in love. That’s why the film works so well. It’s more than just a fun sex romp. It’s a wonderful love story.


Personal Property
……. Directed by WS Van Dyke
Starring….
Jean Harlow, Robert Taylor, Reginald Owen, Una O’Conner

Robert Taylor doesn’t really fit into the role of Raymond. He’s incredibly handsome, and he has a certain sex appeal to him, but not really the kind that the character needs. Try as he might, Taylor never seems like he can really be a bad boy criminal, at least not in this point in his career. In the 1940s, he created a fantastic gangster in Johnny Eager, but obviously in 1937 his talent hadn’t really evolved past the handsome good guy leading man roles. He never pulls off the mischievousness that is the main characteristic of Raymond. Nor does he really pull of that raw sexuality that initially draws Crystal to him in the first place.

I adore Jean Harlow, but she isn’t right for the role of Crystal either. Harlow was a wonderful actress with a huge range, and it seems like she should be able to play Crystal, perhaps as a lighter version of her Dinner at Eight character. But somehow in this film she doesn’t find the proper balance that the character needs between crass gold digger and romantic heroine. Most of the time she simply comes off as too unlikable and completely without class. It’s such an odd performance, because Harlow was one of the sexiest, most charismatic actresses of her time, but here she is neither charismatic nor sexy.

Of course, the biggest flaw of Personal Property is that it’s not a pre-code film. It’s kind of baffling that anyone would think it was a good idea to make this story into a movie during enforcement, and it’s a little baffling that the Hays Office would even allow the story to be made. What results is one of the most ridiculously tame films that’s just huge film of untapped potential, and the whole thing just feels completely off.

Perhaps some of the film could have been saved had Taylor and Harlow had the chemistry to at least make this a decent love story. You’d think that two such beautiful people would have better chemistry, but there’s absolutely none there. It’s impossible to believe these two are even attracted to each other, much less falling in love with each other. It seems possible that they don’t even like each other. Personal Property doesn’t work as a sex romp, it doesn’t work as a romantic comedy. It doesn’t work at all.

By Katie Richardson