085. The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1936)
Following up The 39 Steps, considered today to be his first “major” film, Hitchcock made yet another “traveling” thriller. Hitch had a big thing for trains. From The Lady Vanishes to North by Northwest to Strangers on the Train, it was one of his favorite settings for mischief and mayhem. In this film, nearly all of the story unfolds on a train. The film is also notable for having a female leading the way in the plot. Margaret Lockwood is charming, lovely, and all around watchable. Her eagerness to uncover the truth is totally believable, and at her side is the equally charming and sometimes endearingly irritating Michael Redgrave. The pair try to discover what’s happened to a woman who Lockwood swears she talked to on the train who seems to have vanished without a trace. The plot has been copied in various ways many times since (most notable in Flightplan, perhaps most successfully in Bunny Lake Is Missing.) Knowing someone who has vanished, and then being led to believe that maybe they didn’t exist at all, is the stuff psychological thrillers are made of.

084. Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1931)
The Pre-Code era was the golden age of the mobster film. Not only were filmmakers much more free to make their films violent and their villains sympathetic, but America was also in the midst of the Depression, and people were looking to unconventional movie characters to idolize. So filmmakers were able to make their gangsters into not just sympathetic hoodlums, but even into tragic anti-heroes. Perhaps the most sympathetic of the bunch is Edward G. Robinson’s Rico. In 1931, his rise to power could be seen as almost inspiration, despite the illegal and quite violent way he did it, and despite the fact that the character is something of a monster, loyalty and friendship aside. There’s also some of that wonderful pre-code homosexual subtext, and an amazing final line from Robinson.

083. Wuthering Heights (William Wyler, 1939)
1939 is considered Hollywood’s Golden Year because so many amazing movies were released, but the only two that really get any attention these days are Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, while other films, like Wuthering Heights, which I think is better than both of those other movies, are hardly ever discussed. Wuthering Heights is kind of the grand-daddy of messed up love stories. It’s the story of how a strong and passionate love can sometimes destroy two people rather than save them. It’s dark, it’s not happy, but it’s has its own dark beauty, and this film captures it so well. It’s true, it only tells part of the story, but if you’re going to make a feature length film version of the story, I’d personally rather have a part of the story cut out to allow what’s there to fully develop as it should, rather than trying to cram it all into a two hour running time and rushing things, like that mess that was the 1992 version.

082. Possessed (Clarence Brown, 1931)
Kept woman films were popular in the romantic melodrama genre during the pre-code era. Naturally the idea of a kept woman was something that would have to be done away with completely when enforcement of the code began. But while it was allowed, the subgenre allowed for some very interesting romances. One of them paired Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, one of the all time great pairings (on and off screen) as the kept woman and the man who keeps her. A lot of these stories are about the woman falling in love with a poor man, a man who isn’t the one keeping her. This one is different because it’s about the love between the two characters. It’s not about them falling in love, it’s about their love changing and their acceptance of it.

081. Employees’ Entrance (Roy Del Ruth, 1933)
One of the sexiest movies of the decade, Employees’ Entrance is about all manner of workplace indiscretions, and it crams just about all the pre-code you can get into one movie. Loretta Young is charming as always as the sweet girl who sleeps her way into a job at a department store by way of sleazy yet oh-so-sexy Warren William, but then falls in love with good guy Wallace Ford.  Watching it now with 70+ years of history, it’s an interesting look back at the way life was back in the 1930s. But even without the historical context, it works remarkably well as a romantic drama, with an entertaining supporting ensemble. But the show belongs to the often forgotten but always awesome Warren William. He completely owns this movie in every way. It takes quite an actor to play such a horrible character with so much commitment.

By Katie Richardson

The pre-code era allowed women to do a lot of things. They were allowed to openly express their sexuality. They were allowed to cheat on their husbands. They were allowed to kill people and actually get away with it. And they were allowed to live in the professional world. To take jobs that made them equal to men.  Usually, this was in the business world (for example, Ruth Chatterton in Female). There really weren’t many films about women becoming doctors. There are two really great ones, and they both star Kay Francis. I wonder what it was that made her so convincing as a woman of medicine that she took on the role twice. She certainly possessed a unique strength that gave her both a commanding and comforting presense.

In Mary Stevens, MD, Francis plays a gifted doctor who goes into practice with her best friend (who she really loves) played by Lyle Talbot. The film shows her talent as a doctor, but it also shows people’s prejudiced views against a female doctor in those times. We’re shown on more than one occassion adults who refuse to be treated by her because she’s a woman. So she specializes in children.

We get to see Francis’ Dr. Stevens as an incredibly strong woman, both in her professional life and her personal life. She becomes pregnant by Talbot while he is still married, so she goes to Europe to have the baby on her own. This really is a great depiction of strong professional women. In a lot of movies like this, the woman gives up her career because the man wants her to. Here, they get together in the end and continue practicing medicine. It’s really an impressive pre-code film.

The next year, at the tail end of the pre-code era, Francis played Dr. Monica, who isn’t quite as strong a character as Mary Stevens. It’s also much more of a soap opera. She discovers that her husband (Warren William) has had an affair with her best friend (Jean Muir). William leaves them both, and without his knowledge, Muir is pregnant. Monica discovers the truth, and decides to stick by her friend and help with the baby. And of course, true love has to prevail in the end. Whether he cheated on her or not.

Made at the end of the era, this follows the conventional storytelling of the man being completely forgiven for cheating on his wife. All in all, it’s a little difficult to watch Francis play such a strong character as Mary Stevens, and then to watch her play someone not half as strong as Dr. Monica. It’s not a bad movie, and its themes of adultery are pre-code goodness. But the martyrdom of the characters is hard to swallow.

They do handle similar themes, just in very different ways. There’s adultery in both, but in Mary Stevens Kay Francis is the other woman, while in Dr. Monica she’s the one being cheated on. Babies are also a core plot point in both films.

Both are good movies, but if you really want to see Francis as a strong professional woman, watch Mary Stevens, MD.

By Katie Richardson

Year: 1935

Director: Frank Borzage

Cast: Kay Francis, George Brent, Warren William, Helen Lowell

Terry Parker (Brent) walks away from a plane crash that kills his family. The loss causes him to feel massive guilt since he was the pilot, and makes him feel as though he’s living on borrowed time, making him preoccupied with death and danger, with his head constantly in the clouds. He meets Amy Prentiss (Francis), who is engaged to his best friend, Gibraltar Pritcham (William). They fall in love, and Gibraltar loves both of them enough to let them be together. They marry, and while Amy tries to be supportive, the marriage runs in to difficulties due to Terry’s problems.

Living On Velvet is exactly the kind of film where Borzage seemed most at home – the small, intimate romances. Borzage had a fixation on the relationship between love and spirituality, and this is one of his most literal uses of those themes. Terry’s struggle comes from his issues with spirituality, wondering why he didn’t die along with his family and coping with the thought that he doesn’t belong on this earth. When Amy enters the picture, there’s a mingling not just of their spirits, but of their spiritual ideals. Terry doesn’t know how to bring his closer to Amy’s earthier and realistic ones.

While Francis’ solid performance and character anchor the film, it’s heart and soul is Brent’s Terry. The film is about Terry’s changing spirit and his rebirth. Amy is the catalyst for this rebirth, and his anchor throughout. The dialogue of the film shows constantly that she completely understand him, that their minds and spirits are linked. So often Terry doesn’t have to speak for Amy to know what he wants to say.

As the film goes on is becomes clear that Amy is more than wife, she’s also acting as Terry’s mother. Terry is little more than a child. He can’t be expected to follow simple instructions without allowing his mind to be preoccupied with more romantic and dangerous ideas. He can neither act like an adult husband or like a member of the society to which he belongs until he’s overcome his problems.

Early in the film, it is Gibraltor who is in the role of supporter until Amy enters the picture and takes over that role. But whereas Gibraltor seemed to be an enabler, Amy gently prods Terry into fighting his demons. This leads to a very interesting revelation between the characters that love is not enough to sustain their relationship, and not enough to fill the void in Terry’s soul.