In the 1930s Hollywood filmmakers took advantage of a four-year lapse in studio censorship to produce films that gave a raw and unvarnished view of American life. Breaking all the rules, smashing every taboo, these films are shocking by even today’s standards. But more than just the sex and violence, these films are fascinating for their fierce energy, and refusal to follow formulas or expectations—these films give us an honest and unfiltered view of one of the most violent and turbulent eras in our nation’s history. We have selected five of the best of these pre-Code films. All films start at 6pm and include a short discussion afterward. It's free for members and $5 for the general public.
Nov. 2: Public Enemy
(dir. William Wellman, 1931, 83 min.)
Jimmy Cagney shot to stardom in his career-defining role as Tom Powers, a street-wise kid who rises from apprentice to leading gangster, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. While its violence is still shocking (this is the movie where Cagney smashes a grapefruit into his girlfriend’s face) the film never loses sight of the larger social issues exploring why boys like Powers turn to crime.
November 9: Night Nurse
(dir. William Wellman, 1931, 72 min.)
Pre-Code films delighted in puncturing sacred cows, and in this film the medical establishment is an easy and frequent target. Necrophilia, physician incompetency, and child endangerment are only a few of the themes touched on in this gritty story of student nurse, Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) who tries to protect two children from the clutches of a vicious chauffer played by Clark Gable. One of Stanwyck’s best early roles, and Gable’s easy charm, even while playing one of the most despicable characters ever seen in a movie, led soon to his huge career at MGM.
November 16: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
(dir. Mervyn LeRoy, 1932, 93 min.)
After James Allen (Paul Muni) returns home from the war, his life is changed forever when he is mistakenly identified as an accomplice to a robbery. Sentenced to ten years hard labor, he experiences the inhuman conditions of the camp, and manages to escape—and finds his troubles have only started. One of the most potent and gut-wrenching social dramas of the Depression era, this film was based on a true story, and is raw, violent and riveting from start to finish.
November 23: Baby Face
(dir. Alfred E. Green, 1933, 76 min.)
Risqué by even pre-Code standards, Barbara Stanwyck is Lily Powers, a hard-as-nails daughter of a low-life saloonkeeper who to make a few bucks, forces his own daughter to sleep with his customers. When her father is killed trying to put out a fire caused by the explosion of a still behind the saloon, Lily leaves home, clutching a book given to her by a customer, Nietzsche’s Thoughts Out of Season—she’s going to use it as a instruction book to get what she wants. And that’s only the first ten minutes of this story, in which Stanwyck’s efforts to ‘sleep her way to the top’ include such conquests as a young John Wayne!
November 30: She Done Him Wrong
(dir. Lowell Sherman, 1933, 66 min.)
Mae West plays Lady Lou, the lead act of a barroom saloon owned by a criminal, Gus, who is violently jealous of her many boyfriends. Cary Grant, in a star-making role, plays a federal agent who uncovers Gus’ criminal organization. Famous for Mae West’s line to Cary Grant: "Why don't you come up some time and see me? Full of sexual innuendo, and brazen in its disregard of traditional morality, this film is regarded as one of the best and bawdiest pre-Code comedies.