Black-and-white movies often get a bad rap as creaky relics, hobbled by lame plots, corny acting and married couples exiled to twin beds (amirite)?
But for four glorious years (1930-34), Hollywood bucked its own prudish Production Code to release pics that were provocative then and still pack a wallop today. The best part? Women rule all of them: a naughty parade of complicated dames who smoke constantly, shag shamelessly, swipe gullible men away from “good-girl” wives, drink like it’s their job, and dare society to stop ‘em.
Ready to give them a try? Here’s my hit list of Pre-Code favorites:
“Baby Face” – Barbara Stanwyck literally sleeps her way to the top of the business world, one floor at a time, taking no prisoners and leaving a trail of smitten suckers, including a lovesick co-worker played by movie newbie John Wayne. They say this was the film that ended the Pre-Code era due to its frank take on a woman’s sexual power. I say, “Bring it.”
“Three on a Match” – Joan Blondell, Bette Davis and Ann Dvorak scorch the screen as childhood pals whose lives veer off in wildly different directions, from Park Avenue to the skids. Davis is barely recognizable as a mousy blonde, while Dvorak chews the scenery and spits it out as a bored socialite who becomes a broke cokehead. This speedy little gem clocks in at just 64 minutes.
“The Divorcee” – Queen of the MGM lot Norma Shearer flips the script on her cheating spouse by bed-hopping her way to revenge (and Oscar glory). Shearer’s real-life husband (production chief Irving Thalberg) wasn’t sure the mother of his children could pull off such a steamy part, so Norma secretly posed for a series of sexy photos that won over Thalberg – and probably spiced up their home life.
“Red-Headed Woman” – Jean Harlow dyes her trademark platinum locks red and cuts loose in the title role as a saucy social climber who seduces her married boss and laughs all the way to the bank. The film proved to be the perfect showcase for the 21-year-old bombshell, who handled the racy love scenes and edgy one-liners like a seasoned pro.
“Night Nurse” – Sparks fly in this fast-paced melodrama featuring bootleggers, neglectful party moms, corrupt doctors and a shocking plan to starve two innocent tykes to steal their trust fund. Barbara Stanwyck pulls no punches as a street-smart nurse who dukes it out with bad boy Clark Gable, then beginning his meteoric rise to stardom.
“Possessed” – Joan Crawford is an ambitious factory girl who ditches her townie boyfriend and moves to Manhattan to reinvent herself as a glamorous, champagne-swilling sophisticate. Before long, she hooks up with lawyer Clark Gable to score a posh penthouse, jewels and smokin’ hot sex...all without the benefit of marriage. (Now do you think black-and-white movies are boring?)