TCM Takes Us Way Back


Mae West’s curves were surely a code violation.

Most classic movies are distinctly G-rated. Married couples sleep in twin beds, no one has or uses a toilet and cusswords as shocking as “darn” are forbidden. Oh, everyone wasn’t square: The Motion Picture Production Code just made them pretend to be. The code was a response to the anything-goes decadence of Hollywood, rules designed to ensure “correct standards” in films—respect authority and reject crime, cynicism and cleavage. Every Friday this month, Turner Classic Movies will show high-style, low-down films made before the code was enforced in 1934.

One of film’s first female auteurs, Mae West’s risqué persona was an embodiment of pre-Code. Both of the West films being screened—I’m No Angel and She Done Him Wrong (6:45 p.m. Sept. 19)—are rife with double entendres and star a young Cary Grant, whose elegance plays well off of West’s earthiness. In the saucily screwball Red-Headed Woman, Jean Harlow pouts, purrs and puts out until she gets to Paris. It’s part of a Harlow triple feature (1:45 p.m. Sept. 12) that includes Bombshell, the fast-paced, slapsticky story of an overwhelmed movie star; and Red Dust, featuring Harlow and Clark Gable giving off tropical heat in their gorgeous prime.

Antiheroes flourished during the pre-Code era, and so the gangster film was born. The original Scarface (5 p.m. Sept. 26) is a feral, expressionistic tale of sex and violence. Little Caesar (6:45 p.m. Sept. 26) is a template for gangster movies to come with Edward G. Robinson as the original mob boss, while the charismatic and brutal James Cagney rises from petty hoodlum to kingpin in The Public Enemy (3:30 p.m. Sept. 26). Depression-era desperation also drove smaller-scale vice. In Baby Face (5 p.m. Sept. 5) Barbara Stanwyck starts out in a steeltown speakeasy. Inspired by Nietzchean philosophy (no, really), she flees to the big city, starts out at the ground floor of a corporate skyscraper and ends up in the penthouse.

Another dark view of the world came in horror films. Tod Browning’s legendary Freaks (12:45 a.m. Sept. 13) skews the usual movie order: The beautiful and strong characters turn villainous and the “freaks” become the ones we sympathize with. The 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde cracks the uptight veneer of polite society to show the id rampaging is beneath—something in which pre-Code films specialized.