My DVR and VCR have been working away in December, as Turner Classic Movies has shown a large number of "pre-Code" titles from the early '30s which are seen relatively infrequently. The movies I've recorded have starred a large number of terrific actresses, including Loretta Young, Ginger Rogers, Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, Myrna Loy, Frances Dee, Barbara Stanwyck, and Kay Francis.
Pre-Code films, predating the active enforcement of moral standards in films starting in 1934, are often characterized by strong roles for women, frank treatment of adult subject matter, racy humor, and sometimes scandalous plotlines or scenes, such as the infamous sequence showing Jane skinny-dipping in TARZAN AND HIS MATE. LIFE BEGINS (1932), reviewed here in 2006, is a good example of a pre-Code film, daringly, for the times, taking on the subject of childbirth.
While some film historians mourn the imposition of the Code, I believe the Code was in most cases a very positive force in American cinema in the following decades. That said, pre-Code films increasingly intrigue me, simply because they are often so very different in tone from later movies. It's an area of film I've recently enjoyed exploring more, along with film noir.
Tonight I caught up with MAN WANTED, which has a charismatic performance by Kay Francis as a workaholic magazine editor. Lois Ames (Francis) works all hours on her beloved magazine while her playboy husband (Kenneth Thomson) occupies himself with polo. Although they're affectionate, they don't have a compatible marriage, which Lois gradually realizes after hiring a dedicated male secretary (David Manners) who shares her passion for the magazine.
The supporting cast, including Manners, Thomson, Andy Devine, and Una Merkel as Manners' possessive fiancee, can frankly be a bit grating. Manners' acting isn't particularly subtle, and Devine and Merkel are allowed to be loud and annoying for too long. However, the film is well worth investing the 62-minute run time to enjoy Francis's confident, glamorous performance as the magazine editor who knows what she wants and gets it.
MAN WANTED was directed by William Dieterle.
A good companion guide to exploring pre-Code cinema is COMPLICATED WOMEN by Mick LaSalle, which I've recently been reading. There is a documentary by the same name which airs on Turner Classic Movies.
A sequel, DANGEROUS MEN, is high on my reading list.
MAN WANTED airs on TCM; you can see the trailer here.
2012 Update: This film is now available on DVD in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection Vol. 4 from the Warner Archive.