by Pam Grady
“Every train carries its cargo of sin,” says the Rev. Mr. Carmichael (Lawrence Grant) as the journey gets underway in Shanghai Express (1932), the fourth of seven collaborations between star Marlene Dietrich and director Josef von Sternberg. The cargo in this case is two ladies whose reputation precedes them — Chinese courtesan Hui Fei (Anna May Wong) and the notorious white “coaster” — a local euphemism for prostitute — known as Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich). They are but two of the fallen women to be found in Elliot Lavine and I WAKE UP DREAMING’s latest festival of classics, Hollywood Before the Code, screening at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre for six consecutive Wednesdays beginning Feb. 24.
“SEX! CRIME!! HORROR!!!” blares the Hollywood Before the Code press release in lurid red letters. The programs consists of 14 films made between 1931 and 1933, frank and adult films that would be impossible to produce once enforcement of the strict, censoring Production Code began in 1934. Howard Hawks’ influential gangster saga Scarface (1932) and Mervyn LeRoy’s Two Seconds (1932) open the festival, while horror classics Island of Lost Souls (1932), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) close it. In between are some of the most fascinating pictures in the round-up, films in which women take center stage, spitting in the face of social norms and discovering there is a price paid for those transgressions.
The 30-year-old Dietrich is at her most world-weary and the mistress of her fate as Shanghai Lily in von Sternberg’s melodrama that spins its tale out of the headlines of the era. Having had her heart broken by her English army officer lover, Captain “Doc” Harvey (Clive Brook), years before, the woman he knew as Magdalen has employed her charms to ensure her survival. “It took more than one man to make Shanghai Lily,” she tells him tartly when they run into each other on the train. He’s contemptuous at her turn of fate, but when the chips are down and the Shanghai Express passengers are caught in the crossfire of the Chinese civil war, it is Lily and Hui Fei who step up to meet the threat while Harvey submits to the demands of their armed captors.
The stakes aren’t quite as high for Sally Trent, aka the infamous Mimi Benton (Claudette Colbert), in Torch Singer (1932). The chanteuse of the title has an indiscretion in her past that might destroy her reputation — if she had one. By dint of her profession alone, singing the blues in nightclubs, she is judged a woman of loose morals. That makes it even more scandalous — at least for those in the know — when she starts hosting a kiddies’ radio show. But what begins as a favor for her manager, Tony Cumming (Ricardo Cortez), takes on urgency when she realizes the program provides the possibility of filling a hole ripped long ago in her heart. Colbert is terrific, a firecracker in her musical numbers and vivacious as a party girl whose carefree surface carefully hides a wounded, vulnerable soul.
Tallulah Bankhead as society matron Elsa Carlyle is the agent of her own troubles in The Cheat (1931), a melodrama directed by George Abbott. Hers is a life of glittering parties and charity benefits as the beloved wife of stockbroker Jeffrey (Harvey Stephens). The Depression Is never mentioned in this remake of a 1915 Cecil B. DeMille silent film, but it very much an off-screen character as Jeffrey assures his bride they will be rolling in dough just as soon as his latest deal comes through. In the meantime, they use their wealth mostly for show.
The two certainly don’t have the means to afford Elsa’s degenerate gambling, which leaves her vulnerable when wealthy Hardy Livingston (Irving Pichel) offers to pay her marker. A sadist with a fetish for Orientalism and a lust for lovely Elsa, he has plans to collect on her new debt to him – and something even more diabolical in mind should the married lady refuse. One of the saddest women in Hollywood Before the Code, Elsa is the one least in charge of her own destiny.
But at least Elsa understands what she has to lose, unlike Vivian Kirkwood (Ann Dvorak) in Mervyn LeRoy’s Three on a Match (1932). In the midst of the Depression, Vivian is the pampered wife of successful lawyer Robert (Warren William) and mother to adorable tot Robert Jr., but she is bored with her lot in life and attracted to the glamorous world of childhood-frenemy-turned-actress Mary Keaton (Joan Blondell). Vivian’s head turns all too easily when she meets Mary’s handsome friend Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot). She has a rich husband. He is a gigolo with mob connections. It is a match made in Hades in a film that operates as a cautionary tale for the housewife with a roving eye: Turn your back on your family and just watch what happens.
Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill) in William Wellman’s Safe in Hell (1931) would no doubt kill for what Vivian Kirkwood so casually tosses away. She lives a debauched existence in New Orleans, forced into prostitution as her only means to survive, and her life is about to get worse. A wanted woman, she flees to an island in the Caribbean that has no extradition treaty with the United States.
It’s a frying pan/fire situation in her new home as she finds herself the unwilling object of lustful attention from a cast of criminals similarly evading arrest, as well as from corrupt lawman Bruno (Morgan Wallace). If he can’t entice Gilda into his bed, he will find a way to punish her. He isn’t reckoning on her pride or her strength of character. Gilda is Shanghai Lily’s soul sister, a woman society condemns as immoral but who is more ethical than those who would judge her and courageous enough to risk her own skin when it comes to righting wrongs.
The 1930s were full of strong women. Even after the Production Code went into effect, they could be found in the films of Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Jean Arthur and the like. But they could no longer be as frank as they were in the days of pre-code and wouldn’t be again for decades. The women in these films are rare creatures indeed. The Bay Area is lucky to be able to catch a glimpse of them on the Castro’s big screen.
Pam Grady is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Box Office, Keyframe, and other publications. She is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.