Among fans of classic Hollywood, it’s become chic to gravitate towards the “Pre-Code” era, that period between 1930 and 1934 when the Production Code — which kept mainstream screens (mostly) clean and chaste until the mid-1960s — wasn’t yet fully enforced. Film Forum’s sprawling series on the films of 1933, which runs into next month, offers another chance to imbibe a relatively dirty section of film history. But there’s more to the films than violence, sex and saucy double entendres.
“Around that period films are starting to register the realities of the Depression,” explains Rob King, Associate Professor of film at Columbia University. “But there’s still a legacy of what we think of as the 1920s: a focus on glamour, sexuality and style. There’s a crossover between the two, precipitated by the election of Roosevelt.”
The dozens of films in Film Forum’s series showcase a wide range of subject matters, almost as diverse as 2012. This weekend alone runs an impressive gamut. “Christopher Strong,” starring Katharine Hepburn as an Amelia Earheart-esque pilot, was made by Dorothy Arzner, the only female director at the time. It’s paired with “Baby Face,” in which Barbara Stanwyck (almost) unapologetically sleeps her way to the top — an activity that wouldn’t be allowed the next year.
These feminist texts sit alongside two musicals by Busby Berkeley, the legendary choreographer and filmmaker who placed scantily-clad women in eye-popping geometric patterns. Berekely films like “42nd Street” and “Footlight Parade” (with a barking James Cagney) share a kinship with anarchic comedies like the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” and the all-star “International House,” with W.C. Fields, George and Gracie Allen and more.
These musicals and comedies are “almost plotless,” King points out. “The freedom to abdicate from story and just have a series of musical numbers or absurd comic set pieces isn’t a freedom that carries through much beyond 1933. For instance, after ‘Duck Soup,’ the Marx Brothers moved [from Paramount] to MGM and made more conventional musical comedies. There’s more freedom in this period to just give over to spectacle, whether it be musical or comedic.”
Though largely Hollywood-centric, the series will also include films from other countries. Germany is represented by Fritz Lang’s “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse” and France by Jean Vigo’s “Zero for Conduct.” Yasujiro Ozu’s silent “Passing Fancy,” meanwhile, reveals that Japan was reluctant to switch from “Benshi” — the tradition in which live narrators spoke over films — to sound.
1933: Hollywood’s Mightiest, Bawdiest Year
Daily through March 7
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