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AFI Silver’s Pre-Code Weekend

Brigitte Helm in Henrik Galeen’s Alraune (1928)

As if the Great Depression weren’t depressing enough, in 1934, the major studios began enforcing the Motion Picture Production Code they had adopted four years before. Throughout the following three decades or so, movie characters would have to be a lot more discreet about their sexual appetites, watch their damn tongues, and say no to drugs. Crime would not pay—at least not in the movies.

From Thursday through Sunday, the American Film Institute will present a sin-ridden program of movies made before the crackdown at its theater in Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C. The theme of the first AFI Silver Classic Film Weekend is “Pre-Code: Sex and Censorship,” and every screening will be introduced or discussed by an esteemed film historian.

The busiest guest host will be novelist (Missing Reels) and frequent Current contributor Farran Smith Nehme. She’ll introduce 35 mm screenings of William A. Seiter’s Hot Saturday (1932), featuring a young Cary Grant in his first leading role; Sam Wood’s Christopher Bean (1933), the last film to star Marie Dressler; and E. A. Dupont’s Ladies Must Love (1933), in which a cluster of Broadway gold-diggers go hunting for sugar daddies. The programmers pull a quote from MoMA curator Dave Kehr: “At one point, the down-on-their-luck roommates go work as ‘hostesses’ in a ‘nightclub’ operated by one ‘Madame Fifi’ (Maude Eburne), where their duties clearly entail more than checking coats.”

Nehme will also introduce a few DCP presentations. Henrik Galeen’s Alraune (1928) stars Brigitte Helm (Metropolis) as a woman sprung from an experiment conducted by professor (Paul Wegener) with too much time and money on his hands. Lowell Sherman’s She Done Him Wrong (1933) features Mae West delivering the line “Diamonds is my career” in what Nehme has described as “that slinky contralto drawl that hit each Brooklyn-inflected vowel like a cab driver leaning on his horn.” And Richard Pottier’s newly restored Fanfare d’amour (1935) was remade by Billy Wilder in 1959 as Some Like It Hot.

On Friday, Nehme will discuss “Women in Pre-Code Films” with series cocurator David Pierce, who is also the founder of the Media History Digital Library. That conversation will precede a screening of Tay Garnett’s Her Man (1930), “a movie that proclaims its originality from the first credits,” as Nehme wrote for Film Comment in 2016. For his part, Pierce will introduce two films from 1932, Tom Buckingham’s raunchy WWI comedy Cock of the Air and Lowell Sherman’s The Greeks Had a Word for Them, the inspiration for such films as Three Blind Mice (1938), Moon over Miami (1941), and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953).

David Stenn, the author of Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild and Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow, will introduce The Pill Pounder, the newly rediscovered and restored silent short film directed by Gregory La Cava and featuring seventeen-year-old Bow in a bit part. The Pill Pounder will screen on Saturday with Frank Lloyd’s Hoop-La (1933), starring Bow in her final role. Stenn will also present Monta Bell’s silent drama Man, Woman and Sin (1927); Jack Conway’s Red-Headed Woman (1932), written by Anita Loos and starring Harlow; and a 35 mm print of Stephen Roberts’s The Story of Temple Drake (1933), an adaptation of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary starring Miriam Hopkins.

Steven C. Smith, the author of books on composers Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner, will present two films by Roy Del Ruth—Blonde Crazy (1931), with James Cagney and Joan Blondell, and on 35 mm, Employees’ Entrance (1933)—as well as Raoul Walsh’s Me and My Gal (1932). This one was “a revelation” to Doug Dibbern when he first saw it in 2011. “I’d known Joan Bennett mostly from her Fritz Lang noirs where she’s beautifully statuesque and expresses fear or contempt with lots of raised or scrunched eyebrows,” wrote Dibbern in the Notebook, “but here she’s a churlish kid sister who chews gum and trades wisecracks with Spencer Tracy.” Me and My Gal “runs seventy-nine minutes and the whole thing felt like it was written, directed, and edited in about three weeks, which means that someone should be making seventeen movies this good every year.”

Richard Eichberg’s Pavement Butterfly (1929) and Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) will be introduced by Katie Gee Salisbury, the author of Not Your China Doll: The Wild and Shimmering Life of Anna May Wong. Artist and programmer Ina Diane Archer, a contributor to Film Comment and Screen Slate, will discuss Marc Allégret’s Zou Zou (1934), starring Josephine Baker. In 2021, Archer spoke with Terri Simone Francis, the author of Josephine Baker’s Cinematic Prism, about the famed singer and dancer’s nonconformity.

In 2010, Richard Corliss updated Time’s list of the hundred greatest films made since 1923, and he called Alfred E. Green’s Baby Face (1933), which will be introduced by pre-Code specialist Kim Luperi, “the definitive pre-Code statement of how the Depression created a new morality of no morality.” Corliss also wrote that “no actor was as tough as Barbara Stanwyck, and no actress used womanly wiles with an intelligence so cool and cutting.”

Richard Koszarski, Museum Curator for the Barrymore Film Center, will introduce a 35 mm print of Edward L. Cahn’s Laughter in Hell (1933), starring Pat O’Brien as a railroad engineer who kills his wife and her lover. Writing for Bright Lights Film Journal in 2016, Imogen Sara Smith noted that the film remained “unseen for decades before turning up in Universal’s vaults, and viewed now it still feels raw as an undressed wound.”

Scientist and film historian Jon Mirsalis will accompany a few of this weekend’s silent features on piano, and on Thursday, he’ll also introduce Victor Schertzinger’s Forgotten Faces (1928). This is another story of a man, Harry (Clive Brook), who kills his wife’s lover—here, though, he spares the wife, Lilly (Olga Baclanova).

“With its mobile camera, ingenious transitions, and expressionist lighting, Forgotten Faces demonstrates the influence of F. W. Murnau,” wrote R. Emmet Sweeney for Film Comment in 2014. “The tour de force of Forgotten Faces is a long take occurring near the climax, beginning on a monumental staircase that Lilly climbs, packing a revolver to plug Harry. The set must have been enormous, as the crane ascends with her to vertiginous heights. The house is sliced in half like an opened dollhouse to display Lilly’s ascent, as she exits the stage-bound melodrama of the plot and enters pure artifice.”

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