In one of Steve’s recent posts I left a comment with a little ditty based on the famous song “Shuffle Off to Buffalo.” The song is from the 1933 film 42nd Street. Steve commented that he’d have to see it sometime. To which I say YES! Every writer, actor, dancer—indeed, any artist who bleeds for their art—needs to see this classic.
With dance numbers choreographed by the great Busby Berkeley, 42nd Street is the backstage tale of a Broadway musical, from initial financing to opening night. The central plot revolves around a naive young actress newly arrived in the big city (Ruby Keeler) who gets cast in the show’s chorus. Will she somehow emerge a star? (Go ahead, guess.) The marvelous cast includes Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell, and Una Merkle, supported by veteran character actors Guy Kibbee, Ned Sparks, and Allen Jenkins.
But the movie belongs to Warner Baxter as Julian Marsh, the show’s director. Baxter—who a few years earlier won the second Academy Award for Best Actor (In Old Arizona, 1928)—fully inhabits the role of a man whose life is the theater, who is incapable of compromise, who would rather die (and just might!) than put on a mediocre show. Baxter gives us a masterful range of emotion, gaining intensity the closer they get to opening night. And then comes a crisis! The show is in danger! Can Baxter pull out a miracle? (Go ahead, guess.) We get the show itself for the last part of the movie. And then, for my money, one of most memorable last shots in movie history. When you see that shot—being the artist that you are—you’ll relate to it fully.
All this got me thinking about a few other gems from the early 1930s—the “pre-code era”—that shouldn’t be missed.
You’ll not see a finer ensemble cast than the one in Dinner at Eight (1933, dir. George Cukor). It’s led by Marie Dressler, John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, and Jean Harlow. From this film you can learn about handling parallel plotlines, and also the great value of orchestration. That is, creating characters who have the greatest possibilities for conflict with one another. Indeed, this is responsible for one of the best last lines ever. It’s between the highly-cultured actress Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler) and the gorgeous but unrefined Kitty (Jean Harlow). Since it doesn’t spoil the film plot wise, here it is:
No pre-code retrospective would be complete without at least one film starring Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck, of course, went on to become one of the big stars of the golden age of movies, and then on TV in The Big Valley. Equally adept at comedy and drama, Stanwyck shot to fame in 1930 in the Frank Capra-directed Ladies of Leisure. She plays a “party girl” who falls genuinely in love. Stanwyck—not a classic beauty a la Garbo or Harlow—demonstrates that sexiness is as much about attitude as it is about surface features.
Stanwyck would show that over and over in her career, but never with more verve than in Baby Face (1933). As Lily Powers (great name) she uses her sexuality to seduce men on her way up the ladder in New York City. (The film is also notable for a small part played by a miscast young actor named John Wayne.)
And then, of course, there’s a film everyone who loves movies should see: It Happened One Night (1934, dir. Frank Capra). From this you can learn the tropes of a great romance. Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is a spoiled heiress who goes on the run, against her father’s wishes, to get to the man she wants to marry. The story becomes a national sensation. Taking a night bus for New York, Ellie is recognized by a street-smart reporter, Peter Warne (Clark Gable). He offers to help get her to her lover in return for her story, exclusive.
These two peas are not from the same pod. They take an immediate dislike to each other (trope). Through a series of obstacles they begin to fall in love (trope). But a big misunderstanding sunders their romance (trope) until…well, you need to see it.
The movie was not supposed to be a big hit. It was made by a small studio (Columbia) and Gable was in it only because he had been “loaned out” by MGM’s Louis B. Mayer. Mayer was mad at Gable for demanding a raise, and wanted to teach him a lesson.
Some lesson. Gable won the Oscar as the film swept the major categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay.
One famous bit of trivia. There’s a scene where Gable starts to undress in front of Colbert. When he takes off his shirt, he’s bare chested. Thereafter in America, sales of men’s undershirts plummeted.
The film also shows the value of what I call the “spice” of minor characters. Don’t ever waste yours. They are opportunities to delight your readers. The two standout spices in It Happened One Night are a pair of great character actors: Roscoe Karns as an obnoxious, would-be Lothario; and Alan Hale as a roadster-driving con man.
Undergirding it all is the flawless script by Robert Riskin, a frequent Capra collaborator. More trivia: During the production of his script for Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941), Riskin reportedly got increasingly annoyed by critics talking about “the Capra touch.” One day, when he felt Capra himself was taking too much credit, he stormed into Capra’s office and threw down 120 pages of blank paper. “Put the Capra touch on that!” he said, thus becaming a hero to Hollywood screenwriters ever after.
I only have time for some honorable mentions, but these are all worth seeing and contain lessons for every writer. You should be able to find most of these via streaming services and/or YouTube:
Little Caesar (1931)
The Public Enemy (1931)
The Champ (1931)
American Madness (1932)
I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)
Ladies They Talk About (1933)
The Power and the Glory (1933)
The Thin Man (1934)
Manhattan Melodrama (1934)
Any other early movie favorites you’d like to add? Of the films mentioned, which have you seen? Any other writer lessons you draw from them?