I took in some pre-code cinema at the Egyptian Theatre last night, and it was amazing, in the multiple senses of the word. The very unfocused, less-than-thrilling documentary Why Be Good? Sexuality and Censorship in Early Cinema, executive produced by Hugh Hefner and directed by Elaina Archer, kicked off the triple-feature. Though it has the advantage of brevity, its problem (well, one of them, at any rate) is that it never can figure out its point of entry to the era. Is it about the trailblazing leading ladies of the time (Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, Louise Brooks, Mae West, Greta Garbo), and their rise, or plight? Is it about the formation of United Artists? Is it about the Hays Production code, and the years leading up to it? Archer is never quite sure, and the result is manic and messy, though inclusive of some incidentally fascinating interview clips, particularly from the outspoken Brooks. There’s a truly great documentary waiting to be made about this era; this isn’t it, though.
Thankfully the pre-code films themselves were much more rewarding. Frank Capra’s Forbidden, from 1932, is a crisply plotted, beautifully acted melodrama starring Barbara Stanwyck as Lulu Smith, a small town librarian who vacations to Havana, meets cute with a mysterious man named Bob Grover (Adolphe Menjou), continues their affair once they return Stateside, moves to the big city and then discovers that he’s a married man. Years pass, during which she has a secret love child. All the while, hard-charging newspaperman Al Holland (Ralph Bellamy) keeps wooing Lulu, even as he rises the editorial ranks and tries to expose what he suspects, but can’t yet prove, is Grover’s hypocrisy.
If there’s a slight failing here, it’s perhaps that the film never explicitly deals with the lead duo’s age difference (Stanwyck is 17 years Menjou’s junior), which seems a bit weird, or something that would at least inform and color Lulu’s stand-by-your-man mentality. There are a few slight tonal swings here, but the dialogue — by Jo Swerling, from a script co-written with Capra — is whipsmart and the performances top-shelf engaging. It’s a credit to the movie that you see the light, vibrancy and substantiveness this secret relationship brings to both parties, even as you see how it degrades them. Streamlined and never for a moment less than entertaining, Forbidden is a little pre-code gem.
Cecil B. DeMille’s Madam Satan, meanwhile, is a topsy-turvy affair — part unhappy domestic dramedy, part musical, part bizarro disaster epic. Only DeMille’s second talkie, the 1930 flick is an unchecked mash-up in the manner of more than a few films of its era, when competing interests led to a shrugging, toss-everything-in philosophy. The first half of the film is a too-long bedroom farce focusing on wealthy Angela Brooks (Kay Johnson), as she patiently deals with her playboy husband Bob (Reginald Denny) and his rebrobate pal Jimmy Wade (Roland Young). Before long, Angela has had enough and decides to become a sexy siren to try to counteract Bob’s all-too-frequent extramarital flings.
This leads to the second half of Madam Satan, or the film within the film — a masked costume ball (Eyes Wide Shut, anyone?), set on a zeppelin, that eventually culminates in a huge air
disaster. Powered by art deco affectation, date auctions for the costumed ladies and strange, surreal musical numbers (an ode to electricity and oil, starring Mr. Electro?), DeMille goes balls-out. As men go ga-ga over her, Angela sort of wins Bob back over. The supporting performances here are the best; Young’s dithering comic timing is sparkling, and Lillian Roth, as Bob’s flame Trixie, gives a fun little spitfire turn. Madam Satan sags early, and often, truth be told, but it’s a weird, nutty and eminently discussable artifact. Neither Forbidden (Columbia, unrated, 83 minutes), to which I believe Sony owns the rights, nor Madam Satan (Warner Bros., unrated, 116 minutes) is yet available on DVD, so if interested keep one’s eyes peeled for future repertory screenings.