Decode the Pre-Code: Four Hot Early Talkies Hit Blu-Ray

Sinuous camera moves and stylish direction, endings that surely wouldn't have flown after the Code crackdown: four pre-code talkies from Cecil B. DeMille, Phil Goldstone, Victor Halperin, and Stuart Walker.

The Sign of the Cross
Cecil B. DeMille
Kino Lorber
25 August 2020
The Sin of Nora Moran
Phil Goldstone
Film Detective
29 July 2020
Victor Halperin
Kino Lorber
7 April 2020
The Eagle and the Hawk
Stuart Walker
Kino Lorber
18 August 2020

In 1934, the major Hollywood studios knuckled down to the self-censorship standards of the Motion Picture Production Code, an office subsidized by the studios themselves. The Code had existed since 1930 but been poorly enforced. As a result, the early talkies saw the flourishing of violent gangster pictures, horror movies, sordid melodramas, and the sexy comedies of Mae West. A degree of outcry from pulpits and editorials led to the crackdown.

In the last few decades, especially since channels like Turner Classic Movies have made early talkies visible once more, critics and historians have been referring to this early talkie era as Pre-Code Hollywood. “Pre-Code” has almost become a genre unto itself, as viewers take note of those elements that wouldn’t have passed after 1934. To be sure, some examples feel more Pre-Code than others, for not every film has saucy or scandalous elements and many are quite anodyne. Several spicy new Blu-rays allow us to sample the diversity of this Pre-Code material.

The Sign of the Cross (1932) Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Among the films commonly described as helping to provoke the crackdown is this staggering financial hit credited with saving Paramount from bankruptcy during the Depression. After a couple of expensive talkie flops, one of which was Madam Satan (1930), Cecil B. DeMille revived his career with this religious spectacle.

He conceived it as the last in his Biblical trilogy after The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings (1927). These hits also demonstrated that this one-time director of sophisticated divorce comedies could mine plenty of sin and skin while serving up a dose of religious morality, and that principle fires on all cylinders in The Sign of the Cross.

Aside from DeMille’s name, the opening credits confine their listing of the backstage personnel to a single panel that puts the most important names all in one space: writers Waldemar Young and Sidney Buchman, working from Wilson Barrett’s 1895 play; magnificent photographer Karl Struss, who provides crane shots, dollies, soft-focus filters and vivid lighting effects that go on for days; and costume designer Mitchell Leisen, who also served as art director and assistant director.

Possibly Leisen’s costumes are trumpeted because they demonstrate the “less is more” aesthetic. As our hero Marcus Superbus, Fredric March runs around in tunics that are practically mini-skirts a few decades ahead of time. One female extra during his party/orgy can be glimpsed in the sheerest peek-a-boo wisps that provide neither concealment nor support, and that’s right before a Salome-ish dancer (billed only as Joyzelle) starts pawing our demure Christian heroine while singing something about the naked moon.

At least they’re wearing more than Claudette Colbert sports as Empress Poppaea during her milk bath. That scene ends with the Empress telling her gossipy friend (Vivian Tobin) to take off her clothes and join her. When Superbus later snarls “You harlot!” at the Empress, her response is a smile and a shrug before she purrs “I love you” and sashays out. Both commentary tracks state that this moment was Colbert’s screen test, whereupon DeMille hired her instantly.


Joyzelle Joyner, Elissa Landi, and Fredric March in The Sign of the Cross (1932) © Paramount Pictures / (IMDB)

The film heavily implies that the reason Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) doesn’t mind his wife’s notorious peccadilloes is that he pursues his own extracurricular hobbies, and that brings us to the strapping slave sitting to his right during the Circus Maximus festivities that occupy most of the last half hour. This decorative fellow, who casts a few mighty intense looks at Nero, appears to be wearing little besides a string and a dog collar. We can only imagine that casting session; indeed, we can’t help imagining it. Confusingly, IMDB identifies two different actors in this role.

Nero is introduced in the opening scene, declaiming poetry on his lyre while Rome burns via model work, rear projection, and much smoke. Laughton’s performance can only be called camping in the original sense of extravagant, over-the-top and effeminate. In one scene, he pauses to savor the phrase “delicious debauchery”. The commentary by Mark A. Vieira, author of Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood (Harry N. Abrams, 1999), states that DeMille was concerned by Laughton’s approach but let him have his way, and it gets the picture off to a sensational start that will carry us through less inflammatory parts of the plot.

Oh yes, we’ve forgotten the plot, as perhaps most viewers do. Well, the Prefect Superbus is tasked with rooting out the hidden sect of Christians and rounding them up for lion fodder, but he instantly falls in love, if that’s the word, with the fetching Mercia (Elissa Landi) and proceeds to break all sorts of rules to, as it were, help her out. He’s eyed jealously by a rival centurion (Ian Keith) and the aforesaid Poppaea, who’s looking to notch Superbus on her bedpost. On our way to the supposedly uplifting (yet also bleak) ending, we pause for hellishly staged child torture, massacre by arrow, and the jaw-dropping circus sequence.

Thus, the story allegorizes issues of faith, law, Christianity and paganism through personal romantic and professional jealousies. Although the alleged point is that Superbus’ love for Mercia finally converts him to the nobility of a Higher Love, few viewers are likely to find that part of it especially credible or even important. Rather, the movie demonstrated the Roman philosophy of “bread and circuses” by showing maximum circus and earning plenty of bread.

DeMille must have been aware of the irony of making a bloody and erotic spectacle about a bloody and erotic spectacle, but he’s not a stylistic ironist. Whether he’s contrasting characters and milieus, or using editing and superimposition to associate people with animals, or just having characters make speeches, he’s earnest and blunt. He plays to the cheap seats, though not in the self-conscious way of Douglas Sirk, for example. And while he traffics in Christian themes, he does so with a showman’s zeal rather than the way such spiritual sentimentalists as Frank Borzage, Clarence Brown, or Henry King put it across. All this is only to say that DeMille is DeMille.


Dancers by hsvbooth (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

He stages everything that he and longtime editor Anne Bauchens can get away with during the epic circus, which cuts back and forth between the bloodthirsty crowd and the spectacles they witness. These include gladiator bouts, death battles between “African pygmies” and “barbarian women from the North”, depredation by elephant, bear-baiting, tied up women wearing only flowery strands while approached by crocodiles or gorillas, and of course the gluttonous lions as pièce de résistance. One or two spectators appear disturbed and saddened, but most are excited or bored.

Vieira quotes from DeMille’s 1932 promotional remarks linking his theme to the Depression: “I show Roman profligacy too in all its shameful excesses, the condition of great wealth in the hands of the few which always leads to surfeit, in which what is legal is substituted for what is right and in which the mad race of the many to attain the extravagant standards of the few brings naught but corruption, bribery, utter selfishness. In such cases disaster is the only remedy. For that reason I do not deplore the disaster which has overtaken the United States even though my own fortune went down with it to some extent.”

The commentaries by both Vieira and David Del Valle quote from Colbert and others to clear DeMille from charges of hypocrisy in using sin to sell salvation. He’s described as a showman who knows that sex will sell the picture, yet he lavishes as much attention on the “corny” Christian parts and evidently took that material just as seriously.

Vieira points out shots and scenes that had to be cut from the post-Code re-release, and that’s how the movie remained until being restored in the early 1990s by UCLA Film and Television Archive. He also discusses a 1944 re-release adding a prologue of WWII pilots flying over Rome, as supervised by DeMille and Dudley Nichols, but that footage isn’t here.

The Sin of Nora Moran (1933) Director: Phil Goldstone

In the opening scene of The Sin of Nora Moran, Mrs. Edith Crawford (Claire Du Brey) arrives in a huff at the office of her brother, District Attorney Grant (Alan Dinehart). She waves some brazen hussy’s adulterous love letters that she’s discovered in her husband’s possessions. A querulous, petulant stick figure in black, Mrs. Crawford is meant to embody all outraged bluenoses of proper society who would cause the crackdown of the Code.

Her brother informs her that the hussy is the notorious Nora Moran (Zita Johann), who’s been executed in the electric chair, not a totally uncommon fate or threat in “women’s pictures”. He then recounts the events in layered flashbacks within flashbacks, asking us to imagine what went through Nora’s mind on her final day in prison, telling the story in a teasingly elliptical manner that allows for surprises and revisions in our understanding.

The most astonishing aspect of all this isn’t the sordid details of what besets a single woman looking for a job, including rape by a brutal lion tamer (John Miljan) and brief happiness as the kept mistress of gubernatorial candidate Dick Crawford (Paul Cavanagh). The only travail Nora doesn’t undergo is unwed pregnancy, probably because they forgot it. What can still knock viewers for a loop is the “meta” aspect of the storytelling.

As Nora relives events of her past in drugged delusion, or as Grant recounts them to us in a strange act of empathy, the characters occasionally discuss the fact that they’re in a dream and debate the possibility of altering events that are about to happen. This heightened strangeness prepares us for a mystical double-whammy at the end. The self-consciousness also underlines the way that “women’s films” turn on personal choices and the tension between self-sacrificial decisions and script-dictated manipulations that conform to social standards.

Screenwriter Frances Hyland adapted a story by W. Maxwell Goodhue. Hyland had a long career in B scripts with strong heroines; PopMatters has reviewed Island in the Sky (1938). Director Phil Goldstone and photographer Ira H. Morgan lavish all kinds of seductive camera moves and other visual flourishes, including busy montages. Apparently it was Goldstone’s decision to arrange a straightforward story in this elaborate manner, requiring reshoots. The poster advertised “a new marvelous screen technique”.


Zita Johann in The Sin of Nora Moran (1933) (IMDB)

The Sin of Nora Moran was an indie production from Majestic Pictures (1930-1935), one of the “Poverty Row” B factories later absorbed by Republic Pictures. After the crackdown, the indies were less beholden to the Code but tended to stick with it to stay out of trouble. The most prestigious of the indies, United Artists, got away with classy productions of problematic elements that the majors shied away from, such as A Star Is Born (1937, William Wellman, Of Mice and Men (1939, Lewis Milestone) and The Great Dictator (1940, Charles Chaplin), but we’re not here to discuss that.

For decades, The Sin of Nora Moran has been most famous for the cheesecake poster art by Alberto Vargas reproduced on the cover of this Blu-ray. Thanks to a restoration from the 35mm negative undertaken by UCLA Film & Television Archive, this former eyesore boasts remarkable clarity of sound and image, the better to keep the viewer’s head spinning.

In an extra, producer Samuel M. Sherman recounts his fascination with the film from the time he bought a print in the 1960s to his acquisition of Majestic’s holdings. He struck up a friendship with Johann, used her in his direct-to-video cheapie Raiders of the Living Dead (1986), and even became an heir to her estate.

The Austrian-born Johann’s performance is among the film’s major attractions. Her head is often tilted thoughtfully or in distress to emphasize her angled eyebrows, while her almost disengaged air mixes the traumatized and ethereal. Not counting Sherman’s epic, her film career consisted of seven pre-Code features, most famously The Mummy (1932, Karl Freund) with Boris Karloff. She had a much longer stage career and briefly married John Houseman.

Supernatural (1933) Director: Victor Halperin

“Ruth Rogen yesterday confessed she killed each of her three lovers after a riotous orgy in her sensuous Greenwich Village apartment” declares a newspaper at the beginning of Supernatural. We catch a glimpse of the apartment later, and it’s tolerably sensuous.

We’ll learn that Rogen (Vivienne Osborne) was also a painter–that’s why she lived in Greenwich Village–and she made a John Singer Sargent-like full-length self-portrait in shoulderless gown holding out an apple. Thus, she embodies female sexuality, artsy intellectuals, the city, high fashion, and sex-mad psycho-killer impulses all wrapped up in the independent Modern Woman. Perfect evil!

While Ruth waits on death row in a more defiant frenzy than Nora Moran, her case is discussed by prominent psychologist and psychic (!) Dr. Carl Houston (H.B. Warner), who boasts a fabulous Art Deco office. He explains to the prison warden (Willard Robertson) that he believes copycat crimes after an execution are evidence of influence by “mitrogenic rays–ultraviolet rays given off by the body.” If he can arrange to claim her post-electrocution corpse for examination (!!), and if nothing interesting happens afterward, “I shall at least have negative proof that my theory is correct.” The warden’s response is “Seems sort of creepy when you think of it.” This dialogue merits the full three exclamation marks (!!!).

Yes, Supernatural is creepy, and a couple of grotesque moments go farther than the Code would allow, not counting a murderess who strangles multiple lovers in riotous orgies in sensuous apartments. A complicated script by Brian Marlow and Harvey Thew, from a story by Garrett Weston, involves lovely heiress Roma Courtney (Carole Lombard, before her breakthrough comedies), who’s easy prey to phony spiritualist Paul Bavian (Alan Dinehart) after the death of her twin brother (Lyman Williams). Boyfriend Grant Wilson (Randolph Scott) stands by helplessly if dashingly.

What does all this have to do with the diabolical Ruth Rogen? That’s where the supernatural comes in. Even though Bavian is a rank fraud, the story believes in life after death for both bad ghosts and good ghosts.

Like The Sin of Nora Moran, Supernatural is just over an hour long and boasts sinuous camera moves and stylish direction, now courtesy of director Victor Halperin and photographer Arthur Martinelli. The two films also share a co-star in Dinehart, a belief in beautiful heroines with plucked eyebrows, a busy story, and a taste for mystical elements. Supernatural is equipped with all the gloss that can be provided by Paramount, which made this picture for two reasons.

First, the studio was trying to rival Universal’s horrors, such as Tod Browning‘s Dracula (1931) with Bela Lugosi . Paramount’s own Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (193, Rouben Mamoulian) had been such a success that it’s name-dropped in the trailer for Supernatural, which calls Roma a female Jekyll and Hyde. The trailer also mentions Dracula, so there’s lots of coattail-riding here.

Second, Halperin and his producer brother Edward Halperin had just cleaned up at the box office with an indie horror hit, White Zombie (1932), also starring Lugosi. That picture got lots of mileage from glowing close-ups of Lugosi’s eyes, and Supernatural repeats the motif. Alas, the film’s relative lack of success, coupled with some unpleasant divorce headlines about Victor Halperin, apparently put the kibosh on the brothers’ welcome at Paramount and sent them back to the indie salt mines.

In his commentary, critic Tim Lucas calls the film an important overlooked entry in the era’s horror cycle. Just as White Zombie was the first zombie picture, Supernatural seems to be the first evil-ghost-possession talkie. Lucas traces the “evil soulless woman” motif to Hans Heinz Ewers’ novel Alraune (1911), whose several film versions should be collected and restored. The Halperins’ work would seem to be some influence on the Val Lewton pictures at RKO.

Roma also foreshadows such fascinating women as Rose Hobart’s villain in The Soul of a Monster (1944, Will Jason), Nancy Kelly’s “possessed” heroine in The Woman Who Came Back (1945, Walter Colmes), and Phyllis Thaxter’s psychologically afflicted heroine in Bewitched (1945, Arch Oboler), more brilliant if overlooked B’s. Horror films about troublesome women are worth their weight in sociological gold. They tell us as much about society’s fear of independent women as all the punishments and redemptive martyrdom in the “women’s pictures”.


Carole Lombard in Supernatural (1933) (IMDB)

The Eagle and the Hawk (1933) Director: Stuart Walker

Did someone say Carole Lombard? Here she is in the World War I aviation picture The Eagle and the Hawk. Billed third, she appears for five minutes at the 45-minute mark as The Beautiful Lady, who gives the impression of being a symbolic or quasi-mystical character. A jump in her last line of dialogue comes across as “I want to be [jump] kind.” The full line was “I want to be kind. Your place or mine?” The jump can’t erase the implication of spending the night together.

Lt. Jerry Young (Fredric March of The Sign of the Cross) and Lt. Jerry Crocker (Cary Grant) are two American pilots of different classes and temperaments, and if you’re anticipating a buddy picture or bromance, it’s a very different one from, say, Wings (1927, William Wellman) or Only Angels Have Wings (1939, Howard Hawks), the latter also with Grant.

The story reveals itself as one of the handful of harsh anti-war movies of the early 1930s as a new war (or bigger-budgeted remake of the last one) was feared on the horizon. The most famous such film is Lewis Milestone‘s Oscar-winning Best Picture All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). As with Lew Ayres’ hero in that film, March’s character here makes a bitter public speech on the futility of their heroism. His colleagues dismiss him as “blotto”.

Young and Crocker go to France for aerial reconnaissance missions, which lead to heavy casualties in dogfights as machine guns blast their swirling biplanes. Young had initially perceived the war as “sport” like polo, but his joy at his victorious first mission is cut short when he realizes his “observer” (an intriguing term for the gunner-photographer) has been killed in flight. The observer is always behind the pilot, like an angel over his shoulder. From that first death, Young’s eager mood spirals into its own tailspin as the increasing horrors infect his mental health.

The cocky Crocker is cold-shouldered because his pragmatism about killing the enemy isn’t sporting or cricket according to the British “gentlemen’s rules”. He’s the one who’s already cynical and hard, better able to adjust to the brutality of this new machine-age war. Without letting down his guard, he becomes another of Young’s angels. The ending features an event that surely wouldn’t have flown, as it were, after the Code crackdown.


Cary Grant in The Eagle and the Hawk (1933) (IMDB)

The guiding creative spirit isn’t credited director Stuart Walker or assistant and pilot Mitchell Leisen, who was actually the main director and whom you’ll recall from The Sign of the Cross. The guiding spirit is author John Monk Saunders, whose story was adapted by Seton I. Miller and Bogart Rogers, a WWI flying ace. Now forgotten, Saunders was an important writer who specialized in themes of WWI aviation and “the Lost Generation”, and he was crucial to that era of Hollywood as both a screenwriter and source author.

He wrote the story that became the Oscar-winning Wings directed by Wellman, a member of the Lafayette Escadrille. The two of them followed up with The Legion of the Condemned (1928), a now-lost film about the Escadrille starring Gary Cooper. His writings also furnished The Dawn Patrol (1930), directed by Hawks, who, like Saunders, had been a WWI flight instructor. Saunders picked up an Oscar for that film, which would be remade twice. It was released in competition with Hell’s Angels (1930) from producer-director Howard Hughes, whose cousin was Saunders’ first wife. Several more aviation films can be laid at Saunders’ door.

Among non-flight projects, Saunders’ story provided the basis for one of the greatest silents, Josef von Sternberg’s incandescent The Docks of New York (1928). Sadly, the alcoholic and depressed Saunders hanged himself in 1940, not very long after divorcing his second wife, Fay Wray. Unfairly or not, that fact implies an unfortunate link with his death-defying or death-embracing heroes.

Elegant commentary by historian Lee Gambin analyzes the portrayal of masculinity, trauma and friendship in The Eagle and the Hawk, surely among the grimmest films of its genre. He pays attention to how these portrayals fit the personas of Grant, Lombard, and especially March, who’d won an Oscar as a tortured soul in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and would soon play another in Les Misérables (1936, Richard Boleslawski). Gambin also draws a canny comparison between Lombard’s role and Young’s final angelic young observer (Kenneth Howell).

With some recycled footage from other projects, the flight scenes in The Eagle and the Hawk are out-spectacled by one or two other films we’ve mentioned, yet they’re far from shabby. On the ground, Harry Fischbeck’s photography is often beautiful in melancholy chiaroscuro. In common with many early talkies, the film eschews background score in favor of natural ambiance, which sounds as crystal-clear as this scan looks. Thus, another important ’30s film joins the Blu-ray brigade, and about time. Let’s bring on the rest.