Monday, 17 September 2007

Scarface (1932) and other Pre-Codes

For a long time I ignored American cinema of the early thirties, the so-called Pre-Code films. There were a few exceptions: several Garbo films and Lubitsh's "Design for Living" come to mind. I don't think there was a reason for this other than limited availability and a few bad experiences, the most "memorable" being Katharine Hepburn's first Oscar winning performance in "Morning Glory" - the style of acting of those first sound years isn't always to my liking.

Recently I have became interested in these films. And the more I see of them, the strongly I feel that I missed some brilliant films for far too long. Yes, there were some flops, including some big titles, but also masterpieces like "The Public Enemy", "Baby Face", "Shanghai Express", and in particular "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang". And "Scarface" (the Howard Hawks version, of course). Violent and sexually charged, it amazed me. It included heavy suggestions of incest, a maniac leading character and a ending has to be one of the greatest in film history (Gangster films always had such powerful endings).

Less achieved but still with many interesting aspects is "The Bitter Tea of General Yen". Two years later and it couldn't have been made: it contains an inter-racial love affair between a white woman and a chinese man, something that wasn't allowed by the Hays Code. At some stage in the film there's a dream sequence where Barbara Stanwyck reveals her most secret desires, and by any standards these are very explicit. For those who are in London and never had a chance to see it, the London film festival next month is showing a restored print. Otherwise there is an OK R2 DVD in a Barbara Stanwyck collection.

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