Anyone who has experience with Pre-Code films knows how much fun they are. A treasure trove of gems waiting to be discovered with plenty of iconic works to be found, as well as plenty that remain underrated. For anyone who does not know, ‘Pre-Code’ refers to a period in American film starting in 1930 and ending in 1934. While ‘Pre-Code’ suggests a time in film before the Production Code, a set of censorship guidelines created by advocate for morality Will Hays, the title is misleading. The Production Code was created in 1930 but was not enforced until 1934. Once it was, it became nearly impossible to get your film seen without being passed by the Code. But between 1930 and 1934, studios found they could get away with quite a bit, making for an entirely idiosyncratic batch of films that carried an incomparable attitude and swagger that was heavily diluted once the Code kicked in.
A number of different genres found their claim to fame within the studio system. These include but are not limited to the gangster film, female-dominated films (usually focusing in part on women’s freedom to casually sleep around without being criticized or punished for it; something entirely lost come Code enforcement), the musical and of course the horror film. Universal may be the primary studio known for their output in horror during this time, but almost all of the major studios dabbled in the genre. Pre-Code horror has a number of recurring traits; tendency towards novelistic adaptation, spill-over influence of German Expressionism, dependence on showcasing breakout stars by building films around them, streamlined run times, throwaway filler characters, prioritization of visualized atmosphere and most fun of all, a running streak of morbid sadism that prods at Pre-Code boundaries.
I watched a lot of films for the first time for this list and there is a reason I wanted a blog post entirely dedicated to the films that would not be making the cut for my Top 10 Pre-Code Horror list. Film history tends to centralize itself on a select group of key films that have been analyzed and iconized to death. I don’t mind great films being discussed to the point of overkill, but it means a heaping pile of works get very much ignored altogether. The attention paid to horror films during this time period focus almost, but not quite, exclusively on the Universal films. You will find that three of the films many would expect to make the top ten actually show up here.
My opinions on the films that did not make the cut have a wide range from the enjoyable to the ghastly. Many of the films here are not very good, but I wanted to bring all Pre-Code horror into the spotlight and not just focus on my favorites. Indeed, there are films in here I would whole-heartedly recommend, that I tried hard to get on the list. There are films on here with fantastical moments that alone make a viewing worthwhile. And there are a couple of duds.
Note: I used a very broad use of the horror genre for this list. There are several films on this list that do not fit comfortably in the horror genre, but do contain horror in some fashion. Also, these are not in order and, as with every list I make and post, a declaration of subjectivity. I do not like claiming ‘best’; I can only account for what I personally find to be good or bad, interesting or uninteresting.
The Top 10 list will be posted before Halloween.
All summaries are taken from the Internet Movie Database
Doctor X (1932, Curtiz)
Studio: Warner Brothers
Summary: A wisecracking New York reporter intrudes on a research scientist’s quest to unmask The Moon Killer.
The two-toned Technicolor Doctor X cannot shake some necessary table-setting in its first half or its unfunny and uncharismatic reporter character played by Lee Tracy. It is largely saved by a surprising second half that goes in unexpected directions and contains a scene that preludes Carpenter’s The Thing, by having a scene that gathers its suspects and renders them frantically immobile as Doctor X seeks out the Moon Killer. Fay Wray gets to display some sass, even if her character is incapable of defending herself in the most basic way, as shown by a scene that has her being choked. Doctor X is worth watching but it really slogs through its first half too much.
Pre-Code Goodies – When the killer is revealed, we get to see his use of synthetic flesh as he rubs it all over himself in a genuinely WTF scene.
Dracula (1931, Browning)
Summary: The ancient vampire Count Dracula arrives in England and begins to prey upon the virtuous young Mina.
Here is the first of the ‘biggies’ not to make the cut. Truthfully I have always found, despite being a fan of Browning’s, this version of Dracula dull, hokey and overrated. Browning is no stranger to creating good atmosphere through his expertise gained during the silent era. He creates an appropriately heavy Gothic air, but is brought down by a weak adaptation that does not stand the test of time (can it even considered good in 1931?). Dracula is not bad; it is just difficult to separate it from the status it has gained throughout the years and feel anything but underwhelmed. Bela Lugosi can be good, but I have come to realize I am not much of a fan. While Lugosi possesses a persona that stands out, his acting ability feels too samey to register as anything but overdone; I simply do not get much out of watching him act onscreen. I have read Stoker’s novel twice and all I can see in this Dracula is a fun but schlocky lead performance that in no way scares, a multitude of unmemorable and dull characters and a notably effective atmosphere.
King Kong (1933, Cooper and Schoedsack)
Summary: A film crew goes to a tropical island for an exotic location shoot and discovers a colossal giant gorilla who takes a shine to their female blonde star.
This is another choice I expect to get slack for and also a choice that does not comfortably qualify as horror. Unlike Dracula, I really like King Kongt; its reason for not making the cut is as simple as there being ten other films I prefer over it. I also count myself as one of the few who resolutely like Jackson’s 2005 remake more; seeing it three times in the theater is proof of that. What satisfies about King Kong is its inventiveness in plot, ambition in scope, and the technical spectacle of it all. Not to mention Fay Wray, who is always wonderful. The characters manage to pop within their archetypes and the decision to make Kong a victim more than anything else is a kind of ambiguity that is not often found in early cinema; all the more impressive that this is accomplished through innovative effects.
Kongo (1932, Cowen)
Summary: This remake of West of Zanzibar made four years later tries to outdo the Lon Chaney original in morbidity. From a wheelchair a handicapped white man rules an area of Africa as a living god. He rules the local natives through superstition and stage magic and he rules the few white people through sadism, keeping them virtual prisoners. He lives for the day he can avenge himself horribly on the man who stole his wife and crushed his spine.
To say Kongo is a horror film is more than a stretch, but I defy anyone who has seen it to decry its inclusion on this list. I would absolutely urge anyone and everyone to seek this out. It remains to me an even more shocking film than Freaks, if only for its subject matter and the direct way it is presented. There may be much better films, but this needs to be seen to be believed. This is a sweaty, grimy, slimy and emphatically uncomfortable film that is loaded with sin, torture and elaborate revenge decades in the making. If only it had not been a stiff and stagy experience. More than a remake of Browning’s earlier Chaney collaboration, this is an adaptation of the stage play Kongo with Walter Huston reprising his role as the despicable ‘Deadlegs’ Flint.
Kongo takes place in an isolated and distorted environment within the used sets of Red Dust. The natives think he is a king with mystical power. He has a greased up lover named Tula played by Lupe Velez whose costume stays on her for reasons unknown to me, outside of a fuzzy theory I have relating to sheer tightness. Lula sleeps with every man on the island and almost has her tongue cut out with wire. Yep; that is what Velez gets to work with here. We’ve got a drug-addicted doctor whose schizophrenic nature ends up being filtered into romantic lead material. Who knew? Only in Pre-Code folks. We’ve got stereotypical gullible black natives up the wazoo; there really is no shame here.
The really shocking stuff (as if the above weren’t enough) comes with the Virginia Bruce character who gives a remarkable performance. She plays the daughter of the man who crippled ‘Deadlegs’. He has custody of her, spends eighteen years allowing her to grow up in a convent and then upon her visit, changes her life radically for the sake of it. The film uses passage of time in a notable way. We expect to see her initial visit with ‘Deadlegs’ after a scene that introduces her character within the boarding school before she goes to see him. We then skip years ahead and see Bruce; she is trapped, a desperate alcoholic entirely dependent on the cruelty of ‘Deadlegs’ to get her fix. She has been forced in what can only be deduced as forced prostitution. This is subject matter American film would not touch for decades.
A third-act twist really misdirects the characters and their motivations in a false way. The film was released through the Warner Archive and is also available on Youtube. It is a film that suffers for its flaws but is more than worth watching.
Pre-Code Goodies: Too many to name, but I cannot forget to mention that Virginia Bruce’s right breast briefly pops out of her blouse in what was surely unintentional but nevertheless kept in.
The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932, Brabin)
Summary: Englishmen race to find the tomb of Genghis Khan. They have to get there fast, as the evil genius Dr. Fu Manchu is also searching, and if he gets the mysteriously powerful relics, he and his diabolical daughter will enslave the world!
I could say the downfall of Mask of Fu Manchu lies in its blatant racism, but it isn’t. We are removed enough from 1932 to see the racism here as something akin to a novelty relic or an object of fascination worthy of study. It is truly offensive but in fact, Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy as a sadistic father-and-daughter team who want to wipe out the white race, is the best thing about this film. Between the ludicrously reductive traits of Eastern culture represented, the outlandish equipment housed in Karloff’s abode and the aforementioned two performances, this is fun stuff in spurts as long as you don’t take it seriously.
Everything outside of these scenes falls flat thanks to a shrill heroine who is useless and badly performed with insufferable mania by Karen Morley, a lackluster pace and a host of good-guy characters it is impossible to care about.
Pre-Code Goodies: Loy in an early uncharacteristic role as sadistic daughter gets the best and most Pre-Code worthy sequence. Terry (Charles Starrett) has been captured and Karloff lets Loy do what she will with him. She has him whipped as she looks on with feverish joy shouting ‘Faster!’. It is clear she is getting pleasure out of this. She then has him taken to her room where he lays there weak and helpless and she kisses him. Who knows where that scene was headed before Karloff comes in and interrupts her? It is all too easy to assume. It’s a scene that belongs in a vault titled “Examples of what Pre-Code could get away with”. Blatantly violent sadism within a woman? Whoa now. Granted, Loy’s character is an evil Easterner, but its presence is surprising enough.
Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932, Florey)
Summary: In 19th Century Paris, the maniacal Dr. Mirakle abducts young women and injects them with ape blood in an attempt to prove ape-human kinship…
‘Murders’ has Lugosi second-billed here to Sidney Fox (presumably because of her apparent trysts with Carl Laemmle Jr…..and Sr…yikes) in a role that is successfully in sync with his hammy onscreen approach. This is a fun trek through the underbelly of 19th century Paris with soaked expressionistic direction by Florey as well as being beautifully shot by the great Karl Freund. Well worth the watch, it features a good dosage of surprising material as well as grandiose monologues from Lugosi about man and ape.
There is some lurid material here as well such as an ape assaulting a human, a body being stuffed up a chimney, a prostitute being injected with a syringe while tied to a cross. This is one of the more consistently solid films on here.
Pre-Code Goodies: Everything mentioned above. That scene with the prostitute on the cross is chilling and evocative in use of shadow, and a general feeling of raw exhaustive hopelessness coming from the actress that stands out amongst any other scene featuring a woman in peril during this time (except in one case, in a film which will show up on the actual list), in that it feels real.
Murders in the Zoo (1933, Sutherland)
Summary: A monomaniacal zoologist is pathologically jealous of his beautiful but unfaithful wife Evelyn and will not stop short of murder to keep her.
Between the poster and the summary I know what you are thinking; this sounds awesome. Unfortunately it’s not. Despite a few delightfully grisly moments (one of which is downright shocking for its time), Murders in the Zoo is brought down by none other than…Charles Ruggles….lots of Charles Ruggles. Ruggles gets the confounding honor of top-billing instead of Lionel Atwill. He plays a public relations type who gets to do his stuttering imbecilic fool act for what feels like eternity and what is actually a significant chunk of a film with a runtime of just over an hour. Lionel Atwill does what he can with what could have been a proper scenery-chewing character. Between his screen time being monopolized by Ruggles and that the camera never successfully attaches itself to Atwill, he is a missed opportunity here.
It is a joy though to see Kathleen Burke, of Island of Lost Souls fame, in a radically different part from said film. Her exoticism and piercing gaze make her stand out. The film has an ingeniously camp concept but while it is entertaining in spurts, it mostly falls flat.
Pre-Code Goodies: The opening scene features a man with his mouth sown shut. You read that right people. Atwill himself does the job as he says “You’ll never kiss another man’s wife again”. We’ve also got a jarring matter-of-fact death by crocodile pit and we see a snake strangle a character to death. I am sorry to report that the character is not played by Charles Ruggles. The opening scene takes place immediately after a witty opening credits sequence that pairs the actors with various animals. It’s a transition filled with dark humor.
Svengali (1931, Mayo)
Studio: Warner Brothers
Summary: Through hypnotism and telepathic mind control, a sinister music maestro controls the singing voice, but not the heart, of the woman he loves
If I could have had eleven films on my eventual list, this would have been my eleventh choice. A film that never quite gets a pace going and features dull dialogue is nevertheless a treasure of sorts. It is ahead of its time featuring the kind of low-angle shot featuring ceilings that Citizen Kane became known for doing eleven years before the fact. It has an ambitious and conscious effort to start as a lighter fare, shifting into morbid territory before a last shift into tragedy. It never becomes a horror film but contains elements of the genre. It has a performance from John Barrymore that combines his stagy background with his experience in silent film to create an expressionistic performance that matches Anton Grot’s minimalist expressionist art direction. Lastly it contains the teenage Marian Marsh, who may not be able to bring much depth to her role, but who has a certain quality with her sincere spunkiness that rivals the best of iconic screen presences.
Lastly, I cannot forget to mention a shot that takes place midway through the film. It starts on Svengali’s eyes and zooms out through the window into the miniature cityscape, whips around and zooms into the window of Marsh’s bedroom as Svengali begins his hypnotic control over her from across the city. It cannot be overstated. This is the crowning cinematographic technical achievement from any film on this list or the actual Top Ten list. This is a film that I sadly had not heard of before doing research for this list. It has moderate flaws but should be seen by anyone with an interest in early sound cinema.
Pre-Code Goodies: Through his hypnosis, Svengali makes Marsh pose nude for some artists in order to get rid of her live interest.
White Zombie (1932, Halperin)
Studio: United Artists
Summary: A young man turns to a witch doctor to lure the woman he loves away from her fiance, but instead turns her into a zombie slave.
This is the only film on this entire list I just plain hate. Sorry folks. It is a wasteland of a film containing a memorable use of music and a few noteworthy shots. That it is considered the first zombie film is not enough. The supporting performances are some of the worst ever in film. It is rigid and awkward in blocking. White Zombie has a reputation that is staggering to me. It makes me feel like I was watching a different film entirely.