Way back in March, the good folks at Turner Classic Movies and Warner Home Video sent me a copy of their Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume 2 DVD box set featuring five digitally-remastered classics of the pre-Code era (1930-1934): The Divorcee (1930), starring Norma Shearer; A Free Soul (1931), starring Norma Shearer, Lionel Barrymore, and Clark Gable; Night Nurse (1932), starring Barbara Stanwyck; Three on a Match (1933), starring Joan Blondell, Bette Davis, Ann Dvorak, and Humphrey Bogart; and Female (1933), starring Ruth Chatterton. Unfortunately, I did not had a chance to fully check it out until this holiday weekend, but now that I have I can offer a few thoughts:
- If you don’t know what “pre-Code” means, be sure to check out Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in the American Cinema, 1930-1934, a great book by my friend and the authority on the subject, Brandeis Univeristy professor Thomas Doherty. It will open your eyes to the fact that, at least for a few years, classic Hollywood films were anything but the staid and conservative sort that we tend to remember them as.
- The five pre-Code films in this box set are very well done, but they aren’t nearly as risque as, say, Call Her Savage (1932, in which Clara Bow derives sexual pleasure from a dog), Baby Face (1933, in which Stanwyck literally sleeps her way to the top of a corporation), or Red-Headed Woman (1932, in which Jean Harlow pioneered the nipple-slip). Incidentally, the latter two films are available on the Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume 1 DVD box set, a 2006 release.
- The gem of the set is The Divorcee (1930). The film tells the story of a woman (a surprisingly sexy Shearer, “The Queen of M-G-M,” who won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance) who discovers that her husband (Chester Morris) has been unfaithful and decides to return the favor. Many feminists will find her character’s behavior rather heroic—spoiler alert—that is, until she ends up essentially apologizing for her behavior and going back to the man who wronged her in the film’s final moments, just as she does in The Women (1939).
- The runner-up is A Free Soul (1931), in which a great attorney who is also a drunk (Lionel Barrymore, who would win an Academy Award for Best Actor for the part) helps a good-looking but rascally mobster (Clark Gable) get off of a murder charge only to see his beloved daughter (Shearer, once again nominated) fall in love with the “rat” against his wishes. The daughter offers the father a deal: you give up alcohol and I’ll give up the man. He accepts… but can either keep their word?
- The set is now available on Amazon.com and at Best Buy, and would be a fine addition to the DVD collection of any serious film history buff.
- Thank God for Turner Classic Movies, which has been the single most important force in keeping the great movies of the past alive.