Mike’s Top Ten of 1933
1933 is the end of the party. Hollywood finally went too far and crossed too many lines. For the past few years, all the Pre-Code films had to pass through state censors in order to be shown in theaters. Certain films weren’t shown in certain states for various reasons. (If you ever go back and read all the different reasons states refused to screen certain movies, you’ll be very amused.) Finally, after the government threatened to step in, Hollywood got serious.
The Production Code was technically around since 1922. After the William Desmond Taylor murder and the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, the government was trying to clean up on the “immorality” of the town, and Hollywood, rather than have the hammer come down, self-policed. It’s like when colleges self-impose bans to keep the NCAA from dropping the hammer on them. But no one really took it seriously. Then in 1927, they put out a list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls.” Which was basically a list of “Don’t show white slavery. Don’t show miscegenation, be careful how you use the flag.” Shit like that. Again, generally adhered to, but with anything, people start bending the rules after a while.
The Code was first created by a priest (leave it to the religious folk to ruin a good time), and adopted by the studios in 1930. Of course it was promptly ignored, and took a close call from a near-government intervention to get them to actually follow it. So starting in 1934, all films had to get a seal of approval before they could be released. Basically meaning, if you don’t have the seal, you’re thought of as indecent and people won’t see your movie and theaters won’t book it. (It’s an early version of the MPAA, which at this point means about what the Production Code meant in 1960.)
So this is the last year where films could basically do whatever they wanted. After this, it’s all prim and proper and they have to be clever when introducing sex in their movies. Married couples sleeping in separate double beds and all that nonsense. It makes the Pre-Code films interesting and it makes the films that get around the Code even more interesting.
Strangely, though, this year for me doesn’t really have a lot of films that skirt the Code at the top. Mostly because I’m a sucker for a particular type of film, and you’ll see that make multiple appearances on this list. At least half this list is populated with films that nearly everyone would list as top ten films from this year. Sometimes it’s just not that complicated.
Top Ten of 1933
Design for Living
Gold Diggers of 1933
Lady for a Day
11-20: Baby Face, Cavalcade, The Invisible Man, The Little Giant, The Mayor of Hell, Midnight Mary, Mystery of the Wax Museum, Penthouse, Picture Snatcher, Wild Boys of the Road
Tier two: Alice in Wonderland, Deluge, Dinner at Eight, Female, From Hell to Heaven, Morning Glory, Night Flight, The Prizefighter and the Lady, Torch Singer, Three-Cornered Moon
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1. Gold Diggers of 1933
“We’re in the money, we’re in the money;
We’ve got a lot of what it takes to get along!
We’re in the money, that sky is sunny,
Old Man Depression you are through, you done us wrong.”
Pre-Code backstage Depression era musical. There’s a mouthful. It’s the Busby Berkeley numbers that make this shine. To me, a Busby Berkeley musical number is better than entire films on this list. They are, in many ways, the pinnacle of what cinema could accomplish in 1933. On top of that, you get the backstage musical, of which I am an enormous fan, and a Pre-Code musical at that, where the women all try to snag a rich guy who will take care of them. So you get the fun sex stuff, which also becomes serious when the Depression part kicks in. The film ends with a “Forgotten Man” musical number, that really hits home. Though of course everyone remembers the film’s opening musical number, “We’re in the Money,” which features Ginger Rogers speaking Pig Latin.
2. King Kong
“Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”
Almost 85 years later and the character is still being remade. They still haven’t quite made a Kong movie as perfect as this one. They’re either too indulgent or missing the point. This is just a near-perfect film. You can show this to anyone and it brings you back to that primal feeling you want when you go to the movies. It brings everyone back to that pure feeling of being a child transported away into an exciting new world. No matter when you see this movie, it’ll do that to you. Some movies transcend time, and this is one of them.
3. State Fair
I love a film without a plot made in the studio era. They stand out so much. This movie, when you watch it, is so laid back compared to everything else. All the other films keep moving and moving and moving, and they often will feature insane turns just to get a climax out of them. All of a sudden someone comes in to rob the store where someone works or they introduce a criminal who’s gonna blackmail the hero and that hurts his chances at the girl. This movie doesn’t even bother with any of that. This is a film where a family goes to the fair. And that’s what they do. Mom wants to win the pie contest, Dad wants to win the contest for the biggest hog. The daughter falls for a reporter and the son fucks a trapeze artist. There are full scenes of people playing carnival games. It’s episodic, and it’s wonderful. Not everyone will enjoy this the way I have. But if you watch enough movies from this era, something like this is so unique and fun that you almost can’t help but love it.
4. 42nd Street
“You’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!”
The classic backstage musical. A show is being put on during the Depression, and a lot is riding on it. The director lost all his money during the Crash, and if this one doesn’t hit, he’s done for. Meanwhile, there’s the naive showgirl who joins who, through romance and fate, ends up having to go on in place of the star on opening night. Still a classic.
5. Duck Soup
“I got a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it.”
The Marx brothers go to war. This is generally thought of as their finest film. It’s hard to refute that. It’s got a lot of brilliantly timed gags. The mirror scene has become iconic. Even the imitations of that scene have become iconic. Complete and utter mayhem in the best way possible. These guys were incredible at what they did.
6. Footlight Parade
“By a waterfall, I’m calling you-oo-oo-oo,
We can share it all beneath a ceiling of blue.
We’ll spend a heavenly day,
Here where the whispering waters play.
There’s a whippoorwill that’s calling you-oo-oo-oo,”
These backstage musicals are all fun, but really the thing that holds up for me are the Busby Berkeley musical numbers. This was the film I liked the least of the three that are on this list (and our third with Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler), but it might be the one with the best musical number. “By a Waterfall” is incredible. Plus you get James Cagney. Which is always a welcome bonus.
7. Lady for a Day
“For years Annie’s been lucky to me, ain’t she? … Well, what kind of luck would I have if I passed her up at a time like this?”
I love the idea of this story so much. Capra made it twice, and never quite got it perfect. He got it very good, but never perfect. And the story is so good, too.
It’s about an old woman who sells apples on the street, whose daughter was given up years ago to live in a convent and be educated in Europe properly. She sells apples to regular customers, particularly a gangster who feels like her apples bring him luck. She corresponds with her daughter, who thinks she’s this New York society woman, though she’s never really met her. One day, her daughter says she’s getting married to a rich guy, and they want to come see her before they get married. And the woman freaks out. She can’t have her daughter see the squalor she lives in. She’s created this elaborate fiction, and if the daughter finds out — and if her husband finds out — not only will she be a disappointment, it might ruin her daughter’s only chance at happiness and success. But, like in all Capra movies, no one is a failure if they have friends. So all the people around her work to create this elaborate fiction, and make the old woman a (insert title here).
It’s a really sweet story. The remake was Capra’s last film, and has Bette Davis, Glenn Ford and Peter Falk in it. I suspect people might gravitate to that one more than this because of the stars. But this one is better. It just gets closer to the perfect version of this story. It’s really touching and is the first time Capra reached those heights he’d reach with his next batch of films, nearly all of which are gonna end up in the top ten, because they’re all pretty much perfect.
8. Little Women
“If wearing hair up means becoming a lady, I’ll wear it down until I’m 100 years old.”
It’s a really famous novel, and they remade it at least three times, but for some reason all the film versions have been utterly charming to me. Maybe because they always cast great actresses in them. Here it’s Katharine Hepburn, later it’s Elizabeth Taylor and after that it’s Winona Ryder. This one was always my favorite of the bunch. The Elizabeth Taylor one just felt like the only advantage it had was that it was in color. And the Winona Ryder one felt fine but too 90s for me. This one was always the one I liked.
9. Design for Living
“It’s true we had a gentleman’s agreement, but unfortunately, I am no gentleman.”
One of those Pre-Code movies you hear about when you get into film because the subject matter was so risqué for its time. Fredric March, Gary Cooper and Miriam Hopkins. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch and based on a Noel Coward play. And scripted by Ben Hecht. They’re both in love with her and she can’t decide, so they all decide to live together and figure it out. The weird thing is there’s actually no sex there. Though they do talk about it a lot, and that’s why it was a big part in the creation of the Production Code. Still holds up as an early classic.
10. Dancing Lady
“Sorry to tell ya, but I’m the kind of investment that doesn’t pay.”
Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. She’s a stripper who tries to get a part in a Broadway musical. Gable’s the director. Her rich boyfriend essentially gets her the job, but Gable soon sees her talent and romance ensues. It’s a weird mix of a Pre-Code movie and a backstage musical. Definitely more Pre-Code, as evidenced by the Busby Berkeley ones also in the top ten. This movie also has an early appearance by the Three Stooges. And Fred Astaire!
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Baby Face — Fun Pre-Code. Barbara Stanwyck’s been sexually abused all her life, so she decides, “Fuck it, now I’m gonna take advantage of people.” So she sleeps her way to the top. She fucks a lot of people. John Wayne’s in there too.
Cavalcade — The premise of this film is really interesting, but the film itself is just good. I’m guessing the play was much better at the time. It’s about a family but structured around several New Years Eve celebrations. So we follow them from the turn of the century, to the sinking of the Titanic, to World War II into the 30s. It won Best Picture. Not one of the better remembered winners, but still.
The Invisible Man — Universal’s other monster movie. What I like about this — aside from the fact that Claude Rains plays him — is that it’s filled with sympathy for the character. Nothing is more interesting than showing your monster as a tragic figure rather than an evil killing machine. It’s nice when you have a story that you know is gonna end badly, but you still feel like the main character can get through it.
The Little Giant — Edward G. Robinson. An awesome early comedy. He’s a bootlegger who is out of a job once Prohibition ends. So he decides to be proactive about it and move out to California and become a big shot. You know Broderick Crawford in Born Yesterday decides he wants to be more than just a gangster and break into politics? That’s what Robinson does here. He goes out to be a rich dude in California. So much of the film is him clashing with actual rich people and him not really knowing how things are done in polite society. It’s smartly written. Lot of fun.
The Mayor of Hell — Jimmy Cagney, baby. He’s a gangster made the head of a reform school. The school is really strict and hard on the boys, who have already had hard lives, which is why they’ve become delinquents. And Cagney is the guy they really need to turn their lives around, because they respect him and he can get to them because he’s been there. So he goes from “this is bullshit” to actually starting to reform the place. It’s a nice movie. A Pre-Code Boys Town. They remade it with Bogart in 1938 (and Ronald Reagan in 1939).
Midnight Mary — Pre-Code melodrama. It’s presented as a crime movie, but this is for sure an early melodrama. There’s a very similar beginning to both genres. You can see them start to split here. It’s a woman on trial for murder, and we flash back to how she got here. Difficult childhood, turning it around, meeting the right guy, her past constantly coming back to fuck her over. Pure melodrama. But because it’s Pre-Code, it doesn’t take that overly emotional turn. It does it down and dirty, which I love.
Mystery of the Wax Museum — They made this twice. The ’53 version is in glorious Technicolor. This one’s two-strip, so it looks like Doctor X. Same story. Guy creates beautiful, lifelike wax statues and creates a museum for them. His partner decides to burn the museum down for the insurance money. The sculptor almost dies in the fire and disappears. He returns years later, disfigured, but with statures as beautiful as ever. Though people start to notice the similarities between his wax statues and recently deceased murder victims. Same leads as Doctor X, same director. Fun early horror.
Penthouse — Fun little Pre-Code crime movie with Myrna Loy. A lawyer helps a criminal beat a murder wrap, though it destroys his private life. Though his former girlfriend’s new fiancée gets arrested for killing his mistress. So he uses the criminal’s connections to help him figure out what really happened. Anything Pre-Code and Myrna Loy is all right by me.
Picture Snatcher — James Cagney stops being a gangster in order to become a reporter. He can’t get a job at a real paper, so he ends up at a gossip rag. Essentially becoming a paparazzi. Meanwhile he starts dating a policeman’s daughter, and the policeman refuses to believe he’s gone straight and keeps trying to put him away. Meanwhile, he proves to be a good photographer because he’s resourceful the way other reporters aren’t. Like, he sneaks a camera into an execution when no one else does. I liked this movie a lot.
Wild Boys of the Road — I love this. Pre-Code movie directed by William Wellman. A pair of kids during the Depression decide to not be a trouble to their parents anymore and leave home to become hobos. There’s some crazy shit in this movie. I really liked it a lot. It’s a nice little gem.
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- Alice in Wonderland
- Dinner at Eight
- From Hell to Heaven
- Morning Glory
- Night Flight
- The Prizefighter and the Lady
- Torch Singer
- Three-Cornered Moon
Alice in Wonderland has some nice visuals for 1933 (it has to, given the subject matter). Also featuring Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle (which he later makes a joke in His Girl Friday) and Gary Cooper as the White Knight. Dinner at Eight is MGM’s follow up to Grand Hotel. Another all-star cast film. Morning Glory is the film that won Katharine Hepburn her first Oscar. The Prizefighter and the Lady is an interesting oddity — stars Myrna Loy and actual heavyweight champion Max Baer, who you may know as the guy that Jim Braddock fights in Cinderella Man. Deluge is an apocalyptic film about natural disasters that wipe out the earth. Early sci fi (especially with special effects) is always interesting to me. From Hell to Heaven I like a lot because it’s about a horse race, and how the outcome will affect a group of people. It’s like Rashomon but with horses instead of rape. Night Flight is another all-star cast film, but more in the vein of Airport. They gotta get a polio vaccine flown in overnight, and since it’s the Andes, they can’t have Balto do it. Torch Singer is your quintessential Pre-Code melodrama: a singer gets pregnant and can’t afford the kid, so she gives it up and watches from afar as she gets successful. If you ask me to make a melodrama, a woman giving up a child had out of wedlock and watching the child from afar would be the number one plot point. Three-Cornered Moon is a fun comedy about a family who just refuses to accept that they lost all their money in the Stock Market Crash.
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