Dame good fun

Seedy delights from the 1930s sleaze up the Roxie in "Hollywood Before the Code: Nasty-Ass Films for a Nasty-Ass World" 

Life imitates art: Clara Bow in 1932's Call Her Savage.


FILM What with the internet, the paparazzi, Rupert Murdoch's CIA-level spy techniques, and the general displacement of actual news by "celebrity news," it's pretty hard these days for a star of any sort to keep their debauchery private. Not like the good old days, when Hollywood carefully stage-managed publicity and only those who'd become a real liability risked having their peccadilloes exposed.

Such rare windfalls aside, the public were mostly restricted to watching beautiful people behave badly onscreen — a pastime that took a big blow once the censorious Production Code was instituted in 1934. Elliot Lavine's latest Roxie retrospective of movies from that golden-shower period of post-silents, pre-Nannywood licentiousness — this time entitled "Hollywood Before the Code: Nasty-Ass Films for a Nasty-Ass World!" — provides plentiful early talkie titillation. Now that the bodies involved are long buried, we also know a few tales of their stars' off-screen misadventures, too.

The week-long series of double bills sports its share of familiar titles, notably Howard Hawks' terrific original Scarface (1934); Edgar G. Ulmer's Karloff vs. Lugosi smackdown The Black Cat (1934); and the first, probably best version of H.G. Welles' prescient biotech fable Island of Lost Souls (1932). There are women in prison (1931's Ladies of the Big House), women in Faulkner (1933's The Story of Temple Drake, a watered-down adaptation of W.F.'s then-notorious Sanctuary), women in everything else (1932's Three On a Match, whose Depression-era Valley of the Dolls-esque trio includes a very young Bette Davis), and just plain Joan Blondell (1933's Blondie Johnson).

It's a few choice dames in lesser-remembered pictures that provide the biggest "nasty-ass" discoveries this go-round, however. March 4 offers a shocking double dose of pure white femininity finding themselves in, ahem, "Yellow Peril" — miscegenation being something Hollywood could only begin to embrace a few decades later. Frank Capra's atypically erotic The Bitter Tea of General Yen, with Barbara Stanwyck alllllmost surrendering the white flag to a "charismatic Chinese warlord" (Swede Nils Asther, eyes narrowed), has become a minor classic since flopping in 1933.

No such luck for The Cheat (1931), a remake of Cecil B. DeMille's 1915 shocker that was part of Paramount's brief, failed attempt to make stage sensation Tallulah Bankhead a movie star. Her gambling-addicted socialite gets branded (literally) in lieu of repayment not by the original's Far East businessman (dashing Sessue Hayakawa) but by a mere rich Caucasian perv with Sinophile pretensions (Irving Pichel). The big courtroom climax is a notable howler.

Bankhead remained a Broadway star and a popular "personality," her throaty voice hinting at a semi-private life that included a great deal of bourbon, a fondness for unexpected nudity, and sexual appetites all along the Kinsey scale. After two decades off screen she arguably found her camp métier as a berserk Bible-clutching hag terrorizing Stefanie Powers in 1965's Die! Die! My Darling.

Much less of a survivor was poor Clara Bow, who was beloved when she played the wild thing yet unduly punished when it turned out that role had relevance in real life. The quintessential flapper and "It Girl" ("it" meaning sex appeal) was never much of an actress, but an incandescent, live-wire screen presence.

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