Seedy delights from the 1930s sleaze up the Roxie in "Hollywood Before the Code: Nasty-Ass Films for a Nasty-Ass World"
Call Her Savage (1932) is a pre-Code jaw-dropper that was supposedly her personal favorite. Running an A-to-Z gamut of emotions (and hairstyles), her Texas heiress heroine Nasa "Dynamite" Springer is "never two minutes the same" — a nice way of saying she's nuts. In 88 minutes she rides a horse like it's something else, plays with her mastiff likewise, is near-raped by an estranged husband, turns streetwalker, causes a brawl in Greenwich Village café catering to "wild poets and anarchists," gets in two catfights, hits the bottle, and finds peace upon discovering she's a part Indian "half-breed," which apparently explains all.
Emotionally unstable, due in part to a pretty horrific upbringing, Bow must have related. At the time she was enduring myriad problems, notably some embarrassing public revelations spilled by a blackmailing secretary. Savage would be her next-to-last film, after which she retired into a deep and troubled seclusion.
Heading thataway as well was Juanita Hansen, a silent star who'd gone down in flames a decade earlier thanks to a "Queen of Thrills" image that unfortunately she enacted a little too enthusiastically in real life. She quit cocaine, got hooked on morphine, quit that, and became an anti-drug crusader — but nothing re-ignited her career. Certainly not lone comeback vehicle Sensation Hunters, a 1933 Poverty Row exploiter in which she was fifth-billed as "Trixie Snell," manager-slash-madam to a troupe of "Hot-Cha Girls" who kinda dance, kinda sing, but mostly roll customers at Panama City's "Bull Ring Club." It was a sad exit. Puffy and peroxided, Hansen is all too convincing as a woman with too many hard miles on her to go anywhere but further downhill.
Waaaay uptown — glittering Broadway via glossy Paramount — 1934's Murder at the Vanities offered the last hurrah for pre-Code naughtiness. And what a hurrah: chorus girls in pasties and less (at one point they simply clutch boobs as if on a latter-day Vanity Fair cover); production numbers like "The Rape of the Rhapsody" (the "rape" being Duke Ellington's "colored" jazz musicians and dancers invading a classical orchestra with something called "Ebony Rhapsody" — until a white gangster jokingly machine-guns them all down); plus sexual humor so blunt that Jack Oakie ends the film telling a giggly blonde "Come on, let's do it," meaning exactly what you think.
On the side of the angels — definitely for losers here — there are numerous horrible songs (excepting standard "Cocktails for Two"), gag-inducingly sweet romantic leads, and kitschy-great ideas like having stage impresario Earl Carroll's patented "Most Beautiful Girls in the World" pose en masse as tropical waves and cosmetics products. Representing Satan and evening gown-wearing pot smokers everywhere is villainous Gertrude Michael, who infamously sings torch song "Sweet Marijuana." Michael was an elegant stage and radio star whose own recreational taste leaned more toward cocktails for one. Indeed, she was fictionalized as the hard-drinking love object in one-time lover Paul Cain's 1932 novel Fast One, an early classic of hard boiled American pulp.
Saving the sleaziest for last, the series will truly flabber your gast with its closer. Normally prim MGM found itself reviled in early 1932 with the fleeting release of Tod Browning's Freaks (playing the Roxie March 3), a much-misunderstood, now celebrated fable starring actual circus sideshow performers. It was considered so grotesque and unsettling that Freaks was banned in many areas — Britain didn't see it until 1963.