The period between 1930-1934 when the Production Code existed, but was not enforced, created a free for all of sin, crime & non-conformity.
No period in Hollywood movie history is more interesting than the pre-code era (1930-1934). No other era lays bare the basest of human desires, lust, greed, sex & murder & puts all of of it right on the screen! More importantly, no other era casts women in so strong a position, both in front of and behind the camera. Not only were Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Miriam Hopkins, Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo & Mae West at their most dynamic, but female screenwriters like Anita Loos & Francis Marion were crafting stories that centered on women.
The Story of Temple Drake is my favorite because the sense of dread & menace that encompasses Trigger's rural hideout is as great as any suspense film. Hopkins performance is complete, at once opening herself up for the tragedy that befalls her, then closing off after Trigger attacks her. Her collapse on the witness stand caps the mental exhaustion her character has been put through. I also stumbled across Temple Drake not knowing what I was in for and that feeling of surprise has never left me. Norma Shearer is a favorite of mine and if there were an 11th title it would probably be A Free Soul. Both it & The Divorcee revealed a new Norma, after my only initial experience with her was The Women. Both characters capture a willingness to step out, from the norms of society as strong women. Sure, the ending of The Divorcee falls into convention, but everything (and i mean EVERYTHING) before it proves that even convention will be on her terms. Hopkins naked sexuality, even in a small role, in Dr. Jekyl & Mr. Hyde is amazing, but this picture is definitely Fredic March's tour de force. The physical transformation of Jekyl is second only to the psychological and March is amazing! Can you tell i like Hopkins? Design for Living would have been a shocking movie in the 60's, let alone the '30's. (Bob, Ted, Carol & Alice has nothing on Design) Classic Lubitsch in every way but the slamming doors! Barbera Stanwyck, another favorite, makes the list twice with Night Nurse & Baby Face, Night Nurse flips all social norms on it's head as only a great pre-code movie could! The murdering bootlegger is the hero; Clark Gable is a baddie & if Stanwyck & Joan Blondell undressed one more time, they could have done away with the entire plot! All that can said for Baby Face is summed up in the pan up the side of the building as Lily sleeps her way up the corporate ladder. Red Dust is Gable & Harlow at their animal best, all sexuality and inuendo. A tour de force love triangle. It Happened One Night is just a perfect movie. Gable is the perfect scamp; a little bit bad and a whole lot of charisma. For my money Blondell & Cagney are one of the best teams of the 1930's and Blonde Crazy is my favorite. Her wit & his charm mix perfectly her & the other 7 films they appeared in together. Finally, I had to add a Clara Bow picture. While more often identified with the late silent era, Bow allows her magnetism to spill all over the screen in Call Her Savage.