Good day my little vegetarian sausage sandwiches, here’s another dose of weird things to soothe the constant rumble of the sponges in your brains.
I love everything about pre-code Hollywood movies from dubious morals to glamorous women, especially if those women got their jewels and furs via nefarious means a la Red Headed Woman, Baby Face and Midnight Mary. Interesting tidbit, Red Headed Woman was one of many vehicles originally meant for Clara Bow which she turned down due to her lack of interest in Hollywood after sound hit.
However some pretty odd films emerged, strange to today’s eyes either because of attitudes (black people relegated to servants with one line is never an easy watch but some go even further), artistic weirdness or sheer incompetence.
- Kongo (1932)
An odd curio, fascinating for its unadulterated ugliness and gleeful wallowing in mankind’s lowest nature.
A disabled man living in remote Congo is believed by the local tribe to be a God due to his parlour tricks, because of course the African natives are simpletons who would revere anyone who can produce birds from a small tin. He also speaks to them with the broken English usually reserved for Native American stereotypes. He lives for revenge, believing a girl he sent to a convent years before is the product of his wife’s affair with another man.
His plan comes to fruition when he has the girl, raised in purity and naivete, brought to his claustrophobic home for he and his small group to torture. She goes from sweet girl to alcoholic harridan in 0.5 seconds, her only hope being a doctor addicted to a local root.
Interestingly the gang includes ‘Mexican spitfire’ Lupe Velez, who either drowned in the toilet after taking pills to commit suicide, cracked her head on the bowl or lay resplendent upon the bed, depending on which story you believe.
2. Murder At The Vanities (1934)
Murder at the Vanities is an entertainingly daft musical comedy about attempted murder.
While by no means a brilliant film (some of the songs are terrible!), it’s a ritzy, glitzy screwball story of backstage jealousy and lies. There’s enough pre-code moments to satisfy including almost nude ladies and the oddest Hollywood musical number I’ve ever seen (see clip below). It’s good fun and doesn’t really try to be anything else, with enough what the…? moments (or wtf if you want to be modern about it) to keep it entertaining.
Sweet Marijuana With Sing A Long Lyrics
3. Freaks (1932)
I couldn’t really make this list without Freaks, a classic of horror and sideshow cinema. You could dismiss it as Ableism, and you can’t deny their ‘otherness’ is used as a disturbing climax, a “primal, oozing nightmare” as Mark Gatiss so beautifully said in BBC series A History of Horror.
However director Tod Browning famously lived and worked in circuses and the performers are mainly depicted sympathetically. The real monster is Cleopatra, the beautiful Trapeze artist, who manipulates Hans the dwarf into marrying her and then slowly begins to poison him for his money. The merry nature of the ‘freaks’ contrasted with Cleopatra’s ugly soul is best shown in the famous and oft mimicked wedding dinner scene.
Despite the success of Dracula (featuring, of course, Bela Lugosi), Tod Browning lost his momentum when sound came in and faded from the business.
One Of Us Gooble Gobble
4. Maniac (1934)
The infamous Dwain Esper took his independent movies on travelling tours around America, showing them in tents and burlesque houses. They include gems like How To Undress In Front Of Your Husband and the soporific Narcotic. However Maniac is arguably his most entertainingly bad film which 366 Weird Movies says “seems to be the work of an actual madman.”
I’d love to tell you what on earth is going on but I really don’t know. There’s a mad scientist and his assistant doing experiments on returning the dead to life in your average, run-of-the-mill Hollywood lab. There’s intertitles explaining various ‘diseases of the mind,’ then there’s cats fighting. Then the assistant kills the scientist, seems to forget he’s supposed to be bringing him back and decides to brick him up in the wall in a reference to Edgar Allen Poe’s Black Cat and, as though this reference reminds him, he gets offended by a nearby cat and plucks out it’s eye in a surprisingly well done piece of gory special effects.
At the same time there’s a nude girl they’ve taken from the morgue and a man they’ve injected with over-actor’s juice. They collide in one of the oddest ‘monster carrying off girl’ scenes I’ve ever witnessed – he seems to decide her boobs aren’t showing enough and puts her down to expose them further before carrying on.
The Entire Film
5. Murder! (1930)
From the deep, dark vaults of Hitchcock’s British films lurks this unassuming little who dunnit. A woman is killed and another is on trial for it, though she doesn’t remember committing the act. One of the jurors believes her to be innocent and begins his own investigation. Hitchcock himself wasn’t fond of who dunnits but he does the best he can, ensuring at least one visually arresting moment is included by way of a circus performance at the climax.
What makes this film so uncomfortable is the reason behind the killing of one woman and framing of the other – she was telling her the secret of one of the acrobats, that he is half black. Knowing the acrobat is involved in the murder somehow but not yet knowing why, the juror asks the imprisoned woman if she was in love with him. “No,” she says, horrified, “it’s impossible.” “Why?” he asks, before she explains he is ‘half-caste.’
Attitudes change, as we know, and perhaps it’s a plausible reason for killing. After all, it could have spelled the end of his career. However it’s not Hitchcock’s best film so you won’t be missing much if you decide to give it a pass.
6. The Road To Ruin (1934)
Dirty books have a lot to answer for, leading to sex, drinking and ultimately games of dice. And death. Or at least according to this propaganda piece from 1934 they do. In fact the weirdest thing about this film is its lack of bad behaviour – a young girl makes a new friend who introduces her to drinking and a new boyfriend, though she gets tired of him and moves on to someone else.
After a party the girls are examined by a doctor and denounced ON PAPER as sex delinquents, and she dies in disgrace when an out of wedlock pregnancy forces her into a backstreet abortion. Should have stayed at home reading knitting magazines.
The Entire Film
The Story of Temple Drake (1933)
A wayward young lady (Miriam Hopkins, one of my favourite pre code ladies) spends her time teasing men and spurning the proposals of an upstanding but boring lawyer. One night she goes on a drive with a man and crashes in a rainstorm, and then things get weird.
They make their way to a shack occupied by a rural family and a group of gangsters hiding out from the cops. The acting is dreamlike and strange and each male presence is sexually threatening, creating a nightmarish atmosphere. Finally one man, a gangster named Trigger, crashes into the shed she takes refuge in.
It’s never 100 per cent clear what motivates her afterwards and therein lies the most peculiar aspect of the film. Who is this lady? Is she a moll who willingly follows Trigger to the city, or is she a victim of kidnap or Stockholm syndrome? Is it, as often lies in dreams, somewhere in between? Not to mention the heavy symbolism laced throughout the narrative (when Temple falls in court it’s in the shape of one crucified).
Acidemic makes a fascinating case for this as an early Lynchian story of the subconscious, and there’s a great post on PreCode.com too.
The film itself is unavailable to buy but the whole thing is on YouTube. I’ve added it below because I’m brilliant and you love me.
The Entire Film In A Playlist
10 thoughts on “Race, Drugs and Lynch Before Lynch – 7 Of The Weirdest Pre-Code Hollywood Movies”
The plot of “Kongo” makes me think it was a remake of the Lon Chaney movie “West of Zanzibar”
That’s exactly what it was!
other strange Pre-Codes:
-Hollywood Party (’34)
-Blonde Venus (’32)
-Island of Lost Souls (’33)
-The Hatchet Man (’32)
-Murders in the Rue Morgue (’32)
-George White’s Scandals (’34)
-Fashions of 1934 (’34)
-The Son-Daughter (’32)
-Thirteen Women (’32)
-White Zombie (’32)
-Chandu the Magician (’32)
-The Mask of Fu Manchu (’32)
-The Scarlet Empress (’34)
I’ve not seen a few of those, thanks!
‘Scarlet Empress’ stars Marlene Dietrich as Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg (whew!), later Catherine II (the Great) of Russia. It is a highly stylized production ‘combining twisted sexuality and bold bawdy humor as if Mel Brooks had collaborated with the Marquis de Sade’ (Roger Ebert). A very interesting piece of early cinema.
Ooh, another interesting suggestion, thank you!
‘Maniac’ is as bizarre a fifty minutes as I have ever spent. As a neophyte, I’m just learning about pre-code films and I deeply appreciate those with the knowledge and willingness to share. Great thanks!
It is a very strange film. Glad you appreciate it thanks!
A very interesting selection, Madeleine. I’ll refer to it for my next DVD purchase 😉
Good! Glad to be of help