We all know what a musical is but the term “pre-code” may be new to some of us. Basically, these musicals fall into the short window of time in the history of film when talkies first started being produced before there were any censorship guidelines. This was typically from 1929 until 1934, when the Motion Picture Production Code, a list of standards given to movies released to the public, was put in place.
The code was implemented in 1930 but there was a lapse in censoring until 1934 when the enforcement of these codes became stricter. During this fleeting period it wasn’t uncommon to see films with vulgarity, overt sexuality, and violence. We would like to introduce you to a couple of our favorite pre-code musicals.
1. The Broadway Melody
Released in 1929 this pre-code musical was the first sound film to win an Oscar for Best Picture and one of the first musicals to utilize Technicolor. Unfortunately, the colored part was somehow misplaced and only the black and white version is available. A couple more firsts for The Broadway Melody are being the pioneer musical released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the first musical to completely consist of talking.
Sisters Hank and Queenie Mahoney are a new vaudeville act. Eddie Kearns, singers, wants the Mahoney Sisters to perform in his latest revue, which is being produced by Mr. Zanfield. Eddie is also engaged to Hank, who has a great sense for business. Queenie is considered the prettiest of the two and Eddie realizes she isn’t a little girl anymore.
The girls Uncle Jed offers Hank a job with a touring show but she declines. Eddie has the girls audition for Zanfield, who is far from impressed. The producer has an interest in Queenie but not Hank. Queenie, not wanting to leave her sister behind begs Zanfield to hire Hank and keep her begging a secret. This secret is observed by Eddie who becomes more captivated with Queenie when learning of her selflessness.
Yet, the production is moving at a snail’s pace and Zanfield decides to cut Queenie and Hank from the revue. When another female performer gets hurt on the set Queenie is selected to replace her and Hank is left out. Enter the anti-hero Jock, who is known to have his way with the ladies. Jock wants Queenie, but Queenie wants Eddie. Still, Eddie is engaged to Hank no matter how much he is feeling for her little sister.
2. King of Jazz
Starring Paul Whiteman this pre-code musical was released in 1930. At its release “jazz” meant something different than it does today. In the pioneer year of the thirties “jazz” referred to modified music influenced by jazz being broadcast all over the world. Some jazz musicians that appear in this musical are Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Bix Beiderbecke, and Frank Trumbauer.
Filmed in the two-color Technicolor of earlier days this musical was produced by Carl Laemmle for Universal Pictures and starred Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra. The Rhythm Boys, which consists of Bing Crosby, Al Rinker, and Harry Barris, sang on several songs for the film, some on camera while others were recorded off camera.
There is no actual plot in King of Jazz. The film consists of musical scenes that black out to move from one to the other. There are a few short comedic acts and other connecting portions. The scenes with music are dissimilar with the hopes of appealing to folks of all ages.
The largest veil ever created was used for a Bridal Veil performance that was intended to appeal to a senior audience. It Happened in Monterey was performed like a waltz to please the middle aged crowd with crooner John Boles. Finally, a Happy Feet number that was “jazzy” and had a great deal of appeal to younger audiences of the time.
King of Jazz is Bing Crosby’s first film appearance. Walter Lantz, who would later go on to create Woody Woodpecker cartoons, along with William Nolan made an animated segment that includes a jungle hunt. This film was chosen to be preserved in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2013 for “being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
3. Fifty Million Frenchmen
This pre-code musical was released in 1931 and was filmed completely in Technicolor. Produced and released by Warner Brothers this film was centered around the 1929 musical by the same name written by Cole Porter.
Originally scheduled to be released the previous year the production of Fifty Million Frenchmen was stopped for some time because the public at the time was not too fond of musicals. Because of this indifference Warner Bros. originally released the film with the musical numbers taken out. It was released in other international locations as a full musical.
Surrounding a rich man named Jack Forbes, played by William Gaston, while he is in Paris. Forbes challenges his best friend Michael Cummings, played by John Halliday, to a bet that he can get Looloo Carrol to fall in love with him without revealing any of his wealth or influences; Carrol is played by Claudia Dell.
Forbes best friend has a trick up his sleeve though. He employs a couple of former private investigators, Simon and Peter, to sabotage Forbes’ attempts to win the wager. Yet, when they duo meets Forbes they resolve to assist him instead of harming his chances.
The dialogue given to Simon and Peter is considered some of the best in this musical comedy. There is use of double entendre in their exchange with an American tourist played by Helen Broderick and a scene where one of the detectives pretends to be a religious man who could read minds. This film ends with everyone being pursued by the Parisian police.
4. Love Me Tonight
With music by Rodgers and Hart this 1932 pre-code musical comedy was directed and produced by Rouben Mamoulian. Starring famous French actor and singer Maurice Chevalier as a tailor who pretends to be a nobleman. Jeanette MacDonald plays the woman he falls in love with.
Based on the play by Paul Armont and Léopold Marchand this film was selected by the Library of Congress in 1990 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Tailor Maurice Courtelin, played by Chevalier, is owed money by a local lord named Gilbert. Maurice travels to his family castle to collect the money that is owed him.
On the way he runs into Jeanette not realizing she is a princess. Maurice falls in love with her instantly but his profession of love is spurned. Maurice leaves and proceeds to the castle. Gilbert greets him but introduces him as Baron Courtelin to his uncle the Duc d’Artelines in hopes to hide his owing the tailor money. At first Maurice is against the lie until he sees Jeanette and realizes this could benefit him as well.
Maurice remains at the castle and during that time he captivates the entire family except for the one person he is trying to win over, princess Jeanette. Of course, the princess eventually falls for Maurice. Still, the truth has a way of working its way out into the open and the family, including Jeanette, eventually learn that Baron Courtelin is really a lowly tailor from Paris.
The aristocratic family is enraged at his deception and again Maurice is rejected by Jeanette, but this time because he is peasant. Heartbroken the tailor leaves by train back to Paris but once he is gone princess Jeanette realizes her mistake and quickly chases after her love.
5. Wonder Bar
Released the last year that pre-code musicals had such a lackadaisical censorship, 1934, this film was created from the Broadway musical also named Wonder Bar. Also set in Paris, a nightclub in particular, we find a group that frequents the spot. Each regular customer has a different story line with two prominent and a few smaller story lines.
One plot deals with suicide, death, and failure. It features Captain Von Ferring, who is an officer that lost his entire portfolio on bad investments. He finds himself to be at the bottom of the barrel and stops by the Wonder Bar to have one more tryst with a woman before killing himself. The owner of the bar, Al Wonder (who is played by Al Jolson) is aware of the Captain’s plan.
Then we have Inez, played by Dolores del Rio, who is the leader of a Latin dance troupe. Wonder secretly loves her while Inez loves Harry, played by Ricardo Cortez. Harry is having relations with Inez but also with Liane on the side. Liane is married to Renaud, a French banker. When Inez finds out that Harry and Liane plan to run away together she kills her love, Harry, in a fit of rage.
While these two main plots are very heavy in their story the other subplots are not as intense. There are two businessmen who get very drunk and several tales told by Wonder as emcee. He narrates the floor show and the goings on in the film.
Of course, these films were not without controversy. Besides Jolson performing in racist blackface, there is a scene where a man asks a married couple if he could cut in while they are dancing. The woman accepts flattered but he leaves her behind to dance with the husband. It was this scene that did get the attention of the Production Code and it was almost rejected due to the homosexual nature.
How about the 1950’s? Here is our list of some of the greatest musicals from that decade!