"It's right if you can get away with it," insists Lydia Thorne, a high-life heiress who has dresses made to match her emeralds and pays off traffic cops in discreetly tendered diamond bracelets. Played by Claudette Colbert in the 1930 Paramount melodrama Manslaughter, Lydia is the type of casually lawless character who drives a certain stripe of pre-Code Hollywood picture — one that relies less on smart-mouthed double entendres and flappers in satin teddies than on stepping up and shoring up battered social (as opposed to romantic) ethics.
The Production Code, set forth in 1930 and finally enforced in 1934, was meant to curb all manner of big-screen bad behavior, but its arbiters needn't have worried much about movies like Manslaughter. After Lydia kills a man, it's a given she'll pay her debt to society and see the error of her ways. Ironically, a less certain fate awaited the film's upstanding civic spirit. Like a mirror the morning after, UCLA's series of restored pre-Code films from the Universal and Paramount libraries reflects a country stunned by a crushing post-Prohibition hangover, abashed and facing down ruin, but with enough mettle left to insist on righteousness before the Depression finally grinds its fight out and sends it running for fantasy.
That desperate sense of purpose powers Universal's 1932 stirrer Okay, America! to the edge of hysteria. Directed by Tay Garnett (The Postman Always Rings Twice), it stars Lew Ayres as Larry Wayne, a hard-boiled reporter who spends his nights pumping the populace for dirt ("Whaddya know, kid?" he queries cigarette girls and taxi drivers), then uses his column and radio show to out cheaters and chiselers, regardless of the wreckage. Wayne's known as a square guy with the gangsters he grills, but when the daughter of a rich politician is kidnapped by a kingpin, he takes his fight for right all the way to the White House, and what begins as a snappy, tightly-paced crime film winds up a dizzy twister of flag-waving, vengeance and redemption.
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Over at Paramount, a bootstrap mentality of sacrifice and reform held special meaning. It was 1933 when the studio, having spent lavishly on importing overseas talent and the extension of its powerful chain of theaters, went bankrupt — the atmosphere of impending doom makes Paramount's '32 stunner The Miracle Man all the more dazzlingly strange. Director Norman Z. McLeod would come to be best known for his comedies with the Marx Brothers (Monkey Business, Horse Feathers), Danny Kaye (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) and Bob Hope (The Paleface), and his antic sensibility is at subtle play as the film opens on a neatly choreographed string of scams — a pickpocket handoff, a sob-sister con — run by a close-knit group of thieves. But McLeod was also the son of a clergyman, and when the characters go on the lam and end up in the presence of a country faith healer named the Patriarch, The Miracle Man takes a far more pious turn. "Faith is the simplest thing in the world," murmurs the saintly, white-haired figure, who spends much of the picture in a trancelike slump, eyes fixed heavenward. And, as the crooks (including Paramount blossom Sylvia Sidney) fall steadily under the sway of the Patriarch's purifying power, you can almost hear the same mantra circling the anxious studio boardroom.
The reverence wouldn't last long. Bankruptcy came, and along with it the scintillatingly cynical White Woman, starring Carole Lombard as a widowed and scandal-marked cafe singer who marries Charles Laughton's sweaty, simpering "King of the River" and winds up a prisoner at his remote jungle rubber plantation. Directed by Stuart Walker, the film attempts a halfhearted critique of class (though not, as the title suggests, race) and its power to breed madness. Mostly, though, it's a showcase for Laughton, a blaze of actorly self-indulgence in the midst of a muggy cinematic somnolence, and an excuse to put Lombard at the mercy of various moist lechers to the beat of tribal drums.
Surprisingly, a more sincere investigation of sex across class lines comes from Universal monster master James Whale, whose 1932 Frankenstein follow-up Impatient Maiden is an intriguing puzzle of comedy and angst set in L.A.'s Bunker Hill (with some priceless location footage) and starring Ayres and Mae Clarke as a couple too poor to marry and too hot to trot. After the pair give in to temptation, it's Clarke who wants to carry on in sin — an affront to Ayres' decency that sends him walking and Clarke into the arms of her rich employer. If the movie can't quite seem to make up its mind as to whether it's having too much money or not enough that really corrupts, there's still a wit and tenderness — not to mention a fascination with medical procedure — that's distinctively Whale. It gives Impatient Maiden an air of genuine human warmth that the punishing tone of more straight-laced pre-Code fare simply couldn't sustain.
UNIVERSAL PRESERVATION: PRE-CODE FILMS FROM THE UNIVERSAL AND PARAMOUNT LIBRARIES | UCLA Film & Television Archive | Through Feb. 23 | www.cinema.ucla.edu