This entry is part of the #staythefuckhome series, all written during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. In this series I’ve aimed to post about films that readers (at the time) can easily find and watch online. Keep yourself healthy and entertained.
Along with the regular heap of films that I’ve got piled up, either as battered old VHS cassettes, charity shop bargain DVDs or as a collection of movie files of varying quality on a dusty, 15 year old hard-drive, I also really like documentary films. I tend to like the classic style of documentary film; a narrator adding a voice over images and film clips. A lot of modern documentaries I find too emotionally manipulative and try to inject too much excitement and drama when I really just want the facts.
It was about a year or so ago that I watched a documentary I quite liked; it was a three-part, 5.5 hour documentary called Prohibition by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick about the prohibition era in the United States, which was enacted in US law for 13 years starting in 1920. I’d seen various Hollywood films based around the US prohibition laws but in reality I didn’t know much about it and felt like I should know more: how and why it started and the cultural changes in society that came as a result of its enactment.
At the same time I’ve always been into some classic Hollywood stuff, especially those films with strong leading ladies; the obvious ones being Bette Davis, Mae West and so on, along with a lot of what the British film industry was putting out around the same time.
It was from here that I went through a little phase of wanting to check out a lot of “pre-code” films, which was a very short era of Hollywood films that came out between 1929 and 1934. It basically started with the talkies, when films came out of the silent age with the technological advances of recording the audio along with the film, so you could actually hear the dialogue. And it ended with what we know as the Hays Code, an industry set of moral guidelines enacted by Hollywood in 1934 to counteract what the more conservative population saw the rampant run of films with loose morals, decadence, scandals and lack of decency. It was headed by Prebysterian minister Will H. Hays (hence the name) and had a grip on the film industry until well into the 60s, when society was changing at a brisk base and things like television and the impact of foreign directors started to break it down.
So avoiding getting into a historical essay, which is not what this is about, I started checking out a lot of these pre-code films, many of which were only as their copyrights has expired over the passing of time and many of them public domain and found a lot of hidden gems.
The Greeks Had A Word For Them came out in 1932, and is based on a play by American writer Zoë Akins. The film also went by the name Three Broadway Girls as an attempt to market it better I believe. Having been used to watching a lot of films from the first half of the 20th century that are generally quite wholesome with the classic themes of romance, morality, etc — this film at first felt a lot closer to modernity for me. It involves three ex-showgirls who are best friends, who are looking to pull some money together to rent an expensive New York apartment in which they can live in.
And although it’s a bit dated for the fact that they’re out trying to seek rich men to marry to get their money, they’re pretty much doing everything on their own terms. Late nights out at clubs and speakeasys, meeting those frequenting the night life of the day. And they’re out late too! After a night of drinking campaign they’re talking about the next “joint” they’re gonna check out to go get some breakfast. Sounds like stuff hedonistic clubbers of the 21st century have done on a very regular basis.
Like many films of the pre-code era, the styling and costuming is magnificent and everyone looks pretty stunning. The director Lowell Sherman makes an appearance as a professional piano player, as well as a man that likes to liberally apply an eyebrow pencil and eyeshadow to his face when stepping out for a cocktail. With the styling of films like these it’s very easy to see where the seeds of the more Hollywood/classic influenced looks of the new romantic era got some of their ideas from. Upon first watching this film I couldn’t help hearing Taco‘s “Putting On The Ritz” start churning around in the back of my head (see clip below). And from that point artists like the much underappreciated Blitz club regular Ronny taking that influence even further into some groundbreaking gender-bending territory (clip also below).
To me The Greeks Had A Word For Them it has a lot of parallels to films and music from the 80s, such as Desperately Seeking Susan or even Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” – which was actually written by new wave rocker Robert Hazard (whose video for the track Escalator Of Life even has some of these old Hollywood looks retooled for the 80s). However Lauper retooled the song for her own, added more importance to it and frankly did a far better version than Hazard’s original version.
There’s a lot more pre-code stuff online that’s in a similar vein to the film covered in this entry if you’re interested, and a lot of essays about the pre-code era. It’s influence definitely came to light again as society loosened up in the 60s and spread across the globe. Another film worth checking out, taking this idea of female protagonists on an adventure (albeit in a far more surreal vein) is the French classic Céline and Julie Go Boating (en Français: Céline et Julie Vont En Bateau) which you can read more about here.
Taco “Puttin’ On The Ritz”
Ronny “To Have And Have Not”
Oxford Road Show (1982)