Forbidden Hollywood is one of those Risqué topics only whispered about after everyone else has gone home. Why? Well before the “Hays Code” set up the rules, films were on the verge of going to the dark side. Clothes got skimpier, decision making got more lax, and divorce was running rampant as was sex, drugs, death, mafia, and all those things Hollywood wanted to ward against. Remember if films are a direct reflection of what’s happening in the world at any given time, then whats happening in the world at any given time can be controlled by film. That was the goal. If Hollywood could show people how to be respectable, how to make decisions, how to take care of kids, or have healthy relationships, then it could save the world. These were the men that commanded the screen in some of the best films that showed what was really happening in the world at the time. Not the glossed over pretty version, the gritty version.
One of the best Cary Grant films I almost never saw was on a compilation disc, Universal Pre-Code Hollywood Collection, called Hot Saturday ( 1932). This was the beginning of Cary’s foray into the typical rom-com where he actually played the ” good guy”. Typical party girl gets a bad rap at being ruined by this random guy ( Cary Grant) and as all her friends start believing the worst is true, no one will have her. In steps Cary Grant ( who never touched her in the first place) doing the gentlemanly thing and letting go of his bad boy ways to save her reputation. I love this story line.Many know Cary Grant was discovered by Mae West who pretty much said, ” I want him.” So as much as we don’t think of Cary as ” Forbidden Hollywood” material, he was there folks… usually just playing the upstanding guy he would later play in dozens more films.
Before he was Nick Charles in the Thin Man solving crimes and living on his wife’s inheritance, he was climbing in bedroom windows in Jewel Robbery, up against the bad guys in Lawyer Man trying to fend off a lovesick Joan Blondell, and chatting up Kay Francis in One Way Passage. Man about town, William Powell had the good fortune of being loved by Jean Harlow, and before that Carole Lombard. Needless to say a man with these ladies in his life was sure to be bringing some of that steam onto the screen. Really, as a picture, it’s hard to see how he becomes the smoldering gentlemen caller… but on screen, you can’t imagine him any other way.
My #2 choice man in Forbidden Hollywood, George Brent is that football hero-type always a little outside his element, stretching his acting muscles. In The Purchase Price he plays a poor farmer scorned by unloving mail order bride wife, Barbara Stanwyck. In Female he plays a burly automobile engineer pursued by the boss, Ruth Chatteron. He plays clueless boss opposite Jean Arthur in More than a Secretary. Always, he’s able to equal if not upstage the strong women he’s opposite. And since he’s worked with almost every great actress that’s saying a lot.
It would be a shame if I didn’t include James Cagney on this list, even though I don’t necessarily love him or his characters in film- he is an institution all his own and graces the screen of many many forbidden hollywood films. Public Enemy alone is THE film showing the prolonged death scene of James stumbling into the street for minutes before finally dying. He graced the screen in many gangster films and enters the comedic realm in Blonde Crazy opposite Joan Blondell amongst others.
Warren has strangely moved into my #1 spot for best Forbidden Hollywood male actor. In my mind this is for many different reasons. Here are the main ones; his appearance is sinister, he commands the screen like no one else, he very eerily enjoys roles in films like Under Eighteen, he has a soft spot for strong women. My favorite pairing for William is always Joan Blondell. Watch the Gold Diggers of 1933 ( one of the many reasons the Hays code was created) and you’ll the see the chemistry just heat up the screen. In Employees Entrance he takes advantage of Loretta Young like nobody’s business and seems to master that villain role with delightful joy. He can however transition to the savior role with such ease that I am often confused at how he does it! Watch Three on a Match to join in the confusion.
As always this is not by any means a complete list but just some of our favorites for now. If you have any fave actors from the Pre-Code days let us know and we’ll add them in!