It’s less than 10 minutes into Riptide, and already Norma Shearer is decked out in insect-woman garb, adjusting the fit of the skimpy costume and complaining that part of it must surely be missing. Mary, the easygoing city girl Shearer plays, never makes it to the masquerade ball scheduled out on Long Island. Instead, she falls easily in lust with a lonely New York swell named Lord Philip Rexford (Herbert Marshall), equally ridiculous in an unrecognizable bug costume that fits him like a suit of chain mail might, if chain mail came with bug eyes a pair of antennae. As meet cutes go, it’s a terrific pre-Code absurdity — the movie hasn’t even begun yet, and already the leading lady is half undressed.
The Sign of the Cross
Mounted and directed by the legendary showman Cecil B. DeMille and photographed by the marvelously adroit cinematographer Karl Struss (Sunrise, Island of Lost Souls), The Sign of the Cross is a dispiriting epic that purports to tell the tale of Roman persecution of Christians under the reign of Nero, who is believed under some theories to have ordered his men to set fire to the city and then blamed local Christians for the damaging blaze. But despite insistently dull depictions of the monotonous lives of the true believers, who are so dumb they can’t even station proper lookouts outside their secret prayer meetings, what DeMille’s really into is the hedonistic habits of the Roman upper classes. The result is a film whose generous helpings of sex and violence are overwhelmed by its general air of condescension and phony piety.
Baby Face (1933)
Notorious for its resolutely sordid look at a woman’s place in the American socioeconomic structure, circa 1933, Baby Face was the film that pushed the movie studios to start enforcing the production code that would, for decades forward, strictly control the content of American movies. Barbara Stanwyck rules — she rules! — as Lily Powers, a sardonic barmaid who, liberated by the chance death of her dominating father and emboldened by the advice of an old German who quotes Nietzsche at her and lectures her on the art of using men but not being used by them, embarks on a quest to sleep her way to the top of a New York City bank.
Waterloo Bridge (1931)
The pre-Code Waterloo Bridge doesn’t boast early Barbara Stanwyck, but it’s a lot more fun than Baby Face. And auteurists may suspect the reason why — the man behind the camera was no less a heavyweight than James Whale. Granted, when he made Waterloo Bridge he was not yet the James Whale — but it’s said that when he finished this one his studio bosses at Universal were so impressed they gave him the run of the studio to select his next film, and of course he opted to make Frankenstein, casting his Waterloo star Mae Clarke as Elizabeth and working again with ace D.P. Arthur Edeson, who would go on to shoot They Drive By Night, The Maltese Falcon, and Casablanca.