Universal Home Video is plunging into the sex, sin and bathtub gin of pre-code Hollywood films with their answer to the “Forbidden Hollywood” series from Warner. The Pre-Code Hollywood Collection is from the “Universal Backlot Series” but is actually a collection of Paramount films (Universal owns the rights to the early Paramount catalogue), a studio with a more elegant and opulent touch (it was the studio of Lubitsch, Sternberg, DeMille and Leisen, after all).
I didn’t have a chance to explore all of the films in the set, but I absolutely loved Mitchell Leisen’s 1934 Murder at the Vanities, a combination backstage musical, showbiz comedy and murder mystery, all with the sex and smart-alecky attitude and snappy pace of the best pre-code studio pictures. Leisen did his apprenticeship as costume designer and art director, working on Douglas Fairbanks spectacles and mentoring under Cecil B. DeMille as transformed himself from silky sex comedy director to epic filmmaker and king of the spectacle. Leisen is much more fun to watch than his mentor and Murder at the Vanities is a fast-moving, fast-talking, sexy little entertainment. Also features Dorothy Arzner’s 1932 Merrily We Go to Hell. Arzner was the rare career woman director in the Hollywood’s early sound era and the film is smart and sharp and clever, and daring in its open acknowledgment of extramarital affairs and New York society decadence.
Cleopatra – 75th Anniversary Edition is a companion release, but it’s really something of a stiff compared to the snappy entertainments of the box set, where the longest film runs under 90 minutes.
Cecil B. DeMille is the epitome of the Hollywood director as spectacle showman and Cleopatra is his follow-up to Sign of the Cross: all production value and no style. Cleopatra’s Egyptian entertainments become the forerunner to the Goldwyn Follies, with showgirls in revealing costumes prancing through absurd set pieces, battles scenes are spiced up with lavish miniatures and grotesque death scenes.