I will never not love Pre-Code. I am constantly in awe of it and I am always amazed at how much they got away with. And because it’s Pride Month, I thought I’d take a look at two of the many (yes) films that dealt with LGBT issues or showed LGBT characters in one way or another. Needless to say, this wasn’t done in an obvious way back then, so we don’t have a whole lot to go on, but what we do get out of some of these films has rightfully gone down in history. And even though there’s quite a few films and scenes to choose from, I went with these Hell’s Highway (1932) and Ladies They Talk About (1933) because I feel they get slightly overlooked.
Hell’s Highway (1932, dir. Rowland Brown) is one of the most brutal and horrifying prison films from Hollywood’s Pre-Code era, if not of all time. Centered around the horrible death of an inmate by a prison guard, it depicts the horrors of prison life in an honest and gritty way, which at times can be downright uncomfortable to watch. And that’s one of the things I love about it. But what makes Hell’s Highway what it is, I think, are the relationships between the characters. The brotherly love between Duke (Richard Dix) and Johnny (Tom Brown), in paticular, is endearing and the film’s greatest asset. Throughout the movie, there’s this sense of comraderie and friendship between the characters, including the prison cook, played by Eddie Hart, a gay man who enjoys some quiet time with the guards in the (regrettably) few scenes he’s in. His scenes almost feel like a breath of fresh air; he’s human, he’s flamboyant, and he’s unapologetic about it. He’s also never ridiculed or made to look like a gimmick. He’s just simply one of them. They’re all in it together, after all.
Ladies They Talk About (1933, dir. William Keighley and Howard Bretherton) is a little different. In it, Nan Taylor (Barbara Stanwyck) is the decoy in a bank robbery, orchestrated by her and her gang. After getting caught, she confesses her guilt to radio personality and evangelist David Slade (Preston S. Foster), who, despite being in love with her, ends up turning her in. At San Quentin State Prison, her smart-talking, no-nonsense ways get her into trouble right from the off – nothing she can’t handle though. ‘Sister’ Susie (Dorothy Burgess), a David Slade devotee, gets angry when Nan turns off his radio show as soon as she walks in and the two of them begin their on-going feud. Nan strikes up a friendship with Linda (Lillian Roth) right away, who ends up telling her all about the inmates as well as the prison’s facilities. In the washroom, we’re introduced to the ‘butch’ inmate – uncredited – sporting a suit and smoking a cigar. ‘Watch out for her, she likes to wrestle’, Linda tells Nan, after which, our lesbian inmate turns around and gives Nan the eye, before walking out. In a later scene, she’s seen in a montage flexing her arms, much to the admiration of her cellmate (girlfriend?).
What I like about these two films and these characters is that, even though they enjoy a relatively short screentime, they do not go unnoticed. They get their point across, even if at times they succumb to being a stereotype (hey, it was the 1930s), and they’ve undoubtedly made their mark and helped shape LGBT cinema. Hell’s Highway and Ladies They Talk About are just two of them, however, and there is so much LGBT stuff to get through, especially in Pre-Code. I mean, who can forget Marlene Dietrich in that scene from Morocco (1930)? But that’s for another post.