Sex In the Cinema: The ‘Pre-Code’ Years (1929-1934) by Lou Sabini. Published 2017 by BearManor Media. 408 pages covering 107 movies with 178 photographs. I received a complimentary PDF copy of the book for review from the author.
Lou Sabini’s collection of taut essays profiling 107 pre-Code era films, both well-known and obscure, is an essential for every classic film fan’s bookshelf. Sabini’s 3-4 page reviews are lean and concise, yet still filled with background information and trivia about the stars, directors, and other personalities relevant to each release. Every article has at least one photo, often two or three, and the selection of images is as masterful as the entries themselves. This is the kind of book that I wish had been in print when I first discovered movies of the pre-Code era—I’ve worn out much lesser books that were.
Of course, that would have been impossible, since many of Sabini’s movie selections have long been impossible to lay hands on—and many remain obscure or underground today. Sex In the Cinema does include the big titles, so if you’re just getting your feet wet in this era, there are plenty of movies to read about that you’ve already seen: The Public Enemy (1931), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), 42nd Street (1933), and The Thin Man (1934), to offer a handful of examples covering a wide swath of genres, but there are also a few titles covered that I haven’t seen yet, and I pride myself on seeking out the obscurities—By Candlelight (1933) and Midnight (1934) were each new to me. But my favorite entries make up the bulk of Sex In the Cinema—the underrated and often hard-to-find movies that I love and usually go neglected: Young Bride (1932), The Night of June 13 (1932), Hell’s Highway (1932), The Half-Naked Truth (1932), and Moonlight and Pretzels (1933) are the tip of that iceberg. Sabini discusses them all. How about those pre-Code gems that a lot of fans already know, love, and wish their friends and family would embrace with similar fervor? Yep, Sabini’s got them covered too: Union Depot (1932), Call Her Savage (1932), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), The Story of Temple Drake (1933), Man’s Castle (1933), all here.
On a personal note, Sabini’s tastes usually meld with my own (excepting Moonlight and Pretzels—c'mon, Lou, fun with lots of catchy tunes!—and a small handful of others). For the most part, he likes what I like, often with the same reasoning as his basis. And he goes to bat more than once for two of my favorites, Warren William and, especially, Helen Twelvetrees, who have been such a huge part of this site and beyond.
Of Miss Twelvetrees, Sabini writes in his Panama Flo (1932) entry: “had she acquired better scripts with first-rate directors and higher budgets, today we would be celebrating this wonderful actress’ acting skills rather than allowing her memory to descend into oblivion” (74).
Other bits of Sex In the Cinema that stood out for this reader included the background information Sabini shares about the original cut of The Public Enemy; likewise, background on Grand Hotel (1932); RKO’s cooperation with NBC Radio Network on The Phantom of Crestwood (1932); a mini-history of the horror film cycle from its German origins through 1933 in his Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) entry; a biography of director William Seiter contained within Professional Sweetheart (1933); the charms of Lillian Miles in Moonlight and Pretzels, one wonder we shared when it came to this title; background on both director Raoul Walsh and the formation of Darryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century Pictures within The Bowery (1933); coverage of Paul Kelly’s manslaughter conviction and Russ Columbo’s death in his write-up of Broadway Thru a Keyhole (1933); the whittling down of the code-cut Man’s Castle; praise for a favorite, Elizabeth Allan, in Men in White (1934); and Nasty Asta in The Thin Man.
The book is just chock full of trivia, anecdotes, and generally interesting information throughout.
In his introduction Sabini writes:
My ambition here was to include a good number of Pre-Code titles, merely to whet the appetite in the hope that the reader will wish to view as many as possible and more to come after gathering information about the director or star’s background. I have tried to include as many genres as possible, ranging from gangster and crime films to dramas, comedies, musicals, social dramas, and murder mysteries. All of these movies have one thing in common…none of them would have passed the keen eye of the Breen Office for release after 1934. The film content would have been deemed “unacceptable to the morals of American youth” (3).
And this is all masterfully done.
The only weakness of Sex In the Cinema is in its limiting title. The book is much more than a compendium of naughty moments on film. In fact, several entries are barren of references to sex, though those are usually aided by the sexy accompanying photos. I suspect the Sex bit comes courtesy of the publisher (I hear that ‘sex sells,’ no?), but what this book really is is The Pre-Code Years, and, as promised by the author, only Volume 1 at that.
Also the author of Beyond the Scenes of They Were Expendable: A Pictorial History, film historian Lou Sabini attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, and has taught and lectured about film. Lou also presides over the Facebook group MY “REEL” LIFE. Sex in the Cinema is available from BearManor Publishing in both Hardcover and Softcover editions. Also available for your Kindle, if that's easier for you. Lou Sabini's Sex In the Cinema is a must for any pre-Code or general classic film library.