Pre-Code fun begins with ‘Frisco Jenny’

This month is going to be a total blast. Every Friday, TCM is airing Pre-Code films – the movies made in Hollywood from the late 1920s through 1934, when the production code was not being enforced.

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I knew of the Pre-Code films and had seen several of them before April’s TCM Classic Film Festival, but I honestly never knew that these movies have such a rabid fan base. Every Pre-Code movie screened was packed and I just barely got in to see the two I saw – Employees’ Entrance and The Stranger’s Return.

I’ve recorded a bunch today already and just watched William A. Wellman’s Frisco Jenny, which features a real heartbreaking performance from Ruth Chatterton. She plays the titular character, who planned to marry a piano player against her father’s wishes. But just as she’s about to make a stand, the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 strikes, killing him. Since she slept with her beau the night before, she’s also pregnant. (Now, that’s where the “pre-code” aspects of the film kick in.)  After the earthquake and learning that her man is dead, Jenny falls in with the crime world of San Francisco, rejecting an annoying priest.

During her time without money, she gave away her son, Dan. When she gets money, she wants her son back, but ultimately lets Dan grow into a respectable college star. But they soon clash in an unexpected way.

Frisco Jenny was far more interesting that some other pre-codes, probably because of Wellman’s directing. You get the sense that Wellman isn’t doing risque things to tantalize the audience, but he’s just telling a story, one that he wouldn’t be able to tell a year after making the film.

I am incredibly excited to see some more pre-codes that I haven’t checked out before. My favorite aspect of these films is how the screenwriters and directors managed to tell stories in 80 minutes or less. Frisco Jenny covers decades, but is over in 70 minutes.

If you are interested in my other writing, check out today’s Film Friday post at TheCelebrityCafe.com on Woody Allen’s “Interiors.”

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