Uncensored Hollywood films showcased at Detroit's Redford Theatre

Erica Hobbs
Special to The Detroit News

For those who think old movies are boring and sanitized, think again. Detroit’s Redford Theatre is making a case for the opposite Saturday during their Hollywood Pre-Code Hollywood Classics event, showcasing two films from 1932 that broke the rules – literally. Presented by Turner Classic Movies (TCM) host and film expert Alicia Malone, the evening includes a double feature of “Trouble in Paradise” and “Merrily We Go to Hell,” made during a period of Hollywood where rules of what is allowed on-screen existed but were not enforced.

“We think of (classic) films as prim and proper, with married couples sleeping in separate beds,” Malone said. “In pre-code, there was adultery, violence, sex and nudity, a lot of aspects of film you don’t think of in 1930s Hollywood. In doing so they were able to explore some real issues.”

"Merrily We Go to Hell"

While the Redford has shown pre-code movies before, this is the first time the theater has made an official evening of it. Event curator, film expert and long-time Redford volunteer John Monaghan delved into pre-code films during the pandemic. When TCM and Malone reached out with a list of film ideas for a collaboration – which included several pre-code options – he thought it was the perfect time to showcase this unique and little-known period of Hollywood film. 

“Old Hollywood movies are not just antiquities, they’re really living, breathing works of art,” Monaghan said. “The whole gamut of human emotions run through these two pictures, it really covers just about everything.”

TCM host and film expert Alicia Malone will present movies made before Hollywood established codes for films at Detroit's Redford Theatre on  Saturday.

The evening begins with “Trouble in Paradise,” a comedy from director Ernst Lubitsch starring Kay Francis as a perfume company magnate romanced by con man Herbert Marshall and his girlfriend Miriam Hopkins. Though not explicit by today’s standards, Monaghan said the film features an unmarried couple who are clearly in a sexual relationship.

“It’s so charged with romance and passion and with a real kind of wink,” he said. “Though it’s not showing anything, it’s so much more out there and not hidden.”

But Malone said the film is more than shock value.

“As well as being sexy and risqué, it’s witty and clever,” she said. “It’s a great story that will keep you enthralled.”

“Merrily We Go to Hell,” directed by Dorothy Arzner, is about the fated relationship between an heiress and a self-destructive addict. Starring Sylvia Sidney and Frederic March, Monaghan said the film is able to talk about infidelity and destructive behavior in a real, thoughtful way without the dilution from censors. 

Additionally, “Merrily We Go to Hell” is a work from one of the few female directors of the time period. Malone said there is a notable femininity to the film as well as a greater perspective and sympathy for the wife’s character that would be unlikely from a male director of the time. 

“She’s not someone people know much about but should, because she has such a legacy and was really holding it down for female directors for decades,” she said. 

Those concerned about sitting through two feature-length movies can take heart that both films are about 1 hour and 20 minutes long, preceded by a short presentation from Malone. 

For COVID safety, guests are required to wear masks. The 1600-seat theater will also be limited to half capacity to accommodate social distancing, though Monaghan said he expects turnout to be closer 300 with ample space for guests to spread out. 

Malone said the event is a great way to have a good time and experience something different. 

“These movies don’t get screened all that often,” she said. “To be able to see them in a venue on the big screen is very special.”

'Pre-Code Hollywood Classics'

8 p.m. Saturday

Redford Theatre, 17360 Lahser Road, Detroit

Double feature of “Trouble in Paradise” and “Merrily We Go to Hell”

Tickets: $10 and available online or at the door.  www.redfordtheatre.com.