“I’m not a gold digger—well, not much,” says Kay Francis in the thrillingly amoral 1931 comedy Girls About Town. I almost wrote “romantic” comedy, given that Francis’s hard-bitten Manhattan party girl, who “dates” visiting midwestern businessmen and takes them for all their savings, does ultimately fall in love with a corn-fed good guy, played by a dashing Joel McCrea. But this tough little picture, directed by George Cukor with a flair for sleaze he’d tuck away for the rest of his career, contrasts dizzy Prohibition-era antics with the exhaustion and contempt Wanda and her best pal, platinum blonde Marie (Lilyan Tashman), feel toward their clients—about lives spent, as Wanda says, “being pawed by a bunch of middle-aged Babbitts.”
Girls About Town is a highlight of Film Forum’s raucous new series “Paramount Before the Code,” a four-week trot starting June 24 through many of the racier movies made before the Hollywood Production Code clamped down on depictions of boozing, infidelity, and a fetishistic obsession with garter belts (everyone here, from the gals in Girls to Betty Boop, peeks at silk-stocking tops).
Given current FCC crackdowns and fines, “Before the Code” is a timely kick in the brain: There have always been bluenoses in power who try to suppress eros and pessimism. And lots of these movies were designed to titillate and lure radio listeners into movie theaters: There have always been pop-culture manufacturers who end up creating not just racy entertainment, but art or something close to it. Running less than 70 minutes, Girls is thick with layers of cynicism. When our heroine succumbs to McCrea’s proposal to marry and take her away from the evil city, she blithely tells him she’ll have to get divorced first. They sidle over to a pay phone so he can listen in as she drops her hubby. This brilliantined slug says okay, but he wants ten grand for the favor. And he gets it.