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When Hollywood Dared

Pre-Code Hollywood Collection: The Cheat/Merrily We Go to Hell/Hot Saturday/Torch Singer/Murder at the Vanities/Search for Beauty

Universal Studios, 3 DVDs, $49.98

Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume Three: Other Men’s Women/The Purchase Price/Frisco Jenny/Midnight Mary/Heroes for Sale/Wild Boys of the Road

Warner Home Video, 4 DVDs, $49.98

The term “pre-Code”—denoting the Hollywood films of the early talkie era, before full enforcement of the Production Code was imposed in 1934—has been enjoying the kind of currency previously attained by “film noir,” and for similar reasons: it’s at once a promise of buried pleasures and shorthand for an aesthetic aura that is complex enough to encompass both campy artifice and rough-edged immediacy. It isn’t of course news that to the early 1930s we owe the most enduring mythic figures of talking pictures: the gangsters incarnated by Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, the chorines of Busby Berkeley’s epic musical numbers, the iconic fright masks of Frankenstein and Dracula and The Mummy, and—before their comedy was normalized and bowdlerized—the Marx Brothers and Mae West. But these represent only the glittering surface of a legacy with many hidden layers. After 1934 many pre-Code movies were either put on the shelf or reissued in censored form; most weren’t shown on television; and for a long time they were frustratingly hard to find on video.

All that has begun to change, bringing a wholesale reassessment of movies once seen more as the curios of a transitional moment. The last few years have seen a flood of cable television screenings (usually on Turner Classic Movies), restorations, and reissues. A series of pre-Code retrospectives at New York’s Film Forum has helped to instill a wider taste for movies like Baby Face, Employees’ Entrance, and Night World—movies that still seem too raucously unsettled to submit to the term “classic.” In only the last few months, two notable box sets have been added to the mix: a Pre-Code Hollywood Collection offering six little-known Paramount films (including the fascinating early Cary Grant vehicle Hot Saturday, with its persuasively unsentimental fresco of small-town life) and a third installment of the pioneering Forbidden Hollywood series that makes available six essential works from the extremely rich pre-Code catalog of director William Wellman.

These Wellman films are the ideal starting point for a reconsideration of the period, whether one begins with a desperate, unemployed Loretta Young in Midnight Mary glancing up at neon signs that transform themselves into NO JOBS TODAY and NO HELP WANTED; or with Ruth Chatterton in Frisco Jenny playing host, as the doyenne of San Francisco’s brothel-keepers, to a conclave of superannuated courtesans; or with Frankie Darro and others in Wild Boys of the Road defending their hobo jungle against an onslaught of police in scenes that here and there look almost documentary; or with Richard Barthelmess in Heroes for Sale undergoing a sort of modern American Calvary as a war hero reduced to morphine addict, prisoner, and finally vagrant herded along a dark and rain-swept highway. It is not simply that these films evoke a lost world; they also reflect a singular moment in filmmaking. They start up out of the narcotic trance of late silent cinema into a world of noise and verbal aggression; yet they retain for the moment, through long habit, all the imagist power and associative poetic logic of the silents. They have a directness and intensity—a wide-awakeness—still capable of astonishing.

The slow reemergence of pre-Code cinema has for me been the unanticipated occasion to experience again a memorable first impact. When I was fifteen my aunt insisted on taking me to the movies—to Dan Talbot’s New Yorker theater on West 88th Street, which in the early 1960s served as an unofficial Cinémathèque Américaine, ceaselessly dredging in Hollywood’s buried archives—to see a double bill of 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. My tastes at the time leaned more toward avant-garde theater and my preferred filmmaker was Eisenstein; my aunt wanted me to see her favorite movies from her own adolescent days. The experiment was a success. I went in with my mind on Eugène Ionesco and the Theater of the Absurd and came out with my mind on Joan Blondell and her crew of wisecracking out-of-work chorus girls.

In short order I discovered in the canon of early 1930s movies—those, that is, that could be seen in the 1960s—a universe of delights encompassing the classic gangster cycle (Scarface was only just becoming available again), the amour fou of the Dietrich–von Sternberg collaborations such as Shanghai Express (“It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily”), the peerless sophistication of Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, and—in a class by herself—a vision of Jean Harlow on late-night television in Red Dust, fresh from her impromptu bath in a Malayan rain barrel. Had there been something in the water (or the bootleg hooch) in 1932 that gave such a peculiar magic to its films, a magic compounded equally of gum-chewing, corner-of-the-mouth verbal byplay, musical numbers of unparalleled geometric splendor, unbounded leaps into exotic fantasy (whether Saharan outpost or Viennese boudoir) counterbalanced by stark, dead-on glimpses of prison corridors and newspaper offices and city streets worthy of Walker Evans, and (not least) a mood of erotic impudence that afterward, it seemed, had so suddenly and mysteriously vanished?

If I had known more about the history of Hollywood—but it was a history then in large part still to be written—I would have understood that the vanishing was, if sudden, hardly mysterious. The sea change undergone by Hollywood filmmaking more or less on July 1, 1934 (the date when the amended “Code to Govern the Making of Motion and Talking Pictures,” promulgated by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, came into effect), marked the culmination of a political and cultural struggle that had simmered since the early 1920s. In fact the struggle went back much further; from the moment that movies revealed themselves as the most potent form of mass entertainment yet devised, it was inevitable that their content, and the question of who if anyone should oversee it, would spark conflict. A rash of scandals in the 1920s led to the creation of the “Hays Office,” intended to certify the purity of the industry’s product. But Will Hays proved a pliable commissar, and Hollywood continued to test the limits of the permissible while paying lip service to high-mindedness.

With the coming of sound—and, not long thereafter, with economic collapse and a resulting steep fall-off in movie attendance—producers ventured into yet more daring material. Stories “ripped from the headlines” became common, and the risqué humor of the burlesque show and the Broadway bedroom farce made its way more or less unimpeded to the screen. One rapidly mutating cycle gave way to another—gangster films, stories about prostitutes and unwed mothers, bawdy backstage musicals, prison exposés, gruesome horror pictures—whatever filled seats.

The crisis made the studios more open to gambling on movies that pushed the limits of violence or sexual suggestiveness or cynical irreverence, but also made them more vulnerable to outside pressures. The original Production Code, drafted by Daniel Lord, a Jesuit priest, and Martin Quigley, a Catholic layman who edited the trade paper Motion Picture Herald, was formally accepted by the industry in 1930 in an effort to placate the opposition. When it became apparent that the Code was not being seriously enforced—Warner Brothers, for example, when not glorifying gangsters, was churning out product like Naughty Flirt, Misbehaving Ladies, and Hot Heiress—a more concerted movement took shape. Grandstanding politicians introduced bills calling for a federal censorship commission to control film content, and after Roosevelt’s election it became apparent that the new administration was not averse to some form of government regulation. Social researchers, in a best-seller called Our Movie Made Children (1933), blamed movies for youthful delinquency and sexual misconduct. Most significantly, the Roman Catholic Church put its full weight behind—in the words of a papal spokesman—“a united front and a vigorous campaign for the purification of the cinema.”

The Catholic (later National) Legion of Decency, formed in 1933, encouraged thousands to take its pledge, which read in part:

I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which…are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land.

I shall do all that I can to arouse public opinion against the portrayal of vice as a normal condition of affairs.

By the time Cardinal Dougherty of Philadelphia called on parishioners to boycott all movies, with the result that attendance immediately fell off by 40 percent, the studios were ready to cave in. They agreed to the enforcement of the Code and the installation of Joseph Breen as its enforcer. He would keep the job until 1954, and unlike Will Hays he was no pushover.

The Breen Office became a highly effective organ for blocking impermissible ideas at their inception, long before the production stage. “Our procedure,” Breen declared, “is a sort of ‘Irish Bull’ procedure: where there is likely to be any difficulty, or trouble, we endeavor to stop it before it begins.”1 For Hollywood, the Code finally gave as much as it took. It deprived filmmakers of certain profitable avenues of exploitation, but it obviated local censorship hassles and, by promoting a one-size-fits-all regularized product acceptable for audiences everywhere, made the whole filmmaking process, especially at the writing stage, more streamlined and systematic. By chance or not, profits boomed after the Code came into effect, with much help from the immensely popular and definitively inoffensive Shirley Temple.

It is a fascinating piece of work, this Code, more blatant both in its specific prohibitions and in its articulation of their rationale than any government document would likely have been. It shows clearly that Lord, Quigley, Breen, and the rest never intended merely to black out the occasional glimpse of nudity or burst of tommy gun fire or inappropriate swear word. From the heart of its opening paragraph—

Mankind has always recognized the importance of entertainment and its value in rebuilding the bodies and souls of human beings

—the Code outlined fundamental principles on which all films were to rest. It was a vision not merely of art but of life, based on the premise that “wrong entertainment lowers the whole living condition and moral ideals of a race,” a premise underscored by references to gladiatorial combat and “the obscene plays of Roman times.” (This might seem consonant with Cecil B. DeMille’s 1932 success The Sign of the Cross, except that Martin Quigley pointedly denounced the film for its “odors of Lesbos and de Sade.”) It called for films in which “evil and good are never confused and…evil is always recognized clearly as evil,” films that would never “leave the question of right or wrong in doubt or fogged.” Right was seen as inherent in the American social order: “The courts of the land,” according to one stricture, “should not be presented as unjust.”

Although addenda to the Code spelled out a wide range of things not to be allowed on screen—whether depicting methods of safecracking or poking fun at ministers of religion or even hinting at the existence of the illegal drug traffic—the overwhelming concern was with sexual conduct. The overheated tone of the Code’s language—its harping on “intimate parts of the human body [which] should not be covered with transparent or translucent material,” on the indecency of “dances of the type known as ‘Kooch’ or ‘Can-Can,’” its rigorous distinction between “pure love ” (“permitted by the law of God and man”) and “impure love ” (“which society has always regarded as wrong and which has been banned by divine law”)—would be amusing were it not for how completely the implications of this document were allowed to dominate American filmmaking, and by extension American culture, for decades to come.

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    Quoted in Thomas Doherty, Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration (Columbia University Press, 2007). I am indebted to Doherty’s earlier study, Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930–1934 (Columbia University Press, 1999). Other useful sources are Mark A. Viera’s Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood (Abrams, 1999) and Mick LaSalle’s Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood (St. Martin’s, 2000).

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