We come away from watching pre-codes convinced we can conquer the world with words, or at the least best anyone’s argument on any subject with deftly applied bon mots borrowed from these early thirties’ repositories of fast wit and delivery. Were people just smarter then? Maybe not, but writers obviously were. Looking at pre-codes I’m constantly telling myself, I gotta remember that line!, but how to retain so much (at least a dozen averaged per reel) you’d love to spring on friends (or better … opponents) at just the right moment? Pre-codes throw away priceless dialogue as though it was drawn from a bottomless well of their creator’s imagination. Warren William will turn his back to the camera and deliver lines funnier than anything I’ve heard movies come up with in the last twenty years. If nothing else, the pre-code era represents an embarrassment of riches for anyone looking to sharpen conversational (or debating) skills. I frankly think the funnier pre-codes are far more so than the funniest screwball comedies. To start with, you didn’t have to fall down so much prior to Code enforcement. Dogs needn’t run off with Cary Grant’s hat to generate laughter, nor would he be so consistently locked out of bedrooms. Compare endings of Grant’s 1932 Hot Saturday with 1937’s The Awful Truth. If nothing else, those titles should have been reversed, for it’s the former’s finish that deals in truth, while the latter’s ending is just --- awful. Pre-code characters spoke their minds to delicate topics soon to be untouchable. Misunderstandings cleared up a lot quicker because they didn’t have to dance around taboo subjects or pad out lengths beyond the seventy or so minutes pre-codes typically ran. You could argue that these films are too clever and sophisticated for their own good, as I’m still waiting for pre-code as a brand name to break out and find acceptance beyond that niche loyalists have long extended. It was at least the eighties before we even heard the term. Back when Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer wrote The Movies in 1957, terms like Teacup Drama and Confession Film covered much of what we now classify as pre-code. By then, the movies themselves were scattered over late night television but considered too ancient for wider consumption. By the sixties and well into the eighties, most pre-codes had disappeared and archeological digs were required to see them. It was tentative runs on TNT and finally TCM (beginning in 1994) that made pre-codes available again. Unlike film noir with its larger following, pre-codes reflect an otherness translating to hard sell for modern viewers, and it’s not just (really) old clothes, cars, and slanguage. Attitudes were different then and radically so in many instances. For all the free and easy abandon we think mirrors progressives like us, sometimes a pre-code will turn the screws with a resolution not so accommodating to social and political correctness as observed (and rigidly enforced) today. You have to be careful which ones you pick and for whom. Baby Face will score the laughs everyone associates with these things, but spring Week-End Marriage on your next gathering and watch the fur fly.
The fun of pre-code can come of their being so nasty, except when nasty overtakes the fun. Aforementioned Baby Face has its oft-excerpted randy highlights, but do they prepare us for sympathetic George Brent’s suicide attempt in the last reel? Night Nurse mixes welcome on-screen costume changes featuring Joan Blondell with systematic starvation of children. Sometimes pre-codes that start like comedies throw you a curve ball midway through. James Cagney (and us) have harmless fun for the first half of Blonde Crazy, then he lands in prison for what plays like the rest of someone else’s all-too serious movie. Smart Money similarly switches gears and issues crying towels where before there were laughs. You can never figure a pre-code by its opening reel. For every murder a hero gets away with, there are fates random and unexpected laying in wait. Part of that came of undercooked scripts. Dialogue among pre-codes tends to be more reliable than story construction. Kay Francis bestrides a saga spanning a quarter century (The House On 56th Street), yet hurried events will somehow get it told within less than seventy minutes. Based on those running times, I have to assume pre-codes were made in a hurry for audiences similarly disposed. You’d think they had attention spans like our modern teenagers. We’ve still not caught up to speeds with which pre-coders disgorged their lines. Again, were viewers in those days quicker on the uptake? Must have been all those urban folk talking faster then. Theirs was certainly the market studios targeted. Even provincials after a season’s diet of Warner pre-codes could draw a relief map of Brooklyn for never having stepped a foot in the place. Invitations went out to everyone in the melting pot. William Powell delivers what amounts to a Warner Bros. manifesto in High Pressure. He’s exhorting salesmen to go out and peddle phony stock with a fevered pitch directed toward every ethnic sensibility he can spot. Well-placed cultural references get cheers from Italian, Greek, and Jewish contingents much as humor utilizing stereotypes became a commonplace in Warner pre-codes. Were such groups offended when objects of ethnic joshing? Modern sensibilities quake at such notions --- another basis for shocked reactions among the uninitiated viewing pre-codes today --- but how likely were protests in the thirties when every identifiable minority came in for a drubbing?
TCM has a new documentary that came with their latest Forbidden Hollywood DVD collection. Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin, and Censorship In Pre-Code Hollywood was written and produced by Steven Smith and is the best summary of that era we’ve gotten so far. It has all the pace and energy of the pre-code films it covers and runs to about the same length as a typical Warner’s programmer. Made up primarily of highlights and footage from features owned by Warners, the only outside stuff I noted was a brief glimpse of Mae West in I’m No Angel, surely a necessity as she remains the standard bearer for excesses that led to code enforcement in 1934. There are, of course, lost pre-codes. Not many, as most are at least extant, even if they seldom surface on video or satellite TV. The best of these have not been seen for many years. A few made fleeting appearance, only to retreat back into oblivion. Universal’s Night World turned up on AMC fifteen or so years ago and vigilant collectors are perhaps still able to watch their VHS copy of same, but when will that fascinating 1932 pre-code be shown again? This Is The Night was sighted momentarily, then withdrew. So many Universal and Paramount pre-codes are like filmic Yetis --- their existence suspected, but difficult to confirm. TCM briefly licensed a handful of the latter’s pre-codes during a festival the network hosted a decade ago. At that time, The Wild Party, Torch Singer, Murder at the Vanities, and a few others made one shot appearances on the network and have not been seen since. Columbia’s Virtue showed up once on TCM, several months ago, and provided a glimpse of Carole Lombard in an early performance unseen for many years. The number of Paramount, Universal, Columbia, and Fox pre-codes remaining buried would number in the hundreds. They might all as well be the legendary Convention City, Warner’s officially declared lost 1933 release, generally regarded the most notorious of all pre-codes. Legend has it this title was destroyed so as to remove a scandalous taint upon the reputation of its makers. I’d venture to say Convention City is no better or worse than any number of Warner pre-codes, as you’re dealing with pretty much the same boundaries in all of these. In the event we rediscover Convention City, it will likely as not rank behind several that are available to us now, including Employee’s Entrance and the very underrated She Had to Say Yes, both of which represent the summit of raciness for pre-codes. The search for Convention City reminds me of an earlier quest for another Warner Bros. rarity, Mystery of the Wax Museum, which, when it was finally recovered in the mid sixties, proved to be a let-down for those who’d waited years and burnished its reputation beyond anything the film could hope to measure up to.
The real unplundered tombs in pre-code may well be foreign versions that were shot contemporaneously with their American cousins. MGM prepared French editions of Let Us Be Gay and The Bachelor Father, both of which are illustrated here. Le Père célibataire was the French title for The Bachelor Father released in 1931. Lili Damita stood in for Marion Davies. Based on a comparison of the two actresses, you can imagine which one scored heaviest as a pre-code siren. Soyons Gais was the French Let Us Be Gay, produced in 1930. Again, Lili Damita assumed the lead played by Norma Shearer in the American version, with Adolphe Menjou standing in for Rod La Rocque. It might be highly instructive to compare these two actresses as well as license filmmakers would have taken per content between American and French versions. I don’t know what, if any, restrictions were applied to foreign language renditions of pre-code films, but there’s every reason to believe they would have been at least as freewheeling as anything distributed on our shores. Do these and other foreign language features still exist? We’ve seen the German talking Anna Christie and clips from various Buster Keaton Euro derivations. I don’t recall foreign versions of any pre-code title turning up other than Anna Christie. Minus restrictions we lived with, even before Code enforcement, I wonder if French audiences did not indeed enjoy the hottest American-made pre-codes of all.
There are two I’d nominate as lost icons of pre-code. Clara Bow and Louise Brooks are faces eternal in the consciousness of film lovers, and history were it fair and discriminating would have secured many starring roles for both in an ideal pre-code universe. The fact neither flourished in that cinematic Garden Of Eden is a frustration yet for fans left only with mesmerizing still images and regrets as to what might have been had they peaked but a few years later. As it is, Bow and Brooks were headed down respective career slopes just when relaxed enforcement of Code dictates might have served them best. Paramount had misused Clara Bow in talkies. There was eight of these, most looking backward toward flapper days gone and clumsily written and paced in the bargain. That company was done with her by 1931. Another year might have turned the tide, for Paramount's output did improve as they gained expertise with sound. Worse for Bow was the fact she’d been exploited badly there. Few outstanding directors on the lot took interest in her once popularity began to slip. She was damaged goods at twenty-six, but would prove she had the stuff of pre-code greatness with a pair of starring vehicles at Fox Film Corporation designed to restore her stardom. Call Her Savage and Hoopla demonstrate what a natural Bow would have been for roles tapping into hard-won credibility and seen-it-all worldliness she brought over from Paramount’s slave hold (she’d voluntarily, and regrettably, leave Fox and retire after these two). Pre-code itself was all about the hard road. Characters and women who played them shared bruises and didn’t shrink from showing them. Warts and all weren’t limited to a Clara Bow in her twenties looking forty. Supporting actresses bore tire tracks as well that assured audiences they weren’t alone in their Depression. Discarded Broadway baby Mayo Methot makes you believe in the down-and-out prostitute she essays (from experience?) in Virtue, that Columbia pre-code briefly sighted on TCM. Methot was a confirmed alcoholic one year younger than Clara Bow and four years co-star Carole Lombard’s senior. By her looks, she could have played either one’s mother. Out of such personal misery come great performances, and actresses like Methot, having missed the brass ring of stardom, were routinely giving them in pictures like Virtue. Others seemed in an even greater hurry to self-destruct. Louise Brooks had told off Paramount brass just when sound came calling. By 1931 and the blossoming of pre-code, she too was among those cast off. Glimpses of Brooks in God’s Gift To Women and It Pays To Advertise from that year are baleful reminders of what might have been. William Wellman offered the eventual Jean Harlow part in Public Enemy, but Louise was busy that week and said no. You’d think such a misjudgment would haunt her the rest of her life, but Brooks never cared less. Is there anything so frustrating as talent carelessly thrown away? Maybe Brooks knew all along she’d never deliver on our hopes and expectations. Had all those hypnotic photo sittings been just a tease then? If Louise Brooks bothered checking out complicated women in Hollywood’s pre-code universe, she’d have at least known she was the most complicated of them all, and might well have been high priestess of the lot had she just chosen to show up for work.