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Wednesday, March 19, 2008




What's Your Pre-Code Threshold? --- Part One





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.

12 Comments:

Blogger Vanwall said...

Ah, Warren William! A masterful delivery of crackling lines in that wonderful voice of his, and he dressed the parts amazingly well - clothes seemed to fit him to a T, regardless of what he was wearing; he must've had a magic clothes hanger hidden on his person, and I'll bet he was joy to design for. You're absolutely right about the comparison to the later comedies, 'specially screwballs - the dialog just jumps off the screen in the pre-codes, they were so clever.

I was one of those late night viewers in the late sixties-early seventies - I used to wonder whatever happened to 'em, particularly Stanwyck's films; I really liked her work all around, but all of a sudden, nothing but the westerns and the usual 40's-50's stuff was on the telly - I could only read about them for years, but never see them. Paramount sucks, keeping all their great oldies buried away. I wasn't aware of how extensive the European versions were - I'd love to see Damita's versions!

Poor Clara Bow - nobody moved so naturally on screen - I've read she was pretty much oblivious to how complicated stage directions could be viewed, she would just up and do 'em almost without thinking, but they had her speaking the weakest dialog when she got the talkies chances. Wasted, wasted, wasted. She would've been perfect for pre-code.

Louise Brooks, however is another matter - she hated Hollywood, and would've done better if the Studios were still big in NYC, but as with many ingenues from that period and after, she wasn't sleeping with the right people in films by then. The other period she would've excelled in but missed was musicals - I'd've loved to see her in those. However, talent can only get you so far in any endeavor, 'specially Hollywood, and it wasn't easy if all you could be was a face on a pillow, either, so the balancing act wasn't as breezy as it seems. Brooksie was a little too complicated for pre-code, maybe, and also a lot to much into gin.

10:59 PM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

BTW, is that Lily hangin' off a halyard on the Sirocco? Remember, one hand for the ship, one for yourself, girl...but I guess it was already too late for any nautical advice to females about belaying a sheet aboard ship with Flynn. To say nothing of whippin' the mast. ;-)

11:21 PM  
Blogger East Side said...

Methot was younger than Bow? Holy cow, I can only wonder what her off-screen life was like -- especially when she married to Bogart.

Three more pre-code jems: "Jewel Robbery," where William Powell subdues his hostages by making them smoke dope. "Downstairs," an pitch-black comedy with John Gilbert giving a brilliant performance as an unscrupulous chauffer. "Wonder Bar," the ultimate life-is-cheap Warners musical. The climax is as shockingly cynical as anything I've ever seen.

7:16 AM  
Anonymous sjack827 said...

Another great post. I guess most people mostly associated precode with sexual themes and "loose women", but there were other films that were considered just as daring for their political messages. "Hero's for Sale" was very left wing, even for the 30's and it's depiction of how WWI vets were treated seems very bold -- even for today. "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" painted a grimly realistic picture of economic and prison conditions during the Great Depression.

I also find it interesting how the precode films treated race. In many precode films you see black actors and actress that act naturally. No Stephin Fetchit type characters, just black people acting like black people. Plus the interactions between blacks and whites were much more natural and realistic -- there were actual friendships between blacks and whites (see "Babyface" for an example). Even though blacks weren't seen on film very often, when they were, their characterizations were more natural than they were after code enforcement.

8:47 AM  
Blogger Erik said...

TCM carries on the Hollywood traditions in more ways than one, trying to pin down what it thinks a modern audience needs to hear in order to buy the product. It strikes me as just as silly as the original 1930s advertising. Well, except now its got academic trappings around it.

The long wardrobe-dressing scene in NIGHT NURSE is annoying almost from the first viewing, I want to rip it to my computer and edit it so that I'll save a few minutes every viewing for the rest of my life.

I love these old movies. But they're not often subtle. The much ballyhooed freedom of that era seems to have been utilized in weird left turns in the script that would lend itself to something blatant enough to be exploitative, but not so much as to get everybody into some serious trouble. There's the movie; then there's the advertising angle.

9:15 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I guess the what-a-letdown-Mystery-in-the-Wax-Museum-was-when-it-resurfaced line is the conventional wisdom by now, but here's one viewer who wasn't disappointed -- and I'd been built up to expect as much as any reader of Forry Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland.

I saw it at a special midnight screening at the San Francisco Film Festival on the night of Halloween 1970. I expected at best a battered black-and-white 16mm salvaged from some eccentric collector; instead, they unspooled a pristine 35mm nitrate Technicolor that apparently hadn't seen the light of a projector lamp -- or even of day -- in 35 years.

Having known only House of Wax, I was unprepared for the story, a mix of Grand Guignol horror and gum-and-wise-cracking newspaper comedy that blended better than I would have expected.

And that two-strip Tech! This was 1970, remember, when the most ardent film buff could only dream of ever seeing an example of it. I found the color at once vivid and delicate, like an old hand-tinted photograph, albeit of a limited palette -- every wall, whatever the texture, was the same shade of terra cotta beige, and the flames in the big fire scene photographed an odd shade of lemonade pink.

Even then, I read of the disappointment of others in the film; well, I'd say I wished they had seen the same print I saw, except that I know they did, as it was the only one in existence. Every version of the film I've seen since then -- 16mm, TV broadcast, VHS, Laserdisc, DVD -- has failed to capture that delicate hand-tinted look, so there must have been something about the physical properties of that one print that simply can no longer be reproduced. A pity, because it's only served to feed the "disappointment" meme. (And don't even get me started on Fay Wray in her green velvet dress; she never looked so good, not even half-naked in King Kong.)

But you know, that wasn't the highlight of the evening -- or rather, early morning. No, it was the second feature: James Whale's The Old Dark House -- never thought lost, exactly, but in 1970 it had been out of circulation almost as long as Mystery.

8:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

WAX MUSEUM doesn't look as good in It's other versions because United Artists botched the preservation negative.The 35MM version became a muted version of the original-minus the pink flames-, while the 16MM prints just looked like sepia with some blue.At least the video and DVD versions look like color.Oh, and Universal owns the old(pre-48)Paramount films.

1:17 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Jim, I've got a post coming up on "Wax Museum" and "Doctor X" where I'll be addressing that very topic you mentioned. How I envy you for having seen the original 35mm nitrate of "Wax Museum"!

1:23 PM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

I understood Universal owns the talkie Paramounts, true, but not the silents, as I understand it - I should've excoriated them both on principle.

1:58 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

For pre code films, I will choose Frank Borzage's THE RIVER. Although this late silent production survives in incomplete form, the erotic quality of the remaining scenes is simply impressive. The development of the relationship between Charles Farrel and Mary Duncan is astonishing.

Although most of the film did not survive (unless somebody bothers to visit a film archive in Latin America) the lost scenes are more conventional and routine. This film is available in an R2 DVD, and it is also available in Satantango's silent film list.

For foreign language productions by the Hollywood studios in the thirties, I have to say that they are a mixed bag. The very first one was SOMBRAS DE GLORIA (a remake of BLAZE O'GLORY) starring José Bohr, a German born, raised in Chile, artist from Argentina who excelled as a tango composer. He would later receive and honorific Academy Award for that film.

Hal Roach directed simultaneously five versions of MEN OF THE NORTH for MGM, which according to all accounts, a chaotic experience.

In Argentina, if there was no Spanish language version, studios would simultaneously release all of the efforts. However, in Spain the Fox Film Corporation released the original version of THE BIG TRAIL as a silent film (!) one year before exhibiting the Spanish language remake, LA GRAN JORNADA, a much more financially successful film than the original.

I remember seeing an MGM ad promoting at the same time the Norma Shearer-Rod La Rocque and the Lily Damita-Adolphe Menjou feature, but the contemporary review dismiss it as routine show (I have not seen either one of those films myself).

There are curiosities. CHERI-BIBI was originally filmed by MGM in Spanish, starring Ernesto Vilches, directed by Carlos Borcosque. The film was, then, reshoot in English as THE PHANTOM OF PARIS, with John Gilbert.

Paramount Pictures would refilm all of the Maurice Chevalier vehicles in French (MGM later did the same with THE MERRY WIDOW). According to the contemporary reviews (since in Argentina both versions were always show in tandem), the English version were always considered the better productions.

But the biggest failure of Paramount was to set up a production company in Joinville studios, outside Paris, to produce all of their foreign language remakes. The resulting productions were almost always dismissed insipid, unremarkable and silly, pale shadows of the original films, and probably contributed a lot to Paramount's bankrupcy.

The most interesting of the foreign language productions however, will always be those original productions, without an English version. Paramount, MGM and Fox did a few.

This brings Carlos Gardel to this text...

When Paramount was loosing a fortune with their foreign language productions and gaining a ridicule around the Spanish language world. They decided to produce an Argentine comedy starring some of the top performers of the national song. So, Carlos Gardel starred in LAS LUCES DE BUENOS AIRES, a big success in both Spain and Argentina (and probably Puerto Rico as well). In Spain, the audience forced the exhibition to be stopped in order so a tango can be repeated.

After a disappointing film called ESPERAME, Paramount produced two more Gardel films in Joinville. A short called LA CASA ES SERIA (lost, but the entire soundtrack survives) in which Gardel tries to win the love a lady that, in the final scene it is revealed that is a prostitute.

The other film was MELODIA DE ARRABAL, which was an extremely big box office success everywhere it was exhibited. And in Argentina, this film was also stopped in order to repeat all of the tangos. It is the story of a gangster that tries to became a singer, carrying a murder behind.

The success of that film opened the American market to Gardel. The only studio that still produced films in Spanish was the old Fox Film Corporation. Considering how bad the company was doing (and the later Gardel films for Paramount), I am quite sure that the production code was not fully enforced.

When Carlos Gardel made CUESTA ABAJO in the United States, reviewers view the film as the apotheosis of the non English production. They were right (although Gardel would top that film later). In it, and keeping in the pre code environment, he plays the role of a big looser under the influence of a very bad woman. Mona Maris, in that part, threw away the good girl roles she was playing in English and Spanish language productions; she is cruel, terrible (openly cheating him), but still loving him. It is an unforgettable role and it is too bad American film buff do not know about this movie.

The follow up to this comedy, also from 1934, but released the following year before Gardel's tragic death, also ignores the production code. Taking place in New York. The film opens in a bedroom in which Gardel awakes with a big hangover (and well combed hair!) surrounded by equally drunk beauties... then singing a fox trot about them! Director Louis Gasnier (in his fourth and final film with Gardel) was probably emulating the kind of comedy his boss at Paramount, Ernst Lubistch, was doing just a few years before.

The Gardel films are all in the public domain, preserved intact with full Paramount logos, and it is an insult that they are not available in quality versions.

When Carlos Gardel tragically died in Colombia, that marked the virtual end of the American film in Spanish. The attempts that followed, even in color, and released by the major studios (overseas, not domestically) were failures by the outbreak of WWII there were no more.

TCM should have guts and show the foreign language productions made in the United States in the thirties. I still don't understand why they don't do it. If they put the Gardel film, they will get a much larger audience than they probably get with the bizarre films.

Here are all of the Gardel films that he made in the Astoria studios online (including those I mentioned):

http://es.arcoiris.tv/modules.php?name=Downloads&d_op=viewdownload&cid=119

7:33 PM  
Blogger THE PHANTOM OF THE LANDFILL said...

You mention that Mae West "remains the standard bearer for excesses that led to code enforcement in 1934," but she really wasn't alone. Of equal culpability are the comedy team of (Bert) Wheeler & (Robert) Woolsey. Wheeler & Woolsey were the 2nd highest-grossing comedy team of the 1930s. They ranked behind only Laurel & Hardy at the box office... and ahead of the Marx Brothers, 3 Stooges, Ritz Brothers, Olsen & Johnson, Clark & McCullough and others. When the Production Code Administration came in, Will Hays' appointee Joseph I. Breen immediately set his sights on the team. Consider the following, as recounted in the excellent book, "Wheeler & Woolsey: the Vaudeville Comic Duo & Their Films" by Edward Watz:

"One of Breen's earliest acts was an attack on films already in release. Breen categorized 18 major studio releases as 'Class 1 - the release of the pictures halted now and no additional contracts taken on.' Among the titles was a Wheeler & Woolsey, the 'notorious' 'So This is Africa.' Breen further specified 12 other titles as 'Class 2 - the films be permitted to finish out their present contracts, but no new contracts be taken. On this list were 2 Wheeler & Woolseys, 'Diplomaniacs' and 'Hips, Hips Hoorary.' No other star attraction, not even the double entendre-spouting Mae West, was represented by more than one film on both lists combined."

The punchline in all this was that W&W had a very broad audience made up not only of adults, but many children as well. As a consequence, their scripts were toned down (one, "Kentucky Kernels" even enlisted Spanky McFarland as a co-star to soften things up a bit) with very mixed results ranging from the high hilarity of "The Nitwits" to the bewildering blandness of "The Rainmakers."

Wheeler & Woolsey are pretty much forgotten by all but the staunchest movie buffs these days. Hard to believe since they were such huge stars - they pretty much saved RKO the same way Abbott & Costello would later save Universal. I would love to see Greenbriar track W&W's rise and fall if possibly - they truly were a box office juggernaut.

7:44 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dear Phantom Of The Landfill ---

Keep watching. Wheeler & Woolsey appear in Greenbriar's next post on pre-code, including an eye-opening trade ad I think you'll like.

8:25 PM  

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