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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Musicals and Comedies Go Pre-Code

Busby Berkeley musicals for Warners were always noted for skin they displayed. Girls bumped off in mystery and private eye novels written after the thirties were often said to have danced in a couple of Berkeley musicals (and how many LA prostitute résumés included stints as a Golddigger?). It seemed every chorine and star hopeful began on a Warner/Busby stage. We’re impressed with the near naked lineup of one hundred sitting By A Waterfall. Imagine how that looked in silvery 35mm before a 1933 audience of thousands. Berkeley and his Golddiggers became brand names forever associated with pre-code cheesecake and mathematical displays of bodies beautiful. Lobbies adorned with these became magnets for male patrons otherwise indifferent to musicals. Warners’ formula wed street-smart comedy in book sections directed by interchanging studio personnel with spectacular production numbers only Berkeley could mount. Pictures like 42nd Street, Golddiggers Of 1933 and Footlight Parade truly gave the best of several worlds. Audiences for one or the other gladly crossed over when they merged. James Cagney in a pre-code vehicle would reliably bring domestic rentals averaging $350-400,000, but Cagney in pre-code fettle plus song and dance in Footlight Parade took the biggest rentals of all his early pics --- $1.6 million domestic. The best plan for selling Golddiggers was via art stills turned out in bushels by Warner publicity. The ad shown here let exhibitors choose favorite pin-ups from the many generated to promote entries in the series. Most of these girls never had speaking parts in the films, but they were every bit as crucial for merchandising the Golddiggers brand. Fans could gauge Code enforcement’s curtain lowering with each installment that followed Footlight Parade. From Dames on, there was more fabric on the dancers and less fun to be had checking out lobby displays. Golddigging at Warners became less profitable as a watchful PCA bled the cycle white. Profits for Dames were down from the high of Footlight Parade ($959,000) to $206,000. Less would be spent on ones to come. Golddiggers Of 1935 had a negative cost of $567,000, down from Footlight Parade ($703,000) and Dames ($779,000). By Golddiggers In Paris, profit became loss as that 1938 release ended $473,000 in the red. Unlike Metro and its musicals tailored to elegance, Warners needed pre-code freedoms to put over song and dance as shorthand for sex.

It seemed every actress short of Edna May Oliver sat for art stills eventually. Certainly at Warners they all did. Serious dedication to their craft didn’t excuse Barbara Stanwyck or Loretta Young from baring assets for the stills department. Ginger Rogers and Jeanette MacDonald must have looked back with no small embarrassment at poses they’d struck before major stardom demanded they be taken seriously for thespic and/or singing skills. Some used pre-code freedom to consolidate positions made uncertain by transitions to sound. Norma Shearer might have faded had she maintained ingenue status her silent vehicles conferred. Again it was stills and their heavy circulation that assured success. The image shown here, blemished and worn survivor of a fan’s long-ago scrapbook, yet manages to convey the sizzle Shearer conjured to become and remain a pre-code icon. Stars then had to make the best with what they had. There were not the surgical options and digital tweaks to confer eternal youth such that we have today. Norma was said to possess short, chubby legs and the pose here finds them peeking uncertainly from behind a provocative gown (contrary to rumor, they look fine --- could there have been retouching?). Shearer got it said with clinging silks and dialogued suggestion. An inventory of her pre-codes finds this actress for the most part discreetly covered. She’d never have drawn a week’s pay at Warners. The most revealing scene Shearer played would be at the tail end of the pre-code era when she dressed as an insect for a bizarre costume party sequence in Riptide. MGM maintained a rigid caste system among contract actresses. With a major enough name, you’d be spared indignities of beach posing and on camera lingerie fittings. Those who’d stalled on the ladder were soon redirected off soundstages and into art stills. An actress knew she was on the way out once appearances in magazines began outnumbering those on marquees. In lieu of film work, she’d be lighting giant firecrackers in her underwear for Fourth Of July or wearing a fur lined diaper as one of Santa’s elves. Dropped options and back pages in Film Fun beckoned from there. Our Dancing Daughters became Modern Maidens and Blushing Brides, but only one of them made the trip back from cheesecake oblivion. There’d be moving pictures of Joan Crawford for the next forty years, while Anita Page and Dorothy Sebastian remain for the most part frozen in stills, minimal clothing preferred. Commercial tie-ins and loan-outs eventually took the place of performing at MGM before they’d be let go and eventually forgotten (that's Dorothy below as an under-dressed Indian squaw).

Pre-code ribaldry served comedy best. Wheeler and Woolsey played like the opening act at a men’s smoker. Their stuff was sufficiently blue as to propel them to top spot among feature comedy teams for as long as Code police were napping. With patter traveling at speeds censors were hard pressed to keep up with, Wheeler and Woolsey, like Mae West, were weakened by eventual Code enforcement, their comedies subsequent to 1934 being shots diluted. Pretty soon people forgot how funny they'd once been, especially since pre-code W&W features were either halted at the reissue gate or trimmed to the point of incoherence. So This Is Africa (shown here) was one we saw at a Cinecon some years back. Program notes forecast no-holds-barred gaiety, but the 35mm print furnished by Columbia was unexpectedly Code-cut and drained of what we knew were the spiciest bits. This colorful trade ad from RKO sums up Wheeler and Woolsey’s essential appeal. They were the bawdiest act in town and profits reflected it. Other comedians would mimic their burlesques. Nearly as uninhibited were The Marx Brothers, who seized a pre-code advantage as each of their Paramount comedies emerged racier than the last. By Monkey Business, they’d stake claims in Thelma Todd’s stateroom and were boudoir bound with her in Horse Feathers. Both were popular enough to be revived through the thirties and forties with all the scissoring those later playdates implied. I’m betting all five of their Paramount comedies are currently missing something, as each played heavily in art and revival houses and must certainly have fallen under shears at some point during those thirty years the Code was enforced. To this date, the Marxes’ best sequence with Todd in Horse Feathers is so jumbled as to make little sense at all. Modern audiences wonder why characters fairly leap about the room. Well, that’s not acrobatics --- it’s splices --- and these look to be permanent fixtures in every print of that film to come. Other comics indulged abandon pre-code allowed. His circumstances compromised for having signed with MGM, even Buster Keaton became the object of vampish wiles in many of that comedian's talking features. Would Buster at the creative helm have sanctioned stills like this one from What, No Beer, wherein his (yet-another) Elmer falls prey to seductress Phyllis Barry? She was among actresses primarily utilized to model undergarments for studio photographers and, if not for happenstance of appearing with Keaton, we might not remember her at all.

Flesh-peddling as handmaiden to pre-code was addressed head-on by Paramount in a 1934 comedy few remember called Search For Beauty. Though not about Hollywood, Search For Beauty reveals more about that town’s inner workings, and unholy alliance with sleazy press, than most any pre-code I can think of. The title refers to a contest launched by unscrupulous publishers. In fact, Paramount held its own nationwide search for beauties to fatten contract rosters and call attention to the film. The story revolves around male and female athletes ensnared by con artists Robert Armstrong and James Gleason, whose plan is to expose their pulchritude in a trashy magazine (clearly inspired by Film Fun, Saucy Movie Tales, and the like) before prostituting them outright at a hotel and resort to be frequented by drunks and libertines. A sleaze factor less apparent then fairly shouts to us now that we’re better informed as to shenanigans going on behind studio walls in the thirties. Photographers seduce innocents into compromising poses to accompany confession stories, and though it’s played (mostly) for comedy, I’m guessing a lot of what we’re seeing was the goods, however much Paramount yoks it up. Straight arrow swim champ Larry "Buster" Crabbe breaks up the racket with minimal effort, but we know the real exploitation machine would have spat him out well chewed. So-called winners of Paramount's Search For Beauty tour appear throughout the film in glimpses and montage. Recognizable among them is Ann Sheridan. She talked about the contest and her start at Paramount in late interviews. Virtually all the young people coming west on the train washed out and headed home within the year. Ones who persisted chanced the likes of real-life Armstrongs and Gleasons. The hotel/resort in Search For Beauty hints as to what might happen to those less cautious. I wonder how many exhibitor conventions played out just like these tawdry (and not a little disturbing) scenes in Search For Beauty, minus a Buster Crabbe to come to the rescue. Writer-director David Stenn tells a harrowing story of such an occasion in his recent documentary Girl 27. I’d recommend it as a sobering companion feature with Search For Beauty.

Speaking of hotel bacchanals, what of Convention City? Will we ever get to see it? Did Jack Warner really order it destroyed? My guess (and mind you, all any of us can do is guess) would be a hopeful maybe to the first and an informed yes to the second. I’m told Convention City was indeed junked, as that was the word entered on studio records. Junked 12/27/48 is how it reads. The question, of course, is why? Again I’m guessing, but I’d say it was nitrate decomposition. Warners had destroyed a number of negatives during the late forties and fifties for that reason. They were useless as pre-print and increasingly dangerous to maintain. Nitrate in good condition can be a hazard. Jelly and/or powdered remnants are that much more incendiary --- and why bear expense of storing a thing gone bad? A lot of hotly sought titles went this way. Harry Langdon’s Heart Trouble was similarly junked, probably for the same reason. As to stories of Jack Warner destroying Convention City for reasons of content, I don’t think so. This was an "A" feature that cost $239K to produce. It realized $384K in domestic revenue and $138K foreign. There was an eventual profit of $53K. Certainly this was a corporate asset no one, including Jack Warner, would dispose of so casually. Any heat surrounding Convention City would certainly have cooled by 1948, except for that generated by a nitrate fire should it combust and take out hundreds of other negatives sharing space in a warehouse. A little sad to think a pre-code totem like Convention City should be disposed of for such prosaic reason, but what of surviving foreign negatives? There was one sent to Warner facilities in Spain on 4/18/34. Was it eventually junked as well? Our best hope may lie in 35 or 16mm prints shelved and forgotten here or abroad. If Convention City exists on safety stock, it would almost have to be 16mm, as that 1948 destruction date of the US negative predated the common usage of 35mm safety stock. Would Convention City have been printed in 16mm, and if so, why? I’m convinced it was never available for non-theatrical rental. Possibly one of the cast or crew members got a print out of Warners sometime after the film was released, but obtaining those wasn’t easy, even for the biggest names on contract rosters. Still, a print might have been generated for in-house use and eventually smuggled out, but who’d have it now? Assuming some individual, or estate, were in possession, would they realize the value of a Convention City in their garage, or care if they did? Historians assume the film disappeared after its general 1933-34 release, but Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project discovered at least one booking in 1937, three years after Code crackdowns would presumably have taken Convention City out of circulation. Mark Vieira confirmed Warner’s application for a reissue and the PCA’s rejection of same, so that 1937 engagement was likely enabled by a local WB exchange with a print still on hand and willingness to make same available for minimal cost. Chances are exhibitor/exchange was unaware of the film's banishment from release charts. We could wonder how many years such stragglers lasted before the last Convention City was bandsawed, though we're safer in assuming none of these exchange prints are left, particularly in light of fact that Warner depots are themselves pretty much gone. My hopeful maybe for Convention City's eventual sighting is inspired by unexpected discoveries still being made of seemingly impossible quarry. Who’d have dreamed Beyond The Rocks and Bardelys The Magnificent would turn up? An uncut Baby Face sat quietly on Library Of Congress shelves before someone happened to examine it. What else remains to be exhumed there? Imagine if someone extended money and manpower for a truly exhaustive inventory of such facilities. Is Convention City yet hiding in some archive’s plain sight?


Blogger Kevin K. said...

The scene in Thelma Todd's bedroom in "Horse Feathers" ran at least three minutes longer in the print run on the BBC in the '50s. In the U.S., the scene ends with Groucho's exit. On the BBC version, Harpo immediately returned, followed by Groucho who, after some comic business, falls out of the window. Harpo runs out and tries to catch him with his dogcatcher's net. He fails. (That bit happens offscreen.)

I remember reading the sneak preview version of "Cocoanuts" ran two and a half hours! Among other things, Groucho's number "In a Little Bungalow" was cut -- can't have too many reprises of "When my Dreams Come True" after all.

10:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm naive, but Groucho's "For a buck and a half you can get Minnie" in "Opera" seems risque for a post-code.Hmm....why didn't anybody try to find a British print of "Horsefeathers" to restore the cut scenes?

4:50 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Anonymous: Good question. I learned about that BBC print in the early '70s in a Marx Bros. book by a British author whose name escapes me. He was unsure whether those prints still existed even in England by then.

8:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Search for Beauty has been shown at pre-Code festivals at both the Roxie and the Castro theatres in San Francisco. Your description is spot-on. I would only add that in the middle of the picture there is a musical number that comes out of nowhere - a complete non-sequeter, but perhaps inserted as a chance to display the contest winners.

10:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I happened to be present one night, years ago, at the old Academy Theatre in Beverly Hills, when they kicked-off a series called "Comedy in the 30's" -- the opening event was "Night at the Opera", and Groucho was present. After the screening, he got up to answer questions. One of the things I remember so well was when he told the crowd that the line to Dumont --'Are you sure that you have everytyhing?" "I haven't had any complaints recently" was cut in a number of states by local censors! But a much funnier line had taken place earlier that night, that I may well be the sole witness to. Groucho had just walked in and was seated toward the back of the house, when he was virtually jumped-on by former child actress Jane Withers. "Hi,Groucho"she greeted him merrily, "Remember me, Jane Withers?" "Jane Withers!" he exclaimed loudly, "I thought you were dead!" (some-fungus, eh Doc?) True story. John, great talking with you, and will be sending you the material I mentioned. All very best, R.J.

3:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen to that about the skin in Busby Berkeley's pre-code musicals. Some of those numbers are absolutely mind-blowing. My personal favorite for [ahem!] naked eroticism is "Spin a Little Web of Dreams" in Fashions of 1934. Good grief! In those days a man could have been married for thirty years, fathered seven kids, and still never seen as much of even one woman's body -- much less uncounted dozens -- as Buzz shows us in those 7 minutes and 34 seconds. There's something so organic about the feather bikinis on those girls that they look even more naked than they are -- if such a thing is possible. And by the time the fantasia segues into all those galley slaves...well...stroking at their oars on a shimmering satin-sheet sea...Whew! There's nothing symbolic or sublimated there; it's as overtly sexual as just about anything in the Berkeley canon. Certainly more so than the famous giant bananas in "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat" from The Gang's All Here -- less campy, more genuinely erotic.

3:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Over the years I have collected movie magazines and from time to time I would aquire a handful of "Film Funs". I confess that at the time I looked for mags with stars on the cover and Film Funs almost always had Petty type pinup art though there are, as I recall, some that had stars on the cover (very rare) the other thing I noticed was they always seemed a litle thin to me, and a closer look would always show that most issues had been cut up and sometimes dozens of pages would be missing! I'm sure a lot of these ended up on the walls of adolescent clubhouses of stashed between mattresses. One time I bought a collection off an oldtimer and he showed me his Film Funs (not for sale) he proudly showed me his scrapbook that he had lovingly assembled featuring the raciest pix from this mag. I distinctly recall his looking at me to see what my reaction would be as though he was he was a street vendor selling French postcards. Whoever the editor of Film Fun was, he was a genius, the magazine is very light on text (small staff) and is almost made of completely of these pre-code stills (almost always tinted green) which were no doubt provided by the studios for free. Film Fun's run ended at almost the exact same time that the code began being enforced. I wonder what happened to Film Funs stills archive??

6:41 AM  
Blogger Jack R said...

I've written articles about Enoch Bolles, the cover artist for Film Fun and some of the other magazine staff. Abril Lamarque was the art director of the magazine and his daughter told me that they had hundreds of photos strewn around the house (Lamarque went on to more serious fare, including a role in redesigning the New York Times Sunday Magazine). I am sure that the photos ended up in the trash as, alas, did many of the cover paintings. I can also attest to "anon's" experience, many of my issues of Film Fun had pages clipped by their original owners. Film Fun, by the way folded because the Postmaster General yanked its second class mailing privileges.

11:07 PM  

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