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Monday, August 16, 2021

Precode Breathing Its Last

Many Would Sally Forth To See Rand, But Would They Stay For Ruth?

Journal Of A Crime (1934) Gets Away With Murder


Pre-coders got away with a lot, including murder. Ones that committed it often ducked prosecution where baddies had death coming. There was more-than-once occasion when a Ricardo Cortez demise would go un-avenged. Characters we liked could rid themselves of pesky blackmailers or abusive lovers and be excused for it. Did this encourage self-help toward justice? Censors thought so, as in one more instance of movies being a corrupt influence upon soft minds that might imitate a Kay Francis or Loretta Young pulling triggers on villainy they and society would be better off rid of. Strict Code application ended all that, result a downer for third acts where sympathetic leads faced jail or the noose for crimes we'd endorse. Many a rug was pulled from under stories that were fun almost to the fade, then spoiled by rigid rules that made no narrative sense, but had to be observed. Never mind sex and sin banned off screens after mid-1934, this was what stung fans the deepest.


Journal Of A Crime got under a lowering net by dent of March 1934 release, mere months before crackdown was complete. The thing could not have been made at all a year later, for it turns on a woman who kills her husband's mistress and does not answer to law enforcement. A vehicle for Ruth Chatterton, whose value to Warner Bros. was coming under question after they filched her from Paramount (major flap between the two companies a result), Journal Of A Crime finds current interest for cunning way it takes Chatterton off the hook for shooting in cold blood a woman (Claire Dodd) who would steal husband Adolphe Menjou. We're teased by Chatterton coming within whiskers of confessing to the D.A., this not happening thanks to circumstances we welcome. The audience becomes complicit in the murder for not wanting Ruth brought to book for it, and I wonder how many in 1934 exited venues in a state of moral confusion, even guilt at being glad for Chatterton's evade of justice. My guess is all was OK thanks to such endings being business as usual, or at least often, for consumers of precode. A thought: Were jury sitters swayed by examples got from movies, result being criminals acquitted because they were right guys/gals other than at moments they robbed or killed?

12 Comments:

Blogger Ken said...

Beautiful Claire Dodd. What a fabulous creature! But her man-filching ways were so often on cinematic display in the 30's (especially in pre-codes) I should imagine, had they actually seen her on the street, a lot of female audience members would have momentarily considered shooting her themselves. If nothing else, as a show of support for Chatterton, Joan Blondell and all those other nice gals whose onscreen boyfriends Dodd had targeted as her latest moonlight requisition.

6:24 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Recalling the ending of "Of Mice and Men". Book and play end with the gunshot. Movie ends with shooter wordlessly handing gun to sheriff. A similar tactic was used at the end of the movie "West Side Story": In the play, all the teens finally come together to carry the body, with the adults clearly useless bystanders. In the movie this scene is staged so the shooter is not with the other teens but with the police -- a missable detail in the final tableau.

In both cases we're shown, not told, that the law / production code prevailed -- but in such a way we might feel otherwise. Interesting as such subtlety is usually applied to opposite purpose: implying something unacceptable with a fig leaf of deniability. Wonder if censors ever came down on a film for soft-pedaling code compliance (even while shrugging shoulders as marketing promised forbidden fruit).

4:30 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer describes the implementation of a toughened Code:


I can well imagine that Claire Dodd cut quite a swathe among her admirers of the time. That little cleft in her chin is devastating even now. For myself, I have often been slain by Kay Francis and Loretta Young and forgiven them each time.

Such films of theirs before the Code as we enjoy and celebrate, however, suggest why the Roman Catholic Church was incensed by the liberties they took with conventional morality, less for the punishment meted out to those imminently deserving of it—Ricardo Cortez might as well have had a “Shoot on Sight” sign attached to the back of one of his well-tailored suit jackets—as for the sexual immorality that, it was feared, would undermine the family in life as well as the movies. A boycott of Warner Bros. theaters in Philadelphia under the auspices of the Roman Catholic diocese there and the newly created Legion of Decency had such a pronounced effect that Joseph I. Breen, a former newspaperman and now a Church publicity operative, chortled that Harry Warner was crying tears as big as “turds.” Added to that economic clout was a morality clause A. H. Giannini was imposing on studios receiving loans from his Bank of America.

Will Hayes, czar of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (the “MPPDA”), the industry front group, was adept in recognizing and maneuvering around the political realities of the day. When Martin Quigley, the publisher of “The Motion Picture Herald,” brought him and James T. McNichols, the Archbishop of Cincinnati, together, a deal was quickly worked out. The already existing Production Code would be given real effect through a new office within the MPPDA, the Production Code Authority, which would be headed by the same Joseph I. Breen. The official date for full implementation would be July 1, 1934.

Henceforth, films would have more to do with the lives we should live than those we do live.

6:34 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Poor Ricardo Cortez got it bad in "The Big Shakedown", when he got pushed into, as I recall, a vat of acid by Richard Arlen -- who got away with it! (By the way, "The Big Shakedown" is the only movie about bootleg toothpaste I'm aware of.)

6:27 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

These pre-code films - I just watched 'Five Star Final' - are certainly less anodyne than those made after the Code was brought in; on the other hand, I've known people who liked, or who had gotten comfortable with the fact, that the Code prevented them from being surprised and upset by unexpected and controversial content when all they really wanted to do was be entertained for a couple of hours by an enjoyable movie. They simply "turned off" any movie made after 1967. I suppose that after a lifetime of seeing only films which passed the Code, they had lost their taste for strong meat, so to speak, and didn't appreciate any "surprise servings" of such.
Be that as it may, I find that watching the pre-codes is kind of like reading Dickens in one way - the motivations of the well-delineated characters are recognizably the same which motivate people living today, but the characters are surrounded by technology and ways of life which have become utterly foreign to us. Of course, this effect is stronger with Dickens, writing almost 200 years ago now, whose characters (like their creator) lived in a world without electricity, flight, film, or internal combustion.
In both cases, Dickens' writings and the pre-code films, the creators were simply representing the world as they knew it (except when either explicitly set the story they were creating in the past); but after a century or more of technological and social change, the mundane details in the backgrounds of the dramas being told exert their own fascination. At least they do for me.

7:37 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

You can add the Warners musical Wonder Bar to the list of pre coders in which the murder of a cad (yup Ricardo Cortez again) goes unavenged, covered up by Al Jolson for a "happy ending" because he likes the woman (Dolores Del Rio) who killed him in a moment of jealousy.

I always found Cortez to be fun in his cad portrayals, to the extent that I always hoped that any bad ending coming to him wouldn't happen too soon.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The Code and The Catholic Legion of Decency were abominations. Pure Flix today is an abomination. They were and are the heirs of Thomas Bowdler.

1:16 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Reg Hartt has a point; nevertheless, plenty of people simply liked having publicly-exhibited films screened by "officials" before they let their kids or themselves, even, pay to view any filmed material - after all, the 1930s was before theater management ever even thought to check a patron's "official ID" for date of birth at the door. The only thing theater management had really wanted to check was the amount and authenticity of the money being paid over for admission.
The fact is, many patrons don't want their ( and far less their childrens' ) sensibilities or preconceptions challenged when they go out to relax for an evening. They are simply not looking to be educated or lectured or admonished in any way whatsoever beyond that to which they have given their prior consent, and the Code served as a 'guarantee' to those patrons that that would be so for these unknown films before they paid their admission, or for their kids' admission.
In fact, it was the creation of a rating system for film content, with accessible published warnings as to the presence of objectionable content in films, taken together with the public's acceptance of a legal requirement that younger people will need to produce official documents showing date of birth before they can even gain admittance to the theater, that finally allowed official censorship of filmed materials to go the way of the dodo in the USA - otherwise I frankly think it would still be in existence.
The end result is that film content available for viewing by the public on the payment of admission is "censored" for children and youngsters, while the adults are forewarned about the type of entertainment they may expect to see if they choose to attend. Thus the socially valid objectives of censorship are met.

8:42 AM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

I'm also reminded of Ben Lyon having a friend do him a favor regarding Clark Gable in NIGHT NURSE. And Claire Dodd? The gal who'd always have a job as long as there were sidewalks! For me the best Pre/Post-Code comparison is THE LETTER. The Jeanne Eagels version has a much better ending: just devastating.

9:12 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Re Wonder Bar: Not only does Cortez's murder go unavenged, Jolson doesn't try to stop the other guy from killing himself by driving off a cliff. Boy, life was cheap!

4:31 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I just now watched 'Blonde Crazy', and there is not a single character presented with more than two lines who is not a grifter or an embezzler or trying to commit adultery or otherwise flim-flamming somebody, or helping somebody to flim-flam somebody else.
I found it to be very enjoyable and entertaining!

1:48 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I watched "Man Wanted" last night - I'm working my way through whatever I've got in the bin that's listed by the IMDB as being part of Hal Wallis' filmography (often in the 1930s his work on a given title went apparently uncredited on screen), and there's quite a few "pre-code" titles on that list.
I'm not all that familiar with "pre-code" movies, but if the adoption of the formal Production Code ended up meaning in practice that films like "Man Wanted" could no longer be made, then adopting that Code was a bad thing for American culture.

7:37 AM  

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