Pre-Code Hollywood


Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930–1934 by Thomas Doherty

This book has an interesting, counter-intuitive premise. For some context,  the traditional argument is that the US film industry’s “Hays Code” stifled creativity and constrained artists from 1934 to 1968. Under the code happy endings were mandated. Evil had to be punished. Homosexuality could not appear on screen. Absolutely no nudity was shown. As the book states, cracks began to show in 1950, and those got larger until the code’s demise in 1968. Generally, this Catholic moralist oversight is viewed as even worse than today’s interference by studio executives. Professor Thomas Doherty has studied 1930s films extensively, so when he characterizes the 1930-1934 period, when the code existed, but had no teeth, as descending into immorality and accepting of nudity, he sees a lack of subtlety and a failure by the producers of American cinema to provide appropriate content to their audience.

Note that I used the singular, audience. Therein lies my initial disagreement with Doherty. While he acknowledges the heterogenous nature of moviegoers, he considers the medium to be akin to radio. When we change the station it all has to abide by the FCC and all be appropriate (until 11 PM) for listeners of all ages. And within those constraints we have talk radio, country music, pop music, classic rock, etc… Just as American cinema had, and has, many genres. Yet Doherty views the whole Golden Age of Hollywood (1934-1950) as a product of the Code. Moreover that, much like our age, American society and its government faced new challenges that questioned the very validity or our culture. The Great Depression exposed Rugged Individualism as a sham and the films of that era reflecting the growing dissatisfaction with it.

The traditional American historical narrative teaches us that FDR and the New Deal started the recovery that World War II completed. Perhaps on a moral and emotional level Doherty’s theory has some value. He argues that having Catholics come in protect the morality and content of Hollywood held our union together, or at least played a positive role in doing so. I do not know if Thomas Doherty was raised Catholic, but I was not. So when I read about Catholics coming in and intimidating Jewish businessmen, my knee jerk is not to assume the bullying Catholics are morally superior. Particularly in the United States where liberty is held so high. Especially in a time period where Jewish writers and artists were relegated to comic books. Thus the censorship of a few Catholics, whose morals required the exclusion of homosexuals, without even bothering to explicitly state that, offends me.1 The magnificent Fantasia would have been the same, with or without the Code. Citizen Kane got Orson Welles blacklisted in Hollywood, while RKO soon went out of business. I cannot imagine that the Code had any positive impact on that great film. The Long Goodbye was better than its original, The Big Sleep, showing at least in one instance how the post-code 1970s can create art without those constraints. To be fair, having no rules and no restrictions can lead to self-indulgence. It would be disingenuous to have my experience with films and literature created under Communism and to disregard the role that rules played in much of those films. Pushing the envelope and being creative in ways to get the same message across without tipping off the censors, has created some great art and let artists show off a skill that no rules would not have allowed them to show.

Where Doherty’s argument really bothers me is the synthesis between American-Catholic moral superiority and the fear of children receiving adult entertainment or learning alternative values. The MPAA is incredibly flawed. Honestly, TV channels do a better job of self-labeling than the MPAA does with their rating system. This is the system that prohibits male genitalia as much as it fears female enjoyment of sex. The system that permits cartoonish violence over the more realistic. Pixar movies do a good job of creating films that work on multiple levels, that provide moral guidance as well as enjoyment. No set of rules can make every movie as good as their movies. And no set of moral guidelines can get it right all by itself. If it had been 1930s Jews bullying Catholics with their morals I would have as much of a problem with the end result as I did with the Hays Code. When a coach hinders their players, yet those players succeed in spite of them, you do not laud the coach. Sports history is replete with people who fought against progress, yet had the talent to overcome unhelpful coaching. Some people needs rules, if only to rebel against them, and others manage to succeed regardless. Doherty tries to credit the bad coach with the team’s success.

Doherty also offers that this era impacted the American cinematic history very little. The basis for this is two-fold. First, film historians go back and look for earlier and earlier works to highlight as seminal to the filmmakers who followed them. The Code rendered these earlier films almost irrelevant. It was as if film was reborn. He may have been right, in the short run, but I doubt it. Take 1931 as an example year. How many of these have you heard of: FrankensteinMDraculaCity LightsDr. Jekyll and Mr. HydeThe Public Enemy and Little Caesar?  The impact of those films are still felt today. What I have taken from this is that Doherty is a very talented writer who wants film to play a role in saving society. While I am not convinced he certainly made me consider his counterintuitive theses.


1 Note, that if it had been a few ultra Orthodox Jews whose morals prevailed in 1930, the moralizing would not have been okay, particularly not towards homosexuals. It would have been even less accepting of pre-marital sex. But there is no Jewish crusade or Jewish Inquisition, only Crusaders who killed Jews and Spanish Catholics who tortured and killed Jews. That context matters.


The Hobbit



Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies because you helped bring them about? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You’re a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I’m very fond of you, but you’re only quite a little fellow in a wide world, after all.


Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins in Bag Bend, Hobbiton, The Shire, in the 1977 movie The Hobbit.

I never watched this as a kid. Had I seen this I would have had to contend with my nostalgia. Instead, what I am dealing with is having listened to the audiobook recently. I probably noticed every bit the 77 minute animated movie skipped or changed. I love the book, so any changes needed to come from a logical place for me to forgive, or appreciate them. Whether you like the Peter Jackson Hobbits or not, they certainly had far more time dedicated to…well, everything and everyone.

The change that bothered me the most—even more than the exclusion of Beorn—was the body count Gandalf reports to Bilbo after the Battle of the Five Armies. Instead of three sad, dead dwarves, we have seven. The group was called the company of Thorin and his quest lead him to become King under the mountain, so his death, right upon reaching his apex, seems tragic. Kili and Fili are the two youngest dwarves, so their deaths show how war and death can take people too soon. More than doubling that body count, off-screen, lessens the impact of those deaths.

Still, Rankin and Bass deserve credit for this first adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Certainly fan art existed, but they really had the duty and privilege of taking the first crack at all these races. Bilbo looks great. And unlike a dwarf, or elf, or goblin, a hobbit is unique to Middle Earth and thus had no mold. Certain establishing shots made it feel like a camera was capturing the action, instead of just seeing drawn recap. Bilbo’s story is a good one, so even a hurried, fluffier version is enjoyable. Gollum’s menace and how distracted Bilbo would have been by Gollum was captured wonderfully. Also, this had talking birds, which I am glad they kept in. Lastly, they show living things dying, which has an important message for children, and created tension in the story.

The Magnificent Seven

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You bet your horse against my Irish whiskey.

I liked this one better. Chalk it up to modern sensibilities and more recognizable stars, but 2016’s Magnificent Seven was better than 1960’s Magnificent Seven. The key to this non-blasphemous statement is that this movie was clearly not as good as Seven Samurai. Of course, saying that, is like saying that Danny Elfman is no Tchaikovsky.

I actually remember very little from 1960’s Magnificent Seven and that is a damning statement. One line I have heard Denzel Washington make is that people would ask him which member of the seven he was, and he would say, “The Black one.” The joke being, of course, there was no Black member of that Magnificent Seven. The diversity of characters was one aspect that 2016 improved on 1960. Other improvements included: charm, humor, action, and commentary on the predatory nature of capitalism.


Peter Sarsgaard as Mr. Bogue, in The Magnificent Seven © 2016 MGM.

Now, there was certainly room for improvement in this film. For instance, Garry Marshall would have found the villain a bit over the top.1 His move was shooting people for no reason. I mean, there was a reason, that reason was to hammer home the point that he was evil and that you the viewer should want him dead. The movie needs you to really, really, really want him dead for it to work. Screenwriters Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolato included lines about the fake Pinkertons being cowards only good at shooting strikers in the back. Because if you do not strenuously want Bartholomew Bogue—Peter Sarsgaard, The Dying Gaul—dead, then you might stop and think about the 200 men who must die in order for him to die too. From a utilitarian standpoint, 200 vs 7, the greater loss would be the 200, not the 7. And these 7 anti-heroes would die to save 200 people. In this case, they happen to have to kill 200 people to save the good people of Rose Creek from being run out of town by the robber baron Bogue. Thus we have the classic western trio—immortalized by the first western2 director to master the art of remaking a Kurosawa masterpiece with A Fistful of Dollars née Yojimbo—namely: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

But what to do with the Ugly? Eli Wallach’s Tuco was more of a villain than an anti-hero in that classic, whereas these uglies have a range. Before I get to them, though, in Seven Samurai the seven were ronin—masterless samurai—whose place in feudal Japanese society was complicated. For class purposes, Ronin were too high up for peasant jobs, but by definition had no samurai retainer (employer). This left them trained to abide by a code that their circumstances could not afford. Thus their misdeeds provided for a greater ethical fall than a low class bandit could have. Chisholm—Washington—worked as a freelance marshal/bounty hunter. He was a ronin. As for the rest of the six…

Faraday, Cullen, and Chisholm (Pratt, Bennett, and Washington) in The Magnificent Seven.

Faraday, Cullen, and Chisholm (Pratt, Bennett, and Washington) in The Magnificent Seven.

Josh Faraday—Chris Pratt, Guardians of the Galaxy—was a gambler who does card tricks and shoots extremely well. His character was truly Western, as a non-consumptive Doc Holliday—Val Kilmer—from Tombstone. He does kill people, but has a sense of decency and only does it to save himself or others.

Goodnight Robicheaux–Ethan Hawke, Before/During/After Sunrise/Sunset—was a former Confederate sniper with the affectation of a gentleman. This makes him similar to the Lee Van Cleef, the Bad, although it was in For a Few Dollars More where Van Cleef played Col. Mortimer, whose trail of bounty hunter vengeance ties in closely to Chisholm’s story.

Billy Rocks—Byun-Hun Lee, The Good, the Bad, and the Weird—was Goodnight’s best friend. He is, as the actor’s name would suggest, Korean. They became friends when Goodnight came to claim Billy Rocks as a bounty but found Billy kicking-ass in a bar and just up and retired from bounty hunting. Billy was the knife expert. He makes money by showing that he can shoot quicker than people in non-lethal duels, unless the opponent wants a fatal rematch. So he is more Good than the Bad he played in The Good, the Bad, and the Weird.

Vasquez–Manuel Garcia-Rulfo–was the Mexican in the group. This was tactfully handled when Faraday sees him and says something like, “Oh good, a Mexican. Now we’re set.” The one surprise about his character was that he got the drop on Chisholm and Emma Cullen. As Chisholm was treated as the best of the best, this made for quite an introduction.

Jack Horne—Vincent D’Onofrio, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”—was wonderfully nigh unintelligible as a former Native American hunter who lives in a cabin by himself. He has a hatchet and a giant rifle. He quotes the Bible and seems to address Jesus quite frequently. For a man who has killed so many, he seems like a gentle soul.

Red Harvest–Martin Sensmeier–played Charles Bronson’s role as the Comanche warrior. He primarily used a longbow. While waiting in line a man commented that this was part of the modern attempt to diversify the film. Strong disagree! This was a nod to the leader of the seven samurai, played by Takashi Shimura, who—as seen below—wielded a longbow. The presentation of Red Harvest probably would have seemed very progressive in 1960.


Kambei (Shimura) and Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) in Seven Samurai.

Bonus Magnificence: Emma Cullen—Haley Bennett—there came a time when it looked like she would need to step up and take the role of number seven. Generally she acquitted herself quite well, which was nice. She did have one classically infuriating scene where she becomes a damsel in need of rescue. It set up an appropriate showdown, but still the cost of showing her as cowering and incompetent was a steep one. Hey, I said the movie was better, not perfect.

So, they, plus some explosions and gunshots, comprised what made this movie a lot of fun. Without exception the main actors were excellent. For this style of movie the acting that Antoine Fuqua got out of them was very impressive. I cared about what would happen to the characters, even though I knew that their quest was a tragic one. Had Bogue not been so overtly evil, and presented as such, there would have been more suspense about whether or not he would wind up dead in the end. No spoiler alert needed, because if you think evil will triumph over good in such a classic Hollywood western, then nothing could really spoil a movie like this for you.

1 This is funny on two levels. Firstly, he directed painfully broad romantic comedies, with one dimensional characters. Secondly, he was a fine actor whose best work came as the overly angry boss, like in A League of Their Own and “Murphy Brown”. 

2 This works on two levels as well, because Sergio Leone was Western in the sense that Italians are part of Western culture, and western by virtue of his most famous films being western by genre.