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Pre-Code Hollywood

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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.

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Sabotage

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***

sa-botage sà-bo-tarj. Wilful destruction of buildings or machinery with the object of alarming a group of persons or inspiring public uneasiness.

Sidney & Homolka, Sabotage © 1936 MGM Home Entertainment.

Sidney & Homolka, Sabotage © 1936 MGM Home Entertainment.

I did not realize that this adaptation of The Secret Agent was actually a follow-up to Alfred Hitchcock’s prior film, The Secret Agent. Fortunately I have that movie on DVD as well, so I can watch it whenever I get the chance. While this movie is adeptly shot, it was pretty predictable. This lacked some of the charisma that the jerky guy and put upon woman combos from The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. Those films surprised me, while this one hit the buttons I expected and I do not think that this is because all three take place in pre-World War II culture of anxiety that rightly existed in late 1930s England.

There is one scene of note, that hinted at something he would master later. Dealing with the emotional trauma of losing a child Mrs. Verloc–Sylvia Sidney–turns in on her self while her husband–Oskar Homolka–explains how she must move on since it had been a few hours. Her laughter warms the heart and chills the soul. When she returns to her husband the tone of the film has changed while he fails to realize it. A nice trio of scenes without a solid film around them.

The Lady Vanishes

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****

I’ve no regrets. I’ve been everywhere and done everything. I’ve eaten caviar at Cannes, sausage rolls at the dogs. I’ve played baccarat at Biarritz and darts with the rural dean. What is there left for me but marriage?

Michael Redgrave as Gilbert, Margaret Lockwood as Iris Henderson, and Paul Lukas as Dr. Hartz on the train, in The Lady Vanishes, © MGM 1938.

Michael Redgrave as Gilbert, Margaret Lockwood as Iris Henderson, and Paul Lukas as Dr. Hartz on the train, in The Lady Vanishes, © MGM 1938.

This movie is rightly hailed as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best early movies. I would compare it to The 39 Steps. It is based upon the story, “The Wheel Spins” by Ethel Lina White. It has witty banter, colorful characters and an interesting mystery. Similar to The Sixth Sense, which is only sixty-one years newer than this movie, the viewer has the choice of doubting the main character, suspecting a wide conspiracy, or questioning its own eyes. Both of the movies provide a right answer; there is truth.

Part of me hoped that this would be a precursor to The Usual Suspects, which left the facts up to the viewer. Yet that would not have worked as this turned out to be an allegory for the upcoming conflict with Germany. In the opening I tried to identify the European nation where the hotel from the first scene was located¹, but the clerk jumped from language to language; snowy mountains surrounded it; and local culture had a rich tradition of music and dancing. The story calls for only four locations, the first of which is the hotel where me meet all of the main characters. Then they head to the train station, board the train, and eventually the train stops in a forest. It turns out that the hotel and train are located in “Mandrika”, which is essentially “Zubrowka” from The Grand Budapest Hotel at the same time, actually. The quality of the inn was somewhere between that of The Grand Budapest and The Bates Motel.

Most of the main characters were Britons. They were a varied sort, although all very British in their own ways. It was a balanced portrayal of many different types: the cricket twits, the publicly cool philandering couple, the handsome yet arrogant scoundrel, the modern young woman of the time, and the matronly governess. Most of these portrayals were unfavorable, despite the English being the main characters, actors, and protagonists of the movie. It showed how appeasement, in the form of the man who with no plans to leave his wife for his mistress, will wind up leaving you bleeding in the snow, with a white flag of truce in your hand. It showed how men who cannot be bothered by anything other than cricket and tea can be roused to action if given enough provocation. It showed how a scoundrel can be just the man for the job and how the modern woman can help lead Great Britain through difficult times, even if she is absolutely worthless in a fight.² Lastly, it showed that mysteries and murders do not only occur on the Orient Express. Oh, and do not underestimate Old Britannia, she has some tricks up her sleeve yet.

 

¹ A 90 foot set in England is actually where the “hotel” is located.
² Another interpretation of her character at her bumbling worst is a parody of Dr. John Watson, but he should never have been unhelpful in a fight.

Duck Soup

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***

Oh, I see, then it was murder. Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.

Groucho and Harpo Marx, Duck Soup, © 1933 Paramount Pics.

Groucho and Harpo Marx, Duck Soup, © 1933 Paramount Pics.

I loathed the first 25 minutes of this movie. It made me question the critics and fans alike who label this a classic. But then I started to enjoy the repartee between Grouch Marxo, as President Firefly, and Chico Marx, as the spy Chicolini. Director Leo McCarey also had a dedication to gags that took something stupid, like having a motorcycle with a sidecar and having them not be attached and presented it repeatedly. Once I started to enjoy jokes like these then the movie really becomes enjoyable. That said, I still do not understand Harpo, as the mute spy Pinky, so he grew on me less than the other two did.

The slapstick style acts kind of like a collection of Garfield comic strips. Maybe the first 20 “jokes” will not elicit laughter, but if you power on through 50, or 100, you cannot fight the laughter. That is incongruous with modern comedic sensibilities, or at least those of good modern comedies. On a more technical note, there was some interesting editing and montage during the war, the last act. Also it is very interesting to see the idea of war in a post World World I world. This was also a time when war could be funny.

Stagecoach

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****

Luke Plummer and the Kid. There would be a lot more peace in this territory if that Luke Plummer had so many holes in him he couldn’t hold his liquor. 

This classic Western finally put John Wayne into a starring role.  The basic story is about a group of people traveling by stagecoach through some state West of the Mississippi.  The pace is brisk and the mishmash of characters are entertaining.

While they seem like archetypes they each have their own personalities and show the power to rise above their seeming limitations.  The climactic scene where the stagecoach finally gets attacked by the Apache does not stand amongst the great Western fight scenes of all time.  That said, I was still impressed by how they shot it–lots of horses, lots of guns, a team of galloping horses leading the stagecoach.  Most impressive of all was John Wayne, who looked svelt and like a real-life hero cowboy.  Oh, and Andy Devine was di-vine.  That joke is even funnier if you know what he looks like.

The 39 Steps

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****

Beautiful, mysterious woman pursued by gunmen. Sounds like a spy story.

The beginning of this B&W film from Hitchcock made me wary that I had made a mistake acquiescing to my friend Mary’s choice.  However, it was simply a delightful parallel between the film’s tone and the main character’s emotional state.  That character is not whom I first expected from the first ten minutes of the film.  This film’s plot reminds me of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes adaptations, where Sherlock faced off against the Nazis…with crappy results for the viewers.  On balance, I think that Hitchcock gave himself some major obstacles (particularly in his choice of how to present his female lead actresses–Lucie Mannheim & Madeleine Carroll) but that by having those obstacles the viewer enjoys the resolution more-so than if he had resorted to more traditionally pleasant archetypes.  I look forward to watching more of Hitchcock’s films.

Jamaica Inn

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***

What are you all waiting for?  A spectacle?  Well you shall have it!

There are a few surprisingly poignant scenes in this old British black and white.  The models and special effects are quaintly old.  One character, Harry, has a fascinating look and air to him.  There are a couple of uncharacteristically dumb choices near the end, but so it goes.