“Essential Pre-Code” at Film Forum (Jul 15 – Aug 11)

by on July 18, 2011Posted in: Essay


Film Forum’s repertory director Bruce Goldstein–who programmed the first “Pre-Code” retrospective and almost single-handedly slipped the term into our lexicon–has advocated that the entire era be seen as the Masterpiece rather than any individual title. Half group style, half mass hallucination, Pre-Code films are a collective tour de force. Film Forum’s “Essential Pre-Code” series (which opened Friday) seems programmed on the principle that comprehension is a matter of comprehensiveness: fifty films packed into four weeks of recession-friendly double- and triple-features. These films are the misfits, the black sheep cousins of Classic Hollywood. As Geoffrey O’Brien notes, these are movies “that still seem too raucously unsettled to submit to the term ‘classic.’” But as Mae West said, “it’s better to be looked over than overlooked.”


Pre-Code begins with the conversion to sound in 1929 and ends promptly on July 1, 1934 when the censorship code is first strictly enforced. Of course this era produced some bona fide classics: sophisticated comedies (Trouble in Paradise), game-changing crime pictures (Baby Face), triumphs of style (von Sternberg’s Dietrich pictures, Busby Berkeley’s naughty kaleidoscopic musicals). But the real appeal of Pre-Code is its underworld of overlooked and unclassifiable curios, sublimely imperfect and strange. After 1934, most Pre-Code films dropped out of distribution altogether, while many others existed only in puritanically redacted versions. It was a slice of American film history repressed and virtually forgotten until William K. Everson began screening his personal collection in New York in the 1960s. There’s still a sense of discovery that comes with each Library of Congress restoration (12 in this series), each rarity called up from the Warner Archives vault or anthologized in TCM’s “Forbidden Hollywood” box set.


Much is justifiably made of the era’s saucier side, its gleeful displays of depravity and vice. For contemporary moviegoers who assume that all married couples from the days of black&white slept in bifurcated twin beds, these films can come as a delightful shock. Technically, Pre-Code is a misnomer, as an industry committee overseen by Will Hays began in 1929, establishing laxly enforced guidelines in an effort to avoid the severe clampdown that eventually came in 1934. Studios proved as flagrantly defiant as the crooks in their films, the censorship enforcers as ineffectual as the authority figures ridiculed on screen. State-level censorship boards began to pass films for distribution, some taking aim at the prints themselves, cutting out frames with heedless abandon. There are likely still uncut, original releases waiting to be rediscovered, as the uncensored version of Baby Face was in 2005. Buffs foster giddy hopes of unearthing the holy grail of Pre-Code, Convention City, described by its star and cleavage-queen Joan Blondell as “the raunchiest there has ever been.” Imagine every wise-ass Warner Bros character actor there was packed into a brothel with dipsomaniacs, jailbait minors, and (I kid you not) a live goat. That’s Pre-Code in a nutshell.


Clockwise from top left: Night World, Public Enemy, Convention City, Underworld.


The success of von Sternberg’s silent gangster drama Underworld suggested new possibilities for marrying lowbrow pulp and cinematic mastery at the altar of box office success. Gangsters and golddiggers heralded a new era of sensationalism on the nation’s screens. The originally slated title for the sound-era’s breakthrough gangster flick The Public Enemy was “Beer and Blood,” an apt example of how shamelessly studios marketed the boozing, bullet-riddled life of gangsters as guilty-pleasure escapism to their Prohibition-sober, Depression-poor audiences. These are raunchy tales of lecherous cads and compromised virgins, bullet barons and slick racketeers, liberated ladies and enterprising immigrants, adolescent vagrants and unscrupulous reporters, followed by an endless parade of hard-boiled yeggs. Racy dialogue and shapely curves of flesh blink on and off the screen like a flashing neon sign. Scenarios run the gamut of vice from adultery and prostitution to swishing intimations of homosexuality and even deeper “perversions.”


Begrudging concessions were made to the code and the Catholics (who founded the Legion of Decency in 1933). At their best, these compromises came in the form of brilliantly clever, unforgettably colorful innuendo that flew over the heads of the unsophisticated; at their worst, as the closing-scene comeuppances or insincere redemptions that unconvincingly proclaimed Crime Doesn’t Pay. But those who needed to could believe these morality-tale masquerades, while the rest could indulge in the other 90% of the picture. On-screen and off, audiences were separated into the savvy and the dupes.


The full-bodied sensuality of Mae West’s aphorisms and the martini-dry wit of Lubitschean double entendre are deservedly famous. The chorine’s gams and the gangster’s guns are undeniably iconic elements of our cultural heritage. But they tend to overshadow the more abstract spell cast by this truly singular era of playful stylistic experiments and unchartered thematic exploration. It was a time of great monetary restraint but also one of creative freedom–no topic seemed taboo, no sound-era storytelling formula was yet devised. Before the Code ordained what American stories were to be presented and how, cinema’s practitioners were willing and able to try just about anything. The formidable mixture of desperation and chutzpah bred some kind of wild abandon. Mercurial variations in tone, structure, and pacing were combined in a slambang 60-75 minutes. Audiences today are so attuned to connect-the-dot characterizations and excessively obvious plot constructions that these expositionless improvisations — shifting freely from melodrama to farce and back again — prove refreshingly unpredictable and disconcerting. Pre-Code films are perfectly imperfect. They pleasurably short-circuit our routinized expectations of how movies work.


Clockwise from top left: I’m No Angel, Trouble in Paradise, The Last Flight, Anna Christie.


I am partial to Geoffrey O’Brien’s Pre-Code summation for The New York Times Book Review: “They start up out of the narcotic trance of late silent cinema into a world of noise and verbal aggression; yet they retain, for the moment, through long habit, all the imagist power and associative poetic logic of the silents. They have a directness and intensity—a wide-awakeness—still capable of astonishing.” Imagine Pre-Codes as mutant emissions from a primoridal stew of silent cinema stirred up by the mechanics of a new medium. It was like “sculptors forced suddenly to take up painting,” says silent film historian Kevin Brownlow, and just when they had seemingly perfected their trade with such late-silent masterpieces as Murnau’s Sunrise and Vidor’s The Crowd.


For many tinseltown natives, it was a catastrophic career ender; for industry outsiders, chiefly East Coast writers and stage stars, it was a siren’s call to sunny California; for the savvier Hollywood stand-bys, it was merely business as usual—a new challenge in the ongoing quest for box office glory. There were missteps and casualties, and a lot of unbearable viewing. Screenwriter Frances Marion described most early talkies as sounding “like cuckoo clocks at noon.” By 1931 however, technology had improved, with more mobile cameras in the hands of directors increasingly adept with talkie pacing, and a new crop of verbally acute actors who screamed, suffered, triumphed, seduced, and wisecracked with style emerged as beloved headliners. Audiences actually cheered when Garbo finally emerged in Anna Christie, the great goddess now a hard-nosed streetwalker commanding, “Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side–and don’t be stingy, baby!” It seemed that Hollywood, ever more crassly, would endure.


But stinginess, suddenly, was the name of the game. Just when everyone started to get the hang of it, the bottom fell out all over again. Hollywood, still operating under vertical integration, initially weathered the economic collapse, but by 1931 all major studios save MGM reported drastic losses. Many instigated periods of 50% salary decreases across the board even as their employees were churning out a film a week. Executives struggled to finesse and preserve their house styles while keeping production cost-effective. They also had to convince audiences in the breadlines that entertainment was a necessity rather than a luxury. A line had to be walked between uplifting escapism and unpretty reflections of daily hardship–and even bodily functions. When a lady inquires in The Last Flight why a member of their party has left the table, his companion explains that he has gone “to shave a horse.” When censorship enforcer Jason Joy followed up on the complaint that the film, how dare it, had acknowledged a man’s tending to the call of nature, director William Dieterle brusquely retorted, “The taste for treacle has passed.”


Clockwise from top left: Clark Gable with Jean Harlow in Red Dust and with Garbo in Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise, Joan Crawford in Letty Lynton and alongside Marie Prevost in Paid.


Pre Code aficionados sniff at MGM–stable of “all the stars in the heavens,” lorded over by the industry’s idealized Irving Thalberg–as having aged the worst. Thalberg was not always averse to the salty or offbeat. He sent everyone blushing with the brazen females of Red-Headed Woman and The Divorcee (starring his wife Norma Shearer, no less).  In Madame Satan, Irving concocted a bizarre adultery roundelay aboard an Art Deco zeppelin that only Cecil B. DeMille could pull off (the bizarre tango over cityscape pictured at the top of this article). He even greenlit Tod Browning’s loving paean to the abnormal, Freaks, a still-ahead-of-its-time masterpiece that offended and comfoozled just about everyone (although Thalberg clearly smelled disaster, quickly nixing the casting of big-time stars Harlow and Myrna Loy).


The white telephone interiors of set designer Cedric Gibbon (best glimpsed in Possessed), the immaculate compositions and flattering lighting of cinematographer William Daniel, and gravity-defying gowns and costume designer Adrian (yes, just Adrian): these comprise some of the most graceful and technically sophisticated work of the era. But there is a falseness and sterility that plague MGM’s early-30s entries. Thalberg’s narrative fine-tuning lacked the élan vital of the other studios’ scrappier products. Everything was too tidy and classy in an era that could not afford such good taste. In hindsight, only contracted screenwriters like Hecht and Anita Loos (inspired by their muses Clark Gable and Jean Harlow) channeled the dynamism and raucousness of Pre-Code so treasured today.


Other studios were liberated from such prestige-mindedness. In a revolutionary reinterpretation of “quality,” Hollywood quickly abandoned trained songstresses in favor of tone-deaf showgirls with prettier ankles. Universal imported the phantasmagorias of German Expressionism for their successful string of horror pictures starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, chiefly because the staging and lighting techniques were easy to recreate and cheap as hell. When production chief Darryl Zanuck came to 20th Century Pictures (on the cusp of their merger with Fox) in 1933, he distilled much of the era’s spirit into films helmed by rapscallion directors Raoul Walsh (Me and My Gal, Sailor’s Luck) and Rowland Brown (Blood Money).  Paramount concentrated its resources into the borderline avant-garde imaginings of sophisticates William Dieterle, Josef von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch, and Rouben Mamoulian (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Love Me Tonight) while also turning the Marx Brothers loose on the world. On a 15-month stopover at RKO, David O. Selznick discovered a sassy lady by the name of Katharine Hepburn, conducted a screen test with Fred Astaire, made a string of jaunty pictures with George Cukor (Girls About Town), and let Merian C. Cooper run wild with his brain child King Kong.


Clockwise from top left: Joan Blondell and James Cagney in Blonde Crazy; Lee Tracy and Allen Jenkins in Blessed Event; Warren William and Alice White in Employee’s Entrance.


But it was the motley crew over at Warner Bros that emerged as the true (anti)heroes of the Pre-Code era. The studio suspended period piece productions altogether, concentrating on topical yarns in claustrophobic urban spheres. Before Darryl Zanuck moved to 20th-Century, he oversaw the industry’s lowest average costs per feature and the highest rates of footage shot per day. The studio’s golden child was Mervyn LeRoy, who could put a record six minutes of usable film in the can a day (other studios averaged less than half of that) and complete five to six pictures a year. (That he was also married to Harry Warner’s daughter didn’t hurt.) Said LeRoy, “All I wanted to do was make a movie with some meat to it, some substance, where before all had been froth.” During production of The Public Enemy, a breeches-clad Zanuck trolled the set pounding a polo mallet into his fist, barking reminders to remove any trace of sentimentality from the proceedings—so instead James Cagney slammed a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s kisser. Warners had little interest in romance and, anyways, why waste two stars on one picture? As a character in The Mind Reader tossed off, “Love, Marriage, Honesty… a combination to land anyone in the poor house.”


The greatest Warners love story was James Cagney and Joan Blondell, two New York stage actors imported on the recommendation of the cinema’s first talker, Al Jolson. The duo starred in 6 pictures together (with Blonde Crazy as the apex)—Cagney appeared in nearly twenty films through 1934, Blondell a whopping thirty. Cagney claimed he loved Blondell second only to his wife, though Kenneth Tynan characterizes their chemistry in less than quixotic terms: “she proved the ideal punch-bag for his clenched, explosive talent.” Backing Jimmy and Joanie was a regular rotation of less polished character actors just as integral to the WB ethos (observe parenthetically how often they appear in Film Forum’s series alone):


–Endlessly flimflammed dirty old man Guy Kibbee (Blonde Crazy, Union Depot, The Mouthpiece, Two Seconds, The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, Gold Diggers of 1933)

–Eternally sarcastic but unrelentingly loyal Ruth Donnelly (Jewel Robbery, Blessed Event, Employees Entrance, Ladies They Talk About, Female, Heat Lightning )

–Loveable ole dumb mug Allen Jenkins (Blessed Event, Three on A Match, Lawyer Man, Employees Entrance, The Mind Reader)

–Defeated but not despondent dame of the hollowed-out eye sockets Aline MacMahon (The Mouthpiece, Gold Diggers of 1933, and her single, vital starring role in Heat Lightning)

–Deadpan vinegar puss Ned Sparks (Blessed Event, Gold Diggers of 1933)

–Funny-looking yokel always on the razzle-dazzle Sterling Holloway (Blonde Venus, Gold Diggers of 1933)

–Dizzy but tough tomatoes Glenda Farrell (Three on a Match, Gold Diggers of 1933, Heat Lightning) & Alice White (Employees Entrance)

–Ambidextrous Frank McHugh shifting between hooch-hounding and smooth-talking with aplomb (Union Depot, The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, Blessed Event, Ex-Lady, Heat Lightning)


The credits say it all.


The Warners’ opening credits practiced a familial democracy by granting each of these clucks their own title card and portrait. Meanwhile, less pretty but no less captivating, Warners stars like Edward G. Robinson (Two Seconds), Barbara Stanwyck (Baby Face, Ladies They Talk About), Paul Muni (Scarface), Kay Francis (impossibly glamorous – but that lisp! in Jewel Robbery), Lee Tracy (Blessed Event, Strange Love of Molly Louvain), Ruby Keeler (a doll – but those elbows! in Gold Diggers of 1933), Warren William (showcased every Thursday at Film Forum), and Bette Davis (Ex-Lady, Cabin in the Cotton) provided a more tenacious, carnal, substantive reinvisioning of movie star glamour.


The mysterious alchemical ability of Warners’ factory-line to turn out such raw, sprightly product is one of the great mysteries and delights of film history. It is rumored that Michael Curtiz (The Strange Love of Molly Louvain) and Dieterle cut frames from each scene just to keep the proceedings at maximum boisterousness. Second units shot footage of neon signs, back-seamed legs, speakeasy antics, rollicking taxis cabs, and sensational headlines—all edited into superimpositions and montages to punctuate scene transitions and heighten the milieu. The films reflected the breathlessness of their makers; Warners directors were paragons of nimbleness, often absent from pre- and  post-production, as they were already on the adjacent set with a different star in a different genre.


The hard-talking, hard-drinking, and hard-living pictures of the Warners’ Pre-Code period is practically a genre in itself. If there ever was a case study for the studio as auteur, this is it. Everyone in these films is an ambitious racketeer on the make. Lawmakers and enforcers are mysteriously absent or, at best, inept. The rich have been forced by the Crash into the same squalor, and like most new frontiers only the cunning survive. “Where there’s a will, there’s a sucker” someone says in The Life of the Party. Women must navigate their way through pathetic come-ons and nefarious advances from every angle. Due to harsh circumstances, virtue is no longer a virtue. There’s a lot of lofty talk about “class,” and how to get it, although anyone who appears to have it proves rottener than the rest. Idealism has gone the way of legal hooch, honest living is a straightline to the poorhouse. Warners characters weather the omnipresent Depression through sheer gumption, forced bravado, and high-octane verbosity. If they aren’t exactly role models they certainly are loveable mutts. The studio operated under the assumption that their characters reflected their audience, marketing movies like Employees Entrance to department store girls and average Joes as their stories.


Clockwise from top left: Ruth Chatterton in Female, Joan Blondell and Chester Morris in Blondie Johnson, “Pettin in the Park” in Gold Diggers of 1933; Ann Dvorak and Lee Tracy in The Strange Love of Molly Louvain.


And they were stories told in their own language. Warners wasn’t the only studio celebrating the spirited, Yiddish-infused idiom of the working class now that the cinema had the license to gab. Aphorisms, slang, and heated insults ping-ponged across the screen from the sides of clenched mouths, a system defined by Daniel Riccuito, committed excavator of this lost vernacular, as “snappy comebacks and sassy retorts, haiku spit straight from America’s open sewers, tenements, and speak-easies.” Some of his choice favorites:

“Stop scratching your head – you couldn’t reach your brain with a steam shovel.”
“I feel just like a million dollars worth of dirty ice.”
“When you shed your skin, send me the rattles.”
“Say, are you beggin’ for a bust on the beezer?”

They may not have talked pretty, but they certainly talked smart, and warmed up every line with a drawn out “Saaaaaay!”  Wise guys and jelly beans cast their peepers on the uprights of muffins and kittens. Torpedoes and trigger men brandished bean shooters and convincers, instructing stool pigeons and snitches to take a powder, take a blow, split, scram, or drift.  Frequent heroes were newspapermen, wordsmiths inspired by gossip gargler Walter Winchell (a natural athlete of the tongue who left grade school for a singing usher gig in a Harlem moviehouse). Lee Tracy was the maestro of such spits and sputters, playing a barely disguised Winchell in Blessed Event and displaying utmost contempt for Dick Powell’s popular crooner (swoony love serenades were not for real men).


Through language characters were on both the offensive and defensive, their personal credos and soapbox orations a much-needed assertion of self in a time of collective suffering. Words were the only thing they could manipulate with flourish when their pockets were empty, to assure them everything would end up aces, snazzy, nobby, smooth, swell, keen, and just jake. The perchant for Pig Latin (climaxing in Ginger Roger’s deliriously warped rendition of “We’re In The Money” in Gold Diggers of 1933) illustrated this play with words as an act of empowerment and celebration, simultaneously sardonic and childlike.


Clockwise from top left: 1930s imagining of 1980s New York, in the sci-fi musical Just Imagine; MGM apes Busby Berkeley in Dancing Lady; a very grand Deco lobby in Grand Hotel; Barbara Stanwyck contemplates her upward mobility in Baby Face.


On a fetishistic level, the Pre-Code era is an embarrassment of riches for any nostalgist. Jaunty jingles about Moochers, Sweet Patooties, Organ Grinders, and Hot Voodoo accompany endless rounds of champagne cocktails and cigarette smoke swirling from ivory holders. Streamlined Art Deco design, an effort to impose geometrical perfection on an asymmetrical time, is expressed in everything from title credits to ash trays to fish bowls. Travel through cavernous speakeasies and skyscraper penthouses, the bright lights of the big city and the palaces of exotic locales only thinly mirroring reality. Admire feathers, sequins, and furs over liquid gowns leaving little to the imagination, courted by felt hats and three-piece suits. Hangovers and shameful mornings are endured in pajamas more impeccably cut and presentable than what most people wear to work today. Working gals in wide-collared blouses rush to their secretarial work, while their rejected suitors pay ten cents to paw bitter dames in seedy dancehalls. Revisit the heyday of chatty cabbies, Automats, SROs, cross-country trains and cross-Atlantic cruiseships. Films of the 30s saluted the Gay 90s (She Done Him Wrong), the Low Lifes described by Luc Sante (his great historical account in turn inspired by a Film Forum screening of Raoul Walsh’s rambunctious Pre-Code The Bowery). Those hedonists weren’t bogged down by that pesky Depression. The New Hollywood of the 70s inevitably displayed a penchant for the 30s, but seeing those candlestick telephones and roundly aerodynamic cars recreated with a punctiliousness never practiced in their real day and age seems as bogus as Thalberg’s squeaky clean prison walls.


But the fun and games were over by early 1934, perhaps due to sheer exhaustion. Prohibition had made most everyone in American a criminal, and without it rooting for the bad guys was a more uneasy proposition. Roosevelt-led recovery imbibed the country with hope and optimism; the preternatural talents of Fred Astaire, precocious charms of Shirley Temple, and reaffirming magnanimity of Frank Capra were a soothing tonic after an age of agitation.  Jean Harlow and Cagney were effectively neutered, she now a dutiful secretary decidedly not having an affair with Clark Gable in Wife Vs. Secretary, he a gallant G-Man in J. Edgar Hoover-inspired propaganda. Many talents would never flourish so spectacularly again; others disappeared completely, swept under the rug as offensive reminders of a time too honestly ill at ease, too lucidly reflective of American fears and desires. The honest crooks and fallen angels of Pre-Code were denied a legacy that is now being crucially revived. Now they seem more spectacularly alive, more on the level, than anything else to come out of Hollywood.


Brynn White is the Managing Editor for Alt Screen.


Keep up with continuing coverage of the series at Alt Screen.

The program “Essential Pre-Code” is playing at Film Forum from Friday, July 15 through Thursday, August 11.

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