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Senior Shackster
792 Posts
Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
I just screened the first two volumes of the "Forbidden Hollywood"
box sets.

I recommend them primarily to those interested in cinema history.
The movies in this series aren't good features but are certainly 'curios'.
However, seen in a row they become repetitive and tiresome.

These films are what is now known as 'Pre-Code' motion pictures
that have risque if not outright raunchy content for their era. They
would all receive a PG-13 classification today. None are particularly
graphic in terms of on screen violence, sex or nudity. It's the amoral
characters that made them controversial. (The term "Pre-Code" is
historically inaccurate because it implies there was no Production
Code before 1934 but I'll continue to use it here as a convenient

For forum members who aren't familiar with the term, 'Pre-Code', here's
what it refers to...

In the silent era there was a 'standard of production' guideline for
the content of motion pictures. However, there was no enforcement
agency in place and most studios ignored the restrictions. In the
surviving films of the twenties you'll see occasional brief nudity, some
sadism and violence and even swearing if you can lip read.

After sound movies replaced silents, the industry hired Will Hays to
create an actual Production Code detailing restrictions and subject
matters to avoid. This was also ignored and Hays had no authority
to censor a film. All he could was make suggestions and act as an
industry lobbyist.

In the second box set of this series there is a documentary about this
era and they point out that during the early days of the
Depression, cinema attendence went down. Then and now, sex sells
and to bring audiences back, the studios produced what was
considered 'shocking' material to entice viewers. A glut of
films about women who slept their way to the top along with pictures
that glorified gangster behavior and lifestyles were released which
increased box-office grosses but also upset many pressure groups.
Before discounting them entirely let's not forget that movies that seemed
to advocate or encourage unprotected sex had serious consequences back
then. There was no cure for venerial disease until 1943 with the development
of pennicilin. Venerial disease had devistating effects on the body and brain
and might have been the cause of Howard Hughes mental problems.

Objections to the content of these movies reached a peak in 1934
and to offset the protests, Hays decided to 'clean up' cinema.
He hired Joseph Breen to do this. Breen created a new Code that
was far stricter than the 1930 version and tried to enforce it to
a greater degree than Hays had in the past. For a few years (1934-
1938), most of the controversial content contained in the early soundies
was toned down. Even so, great movies were still produced like "The
Aventures of Robin Hood".

Then in 1939, "Gone with the Wind", circumvented
many restrictions including on screen violence, blood, profanity and
sexual content and the Code was gradually liberalized over the following
decades until it was eliminated completely in 1968 and replaced by the
MPAA Ratings board. Content was negotiable from 1939-1968 based on
industry clout and budget. The bigger the budget and more popular the
producers and directors, the more they got away with. Some intentionally
included scenes they knew would be cut so they could barter with Breen
and his successor, Geoffrey Sherlock (1955-1968), with other sequences
they wanted to keep in the features.

The documentary depicts Hays and Breen as villainous 'censors'
but they left out some facts that I uncovered when researching this
era for my second book, "The Moviegoing Experience 1968-2001".

In 1934, FDR ushered in a era of government activism. There wasn't
any area of the private sector that he didn't intrude into along with his
wife, Eleanor. When pressure groups complained about the content of
screenplays, Eleanor threated federal censorship. Who elected her?
Hays rushed to Washington and persuaded Roosevelt to allow the industry
to self regulate. To this end he was a hero since if the Fed had
decided to censor movies it would be very difficult to get rid of them
down the road.

The other problem with "Pre-Code" cinema was local censorship. The way
the distribution system worked at the time was that a single run of release
prints were made on all new movies. Between 100-400 copies for distribution.
These prints were sent to an exchange which would then clean and inspect
them between bookings which were done on a regional basis. Movies weren't
released simultaneously throughout the country like today. They were booked on a
state by state basis using the same copies. What was happening in the early thirties was that local
censors were chopping out portions of movies they found objectionable (as in "Cinema Paradiso")
so that the next theater would receive a print that was missing footage.

Hays met with local censors and theater owners and persuaded them to play
all prints intact from state to state as long as they received a "Seal of Approval"
from his office. To a large extent, producers got away with more after
1939 than they would've during the Pre-Code era since Hays protected
cinemas from a local censor's wrath. Without a "Seal of Approval",
"Gone with the Wind" could've had scenes removed by a theater. Imagine receiving
a print of the film in New Your City after a Chicago censor had cut out Gable's famous
last line. Release prints were standardized while producers figured out ways of circumventing
code restrictions creatively.

It's important to remember that most cinemas had at least 600 seats and the movie palaces
had upwards of 5000 seats. No theater could restrict attendence and prevent children from
going and stay in business. Compromises had to be made to retain 'general audiences'. Hays
and Breen weren't villains so much as industry operatives that kept the Fed out of the business.

So that's my take on the Production Code as an entity. I hate censorship but
you always have to factor in the demographics and the political stakes of the era.
For example, after abandoning the Code in 1968, the glut of R and X rated movies
cut theater attendence in half so content is always a factor.

In Volume One of this series, the best of the lot is "Baby Face" starring Barbara
Stanwyck. Even by contemporary standards this is a sleazy story and fun to watch.
Stanwyck literally sleeps her way up the corporate ladder of a bank. There are amusing
transitions where you see the camera pan up to the next floor as she seduces the
executive on that level to get ahead. She even has an affair in the bathroom! They
found a complete, uncensored print along with a cut version to compare. Watch the
uncensored version.

"Red Headed Woman" starring Jean Harlow (Howard Hughes discovery) is another off
the wall title. Harlow plays an opportunistic tramp who not only sleeps with anyone but
even gets away with it at the end after shooting her lover. There's a brief flash of topless nudity
in it if you pay close attention. Harlow isn't that attractive but she does have an engaging
screen persona.

"Waterloo Bridge" is the weakest of these three titles. Mae Clarke plays a prostitute who falls
for a World War I soldier (Kent Douglass) on leave. She tries to prevent him from discovering
her true profession since he's from a wealthy family which would not approve of their romance.
Rather than deal with it dramatically, the story has a cop out ending when she gets blown up
by a German bomb. Clarke is okay in the role and Douglass is good. He's very goofy and gives
an engaging contemporary type of performance. But the cheat ending ruins the story.

To my surprise the visuals in Volume One were very good and much better than
I expected for early thirties movies. If you look at the condition of the Laurel
and Hardy films and MGM titles like "David Copperfield" which are very worn, the
pristine image with excellent contrast and no scratches is appealing.
I guess the movies were so obscure the negatives remained
mint. The audio is a problem but I'm not sure there's much that could be
done with it. These movies were released with either Vitaphone synchronized records
or with primitive optical tracks which contained a lot of hiss and other distortions.
The signal to noise ratio was so extreme that if they tried to digitally remove all
the hiss they would also lose clarity in the dialogue. Fortunately by the mid-thirties
they had improved the mikes and incorporated the Westrex Low Noise system to
improve optical tracks and reduce the signal to noise ratio. But these early
soundies are pretty bad.

These movies also lack music scores. Other than some transitional tracks or songs played
on the radio, most scenes contain only the dialogue without background noises like
mild city traffic. So you hear a lot of hiss between each sentence and the soundtrack
is otherwise empty. Beginning with "King Kong" in 1933, movies started containing 'full mixes'
with background sounds and fully scored musical themes.

Volume Two features movies starring Norma Shearer whom I'm not partial to.
Her career was handled by her husband, Irving Thalberg, who was the production
boss at MGM. She's not particularly attractive and is cross eyed. Her acting
tends to be very theatrical with a lot of posing and histrionic emoting. If you can get past
that style, the movies are watchable but not as interesting as those in Volume One.
While they look pretty good, there is occasional wear and nitrate decomposition
in spots. Not as mint as those in the first box set. The audio has the same problems.
Fortunately, this collection contains the documentary "Thou Shalt Not" which gives an
overview of the era but doesn't go into the issues I mentioned earlier. The film that
launched 'sin' pictures was Shearer's "The Divorcee". I thought it was dull.

"A Free Soul" also starring her was more interesting in that the two competing romantic
leads were Clark Gable and Leslie Howard, eight years before they would repeat those
roles in "Gone with the Wind". Gable is excellent and a very natural actor. He seems less forced than
the stage hams he's surrounded with including Lionel Barrymore who shouts every line
as if he's playing to the balcony. As with the Selznick picture, it's hard to figure out
why any woman would prefer Howard's wimpy fop to Gable's charming rogue.

"Three on a Match" is mildly entertaining if you can get past the absurd plot twists. The story goes all over
the place and takes many preposterous turns. The best thing about it is a very young
Humphrey Bogart who plays a gangster and steals every scene he's in.

"Female" starts out good but then cops out at the end. Ruth Chatterton plays an early
heterosexual feminist. She's the President of a car company who has boy toys
she sleeps with and then abandons, like a male womanizer. Then George Brent
comes along and plays 'hard to get'. She decides to give it all up to become his
wife which spoiled the story for me.

"Night Nurse" is another Barbara Stanwyck picture which is entertaining if only
because the plot takes such absurd turns it's hard to keep up with the events.

I recommend breaking up your screenings with other movies. Seen one after the other,
they become predictable and most of the characters are totally unsympathetic. They were
created to 'shock' audiences back in the early thirties. As result, many of their motivations
or behavior make little sense within the context of the narrative. You can see why
some viewers objected to being bombarded with this type of content over and
over for a few years. One or two movies per year wouldn't have caused concern
but Hollywood tends to overdo everything until the controversy forces them to change
formulas. For example, in the eighties the glut of slasher films had a similar back lash.

Senior Shackster
792 Posts
Discussion Starter · #2 · (Edited)
I've been accused of being a hypocrite at times.

How can I apparently act as an 'appologist' for the Hays Office in the
thirties while simultaneously producing movies like "Splatter University"
(rated R for gore) along with "Space Avenger" and "What Really Frightens
You" which are un-rated with explicit violence, gore and nudity?

The answer is...

As a film-maker I oppose censorship in all forms.

But as a film historian I have to factor in other opinions and
trade offs within the context of their era. It's not an easy task.

I still maintain that it was better for Hays to persuade the Fed
that the film industry could self regulate rather than face government
censorship of motion pictures. It was a tactical move and the Production
Code was negotiable as was the later MPAA ratings system. The idea
Eleanor Roosevelt would decide what content was 'allowed' in motion pictures
was too horrific to consider. Whatever it took to avoid that was necessary even
if it meant cinema lost it's 'edge' for a few years.

On the other hand I had such bad experiences with the MPAA with my first
two movies that I haven't bothered to rate my last six features and distributed
them 'un-rated'. So I have to wear different hats in my two roles as film-maker
and film historian which is a tightrope.
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