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When Words Had Meaning

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Despite the abundance of film classics at retrospectives or on cable and video, there remain thousands of titles crying out for rediscovery, not to mention pronounced historical gaps begging for reevaluation.

One of those gaps is the period just before the Production Code of 1934--an obscure yet creative burst of uncensored Hollywood energy that has been neglected far too long (except by Ted Turner). Fortunately, Columbia Pictures will be touting its own distinct heritage with “Before the Code,” a series of 17 rarities starting Friday at the Nuart for one week.

The series provides a privileged glimpse into a long-forgotten cultural past, when movies were still coping with sound as well as the Depression, artistic risks were taken, new talent was discovered and morality was dramatized in shades of gray. Though only some of it is really good, all of it is fascinating for understanding how we perceived and entertained ourselves.

At their best, these films crackle with wit and wisdom, as men and women struggle to admit to one another what’s plain to see in their hearts. Besides, who can pass up the chance to see Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Spencer Tracy, Carole Lombard and Boris Karloff before they were stars? As for Columbia, this sampling reveals that legendary production chief Harry Cohn always had a taste for talent and tight screenwriting. The melodramas have just enough humor to offset the seriousness and just enough good sense to refrain from sentimentality. Everyone seems to be having such a good time that it’s no wonder they felt more at home here than at any other studio.

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What’s most revealing, however, is the preeminence of the woman in these films. The action usually revolves around her--and she possesses the real power: sex and maturity. It’s the man who’s most vulnerable and idealistic. Yet with the love of a strong woman, he grows up and adopts a more pragmatic and tolerant approach to life. And she learns to temper her cynicism enough to love again. It’s a refreshing equality.

In “Virtue,” one of the true finds (screening Friday), there’s enough disillusionment to go around for everyone (“They don’t bury their dead, they let them walk around”). Plucky prostitute Lombard and wisecracking cabby Pat O’Brien fall in love and marry, but he can’t seem to trust her. Through an intricate combination of blackmail and murder, a self-fulfilling prophecy nearly wrecks their relationship.

But redemption comes through the natural progression of observation and characterization, thanks to Robert Riskin’s well-crafted script, not a moral code. And Edward Buzzell’s polished direction has a nice visual flair complementing the well placed bons mots (arguably the best looking film of the series). He makes good use of the actors and Frank Capra’s favorite cinematographer, Joseph Walker, whose luminous images and stylistic flourishes anticipate some of his more famous work. Shadowy profiles in windows, rain-swept close-ups and an economical depth of field certainly linger in the mind.

Another Riskin gem, “Night Club Lady” (screening next Thursday), stands out as a delicious and delirious murder mystery. Adolphe Menjou plays a suave New York police commissioner with a keen gift for observation as well as deduction. The Agatha Christie-like plot involves the bizarre murder of a despised socialite despite a wall of police protection. Among the writer’s many talents is his ability to convey a warm sense of camaraderie within any profession. Here it’s the colorful personalities of the police force that surround Menjou like a faithful brigade.

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A newly restored “So This Is Africa” (also screening next Thursday), the only true comedy of the series, offers the team of Wheeler and Woolsey, who are definitely an acquired taste. Although it’s not one of their better films, their lurid vaudevillian humor actually works as an absurd counterpoint to their utter lack of sex appeal, as the boys find themselves trapped by a tribe of sex-starved Amazon women. However, even normally reliable screenwriter Norman Krasna (“Bachelor Mother”) has difficulty extracting laughs out of this stiff jungle farce.

Meanwhile, watching early Bogart in the stiff “Love Affair” (screening Saturday) is one of the series’ great pleasures. It’s like witnessing a persona unfold before your eyes. He starts off as a good guy--a cheerful aviator and struggling inventor--and winds up a tough guy after a disillusioning romance. He nearly becomes a bad guy, but that’s too much to ask. Bogie’s charm and charisma, though, are very much in evidence, as is his ability to entice adversaries into underestimating him. But he had yet to acquire those trademark mannerisms, like the tugging of his earlobe. There’s something very intriguing about watching stars learn their craft.

“Man’s Castle,” probably the highlight of the series (also screening Saturday), is directed by Frank Borzage, the supreme romanticist of the American cinema whose reputation has finally been revived this decade. Unlike his later films for Universal and MGM, this one looks significantly grittier.

Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young are homeless lovers stuck in New York’s “Hoover Flats.” He’s a tough loner and she’s an eternal dreamer. What Borzage does best is depict their romantic state of mind, a union of spirits that can’t be separated by life’s cruel and ugly obstacles.

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Tracy’s afraid of commitment and Young’s afraid of life. But she’s not afraid of love--and it’s the promise of their unborn child that shakes Tracy from his arrested adolescence. Leave it to Borzage to transform Tracy during an aborted toy store robbery. The moment he starts playing with a windup soldier, he becomes a hopeful father for the very first time. And we witness another star in the making.

The series boasts another Tracy, the fast-talking, smooth-walking, incomparably confident Lee Tracy. He stars in “Night Mayor” (screening Tuesday), a satire about the scandalous private life of a promiscuous politician that obviously couldn’t be more topical. With controversial New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker as his model, Tracy delivers a mayor forced to choose between love and fame when he becomes involved with a showgirl. It’s to the film’s credit that Tracy’s conflicts aren’t so easily resolved.

Yet one can easily imagine the code demanding a more audience-friendly resolution here and elsewhere. Come to think of it, these films seem even more modern than much of what’s currently made, a further reason for their rediscovery.

BE THERE

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“Before the Code,” Nuart Theater, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A.; phone: (310) 478-6379.


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