Down and Dirty

Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

Film historians like to call them “pre-code,” those movies made in Hollywood in the too-brief period between March 1930 and July 1934, and to see them now is to enter an unexpected time warp and feel the force of a world turned upside down.

Carnal, explicit, uninhibited and eager to make a hash of conventional wisdom, pre-code films tell us everything we knew about Hollywood is wrong. All the so-called modern touches widely assumed to have come to studio pictures in the 1960s--strong violence and stronger sexual content, candor about drug use and homosexuality, even nudity--happened before, and with more snap, in the pre-code years. “Unlike all studio system feature films released after July 1934, pre-code Hollywood did not adhere to the strict regulations on matters of sex, vice, violence, and moral meaning forced upon the balance of Hollywood cinema,” writes Thomas Doherty in his “Pre-Code Hollywood.” “More unbridled, salacious, subversive, and just plain bizarre than what came afterwards, they look like Hollywood cinema but the moral terrain is so off-kilter they seem imported from a parallel universe.”

Take for instance the 1933 Barbara Stanwyck-starring “Baby Face,” one of the most notorious of pre-code films with the tag line “She had IT and made IT pay.” Forced to be a tramp by her speakeasy-running father and encouraged by a Nietzschean confidant who advises her, “You must be a master, not a slave,” Stanwyck decides to take revenge by turning her sexual attractiveness into a weapon to ruin every man in town. And New York is a very big town.

Pre-code was not, however, just lascivious fun and games. Even more unnerving and unexpected to modern audiences is William Wellman’s tough and gritty 1933 “Heroes for Sale.” It has sad-eyed former silent film star Richard Barthelmess playing a World War I veteran who gets a morphine addiction instead of the medals he deserves and then experiences bread lines, labor unrest and the unjust scrutiny of the sour-faced Red Squad. It’s a film that forcefully explores the idea of national collapse when, as Doherty puts it, “a hobo gestures hopelessly into a rainswept night and speaks one of the bleakest lines in Hollywood cinema: ‘It’s the end of America.’ ”


Though unknown until recently--except to “obsessive cineastes” (to borrow Doherty’s apt phrase)--pre-code films are finally getting the respect and recognition their singularity insists upon, including this pair of groundbreaking books, published almost simultaneously but with largely different focuses. The Doherty volume, subtitled “Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934,” looks to become the standard work on this decidedly nonstandard age. Thoroughly researched and dense with information, especially as to what the lively Hollywood trade press was saying, “Pre-Code Hollywood” is thoughtful and gracefully written, even managing to keep phrases such as “diegetic ellipsis” down to what is probably the legal minimum for an academic text.

Complementing Doherty’s book is Mark A. Vieira’s “Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood,” a handsome book whose hundreds of gorgeously reproduced images, heavy on passionate embraces and elaborate lingerie, evoke the racy side of pre-code. And though less extensive than Doherty’s, Vieira’s text is also of interest, in part because it enjoys passing on “Hollywood Babylon"-type anecdotes. Who knew, for instance, that Edmond Goulding, director of “Grand Hotel,” was “a habitue of the popular Ship’s Cafe in Venice” and dreamed of putting the establishment’s celebrated “drag act starring the Rocky Twins” into his pre-code “Blondie of the Follies.”

As both Vieira and Doherty point out, the name “pre-code” is something of a misnomer. Bedeviled by state censorship boards to an unprecedented extent (Vieira estimates they were costing film companies "$3.5 million a year in review fees, salaries, and the waste of expensively mounted scenes”), the studios came up with the censorious Production Code regulations in 1930 but did not feel compelled to enforce them until 1934.

One of the strengths of Doherty’s book is its ability to place pre-code films in more than a Hollywood context, to show how they came out of the chaotic sociopolitical realities of a country drowning in the Great Depression, a country that feared it was coming apart in an unprecedented way. “Long oblivious to or agnostic about politics, temperamentally wary of involvement and above the fray,” Doherty writes, “Hollywood went against its own grain to reflect and express the dissent of the day.”


One result was that dictators, men with a plan, began to appear on screen in a more favorable light. The fascinating “Gabriel Over the White House,” released in 1933, starred Walter Huston as a president divinely inspired to take things into his own hands, and in the same year the documentary “Mussolini Speaks” had Lowell Thomas gushing, “This is a time when a dictator comes in handy!” Even Cecil B. DeMille, better known even then for his biblical epics, made the bizarre “This Day and Age,” which extolled vigilante justice as the surest way to make things decent again. In every genre, Doherty says, “the dislocations of American culture opened up new spaces on screen, and before the territory was placed off limits, filmmakers rushed to taste the air.”

This new freedom is most noticeable in what the censors called “sex films,” features with titles such as “Laughing Sinners,” “The Road to Ruin,” “Free Love” and “Merrily We Go to Hell,” whose characters, according to Doherty, “surrendered willingly to one or more of the seven deadly sins and discovered that succumbing wasn’t necessarily fatal.”


Most subversive of all, many pre-code films, such as 1930’s “The Prodigal” (which had a mother persuading a wife to divorce one of her sons and guiltlessly marry the other), posited that “marriage was a contract open to redefinition, amenable to renegotiation, and easily terminated by mutual consent.” And lurid advertisements, which promised more than the films had any intention of delivering (an ad for D.W. Griffith’s stodgy “Abraham Lincoln” claimed of Mary Todd, “She taught Lincoln how to love--and to like it!”), had a widespread currency that infuriated moralists and church leaders, who stayed away from these films on principle but couldn’t avoid the salacious billboards.


Helped, as all the pre-code films were, by the new possibilities of sound (think screeching tires and Tommy gun fusillades), gangster films such as “Little Caesar,” “The Public Enemy” and “Scarface” were not only hugely popular (“more productive commercially than any other so-called cycle in years,” said Variety) but also the most upsetting to sensibilities. “Neither preachment yarns nor vice films so outraged the moral guardians or unnerved the city fathers,” Doherty writes, “as the high-calibre scenarios that made screen heroes out of stone killers.”

It’s one of Doherty’s more unexpected theses, however, that the most subversive pre-code films were not sexual or violent. They were instead the horror movies, which though gruesome and gory, were not on the minds of the moralistic. Strange items such as “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (“a perverse tale of interspecies miscegenation”) and the chilling duo of “Island of Lost Souls” and “Freaks” (“tribes of the misshapen and mutated exist on the fringes of mainstream culture and threaten to overturn it”) got in more or less under society’s radar. Explains Doherty, with typical elan, “as long as monsters refrained from illicit sexual activity, respected the clergy, and maintained silence on controversial political matters, they might walk with impunity where bad girls, gangsters, and radicals feared to tread.”

Though most previous writings on the pre-code era focus on the sex and violence, Doherty devotes considerable fascinating space to genres not usually considered, such as the proliferation of newsreels (“a hopeless case for sound pix,” a Fox crew reported of Gandhi) and the just about forgotten neo-documentary expeditionary films, in which white men with cameras went to places no white men had dared go before, preferably spots such as “the sensuous tropics,” where there apparently “languished a surplus of bare-breasted women.” At least that was the theory. In practice, there were cases such as the legendary “Inagagi,” “a pioneering con job” allegedly set among the giant apes and topless women of the Congo that turned out to be 85% shot in Luna Park, the Selig Zoo and other environs of Hollywood.

It took four years, but the Catholic Church and other guardians of morality (whose continual frustration with wily studio executives is especially well detailed in Vieira’s book) finally got fed up with Hollywood. The church created the Legion of Decency, a grass-roots organization dedicated to cleaner pictures that soon had 3 million pledges, and Philadelphia’s Cardinal Dennis Dougherty called for Catholics to boycott all motion pictures, not just the questionable ones. This was all the studios had to hear, and very soon the Production Code was given strong teeth, and Joseph I. Breen, a staunch Catholic (and, both books point out, an equally strong anti-Semite), was put in charge.


We all know what happened next: three decades of clean living, chaste language, moral endings and double beds for married people. To see the pre-code films today (many are available on video or in repertory screenings) is to lament the disappearance of the frankness and sizzle that characterized them, but Doherty is also honest enough to admit “the inconvenient truth that Hollywood’s output on the other side of the code reveals no ready correlation between freedom of expression and aesthetic worth.” And it’s arguable that “the most vivid and compelling motion pictures--glorious as art, momentous as texts--were created under the most severe and narrow-minded censorship ever inflicted upon American cinema.”

Saying all this, it’s impossible to miss the parallels between the pre-code era and today’s conflicts over censorship and film content. Then as now, Hollywood was castigated, perhaps excessively, “any time an incident of juvenile crime could be attributed to the baleful influence of a gangster film.” Then as now, “Hollywood posed as a mere service industry willing to purvey whatever genre the public paid good money to see.” It’s not clear that what happened next--the industry caving in when religious opposition was joined to “the threat of federal censorship under a new administration"--is going to repeat itself now, but those who bet against history are often fooling no one but themselves.