If you hear a new phrase, where do you go to learn its definition? I think most people absorb concepts in context from conversations with friends, or maybe from watching television. A few might look it up in a book. But after that most people head to Google. For billions of people, when they want to know something today, they Google their question. How good is the knowledge we get from Google? Does it have true educational value? Does it enlighten? How authoritative is it?
When you go to Google and search on a topic the results often brings back a Wikipedia article, articles from newspapers and magazines, maybe some book reviews, and finally articles from bloggers. Which ones are you most likely to read first? Wikipedia is the hive mind option, journalists are the paid professional option and bloggers are the work for free option.
I’m going to use “Pre-Code Hollywood” as my test case because several times in the past month I’ve used that phrase and then had to explain it. Pre-Code Hollywood is a category of old movies that takes some explaining to define. Most movie goers don’t have a clue as to what I’m talking about. Pre-Code Hollywood refers to a time period in the early thirties, when some movies pushed the boundaries of social norms and were usually censored by one or more state censors, before national censorship took hold in the second half of 1934. This censorship held until the 1960s. That shaped how movies were made for a very long time. Young people growing up in our anything goes era have no idea how movies, books, comics and television shows were sanitized for mass consumption. Pre-Code Hollywood films are from a brief period in the early 1930s that told stories about characters breaking out of accepted norms that shocked conventional society. Pre-Code Hollywood generally refers to the years, but to the film buffs, it’s only certain movies that push the envelope.
Whether Hollywood told these stories to sell tickets, or because storytellers wanted to free the minds of their audience is debatable. The reality was many Americans were already breaking free of 19th century morality and Hollywood was just reporting new trends. Conservatives wanted to keep the genie in the bottle, while liberals wanted to let it all hang out.
Short of reading a book devoted to the subject, and there are such books, this essay at Wikipedia is an excellent introduction to Pre-Code Hollywood films. If you search Google, Wikipedia is the #1 return. #2 is images from Google, and for many people, Pre-Code Hollywood images are the story. The returns give two books from Amazon, one of which is Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934 by Thomas Doherty. The New York Times presents the first chapter. Doherty opens with a description of the censorship period.
On or about July 1934 American cinema changed. During that month, the Production Code Administration, popularly known as the Hays Office, began to regulate, systematically and scrupulously, the content of Hollywood motion pictures. For the next thirty years, cinematic space was a patrolled landscape with secure perimeters and well-defined borders. Adopted under duress at the urging of priests and politicians, Hollywood’s in-house policy of self-censorship set the boundaries for what could be seen, heard, even implied on screen. Not until the mid-1950s did cracks appear in the structure and not until 1968, when the motion picture industry adopted its alphabet ratings system, did the Code edifice finally come crumbling down.
Later on Doherty give a quick overview of the kinds of films made before the censorship period:
In a sense pre-Code Hollywood is from another universe. It lays bare what Hollywood under the Code did its best to cover up and push off screen. Sexual liaisons unsanctified by the laws of God or man in Unashamed (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), and She Done Him Wrong (1933); marriage ridiculed and redefined in Madame Satan(1930), The Common Law (1931), and Old Morals for New (1932); ethnic lines crossed and racial barriers ignored in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), The Emperor Jones (1933), and Massacre(1934); economic injustice exposed and political corruption assumed in Wild Boys of the Road (1933), This Day and Age (1933), andGabriel Over the White House (1933); vice unpunished and virtue unrewarded in Red Headed Woman (1932), Call Her Savage (1932), and Baby Face (1933)—in sum, pretty much the raw stuff of American culture, unvarnished and unveiled.
Robert Gottlieb reviews both books at The New York Times. The other book is Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood by Mark A. Vieira, a book I own and recommend. Gottlieb says about it,
Mark A. Vieira’s ”Sin in Soft Focus” naturally covers much of the same ground, but the two books complement rather than detract from each other. ”Sin in Soft Focus” is less analytical; it lingers more lovingly on the pre-code films themselves. Its chief advantage lies in its illustration — this is an oversize book with hundreds of beautifully chosen images laid out for maximum impact; one can forgive the fact that often they’re chosen for their own sake, not to illustrate a point. But this is far from being just another pretty collection of stills. We get many detailed stories that convey exactly what was going on — for one, the battle over Garbo’s first sound film, ”Anna Christie.” Could she be allowed to inveigh against ”all men, God damn them”? (She couldn’t; the offending words were spliced out in favor of ”I hate them! I hate them!”) We also hear of von Stroheim’s elegant solution for getting one of his actors to laugh: put a string down his pants and tie it to his privates, then pull — ”and that made the guy laugh.” Now, that’s directing!
Wikipedia, The New York Times and the books give readers a comprehensive history of the era, but except for Vieira book, I’m not sure if these writers convey the love of the films. Unless you’re a hard core Turner Classic Movie (TCM) fan, or willing to buy DVDs like the Forbidden Hollywood series, it’s not likely you’ll ever see these films. And I have to admit, when I show these films to my friends, damn few of them enjoy them. These films are old and quaint to eyes used to R rated Hollywood flicks. Contemporary PG rated films show more graphic sex, violence and deviation from social norms than Pre-Code Hollywood even dreamed of filming – so were these 1930s films the Inconvenient Truth of their times that forecast things to come, or were they only a keyhole peak at what was already going on?
Loving old black and white movies from the 1930s is an acquired taste. I picked up the habit back in the 1950s watching all night movies on television. Most of my friends, even friends my age, are put off by the acting style of the times, but I find what they call bad acting, stylish and beautiful. It’s the difference between Benny Goodman and Lady Gaga.
There is no typical Pre-Code Hollywood film, and other than watching several of these films, it’s doubtful reading about them will convey their real essence. There are some bloggers that go to great lengths to document and analyze these films. Just read this extensive analysis of Ladies of Leisure (1930) by Danny at Pre-Cod.com.
Here are two clips from Jewel Robbery (1932), one of my favorites not because of the risqué dialog, but because of its 1930s Hollywood glamor style.
William Powell plays an suave holdup man who ends up running off with Kay Francis who is married to an older rich man. After censorship these two characters couldn’t end up with their 1932 happy ending because censors believed criminals and adulterers couldn’t get away with their crimes after July 1, 1934. Jewel Robbery can be found on Forbidden Hollywood Volume 4 and regularly shows up on TCM. I love this film because I think Kay Francis is beautiful in a way modern starlets are not. Pre-Code fans love their era partly for the daring stories, but mostly for the style of a bygone time.
Reading reviews by bloggers is where you find the enthusiasm of fans. Some take a lot of time with their projects and publish photos and film clips, like here at Pre-Code.com. Others are like at Laurasmiscmussing, who states her personal reactions to watching Jewell Robbery. Laura didn’t like the marijuana scene. Like me, Laura is a fan of Kay Francis. Over at Cinema Enthusiast we get more commentary on the film with some very good stills. Catherine has a nice comment:
Another reason the film could only have been made in 1932 is the studio system. The studio system dealt heavily in fantasy, but in a different kind of fantasy than today’s films. Today, fantasy takes the form of mystic worlds, ordinary people being pulled into unrealities beyond their wildest dreams. The studio system dealt in fantasy that fit seamlessly into a real-life setting. Fantasy rooted in glamour.
Jewel Robbery is an example of this. We are shown a world where our protagonist doesn’t have to lift a finger for herself, where jewels shine extra bright, where people appear extra soft, and where frivolity is the goal of the day. Today, we would ask ourselves, ‘why should we care about someone like Teri’. In the studio system, these characters were par for the course and we still accept them into our hearts without blinking twice. William Powell commits the most non-threatening robbery ever seen in film. Sure, he has a gun and many crooks beside him, but the atmosphere is airy as can be. His priority and pride comes from making a robbery as comfortable for the victims as possible. Robber as society guru. This kind of light comedic tone would be extremely difficult to execute in modern-day film and furthermore, it’s just not the sort of film being made today in America.
Reading blog reviews like this connects me with people like myself who do love the old movies. Art lives by its fans, as long as the fans love a work of art, it will live on. When an artwork loses all its fans, it dies. Bloggers keep obscure works of art alive. Just creating the designation of “Pre-Code Hollywood” has brought a dying era back to life. William Powell and Myrna Loy films are quite famous, but how many people remember the seven William Powell and Kay Francis films?
Some bloggers like Cliff Aliperti love old movies far more than I do, and have the patience to write scene by scene reviews. If I had more time, I ‘d love to blog about old movies like Cliff does.
Jewel Robbery was not a great movie, nor is it typical of Pre-Code films. It’s on the silly side, but it was stylish for the time. Eighty plus years later, how much of that style remains? How many people can still resonate with its charm? Being a fan of a forgotten art form both defines me and separates me from the herd. I doubt when I watch Pre-Code Hollywood films that I’m attaining some kind of oneness with the people of the 1930s. Neither is it nostalgia, since nostalgic is based on wanting to go home, and I never lived in those times. Maybe everyone has an era in the past they are fascinated with and the early 1930s is mine. My wife loves watching television shows from the 1960s on Sundays. I also love 1950s westerns, 1960s comedies and 2010s television shows. It’s hard to jive my love of 1930s movies with my love of Breaking Bad.
With modern technology of cable TV, DVDs, internet streaming services, we can all pick art and eras to love and specialize on. I have a new friend that specializes in Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra movies. The web allows me to find other Pre-Code Hollywood film fans like Emma, Julie, Louie, FlickChick, Classic Movie Blog Association, Fritzi, Monty, and many more.
I don’t know when the designation “Pre-Code Hollywood” was coined, but I don’t think it’s all that old. I believe the creation of that label has defibrillate an art form whose heart had stopped. Reading about Pre-Code Hollywood here, or at Wikipedia or even at The New York Times won’t even give you the experience of what we’re talking about. For that you’ll need to see some of the films. Watch TCM or Netflix and look for:
- A Free Soul (1931)
- Design for Living (1933)
- Grand Hotel (1932)
- Lawyer Man (1932)
- Mary Stevens MD (1933)
- Murder at the Vanities (1934)
- Red Dust (1932)
- Safe in Hell (1931)
- The Big House (1930)
- Three on a Match (1932)
- Trouble in Paradise (1932)
- When Ladies Meet (1933)
JWH – 7/3/13