Posted by Susan Doll on August 5, 2013
In the last 10 years, the popularity of pre-Code movies has soared through the publication of coffee-table books and the release of DVD series. “Pre-Code” refers to those films released before film censorship became mandatory in Hollywood. Though the Motion Picture Production Code was adopted by Hollywood in 1930, it was not enforced until June 1934. Movies released between 1930 and 1934 often surprise viewers with their adult content, double entendres, perverted characters, and independent women. Movie lovers eagerly watch for outrageous characters, suggestive lines of dialogue, and sexual situations that would never have passed the guidelines after 1934.
Status as a pre-Code film has breathed life into some movies that would not have otherwise stood the test of time. Some of them have gained name recognition because of their inclusion in books and DVD series, including A Free Soul, which was part of TCM’s Forbidden Hollywood series. I recently watched this melodrama starring Norma Shearer, Lionel Barrymore, Leslie Howard, and Clark Gable in his break-out role. Shearer went braless in silky gowns; she slept with Gable, who played a ruthless gangster; and, she spoke of marriage and children with disdain: These are characteristics that fans of pre-Code movies embrace. However, I found the characters in A Free Soul unlikable, the scenes between Shearer and Barrymore tedious and dull, and their acting too broad—even for melodrama. They seemed to be competing with each other for who could be the most dramatic, as though they anticipated their nominations for Academy Awards. (Barrymore won; Shearer did not.)
Other pre-Code films have been ignored or buried, yet they are more watchable than high-profile examples like A Free Soul. One of my favorites is Finishing School, which stars France Dee as Virginia Radcliff, a new student at snobbish Crockett Hall. Billie Burke plays Virginia’s mother, who stashes her daughter at Crockett because she has heard of the school’s lofty reputation in her upper-class social circle. Head mistress Miss Van Alstyne, played by Beulah Bondi, warns Virginia that she will not tolerate smoking, drinking, or bad behavior at her school. Like Mrs. Radcliff, Miss Van Alstyne is concerned with social status, and she is adamant about avoiding scandal. Ginger Rogers costars as Virginia’s roommate, Cecilia Ferris, whom everyone calls Pony. Almost as soon as Virginia moves in, wisecracking Pony offers her a cigarette and a drink. Pony sees through Miss Van Alstyne and shrewdly remarks to Virginia that Crockett students can do anything they like as long as they don’t get caught, which will embarrass the school. Virginia quickly falls in with Pony’s crowd. When the girls sneak away to spend the weekend drinking and carousing at a New York City hotel , Virginia drinks too much and falls into the clutches of a cad. Young intern Dr. Ralph “Mac” McFarland rescues her, and the two embark on a romance, resulting in Virginia’s pregnancy.
Many aspects of the plot and characters in Finishing School did not meet the guidelines of the Code, and the Catholic Legion of Decency condemned the film for its content. Pony and her friends smoke, drink, and cavort sexually in hotel rooms with young men, though the latter is only implied. However, what actually violated the Code was not the behavior itself but the idea that the girls were left unpunished for their high jinks by authority figures or by fate. That was a major part of the “compensating moral values” concept of the Production Code: Films could depict immoral or criminal behavior, because that is the raw material of drama, but the characters had to suffer the consequences for their decisions.
It is the pregnancy of Virginia Radcliff that truly identifies Finishing School as a pre-Code film. Virginia’s relationship with Mac leads to a Christmas tryst that leaves her pregnant, though the “p” word is never used. Virginia feels abandoned by Mac, because his letters to her have been intercepted by Miss Van Alstyne. When the old bat suspects that Virginia is in trouble, she forces the frightened girl to see the school’s doctor to shame her into admitting her indiscretions. Virginia’s mother looks on, whimpering about her social standing. Miss Van Alstyne and Virginia’s mother care only about their reputations, and they are clearly the story’s villains. At the end, Mac rescues Virginia from Crockett Hall and promptly proposes marriage. Instead of being punished for being pregnant out of wedlock, Virginia emerges with her happy ending.
Another violation of the Production Code in Finishing School is the criticism of certain social mores and institutions represented by the characters of Miss Van Alstyne, who is the authority on proper moral behavior for young women, and the Radcliffs, who embody the nuclear family. The Production Code held that American ideology and traditional values should be exhibited and supported in Hollywood movies through positive depictions of family, religion, law and order, capitalism, education, and other pillars of our society. The “one bad apple” idea could be used to create drama, in which one corrupt cop, one bad parent, or one misguided doctor or educator could create trouble, but when he or she was discovered and defeated, the problem was over. In other words, it wasn’t the institution that was the problem, it was the one bad apple. However, in Finishing School, there are no progressive teachers at Crockett Hall to balance Miss Van Alystyne, and there are no selfless parents to balance the self-centered Radcliffs. It is likely that the producers of Finishing School did not intend to criticize society’s institutions and traditional moral values. Given the time frame of the Depression, the film is merely following the trend of condemning the practices of the rich (the status-seeking Radcliffs and the repressive Crockett Hall) while praising the character of the working man (the honest and true Mac), but such unbalanced depictions of America’s social institutions would not pass the Hays Office after June 13, 1934.
Though not a lost classic, Finishing School is well worth seeing beyond its identity as a pre-Code film. (It is available on DVD.) Its primary asset is costar Ginger Rogers who plays a character perfectly suited to her star image and her talents as a comedienne. Attractive, confident, and wise beyond her years, her character, Pony Ferris, disregards the rules to embrace a reckless lifestyle, but she is tough enough to handle it. Though not working class like many of Rogers’s characters, Pony rebels against the stuffy atmosphere of Crockett Hall, which makes her easy to relate to for ordinary viewers. When she hires a former vaudeville actress to pose as her aunt from New York, so the girls can leave school with a “chaperone” for their weekend in the big city, fun-loving Pony is so good at taking charge that their adventure seems harmless despite Virginia’s near-rape by one of the young men at their party. Rogers’s talent for repartee and well-timed quips makes her character memorable and Finishing School highly watchable. When a freshman girl who tags along after the older students asks if she can borrow a brassiere, Pony hands over the garment, remarking that “it’s like putting a saddle on a Pekinese.”
Finishing School is credited with having two directors, which is rare enough for the Golden Age, but one of them is a woman. I thought I knew all of the female directors in classic Hollywood, but I was unfamiliar with Wanda Tuchock, who is credited alongside George Nichols, Jr. As it turned out, Finishing School was Tuchock’s only feature film as a director. She was actually a screenwriter who worked her way up from continuity to penning additional dialogue to writing screenplays. She wrote for several studios before concluding her career writing for television. Looking at her filmography, I would pull out The Foxes of Harrow—which I will cover at the end of the month when it airs on TCM—as her most recognizable film. Tuchock codirected and cowrote Finishing School, which warns about the pitfalls of falling in love and criticizes traditional expectations for how women should behave. It also shows a clear gap between the old-fashioned mores and values from previous generations and those of contemporary women. I like to think that a woman with some creative control over the material was responsible for a story based on a feminine, if not feminist, perspective.
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