A Forgotten Pre-Code to Remember: Kongo

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This month, TCM’s Friday Night Spotlight, titled Classic Pre-Code, boasts an impressive line-up of both familiar and little-known movies released prior to the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code. Despite the diverse selection, there is one film I wish could have been included. With its racism, prostitution, drug addiction, perversion, and torture, Kongo reveals just how far pre-Code films could push the limits of shock and taste.

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Pre-Code Primer: There’s More to Pre-Code Movies Than Sin

This month, TCM turns its Friday Night Spotlight on Classic Pre-Code Movies. What better way to end the week than to watch 24 hours of pre-Code musicals, dramas, gangster flicks, and comedies. Viewers are fascinated by the frank portrayals of sexuality, prostitution, illicit romances, and strong-willed women that are found in those movies released between the coming of sound and 1934, when the Motion Picture Production Code became mandatory. But, pre-Code movies are more than just sex, sin, and indiscretion. They dared to criticize America’s social institutions, expose the sexism and bias against women in the work place, depict the difficulties of child-bearing, and reveal the dark side of romantic relationships for women. Set your DVRs for these pre-Code gems that serve as a crash course in this brief but significant era of film history.

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Meet Toby Wing, the Darling of the Photographers

tobyopenerIf I could go one day without hearing about the dreaded Kardashians, I would be thrilled. The most superficial of celebrities, they are famous for being famous, with no body of work to support their fame. How could this gaggle of girls with no discernable talents be the center of media attention? Recently, while researching a pre-Code film in newspapers of the era, I came to understand the construction of celebrity more fully. I was reminded that while gossip, rumors, and accusations pour from the Internet at an alarming rate, there have always been Kardashians eager to climb into the spotlight, and media outlets eager to keep them there.

Toby Wing was treated like the Kim Kardashian of her day. However, there are some differences: She did display a healthy degree of ambition, she parlayed her celebrity into a short-lived studio contract and a few supporting roles, and her famous family left a positive mark on history. Her life story offers insight into the Hollywood publicity machine, which has always churned out celebrities lie dolls on an assembly line.

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Lee Tracy: A Welcome Nuisance

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“It didn’t take those women at the stage door to convince me I was nobody’s hero. I’d looked into a mirror once or twice. These light eyes, these limp features, these scars all over my face!”

-Lee Tracy, Picture Play Magazine, 1933

Although his career lasted until 1965, the image of Lee Tracy will forever be of a chatterbox on the make, established during his prolific run of pre-codes in the early 1930s. Whether he plays a tabloid reporter or ambulance chasing lawyer, Tracy’s characters were always looking for an angle as sharp as the crease in his fedora. His catalytic personality, a shotgun blast of nasal putdowns, led him to leading man roles, overcoming the perceived shortcomings of his pockmarked face, thinning hair and bantamweight build. Audiences, though, liked to root for this ruthless underdog. The Warner Archive released three Tracy pre-codes on DVD last week: The Half Naked Truth (’32) Turn Back The Clock (’33) and The Nuisance (’33). In The Half Naked Truth, Tracy is a con-man/publicist as he turns hoochie coochie dancer Lupe Velez into a Broadway star. A hidden gem directed by Gregory La Cava, I wrote about it last year. So today I’ll focus on the latter two. He is cast against type in Turn Black the Clock, a proto It’s A Wonderful Life where his meek tobacconist is granted a time-traveling chance to re-live his life for money instead of love. The Nuisance, though, is a prime rat-a-tat Tracy, in which he hammers the local train company with phony injury claims, with the aid of his drunken doctor pal Frank Morgan. Cinematographer Gregg Toland and director Jack Conway make sure the camera moves with as much agility as Tracy’s tongue.

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Forgotten Films to Remember: ‘Finishing School’

finishposterIn 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.)

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Before the Production Code: Trips to Hell for a Nickel

haysopenerWho doesn’t love Pre-Code films? Those early sound films released between 1930, when the Production Code was adopted, and 1934, when it became mandatory, have been treated like a genre unto themselves in recent years. Movie lovers and scholars alike are attracted to the controversial content, casual references to sex and drugs, and independent female characters that populate movies released between 1930 and 1934. The Code was an extensive set of guidelines designed to control controversial, provocative, and ideological content, which was administered by the Production Code Administration (PCA). Will Hays, a homely, straight-laced Midwesterner, was the head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, the trade organization that included the PCA. The Production Code was dubbed the Hays Code back in the day and Hays himself was called the “censorship czar.”

But, Hays’s participation over the struggle to control screen content preceded the Code and had included the adoption and elimination of other sets of rules and guidelines. Recently, I was brushing up on the history of the Production Code for my class, and I found myself more interested in the decade leading up to its adoption, which was a tumultuous era of threat, debate, and scandal.

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Warren William: “[He] “Was an Old Man Even When He Was a Young Man.”

Earlier this month, the Morlocks participated in a blogathon in which we explored the films of Toshiro Mifune, the legendary Japanese movie star who was part of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars. While I was happy to give one of the worlds’ most talented actors his due, my first choice for the blogathon was Warren William, who will be spotlighted this Thursday, August 30.

Warren William is largely forgotten today, though he was a prolific film actor for Warner Bros. during the Depression. He did not have the reputation or long career of peers Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, or William Powell, but William makes an interesting study for a couple of reasons. The Warner Bros. films of the early 1930s were ripped from the headlines of the day. They featured characters who struggled with issues of employment whether they were scrambling for a job, conniving to keep their job, or turning to crime because legitimate work eluded them. William’s urbane, well-dressed persona was suited to this hard-scrabble world because he could play the cold-hearted millionaires, abusive bosses, and society sophisticates who clashed with the working folk. Also, his career peaked in the early to mid-1930s, which parallels most of the pre-Code era (1930 to 1934). Several of William’s films include the edgy situations, randy characters, and provocative dialogue that we have all come to love about pre-Code movies.

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Pleasures of the Pre-Code: Forbidden Hollywood Volumes 4 and 5

This astounding publicity shot of a screwfaced James Cagney reluctantly probing the shoulder of a coolly admiring Claire Dodd should sell anyone on the value of Hard To Handle (1933), or of the two new volumes of WB’s Forbidden Hollywood DVD series that is releasing it. The way Cagney separates his left ring and pinky fingers – as if he couldn’t bear to put the effort into using all five digits – exemplifies his casual mastery (even in PR shoots!) in fleshing out the con-artist cads he played throughout this period. And this is only one of the pleasures found within volumes 4 and 5 of the series, which includes a trio of treats from director William Dieterle, and snappy banter from the likes of Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell. The last edition appeared in 2009, containing a bevy of depression-scarred William Wellman films, but as DVD sales have continued to crater, so has the prominence of this series, with the new editions being released on WB’s movies-on-demand line, the Warner Archive.

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Girls Will Be Boys

Marlene Dietrich in MOROCCO (1930)

Two of the most intriguing performances that were nominated for an Oscar this year can be found in ALBERT NOBBS (2011). In the film Glenn Close and Janet McTeer play women who decide to dress as men in order to find work in 19th century Dublin. I haven’t had a chance to see the film yet but while I was watching the trailer recently I started thinking about how many talented women have portrayed male characters in movies. I thought I’d share some information about some of the most compelling films featuring actresses in gender defying roles as well as actresses who just looked darn good in menswear but the list of names I compiled exceeded my expectations. What follows isn’t a complete list of films featuring cross-dressing actresses but I hope it’s a good jumping off point for anyone curious about the history of girls being boys in the movies.

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The Gentleman Thief

Last week we visisted with Fantomas, the Lord of Terror.  This week it’s his opposite number’s turn in the spotlight—the Gentleman Thief, Arsene Lupin.

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