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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Book cover



Take a look at this poster and tell me what you think this movie is about:

Blondie Johnson movie poster


Essential Pre-Code: Jewel Robbery (1932)

Kay Francis dreamily asks for your complicit silence. She is about to commit an illicit act, and it would be gentlemanly not to speak of it.   So I shan’t, although I will spill fawning words about the film that encloses her, William Dieterle’s Jewel Robbery (1932). It is screening as part of Film Forum’s Essential Pre-Code series (and airs on TCM on occasion), a near annual festivity of tough-talking immorality that begins this Friday, July 15th. Released the same year as Ernst Lubitsch’s similarly themed Trouble in Paradise (and double-billed with it on August 7/8),  Dieterle’s debonair crime fantasy was necessarily overshadowed, but should be reckoned with as a major work in its own right.


Joan Blondell: “I Was the Fizz on the Soda”

In the twilight of her career, sassy, brassy Joan Blondell reflected on her star image by noting, “I was the fizz on the soda.” Considering her talent for snappy patter, her ability to get the most out of one-liners, and her full, robust figure, the description is apt. Like Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Ginger Rogers, Blondell enjoyed a long career stretching over several decades, and yet she lacks the critical and popular recognition of her peers. Perhaps this slight is the result of  playing the second female lead most often, alongside Rogers, Una Merkel, Barbara Stanwyck, or Ruby Keeler, who tended to get higher billing than she did. Only in hour-long programmers or B-films did Blondell get to play the lead. I have always enjoyed her wise-cracking characters, but it wasn’t until recently, while doing some research on Blondell, that I realized what a terrific movie star she really was.


Party Girls to the Rescue!

The year is 1933, and times are tough all over.  What of the poor little rich boy, Henry Gibson (Ben Lyon), who can’t even inherit his millions unless he gets married by his 27th birthday?  And yes, Keaton fans, that’s the same idea as SEVEN CHANCES—but where Buster turned that premise into a feature-length chase scene, the movie we have in front of us here has different plans in store.  Luckily, Gibson’s got himself a wife—a beautiful young debutante whose icy good looks and haughty demeanor prove her high social standing.  On their honeymoon, the girl goes missing (hence the title of this flick, GIRL MISSING), and our distraught hero offers up a reward for his wife’s safe return.  This is all sensible enough, and fairly familiar thriller territory.  But Gibson’s life is about to be turned upside down by the arrival of a pair of gold-digging “chorus girls,” whose complete lack of restraint or decorum may very well save the day.  This is a movie that wouldn’t have been made even just a few years later, and pretty much doesn’t exist anymore even today.  This is Pre-Code, ladies and gentlemen, and it’s a riot.

Party Girls to the Rescue [...MORE]

Ann Harding: A Q & A with Biographer Scott O’Brien

“Looking at [Ann] Harding,” wrote film historian Mick LaSalle in his book, Complicated Women (St. Martin’s, 2001), “is like looking into clear, deep water. Nothing stands in the way. No stylization, no attitude, no posing. In fact, little about her technique could date her as a thirties actress.”

These are some of the words that inspired Scott O’Brien, author of Ann Harding – Cinema’s Gallant Lady (BearManor) in his research into the career and life of actress Ann Harding (1902-1981). For those who met her during the height of her Hollywood career, she left starkly different impressions. Laurence Olivier called her “an angel.” Henry Hathaway said that she “was an absolute bitch.” Myrna Loy found her “a very private person, a wonderful actress completely without star temperament, but withdrawn.” Ann Harding may not be as well-remembered as actresses whose stellar careers extended well beyond the pre-code era, such as Norma Shearer or Barbara Stanwyck. Her natural reserve means that her name does not automatically come up when particularly saucy favorites of the period like Ruth Chatterton, Joan Blondell or Dorothy Mackail are discussed. Powerful icons whose last name conjures something singular, such as Garbo, Dietrich and West, are better remembered. In recent years, in large part because of the rediscovery of her early films on Turner Classic Movies, occasional revivals of her movies and the work done by film historians reassessing the pre-code period, Harding has begun to captivate audiences again. Her lustrous beauty and surprisingly modern style of acting are only part of her appeal.

With the publication earlier this year of Scott O’Brien’s beautifully illustrated and well written biography, a balanced portrait of a skilled actress emerges, as well as some sense of the publicly guarded but privately intense woman behind her fame. Recently, I had a chance to ask the author of this meticulously researched and long overdue biography of Ann Harding about his interest in this unique, transitional figure in American film. Perhaps after reading this post a few more people who have yet to discover her work will pause next time one of her rarely seen films, such as Devotion (1931), The Animal Kingdom (1932), Double Harness (1933), When Ladies Meet (1933), The Flame Within (1935) or Peter Ibbetson (1935) emerges from the movie vault. This often surprisingly modern actress may intrigue and touch you with her presence. You might find yourself unexpectedly enthralled.
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