So, over the last year my movie-watching habits have changed a bit, school got hard and heavy (as it always does), I canceled my Netflix DVD service, I discovered the joys of the streaming service FilmStruck, and I found out you can rent movies from the library. That last one has ended up being the biggest surprise of all. It turns out the Central Arkansas Library (CAL) has a pretty massive and impressive collection of DVDs, and I’ve been making use of it recently. My latest rental from CAL was a DVD set called “Forbidden Hollywood, Vol. 1” and it contained three movies: Baby Face (1933, dir. Alfred E. Green), Red-Headed Woman (1932, dir. Jack Conway), and Waterloo Bridge (1931, dir. James Whale). All three of these things are notable from a historical perspective for a handful of reasons: 1. they were very provocative for their time and caused the state-led censorship boards a massive headache, 2. they all feature women who sleep around, are loose with their morals, and leave heaps of destroyed men (or a single man) in their wake, and 3. they were all made before the Motion Picture Production Code became a strictly enforced code of content in 1934. Films made before 1934 are known as “pre-code films.” The majority of them are incredibly tame by today’s standards, but when viewed through the rose-tinted glasses that we often wear while looking back through history these pre-code films can be incredibly surprising.
The Hayes Code.
William H. Hayes was a United States Politician, the chairman for the Republican National Committee, a US Postmaster, and, most importantly, the head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (which later became the Motion Picture Association of America, aka: the MPAA). Under Hayes’ leadership, a moral and ethical code called the Motion Picture Production Code was enforced and all professionally made films were held to its standards.
If the Production Code were to be summed up by one of its tenants, I would choose the “general principles” which it outlines:
1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
You can read the whole of the Motion Picture Production Code here.
I find it very funny because, in general, I think the films made after the production code became enforced to be better films overall. Instead of being forthright with their content and the awfulness of their characters, those post-code films relied on inserting subtext. I’ve always heard it said that when you see a couple light each other’s cigarettes that it is a sort of code meant to imply sex. Also, because the length of kisses were regulated (seriously), directors would often break up kisses with little bits of dialogue. Hitchcock did this all of the time in his films, and somehow it makes the romance smolder even more than had the characters only kissed for a moment.
The films made before the code was enforced are sort of grails for film-buffs, movies that remind us that Hollywood has never been squeaky clean an has always balked against the “moral standards” of those watching. Some of the content in these pre-code films stem from viewing films as an extension of the theater (many of the racier pre-code films were based on plays), and much of it was used to try and prove that the picture shows were more than just entertainments: they were art. It should be noted that these films are incredibly tame compared to the palette and sensibilities of today’s average movie goer. Sex is never seen: only implied and talked about. Nudity is danced around but rarely is it actually glimpsed. Where post-code films had to dance around and use subtext to imply their more suggestive content, pre-code films openly discussed those more controversial subject matters.
The three films in the disc set I got from the library were a bit of a mixed bag. Baby Face was fun, Red-Headed Woman really fell flat for me, and Waterloo Bridge was fantastic. Keep reading and I’ll talk about each in turn.
Baby Face (1933, dir. Alfred E. Green)
This might be the most infamous pre-code film of them all. In it, Barbara Stanwyck leaves her life working at a prostitute in her father’s bar after he is killed in a still explosion (which the film seems to subtly hint she was the cause of), and then spends the rest of the film seducing her way up the chain of command at a bank. Eventually one of her former lovers commits suicide, but only after killing her then current lover. She gets involved in a bitter bit of controversy at the bank both men worked for, and the bank ships her off to their England branch where she ends up wooing the bank president. More drama befalls her, and, at the moment, the ending escapes me. Mainly what I remember about this one is that Barbara Stanwyck sizzles as she works her way through the various men that she meets. Actually, come to think of it, the film ends with her listening to a record as a montage of the faces of the men she slept with and then ruined flash over the screen.
Red-Headed Woman (1932, dir. Jack Conway)
This movie reports itself to be a comedy apparently, but the humor misses the mark. The story follows a woman who wants to be rich, so she sets about seducing a rich man and breaking up his marriage, which, of course, she succeeds in doing. Later she has an affair with one of her husband’s oldest business partners, divorces her husband, and gets engaged to the business parter meanwhile having an affair with the business partner’s driver. The first man ends up getting back together with his wife, the old business partner discovers her infidelity, calls off the wedding and fires his driver, and the red-headed woman and the driver go on to a life of taking advantage of rich older men. It’s a real heart-warmer and somehow it’s all meant to be funny. The humor falls flat in all but a few places though, and when the humor works it is usually because the film comes across awkwardly and not humorously. The most interesting part is at the end when the red-headed woman (played by Jean Harlow) attempts to shoot her ex-husband for trying to get back together with his first ex-wife. Truly bizarre.
Waterloo Bridge (1931, dir. James Whale)
I’ll start by saying that this movie is completely out of place in this boxset. The first two films follow destructive and manipulative women who use men for their own gain, but they’re awful, despicable characters. This movie is seriously one of the sweetest and nicest little movies I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. It’s status as a pre-code film comes from the fact that the main female is a prostitute and that fact is made pretty clear, but the film never goes beyond that. The film is mostly about a naive, but well-intentioned young Canadian soldier trying to rescue her from poverty because he has fallen for her. He tricks her into meeting his family, everyone ends up liking each other, and when his mother finds out the girl is a prostitute she isn’t too shock or heartbroken. Everyone treats it as a simple fact of wartime, but everyone wants her to get out of her work because they think she is a fine woman. The soldier himself doesn’t know for most of the movie that she is a prostitute, but even when he finds out he still wants to marry her. The film is fantastic up until the last two minutes at which point a bomb literally drops out of the sky and the kills the girl after she finally agrees to marry him. It’s just an incredibly frustrating ending to an otherwise fantastic build up. I really wanted the characters to end up together if only so that they might end up happy. I enjoyed this movie quite a bit, though, and would gladly watch it again. I might leave the room right after she says “yes” though and not come back until the closing credits are done, however.