Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood, by Mark A. Vieira. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999). Cloth, $39.95, 340pp. ISBN 0-81094-475-8
“Pre-Code” is the catchall term, now familiar to many a movie buff, for those self-consciously “immoral” movies made between 1930, when Hollywood adopted but mostly disregarded a “morals code,” and 1934, when a cabal of religious, civic, and industry groups coerced the studios into expanding and enforcing it. This was a pivotal event in cultural history, since the Hays Code endured until 1968, arguably depriving generations of moviegoers of a wide range of ideas and images and in some cases, coherent works of art.
Mark A. Vieira writes about this period with wit and affection in his lavishly visual Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood. This combination coffee table book, cinema history, and dish-fest gives a lively picture of pre-Code that focuses on the struggle between filmmakers and those forces desperate to squash what they saw as a tidal wave of “dirt and filth” pouring out of Hollywood onto unsuspecting moviegoers. Vieira frames this story as a narrative, describing in seriocomic detail both the films and the many players on all sides of the drama — the filmmakers trying to protect their creations; the studios trying to protect their investments; and the state censor boards, lay groups, and official organizations like the Production Code Administration battling Hollywood and each other for their piece of a very rich pie.
The films gave the censors plenty to worry about, according to Vieira. “The Code forbade profanity, excessive violence, illegal drugs, ‘white slavery,’ miscegenation, ‘sex perversion,’ suggestive dancing, lustful kissing” — all staples of the movies made between the Code’s creation and its enforcement. The studios felt they had no choice during the profit-starved Depression but to give the people what they wanted, which meant everything the Code proscribed. To modern audiences, this laundry list of sins is what keeps pre-Code relevant.
Cultural phenomena like the Code are invariably more than the sum of their parts, but some of these parts could be powerful indeed. Vieira’s picture of censor Joe Breen — “a militantly devout public relations man” — is both comic and chilling. Breen was an energetic hatchet man, “the Hitler of Hollywood” in the words of a British trade magazine, whose rise to power on a mountain of butchered movies would have made an interesting pre-Code film in itself. Single-handedly this Catholic activist transformed whores into housewives, made extramarital affairs platonic, and rewrote entire passages and endings to restore, or invent, a moral. Breen’s irrational demands on Mae West’s Belle of the Nineties — she complained that she had to remake it three times to satisfy him — were typical of his hubris, but he surely reached an apotheosis when he punched out director Woody Van Dyke for questioning proposed cuts in the Joan Crawford vehicle Forsaking All Others.
Not all the censors’ targets were as easy as Van Dyke. According to Vieira, Howard Hughes was one of the few to openly challenge the Code. Hughes was unusually combative over cuts demanded for his production of Scarface — “Screw the Hays Office!” he told his director — and like that other rebel Mae West, he ended up with several versions of his film. But even the steely Hughes was ultimately undone by the experience: after Scarface he vanished from Hollywood for many years. West hung on longer, Vieira says, by devising a strategy of using “decoys” — scenes so rough she knew they’d be cut, while the more subtly racy scenes she wanted would be retained.
Vieira’s research — incorporating production files, scripts, period publications, interviews, private correspondence — is solid, and adds density to the text. His style is engaging and frequently droll. Of Marion Davies on the set of Going Hollywood, he says: “She took a deep breath, concentrated on a spotlight, and froze her features in a semblance of romantic abandon. No one knew that she was dead drunk.” His captions for the photographs are both informative and amusing, to wit: “Mae West posed as the Statue of Liberty in the opening sequence of Paramount’s “It Ain’t No Sin.” By the time of the film’s release, it was called Belle of the Nineties and West’s literary liberty was indeed a pose.”
While the text is a rich enough read for both fans and scholars, much of the book’s lure is in the sumptuous visuals. The 275 photographs give a privileged glimpse at a long-vanished world, its loose women and decorative louts returned to life in the shimmering whites and velvety blacks of studio portraiture and scene stills. These images stand as works of art in themselves, probably more so in some cases than the films they illustrate. Some of them are valuable as a record of the kinds of footage the censors cut; others, like the shots from Convention City, are important as the only remaining traces of films lost forever through the censors’ meddling.
Some of the author’s conclusions are debatable — is virtually forgotten actor Warren William really being “reappraised” based on recent revivals of his pre-Code work? And the book’s intelligence in reducing a vast amount of history into a coherent, cogent narrative may make some readers wish for more analysis. (Such readers can seek out Thomas Doherty’s recent Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934 for that.) Still, Sin in Soft Focus is clearly intended not as a sociological treatise but as an entertaining, scholarly history and a showcase for the artistry of Old Hollywood, and on that basis it succeeds admirably.