Nobody “did” the Depression, or sexual excess, or populist uprisings, better than the Brothers Warner.
Conventional wisdom says that before the taboo-busting ’60s, all deviance in American filmmaking was suppressed. No cussing, no whores, no queers. Anyone who’s looked a little harder at film history knows this is far from true. Until 1934, when church and women’s groups and other right-wing self-styled watchdogs forced the industry to codify moral do’s and don’ts (the Hays code), Hollywood films were rife with left-wing sentiments, anti-capitalist rhetoric, images of the politicized poor, crime, sex, drugs, nudity, deviances of every description, and – yes – even the words “damn!” and “hell!”
The pre-Code period featured ruthless exposes of class oppression (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang), grassroots transformations of repressive institutions into socialist utopias (The Mayor of Hell), and loathsome, megalomaniacal Captains of Industry (Employees Entrance). Fetishes abound – everything from naked women (Blonde Venus) and men (Tarzan), foul language (Blessed Event’s “I’ll be damned!”), drugs (Mad Genius), homosexuality (Cavalcade), sadomasochism (Scarlet Empress), transvestism (Sylvia Scarlett), and child abuse (Three on a Match). Titles like New Morals for Old, Safe in Hell, and The Mayor of Hell indicate the studios’ daring in bringing their own versions of real life to demanding moviegoers.
Warner Bros. touched most of these bases in the pre-Code era, though it’s best remembered for its gritty crime dramas that combine snappy comic dialogue, working-class characters, and a sense of fatalism clearly tied to the capitalist system. Warners specialized in images of state oppression of the individual, and many of its most memorable tableaux show the plight of desperate vagrants, cast-off youth, fallen women, and forgotten men.
Even a cursory look at these films will surprise audiences with their enthusiastic assaults on the Depression-era status quo. In The Mayor of Hell, abused delinquent boys, led by gangster Jimmy Cagney, turn a reform school into a socialist enclave, kicking out the warden and creating their own institutions in a more just, humane form. In Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck’s accumulation of wealth depends on her ability to use, discard, and destroy various middle-class and wealthy men. The refusal of the title character in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (right) to fade into the factory-work anonymity expected of poor ex-soldiers leads to swift decline and ruthless punishment. One of many unforgettable images here is of Paul Muni attempting to pawn a war medal and being shown a huge drawer of them by the pawnbroker.
No institution was safe from Warners’ hard probe. In Employees Entrance it’s a department store that Warren William runs like his personal fiefdom, viciously enforcing his idea that profit is all. He’s puzzled and hurt when his protégé refuses to sublimate every human value to greed, as he has. Employees’ Entrance differs from some of the more activist films in taking a deterministic view, that corporate monsters like William are created by the system and will always exist. Five Star Final and Blessed Event have a modern subject: the immorality of tabloid newspapers. Five Star Final, with the great Edward G. Robinson, shows decisively the human casualties of the institutional obsession with profit.
Warners’ social commentaries were often blunt. Such is the case with Wild Boys of the Road, which exposes the state machinery that robs its citizens of jobs, brands them criminals, and then incarcerates them. Economic problems cause vast numbers of young people to go on the road, and their attempts to build small communities outside the mainstream are met with rapid, brutal reprisal. It’s typical of these films, however, that these kids don’t simply accept their fate. When a railroad cop rapes one of the girls, the group attacks and kills him.
Part of the pleasure of these films is their gleeful reversal of sex roles. The standout here is Female, where Ruth Chatterton (right) plays the head of a large car manufacturing company. She runs her company like a drill sergeant, but spends her evenings sexually testing various hunky male employees. Her mincing male assistant approves of her abuse: “Miss Dee is a superwoman. She’s never found a man worthy of her, and she never will!” Chatterton’s servants are given a special signal to bring vodka to her suitors, to “fortify them” for their one-night-only sexual duty. Chatterton is repulsed when the men mistake sex for love, and one of Female’s running gags is her daily instruction to transfer this or that bothersome boyfriend to Montreal.
Some of these films are now considered mainstream classics, though they work the same populist angles as the lesser-known works. These include Public Enemy, with Jimmy Cagney’s famous grapefruit-in-the-face scene; I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, which reaches the depths of nihilism in its claustrophobic portrayal of Muni’s dizzying slide into criminality and the southern chain gangs; and Forty-Second Street, which bristles with lower-class sarcasm (“Musta been tough on your mother not having any kids”).
The Hays Code squelched not only the political and sexual experimentation of these films, but also the racial. Right-wing forces could not have been happy with what seemed to be increasingly positive, integrated portrayals of blacks. In The Mayor of Hell, there’s an amazing scene between two of the boys, one white and one black. Jailed for crimes triggered by poverty, they’re lying in separate beds, next to each other, and the white kid says he’s afraid and starts to cry. The scene fades with tactful economy on a close-up of the black kid’s hand clutching his, and sympathetically patting it.
Another kind of black-white relationship the Hays code would put to an end is seen in Baby Face, where Stanwyck extends her largesse to her black maid (and only friend). Her maid is a confidante, respected and defended by Stanwyck, and when Stanwyck wears furs, so does her maid.
Warners pre-Code films work from the social and sexual realities of their time, and provide, even today, the kind of thrills unimaginable in a modern studio system dedicated to capitalist propaganda and status-quo apologizing.