“Code? What Code?”
Once upon a time, Hollywood movies showed us Spencer Tracy skinny-dipping with Loretta Young, Barbara Stanwyck ducking into the ladies’ room with her boss in exchange for a promotion, and chorus girls singing a tribute to marijuana.1 This, of course, was pre-Code: shorthand for the era of Hollywood movie-making between the advent of sound in 1929 and the ascendance of Hays Office censorship in 1934. The term is in fact a misnomer. The Production Code was written and officially adopted in 1930, but for the next four years, like Prohibition, it was flouted with near impunity. A look at a representative film of the time provides ample evidence of the Code’s impotence. Take Night Nurse (Wellman, 1931), starring Barbara Stanwyck: a fast, tough, sleazy and thoroughly enjoyable tale of a nurse who uncovers a plot to murder the children in her care for their trust funds.
The Code proclaimed that Undressing scenes should be avoided, and never used save where essential to the plot. Stanwyck and her roommate, played by Joan Blondell, often speak their lines while casually changing their clothes in front of the camera. An intern who walks in on Stanwyck in her scanties assures her, “You can’t show me a thing. I just came from the delivery room.” The Code said, The use of liquor in American life . . . shall not be shown. The mother of Stanwyck’s charges, who is never seen in any other state than blotto, boasts, “I’m a dipshomaniac — and I like it!” Stanwyck befriends an amiable bootlegger when she treats his bullet wound and, contrary to law, agrees not to report it. In gratitude, he sends her a bottle of rye. “But you’re not allowed to drink,” a square nurse objects. “No,” Blondell cracks, “But it’s swell for cleaning teeth.” Adultery and profanity are both proscribed by the Code. The dipsomaniac is plainly carrying on a tawdry affair with her chauffeur, Nick (Clark Gable), and at one point Stanwyck, disgusted to find her passed out while her children are on the brink of death, rebukes her with, “You mother.” The Code said, Methods of crimes should not be explicitly presented. When sent out to get milk for the sick children, the amiable bootlegger breaks into a grocery store. As for Revenge in modern times shall not be shown, the movie ends with the bootlegger arranging for Nick to be “taken for a ride.” Did I forget to mention that Apparent cruelty to children or animals, the central trope of the plot, is also forbidden by the Code? Or that Gable socks Stanwyck on the jaw, or that Stanwyck gets her job by flashing her ankles at a doctor?
Code? What Code?
The appeal of pre-Code movies lies not in sex, violence or vulgarity (there’s more than enough of those in the infinitely more explicit cinema of the last forty years) but in their attitude, which conveyed the pessimism and irreverence of their time. Radical cultural changes in the wake of World War I, the farce of Prohibition, the 1929 stock-market crash and the Great Depression combined to create a pervasive disillusionment and loss of respect for authority and traditional values. With rapid changes in fashion and technology, violent upheavals in economic and political conditions, society was wide open, hectically elated in the twenties, confused and frightened in the thirties. For a few years the lack of rigorous censorship allowed movies to channel the mood of the country and to capture society warts and all. They depicted adultery, divorce, rape, prostitution and homosexuality; bluntly portrayed alcoholism and drug addiction, glorified gangsters, con artists and fallen women. With a distinctive blend of cynicism and exuberance, they offered escapist entertainment but also bitter and sometimes radical visions of a society on the verge of breakdown. Oscar Levant famously quipped that he knew Doris Day before she was a virgin; Hollywood too was grown up before it was innocent.
The Con Man as Comic Hero: Blonde Crazy
During the silent era, censorship of films was piecemeal. Not only states but individual towns had censor boards that screened movies and ordered cuts of shots or scenes they considered too racy. Projectionists simply snipped out the offending material, a practice that accounts in part for the incompleteness many surviving films from the twenties.2 In the early twenties, Hollywood was hit with a string of off-screen scandals, culminating in the trial of comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle on charges of rape and manslaughter. The movie moguls, terrified that bad press would scare away audiences, invited Will Hays to become the guardian and public face of Hollywood’s morals. Hays, a Presbyterian elder and former postmaster general, became director of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association. He was an ideal choice to project a more wholesome image of Hollywood, but as a censor he proved ineffectual, and movies continued to be attacked for their evil influence on the country’s moral fiber.
Silent movies contained many elements that would not be seen during the Code era, including nudity, drug use and comic vulgarity. But the absence of sound gave film a degree of unreality that lent itself to fantasies like Valentino as an Arab sheik and Douglas Fairbanks riding a flying carpet, as well as to timeless moral fables like Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, whose characters are called simply The Man and His Wife. From Mary Pickford as a spunky urchin to Harold Lloyd as a college freshman, actors frequently played much younger and more naive than they were in real life. Even the flapper films of Clara Bow and Joan Crawford, which purported to expose the shocking mores of modern youth, presented their heroines as pure though misunderstood. With the change to talkies, the silent era’s swashbuckling heroes, Great Lovers, ringleted sweethearts and carefree flappers suddenly seemed antiquated. Sound punctured fantasy and brought movies down to earth and up to date: never again would they soar to the heights of romance they had reached in silence.
The coming of sound involved a complete reinvention of movies, amounting to the development of a new medium. The fluid spectacles of the silent screen gave way to small-scale films confined by the technical limitations of early sound recording technology to interiors and studio sets. The bulk of films from 1929 and ’30 are clunky and static, with stilted dialogue and acting. When talkies hit their stride in the early thirties it was with urban settings that could be recreated on studio backlots and zingy vernacular dialogue delivered at machine-gun pace by Brooklyn-bred voices. As the old screen gods faded, snappy young urbanites like James Cagney and Joan Blondell entranced audiences with their unaffected style and wised-up attitude.3 This new earthiness brought the censorship issue to a crisis; everyone agreed that movies were going “from bad to voice.” In 1930, still hoping to render external censorship unnecessary through self-regulation, the studio moguls officially adopted the Production Code, written largely by a Jesuit priest named Daniel Lord (hence it should, aptly, be known as the Lord’s Code rather than the Hays Code). But this effort coincided with the onset of the Depression, when the movie studios were struggling like other businesses. Desperate to lure audiences back to theaters, they defied the Code to create daringly risqué entertainment, treating the list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” as a list of “Do’s.”
The kick in pre-Code movies comes from the awareness shared by the actors and filmmakers that they are pushing the limits, getting away with something. Since today’s films must work so hard to raise an eyebrow, they can never recapture the harmless fizz of Maurice Chevalier taking Jeannette MacDonald’s measurements in Love Me Tonight (right), or Jean Harlow slipping a portrait of her boss into her garter in Red-Headed Woman, or Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise picking each other’s pockets over the course of a romantic meal. (“I trust I may keep your garter?”)
There was a Code, after all, and movies were never completely uncensored. Because they couldn’t get away with explicitness or profanity, pre-Code movies specialized in innuendo. A line that would register with sophisticated adults but fly over the heads of children or more naive viewers was considered ideal; it would protect the innocent while enticing the experienced. In The Half Naked Truth, a scheming promoter played by Lee Tracy checks into a fancy hotel with a Mexican carnival dancer he is passing off as a Turkish princess. Also with them is rotund Eugene Pallette, wearing a turban. The hotel clerk looks at the register Tracy has filled out and does a double take at Pallette. “Oh, they have them in all Turkish harems,” Tracy says, adding confidentially, “He’s very sensitive about it.” The joke is carried through the movie without a word being spoken that could bring a blush to the most prudish cheek. Pre-Code wasn’t always this artful — there’s nothing subtle about Dick Powell singing “I’m Young and Healthy” in a tunnel of chorus girls’ legs, or Tarzan and Jane romping around the jungle in loincloths — but in general the naughtiness was low-key, not flaunted but there to be discovered by the alert viewer.
Movies offered vacations from reality in sleek art deco style: gleaming penthouses with twinkling views of Manhattan, shimmering bias-cut evening gowns and shiny top hats, buoyant jazz scores and intoxicated gaiety. Beyond mere escapism, there’s a loopy, zany, surreal streak in pre-Code that flourishes in the early Marx Brothers and W. C. Fields films, in Busby Berkeley musicals with their kaleidoscopes of semi-nude chorines and in the cartoons of the Fleischer Brothers, where Cab Calloway lends his voice to a ghostly dancing walrus singing “The St. James Infirmary Blues.” There’s a dizzy feeling, as if the whole of society, like Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot, had an empty stomach and it went to their heads.
Maybe it was the effect of hearing so often that prosperity was just around the corner while the country sank deeper and deeper into despair. Demented optimism was parodied — or endorsed; it’s hard to tell — in a bizarre cartoon short from Columbia Studios called Prosperity Blues. A world of wretched, baggy-eyed, trembling sufferers, of cobweb-infested banks and pitiful apple peddlers, is transformed into a fascistic spectacle of crazed cheerfulness as the hero, to the tune of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” slaps disembodied grins on people’s faces with the command “Smile, darn ya, smile!”
“The age of chivalry is over,” James Cagney declares in Blonde Crazy (Del Ruth, 1931). “This, honey, is the age of chiselry.” Tough yet ebullient, Cagney personifies the essential pre-Code flavor of hard-boiled high spirits, sarcastically knowing and gleefully amoral, but not sour or misanthropic. Like nightclub owner Texas Guinan, who greeted her customers with a hearty “Hello, suckers!”, the con-artist hero of Blonde Crazy seems high on his own cynicism. Or maybe punch-drunk: you need a scorecard to keep track of how many times Joan Blondell slaps him, and he keeps coming back for more.
The films of Hollywood’s classical period are tight, smooth, polished. The scripts, dialogue, acting, lighting and art direction all gleam with controlled craftsmanship. Blonde Crazy, by contrast, skates on the verge of chaos: the actors seem to be winging it, cutting loose, seeing how far they can go. Cagney revels in this freedom, indulging in outrageous vocal mannerisms, flaunting his virtuosic control of his body as he darts and weaves through the role like a boxer in the ring, going from crafty schemer to world-class chump, wise-cracking operator to heartbroken lover. The anarchic, free-wheeling atmosphere of pre-Code, mined with slapstick and doubles entendres, often leaves modern audiences incredulous. Did I really hear that? Did they really mean . . . ?
Like Night Nurse, Blonde Crazy methodically defies the Code. Undressing scenes? Cagney walks in on Blondell in the tub and appreciatively examines her underwear, doing a little shimmy with her panties, playfully holding her bra over his eyes like a pair of goggles. Liquor in American life? In an early scene Cagney, a bellhop in an anything-goes hotel, peddles bootleg booze to a traveling salesman (Guy Kibbee). Adultery? Cagney and Blondell’s first con involves setting up the same salesman: caught “parking” with Blondell and a bottle of hooch, he offers a hefty bribe to the “cop” who’s actually their accomplice. Methods of crimes? The depiction of the movie’s confidence tricks, including a daringly simple ploy by which Cagney lifts a diamond bracelet from a jewelry store, is so detailed the viewer could easily copy them. Revenge in modern times? The movie lovingly details the means by which Blondell succeeds in fleecing a fellow con man who previously fleeced Cagney.
One scene is set in an elegant hotel lobby where men discuss the races while women share their plans to blackmail them with love letters. Every single person here is on the make. “Everyone has larceny in his heart,” Bert (Cagney) explains to Ann (Blondell) when he asks her to join him in the rackets. She’s reluctant, but only because she’s afraid of getting caught and sent to jail. Still, as the movie’s only hint of a conscience, she objects to out-and-out thievery and feistily protects her virtue. Bert keeps making passes at her and she keeps slapping his face, without harming their affectionate partnership. But the pair’s toughness keeps them from admitting the depths of their feelings. “I’ve wanted you ever since I saw you,” he tells her earnestly, then shrugs dismissively, “But if I can’t have you I’ll have someone else.” Still, by the time Ann tells him she’s marrying another man, your heart bleeds for Bert, the chiseler with the wandering eye. The other man is Joe Reynolds (Ray Milland), who chivalrously takes a cinder out of Ann’s eye and sends her a book of Browning’s poems. She tells Bert that she’s going to marry Reynolds because he and his family know “a better way to live.” They care for “music and art and that kind of thing.” Of course he turns out to be the biggest louse of all, stealing from his firm and exploiting Bert’s devotion to Ann to make him the patsy. Bert winds up in jail and shot full of holes, but at least Ann finally admits her love and promises to wait for him.
Joan Blondell was the best love interest Cagney ever had. More than able to stand up to him, she brings out an unexpectedly tender and sexy side of his cocky, wound-up persona. With her wide-eyed, appetizing looks, Blondell has a warm, open front but an inner reserve and caution. Like her fellow Brooklynite Barbara Stanwyck, she was born wised-up. Cagney too, for all his extroverted energy, has a core that is aloof, introverted, nervously intense. It is touching to see these two wary, skeptical souls embrace each other so openly. They have good reason to be wary; only suckers trust anyone in the world of Blonde Crazy. Con artists con fellow con artists, and “respectable” citizens lack basic decency. Near the end of the movie, another con man tries to interest Bert in a ploy that involves tricking the relatives of the recently deceased into paying for good luck charms that the dead supposedly ordered just before “kicking off.” Anyone stupid or trusting enough to be conned deserves to lose his money. Life is a continuous game of one-upmanship, a contest to see who can laugh last.
In Guys and Dolls, Sky Masterson explains that among his people, “to be marked as a chump is like losing your citizenship.” During the early thirties, audiences who felt like victims of an economic swindle reveled in the exploits of sharpies, shysters, smart guys who know all the angles and who outwit hypocritical representatives of wealth, authority, respectability. Cagney played more con men than gangsters: in Jimmy the Gent, as “the greatest chiseler since Michelangelo,” he asserts, “There’s only two kinds of guys in business, the ones that get caught and the ones that don’t get caught.” But for all his street smarts, Cagney has moments of child-like naiveté. “The consummate urban provincial,” as Andrew Sarris called him, Cagney is irrepressible rather than unflappable. His driving energy, self-mocking humor, hot temper and sentimental streak expressed the pre-Code mood — fast-paced, excitable, hustling for a buck — as Bogart’s world-weary postwar cool expressed the mood of noir.
Later in the thirties, Frank Capra would glorify his own version of the sucker: in his films, Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart embody the soul of America as innocent, optimistic, easily fooled. Smart cookies like Stanwyck and Jean Arthur would crumble in the face of such purity, renouncing their hardened attitude and determination to get ahead by any means necessary. Even pre-Code movies often bow, sometimes wistfully and sometimes perfunctorily, toward the old-fashioned virtues. Chivalry makes a comeback in the final scene of Blonde Crazy, one of the few genuinely romantic moments in Cagney’s career as he gazes up at Blondell with shining, worshipful eyes. Bert has demonstrated that love can turn a crooked guy into a knight in shining armor. But he’s got a prison stretch ahead of him, and then — what? Will he go straight, get a job? It’s hard to feel any great confidence in his future, since the lasting impression left by the film is that the cornerstone of American society is the confidence trick.
“The End of America”: Heroes for Sale
The pre-Code years corresponded to the nadir of the Great Depression, when disgust with Herbert Hoover’s government deepened the country’s black mood, when the homeless called their shantytowns “Hoovervilles” and the newspapers they wrapped themselves in “Hoover blankets.” Law-abiding citizens made folk heroes out of bank robbers like Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde, while hoboes sang of a “Big Rock Candy Mountain” utopia where “all the cops have wooden legs” and “the railroad bulls are blind.” The “bulls” were notorious for beating the hoboes they caught, shooting at them or forcing them to jump from speeding trains; even young teenagers weren’t spared. Being broke, jobless and homeless was treated not as a misfortune but as a crime. In the South, many towns used transients as slave labor: arrested on freight trains or in rail yards, they were put to work on chain gangs, and when their sentences were up, put back on the trains they’d been arrested for riding and told to get out of town. Communities posted signs, “Jobless men keep going — we can’t take care of our own.” Some towns denied medical care to travelers who fell ill or were injured, simply dumping them outside the city limits. Before the 1932 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, many people felt the country was drifting toward anarchy or revolution.
Not all movies of the time were escapist fantasies; many pre-Code films were “ripped from the headlines.” Warner Brothers even confronted the Depression in a musical, Gold Diggers of 1933. The opening number, “We’re in the Money,” is pure wish-fulfillment, as chorus girls wearing only strategically placed gold coins crow that “Old Man Depression” is through and that, “We never see a headline about a breadline today.” This giddy fantasy shatters when it is revealed to be a rehearsal for a show that has to close down because the producers can’t pay rent for the theater. Soon the chorus girls are staying in bed all day (three to a bed) because they have nothing to eat. The plot invites us to enjoy watching Joan Blondell earn money the easy way again, squeezing it out of a man who is rich, self-righteous and not very bright. Gold Diggers is fluff, but it concludes with a musical number that makes a powerful if disconcerting stab at social realism.
This is social realism à la Busby Berkeley, so Blondell dons a trampy ensemble and stands under a lamppost, suggesting that unless the government helps jobless men, their wives will be reduced to peddling themselves in the street. “Remember my forgotten man,” she sings, “You put a rifle in his hand / You sent him far away / You shouted hip hooray / But look at him today.”4 The song is taken up by a black woman sitting in an open window, surrounded by other women posed to look like F.S.A. portraits: a gaunt and worried farm wife, a starved and empty-eyed grandmother. Meanwhile, endless lines of men are seen marching off to war, stumbling through the muddy trenches, then shuffling along in breadlines. This was torn from some very fresh headlines: in the summer of 1932, thousands of World War I veterans, known as the Bonus Army, had camped out on the Mall in Washington, D.C., asking the government to pay them the financial bonuses they were promised for their war service in advance, since many of them were unemployed and destitute. The army under Gen. Douglas MacArthur violently dispersed the men and their families, inspiring outrage. In this frivolous Hollywood musical, Blondell confronts a policeman who is rousting a bum out of a doorway, pointing to the military medal pinned to the inside of the man’s shabby lapel. Her eyes burn with hatred for the cop.
In these desperate times, both socialism and fascism were touted as viable alternatives to America’s problems. Several Hollywood movies offered glowing visions of benevolent totalitarianism: in Gabriel Over the White House, produced by William Randolph Hearst in 1932, Walter Huston plays a president who seizes dictatorial powers for the good of the country and proceeds to get rid of gangsters by trying them in military courts without constitutional protections. (Sound familiar?) In The Mayor of Hell, the boys in an ethnically diverse and racially integrated reform school are offered the chance to run the place as a children’s democracy, and when a tyrannical director tries to destroy this system, they try him in a kangaroo court complete with flaming torches.
The government’s helplessness or callousness in the face of economic crisis was not the only source of disenchantment with authority. The prohibition of alcohol, enacted in 1920, turned the vast majority of Americans into criminals, law enforcement into hypocrites, and bootlegging gangsters into society’s pets. Meanwhile, in the late 1920s, the lingering wounds of the Great War, initially suppressed by a generation desperate to forget, resurfaced as people began to take stock of what they now viewed as a ghastly waste of life. Pacifism was widely embraced; in 1933, the hallowed Oxford University Student Union debated and passed the statement, “That this House will in no circumstances fight for its king and country.” Movies like All Quiet on the Western Front and The Last Flight expressed horror at the costs and pointlessness of the war, while others called attention to the plight of veterans struggling to survive in the country for which they had fought.
Heroes for Sale (Wellman, 1933) is one of the bleakest films to come out of Hollywood during the studio era. What the confidence trick is in Blonde Crazy, gross injustice is in Heroes for Sale: the basic building block of American society. Richard Barthelmess plays the American everyman as Job, afflicted not by mere bad luck but by unfairness, misunderstanding and the heartlessness of the powerful. In the teens and twenties, Barthelmess had played pure-hearted farm boys in silent melodramas like Way Down East and Tol’able David; he stood for integrity, trustworthiness and boyish optimism. By 1933, his fresh handsome face looked tired and worn, prematurely defeated even at the start of the movie, when he supposed to be just 25. The story begins in the trenches during the War, and the first thing we see is an officer issuing a command for a raid intended to gain prestige by capturing a German officer. When a subordinate objects that the plan will amount to suicide, he snaps, “Suicide or not, it’s orders,” and tells the other officer to take nine or ten men, because “that’s all I can afford to lose.” This kind of callous abuse of power will recur throughout the film, until the penultimate scene in which armed policemen drive homeless men from their shelter into the rain, ignoring the plea that they are not bums but veterans.
Tom Holmes (Barthelmess, right) is one of the nine or ten expendables chosen for the mission, and when his superior officer turns yellow and refuses to leave the shell-hole where they are hiding, he singlehandedly knocks out a machine-gun nest and captures a German officer, only to be wounded and left for dead on his way back. His own officer, Roger (Gordon Westcott), takes credit for the escapade and wins the Distinguished Service Cross, while Tom is taken to a German hospital where he is treated humanely but given morphine to ease the pain of shell fragments in his spinal column, starting him on the road to addiction. Back home, he winds up working in the bank owned by Roger’s father, who self-righteously fires him when he learns of his drug problem. Roger is a weak, nervous, sweaty-palmed villain; he feels bad about stealing Tom’s glory and allowing him to suffer unfairly, just not bad enough to do anything about it.
For a while things look up for Tom. In Chicago he falls in with a friendly father and daughter who run a café, gets a good job at a laundry and marries a beautiful young woman (Loretta Young). But as soon as he reaches higher he is shot down. He agrees to help promote a friend’s invention to mechanize the laundry, but when his benevolent boss dies, the new owners use the machine as an excuse to fire all their workers. The workers blame Tom and start a riot in which his wife is accidentally killed. As if that weren’t enough, he is blamed for leading the riot he was trying to stop and sentenced to five years hard labor. When he gets out, he’s still marked as a “Red” and driven out of town by government agents. By now the country is in the grip of the Depression, and he joins the army of hoboes riding the rails. Achieving secular sainthood, Tom gives away the fortune he earned from the laundry machine to fund a soup kitchen. And when he finally encounters Roger again, also on the bum after serving jail time for embezzling, Tom counters Roger’s pessimism (“The country can’t go on this way. This is the end of America”) with a pat speech about how the country isn’t licked and will rise again, just like Roosevelt said in his inaugural speech. Angry and anguished throughout much of the film, by the end he has slipped into a kind of haloed masochism. Despite his clichéd words, what he embodies is not can-do optimism but the kind of enlightened detachment that comes from having nothing more to lose.
“The only thing that matters is money. Without it you are garbage. With it you are a king.” These words are spoken by Max, the German inventor who makes Tom rich and indirectly ruins his life. Max is a ludicrous stereotype, starting out as a ranting communist and abruptly turning into a greedy plutocrat (when someone points out that he used to hate capitalists, he responds, “Of course — because I had no money then!”). In its one idyllic interlude, the film shows a workplace where capital and labor cooperate in smiling harmony and the boss is even willing to use mechanization to give employees more leisure and easier jobs without cutting the workforce or lowering salaries. This utopian fantasy, along with the café whose owners give to the poor even as they struggle to survive, suggest that the only solution to the country’s problems is selfless generosity. Unfortunately, the movie also implies that heartlessness and blinkered malice are far more common.
Heroes for Sale is not a lucid analysis of economic problems, and despite a gritty atmosphere it lacks the objectivity of neorealism. At once bitter and sentimental, it portrays the whole of American society as a “you-must-pay-the-rent-I-can’t-pay-the-rent” melodrama, with villains as vile and heroes as pure as those in a D. W. Griffith tale of wronged innocence. Many pre-Code movies invite the viewer to identify with and root for people who cheat to get ahead: gangsters, con artists, gold diggers. Heroes for Sale instead asks us to identify with an innocent and virtuous but hapless and often helpless hero. If people fantasized about being one of Cagney’s confident, cynical operators — predators rather than prey — they saw themselves as Tom Holmes: down on their luck, taking one hit after another, but struggling on and clinging to hope.
Wellman’s next film was Wild Boys of the Road, his famous portrait of teenage hoboes, which grinds through hardship and injustice only to veer into shining idealism in the last five minutes. Two middle-class high school boys turn into ragged panhandlers, one a cripple, the other stooping occasionally to petty theft. A crowd of vagrants bands together to attack and kill a brakeman who has raped a teenage girl, and to fight off the “bulls” who try to put them off a freight train. It’s easy to imagine audiences cheering as the young bums pelt the cops with eggs and fruit, and booing when the cops use fire hoses to drive them from the shantytown they have built in disused sewer pipes. The hobo community is painted as loyal, diverse and supportive (blacks and girls are treated as equals), but no one is having any fun. They’re not wild, just bone-weary. The protagonists wind up in New York, living in a garbage dump, and one is tricked into taking part in an attempted robbery. But when they are hauled before a judge, instead of coldly meting out injustice like the judge in Heroes for Sale, the kindly man lectures the youths on how things are going to be better now, they will get a fresh chance, as the camera pans up to the National Recovery Administration poster above his head (“We Do Our Part”). The ending looks like a cop-out now, but audiences of the time probably cheered it too.
The pre-Code era was vanquished not only by stricter censorship but by the mood swing following Roosevelt’s inauguration, when the desperate country embraced the promise of a “new deal for the American people.” Pictures of FDR went up next to icons of Jesus; at the end of Footlight Parade, another Warner Brothers musical, soldiers marching in formation create an American flag, the president’s face, and the NRA eagle. Roosevelt campaigned to the tune of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” and one of his first actions in office was to repeal Prohibition. The New Deal failed to end the Depression, but it did stop the free fall of the country’s spirits, ending the sense that the people had been abandoned by their leaders. Hollywood diligently promoted the new tone of wholesome optimism, strictly punishing vice and rewarding virtue. But can you regain innocence once you’ve lost it?
The Age of Experience: Baby Face
Pre-Code movies finally went too far. The last straw may have been the lesbian “dance of the naked moon” in The Sign of the Cross, Miriam Hopkins getting raped in a barn in The Story of Temple Drake, or Mae West just being Mae West. America was divided then as now, and the backlash that ushered in the Code crackdown was driven in part by heartland resentment of movies pitched at sophisticated urban audiences.5 Outraged by the increasingly salacious tone of Hollywood, in 1934 the Catholic Church formed the Legion of Decency and ordered its congregations to boycott the movies it condemned. In fact, box office receipts rose for movies that were banned by the Legion, but Hollywood’s producers panicked at the prospect of shrinking audiences; of being attacked as foreign corrupters of America’s youth, since most were Jewish immigrants; and of federal government intervention. They capitulated. After 1934, the studios could no longer flout the Production Code Administration and its viciously anti-Semitic head, Joe Breen; unless a movie earned its seal of approval, it would be blackballed. For a few years filmmakers fought hard against the Code,6 but as ticket sales rose with the easing of the Depression, they settled into acceptance of its strictures. For the next twenty years married couples would sleep in twin beds and no couple would kiss for longer than three seconds. The most damaging aspect of the Code was not that it limited what could be shown, but that it forced movies to uphold conservative values, to show respect for authority and religion, and to present a simple dichotomy of good and evil, virtue and sin. The censors did not want controversial subjects like abortion, prostitution or racial tensions discussed from any angle, no matter how morally serious. Hollywood managed to produce great movies under the Code’s restrictions, but sometimes its stifling effect gave them a sterile, airless, homogenized quality.
Some of the pre-Code spirit survived in screwball comedy, a genre created by the Code — the sexes must battle lest they wind up in bed. Even at the height of the Code, Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder consistently subverted its precepts, probably because their dialogue was too clever or just too audaciously dirty for the censors to decipher. After World War II, the hard-boiled attitude went underground, flourishing in film noir, but what became of the pre-Code sensibility after the end of the noir cycle? Our own time may be rife with irony and black comedy, but sneaky innuendo can’t thrive without restrictions, and all-pervasive, indiscriminate irony becomes shallow and facile. The gritty, sassy tone of pre-Code flourished precisely because it still had the power to shock.
The proponents of censorship cited the overwhelming power and mass appeal of movies, which made them particularly dangerous to the young. And after all, movies were not art, so they couldn’t claim first-amendment protection as books or plays might: one journalist wrote in 1934 that no “classic” movie had been created yet.7 Hollywood’s producers were all too ready to agree, viewing their creations only as commercial products. Even pre-Code films weren’t safe from retroactive censorship. Those that were re-released during the Code years or the early years of television had bits cut out: Myrna Loy warbling “Mimi” in a sheer nightgown in Love Me Tonight, Edward Woods tussling in bed with Joan Blondell in Public Enemy. Ironically, films that were considered too thoroughly offensive to be salvaged remained intact. In 2004, a complete, uncensored print of Baby Face, perhaps the crown jewel of pre-Code, was discovered at the Library of Congress. Baby Face (Green, 1933) was so sordid that it was rejected outright by state censorship boards and heavily altered before being released, but a copy of the original camera negative showed the film as only censors had ever seen it.
Sold-out crowds packed New York’s Film Forum on a snowy Monday in January 2005 to be the first audience ever to watch Barbara Stanwyck smash a beer bottle over the head of a man molesting her, then lie down in the straw with a brakeman in return for a free ride on a freight train; to hear a sinister German cobbler quote Nietzsche to Stanwyck and advise her to stamp out all emotion and use her power over men to get the things she wants. A New York Times piece on the rediscovered print stated that “you couldn’t make this film today.” Baby Face‘s heroine, Lily Powers, is sexy and heartless, with a hidden, wounded fury built up during a lifetime of mistreatment. Accompanied by a growling rendition of “The St. Louis Blues,” she climbs a ladder of weak and venal men from a dreary steel-town speakeasy to the inevitable Manhattan penthouse. With her all the way is the only person she really cares for, her black maid and best friend, played by the beautiful Teresa Harris (above right). Baby Face has all the kick, the style, the shocking laughs and underlying bleakness that exemplify pre-Code.
During the Depression, with so many men unable to support families, women became responsible for their own and their children’s survival as they had rarely been before. Many pre-Code movies focus on the predicament of women looking for ways to support themselves outside of marriage. While the flappers of the 1920s were young girls sowing their wild oats, the women of pre-Code are looking for security, and they aren’t too scrupulous about how they get it. They are neither virtuous helpmeets nor destructive vamps; they are adults who have faced some cold, hard facts. Actresses like Constance Bennett and Miriam Hopkins played a new kind of woman who was hardened, experienced, far from spotless, but who instead of paying for her sins usually triumphed in the end.
World War I shattered the traditional manly and womanly ideals of the nineteenth century; World War II brought back the celebration of the he-man and the homemaker. Between the wars there was a blurring and mingling of the sexes. Women bobbed their hair, smoked and drove cars; men got manicures, sang falsetto and danced the Charleston. A novelty song of the time complained: “Masculine women, feminine men / Which is the rooster, which is the hen? / It’s hard to tell ‘em apart these days.” Homosexuality was an object of sniggering fascination, and caricatures of effeminate men and butch women show up regularly in pre-Code movies. In Ladies They Talk About, a new inmate in a women’s prison is warned about a hefty cigar-smoking lady in a monocle: “Watch out for her, she likes to wrestle.” In Wonder Bar (above), a fey young man cuts in on a dancing couple and dances off — with the man. “Boys will be boys!” Al Jolson comments with a swishy gesture.
In the Victorian era, Europe and America embraced the ideal of woman as untouched by experience, the “angel of the house.” One of the arguments against granting women the vote or allowing them to enter universities and the workplace was that if they left the domestic sphere, they would lose their purity and moral authority. The working women of thirties Hollywood triumphantly backed this argument: they are hard-nosed, pragmatic, independent. The “double standard” for pre- and extra-marital sex was a common theme in films of the early thirties: why shouldn’t women act like men? The feisty yet vulnerable pre-Code woman was more compromised than the fast-talking dame of later screwball comedies, who usually worked as a reporter or secretary and relished her self-sufficiency. One aspect of pre-Code movies that might actually shock contemporary audiences is the ubiquitous equation of sex and money. It’s taken for granted that women will sell themselves for furs, jewels and apartments, as “kept women” or freelance party girls. This reflects the Depression too, a time when — so the movies warned — the scarcity of honest jobs might tempt girls to take “the easiest way.” Men, meanwhile, might turn to crime, bootlegging, gangs: selling their souls for flashy suits, cars and women. Unlike their female counterparts, the fallen men always pay, dying in the gutter or going to the chair. Women who break commandments — even a hard-bitten ex-felon like Constance Bennett in Bed of Roses — can be redeemed through the love of an honest man, in this case the poor but hunky Joel McCrea.
The thirties were a golden age for women in Hollywood movies, the only decade when they were regularly allowed to be smart, competent, funny and sexy all at once, and seldom required to be tamed or put in their place by men (Female is a dispiriting exception). Throughout the decade, women continued to embody the toughness and cynicism of the Depression years in romantic comedies, where they were habitually both more dazzling and more down-to-earth than their male counterparts. The experienced woman paired with a naive, virginal man is partly a comic reversal of a more traditional trope, Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. But while these women take economic advantage of their male prey, they are also seduced by male innocence. They yearn for what they themselves have lost.
The uncensored version of Baby Face makes it clear that Lily was forced into prostitution by her own father when she was fourteen. Hence the cruel irony of the title: while she poses as girlishly helpless (“Nothing like this has ever happened to me,” she pleads when she’s caught in the restroom with her boss), she has been, as the cliché goes, robbed of innocence. This is the festering wound behind her hard, defiant poise. No one could play the part better than Stanwyck, with her devastating intelligence, her sudden lashing rages, and the enticing warmth that she could — chillingly — turn on or off at will. Douglas Sirk spoke later of how Stanwyck seemed to have been “touched deeply by life.” Her most arresting trait is her level, unwavering gaze, both bold and sad — what Sirk called her “amazing tragic stillness.” The simplicity of her style comes from a steely inner resolve, a hard-won self-mastery that allows her to look at the world without fear — but not without anger or sorrow. “My life has been hard, bitter,” Lily tells her husband. “I’m not like other women. All the gentleness and kindness in me has been killed.”
Movies of the early thirties revel in the victory of experience over innocence, but they mourn it too. James Cagney stumbles into the gutter in the rain muttering, “I ain’t so tough.” Ann Dvorak, as a drug addict whose sleazy lover has kidnapped her son, crashes through a window and plummets to the street below to save the boy’s life. Paul Muni, fugitive from a chain gang, fades into the darkness, answering his girlfriend’s question, “How do you survive?” with the despairing words, “I steal!”8 It is this sense of bitter knowledge, of deeply-felt experience, that makes the best pre-Code movies truly “adult.” W. H. Auden said that the purpose of art is to make self-deception more difficult: “by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate.” Enchantment and intoxication have always been Hollywood’s stock in trade, but occasionally — in Out of the Past, in The Lady Eve, in Blonde Crazy — the studios blended cocktails of fantasy and disillusionment, of disappointment and romance. Hollywood in the 1930s cast its lingering spell not with cynical magic, but with magical cynicism.
- In, respectively, Man’s Castle, Baby Face, Murder at the Vanities. [↩]
- What happened to the cut footage? Most of it probably wound up in the wastebasket, though some found a home elsewhere. In his book The Silent Clowns Walter Kerr recounts how a boyhood friendship with his local projectionist enabled him to amass “what must unquestionably have been the most extensive collection of shots of Vilma Banky’s décolletage [right] existing anywhere in America.” [↩]
- Native New Yorkers Cagney and Blondell were appearing together in a play called Penny Arcade when they were both offered contracts by Warner Brothers, the studio that, with its Vitaphone process, had pushed the changeover to sound. Penny Arcade became the film Sinners’ Holiday; Cagney and Blondell made six more films together and formed a lifelong friendship. [↩]
- Harry Warren and Al Dubin wrote “Remember My Forgotten Man,” which echoes the great Depression anthem, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” in its complaint that the men who built the country and fought to defend it were now reduced to begging for bread. These two songs were exceptional; Tin Pan Alley churned out hundreds of “keep smiling” ditties during the Depression, leaving it to Woody Guthrie to express the nation’s bitter mood in songs like “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore.” [↩]
- The pre-Code Two Kinds of Women opens with the governor of a western state rehearsing a passionate speech decrying the evil influence of New York City on the rest of the nation, leading America’s youth astray with the lure of glamour and fast living. The scene cuts to the next room where the governor’s daughter (Miriam Hopkins) lounges on a sofa in sexy pajamas, reading The New Yorker and listening to a radio program broadcasting jazz from a Manhattan nightclub. The movie makes no secret of which side it’s on. At the end, the daughter says that she and her New York playboy husband will announce that they are moving to South Dakota for the fresh air and clean living — until her father is re-elected, after which, “We’ll come back and live on East 58th Street!” [↩]
- Producers and filmmakers at Warner Brothers were particularly hostile to the new regime. Busby Berkeley’s Footlight Parade features a puritanical censor who keeps popping up to warn Cagney, a director of musical prologues, “You’ll have to put some bathing suits on those mermaids — you know Pennsylvania.” Ultimately, he’s revealed as worse than just a buffoon when he’s caught in flagrante with the film’s floozy. [↩]
- Edwin Schallert, in The Los Angeles Times, June 10, 1934, quoted in Mark Vieira, Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003), p. 191. [↩]
- In, respectively, Public Enemy, Three on a Match, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. [↩]