Friday, January 04, 2008

Code Nostalgia


The Siren clambers back on board the Cinephile Cruise Lines, half-drowned from December but toweled off and ready to report for duty, just in the nick of time. During her absence it seems another outbreak of Production Code affection has infected certain commentators. The apparent cause is Thomas Doherty's biography of Joseph I. Breen, flat-footed and flat-headed dean of the Hays Office, the man who was America's bulwark against movies containing double beds and the word "chippie." The Siren is quite eager to read the book, as reportedly it's fairly sympathetic to Breen. All the same, the Production Code was a blight. Let us quarantine this nostalgia virus before it can spread.

Once more, with feeling. The Code was not merely some quaint artifact designed to scrub sex, bad language and strong violence from the screen. It was explicitly political, designed to uphold one view of American life and one view only. Miscegenation was forbidden. So was any mention of birth control. No abortion. No homosexuality. No venereal disease. No drugs. But these subjects were risky for a producer in any case, though certainly some of the topics were broached in Pre-Code movies. No, as noted in Hollywood Goes to War and elsewhere, by far the most onerous provisions for filmmakers were those bearing on political and social themes. Religion and religious figures had to be treated respectfully. Criminal behavior must be a character defect, not an endemic societal problem, much less could social institutions be shown or implied to be criminal or corrupt as a whole. Bad deeds must be punished, and we must never sympathize too much with the bad-deed-doer, no matter the motivation or circumstances. Not that the Code bothered to censor certain aspects of American mores that we find distasteful today. The authors acidly note that Howard Hawks' Air Force depicted the intrinsic disloyalty of all Japanese Americans (or "stinkin' Nips," as the script puts it), and added a tasteful "Fried Jap going down!" when a plane is shot down. Breen passed all that, but carefully excised the forbidden word "lousy."*

The idea that the Code made films "better" is wrongheaded. It's often argued that censorship made movies more subtle, that it forced more creativity from directors and screenwriters who had to labor under its provisions. Force Picasso to get more creative by restricting him to an Etch-a-Sketch and hey, he's still Picasso, and maybe his stuff looks BETTER that way, you know, more SUBTLE.

Well, first of all, the "blossom under censorship" argument presumes that films made during the height of the Code (1934 to about 1954) are better than those made before the Code's strict enforcement, or after it withered away. The Siren won't make this argument. She readily proclaims that this era--call it Classic Hollywood, High Studio, the Golden Age or whatever you like--is her own favorite. She will happily discuss many films of the period as pinnacles of American art. But Kevin Brownlow could make a passionate argument for the art of the silent era, and in recent years many critics have done the same for the late 60s-early 70s Hollywood renaissance. (That isn't even taking the cinema of other countries into account.) The Siren prefers the studio aesthetic, the look, texture, sound and dialogue of the period, the wider variety of acting styles, the exuberance of directors and cinematographers who were in a great phase of discovery. But better than any other era, anywhere? A shaky proposition, prone to collapse at the first gust of critical hot air.

Even if the Siren yields to her own preferences, and says sure, that was it for filmmaking, as good as it ever got or will get, why on earth do people point to the Code as a major contributing factor? Vertical integration of production and distribution, lack of television competition for talent and audiences, an ironclad contract system, the ability to pay to lure talent, as well as an influx of expatriates as Europe went to hell, surely had more to do with the era's glories. And if you look at the great films of the studio era, it becomes plain that they're great despite, not because of, the Code. The movies we venerate from the period were made by filmmakers testing the limits of censorship, not the guys setting the table with buckets of Breen's wholesome cream of heartland wheat. (Quick, which would you rather watch tonight--Double Indemnity, or Going My Way?)

The best artists in Hollywood worked within the constraints of the Code, as a poet may work within the rigid form of a sonnet. That doesn't mean freedom would have hurt the movies, or made them hopelessly violent or vulgar. The morals of the times alone would have set boundaries; it's silly to suppose that no Code means Lubitsch would have made Last Tango in Paris. Instead the Code forced filmmakers to focus on minutiae such as whether "nuts" was being used in its permissible sense of "crazy" or whether Ona Munson's bosom was too padded in Gone with the Wind.

During the same period the American theater, which had far fewer strictures, also underwent something of a Golden Age. Imagine that Hollywood had been able, say, to film Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, which was produced as a play in the 1930s. Or that Robert Sherwood's Idiot's Delight had been filmed as written, instead of bowdlerized at the behest of Breen. (The censor was so anxious not to offend Mussolini that in 1938--19-thirty-bloody-eight, mind you, after the invasion of Ethiopia and the year Nuremberg-style anti-Semitic laws were passed in Italy--that he carried a copy of the script to Rome for inspection by the government there.) Imagine a film version of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? made soon after the novel appeared in 1935. The Code's dim view of social and political subjects meant Hal Wallis spoke for many when he groused that "Hollywood might as well go into the milk business."

It's easy to get all misty-eyed over past glories and forget all the messy bad stuff. People dealing with the Code at the time gave it the contempt it deserved. Let's allow David O. Selznick, maker of films we nowadays regard as fine stuff for the whole family, to have the last word:

We need at least to have something like the freedom that newspapers and magazines and book publishers and the legitimate stage have...Instead, this short sighted industry allows itself to be strangled by this insane, inane and outmoded Code.


*The Siren is also dismayed to see a lot of bloggers pushing the meme that Hollywood movies were in lockstep with the American government's war aims during World War II. The record is, of course, more complex. The Office of War Information spent a great deal of time trying to tone down the slavering racism of many movies set in the Pacific theater. And if there was a simplistic good vs evil dynamic to most WW II movies, that was due in part to Hollywood simply pasting the war into as many stock plots as possible, from the Bowery Boys movies to Tarzan to backstage musicals. The Siren could go on but, unfortunately, her schedule forces her to deal with myths one at a time.

56 comments:

Ben said...

Another great post! Maltby's essay on the Code in Tino Balio's GRAND DESIGN, the 1930s volume in the History of American Cinema series put out by California, is still one of the best pieces of film history I've ever read.

One of the mistakes students in my film history classes often make when thinking about the Code is to assume that it reflected nearly universally held values in the US at the time. In fact, you don't need codes to police universally held values; the market does a great job taking care of that. The Code was perceived as necessary precisely because there was a market for the things it proscribed. Systems of censorship are always signs of disagreements over cultural values.

But so much of our perception of US culture in the 1930s and 1940s comes from Hollywood films that we tend to almost unconsciously project the values of Hollywood onto the society as a whole...and then conclude by a kind of circular reasoning that Hollywood simply reflected those values.

Bob Westal said...

Back with a bang, Ms. Siren. Sometimes I read your stuff and it's like your stealing the thoughts from my head, but saying it much better than I would.

Do we have really have to take people who cite Michael Medved seriously, still? Does he really think that the growing availability of an ever-increasing and improving number of home entertainment options isn't the main reason for the decline of movie going? I guess all those dirty books available in book stores since the battles over "Ulysses" and "Lady Chatterly's Lover" are responsible for the decline in reading as well.

To me the hub of this argument is how it was as much political censorship as anything else. It would be interesting someday for someone to look at how the Production Code influenced that other regrettable piece of self-imposed mass culture censorship, the Comics Code Authority. (Since it was presumably a medium for children, inculcating mindless "respect for authority" was a good thing, right?)

Peter said...

Have you read William Donati's biography of Ida Lupino? Several times, Lupino is quoted as saying how the films were improved by submitting to the code.

Welcome back and Happy New Year!

operator_99 said...

Welcome Back. Hope you enjoyed a month or so of at least partial normalcy.

Great post and I did also read the referenced article. Past all the lengthy commentary in that piece, I think it boiled down, as it often does, to the financials. The studios were/are first and foremost, commercial ventures and rather than dictate taste and cultural imperatives, they, like most marketers, pick up and exploit them. Whether the code hurt or helped is an interesting aesthetic debate, but it must for better or worse, factor in the gold in them thar' hills.

And as fun, historical, evolutionary, and artistically relevant works of film craft, its fortunate these films are still available for us to discuss today, in a post code, desensitized world.

Campaspe said...

Ben - excellent point, I loved it.

Bob, thanks! I don't know much about the Comics code but it does sound quite similar.

Peter, was Donati reporting Lupino's thoughts in her later years, or quotes from when she was working? While there are surely a few counterexamples, I find that the actors, directors and writers who had good things to say about the code said them well into their sunset years, when the culture had passed them by and was throwing things on screen that they had never dreamed of putting there. While they were actually working they usually considered the censors to be a pain in the ass. The classic example is Mae West, who as an elderly lady got quoted as saying that pictures today were just too dirty and censorship was necessary. (One exception was Katharine Hepburn. Prompted by Barbara Walters to give the standard old-movie-star line about how much better and cleaner the old stuff was, Hepburn scoffed at the very notion that censorship was a good thing.)

Operator_99, thanks for the welcome. Among other fun December activities I came down with a wicked case of bronchitis. I did manage to SEE a number of movies, including some of the Wellman films on TCM and a few of the Ophuls at BAM. So it wasn't a complete washout.

Bob Westal said...

Campuspe --

If you're curious, the old comics code is here.

I was surprised to read just now that the code actually lingered until 2001 -- though by then it had long been common practice to put out all but the most kiddie-oriented mainstream comics out without it.

Pacze Moj said...

Might be interesting to compare Code-era Hollywood and early Soviet cinema: both periods of heavy political censorship that produced well-regarded films.

Great post.

Flickhead said...

Code or no code, Bogart still got away with the line, "I almost couldn't find a towel big enough to hide my embarrassment" in Dark Passage!

Campaspe said...

Bob, thanks! 2001, sheesh. My own comics reading as a kid was largely confined to Peanuts and Archie, both of which probably passed muster just fine.

Pacze, thanks and I just read your post on In a Lonely Place ... great stuff. Awesome catch on the Diego Rivera painting, that flew right past me. And the Soviet/Code comparison idea is brilliant. My grounding in early Soviet cinema is minimal at best so I think I'm not the woman for the undertaking, however, at least not until I flesh out my viewing from the period.

Flickhead- HA! meanwhile I have been trying to track down (and welcome anyone who can identify) the Cagney flick Billy Wilder is describing here:

"I remember Warner Bros had a picture I think with Cagney and Pat O'Brien, and they are out on the town and they find a dame and he says, 'Hey, let's go fifty-fifty on her.' and Cagney says, 'Yes, I get the half that eats.'"

I would like to think that if this was in "Angels with Dirty Faces" I would remember it but I totally don't. Anyone? did Wilder fantasize this?

Peter said...

Lupino was interviewed well into her sunset years by Donati. There is an interesting little bit on why she consented to appear in The Devil's Rain.
You may find it interesting to read the book in part for the history of the Lupinos. Also, Louis Hayward's efforts for documenting battle should place him in league with the top named directors who went to war.

I'm glad you were able to see some of the Ophuls and Wellman films.

M.A.Peel said...

"I remember Warner Bros had a picture I think with Cagney and Pat O'Brien, and they are out on the town and they find a dame and he says, 'Hey, let's go fifty-fifty on her.' and Cagney says, 'Yes, I get the half that eats.'"

Sounds like it's from Boy Meets Girl. Cagney and O'Brien play madcap screenwriters. One of the funniest movies of all time.

Jeff said...

And Boy Meets Girl gets a TCM airing on the 31st!

I've always found the pre-Code / post-Code divide fascinating, so this post was a great read. Thanks!

Cinebeats said...

Interesting post Siren and it's nice to see that you've survived the holidays.

It does seem like the Production Code has been a topic of interest lately. Over at the Cinema Styles blog Jonathan devoted the entire month of Nov. to posts and discussions on the topic, and I've personally been reading up on British film censorship a lot lately, which I find fascinating. It's strange how the American Production Code seems vulgar in comparison to the rules set by film censors in Britain. As bad as the censorship was in Hollywood during the '30s-'50s, it really pales in comparison to what went on the U.K. well into the '70s.

You've got me curious to read the Breen biography now.

Campaspe said...

Peter, I would definitely like to read the Donati book. On the 2008 list it goes.

Mlle Peel and Jeff, thanks very much! It is Cagney month on TCM and I already took in "Penny Arcade." Readers know I worship Cagney so January is a happy month.

Kimberly, when I was researching this post I found this great bit about Hitchcock and how he claimed the censorship affected his choice of subject matter. A Hitchcock film on the general strike would have been something to see.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Excellent post, and some great comments by your readers, too. I agree with Operator 99 that the Code was more a financial tool than a moral one, and Ben's note that his students mistakenly believe the Code reflecteded nearly universally held values of the day is intriguing. That this period of time should be labelled by younger audiences either as corny or virtuous because of a movie is part of the challenge of studying history through film. This is one of the most interesting legacies that Hollywood of the so-called Golden Age has left us: that veneer of authenticity of an age, when quite a bit of it was really just veneer.

Bob Westal said...

Campuspe -- Don't want to come off like the total geek that I am, but fyi the code only applied to the "low" medium of comic books like "Archie," not the supposedly more middlebrow world of newspaper comics like "Peanuts." Newspapers strips had and have their own very tight censorship -- but not as ultimately restrictive as the code. I'd compare it more to TV "standards and practices." "Doonesbury", for example, would have been all but impossible under the comics code.

And Ben's students have nothing on me. As a small child who was allowed to watch pretty much anything on TV (my mother figured what I couldn't understand couldn't hurt me), I actually believed until instructed otherwise that sex had been invented sometime in the early-to-late sixties, probably by hippies.

Cinebeats said...

Thanks for sharing that terrific link Siren! I've managed to avoid Google Books until now only because I get glossy eyed reading books online, but there's some wonderful stuff there. They also have snippets of a great book called "The Hidden Cinema: British Film Censorship in Action, 1913-1975" by James Robertson which I’ve been reading and you might find it as interesting as I have.

It's pretty amazing to think that Britain was the only country in the world that censored the shower scene in Psycho. The British censors really disliked horror, violence and social realism that might cause class conflicts so it's no wonder that a great director like Hitchcock, who liked to dabble in all those things, ended up in Hollywood. Of course Hitchcock had to deal with a whole other set of problems there as well.

Gloria said...

You know, whenever I see a pre-1934 Hollywood film, I am sort of surprised in a "whoah! that's quite a naughty thing for an old Movie!" way... And then I realize how the post-code made films have altered my perception, as films were forced to "behave" and we sort of got used to that idea that it was the "normal" thing, which of course wasn't.

It is interesting, however, to compare Hollywood and British Movies of the era with French or (pre-Hitler) German ones. The comment posted by Pacze Moj is interesting: for Soviet films were also censored, but for different concepts than American ones: I mean, sex or cristcism of religion -logically- were not the issue they were for American or British censors. I recall in this sense the "orgasmic" butter-making scene in Eisenstein's "Old and New"

Off topic: I have ordered a book about Japanese Women, which apparently contains a handsome chapter devoted to Hideko Takamine... I'll let you know about it when I get to read it (I also got two Takamine films for Xmas: "Twenty-Four Eyes" and "Times of Joy and Sorrow". She's delightful in both and I hope to talk about them sometime soon)

Dan Leo said...

I just want to say: Welcome back, dear Siren! We film geeks have missed you.

Pat said...

Thanks for a terrfic post.

I'm intrigued by your mention of "Idiot's Delight"- I saw it recently on TCM, where it was shown with with two, alternate endings. Both seemed pretty silly to me. I'm curious to know how it originally ended, and what other changes were made.

goatdog said...

My favorite film blogger is back with a post on my favorite topic? Christmas came early!

That Senses of Cinema article has me scratching my head. It's inarguable that filmmakers got away with things in 1933 that they were not allowed to get away with in 1935. You can argue about the source of the disconnect between film and society's values, you can argue about whether the studios as capitalist enterprises were really all that subversive (I doubt they were attempting to overthrow the system; they were just pandering to what audiences wanted), but I don't think you can argue about the existence of some fundamental differences between films released before July 1934 and films released after (not all films, of course, but enough to notice a difference). So the things that came before are "pre-Code," even if that's not exactly a historically accurate moniker--call them "pre-strict-Code-enforcement" films.

The author argues that there's no clean break, that any change was gradual, but if that's the case, what about the dozens of films made before July 1934 that were either cut to shreds for re-release after July 1934 or were flat-out refused certificates by the PCA? Take Red Dust, which Mean Joe Breen refused to certify for re-release in 1935 because the whole thing went against the Code and there was no way of trimming a few scenes to fix it. How can you explain that without acknowledging a "pre-Code"/"post-Code" split?

Campaspe said...

Jacqueline, Operator 99 has a good point in that the 1934 decision to change the way the Code was enforced was prompted at least in part by boycott threats from the Catholic Legion of Decency. As a side note, when you read about the era, you come to dread the phrase "Southern theatre owners" because it always signals that you're about to read about some ghastly aspect of movies and race. The fear of losing money motivated the studio heads quite a lot.

Bob, I did love Archie, I admit it, but always preferred Veronica to Betty. Then as now I go for the sirens over the good girls.

Kimberly, reading Google books on lines does all those things my Mam-ma kept telling me I was doomed for when I was reading paper books -- eyestrain, hunched shoulders, permanent eye creases. It is not a cozy experience and I can't imagine reading a whole book that way. Even the cat can't get comfy in my lap during a Google books session. All the same I am going to check out that book.

Gloria, I recently saw "Night Nurse" and there were several "whoa nelly!" moments in that one. As for our gal Hideko, I really wanted to see 24 Eyes when it was shown in Toronto but missed it. I hope you post about both movies.

Thanks Dan, I have missed my fellow geeks a great deal. I wasn't even able to read blogs all that much so I am having fun catching up.

Pat, re: Idiot's Delight--it was originally set in an Italian hotel, spent a lot of time condemning war and fascism and apparently put the romance in the background. After MGM got through it was set in Central Europe, used Esperanto (!!) as its language and it was basically a Gable-Shearer romance. All that said I rather enjoy the movie as Shearer seems to be sending herself up a bit. I haven't read the play (although it's online, if you care to brave Google books despite the complaints of Kimberly and me!) As I understand it, the original play has some biting criticism of America's lack of leadership and how that helped the slide into war. I have only seen the American ending, by the by. I also think that it's strongly implied in the play

(SPOILER)

that the remaining guests are about to get bombed into oblivion, rather than the bombs being a background to their loooooove reunited.

Goatdog, your reaction pretty much mirrors mine but my knowledge of the Pre-Code period isn't encyclopedic and I am still filling in viewing gaps from those years. If the author were here I would want to ask him about Mandalay, made early in 1934, before the agreement to change the enforcement method, and how much racier it is than movies produced toward the end of that year. I also want to read the Maltby essay that Ben mentions, to see if there is a clearer explanation in that piece.

Pat said...

Thanks for filling me in on "Idiot's Delight." I suspected that the original ending must have been a good deal bleaker than what made it on to the screen. Both the American and International endings are unconvincingly happy and optimistic, and feel as though they were hastily slapped onto to a film that was heading somewhere far darker.

Anon said...

Campaspe,

Too late in the day to respond, but I can offer a minor correction: You mean Kevin Brownlow, not Kenneth, and I imagine that Brownlow's Behind the Mask of Innocence, about censorship in the silent era, might be of interest here, and relevant to a response to Maltby.

On quick skim, it does seem that Maltby is choosing not to distinguish between formal (codified, official) censorship and informal censorship among the studios. The distinction between the formal and informal modes is surely represented by the 1934 cases already mentioned, particularly (to my mind) Red Dust.

Anon

Marissa said...

Just wanted to say thanks for a thought-provoking post. I'm a playwright and am reading your blog while taking a break from writing a scene that takes place in 1934, where 2 characters see a Mae West movie and talk about what this newly-enforced Production Code will mean. (They're against it--I was never a Code nostalgist!) Thanks for giving me a more nuanced understanding of the Code in the '30s, via this post and the article you linked to. Now I want to squeeze all this fascinating stuff into my play...

Campaspe said...

Pat, I agree, one of the problems with the movie is that the mood is all over the place. Sherwood himself adapted the play for the screen and I wonder how much it pained him to rip the guts out of the story like that.

Anon (and I wish you weren't, since you clearly have a lot to add!), what is really embarrassing here is that despite having had The Parade's Gone By on my shelves for about 12 years I **always** call him Kenneth, probably out of some weird crossed wire in my brain with Tynan. I just hope you aren't Mr. Brownlow himself. I will check out Behind the Mask. Excellent point about the formal/informal modes of censorship. There is no doubt in my mind that the studios would have reined in artists to some degree with or without the Hays Office, but of course the profit motive makes for a different kind of trimming than does something like the Code.

Marissa, I am glad to have been of some small help. Which Mae movie did the characters see? Hmm, interesting to ponder what ordinary people made of her in 1934 -- what I have read is mostly the reaction of critics and other performers.

Karen said...

First of all, welcome the hell back!

Second: Maltby is, of course, dead right. Anyone who consults the American Film Catalog entries for renowned pre-Code films will see, under "Notes," extensive discussions of changes that were suggested, made, rejected, fought over, etc. The entry for "Scarface" alone contains 13 lengthy paragraphs with excerpts of the negotiation memos. In fact, the opening prologue was added just to assuage the concerns of the Hays Office that the film glorified gangsterism: "This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America and of the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and liberty. Every incident in this picture is the reproduction of an actual occurrence, and the purpose of this picture is to demand of the government: What are you going to do about it? The government is your government. What are you going to do about it?"

Even this prologue was fought over, revised, and emended, until agreement was reached. One of the people involved in the negotiations noted that "all it now needs is for the Bronxville High School to walk on singing America, or perhaps George Cohan with two flags." (Seriously: you've GOT to read the notes in the AFI Catalog!)

There are all sorts of arguments that can be made about whether movies were better or worse, and there are so many elements at play that it is simply facile to chalk it all up to the Production Code. Me, I love the rawness of pre-Code films, but I love a lot of films that were filmed under the enforced Code as well. The Code alone didn't make these later films great: along with the factors the good Siren has mentioned there was significant technological innovation that made a lot of those films simply LOOK better than they would have 10 or 20 years earlier.

I agree 100% with the Siren (surprise!) that the worst blight was the political censorship, along with the casual approval of racism while acknowledgement of any other social reality was squelched. I think it's a shame that writers had to resort to code to deal with the Code, and just because that added juice to their creativity doesn't make it a good thing (art was better in the Soviet Union under Communism, but I'm not nostalgic for its return, either).

Jeanine Basinger's wonderful book, A woman's view: how Hollywood spoke to women, 1930-1960 (which I believe I've extolled in previous comments), talks about how the women's films made under the Code had to show behavior that violated social norms (norms set by the Production Code itself) being punished, but at least the writers were able to show that transgressive behavior in the first place, and women movie-goers could take it as a potential model. I think there's truth to that, but those movie-goers also saw the punishment and that lesson could just as easily have been the one they internalized.

And there's the injustice done to playwrights and novelists whose work was Bowdlerized by the Code, thus giving the vast majority of people an utterly false idea of what had made that play or novel renowned in the first place.

Oh, I could go on. But basically, Siren: yeah.

Karen said...

"I remember Warner Bros had a picture I think with Cagney and Pat O'Brien, and they are out on the town and they find a dame and he says, 'Hey, let's go fifty-fifty on her.' and Cagney says, 'Yes, I get the half that eats.'"

Siren, I'm almost 100% certain that it's from "Strawberry Blonde," and it's not Pat O'Brien but Jack Carson. Carson and Cagney are vying for Hayworth's attention, but Cagney keeps getting stuck with second-best Suffragette-wannabe de Havilland. Carson promises Cagney they'll go halvsies on the women, and Cagney utters that line.

Campaspe said...

Karen, that's a fascinating sidelight on Scarface. Last week I watched Public Enemy for probably the sixth time or so (it's Cagney month on TCM and I can't help myself) and that, too, has a Pilate-type hand-washing title card telling us that the brothers Warner were certainly not aiming to glorify criminals, no no no perish the thought. In fact that is a good idea for a future post: Moralizing Title Cards, the ones that uphold all the right virtues for a minute or so and then undermine them for the rest of the film's running time. Those persisted for years. I loved the one in front of "Odd Man Out" that insisted the story had nothing to do with the IRA, nope not a thing.

sorry, that was a digression.

Anyhow, as you note with Scarface, Maltby offers a good corrective to the idea that "pre-code" means "no code" or "uncensored." And what we're all discussing here, regarding the financial motivations behind censorship, also goes nicely with what Maltby's saying about the market demands for more wholesome entertainment that were "attached," as he says, to calls for censorship. But as goatdog says, Maltby is also arguing that the change was gradual, and I think I need more evidence before he convinces me of that. Seems to me that the degree of enforcement changed a great deal in 1934. I was just looking at Mick LaSalle's Greencine piece on Pre-Code and he is right when he says you can tell, often within a matter of minutes, which films were released early in 1934 and which were released late in the year.

What we really need is a LaSalle/Maltby Production Code debate, I suppose.

And you may be right about The Strawberry Blonde! but I can't track it down at the moment. I love that movie. They are showing it 1/30 at 5:45 am EST on TCM. Did I mention it's Cagney month? did I?

Karen said...

Did I mention it's Cagney month? did I?

It may have come up.

I adore Cagney. Most of my friends and family think I'm a little crazy, but I think he was just incredibly sexy: he had that perfect Art Deco profile, and he could look at a woman through those long lashes like he knew what to do with her.

But, of course, on top of that, he was just an electrifying performer. Did you watch "Doorway to Hell" when it was on last week? He just had a small part, but he popped off the screen (same as he did in "Penny Arcade"). On 1/16 at 10 PM they're screening "Something to Sing About," which is a decidedly minor film--not least because of the sadly miscast leading lady, Evelyn Daw, whose singing voice is entirely wrong for the band she's in--but which includes a scene I find simply magical: Cagney sits, alone, in his dressing room, in the dark, listening to his fiancee singing a new song to him over the phone, and he captures his loneliness and his longing perfectly, with almost no discernible effort.

I first saw "The Strawberry Blonde" when I was a teenager, and the phrase "That's just the kind of a hairpin I am," entered into my personal lexicon where it's stayed, over 30 years later. I saw it again a couple of years ago, and discovered it wasn't as brilliant as I'd remembered, but it was still pretty damn good.

Campaspe said...

Karen: I have Something to Sing About on DVD. That's just the kind of hairpin I am.

and I'm in complete agreement on Cagney's sex appeal; it's much more obvious to me than Gable's, for example.

Dume3 said...

"Karen: I have Something to Sing About on DVD. That's just the kind of hairpin I am."

How is that on DVD and not Strawberry Blonde?

Karen said...

Karen: I have Something to Sing About on DVD. That's just the kind of hairpin I am.

Heh. Mine shipped last week.

I don't know why "The Strawberry Blonde" isn't available. It's so disconcerting to go to Amazon, see the "DVD" button activated, and click on it only to learn that the DVD is "not yet released" and they "do not have a date for release." I'm developing quite a list of alerts for when/if these things ever become available.

By the way, Siren: I do like and appreciate the way you use the comments to continue the conversation.

Campaspe said...

Dume3 - I have no bloody idea. Dave Kehr is excellent on the topic of how certain films make it to DVD and others don't, as well as the short-sighted marketing of fine old movies as "nostalgia" titles when they would be much more likely to move copies by packaging and marketing to people like, well, like us. By the way, your avatar rocks.

Karen, speaking of old movies and racism, I loved the one speech of Philip Ahn, where he drops the pidgin English and expounds at length on how he is sick of having to adopt these mannerisms. Nice touch.

as for continuing the conversation, hell, my commenters are the best thing about the blog in my view.

Karen said...

Karen, speaking of old movies and racism, I loved the one speech of Philip Ahn, where he drops the pidgin English and expounds at length on how he is sick of having to adopt these mannerisms. Nice touch.

Yes! A wonderful, almost unprecedented scene, which acts as a wonderful bookmark to another scene with Philip Ahn, 12 years later, in the Brian Donlevy film, "Impact," when Irish cop Charles Coburn asks Ahn in pidgin if he "savvee English" and Ahn, in his beautiful voice, replies, "Yes. Also French, Italian, and Hebrew."

Exiled in NJ said...

In keeping with your Brooklyn motif, Welcome back, Kotter-pin [or do you prefer hair pin?].

Your title card comment hits the target and made for good box office. Seems to me that post-Code title cards [or propaganda scenes like those with the DA in Scarface] were replaced by giving additional screen time to the characters representing the forces of decency. I sometimes wonder if Pat O'Brien would have had a career had there not been a code.

Dume3 said...

"Dume3 - I have no bloody idea. Dave Kehr is excellent on the topic of how certain films make it to DVD and others don't, as well as the short-sighted marketing of fine old movies as "nostalgia" titles when they would be much more likely to move copies by packaging and marketing to people like, well, like us."

They market to people who watch old movies because they're 'clean'. That's the thing people say when they can't find anything of substance to say about a classic--at least it's clean. It's true that many of them are clean, but they're also excellent entertainment for many other reasons.

I'm probably one of the youngest people here, still being in high-school, and I'm disgusted at the entertainment other young people are watching today.

As for your overall remarks about the code, I'm not sure how movies would have benefited if it didn't exist. Do you really think movies like Double Indemnity would have been better?

yellojkt said...

What a great blog and interesting essay. The only proof of how stifling the Code was you need is how many great movies got made almost immediately after the code got relaxed.

Dume3 said...

"What a great blog and interesting essay. The only proof of how stifling the Code was you need is how many great movies got made almost immediately after the code got relaxed."

What movies are those? I would say the opposite happened. The height of the code era is about 1934-1947, and that's cosidered the height of the golden age.

Campaspe said...

Dume3 - I can't argue that Double Indemnity would have been better (you name one of my favorite movies of all time there), it's unknowable. What I am arguing is that the idea that a genius such as Billy Wilder needed some bluenose riding herd on his ideas in order to be clever or subtle is inherently ludicrous to me.

In all fairness to the nostalgia market, I think people like my grandmother and sainted Aunt D. do like the relative cleanness of old movies. But they watch also to relive the time of their lives when they saw the movie. People of many different ages enjoy that. I am not going to propose it for the AFI Top 100 but I can still tell you what I was wearing the night I went to see "The Breakfast Club" (fingerless lace gloves, for one). Even in high school I would find that seeing a childhood movie was like getting hit on the head and waking up in Oz or King Arthur's court or some other time.

yellojkt, thanks! which film period are you thinking of?

Dume3 said...

"Dume3 - I can't argue that Double Indemnity would have been better (you name one of my favorite movies of all time there), it's unknowable. What I am arguing is that the idea that a genius such as Billy Wilder needed some bluenose riding herd on his ideas in order to be clever or subtle is inherently ludicrous to me."

In other words, you think he would have made it that way anyway? What I'm looking for is an example of a movie than was harmed by the code.

"In all fairness to the nostalgia market, I think people like my grandmother and sainted Aunt D. do like the relative cleanness of old movies. But they watch also to relive the time of their lives when they saw the movie. People of many different ages enjoy that. I am not going to propose it for the AFI Top 100 but I can still tell you what I was wearing the night I went to see "The Breakfast Club" (fingerless lace gloves, for one)."

Did you see it one of those 1920s movie palaces or were you just in a formal mood?

"Even in high school I would find that seeing a childhood movie was like getting hit on the head and waking up in Oz or King Arthur's court or some other time."

Out of curiosity, do you remember the first movie you ever saw? I can't remember exactly, but it was probably Sleeping Beauty on VHS. The first movie I remember seeing in the theater was the Lion King.

Campaspe said...

Hee, no formal mood, it was the 80s, era of Accessory Overkill. Breakfast at your local greasy spoon? break out the seamed tights. I did, however, have the sense to eschew those piles of rubber bracelets.

I do know that the PCA didn't want Double Indemnity made at all, so it certainly isn't as though the Code fostered that masterpiece--again, it was made despite the censors. Wilder shot an ending with MacMurray in the gas chamber at San Quentin, and he always claimed it was the best sequence he ever filmed, but we will never know because it was scrapped. It may have been killed because of the Hays Office, it might have been preview audiences, no one seems to know. Of course the ending they wound up with turned out to be superb, note-perfect: "You won't even make the elevator."

As for films that were hurt by the Code, they are legion. We talked about Idiot's Delight; there's also the tacked-on endings of otherwise great films like The Letter and The Postman Always Rings Twice. And I love Rebecca, but Maxim's actions surrounding his wife's death make no sense thanks to Code-mandated script changes.

Campaspe said...

oh, and my first movie. I don't remember. If I had to guess I'd say it was probably The Wizard of Oz in one of its annual TV showings. In the theater, don't remember; I saw a number of things with my grandmother and they were all the sorts of things you see with a grandmother. I do remember my first PG film: The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars and Motor Kings. My father was a huge Richard Pryor fan.

Dume3 said...

"Hee, no formal mood, it was the 80s, era of Accessory Overkill."

Ah, I see.

"I do know that the PCA didn't want Double Indemnity made at all, so it certainly isn't as though the Code fostered that masterpiece--again, it was made despite the censors. Wilder shot an ending with MacMurray in the gas chamber at San Quentin, and he always claimed it was the best sequence he ever filmed, but we will never know because it was scrapped. It may have been killed because of the Hays Office, it might have been preview audiences, no one seems to know."

My sources seem to say that is was because of the censors that the alternate ending was filmed in the first place, in order to show that crime doesn't pay.

"As for films that were hurt by the Code, they are legion. We talked about Idiot's Delight;"

Is that so much because of the code, or simply because the studio thought audiences weren't in the mood for an unhappy ending with World War II imminent?

"And I love Rebecca, but Maxim's actions surrounding his wife's death make no sense thanks to Code-mandated script changes."

What do you mean? The way he tries to conceal everything? I know they changed how she was killed, but I'm not exactly sure about what you're referencing.

Campaspe said...

Wilder and Chandler had two endings from the beginning, according to biographer Ed Sikov, but Wilder leaned toward the gas chamber ending. That it solved Breen's problem with the Cain ending (a double suicide) was an added bonus but what excited Wilder was the idea of filming nice wholesome Fred MacMurray being executed. I don't know if anyone has determined whether Code objections had anything to do with scrapping the scene, but the code does say executions much be treated "within the careful limits of good taste" and a nice tasteful execution does not seem to be what Wilder had in mind. While I wouldn't want to alter a single frame of Double Indemnity's actual ending I would love to see that gas-chamber sequence, although not as much as I'd like to see the uncut version of The Magnificent Ambersons.


Idiot's Delight -- yes, the censors absolutely played the dominant role in bowdlerizing it although studio worries about foreign box office came into it too. If you look at the text of the Code you will find a nicely elastic clause about respecting foreign countries and their "rights, history and feelings." This was invoked more than once to pull back movies that were critical of certain countries, including Italy in this instance.

I was being vague about Rebecca in case you hadn't seen it. In the novel, Maxim kills Rebecca and tries to cover it up. In the movie, she dies accidentally and he still tries to cover it up, which makes absolutely no sense, as Selznick and Hitchcock both tried to point out to the Hays Office. The fight over the ending prompted that Selznick memo I quoted, to Jock Whitney (I think). It's a tribute to Olivier, Hitchcock and the screenwriters that the scene somehow draws you into the mood and tension so well that you don't stop to think "she hit her head on stuff that is right there in the boathouse. Aside from that being a highly unlikely way to die, what the heck is supposed to be so incriminating?"

Exiled in NJ said...

From 'Raising Cain' http://www.ezine.com/ezine/579803/view/243891.html

Cain seemed to save his real clunkers for the conclusion of his works. “Indemnity’ was no different. It ended with the ritual double-suicide of the two conspirators, on a cruise secretly arranged by none other than Barton Keyes, the incorruptible claims investigator for the insurance company. The device is not convincing. It took Hollywood to do better.......

Chandler opened Cain’s eyes. “It’s the only picture I ever saw made from my books that had things in it I wish I had thought of. Wilder’s ending was much better than my ending, and his device for letting the guy tell the story, I would have done it if I had thought of it. There are situations in the movie that can make your hands get wet.” Right you are, Mr. Cain; watching it today it’s hard to imagine Edward G. Robinson’s Keyes permitting the characters to decide their own fate, although Chandler’s original ending had Keyes witnessing Neff’s death in the gas chamber at San Quentin.

Dume3 said...

"Wilder and Chandler had two endings from the beginning, according to biographer Ed Sikov, but Wilder leaned toward the gas chamber ending. That it solved Breen's problem with the Cain ending (a double suicide) was an added bonus but what excited Wilder was the idea of filming nice wholesome Fred MacMurray being executed. I don't know if anyone has determined whether Code objections had anything to do with scrapping the scene, but the code does say executions much be treated "within the careful limits of good taste" and a nice tasteful execution does not seem to be what Wilder had in mind. While I wouldn't want to alter a single frame of Double Indemnity's actual ending I would love to see that gas-chamber sequence, although not as much as I'd like to see the uncut version of The Magnificent Ambersons."

I'd like to see the alternate ending, but likewise, I don't see how it could have improved on the final ending--which I think is among the best in any movie. It's so simple and elegant, and pays off the match-striking business. I don't see how that could have been done had the movie gone on to the gas chamber.


"Idiot's Delight -- yes, the censors absolutely played the dominant role in bowdlerizing it although studio worries about foreign box office came into it too. If you look at the text of the Code you will find a nicely elastic clause about respecting foreign countries and their "rights, history and feelings." This was invoked more than once to pull back movies that were critical of certain countries, including Italy in this instance."

I suppose I have some difficulty i

"I was being vague about Rebecca in case you hadn't seen it. In the novel, Maxim kills Rebecca and tries to cover it up. In the movie, she dies accidentally and he still tries to cover it up, which makes absolutely no sense, as Selznick and Hitchcock both tried to point out to the Hays Office."

Okay, I guess it doesn't make sense.

"The fight over the ending prompted that Selznick memo I quoted, to Jock Whitney (I think). It's a tribute to Olivier, Hitchcock and the screenwriters that the scene somehow draws you into the mood and tension so well that you don't stop to think "she hit her head on stuff that is right there in the boathouse. Aside from that being a highly unlikely way to die, what the heck is supposed to be so incriminating?"

I see what you mean. So you think it would have been better if they had done it exactly as it is in the book?

Dume3 said...

Looks like I forgot to finish my sentence:

"Idiot's Delight -- yes, the censors absolutely played the dominant role in bowdlerizing it although studio worries about foreign box office came into it too. If you look at the text of the Code you will find a nicely elastic clause about respecting foreign countries and their "rights, history and feelings." This was invoked more than once to pull back movies that were critical of certain countries, including Italy in this instance."

I suppose I have some difficulty in imagining what the movie would have been, because I know nothing about the play. Is it satirical?

Campaspe said...

Exiled, thanks for the Cain quotes; you know I always enjoy your classic mystery allusions as that is a longtime side interest of mine. (The year I started this blog I was devouring John Dickson Carr's earlier books.) Can you break the link (add a space after the 2nd ezine, for example) so I can go to the exact article? We all read so much about the fury of authors who find their work trashed by Hollywood, but I am not sure it would be a pleasant experience to sit in a movie theater and realize a director had improved your book beyond measure; that might smart too.

Dume3, the play Idiot's Delight is online here. Yes, I definitely think that having Maxim kill Rebecca works better, as did Hitchcock and Selznick for that matter. Ultimately it's still a good movie of course, but I'll wind up here by saying this goes back to my point that artists made good movies despite the Code, not because of it. Let's say I'm training for the Olympics and some dimwit drops a cinderblock on my right foot. If I then go on to win the 100-meter-dash anyway, it's because I'm a great athlete, not because the interference of the cinderblock-dropper somehow spurred me on to greatness.

Exiled in NJ said...

But the problem with the book of Rebecca from Code and audience standpoint is that Danvers does not perish, but rather 'has cleared out' according to Frank Crowley when Maxim speaks with him on the phone.' As I noted in an newsletter,(http://www.ezine.com/ezine/579803/view/258303.html)
Rebecca followed Snow White by three years and audiences wanted to see their witches burn.

I agree Selznick and Hitchcock, by letting Maxim off the murder rap, do a disservice to the plucky nameless heroine. Loving a murderer is hard; loving a harried husband is just not the same.

Dume3 said...

http://www.libertyfilmfestival.com/libertas/?p=7856

I think a lot of the comments on this blog really crystalize my argument:

“Restrictions breed creativity.” — Mark Rosewater, head designer, Magic: The Gathering

“The constraints of running on the Commodore 64 helped the games be richer, I believe, than if we had been writing then for the Pentium Pro.” — Amy Briggs, Infocom (interactive fiction pioneers)

“When the light dove parts the air in free flight and feels the air’s resistance, it might come to think that it would do much better still in space devoid of air.” — Immanuel Kant

“Freestyle poetry? One might as well sleep in a ditch and call it freestyle architecture.” — G.K. Chesterton

“Now that there are fewer restrictions on what can be shown on a movie screen, the creators of movies have gone sloppy in the storytelling department. Who needs subtle screenwriting when you can tell a story with lots of naked people and gushing blood and massive explosions — and no questions asked? […] Any comparison of old-school and new-school filmmaking is a study of the eternal Hollywood struggle between story and spectacle.” — me"

I especially like the quote from Kant.

The example of Rebecca is a good one in that it shows how the code made convoluted the plots of some movies, but the code also gave them a quality that outweighs that.

Dume3 said...

"Dume3, the play Idiot's Delight is online here. Yes, I definitely think that having Maxim kill Rebecca works better, as did Hitchcock and Selznick for that matter."

But I wonder if that would have taken away the power of Rebecca as a villain to have Maxim also be something of a villain. Already you have two villains in Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers. You could be right that it would have been improved, but again, I haven't read the book.

Karen said...

To the Siren and to dume3: you're both right. Here is what the AFI Catalog notes say about the alternate ending of Double Indemnity:

Scripts in the Paramount Script Collection at the AMPAS Library show that in Sep 1943, director Billy Wilder was considering using either the ending that is now seen in the final released print, or an ending in which "Walter Neff" is arrested and executed in a gas chamber. In a Dec 1943 letter to Paramount, Breen noted the following: "We have read the balance of the script...As we advised you before, this whole sequence in the death chamber seems very questionable in its present form. Specifically, the details of the execution...seem unduly gruesome from the standpoint of the Code, and also will certainly be deleted by censor boards...." Although the execution sequence was shot, it was cut after previews. According to modern sources, Billy Wilder chose to cut the execution scene over Raymond Chandler's protests as it did not conform with his vision of the film.

Campaspe said...

"Unduly gruesome" ... beautiful little modifier there. You have to wonder what a duly gruesome gassing would look like.

surlyh said...

Growing up in the 60s I was weened on code movies on American television (where they were often censored further). I grew to love the genres and formal qualities of films of the studio era, but had little grasp of the code within the code--the signifiers that hinted at things I barely understood. As a child, I thought I was getting a picture of an era that apparently lacked most of the subtleties and complexities I saw in the world around me. But all it took was to see a film or two from France from the same era, and I recognized something much closer to real adults in a real world. Classic Hollywood still remains close to my heart, but I now see it more clearly as presenting a stylized, incomplete world that is either charming or absurd.

Some writers and directors and certain types of stories flourished in a code world of innuendo and suggestion, others were cramped or crushed by it. But the idea that the code made for better films is absurd.

Gloria said...

Surlyh,

I have a similar experience. Having grwon used to watch in TV old Hollywood films made under the code, and then Spanish films under an even heavier censure, I experienced a cultural shock on watching Mikio Naruse's "Herringbone clouds": there was a film made in the fifties, and I was somewhat disoriented at a man's multiple wives (through divorce) and their children "living in sin" before marriage... And then it dawned on me than in an Spanish film of the same era divorce would be unexisting and pre-marital sex even more (in an USA code movie you could mention divorces but not pre-marriage sex).

I think most people thnk that the past is a more innocent time just because the naughtiness wasn't spoken about, but sure there was naughtiness back then LOL