Saturday, October 30, 2010

Halloween with Joe Breen


The Siren's patient readers know she is, not to put too fine a point on it, a wuss when it comes to horror movies. She'll do "subtly creepy," "atmospheric," and "ghostly" all day, but when we get to "utterly freaking terrifying," let alone "physically nauseating," she starts coming up with excuses. Like, "I can't watch Zodiac because Alida was counting on seeing Stand Up and Cheer." Yes yes yes, the Siren knows it's a procedural, but she'd been told it was a horrifying procedural.

Perhaps it will gladden the hearts of Trish and David E. and Filmbrain and Noel Vera and Tom Shone and and Glenn Kenny and Tony Dayoub and Kent Jones and oh, pretty much much her entire blogroll to hear that the Siren ran out of excuses last night and she watched Zodiac. Alone, with the kids in bed, curled up on the couch with a flannel blanket, a box of Kleenex for her head cold and a small glass of brandy to keep the beasties at bay. And yes guys, she liked it, more than The Social Network even, and the Siren liked The Social Network quite a bit.

The Siren had a dilemma, however. She was going to write about something scary for Halloween, and Zodiac didn't scare her. Creeped her out, yes; made her clutch her blankie during violent scenes; showed her that Robert Downey Jr. is sexy even with a ghastly '70s beard; made her reflect that if she were ever to be picked off by a serial killer, and harbored hopes that the wheels of justice eventually would run the guy over, she really had better not get bumped off on the border between police jurisdictions. But scared, no. The Siren didn't even need the brandy, although she drank it anyway.

So here it is, Halloween eve, and everybody else is doing scary stuff. The Siren wants to play too, so she came up with a solution. You what's scary?




This guy is scary. Joseph I. Breen, dean of the Hays Office, enforcer of the Production Code, scourge of toilet-flushing, decolletage and the word "lousy."

So grab your blankie and your brandy and return with the Siren to the days when the Great Bluenose From Philadelphia stomped through Hollywood, leaving in his wake piles of balled-up script pages and discarded film stock, as well as filmmakers rubbing their temples and reaching for the bicarbonate.




Let's see how Breen sought to protect us from too much sex in our horror movies, because isn't that the first thing you think about when deciding which one to watch? That's the Siren's first concern with every horror movie, no matter the year: "Gee, I hope there's no sex."

The Hays Office did a great deal of its work before cameras ever turned, going through scripts and tossing out whatever ran afoul of the Code and their interpretation of it. What follows are some excerpts from correspondence about the 1940 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by Victor Fleming; they're taken from Gerald Gardner's The Censorship Papers: Movie Censorship Letters from the Hays Office, 1934 to 1968. These script notations are part of Joe Breen's memo to Louis B. Mayer, Nov. 12, 1940:

Page 38: The scene of the girl taking off her stocking must be done inoffensively and without any undue exposure. Please also do not overemphasize the garter…

Page 47: The line 'I want you--want you every minute' is not acceptable…

Page 49: Omit the underlined words in the expression 'the little white-breasted dove'…

Page 63: The following broken line must be changed: 'Underneath I'm as soft as your white--'

Page 56: The dialog that ends the scene beginning 'I'm hurting you because I like to hurt you--' is unacceptable by reason of containing a definite suggestion of sadism…




After the script had been edited to the censors' satisfaction, often a movie would be screened so they could be sure a director wasn't trying to screw them (a verb the Hays Office was striking as late as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Screening Dr. Jekyll resulted in the following memo:

In the scene where Jekyll carries Ivy up to her room, delete the large close-up where Ivy's breasts are unduly exposed…

In the first montage, delete all scenes [of Hyde] lashing the two girls.

In the second montage, delete all scenes having to do with the swan and the girl, and the stallion and the girl… [Note from the Siren: Damn, I would have liked to see that.]

In the scene in the cabaret, delete the crotch shot of the dancing girls...

Breen, ever ready to do a good deed, also warned the filmmakers that the British Board of Censors would probably delete a reference to Buckingham Palace. Fleming & Co. still managed to turn in a great S&M horror flick, even if the Siren prefers Rouben Mamoulian's 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.




Let us turn now to James Whale's very great Bride of Frankenstein, which began life in 1934, the year the Code came into full effect. Sex wasn't so much the problem with this one, although Whale received notice that the term "mate" was unacceptable as it implied that the monster "desires a sexual companion…we suggest that you substitute the word 'companion.'" No, the real trouble with the script was intrinsic to the very theme of all Frankenstein pictures, the idea of a scientist usurping the role of God--although some sex still had to be scissored, as well as icky words.

From a memo sent by Joe Breen to Universal Pictures, dated Dec. 5, 1934, about the script then called The Return of Frankenstein:

Page A-12. We suggest changing the word 'entrails,' as it will be offensive to mixed audiences.

Page A-16. We also suggest omitting this scene of the rat, as its portrayal has in the past proved offensive…

Page B-7: We suggest omitting the line 'It was like being God.' This line in the past has proven somewhat blasphemous.

Page B-20: For the same reason, we suggest omitting the line 'as they say, "in God's own image."'

Page B-25: This scene of the miniature mermaid should be handled in such a way as to avoid any improper exposure. [Note: This may well be the Siren's all-time favorite Hays Office line.]

Page B-26: You should omit the line 'If you are fond of your fairy tales' as a derogatory reference to the Bible.

James Whale responded to each point, changing the word "entrails" to "insides," for example, and altering the B-7 line to "it was like being the Creator himself." Whale also told the office that the mermaid was going to have very, very long hair.

It's worth noting that the Hays Office was, unbelievably, often more lenient than other censors. Despite all those protracted negotiations and extensive changes, Bride of Frankenstein was banned in Trinidad ("because it is a horror picture"), Palestine and Hungary, and shown only with extensive deletions in Japan, China, Sweden and Singapore.

The Siren adds that Mr. Gardner cleared up her confusion about the poison in Ivy: "The word 'arsenic' was struck from many scripts on the theory that, deprived of this information, the moviegoer would never realize that arsenic was a lethal substance."

Happy Halloween! The Siren, confident that she has fulfilled her obligation to frighten her readers, adds links with the same aim:

Kim Morgan on Strait-Jacket. The Siren can't think of another film writer anywhere who could use this giddily bizarre flick to anchor the most respectful and deeply affectionate tribute to Joan Crawford that any fan could desire.

They Came From Beyond Hollywood, at Peter Nelhaus' place.

Flickhead visits the Hot L Whitewood, with a side trip to Chiller Theater.

The Futurist has been doing a lot of scary stuff for Halloween, but this takes the biscuit.

Jacqueline T. Lynch reminds us of what might have been frightening people on other radio channels during that War of the Worlds broadcast. Complete with a newsreel of Orson Welles saying "Sorry, guys," a rundown on the 1953 movie and advice on how to handle a Martian invasion.

Every day is Halloween at Obscure Hollow. Just click over and bask in all the incredible screen grabs. The Siren may not be a horror connoisseur, but she loves this site to bits and pieces.

65 comments:

Vanwall said...

I watched "The Camomile Lawn" recently, a BBC miniseries from 1992, which was rather interesting compared to the kind of broadcast TV fare available at that time in the US - we have many miles to go before we find that level of thought and visuals on TV, as things like it are behind cable walls. The current film ratings board is a creepy level of self-flagellation for the people running it, and to an extent, the people acquiescing to it, altho the spiked ball on whips were were certainly more massive under the Breen auspices, admittedly. Control, control.

Horror isn't one of my strong points, altho I've seen enough to of various kinds to like some or not. My all time fave is "Paperhouse", so as you see, slasher films aren't one of my big genres; zombie films being another, so at this stage in horror films, I'm waiting it out.

"Zodiac" was a nice, novelistic procedural film.

Nora said...

Happy Halloween Siren. Sorry about the cold.

For great horror I would recommend visiting any large screen theater showing PSYCHO. Seeing it on television just doesn't give you the same experience.

As for censorship, I would like to see all the alternate endings for the STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY. True an audience chose the one we have today, but I'm still not certain how the suggestion of incest made it past the Production Office. Perhaps it was considered a dream like the murder.

Then there are the films such as ALLEGHENY UPRISING (with John Wayne no less) that passed the Production Office here only to be banned in Britain during WWII. Their reasons were different, but it was still censorship.

THE FUTURIST! said...

Siren:

THE FUTURIST! loves you in a very platonic manner befitting a meta-person due to your mentioning of THE FUTURIST!'s blog on your blog. It is a great honor. He bows, scrapes and kisses your internet hem.

Flickhead said...

Thanks for the shout out, Siren!

Joe Breen for Halloween: inspired.

Many go ga ga over Zodiac, yet I felt at the time that it was competently made but nothing more. To be honest, I really don't remember it.

I see that TCM is showing House on Haunted Hill on Halloween night. Also inspired. I first saw it when I was six or seven at a Saturday matinee, probably around Halloween. My mother took me and surely figured it'd scare the hell out of me. It did. And continued to do so for a few years after. In fact, I think I was in my late twenties until I finally had the nerve to watch it all the way through without covering my eyes. At that age, of course, the hokum glistened. But, from Elisha Cook's sweaty ramblings to the middle-aged socialite's yen for "Scotch and," it's a cool movie.

DavidEhrenstein said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DavidEhrenstein said...

You're right, Siren.Zodiac isn't so much scary as it is unsettling It has a unique flavor for a horor-film-cum-police-procedural. And Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood fans should appreciate the role he inadvertently played in the case when Dirty Harry provided an imaginary "resolution" to the still-active case via movie fantasy, equipped with what has become one of the most famous lines in all cinema: "Make my day!"

Scary to me is The Haunting, Eyes without a Face, Carnival of Souls, Alien, Psycho (both Hitch and Gus) Suspiria, Elephant and Citizen Kane.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Re the Fleming Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde (quite underrated and a major influence on Blue Velvet for obvious reasons)I recall an L.A. County Muesum of Art screening of it many years ago that Isherwood and Bachardy attented. They always sat down in front so my friends and I constantly kept track of their reactions. At some point in the action (can't recall when) Isherwood burst into a fit of the giggles and began to whisper something to Don, very rapidly and at length. We all leaned forward to hear what it was. At best we divined it was about Ingrid Bergman -- who he knew quite well as the first screenwriting job he got when he came to Hollywood in 1938 was Rage in Heaven in which she starred with Robert Montgomery.

I asked Don what it was he said to him that evening years later but he couldn't recall.

Oh well.

I'd like to think it was about the Hays office.

Vanwall said...

I think the Siren's previous Post here, regarding how one see films present and films past, is quite relevant here as well. I saw all my early horror films on B&W TV, none at all in the theater until I was in my teens, and films like "Caltiki the Immortal Monster", or "The Black Cat", or any of numerous Karloff films had a greater influence on me than any modern horror film. These films depended on slyness rather than blood to advance the chill, and those kind of films even today work better for me by far. I still like the more open societal aspects of modern films rather than the Breen era constrictions, but the subtlety absolutely has to be present, regardless.

gmoke said...

For the creepiest films nothing beats the Japanese. "The Audition" and "Vengeance Is Mine" are two prime examples.

This past decade, the Uh-Ohs, have been a horror movie all to themselves and I'm not sure it's gonna get any better.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Thanks for the mention and the link.

Wishing you and the family a Happy Halloween, trick or treating in Brooklyn.

Fiddlin' Bill said...

Is it just me, or does the (presumably) late Mr. Breen look a whole lot like George Clooney? Perhaps a comedy could be constructed?

The Siren said...

Vanwall, I don't get the current ratings board at all, beyond the fact that they are much more bothered by sex than by violence, which give my mom credit, was pretty much the opposite of her attitude. And mine. Some time back Bruce Willis was getting mocked a bit for complaining that male nudity just wasn't allowed (unless, for some bizarre reason, you were Harvey Keitel) while female nudity was a-okay. This still rankles.

Nora, I confess that Psycho is not my cup of tea. I think the first twenty minutes are awesome, and then it restarts, and sputters a bit, and gets good again only sporadically. I'm completely crazy about that shot of the car being hauled out, though. To me it's the most frightening thing in the movie. As for censorship, the Gardner book is great so far as it goes, but it hits only a handful of big movies. There must be tons of PCA correspondence out there. I wanna see the Preston Sturges file. The things he got away with!

T_F!, the Siren assures you that she is far too ordinary a meta-person to deserve such devotion; your post was just really funny, that's all.

Flickhead, I have seen House on Haunted Hill but not for yonks, so I'll DVR it. Glad you like the Breen idea; it's definitely an in-joke for movie history lovers but he's an endless source of, well, all kinds of emotions.

The Siren said...

David, "unsettling" is le mot juste for Zodiac. Eyes Without a Face did frighten me and of course it had Alida Valli, my daughter's namesake and always a pleasure. My preference for the '31 Jekyll isn't huge and is mostly based on my preferring March to Tracy; March is much sexier to me. But the '40 version is just *pulsing* with twisted eroticism. So I'm sitting here smacking my forehead at your mention of Blue Velvet; OF COURSE. How did I miss that? How?

The Siren said...

Vanwall, to me horror goes really, really well with black-and-white, although the Hammer films have great color, when you're seeing a decent print.

Gmoke, I'm afraid no power on this earth is gonna get me to see Audition. I do love Onibaba, however; that one frightened me.

Peter, we're going to the Park Slope parade and I'm skeered. Spare us a good thought. Loved the screen caps although I don't know a single movie there, alas!

Fiddlin' Bill, haha! my first thought is what did poor George ever do to you? And yet, truthfulness compels me to state that yes, the flattering Breen portrait I have there does show a resemblance. And it does seem like the kind of subject the Coens, in a certain mood, might be all over.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well it's so "right in front of your face" as to be easily overlooked.

Ingrid Bergman had an enormous career. She is an axiom of the cinema. Isabella's career hasn't been the same at all. Not only because there isn't Hollywood anymore as there was for her mother but because she has other interests in life.

Arthur S. said...

For me movies which unsettle me and scare me are essentially the same. In terms of chills, the opening torture montage in Sternberg's THE SCARLET EMPRESS was quite impressive. But for me the lure of the best horror films is in their poetics like I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE isn't scary but its mood is terrific. Same with Franju's films. Then PSYCHO is scary as is Dreyer's VAMPYR.

Films which genuinely scared me include LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, SHOCK CORRIDOR, Huston's FREUD and BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING. But they aren't supernatural films.

Isabella Rossellini may not have her mother's career(but she herself says that she's closer to her father) but she's a fine actress on her own right. Her performance in James Gray's TWO LOVERS(a great contemporary film by the way) is very touching.

By the way, after a long hiatus, a post
http://thispigsalley.blogspot.com/2010/10/few-movies-i-saw-at-mumbai-film.html

Vanwall said...

I've read Jack Vance describing horror as something awful happening to someone else, and terror is when it's happening to you - I like to keep that distinction in films, but every once in a while, especially as a kid, certain moods seem to invade while I'm watching a horror film and there's a bit of transference there that gets awful damn close to terror - it's both compelling and repelling, a sign of good craftsmanship.

My brother and I were freaked-out by an underwater scene in "Caltiki", and, damn me, I still watch "X The Unknown" to try and recapture that feeling I had as a kid during one scene inside a crack in the earth. Modern stuff is essentially visual, not moody or sinister like "The Innocents" or "The Other", two faves, but there are some films now that can combine the two well - "The Shining", "Audition" is one certainly, and even over-the-top "Hellbound" has some uncanny scenes that depend on mood alone.

Curiously, all the newer stuff has an incredible amount of gore, a sign the ratings boards are much more interested in enforcing a false reality regarding prurience, but say, bloodletting and torture are just hunky-dory with them - I always felt there was link to certain religio-political views, that was obvious, but the blood and torture angles speak to a deeper, sadistic sociopathy that has manifested itself rather scarily in real life the last few years. I hope for better out of the responsible parties someday.

rcocean said...

You're trying to make fun of Breen but not succeeding. Yes, the standards of the 40s aren't the standards of 2010. So what? Film in the 40s, along with Radio, was THE Mass entertainment medium. Like TV is today. The audience for Films in the 40s, like TV, is really aimed at the 10 to 30 year old crowd.

Nine times out of ten, the Hayes Office never cut anything that truly added added anything good to a movie. Usually, the film-makers were just trying to get Breen's goat, or take the easy way out by being vulgar or offensive.

Paul Clairmont said...

As usual, I feel kind of stupid here (the reason I never leave comments), but can someone please outline the connection between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Blue Velvet? The answer may be "in front of my face," but apparently I'm too dim to see it.

Happy Miser said...

I'm going to see The Bride of Frankenstein on the big screen next weekend in Suffern, NY and cannot wait. Scary or not I'm sure to be entertained by a movie I've always loved, and never seen on the big screen. In the 60s I wrote a fan letter to Karloff imploring him to visit me if he ever got to Jersey. Like Vanwall, slyness is everything. "Caltiki the Immortal Monster" and "The Crawling Eye" are chilling.

The Siren said...

Arthur, I think we have similar tastes, sans Psycho, which I appreciate only in part. Indeed that Scarlet Empress opening is truly something else. I had forgotten all about it and during Shadows of Russia on TCM I started watching it with my daughter in the room. I clicked it off pretty rapidly but still had some 'splainin' to do. Maybe I should confess here that Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? scared the bejesus out of me when I saw it in middle school. It still does, frankly. That rat!!!

Vanwall, it's true, there's so much gore in current movies (or so they tell me; basically, I read spoilers and almost always say "no thanks") that I wonder if the only way to go is back to more atmospheric stuff. One of the last times I saw a horror movie that was up my alley was The Others with Nicole Kidman (is that the one you're talking about?). It reminded me, very pleasantly, of The Innocents. And she was wonderful, and looked great. Unfortunately for me I saw with three guffawing hipsters in the audience and it destroyed the mood at several key points.

Paul, it isn't a dumb question at all, especially if it's been a while since seeing either movie. My "aha!" moment comes from thinking of the highly sadistic, prison-like hold that Hyde develops over Ivy, which now that David points it out, is powerfully echoed in the Hopper/Rossellini relationship in Blue Velvet. That, plus the fact that when I saw Blue Velvet, Rossellini's celebrated resemblance to her mother was completely freaking me out. I kept thinking all this stuff was being done to Ingrid Bergman and I can't say it endeared the movie to me. Now here's David pointing out that Spencer Tracy got there way before Dennis Hopper and so I'm feeling rather dumb myself!

Happy Miser, there are several people urging me to make the trek to Suffern; I won't make Bride of Frankenstein but I really want to make something this year. I'm told it's an awesome place. You might spot Glenn Kenny there, though!

The Siren said...

Rcocean: Your name is unfamiliar, as an aggrieved tone is an unfamiliar thing to encounter in my comments, but perhaps you speak for a silently resentful group of Breen admirers, so I'm happy to respond. Once past the intro, the majority of this post consists of memos from Breen himself; if his micromanaging of garters and miniature mermaids inspires amusement, that is hardly my fault. Of course, I'm not denying that I'm making fun of the man. I have a long proud record of it. I invite you to click on the Production Code label on the sidebar and check out other instances, so you can get the full force of my utter lack of appreciation. When I mock Breen, I'm indulging in the same activity that screenwriters, directors and producers did throughout his tenure, albeit generally behind his back. The company I keep in lambasting him is way too good for me to stop.

I'm not applying retroactive standards either to 1940 or 1934. This correspondence was, in both cases, from people trying to adapt immensely popular works of literature that had been in print for decades without the public morality collapsing as a result. The sadistic overtones are there in Stevenson, as the blasphemous themes are present in Shelley. The screenwriters were bringing those things to the movies from the novels; they weren't grafting sex and blasphemy onto innocent plots for their own fiendish ends. Also, the first two memos are to Louis B. Mayer, under whose aegis Dr. Jekyll was being produced. Are you suggesting LB, whose favorite MGM product was the Andy Hardy series, was trying to smuggle in smut? Whale, on the other hand, at the end of 1934 was in uncharted waters with a Code that had just come into force that year. I feel rather sorry for him, having a script sent back with a forest of blue-penciled notations when just three years before, he'd done fine with a monster's killings and a god-usurping scientist, not to mention all the sex in Waterloo Bridge.

Finally, while most of the PCA laughs are to be found in the sex (so often true of life in general), the Code itself was highly political. It isn't true that producers and directors who crossed swords with Breen were usually trying to slip in vulgarity, let alone that the Code seldom kept out anything vital. The most protracted and distressing battles for people like David O. Selznick, Walter Wanger and Billy Wilder were often over key plot points that had nothing to do with sex, such as Breen's insistence that Maxim de Winter could not really have murdered Rebecca.

Happy Miser said...

Siren- Pity about "Bride". She's my only weakness. Maybe you'll make "Ball of Fire". I'm going. Can't want to see SugarPuss O' Shea do "Drum Boogie". It's moydah-gate! I'm also a push over for streptococcus.
I, too, recoil in horror from gore with some exceptions: The Fly, The Howling, for instances.
Censorship is a bad/arbitrary thing; but, having artistic limits of your own or hurdles to overcome can raise one's quality of work. It's the old less is more argument. The human imagination is short greatly underestimated these days. I liked "The Others", too!

Vanwall said...

Sire - I liked "The Others", it was very well done, and was reminiscent of "The Innocents" in some ways, but I was speaking of "The Other", from 1972.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0069050/

One of the most disturbing films ever.

Vanwall said...

I really should mention del Toro's three that I love - they have that slyness - "Cronos" from 1993, "the Devil's Backbone" from 2001, and "Pan's Labyrinth" from 2006, all superior productions. For a real kid-shocker, I recommend "Journey Back to Oz" - it coulda been a whole new world for Disney.

About half-way down the page:

http://www.shebloggedbynight.com/2008/10/monday-morning-question-your-favorite_15.html

Vanwall said...

That should read "Siren" on my post about "The Other", sorry.

rcocean said...

Siren - thanks for your well written and thoughtful response. I'm sad my post came across as resentful or aggrieved since I'm neither. I simply wanted to advance the point that Movies in the 30s/40s/early 50s were the equivalent of today's Broadcast TV; and that to make fun of Breen for enforcing the standards of the day is rather philistine. It smacks of "those old people sure were funny - they were different from us."

Yes, the old screenwriters/producers were trying to include things that were OK in fiction and on Broadway in the 30s/40s/50s. So what? Even today the attitudes/words of Broadway and Best selling Fiction are not shown on Broadcast TV.

I'm not trying to attack you or even defend Breen that much. Maybe, he was a little over-zealous, but again, so what? What film was really harmed by it? Most of it seems rather minor and silly. The whole topic just seems rather irrelevant to our liking for older films. Wishing they would've been made more like 21st century films seems odd. I can live without seeing Bogart naked in "Casablanca" or hearing Leigh call Gable a Mofo in "Gone with the Wind".

Vanwall said...

Personally, I detest the actions of Breen and his ilk, not because I want the films he censored to portray 21st century mores and actions, but because I wanted them to portray a not very minor thing: their very own times, which were more earthy, more sophisticated, more natural, more foul, more bright, more noble, and more corrupt; curiously, some of these descriptions apply to the Studios' very reason for being the mass media of their day - they ran an illegal collusion that monopolized the very theaters that showed their often watered-down products, which was also the very reason they acquiesced to censorship. It's an invidious practice that does art, and the society it tries to serve and perhaps uplift, no good in the long run, but even today, some people have "learned nothing and forgot nothing.”

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you for the link, and for the notes on Mr. Breen. Am making a note not to mention the word "entrails" in my blog. I try not to offend.

Oh, dear. Now I have an overwhemling urge to mention the word constantly. Entrails, entrails, entrails....

DavidEhrenstein said...

Another vote for The Others. Quite a teriffic little ghost story. Try to see it soemwhere without boors in the audience.

The thing about the production code is that it's always spoken of as banning sex in a literal way. It was more than that for what was happening in the 30's was that filmmakers were reflecting what was actually going on in the depression. IOW the recognition of the fact that sex was a commodity.
Barbara Stanwyck sleeping her way to the top in Baby Face was seen as a threat because it showed a woman gaining power through sex.
It and oter pre-coed films were powerful social protest films in that sense. The code put and end to stories about lower class lives until Paddy Chayevsky brought it back in through sentimentality ie. Marty.

Happily Paddy didn't stay sentimental for long. Middle of the Night revives the pre-code scenarios to a large degree.

Then of course he went bi-polar and we got The Americanization of Emily, The Hospital and Network

The Siren said...

Jacqueline, perhaps in some odd All Saints' Day spirit of sisterly love, I am compelled to admit that the word "entrails" squicks me out and always has. I do think I could have gotten past it in Bride of Frankenstein, though.

Rcocean, no hard feelings at all--it was a serious comment that deserved a thorough response. I think Vanwall and David have pretty much covered whatever additional points I might have made. In the spirit of comity I will add that the one time I felt any love for Breen was when I read Thomas Doherty's book about him a couple of years ago. Doherty included a note from Breen to Orson Welles, effusively praising the dailies of Magnificent Ambersons, which no doubt included things none of us will ever get to see.

Arthur S. said...

The important thing about the Production Code was that it was a studio imposed thing. They created self-censorship so as to maintain the studio system apart from the corporate backers and the government who certainly didn't like the fact that movies like SCARFACE(which was one of the movies that raised hell because it had Italian-Americans, sex and violence, even if it was directed and produced by two WASPs with the initials HH) being popular with the public despite violating so much of the status-quo. They imposed censorship on their terms rather than have it handed down to them. And unlike today, this was done openly. 'Course it didn't make a difference, both the government and the corporate backers came to Hollywood eventually.

Th fact is that today when anything goes what you have is self-censorship by corporates and that's just as bad. The movies made today are just as full of internal compromises, maybe more, than the old days even if sex and violence and happy endings isn't necessarily an issue anymore.

Among the list of film-makers affected by the Code - Wellman took it the worst. Low-class rough-housing was what his specialty was and the Code castrated him. Then Frank Borzage's truly powerful film-making, his radical and direct approach to sex, where love-making is the highest act of innocence, is lost and gone forever. Truly a paradise lost. Then Sternberg was badly hit too, only THE SHANGHAI GESTURE and his final film ANATAHAN are as great as the Dietriches and the silent films, oh and his documentary THE TOWN.

DavidEhrenstein said...

True Arthur.

The Production Code begins a sharp turn to the Right culminating in the HUAC hearings and the Hollywood Ten.

pvitari said...

Zodiac creeped me out. AND scared me -- especially the scene in the basement... chills down the spine and all that.

The two scariest movies for me: The Haunting and Dead Again. Dead Again literally made me jump out of my theater seat and scream.

Are any of these movies scarier than some of the politicians running for office this year?

Speaking of Frankenstein, in honor of Halloween, I screencapped the entire movie. http://paulasmoviepage.shutterfly.com

Trish said...

I would think Mr. Breen must have been the source of great fun among filmmakers who didn't take his nannying too seriously. It doesn't look like he always got his way. If I recall, Dr. Praetorius dismisses religion in Bride of Frankenstein, and the monster definitely had more than just a friendly interest in his "bride". As good as this film is, I prefer Frankenstein. Production-wise, it's much less polished, thus its lack of music, minimal dialogue and choppy editing work in it's favour as a horror movie.

Arthur S. said...

Absolutely, and like the Production Code, the Blacklist was also a studio decision, they were willing to toss out their employees to the sharks just so they could protect the sinking ship that was the studio system. In this case, they were willing to sweep things under their rug even if it resulted in very silly scenes. Like the separate beds Myrna Loy and William Powell share in THE THIN MAN.

But then they still found a way to make great films during censorship and during the blacklist.

Trish said...

Definitely, pvtari. That scene in the basement of Zodiac is outstanding and scared me too. I love how Charles Fleischer rattles off the names of the cast of The Most Dangerous Game. But I'm "creeped out" by the murder at the lake, where the killer strides through the grass wearing a black hood...

pvitari said...

Trish -- that scene freaked me out too.

We complain (or joke) about the production code but Siren's previous post was about how she relates so much more to the older films than the newer ones.

What is it about the stuff the Hays office wouldn't let us see or hear (or even think about) that made this old films so compelling in a way that (for some people) the newer ones aren't?

Meanwhile:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQqtmIrfUT8

I saw the original production -- what a joy.

Tom Block said...

I think a lot of people today are shocked when they find out how nasty-minded (in a good way) our forebears could be in movies like Marked Woman, White Heat, Body and Soul and Kings Row--movies that didn't cross their legs even when they were out in public, and which did an amazing job of observing the letter of the Code's strictures against sex and violence while utterly trashing the spirit of them. I'd love to know, though, how much farther Wood would have gone with, say, the character of Cassie in Kings Row, or how much farther Hitchcock would have gone with everything, if they hadn't had to mollify the censors. (And in any case, nothing can be good that keeps a Last Tango in Paris from being made.) Modern movies have one clear edge, the language: no matter how well we can imagine what Cody Jarrett was "really" saying, it's not the same as hearing the gutter poetry that flows through Scorsese's gangster pictures. (The fact that today's dialog reeks so bad overall is a separate issue.)

I gotta disagree about the basement scene in Zodiac--I thought it was crying out to be reworked or cut entirely. I think it was supposed to be exploring the transformation of the public perception of mass/serial killers from the kind of unadulterated horror and nausea people felt after the Richard Speck murders to its current form of media-fed titillation--the impulse in our society that likes having these guys around because they entertain us. But the scary movie tropes were so obvious and so tonally at odds with the rest of what was mostly a pretty sophisticated picture, that it just threw me out of the film.

pvitari said...

Tom, the basement scene struck me differently. (I mean, besides scaring the pants off of me.) Nothing actually *happened* in that basement. The fear and paranoia was pouring out of the Jake Gyllenhaal character (Robert Graysmith) but there was no objective reason for it, other than the basement was kind of dark and creepy and he was researching a serial killer after all. Fincher used that familiar trope to get us completely into Graysmith's head, and then pulled the rug out from under us because absolutely nothing happened, showing us how ridiculous it was. A real case of having your cake and eating it too. If that makes sense.

Tom Block said...

But the movie otherwise otherwise had a detached, clinical perspective, even when we were viewing that horrific knifing at the beginning, or during that highway scene, where the emphasis was still on the clues and whether the guy was actually the killer. In the basement scene Fincher didn't need to put us inside Jake's head, which I take as a just an excuse for filmmaking tricks; we just needed to know how he was feeling, not feel it ourselves. And I vehemently disagree that "nothing happened" to justify the creepiness: that guy was acting so completely creepy and malevolent, again in a mode one step out of the rest of the movie, that we were pushed into wondering whether JG had really managed to infiltrate the killer's lair.

Understand, I'm not a big fan of the movie. It has a few phenomenal moments and qualities, but by the ending--which took its sweet time in arriving, I might add--I was over any obsession I ever had with the Zodiac killer.

Trish said...

Tom, I disagree. I have met many an intense film fan at conventions and film festivals who have made me feel just a tad "uncomfortable". This is how I view Charles Fleischer in Zodiac. Jake G. (Graysmith) is neither a cop nor a reporter, and he must be forgiven for his very human response.

Forgive me, I know we should be discussing Joe Breen.

Kent Jones said...

Tom, as someone who counts ZODIAC as some kind of milestone, I agree with you to a certain extent, at least about this scene. I always found that it detached itself a bit from the rest of the movie, for reasons close to the ones you cite. But in my opinion, the problem lies with Jake Gyllenhaal. In general, I think he's not quite right for the role, and in that scene he signals the terror so relentlessly that you wonder: why is he going down in the basement? Why not just leave? As an actor, he just couldn't grasp the subtle tension the scene called for: that he's scared and curious at the same time. However, the last time I saw the movie, the overall concept of the scene and the consummate craftsmanship carried it. And the guy is creepy in a very real way, as Trish says.

gmoke said...

When I finally read the RL Stevenson story, I was surprised to find that Hyde was smaller than Jekyll. Every depiction of them I've seen makes Hyde larger, sometimes much larger. Wonder how that would change the creepiness factor in a film.

"Audition" is an acquired taste and I don't fault anyone for not seeing it. Consider "Vengeance Is Mine" though as there is not quite the same ick factor and no gore to speak of (as I recall after these many years). It's based upon an actual case of a Japanese serial murderer and the absolute psychopathology comes through. That's where the horror and terror of the movie resides.

Best essay I know on censorship is Ursula K LeGuin's "Stalin of the Soul" from her book _The Language of the Night_. The object of any form of censorship is the internalization of the "standards and practices," the installation of Room 101 inside your own head.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The basement scene is essential to Zodiac, as is Jake's performance in it. After the other two professioanl detectives he's the amateur -- and audience surrogate. And like all such figures he's drawn towards ehere he doesn't want to go.

Tonio Kruger said...

I, too, liked 2001's The Others--for what little that's worth--but, despite all the horror films from the 1970s I've watched within the last year and a half, I have yet to catch up with 1972's The Other. The closest I came was an attempt to read the original novel in junior high which wasn't too successful.

I haven't caught up with Zodiac yet--mainly because I'm not a big Fincher fan--but I did catch up with Up with the Air--which really isn't a scary film though it does deal with what is admittedly a scary topic for most people--unemployment--and deals with it a lot better than any 21st century film I've seen since 2004's In Good Company . Plus, there's one character in that movie that haunts my dreams for reasons I dare not explain at this time.

I'm kinda surprised to hear that there was such a big controversy over Fleming's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, especially when you consider some of the stuff that made it past the censors. A dream sequence in which Lana Turner's head came off like a champagne cork was "okay" but any explicit references to whips or sadism was not? Ooookay!

Then again I just heard the DVD commentary for 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and it was surprising to note how many complaints that film got from would-be censors.

And yet both of the 1940s films I've just mentioned seem like Disney films compared to the average horror film released today. Then again some psychologists back in the day did have issues with Bambi...

Tonio Kruger said...

Btw, I hope your cold is better by now, Siren.

Just because I don't comment as frequently as I used to does not mean that I have stopped liking your site.

The Siren said...

My cold has devolved into feverishness so this won't be as detailed as I usually am--forgive me. Pvitari, Trish et al -- I refuse to give Breen any credit for the golden age of Hollywood, I just refuse. He was a technical constraint, not a creative talent. I went into my thoughts in some detail here.

As for Zodiac, I devoted my first couple of grafs to it, so it's hardly off topic. I liked the basement scene and it seems that I may have liked Gyllenhal somewhat better than my distinguished first-time commenter Kent Jones, which surprises me; I thought his tentative quality pretty much worked.

Tom Block said...

I haven't seen the '41 Jekyll but the '32 version has that shot of Miriam Hopkins, seen from the side and naked from head to toe, that works on me like electroshock.

>Jake Gyllenhaal. In general, I think he's not quite right for the role, and in that scene he signals the terror so relentlessly that you wonder: why is he going down in the basement? Why not just leave?

Great questions--I've always thought he was out of his depth in that cast. But despite that and other misgivings, I probably agree about Zodiac being a milestone; its immersive quality is special (and fittingly obsessional), and it seriously raised the bar when it comes to using CGI, to procedurals, and especially to period films. There are plenty of other movies from 2007 that I'd watch ahead of it (that was such a good year), but it'd be silly to deny the devil his due.

Tom Block said...

(x-post with Siren)

Kent Jones said...

I agree with David Ehrenstein that the basement scene is structurally essential to ZODIAC. I also agree that the basic idea of the scene is sound and powerful - that Graysmith, as an amateur detective, is drawn toward where he doesn't want to go. Where we part company is over Jake Gyllenhaal's enactment of this tricky emotional state. On a certain level, I think it all functions, and I think Fincher's work is so refined and attentive to detail (visual and behavioral) throughout that Gyllenhaal is carried by the movie. But I don't see the same level of acuity in his performance that I see in Ruffalo's or Edwards' or Koteas', in the film in general and in this scene in particular. By that, I mean: on a local, second-by-second level. Not that it bothers me very much at all - I think ZODIAC is one of the greatest films made by anybody anywhere during the last two decades.

Trish said...

The basement scene is a terrific companion to the encounter in the paint store. Jake nailed it both times. Damn, he's good.

Kent Jones said...

I'm glad that Jake Gyllenhaal has so many admirers. He seems like a very nice guy.

Siren, than you very much for the nice welcome. I've always enjoyed this site.

Vanwall said...

The grand old days of horror, a little late, but well worth it:

The horror, the horror

Tony Dayoub said...

ZODIAC... finally...

To David E., I can't believe I never made the connection between Fleming's JEKYLL AND HYDE and BLUE VELVET either. Send me to the cinephilic woodshed.

Trish said...

To Vanwall, thank you for the link. I collapsed in a puddle of tears when I saw it -- what a resource!

DavidEhrenstein said...

It's patrice Chereau Day at Dennis Cooper's

Dennis let's me have the floor to run amok about my favorite director in the whole damned world. And by that I mean more than film. He's also my favorite director of theater, and my favorite director of opera.

And as if that weren't enough, he's One Fabulous Babe!

Vanwall said...

Trish -

Mr. Door Tree's site is the best of it's kind, and his offerings are the tastiest. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Trish said...

Al Feldstein AND N.C. Wyeth? What joy...

D Cairns said...

I love how Breen instructed James Whale to remove a line about biblical "fairy tales" from Bride of Frankenstein, and Whale subsituted "bible stories", which is neutral and inoffensive... and then has Ernest Thesiger say it with dripping contempt. When censorship was inefficient enough to allow that, it was a mere constraint, and one that could be worked around creatively. But so much of the time there was no way around it...

Vanwall said...

My fave is still Dixie's line "The Asphalt Jungle": "Don't bone me!" - Burnett's realism survived because the censors missed the allusion.

Jeff Gee said...

Amazing things got past censors and rating boards. When I was an usher in the early seventies, we had a double bill of “Elvis on Tour” and “Elvis: That’s the Way It Is,” two G-rated concert films-cum-documentaries. In one of them Elvis apologizes to his entourage for being late by saying, “Sorry, boys, but she gave the best head I ever had.” I can only assume the MPAA didn’t know what it meant, but these were released in 1971.

Towards the end of the decade I managed the Guild 50th in Rockefeller Center, around the corner from Radio City Music Hall. We showed “Just Crazy About Horses,” narrated by Tammy Grimes, a sweet little documentary pretty much geared to little girls who were just crazy about horses—aside from the, um, breeding scene. The stallion was ‘stimulated’ with what looked like a cattle prod, and here followed 45 seconds of EXTREME close-ups, and you know, we’re talking about HORSES. The only thing missing was the wakka-wakka guitar. The crowd was almost entirely 8 to 10 year old girls and their parents, and they inevitably watched the sequence with their eyes wide and their mouths agape, like the opening night audience of “Spring Time for Hitler.” We gave out a LOT of refunds that week.

Rozsaphile said...

I remember that one -- the breeding bit did seem a mighty odd intrusion in that little pic. Ah, the Guild. It was often booked with Disney fare, but then you would sometimes catch things like Syberberg's five-hour PARSIFAL!

dr.morbius said...

Funny someone should mention The Others, a film with no bad language, no sex, no violence to speak of, but one that never the less received a PG-13 rating. Today's ratings board can be as screwy as the Breen office.

I prefer the March version of Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde better, myself, but I prefer Ingrid Bergman's Ivy. The parallel between her Ivy and her daughter in Blue Velvet never even occurred to me before, but I haven't seen the film since its original release. Now I can't put it out of my head.

For myself, though, the touchstone for Pre-Code horror movie perversity is Florey's Murders in the Rue Morgue.

The Siren said...

OMG I can't. Stop. laughing. over that horse documentary. Can you imagine Breen's reaction to THAT???

Dr. Morbius, I agree on all points -- March for Jekyll, a slight edge to Bergman as Ivy (I do love Hopkins, and she got to be more overtly sexy in the precode movie) and Murders in the Rue Morgue is one twisted movie, in the best kind of way.

Tonio, I wanted to come back and say thanks for the get-well wishes, and I am very, very glad you're still reading. I never do know who's lurking, and I get to missing people sometimes.