[On Thursday, June 9, starting at 6:00AM, TCM is broadcasting six “Pre-Code” films all directed by the prolific William A. Wellman: “Night Nurse,” “Other Men’s Women” and “Safe in Hell” from 1931; “The Conquerors,” “Love is a Racket” and “So Big” from 1932. The first three, especially “Nurse” and “Safe in Hell” are must-see for pre-code enthusiasts and those who are curious to learn more about this 1929-1934 “genre” from the golden age of the Hollywood studio system. “Night Nurse” stars an unbeatable pre-code duo — Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell — if you know them only from their later films or television work, you’ll be in for a treat; “Other Men’s Women” has Blondell as a hot ‘n spunky (what else?) waitress, James Cagney at his early best, and the always-excellent Mary Astor; But the main event is “Safe in Hell” starring the inimitable (and until recently, forgotten) Dorothy Mackaill — I need say no more — if you see the film, you’ll understand why she is worthy of renewed attention, and wonder “how in Hell” she could have been forgotten in the first place.]
To anyone who has read more than one or two posts on “11 East 14th Street,” at least one theme seems constant throughout. The unrecognized, unknown, unappreciated, the under-appreciated, under-rated performing artist who deserves to be better known, or if known, then better understood. If I occasionally go a bit too far in the opposite direction and take a shot or two at someone who has received what I perceive is an inordinate amount of attention, it is only from frustration with those who waste our time and theirs with the obvious. You won’t see specific posts about certain actors of “classic movies.” As much as I love Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart — and they more than any others were my introduction to the films of the Hollywood studio era — you won’t see me championing their cause. They don’t need it — or at least not as much as others who are not well-known even among those fans of “classic movies” who don’t consider themselves neophytes.
One of the major positive results of the branding of classic movies in the last decade or so is the rediscovery of films of the early sound era, specifically those referred to as “Pre-Code” films. Movies made during the early stages of sound, were often experimental (there weren’t exactly any blueprints or manuals to guide filmmakers in the new technology) in the way they wove together the new morality (or immorality depending on your perspective) of the 1920s with recorded sound — music, effects and dialog — which combined with images created a greater range of expression and creative possibilities than was possible in silent film, if a clever filmmaker new how to use it full advantage.
For just a brief bit of background if you aren’t familiar with the term, “pre-code,” it refers to the production code which American (i.e. Hollywood) film studios adopted beginning in mid-1934. It was essentially a standard set of practices governing film content — a form of institutionalized self-censorship by the American film industry. There had been earlier efforts to place guidelines or boundaries of moral conduct almost from the very beginning of publicly projected film in the mid-1890s. As early as 1908, the mayor of New York City proposed and successfully enacted an ordinance banning storefront movie “theaters” on the grounds that they were a public nuisance and promoted immorality in those sweaty, smoky little rooms where mixed audiences, male and female, new immigrants and native New Yorkers, sat mere inches apart — in the dark!
In the early 1920’s, a “wave” of scandals hit the film industry on an almost monthly basis. Drug addiction and death, charges of rape and murder took down some of the best known early film stars and film makers, whose careers were destroyed or irreparably damaged (Mabel Normand, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mary Miles Minter) or whose lives ended (Olive Thomas, Wallace Reid, William Desmond Taylor).
In the wake of these events, and fearing congressional investigation and oversight, the industry agreed to a policy of self-policing under the stewardship of a pseudo-government figure, an ex-Postmaster General, Will Hays. It was as effective as an intervention attended only by the addict, or rehabilitation at home. Just effective enough to get the heat off for the time being. By the dawn of “talking” pictures, it was all but forgotten within the industry, setting the stage for a new round of pushing the envelope in relaxed attitudes toward and depiction of sexual behavior, talk, dress and (at least partial) nudity; but also addressing adult subjects in an adult manner for adult audiences, something that would disappear from American films for thirty years following the adoption of the Production Code in 1934, this time with the involvement and oversight of major religious organizations including the Catholic Legion of Decency and the appointment of a morality “czar,” Joseph Breen. From that point onward to the mid-1960s, Hollywood would spend more creative effort trying to work within the restrictions of the Production Code than creating mature story lines and mature films for mature American audiences.
As you might expect, there are performers and artists in film during the pre-code era of sound who are well-known, those who deserve to be better known, and those forgotten who should be remembered along with their peers. If you’ve seen the excellent documentary, “Complicated Women,” aired a number of times on TCM, based on a book by Mick LaSalle and/or you’ve seen or purchased one of the pre-code sets, “Forbidden Hollywood,” you know at least some of the films and the stars of the period.
Many film careers began and were made during the pre-code era — sound was the impetus for a wave of Broadway stage-trained actors recruited by nervous studio executives concerned about both the voices and salaries of their “silent” stars. Many stars were born and nurtured in the environment of “relaxed morals” of 1929-1934 Hollywood. Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell, Kay Francis, Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, Jeanette MacDonald, Claudette Colbert, Miriam Hopkins, were among the many whose faces and figures figured prominently in both the advertising artwork and on-screen camerawork of pre-code Hollywood movies. With the exception of Harlow, not one of these actresses would be known as a “sex symbol,” but you wouldn’t guess that by watching their pre-code work.
Some had careers that may have been or were soon to be on a downward trend anyway, and may have had a brief boost in pre-code movies, Dorothy Mackaill is the first to come to my mind — and although the “Complicated Women” documentary gives the impression that her career floundered after the code was adopted, I’m not sure it was the cause of it. Also included in that documentary was Tallulah Bankhead, a famous stage actress probably as close to a sex symbol as could be found on a Broadway theater stage, simply failed to “cross-over” to film, though she was hardly the first or last to fail in that regard.
Then there was another group of actresses who didn’t do overtly sexy work in the period, but whose careers certainly weren’t hurt by another aspect of pre-code film that the “Forbidden Hollywood” collections don’t emphasize (though the “Complicated Women” doc and book do) — the “liberation” of females on film (but of course nowhere else) that portrayed women in dominant roles as executives, physicians, business owners, architects, artists — Bette Davis, Ruth Chatterton and Ann Harding are the first names to come to mind — those whose careers turned upward during this period of less gender-repression, and continued along similar lines (if in less domineering roles) with personas firmly established in the pre-code period that gave them an almost permanent identity of women who were anything but sexual playthings.
But the prime reason for watching these films is the sheer fun afforded by seeing these audacious actresses playing equally audacious characters. Few of the films are individually important or influential, but as entertainment they were as good as it got at the time. Watching Barbara Stanwyck stand toe to toe with a nasty, menacing, pre-star Clark Gable — she throws a mean roundhouse punch at his henchman’s kisser — it doesn’t get any better. Even when Gable knocks her across the room and almost unconscious as she smacks the wall, you know she’s going to get the best of him before this film is through. That’s another thing in their favor — these movies are rarely longer than 65 to 75 minutes, and some are under an hour. They fit well within our TV-watching routines.
Equally brief is “Other Men’s Women,” (First National, 1930) by Wellman. It is by far the most interesting visually — and I’m referring to the construction and composition of the shots, not Joan Blondell in skimpy underwear (Joan is outstanding in a supporting role, but she remains completely clothed throughout). Wellman uses a long tracking shot in particular, to illustrate the friction between womanizer Grant Withers and his sometime girlfriend Blondell, and makes full use of the compositional possibilities of the trains and train-yards in which most of the early scenes are set — but we don’t really watch pre-code films for that, do we?
Every actor cited in this post (see also the tags below) is among my favorites of the period, and will sooner or later be the subject(s) of individual posts/essays. particularly Dorothy Mackaill, who comes across as distinctly “modern.” She hasn’t benefited as much as some whose work and reputation have been resurrected and appreciated anew — Kay Francis in particular comes to mind. (If you are interested and haven’t seen it, watch the “Complicated Women” doc on TCM the next time it’s shown — it has a good segment on Mackaill’s pre-code work, and was actually my introduction to her.) The likely reason is that her career was essentially over by 1935, and the bulk of her work was in the late silent period, and who knows what the survival rate has been for those films. But her work in sound film was so compelling, and enough of it survives, it seems, to allow us to make that judgment, and to make her career worthy of further attention. I intend to do so to the extent I am able in future entries here.