The Seven Wonders of the Pre-Code World: 2

Generalized Wrongness.


Nothing is as deliciously wrong as pre-code wrongness, as this still from William Wellman’s NIGHT NURSE demonstrates. And it’s a complicated thing, this wrongness. Taboo stuff that’s dark and scary, rendered perhaps slightly less threatening by history’s forward progress (towards…?) jostles for space with the merely naughty. We can enjoy the filmmakers’ skill and cheek in sliding suggestiveness or blatant smut past the authorities, or shudder at their crassness in matters of race or gender politics. Always, with the pleasure, a little malaise.

14 Responses to “The Seven Wonders of the Pre-Code World: 2”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    My favourite bit of naughtiness is the Busby Berkeley number – Pettin’ in the Park, it ends with a silhouetted shot of many women bathing taking of their innerwear.

    I love this kind of wacky surrealism that was Wellmann’s stock in trade. You should see his film SAFE IN HELL. Also MIDNIGHT MARY, starring…ahem…Loretta Young.

    But you know I have always found very few Pre-Code films that go really far. Many of these films are still fairly conservative and restricted. A little more brazen about sex but not really very much. I always think there is this tendency by writers to make a big deal out of the Pre-Code era and not look at it rationally.

    Lubitsch certainly goes very far with TROUBLE IN PARADISE and especially DESIGN FOR LIVING, as does Borzage whose attitude to sexuality is astonishing even by today’s standards. Sternberg in films like BLONDE VENUS and THE SCARLET EMPRESS or MOROCCO or SHANGHAI EXPRESS. But then how is THE SHANGHAI GESTURE ”less” brazen and depraved than these films even if it’s post-code?

  2. Christopher Says:

    ..I personally don’t care that much for the sexual innuendos or whether I see a bit of flesh or not,thats all fun..I like a good witty script..with peculiarities

  3. I LOVE 30’s undies!

    Night Nurse s a realjoy on anumber of levels. It’s one of the best early Stanwyck’s and it pulsates with pre-code honesty about The Way Things REALLY Are.

  4. It looks like the Sex and the City of the 30s! Poor Sarah Jessica Parker looks in need of a sandwich or two though.

  5. Christopher Says:

    someone obviously got BONED last night!

  6. David Boxwell Says:

    “You . . . mother!”

  7. David Boxwell Says:

    Joan and Ruby in their “step-ins.”

    Easy to step out of out of, too. Usual pre-Code MO: shoot close-up of feet (usually in satin pumps) with step-ins cascading silkily around them. Cut to actress in peignoir or bath tub . . .

  8. David Boxwell Says:

    MIDNIGHT MARY: most SHOCKING moment occurs when Ricardo Cortez lasciviously wraps his mouth around Miss Loretta’s fingers. It’s as close to oral sex in classic studio H’wood history as we ever get . . .

  9. Oh, closer still is the implied cunnilingus (or analingus, given that he’s behind her) in The Big Combo, and that was 40s. Joseph H Lewis knew a thing or two about bamboozling the censors too. “I didn’t show anything, that’s all in your dirty mind!”

    Night Nurse is the pre-code E.R., or possibly the Ooh-Er!

    Berkeley’s use of pre-code liberties is great fun, and Leisen’s response in Murder at the Vanities can finally be appreciated by all in the new box set. And yes, many of the films are still conservative at heart, but that conservatism can express itself in more liberated ways. The weird misogyny of Two Seconds, for instance, would have been muted after the Production Code became all-powerful. And while Sterling Holloway’s “sissy” characters aren’t conceived as positive role models by any means, they at least acknowledge the existence of Men Who Are Not Bogart.

    The Shanghai Gesture manages to be as shocking as any pre-coder, but it was massively censored at the time. JUST IMAGINE what they could have shown and implied if it had been made before 1934!

  10. Tony Williams Says:

    I think Richard Maltby wrote an essay in, saying that the pre-Code films were not as salacious as most people think?

  11. What’s going on in The Shanghai Gesture is that Gene Tierney is being turned into a drug addict. But you don’t see any drugs. She just keeps asking for cigarettes. Man those cigarettes really must have been somethin’ else!

    And the more debauched she gets the more beautiful she becomes.

  12. That’s an interesting piece, Tony. I’ll have to take into account some of Maltby’s arguments in my next installments.

    It’s been speculated that if The Shanghai Gesture lasted ten minutes longer, Tierney’s beauty would reach a level that might blow a hole in reality.

  13. david wingrove Says:

    NIGHT NURSE is a joy, especially the scene of Stanwyck and Blondell in bed together. Whether the young Babs derived any…er…’extra-curricular enjoyment’ from this scene is, of course, a matter for endless debate. Let’s just say she plays it quite convincingly.

    As for naughtiness under the Production Code, my favourite moment comes in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. Lauren Bacall goes out and quite blatantly prostitutes herself for a bottle of whisky – which she and Bogie then amicably share. Let it be said, however, that she does so with inimitable class and style!

  14. “Dignity, always dignity!”

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