The 7 Wonders of the Pre-Code World: 4
The Grisly discovery.
Yes, what we have here is a head on a wall. Possibly that of Ray Walston. Seconds later, we get a severed head in a big pickle jar, which poor Fay Wray is about to back into, but that one was too dark to frame-grab.
Shadowplayer Tony Williams kindly pointed me to a piece by Richard Maltby over at Senses of Cinema, arguing that the so-called pre-code era of liberality is essentially a myth. It’s a very readable piece, and although unfortunately Maltby doesn’t cite a lot of evidence to back up his claims (there’s an extensive bibliography, though), he argues well. He claims that the true story has been oversimplified to create a kind of TCM-friendly popular history of American cinema.
In Maltby’s account, the production code started life full of vague statements like “The treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste and delicacy,” and the work of the pre-code era was to arrive, by trial and error, at a workable interpretation of these statements. The greater license seen in some films prior to 1934 was not the result of a censor not doing his job, but of filmmakers working out what was possible and acceptable, and a censor’s office trying to nail down the principles it wanted to enforce.
Of course, we have a kind of double-think when we consider the pre-code era: we know the code existed, and there’s an abundant paper trail available now showing that the censors were indeed paying close attention to what was going on. But we persist in thinking that the films made between 1930 and 1934 were made without Hays Office interference. That interference was there, but it was applied inconsistently and with greater latitude than it would be later.
Still, there IS a period of filmmaking before the code solidified into a set of nit-picking rules, tightly enforced and impossible to avoid. And in that period, stuff went on that would be impossible later. We’ve all experienced surprises in post-code films (I can’t see how any censor could sleep at night with Ann Sheridan’s nipples protruding through her dress like that in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER) but those kind of shocks are more common and more extreme in pre-34 stuff. And the whole approach is different — the difference between Cagney as a gangster and Cagney as a G-man, and the difference between filmmakers actively pushing to see what they could get away with — making incursions into wild territory — and filmmakers who have retreated behind a vast, unsexy wall, through whose mossy slots they aim craftily envenomed barbs of naughtiness and social irresponsibility.
Oh, and here’s our MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH connection — Leslie Banks, suavely villainous and a bit hammy, as Count Zaroff in THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, a couple of years before his more muted work for Hitchcock.