The 7 Wonders of the Pre-Code World: 4

The Grisly discovery.

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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.

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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.

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11 Responses to “The 7 Wonders of the Pre-Code World: 4”

  1. Christopher Says:

    Good little film..The Most Dangerous Game reminds me most of what an old Pulp magazine from the early 30s must be like,come to life,with its severed heads and torn dress women in peril,real viloence ,real danger in some dark secluded Island fortress..Could have been from the mind of Robert E Howard for Weird Tales Magazine..
    Max Steiner’s oft repeated Main theme for this film is one of my favorite scores of his..

  2. While it’s clearly no competition to King Kong, it’s a terrific, snappy little number. Joel McCrea is maybe better than the film needs, he can’t really display his acting chops, but he’s certainly a convincing hero. And Banks and Wray are perfect, and the sets and direction are delightfully moody.

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, this is one of my all-time favorites and isn’t Banks also good in THE RED ENSIGN and THE SMALL BACK ROOM, the latter revealing him as a British count Zaroff bearing further scars from the hunt.

  4. He’s ace in Small Back Room. I have copy of Red Ensign but I haven’t watched it yet — Powell’s development through the quota system isn’t clear to me yet, as I’ve only seen his second quota quickie (extremely scrappy) and his last (pretty smooth — and followed by the triumph of Edge of the World). It’ll be fascinating to see what he’s like in between.

  5. Pre-Code liberality is a myth?!? I can’t imagine seeing anything as salacious as The Mask of Fu Manchu or Call Her Savage (just to name 2 examples) in the Post-Code ’30s and ’40s.

  6. Tony Williams Says:

    I think PHANTOM LIGHT is better than RED ENSIGN but I’ve ordered RYNOX and have yet to watch SOMETHING ALWAYS HAPPENS. I’m reluctant to watch many quota quickies since they may just be Powell learning his trade.

  7. I think when you break it down, Maltby’s argument is really that the CAUSES of pre-code liberality are not what has been argued. Seems like he overstates his case a little, and comes on as if he’s turning the world upside-down when really it’s a pretty subtle paradigm shift.

    One of the reason the simplified version has endured is because it is backed up by a notable change, not only in content but in underlying philosophy, after 1934.

    Tony, I think it’s true that some of those films may just show a journey towards competence: Rynox is pretty badly done on just about every level (Powell hadn’t even had a chance to look at his first film before starting his second) so it may take a while before anything interesting happens. But Phantom Light is good enough to suggest there may be some minor treasures lurking — if they’re not lost.

  8. hello David just sent an email to your hotmail

    mary

  9. Tony Williams Says:

    LAZYBONES and THE NIGHT OF THE PARTY are available from Nostalgia Family Video on VHS. I’ve yet to look at SOMETHING ALWAYS HAPPENS also shown on TCM with CROWN vs. STEVENS. SONS OF THE SEA (scripted by Emeric but not directed by Powell), featuring Michael Redgrave and Valerie Hobson was also shown on that TCM season that was introduced by Thelma.

    Tony Slide often knocks the Archers and says that Powell’s “quota quickies” are much better. I think he may be playing a mischievous type of “Devil’s Advocate” role here?

  10. I have Lazybones, Something Always Happens, and Crown Vs Stevens but haven’t looked at them yet. I’m told Lazybones is quite nice. Preferring the quota quickies to the later films is a bit like preferring British Hitchcock to American — contrarian and indefensible, which is not to deny that the earlier works have their appeal. But anyone raising The Phantom Light above The Red Shoes can get their coat immediately.

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