Putting the sin back in cinema

Film buffs open the curtain on pre-code films -- Hollywood's last unexamined era.

By Jeff Stark

Published August 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

She's a nasty broad. In the photograph her black nightgown reveals her inner thigh and the top of her breast. In one hand, she holds a 9 mm pistol; in the other, an empty whiskey glass. Her left heel rests on the back of a dead cop. On the floor, there's a pool of blood, a Tommy gun and a scattered hand of spades, ace high.

The photo, which graces the cover of the new book "Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934" (Columbia University Press, 1999) was staged as a send-up of some of the sins you couldn't show in the movies during film's Golden Era.

Written by Brandeis University American Studies professor Thomas Doherty, "Pre-Code Hollywood" is a meticulously researched academic book that analyzes work from what is one of the last untapped eras of celluloid history -- from Mae West's films to the original "Scarface," as well as hundreds of lesser known actors and films in between.

Responding to the same moral outrage that led to Prohibition, Hollywood adopted a restrictive production code and its list of objectionable no-nos in 1930, but it took a few years for the rules to take effect. Hollywood asked former Postmaster General Will Hays to enforce the code, but his office was more or less powerless to rein in the studios. They, after all, had hired him. By 1933, with Jimmy Cagney's guns blazing and Bette Davis rolling around in suggestive boudoir positions, Catholics launched another crusade against Hollywood and hit the studios with several studies that, in Doherty's words, "linked bad behavior with bad movies." Hays reorganized his office to answer to Hollywood financiers instead of studio heads and hired a new top cop to patrol production. The studios cleaned up their act. Cagney went from gangster to G-man. Mr. Smith went to Washington. The Hollywood execs went to "Boys Town."

Today, amid continuing attacks on Hollywood from the left, the right and the righteous, titillating cinema is enjoying a simmering revival. This year,
Abrams is publishing the lavish stills and quick anecdotes assembled by Mark A. Vierra in "Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood." New York repertory theater the Film Forum is currently in the throes of a 44-film, 26-day retrospective of sex films from the era -- including "Red-Headed Woman," "Careless Lady" and Mae West in "I'm No Angel" (original title: "It Ain't No Sin.") Elsewhere, rep houses like San Francisco's Roxie Cinema are playing similar bills of rare films to enthusiastic audiences.

"This is the only era of film that hasn't been done to death," Doherty told a small crowd of film buffs at a book party at New York's Drama Book Shop in Times Square Wednesday night. "Some of the films playing at the Film Forum haven't been seen for 60 years. Others, owned by Turner Movie Classics, have not been screened anywhere."

Instead of reading from his new book, Doherty introduced and screened a short video of several pre-code clips. In "Baby Face," Barbara Stanwyck applies for a job at Gotham Trust, then, in Doherty's words, "works her way to the top by horizontal means." "Call Her Savage" features Clara Bow playing a wild half-breed who wrestles with an enormous Great Dane, the camera leveled on the dog's balls throughout the tussle. "I never know what to make of that clip," Doherty said. And in a scene from "The Mask of Fu Manchu," Myrna Loy purrs as she orders that a man be hung by his wrists, stripped of his shirt and beaten with a whip.

"These films were minting money," says Elliot Lavine, the Roxie programmer who sells out the San Francisco theater during week-long Pre-Code revivals in the spring. "They were little potboilers, a lot of them 70 minutes long. I don't think that they were trying to excite people intentionally, they were just doing what came naturally. The filmmakers had the same latitude [as storytellers] as they would if they were writing a short story for a magazine."

For contemporary audiences, even with those with their eyes wide shut by the ever-testy MPAA, many of the pre-code films aren't nearly as explicit as what you'd see in the average PG-13 blockbuster. But that's not really the point. "This is an untapped era," says Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at the Film Forum. "There are only a handful of classics, [and] very few stars, or stars early in their careers -- not a lot of name directors either, or name directors before they got stodgy. A lot of these have never even been on TV -- they were too smutty to be on TV."

Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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