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Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man

Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man

by Mick LaSalle

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Using the same mix of accessibility and insider knowledge he used so successfully in Complicated Women, author and film critic Mick LaSalle now turns his attention to the men of the pre-Code Hollywood era.

The five years between 1929 and mid-1934 was a period of loosened censorship that finally ended with the imposition of a harsh Production Code that


Using the same mix of accessibility and insider knowledge he used so successfully in Complicated Women, author and film critic Mick LaSalle now turns his attention to the men of the pre-Code Hollywood era.

The five years between 1929 and mid-1934 was a period of loosened censorship that finally ended with the imposition of a harsh Production Code that would, for the next thirty-four years, censor much of the life and honesty out of American movies. Dangerous Men takes a close look at the images of manhood during this pre-Code era, which coincided with an interesting time for men-the culmination of a generation-long transformation in the masculine ideal. By the late twenties, the tumult of a new century had made the nineteenth century's notion of the ideal man seem like a repressed stuffed shirt, a deluded optimist. The smiling, confident hero of just a few years before fell out of favor, and the new heroes who emerged were gangsters, opportunists, sleazy businessmen, shifty lawyers, shell-shocked soldiers-men whose existence threatened the status quo.

In this book, LaSalle highlights such household names as James Cagney, Clark Gable, Edward G. Robinson, Maurice Chevalier, Spencer Tracy, and Gary Cooper, along with lesser-known ones such as Richard Barthelmess, Lee Tracy, Robert Montgomery, and the magnificent Warren William. Together they represent a vision of manhood more exuberant and contentious-and more humane-than anything that has followed on the American screen.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"LaSalle is an engaging writer who takes his films seriously but not pedantically."

- Charleston Post & Courier

"Lively . . . [LaSalle's] enthusiasm is contagious. . . . Dangerous Men serves as both an entertaining history and a cautionary tale."

- San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco Chronicle
"Lively . . . [LaSalle's] enthusiasm is contagious. . . . Dangerous Men serves as both an entertaining history and a cautionary tale."
Charleston Post & Courier
"LaSalle is an engaging writer who takes his films seriously but not pedantically."
Publishers Weekly
One would be remiss, San Francisco Chronicle film critic LaSalle points out, in taking the sappy naivete of many of the Hollywood films of the 1930s, 40s and 50s as a faithful barometer of a more innocent time. Instead, this world of simple black and whites (both visual and moral) was forced upon the motion picture industry by a restrictive Production Code that reigned in Hollywood from 1934 to 1968, censoring "dangerous" ideas and characterizations from the final edits. Before the Code was imposed, "Hollywood would specialize in heroes who were shady, crooked or outright criminal"; after it, films were stripped of the messy humanity that gave the "pre-Codes" their life and boiled down to unsophisticated good guy vs. bad guy plot lines. LaSalle (Complicated Women) outlines the heyday of the pre-Code era, which lasted from the advent of talkies in 1929 until mid-1934, when actors such as Jimmy Cagney, Lon Chaney and Clark Gable made their mark playing flawed, tough, yet respectable characters. These earlier movies featured "men [who] reveal the truth about the difficulty of manhood in the modern age" and, as such, helped define American masculinity for the rest of the 20th century. 16 pages b&w photos (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
LaSalle, a film critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, believes that the leading men of Hollywood's pre-Code era represent a distinct break from their wimpy or exaggeratedly heroic predecessors in the silent era. They could truly be called "dangerous," both to others and to themselves, because they lived (and frequently died) by their own rules. Whether good guys or villains-they were sometimes an intriguing combination of both-they reflected the social chaos going on around them, caused largely by the Depression and Prohibition. Even the slimiest of gangsters, often played by Warner Bros. stalwarts Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, could be admired because they were their own men. Besides those obvious choices, LaSalle includes some actors who would not seem to fall into the same category, including Richard Barthelmess and the suave Warren William. Although the author's admiration for this era's films is unmistakable, his insights often seem shallow and derivative, and his style can be somewhat pedestrian. If Complicated Women, LaSalle's earlier study of women in pre-Code Hollywood, was popular in your library, you can safely purchase; otherwise, you can pass.-Roy Liebman, California State Univ. Lib., Los Angeles Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Companion volume to LaSalle's Complicated Ladies (2000), about female stars of Hollywood's aesthetically rich pre-Code era. In 1929 the advent of talking movies opened the door to more provocative Hollywood filmmaking, often imbued with strong social commentary. But in 1934, reactionary forces succeeded in establishing the Production Code, a mechanism that allowed a small group to decide what was acceptable for the nation's movie screens-a form of control that held sway for the next quarter-century. LaSalle's premise is that the five-year pre-Code era of 1929-34 was a seminal period in American movie-making that helped foster the very ideal of the modern man, caught between his own sense of right and an increasingly mechanized, conformist society. Those years offered directors opportunities to express serious concerns about American society while featuring an array of leading men-Clark Gable, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Rudolph Valentino, among others-who were "dangerous" in that they broke with the smiling, swashbuckling heroes of the '20s silents. They questioned and resisted authority, shaded the lines between good and evil, challenged concepts of law and order, and introduced caddish and even cruel behavior in screen romances. Above all, they were the key players in an emboldened Hollywood that made movies about and for a generation disillusioned by WWI and the Depression. This is film studies and not social history, yet LaSalle's descriptions of films and stars can't help but illuminate America at a time that was uncertain. The author's erudition is great, and his writing is lively, precise, and witty in his discussions of classic films such as Public Enemy, Gold Diggers of1933, 42nd Street, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Little Caesar, Central Park, All Quiet on the Western Front, Wild Boys of the Road, and Son of the Sheik. Trenchant film-by-film analysis from an author clearly in love with his subject. A compelling introduction to one of Hollywood's golden eras.

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St. Martin's Press
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Dangerous Men

Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man

By Mick LaSalle

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2002 Mick LaSalle
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7604-0


Why Are These Men Smiling?

We can date the beginning of the pre-Code era to Hollywood's industry-wide acceptance of sound, which took place in stages but took hold completely sometime in 1929. But before we go there, let's burrow a bit further into the past and look in on the silent era, a period that's a mystery to most people, with its distinct artistry and largely unknown roster of stars. If we want to understand the modern men who came along in the pre-Code era, we need first to look here, to sneak up on the heroes who dominated the silent screen. When we do that, we notice something almost immediately that's rather strange about these fellows: They're all smiling.

It's not just that they smile a lot, though they do. It's the way they smile that's striking — big, openhearted, cocksure. If an actor is really flamboyant, sometimes his smiling is accompanied by a toss of the head or a gesture of the arms. It's a way of smiling that seems to have left the planet long ago.

The smiles of the silent heroes suggested a whole attitude toward life, a confidence about the nature of heroism and the ultimate fates of good and evil. Silent heroes not only believed their victories were inevitable but, when they did win, they felt sure enough to gloat a little. They did not go through life expecting the ground to shift beneath their feet. Thus, to our eyes, they look unprepared: We know the ground will shift and wonder why they don't guard themselves against it.

In The Black Pirate (1926), Douglas Fairbanks, after single-handedly taking possession of a ship, keeps the crew at bay with two cannons. It's at this moment that he feels safe enough to throw back his head and laugh. But shouldn't he be worried? Shouldn't he make sure no one is sneaking up to stab him in the back? No. Such concerns were for a later time — as in 1929. In Fairbanks's The Iron Mask (a 1929 silent with synchronized sound), he would indeed get stabbed in the back — and killed. By then, it was the dawn of a new era, and Fairbanks himself, for all his popularity, had an inkling that his style of hero was done for.

The first three decades of the twentieth century saw a dramatic shift in the self-image, the aspirations, and the social and sexual behavior of men in the United States. In the late nineteenth century, men were expected to be sober, disciplined, steady, reliable. To be a man of character was the ideal. As social historians such as Kevin White have pointed out, these were traits ideally suited to the economy in which men then functioned. The late nineteenth century was the era of the self-made man, the small businessman, the farmer — men who worked for themselves and achieved success through sacrifice and self-denial.

Turn-of-the-century men's magazines regularly featured inspirational stories of white-haired businessmen, who came up from nothing through single-minded diligence. These were the heroes, and they were men's men. They inhabited a man's world, struggled with men, formed alliances with men, hired and fired men, and lived lives quite apart from those of their wives, who inhabited the separate sphere of hearth and home.

The ideal model was beginning to change as the new century dawned. Many factors came into play, not the least of which was economic, the shift from an America made up of small proprietorships to one dominated by conglomerates. Men, who a generation before might have started their own businesses, were in the cities, working for large corporations. Or they were salesmen or admen. In this world, personality became central to success — traits such as likability, charm, good looks, snappiness, inventiveness, originality. By 1931, according to a Variety survey, the most famous and recognized names in the country would be those of gangsters and film stars.

Youth was no longer considered the age of ignorance, a period of years spent in toil, working to gain a foothold in the world. Consumerism, popular magazines, and movies combined to make youth and dynamism the ideal. Advertising encouraged men to wear clothes and use products that made them look young and smell good. Social critics such as Randolph Bourne in Youth and Life (1913) talked of youth as an age of intuitive wisdom. World War I was the final straw. Youth turned on their elders for making a hash of the world. Older men's values had produced a cataclysm, and young men had paid with their lives. "The older generation has certainly pretty well ruined this world before passing it on to us," wrote a young man in the Atlantic Monthly of September 1920, expressing the prevailing sentiment. How could the younger generation, the idea went, possibly do any worse?

Much of the rebellion centered around sex. Young men strove to be sexually attractive in a way their fathers could not understand. In the nineteenth century, men didn't need to be sexy. If they wanted sex, they could go to a brothel. For that, all they needed was money, all the more reason to work hard and save for a rainy day. At the same time, men struggled not to give in. It was a sign of manly character to resist fleshly temptation, to make oneself impervious, to master one's energy and channel it into success in work.

Along with everything else, those sexual attitudes changed. The self-denial that the older generation preached was derided by the young as self-destructive and unnatural — and hypocritical. For the first time since the Industrial Revolution, men were once again working with women — not in the home, as their great-great-grandparents had done, but in office buildings. Proximity fostered equality, camaraderie, and the desire for intimacy. In this new climate, looking for sexual gratification was no longer regarded as a weakness, but as a sign of manliness.

The movies of the twenties, lagging slightly behind the times, as movies always do, are fascinating in their presentation of masculinity caught between two time periods. In silent films, we find the nineteenth century's emphasis on character and self-denial, often in combination with the twentieth century's glorification of personality, sex appeal, and youth.

Anyone looking for a good measure of the vast distance American culture would navigate in one brief decade need only look at two film versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — the 1920 silent movie, starring John Barrymore, and the 1931 talkie, starring Fredric March. We'll talk about these films at length in a later chapter. For now, it's enough to note that, though based on the same Robert Louis Stevenson story, the pictures came to completely opposite conclusions as to the story's meaning. In 1920, it was a cautionary tale about the failure of self-denial and self-control. It was about a man's character collapsing in the face of temptation. But in 1932, the story was adapted as a warning about the consequences of needless and harmful sexual repression.

The great silent heroes of the twenties, stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, Ramon Novarro, and John Gilbert, were hardly sober men of affairs. They projected the modish virtues: youth, confidence, physical beauty, dynamism, and personality. What they, or rather their images, lacked was irony. As historian Paul Fussell has asserted, irony was the great and defining legacy of World War I. That modern sense of irony, seeping into the culture as the twenties progressed, would ultimately make the silent hero and his radiantly unshakable smile seem old-fashioned indeed.

* * *

DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS WAS already thirty-six as the twenties began, mature for a movie star of his day, but with his best years still before him. A Broadway actor, he'd become enormously popular in films of the 1910s, appearing in energetic social comedies with lots of gracefully executed physical stunts. The beginning of the 1920s brought two changes in his life. He married "America's Sweetheart," Mary Pickford, a star of at least equal magnitude; and he made The Mark of Zorro(1920), the first of a nearly unbroken series of swashbuckling adventures that would include The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), and The Gaucho (1927).

A man in youthful middle age, Fairbanks had his feet in two different worlds. He looked like — as his sound films would prove him to be — a modern-style fast talker. Yet he had a nostalgic streak that connected him with audiences of all ages. Fairbanks's heroes were dazzling, climbing high, leaping and swooping through the air, and they presented a romantic vision of history. Yet what inevitably allowed his heroes to triumph were the same traits that would make a good advertising man — wit, freshness, new ways of seeing old things. It's as if Fairbanks's swashbuckling films were an attempt to show that modern-style cheerfulness and invention would have been legitimate heroic traits in any previous century.

Fairbanks himself did not see his work as polemics on behalf of the new values. Rather, he saw his swashbucklers in idealistic terms. In 1924, he called them "fairy stories" and attempted to explain their universal appeal to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

I believe that a beautiful fairy story is a story that everyone in the audience will feel is his own. The hero naturally starts off with great obstacles to be overcome. That is practically every man's story. Then the hero falls in love with a princess. This is also every man's dream story. He finds that in order to reach his desires, he must be worthy and do more worthy things. This is what every man's spiritual side has meant at some period of his life. Then the hero goes out and surmounts innumerable barriers. He fights his way through fire; kills monsters of terrifying mien; resists seductive temptations and at the end receives the happiness he has earned, just as every man has thought of doing. We call it fantasy, but it symbolizes the very essence of life itself.

At least it symbolized the very essence of the self-made man. What Fairbanks described might have been a highly romanticized version of a businessman's story. For all his modernity, Fairbanks saw his films as fantasies extolling the importance of sacrifice and hard work, self-reliance and diligence.

Whatever their message, no one did them better. No one put the poetry into this vision the way Fairbanks could. No one exuded such joy. Fairbanks was a delight, and he remains delightful, an appealing figure of fantasy — but he's not our fantasy. His films come to us as if from another moral universe. Modern in manner, Fairbanks strove to embody a kind of manhood that would soon be out of style and that today is barely in currency even as an ideal. It's that which makes his much-praised death scene in The Iron Mask so poignant. D'Artagnan collapses in a courtyard and is greeted in the sky by the spirits of his friends, the three musketeers, and the four walk merrily off into the clouds. We're saying good-bye not just to Fairbanks or silent film but to a certain kind of guy, a certain kind of dream.

Rudolph Valentino embodied another ideal that was gaining sway in the first decades of the century — that of the primitive or elemental man. He played men who, however smooth they may have been on the surface, were in touch with their animal nature. A culture that had turned away from glorifying repression, that saw modern man as having been civilized out of spontaneity and vitality, saw much to admire in the fantasy of the primitive-type lover.

In movies, the primitive served as the male equivalent of the vamp, a female archetype popular with both male and female viewers. For women, the vamp represented power; for men, guiltless sex — after all, if a woman's allure can't be resisted, he can't be blamed. Likewise, the primitive-man fantasy offered dreams of power and license. He took what he wanted, while the woman, with no choice but to submit, could be absolved of responsibility. Traces of this fantasy would linger on into the pre-Code era, in the films of James Cagney and especially those of Clark Gable.

Valentino on-screen was no vulgar brute. He was suave and Continental. He could also be dangerous. The sexy moments in The Sheik (1921) and The Son of the Sheik (1926) weren't romantic in the traditional sense, but tense with the threat of rape. Valentino had great success in these roles. He had equal success in Blood and Sand (1922), as an innocent bullfighter who succumbs to a vamp. It seems that the only Valentino movies that left audiences cold were ones in which love was not presented as perilous or at least gravely serious.

Valentino is a curious figure. In some moments, he had a rare archness that, today, makes him seem years ahead of his time. Yet he also had his era's mania for smiling. In The Sheik, he smiles so much he looks positively loony. He refined his style over time, and his last film, The Son of the Sheik, released a month before his death, indicated what might have been a promising direction for Valentino had he lived. The picture combined a faintly tongue-in-cheek tone with some genuinely steamy moments. Though Latin lovers would disappear in the pre-Code era, it's just possible that Valentino, with his sense of humor and capacity for self-mockery, might have held on. At worst, he could have switched to playing urbane heavies or second leads, just as his American look-alike Ricardo Cortez did.

Valentino had started a Latin lover craze in the 1920s. An Italian immigrant from Puglia who came to prominence playing a Spaniard in Rex Ingram's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), he could easily have inspired a mania for Italian screen lovers, but audiences and studios were simpler in those days. The public wanted people like the fellow Valentino played in the movie, so Spanish and Hispanic lovers became popular. Of these, the best was Mexican-born Ramon Novarro, who also began his career with Rex Ingram but became a major star at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer playing the title character in Ben-Hur (1926).

Unlike Valentino, there was little suggestion of danger about Novarro. He conveyed a purity and sweetness of spirit, a trait not to be valued in the coming age of Cagney, Robinson, Warren William, and Gable, though Gary Cooper had a touch of that quality. In Ernst Lubitsch's The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), he played a sheltered prince, whose timidity gives way to his longing for connection when he goes away to school. It's moving to watch him blossom.

Novarro's last silent film, The Pagan (1929) was a routine studio product. But in terms of Novarro's star image, it was his apotheosis, providing him with a role that capitalized on his physical beauty and sex appeal and made a virtue of his intrinsic air of innocence. He played a native living in an island paradise, on his own land. He falls in love with Tito (Dorothy Janis), a native girl who has been adopted by a white trader, the film's villain, who tells her (in an intertitle), "Tito, you were born half-white. ... But through my training, you will be all white." But the trader's plan is doomed — she has already seen the pagan.

The Pagan found the thirty-year-old Novarro at his physical pinnacle. Early in the film, there's a close-up in which he looks off at the girl, shakes water out of his hair, and smiles. In those moments, he's as beautiful as any human being who ever stepped in front of a movie camera. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., once wrote of him, "He might, with equal facility, have had a glorious career either as a priest or roué." That combination, partly wild, partly holy, was nicely exploited in the scene in which he asks why Tito bothers going to church. When she tells him that she goes in order to visit God, he laughs and tells her she could see God everywhere. "Why go see Him in hot church?"

John Gilbert, also at MGM, was an even bigger star than Novarro. Born in Utah in 1899, Gilbert wasn't a Latin, but he shared with Valentino a dangerous quality, a hint of menace that should have put him in a good position when movies switched to sound. Before Valentino's death, Gilbert was known as a great screen lover. After Valentino's death Gilbert was the great screen lover. Today, he is most remembered for the silents he made with the young Greta Garbo — Flesh and the Devil (1927), Love (1927), and A Woman of Affairs (1929). But of the three, only Love, in which he plays Vronsky in a modern-dress version of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, shows Gilbert at his manly and confident best.

In Love, we get a classic Garbo moment that was also a quintessential Gilbert moment. It comes when Anna removes her veil and he sees her face for the first time. Standing in for the audience, he reacts by looking dumbstruck, elated, and mesmerized. And then he does what men in the audience would not do but Gilbert would: He leers. He doesn't avert his eyes from the vision of beauty. He isn't afraid.

Gilbert sometimes seemed as if he were struggling against the optimism implied by his screen image. His smile was all white teeth and three dark lasers coming at you, two eyes and a mustache, but with something more going on behind the smile — a complexity, a strangeness, the mystery of a genuine movie star. On-screen, he had the range of a manic-depressive, quick to laugh, but often as if standing on a trapdoor that might open into despair. He conveyed that quality in his interviews, as well. In 1927, loved by millions, at the top of his profession, with every earthly delight at his fingertips, he bemoaned his lot as a twenty-eight-year-old movie star:

My tragedy is the tragedy of all cinema people, really. We have everything. We have everything — too soon. ... What can life offer me when I'm forty-nine? What will there be left for me to do? What will there be left for me to want? Nothing that I can imagine. ... It's so easy ... to make a mess of life, and if you mess it after you are a certain age, it isn't easy to straighten it out again. After all, four-fifths of life is in the head. If the heart isn't happy, life is all wrong. That's why I want to find the right woman and am afraid that I may never be so fortunate.


Excerpted from Dangerous Men by Mick LaSalle. Copyright © 2002 Mick LaSalle. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Roger Ebert
Before the movies were childish, they were adult. Mick LaSalle opens the door to a golden era.

Meet the Author

Mick LaSalle is the author of Complicated Women and was an associate producer of the Timeline Films/Turner Classic Movies documentary of the same name. He is the San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic.

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