Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood

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Overview

Sin in Soft Focus showcases a scintillating era in film history-"pre-Code Hollywood"-that boldly creative period in the early 1930s when defiant producers flouted the restrictions of the censors, who tried-but failed-to ban everything from sex, profanity, and excessive violence to racial mingling, drugs, and even "lustful kissing." Lavishly illustrated with film stills, many of them rare, the book captures the stunning artistry and bravura of the era's controversial films. Here are Joan Crawford, Clara Bow, and ...
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Overview

Sin in Soft Focus showcases a scintillating era in film history-"pre-Code Hollywood"-that boldly creative period in the early 1930s when defiant producers flouted the restrictions of the censors, who tried-but failed-to ban everything from sex, profanity, and excessive violence to racial mingling, drugs, and even "lustful kissing." Lavishly illustrated with film stills, many of them rare, the book captures the stunning artistry and bravura of the era's controversial films. Here are Joan Crawford, Clara Bow, and Marlene Dietrich portraying powerful women of questionable character; here too are James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Paul Muni rising to fame as gangsters, gamblers, and debauched criminals. The first book to treat the pre-Code films as a discrete body of work, this lively volume is both substantive and appealing.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Emboldened by a 1930 Production Code that required only voluntary compliance, film studios lured Depression-hardened audiences with bullet-riddled gangster sagas; hot jungle tales; horror films; sexy, sophisticated dramas; and lurid depictions of drug abuse, fallen women, and "white slavery." Eventually, challenged by state film boards and decency groups, Hollywood finally agreed to a 1934 Code (with enforcement powers) that endured until finally crumbling in the late 1960s. Vieira (Hurrell's Hollywood Portraits) is good at showing how the 1934 Code was part of a general return to order; though Mae West was too flamboyant to change her image, Claudette Colbert and Myrna Loy quickly went from playing on-screen vixens to playing housewives and mothers. In the end, precode films weren't better or worse than the films that came later, just different. This timely, informative look at a little-known period in American film history covers much the same ground as Thomas Doherty's Pre-Code Hollywood (LJ 7/99)--whose main attractions are the many creamy film stills, which may surprise readers with their frank treatment of sex, nudity, and violence. This fascinating look at an important though brief period in Hollywood history is highly recommended.--Stephen Rees, Levittown Regional Lib., PA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780810944756
  • Publisher: Abrams, Harry N., Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/1/1999
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 9.25 (w) x 12.25 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


PART I: 1930


PICTURES THAT TALK
(RUDELY)


Colonel Jason S. Joy came from Montana. He was even-tempered, deliberate, even thoughtful. He was not apt to attack a film because it dealt with adult issues. He was more likely to look for a way to express its complex morality without shocking anyone. According to censor Jack Vizzard, who worked with him years later, Joy was "a big, good-looking man, but bland . . . almost a milquetoast. But he must have had a core of steel. He tried to maintain the integrity of the Code, and at the same time, he could be almost obsequious, trying to please everyone." The "talkies" made it hard to please anyone. The Studio Relations Committee—Joy and a diligent staff of four—met with six film supervisors a week, suggesting ways to avoid censorship and viewing finished films. Yet the nine major film companies were not cooperating with the SRC. They only submitted 203 scenarios of the 489 films they made in 1929. The SRC managed to see 323 finished films, but too late to stop the censor boards from attacking.

    Kansas was a "dry" state, so it cut scenes of drinking. Maryland targeted "disrespect of the law and condonation of crime by officers of the law... and antagonistic relations between labour and capital." The Ohio board cut anything that might harm impressionable minds. In The Magnificent Flirt, an old man tells his nephew to look out the window; the old man sees a girl exercising in her underwear, but the boy is distracted by a biplane's stunts. The old man says:"I show you a beautiful young woman and you look at an airplane—you pervert!" The Ohio censor, John Leroy Clifton, rewrote and refilmed the intertitle in order to delete the last word. After viewing D. W. Griffith's Drums of Love, he issued this order: "Cut scenes showing hero in tight trousers bowing and standing at top of stairway." The censors went after good films and bad, mutilating the last of the silent masterworks and the first of the innovative talkies—titles such as The Crowd, Our Dancing Daughters, The Patriot, Sunrise, The Lights of New York, and The Cockeyed World.

    The Cockeyed World was the Fox Film Corporation's talking sequel to What Price Glory?, which had made folk heroes of rambunctious Marines, Flagg (Victor McLaglen) and Quirt (Edmund Lowe). Having disposed of World War I in the silent film, director-writer Raoul Walsh now had these rough-and-tumble characters ransack the rest of the world in search of cheap female companionship. The Cockeyed World had something to offend everyone: dirty songs, racist remarks and caricatures (bestial Russians, dopey Swedes, nervous Jews, effeminate Central Americans), horizontal love scenes, a heroine wearing no underwear, and lines that came straight out of a locker room.*


"Her old lady came home—I had to get it on the run."
"I'm bringing you the lay of the land."
"Son of a bitch!" was clearly mouthed by Quirt in one scene.


The film's references to social diseases were unprecedented. Flagg: "I bet you twenty bucks I can make her!" Quirt: "That's a bet. I been itching seven years to get your dough." Flagg: "You been itching for seven years, but don't blame it on me!" Quirt: "Why, the minute she saw me, [Charmaine] gave you the gate." Flagg: "And what she gave you was plenty!!!"

    The film did offend everyone, even Warner Bros., now one of the largest film companies. Harry Warner wrote to Will Hays: "Anyone employed by our Company, who would ever send a picture like that into our office, with the slang, vulgarity, and insinuations, would never work for us another day—even if it was my own Brother." The Cockeyed World brought Fox Film a staggering gross of $2.6 million. It also set a precedent: the most profitable films were usually the most protested, too.

    The Cockeyed World demonstrated that talking pictures could be offensive in ways that silent films could not have been. Dialogue now gave films a literal, immediate quality. In Sunny Side Up, Marjorie White asks Janet Gaynor: "Then what the hell are you cryin' about?" In Not So Dumb, William Holden declares: "You know I don't give a damn about pictures!" In Voice of the City, detective (and director) Willard Mack barks at a suspect whom he calls a "snowbird" (a cocaine addict): "Shoot that in your arm, hop ... either arm." A Catholic educator wrote: "Silent smut had been bad. Vocal smut cried to the censors for vengeance." Most film companies were using Vitaphone's sound-on-disc technology. Since there was no way to cut a piece out of a sixteen-inch acetate disc, dialogue could not easily be censored. When Movietone's sound-on-film supplanted this awkward setup, censors had to find squiggles on the edge of the film a foot ahead of the picture. They found them. Some of these offending lines came as a surprise to Jason Joy, who then realized that actors were ad-libbing lines that were not in scenarios he had approved.

    Under the auspices of what was by 1929 known as "the Hays office," Joy had no authority to make supervisors change scenarios or even screen finished films for him. The "Don'ts and Be Carefuls" only said what to keep out of a film, and they were rather vague about that. The SRC was a good idea, but not a perfect one; only 20 percent of the film studios acknowledged it. The rest bypassed it and endured the consequences. In 1928, the New York State Board of Censors cut 4,000 scenes from 600 films. The Chicago board cut 6,000 scenes. Censor boards were costing the film companies $3.5 million a year in review fees, salaries, and the waste of expensively mounted scenes. Even with the increased profits of sound films, companies could not afford a ruined product, nor could they afford the ill will that spawned the 1928 Brookhart Bill, which could deprive them of block-booking. Will Hays defeated it but could not still new voices of disapproval.

    One resounding voice was that of Catholic layperson Martin Quigley, who published the Exhibitor's Herald, an industry trade paper. According to Geoffrey Shurlock, who was Paramount's liaison with the SRC, Quigley was "an institution around here, because of his magazine—and because he made himself an institution." He was also "a worrier about morals and decency." In 1929, the Chicago publisher took the industry to task for not solving the problem at its source, the studio. He warned that if films were not made uniformly acceptable to the public and to the government, the industry would lose blockbooking and gain censorship. Chicago's population was at this time 50 percent Roman Catholic. Its censor board had become so troublesome that Hays dispatched his chief legal counsel, Charles P. Pettijohn, to reason with its censors, one of whom was Father FitzGeorge Dinneen. In so doing, Hays unknowingly caused the birth of the Production Code.

    Pettijohn's 1929 visits led Father Dinneen to speak with Martin Quigley. The censor and the publisher were of one mind, agreeing that the industry needed a formula, or a "code," to order the manufacture of "decent" moving pictures. In October, they invited Father Daniel Lord, S.J., editor of the Catholic youth magazine The Queen's Work, to join them in a series of discussions. They also had the counsel of one Joseph Ignatius Breen, a militantly devout public relations man. Martin Quigley and Daniel Lord made notes, and Lord began to draft a document.

    On October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed. Hollywood shrugged off predictions of disaster. The major film companies were raking in profits, M-G-M with $12 million, Warners with $14 million, and Paramount with $25 million. Only the Fox Film Corporation was troubled; William Fox had overextended his credit, first to build the largest studio complex in Hollywood and then to buy up Loew's Inc., M-G-M's parent company. The stock market crash and an antitrust suit kept him away from M-G-M, but his company still managed a $12 million profit. Universal, one of the smaller studios, asked Hays if it could film John Colton's sensational stage play The Shanghai Gesture. ("Uncle" Carl Laemmle had told his vice president, Robert Cochrane, that "the public now knows that we stand for clean pictures and that invariably they are too damn clean and they stay away on account of it.") The Shanghai Gesture, a story of miscegenation, opium addiction, and genocide, had been proscribed by the Formula. Hays said no to Universal and then allowed a dozen films of lesser pedigree and greater tawdriness, all the while placating the advocates of censorship. He was given to pious dictums: "This industry must have toward that sacred thing, the mind of a child, toward that clean virgin thing, the same care about the impressions made upon it that the best clergyman or the most inspired teacher of youth would have." Anticensorship authors Morris L. Ernst and Pare Lorentz expressed their dislike of Hays in their 1930 book Censored: The Private Life of the Movies.


A man used to the ways of political subterfuge, with no especial literary or scientific background, Will Hays particularly epitomizes the class-conscious, fearful yet aggressive spirit that has made the American movie an industry, and little else. Search hard and find a man more fitted to handle petty politicians, middle-aged meddling prudes, and aggressive financiers. The controllers, the movie barons, are satisfied with his work. The dividends are coming in. We can expect no fight for freedom, taste, or mature thought in this product so long as the Bishop of Hollywood chants his platitudes and swings his pot of purity.


    Ironically, several of the problem films of early 1930 were both mature and tasteful. The Love Parade was the legendary Ernst Lubitsch's first sound film, the first to team Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier, and the first talkie to integrate musical numbers into the plot. SRC staffer James B. M. Fisher screened the film and wrote, "There is a bathtub scene—very discreetly handled. There is also an early scene which shows Jeanette MacDonald in a very décolleté gown. There are a few lines with a rather explosively sophisticated meaning. None of these things should cause any adverse comment, however, because the picture is entirely free from vulgarity." The New York State censor board passed The Love Parade without cuts, but letters poured into the SRC. Palo Alto attorney Egerton D. Lakin wrote: "'The Love Parade' is a silly, indecent, and disreputable production. I could hardly blame the [Stanford] University students for 'razzing' the show as they do." Yet The Love Parade was a hit, making stars of MacDonald and Chevalier.

    In reviewing the script of Rouben Mamoulian's Applause, Jason Joy advised its supervisor not to clarify the relationship between an aging burlesque queen and her young common-law husband. Joy wrote supervisor Walter Wanger: "[The] dialogue between Helen Morgan and Fuller Mellish, Jr., in which she urges him to marry her because of the return of her daughter, might well be eliminated, allowing anyone to assume that they either have or have not been married, depending on the desire of the person who looks at the picture."Joy believed that he could address the range of sophistication in the American audience only with a strategic vagueness. To his mind, children would not know (or care) whether the marriage was common law, but adults would read between the lines and understand the screenwriter's true intent. Joy carried this vagueness to the point of duplicity. "The assumption that they are married is clinched further on in the picture, when she speaks of him as her husband." This is how he adapted to the demands of spoken dialogue. When he could not approve a thorny plot point, he suggested a contradictory line, thus forcing the audience into two groups—duped or clued-in. In the years ahead, this deliberate ambiguity served him well and often. It did not stop censors from cutting one narrow-minded line in Applause. When asked his name, Henry Wadsworth shyly answers, "'Tony.' I never liked it. It sounds like a Wop bootblack."

    For Greta Garbo's long-delayed first talkie, Irving Thalberg chose Eugene O'Neill's play Anna Christie. It was an unlikely vehicle for the star who had almost coined the words "exotic" and "mysterious." In tough, slangy dialogue, it told the story of a Swedish-American girl driven to prostitution by her father's neglect. Could it be filmed? Jason Joy thought so, writing to Thalberg's assistant, Albert Lewin, "if Anna's past life is indicated and not actually picturized." There was also Anna's dialogue: "I was in a house. Yes, that kind of a house! The kind that you and Matt go to. And all men, God damn them!" Joy suggested changing it to "something like 'I was the kind of girl sailors liked to play 'round with in port.'" SRC staff member W. F. Willis viewed the finished film in December 1929:


Then in reel nine is Anna's great effort, in which she inveighs against "all men, God damn 'em!" I have been told authoritatively that this line was the high point of the spoken play, but I cannot believe it. Much as I do not like Eugene O'Neill, and firmly convinced as I am that he is not the modern Shakespeare, but a dramatic charlatan whose vogue will soon pass, I could not accuse him of not writing anything else so good in this play as this line. But of course these comments are superfluous. I will be prudent and withdraw them, and refer, instead (how I wish I could contrive a whisper on the typewriter), to the very first commandment of the famous endecalogue of June 8, 1927. Do you answer that here the "God damn" is used "reverently, in connection with proper religions ceremonies"?


When New York audiences braved the February 1930 chill to hear Garbo's voice, they didn't notice the "bup"—the sound of a splice on the sound track—where three words had been cut and replaced with "I hate them! I hate them!" In Hollywood, meanwhile, Anna Christie's supervisor had been doing some writing of his own. Working with a committee of supervisors, Irving Thalberg had drafted the "General Principles to Govern the Preparation of a Revised Code of Ethics for Talking Pictures." Hollywood was giving birth to the Production Code.


THE PRODUCTION
CODE


The Code had no one author, Irving Thalberg's influence notwithstanding. Like a motion picture, it was made by a committee to serve the needs of many. Will Hays needed to appease the Midwest Catholics and the increasingly unified Protestants, who had mounted a campaign against him in the liberal Episcopalian journal The Churchman. The moguls needed to restrain the censor boards. The bankers needed to protect their investments from boycotts, such as the one that pulled The Callahans and the Murphys from distribution. Clubwomen and churchmen needed films as edifying as the few to which the supervisors defensively pointed: The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and The Big Parade. The Catholics needed much more than the absence of objectionable material; they needed to impose moral order. To this end, Father Daniel Lord drafted a document that would make the new code unassailable. He called it "The Reasons Supporting the Code."

    Martin Quigley took it to Will Hays, who later recounted: "My eyes nearly popped out when I read it. This was the very thing I had been looking for!" While Hays sought support from the New York executives of the MPPDA, Quigley persuaded Cardinal George W. Mundelein of Chicago to bring in Halsey, Stuart and Company. By January 1930, Irving Thalberg, and then Jason Joy, had written "The General Principles." On February 10, Hays, Joy, Quigley, and Lord met with the MPPDA's West Coast branch, the Association of Motion Picture Producers (AMPP). Its board of directors included M-G-M's Thalberg, Paramount's B. P. Schulberg and Jesse Lasky, Warner Bros.' Jack Warner, and Fox Film Corp.'s Sol Wurtzel. These executives immediately saw that Father Lord was seeking to arbitrate the "morality of entertainment." "We do not create the types of entertainment; we merely present them," Thalberg countered "The motion picture does not present the audience with tastes and manners and views and morals; it reflects those they already have." Lasky agreed: "We are really in the hands of men and women writing the current fiction, the literature of the day. They are our reporters; and they are the ones that set the standards for the present type of entertainment." Thalberg's document said it best: "The motion picture is literally bound to the mental and moral level of its vast audience."

    Lord disagreed: "You set standards; you inculcate an idea of customs; you create fashions in dress, and you even go so far as to create fashions in automobiles." He saw the American audience as malleable adolescents who "sit there passively—ACCEPT and RECEIVE; with the result that they go out from that entertainment either very much improved or very much deteriorated; and that depends almost entirely on the character of the entertainment which is presented," especially when otherwise moral films placed their emphasis on the "immoral pleasures of individual episodes rather than on the moral conclusion." The latest draft of the "General Principles" had a convenient loophole that allowed restricted material if "a special effort shall be made to include compensating moral values." When Thalberg and Lord reached an impasse over this issue, Will Hays called time out, sending Quigley and Lord to rewrite the entire document in "three lively and sleepless sessions." The two authors returned on St. Valentine's Day, having married the "Reasons" to the "Principles." Hays immediately annulled the marriage, hiding the Catholic "Reasons" from the MPPDA board, who might not want the press to know that a Jewish-American industry was being influenced by an Irish-American constituency.

    On February 17, the board unanimously adopted the "Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures," thereafter, the Code. Although Quigley saw the wisdom of not publishing the "Reasons," he assumed his Exhibitor's Herald would be the first to publish the Code. On February 19, Variety scooped him with the article "Warming Up Film Cinderellas," which printed the "General Principles" in toto. Quigley, assuming that Hays had leaked the text, wrote to Daniel Lord: "Hays is a worm."

    Quigley still wanted the Catholic editors' cooperation, and he dispatched the aggressive Breen to secure it. He also wanted sole credit for the Code, which he was able to take when he caught Father Lord accepting a $500 stipend from Will Hays. In the midst of all this intrigue, Father Dinneen cautioned Cardinal Mundelein against publicly endorsing the Code. When Quigley began to take credit for the Code, Mundelein, Lord, and Dinneen wondered who had done the double-crossing. It may not have been Hays who leaked the Code to Variety. Any of the executives could have done it, but the Midwest Catholics chose to blame Hays. They left Hollywood in March, slightly less unified and much less idealistic.

    On March 3l, Will Hays got the New York board of the MPPDA—the actual center of power—to endorse the Code. He trumpeted his achievement in an April Fool's Day press release: "Sound, which revolutionized the art of the screen, has brought about the formulation of a new Code by the motion picture industry." Cardinal Mundelein, who felt that he—not Quigley, Lord, or Hays—was responsible for the Code, refused to endorse it for six months. The secular press was mostly unimpressed.

    "How can a movie which satisfies a child of twelve be made morally safe for a man of 35?" asked The Nation. "Thus far the censors have spent all their time protecting children against adult movies; they might better protect adults against childlike movies." The New York World predicted: "That the code will actually be applied in any sincere and thorough way, we have not the slightest belief." The Catholic press reflected Quigley and Lord's resentment. Commonweal thought Hays had made a "nominal alliance with the church to camouflage an actual alliance with the devil."

    Whether for haloes or horns, Hays had to make the Code work. He gave Jason Joy, who had reviewed seventy-one scripts since January, a larger staff. Lamar Trotti and James B. M. Fisher would assist him with reviews. Florence Sell and Betty Seely would read scripts. John V. Wilson would watch for elements offensive to foreign countries. Alice Ames Winter would represent the General Federation of Women's Clubs. In May, Fred W. Beetson, executive vice president of the AMPP, visited the SRC and reported to Hays that the "entire office has developed into a beehive." It appeared that the studios were abiding by the Code, or at least willing to submit material. However, one of the films released that month was not a product of the Code. Irving Thalberg's The Divorcee was the first film released in the context of the "General Principles," and would be the first to test the hidden part of the Code. For the next four years, the absence of the "Reasons" and the presence of "compensating moral values" would make for some lively movies. And the Catholics were watching.


    The complete texts of the published "Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures" and the unpublished "Reasons Supporting the Code" may be found in Appendix II, on page 214.


A CYCLE OF
SOPHISTICATION


At thirty, Irving Grant Thalberg was a figure of unparalleled brilliance and untrammeled confidence. Louis B. Maver's management had made M-G-M the most powerful film studio in the world, but Thalberg's taste kept it the most respected. According to supervisor Lawrence Weingarten, Thalberg "had a sixth sense about a manuscript. He was a film doctor. You could go out [to a preview] with a film, and if there was something that didn't quite come off, he could put his finger on it. Some of the great films that came out of Metro were remade at his suggestion. He had that uncanny ability." With the Production Code in place, Thalberg looked to his audience.

    Ninety million Americans were attending the movies each week. The industry needed films to feed this appetite. For source material, it turned to successful books and plays. Irving Thalberg bypassed the Formula and bought Ursula Parrott's scandalous novel Ex-Wife. How could the coauthor of the Code buy such a property? He explained to the other members of AMPP that the book "presents divorce in the light of the growing evil it is looked upon to be, but... with less suspicion than it was looked upon before." In deference to the Formula, he changed the title to The Divorcee and promised that advertising for the film would never mention its source.

    Casting The Divorcee was Thalberg's next hurdle. According to Weingarten, Thalberg believed that the film should be a "showcase for an actress. That's how we built the female stars, the Garbos and the Crawfords." Joan Crawford, whose films were hugely profitable, wanted the part. Thalberg's wife, Norma Shearer, was as popular, but she was known for virtuous, clearheaded roles. When Thalberg began to look outside M-G-M, Shearer campaigned for the part. Thalberg later said: "She had to fight all the studio heads—including myself—to put her idea over." She got The Divorcee. Such unlikely casting made the project look subversive. The SRC fretted, but the preview was a relief. W. E Willis wrote: "It is a great picture."

    It was a thought-provoking picture. In it, Norma Shearer portrays Jerry, a commercial artist, whose husband, Ted (Chester Morris), justifies a casual affair with the phrase, "It doesn't mean a thing." Jerry is so stunned that she finds herself testing the limits of 1930 convention: she sleeps with Ted's best friend, Don (Robert Montgomery), then tells Ted: "I've balanced our accounts." When Ted explodes with self-righteousness, Jerry delivers an electrifying fade-out line: "And from now on, you're the only man in the world my door is closed to!"

    Joan Crawford, furious at losing The Divorcee to the invidious Shearer, had a sexy success with Our Blushing Brides, then got lucky when Shearer went on maternity, leave. Crawford got Paid, the story of a falsely imprisoned girl who wreaks vengeance on the rich folk who sent her to prison. Sam Wood shot a five-minute fight scene in the women's shower, then had to shoot a ten-second replacement when the graphic scene was cut, not by the SRC, but by the studio.

    Exposure of a different gender took place in All Quiet on the Western Front, Lewis Milestone's film of Erich Maria Remarque's antiwar novel. One censor board dictated: "Where men are bathing in river, cut out all scenes of them turning somersaults, or otherwise unduly exposing themselves." James B. M. Fisher reviewed the film at the Carthay Circle Theatre, since the SRC had no screening room:


The line in which Kat tells the recruit, who loses complete control of himself during a bombardment, to go back and change his drawers, seemed to pass over the heads of the audience almost unnoticed. Only a few men in the audience caught the significance of the remark and laughed.
    On the whole the picture held the audience very well.... There was no applause at the end of the film but the line spoken by Kat when he says that at the next war all the statesmen should be put in a field and given clubs so that they can fight it out among themselves received a great deal.


    One of the many affecting sequences in All Quiet on the Western Front has three young German soldiers spend the night in a farmhouse with three French girls. It concludes with silhouettes on the bedroom wall and the voice of the hero, Paul (Lew Ayres), telling a French girl, Suzanne (Yola D'Avril): "I'll never see you again. I know that—and I wouldn't know you if I did, and yet I'll remember you—always. Toujours. Oh, if only you could know how different this is from the women we soldiers meet." According to Fisher, "audience reaction here was good; there was no snickering or laughing as there would have been had they considered the scene at all off color." The Ohio board thought otherwise, and cut the entire sequence.

    Equally powerful and more controversial was Howard Hughes's Hell's Angels. While Irving Thalberg worked around the Code, Hughes ignored it, released the film, and then had to seek help from SRC reviewer Lamar Trotti, who wrote to Will Hays: "The difficulty, as you know, lies in the fact that the story of 'Hell's Angels' is stupid, rotten, sordid, and cheap." He noted that scenes between British soldiers and French bar girls showed open-mouth kissing. "When the couples kiss each other, for instance, they invariably open their mouths and try to swallow each other; the men kiss the girls on the ears and the girls squeal." The film was attacked by both critics and Hays's allies, including James E. West, chief scout executive of the Boy Scouts of America, who wrote: "I didn't relish the idea of exposing my children to the unnecessary disgusting evidence of passion and lust, the worst I have seen on the screen." For its climactic aerial battle, Hell's Angels had enough swearing, screaming, vomiting, and dying for three movies. Because of its outsized production and publicity costs, the film was not profitable, but it established Hughes as an independent producer and made a star of nineteen-year-old Jean Harlow, she of the platinum hair and quotable exit line: "Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?"

    As one mogul appeared, another disappeared. William Fox was ousted from the company he had founded by an avaricious triumvirate: the American Telephone Company, Halsey, Stuart and Company, and would-be president Harley Clarke. The Fox Film Corporation lacked star power, so head of production Winfield Sheehan pushed projects that were fantastic, extravagant, and racy.

    One of the first was a "science-fiction musical," Just Imagine. In it, 1980 Manhattan is an unpleasant place, its denizens known only by numbers and not allowed to procreate naturally. Three young men escape to Mars, where they encounter the Martian Queen, Looloo (Joyzelle Joyner), and her brutish bodyguard, Loko (Ivan Linow). Loko approaches earthling Single 0 (El Brendel) and caresses his face. Single 0 exclaims to his comrades, pointing first to Looloo, then to Loko: "She's not the queen! He is!" This Broadway humor was not lost on the SRC's John V. Wilson: "Some of the censors may want to eliminate from Loko's actions that which seem to make it appear that he is 'queer.'"

    Each victory emboldened other studios. In August, Lamar Trotti found M-G-M contentious. Cecil B. DeMille would not rework his sex-and-Deco musical Madam Satan, and Thalberg would not cut Marie Prevost's lines in War Nurse: "[What do you wear to clean the latrine?] Your dark brown taffeta, dear." Trotti wrote: "Not the usual Thalberg reaction. Their attitude at the moment is, why should any small group of people decide what the rest of the world should see?" One of Joy's colleagues wrote him: "After reading the suggestions you made on 'Madam Satan,' you have my entire sympathy. The marvel is that you are getting away with as much as you do."

    Paramount, envious of M-G-M's success with Garbo, imported Marlene Dietrich, whom the autocratic Josef von Sternberg had directed to stardom in Germany's first sound film, The Blue Angel. For her American debut he transformed a California desert into hypnotic Morocco. His equally hypnotic (and hypnotized) discovery was again playing a lady with a past. Dietrich's biggest censorship news occurred at the Colorado Theatre in Pasadena, where an audience expecting The Blue Angel instead got a chopped-up condensation; the response was "a terrific razzing." Censors were increasingly vigilant, and with good reason.

    "We are struggling mightily with the cycle of sophistication which the success of 'Divorcee' induced," wrote Jason Joy. By year's end, the cycle had yet to run out, as evidenced by this editorial in the New York Telegraph.


By the way, whatever became of that Hays code? It seems that all the producers got together when Hays issued his proclamation of picture cleanliness and they all nodded their heads sagely and agreed to follow the code. Then along came Metro with "Divorcee," the picture version of "Ex-Wife," and knocked the code for a row of big figures. Now every picture concern is trying for something sensational and startling.


    There was reason to try. In ten months, weekly movie attendance had dropped from 90 million to 60 million. On December 11, 1930, the secretary of Guaranty Savings and Loan announced that he had lost $7,630,000 in the stock market, and closed his doors. A raft of businesses followed, and the motion-picture industry finally believed that the Depression was real. Maybe the "sensational and startling" would retrieve 30 million customers.

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Table of Contents

Preface 6
Pt. I 1930
Pictures That Talk (Rudely) 12
The Production Code 17
A Cycle of Sophistication 18
Pt. II 1931
Bullets and Box Office 30
Ignoble Experiments 38
Censoring Horror 42
Tropical Tramps 50
Pt. III 1932
Art and Propriety 63
Blood in the Gutter 69
The Fox Film Corporation 70
The Warners Grit 76
The M-G-M Gloss 79
Seeing "Red" 90
The Paramount Glow 95
"Under the Naked Moon" 106
Pt. IV 1933
Enter Mae West 112
Sex in Soft Focus 117
"Black Moonlight" 130
"Three Cheers for Sin!" 148
Pt. V 1934-35
Breen's New Broom 162
The Final Blowout 172
The Production Code Administration 191
It Ain't No Sin 193
The Devil Is a Movie 203
Epilogue 211
App. I 214
App. II 214
App. III 219
App. IV 220
Notes to the Text 222
Bibliography 230
Index 233
Acknowledgments 238
Credits 240
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2000

    Educational text and fine photos

    This coffee-table volume may look like another of the many Hollywood photo anthologies, and the title may promise some photo-titillation, but in fact this is a serious book dealing with movies in the era of the infamous morality ''code.'' The many photos support the text and make for satisfying perusing all by themselves. Although not the scandalous, x-rated outtakes you may have expected (hoped for?),the photos are all interesting, partly because many of them seldom appear in Hollywood picture books. The well-written text details the code, the problems enforcing it, and the personalities who devised and promulgated it. Code-enforcement apparently found it had to deal more with moral implications, suggested relationships, and what might be going on just outside the frame than with what showed up onscreen (which may explain the absence of racy pix). This doubly satisfying book certainly belongs in the library of any movie scholar or serious fan and adds to the stature of its author as a movie historian.

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