Studios Slate Spicy Pre-Code Classics27 Mar, 2009 By: Thomas K. Arnold
Hollywood’s salacious past keeps catching up with it.
Two more sets of saucy classics from the early 1930s, before Hollywood began policing itself with its rigid Production Code, are appearing on DVD.
Just out is Warner Home Video’s third “Forbidden Hollywood” collection, produced with Turner Classic Movies. The six films in the set are all from director William “Wild Bill” Wellman: Other Men’s Women (1931), about a love triangle between a woman (Mary Astor) and two burly railroad men; The Purchase Price (1932), with Barbara Stanwyck as a mail-order bride; Frisco Jenny (1932), about a San Francisco madam (Ruth Chatterton); Midnight Mary (1933), with Loretta Young as a young woman on trial for murder; Heroes for Sale (1933), a hard-hitting tale of a war veteran (Richard Barthelmess) addicted to morphine; and Wild Boys of the Road (1933), about the impact of the Great Depression on ordinary Americans. This is the first Forbidden Hollywood collection to focus on the work of one specific filmmaker.
Universal Studios Home Entertainment follows April 7 with another six films in the “Pre-Code Hollywood Collection”: The Cheat (1931), with Tallulah Bankhead as a woman willing to do anything to pay off her gambling debt; Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), with Fredric March as an abusive alcoholic; Hot Saturday (1932), starring Nancy Carroll as a fast girl in a small town who decides to live up to her reputation, with Cary Grant as one of her suitors; Torch Singer (1933), with Claudette Colbert as a woman who gives her baby up for adoption to become a nightclub crooner; Murder at the Vanities (1934), best remembered for the musical number “Sweet Marijuana”; and Search for Beauty (1934), with Buster Crabbe as a star athlete suckered in by a trio of health-product hucksters.
All 12 films were produced before the 1934 introduction of the restrictive “Production Code,” which until the late 1960s changed the way Hollywood filmmakers treated, or avoided, certain subject matter.
Though relatively tame by today’s standards, some of these “pre-code” films would have made flashers blush. In sharp contrast to the MGM musicals and other feel-good fare often associated with Hollywood in the 1930s, they satisfied public demand for graphic stories filled with scandal, adultery, prostitution, illegal drug use, murder and homosexuality — topics filmmakers conspicuously avoided for decades thereafter.
“We all swallowed this canard that people in the 1930s went to the movies for escape, to forget about their troubles,” said noted film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. “And yet here are movies that are staring trouble square in the face — and they are fascinating.”
“These films are very much a window into what the 1930s were really like,” added Warner’s George Feltenstein. “They were not shackled by the pretentious trappings of the Production Code, which tended to make people not real, not believable.”
“The appeal is obvious,” he said. “We’re all attracted to the naughty side of life.”
Two of his favorite films from the two collections are Hot Saturday, included in the Universal Studios set, and Heroes for Sale, in the Warner collection.
Hot Saturday, released by Paramount Pictures in 1932, stars Nancy Carroll as a fast girl in a small town. Rumors cost the girl her job at a bank, so she figures she might as well live up to them.
“I love Nancy Carroll, whose career was meteoric but brief,” Maltin said. “She was a bit of a diva, so Paramount started giving her what they considered to be lesser vehicles. This is not an ‘A’ picture, not a major film, but it’s precisely that matter-of-fact nature of the movie that makes it so interesting today.”
Heroes for Sale, a 1933 Warner Bros. film, is “a remarkable movie,” Maltin said. “This film is a true Depression-era document, with the Bolshevik character spouting his ideology and a war veteran who had been wounded and is now addicted to morphine. It’s pretty potent stuff, and also a great role for a now-forgotten star, Richard Barthelmess, who was a big star in the silent era and whose career was on a wane at this time, though not for lack of ability.”
The story about the Production Code is as titillating as some of the movies. With the widespread adoption of sound in 1929, filmmakers became increasingly risqué, even though public outcry over perceived immorality in Hollywood had already led, in 1922, to the creation of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association. The head of the group, former Postmaster General Will H. Hays, sought to stave off potential federal censorship by compiling a list of subjects he felt Hollywood studios should avoid.
In 1930 the association adopted Hays’ suggestions into a formal Production Code that stated, in its first general principle, that “no picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it.”
But the code lacked teeth, and films became racier and racier. Baby Face, a 1933 film with Barbara Stanwyck as a child prostitute pimped out by her speakeasy-owning father, was something of a flashpoint. The Catholic Church got involved, and a newly formed Catholic Legion of Decency called for boycotts and created blacklists.
A year later, Hays and his team established the Production Code Administration, which required all films released on or after July 1, 1934, to obtain a certificate of approval before being released. Specific restrictions included no scenes of rape, “sex perversion,” miscegenation or childbirth; no nudity or suggestive dances; no illegal drug use; and no offensive language. Ridicule of religion was forbidden, as was “excessive and lustful kissing” and “the sale of women, or a woman selling her virtue.” And “impure love,” or sex outside marriage, could never be presented “as attractive or beautiful.”
“Even Betty Boop cartoons were changed,” Warner’s Feltenstein recalled. “She was no longer dressed in curvaceous little outfits; she went from being a vamp to being a cute little lady.”
Only in the 1960s, with the sexual revolution and daring imports from foreign filmmakers like Fellini, did Hollywood at last loosen its standards. Several big-studio productions pushed the proverbial envelope with films like 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Blowup, which MGM released even though it was denied Production Code approval.
A short time later, the Code was scrapped in favor of a film rating system, which went into effect in late 1968 and imposed virtually no restrictions on what could be shown in a film, just as in the pre-Code days.
Warner has already released two previous installments in its “Forbidden Hollywood” collection that sold well enough to justify a third set — and, quite possibly, more installments down the line. Universal Studios, too, may release subsequent volumes of pre-Code films, based on how well this first collection sells.
“These films continue to startle and fascinate us with controversial adult themes that still resonate today,” said Craig Kornblau, president of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. “Today’s audiences will be both captivated and surprised to discover how social issues of an earlier era were so candidly depicted, as popular culture was undergoing a seismic change.”