Pre-Code Hollywood

Man and Woman in Same Bed: Verboten After 1934 (Madam Satan)

Hollywood films released after July 1, 1934 were heavily censored by the Breen Office of the MPAA for adherence to community morality standards, especially with regard to S-E-X. That is partly because between the onset of the Great Depression and that date, Hollywood released numerous pictures that violated the prevailing morality.

Pictures like Cecil B. DeMille’s Madam Satan (1930) for MGM with its Art Deco orgy aboard a Zeppelin. Or Warner Brothers’ Baby Face (1933) with a social-climbing Barbara Stanwyck intent on avenging past slights on the entire male gender. According to film scholar Eddie Muller, the straw that broke the camel’s back was Paramount’s The Story of Temple Drake (1933), starring Miriam Hopkins based on a lurid William Faulkner novel in which her character murders her rapist.

I recall a scene excised from many prints of Josef Von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930) of a bare-breasted native girl smiling at the camera as a column of French Foreign Legionnaires marches past. (In all honesty, however, there are numerous glimpses of breast in many of the silent Jesus pix of the period. Thank you, Mr. DeMille.)

This Film Was Dynamite with Its Immoral Heroine

Several weeks ago, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) showed a program of four pre-code Warner Brothers films that are a good place to start if you want to see what the era was all about:

  • Two Seconds (1932) with Edward G. Robinson
  • Employees’ Entrance (1933) with Warren William and a hot Loretta Young
  • Blessed Event (1932) with Lee Tracy and Mary Brian
  • Baby Face (1933) with Barbara Stanwyck

Lee Tracy and Ruth Donnelly in Blessed Event

The prints that TCM showed looked pristine. That is because the originals were stored at the Library of Congress, which took good care of them.

Pre-code stars included, in addition to the above mentioned, actors like Clark Gable, Ruth Chatterton, James Cagney, Mae West, Jean Harlowe, Joan Blondell, Paul Muni, and Mae Clarke.

I regard the Hollywood films of the early 1930s as a happy hunting ground for interesting films that dared to do what no film until the modern day did. In this era of free porn on demand, that might not seem like much, but it does provide a more realistic glimpse of an interesting era in America.

The Muralist

Quetzalcoatl Mural at Dartmouth College’s Baker Library

During the four years I was at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, I spent many hours studying in the reserve room of Baker Library where, between 1932 and 1934, José Clemente Orozco painted a striking series of murals named “The Epic of American Civilization.” One of the images (above) was of the god Quetzalcoatl (or Plumed Serpent) crossing the Gulf of Mexico to Yucatán. It was largely due to Quetzalcoatl’s yellow beard in Aztec iconography that misled Moctezuma to believe that Hernán Cortés was Quetzalcoatl returned to the Aztecs. We all know how that turned out….

Orozco also did other murals at a dining hall at Dartmouth, but they were removed because they were thought to be Communist, and the Patricians in control at Dartmouth were aghast that the Mexican visitor would abuse their hospitality. (A similar thing happened in Los Angelist, where Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros painted a mural called “América Tropical” that was painted over for similar reasons.)

I love Orozco’s work. At one point, I even journeyed to Guadalajara to see more of his work, such as the image of Miguel Hidalgo below:

Mural by Jose Clemente Orozco featuring Miguel Hidalgo (leader of the Mexican War of Independence), Palacio de Gobierno (Government Palace), in the historic Center of Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico

Censorship of a great work of art because one does not believe in the political philosophy espoused by the artist is, to my mind, barbaric. Only in the United States is there a simultaneous attraction/repulsion response to Orozco’s emphatic mural style. Any attempt to paint over his work in Mexico would cause a bloody riot. But then, Mexico does not swing as far to the right as our country does.


Favorite Films: King Kong (1933)

Who Can Resist That Mug?

I must have seen the original King Kong (1933) over twenty times by now, and I never seem to grow tired of it. One of the reasons I love it is that it is Pre-Code. As such, it gets away with many scenes that a few scant years later would have received the kibosh from the censors at the Hays Office. In one of my favorites, Kong employs Fay Wray as a scratch-n-sniff toy, stripping away her outer garments as if they were onionskins and holding his fingers up to his nose. You can see the scene on YouTube here.

A few years before he died, I happened to meet the producer and co-director of the film, Merian C. Cooper. He spoke to a film class at UCLA for which I was the graduate teaching assistant. During that class, he gave his own interpretation of what Kong was really about. Now I don’t necessarily take his word for it, but he says that the ape was a symbol of the downtrodden black race which did not know its own power. Maybe, but there are too many vignettes of the giant gorilla munching on black natives or crushing them like insects under his feet for that reasoning to be altogether convincing.

While I liked the big gorilla, I went ape for Fay Wray. After seeing countless movies of the period with goldilocks-looking blondes wearing those stupid cloche hats, like cloth helmets, it was refreshing to see a healthy young woman who would be considered a knockout today—without having to squint your eyes. Oh, and she was also a pretty good screamer.

Fay Wray in the Notorious Scratch-N-Sniff Scene

There have been numrous remakes and near look-alikes, but I still think the only ones worth considering were done by Ernest B. Schoedsack with or without Merian C. Cooper. I am specifically referring to Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949). In the age of CGI, Kong just ceases to be interesting. The model work in the Schoedsack/Cooper films was nothing less than superb.


Red Sunset Mother

It All Goes Back to Aesop

It All Goes Back to Aesop

The three words of the title of this post were separately suppressed by Myanmar’s ruling junta: “red” because of its association with Communism; “sunset” because General Ne Win’s name meant “sunrise”; and “mother” because that was the nickname of Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi.

That brings back to mind another draconian instance of censorship. In Costa-Gavras’s film (1969), the rightist Greek colonels in charge forbid the use of the letter Z (Zeta) in the Greek alphabet because of the protestors’ use of the Greek phrase “Ζει,” meaning “He lives.” The pronoun refers to the democratic politician Grigoris Lambrakis, who was assassinated in 1963.

What does one do when the powers that be forbid the use of certain words? Russian and Eastern European writers under Communist rule came up with the solution: use other words in their place. This is referred to as the use of Aesopian, or Aesopic, language. Just as the ancient Greek teller of fables used stories to mask political realities, writers would use metaphorical language to stand in for the proscribed language. In an article entitled “The Rhetoric of Subversion: Strategies of ‘Aesopian Language’ in Romanian Literary Criticism Under Late Communism,” Andrei Terian describes the procedure used:

Since organized dissent was absent, the ‘resistance through culture’ represented in Romania the main form of assertion of the writers’ independence from the Communist regime. Civically, it materialized through the refusal to enroll in the party’s propaganda machine, while artistically, it took place through the defense of the priority of the ‘aesthetic’ criterion in the production and reception of literary works, which generated a literature relatively autonomous from the political sphere. Nevertheless, from the perspective of maximalist ethics, the ‘resistance through culture’ is a deeply duplicitous phenomenon, which fits perfectly in the Ketman paradigm described by Czeslaw Milosz. In the Polish writer’s opinion, ‘Ketman means self-realization against something’ (The Captive Mind ….), which, in the case of totalitarian societies, is translated in a profound divergence between an individual’s private thoughts and their public expression.

I thought Milosz expressed it better in The Captive Mind—a book I urge everyone to read—but I can’t quote it because, alas, I can’t lay my hand on it at the moment.

Terian is a bit abstruse, so let me think of an example. Let us say that the Tea Party rules America as a rightist junta and bans the use of the word “abortion.” A hated Liberal writer can use another term, such as “ablution” in such a way that a censor would let it pass, despite the fact that its meaning would be clear from its context, as in “they were able to limit the size of their family with the discreet use of ablution.” Writers can and did develop an entire language of such circumlocutions under the noses of the Communist censors.

Even words as basic as “red,” “sunset,” and “mother” can find Aesopian equivalents, such as, perhaps, “rubicund,” “gloaming,” or “progenitrix” respectively—though a poet can play with the concept much as Viking poets used kennings such as “wave’s steed” for “ship” or “Freyja’s tears” for “gold.” And the Viking’s did this not because of censorship, but to help the meter of their compositions.