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.

Discoveries: Nikkatsu

Nikkatsu Studios Logo

During this hyperextended quarantine, I continue to make interesting discoveries. Late one night, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) put on a double bill of noir films from Nikkatsu Studios.

Nikkatsu? I had heard of Toho, Shochiku, Diaei, and Tohei … but never Nikkatsu. After a quick look at Google, I found that Nikkatsu was actually the oldest studio in Japan, founded all the way back in 1912, three years before D.W. Griffith filmed Birth of a Nation.

I began to look at I Am Waiting (1957), but as the hour was late and I was tired, I reluctantly prepared for sleep.

But then, I discovered that the TCM website has a Watch Now option. When you select Watch Movies, you have available to you virtually all the recently shown films on the channel, including cartoons and shorts. The only requirement is that you subscribe to a service on your TV that carries the TCM channel: There is a login required.

A Scene from A Colt Is My Passport (1967)

I was delighted to find that both I Am Waiting and A Colt Is My Passport were available through the website. Thereupon I watched both films and was delighted that I persevered in searching them out. Not only that, but I bought the Criterion Collection’s Nikkatsu Noir series of five films, which included the above titles but three others that I plan to watch in the weeks to come.

Film noir has traveled from the United States to France (the films of Jean-Pierre Melville), England (the original Get Carter with Michael Caine), and Japan.

A Stroll Down Noir Alley

TCM’s Eddie Muller, Doctor of Noir

Of late, I have become addicted to TCM’s Noir Alley, which screens Saturday at midnight and Sunday at 9 am (both times Eastern). It was my friends Alain Silver and James Ursini who introduced me (and most Americans) to the genre with their books on the subject. Now that I am retired, I have pursued the subject on my own, both in films and literature. Eddie Muller, host of Noir Alley, shows an interesting array of noir films and provides excellent introductions and background info—when he is not plugging wines for the TCM Wine Club.

Last night, for example, he screened Too Late for Tears, a 1949 United Artists film on how the prospect of money can warp one’s thinking and emotions. Directed by Byron Haskin, the film stars Lizbeth Scott, Dan Duryea, Arthur Kennedy, and Don DeFore. Although the film tanked when it was first released, it is worth a second look; and now that a restored print has been created by the wizards at the UCLA Film Archive, such a second look is now possible.

Pressbook for Too Late for Tears (1949)

Aside from Too Late for Tears, the noir films I have seen on Noir Alley in the last few months have included, in the order I’ve seen them:

  • Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) directed by Robert Wise, starring Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte
  • The Hunted (1948) directed by Jack Bernhard, startring the strangely beautiful Belita
  • The Sniper (1962) directed by Edward Dmytryk, about a misogynist serial killer
  • The Threat (1949), directed by Felix Feist, with Charles McGraw as an escaped murderer bent on revenge
  • The Big Heat (1953), directed by Fritz Lang, perhaps one of the very best noir films ever made

Many of the films shown are pictures you’ve probably never seen or heard of, yet all are interesting explorations of the underside of the American psyche. I look forward to seeing what Muller selects from week to week.