The era of Pre-Code films ran from 1930 to 1934. During that time women portrayed in films were modern, defiant and complicated. They ditched cheating husbands, had lovers, had careers and were independent and unapologetic. Prior to this time, many women’s roles either depicted the woman as good or bad—the sinner or saint—the virgin or whore. In other words, prior depictions of women were simple stereotypes that allowed no room for shades of gray.
I first discovered Pre-Code in college and I remember being shocked (yet thrilled) at how bold and brazen it was. Until then I had only been exposed to Classic Hollywood films that were Westerns, Musicals, Comedies, Horror and pretty pure stuff overall. Pre-Code was vastly different and proved to be a complete revelation. These films tackled adult issues and really brought complex morality and mature thought to the screen. They also offered incredible roles for women that were sexually charged which was something I had never expected to see in an old movie. When the Production Code came into effect and cracked down on Hollywood these films became extinct. It is a shame…but at least for a brief few years these films got made and were able to create an impact that can still be seen and felt to this day.
BABY FACE (1933) I read the NY Times article a few months ago that some additional (and very racy) censored footage had been discovered for BABY FACE and it would be put back in the film! I was thrilled! UCLA showed BABY FACE-Uncensored to a sold out audience. Before the film they explained to us where the additional footage was so we could look for it. If you haven’t seen it….BABY FACE tales the gin soaked story of Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) who is forced to work as a waitress and prostitute in her father’s grimy speakeasy. After his sudden death in an explosion, Lily sets out for New York with her maid to seek a better life. She gets a job in a New York bank where she literally sleeps her way to the top floor by floor. Barbara Stanwyck is excellent! She exudes more sexuality with a mere glance than most women do with their entire bodies. She is fierce, tough and unstoppable. It amazed me how much the uncensored footage changed the entire course of the film!
Posted below is the NY Times article which can summarize far better than I could:
A WANTON WOMAN’S WAYS REVEALED, 71 YEARS LATER
January 9, 2005
By DAVE KEHR
STARRING a slinky young Barbara Stanwyck as a bootlegger’s daughter who sleeps her way to the top of a New York financial empire, “Baby Face” is one of the most notorious films from the pre-Code era - that period of much relaxed censorship that Hollywood enjoyed from 1930 to 1934.
Last summer, Michael Mashon, a curator of the motion picture division at the Library of Congress, received a request for a print of “Baby Face” from the organizers of the London Film Festival, who wanted to show the film as part of its annual tribute to pre-Code rambunctiousness. The library’s collection, Mr. Mashon discovered, contained two negatives of “Baby Face.” One was the original camera negative; the other, identified as a duplicate negative, looked slightly longer.
What he saw was a revelation. “It was a moment that archivists live for,” Mr. Mashon recalled. “I knew in the first five minutes that this version was different. I can’t begin to describe the sheer joy of discovery, the feeling that I may have been the first person since 1933 to see ‘Baby Face’ uncut.”
What Mr. Mashon had unearthed was, indeed, “Baby Face” in its raw - very raw - state, much as it had been submitted to the Motion Picture Division of the State of New York Education Department, otherwise known as the New York State censorship board. The board’s decision, received by Warner Brothers on April 28, 1933, consisted of one word: REJECTED.
The board did not give any reasons, perhaps because they seemed obvious enough. “Baby Face,” directed by Alfred E. Green from an original story by Darryl F. Zanuck (who was then in charge of production at Warner), remains one of the most stunningly sordid films ever made, a standout even among the wave of risqu? entertainments that filled American screens in the early years of the Depression. Even the cut version is a jaw-dropper; with its five full minutes of sleaze restored, it has to be seen to be not quite believed.
The heroine of “Baby Face,” Lily Powers (Ms. Stanwyck), was raised in her father’s second-story speakeasy in a working-class neighborhood of Erie. Pa. Dad (Robert Barrat), apparently, has been offering her services to the local steelworkers (one describes her as “the sweetheart of the night shift”), but when he sells her in a whispered conversation with a corrupt politician (we see a greasy wad of bills passing between them), Lily has had enough. The pol tries to touch her thigh, and she dumps a cup of hot coffee on his hand; obviously a slow learner, he comes up from behind to grab her breasts, and Lily smashes a beer bottle against his forehead and knocks him cold.
And that’s only the first reel. Urged on by a not-so-kindly old cobbler (Alphonse Ethier), who recommends that Lily read Nietzsche - and “Be strong! Defiant! Use men to get the things you want!” - Lily hops a freight train to New York. A favor performed behind closed doors for a tubby office boy at the Gotham Trust Company gets her a job as a file clerk; with similarly persuasive techniques, she wriggles her way up the corporate ladder, ducking through a door marked “Ladies Rest Room” for a squalid encounter with one supervisor (Douglas Dumbrille) and deliberately destroying the impending marriage of another (Donald Cook). Finally, she agrees to be kept in an uptown apartment by the bank’s elderly vice president (Henry Kolker). Lily musses his hair and calls him “Fuzzy-Wuzzy.”
These all can be seen in the new print of “Baby Face,” which Mr. Mashon showed at the London festival last month, and which will have its American premiere in New York at Film Forum on Jan. 24. (A DVD will be released next year.) But in the version of “Baby Face” that has been known for the last 71 years, most of those moments were either compromised or eliminated. In the censored version, the politician’s first look at Lily is no longer a leering panning shot that begins with Stanwyck’s legs and rises slowly, almost reluctantly, to her face; money no longer changes hands between her father and the politician; she’s now the “sweetheart of the night (blip!)”; and the incident with the beer bottle has been dropped entirely.
But still missing from the new print, unfortunately, is a scene in which Lily (accompanied by her best friend, a young black woman played by Theresa Harris) negotiates the fare to New York with a willing brakeman (James Murray). “Scene ends with brakeman’s glove falling beside lantern and his hand turning the lantern out,” reads the description in a Warner Brothers censorship file.
Warner Brothers voluntarily made these cuts, along with quite a few others, in response to the New York board’s blunt rejection. They worked: on June 17, 1933, the board passed the revised version, and the film opened soon after, to good reviews and good business.
Though many of the changes were crudely applied, others were more subtle and made with some skill. Instead of “Ed propositioned me at the funeral,” Lily says, “Ed made me a proposition at the funeral” - a shift in tone that made all the difference to the New York censors.
In an attempt to give the film a moral voice, the Nietzschean cobbler was transformed into Lily’s Jiminy Cricket. In the uncut film, he sends Lily a congratulatory copy of Nietzsche’s “Thoughts Out of Season,” urging her to: “Face life as you find it, defiantly and unafraid! Waste no energy yearning for the moon! Crush out all sentiment!”
In the revised scene, the title of the book has been obscured, and the cobbler writes to her: “You have chosen the wrong way. You are still a coward. I send you this book hoping that you will allow it to guide you right.” These “compensating moral values,” as the Production Code office called them, did much to make “Baby Face” acceptable.
“‘Baby Face’ was certainly one of the top 10 films that caused the Production Code to be enforced,” said Mark. A. Vieira, author of an illustrated study of the period, “Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood” (1999). “We all assumed that we would never see those scenes. Now, through an archival miracle, we have them.”
The next film in the Pre-Code double feature was TWO SECONDS (1932) starring Edward G. Robinson. It is about an honest construction worker whose life is brought down by an evil scheming dance hall girl. He is sitting in the electric chair and it told that it will take two seconds for him to die. In those seconds, he flashes back to the circumstances that led to his ruin. The final moments of the film are hair-raising. Edward G. Robinson totally owns the screen. He is riveting and unforgettable.
The theatre at UCLA was packed and the audience seemed to LOVE the movies! Thanks to the efforts of archivists and film preservationists, these Pre-Code gems will live forever and continue to shock and thrill audiences!
Tonight I ventured down to the Echo Park Film Center for their first “Silent Movie Night” which was being hosted and programmed by my friend Tom. I LOVE the Echo Park Film Center and would highly encourage people to go there. It has such a “shabby chic” grungy guerilla film feel to it. They have screenings, classes, seminars, a tape and film library and much more.
The first thing we watched was a collection of silent era peep shows. The featured a series of women in corsets and women showing their ankles! My how times have changed! The second film we saw was an excellent short film called TEDDY AT THE THROTTLE. It was the story of a girl (a very young Gloria Swanson) who is kidnapped and tied to the railroad tracks by an evil greedy man (Wallace Berry) out to make a financial killing off her demise. A dog winds up coming to the rescue, and not just any dog mind you…but the most amazingly fast, intelligent and skilled dog in canine history. The dog grabs a telegram, jumps onto a train, jumps off the train and unties Gloria in record time. The film had a campy comic tone to it and was hilarious to watch. It seemed to be making fun of the standard silent movie cliches and having a great time doing so. Then we watched a silent short called FATE’S TURNING. It is about a wealthy man who cheats on his bride to be with a waitress and gets her pregnant. The waitress is forced to quit her job and has no way to make a living. She tracks him down and shows up (with the baby no less) to his wedding. This was scandalous stuff for 1914 or so when it was made.
The feature for the evening was called TRAFFIC IN SOULS and was about the white slavery trade going on in turn of the century New York. It was really interesting and tragic, but it ran a little too long. I wish it had been about 15 mintues shorter or so. Otherwise, it was still very interesting.
What I liked about Tom’s selections for the evening was that they were all very unusual and they all dispelled commonly held beliefs about silent films being all innocent and sweetly simplistic. These films were daring and innovative. Most importantly (at least to me) they act as a sort of cultural mirror as to what the world was like at that time….how people dressed, thought, felt and acted. The feature was shot on location in New York and it was amazing to see shots of the city from so long ago.
The evening was a cinematic time capsule….and let me add that it was time well spent!
If you haven’t attended the Wednesday night Film Preservation series at UCLA—you MUST! It is an excellent evening and always provides great insight into the process (both creative and technical) of restoring a film. They also tend to show really rare hard to find gems which makes it all the more worthy.
This particular evening, the screened a double feature of 2 recently restored prints.
THE POWER AND THE GLORY (1933)
First up was THE POWER AND THE GLORY which is the film that launched Spencer Tracy into full blown stardom. Before the film UCLA’s Robert Gitt explained that the film was actually the forerunner of CITIZEN KANE in terms of its storytelling style. He said that the film was so influential that countless writers and directors screened it for years and considered it a great inspiration. The film was written by the great Preston Sturges and is not just good—it was GREAT! The story chronicles the rise and fall of a railroad executive named Tom Garner (Spencer Tracy) and is told through a series of flashbacks. The characters are complicated, flawed and incredibly interesting. Silent star Colleen Moore plays his long suffering wife in the film and she is excellent! She is really the heart of the film and it is because of her encouragement and strength that the Spencer Tracy character succeeds. Unfortunately he finds out that his success comes at a price. The power and status he has achieved slowly start to destroy his life and the lives of those around him.
The dialogue crackles and this film is simply electrifying. It has such a tremendous amount of energy and momentum behind it. The fact that the film is still around is something of a minor miracle. Robert Gitt explained that the original negative was destroyed in a fire and they had to call upon multiple sources to restore and preserve the film. The main and end titles had to be recreated as well as parts of the score.
Fortunately due to these efforts, the film is alive and well. I really hope this gets a DVD release. We are so spoiled living here in Los Angeles to get to see rare films like this on the big screen, but there are so many film lovers who aren’t so fortunate. This film is incredible and really deserves to be available to film lovers in every corner of the world.
THE SIN OF NORA MORAN (1933)
Based on the title alone, I was VERY interested in seeing this film. This film is told in flashbacks, flashforwards and flash backs within flashbacks. The narrative goes far off the rails, but it didn’t matter much because I was so enraptured with the film that I was willing to go along for the freefalling ride. The UCLA Program notes described this film as, “Haunting, hallucinatory, artistic, exploitive?THE SIN OF NORA MORAN may be the best B-picture of the ‘30s.” I complete agree. This is without question the most avant garde narrative film I have ever seen. Being a low budget B-movie, it makes incredible use of stock footage! When Nora Moran is walking down the street you see this barrage of city skyscrapers, a woman’s feet walking, cigarette smoke and images of dingy nightclubs and jazz musicians. That montage alone explained so much about the gritty, seemy, yet strangely seductive world that Nora Moran was inhabiting. Zita Johann played the title role and she was really excellent. She played Nora Moran not as a heartless vixen, but with a great deal of sympathy. She was best known for co-starring with Boris Karloff in THE MUMMY, but she would only make one more film in 1934 before retiring. That is a real shame because she clearly had talent and could have had a long career.
As far as this film being a Pre-Code, well ALL the proper elements are there. The film contains rape, murder, lying, cheating, scandal, the electric chair and death row!
Yes, this film is a real pot boiler and is well worth checking out…which you CAN. It is available on DVD!
In my effort to mix up my film-going, I went to see the new film CRASH written and directed by Paul Haggis. I must admit my expectations were very high given that I loved MILLION DOLLAR BABY (which he wrote) and I really like the cast. The film was very well made and Haggis seems to have a great understanding of desperate working class people in Los Angeles. The problem I had with the film is that it didn’t dig deep enough into the characters and flesh them out in a more 3 dimensional way. In watching this film it is obviously in the similiar vain of MAGNOLIA, for but some reason I found that MAGNOLIA packed much more of a punch. It had more of a jagged, eccentric edge and it showed you a clearer portrait of the characters and their inner workings before it cut to the quick.
The story that seemed to be the most effective was the one with Matt Dillion as the racist cop. At first we see what a horrible vile person he is and then later in the film we find out why and where his hatred and attitude stems from. Dillion is great in the role and you really get a sense of his frustration, rage and desperation. I also really admired the work of Don Cheadle. He just makes every movie he is in better by his presence. I’d honestly pay $12 to watch him read the phone book. He is equally effective in the film, but again I wish I would have seen more of his character and learned more about his character’s perspective. Sandra Bullock does well in her role, but she is given little to do. We never find out much about her or what is driving her to feel the way she does.
There were also some character twists that bothered me. It seems that almost every character in the film is extremely racist, yet for some of the characters that doesn’t seem to fit. For example the cop played by Jennifer Esposito gets outraged and makes racist comments towards an Asian woman who collides with her in a car accident, YET later on when Don Cheadle’s character makes a racist remark about her being Mexican she takes such great offense. Her character seems to have the attitude that racism is ok as long as it is not about her. That just didn’t ring true in the scipt or to her character.
Overall, CRASH is an interesting portrait of racism in Los Angeles and it is worth seeing…but at the end of the day I’m still harboring mixed emotions because I felt it just didn’t dig deep enough to get to the core of what causes it in the first place.
Tonight I went to the excellent UCLA series “Out of the Past: Film Preservation Today” to see the 1929 version of TAMING OF THE SHREW. I was very curious to see this film for a variety of reasons. Firstly because it is very rarely shown and secondly because it led to the ruin of stars Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and director Sam Taylor. I kept wondering how a film could be so awful that it destroyed 3 careers! I had to see it and find out why. I went into the film with very low expectations. I was ready for a train wreck. Surprisingly, it didn’t pan out that way. The film is actually not too bad. At a running time of 63 minutes, it didn’t exactly stay faithful to the play, but in many ways that didn’t matter. The UCLA preservation person spoke before the film and told us that only 20% of the film was actually taken from the play. Apparently in 1929 they made a silent version of this as well since many theatres around the world were still not equipped for sound. In 1966 someone decided to restore the film and re-release it to dovetail the upcoming Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton version. In doing so in 1966, this person edited the film down, laid in new music and really bad sound effects. What we saw was this 1966 version.
At any rate, back to the film itself…..it’s actually NOT half bad. Douglas Fairbanks really seems to be having fun with is character and is actually quite good. Mary Pickford seems a bit ill at ease in certain aspects of the role, but overall she manages to hold her own. Watching these 2 world famous silent film stars act for the first time together, their chemistry is clearly apparent. At the time this film was made they were having problems in their marriage, but you seen any evidence of that in this film. The direction is not too bad either. The camera moves around quite a bit considering this is an early talkie. They had a top notch A-list crew including cinematographer Hal Rosson and set designer William Cameron Menzies.
No, this film was not a disaster AT ALL, which made me wonder why it has such a bad reputation and why it has been blamed for the collapse of 3 careers.
In my opinion, I don’t blame the film….just the timing. Pickford and Fairbanks were both having great career difficulties before this film was made. Their images and popularity was so directly tied to silent cinema that when talkies began it was clear that the public was ready for new stars in what was essentially a new medium. Buster Keaton, Clara Bow, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, Louise Brooks, and countless other talented stars met a similiar fate. Ensuing decades have proven their talent to be timeless, but right then….right there…they were simply relics of the 20s. They were sort of frozen in a certain era that the rest of the world was soon to leave behind for a new one.
I was honestly surprised to find THE TAMING OF THE SHREW was not at all what I was expecting. I love it when I my expectations are overturned. That is one of the things that makes movie-going interesting.
Tonight I went to the Egyptian Theatre to see LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF which is an amazing documentary about how Los Angeles is portrayed in films. It covers many aspects of the city and how it has been used and misused as a cinematic backdrop. The span of the film covers the 1930s through 2001. There is so much amazing footage in this film and it gives you a real sense of how Los Angeles has evolved as a city over the years. The theatre was completely packed. That’s pretty impressive considering the film is a 3 hour documentary playing on a Tuesday night. There are a ton of inside jokes that everyone was laughing at. Seeing the film in such a crowded theatre really made it a great community experience.
There was one section of the film that just covered LA architecture and showed the homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra and how they’ve been used in films. What interested me about the film was how it addressed the disparity between “Hollywood” and Los Angeles and how they exist in the public perception. The film even covered racial issues and how racism and stereotyping has been often a staple of movies and of the culture of Los Angeles itself. The ending of the film discussed the Neorealist movement of the late 60s and early 70s brought about by the efforts of many great African American filmmakers. The film also delved into issues of class and how the lower class in particular has been falsley portrayed in films. There were so many little points that were made and things that were addressed that I never really noticed before. The director of the documentary narrated it as well and his delivery is dry, flat and lifeless. At first this really annoyed me, but as the film progressed its tone became much more sarcastic and the narration seemed much more in tune with the film.
Another chapter of the film covers various directors and their relationship to Los Angeles. That was also an incredibly interesting approach. It was a documentary about a city reflecting on directors and how THEY see the city.
LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF is really fascinating in its portrait of the city as a symbol, a location, an urban battle ground, a myth, and ultimately a complicated and misunderstood city where real people live, work and struggle to survive.
I find myself wanting to watch it again… and again. This is one of those films that you can get something new and fresh out of with each viewing.
Due to the sheer number of movie clips used in the film, I highly doubt it will ever get a VHS or DVD release so please make sure to see this film. It is an important piece of work and well worth 3 hours of your time.
Given my newfound fascination with silent star John Gilbert, I found a friend who gave me his rare pre-code film DOWNSTAIRS on VHS. The film is about a chauffeur who arrives to work in a new home and in the process seduces the wife of the head butler, blackmails the lady of the house, and embezzles money from the elderly cook. He is an evil cad through and through. The film is a brisk and entertaining piece of Pre-Code filmmaking. John Gilbert is great in the lead role and his voice is great too! I think the problem he had with this film is that audiences didn’t want to see him playing such an evil unrepentant character. Many film stars (of silents and talkies) became trapped in many ways by their images and in the process weren’t allowed to stretch artistically. When some of them did, their films failed and then it subsequently hurt their careers. Their fame and success became quite a double edge sword. In any case, John Gilbert actually wrote the story that DOWNSTAIRS is based on. I’m currently reading the biography about him entitled DARK STAR. I highly endorse the book. It is a really excellent account of not only his career, but of the struggles of establishing and maintaining a career in 20s and 30s Hollywood.
Let me first being by saying if you haven’t been to the UCLA film series entitled “Out of the Past: Film Preservation Today” on Wednesday nights….PLEASE go to this in the future. The series is FREE and it is a great way to learn about the decisions and the process that goes into restoring a film and making it live again.
The feature shown tonight was KILLER OF SHEEP. I knew nothing about this film going in except that I really liked the title. I’ve actually purchased many books simply because I liked the title or cover art and so far doing that has never steered me wrong.
KILLER OF SHEEP was made in the early 70s by UCLA grad student Charles Burnett. The film was shot on location on the streets of south central Los Angeles, but if you are expecting something like BOYZ IN THE HOOD, you won’t find it here. Burnett’s film is a thoughtful meditation on an impoverished family whose members are doing the best they can to survive. The UCLA program notes referred to this film as “a stunning example of American urban neo-realism at its best.”
I would call it a non fiction version of A RAISIN IN THE SUN. The film is not a plot driven piece but is one that is guided by quiet moments that speak louder than pages of dialogue ever could. There is one scene where a husband and wife try to have a romantic evening. Judging by the look in their eyes, it is clear that the woman is far more interested than the man is. He is hesitant even reluctant to be there with her. It is obvious his mind and possibly heart are elsewhere. He finally walks away from the dance leaving the woman to look after him with an expression of heartbreak and disappointment in her eyes. Words aren’t necessary, in fact it would spoil the moment if anything was said in the first place. A later scene re-affirms the man’s lack of interest when he lights up and becomes animated in the presence of their daughter. He comes alive briefly for her in a way he never does for his wife. Again, no words are exchanged here but she knows…..the pained look in her eyes says so.
Another scene that works really well in the film is when two men try to purchase a motor and put it in a truck. Their struggle is reminicent of a Laurel & Hardy short as they haul it into the truck only to have it fall off and break in the street. It seems that motor is a symbol of something larger (like their dreams) failing to sustain any momentum.
The score for the film consisted of a bunch of terrific jazz tunes. They fit the emotional beats of the film perfectly.
Overall KILLER OF SHEEP is a haunting and beautiful portrait of people struggling against not only poverty but each other. This film captures a place, a group of people and a time in history that is every bit as potent now as it was 3 decades ago when the film was made.