Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume One Review

Although the Hays Code dates from 1930 and was not enforced until 1934, concerns about the new medium of the cinema date from its beginning. Thomas Edison’s one-minute short from 1896, The Kiss, which shows exactly what its title suggests, was one of the first films to inspire calls for censorship. Even silents such as Human Wreckage (made in 1923 and now lost), included scenes of drug-taking in an anti-drug context. And if you are able to lipread, take a look at the argument scene between Edmund Lowe and Victor McLaglen in the 1926 silent film What Price Glory? for some choice language that isn’t included in the intertitles. Add to that such offscreen scandals as the Fatty Arbuckle case, and you can see why people were concerned about the morality of these producers of mass entertainment, and by extension the morality of their product. The coming of sound added a further complication, in the form of potentially salacious dialogue.

In March 1930, Will H. Hays produced his famous Code, initially a list of “Don’ts” and “Be Carefuls” and later expanded. Its full text can be read here. At first, Hollywood, seemingly immune from the Depression, simply ignored it. At the time there was no national censor boards, only local ones, and many of them were worried by the rise in popularity of certain types of films, especially horror movies for their gruesomeness, gangster dramas for their violence and perceived glorification of criminals, and the new “gold-digger” genre (particularly those examples starring Jean Harlow or Mae West) for their simple immorality. Certain films pushed at the envelope in what they showed onscreen. Finally, enough was enough. The Catholic Church set up the Legion of Decency in 1933 and made it a sin for any member of their congregation to see a film that the Legion condemned. This, with a downturn in cinema receipts, gave the censors the leverage they needed. In June 1934 the industry set up the Production Code Administration, headed by Joseph I. (Joe) Breen. From that moment onwards, scripts and finished films had to be approved by the PCA if they were to be exhibited in the majority of American cinemas, on pain of a hefty fine. No American major-studio film could allow wrongdoing to triumph, and the mere depiction of certain subjects was forbidden. Many of the offending films of the previous few years had to be cut before they were allowed to be shown again, and the strongest examples withdrawn completely. Breen retired in 1954, by which time the PCA’s code was beginning to seem antiquated and was being challenged by directors such as Otto Preminger and Elia Kazan. In 1968, the PCA became the Motion Pictures Association of America and established a ratings system, the basis of what we have today.

The term “Pre-Code” generally applies to the four years between Hays drawing up his Code and the PCA enforcing it. It’s an interesting experience to look back at many of the films of that time. Many now considered classics were at the time pushing at the limits of public acceptability: gangster films such as Little Caesar, The Public Enemy and Scarface, horror films such as Dracula, Frankenstein, King Kong, and Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Outside these genres, even Oscar-winners such as All Quiet on the Western Front contained material no longer considered acceptable, and which had to be cut before they were reissued. While certainly some pre-Code films could fairly be accused of getting away with whatever they could, others show more complex and adult ideas of morality than the black-and-white worldview propagated by the PCA.

Certainly the urge to censor had its roots in the opinion that the masses were easily led, akin to children and adults, and that the mere discussion of certain subjects – or any questioning of the status quo - was intrinsically dangerous. We shouldn’t feel smug about this in the UK: at the same time the BBFC held much the same paternalistic view and the stronger examples of pre-Code Hollywood were usually banned or heavily cut. (One example, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross caused a change in British law – not for Claudette Colbert bathing nude with asses’ milk barely covering her nipples, nor for a lesbian seduction dance, or for the graphic depiction of the Roman Games…but for the treatment of animals in the Games sequence. The result was the 1937 Cinematograph (Animals) Act, which is still in force today.) Time, and censors’ worries, have moved on – many pre-Code films, including those in this DVD set, wouldn’t rate higher than a US PG-13 or a UK 12 nowadays. Occasional flashes of nudity and innuendo-laden dialogue apart, there’s nothing explicit about most of them. In most cases it was the subject matter itself which caused the problem, not any graphic depiction of it.

Pre-Code films began to resurface in the 1950s, when television’s demands led the studios to unlock their vaults. In many cases, complete versions survived, or cuts could be restored. However, other films only survive in their censored versions: Dracula and Love Me Tonight for example. At least one film – 1932’s Letty Lynton, starring Joan Crawford – is subject to litigation and cannot be publicly exhibited. The Sign of the Cross was restored to full length from DeMille’s private print, and is quite an eye-opener if you get the chance to see it. One of the films most often credited with provoking that 1934 clampdown, 1933’s Convention City (a rowdy farce involving much innuendo, Joan Blondell spending much of the film in her underwear, a joke about condom machines and a bestiality gag), was destroyed by its own studio, Warner Bros. Another one, Paramount’s The Story of Temple Drake, an adaptation of William Faulkner’s then-notorious novel Sanctuary including prostitution and what may be Hollywood’s first rape scene, survives but is now rarely shown.

It’s easy to condemn the PCA for causing the infantilisation of American cinema for twenty years, and the damage it did to many pre-Code films which are at least entertaining and at best masterpieces. But on the other hand, you could argue that all filmmakers who work in a commercial system are subject to restrictions, which vary from time to time and country to country. Constraints can be stimuli to creativity. Listen to the dialogue in many great 40s films: often suggestion is more powerful and sexier than blunt explicitness. In 1941, John Huston was a screenwriter adept at finding ways round the Code. He got his break as a director with The Maltese Falcon. The original 1931 version was beyond the pale post-Code, so often Breen would allow sanitised remakes, which was also the case with one of the films included in this DVD set. The result was a masterpiece which kicked off the career of one of Hollywood’s great directors. Would it have been made if the original version was freely available?

Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume I is a two-disc set containing three pre-Code films, all from the Turner Classic Movies archive. As I’ve indicated, there are plenty of others available from those four years, so let’s hope that there are future volumes. This first set includes an example of the type of adult drama that became impossible to make just a few years later, and two examples of the “gold-digger” drama that were particular bête noires of the Breen Office. I’ll review them in chronological order, which is not the way they are presented on the discs.

Waterloo Bridge (1931, 80:29)
Based on a play by Robert E. Sherwood, Waterloo Bridge was made in 1931 and is set during World War I. In a London subject to Zeppelin air raids, Canadian soldier Roy Cronin (Kent Douglass) falls for showgirl Myra Deauville (Mae Clarke). However, he is unaware that she is a prostitute, something that she finds so shameful that it threatens to wreck her happiness.

For me, this film was the pick of the bunch, an involving and at times very moving drama, well directed by James Whale. In fact, it was the success of this film that allowed him to make Frankenstein, which was also photographed by Arthur Edeson and which featured Mae Clarke. (She had an inventful 1931, also being on the receiving end of a grapefruit as James Cagney’s girlfriend in The Public Enemy.) In fact, Clarke is the revelation here: best known for her supporting roles in the early 30s - although she carried on acting until 1970 – she gives a performance of quite some depth in a rare leading role. Kent Douglass, though clearly handsome enough to convince as the nineteen-year-old soldier, seems wooden in comparison, but that’s misleading. He’s playing a buttoned-up character, and when he finally lets fly, in a late scene with Myra’s prudish landlady (Enid Bennett), it’s an electrifying moment. Aside from the black-and-white camerawork, the film is technically something of a period piece: London is clearly a studio backdrop, but Whale makes good use of it with a mobile camera and a particularly striking crane shot late on. He and the cast give the story sufficient conviction to make it work. Bette Davis has a small, early role.

Apart from the prostitution theme, the opening scenes of Myra as part of a chorus line, and changing out of her costume backstage are more revealing than the PCA would allow after 1934. Universal got round this by remaking the film in 1941 with Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh, where she is simply a dancer.

Red-Headed Woman (1932, 79:24)
It’s a fair bet that no individuals have attracted more censors’ ire for their very screen persona than Jean Harlow. (Her main rival in this would be Mae West.) She came to prominence in Howard Hughes’s 1930 Hell’s Angels and had a supporting role in The Public Enemy. Throughout her brief period of stardom – she died in 1937, aged only twenty-six – she was for some people the very embodiment of screen immorality. Her screen persona, of the brassy platinum blonde having no shame in using her sexuality to advance herself, provoked anxieties about the role of women in society. On the other hand, her fans turned out in droves to watch her sin in style – and get away with it.

Written by Anita Loos, Red-Headed Woman is a key Harlow film. Dying her trademark locks red for the occasion (even in a black-and-white film), she plays Lillian Andrews, who sets her eyes on her boss William Legendre Jr (Chester Morris). The fact that he is married to Irene (Leila Hyams) doesn’t cause her to bat an eyelid.

This film has possibly dated more than the others in the set. Or maybe it’s because Harlow’s persona has dated, especially when you compare her to West (who wrote her own material) and to Barbara Stanwyck’s more nuanced performance in the similarly-themed Baby Face, then you can see the lack. Harlow fans may well think otherwise. Seventy years on, Red-Headed Woman is pretty innocuous, though at the time it was certainly hot stuff. The BBFC banned it outright, though King George V kept a print in his private collection which he showed to guests at Buckingham Palace. The BBFC finally passed the film uncut for an A certificate in 1965, when its time had certainly gone by.

Baby Face (1933, pre-release version: 75:49, theatrical version: 70:30 )
The success of Red-Headed Woman provoked imitations. Baby Face was Darryl F. Zanuck’s answer to it. He wrote the story under the pseudonym of Mark Canfield. This young woman pursuing vertical advancement by horizontal means is Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck). First seen entertaining customers at her father’s speakeasy, and emboldened by a reading of Nietzche’s philosophy, Lily arrives in New York determined to make her way to the top of a skyscraper. Her progress is symbolised by the camera climbing up the side of the building, with “St Louis Blues” playing on the soundtrack.

One thing you notice about the best 30s films is their sheer economy. Baby Face, directed by Alfred E. Green (a prolific director who worked from the teens to the Fifties but not generally a name to conjure with), barrels through its storyline in an hour and a quarter and barely wastes a moment. Anchored by a strong leading performance by Stanwyck, it still packs a punch, especially in its uncut version, of which more in a moment.

Although the Production Code had not been enforced in 1933, the studios still had local censor boards to contend with. One of the most powerful was that of New York, who took one look at Baby Face and rejected it in its entirety. With Joe Breen’s assistance, Warners cut and partially reshot the movie, using out-takes to get out of Stanwyck’s unavailability. Gone were the references to Nietzche (“use men to get the things you want!”), gone was a scene where a lecherous speakeasy customer gropes Lily’s breasts before she clonks him over the head with a bottle, gone was the scene where Lily and former maid Chico (Theresa Harris) get a free ride in a box car by means of Lily’s offering sexual favours to a guard. In was a new, explicitly moralistic ending. Even this modified form, Baby Face was too much for the prudish, and along with Convention City and The Story of Temple Drake was one of the first films to be withdrawn from American cinemas the following year. (By contrast, all three were passed by the BBFC, albeit with cuts of an unknown extent.)

It’s easy to see what caused the fuss at the time. Baby Face may not go beyond the bedroom door – it took a European film, Ekstase, more notorious at the time for Hedy Lamarr’s nude swim, to do that – but it makes it clear enough that Lily and several male characters do go there. One of her conquests is a young John Wayne. The fact that Lily’s closest friend is a black woman (Chico) could not have helped. Add to the subject matter Lily’s totally unrepentant attitude, and the wrath of the puritanical descended. Until quite recently, Baby Face, when it finally resurfaced was regarded as a sharp Stanwyck vehicle wrecked by its obviously tacked-on ending (which is sanctimonious and arguably misogynistic). Then in 2004, Library of Congress curator Mike Mashon was requested to strike a new print for showing at the London Festival. To his surprise, Mashon discovered a duplicate negative of Baby Face that was several minutes longer than the existing one. And so the pre-release version of Baby Face was rediscovered. Along with the restoration of The Sign of the Cross, it is one of the major rediscoveries from the Pre-Code era. Both versions of the film are included on this DVD.

Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume One is a two-DVD set. As is customary for Warner US’s back-catalogue releases, the discs are encoded for Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4. The first thing to notice is that the two discs have been mislabelled: Disc One should contain Red-Headed Woman and Waterloo Bridge and Disc Two the two versions of Baby Face, but it’s the other way round in reality.

All three films were filmed in black and white and Academy ratio (1.37:1) and are of course presented in 4:3 on DVD, so anamorphic enhancement is neither necessary nor desirable. Given that these three films are over seventy years old, they’re in pretty good shape, though there are contrast flickers and occasional scratches. Close-ups, especially of women, are inevitably very soft, as that was the fashion at the time. The theatrical release of Baby Face is in the worst condition, though still acceptable.

All three films appear with their original mono soundtracks. It’s pointless to complain that these don’t match modern tracks in fidelity and dynamic range: the hiss and crackle of early talkies is an intrinsic part of them. The dialogue is clear though, and that’s what matters. Subtitles are provided in three languages, though the Baby Face theatrical cut has English only. In addition to my comments on the picture quality, it's clear that this version is really not much more than an extra in this set and has had less care tended to it.

It’s in the extras that this set disappoints. These are restricted to an introduction by TCM host Robert Osborne, on the Red-Headed Woman/Waterloo Bridge disc (i.e. what should be Disc One), and a trailer for Baby Face on that film’s disc. Osborne’s introduction gives a brief (2:32) overview of the events that led up to the enforcement of the Production Code. The trailer (1:57) is hardly subtle: “She played the love game with everything she had for everything they had and made “it” pay!” And that’s it. It’s understandable that few trailers survive and everyone involved in these films is either very elderly or dead. But there are experts on pre-Code Hollywood and several books already on the subject - couldn’t Warners have hired one to produce a commentary on at least one of these films?

The Pre-Code era may have spanned just four years, but there are plenty of films from that era that remain in the archives, rarely shown. (Some of the films I’ve mentioned above have never seen a video release, let alone a DVD one, nor have they had British TV showings. Admittedly not all of them are owned by Warner/TCM.) The three in this set are unlikely to frighten the horses nowadays, but they have their place in history and may surprise viewers more familiar with Hollywood’s post-PCA output. And in the case of Waterloo Bridge and Baby Face at least, we have two good films worthy of more attention. Roll on Volume Two.

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