Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume Two Review
The Pre-Code era in Hollywood began in 1930, though many people include early talkies from the previous year which caused moralists concern. This period of four (or five) years, ending in June 1934 is a fascinating time for major-studio films as they entertained Depression audiences with films that pushed at the limits of conventional morality. Pre-Code films are often more risqué, more violent, more amoral than anything that the Production Code Administration would allow for two or three decades. Many of those films are now classics. For further details, see my review of Volume One of Warner’s Forbidden Hollywood Collections. That boxset had three films (one in two versions) on two discs; this one has five, plus a feature-length documentary, on three discs.
I don’t know if it is deliberate, but both Collections to date show that the Pre-Code era was something of a golden age for women’s roles. This was a combination of some very strong actresses coming to the fore and female writers creating roles for them which were more complex than would be allowed by the PCA a few years later. Some of these films overtly challenge social roles and sexual inequality, in particular the double standard that allowed men to play around while women had to remain chaste. Disc One features two Oscar-winning films with one of the major stars of the time, Norma Shearer.
The Divorcee (1930, 82:11)
Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott was a bestselling novel of its day, and was considered so racy as to be beyond the pale for motion picture adaptation. But Irving Thalberg at MGM bought the novel for his wife, Norma Shearer, and the result became one of the first films to challenge the Motion Picture Code that Will Hays had drawn up in 1930. Shearer had been keen to change her rather prim and proper image, and she did, winning an Oscar for her efforts here.
Jerry (Shearer) is married to Ted (Chester Morris). But when she discovers that he has been unfaithful, she decides that women have as much as right to sexual adventures as men do. That was a direct challenge to the status quo, and a reason why moralists considered then then vastly popular medium of the cinema dangerous. But Hollywood, seeming unaffected by the Depression due to vast audiences wanting to escape from their lives for a while, didn’t care. I’m not aware of a Pre-Code film that shows its characters actually making love – it took a European film, Ekstase, then notorious for Hedy Lamarr’s nude swimming scenes, to do that – but films like The Divorcee leave us in no doubt that the bedroom door has been opened. And that’s not ignoring the film’s treatment of divorce, itself a tricky subject at the time.
At eighty-two minutes, The Divorcee is longer than many films of the period, but Robert Z. Leonard tells his story economically. Shearer, for much of the film dressed in more masculine attire than was usual for leading actresses, shows why she is a significant figure in Pre-Code Hollywood. This is not only due to her ability, by being married to MGM’s Head of Production, to have this film made in the first place, but the freedom allowed her gave her performances a spark that was less in evidence post-Code. Born in 1902, she had begun her career in silent films, and retired in 1942.
A Free Soul (1931, 93:30)
Shearer is top-billed in A Free Soul, but this film is stolen by third-billed Lionel Barrymore, who took home an Oscar, primarily due to a scene which is a little bit of Hollywood history – but more of that later.
Stephen Ashe (Barrymore) is a defence attorney, and a secret alcoholic. He has just successfully had local mobster Ace Wilfong (and there’s a character name for you – an early role for Clark Gable). But Ashe’s daughter Jan (Shearer), engaged to Dwight Winthrop (Leslie Howard), is immediately attracted to Wilfong, and begins an affair with him. But Wilfong shows other sides to his character, and he’s not letting his upper-crust new girlfriend away easily..
This culminates in a murder trial in which Barrymore defends…well, I’ll leave you to find out who that is. This courtroom scene is a good example of how misinformation can be copied from one reference source to the next, in lieu of watching the film itself. The scene was shot in one take, at some fourteen minutes the longest ever in a 35mm Hollywood feature. As a reel of 35mm film is only about ten minutes long (which is why the individual sequence-shots of Hitchcock in Rope don’t exceed that running time), the scene was shot using six cameras. But contrary to what you might read, Barrymore does not deliver a fourteen-minute speech: much of the scene consists of cross-examination and the final monologue – ludicrous as it is – is a mere two-and-a-half minutes or so. But it was enough to earn Barrymore his statuette.
A Free Soul contains less contentious material than the other films in this set, and it’s also probably the most dated of the five. As a conventional melodrama it’s still watchable though.
Three on a Match (1932, 63:11)
Many people are unwilling to watch “old” films and one of the reasons (apart from their being almost all in black and white) is that they are slower than modern ones. It’s true that ideas of pacing have changed over the years, but anyone who thinks that a film from 1932 is automatically sluggish should check out Three on a Match. Mervyn LeRoy, a director better known for Little Caesar two years earlier, barrels through his story in a shade over an hour. The result is highly entertaining, well acted, and – being Pre-Code – surprisingly strong stuff at times.
The title comes from the superstition that if you light three people’s cigarettes with one match, then one will die. This belief supposedly originated in the Great War, though another theory holds that it was propagated by match manufacturers, encouraging their customers to use more of them. We meet our three young women at school. Then a chance meeting reunites them as adults. Mary (Joan Blondell) spent time at reform school, while Vivian (Ann Dvorak) has married attorney Robert Kirkwood (Warren William) and has a young son. Ruth (Bette Davis) is a secretary. Vivian invites her old schoolfriends on a cruise.
What follows is a tale of infidelity and elopement, as Vivian leaves her husband and son for a life of debauchery, not to mention heavily implied drug addiction. Given that this is a “women’s picture”, later scenes involving gangsters (Humphrey Bogart among them) are surprisingly violent at times. A longer film might have developed Ruth’s character a little more: at the moment she’s very much secondary to Mary and Vivian. This may be because LeRoy and Davis did not see eye to eye on this film. Joan Blondell is fine, and Warren William shows that he’s one of the principal leading men of Pre-Code Hollywood. But the film is stolen by Ann Dvorak, who is quite remarkable as the wayward, and finally tragic, Vivian.
Female (1933, 60:01)
If you thought that Three on a Match was economical, Female barely achieves a feature-length running time. Ruth Chatterton plays Alison Drake, director of a car manufacturing company which she inherited by her father. A driven, highly successful businesswoman by day, she takes the pick of her male employees home with her. But only on a short-term basis…
Female is an intriguing film, and it’s hard to work out if it’s a feminist statement or a sexist one. Although Alison clearly does run her company extremely well, it’s at the expense (so the film implies) at her femininity. This brings out the film’s crisis when she meets a man, Jim Thorne (George Brent), whom she falls for on a deeper level than “love ’em and leave ’em”. However, would-be censors and the soon-to-emerge Legion of Decency only saw the film as endorsing and rewarding casual sex – take a look at the ornate apartment Alison lives in – and Female quickly made it to list of films never to be re-released when Joseph Breen took office the following year.
Another method of bypassing censors was to create a disjuncture between what is said and what is seen. If your character is punished at the end for his or her immorality, this will have followed over an hour of said immorality. Audiences weren’t fooled. Take for example, Alison’s associate Pettigrew (Ferdinand Gottschalk). For much of the film he’s clearly depicted as gay, though you could (if you must) read some of his lines as empathic agreements with Alison and not (surely not) statements of his own attraction to handsome men. But late on he gets a scene which is completely gratuitous to the plot – even in a film as short as this – where he appears to be coming on to a female employee. So he’s not gay, then? Yeah, right.
Ruth Chatterton is probably less well-known than the other leading ladies in this box set. She was less of a star and was also older (forty when she made Female) Apart from William Wyler’s Dodsworth three years later, this is her best film. She made her last film in 1938 and returned to the stage, and made appearances on television in the 1950s. She died in 1961.
Night Nurse (1931, 71:45)
Disc Three features one of the cultiest Pre-Code films of all. The story is in two parts. The first introduces us to Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) as she trains to be a nurse, and befriends Nurse Maloney (Joan Blondell). Then, they are employed as night nurse and day nurse (respectively) to the well-heeled Ritchey family, whose two children are quite sickly. But Lora senses something is amiss, a plot to starve the two children to inherit their trust fund, something which Nick the chauffeur (Clark Gable) is intimately involved.
Night Nurse is a virtual checklist of elements which titillated Pre-Code audiences, and which Joseph Breen and the PCA would rigorously remove from films three years later. Many Pre-Code films show their leading ladies in their underwear, and Night Nurse contains several scenes of Stanwyck and Blondell changing in and out of their uniforms. Drinking, not to mention outright alcoholism features heavily – this while Prohibition was in force. The most sympathetic male character is a bootlegger. And the ending is jaw-dropping in its amorality.
Stanwyck - who of course went on to make Baby Face, one of the most notorious of all Pre-Codes – and Gable have real chemistry here. It’s a pity they only worked together once more. Joan Blondell makes a good foil to Stanwyck, though the plot demands that she be offscreen for most of the second half of the film. As for Gable, you can see he was a star in the making – and the story goes both leading ladies went weak at the knees at the first sight of him. Director William Wellman hits the ground running, with a shot from inside a speeding ambulance (reprised at the end), and tells the story at a ferocious pace. Night Nurse is a treat.
Volume Two of Warner’s Forbidden Hollywood Collection comprises three discs, each encoded for Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4.
All five films are black and white and presented in a ratio of 1.33:1. There’s an argument that the earlier ones should perhaps be presented in 1.2:1 as early talkies were prior to the development of Academy Ratio (strictly speaking, 1.37:1) but they don’t appear overtly cropped. Of the films in this set, all are in good condition, though tending towards softness. Three on a Match is probably the sharpest and best transfer of the five, but there’s nothing to complain about.
The soundtracks are, as you would expect, single-channel mono, and in some cases reflect the primitive level of sound technology at the time. Dynamic range is limited – it’s all middle with little treble or bass. The Divorcee has a noticeable hiss throughout. However, nothing is unlistenable, and even if you do miss something there are subtitles available in English and French.
The Divorcee and Night Nurse feature commentaries from Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta. Both of their commentaries tend to be a little self-conscious and too often simply narrate the plot of the films in question. Inevitably they are pitched towards viewers who know little about the Code and the era preceding it. There’s some useful information to be had, but these are probably one-listen items. Trailers are available for Three on a Match (2:22), Female (2:22) and Night Nurse (2:33).
However, Disc Three features an excellent extra, a specially-made documentary, Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood (67:52). This follows the usual format of narrated history with interviews and plenty of film extracts. As you might expect, this is aimed at a general audience who might not have read books like Sin in Soft Focus (whose author, Mark Viera, is one of the interviewees here). But even if you have – as I had – it’s a bonus to be able to see clips from the films in question, many of them rarely shown and not yet on DVD. (They’re all in black and white, apart from a two-colour Technicolor clip which I think is from The Mystery of the Wax Museum. It’s unfortunate that not all of the extracts are identified.) You can even see a clip from a cartoon (Bosko’s Picture Show, 1933) which seems to have its title character saying “fuck” thirty-four years before that taboo was broken again. (There is some dispute as to whether Bosko is actually saying the word, but it certainly sounds like he is.)
The documentary locates the attitudes of Pre-Code films in the Depression: a mixture of cynicism and escapism (all the sex, drink and drugs you might not get at home). Roosevelt and his New Deal heralded a shift in attitudes, which gave impetus to the Legion of Decency and those campaigners bent on cleaning up Hollywood. Will Hays and Joe Breen appear in archive footage. Other interviewees include Leonard Maltin, John Landis, Hugh Hefner and Camille Paglia. You could ask for more, such as coverage of the more notorious films which brought about the enforcement of the Code. Sexuality is amply covered, but the horror and gangster cycles of the time are less fully covered. Convention City (represented by stills) and Baby Face are there, but not The Story of Temple Drake. This may of course reflect the films that Warners and TCM have the rights to. Do not watch this documentary before seeing the films in this boxset, as it contains major spoilers for at least four of them.
Even if the Pre-Code era covered no more than half a decade, there are still plenty of films unreleased on DVD that could be featured in future Collections. I’m glad to hear that Warners have them planned.