Saturday, March 7, 2009

Is that a Pistol in your Pocket or are you Just Glad to See Me?


I can't seem to find anything interesting to watch or read these days so instead I'm going to talk a little about pre-code movies, and why they've got a cult following among cinema lovers.
If you ask me what my favourite decade is for movies, I'd probably say the 30s. I still think that although some excellent movies were released later, the 30s were the best, and more specifically the era known as pre-code, which went from 1929 to the beginning of 1934. There are some truly excellent websites on which you can find plenty of information about pre-code movies but I just want to explain in a few words why I find them so valuable.

Mae West asked that (see title) to a Los Angeles police officer in 1936.

These movies are called pre-code because they were talkies released before the Production Code (also known as Hays Code). The Production Code did some serious damage: prior to it, directors could film anything they wanted provided they thought it would sell. The Hays Code was introduced in 1934 and we can say it changed cinema for decades. Couples (even married) couldn't be shown sleeping in the same bed (Nick and Nora in The Thin Man and its sequels are shown sleeping on separate beds, how realistic is that, especially knowing their relationship). No sex before marriage could be shown. No nakedness, no hints at homosexuality, no graphic death, no prostitutes, no swear words, no suicide, no adultery, no drugs, no extensive use of alcohol. What is fun today is to watch the movies that were made before the Code and compare and contrast. I think they're more true to life and certainly some of them are a lot more fun that their "proper" remakes or counterparts. Of course, some directors were clever enough to include double entendres and sexual innuendo in their movies even when the Production Code was enforced: in The Awful Truth (1937), the end is fairly explicit - an estranged couple who was sleeping in separate rooms is reunited in the same room at the end. Irene Dunne delivers her most suggestive smile and the movie stops there. There's no arguing what they're going to do when the credits are rolling. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando frankly pushed limits. Even censored, the relationship between Blanche and Stanley is very ambiguous.

Nakedness and graphic death in Baby Face (1933)

Back then, to borrow the title of a book by Mick LaSalle, women were "complicated", there were neither angels nor demons. They simply could be themselves. It seems to me that it somewhat changed afterwards. It certainly became more black and white (indeed), it became easier perhaps to know who the good people were and who the baddies were. We all know life's not like that. Pre-code movies are simply freer and more realistic. It seems to me that this is the most interesting era in film history. So many actresses (Barbara Stanwyck, Norma Shearer) were never better than in pre-code movies. It bothers me when I read that people watch "classic" movies because "life was simpler back then". It wasn't simpler, most of it was sanitized.
I'm so happy the studios are starting to see the potential in releasing pre-code movies that are surely closer to today's life than almost any 50's movie. Warner has released three box sets and Universal is going to release one. Let's hope they don't stop here, there are tons of movies I've heard of that I hope will be released on DVD someday (Safe in Hell is one of them, Hold Your Man is another).
I want 2009 to be a pre-code year for me, I'm going to buy all four box sets and some books on the topic. This is not the last you've seen of pre-code on this journal, it has become an obsession of mine.

The divine Myrna Loy

I leave you with the recording of the revival of Anything Goes with Patti Lupone. I thought it was appropriate enough, and honestly a bit tongue-in-cheek since it really illustrates the way people see the 30s, as some kind of prudish decade when it was just the opposite:

In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking,
But now, God knows,
Anything Goes.