Posted by vp19 on 2014.12.01 at 21:21
Current mood: contemplative
When it comes to pre-Code films, such as “Virtue” (1932, above, where Carole Lombard is shown with Shirley Grey), there traditionally have been two schools of thought:
* Even after the Production Code was established in 1930, immigrant producers, with few if any civic ties to mainstream Protestant America, returned to their immoral ways once the Depression hit full force in 1931. It took the Catholic Church, through the Legion of Decency, to set American cinema straight.
* Or, looking at it from a completely different perspective, in the early 1930s Hollywood filmmakers purposely challenged traditional values, only to have such subversive, provocative cinema suppressed by Joseph Breen and his ilk.
But what if both approaches are wrong?
That’s the contention of Richard Maltby, a professor of screen studies at Flinders University in Australia. I’ve recently come across a lengthy piece of his where he argues the very sense of “pre-Code cinema” isn’t accurate, at least not when viewed through either of these prisms. Now it should be noted this essay of his was written in late 2003 (http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/feature-articles/pre_code_cinema/), and research done in the ensuing 11 years may either have bolstered or undermined his arguments.
Maltby first contends that while there may have been a “pre-Code revival” because so many movies from 1930 to mid-1934 were suppressed for decades — first by studios, then by television programmers — it has also led to incorrectly re-evaluating that period’s films as a single genre. He blames Ted Turner, at least indirectly, for that (although as I see it, if you’re going to make that argument, repertory houses such as New York’s Film Forum also are partly culpable).:
“Regardless of these movies’ cultural status at the time of their initial release, they continue to be critically configured as a ‘Forbidden Hollywood,’ a subversive body of work that represents, as one book puts it, a ‘road not taken’ by later Classical Hollywood.”
Maltby concedes the early ’30s were a turbulent time for the film industry, as the shift to sound and the stock market crash and eventually ensuing financial freefall made things very nervous for the studios. That also led to some cultural dissonance:
“The industry’s financial crisis drove it to concentrate on making product for its most profitable market, the young urban audiences in the first-run theatres owned by the major companies. Complaints about the shortage of movies suitable for children or the over-production of ‘sophisticated’ material unacceptable to small-town audiences were a form of market response to the shortage of appropriate content for other sectors of the audience, but they were most often couched in moralistic terms, and attached to demands for federal censorship.
“There is little evidence that there was any widespread concern among moviegoers about the moral quality of the entertainment they consumed in the early 1930s. There is, however, a good deal of evidence of concern about moviegoing in the period, although the groups and people most vociferously complaining about the moral viciousness of Hollywood were not themselves part of the audience.” Those tended to be mainstream Protestants, the group most unnerved by the modernist attitudes of the Jewish and Catholic urban culture. That was an audience who Warners curried with fare such as the now legendarily lost “Convention City,” with Joan Blondell and Guy Kibbee:
Maltby says that in order to avoid government censorship, the studios turned to the conservative hierarchy of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church, which became an ally and welcomed a chance to “clean up” the industry. Remember, Breen worked for the studios before the Code was strictly enforced in July 1934, as this rejection stamp for a “Twentieth Century” publicity still with Lombard and John Barrymore makes clear:
But censorship wasn’t the primary concern of moguls at the time, Maltby says:
“The real danger the industry faced in the early 1930s was from the passage of legislation outlawing block booking and imposing federal regulation of the industry’s business practices. For all industry parties, the issues of monopoly control and trading practices were economically much more important than questions of censorship. But questions of censorship were of greater public interest and concern, and could, if necessary, be resolved at less risk to the majors’ monopoly interests.”
Self-censorship was a more public way to atone, he contends, so that was the angle the industry took:
“There was no fundamental shift of Code policy in July 1934. The apparent changes brought about by the negotiations with the Legion of Decency were in fact mainly cosmetic, and had much more to do with the movies appearing to make a public act of recantation than with substantive changes in the practice of self-regulation. There was a further tightening up of practice, but this had occurred on at least three other occasions since 1931, and Breen was not given any new or arbitrary powers to cut or ban movies. The differences between movies made in the early 1930s and those made later in the decade are undeniable, but the change was gradual rather than cataclysmic, the result of the development of a system of conventional representation that was constructed by experiment and expedient in the first half of the decade and maintained in the second.”
Again, it’s an essay worth a read, whether or not you agree with Maltby’s conclusions.
We’ve recently run a few tracks from Bette Midler’s new CD “It’s The Girls,” and since today is her 69th birthday, how about one more? This is her take on the Boswell Sisters’ brilliant ’30s hit “It’s The Girl,” and while we ran the Bozzies’ version the other day, we didn’t have Bette’s. Now we do, so enjoy it: