Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Glorious Naughtiness of Pre-Code Hollywood Films

My wife and I are both big lovers of classic Hollywood films, and over the last year we have been especially engrossed in the so-called "pre-Code" period of the early 1930s. At this time the Hays Code was on the books, but like Prohibition, another ridiculous restriction on personal behavior in the name of blue-nosed morality during that era, incompletely enforced. For some reason America dumped Prohibition, yet accepted stepped up enforcement of the Code in 1934.

Many pre-Code flicks dealt much more frankly with sexuality and violence than those that followed. For instance, Tarzan and Jane swam nude together! Musicals weren't sappy a la Rogers and Hammerstein, but saucy, a la Busby Berkely. Case in point: the "Pettin' in the Park" number from Gold Diggers of 1933. There's nothing like a ditty about illicit fornication in public places. Notice as well the teasing use of nude shadows.

In this film, as in others of the pre-Code era, female characters are often independent, sassy, and openly sexual. A fun example of a tough woman fighting a corrupt world is a young Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse, where she takes on a pre-stardom, evil Clark Gable. It also starts with an innovative POV shot to boot.

The only truly good man in the film is a bootlegger who brings about a happy ending by killing the nurse's tormentor. Even more offensive to the Code, the film's plot opens up several opportunities for Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell to get down to their undies. Naughty!

The great Stanwyck really shines in Baby Face, playing the daughter of a cruel saloon-keeper father who prostitutes her to his patrons.  After he's killed when one of his whiskey stills explodes, she takes the opportunity to go seek her fortune in the big city.  She does so by getting office work through flirtation, and then uses her knowledge of the carnal arts to sleep her way to the top.  Absolutely filthy!  Not only that, at the end she manages to find love, and is thus not punished for her slatternly behavior, as such a character surely would after 1934.

Hey, and let's not forget the violence! According to the Code, crime could never pay, and criminals could not be shown in a positive light. This was rather important considering the context of the Depression and the fact that many folks got a great deal of satisfaction from bank robbers like Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger, who got revenge on the banks for them. Pre-Code gangsters were correspondingly charismatic and rough. Some of the violence was pretty shocking, even by today's jaded standards:

Finally, even though we consider ourselves more sophisticated these days, our current recession has yet to produce an indictment of the abandonment of the common people during hard times as moving as the finale from Gold Diggers of 1933. Watch it and and weep.

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