Tonight New York’s Film Forum kicks off its Essential Pre-Code Series, a 50-picture tribute to films rife with luxe and skimpy lingerie, loose morals, criminal acts and, most famously, a skinny-dipping, gorilla suit-wearing Marlene Dietrich (Blonde Venus). Programmer Bruce Goldstein has brought together 50 films made between 1930 and 1934, a particularly fertile four-year period in production when the Motion Picture Production Code, popularly known as the Hays Code, lacked the reach and institutional support to strictly enforce its moral guidelines across a burgeoning Hollywood industry.
Writing yesterday in Slant, critic Jaime N. Christley says that the “dime-novel debauchery” depicted in these films was a way to draw audiences, in the grip of the Depression, into movie theaters, as was the other triple threat of star power, air-conditioning, and evolving sync sound. Christley points to the alchemical combination of exuberantly churned out pre-Code productions — or more precisely, those that leap-frogged the back-office script inspections by censors overwhelmed with volume — and Warner Bros. Studios. Under these conditions, he says, “it seemed that almost no director, not even Mervyn LeRoy, could make a dull film.” Warner Bros. head Darryl F. Zanuck believed at the time that in order to lure cash-strapped audiences into seats, his studio’s pictures required the “punch and smash” of “a headline on the front page of any successful metropolitan daily.” Sensational story lines, suggestive displays and deviant behavior all did the job that high-concept, effects-driven films do at the box office today.
It is also worth noting the full-circle irony of running any celebration of pre-Code films in New York, given the state’s censorous past. According to Bruce Bennett, writing yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, New York State actually had its own motion picture censorship guidelines on the books for more than forty years. From 1921 until 1965, any distributor wishing to screen a film in New York was required by state law to submit a print, script and fee to Albany first. Needless to say, scripts piled up fast, and between 1930 and 1934, when the Hays Code was more systematically enforced, filmmakers were getting away with murder.
What’s most incredible about those four years of unchecked creativity, as this series makes clear, is how they shaped some of the industry’s leading auteurs. Many truly iconic filmmakers both got their start and flourished in pre-Code Hollywood, among them Josef von Sternberg (Blonde Venus), Raoul Walsh (The Bowery), Howard Hawks (Scarface), Busby Berkeley (The Gold Diggers of 1933) and George Cukor (Girls About Town).
Some other prolific directors from the period, like Roy Del Ruth and Rouben Mamoulian, may not be at the very top of that iconic list, but they also made impressive and refreshingly distinct work that deserves a second look. Del Ruth, in 1931, directed the original version of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. And Mamoulian, a former New York theater director, lends Love Me Tonight (seen above) some surprisingly cinematic touches given the eventual staginess of musical comedy on film to come. Watch — and listen — to the meditative opening of this Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald-helmed picture and you might think you’d stumbled on a film of a much different sort from a much later era.
For the full list of films and schedules, head to the Film Forum’s site here.
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