Monday, 2 March 2015

Pre-code Nudity Update and Film Guide

Nudity whether in glimpses, through clothes, in silhouette or in the distance was strictly banned by the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code. According to the code nudity in any form was “immoral” and should be completely avoided. Despite this, Pre-code films are full of it. Instead of straight “in fact” nudity, directors became sneaky but attempting to make the nudity tantalisingly quick or part of the plot. Several actresses, like Jean Harlow and Norma Shearer created screen legends based on what they or didn’t wear. Thankfully, this clever film making has been preserved and audiences today can view scenes that Joseph Breen and code makers would later ban from cinemas for over fifty years. Let’s take a look at the methods this generation of Hollywood directors, writers, cinematographers and actors used to bypass the code:  
1. Taking a Bath
Since silent films and the glorious Gloria Swanson, directors have been using swimming and bathing scenes as a source of decadence and undue exposure. Surprisingly, unlike other forms of Pre-code nudity, several male actors get into the act.  
What the code says:
3. Indecent or undue exposure is forbidden.
Top Examples:
1) Tarzan and his Mate (1934) and Bird of Paradise (1933): Both these films include extensive nude swimming scenes with both Maureen O’Sullivan (or her body double) and Dolores del Rio taking the plunge with their male co-stars.

Tarzan and his Mate
2) Night After Night (1932) and Search for Beauty (1934): A little look at male nudity with George Raft taking a revealing bath in Night After Night and Buster Crabbe showering in Search for Beauty (1934).
George Raft in Night After Night
3) Sign of the Cross (1932): If the conservative Claudette Colbert knew what the camera was capturing at the time she would be shocked. The bathing scene pretty much shows all of poor Ms Colbert’s breasts.
Claudette Colbert in Sign of the Cross
4) Barbarian (1933): Although apparently in a nude coloured body suit, Myrna Loy bares all in this nude bathing scene.
Myrna Loy in Barbarian
5) Blonde Crazy (1932): Joan Blondell takes a bath with James Cagney in the room, its definitely Pre-code!!
Joan Blondell in Blonde Crazy
6) Red Dust (1932): Jean Harlow cements her screen persona as a bombshell after she takes a bath in a barrel.
Jean Harlow in Red Dust
Honourable Mentions: Maltese Falcon (1931), Beauty and the Boss (1932) and King Kong (1933).     
Beauty and the Boss

2. Existent – but really non-existent – Clothes
Wearing clothes doesn’t necessary limited the chance of nudity in Pre-code films. In many cases, certain actresses became notorious for wearing clothes that covered little or appearing to wear no visible undergarments.

What the code says:
5. Transparent or translucent materials and silhouette are frequently more suggestive than actual exposure.
Top Examples:
1) Hells Angels (1930): Jean Harlow wears a slinky, thin dress for much of the film leaving nothing to the imagination.
Jean Harlow in Hells Angels
2) A Free Soul (1930): Norma Shearer in ‘that dress’.
Norma Shearer in A Free Soul
3) Tarzan and his Mate (1934): Maureen O’ Sullivan wearing a ‘barely there’ brown costume.

Maureen O'Sullivan in Tarzan and His Mate
4) Search for Beauty (1933): Chorus girls in thin white costumes.
Search For Beauty
5) Smarty (1934): Joan Blondell teases her husband and ex-husband by strutting around in a very skimpy black dress and then has it ripped off.
Joan Blondell in Smarty
Honourable Mentions: Basically every other Jean Harlow film and shots from the deleted and unfortunately lost scenes of Greta Garbo in Mata Hari (1931). 
Greta Garbo in Mata Hari
3. In Musicals
Pre-code musicals are a great source for unexpected nudity. Film-makers and performers, such as, Busby Berkley, Eddie Cantor and Wheeler and Woolsey often used provocative clothing and situations accompanied by dance and music to titillate audiences.  

What the code says:
4. Dancing or costumes intended to permit undue exposure or indecent movements in the dance are forbidden.
Top Examples:
1) Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933): Often used as a classic example of Pre-code at its best by film historians, Gold Diggers includes the notorious musical number Petting in the Park which features chorus girls clearly undressing behind a thin screen.

Gold Diggers of 1933
2) Murder at the Vanities (1934): A really confronting murder mystery/ musical film with a musical number titled Marijuana. It includes a number of scenes with barely clothed dancers and women with strategically placed objects.
Murder at the Vanities
4) Roman Scandals (1933): Eddie Cantor’s comedic nod to the ancient Roman civilisation Includes his usual frivolity, double entendres and women clothed only in their long blonde locks.
Roman Scandals

5) Hips, Hips Hooray (1934): A film that I believe probably escalated the coming of the enforced code, Wheeler and Woosley almost take it too far in this film. Lots of girls in bath tubs, suggestive leather costumes and more double entendres then I could catch in one sitting.

Hips Hips Hooray
6) Meet the Baron (1933): Pretty dull movie but includes a long musical number with chorus girls singing about having a shower while in the shower.   
Meet the Baron
4. In Silhouette (its art really)
With MGM’s logo “art for art sake”, directors used this to the maximum with the use of artist’s models and sculpture to show sneaky glimpses of nudity.  

What the code says:
1. Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
Top Examples:
1) Song of Songs (1933): Marlene Dietrich becomes an artist’s model with the artist using her physique to craft a full (and very lifelike) body sculpture.

Song of Songs

2) The Common Law (1931): This time Constance Bennett plays the model to painter Joel McCrea who poses her nude and semi-nude.
The Common Law

4) Sign of the Cross (1932): Although not art related, this film shows a poor Christian women tied to a pole, covered only in vines about to be attacked by a gorilla.
Sign of the Cross

5) Scarlett Empress (1933): I haven’t seen this film in ages, but I am told there is distant shots of nude women in silhouette.  
Scarlett Empress (from

5. While Dressing
It was difficult to narrow down a list of films for this category, its everywhere. Directors used this ploy in every film none of which were essential to the plot.

What the code says:
2. Undressing scenes should be avoided, and never used save where essential to the plot.
Top Examples:
1) Under 18 (1931): The beautiful Marion Marsh becomes a model with many outfit changes.
Marion Marsh in Under 18

2) Footlight Parade (1933): Although a musical, this film includes lots of chorus girls in skimpy outfits as well as actresses doing quick costume changes between musical numbers.
Footlight Parade

3) Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931): Miriam Hopkins spends an excessive amount of time undressing seductively for Fredric March and then hops into bed.
Miriam Hopkins and Fredric March in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

4) If I Had a Million (1932): Another excessive undressing scene featuring Wynne Gibson before bed time.

Wynne Gibson in If I Had a Million

Honourable Mention: Every gangster film, musical, romance, and drama – pretty much every film with a female in it.

6. Blatant Exploitation
Some films shot during the Pre-code era were classified as part of the ‘exploitation’ genre. These, in many cases, used nudity to draw in audiences under the guise of educating people about topics like nudism and other cultures. Warning this films are shocking and blatantly exploit other cultures for financial gain.

What the code says:
1. The effect of nudity or semi-nudity upon the normal man or woman, and much more upon the young and upon immature persons, has been honestly recognized by all lawmakers and moralists.
2. Hence the fact that the nude or semi-nude body may be beautiful does not make its use in the films moral. For, in addition to its beauty, the effect of the nude or semi-nude body on the normal individual must be taken into consideration.

3. Nudity or semi-nudity used simply to put a "punch" into a picture comes under the head of immoral actions. It is immoral in its effect on the average audience.

Top Examples:
1) Elysia Valley of the Nude (1933): An ‘educational’ film about nudism and nudist societies; so, full of naked people.

Eylsia Valley of the Nude
2) Tabu (1931) and Blonde Captive (1932): Both films where so-called documentary crews travel to distant, exotic locations to film and study “savages”. Very dull and very offensive.
The Blonde Captive



Friday, 20 February 2015

Wild Bill Wellman and his resume of Precode Oscar ‘should-have-beens’

This is my entry to the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon hosted by Kellee, Aurora and Paula from Paula's Cinema Club. To check out the other posts from the blogathon as well as other great cinema related content click here  
Classic film fans – like flavours of ice-cream – are not all the same. They have different main tastes, like sweet or citrus. Prefer diverse additions, as conflicting as chocolate topping and nuts and some even have movie length preferences akin to the cone versus cup ice cream debate. Still comparing sweet treats and the film industry, if director William Wellman aka Wild Bill’s career was condensed into an ice-cream flavour it would be lemon gelato mixed with dark chocolate covered in sprinkles and dried apricots. Wild Bill, as his son William Wellman Jr later dubbed him, made films in pretty much every conceivable mainstream genre and all – except arguably his brief turn into musicals – proficiently. Looking for a great drama – think ‘Public Enemy’ (1931) or ‘A Star is Born’ (1937). An entertaining and fast-paced war film – ‘Wings’ (1927). A screwball comedy with the great Carole Lombard herself – ‘Nothing Sacred’ (1937). A western for a Sunday afternoon – ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ (1943). And even if you has a craving for a weird musical/ mystery film starring a barely clothed Barbara Stanwyck, Wellman offers ‘Lady of Burlesque’ aka ‘The G-String Murders’ (1943).
 Wellman said in a 1978 interview:
“I've only had one real desire in this business: to make every kind of picture that was ever made. And I did. I made musicals, I made kid pictures, I made romantic comedies, the whole list. I'm very proud of that. Now, how many directors have done that?”
I first noticed Wellman in the old fashioned credits of some of my all time favourite Precode films, like ‘Midnight Mary’ (1933), ‘Safe in Hell’ (1931) and ‘Night Nurse’ (1931). To me he seems a genius at creating fast-paced, hard-hitting Depression-era ‘social issue’ pictures. His ability at shooting action scenes and clear love and experience with planes came to my attention in ‘Wings’ (1927) which, despite its lack of sound, I simply loved. I wasn’t surprised to read, therefore, that ‘Wings’ (1927) received the Academy Award for Best Picture in the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929.
Wellman seemed to make pictures for almost every taste and mood and exceptional pictures at that. But, looking into Wellman’s overall connection with the Oscars I was disgusted to read that Wellman never won an Academy Award for his directing achievements. He received a Best Writing Oscar for the original story for Star is Born and was otherwise nominated for Best Director for ‘The High and the Mighty’ (1954), ‘Battleground’ (1949) and ‘A Star is Born’ (1937) but lost.
Looking at his films, I couldn’t understand it. Wellman must have had a strange apathy for the system and the Academy that was then reciprocated. If you look at some of Wellman’s comments it is clear he hated the ego that went with the Hollywood system.
“I have never gotten along with actors. Oh, Joel McCrea was all right. And, like I said, Bob Taylor I was very fond of. But, you see, actors are different. Women look in a mirror all their lives to make themselves pretty and attractive and that's one of the reasons you fall in love with them. But a man looking in a mirror all the time, saying lines to himself, looking at his face to see which is the best photographic angle . . . Well, one of two things happens. Either he learns to love the son of a bitch that he's always looking at or he learns to hate him. All the actors I've known learn to love him.
“Did I like working with Wayne? Even though he's the greatest star this business has ever had, hell, no!... The problem is, he's a very set guy. Stubborn as hell. And he doesn't get along with directors, except for two. He gets along with Ford and he gets along with me. The only time we had trouble, I called him on it.”

“I am the director, not Mr. Wayne or Mr. Cagney or Mr. Colman. And they knew it. Women always used to hate working with me, because I wouldn't let them use make-up.”
“A lot of people will say, "How frightful to talk that way about the 'Art' of motion pictures." Well, whatever you want to call it, I had my own way of making a motion picture. I worked very fast; and no one ever over-acted in one of my pictures. That I couldn't stand. I had my own idea of making a picture and I made it my own way. And I got damn well paid. Certainly I wanted the money. I wanted to get to the point where I'd never have to work again if I didn't want to. When I got to that point, it wasn't as nice as I thought it would be. Now, I don't go to see many pictures because I don't want to get the fever again.”
Wellman could never be classified as egotistical, was definitely modest about his talents and generally didn’t take any crap from anyone. In Hollywood terms he probably wasn’t great at playing the game. Perhaps that is why his contemporaries at the academy did not give him the amount of critical acclaim that I believe he deserved.
Instead of focusing on his career as a whole, I have decided to highlight Wellman’s best Precode features none of which – other than Wings (1927) – received honours at the Academy Awards. Here’s my Wellman Precode top 5:    

5) Safe in Hell (1931)
This film is one of the best of the Precode era. It shows off a complete disregard for the code in almost every element of production especially its choice of trailblazer Dorothy Mackaill as leading lady. Mackaill plays Gilda Karlson, a New Orleans prostitute who is never ashamed nor conscientious about her employment. She seems utterly relaxed about her life of sex, alcohol and cigarettes until she is again confronted by Piet Van Saal (Ralf Harolde) her ex-lover and man responsible for turning her into a street walker. During the fight she attempts to shoot him but fails. Van Saal escapes and everyone assumes he was murdered with Gilda the clear perpetrator. About to flee herself, her old sailor boyfriend, Carl Erickson (Donald Cook) returns and smuggles her to safety to the Caribbean island of Tortuga in order to avoid extradition. After an unofficial wedding ceremony, Erickson leaves Gilda to return to his ship. She finds herself stuck in a hotel filled with criminals and degenerates. Desperately fighting to stay faithful to Erickson, she fends of countless men trying to seduce her. But poor Gilda seems to attract trouble and she falls into a trap of blackmail, lust and sweet wine.  
4) Wild Boys of the Road (1933):
‘Wild Boys of the Road’ is probably the grittiest and most confronting of all Wellman’s Precode social dramas. It examines the lives of seven young teens who without reliable families or social security to support them are forced to become hobos and live on the street. The main teens, Tommy Gordon (Edwin Phillips) and Eddie Smith (Frankie Darro) leave home with the aim of finding jobs to support their unemployed fathers and families. They hop aboard a freight train and meet other struggling teenagers along the way. They become attached to Sally (Dorothy Coonan) who is journeying to Chicago hoping that her aunt will give her a place to live. The three teens experience the harrowing facts of depression era America from police antipathy and brutality to rape, hunger, death and, for Tommy, the loss of a limb. Surprising the film manages to end on a high note with society rewarding the teens spirit, tenuousness and integrity.       
3) Midnight Mary (1933)
This films is Wellman and Loretta Young at their best and, like several Warner Bros dramas, highlights the effects of poverty and lack of opportunity on the futures of young people. On trial for murder, Mary Martin (Young) relives her childhood and life leading up to the crime. Through flashback the audiences experiences her beginning as a child rummaging through garbage at the dump, her short term in juvenile detention after unjustly being convicted of stealing a pocketbook and her involvement with gangsters. With no job or family to turn to, she becomes the girlfriend of gang ring-leader Leo and lives in luxury from the proceeds of their crimes. Fashion enthusiasts will drool over her beautiful, Art Deco Adrian creations she adorns as Leo’s kept woman. Mary soon realises her lifestyle is reliant on her remaining on Leo’s very short leash and becomes dissatisfied with her choices. During a heist she meets rich, playboy Tom (Franchot Tone) who falls in love with her and acts to drag her from her life of crime and Leo’s manipulation. Her relationship with Tom, brings Mary’s innate goodness to the surface and she has to make the choice between redemption and escape.
2) Wings (1927)
This movie is definitely worthy of the word, epic, and I would consider it in the same league as North and South or Gone with the Wind. It has romance, long fight scenes, mateship, and a significant historical event to cloud the lives of the character, just not sound. In 1917, Jack Powell (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers) is a normal young man with dreams of becoming a pilot, his best friend is his neighbour the playful, boyish and reliable Mary (Clara Bow). Poor Mary is secretly in love with Jack but he is smitten by the belle of the region the delicate and beautiful Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston) who is, unfortunately, in a ‘sort-of’ relationship with David Armstrong (Richard Arlene). Soon, the war is upon the happy community and both David and Jack enlist in the aviation corp. They begin as enemies – both rivals for the love of Sylvia – but later bond over the training and develop mutual respect for each other. They are rapidly graduated flyers and begin patrolling the area. Later, Jack and David are back at the front. Strangely, David has a premonition of his own death and warns Jack to organise his belongings. During an air battle, David steals an enemy plane and takes flight. Jack is heading back to the base when he sees the enemy plane David is driving – but he does not see him and shoots it down. Wanting a souvenir of his victory, he lands near the site and recognises the dying soldier as his friend. In that moment Jack realises he has killed David. As well as the wonderful battle scenes, this film also includes an awkward man-on-man kiss and a brief vision of Clara Bow’s breasts to entice you.    
1) The Public Enemy (1931)
Probably the most well-known of Wellman’s Precode features, The Public Enemy (1931) has received a cult following in recent decades due to its examination of the quintessential depression era gangster and the iconic ‘grapefruit scene’. The plot progresses through from central character, Tom Powers’ (James Cagney) every life as a petty thief and criminal with is friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) onto his rise as the leader of a bootlegging gang to his fall and then death. Powers seems to excel and enjoy his life of crime but keeps the favour of his dotting mother (Beryl Mercer). Powers and Doyle are virtually inseparable as the move from a small gang into operating directly under gang leader Samuel ‘Nails’ Nathan (Leslie Fenton) as bootleggers. With their increasing wealth they attract girlfriends in Kitty (Mae Clarke) and Mamie (Joan Blondell) but Powers soon moves onto the attractive and gold digging Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow). With a prolonged prohibition, the bootlegging game becomes more lucrative. After the death of Nathan, a rival gang triggers an all-out war. This initiates kidnappings, gun battles and murder.          

Monday, 8 December 2014

Name that Star (because I can't)

I was going through a couple of Photoplay Magazines and came across this picture. Perhaps I am overthinking things but is this really a picture of Una Merkel? It does say it’s her in the blurb but the image has no resemblance to the actress I know and love in several classic Precode films. I have added a few more Merkely pictures after. What does everyone else think?

The Questionable Merkel Portrait:

The Usual Merkel:

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Norma Shearer and Manic Pixie Dream Boys

Who’s that girl? It’s not Jess, it’s not even Norma, it’s the men Miss Shearer seemed to gather around her in almost every film role. In her Pre-code performances Shearer is not relegated to a supportive role nor is she doomed to a one-dimensional outlook or perpetually unalterable journey. In most cases she is in a constant struggle between a life of sexual and emotional liberation and an existence of a conventional wife and mother. Some might say in even a ‘soulful’ or ‘brooding’ manner. Her adventures through films from 1929 to 1934 are constantly peppered by the standard array of male leads. Unlike the screen heroes of the 1940’s and 50’s, these male counterparts display flowery, emotional qualities and seem to pander only to the wants of Shearer’s more domineering persona. They appear to mirror the characteristics of the typical subordinate, quirky female roles of the 21st Century, recently more controversially coined ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girls’ (MPDG).

A term created to label certain two-dimensional figures, such as, Kirsten Dunst from Elizabethtown (2005) and Natalie Portman from Garden State (2004), the MPDG was considered an only female apparition. However, the unusual power and masculinity of Shearer’s protagonists almost compels the creation of a weaker, eccentric and subservient stereotypes, the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Boy’ (MPDB). Usually embodied by her usual stock of husbands, boyfriends, lovers or male friends, such as, Robert Montgomery, Chester Morris, Leslie Howard or Clark Gable, the MPDB’s function solely for Shearer’s development and happiness.
The problem with assigning strict labels is of course what is a MPDG and, therefore, her male counterpart? Film critic Nathan Rabin originally invented the phrase as a tool for his comprehensive demolition of the film Elizabethtown in a 2007 review. Rabin encapsulated the figure beautifully as a, “bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries.” Thus, she has four must-have qualities:
1) She is irresistibly attractive (mostly over and above the male lead);
2) She, in turn, finds her male lead irresistibly attractive;
3) She’s static, unchanging and completely devoted to her male lead; and finally,
4) She is, whether through her behaviour or style, completely crazy.
It seems inevitable that this perfect collection of characteristics has an even more rigid and obvious set of traits for the male protagonist. Rabin thankfully gave the MPDG’s classic love interest equal attention. Accordingly, these men are suitably troubled, unable to embrace life and generally gloomy or depressed. A person perfectly in need of some adventure and whimsy.   
This seems a perfect fit for almost every Zooey Deschannel and insert-older-male-actor off beat romantic comedy, but this isn’t the 1930’s. Or is it. The early 30’s films were a great era for a kind of gender swap. Women were running the show – relationships (in and out of marriage), businesses, money and most of all men. Their male counterparts were, in many cases, just along for the ride. Enter Norma Shearer, the queen of the dominating screen performance and MPDBs. Take her breakout talkie The Divorcee (1930), a film where Shearer – on discovering her husband (Chester Morris) has been unfaithful – decides to ‘settle their account’ by sleeping with his best friend (Robert Montgomery). This is the catalyst for Shearer to break away from an unfulfilling marriage into a culture of free sex, country-hoping and minimal clothing. In this movie it is Shearer who is ‘finding herself’ and seeking fun and freedom not Morris. He, as well as her long array of boyfriends and one-night-stands, are just present, assisting Shearer’s emotional development and always irrevocably in love/desire with her.                
Norma Shearer with her suitors in The Divorcee (1930)
Case Number 2 – A Free Soul (1931) with Shearer alongside veteran actor, Lionel Barrymore, Clark Gable and Leslie Howard, plays another sex-obsessed young woman with set ideas about love and marriage. Again, Shearer is torn between convention and adventure with a struggle between her perfect, conservative boyfriend and her ex-convict, gangster lover. Also, again Gable and Howard seem to be a backdrop for Shearer’s inner conflict and external exploits by following, almost unquestionably, with every one of her impulses. Her next picture, Private Lives (1931) brought a changeup from Shearer’s typical role. She plays a divorcee, who recently remarried is enjoying a lavish honeymoon on the French Rivera. Unbeknownst to Shearer, her former husband (Montgomery) also on his second honeymoon is staying in an adjourning suite. Private Lives is full of feisty physical fights and passionate makeups between Shearer and Montgomery. Although not completely in alignment with the other two films, it is completed dominated by the fluidly sexual yet controllingly and masculine, Shearer.

Fast-forward three years and Shearer is back to her old games. Riptide (1934) is very much in the same vein as her earlier two films. A few years into a marriage with a stuffy English Lord (Herbert Marshall), Shearer becomes tempted by an old flame (Montgomery). While her husband is away she enjoys nights of drinking, wild escapades and a night of wild sex before returning, at the close, to her contrite husband. The supposed metamorphous of Marshall into a more loving, present husband is overshadowed by Shearer’s extramarital adventures. Her actions are an attempt to revaluate her marriage and experience the liberty of a single woman. It is her journey and he is simply reacting to it.

Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in A Free Soul
In this succession of four films, Shearer has created a profile for the MPDB and his irresistible mistress. She is troubled, wrestling between a desire for freedom and a need to stay within the parameters of society’s conventions. Her lovers provide a source of adventure through sex, free expression and lots of partying and alcohol. Likewise, the male co-stars seem to fit a more male exploration of the stock character made famous by Deschannel. They are extremely boyish or pixie-like, with their adolescent obsessions with Shearer. An example Montgomery and Nagel’s characters as her illicit lover’s in Divorcee, they follow after her like puppy dogs desperate for her attention and body. Check one. In most cases they are idyllically assembled; with perfectly fitted costumes, grooming, chiselled bodies and handsome faces. Clearly a physical ideal in the dreams of women. Check two. Although they do not display the obvious emotional mania, there is a clear moodiness about these almost identical characters. Most – evident in Gable’s character in A Free Soul – flit between uncontrollable desire to cold rejection towards Shearer as she grows and changes. A kind of side effect of their Peter Pan-like need to stay young. Not complete insanity but definite, mania. Check three. Lastly, there maleness is mostly undisputed. Check four.

Although, made before the creation of the controversial term MPDG, the small grouping of Norma Shearer films from 1929 to 1934 seem to be probably the only incarnation of the male counterpart at work. Rabin himself seemed to allude that because of the precise mixture of vulnerability, craziness and sprite-like traits, a male version in film was unlikely if not mythical. But Pre-code is not like any other era in movies and was a perfect breeding grown for the very real MPDB. 
Robert Montgomery and Norma Shearer in Riptide