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Noir City 16: DESTINY (1944) and FLESH AND FANTASY (1943)

Dear readers, if you’ve been following my Twitter feed over the past few days, you know that I’ve been attending the 16th annual Noir City festival–a weeklong smorgasbord of film noir favorites and rarities, on the big screen at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. It’s been a fascinating few days thus far, and I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve seen.

I’ve been asked several times over the course of this festival, including by my various Lyft drivers and friendly employees at Hot Cookie (San Francisco’s greatest cookie establishment, right next door to the Castro), for an explanation of what exactly film noir is. It’s a bit hard to pin down. Noir is a genre of film that rose up around the time of America’s entrance into World War II, involving dark, shadowy stories that often tease the limits of the Motion Picture Production Code. It has several key elements–noir films deal with crime, shady figures, powerful and seductive women, and the creative use of light and shadow. Frequently, voiceover narration is employed, as in the cases of the classic noirs Gilda (1946) and Double Indemnity (1944).

There is some debate as to whether Hitchcock movies count as noir. Hitchcock somewhat defies categorization, but the storylines, characterizations, and uses of lighting that have become signatures of Hitchcock’s work are also typical of the noir genre. Noir City takes a liberal definition of the genre, and on Saturday night festivalgoers were treated to a showing of Hitchcock’s fantastic Shadow of a Doubt.

The festival is hosted by Eddie Muller, known as the “Czar of Noir” among film fans, and before each screening Muller gives an intro that whets the viewer’s appetite for what’s to come. I was excited to see a Barbara Stanwyck movie on the program this year, as I have a particular fondness for Stanwyck and I know Eddie Muller does, too. I’ve seen nearly all her movies–but this one, Flesh and Fantasy, was one I hadn’t seen. I decided to attend the movie beforehand as well, and I’m glad I did.

Jean and Curtis in Destiny

The movie that came before Flesh and Fantasy, an hour long story about an accomplice to a bank robbery and his journey of escape entitled Destiny, was originally intended as the first vignette of Flesh and Fantasy, but instead it was cut off the final version and released as a movie of its own the following year. Destiny has some very interesting elements to it, including treatment of a blind character that, in some ways, was quite modern. The ending was important to understanding the beginning of Flesh and Fantasy, and had I not seen Destiny and heard Eddie Muller’s intro, the first part of Flesh and Fantasy wouldn’t have made much sense.

Flesh and Fantasy is comprised of a series of vignettes that explore the human mind and its relationship to fate and destiny. The movie features a stellar cast, and the stories are reminiscent of The Twilight Zone in their eerie twists on reality.  Providing a bit of comic relief and introductions to the vignettes are two friends, played by the delightful Robert Benchley, a humorist and one of the original members of the Algonquin Round Table, and David Hoffman, in one of his first film roles (he would go on to have a more prolific career in television). The first vignette introduced by Benchley and Hoffman tells the story of a woman who finds herself unattractive, and she interacts with the world with bitterness and scorn. Putting on a mask of a beautiful woman, she goes to a dance and falls in love with a man who assures her that he would love her no matter what she looks like under the mask. The final scene is comprised of several twists and turns that made the audience gasp with surprise and delight.

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The second vignette involves a man (played by Edward G. Robinson) who is told by a palm reader that he is destined to commit a murder. He can’t get his mind off it…and plots a murder to try to outwit his fate. This story reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Illustrated Man,” in the way that the body is used to show an unavoidable future.

The third vignette is where Barbara Stanwyck comes in, acting alongside Charles Boyer. Boyer plays a trapeze artist who dreams that he falls off the trapeze and onto a woman (Stanwyck) wearing very distinctive earrings, shaped like lyres. The dream affects him so much that it throws him off his act that evening, and he wonders if he can ever recover. When the circus sails for a foreign show, Boyer meets a woman on the boat…the same woman he saw in his dream. They fall in love…and she wants to come watch him perform.

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Each story was very compelling, and the concept was amazingly forward-thinking for 1943. Directing was the great French director Julien Duvivier, known as one of the role models for French New Wave filmmaker Jean Renoir. Duvivier was clearly ahead of his time, not only with his explorations of dreams and fate, but also in bookending the vignettes–one leading directly into the next. This, perhaps, contributed to the fact that the movie isn’t better known. No one had anything to compare it to–now we have The Twilight Zone and a whole generation of similar TV shows and movies that make Flesh and Fantasy a truly fascinating piece.

After it was over, the audience was tittering with excitement over what they had just seen. I was left with the feeling of how sad it is that the movie is not more accessible–and how lucky we are that festivals like Noir City exist to expose us to such rarely seen gems as this one.

Noir City is traveling this year–here are the dates when the festival may be in a town close by:

NOIR CITY SF: January 26-February. 4, 2018
NOIR CITY Seattle: February 16-22, 2018
NOIR CITY Denver: March 23-25, 2018
NOIR CITY Hollywood: April 13-22, 2018
NOIR CITY Austin: May 18-20, 2018
NOIR CITY Boston: June 8-10, 2018

2018 dates for NOIR CITY Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. TBD

And keep your eye out for Flesh and Fantasy. You won’t regret it.

I’ll be back with more updates from Noir City later on this week. Thanks for reading!

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Oscars Through the Years: Historic Winners and Oscar Overlooks

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Olivia de Havilland accepts her Best Actress Oscar for The Heiress (1949).

Tonight is Oscar night. As Los Angeles prepares for an evening of glamor, style, and nightmarish street closures (it once took me an hour to walk to the store one block away when I was in Hollywood on Oscar night), we look back on the films and performances that most moved us this year, and honor them with the industry’s highest award.

This year’s Oscar lineup has had its fair share of criticism, and a shakeup of Academy voting rules in the face of this criticism has further rocked the industry. This is a post all its own, and a very worthy topic for analysis on a classic film blog due to the members the new rules affect, but I would like to save that discussion for after the Oscars. Today, I would like to focus on celebrating the history of the awards, historic wins, historic snubs, and those for whom Oscar was always just out of reach.

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JANET GAYNOR: The first performer to win Best Actress

At the first Academy Award ceremony in 1929, held in the Blossom Room at the Roosevelt Hotel, Janet Gaynor was named the Academy’s first Best Actress for her work in three films–Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Seventh Heaven, and Street Angel. The entire ceremony, hosted by Douglas Fairbanks, lasted for 15 minutes and all the awards had been announced ahead of time.

Here is Janet Gaynor in those three films.

 

Notice that this first Oscar ceremony came right on the cusp of sound technology. The Jazz Singer, the first film to have a synchronized dialogue track, was disqualified from the ceremony because the organizers felt that it was unfair to have sound films compete with silents.

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Historic win

HATTIE MCDANIEL: The first African-American to win an Oscar

For her performance as Mammy in Gone With the Wind (1939), Hattie McDaniel won the first Academy Award presented to an African-American performer. The aftermath of Gone With the Wind had not been easy for McDaniel. Jim Crow laws had been raging in the South for over 40 years, and Hattie McDaniel had suffered huge amounts of discrimination based around where and how she could travel with the film. She was unable to attend the gala premiere in Atlanta, and even at the Oscars ceremony where she was an odds-on favorite to win, she was unable to sit with the rest of her Gone With the Wind co-stars, instead having to walk from the back of the room to accept her award.

Hattie McDaniel’s legendary Oscar has since been lost. After her death, she willed the statue to Howard University, where it was rumored to have been stolen and thrown in the Potomac River during civil rights protests in the 1960s. But an investigation into its whereabouts gives more credence to the idea that inadequate intake procedures at the university during the time of its arrival was responsible for its being misplaced.

JOAN FONTAINE: Wins for Suspicion

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After having been defeated by Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle the previous year when she was nominated for Rebecca, Joan Fontaine ended up winning for Suspicion (1941) during the Academy Award ceremony in 1942. She was up against her sister, Olivia de Havilland, nominated for Hold Back the Dawn.

Fontaine’s win for Suspicion is historic in several ways. With her win, she became the sole person who has ever won an acting Oscar for a Hitchcock film. In addition, she and Olivia de Havilland are the only siblings who have ever won lead acting Oscars. Olivia won her first Oscar just a few years later, for To Each His Own, and a second three years later for The Heiress.

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Olivia de Havilland hugs sister Joan Fontaine on Oscar night when Joan won for Suspicion.

Oscar Overlooks

BARBARA STANWYCK

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Though nominated four times for the Academy Award, Barbara Stanwyck never won a competitive Oscar. One of the most chameleonic actresses on the screen, her nominations reflected her versatility and range, but each time she lost out to another actress. Here are some clips from each of Barbara Stanwyck’s nominated performances, along with the winning performances.

1937: Barbara Stanwyck nominated for Stella Dallas

LOST TO: Luise Rainer, The Good Earth

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1941: Barbara Stanwyck nominated for Ball of Fire

LOST TO: Joan Fontaine, Suspicion

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1944: Barbara Stanwyck nominated for Double Indemnity

LOST TO: Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight

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1948: Barbara Stanwyck nominated for Sorry Wrong Number

LOST TO: Jane Wyman, Johnny Belinda

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Finally, in 1982, she got her due.

MYRNA LOY

While Stanwyck was at least given the honor of being nominated, the great Myrna Loy never even received a nomination. It is considered one of the Academy’s greatest oversights, considering Myrna Loy’s long and illustrious career, and especially her role in the huge Oscar winner The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946, and her much-beloved portrayal of Nora Charles in The Thin Man.

The Academy finally gave Myrna an honorary award, at least 70 years late, which she accepted with a simple “You’ve made me very happy. Thank you very much.”

Thanks for reading, and be sure to watch the Oscars this evening at 5 PM Pacific time! And if you’re in Los Angeles, stay off those roads.

 

Noir City 14: THE DARK CORNER and THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS

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The 14th annual Noir City festival, the spectacular tribute to film noir that has become a must-see San Francisco tradition, took place last week at the Castro Theatre. The festival is one big noir extravaganza, with the theater packed to the gills every day and every night for ten days straight. It was truly an event to experience, and one that I was thrilled to have been able to attend.

While the programming at Noir City is always top-notch, programmed by the man who has come to be known as the “czar of Noir,” Eddie Muller, this year had some truly unusual and unique offerings for the noir aficionados and for the uninitiated alike. Paired with noir classics like The Two Mrs. Carrolls and Rear Window were creatively programmed films like The Red Shoes that rose above the traditional definitions of noir to give the audience an entirely new vision of the genre.

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One of the films that most fascinated me in the Noir City program this year was a 1946 detective/murder mystery called The Dark Corner, starring Lucille Ball and Mark Stevens. By 1946, film noir had reached its zenith, the genre having been molded and firmly established during the years of World War II. Dark alleyways, shadowed angles, cigarettes and hard drinking characterized a noir film, as did the appearance of a savvy and smart femme fatale who often drives the plot.

Earlier in 1946, Lucille Ball had walked out on her contract at MGM. She was having problems at the studio and problems at home, her marriage to Desi Arnaz on the brink of collapse. At the studio, she was being cast almost exclusively in glamorous roles, ones that she knew didn’t fit her well and where she was being cast aside for the more established MGM stars like Judy Garland. In search of something different to propel her career forward and to take her mind off her home troubles, she left MGM and freelanced for several years. The Dark Corner, filmed at 20th Century Fox, was one of the first movies she did following the termination of her contract at MGM, and if Lucy had wanted to depart from MGM-type glamor roles in taking this role, she succeeded.

Playing a secretary in love with her boss who has a sinister past, Lucille Ball’s role is that of the smart, savvy version of the femme fatale. It suits her well, and the audience’s eyes are rarely off her when she is onscreen. As for the movie itself, as a murder mystery and detective story in one, The Dark Corner is so noir that it almost parodies itself. Audiences at the Castro Theatre are unusually well-educated in their cinema, and never was that more clear than when the audience laughed in delight at those scenes where Mark Stevens lights a match on his shoe at breakfast, or drinks several glasses of gin in one sitting. San Francisco knows its noir, and a self-aware movie like The Dark Corner was a fun choice for this audience.

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The Two Mrs. Carrolls is an old favorite of mine. The only film to pair cinematic legends Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck, it tells the story of a mentally unstable painter who endeavors to kill all the women he loves after painting their portraits. It, too, is a prototypical noir, even taking hints from earlier dark movies and weaving them into the plot in similar ways. A clear example of this is the idea of the painter poisoning his wives with milk, one of the main themes of Hitchcock’s Suspicion, from 6 years earlier.

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Humphrey Bogart brings Barbara Stanwyck a glass of poisoned milk in The Two Mrs. Carrolls.

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Cary Grant brings Joan Fontaine a glass of milk in Suspicion.

The treatment of Barbara Stanwyck as the naive, sweet second wife who is haunted by the first, The Two Mrs. Carrolls also echoes a second Hitchcock film, Rebecca, in which the innocent, sweet Second Mrs. De Winter is tortured by the memory of the ever-present first wife. In Rebecca, the first wife’s memory is poison in itself, leaving in its wake fear, destruction and death. In The Two Mrs. Carrolls, the first wife is the saving grace of the second, with hints about her demise leading the second wife to figure out what her husband is plotting. Where in Rebecca the first wife’s memory may be characterized as the villain, in The Two Mrs. Carrolls she may be characterized as the hero.

Thank you to Noir City for another great year, and I look forward to next year’s programming!

Backlots at Noir City: THE THIN MAN (1934) and CLASH BY NIGHT (1950)

As a proud Barbara Stanwyck aficionado, I was thrilled when Noir City 13 reached its halfway point on Wednesday night with a screening of two Barbara Stanwyck dramas from the 1950s–Clash By Night (1950) and Crime of Passion (1957). As both are films that I have seen before (I’ve seen 67 Barbara Stanwyck films–yes, I’ve counted), and given that transportation home gets difficult after about 9:30, I only opted to see the former last night. Regardless, I have two films to write about today, because on Monday we were treated to a showing of one of the greatest and most charming detective stories on film, Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. This is a movie I have written about several times in the past, and seen on the big screen multiple times, but viewing it at the Castro is an experience all its own.

San Francisco, in all its glory, is a town full of cinephiles. People here know their cinema, and they know how to tell the good from the bad. So when there is a packed house for a classic movie in San Francisco, you know it’s good. The theater was packed solid on Monday night.

Released right on the brink of the Production Code, The Thin Man tells the story of Nick and Nora Charles, a married detecting couple who drink their way through life and try (unsuccessfully) not to get involved in detective cases. But when a series of murders occurs and Nick knows people involved, he can’t keep himself away. Nora is just as essential to solving the murders as Nick is, and this is part of the timeless appeal of this movie.

The Thin Man is famous for its snappy dialogue and witty repartee, and for being one of the first movies to show that a husband and wife can be friends, and not just romantic partners. Nick and Nora spend the movie ribbing and joking with each other, just as good friends would do. Nora is an equal to Nick–she never once stoops below his level nor does Nick ever take the upper hand. Yet their love is never in doubt, and for its refreshing take on relationships and the position of women within marriage, The Thin Man may be considered a truly feminist movie.

On Wednesday evening, as Noir City reached its halfway point, I again ventured out to the Castro to view Clash By Night, a 1950 Barbara Stanwyck drama that again skirts the limits of the Production Code. Based on a Broadway stage play by Clifford Odets, Clash By Night tells the story of a woman who marries one man, but loves another. She is torn between love and duty, and ends up making decisions that she regrets. The two love interests are played by Paul Douglas (the man she marries) and Robert Ryan (the man she loves), and the film also stars a young Marilyn Monroe, playing Stanwyck’s brother’s girlfriend, also coming to terms with issues of love. The brilliance of the story, and also the aspect that comes into conflict with the Code, lies in the fact that there is no clear villain, and the audience struggles right along with Stanwyck in trying to determine which decision is the best. Does she leave her husband, with whom she has a child, in order to follow her heart with Robert Ryan? Or does she keep her marriage together for the sake of her husband and her child? We see her conflict, and we empathize with her.

It is interesting to note the offscreen rapport between Barbara Stanwyck, the consummate professional actress of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and Marilyn Monroe, the up-and-coming starlet who was already showing signs of psychological problems and difficulties on the set. The director of Clash By Night, the great Fritz Lang, was not up to handling Monroe’s tardiness and personal problems, but Barbara Stanwyck stood up for the young actress and protected her. She gave Marilyn acting tips, shielded her from criticism, and seemed to take her under her wing as a sort of protege. The two had come from similar difficult childhoods–both had been foster children, abandoned by their parents and raised with little to no stability. Stanwyck seemed to understand what Marilyn had been through and was continuing to go through psychologically, and their positive chemistry shines through on the screen. Their scenes together are some of the tenderest in the movie, and Marilyn Monroe later said that Barbara Stanwyck was the only actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age who ever showed her kindness.

I will be seeing the classic French thriller Les Diaboliques tomorrow evening (one of my all-time favorite films, and this will be my first time seeing it on the big screen), followed by The Honeymoon Killers on Sunday. Stay tuned for a report!

TREASURES FROM THE WARNER ARCHIVE: The Woman In Red (1935)

As regular readers of this blog know, the level of devotion I possess for Barbara Stanwyck is very high. I consider her to be one of the greatest, most versatile actresses ever on the screen, and will take any and every opportunity to watch one of her movies and, according to a recent calculation, I have seen 63 of them. So you can imagine my joy when I discovered a Barbara Stanwyck movie in the Warner Archive that I had not previously seen, and naturally I took the opportunity to request it for the blog. The movie is Woman in Red, a drama made for Warner Bros. in 1935 costarring Gene Raymond and John Eldridge as Stanwyck’s love interests.

1935 was a relatively quiet year for Barbara Stanwyck. The previous year had seen the enforcement of the strict Production Code, to which several steamy Barbara Stanwyck pictures had contributed (notably Illicit, Forbidden, and the pre-Code masterpiece Baby Face), and in 1935 the public had to get used to a new type of Barbara Stanwyck. She delivered, but the movies she made in 1935 were extremely benign by comparison. The Woman in Red is no exception, and in this film we see a much tighter, more constrained character in Stanwyck’s portrayal of Shelby Barret than we have seen in a Stanwyck movie before.

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Shelby Barret is a professional equestrienne who rides for a woman named Mrs. Nicholas, a wealthy society lady. She falls in love with Johnny Wyatt, a polo player for Mrs. Nicholas, but Mrs. Nicholas is also in love with Johnny and she fires Shelby. Meanwhile, another wealthy gentleman by the name of Gene Fairchild is in love with Shelby, and after Shelby and Johnny marry, she elicits Gene’s financial help (without telling Johnny) in the budding horse-handling venture that she and Johnny are undertaking.

She accepts an invitation to party with Gene Fairchild on his yacht, when Gene and his companion Olga show up drunk and Olga falls off the boat to her death. Fairchild is implicated as her murderer, and witnesses testify that he was seen with a mysterious “woman in red” (Shelby was wearing red that evening). Her snobby in-laws, the Wyatts, start talking about the case and Shelby confesses that she is the woman in red. In court, the Wyatt family defends her, and she defends Fairchild, risking her marriage. Ultimately, Johnny comes around and forgives her, and they are reconciled at the end.

It is a rather hurried ending, and the movie feels rushed in general. The plot is difficult to follow because the characters aren’t terribly well developed, but there are a few wonderful angry Barbara Stanwyck scenes which are always a delight to watch.

It is also great to see Barbara Stanwyck acting with horses at this point in her career. Stanwyck had a great love for horses, despite several serious falls during stunt sequences early in her career, and her rapport with them is palpable. In 1936, she and the Zeppo Marx family founded Marwyck, a ranch designed for the training, breeding, and respite of thoroughbred racehorses. It remained active until 1943, and Barbara Stanwyck was an integral part of the upkeep and maintenance of the ranch and the horses. In this film, Stanwyck is so natural with the horses that they almost seem a part of her, and the effect is lovely.

Barbara Stanwyck tends to a horse at Marwyck.

Gene Raymond, who plays Johnny, was an extremely versatile personality in Hollywood. Though he was at various times a composer, director, producer, and an airline pilot, the role for which he is perhaps best known is for being the husband of MGM singing star Jeanette MacDonald. They were married for 28 years until MacDonald’s death in 1965.

Jeanette MacDonald and Gene Raymond.

If you would like to see The Woman in Red, click here to order it from the Warner Archive.

See you next time!

THE GREAT VILLAIN BLOGATHON: Film Noir and the Villains in DOUBLE INDEMNITY

When I heard that my fellow bloggers over at Shadows and Satin, Silver Screenings, and Speakeasy were getting ready to host The Great Villain Blogathon a few days ago, I knew that an opportunity to celebrate my favorite movie villains with other film fans was just too good to pass up. I signed up immediately, and the minute I saw the banner…I knew my topic.

Many of my readers know that I have a great fondness for all things Barbara Stanwyck. And as my recent article about Baby Face and pre-Code Hollywood has proven to be a rather popular one, I have decided to write today about another significant era of Hollywood and two prominent villains to come out of it–Phyllis Dietrichson, the alluring wife of an ill-fated husband, and her partner-in-crime, Walter Neff, villains of that noir-est of all film noirs, Double Indemnity (1944). The film was deftly directed by Billy Wilder, and co-written by Wilder and author Raymond Chandler.

Born out of the German Expressionist movement and honed in the years leading up to U.S. involvement in World War II, film noir is a rich and complex genre. Primarily taking the form of crime drama and most often told with narrative voice-over, it breaks many of the social norms that were in place under the Code, and often takes a view of women little seen since before the Code was in place. In movies under the Code, women were seen as sweethearts, submissive, and existing only for the pleasure of man. In noir films, the woman is often the villain of the story, and through her sex, wiles, and manipulation, she brings about the man’s downfall. It is out of the noir genre that we get the term femme fatale–“deadly woman.”

Never was a femme fatale more deadly, in every sense of the word, than in Double Indemnity, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray and released at the height of World War II in 1944. In this story of a woman who partners with an insurance salesman to kill her husband and collect on his insurance money, Barbara Stanwyck is at her best and most evil. Her performance earned her a third Academy Award nomination, and remains one of the most outstanding performances in her career.

In keeping with the genre standard of telling a story with narrative voice-over, Double Indemnity begins with Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) speaking into a Dictaphone, confessing to the crime of killing Phyllis Dietrichson’s husband. We see the story unfold through flashback, expounded upon by Neff’s voice-over. Taken by Phyllis’ charm and raw sex appeal and upset at Phyllis’ claims that her husband treated her badly, Neff allowed himself to be talked into hatching an elaborate scheme to murder Mr. Dietrichson, making it look like an accident to take advantage of a loophole in insurance laws allowing for the “double indemnity” clause to be invoked in the case of an accident resulting in death. Though Neff was initially reluctant to go through with the scheme, his lust and desire for Phyllis Dietrichson, and his sympathy for her as a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, caused him to take leave of his senses. Phyllis, for her part, played hard to get. This scene’s magnificent dialogue, written by screenwriters Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, demonstrates perfectly the initial relationship between Neff and Phyllis.

As the story progressed, Neff’s lust for Phyllis increased as the consequences of their crime built. The sexual tension in the film is so thick it is almost palpable, and it is clear that the two are in love not only with each other, but with the thrill of their lawlessness. Though it seems at first that their plan is foolproof, the authorities catch on to them and knowing what will happen to Phyllis when they are caught, Neff kills Phyllis, in essence giving credence to the saying that man kills the thing he loves most. Neff then turns himself in, and the film ends.

Though film noir always skirted at the very edge of what was acceptable under the Code, it still had to abide by the rules set forth by the Hays Office. Owing to the section of the Code that stated that an audience member “must feel that evil is wrong and good is right,” those characters that committed evil crimes must be punished accordingly–and for all the wrong that Phyllis Dietrichson committed, there is no alternative ending for Phyllis in a film made under the Production Code.

This is the great dichotomy in the genre, and what separates the femme fatales of classic film noir from the women of pre-Code Hollywood. In Hollywood before the Code, women were celebrated for their power over men. They were the protagonists, and were praised for ridding themselves of the controlling men in their lives. They were liberated women, while for all their power over men, the women in film noir could never be seen as upstanding or correct in their actions. It is interesting to imagine Double Indemnity as a pre-Code, and to think how Phyllis would have been portrayed if the movie had been made ten years earlier.

Thank you to Shadows and Satin, Silver Screenings, and Speakeasy for hosting this great blogathon!

BABY FACE (1933) and Pre-Code Hollywood Morality

In a scene cut from the original theatrical release, Barbara Stanwyck breaks a beer bottle over the head of a man trying to assault her.

When discussing classic film with those who may have little knowledge of its history, a common grievance I hear is that people take issue with the contrived storylines and docile women that they perceive to make up the cinematic landscape of classic Hollywood. “The stories are all the same,” they often state, “and the women are so wholesome and pure. It’s not real.” When I hear statements like these, I try to give as much historical context as is appropriate for the conversation, and then…I almost always recommend a pre-Code.

Before the strict enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, Hollywood was the antithesis of what most people consider “old movies” to be. A far cry from the sweet, obedient women who always ended up married to the good guy at the end, women in this era of filmmaking were often driven, manhunting, sexual creatures who lived their own lives, their own way. They got divorces, slept their way to the top, and weren’t afraid of the power of men.

This was the world of pre-Code Hollywood.

Norma Shearer in THE DIVORCEE (1930), a story of a woman’s divorce and illicit affairs that won Norma Shearer an Oscar for Best Actress.

In 1922, following a series of Hollywood scandals that culminated in the accusation and ultimate acquittal of Fatty Arbuckle in 1921 in the famous Virginia Rappe rape trial, Hollywood realized that its morals were coming into serious question by certain political factions. The studios hired Will Hays, Presbyterian clergyman and former head of the Republican National Committee, to try to tame what they perceived to be an industry spiraling out of control. He drafted a series of “Do’s, Don’ts, and Be Carefuls” that ultimately morphed into the first Hollywood Production Code, put into effect in 1930. Jason Joy was employed as the chief enforcer of the new mandate, holding the post until 1932.

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, whose 1921 trial and acquittal for the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe called into question the morality of Hollywood.

Though the code existed as a technicality, Jason Joy was not too keen on its enforcement and the first film that was reviewed under the new system, The Blue Angel (1930), was passed through with very few changes. The story of an elderly professor who falls in love with a cabaret singer is one that has become a classic of German cinema, but in 1930 it was branded as indecent by a California state censor. As there was poor communication between Joy’s office and the studios, and poor infrastructure regarding who had the power over what, there was not much  that Joy could do had he wanted to.

While the studios and the Production Code office fumbled with the cumbersome new laws, box-office sales skyrocketed. Out of this era of lack of code enforcement came films that were sexy, steamy, brutal, and raw. Women were loose and manipulative, men killed and massacred. There were overt references to sex, and near-nudity.

In Night Nurse (1931) Joan Blondell and Barbara Stanwyck dress and undress 3 times in the first half hour.

Despite the Code’s ban on sexual suggestion and nudity in silhouette, this scene from Golddiggers of 1933 appeared, a clear slap in the face to the Production Code office and one of the raciest scenes to come out of the 1930s.

There was an air of lawlessness in the movies, and the public loved it. The studios were making movies that people wanted in spite of the powers-that-be, and they were doing it right under their noses.

And then came Baby Face (1933).

Film scholars often cite Baby Face as the film that served as the tipping point for all the changes that would take place the following year. At the TCM Festival a few weeks ago Bruce Goldstein, president of the New York Film Forum, described Baby Face as the Citizen Kane of pre-Codes, a film so good, so racy, and so much in defiance of everything the Code stood for that it singlehandedly rallied the office to action.

Baby Face is the story of a young woman who, tired of her life as a prostitute in the saloon owned by her father, decides to use her powers over men to get a job and rise to the upper echelons of New York society. Literally sleeping her way to the top, she is the epitome of the power pre-Code women had over their men. All the men in the movie simply crumble to her will, she uses them as rungs on the ladder to get to where she wants to be.

Even by today’s standards, Baby Face in its original form is a monument to feminism, a story of how a woman uses her wiles to outsmart all the men in her life. But upon its completion in mid-1933 the Production Code office, now headed by Joseph Breen, panicked. The film broke so many rules of the Code, it was essentially unfit for release and was banned by censors across the country. Serious cuts were made to Baby Face to make it palatable to censors, and less than 6 months after the release of Baby Face in December of 1933, an amendment was added to the Code to require all films released after July 1, 1934, to obtain a certificate of approval before their release into theatres. An important shot of a muder/suicide scene in Baby Face was cut to comply with restrictions on murder. Scenes such as this one were cut to comply with the restriction on illicit sex being presented as attractive:

The original cut of Baby Face was tragically presumed lost, until 2004 when a print of the original negative was discovered at the Library of Congress. It premiered at the London Film Festival, and is now widely available via several DVD releases. The print is magnificent. The original theatrical release shows a movie that is nothing special, a run-of-the-mill production with few particularly memorable moments. But when one views the original, uncut version, it is magical. The movie comes to life, and it is a rich, complex story of a woman’s drive and motivation to better herself. Baby Face is the ultimate pre-Code, and the discovery of the uncut version in 2004 stands as one of the most important cinematic discoveries of the last 20 years.

As for the Code itself, it slowly chafed away until its replacement by the MPAA in 1968. It is a controversial subject among film scholars. In my personal view, though the Code severely restricted the freedom of artists to express themselves in Hollywood, its enforcement had its benefits to the progression of the movie industry. In order to make the films they wanted to make, filmmakers were forced to resort to subtlety and innuendo, clever and biting dialogue that went under the radar of the censors, and that audiences had to listen or watch for. Movies played to smarter audiences, because the Code forced them to.

The Women (1939)

But as the Code lasted for such a long span of film history, far too few people know about the rich history before its enforcement, when films were decidedly modern and extremely thrilling. For further reading on this subject, I would recommend Mick LaSalle’s 2000 book Complicated Women, all about the women of pre-Code Hollywood and the roles they played. A great read on an immensely fascinating subject.

See you next time!