Tag Archives: pre code

Lara’s 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival Schedule

Dear readers, the TCM Classic Film Festival is just over a week away. Like other festival attendees, I have been busy creating my festival itinerary, doing my yearly grumble over time slot conflicts, and comparing overlaps with my friends’ schedules. I thought I’d share with you what I have so far, and explain for those new followers the way the festival works.

The TCM Classic Film Festival is designed for passholders. This means that everyone possessing a pass is entitled to stand in line for festival films, and, if the passholder gets in line early enough, be admitted to screenings. This does not mean, however, that the passholder is guaranteed a seat.

Let’s get creative for a minute, and explain the festival through the eyes of the average festivalgoer. (This is inspired by one of my favorite videos from the WWII homefront. Check out this system of explaining point rations.)

Let’s create a hypothetical TCM passholder–we’ll name her Joan (a disproportionately common name among classic Hollywood actresses, it seems). Joan decided to go for the Classic Pass this year, and paid her $649 to TCM for it. With the Classic Pass, she is entitled to all screenings except the Opening Night movie (When Harry Met Sally this year). That event is reserved for Essential and Spotlight passholders only. Those pass levels are significantly more expensive, and Joan wasn’t interested enough in When Harry Met Sally to pay the extra money to see it. She is also given admission to Club TCM, which will allow her to experience any and all panel discussions that she wants.

Her hypothetical friend Clark decides to splurge on the Spotlight Pass this year. He wants to have the experience of seeing the celebrity arrivals, and going to the fancy opening night party. With his Spotlight Pass, which is nearly $1,500 more expensive than Joan’s pass, he will get these experiences and have a memorable Hollywood vacation that encompasses more than just movies.

Joan’s Classic Pass arrives in the mail about a month before the festival. Once she gets to Los Angeles on Monday night (the festival starts on Thursday, and most people arrive a few days early to get settled), she does some sightseeing of classic film star homes, hikes up to the Hollywood sign, and takes the TCM Festival-sponsored bus tour that takes her around to various places in the city important to film history.

Once Thursday rolls around, she’s ready for her movies. She and Clark have compared schedules, and while Clark is seeing When Harry Met Sally on Thursday night, Joan will see Gentlemen Prefer Blondes at the Egyptian, followed by The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. First, though, Joan decides to watch the celebrity arrivals for When Harry Met Sally. She is allowed access to the bleachers with her Classic Pass, but only Spotlight and Essential festivalgoers are allowed on the red carpet. She sees Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan arrive, waves to her friend Clark who is on the red carpet right beside Angie Dickinson, then she decides to go get in line for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

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Shirley Jones waves to the bleachers before the opening night showing of Oklahoma! in 2015.

This is where it gets interesting. Because she has a Classic Pass, she must arrive at the movie at least an hour before showtime in order to secure her place in line and get a decent line number. If a festivalgoer at the Classic Pass level arrives too late, she risks the movie “selling out” and then she’s out of luck.

Line numbers are handed out in order for the festivalgoers to maintain their place in line while they leave to get a cup of coffee, a quick sandwich, or just a quick rest. Spotlight passholders are let in first, and if the Classic passholder is not back in line by the time the movie begins letting in, their place in line is forfeited and they risk not seeing the movie. This is an absolutely essential part of the festival experience that I think is not terribly well publicized, so if you are planning to go, keep this in mind.

Joan wants to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg next, but she knows that she’s not going to have enough time between Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to get a decent line number. She wants to see Umbrellas of Cherbourg enough that she’s willing to sacrifice the ending of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in order to see it. Clark will be going to the opening night party after he is finished with When Harry Met Sally, but if he had been in the same situation as Joan, he would not have had to worry about missing the end of the movie. He is all but guaranteed entry to anything he wants to see, regardless of when he gets in line.

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Some very savvy festivalgoers with their line numbers.

This is really the main difference between the pass levels. Spotlight passholders are paying for convenience and paying to have a relaxed, memorable vacation along with their movies. Classic passholders are really there for the movies, and the vacation part of it is secondary.

Also, you will notice that there is a marked hierarchy in the festival operations, which is understandable given the price differences. However, $649 is still a lot of money to pay, and many hardcore TCM fans, especially those in the key TCM demographic (the 60% of TCM viewers under 40–which may come as a surprise) are priced out of the festival altogether. Given the rising cost of living in urban America, and with millennials barely able to make rent, most of TCM’s most devoted fans, sadly, cannot attend. Backlots attends with media credentials, so while I am indeed a millennial in TCM’s key demographic, for the past 7 years I have not had to face this problem myself. But I recall my first year at the festival, when Backlots was brand new, and I purchased a Classic Pass in order to be able to attend for sure. The pass cost nearly half my monthly salary at the time, and I know that this is the situation for many of my friends to this day.

The media credential that Backlots receives is essentially the Classic Pass, which has always worked perfectly for me. It gives me access to everything I need to fully cover the festival for my readers, and have a great deal of fun along the way. As of right now, my festival schedule looks like this:

THURSDAY NIGHT:

Umbrellas of Cherbourg

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I had originally planned to see Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as well, but it turns out I have a non-festival-related conflict at that time, so I’ll have to skip that one and go straight on to Umbrellas of Cherbourg. This is a film that I have nearly committed to memory, but have never seen on the big screen. I’m told it’s a completely different experience, and I’m looking forward to seeing those beautiful bright pastels the way they were meant to be seen.

FRIDAY:

Merrily We Go To Hell

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I’m excited for this one for several reasons. Pre-codes are always some of the most popular offerings at the TCM Festival, so the crowd is sure to be top notch and excited. It is also in one of the smaller theaters (the festival frequently underestimates crowd size for the pre-codes), so if you’re going to the festival and planning to attend this one with me, be sure to get in line VERY early.

The movie is directed by the great Dorothy Arzner, one of the pre-eminent female directors of early Hollywood, and the TCM Festival did right in securing Cari Beauchamp as the presenter for Merrily We Go to Hell. As the author of Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, Beauchamp is the reigning expert on Dorothy Arzner and her role in the development of early Hollywood–and has also established herself as one of the festival’s most beloved veteran presenters. Don’t miss this one.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

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One of my all-time favorite silent films, with some of the most unusual and arresting intertitles that I’ve ever seen. It is a masterpiece of characterization and cinematography, following the relationship of a husband and wife, with the conflicting desires of the husband coming between them. It is one of the three movies for which Janet Gaynor received the first Best Actress Oscar, and out of the three, it is indubitably the technical greatest.

Kerry Brougher, former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences along with other illustrious titles, will be presenting this movie. It promises to be an interesting presentation, due to Brougher’s work as curator of several film-related retrospectives at the Smithsonian and Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, including one on Hitchcock. Sunrise is indeed very Hitchcockian, which may be something I write about during the festival.

Vanity Street

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Another pre-code about a young woman in poverty who commits a crime and falls in love with the policeman who catches her, this one promises to be another crowded theater (it’s showing in the smallest theater of the festival). I may have to leave early from Sunrise to get in line for this one, but the pre-codes are almost always the most satisfying movies of the entire festival. Vanity Street features another Cari Beauchamp introduction, which promises to be very informative especially as it relates to actress Helen Chandler. Despite her work in several well known movies, Chandler’s life was very difficult, with bouts of alcoholism and psychological distress. She never had children, and her ashes still lie unclaimed at Chapel of the Pines.

SATURDAY

Kind Hearts and Coronets

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Alec Guinness plays various members of an aristocratic family, the d’Ascoynes, in this brilliant dark comedy about one d’Ascoyne trying to kill everyone ahead of him for the dukedom. My favorite member of the family: suffragette Lady Agatha d’Ascoyne.

The discussion beforehand will be with Jefferson Mays, a leading television actor who has acted in several notable shows such as I Am the Night and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I’ll be curious to see what his relationship to Kind Hearts and Coronets is. TCM frequently secures well known modern day actors for the festival who have a heretofore unknown interest in classic film, so I’m looking forward to hearing what he has to say.

Hollywood Home Movies at Club TCM

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This event is always one of the cornerstones of the festival. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences brings in previously unseen footage of classic film stars and, with simultaneous conversation with the people close to them, sitting in the front row of Club TCM, this footage is shown to passholders. It’s one of my favorite events, and this year’s footage will include John Huston and Olivia de Havilland, Greta Garbo, Hedy Lamarr, Jimmy Stewart, and more.

I am very happy that the Classic and Media passes include access to Club TCM. In my view, the events at Club TCM (located in the Blossom Room at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the site of the first Oscars ceremony) are the soul of the festival, and they are not to be missed. This is where the real learning happens.

It Happened Here

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Kevin Brownlow, film archivist and preservationist extraordinaire, will be receiving the Robert Osborne Award this year for his unparalleled work in preservation and restoration of silent films. It Happened Here is one of Brownlow’s crowning achievements outside of preservation, a film about what might have happened if Hitler had been successful in World War II.

Kevin Brownlow has been exceedingly generous with me in my Marion Davies work, and when I heard that he would be getting the Robert Osborne Award, I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving. When I met him in London several years ago, he spoke very proudly of It Happened Here, and I can’t wait to see it on the big screen with Brownlow in attendance.

Indiscreet

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Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman team up for the second time after Notorious, this time directed by Stanley Donen. The plot is quite creative for a 1958 code-era movie, an actress falls in love with a man she believes to be married only to find out that he’s actually single, and she vows to get back at him for misleading her.

Stanley Donen passed away earlier this year, and Indiscreet‘s screening at the festival is a way for TCM to honor him. This movie features another Cari Beauchamp introduction–my choices seem to line up well with her intros this year. In addition to her work on women of early Hollywood, Beauchamp is also an expert on the life and work of Cary Grant, and this article she wrote on Grant and his connection to LSD use in Hollywood is a fascinating read.

SUNDAY

Holiday

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How could I miss this one? One of my favorite Katharine Hepburn movies of all time, and one I find is consistently underrated in her pantheon of greats. Hepburn plays the black sheep of a wealthy family, who wants nothing more than to live a fun and normal life in spite of her stuffy family. Cary Grant, who lives the life she wants, has fallen in love with her much more traditional sister, and when he comes over to meet the family, he starts to fall for her instead.

I have always been impressed with how modern the movie is–in some ways, it reminds me of The Philadelphia Story in its sophistication and quality of writing.

The special guest for this movie is Diane Baker, which should be wonderful. Baker has become a mainstay of the festival, and has always been very approachable and appreciative of the love she receives. I will be interested to hear what she says about Holiday, and what it has meant to her and her career.

Gone With the Wind

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The remainder of my festival, before the closing night party, will be taken up by Gone With the Wind. I have seen the movie on the big screen innumerable times, but this time will be different–it is screening at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. I feel that I can’t miss that.

Prior to the screening, at Club TCM, there will be a panel discussion on the film’s complicated legacy. Indeed, the movie is and has always been complicated, and I’m glad that TCM is offering this discussion for people who may be hesitant to attend the showing due to content that has not aged well and, indeed, was controversial even in 1939. At the panel discussion will be historian Donald Bogle, Mollie Haskell, Jacqueline Stewart, and Stephanie Allain, discussing the issues surrounding the movie and what its status will be in the future.

Closing Night Party

This is our last opportunity to say goodbye to our friends until next year, held at Club TCM. People come from all over the world to attend the festival, and while the digital age has made keeping in touch very easy, many of us count down the days until we can see our TCM friends again. It’s normally very difficult to leave the closing night party, because this means that the festival is officially over, and that countdown to next year begins.

I will be using Twitter quite a lot during the festival, and as usual, will be enabling a live Twitter feed on the blog so that readers may follow along in real time. I usually make a blog post every evening after the events of the day, so keep an eye out for updates.

See you at the festival!

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TCM PRE-CODE FRIDAYS: The Women of RED DUST (1932)

All September long, TCM is shining the spotlight on those films made during the illustrious years of 1929-1934, the saucy and seductive era we call “pre-Code.” In the days prior to codified morality on film, writers and filmmakers were free to tell the stories they thought their audiences would accept, and these films often defy the stereotypes that mainstream audiences visualize when they  conceptualize classic film.

In pre-Code Hollywood, sex and seduction drove plots and defined characters. Women and men knew what they had, and weren’t afraid to flaunt it. It was an open, expressive time for film, and a time to push the social envelope and challenge audiences to analyze those things outside their comfort zone.

At the height of the pre-Code era came Red Dust (1932), a story about an American rubber farmer (Clark Gable) in Indochina who is torn between a stable relationship with one woman, and a steamy affair with another. One woman is a prostitute, and the other a refined lady of the city.

Think you know which one is the stable relationship, and which is the steamy affair?

The prostitute Vantine cares for Dennis Carson after he is shot by the jealous woman with whom he is having an affair (Mary Astor).

The film forces the audience to rethink pre-conceived notions of morality and goodness by switching expected characterizations of women. In this film, it is Jean Harlow’s character of the prostitute Vantine who represents core, upstanding virtue. Though she is a lady of the night, she strives to maintain her standards and dignity when the cards are stacked against her.

Early in the film, after a passionate night with Dennis, the rubber farmer offers her money without a word of judgment. Here we learn two things: though Dennis has just spent the night with a prostitute, he holds his head high the next morning and does what he feels is right. He holds core values and does not shame or feel shamed. We also learn that Vantine is more than just your average prostitute. She yearns for sincere love and a stable partner. When Dennis offers Vantine the money, she sweetly refuses, letting Dennis know that she enjoyed the evening with him.

Mary Astor’s character, a classy, ladylike woman named Barbara, soon arrives in Indochina with her husband, who is to work as an engineer on the rubber plantation. Dennis is attracted to Barbara, and sends her husband away on a long trip whereupon he begins to seduce her.  Dennis is so enamored with Barbara that she persuades her to leave her husband for him, but he soon has a change of heart when he learns just how much her husband loves Barbara. Dennis pretends never to have loved her, and Barbara, in a rageful moment, shoots him. When her husband runs in, they simultaneously cover their relationship and provide Barbara an alibi by saying that Dennis had tried unsuccessfully to seduce her. The film ends with Vantine sitting by Dennis’ side on the bed, reading him bedtime stories.

Visual symbolism. The prostitute, shunned by society, sits on a higher plane than the woman whom society labels as dignified.

This gray moral area and complex characterization of a female character is common in pre-Code cinema, but becomes far less so when one examines movies released from late 1934 on. The modification of the Hays Code in July of 1934 signified a major shift in the portrayals of women on film, and erased once and for all any gray moral area that may have existed prior to the Code’s enforcement. The Hays Code clearly stipulated that there should be no doubt as to where morality existed and where it did not, especially in regard to women, spelling out a clear message for the audience and leaving little room for speculation or analytical thought. In response to these new rules, filmmaking itself experienced a massive upheaval after the enforcement of the Code, and a new cinematic technique developed. In order to make the movies they wanted to make, screenwriters, directors, producers, and actors had to come up with subtle ways to trick the censors and make the film’s message as clear as it could be. The result was the biting innuendo, suggestive costuming, and creative use of props and dialogue that make up the landscape of post-Code cinema.

A movie like Red Dust, however, is a hallmark of the pre-Code era, and would have been nearly impossible to make had it been attempted just a few years later. We’re lucky that it was made when it was.

See you next time!

Upcoming at Backlots

Hello, dear readers! I have returned from my East Coast trip and boy, is it going to be a busy month here on the site! Here are a few things to expect this September:

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On September 20, Backlots will be attending the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s Silent Autumn event. It promises to be a great day, filled with Laurel and Hardy, Valentino, Chaplin, and Keaton, good company, and world-class speakers. If you’re in the area, it is not to be missed. As my regular readers know, I have huge respect for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and attendance at their small events is a great introduction to the larger festival in May. For more information, click here. I hope to see you there!

TCM FRIDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT: CLASSIC PRE-CODE

Throughout the month of September, TCM will be highlighting classic pre-codes during their Friday Night Spotlight block. Every Friday this month, viewers will be treated to some of the greatest and most influential films made before the dawn of the restrictive Hays Code, a unique and fascinating period in film history. From Baby Face and The Divorcee to Three on a Match and Design for Living, this is some of the raciest programming you will see on TCM and is not to be missed. For my analysis of the pre-code era, check out a post I wrote a few months ago on the topic.

THE CIMBA AWARDS

Once again, I am in charge of managing the annual CiMBA Awards given out by the Classic Movie Blog Association. The awards will be given out in late September, and I will be announcing the winners here. Stay tuned at the end of the month for the best posts that classic movie blogs had to offer this year. Good luck to all nominees!

Have a wonderful weekend, readers, and see you next time!

TREASURES FROM THE WARNER ARCHIVE: Polly of the Circus (1932)

Upon my return from Los Angeles early this morning, I was thrilled to find my Warner Archive titles waiting for me in the mail, thus allowing me to begin my new collaboration with the Warner Archive sooner than I had anticipated. I had initially projected that “Treasures From the Warner Archive” would begin in June, but I don’t see any reason for waiting any longer than necessary. So without further ado, this is the first installment in this series. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you a delightful pre-Code, featuring a young Clark Gable and Marion Davies in one of her best roles–it’s a balancing act of love, passion and virtue in Polly of the Circus.

The film begins with a debate about a circus billboard in a small, conservative town as Polly (Marion Davies), the featured act in the circus, is pictured on a billboard wearing only her leotard. This offends the local townspeople and the police insist on her legs being covered, which leads to elaborate drapings over her legs on every billboard in town. Polly objects to this, and takes up her objections with the minister (Clark Gable), who ignores her and the drapings remain. At the opening night of the circus, Polly is heckled by an audience member about the billboards, which causes her to lose her focus and fall 50 feet from the trapeze.

She is gravely injured, and the minister, Mr. Hartley, takes her in to heal her. During her convalescence, Polly and Mr. Hartley fall deeply in love and eventually marry. His uncle, also a minister, objects to her marrying a circus girl, as does the church, and Mr. Hartley is stuck between the woman he loves and the ministry he has spent his whole life training for. He is left with limited options, as divorcing Polly would be a sure way to be excommunicated from the church. Polly, seeing his pain, does the only thing she thinks she can–she leaves him and rejoins the circus. Severely depressed, facing the stunt that left her injured before, she says to her friend “If I’m supposed to make it, I’ll make it.” Just then, Mr. Hartley appears below her, calling to her excitedly. He has chosen to live openly with her. She smiles broadly. “I’ll make it!” she cries, as she pulls off the stunt with perfection. She joins Mr. Hartley at the bottom of the trapeze, as the movie ends.

Looking up at Polly from the base of the trapeze.

Looking up at Polly from the base of the trapeze.

I have seen a great many Marion Davies movies, and Polly of the Circus stands as one of my personal favorites. Not only is it a close examination on the timeless issue of it means to be torn between two serious life choices, but it is also a deft and clever pre-Code, with delightfully suggestive dialogue and witty double-entendres. One of my favorite lines of the movie is one in which Mr. Hartley and Polly are getting to know each other, discussing what it means for Mr. Hartley to be a minister. Polly says “Well I suppose even a minister has his moments. But of course your wife would have to sleep in the woodshed…during Lent.”

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Mr. Hartley laughs heartily at this, showing the audience that we all know exactly what she means. It is a movie that doesn’t overpower the audience, but one that leaves a rich aftertaste when the movie is finished.

Polly of the Circus is the first of two movies that Marion Davies did with Clark Gable, and this one is considered the better of the two. In 1934, Cosmopolitan Pictures (the production company with which Marion was affiliated) moved from MGM to Warner Bros., and Marion made 4 movies there before she retired in 1937. Her second-to-last film at Warner Bros. was one entitled Cain and Mabel, one for which Cosmopolitan boss William Randolph Hearst had high hopes. It was a multi-million dollar production, and again teamed Marion Davies and Clark Gable (on loan from MGM), two stars that were almost guaranteed to bring the studio a profit. However, Hearst overestimated the potential of the production, and Cain and Mabel failed to make a profit. It was a terrible blow to the studio, and its failure at the box office is tragic because, in retrospect, it is indeed a fun movie to watch. The Warner Archive has also made Cain and Mabel available on demand, and that is one that I will be reviewing in the future. Stay tuned!

But as much as I love Cain and Mabel, it is Polly of the Circus that is closer to my heart. A beautiful love story set against the backdrop of a circus is a winning combination, and the movie delivers. I am so glad that the Warner Archive has made it available, and that I could talk about it here.

If you would like to order Polly of the Circus, here is the link to its page on the Warner Archive. Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for the next installment in this series, when I will talk about Barbara Stanwyck in The Woman in Red.

See you next time!

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!

The Miracle Woman (1931)

In the lion’s den in MIRACLE WOMAN (1931)

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

For the past few months I have been on a rather unshakable Barbara Stanwyck kick. I have always been aware of her gifts as an actress and have always enjoyed her work, but over the past few months I have not been able to get enough of her. All this was simply expanded when I had the honor to interview Victoria Wilson, the author of the new Barbara Stanwyck biography A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940–and when my book arrived, I devoured it almost as quickly as it reached my hands. I’ve gone mad for Missy (the nickname given to her by a maid in the 1930s that stuck), and there seems to be no turning back now.

Thus, I have decided to make a post on what is one of my favorite Stanwyck films that does not seem to get enough credit. It is The Miracle Woman, co-starring David Manners and released by Columbia in 1931 under the direction of Frank Capra. This was Stanwyck’s second film with Capra after 1930’s Ladies of Leisure, and would be followed by three more collaborations over the course of 11 years.

The Miracle Woman draws much of its material from the life of popular preacher Aimee Semple McPherson and from the hit 1927 novel Elmer Gantry. A scathing critique of popular Christianity and revival meetings featuring charismatic preachers, Elmer Gantry was banned in several cities across the United States for denouncing popular preachers as frauds and false prophets. Several key components in the book are reflected in The Miracle Woman, not the least of which seems to be the similarity of the names of the main female characters, “Sharon Falconer”in Elmer Gantry and “Florence Fallon” in The Miracle Woman.

Florence Fallon hushes the crowd.

Florence Fallon is a preacher’s daughter who calls out the sins of her father’s congregation after they cast him out shortly before his death. Her impassioned speech scares the congregation out of the church, but one person remains–an out-of-towner named Hornsby who sees the fire in her soul and teaches her how to make money preaching.

I must digress from the plot a bit to tell you to watch how Barbara Stanwyck, age 23 and still a novice in Hollywood, plays this scene. A true testament to her gifts, and to Frank Capra’s understanding of her as an actress. In his autobiography, Capra states that in his films with Stanwyck, he rehearsed with the entire cast before he brought her in. Stanwyck gave her best performances, he said,  on the first take. If he tried to do multiple takes with her, the subsequent performances would merely be carbon copies of the first. That fact makes this scene even more astounding.

Florence teams up with Hornsby to create a veritable preaching empire, beginning with broadcasts over the radio and branching out into revival meetings for her loyal followers. One man named John Carson, a veteran who was blinded in battle, hears Florence’s voice over the radio just as he was about to commit suicide over the misery of his condition. Her voice and words make him find new light in his life, and he decides to attend one of her revivals. There, he volunteers to sit in the cage of lions to prove that one cannot be hurt with “love and understanding in your heart.” We soon learn that, much to Florence’s disillusionment, he is the only volunteer that has not been pre-selected by Hornsby and paid to feign healing.

John hears Florence Fallon’s voice for the first time.

On her way out of the theatre, she runs into the man again. She offers him a ride home in the rain, and he offers to bring her into his home. They start to talking, and cultivate a close friendship. Soon, it turns into romantic love. Florence begins sending him notes, assembled tirelessly in raised letters so that he can “read” them.

At a party, one of the staff members of Florence Fallon’s revival show demands a share of the profits, and threatens to expose her as a fraud if he doesn’t get it. In the paper a few days later, we see that the worker has been found dead. The staff suggests that they move to a different town to get away from the scandal. When Florence refuses telling him that he doesn’t own her, Hornsby claims that he holds a sort of “first mortgage.” Then he assaults her, grabbing her body and kissing her on the lips.

This scene shows more evidence of Stanwyck’s magnificent acting abilities. When Hornsby grabs her and she eventually pushes him away, the horror on her face is real, palatable. She holds a hand to her mouth, and her eyes show legitimate fear. As she begins to warn him of what will happen if he ever does that again, her voice quivers with shock. This is an incredibly nuanced, emotional moment, one that requires intense emotional depth from its 23-year-old actress. And Stanwyck delivers.

It is also this scene that establishes Hornsby as a malicious character. Shortly thereafter, and following a birthday celebration with John in which they declare their love for each other, Florence sees a newspaper article that says she is going to the Holy Land. When she asks Hornsby to retract it, he refuses–saying that his idea of the Holy Land is Monte Carlo, and they will go together. Florence resists him, until Hornsby says that it’s either Monte Carlo or jail. He plans to frame her for embezzlement of funds, or pin on her the death of the staff worker.

a2 Frank Capra The Miracle Woman Barbara Stanwyck DVD Review PDVD_000

In tears before her final sermon.

This leaves Florence no choice but to go with him–and when she sees John to tell him that she is going away, she exposes herself as a fraud. John does not care, and hatches a scheme to make her think that she really can perform miracles. Before Florence’s farewell tour, he pretends to be able to see to make her think that she has performed a miracle on his eyesight. She is not fooled, but credits him with a miracle nonetheless–that he “made [her] see.” It is at this moment that she officially separates herself from Hornsby, just before she goes onstage. Hornsby sees that John is the catalyst for this, and knocks him out after Florence leaves the room.

As Florence goes onstage, Hornsby gets his revenge. He allows an electric fire to start, and the tabernacle burns. John is awakened by the smoke, makes his way down to the stage and rescues Florence from the fire. He spends a few days in the hospital, where they begin to repair his eyesight. Florence gives up preaching and instead joins the Salvation Army. A telegram at the end of the movie shows that she and John are to be married, delivered as Florence marches with the rest of the Salvation Army, singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as the movie ends.

The ending of The Miracle Woman is taken almost entirely from Elmer Gantry, but differs slightly in an important way. In the latter story Sister Sharon Falconer perishes in the fire, prompting the main character, Elmer Gantry, to give up his religious ways. In The Miracle Woman, religion is treated with more reverence. Florence is rescued from the fire and simply finds a new and better outlet for her religious convictions.

A publicity still with Barbara Stanwyck and David Manners.

There was an official production code in place in 1930, but its enforcement did not begin until 1934 (incidentally, following a string of risque Barbara Stanwyck films. I wrote a post on the subject nearly a year ago, click here to read it). One of the restrictions outlined by the Production Code of 1934 was that religion was to be treated with nothing but reverence–thus this film likely would not have passed the censor board had it been made under the Code due to its questioning of the legitimacy of religious revivals, regardless of Florence Fallon maintaining her religious devotions at the film’s conclusion.

Though The Miracle Woman was made several years before the strict enforcement of the Production Code, filmmakers were still limited by common standards of what the public would accept. In order to appease the influential masses of Christian viewers, Capra and Columbia played it safe with this story, avoiding the issue of religious denouncement that was the hallmark of Elmer Gantry. In doing so, they created a unique film–one that both celebrates religion and questions it. The Miracle Woman really makes us think, which is a sure sign of a well-made film.

See you next time!

CLFP: “Virtue” (1932)

carole lombard

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

When I learned that Virtue was to be a part of the pre-code festival at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco this evening, I knew I had to go. This is one of Carole Lombard’s more well-known movies, but one which is rarely seen. This was, perhaps, my one chance to see this movie and review it for the Carole Lombard Filmography Project.

At the outset, the movie plays like a pretty standard pre-code. Mae, a streetwalker, is banned from town after being caught picking up men. Despite the court order to stay away, she returns and strikes up a relationship with a cab driver named Jimmy, not telling him she has been a streetwalker. They marry and on their wedding night, they come home to find a detective in their house. The detective says he is on to Mae and informs her husband that he has married a former streetwalker. Hurt and confused, Jimmy nonetheless decides to make a go of their marriage.

Mae learns that she has been found out.

Jimmy has a dream of being part owner of a gas station, and he has made plans with his friend Flanagan to purchase one to operate together. Though he has vowed to make the best of his marriage to Mae, he is constantly paranoid about her activities when he is not around. Mae assures him that he has nothing to worry about–their bank account shows only what he brings home from work, no more, no less. He is thrilled and excited about getting closer to his dream of owning a gas station, and Mae joins him in his excitement.

This is the point where the movie turns from a run-of-the-mill pre-code to something rather unique.

One day, Mae’s friend Gert falls ill and asks Mae for $200 for an operation. At first Mae says no, but ultimately gives in when Gert tries to commit suicide by drinking poison. When Mae comes home after lending Gert the money, she finds that her husband thinks he met his financial goal that day–not knowing that he was short the $200 that Mae lent Gert.

Later that evening, a friend comes over saying that Gert had asked HIM for $200 for an operation, then pretended to drink poison when he said no. Though she said nothing in order to keep her secret, Mae realizes that Gert was scamming them, and sets out to find her. She is nowhere to be found. Finally Mae tracks her down and starts beating her up, telling her that if she didn’t get the money back she would kill her. Gert swears she will, and tells her to come back tomorrow evening.

Mae beats Gert in this poster for the movie.

The next morning Jimmy, still suspicious, asks her what she did the previous evening. In order to maintain the secret of the $200, she replies that she had just stayed home. When asked what she would do that evening, she replies that she will probably do the same. When the evening rolls around and Mae sets out for Gert’s house, the jealous husband follows her. She enters Gert’s apartment, and her husband assumes that she is there to prostitute herself.

Meanwhile we learn that Gert has been giving the scammed money to a man named Toots O’Neill, the pimp of Lil, Mae and Gert’s mutual friend and fellow prostitute. In order to pay Mae back, Gert steals the money out of Toots’ wallet. When Toots finds out that she stole the money, he starts a fight with her to get it back, ultimately throwing her to the ground. She hits her head on a heater, killing her instantly.

Jimmy sees the silhouette of Toots lifting Gert’s dead body, and it looks like an embrace. He assumes it is Mae, and he is furious.

Meanwhile, Mae finds the door unlocked and enters. Toots hides with Gert’s body but watches her through a crack in the door. Mae finds the $200 on the table and takes it–but accidentally leaves her coat and purse.

She returns home to a furious Jimmy, and when she tries to explain, he will not listen to her and leaves. She hands him the $200 telling him that it is his, but he assumes it is her money from streetwalking and will not take it.

Mae’s coat and purse are found by detectives investigating Gert’s murder, and as they believe she was the only one there with Gert, they identify her as the guilty party in the murder and throw her in jail.

Forlorn about the failure of his marriage, Jimmy has passed out drunk at a local bar. A friend finds him and notifies him of Mae’s murder charge. He sobers up to defend her, and through a series of circumstances he sees Toots’ silhouette and recognizes it as the silhouette he saw in Gert’s apartment. He knows she couldn’t have been alone that night. When he confronts Toots with Lil present, Toots pulls a gun on him and Lil offers him an alibi, saying that she will testify that he was with her that evening. She convinces him to go to the courthouse instead of running out of town, as that will show that he is innocent and has nothing to hide.

Jimmy sees Toots’ silhouette.

Toots and Lil show up at the courthouse and Toots presents his testimony that he was with Lil all night. The judge asks Lil if this is true….and Lil replies that no, this is not true. She had to tell him that she would vouch for him to get him down to the courthouse, and says that he was about to run out of town. Toots is arrested, and Mae set free. The movie ends as Mae and Jimmy get back together, and Jimmy’s dream of a gas station has finally come true.

This was an extraordinarily complex, tight and well put together story. In writing this review, I felt an obligation to write out the entire story instead of the general skeleton, as the film unravels in such a straight and unwavering line that it is impossible to describe one event without all the others. Carole gives a wonderful performance, and the supporting cast is also magnificent. It is interesting to see how versatile of an actress Carole was. She plays this streetwalker with as much aplomb as her later dizzy screwball roles, and she could easily have remained a dramatic actress had her career not gone toward comedy. Had Carole lived longer, I would venture to say that she could have been comparable to someone like Barbara Stanwyck, capable of playing a wide variety of genres with equal skill.

Virtue is a movie that deserves to be seen by anyone with an interest in pre-code Hollywood, or simply classic Hollywood in general. It is unusually thorough in its treatment of its characters and its plot is meticulously thought out and detailed. The fact that this movie is so rare is a real shame, as it would be enjoyed by so many people if it were more widely available.

See you next time!