Before and After: Pre-Code and Post-Code Hollywood

The following is a letter dated February 3, 1937, to producer Walter Wanger in Hollywood from Joseph I. Breen of the Motion Picture Production Code Administration:

“We get the impression– but it is only an impression– from these pages that is intended to indicate that Marco and Norma engage in a sex affair in a wine cellar, in the midst of the bombardment and slaughter. If we are correct in this impression, we would like to suggest that the acceptability of such a scene will depend entirely on what comes out of it.You will have in mind that such illicit sex must be shown, under the code, to be definitely wrong, must not be condoned, must not be justified, must not be made to appear right and acceptable, and the sinners must be punished…

Cordially yours,
Joseph I. Breen”

The film in question was the Spanish Civil War drama Blockade, a Walter Wanger Production directed by William Dieterle, starring Henry Fonda and Madeleine Carroll. The correspondence between Wagner and the Breen Office is heavy to say the least, with Wanger making every concession possible to appease Breen and the Code, since in 1937 they held absolute power of the production of every film manufactured in Hollywood. What is striking here, is that the more Wanger concedes, the more the Breen office finds additional, possibly “offensive” material, detailing page after page after page of scenes that require adjustment to more properly adhere to the Code and its moral values. Among the highlights:

scene 189: “be careful in shooting the scenes of the intimate feminine articles so that these not be too vulgarly suggested.”

scene 347: “We suggest that you cut to an absolute minimum all scenes of the drinking of champagne. We particularly ask that you show no one drunk, and it would be better for your own sake that you tone down the drinking. If you do not do this, it is likely that the entire scene will be deleted by the political censor board in Pennsylvania.”

“page 39: you should delete the sounds of “stomach rumble”

page 265: please also delete the book titled Madame Bovary. Censor boards are of the opinion that there is no need at any time to emphasize books which, in their opinion, border on the pornographic.

page 316: “Please delete the phrase “Holy Trinity” because it is likely to be accepted as blasphemous.”

The results of Wanger’s concessions to the Code’s intense censorship is tragic. Blockade is a total flop of a film that lacks any semblance of a soul, with no idea whatsoever of what it is meant to be. There is no political conviction– the Code would not allow it; there is no sexual chemistry– the Code would not hear of it; there is no heart– the Code squashed passion in favor of morally accepted propriety.

BLOCKADE, Madeleine Carroll, Henry Fonda, 1938

Even casual students of film history are more than likely familiar with the infamous production code that strangled Hollywood filmmaking and forced it to abide be a morally acceptable set of rules. The exchanges above are but a drop in the bucket: the Breen office’s correspondence with Wanger on Blockade number well into the 200s. This maniacal obsession to hone Hollywood’s image in line with the Legion of Decency agenda is rarely more apparent than with Dieterle’s Blockade which is whitewashed to the point of thoroughly mystifying its audience. A little more than five years earlier, such tyranny would have have been scarcely taken seriously (even though Hays’ code did in fact already exist) making possible that glorious, delicious genre of “pre-code” possible. For classic film fans, “pre-code” is a delicious word that is synonymous with sex, alcohol, and all-around bad behavior, which is why the genre has become so popular with modern movie audiences. We like to see ourselves as we actually were– not as morality codes manufactured us– with plenty of boozing, brawling, and brazenness.

If I were to choose the one film that, in my opinion, encapsulates the exact opposite of everything the Breen Office set down in its correspondence to Wanger, it would be Roy Del Ruth’s Blonde Crazy. Of course, Baby Face, Footlight Parade, and Red Headed Women are the obvious contenders, but Del Ruth’s crackling pre-code is still a hell of a ride even some 80 years on and it glides, sexily, for 90 white hot minutes. Blonde Crazy, starring Jimmy Cagney and Joan Blondell (who are, like, the hottest pre-code couple by a long shot) is a sparkling example of the pre-code genre as it almost shot-by-shot defies the puritanical censorship of the Motion Picture Production Code that killed the soul of Blockade. The two films are, of course, completely disparate in genre and tone, which might make comparing the two seem odd, but we are in fact comparing the massive chasm between how films were censored in 1931 and how they were censored in 1937.

BLONDE CRAZY, James Cagney, Joan Blondell, 1931

Blonde Crazy features a terrifically young James Cagney– the ultimate badass– in one of his very first leading roles, coming hot on the heels of his star-making turn in The Public Enemy, and he is nothing but a ball of hotheaded charisma and, with the equally as hotheaded, stiflingly sexy Joan Blondell at his side, makes for a presence that is quintessential Cagney: rough, tough, yet somehow tender. Blonde Crazy is a rather run-of-the-mill melodrama about a conman (Cagney) his partner in crime (Blondell) and their on-again-off-again love affair. After hooking up at a hotel (legitimately: they were coworkers) Cagney coerces Blondell to go into business with him on the small con. Cagney’s a know-it-all wisecracker who thinks he can take the world with his brains… with a little help from Blondell’s gams. He’s right, too. They run a successful racket with Blondell as the Venus Fly Trap and Cagney the guy pulling the strings. Until, of course, inevitably, Cagney gets pulled in by another con artist. You know what happens: he loses a load of lettuce and does anything to win it back. Including exacting revenge of the guy who suckered him.

The plot is light, the dialogue even lighter, but what makes this film sparkle is the pure starpower of Cagney and Blondell. Little touches, like Cagney’s adorable habit of calling Blondell “honey” (or as he pronounces it, “huuuuuuun-eeee”) playing around with Blondell’s underwear in her boudoir, or my favorite: the beaming delight on Cagney’s face when Blondell, also beaming, smacks his face. Repeatedly. Flirting doesn’t get much sexier than that.

It’s the sort of film that must have made the Breen Office flip its puritanical wig and, along with the likes of Jack Conway’s Red Headed Woman eventually resulted in the enforcement of the obscene censorship that killed Wanger’s Blockade and many a film like it.

Of course, it must be stated that with said censorship also came the cunning, crafty quills of legendary Hollywood scribes like Ben Hecht and Billy Wilder who were able to subvert the system. With sheer ingenuity and shrewdness, their words were able to adhere to the codes regulations while throwing a wink at the audience who knew exactly what they were actually trying to say.

And so here, in pictorial form, are a few from the fast and frivolous 1931 pre-code that completely give the finger to every single itemization laid out by the MPA to Walter Wanger in 1937.

In the context of Breen’s notes to Wanger, it really is amazing to see what saucy films like Blonde Crazy were able to get away with in 1931:

blondecrazyslap

cagneybedroom

cagneyrake

joanblondell

cagney

blondecrazywns1

1 Comment

  1. 1932’s ‘The Animal Kingdom’ is much racier than any film you have just mentioned. Same with 1933’s ‘Double Harness!’

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