Saturday, October 12, 2013

DVR Alert -- But Not Pre-Code!

I'm traveling this weekend and may not have time for a full essay, but I wanted to alert people to set their DVRs for a NON-Pre Code movie. 

I Walked With A Zombie is a cool little horror movie produced by Val Lewton in 1943 and directed by Jacques Tourneur. Lewton described it as "Jane Eyre in the West Indies," but that jokey description conceals what the true horror examined in the film is: the lingering aftereffects of slavery on both the former owners and the former slaves. 

But it's also an atmospheric gothic tale with a strong heroine and no gore (under the Code, no gore was allowed anyway) that's well worth watching. Even horror movie chickens should be able to handle this one. 

CORRECTION! Airs Saturday Oct. 19 at 2:15 am ET / Friday Oct. 17at 11:15 pm PT. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Coming Soon: "Love Me Tonight" (1932)

It was a tough decision, but it's been a stressful week, so wacky romantic comedy wins.

Love Me Tonight (1932)
Starring Jeanette MacDonald, Maurice Chevalier, and Myrna Loy
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian with music by Rodgers & Hart

Airs on TCM on Monday, Sept. 23rd at 8:00 pm ET/5:00 pm ET

Saturday, September 21, 2013

What the heck is "Pre-Code"?

"So look for me in the future where the primroses grow and pack your man's pride with the rest. From now on, you're the only man in the world that my door is closed to."

This is a hard thing to come up with a short answer to. There have been entire books written about the Production Code, what it was, and how it came to be. (See the reading list in the sidebar.)

But, short version, “Pre-Code” is the period in American sound films from about 1929 to mid-1934 when films were censored after they were completed by the studios. Film censorship was completely legal, because the Supreme Court had ruled in 1915 that movies were purely a commercial enterprise and thus did not have any First Amendment protections. 

In the “Pre-Code” period, there was a list of forbidden topics, but studios were allowed to make their films first and defend them to the censors afterwards. This allowed far more freedom in story and visual expression than during the years when Joe Breen ran the Production Code office, when every aspect of a studio film from story to script to publicity shots had to be pre-approved by Breen and his censors before shooting even began.

Pre-Code films give us a very different window into concerns of 1930s America before the Breen office slammed that window shut and pulled the curtains. Poverty, incest, prostitution, crime, drug addiction, murder, suicide … and with none of the easy moralizing that was imposed on films by the Production Code Office after 1934. We see veterans of World War I who have been permanently damaged by their service and divorced women enjoying their newfound freedom. We see girls sleeping with gangsters for the sheer thrill of it and career women sacrificing everything, not for a man, but for their work. We see nice, middle-class girls become thrill-seeking drug addicts while their working-class friends try to help. We see lives ruined not by “sins,” but by society’s refusal to forgive those sins.

Watching these films almost makes me angry, because I can see a maturity and modern adult sensibility trying to raise its head, only to be stepped on by the Breen office and pushed back out of sight to fester underneath. What would American society be like if our most popular art form had not been forced to censor itself and pretend real life didn’t exist? How would America and Americans be different if we hadn’t lied to ourselves about ourselves for 30 years and pretended that we were more moral, more upright, more sane than we actually were?

In this blog, I hope to explore not only the films themselves, but the actors, actresses, producers, writers, and directors who made them. I will occasionally stray out of the period to show that some filmmakers were able to sneak around the Breen office even after it took control, or to show how a Pre-Code film was remade into a safe, sanitized, Breen-sanctioned film.

Most of all, I want to look at these recordings of an earlier time that will help us recognize that there was never a “more innocent time” in America, only a time when our culture lied to us about what was really happening in the world around us.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Age of Consent (1932)

A couple of years ago, I found myself in a small used bookstore in Ventura where I found a book that changed my life and my perception of American history.  No, it wasn’t the Bible, or the Book of Mormon (or Book of Mormon), or Lies My Teacher Told Me.

It was this book – Complicated Women, by Mick LaSalle.  I had heard of “Pre-Code” movies before, of course.  I don’t have two film degrees for nothing. But I’d always heard them spoken about as an aberration, a novelty, a failed moment in the evolution of American film that dead-ended in 1934 and allowed the real history of American film to begin.

But LaSalle had a different view.  He wrote about Pre-Code films as being a brief moment of honesty on the American screen, until that honesty was shoved back into the box demanded of it by conservatives.  He thought that the Production Code, far from being the “improvement” over the filth of the Pre-Code period that many critics used to speak of as being, had actually infantilized us as a society and made it difficult for Americans to deal with real life when it inevitably came to us in the form of illness, disappointment, divorce, and betrayal.

Once I started watching the Pre-Code movies LaSalle wrote about for myself and comparing them to the Production Code films I knew so well, I knew he was right.  And I knew I needed to write this blog.

So let’s talk about one of those movies that opened my eyes.  It’s not a great or even particularly good movie.  It doesn’t have any major stars or a major director (sorry, La Cava fans). But it does cover many of the themes that will recur over and over again as we look at Pre-Code films and see how different they are from Production Code films.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

This Month on TCM

This is the first time I'm trying this, so we'll see how it goes.  These are all of the movies on TCM this month that fit into the Pre-Code time period.  I've marked the ones that I've actually seen and recommend with one star, and marked the ones that I will be writing about (eventually) with two stars.

* Recommended
** A movie I'm planning to write about

Thursday Sept. 12
6:00 a.m. ET/3:00 a.m. PT
Passion Flower (1930)

7:30 a.m. ET/4:30 a.m. PT
Star Witness (1931)

8:45 a.m. ET/5:45 a.m. PT
** Gabriel Over the White House (1933)

10:15 a.m. ET/7:15 a.m. PT
This Side of Heaven (1934)

Friday Sept. 13
Prison Movies Block
7:45 a.m. ET/4:45 a.m. PT
Numbered Men (1930)

10:30 a.m. ET/7:30 a.m. PT
** Hell's Highway (1932)

11:45 a.m. ET/8:45 a.m. PT
The Big House (1930)

3:00 p.m. ET/12:00 p.m. PT
** Ladies They Talk About (1933)

6:00 p.m. ET/3:00 p.m. PT
** I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1933)

Sunday Sept. 15
6:00 a.m. ET/3:00 a.m. PT
Viva Villa! (1934)

8:00 a.m. ET/5:00 a.m. PT
** King Kong (1933)

Monday Sept. 16
6:00 a.m. ET/3:00 a.m. PT
The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Tuesday Sept. 17
Joan Crawford Block
6:00 a.m. ET/3:00 a.m. PT
Our Blushing Brides (1930)

7:45 a.m. ET/4:45 a.m. PT
Montana Moon (1930)

9:15 a.m. ET/6:15 a.m. PT
This Modern Age (1931)

10:30 a.m. ET/7:30 a.m. PT
Today We Live (1933)

12:30 p.m. ET/9:30 a.m PT
** Dancing Lady (1933)

Saturday Sept. 21
8:00 p.m. ET/5:00 p.m. PT
* It Happened One Night (1934)

Sunday Sept. 22
8:00 a.m. ET/5:00 p.m. PT
** I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932)

Monday Sept. 23
8:00 p.m. ET/5:00 p.m. PT
** Love Me Tonight (1932)

11:15 p.m. ET/8:15 p.m. PT
** The Public Enemy (1931)

12:45 a.m. ET/9:45 p.m. PT
** Frankenstein (1931)

2:00 a.m. ET/11:00 p.m. PT
** Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

3:45 a.m. ET/12:45 a.m. PT
Twentieth Century (1934)

Wednesday Sept. 25
6:00 a.m. ET/3:00 a.m. PT
** The Divorcee (1930)

7:30 a.m. ET/4:30 a.m. PT
Divorce in the Family (1932)

9:00 a.m. ET/6:00 a.m. PT
Wednesday's Child (1934)

10:15 p.m. ET/7:15 p.m. PT
Street Scene (1931)

Thursday Sept. 26
6:30 a.m. PT/3:30 a.m. ET
Girl Crazy (1932)

Coming Soon: The Age of Consent (1932)

The Age of Consent (1932), directed by Gregory La Cava and executive produced by David O. Selznick  Purchase download for $9.99  Purchase DVD for $19.99