Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Book review: Two film books about the bad old Pre-code days

Here is a short write up about two recent books on Pre-code film, an endlessly fascinating period in American film history. The two books are Sex In the Cinema: The Pre-Code Years (1929-1934)
by Lou Sabini, and Hollywood’s Pre-Code Horrors 1931-1934 by Raymond Valinoti Jr. Both were published by Bear Manor Media. [The only one of Brooks film's which would count as Pre-code is the less than racy God's Gift to Women (1931), directed by Michael Curtiz.]

As right-wing conservatives try to push the country back to a time which never really existed, it’s worth noting that mainstream movies of their grandparent’s era were nearly as lurid as movies today. These two worthwhile titles shine a spotlight on the pre-code era, when gangster films, horror films, and social problem films depicted sex, violence, and drugs with pointed honesty and stylistic flair.

Among the many movies under consideration are I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and Call Her Savage (1932), as well as Freaks (1932), Frankenstein (1931), and Dracula (1931). The most jaw dropping of them all may be Baby Face (1933), starring Barbara Stanwyck. It’s a Nietzschean use-or-be-used story of an attractive young woman who climbs the ladder of success by using sex to advance her social status. The reaction to it and other films like it was the enforcement of the Production Code, a set of guidelines which restricted Hollywood filmmakers in what they could show or even suggest. Call it censorship or self-censorship, the Production Code reigned until the late 1960s, when the MPAA film rating system we know today took effect. Sabini’s and Valinoti’s books survey the time when strong female characters, miscegenation, profanity, promiscuity, abortion, homosexuality and other taboos were once seen on the screen.

Sex In the Cinema: The Pre-Code Years (1929-1934)
Lou Sabini

From the publisher: "Hollywood movies in the 1920s depicted sex, violence, and alcohol and drug abuse with freewheeling abandon, but filmmaking freedom halted with the mysterious murder of director William Desmond Taylor, the drug death of writer-director-actor Wallace Reid, and the rape trials of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Hollywood had to choose self-censorship or face the moral indignation of the law. They chose to manage movie madcaps themselves. Will H. Hays, President of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) from 1922 to 1945, prescribed the Production Code in 1930 and began strictly enforcing it in 1934. The Production Code spelled out a set of moral guidelines that were popularly known as the Hays Code. For decades, moviemaking was never the same. Rediscover 107 spicy films from the Pre-code era, including Stolen Heaven (1931), The Night of June 13th (1932), Three on a Match (1932), Red-Headed Woman (1932), Call Her Savage (1932), This Reckless Age (1932), Young Bride (1932), Panama Flo (1932), and Baby Face (1933)."

Hollywood’s Pre-Code Horrors 1931-1934
Raymond Valinoti Jr.

From the publisher: "In the first few years of the Great Depression, before the Production Code was rigidly enforced in 1934, Hollywood took advantage of its laxity, producing racy and violent films that titillated film goers and outraged reformers. The American horror genre blossomed during this time and the studios exploited its lurid possibilities. The results were both shocking and controversial. Some of these films remain unsettling today. Hollywood's Pre-Code Horrors 1931-1934 appraises all of these films, from Dracula (1931), which spearheaded the American horror market, to The Black Cat (1934), the last chiller released before the strengthening of the Code. Each film is thoroughly analyzed, not only in its insinuations and/or portrayals of sex and violence, but in the context of the era in which it was made and the reactions of critics and film goers during this time."

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