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SPECIAL SCREENINGS

Series Recalls Days Before Hays Code Ruled Hollywood

August 02, 1988|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

Beginning this week at Melnitz Hall, the UCLA Film Archives glides us back to bawdier, yet more innocent times as, on Thursdays and weekends through September, it presents "Hollywood Before the Code": the movies, stars, subjects and even the cartoons (Betty Boop) that once allegedly polluted a nation's morals.

It's a curious reminiscence and treat. By 1933, notably after the star ascension of busty, brassy, bad girls Mae West and Jean Harlow, the one-time Hays Production Code seemed to be in tatters. Afterward, it became law and it forbade things like sex, nudity, narcotics, any profanity from "damn" on up, childbirth, homosexuality and (a case of special pleading?) any ridicule of the clergy, who were never to be shown as clowns or villains.

The UCLA series focuses on those soon-forbidden subjects. They look pretty innocent, now, doubly so since few but the best film makers had mastered talking pictures in the early '30s. It was a time of immobile cameras, and actors who spoke as if to slightly deaf relatives. In spite--or maybe even because--of all that, the best and worst alike of these movies have earthy charm. That's so with the widely seen "I'm No Angel" (Thursday) and "Red Dust" (Saturday). Here, West and Harlow are at their most defiantly unchaste, their scandalous best, displaying the talents and attributes that got them indicted for sending a nation's men to the dogs and its women to the peroxide bottle.

Two lesser Harlow exhibitions were co-written by Anita ("Gentlemen Prefer Blondes") Loos. In the 1932 "Red-Headed Woman' (Saturday)--dreadfully directed by Jack Conway, in a bad-community-theater style--Harlow sleeps, wiggles, pouts and baby-talks her way up. (There's a snip here of pre-Code "nudity": an inane argument about a borrowed pajama top that climaxes, for a microsecond, in a seeming glimpse of Harlow's bosom.) Sam Wood's marginally better 1933 "Hold Your Man" has Harlow surprised in the bathtub by debonair con man Clark Gable--and an opening scene so close to "The Sting" that one suspects larceny.

Roy Del Ruth's crisp 1932 "Blessed Event" (Thursday) is a sarcastic but soft-edged newspaper comedy, whose chief asset is Lee Tracy. As a scandal-mongering Walter Winchell-style columnist, he gets to show off his virtuosity at whining cynicism, serpentine hand gestures, triple takes and wisecracks.

The unknown gem of the week is Raoul Walsh's 1933 "The Bowery" (shown Sunday on a double bill with Walsh's 1933 "Sailor's Luck"). Little seen today--despite a cast that includes Wallace Beery, George Raft, 12-year-old Jackie Cooper and Fay Wray--it's really the quintessence of Walsh: brash, gusty, made with unflagging zest and amazing dabs of gagged-up virility and smoky, dense detail. Set, like "Strawberry Blonde," in New York at the century's turn, it's definitely risible stuff: full of racial stereotyping and mocked male chauvinism. Both Wray and Cooper trade domiciles with the brawling buddies Beery and Raft without benefit of clergy or adoption.

Offensive? Perhaps. But also robust, high-spirited, basically unmalicious--and definitely unpleasing to the professionally moralistic.

Information: (213) 206-FILM.

Spanish writer-director Manuel Gutierrez Aragon is known here for the recent "Half of Heaven" and the 1982 "Demons in the Garden." But spotlighted this week on UCLA's superb Spanish Cinema series on Friday are two earlier Gutierrez Aragon films, as yet unreleased in the United States, which confirm him as a world-class film maker. "Maravillas," made in 1980, is about middle-class juvenile delinquency. The film brilliantly mixes the real and the subjective, running through a startling variety of forms and moods: comedy, pathos, fear, drama, caustic social criticism, intense reverie and dreamlike fantasy.

The 1978 "The Heart of the Forest"--a near masterpiece--is based on a true-life incident that suggests Conrad's "Heart of Darkness": a Spanish leftist trying to reach the last guerrilla, or anti-Franco maquis, in the mountains. Beautifully shot--like "Maravillas" by Teo Escamilla--in a lustrous palette of dewy forest greens, wet grays and rocky browns, this unjustly neglected film is filled with suspense, terror and beauty, a magical piece of historical idealism and poetic symbolism.

Information: (213) 206-FILM.

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