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Down and Dirty

PRE-CODE HOLLYWOOD Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934; By Thomas Doherty; Columbia University Press: 412 pp., $49.50, $19.50 paper

SIN IN SOFT FOCUS Pre-Code Hollywood; By Mark A. Vieira; Harry N. Abrams: 240 pp., $39.95

November 07, 1999|KENNETH TURAN | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

Film historians like to call them "pre-code," those movies made in Hollywood in the too-brief period between March 1930 and July 1934, and to see them now is to enter an unexpected time warp and feel the force of a world turned upside down.

Carnal, explicit, uninhibited and eager to make a hash of conventional wisdom, pre-code films tell us everything we knew about Hollywood is wrong. All the so-called modern touches widely assumed to have come to studio pictures in the 1960s--strong violence and stronger sexual content, candor about drug use and homosexuality, even nudity--happened before, and with more snap, in the pre-code years. "Unlike all studio system feature films released after July 1934, pre-code Hollywood did not adhere to the strict regulations on matters of sex, vice, violence, and moral meaning forced upon the balance of Hollywood cinema," writes Thomas Doherty in his "Pre-Code Hollywood." "More unbridled, salacious, subversive, and just plain bizarre than what came afterwards, they look like Hollywood cinema but the moral terrain is so off-kilter they seem imported from a parallel universe."

Take for instance the 1933 Barbara Stanwyck-starring "Baby Face," one of the most notorious of pre-code films with the tag line "She had IT and made IT pay." Forced to be a tramp by her speakeasy-running father and encouraged by a Nietzschean confidant who advises her, "You must be a master, not a slave," Stanwyck decides to take revenge by turning her sexual attractiveness into a weapon to ruin every man in town. And New York is a very big town.

Pre-code was not, however, just lascivious fun and games. Even more unnerving and unexpected to modern audiences is William Wellman's tough and gritty 1933 "Heroes for Sale." It has sad-eyed former silent film star Richard Barthelmess playing a World War I veteran who gets a morphine addiction instead of the medals he deserves and then experiences bread lines, labor unrest and the unjust scrutiny of the sour-faced Red Squad. It's a film that forcefully explores the idea of national collapse when, as Doherty puts it, "a hobo gestures hopelessly into a rainswept night and speaks one of the bleakest lines in Hollywood cinema: 'It's the end of America.' "

Though unknown until recently--except to "obsessive cineastes" (to borrow Doherty's apt phrase)--pre-code films are finally getting the respect and recognition their singularity insists upon, including this pair of groundbreaking books, published almost simultaneously but with largely different focuses. The Doherty volume, subtitled "Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934," looks to become the standard work on this decidedly nonstandard age. Thoroughly researched and dense with information, especially as to what the lively Hollywood trade press was saying, "Pre-Code Hollywood" is thoughtful and gracefully written, even managing to keep phrases such as "diegetic ellipsis" down to what is probably the legal minimum for an academic text.

Complementing Doherty's book is Mark A. Vieira's "Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood," a handsome book whose hundreds of gorgeously reproduced images, heavy on passionate embraces and elaborate lingerie, evoke the racy side of pre-code. And though less extensive than Doherty's, Vieira's text is also of interest, in part because it enjoys passing on "Hollywood Babylon"-type anecdotes. Who knew, for instance, that Edmond Goulding, director of "Grand Hotel," was "a habitue of the popular Ship's Cafe in Venice" and dreamed of putting the establishment's celebrated "drag act starring the Rocky Twins" into his pre-code "Blondie of the Follies."

As both Vieira and Doherty point out, the name "pre-code" is something of a misnomer. Bedeviled by state censorship boards to an unprecedented extent (Vieira estimates they were costing film companies "$3.5 million a year in review fees, salaries, and the waste of expensively mounted scenes"), the studios came up with the censorious Production Code regulations in 1930 but did not feel compelled to enforce them until 1934.

One of the strengths of Doherty's book is its ability to place pre-code films in more than a Hollywood context, to show how they came out of the chaotic sociopolitical realities of a country drowning in the Great Depression, a country that feared it was coming apart in an unprecedented way. "Long oblivious to or agnostic about politics, temperamentally wary of involvement and above the fray," Doherty writes, "Hollywood went against its own grain to reflect and express the dissent of the day."

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