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Pre-Code films: sex and lies but no videotape

In the '30s, before morality became an issue, Hollywood took up with tawdry women and brutal men. UCLA screens some examples.

May 17, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

It's only seven little letters, with a hyphen thrown in just for the heck of it, but to people in the know, the phrase "pre-Code" signifies cinematic buried treasure of the most satisfying kind.

They're a sign of the secret life of American films, of a time after sound fully arrived in 1930 but before the enforcement of the moralistic Production Code in 1934. It's when Hollywood outrageously pushed boundaries of all sorts and made films that featured strong violence, stronger sexual content and candor about drug use, homosexuality, even nudity.

"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 thoughtful history, "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."

Critics and historians have enjoyed rediscovering pre-Code films for decades, and the period has gained enough adherents for Turner Classic Movies to devote every Tuesday this month to a pre-Code series that features better-known titles like "Night Nurse" and "Employees' Entrance" as well as a new documentary on the subject called "Complicated Women."

The UCLA Film and Television Archive is going Turner one better with the series "Sin Uncensored: Hollywood Before the Code." Starting today, UCLA will be showing not just any pre-Code films, but 14 choice samples, films the program notes justifiably call "some of the most notorious and risque works of the period." Even more enticing, none of these films is available on video or DVD and many are on nitrate prints that haven't been publicly viewed in decades.

The pre-Code era happened when it did because of a combination of factors. One was the transition from silent to sound films, which allowed for more of a focus on dialogue in general and more "wise up, sister" patter in particular. This technological advance coincided with the stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression, which turned America into a society in danger of coming apart, a society in which traditional rules no longer seemed to matter much to anyone.

As a result, pre-Code films inevitably have a "look Ma, no hands" exuberance, the zest of a newly liberated art form that felt anything was fair game on screen. If you could dream it up, you could film it, even if it didn't make a great deal of sense.

Pre-Code films could be little more than an hour in length, and ones that lasted as long as 90 minutes were rare. But they made up for their brevity by an intensification of plot, by squeezing more unabashedly melodramatic material into 70 or 80 minutes than would seem possible -- and always with a breathless tabloid immediacy, a straight-off-the-streets vitality that was invariably snappy, sassy and a great deal of fun.

The UCLA series opens tonight with "The Cheat," a startling remake of the silent Cecil B. DeMille film that stars a convincing Tallulah Bankhead as a bored and fearless society wife who is also a compulsive gambler. After she loses $10,000 on a whim, she begins a flirtation with an impossibly wealthy and extremely oily seducer who has the habit, picked up from years in the Orient, of branding everything he possesses. Believe me, "Rawhide" was never like this.

But even this film has nothing on "The Story of Temple Drake," a Miriam Hopkins-starring item screening next Saturday. Based on William Faulkner's "Sanctuary," it is perhaps the most notorious of all pre-Code films. "What is the function of the Hays Office" (a precursor to the Motion Picture Assn. of America), thundered the New York Daily News, "if it doesn't keep projects like this off the screen?"

Hopkins plays a flirtatious daughter of the South with a wild streak that won't quit. On a dark and stormy night, she stumbles into a genuinely nightmarish situation, and ends up being raped by a hypnotic gangster named Trigger (Jack La Rue), whom she then goes off with. This dark, claustrophobic film is thick with menace, desire, compulsion and despair as it traffics in areas of sexuality rarely explored on film.

On the same bill is the equally unusual "Blood Money," first on the list of films banned by the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency. It stars Frances Dee as a Brentwood society type who is mad about crime and criminals. When someone tells her, "You would have been crazy about Al Capone," her reply is the brisk, "You think you're kidding." As a side note, look for the future Dame Judith Anderson in her first screen role.

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