Friday, October 28, 2011

Pre-Code Blues

Lately—meaning for the past year—I've really been prioritizing movies from Hollywood's classic era. Admittedly, this started from the rather childish realization that I've seen way more movies from this past decade than from either the 30s, 40s, 50s, or 60s (the statistics-whore in me remembers 5 times as many from the current decade compared to any other). At any rate, it's been worthwhile drowning myself in the Golden Age and moving beyond the obvious canon. I'm still not quite there, but the greatest joy comes in finding those hidden gems and masterpieces that leave me wondering why they're not more popular. A short list includes The Hard Way, A Letter to Three Wives, Unfaithfully Yours, Strange Impersonation, The Hitchhiker, and Sudden Fear. None of these are terribly esoteric, but for me, they're deserving of the same attention bestowed on Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, or Citizen Kane.

At any rate, I'm now a bit richer in the Pre-Code department, having ingested Universal and Warner Brothers' samplers of the era. The movies come from the Forbidden Hollywood DVDs by WB and the Pre-Code collection from Universal. What's immediately noticeable about these pictures is their sense of freedom; it's weird how stuffy the Code era movies seem now. Their sleaziness isn't the main draw, not for me, at least. I'm much more interested by the almost alien standards they're governed by when compared to movies a few years later. Look at a movie Female and it feels so progressive. Even 30 years later, the gender roles in movies like Goldfinger seem antiquated by comparison, although James Bond has, and probably always will be, in the crosshairs of feminism.

These movies really just make me wonder how different the motion picture industry would be during the 40s and 50s had the Code not been implemented. My guess is much of it might be the same, but I'd imagine the diversity would have to be richer. And who knows: we might've gotten Bonnie and Clyde 20 years sooner. I have a tough time imagining that the Code didn't have some kind of setback, but at the same time, I don't think it's worth dwelling on the hypothetical. The Code, for better or worse, existed and was enforced, and some of my favorite movies come from that time.

I'm fond of the Pre-Codes, but at the same time, a bit of reining in might've helped. For every Baby Face, there was a Red-Headed Woman, and for every amazing Barbara Stanwyck, there was a cringe-worthy Toby Wing. The point is, I don't think sleaze is what made the Pre-Codes great. Baby Face had even more self-prostitution than Red-Headed Woman, but the difference lies in attitude. In Baby Face, Stanwyck actually lures men in whereas Jean Harlow seems more like she's capturing them by force. It's the difference between an intelligent, sexy woman and an air-head slut. I'm being a bit sloppy, but here's a list of all the Pre-Codes I've gotten to in these DVDs:

Baby Face
Waterloo Bridge
Red-Headed Woman
The Divorcee
A Free Soul
Three on a Match
Night Nurse
Other Men's Women
The Purchase Price
Frisco Jenny
Midnight Mary
Heroes for Sale
Wild Boys of the Road
The Cheat
Merrily We Go to Hell
Hot Saturday
Torch Singer
Murder at the Vanities
Search for Beauty

I'd recommend any of these; even the ones I don't like are worth seeing simply because of their value as cultural artifacts. My favorite of all these is probably Three on a Match. The movie is kind of a deliberate defiance of what the Code stood for. It's the well-raised valedictorian that screws up in the end and the reformatory alumnus ends up with a redeemed life. To me, this is a movie built on the realization that upbringing is not some kind of measuring stick that determines the kind of life we'll live. Yes, there are good students that end up with good lives, but there are probably plenty that end up shit's creek. The movie just doesn't seem pigeonholed at all and it doesn't feel driven by any phony agendas. It exists to tell a story, and it tells it extremely well.