Review by C.J. Bunce
A leg thrown over the arm of a chair. A monster tossing a girl into the river. A gangster with a Tommy Gun shooting a room full of people. A woman is expecting a baby. A man bites a woman to drink her blood. Actresses backstage get ready for a show. Dancers on stage kick their legs. “Kept” women. Physical violence.
Rural audiences and even film goers in big cities like Chicago would label all this as “smut” or “disgraceful” back in the day. In the realm of what is appropriate and what is not, the cinema has approached each new boundary with baby steps. But in the Depression-era early 1930s, many previously unaccepted concepts soared onto film. A new book takes a look at this era, now referred to by film historians as the “Pre-Code Era”–1930 to 1934–a time when the self-regulating movie industry pushed the bounds of its own rules, only to hit a wall when the public pushed back. Turner Classic Movies′ Forbidden Hollywood takes an educational, film school-level walk through an industry fighting within itself to both make money and please an audience it would find varied widely by geography, down to the community level. The handling of decency by the industry would have ramifications that would have an impact on generations of film creators and audiences. The chaos and in-fights would last until July 1934, when religious groups combined to take a stand, prompting the industry to bow to their demands with the formation of the League of Decency. That group would govern movie standards for nearly 35 years–until the ratings system would arrive in 1968. Even real-world gangster Al Capone thought the new, 1930s era of movies was bad for kids, saying “These gang pictures–that’s terrible kid stuff. They’re doing nothing but harm to the younger element of the country.”
Film historian Mark A. Vieira provides a scholarly examination of the studios, the directors, producers, and writers, including excerpts of decisions made and processes followed (and not followed), resulting in the promotion of the careers of some of Hollywood’s biggest names: Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, Myrna Loy, Mae West, Joan Crawford, Marlena Dietrich, Clara Bow, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, James Cagney, Ward Bond, Bela Legosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney. Looking at elements incorporated into–or scissor cut from–dozens of films, including The Divorcee, Dishonored, Grand Hotel, Dracula, A Farewell to Arms, 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Riptide, Red-Headed Woman, She Done Him Wrong, Call Her Savage, Convention City, and Frankenstein, Vieira takes an objective look at the factors that influenced all sides in determining what would be appropriate in the movies and what role movies would take in society.
The struggles faced with issues of censorship and self-regulation are infused in Vieira’s writing. How films got to where they are today–and why the majority of influences inside and outside the industry ultimately landed on heavier censorship–was the culmination of many factors, not the least of which was the feedback from local theater owners–many owned by the studios making the pictures–reporting to studios and editor/censors identifying what audiences would tolerate, what they wouldn’t, and what they wanted much more of, from conservative rural Kansas protests to “anything goes” from metropolitan centers like New York City (interestingly, Chicago seemed exempt from the big city angle because of its large Catholic population).
Not discussed in the Forbidden Hollywood, but showcased extremely well in its 272-page hardcover volume, are the numerous black and white photographs featured. Printed on thick paper and in large images that come close to the quality of the original prints produced by marketing departments and sent to the press in the 1930s (now selling in their original form for thousands of dollars at auction), these photographs demonstrate the artistry of Hollywood in a way that did not always make it to the actual films, usually posed, as opposed to screencaps as would be used today. Rarely seen images of young Claudette Colbert, Barbara Stanwyck, Myrna Loy, and Joan Crawford will come as a surprise to fans of these actresses’ later works.
Some of the films discussed exist in their original, unedited versions today, but many do not, with censors cutting objectionable scenes out of the original master negatives and throwing them away. These movies would only gain notoriety in film history because of the advent of television, with TV studios looking for content to fill the airwaves. Interest in these films from television audiences in the 1970s would spur a study of these films, and the beginning of the effort to preserve what survived. Many of these surviving films, and those films with only edited versions surviving, are still featured on TCM from time to time. Films whose original cuts are lost include well-known landmarks of film like Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers, Mata Hari, The Public Enemy, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Sign of the Cross, King Kong, and All Quiet on the Western Front.