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.

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