October 3, 2011

Eight outrageous Pre-Code moments

When you watch a lot of movies, like I do, it really takes a lot to shock or surprise you. I can sit through the most depraved sexuality or most graphic violence and not blink an eye - it's just a matter of expectations. A sudden blood-soaked battle royale in a Pixar film, for instance, is going to elicit double takes from even the most jaded viewers because you're not expecting to find it there. Fans of cinematic dissonance, then, would be well-advised to check out some Pre-Code cinema.

Long-time readers are probably familiar with the Code, but for those of you just joining us, The Production Code was a system of Hollywood film censorship in place from 1934 to 1968. Naturally, the existence of said Code means there was an era before it, which is generally considered to be between the birth of talkies and the strict enforcement of the Code (it was technically implemented in 1930, but without teeth). Consequently, films of this era could get away with a lot. Pre-Code transgressions, at least for me, fall into two categories: dryly anachronistic ("ah, since it's Pre-Code, that criminal act can go unpunished") and the truly startling ("WTF? I'm rewinding that!"). I'm not expecting that the average viewer would be scandalized by a lack of petticoats, but just to prove you can really get some kicks from the early 1930s I've compiled some of my favorite "wait - WHAT?" moments from Pre-Code cinema.

Lesbian kiss in Morocco (1930)
Marlene Dietrich, who was probably personally responsible for at least one film censor's heart attack, plays (what else?) a slinky cabaret entertainer who eventually falls for Gary Cooper. But before that, she finds time to plant a smoldering kiss on a female patron, mid-performance, FOR ABSOLUTELY NO REASON. My use is of all caps here is not to express indignation or disgust, but rather to underscore how profoundly random this moment is. It doesn't serve the story and is never mentioned again - it's just Marlene being Marlene. She was openly bisexual and added the kiss to the script herself - and insured its inclusion by taking a flower from the woman that would create a jarring continuity problem if the shot was cut.
Oh, and she's wearing a top hat and tux.

Laughed-off murder in Night Nurse (1931)
The perfect film for those who enjoy seeing Barbara Stanwyck prance around in lingerie, this film has it share of sordid and tawdry moments but none top the ending. Stanwyck's Lora has been engaged in courtship with a gangster, whose method of conflict resolution is sending a couple of thugs to rough up the person in question. Being a kind and reasonable person, she's initially horrified at this approach. But in the very last scene, a dead body (I won't say whose!) is delivered to the hospital, and we cut to the gangster admitting it was his thugs' doing as the two of them drive away smiling into the sunset. It's hardly prudish to say that a nonchalant murder makes a strange ending to a film that has otherwise upright morals.

"Jazz Up Your Lingerie" from The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)
If your lover abandoned you for someone else, you'd probably be pretty upset and/or angry. Franzi (Claudette Colbert) is both of these things when she loses the lieutenant in question to a virginal princess (Miriam Hopkins), but by some insane twist of logic she figures that the guy might as well have good sex. So naturally she sings a song to her rival called "Jazz Up Your Lingerie" that is exactly what it sounds like. Really, it's the only logical outcome when one woman demands of another, "let me see your underwear."

This will be stuck in your head all day. You're welcome.

Cocaine use in Three on a Match (1932)
I would expect to see cocaine use in a movie (even a Pre-Code one) about the dangers of drugs. I was not expecting it to casually pop up as a byproduct of one woman's moral decline (particularly seeing as she is part of an ensemble cast). After her character is offscreen for a while, she reappears with dark circles under her eyes and a distinct nose-wiping twitch. Lest you think you're imagining it, a hoodlum played by Humphrey Bogart (!) chides her with "Oh, that" while mimicking her gesture. Her lover and some of his underlings appear to have the habit too, making their apartment a bona fide 1932 crack den.

Marijuana in Jewel Robbery (1932)
Before Danny Ocean, before Thomas Crown, you could get your sexy, suave criminal fix from William Powell. Playing a jewel thief whose heists are like acts of seduction, he has Kay Francis at hello. But since not all of the witnesses are equally charmed, he subdues them with his secret weapon - marijuana cigarettes! They're not explicitly referred to as such, but the giggly behavior of those smoking them makes it pretty obvious.

The dress gag in This Is the Night (1932)
This film opens with Thelma Todd snagging her dress on a car door and having it ripped off. This causes virtually the entire population of Paris to stop what they're doing and excitedly sing "The lady has lost her dress!" Throughout the film, it seems that the inanimate objects of the world are conspiring to see Ms. Todd in her skivvies, as her dress is ripped off over and over. In fact, the film is wryly summarized in the BFI database with the single sentence "Comedy in which a flirtatious wife keeps getting her dress caught in doors."

The premise of Design for Living (1933)
What if you were in love with two people and didn't have to choose? That's the notion put forth in the film adaptation of the Noel Coward play, though one of the lines of the love triangle (the one connecting the two men) is removed. Scheming Gilda's solution to the fact that she's been sleeping with two best friends is to have the three of them move in together. They explicitly declare that there will be no sex in this arrangement, but let's just say that if they were successful at maintaining that rule, the film would be a lot shorter. The scandal is somewhat lessened by the fact that Gilda somewhat staggers the ensuing affairs and has them in different locations, but ultimately the film seems to endorse polyamorous relationships.

The premise of Baby Face (1933)
I almost didn't want to mention Baby Face because it's so obvious - anyone can tell you it's basically THE Pre-Code film. But you can't avoid it. It's about Barbara Stanwyck sleeping her way to the top of a corporation. It makes "Mad Men" look subtle and progressive. Some of the setups seem like the start of pornos, except the characters shut the door on the audience instead of letting them watch.

I also want to give a shoutout to Ecstasy (1933), which I can't technically include since it's not an American production, but it features gratuitous female nudity and an extended scene of female orgasm. In 1933!

Let me offer the disclaimer that not all Pre-Code films are this racy, or even very good. But there's a lot of fun to be had, and with many of these films running about 60-80 minutes in length you don't have much to lose. 

What are the most outrageous Pre-Code moments you've seen?

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