SIN IN SOFT FOCUS: Pre-Code Hollywood. By Mark A. Vieira. Harry N. Abrams. 240 pp. $39.95
PRE-CODE HOLLYWOOD: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930–1934. By Thomas Doherty. Columbia Univ. Press. 430 pp. $49.50 cloth, $19.50 paper
In 1999—"the summer of the dirty joke," as the New York Times dubbed it—65 seconds of orgy in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut were digitally altered to satisfy the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating board. In a rare show of unanimity, film critics in Los Angeles and New York condemned the board for "trampling the freedom of American filmmakers." Those critics—and members of the ratings board, too—will find valuable perspective in two new books recalling the merry boom and dismal bust of "pre-Code Hollywood," that allbut-unexamined period when American filmmakers operated free from official censorship.
The label "pre-Code" is something of a misnomer. The Production Code, setting rules for Hollywood’s purity, was adopted with lofty purpose in 1930—"correct entertainment raises the whole standard of a nation"—and widely flouted until 1934, when Joseph Breen became the enforcer of a new and more stringent Code.
Many films from the pre-Breen years no longer exist, at least in their original version. In order to secure reissue thereafter, films made before 1934 had to be submitted to the Code and—retroactively—to the Code’s splicer. This had irreversible results when the original negative was cut, as it often was. Among films that no longer exist in the form in which they were made, and in which they made film history, are All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, Mata Hari, Shanghai Express, King Kong, 42nd Street, Frankenstein, Public Enemy, Tarzan and His Mate, and Animal Crackers.
Making the pre-Code era doubly worth examining is that it coincides with the worst years of the Great Depression, a trauma that challenged the fundamental values and assumptions of American society. In his witty and weighty Pre-Code Hollywood, Doherty, who teaches at Brandeis University, traces Hollywood’s surprising and little-known response to the calamity. Such pictures as Wild Boys of the Road and Heroes for Sale told bitter, disillusioned stories in their titles alone, while others, such as Gabriel over the White House, flirted with what Doherty calls a "dictator craze." Cinematic "insurrection"—a key word in the subtitle—would come to an end with the enforcement of the Code, as would Mae West’s suggestive sashays and any celluloid hints that the glamor of crime ended anywhere but the gutter or the hot seat.
Vieira’s Sin in Soft Focus details pre-Code history and its no-longer-available films in a clear and lively text that inevitably pales alongside the 275 photographs, many of them unfamiliar, all of them beautifully reproduced. They seductively evoke the period, shimmering with a black-and-white elegance so alluring, ironically, that it is easy to see what alarmed the bluestockings.
Vieira, a Los Angeles-based film historian and photographer, writes with indignation of the mischief done by cardinals with scissors. The Code was almost entirely spearheaded by American Catholics, and the author quotes a Cleveland bishop exhorting parishioners, "Purify Hollywood or destroy Hollywood!" Vieira raises the question whether anti-Semitism underlay the Code, then lets Code czar Breen answer it. Describing Hollywood’s mogul class to a fellow Catholic, Breen said: "Ninety-five percent of the folks are Jews of an Eastern European lineage. They are, probably, the scum of the earth."
Doherty, by contrast, defends Breen—who enforced the Code from 1934 until 1954 and wielded as much power over pictures as Louis B. Mayer or Jack Warner—as a virtuous aesthete who thought of himself as a "creative collaborator." All he wanted for American cinema, writes Doherty, was "to imbue it with a transcendent sense of virtue and order," and in doing so he came out "on the side of the angels."
Really? They would strike Vieira as avenging angels, one suspects. And why do virtue and order, especially when "transcendent," sound so like the professed goals of every reformer who ever sharpened the scissors, lit the bonfire, or—come to think of it—digitized the orgy?