A Note on the Production Code

Starting on July 1, 1934, all films were required to obtain a certificate from the Production Code Administration in order to be released. Previous to this, there was a code, but it was treated as a joke and nobody really followed it; the only consequences of releasing a movie with controversial themes were boycotts. The code was enforced from 1934-1954 by a man named Joseph Breen, a prominent Roman Catholic layman who was known for both his staunch morals and anti-semitism; this was a large reason behind there being no anti-Nazi films from Hollywood until 1939 even though the (mostly) Jewish studio heads were extremely interested in making them for obvious reasons. All films had to pass muster with what he deemed to be acceptable to be released, in a time when movies were the dominant form of entertainment-a maganize wrote in 1936 that Breen’s position gave him “more influence in standardizing world thinking than Mussolini, Hitler, or Stalin.”

This system was in effect until the code was dissolved in 1968 and the current MPAA ratings system came into place, even if it started to loosen from 1952 on. This was due to a combination of factors:

  • 1952 Supreme Court case overturned a former decision of the court and found that films were protected by the first amendment
  • TV was beginning to become a major competitor for people’s free time for entertainment, and movies needed to show people something they couldn’t get on TV
  • Foreign films were no covered by the code and began to gain a foothold in the U.S.
  • The American public’s tastes started to change and things that had previously been viewed as taboo were more acceptable.

In the interest of fully understanding how restrictive it was, here is the code in a slightly annotated form:

Resolved, That those things which are included in the following list shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, irrespective of the manner in which they are treated:

  1. Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” “Christ” (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), “hell,” “damn,” “Gawd,” and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
  2. Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
  3. The illegal traffic in drugs;
  4. Any inference of sex perversion;
  5. Sexual Slavery
  6. Miscegenation, or sex relationships between the white and black races;
  7. Sexual hygiene and venereal diseases;
  8. Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;
  9. Children’s sex organs;
  10. Ridicule of the clergy;
  11. Willful offense to any nation, race or creed;

And be it further resolved, That special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized:

  1. The use of the flag;
  2. International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);
  3. Arson;
  4. The use of firearms;
  5. Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the impressionable);
  6. Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
  7. Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
  8. Methods of smuggling;
  9. Harsh interrogation methods (torture);
  10. Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;
  11. Sympathy for criminals;
  12. Attitude toward public characters and institutions;
  13. Sedition (subversion against lawful authority);
  14. Apparent cruelty to children and animals;
  15. Branding of people or animals;
  16. The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;
  17. Rape or attempted rape;
  18. Consummation of a marriage;
  19. Man and woman in bed together;
  20. Deliberate seduction of girls;
  21. The institution of marriage;
  22. Surgical operations;
  23. The use of drugs;
  24. Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;
  25. Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a criminal. No single kiss could be beyond 3 seconds in length.
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The Barrett’s of Wimpole Street (1934)

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Starring: Norma Shearer, Fredric March, Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, Katharine Alexander, Marian Clayton

Director: Sidney Franklin

Summary: Poet Elizabeth Barrett’s tyrannical father has forbidden any of his children to marry. Nonetheless, Elizabeth falls in love with the poet Robert Browning.

Other nominations: Actress (Shearer)

Positives

-I cannot oversell how great Charles Laughton is as the father in this movie-he is basically the most evil person in the world and every time he comes on screen the movie lights up in his dark presence. The original play was much more overt about the incestuous aspects of his character, whereas here for the most part it comes off as more of a disturbing total obsession with controlling his children. Laughton should have at least got a Best Actor nomination for this movie; legend has it he didn’t receive one because MGM did everything they could to make sure Clark Gable would win-this included making sure Laughton (who was widely believed to be the frontrunner) wasn’t nominated.

-For those knowledgeable about 1930’s Hollywood films, this movie has a very familiar credit that is a clearly mark of quality in one department: “Gowns by Adrian.” Adrian was the original superstar costume designer in the days before Edith Head, with his most famous work being Wizard of Oz. Interestingly enough, he was married  for 20 years to actress Janet Gaynor (7th Heaven, State Fair, A Star is Born) and actually had a child with her despite being gay. Sadly, he was never nominated for an Oscar because Costume design only became a category in 1952, after his time.

Negatives

-March again doesn’t do much for me, and is considerably weaker as a romantic lead here than he was in Smilin’ Through. Speaking of which, what is it with fathers/father figures in movies always trying to prevent Norma Shearer from marrying Fredric March?

-Generally, the movie is great when Laughton is there and dies when he’s not, as without him it’s just a boring melodrama. This is a big problem when he’s only on-screen for about 30-35 minutes of the movie.

-Shearer as Elizabeth Barrett might be the first Oscar bait role in history: she’s playing both a famous historical figure and an invalid! She of course did get a nomination (although I thought she was just alright), but lost out to the year of Claudette Colbert.

-She only has two scenes in the movie, but Marian Clayton has the most insufferable voice ever-she is doing widdle biddy baby tawk but in regular conversation which is just bizarre.

Overall

Laughton is awesome here and his performance is enough for me to say this movie is above average; however, he’s not in it for that much of the movie and there’s not much else all that interesting going on. Better than I expected, but on the whole it’s not great or anything.

Rating: B-

Cleopatra (1934)

cleopatra34

Starring: Claudette Colbert, Warren William, Henry Wilcoxon, Joseph Schildkraut

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Summary: The fabled queen of Egypt leads Julius Caesar and Marc Antony astray

Other nominations: Cinematography*, Assistant Director, Sound Recording, Film Editing

Positives

-This is the huge, lavish production you would expect out of Cecil B. DeMille-great sets, tons of unique costumes, millions of extras and horses, etc. easily one of the best designed movies of its time

-In the battle sequence towards the end, it cuts every second or so, which is the first time (as in, as of 1934) I could remember a Hollywood film using such rapid editing which is interesting

-I loved the opening credits, easily the most memorable thing about this film with its…creative…lighting, and overall fun.

Negatives

-I’m mixed on Claudette Colbert in this movie. She’s usually very good, and I wouldn’t call her bad here necessarily, but she seems miscast in this dramatic vamp role.

-The actor who plays Caesar (William) has the charm of a piece of driftwood and is sub-Gary Cooper in A Farewell to Arms in terms of emoting.

-It doesn’t really bring anything new to the table in terms of the Cleopatra story, other than its production design which would later be superseded by the 1963 version; the (now lost) 1917 version with Theda Bara had the “sex for the common audience” aspect to it as well. The dialogue is just as stiff as you would expect from an epic movie based this story as well.

-This is the first movie so far that had a Code certificate in front of it (#80 in fact). It being so early in the process of implementation meant they got away with a lot, i.e. extremely revealing costumes. Nevertheless, the code is here and will be a problem for a while.

Overall

This movie is big and grand, but also hollow-once you get beyond the grandeur, there’s not much else there to keep your interest.  

Rating: D+

Flirtation Walk (1934)

flirtationwalk_banner

Starring: Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Pat O’Brien

Director: Frank Borzage & Bobby Connelly (Ensembles Director)

Summary: A West Point cadet falls for his commanding officer’s daughter

Other nominations: Sound Recording

Positives

-I liked Ruby Keeler a lot here, she’s very cute and charming and is well cast for this role. Considering she was very good here, and good in 42nd Street, I’m surprised she didn’t have a longer career outside of 1933-35 where she did a lot of stuff.

-It’s neat seeing a movie that was filmed at West Point which probably looks about the same now as it did then for the most part.

Negatives

-This very much felt like 1930’s romantic musical #845, with the setting wheel falling on Hawaii and West Point. Totally by the book, which is a shame because even though Borzage isn’t one of my favorite directors, he usually brings something slightly different to the table in his romance movies

-Powell is really stiff as the romantic lead here, with mostly robotic line delivery

-They use left to right dissolve wipes like Homer Simpson uses star wipes

-Minor thing that bugged the heck out of me: the characters put on a stage production within the movie at some point where they were apparently given a ludicrous budget with the biggest stage ever, and the only way the audience could see the whole show they are putting on would be for the audience to be on a teleport pad

Overall

It blends in with all the other romantic musicals I’ve watched so far with the only thing standing out being the locations and Keeler.

Rating: D+

The Gay Divorcee (1934)

the_gay_divorcee_movie_poster

Starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Alice Brady, Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes

Director: Mark Sandrich

Summary: An unhappily married woman mistakes a suitor for the gigolo hired to end her marriage

Other nominations: Art Direction, Score, Song (“The Continental”)*, Sound Recording

Positives

-Having never seen one of his movies before, Fred Astaire is as advertised-one of the best dancers ever, a good singer and a fine actor, making him one of the unique treasures in cinema. Besides the obvious, I think he also has this wonderfully approachable charm to him-unlike Chevalier, he’s not the most attractive or exotic person, but he always seems easy going and is the kind of person you could take home to your mom. Perfect leading man

-Really great cast of characters who are a lot of fun and the humor really put this movie on a tier above other singing and dancing movies.

-The dancing in general is great and the songs are mostly alright

Negatives

-Astaire is not charming at the beginning when he’s an overbearing stalker to Ginger Rogers-if the tone hadn’t been as light as it was, it would have been worse, but it held up my enjoyment of the movie for a time

-Some of the songs go on too long, mainly “The Continental” which is 17 ½ minutes. I like my song and dance numbers short and sweet usually.

Overall

Light and easy dance movie that is a near-perfect execution of what it is going for, even if that gives it a ceiling for me personally. Looking forward to seeing Astaire and Rogers team up again in a film that’s nominated for Best Picture next year. I debated the rating for a while, and ended up going to the low side.

Overall: B

Here Comes the Navy (1934)

navy

Starring: James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Gloria Stuart, Frank McHugh

Director: Lloyd Bacon

Summary: A cocky naval cadet joins for the wrong reasons but finds romance and becomes a hero

Other nominations: None

Positives

-Really interesting for me from a historical time-capsule perspective:

-That most of the film took place and was filmed on-board an actual WWII-era battleship is cool to see; that the battleship was the U.S.S. Arizona, which 7 years later would be the main casualty of the attack on Pearl Harbor, is even more so.

-Another location from the movie is Hangar One at Moffett Field with the airship U.S.S. Macon. This is much more of a personal interest, but Moffett Field (near Mountain View, CA) is 15 minutes from my house and the massive Hangar One is one of the South Bay’s great historical landmarks. The siding was removed in 2008, but Google bought it and plans to restore it.

-James Cagney is fun doing his whole wise-guy street tough act here (he’s a construction worker, not a gangster but he basically acts the same). He’s pretty much the one thing this movie has going for it on its normal merits, even if he’s not spectacular or anything.

Negatives

-Even though there’s not that much outright bad about this movie, there’s also not a lot that captured my attention here. The rest of the acting just kinda exists, none of the other characters are very interesting, the story is unremarkable. Wasn’t that hard of a watch at 87 minutes, but nothing sticks with you

-Has a really unfunny comic-relief side character (played by McHugh) who has a big payoff joke at the very end that’s just the worst.

Overall

Here Comes the Navy is more interesting as a historical artifact than on its regular merits. Without Cagney, the film would be much worse, but there’s only so much a good (but not great) lead performance can do in a movie. Skip unless you have a strong interest in military history.

Rating: D+

The House of Rothschild (1934)

rothschild

Starring: George Arliss, Boris Karloff, Loretta Young, Robert Young

Director: Alfred Werker

Summary: The story of the rise of the Rothschild financial empire founded by Mayer Rothschild and his five sons

Other nominations: None

Positives

-The crux of the film is about the problem of racism against Jews, which was a rarely seen subject for a movie back then. I’m not sure how much of this film was directly a reaction against what was starting to happen in Germany at the time, but regardless, it was an important subject that I have to give the film credit for addressing in that time.

-George Arliss once again gives a strong performance, where much like in Disraeli, he’s dignified and the smartest guy in the room. It may be a coincidence, but it’s interesting that he apparently liked playing famous Jewish historical figures even though he himself was not Jewish.

-The last three minutes are in three-strip technicolor, making it the oldest Best Picture nominee to have a surviving color sequence. The Broadway Melody also had a color sequence, but it has been lost and only the black and white version of that scene survives.

Negatives

-The majority of the movie suffers from a severe lack of stakes, where the primary concern is whether they are going to mega-rich or just super-rich which is something that’s hard to get all that invested in. A family of wealthy bankers is not normally the heroic subject of a film for good reason, even if there some are other things at play here.

-There’s a romance subplot that doesn’t have that much depth to it and reeks of “we need something to get this movie to 1 ½ hours.” We barely get into these characters and the story would lose nothing of consequence by excising them entirely.

Overall

Perfectly okay movie that had very relevant themes for the time and a good performance at its core but failed to feel like anything was of real consequence of large parts of the movie

Rating: C