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VOLUME 6: HORNY ON MAIN – SEARCHING FOR REVERENCE IN PRE-CODE CINEMA

Following the last volume’s polemical insight to the current moment in Britain, Cinema Year Zero felt at a loss. With cinemas still closed, and just a few films dribbling out virtual releases on the tiresome awards run, we were compelled to take a trip back. Not only to the era of ‘Classic Hollywood’, but to engage with a time in the cinematic past when it felt possible to imagine a cinematic future: the pre-Code. 

It is for that reason that we found ourselves revisiting a University Fresher classic. ‘The Thirties’, chapter in Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape (1973) identifies some of the most prominent icons of the pre-Code years in that decade (Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Jean Harlow), as standard bearers for “one of the few truly ‘liberated’ periods of cinema”. Even amidst the oft-memorialised American cinema of 1973, Haskell saw the 1930s’ ostensibly free aura to be rare. In 2021, it’s doubtful Haskell would be much inclined to revise her statement.

The pre-Code era hit at a specific point in Hollywood history. The Great Depression had ravaged swathes of the United States, forming an identity crisis evident in the recurrent liars, cheats, and scoundrels that populate pre-Code films: how else to get ahead? Seeing our scammer culture erupt in outrage bubbles from rappers, to Caroline Calloway, to many of Film Twitter’s finest, it is a wonder that the cinema has not yet returned to the pre-Code cornucopia for inspiration. This coincided with the insertion of verbal language, with its many possible meanings and interpretations, onto the plastic art of cinema. The advent of sound technology gave way to rapid-fire dialogue ripped from the radio airwaves with an instant appeal. That this hit in the period after the creation of the Production Code, but before its enforcement, is that sheer alchemy that they call Hollywood, folks. 

The common misconception about the Motion Picture Production Code is that its enforcement began at the same time that the censoring body, the MPPDA (later known as the MPAA), adopted it. William Harrison Hays Sr. was actually head of the MPPDA long before the code was instituted, and even by that point, it would still be several years before it was enforced properly. The pre-Code years were thus something of a misnomer. In retrospect, they were something like a Last Hurrah, a period stacked with motion pictures that happily depicted sexual prowess, adultery, violence, and narcotics, if not always with glee, then with a spiritedness, a “naked directness”, in Haskell’s words. Joseph Owen’s essay identifies perhaps the most controversial of all the pre-Code films as an influence on cinema to this day: Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932).

It was only once the Code’s enforcement under Joseph Breen and the Production Code Administration seriously threatened the studios’ bottom line that the Hays Code became less like prudish guidelines to be jovially ignored and more like the rules of the game. By the 1960s, however, increasingly provocative, salacious filmmaking broached themes that were anathema to the pearl-clutchers at the MPPDA, to the point that, by 1968, the year of Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead and a year after Bonnie and Clyde shot its way straight into the American psyche, the Code was weakened and finally done away with. Today, the MPAA uses a rating system to help the American parent decide whether a film is appropriate for their tykes to see, or whether it will feature the debauchery that the MPPDA would work to eliminate from the movies at all cost. Ellisha Izumi’s article examines an online subculture that still obeys the Code, and then attempts to apply it to a cult classic: Breathless (1983). 

One development in recent years that appears especially disconcerting is the blind acceptance of such censorship from a great deal of the English-speaking population, with many more actively calling for such things. The embarrassing debacle around Maïmouna Doucouré’s Netflix-distributed Cuties last year is the most extreme example in recent times, a whirlwind of horrendous marketing and poor crisis management from Netflix, and abhorrent media illiteracy, hypocrisy, and conservatism from the mob that boycotted the streaming giant because the film sexualised young girls supposedly without reason. As Ioanna Micha notes in her piece, you were much more likely to find useless adolescent sexualisation in the Shirley Temple-starring Baby Burlesks of the pre-Code era.

It is quite the morbidly hilarious twist of fate that, by effectively terminating any robust career Doucouré – a Black woman left out in the cold by Netflix – might have had, the hordes of headless chickens that littered Twitter, IMDb, and Letterboxd were carrying the torch for the agenda of Hays himself. One of the Code’s firmest rules, a “Don’t” as opposed to a “Be Careful”, was that miscegenation not be depicted in any way, shape, or form. That this rule was followed to the letter while the bit about not showing “willful offense to any nation, race or creed” was given a more lax treatment does not make Hays look any less detestable. This is not to say the pre-Code was any haven for cultural sensitivity. As Cathy Brennan writes in her piece, the indelible images of perhaps the pre-Code’s most representative star, Marlene Dietrich, are irrevocably tinged with the markers of imperialism, problematising her star aura.

Nonetheless, some of the most celebrated Hollywood stars thrived during the pre-Code era, especially those whose sexuality was given ample space to flourish. Jean Harlow inspired a line of blonde bombshells in her wake, a tradition examined in Kirsty Asher’s essay on the star. Mae West, on the other hand, was such a chaotic iconoclast that finding her antecedents sends Ben Flanagan on a chase across Hollywood, television, and the streaming giants, from Amy Schumer to Rebel Wilson. 
But if Harlow’s star burned bright right up to her untimely death in 1937, and Mae West’s bombast kept her in the pre-Code hall of fame, there are many who were unduly buried by history, waiting to be excavated and given their due again. Such was the case for Nina Mae McKinney, dubiously nicknamed The Black Garbo, who continually had to work outside the United States because of the industrial racism there. Ruairí McCann’s essay on McKinney’s role in William A. Wellman’s Safe In Hell (1931) both rounds out and begins the volume, finding the good and bad in a time when society’s ills were, as he puts it, “the bread and butter of a rich, popular art”. This volume does not claim to be a definitive anthology of the era, but instead a selection of new responses to one of the most eagerly-analysed eras/periods/movements – whatever you want to call it – in film history.

CONTENTS

Safe in Hell by Ruairí McCann

Ruairí McCann studies a William A. Wellman feature publicised as being “Not for Children”.

Blonde Venus by Cathy Brennan

Cathy Brennan on the double-edged sword of Marlene Dietrich and Josef Von Sternberg’s collaborations.

Christopher Strong by Tom Atkinson

Tom Atkinson on Katharine Hepburn’s transition from pre-Code to Code-era matrimonial narratives.

Breathless ’83 by Ellisha Izumi

Ellisha Izumi applies the Code to a controversial remake of Godard’s classic.

Platinum Blonde by Kirsty Asher

Kirsty Asher on the genealogy of the Blonde Bombshell, beginning with Jean Harlow.

Isn’t It Romantic by Ben Flanagan

Ben Flanagan searches for the modern day Mae West.

The Boss Baby by Ioanna Micha

Ioanna Micha connects the bizarre dots between the 2017 animated film and the Shirley-Temple starring 1930s Baby Burlesks.

Freaks by Joseph Owen

Joseph Owen finds the link between a Cannes competition player and the most infamous of all pre-Code films.

Critics’ Grid January – March

Our critics weigh in on recent cinema releases.