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Safe in Hell: Nina Mae McKinney and the Pre-Code Poetics of Sex, Race and Power
Safe in Hell (1931) is not a movie that is raised too often as a major title of the pre-Code era, and yet when discussing those six years and their frequently frank and complex depictions of the problems of gender, sex, race, money and power, it is indispensable. Directed by William A. Wellman, it stars Dorothy Mackaill as Gilda, a prostitute who finds herself on the run when, in self-defense, she kills a past tormenter back for more. Gilda tells her wet blanket boyfriend Carl (Donald Cook), a sailor who just returned from the high seas. He is judgmental but committed, and so he helps her out by whisking her away to an unnamed Caribbean country where there is no law of extradition, in order to wait until things blow over. She finds herself alone, cooped up in a sweat-soaked old hotel—a pungently prurient and artificial hothouse of the sort usually associated with Sternberg. Here, not only does she have to indeterminably wait but raise her guard again, her chief company being a motley crew of safe haven seeking scoundrels who all have their sights set on her as the only white woman on the island.
When we are first greeted by these chittering hyenas, one of them jeers that now Gilda is around they will have to stop saying words that end in “it, itch and ore”. It is a telling moment, not only of the film’s seedy sense of humour and atmosphere, but that its power relations will largely be sketched out and fought through false smiles and gritted teeth, with euphemisms, feigned politesse, and hamming with a covert purpose.
The men are both players and spectators, with a line of chairs set out in the main room facing the balcony where Gilda’s room resides. One by one, they attempt to seduce Gilda, though time and time again they fail. Wellman delineates this macho pecking order through the staging of movement in and around these chairs. Out of this legwork, it is clear that the dick on top is Mister Bruno (Morgan Wallace), the local police chief and hangmen, and so endowed with enough license and licentiousness to make Gilda’s life hell, whether she refuses him or not. He is the only one with total freedom of moment, coming and going as he pleases. When he is around the bottom feeders leap out of his way in order to give him a seat, while those on the next rung, manoeuvre verbally with considerable caution, veiling their provocations and insults.
Gilda has to play this same game of horny man’s bluff, both more assertively and carefully, in order to survive. It is a real showcase of Mackaill’s talents, for in the process she essentially plays two women. In her room, Gilda can act more loosely because she is relatively safe, with just the ocean view out of her window for company. This becomes an almost perverse recurring image, a rare breather from the movie’s bunker-like setting yet It’s sheer openness and passivity is a constant reminder of her purgatory.
When the door to her room opens, all evidence of any vulnerability is tamped down. She becomes a sardonic stone-face, a performed version of what people assume her to be as a ‘fallen woman’. Her carefully metered out delivery sharply contrasts with the overexcitable waffle of two of her most persistent suitors, the self-described ‘General’ Gomez (Victor Varconi), whose tendency to squeak she mocks, and Egan (John Wray), a safe cracker with a jolly demeanour that masks an explosive temper. With his slow drawl, fitting to his overstuffed lizard’s comportment, Mister Bruno is her only real match.
The politics of accent and self-presentation extends to and past the colour line, with the positions occupied and the respective lilts of the movie’s three black characters, all played by African-American actors. They include Nina Mae McKinney, who plays the hotel manager, Leonine, with whom Gilda forms a makeshift bond in solidarity as Louisiana women and the guests’ most frequent objects of harassment.
The black characters sit at the bottom and the brunt of this unstable but still hierarchical social sphere, occupying servant roles to masters who are consistently daubed in colonial white. Their little acts of rebellion, more often than not, jab under the cover of playfulness or obsequiousness. There’s bite to Leonine’s sporadic sprechgesang and to the posh intonations and elegant clumsiness of her porter, the urbane Napoleon (Clarence Muse). Even the stock, quiet menace of Mister Bruno’s mute right-hand man Bobo (Noble Johnson), is unexpectedly complicated by an act of charity near the film’s finish.
According to actor and writer William Wellman Jr., this subversive use of language can be directly attributed to his father. The Safe in Hell script, credited to Maude Fulton and Jerry Jackson, came to Wellman after it had already gone into production with Michael Curtiz as director. This shoot aborted after a few days because the executives at Warner Bros. were unhappy with the dailies, and so the project landed on Wellman’s lap. Giving the script his own revision, he added a lot more humour, expanded certain roles and altered McKinney and Muse’s dialogue, removing the filter of racial stereotyping and bestowing more individualized and relatively realistic vocabularies and cadences.
McKinney was a rarity, for a brief time a black woman star in the studio system. Her part was significantly beefed-up by Wellman, including the addition of a musical number, “Sleepy Time Down South”, (co-penned by Muse and later made famous by Louis Armstrong). McKinney’s presence in the film is supporting but indelible, as a wry ring-side agitator and conscience. Her character’s subversive qualities, and her own career’s initial course, together construe a significant example of the pre-code era being a period in popular culture with more wriggle room than the larger societal structures that surrounded it, or many of the industry aesthetics that would follow.
Born in 1912, McKinney’s screen career began after being spotted as a Broadway chorus girl by director King Vidor. He subsequently hired her to be the female lead on his first sound film, the all-black cast operetta, Hallelujah! (1929). The movie is distinctive for Vidor’s incredible expressionistic direction and its progressivism, the latter inextricable from the use of stereotyping and certain received assumptions about the milieu it depicts. Its estimation of backwoods black life is that of a prelapsarian rural idyll, infiltrated and then scuppered by a Dionysian urban society, as embodied by McKinney’s temptress, Chick. And yet, through her gusto and Vidor’s attachment to the unabashedly industrious and emotional, McKinney’s performance breaches the constraints of easy caricature.
Safe in Hell was only her second major role and arguably her final significant part to play within the Hollywood system. For despite a star contract at MGM, a first for a black woman, McKinney began to land unflattering supporting roles and bit parts of the sort that would be standard gruel for actors of colour working within mainstream movies. She found more stable, if not better, work in British television in the mid-to-late 30s, before returning state-side by the end of the decade, where she became a star in ‘Race Pictures’. An underground industry of Black-produced and starring movies for theatres serving Black audiences. She would return to Hollywood in the 40s, but never again would she be the star. The pre-Code era then represented a golden period in her mainstream career, and a time where it was possible for a young, working-class black woman from rural South Carolina to bask in the limelight.
Gilda too, reaches the limits of autonomy through performance. Her gambit of keeping body and soul together by aping and beating the men at their own game reaches its zenith midway, when she seemingly gives in to their pestering and joins them for a drink. They all get to puffing up their chests through telling their own tall tales of past misdeeds, but she manages to counter them with her own story, and by being a tough emcee. The moment when she commands these hard-bitten rogues to rush at her beck and call for a cigarette, she temporarily takes Mister Bruno’s spot as the alpha and Wellman’s stylized, yet clear and direct film sense reaches its own height. Yet however sclerotic, the wielders of power soon move to correct this insubordination.
A movie like Safe in Hell, which deals with the tribulations of a sex worker and with misogyny, racism, and sexual assault in a heightened, yet open fashion would be close to inconceivable in Hollywood just three short years later. The strict implementation of the production code would usher in a reign of outside pressure but self-imposed censorship that would not end until thirty some years later.
It is not as if classical Hollywood henceforth was a desert which, sometimes, can seem to be the implication when vaulting pre-code movies and their virtues, or rather the virtue of their lack of virtue. Rather, Safe in Hell is just one wonderful instance of what is possible when certain passageways are not sealed shut. This could be contrastingly compared to the state of Hollywood filmmaking the last decade and change, as it is a form which has become almost completely hermetically sealed off from artistic infiltration, and the influence of the hoi polloi down whose throats its ‘content’ is rammed.
The intended audience of every major studio movie has become as wide as possible, in terms of not just age but nationality and creed. There are exceptions but this has generally translated to making sure the movies themselves have less bang for your buck. Sex is still likely to ruffle feathers so out it goes, and in its place, a new puritanism. It is one of various factors which has made Hollywood a dream factory that is drifting further away from the actual experiences and desires that fuel fantasy.
Safe in Hell was born to a very different time in American cinema. One where society’s ills, and the day in and day out reality of being a human being, was not just relegated to suppressed subtext or completely lasered out, but were often the bread and butter of a rich, popular art.
The beginning of 2021 saw the resurgence of a tiresome online discourse about sex in cinema. Should sex scenes be included in films, even if they don’t drive the plot? Some version of this asinine argument emerges on the Twitter timeline every now and then, seemingly with the express purpose to annoy Christina Newland. An oft repeated point was that onscreen sex is largely absent in mainstream cinema. Given that mainstream films inevitably reflect mainstream attitudes, I’d actually be rather grateful if such works shied away from the realm of Eros. Although that being said, having Thanos’ purple cock flash in my mind whenever he appears onscreen is not entirely unwelcome. Whenever a lack is identified in contemporary film culture, cinephiles look back to a time when that hole was filled. When it comes to sex, a case can be made for pre-Code Hollywood, which embraced the truth that women, like men, are horny as hell. Nobody expressed that truth so devilishly as the German actor Marlene Dietrich.
Compared to other sex symbols of pre-Code Hollywood, the embedded politics of Dietrich’s image burn with potency that derives from a queer energy which runs like a river through Hollywood history, chipping away at its heterosexual bedrock. Seeing her onscreen can make one pore over every inch of the frame, in the doomed hope that it might reveal a roadmap to salvation from our political moment. As rapturous as it is to lose oneself in the orgiastic splendour of a screen – whether you are watching Josef von Sternebrg movies or doom scrolling for the fiftieth time today – the end result is always a feeling of disappointment. There’s no answer except the one we make for ourselves, and even that seems woefully insufficient.
Informed by her background in the gay old Berlin of the 1920s, Dietrich’s pre-Code incarnations prance perilously around the borders of imperialist patriarchy; lines through which it defines itself; lines largely drawn by the old men of Europe throughout the 19th century. Her image remains so evocative because those borders, while occasionally redrawn, largely remain in place today. An assortment of glamorous women with a tinge of sin, the way Dietrich’s characters reconstruct their image draws attention to the arbitrary nature of these boundaries, and the ways in which they ascribe value to us as human subjects. Perhaps that is why she draws our gaze in the first place: she represents the possibility of liberation from the diktats of our social realities.
Dietrich is a figure who exists in a state of near-constant re-articulation. Her first action as a sex worker in Dishonored (1931) is to pull up her stocking. Facing a firing squad at the end of the film, she pulls it back down and touches up her lipstick. Dishonored sees Dietrich go from sex worker to spy; both are roles that rely on performance, exist beyond the purview of regular society, and entail a certain amount of danger. As a sex worker she is reviled by the old men of Europe, but as a spy she is invaluable to them. In Blonde Venus (1932) Dietrich moves in effortless mystique from the dingiest shelters in America, to the most glamorous clubs of Paris. The temporal magic of film makes that transition in less than a minute; yet it looks like Dietrich willed it into being as a sorceress.
Dietrich revels in the erotics of ambiguity. Such an approach flies in the face of the fascist aesthetics that came to dominate her home country in the 1930s. Writing for Sight & Sound in 1992, German film scholar Gertrud Koch favourably contrasted Deitrich to the “rigid marches” of her Nazi contemporary: Leni Riefenstahl. The sensibilities of Nazi art, typified by the works of Arno Breker, shrank the possibilities of human existence, while Dietrich pushed the boundaries of what a person could be. In pre-Code Hollywood, she could represent a freedom that was all-too quickly vanishing across the Atlantic. At the same time, this exotic flexibility could also be moulded into prejudices more attuned to the American mindset.
The striking ‘Hot Voodoo’ sequence in Blonde Venus derives its power from signifiers loaded with anti-black racism. Dietrich’s character, Helen Faraday, is a wife and mother who returns to the cabaret stage. That first club performance opens with a gorilla wandering off the stage and tentatively mingling with the crowd, violating the boundary between the performance and its audience. Returning to its rightful place, flanked by tribal dancers, the creature removes its hand to reveal a slender white hand beneath the black fur. It is Dietrich! The sequence fuses Dietrich’s irrepressible sexual appeal with a deeply racist politics of desirability that would fully erupt on screen a year later with King Kong (1933). It is a framework that generates racist associations through the interplay between a literal white femininity and a rapacious masculinity coded as Black. The end result being that Black is an animal, and a threat to the white human.
These racist visions are not confined to Blonde Venus. In Morocco (1930), the first time we see Dietrich in drag is not on the stage but in the dressing room. We enter this private space via a shot of two dolls which belong to Dietrich’s character: one Asian and one Black. Sternberg then cuts to a medium shot of the tuxedoed Dietrich looking at herself in a handheld mirror. The dolls represent the way white culture views non-white people through crude caricature, creating categories of people and then assigning innate characteristics to those categories. As dolls they are cultural objects, not based in any objective reality, but instead the reality constructed by white supremacist ideology. If something can be constructed, then surely it can also be changed, or even destroyed. The cut to Dietrich offers a glimpse of potential. By highlighting the arbitrary nature of gendered signifiers, we become aware that categorising people based on their sex is an exercise fraught with uncertainty. The racist cultural authority in the dolls may therefore also be undermined with alternatives. This is not an attempt to glom a progressive interpretation onto Dietrich in order to justify an uncritical devotion to her image. Rather, the placement of the dolls within the film offers an opportunity to tease out a critique of the ideological apparatus (in this instance Hollywood) that constructs the film.
It is easy to stare longingly at the pre-Code era when it feels like the increasingly corporate film industry today has sucked the passion out of on-screen experience, despite superficial gestures at a progressive attitude. However, a surface-level imitation of Marlene Dietrich’s image is not the remedy. The lesson we should take from pre-Code Dietrich is that images are mutable, offering liberatory visions of what we can be. Our art should lean into that as much as possible. Yet the racism and Orientalism in pre-Code Dietrich (what is Morocco, if not Orientalist fantasy persevering?) cautions us to remain mindful of the dominant ideologies which may still influence our image-making.
The funniest thing about Dorothy Arzner’s 1933 film for RKO, Christopher Strong, is its name. The title character is played by Colin Clive, whose charm belies his emptiness, and reveals Arzner and writer Zoë Akins’ ploy at making him the purported centre of the film’s universe. He is less a person than a point around which the rest of the film orbits, and it’s at the edges of that orbit that Arzner and Akins find their interests: the women in Sir Christopher’s life.
Arzner and Akins are infatuated not with Sir Christopher, but with Lady Cynthia Darrington, played by one of the only actresses to make a successful transition from pre-Code to Code, Katharine Hepburn. It’s a rare role for someone with her strong-willed, independent-minded screen persona, the only time she ever played The Other Woman. The film itself is an unusual affair film too, one where the drama lies not in the husband-wife or husband-mistress relationship, but in the separate pain suffered by wife and mistress. Sir Christopher is a hole in the film’s centre, filled by the women he has wronged.
Affair stories are composed of three parties: the cuckold or cuckquean (the feminine version – I’m learning something new every day in lockdown!), their philandering spouse, and the other lover. The formulation on its own feels dangerous. How do you get around this complex, interlinked mess of clashing perspectives and desires without seeming prudish by rooting for a loveless marriage, or heartless for thinking only of The Other Woman?
Arzner is one of the few filmmakers to have avoided both in Christopher Strong, though it must have proved a challenge. Hepburn, even in 1933, even in only her second film role, was already a magnetic presence. She has something of the tomboyish, smirking self-assuredness of Marlene Dietrich; but Dietrich also had a European mystique on the other side of the pond, which famously skyrocketed whenever Josef Von Sternberg trained his camera on her face. Hepburn is more down-to-earth, and even in a relatively serious drama like Arzner’s film, there was already a wacky screwball energy inside her waiting for a George Cukor or Howard Hawks to harness it.
Such qualities make her a difficult problem to sidestep. Even without Hepburn in the role, the character of Lady Cynthia, a spritely, warm, Transatlantic-accented pilot in her 20s, is a stark contrast to the chilly, rigid English aristocracy in which the story takes place. It’s wondrous that Arzner is able to make a protagonist out of this glamorous, very modern woman, and still empathise just as fervently with Sir Christopher’s cheated-on wife, Lady Elaine (Billie Burke).
The milieu of 1930s London, especially with the sense of duty foisted on Lady Elaine as the wife of an MP, might well have given Arzner and Akins an easy path for their characterisation of the cuckqueaned wife. There are hints of Lady Elaine’s shrewish side in the subplot where she disapproves, in that classically maternal, instinctually repressive way, of her daughter Monica’s (Helen Chandler) dalliance with party animal and married man Harry (Ralph Forbes). But Monica’s friendship with Lady Cynthia complicates matters, tethering Lady Elaine to the woman who might well destroy her marriage.
Arzner avoids pity or condescension in her treatment of Lady Elaine, and Billie Burke plays her with real dignity and sadness. The compassion for the character, who is temperamentally worlds away from Hepburn’s, is quite astounding for a fairly inconsequential commodity picture from RKO. She is like Carol Kane’s unassimilated Jewish immigrant housewife, Gitl, in Hester Street (1975) from the late Joan Micklin Silver. Like Lady Elaine, Gitl’s character is – or could be – a stereotype from the get-go.
Dutiful and tightly wound, as bound to type by her social status as Elaine, she arrives in New York City to an unwelcoming husband, Jake, who has by now fully embraced the Yankee spirit and become a full-blown American. He is jocular, moustachioed, a bit of a scoundrel – he has little time for his timid wife. Kane and Silver wrestle the film away from Jake’s perspective once Gitl is introduced, however. Her wonder at the New World feels genuine, as are her real desires for an affectionate husband. She is not a mewling hindrance to the life of a charming wannabe bachelor, but a real person. She and Lady Elaine are would-be antagonists in stories about foreign tradition and restrictions, who are invested with life and emotion by Silver and Arzner, respectively.
It is the promise of America that partly underpins both Hester Street and Christopher Strong. Lady Cynthia may have a British name, but Hepburn is pure New England moxie. She was born in Connecticut, the same place where she would die 96 years later, to a urologist father and feminist rights campaigner mother. She called herself Jimmy, a foreshadowing of the iconoclast she would become when she canonised the women-in-trousers look. She might as well have been the ideal, independent American woman, which might be why Sir Christopher wants her so much. Yes, Hepburn’s Lady Cynthia is a performance. But, in a testament to her incorrigible star power, her real-life aura was already inseparable from her onscreen presence. For all intents and purposes, Lady Cynthia and Katharine Hepburn are one and the same.
It’s even more of a wonder, then, that the film’s finale doesn’t feel like a heartless tragedy, foisted onto Hepburn as punishment for her sexual liberation, instead playing like woman-to-woman solidarity between Arzner and Hepburn’s character. Lady Cynthia poses a serious question veiled in a hypothetical: if she were pregnant, what would Sir Christopher do? Ever the well-intentioned emotional simpleton, he says he would leave his wife purely out of duty to his unborn child, regardless of any love he might have for the mother. Lady Cynthia, her amicable relationships with Lady Elaine and Monica in mind, takes one last flight in her trusty airplane to break the world altitude record, before removing her own oxygen supply and plummeting to her death.
This has to be among Old Hollywood’s most unrepentantly fatalistic final reels – Hepburn’s face hidden at first by her pilot’s mask, with talking heads superimposed on the frame around her, reminding her of the imminent damage should she tell Sir Christopher of her pregnancy. It may be the pre-Code talking. But I suspect it has far more to do with the involvement of someone like Dorothy Arzner, who is perspicacious enough to reconcile Lady Cynthia’s deep emotional torment over the potential demise of her lover’s marriage with the pure liberating energy of her profession.
A small glance towards Hepburn’s Code films somewhat flips the Christopher Strong formulation. She is still a star of scabrous wit, and the men in her life are no match for her sheer rapidity and zaniness. But she is no longer the tragic heroine like in Arzner’s film, in which her sexual exploits, however sympathetic we may be to them, are happening in a milieu that breeds repression and scorns such behaviour. In Bringing Up Baby (1938), she is the fast-talking, chaotic niece of a millionaire, while in Philadelphia Story (1940), she is the belle whose affections are competed for by Cary Grant’s dapper yacht designer and James Stewart’s ratty photojournalist.
The latter, in particular, displays the double-edged sword of Hepburn’s shift, and the pre- to mid-Code levelling in general. Whereas there is an acknowledgement of her outstanding progressiveness in Arzner’s film, Philadelphia Story features an inversion of Christopher Strong. She is now the centre of orbit in a love triangle where everyone is a free agent, unmoored by marriage. In fact, she and Grant are each other’s ex-spouses – how’s that for progressiveness! But Hepburn, like the citizens of Springfield in the Kang-Kodos election of ’96, must choose one. The relationship between Christopher Strong and Philadelphia Story is like that of Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street and Crossing Delancey (1988) – a sly condemnation of matrimony versus a reluctant but ultimately full-throated embrace of it. In spite of Hepburn’s fierce iconoclasm in fashion, politics, and social values, even Dorothy Arzner could not imagine her – or perhaps did not have the freedom to – outside the boundaries of matrimony or motherhood. The Hepburn of Philadelphia Story might well have told her Christopher Strong self: “Don’t blame me – I voted for Cary Grant.”
During my research for this volume on the pre-Code era of Hollywood Cinema, I came across a blog called ‘The Pure Entertainment Preservation Society’ (PEPS) with the tagline: ‘Save the Arts in America!’. Their mission is simple: bring back the Production Code and restore the morals of society. The blog celebrates the stars, fashion, and filmmaking of Old Hollywood, as well as posting on a range of films and their compliance (or not) with The Code plus links to several petitions to bring it back.
This unique combination of passionate cinephilia and zealous dedication to The Code set my mind ablaze.
The Production Code was written in response to growing anxieties about cinema’s potential power to influence the suggestible members of its audience. Films were being watched by a mass audience of unprecedented numbers, a diverse crowd that included children, the elderly and those from all walks of life. Or, as The Code describes, ‘the cultivated and the rude, the mature and the immature, the self-respecting and the criminal’ (note the classist inference). In order to maintain independence from censors, appease detractors, maintain their mass audience and most importantly their mass profits, the industry created the Production Code and later the Production Code Administration (PCA) to enforce it.
Among the three guiding principles of The Code is the need to portray ‘correct standards of life’ e.g. to ban the rude (no burping), the crude (no vulgar humour) and placate the prudes (no lustful embracing). The second major tenet was to uphold ‘law, natural or human’ which for example, included banning the depiction of homosexuals (considered a sin) and interracial romance (known as miscegenation, which was illegal). The effects of these rules can still be felt almost a century later, as better representation for these relationships and groups are still being fought for today. The most important principle was not to ‘lower the moral standard of those who see it’ with no sympathy ‘thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin’, in other words protagonists must never be criminal, amoral, heathens and their sexuality must be modest. If these things absolutely had to be depicted, it must only be carefully and tastefully alluded to, and in the end, clearly punished.
On PEPS, every Thursday is ‘Breening Thursday’, named not for infamous so-bad-its-good filmmaker Neil Breen, but Joseph I. Breen, the head of the PCA from 1934-54, the era that PEPS heralds as the most robust adherence to The Code. On Breening Thursday the authors of PEPS publish blog posts wherein they apply The Code to non-code films. PEPS argues that breening can not only make films more appropriate for wider audiences but actually improve them, ‘the removal of such elements often leads to the deepening of plot and the development of characters.’ The PCA worked with the filmmakers at every stage of production; Breen’s method was to maintain the main plot and themes of the films while removing the unsavoury elements and disguising mature themes with careful implication and delicate innuendo. PEPS takes this approach and hypothesises what would happen to a non-code film if they could go back in time and advise the filmmakers of the past.
As a fan of erotic thrillers, ambiguous endings and Hollywood sex symbols, what would happen if I breened my favourite film? Could it be made suitable for a wide audience, or even improved?
The film that I cherish the most is Breathless, the exhilarating 1983 remake of the 1960 classic. Yes, you read that correctly, director Jim McBride and screenwriter LM Kit Carson dared to remake the seminal French film by Jean-Luc Godard, in English, in LA and starring Richard Gere. The original film follows Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a French car-thief on the run from the law, as he tries to convince his sometime lover Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American in Paris, to run away with him. The remake translates this to Jesse (Richard Gere) an American car-thief trying to convince Monica (Valerie Kaprisky), an ambitious French architecture student and his one-time lover, to run away with him to Mexico. Richard Gere is on the cusp of sex-symbol-stardom and gives an unruly and memorably wild performance. It’s LA in a heatwave, it’s a steamy 80s thriller and it’s lovers on the lam. You don’t need to have seen the original to know their relationship is doomed. Where Godard’s Breathless was a radical formal break from establishment cinema, McBride’s Breathless brings things full circle, referencing Godard and classical Hollywood, contemporary Philip Glass and vintage Jerry Lee Lewis, remixing the contemporary with the retro in a dazzling, stylised fever-dream that asks the question: can our anachronistic hero survive in a modern reality?
To quote PEPS, ‘with no further ado, let the breening begin!’
I’ll start with surface level breening: the removal of offensive elements that would not fundamentally alter the core plot of the film. The costumes would have to be thrown out and redesigned, not just the figure-hugging, skin-glimpsing outfits of the protagonists but the outfits worn by the extras and supporting cast too. Gone are the rippling bodies of the crowds on Muscle Beach, the buxom Las Vegas floozy, the irritable cross-dresser in the restaurant. While the plot would remain intact, the film loses some of its flavour. Gone is the vivid preservation of Venice Beach, Las Vegas and LA in the 1980s: a sanitised approximation would be left in its place.
The profanity would also have to go, I’d be particularly saddened to lose the moment when Lt. Parmental (John P. Ryan) utters the immortal line, ‘Don’t F-U-C-K with the LAPD!’. This would have to be changed. Maybe something like ‘Don’t M-E-S-S with the LAPD!’.
Removing these elements might make some people more comfortable, but this undermines the complex and creative storytelling that can be achieved through costume, mise-en-scene or the effective deployment of a harsh word.
Removing the on-screen sex from the film would not only be a surface level breen, but a structural deep breen, weakening the central dialectical tension of the film: fantasy vs reality. In Breathless ’83 fantasy is signified by Hollywood, rock ‘n’ roll and passionate sex. Time and time again, Jesse turns away from his reality of the manhunt against him, to sing Elvis Presley, read comics, chase his dreams and have sex with Monica. Monica must make the same choice, will she choose the fast cars, the red necklace, the pink dress and the sizzling sex that Jesse offers? Or will she choose her real life, her chic Memphis Milano apartment, the gentle pastels of her college campus, the cool greys of modern architecture that represent her career goals? If her passion with Jesse was represented fully-clothed, through veiled dialogue and delicate innuendo, the juxtaposition between the two would be weakened.
The moment which would be the most difficult to breen would be the film’s ending (you can skip the next paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers), for the way it challenges The Code’s most valued principle on the alignment of audience’s sympathies for criminal behaviour.
The brilliance of the film is perhaps captured best in its final moments. Watching Breathless ’83, one wonders, how will they tackle the iconic ending of Breathless ’60? They can’t recreate it, and they don’t. Like the original, we find Jesse and Monica in the middle of the road with the cops closing in from all directions. Jesse’s friend Berrutti tosses him a gun, which lands at his feet. Jesse has a choice, turn himself in or pick up the gun, ensuring his death. To the bewilderment of Monica and the cops he starts dancing and singing ‘Breathless’, by his idol Jerry Lee Lewis, and when he reaches the end of the chorus he scoops up the gun and BANG. The frame freezes, and an electrifying punk rock cover of ‘Breathless’ by the band X plays as the end credits roll. Instead of Jesse’s death, McBride freezes on Jesse’s choice: immortalised on the silver screen like his heroes, he’d rather live fast and die young. In the genius of the freeze-frame Jesse now occupies an interstitial place between life and death, a legend in his own mind and now on the screen. However, under Breen we must lose the ambiguity of the interstitial and the punishment for his life of crime must be recognised. As per The Code sympathy must not be created for the violation of the law. The scene would continue past the freeze-frame, with Jesse shot dead and Monica and the cops reacting to the fall out in a pale imitation of its progenitor. Many films of the code era end in this way, from White Heat (1949) to Gun Crazy (1950) – also prominently referenced in Breathless ’83 – where the gun-toting outlaws unequivocally meet their demise, the final frame resting on the troubled cops who chased them down, uttering the last line and casting moral judgement on the events of the film.
It’s for these reasons that I deem Breathless ’83 un-breenable. But what did we learn about the practice of breening?
While Breathless ’83 and PEPS may seem to have irreconcilable values, they both share a deep reverence for the past. PEPS celebrates The Breen-Era, from the fashion and the stars, to the filmmaking and the often uplifting messages. Breathless ‘83 celebrates Old Hollywood, the French New Wave, rock ‘n’ roll and comic books and engages with their meanings in a steamy new context: it’s postmodernism at its most sensual. But where Breathless transforms its references, PEPS freezes them. PEPS breens non-code films and realigns them with The Code, back to a fixed point in time, with a fixed set of values. But society’s values are not fixed and movie classification must evolve to reflect the values of the world it occupies.
In the UK, Breathless ‘83 was classified as an 18 by the BBFC. On home video release, it retained its 18 rating even with the removal of detailed shots of Jesse picking locks. For the 2015 Blu-ray release the previously offending scenes were reinstated and Breathless was reclassified as a 15. The variable nature of moral values is the problem with returning to The Code. Not only is the language vague, assuming the reader shares its values, but values vary by social group, by region, by country. Values shift drastically over time, as the changing BBFC classification of Breathless ‘83 shows us. Did the dissolution of The Code change the morals of society, as PEPS argues, or did the classification system change to better reflect shifting values, responding to the work of progressive advocacy groups and listening to marginalized voices? I struggled to apply The Code to Breathless because what’s offensive to Breen is inoffensive to me. I could only guess at what must go, doing my best to apply the nebulous notions of The Code and the values of a bygone era. PEPS is a pop-culture obsessed anomaly, chasing a long-lost concept in vain, just like Jesse in Breathless.
Maybe that’s what so drew me to PEPS. With a dogged determination PEPS wants to bring back The Code, but like Jesse’s dreams, it’s an anachronistic fantasy, incompatible with the contemporary world.
Identifying a modern figure who evokes the painstakingly specific appeal of Jean Harlow grows increasingly difficult as time passes. In a 2001 New York Times piece, Molly Haskell lamented this, “you’d be hard put to find movies in which sleaze and turpitude pay off as handsomely as they do in ”Red-Headed Woman” and ”Baby Face.’” The “healthy vulgarity” which Haskell identified in Harlow remains as elusive as ever in a modern Hollywood era where sex has been considerably muted. What’s more, its sporadic amplification often brings complicated views of its positivity and its involvement with the male gaze. It was Harlow’s effortless ability to be at once merry and lustful – “the Laughing Vamp” – with a cherubic delight that evoked a type of purity, one unconfined by a Christianised ideal of sexual morality. This comprised the original incarnation of the Blonde Bombshell.
Seeing, then, that the paradoxical appeal of Harlow’s performance style – to be impishly sexual and endearingly comedic – is no longer strictly associated with the Blonde Bombshell, it’s important to look at the system which created its marketable image, and how that began its gradual plasticisation. To understand the artificialising of the Bombshell is to acknowledge what Darrell Rooney, author of Harlow in Hollywood (2011) described in a 2014 lecture as Jean Harlow’s “symbiotic relationship” with early Hollywood. Jean arrived in Hollywood when both were in early adolescence. She and her mother moved there in 1923, when Harlow was 12, and she attended Hollywood School for Girls alongside the likes of Katherine DeMille, Irene Selznick and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. When Harlow died aged just 26 in 1937 of kidney failure, the Classical Golden Age of Hollywood was just beginning to take off. The construction of Harlow, or more specifically the image of her, was instrumental in the construction of Hollywood – a fantasy beyond the drudge of reality.
Of course, the construction process of said fantasy was achieved by mundane and consumerist means, and the process for Harlow’s signature hair colour was no different. Naturally an ashy blonde, Harlow’s signature colour was achieved with an eye-watering mixture of peroxide, ammonia, Clorox, and Lux flakes. The result was a shade of blonde never before achieved in publicised hair and beauty. There is a knowing consumerism to the involvement of familiar American brands in constructing a star’s image, an image which would experience fanatical mimesis across the country, to the detriment of thousands of scalps.
Overemphasis of the Bombshell’s visual appeal made the marketing and publicity of Frank Capra’s film Platinum Blonde (1931) entirely about Jean Harlow. It was originally titled Gallagher, but as interest in Harlow and her unique hair peaked during production the name was changed to deify her look – the snowy blonde hair and arched eyebrows deftly painted where her own had been shaved off. The opulence of this look, inspired by the most luxurious of metals, was a balm to a country embattled by the Great Depression. This wasn’t a flaxen blonde from the Old Country; this was a sleek chrome which shone like the recently-built Chrysler Building. It looked impossibly glamorous, an unattainable luxury. Except it wasn’t. With a little help from trusty, reliable chemical brands, any girl could be Platinum Blonde.
Despite being an eponymous character with a dominance in the poster art for Platinum Blonde, Harlow as wealthy heiress Ann Schuyler has sparingly few scenes compared to the other top-billed actors. The film is really about the gradual realisation of love between charming everyman journalist Stew Smith (Robert Williams) and his colleague played by Loretta Young, who he affectionately calls by her genderless surname – Gallagher. What stops the heavy marketing of Harlow from being pure materialism is that Platinum Blonde is one of her strongest screen performances. This is especially apparent in the ‘garters’ scene, where as part of Ann Schuyler’s mission to bougie-fy Stew as he prepares to marry into her wealth, she tries to convince him to wear men’s garters. They sing a call-and-response ditty about it, with Harlow leaning her forehead against his, her eyes never leaving his face as she reacts organically to each of his lines. Her laugh is so genuine, her warmth so beautifully naturalistic that it’s easy to see here why Harlow’s performance style endeared her to so many. While the oversaturation of Jean Harlow in the marketing of the film may have misrepresented her importance to the story, her performance at least speaks for itself. Nevertheless, the publicity frenzy was aimed squarely at reproducing her look, not reiterating her talent, and so began a schism between the Bombshell as an image and the Bombshell as a persona.
Where Harlow escapes the criticism aimed at later Bombshells, it is because of her grounded presence. Her sensuality was unselfconscious and earthy, not borne of vanity, or attention-seeking public displays. She shunned underwear for the sense of freedom – the allure it created was incidental. Her posture had a slouchy adolescence, not the poised, pneumatic silhouette commonly associated with the Bombshell. It wasn’t a wiggle so much as a round-shouldered saunter which carried Harlow through a scene. This is what kept the perception of an entire facade detached from the Bombshell when it was inhabited by Jean Harlow. She moved like a human, not a goddess. In truth, the Bombshell may have been created with the use of Harlow, but the idea of it became transient, capable of inhabiting other bodies when there was an inkling that Hollywood could use it and manipulate it in publicity. Although it started with Harlow, the visual culture she established was so desirable that it set off a chain reaction; a line of hopeful, vulnerable young women who desperately wanted to emulate it, and would stop at nothing to do so. What’s more, the artificial roots of the Bombshell’s visual appeal combined with its mass marketability unleashed a libertarian beauty which overtook the need for accompanying acting talent.
This began tentatively with Marilyn Monroe’s career, and soon became glaringly apparent in the likes of Mamie Van Doren and Jayne Mansfield. Beyond these figures there was Anna Nicole Smith and Pamela Anderson. Through these figures the Bombshell became increasingly associated with a synthetic form of femininity, and less about memorable performance. Each new reiteration brought with it augmentation: tits got bigger, waists got smaller, asses got rounder. Whether it was surgical or natural became of little concern. Adorned always with the highest fakery: the platinum blonde hair. With this transition came criticism that it cheapened sexual imagery and promoted unrealistic Euro-centric beauty standards. By association of this criticism, whoever has inhabited the Bombshell becomes the focus of a quest to rationalise its existence. There is an urge to ascribe it to a secret intellectualism, to find genius behind the simplicity. This is especially relevant to Dolly Parton, who actually has built an entire brand on dressing up genius in simplicity.
When Marilyn Monroe took up the crown of thorns, the seeds of the Bombshell’s constructed appeal and overt sexuality germinated. Jean Harlow’s nudity was playfully suggested in Red Dust (1932) where as the assertive sex worker Vantine she flirts with rubber plantation owner Dennis Carson (Clark Gable) while bathing naked in a barrel. Marilyn was forced to concede her nudity to the press in 1952 after rumours emerged that she had modelled nude in 1949 to pay bills. A year later Hugh Hefner decided he wanted the photos for the first issue of Playboy and printed them without her consent. Rather than bury her career, the scandal merely amplified the public’s fascination with her vulnerability. Jean Harlow had a film renamed for her hair colour to amplify her image, and Marilyn’s role in We’re Not Married! (1952) was said to have been created to “present Marilyn in two bathing suits.” Where Jean Harlow’s three marriages were kept relatively separate from her career, Marilyn’s were held to the magnifying glass. Like Jean before her, Marilyn’s acting skills were only noticed by those who cared to notice them, because her image, both in beauty terms and in the public’s mind, was more important to keeping the Hollywood machine running in the advanced stages of the Golden Age. Marilyn was Hollywood, and Hollywood was Marilyn. The symbiosis was still present.
Like Harlow, Marilyn’s death marked a turning point for Hollywood, which would soon usher in the American New Wave where naturalism trumped constructed public image. The Bombshells who were left behind to see off the rest of the 1960s were rudderless, as none of them could match Marilyn’s popularity. Mamie Van Doren’s career never lifted above aping what Marilyn had done in films before her, and Jayne Mansfield was far more famous for her nip slips and extroverted attempts to make headlines than her acting skills. Mansfield’s death in a brutal car crash in 1967 seemed to cement the fate of the Hollywood Bombshell as a bouncy, flippant and chaotic life cut horribly short.
Early Hollywood was defined by, and edified by the Bombshell, but its shining veneer struggled to outlast the Golden Age. As television and the internet have become competing screen media and expanded into new realms of artificiality, the need to access bubbly blonde sex appeal solely through cinema has diminished. Remnants of the Bombshell still live on in various states of extremity in the likes of Dolly Parton, Pamela Anderson and former Club Kid Amanda Lepore. That delightful original paradox, however, which so captivated audiences, has become an elusive, platinum-white whale.
In Leo McCarey’s Belle of the Nineties (1934), a Western parody released a few months after the introduction of the Code, Mae West appears in a stage show as Ruby Carter, where the desirable ‘good time girl’ dons various outfits taking on the shape of a rose, a spider, and the Statue of Liberty. In this truncated comedy, stripped to the bone by the moralism of Joseph Breen et al, West would wrap up desire with animal instincts and transfiguration. There can be only one direct descendant to this moment: Rebel Wilson’s feline visage in Cats (2019). Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is a noted disaster, but ‘The Old Gumbie Cat’ sequence is easily its most successful. Making full use of her phallic tail, Wilson enters the film by masturbating before singing about her sexual anxieties over the mice in her kitchen. When the mice sing the bridge, Wilson winks, ‘Dinner and a show,’ before the scene erupts into a Busby Berkeley dance number. Cats is a nightmare hallucination, sure, but at least it chooses its points of reference well: like Mae West before her, Rebel Wilson is film star as mirage.
Such is the Mae West paradigm: with complete alienation from each scene in itself, she instead surveys it for sex and double entendre. West signified modernism like few others. Long before turning to the movies, she had displayed a transgressive streak in the theatre world, becoming known for ‘male impersonation’ and a moral prosecution for her 1926 play Sex (she went to jail rather than paying the fine – better for publicity). The persona she then translated to the screen immediately popped in a small role in Archie Mayo’s Night After Night (1932), with an amplification of sensuous femininity that uses her rare voluptuousness and that working-class Brooklyn drawl to draw lucid spirals across screen and soundtrack. Always with an adoring mammy in toe (in 1933’s I’m No Angel, she has four), she is a friend to all, particularly the audience.
85 years after the pre-Code era, where is West’s essence to be found? The comedy giants of double entendre who followed – Myers, Sandler, Steve Martin – play dress up as ludicrous characters from their repertoire who often cross racial and gender boundaries. Melissa McCarthy may have been a contender, but she now leans away from comedy, proving herself to be a real actor, as her turn as Sean Spicer showed us. West stays herself, even when forced into a period piece in films like She Done Him Wrong (1933), where she plays a bawdy saloon singer, or My Little Chickadee (1940), where she plays a bawdy saloon singer.
For Armond White, parallels between West and Amy Schumer abound, in a piece that comes across as contrarian bingo. That Schumer’s raunchy comedy is more overtly political is no surprise, and her Inside Amy Schumer sketch show could well be a parallel to West’s stage shows in building a persona. But across Schumer’s film career in middling comedies – Trainwreck (2015), Snatched (2017), and I’m So Pretty (2018) – her presence never managed to find a balance: girlboss politics and sloganeering moralism clashed against a purported dirtbag aesthetic. Schumer’s appeal is in her ‘normalness’, but her beliefs always seemed aspirational of the Clinton class. As White himself asserts, West was ‘beyond feminism’. Schumer’s aesthetics never make the same leap.
It should be stated that quality is no mark of a Mae West film. It is characteristic of her features to be convoluted and rarely funny. Often her jokes seem to require an unnecessary run up. She is an unforgettable persona, but the films are bad. Goin’ to Town (1935), West’s second film under the Code, is telling. While she is given the dignity to express genuine love for Paul Cavanaugh, the film also revolves around her dance hall queen Pygmalioning herself into a good woman. What stronger sign of those suddenly more prudish times than that we are expected to follow West’s journey to the good girl, rather than feeling desire. This might be her closest parallel to Schumer, whose punkish put-ons bely a wish to settle down and be looked after. Couldn’t be West, who is always on the lookout for the next step in the socio-economic ladder.
This is what makes the mugging and sexualised banter of maligned actor Rebel Wilson the true lateral personality to West. Having appeared seemingly from nowhere as ‘Fat Amy’ in the musical-campus-comedy Pitch Perfect (2012), Wilson’s body-positive spin on flirtatious sorority humour made her a stand-out player of the early 2010s landscape of post-Apatow comedy. In the Australian actor’s first lead role, 2019’s Isn’t It Romantic, Wilson plays a jaded woman who hits her head on a subway railing and wakes up in a Romantic Comedy where men suddenly begin throwing themselves at her as though she was Mae West herself.
But Wilson’s conception of nostalgia only goes about as far as Pretty Women (1990). Her costume, a hat and white dress with arm-length gloves, doesn’t reference anything beyond our idea of an Anne Hathaway comedy. Wilson though, stands out, her awareness of her presence in a film an updating of West’s own detachment from the scene. In a typically postmodern Hollywood way, the necessity of the plot to explain away Wilson’s winking to the camera as a meta-storyline holds her back from a true expression of the persona. Her life outside of the screen is key to the text of the story itself. It is the ur-Wilson, just sadly not a very good one. Instead of a mammy, she has a gay best friend (a trope that must have switched via the camp British butler, as can be seen in West’s swansong, 1978’s Sextette). Isn’t it Romantic imagines itself as the first self-aware rom com, instead of its likelihood of being the last. It ignores Nora Ephron’s deconstructivist approach where she updated the likes of The Shop Around the Corner into You’ve Got Mail, or, in Sleepless in Seattle, designing a rom-com where the leads don’t meet.
The two musical numbers in Isn’t It Romantic? are much like the West oeuvre’s constant use of musical interludes, and similarly, both are covers of popular older songs with little relation to the story itself. Isn’t It Romantic also exposes the difference in care given to the American comedy film between the 1930s and today. Paramount produced most of West’s films, and no expense is spared with floral plumage and ornate set decoration furnishing the frames. Even when barely a thing is happening, it looks pretty. In I’m No Angel and Belle of the Nineties, West had Travis Banton styling her. Banton, who styled Dietrich in four of her Hollywood collaborations with Von Sternberg and who did the greatest costuming job of all time in Ophüls’ Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), was a master of characterisation through clothes, a proto-Edith Head (and her mentor) who combined surrealism, persona, and storytelling in his style. West’s materialism has never been clearer than in Belle of the Nineties, in which her character devises a ruse to win back a collection of diamonds and jewels she has been robbed of – which she stole herself, of course.
West’s gleeful navigation of the law is another key part of her mirage. West plays a con artist herself a few times, notably in Every Day’s a Holiday (1937), in which she adopts a French accent (and some of her best outfits) “Stop this before I forget who I am,” she cries when a fight breaks out. Klondike Annie (1936) is based, like many of her films, on her own play, directed by Raoul Walsh and edited by Stuart Heisler. It’s the classic American tale right down to its use of some of the laziest yellowface I’ve ever seen (is it worse that they don’t use paint? Somehow?). West, escaping a murder charge, cons her way onto a cruise ship where she flirts with Victor McLagan, then poses as a Christian Missionary. It’s got a touch of Flannery O’Connor to it, and Walsh shoots with wonderful attention to the faces and bodies of people in the town. But it’s toothless, and there’s far too many musical numbers. Around 10 minutes were cut and you can feel their absence in stitching a threadbare film together.
Wilson’s frat-girl-gone-bad persona goes down this road, too, in The Hustle (2019), wherein she teams up with Anne Hathaway for a Chris Addison-directed remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. This Riviera-set comedy should have the makings of a Paramount-style film. But the film is cheap and overlit. As a con-artist-in-training, Wilson is forced to fall over and demean herself, with the handy excuse from a production perspective that it’s all part of the deception. Wilson, although equally as confident and desirable to male characters as Hathaway, is looked at with some level of distance – it is seen as outlandish or bizarre that a romantic male would find her appealing. Though men fight over Rebel, they are often revealed to be con artists. Where West is in control, utterly confident of her body and her wit, the Wilson comedy always feels the need to explain her appeal through plot machinations. You won’t see her having a dance scene with Randolph Scott, patting his behind, unless it’s in a dream sequence or part of a con. Rebel Wilson films fall over themselves trying to explain that someone could desire her. West reaches back to a music hall past; Wilson sells Theatreland self-loathing.
West’s best film is I’m No Angel, one of her rare titles not to be censored, and the one which most carefully deconstructs her persona. In it, a circus performer from the wrong side of the tracks becomes a huge star by putting her head in a lion’s mouth, and then navigates the advances of various well-to-do men. When her eventual fiancé Cary Grant shrugs her off, she sues him, resulting in a courtroom set piece where the jury (the American public) are asked to judge West’s moral character. While the system should be against her, even the judge is so head-over-heels that she easily wins the case, a metaphor for West’s position at the time as the highest paid actor in Hollywood. I’m No Angel director Wesley Ruggles has a quietly surreal eye. Shots of hands performing action are disembodied from the voices we hear throwing barbs at one another. West’s trademark swagger is accentuated through a camera that doesn’t cut between one piece of action and another. When she is brought out to a performance atop an elephant, her body is so fixed into a single iconic sculpture that it’s no wonder Dalí was obsessed with her lips.
Wilson has never had a comedy vehicle befitting of her persona. West entered the industry by writing her own material, and the victor in the battle for control over her image is largely what divides the pre-code and following films. Perhaps the only remaining analogue, then, might be the filmmaker Lena Dunham. Across the film Tiny Furniture (2011) and the HBO series Girls (2012-2017), Dunham developed a snarky persona of self-possession and economic fortitude. But unlike West, Dunham, the daughter of artists, is from the right side of the tracks. Girls represented a pinnacle of whatever they called Mumblecore, and as such was seen as a mainstream moment for a movement that was otherwise defiantly shoddy and festival-based. There is also the fact of Dunham’s body, which was endlessly discussed by the media. It is not just the fact of a ‘normal’ body being shown on television, but that the likes of Adam Driver and Riz Ahmed would find her sexually desirable, and HBO’s love of on-screen flesh that presented viewers with the shocking reality of coupling.
The show, a fizzy and biting satire of New York millennial life (the hilarious sub-plot introducing Childish Gambino as Dunham’s boyfriend, who she exoticises until discovering that he votes Republican, was a clear response to criticism that the show presented a whitewashed view of upper-class Brooklynites), was sold as an art object rather than a romantic comedy – hence Tiny Furniture’s release as part of the Criterion collection, and the complete lack of interest since in Dunham as a mainstream film star. But ultimately what did Dunham in was her privilege. As the daughter of New York-based artists, Dunham’s route to success was apparently easy. Girls made no bones about this fact: throughout its run, Dunham’s stories are in the Philip Roth tradition, showing the sexual impulses that undergird power structures of the bourgeoisie. They are a pinpoint depiction of Obama-era malaise, but that is hardly a crowd-pleaser.
West, herself a Brooklyn native from the era before it joined with New York, played the underdog to a tee. For men to desire her revealed an animal instinct within the mores and social graces of early 20th century politesse. Dunham’s sexuality only presents wealth back to itself, which is less empowering to a mass audience, like the Depression-era crowds who dug West. It is for this reason that there is no heir to the Mae West sofa: They are either oafish like Wilson, politically spayed like Schumer, or rich like Dunham. The emergence of a new wave of black female comics like Tiffany Haddish and Radha Blank has coincided with the irreversible tide that American comedies remain frightened of the intellectually, sexually and economically empowered woman, and that’s why they must erase the shadow of Mae West.
From Baby Burlesks to Boss Baby
What’s in a name? Shirley Temple: it’s a drink, it’s a doll, it’s the Hollywood actress who rose to child fame during the 1930s. A box-office hit from 1935-1938 with brown eyes and blonde hair, Temple was the quintessential all-American girl. Though most people recognize her for her tap-dancing roles in Bright Eyes (1934), Stand up and Cheer (1934), The Little Colonel (1935) etc., Temple’s origin story, in Charles Lamont’s Baby Burlesks films (1931-1933), forces viewers to see this cinematic period from a different angle.
The Baby Burlesks were a series of Pre-Code Hollywood one-reeler short films that satirized popular motion pictures, from Runt Page (1931) parodying The Front Page (1931) to Tarzan riff Kid ‘in’ Africa (1933). Pre-Code films are often applauded for their daring content, but the Baby Burlesks series goes further, with unnecessarily hyper-sexualized plots always revolving around children. Think of Lamont’s Kid in Hollywood (1933), wherein Temple becomes Morelegs Sweetrick, an imitation of Marlene Dietrich’s cabaret singer from Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930). The plot thickens as Morelegs’ on-stage feathery costume resembles that of Dietrich’s during her Hot Voodoo cabaret dance number in Sternberg’s Blonde Venus (1932).
But while the latter is a performance worth praising for its celebration of female sexuality, the same just cannot be said for the 3-year-old Temple dancing in the beginning of War Babies (1932). Spoofing Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory? (1926), a silent comedy-drama about two war veterans who compete for the affections of the same woman, Lamont reproduces a bizarre love-triangle story with an all-child cast and assigns Temple the role of an exotic dancer. This narrative, and pretty much every other Baby Burlesks installment, raises questions about child exploitation. Why are children cast in adult roles? Perhaps the answer here is budgetary, as child actors had less demanding salaries. Even if this was to be overlooked (and that is a big if), then does that low budget extend to the lack of costume? Having the children barely clothed doesn’t move the plot forward, or define the characters. So why did the parents allow their offspring to participate in these projects? Whether for fame, fortune, or post-depression desperation, there are few sources that provide an answer.
When one considers that Baby Burlesks were comedies shown right before the main film, it feels even more sinister. Where is the joke in having toddlers in diapers waltz around a set exchanging lollipops for kisses, among other disturbing scenarios? The premise is none other than children behaving as adults, an offbeat version of kids playing house. Though humor may be subjective, it is curious that, if Art reflects society, Lamont’s shorts reflect 1930s US reality. Baby Burlesks, and pre-code cinema in general during the Depression, offered glimpses at other lifestyles, so fictitious and fanciful that people could face the screen rather than the heavy burdens of everyday life. At least, that was primarily the case for men; women’s everyday struggles went beyond the financial challenges the Wall Street Crash of 1929 created. Though they entered the workforce during WWI, the severe economic ramifications of the Great Crash meant a reassignment to the domestic sphere for most women. Considering that Temple and the reactions she elicits in the Baby Burlesks are the main catalysts for comic effect, the echoes of a woman’s ornamental position as merely an object to be conquered, stared and laughed at are deafening. Women were not offered moments of numbness, but reminders that their existence was seen as a trivial entertainment.
But besides the undeniable presence of sexism, the bar drops even lower when one looks behind the curtain. Terrible stories of children working for hours on end, and, according to Temple’s book Child Star: an Autobiography (1988), being forced to sit inside a small black box with a block of ice whenever they dared behave as any other kid would have are unveiled. And though Shirley, Georgie (Smith) and Eugene (Butler) didn’t suffer an untimely death like Dick, Joe, Ned and Jack in William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper”/Songs of Experience (1794) did for working inside another black box, they were still treated as means to monetary ends not only by the film production company Educational Pictures, but also by their own parents. All this speaks volumes about the careless manner in which children were and often still are treated in Hollywood: a mere pawn to be manipulated instead of protected.
Nowadays, the Baby Burlesks series is defined as highly inappropriate, but the whole child/adult binary and its connection to humor didn’t vanish. In Amy Heckerling’s Look Who’s Talking (1989), for instance, Bruce Willis is the voice behind a newborn’s consciousness. Then, Bob Clark’s Baby Geniuses (1999), shows eight intelligent babies raised in a lab as part of an experiment to uncover the truth behind their high IQs. Though the genre adapted to something acceptable, it went mostly unremarked upon until it transformed into a fancier version. Rising from its ashes, the child/adult character resurfaces in Tom McGrath’s Academy Award nominated CGI-animation The Boss Baby (2017). It comes as no surprise that a baby imitating an adult in the consumerist-based US society of today comes with a suit, briefcase, and the voice of Alec Baldwin.
Lacking a name, the bare minimum for an identity, and obsessed by the corner office award his promotion will grant him, Boss Baby is the paragon of modern US society. Promoting the notion that value of the Self stems from monetary accumulation, the cute little business man takes seconds-long power-naps, stress-naps, and victory-naps and thinks his associates (a group of non-boss babies) are inadequate. The Baldwin-voiced baby even borrows and adjusts a quote from another character the actor has played in James Foley’s Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). Instead of “put that coffee down. Coffee’s for closers only,” Baby-Baldwin goes for the more concise “cookies are for closers,” when one of his team members disappoints him. After all, they’re babies; coffee isn’t appropriate. But hey, “I’d kill for a spicy tuna roll right about now” is the epitome not only of infancy but also a 6-year-old’s sense of humor, especially since it’s followed by throwing money to his older brother’s face.
That this evolved project is an animation, i.e. an intangible product with the power to defy even Death and the very concept of Time, has two sides. On the one hand, thankfully no child had to go through this bizarre Benjamin-Buttonesque version of a toned-down Jordan Belfort performance (no corporeal child could pull this off). However, an on-screen baby that’s no longer a flesh and bone child but a drawing brought to existence by digital means has a make-believe status that isn’t just about escaping reality. It creates a distance between content and audience that allows certain things to go unnoticed because no serious consideration is usually given to a cartoonish idea; the parents in the film certainly don’t.
Isn’t it funny that the parents never acknowledge that the baby isn’t an actual baby? Ha-ha the joke’s on us really, as this animation isn’t exactly innocuous either. While it lacks the Baby Burlesks’ hyper-sexualized plotlines that held a mirror to the 1930s sex-crazed US society, The Boss Baby is also a vehicle of contemporary societal reflection, as it unabashedly promotes the craving of money. Even if its target audience doesn’t have the capacity yet to get the sushi joke, it surely won’t miss the underlying message that adulthood is about shaping up, for time is money. After all, much as in the end the Boss Baby chooses family love over his precious, private, golden potty, and is even named Theodore Lindsey Templeton, we see in the future that he never changes; he just gets taller.
The sequel of The Boss Baby will emerge this September, Baldwin sharing his screen-time with a female Girl-Boss Baby (Amy Sedaris). Judging from the “now you work for me, Boomers” comment on the trailer, and other unfortunate 2021 projects, she’ll most likely say something along the lines of: “I’m a lioness; hear me roar”. Just like humankind never really left the jungle as it keeps evolving, the child/adult character keeps shape-shifting from Temple’s cabaret dancer to Baldwin’s mini wolf of wall street to whatever comes next century – we shall see. If things continue down the same chaotic path, perhaps a green-haired, clown baby that makes things go BOOM! from time to time and laughs uncontrollably will appear.
Closing your eyes to the cruelty of life is, in my opinion, both stupid and sinful. There’s very little we can do about it. So we have to at least acknowledge it.—Amos Oz, The King of Norway (2011)
There is no shortage of ugliness in the world. If man closed his eyes to it, there would be even more.—Forugh Farrokhzad, The House Is Black (1963)
What is ugly? In her short documentary film, The House Is Black (1963), the Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad states that leprosy is ugly. The effects of the disease are ugly; our reaction to the disease is ugly. The film asks us to bear witness, to understand, to consider something fundamental: that leprosy is as much social ailment as medical illness. Part way through, Farrokhzad suspends her disembodied and insistently poetic narration, leaving a doctor to list a set of clinical symptoms: deepened and enlarged wrinkles, eaten tissue, dulled senses to heat and touch, blindness, destroyed septum, weakened liver, weakened bone marrow, withered fingers. Some symptoms are visible, some invisible, some debilitating, all defining. We study frankly the figures, their bodies, skin lesions, facules, macules, nodules, loss of pigments, thickened nerves, and flaccid eyelids daubed with make-up.
The film’s opening image is of a deformed woman, half-hidden, studying herself in a mirror. One eye is alert, the other misshapen and still. Farrokhzad’s melancholy poetry and modernist compositions frame these portraits, honouring their subjects through unadorned and expressive form. From this, the film derives its political and emotional potency. We see leprosy sufferers as both human and distinctive, as equally deserving of autonomy and pity. Farrokhzad asks us not to be surprised by their relatively normal or exceptional status, merely to look. By delineating leprosy as a singular disability, Farrokhzad exposes its particular effects.
Leprosy is also central to Yomeddine (2018), the first feature from Egyptian writer-director AB Shawky, who details an ostensibly heart-warming, quasi-paternal bond between Beshay (Rady Gamal), a middle-aged man cured of leprosy and left disfigured, and Obama (Ahmed Abdelhafiz), a 10-year-old Nubian orphan. After his wife dies, Beshay leaves his colony in search of the family who have long abandoned him. It premiered in competition at Cannes and was Egypt’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2019 Academy Awards.
Shawky’s screenplay is sentimental to a fault, and by romanticising Beshay’s path to contentment, it simplifies and universalises anguish particular to leprosy sufferers. Aesthetic choices skew and sanitise Beshay’s experiences: saturated colours; woozy focus; slow-motion sequences; mid-range, unobtrusive cinematography; a swooning, admonishing score. These are complemented by well-worn narrative cues: popular tropes of adventure fiction, crude dream flashbacks, implausibly didactic dialogue, and an overinvested donkey. All of this together contributes to a peculiar distancing, a thwarted act of striving for sympathy or engagement.
When Beshay ferrets through garbage for profitable discards and scratches his head because of upset or frustration, it articulates a personal grief. When he shields the sun from swollen and blinking eyes, or handles donkey reins through malformed palms, or lets these loose through stiff fingers, it is affecting. As a boy he is left covered in sackcloth; as a man he is abused through a makeshift veil. These events speak to private interior existence and a specific surface malady. But the distorted recurrence of Beshay’s headwear draws comparison with the real and rendered lives of Joseph Merrick, whose exact condition remains disputed.
When Beshay is further lumbered with dialogue taken straight from David Lynch’s study of Merrick, The Elephant Man (1980)—“I am a human being!”—it encourages an uncomfortable observation. The effects of leprosy are not equivalent to the effects of all suffering. This is not a question of degree but of unique experience. To suggest that a leprosy sufferer is akin to Merrick by virtue of his disability demeans rather than humanises the subject. Shawky offers this facile universalism throughout: we accept empathy as superficial, and with that, meaning is superficial, too.
Non-professional, first-time actor Rady Gamal plays Beshay without prosthetics, and this casting provides leprosy sufferers with nominal representation and voice. As Shawky noted when I interviewed him, “if we had cast a celebrity it would have been a totally different film, a different experience.” This runs counter to an industry that readily encourages ‘cripping up’ from able-bodied actors, a move which panders to our emotional investment in disabled people but shields us from their direct image and worldview. But should we have to relate to Beshay?
To elicit empathy, filmmakers often favour characters who have become disabled through accident or illness, rather than seeking to excavate hereditary cases. Recent films that enforce this trend include Stronger (2017), starring Jake Gyllenhaal as double amputee Jeff Bauman, and Breathe (2017), starring Andrew Garfield as polio sufferer Robin Cavendish. Both are based on true events; both solicit a response in which the act of becoming is deemed crucial for public address, to present a palatable difference by misfortune. Yet leprosy offers a distinguished case.
In Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005), King Baldwin IV, “the leper king of Jerusalem,” is deemed so grotesque that he only appears in ornate mask. Edward Norton did not want to be billed for the role, so as to add mystery to the character. Here, the leprosy sufferer is presented as barely human, a figure without face, a masked enemy of unfathomable opposition. His illness is not hereditary, and our empathetic gaze is thwarted. So, how must a leprosy sufferer feel to see their condition depicted by someone, crucially, who has their condition? This interaction must contain potency and profundity. It is curious, even perverse, then, to choose a leprosy sufferer as your lead actor, like Shawky does, only to subsequently universalise his condition.
Shawky achieves this by casting a double leg amputee, a dwarf, and a “normal guy” as a band of self-declared “monsters” who help Beshay on his journey. That they are disabled in different ways is significant. Ignored or demeaned by most, this bridge-dwelling set of beggars are at first hostile—their territory is invaded, after all—before rallying round Beshay, whose ugly encounters with the hard-hearted population have torn apart his confidence and resolve. The viewer takes their collective will to survive and empathy for one another as given. Initial antagonism between these characters falls away into an earnest support centre. Beshay is told that, “we’ll never be normal, but that doesn’t mean we should live in shame.” Abnormality is acknowledged, but from the perspective of disability rather than leprosy.
On the one hand, this depiction of a group of “monsters” produces a sequence of worthy emancipation through solidarity. On the other, it seems to dilute experiences that may share common ground but should resist an insulting fusion. One has dwarfism; one is an amputee; the other is able-bodied, albeit downtrodden. Beshay suffers from leprosy. The common denominator is perceived monstrosity, and we are expected to revel in their companionship and camaraderie. Should we not feel unease at this universal depiction, at what is, in effect, a naturalist metamorphosis of Tod Browning’s horror classic, Freaks (1932)?
Freaks holds a foremost place in the cinematic canon. Derided on release, it is now seen as one of the great, original films of pre-Code Hollywood, the short era between the widespread adoption of sound in cinema and the introduction of censorship guidelines. In Browning’s film, a circus of freaks, hosting a range of disabilities, are manipulated and abused by the able-bodied performers. The freaks band together to wreak ultimate vengeance.
Freaks is “subversive” and “fun,” according to the writer Colm Tóibín, because the title characters “are allowed to fall in love, get involved in treachery and jealousy, be greedy and nasty and horny” (LRB, 2017). The freaks exist in an identifiably Rabelaisian agon, one that eschews political emancipation for primal revenge. The film is better for it. Occupied on set by jealousies, rivalries, and entitlements, many of the disabled actors embody characters who are conniving, lovelorn, and pathetic. Humans, then.
Shawky similarly wishes to evoke the humanity of his subjects. He cites the “heart-breaking and at the same time interesting” wedding dinner in Freaks as its most profound moment. A table includes dwarves, amputees, Siamese twins, and pinheads. The able-bodied, scheming, malevolent Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) rejects the disabled performers’ initiation ceremony, desecrating a universalism that Shawky, in his film, wants to build and uphold.
In Freaks, the celebratory, hallucinatory montage of the feast forges indistinction between normality and exception, culminating with the refrain, “we accept her—one of us—gooble, gobble—we accept her—one of us—gooble, gobble.”In turn, it is thematically simpler for Shawky to consider that his disabled group—the leprosy sufferer, the dwarf, and the amputee—is a homogenous Greek chorus, a law unto itself, and that to offend one is to offend them all. As such, Shawky does not overtly grieve for his characters, but nor does he distinguish between them, either.
Shawky suggests Freaks and The Elephant Man as cinematic examples that discourage “pity and poverty porn,” that “give dignity to [disabled] characters,” that “look at the world through their innocent view,” and that acknowledge their desire to live independently. These are fair points given dubious translation in Yomeddine, a formally conventional crowd-pleaser comprised of telegraphed narrative beats and asinine politics. It is valuable to invoke the image and humanity of a leprosy sufferer in order to protect him from prejudice, to make visible and appreciate his condition. But it is queasy to suggest he is akin to all downtrodden and disabled people through condition alone.
Like the constantly blinking kibbutz gardener in Amos Oz’s story The King of Norway, Shawky acknowledges cruelty and unfairness but chooses neither to pity nor apprehend those who suffer from it. In Yomeddine, disability is a concoction in which different individuals are stirred together, producing a liquid mixture of unity that debases particular experience. In rendering their lives this way, Shawky is caught mid-blink, in a confused bind of sight and sightlessness. And the viewer, in thwarted closeness, sees the disabled figure only as part of a cooperative enterprise, not as a life in itself.
An unsurpassed work, The House Is Black provides a fearless counterexample to Shawky’s rendering. Farrokhzad, instead, produces a stark, unsettling illustration of leprosy, one both normal and exceptional, unfettered by pleas to universalism. Near the end of the film, a teacher leads a discussion for the children in the colony.
“You, name a few beautiful things.”
A young boy answers, “the sun, the moon, flowers, playtime.”
The class giggles.
“And you, name a few ugly things.”
Another boy answers, “hand, foot, head.”
The children laugh wildly.
The CYZ Critics Grid is a new feature where we ask contributors, past and present, what they thought of the newest UK film releases.
|Film||Ben Flanagan||Kirsty Asher||Tom Atkinson||Joseph Owen||Orla Smith||Ren Scateni||Ioanna Micha||Ellisha Izumi||+MLP+|
|Judas and the Black Messiah|
|Promising Young Woman|
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|Can’t Get You Out of My Head|
|Zack Snyder’s Justice League||*||**||****||***|