In “Baby Face” (1933), one of the most pungent movies ever made in Hollywood, Barbara Stanwyck plays Lily, a young woman raised in a speakeasy next to a Pennsylvania steel mill. Her father pimps her out to workers and local pols, but she fights off the men who want her—though not, we are given to understand, all of them. The point is that she chooses. The performance is classic early Stanwyck: the slouching walk, the acetylene voice, the eyes that lock onto a man in contempt and then soften at will into mock-desire. Lily is a near-slattern looking to find her pride. In town, a German cobbler, who reads Nietzsche in his spare time, scolds her for lacking the “will to power.” He tells her, “You have power over men. . . . Use men to get the things you want.”
So Lily goes to New York, gets a job at a large midtown bank, and immediately begins sleeping her way to the top. (Literally: in between short scenes of seduction, the camera tilts up the outside of the bank building, as she ascends from the personnel department to filing and on to mortgages.) After two of her lovers wind up dead, she nabs the bank founder’s grandson (George Brent), and attains jewelry, furs, Paris, a maid, and a chauffeured car. When he gets in trouble at his company, she refuses to sell her jewels to save him. Stanwyck, her blond hair ironed flat, sets her lower lip in defiance, and says, “I can’t do it. I’ve got to think of myself. I’ve gone through a lot to get those things.” In the end, however, Lily redeems herself, keeps her man, and emerges if not rich then, at least, happy.
That’s the original conclusion of “Baby Face,” which appears in the restored version of the film. But, in 1933, after censors banned the movie in several big cities, Warner Bros., which produced it, did some quick reshooting and forced a punitive ending on Lily, in which she loses everything. At the same time, the studio left the movie’s general aura of corruption—sex for favors and much else—intact. The picture hovers between a celebration of a woman’s will and a dirty joke. Are the attitudes in “Baby Face” realistic or merely cynical? Perhaps they’re both.
According to the film historian Thomas Doherty, in his excellent “Pre-Code Hollywood” (1999), the rushed changes to a finished film helped persuade Hollywood that it might have to think seriously about censorship. In the early nineteen-thirties, “Baby Face” was hardly the only picture to create a scandal. There were other films devoted to “bad girls,” such as “Red-Headed Woman,” in which Jean Harlow, working with a script by Anita Loos, starred as an unstoppable and unpunished home-wrecker; and “The Story of Temple Drake,” from the Faulkner novel “Sanctuary,” in which a Southern belle (a sensational Miriam Hopkins) lives with a gangster for a while before returning to respectability. Then, there were Mae West’s happily lewd provocations “I’m No Angel” and “She Done Him Wrong,” in which she looks men up and down, takes her choice, and turns sex into an ever-ripening insinuation. Marlene Dietrich, in the movies she made with the director Josef von Sternberg and the screenwriter Jules Furthman, especially “Blonde Venus,” accepts some of the men who hurl themselves at her and discards others. Dietrich’s beauty was masked in careless insolence. “Morality,” in any ordinary sense of the word, didn’t apply to her.
These movies, with their sardonic bluntness and their suggestive dialogue, were made in pre-Code Hollywood, the brief, giddy period that lasted from 1930 to 1934. The phrase is actually a misnomer: there were local censors, in states and cities, almost from the beginning of the movies, and a set of moral standards, promoted by film executives, had existed since 1922. In the early thirties, however, conventional notions of female virtue were brushed aside by box-office hunger. What, besides greed, explains the flagrancies of the period? Sound had arrived in 1927, and, after a couple of awkward years, the film image, at first pinioned by the microphone, broke gloriously free. Suddenly, audiences were engulfed by audible moving pictures, enchanted by a rush of city voices and city sounds, including gunfire, tapping feet, and tapping keys. In movies, the Roaring Twenties made the most noise in the early thirties. Newspaper comedies were among the popular genres, and also gangster movies (“Scarface,” “The Public Enemy”), musicals (“42nd Street,” “Love Me Tonight”), horror and “exploration” films (“Dracula” and the racist, semi-nude “Tarzan” series), and turbulent melodramas (“Three on a Match,” “Rain”).
Many of these films are vital, tough, and likable. But it’s the pre-Code movies about women that are the most remarkable now, in part because their sexual attitudes don’t fit into any obvious political or moral pattern. Feminist film critics have embraced the period for its self-determined women and its eager acknowledgment of female sexuality. Yet these freedoms didn’t always work out so well for women. The atmosphere of the movies could be crude. There’s an unmistakably sour element of male mockery in the portrait of Lily’s opportunism in “Baby Face.” (The original poster described it as a “man-to-man story of a man-to-man girl.”) For good and for ill, the Mae West classics are redolent of the whiskey-and-tobacco-juice reek of nineteenth-century saloons. For every movie like “Red Dust” (1932), in which Harlow and Clark Gable tussled in the steaming M-G-M jungle—moments of what you might call healthy open sex—there were many films that were merely naughty or mildly voyeuristic.
The pre-Code cinema was full of women undressing, in negligees, or “scantily clad,” like the chorines in “Gold Diggers of 1933,” lined up for one of Busby Berkeley’s geometrical dance numbers. In the “Gold Diggers” movies (they were a series), penniless young women, with a sigh, seek their fortune among the tuxedoed gents who prowl the back stages of Broadway, and a few of them find love with the sappy, stagestruck juvenile Dick Powell. The mercenary sex in these Depression-era movies comes off as both a survivalist tactic and a repeated joke. Claudette Colbert was one of the most appealing people ever to become a movie star, but, sitting naked in bubbling asses’ milk in “The Sign of the Cross” (1932), Cecil B. DeMille’s ludicrous Christian morality play of the Roman era, she’s trapped by the director’s hypocritical lasciviousness.
The studios went after the box office in the most direct way. But, after 1934, when censorship seriously came into effect, more imaginative people made better movies and still scored at the box office. Censorship can cripple, inhibit, and destroy, but, in forcing artists to invent, it can liberate, too. Now that it scarcely exists, we can see that we may have lost as much as we’ve won.
The movie-censorship story is one of starts and stops, halfhearted attempts, and a public caught between Victorian standards and an eager desire to see the forbidden. In “The Kiss,” a twenty-second film from 1896, the Broadway team of John C. Rice and May Irwin re-created, in closeup, the amorous conclusion to a play that they had recently starred in. Rice throws his head back, smoothes his mustache, clasps Irwin’s face, and plants his lips on hers. A critic of the time wrote that “the spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was hard to bear. When only life-sized, it was pronounced beastly. Magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over, it is absolutely disgusting.” No less a sexual prophet than D. H. Lawrence, writing more than thirty years later, was shocked by couples kissing on the big screen, which he thought “pornographical,” and likely to “excite men and woman to secret and separate masturbation.”
During the past hundred years or so, what audiences will accept—and what they want—in sexual representation has moved in a more or less continuous line of increased explicitness, with each new liberty seeming to push the earlier prohibitions back into the moral infancy of American society. Today, much of the sexual imagery that alarmed the censors seems trivial, the alarm itself near-hysterical. A recent book on movie censorship, Jeremy Geltzer’s “Dirty Words and Filthy Pictures” (University of Texas), is mainly devoted to the many cases of prohibition, large and small, and the very slow but steady expansion of legal protections for the film industry. Geltzer, a movie-loving lawyer, has written what is, in effect, a guide to the moral presumptions of those who felt emboldened to speak for the movie audience.
In Chicago, in 1913, a former military man known as Major Funkhouser assumed the task, with municipal backing, of forbidding movies that were guilty, in his words, of “exploiting crime, showing the degradation of women, making a hero of a criminal, or ridiculing authority.” He quickly overplayed his hand—he even found fault with adaptations of Dickens—and was parodied, for his efforts, as Bughouser, in a 1915 film called “Pruning the Movies.” Funkhouser didn’t last long, but his working assumptions survived for decades. After banning some films of people dancing (the turkey trot and the tango), he said that “the objection is not based so much upon these pictures in themselves, but upon the effect they would have on thousands of young people.” He operated on the theory of imitative behavior—the notion that an audience, particularly a young audience, will copy what it has seen on film.
During the First World War, Hollywood production companies began to challenge the censors. Yet the courts, including the Supreme Court, in the landmark 1915 case Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, refused to afford movies the shield they needed—protection under the First Amendment. The movies, the Court ruled, were a business like any other, and therefore states should be allowed, as Geltzer puts it, to “regulate, license, and censor motion pictures as an exercise of police power to protect the social welfare of a community.” Censorship in this period was haphazard, intermittent, arbitrary, and often senseless. In 1915, D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” was banned for its bigotry in some cities but not in others.
The one consistent strain was the prohibition of female sexuality. Theda Bara’s semi-undressed “vamp” movies were cut, and serious dramatic films about adultery were banned, along with trivial nudie films aimed at big-city male audiences. Also rejected was a film called “Birth Control” (1917), made by Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, in which she goes among the urban poor and offers the implicit message that their lot would be better if they had fewer children. In New York, the movie was deemed offensive to “public decency.” The censors objected to Sanger’s advocacy of birth control, but one wonders if they weren’t alarmed by female sexuality itself.
For the industry, which was eager to set up and sustain national-distribution networks, the local interventions were a nuisance; what it really feared was federal legislation. In 1922, the studios’ trade-and-lobbying group, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (which became the Motion Picture Association of America, in 1945), recruited the austere conservative Will H. Hays, who had been the Postmaster General during the Harding Administration, as its president. Hays’s job was to administer morals and to front for the industry. He succeeded in warding off federal censorship, but—the intervention on “Baby Face” notwithstanding—the moral control of the movies was little more than a verbal agreement among producers.
Nothing serious in the way of a production code was composed until 1930, when Father Daniel Lord, a Jesuit priest, and Martin Quigley, a Catholic layman and the publisher of movie trade journals, stepped forward and devised a set of standards based on Catholic theology and practice. Thomas Doherty insists that the Lord-Quigley document—which became the Hays Code—was not “a grunted jeremiad from bluenose fussbudgets, but a polished treatise representing long and deep thought in aesthetics, education, communication theory, and moral philosophy.” The Code prohibited profanity, licentious or suggestive nudity, sexual perversions, and rape. But one of the products of long and deep thought was the elimination of any suggestion that a man and a woman ever went to bed together. According to the Code, “Even within the limits of pure love, certain facts have been universally regarded by lawmakers as outside the limits of safe presentation.” As a result, for more than twenty years, married couples in the movies slept in separate beds.
Initially, Hays’s regulators had little power of enforcement. In “I’m No Angel,” Mae West, confronted by a batch of men from her past, says, “All right, I’m the sweetheart of Sigma Chi. So what?” She might have been taunting the censors. Her films, and movies like “Baby Face” and the sensationally violent “Public Enemy,” caused Catholic groups to form the Legion of Decency, in 1933, which crusaded against Hollywood as a moral threat to the nation. Women’s groups also took a stand against “depravity.” In 1934, an influential report based on psychological and sociological research (and eventually published with great success as “Our Movie-Made Children”) traced bad actions to suggestive and violent movies. The theory of imitative behavior was now empowered by the authority of science as well as by common outrage.
When the Roosevelt Administration took power, in 1933, it hinted that federal censorship might be in the works. The M.P.P.D.A. got serious at last and appointed Joseph Breen, a former newspaperman and a prominent Catholic layman, to administer the 1930 Code, causing Variety to announce that Breen was the “supreme pontiff of picture morals from now on.” The movies, as the historian Francis G. Couvares put it, were “an industry largely financed by Protestant bankers, operated by Jewish studio executives, and policed by Catholic bureaucrats.” Breen ended up staying in the job for twenty years. A sophisticated man, he wanted to control the subtext of movies as well as their explicit content. The necessary solution—which was probably obvious to everyone in Hollywood at the time of “Baby Face”—was pre-censorship. Breen’s office, the Production Code Administration, read screenplays before they went into production, demanded changes, and issued a seal of approval to the finished product only if it met Code standards. To the theory of imitative behavior Breen added the practice of moral compensation: sin could be shown in movies, but it had to be punished. For years, few adulterous women managed to escape such calamities as prostitution or losing a child or driving off a cliff.
By the end of Breen’s first year, the freewheeling sexual atmosphere of the cinema had been effectively smothered. Mae West, the box-office champ in 1933, was replaced, in 1934, by Shirley Temple, and was thereafter tamed and marginalized. Dietrich’s career in movies wasn’t over, but it was diminished. (She subsequently triumphed as a cabaret star whose persona combined willfulness and regret.) The “morals” embedded in the Code were foolish and hypocritical, yet these semi-inane standards had an extraordinary effect. Producers, directors, and writers were forced to create sex without sex, to produce sexual tension by working around the prohibitions, extending every manner of preliminary to sex. In effect, censorship created plot, and in the process yielded one of the greatest of American film genres: thirties romantic comedy, including the dizzier versions celebrated as screwball comedy. Sex became play—even, at best, a springlike flourishing of fantasy and grace, expressed, most romantically, in the movies of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, in which sex became dance and was transmuted into endless variations on the themes of seduction, submission, revolt, and happiness.
If sexual frankness disappeared, tawdriness went with it, and the old fables of domination were replaced by a new creation: the couple, two people matched in beauty and talent who enjoy each other’s company more than anything else in the world. There was actually a perfect transitional movie, “The Thin Man,” from the Dashiell Hammett novel, shot very quickly, in early 1934, and released just before the Code went into effect. Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy), a wealthy couple, drink their way through the day and solve a complicated murder case when they feel like it. Powell, with his clipped mustache, his deep voice, his invariable suit, tie, and hat, and his perfect indifference to everything but Myrna Loy, was a generation’s ideal of American suavity. Loy, tall and elegant, had music in her voice, a mocking inquisitiveness that became an informal, American-style version of irony. The film’s screenwriters, Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, a married couple, elaborated on Hammett’s dialogue, which itself was a worked-up version of the drink-fuelled back-and-forth of the writer and Lillian Hellman, his longtime girlfriend. When Nick and Nora are with other people, they speak to each other in telegraphic gestures and put-ons. Sex has never been more beautifully displaced.
“The Thin Man” set the tone of high-style romantic movies. In the radiant dress-for-dinner comedy “Holiday” (1938), based on Philip Barry’s Broadway play, Cary Grant is Johnny Case, a young banker who hesitates before settling down to marriage with a starchy heiress, Julia (Doris Nolan). When he goes to the Fifth Avenue mansion where Julia’s family lives, he’s drawn to her unhappy sister, Linda (Katharine Hepburn), who immediately tests his sense of humor—the main thing she requires in a man. Here, sex is transmuted into jokes. The put-on functions centrally in these movies for people who are too bright to be literal-minded. Johnny passes Linda’s test, and the director, George Cukor, turns their rapport into a series of performances designed to exclude everyone else. The great Hepburn takes enormous risks: Linda goes into long arias of complaint and fantasy and hope, which, directed at Johnny alone, become a way of offering herself and of demanding, even insisting, on a response. For women, the screenwriting strategies created out of the Code were a net gain. Unlike the pre-Code goddesses, vamps, and bad girls, who crooned or spoke in snarls and wisecracks, the post-Code women could talk.
In effect, the Code licensed pleasure in a woman’s words, in her temperament, and even in her laugh. In “My Man Godfrey” (1936), Carole Lombard delivers goofy tirades in which she seems to be gleefully discovering the corners of her mind as she makes her way toward sense. The screenplays for such films were written by men and women brought from the East, including George S. Kaufman, Edna Ferber, Morrie Ryskind, Ben Hecht, Norman Krasna, and Donald Ogden Stewart, many of them veterans of the Broadway theatre, where starring actresses often dominated the season and had the clout to get plays financed.
The romantic ideal was so powerful that it held together the flimsiest of plots. The underrated director Mitchell Leisen twice worked with screenplays in which ridiculous circumstances confine a man and a woman to a room. They can’t have sex, of course, even though beds, privacy, good looks—all the usual inducements—are there. In Leisen’s charming, now forgotten comedy “Hands Across the Table” (1935), Carole Lombard is Regi, a gold-digging manicurist calculating her moves from a salon in a posh New York hotel. There she meets Fred MacMurray’s cocky bachelor, Theodore Drew III, who seems loaded (he’s actually broke). He wants to escape his fiancée, an heiress who treats him as a gigolo, so Regi lets him stay at her apartment, and they hide out there together, like a couple of fugitives.
The absurd artifice of their situation doesn’t prevent the audience from fervently longing to see them get together. MacMurray, who is best known for the obsessed sap he played a decade later, in “Double Indemnity” (Stanwyck’s vicious, ankle-sexy adulteress pulls him in), is lean and fast-talking here, a man who takes nothing seriously and converts the hard-pressed working girl to his way of dealing with the world. He’s relentless in his frivolity. Yet, near the end, there’s a startling moment. Drew needs to fake a Bermuda tan in order to convince his fiancée that he’s been away, so he grumblingly strips off his shirt, and Regi turns a sun lamp on him. As he lies face down, she touches his back, and Lombard registers a shocked expression, as if she were wounded in some way. Censorship helped create art, but a little bit of flesh in these eros-free zones offers a thrilling intimation of what freedom from censorship might look like.
In 1952, movies finally received First Amendment protection from the Supreme Court. A year earlier, New York State censors had banned distribution of “The Miracle,” a magnificent short Italian film (part of “L’Amore”), directed by Roberto Rossellini, in which a dreamy girl (Anna Magnani), who believes herself to be the Virgin Mary, has an encounter with a con man (Federico Fellini), calling himself St. Joseph, and becomes pregnant. The ban was appealed, and the case eventually reached the Supreme Court, where Justice Tom C. Clark wrote in the majority decision, “We hold only that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments a state may not ban a film on the basis of a censor’s conclusion that it is sacrilegious.” Sacrilege was hardly the only offense prohibited by the Hays Code, but within a few years this attack on one corner of the prohibitions had the effect of destabilizing the rest.
Joseph Breen retired in 1954, and, bit by bit, hitherto forbidden scenes—a bare breast here, an “adult” theme there—made their way, after tortuous negotiation with the Production Code office, into finished movies. In 1959, United Artists and Billy Wilder released “Some Like It Hot”—which features a barely clothed Marilyn Monroe, a riot of cross-dressing, and innumerable double- and triple-entendres—without a seal of approval. The same year, Otto Preminger dealt candidly with rape in “Anatomy of a Murder.” By the late sixties, an expanding social tolerance joined simple fatigue with the hypocrisies of the Code and an increasing disdain for the intelligence of censors. In art, the good as well as the wicked get punished; in life, how we behave is determined by a world of influences and inclinations. At the movies, we bring with us what family and personal history and society have made of us. The theory of imitative behavior began to fade.
But what to make of freedom? To put it mildly, manners have altered since the thirties; no one dresses for dinner in Silicon Valley. Candor, informality, and directness have dissolved not only prohibitions but also defensible standards. Language in movies became edgier, until the edge disappeared altogether. In matters of sex, a new orthodoxy of enlightenment and acceptance has triumphed, at least in the world of entertainment, leaving the marketplace and native intelligence as the sole, and uncertain, guides. In the commercial cinema, some bans still exist (male genitalia remain covered), but the Internet has changed the audience for movies, shredding the old arguments over censorship and the protection of the innocent. Only child pornography is now forbidden by law.
Sex censorship is virtually a dead issue, but the demands of art remain as implacable as ever. A movie like “Blue Is the Warmest Color” (2013), the explicit and savvy French erotic drama, will likely never be made by the American commercial cinema. Americans do lecherous, off-color comedy with great gusto, but they tend to get nervous about sensuality and eroticism. The farcical “Fifty Shades of Grey” depended on the ritualized stupidity of soft-core porn, crossed with romance-fiction fantasy. Christian Grey has a castle overlooking Seattle, a pleasure dungeon, and, in place of teams of white horses, planes and fancy cars. He plays Chopin naked in the middle of the night, but he can’t bear to be touched.
Amy Schumer got rid of this kind of nonsense in last year’s “Trainwreck,” which she wrote and Judd Apatow directed. As “Amy,” Schumer makes every kind of lewd joke about sex and about herself, and some critics have hailed her as a modern feminist icon—a neurotically self-revealing descendant, let’s say, of Stanwyck’s impervious Lily, in “Baby Face.” Amy certainly chooses her men. Yet the point of “Trainwreck,” starting with the title, is that a sexually self-determined woman can wind up a mess. The old story conventions for romance have mostly been destroyed, and a comic artist like Schumer stands on a narrative wasteland, looking for a path. When Amy rejects her disorderly way of life, and learns to accept “commitment,” it seems a failure of artistic nerve. For women as sexual beings, freedom has never been more appealing yet so bafflingly difficult to achieve. ♦
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