Retro Remote tends to be a little cynical when it comes to the occasional bursts of enthusiasm towards Hollywood’s ‘pre-code’ output – that alluring time before the Hays Code nixed all kinds racy bits and pieces of cinematic sauciness. Too often it simply seems to fit the cultural narrative of modern liberation from the censorious forces of darkness a little too easily, as though re-visiting a battle long-won rather than examining the more insidious ways in which cultural power is manifested in the media, overt censorship or not.
Richard Maltby summarises the popular underestimation of the Production Code’s real power nicely in ‘More Sinned Against Than Sinning: The Fabrications of “Pre-Code Cinema”:
The Code is remembered with nostalgic contempt for the trivia of its requirements, and it has often been blamed for Hollywood’s lack of realism and political timidity. These charges both overestimate and underestimate its influence. The Code contributed significantly to Hollywood’s avoidance of contentious subject matter, but it did so as the instrument of an agreed industry-wide policy, not as the originating source of that policy… Hollywood’s “self-regulation” was not primarily about controlling the content of movies at the level of forbidden words or actions, or inhibiting the freedom of expression of individual producers. The cultural anxieties that brought the Code into being addressed more fundamental social issues than a few bawdy Mae West jokes, the length of a hemline, or the condoning of sin in an “unmoral” ending. Rather, they concerned the cultural function of entertainment, and the possession of cultural power. The Production Code was a sign of Classical Hollywood’s cultural centrality, and its history is a history of the attempts by cultural elites to exercise a controlling surveillance over the mass culture of industrial capitalism.
The modern media arena is not so different – the same is true of much critical response to all kinds of innately conservative, if not completely retrograde, modern content that distracts audiences from its underlying conservatism with some sexual tidbits here and there. It’s a little like the Fleischer Studio’s enjoyable 1931 cartoon Bimbo’s Initiation where Bimbo – a cartoon dog – spends the entire time running away from a creepy evil cult who repeatedly chant ‘Wanna be a member? Wanna be a member?’ Bimbo sticks with his simple answer (‘no!’) until the cult leader finally strips off his skin and turns out to be none other than a seductively dancing Betty Boop. Bimbo’s answer quickly turns to ‘yes!’, all the creepy cult members strip their skin to turn into Betty Boop clones, and they all dance (and spank) the night away, Bimbo’s initiation complete.
Is joining a creepy evil cult wise? Well, no… but check out those smokin’ hemlines! Modern media gets us to ‘be a member’ in just about the same way. By staging and re-staging a safe ‘controversy’ over simple sexuality, allowing us to re-stage and re-celebrate battles already won, the really problematic elements can be safely ignored:
These sectors of the doctrinal system serve to divert the unwashed masses and reinforce the basic social values: passivity, submissiveness to authority, the overriding virtue of greed and personal gain, lack of concern for others, fear of real or imagined enemies, etc. The goal is to keep the bewildered herd bewildered. It’s unnecessary for them to trouble themselves with what’s happening in the world. In fact, it’s undesirable—if they see too much of reality they may set themselves to change it – Noam Chomsky, ‘What Uncle Sam Really Wants’.
As Chomsky points out of the diversionary battles in relation to the ‘liberal media’: ‘They love to be denounced from the right, and the right loves to denounce them, because that makes them look like courageous defenders of freedom and independence while, in fact, they are imposing all of the presuppositions of the propaganda system’ (‘On US Military Budgets’).
In that context, getting a little dizzy over some sexual innuendo or the hint of an exposed breast is fundamentally irrelevant.
Still, while the allure of the ‘pre-code’ tends to carry a politically diversionary tone, there’s no doubt that ‘pre-code’ material can provide plenty of interest when taken on an individual level. While Maltby rightly dismisses the broad notion of a radical Hollywood that was shut down by external moral watchdogs, a different level of freedom in representation (even if already heavily compromised) certainly allowed for individual texts to carry resonances that wouldn’t be seen in the ‘code’ years. As Glenn Erickson of the excellent DVD Savant site makes clear, ‘when the Code was enforced, movies could no longer address social or political issues directly, or tell the full truth about how ordinary Americans lived. Stories about disadvantaged people had to have uplifting messages about pulling one’s self up by one’s bootstraps, or finding that faith and love cured all problems’ (DVD Savant review of The Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 3).
Such ideas are vital disclaimers in the discussion of ‘pre-code’ material; Retro Remote tries to be cautious of bold statements of vintage transgressions and a radical entertainment industry, but is still usually ready to dive into some ‘pre-code’ cartoon bawdiness and ‘post-code’ comparison.
Retro Remote was amused enough by the Fleischer Studios’ Popeye short Beware of Barnacle Bill from ‘post-code’ 1935, a tenement melodrama drawn from the lyrics to the popular folk song ‘Barnacle Bill’ that tells a bawdy tale (with countless variants) of a rowdy sailor having his way with a ‘fair young maiden’ before heading off to the next port and the next fair young maiden, to seek out the earlier Fleischer Studios version of the musical tale, Barnacle Bill made five years earlier in 1930 for Betty Boop and Bimbo.
Sung by Popeye, Olive Oyl and Bluto, Beware of Barnacle Bill is notable not so much for its sanitised lyrics (the freely made-up verses to ‘Barnacle Bill’ can be pretty extreme!) than its fairly dull application; Olive is (as always) pursued by Popeye and (as Barnacle Bill) Bluto. Barnacle Bill is a mean and nasty sailor, so Popeye does what he can to keep Olive from his salty clutches (finally abandoned by both men, Olive sighs ‘there goes the navy’, before consoling herself with the happy thought that ‘still there’s the army!’).
Of course, the song itself is usually a heckuva lot bawdier. Ed Cray’s The Erotic Muse: American Bawdy Songs isn’t too impressed by it, noting that (under the title of ‘Bollochy Bill the Sailor’) ‘this song, unlike so many folk songs, has little to recommend it. Its melody is monotonous; its lyrics are repetitious to the point of idiocy’. True enough, but a 1930 version by Hoagy Carmichael and Bix Beiderbecke at least features a great cornet solo by Beiderbecke. It may not have the crude lyrics of the folk song (google the lyrics for some lines that weren’t going to make it to Bimbo’s version, ‘pre-code’ or not), but it seems that violinist Joe Venuti got caught up in the spirit of things, and took the liberty of discreetly replacing ‘Barnacle Bill the Sailor’ with ‘Barnacle Bill the Shithead’ while singing the second verse.
The 1930 film version stands out by putting loveable cartoon dog Bimbo into the central role of Barnacle Bill, casting our hero as a philandering cad rather than the noble knight who would save the poor maiden from one. Bimbo’s less-than-admirable status is further cemented by his sudden transition: when we first meet him, he’s a suitably cute cartoon sailor (on board a singing ship, pulled by a paddling mouse), sneaking out from beneath the gaze of a nasty captain, but his cute escape hijinks and high-pitched voice give way to deep-throated song and gruff demeanour the moment he steps off of the ship and picks Betty’s address from his little black book with a contented chuckle.
In her second screen appearance, Betty still has weird dog-ears as she peers down from her window at her visitor, an animal element that would slowly vanish as her appearances progressed, making her ongoing relationship with canine boyfriend Bimbo all the weirder.
‘I’m old and rough and dirty and tough, I never can get drunk enough,’ Bimbo replies when Betty sweetly enquires if he’s ‘young and handsome too’, before stomping up the stairs (breaking each one) and announcing ‘I’ll rear and tear and rant and roar, I’ll spin you yarns and tell you lies, I’ll drink your wine and eat your pies, I’ll kiss your cheeks and black your eyes’. Then for a moment the pantomime breaks and he’s the old cute Bimbo, puffing and out of breath after his manly stair-climb.
Barnacle Bill may clearly be a philandering lout, but he’s definitely made welcome by all the usual animated objects that populate the Fleischer cartoons: arriving at Betty’s doorstep, the welcome mat sweeps him to the front door and the door-knob shakes his hand; Betty’s plain chairs creep out of the room to make room for a more intimate couch; and the wall of Betty’s apartment stretches over Bimbo to drag him inside. Far from being protective, they seem to be pursuing their own prurient interest in what’s going to happen when ‘fair young maiden’ meets whisky-soaked sailor.
That prurient interest is hardly limited to normally-inanimate objects; the film climaxes with a sudden cut to the outside of Betty’s window as the window-shade is suddenly pulled down and two cats emerge from the neighbouring windows with the usual gossip combination: disparaging looks and calls for everyone else to come and see (a cutely unconvincing joke has Bimbo and Betty playing checkers when the window-shade rises). Similarly, it’s what gives this version of the film its real enjoyment; where the Popeye version turned the usual melodrama into a battle of good vs evil, the 1930 Barnacle Bill lets our canine hero take centre-stage as the villain, without sacrificing his requisite adorable cartoon-pupness and exploiting our own desire to see a naïve young girl get what we can all see is coming to her. It’s hardly shocking – it’s, of course, a standard old-fashioned cautionary tale – but Barnacle Bill certainly allows audiences to embrace the pleasures of the perpetrator far more than the fate of the victim.
Though rudimentary, it hints at the ‘exceptional, cranky gags – hallucinations about the instant when death strikes’ of the later great Fleischer cartoons that Norman M. Klein describes in 7 Minutes: The Life and Death of the American Animated Cartoon and perhaps helps lay the groundwork for what he calls the ‘sadistic moral cartoons of the late thirties’. Klein captures the overall feeling nicely in one of his sub-headings – ‘the joy of punishment’.
In fact, once it’s all done, Bimbo barely has time to look back to Betty’s crying protestations; he’s immediately launched into a cartoon chase from the mean captain of his ship, running up and down staircases made of lightning bolts and then plunging into the ocean where he ends the cartoon by partying with a bunch of mermaids. Neat.