Pre-Code Films Have a Naughty Reputation That’s Not Always Deserved

In the pre-code films era, Hollywood projected a simulacrum of social conventions whose tensions and contradictions were the meat of the drama to be taken seriously by some audiences and laughed off by others.

As Warner Archives issues its relentless (and very welcome) wave of semi-forgotten films, many early talkies are advertised as “Pre-Code”, as if this label sells itself. The Production Code refers to a censorship office created and maintained by the major film studios, and although it existed prior to 1934, that was the year it really cracked down on various forms of naughtiness, such as the more outrageous lines of Mae West, or sissy jokes, or any implication that sex outside of marriage wasn’t properly punished.

From that point on, a film that didn’t pass the Code didn’t get released (from a big studio), but today, it’s a key selling point. It’s kind of the opposite of “homogenized”, since it implies that the film is racy and eyebrow-raising. The truth is that most pre-Code films are just as routine and forgettable as most post-Code ones, as the presence of one or two saucy throwaway lines or compromising situations doesn’t make a classic. Not every pre-Code item is a Scarface or Baby Face; some are only mediocre faces.

Let’s begin with Loose Ankles/The Naughty Flirt, a double feature in which the films are breezy enough time-passers, yet neither is exactly a revelation. The first opens with a saucy shot of a male hand caressing Loretta Young’s stockinged ankles while her gal-pal plays and sings the title tune on the piano. Don’t get the wrong idea, even though they’ve just given it to you: it’s revealed that the hand belongs to a shoe salesman or butler or somebody, so we’re in the boudoir of a well-bred young lady and not some cathouse.

The young miss is a handful, though. For silly reasons having to do with her stuffed shirt relatives, she wants to get out of an inheritance by concocting a scandal with escort Doug Fairbanks Jr., a bashful lad who answers her advertisement. We learn that in this film, an “escort” is a dancing partner. Doug’s escort cohorts seem like gay blades indeed, or are there platonic roommates who chat like magpies while one’s in the tub and the other shaves? Anyway, the big scene is where the dowager aunts get plastered in a speakeasy with the escorts. One sainted aunt (Louise Fazenda) gets into a wrestling match.

All pre-Code films have their characters casually breaking the law by swilling bathtub gin in speakeasies or private parties, but that was one detail the post-1934 films didn’t have to worry about. Prohibition had just been repealed by then, and it was perfectly legal for everyone to knock back the booze, so even the morally clean films were on safe ground alcoholically.

The second film stars Alice White as a spoiled modern rich flapper who likes to show up in court for drunk and disorderly and bad driving but who’s really all right and a “good girl”, even though she has a thousand beaus, but she falls for the plain hardworking lawyer (Paul Page) who tells her off, and then her non-friend (Myrna Loy) schemes to break them up so Alice will marry Myrna’s dead-broke brother. Yeah, it’s hogwash.

Michael Curtiz’s The Matrimonial Bed promises transgression galore but skates near to becoming a chore to sit through. It’s a creaky 1930 stage-play talkie based on a French farce in which the remarried wife (Florence Eldridge) suddenly discovers that her late husband Adolphe (Frank Fay) is living as a married and philandering hairdresser with amnesia ever since the train crash that supposedly killed him. In a weird foreshadowing of Shampoo, he behaves swishily while bedding his female clients.

When hypnosis cures him, he remembers nothing of the last five years (during which his wife had a child by her obnoxious second husband, played by James Gleason) and expects to pick up where he left off, but his first wife decides too many people would suffer and convinces him to go back to his hairdresser life. That’s a very strange resolution that basically leaves everyone happy except her.

This film is never as naughty as advertised. It may wink at the hero’s adulteries (as long as he’s not himself) and play with the idea of a marriage mènage, but it can’t bring itself actually to endorse dissolving any of the existing marriages merely because they weren’t legal, much less creating more open arrangements. Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living goes farther in its implications with much less overblown mugging. Curtiz manages to throw in one of his patented shadow-on-the-wall moments, for he was already in love with the kind of shadow-work he’d bring to his Errol Flynn swashbucklers.

A better (funnier) comedy is Blessed Event. It stars Lee Tracy, and that should say it all. He’s largely forgotten now, alas, but Tracy epitomized a fast-talking, hardboiled, from-the-streets, none-too-scrupulous urban hustler that virtually defines early Warner Brothers comedies. He was a less gentlemanly William Powell.

Tracy always seemed to play the same brash heel who comes slowly to his senses, whether Jean Harlow’s press agent in Bombshell or, as here, as a grasping journalist who makes a splash with a Walter Winchell-esque gossip column in which he reveals which celebrities are pregnant – sometimes without the benefit of matrimony.

Once you understand that Tracy is never going to stop his nasal rat-a-tat patter, you can enjoy the ride and overlook the slightly stagebound effect of the first half. He romances a swell dame (Mary Brian) and, in a twist with passing similarities to The Front Page, gets a gangster’s moll into serious trouble when he reports her impending “blessed event”. He’s got a running feud with a radio crooner (Dick Powell) whom he believes effeminate, but he’s also got a dear mother (Emma Dunn), bless him. The great climactic gag in this one is that somebody gets shot, which tells you something about these newspaper comedies.

Two double-features are vehicles for pert Dorothy Mackaill, a forgotten silent star who specialized in flappers and successfully made the transition to talkies for several years. The Office Wife/Party Husband offers stories of marriage and infidelity. The Office Wife opens with a very interesting dialogue between a grey-haired New York publisher (Lewis Stone) in a huge office and one of his star writers, a certain Miss Halsey (Blanche Friderici) who’s butcher than he is.

This sarcastic cross-dresser is the kind of character you certainly don’t find after the Code tightened its screws. She’s assigned to write a magazine piece called The Office Wife, the same title as this film based on a Cosmopolitan magazine serial by Faith Baldwin. Is Miss Halsey supposed to be a disguised reference to Miss Baldwin?

She’s pure window dressing for the main story, in which secretary Anne Murdock (Mackaill) sets her cap for her freshly married boss, and indeed succeeds in making him fall in love with her. Then she gets an attack of morals and feels bad about it, not knowing what we already know–the boss’ wife (Natalie Moorhead) is already stepping out on him.

The married couple has an amazingly mature discussion in which the wife reveals her infidelity and asks for a divorce, and it’s all handled as amiably and unfussily as it never could be after 1934 when the sanctity of marriage couldn’t be taken lightly and tramps who scheme to steal husbands couldn’t get rewarded.

As directed by Lloyd Bacon and shot by William Rees, this film has a smooth visual style, with the camera frequently gliding along the polished floors or following the female feet of the heroine or her streetwise sister (Joan Blondell), who has a bathtub scene. While these flourishes are attractive and the pre-Code details are sociologically interesting, they don’t make the story compelling. Few viewers will care whether Anne marries the old windbag, and you’d almost be happier for her if she didn’t.

In Party Husband, Mackaill and James Rennie play well-heeled newlyweds who brightly spout their theme at the reception: theirs will be a “modern marriage” in which they’ll live as “separate individuals” with their own careers and friends. Unless we’ve never seen a film before, we understand clearly that they’ll learn a Valuable Lesson, and it has to do with jealousy over suspected infidelities and, in the husband’s case, an actual drunken transgression when he’s in a snit at wifey’s behavior. He can be forgiven in a way that she probably couldn’t.

Pre-Code or not, Hollywood films liked to tease the audience with promises of modern attitudes only to stamp them out by re-affirming the traditional verities. The theory was that audiences were paying for sin while being sold sanctity, and it was a bait-and-switch that everyone seemed happy with, more or less.

A curious supporting character embodies the cynical sentiment behind these manipulations, for the husband is briefly vamped by another prominent lady writer, Bee Canfield (Mary Doran), a single woman who makes her living by preaching the virtues of old-fashioned home life while her own home is all “ashtrays and tiger rugs”. “My public utterances and my private convictions are very different,” she declares. She could have gotten a job writing in Hollywood. Actually, both of these films are scripted by Charles Kenyon. Did he have a thing about unconventional women writers?

The only thing interesting about this film’s tedious marriage problems is that it all gets resolved when the mother-in-law (Helen Ware) struts around smoking a cigarette and giving them a lecture full of mockery. “Why, you’re not strong enough to be bad! You children seem to think that getting drunk and raising cain were invented by you. Well let me tell you, we had better devils twenty years ago.” Her theory is that her generation could drink because they ate “five pounds of meat a day” in contrast to modern light breakfasts. “How dare you try to be wicked on a diet like that?” Mother knows best.

Mackaill stars in another double, Bright Lights and The Reckless Hour. The first film was later misleadingly retitled “Adventures in Africa” and that’s what it says in this print. It’s all set during a Broadway revue in which Mackaill is starring on her last night before getting hitched to a rich beau. The most memorable of the many performances have Mackaill in a tuxedo chirping “I’m just a man about town” and doing lots of high kicks. For just a moment, the film seems to float above itself.

Between the acts and behind the scenes is a lot of business from comic characters, a couple of flashbacks to the songbird’s career with a partner (Fay again, and again directed by Curtiz) who secretly loves her, a subplot about a Portuguese smuggler (Noah Beery) who lusts after her, and even a murder that’s probably self-defense. The unacceptable part, Code-wise, is that said crime gets covered up so everyone can go on their merry way. It’s a lot of shilly-shally as the audience supposedly waits breathlessly for Fay finally to stop clowning and confess his love. If he’d done it an hour earlier, or a year, there’d have been no picture.

The Reckless Hour is a notch above most of these others, even though it’s strictly another soaper about a girl who makes a “mistake” with the wrong man. Still, it’s directed trimly and with quiet style by John Francis Dillon, who’d been making this kind of picture for 20 years, and Mackaill and her family are likable, especially the touchingly decent and understanding papa (H.B. Warner) and the snappy kid sister (Blondell again). When dad says the little sis should help set the table because the other one has been on her feet all day, she snaps, “Where have I been, on my back?” This early in her career and already the wise-cracking dame.

Nobody ever comes out and says that our heroine gets knocked up (it’s a dialogue of significant pauses and pained expressions), but she goes to a “rest home” and later just says, “It died.” This type of story requires needless complications and misunderstandings with the right man who’s waiting in the wings, but things get ironed out before becoming impossibly tedious. The sadder but wiser girl has been rewarded for her troubles without having to go through the protracted punishments usually meted out to single mothers in the other thousand films of this kind.

While all the films mentioned here are at least watchable, the film that comes closest to repaying your time with entertainment that doesn’t feel dated is Blessed Event, because we still recognize that kind of “journalism” today. Even so, the dilemma of such a scandal ruining a woman’s reputation is the kind of consideration that has fallen by the wayside. (Today any scandal would be their ticket to star in a reality show.)

When you examine these films in today’s light, they all depend on some variant of this idea that a woman’s reputation can be ruined by the wrong kind of talk or behavior. To the extent that such concerns were ever real, they were already being eroded by the films and other mass cultures that were inventing a kind of consensus morality from a weird hybrid of Puritanism, frontier roughness, urban glamour, and sheer cussedness. Hollywood was always projecting onto its audience a kind of simulacrum of social conventions whose tensions and contradictions were the meat of the drama to be taken seriously by some audiences and laughed off by others.

In other words, despite any mildly amusing pre-Code gestures, this theme dooms these allegedly hot items to a quaintness and turns them more into social artifacts than living art.