Friday, November 23, 2007

So let it be written, so let it be done...

c. Revenge in modern times shall not be justified.

Well, that's curious. Why just modern times? The Production Code has all manner of little oddities running throughout it including things like "c" from Article 1, Section I listed above in which crimes and other immoral actions were okay, as long as they took place way, way in the past. "Modern Times" was never fully defined, although I'm almost positive they weren't strictly forbidding revenge to be shown in the Charlie Chaplin film. Nobody really cared because they all knew what it meant: the Bible was a sacred holy book to millions in America and yet contained some of the most violent, repulsive and profane imagery imaginable. And "violent, repulsive and profane imagery" was just what filmmakers like Cecil B. DeMille wanted to get up on the screen early and often. So if you left out "modern times" from your wording you would immediately rule out many Bible stories which would seem odd since it was religious groups, like the Catholic Legion of Decency, that got the whole enforcement ball rolling in the first place.

The Code still wouldn't allow a filmmaker to have explicit nudity and the like but other things were allowed in Biblical Epics that wouldn't be for non-Biblical Epics. For instance, section VII on dances reads (don't tell Kevin Bacon):

1. Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passions are forbidden.

2. Dances which emphasize indecent movements are to be regarded as obscene.

Well, the Bible's just chock full of women doing passionate gyrating dances for pleasure, reward or just some guy's head on a platter. The solution? Easy. Just make it so everyone understands that outside of nudity and explicitly presented violence, the code didn't really apply to Bible movies.

Now I've never ever been a fan of biblical epics but I confess to a guilty pleasure I get from watching The Ten Commandments. I'm sure we've all seen this by now. Well here's ten things I love about Commandments:

1. I love that Charlton Heston acts each line. He may not act them very well, but by God he acts every one of them.

2. I love Anne Baxter's "darting eyes" hamminess as Nefretiri.

3. I love Anne Baxter's taunting of Rameses (Yul Brynner) despite the fact that the taunting will clearly lead to his, her and her son's ruin.

4. I love Edward G. Robinson asking "Where's your messiah now?"

5. I love that the freed Jews actually listen to Edward G. Robinson despite the fact that they have just witnessed their God part an entire effing sea before their eyes!

6. I love that the plan they come up with to return to Egypt and gain Rameses favor is to build a golden calf and march back holding it up before them. Yeah, that'll work.

7. I love that God lives on a mountain and everyone knows when he's home because when he is there's smoke over it. Those cigarettes must be huge!

8. I love that no one, and I mean no one, in the movie even resembles a native of the Middle East or Africa. Cedric Hardwicke?!!?!??!!?

9. I love that DeMille took the entire cast and crew to Egypt for location shooting but 90% of the movie was filmed on sets.

10. I love the parting of the Red Sea. I admit it. When those old-timey special effects kick in I'm giddy with delight.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Ribbons of Light

Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented. - General Principles, Section 2, Motion Picture Production Code 1930

In film noir, degradation and death seem to lurk in every nightmare alley, behind every venetian blind in every seedy apartment. -David Oberbey, In the Shadows, Movie of the Forties, 1982

No character can speak authoritatively from a space which is continually being cut into ribbons of light. - Paul Schrader, Notes on Film Noir, Film Comment, Spring 1972

Those last two quotes are from two gentlemen who understand the minutia of film noir in far greater detail than I ever shall. If you'd like more just do some searching: the net is filled with great and insightful essays on noir. If you'd rather visit your local library or feel like shelling out some dough to for your own copy, you can pick up all four volumes of The Film Noir Reader, each of which contains collections of great essays on noir, including Schrader's authoritative, Notes on Film Noir, as well as interviews with those that made it happen.

But for me, this is how I've always defined film noir:

Kathie: Oh, Jeff, I don't want to die!
Jeff: Neither do I, baby, but if I have to I'm gonna die last.
- Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum, Out of the Past, 1947

Other definitions include:

A few more definitions:

Walter Neff: It's just like the first time I came here, isn't it? We were talking about automobile insurance, only you were thinking about murder. And I was thinking about that anklet.

- Fred MacMurray, Double Indemnity, 1944

Vivian: Why did you have to go on?

Marlowe: Too many people told me to stop.

- Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, The Big Sleep, 1946

Ellen: Why don't you go to the police?

Philip: I'm my own police.

- Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd, This Gun for Hire, 1942

Sam Spade: Haven't you tried to buy my loyalty with money and nothing else?

Brigid O'Shaughnessy: What else is there I can buy you with?

- Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, The Maltese Falcon, 1941

Vargas: How could you arrest me here? This is my country.

Quinlan: This is where you're gonna die.

-Charlton Heston and Orson Welles, Touch of Evil, 1958

Henry: My motto is: "If you want something, get it now!"

- Burt Lancaster, Sorry, Wrong Number, 1948

Kitty: Who do you think you are? My guardian angel?

Millie: Not me, honey. I lost those wings a long time ago.

Joan Bennett and Margaret Lindsay, Scarlet Street, 1945

And there are many more. Amazingly, even today critics and viewers alike debate if film noir is even a genre or not. Working within the confines of the Production Code produced an ambiguity so great in many a filmmakers' work that the films themselves, especially in the darker crime genres, remain wide-open to interpretation today. Nevertheless, everyone knows what noir is, don't they? It's those images, it's that dialogue. It's that loner with the gun and the relentless need to make sense of it all. It's that woman, the one who says she wouldn't hurt a fly, but that you'd never turn your back on. It's that crazy son of a bitch with all the money and the power pulling the strings behind the scenes but missing the one thing he really wants. It's all those things. Or maybe it's none of them. Maybe it's all just a trick of light and shadow. The search for the perfect definition continues. Until we find it there's one thing I can say for certain: It's the stuff dreams are made of.

Or should that be nightmares?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Wrong Entertainment

From Reasons Supporting the Preamble of the Code from the Production Code of 1930:

I. So correct entertainment raises the whole standard of a nation. Wrong entertainment lowers the whole living conditions and
moral ideals of a race.

Note, for example, the healthy reactions to
healthful sports, like baseball, golf; the unhealthy reactions to sports
like cockfighting, bullfighting, bear baiting, etc.

Note, too, the effect on ancient nations of gladiatorial combats, the obscene plays of Roman times, etc.

Now god knows I do love the occasional bear baiting (I probably engage in it every other Saturday at least) but I have noticed it produces an "unhealthy" reaction in me.

Hollywood would also notice the "unhealthy' (and profitable) reaction produced by "wrong entertainment" and respond to the code in the forties and fifties with two genres that would hit their respective strides in those two decades: Film Noir and Biblical Epics. They both allowed things "disallowed" by the code due to their settings and narratives, and Hollywood was ripe to exploit any loophole it could find. Call it Code Baiting.

Up next, Cinema Styles will strive to "lower the whole living conditions and moral ideals" of the masses as we venture into - Wrong Entertainment!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Willful Offence

The Don'ts and Be Carefuls


Resolved, That those things which are included in the following list shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, irrespective of the manner in which they are treated:

11. Willful offence to any nation, race or creed;

Remember the Don'ts and Be Carefuls? Well you might remember number eleven above. As stated in the preamble, anything listed "shall not appear... irrespective of the manner in which they are treated." This was in 1927, the year The Jazz Singer gave voice to the movies. It was a hit, a smash hit. It excited audiences. It changed the way movies were made. And it had it's lead character, played by Al Jolsen, look like this for one of his numbers:

After The Jazz Singer, blackface became popular in musicals (despite protests from the NAACP). And when something becomes popular in the movies, studios find a way to keep it in. But what about nudity and language you ask. Those were popular, weren't they? No, actually they weren't. Or at least they weren't worth the trouble. Powerful groups like the Catholic Legion of Decency (founded in 1933 by Archbishop of Cincinnati John T. McNicholas) began organizing boycotts and muscling newspaper giants into dropping ads for studios that made "smut" movies. So by 1934 it was suddenly in the best interest of the studios to drop language and nudity and abide by the Production Code. Besides Joseph Ignatius Breen, who headed up the Production Office, was a good Catholic.

But neither the studios nor the Catholic Legion of Decency, or any other church for that matter, had any problem with denigrating African-Americans on the screen for the purpose of entertainment. So in one of the most insidious and cowardly acts of the Motion Picture Association (and they had many) the Production Code included not one provision for the treatment of race. One will recall that the 1927 list of "Don'ts and Be Careful" included the provision listed at the top of this post. However, when the list was revised and expanded upon to create a formal set of guidelines (The Production Code of 1930) the provision above was separated into two parts, not three. Those two parts were covered under sections dealing with Nationality and Religion. The part dealing with race was dropped. Blackface and Stepin Fetchit were too popular. If they had a provision outlining proper treatment of race, and didn't follow it, it could be clearly used against them by both filmmakers and activist groups stressing that either the rest didn't need to be followed as well or they all had to be. Easier to just leave it out. Then audiences could be treated to grand entertainment like this, free of oversight:

Like most, if not all, moral codes dictated by an elite few, the Production Code was pretty much a sham. It contained some provisions that made sense (children should not be used in sex scenes or have their genitals photographed) but 95 percent of it was pure garbage. Going through the code one could pick and choose which guidelines were the most laughable, the most unnecessary or the most puritanical but the most hateful, the most despicable and the most shameful guideline is the one that isn't even there. It's the one that was dropped and it is hateful, despicable and shameful not because of what it says but because of its absence. What it says, in the 1927 list of "Don'ts and Be Carefuls" is that no film shall contain any subject matter or actions that are "willful offences to Nation, Race or Creed." What no one knew in 1927 was that when the full code was revised and published in 1930 it would contain the most heinous insult to race imaginable by its very omission of any guidelines for its portrayal. One could say it was politics. One could say it was money. But one could not say it was an oversight. Its absence was intentional. For that reason alone, no one can deny that it was, in every sense of the word, a willful offence to race.

A willful offence indeed.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

I Am Curious Mellow

VI. Costume

1. Complete nudity is never permitted. This includes nudity in fact or in silhouette, or any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture.

Part one of article six of the Production Code (that would be the ominous Costume section) states unambiguously that nudity is out. So don't get curious yellow, blue or any other colors of the spectrum. But before the Production Code nudity was most decidedly in. It wasn't rampant (hell it isn't now) so don't go expecting to find nests of naked bodies in pre-code cinema but it was shown occasionally and many movies even shot scenes twice, once with nudity, once without, depending on where in the country or the world the movie was being shown. The great documentary The Love Goddesses (1965) shows several scenes from films in the twenties that were shot this way, allowing the viewer glimpses at rare stills of stars such as Adolphe Menjou surrounded by topless waitresses in a casino.

In researching nudity in film one is well advised to take the entries of Wikipedia and IMDB with a grain of salt as both are slightly misleading with their information. The film most often given credit for being the first to show female nudity (that wasn't pornographic) is Inspiration, released in 1915. Oh I almost forgot - released November 18, 1915. Running a little under an hour in length and concerning the story of a sculptor seeking the ideal subject to model for him, it featured star Audrey Munson in the nude as that ideal model (she would go nude again as a model the following year in Purity). Wikipedia states, "It is notable for being the first American film to feature nudity" and IMDB tells us in the trivia section for Inspiration, "Generally cited as the first non-pornographic American film to feature nudity." There's just one problem with this. It wasn't. In another section of Wikipedia, dealing with the subject of nudity on film in general they get it right by stating, "Audrey Munson appeared in the first American film to feature nudity by a leading actor, Inspiration." The key word there being "leading." However, Wikipedia then fails to state (and IMDB too for that matter) what is the first non-pornographic film to feature female nudity period, whether by a lead or not. Don't worry, that's why I'm here. The first non-pornographic film to feature nudity was The Hypocrites, also released in 1915 but in January of that year, beating out Inspiration by a good ten months. It also ran for five reels and oddly enough also featured nudity in a sexless way - in the form of a nude used as a transitional motif within the film.

But no film of the period could beat an epic of nudity released in 1916, Daughter of the Gods. It used 20,000 extras, 220,000 feet of film and took eight months to shoot. It ran for over three hours and featured star Annette Kellerman (who Esther Williams would later play in Million Dollar Mermaid) in the nude during a waterfall scene. And it is now completely lost. Not partially lost like large segments of Greed (1924). Completely lost. There is no known print in existence. How the hell does something that big, that expensive, that notorious get lost? But I digress. In this case, IMDB's trivia page outdoes itself for inaccurate information with this doozy: The scene on the waterfall was the first in movie history to be done completely in the nude. The following year nudity in film was banned in the united states.

Why it's a veritable cornucopia of wrongness. Let's take it in two parts.

One, the nude scene was not the first in history to be done completely in the nude. If you can find any articles of clothing on the models in The Hypocrites and Inspiration please let me know. I must not be seeing them.

Two, nudity was not banned a year later. In fact, it was never banned. The Production Code was a self-imposed, self-enforced set of guidelines that the studios went along with starting in 1934. And the government certainly never banned it. Not even for pornography. The Supreme Court and Lower Court rulings that have stood on pornography in the twentieth century centered on distribution of obscene items through the mail and sales to minors - not the outlawing of pornography itself. So whoever wrote that little line of trivia is definitely someone you do not want on your team at the next All-Star Movie Trivia Challenge.

Later, stars like Clara Bow would appear nude in films (Hula 1927) and Hedy Kiesler, who would move to Hollywood and become Hedy Lamarr, would bare her breasts in Ekstase (1933) before Joseph Breen actually convinced the studios to start following the production code whereby it all came to a screeching halt.

Now I know what you're thinking. All this talk of nudity seems a bit gender biased. When was the first male nudity shown on the screen? To that I would answer, "You are aware that men ran Hollywood right? So lots of naked ladies, no naked men." Many films from the period featured the buttocks of actors (notably Lew Ayres diving into a lake in All Quiet on the Western Front) but there doesn't appear to be (outside of pornographic film, documented as far back as 1900) any full frontal shots of a lead actor or otherwise in a mainstream Hollywood production in the pre-code era. Sort of the opposite of a "members only" club. In fact, no members at all. I guess you could say the penis got the shaft (okay, I'll stop). After the code we would get male nudity in Women in Love (1969), Medium Cool (1969) and Zabriskie Point (1970) but during and before the code it just wasn't there.

So there you have it. The sexless, bland history of nudity in pre-code mainstream Hollywood productions. If you haven't seen any of the films I'm discussing, trust me when I tell you there is little that is titillating in pre-code nudity. It was always presented in tasteful and tactful ways. However, violence was presented then and now with an unbridled passion. But that never seemed to bother the censors as much. Mainstream Middle-America has always believed that showing a woman's vagina or a man's penis signals the end of the world for our wholesome family values while violence makes for pure red-blooded entertainment. There's a whole post that could be done on that alone. Is it because of repression, denial or just good old fashioned cowardice? Probably a little of all three but I'm with the group that thinks they're more afraid than anything else.

Curious. Yellow.



Wednesday, November 7, 2007

What the f...?

V. Profanity, Pointed profanity (this includes the words, God, Lord, Jesus, Christ - unless used reverently - Hell, S.O.B., damn, Gawd), or every other profane or vulgar expression however used, is forbidden.

That's article five of the 1930 Production Code. The full code is located here for the curious. Article V makes it clear that profanity is off-limits. Unless it's used in a big production by a powerful studio in which case the code doesn't really apply. Such was the fickle state of things in the Production Code Era. Before the Production Code profanity had been seen in intertitles in silent films with many films using the words "damn" and "hell." In other cases much harsher language was used. In 1924 Maxwell Anderson penned his play What Price Glory, a war drama. When it was made into a film in 1926 by Raoul Walsh it contained a scene in which Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe get into a shouting match. During this argument they spew profanity at each other, and not just "damn" and "hell." That rarely used, kindly and genteel word beginning with an "F" also got thrown about. None of it was put in the intertitles of course, but plenty of people could read the lips (and let's face it, it's a pretty easy word to lip read). The result was a deluge of letters from furious moviegoers shocked - SHOCKED(!) - that such language would be used in a movie.

The March 5, 1927 issue of The Literary Digest reported on the film and here are reproduced some of the article's most entertaining highlights:

The British censor ruled out the play for London; but the screen version of this drama, it appears, says quite as much in the way of rough talk, and every theater in London, we are told, is clamoring to secure it.

"In 'What Price Glory?' McLaglen and the others have been made carefully to articulate and emphasize the full vocabulary of the profession of arms, especially that of the American soldier, which is rather richer and rounder than the rest, and this aspect of the film is affording censors much anxious thought.

'"They who see this picture,' says Variety, 'are going to start tipping off on the cuss words used, words that can only be gotten by lip-reading, but the bunch that goes to see the picture will watch for that rough stuff.' "

'Victor McLaglen takes the honors in acting and unbridled profanity,' says the San Francisco Herald, 'and the film leaves no doubt as to what words are being used.' "'Wherein does it profit us,' asks the Hollywood Spectator, 'to photograph a man's lips so that the audience knows that he is uttering profanity not uttered in the presence of women?'

You read it here first: The vocabulary of the American soldier is "rather richer and rounder than the rest." I suspected as much.

Silent profanity spewing tirades aside, the film world didn't say much more than damn and hell after that for quite a few years. In 1935, Fred Stone as Mr. Adams said "Damn you!" in Alice Adams (1935) and a few British productions used the word as well. Pygmalion (1938) even used the word "bloody" and from a female character no less. And of course in 1939 Rhett Butler showed his tender side in Gone With the Wind, letting Scarlett know just how much he cared.

By the fifties the "damns" and "hells" were becoming more common with censors even allowing the character of Terry Malloy to tell a priest to "go to hell" in On the Waterfront (1954). By the mid-sixties the profanity really starting ramping up. In Cold Blood (1965) contained the line, "On what? $43 and a smile and bullshit." Even more notably in 1965 critic Kenneth Tynan remarked on the television show BBC3, "I doubt if there are any rational people to whom the word 'fuck' would be particularly diabolical, revolting or totally forbidden." It was the first time the word "fuck" had been uttered on television or film (who would've guessed television would get there first?). The date was November 13, 1965 (but you're not really surprised to find that out are you?). The movies would be next. For years an old outtake from Design for Living (1933) had circulated in which Miriam Hopkins utters, "Oh, those fucking Egelbauers", referring to the stuffy guests her character entertains. It was clearly ad-libbed and not intended for printing and inclusion in the finished film, which it wasn't. But in 1967, the last year of the Production Code, the "F" word finally made it's way into a film intentionally when in I'll Never Forget What's'isname Marianne Faithful yelled, "Get out of here, you fucking bastard!"

From that moment on there was no going back. The Production Code was dead.

The ratings system officially kicked off in November of 1968 and assigned ratings to films dependant upon their content. It took a couple of years for screenwriters to get used to the idea that they were now allowed to write any words they wanted into a screenplay. In films like M.A.S.H. (1970) the "F" word was used only once while in the gritty crime drama The French Connection (1971) it was used many times. By the early seventies profanity was becoming commonplace in movies but there remained one last hurdle: Titles. In 1976 Australian Bert Deling released his comedy Pure Shit but was forced to change it to Pure S in order to get distribution. And in 2005 Steve Anderson released his documentary Fuck, finally breaking the ultimate title taboo, although for ads and posters the "u" was replaced by a star (that way no one could possibly figure out what the title was. Really, do you have any idea what this word is: F*ck? I didn't think so).

And so the language barrier has been obliterated. From the silents to sound every possible permutation of profanity has been used, re-used and abused from top to bottom. They've even been used in titles. At this point the only debate left is whether profanity should be used as often as it is in post-code films and how many times certain words must be used before affecting their rating. I could go into that in this space now. I could.

But frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.