Tag Archives: Pre-Code Hollywood

A Word on Censorship

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We’re currently living in a time where groups on all sides of the political spectrum feel the need to silence and censor the voices of their identified opponents. This troubling development is seeing an increasing amount of support from extremists on both sides of the spectrum, and seems to be specifically infecting the young members of our post-secondary education system. Our three month long spotlight on Pre-Code Hollywood was something of a response to these calls for censorship.

The least we could do was spotlight one of the most unsung periods of creativity and risk-taking in Hollywood, all thanks to the looming threat of censorship. Once the Hays Code was officially enacted in 1934, the industry began to suffer the wrath of censorship boards who had free reign to cut films and stifle the creative spirit of writers, directors, and actors of the time. While a great many masterpieces saw release during the Hays Code era, one can’t help but think things may have been even greater had Hollywood not bent the knee to the great threat of political correctness.

While censorship certainly does boast a number of benefits to certain members of society, its cons greatly outweigh the pros. Avoiding conflicts by policing media arts is one way to avoid offending more sensitive viewers, but this shouldn’t be enough to warrant silencing dissenting voices, nor should it give governing boards the ability to cut content from existing films, television shows, or music.

This power is too easy to exploit and take advantage of, effectively allowing one major party to curate content based on their own agenda. Freedom of speech and expression is the greatest thing about living in a modern Western civilization, and allowing others to silence your unique voice for fear of offending or troubling others simply should not be tolerated. Silence is a weapon that has been continually exploited by the world’s most evil dictators and demagogues for centuries, and yet somehow those uninformed continue to call for widespread censorship.

Instead of silencing voices you don’t agree with, simply know that you don’t have to listen to them – sometimes it’s better to walk away and know deep down that you have the moral victory. Better yet, challenge their beliefs and make them understand where you’re coming from and why you don’t agree with their point of view. Discourse is the most effective way to challenge the beliefs of somebody you fundamental disagree with, and holds very little potential for unnecessary violence if done with respect and common courtesy. No matter what your opinion on something, you have a voice and a right to speak it – nobody should be able to take that away from you.

If the major studios of 1930’s Hollywood had been more bold and willing to hold a discussion with the governing bodies enforcing the Hays Code, then maybe things would have gone differently. Instead, years were spent by writers and directors subtly trying to subvert the unhelpful Code – only for it to inevitably dissolve after thirty years of enforcement. All this because the deeply conservative government of the time was uncomfortable with the challenging of the church, the institution of marriage, and with the idea that people of all races and genders were equal.

We as a society should learn from these mistakes and not allow history to repeat itself. Censorship is an unnecessary evil designed only to silence the dissenting opinions of those deemed “lesser than” the morally upright popular majority. It’s incredibly important that we uphold our free speech laws and never allow the power of censorship to fall into the wrong hands – it is far too easy to exploit and force your views and morals onto others.

Next time you think about silencing somebody’s voice simply because you don’t agree with them, think about how slippery this slope can become. Before long, we’ll have a much larger group of extremists looking to force their carefully shaped morals and opinions onto those different than them, with the threat of silence (or worse) looming for those who will not comply. We as a society cannot let it get to this point – there are far more productive options to challenge those who you disagree with.

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Pre-Code Hollywood – Wrap-Up

033-scarface-theredlistOur Pre-Code Hollywood marathon has been one of the most rewarding endeavors I’ve taken part in to date! I’ve discovered numerous incredible films that I never would have seen otherwise, and learned a great deal about the history of Hollywood. The years leading up to the establishment of the Hays Code were some of the greatest years of early Hollywood, as writers, directors, and actors knew they could get away with not being censored. The creative spirit seen in the five years leading up to the enforcement of the Code has rarely been duplicated in North America, save for New Hollywood era of the late 1960’s through to the late 1970’s.

Below are some of my favorite films, performances, and more that I feel deserve some recognition from the general public. If you only have the time and patience to seek out one or two of these films, make it one of these:

Best FilmI Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (runner-up: Scarface)

Best Actor – Paul Muni, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (runner-up: James Cagney, The Public Enemy)

Best Actress – Barbara Stanwyck, Baby Face (runners-up: Bette Davis, Of Human Bondage and Jean Harlow, Red-Headed Woman)

Best Director – Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson, Scarface (runner-up: Mervyn LeRoy, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Gold Diggers of 1933)

Best Supporting Performance – Aline MacMahon, Gold Diggers of 1933 (runner-up: Claudette Colbert, The Sign of the Cross)

Best Moment – “Pettin’ in the Park”, Gold Diggers of 1933 (runner-up: “The hunt”, The Most Dangerous Game)

And there you have it! A big thanks to all those who stood by patiently over the three months that it took to complete the marathon. If you have any suggestions for future marathons, comments or criticism, feel free to comment below or email us at sgtpeppersfilmclub@gmail.com!

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Pre-Code Hollywood #15 – Of Human Bondage (1934)

Of_Human_Bondage_PosterOf Human Bondage (1934)
Directed by: John Cromwell
Written by: Lester Cohen, Ann Coleman (based on Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham)
Starring: Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Frances Dee, Kay Johnson, Reginald Owen

From the outset of the film, we follow club-footed wanna-be artist Philip Carey (Leslie Howard), who is harshly told by his teacher to give up on his artistic endeavors. Philip drops out of art school to move to London and pursue a career as a medical doctor. While in London, Philip meets and almost instantly falls in love with a foul-mouthed waitress named Mildred Rogers (Bette Davis). Mildred mocks Philip for his club foot and clearly does not hold the same interest in him, but Philip does not relent. Daydreaming about Mildred causes Philip to fail his med school exams, which does not seem to phase the young man at all. After she runs away and marries a salesman, Philip moves on with his life and falls in love with a woman named Norah (Kay Johnson). When Mildred returns single and pregnant, the nearly masochistic Philip gladly gives up his new life in order to cater to the woman who treats him so poorly.

While it may not feature the same risque elements that have made so many of the films during our Pre-Code marathon an absolute joy to watch, Of Human Bondage features some of its own racy and provocative elements. It plays heavy on the melodramatic elements of its story, which makes it stand out somewhat from the crowd. Of Human Bondage feels far more grounded and realistic than other films of the period, and much of this is largely due to the lead performances, and the screenplay adapted by Lester Cohen and Ann Coleman.

The character of Philip Carey is a tragic one, and even though his decisions are deeply frustrating, I couldn’t help but feel for the man. He gives up on his hopes and dreams within the first minutes of the film, admitting defeat and settling on a career that will ultimately be much less satisfying for him. Anytime Philip comes in contact with Mildred, he gladly gives up everything that is good in his life to bow down to her. Philip is ultimately a slave to the sexual and emotional power than Mildred holds over him. Leslie Howard’s performance is at all times desperate, pathetic, and disgraced – his moments of happiness seem to come only when Mildred is out of the picture and he has had time to forget about her. Howard’s physical acting is equally as impressive, with the actor perfectly selling Philip’s club foot even though director John Cromwell opts to never directly show it.
3While her costar shines as the pathetic and sympathetic character he is given, there’s nothing sympathetic about the actions of Bette Davis’ Mildred Rogers. Mildred is constantly looking out for herself, gladly walking all over Philip and taking advantage of his hospitality and his need to be wanted. Davis employs a somewhat believable cockney accent as Mildred Rogers, never overstating it or going too over-the-top – although there are moments where the accent is just brutal. The role of Mildred was a very brave one for Davis to take on, especially as an actress on the brink of stardom. There isn’t a whole lot to like about Mildred Rogers, and Bette Davis brings out a genuine sense of cruelty and conniving in nearly every scene in which she is the centerpiece of. Both of our lead characters are highly flawed and less than moral at any given time. For her efforts, Bette Davis was given a write-in nomination for Best Actress at the 1935 Academy Awards, making it the only nomination for Of Human Bondage.

The screenplay is another highlight of the highlights found in Of Human Bondage, even though it’s far from perfect as a character study. The relationship between Philip and Mildred is portrayed as an emotionally abusive and obsessive one, and is generally believable throughout. When Philip finally gets the nerve to dissolve the relationship once and for all, it’s done in a typically pathetic and cowardly way. Both characters are left disgraced, and it’s even made pretty clearly that Philip still feels a sense of longing for Mildred. The relationship is perfectly structured and balanced for melodrama, though halfway through the film I was asking myself why the two were even bothering with each other – there’s never any sense of shared romantic feelings between the two.
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Of Human Bondage is a very fitting end to our Pre-Code Hollywood marathon. It’s a tale of love and obsession at its most pathetic, and features two highly flawed characters who never seem to know exactly what they want out of life, or their relationship with each other. It’s Pre-Code elements are merely hinted at instead of said outright, which was done in order to appease the inevitable enforcement of the Hays Code. For this reason it feels slightly neutered, and perhaps a little less affecting than it would have been a few years prior. Still, the performances of Bette Davis and Leslie Howard are more than worth the price of admission here, as is the compelling character study of Philip and Mildred. Of Human Bondage is recommended.

 

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Pre-Code Hollywood #14 – Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

gold-diggers-1933-03Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy, Busby Berkeley
Written by: Edwin S. Gelsey, James Seymour, Ben Markson (dialogue), David Boehm (dialogue) (based on The Gold Diggers by Avery Hopwood)
Starring: Warren William, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Ginger Rogers, Ned Sparks, Guy Kibbee

Anybody who has read Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Film Club for any amount of time probably already knows that I have a weakness towards musical films. Gold Diggers of 1933 combines my favorite genre with elements of Pre-Code Hollywood into one impossible to hate package. Director Mervyn LeRoy’s (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) visionary talent behind the camera, Busby Berkeley’s energetic musical sequences, and a hilarious story set during America’s depression makes for one of the most memorable Pre-Code films of the era.

Gold Diggers of 1933 sees four aspiring stage actresses Polly (Ruby Keeler), Carol (Joan Blondell), Trixie (Aline MacMahon), and Fay (Ginger Rogers) struggling to find work during the depression. Producer Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks) is desperate to put on a show with the girls, but is struggling to find any source of funding. After hearing their neighbor Brad Roberts (Dick Powell) playing the piano and finding out his talents as a singer-songwriter, he is recruited for the hypothetical show. Brad eventually comes up with the money for the play, leading the Gold Diggers and Barney to suspecting him of criminal activity. In truth, Brad is the son in a millionaire family that despises the theater. Things become severely complicated when Brad’s brother Lawrence (Warren William) shows up to stop Brad from falling in love with a “gold digger”.
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From the very opening moments of Gold Diggers of 1933, I knew that the film was going to be an absolute treat. We open with a rendition of the now famous song “We’re in the Money”, which sets an ironic tone for the depression-era set movie to come, especially when the show is immediately shut down due to lack of funding. Not only does Gold Diggers have all the charm and wit of classic musical films of the era, but it also becomes something of a madcap screwball comedy in its second half – we are treated to mistaken identities, overly complicated plots to seduce and distract certain parties, and more banter than you can shake a stick at.

With four credited writers (two for dialogue, two for the screenplay) it could have been disastrous for the film – one of the major problems with modern films is having too many cooks in the kitchen. Luckily for Gold Diggers of 1933, this simply isn’t the case. The screenplay is hilarious and often risque, tackling the American depression head-on. We get musical numbers like “Pettin’ in the Park” that features a heavy dose of eroticism thanks to some near-nudity, naughty lyrics, and a very, very curious and nearly voyeuristic “baby” causing mayhem in the titular park. The writing for both musical and spoken portions of the film are equally strong, with both complimenting each other quite nicely. Much of the screwball elements introduced during the film’s second half are genuinely hilarious, even more than 80 years later – Trixie’s faux seduction of “Fanny” Peabody (Guy Kibbee) is my personal favorite part, but there’s just so much to love about it as a whole. The film ends with “Remember My Forgotten Man”, a rather dark commentary about the depression, war veterans, and the ultimately false promise of change – what a powerful statement for such a silly, energetic musical.
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The real star of the show in Gold Diggers of 1933 is the direction of musical sequences by the famous choreographer Busby Berkeley. His direction elevates the film from being another depression-set comedy film to being a memorable, erotic, energetic, and visually unique masterpiece of the musical genre. As with many other musical films, the song and dance sequences are the strongest element of Gold Diggers, which is saying a great deal because of its zany underlying story. Each musical sequence feels completely separate from the last, with all of them bringing striking visuals and seamless choreography that never overstays its welcome. “We’re in the Money” is garish and showy, “Pettin’ in the Park” is playful, silly, and titillating, “The Shadow Waltz” stands out from the crowd by being rather beautiful and understated, not quite matching the rest of the film’s tone, and “Remember My Forgotten Man” features a hint of German expressionism and says a great deal about living in poverty during the depression. Few other musical films boast such a diverse set of musical numbers, and even fewer can live up to the brilliance of the mad “Pettin’ the the Park”.

It’s in the second half of Gold Diggers of 1933 where the performances finally begin to stand out as something special – chemistry between actors is obvious, characters are developed, and our four main “gold diggers” are finally allowed to show us what they’ve got to offer. Joan Blondell’s Carol is passionate and seductive, making quick work of Warren Williams’ Lawrence. Aline MacMahon’s Trixie is purposely naughty in her “seduction” of Fanny, providing some of the film’s more laugh out loud moments. Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell are believable as the film’s central romance, as the two have immediate chemistry in both their musical and non-musical scenes. Also worth noting is Ginger Rogers’ early performance as Fay, who tries to seduce one of the three wealthy men, but ultimately fails.
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Gold Diggers of 1933 is one of the most triumphant films of the Pre-Code Hollywood era, genuinely pushing the envelope of accepted movie morality, and providing a funny and insightful commentary on depression-era America. Its musical numbers are brilliant choreographed and staged by the master Busby Berkeley, turning Gold Diggers into one of the most visually striking musicals ever produced in Hollywood. With solid performances across the board, inventive direction from two of the most consistent filmmakers of the era, and a screenplay that will put a permanent smile on your face, there’s a lot here to love. Gold Diggers of 1933 easily gets my highest recommendation.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #13 – The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

The_Bitter_Tea_of_General_YenThe Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)
Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Edward Paramore (based on The Bitter Tea of General Yen by Grace Zaring Stone)
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther, Walter Connolly, Gavin Gordon

The Bitter Tea of General Yen is an early sound film from one of America’s all-time greatest movie directors, Frank Capra. There’s absolutely no indication here that this is an early film of his, as Capra’s film just about matches the incredibly high quality later seen in pictures like It Happened One Night, It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Arsenic and Old Lace, and You Can’t Take It With You. While it may not be the most boundary-pushing film of our Pre-Code Hollywood marathon, the film has a lot to say about miscegenation and sexual relationships between people of different races, and features a grand and chaotic civil war backdrop.

The film takes place during the Chinese civil war of the 1920’s, where we follow a number of American missionaries. The most notable missionaries featured include Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) and Dr. Robert Strike (Gavin Gordon), who are due to be married while in China. Robert postpones the ceremony at the very last minute to save a group of Chinese orphans, with Megan insisting that she accompany him on the dangerous mission. The two stop at the headquarters of General Yen (Nils Asther) in order to gain safe passage to the orphanage, but are laughed off by the General and his men. After saving the orphans, Megan and Bob are knocked unconscious and separated. Megan awakens in the care of General Yen, for whom she reluctantly begins to hold romantic and sexual feelings towards.
Bitter_Tea_02-1Frank Capra’s film took me entirely by surprise, especially since it has seemingly fallen into relative obscurity among moviegoers and film historians. The Bitter Tea of General Yen tells a compelling large-scale story in just under 90 minutes, a feat which many modern films fail to accomplish with such class and determination. The script, adapted by Edward Paramore and based on Grace Zaring Stone’s novel of the same name, quickly establishes our two lead characters and sets them up as being polar opposites. Megan is shown as being a considerate humanitarian who is never afraid to lend a helping hand, and General Yen is immediately established as a cynical and snarky human being who has little faith in his fellow man. Paramore’s screenplay tackles the then-controversial matter of miscegenation, which was then illegal in the majority of the United States. This tough subject is handled very seriously by the writer and director, with a number of scenes implying Megan Davis’ sexual attraction to General Yen – this had never before been seen in a Hollywood film, leading to many audiences ignoring The Bitter Tea of General Yen upon its release.

The amount of character development seen in Megan Davis and General Yen throughout the film is admirable, especially for a film that runs for just 87 minutes. Barbara Stanwyck’s Megan starts off as a strong willed and ambitious young woman, but we come to find out that she’s kind-hearted and empathetic as things go on – she never submits to Yen, but is constantly sparring with him. The first scene involving General Yen sees Megan’s rickshaw driver being killed by a passing car, to which Yen states “life comes cheap in China”, which infuriates Megan. Yen’s line of thinking comes off as very cynical and overly rational upon his introduction. Another example of this comes during a scene where we see Yen’s men methodically executing prisoners via firing squads, with Yen justifying the deaths as being better than starving to death in the inevitable food shortages. It’s clear that Megan and Yen are polar opposites, and yet something about their chemistry makes their constantly evolving relationship feel genuine.
MBDBITE EC009The performances are another strong aspect of The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Barbara Stanwyck is typically quite good as Megan Davis, but it’s Nils Asther as General Yen who really shines. Asther, a Danish-born actor, plays Yen in a “yellowface” performance, but not a minute of it feels exploitative. The actor brings the wildly unpredictable Yen to live in a respectful and patient performance, stealing the show in almost every scene he’s in. Another of the film’s strong performances belongs to Walter Connolly, who plays General Yen’s financial advisor Jones. Connolly’s Jones is much less suave than General Yen, instead coming off as a greedy, ruthless money man.

Frank Capra’s direction of The Bitter Tea of General Yen feels just as assured as his later masterpieces, and yet it comes a number of years before his most famous works. Capra, famous for bringing great performances out his actors, shows an early example of his power over his crew. Bitter Tea feels much more grandiose than many pictures of its era, with Capra making full use of studio sets in order to capture the look and feel of 1920’s China. The atmosphere is thick with rebellion and chaos, with multiple scenes of raging gun battles, executions, and surprise attacks. His condemnation of American missionaries is another revelation viewers can take away from the film – many of the missionaries seen in the film have a sense of superiority when dealing with the Chinese they are supposedly “helping”. In this crazy world of violent rebellion, it’s General Yen who ends up being the most humble and pragmatic of our cast of characters.
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The Bitter Tea of General Yen was a major surprise for me as a Frank Capra fan – the subtle brilliance of its themes of interracial love and racism cannot be overstated. The film’s screenplay and direction give it a unique tone and atmosphere of chaotic civil rebellion mixed with cautious lust between two polar opposite characters. The development of Megan and General Yen’s relationship is entirely believable and at all times compelling, with terrific performances from Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther, and Walter Connolly to back it up. The Bitter Tea of General Yen gets my highest recommendation. For more information, check out this incredible review on Pre-Code.Com!

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Pre-Code Hollywood #12 – Baby Face (1933)

Baby_Face_1933_film_posterBaby Face (1933)
Directed by: Alfred E. Green
Written by: Gene Markey, Kathryn Scola, Mark Canfield (story by)
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent

Alfred E. Green’s Baby Face is undoubtedly one of the most “Pre-Code” movies we’ve covered during this marathon, portraying Barbara Stanwyck’s main character Lily Powers as a woman who happily sleeps her way to the top. Baby Face makes bluntly comments on the power of human sexuality, and the influence that it holds over men and women, making it truly one of the first films of its kind. Green’s film takes themes that were previously explored in Pre-Code projects like Red-Headed Woman and Blonde Venus, and ramps them up – Baby Face is an empowering, if somewhat unfortunate, tale of a woman doing what she must to break the mold.

Baby Face follows Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck), a young woman who has been prostituted throughout her life by her father. After her father is killed, Lily is free to do as she pleases for the first time in her life. She and her friend Chico (Theresa Harris) hop on a train to New York, where Lily eventually finds work in a skyscraper that houses a large bank called Gotham Trust. Once there, Lily coldly and methodically sleeps her way to the top, having affairs with numerous coworkers. The most notable of which are the company’s Vice President J.P. Carter (Henry Kolker), and Courtland Trenholm (George Brent), the elected President of the bank. Eventually Lily and Courtland marry, which can only end one way unless the young woman undergoes a drastic lifestyle change.
Baby Face
Few actors had a screen presence that could rival that of Barbara Stanwyck, who absolutely carries Baby Face and raises it to be more than just a somewhat memorable Pre-Code film. Stanwyck’s turn as Lily Powers starts as being incredibly sympathetic – a young girl whose father has exploited sexually for years – and ends as a nearly unlikable, but empowered, female in a corporate position of power. Only a versatile actress like Stanwyck could pull off such an incredible transformation and make it entirely believable. While only 26 years old at the time, Barbara Stanwyck shows off the skills that would turn her into one of the most legendary actresses in Hollywood history. Without her as Lily Powers, it’s likely that Baby Face may have been a tremendous failure in regards to resonating with its audience.

Another highlight of Baby Face comes in its brisk pacing and a plot-driven screenplay. Writers Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola adapted the story by Mark Canfield, turning it into a powerful, subtle, and effective drama about sex and the early days of feminism. The screenwriters make it clearly almost immediately that Lily is an intelligent and highly capable person, but is being held down by her gender. Instead of shaming Powers for the actions that follow, the script treats them as necessary evils on the way to becoming powerful. Baby Face is oftentimes quite funny in its use of clever innuendo, and when paired with Alfred E. Green’s subtle direction makes the film stand out from many of its contemporaries. An recurring example of this happens everytime Lily successfully seduces somebody within the Gotham Trust bank – we are shown an exterior shot of the bank as Green’s camera pans upward, closer and closer to the top. Subtle touches like these make Baby Face a constant joy to watch, and establishes Baby Face as an intelligent and progressive project.

Baby Face is credited as being one of the films that helped to solidify the need for the Hays Code in Hollywood – no film before it had ever been so straightforward about the power of sexuality and the barriers met by women of the time. I can absolutely imagine how the content found within Baby Face may have been shocking to audiences in 1933. Even without showing any actual explicit sexual content, the suggestive comments and subtle direction make the film seem just as shocking as it would with actual scenes of sexuality. Some of the examples of Pre-Code content found in the film include Lily being told by her mentor to take advantage of men in order to attain a position of power, and the subsequent use of sex to move up the corporate ladder. Barbara Stanwyck appears scantily clad in more than a few scenes, using innuendo and her obvious sexual appeal to her advantage. It’s difficult to sum up the reasons why Baby Face was so controversial without spoiling the film’s best moments – you’ll just have to see them for yourself.
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Few of the films I’ve reviewed during the marathon have taken more than one watch to connect with me, at least not until Baby Face – the power of its message did not fully resonate with me until a second and third watch. Alfred E. Green’s film is much more than a shocking drama about sex, it’s a progressive, clever film that makes the absolute most of its short runtime and controversial subject matter. Come for Barbara Stanwyck’s excellent early performance, stay for the smart screenplay and clever direction. Baby Face is highly recommended.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #11 – The Sign of the Cross (1932)

The_sign_of_crossThe Sign of the Cross (1932)
Directed by: Cecil B. DeMille
Written by: Waldemar Young, Sidney Buchman (based on The Sign of the Cross by Wilson Barrett)
Starring: Fredric March, Elissa Landi, Claudette Colbert, Charles Laughton

Famous producer Cecil B. DeMille made a career out of forging some of Hollywood’s grandest epics, including The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cleopatra, and Union Pacific. DeMille’s religious epic The Sign of the Cross is another in a series of films at least partially responsible for the creation of the Hays Code, and it’s easy to see why when looking at it in a historical context. DeMille’s 1932 epic is filled with sexuality and violence, and tells a story that is chock full of intense bigotry and hatred. The Sign of the Cross is perhaps one of the ultimate examples of the sheer potential held by filmmakers in pre-code Hollywood – it’s full of ambitious filmmaking, passion, and depravity.

The Sign of the Cross takes place in the year 64 A.D., where the Roman Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) has just burned down the city. The action has been blamed on those of the Christian faith, creating an extremely anti-Christian sentiment without Rome. A young and lustful Marcus Superbus (Fredric March), prefect of Rome, is taken by Mercia (Elissa Landi) who he sees defending her fellow Christians. Marcus tries everything he can to seduce Mercia, but her devotion to her faith will not allow her to fall for Marcus’ games. When she hears of Marcus’ new infatuation, a jealous Empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) demands that Mercia be killed. This puts Marcus into a complicated and dangerous situation, torn between his beliefs and the beliefs of his nation – no matter what decisions are made by Marcus and Mercia, it surely won’t be pretty.
Sign Of The Cross, The
Religious epics have always been one of my favorite genres, with both Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments being lifelong favorites of mine. Unfortunately, The Sign of the Cross doesn’t hold a candle to either of those terrific pictures. While I can admire the grandiose nature of DeMille’s pre-code classic, very little of it actually stuck with me in any meaningful way. It stands as more of a fun, deranged curiosity than most of the true greats of the genre. That isn’t to say it’s all bad – the production design alone makes The Sign of the Cross more than worthy of a watch, especially in the context of pre-code Hollywood. Costumes and sets feel lavish and genuine, transporting viewers to the Roman Empire – the entire film feels as large in scale as many epics from the time period. It’s immediately clear that DeMille had an eye for detail, and a knack for capturing detailed period pieces on film. The film’s dark cinematography helps set the mood, featuring some terrific use of light and shadows during its many nighttime scenes. Cinematographer Karl Struss was nominated for an Academy Award for his efforts, making it the only nomination that The Sign of the Cross would receive.

The memorable performances by great actors like Charles Laughton, Claudette Colbert, and Fredric March all help to further The Sign of the Cross’ terrific mood and atmosphere. Laughton steals the show (as he always did) as Emperor Nero, whose sinister nature and indescribable prejudices make him very easy to hate. Nero is portrayed as a lazy, spiteful, worm of a man, and Laughton plays it up perfectly. Colbert’s sexually-charged performance as Empress Poppaea is every bit as memorable as Laughton’s, only for completely different reasons. Poppaea uses her beauty and sex appeal to her advantage in every scene, creating some of the film’s most titillating moments – the most iconic of which being an early scene that sees Colbert bathing in asses milk. Unfortunately for The Sign of the Cross, many of the supporting performances can’t exactly live up to those of the legendary main cast.

The Sign of the Cross’ weakest aspect is its story, which feels inconsequential in comparison to the sheer size and scope of the film. While there are many iconic and memorable moments throughout, there is little to nothing substantial connecting these moments to one another. The movie is ultimately a love story at its core, and not a terribly compelling one either. This is a shame, because the brutality and visceral nature of DeMille’s film could have made it truly unique had it featured stronger writing and pacing. Clocking in at over two hours long, I found myself begging for more of the aforementioned iconic moments. Luckily, the pre-code content of the film is consistent throughout, with scenes of brutal violence and outright sexuality being enough to hold viewers’ attention. This is certainly a film that would not have been possible following the enforcement of the Hays Code – in fact, DeMille’s film was heavily edited and censored until its restoration in the 1990’s.
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While Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross is a far cry from some of the incredible films we’ve taken a look at throughout our Pre-Code Hollywood marathon, there are hints of greatness throughout. The lavish set decoration and costuming rival some of the greatest epics of its time, the lead performances are wonderfully exaggerated and theatrical, and the film’s pre-code nature still does enough to shock and titillate today. It’s unfortunate that the film couldn’t overcome a weak central story, bloated run-time, and some underwhelming supporting performances – there’s a masterpiece in here somewhere. With all that said, The Sign of the Cross is sadly not recommended – it’d be best to see this one as a curiosity, much in the same way people view Caligula today.

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