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NYC Film Festivals

Cracking the Code



Clara Bow in Call Her Savage, one of 45 titles programmed in Film Forum's Fox Before the Code series (Photo: Film Forum)

Fox Before the Code, a three-week festival of movies produced by the studio giant prior to the instatement of the Hayes Production Code of 1934, opens today at Film Forum and screens through Dec. 21. The project comprises almost four dozen original and restored prints of films from 1929-1934, demonstrating a staggering range of the uncensored content of early Hollywood.

Bruce Goldstein, the theater's director of repertory programming, has been screening programs with pre-Code themes since 1988 (his most recent was Paramount Before the Code, which ran for a month in 2005). He told The Reeler that he has seen the selection of available films expand enormously over time. “Our first festival was a general pre-Code theme, and so we were relying more on private collectors, such as William K. Everson [the film historian to whom the festival is dedicated]. Over the years, we’ve established relationships with studios, and they’ve really done a lot to expand what we can do.”

Indeed, in addition to working with the UCLA Film and Television Archive, MoMA and the George Eastman House, Goldstein worked closely with Schawn Belston, the Fox vice president for assets management who is responsible for preserving nearly a century's worth of films. (In keeping with the original format, the selections screen primarily on 33mm film.) Specifically, the pair focused on the era 1929-34, prior to the 1935 merger of the Fox and 20th Century enterprises and just before the companies' adherence to the new production code laid down due in part to the objections of the Catholic Legion of Decency; “(N)o picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it,” it insisted, adding that pictures must represent “correct standards of life” and not ridicule “law, natural or human.”

The films include Call Her Savage, a 1932 talkie starring Clara Bow as Nasa, a loose Texas woman who ultimately attributes her boozing and sexual deviance (including a “romp with her Great Dane”) to her Indian father. “When I first saw a pre-Code film, I was just stunned," Goldstein said. "I never believed that films could be that racy in 1931.” The themes of other early features like Born to be Bad, (starring Loretta Young as a mother out of wedlock and Cary Grant as the married man who falls for her) and Coming Out Party (the arrival of a debutante carrying her immigrant boyfriend’s child) are just a few in the program demonstrating the racial and sexual quandaries present during the Great Depression -- not to mention the anxiety felt by many Americans over the changing depiction of urban life in America.

Goldstein explained that the danger behind the pre-Code films was not just about sex and violence, but also about the urban threat perceived by small-town audiences. “Small country cinemas were showing talkies, which were really urban films -- while silent movies were often about rural themes," he said. " 'Urban threat' at the time could often mean an ethnic threat. The urban types were definitely not the ‘All-American’ audience. And once talkies came in, Hollywood raided vaudeville for good actors, so suddenly lots of Jewish themes and Jewish families started appearing on film. That’s where you get The Jazz Singer, Abie’s Irish Rose, all those films.” The festival in fact opens with two films representative of the pre-code focus on urban dwellers: the romantic comedy Me and My Gal starring Spencer Tracy, and The Bowery, a celebration of “low life” starring George Raft, Wallace Beery, and Fay Wray.

The production code was in place but not enforced until 1934, leaving time for what Goldstein considered some of the dirtiest films of the early Hollywood years. Despite his love for these little-seen films, he noted that the crackdown on Hollywood may have been inevitable. “Movies were getting really tawdry," he said. "People in small towns were getting sick of seeing pictures where people conducted themselves in unsavory ways. So contemporary audiences are astonished when they watch these films.”

Over the years, he adds, his primary motivation has been to both expose new audiences to and challenge our conceptions of what “classic Hollywood” was really about. And if the Fox series is any indication, Film Forum's pre-Code series does both again.

“Most of these films are not on TCM, and they’re not considered classic," Goldstein said. "When I was growing up, these films were just not on TV. They were kept off the air not because they were primative, but because of their content. ... [But] if the movie’s good, people will respond through the ages. So I’ll get more out of seeing a regular film than a so-called classic.” -- Jessica Freeman-Slade

Posted at December 1, 2006 8:25 AM

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