December 6, 2006

Pre-Code Dispatch. 1.

David D'Arcy on four films he's caught in Film Forum's ongoing series, Fox Before the Code (through December 21).

Jackie Cooper and George Raft

Jackie Cooper and George Raft
in The Bowery

Film Forum has done it again, with a series of Pre-Code Fox films that you've never seen, or that don't look like anything you've seen, because they're being shown in new prints made by Fox for the event. The last studio profile from the Pre-Code years was of Paramount. Let's hope we get to see all of them.

Fox wasn't the raunchiest of the studios, but a survey of the films that it made from 1931 to 1934 gives you a taste of everything that the mostly Catholic Code enforcers wanted to keep off the screen - drunks, remorseless criminals, wise-cracking pleasure-loving women who weren't allergic to money, dumb cops, and corrupt and cynical businessmen. Sound timely? Bear in mind that the films of the 30s didn't become pure escapism until after 1934, when the Code was enforced fiercely. There's plenty of reality here.

One of my favorites is still The Bowery, from 1933. Raoul Walsh's answer to the Depression seems to have been a period that was more debauched. It's one of the rare Pre-Code period films, set in the Gay Nineties, New York's Belle Époque, although in this gilded age the only gilded object seems to have been the spittoon. Walsh doesn't spare anyone's feelings in this circus of political incorrectness.

George Raft and Fay Wray The Bowery opens in a bar called "Nigger Joe's," and from there to the end, not a single stereotype is spared - Jewish tailors swarm around an unsuspecting buyer of a suit, an Irish hoodlum played by Jackie Cooper sets "the Chinks" on fire, and the Irish break into drunken brawls every few minutes. There's a turf battle between two gangsters - Chuck Conners (Wallace Beery), a bloated boss who turns out to have a soft heart, and Steve Brodie (George Raft), a sharpy who moves like an acrobat. Each of them runs a private fire brigade that makes money when someone's house burns down. (If you ever believed in Bush's vision of privatizing essential services, you won't after this.) No less than Fay Wray turns up as a starving girl looking for a job, and that's a good enough reason for a brawl to break out. I'm not the first to say that these were the real "Gangs of New York."

Twenty years ago, when I first saw a series of Pre-Code films at Film Forum, I asked the film scholar William Everson (to whom this series is dedicated) to recommend the quintessential film of the period. He chose The Bowery for its take-no-prisoners commitment to humor above all else, no matter whose feelings got hurt. I can't think of a better recommendation (although there is plenty of competition).

Spencer Tracy was Fox's star, the studio's tough-guy answer to James Cagney, who was already making money for one of the competitors. Tracy was as stereotyped as anything before the Code, an Irishman with a hash-slinger's response to any line and a brawler who never met a fight he didn't like. This is not Tracy at his best, but it is the Tracy that you probably didn't know. All the more reason to see the films.

Me and My Gal Me and My Gal may be the classic Tracy film of the period, but don't confuse classic for best. Tracy is a cop patrolling the docks who falls for a real hash-slinger, Joan Bennett, who works at her family's restaurant. Her sister, who's gone high-hat, as they said in those days, has ditched her jail-bird boyfriend for a homely guy with a good heart. (Their wedding is an Irish brawl, with Bennett's Irish father throwing the radio that annoys him out the window - there seems to be one of those in every Fox film.) Tracy saves the day when he breaks in on the sister and her mobster lover. There's more schtick in Me and My Gal than in a vaudeville highlight reel, including a spoof of Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude and a drunk on the docks and in the restaurant who seems to be in more scenes than Tracy himself. One of the great touches is the father of the new husband of Joan Bennett's sister, a war veteran, completely paralyzed, who spends all day in a wheelchair, blinking his eyes to communicate. (Remember, the war was just fifteen years before the film was made, and veterans who depended on government support were among the worst victims of the Depression. You wouldn't know that from movies that were made after 1934.) An abandoned veteran is the last thing that the enforcers of the Code wanted to see.

There's even more schtick in Looking for Trouble, in which Tracy plays a telephone repair man. They also called them trouble-shooters in those days. Hard to believe, but these guys are heroized like the "first responders" of the Post 9/11 days. It reminds you that the telephone is a relatively recent technology. Here's a typical line from a girl Tracy meets on the street: "I've got an apartment and it's got a phone. Why don't you come up and fix it for me?" Jack Oakie is the sidekick, from a town somewhere in the South - another wild stereotype. Even better is the stereotype of Los Angeles. An earthquake is the deus ex machina that helps solve the crime in the end. In case you were wondering, Tracy punches out the villain and gets the girl.

Blood Money One of the revelations for almost everyone will be Blood Money, directed by Rowland Brown, with George Bancroft as a crooked bail bondsman whose day job is to take as collateral the houses and savings of widows with arrested sons. Once the code was enforced rigorously in 1934, the parents of criminals would cease to be so human. The menage gets complicated here when Bancroft takes a liking to a bad little rich girl and strays from his mistress, none other than Judith Anderson. How could he resist a girl who likes to dance the hula with the entertainers at her father's mansion? Once Anderson's slick brother gets out of jail, just in time to be bailed out after his arrest for bank robbery, the rich girl finds a younger, more dangerous frisson.

Brown was one of Fox's most promising directors then, but was blackballed for the rest of his career for reasons that I haven't been able to determine. I've heard that he slugged an executive, and I've also heard that his politics were too far to the left. There's some stylish cinematography in Blood Money and the story confirms Bancroft's observation that "I never knew a thief who wouldn't steal from his own mother."

More to come from this great series.

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Posted by dwhudson at December 6, 2006 1:38 AM


Great overview, Dave, thanks!! I hope these make the rounds like the Paramount batch did.

Posted by: Michael Guillen at December 6, 2006 10:01 AM