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New Film Geeks Series Focuses On Pre-Code Hollywood

Cecil B. DeMille's "Sign of the Cross" features Charles Laughton as Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar. The film kicks off the Film Geeks SD's Breaking the Commandments: Pre-Code Hollywood series at Digital Gym Cinema on Jan. 6, 2019.
Paramount Pictures
Cecil B. DeMille's "Sign of the Cross" features Charles Laughton as Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar. The film kicks off the Film Geeks SD's Breaking the Commandments: Pre-Code Hollywood series at Digital Gym Cinema on Jan. 6, 2019.

'Sign of the Cross' kicks off series on Sunday at Digital Gym Cinema

New Film Geeks Series Focuses On Pre-Code Hollywood
GUESTS: Danny Reid, blogger Beth Accomando, KPBS film critic Subscribe to the Midday Edition podcast on iTunes, Google Play or your favorite podcatcher.

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando will be Procope presenting a film series on PRI code Hollywood this year. Digital gym cinema to provide a definition of what this era was all about. She speaks with blogger Danny Reid of preco dot com Danny as part of film geek San Diego. I'm going to be co hosting a film series at Digital gym cinema that starts this Sunday. All about preco Hollywood. Since you ran a blog dedicated to code Hollywood I thought you'd be a great person to define what's meant by that term preco. Hollywood preco Hollywood's an interesting era in the studios is kind of between the start of the talkies like just right after they've Zaev firmly established what a talk is. It goes from early 1932 in 1934 to the point where studios actively had to submit their scripts to get them approved from a censorship board already made. So the Piccone era is behind that time between this kind of newfound freedom and newfound Artforum with the talkies and the midday 1934 where it very much became like you could only make films on certain topics with certain attitudes which continued from the mid 30s until about the 1950s 60s. So the Production Code was on the books during these early years. But what do you think led to Hollywood just disregarding the code and going kind of wild. Well definitely the depression is a major factor in their 1932 33 about a quarter of all Americans are out of work. Since going to the movies which is still pretty much the only big entertainment option for Americans was one that took a big hit like up until then. Movies made money more money every single year than the year before. You mean you have to imagine 1929 all the major studios Fox or Warner's MGM were spending millions and millions of dollars in 1930's money to go to every theater in every town and put sound equipment in their talkies come in and get appreciate it. And so they really had to find a way to not only compete with each player but compete with food and basic necessities. So they really kind of went all out there that they really felt the freedom to not only be like salacious you know what they Westing going to these you know just to appeal to the baser instincts. They also felt compelled to show what life was really like in America in those times when we had a little bit of MGE gloss or a little bit of Warner Brothers edge. They really kind of try to engage the consumer with exactly what they wanted and more often that you could find a lot more poppier things a lot more risque things in this era than you'll find in most Hollywood productions for the next 20 30 years. Looking at these films from a modern perspective I'm often surprised but what I find either scandalous sex comedies or gritty and unsavory portraits of Depression era life. What do you think it is about these films that continues to fascinate us. There's so much this this era. It's just fun and unbridled them. Mae West movies which I'm sure we'll talk about where she was. Big controversy on Broadway and she came over to Paramount Prebisch got to do what she wanted. She made these really interesting statements on 1930s feminism and some stuff that still seems pretty radical and that's kind of the thing a lot of these movies were rediscovered kind of in the 60s and 70s when some of the studios actually started pulling stuff actively from their vaults and people even then were surprised by exactly what they got away with and what they could do. Danny you're a young guy. So how did you get interested in these films from the early 1930s. I always consume movies like crazy. I literally last week hit my 9 0 0 0 rating on MTV. But the big thing they got me going into precut specific was I rented the ruined Hollywood collection when I watched the divorcee. I was just kind of so taken aback by how it looks like the attitudes in it. I've covered this movie that we are going to want me. Believe me I'm not missing anything from now on. I don't doubt it. Once a woman throws down a pencil on a white Jenniskens it's not that great nothing will make him a loser they are the more they get the best in the world. No responsibility. No idea. I'm going to find out how they do it for me in the future where the prime role is grow and kill me and fight with. The rest. Of the world that my door is closed. There's so much forgiveness and grace given enormous share and I really like counterposed like a lot of Hollywood movies I've seen from before then. Yeah really that Orsay was a big kick off Babyface red headed woman which redheaded woman is just pure insanity. And you watch it and you realize it's like the top 10 movie of the year came out you're just amazed because that movie has made characters basically psychotic. I'm on my way up to the bosses house with Israel. Why did the secretary do it. Because I swiped it all for death. These are important that I've got to be answered right away. Maybe I'll get a chance to say and take the place. How did that get you down. In Cleveland. It's nothing you'd expect from that era. But it's it's fun and it was insanely popular so it's hard to resist stuff like that. One thing about the films from this era like I'm no angel the divorcee redheaded woman is that you're struck by how strong these female personalities were. Oh yeah. It's really interesting you have to also put yourself back and realize that most of the movie going population into early 30s were women. They're the ones with the leisure time they're the ones who needed to get out and do something friends so a lot of movies are geared towards them and while nowadays there's definitely a feminist backlash to movies where you know Joan Crawford movie where they fall in love and the guy turns out to be he'll and Joan Crawford says go be happy and she suffers. There's a lot of movies where the heroine suffers the end. But still about how strong she is in her suffering. It's not about just making her miserable for the sake of it. And a lot of those movies we've mentioned two redheaded woman Anita Loos wrote the screenplay for that's divorcees based on a book by Ursula Parrott. There's still a lot of female influence in this era even though especially with the like the conglomeration of the big studios in the mid 20s they started forcing more female filmmakers out of there. But you're right this is a really great area for strong female protagonists. Sadly we don't have time to talk about all the films we're showing in the film geek's precut Hollywood series. But I want to make sure to mention I'm no angel starring Mae West because she was a force behind the camera as well as in front of it. She definitely had a lot of say over her movies. West had been arrested in New York and I'm sad he charges for performing her play called Sex and Mae West is one of those really fascinating figures who you know openly hung out with homosexuals and transsexuals and she was just very freewheeling and you know a very big personality in a time where it was just completely out of left field. So what happened in the early 30s is that the censorship board back in the early 30s that said no studios are allowed to make a movie with Mae West. It's just it's you know Ill just ill destroy America. Don't do it. But by 1932 1933 things were dire enough that Paramount said May you come here and you make whatever the heck you wants but I'm no angels. Probably her best movie. It's really interesting it's kind of a statement on her values. I mean there's an entire court battle at the end where she justifies her entire man eating persona and she no she I think she gets a standing ovation at the end if not from within the movie definitely in the audience. Now you was engaged to marry again just at the time you started running around with me wasn't it. Yes. And you know your fiance came up to see me to ask me to break it off with you don't you. I heard so. All right I broke it off. So why are you crying about. She's just got such a beautiful way with words. Let's telling somebody with the other day my favorite one is probably hard man is good to find you know stuff along those lines where she just plays a double entendres and it's just for the time. Even today they're startlingly fun and pointed and really kind of speak to a lot of hypocrisy apparent in our current patriarchal society. So to end this discussion on precut Hollywood let's go out with Mae West singing suggestive song from she done him wrong. Fenceposts John Fanchon. I wonder why my. God. That was KPBS as film critic Beth Armando's speaking with preco dotcoms Danny read the pre code Hollywood film series starts this Sunday with sign of the cross at Digital June cinema.

Breaking the Commandments: Pre-Code Hollywood

Jan. 6: “Sign of the Cross”

Feb. 3: “I'm No Angel”

March 3: “Babyface” and “Night Nurse”

April 7: “Design for Living”

May 5: “Cock of the Air”

June 2: “The Divorcee”

July 7: “The Mask of Fu Manchu” and “The Most Dangerous Game”

Aug. 11: “Golddiggers of 1933”

Sept. 8: “Possessed”

Oct. 6: “Island of Lost Souls” and “White Zombie”

Nov. 3: “Dinner at Eight”

Dec. 8: “Scarface” and “Public Enemy”

Film Geeks SD kick-off a new year-long film series called Breaking the Commandments: Pre-Code Hollywood at 1 p.m., Sunday, at Digital Gym Cinema. Here's what Pre-Code Hollywood is all about.

As one of the volunteer programmers for Film Geeks SD, I will be co-presenting a new year-long film series one Sunday a month at Digital Gym Cinema dedicating to showcasing films made between 1930 and '34 in Hollywood. This era has come to be known as "pre-Code" because it was a period of time when the Hollywood film industry chose to ignore the restrictive Production Code that dictated what could and could not be shown in films.

In order to provide some insight into pre-Code Hollywood is all about, I spoke with Danny Reid of On Twitter he describes himself as "Dedicated to celebrating Hollywood films released 1930 to '34, when movies were complex and a hell of a lot of fun."

I met Reid at the TCM Classic Film Festival where pre-Code films are gloriously showcased. In fact, seeing a series of pre-Code Hollywood films at the TCM Classic Film Festival is precisely what inspired co-programmer Miguel Rodriguez and I to pursue a film series dedicated to movies made during this era. We were thrilled to discover that the cinephiles coming to Digital Gym Cinema were also interested in these movies and voted to select it as the theme for one of our year-long film series.

Barbara Stanwyck holds her own and learns how to use men to get what she wants in the pre-Code film "Baby Face."
Warner Brothers
Barbara Stanwyck holds her own and learns how to use men to get what she wants in the pre-Code film "Baby Face."

On his blog Reid states that the quickest definition of “pre-Code” is that it "refers to an era in motion pictures from the arrival of sound (aka "talkies") in 1927 to the mandatory enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in July 1934. This era is notable for while being censored, it is not as severely censored as the films that follow that July 1934 date. The fascination with pre-Code films often comes from how openly suggestive and fun the majority of films that compromised those seven years are. Sex, drugs, miscegenation, portrayals of homosexuality, and a host of other issues that would be banned from public consumption for several decades are indulged in and exploited frequently by then-big Hollywood studios. Films could be exploitative and lurid or sophisticated and adult."

A Code to Govern the Making of Motion and Talking Pictures
Copy of the code to govern the making of motion and talking pictures : the reasons supporting it and the resolution for uniform interpretation by Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc., June 13, 1934.
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

The film series kicks off Jan. 6 with Cecil B. DeMille's Biblical epic "Sign of the Cross" that famously had a naked Claudette Colbert taking a milk bath. DeMille discovered early on that the best way to show nudity, depravity, violence and people indulging in sin was to disguise his work as religious movies. The film series highlights some delicious comedies ("Design for Living," "Cock of the Air," "Dinner at Eight"), gritty dramas ("Baby Face"), horror ("Island of Lost Souls," "White Zombie"), musicals ("Golddiggers of 1933"), and gangster films ("Scarface," "Public Enemy").

This is the time when Mae West could openly proclaim that a "hard man is good to find" and Norma Shearer could respond to her husband's adultery with some sleeping around of her own so she could tell her philandering spouse, "I've balanced our accounts." The surprise of these films is how modern they sometimes feel and in some ways they represent a sort of freedom that Hollywood movies never quite recaptured with the same gusto and deliciousness.

I will be posting a longer interview with Reid on my Cinema Junkie podcast in February, but for now enjoy this brief introduction to the world of pre-Code Hollywood.