Two guys and a girl, lots of free sex and no commitment (pre-Code and pre-Woodstock).

Ménage à Trois, before the Hays Code. Cigarette?

In my last post I talked about movies today that don’t take chances (which is almost all of them), are safe and brain-dead, and bore the viewer, or at least this view. Today I’m going to talk about an eye-opening movie of free love, sex, and no concern for commitment, centering around a liberated, fearless woman who listens to her loins at least as much as she listens to her brain, and who isn’t afraid to say that she “plays the field.”

I often hear people say they don’t like “old movies.” In the past this has meant primarily black and white films, though with the current generation it sometimes indicates anything before Star Wars.

I’ll grant that sometimes the old Hollywood films can be a little tough on the eyes. In the days before kinetic editing and the “found” locations, movies tended to be shot with very heavy cameras and lights on soundstages. This mean we didn’t move around a lot: the cameras were heavy, and so were the lights, and the three-wall sets inside the studio lots tend to make a lot of early films look like photographed stage plays.

But more than that, I think, is the tone of these films. People tend to think of old films as square and way too innocent, with nothing to say to the present age. People had to keep one foot on the floor, for crying out loud, when on a bed with a member of the opposite sex! Words like “pregnant” were verboten, never mind really explicit stuff. We’re much more aware today. These films have nothing to tell us.

What they probably don’t appreciate is that these Hollywood films were made during the era of the so-called Hays Code. Indeed during this period movies were under what by today’s standards is strict censorship. And it wasn’t just sex. Movies couldn’t show the commission of a crime without omitting some details of the act, so that no one could copy the technique in real life. Suicide could not be depicted, or could only be in the most oblique way. Sexual “perversion,” drug trafficking, or childbirth weren’t allowed. You could not make fun of the clergy or show them in a bad light. Heavens, no intimate relations between the races. Need we say no genitalia and, of course, and no swearin.’ And that’s not a comprehensive list.

How would Quentin Tarantino make a movie under the Hays Code?

The Code eventually gave way to the modern ratings system in the late 1960s, as foreign filmmakers such as Godard and Truffaut exploded what subject matter could be dealt with and how it could be handled, and American directors cried out for a way to follow suit. But what many people today don’t know or fully appreciate is just how raunchy films were before the Code took effect. Although it was drafted in 1930, it was basically just a list of suggestions until 1934, when rigid enforcement went into effect.

So in 1933, when Paramount released Design for Living, an unconventional, boundary-pushing comedy about sex and sexuality, they were rushing to get it out before the Code really kicked in. The result is a story that would raise some eyebrows even today. And wow…the filth they were making back then! (Your grandmother might say…)

No foot on the floor.

Miriam Hopkins plays Gilda (that’s with a soft g) Farrell, a woman who doesn’t want to be restricted by having a man. “Oh, it’s quite all right for [a woman] to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out,” she says. “But a woman must decide [on a man] purely on instinct—guesswork—if she wants to be considered ‘nice.'” She wants as many as she can get, or at least two. Needless to say, this was not a typical 1930s sentiment, though it’s interesting to speculate on how many women may have secretly harbored it. After meeting two struggling artists played by Gary Cooper and Fredric March on a train to Paris, in a scene that already defies convention by beginning in silence and then continuing in un-subtitled French, she strikes up an arrangement with them. They are poor, living in a dump, but this is no La Boheme or Rent and they aren’t Bohos, but rather two “ordinary Joes” who will take success if they can get it. Gilda agrees to be mentor, friend, critic and catalyst to both of them, living with them, pushing them, helping them get established. Why she opts for this arrangement when she apparently comes from at least some money and is being pursued by a wealthy advertising executive is never even questioned. She is a free spirit—Katharine Hepburn before there was Katharine Hepburn, at least in the movies, and this is what she wants and what she goes after, without a second thought. They are to live under a “gentleman’s agreement”—no sex.

La Bohemes.

Guess how long that lasts?

But again Design for Living  defies some convention even here. Although the men show some of the expected jealousy (I think the film would have been stronger if they’d expressed a bit less; my least-favorite scene involves this rather conventional reaction to her increasing interest), overall the looseness of the arrangement is dealt with in a way you’d expect more in a European film. American expectations aren’t exactly questioned—it’s more like they’re not even acknowledged! Although she manages to help the playwright get a work to the London stage, Gilda goes off with the painter as her lover. This isn’t done in a hurtful or double-crossing sort of way. The film makes it clear that this just happened, without any subterfuge on anyone’s part. Again, a fresh approach for the time.

Later, in a scene that’s astonishingly modern (at least to me), Gilda, although still sleeping with the painter (at least when the scene begins!), is reunited with the writer. Again it opens with almost no dialogue, and the writer’s old typewriter, rediscovered in the high-class flat where Gilda and painter now live, is used to stunning symbolic effect. When I watch this scene I have to pinch myself and remember this was written in the early 1930s. It couldn’t be surpassed today by the best dramatist out there, whoever that is. An old typewriter is used very tenderly, symbolically and effectively. But no words are ever spoken about what it means.

I won’t tell you how it all turns out, though I’m barely more than half-way through this fast-moving picture. There’s a whirlwind marriage, a very phallic plant as a wedding present, and a woman married to one man who runs off to be with her two lovers. The final lines must have been shocking in 1933 and are still unconventional today — “Now we’ll have some fun, back to Paris! To that same old studio! … Boys, this is very important, there’s one thing that has to be understood!” “We know. This is a gentleman’s agreement.” And she kisses them both, heading off to a living arrangement that is still unconventional, and was unheard of in 1933! One year later—and I suspect even today, Code or no Code—a much more conventional ending would be forced on us.

The script has a lot of sophistication going for it, considering it’s a mainstream Hollywood movie. It’s from a Noel Coward play and was adapted by Ben Hecht, who would soon make a big name for himself writing the scripts to His Girl Friday, a lot of Hitchcock films (credited and uncredited) and countless others.

What’s the take-away here? Mostly, for me, it’s that many movies were a lot more unconventional in the past than we give them credit for today, until the Hays Code kicked in. It’s interesting to think where Hollywood might have gone without out. It’s interesting to wonder if Europeans wouldn’t have eclipsed us with their harder-hitting realism. But mostly, it’s just impressive to watch this cutting-edge comedy that’s now seventy-nine years old, and experience a lot of the same shock that audiences must have felt when they saw it for the first time, brand-spanking new.

“I need both of you to be satisfied!”

And lest you think this one film is a fluke, a bizarre one-off, you should know that one of the reasons people began pushing for censorship was the frankness and explicitness of W.C. Fields, Mae West, the Marx Brothers, and others of the early 30s. In both the sex and violence genre, many films from that period can still raise eyebrows. Even King Kong was a bad boy, peeling off Fay Wray’s clothes, tickling her breasts and sniffing her privates in the first cut of the film that bears his name. (It wasn’t restored until the 1980s; to this day there are television stations that will not show that scene.) Warner Bros. in particular made movies that still feel daring. Many of the directors coming to Hollywood lots, such as Design For Living‘s Ernest Lubitsch, were refugees from Europe’s flaming political situation who didn’t carry American puritanical baggage with them. Their heirs, after the war, would go on to work freely on the Continent, creating the first films to push cinema firmly into the “art” direction while we were still watching Technicolor musicals and aw-swell family dramas, the pre-Code films largely forgotten.

But in the 1920s and early 30s, films were heading towards a direction they wouldn’t pick up and continue on until the late 60s, when the Code was dissolved. You could even view the mid-30s to the mid-60s, the period most people today think of as that of “typical” old movies, as an interruption of a trend.

The past is a lot more surprising than you’d think.


One response

  1. Farhan Malik

    “How would Quentin Tarantino make a movie under the Hays Code?”

    The one positive benefit of the Hays Code?


    August 25, 2012 at 6:43 am

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