Frank Capra: Public Enemy No. 1

The next time you get into an argument with a social conservative (though these are best avoided, foolhardy you) about sex and violence in today's liberal media and the need for stricter controls, ask them if they think Frank Capra or Noel Coward poses a threat to the moral fabric. When they laugh, offer up this little bit of history.

In 1934, the self-styled guardians of American morality had decided that enough was enough. The sex and violence polluting the silver screen was exacting a toll on the country's moral health, and nothing but the threat of massive boycotts would stop it in its tracks.

That the boycotts would not have been massive (box office receipts in the early '30s were at a record high, despite the Depression) -- and that it was fomented by a small percentage of the population with a deceptively loud voice (sound familiar?) -- was still enough to make Hollywood's moguls quail. Fearing the threat of government-imposed censorship, film land's leadership succumbed and, in a preemptive strike, girded the loins of their own censorship system: The Production Code. Its newly revised motto was simple and sweeping in its stated purpose: "No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it."

Overnight, movies that had previously been seen by audiences of all ages were suddenly off-limits. Howard Hawks' Scarface? Banned. James Cagney in Public Enemy? Outta here. Noel Coward's Private Lives? Gone. Frank Capra's groundbreaking early films (Platinum Blonde, Miracle Woman, Ladies of Leisure)? Taboo.

In short, just about every seminal film of the early thirties found itself on the wrong end of the censor's stamp.

What were their sins? They contained gangsters, machine guns, premarital sex, drunkenness, foul language, drugs, prostitution, lust, infidelity, and the absence of moral consequences (read: death or ostracism) for much of the above. They would not be seen again, intact, for another twenty-odd years, and the Production Code's final death rattle would not be fully felt until the late '60s, with the advent of the '70s cinema revolution.

For those of us used to the ridiculously sanitized morality of Hollywood's "Golden Age," pre-Code films are a charming surprise. They're gritty, raw, profane and wised-up. Female sexuality is unfettered, urban violence springs from the harsh economy that bred it, and the morality of the day is far more elastic and forgiving than post-Code films would lead one to believe.

More important is the aesthetic freedom filmmakers had to depict stories and characters realistically, as apt reflections of their contemporary world. A world in which people did not sleep in twin beds, kiss with their mouths closed, abstain from cussing, or tragically die after the commission of a sin. A world much more like ours, in fact. And one which never went away.

Except on the silver screen.

So here are some salient examples of old-fashioned Hollywood freedom. Some are dated and creaky now, others surprisingly current and fresh. They may break no modern-day boundaries, but they're an effective retort to our current would-be censors. For if this is what got panties into a twist in 1934, how equally unthreatening are those works we seek to proscribe today?

redheadedRED-HEADED WOMAN (1932) d. Jack Conway; with Jean Harlow, Chester Morris. Jean Harlow knocked more than a few hats back with her unrepentant sexuality in this sly tale, scripted by Anita Loos, about a small town golddigger cutting a swath through her society "betters." Harlow is deliciously naughty and amoral as the unapologetic homewrecker, digging into her character's sexual voraciousness with a wink and a shrug and abundant good humor. Pre-Code heroines don't get any better than this.

RED DUST (1932) d. Victor Fleming; with Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Mary Astor. Harlow again, as the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, rescuing Clark Gable from a steamy tropical melodrama. Again, what would have been unthinkable post-Code is presented here as completely natural and, in fact, preferred: Harlow's prostitute Vantine dwells comfortably in her sexuality, makes love freely, falls for Gable and, in the end, gets him. Without shame or apologies. At heart, it's a buddy film, with Gable and Harlow as the sparring pals, and Mary Astor as the married upper-cruster who comes between them. If made after 1934, Vantine would have been cleaned up into a wisecracking (but chaste) singer/dancer/whatever, and Gable and Astor might have kissed, but never had sex (as they clearly do here). The Production Code would also have cut lines like Vantine's (to the parrot who's cage she's cleaning): "What have you been eating, cement?" Nothing so impure would pass muster after 1934, and in such small ways was the depiction of real life reduced.

MIRACLE WOMAN (1932) d. Frank Capra; with Barbara Stanwyck, David Manners. One of a quartet of Pre-Code films that Stanwyck made with Capra (Ladies of Leisure, Forbidden, and The Bitter Tea of General Yen being the others), this one stands out for its topicality and its stance on religious hypocrisy. A thinly-veiled riff on the career of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, it's notable now for how much more sanitized Stanwyck's compromised preacher would have been after the censor's axe fell. It's also a chance to see Capra finding his feet as a director (already pretty solid) and employing those populist sentiments that would later define his work. Some fine acting shines in a now-creaky plot (and you have to hand it to Capra: When did he ever get less than great performances from his actors? A director's most underrated gift.).

femaleFEMALE (1933) d. Michael Curtiz, William Dieterle; with Ruth Chatterton, George Brent. How many films of the '30s, '40s or '50s detail a female executive's rise to power whilst plowing a sexual path through her boy toy underlings? Not many, needless to say. But this 1933 hit starring Ruth Chatterton turns the tables on the classic male executive's droit de seigneur (what we'd term sexual harrassment today), with Chatterton's auto magnate tromping the competition while using her male secretaries for pleasure -- and dispatching them when they object. She uses sex as unapologetically as any man, and her business acumen is unquestioned. For all its latent morality (a man does come along who's her match and "teaches her a thing or two"), the film's depiction of female power must have been more than heartening to Depression-era sisters struggling into the early '30s work force en masse. Food for thought: It took another forty-odd years before Faye Dunaway's Network executive turned the tables on sex and power within the corporation, but that film's gimlet-eyed treatment of her role, for all its satirical implications, had none of the generosity of 1933's Female.

SCARFACE (1932) d. Howard Hawks; with Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, George Raft, Boris Karloff. A natural remake candidate for the '70s-spawned era of new directors, and Brian De Palma's version more than equalled, in contemporary terms, the shocking violence of the original for 1930s audiences. That violence is in no short supply in Howard Hawks' seminal gangster saga, where gang wars, bootlegging and lurking incest all culminate in a virtual symphony of machine gun fire. Audiences had never before seen anything so noisy, so gritty, so morally corrupt -- and they attended in droves. This film, along with Public Enemy, Little Caesar, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and sundry other gangsta pix of the Pre-Code era are as good an argument as any for just how much sooner the '70s era of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver would have arrived on screen without the interruption of the Production Code. They were already nearly there, as the following entry proves.

public_enemyPUBLIC ENEMY (1931) d. William Wellman; with James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Joan Blondell Mean Streets circa 1931. For those used to the high production values of late '30s films, or even of film noir's heydey in the '40s, the gritty realism of this William Wellman-directed gangster saga is startling and disturbing. The movie made James Cagney an overnight star, and there is no questioning why. At a time when many film stars could still barely speak before a camera, this stage-trained actor had a precocious verbal and physical dexterity, and an uncanny naturalism, that made his Tom Powers leap off the screen. Canny, brutal and painstakingly unsympathetic -- his famous grapefruit-in-the-face scene here smashed all previous norms of "star" behavior -- Cagney's young hood was easily recognizable to urban audiences, who saw him on every street corner, or even at the dinner table. The movie itself takes pains to disavow its protagonist's choices, while reserving its real indictment for the crushing poverty and corruption that offered him so few alternatives. Audiences were stunned at the film's grim conclusion, and its haunting final image of Cagney still has the power to unnerve today. You can pretty much date the birth of the American anti-hero to this film and this performance, without which it is hard to imagine the subsequent careers of Gable, Robinson, Bogart, etc.

BABY FACE (1933) d. Frank Capra; with Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent. It's the Depression, you're piss-poor, and your father's your pimp. What's a young girl to do? Burn down the house and make for the Big City, that's what, where bigger suckers await the lessons you learned at Daddy's knee. Stanwyck is both scary and sympathetic as the ruthless player wreaking havoc on a New York corporation in her rise to the top, and this downbeat tale is the perfect Depression-era answer to the sunnier Cinderella fantasies which the Code would later demand.

JEWEL ROBBERY (1932) d. William Dieterle; with William Powell, Kay Francis. An absolutely delicious farce from director and arch-stylist William Dieterle. William Powell is the urbane jewel thief, Kay Francis the very well-kept socialite who falls for him in a love-among-the-sophisticates meringue that brooks no opposition to extra-marital sex, crime or even drugs. Famous for its marijuana-smoking scene, it is also a dazzling display of the speedy editing, dissolves and wipes that made the early talkies' land-locked camera move again. A gem.

QUEEN CHRISTINA (1933) d. Rouben Mamoulian; with Greta Garbo, John Gilbert. Along with Camille and Ninotchka, one of Garbo's greatest performances, and a priceless pre-Code artifact (though artifact is too small a term to apply to anything directed by the incomparable Rouben Mamoulian). Greta's bisexual Queen kisses her female lover and trysts memorably with John Gilbert as she struggles with the responsibilities of power versus love and personal happiness. Witty, heart-breaking and gorgeously filmed, this is a prime example of cinema's sophistication circa 1933.

TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932) d. Ernst Lubitsch; w/ Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis. The famous "Lubitsch Touch" was always deliciously amoral, suspending all ethical considerations before the gale-force strength of l'amour -- be it pre-marital, extra-marital, intra-marital or...whatever the hell. It was a predilection he had to subvert somewhat with sops to the moral majority post-1934 (and even then he was craftier than most), but this 1932 classic has all the easy wit and unquestioned frankness about love between adults that was later banished by the Code. Crime does indeed pay, after a fashion, when his two jewel thief lovers pull a con on a wealthy Parisian socialite, only to have their love and loyalties turned upside down into the bargain -- with Lubitsch keeping you always guessing as to who will win. And that's just the point. All are sympathetic here: thieves, con artists, illicit lovers, misbehaving widows...but such easy expansiveness was exactly what the Code targeted, and it would be upwards of two decades before such a light souffle was taken off the censor's list.

DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933) d. Ernst Lubitsch; with Gary Cooper, Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins. Noel Coward's witty menage a trois was right at home on Broadway, but its film version was a prime target for moralists, in spite of -- or perhaps because of -- its more cerebral than erotic portrayal of a woman in love with two men, and how the deuce to work it out? A threesome is the only, ultimate, answer -- and this faithful screen adaptation was subsequently forbidden for re-release or re-make after 1934. 'Nuff said.

All films made prior to July, 1934, are officially pre-Code, and contain much that would later be censored. For more info on the pre-Code era, check out Mick LaSalle's two excellent books on the subject: Complicated Women (St. Martin's Press, 2000), and Dangerous Men (St. Martin's Press, 2002).

Laura Picard is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has staked her claim to originality by refusing to write a screenplay in 2004.

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