Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: POLLY TIX IN WASHINGTON (1933)

The late Shirley Temple would seem like the antithesis of Pre-Code cinema. Her breakthrough year was 1934, the year of the crackdown and the beginning of the Code Enforcement era, and it's tempting to see her rise to superstardom, becoming the number-one box office attraction by the following year, as proof of some profound dumbing-down of cinema under the Code. But while Temple became a star of A pictures in '34, at age six she was already a cinema veteran and a creature of Pre-Code cinema. Before she captivated the mainstream in Stand Up and Cheer and Little Miss Marker, Temple had been the leading lady of the Baby Burlesk series of one-reel comedy shorts produced by Educational Pictures. Billed as "The Spice of the Program," Educational is best known as the home of comedy stars in decline, Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon working there most notably during the Thirties. The Baby Burlesks are a cross between the Our Gang series and those horrific Dogville comedies; toddlers rather than dogs are made to stand on two legs and parody popular movies or current archetypes, discipline being enforced, according to Temple, by time outs in a room with only an ice block to sit on. Polly Tix is the Baby Burlesk version of the various political expose films in vogue in 1932 and 1933. It resembles Lionel Barrymore's star vehicle Washington Masquerade in some respects but isn't really beholden to one particular film. The virtuous political novice, elected on his vow to battle the Nipple Trust, has his virtue threatened when one of the big political operators throws Polly (Temple), the Vamp of Vashington, in his path. Here Shirley Temple is in full Pre-Code mode. Polly Tix would be exhibit A for those, then and now, who have felt that Hollywood had grown excessively crass and tasteless in the Pre-Code era. While the filmmakers may have thought it all cute, I can understand if it gives a modern viewer the creeps. Judge for yourself: since the Baby Burlesk series is in the public domain I can show you Polly Tix in Washington as uploaded to YouTube by yanevnu. I suspect that Temple may have evolved as she did even without Code Enforcement, but she definitely would not have made Baby Burlesks in that era. Such is history.

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