Friday, July 11, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: a note on violence against women

Three years after Alice White and Chester Morris co-starred in Playing Around, they teamed again in King For a Night, a Universal picture directed by Kurt Neumann. I found out about this movie while doing a Google News Archive search for the actors' names to find ad art for Playing Around. That search turned up this bit of publicity for King For a Night:

I'm as big a cheerleader as anyone for the transgressiveness of Pre-Code cinema, but this story took me aback. Hitting women had been Jimmy Cagney's particular gimmick, I'd thought, and something for which Cagney seemed to be forgiven. But this story tells us that hitting women was more than one actor's eccentricity. I actually find it a little disturbing that punching dames was a thing and that people were keeping score. I dare say Nagel v. Tobin in Free Love is no longer famous, but what does it mean that it once was? Free Love turns out to be a 1930 picture and thus nearly three years old when this story was written, yet Nagel's right uppercut was well remembered without the aid of video recording. Iron Man was a 1931 Tod Browning boxing film, again well if not fondly remembered by the author of the article. Meanwhile, what's become of Alice White? Back when Playing Around came out she was a Next Big Thing. By the time of King For a Night she had found a more comfortable level as a comedy character player -- and, apparently, as a cinematic punching bag. I didn't manage to find a news story about her hospitalization for "screen blows," but I did find another cute publicity piece promoting Cagney's Picture Snatcher, in which he asks White which side of her face he should slug and she asks for one side because the other's still sore from the last punch she took. Damn... It looks like the "hospitalization for screen blows" may have been a cover-up for a beating she later blamed on her actor-boyfriend John Warburton, but still. To be objective, all these blows may have been struck for a Pre-Code standard of realism -- men did do this to women, after all -- but the relish with which this anonymous writer reports these movie punch-outs may make a reader slightly queasy.  And all this being said, if TCM evern schedules King For a Night -- a picture, by the way, that reportedly had to go back to the studio for reshoots after early audiences hooted at the original ending -- I'm cranking up the DVR.


Jon said...

It's bizarre to me that these were actual punches. If that's what you're saying. I wouldn't have guessed in a million years that these women were being punched. I thought if anything they were phantom punches. This doesn't make me pleased. Disturbed really.

Samuel Wilson said...

I don't think every punch mentioned in the newspaper story was real, but it clearly claims that at least one of the punches taken by Alice White was real enough to put her in the hospital. There's reason to disbelieve that particular story, but the report is still disquieting. You can almost imagine the reporter compiling a top-ten list of favorite punchouts. Not cool.