Monday, May 2, 2016

Pre-Code: still being scolded

There's a moment in Norman Taurog's Hold 'Em, Jail! when Wheeler and Woolsey pretend to hold up a speakeasy, not realizing that they've been armed with real guns. When they appear brandishing their weapons, the patrons panic. Several women faint into their husbands' or boyfriends' arms -- and Taurog caps this montage cleverly by having a man faint into his female companion's arms. Others duck for cover, and the director lingers on a woman squirming under a table, her rear end trembling in front of the camera. We cut to Wheeler or Woolsey reacting to the sight, and then we cut back to the imperiled derriere. This is the sort of thing David Denby doesn't like about Pre-Code cinema. Denby has an essay in the May 2 New Yorker, apropos of no particular film series or new publication, in which he mildly deplores the cinema of 1930-34 and challenges the perception that Pre-Code was a feminist spring before the sexual repression of the Code Enforcement that followed.

Feminist film critics have embraced the period for its self-determined women and its eager acknowledgment of female sexuality. Yet these freedoms didn’t always work out so well for women. The atmosphere of the movies could be crude. There’s an unmistakably sour element of male mockery in the portrait of Lily’s opportunism in “Baby Face."... For every movie like “Red Dust” (1932), in which Harlow and Clark Gable tussled in the steaming M-G-M jungle—moments of what you might call healthy open sex—there were many films that were merely naughty or mildly voyeuristic.

Hold 'Em, Jail! would be guilty, for that one moment, of the sin of voyeurism, as would all the films with "women undressing, in negligees, or 'scantily clad.'" Meanwhile, where feminists and Pre-Code fans see empowerment and honesty in the era's gold-digging, Denby finds that "the mercenary sex in these Depression-era movies comes off as both a survivalist tactic and a repeated joke." That it could be treated as a joke, he implies, undermines any emancipatory context the film may have and whatever power the films seem to confer upon women. Denby's claim is that women became more empowered with Code Enforcement, which made possible, so he further claims, the classic romantic comedy. While acknowledging in perfunctory fashion that "the 'morals' embedded in the Code were foolish and hypocritical," he claims that "these semi-inane standards had an extraordinary effect." The Code eliminated "tawdriness" from cinema -- all to the good, Denby implies -- and replaced "the old fables of domination" with the idealization of the romantic couple: "two people matched in beauty and talent who enjoy each other's company more than anything else in the world." William Powell & Myrna Loy and Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers were the models for a cinema in which "sex became play -- even, at best, a springlike flourishing of fantasy and grace." His argument seems to boil down to a proposition that in romantic comedy women had more to offer than carnal pleasure. "Unlike the pre-Code goddesses, vamps and bad girls, who crooned or spoke in snarls and wisecracks, the post-Code women could talk," Denby asserts, rendering Pre-Code more primitive on every level with every paragraph, to the point when he can say things as preposterous as "In effect, censorship created plot" and, later, "Censorship helped create art."

I suspect that Denby is judging Pre-Code by Post-Code. In our time, he laments, "Candor, informality, and directness have dissolved not only prohibitions but also defensible standards....The old story conventions for romance have mostly been destroyed."  He invites us to imagine that Hollywood would have reached the depths of Fifty Shades of Grey all to soon had Code Enforcement not interrupted the (d)evolution of cinema under way in the Pre-Code era. I don't buy this, and I don't buy Denby's overall argument that censorship, despite some indisputable hypocrisies, actually was a matter of addition and enhancement rather than subtraction and denial. His implied arguments against Pre-Code (e.g. it lacked both "plot" and "art") are indefensible. I don't have to make the equally indefensible argument that the 4-5 years of Pre-Code are superior to the subsequent 30+ years of Code Enforcement to refute his case against Pre-Code. Despite his increasingly faint and damning praise, Denby ultimately misrepresents Pre-Code by seeing it through the eyes of its mortal enemies, figures like Joseph Breen whom he seeks to rehabilitate as thoughtful and conscientious critics, and by judging the era by a standard according to which romantic comedy seems to be the highest form of cinema. That sells the Code Enforcement era short as far as I'm concerned. Finally, I'm not sure that censorship deserves so much of the credit for the emergence of the new sensibility that Denby loves. I think it's important to recognize Pre-Code not just as the product of sudden intoxication with the sounds of cities, as Denby observes with some justice, but as the cinema of the Depression, representing the concerns and desires of victims and survivors and validating, with both humor and deadly earnest, the "survivalist" ethos from which Denby seems to flinch. Code Enforcement was coincident with a kind of programmatic optimism promoted by the New Deal that, along with an undeniable moral-religious backlash, discouraged some of the frank survivalist cynicism associated with Pre-Code cinema. Pre-Code is cynical and tawdry and voyeuristic and naughty and frank -- to a point, but on the one hand, what's wrong with all that? And on the other, it's not too hard to find Hollywood movies made between 1930 and 1934 that are none of the above. In other words, while Code Enforcement excludes elements of Pre-Code, vice versa is not true. Pre-Code contains that multitude within it, while the absences of Code Enforcement are more glaring than Denby cares to admit. But if he prefers classic romantic comedy, that's his prerogative.He just shouldn't confuse aesthetic with moral judgments.

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