Monday, October 22, 2012

Pre-Code Parade: MADAME DU BARRY (1934)

Breen found producer Hal Wallis "sneering and argumentative," saying that if Breen had his way, Warner Bros. would have to go into the milk business. Breen bellowed at him: "If people like you would get out of the way and sell milk, maybe it would free the screen of a lot of its whorehouse crap, and decent people could sit down and enjoy themselves in a theater without blushing!"

Mark A. Viera, Sin in Soft-Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood
The time is March 1934 and the Pre-Code era is drawing to a close. Joseph A. Breen, perhaps American history's best argument for Know-Nothingism, was having it out with Hal Wallis over the script for Madame Du Barry, which finally reached theaters in October.  The script had been extensively revised to placate Breen, the head Production Code enforcer, but William Dieterle's finished film still got condemned by the self-styled Legion of Decency, and one can see why today. If you accept Dante's Inferno as the epilogue to Pre-Code, then Madame Du Barry may be Pre-Code's last stand, or at least Warner Bros.'s fighting retreat in an effort to see what they could still get away with. It's a film with a split personality, to a large extent a simple superimposition of Warners motifs on 18th century France -- so much so that you could call it "Gold Diggers of the Ancien Regime" -- yet also self-consciously a prestige costume picture with lavish costumes and sets. That pretension prevented the studio from doing what almost seems obvious, which would have been casting its key stock-company players in the historical roles: Guy Kibbee as Louis XV, for instance, or any number of leading ladies in the title role. Why not Glenda Farrell or Joan Blondell, or Barbara Stanwyck while Warners still had her, or Ginger Rogers while she was back from RKO for a time that year? Doing so would have undercut the prestige, rendering Madame Du Barry a burlesque in form as well as a burlesque in content. So Dolores Del Rio, a refugee from RKO, was cast as the famous courtesan, and Reginald Owen played the king, and they're fine in their roles. The story was a familiar one, or at least Du Barry was a familiar name back then. She was one of the legendary scarlet women of history that everyone seemed to know, at least by name, when such women still seemed incredibly exceptional. Du Barry: Woman of Passion had been made in Hollywood just a few years before, and even if people had missed that famous flop they probably had an idea of what they were in for.
Louis XV is old, lonely and tired of his current mistress, so a courtier hooks him up with Jeanette Du Barry. The king is ripe to be seduced after a disappointing visit to the "Deer Park," which is stocked with nubile prospects in a girls' school as well as game. And Du Barry is ready to live large despite the scorn of the nobility and the strain on the national budget. Typical of her impulses is her desire to go sleighing on a day without snow. To please her, Louis buys up all the sugar in Paris to glaze the lanes of Versailles with crystals. The expense is noted and the film hints occasionally that France is nearing a breaking point. When the royals gather to welcome Princess Marie Antoinette of Austria, the betrothed of Louis's geekish grandson, a peasant tells his son that the newcomer is "the last queen of France," though he quickly amends that to "next" when a guard asks what he said. Du Barry's extravagance would seem to hasten the day of reckoning, but the film wants us to sympathize with her, firstly because her enemies are snobs, but mainly because she makes the king happy. But as the reaper sharpens his blade, old Louis falls ill trying to keep piece between Du Barry and Marie Antoinette, and in the end, as the king suffers from an undisclosed but apparently virulent complaint that drives his children from his bedside, only Du Barry is brave and caring enough to comfort him with memories of happy times. For her services to the state she is ordered confined to a nunnery almost as soon as Louis dies. At the end she stands as a human symbol of the Pre-Code era. Escorted out of the palace, she breaks loose for one last moment to make a mocking curtsy to the new royal family, letting them know that she had a great time.
If Madame Du Barry often resembles Warners' modern-dress Pre-Code farces, it also bears an auteurial resemblance to another Dieterle film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Throw in some Paul Muni biopics in between and Dieterle stands as Hollywood's unofficial historian of France. Writers aside, I sense an affinity between Du Barry and Hunchback in Dieterle's whimsical portrayals of tyranny -- Henry Davenport's Louis XI is a comedy relief character in the later film -- and Du Barry's emphasis on the glamorous eccentricities of the impossibly wealthy makes it as much an early screwball comedy, albeit with a midly ominous undertone, as a last-throes Pre-Code. And oh, those throes! Del Rio has a sensational scene in which she invades the palace in her nightgown after her deluxe gown and wig (for a kind of coming-out party) are stolen by court enemies. But the Pre-Code Play of the Film is indisputably the dance number staged by Louis for his grandson on his wedding night. The boy is simple and unworldly, and the old king realizes that he'll need some special inspiration before performing his conjugal duties. So out come the dancing girls in filmy costumes unlikely to be seen in 18th century France, to get the lad aroused. Considering that some of the dancers aren't wearing much under those costumes -- not bras, at least -- the male audience may well get aroused, but young Louis sits dully in the midst of it. Old Louis finally resorts to an old family heirloom -- a book of pornographic sketches -- to make things clear for the boy, and even then it takes some further explaining from Du Barry to enlighten the poor kid fully.  I wish TCM had included that dance in its collection of Du Barry clips, but I'll have to leave it to your imagination.

Sin in Soft Focus describes Madame Du Barry as a crass mess with a plot left incoherent by cutting and censorship, and in its own time the film proved a modest money-loser for Warners. But if the final film leaves Viera wondering what the point was, allow me to suggest that, despite the studio's efforts to play ball with Breen, Hal Wallis's spirit still prevailed over the production, making Du Barry an act of defiant irreverence, a celebration of whatever can be gotten away with, even when you can't get away with it forever.

You will see just a little bit of the big dance number in the original trailer, available thanks to old reliable

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