Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Maximum Strength Mick

Mick LaSalle obsession, Norma Shearer, in Riptide. TCM will show Shearer's pre-code movie Let Us Be Gay, next Monday. They are also showing Double Harness a pre-code movie with another LaSalle favorite, Ann Harding, this afternoon!

After recently enjoying Mick LaSalle's books on Pre-code Hollywood ("Complicated Women" and "Dangerous Men") I found a bunch of raw interview footage of him talking about many of his favorite subjects. Mick is the film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and he taught a class on the subject at Berkeley which makes me actually want to go back to school. He also maintains a blog called Maximum Strength Mick with podcasts and book reviews.

I think LaSalles books are a great place to start with the pre-code era. His explanation of the "code" itself is the best I've read. LaSalle argues convincingly that the code did more harm than good for movies as a whole. I have a hard time reconciling this emotionally because my favorite films, screwball comedies of the late 1930s, probably wouldn't have existed without the code. It doesn't help that my favorite movie star, Cary Grant, was still learning how to act in the pre-code era. While this was pretty common actually, and bless the studio system for continuing to give these people room to grow and steady work, it is more instructive at times than actually enjoyable.

He talks a lot about Barbara Stanwyck, one of my favorite actresses. This is a great time to watch this and warm up those Tivos because TCM will be showing almost an entire day of pre-code Stanwyck films on August 19th.


kda0121 said...

I'm a bit more optimistic about how movies would've fared without the code. Screwball comedies were specifically mentioned and I think they would've done just as well. The zany comedy of The Marx Brothers was at its zenith prior to the code and the antics of W.C. Fields did very well also.

The code has been credited with spurring the creativity of writers to use innuendo, gestures and expressions, which sneaked through the code police. Good directors like Ernst Lubitsch used all those techniques prior to the code, going back to his silent pictures.

I'm actually hard pressed to come up with a movie that would've been hindered without the code, though I can think of many that were the worse for it.

That would actually be a fun exercise in taking a scene from a code movie and rewriting it precode, to see if it's better, worse or indifferent.

Nancy "Beaky" Bruce said...

hmmmmm.... thinking about Strange Interlude with Norma Shearer and Clark Gable. 1932. Made any later, the story would have been unrecognizable trying to pass under the full strength code.

Jennythenipper said...

As LaSalle says in his book, the code took sex out of the romantic movie. They had to replace it with something and so they came up with comedy. Screwball comedies are not the Marx Brothers or W.C. Fields. They are about a man and a woman, and the war of the sexes. Perhaps the trend toward comedy and romance would have happened without the code. The Thin Man and It Happened One Night were both pre-code. There is a certain intensity, a certain energy, that anarchic spirit of the Marx Brothers in a movie like the Awful Truth that may not have been there if filmmakers were free to explore the issue of divorice without having to restore the marriage at the end. The wonderful tension of the ending of that movie, with the clock ticking down on the marriage and the couple missing chance after chance at reconciliation might have been gone as well. Screwball comedies seemed to require the Great Depression as well, as they almost always seem to deal with a tensions between classes as well. I'm not about to argue that the Depression was a good thing for America anymore than I will argue that the code was good for movies. Emotionally, though, for me, the code is as much a part of those movies I love as the actors, the sets and the lighting. It may not be rational or right, but that's the way it is.

kda0121 said...

You are correct Jenny, in that screwball is a comedy of the sexes. I wasn't trying to assert that either The Marx Brothers of Fields were screwball. But, they made zany, fast paced comedies and did them prior to the code.. However, my point was poorly stated, since you were restricting your comedy sub-genre to screwball.

Your contention that that specific form might not have germinated without the code may be a valid one. Your conclusions are as valid as anyone's. I suppose I would like to think that screwball could have been born and evolved regardless of the code. As you aptly mentioned the great depression was a factor in their popularity and I concur with that.

I don't necessarily agree with LaSalle's assertion that when the code came in, they took out sex and put in comedy. As I previously mentioned, Ernst Lubitsch made romantic comedies in both the silent and sound era, precode. They might not be legitimately classified as screwball, but the essence was there. I haven't read LaSalle's work and therefore can't judge it on the whole, but I think that statement of his is off base.

As to two wonderful movies you mentioned, The Thin Man and It Happened One Night, I think they were right on the cusp of the code. If I recall, I think the code was instituted in 1934, when both the aforementioned films were released. I actually think that It Happened was a victim of the code, with its walls of Jericho scene. A precode movie wouldn't have bothered with it.