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Hardie Writes: Cinema Rediscovered 2022: Day 2

Still from Baby Face, part of Cinema Rediscovered

Welcome to Rife Magazine’s  Day 2 coverage of the hotly anticipated film festival Cinema Rediscovered!

From the year 1934 to 1968, Hollywood adhered to a set of strict industry rules known as The Motion Picture Production Code (or Hays code after Will H. Hays, the President of Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America – MPPDA). This code was split into two parts, Don’ts and Be Carefuls, in an attempt to prevent “lowering the moral standards of those who see it”, specifically those with more “susceptible minds such as women, children and the lower-class”. These restrictions included no swearing, no drug trafficking and no sexual perversion, a topic which ranges from nudity to homosexuality to relationships between different races. Heavily influenced by the Catholic church, the code caused careers to disappear and widespread disapproval as audiences had already experienced talkies without the reins on. This is the era known as Pre-Code, a period I became heavily invested in on my second day of the festival.

Pre-code Hollywood: Rules are Made to be Broken is a strand of Cinema Rediscovered curated by film critics Christina Newland and Pamela Hutchinson containing five films released between 1929 and 1934: Jewel Robbery, Red-headed Woman, Baby Face, A Free Soul and Blonde Crazy. In their talk, they discuss what drew them into Pre-Code cinema, with Hutchinson a fan of rule experimentation whilst Newland was driven more by a passion for the crime genre alongside female desire, and provide a censorship timeline starting from 1915 when films were deemed not protected under free speech. They also detail the cultural and political impact of the Hays code, pontificating where cinema and the US landscape as a whole could have progressed if films had continued to break barriers put in place by a homogenised society.

Still from Blonde Crazy, part of Cinema Rediscovered

One of the main groups heavily affected were women, who are the stars of two films I watched on Thursday (three counting Marlene Dietrich’s entertaining ensemble Shanghai Express from the strand When Europe Made Hollywood). Norma Shearer was a pioneer of Pre-Code cinema, frequently playing roles of independent, sensual women such as 1931’s A Free Soul. Based on the book by Adela Rogers St Johns, Shearer portrays Jan Ashe, the free-spirited daughter of alcoholic lawyer Stephen Ashe (Academy Award winner Lionel Barrymore). Whilst keeping an eye on him at work, she falls for gambler and accused party Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable) despite already being engaged to polo player Dwight Winthrop (Leslie Howard).

The dynamic between father and daughter outcast from the family was particularly intriguing, and its dramatic theme of independence versus dependance holds up well today

The premise alone breaks many of the code rules already, but her laissez-faire attitude towards sex had censors reeling as she suggestively asks Gable to place his arms around her. The dynamic between father and daughter outcast from the family was particularly intriguing, and its dramatic theme of independence versus dependance holds up well today.

However, as highlighted by Newland in the film’s introduction, a version of the code was still in place during production, leading to a more sanitised ending, something that particularly hindered Blonde Crazy too. Fronted by Joan Blondell in a double act with James Cagney, Blonde Crazy is about a bellhop and maid pulling scams trying to elevate themselves into high society. Blondell’s character Anne Roberts is quick-witted, sharp talking and puts up with no nonsense from Cagney’s character Bert Harris, frequently slapping him when his flirtatious antics get out of line. For the majority of the picture, Roberts is unflappable, forging her own path whilst solving both of their problems. Yet, to satiate the studio, this piece regresses Roberts to the mean of doting, distressed housewife. Fortunately, it does not undermine the big laughs or on-screen chemistry between Blondell and Cagney.

Still from Blonde Crazy, part of Cinema Rediscovered

Altogether, the importance of these Pre-Code films are the inspiration for Post-Code Cinema. We’ve eventually reached a time where women can be accurately represented, be the star of the show and not have everything wrapped up at the end by getting married in a church. There’s still censorship today in China and Russia for example, but progress has been made and Pre-Code Cinema is a part of the foundation.

Did you get a chance to visit Cinema Rediscovered? Let us know on our socials!

Please note: This event finished in July 2022