Last Tuesday, the Plum Community Library invited me to give a talk about classic films. They gave me the freedom to structure the talk however I’d like.
I decided to talk about “pre-code” films, the films made at the dawn of the sound era (“talkies”) and before strict enforcement of the production code that regulated what could be shown to audiences. It’s a fascinating era which ties together several threads of American history—prohibition and the subsequent emergence of bootlegging gangsters, the impact of the Depression on movie ticket sales, and the Supreme Court case decision that made the threat of federal government censorship very real to Hollywood.
The tale of the pre-code films is a tale of the competing visions of what American movies should be—a reflection of society, an escape from society, or a source of moral teaching.
Also, there are just some stone cold classics that came out of this prolific four year period of 1930-1934.
I’d covered most of the material in the early days of my Wednesday Golden Age of Hollywood series, so if I’ve peaked your interest, you can read more here, here, and here.
This was the first time I’ve lectured publicly on cinema. I had a small but exceptionally attentive audience. They played along with my trivia questions, laughed when they were supposed to laugh, and kept their phones in their pockets for the duration.
Reader, it was a thrill.
And a testament to the power and sheer loveliness of libraries.
I remember the first time I went to the library—I don’t think I’d even started school, but my mom took me to the People’s Library in downtown New Kensington for story hour. The children’s section was a wall in the back that was curved like a rainbow. There were three long steps that led up to the section. I sat with the other kids on the floor while the librarian sat on those steps and read to us from a series of books.
Afterward, we were allowed to pick out a stack of books—any books we wanted!—and take them home to read, with a promise that we would bring them back when finished so others could enjoy them.
This was amazing to me then, and amazing to me now.
Think of it—rooms full of books, CDs, DVDs, newspapers, magazines, and computers that residents can use for free. Programs for kids, talks on old movies, and classes on how to prepare your taxes or avoid internet fraud.
All at the library.
If they didn’t already exist, and someone wanted to invent them, they’d be laughed off stage as crazy.
If schools are the trunk on the tree of education, then libraries are the branches and leaves. After you’ve spend twelve years in school, you know all the basics—reading, writing, arithmetic. You’ve got the skills you need to learn anything you want to know.
Anytime I show my grandmother how to fix her computer, or talk about history, or have a perspective on current events, she inevitably asks me, “Did you learn that in school?”
She’s curious, especially about what I learned in college.
But the vast majority of the time, I tell her that I didn’t learn it during my formal education, that I read it in a book.
A book I most likely checked out of the library.
We’re supremely lucky in the Pittsburgh area to have the entire Carnegie Library system, one of the best in the country, at our fingertips.
If you haven’t been to your local library lately, you should check it out. If you think they’re stuffy old buildings filled with dusty books, you’ll be surprised.
At the Plum Library, for instance, in addition to books, you can borrow e-books, stream movies, and even borrow baking supplies and Wi-Fi hotspots for your next road trip or remote work trip.
And maybe even check out an old movie. If you’re looking for recommendations, you can’t go wrong with Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face (1933).
Are there bootleg copies of your talk on the net?
Loved the library talks I used to go to in NYC. As you say, small but attentive audiences, that’s what makes it worthwhile!
Pre-code is a really interesting thing, some of these films are like seeing your grandparents on cocaine, it’s a shock to realise how wild things used to be!
Yes! That’s a great way to word it….you watch them and realize the past was never as “innocent” as you thought. Unfortunately for the talk, you just had to be there. Next time I’ll hire my own film crew. I’ll need footage for the archives!
I’ll be scouring the Pirate Bay for secret tapings of this, an event of this magnitude can only attract huge interest from the black net!