(You Won’t) See Jane Swim

#16 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

The Catholics had been raging about the immorality of Hollywood since 1930.  By 1934, the inevitable collision occurred once the Catholics began speaking a language Hollywood understood.

Money.

In 1933, the National Legion of Decency was formed, a Catholic organization that advised which films were suitable for audiences.

Priests encouraged parishioners to join the Legion, which entailed signing a pledge card conveniently located in the Sunday pews.  The pledge begins:

I wish to join the Legion of Decency, which condemns vile and unwholesome moving pictures. I unite with all who protest against them as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country and to religion. I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land. … Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.

Catholics feared the movies would interfere with their eternal salvation, and Hollywood’s box office began to suffer.

Finally the critics had Hollywood’s attention.

In 1934, Philadelphia’s Cardinal Dougherty pressed his advantage and preached from the pulpit that Catholics in his diocese were to boycott all movies, and made clear that to disobey was to sin.

The boycotts raged, and other Christian groups joined, spreading the movement beyond the Catholic Church.  Christian groups wrote letters in protest of the films, and stayed home.

Within weeks, Hollywood had lost several million dollars.

Cardinal Dougherty, our old friend Martin Quigley, and all those in favor of good, clean, pictures had their boot on Hollywood’s neck.

The studios didn’t so much surrender as decline to commit box office suicide.

The studios dragged out the old production code out of a closet, dusted it off, made a few changes, and probably figured they’d be back to their old tricks after the dust settled.

But Joseph Breen had other ideas.  He was the head of the newly formed Production Code Administration, and had an independence from the studios that Will Hays and his censorship board had lacked.  Now, movies could not be shown unless they earned the PCA’s official seal of approval.

Breen had true power, and he wielded it for two decades.

One of the first films to test the limits of Breen’s new power was Tarzan and His Mate, the first of many sequels to Tarzan the Ape Man.

As it’s been remade many times over, most people know the basic plot.  Tarzan is a mythic white man who is king of a piece of African jungle so remote no other white man has ever seen it.  How Tarzan came to live in the jungle (with a huge knife) is never explained.  In the first film, British socialite Jane Parker accompanies her father on safari and meets and falls in love with Tarzan.  She stays with him in the jungle, and in subsequent films they have all sorts of adventures.  Olympic swimming gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller plays Tarzan in a total of twelve Tarzan movies, the first six with Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane.  (When the films moved from MGM to RKO in the 1940s, Brenda Joyce was recast as Jane.)

Tarzan and His Mate is the second film in the series, and inarguably the sexiest.  The film shows Jane and Tarzan—an unmarried couple—in bed together.  Even without the bed scene, it is obvious by their constant touching and tender looks that Jane and Tarzan have a robust sex life.  

Jane also wears a surprisingly skimpy loincloth that had angry prudes sending Maureen O’Sullivan thousands of letters objecting to the costume.  No objections to Johnny Weissmuller’s equally revealing loincloth are recorded.  

Jane’s silhouette is also shown as she undresses inside a tent.

But most damning, there was an underwater scene where Jane and Tarzan go for an extended swim.

And Jane is stark naked for nearly three minutes.

I don’t have to tell you that Joseph Breen blew a gasket, do I?

It didn’t matter that the scene was tasteful and not tawdry.  It didn’t matter that it was a expression of love not raw sex.  It didn’t matter that it was a brilliant underwater ballet so intricate that O’Sullivan needed a swimming stunt double for part of it.

Don’t take my word for it.  See for yourself:

None of it mattered.  Breen rejected the film outright.  Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer at MGM appealed the ruling, but to no avail.

Unless the swimming scene was removed (along with some others), the film would never see the light of day.

Thalberg removed the scene, and I imagine he gritted his teeth the whole time.

After the code enforcement, the Tarzan movies changed.  They became less sexy, more silly.  The films focused less on the chemistry and love story between Jane and Tarzan and more on Tarzan’s adventures.  Jane is increasingly sidelined, and ultimately becomes a passive spectator to Tarzan’s heroism, and a doting mother to their son.

In future films, they are not shown in bed together, and Jane’s skimpy loincloth becomes a full dress.  Tarzan’s loincloth shows no discernible increase in length.

They find an abandoned baby in a plane crash and raise him as their own, because the code prohibits them having a biological baby when they are not married.  (No allowances are made for the fact that there is no one around to marry them.)

Even so, let me be clear—these are wonderful films.  Popcorn movies of the highest order. 

Although I hadn’t intended to watch them all, I tore through all the Weissmuller-O’Sullivan films.  They fell into a predictable groove—opening with a scene of domestic tranquility before some outside force threatened their Garden of Eden.  Over the course of the film, Jane and Tarzan would go for an extended swim, Tarzan would kill a lion, crocodile, hippo or all three with his bare hands, and their monkey Cheetah would get into mischief and laugh his crazy head off. Tarzan would eliminate the threat, and their idyllic life would be restored.

It should’ve worn thin, but I loved it every time.  I watched these films in the early days of the coronavirus, when professional sports and borders were closing and offices took the unprecedented step of sending workers home indefinitely.  Everything was new and terrifying, and I would turn off CNN nearly trembling and enter the magical world of Tarzan.

But it highlights a recurring theme in my mind—wondering about all the films that were never made because of the strict enforcement of the production code that began in 1934.

With the enforcement of the production code, all movies had to be suitable for all ages.

As The Nation asked, “How can a movie which satisfies a child of twelve be made morally safe for a man of 35?  Thus far the censors have spent all their time protecting children against adult movies; they might better protect adults against childlike movies.”

As we’ll see, the great creative minds of Hollywood were more than up to the task.

Olivia de Havilland Turns 104 Today

Olivia de Havilland is a living legend.

Emphasis on the living. Today she turns an incredible 104.

She’s the last living old Hollywood icon. She got her start playing opposite Errol Flynn in adventure movies like Captain Blood, and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

In 1939 she was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for her role as Melanie in Gone With the Wind, the most successful movie that ever has been and ever will be.

She won twin Lead Actress Oscars for her roles in To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949). She was also nominated for her work in The Snake Pit (1948).

We’ll cover her films and more in the Golden Age of Hollywood series–including her successful lawsuit against Warner Brothers that toppled the studio system and her long running feud with her sister, the actress Joan Fontaine (whom we’ll also get to.)

Oh, the stories she could tell.

But for now, let’s wish her a Happy Birthday for 104 incredible years.

The Essential De Havilland Filmography

Wild Wild West

#15 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

The studios were running wild, flaunting the production code by glorifying criminals, adulterers, fornicators, and gold diggers.  

And the men and women who’d demanded the code were taking notice.

The clashes between Hollywood and the Catholic priests and Women’s Groups who wanted them to clean up their act were growing in frequency and intensity.

Catholic priests labeled certain films sinful and threatened boycotts.

Martin Quigley, one of the original authors of the code, was incensed that Hollywood had no intention of honoring their end of the bargain.

Hollywood may have tried harder to work within the confines of the code but for two inescapable facts—first, the country was in the throes of the Depression and most of the Hollywood studios were struggling for survival.

Second, and most important— audiences loved sexy, violent, and naughty films.

Despite what they told their priests, they plunked down their increasingly limited dollars to watch them.

The oncoming censorship war was likely inevitable.

But the match that lit the fire and turned the Catholic opposition into a full blown crusade?

It wasn’t James Cagney’s gangster films.  Or the beautiful young starlets over at MGM running around committing adultery and demanding divorcees.

It wasn’t even Jean Harlow’s gleeful home-wrecking.

It was a forty-year old playwright from Brooklyn.

Mae West made the would-be censors positively apoplectic.

Mae West—like her character Lou in She Done Him Wrong—was a woman in charge.  She made her own money and decisions, spoke her mind, and used her sexuality wherever and however she could.

She was a quadruple threat—actress, writer, singer, businesswoman.

She’d been a successful playwright in New York, and adapted her plays for the screen.

Her plays had previously been passed over by Hollywood for being too racy.  But in 1933, Paramount was on the verge of going belly up and decided to go for broke.

Her films She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel were so successful they literally pulled Paramount out of bankruptcy.

We remember her today—and audiences loved her then—for the wry sexual innuendo in her films.  She wrote and spoke all the movie’s famous lines.

Lines like:

Woman: Ah, Lady Lou, you’re a fine gal, a fine woman.

Lou: One of the finest women ever walked the streets.

Or the famous, “Why don’t you come up some time and see me?” said in her come-hither way to an impossibly young (and unknown) Cary Grant.

Or my favorite:

Captain Cummings: Haven’t you ever met a man that could make you happy?

Lou: Sure, lots of times.

I could go on and on.  In fact, She Done Him Wrong is little more than a vehicle for Mae West to strut around and be, well, Mae West.

She sings, she zings, she has all the good lines, and rules every scene.

Even Cary Grant can’t steal a scene from her.

Mae West knew exactly what her audience wanted from her, and gave it to them both on and off the screen.  In a time when stars were much more reserved with the press, Mae West could always be counted on for a colorful interview.

I love the myth of Mae West.  I love the fact that she stormed Hollywood in her forties and made her mark as a sexpot.  I loved that she wrote her own films.  I love that she was shrewd businesswoman.  I love that she was always playing the character of “Mae West.”  I love that while people thought she was selling sex, she was actually selling wit.

But I can’t honestly say I love her movies.  I fell asleep repeatedly through She Done Him Wrong, and would recommend that if you want a taste of Mae West, you’re better off watching a compilation video of all her best lines on You Tube rather than one of her films.

Despite the huge box office success of She Done Him Wrong, and I’m No Angel, Mae West faded quickly from the Hollywood scene.  Once the production code was enforced, Hollywood could no longer make the exaggerated, bawdy films that were West’s forte.  

But her impact went far beyond her movies, for they led to a nationwide mobilization of Catholics and other groups who were fed up with Hollywood’s supposed filth.

And as we’ll see next week, they won a battle that would give the censors control of films and change the face of Hollywood for decades.

The Hairball From Hell

I’ve been upping my cleaning game.

The obvious reason is that I want to wipe away germs and viruses now more than ever.  (Yes, I’m looking at you, Covid-19.)

But the other reason is that when spending record levels of time inside my own four walls, I want the place to look nice.

I’ve never been a slob.  But I am the descendent of two clean freaks:  my mother, and my great-grandmother.  These two elevate tidying up to a whole new level.  Marie Kondo has nothing on them.

So my own laissez-fair attitude toward dust and soap scum meant I wasn’t living up my genetic cleanliness potential.

I started kicking it up a notch on frequency—vacuuming and scrubbing down the bathrooms, being more diligent in the kitchen. 

(Blinker, by the way, is decidedly not on board with this program.  While cats are fastidious in their own bathing and cleanliness, they fear nothing so much as the vacuum cleaner.  As soon as I roll it out of the closet, she makes a beeline to hide under the bed until the death machine stops roaring.)

But I had more in mind than just a supercharged regular cleaning schedule.  I wanted to tackle some big jobs that were long overdue.  I started by deep cleaning the grill and the oven, two rather disgusting jobs that take a lot of elbow grease.  I figured it was best to get the toughest items checked off first.

Then I decided to do a thorough cleaning under the bed.  My bed is huge and heavy, and with eight legs, impossible for me to move by myself.  Now and then I reached beneath it with the vacuum cleaner, but I was never really able to reach beneath the headboard.

With the help of my dad and some furniture mover coasters from Lowes, we pulled the bed away from the wall.

And stood in shock at the horror before us.

Reader, I can’t believe I’m even showing you the evidence of my filth.

There was a carpet of cat hair over the regular carpet.  It was so thick I could’ve made Blinker a second coat with it.  I used a squeegee to rake it from the baseboards and form it into a football size mass.

This wasn’t a dust bunny.  This was a dust dinosaur.

I didn’t even use the vacuum.  It would’ve clogged that thing like a stopped drain.  I just picked that dust football up with my hands and punted it out the window.

The only place that’s been untouched longer than behind the bed is the attic.

I’m still working up the courage to open that can of worms.

Or should I say can of dust?

You Don’t Know Joan

#14 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Here’s an infuriating fact—in 2020, most people know Joan Crawford only as Mommie Dearest—a badly aging insane woman with thick eyebrows who beats her adopted daughter.

No line Crawford ever uttered in her movies will be as famous as Faye Dunaway as Joan screaming, “No wire hangers ever!”

The film Mommie Dearest was based on a memoir written by Joan’s daughter, and though the accuracy of both has been widely questioned, it is indisputable that Joan and Christina did not get along, and that Joan was not a particularly good mother.

It’s also indisputable that Joan was a driven and increasingly haunted woman.  She had pulled herself out of a childhood of grinding poverty and never felt worthy of her success.  She forbade wire hangers because her mother worked in a dry cleaner’s, and Joan did not like to be reminded of her past.

Joan gave her life to her career—like many big stars, she had a string of failed marriages and strained relationships with her children.  Her work was all she had, and when age took its toll on her career, she never recovered.

But all that comes later.  

Today let’s talk about Joan in 1931.  She was young and beautiful, and right on the heels of Garbo and Norma Shearer as one of the MGM Queens. She was all glamour and potential.

(Strangely enough, Crawford actually starred in two unrelated films both called Possessed, one in 1931 for MGM and one much later in 1947 when she’d moved over to Warner Brothers.)

Joan had top billing in 1931’s Possessed, over Clark Gable, her up and coming co-star.

She plays Marian Martin, a poor but ambitious girl who ditches her job at the paper mill to find adventure and a rich man in New York.  She finds all that and love too with Gable’s Mark Whitney.  She transforms herself into a sophisticated kept woman.  But Mark does not want to marry, and thus Marian has to suffer the myriad indignities that come with being a mistress and not a wife in 1931.  

It is no exaggeration to say that I adore this movie.  It’s the first movie we’ve covered that you absolutely must watch if you want to appreciate Old Hollywood.  Young Joan is the ultimate Hollywood Glamour Girl and Young Clark doesn’t yet have his trademark mustache.  It’s got an ending that’ll make you melt, and plenty of hot backstage gossip.  

For when the director said cut, Crawford and Gable weren’t turning down the heat.  They’d made two previous pictures together, and the sparks were obvious to all.  In Possessed, those sparks burst into flame.

Though both married at the time, Crawford and Gable began a lusty affair.  

Crawford and Gable would maintain their on-again, off-again affair for years, and though it eventually ended, they made eight movies together and remained lifelong friends.

Some thought they would eventually marry, but from all accounts they never considered it.  Joan was too headstrong and ambitious and felt it would never work. Gable was a tightwad and didn’t want the expense of a divorce.

Some say that Joan wasn’t a great actress, that she got by first on beauty and later on a willingness to take any role, no matter how pathetic.

This is a disservice to Joan Craword.  You can count on one hand the number of actors and actresses who have had more successful careers than Joan Crawford.

You don’t survive in Hollywood for forty-five years without talent.  You don’t make ninety-two films, with thirty of those films coming after age forty in a time and business when women were washed up when they could no longer play the young love interest.

Garbo hung it up at thirty-six.  Shearer at forty.

But Joan Crawford was just getting started.

A Tale of Two Toilets

Recently, I left the house.

Surprising, I know.  But this isn’t a tale about what happened when I left the house.

It’s what happened when I got back.

I stepped into my foyer and just happened to glance up at the ceiling. There was a brown horseshoe-shaped stain against the white.  I didn’t remember seeing it before.

And it was right under where my powder room toilet sits on the floor above.

I’m no handywoman, but even I knew this was not good.

A few days later the plumber cut a hole in that ceiling and confirmed the obvious—the toilet had been slowly leaking for some time and needed, as did the bathroom subfloor and the chunk of stained ceiling.

I never liked the pattern on that floor anyway.

“You have another toilet, right?” he asked.

When I confirmed that I did, he completely removed the toilet and I stored it in the basement.  For those of you home improvement types, the toilet itself will still work, but the flange is the problem and will have to be replaced.  For clueless types like me, that’s the ring around the hole in the floor that you stick the toilet into.

At least I think so.  At this point in the plumber’s explanation I sort of zoned out and began wondering how big the bill was going to be.  It was a job I couldn’t do myself, and therefore the details weren’t all that important.

I was left with a hole in the floor, but I still had that upstairs bathroom.

Or so I thought.

When nature called after dinner, I used the upstairs bathroom, but when I went to flush, the handle on the toilet didn’t want to go down.  Perplexed, I tried jiggling it.

Nada.

I took the back of the toilet tank off and nothing was obviously amiss.

I tried again, giving it some real torque, and the handle snapped off into my hand.

Uh-oh.

Within the span of about six hours, I’d gone from two working toilets to zero.

And though mathematics might claim otherwise, the difference between zero toilets and one toilet is a lot bigger than the difference between two toilets and one toilet.  It’s the difference between full on panic and temporary inconvenience.

The flooring man wasn’t coming for ten more days, and I didn’t think I could hold it that long.

After frantic further inspection, I realized the tank level was broken and the handle would’ve been useless even if I hadn’t snapped it off.

I surveyed the situation.  With desperation running high, I had a wild hope that this was a problem I could fix myself.

So I took myself off to Lowe’s with the broken part in my pocket.  My preferred method of shopping for things like this is to find a sales clerk, hold up my broken version of the part and say, “I need this.”

However, Lowe’s was packed.  Packed!  It was like Black Friday in there.  I guess there’s nothing like a quarantine to spur you on to tackle that long delayed home improvement project.

There were no free employees, so I put on my big girl panties and found the necessary part myself.  (I also picked up some hand sanitizer and a bottle of Lysol.  The Lowe’s selection of cleaning products is diverse and well-stocked.  Just something to keep in mind as you’re prepping your second wave bunker.)

I’m as shocked as anyone to say that the repair of toilet number two proceeded quickly, smoothly, and successfully.

I was back up to one working toilet.

If that doesn’t make a person breathe a sigh of relief, I don’t know what will.

Sleeping Your Way To The Top

#13 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Chester Morris and Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman

One of the most popular pre-code storylines was that of a beautiful young woman who seduces unsuspecting men in a calculated effort to raise her station in life by becoming his well-kept mistress.  If the gold digger is clever enough and persistent, she may even find herself a rich man’s wife.

In Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck is deliciously calculating as Lily Powers, a woman who begins life ruthlessly exploited by men until she turns the tables and learns to use men to get what she wants.

It’s a great film, and no one could’ve played it better than Stanwyck.  Her deep, non-nonsense voice and the cold look in her eyes tells you these poor saps never had a chance.

The film opens in her father’s seedy speakeasy, where Lily serves beer to shirtless and sweaty men who constantly manhandle her.  Her father takes money from a man for sex with Lily, and it’s clear it isn’t the first time.

The whole film is worth watching just for the opening scene.  No shrinking violet, Lily fends the men off with cutting remarks and even smashes one overzealous john over the head with an empty beer bottle.  Still she cannot escape the grim circumstances of her life.

When her father dies in an accident, Cragg, an elderly cobbler and her only male friend, encourages her to use her beauty and looks to gain power over men.

She moves to the city and gets an office job by sleeping with the boss’ assistant.  Soon she’s moved up to the boss, then his boss, and then his boss.  The movie uses a great visual of showing the outside of the office, tracking higher and higher up the building as Lily literally “sleeps her way to the top.”

Barbara Stanwyck

While Lily Powers is motivated by desperation, the Red-Headed woman’s Lil “Red” Andrews is simply after mischief.  

It was a role Jean Harlow was born to play.

Harlow’s career began with Howard Hughes, playing Helen, the promiscuous girlfriend of Roy in Hell’s Angels.  Fame grew as she played highly sexual mob molls, most famously in The Public Enemy.

But Harlow found her stride in Red-Headed Woman, her first headlining role.

Unlike Baby Face, Red-Headed Woman is played as burlesque, an outrageous farce of the gold digger trope.  Red is a shameless maneater, going as far as to lock her prey in a room with him so he can’t escape her seductions.

The tone suited Harlow’s style perfectly.  Harlow was a young, curvy, beautiful woman who oozed sex.  But her voice didn’t match her body—you expect a husky seductive tone, like Stanwyck, or Lauren Bacall, or even Jessica Rabbit.

But when she talks, she sounds more like a gum-cracking truck stop waitress. 

There’s a playfulness to her sexuality that previewed the screwball comedy.

And in the hands of the right screenwriter, that combination is magic.

Unfortunately, F. Scott Fitzgerald was not the right screenwriter.  The famous author did not have nearly the success in Hollywood as he had as a Great American Novelist.  Writing scripts takes a very different skill set than writing novels, and very few can master both.  The novelist has complete freedom over the world and is the sole voice (at least until his editor sees the first draft).  The novelist has a comparatively long time to complete the work and fewer structural rules.

In contrast, the screenwriter (especially in the 1930s) worked under tight deadlines, sometimes writing or rewriting scripts over a weekend.  There is constant feedback from multiple sources, a strict structure, and the work of many writers is ultimately cobbled together to form the finished product.

For a legendary novelist like Fitzgerald, it can feel like a major demotion.

So for all his literary brilliance, Fitzgerald could not capture the humor and wit producer Irving Thalberg wanted for Red-Headed Woman, and he called in Anita Loos, his ace in the bullpen that could always get the job done.

Anita Loos

Anita Loos could do it all.  In her long career, she worked on over a hundred film scripts.  She also wrote for Broadway, as well as having multiple fiction and nonfiction works published.

She had a particular talent for writing the sexual innuendo-laced female dialogue that Thalberg wanted for Red-Headed Women.

Once Loos fixed the script—which was really a complete rewrite, Thalberg knew it had a winner.

Red-Headed Woman is a zany delight, filled with physical comedy that borders on slapstick and a script that zings as Red steals away one husband before going after another, and falling in love with a third.

The best part?

She gets away with it.  

No moment of repentance, no promise to change her ways, no seeing the light through true love.

Instead, we see Red in the back of a limousine, with the rich husband who bankrolls her lifestyle and the man she loves chauffeuring the car.

Who says a woman can’t have it all?

Shock Value

#12 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

The quote above is from a review published in Vanity Fair magazine.  It is just another example of how the censors in the 1930s were wringing their hands over the movies instead of worrying about more important things.

It looks so silly to us now, in the modern era, when we’ve moved past the belief that a movie could inspire violence.  

Those people in the 1930s and their quaint movie violence and their old-fashioned, paternalistic worries about the impact of art on society.

It’s a nice thing to tell ourselves.  There’s only one problem.

This review wasn’t written in 1932 about Scarface.

It was written last year about Joker, a film starring Joaquin Phoenix is his Oscar winning role as psychopathic Arthur Fleck who rises to glory among disaffected American men when he murders someone on live television.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

After the trouble with the censors on Hell’s Angels, Howard Hughes doubled-down.

It was almost as if he went looking for the most objectionable film he could possibly make as a follow up.

It was almost as if he took the ban on gangster films as a dare.

He made Scarface, at least in part, for the shock value.  Just like Joker.

In the film Scarface, screenwriter Ben Hecht wrote a script based loosely on Al Capone, who had a scar on his face like the one Tony Camonte sports in the film.  He also drew inspiration from the Borgias, a treacherous Spanish family that ascended to power and the papacy in the fifteenth century and was accused of murder, adultery, and incest.

The Hays Office warned Hughes not to make the film, and vowed that people would not see it if he did.

Hughes sent his director Howard Hawks a memo:  “Screw the Hays Office.  Start the picture and make it as realistic, as exciting, as grisly as possible.”

Hawks did.  The film follows a similar line as the Warners Brothers gangster films, but with more graphic violence.  Tony Camonte bullies his way up the ladder of organized crime, using a machine gun to mow down anyone who gets in his way.  He builds a fortress with steel doors and windows to protect himself from his enemies, and explodes in jealous rages when his sister so much as looks at another man.

Scarface gloried in its excesses—Tony murders, steals, and lies with reckless abandon.

The Hays Office had never outright rejected a film, but it came close with Scarface.

It demanded changes—primarily around removing the insinuations of incest between Tony and his sister.  (In the original version, Tony tears her dress and slaps her after seeing her dancing with a man.  When he discovers she’s eloped, he murders her new husband in cold blood, even though he’s a trusted friend and business partner.)

Brotherly love…

They also wanted changes in the ending—in a lost version, after the cops surround him, Tony runs into the street firing his machine gun.  They don’t take him down until he’s emptied of bullets, and the movie ends with the clicking sound of him firing empty rounds as he dies.

But for once the Hays Office had success in suppressing a movie, and very few people saw the uncut version.  The film was banned outright in multiple states and after its initial run, it was unseen until 1980, when Universal bought the rights and released it on video.

Howard Hughes was incensed that the censors had ruined his film, and believed their effort was politically motivated.  He left Hollywood after Scarface, and did not make another film for ten years.

Since he died in 1976, it is impossible to know what Hughes would have thought of the gory remake of his film in 1983.  Likely he would have been envious, for Al Pacino’s Scarface gloried in violence, foul language, drugs, and sex.  

Fifty years after the fact, director Brian De Palma got to make the unrepentantly shocking film Hughes wanted.

As to whether or not Hughes would’ve liked Joker, I couldn’t hazard a guess.

“Dirty, Rotten, Sordid, and Cheap.”

#11 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

No one was going to tell Howard Hughes how to make movies.

Not the studios, and certainly not the Production Code.

Hughes was young and brash, and had made a fortune in his mid-twenties through various businesses and investments.  He decided to take his money to Hollywood and make films that would cause a stir.

With Hell’s Angels, he more than succeeded.

In the 1930’s, studios operated like movie factories with directors, stars, and producers as employees.  The studios ultimately controlled which films each director and star would work in.  The talent had few options if they didn’t want to do an assigned film.

No studio would have greenlit Hell’s Angels, so Hughes produced and directed it himself and released it through United Artists, a distribution company for independently made films.

His plight to make the movie is depicted in the 2004 film The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes.  An early scene in The Aviator shows Hughes at the premier of Hell’s Angels with Jean Harlow (played by Gwen Stefani) on his arm, and hints at the madness that will eventually overtake him.

But back to Hell’s Angels, a surprisingly honest, clear-eyed, and cynical view of war.  

The movie tells the story of two very different British brothers.  Roy is honest, kind, always willing to step up and do his duty.  Monte is a cad, lazy and selfish, but really not a bad guy.  He’s just not as honorable as Roy, though few people are.

Both Roy and Monte are at Oxford with their best friend, a German named Karl, when World War I breaks out.

Karl is distraught when he is drafted by the German army, knowing he must fight against his friends and England, a country he has grown to love.  

But he has no choice but to comply with the call of his country in a futile war.

Dutiful Roy immediately enlists.  Monte has no intention of doing so until he is swept up in the moment at a recruitment drive where he is promised a kiss from a pretty girl if he joins the fight.

Jean Harlow makes her screen debut as Helen, square Roy’s unexpectedly gorgeous girlfriend who goes to France with the Royal Flying Corps and volunteers as a canteen girl.

She seduces Monte, inviting him back to her apartment and uttering the famous line, “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?”

Though Roy never finds out, Monte is ashamed of himself.  Helen is not, and continues to make a fool of the unsuspecting Roy by catting around while he is out flying dangerous military missions.

Meanwhile, Karl is living in hell.  As a member of the German Air Force, he is given the task of bombardier-observer on a German Zeppelin sent to bomb London, the city that he loves and thinks of as home.

Instead of bombing Trafalgar Square as ordered, he guides the Zeppelin over water so the bombs cause no damage.  He has to know this will cost him his life, but his fellow comrades kill him before they even discover his traitorous act—they cut Karl’s spy nest free and send him spiralling to his death to free up weight on the Zeppelin and allow it to speed away from pursuing British fighter planes. 

Back at the Royal Flying Corps, Monte is struggling.  Though a good pilot, he’s afraid of fighting, afraid of dying.  Roy tries to keep him going, but Monte’s desperation is palpable.  It’s clear he’s not cut out for military life, and it’s clear he’d quit if he could.  But it’s death by the Germans or court martial if he deserts the RFC, so he tries to hang on until the war ends.

In one chilling scene, Monte feigns illness to get out of a night mission.  Noting that he’s pulled this trick before, his fellow soldiers call him yellow and Monte—the only soldier in the scene not in uniform— explodes into a searing anti-war speech:

“That’s a lie, I’m not yellow!  I can see things as they are, that’s all, and I’m sick of this rotten business.  You fools, why do you let them kill you like this?  What are you fighting for?  Patriotism, duty, are you mad?  Can’t you see they’re just words, words coined by politicians and profiteers to trick you into fighting for them?  What’s a word compared with life, the only life you’ve got?  I’ll give ‘em a word:  murder!  That’s what this dirty, rotten politician’s war is, murder!  You know it as well as I do.  Yellow, am I?  You’re the ones that are yellow.  I’ve got guts to say what I think, you’re afraid to say it.  So afraid of being called yellow, you’d rather be killed first.  You fools!”

It has no impact on his fellow soldiers, but it sends chills up the viewer’s spine.  Unlike World War II, in which the Allies stopped a madman and saved the world, so much life was lost for so little gain in the quagmire of World War I.

A movie that so overtly questioned patriotism and challenged the legitimacy of war could not have been during the Production Code years of 1934-1954, certainly not during World War II, when the U.S. Government’s Office of War Information screened all Hollywood films and insisted only patriotic films be made.

It certainly could not have been made during World War I itself, when President Woodrow Wilson’s Sedition Act of 1918 made it a crime to criticize the U.S. government in an effort to maintain the country’s strong morale and war support. 

The film broke every rule set by the censors—Helen’s overt and unrepentant sexuality, violence, and a slew of bad language—including son a bitch, god damn, for Christ’s sake, hell, and ass.

The movie has several extended flying scenes that were universally praised as a technical achievement.

As for the rest of it?

As Lamar Trotti, a code reviewer, wrote to his boss Will Hays, “The difficulty, as you know, lies in the fact that the story of Hell’s Angels is stupid, rotten, sordid, and cheap.”

The regional censors cut an average of thirty minutes from the two-hour film.

It’s a good movie, though slow getting started.  I would’ve cut out thirty minutes too, but it would’ve been thirty minutes of opening exposition.  Unlike the censors, I would’ve left in the good parts.  The flying sequences are impressive even today, and the ending truly shocked me.  It’s depressing, and it lacks that glamour and star power (despite Harlow’s debut in a small part) that makes these old movies sing to modern audiences.

If you love war movies, you might want to give it a try.  But honestly, I’d recommend watching The Aviator instead.

Snake Season

It’s time to go on high alert!

It’s the end of May.

We’re into the best part of Spring, past the incessant rain and fears of frost.

Winter can no longer reach out and wrap its icy fist around a day.

We had the April showers, we had the May flowers.

It’s not yet relentlessly hot and humid.

It’s the absolute best time of the year.

Except that it’s Snake Season.

And yes, I know.  Snakes are great to have around.  They’re very clean, and the vast majority of the ones in Pennsylvania aren’t poisonous, and they eat disease-filled vermin.

But…can I be frank?  They’re damn creepy.

Snakes and I never had much of a problem until I started finding their skins hanging from the ceiling of my laundry room.  In my basement, the ceiling lines up with the ground line in my back yard.

After a long investigation, we discovered that the snake was getting in by crawling up under the siding and entering the house through the hole where my air conditioner connects to the house.

I shiver just remembering those days.

We looked everywhere for that snake.  We moved everything out of the basement, tore the insulation from the panels.

Nothing.

Then a few weeks later I walked in, and there he was, stretched across my washing machine like four feet of terror.

I froze.  For an instant, I thought it was a rubber toy snake.  Who and why someone would put a rubber snake in my laundry room was unclear, even in my delusion.

 I’m embarrassed to say I closed the door to the laundry room.  As if I was Houdini, and I could close the door and make the snake disappear.

Disappear!

That shook me out of my paralysis.  I’d been looking for the snake for weeks!  I couldn’t walk away now. 

As bad as it was seeing the snake, seeing his skins and not knowing where he was hiding was worse.

Every time I did the laundry I felt like I was Indiana Jones and a snake was going to fall on my head.

So I steeled my courage and opened the door.  The snake, apparently sensing my presence, had started his escape, and was crawling up my wall.

Reader, I could not pick that snake up off the wall.

I just couldn’t.

I ran down the street to my neighbor who loves snakes, and he came running back with me, imploring me not to hurt the snake.  (As if I would get near enough to touch it, much less hurt hit.)

My hero lovingly plucked up the snake, cooing like it was a kitten, and took it away to release it into the woods.

I spent the rest of the summer sealing up the house like Fort Knox.  (Well, my wonderful Dad did.  I was afraid to go down there.  I was only forced to enter the laundry room again after dirtying every piece of clothing I owned.  I wore some colorful outfits to work that summer.)  He sealed every crack and crevice.  He put up snake fencing along the outside of the house. 

Anything we could do to make sure Howard—I named him to make him less scary—knew his eviction was final.

Thankfully, neither Howard nor his friends have taken up residence in my basement again.

In the winter, I don’t worry.

But in the summer, I go on high alert.  I never start a load of laundry without a full inspection of every crevice of the room with a floodlight I bought especially for this purpose.

People say snakes are more afraid of me than I am of them.

That, my friends, is highly debatable.

Honestly, I don’t mind much if they’re around, as long as they stay out of my house.

And preferably, completely out of sight.