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.
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.
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.
Norma Shearer followed up her Oscar winning performance in TheDivorcée with A Free Soul, the story of Jan Ashe, a woman who is caught between three men—her straightlaced, respectable fiance (Leslie Howard), a charming and exciting gangster (Clark Gable), and the true love of her life, her father (Lionel Barrymore.)
Her father, Stephen Ashe, is a brilliant lawyer, yet his uppercrust family have shunned him due to his alcoholism and tendency toward representing criminals and lowlifes. Loyal Jan stands with him against his family and tries to moderate his alcohol intake with little success. Stephen loves his daughter and her doting, but because of his preoccupation with the bottle and the courtroom, he lets her run wild, the “free soul” of the title.
Early in the film, Stepen defends gangster Ace Wilfong of a murder charge. The main piece of evidence condemning Ace is the hat found at the scene of the crime, along with witness testimony stating a hatless Ace left the scene shorty after the murder.
In a scene that made me wonder if Johnnie Cochran has seen the film, Stephen instructs Ace to stand and put on the hat, which turns out to be comically small for Ace’s head.
I could practically hear him say, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
Life imitates art, indeed. For the benefit of our readers under thirty-five, I’m referring to the moment in the O.J. Simpson murder trial when O.J. put on the bloody gloves found at the scene, and held his hands up to show the jury that the gloves were too small. Not as small as Ace’s hat, but both cases were won in that performative moment, regardless of the rest of the evidence.
Ace is handsome, charming, and trouble, so of course Jan immediately falls in love with him and breaks off her engagement with the loving and stable Dwight. Jan and Ace embark on a whirlwind romance, complete with clandestine overnight visits.
Jan thinks the affair is great fun, but things turn serious when Ace tells her father he wants to marry her. Stephen is outraged at the idea—he has no problem drinking Ace’s bootleg booze and getting him off for murder, but has no intention of letting his daughter marry a lowlife gangster.
Angry and insulted, Ace returns to his apartment to find Jan waiting for him. When he proposes to her (without telling her of his encounter with her father), she too brushes off the idea of marriage, albeit with more tact. Ace realizes Jan sees him as nothing more than her dirty little secret and has no intention of taking their relationship public.
He is angry, but when Jan lays back on the divan, arms outstretched and says, “C’mon. Put ‘em around me,” he obliges.
When Stephen finds them together, he drags Jan away and she is stunned at his anger and the depths of his disappointment. They realize they are both out of control—Stephen’s drinking has escalated, and Jan is entangled with the wrong sort of man. They make a bargain: Jan will never see Ace again if Stephen quits drinking.
This movie calls to mind Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle, another story of a daughter who idolizes her alcoholic father. As with A Free Soul, the daughter runs wild and the most poignant scene involves young Jeannette asking her father to give up drinking. In Jeannett’s case, she has asked him to stop drinking as her tenth birthday present.
In both stories, the fathers make the promise to stop drinking, knowing they cannot keep it.
In Jan’s case, she returns to Ace when her father starts drinking again. But Ace’s wounded pride has made him both violent and possessive, and when Jan again refuses to marry him, he promises to expose to the world that they have slept together, marking her as a ruined woman no decent man would want.
Except good old Dwight still wants her. Though meant to be heroic, Dwight comes off as a bit of a patsy when he takes it upon himself to shoot Ace dead to protect Jan’s nonexistent virtue.
This sets up a dramatic final courtroom scene, where an off-the-rails Stephen pulls himself together enough to defend Dwight. He puts Jan on the stand and she confesses all. She is distraught and ashamed of her behavior, and Stephen takes the blame, saying that she had no choice but to grow up wild with a drunkard who associated with criminals as a father.
It’s a rousing speech, one that won Lionel Barrymore his only Oscar.
The film also garnered Shearer’s third of an eventual five nominations for Best Actress.
It was also one of the films that catapulted Clark Gable into leading man status.
Overall, it’s a very good film that holds up over time. Shearer is delightfully charming, and Gable is Gable in all his glory.
It was, of course, hugely controversial at the time. In particular, the scene where Jan holds out her arms to Ace was nearly universally cut by the regional censors.
Though the censor board was mostly ignored in the pre-code era, after the Warner Brothers films and A Free Soul, the board insisted the studios not make anymore gangster films.
It’s funny that A Free Soul is the straw that broke the camel’s back. It’s much less violent than Little Caesar or Public Enemy, butit committed two sins that those films, for all their transgressions, did not.
First, Little Caesar and Tom Powers pay for their crimes with their lives. And while Jan is humiliated in open court, she ultimately gets a happy ending when Dwight is acquitted and they go off to New York to start a new life together.
Second, and most damningly, A Free Soul glorifies a woman having sex outside of marriage. More shockingly, she refuses when Ace proposes.
The studios, fearing government-mandated censorship, complied with the edict and put the gangster films on ice.
But as we’ll see next week, there was a way to make movies outside the studio system. If you had enough money and enough moxie, you could make whatever picture you wanted.
Twenty-six year old business magnate Howard Hughes had plenty of both.
The days are getting longer, the weather is warming up, and the flowers are blooming.
Tomorrow is Memorial Day, the official start of the American Summer.
Marked by parades, cookouts, retail sales, the end of school, and the opening of the public pools.
Not this year. Parades and pools are on ice indefinitely, and school ended abruptly weeks ago. Cookouts have so many rules—masks, six feet, no touching—that they’re hardly worth the trouble. Who knew we’d have occupancy limits in our own backyards?
At least we still have sales.
I think we can officially add “holiday retail sales” to the list of things you can always count on, which previously included only death and taxes.
I like Memorial Day. I like the summer holiday trio best—Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day. They’re patriotic, they’re celebrated with cookouts and parades and fireworks, and they’re free of all the emotional landmines and family drama that accompany the Big Five—Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Father’s Day, and (as previously discussed in these very electronic pages) Mother’s Day.
But just like Easter and Mother’s Day, 2020 Memorial Day is going to be different. (I think we’re all sensing a theme here.)
But perhaps Memorial Day is the holiday best suited for this pandemic. For as everyone knows and forgets when they’re at their cookout (myself included), Memorial Day is for honoring those in our military who gave their lives for our country.
It’s a solemn holiday at its heart, best illustrated by photos of Arlington Cemetery, the graves dotted with American flags.
It’s a holiday that celebrates patriotism and self-sacrifice, and pays tribute to those who’ve died in service to our safety, our security, and our ideals.
In the time of the coronavirus, so much has been made about the bravery and calm professionalism of the doctors and nurses working in the hardest hit areas. Some of them have also died protecting their fellow man.
As we approach an inevitable 100,000 American deaths from this disease, tomorrow I plan to take a moment to honor all of those who have died while trying to keep others safe, whether they wore a military uniform or not.
Just this once, I don’t think the soldiers will mind.
To study old American movies is to study American history, which makes you realize what a winding road we’ve taken from landing the Mayflower to Zooming our way through the 2020 pandemic.
From my modern viewpoint where congress could not agree on the fact that the sky is blue, I find it impossible that two-thirds of congress and the states once agreed to outlaw the sale, manufacture, and importation of alcohol.
Welcome to Prohibition.
For thirteen years, from 1920-1933, the country was dry.
Dry on paper, that is.
For on the one hand, the temperance movement was celebrating the elimination of alcohol and all its evil effects, poverty and disease chief among them.
On the other hand, it was the Roaring Twenties, one of the most romanticized periods of American history, where the rich drank champagne while wearing flapper dresses and tuxedos, while the lower class packed into speakeasies for a taste of bathtub gin.
The twenties were a complete contradiction. That sounds more like the America I know.
Prohibition created a huge vacuum in the supply of alcohol, but the demand remained. Someone willing to break the law to fulfill that demand stood to make a killing.
Enter the bootlegger.
As Al Capone, the first and most famous bootlegging gangster said, “I give the public what the public wants.”
Hollywood did the same.
Because gangsters were another American contradiction. At once envied and feared, valorized for their ostentatious wealth and rebellion against an unpopular law and vilified for fighting like animals over territory and leaving the city streets soaked in blood.
Producer Jack Warner was interested in making films about the gritty life of those on the bottom rungs of society’s ladder.
MGM had their stars, Universal had their monsters, and Warner Brothers had gangsters.
Little Caesar was the first full talking gangster film, the story of the rise and fall of two friends, Rico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) and Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.)
Rico and Joe move to Chicago, where Rico ruthlessly works his way to the top of a gang of organized crime. As he ascends from enforcing thug to top dog, Rico buys expensive suits, expensive cars, expensive guns.
Joe loses his taste for the violence and falls in love. He wants to make an honest living as a dancer, but learns quickly how difficult it is to quit the mob.
Rico is addicted to money, power, and the thrill of danger. It gets lonely at the top, and despite the women, money, and booze, Rico grows paranoid and angry. He must always look over his shoulder and stay one step ahead of the cops and his enemies.
Rico has a moment of redemption when he finds he cannot kill Joe, despite the fact that Joe’s girlfriend intends to spill the mob’s secrets to the police.
But as the film takes pains to show—mainly to get it past the regional censors—a life of crime doesn’t pay and Rico’s descent is swift and complete. The cops dismantle his organization, and he ends up living in a homeless shelter, all his fancy clothes and women gone.
Rico dies in the gutter he was once so proud to have crawled out of.
To the dismay of those who wanted cleaner pictures, Little Caesar was a box office hit.
Despite the ending, the film promoted a romanticized view of organized crime. Children idolized Rico and his fancy lifestyle but quickly forgot the moralizing title cards.
While the censors wrung their hands, Jack Warner ordered up another picture just like it.
The Public Enemy is even better.
The film opens with the protagonist Tom Powers as a young boy. We see that while he has a decent mother and father, Tom is a bad seed with a predilection for stealing and cruelty.
He purposely trips a girl who’s roller skating and his father takes a strap to him that is obviously well worn from prior whippings.
James Cagney plays the adult Tom Powers as he works his way up the ranks of an organized crime gang that sells bootleg beer. For the first time in his life, Tom has power and money.
His upgraded suits, fancy cars, and false charm are just a veneer over the surface of his thin skin. Violent and insecure, he can’t let even the smallest slights go unavenged.
Tom tries to give a wad of cash to his mother (who is only too happy to believe his lies about where it comes from), but his brother Michael rejects it and accuses Tom of hiding behind a gun. Insulted, Tom tears the money to pieces and throws it in Michael’s face.
Later, Tom proudly brings a keg of his bootlegged beer to a family dinner. Michael throws the keg across the room, shouting that Tom is a murderer and the keg is full of “beer and blood.”
With a chilling grin of cruelty, Tom tells his war hero brother, “Your hands ain’t so clean. You kill and like it. You didn’t get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.”
He shoots Putty Nose in the back years after Putty Nose left him behind to be caught by the cops on his first job.
And most famously, when his girlfriend gets on his nerves, he smashes a grapefruit in her face. The look he gives her before he walks away is one of pure contempt.
(Poor Mae Clark—after a forty year career that spanned into the 1960s and featured dozens of leading roles in the pictures, and even a stint on General Hospital, she will forever be remembered as the girl who took a grapefruit to the face)
More even than the public enemy, Tom is his own worst enemy.
He has partners not friends, sex not love, greed not mercy, pride not duty.
Tom couldn’t change even if he wanted to, and comes to a bad end when his enemies leave his disfigured body on his mother’s doorstep.
There is a through line that runs from these early Warner Brothers films to Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Godfather (1972), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), right up to Martin Scorsese’s 2019 Oscar nominated film The Irishman.
As time passes the films get bloodier, alcohol shifts to cocaine, and the f-word litters every page of the script, but at their core, these films are about broken men who find power only in the way of the gun.
I love to know what people are reading when they think no one’s watching.
When I’m in an airport or on a bus, I’ll pretend to tie my shoe so I can bend over and see the covers of the books people are reading. I’ll go to the bathroom and take a quick peek over shoulders on my way back.
Inquiring minds want to know.
Most people are reading something you’d expect, but I’m on the hunt for the person who’s got the guts to go against type. Just once I want to find a gray-templed business executive in a three piece suit who’s reading Nora Roberts instead of Stephen Covey.
That’s why I’m against e-books. No snooping possible.
In theory, I should be fascinated by all the recent glimpses of celebrity bookcases.
You know what I’m talking about. Now that every celebrity, newscaster, and talk show host is Zooming (we can use this as a verb now, right?) from home, we get a look at their home offices.
And their bookcases.
This has prompted a rash of Twitter posters to painstakingly identify blurry titles and newspaper articles analyzing the contents of said shelves.
Much has been made of the fact that Cate Blanchett owns all twenty volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary. Kate Middleton has a collection of Penguin Classics (including titles by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, of course) that quite frankly, look like they’ve never been opened, much less read. Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, has biographies of U.S. presidents by Doris Kearns Goodwin, among other history books.
The article begins, “In quarantine, people are inadvertently exposing their reading habits.”
Au contraire, New York Times. There is nothing “inadvertent” about these books. Every book was carefully selected—or at the very least, undesirables were culled from the shelves—before they turned the cameras on.
They are showing their downstairs bookcase.
I should know, because I have one myself.
The downstairs bookcase is the one you want guests to see. Bookworms always peruse each other’s shelves. The downstairs bookcase is a testament to your literary bonafides, your good taste, your identification papers proving you’re in on the zeitgeist.
No reader is immune to the temptation of bragging in their downstairs bookcase.
Mine has Harry Potter, a hardback Jane Austen anthology Kate Middleton could love, literary novels, some poetry. All are in pristine condition. I’ve read them all (only a complete literary poseur would dare showcase books they hadn’t read in their downstairs bookcase). I enjoy them all. They’re not just for show.
If you want to know the heart and soul of my reading life—of anyone’s— you have to find their upstairs bookcase. The one that’s tucked away in the office no one else enters. It doesn’t even have to be a bookcase. It can be the back of a closet or the bottom drawer of a bedside table.
It’s the place you keep your books with spines cracked from all the re-reading, with coffee rings, and beloved passages marked with stars. The books you would run into a burning building to save, because while you could buy a new copy, they are irreplaceable.
It’s where you keep the books that are pure pleasure, guilty pleasures if you believe you must feel bad about what you read. Books you take to bed with you and read until dawn. Books whose movies you detest because they got the casting and the ending all wrong. Books that cut so close to the bone they hurt to read.
To see a downstairs bookcase is to see a person’s reading dressed up for a black-tie wedding—lipstick on, every hair sprayed and pinned into place.
The upstairs bookcase?
That’s your reading life in a cozy bathrobe with nothing on underneath.
So famous people, don’t waste my time with your carefully curated picture-perfect libraries that show me nothing other than how you want me to see you.
We’ve been having fun, haven’t we? In the first part of this blog, we’ve watched Garbo at her best—seducing unwitting men to their doom in Mata Hari, overcoming her fallen woman past in Anna Christie, and succumbing to a romantic death of doom in Camille. We’ve watched a young swashbuckling Clark Gable sail the high seas in Mutiny on the Bounty, and delighted in Joan Crawford and John Barrymore’s double entendres in Grand Hotel. Dracula and Frankenstein scared us out of our wits, and King Kong had us reaching for the popcorn.
Audiences in the 1930s were having fun too. Lots of fun. Hollywood had made the successful transition from silent pictures to talkies, and audiences were addicted to the movies.
But not everyone was having fun. Some people didn’t like these movies.
Who couldn’t like these movies?
Martin Quigley, for one.
Quigley published the Exhibitor’s Herald, a movie industry trade paper. He was a Catholic, and he was concerned about the sex and violence portrayed on the silver screen.
But let’s back up a moment. We’ll get back to old Quigley and the Catholic crusade against Hollywood in a minute.
The story of movie censorship is a long and winding road.
If you believe movie censorship was a mistake, Mutual Film vs. Ohio was the original sin. In this 1915 case, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that films were merchandise and not art, and thus were not protected under the free speech amendment.
This paved the way for state and local censorship boards. Eight states had censorship boards: Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetes, New York, Ohio, Virginia, and (I’m sorry to say) Pennsylvania. There were dozens of local boards.
A state employee watched movies all day (what a job!), searching for objectionable content. The Supreme Court’s ruling gave these boards complete authority to cut scenes from films at will, without any approval from filmmakers.
And cut they did. Their decisions were capricious and inconsistent. Kansas, a dry state, cut out any scenes of drinking. Ohio cut anything that could have a negative impact on young minds. Maryland was particularly touchy about disrespect of the law.
They mercilessly cut key scenes necessary to basic plotlines. They could—and often did—butcher a film to the point where it did not make sense to its audience.
It wasn’t ideal, but Hollywood could deal with regional censorship boards.
The threat of federal government censorship, however, was terrifying.
Because the racier the film, the better it did at the box office.
Federal censorship was a threat to the bottom line.
Re-enter Martin Quigley. Quigley believed that the state censorship boards were not enough, that there needed to be a uniform code of conduct from the studios. It wasn’t enough just to cut out the worst bits—care should be taken to make decent, clean films that would portray good morals.
And all films should be suitable for children.
Quigley wasn’t alone—increasingly loud complaints and boycotting threats came from the Boy Scouts, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae.
Something had to be done.
So when Quigley came to William Hays, director of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association, with a draft of rules he’d written to govern the production of movies, Hays was all ears.
Hays convened a committee of studio executives, including Irving Thalberg, head of production at MGM. Thalberg worked with Hays’ staff and Quigley’s allies to further revise the code of conduct.
Details were hammered out, concessions were made, and on March 31, 1930 Hollywood announced The Production Code.
The code prohibited (among other things), profanity, nudity, excessive violence, illegal drugs, white slavery, interracial relationships, and lustful kissing.
All the ingredients of a great movie.
The studio heads announced their intentions to the press, patted themselves on the back, and went back to Hollywood and kept right on making the same “filthy” films.
Because although the Hays Office had good intentions, they didn’t have ultimate authority over films, and by then the studios were in a war to recover the rapidly declining ticket sales as the Great Depression settled across the country.
Pollyannaish stories of morality were not going to get desperate people back into theater seats.
Audiences wanted sin.
Hollywood was going to give it to them, code or no code.
Thus began a four year battle between the studios and the reformers, a battle that the reformers would ultimately win in 1934, when Hollywood began strictly enforcing the code that would strangle filmmakers for the next thirty-four years.
During the next series of posts, we’ll explore that battle and the best of the pre-code films. These are films made from 1930-1934, those four deliciously sinful years between the development and strict enforcement of the code.
Irving Thalberg—who had helped write the code—went back to MGM and made The Divorcée, starring his delightful wife, Norma Shearer.
The Divorcée was decidedly not the type of film Quigley had in mind for enriching young minds.
Jerry (Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) are the perfect modern couple. They’re desperately in love, drink and dance with their circle of glamourous friends, and Ted is supportive of Jerry’s demanding career.
Then Ted has a one-night stand. He insists it was meaningless (all evidence confirms this) and implores Jerry not to wreck their perfect life over it. He leaves for a business trip, confident he has smoothed things over with his wife.
But when Ted returns to find that Jerry has, as she says, “balanced their accounts” by having her own meaningless fling, things go sideways.
In the best scene of the film, the couple has a knock-down-drag-out fight where Jerry skewers Ted’s hypocrisy.
“Loose women are great, but not in the home, eh Ted?” she thunders.
Finally, she delivers her killer exit line:
“So look for me in the future where the primroses grow and pack your man’s pride with the rest. From now on, you’re the only man in the world that my door is closed to.”
(I like to imagine old Martin Quigley with his head in his hands over that one.)
Ted can’t forgive her affair, and Jerry can’t forgive his double-standard, and to the surprise of all their friends, this golden couple ends up in divorce court.
Jerry spends her days as the life of the party as Ted sinks deeper into drinking and depression. Inwardly Jerry is as bad off as Ted, and their shared misery telegraphs the deep love they still share.
Will they be able to forgive and find their way back to one another?
This is a fantastic film, made ninety years ago and yet the story of a progressive couple that cannot live up to their own ideals is as relevant as ever.
The film was nominated for Best Picture, and Norma Shearer won a well deserved Best Actress Oscar.
Watch it tonight. Have your morals corrupted. You won’t regret it.
There’s nothing Martin Quigley can do to stop you.
*Source: Sin In Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood, Mark Vieira
Normally the biggest day of the year for restaurants, there will be no champagne brunches this year. No picnics in the park, no living rooms crowded with grandchildren and cake.
I know this might come as a shock to some, but holidays are not always as joyful as they are portrayed in Hallmark movies.
Holidays are loaded with emotions, not always good.
Everyone has strange Mother’s Days throughout their lives.
Maybe it’s the first Mother’s Day since your own mother passed away, or maybe you’re away from her for the first time on the holiday. Or maybe you’re a new mother and today’s the first time you’re the one being celebrated.
Maybe you’re not on good terms with your mother or maybe you never had a mother in any true sense of the word. Or maybe your mother’s been gone a long time and you wish you could cut this day out of the calendar every year.
So let’s not forget that Mother’s Day is sometimes weird for all of us.
The difference is we’re all having a weird Mother’s Day at exactly the same time.
I know a lot more mothers than I used to, and many of them are my age.
Talk about weird.
If your mother is in your quarantine bubble, you’re probably tired of each other after weeks of enforced togetherness. Maybe celebrate by letting Mom take a bubble bath or go for a walk all by herself.
If you and your mother are both alive and healthy but unable to see one another, there are plenty of other ways to let her know you love and appreciate her.
If for any reason you’d rather just skip Mother’s Day, I fully endorse pulling the covers up over your head and not coming out until it’s over.
You may want to consider this strategy for the rest of 2020.
If you can swing it.
Happy Mother’s Day to my mom, and all the mothers I know and love.
Though they are tame to the modern eye, both Dracula and Frankenstein terrified audiences in their heyday.
The same cannot be said for King Kong.
Though classified as a horror film, King Kong did not terrify its 1933 audience.
It awed them.
King Kong was the first popcorn movie—an expensive, ridiculous, over-the-top tall tale of pure, mindless entertainment.
This isn’t just me talking from atop my 2020 high horse. The TIME Magazine 1933 review notes:
“It might seem that any creature answering the description of Kong would be despicable and terrifying. Such is not the case. Kong is an exaggeration ad absurdum, too vast to be plausible. This makes his actions wholly enjoyable.”
But movies are often at their best when they are mindless spectacles. There are few pleasures as good as sitting in the cool dark of an air conditioned movie theater, eating popcorn while man battles the beasts of a filmmaker’s imagination.
It’s actually rather amazing that King Kong was even made in 1933.
Director Merian C. Cooper had long had an idea for a film about a fifty foot ape that ravages New York, but studios were wary of the expense, especially when all but MGM were just trying to survive the Great Depression.
Cooper had eventually given up and left the movie business altogether to work at Pan American Airlines, and was with the company when it launched the first regular transatlantic flight service.
At the time, David O. Selznick (a giant in movie making history…much, much more on him later) had just taken over as Head of Production at RKO Studios. He was looking for ways to turn the company’s finances around in the midst of the Great Depression, and find a way to compete with MGM.
Like Universal, RKO had to compete without any top stars.
Unlike Universal, Selznick decided to go big.
(Selznick, as we will learn, always went big.)
He lured Cooper back into the film business with the promise that he could finally make his ape picture with minimal studio interference.
In one way, it paid off—King Kong was the highest grossing film of 1933. But the high cost of the film meant it didn’t make enough money to keep RKO out of receivership.
King Kong is the story of Carl Denham, an adventurous filmmaker (much like Cooper himself) who sails to an exotic location to find—and film—the mythical beast Kong. Along for the ride are John Driscoll, a member of the ship’s crew, and Ann Darrow, the unknown young woman Denham has plucked from skid row to star in his film.
Carl, John, and Ann arrive at Skull Island to discover Kong, a fifty-foot ape who is infatuated with Ann—oh hell, I’m just going to call her Fay Wray, that’s how everyone thinks of her—and kidnaps her.
The second act of the film is Kong carrying Fay Wray through the jungle and protecting her by fighting off various monsters, including a gigantic snake and a surprisingly carnivorous brontosaurus.
Carl has a touch of P.T. Barnum in him, and once Fay Wray is rescued he decides to kidnap the beast and take him back to New York to exhibit as a sort of circus freak.
How, exactly, they transport this fifty-foot ape from an island too remote to be on the map all the way to New York City is a plot point that is (probably for the best) unexplained.
Once in New York, Carl sells tickets to see Kong, the “eighth wonder of the world.”
At his first exhibition, Kong breaks free and terrorizes New York in search of Fay, whom he finds and again kidnaps. Fay Wray’s primary role in the film is to scream and cover her eyes with her forearm.
Kong ultimately goes down in a blaze of glory, gunned down from the top of the Empire State Building by a dozen airplanes, but not before carefully depositing his lady love safely on the ledge of the building.
Like Frankenstein’s monster, Kong elicits our sympathy despite his reign of destruction as he is at heart nothing more than a stranger in a strange land looking for love.
I like big blockbuster movies as much as anyone, but movies based on special effects almost by definition don’t age well.
King Kong is often listed as one of the greatest movies of all time, and based on the reaction of the audience that first saw it in 1933, perhaps it is. It was the talk of the town and set attendance records in its first week, selling out every showing.
These days whenever I need to know something, I do what everyone does. I fire up my phone or my laptop and consult Google.
I have the answer in seconds.
Which, to be quite honest, I’m not longer stunned by. It’s an accepted part of modern-day life that one can look up any fact, television clip, or famous photograph in an instant.
Google has the answers.
But I’m still amazed by how often Google knows the question before I even finish asking it.
And not just the easy ones, like this:
Google’s not getting any points from me on that one. Everyone on planet Earth has googled that at least once in the past eight weeks.
But Google knows things that are rather specific, like:
Has Google been reading my Golden Age of Hollywood blogs?
How did Google know I was looking for a show that’s been off the air for thirteen years?
And Google has definitely been reviewing my skyrocketing Amazon bill:
And how does Google explain this autofill if it hasn’t been using my webcam?
I mean, seriously, Google. Cats climb trees, curtains, and poles. But your first thought was that I wanted to search cats climbing on my back? And you’re telling me you didn’t read my Facebook post this week?
[Side Note: The life of a writer means that you can spend hours researching, writing, and perfecting a piece, and it will never get 1/100th the amount of likes as a picture of your cat on your back. This is the way the world is, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.]
I feel like I’m forever locked in a game of “Name That Tune.”
Google: I can name that search in six letters!
Since Google obviously knows everything, they also know I am on to them:
But Google swears they are protecting my privacy, and we all know Google would never lie to us. So the only logical explanation is:
I don’t even need to click to know the answer is YES!
Google finishes my sentences. Google always knows exactly what I want. Google anticipates my every need.
In the 1930’s the Great Depression ransacked the country and the movie industry.
Of all the studios, only MGM continued turning a profit, as when Depression-era audiences were able to scrape together enough money to go to the pictures, they wanted to see the stars.
The remaining studios were on the brink of disaster. How were they to compete with MGM? They had no Gable, no Garbo, no cash in the bank.
Carl Laemmle Junior, the studio head at Universal, had an idea.
If he couldn’t dazzle audiences with lavish production and stars, he’d settle for scaring them half to death.
And thus Universal’s dominance in the low-budget horror film genre began.
Laemmle bought the rights to two classic horror novels and got to work.
Let’s start with Dracula, a film based on Bram Stoker’s novel that started the vampire myth way back in 1897.
There’s no getting around it—despite his immortality, Dracula has aged poorly. Many parts of the movie are just plain silly to the modern eye—for example, when Dracula’s bat form hovers outside his victim’s open windows, the bat looks like it’s made of rubber and someone is pulling fishing line to flap the wings.
For a villian with such violent and intimate killings, the movie cuts away right at the moment when Dracula is about to sink his teeth into his pretty victim’s necks.
And yet, it is still a thrill to watch Bela Lugosi in the role he was born to play, hissing at mirrors and proclaiming, “I am Dracula!” in the Hungarian accent we will forever associate with the Count from Transylvania.
Like vampires themselves, stories of vampires are immortal shapeshifters. We can’t get enough of them. It doesn’t matter if the vampires are evil beasts to be hunted down and killed (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) or tortured souls who try to resist human blood (Edward Cullen, Twilight). They can feel modern (Bill in True Blood), old world (Louis in Interview With the Vampire), or even melodramatic (Barnabas in Dark Shadows.)
These versions are not as far from Lugosi’s Count as they first appear.
As different as they are, all vampire stories are about temptation and desire. The vampire’s desire for human blood—and sometimes the human’s desire to be bitten. There’s the temptation of immortality, despite the price of becoming an animal who must kill to endure.
And vampire stories are always about sex. The vampire and his victim are always dancing on a knife’s edge between sex and death.
Lugosi’s Count Dracula has all the seeds that would grow into the tangled vines of vampire myths. Lucy is attracted to his accent, his dark foreign looks, and his mystery. He bites both Lucy and Mina in their bedrooms, where they are spread out sleeping with exposed necks. And once he has bitten Mina, he gains a hypnotic power over her even without turning her immortal.
Love makes you crazy. Lust crazier still. Vampire blood drives you completely insane.
While Frankenstein has not inspired nearly as many contemporary retellings, it’s a much better film. Boris Karloff plays Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster with a humanity that makes him a figure of both terror and pity.
Dr. Frankenstein, a mad scientist, quite literally plays god when he brings to life a creature he has cobbled together with parts from dead bodies he’s robbed from graves.
Overcome with the implications of what he has done, he abandons the monster. The unnamed monster does not start out evil. He learns cruelty and violence from the people he meets who treat him with nothing but fear or scorn. He quickly learns to kill first and ask questions later.
The Monster meets a young girl, the first human to treat him with kindness. In a horrifying scene, the Monster unknowingly murders the girl when he throws her into a river, believing she will float like the daisy petals all around.
In the end, all the Monster really wants is someone who will love him.
Enter the fabulous sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, in which the Monster persuades Dr. Frankenstein to make him a mate.
Yet in the darkly funny twist ending, even the Monster’s handmade wife cannot stand the sight of him.
Watching these films today, it is hard to imagine the terror they wrought on the audiences of the 1930s. In early screenings of Frankenstein, audiences were so distraught they walked out of the theater.
But when they kept coming back in because they had to know how the story ended, Carl Laemmle Junior knew he had a hit on his hands.
Some wondered if these films were taking things a bit too far. While making money in the short term, would such spectacles of gruesome horror turn people off movies and cost the entire industry money in the long term?
Long term, these shoestring budget films became franchises that spawned enough sequels to keep Universal afloat in the darkest days of the Depression.
Longer term, these Universal versions of Dracula and Frankenstein are embedded so deeply into our culture that people who have never seen the films recognize Bela Lugosi’s Count with his cape and widow’s peak, and Boris Karloff’s Monster with his staggering gait and bolts in his neck.
Every Halloween, thousands dress in costumes that owe their origins to these films. They are a testament to the power of a good story, and a reminder that money doesn’t have to stand in the way of great art.