The Walls of Jericho

#19 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

In his unparalleled thirty-year career, Clark Gable starred in 66 films.

Though nominated three times, he won only one Best Actor Oscar.

Can you guess the film?

If you’re like most people, you are certain he won the Oscar for his legendary performance as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind.

You’re wrong.

The King of Hollywood won his lone Oscar for a little film called It Happened One Night.

One of the first screwballs ever made, this little gem shows that the cream does indeed rise to the top.

Columbia started out as a B-movie studio on what was then un-affectionately called poverty row.  Unlike the Big Five, Columbia didn’t own any theaters, and they couldn’t afford to keep big stars on the payroll.  

Upstart director Frank Capra (who would eventually go on to make It’s A Wonderful Life) convinced the notoriously cheap,crude, and hard-nosed studio head Harry Cohn to get some A-list stars on loan to make a funny little escapist road trip that Capra was sure would cheer up Depression audiences.

It’s a simple setup—Claudette Colbert plays Ellie Andrews, a spoiled rich heiress who runs off (again) when her father wants to annul her marriage to a gold digger.  To elude her father’s detectives, she hops on a bus and finds herself sitting next to Gable’s Peter Warne, a newspaper reporter who recognizes her and smells a great story.

He agrees to help her find her husband in exchange for an exclusive.  With no money and no street smarts, Ellie has no choice but to reluctantly agree. 

At one point, they are forced to spend the night in a one-room cabin, and Peter puts a blanket over a clothesline and pronounces it the Wall of Jericho to protect his—not her—modestly.  When Ellie at first refuses to cooperate, Peter begins slowly undressing until she is forced to retreat to her side of the wall.  He’s teasing her, but there’s no malice.  We know that while Peter would like to get to know Ellie in a more biblical manner, he’s a gentleman and no threat to her reputation.

From his side of the wall, Peter watches Ellie’s shadow as she undresses, and though the scene exists to circumvent production code rules, it’s a sexier moment than if they’d torn each other’s clothes off.

Capra and the code leave something to the imagination, to great effect.

Peter and Ellie learn to appreciate one another—Peter teaches Ellie how to properly dunk a donut, and she shows him a thing or two about successfully hitching a ride.

And when her father’s detectives show up, Peter and Ellie work together seamlessly as a team to throw them off the trail.  When they laugh at their success, both Ellie and the audience have forgotten all about her soon-to-be annulled marriage.

As their madcap adventure progresses, their initial disdain slowly melts into love.

We’ve seen this plot a hundred—no, a thousand times before.

But the audiences of 1934 had never seen anything like it, and romantic comedies writers have been ripping off It Happened One Night ever since.

Clark Gable didn’t want to make the film.  He was used to the posh comforts of MGM, and he was angry at Louis B. Mayer for loaning him out to Columbia.  His co-star Claudette Colbert also wasn’t much interested in the film.  She’d been planning a vacation and was forced to cut it short when Columbia met her asking price.

And to be honest, Harry Cohn himself didn’t expect much from the film.  It had no big advertising campaign, no thought of Academy Award nominations.

No one involved, it seemed, understood what a special movie they were making.

No one but the audience.

They loved it.  Its success came from word of mouth, and the good word spread like wildfire.  People saw it, then brought their friends and saw it again.  Its initial run went on and on, far longer than anyone could’ve predicted.

And when Oscar time rolled around, this little film that no one thought was anything special became the first film to win all five major awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay.)  In all of Oscar’s history, only two other films have completed that particular quinfecta.  The other two are from the modern era:  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

It charmed audiences and critics, and if you give it a chance, it’ll charm you too.

Gable is in the type of role he was born to play—a charming rascal with a well-concealed heart of gold.  Colbert is perfect as the spoiled heiress with a lot more going on beneath the hood.  Their chemistry crackles as they practically burn up the screen with their bickering.

When I covered Possessed, I said it would be the first on a list of six essential films to understand why people still love old Hollywood films.

The second film on that list is It Happened One Night.

It’s the most charming screwball, a movie full of heart and laughs, and a great scene with Colbert and Gable in matching pajamas.

You can stream it for three bucks on Amazon.

Rent it tonight, and see for yourself what happens when the Walls of Jericho come tumbling down.

And learn how to properly dunk your donuts.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

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.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Down Hollywood’s Primrose Path

#8 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Part II: A Toothless Code

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 HotelDracula 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.  

Martin Quigley, movie killjoy

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

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.