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Morally ambiguous. Sharp witted. Absurdist. Surprising. And unpredictable. Before a crackdown in 1934, commentator Betsy Sherman says a frisky and creative energy reigned supreme in Tinseltown. In this photo, Claudette Colbert is shown in character in the title role of the 1934 film "Cleopatra" with co-star Henry Wilcoxen. (AP File)

It seems like every year that ends in a nine there’s a spate of articles commemorating 1939 as “Hollywood’s Greatest Year.” Granted, plenty of classics were made during those twelve months, but I say that’s a load o’ hooey. Me, I’d rather see a mediocre film from 1932 than a run of the mill picture from 1939.

I am addicted to the so-called Pre-Code movies – talking pictures made from 1929 until the mid-1930’s. In 1934, the restrictions dictated in the Hays Office’s Motion Picture Production Code, the censorship guidelines that governed the production of most US films, were finally enforced. But during the frisky period of lax enforcement, a creative energy flourished that would later be tamed. Hollywood movies were more risqué, using lurid subject matter, innuendo-laced dialogue and skimpier costumes to lure patrons into the theaters. They were also more daring, allowing moral ambiguity in storylines and characters, cutting loose with absurdist comedy and ethnic humor, presenting charismatic gangster protagonists, and razzing contemporary woes such as The Depression and Prohibition.

In comparison to what came later, Pre-Code movies feel unencumbered. Crazy comedies, such as the early Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields pictures and those by lesser-known funny people like Wheeler & Woolsey, were allowed to take humor to surreal places and weren’t hobbled by obligatory romantic subplots. Dramas and crime pictures could reflect the gritty, post-Crash world in ways that would shake up the audience, and didn’t necessarily have a predictable moralistic ending that neatly tied up plot threads. There’s even less music in those early sound films, unlike later in the decade when wall-to-wall scores told the audience what to feel: the passages of silence have a satisfying crackling sound, reminiscent of vinyl records.

These days, the Pre-Code fan can capture these movies on DVD or on Turner Classic Movies. The titles alone give me goose bumps: “Ten Cents a Dance,” “Behind Office Doors,” “The Woman Racket,” and the shrewdly suggestive “Secrets of the French Police.” Pre-Codes are occasionally shown in local repertory cinemas like the Brattle Theatre, but rarely in such blowout fashion as this Saturday’s overnight marathon of Pre-Codes at the Harvard Film Archive.

Marathons tend to be the province of genres such as science fiction, horror and schlock, and are usually aimed at a male audience. Conversely, the lineup in HFA’s “Hot Saturday: The Paramount Pre-Code Marathon,” places an emphasis on comedy and spectacle, and is refreshingly woman-centric, featuring iconic actresses in notorious roles. Viewers will see Claudette Colbert star in the title role of “Cleopatra,” along with Mae West’s smash-hit debut, “She Done Him Wrong.” It’s not so much West’s bursting-at-the-seams sensuality that makes her a sex goddess, but her relaxed attitude towards desire and her hilarious, cut-through-the-bull observations like, “When women go wrong, men go right after them.”

The features will be accompanied by shorts, including Pre-Code phenomenon Betty Boop. Miss Boop, along with her flesh-and-blood comrades, got her hemlines lowered, necklines raised, and spirit doused by The Code, which held general principles such as “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it.” The framers of this self-policing effort wished for a world in which “the audience feels sure that evil is wrong and good is right.” The studio moguls assented because they needed to stave off heat from politicians and religious groups like the Catholic Legion of Decency. With enforcement of The Code, parameters were put on what could be discussed, questioned or criticized in films.

Pre-Code leading ladies had freer rein to indulge their desires. Their pursuits vary in style, the most baroque being Colbert’s Cleopatra, who casts her spell over Caesar and Antony within a divinely decadent milk-bath dreamed up by director Cecil B. DeMille. The small-town good girl played by Nancy Carroll in “Hot Saturday” rebels against behavioral strictures dictated by local gossips; her story typifies Pre-Code’s ability to surprise and delight.

The audacity of Pre-Code filmmakers was hobbled for a while after the Code crackdown, but some of its spirit can be found in the screwball comedies of the mid-‘30s to the early ‘40s. These pictures, which served the gifts of actresses like Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell, substituted velocity and wisecracking brio for the taboo-busting of the Pre-Code. Ultimately, though, the screwballs were tethered to traditional courtship ending in marriage.

Overall, Hollywood movies and their female characters lost some of their life force after 1934. It’s like Mae West was put through an industrial strength laundering and the result—shrunken and diminished—was the most popular star from 1935-1938, family friendly moppet Shirley Temple.

Tags: Film/TV

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