Classic cinema is often dismissed because of its lack of special effects, black and white filming, and conservative subject matter. Prior to the advent of the 1934 Hay’s Code, however, cinema was anything but safe as films were free to explore such adult issues as sex, drugs, and violence without consequences. During this time, Depression era audiences could find an escape from their own troubles without resorting to glossed over fantasies, as a plethora of racy stories and risqué performances found their way to the silver screen. This week I’ll be featuring three of the most notorious pre-code films that remain shocking even by modern standards.
THREE ON A MATCH: Sex, drugs, suicide, and child neglect? 1932’s Three On a Match blends these strange elements and more to create a truly sin-tillating story of the lives of three very different childhood friends. Tough gal Mary (Joan Blondell) struggles to make a living as a chorus girl after spending time in reform school, while straight-laced Ruth (Bette Davis) tries to work her way to corporate success as a secretary, and vampish Vivian (Ann Dvorak) marries into wealth. Despite her financial security and seemingly ideal home life with her husband and young son, Vivian remains restless and unsatisfied with her life. She embarks upon an affair with exciting gambler, Michael (Lyle Talbot), and abandons her marriage in favor of life in the fast lane. Unfortunately for Vivian’s husband, Robert (Warren William), she was not prepared to abandon their son (Dickie Moore) and the little boy is hidden at her new apartment where he is exposed to gangsters, belligerent drunks, and his mother’s promiscuity. By the time that Mary discovers Vivian’s whereabouts, Vivian has already entered a downward spiral of addiction as she is strongly implied to be using both cocaine (her constant rubbing under her nose) and heroin (Michael gestures to her in front of his friends and mimics injecting his left arm), leaving her son to fend for himself as he wanders about the apartment in filthy clothes consuming discarded, half-eaten bits of party snacks to avoid starvation. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Vivian’s descent is the nonchalant way in which the other characters regard her behavior. Although Mary disapproves of Vivian’s lifestyle, she fails to turn her in to the police for kidnapping or child neglect, which would seem to be the most logical course of action, and leaves Vivian with a mild reprimand before turning her attention to beginning a romance with Vivian’s lonely husband. Mary eventually tells Robert the whereabouts of his son and immediately proceeds to take Vivian’s place as Robert’s live-in girlfriend and Robert Junior’s almost equally neglectful step-mother. Similarly, Ruth seems largely oblivious of anyone else’s actions and gladly takes on a job as governess to Vivian’s son after Mary moves in, only to leave him wandering at the edge of the pond in Central Park while she catches up on her reading. The boy is then kidnapped at the park by a group of gangsters (led by a young Humphrey Bogart) to whom Michael owes money and held for ransom at Vivian’s apartment. The film reaches its climax when Vivian is aroused from her drug-induced haze just long enough to overhear the gangsters plotting to kill her son to prevent them from being tied to the kidnapping and commit an elaborate public suicide in an act of desperate devotion (the suicide alerts the police to investigate the apartment window she threw herself from) that the film leads viewers to believe is her only chance at redemption. This saucy melodrama is far more than the innocent bit of school-day nostalgia it was packaged as and proves that ‘women’s pictures’ had a little something for everyone.
SCARFACE: While it may not feature any mention of a certain ‘little friend’ the original gangland classic contains a virtual gallery of shocking moments involving machine guns, mobster’s molls, and sibling affections that are anything but brotherly. Like its 80’s successor, the story begins with a classic tale of the American Dream that within just a few frames goes brutally wrong. Recent Italian émigré Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) begins his career as an enforcer for a local mob in Chicago and quickly shoots his way through the ranks. With a clever montage of ‘x’ marks displayed across the screen to mark the departure of Tony’s victims, the film soon contains enough corpses to fill a morgue as he conquers opposition on both sides of the law. Along the way, he diverts his spare time between relentlessly pursuing his boss’s moll, the slinky Poppy (Karen Morely), and guarding the long gone virtue of his brazen sister, Francesca (Ann Dvorak). What is particularly striking about this film is the fact that despite his place at the film’s center, Tony is hardly the most callous or brutal character. His best friend, Guino, displays equal ruthlessness as he abandons any semblance of loyalty to their boss and carries out Tony’s orders without question. Similarly, Poppy presents herself as a classy, independent, woman only to later reveal that she is the sort of person who can be bought and sold for the right price. Although the film contains the requisite machine gun happy action of its genre, it is the bizarre relationship between Tony and his sister that is its most shocking element. While it is little surprise that Francesca is as ruthless and amoral as her brother, the way that these shared qualities attract his attention is nothing short of disturbing. Each time that Tony sees Francesca so much as talking to another man he flies into an uncontrollable rage befitting a jealous lover, and when he finds her alone with Guino at Guino’s apartment, he immediately starts shooting. It is only after Guino is dead that Francesca confesses that she and Guino were married but kept their relationship a secret to avoid Tony’s wrath. After she informs on him to police in retaliation, Francesca finds her brother hiding in an abandoned building, but is unable to follow her plan to kill him and instead proceeds to help her husband’s killer in his final shootout with police. For all its excesses, Muni’s performance as Tony is just over the top enough to fit in within the chaotic society on the brink that he is determined to succeed in.
|That's one way to take dictation|
RED-HEADED WOMAN: Jean Harlow made a successful career out of playing wanton women, but even she had rarely enjoyed a part as seductively scandalous as that of Lillian ‘Lil’ Andrews. In 1932’s Red Headed Woman, Harlow plays Lil as nothing less than a weapon of mass destruction ready to detonate. At the film’s start, Lillian proudly alerts her friend to her plan to seduce her way to the top of the society and by the next scene has already set her plan in motion. She starts by seducing her boss, Bill (Chester Morris), and convincing him to leave his devoted wife (Leila Hyams), only to find that her relationship has brought her material success but left her a social outcast. Ever ambitious, Lil refuses to settle for less than the best and proceeds to seduce one of Bill’s top clients, Charles (Henry Stephenson), and blackmail him into hosting a soiree in her honor, as she knows that even the most morally rigid members of their social set would not dare to turn down his invitation. Much to her dismay, however, the guests arrive only to leave early for a party at Bill’s ex-wife’s house across the street (the location for their new home was Lil’s vindictive idea). She then lashes out at Bill, blaming him for her ostracism and rightly guessing that he would rather be at Irene’s as well, and runs away to start over in New York City. Meanwhile, Bill discovers heraffair with Charles and hires a private investigator to track her in New York. The investigator proves to be worth every penny as he discovers that Lil is not only continuing her affair with Charles but has also begun to carry on a second liaison with Charles’ chauffer, Albert (a pre-stardom Charles Boyer). Bill alerts Charles to Lil’s antics and both men quickly cut their ties with the scheming seductress. Fortunately for viewers, however, the story doesn’t end there as Lil returns to Bill only to find that he has reunited with his wife. Enraged at her plan’s failure, she shoots Bill in retaliation, but fails to kill him. Rather than prevent Lil from wreaking any more havoc by notifying the police, Bill decides to pretend the shooting never happened in exchange for her quietly divorcing him. Surprisingly, Lil actually takes Bill up on his offer and is last seen on the arm of an elderly Frenchman…whose chauffer is none other than Albert. Not only do Bill, his wife, and Charles refuse to punish Lil for her misdeeds, the film’s screenwriters seem equally smitten with their anti-heroine as she is left free to scam another day at the film’s finish. Pre-code audiences were given the chance to laugh along with Harlow as Lil is given free rein to cheerily go about her sociopathic business with her punishments restricted to a single slap in the face that, in one of the film’s kinkier moments she happily admits she would like more of. Manipulation, moral decay, and plenty of leg are all in a day’s fun in this Depression era rom-com that is anything but romantic.