TCM Fest part 2- All These Women, by Scott Nye
Technically speaking, any film made before 1934 is a “Pre-Code” film, but when we talk about “Pre-Code” cinema, we’re really talking about early sound cinema, chiefly films made between 1930 and 1933. Even more specifically, we’re talking about a certain slice of sin and revelry, movies about sex, booze, drugs, and violence. Yet as much as the forthcoming Hays Office would condemn the motion picture industry for such portraits, anyone who has seen their fair share of these films will attest that the great many of them are rather conservative in the way they approach these tales. They’re more than happy to indulge in a wicked lifestyle, but few had the courage to commit to it, and three films shown at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival provide three very different looks at Pre-Code cinema, and how women defined themselves during – or were defined by – the era.
The first film I saw at the festival was 1928’s Our Dancing Daughters, a mostly-silent Joan Crawford vehicle directed by Harry Beaumont. In it, Crawford plays “Dangerous Diana,” a fun-loving society gal, eager to spend her nights dancing in the company of men. While she seems to be the kind of girl who might, at the time, have been termed “loose,” when she meets and falls almost instantly in love with Ben Blaine (John Mack Brown), we come to discover that perhaps these nights were more purposeful. Perhaps all she wanted was love and knew no other way to find it. Unfortunately, this earnestness gets her in trouble when she divulges her past to Ben, who, unable to cope with it, rushes to Diana’s friend Ann (Anita Page), who denies her own past as a much more ruthless manhunter and gold-digger, presenting herself instead as the very essence of innocence.
Meanwhile, their third friend, Bea, has married a man who claims he loves her despite fully knowing her similar lifestyle, but winces whenever her male friends come anywhere near her. The film is as much in this way about the standard to which men hold women as much as about the girls themselves, and feels in all respects a totally modern story. Give it a synched soundtrack and some color, and except for its willingness to embrace its characters’ flaws, it could have been made yesterday. All three girls are in some way trying to find happiness while playing by the rules of a patriarchal society, finding genuine affection as a free-spirited modern women but dismayed when that affection dissipates the second things get a little more serious. Men are notoriously fickle in this regard, often rejecting women in the long term for the same reason they embraced them in the short, and given everyone’s relative privilege in society (Blaine is said to have come into a good deal of money, but it’s quickly obvious that no one here is hurting), marriage is something they have the luxury of giving a good deal of consideration.
The way the film positions each woman is of interest. Diana’s the natural protagonist, as she embodies all of the strength of character we like to imagine Pre-Code women possessed without being terribly stand-offish. Her earnestness extends beyond the romantic – in three quick shots at the start of the picture, we see her literally dance into her evening wear, downright giddy for another night on the town. She loves the way she lives, and everything she pours herself into she does so fully, making her the perfect cinematic protagonist. Ann and Bea are more fickle, the former not shy at all about her quest for money and the latter bending to the whim of whatever men surround her; constantly apologizing for her past to her husband but accommodating to uninvited, unwanted guests who threaten their happy, though still very new, union.
Anita Page’s daughter, Linda Snyder-Sterne, was in attendance to talk about her mother. These children-of-the-stars talks are typically quite dull, but Snyder-Sterne shared a lot of great, lively stories, noting how Page loved Our Dancing Daughters best of her films because she “got to play the bad girl” (when Syder-Sterne, as a child, protested, “but Broadway Melody won the Oscar,” Page replied “yeah, but I was so good in that one”). More surprisingly, she recalled that Benito Mussolini used to send Page love letters throughout his rule, but, as she blurted, “At least it wasn’t Hitler!” Fair point, Snyder-Sterne, fair point.
Page’s character type is examined in a very different light in 1933’s I’m No Angel, directed by Wesley Ruggles but dictated by writer/star Mae West. I’m not usually one for these ostentatious “look at me!” kind of pictures, but, in the parlance of a frequent movie blog commenter, LOOK AT HER. West was not traditionally beautiful by standards of her time nor ours, but she is absolutely magnetic, taking the type Page played in Our Dancing Daughters – thrill-seeking, bed-hopping, and out for the biggest loot she can get – and finding something almost noble about it. Tira (West) knows exactly the world in which she operates, and exactly how to get what she wants from it. Depression-era audiences loved the idea of a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who invades high society by seducing men into paying for that lifestyle, all the while tossing out great one-liners and owning every room she enters, even an eventual courtroom. It also helps that it makes for great cinema in any era.
Tira is sort of what everyone imagines when they talk about Pre-Code pictures. She’s sexually voracious, blunt but teasing, without any of the consequences that would be visited upon her contemporaries. I mentioned in the opening paragraph a certain moralizing tone that many of these films possessed, with the most conservative characters coming out on top. If he or she (though usually she) had a particularly wild past? Not a problem, as long as they’ve changed their ways and made amends. Hell, that’s even better. Everyone loves a reformed sinner, and while the pictures of this era had a weird obsession with illicit behavior, they were hardly condoning it.
So we come to 1932’s Call Her Savage, which right from the title you can tell will be an interesting ride. Sure enough, in a mere eighty-two minutes, you get a tale packed with spiteful marriages, sexual assault, adultery, prostitution, homosexuality, and interracial coupling. Clara Bow plays Nasa Springer, the product (though she does not know this) of her mother’s affair with a Native American and completely uncontrollable. Her father, upon discovering her literally whipping their half-white, half-Native American neighbor (the first fifteen or twenty minutes of this film are insane), decides to send her to reform school in Chicago, and even that is nothing but good news for Nasa, who dreams of escaping the country and going to the city. And it’s here when the film, up to this point a joyful explosion of youth and sin and total disregard for anything approaching good taste, grinds to a halt, as Nasa starts to take the consequences of her actions.
Now, when I criticize Pre-Code films for being “moralizing,” it’s not because I believe it’s necessarily wrong for cinema to take a moral perspective on its characters’ actions, but setting aside any issues of “whose morality?”, my issue is that these films do so with all the tact and nuance of an after-school special. People who stray from the mainstream American definition of “socialized” typically end up in some way deprived of their lifestyle (home, family, money) or health, or they’re just flat-out killed. There’s a certain Old Testament vengeance that is a little distasteful and contrived, as problematic dramatically as it is thematically. It’s as though the films grab us by the collar and ask, you see what happens when you sleep around? Or drink too much? Or worship money? And so on. If the Hays Code had any positive effect on American cinema, it was in merely asking for better stories.
For a good deal of Call Her Savage, it does seem like the full wrath of God’s vengeance is being visited upon Nasa. The film makes it blatantly clear that she is suffering not only for her own bad behavior, but for that of her mother and even grandfather, who both had affairs, and with non-whites at that! But by the end, it sheds totally new light on Nasa’s predicament. It re-frames her suffering in personal terms as a quest to discover who she is, why she acts as she does, and why she feels like she doesn’t belong. It personalizes a genre – the bad girl tries to be good – that is so often impersonal, and offers her a rare chance to turn it all around, and find redemption, in, of all places, the arms of a Native American. The quiet boldness at the film’s close makes an interesting contrast to the more aggressive audacity of its opening, which, for whatever the film’s dramatic issues along the way, makes for a surprisingly satisfying experience.
We were lucky enough to see Call Her Savage in a brand-new restoration courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, and introduced by MOMA archivist Katie Trainor and Bow biographer David Stenn. While they sort of got off track by wondering how much better the film could look with restoration tools a few years down the line, they still provided great reference for where this fell in Bow’s career. She was practically ousted by Hollywood following some tabloid hysterics, and this picture was to be her grand comeback, but it didn’t quite take. And if you think Hollywood careers burn out quickly now, remember that Bow was a key attraction in one of the biggest films of all time, Wings, only four years before Call Her Savage was released. Trainor talked about the imperative to revisit this film, which had a 35mm archival print on hand, but was only distributed in 16mm prints deemed “good enough” by the rights holders early on and never questioned until now. Even DVDs were made from those prints.
But the real treat of the evening was seeing color footage of Bow, the only reel of its type known to exist, discovered only two months ago. It was the opening minutes of a 1928 film titled Red Hair, and while we didn’t get much – only the opening credits (which reveal Bow’s character to be named “Bubbles McCoy”!) and about a minute of Bow tossing a beach ball about – but the footage was in remarkable shape. It’d simply been sitting in an attic for who-knows-how-long, but the colors were bold and bright, the image was crisp, and there was very little damage to it. We were apparently the first audience to see it, and there’s always a little excitement surrounding that particular pleasure, but I hope they make it available to others as well. It doesn’t seem like any restoration would be necessary.
In all, these three films provide a nice summation of the way women were represented in the Pre-Code era, as neither the mother nor whore but as searchers, looking for how to fit into a world that has very prescribed roles for them. While the men in these films insist on finding a place for them, they find a way to define themselves almost reflexively – not as a political stance, but a series of personal choices. The latest of these films – 1933’s I’m No Angel – was released only thirteen years after women gained the right to vote, and here was a woman who clearly left none of her decisions to anyone else. But there’s nothing overtly political about these films; just the calm reassurance of humanity.