[1934] It Happened One Night

One of the stranger, maybe unintentional consequences of the 1930s’ Hays Code was an industry-wide move to hush-hush the unacceptable and repackage it into media moste moral.

Euphemism became a stalwart technique, if it wasn’t already before. Filmmakers and studio executives didn’t invent it, didn’t perfect it, and lost its thread when the Code was lifted in the late 1960s, ushering a golden age of filmmaking. With one fewer (granted, huge) constraint lifted, morality became a function of what studios were willing to produce and what audiences were willing to watch. It was a huge change from “what a governing body was willing to allow.” Freedom of expression brought us movies like Midnight Cowboy in 1969, which, just two years earlier would have been Midday Cowboy, and been about an actual cowboy.

Of course, these rules only applied to films made in America, so it would seem that France and Italy, certainly, exhausted the need to explore sex (pro tip: they didn’t) and violence with a 40 year head start. It’s not true, but America does sill have a tenuous Puritanical relationship with sex and sexuality in a way more liberated countries don’t. There’s less of a fine line between art and pornography in the United States, and the moste modern moral types still seek to protect young people from (female, or female-presenting) breasts, but will happily allow a child to witness gruesome death and produce a Happy Meal about it.

Almost like repressing healthy sexual (and non-sexual!) relationships, packaging them as euphemism for decades, and classifying them as pornography if not perfectly saintlike has had at least some effect on the content American audiences expect. Sex is still shocking; it’s still mostly banned on commercial television and nudity will earn lots of movies a revenue-dampening R, or revenue-killing NC-17 rating from the latest iteration of the Hays Code, the MPAA (but that’s for another discussion). Euphemism, however, will often drag ratings down to PG-13 levels, where it’s safe to say a few swear words and pan out from what the audience “knows” to be a sexual encounter. So it helps at the box office, too. Continue reading

[1936] San Francisco

I have a funny feeling that many if not all of the films from the 1930s will follow a similar pattern: a type-cast and suave leading man will confront himself and his peers in pursuit of a beautiful woman or a lofty dream – two sides of the same coin, if you will.

This man will have conflicts, both internal and external. He will be a rapscallion, but will show sensitive tendencies. His supporting cast of friends, acquaintances, enemies, nemeses, lovers and extras each will bring out a certain quality in him to move some semblance, or in the best cases, a very clear plot along from Point A to Point B and sometimes to point C or D. There will be a series of obstacles, some grand in nature, a few subtle, for this flawed hero to overcome to achieve his goal.

Nineteen thirty six’s San Francisco fits this mold with some minor edges. For this iteration, Clark Gable in pre-Gone With The Wind form pairs with Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy and Jack Holt to form a lovers’ tango in 1905 San Francisco. The plot plays out thusly: MacDonald whisks into the Bay Area as a simple pastor’s daughter, Mary Blake, with a magical voice looking for work as an entertainer of sorts. After little to no luck for several weeks, Blake stumbles into Gable’s saloon/cabaret/bar The Paradise Club, where said club’s proprietor, Gable as “Blackie” Norton, hires her on the spot, because, see, Norton is a natural talent scout and an everyman’s man with an infallible “code.” The movie does a particularly good job in painting two of its leads within the first interaction: Continue reading