MOVIES / Pre-code

Pre-Code Rathbone

An occasional series giving you a chance to see and discuss some of BR’s pre-1934 talking films. The period in filmmaking known as “pre-code” because it predates the enforcement of the highly constraining Motion Picture Production Code in 1934. This code had actually been put on the statute books in 1930, but remained all but unenforced until the Production Code Administration was established – on Basil Rathbone’s 42nd birthday – and Joseph Breen was appointed to run it, with powers to censor or suppress any film it considered to have inappropriate content.

Breen enforced these powers to the max. The effect this had on filmmaking was sweeping and fairly horrendous, and resulted in the butchering and infantilising of many story lines.

Remember how in REBECCA (1940) Maxim de Winter doesn’t kill his first wife, but instead she dies by the totally lame method of falling down and hitting her head? Thank the Code which stated “the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin,” requiring Hitchcock to have Maxim not guilty of the murder that actually powers his entire motivation throughout the story.

Remember Mary Astor being reduced to wearing a candlewick robe to represent her pregnant belly in THE GREAT LIE (1941)? Thank the Code which deemed representations of pregnancy unsuitably graphic, and even the word unspeakable.

Remember “Frankly my dear I don’t GIVE a damn”? All thanks to the Code, and its rules about “profanity”. The only way they could keep the D word at all was by de-emphasising it.

The PCA also used the Code for political censorship, including forbidding negative portrayals of Nazism in the years running up to the Second World War.

The Code was a politician’s dream. And a creative artists’s nightmare, and after its enforcement it did a lot to stifle innovative filmmaking for the next thirty years. This is why today many film buffs are fascinated by the period before it was enforced. Creaky though the early sound vehicles were, stilted as some of the dialogue now sounds, these pre-1934 films had a freedom to explore mature and morally complex themes, be fruity and risque, in a way impossible by the mid-1930s. Fay Wray’s nipples, freely flaunted in KING KONG (1933), would have needed to be taped flat or covered in a highly sensible bra if it had been made five years later. In fact, after 1934 no one would see another nipple on screen until the 1960s. Which of course meant a lot more souls were saved, and the world was a better place.

Like many prominent stage actors, Rathbone’s movie career really only began with the advent of sound. Hollywood suddenly needed actors with trained and beautiful voices, and there was a mass influx of Broadway and West End stars to the movie capital. Basil was amongst the first and most promising, and between 1929 and 1931 he made several films that embody many aspects of what was good and not so good about “pre-code.” Not often prominently associated with his enduring reputation, these movies still represent an important part of his career. This series will look at them, in chronological order, and in all their flawed charm.

We’ll kick off with his first talkie – THE LAST OF MRS CHEYNEY – so for those who have never seen it, here it is, in all its precode glory. It was made in 1929, less than two years after the first ever sound feature, THE JAZZ SINGER, hit the screens. The studios were still being converted to house the massive and clunky audio equipment. The static microphones meant actors had to stand very still and speak very clearly in order to be picked up. In 1929 lots of people thought it was a fad that would just go away…

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51 thoughts on “Pre-Code Rathbone

  1. I can’t help feeling he is being himself when he plays Arthur Dilling, philandering bad boy. Before he married Ouida he was living tat life wasn’t he. Lucky Mrs Cheyney capturing a prize like that.

    • I love his demeanor in this film, so sexy in a completely unstated way. And so suggestive that he is basically asking to pay for his silence with sex!

  2. Read following phrase in a novel,thinking of BR/OR marriage as another example (couple in novel had an open marriage,she too wasn’t upset until her hubby had child by his lover):Humanity-embracing lifestyle.Never would’ve expected that to mean open marriage.That characters hubby was university professor.Still think Baz/Eva LaG meeting took place and he explained same situation to her as he did to Lady X prior to beginning their affair in 1940s.I suspect that meeting was cause of Baz/Eva breaking up,my 2 cents worth,as little as that means in this economy.Never realized that exposure in King Kong.Love Mrs Cheyney and too bad he wasn’t appreciated more in early talkies.Wonder if his returning to stage for Romeo screwed up his promising movie career,or if OR cheesed off wrong movie mogul.

  3. Was the Hays Code such a bad thing? I’d rather watch those old films, including Mary Astor in her dressing gown than some of the modern stuff we are served up.

    • While I think some of the cods were a bit stifling, I still totally agree with you :0) That’s one reason I like old movies so much. I don’t have to keep the remote handy to fast forward something like I always have to do now-a-days. :)

    • The Hays Code was good and bad. Because it eliminated so much vice, one had to get very creative to portray it – and some of the greatest films ever produced managed to get around the restrictions with a touch of class and humor.

  4. The Last of Mrs Cheyney is my absolute favoorite film of Basil’s apart form his Sherlock films. Thanks for the chance to watch it!

  5. PreCodes — one of my favorite film topics and areas of expertise! Almost got to teach a course in Precodes at Tufts, but they decided not to hire me. Just finished watching Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus on TCM. Nude swimming scene in the beginning, Marlene selling herself to Cary Grant to pay for hubby Herbert Marshall’s operation, then prostituting herself so she and her young son can survive, then going on the skids and sleeping her way back to the top. Oh, and then there’s the obligatory cross-dressing cabaret scene with Marlene in a white tux flirting with a line of chorus girls. My favorite scene — when Cary Grant write the first $300 check to Marlene for sleeping with him. That’s my fantasy — to have sex with Cary Grant and then get paid for it.

    • Of course Grant was gay and the women in his life were just beards, so being paid might be the only benefit you got from spending the night with him :D

      • Two of Grant’s wives, Betsy Palmer and Dyan Cannon, say that he was perfectly capable of making love to a woman. Anyway, I could spend the evening just admiring his gorgeousness. As Joe E. Brown once said, “Nobody’s Perfect.”

        • Hee-hee—that’s Joe’s famous line at the end of “Some Like It Hot”, when it’s finally revealed that his date (Jack Lemmon) isn’t really a “woman”—GREAT movie!! ;)

          Another scene I LOVE, is when Joe yells: “Hey?! HEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAY???!!!” in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”—FUNNIEST film in history……and just about everybody in it is DEAD, now. :(

    • Poor Cary was over charged…when you think that at that time most of the women in the audince would have done it for free..there would have been a que outside his door.

    • Thank you. It’s Kay Francis in A NOTORIOUS AFFAIR.

      Apologies to all for your comments being published so late but they only just arrived in my inbox all in a bunch .

  6. Honestly, I have to admit I’m kind of thankful for the codes. We got lots of clean, pleasant movies we might not have gotten otherwise, y’know? Some of it is a little ridiculous, though, I admit. :) like the thing about pregnancy – I mean really, what the heck’s wrong with pregnancy? Oh well ;P
    Anyway, thank you lots for posting The Last of Mrs. Cheney. It seems like a real goodie and I’ve wanted to watch it for some time and have been miffed that I could not find it anywhere.

    • TV was like that when we were kids.Rember Lucy her and Ricky had to sleep in sepret beds and when a hubby and wife were sitting on a bed 1 of them had to keep a foot on the floor.Of course then lil Ricy came along everbody KNEW they werent spending all there time with 1 foot on the floor. And yet I would have those shows over the swill that tries to be passed of as entertainment now a days.The problem with the Heyes code was it was carried TOOOOOOOO FARRRRRRRR .What started as a simple plea for cleaner enertainment. In the wrong hands became a python strangeling anything that came its way. that one “group” did’nt like.

      • Haha, yes :D I always liked that show. Although I didn’t do much TV watching when I was little.
        I do admit, the censors did carry it a bit to far, but in my personal opinion, I’m thankful for those times, even if they weren’t perfect. :)

        • I used to do heaps of TV watching until I was about ten.
          I occasionally switch on the TV to watch Adventure time or Gravity falls, but apart from that (And maybe Family Guy and SpongeBob) I hardly ever venture to the on button.
          I spend most of my time watching classic movies and anime these days.

          • haha I don’t really watch any of those shows. Doctor Who, Person of Interest, Star Trek, Hogan’s Heroes, and Sherlock are my fav tv shows. So when I have free time to spend on tv, that’s what I watch :0)

              • Tom Baker could have also passed as a young Vincent Price, during his “Dr. Who” days…too bad he never got the chance to play in a film about Vincent’s life, using makeup to “age” him throughout the picture—that would’ve been NEAT. :)

                • Tom Baker’s a big headed meanie. ;_; He was at comic con once, everybody wanted his autograph and to get a picture with him and everything, but he decided to charge everybody £20.00 for a picture, alone. And when they got pictures with him, he just stared at the camera blankly and didn’t even speak to them.
                  I’d love to meet Vincent Price, he was meant to have been so lovely.
                  ;_; *Kicks Tom Baker out of window* I NEED VINCENT PRICE! NOT YOU RAINBOW SCARF MAN!

                  • Get the impression TB has a tough time making enough money to keep himself in booze though don’t you. So think of each of those pics as buying him a much needed bottle of scotch :)

                    • Ahh your breaking my heart I had no idea he was a sot..awwwww.pooh. I have met well lots of stars and only a few bad eggs in the bunch.Lorletta Lyn,Lou Frenigno[sp? well who cares hes a jerk any how]!Are basicly the 2 real stand out stuck ups.

                    • I’ve broken The Countess’ heart! Surely that could be classed as murder?! Quickly! SOMEONE GIMME’ A SHOVEL! D:

                  • I met him at a con back in the 80’s in Philly…wasn’t watching the show then…drove a couple of fans. I really admired how he responded to the audience. He had just done a BBC Hound and made some rather disparaging remarks about Holmes…I took him to task and we had a polite yet spirited debate (the 600 fans in the ballroom were collectively stunned that I had the temerity to do that with Baker…but at the time he was nothing to me…and he’d just insulted my hero!) Anyway, we went through the receiving line (he wasn’t signing) and when I got to him he grabbed my hand to shake it and wouldn’t give it back until we agreed to disagree.

                    The next evening my friend and I were invited to a very small private after party with Baker (friend had done a stunning stained-glass 4th Doctor and had presented it to him after in won first place in the art show at a Boston Con). Anyway, he was being quite charming and chatting with us, and mentioned that he had been a monk for seven years, then quit; he figured that God forgave him because that’s what God does, but he hadn’t forgotten. I promptly replied “if you’re a good person and your heart is in the right place, that all that matters” No one told me time lords have two heart…he was looking left and right and the room was laughing it’s collective a**es off. My friend explained later.

                    Anyway, as he was leaving he said good-by individually to everyone, and when he came to be I told him that I actually hadn’t been watching the show, but after seeing him interacting with the fans, I would be. He gave me that Baker grin, then swooped down (I’m at least a foot shorter than he) and kissed me…it was like being kissed by a Mack truck..I think he loosened a tooth!

                    Anyway…a year later I was president of Doctor Who Northeast.

                    • Perhaps something happened to him that changed him? He was nice to you but mean to me! ;_;
                      WHY TOM BAKER!? WWWWHHHHYYYY!?

                    • I’ve been to a lot of cons and met a lot of actors…most were good with the fans, some great, and some should have stayed in front of the camera. Plus, they’re human, they have their good days and their bad days.

                    • Guess so, but I’m, still disappointed his happy side didn’t come out when I saw him. :-(
                      The cons you go to must be way better than London comic con, they have about 1 big celebrity and then lots of smaller celebritys each time.

                    • Oh I’m glad to hear hes hot a total jerk. And the same thing happened to me at a Monkees con.One of the guests [minor star..well lets call him a charctor actor] was supper nice to me.Signed my book just nice as pie..was rude to everone else he talked to, apperntly I got the only autograph.Who knows why people behave as they do? I’m always ready to give a star the benitfit of the doubt there only Loretta Lynn, burned by her twice no more doubt..shes rude. Tom Baker a MONK? WOW!I knew a guy who wanted to become a monk studyed to become a russian orothodox preist..then met a lady fell in love and got married..ya never know.

      • Lucy And Ricky,LOL as if TV Powers that begone,must’ve realized years later that the separate beds and Lucy’s pregnancy must be confusing to more than just kids back then.Great Long un-shown Christmas episode of Lucy,replayed at least once since Dec 19.Grape crushing scene in color,LOL.

  7. Actually, it looks as if he has as much eye makeup on as Norma. I hate the way they made up the men in those early talkies. Also, his voice is pitched higher than normal — I wonder if this is the same type of distorted sound that ruined John Gilbert’s career, probably due the poor recording equipment. Since Basil has a deep voice, one could see how he would be a good choice for talkies if that’s what the primitive equipment does to the sound.

    • I have read and do belive it that the sound on the movie that John G. got ruined by was “messed with” on pourpus to make him sound girlish..nis normal vioce DOES NOT! sound like a girl. Hes no deep baratone but he’s not Pee Wee Herman either.

  8. Maybe not on purpose. The recording equipment was awful, and MGM, which was also Gilbert’s studio, was “late to the game” with sound. Warner’s had superior sound recording technology. You’ll notice this well into the 30s when watching a Warner’s film; the sound is much clearer and crisper, while MGM movies’ soundtracks often had light white noise and the music usually sounded like a flea playing the violin.

  9. Nothing to do with Baz or Pre-Code,but heard on TCM Errol was strongly considered as “The Man Who Came To Dinner”,as John Barrymore before they decided on Monty Wooley.Could def see Baz in that part,even if confined to chair most of movie.Was Baz ever considered as Addison DeWitt in All About Eve?I know Geo Sanders supp got many parts meant for Baz,and hence his “I thought you’d died,too bad” comment from Geo.Watched Eve tother day,def could see Baz in that one.Too true about the killing of John Gilbert’s career,but H’weird would def say he did it to himself.But many occ exist with someone planting an axe in many a career out of jealousy,real or imagined slights,and Gilbert should’ve been thanked for his great contribution to film history,as should Baz and others.Time they could’ve spent w/families spent slogging thru worst filming conditions,I’ll cite The Garden Of Allah’s intense heat,an ungrateful Producer/slave driver.Also Baz’s getting pushed down stairs/bruising in Frenchman’s Creek.

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