An occasional series giving you a chance to see and discuss some of Basil Rathbone’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…