It’s easy to forget that there was a “Code” in place in Hollywood as early as 1930, its ideological germination roughly parallel to the all-systems-go industrialization of the American movie itself, beginning at least as far back as the 1910s. The censorship process, at the behest of the Hays Office, formed a perfect bottleneck as all the scripts in Los Angeles had to pass across a single desk, and its binding power was nothing compared to the draw of lurid content. Heard today, the term “pre-Code” suggests sassy, sexy, snappy films where men and women make the most of each other’s loose morals, workplace improprieties were encouraged, and criminal activities were cast in the same “rogue hero” light as those of rugged cowboys or intrepid explorers. Much as we go on about freedom of expression and its symbiotic relationship with obscenity, profanity, nudity, and depicting the seamier side of life, very little of pre-Code’s relative broad-mindedness had a whole hell of a lot to do with individual artistic expression; dime-novel debauchery was one of the American cinema’s primary selling points, alongside star power, sync sound, and air conditioning. Sin! Booty-shaking! Sexy lingerie! Gambling! Home-wrecking dames! Gents who won’t take no for an answer! These comprised the early talking picture’s version of 3D, IMAX, and CGI special effects. Make no mistake: It was business, not personal.
So, too, was the decision to crack down on the same lurid content. When the Catholic church put its boot down, Hollywood executives were gripped by the fear that America’s largest religious body would renounce the sinful medium altogether. This is a little like Goldman Sachs saying it isn’t going to lend out any more money, but no matter; the name of the game was gaining traction with the common man during hard times, and they weren’t the only game in town. Regardless of whether or not they were really able to make good on their threat, it came down to one question: Who had the deepest pockets? The answer: The Catholic moviegoer, in a walk.
After the blind eye of Will H. Hays and his successors made way for Joseph Breen in 1934, the American movie was bound and gagged by the Vichy government of self-censorship, with Hollywood making itself happily prostrate before the maybe-loaded gun of the church’s wholesale boycott. Subsequent to this, the upholding of traditional (read: white, heteronormative, capitalist, Christian) values was less a sales feature of the movies than Hollywood’s cross to bear. Consequently, movies began to be distinguished by greater expense, length, and spectacle, as well as color cinematography, the Academy Awards, and the further ascension of movie stars into the realm of myth. When God closes a cash register, he opens a vault.
Film Forum’s pre-Code series inscribes the 1930-’34 period under the ineffectual Hays Office. The program represents a Whitman’s sampler of delectable displays of lust, drunkenness, wanton criminality, marital infidelity, bed-hopping, and more. It’s also worth noting two very pleasurable, and perhaps wholly tangential, consequences of that perfect storm of Hollywood filmmaking: First off, that it seemed that almost no director, not even Mervyn LeRoy, could make a dull film, provided they—second off—were making those pictures at Warner Bros. Short of director-centric auteurism, there are few more promising leads in the search for exhilarating cinema than to combine the following keywords: “Warner Bros.” and “early 1930s.” Even a bad Vitaphone movie has razzmatazz.
That’s not to say that the formula is foolproof. In movies like Roy Del Ruth’s Beauty and the Boss, the joy of crass behavior is compromised by crass writing; it’s the sort of film that requires a delicate, sophisticated sensibility. Instead, its thinking is dominated by the idea that a man chasing his lover around a fancy boudoir constitutes farce, and that a little thrift-store Diamond/Wilder repartee is enough to class up the joint. Warren William, the industry’s leading suave swine, is always worth seeing, but if you really want to see him in peak form, there are plenty of better films that will let you get your fix.
As it happens, Del Ruth’s track record during this period is otherwise pretty immaculate. Along with Beauty and the Boss, three more Del Ruth/Warren William collaborations appear in the series. Far and away the best of the lot is Employee’s Entrance, the emblem of an archaic subgenre: the department-store melodrama (think Are You Being Served? sewn backwards through Peyton Place). Del Ruth, who would also helm the first, and soberest, Maltese Falcon adaptation, was one of the champions of the crisp, pungent rhythm favored at Warner, and Employee’s Entrance breezes through a mountain of amorous skullduggery like a sudden gust through a stack of receipts, and features one of the titanic slaps in all of moviedom.
The Mind Reader is a more modest, down-to-earth tale from the Americana vein that ran between D.W. Griffith and Preston Sturges. William’s another dapper rapscallion, this time out of the wryly affectionate, Damon Runyon catalogue. Del Ruth once again profitably demonstrates his savvy handling of whip-cracking, roughhousing dialogue, and no other director could have kept the picture balanced on the scales as William switches from mid-Atlantic-accented blueblood to Bowery-bred, hard-boiled swindler and back again. It was often merely a question of what angle to shoot him from; the right framing could spell the difference between broad-shouldered Julius Caesar—whom he played for DeMille—and an oily, three-in-the-morning blackjack loser.
The Mind Reader’s episodic structure allows the 69-minute, inverse-Capra-esque yarn to feel as if it’s stretching its legs: Even a bumpy train ride takes a moment for a pastoral interlude. William appears in nine of the series’s 50 features, playing a little variation here and there on the same personality; he was the consummate character actor who happened to land one leading part after another. In The Mouthpiece he’s a sensationalist defense attorney, and it’s here that he gets to play all his instruments: crippling remorse, hand-wringing glee, and stoic nobility. He has terrific rapport with Aline MacMahon, who would serve as The Man from Laramie’s big-momma conscience a quarter century later, but here, as William’s secretary/Friday/wet nurse she already has ashen world-wariness smeared under her eyes. In Upperworld and Skyscraper Souls he’s another unscrupulous tycoon; the latter will elicit bitter chuckles from an audience still reeling from the 2007-to-present financial doldrums, underwriting an outrageous, bare-assed scheme to dupe investors with Mad Men’s embalmed sexual politics.