Sunday, April 03, 2011

Watching Films From The Breen Era

Recently I have watched to films which have a level of complexity often not found in movies from the 1940s. These films were the The Big Sleep (1946) staring Humphry Bogart and Lauren Bacall and Kings Row (1942) staring Robert Cummings and Ronald Reagan.

In watching this films (both adapted from novels) it's very clear in watching them that there is something lost in the translation from the original text to the screen. Thanks the Internet, I don't have to rush out and buy a copy of or Herny Bellamann's Kings Row.

I didn't watch these two films back-to-back as companion films, but they really serve as great examples of films impacted by the Hays Code, in which in the name of decency these scripts and stories were edited with enough remnant of the original story to just be confusing.

You watch The Big Sleep and wonder why those people are clearing out the bookshop and why a big to do is made about the fake cover of the bookshop. What is that about? Hello, trusty Internet. Oh, the dead guy was a pornographer and he didn't sell rare books he sold pornography in connection with the mafia. Those scenes now make sense.

You watch Kings Row and you watch this crazy doctor guy lock up his daughter and wife in a house and you think what is up with that and why is that gift becoming crazy. Hello, trust Internet. Oh, the crazy girl was being raped by her father and the incest was being hidden giving the daughter the appearance of mental insanity when something different was going on. Those scenes now make sense.

I typically find a film that doesn't deal with these censored elements because frankly concepts like pornography and incest are topics that I do not want to see in a film. These topics were edited from scripts in this time, along with other such ideas of sex, mixed race couples, or other things that would be viewed as too objectionable for film, particularly at that time.

This was particularly strong for 1940s era film. The Motion Pictures Production Code (in place from 1930 to 1968) was at it's highest point of film content censorship when Joseph Breen was appointed head of the Production Code Administration (PCA) in 1934. He retained this role until retirement in 1954, and his influence is clearly seen in both of these films.

Perhaps it's because they came from novels and certain plot points were built into the stories and hard to work out without leaving vagueness and gaps to the film viewer. But in many ways it colors films from this industry, and whether that is a negative or positive thing, I have to imagine it depends, sometimes things like implied sexual relations seem far perferable to overtly sexual themed content.

But I do know that I wish these movies came with their own Cliff Notes-like insertions (or "Pop Up Video" style subtitles) that could be turned on during this films to explain what is clearly a gap in the film.

Or perhaps you could argue these gaps have their own sort of film magic behind them, because they create a complexity in a film that can be looked at with mysertery and potential, allowing the viewer to fill in the gaps on their own. In the film The Big Sleep this seems to work, where as the gaps in Kings Row only make for a disjointed story that comes across a jumbled mess of a film.

○Humphry Bogart image from Democatic Undergrond over a discussion of the hollywood cliche of woman becoming beautiful when they take off their glasses.
○ Ronald Reagan image from Kings Row from The Best Picture Project.

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