Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Breaking the sex code

I adore researching these essays on classic Hollywood. From Saturday's Review section in the Irish Independent.

Red hot in black & white
As Liam Neeson's new film is slammed as 'a porno farce', Susan Daly looks back at Hollywood's more innocent age -- or was it?

Saturday April 10 2010

The opening of a movie starring Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore should be cause for celebration. So why the tightly pursed lips among film critics?

Chloe, a tale of sexual obsession in which a housewife hires a high-class prostitute to seduce her husband in order to test his fidelity, was the movie Neeson was shooting when his wife Natasha Richardson died in a skiing accident last year. Despite the goodwill out there towards Neeson for this reason, Chloe was not well received when it opened in the US this past week.

The New Yorker called it a "porno farce"; the New York Post "a Skinemax movie cloaked in art house fancy dress".

When Chloe did the rounds here a few weeks earlier -- perhaps testing this side of the Atlantic first because we're, you know, European and supposedly more blasé about the kinky stuff -- it didn't do much better.

Chloe does, however, serve the purpose of showing how far we've moved from the censorious age of cinema.

Seventy years ago, at the height of the notorious Hays Code for films, married couples weren't even allowed to sleep in the same bed on screen, never mind indulge in a ménage à trois.

This has not been so much a gradual descent into a sexual free-for-all on screen, as the movies coming full circle.

The Victorian era, stereotyped as an age in which folk went around trussing their piano legs in frilly ankle-warmers, was quite libertarian about moving pictures. George Melies, a famous pioneer of cinema, was quick to churn out an "adult" film, After The Ball, in 1897, featuring a racy nude scene.

The new century then found itself enthralled to film's first sexpot, Theda Bara. It was the era of the silent movie but words were made redundant by Bara's transparent outfits, nipple tassels and sexually-voracious expressions.

But the excesses of Hollywood in the Roaring Twenties culminated in a series of scandals, the most notorious of which saw actor Fatty Arbuckle accused of raping and killing the starlet Virginia Rappe. The calls to clean up 'Sin City', as Los Angeles was being labelled, were getting louder.

Will Hays at the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) came up with a list of 'Don'ts and Be Carefuls' for movie-makers in 1927. No excessive (over 3 seconds) and lustful kissing -- and if it happened anywhere in the vicinity of a bed, at least one of the parties had to have a foot on the ground.

Hollywood studios, heading into the Depression of the 1930s and desperate to attract audiences, pretty much ignored the cautions. The response of the censors was to introduce an expanded Hays Code in 1930. Sex was for married people only, and where affairs had to be mentioned, they should not be "presented attractively".

Sex was not "the proper subject for comedy" (no Carry On . . . movies, then). Dance moves that encouraged "movement of the breasts" were regarded as pure filth. The new, iron-cast code was formulated by a Jesuit, Fr Daniel Lord.

The Hollywood Reporter asked in 1931: "Does any producer pay attention to the 'Hays Code'?", knowing no one did. At this time, Jean Harlow was still getting away with asking, "Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?" in Hell's Angel (1930), while Maureen O'Sullivan's Jane went skinny-dipping with Tarzan in the 1932 and 1934 loincloth-and-vine films.

Resistance to the censorious overlords was futile, however. By 1933, the powerful Catholic League of Decency had launched a 'down with this sort of thing' crusade on the movies. In 1939, Gone With The Wind producer David O Selznick was fined $5,000 for leaving the final word intact in what is now cinema's most quotable lines: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

Not everyone could afford to do a Selznick but, this being an industry of wheeler-dealers, creative ways were found to circumvent the code. Mae West films were jam-packed with double entendres, the brazen blonde firing off lines like "I feel like a million tonight -- but one at a time".

And where would Bogie and Bacall be without word play? "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together -- and blow." (To Have and Have Not, 1944).

West was particularly crafty. She used to write outrageous "decoy" scenes into risqué movies like I'm No Angel (1933) so that the moral guardians would focus on cutting those and let other, more subtly raunchy, material slip through.

A great deal of nod-nod, wink-wink was employed to keep the audience in on the joke. No one was under any illusion that Bette Davis's "nightclub hostess" in Marked Woman (1937) was a euphemism for prostitute. Similarly, Claire Trevor's woman of the night in Dead End (1937) is said to be suffering from consumption when it is clear from her implied occupation it was more likely to be syphilis.

Where the explicit was no longer allowed, the implicit became a loaded currency. Metaphors were everywhere, from Bela Lugosi's blood-sucking kisses in Dracula (1931) to the shared cigarettes that acted as a substitute for sex in Now, Voyager (1942).

By the 1950s, Alfred Hitchcock was the master at breaking the code. From James Stewart's phallic, voyeuristic telephoto lens in Rear Window (1954) to the provocative question, "Do you want a leg or a breast?" during a picnic in To Catch A Thief (1955), his films were seething with what the League of Decency would probably call ulterior motives.

He had been practising for some time -- the famous kiss between Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in his 1946 film Notorious appears to ignore the three-second rule as they move through the apartment in a marathon snog. In fact, Hitchcock had Bergman and Grant kiss briefly but repeatedly while Grant took a phone call. The illusion is that the kiss goes on and on, but no actual rules were broken.

Others used more brazen tactics to titillate. The code enforcers were gentler on a film if it purported to purvey a moral message. This resulted in a sudden demand for films in the "sexual hygiene" genre, many of which were of dubious educational value.

Ultimately, as foreign films (not bound by the code) made inroads into US theatres and some distributors began to break links with the MPPDA, the code lost its grip and was scrapped in 1968. The new "golden age" of American cinema of the 1970s could not have flourished otherwise.

Even so, some of Hollywood's greatest movies were made within the confines of the code. Even the cartoonists were in on it. In Tweety Bird's first screen appearance in 1942, one cat trying to catch him says to another, "Give me the bird! Give me the bird!" The second cat replies: "If the Hays office would only let me, I'd give him the bird, alright!"

One imagines the reference to sticking up one's middle finger sailed over the heads of watching kiddies -- but hit Hays where it hurt.

ULTERIOR MOTIVES: Films with hidden meanings
King Kong (1933): The finished film was heavily edited but still managed to raise hackles for its perceived inter-racial love story (banned by the Code) as represented by the beauty and the beast. Kong was punished by falling off the most phallic-looking erection in New York, the Empire State Building.
It Happened One Night (1934): Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert chastely share a bedroom by hanging a blanket (“the wall of Jericho”) between their single beds. In the final scene, when Colbert signals her love for Gable, there is no literal consummation – but the blanket is seen to fall to the floor as a trumpet sounds out.
The 39 Steps (1935): As mentioned, unmarried couples were not permitted to sleep in the same room. So Alfred Hitchcock – who else? – inserted a plot device that had Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll handcuffed together and forced to share a bedroom. It was out of their control, see?
Citizen Kane (1941): Kane’s lost sleigh, inscribed ‘Rosebud’, was at face value a metaphor for loss of innocence. Director Orson Welles happened to know it was also a pet name that newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst – lampooned by the film - had for his mistress’s nether regions.
Red Dust (1942): Jean Harlow is in a love triangle with Clark Gable and Mary Astor. In the final scene, while reading a children’s story, Harlow mutters: “A chipmunk and a rabbit. Hey, I wonder how this comes out?”
The Big Sleep (1946): Humphrey Bogart shares a drink with a bookshop assistant during a rainstorm, and she removes her spectacles. Next thing we see, Bogie is leaving the bookshop. As the rain has completely stopped, we can assume he had lots of time to… buy some books. A similarly suggestive fadeout is used when Ilsa visits Rick’s flat, alone, in Casablanca (1942).
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946): The 1980s version of the movie didn’t skimp on kitchen-table knee-tremblers, but the original had to make do with lingering shots of a “Man Wanted” sign in the diner window, sizzling meat on the grill and wild cats playfighting to signal sexual tension.
Rebel Without A Cause (1955): James Dean wasn’t the true rebel here – it was Sal Mineo’s Plato with his crush on Dean and a picture of movie star Alan Ladd in his school locker. Of course, true to the Code, the ‘sexual deviant’ (as homosexuality was then classed) was punished by death.
North By Northwest (1959): Alfred Hitchcock excelled his own history of sexual innuendo by getting Eva Marie Saint to tell Cary Grant: “You’re a big boy now” before sending the couple off into a blatantly phallic closing shot of a train carrying the newlyweds off into a tunnel.
Kiss Me, Stupid (1964): Dean Martin shows streetwalker Kim Novak around the house where she is to pose as his wife with the comment: “It’s small, but it’s clean.” Cue a knowing giggle from the worldy Ms Novak.
Goldfinger (1964): The Hays Code was on the way out but the 007 movies were establishing the penchant for double entendres that allowed them to moonlight as family movies, despite the sexual undertow. This one was hardly subtle though, with its Bond girls Pussy Galore and Holly Goodhead.


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