TCM: Restoring its way to the top

There is arguably no period in American film history more interesting than the era that existed prior to the Hays Code, a sort of self-censorship apparatus created for Hollywood in 1930 (and enforcing beginning in 1934) to keep sex, drugs and other depraved activities out of the movies. What makes this era so interesting is the films that came out of this time. Movies in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and even 1960s and 1970s tried to be as salacious as possible, but they had to do it through wink-wink innuendo that could sometimes be dirtier than showing the act outright or speaking about it directly.

But what about the films that existed prior to this code? How did they handle the freedom to show whatever they wanted, regardless of its objectionability? There have been a few DVD releases of pre-code material, notably by Kino, but Turner Classic Movie's TCM Archives – Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 1 is the most exciting release of pre-code films in the short lifespan of the digital medium. There are three films here of stunning quality across two discs, Waterloo Bridge from 1931, Red-Headed Woman from 1933 and Baby Face, also from '33. There is also a long-though-lost longer cut of Baby Face that is the centerpiece of the set.

Baby Face stars Barbara Stanwyck as the daughter of an unscrupulous speakeasy owner that's whored out to men in power to keep them from blowing the whistle on his little operation. When he dies, she moves to the big city where she wheel, deals and sleeps her way to the top of the corporate ladder, leaving broken hearts and shattered lives in her wake. There are numerous points of interest here. One is that it features an early performance by John Wayne, playing a wide-eyed young corporate type who is the first to succumb to Stanwyck's wiles. Another is that it's rife with sexuality. There are numerous scenes of Stanwyck seducing men and even a post-coital moment in the ladies washroom where Stanwyck and one of her conquests are caught after the fact.

The most interesting aspect of Baby Face, though, is the longer cut of the film. This pre-release version was trimmed down to what was shown in theaters after preview screenings, and it was thought lost. However, the venerable Library of Congress happened to have a copy of it in the archives and it was cleaned up for TCM's DVD. Watching the films back-to-back is revelatory for just how much filmmakers in '33 thought they could get away with.

While the released version of the film is naughty and eye-opening for what a pre-code movie could show onscreen, the pre-release version is downright dirty. One scene shows, essentially, an attempted rape when one of the men in power bought by the speakeasy owner tries to have relations with Stanwyck. The scene is long, brutal and unnerving. The language spoken by both characters is harsh and the actions violent. But once Stanwyck gets to the city, there are shots of exposed flesh and extremely-to-the-point come on lines. Men openly cheat on their wives in vulgar ways, and mistresses have no qualms about the damage they are causing. Both versions of Baby Face are quality films, but the pre-release version is head-and-shoulders above the released version. It's a more complete film, and the "forbidden" elements, while jarring for a film from the period, make the movie fuller and more satisfying.

But that isn't dirtiest picture of the group. Red-Headed Woman takes the title. Written by Anita Loos (the author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, who puts a cheeky reference to her hit book in the opening of this film) and starring Jean Harlow, the film has a keyed-up sexual disposition largely unseen in movies even today. Harlow's Red is a femme fatale temptress that is even less scrupulous than Stanwyck in Baby Face. She knows what she's doing, she knows its wrong, she doesn't care and she'll do anything to keep possession of the man (and status and money) she out-and-out steals. In this way, Red is a sexual sociopath that wouldn't come back into vogue until the sexploitation films of the 1990s (Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction, Jade).

Besides laying the groundwork for films that would come 60 years later, Red-Headed Woman takes full advantage of no moral code being in place. Harlow regularly exposes legs, thighs and underwear over the course of the film. In one scene, Red goes home to her apartment to find her roommate wearing her pajamas. Red forces the roommate to take the pajamas off, and then she puts them on. But in this series of events, she's topless for a couple of seconds, breasts totally exposed. This is stunning in an early Hollywood film, so much so that at first you're not sure if what you saw is really what you saw. That's probably the reaction some contemporary audiences had, too, but it's there and it's rather shocking.

The final film in the set, Waterloo Bridge, is the best of the three and also the most curious. Starring Mae Clark as a streetwalker in World War I England and Douglass Montgomery as a WWI soldier on leave and directed by James Whale (Frankenstein), the film centers on these two as they foster a love during the uncertain days of the Great War. Whale's direction instills so much humanity, honesty and dignity into the film that the final scene is a shocking, gut-wrenching moment of love lost.

What makes it curious, though, is that this film was ever considered "forbidden." It was, certainly, because it was remade to code standards in 1940, but the only reason it was considered immoral is because it depicted prostitution. However, we never get explicit moments of sexual activity, at any stage, as we do in Baby Face. Nor do we get a lot of skin shots like in Red-Headed Woman. The relationship between Clark and Montgomery is sweet and normal, but Clark is depicted as going after other men during the courtship process. Perhaps this is what proved objectionable. Or perhaps it was that Clark's prostitute didn't live a life of venereal disease-ridden destitution. Her world isn't glamorous, but it's not nightmarish, either.

Waterloo Bridge poses interesting questions pertaining to the production code, but so do the other two films. Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Vol. 1 is essential because of the conversation about film it creates. The three films are presented in excellent picture and audio quality, and there are no real extras to speak of, but this is a case where the films are so crucial that no extras are needed. And, really, the lack of extras is more than made up for by the discussions about the three movies, the era and film history that will follow screening them.

TCM can't release the second volume quick enough. They should be commended for their commitment to film preservation and restoration, and for putting out sets like this.

(Read this review on BlogCritics here.)