Friday, 20 March 2015

Pre-1934 Hollywood talkies were full of sex, violence, fascist sentiments and horror

I’m not an expert on early talkies. Like most people, I tend to find them wordy, over-acted, slow and static. The only ones most viewers are aware of these days tend to be classic Warner Brothers’ gangster films and Busby Berkley musicals, which, in their different ways, hint at what was happening elsewhere in filmland at the time – movies like Little Caesar, Public Enemy and Scarface really are surprisingly violent, while Berkley’s musicals contain disquieting quantities of outrageous campness and sleazy sexual innuendo.

Most film fans are also aware of Todd Browning’s 1932 horror film Freaks,  a gruesome circus-set revenge tale featuring deformed carnival side-show perfomers. It is so revolting that – despite having been a horror-story writer - I’ve never been able to get more than ten minutes into it (it destroyed the director’s career).

I’d always imagined that these films represented some sort of high (or low) point when it came to Hollywood’s depiction of the seedier aspects of life in the era before the so-called Hays Code began to be stringently implemented in mid-1934, when a campaign organised by the Catholic Church finally convinced the American movie industry that it would be in its best interests to clean up its act (the Code had been in place for several years, but film-makers had simply ignored it).

A fascinating article on the British Film Institute website (available here) had me searching YouTube for those films it mentioned which I’d never seen. Crikey! The opening scene of 1933’s Murders in the Zoo is an absolute jaw-dropper (or jaw-lifter, depending how you look at it) – honestly, don’t watch this if you're of a sensitive disposition: it's truly horrible!

Such onscreen unpleasantness wouldn’t be seen again in an American film from a mainstream studio until the 1970s. As for the 1932 adaptation of H.G. Wells's Island of Dr. Moreau, it was so pant-wettingly nasty that it was banned in Britain until 1958:

Another area the Code sought to control was political propaganda. MGM’s Gabriel Over the White House (1933) is the tale of a weak, ineffectual president struggling to come up with answers to (among other problems) the Great Depression and gangsterism. He has a dream in which he is visited by an angel, who sets him on the right track by suggesting he starts acting like a dictator. Here’s how The State subsequently tackles the problem of organised crime:

This was apparently one of several films in praise of dictatorship released during this period. To underline Hollywood’s contempt for democracy, here’s a section from Columbia Pictures’ hagiographic 1933 documentary Mussolini Speaks:

Socialism – whether national or international – was evidently as popular in Hollywood 80 years' ago as it is today.  Warner Brothers, in particular, seems to have churned out leftist propaganda to such an extent that it made a star of the stage actor Walter William, who was typecast as the unacceptable face of capitalism – he was the shyster lawyer, the rapacious financier, the crooked politician, the greedy property tycoon. For this, he was rewarded with a highly successful, if relatively brief, career as a superstar, which later earned him the title “King of Pre-Code”.  His career waned rapidly after 1934, but not before film industry lefties had used him to firmly entrench the image of the evil capitalist exploiter in an American psyche already bruised by the Crash and the mass unemployment that followed it. Warren’s work is poorly represented on YouTube, but here’s an interview with the author of a recent biography of the now forgotten actor:

The cynical contempt for government institutions and free markets which unerpins the famous gangster movies seems to have reached some sort of climax with Wild Boys of the Road (1933), which deals with the problem of an estimated 250,000 rootless kids roaming the country during the Depression. This typically understated trailer gives us a flavour of the film:

As for sex, the screen seemed to be full of go-getting, gold-digging trollops, ravingly swish homosexuals, and butch lesbians. All such depictions were outlawed by the Code, and film-makers were suddenly forced to find more subtle ways of getting their point across.

I wonder what would have happened to America – and the film industry itself -  had movies been allowed to continue in the same direction. It could be that the enthronement of Roosevelt - a Big Government leftist - in the White House would have in any case dampened the audience's willingness to sit through communistic lectures, no matter how racy. But it's interesting to speculate about the possible effects on the Great American Public of a steady diet of films depicting - without disapproval - sexual licentiousness and what I suppose we now have to call "alternative lifestyles". Perhaps we'd simply have reached where we are today a lot sooner.


  1. Thank you for an excellent and informative post. Much appreciated.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. Sky Arts is forever repeating a documentary series on the history of sex in Hollywood movies, but I reckon BBC4 should do a similar thing for the history of politics in American films.

  2. Fascinating. I watched "Gabriel over the White House" about 30 years ago when Channel 4 used to fill schedule space with interesting old films rather than "My Mum's Fatter than Yours" type reality shows. I have to say I didn't make the lefty conspiracy connection at the time. It seemed to me to fit into a broader political context, both US and European and not necessarily of the left.

    In the US, there was the continuing public concern about organised crime and corruption, post-Prohibition. In Europe and the US, depression, drift and the public sense of an absence of Government. That was what made firm grip dictators seem attractive to the Daily Mail, the makers of the Musso hagiography you feature and presumably the writers of Gabriiel over the White House. Was this a right or left thing? I suppose it depends on where you see fascism in the political spectrum. The left and right always end up meeting at some point, usually round the back in the section labelled "Bonkers". The same set of social phenomena led to the Blackshirts and also the Cambridge spies and the apologists for Stalinism.

    Where I don't follow your logic is the connection to Roosevelt and big government. There's a reasonable argument that all the social interventionism of that era was a more balanced response to the public concern about something genuinely apolitical - the US economy was up shit creek and people were struggling - than military takeover and firing squads for gangsters as depicted in Gabriel. In other words, stuff that people voted for, in this case the Democrats, like it or not. I think it's a bit of a stretch to tie dotty films of the 30's to public gullibility and end up with FDR as a raving commie.

  3. I dont think communism and fascism meet up round the back - they start and end in the same place: the citizen exists to serve the state, and the state controls (or has the power to control) every aspect of the citizen's life. The citizen can't get rid of the "government". The law is whatever the government says it is at the time, etc. Hitler and Mussolini didn't think of themselves as right wing - that was a description intrpoduced by Marxists to distinguish themselves from their totalitarian left-wing rivals. The only real difference between the various ideologies is which section of society they feel it's necessary to exterminate in order to realise their utopian vision.

    I don't think that many would disagree that FDR was keen on Big Government. Under the New Deal, the power of the American government expanded hugely, with endless new agencies staffed largely by idealistic young leftists taking direct control of vast swathes of the American economy. That (to me, at least) is Big Government socialism in action. In some areas, this was probably necessary - but in many instances, interference by leftist idealists actually made things worse (even Ken Burns's excellent if somewhat hagiographic recent TV series on the Roosevelts admits that it didn't all work).

    I don't think Roosevelt was a bad or evil president (or a communist - that would be his wife), and I can see that America needed his ebullience and optimism at that time - but there seems to be a growing consensus of opinion amongst US historians and economists that the imposition of the New Deal may very well have retarded America's emergence from the Depression - massive state intervention happened at the point in the natural economic cycle when the pain had been got through and the economy was already starting to recover. That's partly why non-interventionist Britain - despite all the nonsense about the Jarrow marchers (all 207 of them) - emerged from the Depression far more quickly and less painfully than America.

    To this day, we labour under two false leftist myths about the '30s - that the New Deal saved the American economy, and that Britain's relative inaction harmed ours. Unfortunately, these myths underpinned our economic policies until Mrs. Thatcher came to power, explain why America's post 2008 economic recovery has been so sluggish, and would underpin the policies of the Labour-SNP coalition that might take over the country in May.

  4. I didn't say that communism and fascism met up round the back of the political spectrum. My point was that right and left in their extreme forms become more or less indistinguishable as the common ground of communism/fascism. Gabriel etc could be read as both extreme right or left wing in its perspective, because it occupies that bonkers space round the back. I am not sure that the films you cite do reflect a contempt for democracy as a political position, so much as a rather bizarre and ultimately inaccurate reflection of a popular feeling that the elected US Government was not up to dealing with the consequences of the crash and the proliferation of graft and gangsterism. Their obscurity is probably a reflection of the fact that not many people took them seriously.

    I shall now stitch my mouth shut on the subject.

    1. Where we differ is that I don't accept that Fascism or Nazism are examples of extreme right-wing political movements. They were started by socialists, and remained socialist throughout. An extreme right-winher would be a libertarian or an anarchist. A fasicst is an extreme left-winger. My only real problem with this classification comes with military leaders who set up rigidly hierarchical dictatorships of a South American type, but who don't seem to have any utiopianist tendencies and would claim (spuriously) simply to be resisting chaos.

      One of the miracles of the 20th century, I reckon, was that America didn't even remotely come close to embracing socialism - although they're now having it imposed on them via the back door by Cultural-Marxist-in-Chief Barck Obama.