Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 1
Red-Headed Woman (1932)/Waterloo Bridge (1931)/Baby Face (1933)
In the latest 2-disc offering from the "TCM Archives" series, Warner Brothers presents us with three risque films produced between the advent of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1930, and the beginning of its strict enforcement in 1934.
[*]No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin. [*]Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented. [*]Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation- The three general principles of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributers Association (MPPDA) Production Code
The Production Code, sometimes referred to as the Hays Code after Will H. Hays, the original head of the MPPDA (which later morphed into the current MPAA), layed out specific guidelines about acceptable content in motion pictures, forbidding sympathetic (or, in some cases, any) depictions of immoral or illegal behavior. Although the code was introduced in 1930, there was no enforcement method to go with it, and producers did not follow it strictly. The MPPDA did occasionally intervene and require changes to films during this period.
Beginning in the summer of 1934, a certification process was introduced that became the enforcement mechanism for the Production Code for the next three decades. Overt sexuality and unpunished criminal or immoral activity all but disappeared from American theater screens for the duration of this period, although things began to loosen up in the mid-50s until the Production Code was supplanted by the MPAA rating system in the late 1960s.
Many films released in the "pre-certification" era, sometimes referred to as "pre-code", either disappeared from circulation or were substantially edited when shown in later years. Warner has previously treated us to DVDs of pre-code gangster gems such as "Little Caesar" and "The Public Enemy" and now they are dipping into their vaults to present us with three pre-code films with strong female protagonists famous (or is that infamous?) for their risque sexual content.
Red-Headed Woman (1932 - MGM)
Directed By: Jack Conway
Starring: Jean Harlow, Chester Morris, Henry Stephenson
"Red-Headed Woman" starts out with a montage of three quick scenes that may as well be labeled "S", "E", and "X". They quickly establish the title character off Lillian "Red" Andrews (Jean Harlow) as a man-eating force of nature. The film then just as quickly jumps in to Lillian's plans to upgrade her social situation by ditching her bootlegger boyfriend and stealing her well-to-do boss (Chester Morris) away from his wife.
The first half of the film tracks her methodical pursuit of this aim, with the balance dealing with what happens once she inevitably succeeds. Her desire for social advancement is such that she is not satisfied just bagging the rich husband, but must also doggedly pursue acceptance by the country club crowd with which he rubs elbows, a tricky matter since they all seem to be sympathetic to his ex-wife.
Her solution to this dilemma is to seduce the New York coal tycoon to whom the whole town is beholden (Henry Stephenson) and then blackmail him into urging the cream of local society to attend a dinner in his honor at Lillian's home. Things do not go exactly as planned, but Lillian remains sexually resourceful, keeping her options open with both the tycoon and his chauffer (Charles Boyer - testing the Hollywood waters six years before encouraging Hedy Lamarr to come weeth heem to ze casbah ) until her husband begins ferreting out the truth.
Of the three films in this set, it is pretty clear that "Red-Headed Woman" had the largest amount of studio resources behind it courtesy of MGM. The dialog sparkles and is full of quotable wit and double entendres (with a few single ones, too!). The sets and costumes are varied and elaborate, and the cast is uniformly excellent, especially Una Merkel as Lillian's friend and confidante who steals every scene in which she appears with deft one liners or amusing reaction shots.
Waterloo Bridge (1931 - Universal)
Directed By: James Whale
Starring: Mae Clarke, Kent Douglass (in later years, known as "Douglass Montgomery")
"Waterloo Bridge" is the first film adaptation of The Robert E. Sherwood play about a star-crossed romance between a soldier from a well-to-do family and a woman he does not realize is a prostitute. The 1940 MGM remake with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor is better known, probably due to the fact that its predecessor was out of circulation for more than 40 years, but I personally prefer the original.
Mae Clarke gave three performances in 1931 that assured her place in film history. She was assaulted by James Cagney with a grapefruit in "The Public Enemy", she was carried off by her husband's monster in "Frankenstein", and in between the two, she gave perhaps the best performance of her career as the conflicted woman at the center of this film.
The film is somewhat marred by an extremely abrupt ending, but its virtues outnumber its vices, including Clarke, Kent Douglass' convincing portrayal of a naive apple cheeked Canadian soldier serving in Europe, bravura low-budget backlot production design and camera work under the direction of James Whale, and generally excellent performances across the board by the supporting cast, including a very young Bette Davis as the soldier's sister.
Baby Face (1933 - Warner Brothers)
Directed By: Alfred E. Green
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Donald Cook
Some claim that "Baby Face" is the proverbial "straw that broke the camel's back" as far as the enforcement of the Production Code in Hollywood. It certainly was one of the highest profile films pulled out of circulation when strict Code enforcement began in 1934. It tells the story of Lily Powers, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who was been sexually exploited by her speakeasy-running father since her teens. Lily endures a family tragedy and, after getting the lowdown on Nietzschean philosophy from her local cobbler (who is shown thumbing through a copy of "Will to Power" in case you missed the significance of Lily's last name), travels to the big city and literally (as depicted in a famously illustrative sequence of shots) sleeps her way to the top of the corporate ladder. Complications, as they say, ensue.
The film is presented in two flavors in two completely separate transfers on disc two of the set. One version is the 71 minute cut that has been in circulation since its initial release. It includes several cuts, altered dialog, and an added epilogue that were made in deference to the Production Code and pressure from external censorship organizations by Warner Brothers. Recently, an archival print was discovered that represented the full 76 minute pre-release version of the film before any of the studio censorship was applied. This premiered at the London film festival in 2005, and appears for the first time on home video with this release.
The film is very entertaining, especially in its uncensored pre-release form, and Barbara Stanwyck gives a terrific performance, chewing scenery like her character chews up weak men. Keep an eye out for an early screen appearance by John Wayne in a supporting role as one of Lily's early conquests.
It is interesting to compare the two "Lily's" as portrayed by Harlow in "Red-Headed Woman" and Stanwyck in "Baby Face". Stanwyck's Lily is like a mongoose in a nest of vipers. Most of the men she seduces on the way to the top think that they are exploiting her before they realize that she is exploiting them (and herself). Conversely, Harlow's Lillian pursues her conquests doggedly, pressing and deceiving as necessary to overcome their virtuous natures. This does give "Red-Headed Woman" a strange subtext that the working class are a corruptive force which the rich should avoid before they are convinced to take a bite out of that apple and be cast out of Eden. Of course, "Red-Headed Woman" is such an audacious hoot, that one can easily set the subtext aside and enjoy the simple pleasures such as Jean Harlow in one skimpy shear outfit after another.
The video for "Red-Headed Woman" shows just about every type of film-related artifact you can imagine at one point or another, but maintains a consistent quality and solid, if grainy, greyscale throughout. There appears to be some contrast boosting for increased detail, which, on a few occasions, results in bright white objects blooming a bit. There are no signs of edge ringing.
The video for "Waterloo Bridge" definitely shows some wear and tear on the film elements, with significant grain and visible film damage (specks, vertical scratches, splices, etc.) appearing sporadically throughout the running time, but the transfer overall appears to be an honest rendering of the element, warts and all. There is consistent contrast, although there is often variable density within the frame due to source-related issues causing some vertical banding and pulsing. There is little or no edge ringing, and there is sufficient bitrate to reproduce the grain without significant digital video artifacts.
The video for the uncensored pre-release "Baby Face" looks to be a very solid transfer of a 3rd or 4th generation film element. The element appears to have been in good shape. Persistent film grain is present, but very little print damage is evident. Contrast may be slightly boosted to brighten the image, but not to the point of any significant blooming.
The theatrically released version of "Baby Face" is another story entirely. The video appears less grainy, but significantly less sharp than that of the pre-release version. There are also regular instances of film element damage and poor shadow detail throughout. It looks like an older transfer of an inferior element compared to the other films in the set.
All three films are presented in English-only DD1.0 soundtracks.
The audio for "Red-Headed Woman" is the best of the films presented in this set. There is a consistent hiss throughout the track, but the fidelity and dynamic range, though limited, are superior to the other tracks in this set, with little if any distortion during loud passages.
The audio for "Waterloo Bridge" is an interesting case. The first 20 minutes have little audible noise or hiss, but the opening title music and voices sound very muted and edgy. Around the 20 minute mark, after a cut in the middle of a conversation, the background noise all of a sudden becomes much more noticeable, but the audio fidelity improves greatly and stays that way for most of the remaining running time. I strongly preferred the hissier, but less processed sound of the later reels. The soundtrack is characteristic of early talkies with no underscore, limited frequency range, and limited dynamic range.
The audio for both versions of "Baby Face" definitely shows its age, but is well presented given the source limitations. There is a persistent but unobtrusive background hiss throughout the film. Dialog and music are clear, although distortion becomes more noticeable when the levels start pushing against the limited dynamic range, especially later in the film when characters are occasionally raising their voices in near-hysterics.
The only disc-based extras are a short introduction from Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne talking about the history of the Production Code and providing a brief introduction to the discs' contents on the first disc, and a trailer for "Baby Face" on the second disc. There is also a 2-sided paper insert to the tri-fold digipack discussing the history of the uncensored pre-release cut of "Baby Face".
The discs are packaged in a trifold digipack inside of a slipcase. The discs overlap in the center part of the trifold, and there is no pocket for the "Baby Face" insert. There is an unfortunate mistake in the disc labeling, with the artwork for disc one appearing atop the disc with disc two's content and vice versa. Very strange!
Short of a major touch up in the digital domain, and with the sole exception of the theatrical version of "Baby Face", I could not imagine these risque pre-code films looking much better on standard-def home video. I would definitely recommend this set as a rental or purchase for fans of classic Hollywood. Bring on Volume Two!