Saturday, July 7, 2007

Me Tarzan, you naked

Even a minor interest in film history will bring the 1934 Hayes Code to light as a major turning point in Hollywood. Pressured by lobbyists from the Catholic Legion of Decency (nothing says "moral authority" like putting "decency" in your title,) the Jewish studio heads were intimidated into self-censorship by threat of boycott and allowed outsiders to create restrictions on exciting or provocative content. This extended past depictions sex and violence into language and situations, essentially requiring the removal of moral vagueness. Gangster films were one of the few exceptions allowing bad men as main characters, though they had to meet death or justice in the end. Restrictions loosened over time, but the creation of the hypocritical Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings system took the original Code's place and may not have even existed without that precedent.

Catholic lobbying power, once something to be reckoned with in the early 20th Century, was worried that Jewish Hollywood was corrupting minds merely by giving the public what it wanted. Today a child can see films with no purpose but the depiction of torture, if accompanied by a parent. I wonder if this is long-term backlash. "The Jews" don't run Hollywood exclusively anymore. The ones who actually built the town and industry, back when California was cheap, unspoiled real estate, were family men with admirable values and passion for the American dream. Their attitudes toward the world varied and it reflected in their studio output. Lighter-hearted fare from MGM and Universal. Tougher medicine from Warner Brothers and Columbia.

What all studio heads shared the most then was fear of being targeted as Jewish smut peddlers from Eastern Europe subverting the Christian morality of America. And they buckled.

I noticed when my Canadian film professors brought up these events that they mentioned the Christian zealotry but not the Jewish corollary. Not in their agenda to account for Jewish victimization, perhaps due to their ignorant Leftist scapegoating of Israel these days. Maybe they think they'll get in hot water for suggesting any direct connection out loud between Judaism and Hollywood. They certainly have enough contempt for the latter to begin with. It's not difficult to connect some dots between these hatreds. They already speak disparagingly of Hollywood's lifelong support of the imperialist American war machine, what with John Wayne and everything. They would love to become the doppelganger of the Legion of Decency and remove depictions of content deemed dangerously seductive to the public mind, like patriotism or domesticity.

I digress. The best history I've read of the subject is Neal Gabler's An Empire of Their Own and I highly recommend it.

Recently I saw "Tarzan and His Mate," released 1934 from MGM. On the surface it is light-hearted fare for the whole family. When actually viewed, there are shocking examples of how far you could go before the Code. I really had no idea. I assumed like most people that the America was such an inherently prudish place in the early 30s that family fare was basically unaffected by the new censorship, but how wrong I was! The few pre-1934 American films I've seen have all been tough medicine - Freaks, Scarface, The Public Enemy, Lon Chaney psychodramas and Universal horror like Dracula, Frankenstein and The Invisible Man.

Plenty of violence and debauchery in all, but the content is lurid to begin with. The seemingly innocuous sequel to Tarzan, the Ape Man, which had it's own share of violence, goes even further in exploitation of violence and further than any film of it's era I've ever seen in the depiction of playful sexuality. The silent films of the 20s had their fare share of sexually charged drama - cheating wives and husbands, children born out of wedlock, rape - Tarzan 2 feels more subversive for portraying Tarzan and Jane's jungle love as hedonistic, uncivilized bliss.

Let me show you what I mean, more or less as it appeared. The first shock came less than 10 minutes in. Two Englishmen are on an expedition to find an Elephant graveyard with untold amounts of ivory and bring with them a group of African natives to carry the stuff. One of them doesn't want to go any further, he's scared. The nastier of the two Englishmen shoots him, point blank in the chest.



Incidentally, the men speak freely of how no "White man" has ever been to these parts of the African jungle. A tragic effect of the stultifying Code, even moreso than the loss of sex and violence, was that any references to ethnicity were out. Movie characters once actually referred to heebs, wops, goombahs, fairies, savages, and what have you. This was real language real people were using at the time, and pretending such bigotry didn't exist by hiding such terms away only prolonged their usage.

The Legion of Decency didn't want the slurs gone because slurs are bad, they were just embarased to hear the unpleasant realities of society out in the open. Not for the benefit of those targeted by hateful language, but their own egos. Out of sight, out of mind. Sound familiar? Political correctness has been infantilizing us longer than we think.

Mere minutes later, the expedition find the ugly remains of some previous explorers:



Yiiiiikes. This is a Friday the 13th level money shot, about 50 years early. You only see it for a few seconds, but it sure as hell makes an impression.

You know what? Here's the other examples of strong violence. I don't want to interrupt the sweeter stuff.



Tarzan stabs a few animals. This may have been made before the Human Society's stamp of approval against real animal violence, but I highly doubt this was a real rhino even if it looks convincing. A knife would probably bounce right off of a real one, unless maybe it was Tarzan doing the stabbing. He also slices a crocodile later on, and you see the blood spread out into the water. Brutal!

Speaking of stabbings, here's some more savage-on-savage savagery. A hostile tribe attacks the expedition towards the end of the film, and they slice open one guy's neck before capturing another and tying him to a tree. Then they slice his chest open so that lions will come and devour him alive! Good lord! *choke*




Okay. Similar violence and cruelty exists in pre-Code Hollywood, sometimes even afterwards if done without lingering on the bloody details. Here, though, is what must've really made people's heads spin in shock and excitement: lovely Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane, back from the first film, living in sin with Mr Beefcake himself, Johnny Weismueller as Tarzan.



How little that two-piece loincloth of hers covers! She wears it through almost all the film, with two major exceptions. In the first act, the expedition discovers Jane and her fellow Englishmen give her some nice civilized clothes...and her beauty doesn't go unnoticed. Not by peeping Englishmen and their POV shots -



Yep, that's a nipple. Not by the Englishmen, and not by Tarzan when checking out his mate's new duds -



You bet there is. Even poor uncivilized Tarzan can figure that out as he sits there, feeling her up. The scene ends with him carrying her back to their treetop home to explore further. Next morning they wake up and she's back in the loin-kini. He rolls over to her: "Good Morning. I love you." She plays with his hair. He breathes the scent of her neck and kisses it all over.



This is INCREDIBLY sexy stuff. You really feel these are two people in love who can't get enough of each other, like Nick and Nora Charles from The Thin Man - released the same year by the director of the first Tarzan, W.S. Van Dyke.

Here's the piece de resistance that immediately follows: the notorious swimming scene.



And here's me, watching: "Holy crap, he just ripped off her clothes and threw her in the water! Now he's gone in after her, wow, that's suggestive. Too bad they can't show - holy crap, that's a nude woman in a film from 1934." It's not actually Maureen O'Sullivan, but no Hollywood actress today would even consider having a body double do full nudity with her co-star.

And it IS full, let me assure you -



The double has just done a somersault here, and if you watch carefully you can actually see where frames were trimmed out to preserve what little modesty this sequence has to begin without. Obviously they didn't get it all. It's not just a couple shots, either. This is a whole scene that just continues for minutes with no purpose but to show the couple frolicking like Adam and Eve.

What must audiences have thought, upon seeing this? According to IMDB there were multiple versions of this sequence with varying degrees of clothing, for parts of the country deemed more conservative than others. The Code was actually in place already, and once they got wind of this they were mad as hell.

Watching old movies takes getting used to. You get used to the slower pace, the differences in how people talked, the differences in how society was. Ultimately you enjoy an old movie for the same reasons you enjoy any modern one, the skill and talent that went into it. However, I don't doubt that more people would be watching older films if the titillating stuff had been allowed, and it's a tragedy it wasn't. It's not as tragic as the loss of adult storylines with moral complexities, but it certainly added some shelf life to an antiquated franchise like Tarzan.

People could handle these things better back then than they can handle it now. There wasn't time to be polite. Kids weren't fetishized as vessels of pure innocence whose eyes and ears needed to be shielded at the expense of everyone else. Cartoons used to be chock full of violence, and then one day Jerry couldn't hit Tom with a frying pan lest a child try it at home.

Self-appointed experts on "images and representation" are all alike, whether uptight Catholics crusading for "morality" in the name of God or uptight White liberals crusading for "progressiveness" in the name of equality:

- Both share the urge to censor since they think the masses are brainless, potentially dangerous children. They feel art should reflect the way they think the world ought to be, to set a good example for those who don't know better yet.

- Both measure the TRUE lasting value of art by how well it affirms the correct beliefs and condemns the wrong ones. Artwork that doesn't is, as my film prof so condescendingly put it in his reply, merely a "well-crafted urn."

- Both congratulate themselves as sophisticated for this narrow, propagandistic understanding of art, and noble for converting young people to their views at the earliest age possible. Neither have any guilty reservations about this. Their job titles, earned by toadying conformity within exclusive, insulated societies (in the cases of academica and the clergy) are justification enough.

Anyway! The point is I gotta see me some MORE pre-Code movies. Ungawa!

2 comments:

Andrew Wickliffe said...

I remember the first time I saw "Tarzan and His Mate." I remember the gun shot in the chest (at that point, I was still catching up because I've never seen the original). During the swimming scene, I kept waiting for TCM (it might have even been AMC, in fact, I think it was) to cut the feed or something....

Reading your post, I got thinking a lot about the effect of the Code on that period of Hollywood cinema in relation to the transition from silent filmmaking techniques to sound.

Anyway, wish I had some pre-Code recommendations for you, but I'm lame on my 1930s Hollywoods these days. Maybe Penthouse (1933, W.S. Van Dyke) is pre-Code. It's good though, if you can track it down.

Chip Butty said...

Thanks for the recommendation, I'll try to find it!