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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Making The Best Of Code Crutches


Mae West Juggles Censor Balls in Goin' To Town (1935)

Crackdown of the Code came in part to make an example of Mae West. She'd be a first bad apple plucked from decency's barrel. The brawl over Belle Of The Nineties was less clean-up of that '34-release than notice posted to all of industry: You'll Not Release What We Don't Approve. Hollywood must concede or else. Tough stance was mostly a rig to mollify hick censors and would-be boycotters, it being vital to make them feel like victors in a contest for viewer morality. Trouble was, this threat did have teeth, as Northeast theatres found after Catholic priests mobilized customer no-show in vital urban markets. The squawk cost real dollars, and so had to be addressed. Goin' To Town saw Mae West back in the fray after presumably learning her lesson. She'd fought such battles for most of a career, so knew how to punt. Goin' To Town wouldn't/couldn't be She Done Him Wrong or I'm No Angel, but it's as good a West vehicle as we or she could hope for under very trying circumstance of Code-socked 1935.






There was a PCA seal that went in front of credits for a number of that year's output. Audiences began booing them on sight, so it didn't last. A larger public, folks who actually liked movies and paid to see them, hated the spoon-feed. In fact, movies had become spoon bread, the Hays Office resented for making them so. Still, it was necessary evil if the business was to stay in business. Mae West would have to walk the chalk between ribald and her former outrageous. Goin' To Town has her signature cheek, plus wit penned by the star. West had habit of giving scripts a once, if not twice-over, to instill words/gesture unique to herself. Seemed she could trust no one to gag-up dialogue, not unlike one-of-kind the Marx Bros., who had strong writers behind them for stage work and the better movies they did. West went it in large part alone, for after all, who knew the character better than she? Of concessions Mae further made, one was to dame fashion, which by '35 dictated she be "streamlined" (read: thinner) what with Goin' To Town being current set and necessity of its star squeezing into modern dress.


Goin' To Town As In Broadway Premiere for Mae West's Latest




Paramount Puts Oldies Back in Late 40's Circulation
I saw a late-in-life interview Mae West did with Dick Cavett on You Tube. She's posed as ever on a divan, starts off doing the Mae-thing, but settles then into serious recount of a career and how she sustained it for gadzillion years. What I admire about Mae West was fact she knew it was all an act, would say so where given opportunity, in fact seemed refreshed when scribes had sense enough to address her as a working professional rather than "Mae West." So powerful was the image, however, that most, including Cavett, could not get past it. West was remarkable for overcoming problems the Code created. She'd earn lots bigger money from Paramount after enforcement than before. Her vogue would have ended eventually in any circumstance. As it is, she had nine solid years of stardom between Night After Night and My Little Chickadee (would-be comeback of The Heat's On was a miss). Worth noting is fact Paramount reissued all of Code-approved West vehicles in the late 40's, so interest in her did sustain, and well before she assumed camp/counterculture interest in the late 60's.






West had a same issue as colleagues-at-Paramount Bill Fields and the Marx Bros. All were well into maturity by the time talkies beckoned. For Mae, this meant care with costuming and movement. Notice how still she is at most times, seemingly in repose even where standing. Something I noticed in Goin’ To Town was diminutive Mae West in comparison with others, men and women. Accounts suggest she was five feet tall. I wonder if that’s not on the high end. Her public knew Mae had been tamed, but evidence shows Goin’ To Town made money, and the film does have movement, lively situations, and dialogue spicy as West could make it under restriction imposed. Her crash of high society is a set-up any of fans, then or now, would approve, and though a comedy, Goin’ To Town tells its narrative straight (there is a third act murder, but with Monroe Owlsley as victim, most would call that pest removal). Goin’ To Town has been long out of circulation, other than DVD (as part of a West collection). Occasion to re-see was courtesy RetroPlex HD, lately home to several Paramount and Universal oldies.

9 Comments:

Blogger lmshah said...


"Mae West Juggles Censor Balls in Goin' To Town (1935)"

John, that sub-header made my eyebrows flip until I realized what you actually meant, then again, if she actually had, she could have probably gotten even more past them at the time.


RICHARD M ROBERTS

3:02 PM  
Blogger Stinky Fitzwizzle said...

Pre-code or post, Mae West never made Stinky laugh.

4:12 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Nothing brings home for me how far from the mark conventional Christianity is than does the Creation of The League of Decency. Not for these folk the harlot who washed the feet of Jesus with her hair and her tears. In fact Conventional Christianity finds itself squarely in the seats occupied by the religious authorities who faulted Jesus for allowing her to do so.

One of the neat things about GOIN' TO TOWN is that in it Mae West gets to sing opera.

When I show these films (all of the Paramounts) to people who have never experienced Mae West their reaction to them is one hundred per cent positive. It also has nothing to do with camp. These are good, finely crafted works.

Her biggest problem was that in later life at the end of her career she had to play Mae West 24 hours a day seven days a week.

The false picture of life that the Production Code forced the movies to project may account more than anything else for the erosion of the audience for the movies which, according to THE CINEMA YEAR BY YEAR (1894-2002) once was over 65% of the public. According to the same source it is now less than 15%.

Mae West knew how to use censorship for her profit and that of Paramount. She, after all, saved them from bankruptcy with her first two films. Paramount, unfortunately, didn't learn which is why they allowed her to be watered down.

5:00 PM  
Blogger lmshah said...


Well, I don't think we can blame the Production Code for the fall in ticket sales after 1960, now we have sex and violence (well, more violence than sex) plastered all over in loud THX sound and widescreen gore, and that's when ticket sales really started dropping. I still watch more good films that were made under the Production Code than the meager number of new movies I might actually waste time looking at.

When the Production Code was in force, they actually made movies about people I might like to spend time with who were not just self-absorbed tragically-hip jerks or general psychotics, The code-made films had people who even sometimes cared about other people, actually committed acts of kindness and selflessness, and people actually learned from their mistakes and made themselves and their surroundings a better place to be in or with. or at least the jerks got what was coming to them. If that does not resemble real-life to you, I'm sorry for you, but these things do happen in real life too, and perhaps audiences had a few better role models to shape their own personalities with, and some of us actually find this behavior entertaining.


RICHARD M ROBERTS

9:07 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

Mae was only 5 feet tall, and wore those floor-length gowns to conceal custom-made platform shoes that added 5-6 inches to her height. Walking carefully in those shoes produced her characteristic gait.
Those "Mae Westicisms" cartoons were drawn by Buford Tune, who later drew the "Dotty Dripple" comic strip, an arrant "Blondie" ripoff - it had some success because it was picked up by papers who couldn't get "Blondie."

10:46 PM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

The article shows how sad and stupid this Code was-basically a way for fundamentalist Christians to mess up Hollywood, IMHO.

Vito Russo's book The Celluloid Closet (as well as the documentary of the same name) shows even more how foolish and restrictive to art this Code was. And I'm sorry, lmshah, but a Code that restricts art and gives a false image of society is not a Code that's to be celebrated. Art is supposed to be a reflection of the good and the bad/high and low of human society, not a distortion of it. Yes, it can show the highs that humans can achieve, but there has to be a showing of the lows, too (as well as the sexy parts of life.) Showing everybody as a likable goody two-shoes isn't a reflection of life, but a funhouse mirror distortion of it.

As for today's movies, there's several characters in several mainstream Hollywood movies that are just like the people in the Code-era movies, many of them in the superhero and sci-fi/fantasy genres that people like you seem to love to despise. And FYI, THX hasn't been used at movie theaters (or for movies) for a long time (it's still a part of home entertainment system receivers, though, and some DVD's.)

2:37 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

After seeing Night After Night, I wish she'd played more supporting roles as well as playing Mae West. She's very lively in that in a way that's more like Lilyan Tashman or Aline MacMahon than a star comedienne.

That's interesting about the Code symbol being booed. At Capitolfest Jack Theakston showed a newsreel of Joe Breen announcing the Code and explaining it... to the lusty boos of a movie buff crowd!

2:55 PM  
Blogger lmshah said...



There is no more truth in toady's "all-bad" code-free depiction of life from todays movies than any perceived "goody two-shoes" depiction in movies made under the Production code, and it seems to this person that filmmakers managed to get the seamier side of life depicted just fine in lots more creative and subtle ways under the code than filmmakers today do even with all their freedom. Considering all of the so-called made-after-the-fact concept of "film-noir" movies were made under the code seems to say they were perfectly capable of getting any depressive message they wanted out when they needed to.

Who cares what todays latest noise-making in movie theaters is called, all it does is assault the viewer with too much booming unpleasantness and not enough intelligent dialogue. It is pathetic that moviemakers feel the need to even make comic book character darker than their original creators intended just to satisfy some idiot concept of reality (like comic book characters are on any plane of reality to begin with), folk like to see (or should like to see) what they can aspire to in good behavior, rather than see characters that confirm and encourage their own a**hole behavior. The quality of most people and movies today does not convince me we're doing it right or are on any level of healthy reality. When critics are dismissing any showing of sentiment, kindness, honesty, or any other good emotions as "corny" or boring, they indicate that they are nothing but emotionally stunted or challenged themselves.

Once again, some of us like to see characters who act like mature adults, just as we wish there were more of them in real life.


RICHARD M ROBERTS

5:59 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

I recall an anecdote in Max Wilk's "Wit and Wisdom of Hollywood" where the Paramount publicity folks bought a dozen or so talking birds (parakeets or parrots) and placed them in a room with a phonograph which played the working title of Mae West's next film, "It Ain't No Sin," over and over. By the time the birds were trained to say that phrase, the title had been changed (to either "I'm No Angel" or "Belle of the 90s", I forget which).

4:52 PM  

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