Thursday, January 02, 2014

Thinking About Pre-Code Films

One of the reasons I haven't blogged much around here in recent days, other than there not being much in the way of news during the holiday season, is because I have been downloading to flash drive or watching DVDs I have bought of vintage "pre-code" (1929-1934) films of which I am a huge fan. There are a lot of films out there, literally hundreds, if not thousands, of them. The movies tackled topics that would be barred when the silly Hays Code took effect later in 1934. Not that films during the studio era weren't good AFTER the code was put in, as it did force filmmakers to be more clever in order to evade the censors. However, before that time they didn't have to work too hard to put in adult or controversial themes.

I have a ton of DVDs bookmarked for purchase (provided I ever get out of poverty) from Jeff Bezos's site that cover the pre-code era. I have managed to buy a few in recent months. One I just received a few days ago was one from Universal, and the print quality of all of the films is so good, the films look like they were made yesterday. I started watching them the other day, watching them in bed, so it may take one or two days to get through each of them.

The first one I started with was one with Tallulah Bankhead in the remake of the 1915 DeMille film, The Cheat, the latter which made villain Sessue Hayakawa a major star. That film still holds up despite some racial stereotypes common back then (remember this film is almost 100 years old--hard to believe). The original also starred Fannie Ward and her real-life husband, Jack Dean, who played her husband in the film. I don't know how true it is, but Ward apparently was quite the diva in real life. She was already in her early forties when she made this film, but she looked quite a bit younger. Her ability to have held onto her looks before modern cosmetic surgery was one of her major claims to fame. Because Ward was quite the bitch in real life, Hayakawa evidently couldn't stand her. Maybe that's why they played off each other so well; the branding scene looked pretty damned realistic. Hayakawa may have wanted to shove that branding iron or whatever it was down her throat.

Anyway, here is the upload of the original. I had this film on VHS, but I will have to get around to getting the DVD of it one of these times:

The plot was too dated by 1931 to work as a remake, but Universal gave it a shot. Bankhead was and is always worth watching. She played a spoiled rich woman whose excesses spell trouble and did it well, but her co-star Irving Pichel, who looked a bit like Paul Muni (and at first I thought it WAS him), was too colorless to play the villain. Moreover, the plot just didn't ring true with the villain now being an art dealer obsessed with Japanese culture to the point he wanted Bankhead dressed like a Japanese woman to fulfill some sick fantasy of his. At least in the original you had a Asian actor play the part of an Asian (though the character went from a Japanese ivory merchant in the original release to a Burmese one in the 1918 reissue after the Japanese community complained about stereotyping). It just didn't come off quite as well in the remake. Still, it is worth seeing for Bankhead, and the print is absolutely fabulous. It must have been struck from an original negative. The print quality is in brand-new condition; you'd never know the film was made 83 years ago.

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