Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Study in Cheese: Harlow, Gable and Gorgonzola

I blame Clark Gable.
He's the reason I followed a bunny trail down a rabbit hole and into a wonderland of Pre-Code debauchery. Red Dust (1932) was the first time I ever knowingly watched a Pre-Code movie, and while Gable might have been the initial draw, it's the women of this picture that keep me coming back for more.

A Pre-Code film was a "talky" made and distributed by Hollywood during the early 1930s. It usually refers to a movie made after the silent era of the 1920s but before the enforcement of the MPAA decency code in July of 1934. There is quite a bit of detail wrapped up in the code and why it came about but I'll try to keep it simple for my purposes here. With the economic collapse beginning in 1929, Hollywood felt the financial blow through dwindling box office returns. Film Moguls were looking at bankruptcy and company collapse as well as a drastically changing audience mindset. The excess lifestyle of the Roaring Twenties had become the enemy, the reason why so much of the nation was jobless and desperate.

The major film companies countered by introducing new types of characters. The silent stars were largely
replaced with actors trained in the theater and directors moved the action out of the penthouses and down into the streets. A Pre-Code film is generally characterized by violence, slums, prostitutes and most importantly, SEX. Film makers ushered in a new wave of cinematic shock and awe. Pre-Code movies are vulgar and eye-popping even for today's public. Perhaps even more so because most people don't consider old movies to be capable of such graphic material. That's one of the reasons I love them so much... they never fails to surprise!

The film code came about because... well... to put it bluntly... because Catholics got mad. The Catholic League of Decency threatened to boycott movies if they didn't start adhering to a fixed set code of ethics. The Catholic population of the 1930's made up a strong majority of the American populace and the film companies surrendered fearing severe backlash if they didn't. Everything from screenplays to advertising had to go through Breen's Office for approval before they could be distributed. This was the Hollywood norm for the next THIRTY years!! Watching a movie from 1933 and one from 1934 is a drastically different viewing experience. Watching a Pre-Code means embracing rebellious classic cinema... and learning to enjoy it.

When it comes to a steamy Pre-Code, no other film does it better that Victor Flemming's Red Dust. It stars a very young (clean shaven) Clark Gable as the owner of a remote jungle rubber plantation. At the beginning of the film he voices discontent with his given circumstances, wishing for a richer, grander life as opposed to his current harsh lifestyle. He's unhappy and grumpy to say the least. As luck would have it, a steam boat breaks down delivering a sexy Saigon prostitute right into Gable's bed... quite literally. The first time the audience meets Vantine (an incredibly gorgeous Jean Harlow) she's attempting to kick a drunk fat man out of her bed. Not only is Harlow dressed in a very daring negligee, she's announcing to the men in her room and the audience that she might be a harlot, but she has her standards.

The first significant interaction between Harlow and Gable happens over a discussion of cheese. Gable hasn't given his new house guest a second glance, "I've been looking at her kind ever since my voice changed." He's already made up his mind about her and isn't interested in the same old type of girl. Harlow doesn't give up, however. She's absolutely charming, countering Gable's gruff attitude with sass and wit, telling him all about Gorgonzola and Roquefort cheese. By the end of the scene, Gable's pulling her into his lap for a kiss and the shot fades out. Oh, and by the way, Harlow is in nothing but a satin robe this whole time.Once the steam boat is fixed, Gable calls Harlow a "cute little trick",  shoves cash down her cleavage, pats her on the bottom and sends her on her way.

If Pre-Codes were known for their sharp prostitutes, they were also made popular by another type of shocking female: the cheating wife. In walks Mary Astor, wife of Clark Gable's new plantation worker, and the third point of this provocative triangle. Astor's character isn't what you would expect. She's tough, strong and stands up for both herself and her weakling husband. After all, it's only after she slaps Gable across the face that he begins to see her feminine potential.

Cheating wives are often times portrayed as either morally weak or simply bored with their current life/spouse. This isn't the case with most Pre-Code straying wives. Norma Shearer  made famous the wife who evens the playing field with an adulterous husband, other character types were wives who "sold the goods" to pay the bills while husband were out of work, or the wife who discovers a wild life outside her sheltered four walls. Astor was the wife who fell for a new kind of man. The kind of "barbarian" man that Tarzan made famous. And while Gable wasn't exactly walking around in a loin cloth, he wasn't a charismatic smooth talker either. He was all Alpha and poor Astor never stood a chance.

After Gable has made up his mind to go for the married goods, the unthinkable happens... Harlow walks back through the door. The boat broke down again. All of a sudden Gable is sandwiched between two very different types of women, and two very different types of life style. Astor being everything he's always wanted but never had and Harlow encompassing the wild world he's always known. Like any good Pre-Code man, Gable reaches for the forbidden fruit and feels no shame. He sends Astor's husband on a traveling trip through the monsoons rains and keeps the lonely wife all for himself.

My favorite part through all of this drama is how the women interact. They both know what the other is up to but never resort to pulling each other's hair out. They simply live and let live. Harlow doesn't like sharing her man, but she doesn't fight for him either. She understands instead why Astor can't resist the temptation and tries to offer up cautious advice at the beginning of the affair. Astor in turn knows that Harlow is a prostitute but chooses to ignore both the words of wisdom as well as Harlow's given profession.

The whole film is rather sexy. Harlow walks around most of the picture in varying degrees of undress, Gable first kisses Astor while both are dripping wet and the three of them are all stuck inside one hot little house during weeks of pouring rain. It leaves very little to the imagination. It all comes to a head when Gable takes the "noble" route and decides against pursuing Astor any further. Instead he decides to brutally make out with Harlow on the kitchen table. Astor walks in and has her pride snapped in two. What else is left for a jilted adulterous woman to do but pull a gun and shoot her betraying lover?

But no worries, Harlow shoves a sterile (dubiously sterile) rod through the bullet hole and saves Gable's life. Prostitute to the rescue! This is yet another scene that would never have made it past the code. The audience sees Harlow push the rod through Gable and out the other end. It isn't a quick and clean scene. Gable is sweating and grimacing and Harlow is shaky and all nerves. The code office would have deemed this as violent and vulgar. They would have ordered it to be cut out.

I love when a movie has a happy ending... and this one definitely ends on a cheerful note. Astor and her husband leave for America (him thinking his wife a hero for denying the advances of a lecherous plantation owner... little does he know, poor guy) and Harlow reading Gable a bed time story about a rabbit going "hippity hop  hippity hop" before giving into his flirtatious fingers. After the enforcement of the code, this ending would never have happened. Under the code, every act of "sin" had to be punished accordingly so none of these characters would have gotten away with anything. The fact that this movie allows for flaws in human nature is part of it's appeal. As you watch it, you want it to end exactly the way it does... happily with each couple going their separate ways.

Pre-Codes are so great because they allowed women to embrace new levels of sexuality and feminism. This is the only time in film history where females were the ones who ruled the box office. To this day, it is rare that a woman can carry the full weight of a movie (unless your Jennifer Lawrence and even then it's not a sure bet). These actresses played characters that weren't tied to typical boxed stereotypes but instead reveled in what it mean to be a powerful woman living in a man's world. They played raw, unapologetic, fierce characters that were fully capable of taking their lives into their own hands... And none did it better than Mary Astor and Jean Harlow in Red Dust.

I promise more Pre-Code fun in the future... I won't be able to resist!

No comments:

Post a Comment