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FOX BEFORE THE CODE: The Film Forum Brings Back The Thirties

Saturday, December 9-----Cinema of the early part of the twentieth century existed on two sides of a divide. Silent or sound. Pre-Code and Code. The sexual frankness, moral corruption and sometimes kitchy melodrama of the early sound films of the 1930s have become a kind of treasure of American cinema. The Film Forum, New York's stellar arthouse complex, is currently presenting some of these tawdry treasures in their December film series, FOX BEFORE THE CODE. The FOX, of course, is Twentieth Century Fox. This is not to be missed.

The Code in question was the Hays Code, the self-imposed by-laws of what could and could not be shown on screen. Films from the late silent period (to 1929) and particularly the early sound films of the 1930s pushed the envelope regarding sexual content, violence and general perversity. Mae West reigned and sex was in the air.

When conservative groups began to complain, the industry adapted its own code, hiring the former Postmaster General Will Hays to run this office. From about 1934, strict rules and certain outright bans of topics such as homosexuality, drug addiction or sexual perversity, were heavily enforced. All the studios, including Twentienth Century Fox, followed suit. To not receive a Hays Code stamp on your film was to make it almost unreleasable.

Clara Bow in CALL HER SAVAGE

However, the years before 1934, were a time of wild experimentation. Sound had come in as a result of the phenomenal success of THE JAZZ SINGER (1927). By 1929, there were no silent films being made. Hollywood was undergoing a major shift. |The public demanded talkies, and that was that for three decades of silent cinema.

Aside from technological epxerimentation, the early sound era also saw the expansion of what could be seen on the screen: extramarital affairs, sexual lust, violence, social climbing, drug addiction, homoeroticism and all manners of corruption of the body and the soul. Although these early sound films can sometimes be rather crude, they offer a fascinatingly adult and often cynical world view. In their own way, they reflect their own hard times....the low point of the Depression. And yet, these films still seem quite alive, offering a realistic (if melodramatic) view of human behavior that resonates almost 70 years later.

Included in the series is a mini-retrospective of the early film roles of Spencer Tracy. Drawn to Hollywood from Broadway in 1930 (like many actors of his generation), Tracy did not have the persona he later developed of the taciturn yet tender patriarch. In these early films, he played a the gamut, from idealistic district attorneys to street wise gangsters and racketeers. He was often seen in a tuxedo (which he must have hated wearing) and his strong Irish face seemed to attract the ladies, particularly those in negligees or low-cut evening gowns.

Spencer Tracy in ME AND MY GAL

The FOX BEFORE THE CODE series is a rare opportunity to discover these often unacknowledged film gems, which feature well known actors in their early careers or the era's Broadway stars, imported for their name and their ability to speak in early sound pictures. In a very interesting way, these early films owe more of a debt to the Broadway stage than to the expansive nature of silent film. Most are set in enclosed sets and have a lot of talking (sound was still new then). So, as an added frisson of interest, these films are also a reflection of the Broadway theater of their time, and the first mixing of the two Coasts in terms of talent and adaptable material.

The Film Forum is located on West Houston Street in the West Village of New York City. For scheduling information, film descriptions and online ticketing, visit the official website of the Film Forum: www.filmforum.com.


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Sandy Mandelberger
Film New York Editor

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Mandelberger Sandy
(International Media Resources)

The Ultimate Guide to the New York Film, Video and New Media Scene.

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