13 November 2022

For Lord's Sake, don't let those bulbs stick out

In July 1934, Joseph Breen and his Production Code Administration (PCA) started to strictly enforce the Motion Picture Production Code, Hollywood's own set of censorship rules that was adopted in 1930 (aka the Hays Code). Up till then PCA's predecessor, the Studio Relations Committee (SRC), had been tasked with implementing the Code. The SRC had no authority, however, to censor content or order studios to remove content; all they could do was advise studios on how to change the scripts in order to meet the Code's requirements. As the SRC only had an advisory capacity and no penalties were given for violating the Code, studios often ignored the SRC's suggestions. This did not mean, however, that pre-Code films (made between 1930 and mid-1934) went uncensored. City and state censorship boards could order studios to cut films or they could even ban films from playing in cinemas. With the costs for cutting films being paid by the studios, a major concern for studio executives was the fact that each censorship board had different rules, so what was allowed in one state/city could be forbidden in another. This often meant making different cuts of the same film, costing studios large amounts of money. (By giving studios advice, the SRC tried to save them from making these costly cuts and to help them get their films past the censors. Nevertheless, as said, the SRC's advice was frequently ignored.) 

Adolphe Menjou flanked by Joan Blondell (l) and Mary Astor in a publicity still for Convention City.

Of all the major studios Warner Bros. was the most recalcitrant when it came to following the Code. Joseph Breen hated the pre-Code Warner films and called them "the lowest bunch we have". Nevertheless, at times the studio had to give in to the censors, for example with Baby Face (1933), which was initially rejected by the New York State Censorship Board; only after Warners made the changes that had been demanded by the New York censors —financially NYC was too important a market to lose— the film got accepted. 

Here are two memos, showing two slightly nervous Warner Bros. executives, worrying about the censors. The first memo was sent by studio boss Jack Warner to producer Hal Wallis regarding Convention City and the second is from Wallis to director Michael Curtiz re: Mandalay, the latter film released just before the enforcement of the Code. 

DATE: October 5, 1933
SUBJECT: "Convention City"

TO: Mr. Wallis
FROM: Mr. Warner

We must put brassieres on Joan Blondell and make her cover up her breasts because, otherwise, we are going to have these pictures stopped in a lot of places. I believe in showing their forms but, for Lord's sake, don't let those bulbs stick out. I'm referring to her gown in Convention City.

J.L. Warner

[*More about Convention City, see the note at the bottom of this post.]




DATE: October 21, 1933
SUBJECT: "Mandalay" 
TO: Curtiz
FROM: Hal Wallis

I am just looking at your dailies ...

Generally your stuff is beautiful and I don't want to start limiting you and restricting you ...

However, when you show Kay Francis in the bathtub with [Ricardo] Cortez in the shot and a close-up of Kay Francis in the tub and show her stepping out of the tub and going into Cortez's arms, then you get me to the point where I am going to have to tell you to stick to the script and not to do anything else. For God's sake, Mike, you have been making pictures long enough to know that it is impossible to show a man and a woman who are not married in a scene of this kind. The situation itself is censorable enough with Cortez and Francis living [together] ...

Hal Wallis 

Source: Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951) (1985), selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer.  

Above: The scene (as described in the memo) was changed, with Cortez now leaning in through an open hatchway and kissing Francis (out of the bath and wrapped in a towel) through the hatchway, with the final shot of Francis' bare legs and the towel landed on the floor. While the scene was still risky, it got accepted.  However, when Warners applied for a certificate of approval to re-issue Mandalay in 1936, the application was denied. Below: Kay Francis fabulously dressed by Orry-Kelly in a scene from Mandalay.

Convention City
, directed by Archie Mayo and starring Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Mary Astor, Guy Kibbee and Adolphe Menjou, is considered a lost film. When it was released in 1933, the film was successful at the box-office but, due to its racy content, was taken out of circulation once the Code was enforced. The story of the film revolves around the convention of the Honeywell Rubber Company in Atlantic City, with the company's employees being mostly preoccupied with booze and sex. In 1936, Warner Bros. tried to re-release the film but PCA's Joseph Breen considered it beyond redemption and rejected the studio's request for a seal of approval. Subsequently, studio boss Jack Warner reportedly ordered the prints and negatives of the film to be destroyed. According to this interesting article by Ron Hutchinson of The Vitaphone Project, however, not all prints were destroyed and prints of the film were shown as late as WWII. Hutchinson seems convinced a print still exists but "we just have to find it!". At any rate, until that happens (if it ever will happen), Convention City remains one of the more coveted lost Hollywood films. Leading lady Joan Blondell once said about it: "That is the raunchiest thing there has ever been. We had so many hysterically dirty things in it ..." (Incidentally, the original screenplay of the film still exists and can be found in the Warner Bros. script archives.)

Dick Powell, Joan Blondell and Guy Kibbee in Convention City

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