Variety referred to Joseph I. Breen’s process of self-regulation as “breening” or “joebreening,” since the PCA relied heavily on his judgment and discernment regarding films. Starting today, Thursday is going to be “Breening Thursday” on PEPS; every week, I will post an article in which I will “breen” a pre-Code or Shurlock era film. For my first article, I am going to Breen a pre-Code film, Night World, from 1932; essentially, this means that I am going to make a list of the things that I think Mr. Breen would have required to have been changed to receive a seal. I’ll go through this film from the beginning to the end, listing every objectionable point and how it could be fixed. If you have never seen this movie, watch it here at Youtube now; it is not even an hour long: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2AeOBuaKxts&t=3445s. When you have finished, join me in my process of breening.
The film opens with a montage of clips and shots depicting New York’s night world. This montage contains some objectionable elements which would need to be eliminated.
Firstly, a woman who seems to be a woman of ill repute is seen standing on a corner, giving a man the eye. Secondly, a woman is shown pulling a garter onto her leg. Thirdly, a man is shown removing a garter from the corner of a frame containing a woman’s picture, to which he blows a kiss while putting the garter in his pocket. Fourthly, a tough-looking man whom I believe to be a gangster plies a very drunken woman with liquor from a flask. Fifthly, a woman pushes a champagne bottle to her date under the table with her foot; such shots which focus on a woman’s legs should be avoided.
Finally, a clip from the questionable dance which is featured later in the film is seen here, but we will discuss that in detail when we come to it.
These six objectionable elements could be replaced by other acceptable shots, leaving the montage a view of New York’s night life which is still very real but no longer risque.
Once the actual film has begun, the first objectionable elements occur after the audience has actually entered Happy’s Club, where the entire film takes place.
Since this action-packed movie is just under an hour long, it wastes no time in introducing the characters and thrusting the viewer right into the middle of the plot. Every part of the club is quickly presented. First, we see the main room for customers, where several couples are dancing. Many scenarios, situations, and relationships are depicted and stereotyped in this film, and they start on the dance floor. One of the couples dancing is composed of a very old man and a very young, beautiful blonde. During the brief shot of them, the girl says, “A new Paris model, only 300 dollars. Can you imagine that, Daddy darling?” To this he replies, “You can have anything you want, sweetums.” As it stands, this dialogue implies that he is her sugar daddy, an arrangement which is rarely respectable. If the word daddy were eliminated, the situation would seem less suggestive; they could even be married. Another couple contains a middle-aged man dancing with a younger, voluptuous brunette. As they are dancing, one of her straps falls off her shoulder. This doesn’t really alter the height of her neckline, which is already too loose and too low. Pulling it back onto her shoulder, she asks, “Does that annoy you the way it does me?” He replies, “Oh, no. Not at all.” This entire exchange should be removed. The couple might remain if new, suitable dialogue was written for them and her neckline was fixed.
No further objectionable points are present until Mr. and Mrs. Brice, inconsequential guests of the club, first appear. Happy MacDonald, the owner of the club, visits them at their table, where Mr. Brice inquires about his wife attending the club with her cousin during his absence. Behind his back, his wife motions to Happy that she wasn’t there. She obviously is having an affair with this man whom she calls her cousin, since she is later seen kissing him in a car. Because there already is an incident of an unfaithful wife in this film, the Brices should be eliminated entirely; it would be simple, since they are only in two scenes and do not effect the plot in any way. With the Brice scenario, one gets the impression that all wives are discontent and unfaithful; this is forbidden under the Code. Infidelity may occur, but it must not seem usual or justified.
Backstage, Ed Powell, a philandering gambler, asks Mrs. Mac, the club-owner’s wife, if he can see Ruth Taylor, a pretty little chorus girl. He asks, “Can I see Ruth, or is she dressing?” Mrs. Mac suggestively replies, “As if that’d stop you,” before calling Ruth. This should be changed so that it loses its suggestive quality about his bad intentions. Ed should simply say, “Can I see Ruth now?” and Mrs. Mac should reply, “I’ll call her,” or something to that effect.
When Ruth talks to Ed Powell outside the dressing room, she is wearing the dancing costume which all the girls wear during the big dance number, “Who’s Your Little Who-Zis?” These costumes are sorely in need of breening. To be acceptable, numerous changes would have to be made.
Firstly, the costumes’ necklines plunge in the front; even though there are skin-colored inserts, they imply that the necklines are shockingly low. The actual necklines must be raised above the level of the insert and made to completely cover the wearers’ chests. Secondly, attached to the bottom of the costumes are garter clips which are partially covered by material decorations. Stockings must be held up by something, but garters and garter tabs are too provocative to be shown; they are intimate parts of women’s clothing. The shorts should be lengthened to cover the garter tabs, or, better yet, little skirts should be added. Thirdly, the costumes cut too far in on the side of the chest under the arm, revealing the wearers’ chests indecently; this is especially immodest on the more voluptuous girls. The material should be brought father out on the side to ensure proper coverage of the girls’ figures. Fourthly, the costumes are so low in the back, they are almost backless; they should be raised a few inches.
Finally, since these costumes are worn during a very active dance, the girls’ chests must be supported more than they are in the present costumes to make them completely decent.
The “Who’s Your Little Who-Zis?” dance is an elaborate sequence choreographed by Busby Berkley. The six minute sequence propels the story forward through use of dialogue between chorus girls and patrons. It also contains some very suggestive and risque movements, footage, and dialogue. Really, the dance needs to be re-choreographed to be seal worthy, but I will list my main points of objection. In his pre-Code days, Mr. Berkeley, who would later be noted for his grand overhead shots, was noted for his through-the-leg shots. He uses this techniques in excess during this dance.
All movements, steps, and shots which are specifically focused on the dancers’ legs must be removed. One of the most objectionable elements is Papa Goldberg, a dirty old man who pretends to tie his shoelace so he can get a good look through the chorus girls’ legs.
Berkeley films through his perspective, taking full advantage of the situation. Madge, one of the chorus girls, says, “there goes Papa Goldberg again,” and another one, Maisie, replies, “Yeah. The more he comes here, the lower he gets.” Papa Goldberg and the lines about him should be eliminated. Mr. Berkeley uses his future style to shoot the girls sitting on the floor from above; they move their legs simultaneously, creating a kaleidoscope effect which is more bizarre than risque.
This and a brief sequence shot from below where the girls repeatedly lean forward then kick their legs up might just as well be removed, since they are unrealistic; these shots are obviously for the screen audience, since the viewers in the club couldn’t even see them.
One step where the girls slap each other’s rear ends should be removed, as should the step in which the camera focuses on the girls patting their hands up their legs.
When one dancer stands in front of the rest, shaking her limbs and torso, it is extremely suggestive and unacceptable. The only element outside the dance besides Papa Goldberg which should be removed is the young, bookish man with glasses who clasps his knees in delight while watching the suggestive dance; he is only seen for a few seconds and has no bearing on the plot, so his removal would be no loss.
After the dance ends, Michael Rand, a drunken socialite, rises from his booth, stumbles, and is assisted to the men’s room by a waiter. From his expression, it is implied that he is going to be ill. This is comedie de digestion, which is forbidden under Section III of the Code, Vulgarity. This is the beginning of the bathroom sequence, a series of completely inconsequential events which simply reek of the pre-Code years.
There is a pansy flavor with a man from Syracuse, some shocking shots of voluptuous women dancing around the ladies’ room wearing very low necklines, and a drunken man from Schenectady who goes into the ladies’ room. The whole sequence, beginning with Michael’s departure and ending with the drunk asking to borrow another man’s powder puff, should be eliminated. It might be replaced with a new sequence that features no forbidden elements.
Later, Mrs. Mac addresses her husband and accuses him of being interested in the chorus girls, saying “Every woman that wiggles her curves through here has you screwy.” That is a little suggestive; she should say, “Every woman who dances through here has you screwy,” or something like that.
After this, the chorus girls’ dressing room is shown. As in many pre-Code films, this is used as an opportunity to show the girls in less than full costumes. It should be ensured in this scene that there are no extensive leg shots and that all girls are at least wearing slips or camisoles with attached drawers.
Klauss, the choreographer, enters the dressing room to tell the dancers that they must rehearse after the show. He enters without knocking, and some girls who are not fully dressed quickly cover themselves. It would seem more proper if he knocked before walking right in.
After he exits the dressing room, he meets Mrs. Mac in the corridor. It is implied that they are having an affair. She gets a naughty look, seeing that no one is around, and leads Klauss into her husband’s office. She pushes him against the wall and kisses him very forcefully before the door closes. Her husband approaches the door almost immediately after, not knowing that they are inside. A guest addresses him right before he opens the door. After he turns to talk to the customer, his guilty wife and the nervous choreographer escape the room. I think the door should close before she kisses him because I find that kiss to be rather excessive and lustful; particular care is needed because she is a married woman. Perhaps Klauss should discreetly wipe his lips with his handkerchief after he exits the office to imply their occupation.
Soon after this, Edith Blaire, a friend of Michael’s deceased father, consoles him. When trying to convince him that his mother made his father miserable, she says, “She didn’t tell you what a hell she made of his life while you were away at college.” This isn’t pointed profanity, but I think it is best to avoid that word altogether. It was used too much in the pre-Code years. I think her new line should be, “She didn’t tell you how unbearable she made his life while you were away at college.” The words miserable, torturous, and any of their synonyms could be used here, as well.
After Happy punches Michael, who “got the jitters,” Ruth is looking after the unfortunate, unconscious youth, with whom she is infatuated.
Tim, the black doorman who is a “philosophizer,” comes into the office to use the telephone.
He talks to Ruth and gives his philosophy that “the wrong people always likes the wrong people.” While making a list of who likes whom, he says to Ruth, “Mr. Happy and the gambler Ed Powell, they likes you.” Earlier, Mrs. Mac accused her husband of giving “that Taylor dame a lot of attention.” This could just be simple jealousy, but Tim’s line confirms the idea that Happy has dishonorable interest in Ruth. It is one thing to have the single implication of infidelity with Mrs. Mac, but more than that is too much. The line should simply be, “The gambler Ed Powell, he likes you.”
After Happy’s Club is closed for the night, the chorus girls are rehearsing. Naturally, they are wearing practice outfits which are fraught with problems. A general revision would include ensuring that no costume is too tight, that all skirts and shorts are long enough, and that the girls’ chests are properly supported and covered. During this rehearsal, they are practicing the “Who’s Your Little Who-Zis?” dance. The only objectionable part of the dance which is practiced is the step where the girls hit each other’s rear ends. This should be changed as it is in the actual dance.
The final point to be changed is in Ruth’s dialogue with Michael when they are discussing tropical islands. She says, “You know, where all you wear is a smile, and monkeys drop coconuts right in your lap.” She says this very wholesomely, but the line does have a rather risque implication. It should be changed to something like, “You know, where you smile all day long, etc.”
Having breened Night World in every aspect from start to finish, it has not been changed very much, since it is essentially a relatively clean film. The actual synopsis is acceptable under the Code; only the subplots and inconsequential side elements are objectionable. Thus, it is not hard to remove these without changing the story. Night World would not have been a worse film if it had been self-regulated by Joseph Breen, but it could have been a much more wholesome one.
Be sure to visit the PEPS website next week to read my second Breening Thursday article, in which I will breen a Shurlock era film. If there is a pre-Code or Shurlock era film you would like me to breen in the future, please make the suggestion in the comment section. I encourage your input! I hope you enjoyed my attempt to imitate the Great Self-Regulator’s formula. Come back next week!
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Michael Rand: A sensitive young socialite who is on a jag because his mother killed his father; played by Lew Ayres.
Ruth Taylor: A sympathetic chorus girl who befriends Michael, a handsome young man whom she likes and wants to help; played by Mae Clarke.
Happy MacDonald: The owner of the club where the events in the film take place; played by Boris Karloff.
Ed Powell: A gambler who has an eye for Ruth, “doesn’t believe in taking no for an answer,” and “never gives anybody an even break;” played by George Raft.
Mrs. MacDonald: Happy’s cold wife who dislikes everybody, including her husband, except Klaus; played by Dorothy Revier.
Klauss: The sniveling choreographer at Happy’s Club who is having an affair with the boss’s wife; played by Russell Hopton.
Edith Blaire: Michael’s late father’s friend, a kind young woman who was accused of having an affair with Mr. Rand but was just his sympathetic friend; played by Dorothy Peterson.
Tim Washington: The kind, wise black doorman who is a “philosophizer” and everybody’s friend; played by Clarence Muse.
Mrs. Rand: Michael’s heartless mother who never loved him or his father, whom she killed when she found him in another woman’s apartment; played by Hedda Hopper.
Man from Schenectady: A drunk attending Happy’s Club who is trying to find someone from Schenectady; played by Bert Roach.