Today is Thursday, so it is time for another Breening Thursday article. Since today is May 30, this will be the last article in the series which I publish this month. We have been breening a lot of Shurlock Era films recently. I think that it has been too long since I breened a pre-Code film. The last pre-Code film I breened was Baby Face from 1933 on April 4, which was suggested by Paul Batters of Silver Screen Classics after he participated in What the Code Means to Me. It is very important to study the Code-violations in Shurlock Era films to see how the Code was being neglected under Geoffrey Shurlock’s administration. However, just as much can be gained from studying the movies which were made before the Production Code Administration was formed in July of 1934 to properly enforce the Code. Pre-Code films help us appreciate the Breen Era, since they remind us just how risqué and unacceptable early 1930s films were.
My topic for today is We’re Not Dressing from 1934, a Paramount musical with Bing Crosby, Carole Lombard, George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Ethel Merman. Released in the United States on April 27 of 1934, this was a very late pre-Code film. Just three months later, Joseph I. Breen as head of the Production Code Administration would be ensuring that no more nonsense was allowed in movies. However, when this movie was made, Mr. Breen was just the head of the Studio Relations Committee, which had no power to demand that changes were made. Thus, the filmmakers were getting away with murder! Let’s examine this comedy about socialites, researchers, a sailor, and a bear caught on a desert island to see what filmmakers did when they could run wild. (We’ve been having a lot of island movies in this series recently, since last week’s topic was South Pacific!) With no further ado, let the breening begin!
The first problem with this film can be discerned even before the screen flickers to life. The title We’re Not Dressing has risqué connotations. It is clearly a double entendre. On the surface, it is referring to the fact that the movie is about a ship. People didn’t “dress” the first night out on a cruise ship, meaning they wore casual clothes. Since these voyagers are shipwrecked on an island, they can’t “dress” for most of the movie. However, the film’s title implies that people don’t clothe themselves at all. The title is unfortunately apt when one considers how poorly Carole Lombard is covered for most of the movie. Instead, it could be called something like “Shipwrecked with Love,” or it could be named after one of the songs, such as “Love Thy Neighbor.”
When the movie begins, we see many sailors on the deck of a private yacht, the Doris. They are singing as they go about their work. Their song is “Sailor’s Chanty,” also known as “It’s a Lie.” One of the sailors sings the lyric, “I been a sailing man since BC.” “BC?” another sailor asks. The first sailor replies, “Yeah, BC. Before ‘Come up and see me sometime.'” This is an obvious reference to Mae West’s risqué and iconic line. This was obviously included because Paramount wanted to plug Miss West, one of its biggest stars. The inclusion of Mae West’s suggestive line is unacceptable. That phrase should be replaced with, “Before ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.'” That is the name of a popular 1931 song which epitomized the Great Depression and which Bing Crosby famously recorded.
We soon see the passengers on the boat, the idle rich. They include the owner, the bored Doris Worthington (Carole Lombard), her tippling uncle, Hubert (Leon Errol), her friend and Hubert’s casual fiancée, Edith (Ethel Merman), and the two penniless prince brothers who are both vying for Doris’s hand, Michael (Ray Milland) and Alexander (Jay Henry). At first glance, Edith’s black evening gown has an acceptably high neckline. However, closer inspection reveals that the front of her dress has a panel of transparent black material. The top of her dress’s opaque section cuts very low, revealing her chest. The neckline should be solid all the way up to its transparent level. Also, the straps on the dress are so loose that they give the appearance that the dress is falling off. They should be tighter.
In the ship’s saloon, Edith and Hubert sing a comical song, “It’s Just a New Spanish Custom.” During this song, Hubert tickles Edith on her stomach. The action of a man touching a lady’s torso is suggestive. This should be removed.
Later, Edith observes Doris watching a sailor sing. Edith remarks that Doris always watches this particular sailor, Stephen Jones (Bing Crosby). Edith says, “Why don’t you tell him to come up and take him apart?” The italicized part of this line suggests the seduction of a man in the servant class, which is unacceptable. It should be replaced with “meet you.”
In this opening scene, the wealthy passengers drink a lot. Hubert is intoxicated for most of the scene, and the two women drink highballs very casually. This gives the impression that drinking is a very smart and refined thing to do. The casual and excessive depiction of alcohol in films in the 1930s was very disturbing to many Americans, especially drinking among women. It must be remembered that Prohibition was only repealed in late 1933. It wasn’t finalized until December 5, 1934, so when this film was released, it was still illegal to buy alcohol. Hubert may drink, but no focus should be put on the women’s drinking.
In this first scene, Carole Lombard smokes very pointedly as she watches Bing Crosby sing. Smoking among women was also quite taboo at this point. Although the Code did not ban it, it curtailed female tobacco use. The manner in which she is smoking adds to the pre-Code woman mentality. If she smokes in this first scene, it should be for a limited time.
When Doris removes her wrap, we get a good view of her evening dress. It is extremely revealing. The neckline is very low and loose, the back is completely bare, and she is clearly wearing no undergarment underneath it. When she is shown from the side, the cut of the dress reveals the side of her chest. This gown leaves no secrets about Miss Lombard’s anatomy! A new top should be designed for this dress, one which covers her chest and her lower back properly. Also, she must wear proper undergarments underneath it so that her figure cannot be plainly seen through the flimsy material.
After his encounter with Doris, Stephen must give her pet bear, Droopy, some exercise. He starts to walk her around the deck. However, at the suggestion of the drunken Hubert, he puts her on roller skates. The out-of-control bear knocks down several of the passengers. After he has caught Droopy, Stephen asks if anyone got hurt. Edith replies, “I did,” suggestively adding, “but not where it shows.” This line should be eliminated.
Envious of Doris’s attention from the two princes, Edith asks Hubert to buy her a prince. Hubert asks her what she’ll do with “it.” She says that she’ll marry “it.” Hubert says that he is hurt, since he thought that they were engaged. Edith replies that she will be happy to marry him, but first she wants a prince. She’ll marry him and then divorce him after she’s a princess so that she can marry Hubert. This flippant discussion of marriage, divorce, and purchasing princes shows a very disrespectful attitude toward matrimony. This casual depiction of marriage was extremely common in pre-Code films, but it is very dangerous. This exchange should be cut out.
When Hubert bumbles into the steering room, he reeks such havoc that he manages to crash the ship on a reef in a matter of moments. As the ship is sinking, everyone scrambles to put on a life preserver and dive overboard. Hubert and Edith end up on a deck bicycle, taking turns peddling their way through the Pacific Ocean. When we first see them, Hubert is sitting on the handlebars as Edith peddles. She tells him he has to keep his chin up. In reply, Hubert complains, “My chin is fine. The trouble is with my chassis.” The italicized word is referring to his posterior, which is unacceptable. The line should be removed.
Doris runs across Stephen and Droopy in the water. They manage to reach an island together. Once she comes out of the surf, we see that Doris is wearing a flimsy robe, which is now soaking wet and clinging to her. She was trying to dress as the ship sank, but she was hit on the head by a falling beam before she could put on proper clothes. However, it is unacceptable for her to be running around the island in a damp robe for half of the movie. Instead of a robe, she should wear a decent boudoir outfit with pants and a covering top, such as Edith is wearing. It should be thick enough that it doesn’t cling indecently to her when she is wet.
Doris complains that she can’t stay in her wet clothes any longer, so she goes behind a rock to undress. We see her taking off her robe not quite behind the rock. Then, we see the upper part of her torso, and she is just wearing her brassiere. She casually rings out her panties and spreads them out on the sunny rock to dry. She soon comes out again in her robe, presumably without her lingerie. It is obvious that she is not wearing her undergarments, since her figure is quite unsupported beneath the flimsy robe. The whole situation with the removal of the lingerie was clearly added just to expose Miss Lombard’s person and intimate underpinnings. It is unacceptable for a brassiere and panties to be shown, either on or off an actress. Instead, she should be wearing a wrapper over her boudoir outfit. She could complain that the wet fabric is bothering her and put that on the rock to dry. That would be fine as long as her outfit is totally covering without the wrapper.
Hubert and Edith soon ride ashore on their bicycle. Edith falls off the bike, but Hubert crashes it into a palm tree. A coconut falls on his head, and he says, “Nuts!” This is a forbidden expression. It should be eliminated.
When a strong wind comes up, Doris’s lingerie blows away. Instead, her wrapper should blow away. Like the journey of the underthings, this flying garment could lead us to George and Gracie Martin (George Burns and Gracie Allen), married scientists who are researching flora and fauna on the other side of the island. In the existing film, Doris’s panties land at Gracie’s feet. Noticing them, George tells his wife that she lost something. Since they aren’t hers, Gracie assumes that George bought the panties for her and thanks him. Instead, he could notice the wrapper lying on the ground and assume that it is his wife’s. That would lead into the forthcoming dialogue just as well.
George Martin is wearing safari-like attire with a short sleeve shirt and shorts. His khaki shorts reach his thighs, making them the length of a man’s average undershorts in the 1930s. Too much of his legs are exposed. His shorts should reach his knees.
On the island, Doris, Hubert, Edith, and the princes try to fend for themselves as Stephen sings cheerfully while he works. As they are working, Hubert hands a coconut to one of the princes and says, “And coconuts to you!” This is obviously a play on the forbidden expression “Nuts to you.” The line should be removed.
The socialites build a flimsy shelter out of palm fronds and branches. As they are completing it, Edith and Hubert sing a brief song called “Let’s Play House.” The concept of this song and the expression “play house” are suggestive. Instead, they should sing another verse of “Love Thy Neighbor,” which Stephen was singing in the same scene.
During this brief song, Hubert slaps Edith on her posterior with the back of his hand. He acts like it was accidental. Whether it was or not, it is unacceptable for a man to touch a woman’s posterior. This action should be removed.
After the song ends, the twosome goes into the little hut together. Immediately, the shelter falls down around them. The way they go into the dwelling together is fairly risqué. Instead, Hubert should go into the structure alone.
In this scene, Edith wears a boudoir outfit. As I mentioned earlier, she is well covered by this. However, she doesn’t seem to be wearing an undergarment beneath it. She should be properly supported at all times.
Eventually, Edith and Hubert give up and dig clams so that they can share Stephen’s food. Edith very delicately taps on a clam with a rock, and Hubert tells her to hit it hard. Edith says, “I was only trying to act like a lady.” Hubert replies, “Why, with all your talents?” This line is very suggestive. It must be deleted, but Edith’s line can remain.
Eventually, the socialites realize that they can’t fend for themselves, so they join forces with Stephen and go to work. The next morning, we see Doris waking up. She is lying in the structure which Stephen built, along with Edith, Hubert, Alexander, Michael, and presumable Stephen as well before he got up to go fishing. It is indecent that the men and the women are lying so close together on the ground. Although it is primarily because there is only one shelter, it is inappropriate that they are lying so near each other. The women should be far to the left, and the men should be far to the right with considerable space between them.
Thankfully, Doris soon gets a new outfit. Her new garment, a black jumpsuit, is much more decent. However, she doesn’t appear to be wearing an undergarment underneath it, perhaps because she has been unable to procure a new one since hers blew away. She should be wearing proper lingerie at all times.
Later, Doris and Stephen sit on the shore beneath the full moon. While he is interested in making a diagram for water transportation, she is interested in spooning. She tells him that their being stranded on this island together is like the play The Admirable Crichton, which, ironically, was the basis of this movie. She says that the butler who is shipwrecked with his female employer in that play is bare-chested, wearing only animal skins. She flirtatiously asks, “Am I going to get to see your chest, sailor?” It is inappropriate for a woman to express a desire to see a man in less than full-clothing. The whole exchange about the butler’s and Stephen’s chests should be removed.
Later in that scene, Stephen discovers that Doris has known for some time that they aren’t alone on the island. When he realizes that she planted the new clothes and tools for him to find, he thinks that she has been making fun of him. He grabs her and drags her brutally through the jungle. He eventually drags her toward the hut he built. She says, “I suppose that you’re taking me to a fate worse than death.” He replies, “How do you know it’s worse than death? Have you ever died?” He proceeds to drag her to the hut and chain her to one of its posts. He tells her that they are just like Adam and Eve. Tomorrow she’s going to go back to her people. “But tonight you’re mine.” His threatening attitude suggests that he is going to force her, which is what he means to suggest. Then, he tells her to “always remember the man who could’ve… Well, he didn’t.” The unspoken verb of what he could have done hangs heavily in the air as he leaves her chained there and walks away. As she is unchaining herself, her friends rush up. “Are we in time?” one of the princes asks. “Yes, you’re in time,” she grumpily replies. This whole situation is very suggestive. To imply that a film’s sympathetic leading man would even consider forcing a woman or would make her think that he is contemplating it is highly unacceptable. If he drags her through the jungle, there must not be an amorous implication. He should just seem angry, but he shouldn’t be too rough with her. The lines about a fate worse than death should be removed. As he chains her up, Stephen must not talk about Adam and Eve or anything romantic. He should just say that she needs to be taught a lesson. His lines could be something like the following: “You’ve always done just what you want when you want. You go wherever you want to whenever you please. You kept me hear on this island when you knew full well that we weren’t shipwrecked here all alone. Let’s see how well you like being stuck somewhere!” Then he could leave her chained up. Instead of asking if they are in time, one of the princes should ask what happened as they run up. She could grumpily reply, “Nothing.”
That concludes my breening of this film! I must admit that my suggested changes leave the plot a little bare. Much of the humor, action, and dialogue is based on risqueity. Without that, what’s left? I think the biggest asset which the breened film still has is a great cast. With all that talent, a great film could have been made without risqueity. There is a lot of good music in this movie, but I would have liked to have seen more development of the romance between Stephen and Doris. They only have one scene together before the happy conclusion. Also, I would have liked to have seen a bigger transformation for Doris. She starts out as a grumpy, snobby, selfish heiress, and her personality remains essentially the same until the very end. I think it would have been good to have shown her learning the importance of work and developing real admiration for Stephen’s industrious nature earlier. That would have made their romance more convincing and more appealing. There is a good chance that plot enhancements along these lines would have been made voluntarily by the filmmakers if this movie had been breened. When risqueity is removed, filmmakers have to cultivate a deeper plot. So many pre-Code films were trite and shallow wastes of their actors’ and directors’ talent because Hollywood thought it could make money on “ginger” alone. The rules of the Code made Hollywood plumb the depths of its craft.
What do you think of my breening suggestions? Was I too harsh on some points? Did I miss anything? If you want to watch the film to analyze my self-regulation, buy a copy from Amazon! See you tomorrow for Film Fashion Friday!
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