Breening Thursday #36: “21 Days” from 1940

Today is the fourth Thursday in August, so it is time for another article in our weekly series about how the Code could have effected un-Code movies, Breening Thursdays. Here at PEPS, we have declared this August #AMonthWithoutTheCode65 in recognition of the sixty-fifth anniversary of the end of the Breen Era in 1954. We observe this month by avoiding Code films, movies made in America between July of 1934 and 1954, throughout August. In addition, I am breening one movie from each un-Code film category this month. Since there are five Thursdays in August and five un-Code eras, silent, pre-Code, foreign, Shurlock, and Rating System Era, it works out very well.

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Mary Pickford is sad that we have breened so few silent films.

So far, I have breened a film from every un-Code time period except the silent era and the foreign era. We have breened significantly fewer films from these two eras than the other un-Code periods. This is because we have watched very few movies from these periods. However, these eras offer many breenable films, the breening of which can be very instructive. We hope to breen more silent and foreign films in the future.

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The Red Shoes (1948) is a British film with many indecent costumes which I considered for today’s topic.

I will begin our attempt to mend this situation by breening a foreign film today. Let’s start by reviewing what constitutes a film in this category. When determining which movies can be considered Code films, it is not enough to find films which were released within the Greater Breen Era (1934-1954). During this time, Hollywood was not the only film industry making English-language films. England also had a thriving film industry. However, it had a film review board rather than a Production Code for film decency. Between 1934 and 1968, no film could be distributed in the United States without a Production Code Administration Seal of Approval, and foreign films were no exception. British films which the PCA deemed reasonably acceptable were issued Seals of Approval for US distribution. Sometimes the PCA would require cuts before a Seal was given. As with pre-Code films which were re-released during the Breen Era, these movies could not be self-regulated. The scripts were not reviewed, and they weren’t carefully breened through every step of the filmmaking process to create a thoroughly wholesome and entertaining product. They could only be cut after they were made, more like censoring. For that reason, British films made during the Breen Era are not Code films. Even if they were distributed by an American company and display an MPPDA or MPAA Seal number in their opening credits, they do not maintain the Code’s high standards of decency and thus are breenable.

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The foreign film which I have chosen to breen today is 21 Days from 1940. This is a British film which was made by London Film Productions. This film stars Vivien Leigh, Lawrence Oliver, and Leslie Banks. The director was Basil Dean. This movie was filmed in 1937, but it wasn’t released until 1940, after Vivien Leigh was famous for Gone with the Wind. Columbia bought the film in 1939 and released it in America the next year. The original title in the United Kingdom was 21 Days, but in the United States it was released as 21 Days Together, a title by which it is often now known.

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Let’s start by giving an overview of the plot, shall we? Larry Durrant (Laurence Olivier) is a young Englishman who has just returned from Africa. His older brother, Keith (Leslie Banks), is a widely-respected lawyer who is set to become a judge, but Larry is an irresponsible young man who has been plagued by failure and bad luck. One good thing has happened to him recently, though. Since his return to London, he has met a lovely young lady, Wanda (Vivien Leigh). They are very much in love, despite the fact that neither has any money. One evening, as the young couple returns to her house after spending the evening together, Wanda’s husband, Henry Wallen (Esme Percy), surprises them with his presence. He is a Russian brute whom she hasn’t seen since right after their marriage, three years ago in Paris. The ruffian demands money from his wife, but she has none to give him. When Larry tries to defend her, the other man pulls out a knife. In the fight which ensues, Larry strangles Wallen in self-defense. He hides the body in a dark alley, but he knows that neither he nor Wanda can escape the knowledge of what happened. Following his brother’s advice, Larry doesn’t turn himself in, and another man is arrested for the crime. However, the young man knows that he can’t let an innocent man hang. He and Wanda decide to marry and enjoy the twenty-one days before the trial together, at which point he will turn himself in to save the other man. Will the sweethearts be given their chance at a lifetime of happiness together, or will they have to be content with just three weeks? With no further ado, let the breening begin!

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Esme Percy as Wallen.

The first Code-violation occurs in the scene when Larry and Wanda discover that her husband has dropped in to pay her a visit while she was out. The most important event in this scene is the fight, which culminates in Wallen’s death. This is an integral part of the plot, so I have no intention of eliminating or altering it. I have no reason to, since it isn’t murder but manslaughter in self-defense. However, the fight itself is unacceptably violent and prolonged. The main point of the fight which is unacceptable is the length of time when Larry is choking Wallen. He may strangle him, but the actual action should not receive so much direct focus, and it shouldn’t go on for so long.

Not knowing what to do with Wallen’s body, Larry props the corpse up in a dark archway not far from Wanda’s dwelling. As he does this, the deceased man’s face is shown. His eyes are wide open, which was generally forbidden in Code films. Quite frankly, in this scene, the actor did not look very dead to me. However, the audience shouldn’t have a chance to so plainly scrutinize an actor’s technique at playing dead. Under no circumstances may his eyes be open. Furthermore, although we may see the body, the camera should not focus on the face of the corpse, since showing the face of a deceased person is grotesque.

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Laurence Olivier as Larry.

After he has disposed of the remains thus, Larry desperately goes to his brother for advice. Keith criticizes him for some of his actions after the dreadful deed was done, and Larry grows impassioned because of his brother’s cool cross-examination. He exclaims, “My God, if you’d done it!…” The italicized part of the line is an unacceptable use of God’s name. This usage is profane, since it is not intended reverently. It should be replaced with something like, “Good Heavens.”

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Leslie Banks as Keith.

When Keith is questioning Larry about his disposal of the body, he asks, “Did his face look as if he’d been strangled?” This is excessive information. Firstly, it is rather grotesque. Secondly, it is a bit too instructive to the concealment of murder. Instead, he should just say, “Did he look as if he’d been strangled?”

Soon after, a policeman is shown discovering the body. As noted, the eyes must be closed. As in the earlier scene, too much attention should not be focused on the corpse’s face.

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At a dinner party attended by many lawyers, including Keith Durrant, the gentlemen discuss the petty crimes or minor dishonest deeds which they have committed during their lives. One gentleman recounts the time in his youth when he smuggled The Art of Love through customs, only to have it confiscated by his mother. The Art of Love is a book by Ovid which instructs on the best techniques for wooing, winning, and loving, first for men and then for women. It has been considered salacious at many times in history. It was banned in England for a good many years. It is in poor taste to refer to a banned book, since it creates undue curiosity in said banned material, especially among the young. This lawyer’s small sin should be of a different nature.

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Laurence Olivier with Vivien Leigh as Wanda.

Although Keith told Larry that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to try the falsely arrested man, John Evan (Hay Petrie), Mr. Evan is put up for trial. Larry decides that, since the man will most likely be sentenced to death, he will have to turn himself in before the sentence is carried out. However, the trial is not for three weeks. Thus, Larry schedules a date with Wanda to tell her his resolution. They meet at a cafe. They greet each other with a passionate kiss. Their kiss appears to be open-mouthed, which is unacceptable. This kiss must be close-mouthed and not excessively lustful, following the rules of Code kissing.

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In this scene, Wanda and Larry decide to wed and enjoy their three weeks together. However, Wanda is understandably dismayed that their life together must be so short. She talks about the normal process of love. “People meet, make love, and marry.” The italicized phrase is unduly pointed. Although that phrase usually didn’t have the suggestive connotations it necessarily does now at that point, that sentence doesn’t sound quite as proper as it could. Make love should be replaced with the phrase fall in love.

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At the end of the three weeks, it is finally the day of the trial. The newlyweds know that they have only one more day together before Larry must turn himself in. On that morning, they sit together and talk. In this scene, they kiss very passionately. Like their last one, this kiss also is slightly open-mouthed. It too must be close-mouthed.

After Larry and Wanda spend their last day together, they go back to their boarding house to get their bags. They find that the landlord is throwing them a farewell party, since he thinks that they are just going away. At this party, they kiss again, and it too looks open-mouthed. Their mouths should always be closed when they kiss.

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As Wanda is down at the party, Larry goes upstairs to get his bag. While he is there, his brother comes to implore him not to turn himself in. At one point in the scene, he says, “For God’s sake, listen!” This usage of the word God is not religious or reverent, so it is unacceptable. It should be replaced with a word like heaven.

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That concludes my breening of this film! 21 Days is a very entertaining movie. It is not long, but it has a lot of substance. All of the problems which I found were surface. I was pleased by one story element which was introduced later in the plot, namely the fact that Wanda and Wallen were not really married. His wife appears in the court case and mentions that he married many other women after he left but did not divorce her, but she was his only real wife. That eliminates any impropriety in the relationship between Wanda and Larry. With the few suggestions which I made, this would have been a good Code film!

Come back next week to read my final breening article of August!

Have an Enlightening #AMonthWithoutTheCode65!


By the way, please join our month-long study of un-Code films, #AMonthWithoutTheCode65! Throughout August we are not going to watch any American Breen Era films (except for our weekly new Code films), and we are inviting participants to do the same. Writers can join this celebration with articles about their opinions and discoveries about films that were not breened during the month, and we will republish them on our website. What have we learned during sixty-five years without Joseph Breen’s Code enforcement?

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