Today is Thursday, so it’s time for another Breening Thursday article. Every Thursday, either I or one of my family members takes a movie made outside of the American Breen Era (1934-1954), also known as an un-Code film, and hypothesizes about how it would have been different if the Production Code Administration had self-regulated it. Today’s topic was suggested by Rebecca Deniston of Taking Up Room. Since she wrote September’s What the Code Means to Me article, which you can read here, she got to suggest two movies for future breening. Today, I am taking her up on one of those suggestions.
Of the two films Rebecca suggested, I chose Platinum Blonde from 1931. This is a pre-Code comedy starring Loretta Young, Robert Williams, and Jean Harlow. It’s the story of Stew Smith (Robert Williams), a clever but fun-loving reporter who goes to a stuffy society family’s home to get a story about the son’s scandalous relationship with a chorus girl and ends up falling in love with his beautiful sister, Ann Schuyler (Jean Harlow). When he retrieves the chorus girl’s compromising letters and gives them to the family for free, Ann realizes that he is a decent fellow. They begin seeing each other, much to the Schuylers’ displeasure. However, he thinks that Ann loves him as he is and will be happy to marry him and become part of his life. He doesn’t know that she intends to change him so that he will fit into her lifestyle. Meanwhile, he also doesn’t realize that the young woman who works on the newspaper with him, Gallagher (Loretta Young), wants to be more than just his best friend and “one of the boys.” That’s the basic premise of the story. I will clarify any other story points which you need to know as we come to them. Now, with no further ado, let the breening begin!
When we first see Stew, he is playing with a little hand game which entails getting four little pegs into four little holes. Gallagher watches in great excitement. Stew says to her, “If I don’t get that in there, there’s a smart sister I know who’s gonna get a kick in the….” He trails off after that, but one assumes that he would have finished with some word for her posterior. It is quite vulgar for a man to refer to kicking a woman in the seat of the pants, as it were. Instead, he should say, “There’s a smart sister who’s gonna get it.”
Then, the editor, Conroy (Edmund Breese), yells for Stew so that he can give him an assignment. He knocks the pegs out of the game, much to Stew’s displeasure. Stew says that he spent hours working on it, “and you screw it up in a minute.” The italicized word is a forbidden expression. It should be replaced with a word like mess or foul.
In the next scene, we see the Schuyler family complaining about the situation with the wayward son, Michael (Donald Dillaway). The family lawyer, Grayson (Reginald Owen), says that he talked to the chorus girl on the telephone. He explains that “she made very uncouth noises with her mouth.” He probably is referring to her making a raspberry noise, which was forbidden under the Code because of its rudeness. Granted, we don’t actually hear the chorus girl make the uncouth noises, since that character is never seen. However, this line is still in poor taste. Instead, he should say something like, “She wouldn’t even talk to me.”
In this scene, we see Jean Harlow for the first time. Instead of mentioning all the problems with her costumes every time she dons a new outfit, let’s just establish some general principles for all of her clothes. Firstly, under all her dresses, she needs to be wearing proper undergarments, including a brassiere and a slip. Secondly, her necklines must not be low enough to reveal her chest. Thirdly, her skirts should not cling so much to her hips and posterior. Her figure would look better if the lower half of her hourglass weren’t so plainly visible in outline. On evening gowns, her backlines should not be so low.
In the next scene, we see Stew and Gallagher at a bar. I believe the establishment is called “Joe’s,” and it obviously is a speakeasy, since Prohibition was still in place in 1931. Before we see the table of our protagonists, the camera pans over the bar, where drinks are being shaken, poured, and served. I’ve noticed that pre-Code films like to focus on the serving and consumption of alcohol, which is in very poor taste because it was illegal at the time. The sympathetic leads shouldn’t be shown casually patronizing a black market establishment. Instead of a speakeasy, they should be in a restaurant. No alcohol should be shown being served or drunk. They should clearly be drinking coffee.
In this scene, Gallagher is smoking very heavily. It was considered unacceptable to show women smoking a lot. She shouldn’t be smoking in this scene.
In this same scene, Stew tells Gallagher that he’s going over to the Schuyler house again. She asks him why, since the story is cold. Stew replies, “I’m not. I’m sizzling.” He is obviously referring to his growing feelings for Ann. However, this could be a reference to the fact that she is hot, which is an unacceptable way to refer to a woman. Instead, Gallagher should stay, “The public isn’t interested in that story anymore.” Stew could reply, “I’m interested. In fact, I’m fascinated.”
Stew proceeds to tell Gallagher what he thinks of Ann. He says, “She’s it!” Gallagher replies, “And that, and those, and them.” The way he says that she is it is too close a reference to saying that she has it. This was highly suggestive in the 1920s and 30s. Instead, he should say something like, “She’s terrific.”
Gallagher doesn’t like Stew’s admiration of the glamour girl, so she says, “I’ve seen her pictures, and I don’t think she’s so hot.” Hot is an unacceptable adjective for describing a woman. Instead, she should say, “I don’t think she’s so great.”
Stew goes on to say that she is a queen. “And I know queens,” he adds with meaning. Maybe he just means that she is regal, but I think that there is an alternate meaning. When spelled quean, this word means a disreputable and badly-behaved woman, even a harlot. To avoid any double meaning, the part of the line “And I know queens” should be removed. He goes on to describe her nose, saying, “And I know noses.” To follow the pattern of the line about queens, the second half of this line should also be removed. The rest of the discussion about noses can remain.
Later, Stew actually goes over to visit Ann at her house. He follows her to the study, making comical remarks about that being the way Indians walked. He says that squaws carried their papooses on their backs. These babies were armed with bows and arrows in case of an attack from the rear. He concludes, “If she wasn’t married, she had to protect her own, uh….” Obviously, he was referring to her posterior, since he is looking at hers pointedly. Even though he trails off before he finishes the sentence, this is unacceptable. Instead, he should say, “She had to protect herself.”
Stew happily gives the letters which are compromising Michael to Ann. This makes the society lady realize that the reporter is on the level. She asks if there is anything she can do for him. He replies, “There is something you can do for me, Miss Schuyler.” They are standing on either side of a desk, and he just stares at her. They stand there, staring at each other, for a very long time. Since he obviously finds her very attractive, the audience thinks that Stew has some sort of amorous favor in mind. Finally, he asks if she has anything in the ice box. She laughs and calls him a fool. It is obvious from her reaction that she had the same misinterpretation of his stalling that the audience was intended to have. He should not pause so long. He should just say his line and then immediately proceed to ask for lunch.
In a later scene, Ann tells Grayson that she is interested in Stew, despite the obvious fact that he comes from a very different class. Instead of just pointing out the social or economic differences, the older lawyer says, “What about me, Ann?” This one line adds the strange dimension that this older gentleman is interested in the attractive young woman. It is in very poor taste for a man in his position to express romantic interest in this young heiress. Since this element is not developed in the plot, it is unnecessary. This line should be deleted.
We soon see a smart party at which many women are wearing evening gowns. Many of the dresses which we see on obscure characters are unacceptable in the same ways that Jean Harlow’s are. All the evening gowns should be properly supported, not too tight, and high enough on the back as well as the chest.
In addition to the usual problems, Ann’s dress at the party has strange designs on its front. These designs seem intended to draw undo and indecent focus to her chest. The pattern should be changed so as not to draw excessive attention to that area.
At that party, Stew and Ann find their way to the garden, where they kiss. Their kissing is very lustful and seems to be open-mouthed. This kissing needs to be close-mouthed and restrained, according to Code kissing requirements. Also, the position of some of their spooning is rather odd. They are standing behind a water feature, so we see them through a glass window that is covered with flowing water. The aquatic movement over their kissing image gives the romancing a very unwholesome flavor. Also, their stance is the standard pre-Code position. He is sitting, and she is standing above him. He has his hands on her waist, and she has her hands on his shoulders or his face. This position has a very indecent look and typifies a relationship in which a woman is vamping or controlling the man. It doesn’t look decent and romantic. They should both be standing, not behind but next to the water, and must kiss with restraint. Finally, the scene should not fade out on their kissing.
Back in the newsroom, Stew is still busy at a typewriter, despite his relationship with the heiress. The editor is absolutely shocked when he reads that one of his own reporters married a millionairess. The worst part of it is that a rival newspaper scooped him on the story! In disbelief, Conroy yells for Stew to come to his desk. Disgruntled at having to leave the play he is attempting to write, Stew types “nuts” on his typewriter. Nuts is a forbidden expression. Stew should leave without typing anything.
After his marriage, Stew goes to Joe’s place again. Someone is seen sticking his finger through the peephole as a token of entry. As mentioned before, Joe’s place should be a restaurant instead of a speakeasy. Thus, no finger through the peephole is necessary. In fact, no peephole is necessary!
In that scene, Conroy comes in and begins mocking Stew about his marriage to Ann. Stew tells him that he’s writing a brilliant play set in Araby. Conroy says, “Araby, my….” trailing off without finishing his sentence. Since he doesn’t say a final word, one can imagine that he may have been planning to say a vulgar word. He should say, “Araby, my eye,” so that no one will infer that he planned to say anything else.
After Ann’s family has received the dreadful news that she married the unworthy reporter, Stew joins the family in the sitting room. After the relatives have left, Ann and Stew kiss on the couch. The kissing, as in their other scene, is too lustful and prolonged. Also, their position on the couch is suggestive. Ann’s line, “Come here, baby,” is risque and should be deleted. The scene should not fade out on their kissing.
Against his better judgement, Stew is persuaded to move into Ann’s house after their marriage. Upon awakening his first morning there, he finds that Ann has hired a valet for him, Dawson (Claud Allister). Stew is amazed and amused by the service. As Dawson helps him pull on his robe, he says, “You’d make a nice wife for someone.” Dawson assumes a silly smile and says, “Thank you, sir.” “Oh, not for me,” Stew continues, “but for someone.” This line of dialogue has the flavor of perversion, which was forbidden under the Code. Stew should just say, “You’re a big help, Dawson.” Dawson should not smirk giddily as he says, “Thank you, sir.”
Ann soon enters in this scene. Her negligee is quite indecent. Her neckline is much too loose, and her chest is not properly supported. Nightclothes must conform to the same standards as day clothes.
In this scene, the newlyweds begin kissing. They are sitting on the end of the bed, and they lean back as they kiss. It is too suggestive for them to kiss on the bed. Instead, they should be sitting on a couch. They should not lean over but should remain upright while kissing. Again, the kissing must not be prolonged or lustful.
In the office, the other employees tease Stew for wearing expensive clothes. Then, Ann calls him. As he is about to talk to her, he tells them to go away, saying, “Screw, screw.” This is a forbidden expression. Instead, he should say “Scram” or “Beat it.”
Then, Stew says, “In your respective chapeaus and over your cauliflower ears.” I don’t know about the second part of this line, but the first part is a play on the forbidden expression “in your hat.” This line should be deleted.
As Stew talks to Ann on the telephone, we see her on the other end. She is lying on her stomach being massaged, wearing no visible clothing. This is indecent. She should be sitting rather than lying, fully dressed, with no masseuse in sight.
In a later scene, the Schuylers throw a party. Gallagher attends this event as the society reporter for the paper. She is wearing an evening gown with a skirt which is too tight and a back which is too low. The skirt should be looser, and the top should be fuller.
Gallagher is greeted by Miss Wilson, Ann’s social secretary. This lady’s skirt is also too tight, and her neckline is too low. Her dress should conform to the same rules of decency which are required of Jean Harlow and Loretta Young.
Gallagher makes her way to the garden, where she finds Stew. He starts joking around with her, mentioning the things one can find in the garden. One of the items he lists is “some slightly fried pansies.” Perhaps he is just joking about eating flowers. However, I think there is an alternate meaning to this line. In the 1930s, pansy was a forbidden expression for an effeminate man. Also, fried was slang for drunk. With these definitions replacing the more logical ones, the line has a whole new meaning. Now, rather than crispy flowers, he is talking about inebriated sissies. If the line remains, the word pansies must be changed to some other flower, such as petunias or violets.
Soon, Stew’s nemesis from a rival paper, Bingy (Walter Catlett), crashes the party. When the butler (Halliwell Hobbes) tells him to have a seat, he replies, “I’ve got a seat, but I’ve got no place to put it.” This joke is rather crude. It should be removed.
In a later scene, Stew says, “Oh, God.” It is against the Code to use the word God in a sense which is less than reverent. Instead, he should say something like, “Oh, gosh.”
Later, the frustrated Stew talks to himself in the mirror. He says “to go to ‘how have you been, Mr. Smith.'” He seamlessly goes into the greeting, but he clearly was going to say a profane expression. If this line remains in any form, it should simply be, “And how have you been, Mr. Smith?”
In a later scene, Bingy comes over to the Schuyler house to apologize for the cracks he made to Stew about his being married to a wealthy woman. He makes his apology dressed up like an Indian chief, complete with feathers and a silly beard. When apologizing, he offers to let Stew “kick Big Chief where sun never shine.” Stew proceeds to do just that. The act of one man kicking another in the pants is acceptable, but the line is not. Instead, he should say that Stew may “kick Big Chief where it will do most good.”
Eventually, Stew has had enough of the set up where he is less than the master of his own fate. He packs his things and leaves his domineering wife. Before exiting, he tells his mother-in-law (Louise Closser Hale), “you can take your red room, your green room, your left wing, your right wing, and you know what you can do with them!” The italicized part of this line is vulgar. It should be replaced with something like “throw them in the East River!”
Those are all the surface problems in this movie. The only remaining problem is the element of divorce and remarriage. After leaving Ann, Stew tells Gallagher that he really loves her, and he proposes. Of course, the audience has known that they should get together all along. However, the Code encouraged films to avoid depicting divorce and remarriage with the sympathetic leads. Instead of getting married, Stew and Ann should simply announce their engagement. I know that this changes the story significantly, but it doesn’t have to. Stew could still move into the Schuyler mansion, as long as it is completely clear that he is not abiding in Ann’s room or having an affair with her. He is simply getting used to the Schuylers’ way of life. Then, when he leaves the house, he would just be breaking the engagement. Afterward, Grayson could offer him a breach of promise settlement instead of alimony. Thus, Stew would be free to marry Gallagher, and there would be no messy divorce in the situation.
That concludes my breening of this film! I found it to be a very entertaining movie. It was shallow, as many pre-Code films are, but it was a comedy. It served its purpose of being humorous. Jean Harlow was a surprisingly nice girl in this role, which I appreciated. Loretta Young was very cute as Gallagher. She looked pretty, and her character was likeable and charming. I enjoyed the performance of Robert Williams. I thought he looked like Danny Thomas and had a manner like James Cagney. He was funny and very charming. I wondered why I had never seen or heard of him before. When I looked up this film, I found out why. This was his first film appearance as a leading man, but he died three days after the movie’s premiere of peritonitis. I was very sad to hear this, since he was a very talented and unusual fellow. He might have been a very successful Hollywood actor if he had lived beyond thirty-seven. I would have liked to see the funny as well as serious movies he could have made under the Code if he had survived to see 1934. Anyway, we can appreciate his talent in this film. It’s a good movie, but I think the Code could have made it even better. What do you think?
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Calling all Phans to PEPS! This year, on September 23-25, I, Rebekah Brannan, will be hosting The Phantom of the Opera Blogathon. The title tells you exactly what it is. This blogathon will be dedicated to all adaptations, spin-offs, prequels, and sequels of the immortal tale The Phantom of the Opera! As devoted Phans, my sister and I could not let the 110th anniversary of the beginning of the original novel’s serialization in the newspaper Le Gaulois pass without some form of commemoration. I invite all of you to celebrate this wonderful event by joining The Phantom of the Opera Blogathon! Now, stay away from trapdoors, beware of shadows, and always keep your hand at the level of your eyes, because we’re off to the Paris Opera!
Come back in October for the third year of our annual Code celebration, The Third Annual Breening Blogathon! It is running from October 11-14 in honor of Joseph I. Breen’s 131st birthday. Whether you want to breen a film, review a new Code movie, or analyze some aspect of the years when Hollywood was governed by the Code, this is your chance to write about the topics which we always cover. What are your thoughts on the Code? This is your chance to play PCA-member or pretend that you are a member of PEPS. Let’s make this our most successful blogathon yet!
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