History Through Hollywood: Vice
or: Lies Old Hollywood Told Me
This is the second in my series of History Through Hollywood, a discussion of the little things you can pick up from watching Old Hollywood films. In the last edition, I talked about “Reno-vations,” automats, dancing, and manicures for men. This one takes a look at bad habits and vice: crime, sex, cigs, and alcohol as depicted in old movies.
As in the first edition, I’m sticking with movies set in the “present” instead of historical films because those are more accurate “inadvertent time capsules.” (Visit the first History Through Hollywood for more on that.) Some of the vices I’ll talk about are ubiquitous in old films, but have fallen out of fashion now, just like automats and dancing after dinner. But some vices aren’t as straightforward, which makes this edition a little different. Classic movies present vice in very particular ways, and what’s onscreen is not always a true reflection of reality as it was back then—hence the subtitle, “Lies Old Hollywood Told Me.”
Compared to today’s films, old movies can seem laughably tame and even annoyingly subtle. Is she a prostitute or not? Where’s all the blood and gore? Did they actually have sex? To add to the confusion, sometimes what does end up onscreen is barely discernible through a thick cloud of cigarette smoke.
But classic movies aren’t nearly as wholesome as people might think. The difference between old films and new can be boiled down to this gross oversimplification: today, we see everything, but in old movies, we “see” very little, though it’s all still there.
For reasons I’ll discuss in a minute, graphic violence and sex could not be shown onscreen, so instead it’s hinted, suggested, or otherwise included in a subtle way. This might shock you, but people in the first half of the 20th century had sex, fought, killed, drank, and engaged in other “bad habits.” It just wasn’t depicted as openly as it is today.
But vice lurks in the shadows, and if you know how to read the codes and tricks filmmakers employed to suggest the un-depictable, suddenly old movies become much naughtier. But you don’t need to read between the lines for this first one. It’s right out in the open, which is ironic because it is so highly regulated today!
- To be a sophisticated dame, all you need is a cigarette, perpetually lit and resting precisely but casually in your fingers. A fur coat and a cocktail (clear, please!) completes the picture.
Disclaimer: Of course, I’m kidding, and I’m certainly not advocating any of these behaviors! Cigarettes are the worst, fur has fortunately fallen out of fashion, and cocktails are best in moderation.
I bring up these visual markers, particularly the cigarette, to illustrate how our customs and norms have changed over the decades. Today, if I saw a heavily made-up woman chain-smoking and knocking back martinis in an enormous fur coat, I’d feel rather sorry for her. But show me Bette Davis, or Audrey Hepburn, or Carole Lombard, or Barbara Stanwyck engaging in such behavior on screen, and it’s classic, glamorous, powerful, and even a little dangerous.
Smoking was ubiquitous, and a cigarette was just as common in the hands of a debonair gentleman or a hardboiled detective as it was in the hands of a dame, ingenue, or femme fatale. Although not every star smoked on screen and not every movie contains curls of wafting smoke, it is wildly more common in old movies than today.
I’m certainly not the first to talk about how there’s an awful lot of smoking in old movies, and how iconic images of our beloved stars so often include cigarettes. They made it look so glamorous and so cool, and although now we know that smoking is a deadly habit, there’s something about that smoke expelled from legendary lips. Especially in the platinum tones of black and white; the lens and the lights turn the smoke to silver, and it swirls around the frame like magic.
One of the most notorious onscreen smokers is Bette Davis. She didn’t just puff on cigarettes; she used smoking as a tool in her acting arsenal. If she’s mad, those big eyes flash and smoke pours from her mouth like the exhalations of an angry dragon. If she’s contented (slightly less often, it seems), the smoke drifts and whorls, framing her movie-star face in silvery wreaths. Smoking was such a trademark for Davis that it became a plot device in Dark Victory (1939). Early in the film, Davis’ character struggles to light her cigarettes because of vision problems.
The film’s director, Edmund Goulding, came up with this cigarette lighting business to emphasize the character’s illness. He said, “When Bette Davis can’t light her own cigarette, you know something is seriously wrong with her.” Very true.
All that’s left now of the onscreen smoke languorously exhaled by Davis and her compatriots are its ghosts swirling on celluloid. But the images are so powerful that it can be difficult to divorce the sophisticated coolness of onscreen smoking from its reality.
After all, the nasty carcinogenic fumes have dissipated, and fortunately we can’t smell or taste the smoke as we watch. But how Bette’s famous eyes must have burned from all those cigarettes, smoldering in take after take, scene after scene, movie after movie! How all those glorious, iconic costumes must have reeked with that unmistakeable, lingering stench! I wonder if the continuity people and editors were ever driven crazy trying to make sure that the length of an actor’s cigarette in one shot matched the next.
There is a certain poignancy in watching the stars light up onscreen, knowing what we now know. It is perhaps most disturbing when watching Humphrey Bogart, who died of esophageal cancer when he was only 57 years old.
Bogart was a chain smoker in real life and in most of his movies, and images of the star almost always include a cigarette.
Bogart is not unusual in that regard: so many publicity stills and portraits of Classic Hollywood stars include a smoldering cigarette, and there are just as many cigarette advertisements featuring famous faces.
The cigarette portraits and ads are things you won’t see today. An actor might smoke in his private life, but no studio is going to release an official glamour photo of Reese Witherspoon or Brad Pitt with a cigarette! Times have changed! Thank goodness.
If you’re interested in learning more about actresses and smoking, visit the website Smoking Sides which contains an exhaustive collection of ads, images, movies, and trivia all about this topic.
- Cocktails are always a good choice.
See The Thin Man (1934).
Okay, I’ll elaborate. Cocktails, like cigarettes or “heading to Reno” are everywhere in old films, though they show up much less today.
It seems that characters in old movies are never more than a glittering sideboard away from a tasty alcoholic libation. Every drawing room has a stocked bar, and the super wealthy have butlers perpetually laden with crowded trays.
Drinking in old movies is a beautiful, glamorous sight: the crystal decanters, the elegant lines of the stemware, the straight-edged highballs arranged so prettily on silver trays! At dinner, sparkling martini glasses and charmingly squat champagne coupes cover the tables like little crystal forests.
Somehow, the ice is always ready and perfectly cubed, and the enormous, gleaming cocktail shakers are brimming with expertly mixed concoctions. In less elegant surroundings, a splash of amber liquid from a bottle hidden in a hardboiled editor/detective/boss’ desk drawer can be just the thing. Basically, in classic films booze of all sorts is readily available, and frequently imbibed.
The consumption of alcohol is generally depicted as a positive, elegant pastime. Primrose Path (1940) and The Lost Weekend (1945) are extremely unusual in their depictions of alcoholism; in most films, drunkenness is rare and played for comedy. And it’s very uncommon to see any glamorous stars get sloppy. Tipsy, sure, but not unattractively so.
The cocktail guzzling in classic movies seems a little less foreign today, what with hipster bars and mixologists resurrecting nearly extinct drinks and making cocktails cool again. What seems most foreign in old films is the lack of beer and wine. You’ll sometimes see a character order a beer, but I can’t think of anyone asking for a chardonnay. Champagne was always a stylish choice (though it was most often served in shallow-bowled coupes instead of the flutes to which we are more accustomed), but other wines are mostly absent.
So why does Nick Charles sip an aperitif instead of a fine wine? We can blame Prohibition.
The 18th Amendment ruined America’s wine industry. When Prohibition became law in 1919, most vineyards shut down, vintners found other careers, and an entire generation was kept from becoming wine drinkers. You could make bathtub gin, but bathtub wine wasn’t a thing.
The figures are startling: in 1919, the United States produced 55 million gallons of wine, but by the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, production had been decimated to only 2.5 million lonely gallons. The newly legal wine industry had to start from scratch.
It took a few decades, but in the late 1950s and 1960s, wine became popular again. Its ascendance was spurred on by the production of better quality American wines and Francophile celebrities like Jackie Kennedy and Julia Child who championed the beverage.
With that in mind, it’s not at all surprising that Nick Charles and other characters in the 1930s-1950s opt for a Manhattan or a shot of whiskey instead of a crisp sauvignon blanc.
- Married couples slept in twin beds, and only really, really bad women had premarital sex. Also, no one kissed for more than three seconds at a time, and there weren’t any gay people.
All of these qualify as “lies.” Watching a classic movie might give you the impression that past generations were unflinchingly wholesome, traditional, and happily conventional when it came to sex. But this doesn’t mean that everyone in real life was straight, chaste, and prudish. So why do the movies depict sex the way they do?
One big reason is that movie content was regulated differently than it is today. Our current ratings system was adopted in 1968, but before that movies weren’t rated for different audiences with a G, PG-13, or R label, but instead received the Production Code certificate of approval. (That’s why when an old film is shown today, you’ll sometimes see a “NR” rating signifying “Not Rated.”)
The certificate meant that a movie was safe to watch, and wouldn’t offend or degrade the audience’s morals; in other words, it followed the guidelines set out in the Production Code, which was a list of topics and images that were either unacceptable or required extreme care if brought to the screen.
The Code came into existence because in the 1920s and early thirties, films deemed immoral or too scandalous for public consumption were edited, and often butchered, by religious and moral organizations and censorship boards at the state and local level. Sometimes cities or even states boycotted movies entirely, resulting in a big hit to studio profits.
In an effort to clean up the screens, a Catholic priest and a layman wrote the Code in 1929, hoping to guide Hollywood so that “vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized.” But the studios basically ignored the Code for five years until protests against the “filth in films” became too powerful and costly for Hollywood to ignore.
In 1934, the studios banded together to establish the Production Code Administration (PCA) to enforce the Code. Hollywood recognized that self-regulation undertaken voluntarily was much more palatable, as well as better public relations, than if the government or another entity stepped in to censor films.
The Production Code dealt with topics you might expect, like nudity, rape, “any inference of sexual perversion,” “the use of drugs,” “brutality and possible gruesomeness,” and profanity.
But it also cautioned or forbade more surprising things, like “venereal disease,” “ridicule of the clergy,” “miscegenation,” “scenes of actual childbirth,” “sympathy for criminals,” “man and woman in bed together,” and “surgical operations.” (Today it seems pretty brutal and gruesome that the Code actually forbade the depiction of miscegenation. And of course the “sexual perversion” rule was aimed mostly at keeping homosexuality off the screen. It’s not a progressive document by any means.) The Code also dealt with politics and other potentially inflammatory issues; you can read the Code in its entirety here.
Although the Code allowed for some vice (otherwise no stories), it was important that bad people who did bad things weren’t ever rewarded: “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” That’s why reform or more often death is the usual ending for a bad character, particularly sexually promiscuous women or gangsters…
Sidenote: old movies can be roughly split into two eras, those made before the adoption of the Production Code, and those made after. Unsurprisingly, pre-code cinema is much racier than what came later. It’s an unusual turnabout—typically social conventions get looser in time, but in this case, the earlier films are more explicit. For more, visit this fantastic site devoted to pre-Code cinema, Pre-Code.com.
The enforcement of the Code went like this: studios sent the PCA their scripts, hoping to clear up any issues before the film was made (it was cheaper that way). After resolving any problems in the screenplay, the PCA viewed the finished picture, requested any changes they thought necessary, and reviewed the edited film before issuing (or not) a certificate of approval. This process could be torturous and long or quite simple, depending on the film.
The Code wasn’t law; its power came from the box office. If the PCA refused to grant a film a certificate, theaters wouldn’t show it, and the studio would lose money. It’s similar to how an NC-17 rating dooms a movie’s box office today.
It’s important to note that Hollywood abided by the PCA’s rulings not to be more moral or chaste for the sake of it; rather, the PCA seemed like the most painless way out of the quagmire of censorship and boycotts.
And the PCA’s goal wasn’t to censor or punish Hollywood (though that sometimes happened), but to work with the studios to ensure that films would make money without offending powerful, vocal groups. The PCA had Hollywood’s best interests (profits) at heart, and together the PCA and the studios sought a middle ground between boring and boycott.
The relationship between the PCA and the studios was symbiotic in theory, but could be very contentious in practice. There were constant squabbles between filmmakers and the PCA over issues ranging from overarching plot elements to characters, costumes, dances, and even individual shots or words. One of the most famous battles concerned Clark Gable’s closing line in Gone With the Wind (1939). The PCA didn’t want him to say the word damn in “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” But obviously they relented and allowed one of the most legendary lines in cinema to exist.
Four years later, “damn” was still a contentious word. The PCA originally fought Columbia over the “damn the torpedoes” line in The More the Merrier (1943), but they eventually allowed it because it was used as part of a famous quote. It can seem silly now, but it was no laughing matter for the studios or the PCA.
The Code’s constraints forced filmmakers to get creative. Then and now, sex sells, but the Code meant that filmmakers had to find other ways of getting the information to the audience.
For example, a fade-out on two amorous characters, especially when paired with a fade-in on the same characters in the same room smoking or fussing with their hair, makeup, or clothes was code that they just had sex. You’ll see that technique a lot once you start looking for it. Some directors got cheeky with visual metaphors, too, as when Hitchcock ended North by Northwest (1959) with his two lovers embracing on a train before it cuts to the final shot showing the train barreling into a tunnel…
Twin beds for married couples got around the “man and woman in bed” rule and helped pass the general guidelines that “The treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste and delicacy.” That’s why even the happiest of married couples, like Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man movies, or Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Adam’s Rib, sleep in separate beds.
Sex outside the sanctified bonds of marriage was a real no-no. It could be referred to or suggested, very delicately, of course, but only if the participants suffered for their terrible immorality, usually by coming to a bad end. The PCA didn’t want anyone getting any ideas!
In Notorious (1946), Hitchcock famously got around the rule against “excessive or lustful kissing,” which the PCA interpreted as a kiss lasting more than three seconds. In one scene, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman lock lips while Grant takes a phone call.
The pair kiss, pause, kiss, pause, move around the phone, kiss, pause, etc., and their “appropriate” three-second kisses become a long series of lip locks that stretch the intent, if not the letter, of the Code. As Bergman wrote in her autobiography My Story:
“A kiss could last three seconds. We just kissed each other and talked, leaned away and kissed each other again. Then the telephone came between us, then we moved to the other side of the telephone. So it was a kiss which opened and closed; but the censors couldn’t and didn’t cut the scene because we never at any point kissed for more than three seconds. We did other things: we nibbled on each other’s ears, and kissed a cheek, so that it looked endless, and became sensational in Hollywood.” It’s amazing–you can watch it here.
Getting around the “sexual perversion” rule was tricky, too, and made the depiction of homosexual characters more difficult. For example, in The Maltese Falcon the novel, the character of Joel Cairo is clearly gay. But the film couldn’t be as explicit as the novel was, so instead it just hints at his sexuality. Cairo, played by Peter Lorre, is outwardly effeminate with scented handkerchiefs, fastidious clothes, and other small cues that stand in for any obvious declaration. There were gay characters in classic films, just not many and not very openly.
The Code also applied constraints to onscreen violence. Just think of the torture scene in Foreign Correspondent, when we hear the moans and screams of the victim, but the camera remains fixed on the horrified face of a helpless witness. Or in Double Indemnity (1944), when we watch Barbara Stanwyck’s stony face as her husband is strangled a few feet away, offscreen.
You’ll often hear the word “gratuitous” employed to describe modern films’ penchant for violence, sex, explosions, profanity, etc. Old movies were the opposite of gratuitous, and demonstrate the power of subtlety.
Take a look at old films and their later remakes for illustrations of this difference: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946 and 1981) or Double Indemnity (1944) and Body Heat (1981) are good options. I’m obviously obsessed with classic movies, but I think most would agree that the subtle power, ambiguity, and sly edge of the originals is diminished in the explicit remakes.
As social mores changed through the years, the Code began to weaken, and by the late 1950s, its power was greatly diminished. Some Like It Hot, for example, was denied the seal in 1959, but was released anyway and did wonderful business. Being denied a seal even became a marketing ploy to entice audiences to come see what was so shocking! The Code was eventually abandoned and the ratings system was instituted in 1968. And twin beds became a thing of the past.
For more about the Production Code, check out this NPR article, or this wonderful book, The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code.
- Criminals had a much easier time of things; or, CSI: Classic Movie Style
Murder and crime mysteries are sometimes unintentionally hilarious because of the crime scene investigative techniques. One of my favorite examples of clumsy investigating comes in the The Thin Man (1934). A dead body has been discovered in a suspect’s office, and the police invite private detective Nick Charles (William Powell) to examine the scene. Naturally, Nick brings his trusty terrier, Asta, along with him.
Asta wanders around the scene, and no one seems to mind that a random dog is trampling potential clues and leaving dog hair and paw prints practically on top of the body. Besides the incongruous inclusion of a private citizen’s dog, there are other behaviors that would likely cause accusations of shoddy investigating or evidence tampering: Nick Charles doesn’t wear gloves when examining evidence, nothing is “bagged and tagged,” there is no “perimeter,” and the corpse’s clothes and belongings are thrown around willy-nilly.
Also, as is usual in The Thin Man films, Nick is allowed to pocket any clues (not evidence, “clues”) that interest him, (no chain of evidence here!) and he and Asta are given laughably free rein throughout the investigation. The crime scene bears little resemblance to the ones we are used to seeing in modern TV and movies. Fortunately, the forensic science (if one can call it that) in the film doesn’t impede the discovery of the guilty party.
In another typical twist, Nick’s hunch combined with a few pieces of enormous evidence (the victim’s one-of-a-kind watch chain, old shrapnel in a corpse’s leg, the slip of a guilty tongue) and a black-tie dinner party leads to the capture of the murderer. Plus, a clear confession makes any physical evidence irrelevant. Which is great, because there isn’t any. At least none that could hold up in court.
It’s fun to chuckle and feel superior, but watching old film noir, gangster movies, and mysteries also makes you realize how much we have come to expect miraculous CSI-style magic in our investigative entertainment. This also influences our real life; the “CSI-effect” is a term used to describe jurors’ raised expectation and increased reliance on scientific, high-tech evidence. Thanks in part to CSI and shows and movies like it, forensic science has never been more popular. Combine that with a greater awareness of technology in general, and the average person and jury member has much higher expectations of physical evidence than a few decades ago.
Sometimes this isn’t helpful, especially when jurors expect the kind of magic they see in any number of CSI-style shows. Some of it’s real, but some of it is unfortunately fictional. That can make prosecuting a case in the real world a little more challenging. (For more on the CSI effect, check out this article.)
The CSI-effect makes watching an old movie where they flout every basic tenet of crime scene investigation really funny, especially in serious movies when they are trying their best and maybe don’t invite friend’s pets to visit the fresh crime scene.
Even then, their investigations seem pretty lax. Usually it doesn’t matter too much, though, because the case rarely depends on small details like fingerprints or chemical analysis. More often, it’s a huge, ridiculously helpful clue like a monogrammed handkerchief or utterly unique piece of jewelry that corroborates the gumshoe’s wild hunch and solves the whole case.
These films remind us that before investigators could test for DNA, or use some super-secret device to analyze the killer’s preference for ice cream over gelato, police had to rely on other clues and methods.
That makes these films particularly interesting time capsules giving us a glimpse into an older style of detective work. But if film noirs and murder mysteries like The Thin Man series are anything to go by, it’s lucky any criminals were ever caught. Or maybe that’s just my CSI-addled brain talking.
After all, in that Thin Man case they do X-ray the victim’s body and discover the vital clue of the shrapnel. Maybe that was 1934’s version of finding a microscopic fiber in a body of water, analyzing it in the mass spectrometer, and realizing it matches the space suits made in a Swedish factory between May-July 1999. After hacking a government database, using the latest facial recognition software to enlarge and identify a satellite image taken at night in a forest, and then tracking the perp through the shape of their left pinkie toe in instagram feeds, the culprit is apprehended! Come to think of it, sometimes the old style CSI is rather refreshing.
That’s all the lies and vice I’ve got for now. Visit the other History Through Hollywood posts for more on Old Hollywood love, fashion, and those pseudo-British accents. I’ve written detailed reviews of most of the films I mentioned, so head back to TheBlondeAtTheFilm.com to read about Easy to Love, To Catch a Thief, The Lady Eve, and many more.