Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Breaking the Code: Sunday Night Double Feature

On Sunday evening, my friend Kevin and I headed over to the Harvard Film Archive to watch a Pre-Codes double feauture. They were having a Pre-Codes marathon weekend (those words together are like music to my ears). For those of you who aren't familiar with Pre-Codes, they are a group of films made from the 1930-1934 before the Hays Code really clamped down on censoring. So filmmakers during this time period got a way with a lot more than they could in the late '30s up until the '50s. Pre-Codes are little gems and I'm always excited to watch ones I hadn't seen before.

Kongo (1932) - This was the first film we saw. It stars Walter Huston (of the royal Huston line) as a wheelchair bound man in Zanzibar lusting after revenge against the man who he blames for leaving him paralyzed, stealing his wife and getting said wife pregnant. He uses illusions, magic tricks and sugar cubes to wield power over the natives in the jungle. He lives with two outcasts, both of whom obey his every command, and as well as his highly-sexed Portuguese girlfriend, played by Lupe Velez. Everything changes when a drug-addicted doctor, Conrad Nagel, arrives at his hut at the same time the daughter, Virginia Bruce, of the man he despises is being sent from a convent into the middle of the unforgiving jungle.

The film was very interesting if you get past all the racism as well as the vast amounts of baby oil the actors had to rub on their bodies to give off the appearance of being in a constant state of sweat. What I liked best is that the actors, except for Lupe Velez, all looked the antithesis of glamour. They were dirty and grungy and Walter Huston especially was not pleasant to look at. But what else would you expect from living in the middle of a sweltering jungle? I liked that sense of realism that got lost during the reign of the Code until film noirs started making a presence. And Virginia Bruce is outstanding in this film. And I hold to the fact that I think she looks shockingly like contemporary actress Alexandra Holden.

The Sign of the Cross (1932) - Worth every penny and every second! This is exactly what I envision a film about the end of Rome and the rise of Christianity to be. Kudos to Cecil B. DeMille for this wonderful and grand epic. It's pro-Christian and anti-Roman Empire as you would expect, but it doesn't feel force fed. The Christiniaty in this movie is new and not fully formed. The Christians themselves don't have a full understanding of what it is to be a Christian but they hold on to the knowledge they have of the life of Christ and the power of the sign of the cross and that's what keeps them going. In that its very realistic. And the Romans are of course hedonistic and brutal but there is a humanity that is brought to them through the main protagonist, Marcus, a high-ranking official under the rule of Emperor Nero, who falls in love with a Christian girl. I can't really go on without ruining the story for you, but the realism in the film keeps it from being overly sentimental.

There a few things that stand out of this film to me that I would like to mention. The first being DeMille's very cruel use of a little Christian girl. She's strategically placed in key scenes to wrench out the tears of the even hardest of hearts. It's DeMille's special sadistic touch. Then there is Frederic March who is absolutely amazing as Marcus. I didn't even recognize him as I'm sure he had to buff up to play this role. And he wears very form-fitting and revealing clothes and he's very charismatic overall, and my heart fluttered a little every time he graced the screen. The last thing I must mention is the infamous scene (no not the orgy) with a nude Claudette Colbert bathing in a huge tub filled with donkey's milk. That's right folks, milk straight from donkeys. And you watch as the servants are milking sad donkeys and pouring buckets into a big well which connects to the bath inside. Bleh! The scene itself is very provacative and its said that DeMille took a week to shoot that as he was trying to get a glimpse of Colbert's naked body every time she stepped out of the bath. But a quick-thinking assistant was ready with a towel and DeMille never got his lustful glance.

Kongo is not on DVD but Sign of the Cross is. So if anything, try to watch at least one of these amazing Pre-Codes!


  1. In case you were not aware, Kongo is actually a remake of West Of Zanzibar, made in 1928 and starring Lon Chaney, Sr. He is really excellent in this role and man is he creepy. I know TCM has shown it, because I recorded from there probably a little under a year ago. See it if you can for a good compare and contrast.

  2. Will do! I love comparing originals with their remakes. I did that recently with Rafter Romance and Living on Love.


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