Friday, April 22, 2016

Review: Dangerous Men

A friend sent me a library discard chiefly because she thought I would be interested in its cover of Clark Gable, for Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man, and the Birth of the Modern Man, by Mick LasSalle. The book was published in 2002, and is available now only on Kindle, although there are probably numerous scores of hard copies and paperbacks of it that can be had for a song from various Amazon associated vendors.

The cover is definitely interesting. The non-mustachioed Gable could very well be cast as Cyrus Skeen, the hero of my private detective series set in San Francisco between 1928 and 1930. The only thing missing from Gable’s arresting and commanding gaze is the lock of hair that often falls over Skeen’s brow and which his wife, Dilys, is forever flicking away. Skeen’s ears, however, would be a mite smaller.

One of the most memorable contrasts LaSalle marks is the on-screen rivalry between Gable and Leslie Howard, who both appeared in “Gone With the Wind” and “A Free Soul” (1931). Howard is steamrolled by Gable over a woman. But Gable “had a way of making any man in the vicinity look like he should be wearing a dress.” (p.65) One look at Gable, and you know he’s not “transgender” material. He’d more likely clean your clock if you ever questioned his virility or his identity as a man.

LaSalle’s book is also interesting in that it paints a picture of the changing status and character of male characters in Hollywood between 1929 and 1934, the Pre-Code era, after which the Hays Office of “voluntary” censorship put the kibosh on “immorality.” Will Hays and his mostly Catholic and Presbyterian allies put visual and vocal fig leaves on men and woman.  There is a political stance in LaSalle’s book but it is difficult to nail down; he implicitly endorses from the right, from the left, and from the middle, and he applauds every position imaginable, as well as the stances taken by the stars he discusses.

LaSalle reviews and critiques with lucid and often biting retrospect the careers of such memorable and forgotten Pre-Code stars as Lon Chaney, Ramon Navarro, Richard Barthelmess, Edward G. Robinson, Clark Gable, James Cagney, Robert Montgomery, John and Lionel Barrymore, Charles Laughton, Gary Cooper, Warren William, John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Sr., Lee Tracy, Paul Muni, and Fredric March.

But his principal position is stated about halfway into Dangerous Men:

More than anything else, the movies of the time emphasized the primacy of the individual and the importance of individual concerns, treating the government as a malign, or at best neutral force. Shady characters, sly operators, and fast-talking con men were often heroes, if for no other reason but that they were individualists making their way in the world. Meanwhile, anyone representing organized power, such as business or government, was part of the problem. That’s why private detectives were almost always good guys, while policemen were usually nuisances. (p. 106)

The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 helped to promote this narrative even on through World War II and in our own time. But the “individualism” of which LaSalle speaks has morphed into a mentally ill kind of narcissism highlighted by “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” These certainly had not been invented in 2002, when Dangerous Men was originally published. But try to imagine actors of the caliber, presence, and rough-and-ready style as Cagney, Robinson, Gable, or William whining about having their safe spaces violated or requiring trigger warnings before some actress began vamping them and showing them her legs. It would be too hilarious for words. The contrast would be so violent that it would send any contemporary social justice warrior into frothing, white-knuckled paroxyms of anger and outrage. Oh, the insensitivity!

How did the Production Code Administration, the enforcement arm of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPA), come about? Through a little judicious arm-twisting and the appeal to some “higher” moral standard – that is, the altruist, selfless brand.

…It was a result of the well-organized effort by a small cabal of lay Catholics, who, working within the church and the film industry, threatened the studios with a loss of Catholic business if certain demands weren’t met.

Caving into pressure, the studios appointed publicity man Joseph Breen as the first head of the Production Code Administration, a new organization empowered with the right to approve or deny the release of any studio film. As of July 1, 1934, Breen, a political reactionary and a raging anti-Semite, became the final arbiter of screen content. He kept the job for nearly two decades. (p. xii)

It didn’t hurt that Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March 1933, with his promise to “remake” the country as a welfare state with a population of hound-dog faced dependents, in much the same manner as Barack Obama promised to “remake” the country in order to “transform” its political, economic, and demographics to something far more compatible with collectivism than FDR could ever have imagined.
“Dangerous” film censor Joseph Breen

Another contrast, La Salle writes, is in the difference between most of the silent films and the Pre-Code films. In Chapter 1, “Why Are These Men Smiling?” he notes that:

The smiles of the silent heroes suggested a whole attitude toward life, a confidence about the nature of heroism and the ultimate forces of good and evil. Silent heroes not only believed their victories were inevitable, but when they did win, they felt sure enough to gloat a little. They did not go through life expecting the ground to shift beneath their feet…. (p. 2)

But LaSalle prefaced that observation with:

In the Pre-Code era, we find new-fashioned heroes whose manhood was an authoritative force – not pretty boys, not cannon fodder, not pawns of the system, but dangerous men. Together, they represent a vision of manhood more exuberant and contentious, and at the same time more humane, than anything that has followed on the American screen. (p. xiii)

LaSalle dwells on the importance of “irony” in Pre-Code films, a “virtue” hardly lost in today’s film fare.

The great silent heroes of the twenties, stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, Ramon Novarro, and John Gilbert, were hardly sober men of affairs. They projected the modish virtues: youth, confidence, physical beauty, dynamism, and personality. What they…lack was irony. As historian Paul Fussell has asserted, irony was the great and defining legacy of World War I. That modern sense of irony, seeping into the culture as the twenties progressed, would ultimately make the silent hero and his radiantly unshakeable smile seem old-fashioned indeed. (p. 4)

Irony, in this cinematic context, I take LaSalle to mean that if the “hero” does not laugh at himself for being a “hero,” then the audience will laugh at him. Or take him with a grain of salt. Or the critics will. As a rule, critics have always laid on the internal and external irony super-thick, even when praising films they have liked.

Carole Lombard as Dilys Skeen
The dangerous men of the Pre-Code era, however, were not “heroes,” strictly speaking; they were thugs, gangsters, con men, cheats, a menagerie of ambiguous moralists, and a variety of Don Juans who treated women like discarded Kleenex and their victims as marks, patsies, and suckers. They were not of The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged caliber. In Western culture, true individualism had never found a voice until the novels of Ayn Rand. The Pre-Code “heroes,” however well they were played, were still the non-productive, essentially parasitical dross of society.

(Gary Cooper’s old-fashioned heroism was more suited to the Code era than to the Pre-Code era. He thrived in the late thirties, forties, and fifties, making many signature films, including “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” [1936], “Meet John Doe” [1941], and “High Noon” [1952]. He died in 1961, at age sixty. P. 213)

Left out of this sampling of Cooper’s films are “The Fountainhead” (1949) and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1943).

Now that there is no enforceable Code, no powerful censor to play Bowdler to Breen’s latent prurience, the ground keeps shifting under the feet of our culture’s purported “heroes.” It’s deuces wild.  Anything goes. The Production Code was never truly enforced. It more or less lapsed into irrelevancy in the 1940’s, and the MPAA (the Motion Picture Association of America) formally abandoned the Code in 1966, replacing its bizarre guidelines with a wholly arbitrary “rating” system whose center of gravity seems to revolve around the definition of “mature.” 

However, I can see it now. Were some director to decide to produce Civic Affairs, and talked about the script with Clark Gable, Gable would laugh and say, “Hey. I like this scene. I get to kick this Breen character in the pants. That’ll be fun to shoot! Can we get Jimmy Stewart? And who’s playing Skeen’s wife? I could really work with Carole Lombard! She’s a lot of fun!”

Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man, by Mick LaSalle. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002. 273 pp.

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