Hot Saturday, starring Cary Grant (with Randolph Scott in a smaller part), is one of the films included in my absolutely yummy Pre-Code collection that I just bought. Pre-Code films can shock even today, and you realize what the crackdown did on morality (and other things) only a year later. The way Hot Saturday ends would never have flown in 1934, but the ambiguity and (it must be said) right-ness of the ending (as disturbing as it potentially is), is classic pre-Code storytelling. Not lascivious, no, but human and flawed and kind of complex. It definitely has the potential to tip over the prevailing moral order. It says, “Well, look, small-minded gossips, you actually don’t know everything, and maybe these two will be happy in the end. I wouldn’t bet on it, but they have a better shot than you nitwits. And, actually, you all – with your gossip and cold-heartedness and cruelty come off looking MUCH worse than the woman who spends the night with a guy without being married.” In certain eyes, this is dangerous stuff! No, the bad girl must be punished and chastened, and the good man must be unambiguously good, and she must be “redeemed” through pairing up with him. This was the world according to the Code.
But in pre-Code movies, bad-ness is allowed to exist (without overt commentary telling the audience, “This is bad, do not admire this”) and sometimes (horrors) it is not punished, but rewarded. The really interesting thing about Hot Saturday is that our heroine is NOT bad, but she does something that gives her the appearance of being bad, and that is enough for the small-minded world she lives in to shun her completely. She is beyond the pale. The only compassion she gets is from her bumbling useless father. The girl in the film who is supposedly a “good” girl is actually a nasty mean bitch, who also is seen making out with various men in cars, and in one scene she actually has a hickey on her collarbone, this in 1932 – but despite her bad behavior, she’s got a good game face and she sails beneath the radar. This is a cutting and concise comment on how appearances are everything in this world. And maybe YOU buy that bullshit, but I sure don’t. Our lead girl is a free spirit, yes, she likes to have fun on Saturday nights, dancing and having some bootleg cocktails, and she is intrigued by the bad boy, but she is also a responsible bank teller, a good daughter who hands over most of her paycheck to her parents, and she doesn’t sleep around. But she’s the one who takes the fall because what she has done LOOKS so bad.
Now some of my favorite movies are “Code” movies – as a matter of fact most of them are. Under the strict Code, movies like Only Angels Have Wings, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday (Cary Grant much?) were able to be made, and they crackle with double entendre and sexual energy. But just watch those pre-Code films, and you can see the difference. Like Baby Face, starring Barbara Stanwyck, from 1933 (my thoughts on that here).
I know there’s a lot of nostalgia for the Code, but I think it is important to realize (if you have actually read the Code, and what the Code says) that the good movies made under the Code were made DESPITE the Code, not because of it. I cannot remember who said that first, I checked my archives and couldn’t find it – so I say it here with apologies to the person who came up with it. I agree with you (whoever you are) wholeheartedly. Those movies in the 30s and 40s are not good BECAUSE of the Code, they are good DESPITE it. Read the Code. See what they wanted to restrict. It’s not just sex. There are some nasty nasty things in that Code, so be nostalgic for it at your own peril.
It took slippery conniving directors like Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh and Michael Curtiz to get in as much sexual stuff as they could, hoping it would go by the censors (like the huge searchlight swooping through the sky in Casablanca, after Bogie and Bergman kiss up in his room. There’s a cut to that searchlight, which indicates – you know – passage of time … Uh-oh. Sex? The Code office was savvy enough to realize what Curtiz was trying to do, so they insisted that Bogie and Bergman be wearing the same clothes when the film cuts back to the two of them. But seriously, the message is clear. They fall into a clinch, the film cuts away, we see an enormous phallic beam of light swooping through the sky, telling us: time is passing, sex is being had … before cutting back. But again: this was Curtiz’s tricky way of telling the story he wanted to be told, while still dealing with the censorship issues).
That’s one of the reasons why the Code movies can have such an electric charge. (Similar to the films coming out of Iran today. There is so much the film-makers are not allowed to say, and yet, through tricks and maneuvers, sometimes turning themselves inside out to get their point across, they are able to tell their story. And many of the films from Iran I so admire have never screened in Iran itself, because the morality police read lascivious or lewd messages into everything. Anything nuanced is a threat. Human issues such as suicide, illicit teenage romance, infertility, the second-class position of women, temporary-marriage (ie: fuck buddies, I don’t mince words), have I mentioned the second-class position of women?, infidelity, and the fact that women are not allowed to go to soccer games are controversial to the point of being forbidden, and many of those films were not shown in Iran proper although all Iranians have seen them now, thanks to the Internet and bootleg DVDs and other such awesome inventions. I recently found out that a couple of universities in Iran have banned my site from being seen on the computers in the computer library – this from an Iranian film student who wrote me to tell me and he had somehow hacked his way in so he could read my reviews – and I would imagine that it’s because of how much I have written about Iranian film. Stay strong, film students. You’ve got a good industry there, much to be proud of, and I will keep giving the shout-outs. All of this is one of the reasons why so many Iranian films are about children – and, wonderful as some of those films are, it is a sign that the film-makers flat out have decided not to fight the fight directly, but go at it from the side. Children of Heaven, one of my favorite movies in the last 20 years, is about two kids, siblings … but somehow, in the midst of a rather innocent story, the film is able to make huge statements about the class divide in Tehran, and other important things. Tricky, tricky, and it gives the film a weight that it might not otherwise have.)
Some of the lines in Code movies are truly dirty, and you don’t need to have a dirty mind (like I do) to pick up on it. It’s blatant. Like Shakespeare is blatant. I had a great acting teacher who taught a class in Shakespeare and he said to us, “If you think the line isn’t sexual, that means you just haven’t figured it out yet.” Same with Code movies, and you have to believe the Censors were morons to not pick up on it. I mean, Hepburn and Grant have an exchange in Bringing Up Baby where he says to her, “Where’s my bone?” and she replies, “It’s in the box.” Apparently, Hepburn and Grant, no dummies, could barely get through those lines without laughing and hours of shooting-time were lost because they kept cracking up.
But pre-Code didn’t use much euphemism. They went right at it. Things exist that may not be approved of by the matronly Church ladies who monitor everyone else’s behavior, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be shown. Movies aren’t meant to be Aesop’s Fables or a Sunday School lesson. Sometimes “bad” girls AREN’T punished. Sometimes they actually get what they want. It’s amazing to see.
I have more to say about Hot Saturday, including some observations about this example of early Cary Grant (outside the leering influence of the Mae West movies he appeared in early on) … and it’s fascinating. Truly wonderful.
Screenshot below of his first appearance, the most notorious Lothario in town, living in sin with some woman right under everyone’s noses.