Pre-Code movies are among the toughest, nerviest movies ever made, and nobody made them better than William Wellman.
The Harvard Film Archive is hosting a monthlong career retrospective of this seminal Hollywood master, a series that includes the movies for which Wellman is best known: “Wings” (1927), the WWI aerial dogfight classic that was the first film to ever win the best picture Oscar; “The Public Enemy” (1931), one of the greatest of gangster films and the movie that made a star of James Cagney; the delightful screwball comedy “Nothing Sacred” (1937); the powerful anti-lynching drama “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943); and the original “A Star Is Born” (1937), still acidly empathetic in its insider’s eye on Hollywood.
Great movies all, and Wellman’s lesser known late-career westerns are well represented as well. But “The Legends of William Wellman” may be most valuable as a chance to catch rare big-screen appearances of the director’s early 1930s work for Warner Bros., a hard-nosed studio with a mission to dramatize stories from the streets of Depression-era America. And to make those stories seem remotely truthful, Wellman had to gleefully ignore the Motion Picture Code.
What was the Code and what counts as a pre-Code movie? Some background: In the late 1920s, after a decade of silent-era scandals and risqué subject matter in Hollywood, the studios chose to avoid state and federal censorship by installing an industry watchdog, former Postmaster General Will Hays, as head of the newly formed Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (the forerunner of our current MPAA).
Under Hays — and with the substantial input of two prominent Catholics, Father Daniel Lord and Motion Picture Herald publisher Martin Quigley — the Motion Picture Code was created and adopted by the studios. It forbade depictions of sex outside marriage and even sex within marriage (those famous twin beds, remember?); it proscribed bad language, nudity or semi-nudity, references to “sex perversion” (i.e., homosexuality) and illegal drugs and romantic or sexual relationships between the races. Crime must not be allowed to pay. “Excessive and lustful kissing . . . may not be shown.”
The Code was adopted in 1930 but unenforced and unenforceable until 1934, when the newly established Production Code Administration under Joseph I. Breen required every movie to get an MPPDA seal of approval before it could be released. Those four years are what film historians refer to as the “pre-Code era”; more precisely, it’s the pre-Code-enforcement era.
In any event, those early talkies can be outrageously blunt about matters we assume “old movies” know nothing about, and Wellman’s were blunter than most. The director grew up well-to-do on Linden Place in Brookline, but earned his early legend and nickname of “Wild Bill” as a pilot in the Lafayette Escadrille squadron of WWI; the flying sequences in “Wings” still astound because Wellman had been there himself.
He had a great sympathy for his fellow veterans, too. Perhaps the most eye-opening of the Wellman pre-Codes in the HFA series is 1933’s “Heroes For Sale” (Nov. 19), a bleak tale of a traumatized enlisted man (Richard Barthelmess) who comes back home to a morphine addiction, jail time, and a deck that’s stacked against him by forces on both the right and the left. You could remake it for an age of post-Iraq War PTSD and barely have to change a thing.
Just as daring (and equally forgotten) is the same year’s “Wild Boys of the Road” (Nov. 20), about homeless, jobless youths wandering across the country in the depths of the Depression. An implied rape scene is startlingly frank for the era, and when the perpetrator is killed by the angry kids, there’s no fuss about punishing anyone for the crime.
Much of “Wild Boys” takes place on trains and in railyards — including a hard-to-watch accident scene — and Wellman’s films in the period can seem obsessed with rootlessness. “Beggars of Life” (1928), the rarely screened silent that opens the series on Oct. 27, casts Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen as hoboes who hit the rails after Brooks’s character murders her abusive stepfather; it showcases the director’s eye for broad landscapes and the people in danger of getting lost in them.
Wellman could seem a man’s man in life and on film, but some of his best pre-Codes focus on women. The Nov. 26 double-bill of “Frisco Jenny” and “Midnight Mary” (both 1933) stars, respectively, Ruth Chatterton and a luminous Loretta Young as characters coping with poverty, prostitution, unwanted pregnancies, and prison; the sense that one misstep in a man’s world can destroy a woman’s life hangs over both films like a storm cloud. (“Safe in Hell,” from 1931 and screening on Nov. 19, sounds even more extreme but was unavailable for preview.)
Additional dangerous pleasures in the HFA series include 1931’s “Other Men’s Women” (Nov. 12), a rough-and-tumble adultery triangle that starts comic and sobers into tragedy (and features Cagney in a dandy pre-“Public Enemy” supporting part), and the glorious “Night Nurse,” also from 1931 (Oct. 27), featuring Barbara Stanwyck as a hard-shelled heroine in white and a young and brutish Clark Gable as the irredeemably evil “Nick the Chauffeur,” clad in S&M black.
Eighty-odd years after they were made, Wellman’s pre-Codes still sting with modernity. They tell the truth and they tell it fast, because they knew the lies were coming in.
For more information on “The Legends of William Wellman” series, go to http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2017sepnov/wellman.html.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.