Three '30s films ducked censorship
By Terry Lawson
Detroit Free Press
By Terry Lawson
In the late 1920s, under increasing threat of congressional oversight — i.e., government censorship — for what some politicians called an obsession with sex and violence, Hollywood elected to clean up its act. Under the aegis of the trade organization the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association, in 1930 the major studios all signed a set of rules, the Production Code.
So why were all three features collected in "Forbidden Hollywood Collection One" (TCM/ Warner) released after 1930? Because the studios wrote in a clause delaying enforcement of what became known as the Hays Code until 1934, on the grounds that some potentially problematic movies were already in some state of production.
The best, and best-known, of the "Forbidden Hollywood" trio was in fact not released until 1933, right before the code took effect: "Baby Face," starred Barbara Stanwyck, who would later play a murder-minded seductress in the classic film noir, "Double Indemnity" — a textbook case of how the code could be skirted by a clever skirt.
In "Baby Face," she plays the scheming daughter of a speakeasy owner who, as depicted in one of the most famous montages in movie history, sleeps her way to the top, the executive suite of a New York skyscraper. (One of the saps she uses and discards on the way up is an office drone played by John Wayne.)
Despite its lack of nudity or graphic depictions of sex, "Baby Face" retains the power to raise eyebrows and the hackles of those offended by its lurid style. And while it was banned from public screenings, it was clandestinely circulated by film lovers, and has been a favorite in repertory series and in art theaters since the code crumbled in the late 1960s — to be replaced by the ratings system. Yet until 2005, "Baby Face" was still not seen the way it had been envisioned by director Alfred Green.
About five minutes of additional, even more provocative, footage were added for the version that was restored by the Library of Congress when it was placed on the National Film Registry. Both versions are included here.
Nearly as good — and sleazy — is 1932's "Red-Headed Woman" with one of movies' first bona fide sex symbols, blonde bombshell Jean Harlow, changing hair colors to play another girl from the wrong side of the tracks who defies convention in her efforts to get ahead, this time by wrecking the marriage of her boss (Chester Morris). And unlike Stanwyck in "Baby Face," she pays no price for her shamelessness.
The set is rounded out by "Waterloo Bridge," the original 1931 version of the wartime weepie, directed by James Whale ("Frankenstein") and starring Mae Clark as an American chorus girl who does what she has to do — nudge nudge, wink, wink — to survive in World War I London.
Before there was "Dreamgirls," the musical or the movie, there was 1975's "Sparkle" (Warner), a less lavish but still affecting musical drama about three girls ("Fame" star Irene Cara, Dawn Smith and Lonette McKee) from the projects who sing their way to unthinkable fame — and the problems fame brings.
Though this version is set in Harlem, it's got its soul in Detroit: The original songs, written by Curtis Mayfield, are sung by Aretha Franklin.
Proof that a cult cannot be manufactured was provided by the unexpected flop of "Snakes on a Plane" (New Line), starring Samuel L. Jackson as an FBI agent trying to deal with the threat of the title.
Lost in the holiday hubbub was the release of "The Wim Wenders Collection, Vol. 2" (Anchor Bay), bringing together six more of the gifted and versatile German director's films, including 1977's "The American Friend," an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's "Ripley's Game." Dennis Hopper plays the suave sociopath Ripley, played by Matt Damon in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and then John Malko-vich in the little-seen 2002 remake of this sequel.
TV ON DVD
You'd hardly have to be a show-biz insider to know that the, shall we say, eccentric, comic played by Tracy Lawrence on the ever-improving Tina Fey sitcom "30 Rock" is inspired by the unpredictable combination of ego and insecurity that is Martin Lawrence.
But Lawrence's popularity is such that his Fox sitcom, "Martin," in which he played an outspoken radio host forever in danger of losing his girlfriend (Tisha Campbell), has been one of the most requested of series not released on DVD: Fans should be happy to know "Martin: The Complete First Season," a 4-disc set with all 27 episodes first shown in 1992-93, has now officially dropped.