Recently at Probert Towers we’ve been having fun with the Hays Code. Or rather, we’ve been having fun watching movies made before and just after this compromising, restricting, subjective set of rules was brought in to govern the content of Hollywood movies in the mid nineteen thirties to “protect” audiences from scenes of excessive violence, sexuality and good old Deviant Behaviour.
If you want to see for yourself what kind of effect this censorship had on films of the time then you need go no further than the MGM LEGENDS OF HORROR DVD boxset. For your money you get the pre-code horrors of Karl Freund’s MAD LOVE, Boris Karloff in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, and Michael Curtiz’s DOCTOR X, as well as post-code movies THE DEVIL DOLL and MARK OF THE VAMPIRE from Tod Browning, and THE RETURN OF DR X starring Humphrey Bogart.
The precode movies range from the excellent (MAD LOVE) through to the more ordinary (DOCTOR X) but are never less than interesting. The sight of Peter Lorre pretending to be the Rollo the guillotined knife thrower with his head strapped back on is still pretty unsettling, and the tortures devised by Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu suggest that left unchecked Hollywood may have ended up making the SAW movies in the forties rather than the noughties. As examples of their type they’re not bad at all, and if you like these then you should certainly check out the nasty and naughty MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933) and the Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi double-headers THE RAVEN and THE BLACK CAT (both 1935), all of which contain nastiness that Hollywood wouldn’t be allowed to include in its product for many years following.
Was the Hays Code responsible for a decline in quality? Probably not, in fact I suspect that all it did was prevent ludicrous ‘B’ programmers from adding unpleasant cruelty to their already ludicrous, incomprehensible and badly-researched plotlines. THE RETURN OF DR X (1939) stars Humphrey Bogart as a medic back from the dead after going to the electric chair because he “wanted to see how long a baby could go without eating for”. Hardly the genius surgeon (there must have been far better, exotic and more lurid ways to end up executed, even post-Code, and I bet Lionel Atwill would have known what they were) he comes back to life as a result of blood transfusions. The lecture we get on blood groups is as if Karl Landsteiner, the world-famous scientist who actually discovered this stuff, never existed, and Bogie’s back from the dead just long enough to take a pretty nurse off to his matte painting of an old shack in the swamp where he promptly ends up shot and uttering an ‘important’ last line that’s about as meaningful as the rest of this twaddle.
Certainly the Hays Code didn’t lead to a decrease in daftness or elderly actors dressing up in women’s clothing, as THE DEVIL DOLL testifies. Based on Abraham Merritt’s novel BURN WITCH BURN (you can read my review of that, along with its precursor SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, on the Vault of Evil website) the film starts off bonkers and gets worse. Lionel ‘I’ve had the bit of my brain removed labelled “restrained acting”‘ Barrymore escapes from Devil’s Island with a friend. Lionel wants revenge on the men who caused him to be unjustly imprisoned. Thankfully his friend has altogether more utterly ludicrous ambitions that involve shrinking the population of the world to the size of little dolls to solve the world’s food problems. He shows Lionel some plastic models of dogs and then, in a bit of fairly ambitious special effects for the time, we get to see the miniaturised dogs walking around. The serving girl gets the treatment next, which as well as shrinking her cures her of her ‘mental retardation’ for no reason that’s explained. Lionel’s friend dies of a heart attack, which is Lionel’s cue to go to Paris, dress up as an old lady, and use the doll-making device to create miniature assassins and in one case at least to presumably assuage his boredom (there’s no other reason for him shrinking a horse and where the hell does he get the room to do that anyway?) Clearly far too comfortable in his old lady getup Lionel finally clears his name and we get a rather odd coda that’s presumably Browning’s nod to the Hays’ Office to let him off the blatant female microphilia we’ve seen in the swampland laboratory scene.
However daft THE DEVIL DOLL may be it’s neither as patchy nor as ultimately unsatisfying as MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, made by Browning a year earlier and featuring another performance from Lionel Barrymore who has obviously been told to forego his usual timidity and really play things up. Bela Lugosi’s in this one too, in all the scenes that get used as stills, and with just one line. The vampire bits are superbly atmospheric but once we get on to plot it’s almost as stagy as Browning’s DRACULA and you get the feeling his heart wasn’t in it.
Watching a box set like this makes one wonder what would have happened if a similar code had been brought in for literature. In the UK the main fiction to suffer would probably have been Christine Campbell Thompson’s NOT AT NIGHT series, Charles Birkin’s CREEPS and of course the dear old PAN BOOK OF HORROR. Some would argue that this might not have been such a bad thing, but on the other hand without those stories I wouldn’t have become the horror fan that I am and consequently you wouldn’t be reading this now. But all of that is quite another story…