Gabriel Over the White House (1933)
Danny Reid is the operator of Pre-Code.com, a blog dedicated to watching and reviewing every film from Hollywood’s “pre-Code era” between 1930 and 1934, the brief period of time where the Motion Picture Production Code of censorship wasn’t strictly enforced. This led to daring films about taboo topics like abortion and incest, among other themes that couldn’t be shown in a Hollywood film from around 1934 and until the system began to crumble in the 60s.
James Bell, the features editor of Sight & Sound Magazine, recently called the site “invaluable” for its documentation of this sometimes overlooked era of filmmaking. Sitting down with Danny, he was able to tell me a bit about why he decided to take on the project, why he loves pre-Code movies, why he doesn’t like Code-era movies, and even offer a bit of advice about how to run a movie blog.
Could you tell me a little about yourself?
My name is Danny Reid. I operate Pre-Code.com. I’m 30 years old, what else? Those are the most exciting things.
I originally went to school for Journalism, but I got out of that after two years and did History instead. After that I worked in a video store for eight years. Then I eventually got a real job doing software engineering, so I’ve been working towards my graduate degree in that. I’m married to a lovely lady; we got married about a year ago. She’s a nurse, and just got a job overseas so I live in Japan now. All in all it’s been a fun ride. I don’t know what else you want. I’m six-foot-two.
How long have you been a film critic?
Initially in high school I did a column with a friend of mine. It was a He-Says, She-Says sort of thing. We would review movies once a month. Then I went to college to try and do humor writing, I thought I would write columns like Dave Barry or somebody like that. I only did movie reviews on the side because I joined the student newspaper, and nobody was in the student newspaper, so I just took on three jobs. And then that dream died horribly, so I went and spent a couple years just watching a lot of movies and writing research papers on London street urchins and Russian succession lines.
Then about four years ago I started doing blogging with some friends. We did one of those blogs where it’s like four people and we’re all like “Yeah, we’re gonna make it after all!” And then you all end up hating each other and nobody contributes. It was one of those things.
There was a lot of really stupid drama that happened. It was one of those cases where we all had the best intentions starting out. I never really wanted to do it, but my good friend talked me into it; I was moving to California at the time, so it seemed like a good way to stay connected to a few people I really cared about. So I said “Okay, I’ll build the site and then I can help out with it.” Then it became a power-battle between the two of us to see what would happen with it, and eventually I just dropped it after he lost his shit one day. It was really funny. It did ruin our friendship—but it was funny in retrospect! Which is an important thing you have to learn when you get older.
When we started the blog everybody would just do a bunch of things and we’d each tackle our own niche. One weekend I would do an analysis of Pedro Almodovar, another I’d hit three completely forgotten beach movies like It’s a Bikini World. Then, when I started to read about how to actually do blogging, I saw that we had been doing everything wrong. We did too much randomly. So I looked at the types of blogs other people had and learned how to create a site with a niche and then I worked from there.
It sounds cold and calculated, but, honestly, it’s about finding something you love and exploring it. That’s why I went and did the pre-Code stuff, which is something I really enjoy. Unlike silent pictures where there’s at least a dozen silent film blogs out there, there’s maybe two or three other blogs about pre-Code.
What about pre-Code specifically appealed to you?
I probably started specifically watching those around 2009 or 2010 when I finally got a hold of the original Forbidden Hollywood set from Warner Brothers. The Divorcee made a hell of an impact on me. And watching the movies, I could a see a lot of what was happening when they were being made and see the parallels with what’s happening today. Just like the Stock Market crash had happened in 1929, the crash in 2008 had just happened. There was this entire new media. Back then it was Talkies and radio, now it’s the internet and social media. It was this quick succession of seismic economic and social changes that all happened at once and everybody was trying desperately to adjust to a new reality.
With pre-Code cinema, despite the fact that it’s 80 years ago, you feel a lot of the stuff that’s happening to them. There’s a whole lot about the Depression and about people’s attitudes towards the rich and the poor. About class divide and gender divide. It’s all the same topics we’re still talking about today. Mind you, a lot of it is dated; I have to watch movies with blackface in them all the time. But, there are a lot of really interesting things that still feel relevant from then, today. That’s what initially drew me in.
Getting more into it, you discover so much more about the history of film just be examining a small piece of the pie. If you look at the big picture of Hollywood history then you’re seeing everything from Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh to Redford and Newman, and so on. But by taking a little segment of it, you can see all of these stars you’ve never heard of, like Lee Tracy or Kay Francis. And you can find all this information about this period you don’t know anything about, and you come to find that there’s so many layers to the evolution of film history. There’s just so much to explore in it.
When you write your reviews you include categories of taboo subject matter that appears in each film, such as incest, abortion, homosexuality, religious mockery: all of the topics that were banned by the Hays Code. Do you feel that the pre-code era was more accurately representative of society as it was than the sanitized Code era?
Yeah! I mean the pre-Code era is still censored, it wasn’t complete freedom. 1930 was when the code was enacted; it’s just that 1934 was when it became mandatory. So in 1934 you had to go through censorship if you wanted to get anything shown in a theater. Before it was optional, but from 1934 until whenever it was that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf destroyed everything, it’s all censored. It could be very contentious.
There’s some pre-Code stuff there that’s very raw—I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Heroes for Sale, Scarface, and a ton more—movies that, back then, felt ripped from the headlines. Warner Brothers especially in this time was trying to make movies that addressed social ills, which became much harder to do when the Code became enforced and suddenly portraying government corruption was out. There’s a great line I read when I first started learning about pre-Code from an editorial that was written right when the Code started being enforced. Something along the lines of, ‘The Code’s enforcement will make people equate the law with justice.’ And it’s true!
Movies were seen as tools of immense social change—which is why the Communists in Russia seized on them. That’s why censorship was necessary in so many people’s eyes. If you watch a movie like The Public Enemy where James Cagney kills a ton of people and winks at the kids in the audience, you can understand why people were worried. Then take something like The Story of Temple Drake, which is about an upper class woman turning into a sexual slave and apparently loving it—picture Little Timmy’s reaction to that. Making sex and violence mainstream terrified the hell out of people, and it really was becoming a race to the bottom by 1934.
Censorship came for a lot of reasons, quite a few of which can attributed to people being worried about Little Timmy. There’s also the fact that Code enforcement was essentially a Catholic coup de grace. The head of the Code Administration was Joseph Breen, a Catholic, and he worked closely with The Catholic Legion of Decency, who could organize protests and boycotts. That’s what finally kept the studios in line. And the Catholics organized like this because they felt the Jewish studio heads and the old head of the Code administration, William Hayes, a Presbyterian, were in cahoots and completely corrupt. Bigotry definitely played a role, too.
Occasionally things could slip through after 1934. Billy Wilder among others became famous because he could use euphemisms and metaphors to get around some of those limitations and personally I think nobody else could do it quite as well. But it’s interesting because in the early 30s the films feel so raw and meaningful. It isn’t until the 70s that you feel that sense of freedom and recklessness again, a sense that risk taking actually pays off. Not just in content but in form and imagination as well. When you watch a movie from 1934, you can tell whether it came from the first half or the second half because of how the content became so drastically sanitized.
I’ve been subscribing to Warner Archive Instant, and I watch movies all the time on it. It’s fascinating how in the early 1930s it’s not just that dialogue is new, but it’s also that filmmakers were figuring out just how sound could be used. When you hear the term “Talkies” you assume “okay, they added talking.” But there’s so much more to it than that. They added sound effects, music, determining how background music works, how people interact. Then you also have to remove the stuff from the silent movies, like the pantomime. I love the silent era, but they had to readjust to a completely new theatrical style.
As well, the movies during the late thirties and early forties don’t just become black and white morality where Bogart’s the good guy and all that. But the way movies were made became a lot more codified, if that makes sense. It feels like someone figured out the prototypical three act structure at some point in the mid-30s and everyone played along.
There’s a 1930 movie called Just Imagine, which is a sci-fi musical set in 1980. It is nuts. You have no idea why anything is happening during the movie. The directing is all over the place, they end up going to Mars, and they have musical numbers on Mars. They end up with slave girls sitting on top of Martian statues. The Queen of Mars’ sidekick is gay and quite clearly flirting with the main character, a comedian named El Brendel whose schtick was being a ‘dumb Swede’, which is one of those stereotypes that has faded so much it’s impossible to even imagine it was a thing. It’s just so crazy and inventive and you don’t really ever see anything like that after the studio apparatus becomes solidified under the Code. They start making movies in a very certain way, and there are only a handful of directors who can break free from that. And it’s not that every director in the early 30s is a genius, it’s just that they’re trying different things. But by the late 30s they’re becoming a lot more uniform, everybody has to be Michael Curtiz or whoever. And by the mid-40s it’s very much ‘conformity is great! Let’s all be white. Doo do doo do.’ I don’t like movies from the 40s very much anymore.
But going back to the censorship issues, there’s a lot of things you still couldn’t talk about in the pre-Code era, but the way they slip them in and try to discuss them is fascinating. There’s one called Men in White from 1934. Clark Gable plays a doctor and Myrna Loy is his fiancé, but Clark Gable is very lonely, and Myrna Loy is very flighty. And one night he has sex with a nurse, and a couple weeks later the nurse comes in for a procedure and she’s not looking too good. They can’t outright say that she had an abortion, because you can’t say the word ‘abortion’. But it’s so heavily implied that the whole movie becomes about this taboo topic. It’s a film about how we treat women who get abortions, how women are treated in general by society, how horrible the system was before abortion was legal. It’s very interesting to see how they can get around that, but how they can still address it so head-on at the same time. Even though you can’t say the word, the movie is there, and it’s quite clearly about what it’s about. That movie couldn’t have come out a few months later in 1934. It couldn’t be reissued either. It’s completely and utterly of its time.
Nowadays, the Hays Code is seen as a terrible form of censorship, and you mentioned that you don’t like films from the forties. But do you have any feelings on the way the Code shaped American cinema? Whether there were benefits from it or not?
I remember John D’Amico saying he would have been happy to see another three or four years of pre-Code cinema, but I have to disagree with him on that. What happened is that by 1934 everybody knows censorship is coming and they can’t stop it. Off-the-wall stuff like Search for Beauty or Murder at the Vanities, with its song about “Sweet Marijuana”, are just schizophrenic ‘pushing limits for the sake of it’ garbage. So they start putting out the worst garbage they possibly can. This is just my experience, but I think censorship is something that was going to have to happen. Back then there was a lot more religious influence and a lot more people who felt they needed to a have a set of rules. It was a more monochromatic culture, so I understand why the Code happened.
I think there may have been some racist reasons for why it happened the way it did, and there was a lot of pressure with Nazi Germany in terms of political content. But I think censorship was necessary given the state of the country at the time. I wish it hadn’t happened as badly as it did, but I do appreciate what we got before the full-blown censorship. And that’s part of why they intrigue me so much.
You said that criticism is more of a hobby for you and that you’re going to school for software engineering, but do you have a larger plan for Pre-Code.com?
I’ve always wanted to write a book, but I’m not a very good writer. It’s one of those things where I’d need to spend a lot of time on it, which I don’t have right now given grad school and moving to Japan. But you see a lot of blogs that are started with the sole intention of writing a book. I see Pre-Code.com as more open-ended and fun. It’s a bit of a personal challenge too. Maybe someday I’ll write a book, but for right now it’s just something that I enjoy doing. It keeps me sane.
Before we go, any favorite films?
I have an essentials list on the site. My favorite movie of all time is Duck Soup, which is from the era. There’s a comedy duo that I’ve written about called Wheeler and Woolsey. They were a big success at RKO, so it’s not surprising that they disappeared for a long time. Woolsey was an older guy who always had a cigar and would make innuendos, and Wheeler was his effeminate friend. A lot of their best films couldn’t be shown on television because there are a lot of blue jokes. They have one called Diplomaniacs, which is pretty similar to Duck Soup. It’s a parody of the League of Nations and has a bunch of countries fighting with each other. It’s a huge live-action cartoon.
Heroes for Sale is another. If you haven’t seen Heroes for Sale, watch it. That is the definitive Pre-Code movie because they toss in every plot thread they can think of and rarely does it ever make sense. It’s got Richard Barthelmess, who’s mostly known for playing the Asian man in Broken Blossoms, but he’s a really fun forgotten actor. He plays a soldier in World War I who gets shot and comes back home addicted to morphine. He loses his job and he’s unemployed and his life goes to Hell. Then his wife gets murdered. It’s completely crazy, I love it.
One last one is Gabriel over the White House. And please believe me that this exists. Walter Huston plays the newly-elected president, who is a complete idiot. He just toes the party line and never does anything. It’s 1931, a quarter of the population is out of work, and he just hangs around the White House and plays with his kid. What happens is, he’s an idiot, and he decides to drive the presidential car and gets in an accident, which puts him in a coma. And when he wakes up, the angel Gabriel has taken him over. So the whole movie is about how the angel Gabriel will come in and save everybody from the shitty Depression.
So he talks to the worker’s union and creates an Army Corps of workers. So basically everybody works for the government. It sounds kind of Socialist but it’s really more Fascist when you watch it. What happens next is he invites a lead mobster to the white house in order to tell him to stop running booze, and the guy won’t, so Gabriel declares open war on the mob. The mobsters then do a drive-by on the White House, and they hit the President’s mistress. So Gabriel sends tanks through the streets and has them blow up the mobster strongholds and open up state liquor stores. It’s one of the craziest scenes I have ever seen in a movie. And that’s only up to the second act. It gets even crazier, if you can believe it.
Well, thank you so much for your time. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I have other hobbies. I can’t name any of them off the top of my head but I’m sure I do.
But no, I like this era because looking at just a four-year period of Hollywood you realize how quickly times change. Like, when I was in college Rachael Leigh Cook was the ‘It Girl’ and Freddie Prinze Jr. was in three movies a year. Nowadays it’s like, “Let’s go see the latest Jonah Hill movie” because there’s four of them coming out this week.
It’s interesting seeing how times change and how trends extrapolate through history. And the pre-Code era is such an interesting train wreck of the silent stars transitioning into the talkie stars. There was a wild roller coaster of musicals in this four-year period. After The Jazz Singer in 1927 and Broadway Melody getting Best Picture in 1929, it seemed like every other movie that Hollywood put out had to be a musical. So you’d get dramas where you have a five-minute musical number tossed in the middle. And nobody would be bothered to choreograph anything so you’d get five-minutes of the plot stopping and everybody singing. And it’s horrible. There’s something like 300 musicals made in 1930 alone. There was a backlash to it. Owners put signs out front promising that movies had no singing. There are stories of theaters getting threats; some supposedly had to shut down because of how bad all these musicals were. And then in 1933 Busby Berkley comes along and he does 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 and suddenly the musical’s back and bigger than ever and everybody’s making these great films copying Berkley. After a few years of that, then it’s Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers bringing dancing to the screen in a way it’s never been shown before. It’s interesting to see the genre go from this horrible, horrible thing, and then become this really great thing, and then slide back down to horrible over time.
I love seeing how things change. I really enjoy pre-Code cinema even though I can see why some people don’t. Well, some people don’t like black-and-white movies still, which I’ll never understand. But I’ve found that at different points in your life, different kinds of movies appeal to you and you should play with that and see where that leaves you.