Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Creating Monsters: Pre-Code Horror Films Part One

When Universal released Dracula on 12 February 1931 it began a cycle towards horror films that would last until 1935. Today widely regarded by many as the Golden Age of Horror Films, it produced such classics as Frankenstein (1931), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), The Mummy (1932), Island of Lost Souls, Freaks (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), King Kong (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The Golden Age of Horror Films ran almost concurrently with the era of Pre-Code Hollywood. This was an era that ran roughly from 1929 to 1934, a time when the Motion Picture Production Code was barely enforced at all.

Because the Code was not strictly enforced, many filmmakers tended to ignore it entirely. As a result Hollywood films made from 1929 to 1934 sometimes featured content that would not be seen in movies made from 1935 to the late Fifties. Sexually suggestive material, promiscuity, adultery, prostitution, drug use, homosexuality, and at times brutal violence all appeared in films from the Pre-Code Era. Makers of horror films were no different than other filmakers in Pre-Code Hollywood, often ignoring the Code entirely. As a result the horror films of the Pre-Code era are often more intense, more violent, and even more sophisticated than those that would follow in the late Thirties, the Forties, and much of the Fifties. While many of the horror movies made in the Pre-Code era conformed to the Code, there were others that would see sometimes severe cuts made in the years after the Code started being stringently enforced.

While it was preceded by The Cat Creeps and The Bat Whispers in 1930, it was the success of Dracula that would start the boom in horror movies in the early Thirties. For the most part Dracula conformed to the Code and it would survive with only minor cuts after 1935. Both the groans Dracula made during his death and Renfield's screams made as he died were cut. Also cut, for reasons that are not entirely clear now, was an epilogue in which Edward Van Sloan (who played Van Helsing) insisted to the audience "There really are such things as vampires!" Dracula's dying groans and Renfield's dying screams would eventually be restored to the film. Edward Van Sloan's epilogue, which was missing for many years, was discovered at the British Film Institute in the Eighties. Unfortunately, it was in such poor shape that Universal decided not to restore it to the film.

As successful as Dracula was, Universal's adaptation of Frankenstein would be even more successful. It was the highest grossing film of 1931, raking in a phenomenal $12,000,000 (almost twelve times the amount made by the second highest grossing film of the year, Cimarron). It was truly the Gone with the Wind or Star Wars of its day.  The film would also see more cuts in the Post-Code Era than its predecessor Dracula. Even in its initial release one of Dr. Frankenstein's lines during the creation of The Creature, "Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!", would be cut by state local censorship groups as blasphemous. For its 1937 re-release the line was cut as it violated the Code's rule against profanity. It would be restored in 1999.

It was not only Dr. Frankenstein's proclamation of knowing what it felt like to be God that was cut from the film in the days after the Code was more strictly enforced, but an entire scene in the film. The famous scene in which The Creature throws a little girl into a lake, thinking she will float like a flower, was also often the target of state and local censorship groups upon the films' initial release. For the film's re-release in 1937 the scene was cut from the film. It would not be restored until the 1980's.

As objectionable as some might have found Universal's Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, neither flaunted ignoring the Production Code the way that Paramount's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde did. Indeed, a rather strong current of sex runs throughout the film. This is mostly in the form of saloon singer and prostitute Ivy Pearson, played by Miriam Hopkins. In her attempt to seduce Dr. Jekyll (Fredric March in a bravura performance), Ivy not only exposes her leg, but a good deal more. What is more, Dr. Jekyll goes much further than one would expect a character to go  before not giving into temptation in a film made before the Sixties! In addition to some very sexually suggestive scenes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde also had a good deal of violence. Edward Hyde strangled one victim, and later beat another to death with a cane.

Released on 31 December 1931, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde would find itself the target of state and local censorship boards even in its initial release. The Kansas State Board of Review found the film particularly objectionable and demanded several cuts to the film before it could be seen in the state. When the film was re-released in 1938 the Production Code Administration demanded cuts that ultimately reduced the film from 97 minutes to 82 minutes (let's just say there was very little of Miriam Hopkins left on the screen).

It would not be censorship that would keep the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde off the screen for years, however, but MGM's 1941 remake of the film starring Spencer Tracy. With the release of their own version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, MGM bought the rights to the 1931 version from Paramount and promptly withdrew it from circulation. It would remain out of circulation until the Seventies, when the shortened, 82 minute version resurfaced. It would not be until 1989 that MGM would restore the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to its original 97 minutes, complete with every shocking moment of Miriam Hopkins.

The height of the Pre-Code horror film could well have been 1932, when several controversial films were released. These were films that would be targeted by state and local censorship boards and even be outright banned in the United Kingdom. And, as might be expected, they saw extensive cuts once the Production Code was more rigorously enforced. In fact, one of these films from 1932 remains considered one of the most controversial horror films of all time.

In fact, that particularly controversial film was one of the first horror movies released in 1932. Freaks would even see cuts even before it went into wide release. A preview screening at the Fox Theatre in San Diego, California on 28 January 1932 proved to be a catastrophe. The audience was not simply unhappy with the film, but downright hostile towards it. A woman in the audience who later had a miscarriage actually blamed it on the film and threatened to sue MGM. As a result MGM production head Irving Thalberg had nearly an hour cut from the film, including much of the climax in which the sideshow freaks attack the villains of the piece, aerialist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) and strong man Hercules (Henry Victor). The film was also given a happier ending in which Hans (Harry Earles) and Frieda (Daisy Earles) are reunited. Sadly, the footage that was cut from the original version of Freaks is still missing.

Even with such extensive cuts, Freaks still proved to be a very controversial film. Following its official premiere on 20 February 1932 the film faced an uphill battle with state and local censorship boards. Freaks was submitted to the New York State Censorship Board twice and they only granted it a licence after severe editing. It finally debuted in New York in July 1932. In some parts of the country the film was banned outright. In Georgia Freaks was pulled from theatres and replaced with a film perceived to be less offensive, Polly of the Circus (1932). Similarly, theatres in San Francisco, California outright refused to show it at all. Freaks would not only face problems from censors in the United States. In the United Kingdom the British Board of Film Censorship refused to approve the film.  In the end Freaks would not be seen in Britain until 1963. It was also banned in many other countries around the world.

Contrary to popular belief, Freaks was not a total disaster. The film actually did well in some major markets, including Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Houston, and even the Midwestern city of Omaha, Nebraska. Unfortunately, it also did very badly in many major markets, including Los Angeles and New York City. To recoup losses on the film, Irving Thalberg later re-released Freaks without the MGM logo under the title Nature's Mistakes, accompanied by a much more sensationalistic advertising campaign (complete with such tag lines as "Do Siamese Twins Make Love?"). The film did no better at the box office. Eventually MGM licensed Freaks to exploitation mogul Dwain Esper, who showed the film under such titles as Forbidden Love and The Monster Show for years. Fortunately, cineastes would rediscover the film in the early Sixties and it is now regarded as a classic.

Another film released early in 1932 would also face problems from censors. Part of what made this film unusual was that it was released by Universal, who (apart from Frankenstein) generally had less censorship problems with their pictures (neither The Invisible Man nor The Mummy were sources of controversy). Released on 21 February 1932, Robert Florey's very loose adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue would face censorship before it was even released. Namely, the Studio Relations Committee (later known as the Production Code Administration) was concerned about a scene in which Dr. Mirakle (played by Bela Lugosi) literally tortures one of his victims to death. The Studio Relations Committee was concerned that because the victim was a woman and because her screaming was, in their words, "over-stressed", the scene might not play well with the various censorship boards. They then recommended that Universal edit the audio of the scene.

In the end the Studio Relations Committee failed to save Murders in the Rue Morgue from censorship by various state and city boards. The scene in question was cut in its entirety by the New York State Censorship Board, as well as censorship boards in Chicago and Pennsylvania. Censorship boards in Virginia and Massachusetts only allowed a very brief glimpse of the tortured woman. The Kansas Board of Review only allowed the very end of the scene, after Dr. Mirakle had gotten rid of the body. Murders in the Rue Morgue would have difficulty with censorship outside the United States as well. British Columbia in Canada initially banned the film outright. Ultimately, British Columbia would only allow Murders in the Rue Morgue to be shown after several cuts, including the notorious torture scene. In the United Kingdom the BBFC passed Murders in the Rue Morgue, but made a very strong recommendation to exhibitors that they make an announcement that the film was not suitable for children. Hungary banned the film outright.

In some respects it is surprising that Murders in the Rue Morgue had not faced more censorship. Never mind that the woman Dr. Mirakle tortured to death was obviously a prostitute. He also wanted the film's heroine, Camille (played by Sydney Fox), as a mate for his ape Erik. After the Production Code was more stringently enforced in 1934 Murders in the Rue Morgue would see cuts much like most horror films of the Pre-Code Era. Not surprisingly, the torture scene was cut entirely. It would not be restored for years.

Freaks and Murders in the Rue Morgue would not be the only horror films to see censorship upon their initial releases. Before the year's end there would be a few other horror films that would as well. And one of them would prove to be nearly as controversial as Freaks.

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