When famed movie director Ernst Lubitsch arrived in America in 1924, he was amused by America’s squeamish fascination with anything remotely sexual on the silver screen. He turned that fascination into two decades of some of the very greatest film comedies, filled with a “naughtiness” that no one else seemed to be able to get away with.
On Wednesday, March 22 at 7 p.m., in the community room of the Easton Library, we’ll be showing one of Lubitsch’s masterpieces, “Angel” (1937), starring Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall and Melvyn Douglas. Described by film critic Adrian Martin as “among cinema’s perfect films,” “Angel” is charming, timely, extremely witty, and of course, erotic (with absolutely no display of skin), but in its initial release it puzzled audiences and was one of Lubitsch’s rare box office flops.
For devoted film enthusiasts, “Angel” offers thematic comparisons to Luis Bunuel’s highly successful, award-winning tour de force “Belle de Jour” made 30 years later. Of course, movie tastes change through the years, and what audiences expected in 1937 was very much different from what was within the norms of 1967.
Let’s move back for a moment almost a hundred years ago to the late 1920s. Two movie scandals blanketed the front pages of our nation’s newspapers. In one, America’s beloved movie funnyman Fatty Arbuckle was accused of rape and murder (and although fully exonerated, his career was ruined). In the other, William Desmond Taylor, a highly respected director, was brutally killed in a case (still unsolved) filled with sexual innuendo.
Religious groups blamed the decadence of Hollywood, and the immorality portrayed in the movies and called for strict censorship. As 37 of the 48 states responded with individual censorship boards, the movie moguls took notice. “We can police ourselves,” they insisted, as Hollywood major studios set up a production code in 1930. It worked for a short while, but by 1932, voices were again being raised against “immorality” portrayed in the movies. The studios had to try harder and fast! In the summer of 1934, an amendment added to the production code dictated that all movies receive a certificate of approval before being released. For the next 30+ years, every film from each of the major studios had to submit scripts before production, and before a film could be released, it had to receive a certificate of approval.
We mentioned the difference in what you might expect to experience between 1937 and 1967. But you can see the dramatic impact of the 1934 code by watching and comparing two Betty Boop cartoons, one from 1932 and one from 1935. (Click on links below.)
How does Lubitsch get away throughout his career with creating films that touch upon grownup themes such as infidelity, sexual excess, and prostitution? It’s all about double entendre, and overt symbols, as again and again Lubitsch leaves us to wonder what’s going on behind real and imagined doors.
It’s also all about something evident in each of this master’s films defined as “the Lubitsch touch”, much easier and more fun to experience than to explain. Come and see for yourself.
Hope you can join us.
Betty Boop was created by Max Fleischer for Paramount Pictures, the same studio for which Lubitsch made the majority of his films in the 30s (including “Angel”). To see the impact of the stricter code introduced in Hollywood in 1934, compare these two Betty Boop cartoons:
“Boop-oop-e Doop (1932) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9o0wLfotkjE to
“Judge for a Day (1935) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rz_7Gvej8h4